- Getting Lost and Found and Lost and Found and Lost Again with Patti Lather
Patti Lather calls herself a feminist methodologist. I would say that she is more a feminist theorist of methodology, epistemology, and ontology—in the same senses that Donna Haraway is a feminist theorist of science, technology, and medicine studies (ST&MS).1 Like Haraway, Lather’s work is not about “how” but about “what”—as in “what on earth . . . ???”—cracking open huge serious questions, opening Pandora’s boxes we didn’t even know Pandora had.
Lather is not a (typical) methodologist in that she refuses to tell you “how to”—refuses to tell you what to do. This is actually the best kind of methodologist—a lesson I learned from Anselm Strauss who similarly refused the imperative tense. Instead he asked questions and taught us to ask ourselves questions and to ask each other questions in small working qualitative analysis groups. I first participated in such analysis groups in the early 1980s and they certainly resonated with my experiences of feminist consciousness-raising.2 Such refusals to tell people what to do are ways of insisting that those trying to learn must do it for themselves, and learners gain the potential to end up really owning their own research—however challenging the process. This is stunningly powerful, as Lather fully understands.
Patti Lather is also what I would call an “intellectual daredevil,” an Evel Knievel of qualitative methods, who is willing to try strategies to help herself think and write and research better that would appall most others—including me. I am reminded of a wondrous dance titled The Mind Is a Muscle, by Yvonne Rainer, first performed in 1966. Someone in the audience later wrote, “‘The Mind Is a Muscle’ frightened us, then kept us awake until it changed our lives and our work. Rainer had not only disposed of technique, she had turned her back on the beautiful—which is often no more than the desire to please—as though it were of no consequence.”3 Lather goes precisely there. The reason it works is that she is brilliant in both the literal and metaphoric [End Page 212] senses of that term. Her work shines and lights up the whole domain of qualitative methodology—and far beyond. And intellectually her work is a force that must be reckoned with, if one is serious about qualitative inquiry today.
Where Lather wants to go and where she takes us in her “feminist efforts toward a double(d) science” is toward what she calls “difficult knowledge,” a concept she borrowed from Pitt and Britzman.4 While “lovely knowledge” “reinforces what we think we want from what we find,” “difficult knowledge” in contrast “induces breakdowns in representing experience. Here, accepting loss becomes the very force of learning, and what one loves when lovely knowledge is lost is the promise of thinking and doing otherwise.”5 To travel with Patti Lather is again and again to confront and accept loss—and still go on, still do research, learning to allow loss itself to become “the very force of learning.”
Lather’s primary methodological tool for “thinking and doing otherwise” is reflexivity—a critical, political, deeply intellectually engaged, smart-as-one-can-dare-to-be reflexivity. She is especially interested in the return of the repressed, working the outer edges of scholarly and other perception where most prefer—at a semiconscious level at best—not to go. She goes there. To do so, Lather must confront her own “passion for ignorance”—Lacan’s term for the ways in which we avoid, evade, are deaf and blind to that which we don’t want to handle.6 Lacan argued that we are desperate not to know because we want to sustain our own narcissistic visions.
Lather acknowledges her own incapacities to really go there and—through Derrida—ours as well. Yet this does not mean one should not try to do so. She tries through perhaps the most serious engagement with critics of their work that I have seen a scholar undertake. She not only collects what she calls, with great irony, “response data” but cherishes it...