“As Holtmaat and Naber state in Women’s Human Rights and Culture: From Deadlock to Dialogue, the concept of the fundamental equality of all humans, regardless of their categorization related to their unique characteristics, in the service of  universalist ideals, cannot be statically applied through the exact same treatment of all individuals”  (Schwartz 2013, 4).

As I read Joan Scott’s “Gender: A Useful Category of Historical Analysis,” I recalled an  issue I had pursued in a paper I wrote in a course called Women’s Rights as Human Rights.  My final essay was entitled:  “Social Justice through an Eco-feminist Critique of International Rights Instruments.”  Through it, I pursued two lines of inquiry.  First was the asymmetry of environmental effects on women and men.  Second was the conceptualization of universalism that international legal instruments develop.   These conceptions often dismiss or undermine women’s perspectives and needs regarding their quality of life.  Several of Scott’s concerns, for instance, that much theory used in historical (and subsequent political) work related to gender lacks cohesiveness, as well as her strategies for combating these difficulties reminded me of the way my eco-feminist project attempted to interrogate the issues of essentialism and concepts of universality.

I was particularly interested in Scott’s suggestions for creating a deeper and more theoretical approach to historical analysis of gender, including methods such as employing context specific critique regarding the interrelationship of gender and politics; the use of biography (and I would add after our reading from last week) autobiography;  and two elements of Foucault’s method, a concern for beginnings as opposed to origins, and the utilization of her proposition that “gender is a primary way of signifying relationships of power” (Scott 1986, 1069-1070).

Much of Scott’s methodological critique considers the importance of the way in which social processes work through specific instances of history.  She also wishes to consider how meanings become attached to gender, while acknowledging that the categories of woman and man are both ‘empty and overflowing’ (1074).  She states that they are not transcendent, and that even when they seem stable, they include “alternative, denied, or suppressed definitions” (1074).  Within this recognition is an understanding of the need to look closely at specific situations to establish a critique of gender that avoids being ahistorical.  At the same time, understanding gender as a multi-faceted categorization related to power that one can analyze in different and evolving ways, avoids a timeless legitimation of (or ‘testimony to’) the establishment of power that precludes any substantive benefit from historical scholarship.

History as “Why?” & “How?”: Agency through Autobiography

Technically, class-consciousness has not been conceived of as psychological consciousness.  It has been separated from ‘the empirically given, and from the psychologically describable and explicable ideas that men form about their situation in life’, and has been seen rather as a possible set of reactions people might have to discovering the implications of the position they occupy within the realm of production (Steedman 1986, 13).

This quote by historian, Carolyn Kay Steedman, reveals one of her main issues with histories dealing with class and class-consciousness, their generalizing and universalizing tendencies. She asserts that the most predominant of these places nearly all individuals of the British working class within a stereotyped, ‘emotionally passive’ life ‘”where survival is more important than elaboration of relationships.  .  .  “(Seabrook)’ and “the streets are all the same;  nothing changes” (Steedman 10-11).

To me, it is evident why this reading follows Foucault in the order of class readings. Foucault’s strategy was to utilize discourse analysis in order to illuminate the measures of control and discipline embedded in those discourses.  Here is one instance of a “Why?” and “How?”  related to the discourse of history that can be applied to Steedman’s project, in which she says:

This extraordinary attribution of sameness and the acceptance of sameness to lives arises from several sources. First of all delineation of emotional and psychological selfhood has been made by and through the testimony of people in a central relationship to the dominant culture, that is to say by and through people who are not working class.

The development of selfhood by those external to the working class does not necessarily totally discredit it. However, it does provide a reason for one following Foucault’s methods, to question who is, in fact, developing the interpretation of the selfhood of the working class in order to determine what the payoff in terms of power relations is for them.

This Foucauldian type of questioning might function as part of an archaeology/genealogy in which particular moments in the historiography of the working class can be uncovered and then utilized to open up the discussion of these formulas.

Utilizing a working class perspective through her autobiographical method, Steedman begins the project of reassessing the “granite-like plot” of the working class that considers only issues of exploitation and production.  She finds her own interpretation of “Why?” and “How?” in the question of the timing, the process of development, of working class ‘mental life’, or consciousness (14).  Like Foucault’s use of historical specificity, Steedman’s work attempts to “particularize” the stereotypical illustration (and she says, “profoundly a-historical landscape”) used in traditional working class histories.

Her motivation, too, is particularly genealogical and postmodern in intention as its particularizing elements are not meant to establish universals, but rather, to empower “the people in exile, the inhabitants of the long streets…to use the autobiographical ‘I’, and tell the stories of their life” (16).






Foucault…Overcoming Contingencies, & History

“Foucault…provided detailed accounts of the lineages of both Western institutions and subjectivity. These genealogical accounts are carried out in a language and set of concepts that recognize themselves to be within the lineage that they describe;  the descriptive accounts have a decentering effect on the values and  forms of knowledge that give the lineage its authority.  As his genealogical studies make questionable these previous axiomatic values, his studies themselves become questionable in their place in the lineage that they describe and suggest in the performance of their own concepts the need for movement beyond the truths and values that establish their own intelligibility and import.” (Columbia History of Western Philosophy, Edited by Richard H. Popkin, 1999, 750, my emphasis)

Foucault made many contributions in many fields.  In reading the materials for our discussion of Foucault, I came across several ideas that were somewhat familiar to me by way of philosophy courses.  My intention as I read and continue to think about Foucault for our upcoming class is to reconsider some of Foucault’s ideas in relation to history and historical methods.

Again, I found the Columbia History of Western Philosophy helpful in unpacking some of the moves within Foucault’s works.  For instance, consider Foucault’s introduction of the historico-critical attitude in “What is Enlightenment?”  There he suggests that one develop an experimental method blending ‘historical inquiry’ and ‘contemporary reality’ in an open(-ended) manner in order to understand ourselves as subjects.  He then suggests that specific instances, or ‘transformations’, within history be considered.

As Franz Peter Hugdahl states (in the Columbia History), Foucault’s interest was in investigating “a variety of social and political practices and institutions as manifestations of power in order to expose the particular understanding of those concepts concerning culture, society, and the individual that the systems require to function under those conditions” (Popkin 1999, 742).  What is important to historical methods in considerations of the historico-critical attitude is the use of specific instances and understandings of historical moments, as well as cultural terms in order to more fully acknowledge the contingency of concepts that are likely to be considered “enduring empirical facts” (742-43).

These historico-critical attitudes seem to conform to Foucault’s ‘poststructural skepticism’, which “operate[s] a decentering that leaves no privilege to any center (Foucault, Archeology of Knowledge [1982], p. 205)” (744).  Foucault still strives for knowledge, but in realizing that it is imperfect, and will always be, he seeks to utilize genealogical inquiry to find ruptures in accepted histories and discourses.  It is a sort of hermeneutic, continually developing understanding that there is and will always be contingent and limited understanding that is the hallmark of Foucauldian inquiry.