May. 9th, 2009

starlady: (revisionist historian)
ETA: Excellent post by [personal profile] sami, going into specific historical complaints; [personal profile] naraht is collecting links.

I was, by one of those happy coincidences that lead me to disbelieve in the existence of coincidence per se, reading a volume of incisive articles about pernicious intellectual hegemonies in another field when I saw a post on my reading list about Patricia Wrede's Thirteenth Child, which led me to the review thread on

I urge everyone to give the comments to the original thread a scroll-through. A lot of the comments are predictable, but a lot of them make some good points (full disclosure: I read the two Vorkosigan prequel books when they were packaged together as Cordelia's Honor lo these many moons ago, enjoyed them, and felt no need to continue the Saga).

But, until I actually read the book (and I intend to, because Dealing with Dragons was one of my favorite books in middle school, and because the charge of "but you haven't read the book!" irks me, not least because I do feel it's not entirely invalid), my thoughts are on hegemonies, and how they function best when invisible.

What is a hegemony? Don't go read the Wikipedia article, as it is obfuscatory in that it focuses on hegemony entirely as a political and historical formation. A hegemony, for my current purposes, is any overarching system of thought that functions within a society so that any alternatives to the systems of power and thought that the hegemony authorizes are literally unthinkable, because outside the hegemony's boundaries, which are not properly said to exist. What's a good concrete example of a hegemony in America right now? White privilege. You want another example? Patriarchy before the rise of feminism and the women's liberation movement. Another? White supremacy before the civil rights movement. I admit that I have a special ire for the idea that the West is superior to the Rest (which, conveniently, contains the idea that there is a meaningful distinction between the two).

Obviously all these hegemonies are imperfect in that alternatives to them are thinkable--and, indeed, this shows the success people have had in dragging them into the visible and problematizing them. But, particularly with white privilege, it's imperative that people keep reminding themselves to see what's in front of their faces, because the hegemony is still very much operative, and it works best when people forget that it's there, that white privilege exists.

So I applaud Avalon's Willow and all the other people who have leapt into the breach and said "Hey, wait a minute!" It's a thankless task, as Racefail '09 has amply demonstrated, but if people don't keep pointing out the troubling implications of such stories as these, don't keep making the invisible visible, things are never going to change.

My other thoughts are on the role of Minneapolis-St. Paul as an enabling place in this context. The first time I landed in MSP, coming from PHL, I immediately thought, "Where are all the black people!?" (Then I thought, "Damn this is a nice airport.") I honestly did make an effort to remind myself of that thought every time I flew into the Cities, because, particularly if one, as a white person, doesn't use the transit system and doesn't venture into the areas of both cities where non-white residents are much more visible (I'm thinking Lake Street and downtown Minneapolis, for those who know), the Twin Cities can be a very white-washed place. There are many, many African-Americans, Somali-Americans, Hmong-Americans, First Nations people and people of other races and ethnicities than white and/or Scandinavian in the Cities, but based on my own experiences as a visitor, I'm afraid it could be all too easy to lose a chromatic vision of Minneapolis-St. Paul.

So no matter where you live, I urge you to leave your car at home for a day and hop on a bus or a light rail or a train to get where you're going, if you don't do that already. Mass transit is not always efficient or even pleasant, but it makes a great antidote to the idea that America is, or ever could be, comfortably devoid of non-white peoples.

Still here? Well, my final footnote to this post is just how easy it is to overlook the operations of any given hegemony. Despite considering myself a feminist from the tender age of about six years (when I stopped playing with Barbie because she was damaging to women's self-esteem), it wasn't until my junior year in high school that I finally got a working definition of patriarchy, and by extension why feminism is needful. I didn't get this definition from any of the underpaid teachers at my fancy high school; I got it from the appendix to Samuel R. Delany's Return to Nevèryon: "…it is our habitual insistence on reading all such absent-but-functioning authority as male […] that stabilizes the socio-economic realities of patriarchal society." Ever since I read that sentence, I've been sensitized to the frighteningly common assumption that authority = male. I can't dial back that awareness, even if I wanted to do so.

And just because I found what seems to be a particularly apt quotation from Delany in the back matter of Flight from Nevèryon, in reply to a reader pointing out some of his mathematical errors in a previous volume, I shall include it:

But to claim Nevèryon is fantasy and try to excuse my blunders on such grounds is a kind of fudging I don't think I should even flirt with.


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