On Theory and Practice

From Catharine A. MacKinnon, “From Practice to Theory, or What is a White Woman Anyway?”, originally in the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, 1991, via Heart:

The postmodern version of the relation between theory and practice is discourse unto death. Theory begets no practice, only more text. It proceeds as if you can deconstruct power relations by shifting their markers around in your head. Like all formal idealism, this approach … tends unselfconsciously to reproduce existing relations of dominance, in part because it is an utterly removed elite activity. On this level, all theory is a form of practice, because it either subverts or shores up existing deployments of power…. As an approach to change, it is the same as the conventional approach to the theory/practice relation: head driven, not world driven.… Social change is first thought about, then acted out. Books relate to books; heads talk to heads. Bodies do not crunch bodies or people move people. As theory, it is the de-realization of the world.

The movement for the liberation of women, including in law, moves the other way around. It is first practice, then theory. Actually, it moves this way in practice, not just in theory. Feminism was a practice long before it was a theory.… We know things with our lives and live that knowledge, beyond anything any theory has yet theorized. Women’s practice of confrontation with the realities of male dominance outruns any existing theory of the possibility of consciousness or resistance. To write the theory of this practice is not to work through logical puzzles or entertaining conundra, not to fantasize utopias, not to moralize or tell people what to do. It is not to exercise authority; it does not lead practice. Its task is to engage life through developing mechanisms that identify and criticize rather than reproduce social practices of subordination, and to make tools of women’s consciousness and resistance that further a practical struggle to end inequality. This kind of theory requires humility and it requires participation.


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