Sunday, August 10, 2008

Michèle Le Doeuff, The Sex of Knowing

I recently read Michèle Le Doeuff's The Sex of Knowing (in translation). At its heart is a critique of difference feminism based on a historical observation: that women have been excluded from structures of knowledge, not because women have a different and undervalued way of knowing, but because they are women. The special kinds of knowing that have been attributed to women are not stable across history. The pattern that we see across them, Le Doeuff argues, is that these modes of knowing are devalued. Then they are attributed to women. She writes:
We are the little sisters who get the broken toys, the worn-out ideas, and the signs that are being discarded. However, the gift is snatched back when what appeared to be an ordinary stone is revealed as a diamond in the rough or something that could pass for one. The practice of attributing these negative values to women is constant in form, even if the precise content varies ad libitum. Women can be taxed with anything at all, in a way that is both arbitrary and not accidental, provided that at some point in history it has had a negative value. This phenomenon did not escape the attention of Gabrielle Suchon, who notes in 1693: “When desires are seen as marks of need and poverty, they will be attributed by the score to women and girls, since people are always ready to turn unpleasant things over to them.” She has discerned a kind of law, to which we may add a corollary underscoring the historic fluctuation of these gifts. In the seventeenth century, desire was in disrepute, and so women were said to have it in excess; today, it has been revalued by psychoanalysis, which even sees it as a sign of mental health. Since then, it has become a male characteristic, even in the writings of female psychoanalysts. (17)

The answer to women's systematic exclusion from institutions, Le Doeuff argues, is not to try to revalue failed intellectual modes. The answer is to insist once and for all that women can and do know things -- not intuit, not feel, but know, reason, and understand. (I may have more to say on this soon.)

Her point is well argued, although I don't think she gives difference feminism its due. Le Doeuff is at pains to distinguish between the modes of knowledge that have been called "masculine," which she argues are no such thing, and the ideologies that have kept the sciences largely populated by and entirely attributed to men.

One of her key arguments revolves around a critique of Evelyn Fox Keller's classic essay "Gender and Science," which reads Bacon's Advancement of Learning as envisioning a masculine subject pursuing violent knowledge of a feminine object. Le Doeuff happens to be a Bacon scholar, and she observes that Keller fails to read the original Latin. It is the translations on which Keller relies, Le Doeuff argues, that superimpose a masculinist ideology on Baconian science, which is itself neutral (149-50).

It's an effective take-down of the particulars of Keller's argument, but not a response to the broader point of "Gender and Science," which takes Bacon's wording as a metonym for a pervasive assumption in the sciences that by no means depends on Bacon.

Le Doeuff wants to say that science doesn't really fashion itself as masculinist per se; it just gets read that way all too often (and she readily points to other instances of Bacon being a raging sexist). But this ignores a problem of cultural dissemination. If science is couched in a masculinist ideology heartily espoused by its central theorists, even if it need not be masculinist, it effectively is.

In any case, Le Doeuff also elides the fact that, in the main, she and Keller almost entirely agree. As deserving of critique as some of the worst essentialist excesses of difference feminism are, Keller isn't guilty of them. Keller isn't out to prove that women by definition can't do science. Keller is a scientist herself. She's arguing that science has been theorized more or less formally as a masculinist pursuit. Thus:
A circular process of mutual reinforcement is established in which what is called scientific receives extra validation from the cultural preference for what is called masculine, and, conversely, what is called feminine -- be it a branch of knowledge, a way of thinking, or woman herself -- becomes further devalued by its exclusion from the special social and intellectual value placed on science and the model science provides for all intellectual endeavors. (Keller 202)
In fact, in this essay, Keller's a bit more willing to separate "real" science from the ideologies that surround it than I'm comfortable with (a problem she revisits in "Gender and Science: An Update").

There's another, non-essentialist, pragmatic argument for the idea that female knowledge could improve science, perhaps best articulated by example. Martha McClintock's 1971 paper establishing that when women live together, their menstrual cycles synchronize. This was groundbreaking in that it demonstrated a connection between a biological function and social interaction. But also? This is something that I and every other girl who went to summer camp knew long before we'd ever heard of Martha McClintock. (Of course, historical contingencies were involved in my own experience.) It's a phenomenon that men in science hadn't thought to investigate, because everyone knows that if you even whisper the word "tampon!" near a man, he may shrivel up and die, or at the very least lose his manhood. Le Doeuff does an excellent job of pointing out the ways in which the "object" of science may in fact know something about herself, despite claims to the contrary, in her extensive second chapter.

I found Le Doeuff overly dismissive of difference feminism, and of literary studies, but one of the real pleasures of the book is her sarcasm. There's a strong way in which The Sex of Knowing retreads the ground of A Room of One's Own, examining more systematically the phenomenon Virginia Woolf wryly points out in 1928/9:
Have you any notion of how many books are written about women in the course of one year? Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe? [...] Sex and its nature might well attract doctors and biologists; but what was more surprising and difficult of explanation was the fact that sex -- woman, that is to say -- also attracts agreeable essayists, light-fingered novelists, young men who have taken the M.A. degree; men who have taken no degree; men who have no apparent qualification save that they are not women.(27)
Le Doeuff wants to find out why women and knowledge have been defined as mutually exclusive; Woolf seeks the answer to the same question about women and writing. Like Woolf, she skewers bald instances of male vanity, like Joseph de Maistre's pronouncement (1808) that
Women have never created a masterpiece in any field. They did not create the Iliad, or the Aeneid, or Phaedra, or Athaliah, or the Pantheon, or the Venus of Medici [etc., etc.]. They invented neither algebra, nor the telescope, nor the heat pump, [etc.]..."(qtd. in Le Doeuff 170)
"De Maistre," Le Doeuff points out,
did not invent the telescope himself, nor did he write the Iliad; but, when he affirms that the 'masterpiece' is always a masculine product, he can imagine for an instant that algebra is almost his own creation. Generally, the exclusion of female creators from the mythic representation of inventiveness allows any man to take himself for an Einstein or Leonardo da Vinci, without having to manipulate an equation or handle a paintbrush, and even without the slightest interest in painting or physics. (173)
Like Woolf, Le Doeuff is brilliantly sarcastic. Stories of Le Doeuff's own career occasionally pop up, like the time she was nearly laughed out of the room for suggesting that Mary Wollstonecraft be included in an encyclopedia of eighteenth century English philosophers (because the rights of women, don't you know, aren't important like the rights of "man"). Nobody is spared the snark, and especially not sexist philosophers. For instance, she mentions Jacques Lacan merely in passing as someone "whose fine remark 'woman is not' or 'there is no such entity as woman' is sometimes used to dismiss you when you want to create a program in women's studies" (33).

Although I have significant reservations, I found this an enlightening and interesting book. The problematic of gender and knowledge casts light on unexpected questions, as, for example, the controversy a few years ago over head scarves in the French schools. Le Doeuff points out that the controversy over whether to throw girls out of school over a slip of fabric reveals the fragility of those girls' right to be educated -- the ease with which their right may be denied. Examples like these bring home the urgency of reasserting women's capacity for and right to knowledge qua knowledge. Martha McClintock recalls,
[At] Harvard, [...] because I was a woman, I was barred from the stacks at the Widener Library. I remember a moment when the chairman of the psychology department took his first-year students to lunch at the faculty club. I had to sit at a card table in the vestibule because I wasn't allowed into the dining room.
Le Doeuff's book reminds us that even though, as McClintock says, "[t]hings have changed," there are still beadles all too ready to chase our female students off the grass.

* * * * *

Keller, Evelyn Fox. "Gender and Science." In Sandra Harding and Merill B. Hintikka, eds. Discovering Reality: Feminist Perspectives on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Methodology, and Philosophy of Science. Boston: Kluwer-D. Reidel, 1983. First published in Psychoanalysis and Contemporary Thought 1:3 (1978).

---. "Gender and Science: An Update." In Keller, Secrets of Life, Secrets of Death: Essays on Language, Gender, and Science. New York: Routledge, 1992.

Le Doeuff, Michèle. The Sex of Knowing, trans. Kathryn Hamer and Lorraine Code. New York: Routledge, 2003.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One's Own. Annotated and Introd. Susan Gubar. 1929; New York: Harcourt, 2005.

1 comment:

Maria Cecire said...

sounds like an interesting book. should tell you though that there was a study last year that suggested that menstrual synchrony wasn't real: