- “Sympathy and Solidarity” and Other Essays
Readers of Sandra Lee Bartky's first book, Femininity and Domination, will find in this new collection of essays many of the qualities that have established Bartky as a uniquely modulated voice in feminist theory. As in the earlier book, Sympathy and Solidarity uses a phenomenological approach to the subjects of its reflection: self-disciplines of beauty, agency, aging, reflecting on being Jewish, living out white privilege. While continuous in some ways with themes and philosophical method of her earlier work, Sympathy and Solidarity treats several new issues and introduces some new theoretical tools. Also as in the earlier work, Bartky here combines personal narrative with political commitments to liberation, ironic wit with forceful analysis and argument. [End Page 224]
Even as tides of postmodern philosophy have washed around her, Bartky has stood firmly with the tradition of existential phenomenology. Broadly stated, as she uses it, this method consists in articulating perspicuous reflection on embodied personal experience in order to reveal its social meanings. I say the reflection is "perspicuous" because the phenomenologist is looking for elements in personal experience that are not idiosyncratic, but rather reveal a structure shared by the experience of many similarly situated persons. The account succeeds if in fact others find themselves in it, but not as instances under an abstract classification or explanation. A phenomenological account should find generalizable meaning nevertheless as felt and lived.
The essay "Unplanned Obsolescence: Some Reflections on Aging" well illustrates this method. In it Bartky tells many stories about aging women—herself, her neighbors, her mother's sisters, and others. Her narrative purpose, however, is to identify six aspects of the experience of aging which she offers as typical, each of which she says is an experience of loss. It is up to readers to test her views against their own experience. Even if we object to something in her accounts, her reflective proposals about the losses of age provoke productive thought.
The title essay, "Sympathy and Solidarity: On a Tight Rope with Scheler," practices phenomenology in a rather different way. Here Bartky works on a recurring problem of feminist theory and practice: what it means for women to form solidarities with women different from themselves in background and social position, without trying to occupy their position or presuming to know it. Most feminist discussions of these issues, Bartky suggests, concentrate on the cognitive dimensions of the problem and neglect the role of feeling. Feminist solidarity with differently situated others entails not only that I learn about their lives in their specific social contexts, however, but also that I feel connected to them. But just what is the feeling that fuels solidarity while still holding the other persons at a distance that respect requires? To answer this question Bartky turns to a phenomenologist little read by philosophers in the United States, whether feminist or not: Max Scheler. She offers a careful reading of Scheler's theory of Mitgefühl, fellow feeling, that she argues can be usefully applied in contemporary feminist projects of global solidarity. This is a brilliant work of phenomenological scholarship and description.
"Suffering to Be Beautiful" continues an argument from Bartky's earlier writing, that many women in modern Western consumer culture impose disciplines upon themselves in order to be acceptably feminine. While some of Bartky's earlier essays find Foucault useful in understanding femininity as a disciplinary regime, in "'Catch Me If You Can,'" she criticizes Foucault's rejection of the psychoanalytic concept of repression. "In Defense of Guilt" and "Race, Complicity, and Culpable Ignorance" take up new themes for Bartky. They argue that privileged white Anglo women and men ought properly to feel guilt for their complacency in the face of racial injustice, and that to the extent that we are ignorant of these injustices we objectively are culpable. While Bartky [End Page 225] argues that such feelings of guilt are politically motivating, I have my doubts. In characteristic fashion, however, her position is so clearly articulated that we are forced to confront uncomfortable issues whether...