May 9, 2008

This was the baby seed which became my thesis.

Filed under: women's history — polywog @ 11:13 p05

Breaking the Rules: Feminist Challenges to Epistemology and Methodology in History

The only way we can [fight oppression] is by creating another whole structure that touches every aspect of our existence, at the same time as we are resisting.[1]

The range of contemporary critical theories suggests that it is from those who have suffered the sentence of history—subjugation, domination, diaspora, displacement—that we learn our most enduring lessons for living and thinking.[2]

Insofar as we are concerned with structures of consciousness, we are acquainted with those structures only as they are manifested in discourse.[3]

Our internal landscapes are deeply shaped by the natural and discursive landscapes of our surroundings. Inside in our bodies and minds we hold knowledge of certain shapes and textures: the stories that root us into our communities and institutions, the assumptions we often never know are assumptions, and the invisible ways of thinking we often take for the only ways of thinking. I saw a movie once about a man who went out in the sea in a storm, and he came up against a wall at the edge of the ocean. He discovered his whole world and everything he knew was only a world within a world. He could open the door and be somewhere else. These edges exist everywhere, discursively, in our minds. And finding the edge of discourse is essential to any liberatory project. Feminism is a means, a boat which takes us out to sea, by which we find the edges of our worlds, destabilize what meanings we might have taken for granted, denaturalize what they have tried to make us feel is natural.

Most of us, at least in the first world, live to some degree at the interstices of power, along fault lines of privilege and subjection. Our internal landscapes resemble both the language and logic of domination, and our experiences of oppression and techniques of resistance. Even as we resist racism, classism, sexism, etc., the philosophical foundations which formed those oppressions limit the ways we can understand and articulate them. But at the same time, the ways we experience oppressions, and the individual and cultural techniques we develop to resist them form subversive ways of knowing which challenge dominant ways of knowing. All these logics are jumbled inside, bumping up against one another, clashing, sparking.

Since the 1960s, U.S. feminists, particularly feminists of color, transformed the landscape of feminist discourse through their critiques of Western epistemology, or, in other words, white supremacist, patriarchal ways of knowing, logics, and conceptual frameworks that drive and sustain oppression. Epistemology is “the theory or science of the method or grounds of knowledge.”[4] In this work, I use epistemology as synchronistic with internal landscapes: the visible or invisible, known or unknown methods and traditions which shape our thinking. U.S. feminists and intellectuals have challenged their readers to reshape not just what we think, but also how we think. This work is interested in how dominant epistemologies fray against subversive threads, especially the epistemic challenges posed by, in Homi Bhabha’s words, “those who have suffered the sentence of history.”

In a 2003 American Historical Association panel titled “The Future of Women’s History,” Afsaneh Najmabadi regrets that feminists have not significantly challenged “the core methodological and epistemological grounds” of history, as they have in other fields.[5] Moreover, feminist historians have yet to fully redress the internal hegemonies which feminist history has forged in the wake of prioritizing Western elite and middle class, white, heterosexual women’s history. It is clear that these projects are significantly interconnected. Though each panelist—Najmabadi, Evelynn Hammonds, and Joan Scott—mentions the need for challenges to history’s epistemology and methodology, not one ventures to suggest what these challenges might be. The “future” of women’s history, at this moment, was no more than a meditation on reasons for its perceived standstill.

I am interested in naming those epistemological and methodological challenges, exploring what they look in the folds of new histories, and how these new histories in turn shape and challenge our ways of knowing, our internal landscapes. My interest is to move the boat out to sea, to trace the current edges—the creative, spiritual, theoretical challenges feminists have brought to the theory and philosophy, the praxis of history.

I envision this as a two-part project. First, I want to trace the history and development of academia since the rupture of women and people of color into its institutions. I am interested in tracing the history of feminist thought through three developments in academia since the 1960s: interdisciplinary studies (particularly interdisciplinarity in history), Black feminism/womanism/US third world feminism, and poststructuralism/postmodernism. This is a history of the institutionalization of dissent, but also of discursive rebellions skirting across the crumbling boundaries between disciplines, of epistemic foundations taut against the pull of multiple angles of desire.

Key to the first section of my paper is a historiography of a moment in US intellectual history when US intellectuals of color ruptured the institutions of academia. Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob offer a useful analysis of this moment in their collective work, Telling the Truth About History. They write,

Our central argument is that skepticism and relativism about truth, not only in science but also in history and politics, have grown out of the insistent democratization of western society. The opening of higher education to nearly all who seek it, the rewriting of American history from a variety of cultural perspectives, and the dethroning of science as the source and model for what may be deemed true, all are interrelated phenomena. It is no accident that they occurred almost simultaneously.[6]

In the “dethroning of science as the source and model” for knowing, rebel academics have forged new ways of knowing which undermine (rather than simply offer alternatives to) Western epistemology.

US feminists of color ruptured feminist discourse through writing from their particular knowledge of oppression, the “epistemic privilege” that allowed them key insights less available to those with race and gender privileges. They developed and articulated ways of knowing which challenge and undermine key aspects of Western ways of knowing, including value dualisms (man/woman, mind/body, spirit/matter); universal truth; objectivity; categorical thinking; and linear narratives. Their techniques of resistance hinged on theories of embodiment and spirituality; nonlinear ways of knowing; new ways of thinking about identity and the politics of relation; and new ways of integrating “fact” and “fiction.” Their writings planted seeds which feminists would tend and cultivate for decades to follow.

This historiography will trace what cultural theorist Chela Sandoval calls technologies of resistance. These are intellectual creations, tools, and techniques. These are namable ideological formations which we can literally use, as a monkey wrench would pry apart a tractor, to deconstruct oppressive ways of thinking. But moreover, such technologies reconstruct through their deconstructing, birthing something new in the wake of what needed to be destroyed. As the Audre Lorde quote at the beginning of this paper suggests, I am tracing the work of those who go beyond naming problems, beyond deconstruction, beyond cultural criticism, to reconstruction and renewal.

The second part of my project traces how the history and development of feminist thought and its accompanying disciplinary rebellions have percolated into historical thinking via Joan Scott, Natalie Davis, Saidiya Hartman, Elsa Barkley Brown, and Alexis De Veaux. Through this lens, feminist history becomes a kind of praxis between knowing and doing, even as it remains within the realm of discursive, cultural, and psychic. Feminist history as praxis dramatically shifts traditional notions of the role of writing and memory in our society, emphasizing the importance of not simply what we know, but how we know it.

Historian Elsa Barkley Brown exemplifies the transformation of oppositional ways of knowing into methodology. What has Happened Here: The Politics of Difference in Women’s History and Feminist Politics” teaches historians how to write nonlinear, “jazz history,” that better reflects the ways we experience the world. Elsa Barkley Brown uses a metaphor of music—jazz versus classical—to illustrate different styles of thinking and writing history. Like jazz, “history is also everybody talking at once, multiple rhythms being played simultaneously.”[7] She laments that too many historians are suffering from “classical” training: “we require surrounding silence—of the audience, of all the instruments not singled out as the performers in this section, even of any alternative visions than the composer’s.”[8] Elsa Barkley Brown drew on the epistemological underpinnings of subaltern ways of knowing. Brown gleans from African American culture a way of thinking which both undermines logics of oppression and creates a new way of thinking in its place. History is the praxis through which this happens.

From the podium at a women’s history conference in Illinois, Saidiya Hartman offered a coy smile as she admitted to her audience, “My work does not follow the rules of history.” And it was her smile, her small rebellion, that grafted to my mind the uses of “breaking the rules” to women’s historians. In Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route, Hartman lyrically intertwines the history of slavery with her 1997 visit to Ghana and her process tracing the slave routes from the hinterlands to the coast.

In her work, the archive is not objectively categorized and compartmentalized in footnotes or left behind the scenes of the work of the author; rather, the archive is in the text itself, present in her struggles with identity, memory, desire, and loss.

Saidiya’s positioning of the archive opens it to a set of emotions and possibilities it could not have if veiled in silence. Slavery’s archive only holds certain facts—mostly economic—which shape what we can know and remember about slavery, and thus shapes the loss, the absence in its wake. Hartman’s textual interaction with the boxes and folders of papers, the photos, the costs of food and bodies, numbers of corpses, and distance between shelters explicates the relationship of trauma and memory to hard facts of truth. She crumbles the solidity of objectivity and makes tangible the present-absence of knowledge, and the failure of the archive to address the past.

Bring the archive forward, into the text, Saidiya writes, “I happened upon my maternal great-great-grandmother in a volume of slave testimony from Alabama.”[9] The experience enabled despair: Her grandmother claimed she remembered nothing from slavery, and Saidiya knew this was a lie. It challenged her to rethink memory and testimony, and to mourn the silence, the not-knowing, that hung in her past. Hartman is challenged further when, “Years later…looking through the Alabama testimony, I was unable to find her…. I reviewed my preliminary notes, desperately searched for the interview I had never copied, but there was no Minnie or Polly or anyone with a name similar, nor did I find the paragraph stamped in my memory.”[10] This incident, Hartman writes, attests to “the slipperiness and elusiveness of slavery’s archive.”[11] Hartman’s choice to pull the archive forward into the text, rather than leave it in the background and footnotes, marks a new way of confronting fact. Despair, desire, a longing for absent memories interjects in the supposed objectivity of the archive. Such an exploration elucidates what we can glean not just from the presence of facts, but also from their absence.

I am searching for the ways in which historians challenge traditional rules of history through alternative ways of knowing, being, relating, and remembering. I’ll consider how rebellious feminist historians emerge from a larger trajectory of academic and intellectual change, but also how they are not simply products, but agents of change in the academy. By developing feminist epistemologies in experimental historical methodology, these feminist historians have challenged and changed traditional modes of writing history.


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Ware, Vron. Beyond the Pale: White Women, Racism, and History. New York: Verso, 1992.

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[1] Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider(Berkley: Crossing Press, 1984): 103

[2] H. K Bhabha. The location of culture. (London & New York: Routledge, 1994): 172.

[3] Hayden White. Somewhere….

[4] Oxford English Dictionary

[5] Najmabadi, Afsaneh. “From Supplementarity to Parasitism?” Journal of Women’s History 16, no. 2 (2004).

[6] Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacobs. Telling the Truth About History (New York: Norton, 1995): 3

[7] Brown, Elsa Barkley, 279

[8] Ibid, 298

[9] Hartman, Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Route New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. 15

[10] Ibid., 16

[11] Ibid., 17


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