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California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Created: March 3, 2002
Latest Update: February 12, 2006

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Index of Topics on Site Seyla Benhabib and Theory as a Foundation for Our Discussion Forum

March 3, 2002:

Last night I decided to read just for fun. So I picked up Seyla Benhabib's Situtating the Self. You know that I fuss constantly that she underrates the effects of racism, because of her concerns over colonialism. I find control through race devastating. But maybe that's because I haven't come face to face with colonialism in some of its more blatant forms. I welcomed a chance to read her work. Situating the Self is a 1992 work. Time I caught up.

Ever dutiful, I started with the introduction. By p. 4, I was scribbling notes and couldn't wait to tell you what I'd found. The life of a teacher with 300 students and four classes doesn't leave much time for theoretical rumination. I've been telling you for ages that I think Habermas puts too much faith in rational discourse, judging by the people with whom I get to have rational discourse. Remember Habermas isn't limiting rational discourse to the academy. He's including us ordinary folk. Lots of times we're barely rational, and I wouldn't call the environment in which we work one of public discourse. But I always figured that was because I wasn't at an elite school, where one was actually given the discretionary time to think. We're a corporation now, dedicated to customer service, which doesn't mean what I used to call education.

Gradually, based on the public discourse we manage to recreate in the Dear Habermas community, I had come to the conclusion that when Habermas speaks of hearing all validity claims in good faith, he's making the same mistake I keep hearing in Benhabib's admonition not to confuse race with colonialism, for we have access to language and do in fact have a voice. I hear that. But I also hear my own voice screaming "No, you don't understand." When you have known a world in which Freire's "culture of silence" reigns, when you deal with young people who have never learned to use language to express their feelings and their understanding because they have never been listened to in good faith, have never experienced agency, then you wonder whether race is qualitatively different from colonialism.

Imagine, then, my excitement when I read: "The elements of a postmetaphysical, interactive universalism are: the universal pragmatic reformulation of the basis of the validity of truth claims in terms of a discourse theory of justification; the vision of an embodied and embedded human self whose identity is constituted narratively, and the reformulation of the moral point of view as the contingent achievement of an interactive form of rationality rather than as the timeless standpoint of a legislative reason."

Now, as I copied that humungous sentence for you, I realized that it probably is a tad confusing. Remember I had curled up with the book, had time to think about it, and had been worrying this issue for a long time. This is what I mean about Habermas' apparent faith in rational discourse. I'm afraid he plays only with people who talk like that. We don't. But that doesn't mean that we need any the less to understand it.

I am thrilled to discover Situating the Self, even if I'm ten years late. It's comforting to have solid academic references at hand. An explication de texte of the paragraph I cited above is at Rescuing What We Can of the Universal.

Meanwhile, I just want to share my excitement that there are others all over the world who are confronting these issues and not choosing to ignore them, to hide behind dominance and privilege. I find it so much easier to explain, given Seyla Benhabib's theoretical explanations.

It's the same feeling Agnes expressed this week, when she agreed that most of the theoretical discussions make sense to us because we've been aware of the general ideas for a long time. Sometimes we even act on them. But it is comforting, satisfying to be able to articulate them clearly. Structural violence was not exactly a revelation to us. We knew the frustration and the anger at not being treated with respect as an individual, of being silenced, of having agency withheld. Theoretical explanation doesn't eliminate the structural violence. We still feel it. But it helps relieve the alienation and the stress when we can articulate the concept, label it, discuss it. Awareness and the refusal to continue denial is a step back towards agency. And a step back away from the denial that was imposed on us by the oppression. As Catharine MacKinnon made so clear in her A Feminist Theory of the State, awareness brings a mutual validation of our lived reality, and the assurance that what we perceive is really real, in spite of what the opressors may insist be considered real in the dominant discourse.

Our goal in providing a forum for public discourse is a little different from Catharine MacKinnon's in providing Women's consciousness-raising groups. MacKinnon sought primarily to deal with women who had been silenced so long that they had to be supported in discovering their voice.

We arrive at a later time, when those of you have found your voice need now to apply that voice effectively to the presentation of validity claims in the public forum. Theory is one of the tools in that process. Thus, my excitement in stumbling across Seyla Benhabib's discussion of Sittlichkeit (Situatedness). She provides support to me for speaking out to insist that we must approach the public forum as a moral conversation in which we help each other express the concerns our differences churn up, without forsaking our community over those differences. And that enables me in turn to provide support for our discussions. Then each one, teach one.

love and peace, jeanne

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