Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Standpoint Feminism: The Importance of Epistemic Legitmacy

The paper below is mine from a class I took on Sociological Theory. It turned out really well considering I started it the night before.

Some of the greatest strives for Women and rights came after the flourishing of the Enlightenment in the late 1700s (Kreis 2000). It was not only thought that knowledge could liberate the masses, but that this knowledge ought to be shared by women (Wollenstoneraft 1792). However, while these efforts served as a point of departure towards equal rights between men and women (Kreis 2000), these endeavours to legitimise women as capable of attaining the knowledge men hold never questioned what constituted any ‘truth’ to this privileged form of knowledge (Gunew 1990). It is these universal epistemic claims first baptised by Descartes that continue to hold privilege in everyday life (Scheman 2001). However, it is also the perceived infallibility of a privileged epistemology for the individual that has come under intense criticism over the past decades by many third-wave feminists in a variety of disciplines (Hartstock 1983; Harding 1983; Scheman 2001). This paper will start by opening the notion of epistemology outside a set of objectified relations re-centring it within a social frame. I will do this by elaborating on the key features of standpoint theory articulated particularly by Dorothy Smith (although I will open the discussion up to a wide range of other theorists), arguing that all knowledge as a consequence of standpoint theory should be seen as socially situated. After this is established, I imagine two different realms to which standpoint theory forces a shift in understanding how to theorise relations. First, I argue standpoint feminism depends on a radical re-conception of trust between legitimate epistemic agents. Second I will argue that standpoint theory also cautions the use of sociological method for discursive pursuits not based off of lived experiences. Finally, I will critically analysing the premises put forth from external criticisms outside of feminist theory as well as internal criticisms raised by post-feminism
Standpoint theory problematizes the conception of a privileged epistemology through Marx’s historical materialism (Hartstock 1983; Smith 1990a, 1999). The beginnings of capitalism in industrial society marked two sharp class divisions that saw society in two different ways (Marx 1867). The bourgeoisie saw commodities merely at a level of exchange while Marx contended the proletariat saw commodities in the level of production (Marx 1867). Both views marked off a “…rigid separation of mind and body, intention and behaviour” (Hartstock 1983, 286). Marx saw the formation of two legitimate epistemic claims of how social relations structured the notion of the commodity in industrial society (Hartstock 1983). However, Marx believed that the commodity at the level of exchange was ridden with mystifying social relations that concealed the actual working relations that made it up (Marx 1867). Not only could two legitimate forms of knowledge come from two different individuals, but one form of knowledge might dominate (in this case the commodity as exchange) when it fails to give a realistic depiction of human experience when encountering that commodity.
Dorothy Smith extrapolates Marx’s materialism into the realm of any conceived “social consciousness” (Smith 1999). This need not be limited to the materialistic grounds that Marxist concepts are rooted but must exist for any “…objectified social relations through which people’s everyday/ everynight activities organize and coordinate contemporary society” (Smith 1999, 78). Standpoint feminism, therefore, undermines analytical epistemology in its attempts to universalize knowledge. It instead attempts to offer up a multiplicity of perspectives to which it claims may have epistemic validity (Harding 1983, Smith 1987, 1990a, 1990b) that intersect along division lines of classifications not just concerned with gender but also with race, class, and sexuality (Collins 1990, Smith 1999). What is largely seen as neglected from the Cartesian notion of the individual is their corporeal being (Smith 1999). The actual body of experience of an individual (their relative standpoints), as shown by Marx, is the empirical experience of how individuals come by forms of knowledge (Smith 1999). It is not the case that there exists a transcendent subject outside the sphere of their daily experience at a privileged point of knowledge or at an “Archimedian standpoint” (Seidman 2008, 204). What standpoint feminism problematizes is the very notion that a subject can claim to be self-sufficient in knowing things in general (Grasswick, 2006). All knowledge is seen from the view of standpoint feminists as being socially situated (Smith 1990b, 1999).
Standpoint feminists such as Dorothy Smith intend on restructuring any objectified epistemic notion in the frame of the actual experience of individuals (Smith 1990b, 1999). She takes women as a point of departure for two reasons. First, she wants to point out legitimate epistemic claims as a women with a “bifurcated consciousness,” (Smith 1987, 6) occupying work both as a mother in her daily experience and as a sociologist working with generally abstract social relations (Smith 1990b). Second, Smith locates a split in gendered roles from pre-capitalistic societies to early capitalistic societies (Smith 1999). Whereas in the former, subsistence and child rearing had no explicit distinction, in the latter, both are differentiated into respective gendered roles by a capitalist sphere generally dominated by men (Smith 1999). This, for standpoint theorists, offers a point where objectified social relations served as a complex web of ruling relations (Smith 1999). For Smith, a “ruling relation” means any set of social relation that is explained in terms of other social relations rather than the experience of an actual individual (Smith 1990b, 1999).
These ruling relations tend to have devastating effects within contemporary culture. Take, for example, the recent Indian riots in Melbourne (The Age 2009). Much of the Indian protesters feel that the police aren’t addressing the racially motivated attacks against them to maintain their safety (The Herald 2009). From their actual experiences, the fear of a racially motivated attack on Indians and the need for further protection is what they have come to know after multiple attacks and the stabbing of Kumar Theerthala (The Herald 2009). The danger that Dorothy Smith and other standpoint feminists see with this kind of situation is a subversion of these epistemic claims from the experience of individuals to more objectified relations. Such objectified relations are apparent when the Chief Commissioner Overland states that the number of assaults to Indians has decreased (The Herald 2009). Whether or not this is true, I can see two problems with this assertion. First, Overland objectifies the Indian students’ experiences to a specific number of assaults counted and compared to previous quantitative results. Instead of addressing the reality of experience faced by Indian students, these quantitative comparisons attempt to abstract them to a generalized amount of attacks. Second, Overland has denied the epistemic validity of actual experience faced by many Indians. This diminishes the epistemic agency of the group by undermining their social experiences (Code 1995). This also can breed distrust of any sort of epistemic claims therein claimed by the Victorian Police force (Scheman 2001). These severed bonds fragment the beliefs of many minorities in epistemic authorities especially when suffered abuse and exploitation in the midst of one of these authorities (Scheman 2001). This also can breed distrust of any sort of epistemic claims therein claimed by the Victorian Police force, as it has done for the African American community with medical doctors (Scheman 2001). In a 1997 survey, 74 percent of African Americans said they believed they would be used as a guinea pig by a medical doctor (Scheman 2001). Scheman locates this distrust in the fact that black males were originally used as guinea pigs in the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment that allowed for the natural progression of the untreated disease (Scheman 2001). The consequences of these abuses done by even legitimate epistemic authority taints and may damage the trust of those oppressed/ abused (Scheman 2001). However, this view only can become readily available through standpoint feminism (Anderson 2009). Situated between two radically different standpoints is the trust that allows for communication between two distinct epistemic agents (Scheman 2001). Without this trust, however, validation of epistemic legitimacy may be impossible (Scheman 2001).
Understanding standpoint feminism provides another fundamental insight into a potential harm within the disciple of sociology itself (Smith 1987, 1990a, 1990b, 1999). Smith cautions sociology in creating “mystical connections” (Smith 1990b, 49) between observable social relations. What she fears is a further perversion of the ruling relations she perceives is already inherent within the discipline of Sociology (1990a, 1990b, 1999). Smith is suspicious of any social relations that tend to “…depend on conceptual practices that construct a textual version of society and social relations excluding the presence of subjects” (Smith 1990a, 10). Social theories must refrain from reinforcing a ruling relations that objectifies knowledge and forms static, “trans-historical” relations abstracted from the experience of actual individuals (Smith 1999). These theories not only misappropriate the actual experiences of individuals but they can approach human behaviour as an object of study that can subvert other legitimate epistemic claims (Smith 1999). Alternatively, Smith conceives of standpoint theory as offering an ongoing “social ontology” (Smith 1999, 97) where the social is something located in time and within an individual’s bodily existence (Smith 1999).
Up until this point, I have attempted to undermine the claim that knowledge can only be perceived as arising from a transcendent subject outside the frame of the social sciences. Not only is this refuted by empirical evidence offered by Marx, but standpoint feminism offers a reality closer to the experience of everyday individuals that prevents and challenges sustained relations of ruling as well as can locate formations of distrust between differing epistemic authorities. In closing this paper, I will attempt to offer up two different types of criticisms in an attempt to show how common criticisms of standpoint feminism may miss the aim of the social epistemology as well as offer critical shortcomings for future of such a theory.
One of the most daunting criticisms from external sources outside of feminist epistemologies is that they mix facts with values imposing political constraints while rejecting a search for truth and objectivity (Anderson 2009). By arguing for a standpoint theory, theorists are merely attempting to relativise scientific/ epistemological truths (Anderson 2009). However, these warrants, I think, miss some of the fundamental tenets of feminist epistemologies. Dorothy Smith isn’t arguing for a study of differences in individual experience (Smith 1999). She’s arguing for the root of knowledge to be socially situated, which doesn’t act mean there can’t be valid knowledge (Seidman 2008). In fact, many standpoint feminists believe in objective possibilities for knowledge and hold them integral to the foundation of standpoint feminism (Harding 1983, Smith 1999, Scheman 2001). Standpoint feminists may reject grand theories but this does not mean sociology cannot be used to understand the way things work (Seidman 2008). What they argue is that any discipline that attempts to privilege an epistemic claim that is partial ought to allow alternative epistemic claims to compete with the dominated traditions (Harding 1983, Anderson 2009).
A final criticism of standpoint theory comes internally from other feminist epistemologies that don’t believe in a situated knower. Post-feminism attempts to subvert the claims that standpoint feminism can have a unitary subject in order to transfer the function of the subject into discourse (Smith 1999). What is criticized about standpoint theory in general is that it relies on essential differences that distinguish women from men (Anderson 2009). While much of this is apparent in the early works of standpoint feminists (Hartstock 1983, Smith 1987), the view seems to be outdated (Smith 1999, Anderson 2009). Some argue that by advocating a multiplicity of domination (Collins 1990, Smith 1999), there is no room to see the bonds between certain standpoints (Anderson 2009). However, standpoint feminists seem to be more concerned with the possibility that there could be similarities between individuals (Grasswick 2006). Their main concern with post-structural accounts of gender seems to be that the subject is situated within discourse effectively removing any epistemic agency beyond discursive grounds, merely reinforcing an objectified ruling relation rather than lived experiences (Smith 1999). While this proves there is a downside to post-feminism, it doesn’t give enough to reject the theory. In order to do this, strengthened evidence that interaction between individuals actually locates a situated individual need to be proposed (Harding 1983).
These criticisms offer multiple challenges to standpoint feminism, but they don’t disturb the main suppositions of feminist epistemologies. What is still held onto is a powerful critique of a singular, static epistemology that women originally were compelled to undertake because of their demand for equal rights during the beginning of the Women’s Rights Movement (Gunew 1990). The need for a situated knower that standpoint theory offers is crucial to making strives both across political struggles for epistemic legitimacy (Code 1995, Scheman 2001) and for the sake of (social) scientific reflexivity and scrutiny of partial forms of knowledge (Smith 1999). It is the ruling relations which still dictate multiple structures in the reality of everyday life (Smith 1999). To scrutinise these forms of epistemic authority is not only to strive for scientific legitimacy, it is also a sustained fight against an objectified web of oppression.

Works Cited

Anderson, E, ‘Feminist Epistemology and Philosophy of Science’, (accessed on 01 June 2009), 05 February 2009.

Code, L., Rhetorical Spaces: Essays on Gendered Locations. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Collins, P., Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and Politics of Empowerment, New York, Routledge, 2000.

Grasswick, H, ‘Feminist Social Epistemology’, < http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminist-social-epistemology> (accessed on 01 June 2009), 09 November, 2006.

Gunew, S., Feminist Knowledge: Critique and Construct, London, Routledge, 1990.

Harding, S., ‘Why has the Sex/Gender System Become Visible Only Now?’, in S. Harding and M.B. Hintikka (eds.), Discovering Reality, London, D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1983

Hartstock, N., ‘The Feminist Standpoint’, in S. Harding and M.B. Hintikka (eds.), Discovering Reality, London, D. Reidel Publishing Company, 1983

Kreis, S., ‘The History Guide: Lectures on Modern European Intellectual History’, (accessed on 30 May 2009), 2000.

Marx, K., Capital Vol. 1, Moscow, Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1867.
Millar, P., ‘Indian students march in protest against attacks’, The Age, accessed 06 June 2009, from < http://www.theage.com.au/national/indian-students-march-in-protest-against-attacks-20090531-brhj.html>.

Roberts, B., ‘18 arrests amid Indian protest over Melbourne race violence’, Herald Sun, accessed 06 June 2009, from < http://www.news.com.au/heraldsun/story/0,21985,25565946-661,00.html>.

Scheman, N., ‘Epistemology Resuscitated: Objectivity as Trustworthiness’, in N. Tuana and S. Morgen (eds.), Engendered Rationalities, New York City, SUNY Press, 2001.

Seidman, S., Contested Knowledge: Social Theory Today, Victoria, Blackwell Publishing, 2008
Smith, D., Texts, Facts, and Femininity, London, Routledge, 1990a.
Smith, D., The Conceptual Practices of Power, Boston, Northeastern University Press, 1990b.
Smith, D., The Everyday World As Problematic: A Feminist Sociology, Boston, Northeastern University Press, 1987.

Smith, D., Writing the Social: Critique, Theory, and Investigations, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 1999.

Wollstonecraft, M., A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, New York, Penguin Classics, 1792.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Poem 1

these words did not stake
the object at rest
and so could not lighten
a sustaining duress

so broken between this slant and stanza
is an imperfection beyond mere word
that fills this chasm in one surreptitious act
and sunders an ache into worth

but rather than name and therefore negate it
the poet left it be to stay on one side of the dialectic
for never could he stand if it became three
lo and behold the contradiction in this stylistic

and so he could not resist pointing in its direction
as if to identify the solution to his affliction
but everyone around him could not understand
why he broke all rhythm and reason to say-- its in the onion


A couple things about this poem. I did write it, and I intend for there to be no capitalization. I know its confusing and it does involve a mention of Hegel which many people only know the basics of. My familiarity of Hegel is often secondary... and primarily through Derrida. See what you can get from it.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Honesty in a box

Growing up, I had to make several synthetic distinctions that would protect me from myself. What was public would have to undergo extreme scrutiny... and I found myself privatizing not only my thoughts, but also my emotions as well as my physical idiosyncrasies. But the most important distinction I had to make those I considered my guy friends from those I liked. By no means could those two intersect. It was simple to follow through because it never happened that these two things did intersect... never did I feel like they were intersecting.

And now...I hate to say it... but those things are starting to intersect. There's nothing intrinsically wrong with it (I understand that), but the defenses I set up early on (years before I started dating) compel me to think any such thoughts are extreme sins... that I am doing something wrong when the two cross my mind. I've formed an aversion to any conception of a male friend in a sexual way.

In some ways, I blame the friend (though not completely in a serious way) for passing advances in the first place. It was never a question before a couple days ago our relationship... there was no place in my head for the two to meet up. And now, after being given the thought of such a thing occurring... I don't know... I can't help but think of it... to have it pass through my head.

And in no way am I happy about this... I hate this precisely because I have no way of coping with such weird relations. I'm at a loss of what to really think... because this has never happened before. Here's the thing that extremely bothers me about the situation:

1.) I already have established relations with this person. I know what I can do and can't do in such relations and it is perfectly okay for me to think of such things in this way. If something were to happen, I face a risk of losing a friend.

2.) I have a tendency to become attracted to people who pass advances my way first. But there has been more than one occasion where one kiss wises me up. I get the feeling, "What the fuck was I thinking?" I don't know if I'm really genuinely attracted to this person or just enjoying the flirtatious advances... and it friggin' bothers me that I can't tell the difference beforehand.

3.) I feel relatively neutral around this person in any given occasion... I don't feel obligated to leap on them or touch them or be close to them... doesn't that mean I'm just not attracted?

4.) I just broke up with the first person I've ever fallen in love with about a month ago. I miss them dearly, and if this is to happen, isn't it fair to the other person to actually have someone who's completely moved past his past relationship especially if he's my friend.

So I felt jealous at the party when someone else started to hit on this person at the party tonight... so I make calls to this person for flirtatious gesture. These things do not mean I should go for it. I have a friend... a friend that I would hate to lose because of a bout of naive articulation or understanding of personal emotion. Its not worth that much uncertainty to give up something already certain.

Friends it must be... and friends it shall be...

Please let this be the right decision... please.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Weed 3- Mike 0


Kierkegaard's Reflective Sorrow

I want to write something to those who've been burned... I will start out with a quote from a philosopher I've been reading and relate it back to love/ reflective sorrow.

"If someone possessed a letter which he knew or believed contained information concerning what he had to consider his life's blessedness, but the written characters were thin and faded, the handwriting almost illegible, he would read it and reread it, with anxiety and disquiet certainly, but with passion. At one moment he would get one meaning out of it, the next another. When he was quite sure he had managed to read a word, he would interpret everything in the light of that word. But he would never pass beyond the same uncertainty with which he began. He would stare, more and more anxiously, but the more he stared the less he saw; sometimes his eyes filled with tears, but the more that happened, again the less he saw. In due course the writing became weaker and less distinct; finally the paper itself crumbled away and he had nothing left but eyes blinded with tears" (Either/Or, 187)

For Kierkegaard, this is the perfect analogy for uncertainty that comes from love. The moment a person falls in love, they've gained meaning... but the moment they start to question whether this love is wholly reciprocated, this meaning can wane. Think of a time where you've had a crush, but they ignored your hints.... if a person meant everything to you, but they told you they could never be with you...

At first, its easiest to channel pain into hatred. Hatred that they deceived you in the love... to hell with them. And it might be the reaction that your friends try and create even if the situation is ambiguous. Why? Because you're in pain... the ambiguity is torture, and so instead of reassuring you in this pain, they condemn this person as a despicable... telling you that you're better than them, that you don't need them.

But this reassurance is the facade you must stand by. You have to be strong around your friends because that's what they've come to expect you are. You're doing okay... you're having fun with them, so you must have moved on, and forgotten whoever you may have loved.

However, ambiguity never leaves you internally, no matter what facade you have on externally. As Kierkegaard would say, "When a possibility is broken off, the instantaneous pain may not be... great, but then it often leaves one or another small ligament whole and unharmed, which becomes a constant source of continued suffering" (179). What you constantly entertain is every single new possibility... every account that this person could actually love you... every account that they never loved you in the first place. Every verdict is given on each side, but no case is decided on...

Sorrow is left in the ambiguity that reflection perpetuates... and continually perpetuates... The first stance held... the liberation from the very thought of this person (the deceit for this person that was first entertained) is lost in this reflection... in the ambiguity that will never comfort. And the more that it is emoted... the more that it is felt, the less a person is reminded of why they are in sorrow in the first place. For the man who desperately wanted to configure the contents of that letter initially found that the "...writing became weaker and less distinct" until "...finally the paper itself crumbled away and he had nothing left but eyes blinded with tears" The very object of what perpetuated the sorrow disappears.. and before you know it, you are pained by what you can't name... an object that you will continually search for.


Have you ever been in internal anguish without any sight of what could cause it? Its binding... because people expect you to be all right... to be a person they recognize... but internally, you're in pain and you have no idea why. You can't name the object of your sorrows... just that you are bound to the sorrow. And so you entertain every idea of why you might be sad. You're neurotic... you're having a bad day... No one understands you/ is pressuring you... there has to be an answer! But, what I get from Kierkegaard in these few lines... is that in entertaining these ideas, you're only blinding yourself from something that never had a clear answer in the first place.

But this isn't something that by will a person can stop... this isn't mediated reflection... it is an emotion that conflates these ideas... and so you form a spiral... a spiral that can last for years (for me it lasted three years up until midway through my freshmen year of college)... mine wasn't about love but it produced the same bind that ambiguous love can create. I would have mental as well as physical breakdowns where I would drop to the ground and bawl without any idea of why I was bawling. And just as I couldn't figure out what caused these breakdowns, I also couldn't figure out how I got over them.

One day... I got up... and I was okay again.

I guess I type this not as a biographical sketch but more as a reflective and therapeutic philosophy. Maybe if I had read Kierkegaard earlier, I would have at least understood myself a bit better. Anyways, I can't really say whether this entry would be helpful to anyone (or rather, if anyone would actually read this) but I just wanted to give it a try.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Commiserating ye ole' rumpled man

All I can think about is poor Tom Tit Tot who couldn't do without the possession of another. He had to go for the necklace... for the ring... for possessions he could have gotten himself if he had thought for a moment to spin his own hay into gold. But poor ugly sprite had to take from the daughter of merchant whose own importance was worth more than life itself.

That old rumpled man was pretty brilliant come to think about it. To challenge that woman to figure out the one thing no one ever cared to know about him... the one thing he would need to share only with one other person in his lifetime.

But no, that haggard woman wouldn't give him that. The moment she gave him an identity, she took it away... never would he be able to share it with another. Destined to be alone, the weight of this burden took Rumpelstiltskin downwards to his death.

Downward on

Bereft and in nostalgia listening to a rebroadcasting of every possible sound bit and beat that struck accord with the world for the two minutes it gave us immediacy and presence, I've finally lifted myself onto my keyboard and off the floor away from the pointless task of looking upwards for the weight of my eyes acting downwards. I've realized its a hefty task searching for nothing. Maybe its that burden that weighs downwards or at least... maybe it ought to cause the weight in my head(if I could make that burden more than a figurative expression). At least maybe this would give me a more satisfying feeling than meaningless action potentials firing inside my head.