Tag Archives: gender

Political theology and the “pivot to Asia”

In the fields of critical historiography, gender studies, world history, postcolonial theory, and so on, there is, it seems to me, a widespread acceptance in many circles that global and postcolonial perspectives are essential for any serious study.

For example, in recent times we might go back to Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory from the 1970s for better understanding global economic systems, Edward Said’s 1978 Orientalism to explore the way imperial knowledge contributed to power structures, the alternative historiography of the Subaltern Studies Group initiated in the 1980s by Ranajit Guha and others, the various approaches at writing global history (one of my recent favourites is C. A. Bayly’s 2004 The Birth of the Modern World), global understandings of feminism and gender from Leila Ahmed, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak – and so on. If we approach what might be regarded as questions of religion more directly, we find similar global perspectives in the work of William Cavanaugh (The Myth of Religious Violence, 2009), Abdulkhader Tayob, Sabine Dedenbach and many more.

Of course, there are a great number of scholars in Western universities who manage to ignore all this, or resort to colonial constructions to discuss the global context, using terms such as “ethnophilosophy” (that’s basically the study of non-European philosophy not written by white men) or “ethnomusicology” (that’s basically the study of non-European music not written by white men) or “ethnohistory” (that’s… oh, you can work it out!). But serious, useful, and relevant scholarship increasingly looks at much wider perspectives. This is why I found Kwok Pui-Lan’s introduction to a recent issue of Political Theology rather depressing (version with footnotes; note that the links to the articles are broken, try here to read them).

Kwok Pui-Lan, writing for Political Theology (click the image to read the blog posting; the original article has footnotes)

Kwok Pui-Lan, writing for Political Theology (click the image to read the blog posting; the original article has footnotes)

To be clear: I regard Pui-Lan as a great scholar, and have read and learnt from her work over many years (and her occasional blog is very enjoyable). I am not criticising her at all. Rather, I am depressed that after so many years of global scholarship, it is still necessary in a journal such as Political Theology to go right back to the basics as Pui-Lan has clearly felt she had to do here, and highlight all that still needs to be done to make contemporary political theology relevant in a global world.

I studied theology for my undergraduate degree from 1986 to 1990 at Aberdeen in Scotland and at Erlangen in Germany. Both had a reputation as being somewhat conservative – and yet I was reading global theology from the beginning of my degree, if not always as part of my courses. By the end of my second year, I would say I had a solid grounding in the thinking of key Latin American liberation theologians (Gustavo Gutierrez, Leonardo Boff, Ernesto Cardenal, Miguez Bonino etc.), South African theologies of resistance (John de Gruchy, Allan Boesak, Desmond Tutu etc.), and increasing interests in the ways these global theological trends related to my own context in the capitalist West (Dorothee Sölle, Christopher Rowland, Alastair Kee etc.). In the midst of all this, I also read and engaged with Asian liberation theology, beginning with Aloysius Pieris (1988). And in amidst all of this, the impact of feminism and global gender theologies wove its way into my thinking in all these areas: Sallie McFague, Carter Heyward, Daphne Hampson, Audre Lorde, Rosemary Radford Ruether, Elizabeth Schüssler-Fiorenza, Luise Schottroff and so on. When Chung Hyun Kyung’s Struggle to be the Sun Again on Asian women’s theology came out in Britain in 1991, I bought and read it immediately. In much of this literature, there was a recognition that systems of oppression emanated not only from Western contexts, but more generally from alliances with systems of power, whether they be European, Asian, or race-, class- or gender-based.

I mention all these authors simply because they played a formative role in my early theological development. I was 18 when I started reading these texts (I’d no doubt benefit from revisiting them all now!), and for me, theology has always been global. In my own understanding as an early undergraduate, the ‘global turn’ for theology took place in the 1970s with Gutierrez and others – of course, I soon realised that that was not correct, but it shows that I was aware of the need for a global understanding, and I could see that it was already happening.

And yet, in 2016, three decades later, we still have an established journal in Western theological circles explaining from first principles why we need to look at what is happening globally to better understand what our political theology might look like. It feels rather patronising, but I actually feel sorry for Pui-Lan that she her concluding paragraph includes the lines:

In order to speak to the present situation prophetically, political theologians must decolonize our minds and disengage ourselves from Eurocentrism and the colonial syndrome.

The theologians I mentioned above were doing exactly this in the 1970s, 80s and 90s, and before – and they and others have continued to do so since then. But even the articles in this issue of Political Theology do not appear to do what Pui-Lan is asking for, being centred almost exclusively on traditional Western thought. Thank goodnesss Political Theology does not represent the status of political theology!

Sara Ahmed’s resignation from Goldsmith’s

I have been very moved by Sara Ahmed’s resignation from Goldsmith’s College, University of London, over its failure to deal adequately with sexual harassment: “I have resigned in protest against the failure to address the problem of sexual harassment. I have resigned because the costs of doing this work have been too high.” She has written about this here and here.

Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology

Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology

I don’t know Professor Ahmed personally, but I have found her work to be stimulating and tremendously helpful in my own thinking (I’ve been raving about her book Queer Phenomenology to anyone who will listen for quite a while now!). Having recently left a university, I know that it’s not easy to do, and I can’t imagine doing so would have been easy for her, even though the circumstances  of her leaving are very different to mine. She used her agency in the context she was in to chose to leave over the issue of sexual harassment at her institution, understanding this as a feminist act.

Goldsmith’s, like all modern institutions, prides itself on its equality and diversity policies (Goldsmith’s, like so many, devotes a page on their website to this topic), but as Ahmed points out, these policies mean little if the problem of sexual harassment is allowed to continue; I also know this from being a trade union case worker. The “performativity of saying diversity” is something my sister-in-law, Eike Marten, has written about in the German context (her book on this topic is being published by Routledge later this year), and the singular failure of institutions to adequately address these topics despite a string of Athena Swan and other awards is something that Ahmed’s actions have highlighted. Identifying mechanisms to address this problem is the next step, particularly in the light of the increasing number of cases beginning to appear in the mainstream (academic) press, and in my view this is what makes Ahmed’s resignation at this time so important.

Universities tend to protect famous (almost always) older male scholars from the consequences of their sexual harassment of (almost always) younger female scholars. I know this personally: right in the middle of my undergraduate finals, I was a witness in a university procedure against a senior professor who had sexually harassed me and many other undergraduates – men and women – over a protracted period of time (and yes, choosing a date for the hearing in the middle of the exam period was, I think, deliberate on the part of the university). The whole thing was largely covered up, and the professor in question continued his work in academia and the church; unfortunately, a recent FOI request I made to Aberdeen University resulted in no documents being found on this topic, and as he is still alive and active in his field, I probably shouldn’t name him publicly even now, for fear of litigation. That happened in 1990, but Ahmed’s resignation a quarter of a century later clearly indicates nothing much has changed in UK academia.

It’s high time it did.

I have a vested interest.

I keep hearing (from people who really should know better) that women in academia don’t have to put up with the same kind of sexism as in the rest of society. This. Is. Rubbish.

Sexism in society is rife (in fact, as I wrote recently, men’s violence against women is at epidemic levels), and that is reflected in academic contexts too – academia is a part of society! This eloquent blog posting explains that, and makes the connection very clear.

As the author says: “I have a vested interest in convincing you that sexism and misogyny are real, because they are.”

Tenure, She Wrote

In the fourth grade, I was obsessed with marine science and sonar technology, and I’d spend Saturday afternoons watching The Hunt for Red October instead of Saved by the Bell. That summer, I toured a Navy sub in dry dock– my first time! — and I asked the officer leading the tour when we’d be going to the sonar room. “Sorry, kid. It’s classified,” he said. Masking my disappointment, I replied that it was okay, because I was going to be a sonar technician when I grew up, and I could wait until then. “But they don’t let girls on subs,” was the officer’s surprised reply, as he looked at me as if I’d sprouted horns. When I asked why not, he told me I wouldn’t want to be stuck on a sub with a bunch of smelly guys anyway. My “Then…why aren’t there submarines for just girls?” got no reply.

So, I have a vested…

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How to reduce the likelihood of dying: be a woman in Scotland

Women in Scotland don’t die. Well, some do, but not at the same rate as men. This means I’m doomed, because men in Scotland are nearly three times more likely to die than women – those are bad odds! I can prove this with statistics, as I’ll show below. However, before I get to that, there are two things I don’t really understand, given that girl and boy babies are born in pretty much equal numbers:

  1. if fewer women die, there should be lots more women in Scotland than men, but I don’t really detect that much of a disparity in numbers;
  2. also, there should be an awful lot of very elderly women in Scotland, but there really don’t seem to be that many (but perhaps my scepticism about TV advertising is misplaced – maybe all these anti-aging creams really DO work! But still, there should then be lots of old-but-young-looking women about, and there don’t appear to be, as noted in point 1).

Anyway… by now you may be asking how I know that fewer women die in Scotland. It’s really very simple: for the entire month of June I’ve been reading the obituaries in the printed version of The Herald. For a while I had a sense that there seemed to be lots of men recorded but very few women, so for the entire month June I compiled figures from the obituaries. These statistics show that men die at a much higher rate than women, and presuming the order in which they appear on the page suggests something about their relative importance, I can also deduce that less important women die more infrequently – this obviously means not only should you be a woman if you want to live longer, but you should be an obscure woman.

– o – o – o – o – o – o – o –

Silliness aside: it is obvious to most of us that the mainstream media is sexist: we often think of the tabloids in this regard, but the broadsheet press is also sexist, even if it doesn’t use naked women as a primary selling point. Compiling obituary information is a clear marker of that: these pages record the passing of significant people, and although I have never heard of many of them (because they lived and worked in fields far removed from my own interests), I find obituaries interesting.

Here is the data I collected:

M 2.6. 1 1 Maitland Mackie
Mary Soames
T 3.6. 1 1 Hilda D Spear
Michael Schmidt
W 4.6. 3 0 Duncan MacLean
John Weir Cook
Matthew Saad Muhammad
Th 5.6. 3 0 Walter Yellowlees
Malcolm MacDonald
Herb Jeffries
F 6.6. 2 1 Matthew K Dickie
Dorothy Robertson
Carl Boehm
S 7.6. 1 2 Jean Petrie
Georgina Scott Sutherland
Alexander Shulgin
M 9.6. 3 0 Harry Hyde
Chester Nez
Zbigniew Pietrzykowski
T 10.6. 1 0 Rik Mayall
W 11.6. 2 0 Max Wallace
Eldon Griffiths
Th 12.6. 1 1 David Kynd Brown
Yuri Kochiyama
F 13.6. 0 2 Jane Gray
Barbara Murray
S 14.6. 2 1 David MacLennan
Rolando Ugolini
M 16.6. 2 1 Duncan Fenton
Eric Hill
Anne Donnan
T 17.6. 2 0 Donald Macaulay
Sam Kelly
W 18.6. 2 0 Jim Keays
Casey Kasem
Th 19.6. 2 1 Charles Letts
Kevin Elyot
Elaine Gerber
F 20.6. 0 1 Rhea Martin
S 21.6. 3 0 Phil Mason
Gerry Goffin
Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos
M 23.6. 2 1 Gerry Conlon
Francis Matthews
Ruby Dee
T 24.6. 2 0 Ian Hughes
Jimmy Scot
W 25.6. 2 0 Harry Wylie
Felix Dennis
Th 26.6. 2 1 David Taylor
Eli Wallach
Martha Hyer
F 27.6. 3 0 Peter Mallan
Tommy Craig
Phil Mason
S 28.6. 2 1 Joan Macintosh
Horace Silver
Patsy Byrne
M 30.6. 2 1 Molly Wood
Bobby Womack
Terry Richards
Totals: 46 16 (that’s 2.875 times as many men as women!)

So we can see that on numerous occasions not a single woman was deemed worthy of an obituary in the Herald (only on two occasions did this happen with insufficient numbers of significant men dying). There’s also a pattern where women more often appear as the last person in the list, preceded by one or two men. And so on… We can see very clearly that men predominate in the obituaries in every way, indicating that men’s lives are interesting and worthy of our attention, whilst women’s lives are less so – all of this is a serious problem that permeates our thinking.

I am not, of course, making these comments to in any way mock the deceased, but simply to point out that what seemed like a pattern to me in the months prior to June is a reality, based on this month’s obituaries.  How we mark those who have died and celebrate what they have given our society is tremendously important – and it’s important that the contributions of men AND women are recorded and celebrated.

Now, about race…

Not Everything is Awesome – The Lego Movie and Marx, race, and gender

Last week my son and I went to see The Lego Movie – he’s only 18, so I have an excuse! 😉

It is an enjoyable film – we laughed through much of it, and the various references to other films and cultural elements are sophisticated and well done.  The central story – that creative play is better and more important than the uniformity of business – is elegantly told.  The film ends on a slightly mushy but emotional high that cheered the children and us.

And yet… and yet… this is a film that makes me uneasy.  Primarily this is because of the (ironic) self-referential criticism of capitalist uniformity being promoted – by a huge capitalist corporation.  The number of Lego mini-figures manufactured over the years alone apparently numbers several billion – and the number of plastic bricks they’ve made will no doubt exceed that several times over.  The amount of oil and other natural resources that have been used to create this much plastic is probably impossible to even quantify.  Lego bricks may be small, and the mini-figures rather cute, but the company behind them is neither: it is a global capitalist enterprise, and the bricks it sells are what creates money for them, through the classic form of creating surplus-value from their labour force.  It may be a great toy, and our household has contributed substantially to the profit of the Lego corporation over the years, but it is still a capitalist enterprise with all the problems that entails.  David Harvey shows how Marx explains the various ways in which capitalists excuse and explain what they do in order to make profits from their workforce, and then notes:

Capitalists may… be frugal and abstain, and they may also sometimes exhibit a benevolent attitude toward their workers… Marx’s point is that capitalists could not possibly sustain the whole system by appeals to virtue, morality or benevolence, that the individual behaviour of capitalists, varying from benevolence to vicious greed, is irrelevant to what capitalists must be in order to be capitalists, which is, quite simply, to procure surplus-value.  Furthermore, their role is defined… by “coercive laws of competition,” which push all capitalists to behave in similar fashion no matter whether they are good people or proverbial capitalist pigs. (A Companion to Marx’s Capital, Verso, 2010, p123)

To pretend that Lego is a “good” capitalist corporation (or even to pretend that it is not a capitalist corporation at all, but just a manufacturer of good quality toys) is to ignore the nature of what it seeks to do – make money for its owners, which it just so happens to do by making little plastic bricks.  The message of the film – that imagination and creative play should triumph over business uniformity – can legitimately be seen as capitalism making its excuses and justifications for the way in which the corporation operates (relying, for example, upon the global oil industry for their product), as Harvey explains using Marx.

Dipesh Chakrabarty also uses Marx to argue that there are two forms of capital’s engagement: the first he calls History 1, which is capital’s attempt to subsume everything into itself to form one dominant narrative of history.  It is counteracted by multiple forms of subversion and resistance that he calls History 2 (or Histories 2, or History 2s etc.), which History 1 is seeking constantly to incorporate into itself and therefore nullify.  To think that Lego is in some way promoting a form of History 2 (or its variants), as the film seeks to suggest, is to mistake the power, adaptability and inventiveness of capital as exemplified by History 1 (see Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference, Princeton University Press, 2000/2007).

The normative understandings of race and gender that the film uses help to show this.

Virtually all of the characters are the uniform yellow of the classical Lego mini-figures.  The only exception I can recall comes when Lando appears: a Star Wars character.  Yellow is used for pretty much all non-licensed Lego mini-figures, whereas licensed figures (e.g. in the Star Wars and Harry Potter sets) have a more ‘natural’ skin tone that is supposed to be similar to that of the ‘real’ characters.  This might suggest that the yellow faces are not really race-oriented, but to my mind, this simply makes the appearance of one single black character stand out all the more – there is no racial diversity in Lego’s world (unless there is a connection to an external source).  In terms of race there is no History 2 here. (For more on this, see e.g. the classic text by Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Pluto Press, 1967.)

As for gender questions, there are two key elements I want to pick up on.  The first is the classic Lego pattern of pinks and pastels for many of the ‘girl characters’ such as Unikitty (one of the only named leading girls apart from Wyldstyle/Lucy – see below): when the leads move into these coloured areas, the ‘boy characters’ tend to react uncomfortably and seek to return to the stronger primary coloured areas: a classic portrayal of girls’ and boys’ Lego worlds as marketed by Lego for decades now.  Gender is ‘performed’ in classic style here (see Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Routledge: 1990).

Secondly, whilst there is a strong female lead character in Wyldstyle/Lucy, who is generally shown to be more competent than the supposed (anti-?) hero, Emmet, she generally plays second-fiddle to strong male leads, whether Vitruvius, Batman (her boyfriend, though she is shown to be gradually falling in love with Emmet as the film progresses), or Emmet himself.  Then, in the closing scenes, Batman quite literally hands her over to Emmet, saying he (Emmet) deserves her more: Wyldstyle/Lucy becomes piece of property, a trophy, passed on from one man to another.  Nothing is allowed to disrupt the heteronormative patriarchal patterns of society – there is certainly no female agency allowed to disrupt male domination.  As with race, History 1 provides the normative understanding in gender terms.

So The Lego Movie offers a form of engagement with creative play in rebellion against the dominance of big business – within strictly defined limits that do not threaten the interests of capital in any meaningful way.  “Everything is Awesome” as the corporate song in the film has it – but not if you seek any kind of History 2 in relation to race or gender diversity.  Doing so might lead to questioning the dominant structure of white, male society and from there it’s just a short step to questioning the dominance of capital itself – and we can’t be having that now, can we?

Challenging Everyday Sexism

In connection with the launch of the new Centre for Gender and Feminist Studies that I am several others are involved in, there is to be a day of talks, workshops and debate about challenging sexism in public and private life.

The event is free (though you do need to register as numbers are limited), and is open to students and staff at Stirling University, and anyone else who wishes to attend.

The programme has a number of sessions:

  • Laura Bates (founder of Everyday Sexism Project) and Kezia Dugdale MSP on ‘Challenging Everyday Sexism’
  • Workshops on challenging street harassment, porn culture, men challenging men, sexual violence prevention education
  • Gail Dines (author of Pornland) on ‘Sex(ism), Identity and Intimacy in a Porn Culture’

The detailed programme and registration form is available to download here.