Monday, May 16, 2011

Social & Political Philosophy: bell hooks & Judith Butler

bell hooks (1952 – present)

Born Gloria Jean Watkins, bell hooks (yes, spelled lower case on purpose) is a feminist and social philosopher who argues that class, gender and race are complexly connected. Critical of second wave 60s feminism focusing on sexism to the neglect of racism and the gap between the rich and the poor, she labeled herself a womanist (not in spell check, but now added to my dictionary) and argued much like Foucault did with Chomsky that power, even resistance movements, reinscribes itself and thus feminism can itself be a marginalizing force. This is also similar to Judith Butler, who views culture and feminism as a complex and not as a simple struggle between the forces of good and evil. While feminism made gains in the 60s and continues to do so today, bell hooks was critical of the movement as it was populated mostly by white college women who are upper and middle class, live in first world countries such as the US and UK, and disconnected from the lives of many women who are impoverished, are unable to attend college or a good career, and who are overwhelmingly of European descent. Consider the shows criticized by feminists today, such as Ali McBeal, Sex and the City, and Bridget Jones’ Diary.

One of the most frequently cited sources of the third wave of feminism, bell hooks argues that feminism is for everyone, not just middle and upper class college girls and career minded women. Growing up first in segregated schools and then in predominantly white schools, she saw firsthand that progressives and educators can support prejudice while fighting for change. She studied at UC Santa Cruz and began teaching in 1976 at USC, then later at Santa Cruz, Yale and SF State. She first wrote poetry under her grandmother’s name, Bell Hooks, later keeping the name as she wrote nonfictional essays and books. One of her early and most famous books is Ain’t I A Woman? Black Women and Feminism (1981), which examines the dual marginalization of black women in a patriarchal and racist society. The title is inspired by Sojourner Truth, a black abolitionist and feminist living in the late 1800s whose speech Ain't I a Woman is a celebrated work of women’s rights. She is critical of black men’s sexism towards black women, the marginalization of the poor by the powerful, and white racism and white supremacism in culture and media.

While some are critical of her work, like Foucault she is suspicious of any side that calls itself the true and the objective, including feminist and black consciousness movements. For this, many call her, as they do Foucault and Butler, a post-modernist, a skeptic of conceptions of absolute truth and a believer in perspectivism and historicism, that truth is always in a particular perspective situated in a particular time and place. This is similar to Trotsky and Heidegger in so far as power and knowledge must continuously transform themselves. A movement such as feminism must thus be continuously critical of itself and understand itself as a diverse group of various strategies and perspectives. I am particularly inspired by her view of education and teaching. She argues that schools can operate as mind control centers that breed conformity and complacency with injustice such as institutional racism and sexism, but they should operate as open spaces where individuals are invited to question their culture, assumptions and ideas.


Judith Butler (1956 – present)

Another celebrated source of feminist philosophy, particularly post-structuralist and post-modernist third wave feminism which is critical of power like Foucault, is Judith Butler, a professor at UCB and one of the most famous feminist thinkers today. She wrote her thesis at Yale on Hegel and understanding individuality in French history. Like bell hooks, she began to question feminism and its assumptions, particularly the monolithic “us vs. them” mentality that is unreflective and untransparent not only in its assumptions but in its masking the diversity of the feminist movement.

A political philosopher beyond the focus on feminism, I myself saw her give a recent talk (in jeans and a black t-shirt in front of a well dressed audience) on Palestinians and how their suffering is perceived and framed in the US and UK, particularly on how suicide bombers understand themselves and their actions and how they are understood by outsiders. This is very similar to her work on gender in locating truth in a human body as a performance in time and space. As she is Jewish, she has been praised for this, her most recent work by pro-Palestinian groups and opposed by pro-Israel groups and authors as a traitor and fool. I particularly admire thinkers who stand up against what they believe are injustices of their own culture and people.

Butler’s famous feminist idea is performative gender, that gender, and all identity, is a performance. Wearing a dress, applying make-up and watching certain types of TV shows are obvious examples of how traditional women’s gender is performed. In her most famous book, Gender Trouble, she particularly uses Foucault as inspiration to critically examine gender and how it is prescribed and reinscribed through the actions of people as they identify themselves with a particular gender. Like Hegel and Foucault, this is a historical view of truth that suggests that gender and identity are cultural constructs. Like Foucault and Fanon, Butler is critical of binary divisions and how they limit our understandings of ourselves and others. Like bell hooks, Butler argues that supporting feminism means criticizing binary distinctions such as women vs. men rather than supporting them. Given a diverse population and the complexity of politics and history, human beings limit themselves through their understanding of identity and its complexity.

For example, men come to see certain actions as macho, and they identify these with masculinity and heterosexuality as individuals in a cultural coherence such that their performance of their own identities and individualities are stylized and polarized. Thus, crying becomes something feminine or homosexual, in opposition to the masculine and heterosexual. A male individual, inauthentically as Heidegger might say, would believe that he is doing what he naturally wants without critically reflecting on the fact that he has helped participate in his own enclosure in an identity that limits his individuality and possibilities.