Saturday, May 31, 2008

WisCon 32 Panel 6: "It's Not About Identity"

At four on Friday, 23 May, I attended my first-ever Science Fiction Convention Panel, “It’s Not About Identity,” featuring Sylvia Kelso, L. Timmel Duchamp, Andrea Hairston, Lauren Lacey, and Joan Haran.

UPDATE: Fellow Aqueduct blogger Micole, who is an older hand at this, has posted her own notes and comments on the panel. They are brilliant: the comments at the end are particularly astute --she has the courage to express disagreements that I've only hinted at below.

UPDATE II: Timmi Duchamp reflects.

Liz Henry's notes cover aspects of the panel that neither Micole nor I mention.

Moderator Duchamp spoke of the elision of class and race in the “we” of second-wave feminism and the challenge to that elision leveled by the Combahee River Collective. She was very excited at the time to read of interlocking oppressions, as she had seen her own working-class origins elided in the claims that groups styling themselves “Women’s Organizations” made on behalf of “all women.”

HARAN: We need to be particular and located. My engagement with feminism comes from a different local culture. You bore people to tears by assuming people have the same experience and priorities as you. And if you’re not located, you run a greater risk of your knowledge being appropriated and used against you.

HAIRSTON: I agree with everything: I’m in the Amen Corner here. I come in as an artist, a director in a field my race and gender aren’t associated with. And I’ve seen, for example, a nineteen-year-old white man sitting beside me mortified when people came up to him and said, “You directed that, huh? It was great!” And he had to say, “Uh, no, she directed it.” These assumptions, these categories are our social realities and are constantly in our brains.

LACEY: I’m seeing a backlash against postmodernism. My first impulse is “Don’t assign me to anything –I want to be free of those.” But there’s a movement to reclaim those identities, while keeping the knowledge that these are constructed categories.

KELSO: How do we put these insights into practice? As soon as you go outside your circle of shared values, you have to qualify the word “feminist.”

DUCHAMP: It’s like maintaining double-consciousness.

HARAN: Can postmodernists and poststructuralists really claim to be the ones who discovered constructed categories? We need to historically situate feminisms. Within feminism, there’s been a lot of polemical misrepresentation by some feminists of other feminists.

KELSO: In the 1980’s U.S. feminism got so fissured-up that there was no sense of collectivity.

HAIRSTON: How can we work out a common language or a consensus? When I work with visual artists and see what visual artists do in my field –‘cause having a director in charge of design would be a disaster –I have to learn to compromise with other modes of creativity and to open myself up to what I’m at first uncomprehending of. But we don’t want to say, “What don’t I know? And what can that other group offer me that might allow me to see more?”

DUCHAMP: That’s a great figure for coalition politics. It connects to maintaining awareness of who is included in our “we” and who isn’t.

LACEY: “Transnational” is a word that’s become fashionable in the academic jargon of late, but academics can do a lot when they take their students abroad to learn about the Other –starting with getting them to wonder, “Who made that sweater?” and showing them.

HARAN: Haraway tried hard in the “Cyborg Manifesto” to address coalition politics. But she misrepresents people who ought to be part of the coalition. There are people she doesn’t talk about, and she styles Adrienne Rich a poet without acknowledging that Rich is also a great theoretician. But it’s true that people need to give up on believing that things are resolvable.

DUCHAMP: We need, to use a favorite verb, to bracket some things.

HAIRSTON: We need to relinquish the sense that the world is absolutely knowable and that we’re progressing toward that knowledge. You speak of Adrienne Rich and being categorized as a poet –I had a student who wanted to do a play as a senior project, and I lobbied to have that count instead of, rather than in addition to, a lengthy written thesis; and I kept hearing “Do you really think directing is that much work?” and various questions as to whether the collaborations, the planning, the dramaturgical work, the preparatory research, and so forth weren’t just an attempt on the student’s part to “get away with” not doing the thesis. Finally I persuaded them to recognize that the student’s program notes were “real work.” But my friend the Women’s Studies chair –any production of knowledge that those of us in the theater would take seriously, she’s suspicious of –‘cause it’s Just Art!

NANCY JANE MOORE, in the audience, says she’s convinced art is far superior to theory.

HARAN: Judith Butler has written, “I work in the area of feminist theory, which is not distinct from feminism as a social movement. Feminist theory would have no content were there no movement, and the movement, in its various directions and forms, has always been involved in the act of theory. Theory is an activity that does not remain restricted to the academy. It takes place every time a possibility is imagined, a collective self-reflection takes place, or a dispute over values, priorities, and language emerges."

DUCHAMP: The term “sexual harassment” is an Act of Theory –before its existence, it was impossible to articulate that issue as political.

HAIRSTON: Things that we take for granted, even among people that don’t self-identify as feminists, are a product of theorists, of narrative, of analysis, of consciousness-raising.

KELSO spoke of how she responds to “I’m not a feminist.”

DUCHAMP: So we’ve come up with two strategies: bracketing and respect.

KELSO: We’re just gonna have to learn to compromise somewhere.

DUCHAMP: There are different standpoints.

Audience person: What’s something that’s unresolvable?

LACEY: Female Genital Mutilation

HAIRSTON: Or Female Genital Cutting, to use a less judgmental name.

LACEY: This is one of those Really Hairy Moments where people draw the line –it’s a Local Issue.

Audience: What exactly is it and why are there people in favor of it?

HAIRSTON: Take the Mende, for example –and I’ll try to be as neutral as I can on a practice that I in fact oppose. There’s a whole value system around Initiation, a year-long education process in which the young girl learns to be a woman, that’s sanctioned by the narratives of the society and is very performative. For the Mende, being a child is horrible: you have no rights, you can’t speak –and if you don’t do this, then you aren’t agreeing with all the values, the morals, the community, and you’re ugly too; but if you do, you can proudly say, “I am Mende!” There are women in that society who do say it’s mutilation, but some say it’s all we have left of our culture after Western encroachments.

Audience: Could we add Empathy to the list?

DUCHAMP is delighted.

Audience: Could you clarify what you mean by bracketing?

HARAN explains what it does; DUCHAMP explains why we do it.

Audience: You’re dealing with individual differences. In the many years that I worked for the LGBT Speakers’ Bureau, we were told that you can’t claim to be “speaking for” –it’s just you speaking.

DUCHAMP: It’s good to have more stories, a plurality of narratives.

HAIRSTON spoke of having done a performance piece among refugees in Germany from lands and cultures that were at odds with and stigmatized one another. They had to figure out how to respect one another and were helping each other tell their stories, even though one participant’s story might denounce another participant’s people. And the audience too, when it was performed, would empathize completely with a member of a culture when they’d just heard –and empathized with –the experience of one of its enemies. And a German official said, “Thank you for doing this on our soil.” Which Hairston took to mean that it clarifies the audience’s life too.

HARAN: There’s an analogy in my experience of feminist sf. I can’t do theatre, but reading can also have that effect. And it’s better the more work you have to do, the more you have to do to get into the characters’ heads, the range of genres you have to interpret.

DUCHAMP: Reading works best as a collaboration, when the reader does imaginative work constructing the text.

HAIRSTON: Even writing a novel can do that; but in reading, too, you have to give yourself to the story.

BETH, from the audience: How do we get the feminist narrative out there? The women in my small Wisconsin town know what feminism is from the media and “know” it’s not relevant to them.

DUCHAMP: It’s not part of the public narrative.

LACEY: At best, many of my students think it did all its necessary work long ago.

BETH: But they still accept all the inequities of the patriarchal domestic arrangement.

LACEY: When you start talking about the transnational –Well, what about here? The progressive conclusion, I suppose, is that we all need to think about our lives. But women in Middle America already feel overwhelmed and see it as just another demand on their time and energy.

HAIRSTON: People aren’t happy with what they have but feel it’s inevitable and immutable: consider Kindred. If we believe in change, that you can start out with nothing and figure out strategies –we have to ignite the feeling that change is possible, to get women to figure out what they’d like to do, what they’d like to be . . .

HARAN: Feminism ought to be a social justice project, but Humility is probably another word to add to our list.

KAREN JOY FOWLER, from the audience: Be really strategic about your project and why you need to come together –what you need to bracket, and what you need to want to change.

Audience: Think hard about how to intervene and where to intervene. Working in rural development in Ireland, I’ve had to figure out what’s relevant to the people there and why.

LACEY: Otherwise you’re just perpetuating the problem.

DUCHAMP: Linda Zerilli in Feminism and the Abyss of Freedom says “If there is only the name with which a political collectivity calls itself into existence, then we can never be certain that speaking in that name is correct. Contrary to the claims of feminist standpoint theory, there is no extrapolitical standpoint from which we could determine the correctness of speaking in someone’s name. This means that every such speaking will be inescapably political and open to question. And yet the very fact that a political collectivity such as ‘woman’ must call itself into being from a place where it does not yet exist means that there must be some form of closure. Insofar as second- and third-wave feminist theory has not been wholly blind to this constitutive condition of democratic openness and closure, it has tended to see that condition as installing a crisis at the heart of feminism: posited as a unified category given in advance of politics, ‘women’ generates exclusions; posited as a site of ‘permanent openness and resignifiability,’ ‘women’ precludes the possibility of speaking collectively. Although the tension between openness and closure can be experienced as a crisis for political actors, we have seen that it is also the irreducible condition of feminist and democratic politics.”

HARAN: Sometimes we have to use language “under erasure,” saying things like "women", with a strike-through, to show that we know how problematic and inadequate the term is and are using it provisionally.

HAIRSTON: It’s like the electron: all of our language fails us at the borders of things.

HARAN: There will be times when acting “as women” or speaking “as women” will be what serves . . . there are structures out there that we’re forced to operate in. Just stay conscious of their contingency.

DUCHAMP: self-consciousness, positionality.

HAIRSTON: Here’s why I don’t like academia: Zerilli’s poetry is not up to her ideas. I read things in which the ideas are wonderful, wow, but the language is frustrating. The problem we’re trying to talk about is that of the electron, or of polyrhythm [Hairston begins drumming three-against-two on the table while talking]. My Yoruba percussion teacher showed me that to be a Yoruba drummer is to be able to listen, to talk, and to play different rhythms with each hand: we have to be able to do polyrhythmic thinking. [Audience applauds when she’s done]

LACEY: Zerilli’s point is that our democratic society is based on identity politics –unless we want to make a whole social paradigm shift, we have to think in those terms.

BETH in the audience: We have come in our society to think that it’s a zero-sum game in which there is no we –how do we get around the paradox Butler identifies in Xenogenesis?

LACEY: Maybe it’s like voting Democratic while keeping in mind how much better things could be.

Audience: I don’t know if you noticed it, but the rhythm of Andrea’s speech was affected by her drumming: these things have an impact on one another.

Audience: We live with contradictions all the time and are miseducated from a very early age that they’re not contradictions, which makes us impatient with those contradictions we encounter later on that are not Officially Sanctioned Contradictions.

DUCHAMP: figuring out how to ask the right questions and listen to the answers

KELSO: We think of Foucault’s concept of the Regulatory Ideal as negative, something social structures pressure us toward; but it could be a Good Thing to establish such an ideal and try to get there, so long as you remember that you’re not going to get there.

Audience: What are the possibilities for dealing with irrational actors?

LACEY: The ideal is a social structure that wouldn’t reward such behavior.

HARAN: But be aware that means can become ends.

DUCHAMP: Okay, we have
compromise (which won't always work)
plurality of narratives/collaborative constructions of narratives
art of conversation
polyrhythmic thinking

I came away from this panel with a pedagogical, a theoretical, and a collegial insight.

PEDAGOGICAL: Just over a dozen years ago, a teacher of mine at Youngstown State defended their Professional Writing and Editing program against its detractors, saying “I’m very proud that it teaches skills that will enable our students to work in strata of society that would otherwise be closed to them.” And that idea became central to my philosophy of teaching freshman comp in grad school; and then, when I came to Temple U, I realized that students tended to want more than that, so I worked on various ways of giving them analytical tools to address the world around them. In particular, I sought to let students know about alternatives to voluntarism: Some students like to argue that “you can achieve anything” and consequently protest against the idea that a fictional protagonist can be constricted by her background and circumstances in her decisions. In such situations, I have had classes confront the question of whether people have complete freedom in defining themselves. Some conclude that one can talk about the limits imposed by social structure without reducing people to passive sufferers or dupes of the machinery of the world; others stick to their original criticisms but are better equipped to argue for their views in a context where they can better articulate what’s at stake.

But it gets tricky: one wants to encourage neither despair nor victim-blaming. Randolph Bourne, whom Lauren Lacey’s remark about the “transnational” reminded me of, demonstrates the problem in his wondrously self-contradictory essay on “The Handicapped”: first he argues that his disability has enabled him always to consider the circumstances of those society would write off as reprobates; then he admonishes his fellow disabled citizens to stop whining and realize what they can do. It’s the old “I won’t attribute an undue level of agency to Others, but I can’t be as flexible with myself and those I identify with –I need for therapeutic reasons to believe in Personal Responsibility as far as my own life is concerned.” How does one address that paradox? It seems to me that a good goal would be to teach students to think about cultural options: who has more, who has fewer, what they do with them. And in the process, to expand students’ knowledge of their own cultural options as well.

THEORETICAL: At MLA (but probably not at the American Studies Association), a panel with a title like “It’s Not About Identity” would advocate the views of Todd Gitlin or of some of Walter Michaels’ epigones, the idea that the Good Sixties when we were all united by universal class-oriented goals were succeeded by the Bad Sixties, when “Identity Politics” destroyed the Left, what with those pesky blacks, gays, women, and people with disabilities demanding that their difference be recognized. Why not, I’ve always wondered, conclude that the strength and resources of the Right are what damaged the Left? Why insist that we were stabbed in the back by our own? Isn’t that a creepy mirroring of a right-wing narrative about how we lost Vietnam, or Red China, or atomic secrets? Does the Left need its own Dolchstosslegende? None of that here, in part because nobody wanted to look down on everyone else and make hortatory judgments.

COLLEGIAL: Look at how disagreement, even strong disagreement, worked on this panel. Nancy’s opinion didn’t elicit expressions of scorn but powerful and sober arguments and historical analysis. And Andrea’s response to Beth –saying that “we have to get women to” do this and that– is framed in the kind of imperialist language that Spivak would not like (remember Spivak asking why Nussbaum was so intent on teaching Indian women what they should want?); but it was contradicted so gently by the four subsequent speakers that one could have learned a lot and still barely noticed that there was a disagreement there. Nothing confrontational.

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