FEMINIST KNOWLEDGE: CRITIQUE AND CONSTRUCT
What is the relationship between knowing, or, meaning production, knowledge, and theory? This chapter will analyse the kinds of legitimation conferred by institutionalized knowledge, in this case the specific machinery of formal education. What happens when what is termed mainstream academic knowledge becomes interrogated by certain kinds of theory: Marxism, psychoanalysis, poststructuralism, feminism? The chapter will also explore the ways in which knowledge has been linked to various kinds of quests for truth, or, science, in the sense of objective truth. The quest could perhaps be reformulated as being one for ‘truth effects’ rather than any absolute truth since the latter is difficult to discover and might be said to belong to the domain of rhetoric (persuasive speech) rather than to any kind of objective reality. Who or what decides how or when knowledge in the sense of ‘truth’ has been reached? Does gender come into this? Is it appropriate to ask whether in the history of western (and other) knowledge there have been any great women thinkers or theorists? Might this be more constructively reconceptualized?
The chapter will then move on to consider the relationships between knowledge and political change in the light of feminism. Do feminists have any use for a body of theory which has largely misrepresented and/or excluded women? We will look at some of the ways in which feminism, on this basis, has operated as a powerful critique of existing areas of institutionalized knowledge. But where does this critique come from? If women have for so long been misrepresented by male-defined theory then isn't it rather rash to assume that women themselves have not internalized these same definitions? Is it enough to take for granted that we know what ‘woman’ is? Can women safely presume that their own experience is sufficient validation for a feminist knowledge?
From here we will consider the paradoxical interaction of feminist theory and women's experience. A dialectic between the two is needed otherwise women will never go beyond the oppositional structures which have always constructed them (Lloyd 1984, p. 105; Gross 1986). Finally, the chapter will focus on the implications surrounding the appearance of feminist knowledge as a legitimate area of institutional knowledge. On this basis it too has marked out a territory which excludes, or declares illegitimate, some kinds of knowing. We will examine briefly some of the critiques of feminism which have emerged from lesbian, black, and Third World women.
WE ARE WHAT WE KNOW
All definitions are always to some extent arbitrary but, for the moment, knowing will be defined as any kind of meaning production, as the way in which we make sense of the world by learning various sets of conventions. These sets could also be described as systems in which particular terms have meaning only in relation to each other but no absolute meanings outside their own specific systems. Language itself is such a system but there are others as well: manners, dress, music, films, mathematics, etc. (Hawkes 1977; Barthes 1979). These systems help us share our awareness of the world; they represent interpretative grids through which we experience sensory data. At the same time they also operate, so to speak, in reverse by reflecting us back to ourselves. In other words, these sign systems help construct our sense of identity. Some theorists encountered in greater detail in chapter 3
suggest, for example, that it is quite appropriate to see human beings as networks of sign systems (semiology),1
and that there is no essential and stable core, or self (Henriques et al
. 1984). Each moment of interaction (conversation or other exchanges) to some extent constructs a relative self.
This brings us from knowing, a process, to the question of knowledge. Knowledge could be described in territorial terms: knowledge as it has been legitimated within certain institutions, notably (but not only) the education system. Knowledge here becomes authorized learning to which only some have access. Below is a famous fictional version of a woman's encounter with institutional knowledge.
It was thus that I found myself walking with extreme rapidity across a grass plot. Instantly a man's figure rose to intercept me. Nor did I at first understand that the gesticulations of a curious-looking object, in a cut-away coat and evening shirt, were aimed at me. His face expressed horror and indignation. Instinct rather than reason came to my help; he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path. Only the Fellows and Scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me. Such thoughts were the work of a moment. As I regained the path the arms of the Beadle sank, his face assumed its usual repose, and though turf is better walking than gravel, no very great harm was done.
Knowledge can easily be imagined in terms of an institutional ordering, but the emphasis does not usually fall on who is doing the ordering or on what is excluded in this process. Knowledge is not usually seen as being attached to specific people who ‘master’ it, process it, and then dole it out to those who succeed in gaining access to certain privileged territory: the school, the college, the university (to know in the dictionary sense of ‘to acknowledge the claims or authority of: Oxford English Dictionary). What, on the face of it, has gender to do with institutions of knowledge?
The struggle by women to gain equal access to the academy is a bulky chapter in the history of feminism and is far from over (Rosenberg 1982; Thompson 1983). It was only slowly and grudgingly that the various doors in the academy of knowledge were, in principle, opened to women. In practice this did not mean that women were actually encouraged to go there (Spender 1982; 1983). Theories about women's inability to think at basic levels, much less the higher branches of so-called pure knowledge, abounded.2
Thus one can safely say that the academy was largely operated by men who were in the privileged position of creating meaning in terms of its public discourses. Consider the following statement (written in 1792) of a frustrated scholar caught in her age's assumptions concerning the essential opposition between male and female knowledge:
To render mankind more virtuous, and happier of course, both sexes must act from the same principle; but how can that be expected when only one is allowed to see the reasonableness of it? To render also the social compact truly equitable, and in order to spread those enlightening principles, which alone can ameliorate the fate of man, women must be allowed to found their virtue on knowledge, which is scarcely possible unless they be educated by the same pursuits as men. For they are now made so inferior by ignorance and low desires, as not to deserve to be ranked with them: or, by the serpentine wrigglings of cunning, they mount the tree of knowledge, and only acquire sufficient to lead men astray.
Wollstonecraft (like de Beauvoir) believed that male knowledge constituted the preferred model.
So long and bitter has this struggle been that there are many women who prefer to acquire their knowledge outside the formal education machine, for example, by organizing their own research groups (Bunch and Pollack 1983, part II
). In part this has been because the academy has made entry for women such a difficult or impossible process but, as well, it has been because the kinds of ‘knowing’ which were taught were not necessarily of interest to women; for example, they ignored the role of women themselves in the construction of various areas of knowledge. In the next chapter Susan Sheridan examines the history and politics of trying to introduce women's studies as a legitimate area of knowledge into the halls of learning. Consider also the following:
What is an educational system, after all, if not a ritualisation of the word; if not a qualification of some fixing of roles for speakers; if not the constitution of a (diffuse) doctrinal group; if not a distribution and an appropriation of discourse, with all its learning and its powers?
Theory often functions as the attempt to turn knowledge into a truth or science, the latter not in the sense of the natural or physical sciences but as representing an attempt to produce methodical and objective theory (Williams 1979, pp. 232–5). Theory represents an attempt to move beyond the chaos and abstractions of individual experience to objective and universal truth: to transcend the particular. One could argue that it is an attempt to turn sensory data into a fixed order comparable (one could imagine) to the model of a supreme being who creates a complex but totally logical world. In some respects, then, theory, the most abstract version of knowledge, has traditionally represented the attempt to understand God.3
Not surprisingly, therefore, we see the earliest forms of theory as being entwined with theology. Philosophy and religion have a long association. The earliest universities were, for example, staffed by theologians. Legitimate theory was inextricably bound up with legitimate beliefs. Most of us have heard echoes of the great heresy battles, and secular and sacred knowledge have often been difficult to disentangle.
Within these boundaries there have been constant tensions between empiricism (theory based on experience) and abstract or universal theory which may or may not draw on experience. Recently Genevieve Lloyd (1984) has charted such a pattern, which shows the history of ‘reason’ to be the history of a gendered metaphor. By examining the ways in which various key male philosophers have metaphorized reason and distinguished it from ‘non-reason’ Lloyd has revealed that women, or the female principle, has always occupied the place of ‘non-reason’. This has prevailed from the Platonic spirit–matter division to the soul–body split of Christian philosophers which culminates in our own age in the concept of nature as necessarily controlled by culture.
The apparent unity of all knowledge was and still is an important impulse in western thought (Lyotard 1984, p. ix). At this level it is often dignified with the name of ‘science’ (Williams 1979, pp. 232–5) which came, increasingly, to be distinguished from ‘art’. So-called pure theory became progressively interchangeable with the notion of ‘science’ so that the aim of all territories of knowledge was to reach a state in which the whole interpretive process itself (that someone decides what is a legitimate interpretation) was rendered invisible.
Michel Foucault describes the will to knowledge as being synonymous with a will to truth. In these terms the quest for theory translates into the quest for science or truth which in turn confers authority and legitimation. These languages of truth and science were carefully circumscribed and processed by the kinds of metaphorical underpinning charted by Lloyd (1984) and were also patrolled by institutions from which women were, until relatively recently, excluded. As were those of the wrong class, or race, or religion. Somehow this strategy was believed to guarantee objectivity in the recovery of the essential and universal human being so that what that concept exactly comprised might be a matter of complete consensus across time and space.
THE KNOWING SUBJECT
The concept of theory in the sense of truth has, in turn, served to construct a unified human subject, an intellect governed by reason, who was perceived, in a sense, as the microscopic embodiment of legitimate knowledge. Knowledge was legitimated in the appropriate institutions and was incorporated at another level as the knowing subject who was seen, in some respects, as constituting the origins of meaning. This unified subject was, for example, conceived of in the nineteenth century as the liberal bourgeois subject who was a descendant of the Enlightenment concept of the self as an autonomous rational being. In the twentieth century we encounter the transcendental subject of the phenomenologists (Husserl 1970) derived via the Kantian concept of the subject as the unifier of structures of pure reason. In other words, the unified subject was never the same (this would be a ridiculous oversimplification) but the emphasis generally was on a kind of coherence which in turn reinforced a certain claim to authority. For example, Lloyd (1984) examines another version of this subject (in terms of Existentialism via Phenomenology) in her description of Sartre and de Beauvoir's distinction between immanence, or immersion in life, and the need to transcend this (Lloyd 1984, pp. 93–102).
Although the unified subject probably never existed simply as a given (the unity was always seen as a struggle in which some aspect needed to be suppressed) it certainly was a general ideal. Though this unity has always been a qualified one, recent theorists have questioned this ideal in specific ways, as Philipa Rothfield discusses in Chapter 4
. One could argue that the recent challenges began with Freud (the discovery of the unconscious) and with Marx (that such an ideal ignored class suppressions and history), together with structuralism, which emerged from linguistics and examined the world in relation to sign systems (semiology). Language was an obvious sign system and questions were raised concerning the relationships between languages and the so-called ‘real’ world to which they referred. What were the relationships between individual subjects and the production of meaning and to what extent was meaning communicated or shared?
Meaning was not ‘natural’, a question of just looking and seeing, or something eternally settled; the way you interpreted your world was a function of the languages you had at your disposal, and there was evidently nothing immutable about these. Meaning was not something which all men and women everywhere intuitively shared, and then articulated in their various tongues and scripts: ...