Sunday, December 27, 2020

Review: Reading Across Borders

 [Shari Stone-Mediatore. Reading Across Borders: Storytelling and Knowedges of Resistance. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.]


A lot of Serious People who do Serious Things when it comes to knowledge tend to treat stories and other kinds of experience-based narratives as inherently suspect and not terribly useful. Some do this from a sort of empiricist place, an unreconstructed Enlightment approach to knowledge in which our best approximation of accuracy and reliability, and dare I say it objectivity, comes from removing knowledge and the process of its production to the greatest extent possible from the flaws and biases and partiality of human observers. We don’t want stories about what happened, these folks say, because they are sure to be inaccurate – we want objective proof of the facts of what happened. And then there is another crew seemingly diametrically opposed to this first group, but with a similar skepticism towards stories and experience-based narratives. This second group points out the ways in which any account of some sort of event can only be told using the discursive resources that already exist in society – existing language, existing rhetorical forms, and so on – so no matter how committed you are to what you imagine to be hard-nosed empiricism, you will always be conveying meaning far beyond any supposedly neutral facts, in a way that favours the status quo and the powerful. And while some have used the stories of the oppressed to counter that which is omitted and erased by the faux-neutrality of the empiricists, this second group argues that this inevitably falls into the same problem of only being able to use the discursive resources that already exist and therefore being trapped in reproducing dominant ideologies.

There are definitely things to be learned both from Enlightenment epistemologies and from the critiques of them by 20th century post-structuralists. But a lot of people, including me – and to be clear, a lot of what I’ve done in the last 20+ years is premised on this, in one way or another – have a pretty clear, embodied sense that regardless of what these two groups say, stories, particularly experience-based narratives of people who navigate and struggle against oppression and exploitation, have value as ways to help us know the world and as elements of struggles to transform it. We know that the scorn that these two groups of Serious People hold for these sorts of narratives just don’t account for the ways that stories actually work in the world. This book is an attempt by philosopher Shari Stone-Mediatore to both acknowledge the limits of what experience-based narratives are and what they can do, while also creating a clearer theoretical basis for the powerful things that they have to offer us and articulating some suggestions for how best to relate to them. It is, moreover, a first attempt to sketch out some approaches for evaluating the knowledge thus produced in a way that refuses the alternatives of treating any given story as something that succeeds or fails based on whether it gives us access to some sort of objective truth, or as an artifact so hopelessly trapped in dominant discourse that we might as well chuck it in the bin.

Stone-Mediatore starts out by exploring just how central the story form is to how we know the world and to our political life. Moreover, she makes a case for stories not only being an inevitable part of our political engagement with the world, but actually a positive one. Stories are not a simple reflection of an objective reality (though of course we can still hold stories up to standards of accuracy), but rather they are a more complex sort of thing. They involve producing knowledge and meaning here, now through engagement with there, then, such that what you get out the other end is always produced in that process – it is never a simple reflection of an objective reality but a complex reflection of a partial, situated reality, seen through the lens of how it impinges on the person/group in question. Stories do not tell us about the world in the ways that the empiricists would want, or primarily in the way that empiricists would test them as they apply their own standards to them. But they do tell us about the world. And, yes, stories are built from pre-existing discursive resources and cannot escape that fact, nor the ways in which dominant ideologies are always part of what they wrestle with. But depending on how the story is told, the meaning conveyed cannot escape but can overflow the constraints of inherited discourse, can draw imperfect and partial but real attention to the contradictions, the limitations, the problems, the violence in dominant ideologies. How much and to what extent this happens depends a lot on the nuts and bolts of the telling, and Stone-Mediatore goes through in considerable detail some examples of how this can work. To borrow a phrase from heterodox marxist John Holloway, stories done well can be a sort of rhetorical resistance that takes place within, against, and beyond the limits placed by the fact of our embeddedness within an oppressive discursive system.

To think through how we might evaluate knowledge of this sort, Stone-Mediatore begins from an account in Immanuel Kant of how to assess aesthetic knowledge. Kant outlines what he calls “reflective judgment” which we accomplish via what he calls “enlarged thought.” Put simply, we view a piece of art and we have whatever response we have. In his approach, we must take care to know that our own aesthetic response is a partial and limited one rather than some sort of universal truth. Given that, Kant recommends setting ours aside and imagining how other people might respond to it, and using that to further inform our own appreciation of the art in question. In doing so, he argues, we can approach a “universal standpoint”, a sort of shared and impartial truth of that art that can be reliably communicated with other people who engage in the same kind of assessment. Stone-Mediatore then talks about how this approach is taken up by Hanna Arendt and applied not to aesthetics but to the political realm – a shift that makes sense because it values serious engagement with the perspectives of others as well as communicability, among other things. Stone-Mediatore, in turn, extends Arendt’s use specifically to the context of storytelling and experience-based narratives. Rather than following Kant’s claim that this approach can allow us to approximate some sort of objective or universal standard, she engages very productively with feminist standpoint theorists like Sandra Harding, Nancy Harstock, and Dorothy Smith to make clear that the knowledge given us through serious engagement with the standpoints of others remains situated and partial, but nonetheless a powerful way to enlarge our understanding the world.

In particular, she argues that we can learn more about the world by engaging with the experience-based narratives of people who are exploited and oppressed. The frictions and contradictions and violences of dominant material and discursive realities show up more insistently in the lives of oppressed and exploited people – that is, after all, what oppression and exploitation are. Therefore the stories that oppressed and exploited people tell about their own lives are more likely to illustrate these frictions and contradictions and violences in ways that don’t escape how we are hemmed in by the discursive resources that we have no choice but to use but that can still overflow and exceed those limits. Engaging with those stories teaches us about the shape of the world – not in a way that pretends to be able to stand above it, but in a way that reflects real, material stuff as perceived and understood while in the middle of it. Stone-Mediatore goes on to sketch out some preliminary ideas for how enlarged thought can serve as the beginnings of a standard for evaluating the many stories we encounter in the metaphorical public square, in a way that attends both to the epistemological value of such stories but also their value for visions of justice and liberation.

This is, obviously, a scholarly book that will be of interest mostly to we nerds who spend a lot of time thinking about how we know the world. My own enthusiasm for it grew as the book progressed – from a sense during some of the earlier stuff about Kant and Arendt and so on that, okay, sure, that’s kind of interesting, to a feeling during the final chapter’s detailed engagement with feminist standpoint theory of, oh my god, this is so useful and so relevant. I say that because it resonates a lot with my own undertheorized sensibilities about knowing the world, and wrestles with so many questions that feel important to me. I mean, if you look back at my books that use the stories of long-time activists to enter aspects of Canadian history – both published in 2012 by Fernwood Press – the way of engaging with historical knowledge that I very briefly recommended bears considerable resemblance to what Stone-Mediatore says about reflective judgement and enlarged thought as reimagined through the prism of feminist standpoint theory, though in my case without anything close to Stone-Mediatore’s sophistication and hefty intellectual underpinnings. I probably will have a lot more to say about this book after I let it percolate some more, but I am, by happy coincidence, poised to start writing the final chapter of my current book project, a chapter that is going to talk mostly about how we know the world. I’m not sure how I’m going to take up this book in what I write, particularly given that I am not writing for a scholarly audience, but I’m sure I will. So glad to have read this!

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