Susan Hekman. Feminist Studies. Volume 25, Issue 2. Summer 1999.
Theories of the Background
In 1995 one of the pillars of the American philosophical establishment, John R. Searle, published a book with the ambitious title, The Construction of Social Reality. His title has an obvious subtext: it is a challenge to the popular late-twentieth-century conception that reality is socially constructed. The strongly argued thesis of Searle’s book is that there is a reality “out there” that does not require human institutions for its existence and that this reality, what Searle calls “non-institutional” or “brute facts,” ground the institutional facts that societies construct. The object of his book is to explain, given the existence of these non-institutional facts, how institutional facts, facts that exist only because of human agreement, come into being.
This is an impressive book. Searle marshals his considerable philosophical talents to critique the notion that all of reality is socially constructed and to explain how the facts that are socially constructed can be constituted as facts. Central to his argument is what he calls the “Background.” The Background is that set of socially constituted assumptions that enables linguistic interpretation to take place; it is the recognition and acceptance of a body of facts by the members of a society in which they are operative. This acceptance constitutes these facts; if it ceases, the facts themselves cease to exist. Searle freely admits that his concept of the Background is not original. He notes discussion of the Background by the later Ludwig Wittgenstein, Pierre Bourdieu, David Hume, and Friedrich Nietzsche. I would go further and claim that discussions of what Searle calls the Background pervade late-twentieth-century thought. Hans-Georg Gadamer’s discussion of prejudice, Michael Oakeshott’s analysis of habit, and, in a different vein, Michel Foucault’s concept of episteme, are all versions of the Background. The effort to define the status of the agreements that both allow and constitute social life has become a major preoccupation of contemporary philosophy.
From a feminist perspective, however, this discussion is disturbing on a number of levels. First, it is a discussion that occurs outside the orbit of feminist analysis. If, as I have argued, discussions of the Background are a central aspect of contemporary philosophical thought, then feminists have not been a part of these discussions. Analyses of the Background are gender blind: feminist issues are not just marginalized, they are invisible. Although philosophers may pay lip service to feminist approaches in many instances, when it comes to “serious” philosophical issues like epistemology, feminist concepts quickly disappear. Second, most if not all the philosophers of the Background ignore two issues central to feminist concerns: power and social change. With the notable exception of Foucault, questions of how social facts come to be accepted and the mechanisms by which they are maintained are not even raised. Further, these discussions are by their very nature profoundly conservative. There is almost no discussion of how Background assumptions change or might be changed with the aim of constituting a better social world. Finally, and most importantly for feminism, there is no discussion of the Background from an epistemological perspective as a masculinist construction of reality, a social construct that defines and reinforces the hegemony of men.
In the following feminist reflections on the Background, I advance three theses. The first is that in one important sense, the theorists of the Background are profoundly right. Without a socially constituted core of agreed-upon assumptions about both the social and natural worlds (or, for that matter, even a distinction between them) human social life would be impossible; human intelligibility requires common understandings. The second is that theories of the Background offer a viable epistemological alternative to two equally unacceptable positions: absolutism and nihilism. The dichotomy between these two positions has plagued contemporary philosophical discussions and has been especially problematic in feminism. Theorists of the Background effectively displace this binary by asserting a non-foundational foundation. They define a set of fundamental beliefs that are not absolute: they could be and indeed have been different. Yet these beliefs provide a secure foundation for meaning and understanding: they avoid nihilism. My third thesis is that the Background determines not only the possibility of intelligibility but also the possibility of changing the ground of that intelligibility. Thus only by understanding the workings of the Background can feminists develop strategies for changing it, that is, for constructing a social reality that breaks the bonds of masculinist domination.
My first two theses can be approached by examining any of the variety of theories of the Background. I begin by focusing on Searle’s theory not because his is the most useful for feminist purposes (I later argue that this designation belongs to Wittgenstein) but, rather, because Searle provides a good illustration of what, in a sense, feminists are up against. Searle embodies the philosophical establishment in Anglo-American philosophy. Although the work of Continental philosophers has proved to be more compatible to feminist concerns, this compatibility has not brought feminism into the mainstream of philosophy, because, in most American philosophy departments, Anglo-American philosophy is still predominant. Thus Searle’s blindness to feminist issues is particularly egregious. In his book Searle analyzes a question that is central to feminist concerns—the distinction between institutional and non-institutional facts—without once mentioning a feminist issue or perspective. This in itself is a significant statement about the role of feminism in contemporary philosophy and the nature of the problem that feminists must confront.
Searle’s basic thesis with regard to institutional facts is that language is constitutive of institutional reality. In his vocabulary what this means is that institutional facts are ontologically subjective (their existence depends on people’s beliefs), but they are epistemologically objective (they do exist). Institutional facts—marriage, war, private property, and so forth—must be accepted by a majority if they are to continue in effect; once this acceptance ceases, they cease to be effective. It is these institutional facts that form what Searle calls the “Background.” The Background performs a number of necessary and vital functions in society: it enables linguistic and perceptual interpretation to take place; it structures consciousness; it temporally extends sequences of experience that come to us with a narrative or dramatic shape; it facilitates expectations and disposes people to certain kinds of behavior.
In his discussion of the Background, Searle spends a lot of time grappling with the question of causality. In what sense, he asks, does the Background act as a cause of our behavior? Neither of our conceptions of causality—rational decision according to rules or brute physical causation—explain the causal mechanisms of the Background. Searle concludes from this that the kind of causality that the Background exerts is unique. It involves developing a set of abilities that are sensitive to specific structures without being constituted by that intentionality. The “rules” that constitute the Background are never self-interpreting or exhaustive; they simply allow us to know what to do. Searle concludes that “in learning to cope with social reality, we acquire a set of cognitive abilities that are everywhere sensitive to an intentional structure, and in particular to the rule structures of complex institutions, without necessarily containing representations of the rules of those institutions.” Thus it is not the case that individuals master the rules of society but, rather, that they develop a set of capacities and abilities that render them at home in that society.
One of the conclusions Searle hopes to derive from his analysis is a defense of realism. External realism, he argues, functions as a taken-for-granted part of the Background; unless we assume external realism we cannot understand relevances in the way that we normally do. The effort to communicate in a public language necessarily presupposes a public world in the sense that the “public” exists independent of our representations of it. The price of abandoning this conception of external realism, thus, is the abandonment of normal understanding. But unlike most defenders of realism, Searle does not argue for a “natural” ground for culture. Instead he asserts that the traditional opposition between biology and culture is suspect. He argues that culture is the form that biology takes; the connection between biology and culture is consciousness and intentionality; the uniqueness of culture is the existence of collective intentionality.
Searle’s account resonates on several levels from a feminist perspective. His statement that institutional facts are epistemologically objective and ontologically subjective is difficult to challenge. At the center of his argument is the claim that institutional facts do, indeed, exist and that the basis for their existence is the social acceptance that constitutes them; looking for any other foundation would misunderstand the nature of those facts. What Searle does not pursue, however, are two important aspects of the ontological subjectivity of institutional facts—power and change. Searle studiously avoids the issue of how power maintains the status quo and how countervailing power might facilitate change. He does not explore how the “social acceptance” that constitutes institutional facts is established or how forces that might alter those facts arise. His vision is both monolithic and static. He asserts that “we” agree on these facts without examining who this “we” is or how this agreement is imposed. The question of how this “we” might change its collective mind is not even raised.
Searle’s discussion of causality also has feminist relevance. A key component of contemporary feminism is a position usually labeled “social constructionism.” Feminist social constructionists assert that women are made, not born, and thus that gender and even sex are social not natural constructions. Social constructionism has immensely enriched feminist critiques in the past decades; it has allowed feminists to challenge what have appeared to be biological givens about women’s role in society. But, like most theories, it has also incurred problems. If, as the social constructionists argue, we are entirely constituted by social forces, then why don’t we emerge with cookie-cutter sameness? Taken to its logical extreme, social constructionism leads to what some critics have called the problem of the “social dupe.” Total determination by cultural forces would obviate the emergence of individual differences; it would even make it impossible to account for social rebels such as feminists. The title of Searle’s book, The Construction of Social Reality, is a non-too-subtle attack on this position, in both feminist and nonfeminist work. It is therefore ironic that Searle’s work offers a way around the problem of the social dupe. Searle argues for a unique understanding of the causal mechanism in the Background. Following the “rules” of the Background is not like following the rules of a game; the Background’s rules are never self-interpreting or exhaustive. The set of capacities and abilities we develop allow us to feel at home in our society; this is quite different from following the memorized rules of a game. This goes a long way toward explaining individual differences within a culture without denying the influence of culture altogether.
Finally, Searle’s discussion of the relationship between biology and culture has feminist implications. The point of his discussion is to establish the validity of “external realism” and the priority of brute facts over institutional facts. But his argument can be put to more radical uses. His contention is that the traditional opposition between biology and culture is suspect, asserting instead that culture is the form that biology takes. What this amounts to is the deconstruction of a central, and deeply gendered, dualism. The biology (nature)/culture dualism has been central to Western thought, coding nature as female and culture as male, defining women as not truly human. It has also been used to define a “natural” role for women based on women’s (sexed) biology. Displacing this binarism is very useful in displacing this sex/gender binarism that has caused so much trouble in feminist theory. We might say, paraphrasing Searle, that gender is the form that sex takes; there is no neat division between them.
In the course of elaborating his theory, Searle dismisses Wittgenstein’s approach to the Background as inadequate: unlike Searle, Wittgenstein is not interested in exploring in detail the constitution of institutional facts. But from a feminist perspective, Wittgenstein’s position is more useful than that of Searle’s. Wittgenstein reveals more clearly than Searle the deep-rootedness of the Background. For Wittgenstein, the Background is embedded in the grammar of our language and, ultimately, in what he calls our form of life. Further and most importantly Wittgenstein’s discussion of justification offers insight into how the Background changes.
At the center of Wittgenstein’s discussion is his claim that our language is grounded not in the universal metanarrative of logic but, rather, in our activity. Wittgenstein elaborates this thesis in Philosophical Investigations. The ultimate justification for our claims to knowledge is not logic but simply “what we do.” “It is what human beings say that is true and false; they agree in the language they use. That is not agreement in opinions but in forms of life.” Our concepts rest not on “a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting which lies at the bottom of the language game.” Philosophers since Plato have looked for ultimate justifications, complete explanations. What Wittgenstein is advocating, by contrast, is an end to justifications not in logic but in human activity itself: “What people accept as a justification is shown by how they think and live”; “the chain of reasons has an end.” “Our mistake is to look for an explanation where we ought to look at what happens as ‘proto-phenomenon.’ That is, where we ought to have said: this language game is played.”
At a crucial point in his argument, Wittgenstein appears to go beyond a description of human activity as the justification for our knowledge and to appeal once again to a universalistic grounding. His discussion of “general facts of nature” and “natural history” seems to imply that he is not content with the contextual account he has given and is looking for more reliable, universal criteria. But a careful reading of the relevant passages suggests a different conclusion. For Wittgenstein, our “natural history” includes not just our biological or “natural” activities but our linguistic activities as well: “Commanding, questioning, recounting, chatting, are as much a part of our natural history as walking, eating, drinking, playing.” Our language games are as natural to human life as our biological life. Most important, language games literally give us a world in which to live; our concepts are part of the fabric of our form of life. Wittgenstein’s point in his famous statement “If a lion could talk, we could not understand him” is not that our biology differs from that of lions but, rather, that a lion’s concepts would create a world that we could not comprehend. Wittgenstein summarizes thus:
I am not saying: if such and such facts of nature were different, people would have different concepts (in the sense of a hypothesis). But: if anyone believes that certain concepts are absolutely the correct ones, and that having different ones would not mean realizing something that we realize—then let him imagine certain very general facts of nature to be different from what we are used to, and the formation of concepts different from the usual ones will become intelligible to him.
If anything, Wittgenstein’s approach here sounds more conservative than Searle’s: human activity and human language are inextricably linked in our natural history. But another aspect of the Background emerges in Wittgenstein’s discussion of justification in On Certainty. The metaphor that Wittgenstein uses to make his argument here is that of the riverbed. It is a complicated metaphor involving shifts and alterations:
It might be imagined that some propositions, of the form of empirical propositions, were hardened and functioned as channels for such empirical propositions as were not hardened but fluid; and that this relation altered with time, in that fluid propositions hardened, and hard ones became fluid. The mythology may change back into a state of flux, the riverbed of thoughts may shift.
Wittgenstein’s conclusion to this argument, however, belies the emphasis on change and flux and the reference to mythology:
But I distinguish between the movement of the waters on the river-bed and the shift of the bed itself; though there is not a sharp division of the one from the other. And the bank of the river consists partly of hard rock, subject to no alteration or only to an imperceptible one, partly of sand, which now in one place and now in another gets washed away or deposited.
All testing, all confirmation and disconfirmation of a hypothesis takes place already within a system. And this system is not a more or less arbitrary and doubtful point of departure for all our arguments: no, it belongs to the essence of what we call an argument. The system is not so much the point of departure as the element in which arguments have their life.
The story of the Background that Wittgenstein sketches is considerably more ambiguous than that of Searle. For Wittgenstein, the Background is a “mythology,” a “world picture.” In Philosophical Investigations he asserts: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside of it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” Asking whether this mythology, this picture, is true or false is asking the wrong question because “[a]bove all, it is the substratum of all my inquiry and asserting.” It is not arbitrary but grounded. The ground, however, is not nature but interconnectedness: “What I hold fast is not one proposition but a nest of propositions.” And finally, “At the foundation of well-founded belief lies belief that is not founded.” Thus: “Giving grounds, however, justifying the evidence, comes to an end;—but the end is not certain propositions striking us immediately as true, i.e., it is not a kind of seeing on our part; it is our acting which lies at the bottom of the language.” He writes: “At the end of reasons comes persuasion.”
Wittgenstein’s account of the Background, much more than Searle’s, reveals what I see to be the feminist implications of the Background. Both Wittgenstein and Searle emphasize that the Background provides the possibility of meaning in social life, that it is the necessary medium in which understanding takes place. Both emphasize that it is an ungrounded grounding and that it is social agreement that, as Wittgenstein puts it, holds it fast. But Searle, perhaps because he fears the encroachment of postmodern nihilism, avoids the question of how the Background changes. Wittgenstein is bolder. His riverbed metaphor in On Certainty is complex and ambiguous. It introduces change, flux, even “mythology.” But, belying Searle’s fears, he does not concede that this entails arbitrariness and nihilism. Riverbeds shift slowly, incrementally; meaning itself is never threatened. This position, I will argue, provides important guidelines for a feminist theory of the Background.
Subversive Theories of the Background
It should come as no surprise that twentieth-century theorists who have sought to change the social and political order have not been enamored of theories of the Background. On its face, the Background is a conservative concept. It presumes that meaning rests on something like tradition—the set of meanings handed down to us from our forefathers (not, significantly, our foremothers). Speaking of language, J.L. Austin once said: “Our common stock of words embodies all the distinctions men have found worth drawing, and the connections they have found worth marking, in the lifetimes of many generations.” This is even more true of the Background. It is not insignificant that one of the most famous theorists of the Background, Edmund Burke, used it to argue against the viability of any social or political revolution.
Despite its conservative heritage, however, aspects of a theory of the Background appear in oppositional theories beginning with Karl Marx. Marx had a lot to say about the constitution of social reality: the role of ideology, the operation of the superstructure, the role of history in the construction of social consciousness. His theories of the social construction of reality, furthermore, have had far-reaching effects in twentieth-century social and political theory. Social phenomenology, the sociology of knowledge, theories of the relational self, to name a few, all owe a debt to Marx. Marx’s theory, of course, rests on a presupposition that constitutes a significant difference between his approach and that of other theorists of the Background—that behind the construction of social reality is the grounding truth of material reality.
It could also be argued, however, that once Marx began to speculate on the social construction of reality it was only a matter of time until the groundedness of the ground itself would be challenged. The twentieth-century thinker who reveals this most clearly is Michel Foucault. Foucault continues the oppositional tradition of Marxism, elaborating and deepening many of Marx’s explorations of the construction of social reality, while at the same time abandoning Marx’s grounding in material reality. Foucault extends the scope of the social construction of reality into new territory by showing that subjectivity itself is a discursive product. And, breaking from the Marxist tradition, he refuses to privilege any discourse as “true,” as the final ground. Operating on the assumption that all knowledge is discursively constructed, he defines his task as the explication of the mechanism by which discursive formations are constituted.
The work of Foucault provides a subversive approach to the Background that has certain affinities with feminism. From a feminist perspective, Foucault’s most useful concept is that of the “insurrection of subjugated knowledges.” The experiences and discourses of women are, in Foucault’s terminology, subjugated knowledges; they are explicitly excluded from the Background. Bringing these knowledges into hegemonic discourse can and does alter what counts as knowledge; it amounts to an “insurrection.” But Foucault remains vague on the mechanisms by which these subjugated knowledges alter what Wittgenstein calls the riverbed of thought. He is more interested in chronicling the rise and fall of discourses of knowledge. Describing this insurrection, however, is precisely what feminism is about.
Nancy Hartsock’s theory of the feminist standpoint represents one of the first steps in what I will identify as the feminist critique of the Background. On one level, of course, Hartsock is continuing the Marxian tradition of defining the Background as ideology as opposed to Truth. This is evident in her definition of the term that links her feminist critique with Marxist theory. “A standpoint,” she argues, “carries the connotation that there are some perspectives on society from which, however well-intentioned one may be, the real relations of humans with each other and with the natural world are not visible.” Her defense of the feminist standpoint rests on her assertion that other perspectives can provide a truer vision. But several elements of Hartsock’s feminist standpoint theory move her away from the ideology/reality duality that she inherits from Marx. First, she recognizes along with Marx that “reality” as it is constituted by the ruling class, because it defines what reality “really is,” cannot be dismissed as simply false, mere deception. It defines the social world in which we all live, structuring our consciousness and our material lives. Second, Hartsock clearly identifies this definition of reality as gendered. What she calls “abstract masculinity” structures the real in a fundamental sense and obscures the viewpoint of women.
In Money, Sex, and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism, Hartsock opposes abstract masculinity to the “feminist standpoint,” a perspective developed from the experience of women. As her thought develops, however, Hartsock realizes that “the experience of women” is not singular, but plural. She thus alters her vision of a singular abstract masculinity opposed to a singular feminist standpoint to one in which women with varying experiences occupy the margins and ruling-class white men define the center. This move is significant. It draws her away from the simple reality/appearance binarism that defines Marx’s work and toward a more nuanced approach to the constitution of social reality.
I would like to suggest that what Hartsock calls “abstract masculinity” is a central aspect of what I am here calling the Background but that the juxtaposition between abstract masculinity and the feminist standpoint is a counterproductive feminist strategy. Abstract masculinity, as Hartsock herself admits, constitutes the definition of the real, the element in which arguments and thought itself make sense. Far from being false, it sets the standards for what constitutes “truth.” It follows that we cannot simply counter abstract masculinity with the “truth” of the feminist standpoint. This is the case, as Hartsock herself later realizes, because there is more than one “truth” to women’s experience. But there is another, profoundly important reason why this juxtaposition won’t work: feminist truth does not make sense in the discourse of abstract masculinity. When feminists proclaim their “truth” it comes out sounding like nonsense in the terms of abstract masculinity, which is, of course, precisely what it is in those terms. Hartsock is skipping a step here. We must first alter the criteria of what it makes sense to say before we can proclaim another “truth” and expect it to be heard. In Wittgenstein’s metaphor, we must shift the riverbed of thought.
This missed step is crucial. If the feminist standpoint is not to be dismissed as mere nonsense, feminists must construct arguments that both make sense in terms of the Background and at the same time alter those terms. A feminist strategy for accomplishing this is suggested by Sandra Harding: “Thinking from the perspective of women’s lives makes strange what had appeared familiar, which is the beginning of any scientific inquiry.” I would like to replace “scientific” here with “feminist” and build on this insight. One of the defining characteristics of the Background is that it is taken-for-granted, the elements in which sense is constituted rather than consciously applied rules. The first step in changing the Background thus must be to bring it into focus—to look at the familiar, identify it, examine its constituent elements, and explore their implications. This is no mean feat. The Background is, by definition, rarely conceptualized. Gadamer’s prejudice, Wittgenstein’s riverbed, and Hartsock’s abstract masculinity exert their influence precisely because they are not conceptualized and, thus, not questioned. Conceptualizing and questioning the Background, however, is a radical act. It reveals the Background to be not the ground of all truth but the ungrounded ground of this society’s particular truth.
The next step in the strategy is “making strange what appears familiar.” At the risk of epistemological confusion, I am going to suggest that this is what occurred in the feminist “consciousness-raising” movement of the 1960s. Women engaged in consciousness raising were examining elements of the Background—aspects of their lives that they had always taken for granted and certainly never conceptualized. Their scrutiny of these elements yielded radical results. The Background they uncovered was an abstract masculinity that marginalized, trivialized, and erased their thoughts and experiences. And, perhaps most significantly, once they had conceptualized these elements, they found them strange. They looked at everyday practices such as opening doors and ushering women into rooms and found them strange, even demeaning, rather than polite. They questioned the link between childbearing and childrearing that resulted in the suburban isolation of white, middle-class women. And they questioned why women’s work in the household did not count as “work” at all.
The feminist theorist who is most effective in making the familiarity of the Background strange is Marilyn Frye. In The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory, Frye examines elements of the Background that are of particular relevance to women, first bringing them into consciousness and then exposing them as peculiar phenomena, “making them strange.” One of these elements is what she calls the “habitual and obligatory sex marking” that characterizes our culture. There is, she points out, great pressure on us to inform everyone all the time of our sex. In a brilliant analysis, Frye first makes us see that this is indeed the case, then exposes the practice as a bizarre social custom, and finally reveals that there are deep-seated cultural reasons why this practice exists and continues: “There are reasons…why you should want to know whether the person filling your water glass or your tooth is male or female and why that person wants to know what you are, but those reasons are woven invisibly into the fabric of social structure.”
What is particularly valuable about Frye’s feminist analysis of the Background is that she takes on the difficult question of how we can resist and even change it in feminist directions. Her basic assumption is that “our conceiving cannot be independent of culture, though it can be critical, resistant or rebellious.” She clarifies what I see to be the feminist relevance of the Background: that it is both the element in which meaning is constructed and that which we must resist and critique. She argues that the Background cannot simply be tinkered with but that it is also not “beyond us.” For Frye, what feminists are doing and must continue to do, is to create a “matrix and meaning, a world of sense, a symbolic order.” Essential to her argument, however, is her assertion that this creation is not and cannot be de novo but, rather, is necessarily embedded in cultural understandings and meaning. In this sense Frye departs from the feminist standpoint approach. She is not claiming that we must uncover the true reality obscured by the ideology of patriarchy. Rather, in a Wittgensteinian move, she argues that the new meanings that feminists create must be defined in terms of words that are already intelligible to us. Women who want to create new meaning work within an existing language, and a system of imagery and myths. Thus the “new” vocabulary they create is and must be a reassembly of the old.
Frye is in her own words a “seer,” one who sees the taken-for-granted elements of the Background, brings them to our attention, and challenges their strangeness. She assumes, along with the male theorists of the Background, that meaning is collectively constructed and that without the Background meaning itself is impossible. But, although she does not emphasize it, she also assumes with these theorists that the Background is ungrounded and that the point is not to find the “true” ground of meaning but to shift the riverbed in a different direction. Unfortunately, Frye does not have much to say about how we can go about doing this. She asserts that the meaning must be communal—women must make it together. She suggests that we can accomplish this by changing the meaning of words that are already intelligible to us, reassembling them to suit our purposes. Although I agree with this, I would add that shifting the riverbed of thought requires not just changing the meaning of words but also telling a different story. It must be a story that is intelligible in terms of the story we have been told but one that also illuminates its strangeness. What is required, in short, is the construction of a new narrative.
Shifting the Riverbed
“Grammar is politics by other means.” — Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, 3.
Wittgenstein uses several arresting metaphors to describe what I am here calling the Background. He refers to a “picture” that holds us captive, preventing us from seeing another picture. In his evocation of the riverbed, the Background is the channel through which our thought flows, giving it structure and making it intelligible. Implicit in both of these metaphors is the possibility of change. Pictures can be altered; other pictures can be drawn; riverbeds can and do shift. In his elaboration of the riverbed metaphor, Wittgenstein argues that the relationship between “hard” and “fluid” propositions in the riverbed changes over time—hard propositions become fluid, fluid ones hard. He even refers to this situation as a “mythology.”
But Wittgenstein is not a social reformer. His discussion of shifts in the Background is epistemological speculation and not a blueprint for social action.. Despite this, Wittgenstein’s perspective has a significant advantage for those interested in social action: he links language to practice. For Wittgenstein, language is always an activity, a doing. Thus changing language entails changing practice. Foucault’s discussion of the Background, although less philosophically interesting than that of Wittgenstein, is more explicit about how change occurs. His discussion of the “insurrection of subjugated knowledges” sketches the mechanism by which change takes place. Feminist discourse, as a “subjugated knowledge,” is a discourse that creates a new picture of reality, a picture based on the experiences of women that are invisible in the present picture. The now-extensive literature on feminist epistemology elaborates the significance of this new picture of knowledge. What has not been adequately discussed in this literature, however, is how this new picture that emerges from feminist discourse relates to the Background. If the Background theorists are correct, then efforts to change the picture, to shift the riverbed of thought, must have some connection to the existing picture/ riverbed. If feminist discourse is to be successful in effecting an epistemological shift, it must both make sense in the dominant discourse of the existing Background and at the same time alter that discourse. In other words, feminists must use language understandably but also subversively in order to change linguistic/ social practice.
The feminist theorist who has done the most to accomplish this goal is Donna Haraway. In an impressive array of writings that ranges from primatology to postmodernism, Haraway constructs a feminist narrative that subverts Background assumptions, transforming meaning in a feminist direction. Like Wittgenstein, Haraway sees language as an activity linked to practice. Thus her discourse analysis has the intention of changing social practice in a feminist direction. Perhaps the best illustration of this intention and its relationship to what I have identified as theories of the Background is her well-known image of the cyborg. Haraway’s construction of the cyborg rests on many of the assumptions of the Background theorists. She assumes that our picture of reality is a picture that includes some experiences, excludes others. That the experience of women has been rendered invisible, particularly as an object of scientific study, is the beginning of her investigation. Haraway also assumes that in order to alter this picture, another picture must be constructed—“women’s experience.” But crucial to her argument is her assumption that this picture, like the picture it replaces, is a constructed picture with political implications: “This experience is a fiction and fact of the most crucial, political kind.” She states:
I am making an argument for the cyborg as a fiction mapping our social and bodily reality and as an imaginative resource suggesting some very fruitful couplings … The cyborg is our ontology; it gives us our politics. The cyborg is a condensed image of both imagination and material reality, the two joined centers structuring any possible historical transformation.
Several aspects of Haraway’s image of the cyborg are relevant to my analysis of the Background and particularly to my reading of Wittgenstein’s perspective. First, Haraway assumes that what feminists are doing is not finding the truth, and certainly not the singular truth, but constructing another picture. In another context she makes this even clearer: “Women’s studies pedagogy is a theoretical practice through which `women’s experience’ is constructed and mobilized as an object of knowledge and action.” Second, Haraway assumes that this picture must be intelligible in terms of the old picture even as it transforms it. Thus she argues that “my cyborg myth is about transgressed boundaries, potent fusions and dangerous possibilities.” Transgressing boundaries is an activity that only makes sense if boundaries are known and what constitutes a transgression is understood; we can only shift the riverbed of thought if we know its path. Third, Haraway assumes that we cannot “prove” the “truth” of the new picture but, ultimately, can only argue for it. This directly parallels Wittgenstein’s argument that at the end of reasons comes persuasion. Cyborg politics, she claims, “is the struggle for language and the struggle against perfect communication, against the one code that translates all meaning perfectly, the central dogma of phallogocentrism.”
The depth and power of Haraway’s feminist critique of the Background is most clearly revealed in Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science. On one level, the book is an analysis of the changing discourse of primatology in the twentieth century. But much more is going on in Haraway’s book than a straightforward description. Underlying and informing her analysis are three profound questions: What is the narrative that primatology tells us about nature, culture, race, and gender? Why is primatology so central to this story? How can this narrative be destabilized in a feminist direction? It is my contention that Haraway’s method of answering these questions sketches an outline for a feminist critique of the Background. She constructs what amounts to an internal critique of a narrative that is central to our understanding of ourselves and our place in the natural world. But it is an internal critique that pushes the boundaries of meaning, that makes the familiar strange, and thus alters the basis of meaning itself. Haraway is, in Wittgenstein’s sense, giving us a concrete illustration of how to shift the riverbed of thought.
Haraway addresses the first question, the structure of the narrative that defines nature, culture, race, and gender in the first sentences of her book: “How are love, power, and science intertwined in the construction of nature in the late twentieth century?” and “How do the terrible marks of gender and race enable and constrain love and knowledge in particular cultural traditions, including the modern natural sciences?” Haraway defines her first order of business as understanding the narrative that shapes our definition of nature. The themes of race, sexuality, gender, nation, family, and class, she asserts, have been written into the body of nature in Western science since the eighteenth century. The next step is to understand that this narrative is a story, not a priori truth. A danger to be avoided, she asserts, is to see race and gender as “prior universal social categories” instead of constructed categories, “world changing products of specific, but very large and durable histories.” Informing both of these steps of her analysis, furthermore, is Haraway’s renunciation of objectivity. The “visualizing narrative `technology’ of this book,” she claims, is “never innocent.” Its intention is, in Foucault’s sense, to reveal the unthought and, in so doing, to destabilize the narrative that it grounds. But, as in her cyborg myth, Haraway is careful to caution that her goal is not to reveal the “truth” but, rather, to construct another narrative.
Much of Haraway’s discussion in Primate Visions centers around how the discourse of primatology has constructed “nature” and how that discourse has changed in the twentieth century. This is what makes her enterprise so crucial. Wittgenstein claims that the riverbed is constructed by central assumptions about what the world is and our place in it. The concept of “nature” is one of those assumptions. By holding this concept up to feminist scrutiny, Haraway provides the possibility of shifting that riverbed. She focuses on the codes that have informed the discourse of primatology. “How,” she asks, “do the race, species, gender, and science codes work to re-invent nature in the Third World for First World audiences within postcolonial, multinational capitalism?” The gender code emerges with the prominent role of women in twentieth-century primatology. Women, who are closer to nature, can mediate the nature/culture boundary more readily than can men. They bring chimps into culture from nature. The prominence of women in primatology also impinges on the science code: uncredentialed women scientists are more likely to be sensitive to the mother-infant bonding that is one of the principal objects of scrutiny in primatology. Finally, the race code emerges in the prominent whiteness of the women primatologists. White women can mediate between man and animal in a way that women of color cannot. And, in relation to the white women primatologists, the primates are colored surrogates for all who have been colonized in the name of nature.
Haraway’s contention that primatology is one of the central elements in the construction of “nature” and that the changing discourse of “man” in society both effects and is affected by the discourse of primatology provides her with an opening to her feminist critique. If primatology is the story we tell about nature, culture, gender, and race and if that story changes with cultural changes, then it might be possible to destabilize the patriarchal story, replace it with a feminist story, and, thus, change the role of women in society. This is precisely the strategy that Haraway employs in her book. Her general point is that all narrative fields offer the possibility of renegotiation: “All units and actors cohere partially and provisionally held together by complex material-semiotic-social practices. In the space opened up by such contradictions and multiplicities lies the possibility for reflexive responsibility for the shape of narrative fields.” The reason for focusing specifically on the narrative field of primatology, she argues, is that it negotiates our perception of what is human and, hence, proper for females and males.
Haraway’s strategy of destabilization emerges as her analysis progresses. What she calls the shape of narrative fields can be opened up and reshaped by telling another story. But this story must be closely related to the original story, intersecting with it in significant ways, while at the same time departing from the original story sufficiently to alter its meaning. Two assumptions inform this strategy. First, feminism is, on Haraway’s account, another story: “Feminism, as well as primatology, is a story-telling practice.” We are not countering the “false” story of primatology with the “true” story of feminism but are telling a different story. Again, possibly in opposition to feminist standpoint theory, she argues: “Destabilizing the positions in a discursive field and disrupting categories for identification might be a more powerful feminist strategy than `speaking as a woman.’“ Second, Haraway assumes that feminism and primatology are intersecting stories, and it is precisely this intersection that provides the possibility of change.
My contention is that the intersection of the narrative fields of primatology and feminism destabilizes the narrative fields that gave rise to both primatology and feminism, thereby generating the possibility of new stories not strangled by the same logics of appropriation and domination, but also not innocent of the workings of power and desire, including new exclusions. But the intervention must work from within, constrained and enabled by the fields of power and knowledge that make discourse eminently material.
What unites feminism and primatology is that they are both critical discourses that claim to provide knowledge about gendered social space and sexed bodies. They are thus in a unique position to “warp each other’s story fields” and redraw possible knowledge positions.
There is a strong affinity between the strategy employed by Haraway in Primate Visions and Wittgenstein’s theory of the riverbed. Both Wittgenstein and Haraway are arguing that our understanding of our world and the possibility of meaning in that world is a story, an ungrounded ground. It is a story, furthermore, that rests on certain founding assumptions. Thus Wittgenstein refers to the elements in which arguments have their life, the contours of the riverbed through which our form of life flows. Haraway focuses on the concept of nature and its development in the discourse of primatology. The perspectives of Wittgenstein and Haraway are also similar in that they discuss the possibility of altering these fundamental assumptions. Both assume that language and practice are two sides of the same coin. Thus although Haraway has more to say about practice, both define changes in practice in linguistic terms. Their motivations for discussing change, however, are quite different. The whole point of Haraway’s analysis is to open the door to change, to shift meanings in a feminist direction. Wittgenstein, in contrast, is interested in change only as an abstract epistemological possibility. They concur, however, that changing that story, although possible, is necessarily an incremental process. Meanings must be destabilized and altered; they cannot be created de novo. Wittgenstein claims that riverbeds shift over time; elements of the riverbed move from fluid to hard and vice versa; none of this happens overnight. Haraway describes such a process in her analysis of the work of feminist primatologists in Primate Visions. The story that feminist primatologists tell conforms to the norms of scientific discourse—it is a scientific story. But it is also a destabilizing story that alters the narrative field of primatology and has political overtones. Feminist primatologists contend with nonfeminist primatologists about evidence and its meaning. Their story has the same form as their opponents. And this is precisely why it is capable of shifting the riverbed.
It is my contention that Haraway’s argument with regard to primatology provides a model for fashioning a feminist discourse of resistance. She does not have all the answers; sometimes she departs from the dictates of her own theory. Changing the Background in a feminist direction is no small task. We have to discriminate among strategies that will subvert the Background while still making sense within it. Haraway never confronts this crucial question directly. But Haraway’s approach has the virtue of stressing that if feminists do not fashion arguments that make sense within the Background, we will be dismissed as irrational, nonsensical. We can argue, quite justifiably, that the Background is masculinist, that it silences women, that it ignores women’s experiences. But if these arguments are themselves dismissed, we have accomplished little. We must make our arguments understandable within the Background if they are to be effective. But it does not necessarily follow that these arguments must be conservative. It is possible, as Haraway illustrates, for arguments to be both intelligible and destabilizing. Feminists can and must employ elements of masculinist discourses to accomplish the feminist goal of resistance. What I am suggesting, in other words, is a reversal of Audre Lorde’s famous dictum: only the master’s tools can dismantle the master’s house. If we do not employ the master’s tools, the discourses that constitute the Background, we will perpetuate our silence and marginality. But those tools can be put to uses other than those the masters intended. The master’s tools, the discourses that constitute the Background, are not monolithic. They encompass a diversity of resources, some of which can be turned into tools of resistance. Most importantly, elements of different discourses can be combined to produce unique effects. My argument, finally, is that this is the best strategy for shifting the riverbed.