The Comfort of Donna Haraway

After sitting through two days of CEU training, I began to think about my feelings regarding the space in which I have dedicated my time and energy. As a true practitioner-scholar, I am often on the intellectual boundaries between science and practice. There is a tension in that borderland between knowledge and praxis that, in my experience, many do not understand. The scholars deal in abstractions from a distance, the practitioner deals in the everyday, with people and their lives. However, even this characterization is dichotomous in a way that does not account for the tension I seem to feel.

My general sense of unease became clear while reading Haraway’s (1988) article on situated knowledge and objectivity. You see, one of the subtle facts about my education is that I have actively sought, and remain deeply enamored by critical feminist scholarship, theory, and ideas. If I am honest with myself, I came back to get my doctorate precisely because the field of addiction and recovery, both in theory and practice, is in desperate need of interdisciplinary, critical, and (dare I say) feminist ideas. I speak of these motives quietly and insert them where I can because, as a white male, I am viewed with a certain amount of suspicion if I claim feminist intellectual leanings (by both scientists and feminists). It borders on co-optation, which is precisely my concern with the addiction and recovery space. Nevertheless, allow me to back up and offer the reader two critical elements that are interwoven throughout the addiction and recovery space: Gender (ie. assumed dichotomies and binaries embedded into the structure of reality) and Power (that which sustains the sharp edges of “the known”). Both Gender and Power play out in the formations within “meaning and bodies.” (Haraway: pg. 580)

So what does that mean? Furthermore, what does this have to do with addiction and recovery science and therapeutic practice? First we must understand that we have rigid assumptions within ourselves and manifested in society (like gender) and that we (and society) defend the edges of these knowledge forms with claims of objectivity and authority (through power). And yet, we sometimes find such objective claims of universal truth at odds with our own identity in recovery. Particularly as practitioners and scholars (in recovery) within this space. We embody a form of objective truth that is always already a fact to ourselves, even when objective science and practices occlude and overpower our truth(s). Here is a quote:

“I would like a doctrine of embodied objectivity that accommodates paradoxical and critical feminist science projects: Feminist objectivity means quite simply, situated knowledges.” (Haraway: pg 581)

In this statement, I can locate my source of distress and a place of comfort. As a scientist, I am sitting in a training session running through all of the misnomers, mischaracterizations, and (this is important) disembodied “evidence” that is briefly held up before our eyes as we trudge through training modules. Compounding my discomfort with the misuse of science and fact is the concurrency of my personal experience as a clinician, and as a person in recovery. On the one hand, I know these manualized treatments hardly work; on the other, I would have laughed at any clinician who whipped one out while I was in the heyday of my addictions. To add even more stress, I am also deeply familiar with the science cited behind these training modules – the science itself being deeply embedded within whiteness and maleness. The science of therapeutic practice is also of a unique patriarchal and colonial slant, and we (practitioners) seem to vaguely sense this while dispensing therapy (no matter how many buzzwords we use to frame our approach). I experience all of this while sitting quietly in a hotel ballroom, watching PowerPoint slides. My internal intellectual dialogue amps up, but I say nothing. Of course. This is not the right time or place to spout off critiques of science, class, power, and politics. It would seem bizarre if I stood up in the room and suddenly spoke of how oppressive this all felt to me. Right?

To make matters worse, the training discourse is peppered with tantalizing buzzwords like “client-centered” and “evidence-based.” I grit my teeth, and try not to growl or bristle audibly. I keep my eyes on my workbook to prevent them from rolling. I wonder if this is what it feels like to have something to say that no one wants to hear? How many women sit in meetings and at tables every day and internally squirm with their own secret subjugated knowledge of which they cannot utter? Similar to their experience is my own – there is no space here for the truths that I know. I cannot speak of science or practice in this training session in an authentic way- In an experiential and situated way. I must toe the line of power and “evidence” as it is embodied in the room. I must breathe life and legitimacy into some semi-factual entity of practice that we are conjuring within this session. I must prop it up and dance it around as we move through the practice exercises. If I pay my dues, mostly through my silence and complicity, I will be awarded some updated hours to maintain my clinical credentials.

This account may sound dramatic, and I have exaggerated a bit. Still, my assertion here is no less valid for doing so. How many of us have felt this exact sense of dread, boredom, and scoffed inwardly in the same situations? Now that I have laid out the practice end of my account, is it any different in the scientific space? I believe you can imagine my response here as well. I often feel indignant when a scientist seeks to speak for me as an object, mainly when they are entirely wrong. How dare they speak of me, an individual, as if from a position of lofty and all-knowing expertise? They do not know me or my experiences as a person in addiction or recovery. They speak in platitudes. They make clever omissions; they stylize their assertions. They engage, not in science, but rhetoric. They seek not the truth but publication.

As a scientist myself, I know their tricks. I know how they dress up reductionist claims as objective facts. I know their ontologies, their epistemologies, and their methodological trainings. This sensation of objectification is what it feels like when we turn people into a type or when we classify or pathologized them. Whiteness and maleness in science mean that I have the automatic privilege to always be the authoritative scientific observer, but never required to be observed subject unless I choose to. Juxtaposing the automatic privilege of my white maleness with my indignation at often being erroneously objectified in the very scientific journals to which I contribute, creates a strange reality, that no one but feminist scholars seems to be capable of voicing. Moreover, of course, as a scientist, I am also required to exert my objectifying observational lens onto others, lest my papers never get past the editor’s desk. I, too, must engage in the rhetoric of objectivity.

“Science has been about a search for translation, convertibility, mobility of meaning, and universality which I call reductionism only when one language (guess whose?) must be enforced as the standard for all the translations and conversions… there is finally, only one equation…that is the deadly fantasy that feminists and others have identified in some versions of objectivity, those in the service of hierarchical and positivist orderings of what can count as knowledge.” (Haraway: pg 580)

What can count as knowledge? That is what I feel. That is the tension that I feel in the multiplicities of my practice and my scientific pursuits through which my identity in recovery is woven. Moreover, if I feel this way, then I must extend outward into the world and imagine how one who is less white and less male must ultimately feel.

So what do I want? I want to extend a framework to my fellow practitioners, as well as my fellow scholars that are living in recovery. That framework is feminism, particularly critical feminism. I want it to be okay to understand the tension you feel, but perhaps, like myself, may be unable to place. There is an embodiment of something tangible within your experiences as you move through these spaces and others. However, most importantly, I want to leverage that discomfort in order to broaden the ideas which we currently trade within and among ourselves. I do not want us to feel that our search for truth must be modified to only fit within parameters of what is acceptable.

I want us to examine the tools that feminist scholarship offers us so that we can push back against universality and reductionism dressed as empiricism- So that we can have the tools to clear a space between the “high-status games of rhetoric” and the “scientistic, positivist arrogance” while not abandoning accountability and forms of reliability. (Haraway: pg. 580)

I want us not to feel compelled to chase fads or fashions, simply because of our occasional sense of awkwardness within these spaces as people living in recovery. But most importantly, I want us to be able to hold various forms of situated knowledge both near and far from our experiences as individuals and as professionals. I want us to be able to do so with intentionality, skill, and insight. For without this ability, we will forever reproduce the knowledge of recovery from exclusively authorized boxes of science and practice that have the power to claim some universal truth. Collectively we instinctively know the mismatching spaces between our personal journey through addiction and recovery, and the science and practices acted upon us during that journey. We must name and claim that space in between as our own situated forms of knowledge.

In conclusion, some may think I am speaking out of turn. I understand that. I make no claims to this territory. I wish only to highlight this terrain for others as a possible vista from which one may enter and see things anew. My utilization of such theories is quite incomplete. Ultimately, my positionality in this world prevents me from understanding such things in their totality. My recovery identity affords me only the barest glimpse of subjugated ways of experiencing the world. However, it is enough of a glimpse to understand how knowledge is produced, how authority is endowed, and how objective truth is claimed. We should seek the truth(s), yes, and objectivity(ies) when needed. Nevertheless, we must also understand the roles we play, the power we have, and the knowledge we hold. We are the embodiment of something worth knowing. We hold recovery knowledge within our days and ways. Haraway offers us comfort here; we should embrace it, and make use of it.

Fearlessly, if need be.

4 thoughts on “The Comfort of Donna Haraway

  1. I’m gonna show my belly and admit that my grasp of your post is not close to 100%.

    I love this: “From this point of view, science – the real game in town – is rhetoric, a series of efforts to persuade relevant social actors that one’s manufactured knowledge is a route to a desired form of very objective power.”

    Thank you for introducing me to it.

  2. This post is about the tension between recovery, science, and practice and the ways in which tension is held and embodied within, as I move through such things as clinical training (where they get the science wrong, and the practicality is even more off base), or in the production of science, (where I must use only approved methods, definitions and theory), and in personal recovery, (where in the back of my mind I find myself calling “bullshit” on the science I read and practices I must learn).

    And it is a note of encouragement to anyone who may find their own personal experiences in recovery to be far flung from the hottest and latest science and practices being paraded about. There is an interstitial space between one’s own recovery journey and the science and practices which surround us and that we must engage in and demonstrate competency with. This interstitial space, where the things we learn and do (either in our clinical practice or scientific endeavors) are jaggedly mismatched to our own truths based on our own recovery experiences. We can and should claim this space as our own “situated knowledge” and we should fearlessly highlight it.

    Much of the tension in the field is drawn from binaries that either do not exist in the real world, nor in pure form. They become rhetorical points of departure where one party claims objective truth, and the other must counter. This is a wasteful expropriation of our labor. Those of us in recovery, entering into the fray, armed with clinical knowledge, scientific backgrounds, practical experience, all combined within daily lived recovery experience should feel empowered to stake claim to this unique synthesis, and to dismantle truth claims that exclude our synthesis of knowledge forms. Critical feminist scholarship offers us both the permission to do so, but also provides the means to lay claim to our own truths, which we, as scientists and practitioners, living in recovery, embody in our multiplicitous position as both subject and object.

    Anyone in recovery who has ever looked at a manualized treatment workbook and scoffed at its contents because you know it would never have worked for you, have felt this tension. This post is encouragement to claim that subjective knowledge, as a form of subjugated truth.

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