Saturday, April 02, 2005

Hearing bell

I'm finally getting around to blogging about bell hooks's lecture of Wednesday night. Mine won't be, however, a very thorough overview of the lecture but much more of an affective response. After all, Marcia already has good notes over at her place: check them out.

When I heard back in January that bell hooks would be coming to campus, I was thrilled. Her work has been very intellectually and emotionally important to me over the past decade or so. I first read her Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center in Lynn's Feminist Critical Theory class back in grad school and was struck then by the remarkable readability of her voice that remains highly emotionally involving even as she makes hard and stinging critique of everything from second-wave feminism to popular culture. Though not the first, hers was certainly one of the most widely circulated voices that called out white feminists for ignoring race and class oppressions.

I've referred often to an argument she makes in that book, one that she repeated as part of her answer to a question on Wednesday night: that feminism is most productively conceptualized as a practice, a political movement, rather than as an identity to take on:
“Feminism is the struggle to end sexist oppression. . . . [It] is neither a lifestyle nor a ready-made identity or role one can step into” (28).
She referred to this way of thinking of feminism in answer to a series of questions about "womanism": why, several students wondered, doesn't she consider herself a womanist? Shouldn't confronting racist oppression come before a focus on gendered oppression? hooks's response is that since feminism isn't an identity, there's really no reason to be forced into these sorts of choices, that choosing to use feminist critique as a way to oppose sexism doesn't mean one doesn't also confront racism.

For some of my colleagues, this answer seemed wishy-washy, as did hooks's general emphasis on "love" (the name of her talk was "Ending Oppression: What's Love Got to Do With It?"). I have to admit that I, too, have wondered about her more recent books, many of which have "love" in the title and that seem to be sliding toward self-help and away from cultural critique. One of my colleagues lamented the way really sharp critics tend to get soft as they get older.

But, really, love has always been present in hooks's writings, as has the motivation to see critical thought as a way of caring for the self (and here I'm purposely evoking Foucault here, even though hooks doesn't, because I think it's important to see that "care" circulates in theoretical discourse in and beyond feminism). In Breaking Bread, her dialogue book with Cornel West, hooks talks about love as "being about people mutually meeting each other's needs and giving and receiving critical feedback" (56). And I think people may find these two actions (mutual care and mutual critical feedback) to be mutually exclusive; it certainly isn't often considered academically rigorous to go around talkin bout love. But, friends, maybe we should.

I mentioned that I was excited about her coming when I heard about it, but I felt so wiped out this week that I barely managed to get myself to the lecture Wednesday night. I also was quite ready to be disappointed. I've come to be more or less disappointed many times over the years when seeing, in person, someone whose work I've long known and loved. There's something about being a "star" that seems to drain stars of their critical edge. I also, frankly, find it a little gag-inducing when people treat cultural critics like stars, with the whole homage and verbal genuflections and all. It isn't that I don't think people should express their respect and appreciation: it's just that I don't want to turn any intellectual into an object of worship. Seems kind of bad for the soul. And there was some of that at the lecture. But, overall, I was pleasantly un-disappointed in the lecture. It was refreshing to find bell hooks's presence to be so much like her page presence: hard-edged points coupled with an astonishingly at ease presence and engaging voice. I wasn't particularly bowled over by anything she said; I was familiar with many of her basic points (regarding, for instance, interlinking systems of oppression, which she now calls "dominator culture"), though she did make a point of emphasizing the need for men to be loved as men, to be seen as fellow victims of rather than as necessarily perpetrators of patriarchy. But I know her ideas were more new than old for the vast majority of the audience, and I know that she considers it essential for intellectuals to be able to speak to a broad audience, not just to insiders. Hearing her speak, it was gratifying to see how successful she is in communicating a message that affirms critical consciousness and the struggles against all forms of oppression: she inspires with her very presence, which is at once both critical and at ease.

Some more from Breaking Bread: from the closing paragraph, to bring this entry to a close:

Oftentimes intellectual work compels confrontation with harsh realities. It may remind us that domination and oppression continue to shape the lives of everyone, especially Black people and people of color. Such work not only draws us closer to the suffering; it makes us suffer. Moving through this pain to work with ideas that may serve as a catalyst for the transformation of our consciousness, our lives, and that of others is an ecstatic and joyous process. (164)

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