Thursday, January 18, 2007

dialectics and the analysis of religion

I'm currently reading the anthology Gender, Religion and Diversity: Cross-Cultural Perspectives (eds Ursula King and Tina Beattie (2005, London & New York: Continuum, ISBN 0826488455) which has a chapter by Mary Keller pointing out that you can't have a gendered perspective independent of race (using Hegelian dialectics to support this). By extension, using Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital, I would say it was impossible to exclude class and sexuality from one's analysis.

Keller uses Rita Gross's concept of women both participating in and being excluded from certain religious practices to show that women's religious experience is complex and does not entirely equate with victim status. She then uses Franz Fanon's extension of Hegel's dialectics to show that white feminists are in a peculiarly privileged position.

Hegel (1807) argued that to become a person, one must experience oneself as a subject (thesis), then experience the other (antithesis) and only by the reciprocal recognition of the other as a subject in their own right could one move to the third stage, synthesis, and become a mature person. Hegel also said that if one perceived oneself as a master and others as slaves, then one could not move to the third stage, but must constantly bolster the sense of self by objectifying the other. Fanon showed that white people in the colonial context put themselves in the position of master and black people in the position of slave. The position was further complicated for white women by the fact that they were objectified by white men, but asserted their own (ambivalent) mistress-consciousness by objectifying black people. Thus a hierarchy was set up in which white men were at the top, white women next, then black men, then black women (each perceiving all others below them on the hierarchy as the other or slave). If we introduce class into this hierarchy, you then get upper-class white men at the top, followed by upper-class white women, middle-class white men, middle-class white women, etc etc etc. And if we introduce sexuality & religion into the mix, then clearly a white male heterosexual Christian (or possibly rationalist atheist these days) is going to be top of the heap.

Bourdieu's concept of cultural capital (not mentioned by Keller) shows that if you have the right discursive equipment (e.g. the ability to assert yourself in the face of people in positions of power), you will have more choices open to you in life than if you don't - so perhaps in the Hegel / Fanon analysis, the more you partake of the master consciousness, the better you will get on in this bizarrely hierarchical culture of ours. Of course Keller acknowledges (as do I) that "race" is a social construct, but nevertheless one that has very real effects.

If you doubt that this hierarchy still exists, you only have to look at the way in which academic discourse excludes anyone who doesn't speak the lingo or kow-tow to the notion that people who study religion must adopt the outsider position, or the way in which the colonialist and imperialist agenda and discourse is still being perpetrated on the Middle East. Or the marginalisation of Pagan discourse in just about all spheres.

In order to escape from the trap of this hierarchical view of the world, Keller suggests, we have to return to Hegel's original model of synthesis, whereby we recognise the other as a subject in their own right, not merely an object. Being objectified and/or demonised as a category should make us more aware of our own projections of otherness, but all too often we merely perpetuate the hierarchy. A great deal of feminist discourse merely turns the oppressor (identified as all men) into the other, and seeks to objectify and demonise men; whereas often women participate in the oppression of the other (Keller's concept of mistress-consciousness is peculiarly apt, given that 'mistress' can mean 'concubine' as well as 'the female equivalent of master'). She gives female missionaries as an example - both objectified by their male counterparts, and objectifying the colonised peoples they sought to convert. Another example is of course women's participation in the practice of female circumcision, or the racism of the white memsahibs in the British Raj, or white feminists preaching to Third World women about how they should act.

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