Building Theory, Remaking Ourselves

I am behind on a chapter for my dissertation. The primary documents are there, the historical & cultural contexts are there, and my first draft of analysis is there. However, it still isn’t coming together. I’ve tried coaxing it with the sweet and mellow musical stylings of Enya. I’ve tried bribing it with my Aunt’s delicious pumpkin pie (note to self: pie is incredibly hard to remove from keyboards). I even, momentarily, considered throwing my computer out the window to see if the exhilaration of flight would help the chapter find its shape.

Instead, I picked up a book and read.

In times like these, I return, again and again, to the theorists who give me hope. Who challenge canonical definitions of scholarship, history, and theory. Who live their theory everyday. Black and third world feminists whose works are forgotten and ignored, relegated and downgraded to merely “storytelling” or “memoir.” bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldúa, Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, Cherríe Moraga, Hortense Spillers, Toni Cade Bambara, Chandra Monhanty, Chela Sandoval, Dionne Brand, and many others to whom I am forever indebted.

I’ve written here before about historical methods and the importance of theorizing our historical work. I believe it is imperative to re-define what it means to do history in and through our work. We must challenge ourselves to better account for the experiences of marginalized people, to better consider power and privilege, and to create space for expansive definitions and ways of knowing. These feminists of color have taught me how to examine the myriad forms of oppression in our culture. On an abstract level in my scholarship and on a personal level — interrogating own whiteness in relation to the other axes of power I simultaneously experience.

So, it is AnaLouise Keating who helped give the chapter some shape. She challenges us to examine the ways that we fetishize and exoticize feminists of color’s writing while not taking their theory seriously.

This Bridge Called My Back is now often mandatory reading in women’s studies classes; however, it is usually read as an artifact, a primary document to be analyzed rather than a set of theoretical texts to be engaged with.

So too, she argues, “intersectionality” has become an empty term where “references to intersectionality are often used superficially, to mark difference yet re-center gender” (p. 37). In doing so, “the language of intersectionality, its very invocation, it seems, largely substitutes for intersectional analysis itself” (Puar, 2012, p. 53). Keating and Puar rightly critique the scholarly practices of white feminists here. It is not enough to recognize difference, we must interrogate the ways that race, class, gender, and sexuality are mutually constituted in different historical and cultural contexts.

Because the intersectional analyses theorized in This Bridge Called My Back were created from lived experiences of these cultural intersections, we must take them seriously to build theories that attend to power and cultural formation.

I’ve written here before about the debates within sport history about the role of theory in historical analysis. At the annual convention of the North American Society for Sport History, you’ll attend sessions ranging from chronological to social to cultural histories. Sport History was recently critiqued by scholars in History for its lack of engagement with cultural context and issues of power. As Roderick Ferguson reminds us in Aberrations in Black, “historicity engages an analysis of the intersections of class, gender, sexuality, and race… the racialized regulations of gender and sexuality constitute political, economic, cultural, and epistemological formations” (p. 143).

To be clear, there are many sport historians doing this work (a lot of which you can read here on this blog!). However, I’m not going to review this scholarship. Instead, I want to think through how my own work has shifted and how I challenge myself to be more accountable.

Keating highlights three key lessons from This Bridge Called My Back:

  1. Making connections through difference
  2. Positing radical interrelatedness
  3. Listening with raw openness

In La Prieta, Gloria Anzaldúa begins to imagine El Mundo Zurdo (the left-handed world). She tries to reconcile all the bad in the world with her ability to create change.

 I believe that by changing ourselves we change the world, that travelling El Mundo Zurdo path is a path of two-way movement – a going deep into the self and an expanding out into the world, a simultaneous recreation of the self and a reconstruction of society.

And yet, she honestly and openly admits that she is “confused  as to how to do this.” She is distraught by the violence perpetrated against women of color.

The responsibility is not hers. People of color bear the brunt of systemic oppression in this culture. Those of us with more privilege have the most work to do; the most self-reflection and analysis of the ways we’ve learned to understand and navigate the world.

In her poem published in This Bridge Called My Back Rosario Morales reminds me that the short hand “’white & middle class’ stands for a kind of politics. Color and class don’t define people or politics” (p. 91, emphasis in original). I am guilty of this slippage often in my writing where I talk a lot about “white, middle class notions” of sex, gender, and sexuality.

While many white, middle class people subscribe to and fit within cultural norms, many do not. However, our culture teaches us to define differences as deviations from what Audre Lorde calls the “mythical norm, which… is usually defined as white, thin, male, young, heterosexual, christian, and financially secure” (quoted in Keating, 2013, p. 43). Instead of examining how the cultural norms came to be and naming it as such, I use the tidy short hand “white & middle class” to define a particular conservative notion of politics dedicated to reinforcing the status quo and upholding power relationships. What I really mean is that dominant notions of sex, gender, and sexuality privilege and promote certain ways of being along hierarchical, binary lines.

So, I go back into my work and find those places, sit with it, and work on more precise ways of describing and explaining cultural formations. In my next post, I’ll further discuss the dissertation chapter I’ve alluded to here. I’ll examine “passing” and the ways I’ve revised my thinking and my writing after spending important time building theory with feminists of color. I’ll unpack Elaine Ginsberg’s argument that

 Passing is about identities: their creation or imposition, their adoption or rejection, their accompanying rewards or penalties. Passing is also about the boundaries established between identity categories and about the individual and cultural anxieties induced by boundary crossing. Finally, passing is about specularity: the visible and invisible, the seen and the unseen (p. 2)

Cathryn Lucas is working on a dissertation that challenges dominant modes of understanding transgender subjectivity and embodiment. You can reach them at cathryn-lucas@uiowa.edu or on twitter @cathryn_lucas

One thought on “Building Theory, Remaking Ourselves

  1. Pingback: Seen and Unseen | Sport in American History

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