Feminist Phenomenology, Race, and Perception: An Interview with Alia Al-Saji

2013-06-11T14:40:05+00:00June 10th, 2013|Phenomenology|

On May 25, 2013, I had the chance to chat with Alia Al-Saji, who is an Associate Professor in the department of philosophy at McGill University. Dr. Al-Saji had given a talk at the Future Directions in Feminist Phenomenology conference the previous day, titled “The Power of Hesitation: Interrupting Racializing Habit and Rethinking Agency.” This paper is part of a book that she has been working on that will be titled The Time of Difference: Thinking Memory, Perception, and Racism Through Bergson and Merleau-Ponty. The paper will also appear as a chapter in a collection called Living Alterities: Phenomenology, Embodiment, and Race, which is forthcoming with SUNY Press. You can find the abstract for her talk online here.

Emma Ryman: I just wanted to thank you for sitting down with me and answering some questions. My first question would be: This conference is on feminist phenomenology, but many people don’t really know what feminist phenomenology is. Silvia Stoller gave a talk during the conference on the history of feminist phenomenology, but I was wondering if you had any thoughts on how to explain feminist phenomenology to someone unfamiliar with the term?

Alia Al-Saji: I think different people will probably say different things, so what I say shouldn’t be taken as definitive. But basically, I think of it as the use of phenomenological methods, resources, and texts for feminist projects. I would say there are at least two things that feminist phenomenology does: There is a feminist phenomenology that goes back to various phenomenological texts and authors and critiques their points of view for being potentially masculinist, omitting gender, or assuming that the experiences they are describing are neutral, and, in that sense, taking as norm what is only representative of a point of view.

ER: Judith Butler’s work on Merleau-Ponty might be an example?

AA: Yes, Judith Butler’s reading of Merleau-Ponty. Those readings critique the assumption of a universal subject that ends up being identified with white, male subjects. But there is also a second strand in feminist phenomenology: the use of the texts and the methods of phenomenology for feminist projects. This also requires going back and reinterpreting phenomenological sources and methods. You have to do the work of making the texts sensitive to the kinds of concerns you want to raise in feminist theory. So, there is a fundamentally creative aspect to this project of using phenomenology for feminist goals.

I think the two strands of feminist phenomenology are linked, though one may do more of one than the other. Or the same person, in different works, will engage with phenomenology differently. For example, a re-reading of Husserl versus a use of Husserlian method to investigate a particular aspect of gendered experience. What makes this feminist, then, is both the method of critique and the sorts of projects that one uses phenomenology for.

I should add that I think feminist phenomenology is about more than issues of gender.  Ideally, it deals with experience through an intersectional approach, taking into account the ways in which gender is inextricable from race, class, and other axes of oppression. A feminist phenomenology might also end up being more about epistemological or ontological concerns,  correcting epistemology or reconfiguring ontology in ways that are sensitive to positionality and to the differences between and within bodies. The account of hesitation that I give in my paper is along these lines. It is not specifically about gender, though it draws on and contrasts with an account of hesitation in gendered movement – the one diagnosed in our culture by Iris Marion Young.

I want to say there is a different kind of hesitation in perception that can be creative, and it can be creative for all subjects, albeit in different ways and situations. Some people may look at this account and say, “Well, it’s not about gender per se – you’re doing something else,” but I think it is a feminist form of re-reading or re-valuation. It’s a reconfiguration of how we should think about experience, specifically about the temporality of experience, in terms of hesitation. It brings to light the creative and critical potential of what is usually felt to be an something to be avoided – hesitation. The point I’m making is that feminist phenomenology may sometimes be about the temporality of experience, for example, and that that itself can have ethical and political implications.  Feminist phenomenology is broader than may appear at first sight.

ER: So following up on that, I wonder what you think are some of the most exciting or interesting questions that are being looked at now by feminist phenomenologists?

AA: Well, I think there’s a lot. For a long time feminist phenomenology has been concerned, and is still concerned, with understanding experience as embodied. Traditionally, the male-female dichotomy was mapped onto the mind-body dichotomy. Women were associated with their bodies and men were associated with their minds – or, at least, if men were associated with bodies, their bodies were seen as seamless instruments for action in the world, not as obstacles to that action. So there was a concern for a long time in feminist phenomenology with going back to embodiment, which is why I think Merleau-Ponty was so popular and so useful.

ER: And maybe why Heidegger was a little less popular?

AA: Probably yes, I think so. And even Husserl has accounts of the body that are helpful for feminism. But feminist phenomenologists look to these works in order to take them further – to give nuanced accounts of experiences of embodiment and to investigate how difference arises in embodied ways. They show how embodiment is important for knowledge, and in particular how our bodies are already engaged in modes of implicit knowing.

There are other questions that are also interesting. As we saw with Linda Fisher’s paper, there are now discussions of voice and disability, which I think are really exciting. There are many ways in which feminist phenomenology is linking up to other areas – like disability studies, or as in my work to critical race theory. Feminist phenomenology also connects to what can be called the medical humanities, which deal with questions regarding medical experiences, experiences of illness, and experiences of how bodies are treated during illness. Again these questions are sometimes explicitly about gender, but not always. It’s a broader reconsideration and reconfiguring of method.

Feminist phenomenology is an open field. Many projects fall under its umbrella. Some involve a critical engagement with the neurosciences and other scientific fields. Other projects involve an engagement with politics and ethics. Because it’s a field that’s relatively new – perhaps going back to Simone de Beauvoir, as Silvia Stoller said in her talk – and it involves the crossing of feminism and phenomenology, it tends to open up onto many other fields outside of philosophy. It lends itself to interdisciplinarity.

ER: So, you’ve mentioned the talk that you gave at the conference. I was hoping you might be able to say a bit more about your account of how perception becomes racializing?

AA: That argument relies on the work of three thinkers: Frantz Fanon, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Linda Alcoff. The basic idea, which comes from Merleau-Ponty, is that perception is habitual – it relies on habit. Outside of phenomenology, this is often referred to as the fact that perception relies on unconscious schemas. If we had to think through everything that was going on every time we saw something, and make a judgment about it, perception would not proceed in the way it does. Really that would be judgment, it wouldn’t be perception. Perception proceeds in a quasi-immediate way – I just grasp a whole, it has a meaning for me. That relies on habitual schemas and on learning. Merleau-Ponty actually says that we learn to see.

Perception is also intentional. It’s not intentional in the sense of being voluntary, but in the phenomenological sense of being about a thing that we grasp as having meaning. That meaning is not just there in the thing, it is constituted in relation to the perceiving body. And perception is generally open. Although it is habitual, it is still responsive to difference. Habits can change and improvise in relation to the world. This is a dynamic relation– there is a kind of feedback loop. We are affected by the world and we make meaning of it. Merleau-Ponty will even describe this as a kind of dialogue.

The question I’m asking in my paper is how in racialization – and perhaps in other objectifying ways of perceiving, like sexism – perception closes down. Normally there is perception of nuance and difference – perception is responsive and improvises. But in racializing perception, there isn’t that sort of corrective, by which unconscious perceptual schemas would change. Racializing perception is stereotypical, and there is a way in which stereotypes reinforce themselves, rather than break down. And so my interest is to understand how that closure in racialization occurs – how even exceptions get constructed as lending support to the stereotype.

ER: So there is a sort of confirmation bias?

AA: Yes, I think so. I’m interested in how that happens. I want to understand how racializing perception is based in the intentionality and habituality of perception, but is also different from perception more generally. By being habitual, perception can be naturalizing. The process itself is unconscious and not visible to us as such. Further, in intentionality, we are aware of the things seen and not of ourselves seeing them. This can reinforce naturalization. What we are paying attention to is the thing seen, and it appears to us as being naturally there. Perception can thus naturalize race to the body of the racialized person. Because we see race as naturally there in the body of that person, we think that all we’re doing is perceiving it. The immediacy of perception makes it seem like we are not actually participating in the meaning-making process. This all contributes to the naturalization of race – to the fact that it is seen as a natural category, or at least as something that can be read off of people’s bodies, as if there were no social construction of race.

All this allows us to understand how perception could become racializing, but in addition I argue that there is a structural closure to racializing perception that has to do with an inability to see bodies otherwise (I describe this as an “I cannot”). It is not just that bodies are seen as raced, other ways of seeing them are excluded.  My interest, as I’ve said, is to understand how racializing perception is closed, and how it reinforces itself. My other interest is in seeing what happens in cases where perception does change and shift towards seeing people differently. In my talk, I didn’t go through any of the positive examples I have because I had to shorten my paper, but in my longer paper on the subject, I give some examples. One of them draws from Sally Haslanger, who describes her experiences with transracial adoption, and how this shifted how she saw both black bodies and black communities. It made her feel more comfortable in those settings than in certain settings of whiteness, which were structured by racialization.

ER: I’m glad you brought up Haslanger because her work segues well into my final question. I know that Haslanger talks about implicit biases against women in her paper, “Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason Alone.” And, in preparing for this interview and reading your paper abstract, it struck me that your work seemed closely linked to the kind of work being conducted now in social psychology on implicit biases and racial cognition. I thought that work seemed especially relevant to your account of hesitation and how making ourselves uncomfortable in certain ways can help us break down some of the problematic elements of racializing perception. I was just wondering if you had any thoughts on that?

AA: Yes, Haslanger writes on what she calls unconscious biases or unconscious schemas. There’s a lot of work on implicit bias, and I think there are a few things to note. For one, all of our knowledge in perception is implicit – so it’s not the case that just because it’s implicit, it’s bad. We certainly wouldn’t want to have to make everything explicit in perception. But it is certainly the case that when these biases are implicit, they go through in a way that is unquestioned. We aren’t aware that they belong to us, but rather we see them as belonging to the world. But it seems that there isn’t agreement as to how to correct for implicit bias. What does seem clear is that you can’t get rid of implicit bias by simply willing yourself to get rid of it. In my paper, I discuss this in relation to Shannon Sullivan’s book Revealing Whiteness. Sullivan talks about changing habits of racialization. Her view is also that you can’t change them voluntarily, but that you can change them by changing your environment. You can put yourself in different situations.

For me, what is important about this change of situation is whether it gives rise to hesitation – to a sense of discomfort. For subjects of white privilege, discomfort can function as a kind of interruption. It might still lead to a reinforcement of stereotypes or a defensive reaction, but at least initially, it causes a moment of hesitation and potentially, of questioning and critique. Subjects of privilege are not used to hesitating – they are used to being at ease in the world– and so they can react to hesitation in ways that close it down. This means that hesitation is a necessary, not a sufficient condition to change perception. There needs to be a willingness to dwell in situations of discomfort and not immediately try to get out of them. My paper doesn’t give a map as to how to get rid of implicit racism. But it does point to the kinds of structural moments that are necessary.  More precisely, it points to what I find happens in moments when perception does change and become more critical – namely hesitation.

ER: I think that account of changing one’s environment goes well with some of the findings in the implicit bias literature. Some of the best ways they have found to alleviate intergroup anxiety are simply increasing one’s exposure to groups other than one’s own, and also increasing one’s exposure to counter-stereotypical exemplars. For instance, living in ethnically diverse areas instead of mono-ethnic ones would likely help reduce biases.

AA: Haslanger’s example of transracial adoption certainly speaks to that. She talks about living in a transformed context, and how that changed her perception. In my paper, I also talk about a personal example, having to do with my own experiences with my partner, whose ways of seeing veiling changed as a result of coming to know and living with Muslim women who veiled. It was a change of perception based in everyday and extended family life. I think that experiences of dramatic change are not necessarily the most helpful. An experience of dramatic interruption could make people hesitate for a moment, but they may then just close down and go back to their habitual ways of perceiving. What I think are more useful are small changes in everyday life. The change of one’s world needs to be there at the everyday level to create a shift in perception. Hesitation needs to endure to allow a change to take place. The one worry about questions of forced integration or ethnic diversity is that such policies might be to the benefit of privileged subjects, but may not be desired by minorities. Something like the model of busing students to schools in different parts of town can be very problematic for those individuals. On the other hand, the example of privileged subjects  who live in gated neighborhoods, with those whom they think are ‘like them’, is a way of isolating oneself and never changing ways of seeing. It’s a means of reinforcing privilege. I don’t think I have any sort of policy recommendation – I might be a little troubled by that. My point is just that we should look for ways to hold open hesitation in order to open up space for critique. It’s small changes in the affective tissue of our everyday living that will allow perception to be transformed.

ER: Great, thank you so much for sitting down with me.

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