Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Does theory come from experience?

Over in the continuing blogthrash at Rage Against the Man-chine, ND calls someone out for giving personal anecdotes and no discussion. Basically, the person described her scenes and said "how can you call this wrong?" ND didn't like this one bit, pointing out that she's debating about feminist interpretations of BDSM as a whole, not talking about particular personal experiences.

My response:


While I understand your frustration with the personal anecdotes and agree that they don't count as argument, I also think there's something particular that this disconnect brings out:

One side is saying that personal anecdotes do count, because the personal experience is all we've got. "What BDSM means," on such a view, is just what commonalities and themes can be found in thousands of personal stories. It's whatever reasons for it, activities, and explanations are most common, most appealed to, most important. On this view the only way to come up with "what BDSM is about" is to read as many stories as possible (or, failing that, to come up with a sound method of selecting samples) and discover what you find.

The other side -- which you're on -- says that a theory that makes no reference to actual experience can and does explain it, and therefore individual experiences are irrelevant and beside the point.

But my question is: what makes the theory itself one that we should accept, then? As I understand it, radical feminist theory itself arose from practices like consciousness raising, which was lots of women in groups sitting around describing their experiences, noticing commonalities, and coming up with theory that explained those commonalities and how to work to fix the problems that showed up over and over in the lives of many women.

Now, I wasn't around in the '70's, so perhaps some second-wavers/radical feminists who were can correct me. But my question is: What exactly happened? Why does theory now trump experience, when commonalities in experience were precisely what led feminists to determine that sexism wasn't just a personal matter, but rather a political one?

It really confuses me.


Gaina said...

It doesn't count when personal experiences cannot be moulded to fit the feminist/anti drugs/anti abortion/ anti-whatever groups' agenda.

Trinity said...

"It doesn't count when personal experiences cannot be moulded to fit the feminist/anti drugs/anti abortion/ anti-whatever groups' agenda."

That's how it seems to me. I mean, you read Dworkin and it's all full of "women know in our marrow what this means" and "don't call this an anecdote" and etc.

Anonymous said...

No, see, back then they needed to consult experiences to determine the proper theory. But now that the theory is done, the experiences are no longer needed. The theory is perfect. Obviously.

antiprincess said...

my pal Habu would have more to say on this, if she's around. she's a scholar.

antiprincess said...

this whole ignoring of personal anecdotes thing - it's like trying to talk to a creationist who insists on ignoring the existence of fossils.

Charlie said...

I think that part of the problem is that theories are often discussed using all/nothing language. In a world of 6 billion people, there's almost nothing you can say about sex or gender that we all experience in the same ways. My post on Nine Deuce's blog is about why I think we need to use language that leaves room for diversity of experience. I've also written about it here.

The irony is that people often use all/nothing language in an attempt to make their theories more valid, when what it really does is limit how useful they are and alienate people. Lots of people have some experiences that are aligned with radfem theories and others that aren't. I'd really like it if such theories reflected that. It'd make it easier to take the parts that are useful. Plus, it'd leave some room open for dialogue. But then, I suppose that's one difference between a theory and an ideology.

Renegade Evolution said...

I'm starting to wonder if ND is going to, oh, answer some questions that have been asked of her or merely....rail on.

I mean, normally I LOVE getting railed, but...

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Guh. I go and look at these comments, and I see, once again, "But what sexuality should people have?"

I am becoming increasingly convinced that anything that can make that seem to be a proper question to ask can achieve nothing but evil.

"What sexuality should people have?" killed Matthew Shepard. "What sexuality should people have?" got a rape victim whipped in Saudi Arabia. "What sexuality should people have?" spawns purity balls and other creepy patriarchal sexualisation of children. "What sexuality should people have?" gutted sex education, spiking STD rates and unwanted pregnancies. "What sexuality should people have?" is a justification for rape and abuse, "jungle fever" racism, "boys will be boys" dismissal of harassment and assault ....

What makes this new theory about what sexuality people should have immune to a thousand years of martyrs, victims, and patriarchy?

Cereus_sphinx said...

Theories are proven by evidence in their favor.

Yes, people's minds can play tricks on them...
But simpler solutions are usually better.

Lots of convoluted psychology
"Wow, some people like different things"

To me the second explanation seems simpler.

Trinity said...

Kiya: Good Fucking Question.

I don't expect ND to pop over here with an answer, tho'.

Dw3t-Hthr said...

Given discussions elsewhere, I don't think that's terribly likely from anyone with a Shiny! New! Theory! about how women should conduct their sex lives to be good and proper.

Anonymous said...

Well, this one goes right back to the days of the Pre-Socratic Philosophers in Ancient Greece.

But most modern people will recognise it most easily as Galileo vs. the Roman Catholic Church.

Anonymous said...

Mkay, I'm sure I have a blogger name, but I've forgotten what it is. Anyway...

The problem is that theories, in more scientific pursuits, have parameters to define their applicability. Good theory states its assumptions--if X, Y, and Z, then this is true, or should be true. This kind of theory does not. It kind of reminds me of pop psychology, where we're looking for reciepes for how to deal with people, when we're shown time and time again that it doesn't work that way. (However, I think that predictability is something that people generally crave)

With hard sciences, those parameters are very easy to define.
As one moves deeply into those sciences, we see that things dont always work the way we want to them to.
The individuals are involved in something, the less easily something is generalizable--the behavior of a single atom, a single proton is difficult to predict. Just like how the behavior of a single human, or a small group of humans is difficult to predict. I think this makes them fundamentally difficult to understand.

I've given up on understanding why people do what they do. It's kind of interesting to think about, but we certainly don't have the base information to understand it at all.

Anyway, between the difficulty in determining the behavior (and t/f understanding it) of individuals, and the lack of parameters for applicability means that this ends up being entirely subjective and people are just going to be running around in circles.

DaisyDeadhead said...

I think a lot certainly did... what I think happened in the 70s (yes, my personal experience/observation and a lot of other people's) was that after a lifetime of ignorance, women FINALLY saw porn. (and the most shocking of this, was BDSM porn)

It was like an explosion.

Understand, there was no internet then. Porn was literally hidden from women, and shown in very specific seedy areas of town (see the 1974 movie TAXI DRIVER and Cybill Shepherd's fury that Travis has taken her to a skin-flick, as they were then called). Middle class white women (doing the CR that Trin spoke about) were scared to death of those areas of town, often deserted, no "city codes" enforced, no 'family homes'... where porn was permitted to be shown. (Notably, sex workers were also limited to these areas, and if any female went there, you were likely to be propositioned and asked "how much?" for the first time in your life; I was.)

The first porn *store* I ever went to was out in the boonies, frequented by truck drivers and (yes) taxi drivers, guys who seemed like transients and had no stake in the immediate community. Porn belonged to MEN and was about MEN. It was scary and frightening. It was NOT right at your fingertips, like now, available to 14 year olds, and certainly it was mostly controlled by the mob.

During the 70s, the barriers in society came down... straights ventured into gay bars (the first discos, were in fact, gay bars) and couples started swinging, etc. And so, when these middle-class women saw porn, they were either attracted to it (and often dropped out of feminism for this reason, see the Barnard conference debacle for the Stalinist show trials around THAT) ... or they flipped out, like Dorchen Leidholt and Susan Brownmiller, and proceeded to interpret porn as part and parcel of patriarchy, more than even, say, advertising (which is where I took MY leave). I think their reaction was DUMBFOUNDED SHOCK, and that became part of the theory, if that makes sense. Whoever was not shocked, took their leave, around the end of the decade, leaving the 2nd wave to the shocked-Brownmiller crowd. This also conflates with the increasing middle-classness of the movement, and as certain groups (WOC, genderqueer and BDSM people, redneck-hippie moms like your humble narrator, socialists, etc) departed mainstream feminism, the mainstream of the 2nd wave became more and more conservative regarding porn--and as a result, you have Dworkin/MacKinnon making common cause with the government. The "shock" became the modus operandi. The women who chose to MAKE porn (and Off Our Backs covered a feminist conference in which a prominent female pornographer whose name escapes me, made quite a fuss) were basically purged with the BDSM people, and the official split occurred at that time.

"Feminist theory" around porn has not appreciably changed from these beginnings, unfortunately; the moment the Brownmiller crowd got the vapors. The difference now is that there is the internet and women feel safe in making their own porn, talking about BDSM openly, etc and some of these women have even called themselves feminists. This has forced the 2nd wave absolutists to engage.

My 2 cents, written in a big rush, hope it makes some sense! :P

Trinity said...


Thank you very much for this window onto feminist history as you experienced it.

And what you say about porn does make sense to me. Even I, child of the Internet, always avoided it as a supposedly creepy thing for men.

Even once I knew I was a pervert, porn was something I avoided. Though I think in my case that was probably not JUST the cultural idea that it wasn't for or about women, but ALSO about the bits of Mackinnon/Dworkin that had crept into the culture.

I.e., "that's objectifying and therefore it will not excite you," etc.

My partner -- with whom I was doing all kinds of SM these rads would faint at, including with needles and knives -- finally convinced me to watch porn with him.

I was aroused (especially by a "lesbian" scene, and no I am not calling it realistic there, just saying it turned me on regardless of its cheesiness.)

My concern with porn was less that it wasn't for women, and more that it would always and only depict women not being toppy and so bother me. My guy was careful to choose stuff as much in line with my preferences as he could find -- which wasn't very, but which I appreciated.

So my experience was this very... here's what I've picked up from the world about this, and here's what I'm experiencing

Trinity said...

and they don't mesh. And letting go of what was expected of me (or so I felt), because I was having fun.

I didn't really get that the critique was of actual harm done by porn, or at least supposed to be. I thought it was much more like "this is how this makes women feel."

And when I finally investigated, it didn't make me feel that way, and I wondered why not.

DaisyDeadhead said...

The best argument against porn was: these are real women actually being harmed/raped, etc in porn. The idea is that no one could possibly consent.

This is why it is so important for women like Ren to speak out and say, no, THIS IS A SCENE I AM DOING FOR MONEY/FUN; it is not actual rape. I honestly think many early radfems didn't understand that, unless they were into it too. The first WAP slide-show in Times Square made categorical statements about anal sex and SM (same as we have heard recently!)--that nobody would possibly choose to do this! I immediately knew better, as I think lots of kinky, even borderline kinky feminists, knew in our collective gut. But if you weren't kinky, how would you know that was propaganda? It's all a matter of whom you choose to believe, who has credibility.

Basically, it's an article of faith that certain radical feminists have chosen to believe... just like any other metaphysical dogma.

And dogmatism goes APESHIT when confronted with FACTS--witness the hostility directed at Ren, the twisting of the truth in The Price of Pleasure, etc. The hysteria is a lot like when the fundies are confronted with carbon dating and dinosaur bones.

Trinity said...

"The first WAP slide-show in Times Square made categorical statements about anal sex and SM (same as we have heard recently!)--that nobody would possibly choose to do this!"

Heh. And then there's me reading de Sade and the whole "all anal, all the time." :)

I mean yeah, if anyone counts as a patriarchal jerk, it'd be him. I'm not saying that he isn't, or something. Just that, well...

...even there, even in some of the most grossly violent writings I've ever SEEN...

...his insistence that women love anal comes VERY OBVIOUSLY from his own love affair with his own butt.

So... it's not so mucht hat I don't think Dworkin, say, had a point at all. It's just that when you really look at the stuff these people were talking about... they leave out SO much.

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