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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Forthcoming Salon Evening May 5th 2011

The theme of this one is "The Invisible Matron" and it being co-hosted by the participants of our first ever Philosophy Club series, which has been working this theme over the past month or so. We are looking forward to sharing with you the fruits of our collaborative thinking and individual research projects exploring women's lives and what it means to grow older in our society. And we are keen to build on what we have learned through hearing from you about your own experience of aging and with it, increased or decreased visibility in the wider world.

Feel free to bring along a friend who might be interested...It promises to be an eye-opening and entertaining evening.

And as always, we would appreciate an RSVP...

Looking forward to seeing you on May 5th

Friday, April 15, 2011

Framing the Invisible Matron as Fragment...

Last night's Philosophy Club session began with a discussion of aging and ageism in our society, and ended with a rousing call to tap into our inner researcher and resurrect, over the Easter holidays, the hidden or lost life of a female relative or acquaintance whose story didn't make the cut when it came to producing the "official" version of our family or neighbourhood histories. On the way, we took a foray into how our viewing, listening and living-in-the-world practices over the past week had been impacted and informed by our exploration in Week 2 of spectatorship and the Susan Boyle phenomenon. And - making a quick detour into a Take Back the Night march where feminist activism came face-to-face with its own inherent ageism - we discussed 65-year-old writer and activist Barbara Macdonald's impassioned plea to the world to both remember her, and to never stop looking her in the eye. And speaking of the world...Did I mention the part where we made cookies out of a stretch of dough that was standing in for the whole spectrum of life in the world as we know it?

Alright, so it was a busy night...But believe me, there was method to our madness. You see, we'd been fleshing out our understanding of "the male gaze" through grounding it in our lived experience as midlife media consumers. When we reached a philosophical impasse, out came the cookie cutters and with them, an exercise in how framing works. Many little ginger bread men later, we were well on our way to developing a critical and questioning stance with regard to those prescribed ways of seeing the world, and how we get interpellated by them. As for creating an arsenal of tactics to take on this hegemonic minefield, we found it in the scraps of dough that the cookie cutters had left behind.

Turning to our theme of the week - the Invisible Matron as historical fragment and literary footnote - and comparing our doughy "leftovers" to the place relegated women throughout Western history, we stepped into our sensible researcher shoes and considered how to render someone visible and vibrant out of nothing much. It was reassuring to realize just how much information a fragment or a footnote holds; moreover, just as that leftover scrap of dough can be made into something that hasn't been made before, we saw the advantages in reconstructing a life from overlooked material that had, quite literally, slipped below the radar and escaped the objectifying look of the male gaze! Breaking into teams, we "sped-built" two such lives out of boxed remains that included fragments of letters, old photographs, remnants of clothing, and faded ticket stubs. After the Easter break, we'll be turning the fragment into a revolutionary writing tactic that, when used strategically, can introduce a literary hiccup into the seemingly seamless flow of the traditional Western narrative. Until then, you'll find us up in our attics amongst the fragments...Searching for our "spinster" aunties, searching for our "matronly" great-grandmothers.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Philosophy Club Take 2: The Invisible Matron as Spectacle

The second session of our current Philosophy Club series found us examining the Invisible Matron through the lens of looking and seeing, and from the standpoint of those doing the spectating. Whereas our first Thursday night session had brought us in quite close to the Invisible Matron, considering her from the perspective of daughters and listening out for our mother's voices, this week's session compelled us to step away from our object of study and, with scrutinizing eyes, survey midlife women from the sidelines.

We began the evening exploring the connotative and denotative meanings of words like "matron" and "spinster" and "old maid" - as attentive to the actual definitions of these words as to how they made us feel, and to the kind of visual pictures they provoked. These pictures, we observed, were quite at odds with the midlife women we actually know, not to mention with the picture of midlife womanhood painted in the articles we had read in preparation for our session. Breaking into groups, we worked Joanna Frueh's presentation of hypermuscular body-building midlife women negotiating the monster/beauty paradigm alongside Vivian Sobchack's presentation of "scary" surgical makeovers undertaken by midlife women in both cinema and real life. This exercise heightened our awareness of the many ways we can 'read' the midlife female body, but equally, of how few of those bodies are socially acceptable and how thin the line is between 'good' visibility and 'bad' visibility. As we turned to our visual case study of the evening - Susan Boyle's 2009 audition on Britain's got Talent - this latter reflection became particularly pertinent.

All of us had seen the Susan Boyle audition before. But watching it together - and armed as we were with John Berger's assertion that, as women in our society, we are the objects of a male gaze and as such, spend a good deal of our lives seeing ourselves as that gaze sees us - was an altogether different (and for some of us, quite excruciating) experience. Not so much, this, the heart-warming story of "frumpy 47-year-old spinster" making good against all odds. Rather, what our spectator selves saw was the actual framing of those 'odds' - the idea, as perpetuated by a bullying crowd and a sneering panel of judges, that a talent show is no place for a woman whose hair is graying, whose body is full, whose clothes are 'old-fashioned', whose eyebrows are bushy...In short, no place for a woman whose "odds" are that she is middle-aged with a face that is ordinary and a body that is natural and a character that is gutsy. The comments made by the judges after her "still reeling from shock"-inducing, "biggest surprise ever" singing performance only served to reinforce the societal prejudices that our society has towards a midlife woman like Susan Boyle. Grappling with a way to 'read' this spectacle for what it was - a blatant example of sexism, ageism and looks-ism all rolled into one - we explored how mediated products are encoded with certain meanings, and how it is up to us to decode them in ways that better suit us. We can, for example, read the Susan Boyle audition "against the grain" - creating, in so doing, a new oppositional spectator positioning that challenges the implied or ideal spectator positioning that the producer of the program expects us, as viewers, to have.

Next Thursday we will return briefly to the male gaze - it is a difficult concept to grasp, and one that becomes clearer through examining, as we are doing on our own this week, a range of cultural products (from TV ads to Hollywood films to "high art" paintings of women) and making note of the eyes through which we gaze at them, the eyes for whom they seem to be intended, and the point of view that we find ourselves taking on as we do our looking. We will also bring to that discussion what happens to ourselves as we walk in the park, walk down a busy street, stand in a line waiting to be served in a shop, make a presentation at work. Are we fully in ourselves, looking out at the world? Or are we also watching ourselves being watched - aware of what we are looking like in the world and to that world, as compared to what we maybe should or could be looking like? And then, we'll be moving on to a more comprehensive look at the word "old" and, along with that, stepping into our roles as researchers of the Invisible Matron in "olden" times.

Friday, April 1, 2011

The Invisible Matron is up and running...And how!

The wwp Philosophy Club got off to a great start yesterday evening as our group of 9 came together for our first session of six, and we began our exploration of the trope of the "Invisible Matron." Our first task was to set up some guiding beacons for our forthcoming adventure together - some threads, if you like, that weave in and out of the entire series, and which offer us something to hang on to and if need be, return to, as we embark on this experimental and experiential philosophical journey. We established a fitting approach to our research and study - Feminist Standpoint Epistemology - which, grounded as it is in an active acknowledgment and embracing of the different material conditions and lived experiences that each of us brings to the table, creates an atmosphere of generosity and openness. This kind of ambiance enables us to disagree in a spirit of understanding. It also encourages us to take up a standpoint or position with a certain degree of confidence, knowing that where we come from and what has shaped us are valid criteria for taking a stance and venturing an opinion.

Of course, it is equally important to find a voice with which to speak our thoughts and ideas. Our second ongoing thread is the very issue of the female voice as it pertains to our journey from childhood to old age in a world that has often shut down or distorted what we have to say and how we say it. Drawing on Carol Gilligan, we discussed the "different voices" that, as women, we have called forth at different stages of our life, as well as those voices that we have suppressed for the sake of creating peaceful relationships with others, or for fear of being rejected or of not being heard. Acknowledging that such fears might be lessening at a time when, as midlife women, we are also becoming somewhat invisible to the larger society, we embraced the irony of possibly finding more freedom in not being seen or heard, and decided to use this series as a place to experiment from the vantage point of this new positioning, as well as to seek out our "natural voice" within it.

In fact, this kind of tenuous betwixt-and-between space that many of us are finding ourselves in at this stage of our life provided us with the third guiding thread for the series: the concept of liminality, and what it means to be a woman on the threshold - or limen - of something new, something uncertain, but something that - for its very intangible allure - makes a return to the past seem out of the question.

Key to the whole Philosophy Club venture is that we are not so much re-hashing old philosophical ideas as creating new knowledges out of actively doing philosophy in a group context. Our plan, then, is to look at the Invisible Matron from a number of different angles, and to assume each week a different standpoint from which to observe her. Assigned readings help to shed light on the Invisible Matron in her various forms and guises, and each weekly two-hour session involves small lectures, group exercises, and lively discussion. Yesterday evening's angle on the Invisible Matron was that of Mother, and we took the standpoint of daughters. In preparation for the session, we had all read Ruth Reichl's moving and insightful tribute to her mother, Not Becoming my Mother: & other things she taught me along the way. Breaking into small groups, we explored the various voices that we hear while reading the book, as well as our own voice as it engaged both with Mim's passage from obedience to rebellion to despair and finally, independence and happiness, and with Ruth's attempt to get to know her mother after her death, through the letters and diaries that Mim left behind.

To cap off the evening an exercise involving old photographs, the relationship between mothers and daughters, and the use of voice and standpoint provoked much hilarity as well as led to some deep insight. It galvanized the group and set a wonderful tone for next week's look at The Invisible Matron as spectacle.