Anne Carolyn Klein on Essentialism

“Essentialism is a trap,” I said in my review of Aphrodite’s Daughters.  According to Anne Carolyn Klein, actually the trap is our habit of polarized thinking.  We get fixated on one mental concept, and on its difference from what we think of as its opposite — to the point where we don’t see them as interconnected parts of a larger reality.

If a woman is not defined by her essential femininity, how does she arrive at a sense of self?  Postmodern theorists understand “self” as a construction, created from a variety of influences, experiences and understandings.

Klein examines the conflict between feminists polarized on this subject, in Meeting the Great Bliss Queen; Buddhists, Feminists, and the Art of the Self.  In her introduction, she says

It is clear that both essentialist and postmodern feminists threaten the “individual.” In the essentialist view, no matter whether the essence is concrete or abstract, the individual woman is in danger of disappearing into it. Conversely, to focus only on the multiple particularities of any given life is to raise questions about personal coherence and agency. If essentialists seem to limit women’s horizons by favoring the general over the particular, constructionist and postmodern feminisms threaten both women and men by doing the opposite: the very possibility of “having” a self is undermined, let alone a coherent one. Although much feminist theory has been cast as a debate between the essentialist and postmodern views, the opposition between them is to some extent a false one.… Each contains and requires something of the other. … After all, why bother to speak about female essence if not to reconstruct her own experience and society’s characterization of It? Why protest current conditions unless the category “women” is in some way a meaningful one? (p.9)

In this book Klein reframes the debate, opening it up to the interconnected larger reality.

I realized, reading Klein, that we can’t get rid of the notion of essence;  it informs our perception of reality; it’s just ridiculous to imagine either factor — essence or construction — can stand alone. Still it seems to me that essentialism poses an additional danger beyond polarization:  the tendency to regard essentialist concepts as prescriptive, not simply descriptive.  One common example: the idea that women are essentially passive. This means they should be passive;  assertive women violate a natural law. Or nurturing. Intuitive. Priestesses….  Even if the quality or role is universally valued, requiring it of one group oppresses everyone.

Both the habit of polarizing these two views, and the attachment to essentialist ideas …  seem to me forms of mental laziness:  it’s easier to think in black and white, easier to think in stereotypes.  But essentialism takes on religious force (and indeed is often endorsed by religious authorities).  I don’t see a corresponding danger from postmodern ideas of the self.

In Bliss Queen Klein focuses on the polarization — and she has a remedy.  From her Buddhist training she presents ideas and techniques new to the feminist discourse on the subject of selfhood:  centrally, the use of mindfulness, which she describes as “the ability to sustain a calm, intense and steady focus when one chooses to do so.”  As she says,

Mindfulness has the power and centeredness associated with essentialist orientations and also makes one keenly observant of causal processes in a manner analogous to contructivist or postmodern perspectives. … This is a category of mind that, once understood, can dissolve the antagonisms between the outlooks defined as essentialist and postmodern feminism. (p.11)

Though Klein doesn’t deal with the danger of attachment to essentialist ideas, her remedy will serve for that problem too.  When mindfulness brings mental habits to awareness, we learn to be free of them. Mindfulness fosters a gut sense of groundedness which is completely independent of concepts of who we are or should be — so we have no need of the security promised by attachment to them.

Since this book was first published (in 1995) the practice of mindfulness has made considerable impact on Western culture, especially in complementary medicine.  But Klein’s approach remains revolutionary.  Meeting the Great Bliss Queen is so substantial, so rich and useful, that I expect to report on it in several posts, as relevant subjects come up.

(Page numbers are from my hardcover 1995 copy, ISBN# 0807073067.)