Monday, May 12, 2014

Q&A: Karen Houle

On Tuesday May 20th at 7:30, Karen Houle will launch her new book Responsibility, Complexity and Abortion in the eBar. Readings from each section of her book will be followed by karaoke, hosted by Golden Throats Karaoke. You can find the full-on info HERE.  

We did our best to nick the surface of the book and it's ideas by lobbing a few questions Karen's way.

In your introduction, following a few anecdotes, your thoughts on the abortion fish kettle are complicated by the film Vera Drake. "For over two decades," you say, "I had been working with a convenient caricature about a complex social, emotional, psychological, intellectual, and material phenomenon, a caricature that had kept many of those dimensions out of sight." What was the process of fleshing out the dimensions of this caricature? At what point did your individual ruminations turn to cultural ones?

I first had to find a methodology that would enable me to engage with the topic from a concrete embodied position & yet also very critically: without requiring a position at the outset, or a conclusion that the methodology was going to be aiming to achieve. I got that through Foucault (discourse analysis) and critical theory. 

Discourse analysis and critical theory mean that individual ruminations, insights, experiences can and need to be framed in terms of wider cultural themes and tendencies. As a feminist theorist, my "personal" ruminations had always felt cultural, or political. But I didn't find that a recognizable feminist approach was letting in enough of the dissonance. 

I had also always taught Social and Political Issues, as a phil. prof. Through cultural voices but never my own. And what my students read, and argued, also felt like it was dishonest, or, that the insights about the abortion fish kettle which might have come up through more honesty (or a wider angle lens) were also being silenced or squished to the margins, or left entirely to the personal (i.e therapy groups, girlfriend chats). Feeling the personal and concrete within me (and, over time, an increasingly complex set of ideas and feelings I had about abortion)...pushing out against cultural spaces with little or no tolerance for that ambiguity, was the main impulse to write this book.
My background in science, and involvement with scientists who work through complexity and systems theory was also a big breakthrough in offering me a framework, and intellectual *permission* to pursue that line of thinking (about post-normal science) into the domain of ethics. People who love systems theory and complexity theory (could be a physicist, could be a Buddhist) and who have been scratching their heads about values and *thorny* ethical problems will find something of interest in what I did here.

Most mainstream discussion of this, as you say, "complex 'fact of life,'" seems to be polarized by outrageous conservative misunderstanding about what a woman actually is and how one works. Is it at all possible, do you think, to have an informed, nuanced discussion about abortion without absurd clutter getting in the way.


But we need a map for how to do that since the one we work with is oversimplistic. 
Not an easy task. 
Need new vocabulary, concepts and even a modality for thinking about ethics & value. 
I am trying with this book to provide a map of that very possibility... And to make the reader have to use that map too.
(The work with my seminar and students proved it actually can work as that kind of a map).
The launch will feature readings of all sections by students from your Advanced Feminist Theory seminar. What is the process of introducing these ideas from academia to everyday? Is a clean transition possible, or are there elements you touch on in the book that you can see being lost in translation/transition?

All these students are everyday people too. As am I. Everyone one of us, of them, has an example of an everyday story about rape or birth control or abortion or miscarriage or impotency or etc etc etc. It is *there* all the time, and academia can be a place where all of that variety can be translated into a common idiom or space, so shared well. Concepts are beautiful and academia works in concepts very very well. But mostly academia drops the affect. Drops the ways that the details are different and matter. So, there is a loss in translation from the everyday to the academic, and also, from the academic to the *everyday*. I had thought about writing this in so many different styles or ways. Ultimately, I wrote a book of ethical theory (not easy reading, not everyone will be able to read it... that makes me a bit sad)...but when I was writing in a more colloquial non-philosophical way, I felt the nuance and capacity that high thinking opens up, was dropping out too. 

The combo I ended up trying (maybe a disaster!) is a highly intimate exposed very real voice and body (mine, my medical records, naming dates etc) that people would read and always know I was a me. Not just a disembodied blab blab. And that voice would be there, guiding through the arcane twists and tough spots. Trust? I wanted the reader to be able to trust me. I never trust a writer of, say, ethics or art or religion who speaks in the Universal voice. Or only in that voice. We live our lives as individuals, not types. 

What're your top jams for Don't-Be-Afraid-of-Feminists-Karaoke?

I think I will hum some Lhasa. 
Rickie Lee Jones if I am feeling pop n bluesy. 
And maybe some Martha Wainwright if I am feeling scrappy.

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