Lugones and Anzaldúa: Borders, Multiplicity, and the Spirit

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Pilgrimages cover.jpg
María Lugones' Pilgrimages/Peregrinajes and Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands have a lot to say about rationality, although it is not explicitly stated as their main purpose. Both writers deal with multiple, often fragmented or "curdled" identities (to use Lugones' vivid descriptor of an impure mixture of consciousnesses). Both paint beautiful, inspiring pictures of alternate ways to think of groups and political resistance. Through images of traveling or inhabiting the border between worlds, they also - implicitly and explicitly - condemn the rational framework and suggest alternative ways of thinking as a means of political empowerment and liberation.

I am going to begin at the end, where the critique is most clearly spelled out. Towards the end of P/P, Lugones defines rationality in a way that emphasizes its potential to act as an oppressive methodology:

Rationality is understood as this ability of a unified subject to abstract, categorize, train the multiple to the systematicity of norms, of rules that highlight, capture, and train its unity from the privileged vantage point... A passionate, needy, sensuous and rational subject must be conceived as internally separable, as discretely divided into what makes it one - rationality - and into the confused, worthless remainder - passion, sensuality (p. 129).

The normative function of rationality, then, asserts the rational subject as a unified subject, and according to Lugones, the only simple, unified subject is the one that is never faced with the fragmentary, non-belonging facets of their identity - in other words, the "Christian white bourgeois man" (p. 131) [to which I would also add "heterosexual" and "able-bodied," among other possible qualifiers]. For blog purposes, I don't want to enter into too much detail about Lugones' definition of "fragmentary" and "curdled" consciousnesses, but I think anyone who has had to force themselves into a Christian/white/bourgeois/[and/or]male standard will know instinctively what she means by fragmentation. And Lugones' theory has the advantage of opening the door, not only to a feminist critique of rationality, but to a critique from anyone who has been marginalized, who has not - for whatever reason - been allowed access to this "privileged vantage point."

So what does Lugones propose to get around rationality? Though she suggests "sensuality" and "passion" as alternatives, I think the crucial component to understanding Lugones is the idea of plurality as standing in direct resistance to a univocal rationality. In a footnote, she advocates "playfulness" - a playfulness which carries no regard for "rules of the game" - as a possible form of "ontological pluralism" (55), a new stance against unity. Lugones is speaking here specifically about bilingualism, but one can easily see how this sense of play could take on different forms, both literary and otherwise:

I speak [in many tongues] because I want to point to the possibility of becoming playful in the use of different voices... The more fully this playfulness is appreciated, the less broken I am to you, the more dimensional I am to you. But I want to exercise my multidimensionality even if you do not appreciate it. To do otherwise would be to engage in self-mutilation, to come to be just the person that you see. To play in this way is then an act of resistance as well as an act of self-affirmation (p. 41).
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Borderlands.jpg Anzaldúa's take on rationality is much more deeply spiritual. Although she writes chronologically before Lugones (and at times, Lugones addresses Anzaldúa's ideas directly), I wanted to discuss her work second, because it will be more difficult for a scientific mind to embrace (which is something of the point). A small note here, too: in many ways, I'm rehashing some of the exact same points Amala Levine makes in her suspiciously blog-relevant essay, "Champion of the Spirit: Anzaldúa's Critique of Rationalist Epistemology." (See? I'm not the only one thinking about these things! The advantage to Levine's work, though, is that it draws on interviews with Anzaldúa, as well as on Borderlands.)

Alright. Borderlands contains both a critique of rationalism and a demonstration of how an alternative might work, something that Lugones only scratches the surface of with her forays into bilingual text. Anzaldúa's critique operates through a series of equivalences that act in opposition to the regulatory forces of culture:

Like many Indians and Mexicans... I allowed white rationality to tell me that the existence of the "other world" was mere pagan superstition. I accepted their reality, the "official" reality of the rational, reasoning mode which is connected with external reality, the upper world, and is considered the most developed consciousness - the consciousness of duality. The other mode of consciousness facilitates images from the soul and the unconscious through dreams and the imagination. Its work is labeled "fiction," make-believe, wish-fulfillment (p. 37).

Humans fear the supernatural, both the undivine (the animal impulses such as sexuality, the unconscious, the unknown, the alien) and the divine (the superhuman, the god in us). Culture and religion seek to protect us from these two forces. The female, by virtue of creating entities of flesh and blood in her stomach (she bleeds every month but does not die), by virtue of being in tune with nature's cycles, is feared... She is man's recognized nightmarish pieces, his Shadow-Beast (p. 17).

In attempting to work out a synthesis, the self has added a third element which is greater than the sum of its parts. That third element is a new consciousness - a mestiza consciousness - and though it is a source of intense pain, its energy comes from continual creative motion that keeps breaking down the unitary aspect of each new paradigm (p. 80-1).

What is powerful about Anzaldúa's critique is its simultaneity. She captures Kristeva's yearning for the generative power of the female while rejecting Freud's cordoning off of the unconscious by terms such as wish-fulfillment. She predates Lugones' reasoned advocacy of plural identities with a literary demonstration of that plurality, mixing not only English and Spanish, but also genres of poetry and prose, recollection and imagination, history and fiction and philosophy. Anzaldúa presents a visceral depiction of the practical problems of fragmentation that come from living on the border, but she also links these dilemmas of language and self-presentation to the more spiritual ramifications of this constant code-switiching - what Anzaldúa calls a mestiza consciousness. And, perhaps best of all, she does not neglect the danger inherent in a consciousness that lives between, that strays from the white light of rationality.

One difficulty with this text, however, is that it often places the woman, the Mexican, and the lesbian in the same boat, inhabiting the same borderland. Granted, we are talking about feminist critiques of rationality, but I do think it's important to note that while a Mexican man or a gay man might not identify with Anzaldúa's "Shadow-Beast" (or, for that matter, with mestiza consciousness), either one of them might find something useful in Lugones' sense of playfulness and "curdled" consciousness. Lugones' work, then, might have built on Anzaldúa's to create a broader reach.

Another challenge to reading Anzaldúa is that according to Levine, she got much of her philosophy through intense spiritual experiences, including several brushes with death. Unlike Lugones, whose arguments speak more directly to the "rational" reader, Anzaldúa's writing requires a certain openness to the spiritual in order to begin to appreciate it in the first place. In this respect, Anzaldúa has some interesting resonances with Stein. To close with a well-worded encapsulation by Levine:

To the limited, rationalist consciousness reality appears as objectively existing matter; from a spiritualized perspective matter dissolves into a flux of possibilities co-existing in a web of potential interrelationships, the evanescent raw material for our creation of self and world. This holographic view also holds the answer to postmodern deconstruction's almost exhaustive reliance on a rationalist epistemology that rarely sees beyond atomistic fragmentation (175).
Webs, constellations, holograms, play. I sense some patterns are emerging...

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Anzaldua's ideas about simultaneity and play remind me most of Winnicott and "Playing and Reality". In some ways, she is talking, as I understand it, of a transitional space where there is value to "fragmentation".

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This page contains a single entry by Sophie published on February 28, 2010 4:34 PM.

The Irrational Woman: what does it mean to be an anti-rational feminist? was the previous entry in this blog.

Tackling the Unconscious is the next entry in this blog.

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