Reflections on “situated knowledge”

Haraway (1988) reports [1] having been made nervous by the social constructionist “overmining” of reality in relation to discourse and power.

The question is, can we, after the feminist criticism of many of the androcentric assumptions and ideals underlying the production of scientific knowledge (for all knowledge, scientific included, is mediated, produced; it isn’t as Bruno Latour would say, a matter of double-click communication, or transportation without transformation), speak of reality?

She reports having “started out wanting a strong tool for deconstructing the truth claims of hostile science by showing the radical historical specificity, and co contestability of every layer of the onion of scientific and technological constructions (p.578)…”

There is a feminist approach to empiricism that says we can, by means of our constructing, uncover something about reality. Talk of contingency or historical specificity is one thing, but there is more to reality that semiology and narrative. There is something to be uncovered. What the emphasis on construction highlights is the mediated, indirect means by which this is done. So even though science isn’t a form of “double-click” communication, it’s still a form of communication about a real world. It is possible to speak of falsity and misuse, truth even. It’s just, as Madhyamaka Buddhists would say, that the truth is conditional— its discovery conditioned upon historical conditions such as technological resources, as well as the vast, interdependent networks of conditions that make the world the way it is, within time and space. Haraway way wants to find a middle way between positivist empiricism and radical social constructionism; and the way I think we can do this is by speaking of “conditional” or “relative truth”. Our relationship to science should not be one of disregarding it, as no less a text than any other; nor should we think of it as a direct, or “double-click” communication. It seems to me that it would be helpful then to differentiate between the assumptions and ideals we bring to science, and the conditional, mediated, indirectly obtained facts about reality. It’s not that we can’t know something about the world, but that this knowledge is indirect, more of an allusion to a reality that ultimately withdraws. Also, this allusion must always be open to revision. This is how to safeguard truth, as I see it. Even though Haraway wants to see criticism of various empiricisms grounded not in relativism, but location (cf. p. 588), this stands only insofar as we take relativism to mean something other than as I have just used it. Relativism need not mean that there is no truth, but that truth is itself relative— relative to genes, weather systems, bacteria, rules of language games, subatomic particles, etc. etc.

I think Haraway makes a strong point when she argues that science can be considered reductionist “only when one language (guess whose?) must be enforced as the standard for all the translations and conversions (p. 580).”

And how wonderful: “[f]eminist objectivity means quite simply situated knowledges (p. 581)”!

“We need to learn in our bodies, endowed with primate color and stereoscopic vision, how to attach the objective to our theoretical and political scanners in order to name where we are and are not, in dimensions of mental and physical space we hardly know how to name (p. 582).”

We can’t approach techno-scientific enhanced vision in such a way as to think we occupy a transcendent place, above everything else, seeing things as they are, as a masculinist God. Such a mode of vision is, as Alphonso Lingis points out, predatory. The feminist approach to objectivity bypasses this androcentrism and illusions of transcendence.

“Positioning,” as Haraway explains, “implies responsibility for our enabling practices (p. 587).” And “location”, says Haraway, “is about vulnerability (p. 590)…”

[1] Donna Haraway, “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”, Feminist Studies, Vol. 14, No. 3. (Autumn, 1988), pp. 575-599

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