Code: PD -6

 

 

Panel Proposal:

 

 

 

Intersecting Feminism, Agency and Activism

 

 

 

 

 

Three confirmed participants

 

 

 

Panel Proposal

"Intersecting Feminism, Agency and Activism"

 

Activism and the deployment of concepts of agency have existed as two interlocking modes of American feminist reform since the nineteenth century. The papers in "Intersecting Feminism, Agency and Activism" consider the efficacy of agency and activism in American feminist reform by looking at three different periods of American feminist thought, mid-nineteenth century, early twentieth century and late twentieth century, and three different feminist lives, Margaret Fuller, Jane Addams and June Jordan.  The three papers consider the politics of agency and activism through different lenses: writing as agency and the deployment of strategic essentialism, art as a strategic method of community preservation and identity, and activism as an essential ingredient of pragmatist, liberatory movements.  Each paper works to increase the connection between theory and practice that has underscored American feminist thought and has been so essential for rights-based movements. 

 

"Writing as Agency: Margaret Fuller’s Haciendo Caras in the 19th Century"  

adopts "strategic essentialism" as a framework for understanding Gloria Anzaldúa’s and Margaret Fuller’s successes in living and writing the paradox of agency and identity.  The paper suggests that identities become acts of agency that are pivotal to survival, rather than representative or reductive features of particular persons. Identities need not be seen as the essences of persons; rather, identities are meaningful processes of self-agency. The paradox of agency and identity can be utilized by engaging in representative acts such as writing.   The paper relies on the mestizaje framework to draw parallels between Fuller’s and Anzaldúa’s work and, ultimately, to make the claim that Fuller is best understood as a mestiza—that her work is principally akin to Anzaldúa’s in its efforts to establish a feminine agency.

 

"From Dewey's Theories to Addams' Practice: Pragmatist Aesthetics and Hull House" merges the aesthetic theories of John Dewey with the employment of these theories by Jane Addams.   Artworks were, for Dewey, not contained in the sheer objects, but were more ‘moments’ of affect and cognition intertwining.  His preferred term of ‘artworking’ captured the sense of art as a verb or process, an ongoing imaginative action through which we learn about others and re-create the world and our identity in it. This paper examines the degree to which Jane Addams put Dewey’s pragmatist aesthetics into practice at Hull House.   Immigrants there brought with them artmaking skills, and concepts of art, and the exhibitions of these that took place in Hull House worked in at least two important ways-- to educate the broader community about ethnic identities and inheritances, and to help immigrants retain their cultural inheritance of creative pursuits precisely  were pressured to assimilate. In effect, it  I argue that Addams’ use of such exhibitions and her integration of art into Hull House provides a concrete example that deserves more attention within pragmatist aesthetics.

 

"Reviving a Tradition: June Jordan and the activist strain in pragmatism" argues that an early bifurcation in pragmatism resulted in two different pragmatist faces, one that is in the academy and one that is at the margins or outside of the academy.   This split has led toward a prioritizing of academic pragmatism at the expense of an activist pragmatism or a pragmatism that works to fully trouble the theory/practice distinction. The paper argues that African-American thinker, activist, essayist, and poet June Jordan represents an important figure in the pragmatist tradition, one that reconstitutes pragmatist commitments to both activism and theory and moves away from the early bifurcation.  Jordan’s work provides a model for an enriched, revitalized pragmatism through her commitment to public engagement, is self-consciously accessible to readers outside the academy, uncompromisingly seeks to challenge the confines of the academy, and provides a model for working at both the academic and activist levels.

Although these philosophers are from different historical periods, it is our goal to emphasize that there are continuities of pragmatic thought underlying their works, such that it is clear that activism and its attendant conception of agency is a key component to successful philosophical enterprises. 

Paper 1: Writing as Agency: Margaret Fuller’s Haciendo Caras in the 19th Century

 

Many theoretical frameworks that seek to endow their subjects with the fullest status of personhood and agency have often encountered internal difficulties caused by problems of power. In particular, liberatory frameworks that have as their aim the establishing of minority identities as viable ontologies, epistemologies, and metaphysics have only been able to gesture at the ethics of agency implicated (or not) in these alternative identities.   I contend that the issue of agency remains unresolved because agency itself is an implication of power: to be an agent, one must have some kind of power—of acting, of self-authorization, of self-determination; in a word, the power to self-identify. One of the greatest problems facing liberatory theories is how to bring alternative (non-powerful) identities together with agency (a power-laden position) and still maintain the integrity of those minority identities. The problem rests in the way agency is conceived by traditional ethical frameworks: on those traditional views, human beings are rational, conscious creatures; and, as such, they have autonomy (the ability to self-determine). As a society, we are obligated to respect the autonomy of others. As rational, conscious, autonomous beings able to move more or less freely about in the world, we are agents. Agency in this picture thus emerges secondarily from a conceptualization of human beings as rational and autonomous. The problem for minorities is that in order to win this kind of agency, we have had to adopt a posture of rationality and autonomy that is consistent with the dominant hegemonic conception of what such a human being looks, acts, behaves, and thinks like—and that typical Subject position historically has been that of an able-bodied, white, Western, young, class-privileged male. What this means is that any minority person wishing to be an agent has to sacrifice or obscure his/her minority identity and/or heritage in the process of assuming the rational, emotional, and psychic characteristics of that Subject type.

But there have been and continue to be exceptions to this paradoxical relation of identity and agency. Margaret Fuller and Gloria Anzaldúa, writing 150 years apart from each other, both lived and wrote through this paradox in ways that provide powerful insights about the process of what might be called "strategic essentialism."  This term is problematic because it bears confused meanings in feminist discourse. Perhaps because strategic essentialism is a borderland position, theorists view this position with skepticism. That is, strategic essentialism is a position of resistance that embraces identities but also at the same time pleads for the right not to be trapped into that identity through reduction or representation. For example, a woman who (strategically) identifies as a woman does not wish to be reduced to being only a woman, nor does she want to be taken as representative of the identity "woman." Whatever theoretical dangers associated with strategic essentialism, I want to adopt this term as a framework for understanding Anzaldúa’s and Fuller’s successes in living and writing the paradox of agency and identity. It is their work, I will argue, that suggests we might put a different spin on the notion of "strategic essentialism"; playing on "essential", I suggest that identities become acts of agency that are pivotal to survival, rather than representative or reductive features of particular persons. My claim is that identities can be strategic processes taken up towards the projects of survival and of flourishing. Identities need not be seen as the essences of persons; rather, identities are meaningful processes of self-agency. In the words of Emma Perez: "If we do not identify ourselves as Chicanas, lesbians, third world people, or simply women, then we commit social and political suicide. Without our identities, we become homogenized and censored" (Perez in Trujillo 1998, 89).

How, then, do we utilize this paradox of agency and identity? In a word, by engaging in representative acts such as writing. Fuller and Anzaldúa both acknowledge this—and it is through understanding their discursive efforts that we can see how they produce and reproduce the process of identity and agency (self-representations) in ways that break open new spaces for both writer and reader to self-identify and self-represent. There are several tropes and mechanisms in each writer’s work that do this, but here I focus on two key tropes: mythologizing and pluralizing. The goal, if there ever is one, of these tro-pic endeavors, is to create a multiplicity of female subject positions. My paper will be focused on Fuller-as-mestiza, as I rely on the mestizaje framework to draw parallels between Fuller’s and Anzaldúa’s work and, ultimately, to make the claim that Fuller is best understood as a mestiza—that her work is principally akin to Anzaldúa’s in its efforts to establish a feminine agency.

 

Works used:

 

Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century

 

Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza  and Making Face, Making Soul/Haciendo Caras: Creative and Critical Perspectives by Feminists of Color

 

Paper 2: "From Dewey's Theories to Addams' Practice: Pragmatist Aesthetics and Hull House"

Pragmatist aesthetics has always been known for emphasizing the links   between the personal and social dimensions of art and creative work.  Pragmatist approaches have also typically taken artistic experiences to  be a locus of emotions intimately linked with cognition-- artworks for John Dewey, for example, were not contained in the sheer objects, but were more 'moments' of affect and cognition intertwining.  His preferred term of 'artworking' captured the sense of art as a verb or process, an outgoing imaginative action through which we learn about others and re-create the world and our identity in it.  Pragmatist aesthetics has resonated loudly with people interested in contemporary  art and cultural practices (the work of Richard Shusterman, for example), since cultural and creative practices seem such a part of building and fostering both one's particular identity through self-expression and one's more general membership in communities.

Yet one of the most seemingly obvious examples of pragmatist aesthetics in practice has received little attention:  Jane Addams' integration of the arts into Hull House.  This paper examines the degree to which Jane Addams put pragmatist aesthetics into practice at Hull House, and takes her work there as a primary example of the pragmatist emphasis on lived experience and on combining theory with practice.  It further seems worth asking if there is a specifically pragmatist feminist bent to her approach, or ways generally that Addams' sense of aesthetics might enrich our notion of pragmatist aesthetics.

One way of contrasting Addams' practices with art at Hull House and pragmatist aesthetics generally is to compare Dewey's aesthetics in Art and Experience with Addams' Twenty Years At Hull-House, specifically the chapter "Arts at Hull House."  Read in tandem, I argue that Addams' use of such exhibitions and her integration of art into Hull House provides a rich, concrete example of practices of 'artworking' that Dewey calls for in his writing.  The general theoretical critiques Dewey makes are given concrete shape with conflicts and experiences Addams recounts about art practices at Hull House.  Immigrants brought with them to Hull House a full range of practices and theories about

art:  artmaking/creative skills of their own and their cultures, concepts of art and criteria for meaningful art engagement, notions of where art fits within general daily life.  As immigrants, they were in an interesting (and often difficult) position regarding creative work and art engagement:  many simultaneously need to assimilate into American culture (and Chicago specifically), while at the same time they were often able to pinpoint ways Americans handled creative practices and art-- practices that, to many immigrants, seemed odd in comparison to their own cultural practices.

Hull House had links with the Chicago Art Institute, and an art studio with ongoing classes was from the beginning a cornerstone of the settlement.  The Hull House music school opened in 1893, and the Hull House theater was home to amateur companies:  exhibitions, concerts, and plays were a solid part of the environment.  These sorts of artistic productions that took place worked in at least three important ways.  First, to educate the broader community about ethnic identities, locations, and inheritances; second, to help immigrants retain their cultural inheritance of creative pursuits precisely at a moment when they were pressured to assimilate; and third, to allow immigrants to

pursue the classics of each craft and thereby partake in and re-weave notions of artistic quality in each field.  Hull House not only gave beauty and artworking a central place in its settlement mission and building of community, it also provided a space for the value of each to be discussed and re-figured.

One last significant thread of Addam's work with the arts deserves particular attention here. She also emphasizes how these artistic practices spoke against the increasing industrialization of the time, against the way work was structured for many of the Hull House residents and Chicagoans generally. And in this sense, Addam's aesthetics give us a robust account of the tension between alienating labor through which commodities are created and artistic labor through which something potentially more nuanced might take shape.  In theorizing this out of the artistic practices she and others instituted and learned from Hull House, Addams explored how the traditional art/craft division was in fact a false dichotomy.  She further offered an account of art's power to speak back to industrialized capitalism, in a way that was neither wholly individualistic nor group-directed. I end by suggesting briefly that this part of her aesthetics, in

particular, avoids the primitivism often attributed to Dewey's aesthetics, and provides a richer resource for thinking through pragmatist views on the relation between beauty, art, commodities, and forms of labor in capitalism.

Paper 3: "Reviving a Tradition: June Jordan and the activist strain in pragmatism"

 

From its initiation pragmatism has looked outside of the confines of the academy to those engaged in the larger world not only for the grounding and engagement of theory, but also the generation of theory from practice. Dewey, James, Mead, and Locke all took seriously the intimacy of theory and practice and worked to ensure that pragmatism stayed grounded in everyday actions and concerns.  Though they were generating theory from practice, they were not immersed in the community activism that generated the theory developed in the pragmatist tradition.  Women were at the core of the pragmatist commitment to social action and the generation of practice that leads to theory. Early pragmatist feminists such as Jane Addams and Charlotte Perkins Gilman were at the center of activist pragmatism and represent a pragmatist engagement that presents a different face of pragmatism, one that is immersed in the world.  

In this paper I begin by arguing that this early bifurcation in pragmatism resulted in two different pragmatist faces, one that is in the academy and one that is at the margins or outside of the academy.   This split has led toward a prioritizing of academic pragmatism at the expense of an activist pragmatism or a pragmatism that works to fully trouble the theory/practice distinction.   I move on to argue that there are models at the academy’s margins of an activist pragmatist engagement that reconnects this bifurcation and bring back into pragmatism the activism that is necessary for rich pragmatist theory and for the relevance of the academy to the rest of the world.  I hone in on African-American thinker, activist, essayist, and poet June Jordan arguing that she represents an important figure in the pragmatist tradition, one that reconstitutes pragmatist commitments to both activism and theory. Though Jordan did not explicitly identify herself as a pragmatist, her theoretical and practical orientations display strong pragmatist sympathies.  I argue that Jordan’s work can provide a model for an enriched, revitalized pragmatism through her commitment to public engagement. 

Like other pragmatists in the academy, Jordan’s work emphasizes the importance of situated lived experience and public engagement, troubles the theory/practice distinction, expresses a working commitment to the optimistic view that human action can improve the world, and uses the vocabulary of practice, action and locality rather than universals, to make claims about moral action, politics, and daily life.  She  expresses a commitment to showing the political and situated nature of what are taken to be neutral facts about events and groups, to critical revision and analysis, to knowledge as a means for the improvement of experience and the revision of practices, and to pluralistic and experimental practices. 

Jordan’s lifework brings to the forefront the activist strain in pragmatism.  Jordan intentionally writes for a larger audience that is outside of the academy.  Her work is self-consciously accessible to readers outside the academy and uncompromisingly seeks to challenge the confines of the academy.  She takes on important social and political issues, such as homogenizing tendencies in American democracy, the creation of ignorance through standard English, the problems of health care in the U.S and the civil rights movement.  Jordan continually inserts herself in the text creating a situated, lived text of her life experience and life of theorizing.  Jordan’s lifework, whether working with R. Buckminster Fuller to create improved urban communities, organizing and speaking at political protests, or teaching the art of Black English, is an important, critical, confrontational voice needed in revitalizing the activist strain in the pragmatist tradition. 

References for this paper include: June Jordan’s Some of Us Did Not Die, Technical Difficulties, and Civil Wars; Jane Addams’ Democracy and Social Ethics, Newer Ideals of Peace, Twenty Years at Hull-House; John Dewey’s Works, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Women and Economics, The Home, Its Work and Influence; The Man-Made World; The Living of Charlotte Perkins Gilman; an autobiography; Alain Locke’s Race Contacts and Interracial Relation, "Values and Imperatives," "Pluralism and Intellectual Democracy," " Cultural Relativism and Ideological Peace;" Richard Rorty’s Achieving Our Country;  Charlene Haddock Seigfried’s Pragmatism and Feminism: Reweaving the Social Fabric; Shannon Sullivan’s Living Across and Through Skins: Transactional Bodies, Pragmatism and Feminism; and Cornel West’s The American Evasion of Philosophy.