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Reading across Borders, by Shari Stone-Mediatore.

May 26, 2012

Reading across Borders: Storytelling and the Knowledge of Resistance, by Shari Stone-Mediatore. Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

A theoretical book arguing that storytelling, especially by those marginalized by society, is a valid way of knowing and sharing knowledge, despite its criticism by both empiricists and deconstructionists. This is a major contribution to “feminist standpoint theory” and the attempt to “think from others’ lives.”

Stone-Mediatore is an academic philosopher steeped in “western civilization” and involved in debates about how we know what is true. Her prose is dense and can be slow going for individuals outside those debates. The points she makes, however, are critical to the decisions we all make about whom we can trust. Stone sets out to affirm the value of well-told stories in our pursuit of knowledge and to establish guidelines for considering them.

For Stone-Mardiatore a story points out the relationship of facts to each other and chooses which to prioritize. A story is an invitation to “look at it this way,” not a absolute truth but an “imaginative guide” which can “throw new light on familiar words.” Stories by those who are marginalized challenge and contradict the categories of thought which we assume are true. Because we temporarily identify with their authors, they force us to see biases and pain that we, and those in power, want to pretend do not exist. They challenge the “common sense” of a dominant society and point out the ways in which the “objective categories” of that society leave out essential human experiences.  They force us to see biases and pain that we, and those in power, want to pretend do not exist. Stories can “respond to the inchoate, contradictory, unpredictable aspects of the human experience and can thereby destabilize ossified truths and foster critical inquiry into the uncertainties and complexities of historical life.”

She wants to promote a “more responsible public storytelling” that “not only attends to historical facts but questions received ways of interpreting the facts, explores aspects of the world that are incongruent with received narrative frameworks… and fosters democratic communities in which we continually rethink our common histories and project in light of each others’ stories.”

Hannah Arendt, a German philospher, has been an influence on Stone-Mediatore, who uses her work as an example of the value of stories.  Arendt turned to narrative thinking to explain how and why the Nazis acted in such “unthinkable” ways because ”Enlightenment principles of equal respect and moral responsibility could not stop people from killing their neighbors.“ She looked at the concrete historical situation in which Nazi ideas and practices emerged, and identified how racism and social disintegration opened the door for people to indulge in illogical, totally deductive thinking.

Stories, however, have been discounted by empiricists who insist that only “objective” knowledge is valid and admissible and thus reject narratives as “tainted” with personal experience. Such criticism has developed out of the “positivist” tradition and is rooted in any Enlightenment faith in reason. Stories as a means of knowledge are also dismissed by more recent theorists who identify with the “deconstructualist” approach which claims generally that all statements are only subjective. Stone-Mediatore sets out to prove that both the empiricists and the deconstructionists go too far in their refusal to take stories seriously as an important source of knowledge, especially the stories of those seeking redress from social oppression.

While seeing value in the insights of deconstructionists, Stone argues that they are wrong in claiming that social discourse can not be challenged. Reviewing the examples which historian Joan Scott used to prove social definitions are inescapable, she identifies flaws in Scott’s position. Scott had argued that Steven Langley’s memoir only reflects or reverses the ways in which society defined him as a gay, black writer. Stone argues that Langley simultaneously challenges those categories and reveals how they contradict with his own lived experience. In A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn continues to accept societal definitions of race and gender, but he challenges our belief that such categories define individuals as inferior and passive.

In developing her ideas, Stone-Mediatore draws on the writings of transnational feminists like Chantra Mohanty and Seyla Benhabib. She distinguishes such writers as not being from the “global sisterhood” of European-American feminism, Third World nationalism, or post-structural feminism. For them the goal is not simply to empower women or to analysis gender but to the end of patterns of domination. As change envelopes the world, they are seeking to ensure that women have a voice in post-colonial movements.

My favorite part of this book was Stone-Mediatore’s use of examples from the writings of marginal women to explain how narratives challenge the status quo and change our understanding of concepts like agency and empowerment. For example, Gloria Andulzala challenges dichotomies that define her as a Mexican American woman. By describing the divided nature of her “borderland” existence, Andulzala pushes readers to consider realities that are not publicly recognized. She finds purpose in bridging the multiplicity of her identify rather than allowing others to force her to choose between them. Andulzala recognizes that telling a meaningful story is hard work and requires the support of a community who share her values.

Domitla Barrios de Chungara is a Bolivian miner’s wife without formal education. Her activism began by talking with other women like herself, a simple beginning that gradually developed into a social movement. Organizing as mothers and housewives, the women blurred recognized lines between public and private, forcing political leaders to consider their personal stories. When her child goes to jail with her and when her baby dies, Barrios demands political solutions. She claims that her story is not “only” personal because “my life is related to my people. What happened to me could have happened to hundreds of people in my country.” Sadly, her account is only available in Spanish.

Not all stories are equally valid, however, and Stone-Mediatore points out that we should not passively accept the stories of others. Here she draws on the writings of Sandra Harding, Dorothy Smith, and Patricia Hill Collins.  Harding points to the value of “thinking from the lives of others.” She would not have us, robot-like, simply take the side of the victim, but “develop a more critical standpoint on our own lives and world.” She uses the metaphor of using the “lens” of the other person.  Historian Elsa Barkley Brown similarity suggests that we “pivot” into the another’s life, and then pivot back. Doing so gives us a new sense of the social hierarchies at work in all our lives.  Going back to a Kantian concept, we can come away with “an enlarged view” of our world. The real culprits, according to Stone-Mediatore, are the rigid ideologies, “distributed by powerful social institutions and that have come to be accepted as common sense, but actually serve the interests of dominant social groups”.  This book helps us see how to begin to challenge those ideologies.

I like books that make me think and change how I think.  Stone-Mediatore, and Gloria Andulzala, have me thinking about the ways in which contradictions have shaped my own life story and how I have bridged them.

I highly recommend Reading across Borders to anyone interested in theoretical analysis and willing to engage in it.  Stone-Mediatore’s ideas are also important for the rest of us, however, and I will be looking for and reviewing more readable books that explore ideas like hers.

BOOKS BY AUTHORS MENTIONED:

The Origins of Totalitarianism, by Hannah Arendt.

Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity,  by
Chandra Talpade Mohanty.

Situating the Self: Gender, Community, and Postmodernism in Contemporary Ethics, by Seyla Benhabib.

The Feminist Standpoint Theory Reader: Intellectual and Political Controversies, by Sandra G. Harding.

Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics of Empowerment, by Patricia Hill Collins.

The Everyday World as Problematic: A Feminist Sociology, by Dorothy E. Smith.

La frontera / Borderlands, by Gloria Andulzala.

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