Saturday, March 14, 2009

A Vocabulary for Feminist Praxis by Angela Davis (Feminism and War, CH1)

here are my notes on chapter one,a vocabulary for feminist praxis: on war and radical critique by angela davis. i am paraphrasing some of her language here without decoding, please let me know if there are terms that you don't know the definitions of and i can try and help with that, chapter one notes:

how can feminism help us meet the challenge we face in translating widespread dissent against the wars in the middle east into 'a sustained movement that can effectively counter the imperial belligerence of the USA'?

-the school of feminism she belongs to is interested in questioning the 'tools we use' to critique and transform. this tradition comes from social movements against racism, imperialism and supports labor struggles, etc

"it is now important to imagine a world without xenophobia and the fenced borders designed to make us think of people in and from a southern region outside the USA as the enemy. it is now important to imagine a world in which binary conceptions of gender no longer govern modes of segregation and association, and one in which violence is eradicated from state practices as well as from our intimate lives--from heterosexual and same sex relationships" she adds that we must also imagine 'a world without war'.

next claim: idealism is necessary, but not enough.

in her version of feminism:

"Feminist critical habits involve collective intervention as well. The feminist critical impulse, if we take it seriously, involves a dual commitment to use knowledge in a transformative way, and to use knowledge to remake the world so that it is better for its inhabitants--not only for human beings, for all its living inhabitants. This commitment entails an obstinate refusal to attribute a permanency to that which exists in the present, simply because it exists. This commitment simultaneously drives us to examine the conceptual and organizing tools we use, not to take them for granted" (20)

Claim: this version is more radical than the imperialist Laura Bush version.

This more radical feminism is a feminism

-that does not capitulate to possessive individualism

-that does not assume that democracy requires capitalism

-that is bold and willing to take risks

-that fights for women's rights while simultaneously recognizing the pitfalls of the formal 'rights' structure of capitalist democracy

this means we are not fighting for the equal rights for women to fight and die in war or to torture, but that we can advocate for the equal right of men and women to refuse to participate in the military. we can fight to dismantle the military machine as part of our feminism.

next she asks:
what is the relationship between individual and collective accomplishments? she claims it is a mistake to view the career success of someone like C. Rice as a collective success for feminism

at the top of page 22 she talks about emphasizing "feminist methodologies" rather than abstractions. she is talking about 'woman' as an abstraction, referring to the racist, classist feminism of the 20th century that isolated gender from race, class, nation, sexuality--as if that is even possible. she is suggesting that we need to emphasize the practical application as grounded in the material, historicized realities of women's lives as they are lived. no one is female without having a race or class identity, so why theorize as if that is the case? it results in universalizing a privileged experience, as those who are racially privileged do not have to examine 'whiteness' in order to survive, those who are materially privileged to not have to examine'richness' in order to pay rent, etc.

she then encourages us to "inhabit contradictions" and discover "what is productive about those contradictions". i wish she would give an example here of what this would look like. any ideas?

her next assertion is the most compelling to me. in comparing the Vietnam War era to our current era, she uses the My Lai massacre and Haditha as examples, she claims that it is not enough to assume that things would change if we could simply get the truth out to enough people. she recognizes that with embedded journalists, it is true that we are not seeing pictures of the atrocities to the same degree that people were during vietnam, but using the photos of abu ghraib as an example, she argues that it is a mistake to assume our project is to simply get the right information out there to the american public. she ties this mistaken assumption to a critique of the enlightenment. tracing this problem back to philosopher Immanuel Kant, she writes "the problem to which I am referring emanates from the assumption that rational communication and publicity are sufficient".

so, if we agree that it's not enough to get the truth out to the public, because the truth will not have the necessary impact on u.s. foreign policy, then what is to be done?

hmmm. she talks about the reaction people had to images of torture at Abu Ghraib asking 'how could this happen' thinking this is an aberration, rather than being consistent with U.S. foreign and domestic policy. we are asking the wrong questions then?

she then goes back to claim that as feminists, we must be vigilant in our critique of "conceptual tools". i take this to mean she is asking us to engage in a sustained critique of enlightenment thinking (as her earlier mention of 'equal rights' also seems to evoke)....but if people don't know the history of political philosophy or western intellectual history, they don't know what this means exactly--quickly, this is the point in history when Reason replaced God. she is saying that the intellectual tradition that stems from the enlightenment is giving us the wrong conceptual tools, that we can't count on people to be rational and do the right thing once they know 'the truth' about the war in Iraq. Her example of Abu Ghraib then is useful: once people know what happened, they still don't see the big picture. how do we get them to see the big picture? Is that even the goal in her view?

She claims we must make connections between what happened at Abu Ghraib and what happens in US prisons domestically. I would guess the history of US use of torture in Latin America should be examined. we should see this as an example of the continuation of the policy in service of the project of empire. we can't assume the general public to know this history. but if they did, would anything change? according to her critique of Kant, no. so then, what is the point?

her solution seems to be that we need to be vigilant and "engage in constant criticism". but what is the goal of criticism and intellectual vigilance if
the truth and rationalism have no connection to how we act? is that what she is claiming? or is she saying that assuming that being rational=being ant-war is a false assumption? i really am not sure.

i think she is discussing ideology and the role of consciousness in social change without using that language overtly, but i am not sure what her claim is here exactly.

she also asks feminists to constantly critique "democracy", "diversity", individualism and to recognize the role of US ideology in promoting an imperialist agenda that is at odds with radical feminism.

an example of what she means is given when she suggests that violence against women needs to go beyond a discussion of violence between individuals and include state violence, torture, prison violence and capital punishment

she concludes by discussing the case of Assata Shakur, a political prisoner who fled to Cuba and wishes to return to the US and asks feminists to "get involved" and to utilize a feminism that engages in a critique of conceptual tools we use to 'enact transformation'.


Alison said...

so, action, rather than verbal reaction. perhaps the approach proposed would be effective: tying together histories of violence and presenting them in a manner that evokes human response. as for inhabiting the contradictions, maybe she means dwelling w/in the twist she proposes (classism, unspoken privilege w/in writing) and enacting change.

Colouring Outside The Lines said...

This sounds vital

CO said...

Here's my guess about your questions. These guesses are based on my reading of Davis as a feminist critic informed by the Frankfurt school's assumptions and method. (sorry i dont know how to provide a link to an article explaining the frankfurt school). So I'm assuming that her example of inhabiting contradictions are present in this chapter particularly in her idea of enlightenment which i think she has two notions of;

The first idea of enlightenment is the idea she is critiquing as ideological particularly the example of Kant's article "What is Enlightenment" which is basically the model for how we are told democratic countries function where if people have access to information like abu grahb or financial privatization and are free to debate matters in a 'rational' way then we will magically end up in a world where things like abu grahb or financial meltdowns don't exist.

this idea of enlightenment is bullshit because it ignores that it is based on imperialist capitalist racist sexist hegemony assumptions and because its method of thinking- its conceptual tools- miss important things like the fact that the abstract idea of "women" does not account for the fact that every particular woman also has a race class etc.

the second idea of enlightenment is davis's idea of enlightenement which you could also call liberation or emancipation which is a type of thought that isnt bullshit and tries to grasp things in a way which account for capitalist imperialist sexist racist assumptions and which thinks in a way that recognizes how universal ideas such as women interact with particular women and other ideas like race, class etc.

so it seems to me that she is inhabiting a contradiction by pointing out that what is called enlightenment thought is not actually enlightened because of the horrible things it contributes to. if this is the case she is also moving to inhabiting contradictions democracy, diversity and individualism by calling for feminists to point out the contradiction that exists between the idea of democracy and its practice etc.

Now,to your question of what is to be done which is always a problem for theory because Davis and other theorists haven't really worked out what their idea of enlightened thought is beyond critiquing the enlightened thought that is ideological. this seems to me why she has to resort to ideas like ceaseless critique which can make people aware of the ideological enlightenment and pragmatic practical goals like equal rights with the realization that equal rights are a sham of sorts.
some people might think this is a cop out because she doesn't offer a solution, but, unfortunately i think it is the dilemna of modern thought and politics and an activity we should all engage until until we have developed a type of thought which can relaunch and lead to real enlightenment.

i wrote this kinda quick so let me know if anyone needs any clarification etc.


Tobi Vail said...

thanks chris, that actually does help me some. though it's still a little confusing.