Saturday, January 10, 2009

N. T. Wrong Targets Biblical Feminism

I almost entitled this post, "N. T. Wrong Is a biblical feminist (because Anne Carson is also one of his 'Favourite' poets)." But I realized we might get into discussions about the proper spelling of favorite and whether eats shoots & leaves is really on target at all for the conversation. That realization (which my British English teacher in high school insists is a "realisation") is not too far from what N. T. is asking. Who gets to define these things? Are we stuck with Illinois Republican Representative Henry Hyde's decade-plus-old statement as he sought to target President Bill Clinton for impeachment? I guess you have to list and litanize and catalogue every possible circumstance to have standards for due process. It's like pornography. You know it when you see it.

N. T., Thank you for asking me in such kind and thoughtful ways:

" 'the reclaim-the-Bible type of feminist criticism' . . . feminist

What do you mean by this?"

How can I give you a rigid, straightforward answer? What if instead I replied, "What do you mean by sexism?" Or by Aristotle's phallogocentric binary? Or by what a feminist biblical scholar has called "perpetrators of androcentric patriarchy [which certainly] applies to feminists as well, especially to those who by race and class are caught in the double web of being both oppressed and oppressor"?

If I only replied to you that way, then I might only be playing the postmodernism game of winning against modernism. (The death of postmodernism comes when modernism dies. Pomo depends on modernism. The leech cannot survive except as a parasite. Why would it?)

But feminisms tend not to be dependent (entirely) on bad men or on oppression by the world of men. Translation, by analogy, does not entirely depend on what the "original" text says or on what the "author" intended once upon a time. So we're closing in on the "target" as if stalking and hunting something wild. I'm playing with you.

"Simply put," bell hooks defines feminism in contrast to sexism. Black men, likewise, can and do define themselves in relation to sexism too. Nancy Mairs says best why feminisms are not a binary, with her ironic feminist binary; notice her NOT: Aristotle's binary "is not women’s language, since women, for a variety of reasons, live in a polymorphic rather than a dimorphic world, a world in which the differentiation of self from other may never completely take place, in which multiple selves may engage multiply with the multiple desires of the creatures in it." I've complained that (we) feminists have to "undefine definition as something more than mere opposition and binary." This has implications for blogging and essaying and publication in biblical journals, suggests Alice Walker. And biblical scholar Carolyn Osiek has outlined biblical feminismS, at least five of them, punctuating her whole list with her own subjective perspective, another alternative(?).

Maybe an initial analogy is simpler. Sometimes I ask the ESL teachers I work with to define the "letter A" in English. They protest further, "What do you mean by..." So I try to put a bulls-eye on the target: "Okay, how do you describe the 'shape' of the 'letter a'." I'm trying to get them to essentialize (or essentialise) something that they are long-time insiders to. Something that many of their students, even adults who have never had the 'English letter A' in language, may struggle with when trying to write with a pen by hand. The teachers begin listing features of the shape. They try contrasting it with the shapes of the other 4 vowel letters or all of the other 25 letters. They admit to uppercase and to lower case, saying those two cases are "different" shapes for the very "same" letter. Somehow they see "A" and "a" as the same shape. And when an indefinite article in English, the the sonic shape has to include nasalization (or nasalisation): "an". But when we bring in the cursive hand writing, and then the type print, we have to talk of fonts and various shapes. Infinity creeps in on our defining. When does the difference stop? "And what if," I ask, "the keyboard has a broken key -- the letter A is missing or sticking or something? Could you use a substitute, say a "*" or a "^" or an "@"? Don't young native English speakers text the letter A this way?"

The principles from the analogy of the shape(S) of the letter A include these:

Those who are unfortunate insiders to the experiences of sexism, and Western Aristotelian binarying, and phallogocentric patriarchy begin to get not only the shapes but also the value(S) of feminisms. One of the values is this kind of dialectic (a back-and-forth method too often only attributed to father Socrates by father Plato though disparaged by father Aristotle who would supplant dialectic with pure 'logic'; shhh: the secret is that probably dialectic is invented by the woman Aspasia -- a prostitute or a cultured non-Greek concubine or some other such creature with the scent of a woman taught both -- who taught the method to Pericles her lover and Socrates too). Dialectic opens up convers-ation into things very personal. The personal recognizes insiderness and outsiderness, where one has come from and where you are going too. It's hard to say you and you and nothing more. That a thing is a thing in itself. That you or that thing (i.e., "biblical feminism" or "sexism in the bible") cannot or will never ever change.

So I end with a complicated quotation of Nancy Mairs. She's published a paragraph on publication. I think the "shapeS" of "publication" are analogous to the "shapeS" of "biblical feminisms" and "lexiconS". Aristotle, and many men (and some phallogocentric women), resist these kinds of insider-outsider very-PERSONally dependent transformations:

"Publication of any sort is an intrinsically social act, 'I' having no reason to speak aloud unless I posit 'you' there listening; but your presence is especially vital if I am seeking not to disclose the economic benefits of fish farming in Zäire, or to recount the imaginary tribulations of an adulterous doctor's wife in nineteenth-century France, but to reconnect myself—now so utterly transformed by events unlike any I've experienced before as to seem a stranger even to myself—to the human community....lending materiality to my readerly ideal, transform monologue into intercourse."
--Nancy Mairs, Voice Lessons: On Becoming a (Woman) Writer


  1. Great post! TCKs do it better. My wife and two offspring are TCSs and I am an outsider trying to understand the meaning of ก ข. Ignorance is bliss. With increased knowledge comes increased suffering.

  2. TCS?? How did I do that? My wife and two offspring are TCKs. Third culture kids. Just for those who don't know.

  3. Fun comment! I bet you enjoy life with your TCKs. They can surely tell you how tough it is. Two of my TCK buds (Asian upbringings trying to adjust to US college life), while we were in the university here, took their own lives because of the toughness. But most TCKs have very rich and rewarding lives, rewarding to themselves and rewarding to others. One of my own siblings (who is raising with spouse their own TCKs), was back in the US and came to my dissertation defense. My parents came too. So when one of the profs on the committee asked for an example of "overhearing" and of "feminist translating," I pointed to my sibling in the room, and told one of the word-inventions we had together: Southern (not Northern) Vietnamese language layered on an American English phrase of ours (about something only our rather abusive father knew of). It's a pretty innocent little thing, the language play across cultures and dialects and as an inside joke. But that's about as complex as the TCK life gets. I do have good friends (he's Finnish, she's Swedish) who live here in the US, where their children are TCKS--the kids are more than Finnish, more than Swedish, more than N. Americans in the South. The "get" and "make" so much more than we know or can get or can make. (When Mairs says that the world of women tends to be polymorphic, then you're right to bring up TCKs!)


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