I learned about the Feminist Epistemologies, Metaphysics, Methodologies and Science Studies (FEMMSS) 6th conference at the GLCA Women’s/Gender/Sexuality Studies workshop in Ann Arbor last May from someone who works in science studies. FEMMSS is the feminist epistemologists and metaphysicians equivalent to the Feminist Ethics and Social Theory (FEAST) conference. Since FEAST meets every other year, FEMMSS meets on the off year. What’s great about this conference is how interdisciplinary it is — people from physics, neuroscience, philosophy, anthropology, history and sociology are here. I have enjoyed the interdisciplinary conferences I’ve attended in the last several years, from HASTAC to PODNetwork to Wonder and the Natural World at IU this last June. The conversations are lively and cross-pollinating, and the intradisciplinary anxiety and intensity seem softened by the interdisciplinary engagements.
First Plenary: “Reimagining Sex / Gender in Sport with Feminist Science and Transgender Politics.”
The first plenary brought together three people who were witnesses in the Dutee Chand case, two as fellow athletes and one as an expert witness. Sari Van Anders, neuroscientist at University of Michigan, maintains in her paper “Hyperandrogenicity and the New Genital Parade,” that testosterone testing was the same thing as genital and genetic testing under a different name. The problem is that hyperandrogeneticity is viewed in sport as disorder that masks gender deviance. While science views the outliers of testosterone levels among women as diversity within the gender / sex overlap, in clinical medicine the outliers are viewed as a disorder where there is no possibility for a gender / sex overlap in testosterone. In fact, there is very little data on testosterone levels in healthy women so clinical medicine makes an arbitrary judgment of what is too much. This becomes politicized in sport where “helping” women under the guise of protecting them from unfair competitors results in policing gender when testosterone testing determines female athlete eligibility.
Madeleine Pape (Wisconsin), who competed against Caster Semenya at the Olympics in 2008 and at the World Championships in 2009, examined two problems in testing for gender in athletics: the politics of expertise and the role of science in the sex / gender relation. She pointed to how the lawyers and witnesses for the Court of Arbitration for Sport were paid in the Chand case, but the lawyers for Chand worked pro bono and the witnesses weren’t paid because the Court that their testimony would be biased. Pape argues that the scientific knowledge about female athletes is thus produced on a tilted and gendered playing field, where the court has better access to resources in the form of both money and data. Interestingly, the Court insists that what it is doing is not gender verification, which it acknowledges would be problematic, rather it is maintaining fairness. Yet, when issues are raised about the real human damage done in this effort to maintain fairness, the Court privileges experts of science over the political and ethical arguments. Pape makes her argument to the general public at SBS, the Australian public broadcasting service.
This issue was taken up by Cassandra Wells (UBC), another track and field athlete, who was quoted while still a graduate student in the Toronto Star on the issue of sex testing. She made the point that both science and sport think the body can be observed rather than interpreted in her paper, “When Science Meets Justice.” Wells reminded us of the gendered and racial history of the modern Olympic games, which were revived after the Franco-Prussian War by the French to revive their spirits and revitalize Europe, helping the French boys and men, and European boys and men in general, develop leadership skills through sport. So successful women athletes could be considered a challenge to the raison d’etre of the Games. Testing then becomes a means of control. As Wells concludes, the IOC’s oh-so-civilized response to those they deem aberrations from “normal female,” whatever they judge that to be, is to “rectify” whatever is abnormal, to fix the athletes so that they might compete.
Second Plenary: “Gender, Race, and Dangerous Mothers in the Old and New Bioscience.”
Dorothy Roberts, George A. Weiss University Professor of Law and Sociology and the Raymond Pace and Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander Professor of Civil Rights at the University of Pennsylvania, gave an outstanding keynote on Monday morning. Roberts argued that when race is deemed a natural or genetic category, black mothers are held responsible for the inequality that reproduce by reproducing their offspring. As Roberts argues, initially this meant controlling black women’s reproduction in order to produce slaves and now this means controlling black women’s reproduction in light of the fact that her offspring are considered unequal to white offspring. Roberts points to the dual images of the “mammy” and the “Jezebel” as images of black women’s bodies. The mammy is the asexualized black woman who, as asexualized, becomes fit for caring for the white children. The Jezebel is the hypersexualized black woman–the dangerous mother. Reagan’s “welfare queen” is the heir to this Jezebel image–the dangerous mother who produces offspring only for her own benefit to the detriment of her children and the state’s coffers. But these images become biologized in contempory biology where the effects of racial inequality on the body become measured in order to then control the mother’s body to prevent her from passing this inequality on to the child, as if the mother is the problem and not the racial inequality in society that causes it. As Roberts’ notes, the human genome project should have ended the genetic theory of race, but scientists seemed to double down on efforts to find natural and genetic explanations for race.
One effect of the focus on genetics in the age of neoliberalism has been to hold women responsible for their own genetic fitness under the guise of ‘saving the children.’ (Consider the trend of genetic testing for partner selection discussed in the NYTimes fashion section.) When women forego genetic testing and a child with genetic disorderes is born, over and over again physicians counsel women to do the testing in the future. In fact, there has been some suggestion that health services for the child will not be covered if the mother could have done testing and terminated the child. What appears as politically fruitful work of tracing how social structures affect biology becomes justification for addressing the mother’s biology to prevent her from passing on the biological effects to her offspring rather than the underlying social structures. In sum, the naturalizing of social distinctions even when it tries to show the profundity of the effects of social distinctions becomes the excuse or motivation for controlling the bodies in which the effects are manifested.
Third Plenary: “Ending Life: Incarceration, Health and Epistemic Injustice.”
Nancy Arden McHugh, Professor and Chair of Philosophy at Wittenberg University, presented her work coming out of her involvement in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program. She focused specifically on how healthcare in prisons particularly at the end of life deny incarcerated Americans their position as knowers of their body and their health needs. McHugh argues that prisoners are made ill by prisons, both in the literal sense of how prisons’ efforts to cut healthcare costs makes prisoners sick and in the sense that prisoners age more quickly in prison. McHugh argues that prisoners are designed to shut down epistemic and social agency, perpetuating epistemic injustice through structures–policies, practices and, while philosophers sometimes ignore this, physical structures. As McHugh puts it, prisons actively create barriers that are conduits of ignorance to the outside. The justification of having medical staff treat patients in prison poorly (prisons don’t even have the same licensing standards for medical staff) is a view of incarceration as aiming to harm. Even in the face of this harm, McHugh argues, those who are incarcerated find ways to reclaim their agency and to demand the recognition of their humanity, the current prison strike against labor would be an example.
As for the other plenaries, I livetweeted the talk with the hashtag #FEMMSS6. I was glad to be joined by others and to engage during the talk with other people working in prisons and to ask a question prompted by that exchange which led to further engagement on social media.
And further, a discussion prompted by the idea that McHugh shared of using language of “student” and “patient” to consider those incarcerated as having roles beyond being incarcerated.
Given the way the philosophy internet appears to be blowing up these days–in all the senses of the term–I was especially interested in the work that Karen Arnold-Frost (Hobart & Smith) is doing in analyzing various internet phenomena. She addressed the possible epistemic problems with “lurking”–reading without engaging–on the internet through the lens of Shannon Sullivan’s concept of “ontological expansiveness,” wherein privileged persons take up all the space they encounter without recognizing that it isn’t their space to occupy. Frost-Arnold describes the virtues needed to live well online without “ontological expansiveness” as a way of balancing the various virtues necessary for living well–where any one virtue by itself–like intellectual curiosity–leads to ethical failure. I think this really important work, similar to what Robin James did awhile back at SPEP 2014. Given how much what is happening on the internet has IRL effects (as she Frost-Arnold says, the opposition is not internet vs. IRL but on life vs. real life since on life has come to have consequences for real life and vice versa), and how much what is happening is both distinct from and a magnification of what we call ‘real life’ theorizing it seems to be crucial to our efforts to live well.
Gaile Poulhaus (Miami U. of Ohio) raised questions about what is it about philosophy that appears to produce an inability to connect beyond the world of philosophy. She used Sara Ahmed’s language of “being oriented” to analyze the politics of philosophy. Being oriented means feeling at home. Hence, all philosophers have specific investments and concerns, but some get to experience those as assumed, as part of their being at home, while others experience their investments as what they have to make explicit in order to make their positions clear, thereby making themselves not-at-home, not welcome. It’s this kind of being oriented that makes people think that most conferences are non-resonant, and only those that explicitly state their commitments are “resonant.” In fact, all philosophy conferences are “resonant,” some just more explicitly than others. All philosophy conferences make some people feel at home and not others. The fact that some philosophers wouldn’t feel at home at a feminist philosophy conference would seem to prove the point that this is an aberration in their experience of philosophy conferences.
On the panel I chaired on epistemology of ignorance, Nora Berenstain analyzed the rhetoric of arguments against feminist epistemology. Berenstain pointed to the ways that active efforts to remain ignorant are at work in opposing feminist perspectives as illegitimate. Ethan Czuy Levine shared work on rape statistics and the ways that assumptions about what counts as rape affects the stats. For example, the surveys on rape do not include a category for having engaged in sex acts without your consent. There is a category for having engaged in sex acts because a man gave you drugs or alcohol, but not for saying no and being ignored. Levine’s work raises the question about what rape statistics even mean. Not on the same panel, but related, was Allison Bailey’s discussion of anger and epistemic injustice, where she pointed to how anger can operate as what legitimates some positions and hystericizes others.
Like many conferences, the best parts happen in the conversations in between panels and at cocktail hours. I’m on sabbatical so I have the leisure to attend more conferences this year, and I’m glad for the time to pursue ideas and build relationships. One thing that became very apparent to me was how much feminist analytic philosophy is engaging in similar questions that feminist continental philosophy is but with different vocabulary and approaches. The role of power in determining what counts as knowledge, the way that social structures produce subjects, the way that epistemological claims are normative, the way that gender, race, and sexuality intersect in specific ways with specific irreducible consequences. I am not someone who thinks analytic / continental distinctions are meaningless, a position that I worry just analytizes™ continental philosophy. But still, I left the conference wondering if this division in feminist inquiry undercuts feminist aims. Conversations at this conference made it clear to me that continental feminist philosophers would be welcome at and their contributions productive to FEMMSS in the future.