Patricia Hill Collins……Intersecting Oppressions……………..

Patricia Hill Collins: Intersecting Oppressions

Patricia Hill Collins is principally concerned with the relationships among empowerment, self-definition, and knowledge; and she is obviously concerned with black women: it is the oppression with which she is most intimately familiar. But Collins is also one of the few social thinkers who are able to rise above their own experiences; to challenge us with a significant view of oppression and identity politics that not only has the possibility of changing the world but also of opening up the prospect of continuous change.

For change to be continuous, it can’t be exclusively focused on one social group. In other words, a social movement that is only concerned with racial inequality, will end its influence once equality for that group is achieved. What Patricia Hill Collins gives us is a way of transcending group specific politics that is based upon black feminist epistemology. However, it is vital to note that her intent is to place “U.S. Black women’s experiences in the center of analysis without privileging those experiences” (Collins, 2000, p. 228). Collins is saying that we can learn significantly from black women’s knowledge.

Black women sit at a theoretically interesting point. Collins argues that black women are uniquely situated in that they stand at the focal point where two exceptionally powerful and prevalent systems of oppression come together: race and gender. Being able to understand this position as something she calls “intersectionality” opens up the possibility of seeing and understanding many more spaces of cross-cutting interests. That is, understanding the social position black women ought to compel us to see, and look for, other spaces where systems of inequality come together.

Just as important to this possibility of continuous change are the qualities of what Collins variously terms alternative or black feminist epistemology. This notion implies that the emphasis on social, scientific knowledge has hindered social reform. In this way of thinking about things, all knowledge is political and can be used to serve specific group interests. Social science is particularly susceptible to this because it simultaneously objectifies its subjects and denies the validity of lived experience as a form of knowing.

Black Feminist Epistemology

Epistemology is the study of knowledge. Now, let’s stop and think about that for a moment. Why would people study knowledge? The common sense understanding of knowledge is rather straightforward: knowledge is what you know; it is the fact or condition of knowing. Having knowledge means to have familiarity with an individual, thing, or event. For example, you know your friend; you know sociology; and you know 2+2=4. So,what’stostudy? Commonsensetellsusthatyoueitherknow2+2=4or you don’t; and you can know more or less about sociology or about your friend. If

epistemology is the study of knowledge, why and how is it studied? What are the problems and questions that have produced epistemology?

What I’m trying to get us to recognize is that despite our common sense understanding, there is something odd and disturbing about knowledge, disturbing in the sense that it prompts scrutiny. In fact, the idea of knowledge is so disturbing that philosophers have been studying it for almost 2500 years; and “nearly every great philosopher has contributed to the epistemological literature” (Merriam-Webster, 2002).

Human knowledge is disturbing because we’re not exactly sure what it is, where it comes from, or how it can be validated. With human knowledge, there is at least the possibility that what we know is not the direct knowledge of events or the physical universe. As the philosopher Ernst Cassirer (1944) puts it, “No longer can man confront reality immediately; he cannot see it, as it were, face to face. Physical reality seems to recede in proportion as man’s symbolic activity advances” (p. 42). There are two main philosophical schools that attempt to address this possibility: empiricism and rationalism. Empiricism holds that all knowledge comes from and must be tested by sense experience; the data that come to us via our five senses. Rationalism, on the other hand, argues that sense experience can be wrong and that reason is our chief source and validation of knowledge.

There are, of course, many other philosophical schools of thought about knowledge. But my point is simply that knowing and knowledge are not as straightforward as they seem. Think of it this way: we are the only animal that takes its knowledge as something to be studied. My dog Maggie for example isn’t concerned one iota about her knowledge; she simply knows what she knows. Knowledge for humans is not so easy.

As sociologists, we aren’t usually concerned with the philosophical investigation of knowledge. However, sociology is interested in the social factors that influence how knowledge is created and how knowledge is socially used. One of the first sociologists to express these concerns was Karl Marx (1859/1978a): “It is not the consciousness of men that determines their being, but, on the contrary, their social being that determines their consciousness” (p. 4). Marx (1932/1978b) is specifically concerned with the class based and oppressive nature of knowledge: “The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas: i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force” (p. 172, emphasis original). Notice that Marx connects knowledge (ideas) with material interests. What people know and think are intrinsically wrapped up with class position. Also notice that the elite in any society exercise disproportionate control over what ideas are accepted as truth. Thus, whatever else philosophy may say, sociologically we know that knowledge is influenced by and used in the politics surrounding class position.

Patricia Hill Collins argues that the politics of race and gender also influence knowledge. In Marxian terms, race and gender are part of our “social being.” In order to talk about this issue, and specifically about black feminist knowledge, Collins juxtaposes Eurocentric, positivistic knowledge—the kind of knowledge in back of science. But before we get to that, I need to point out that there is more to knowledge than simply information. Knowledge—information and facts—can only exist within a context that is defined through specific ways of knowing and validation. In other words, human scrutinize how knowledge is produced and how it is validated as true. So, what ways of knowing and methods of validation are specific to Eurocentric, positivistic knowledge? Collins gives us four points. Note that sociology is generally defined as a social science; and insofar as it is a scientific inquiry into social life, it espouses these four points.


First, according to the positivistic approach, true or correct knowledge only comes when the observer separates him or her self from that which is being studied. You undoubtedly came across this idea in your methods class: the researcher must take an objective stand in order to safeguard against bias. Second, personal emotions must be set aside in the pursuit of pure knowledge. Third, no personal ethics or values must come into the research. Social science is to be value-free, not passing judgment or trying to impose values on others. And, fourth, knowledge progresses through cumulation and adversarial debate.

Cumulation in positivism is a particular way of building knowledge. Science is supposed to progress by testing the knowledge that others created before us and by throwing out the bad and holding onto the good. This incremental building is captured by Isaac Newton’s famous dictum: “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” But, as I’ve already implied, information and ideas can’t be taken at face value. Thus, scientific knowledge is validated because it is tested and argued against from every angle. The belief is that only that which is left standing is truth. And it is upon those remnants that objective, scientific knowledge will be built.

Four tenets of black feminist epistemology: Collins gives us four characteristics of alternative epistemologies, ways of knowing and validating knowledge that challenges the status quo. As we review these, notice how each point stands in opposition to the tenets of positivistic knowledge.

The first point is that alternative epistemologies are built upon lived experience not upon an objectified position. Social science argues that to truly understand society and group life one must be removed from the particulars and concerns of the subjects being studied. In this way, subjects are turned into objects of study. Collins’ (2000) alternative epistemology claims that is it only those men and women who experience the consequences of social being who can select “topics for investigation and methodologies used” (p. 258). Black feminist epistemology, then, begins with “connected knowers,” those who know from personal experience.

The second dimension of Collins’ alternative epistemology is the use of dialog rather than adversarial debate. As we’ve seen, knowledge claims in social science are assessed through adversarial debate. Using dialog to evaluate implies the presence of at least two subjects—thus knowledge isn’t seen as having an objective existence apart from lived experiences; knowledge ongoingly emerges through dialog. In alternative epistemologies, then, we tend to see the use of personal pronouns such as “I” and “we” instead of the objectifying and distancing language of social science. Rather than disappearing, the author is central to and present in the text. In black feminist epistemology, the story is told and preserved in narrative form and not “torn apart in analysis” (Collins, 2000, p. 258).

Centering lived experiences and the use of dialog imply that knowledge is built around ethics of caring, Collins’ third characteristic of black feminist knowledge. Rather than believing that researchers can be value-free, Collins argues that all knowledge is intrinsically value-laden and should thus be tested by the presence of empathy and compassion. Collins sees this tenet as healing the binary break between the intellect and emotion that Eurocentric knowledge values. Alternative epistemology is thus holistic; it doesn’t require the separation of the researcher from her or his own experiences nor does it require, or assume that it is possible, to separate our thoughts from our feelings. Additionally, Collins (2000) argues that the presence of emotion validates the argument: “Emotion indicates that a speaker believes in the validity of an argument” (p. 263).

Fourth, black feminist epistemology requires personal accountability. Because knowledge is built upon lived experience, the assessment of knowledge is simultaneous


assessment of an individual’s character, values, and ethics. This approach sees that all knowledge is based upon beliefs, things assumed to be true. And belief implies personal responsibility. Think about the implications of these two different approaches to knowing, information, and truth: One, information can be objective and truth exists apart from any observer; and, two, all information finds its existence and “truth” within a preexisting knowledge system that must be believed in order to work. The first allows for, indeed demands, the separation of personal responsibility from knowledge—knowledge exists as an objective entity apart from the knower. The second places accountability directly on the knower. Collins would ask us, which form of knowing is more likely to lead to social justice, one that denies ethical and moral accountability or one that demands it?

Implications of black feminist thought: By now we should see that for Collins ways of knowing and knowledge are not separable or sterile—they are not abstract entities that exist apart from the political values and beliefs of the individual. How we know and what we know have implications for who we see ourselves to be, how we live our lives, and how we treat others. Collins sees these connections as particularly important for black women in at least three ways.

First, there is a tension between common challenges and diverse experiences. Think for a moment about what it means to center the idea of lived experience. We’ve already touched upon several implications of this idea; but what problem might arise from this way of thinking? The notion of lived experience, if taken to an extreme, can privilege individual experience and knowledge to the exclusion of a collective standpoint. The possibility of this implication is particularly probable in a society like the United States that is built around the idea of individualism.

However, this isn’t what Collins has in mind. One doesn’t overshadow the other. According to Collins, the diverse responses are prompted by what Collins refers to as intersectionality. We’ll explore this idea later but for now we want to see that each individual stands at a unique matrix of cross-cutting interests. These interests and the diverse responses they motivate are defined through such social positions as race, class, gender, sexual identity, religion, nationality, and so on.

So the lived experience of a middle-class, pagan, single, gay black woman living in Los Angeles will undoubtedly be different than a poverty stricken, Catholic, married black woman living in a small town in Mississippi. As Collins (2000) says, “it is important to stress that no homogeneous Black woman’s standpoint exists” (p. 28, emphasis original). However, there are core themes or issues that come from living as a black woman such that “a Black women’s collective standpoint does exist, one characterized by the tensions that accrue to different responses to common challenges” (p. 28, emphasis original). In other words, a black women’s epistemology recognizes this tension between common challenges and diverse responses, which in turn is producing a growing sensibility that black women, because of their gendered racial identity, “may be victimized by racism, misogyny, and poverty” (Collins, 2000, p. 26). Thus, even though individual black women may respond differently, based on different cross-cutting interests, there are themes or core issues that all black women can acknowledge and integrate into their self- identity.

Another implication of black feminist epistemology is informed by this growing sensibility of diversity within commonality: understanding these issues leads to the creation of “safe spaces.” Safe spaces are “social spaces where Black women speak freely” (Collins, 2000, p. 100). These safe spaces are of course common occurrences for all oppressed groups. In order for an oppressed group to continue to exist as a viable social


group, the members must have spaces where they can express themselves apart from the hegemonic or ruling ideology.

Collins identifies three primary safe spaces for black women. The first is black women’s relationships with one another. These relationships can form and function within informal relationships such as family and friends or they can occur within more formal and public spaces such as black churches and black women’s organizations. In this context, Collins (2002) also points to the importance of mentoring within black women’s circles; mentoring that empowers black women “by passing on the everyday knowledge essential to survival as African-American women” (p. 102).

The other two safe spaces are cultural and are constituted by the black women’s blues tradition and the voices of black women authors. Such cultural expressions have historically given voice to the voiceless. Those who were denied political or academic power could express their ideas and experiences through story and poetry. As long as the political majority could read these as “fictions,” as long as they weren’t faced with the facts of oppression, blacks were allowed these cultural outlets in “race markets.” However, these books, stories, and poetry allowed oppressed people to communicate one with another and to produce a sense of shared identity.

There are several reasons why the blues are particularly important for constructing safe spaces and identities for black women. Blues originated out of the back and forth call of slaves working in the fields. It was born out of misery but simultaneously gave birth to hope. This hope wasn’t simply expressed in words, but it was more powerfully felt in the rhythm and collectivity that made slave-work less arduous. The blues thus expresses to even the illiterate the experience of black America; and it wraps individual suffering in a transcendent collective consciousness that enables the oppressed to persevere in hope without bitterness.

The music of the classic blues singers of the 1920s—almost exclusively women—marks the early written record of this dimension of U.S. Black oral culture. The songs themselves were originally sung in small communities, where boundaries distinguishing singer from audience, call from response, and thought from action were fluid and permeable. (Collins, 2000, p. 106)

The importance of these safe spaces is that they provide opportunities for self- definition; and self-definition is the first step to empowerment: if a group is not defining itself, then it is being defined by and for the use of others. These safe spaces also allow black women to escape and resist “objectification as the Other” (Collins, 2000, p. 101), the images and ideas about black women found in the larger culture.

These safe spaces, then, are spaces of diversity not homogeneity: “the resulting reality is much more complex than one of an all-powerful White majority objectifying Black women with a unified U.S. Black community staunchly challenging these external assaults” (Collins, 2002, p. 101). However, even though these spaces recognize diversity, they are nonetheless exclusionary (here we can clearly see the tension that Collins notes). If these spaces did not exclude, they would not be safe: “By definition, such spaces become less ‘safe’ if shared with those who were not Black and female” (p. 110). Although exclusionary, the intent of these spaces is to produce “a more inclusionary, just society” (p. 110).

This idea leads us to our third implication of black feminist thought: the struggles for self-identity take place within an ongoing dialog between group knowledge or standpoint and experiences as a heterogeneous collective. Here Collins is


reconceptualizing the tension noted above between common challenges and diverse responses. This is important to note because one of the central features of Collins’ approach is complexity. Collins wants us to see that most social issues, factors, and processes have multiple faces. Understanding how the different facets of inequality work together is paramount for understanding any part of it. In this case, on the one hand we have a tension between common challenges and diverse responses, and on the other hand we have a dialog between a common group standpoint and diverse experiences.

Collins is arguing that changes in thinking may alter behaviors and altering behaviors may produce changes in thinking. Thus, for U.S. black women as a collective, “the struggle for a self-defined Black feminism occurs though an ongoing dialogue whereby action and thought inform one another” (Collins, 2000, p. 30). For example, because black Americans have been racially segregated, black feminist practice and thought have emerged within the context of black community development. Other ideas and practices, such as Black Nationalism, have also come about due to racial segregation. Thus, black feminism and nationalism inform one another in the context of the Black community yet they are both distinct. And, of course, the relationships are reciprocal in that black feminist and nationalist thought influence black community development.

Collins also sees this dialog as a process of rearticulation rather than consciousness raising. During the 1960s and 1970s, consciousness raising was a principal method in the feminist movement. Consciousness raising groups would generally meet weekly, consist of no more than twelve women, and would encourage women to share their personal experiences as women. The intent was a kind of Marxian class consciousness that would precede social change, except that it was oriented around gender rather than class.

Rearticulation, according to Collins, is a vehicle for re-expressing a consciousness that quite often already exists in the public sphere. In rearticulation we can see the dialogic nature of Collins’ perspective. Rather than a specific, limited method designed to motivate women toward social movement, Collins sees black feminism as part of an already existing national discourse. What black feminism can do is to take the core themes of black gendered oppression—such as racism, misogyny, and poverty—and infuse them with the lived experience of black women’s taken-for-granted, everyday knowledge. This is brought back into the national discourse where practice and ideas are in a constant dialog: “Rather than viewing consciousness as a fixed entity, a more useful approach sees it as continually evolving and negotiated. A dynamic consciousness is vital to both individual and group agency.” (Collins, 2000, p. 285)

The place of black intellectuals: Within this rearticulation, black feminist intellectuals have a specific place. To set ourselves up for this consideration, we can divide social intellectuals or academics into two broad groups: those who are pure researchers and those who are praxis researchers. Pure researchers hold to value-free sociology; the kind we noted above in considering Eurocentric thought. They are interested in simply discovering and explaining the social world. Praxis or critically oriented researchers are interested in ferreting out the processes of oppression and changing the social world. Black feminist intellectuals are of the latter kind, blending the lived experiences of black women with the highly specialized knowledge of intellectualism.

This dual intellectual citizenship gives black feminist scholars critical insights into the conditions of oppression. They both experience it as a lived reality and can think about it using the tools of critical analysis. Further, in studying oppression among black women, they are less likely to walk away “when the obstacles seem overwhelming or when the rewards for staying diminish” (Collins, 2000, p. 35). Black feminist intellectuals are


also more motivated in this area because they are defining themselves while studying gendered racial inequality.

Finally, Collins (2002) argues that black feminist intellectuals “alone can foster the group autonomy that fosters effective coalitions with other groups” (p. 36). In thinking about this it is important to remember that Collins recognizes that intellectuals are found within all walks of life. Intellectual status isn’t simply conferred as the result of academic credentials. Black feminist intellectuals are those who think reflexively and publicly about their own lived experiences within the context of broader social issues and ideas.

Black feminist intellectuals, then, function like intermediary groups. On the one hand, they are very much in touch with their own and their confidants’ experiences as a disenfranchised group; on the other hand, they are also in touch with intellectual heritages, diverse groups, and broader social justice issues. “By advocating, refining, and disseminating Black feminist thought, individuals from other groups who are engaged in similar social justice projects—Black men, African women, White men, Latinas, White women, and members of other U.S. racial/ethnic groups, for example—can identify points of connection that further social justice projects” (Collins, 2000, p. 37). Collins notes, however, that coalition building with other groups and intellectuals can be costly. Privileged group members often have to become traitors to the “privileges that their race, class, gender, sexuality, or citizenship status provide them” (p. 37).

Intersectionality and Matrices of Domination

Collins is best known for her ideas of intersectionality and the matrix of domination. Intersectionality is a particular way of understanding social location in terms of crisscross systems of oppression. Specifically, intersectionality is an “analysis claiming that systems of race, social class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, nation, and age form mutually constructing features of social organization, which shape Black women’s experiences and, in turn, are shaped by Black women” (Collins, 2000, p. 299).

This idea goes back to Max Weber and Georg Simmel, two theorists working in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Weber’s concern was to understand the complications that status and power brought to Marx’s idea of class stratification. According to Weber, class consciousness and social change are more difficult to achieve than Marx first thought: status group affiliation and differences in power create concerns that may override class issues. For example, race may be more important than class for two racially distinct families living below the poverty. In such cases, social change becomes less likely.

Simmel was concerned with how modern living in cities created different kinds of friendship patterns. In smaller, more rural settings, Simmel claimed that people generally had what he termed “organic” social relationships. These relations are organic because very little if any choice was involved: many of the social groups in smaller, more stable settings overlap one with another and thus strongly influence group membership. For example, in traditional rural settings an individual would generally go to the same school as her or his family members. Chances are good that work groups would overlap with other groups as well, with one’s boss and fellow employees attending the same church. Such overlapping and “natural” group affiliations produced a good deal of social homogeneity. In modern, urban settings, the “rational” group membership pattern prevails. Here individuals choose their group affiliations apart from pre-existing memberships such as family. Additionally, social groups in large cities tend not to overlap and influence one another.

Simmel’s concern in outlining these two types of group membership patterns is to see how these differing patterns affect the person. Generally speaking, under conditions


of rational group membership, people will tend to see themselves as unique individuals with greater freedom of choice. However, in Simmel’s scheme, this freedom and individuality is offset by increasing levels of anomie and the blasé attitude.

There is a way in which Collins blends these two approaches while at the same time going beyond them. Like Simmel, Collins is concerned with the influences of intersectionality on the individual. But the important issue for Collins is the way intersectionality creates different kinds of lived experiences and social realities. She is particularly concerned with how these interact with what passes as objective knowledge and with how diverse voices of intersectionality are denied under scientism. Like Weber, she is concerned about how intersectionality creates different kinds of inequalities and how these cross-cutting influences affect social change. But Collins brings Weber’s notion of power into this analysis in a much more sophisticated way. Collins sees intersectionality working within a matrix of domination.

The matrix of domination refers to the overall organization of power in a society. There are two features to any matrix. First, any specific matrix has a particular arrangement of intersecting systems of oppression. Just what and how these systems come together is historically and socially specific. Second, intersecting systems of oppression are specifically organized through four interrelated domains of power: structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal.

The structural domain consists of social structures such as law, polity, religion, and the economy. This domain sets the structural parameters that organize power relations. For example, prior to February 3, 1870 blacks in the United States could not legally vote. Although constitutionally enabled to vote, voting didn’t become a reality for many African American people until almost a century later with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which officially ended Jim Crow law. Collins’ point is that the structural domain sets the overall organization of power within a matrix of domination and that the structural domain is slow to change, often only yielding to large-scale social movements, such as the Civil War and the upheavals of the 1950s and 1960s in the United States.

The disciplinary domain manages oppression. Collins borrows this idea from both Weber and Michel Foucault: the disciplinary domain consists of bureaucratic organizations whose task it is to control and organize human behavior through routinization, rationalization, and surveillance. Here the matrix of domination is expressed through organizational protocol that hides the effects of racism and sexism under the canopy of efficiency, rationality, and equal treatment.

If we think about the contours of black feminist thought that Collins gives us, we can see that the American university system and the methods of financing research are good examples. Sexism and racism never raise their ugly heads when certain kinds of knowledge are systematically excluded in the name of science and objectivity. This same kind of pattern is seen in the U.S. economy. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2005), in the first quarter of 2005 the average weekly income for white men was $731.00, for white women $601.00, for black men $579.00, and for black women the average weekly wage was $506.00. In a country that has outlawed discrimination based on race and sex, black women still make on average about 31% less than a white man.

In this domain, change can come through insider resistance. Collins uses the analogy of an egg. From a distance, the surface of the egg looks smooth and seamless. But upon closer inspection, the egg is revealed to be riddled with cracks. For those interested in social justice, working in a bureaucracy is like working the cracks, finding spaces and fissures to work and expand. Again, change is slow and incremental.


The hegemonic domain legitimates oppression. Max Weber was among the first to teach us that authority functions because people believe in it. This is the cultural sphere of influence where ideology and consciousness come together. The hegemonic domain links the structural, disciplinary, and interpersonal domains. It is made up of the language we use, the images we respond to, the values we hold, and the ideas we entertain. And it is produced through school curricula and textbooks, religious teachings, mass media images and contexts, community cultures, and family histories. The black feminist priority of self-definition and critical, reflexive education are important stepping stones to deconstructing and dissuading the hegemonic domain. As Collins (2000) puts it, “Racist and sexist ideologies, if they are disbelieved, lose their impact” (p. 284).

The interpersonal domain influences everyday life. It is made up of the personal relationships we maintain as well as the different interactions that make up our daily life. Collins points out that change in this domain begins with the intrapersonal; that is, how an individual sees and understands her or his own self and experiences. In particular, people don’t generally have a problem identifying ways in which they have been victimized. But the first step in changing the interpersonal domain of the matrix of domination is seeing how our own “thoughts and actions uphold someone else’s subordination” (Collins, 2000, p. 287, emphasis added).

Part of this first step is seeing that people have a tendency to identify with an oppression, most likely the one they have experienced, and to consider all other oppressions as being of less importance. In the person’s mind their oppression has a tendency then to become a master status. This leads to a kind contradiction where the oppressed becomes the oppressor. For example, a black heterosexual woman may discriminate against lesbians without a second thought; or, a black Southern Baptist woman may believe that every school classroom ought to display the Ten Commandments. “Oppression is filled with such contradictions because these approaches fail to recognize that a matrix of domination contains few pure victims or oppressors” (Collins, 2000, p. 287).

Black Feminist Thought, Intersectionality, and Activism

There are a number of implications for activism that Collins draws out from black feminist thought and the notions of intersectionality and the matrix of domination. The first that I want to point out is the most immediate: Collins’ approach to epistemology and intersectionality conceptualizes resistance as a complex interplay of a variety of forces working at several levels; that is, the four interrelated domains of power that we’ve just reviewed.

This point of Collins’ isn’t an incidental issue. Remember that part of what is meant by modernity is the search for social equality. In modernity, primary paths for these social changes correspond to Collins’ first domain of power. For example, the United States Declaration of Independence, Constitution, and Bill of Rights together provide for principal mechanisms of structural change: the electoral process within a civil society guaranteed by the twin freedoms of press and speech and the upheaval or revolutionary process. Though we don’t usually think of the latter as a legitimated means of social change, it is how this nation began and it is how much of the more dramatic changes that surround equality have come about (for example, the social movements behind women’s suffrage and civil rights).

One of the ideas that comes out of postmodernism and considerations of late- modernity is the notion that guided or rational social change is no longer possible (see our chapters for Niklas Luhmann, Anthony Giddens, and Jean Baudrillard). What Collins gives us is a different take on the issues of complexity and fragmentation. While


recognizing the complexity of intersectionality and the different levels of the matrix of domination, Collins also sees the four domains of power as interrelated and thus influencing one another. By themselves, the structural and disciplinary domains are most resilient to change; but the hegemonic and interpersonal domains are open to individual agency and change. Bringing these domains together creates a more dynamic system, wherein the priorities of black feminist thought and understanding the contradictions of oppression can empower social justice causes.

Collins’ approach also has other important implications. Her ideas of intersectionality and the matrix of domination challenge many of our political assumptions. Black feminist epistemology, for example, challenges our assumptions concerning the separation of the private and public spheres. What it means to be a mother in a traditional black community is very different than in a white community: “Black women’s experiences have never fit the logic of work in the public sphere juxtaposed to family obligations in the private sphere” (Collins, 2000, p. 228). Intersectionality also challenges the assumption that gender stratification affects all women in the same way; race and class matter, as does sexual identity.

Additionally, Collins’ approach untangles relationships among knowledge, empowerment, and power; and opens up conceptual space to identify new connections within the matrix of domination. The idea of the matrix emphasizes connections and interdependencies rather than single structures of inequality. The idea itself prompts us to wonder about how social categories are related and mutually constituted. For example, how do race and sexual preference work together? Asking such a question might lead us to discover that homosexuality is viewed and treated differently in different racial cultures—is the lived experience of a black, gay male different than that of a white, gay male? If so, we might take the next step and ask how does class influence those differences? Or, if these lived experiences are different, we might be provoked to ask another question: are there different masculinities in different racial or class cultures?

As you might be able to surmise from this example, Collins’ approach discourages binary thinking and labeling one oppression and/or activism as more important or radical. From Collins’ point of view, it would be much too simplistic to say that a white male living in poverty is enjoying white privilege. In the same way, it would be one dimensional to say that any one group is more oppressed than another.

Collins’ entire approach also shifts our understanding of social categories from bounded to fluid and highlights the processes of self definition as constructed in conjunction with others. Intersectionality implies that social categories are not bounded or static. Your social nearness or distance to another changes as the matrix of domination shifts, depending on which scheme is salient at any given moment. You and the person next to you may both be women; but that social nearness may be severed as the indices change to include religion, race, ethnicity, sexual practices or identities, class, and so forth. Groups are also constructed in connection to others. No group or identity stands alone. To state the obvious: the only way “white” as a social index can exist is if “black” exists. Intersectionality motivates us to look at just how our identities are constructed at the expense of others: “These examples suggest that moral positions as survivors of one expression of systemic violence become eroded in the absence of accepting responsibility of other expressions of systemic violence” (Collins, 2000, p. 247).

One final implication of Collins’ approach: because groups’ histories and inequalities are relational, understanding intersectionality and the matrix of domination means that some coalitions with some social groups are more difficult and less fruitful than others. Groups will more or less align on the issues of “victimization, access to positions of authority, unearned benefits, and traditions of resistance” (Collins, 2000, p.


248). The more closely aligned are these issues, more like likely and beneficial are coalitions. Coalitions will also ebb and flow, “based on the perceived saliency of issues to group members” (p. 248). We end, then, with the insight that inequalities and dominations are complex and dynamic.


Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2005). Usual Weekly Earnings Summary. Retrieved March 3, 2006 from

Cassirer, E. (1944). An essay on man. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Collins, P. H. (2000). Black feminist thought: Knowledge, consciousness, and the politics of empowerment (2nd ed.). NY: Routledge.

Marx, K. (1978a). A contribution to the critique of political economy. In R. C. Tucker (Ed.), The Marx-Engels reader. New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1859)

Marx, K. (1978b). The German ideology. In R. C. Tucker (Ed.), The Marx-Engels reader. New York: W. W. Norton. (Original work published 1932)

Merriam-Webster (Ed.). (2002). Webster’s collegiate encyclopedia, unabridged. Retrieved March 3, 2006 from


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Douglas M. Jones: History and Group Consciousness « Social Evolution Forum

English: A map on different views on conscious...

English: A map on different views on consciousness from philosophy and psychology perspectives. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The article below is worth reading in relation to the discussion between Vernon/David last night about the pursuit of consciousness and at what entity it could be worked on  e.g the Individual or the Group. Some relevant paragraphs towards the end of the article………………..Douglas M. Jones: History and Group Consciousness « Social Evolution Forum.

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“In Search of the Miraculous” Fragments of an Unknown Teaching – Author: P.D.Ouspensky

Hi Everyone,

You may be aware that the schedule of discussions around the theme of IDENTITY has been changed to allow Laura to receive her book and prepare for her session which has been moved to February.

For our next meeting on 17th January, I will be introducing some thoughts from Gurdjieff’s work, which I hope will have something to say about our understanding of Identity. I have chosen 3 extracts from Chaper three of Ouspensky’s book “In Search of the Miraculous” which will be the basis for our discussion. The whole of Chapter three is reproduced below with my chosen extracts highlighted in BOLD. 

Please read the extracts highlighted & bring a copy of these with you to our next Thursday session………………..


Thanks Vernon

P. D. Ouspensky

P. D. Ouspensky (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chapter Three

BY THE beginning of November, 1915, I already had a grasp of some of the fundamental points of G.’s system in relation to man. The first point, on which he laid stress, was the absence of unity in man. “It is the greatest mistake,” he said, “to think that man is always one and the same. A man is never the same for long. He is continually changing. He seldom remains the same even for half an hour. We think that if a man is called Ivan he is always Ivan. Nothing of the kind. Now he is Ivan, in another minute he is Peter, and a minute later he is Nicholas, Sergius, Matthew, Simon. And all of you think he is Ivan. You know that Ivan cannot do a certain thing. He cannot tell a lie for instance. Then you find he has told a lie and you are surprised he could have done so. And, indeed, Ivan cannot lie; it is Nicholas who lied. And when the opportunity presents itself Nicholas cannot help lying. You will be astonished when you realize what a multitude of these Ivans and Nicholases live in one man. If you learn to observe them there is no need to go to a cinema.”


“Has this anything to do with the consciousnesses of separate parts and organs of the body?” I asked him on this occasion. “I understand this idea and have often felt the reality of these consciousnesses. I know that not only separate organs, but every part of the body having a separate function has a separate consciousness. The right hand has one consciousness and the left hand another. Is that what you mean?” “Not altogether,” said G. “These consciousnesses also exist but they are comparatively harmless. Each of them knows its own place and its own business. The hands know they must work; the feet know they must walk. But these Ivans, Peters, and Nicholases are different. They all call themselves ‘I.’ That is, they consider themselves masters and none wants to recognize another. Each of them is caliph for an hour, does what he likes regardless of everything, and, later on, the others have to pay for it. And there is no order among them whatever. Whoever gets the upper hand is master. He whips everyone on all sides and takes heed of nothing. But the next moment another seizes the whip and beats him. And so it goes on all one’s life. Imagine a country where everyone can be king for
five minutes and do during these five minutes just what he likes with the whole kingdom. That is our life.” During one of the talks G. again returned to the idea of the different bodies of man. “That man can have several bodies,” he said, “must be understood as an idea, as a principle. But it does not apply to us. We know we have the one physical body and we know nothing else. It is the physical body that we must study. Only, we must remember that the question is not limited to the physical body and that there are people who may have two, three, or more bodies. But it makes no difference to us personally either one way or another. Someone like Rockefeller in America may have a great many millions, but his millions do not help me if I have nothing to eat. It is the same thing in this connection. Everyone must think of himself; it is useless and senseless to rely on others or to console oneself with thoughts of what others possess.” “How is one to know if a man has an ‘astral body’?” I asked. “There are definite ways of knowing that,” answered G. “Under certain conditions the ‘astral body’ can be seen; it can be separated from the physical body and even photographed at the side of the physical body. The existence of the ‘astral body’ can be still more easily and simply established by its functions. The ‘astral body’ has definite functions which the physical body cannot have. The presence of these functions indicates the presence of the ‘astral body.’ The absence of these functions shows the absence of the ‘astral body.’ But it is too early to speak of this now. All our attention must be concentrated on the study of the physical body. It is necessary to understand the structure of the human machine. Our principal error is that we think we have one mind. We call the functions of this mind ‘conscious’; everything that does not enter this mind we call ‘unconscious’ or ‘subconscious.’ This is our chief error. Of the conscious and the unconscious we will speak later. At this moment I want to explain to you that the activity of the human machine, that is, of the physical body, is controlled, not by one, but by several minds, entirely independent of each other, having separate functions and separate spheres in which they manifest themselves. This must be understood first of all, because unless this is understood nothing else can be understood.” After this G. went on to explain man’s various functions and centers controlling these functions in the way they are set out in the psychological lectures. These explanations, and all the talks connected with them, took a fairly long time, while at almost every talk we returned to the fundamental ideas of man’s mechanicalness, of the absence of unity in man, of man’s -having no choice, of his being unable to do, and so on. There is no possibility of giving all these talks in the way they actually took place.

For this reason I collected all the psychological and all the cosmological material in two separate series of lectures. In this connection it must be noted that the ideas were not given us in the form in which they are set out in my lectures. G. gave the ideas little by little, as though defending or protecting them from us. When touching on new themes for the first time he gave only general principles, often holding back the most essential. Sometimes he himself pointed out apparent discrepancies in the theories given, which were, in fact, precisely due to these reservations and suppressions. The next time, in approaching the same subject, whenever possible from a different angle, he gave more. The third time he gave still more. On the question of functions and centers for instance. On the first occasion he spoke of three centers, the intellectual, the emotional, and the moving, and tried to make us distinguish these functions, find examples, and so on. Afterwards the instinctive center was added, as an independent and self-supporting machine. Afterwards the sex center. I remember that some of his remarks arrested my attention. For instance, when speaking of the sex center he said it practically never worked independently because it was always dependent on other centers, the intellectual, the emotional, the instinctive, and the moving. Then in speaking of the energy of centers he often returned to what he called wrong work of centers and to the role of the sex center in this work. He spoke a great deal about how all centers rob the sex center of its energy and produce with this energy quite wrong work full of useless excitement and, in return, give to the sex center useless energy with which it was unable to work. I remember his words. “It is a very big thing when the sex center works with its own energy, but it happens very seldom.” I recollect another remark which afterwards proved a ground for much wrong reasoning and many wrong conclusions. This was that the three centers of the lower story: the instinctive, the moving, and the sex centers, work, in relation to each other, in the order of three forces—and that the sex center, in normal cases, acts as neutralizing force in relation to the instinctive and moving centers acting as active and passive forces. The method of exposition of which I am speaking, and G.’s suppressions in his first talks, resulted in the creation of such misunderstanding, more particularly in later groups not connected with my work. Many people found contradictions between the first exposition of a given idea and subsequent explanations and sometimes, in trying to hold as closely as possible to the first, they created fantastic theories having no relation to what G. actually said. Thus the idea of three centers was retained by certain groups (which, I repeat, were not connected with me). And this idea was, in some way, linked up with the idea of three
forces, with which in reality it had no connection, first of all because there are not three centers but five in the ordinary man. This uniting of two ideas of an entirely different order, scale, and significance gave rise to many further misunderstandings and completely distorted the whole system for those who thought in this manner. It is possible that the idea of the three centers (intellectual, emotional, and moving) being the expression of the three forces arose from G.’s wrongly repeated and wrongly received remarks on the relationship to each other of the three centers of the lower story. During the first and subsequent talks on centers G. added something new at almost every talk. As I said in the beginning he spoke first of three centers, then of four, then of five, and afterwards of seven centers. Parts of centers hardly came into these talks. G. said that centers were divided into positive and negative parts, but he did not point out that this division was not identical for all the different centers. Then he said that each center was divided into three parts or three stories which, in their turn, were also divided into three; but he gave no examples, nor did he point out that observation of attention made it possible to dis­ tinguish the work of parts .of centers. All this and much else besides was established later. For instance, although he undoubtedly gave the fundamental basis for the study of the role and the significance of negative emotions, as well as methods of struggling against them, referring to non-identification, non-considering, and not expressing negative emotions, he did not complete these theories or did not explain that negative emotions were entirely unnecessary and that no normal center for them existed. I shall, further on, reproduce the talks and lectures of the St. Petersburg and later groups in the way I remember them while endeavoring to avoid what has already been given in the first and second series of lectures. But it is impossible to avoid repetition in certain cases and the original exposition of the ideas of the system in the way G. gave them is, in my opinion, of great interest.


Somebody asked at a meeting: “How should evolution be understood?” “The evolution of man,” G. replied, “can be taken as the development in him of those powers and possibilities which never develop by themselves, that is, mechanically. Only this kind of development, only this kind of growth, marks the real evolution of man. There is, and there can be, no other kind of evolution whatever. “We have before us man at the present moment of his development. Nature has made him such as he is, and, in large masses, so far as we can see, such he will remain. Changes likely to violate the general requirements of nature can only take place in separate units.
“In order to understand the law of man’s evolution it is necessary to grasp that, beyond a certain point, this evolution is not at all necessary, that is to say, it is not necessary for nature at a given moment in its own development. To speak more precisely: the evolution of mankind corresponds to the evolution of the planets, but the evolution of the planets proceeds, for us, in infinitely prolonged cycles of time. Throughout the stretch of time that human thought can embrace, no essential changes can take place in the life of the planets, and, consequently, no essential changes can take place in the life of mankind.”

“Humanity neither progresses nor evolves. What seems to us to be progress or evolution is a partial modification which can be immediately counterbalanced by a corresponding modification in an opposite direction. Humanity, like the rest of organic life, exists on earth for the needs and purposes of the earth. And it is exactly as it should be for the earth’s requirements at the present time.”


“Only thought as theoretical and as far removed from fact as modem European thought could have conceived the evolution of man to be possible apart from surrounding nature, or have regarded the evolution of man as a gradual conquest of nature. This is quite impossible. In living, in dying, in evolving, in degenerating, man equally serves the purposes of nature—or, rather, nature makes equal use, though perhaps for different purposes, of the products of both evolution and degeneration. And, at the same time, humanity as a whole can never escape from nature, for, even in struggling against nature man acts in conformity with her purposes. The evolution of large masses of humanity is opposed to nature’s purposes. The evolution of a certain small percentage may be in accord with nature’s purposes. Man contains within him the possibility of evolution. But the evolution of humanity as a whole, that is, the development of these possibilities in all men, or in most of them, or even in a large number of them, is not necessary for the purposes of the earth or of the planetary world in general, and it might, in fact, be injurious or fatal. There exist, therefore, special forces (of a planetary character) which oppose the evolution of large masses of humanity and keep it at the level it ought, to be. “For instance, the evolution of humanity beyond a certain point, or, to speak more correctly, above a certain percentage, would be fatal for the moon. The moon at present feeds on organic life, on humanity. Humanity is a part of organic life; this means that humanity is food for the moon. If all men were to become too intelligent they would not want to be eaten by the moon. “But, at the same time, possibilities of evolution exist, and they may be developed in separate individuals with the help of appropriate knowledge and methods. Such development can take place only in the interests of the man himself against, so to speak, the interests and forces of the
planetary world. The man must understand this: his evolution is necessary only to himself. No one else is interested in it. And no one is obliged or intends to help him. On the contrary, the forces which oppose the evolution of large masses of humanity also oppose the evolution of individual men. A man must outwit them. And one man can outwit them, humanity cannot. You will understand later on that all these obstacles are very useful to a man; if they did not exist they would have to be created intentionally, because it is by overcoming obstacles that man develops those qualities he needs. “This is the basis of the correct view of human evolution. There is no compulsory, mechanical evolution.

Evolution is the result of conscious struggle. Nature does not need this evolution; it does not want it and struggles against it. Evolution can be necessary only to man himself when he realizes his position, realizes the possibility of changing this position, realizes that he has powers that he does not use, riches that he does not see. And, in the sense of gaining possession of these powers and riches, evolution is possible. But if all men, or most of them, realized this and desired to obtain what belongs to them by right of birth, evolution would again become impossible. What is possible for individual man is impossible for the masses. “The advantage of the separate individual is that he is very small and that, in the economy of nature, it makes no difference whether there is one mechanical man more or less. We can easily understand this correlation of magnitudes if we imagine the correlation between a microscopic cell and our own body. The presence or absence of one cell will change nothing in the life of the body. We cannot be conscious of it, and it can have no influence on the life and functions of the organism. In exactly the same way a separate individual is too small to influence the life of the cosmic organism to which he stands in the same relation (with regard to size) as a cell stands to our own organism. And this is precisely what makes his ‘evolution’ possible; on this are based his ‘possibilities.’ “In speaking of evolution it is necessary to understand from the outset that no mechanical evolution is possible. The evolution of man is the evolution of his consciousness. And ‘consciousness’ cannot evolve unconsciously. The evolution of man is the evolution of his will, and ‘will’ cannot evolve involuntarily. The evolution, of man is the evolution of his power of doing, and ‘doing’ cannot be the result of things which ‘happen.’ “People do not know what man is. They have to do with a very complex machine, far more complex than a railway engine, a motorcar, or an aeroplane—but they know nothing, or almost nothing, about the construction, working, or possibilities of this machine; they do not even understand its simplest functions, because they do not know the purpose of these functions. They vaguely imagine that a man should learn to control his machine, just as he has to learn to control a railway engine, a
motorcar, or an aeroplane, and that incompetent handling of the human machine is just as dangerous as incompetent handling of any other complex machine. Everybody understands this in relation to an aeroplane, a motorcar, or a railway engine. But it is very rarely that anyone takes this into account in relation to man in general or to himself in particular. It is considered right and legitimate to think that nature has given men the necessary knowledge of their machine. And yet men understand that an instinctive knowledge of the machine is by no means enough. Why do they study medicine and make use of its services? Because, of course, they realize they do not know their machine. But they do not suspect that it can be known much better than science knows it; they do not suspect that then it would be possible to get quite different work out of it.”


Very often, almost at every talk, G. returned to the absence of unity in man. “One of man’s important mistakes,” he said, “one which must be remembered, is his illusion in regard to his I.

“Man such as we know him, the ‘man-machine,’ the man who cannot ‘do,’ and with whom and through whom everything ‘happens,’ cannot have a permanent and single I.

His I changes as quickly as his thoughts, feelings, and moods, and he makes a profound mistake in considering himself always one and the same person; in reality he is always a different person, not the one he was a moment ago. “Man has no permanent and unchangeable I. Every thought, every mood, every desire, every sensation, says ‘I.’ And in each case it seems to be taken for granted that this I belongs to the Whole, to the whole man, and that a thought, a desire, or an aversion is expressed by this Whole. In actual fact there is no foundation whatever for this assumption. Man’s every thought and desire appears and lives quite separately and independently of the Whole. And the Whole never expresses itself, for the simple reason that it exists, as such, only physically as a thing, and in the abstract as a concept. Man has no individual I. But there are, instead, hundreds and thousands of separate small I’s, very often entirely unknown to one another, never coming into contact, or, on the contrary, hostile to each other, mutually exclusive and incompatible. Each minute, each moment, man is saying or thinking ‘I.’ And each time his I is different. Just now it was a thought, now it is a desire, now a sensation, now another thought, and so on, endlessly. Man is a plurality. Man’s name is legion. “The alternation of I’s, their continual obvious struggle for supremacy, is controlled by accidental external influences. Warmth, sunshine, fine weather, immediately call up a whole group of I’s. Cold, fog, rain, call up another group of I’s, other associations, other feelings, other actions. There is nothing in man able to control this change of I’s, chiefly because
man does not notice, or know of it; he lives always in the last I. Some I’s, of course, are stronger than others. But it is not their own conscious strength; they have been created by the strength of accidents or mechanical external stimuli. Education, imitation, reading, the hypnotism of religion, caste, and traditions, or the glamour of new slogans, create very strong I’s in man’s personality, which dominate whole series of other, weaker, I’s. But their strength is the strength of the ‘rolls’ in the centers. And all I’s making up a man’s personality have the same origin as these ‘rolls’; they are the results of external influences; and both are set in motion and controlled by fresh external influences. “Man has no individuality. He has no single, big I. Man is divided into a multiplicity of small I’s. “And each separate small I is able to call itself by the name of the Whole, to act in the name of the Whole, to agree or disagree, to give promises, to make decisions, with which another I or the Whole will have to deal. This explains why people so often make decisions and so seldom carry them out. A man decides to get up early beginning from the following day. One I, or a group of I’s, decide this. But getting up is the business of another I who entirely disagrees with the decision and may even know absolutely nothing about it. Of course the man will again go on sleeping in the morning and in the evening he will again decide to get up early. In some cases this may assume very unpleasant consequences for a man. A small accidental I may promise something, not to itself, but to someone else at a certain moment simply out of vanity or for amusement. Then it disappears, but the man, that is, the whole combination of other I’s who are quite innocent of this, may have to pay for it all his life. It is the tragedy of the human being that any small I has the right to sign checks and promissory notes and the man, that is, the Whole, has to meet them. People’s whole lives often consist in paying off the promissory notes of small accidental I’s. “Eastern teachings contain various allegorical pictures which endeavor to portray the nature of man’s being from this point of view. “Thus, in one teaching, man is compared to a house in which there is a multitude of servants but no master and no steward. The servants have all forgotten their duties; no one wants to do what he ought; everyone tries to be master, if only for a moment; and, in this kind of disorder, the house is threatened with grave danger. The only chance of salvation is for a group of the more sensible servants to meet together and elect a tem- porary steward, that is, a deputy steward. This deputy steward can then put the other servants in their places, and make each do his own work: the cook in the kitchen, the coachman in the stables, the gardener in the garden, and so on. In this way the ‘house’ can be got ready for the arrival of the real steward who will, in his turn, prepare it for the arrival of the master.
“The comparison of a man to a house awaiting the arrival of the master is frequently met with in Eastern teachings which have preserved traces of ancient knowledge, and, as we know, the subject appears under various forms in many of the parables in the Gospels. “But even the clearest understanding of his possibilities will not bring man any nearer to their realization. In order to realize these possibilities he must have a very strong desire for liberation and be willing to sacrifice everything, to risk everything, for the sake of this liberation.”


To this period, that is, to the beginning of the St. Petersburg lectures, are related two interesting talks. On one occasion I showed G. a photograph I had taken in Benares of a “fakir on nails.” This fakir was not merely a clever juggler like those I saw in Ceylon, although he was undoubtedly a “professional.” I had been told that, in the court of the Aurangzeb Mosque on the bank of the Ganges, there was a fakir lying on a bed studded with iron nails. This sounded very mysterious and terrifying. But when I arrived the bed with iron nails alone was there, without the fakir; the fakir, I was told, had gone to fetch the cow. The second time I went the fakir was there. He was not lying on his bed and, so far as I could understand, he only got on it when spectators came. But for a rupee he showed me all his skill. He really did lie almost entirely naked on the bed which was covered with long rather sharp iron nails. And, although he evidently took care not to make any quick movements, he turned round on the nails, lay upon them on his back, his sides, his stomach, and obviously they neither pricked nor scratched him. I took two photographs of him but I could give myself no explanation of the meaning of this phenomenon. The fakir did not produce the impression of being either an intelligent or a religious man. His face wore a dull, bored, and indifferent expression, and there was nothing in him that spoke of aspirations toward self-sacrifice or self-torture. I told all this to G., showing him the photograph, and I asked him what he thought of it. “It is difficult to explain in two words,” answered G. “First of all the man is not, of course, a ‘fakir’ in the sense in which I have been using the word. At the same time you are right in thinking it is not altogether a trick. But he does not know himself how he does it. If you bribed him and made him tell you what he knows he would probably tell you that he knows a certain word which he has to say to himself, after which he is able to lie down on the nails. He might even consent to tell you this word. But it would not help you in the least, because it would be a perfectly ordinary word which would have no effect whatever on you. This man has come from a school, only he was not a disciple. He was an experiment. They simply experimented with him and on him. He had
evidently been hypnotized many times and under hypnosis his skin had been rendered first insensitive to pricks and afterwards able to resist them. In a small way this is quite possible even for ordinary European hypnotism. Then afterwards both the insensitiveness and impenetrability of the skin were made permanent in him by means of post-hypnotic suggestion. You know what post-hypnotic suggestion is. A man is put to sleep and told that five hours after he wakes up he must do a certain thing; or he is told to pronounce a certain word and that as soon as he does so he will feel thirsty, or think himself dead, or something like that. Then he is awakened. When the time comes he feels an irresistible desire to do what he was told to do; or, if he remembers the word that was given to him, on pronouncing it he immediately falls into a trance. This is just what was done to your ‘fakir.’ They accustomed him to lie on nails under hypnosis; then they began to wake him and tell him that if he pronounced a certain word he would again be able to lie down on the nails. This word puts him into a hypnotic state. This is perhaps why he had such a sleepy, apathetic look. This often happens in such cases. They worked on him, perhaps, for many years and then simply let him go, to live as he could. So he put up that iron bed for himself and probably earns a few rupees a week. There are many such men in India. Schools take them for experiment, generally buying them when they are children from parents who gladly sell them because they afterwards profit from it. But of course the man himself does not know or understand what he is doing or how it is done.” This explanation interested me very much because I had never before heard or read an explanation quite like this. In all the attempts to explain “fakirs’ miracles” that I had come across, whether the “miracles” were explained as tricks or otherwise, it was always assumed that the performer knew what he was doing and how he did it, and that, if he did not speak of it, it was because he did not want to or was afraid. In the present instance the position was quite different. G.’s explanation seemed to me not only probable but, I dare say, the only one possible. The fakir himself did not know how he worked his “miracle,” and, of course, could not have explained it. On another occasion we were talking of Buddhism in Ceylon. I expressed the opinion that Buddhists must have magic, the existence of which they do not acknowledge, and the possibility of which is denied in official Buddhism. Entirely without connection with this remark, and while, I think, I was showing my photographs to G., I spoke about a small shrine in a private house in Colombo in which there was, as usual, a statue of Buddha, and at the foot of the Buddha a small, bell-shaped ivory dagoba, that is, a small carved replica of a dagoba, hollow inside. They opened this in my presence and showed me something inside it
that was regarded as a relic—a small round ball the size of a large shot, carved, as I thought, out of ivory or mother-of-pearl. G. listened to me attentively. “Did they not explain to you what this ball meant?” he asked. “They told me it was a piece of bone of one of Buddha’s disciples; that it was of very great antiquity and holiness.” “It is so and it is not so,” said G. “The man who showed it to you either did not know or did not want to say. It was not a piece of bone but a particular bone formation which some people get round the neck in the form of a necklace as a result of special exercises. Have you heard the expression ‘Buddha’s necklace’?” “Yes,” I said, “but this means something quite different. The chain of Buddha’s reincarnation is called ‘Buddha’s necklace.'” “Yes,” said G., “that is one meaning of the expression, but I am speaking of another meaning. This necklace of bones which encircles the neck beneath the skin is directly connected with what is called the ‘astral body.’ The ‘astral body’ is, so to speak, attached to it, or, to be more accurate, this ‘necklace’ connects the physical body to the astral. Now if the ‘astral body’ continues to live after the death of the physical body, the person possessing a bone of this ‘necklace’ can always communicate with the ‘astral body’ of the dead man. This is magic. But they never speak of it openly. You are right about their having magic and this is an instance of it. It does not follow, of course, that the bone you saw was a real one. You will find these bones in almost every house; but I am telling you of the belief which lies at the bottom of this custom.” And again I had to admit that I had never before met with such an explanation. G. drew a small sketch for me showing the position of the small bones under the skin; they went in a semicircle round the back of the neck, beginning a little in front of the ears. This sketch at once reminded me of an ordinary diagrammatic representation of the lymphatic glands in the neck, such as can be seen in anatomical charts. But I could learn nothing else about it.

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The importance of being ordinary

The importance of being ordinary.


The importance of being ordinary

  1. Melissa Gregg

    1. University of Queensland, Australia


This article identifies the significance of ‘the ordinary’ in Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy and notes its distinction from philosophies of ‘the everyday’ that have been ascendant in recent cultural studies theory. It does this in order to oppose the rhetorical use of ordinariness promoted by conservative politicians such as Australian Prime Minister John Howard. Such etymological specificity is argued to be necessary so that cultural studies and other scholars can continue to promote the relationships of empathy in class-segregated societies that Howard’s use of ordinariness strategically lacks.

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