Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Review: Thinking Through

[Himani Bannerji. Thinking Through: Essays on Feminism, Marxism, and Anti-Racism. Toronto: Women's Press, 1995.]

I start from my experience of reading. I start from the fact that Bannerji's book -- the third and last of my recent indulgence in re-readings, and the one originally read the longest ago -- does not just click intellectually but feels powerful and right and useful on some level beyond just that. In other words, in my gut, I like this book and the writing and ideas it contains.

As usually happens in such situations, this immediately triggers suspicion, of a sort -- an intellectual impulse not to be swayed by the untrustworthy barometer of my intestinal reaction, but to restrict my intake of new theory, with all that implies for potential modification and refinement of my own internal critical apparatus, solely to that admitted by and for reasons that are defensibly "rational" ideas that can be expressed easily and in a linear fashion in written language. In other words, the first impulse of my head is to deny my gut any input.

This can be analyzed at the level of individual experience -- the psychological level, I guess. In fact, I think you could map this onto more formal ideas about different parts of self as described in psychoanalytic theory, but I don't really know much about that so I won't try. But in my own shorthand, I feel a distinct difference between what I label my "head", which tends to deal with things intellectually and with a focus on "I should", and what I label my "gut", which is more visceral and affective and tends to be more of an expression of "I want" or "I desire." The path of my own journey has been from scarcely recognizing the existence of "gut" and "want", to recognizing they exist and are legitimate but still having to work hard to stop "head" and "should" from their traditional practice of intervening at such an early stage in the process as to make me unable even to identify wants and desires in that sense. And, when I am able to identify them, having to figure out what to do with them.

Read only on this level, it can be seen as a narrative of some sort of "true self" being unearthed so that it might take up its role as autonomous agent that can go on to interact with the social. With only this framing, my response to reading this text could be seen as a sign of the persistence of repression of that "true self."

But of course it isn't that simple. There is no "true self" unsullied by outside influence that can be excavated, because self and all of its component parts are created from day one through our experience of the social world. One of the implications of this is that our becoming occurs in a bath of hierarchy, masked and unmasked violence, and oppression. This cannot help but do unfortunate things to us, those who benefit unearned as well as those who are oppressed. This is true of both "head" and "gut". However, the former, by definition, allows for deliberate, rational effort to decolonize self, whereas the latter has only a process of slow osmosis by which to change. There are therefore good political reasons, at least sometimes, for the now politicized version of head-based shoulding to regard signals from the gut with grave suspicion. I know that there are times and places in which my gut reacts in oppressive ways, and my head can (sometimes) identify that and compensate, or at least react in some other way.

So there are two conflicting impulses here, one saying that my head should stop being such a tyrant, and the other saying it had better watch out or my gut will have me doing all sorts of idiotic things. There are all sorts of situations, big and small, where this complexity could be explored: whether or not to purchase a chocolate bar, how to spend my Saturday afternoon, how to interact with that rather attractive-to-me person across the room, and so on. But the case in point is a particularly interesting one -- namely, how to deal with gut-based reactions to material whose main purpose is, if it is deemed worthy, to further elaborate and refine my head-based apparatus for engaging with the world in politicized way. What does my gut know about theory anyway? Who can say that this gut-based reaction, this liking, is not unduly responsive to aesthetic concerns rather than substantive ones? Or -- though I have trouble seeing how this could be the case in this instance -- what if, unbeknownst to my conscious mind, my gut is not embracing X because it represents a clear and liberatory way forward but because it is a radical-sounding way of avoiding something else that is more difficult for me? I could dredge up a dozen other "what ifs", many of them silly but none definitively discardable.

Interestingly enough, I believe Thinking Through, and by extension the related texts that I have read at other times, offer some insight into this question.

Let me change gears for a bit and describe the book. It is a short volume of essays, most or all published originally in other venues over a number of years. Bannerji is a Canadian academic whose politics are, as the subtitle would indicate, feminist, anti-racist, and Marxist. It is, however, a particular kind of Marxism, as much of her work develops themes from the work (and the particular reading of Marx) of Dorothy Smith (see this review for some basics). In particular, it is the ontology and epistemology underlying the work of both Smith and Bannerji that I find particularly compelling, especially the ability to begin from local experience and push towards larger, translocal relationships without having to subsume the specificity of the local in abstraction. When I first read this book in the late '90s, it was very powerful for me but a lot of it was over my head and I didn't retain much; when I encountered Smith's work years later, I didn't make the connection.

There are a number of important issues that Bannerji tackles in the book. The first major essay looks at the relationship between identity politics and class politics, and presents a way of thinking that gets past the false opposition often seen between the two. There are a few essays that deal with anti-racism and feminism, including a very useful critique of the epistemologies underlying several of the most important strands of thought to emerge from white-dominated feminist spaces in North America. Some of my unresolved uncertainties about the work of Dorothy Smith and others in the same tradition that I have engaged with in the last year or two has to do with its unique conception of standpoint, and this essay responds to some of those concerns as well, though I have not yet decided whether I am completely satisfied. Then there is an essay reflecting on her experience of many years of post-secondary teaching, which I also found very powerful, followed by a detailed examination of a particular case of racialized sexual harassment and consideration of how to construct an analysis that understands both race and gender in its organization, and finally two essays reflecting on life and cultural production as a racialized woman who is part of a diaspora in the West.

I like the way that the pieces in this volume seamlessly combine the telling of strong personal truths, useful analysis of the social basis for those truths, and the creation of a compelling sense of whole through not just the ideas but also the writing. I like the fact that the approach represented in this work provides tools to build knowledge, to understand any number of different phenomena starting from any number of different places, and, unlike many important left theories, it does not a priori write out other realities. I like, as I said, the sense of unity and connection to larger patterns that does not erase specificity, and the related ability to articulate meaning across vastly different scales of existence.

This sense that Bannerji's approach can tie so many things together without loss of specificity is one of the key sites of my simultaneous liking and distrust-of-liking. I can relate my distrust to the ideas of convergentist and divergentist theory as described in my review of Janet Halley's Split Decisions, and my distrust of the claims of at least some convergentist theory to claim access to all the answers. Such a claim is a red flag for me, a sign to look for how the theory making such a claim is puffed up in its own self-importance. I'm not sure if this is really accurate in this instance, though, precisely because Bannerji's approach does not need to erase specificity and experience to access less immediate levels of analysis and to tie disparate sites together. In fact, it makes me think of Halley's actual specific recommendations, which she justifies in large part by extensive warnings of the dangers of convergentist theory, for approaching legal theory in ways that are attentive to all of the details, all of the actual material impacts of a law or a decision. In fact, one of the objectives of the ontology and epistemology of Smith and Bannerji is that it wishes to provide a way to build knowledge that can undermine the sort of "objective" concepts, terms, and labels that confine us, and allow active agents to explode imposed categories.

One of the central tasks Bannerji embraces in the theory she writes is undermining the polar binaries that define so much Western and patriarchal thought. She lists a number of the key pairs, and then says

The efficacy of any social theory is determined by its ability to demonstrate and theorize adequately the formational (i.e., non-oppositional) interplay between these different moments of social cognition. The explanatory, analytical and descriptive/ethnographic task of social theory requires that it be able to dis-cover the mediations of different social moments in non-polar terms, and bring out the "specificity" of any fragment of experience by providing it with a general name as well as with a particular authenticity at the same time. That is, it must show how any situation/experience is distinctively, particularly, locally itself and yet/also constituted by and exemplary of social forces which lie in, around and beyond it. [pp. 66-7]

Given this, and given Dorothy Smith's admonition to begin investigating the world from disjunctures in consciousness, perhaps Bannerji's book itself can help me understand my response to it. After all, the head/gut binary that I have constructed really does not feel that far away from the mind/body or mental/emotional binaries which are so central for the Western understanding of the world, both of which are also very connected to the public/private and social/individual divides.

Though so far I have conceded a role for the social in shaping what I am calling "gut", I think perhaps I am still relying at least in part on treating it as not-social, that it is somehow a less valid starting point, that experience only becomes fully admissable into "serious" consideration once it has been extracted from the body and placed firmly in the realm of the mind.

However, one of the points made in the book that has been important to giving me a better understanding of how Bannerji and Smith deal with standpoint, and how they construct their epistemology as a whole, has to do with the idea that experience is completely social right from the beginning, rather than being created by the social in a restricted, private realm, and then readmitted to the social by intellectual activity.

Bannerji writes

Marx speaks of such a historical-cultural materialism which posits an interconstitutive relation between the mental and the social, implying thought and expression in and as social relations between people, as well as creativity, through the concept of conscious labour. The social is fundamentally communicative and formative and it negates solipsism. The meaning is always implicated in organization and practice as "practical consciousness" becomes evident for Marx through the very existence of language, which is both a result and a condition of being "social." Everything that is "social," then, has a conscious producer or an agent who stands between creating and mediating throught and practice, as simultaneously a bridge between and a source for both the personal and the social.

For an individual, her knowledge, in the immediate sense (which we call "experience") is local and partial. But, nonetheless it is neither "false" nor fantastic. It is more than the raw data of physical reflexes and feelings. It is the originating point of knowledge, an interpretation, a relational sense-making, which incorporates social meaning. This "experience" creates and transforms. It is a continuous process of relating with the world as "our world" (not a "good" world, necessarily). To cut through the conventional dualisms of gender-organized mental and manual labour and their philosophical forms, we would have to recognize and validate our own ability to experience, and the experiences themselves, as the moments of creativity and the embodiment of formative, rather than dualist, relations. Experience, therefore, is that crucible in which the self and the world enter into a creative union called "social subjectivity." [p. 86]


In this theorization experience is not understood as a body of content indicative of a seamless subjectivity or psychological totalization, but rather as a subject's attempt at sense-making... Any...experience of alienation holds in it the double awareness of being "self" and the "other", our personal and public modes of being. [p. 88]

Bannerji is talking in the last paragraph specifically about the experiences of women of colour, particularly in classroom settings. But the idea of dual modes of consciousness and their utility as a starting point for theorizing is more broadly relevant as well.

In this post I started from a Dorothy Smith quote on the gendered social production of different modes of consciousness and went on to talk about the ways in which becoming a stay-at-home parent both made me more aware of these modes of consciousness and shifted my experience of them.

In reflecting to write this review, I think my dual experience of liking and suspicion-of-liking this text -- or any other text which I like in such a way -- and of apparent necessary opposition between "head" and "gut" has to do with those same two modes of consciousness. The former begins from within ruling regimes, and is what Dorothy Smith describes as "that extraordinary form of modern consciousness that is capable of agency in modes that displace or subdue a local bodily experience." The latter, on the other hand, is the mode of consciousness and the kind of sense-making and knowledge-making which begins from experience as already social, as "the originating point of knowledge, an interpretation, a relational sense-making, which incorporates social meaning."

The point is not some sort of rejection of the "mental" for the "instinctive" or "emotional" or "physical", an embrace of the other half of the binary. Rather, it is a recognition that their seeming polar oppositeness is not necessary. Suspicion and skepticism by "head" of "gut" is a way of maintaining the binary and its hierarchy. But what is needed is not an abandonment of the critical faculties that get unfairly and inaccurately lumped in with "head." My commonsense is still shaped in privilege, i.e. the social that shapes my "gut" and that informs the social experience that is its basis is still grounded in the seeming naturalness and normality of my unchosen existence in a relationship of domination and privilege with respect to most people on the planet. But the point is not using that to undermine a supposedly lesser part of self, but to allow all of the faculties of self to engage in an integrated approach to sense-making. The fact is, denying the roles of the visceral and affective faculties in shaping what I've been calling "head" is a denial of how consciousness actually evolves. I still can't escape the feeling that relating to some instance of theory in part because of, say, aesthetic or life-history/psychological reasons isn't a bit dubious, but it is inevitable, so the thing is to recognize it, understand it, see how it shapes knowledge production. And things like visceral and affective reaction to instances of gross oppression can be just as crucial for the evolution of consciousness as reading a bunch of books and taking them in via the "head", and knowledge production that is so suspicious of experience, of "gut", cuts of access to those reactions and that crucial source of anti-oppressive pedagogy. I know this because it is true of me.

Anyway. Figuring out how to shift how I think about my inner workings will take more than a blog post that is already so long that noone will ever read it, so I think I'll stop here.

Oh. I, um...I like this book. Just so you know.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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