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Feminist Review -
In the last decade alone, how many have perceived the "ordinary" has drastically shifted. September 11th, if it can be evoked without vulgar sentimentality, brought a fresh worldview to many around the globe, most significantly to Americans and those living in the occupied Middle East. In literary circles, Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking has caused more than a few thoughtful readers to consider that what we believe is pedestrian, everyday, and commonplace may instantly vanish. Even a high school student forced to read Kafka’s The Metamorphosis has realized that in an instant, life can be radically altered. "Ordinary" is simply not as we believe it to be, and exists on a spectrum of experience we often fail to consider.
Gail Weiss’s deeply engaging Refiguring the Ordinary comes on the heels of a remarkable decade and at a time when authenticity seems to be quite a buzzword in a world of MySpace—a space you can personalize, show off the essence of who you are—and YouTube, which begs of you to "broadcast yourself." It’s easy to understand the power of your own authenticity when we’ve all long been told that we—as feminists, women, oppressed minorities—have a right to our own voices and stories, that we are the ones who can best speak our truth to power. But what if authenticity itself is merely existentialism gone wrong, subjective judgments that still have little bearing on reality? How are we to be the judges of our own pure interpretations? —Refiguring the Ordinary repositions the ideas of existentialism and begins at a departure from the binary of the self and other in Western philosophy, arguing that perhaps this dichotomy is a lie.
Weiss relies on a wide range of philosophers, from the rather anti-feminist Heidegger to Sartre to radical thinkers like Simone de Beauvoir and Judith Butler, one of the greatest living feminist philosophers of our time. Weiss’s insistence to include a variety of perspectives is both a compliment to the intelligence of her assumed audience and a demonstration of her commitment to an inclusive academic investigation into the ordinary. Of particular interest to scholars and philosopher-activists alike is her entire section, multiple chapters, dedicated to deconstructing racist, classist, sexist, and otherwise oppressive behaviors often acted out of habit, cemented over time and difficult to name and alter, especially without the help of others.
While a philosophy book that will surely end up in university courses, Weiss’s pronouncements about the self, the other, and how we construct reality will no doubt contribute to feminist philosophical theory in a greater way. When taken with healthy doses of history as a foundation to understanding her work, Weiss’s explanation and subsequent reshaping of the ordinary becomes quite digestible and even a bit delicious. This isn’t a book for everyday leisure reading, but it is certainly recommended for any combination of curious philosopher, cross-disciplinary psychologist, radical feminist, and communication theorist among us.Brittany Shoot, Feminist Review, November 6, 2008