Alternatives? From situated knowledges to standpoint epistemology

The previous post explored, in detail, responses to science and technology in feminist and gender work in India. The idea was, more than anything else, to present an 'attitude' to technology, whether manifested in dams or obstetric technologies, that sees technology as a handmaiden of development, as instrument - good or evil, and as discrete from 'man'. Feminist and gender work in India has thereafter articulated approximately four responses to technology across state and civil society positions - presence, access, inclusion, resistance. The demand for presence of women as agents of technological change, the demand for improved access for women to the fruits of technology, the demand for inclusion of women as a constituency that must be specially provided for by technological amendments, and a need for recognition of technology’s ills particularly for women, and the consequent need for resistance to technology on the same count. Bearing in mind that women’s lived experiences have served as the vantage point for all four of the responses to technology in the Indian context, I will now suggest the need to revisit the idea of such experience itself, and the ways in which it might be made critical, rather than valorizing it as an official counterpoint to scientific knowledge, and by extension to technology. This post, while not addressing the 'technology question' in any direct sense, is an effort to begin that exploration.

One should expect control strategies to concentrate on boundary conditions and interfaces, on rates of flow across boundaries – and not on the integrity of natural objects.

                                    (Haraway 1991: 163)

On the question of experience. This one statement subsumes several questions, on politics, on knowledge, that I have been trying to raise in this project. What I have been calling the old ideological model of critique – the possibility of critique from the vantage point of a coherent set of material interests – was also tied to a model of knowledge, a model that said – I know, you do. This constituted the rationale for the vanguard, this constituted the knowledge of oppression. For a feminism having drawn from Marxist legacies of politics, this then was the model to be adopted, and the politics around women’s lives that gave birth to this entity, feminism, and has nurtured it ever since, definitionally became that benevolent umbrella, that liberatory tool, that protects those lives and inserts itself into them (the personal must be politicized). Having identified the problems of vanguardism during the post-nationalist, subaltern turn, however, a portion of the rethinking Left and a global, universalist feminism may consider that what remains for us to do or think is a turn to experience. The slogan changed; it became – we all know, together. Both these moves were, however, hyphenated in the premise of ‘one knowledge’. 

There were several moves critical of ‘one knowledge’. Those that took the ‘Third World’ route either proposed a ‘different reason’, a different canon, an alternative system (as postcolonial scholars sometimes did), or articulated a politics of complete heterogeneity that held knowledge as necessarily provisional and separate from a rationale for politics (as did those that took on the name ‘third world feminism’). A third position here was of I know mine, you know yours, there can be no dialogue. For this school of knowledge, the experience of oppression was necessary, and sufficient. The consciousness of oppression, which was ex-officio, offered knowledge. The community of knowers here was a closed community. Asserting that the ‘one knowledge’ claim rested on the active exclusion of other knowledges, it suggested a remaking of ‘low knowledge’ through the experience of oppression. This is the impulse that starts, and ends, with the embodied insider, speaking with[in] and for itself, a complete closed community. This impulse we have seen with respect to sexual minorities, women, the subaltern – an impulse also tied to the organic or pastoral as opposed to the technological, an impulse sometimes tracing direct connections with a cultural past, and often offering a choice between systems of knowledge. The above mentioned third worldist positions sometimes tied up with this third position, proposing a politics of coalition while keeping knowledge bases separate (as in third world feminisms), or realizing implicit connections between ‘low knowledge’ practices and an alternative system of knowledge.

While I have made no attempt here to directly examine the complex of phenomena often referred to by the short-hand ‘globalization’, I will now refer back to my first mention of development as a practice and to the gender work that involves itself with disaggregated description as part of this phenomenon. The reaction to the ideological has meant, in this frame, a shift from politics to self-help, from the ideological to the intuitive, where the intuitive is taken as a flat description of immediate reality as experience. While it might be tempting to read this immediate everyday reality as organic, whole, feminine, and often able to escape an overdetermination by patriarchal norms,[1] the new gender analyses do not necessarily rely on organicity. Rather, politics, or the politics of representation, have shifted, as Haraway notes with deadly precision, to a game of simulation in what she calls the “informatics of domination”, and the new gender analyses are as much part of it as any other (recall Van Hollen’s terms – culture-in-the-making, “processural”, etc). While none of this new critical scholarship addressing development or technology actually denies domination or power, it has contributed to making it so increasingly difficult to define or identify, as to make counter-hegemonic attempts appear very nearly anachronistic.

What, then, of alternatives? After a rejection of those feminist strands that seek to build a common, sometimes homogenous narrative of feminine experience, and of gender analysis that thrives on the heterogeneity of women’s experiences, but yet agreeing with the need to “speak from somewhere”, as against older models of one knowledge that offered a “view from nowhere”, a neutral view, what could be the nature of this critique?

I would suggest that it will have to be a re-turn to experience, a re-cognition, rather than a turn. That we pay attention not only, or not even so much, to the fractured narrative offered by the wide variety or heterogeneity of experience, as to its possible aporicity[2] in dominant frames, so as to enact such a re-turn treating the perspective of the excluded, aporetic experience as momentary resource – not authentic, fixed, or originary, but appropriate.[3] Drawing on Haraway’s suggestion of a gift of vision, of situation as a visual tool, this would mean a momentary cognizance, a momentary gift of ab-normal vision – abnormal by way of not making sense in dominant frames – that could describe the dominant in terms different than its own, as also point to other possibilities. This would mean, most importantly for a notion of the political, a shift from marginality to aporicity as a vantage point for critique.

Perspective, here, would therefore take on the third of three possible meanings,[4] as the fantastic spur within the dominant, as a moment of seeing, of ‘possession’, that can be lost in the looking. In this sense, it is also not possible to map perspective onto identity or individual taste. Perspective as that moment of possession not only gives a completely different picture of things, it also gives a picture not available from anywhere else – that makes visible the dominant as such, as that which had rendered invalid other possibilities. This invalidation, this exclusion, could then be understood differently from a removal from circulation of that which is disobedient – “At my heel, or outside”, as Le Doueff puts it; it is better understood as a constitutive or primary exclusion with an entry later on the dominant’s terms. As Le Doueff puts it again, “Outside, or at my heel.”[5] Here I find useful, as a beginning, the model of the excluded available within feminist standpoint theory, of the woman as ‘outsider within’.[6] While this formulation evokes a degree of unease about whether this social location can be enough as a starting point (whether women then always have to be the outsiders within to be able to speak from this space), it offers, I think, valuable clues for working toward a possible model of feminist critique. To understand this, we need to understand, also, that the issue here is not only that of recognizing hierarchies, nor is it about building a stand-alone alternative system of knowledge that may be called feminist. The very first example I gave in this post, of the clinical consultation that turned into a conversation, tries to demonstrate this.

The very notion of a feminist standpoint would be then the act of interpretation that puts this positioning, this transient possession, to work, not a place already defined, as earlier understandings of standpoint would have; this process involves the production of an attached model of knowledge that begins from perspective, one that requires a speaking from somewhere.

Such a speaking from somewhere obviously requires a conceptualization of this ‘somewhere’; in other words, a fidelity to context. Here context, I would suggest, is not (only) about date-time-place, such that a concept of ‘one knowledge’ can be critiqued from a situation. It is most importantly about relationality, the space between you and me, both intra-community and inter-community. Once we take cognizance of this, we realize that that space does many things – it induces a porosity of boundaries (body, community), it creates attachment, it also creates separation. With this in mind, we then have to talk of building a story from perspective, where it is the turning from within outward (from attachment to separation) that does the work of building the story. Such a standpoint ‘is’ only in the constant interrogation of both dominant discourse – masculinist Marxist discourse, and of the category of resistance – feminism – within which it may be named. (This will have resonances with the monster album of feminist stories that we began writing last year).

What we may have to gain from an attention to either consultations or conversations, then, is not so much the shift in form that we have made in moving from one to another, but the recognition of the fantastic perspective as a visual tool.  Perspectives are made fantastic by their positioning in an imbrication of power and meaning; and unless the position is required to be static through any counter-hegemonic exercise, they cannot be the source of a permanent identity, nor an alternative system. I present my report on the dai training programme, then, in a different detail and from a different perspective than as a look at indigenous systems of health or as a lesson to be learnt from women’s experiences, or indeed as an essentially feminine perspective. What I call the allegory of women’s lived experience serves, for me, as a test case, an example of the fantastic perspective that both helps provide a different picture of the dominant, and a glimpse of other possible worlds. I will attempt to delineate this in more detail now, but would like to put in a statutory warning prior to the attempt.



Min(d)ing the turn


Does this re-turn to experience that I have talked about show up in individual dai experience? Is this a concrete turn, something that can be applied in straightforward ways? We turn to the Bengali Marxist who tried to find a subaltern Lenin –

The concept of the outside as a theoretical category is rooted in the concept of abstract labour as opposed to concrete labour. Concrete labour, located within particular industries, is within the sphere of production; abstract labour is not. … It is situated where, as Lenin puts it, all classes meet – outside the sphere of production.

        (Chaudhury 1987: 248)

Chaudhury is using the concept to gently remind the Subaltern School of the difficulty of positing a ‘subaltern consciousness’ as a separate domain, or the equal difficulty of speaking of inversion, in other words revolution, from this vantage point. For my purposes, the turn from within outward faces the same difficulty. It is a turn that has to be mined for its possibility, not one that offers, straightforwardly, the description of a different world.



Marking the turn: returning to the conversation


In what might perhaps be an unwarranted dissection of events, but one useful for our purposes nonetheless, let us go back to the dai training programme, mapping onto my narrative of it the paleonymies and possible difficulties of such a narrative. I have refrained from relating to this exercise as either participant observation (in anthropological mode) or as case study (the qualitative approach in medical parlance). Both of these, positioned at the same end of the methodological spectrum, were efforts that came up to serve a need for ‘qualitative’ analysis – the latter from within the scientific establishment, the former from within the social sciences. In its acting out, however, there is an effort to capture the microcosm that is a stepping away from earlier structural analyses; and a meshing of ‘observer’ and ‘observed’, a moving away from complete objectivity, that all self-respecting qualitative analyses undertake. These analyses are also an attempt to either expand or critique complete objectivity. This is what I have in mind when I refer to that time as ‘conversation’ rather than ‘consultation’. What I am attempting here is a further bracketing of that effort, a bringing to bear, on the conversations, the weight of my identification of the problems with existing frames of critique that I have identified in the project. This is so that what I have been laying down as a different contour of critique, finds its possibility. To perform such a bracketing, I use the narrative of my experience with the dais as a template within which I identify moments of the anthropological narrative, and from which I move towards a different possibility.

This exercise will involve, therefore, as I have stated, through a re-turn to experience, a re-examination both of dominant discourse and of the category of resistance within which it has been named. Such a re-turn will mean an attention to experience – not as narrative, resistant or otherwise, nor as fractured and unpredictable, but as aporetic – as affording a fantastic perspective on the dominant that had hitherto appeared as normal. An attention to the fantastic perspective will result in a turn from within (a community) outward – a different notion of the political from that of either organizational, organic, or individual responses. It is, however, a notion that is hardly structural, a notion of the political as interpretation, but one that will have to be done each time. With these telegraphic steps in order, let us proceed. We had started the classes from the dais’ voices – what they had written or what they had to say regarding their experiences with the births they had attended. The attendant presumption on both sides was that these voices were constituted by experience, the only prerogative of those uninitiated into methodmukkhu sukkhu manush (the unlearned people). I then set about introducing a gentle reworking of the boundaries of this category “experience” – till its quarrels with “method” had diminished to negligible levels.

How did I rework these boundaries? What were the contexts in which this was made possible? What were the terms of reference for the exchange between “experience” and “scientific method” that placed each, firmly, on a particular side of the divide between the untrained dai and the development expert, the body and the mind, the sensible and the transcendental? Several notions of the feminist political are at work here, working vis-à-vis dominant and other responses to the experience question. The responses may be charted in the following way. In the turn to experience as narrative, feminism has addressed the representation of the female body. The “female body”, we have seen, is the site for the understandings as well as operations of science (with its invisible qualifier Western). In its project of defining the form and delineating the workings of the female body, this body of knowledge enjoys the status of a value-neutral, objective method that purportedly bases itself on solid empirical evidence to produce impartial knowledge. In the case of the female body, it would then appear that science has found it exclusively and powerfully fashioned by nature to bear and nourish children; in the event, all it is doing is putting the facts before us.[7] Feminist engagements have sought to detect several disclaimers to the purported value-neutrality of science. For one, the standard body is that of the male, by which the female body is judged small, inferior, or deviant; and through this a subtle process of othering or exclusion of the woman is instituted within science. Further, accounts of the workings of the body, its organs, its reproductive processes, are strewn with gendered metaphors that privilege the male as decisive, strong, productive, and the female, as complementarily passive, wasteful, unreasoning.[8] In the event, this part of the feminist project has been to make explicit the hidden cultural weight of scientific knowledge. Further, in addressing the methods of science itself, feminism has pointed to the homogenization inherent in the manner in which the scientific concept of the “female body” is derived. It is somewhat against this authoritative, homogenising strain that women’s bodily experiences are posited[9] in feminism – as something that is not only missed in science’s project of objectivity but something that is excluded from or unable to articulate itself in and through science’s abstractions. In the event, the experience of the “woman” within science is seen as that which, through the explicit introduction of an apparently inassimilable, pre-discursive subjectivity, questions the explanatory potential of science, while also offering possibilities for agency.

There are certain collusions in the goals of these two projects, however, that bear looking at. Both are moving toward a single truth, whether derived from scientific theory or subjective experience, which they alone can represent. To this end, both homogenize and both declare the undisputed presence of this ‘reality out there’ that can be represented without mediations. And from here also flows a claim to objectivity. If science posits a naturalized universal female body, experience would posit the “woman” universalized through socialization. No experience can exist here outside narrative history, unless as aporia – the seemingly insoluble logical difficulty. One would then derive that if scientific theories are built on exclusions, so is the category “experience”. If science claims value-neutrality, a simple valorization of experience ignores the “historical processes that, through discourse, position subjects and produce their experience”. In the process, both science and experience in turn achieve status as categories, homogenous and uniform in themselves. Both become discourses that have the right to regulate entry, so that what counts as science or experience becomes the qualifying question.

If we then conclude that there is in this separation a certain essentializing of categories that ignores their very constitutions by the other, as also their constructions through cultural intelligibility, several questions arise. Can experience be that essential outside of Science that can grant agency? Or would it be also explicable as reflective of hegemonic norms that grant the sensible body as “women’s generic identity in the symbolic” while retaining a masculine topology for Science? This brings us to another feminist cognition of experience as constituted by history, circumstance, and as circumscribed by the norm as outside it.

But, caught as I was between the conventional registers of science and feminism, I kept falling backwards into the question of results, and their reflection on validity. Experience, it would seem, was faulty by virtue of its very constitutivity, while science continued to look rigorous and unbiased. As critical courier of scientific knowledge, I thought I was trying to weave myself into the discourse of the dais with minimum damage to their framework, and to that end I had decided to keep the question marks alive throughout, directing them towards science as well. But as I sat down to look at the assessment sheets on the afternoon of the first day’s session, ‘I’ was fairly stunned. Of the ten questions put to the dais, one was worded as follows –

If the child does not cry soon after birth, we must –

a] say prayers over the baby

b] perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation

c] rush the baby to the nearest health centre

d] warm the placenta in a separate vessel.

Almost all 46 of the dais had affirmed the last answer. I remembered the asphyxiated babies that used to be rushed to the nursery in Medical College from the labour room that was on another floor. I remembered the bitter debates as to why the nursery was not stationed nearer the labour ward so that we could lose less time in resuscitating them. I decided this could not be allowed to pass. And I conducted the classes accordingly. When we repeated the written examination at the end, none had ticked the last answer, and I was both relieved and vindicated. Until I had come away, still thinking, and then I realised that I had succeeded only because I had adopted a more positivist, authoritarian approach – right and wrong – to get across. And why had I done that? I realized, again, that with all my criticality, I was very much a scientific subject, and not merely because of my disciplinary training. I had retained reflexivity and criticality for as long as there was non-contradiction. Beyond that, I stayed put – well within Science. I too had my experiences – I could look at them as inseparably constituted by my production as scientific subject. But I had been trained to look otherwise – at experience as empirical evidence of theory. And there I was.

In current development policy, though, there is not so much the suppression of subaltern voice as its making visible in extensions of scientific discourse. It has become part of development policy to include women’s voices in their own development; the ‘third world woman’ is no longer considered to have no voice. On the contrary, she has a specific voice that is apparently being heard now in development projects in the third world. In order to articulate this voice, however, she must have the capability to streamline it, make it universally understood as well as reasonable, and this is the cornerstone of the ‘capabilities approach’. Here the dai, once named as dependable repository of traditional knowledge, can now be appropriated by notions of development flowing from liberal theories, for she also represents, in this frame, the rigid face of patriarchal traditions that have not given the woman voice. Development here is taken to mean empowerment – a granting, or rather restoration, of voice to the woman hitherto suffocated by tradition – and it is to this end that the efficient model of scientific method may be adopted. The old order will indeed change, for the daisAage ek rakam chhilo … ebar anya rakam korte hobe[10]but that is hardly an exchange of tradition for modernity, or of experience for science; it is an accommodation of one by the other. In the pluralism of current development discourse, the dai is a figure who exists before context, occupies an underprivileged class position, and has a voice that may be heard or streamlined into the mainstream.

And in feminism, despite, or after, the recognition of ‘women’s experience’ as constitutive of hegemonic norms, there is a renewed positing of experience as resistant, as the natural habitat, perhaps, of the woman …

This is of course clearly in evidence in what I have called the global feminist undertaking, which is most well argued for philosophically in Nussbaum’s work, and most tellingly represented in her examination and insertion of ‘Jayamma-the-brick-kiln-worker’ – who cannot not have a body that speaks – into the lexicon of development literature. As ‘third world women’s practices’ that contribute to culture-in-the-making, it is visible in the gender work that I have talked about.

What of my ‘conversations’ with the dai? As medical-professional-feminist-addressing-gendered-subaltern, I recognized and tried to steer clear of the various precipitations of such a binary; I ended, however, looking for a connection through experience between the ‘professional’ and the ‘unlearned’; for an essence to the feminine, perhaps, or to woman in the Symbolic. The earlier legacy of experience, then, inheres here; in asking questions of an epistemic status for experience, in the anxiety of not being able to accord it equal validity, in looking for a separation between feminist critical projects and dominant discourse through a recourse to a feminine difference which will be different from the place accorded to women in the patriarchal Symbolic.[11] Most telling, perhaps, it inheres in the anxiety over the similarity or otherwise of perspective between the (feminist) professional and the (woman) dai … one that presumed that the origins of an organic connectedness was to be found in the unspoilt dai who talked of meyeder meyeder katha.[12] So the first attempt that the dais made to connect with me was through abhigyata – experience. And the overwhelming feeling at the end of those 6 days amongst the dais, and in me, was of a solidarity that had perhaps been established. A solidarity across boundaries of authority (though not disruptive of it in any way), across science, across different experiences. But … where then are feminist projects going to differ from development initiatives? What do third world women want, if one may ask the blasphemous question, a question that gathers momentum, nevertheless, in the context of first world vanguardism. Can the solution be that we must give up on capability altogether as a universal? While accessing a connectedness that would not mean the place accorded to women in the patriarchal Symbolic would definitely be a move, where would this connectedness be situated? If not in family or traditional community, would it be in some other sense of being together? Will we seek to continue its residence in women? Will we travel from an erasure of experience, the feminine, the subjective, to an essentialising of the same? Will women be the “embodied others, who are not allowed not to have a body, a finite point of view”? If so, are we still going to stay with the biological body as pre-discursive resource of experience?  And if science is to remain the ultimate arbiter, is experiential agency then to be only the aporia, showing up as resistances through gaps in policy, that must let be, or can there be a feminist policy-framing that can work on the aporicity of experience?

What of collaboration? Caught between the conventional registers of science and feminism, where science is about knowledge and feminism about politics, not only is the dai’s experience waiting to be rehabilitated within science but also within feminism. While the mainstream policy dialogues with science remain at the level of “filling in gaps in manpower”, the philosophies of science attempt to talk about whether “midwives’ tales” might be justified – questions of validity. The politics of inclusion have operated to bring ‘low knowledges’ into circulation, and feminism must be the natural host to these politics in a frame where feminism is about politics and about women. Hence the whole debate about representation – institutional science versus the dai, the dai as gendered subaltern versus the third world feminist, that populate the space of critique of knowledge by politics, of science by feminism. The questions therefore continue to be – In frames where the dai as “gendered subaltern” has been appropriated into governmental apparatuses, and made to speak that language, are conscious tools of collaboration with the master’s discourse available to her? Or is this the tool lying there for the feminist to pick up, to create a discursive space of negotiation for ‘third world feminisms’? Is this, then, yet a battle for representation, a vanguardism, a speaking for that continues to slip into a speaking of, where third world feminists freeze their examinations of their own enmeshedness or location in their negotiations with global feminism and global development? Is such a freezing inevitable? Or is the dai as gendered subaltern as much outside third world-first world feminist negotiations as outside empire-nation exchanges?

But there is also a question here of the continuing separation of experience and knowledge. If these attempts to rehabilitate experience seem to be at the level of according it equivalent status to knowledge, thus actually keeping alive the binaries feminism has been straining to step out of, what of experience as condition of knowledge-making? The aporicity of experience I speak of might be a beginning.

            Having identified these existing trajectories for feminist critiques of science in the Indian context, therefore, I pick up on the gaps in the quintessentially anthropological narrative, to bring back the question of aporicity. We have spoken extensively of the fractured narrative. Rather than the fractured narrative, however, it might be the fracture we need to speak of now. And rather than look at women as being essentially capable of mimetisme,[13] and therefore as the essential content of fracture, it might be useful to access the moment of fracture, using as allegory, not narrative resource, the responses of the dais to the reproductive health apparatus, or the bizarre consultation between the recalcitrant mother and the female physician. It might not be the connectedness between me and the dai as women, then, that will serve as my resource, but our very asymmetry of dialogue, our seeming separation. This might be the fantastic perspective that must be worked on, in feminism, to create the discursive space required to articulate the inversion – an overturning of the dialectic of one knowledge – that Chaudhury (2000) speaks of. Such a concentration on momentary fractures, disallowing as it does a final and fixed concentration on ‘woman’, or a continuing separation of registers between politics and knowledge on account of the ‘fantastic’ perspective opening up a fresh vantage point both of knowing and critique of possible worlds, I submit, would constitute what I have been calling a feminist standpoint epistemology.

[1] There is a wealth of theorizations on the feminine, not going for such a simplistic reading of experience or the everyday. Feminist work in India that looks at autobiographies, for example, has taken on the notion of the everyday as a fraught space, but also a liberating one, following on the re-reading of the personal as the political. Parallels with theorizing in western feminism may be found where the spectrum has, in talking of women’s experience, included a valorizing, as in Adrienne Rich’s description of the experience of motherhood in the Anglo-American second wave of feminism (1986), as also a speaking of the body, of corporeality, of embodiment, and of subjectivity as a foil to identity (as in the French feminist school, where notions of touch as against vision [Luce Irigaray], of ‘there being no place for woman’ in the patriarchal Symbolic’ and women needing a different Symbolic to ‘be’[Irigaray], have been suggested. The subjectivity-identity theorization also recalls the sati debates). This has proceeded to either pit experience against ‘abstract reason’, or to demonstrate, more interestingly, how reasonableness is itself infected by bias, in some cases a ‘male sexualization’ (Grosz 1994). Other powerful analyses could be made, following on Judith Butler’s concept of the ‘constitutive outside’, to show how Reason enacts its hegemony through a continuous production of experience as the constitutive outside to discourse. (This need not be construed as a structural model, as a detailed reading of Butler’s theorization of ‘politically salient exclusions’ will show (Butler 1993). Parallely, ‘experience’ has been articulated, in the work of Joan Scott, among others, not as an ‘out there’ but a historical production (Scott 1992).

[2] I have referred to the way in which I use aporia, in the introduction to the thesis. To recapitulate, aporia is referred to as a logical impasse or contradiction, that which is impassable, especially “a radical contradiction in the import of a text or theory that is seen in deconstruction as inevitable” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online).  

[3] A clarification here. I am not saying that experience is always aporetic to a narrative, but I am asking for an attention to a particular perspective that might be so positioned as to be aporetic.

[4] The meaning that I activate here is of a perspective that appears fantastic, or absurd, except from a particular point of view.

[5] “Exclusion in principle seems to function as a formidable method of forcing dependence. And it is indeed a choice between “being on the outside or perhaps at my heel,” conveying first an exclusion in principle, and then conditions for secondary entry, rather than the reverse, “at my heel or on the outside,” which would indicate first a frank authoritarianism and then punishment for insubordination.” (Le Doueff 2003: 25)

[6] Feminist Standpoint theory talks of the possibility of a situated, perspectival form of knowing, of such a knowing as necessarily a communal project, and of this knowing as one where the community of knowers is necessarily shifting and overlapping with other communities. While Haraway would speak of ‘situated knowledges’ as against the ‘God trick’, as she calls it, of seeing from nowhere – a neutral perspective (Haraway 1992), Sandra Harding would go on, however, to propose a version of strong objectivity – a less false rather than a more true view; this, Harding would suggest, can come only from the viewpoint of particular communities, sometimes the marginalized, sometimes women. This is where Harding’s version of standpoint epistemology is still grappling with the question of whether the experience of oppression is a necessary route to knowledge. (Harding deals with this with this by treating women’s lives as resource to maximise objectivity, Haraway by treating these women as ironic subjects and seeing from below as only a visual tool). A related question is whether the very notion of standpoint epistemology requires a version, albeit a more robust one than in place now, of systems of domination, and it is here that a productive dialogue could be begun between Haraway’s more experimental version of “seeing from below” and Harding’s notion of strong objectivity.


[7] This would be stressing the empirical foundations of science, but human sciences have always been the area where the subjective is most easily detected – hence the name ‘soft sciences’. Things are changing, however, with the biological sciences rooting themselves in the ‘knowable’ gene – their accession to hard objectivity is now a reality.

[8] As would be evident in the models of sexual intercourse in the medical texts with the masculine/feminine metaphors for sperm/ovum – a model we used in the class as well, with a lively response, for it spoke to traditional languages of patriarchy as well. This has been discussed in some detail by Emily Martin (1991).

[9] Where experience is separate from the empirical.

[10] Things were different before … they will have to be done differently now …

[11] The place of women – in patriarchy, in a language outside patriarchy, has been a recurrent theme in the thought of Luce Irigaray. Interpreting Plato’s myth, she draws a picture of the analogies with the patriarchal arrangement, and proposes another topology. Plato’s Idea she designates as the realm of the Same – “the hom(m)osexual economy of men, in which women are simply objects of exchange. … The world is described as the ‘other of the same’, i.e. otherness, but … more or less adequate copy … woman is the material substratum for men’s theories, their language, and their transactions … the ‘other of the same’ … [or] women in patriarchy … [t]he ‘other of the other’ … is an as yet non-existent female homosexual economy, women-amongst-themselves … [I]n so far as she exists already, woman as the ‘other of the other’ exists in the interstices of the realm of the [Same]. Her accession to language, to the imaginary and symbolic processes of culture and society, is the condition for the coming-to-be of sexual difference.” See ‘The same, the semblance, and the other’ in Whitford (1991: 104).

[12] This is between us women – a common saying in Bengali that carries connotations both of an exclusivity – a woman’s domain – as well as insignificance – this is just something between us women.

[13] To travel from ‘mimesis imposed’ (Irigaray’s term for the mimesis imposed on woman as mirror of the phallic model) to ‘mimetisme’ – “an act of deliberate submission to phallic-symbolic categories in order to expose them”, where “[t]o play with mimesis is … to try to recover the place of … exploitation by discourse, without … simply [being] reduced to it … to resubmit … so as to make ‘visible’, by an effect of playful repetition [mimicry, mimetisme] what was supposed to remain invisible …” is the Irigarayan project (Irigaray 1991, quoted in Diamond 1997: 173).


Asha Achuthan

My disciplinary training is in medicine. Some of my questions about science and politics led me to a Women's Studies programme in Jadavpur University, from where I did an M.Phil with a focus on "women and development". I have recently submitted my PhD dissertation, "Feminist Standpoint Theory and the Question of Experience". I am also working as Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, on a project of curriculum revision in the natural and social sciences.