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Victoria Burrows

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Volume 1, May 1996

Knowing Other People: An Interview with Lorraine Code

Professor Lorraine Code teaches philosophy at York University, Toronto. She has published three books: Epistemic Responsibility (1987), What Can She Know?: Feminist Theory and the Construction of Knowledge (1991) and Rhetorical Spaces: Essays on Gendered Locations (1995), as well as editing three others and writing numerous articles for academic journals. She was recently in Perth and kindly agreed to talk to Victoria Burrows.

VB - Until relatively recently philosophy could be considered very much a male-dominated discipline. What, in particular, attracted you towards becoming a philosopher?

LC - I did my undergraduate degree in the late 1950s and at that time the idea of philosophy being a male discipline just didn't exist. It actually didn't occur to me. I started off studying French and German in my first two years. Two of the French courses were taught by someone who worked on the Enlightenment and I realised the philosophical questions he was asking were the questions I was really interested in. I think that I thought that if I did philosophy I would learn how to understand myself in the world, which was a bit of an illusion, but I felt that philosophy somehow had the answers. This feeling was enhanced in one of my summer jobs after my second year at university when I was a waitress along with a woman who had just graduated in philosophy from Bryn Mawr. We used to talk about these things in the evenings and I realised that philosophy was where I should be. But it was with that kind of glorious idea that philosophy was somehow going to explain life to me in ways that the French and German courses I was taking didn't promise. So I didn't even think about philosophy as a male discipline until many years after.

I think that women in those days, in these kinds of disciplines, just automatically did the mental gymnastics that you had to do, to believe that the issues and ideas were perfectly applicable to you, and I think those gymnastics have not stood us in bad stead. Because, later after the turn to feminist philosophy when a lot of it was about exposing the androcentricity of the whole scheme, it enabled us also to go back and pick up the insights that are worth saving and extracting.

VB - Twelve years and three small children later, was it difficult to combine an academic career with being a mother? And I wondered if you have any advice for women on how to juggle these responsibilities.

LC - I found it terrible. I had three pre-school children when I went back and I thought my head had turned into a sponge. It was very hard figuring out how to make time to study. I used to require them to have afternoon naps. I put them in separate rooms, and the two who could understand the progress of the hands of the clock each had a clock. I would then draw a little picture and say, "when hands of the clock get to here you can come out but not until then." So I used to work in the afternoons but, of course, by the time you put them all down you are really tired and you have to force yourself to get to your desk. I used to work in the evenings as well after they were in bed.

I think the hard thing for me, and I've thought about this as a big structural issue for many women, is that I still don't have a good, absorbed concentration capacity. It permanently fragmented my concentration and my ways of working because of always having one eye on the clock. It seems to me that the luxury of complete absorption and forgetting is a luxury that many women who try to do this with small children just have to abdicate, unless they have enough money to hire a housekeeper who is there from seven in the morning to seven in the evening. At that time I was trying to be a Supermum as well, and wasn't asking for much help.

But I guess there is no way it's not going to be hard. People who have a partner to rely on, which many of the women in these circumstances don't, and who manage from the beginning to work out a good division of labour are in the best possible position. I didn't manage that for a long time. Also, I am assuming the model of a two-parent, heterosexual family which is what I lived in. Lots of people have much more isolating or complicated lives. So, I guess the advice I would give, if there were any, would be to try not to do it all as the Supermum. But that's sort of obvious. On the whole, you should try to reconcile yourself to that kind of fragmented consciousness that nonetheless does, I think, also enable you to be quite productive in those intense moments when you get something going, though even then there is the inevitable frustration of having to stop.

VB - In the introduction to your recent book, Rhetorical Spaces, you state that the purpose of your essays is to work toward developing what you call "an epistemology of everyday life"(xi) which will contrast with the abstractions of dislocate. theory. Could you explain what this means to you?

LC - What I'm trying to do in all the work that I have done is to abandon the practice of philosophers, particularly of those working in theory of knowledge, of trying to deal with ideal knowledge made in ideal circumstances by infinitely repeatable knower whose identities and embodiments and personal-political circumstances matter not a whit to what knowledge is all about. I am opposing the idea of there being such a thing as "knowledge in general". That there could be a possibility of achieving ideal objectivity and perfectly dislocated truth seems to me to be utterly at odds with the struggles people are engaged in, in all aspects of their lives, to make sense of what happens in the world and to gain acknowledgment for their knowledge claims.

People tend to say that philosophy begins in wonder: the whole thing that you get beginning with Plato and Aristotle, that a philosopher is the disengaged, wondering spectator, reflecting upon the world from a detached position that you only get a clear view by standing back, outside and looking in. It seems to me that for a lot of people, and not just for feminists, philosophy doesn't necessarily begin in wonder. It begins in puzzlement, exasperation, frustration, despair, the need to figure something out and understand it.

When I say I want to do an epistemology of everyday life, it is not an epistemology that I can develop up high in the sky and bring it down to meddle around with the issues of everyday life. It is about the lines between theory and practice and how they get drawn, in a constantly recurring loop. Not that they always reinforce one another - so the image of the loop is a bit too smooth - because they come up against bumps and theory corrects practice and practice corrects theory. So a loop isn't quite the right image. But it's a way of getting the interactions bctween theory and practice going. So that everyday life can count as something that shows up the inadequacies of theory and not necessarily be dismissed as an aberration in theory.

Carol Gilligan's work is a really good example here. When the theory showed women's experiences as always providing evidence of their moral immaturity, Kohlberg's response was to preserve the theory and cast those experiences - women's moral experiences - into a sort of nether region where they didn't count. Well, Gilligan's answer was to take those everyday life situations which confound the theory and say there must be something wrong with the theory. Not then just to make the loop go back from the experience to the theory, but to keep it "to-ing and fro-ing."

VB - So the practical everyday experiences have to knock against the theory ...

LC - And vice versa. And I want to try to do that without falling into the trap that many of the binaries and dichotomies raise. Because the idea that women are immersed in the concrete and can't get out of it tends also to be thrown up against such a project. Or the idea that if you are engaged in an epistemology of everyday life or an ethics of everyday life then you are reduced to doing merely descriptive philosophy. Merely descriptive philosophy within the structures of professional philosophy doesn't count for a lot because it doesn't seem to have any normative implications. The condemnation of something for being merely descriptive suggests that good descriptions are easy to get at and assumes that descriptions that people have been working with are fully in order as they stand. It seems to me that, for instance, that philosophers have systematically misdescribed rationality because they have worked with a theory of rationality that is so removed from its varied manifestations within lives. So descriptions, good descriptions are really important and not at all easy to get at. Good descriptions, once arrived at, are going to yield a whole new set of normative issues that might be quite different from those "knowledge in general" ideas that have assumed that all knowledge is knowledge, that if it's a fact, it's a fact. Those sorts of tautologies obscure the questions that needed to be asked right there, once you tried to figure out how it is that knowledge is produced in institutions, let's say. When I talk above everyday life, I'm not going to be moving in my philosophical inquiry so much to particular and single worrying instances in the world, because I don't know how to do that. I am much more interested in how practices occur within institutions very broadly conceived. Institutions of knowledge-making, as opposed to moments when you and I try to know each other's lives or souls or something like that.

VB - Your argument, outlined in What Can She Know? (WCSK) and extended in Rhetorical Spaces (RS) that a feminist epistemology should be based on a commitment to "knowing other people" is a very exciting and radical proposal. For claiming to know another person means that the knower/ known position is no longer fixed, and thus constitutes a conception of subject/object relations in a very different form to that implicit in traditional philosophical paradigms. You suggest that claims to know another person open up negotiations between the knower and the known, where the 'subject' and 'object' positions are always, in principle, interchangeable (WCSK, 38; RS, 45-6).I see this as an exciting contribution to the feminist task of blurring and disrupting the subject/object dichotomy on which traditional philosophy is founded.

So please could you discuss your belief that the basic and crucial necessity of "knowing other people" has a strong claim to paradigm status, and the implications this has for feminist epistemology.

LC - I would say that last bit differently now from when I wrote What Can She Know? I would remove the notion of paradigm status. I would rather say that knowing other people has a strong claim to being taken as exemplary knowledge. The reason being that I don't want to set up a new dichotomy by offering an alternative paradigm. One of the things I like about the idea of knowing other people, as a model of knowledge that one might think about, not just in its detail, but in its structural mappings, is that philosophers haven't regarded knowing other people as knowledge because they have been so preoccupied with the problem of whether you can ever know another person, and/or claim knowledges of other minds. How do I know that it is not just an automaton that is sitting opposite me, all of those old philosophical questions come to mind.

There would be two stages that would have to occur if the possibility of taking knowing other people as exemplary knowledge were to be worked into philosophy. First of all, and I don't bring this point out clearly enough in Rhetorical Spaces, you actually have to get philosophers to acknowledge that one can't just assume and presume to know other people stereotypically and superficially the way lots of philosophers think they do. Some philosophers assume that you know other people in precisely the cursory way that you know medium sized physical objects, so you'd also have to get people to think a bit about what's involved in knowing other people. But I think if you could make that kind of knowing just as fundamental to what knowing is all about, then you might be successful in introducing a little humility into the imperialism that informs many of our claims to knowledge. The second point or stage of my project is to recognise precisely those kinds of issues that make knowing another person always a tentative matter. So it introduces a level of tentativeness into knowing without denying that knowledge is possible.

VB - Going back to the introduction of Rhetorical Spaces, you state that because you are interested in epistemological questions that have to do with how we know one another, this ongoing knowledge-and-subjectivity inquiry is as much about intersubjectivity as it is about selves, persons or subjects conceived separately (xiv). Because knowing other people is primarily about intersubjective negotiations among people who are intersubjectively constituted and interconnected through their lives, how do you think this offers a challenge to the Enlightenment ideal of an autonomous, self-making, self-defining subject?

LC - I think that the Enlightenment subject is heavily under strain now, and certainly my claims about knowing other people are about interconnections and negotiations and understanding how we are socially and mutually constituted as much as we constitute ourselves. That crystalline clarity for the autonomy of the single subject, the individual, has gone. You use the word negotiation in your question, and I think as long as negotiations don't have too much of a rigid, business flavour to them that negotiations really are what it is about at this point. I think its about negotiating between just measures of autonomy and just measures of connection; measures of separateness and measures of how to be involved with one another both intimately and publicly are the issues that surround subjectivity today.

The issue about ongoing connections among knowledge and subjectivity, and knowing other people, is also, of course, imbued with things that I didn't mention earlier. That is, in a post-Freudian era, as well as in a postmodern era, we are crucially and always aware of the limitations, not just of knowing other people but of knowing ourselves. The Enlightenment ideal of an autonomous, self-making, self-defining subject was also very much a self-knowing subject who could be perfectly transparent to itself. I don't think any theorist now would hold, for a moment, to the thought that we can be perfectly transparent either to ourselves or to each other. Which I think is good because again it forces that kind of humility that makes you have to recognise that knowledge is as much about knowing well, as much about withholding definitive conclusions and resisting closure, as it is about achieving it.

VB - In your talk at Murdoch University on 2nd April 1996, you said, "philosophical theories of knowledge in the Anglo-American world have tended to be apolitical, the fear is that if it was acknowledged that theories were in fact politically driven they would destroy themselves as rational and objective theories knowledge". You went on to say that, with the idea of Rhetorical Spaces, you were trying to find a way of saying that knowledge is situated and political all the way down and that certain situations and politics stop things being spoken and/or acknowledged.

Could you please expand on these statements.

LC - In claiming that philosophical theories of knowledge are in fact political, I am saying something that is, on the one hand, pretty simple and obvious and, on the other hand, something that is a little bit difficult to justify, partly because of what we were talking about earlier regarding the notion that if something is knowledge then it is simply knowledge. Political implicatedness won't change its status as knowledge although it may have some hearing on how it's used. I want partly to break that split between how knowledge is made and how it is used. It seems to me that decisions, for example, within the social and natural sciences about what kinds of knowledge are worth pursuing, making, constructing, building - are decisions that are themselves politically driven. I can think of lots of examples, of how women's issues disappear from medical research, of how militarist research gets more dollars than childcare research, as though one were more integral to the fabric of society than another.

As I have said in one of those essays, the minute you say feminist epistemology you seem to be uttering an oxymoron because epistemology is about determining the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge and knowing "in general". Once you say feminist epistemology, you are at least denying the "in general" part and you're probably saying that there are not going to be necessary and sufficient conditions but there are only going to be contingent and particular conditions and they are going depend on who the knower is and how she or he is politically positioned.

So when you talk about knowledge being political all the way down, many philosophers will suggest that you are just sliding right back into something that we all encountered as beginning students in Book l of Plato's Republic where Thrasymachus, who is the arch-disturber, talks about how 'might is right' and argues that it's all about the struggle for ascendancy; not for truth, but for power. So if you say that knowledge is political all the way down and that power and privilege have been thoroughly woven into conceptions of what counts as knowledge, conceptions of how knowledge claims are verified, conceptions of what knowledge is worth studying and so on, it sounds as though you are just exploding any possibility of objectivity and moving into a scattering of subjectivities across a field where somebody's going to know this and somebody's going to know that.

Sandra Harding, for instance, has a theory of what she calls, 'strong objectivity". She claims that in fact you get better objectivity if you situate knowledge politically, place the knower and the inquirer on the same plane as the object of knowledge, and require, as part of the ingredients of objectivity, a thorough understanding of the situation in so far as that's possible. Objectivity increases to the extent you know more about why, for example, findings about the Dalkon Shield were suppressed, or why birth control research goes as it does. It increases to the extent that you understand what philosophers in the positivistic tradition used to separate out and call the context of discovery, meaning the messy place where all these little conjectures occur, contrasted with that tidier place where knowledge gets justified. Harding's view, which I think is a good one, is that you get a stronger objectivity as you factor in items that were traditionally factored out in order to achieve this clearer objectivity that I call objectivism, which becomes something of a fetish. It destroys itself in its own fetishisation process.

VB - After reading your essays in Rhetorical Spaces, it would appear that empathy is another of your major interests - that this too is an issue of knowledge, and again one filled with tensions. In Chapter 6, 'I Know Just How You Feel', you state that; "in much of the literature that claims a debt to Nancy Chodorow's work, and also in popular wisdom, empathy figures as a trait, a capacity that is peculiarly, even 'naturally' female" (127). You go on to suggest that "locating empathy in an untheorised female nature, 'naturally' confined to the caring, nurturing activities of a 'private' domain, robs it of its political significance" (137). Denigrated, then, as merely part of women's 'nature', unless theorised, empathy can be hard to reclaim for feminist epistemology.

Another point of tension is that the rhetoric of empathy as used in the 'public' sphere seems to be all about making a better world for everyone, at least on the surface. The very notion of empathy, however, can also be intrusive, co-optive, and invasive: it underwrites the imperialist, paternalistic notion of caring for those who are said to be unable to care for themselves. Thus, any thinking about empathy would necessarily involve questions of gender, class and race.

LC - I have noticed that when people talk about empathy, they often talk about it in different vocabularies. For some people empathy is only a matter of feeling and not about knowing. When I talk about it, I use it as a way of attempting to know how someone else feels, how things are for someone else; how it is for another person. That is on one side I think of it as a knowing skill, or perhaps not a knowing skill. The word "skill" sounds a little too manipulative, but a way of knowing, let's just say. On the other end of that spectrum you get, for instance, a psychology experiment where subjects of the experiment were asked to rank themselves from one to ten on the question, "usually I have no difficulty putting myself into someone else's shoes." The idea that you would believe that you can just automatically put yourself into someone else's shoes is as bad, it seems to me, as the idea that empathy hasn't anything to do with knowledge. It's not straightforwardly to do with knowledge in the sense that I would know a theory or a book or a person or an item or a fact. It's about knowing other people, and it is also a kind of knowledge that requires a very sensitive sort of judgement.

Fingerspitzengefuhl, a German word that doesn't translate too well into English, suggests something about the fragility of empathy because you can imagine these fingers feeling that thing as a very fragile piece of crystal, as something that would easily fracture. And empathy is a never a once and for all thing. You can't say, "I'm going to be empathetic so I'll learn this, this and this about this person and then I will empathise". It is much more about a sensitivity that can be cultivated. I don't think it is something you either have or you don't have. I don't think that it is even something that even if you do it well sometimes, you can be sure that you'll do it well in the future. I also think - and this is paradoxical, perhaps in a quite different frame of reference - it has some institutional place. Let's say "we feminists" who want a better society which looks after its members (so it would be "we socialist feminists" too) want it to do its looking after people in a more empathic way than it often does. For instance, you might perceive the lack of empathy I've been talking about in one-on-one encounters, but you also might perceive a lack of empathy in the way the social services shuffle welfare applicants around as though they were mere numbers, mere pieces in a game that you move one through and then you move the next ones through. People who are overworked within the social services would possibly say, we just don't have time for empathy as well as for the administrative things that we do, yet I think somehow or other that the mix has to be different.

You also wanted to talk about the possible intrusiveness and imperialism of empathy and I think that this is a really important issue. At a conference in Texas where I discussed empathy, one person raised a very interesting question. The issue is that knowledge you might need in order to be well and appropriately empathetic could be very much the same knowledge as, if not identical to, the knowledge people like torturers require in order to know what is going to get at their victims, to hurt them.

I think that bears a little bit on some of the racial and other class issues that you wanted to raise. There is something offensive about someone from a position of privilege, even relative privilege, claiming to know how it is to be in a position of marginality, whatever the factors in that marginality may be. There is something offensive in saying, "oh I know how it must be for you." Particularly if you do it only by assuming an analogy with a bit of your own experience. Patricia Williams has a lovely bit in one of her essays in The Alchemy of Race and Rights, where she talks about meeting a white male colleague in the street one day who described just having rented a wonderful apartment. They both lived in New York. He had just found himself an apartment and was about to move in, with people he knew and liked. He decided he wasn't even going to bother with a lease, it was just going to be a great agreement. It was going to be fine. In this essay, Williams speculates a little bit on how it would be to be able to rely so implicitly on a sense of belonging to a group of people who didn't even need pieces of paper to establish their right to property. She comments that as a black woman she would never dare to rent an apartment and not have it clearly spelled out that these were the conditions of the contract.

I would have thought there was a place for empathy there, but it is an interesting kind of empathy, that requires you to understand how it is for her in order to be able to see why she needs to do what she does. That's on the more formal end of empathy because it's less about feeling. It is about having a sense of what Sandra Bartky calls "the taste of shame". Bartky talks of the "taste" of this shameful way of being, the taste of a position that constantly seems to invite the oppressor in, even for someone like Patricia Williams who has seemingly made it to the top of the American heap. A Professor of Law at Columbia University, articulate, well-placed in every way, but with the 'wrong' coloured skin. The thing I would have to say, taking her as an example, is that she probably doesn't want my empathy. But it seems to me the kind of knowing that takes me into the situation that she describes and gives me a sense of how it is, shows the formal structure of knowing that I'm talking about when I talk about empathy. In the knowledge sense, it is enough for me to have to shift to my perceptions. The shift this small story achieved counts as an empathetic shift in my perceptions, even though it need not be one that is expressed. Part of my thing about knowing other people is I think it need not always be expressed but it has to be there. It then enables me to say something to my students about racial issues that comes from a kind of empathetic knowing, even though it may not be expressed to the person for whom I evoke the empathy.

VB - As a white literary critic writing about Afro-American, Asian-American and Chicana literatures, I am very interested in ideas of empathetic knowing, of how to write about these texts in ways that are not intrusive, invasive and/or unconsciously imperialistic. The problem of speaking for others, with its accompanying sense of unease, is a big issue in feminist discourse at the moment. What are your views on this?

LC - I think if, as feminists, we were to say disingenuously that we can never speak for anybody else and write about anyone else's work, then all we could do would be to sit down, write our own diaries and then maybe close them up and burn them. This would be really appalling. One of the ways in which feminist anthropologists have begun to operate, which I think can translate into lots of other disciplines, is to be sure that they tell their subjects, the people they are studying, exactly what it is they are saying about them and check it out with them.

The idea of ongoing conversation is a guiding idea here: the fact that you are not rushing out collecting either Afro-American literature or collecting facts about a culture or collecting whatever. But you are observing, recording, discussing, checking, observing, recording, discussing, checking and thinking, talking, negotiating. It is that bit about putting the enquirer on the same plane as the enquired. There is a lot about empathy and about knowing, in trying to work out where and how to tread in such circumstances, patterns of address, patterns of interrogation, things it is reasonable to challenge and things one ought to stand back from. It is about non-imperialism and non-intrusiveness and yet, not refusing to intrude at all, but trying to find a meeting ground. Not refusing to know, but trying to know sensitively and well.

VB - I think we might end, as we started, with a more general question. As I understand it, you have been in Australia for almost a year, and this is your second extended visit. I was wondering what differences, if any, you have noticed between Canadian and Australian feminisms?

LC - One of the things that is startlingly different in Australia, which struck me in 1986 as much as it does now, is that Australian feminist philosophers are much more comfortable with postmodern theory than many Canadians. Within philosophy and women's studies at my university, both at the undergraduate and the graduate level, there is not such a deep and intelligent engagement with postmodern theory and French theory as there often is here. There is also a verbal facility that I admire in many Australian feminists that goes along with the postmodern, and enables a play of discourse within its vocabulary that I don't do very well. I read and understand it quite well but I don't speak it well and I find this a puzzling gap in my thinking. Postmodernism informs my thinking in ways that I myself sense but find difficult to convey on paper or in conversation. When I think about the meetings of the Canadian Society for Women in Philosophy in which I participate every year, it is interesting to note how little postmodern theory gets discussed at this very active and vigorous group. Issues of power and questions of subjectivity that surround the uniform, autonomous subject are less contested, I think, in large sections of American and Canadian feminist philosophy than they are in Australia.

VB - I would like to finish, Lorraine, by thanking you very much on behalf of the Outskirts collective for so generously sharing your time and knowledge.


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