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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Week 6 of the Philosophy Club: Say Hello, Wave Goodbye, to the Invisible Matron

Alas, our journey into the ins, outs, and betwixt-and-betweens of the Invisible Matron came to an end on Thursday evening, and what a finale it was! Our standpoint in this closing session of our six week Philosophy Club series was that of autobiographers, which meant that the time had come to turn the spotlight on ourselves. Though this might have caused some distress in the early days of our adventure together, we were all quite comfortable embracing our inner matrons and negotiating the line between feeling seen and unseen out there in the wider world...In part because, through our readings and group discussions, we had come to consider midlife as a pretty exciting place to be at in our lives; in part because we were recognizing the new freedoms and meaningful connections that lay in not being central to other people's lives, but rather to our own.

It was an evening of revisiting some of the highlights of this shared philosophy experience - personal revelations that came of communal writing exercises, insights into how each of us learns and teaches best as explored though our membership salon evening in early May, research projects into female family history that have gained a momentum of their own and will be carrying on far beyond this current series. It was an evening that delved into the history of women and the autobiographical genre - examining how in times gone by, it was the letters and diaries of "great women" that spoke to the pains and sacrifices, the successes and accompanying swagger, that came of their achievements, and not their published autobiographies which were narratively flat, assumed a passive voice, and were all too quick to attribute any hint of accomplishment to Lady Luck or some Higher Force. For the few "great women" of yore whose stories were actually deemed worthy of an autobiography, the hard truth of what it entailed to dodge convention, to be "great", had to be concealed. The only acceptable way to come across in one's autobiography was as an exception to the general rule for women with its emphasis on domestic servitude over public service, with its prioritizing of marriage and child-rearing over education and a career. If this societal agenda meant that this very small band of storied "great women" were denied the opportunity to serve as either models or mentors to girls and women hoping to follow in their path, it goes without saying that women deemed anything less than exceptionally "great" were entirely overlooked when it came to the autobiographical form.

A different voice started to emerge, however, in those personal memoirs that accompanied the second wave of feminism in the 1970s. Feminist thinker and literary critic Carolyn Heilbrun speaks of a voice that was no longer speaking from the sole standpoint of "the exception chosen by destiny or chance," but rather, from a plethora of standpoints: "lesser lives, great lives, thwarted lives, lives cut short, lives miraculous in their unapplauded achievement." It was with this opening up of the autobiographical genre in mind that we set about assembling our own stories of Self: releasing our creative juices to the tune of the dizzying spinning of Mary Daly's radical Spinster scribes; taking a page out of Germaine Greer's book as we assumed an "outward gaze" in order to see not the "I" of the male gaze, nor the self-conscious "I" of our own "mind's eye," but an "I" that, in giving in to wonder and feeling the immensity of a world beyond our-selves, could actually become a Self - calm, detached, joyful, integrated, whole. Thus, in a series of quick exercises, we located and experienced that Self in different paintings around the room; in the poetry of Emily Dickinson - "Ourself, behind ourself concealed/ Should startle most;"; in concepts that had stuck to us through the course of this six-week series.

A reading of these "autobiographical" sketches brought the evening to an end, and with it, a great sense of achievement and a heartfelt moment of celebration on the part of the graduating class of the wwp Philosophy Club's 2011 Spring Session. For my part, I am just astonished at what we have created by way of a living and breathing philosophy around the figure of the Invisible Matron. If anything is going to shatter the myth that philosophy is stuffy and inaccessible and dry, this is it!

Though it is sad to see this fantastic group of women disband and this rich experience come to an end, I take heart from poet Elizabeth Jennings' words: "The poem leaves you and it sings." As we take leave of each other, the song begins. As we step a little more boldly, a little less gingerly, into our respective thresholds, we know that this is the place where, as women, we write our own lines.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A pay-it-forward salon evening celebrating 'The Invisible Matron'

"Women have no history," wrote Virginia Woolf in 1929. She was commenting, here, on women's invisibility within the histories passed down through the male line, on women's absence from the histories recounted through art and literature and philosophy and science, on women's erasure from the histories that chronicle important events and notable people, on women's voicelessness when it comes to speaking out and being heard above the din of those histories which, for centuries, have droned on and drowned out all other histories. In the words of Virginia Woolf, "The corridors of history are, for women, unlit." In the words of Brenda, who participated in last Thursday's salon evening, "What can we do to ensure that 100 years from now, women of our generation have not been similarly rendered invisible in and by society?"

Such was the tone of our fifth session of the Philosophy Club's Invisible Matron series - a session that was extended to all of our membership so that those who hadn't been part of our six-week Philosophy Club experience could get a taste of what we had explored and how we had done the exploring, and those who had participated in it could share their insights and observations about the trope of the Invisible Matron from the standpoint of presenters and teachers. To this end, the evening was divided into three parts - the first an experiment in "pay-it-forward" learning; the second an exercise in collaborative writing; and the third a performative intervention designed to fill those unlit corridors of history with a cacophony of ours and our foremother's voices.

Our "pay-it-forward" learning exercise drew on three inspirational ideas: first, the idea put forth by critical theorist bell hooks at a time when women's studies courses first started making their way into universities, that those who were lucky enough to be students in these classes should go down to their local YWCA or community centre after school and pass on what they had learned to any women who were interested; second, the idea put into action by chef Jamie Oliver, that if you teach a person who has never cooked before how to make a tasty meal, and then get that person to teach another person how to make that same meal, you now have two people who can teach two more people how to do it, and then four people teaching four more, and so forth, until some time later, everybody can make that tasty meal; and third, the idea of speed-dating, which takes an assembly line approach to meeting people and establishing compatibility through getting a room of people to engage in quick one-on-one conversations, before they are moved on to the next person for another conversation.

Our wwp version of this kind of "pay-it-forward" thinking found each Philosophy Club participant taking responsibility for one key word or term that had particularly caught their imagination over the course of the Invisible Matron series, and setting themselves up with a chair opposite them. Members who had not taken the class were directed to the vacant chairs, and when the bell rang, Philosophy Club participants had two minutes to teach the wwp member facing them all they could about their chosen word or term. When the bell rang, members moved on to another chair and gained access to a new word or term. By the end of the exercise, everybody present had been let into the world of "feminist standpoint epistemology" and "liminality", "fragments" and "structures of feeling", finding a "voice" and dealing with "ageism", negotiating "the male gaze" and grappling with "The Invisible Matron" herself! If those on the learning end of this experiment felt like they'd been treated to a crash course in feminist philosophy, those doing the teaching were given a great insight into how the act of sharing knowledges helps to consolidate what you do know and illuminate your epistemological potholes!

Then it was onto our second exercise of the evening - scripting a collective dialogue around a painting by New Zealand artist Frances Hodgkins - with Philosophy Club participants who had earned their stripes with this kind of activity over the preceding 6 weeks acting as coaches to those new to the game. Dividing into groups, we set to work...If the object was to "read" what was transpiring between the two women in the painting, the "spin" that each group put on the scene demonstrated both the places where our cultural understandings about women and their ways of relating collude, and the gaps that allow for imaginative lines of flight out of those expected patterns. A particular pleasure was taken in the knowledge that in "spinning" four new scripts out of this early 20th century painting, we were also paying tribute to those "spinster" aunts and cousins who take their title from the ancient female art of spinning threads into a glorious range of multifarious shapes and motifs.

Finally, to our communal reading, in which Philosophy Club participants created a symphony of voices celebrating the lives of those 'lost' female relatives - among them, a number of unsung "spinsters" - whom they had researched on an individual basis. As participants simultaneously read the pieces they had written out of fragments that remained of these women's lives - photographs, recipes, a vanity set, a painting, a hastily scribbled last will and testament, snips of conversation, to name just some of the recuperated scraps we drew upon - those listening to the impromptu performance were able to focus in on individual threads or just let the whole piece wash over them. Like with history, like in the stories we tell about our lives and the lives of others, we can chose to see the trees or we can lose ourselves in the forest. The important thing is that our histories, our stories, get told and passed on so that 100 years from now, at a salon evening somewhere in Montreal, there will be no need to ask where the women are, or why they are missing.

Thank you to all who participated for making this such a memorable event. We will be holding a summer barbeque for members - date to be announced. In the meantime, how about brushing up on your female poets and favourite poems in preparation for the next salon evening on September 8th. A lawn chair, a glass of wine and a book of poetry...what a lovely way to spend a summer's evening!

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Week 4 of the Philosophy Club: Writing Hidden Lives into Visibility

Fresh from our Easter break, the Philosophy Club reconvened Thursday evening with a better sense of who we are as researchers, and a desire to turn those recuperated fragments of forgotten female lives into something lasting and, if possible, reverential. As researchers, we discovered, we were challengers of conventional ways of doing geneology with its overriding attention to timelines and family lines; we were more drawn to the human side - the Hows and Whys - of our research subjects than the Whens and Wheres of their particular time and place; we were prepared to seek out and give credence to an oral account of a person's life, however fragmented and tentative the memories that constituted it might be; we were insecure whilst remaining curious; prone to proscrastination albeit thrilled by the chase once we got there; circumventive though not beyond a tad of the inventive; harried of mind yet dogged in approach. As researchers, we concluded, we were up to the task.

In considering our Invisible Matron grandmothers and great aunts and mystery household members from the standpoint of biographers and storytellers, however, we were faced with the equally daunting task of working out what kinds of narratives we wanted to create. Did we, for example, feel that it was enough to finally grant these women their place in the sun through writing texts that celebrated their hitherto overlooked lives and achievements? Or did we feel it necessary to turn their very absence from existing histories into the actual story we were telling: writing not so much pieces that celebrated these hidden lives as challenged and destabilized those accounts that had left them out in the first place.

This triggered a lively discussion around the nature of change in society, and how best to bring women's voices and experiences into the picture and even more important, make them count. Reflecting on Carolyn Heilbrun's definition of power - that is, "the ability to take one's place in whatever discourse is essential to action and the right to have one's part matter" - we questioned what kind of writing might lend itself most effectively to achieving this end. Drawing on fragments of text that addressed the very process and practice of writing as a social and political intervention, and piecing them together so as to create for ourselves a preliminary mapping of what our Philosophy Club writing project might look like, we threw those traditional ideals of female destiny - safety and closure - out with the proverbial bath water, and opted for experimentation and adventure instead. This direction echoed that taken by many of the "intrepid traveller" Victorian era female diarists whom we had encountered in Betty Jane Wylie's excellent account of women and diary-writing. It also spoke to Janet Wolff's idea of women's writing being akin to a "wild zone" where, in the absence of a script, we have the chance to create something new. As to the issue of filling in the many gaping holes that remain in the lives of the women we are attempting to bring to life through our writing, we grappled with Roland Barthes' suggestion that biography is nothing more than "a novel that dares not speak it's name." If our views on this quote differed substantially, so too did the amount of poetic license that each of us felt prepared to allow ourselves as we stepped into our roles as biographers.

And so to the wild zone...And a collective writing exercise to get the creative juices flowing. Breaking into small groups, we gave a voice to one of Vanessa Bell's nude models: writing a first person narrative for the woman in the painting who, judging by the pose captured by this early 20th century female artist, was doing a good job of subverting the traditional male gaze. Though we approached the exercise with trepidation, we were soon tapping into our collective inner poet. The poetry that came out of this experimental adventure was far from safe, and spoke to anything but closure. Rather, it took chances and opened doors - very similar, in fact, to the experience of aging that this Invisible Matron series is rendering visible to us. It certainly introduced a welcome twist into the birthday toast we raised, complete with cake and candles, to one of our Philosophy Club participants - turning another year older into a genuine cause for celebration.

From collective writing and cake eating, we moved on to an exercise in communal reading...Or at least, a dress rehearsal for the performative intervention that we will make next Thursday at the members' salon evening. Central to this intervention are written pieces that each of us is creating from the fragments that our individual research projects have brought to light: fading photographs, flashes of memory, inscriptions in books, yellowed newspaper clippings, time-worn obituary notices, moss-covered gravestones, a cherished brooch. Bringing these fragments into dialogue with the novels and poetry and works of art and architecture and fashions of the historical times our respective 'recuperated' women lived through is enabling us to evoke a "structure of feeling" around them. Bringing these structures of feeling into dialogue with our personal desires and wishes for our women is enabling our writing to speak both to their times and to our times. In so doing, we write both them, and our midlife selves, into a new kind of living text that scripts women's experiences in a voice that is our own.