Feminism and Alcoholism

I recently heard a paper at the SEWSA entitled that purported to focus on the intersectionality of feminism and alcoholism. I was intrigued, and had high hopes. The beginning of the presentation shed light on the true nature of alcoholism, emphasizing that it is a medical condition rather than merely a lack of will-power. The presenter then discussed similarities between rape culture and substance abuse, victim blaming, and the stigma attached to the labels “feminist” and “alcoholic”.

So far, so good.

Unfortunately, I felt as though the paper did not meet its full potential. The presenter stated that she had attended a few AA (alcoholics anonymous) meetings with her newly sober partner, and had had her “feminist alarms” go off. Essentially, she was struck by the use of the term “him” in the 12 steps and 12 traditions of AA to refer to God or a higher power.

For her, this meant that AA was patriarchal.

Additionally, she saw the emphasis on anonymity as encouraging a continuation of the stigma and preventing individuals from self identifying.

In the AA literature (such as in the Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions,  the supplemental text to the basic AA book) there is a great deal of discussion surrounding this foundational principle. The original intention is to prevent power imbalances (based on identity or occupation outside of the AA rooms) and give individuals who attend the meetings an opportunity to de-center the self. It is my opinion that many AA’s would see this encouragement of anonymity not as increasing stigma that perpetuates the patriarchal and ableist status quo, but instead as an opportunity to attempt to disrupt and provide an alternative to the power imbalances that exist outside of the AA rooms.

The principle of anonymity refers not simply to keeping one’s status as a recovering alcoholic quiet in the “real world”, but additionally to the attempt to keep recovery the sole purpose of AA.

Sure, power imbalances from the outside world are going to sneak in. After all, if you are a white man who is used to speaking over others, that is not going to change just because you walk into an AA meeting. AA is a microcosm of the wider society, so problematic relations between individuals are guaranteed to occur. I am not trying to argue that AA is a perfect utopian society.

I was astounded by the lack of critical inquiry that seemed to go into this paper. The presenter advocated for self-disclosure and the telling of one’s own story (which is one of the critiques she had about anonymity), yet it appeared as though she had not actually talked to any members of AA outside of her husband. She claimed that it was an oppressive structure because the founders had been two men, and the text referred to God as a male. I think that if she had spent more time interviewing and talking with individuals (especially minorities) who had been members of AA for a wider range of time periods her research findings would have been drastically different.

She’s not wrong that the original founders were men, and the earliest forms of AA catered mostly to men. It is also true that the 12 steps refer to “God as we understand him”. But I don’t think that this makes Alcoholics Anonymous unequivocally sexist. I think that an approach that incorporates concepts like José Esteban Muñoz’s disidentification, in which minority groups engage with dominant discourses (such as misogyny, racism, etc.) in complex and nuanced ways. I think it would be extremely interesting to see what the presenter could find in examining how marginalized people use some of the concepts in AA that could be seen as sexist in ways that to them feel positive.

That is a paper I want to see.

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SECSOR 2016

Last week I attended the 2016 SECSOR  (Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion) Conference in Atlanta.

I presented in one of the “Women, Gender, and Religion” sections, along with four others discussing the intersections of gender and nationality.

One paper in particular that stuck with me was Pamela Ayo Yetunde’s “A New Spelling of Our Names: The Psycho-Spiritual Experiences of African-American Buddhist Lesbians”. (A link to some of her writing can be found here)

Yetunde’s approach was ethnographic (as were all of the panelists other than myself), and approached the religiosity of these women in a way that I did not expect. Her data included those who self-identified as Buddhist, but additionally looked at the ways in which the individuals described their beliefs, worldviews, and practices, labeling them as Buddhist if they fit into what could be described as Buddhist theology.

A greal of the paper seemed to be supporting the notion that a person can hold multiple religious identities, and that these do not necessarily need to be in conflict with one another. This is a notion that I think is very interesting, and one that would be worth considering in more detail as I continue my studies.

I don’t have a lot to add at this time. I was at first dismayed that all of the other panelists were addressing contemporary theological communities using anthropological and ethnographic methods, while my subject matter was rather ancient, and I took a theoretical approach. But through my brief conversation with Yetunde I saw how they could be connected. My paper dealt with the violent exclusion and othering of one group by another, and hers dealt with a way in which it seemed like certain individuals were able to bridge gaps between practices and traditions that at first seem irreconcilable.

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Kripal’s “Biological Gods”

Jeffrey Kripal, a professor at Rice University, came to speak at my university earlier this week for our annual Witherspoon Religious Studies lecture.

His lecture, “Biological Gods: Science (fiction) and Some Emergent Mythologies”, focused on three specific works by individuals who identify themselves as “Experiencers”, or those who have had alien or UFO encounters.

Kripal discussed how these kinds of experiences are socially scripted into our psyches. A contemporary tale of an alien encounter is the modern equivalent of ancient tales of divine encounters. For Kripal, this scripting doesn’t mean that the experiences are necessarily invalid (though he remains neutral, neither advocating for the objective reality of UFO sightings or alien encounters nor dismissing them as hogwash).

As I understood it, he thinks that it makes perfect sense that a culture so enmeshed with technology would perceive these supernatural experiences through a technological lens. Just as a Catholic Catholic child in, say, the 1500’s would naturally see a Marian apparition.

He finds that these seemingly radically different experiences are linked; they are an emergence of the scripted form of some sort of encounter that is inexpressible. The person sees a UFO (or Jesus’ face in a piece of toast) because they expect to, but this is the result of some sort of other-worldly touch that only has the option of emerging through the lens of something we are already familiar with.

I think Kripal’s approach is interesting. He advocates for putting the mysterious (or the divine) back into the study of religion. While I think that this can create some issues (some might immediately jump to the realm of the miraculous when attempting to explain religious phenomena), but I think it is an interesting idea.

Religious Studies is so often incredibly depressing, Kripal noted. I’m afraid I agree. Though I love the field with all my heart, sometimes I feel like it is missing an air of wonder and incredulity.

Maybe it’s just me, but at times I feel that everything is reduced to a theory or explanation, and all of the amazing “stuff” that makes up the so much of what we study is ignored or extinguished.

What would it mean to attempt to reinvigorate the study? How could this be done carefully? Could it be done at all at this point?

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reparative reading

Last week I read Eve Kosovsky Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, or, You’re so Paranoid, You Probably Think This Essay is About You”.

Her critique is that so often those involved in queer (as well as feminist) theoretical work approach subject matter in a paranoid fashion. As she refers to it, many of us carry around intellectual baggage “under a label such as ‘the hermeneutics of suspicion’”.

What she means is that they approach these works- whether they be books, articles, films, tv shows, etc- expecting to find something “bad”.  

This piece really resonated with me. While I think that part of developing tools for critical analysis involves looking at these cultural texts and being able to pinpoint instances in which the theory we happen to be evaluating pops up, this can often go too far.

There is the danger of being unable to engage with much of popular culture for fear of finding some tiny tidbit that might be “problematic”. Eventually one approaches everything expecting to find nothing of value, ready to call out whatever might not fall into one’s perfect conception of Correctness.

I am certainly guilty of this. When I took my first class in women’s studies it was as if a whole new world was opened up to me- or at least, I was given a different lens through which to view the world- and I suddenly could see all of the sexism that permeated our culture.

Overall, I don’t think that this realization was a bad thing, for me at least.

However, I have recently been thinking about what kinds of harm this can do, specifically for me psychologically and emotionally.

If I approach everything with the intention of rooting out anything potentially negative, I can miss things that might be incredibly valuable. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m never going to find anything positive if I only have my sights set on the negative. I end up not taking notice of things that might be illuminating, or uplifting.

At the very least, I’m just mad all the time. Talk about exhausting.

I want to try, moving forward, to find what might be “reparative” within texts and experiences I encounter and engage with.

If I go in expecting to find something negative, I will. Instead, I want to endeavor to examine the texts themselves as holistic entities, each with a multitude of stories to tell. I want to see all of the parts, good and bad, and take from them concepts that might end up being of use to me, rather than solely things I can pick apart and critique.

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Talmudic Drag

In my experience, both liturgical and academic, the phrase “the Rabbis”* is often used rather loosely. Generally speaking, this is used to refer to those scholars who studied and debated oral Torah, and whose thoughts and teachings (when considered especially relevant or profound) were occasionally written down and codified within a massive tome known as the Talmud.

Many of these people are now considered famous Jewish sages. Akiva, Judah haNasi, Rav Nachman, Rashi, Maimonides (aka Rambam), etc., are all examples of scholars from a variety of different time periods that are widely taught and studied to this day.

What interests me most is the way that the Rabbis are taught and engaged with within liturgical spaces. Though they are known to be from radically different times and spaces (for example, Akiva was around in first century Judea, Maimonides lived 1138-1204 in North Africa), they are often taught side by side.

The way that the Talmud operates allows for this easily. A typical page of Talmud will have a section in the center of the page that is devoted to the actual text that is being discussed. Surrounding it are all the commentaries, each written or uttered by a different scholar, many of which arguing with or building upon another scholar’s commentary. Each of these might have been written with decades or centuries in between. The beautiful result is a sort of cross-generational debate, with scholars engaging with their predecessors long after the earlier scholars are gone.

This brings up questions about time. The Rabbis are discussed, especially liturgically, as if they all exist simultaneously, and as if specific arguments and counter-arguments are being examined at the same time. For example, if one Rabbi is responding to a previous Rabbi, it seems as though the previous Rabbi would be able to see the response- though he is long dead.

I think it is interesting to view this as a sort of “temporal drag”, something J. Jack Halberstam discusses in “In a Queer Time and Place”. Though it is known that these individuals existed and wrote at varying periods of history, they are also seen as speaking through history. Time is reorganized and granted a position of lesser importance than it holds in normative life.

The existence of these Rabbis is only in the textual space of the Talmud. The development of what came to be known as Rabbinic Judaism is thought to have originated with the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E., causing many Judean people to move into exile and diasporic lands. A centralized worship site no longer existed in physical reality, so space was created through text. It could be said that (for this particular strain of Judaism) text is their home, or has been cultivated into a home in a non-normative fashion.  

* Distinct from the modern title “Rabbi”, which refers to an individual who has attended rabbinical school and earned the degree.

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fail me!

In academia we are not often given the opportunity to fail.

We are definitely not encouraged to.

I am taking a class on teaching religious studies and the humanities this semester, and the professor brought up an interesting point on the first day of classes.

Would it be possible to see failure as a good thing?

In our writing, we are always supposed to form a thesis and support and develop it in a well-thought out paper, which ends with a neat conclusion that summarizes how we have successfully proved our claim.

These papers are seen as problems to be solved, and the solution should never contradict the analysis- you’re not allowed to spend 10, 15, 20 pages playing with ideas and analysis and application and come to the conclusion that none of what you have been doing works or matters.

There has to be a purpose, and it has to solve some problem in order to be considered productive.

This very much echoes Robin James’ analysis of resilience discourse in her book “Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism”. In the book she describes the use and subsumation of narratives of overcoming within the economy of neoliberalism. The energy of dealing with a hardship and coming out on top is now being used as a kind of feedback loop- the amount of resilience you produce supports and reaffirms the racist, sexist, ableist, etc., system. In brief, James’ criticism of resilience proposes the solution of melancholy, which she describes as “going into death”. This doesn’t necessarily literally mean dying, but it can mean dying in the incorrect way or at the incorrect time.

“Resilience is the contemporary update of mourning; instead of conquering damage we recycle it. Damage isn’t a bug to eliminate, but a feature to exploit. In this context, melancholia is not the failure to resolve  a lack but a misfired resilience, the failure to bounce back enough and/or in the right direction” (19)

I would like to argue that what we view as “failure” in academia can instead be seen as a form of counter-resilience, an act of resistance. If I spend 20 pages of a paper working with an analysis that ultimately doesn’t make sense, I have failed only in the sense that I have not produced some easily summarizable conclusion that can be recycled and used in the next person’s analysis, the next student’s paper.

If we are, as bell hooks would advocate, to view the teaching and learning process as revolutionary and as an act of resistance, then we should be viewing failure as a good thing, as a positive force.

We should try to fail. We might end up succeeding.

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i hate my body

A few weeks ago in my class on Theorizations of Sexuality we watched the music video for the song “My Body” by bottoms, a self described “gender-problematizing goth dance band”. This music video.

To briefly summarize, the song is electro, layering the phrases “I hate my body” and “I’m serious”.

The video itself features a conventionally attractive feminine presenting person, alone in a high-end apartment. She is cutting and juicing oranges and playing with a knife while staring seductively into the camera. At varying points the video cuts to her staring off into space for an extended time, touching herself in a bathtub and in front of a fireplace, cutting her leg with a straight razor, and finally cutting off one of her breasts, squeezing it into the home-made orange juice, and drinking it.  

I was struck mostly by the varying reactions from my classmates and have been thinking a lot about the video and its implications since.

The first person to speak up after we had finished watching stated that she was saddened by the video. What she had noticed, based upon her experience as a straight cis woman who often provided pastoral counseling to LGBTQ youth was that so many of them engaged in self-harm behavior. A valid observation, but not what I thought was most important about the video.

Another person in the class saw oppressive femininity. He, a gay cis man, experienced the lethargy and self-inflicted violence as markers of how women are coerced to behave in our society. Also valid, but something was still missing for me.

The juxtaposition of the lyrics “I hate my body” and the obvious (sexual) pleasure of the person in the video stood out to me. It was a reclamation of pleasure and of pain. It seemed to be moving away and criticizing the form of liberal feminism that is prevalent today in which women are encouraged to love their bodies regardless of size or shape. This is not the experience for many women, especially women who are trans or disabled, and the distancing from physical and psychological pain can be alienating. It tells these women that they are “doing womanhood wrong” if they experience dysphoria or discomfort with their bodies.

I imagine that part of my reaction was different because I immediately saw that the individual featured in the video was wearing prosthetic breasts. This probably made the scene with the cutting/juicing of the breast less shocking to me.

It also conjured up questions of realness. I was less shocked because I realized that the breasts weren’t “real”. But what if they were? How did the “realness” of the body in question change how I reacted? How does what we perceive as “real” in terms of body parts or identity change how we react to gender non-conforming individuals in the “real” world?

Perhaps this is related to the construction of a “third space” outside of the agency/oppressed dichotomy that is discussed by Alexander Weheliye in Habeas Viscus. Those in minority positions, especially women and especially black trans women, are criticized as complicit within racist and sexist socialization (see critiques of Beyonce, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, etc).

The criticism here is that these women are playing into or catering to the male gaze. However, given the intersectional nature of the oppressions that they face, it might not be feasible for these women to be in spaces in which they do not face objectification of some kind. Cis white women might be able to enter spaces in which they are taken seriously as individuals, as academics, as subjects, but is this really and truly possible for women of color or trans women? Perhaps it is not possible for these groups to have unambiguous relationships to their own bodies. White (cis) liberal feminism advocates loving one’s body, but maybe this is not a feasible goal for everyone. Maybe it is not even a goal at all. By queering this binary understanding of pleasure and pain “the bottoms” are sending a message to liberal feminism. The woman in the music video made eye contact for a large part of the video, silently telling us that she knew we were watching. She was performing for us, demonstrating sexual pleasure from the pain she was inflicting upon herself. Even when she wasn’t looking at the camera she was performing, acknowledging that individuals such as herself were never really free from outside gaze.

The message was that she did not care. There was a freedom in her relationship to the audience and to her own body. Her pleasure (and pain) was both her own and performed for our benefit, but we could read it however we wanted. It wasn’t for us, but it wasn’t only for her either.
It was in between, in this third space of not quite object, not quite subject.

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