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Theory As Activism

The following discussion of works discussing theory as a form of activism
took place on WMST-L in January 2004.  For additional WMST-L files now 
available on the Web, see the WMST-L File Collection.
Date: Tue, 13 Jan 2004 16:15:36 -0330
From: Kate Bride <kbride AT NF.SYMPATICO.CA>
Subject: theory as activism
Hi - I'm on the search for writings about theory as (a form of) activism.  I
am teaching a feminist theory course and anticipate that there will be the
usual theory/practice tensions.  Can anyone suggest anything in this regard?
The theoretical "positions" I'll be working with include mostly
poststructural, postmodern, and postcolonial writings.

Kate Bride
Memorial University of Newfoundland
kbride  AT  nf.sympatico.ca
Date: Tue, 13 Jan 2004 19:28:12 -0600
From: "Adela C. Licona" <alicona AT IASTATE.EDU>
Subject: Re: theory as activism
Saludos Kate,

Check out Methodology of the Oppressed by Chela Sandoval.

Good luck and enjoy!

Adela C. Licona
Ph.D. Candidate / (B)Orderlands' Rhetoric
Research & Editorial Assistant / National Women's Studies Journal
Iowa State University
alicona  AT  iastate.edu
Date: Tue, 13 Jan 2004 23:49:13 -0500
From: Gill Wright Miller <millerg AT denison.edu>
Subject: Re: theory as activism
Of course, bell hooks wrote about this.  If no one else sends it in, I will
get the reference tomorrow for you.  I first read it in an edited anthology
about feminist autobiography, but it was not a new essay then.
Gill Miller
millerg  AT  denison.edu
Date: Wed, 14 Jan 2004 10:19:51 -0500
From: Rose Corrigan <corrigan AT POLISCI.RUTGERS.EDU>
Subject: but is theory activism?

I wonder whether you are also going to include writings that talk
about activism as a form of theory? Jane Mansbridge's essay "What
is the Feminist Movement" in Martin & Ferree's Feminist Movements,
and Joan Pennell's article "Ideology at a Canadian Shelter for
Battered Women" in Women's Studies International Forum, and
Charlotte Bunch's essay "Not by Degrees" in Passionate Politics
come to mind.

More generally, while I think theory and activism are both
vitally important and I've done lots of work on both, I wonder
about the tendency to conflate what really are different
practices. Is there a lingering shame attached to doing theory
that necessitates "justifying" it by calling it activism? Or
is it a devaluation or misunderstanding of activism, so that
anything one does can be construed as activism? What is at
stake--what is gained--by insisting that theory is a form of
activism? I've been thinking about this issue for years & am
finally writing an article on it; thoughts & responses, private
or to the list, are appreciated.

Rose Corrigan

Rose Corrigan
Assistant Professor
Department of Government
John Jay College/CUNY
p: 212.237.8244
e: rcorrigan  AT  jjay.cuny.edu
Date: Wed, 14 Jan 2004 08:49:08 -0800
From: jfrueh <jfrueh AT UNR.NEVADA.EDU>
Subject: Re: theory as activism
Hello Kate and List,

I suggest my books, in which theory and practice are one in an activism
of what I call soul-and-mind-inseparable-from-body (a term that recurs
in my books).  The books are Erotic Faculties (1996) and Monster/Beauty
(2001), both University of California Press.

Best wishes,

Joanna Frueh

Professor of Art History
Art Department/224
University of Nevada, Reno
Reno, NV 89557-0007
ph    775-784-6682
fax    775-784-6655
jfrueh  AT  unr.nevada.edu
Date: Wed, 14 Jan 2004 11:46:26 -0500
From: Sandra Basgall <sbasgall AT VERMONTEL.NET>
Subject: Re: but is theory activism?
      There is a huge body of literature on participatory action
      feminist theory and it can easily be accessed through any search
      engine.  Patricia J. Kelly describes is as "Feminist participatory
      action research (PAR) provides a mechanism for women's voices to
      be heard, for communities to Feminist Participatory Action
      Research," The 128th Annual Meeting of APHA Boston, MA, Nov 12-16,

      Marion Martin has an excellent article which discusses, describes,
      and critics it which can be found on line at Sociological Research
      Online, vol. 2, no. 2, http://www.socresonline.org.uk/2/2/8.html.
      Also, Andrea Cornwall and Rachel Jewkes. has a fine description of
      participatory research, "What is Participatory Research?"  (1995
      Social Science Medicine 41 12, 1667-1676).

Sandra Basgall
sbasgall  AT  vermontel.net
Date: Thu, 15 Jan 2004 09:43:01 -0600
From: Kass Fleisher <hkfleis AT ILSTU.EDU>
Subject: Re: but is theory activism?

thanks for this and the contemplation it has sparked.  my answer to
your question would have been immediately YES, but i want to hear
your concern that activism can be "devalued" when "anything one does
can be construed as activism."  (i think i am particularly open to
this concern because in my business [creative writing of the
innovative variety] i get a whole lot of "everything is art."  but if
everything is art then nothing is art.  so i hear you.)

so, thanks to you, what i'm now thinking is that "anything one does"
has the *potential* to be activism (just as anything one writes has
the potential to be art).  in which case i think i need us to define
our terms.  what is theory?  what is activism?  the word "theory"
gets thrown around a lot and i fear that sometimes we think we're all
talking about the same thing but we may not be.

in the humanities, "theory" tends to mean intellectual work focused
on the why-and-how-ness of a given problem.  (feminist theory:  why
do men seem to possess a disproportionate amount of power?  how does
power work?)  will this serve as a quick definition for us, for the
sake of our discussion?

and i wonder, is activism any less thorny?  quick one for me:
activism is an activity that seeks change.  (one can activate from
the right or left.)

see, doing this quick (not terribly accurate, i fear) defining work
reveals the chasm i think you're seeing:  it would seem here that
activism is not intellectual work because it is activity.  it's doing
not thinking.  "don't think, just hit the ball."

but you never just hit the ball.  first you think about how to hit
the ball, then there comes a time when you have to stop thinking and
DO.  but what you do is informed entirely by what you thought before
you hit the ball.

(sorry to descend into sports analogies.  i was raised by 2 athletes.)

i say this because theory has activated me.  i read the theory, the
theory helped me understand the problem, i was moved to activate.

but is intellectual work not itself an activity?  and if it is
intellectual work that seeks a change, is it not also activism?  i'm
tempted to reverse the terms of your question, "what is gained by
insisting that theory is a form of activism?"  what might be lost if
we insisted theory were not activism?  what if i were a person who
seeks change, and who thinks my best contribution might be made by
theorizing the situation i seek to change?  if i were told that the
theorizing activity doesn't qualify as activism, am i not also being
told that the theorizing activity will not result in change?  (or
i'll be out of the activist club if i want to be a thinker?)

i have a lot of concerns with the question you have raised and would
like to hear more from you about your perspective -- but one of my
concerns is that we not join the legions of folk in this culture who
seek to suppress intellectual work.  it may be that we can't oppose
theory to activism (depending on how we define these); it may be that
the two are symbiotic, or perhaps cyclical.  but i don't think we
want to be telling people that they shouldn't examine the
why-and-how-ness of their activities.

thanks very much for this,


Kass Fleisher
Assistant Professor
Department of English
Illinois State University
Campus Box 4240
Normal  IL  61790-4240
309/438-3728 (office voicemail)

hkfleis  AT  ilstu.edu
Date: Thu, 15 Jan 2004 16:04:16 -0500
From: Jane Hassinger <jahass AT UMICH.EDU>
Subject: feminism theory and practice
One more to add--a new volume, published by Routledge, Skeptical Feminism

Jane A. Hassinger
University of Michigan
Women's Studies and Psychology
jahass  AT  umich.edu

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