A Question of Gender

This week’s readings by Joan Scott (and the essays that reflect on her work) were truly compelling and I once more completed the readings with a new or complicated understanding of a concept that I already thought I had mastered. I have always considered “gender” as a term reflecting “sex roles”. According to Scott, this has not at all been uncommon in the history of the term’s usage. However, what “Gender as a Useful Category of Historical Analysis” suggests is that the term “gender” needs to be understood as “a constitutive element of social relationships based on perceived differences between the sexes,” and, “a primary way of signifying relationships of power” (Gender, 1067). When jotting down this definition initially, I don’t think I was really grasping what Scott was trying to convey, and so I took the first half of the sentence to reaffirm my belief that gender was based on sex roles and the differences that establish them. It wasn’t until I read the following paragraph of her “Unanswered Questions” that I reconsidered this assumption:

Gender is the study of the relationship between the normative and the psychic, the attempt at once to collectivize fantasy and use it for some political or social end, whether that end is nation-building or family structure. In the process, it is gender that produces meanings for sex and sexual difference, not sex that determines the meanings of gender…And if that is the case, then gender is a useful category of historical analysis because it requires us to historicize the ways that sex and sexual difference have been conceived (Questions, 1428).

Rather than being synonymous with “sex”, gender gives meaning to it. Much more than a simple concept, gender is a question—the question that prompts us to look into the ways in which the concept of sex has been created and understood. This analysis leads to a myriad of other questions, and these questions have prompted feminists and historians to keep attempting to find the answers. It is for this reason that, while my understanding of gender is much more complicated as a result of Joan Scott’s work, it is all the better for it. By continuing to interchange “gender” with “sex” and vice versa, I wouldn’t have considered the historical context within which these concepts arose and evolved (and continue to evolve). Similarly, I would have been content to continue forward with my use of the term, ignoring the processes that have constructed gender relationships and the economic and political relationships that arise from those relationships (again, it seems endlessly complicated). However, if there is one thing I am learning from this course, it is that nothing is quite as simple as we assume it to be. There are endless interpretations, connections, contexts, etc. that shape our understanding of events and concepts, and “gender” is just the latest of these concepts that our class will analyze and take apart.

I also look forward to discussing the second part of Scott’s initial definition of gender—“a primary was of signifying relationships of power”. I think her “Symptomatic Politics” provides an example of how power has been inextricably entwined with gender in both French and Islamic culture, resulting in problems that could not be solved, resulting in the banning of the Islamic headscarf.

Landscape of a Good Discipline

“Steedman is better described as a historian who understands the theoretical and philosophical implications of doing historical work. She pushes edgily on the boundaries of what historians think they do, but she manages to combine social and cultural history without turning the results into some risk-free and reassuring middle way…She makes the ‘cultural turn’ without waving goodbye to ‘the social’” (Eley, 180-81).

I genuinely enjoyed the readings for this week, which was particularly heartening after struggling a bit with Foucault last week. I read Landscape for a Good Woman before reading Eley, however, I think Steedman’s book did well to make its point in its own right, and the chapters from Eley described the context, or “landscape”, within which Steedman’s work came to exist. Carolyn Steedman is significant for a number of reasons, but I believe the most predominant of these reasons is that she exemplifies an ideal model of the combination of cultural and social history. Landscape, in a sense, represents the fruit that can be harvested from the crossroads of the two (typically competing) sub-disciplines.

By recounting and reconstruction her childhood and her mother’s childhood, Steedman simultaneously attempted to make sense of her own youth and challenged the conventional understanding of working-class life. Steedman’s mother and her household existed outside of legality and outside of the traditional “working class”, and Landscape reveals how her family and others like it have been marginalized. These challenges confronted the typical patriarchal head-of-household, as Steedman’s mother determined their class position (Steedman, 56). Additionally, her mother was not just an object of exchange, as women have typically been written off as over time, but rather the object and subject—her mother utilized her exchange value in an attempt to secure the life and future she believed were so wrongly kept from her (Steedman, 60). Her mother’s story also goes against the presumptions that all mothers want their children, and instead suggests that children can be both wanted and resented, as Steedman came to understand about herself as a child.

In each of the ways Steedman challenges or deconstructs the conventional ideas held about the working-class, children, and women, she seems to “ememplify the arguments…about the changes in the discipline between the 1960s and now” (Eley, 172). The subjects of her focus represent part of feminist history, which Eley suggests was, “unavoidably at the forefront of the cultural turn” (Eley, 171). Additionally, she uses personal voice, offers a history substantially different than the accounts previously “known”, and reintroduces the possibility of using biography in historical study. However, Steedman makes her arguments without turning her back on social history, rather, she suggests that individual narratives can reveal themes of a broader social world.

Steedman’s ability to utilize the merits of both social history and cultural history is promising. As we have discussed in several classes up to this point, we must confront the newest “turns” in the study of history as they come (and they will come), but in doing so we do not have to abandon the value of each previous phase of the discipline’s evolution. In the same way Landscape does not rob Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class of its entire significance, we do not have to assume that new phases rob the last of its significance. Rather, we can build upon our understanding by utilizing the advantages of each and being willing to meet each new phase with open, but analytical minds. Certainly, this ideal middle ground is not easy to find, and once it has been found, it is no doubt difficult to maintain footing through the ebb and flow of evolution and transition. However, it can be done and Carolyn Steedman provides an ideal to strive towards.

Deconstructing Deconstructionism

As anticipated, Foucault was a challenge this week. Perhaps this was a self-fulfilling prophecy, as I had read a little of Foucault’s work before this class and had already formulated somewhat of a confused bias, but in any case, I definitely found myself bogged down trying to make sense out of what appeared to me as a jumble of philosophy and words I did not know. Thank goodness for the “Key Foucauldian Concepts,” putting at least some of his ideas into common (or comprehendible to me) English.

Spiegal’s “The Task of the Historian” was by far my favorite reading of the week. She was able to break down the concept of deconstructionism and describe the “linguistic turn” in ways that were completely understandable and compelling. For instance, she highlighted a link between the post-Holocaust second generation and post-modern consciousness that helped explain why the linguistic turn occurred when it did. To the second generation following the Holocaust, the actual word “Holocaust” did not seem to have the capacity to represent all that the event entailed (mentally, emotionally, physically, socially, etc.), and therefore people began to question the “ability of words to convey reality” (7). Put in these terms, the rise of post-structural thought seems almost logical–how can we rely on words if they cannot properly articulate what something means? Spiegal’s use of this example highlighted once more the importance of placing events and intellectual turns into context (and also brought up the Holocaust in a much more applicable and appropriate way than I did last class). Additionally, she pointed to reasons why the linguistic turn, though heavily criticized, might yet have some value and place within the study of history. She pointed to the benefits of applying post-structuralism in the study of diasporas, which provides an alternate and more effective unit of study than that of the “nation-state” (12). I think her attempt to find a place within the study of history for the merits of a receding line of thought underscores the fact that, though our discipline is ever-evolving, we need not systematically embrace and then dispose of every theory or line of thought that comes our way. Rather, we can apply the valuable aspects of each to the discipline in the hopes of becoming more analytical and more knowledgeable historians.

One aspect of the readings that I found particularly intriguing but am not entirely sure I understand is the concept of “Enlightenment” as it is found in Foucault’s critique of Kant. According to Foucault, Kant describes the Enlightenment being characterized by a “way out” or, the process that “releases us from a state of immaturity,” in which we escape someone else’s authority (What is Enlightenment). Does this mean that, as a society and as individuals, the Enlightenment represented a modification in the way we (human individuals) perceive authority and the ability to reason? Or perhaps the greater point is that, in order to understand the Enlightenment, we must understand the societal and individual context in which it occurred? Additionally, the concept of the Enlightenment (this time as a period of history) is brought up briefly in Spiegal’s article, where she states, “…The emergence of poststructuralism under the sign of the linguistic turn bespoke the end of the confident, optimistic era of European Enlightenment with its faith in the continual progress of human history under the aegis of scientific learning and methods and, not least among them, scientific history” (“The Task of the Historian”, 8). Is this “Enlightenment” the same that Foucault and Kant are referring to? I find myself empathizing with the historians that so objected and feared the linguistic turn—it appeared to be uprooting everything they “knew” about their discipline (a feeling many of us in class have experienced once or twice since the beginning of the term).

I am anxiously anticipating class discussion this week. I am hoping to gain a little more insight into what Foucault was all about, as well as insight into the numerous terms and names of theories that littered the pages of the readings for this week.