“I was supposed to know them, while they were not at all interested in knowing me.”
Research is both a science and an art. While the science of conducting research demands a strict delimitation of methods and principles, the art of research is less meticulous and instead advocates for an array of tactics and styles that are neither fixed, nor premeditated. The art of research can be attributed to Barbara Christian’s concept of “tuned sensitivity” where research methods are crafted anew with each project. In “The Race for Theory”, Christian claims that theory has become a commodity where academics are encouraged to produce what I relate to as “the theory of the week”. These notable theoretical frameworks have become ephemeral, fleeting, and transient. As a result, academic work is not only commodified (academics compete to produce and capitalize off the next big theory), but is severely detached from practice. In this race for theory, scholars reinforce academic hegemony by creating theories that are replete with linguistic jargon and rooted in the citations of theoretical prophets; i.e. Foucault, Marx, Butler, Derrida. Given that these prophets overwhelmingly come from a Western and Eurocentric tradition, the voices of Third World, postcolonial, and decolonial academics are pushed to the margins and silenced.
In this blog’s opening epigraph, Christian addresses the imbalanced obligation social and human scientists bear in having to cite theoretical prophets. Rather than a commitment to the philosophical traditions innate in critical theory, Christian promotes a focus on literature. Such a focus honors an integration of feeling and knowledge as well as offers a pleasurable means of listening to the voices of marginalized people. While this opening epigraph speaks on the dominance of Western theory, it is all the more applicable to feminist methodology. What does a feminist mode of research ethics look like? How do feminist theorists and researchers treat their subject matter and objects of study with respect? In what ways do feminist researchers contest the hierarchy between researcher and researched? Finally, what makes a feminist method feminist?
In a technical sense, feminist methods such as self-reflexivity and reciprocity offer ways to contest the authority of the researcher. While self-reflexivity allows the researcher to locate his or herself within the social structure, feminist reciprocity provides the research subject with an active and engaged voice. Such feminist methods allow the research process to serve more as an interactive dialogue between the researcher and the researched rather than a traditional hierarchy between expert and subject. In a methodological sense, the concept of multiplicity features a recurrent and prominent role. Feminist scholars assert that no one feminist method is superior. Neither feminism, nor its methods and methodologies should be prescriptive. Instead, feminist methodology must embrace ambiguity. Christian’s “tuned sensitivity” represents what I find to be a beautiful interpretation of fashioning methods in the moment. In fact, it is the call for multiplicity and a lack of fixedness that I find to be Christian’s most substantial contentions with feminist methodology. Such convictions on multiplicity, ambiguity, and spontaneity lie within the intersections of critique and creation. As Gloria Anzaldúa conveys, “Rigidity means death”.
Within this rejection of rigidity, Chela Sandoval places the “apparatus of love” at the center. In Methodology of the Oppressed, Sandoval navigates the terrain of critical and cultural theoretical genealogies in order to highlight the work of U.S. third world feminism and its distinct mode of differential consciousness. Within differential consciousness, Sandoval avers: “It is love that can access and guide our theoretical and political “movidas” – revolutionary maneuvers toward decolonized being” (141). In A Lover’s Discourse, Roland Barthes argues that the process of “falling in love” punctures through to another site, a site of differential consciousness. Sandoval relates this othered site as a “utopian nonsite, a no-place where everything is possible—but only in exchange for the pain of the crossing” (141). Like love itself, liberation entails the anguished, laborious, and wounding adjustment to something new. Whether a fresh love or a newfound locale, embodying a liberating consciousness reaches the pleasurable moment of release only after the intense shift from loneliness to companionship, from oppression to unrestraint. Like a breath of fresh air, crispness is felt most after a period of stifling confinement.
To me, what is most striking about Sandoval’s centering of love and the practice of feminist methodology on the whole is how it manifests in writing. As researchers, our writing presents a look inside our modes of thinking and relating. Writing serves as a translation to the work we conduct in the field or in the archive. Our words not only puncture the walls allegedly separating the ivory tower from the outside world, but also provide a bridge of connection where others can peer inside one expression of our intellectual labor. With the power of words comes the accountability of style. In her conceptualization of “the race for theory”, Christian stresses the need for our writing to be pleasurable and relatable. Like fiction and storytelling, academic work has the ability to affect others on a deeply affective terrain. However, our words risk becoming obsolete if they fail to connect to and resonate with our readers. Jargon, while not always, can certainly become the enemy. Poetic justice is real. Writing aesthetics are not simply represented in the texture of our manuscripts, but embody the extensive process of research itself. If our writing represents the materialization of our research, then, when considering the practice and significance of feminist methods and methodology, we too must engage in a passionate assessment of our writing. A critique on the types of texts we deem theoretical also deserves attention. Often times the essence of our research is not expressible through words and may only be grasped through the poetics of music, embodiment, and the visual. This assembly of texts speaks to the complexity of love in our contemporary world. In the final section of Methodology of the Oppressed, Sandoval claims, "love is understood as affinity—alliance and affection across lines of difference that intersect both in and out of the body” (170). Love, and especially our desire to love and be loved, seeps into each of these textual domains. Love is expressed in our desire to represent our work, ideas, and subjects with care. Despite the postmodern critique of universalism, love will always be a mixture of simplicity and complexity. What I gather from Sandoval's hermeneutics of love is that love offers that special medley of self-defined desire and the tender intimacy built with another. With love at the center, our practice of feminist research begins to take shape once our writing reflects this tangled affair; where conceptions of the individual, time, and space coalesce with our desire for a constant queering of relation, one nestled in between the feeling of pleasure and the desire for something more.
Anzaldúa, Gloria. 1987. “La Consciencia de la Mestiza: Towards a New Consciousness,” Borderlands/ LaFrontera. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Press.
Christian, Barbara. 1988. “The Race for Theory,” Feminist Studies 14, 1: 67-79.
Sandoval, Chela. 2000. Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.