“Understanding the World from Within and as Part of it …”

Contemplating things that go without saying can occasionally be painful. After all, isn’t usually not being forced to question such things what we like best about them?The fact that they’re givens, tried and true? After all, why else would they be taken for granted? But it’s precisely such things that gender studies puts to the test. Gender studies questions the unquestionable. For many individuals, this makes it a valuable and innovative scholarly approach, but for certain others, it becomes something undesirable that aims simply to flaunt the conventional and time-tested.

The fact that our world is constantly changing is something that’s plain to see on a daily basis for anyone who’s paying the least bit of attention. Internationalisation of the economy, a changing world of work, individualisation, and new media for obtaining information and communicating with others are putting their stamps on life, calling for new approaches, and at the same time – as is usually the case at transitory moments in history – causing people to resort to stereotypes in order to counter their insecurity with something concrete. Here, gender studies takes a divergent course. It sharpens one’s gaze for social mechanisms and searches for new ways in which to understand – and shape – the world. In this sense, gender studies aims to be a scholarly discipline that critically examines both society and academics, one that can provide important impulses in precisely such periods of crisis as the one we are now experiencing.

To this end, a close look at Western modes of thought is essential. We think we know that if it’s daytime, then it can’t be night; that someone who’s old can’t be young; and that if a person is a woman, then the same person cannot be a man. It’s common-sensical. It’s easy to recognise, it’s a given. Or isn’t it? We also think we know that if one thinks rationally, then intuition plays no role whatsoever; and that if something is done consciously, then the unconscious mind is not involved. What’s at work here is a certain mode of thought, one of either/or – or an obligation to divide things, as Dieter Wuttke called it. Such thinking has a lot to do with the historical development of gender relations. At the end of the 18th century, there arose a new view of the world and of genders – and with it a new gender order. Chains of connotations like “spirit, male, culture” were deemed to occupy a far higher status than “body, female, nature”. An order of knowledge proceeded to develop, with even science and art being considered distinct from each other for the first time. The effects of such thinking remain with us to this day.

New research, however, is now refuting these assumptions of dichotomy in many areas. A telling example of this is the importance of the role that emotions play in the development of cognition, or the finding that thought processes always involve both halves of the brain and not, as previously assumed, that the left half is responsible only for the rational, logical, and analytical, with the right doing everything relating to feelings, symbols, and intuition. In the conventional binary order of thinking, gender attributions are easy to make out. But if we make it possible to perceive how supposed opposites are actually connected, we find ourselves thinking in terms of both-this-and-this, of as-well-as, which amounts to so much more than simply opposite poles. This can be brought to bear in many areas – including notions about the interaction of body and mind, the global and the local, and thus also the female- and the male-connoted. This way of viewing things permits complexity. As does the concept of diversity, of difference, of variety. And in this way, gender studies sensitises us to categories that are interdependently related and interlinked – just as gender, for example, must always be thought about in combination with the relevant social and/or cultural milieu, nationality, ethnicity, generation, sexual orientation, etc.

Agential realism, as championed by the philosopher and physicist Karen Barad, assumes interlocked, interacting conditions in nature and culture. And her phrase, “understanding the world from within and as part of it” stands for a transdisciplinary mode of examination that deals with the meaning of practices and thus also with the question of how knowledge is produced. To Barad, knowledge and being are inseparable – entailing that she, too, questions the dualism at issue here.

A concept like this one can sensitise us such that we adopt an attitude that takes academics and artists seriously as producers of meaning while being conscious of our responsibility to shape the world with and through our actions.

With all this said, what has probably long since become clear, here, is that gender as an umbrella term, as it is also understood in the context of the mdw (i.e., involving all categories of diversity and including interfaces to queer studies, trans studies, postcolonial studies, epistemology, research on science, etc.), is present in all topics. This is one important reason why the emphasis on “Science, Art, and Gender” at mdw aims to promote dialogue between the various cultures and/or cultures of knowledge – dialogue understood as “the art of thinking together”, as MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) organisational development specialist William Isaacs put it. Which is to say: the practice of showing respect for others out of respect for oneself and respect for differences.

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