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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Naomi Schor, a French Feminist Perspective for Mennonites

en Dodel

An exploration for the potential of applying Naomi Schor’s unique cultural perspective, especially regarding French culture and its global position as a leader and yet minority relative other cultures, to the unique Mennonite ethnic and sectarian experience.

Naomi Schor, (c) Wikipedia, 2000.
   Naomi Schor is representative of that rare international émigré culture establishing itself as nothing more, nothing less, than a full cultural experience unto itself – an island of civilization and creative intellectuality amidst, yet entirely distinct from, the surrounding host culture.  Think post-World War II New York, fin-de-siècle Vienna, Paris, contemporary London and Amsterdam. 
    Participating equally in the French, New York and Jewish cultures, Schor seems to have established a basic French identity while gaining recognition as a Deconstructionist critic of the French literary canon and a pioneer of contemporary gender studies at Yale and Duke Universities.
    In her political criticism I found an intriguing and compelling insight Mennonite ethnicities might find useful –her understanding of France’s unique position in global culture (see Bad Objects:  Essays Popular and Unpopular (1995)).

    Schor introduces her personal narrative,  
“… I have throughout most of my life been divided between two languages and two cultures. … Though French and English were the two languages and cultures that fashioned me as a divided self, I was in fact haunted by a third:  Yiddish, with its legacy of laughter and unmournable loss.  My biculturalism was complicated by my Jewish identity. … One might then describe my early linguistic situation as one of intense confusion; assimilation was for me a complicated task, but my double difference was also a source of inordinate and unjustified pride.  I liked being different.  Though challenging, my situation was by no means painful; indeed, my double allegiance as both an insider and an outsider in two cultures has provided me with a privileged or, at the very least, quirky perspective,” (Schor, p ix-x).
    Her cultural perspective could not be further removed from the rural, Anglicized, Russian Mennonite culture as viewed through the lens of Plautdietsche, nor could it be more similar. 
    For our purposes, Schor’s observations of the differences between French and American Feminist culture contain valuable insights for distinctive cohabiting minority cultures within the larger global context – specifically, differing attitudes towards the philosophical concept of the universal and the interplay between these various understandings.
    Schor references the work of Pierre Bourdieu extensively.  Regrettably, Bourdieu’s work is in French and not widely available in the United States, especially his Deux Impérialismes de L’Universel which appears in L’Amerique des Français, edited by Christine Fauré and Tom Bishop (1991).  
 (Which leads me into two of my favorite tangents – the self-censoring of American thought by mono-lingualism and how the Internet has actually made access to information more difficult by commoditizing public access, for instance, many libraries no longer carry historical stacks of academic journals, rather they subscribe to a private-access, on-line service that is available to individual researchers, even smaller academic libraries only at great cost).
    According to Schor’s explanation the concept of identity ties into various understandings of, approaches toward or access to the philosophic universal.  In fact, this relationship to the universal, or desire to challenge or deconstruct it is the source of Postmodern thought, and what separates Postmodernism from the rational Enlightenment (Schor, p 3). 
    Schor pulls a key concept out of Bourdieu, “… Whereas America … stakes its claim to representing the universal on the moral superiority vested in it by God and the Constitution, France stakes its claim on its privileged historical relationship to the universal Revolution…” (Schor, p 5) and French poet Paul Valéry, “our special quality (sometimes our ridicule, but often our finest claim) is to believe and to feel we are universal – by which I mean, men of universality …(ibid).
    Schor’s definition of the American Universal is not so-clearly spelled out.  She seems to equate it with Anglo-American concepts of the Universal as championed by Enlightenment thinkers but possibly broadens the reference to entire paradigm comprising both the Enlightenment perspective and attempts by American-centric critics to dismantle that static universal and its antithetical Postmodern deconstructive criticism.  Schor is much clearer in her oppositional poles between Postmodern American-style attacks on the universal and the more French-style of accepting and maintaining the concept of universals and universalism.  Instead of destroying the universal as inaccurate, Schor seeks to remake or redefine the term to become more accurate (p 15).
    Schor seems to indicate that the American Universal appears static, leaving the implied “non”-universal objects or excluded persons with no choice but to attack the basic concept of a universal.  The French Universal is a “paradigm,” a process, an attitude, or a culture (sounds very French). 
    “America’s claim on universal morality will serve the same self-justificatory function in the national discourse, but – and this is the key to their difference – French universalism is paradigmatic, the original imperialism of the universal on which others, notably America’s, is modeled,” (Schor, p 6).
    Later, Schor quotes from Simone Beauvoir’s Second Sex, To regard the [universal] as one’s own, to consider oneself to blame for its faults and to glory in its progress, one must belong to the caste of the privileged; it is for those alone who are in command to justify the universe by changing it, by thinking about it, by revealing it; they alone can recognize themselves in it and endeavor to make their mark upon it.  It is in man and not in woman that it has hitherto been possible for Man to be incarnated” (Schor, p 7-8, Beauvoir, p 793).  Again, Schor is implying a process or a verb rather than a noun.
    One might then read Bourdieu’s commentary along the lines that American Universality is universal because it is true and that Americans relate to it by conforming to it.  French-style is different – it is the original universal, it is a dialogue, a discovery, a changing and mutable thing.  Schor brings Beauvoir in not to challenge the universal as a definition but rather to challenge the process, to demand to be included among those who shape, define and discover the universal in the first place.  (It goes without saying that she is critiquing a God-inspired or God-given universal in favor of one shaped and determined by humanity and seems quite similar to Gadamer’s concept of Dialogue.  In fact, Schor brings out of Bourdieu the link between the French intellectual dialogue and the universal (Schor, p 4-5):
Pierre Bourdieu (c) Wikipedia
  "... what I am arguing is a characteristically French fashion, speaking as an intellectual is to speak 'with the ambition of the universal,' which is to say with the ambition to overcome the historical and cultural differences that have traditionally divided European intellectuals and in so doing to access the universal.  What is specifically French about Bourdieu's call for an 'International of intellectuals' is the fact that for him the speaking position of the intellectual is obligatorily that of a universal or a would-be universal subject. ... " (Schor, p 4-5).
    This is where the Anabaptists come into the conversation – is it possible that they, like Schor, find themselves part of an alien approach to the universal while surrounded and immersed in the static definition of the American?  If such were the case, the intellectual and cultural stress on the Anabaptists would be incredible – not because of an apparent disagreement between their historic culture and the new host culture, but rather because one of the cultures is a defined noun to which one must ascribe – by “definition.”   That which disagrees with or contradicts the defined universal is an other that is wrong and must change or conform to achieve or be granted the right to participate in the privileged position of the static universal. 
    Interestingly, if such were the case, then one would expect a series of historical steps to be taken by the statically defined universal’s culture – first, to stop the dialogue universal – to stop it as a competing error and to stop it so that it might be defined at a static terminus and then demonstrated to be in error.  Once the other has been shown the error of their definitive universal, they might switch allegiance (as any “rational” or “reasonable” culture would be expected) to the dominant position of the static universal.  Assimilate and either drop erroneous traditions or allow them to be marginalized as “ethnic” or commoditized as “folksy” or “quaint.” 
    I think this is might be a shared experience between Jewish, Mennonite and Muslim communities in the West.  The goal being to create a static cultural position or experience that might be confronted by the “superior” paradigm and convicted with the need to “modernize,” “assimilate,” or “develop.”  Then indicate how modernizing and changing can remake yesterday’s bad Muslims into today’s good Muslims.  Muslims, being different, are told to conform to Western ideals.  (Note the difference – in the American model, the particular must change to conform.  In the French model, the universal must be changed to conform.)
    There seems to be less patience or support for the alternative model – one that is, as Schor would predict, finds more support in Europe – the encouragement of an Islamic Renaissance, or even a Reformation – an internalized methodology for coming to grips with Modernity and Postmodernity but in an organic Islamic paradigm and dialogue.  Paradoxically, I do find this to be the demand of many Islamic and Arab states – much of Persian Gulf culture seems to indicate that there is less a rejection of Western values than a preference that Gulf societies will evolve and change in their way and in their own time, not one imposed on them now by outsiders (not even the Gulf-friendly USA).
    Note:  How different would it be if the American-led West’s effort in the Middle East were to focus on process, and on agreement in process rather than on the imposition of definitions and demands of conformity to those definitions.  Of course, after 200 years of dealing with domestic Native American cultures and nations in North America, it seems a lesson has yet to be learned or its necessity even truly yet admitted.
    What I am getting at is that the significance of the relationship of America’s (and to a great extent, Canada’s) traditional Anabaptist heritage populations to the substantially North American concept of the universal might be three-fold: 
    First, in its lack of conformity, non-static models imbibe a certain energy or vitality to the concept of the universal.  In the resistance to full assimilation, the historic Anabaptist cultural communities have challenged and strained the concept of a static or set universal towards movement and greater inclusiveness – or least to force the supporters of a static universalism to commit acts of cultural and intellectual aggression that can be demonstrated and displayed as exclusionary and unjust (see Cardinal George’s letter against gay marriage, for instance). 
    Second, if Schor’s critique of the static, exclusive Enlightenment (American) universal holds and her secondary criticism of the misguided efforts to fight and dismember that universal under the American social and intellectual paradigm, then dialogue cultures such as the Anabaptists are not only in a position to support useful and healthy criticism such as Schor’s in the French sense, but have access to some very powerful intellectual allies in support of the preservation of the dialogue universal (back to Gadamer and the Mennonites, or even a Spinozan intellectual process).
    Third, in as much as Anabaptists participate in their own traditional dialogue culture, one constructed over the last five hundred years, they have a lot of valid experience to offer the Americans, not so much as an alternative definition of the universal, but in rediscovering the vital (non-static) process of building and maintaining the dialogue universal – influencing the static Enlightenment culture of the United States and English Canada while serving as a living cultural model that can be demonstrated or even recommended in the Middle East, amongst immigrant or refugee groups or in the developing or re-establishing nations of Africa.  Farfetched, you say?  Consider the example of Leymah Gbowee who was co-recognized with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for establishing a dialectical peace movement resulting in an end to the Second Liberian Civil War, the election of Africa’s first female head of state and the establishment of a whole new paradigm in Africa for confronting war, ethnic violence and inequality.  Gbowee received training and an advanced degree in Conflict Transformation (read, “redefining the static universal”) from Eastern Mennonite University in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
    In their biographical article on Gbowee, Wikipedia offers several quotes from Gbowee’s memoir, Mighty Be Our Powers (which I have confirmed) that indicate how the third point might be practically reflected in real life:
    “I’d heard about Eastern Mennonite University (EMU), an American college with a well-known program in peace-building and conflict resolution.  It was a Christian school that emphasized community and service; it had a long-standing relationship with WANUP and a history of recruiting Africans to study there,” (Gbowee, p 178).  And, “Restorative justice was … something we [as Liberians] could see as ours and not artificially imposed by Westerners.  And we needed it, needed that return to tradition.  A culture of impunity flourished throughout Africa.  People, officials, governments did evil but were never held accountable.  More than we needed to punish them, we needed to undo the damage they had done,” (ibid).
    Eastern Mennonite University exists as part of the Anabaptist culture’s attempt to avoid full religious, cultural and social assimilation.  Note that resisting assimilation does not preempt or prevent integration.  In fact, Gbowee is stating that she chose EMU specifically because it offered an alternative cultural truth (a unique relation to the universal) and because it was integrated and impactful in the real world.  This is Anabaptism’s potential as both an alternative expression of the West’s universal and as a demonstration of Anabaptism’s traditional participation in and maintenance of a dialogue universal.
    Returning to Schor’s essay, the Anabaptist might present a certain support for the existence and validity of the French Model of the dialogue Universal.  Like Schor, the Anabaptists are in a position to challenge the static American model as insiders with a differing perspective.
    Schor seems to be attempting to recommend a dialogue universal that might be opened up to or claimed by those who are not presently included or fully empowered within the static concept, but also, a turning-away from the social, political, verbal and rhetorical violence implied by the concepts of destruction and revolution within the American model she is critiquing.  Students of Schor might cooperate with cultural exemplifiers of traditional Anabaptist intellectualism to mutually influence and empower each other.  Anabaptists might also learn from Schor how to effectively demand and claim inclusion in the dominate static universals of their host cultures while learning to open themselves up to cultural critics such as Schor for better maintenance to their own dialogue culture.  Useful allies within the French Academy might be found to help expand, protect and promote the more universally applicable aspects of the Anabaptist cultural dialogue universal.  After all, while French is not often considered a founding or ethnic Anabaptist language, France has an historic Mennonite community nearly as old as that of Switzerland and the Netherlands.
    I am aware of the possibility that Evangelical Mennonites and the most conservative Amish Anabaptists could be legitimately perceived as having exchanged their mutable dialogue universal for a fixed universal based on Modern Evangelical Fundamentalism, a pre-Modern one based on special revelation or even based on static tradition or ordnung.  I would recommend that this is not the case.  Evangelical Mennonites tend to practice a sort of Pietist spirituality that prevents adherence to a fixed truth or a pre-ordained definition of the individual.  Both of the latter possibilities, in as much as they appear to be static, are in reality either a glacially slow moving progressive dialogue universal or one that continues to maintain itself through a dialogue or verb form of the universal in constant negotiation with the majority host culture.  In other words, what looks static is in reality quite dynamic. 
    Schor’s cultural experience opened her up to an understanding of the differences between American and French concepts of the universal and subsequently, different ways of coping with exclusion from it.  Schor’s experience mirrors the belonging, yet excluded identity of the Russian Mennonites but she indicates that this status can be a gift rather than a burden.  Schor’s writings can serve as both apologetic and guide towards realization of this gift.  Influenced or replaced by (being influenced indicates a malleable nature) Schor’s French universal or the dynamic Anabaptist universal could allow the currently static and “oppressive” American universal to become more inclusive, more just and a better model for the rest of the world.  In a Postmodern world that is increasingly defined as “be willing to change or perish,” the French and Mennonite universal paradigm could prove key to the West’s cultural longevity and dominance – at least influencing the static to become more flexible.    
  • Schor, Naomi, Bad Objects:  Essays Popular and Unpopular, Duke University Press, USA, 1995, 232.
  • Gbowee, Leymah with Mithers, Carol, Mighty Be Our Powers:  How Sisterhood, Prayer and Sex Changed a Nation, Beast Books, USA, 2011, p 256.

Note:  This is a very naive essay introducing new information and paradigms.  Growing up in the community, there were several things you would not find in the proper Mennonite household -- books by Communists, books by feminists, books by gays and lesbians -- nor porn.  
   Lacking a proper cultural context for certain writers, one has to proceed with caution -- but one must proceed.  Mistakes will be made, but they will be readily admitted and corrected as discovered.
    Yes, I have purposefully avoided adopting and using Hegel's terms for dialectic.  While I am sure they will come into play and be pertinent, I am not familiar enough with their proper usage under the regime of social criticism and have not used them.  Instead, I have stuck to clumsy modifiers as seem to present themselves in the text -- static, mutable, dialogue, a ctive, verb-universal and noun-universal.

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