Friday, November 13, 2015

Women in the kitchen of science: on being excluded from the life of the mind.

When I was in my late teens at university, one of my favourite books was Herman Hesse's The Glass Bead Game (1943). In the 25th century, in the European province of Castalia, there was an isolated, university-like community devoted to the life of the mind. The pinnacle of intellectual activity was the Glass Bead Game, an esoteric exploration of the deep connections between ideas. The scholars took little part in secular life, but politicians and wealthy people would attend the Glass Bead tournaments. This was the only point at which the chaotic, everyday politics of the rest of the population intersected with the great minds of Castalia.

The book follows the life of Joseph Knecht, the greatest Magister Ludi, or master of the Glass Bead Game. Over the course of the book, he begins to question the value of the isolated 'ivory tower' life and eventually abandons Castalia.

There were so many things about The Glass Bead Game that appealed to me at that stage of my life. I had, perhaps, grandiose ambitions of making great intellectual discoveries. Arcane knowledge about the nature of the universe seemed like the most exciting thing to me, and a community of like minds, all devoted to higher thought, was a dream to be achieved. The book held out a vision of the pursuit of knowledge as the highest human calling, and in my naivety I yearned for this world.

There was one teeny, tiny problem though. The world of Castalia was a purely male one. All of the Magisters and scholars were men. Only in the outside world did men marry and have families. Women are mentioned only in this capacity in the book: as wives and mothers who have nothing to do with study or knowledge.

As a young woman, this didn't bother me too much. I was adept at reading myself into male roles in fiction, imagining myself as Biggles, as Mowgli and Bilbo. I read the book many, many times, pondering the never-quite-revealed mysteries of the Glass Bead Game, elusive and Eleusinian.

But after a while, I felt more and more the effort of including myself where I was excluded, and it started to annoy me more and more. A period of many years followed where I didn't re-read it. By this time I was a professional archaeologist and thinking about the research that later became my PhD.

I think it was while packing books for a house move that I found my copy again and decided it was what I felt like reading at that moment. I was by now in my late 20s. But this time it was different. I could no longer kid myself that women could be any part of this world. In Hesse's vision, mind belonged to men and the corporeal world belonged to women. The further I progressed through the chapters, the less I could stomach it. I abandoned the book unfinished and have never read it since. It made me sad to be so disillusioned by what had been a beloved novel.

Now let's leap forward to another part of my life. In the mid-1990s, I was living in the UK and collecting data for my PhD. A conference about stone tools was being held in Ireland. I wanted desperately to go, not just because of the lithics, but because it would be my first visit to the land of my ancestors, who fled the ravages of the Great Famine in the 1850s for a new life in Australia.

When the plane touched down in Cork airport, I was very emotional. I can still remember the moment vividly. The Irish soil was already something familiar, a landscape thrumming through my blood. Even though I had never seen it, never breathed the air, I was aware of a knowledge deep below the surface of my mind, passed on from my Irish great-great-great grandmothers in some fashion, that made this home.

Over the next week, from Cork to Dublin, I had an experience that was completely novel to me. Almost all the street names, the town names, the shop names, were Irish. I didn't have to spell my surname. Hell, I even looked Irish: eyes passed over me in the street, while the Englishness of my conference companions was noted. For the first time, my ethnic identity was indistinguishable from everyone else's. I was deeply part of this culture despite the generational time gap. I belonged: it was only when I spoke and my Australian accent marked me as a foreigner that I stood out in any way. From multicultural Australia, where even the fairly homogenous, white rural community of my childhood contained people of Irish, Welsh, Scottish, English descent, from Catholic, Anglican, Uniting, Methodist, Presbyterian beliefs, I was experiencing the monoculture of Irish Catholicism. Suddenly, a whole raft of negotiations about who I was were removed from the table. There were some things that were so accepted that they needed no explanation. I have to say it was very liberating.  I've often reflected on it over the years, and I'm sure you can see how this experience is relevant to understanding a raft of similar inclusions/exclusions.

Now, I have a very particular reason for telling you about these two seemingly disparate experiences, and it is this.

No male person reading The Glass Bead Game has to confront their exclusion from the highest intellectual life constructed as normal or natural. Every male person experiences the world of science and the intellect without their identity being up for constant negotiation. They are the default setting, just as I was in Ireland.

Let's think about that.



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