Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Philosophy and Conceptual Art

There is much that I know I don't know. But I often am aware, roughly, of what it is that I don't know. So I was thrilled today to learn something new about someone I should have known more about.

One of my students has been talking to me about women artists, and in particular about feminist conceptual art. Today she was teaching me about the conceptual artist Adrian Piper, and I was so curious because this seems like an unusual name, and I've read work by the ethicist Adrian Piper. And guess what? Same person!
This realization is more surprising because I don't expect academics to have time in their lives to develop other careers, and I don't expect to see an analytic philosopher (that is, someone not primarily writing aesthetics) be a figure in the artworld.

Adrian Piper studied with John Rawls at Harvard, and had a number of teaching posts after that. She was the first African-American woman in philosophy to be tenured, and left a teaching post at Wellesley in 2008. She's written much on Kant, on ethics, on history of philosophy more broadly, and on discrimination and identity. Her artistic career as a conceptual artist continues and seems to draw on some of the same themes as her philosophical work--the construction of personal and social identities and selfhood--but through a modality very different from analytic argumentation!

Here is an interesting interview with Piper from 2001.

Friday, March 11, 2011


My latest posts have been complaints. I need something to brighten my spirits. Ahhh...thinking about yarnbombing is just the thing.

Yarnbombing is like street art or graffiti, but it uses yarn, fiber, etc. as its medium. Thus, it's not permanent but it lasts longer than something like chalk, and it can be removed rather easily--if that were necessary. The point is usually to bring art into drab public spaces, but it serves other purposes, too, and it makes a political point about the value of handmade work in a mass-produced public culture. I also like the way it turns the usual gender expectation of graffiti on its head. Many of these works are by women. Men also participate, of course, and in that, it's a way of breaking down the stereotypes of women's work and women's crafts.

Photo by Aria.

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Why I'm Ambivalent About Women's History Month

March is Women's History Month. Eventually, it would be nice to be able to do away with it.

Women's History Month serves a purpose in foregrounding women's history and thus helping educators to brush up on histories they might otherwise overlook. But the goal of that attention is to mainstream this history--to make it easier and more natural to include the lives of women and their historical influence into the curriculum.

But these efforts have to be sincere, and they have to be useful. We feminist scholars and educators have a duty to use Women's History Month to include women in our syllabi and our lectures, and then to keep including them, even in months where we don't get the reminder.

What doesn't work is to focus attention on women in a way that can be used to further belittle, marginalize, or trivialize. Because by calling out women for special treatment, we're already taking the risk of reinforcing the beliefs that people come with--so the occasion has to be used effectively to redirect or change those beliefs, not re-entrench them.

In my last post, I mentioned that the Women's and Gender Studies Program on my campus was celebrating International Women's Day. They've also celebrated Women's History Month--by sending around a homemade image to all faculty and staff with the suggestion that we use it for our "desktop wallpaper" during the month of March.

It is a composite image of 6 of what I take to be their ideas of prominent and influential women in history:
  1. Queen Elizabeth I (nice start)
  2. Frida Kalho (well, OK)
  3. Harriet Tubman (so far, so good)
  4. Oprah Winfrey (judge for yourself)
  5. Marge Simpson (blue hair and so influential! DOH!)
  6. a busty image of Eve (SEDUCTRESS!!! ORIGINAL SIN!!!)
It is a 72KB file, it is not sized to fit my screen, and it uses the Comic Sans font.

I could not make this stuff up.

Monday, March 07, 2011

Why I Hate International Women's Day

I don't hate it for its Soviet roots.

The Wikipedia caption for the poster at right:
The 1932 Soviet poster dedicated to the 8th of March holiday. The text reads: "8th of March is the day of rebellion of the working women against kitchen slavery" and "Down with the oppression and narrow-mindedness of household work!". Originally in the USSR the holiday had a clear political character, emphasizing the role of the Soviet state inthe liberation of women from their second-class-citizen status.
Indeed, I'm all in favor of liberating women from the status of second-class citizen. And I think that doing so means demanding equal treatment for women in education, employment, and politics. Those are difficult tasks, and they require work on a daily basis, and I have no problem with a day that calls attention to the politics of gender.

But what I do have a problem with is a patronizing day for celebrating femininity analogous to Valentine's Day or Grandparent's Day. In Italy, and in some other countries, men give women flowers or chocolates on March 8. And then they elect, and tolerate, Berlusconi.

This gets personal:
At my university there is Women's and Gender Studies program, and it has an event budget. But it has not brought in an academic speaker in years, and its only event this year will be to hand out tulips to women--for being women--in the student union tomorrow. No political involvement on campus, no programming. Just tulips--symbols of love, symbols of unblemished beauty.

We also have a Women's Center, part of the Student Life part of campus. To recognize International Women's Day, they're holding a henna workshop.

Great. Flowers and make-up. So much for being modern women.

Thomas Kuhn's Ashtray

A story and video illustration by Errol Morris, concerning his time as a student of Thomas Kuhn's, at the Times.

In the comments:
That's the problem with relativism: Who's to say who's right and who's wrong? Somehow I'm not surprised to hear Kuhn was an ashtray-hurler. In the end, what other argument could he make?

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Being a Good Girl

A student I was privileged to have in my feminist theory course last term is a graduate student in the fine art photography/video program. I've found myself thinking quite often about her work, which simultaneously portrays and critiques stereotypes of good girls. The stereotypes she chooses juxtapose images of good little girls with conformist adult women, and juxtapose past norms for female discipline with contemporary expectations.

I haven't developed expertise in thinking about visual culture and art, but I'm immediately struck by the difficulty of what she proposes to do. How can an image simultaneously present a role and critique that role, and do so with multiple levels of meaning, making depth available to the viewer. And all while anticipating the expectations and assumptions that viewers will--or won't--bring to what they see.

This conundrum, which I expect is common in photography--especially in photography that reaches toward social commentary--is also familiar in feminist theory. For instance, consider my post below--on the one hand, in striving toward gender equality, we hope that, soon, gender won't matter, but for the sake of the striving, we must call attention to it. A point has to be made, but in making that point we risk undermining the eventual goal. This blog on politics and photography often addresses similar themes.

Whitney considers a related question in this post:
Do you have to rebel to be liberated? Does liberation dictate a change in appearance or only a change in mindset?
And this is a puzzle which I saw the young feminists in my course struggling with. On the one hand, they felt that they wanted to graphically mark their feminist consciousness--by how they dress or by not wearing make-up. But they also, rightly, questioned whether marking themselves was either required by feminism or effective as a feminist action. (And it's true, the people I know who have adopted a hippie persona are rarely radical, and the radicals I know don't usually look it but live their lives in ways that set them outside the mainstream. More on this thought soon.)

Below is one of Whitney's video installations. My first reaction was to love it--it's beautiful, and it seemed to me to find that tension point between, on the one hand, showing how much care feminine appearance and performance requires, and on the other hand, showing that the costuming, while perhaps adopted to fit others' expectations, also becomes adored in its own right, as we fit ourselves inside the role we are expected to inhabit.

Interestingly, Whitney reported that all of the women she has shown it to say they like it for reasons similar to mine, and all they men she has shown it to describe it as trite or clichéd--including my male colleague who does aesthetics.

Untitled from Whitney Warne on Vimeo.

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

A Film about Mathematicians, with Hilary Putnam

The film below sounds like it would be interesting, just because of the interesting subject matter. I've been thinking about women in math and science, so it's worth saying a few words about that. I'm conflicted when it comes to pointing out that I'm looking forward to seeing this film because the mathematician featured is a woman. I think that I'd be interested in it regardless of the gender of the main character. But in a social context where those of us who are women and interested in math and science are made to feel odd, there is added value in highlighting the work of women. Yes, there is a paradox here: gender shouldn't matter, but gender has to matter.

A while back, without a tenure-track job but having full access to university courses, I decided to take a year to construct a solid foundation in science (and to do the pre-req's for a master's program in science). That required taking a year of calculus. A friend and colleague, teacher of women's studies courses, and supporter of women in the sciences, could not help but express the doubt-ridden question "Why in the world would you want to take calculus? Math is so hard! Aren't you worried you won't do well?" Why would I have such a worry? Me, with a PhD--why would I be worried that I couldn't do what so many 18-year-olds can? And why project such doubts?

This week a student, a graduating senior woman majoring in business, told me that she signed up to take a physics course in the spring to complete her last general education requirement in science. She happens to enjoy math and has done well in physics in the past. Her academic advisor discouraged her from taking the course.

Here's the trailer for the 2008 1-hour documentary film Julia Robinson and Hilbert's Tenth Problem. It's not easily available, but I plan to ask our library to order it. I think it would be a nice fit for a Women in Science course.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

Hilary Putnam and Natalie Portman

Here's a riddle:
What do Hilary Putnam and Natalie Portman have in common?
Why, of course, they share talents in common. They are among the very, very few to have Erdos-Bacon numbers--indeed, these two have the same Erdos-Bacon number of 6.

An Erdos number of 1 refers to coauthorship with the mathematician Paul Erdos, (an Erdos number of 2 belongs to those who have coauthored with an Erdos coauther, and so on).

Degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon are calculated by appearing in a performance or film in which Kevin Bacon also appeared.

Hilary Putnam has an Erdos number of 3 (and if anyone can show the coauthorship path in comments, I'd be interested), and a Bacon number of 3 from having appeared as himself in the documentary film Julia Robinson and Hilbert's Tenth Problem.

Natalie Portman has a Bacon number of 1. As an undergraduate at Harvard, she co-authored a paper in neuroscience, giving her an Erdos number of 6. She also won a Westinghouse Prize (Intel Science Talent Search)--making a unique combination with her Oscar for Best Actress.

Not surprisingly, xkcd has illustrated the Erdos-Bacon dream.