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Peta Bowden

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Volume 1, May 1996

Rhetorical Spaces (1995)

Lorraine Code, Rhetorical Spaces: Gendered Locations (New York: Routledge, 1995)

Lorraine Code's Rhetorical Spaces is an important and engaging contribution to feminist scholarship. Challenging traditional conceptions of the objectivity, impartiality and universality of knowledge, the essays highlight the ways in which knowledge claims are inevitably inflected by the subjective, partial and local practices through which they are confirmed and refuted. Code directs attention away from the standard 'easy' cases of knowledge that have given rise to ideals of objectivity - what she has termed knowledge of "middle-sized dry goods"- to the ubiquity and perplexity of 'hard' cases involving interpersonal understanding, questions of credibility, authority and expertise. These are the myriad everyday but imperative instances in which we must alternatively rely on or discount the testimony and authority of others, piece together impressions and expectations in conversation with others or depend on others' responses for credibility. So pervasive and routine are these activities that we may often hardly be aware of them as knowledge-making practices at all. Code holds them up to us for the vitally significant practices they are, showing how they influence our prospects of living well and how, most importantly, they are sites for the affirmation of - and thus potential liberation from - illegitimate gendered, racial, cultural, economic hierarchies of power.

Central to these embodied, passionate, committed, epistemological practices of everyday life is knowledge of other persons, with all its inherent uncertainties and subjectivity, its prejudices and contingency. For even when it is not the direct focus of a particular inquiry, knowledge of other persons is implicitly invoked in the assessment of evidence and the demand of one's claims to knowledge to be heard. Thus a sexual harassment victim, for example, struggling to piece together her remembered experience weighs the significance of her personal source of knowledge in relation to others' perhaps conflicting accounts and she relies on others' acknowledgement for the credibility of her testimony. On the uneven playing field of ordinary life, then - despite tempting formulae for purity and impartiality - it should come as no surprise that the knowledge claims of the vulnerable and marginalised are often excluded from the rhetorical space of legitimacy and those of the powerful are authorised in ways that shore up their power. Code's great strength is to draw her readers back repeatedly to these local and diverse sites of unruly and unrulable knowledge-making, reminding us over and over of what is so often forgotten: the diversity and subtlety of the workings of subjectivity and power in the flesh and blood practices of everyday life. My favourites among her stimulating analyses include the discussion of the knowing presumptions of institutions - health services, supermarkets, bureaucracies - that claim to care for us, the investigation of social influences on incredulity and credibility, and the provocative retrieval of the discernment of gossip.

But the significance of this book does not lie simply in the details of its discrete discussions, for all the perceptiveness with which they are presented. While they explicitly resist any large-scale, schematic understanding of the workings of knowledge, Code's essays work together to develop heightened understanding of several over-arching themes. Foremost among these, to my mind, is a concern for the complex connections between epistemology and ethics, that is, between knowing and valuing. Knowing is always involved with processes of selection and rejection: we cannot know everything from every perspective. And the selections we make are crucial to our well being. Knowing is also, as Code shows so well, always intersubjective in character: our knowledge is always linked in a communal web of understanding. So the choices we make and the values they affirm are vital not only in our own lives but in the lives of others. In perhaps their most significant insight, Code's essays illuminate the ways in which this epistemic responsibility is an ever present and challenging condition of every knowledge-making activity. And through her extraordinarily lucid, richly textured and sensitive discussions she shows the way to an enlightened understanding of how we might practice responsibility in our own knowings.

 

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