All 3 entries tagged Power

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May 21, 2013

Power and the text: Axioms of thought in the contemporary university

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A few weeks ago now we had a film event in which we watched and then discussed Meek's Cutoff(Kelly Reichardt, 2010). It was a really interesting session with a great, interdisciplinary set of participants contributing!

One of the main aims was to see how it would work to discuss a film text with an interdisciplinary group of people - to see whether we would agree on methodologies and so on, or whether there would be big differences or even disagreements.

I chose Meek's Cutoffbecause from a Film Studies perspective, it's a really interestingly put-together film that, I would argue, incorporates feminine modes of vision into its very construction of shots and sequences. It's about a small group of families on the Oregon Trail in 1845 who get increasingly lost and desperate in their desert crossing. It's been called a 'feminist western' because it's told largely from the point of view of the wives/mothers in the group, rather than the men. It therefore raises interesting questions about how cinematic traditions of representation may be subtly coded as masculine.

What I found was that there was actually a great deal of overlap in terms of the language, theories and concepts used by various Humanities and Social Science disciplines to discuss texts. The Film Studies participants had perhaps a more nuanced understanding of the physical construction of the film and the artistic and industrial decisions that went into making it, but then that's their job! We all shared a common language in which to talk about cinema as encoding power relations in terms of both narrative and visual elements.

I have accordingly added 'Power and the text' as a sub-theme within the Power theme of the Gendered Knowledges project website - a strand of thought that is broadly shared across many disciplines.

One thing we should pay more attention to, I think, about interdisciplinary Gender and Sexuality Studies is that most of the Humanities and Social Sciences since the 1970s have broadly shared a common set of theoretical assumptions, particularly as regards power and the text. Interdisciplinarity in these areas seems to be inclined towards the theory behind these assumptions - especially Foucault and Butler these days, but it used to be more Freud. (When exactly did this shift occur and why?) And Marx has been a constant through many decades, having survived this shift intact.

So although we may disagree on particular issues, it seems easy to find common ground when we talk about high-level issues. This is nice and makes for some great interdisciplinary events, but it could also be a negative thing in some ways. At the highest level, there's not that much variety in terms of ideological assumptions and theories about the goals of academic study. I've recently been reading Paulo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed(which merits a whole post in its own right, to follow!), and it's a bit astounding how he takes as axiomatic that the only possible end of any truly rational enquiry is to become a Marxist and fight oppression. A similar assumption, I would argue, underpins the structures of academia: given the way peer review, hiring/promotion, PhD recruitment and conferral, even undergraduate exam and essay marking all work, genuine alternatives and dissenting voices that may challenge these assumptions are virtually nonexistent within the academy.

Meanwhile as we continue to pursue these admirably radical intellectual goals, we allow our universities to be taken over, virtually uncontested, by a neoliberalist managerial class with aims that are actually quite hostile to this enormous body of radical intellectual work. And as Sabine Hark points out, they very often make inroads using precisely the language of interdisciplinarity, which seems able to stretch to mean both very radical things and deeply conservative, neoliberal things simultaneously.

Hey guys, maybe we should be thinking more about how to actually live these principles in our working lives? Just sayin'.

Anyway, the Gendered Knowledges project is actually a great example of the uncomfortable ways that neoliberal and radical issues often cohabit within university space. It is, of course, a project funded by the neoliberal management of Warwick, with concrete aims like setting up an interdisciplinary (there's that word!) MA module and running a series of events that will enrich the intellectual life of Warwick and so on. Yet on an intellectual level, here we are considering radical pedagogies that actually challenge the deepest structures of the neoliberal university, wondering how we can possibly teach students to genuinely think for themselves while still subjecting them to traditional assessment and thus satisfying the bureaucratic needs of the university. Like so many academics, we are radical in our thought, buying into this shared body of radical theory that is axiomatic within the Humanities and Social Sciences, yet we stop short of any genuine challenge to the system.

Am I the only one who thinks that this situation has become rather stagnant and hollow?

April 03, 2013

Academic privilege, or, a brief exercise in dispossession

Yesterday was the day my postgraduate student status expired - I'm now officially no longer a student! Which thus far, I must say, has been something of an exercise in dispossession. Suddenly my card expired and I now can't get into any buildings at Warwick, including the Library to access information or check out books. I went to go and sort it out with HR (since I'm still an employee of the university, after all), and I couldn't even get into the building in which HR is housed. Also, once I did get in, the HR receptionist was rather rude and condescending, her tone of voice implying that I'm somehow less than a full member of this little micro-society of the university, or that my struggle to get a working card was somhow less-than-legit.

So I know that this is a kind of uber-privileged example of dispossession and that many, many people have far worse problems (not least because of the Government's new welfare policies that started on Monday). But still, it has got me thinking about the notion of access, and how it feels not to have it. There's nothing like suddenly losing a privilege to make that privilege visible.

Maybe as part of a module on Power (which is my theme in the Gendered Knowledges project), we should consider doing some kind of experiment that makes each student's individual privileges visible by temporarily taking some of them away.

Clearly there are many privileges surrounding gender (and race, and sexuality, and various other markers of difference). Here's a great blog post that unpacks some of the privileges that many men take for granted. (This is itself a response to Peggy Macintosh's well-known list of white privileges.)

Perhaps we need to generate a similar list of privileges we have as academics. This is not trivial: we have access to all kinds of information and knowledge that others lack, and moreover academia is systematically rigged to keep 'others' out. I'll start:

1. We get to be called experts/authorities in our field. Quoting our written or verbal statements is considered by many (including students, news outlets and other academics) to be sufficient proof of a given fact or idea.

2. We have free access to authoritative information on an infinite variety of topics and issues.

3. Writings about power, access and privilege are often written/spoken in a language that only we are trained to understand.

4. We decide who is worthy of further access to privileges through the education we provide.

5. And indeed we set the standards by which our students (as well as those who have failed to become our students) often judge their own worth as individuals.

6. We (or at least those who are senior to myself) decide who is worthy of access to the privileges of academia itself - through hiring, peer reviewing, thesis examinations, etc.

7. We decide which texts (not just academic texts but also popular texts, films, images etc) are important and consequently which are canonised.

I'm sure there are many others - please list in the comments if you have some to add!

Moreover, each academic discipline is a microcosm of these privileges. Even within academic communities, certain individuals are endowed with the privilege to define and delineate fields of study, and to exclude others from the field based on the criteria they set. The thesis examination is an excellent example of this: in order to call myself a Film Studies scholar, I had to show that I had spent 3+ years reading and understanding the canonical texts of Film Studies - and that I had bought into them (more or less).

My point is that we as a research group need to be thinking about this if we want to be interdisciplinary. Does being interdisciplinary involve letting go of this 'buying into' a particular system of enquiry?

I can see that this is very, very hard to do in any serious way. To take an obvious example, Cath and Sam (the leaders of the project) are both in Sociology. Although they are working very hard and very sincerely to make this an interdisciplinary project, they have also already set the terms of our debates and goals. Indeed they hired the rest of us according to the standards by which they judge quality, which are, naturally, informed by their training as sociologists (not to mention as academics).

Judgments of value are clearly functionally unavoidable here. How would anyone hire anyone without them? And indeed, to take another issue that is clearly at stake here, how could we motivate student work without such a hierarchical value system? We are clearly all implicated in these hierarchies, yet I still want to ask: might it be possible to avoid or subvert them without throwing up one's hands and leaving the university completely? Is self-awareness a useful tool here or is it ultimately a pointless exercise? How might we teach our students about these issues while still remaining a 'legitimate' university course?

Also, is there any way of countering the canonisation issue? We have been talking about how white/middle-class women's issues often seem to set the agenda of feminism. How do we make feminism and gender studies more open to all viewpoints and perspectives?

There are clearly no simple answers here, but I at the very least think these are goals we need to be addressing as we design our course(s).

March 25, 2013

Gender oppression and intersectionality

I've been thinking more about the work we did at the OSL session last Wednesday. As a group, we were asked to respond to various images and quotes about women, gender and feminism and assemble them into a kind of collage. Lana pointed out that nearly all the images were about WHITE (and Western, and middle-class) women and feminism, and the group ultimately decided to arrange the images in a way that would acknowledge these exclusions, pointing to the wide array of people and ideas that lie outside of these dominant discourses of feminism and femininity.

What I've just been realising, now that I have sweet merciful internet access in my new house (!), is that actually there has been a lot going around the internet recently about the relationships between gender oppression and other forms of oppression, and about how mainstream feminist movements are often reluctant to acknowledge these other forms of oppression or the women who experience them.

One example of this is the shitstorm surrounding the 2012 Radfem conference and its explicit exclusion of trans women. Many radical feminists see trans women as 'men' who are extending their male privilege to invade women-only spaces - a viewpoint that is obviously abhorrent to trans people, or to anyone who is remotely aware of the bigotry, hate and violence that trans people face on a daily basis.

This ongoing confrontation over trans women and their place in feminism was recently further fueled by Julie Burchill's infamous trans-hating piece in the Observer, deleted from the site after objections were raised but still available for viewing here. The awfulest thing about this piece (aside from the nasty, nasty anti-trans language throughout) is the way Burchill engages in a 'more oppressed than thou' one-upmanship, claiming that since she comes from a working-class background she has more right to speak for feminism than others do. As she puts it, "We are damned if we are going to be accused of being privileged by a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs." *Shudder*

Trans activist and all-round lovely person Ruth Pearce has written a great piece hereresponding to Burchill's article and discussing the concept of intersectionality - a really useful way of thinking about the various interrelated oppressions and how they are connected. The idea is basically this:

Intersectionality is, at its core, the idea that (aside from a very small number of individuals who are spectacularly well-off or badly-off) we are all oppressed, and all privileged. To use some examples from my own life: I am oppressed as a bisexual trans woman, and privileged to be white, abled and middle-class. It does not make sense to say that I am simply oppressed, or simply privileged.

Which is really interesting because just today someone sent me a link to this blog entry on the need for intersectionality in feminism. The author, Flavia Dzodan, has a proper rant about the need for feminists to acknowledge racism - for example, the racist aspects of rape culture, in which women of colour were and are considered 'unrapeable' because they are sub-human. She too calls very memorably and repeatedly for an intersectionalist viewpoint: "My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit!"

Anyway, I just think it's interesting that the concept of intersectionality seems to be coming up a lot in public, popular internet fora as a way of understanding the relationships between various types of oppression and various markers of difference. It's a pretty new concept to me - maybe this is different for the sociology folks? Have you all come across this concept before?

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