Link to What's New This Week Introduction to <i>Moral Textures</i>

Dear Habermas Logo and Link to Site Index A Justice Site



Teaching Essay

Mirror Sites:
CSUDH - Habermas - UWP - Archives
Practice Module on The Introduction to Moral Textures

California State University, Dominguez Hills
University of Wisconsin, Parkside
Soka University Japan - Transcend Art and Peace
Created August 8, 2002
Latest Update: September 8, 2002

E-Mail Icon jeannecurran@habermas.org
takata@uwp.edu

Site Teaching Modules Moral Textures:
Feminist Narratives in the Public Sphere - Introduction

* * *

This essay reviews the Introduction to Maria Pia Lara's Moral Textures: Feminist Narratives in the Public Sphere, University of California Press. Berkeley. 1998. ISBN: 0-520-21777-2 (pbk.). pp.1 - 19.

  1. jeanne's lecture notes before class:

    Note that Pia Lara says she is following critical theory. That means that she doesn't want just to document the harm done by our colonial policy, she wants to seek ways of redressing that harm and improving the lives of those who have been harmed. Critical theory does not ascribe to "objective" empirical science that ignores the human complexities in the structural setting. Critical theory aspires to change the injustices of the world, not merely to understand them and explain them as though they simply are the "way it's supposed to be."

    Note the definition of "illocutionary force" on p. 2 of Moral Textures: " By illocutionary force, Habermas refers to a speech-act in which 'alter' and 'ego' understand one anotehr solely on the basis of well-argued reasons. The goal of such illocutionary actions is to achieve a consensus based on muutual understanding." But Pia Lara takes exception with this matter of consensus. She speaks of "illocutionary force," in contradiction of Habermas, as "lead[ing] to an understanding of how, with the subjects of the speech-actsfocusin on newly prolematic social issues, it is possible to transform them by creating new narratives in the public sphere. I call the dynamics of such efforst 'illocutionary force.' "

    What does Pia Lara mean on pp. 2-3, when she says that "after 'alter' and 'ego' have transformed themselves" from opening their minds in good faith to hear each others' stories, their ability to 'reorder' their "values and beliefs" is more likely? This reordering implies a public agreement about a new definitiion of justice and its connections to the good life.In performative terms, this approach to speech-acts suggests the interrelation of agonistic and consensual moments. And Pia Lara sees in the agonistic component the Other's ability to come up with a creatively imaginative presentation of the harm done to the Others whom she represents to draw everyone into good faith listening to her arguments. So performance counts, too. If those who are seeking consensus move back and forth across the agonistic and consensual moments, they are more likely to discover empathy and to disclose themselves to each other, to share their human qualities and resolve in pece their differences. It is when the harm is suffered in silence and the harmed Others screened from the view and consciousness of the dominant ones that there is an ability to sustain almost unbelievable inhumanity to Others.

    In the debacle in which George Bush's son lost so much of Savings and Loan money, would agonistic and consensual moments have moved the young Bush to provide a more socially just solution than the one we never heard about? Had the narrative of those whose life savings had been lost have changed the outcome if there had been one whose "powertul narrative had provided an account of the lack of justice created by the situation? Maria Pia Lara claims that "women's narratives have this emancipatory content whatever their particular viewpoint." I think that means that women's narratives most often seek to let all be heard, not to exclude or exploit any, but to attain some fair outcome. She says that such "claims for recognition:are conceived as "illocutionary forces." And she contrasts them to what she calls "polluted discourses:" discourses that have as their purpose to assert the individual or group claim of one over the silenced voice of the Other. Most of all, she suggest that the very example of Illocutionary forces, where others see how moral claims can lead to understanding and to transformaation of the unjust predicament, these very examples, when they are enacted in the public sphere, serve as stimulants to others to become hopeful and to seek she who can imaginatively bring their story to the public sphere.

    Notice that the process of performing these illocutionary acts brings women into the public sphere, actually into the heart of the public sphere most likely to make them visible, their voices heard, and thus the powerlessness of the private sphere may be overcome. NO MORE SUFFERING IN SILENCE. The new civil society that Pia Lara envisions must take into account the very importance of the telling and hearing of the stories, not just the outcome of each validity claim, but the outcome of the process of authentic discussion of the validity claims. (At p. 3 of Moral Textures. In the 70s women told their stories to other women, and they heightened their own consciousness of the oppression in which they were trapped. But since the 70s and some breakthroughs, more stories of success, of how you can make it in spite of the oppression, and how I did it, are what our young people have heard. Pia Lara's recognition of the power of telling our stories and demanding recognition for the harm one to us in the public sphere, means that we come out into the light where it is harder to hide and to deny us.

    Always this leaves open the possibility that some will claim harm where there is none, and that some will claim more harm than was done. Pia Lara would call such claims "polluted discourses," untrue to the moral and aesthetic claims of emancipation. But I think that her formula of bringing the stories to public awareness will overcome the untruths that will come with them. I am reminded of Archbishop Tutu's response to the complaint that not all who appeared before the truth commissions told the truth. But he assured those who complained that it was not the truth itself of the actual happening that mattered as much as the telling of the harm and the acknowledgment in the public sphere that such harm had indeed been perpetrator, although perhaps in varying degrees and by differing people. What mattered that those who suffered so were finally given public recognition that they had indeed suffered, and in the process, all came closer to understanding and to good faith hearing of one another. The Truth Commissions were not courts of law, but forums for the justice of recognition. And the process did help to heal. Not all. Not completely. But healing could at least begin.

    As I understand Pia Lara's rapprochement of the moral and aesthetic spheres, she is acknowledging the role of values in fundamental belief systems and the value of the expression of our culture, as playing prominent roles in communicating the stories that engage our voices. She interprets Habermas as having recognized the importance of linking critical theory to the cultural sphere in his early work, only to have forsaken that appraoch in Between Law and Factsin 1995, for an emphasis on "a 'strong public' that provides the best space for emancipatory discourses contesting the empircal contents of norms." (At p. 4 of Moral Textures.)

    Pia Lara sees a "disclosive" effect in storytelling. As alter and ego form a new "we," as alter tells her story and ego listens in good faith, in other words wherre we have a performative act, where alter, the teller, needs ego, the listener, and vice versa, and where the performative act is not complete without both, then alter and ego can learn to tell stories that disclose more of themselves. This, Pia Lara tells us, is similar to Arendt's conception of hope for the future through the action of using the performative function of language to imagine and create new "beginnings." Now, this is my interpretation of stuff these philosophers have a hard time agreeing on. But I think it makes sense. Benjamin, who together with Marcuse and Adorno and Horkheim were the principle theorists in the Frankfurst School, represented by Habermas today, were horrified at the failure of the Enlightenment to take much of anything besides science (empiricism) into account in studying the history of humans.

    They recognized and worried that the Enlightenment would not produce the hoped-for Utopia of abundance and peace, but left open possibilities for exploitation and exclusion and greed that might go beyond that of pre-Enlightenment history. The Second World War and genocide on a scale never seen before fed these fears. Habermas, as I understand it, in taking up the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, with a tremendous faith in the possibility of humans to use their reason and unique language skills to regulate their systems of living, concluded that we should be able to rescue the benefits that Enlightenment had brought, and control the forces of greed, exploitation, and exclusion through rational governance. Arendt is pointing out that in his early writings Habermas recognized the powerful effects of morality and aesthetics (read culture, for now) that were not being taken into account if we considered only empirical, scientific answers to the issues with which humans were faced. We must also consider the moral and aesthetic spheres, for they, too, contribute to the outcome.

    Pia Lara suggests fruther, that when Habermas turned to the role of the legal system and its process of legitimation and governance in Betwen Facts and Norms, that he turned from his investigations into the role of the moral and aesthetic spheres in shaping alternative solutions to finding the path to peace and understanding the Frankfurt school had sought. Arendt suggests that turning back to the moral and aesthetic spheres, recognizing their role in transforming the lived experience of humans and the infrastructure they create in the process of that lived experience suggest a path for new "beginnings," for avoiding the pitfall of ignoring the moral and aesthetic spheres. And she atrributes this breakthrugh in theory, around the barrier erected by exploring the legal system alone as the harbinger of progress, to feminist theory and feminist writing, starting with Hannah Arendt, who wrote at the same time as the Frankfurt school, during the time of the Second World War.

    Now, why on earth do I insist that undergraduates pay attention and learn such nuances in theory? Well, for those studying feminism this is an important hands-on experience of watching the contributions of women to the most crucial issues of our time, while those contributions are taking shape. I think you need to grasp them; for some of you may have your own contributions to make. For those studying theory, this work illustrates better than any text the real issues at the heart of social theory as theorists worry them through. Pia Lara gives you a chance to observe the contributions of Hannah Arendt in the middle of the Twentieth Century, as they are reviewed and incorporated by Pia Lara in the Twenty-first Century. Habermas, considered one of the greatest thinkers of the Twentieth Century, both feeds into the thoughts of Pia Lara, and is critiqued by her as she takes new paths, offering alternatives to the direction Habermas has taken. I can't begin to tell you who's right. No one alive now can do that. But I can plop you down right in the middle of all this to give you some sense of the exciting world you live in today.

    Your task in this class is not to capture all the details of the various threads of social theory running all through here. That would be an enormous task. Not even I can grasp the whole picture, for it crosses many disciplines, and many countries, and many centuries. Our task is to experience and be inspired by the awe of watching humans think about the most incredible issues of our day. As lay persons, we will not grasp all the intricacies. But we can understand the debates and the issues, and we can introduce that understanding into our civil discourse, the better to govern ourselves as responsible members of a democracy. jeanne. September 8, 2002.

  2. Notes for Study

    Several important ideas come up immediately in this introduction:

    • The public sphere. We generally speak of the public sphere as the sphere outside the home: that which encompasses school, government, work organizations (corporations), etc. We think of the private sphere as that which includes home and family.
    • Throughout modern history women have been subordinated to men, through patriarchy. As a consequence of that patriarchy women have traditionally been confined to the private sphere. They have also been seen as more nurturing and less aggressive than men, particularly since peace, love, and the good of the family have been centered in the private sphere. We have even developed theories of mind that suggest that women think differently, with different parts of their brain. And, yes, that that difference suits women to kinder and gentler undertakings and thoughts. (Link reference here on the recent photography of brain functions. It's already up on the site somewhere, but I haven't found it yet.)
    • The fact that the common assumption of public and private sphere activities has led ultimately to the hypotheses tested by our psychologists and neuropsychiatrists is indicative of the postmodern complaint that all theories are relative, since there is no real way to free ourselves of these effects of our culture. We see the world through our own cultural baggage, and we cannot do otherwise. But we can become aware of that cultural baggage, and that's what Moral Textures is about. Maria Pia Lara speaks here of the importance of feminist theory in bringing that awareness to consciousness, and then past the private sphere of local family and friendship awareness, into the public sphere of the community, transforming the community in the process.

      Pia Lara takes the approach that we have often taken in our discussions, that bringing that awareness to consciousness is an essential step in transforming the injustice of subordination. Pia Lara speaks of women's stories as a struggle for recognition in the public sphere. And she shows how that struggle, which takes place in the public sphere, with the media, brings the necessary recognition to draw subordinated groups together and transform the injustice. See the example of the Texcoco subsistence farmers in their struggle to prevent the Mexican government from taking their land at far less than a fair price.

    • Note Pia Lara's emphasis on the importance of recognition. Those who have suffered domination, exclusion, exploitation, invariably have less power within the structural context than those who have engaged in the dominance. For example, if students are treated unfairly, the school still has more power than the students, even more power than the students acting collectively, because the school has the authority of the collective or governing group. At work, if you are treated unfairly, the supervisors and administration still have more power than the worker in the context of the work place.

      Power, particularly disciplinary power, is difficult to grasp because it is subtle. Disciplinary power works through the rules, and the subtlety lies in the individual's confusiion that he/she has indeed broken a rule, but the rule made no sense in the context. Nonetheless, the authorities have a powerful position in arguing that the rules were broken. The fact that disciplinary power depends on "objective" rules that apply to everyone is also confusing in that there is no perpetrator, no person who "did this to you," makes it difficult to find anyone in charge willing to eve let you plead your case. "I can't do anything, Ma'am. It's the rule."

      Given the power differential that already exists for those excluded or exploited, Pia Lara refers to their "silencing." They are "silenced" for no one has the duty to listen to them, since the rules so ordain. Some do listen, social workers, ministers, friends. But none of them have the power to redress the differentiation of power.

      Both Pia Lara and Freire insist that finding a "voice" and expressing the injustices done to them, are empowering. Freire teaches them that they do have knowledge and can be self-sufficient in making their own life decisions. Pia Lara turns to narrative as a means of expressing their pain, and through that process, gaining recognition. Recognition involves becoming so visible that the authorities are forced to become aware of the pain inflicted by their dominance, no longer able to deny the existence of any harm their dominance might have caused.

      One way in which feminist narratives have been so important is through their demand for recognition of the harm caused to women and society by the male dominance and explotation of women.

  3. Key Concepts

    I meant to just list the concepts here. Then I remembered how frustrated I feel when I think I know what a concept or word is, but I can't quite remember, and I didn't want to frustrate you with our modules. So I wrote off-the-wall explanations of each concept. It was midnight. I was tired. Do my explanations leave anything out? Do they pass muster? Maybe they'll inspire you to remember.

    • critical theory - Theory, originally grown out of the Frankfurt School, represented today by Habermas, that takes a critical approach. That is, an approach that focuses on what does not work with the system to discover ways of making the system better.

    • reconstructive - After deconstructing a social theory, discovering biases, or discovering that changing patterns of structural contexts have chaged some of the interpretations, we reconstruct the theory to fit within the cultural and historical context appropriate for our work and understanding.

    • empirical - That which can be tested by relatively agreed upon objective criteria in which we can experimentally decide which version comes closer to describing "objective" reality. The term, positivist, is also used.

    • falsifiable - A theory or concept is falsifiable if we can show that it is not true. A statement like "God exists." is not falsifiable because we have no way of falsifying it. We cannot know that which exists beyond our senses, except as a "belief" that is not falsifiable. Falsifiable often refers to that which can be shown "objectively" to be true or false.

    • postmetaphysical - Theory that comes after the period in philosophy in which we relied on metaphysical or spiritual proofs.

    • normative - Theory or aproach based on the norm, or the most likely response, that we come to expect of others. This is related to dominant discourse, the language of the average person, their beliefs and expectations as expressed in things we say or do in the public sphere. We used to speak of the normative as the "socially acceptable" response, or the one that would not stand out, not trouble those hearing it.



Site Copyright: Jeanne Curran and Susan R. Takata and Individaul Authors, August 2002.
"Fair use" encouraged.