A Conversation with Clara Fischer and Shelley Park, Professors of Philosophy and Guest Editors of Forthcoming Hypatia Special Issues
Clara Fischer: This is a great question, and one that can be divided into two, asking why feminism, and from there, why feminist theory? Like many feminists, I had a feminist light-bulb moment that allowed me to see gender inequality as systemic and pervasive in our societies. This moment had wide-ranging consequences for me as a person, including for my professional life. This is why, following my second masters, I decided to specialise in feminist theory. Feminist theory helps me, and others, I think, to make sense of a range of phenomena and issues by focusing on ‘gender’ and other inequalities or systems as explanatory factors. This is often referred to as adopting a “gendered lens”, and has been both personally and professionally rewarding for me.
Shelley Park: To be honest, I came to feminist theory, in the first instance, as an act of rebellion. I was continually told in graduate school in the 1980s that feminist philosophy was not “real” philosophy. Being a headstrong young woman, I set out to prove them wrong. Feminist philosophy was not really my specialty at the time, but engaging these struggles over the boundaries of philosophy required me to become conversant with an emerging literature that then shaped my own interests and work. Over the years, I have wearied of the battle about whether what I read, write and teach is or is not “philosophy” proper. The new questions, issues, perspectives and theoretical frameworks that feminists have brought to the study of knowledge and values are exciting, significant and worth pursuing, regardless of whether or not they are given the honorific title of “philosophy.” Disciplinary boundaries—like Trump’s “wall”—are not particularly conducive to productive interchanges among people with diverse experiences and perspectives.
FN: Was there a specific person, event, or work that solidified your educational and career trajectory in feminist theory? An “aha!” moment?
CF: Yes, that “aha” moment is precisely what I meant! For me it came as a result of taking a gender studies module as a postgrad. I’d always been interested in theory, having an undergraduate degree in Philosophy and Music, and coming to feminism allowed me to delve into theoretical questions that are addressed within the wider frame of feminism.
SP: I can’t trace my trajectory to a single person, event or work. The turns my work have taken over the years—from analytic philosophy of mind to interdisciplinary studies of queer kinship with numerous detours along the way–have been largely contingent ones related to life experiences. I stumble across a question or a conversation and become puzzled by it. These puzzles may be generated by philosophical or other scholarly books. But they are more often generated by something troubling that happens in the classroom, at home, on social media or in the news. Philosophical reflection begins when I am genuinely struggling with how to understand something or someone that I care about. When in the midst of such struggles, I read a lot—looking for alternative frameworks that might shed a different perspective on things or help me to interpret a situation differently. My reading tends to be quite eclectic for this reason. I am often drawn towards newly emerging interdisciplinary fields where there is not yet a dominant perspective and theorists themselves are still struggling to define questions and frameworks.
FN: We’re talking a lot in this festival about the humanities and its utility. Do you think feminist theory needs to have an application to be of value?
CF: I think feminist theory, compared to other theoretical frameworks and philosophies, is particularly prone and conducive to theorising that involves the empirical. That is for a variety of reasons, including the fact that much feminist theory tries to explain gendered empirical circumstances, shedding light on gendered injustices, often, ultimately, with a view to redressing such injustices where possible. In terms of application, then, I would be reluctant to use the term, as theory does not necessarily have be instrumentalised through application to be of value. For instance, one can learn a whole lot from theory that simply describes something in an entirely new and different way. The more appealing way of looking at it, I think, is to look at the relationship between theory and the empirical, and to see how theory can make us help sense of a variety of issues and problems we struggle with in our daily lives.
SP: It depends what we mean by terms such as “application” and “utility.” I resist the underlying premise of the corporate university that all scholarly fields must generate money or be directly tied to job-training. And I hate the ways in which the humanities must “market” themselves as “profitable” enterprises in monetary terms. On another understanding of usefulness, however, philosophy does have an application—always and everywhere. Thoughtful reflection and self-reflection on questions concerning what is good, what is just, what is true, and whether and how we can know these things are fundamentally important to how we live both our individual and our collective lives. When we cease reflecting on such questions, we lose our capacity to be responsible neighbors, knowledgeable voters, socially aware consumers, skilled parents or good friends (among many other things).
FN: You’re both guest editors of upcoming special issues in Hypatia. Please tell us about the themes of your special issues, and why you felt there was a need to publish works on these themes?
CF: The special issue I’m guest-editing is on “Gender and the Politics of Shame”. There has been a huge amount of interest, recently, in gender and emotion or affect, as a number of scholars in a variety of disciplines have announced a new theoretical trajectory in feminist theory, the “turn to affect”. Moreover, there has been a growing scholarly concern with shame, and whether and how shame is particularly genedered. For instance, scholars have asked whether women are particularly shame-prone, and whether this might have something to do with women’s embodiment and how such embodiment is viewed in patriarchal societies. So, there are a lot of complex issues to deal with in regard to gender and shame, and there are a host of questions to be addressed. The purpose of the special issue is precisely to make some inroads with regard to those questions, and to add to scholarship on shame, and to emotion and affect more generally.
FN: Regarding “Gender and the Politics of Shame” – do you see shame as an oppressive patriarchal force? How insidious is shame?
CF: Shame has been viewed by many scholars as deeply debilitating, particularly in relation to gender. Since patriarchal societies may articulate standards of what counts as shameful (and what doesn’t) that arguably make women more shame-prone, it is possible to see shame as “an oppressive patriarchal force”. However, this is complicated by the more positive role ascribed by many scholars to shame, which presents shame as a necessary mechanism for fostering beneficial moral norms and behaviour. So, shame is by no means straight-forward, and the contributions to the special issue will certainly confirm that.
FN: On “Contested Terrains” – what terrains do you see as battlefields, and is there anything that women can do to reclaim these spaces?
SP: The terrains that are contested are sometimes quite literally battlefields in which women get caught in the crossfire. Consider here, as but one example, the ways in which the U.S. led war on terror waged in Afghanistan has been conducted in the name of liberating Afghani women. Other contested terrains may be battlefields in a more metaphorical sense. Philosophy, for example, (including, often, feminist philosophy) may be viewed as a contested terrain that has been colonized by European thought and in need of reclamation by those—such as women of color and third world women–who have been harmed by dominant western modes and practices of thinking. There is no easy formula for reclaiming either ideological or material territories. Sometimes reclamation may not even be the right project; what may be sought is transformation or something else. But change of any sort will need to start with understanding territorial disputes as legitimate, significant and potentially generative of new ideas and practices.
FN: How have advances in technology changed the landscape of philosophy and feminist theory? What kinds of opportunities and challenges do you see in this digital era?
CF: From a researchers’ perspective, technology has made scholarship a lot easier to do. I can’t imagine what people did before searching for and finding sources at the click of a button! For teaching, too, there are now much better supports available for students even compared to when I was and undergraduate student. The big debate for the future will of course be the question of open-access research, and whether and how much we pay for publishing. Those debates are already happening, and will no doubt continue.
SP: The digital age brings with it significant opportunities to have ongoing philosophical dialogue with people from diverse geopolitical and intellectual locales. At the same time, by providing us access to a much greater number of potential interlocuters, the digital era also provides the opportunity to surround ourselves with those who will do little but confirm the rightness of our own views and methods. Whether we wish to expose ourselves to new ideas or cloister ourselves among those who are like-minded is really up to us. Unfortunately, the dominant landscape of professional western philosophy has not changed much yet. Fortunately, there are many other exciting—intercultural, interdisciplinary–intellectual spaces and opportunities opening up for those who continue to feel marginalized or excluded by professional philosophy.
FN: What changes have you observed in feminist philosophy over the past few decades? What areas of interest are you exploring next?
CF: Two major, recent trajectories in feminist theory are the “turn to affect” that I already mentioned, and scholars working in “new materialisms”. These feminists, like all theorists, respond to what has come before, but do so with an emphasis on having to move beyond social construction and the “linguistic turn” to theories that focus more on affect/emotion and the body. These are important developments in feminist thought, that my work will also engage with in the future. I’m particularly interested in how questions of emotion and embodiment can be addressed through alternative feminist frameworks, including through feminist-pragmatism, that is, American philosophy.
SP: Feminist philosophy does not have a long history. But, like other areas of feminist scholarship, it has changed rapidly since its inception in the mid to late 20th century—starting with the project of recovering the lost voices of women in the history of the field and moving toward developing an embodied women’s perspective, then encountering and attempting to address the shortcomings of theories that (wittingly or unwittingly) centered the thinking of a small handful of relatively privileged women—namely white, middle-class, straight, cisgender, able-bodied women from the global North. We are still in the midst of this work–attempting to decenter privileged women’s perspectives and be more inclusive of a much wider range of voices in theory-building (and in thinking about what even counts as “theory” or as “philosophy”). An integral part of this is grappling with what the term “woman” itself means in a world where gender binaries are themselves exclusive.
I am increasingly interested in work happening at the intersections of feminist philosophy, queer theory, crip theory, and technology studies. The monograph on which I am currently working is, tentatively titled “Mothers, Lovers and Others: The Ethics of Care in a Technological Era.” I am interested in thinking about how practices of and expectations for love and care are transformed by technologies ranging from breast pumps to Grindr and social robotics. I am also interested in thinking about how we do (or don’t) care for workers (largely third world women) who produce these technologies of care.
Clara Fischer is a Teaching and Research Fellow in Philosophy, and a Research Associate in Women’s Studies at University College Dublin. She is the author ofGendered Readings of Change: A Feminist-Pragmatist Approach, co-editor of Irish Feminisms: Past, Present and Future, and is guest-editing a special issue of Hypatia: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy on “gender and the politics of shame”.
Dr. Shelley Park is Professor of Philosophy, Humanities and Cultural Studies at the University of Central Florida where she teaches courses in feminist theory, gender theory, postcolonial theory, and cultural studies. She is the co-editor of a special issue of Hypatia on “Contested Terrains: Women of Color and Third World Women, Feminisms, and Geopolitics,” Associate Editor of Queer Studies in Media and Popular Culture and author of Mothering Queerly, Queering Motherhood: Resisting Monomaternalism in Adoptive, Lesbian, Blended and Polygamous Families (SUNY Press, 2013).
About Fifile Nguyen
Fifile Nguyen is a Marketing Manager at Wiley, covering social sciences and humanities books both digital and print. Her passion for seeing live music (over 300 so far!) and four years as a radio show host inspired her work on organizing this festival – her proudest work achievement to date.
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