Sunday, June 1, 2008

Reflecting on Josh and Micole's Notes on the It's Not about Identity Panel

After reading both Josh and Micole's notes on the "It's Not About Identity" panel at WisCon, it occurs to me that another item that ought to be added to the list I compiled during the course of the panel is reflection. Reflection, in my view, is de rigueur for feminist process. And so it is, for me, that post-con discussions of WisCon panels that go beyond brief sketches (as Josh and Micole's sets of notes do) are of interest not only to people who didn't attend the panels but also to the panelists and audience members who did. This, of course, is one of the assumptions underlying Aqueduct's WisCon Chronicles series. And it is the reason I wrote the essay examining last year's Romance of the Revolution panel.

The assumption doesn't make sense, of course, unless one regards panels as instances of public discourse. (I.e., takes panel discourse seriously.) WisCon's status as public space makes it vulnerable, of course, to hostile interference; that's the nature of public space. But it's important for women to occupy public space: this is something feminists have been insisting upon for centuries and is what makes WisCon more than just a fun social event (which it also, of course, is).

But to get back to reflection. Josh and Micole's notes have helped me reflect on the panel. I can certainly understand Micole's discomfort with the choice of FGM as a make-or-break issue among international feminists working in coalition; the example that came into my own mind was abortion, but another panelist was quicker with this other example, and it's not my way as a moderator to override panelists when they're on-topic. When I mentioned FGM as partly a matter of social hygiene, I was specifically thinking of the still apparently little-known parallel to the fashion of cosmetic clitoral cutting in the US today. A few years back in my annual reading list for Fantastic Metropolis I recommended an article by Simone Weil Davis, "Loose Lips Sink Ships," published in the Spring 2002 issue of Feminist Studies, about "the new elective sex surgeries"-- "trimming" the labia and "cleaning up" the vulva-- an article that drew some startling parallels between "aesthetic" plastic surgery and FGM. I didn't get a chance to expand on that but was happy to cede the floor to Andrea, who explained the social issue of adult identity involved for the Mende.

As my memory has it (but since my memory's not what it used to be, I can't swear that I'm remembering correctly, and I haven't yet listened to the audio-file I made of the discussion), no one on the panel talking about the two sides of the FGM issue ever suggested their was any question of saving non-Western women from FGM. I assumed we were talking about what sort of issues might have to be bracketed when working in coalition. And so the question in this case would be "Do you work with women who favor FGM [thus bracketing your moral or political opposition to FGM], or do you refuse, no matter how important it might be to work with them on another issue, because you don't want to be complicit?" That's what bracketing is about. It seems from Micole's post that that must not have come across as clearly as I'd assumed.

IIRC, the only patronizing/missionary-attitude expressed was toward the women in Beth's small town, as Josh pointed out to me not long after the panel, noting the irony. (And I do think he and Micole are right to mention this.)

Perhaps if we'd used abortion or frequent elective plastic surgery as examples of an issue that might require bracketing, the panel might have ventured into the area that I'm guessing (in retrospect) Sylvia may have been interested in talking about. Abortion, I've been told by people who teach university-level Women's Studies courses, has become a taboo subject for many college-age women, too shameful to be mentioned (much less discussed) in public. And as I know from personal experience, sometimes feminists find it necessary to work in coalition with stridently anti-abortion groups.

Micole put her finger on an important problem when she wrote:

I agree more with the approach I perceived the rest of the panel as advocating, so I was more interested in hearing their takes, but I also feel like this was an example of the kind of differences feminists need to be exploring rather than smoothing over--that there was a lot of talk of conflict management and managing disagreement, but that what was operating was often an all-too-familiar dynamic of "feminine" discomfort with disagreement and patriarchial deliberate obliviousness to difference.

On the one hand, if the panel had lacked the fragile bit of consensus that it did have, we probably would not have had such a lively discussion and would have gotten bogged down in matters of definition. On the other hand, if the consensus had broken down at any point, it might have offered some (perhaps painful) illumination into the very issue we were talking about. Part of the problem, I think, is that these discussions aren't ongoing-- being one-offs, there's no opportunity to reflect and then re-engage-- there's just the moment, and then, sometimes, the possibility of reflecting (with the help of comments like Josh and Micole's)-- and that's it-- unless there's a second round at the next WisCon (though usually follow-up panels don't work quite like that).

Thank you, Josh and Micole. The art of conversation, as I'm always saying, is not easy, even though, at its most exciting, it tends to look that way.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Timmi, thank you for bringing up female genital surgery in the US. I really don't think it's fair to talk about FGM in Africa without addressing it, and yet many feminists, particularly older, are shocked when i bring it up. just type "labia reduction surgery" into Google and you will find scores of plastic surgeons' websites, claiming their surgery makes female genitalia look "more normal." You'll also be treated to before and after pictures where the inner labia have been completely removed, leaving only scars on either side of the vagina. Conclusion: we don't know what normal female genitalia looks like. Schematic drawings in high school health class are ridiculous (I remember the confusion they provoked in me). Plastic surgeons are cashing in on our ignorance and the female insecurity inherent in our culture. Any other conclusions?