Disciplining Feminism

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  • Copyright: 2002-02-01
  • Publisher: Duke Univ Pr
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How was academic feminism formed by the very institutions it originally set out to transform? This is the question Ellen Messer-Davidow seeks to answer in Disciplining Feminism. Launched thirty years ago as a bold venture to cut across disciplines and bridge the gap between scholarly knowledge and social activism, feminism in the academy, the author argues, is now entrenched in its institutional structures and separated from national political struggle.Working within a firm theoretical framework and drawing on years of both personal involvement and fieldwork in and outside of academe, Messer-Davidow traces the metamorphosis of a once insurgent project in three steps. After illustrating how early feminists meshed their activism with institutional processes to gain footholds on campuses and in disciplinary associations, she turns to the relay between institutionalization and intellectualization, examining the way feminist studies coalesced into an academic field beginning in the mid-1970s. Without denying the successes of this feminist passage into the established system of higher learning, Messer-Davidow nonetheless insists that the process of institutionalization itself necessarily alters all new entrants-no matter how radical. Her final chapters look to the future of feminism in an increasingly conservative environment and to the possibilities for social change in general.Disciplining Feminism's interdisciplinary scope and cross-sector analysis will attract a broad range of readers interested in women's studies, American higher education, and the dynamics of social transformation.

Author Biography

Ellen Messer-Davidow is Associate Professor of English at the University of Minnesota.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix
Introduction: Knowing and Doing 1(18)
Part 1. Confronting the Institutional-Disciplinary Order
Disciplining Women
Constructing Sex Discrimination
Part 2. Institutionalizing and Intellectualizing Feminist Studies
Articulating Projects
Formatting Feminist Studies
Proliferating the Discourse
Part 3. Crystallizing the Future
Remaking Change Agency
Playing by the New Rules
Notes 291(74)
Works Cited 365(40)
Index 405


Chapter One

Disciplining Women

Disciplines are institutionalized formations for organizing schemes of perception, appreciation, and action, and for inculcating them as tools of cognition and communication.--Timothy Lenoir, "The Discipline of Nature and the Nature of Disciplines" (1993)

Result: ... the subjects ... "work by themselves" ... with the exception of the "bad subjects" who on occasion provoke the intervention of one of the detachments of the (repressive) State apparatus. But the vast majority of (good) subjects work all right "all by themselves." ... They are inserted into practices governed by the rituals of the ISAS.--Louis Althusser, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses (Notes towards an Investigation)" (1970)

Visualize American higher education as a vast industry whose main business is producing, distributing, and consuming knowledge discourses. Its core infrastructure consists of 3,200 universities and colleges and more than 200 disciplines that mesh at specific sites: disciplines are nested in the university as departments and programs, while universities are embedded in a discipline as the departmental members of the disciplinary association. Fueled by resources and authorized by rules, universities and disciplines together govern the duchies they have carved out of higher education's territory. But what exactly do disciplines do for this industry?

First, they produce its knowledge discourses--and let's understand these discourses to consist of not just statements but more fundamentally the knowable objects and knowing subjects. Disciplines constitute "the objects we can study (genes, deviant persons, classic texts) and the relations that obtain among them (mutation, criminality, canonicity)." They "beget the tweedy dons and trendy young turks, plodders and paradigm-smashers, crackpots and classicists" who labor at the industry's knowledge-producing sites--its archives and libraries, clinics and laboratories, classrooms and lecture halls. And, together with academic institutions, they create and maintain the power-prestige hierarchies that order the knowledge enterprise--from instructor to professor, conference presentation to award-winning book, unaccredited program to top-ranked department.

Second, disciplines control the knowledge economy because, as Timothy Lenoir suggests in the first epigraph to this chapter, they are organized and organizing. Each one is organized as an infrastructure of university and college departments, professional associations, and publications; each one organizes by using this infrastructure to assemble, direct, and monitor the processes essential to its functioning. At the macro level a discipline sets the knowledge problems, regulates the market, and distributes the goods, and at the micro level it inculcates and enforces the schemes of perception, cognition, and action that practitioners must use. Consider this mundane example of how a discipline functions simultaneously at both levels to maintain the equilibrium of the knowledge economy: an author submits an article to a nationally prominent journal, which, during the review and revision process, requires her to tone down her truth-claims so they harmonize with the disciplinary orthodoxies.

Finally, disciplines endure through practice, the continuation of practice depends upon reproduction, and reproduction is accomplished by socializing practitioners. When a discipline trains future practitioners, it doesn't just teach them its knowledge contents; it exercises them in its ways of perceiving, thinking, valuing, relating, and acting--thereby, as Althusser notes in the second epigraph, inserting them into its schemes of practice. Once the discipline has credentialed and employed them, it ensures that they continue to observe its "good subject" practices by subjecting them to ongoing evaluations: it rates their teaching performance, appraises their publications, checks their professional service, and tenures or terminates them. Competent practitioners learn (as inept ones do not) to observe the disciplinary norms, and innovative practitioners learn (as merely competent ones do not) which norms they can transgress in order to generate new knowledge. But woe to the practitioner who violates the disciplinary truth--its "ordered procedures for the production, regulation, distribution, circulation, and operation of [true] statements"--because the discipline will regarded her as a bad subject to be subdued or expelled.

In this chapter, I explore how the relay between two disciplinary functions--the socialization of disciples and the ordering of discourse--operated on many of the first-generation feminists who received their training as undergraduate majors or doctoral students during the 1950s and 1960s. The four disciplines I discuss--physics, art history, sociology, and literary studies--are contrast cases in many respects: they investigated natural, social, or artifactual objects, used scientific or humanistic methods, and had unified or diversified cores of knowledge. Yet they all produced painful effects: their female disciples were estranged from everyday experiences, alienated from themselves and others, split into conflicting identities, and deauthorized as disciplinary knowers. These effects were caused by entrenched sexism and something more. I call them discipline effects because the disciplines produced them by doing what disciplines do: organizing their discourses.

Physics: Splitting the Scientist, Eclipsing the Social

For a 1977 volume entitled Working It Out , several feminist artists, scholars, and scientists wrote unusually candid and poignant essays about their struggles to live and work as women. None was more harrowing than Evelyn Fox Keller's "The Anomaly of a Woman in Physics," the story of her experiences as a doctoral student at Harvard University during the late 1950s and early 1960s. The story begins at Brandeis University when Keller "fell in love with theoretical physics" during her senior year:

I fell in love, simultaneously and inextricably, with my professors, with a discipline of pure, precise, definitive thought, and with what I conceived of as its ambitions. I fell in love with the life of the mind. I also fell in love, I might add, with the image of myself striving and succeeding in an area where women had rarely ventured. It was a heady experience. In my adviser's fantasies, I was to rise, unhampered, right to the top. In my private fantasies, I was to be heralded all the way.

What follows this fantasy of her future success--a plausible fantasy since several graduate programs were competing to recruit her--is a horrifying account of her apprenticeship in the Harvard program where she was one of three female doctoral students and the only one who aspired to be a theoretical physicist. Although she easily mastered the skills and generally earned As in her courses, her professors repeatedly undercut her aspirations, telling her that she could never be good enough, that she could not possibly understand what she thought she understood, that her lack of fear was proof of her ignorance, that her ambition was curious, and that no woman had ever succeeded in theoretical physics at Harvard. Thus began two years of "almost unmitigated provocation, insult, and denial" calculated to chasten her for "stubbornly pursuing an obviously male discipline." Shamed and shunned, she struggled to make sense of "the enormous discrepancy between what I expected and what I found."

Intellectually, Keller had expected to be engrossed in pure thought; instead she was exercised in rote computation. Educationally, she had expected an exhilarating adventure; instead she was subjected to a painful trial. Emotionally, she expected to love and be loved; instead she was brutalized. Her professors told her that

what happened to me at Harvard simply manifested my own confusion, failure, neurosis--in short that I had somehow "made" it happen.... Now I had to ask how I had "made" it happen--what in me required purging? It seemed that my very ambition and seriousness were at fault, and that these qualities--qualities I had always admired in others--had to be given up. Giving up physics, then, seemed to mean giving up parts of me so central to my sense of myself that a meaningful extrication was next to impossible.

On her view, they were demanding not merely that she tone down her seriousness, ambition, and buoyancy but that she give up the self-image she had integrated in college: woman physicist. When Harvard presented those identities as antithetical, Keller was trapped in a struggle to reconcile "my sense of myself as a woman and my identity as a scientist." Her determination to persist in a discipline that was acting to expel her made this contradiction intolerable, and its intolerability incited her further attempts to make sense.

Later I will show that Keller's split subjectivity was a discipline effect that resulted from the way that physics had defined the analyzable objects and analyzing subjects permitted to enter its discursive precincts. To set up that claim, I want to look at the reasons why Keller's initial attempts to make sense of her graduate experience failed. Her undergraduate fantasy used three genres to narrativize the experience she anticipated: (1) the Cartesian myth to figure disciplinary activity as minds engaged in "pure, precise, definitive thought"; (2) the heroic saga to depict her doctoral activity as striving and succeeding in the field; and (3) the romance story to present her emotional activity as falling in love with images of the discipline, the physicist, and her own success. The conventional protagonists of the first two genres are men, but Keller casts herself in these roles; she would be a woman adventuring through a territory women rarely entered. To make sense of the horrid actuality at Harvard, Keller renarrativized using the initiation myth: "I agreed to suspend judgment and to persevere through this stinging ‘initiation rite.’ In part, then, I believed that I was undergoing some sort of trial that would terminate when I had proven myself, certainly by the time I completed my orals. I need to be stoic only for one year. Unfortunately, that hope turned out to be futile." None of Keller's narratives made sense of the actuality: the Cartesian, heroic, and romance myths were mismatches from the start because she experienced Harvard as profoundly anti-intellectual, educationally obstructionist, and emotionally brutalizing; and the initiation myth became a mismatch when her trial did not terminate. The continuing brutality intensified her rage, which in turn marked her in the eyes of her professors as a student to be ostracized from a discipline that, as she put it, tried "to make itself more powerful by weeding out those sensibilities, emotional and intellectual, that it considers inappropriate."

Reflecting much later on what had been done to her, she finally told a different story: "After two years of virtually continuous denial of my perceptions, my values, and my ambitions--an experience that might then have been described as brainwashing, and ought now be called schizophrenogenic--my demoralization was complete." Through a sociopsychoanalytic lens, she could finally see the socializing process that had split her subjectivity. The professors had constructed her as a bad subject and blamed her for the pain they had caused: they said that she was incompetent and neurotic. Once she introjected the bad-subject characterization, her subjectivity was riven between the self she wanted to be and the self they said she was--between virtuosity and mediocrity, desire and denial, physics and failure. This renarrativization finally showed her what the apprenticeship had done to her. But how did she break through the impasse to become a woman scientist who succeeded in areas where others rarely ventured? Whereas many aspiring women scientists who suffered brutal treatment left the academy, Keller, having determined to remain in it, cleverly exploited the logic of disciplinarity, first by writing her dissertation in the new hybrid science of molecular biology and later by repositioning herself in the new interdisciplinary fields of feminist and science studies. Eventually leaving her science professorship at Northeastern University, she accepted a joint appointment in the departments of rhetoric and women's studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and more recently a professorship in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, thereby confirming in departmental migration the transition she had made in disciplinary discourses.

Keller's scholarship took as its object of investigation precisely what physics had excluded from its domain. Her first major contribution to feminist science studies, Reflections on Gender and Science (1985), examined "the historic conjunction of science and masculinity and the equally historic disjunction between science and femininity," and much of her other work analyzed the subjective and social dimensions of scientific practice. My own linking of the Harvard apprenticeship to the later disciplinary and scholarly strategies is justified by Keller's introduction to Reflections . "A decade ago," she wrote, "‘the personal is political’ was an aphorism.... Today, feminist thinkers recognize the conjunction of personal and political as more than an aphorism: they see it as a method.... In short, the logical extension of the personal as political is the scientific as personal." painfully wedged between two self-constructs, Keller was a resourceful subject who reinvented herself as a critic of what drove her professors to abuse her. But what drove them? The obvious answer is their sexism; the less obvious one is their discipline. The professors, I will argue, were following the disciplinary rules that directed them to extirpate from physics precisely the discourses Keller had used to describe the field and explain her trials.

While Keller was learning physics, Harvard physics professor Gerald Holton was enjoying pedagogical success. His Introduction to Concepts and Theories in Physical Science , published in 1952 and in a sixth printing by 1962, was a widely used college textbook that (in both senses of the word) pitched the discipline to apprentice readers. Though written to summarize its "fundamental concepts and theories" and present scientific inquiry "as an integrated and exciting intellectual adventure," the book contains three chapters that uncritically reveal the rules constituting physics' discourse and regulating its knowledge production. As I inspect a few of the rules, I will show how they simultaneously rendered meaningful Keller's fantasy of questing through "a discipline of pure, precise, definitive thought" and rendered meaningless her attempts to make sense of her brutal apprenticeship. Let's begin with Holton's description of physics as

the ever unfinished quest to discover all facts, the relationships between things, and the laws by which the world runs.... we may perhaps agree at the outset that the main business of science is to trace in the chaos and flux of phenomena a consistent structure with order and meaning, that is, to interpret and to transcend direct experience. "The object of all sciences," in Einstein's words, "is to coordinate our experiences and to bring them into a logical system."

To engage his readers, Holton uses the adventure tropes that Keller used, but he immediately differentiates the physics adventure from other adventures. Its objective, to gloss what he says in disciplinary terms, is to transform the messy "nature" of experiential and interpretive discourses into the logical "nature" of scientific discourse.

As Holton goes on to explain the elements of physics--concepts, facts, laws, and theories--it becomes clear that he regards them not as abstractions that represent nature, but as discursive practices that render it. Let's start with concepts. Whereas an interpretive discourse would define the concepts "length" or "speed" linguistically, physics defines them operationally:

For example, the concept "length of an object" as used in science is ultimately defined by the very operations involved in making the measurement. The problem "What is the length of a block?" is for all practical purposes identical with the question "What is the difference between those two numbers printed on a specific meter stick which stand directly below two corresponding scratches, entered there to signify local coincidence with the adjacent corners of the block?" This last sentence contained an abbreviated example of what we shall call an operational definition .

By performing such operations as measuring and computing, physicists can produce "the ‘true meaning’" of the block's length or the comet's speed. Ideally, according to Holton, every concept should be operationally defined because "it is clearly more difficult to misinterpret action than words."

Similarly, whereas an interpretive discourse would define "fact" as accurate information about an actual occurrence, the physicist again resorts to operationalism. A physical fact, Holton emphasizes, is a set of relations apprehended by an observer--but not by just any observer:

Allow a layman to observe the sky through the new 200-inch telescope, and he will see nothing of interest and understand nothing he sees. But give a trained man only three good looks at a comet through a mediocre instrument, and he will call upon the theories in the field to tell you to a day how soon a comet will return, how fast it is traveling at any moment, what material it is made of, and much else. In short, the pattern we perceive when we note "a fact" is organized and interpreted by a whole system of attitudes and thoughts, memories, beliefs, and learned constructs. It is thought that gives us eyes.

Holton's example indicates (though he might disagree with how I put it) that a fact is constituted by a trained scientist engaged in the combined procedures of bodily perception, instrumentalized detection, and disciplinary discourse. Thus, only by seeing through the discipline's particularly ordered discourse while peering through the telescope's assembly of reflecting and refracting lenses does the observer of a comet apprehend the relations called facts.

To drive home his explanation of concepts and facts, Holton invokes Galileo's distinction between qualities that can be measured and mathematicized and those that cannot. This distinction is the rule that determines which experienced phenomena can be included in physics. In Holton's words, it reduces the

eligible experience to a small fraction of the scientist's total experience, but to precisely that fraction which he could quantify and therefore share fairly unambiguously with his fellows. The ideas of science look so stylized and unreal just because ... they help us describe those features of experience which the common-sense view of reality cares least about--measurement, mathematical manipulation, numerical prediction, and clear communicability--while failing to describe exactly those most prominent uses of everyday expressions, namely, our feelings, reactions, and other personal developments.

Since the rule excludes phenomena that cannot be quantified and methods that do not quantify, it follows that many statements will be meaningless within the domain of physics--such as Keller's statements about her feelings, her professors' behavior, and even her "vision of theoretical physics as a vehicle for the deepest inquiry into nature--a vision perhaps best personified, in recent times, by Einstein." Just so, Holton declares that "whole statements and even intelligent-sounding, deeply disturbing questions may turn out to be meaningless" and then cites as an example Newton's statement in the Principia : "Absolute, true, and mathematical time, of itself, and from its own nature, flows equably and without regard to anything external and by another name is called duration." Since this seemingly profound statement cannot be operationalized, it is meaningless within physics discourse.

Yet physics does not appear to be so purely operationalist when Holton describes how physicists produce knowledge. He divides knowledge production into S 1 , which he calls "science in the making," and S 2 , which he calls "science as an institution." S 1 has two phases of activity, discovery and operationalization. In discovery, physicists might follow the logical steps of "the well-planned experiment" or they might "let their enthusiasms, their hunches, and their sheer joy of discovery suggest the line of work." Since discovery often involves the very practices--analogizing, guessing, intuiting, feeling--that he previously described as antinomic to operationalizing activity, Holton acknowledges (quoting nuclear physicist H. D. Smyth) the "‘paradox in the method of science. The research man may often think and work like an artist, but he has to talk like a bookkeeper, in terms of facts, figures, and logical sequence of thought.’" How, then, does Holton bridge the disconnects between discovery, operationalization, and the stockpile of physics knowledge? He casts the discovery phase of S 1 as preliminary to the operational phase: "Only when this ‘private’ stage is over and the individual contribution is formalized in order to be absorbed into ‘public’ science ... only then does it begin to be really important that each step, each concept be made clear and meaningful." To follow Hokon's metaphorical delineation of S 1 as "science in the making," I would put it this way. The creative activity yields the raw produce--the hunches and guesses. The operationalizing activity turns this produce into the ingredients for scientific cookery--its factual observations, operationalized concepts, and working hypotheses. These ingredients are then transported to S where other physicists put them to the tests that lead to their falsification, verification, or probabilistic confirmation. Thus S, or "science as an institution," is the kitchen where the scientific community finally bakes the physics knowledge.

Returning to tropes, Holton binds the fallible physicist to the authoritative institution:

For the scientist's work, like that of any other explorer, must involve the whole man, demanding as it does reflection, observation, experimentation, imagination, and a measure of intuition. Being human, he fails far more often than he succeeds.... And yet, the result of this uncertain human activity, namely, the growing body of science itself, is undeniably a successful, vigorous enterprise.


Excerpted from Feminism by Ellen Messer-Davidow. Copyright 2002 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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