restricted access 82 Embodiment and Perspective: Can White Men Jump?
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82 Embodiment and Perspective: Can White Men Jump? PETER HALEWOOD Where we are positioned in society, and how we think of and live in our bodies, are questions we do not usually connect to the (both everyday and scholarly) claims we make about social and legal problems. "The body" and "knowledge" have traditionally been understood as unrelated categories. However, recent interdisciplinary work in philosophy and law emphasizes "positionality," and calls into question the abstract, disembodied quality of conventional Western theories of knowledge (epistemologies) which ground the Western conception of law. Western epistemology, its critics say, has artificially bracketed off the material particulars of experience and identity, including the spatial particularity of one's bodily experience, in determining what counts in making and defending claims about society and about law's role in maintaining or changing social order. Abstraction, universality, and reason, rather than embodied experience, govern the validity of truth claims. In turn, much contemporary critical legal theory calls into question the liberal jurisprudence which derives from conventional Western epistemology and ethics. Critics say that law's objectivity and principled determinacy have been defined so as to deny the range of experience and self-understanding common to the oppressed. For example, the range of criteria defining a valid rights-claim under liberal jurisprudence-rule governance , rationality, universalizability-are values associated (within the Western tradition) with masculinity. Femininity is associated in the same tradition with subjectivity, particularity , and the body. The immediacy and subjectivity of embodied feminine experience have been bracketed off from epistemology and in turn from liberal jurisprudence. Consider the epistemological bracketing of embodiment. For example, women experience commodification when their bodies are used for commercial surrogacy; simultaneously , the uniqueness of the embodied female experience of pregnancy is denied by legal discourse governing custody disputes between surrogates and the contracting "parents." In order to comprehend the injustice of commodification (although there are some instances where it is not unjust), epistemology and jurisprudence must be able to grasp the centrality of embodiment and of the concrete experience of oppression. It is this that critiques of conventional epistemology aim to promote. I argue that the experience of commodification conditions one's epistemological standpoint. Thus embodiment and commodification constitute a distinct epistemological standpoint that law must validate. I From "WHITE MEN CAN'T JUMP; CRITICAL EPISTEMOLOGIES, EMBODIMENT, AND THE PRAXIS OF LEGAL SCHOLARSHIP ." Reprinted by permission of the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, Inc. from the Yale Journal of Law and Feminism, Vol. 7 No.1, pp. 1-36. Copyrighted Material Embodiment and Perspective 513 suggest that the epistemological gap between the standpoints of privileged abstraction and oppressed embodiment can be partially bridged by focusing on forms of oppression and embodied experience that are common to men and women, to whites and people of color. These critiques of disembodied epistemology have prompted a concern about how and by whom legal scholarship that focuses on subordination-for example scholarship relating to the law of gender and race equality-is produced. This is some of the most important scholarship in which legal academics engage. The critiques, and the corresponding pressure for diversity in law schools, call into question the legitimacy of scholarship concerning subordination. This scholarship is often conducted by white male legal scholars. These scholars often employ the disembodied, abstract rationality that I have mentioned. This prompts several related questions. Can a white male scholar adequately address in his scholarship forms of oppression which he does not and cannot experience?1 Is a white male scholar situated (personally and "epistemologically," as the debate goes) so as to be able to really understand, unpack, and contribute constructively to scholarly debate on oppression and law?2 Is his scholarship on oppression, with its implication of superior understanding, legitimate? Should he engage in scholarship on oppression? How does his white-maleness inform his scholarship? Is he likely to overlook in his scholarship ways in which law is implicated in oppression? Can he restructure his scholarship so as to ally himself with the aims of diversity and empowerment? I believe that these questions have been mischaracterized as reflecting a purely political agenda to advance the "outsider" scholarship of women and minorities by criticizing "insider" scholarship. In fact, they reflect a set of sound philosophical (that is, epistemological) propositions about the relation of scholarly knowledge to embodied experience and social reality. 1, a white and male legal academic, have encountered and reflected upon these questions in my research on problems of race, law, and gender, and while...