Book review: The Material of Knowledge: Feminist Disclosures

By Susan Hekman, Indiana University Press

This is a book for the post post-modernist thinker. Written by professor of political science, Susan Hekman, The Material of Knowledge: Feminist Disclosures seeks to alleviate the theorist’s conundrum with the material consequences in the event of natural disasters and destruction. Many theorists today are curiously silent on tsunamis, terrorist attacks, and earthquakes and Hekman sees this as a problem of post-modern thinking.

Philosophy from the second half of the twentieth century onwards has been largely preoccupied with what is called ‘the linguistic turn’—an understanding that all reality is only perceivable through language. Also known as linguistic constructionism, the trend fails at taking into account the tangible elements of concepts and theory. A new way to theory-making or ‘settlement’ is in order and feminist theory is, argues Hekman, at the forefront of this breakthrough. And this is because no other system of thought is invested heavily on the experiences of oppression often imprinted on the body the way feminist theory is. However, the body alone is not enough to represent ‘matter’.

Hekman argues that non-human matter have agency too in that they are not always predictable and in that regard, somehow have a ‘life of its own’. This makes the relationship between human and non-human all the more interesting if a little unsettling. To illuminate the mechanics of this relationship, Hekman adopts Andrew Pickering’s unglamorously-named concept of the mangle; things get mangled up when humans and non-human agents meet, producing inevitably messy outcomes. Hekman sees the mangle at work in the disaster of Hurricane Katrina and the prenatal sonogram. Both display the way different discourses (poverty and abortion) work with and against non-human elements (dangerous weather conditions and medical apparatus). The mangle represents an important link between the abstract realm of ideas and the world ‘out there’.

The underlying argument throughout Hekman’s thesis is, if crudely put, that philosophers are out of touch with reality. However, Hekman does not challenge the circumstances that grant philosophers the privilege to talk about society and yet seem to not be able to incorporate “real life” into their work. The critique of lofty intellectualism remains frustratingly absent here. While the mangle is undoubtedly a useful concept to understanding material destruction, Hekman makes a bold (if rather morbid) leap in suggesting that feminist theoretical approach to the body holds the key to new ways of understanding death and destruction of epic proportions.

The Material of Knowledge is a slow-burning demonstration of Hekman’s linear thinking towards the new ‘settlement’. As a proposal for a new theoretical tool to approaching pain and material devastation, Hekman’s book leaves the reader with more questions than answers. To begin with, the concept of the mangle seems to absolve itself of refinement both by virtue of semantics and theoretical characteristic, and I am left wondering whether Hekman had backed herself into a theoretical corner where to understand material destruction is cook up an analytical mess.

This evokes a level of pessimism and an assumption that multiple elements of living and non-living persuasions affect each other on a more or less equal playing field; an event is simply a web of things and lives thrown in together, which leaves one to ask: where are we in Hekman’s new settlement? Where is human agency in the midst of mangled discourses and wordlessness of fear and pain? It would be difficult to recommend Hekman’s latest book for the uninitiated in post-structuralism and post-modernism as this slim tome can be a slog for even the well-versed. The Material of Knowledge: Feminist Disclosures does however inspire optimistic thoughts about the role of feminism in contemporary philosophy and the slow march of theory towards grasping reality.

By Angry Malay Woman

I like plants.

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