Tuesday, August 29, 2006

"Deadly Innocence"

...or, "Feminism and the Mythology of Sin." Is the title of a book by Angela West that I am probably going to keep coming back to; I'm already a bit more than halfway through and strongly tempted to just quote the whole damn thing verbatim here, it's so bang-on-the-nose wrt what's been happening here online: the "Wars."

as it happens, she's not a sex-positive feminist or a radical feminist. thus far she hasn't really had much to say about porn or prostitution or anything remotely sexual at all, although it looks like she touches on the subject of sex for a bit later in; her main theme is violence. She is a UK-based Christian feminist whose frame of reference is primarily based on 1) feminist Christian and post-Christian thealogy and 2) an experience at a womens' anti-nuke/peace camp in Greenham in the early 80's.

This is her primary thesis, although there are many valuable sub-theses embedded in here as well (not least of which an illuminating discussion on race and class, which I'll get to later on, I think):

Sometime in the mid 1970s in Britain, women were declared innocent. All charges against them were to be dropped. Women were not guilty and never had been.

But what exactly was the charge? Perhaps a little background to the case is necessary--the case of the feminists v. the patriarchs. The feminists took it as their task to reverse the verdict of patriarchal religion and society which for so long had held women responsible for most of the ills of our mortal state. They exposed this verdict as a miscarriage of justice, and, speaking from the dock, as it were, they endeavored to overturn this verdict and reverse it. They took the finger that was pointing accusingly at women and pointed it back at the accusers. It is men, they declared, and not women, who are responsible for all the mortal ills of our society. They have had the power (including the share of power they stole from women) and they have abused it; right through history they have abused it for their own ends and for the sake of maintaining the exclusion and exploitation of women. It is they who stand condemned--women are innocent.

Feminist theology was at the forefront of this exposé of patriarchal religion, and as it began to make its appearance on the scene in Britain, its American pioneers, Rosemary Ruethers, Mary Daly et al, revealed to us how men had made God in their own image; how they had tried to lay upon women the burden of guilt for human weakness and evil that they could not cope with in themselves. Woman had been framed in the person of Eve--that creature made from Adam's rib...On her was now foisted the full responsibility of the human race...The model of Mary's submissive purity and the image of Eve's wayward sinfulness are both, as the feminist theologians explained to us, a patriarchal trap which women in future must strive to avoid...

Those of us who received the message did so wide-eyed at the nature of the revelation...In those days, the meaning of liberation seemed very clear to us. The task was to expose this ancient cover-up, to name the injustice that was being done to us...Fired by this feminist faith, we began to spread the good news that henceforth women could go in peace, and be free from the crippling guilt caused by dualist male theology which limited our autonomy and held us in check for centuries...

As I write about it, I remember once again the excitement of it all; the atmosphere of the small non-hierarchical groups, who aspired to raise women's consciousness, to create an embodied theology based on women's spiritual qualities, and fashion a politics where women were no longer powerless but exercised their free choise to promote peace, life, non-violence, and respect for the earth.

So what happened to this lovely dream? How come that when I hear the familiar rhetoric...these days I no longer experience the stimulating wind of the spirit, but rather the stifling air of the ghetto? When the text extols the woman/nature connection, I drop it in favor of a good novel. When the speaker stressed special female fitness for bringing about peace on earth, I stifle a yawn. When I'm told about how women eschew male power games and hierarchies, and naturally prefer mutually empowering relationships, a glazed look appears in my eyes. There seems to be some signs here of a serious loss of faith.

...Such attitudes would shock and sadden many of us who were active in the feminist politics of the seventies and eighties, and those who have come up in that tradition. Yet it seems that if we want to "keep faith" with those days, if we think that there is something worth passing on, we will need to be concerned with my question: what exactly was the nature of the faith we shared in those days? Could there be some connection between my loss of faith and the lack of faith among many young women? Or are we prepared to put it down to the cynicism of middle age and the ignorance and prejudice of youth? Or can we, with the wisdom of hindsight, now see what is worth preserving among the things which we held dear in those days and what we can afford to let pass away with those times? Since feminism, like all traditions worthy of the name, is a self-questioning tradition, it is surely appropriate that we undertake this examination. If we cannot interrogate our own faith, whether buoyant or failing, what hope do we have of communicating it to women who do not share it?

...My experience of the events at Greenham led me to doubt that women can be held to be "innocent" of history. Yet the presumption of female innocence was implict [emphasis mine] in much feminist theology of the time. It was this same theology that directed me to personal experience as an essential resource for feminist theological exploration. And ironically it was this personal experience that now in turn enabled me to formulate the question:...in what sense are we "innocent" of all that happened before we were born? Are we not born into a community of language through which we inherit the sins of the mothers--and yes, of the fathers too? I began to suspect that in the very act of affirming our innocence we appropriate the structure of our particular community of language--of Western post-Enlightenment culture--and thus also our inheritance in its characteristic structures of violence and repression...

I became aware that feminist theology's pursuit of liberation from guilt through the maintenance of a claim to innocence is part of a very ancient pattern--but one that nevertheless has a multitude of specific modern manifestations. Basically it is a pattern that can be found in both pre-Christian and Christian forms, as well as non-Christian and post-Christian versions. What marks them all is the hunger for purity or innocence, and its inevitable outcome in the election of the scapegoat. [emphasis mine]. This is the one or ones who are charged with the role of carrying away everything that spoils the picture that we have re-drawn of ourselves. And so the inevitable cycle of violence is once more set on its course...

36 comments:

Kristin said...

"If we cannot interrogate our own faith, whether buoyant or failing, what hope do we have of communicating it to women who do not share it?" This is precisely what frustrates me reading some radfem blogs as a novice. Yes - I am an asshole. I am widely uneducated in the politics of my own gender as we/I face the world around us. That said, it is boring, disappointing and unproductive for me to read blogs that spend more time microscrutinizing the character of other radfem bloggers. It begins as discussing a common goal or concern, but once individual's perspectives are offered, the discussion becomes a vehicle for exploiting one another as 'wrong'. Questioning the root WHY of any given radfem issue is often taboo, and may brand you as a failure or a pretender, no matter how devoted you are to the common goal. Why is openly examining why we do things or why we believe things regarded as a betrayal or lack of conviction?

Sly Civilian said...

This is an official Reading List Addition now...

I see an interesting version of this in some conservative religious communities...the need to interrogate official labels (Presbyterian, Radical Feminist) means that even people with whom you may share only a few ideaological points with while have greater cultural similarity are subjected to intense scrutiny...

But if you're coming in with ideological similarities (Other Evangelical Groups, Meese Commision), and almost no cutural reference points in common...the presumption of difference exists, but almost without any serious examination. I can't figure it out...

Any chance that West has talked about Girard? From that last line there, it seems like she's setting up a reference, but I know Girard doesn't get a lot of play in feminist circles, often due to the fact that he misses the boat on gender issues.

Renegade Evolution said...

bcwoo..GOOD stuff!

Elizabeth McClung said...

I think the connection between christianity and feminism us not only the "Redeemed innocence" (in Christianity given from the divine, in feminist, from accepting a particular level of dogma) is the way both maintain a "true" answer; and though there are many camps of "true" answers, each maintains they are true and the others are heretics.

Yes, the patriarchy made God in his image, and so feminism, when it touched Christianity, made a God that had nothing to say to men, and which reflected nothing of men. Of course, the viseral reaction when I tell pastors, "Oh, you mean Jesus the lesbian?" indicates there still is a lot of emotional investment in a male God - I tell them, that we'll make an agreement, they accept my lesbian saviour and I'll accept thier male 33 year one. That never works well.

Bitch | Lab said...

i couldn't help but think of Mary Douglas's 'Purity and Danger' when I read the last paragraph.

Buttercup said...

"...feminist theology's pursuit of liberation from guilt through the maintenance of a claim to innocence is part of a very ancient pattern... And so the inevitable cycle of violence is once more set on its course..."

The author appears to be assuming (1) that there is this implicit view of woman as innocent in feminism and (2) that to hold women innocent necessarily implies that men are the wrongdoers.

I disagree with the first assumption because holding women "innocent" for all of history smacks of victimization, and seems to denies women's agency in their own lives and societies. Certainly, women have been active agents in our patriarchal society, both working to maintain and to deconstruct it.

I disagree with the second assumption because it does not follow that by recognizing gender and women's oppression (putting aside the level of women's innocence or complicity with that system of oppression) that men must be blamed for that oppression.

Feminism does NOT have to replicate the cycle of oppression and violence that is so rooted in patriarchal culture. Not because women are any better or virtuous than men. But because feminism is aimed at deconstructing and understanding how gender informs, perpetuates, and constructs our society. Through deconstructing and understanding, you can move away from oppression and towards equality. That is my understanding and belief in feminism, and I think the author misses that point.

belledame222 said...

Buttercup: she backs up her thesis pretty convincingly throughout the book. Later on I'll probably be pulling more from it. It is definitely an internal and thorough critique, though: she is writing based on personal experience and serious study of/immersion in the theorists and activism of the time. I may not end up agreeing with her conclusions (she appears to be heading toward a reaffirmation of her Christian faith, or at least some aspect of it that was previously discarded), but she is definitely not a Christina Hoff Sommers or suchlike.

BL: you know, that is one of the few books I remember having once and actually giving away. I -think-. maybe I do still have it somewhere. I remember being really interested in the subject matter but finding the style kind of dry, and setting it aside.

but yeah: the chapter I was gonna quote from (ended up pulling the intro to start with instead) is all about the "purity" business.

belledame222 said...

oh, and she isn't saying that feminism (broadly defined) -has- to replicate the violence; what she is saying is that in her experience it (or at least a goodly part of the second-wave feminism she was part of) -did.- Because of this unexamined baggage which she now proposes to examine.

belledame222 said...

SC: dunno if she talks about Girard. he's the "skandalon" guy, right?

Spill The Beans said...

I think the issue is predicated upon gender assumptions: women are nurturing and caring creators who instinctively give, and men (the creators and maintainers of the patriarchy) are takers, violent by nature, and destructive.

Thus, when the matriarchy replaces the patriarchy, everything will be better.

My experiences in a male-dominated field undermined a lot of my feminist presumptions about men. The guys I worked with were my mentors and role models. They were caring and nuturing. They valued their families. They valued each other. There was no expectation that family should be sacrificed for all-important work.

Both the presumption of inborn sin (Christianity) and the presumption of gender-based inborn innocence, are naive and dogmatic reflections of an imperfect and superficial understanding of humanity.

Women can be just as big of assholes as men. We are not innately superior to them.

Buttercup said...

Belledame222,

"she isn't saying that feminism (broadly defined) -has- to replicate the violence; what she is saying is that in her experience it (or at least a goodly part of the second-wave feminism she was part of) -did.- Because of this unexamined baggage which she now proposes to examine."

HOW did second wave feminism replicate patriarchal violence and oppression? (I can see the argument against people of color, but she does not appear to be taking up that discussion).

Trouble, I agree that both women and men can be both good and bad, and any number of things in between. I suppose I also agree with the author, who seems to be critiquing any feminists who viewed themselves as "innocent." I just disagree with the author's premise, that a belief in women as innocent is as central to feminism as she appears to think it is.

Granted, I haven't read the whole work, and my response is limited to what was quoted by Belledame222.

KH said...

The underlying impulse also is expressed in cultures untouched by the Abrahamic tradition, & in all modern political religions, albeit presumably in more or less different forms, no? But who knows exactly how varied its expressions might be, or how far down the pattern goes.

Sounds like West mostly is recapitulating themes from the better sort of mid-century literature of anti-totalitarianism (also partly a literature of disillusionment), which may have something to so with why some of us tend to fall back on the language formerly descriptive of earlier political sectarianisms.

There’s another question, to which I have no inkling of an answer: how widespread is this kind of Manichean thinking? I still have difficulty believing that the qualities of mind at issue really could be very common.

Bitch | Lab said...

In general, from broadly reading various feminist ethnographies of feminist communities themselves, the author is on solid ground in her description of what all to happened -- at least historically.

if I'm remembering what BD has said before, the anti-nuke/peace camp was based on separatist principles. and there has been quite a bit of critique about those communities -- critiques that emerged from people's experiences in them.

and the critique of positing the harmed group as innocent of history is not uncommon.that is, the practice isn't uncommon among groups who are separatist in orientation.

anyway, i look forward to more exposition.

Bitch | Lab said...

and BD -- yes, Mary Douglas def. had a dry writing style. I remember my mentor used to read her to the class about a week or two into an intro sociology class.

Her examples of a college student's messy room were hilarious. Hilarious because "jacket strewn over an overstuffed chair" does not exactly capture the "filth" that is often characteristic of a dorm room these days.

Another example of filth was a stained tie.

students reading it couldn't comprehend. tie? college? tie worn to classes? huh?

my friend, who did her dissertation work on feminism and nuns, though, really liked a lot of Douglas's anlyses, so I stuck with it. But yea: def. boring, turgid prose style.

Bitch | Lab said...

totally OT, but I thought this would be greeted with more interest. it's a statement feom UBUNTU on sex workers and violence against sex workers, written from the perspective of people of color who are feminist, transgender, queer, etc.

http://blog.pulpculture.org/2006/08/29/ubuntu-i-am-because-we-are/

That's soemthing I can get behind and as soon as I have more money, I'm donating. In fact, r asked me what I wanted for my birthday. I'm going to tell him to give them money.

belledame222 said...

buttercup, I'm planning to write/quote more addressing the "how" later on.

belledame222 said...

and that is an awesome birthday gift to ask for, BL. will check them out.

Bitch | Lab said...

when i did a search to see if anyone'd linked, i think you already link to them in the blogroll and maybe wrote a post awhile back. not sure.

gandhi rules said...

All of you are so brainy it freaks me out. I feel like a kid on the short bus.

belledame222 said...

eh, I'll join you as soon as people start talking about Derrida and the post-structuralists again.

"pudding. mmmm, pudding."

belledame222 said...

> I still have difficulty believing that the qualities of mind at issue really could be very common.>

kh, d'you mean you have a hard time a lot of people could be thinking in such black-and-white terms and -really mean it?- it is hard to believe, but, sadly, i think, only because i don't -want- to believe it, not because the evidence isn't there.

Bitch | Lab said...

Basically, I think we all think in black and why terms. it's kind of built into the structure of consciousness. the irreducible fact of our existence as sep. selves. not knowing the contents of other people's minds. not directly, immediately knowing them and having to communicate those thoughts via language. right there is a gap between my mind and yours.

it's not necessarily a bad thing. such thinking, us/them, can be very solidaristic. it is what can makes us feel incredibly part of something bigger than our lone selves.

it's what helps us win wars -- botht he real kind and the rhetorical kind. we bond together and think of ourselves as good and the other as bad.

the reality based community vs. busheviks.

the trick is to not get stuck there. it's just as she says at the concludion of this quote.

the trick is also to remember that,as much as you try not to think in terms of dualisms, you ultimately will do so.

just posting that there are some people who are like that -- thinking in terms of dualism -- and then there are us, who don't, is a dualism, an opposition, and a hierarchical one to boot.

belledame222 said...

oh well yes, of course. i think implicit there was "thinks in black and white and -never anything else,-" not so much that people do it at all; of course we all do it to some degree.

Bitch | Lab said...

in that sense, then, i'd rather think that the author isn't saying that is the way every individual thought but that, perhaps, built into their basic ideas or theories or both about the word was this dualism of women as innocent and men who are not.

one thing about buttefly's concerns is also that i think the author is obivously speaking to feminist theology. she keeps saying that. so her claims aren't about all feminists.

belledame would know more. so i'm eagerly awaiting more typage! :)

KH said...

' ... have difficulty believing ...'

It's idiomatic for 'They're all fucking idiots,' & it's one of the few things I really do believe. You bet I believe it.

KH said...

I don't mean to put things in such black-&-white terms, but ...

Bitch | Lab said...

hey KH! Welcome back.

did you see the UBUNTU statment on sex workers? It's quite excellent stuff -- very careful analysis and states clearly that they are unhappy with traditional feminist theories regarding sexual violence and sex work.

anyway, really, you and belledame were so totally MISSED!

Bitch | Lab said...

I think that's true KH, that we can create societies that reinforce the binary thinking. if that makes sense. i mean, that's what the busheviks try to do. it's a little harder in a democracy.

and of course, a little bit of what I skimmed from belledame's comments and piny's at pandagon was that they were trying to talk about how feminist communities could encourage the binary thinking of us/them, innocence and..

hey BD -- what is the word the author uses to desribe was is other to innocence?

KH said...

B|D, hullo child, danke. And yes, I caught your link to UBUNTU, & yes, it’s all very impressive, oughta be required reading; as you say, very careful, but as plain as the nose on your face. No bullshit, actual radical politics, if you can remember the concept.

belledame222 said...

"Purity."

antiprincess said...

All of you are so brainy it freaks me out. I feel like a kid on the short bus.

aw, cheer up, GR - you're not alone! we can sit together!

Bitch | Lab said...

BD -- I meant what is the contrast to "innocence" as its used by the author. guilt? if women are innocent, then men/patriarchy are guilty>

Buttercup said...

Bitch/Lab, That's what I assumed, that men/the Patriarchy would be guilty if women are innocent. I don't think it's that clear cut in reality, and I also think you can learn to understand the system, and see how it has oppressed some and privileged others, without blaming all men b/c they are men, or holding all women innocent because they are women.

You can also hold responsible individual actors who perpetuate and promote whatever system of oppressino you are talking about, whether it be sex, race, class, or sexual orientation oppression.

belledame222 said...

Of course you can. But what the author is saying is--well, hold on! I need to do at least one more full post to do this justice, I think.

Bitch | Lab said...

Hi buttercup

Well, I think there is a confusion going on.

The author is doing a kind of ethnography from the sounds of it. So, she's looking very specifically at a particular peace encampment. she is also looking specifically to feminist theology.

And I'll bet she's no dummy and has probably read the other books written about those experiences. there have been a few and one of my favorites was the great articles about a lesbian sep. community. When I finally find the folder where the article piny wants a copy of is, it'll be in there. I'll scan it.

and the thing is, there was a kind of commonality to experience in these groups, at least as the research, autobios, etc. reveal.

---

doing this kind of analysis isn't an indictment of all feminism. it is a soul searching critique of a certain approach to feminism, one very popular in the 80s and which has come under systematic examination.

when i read this sort of thing, I'm thinking that the author wants to strengthen feminist thought by taking theory and holding it up to empirical investigation,holding it up to practice.

does the theory work in practice? if so, why? if not, why?

if our practice turns out to challenge our theory, maybe we need to change it.

lots of people have done the same thing already. she seems to be doing this for feminist theology which is very influenced by Mary Daly.

And if any can be accused of upholding a very cultural feminism, where women are good and wonderful and innocent, mary Daly is *it*

belledame222 said...

Yes to all of that.