chapter  6
6 More on Figured Worlds
Pages 24

Fillmore, however, asked questions like: Is the Pope a bachelor? Is a thricedivorced man a bachelor? Is a young man who has been in an irreversible coma since childhood a bachelor? What about a eunuch? A committed gay man? An elderly senile gentleman who has never been married? The answer to all these questions is either “no” or “I’m not sure” (as I have discovered by asking a variety of people). Why? After all, all these people are unmarried men. The reason why the answer to these questions is “no,” despite the fact that they all involve cases of clearly unmarried males, is that we actually use the word “bachelor” (and any other word) in relation to a largely takenfor-granted “theory,” what, in the last chapter, I called a “figured world.” One way to think about figured worlds is as images or storylines or descriptions of simplified worlds in which prototypical events unfold. They are our “first thoughts” or taken-for-granted assumptions about what is “typical” or “normal.” We defined them in the last chapter as:

We will see below that when figured worlds are brought to our attention, we can often acknowledge they are really simplifications about the world, simplifications which leave out many complexities. But, then, all theories, even theories in science, are simplifications useful for some purposes and not others. Unfortunately, the simplifications in figured worlds can do harm by implanting in thought and action unfair, dismissive, or derogatory assumptions about other people. The most commonly used figured world for the word “bachelor” is (or used to be) something like the following by Fillmore (1975):

Figured worlds often involve us in exclusions that are not at first obvious and which we are often unaware of making. In the case of “bachelor” we are actually excluding people like gay individuals and priests as “normal” men,

and assuming that men come in two “normal” types: those who get married early and those who get married late. This assumption, of course, marginalizes people who do not want to get married or do not want to marry members of the opposite sex. It is part of the function of figured worlds, in fact, to set up what count as central, typical cases, and what count as marginal, non-typical cases. There is, of course, another exclusion that is made via the figured world for “bachelor.” If men become “eminently marriageable” when they stay unmarried beyond the usual age, then this can only be because we have assumed that after that age there is a shortage of “desirable” men and a surplus of women who want them, women who, thus, aren’t “eminently marriageable,” or, at least, not as “eminently marriageable” as the men. Hence, we get the most common figured world associated with “spinster.” Fillmore’s example raises another important point that further shows up the connection between figured worlds and “politics.” Thanks to feminism, lots of people have become consciously aware of the figured world behind the word “bachelor.” Many have come to reject it, thereby either dropping the word or changing its meaning. For example, many people now use the word “bachelor” for unmarried women, thus giving the word new meanings and applying it against a new figured world. Other people use a word like “spinster” as a badge of honor and respect, once again creating new meanings and figured worlds. The “bite” of Fillmore’s example is this: if any word in English seems to have a clear “definition,” it is a word like “bachelor.” But this word is not used in terms of a definition, but rather against a set of social and Discourse assumptions that constitute a figured world. If this is true of a word like “bachelor,” how much more likely is it to be true of words like “democracy,” “justice,” “intelligent,” or “literate,” for instance?