Notes on: Haraway D (1988) Situated Knowledges:The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies 14(3) 575--99.

Dave Harris

[Long, complex and polemical. I have vulgarised]

There have long been debates about objectivity, sometimes polarised into an' imagined ''they"', masculine scientists and an equally imagined "we", those who are not allowed to have a body, those disqualified. This is built on 'paranoid fantasies and academic resentments', to which she confesses (575). Feminist contributors have been seen as a mere special interest group.

There is a 'tempting dichotomy'— 'a strong social constructionist argument for all forms of knowledge claims'on the one hand, where boundaries of power moves, scientists arguments about objectivity are mere parables, official ideologies not describing practice. Disembodied scientific objectivity, is the other pole, and the only people who really believe that are nonscientists including some philosophers, although this might be 'just a reflection of a residual disciplinary chauvinism', because she is an historian and sociologist (576). Paranoia was deepened by Lacan on the law of the father solving problems based on 'always already absent referents, deferred signifieds, split subjects and the endless play of signifiers'. Matters such as gender or race were just seen as the results of high-speed play of signifiers. Some social constructionist have argued that the real scientific game is a matter of rhetoric, an attempt to persuade social actors of the authority of knowledge, one which can 'take account of the structure of facts and artefacts as well' (577). Knowledge is merely 'a condensed node in an agonistic power field'. Both the sociology of knowledge and semiology and deconstruction have pursued this notion.

But can we still talk about reality, especially as others still do [like the Christian right]. Is it just an act of faith? Can we reject cynicism? Social constructionism 'and a particular version of post-modernism', energised by critical discourse can produce an unfortunate 'imagery of force fields, of moods and a fully texturised encoded world', closely resembling 'high-tech military fields'. This is a dangerous support for 'abstract masculinity' (578).

Pursuing deconstruction of truth claims everywhere in science only ends with  'self induced multiple personality disorder' which makes it impossible to contest claims about the real world [made by cranks in the public eye]. It is always easy to show a bias, with no real need for strong constructionism — that just moves the debate beyond good and bad aspects of science, rejecting bias, misuse, pseudoscience. Although the aim was to regain historical subjectivity and agency for women, we ended with 'one more excuse for not learning any post-Newtonian physics', and a simple abandonment of science to 'the boys'.

Is there a feminist version of objectivity? Humanistic Marxism offered possibilities, but it was still wedded to the idea of the domination of nature in the self construction of man, and it's downplaying of women except insofar as they earned wages. But it did help to [stave off mindless relativism]. Some versions of psychoanalysis also helped here, especially object relations theory rather than any Marxist Freudianism. '"Feminist empiricism"' (579) was also useful, especially in resisting the excesses of semiology and narrativology. There is a need to produce a positive account of the world not just showing the contingency of everything. There is a link here with 'many practising scientists' who still believe they are 'describing things by means of all their constructing'. This led to a call for feminist '"successor science"', associated with Harding, aiming at a more adequate and better account of the world and critical reflection on practices of domination and oppression. The focus then is on 'ethics and politics perhaps more than epistemology'

The problem then is to simultaneously allow for radical historical contingency, a self critical awareness of how we make meanings, and 'a no-nonsense commitment to faithful accounts of a "real" world that can be partially shared, and that is friendly to liberating projects — successor science and a post-modern insistence on the 'radical multiplicity of local knowledges'. Each component is risky and paradoxical, 'and their combination is both contradictory and necessary'. We do not go back to a transcendental notion of objectivity without understanding its mediations, to 'the theory of innocent powers to represent the world', where language and bodies are just reconciled. We don't want to give support to global systems but we do need 'an earth wide network of connections including the ability partially to translate knowledges' (580). We need modern critical theory not just to deny meaning but to build it [meanings and bodies].

Science is only oppressive when it offers a reductionist account where only one language must be enforced as a universal standard, the equivalent of money in the exchange system of capitalism. 'Immortality and omnipotence are not our goals' but we do need some 'enforceable reliable accounts of things not reducible to power moves and agonistic' games. This affects every topic, whether about genes or races or texts. Many feminists have tried to hold onto both ends of the project. A shift of metaphors might help.

We need to place 'metaphorical reliance'(581) on vision. Vision avoids binary oppositions, it is embodied, even if it has turned into an abstract dominating gaze, leaving unmarked 'positions of Man and White'. We need instead 'a doctrine of embodied objectivity' that can embrace the paradoxes above. Here, 'feminist objectivity means quite simply situated knowledges'.

The eyes do show a capacity to distance the knowing subject from other things and bodies. Visualising technologies have done this without limit, producing 'the God trick of seeing everything from nowhere' and making it available to ordinary practice. It can be monstrous, cannibalistic, and when applied to extra terrestrial projects seem to be headed to 'excremental second birthing'

[An example is in the celebration of visual technology in the hundredth anniversary edition of the National Geographic Society which has brought to everyday understanding infinite and infinitesimal objects]. Infinite vision 'is an illusion, a God trick' and we need to insist instead on 'the particularity and embodiment of all vision', but allowing further technological mediation. This will allow a 'usable, but not an innocent, doctrine of objectivity'. It will help us expose all the 'visualising tricks and powers of modern sciences and technologies' and learn instead to use our own 'theoretical and political scanners in order to name where we are and are not'. There is no transcendent vision beyond all limits and responsibilities — 'only partial perspective promises objective vision' (583). All the usual 'Western cultural narratives about objectivity are allegories of the ideologies governing the relations of what we call mind and body, distance and responsibility', splits between subject and object. She learned this 'in part walking with my dogs and wondering how the world looks' through their eyes, or through the eyes of machines before they have been transformed for human use. We realise that eyes are 'active perceptual systems' with specific ways of seeing. In science, there is no unmediated photograph or passive recording machine, but only 'specific visual possibilities', each with a way of organising the world, different pictures of the world, revealing 'elaborate specificity and difference' [shades of deleuzian virtuality again here]. We can try to learn 'how to see faithfully from another's point of view' even if the other is a machine. That will not be alienating distance. Feminists need to understand how visual systems work 'technically, socially, and psychically'.

It is not enough to just trust 'the advantage points of the subjugated', even if this can be useful as a critique of the powerful. The real point is that abstract vision claims to be unlocatable and thus irresponsible. We must avoid the' danger of romanticising and/or appropriating the vision of the less powerful' (584). It is not easy to see from the position of subjugated others, even if women share their subjugation. The subjugated and their positions also need to be critically examined, deconstructed and interpreted — they are 'not "innocent" positions'. The might be preferred because they lack the usual ways to deny the critical and interpreted elements of knowledge, even though they also have other forms of denial — 'through repression, forgetting, and disappearing acts' [the last one is disappearing from your perspective so that your vision looks comprehensive]. Subjugated knowledge can help expose the God trick and they do seem to provide better transforming accounts of the world. But how to see from below is still a problem, no different from techno-scientific visualisation.

Preferred positioning is hostile to relativism and its twin, totalising versions of claims. The real alternative to relativism is 'partial, locatable, critical knowledges' that can lead to communication and solidarity. Relativism claims thinkers are 'everywhere equally', but this apparently equal positioning is really 'a denial of responsibility and critical inquiry'. It is another God trick.

We want to preserve the pursuit of objectivity 'that privileges contestation, deconstruction, passionate construction, web connections, and hope for the transformation of systems of knowledge and ways of seeing'. This requires more than just 'self-critical partiality', but rather a commitment to research perspectives which are not known in advance, that are ideally 'potent for constructing worlds less organised by axes of domination' (585) [emerging from extensive research of the other and subsequent discussion?]. This would be both imaginary and rational, visionary and objective, along the lines of the successor science above — both hope for transformative knowledge and the 'severe check and stimulus of sustained critical enquiry'. We might even be able to see natural science and its revolutions in this way: 'science has been utopian and visionary from the start; that is one reason "we" need it'. We need mobile positioning and passionate detachment, not 'the impossibility of entertaining innocent "identity" politics and epistemologies'. We cannot just pretend that we can be a member of the subjugated. We can't just relocate to any advantage point. Power is always involved in visualising practices. Similarly, we are not 'immediately present to ourselves' but require 'a semiotic – material technology to link meanings and bodies'. The 'boys in the human sciences' have called this a problem of the death of the subject, the abandonment of the notion of a single order for will and consciousness' (586) but this is a death only of the master subject. We need to reawaken the 'wandering eye… travelling lens' always present in Western perspectives, and providing some skill at least in re-visualising worlds which have been turned upside down.

The 'split and contradictory self' is exactly what is needed to interrogate positionings and be accountable, 'construct and join rational conversations and fantastic imaginings'. Splitting is a 'privileged image 'for feminists invoking 'heterogeneous multiplicities' that cannot be reduced, and multi dimensional vision. We commonly join together partial insights and identities without making one fundamental or making them equal and this is 'the promise of objectivity', to seek subject positions, not identities, aware of partial connections rather than whole beings. For example, no one can simultaneously be in privileged or subjugated positions 'structured [in the same direction] by gender, race, nation, and class'. We must resist fetishisation and essentialism, including the 'the centralised Third World Woman'. Subjugation alone 'is not grounds for an ontology… [Only]… a visual clue'. Vision needs to be developed through instruments and optics: there is no immediate standpoint vision. 'Identity, including self-identity, does not produce science': we need critical positioning or objectivity. Only the oppressors claim to be self identical, disembodied, unmediated, and the subjugated should not attempt to occupy that subject position in turn. We should be careful not to mistake standpoints for creativity and knowledge and certainly not for 'omniscience'(587).

Positioning is key to grounding knowledge. It has already yielded much 'Western scientific and philosophic discourse'. It implies responsibility and leads to politics and ethics in considering what counts as rational knowledge. Rationality is no longer some optical illusion 'projected from nowhere comprehensively'. Science has its own history relating to 'ways of life, social orders, practices of visualisation' just as technology does. They both involve skilled practices to decide what to see and where to see it from, what the limits of vision might be, how points of view develop and are limited, and what other sensory powers might be cultivated. Scientific revolutions have undoubtedly contributed to improvements in science, but not all revolutions are liberatory, as with 'the science question in the military'. There are struggles over how to see.

We need to develop a sense of location rather than relativism [with a chart of dichotomies — oh dear, looking rather like binaries]: universal rationality versus ethnophilosophy; common language versus hetero glossia; 'new organon' versus deconstruction; unified field theory versus oppositional positioning; world system versus local knowledges; master theory versus 'webbed accounts'(588). We should not assume by this that the options are symmetrical or even mutually exclusive. For example local knowledges are often in tension with structures that force unequal translations and exchanges, knowledge and power. Webs can build a systematic approach and even become 'centrally structured global systems'. 'Feminist accountability requires a knowledge tuned to resonance [actually 'reasonance' in the text] not to dichotomy' it celebrates structured and structuring difference. There are no fixed locations in reified bodies but rather notes, inflections, differences in fields of meaning. Objectivity cannot celebrate fixed vision because there are crucial issues about what counts as an object.

How can we develop such a position? Ordinary vision already fixes and distances things, but the metaphor also invites us to consider 'varied apparatuses of visual production' including prosthetic technologies, particular machines which have, for example, processed regions of the electromagnetic spectrum. These provide a source of metaphors to grasp simultaneously both the concrete real and the processes of semiotics and production. Partiality is 'the condition of being heard', not a claim to totality. Our bodies and lives are complex contradictory structuring and structured. We do not solve the problems by a God trick. Feminism should be about 'interpretation, translation stuttering and the partly understood', multiple subjects, double vision, a definite position in actual social space. These activities are always partial and critical and also 'a ground for conversation', not pluralism, but sensitivity to power, not codified stereotypes as in some of the 'antiscience ideology'in some feminist models but a dream of what might be perfectly known. Stressing location stresses vulnerability, openness, and resists simplification and fixation. There is no single feminist standpoint, but we all aim at 'an epistemology and politics of engaged, accountable positioning… Better accounts of the world, that is "science"' (590). There is no disengagement, but a constant process of critical interpretation between fields and people, 'power – sensitive conversation' focusing on what is contestable. Instead of 'clear and distinct ideas', we should go for split senses, confusion, not totalising phallogocentrism but 'partial sight and limited voice', valuing 'connections and unexpected openings'. Finding a larger vision depends on being somewhere, not escaping or transcending limits but joining partial views and voices 'into a collective subject position' [so we are getting into transcendental subjectivity here — Seek ye the virtual instead, my child]

Objects are also ambiguous. Science is not homogeneous, nor is it equally implemented in institutions, whether publishing weapons or pharmaceuticals. One issue turns on the status of objects, whether they are entirely passive and inert as is often assumed, whether they can be simply appropriated following dominant interests. Sex is an object of biological knowledge, for example and this has often led to biological determinism, apparently resisting feminist notions of difference. Yet sex cannot simply be removed from discussion since it can leave the body as a blank page, and ignore the effects of 'social inscriptions, including those of biological discourse' nor should we radically reduce the objects of any science to mere 'ephemera of discursive production and social construction' (592.) Bad kinds of objectivity have arisen from the classic analytic tradition 'that turns everything into a resource for appropriation' so that objects are there only for the power of the knower, not agents in themselves. This has led to '2nd birthing ' as Man homogenises the world in order to pursue his projects. Nature is only raw material, sex is only matter to be developed by gender 'which "we" can control' with our culture. Nature/ culture distinctions seemed wedded to the logic of domination. What is required is a feminist manoeuvre 'begun in dialectics' — the object of knowledge can be 'pictured as an actor and agent', in some sort of master slave dialectic to the human knower. In social human sciences it is crucial to come to terms with the agency of the object being studied, and this 'must apply to the other knowledge projects called sciences' (593). It is an important corollary to recognising ethics and politics that we grant 'the status of agent/actor to the "objects" of the world'. The world is not just raw material, but an active entity encountered in knowledge projects: 'no particular doctrine of representation or decoding or discovery guarantees anything'. We also have to reject simple realism. We need a feminist edge to an older manoeuvre. Eco-feminists see the world as an active subject. It might even have 'an independent sense of humour'. We need not 'lapse into appeals to a primal mother', but think rather in terms of coyotes or tricksters 'in south-west Native American accounts' — we know we will be hoodwinked, and we must give up mastery, but we can still 'keep searching for fidelity' if only as a useful myth (594). Our technical devices might be used to 'try to strike up non-innocent conversations'. Science fiction has been 'such a rich writing practice in recent feminist theory'. The previously passive categories of objects of knowledge have been activated, which immediately 'problematises binary distinctions like sex and gender, without eliminating their strategic utility'. The body 'becomes a most engaging being' resisting simple biological determinism: sex has been so re-theorised [in biology] that it now becomes 'practically indistinguishable from "mind"'. Biological females are almost now entirely structuring and active, agents. Difference in biology is seen as situational rather than intrinsic, even at the genetic level. Implications for the whole relation between sex and gender need to be considered. These 'new pictures of the biological female'are still contested, but they 'foreground knowledge as situated conversation at every level of its articulation', and have implications for the boundary between machine and organism as well as animal and human.

We can see this by investigating 'the apparatus of bodily production' (595). This has been developed in analysing the poem through the notion of an apparatus of literary production, 'at the intersection of arts, business, and technology… a matrix', joining writers and writing technologies. The same might be applied to the production of bodies. Of course there is a certain level of facticity in biological discourse which might raise doubts about whether bodies are 'produced or generated in the same strong sense as poems'. But there is a tradition in Romanticism 'that poetry and organisms are siblings', with Frankenstein as a meditation on this connection. We don't need to return to Romanticism, but refer to a '"material – semiotic actor"' instead of thinking of the cultural and the organic. This refers to 'a meaning generating part of apparatus of bodily production' [compare again Deleuze and Guattari on the semiotization of some affects]. We need not assume 'the immediate presence of such objects' nor accord to them a final determination of what counts as knowledge. They are 'generative nodes. Their boundaries materialise in social interaction', and 'objects are boundary projects', shifting as boundaries shift.

Objectivity is not disengagement but rather 'neutral and unusually equal structuring' (596), assuming that human beings are never in final control, can never achieve clear and distinct ideas. What counts is a biological body that 'emerge[s] at the intersection of biological research and writing, medical and other business practices, and technology' including visualisation technologies. There is also an analogue to languages and their active creativity — the coyote as one of 'protean embodiments of the world as witty agent and actor'. The world resists us because it is not just matter but 'the figure of the always problematic, always potent tie between meaning and bodies' (596). This is what provides the possibility of feminist embodiment, 'Here is where science, science fantasy and Science Fiction converge in the objectivity question in feminism'. Perhaps feminist politics, including eco-feminism 'turn on re-visioning the world as coding trickster with whom we must learn to converse'

[Long and gripping notes]

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