Sunday, August 1, 2010

In search of a "contemporary language" for feminism

Several years ago, participating on a panel at WisCon, I noticed that people from different generations were using the same words to mean different things, depending on one's generation. In the context of the panel such difference in usage meant, of course, that several threads of the same conversation worked at cross-purposes. Later, I wrote a paper on "the discursive instability of feminist sf" (which was published in a WisCon special issue of Extrapolation and eventually collected in The Grand Conversation). The subject has continued to interest me, and so when I read in an article by Emily Apter (in the 20th Anniversary issue of differences) a reference to a tactic deployed at a feminist conference held at the Whitney Art Museum a year and half ago, I had to investigate. Here's a bit of Apter's discussion of the conference:
In fall 2008, I received an e-flyer circulated by two Whitney Independent Study Program participants, Jen Kennedy and Liz Linden. Announcing an event billed as "Back to the Future. . .An Experimental Discussion on Contemporary Feminist Practice," it was both an invitation to and a preparatory brief for a town-hall meeting that took place at the Whitney Museum of American Art on February 21, 2009....

....Listening to the discussion at the Whitney, I was struck by the fact that while temporal references abounded (labor time, the biological clock, intergenerational tensions in the women's movement), nobody addressed the problem of time as such. This was all the more striking given that Kennedy and Linden's manifesto-questionnaire highlighted contemporary feminism's stakes in rethinking historical and temporal markers. The periodization of the women's movement, the gerundive condition of "lived practice," the coexistence of multiple chronotopes that "untime" the temporal measures of capitalist labor and tempo were signaled as defining concerns by the language of their short Dictionary of Temporary Approximations. "In drafting this dictionary," they wrote, "we have intentionally selected potentially problematic works that evoke the past and have thus helped pin feminism in one historical moment. In their stead, we have suggested temporary placeholders to be used for the duration of our discussion. [...] HOW DO YOU PRACTICE FEMINISM TODAY? KEEPING IN MIND THAT WE HOPE TO CREATE A SHORT LIST OF WORDS PROBLEMATICALLY ROOTED IN THE PAST, ARE THERE ANY CHANGES YOU WOULD SUGGEST?" [upper case in orig.] There was an interesting double desire to preserve keywords of feminist history while assigning them different values as placeholders of the present.--"'Women's Time' in Theory"
Apter then gives a few of the definitions from the temporary dictionary. Her interest in all this is in fitting it into Julia Kristeva's schema, which was proposed in an essay on "Women's Time" published in Signs back in 1979. Kennedy and Linden.

I'm interested, instead, in Kennedy and Linden's sense that 21st-century feminism is hampered by its sense of history and a framework that may be getting in the way of imagining feminism's future. So of course I went to Google and did a search. I found a site Kennedy and Linden maintain, which has a transcript of the event at the Whitney as well as other stuff, including a paper titled "Notes on Returning to the Future," a paper given in March 2009 talking about the event at the Whitney. The transcript is interesting-- it identifies most of the speakers by number rather than name. (The transcript is also full of typos, though.)

On their site, Linden and Kennedy have reproduced a form that attendees of the event signed-- including an agreement to participate in the "experiment"-- "I have read the above and agree to engage in the outlined methodology and the Dictionary of Approximations provided. I understand that the goal of the meeting is not to undermine the achievements of feminisms past, but instead to explore the nature of feminisms present." Designating the event as an experiment is interesting-- particularly given that it was being held at the Whitney.

Here's a bit from Kennedy and Linden's introduction to the discussion:
While it is certainly true – and inspiring – that feminism has seen increased attention in the art world in the past few years, the understanding of feminism that is being worked with is so often coded by a body of works, actions, and texts largely produced ‘60s and ‘70s that it has become difficult to talk about feminism in a way that doesn’t tie it to an historical moment. When we met this fall, the question that seemed to preoccupy both Liz and I [sic] was, why? In other words, what is it about the nature of feminism present that makes it so difficult to speak about when it seems that many of us urgently want to?

In saying this, it is not my intention to diminish the significance of history in shaping the present or to suggest that these recent conversations were anything but important on many many levels. Certainly, my own debt to feminist practices of the past is immense. Nonetheless, after independently attending and listening to a number of feminist exhibitions, panels, and symposia, both Liz and I noticed, between us and among our peers, a frustration that our primary concerns were not being addressed. Very simply, we didn’t recognize our own feminist practices in the commonly deployed descriptions of feminism. Here, I should add that by peers I do not simply mean individuals within a certain age bracket but rather a more amorphous, trans-generational group, that comes in and out of focus through shared experiences, commitments, concerns, and so on…Today, for example, while some of us in this room identify as feminists, others believe that this is a term that should be left in the past. Certainly, we need consider both of these positions – as well as all of those between – to really grapple with the issues at hand.

It is with all of this in mind that Liz and I started to think about organizing a conversation on feminism-as-lived-practice. It’s our hope that by sharing and exploring how we each articulate or confront feminism in our day-to-day lives – through the ways we work on and shape the world around us – we might come closer to answering the question: what does feminism look like today? Or to slightly amend this: what are some examples of what feminisms look like today?

Of course in doing so we come against the charge that this model lacks the unity of purpose necessary for a movement to succeed and this may be true. We also recognize that “lived-practice” is an extremely heterogeneous field and that practices that might be visible to one individual or community might not to another. Undoubtedly, this discussion would take a different form in a different group, or even if we added or subtracted individuals from this one.

Frankly, it is largely our shared discomfort with speaking on behalf of others that makes the model of lived-practiced so appealing to both Liz and I [sic]. At the same time, we recognize the need to effectively confront these differences – or horizontal conflicts – without allowing them to prevent us from speaking at all.

So, while taking these concerns into consideration we would, nonetheless, like to propose the experiment we are about to begin as a hypothesis for taking seriously a feminism based on our modes of being in the world, not instead of but in addition to traditional modes of activism. How, for example, is feminism meaningfully articulated through one’s quotidian life? How do these moments get communicated, virally or otherwise? Can they become the impetus for larger-scale change? And, what is at stake when we suggest that through moments of community, small scale and among peers – however temporary, spontaneous or constructed – feminism-as-lived-practice may provide a site of critical resistance?

Liz Linden: Hi there. I wanted to take a moment to do a bit of housekeeping, and clarify our methodology and goals for this experiment.

I would like to start by reiterating something Jen said while inserting my own disclaimer, and say only that the feminism of the past is extremely valuable to me as well. Our intention in laying out our frustrations with feminist discourse is not to undermine it as a whole, or say that historicized discussions of feminism have no place, or do not enlighten us to a degree on our feminism now. I completely agree with Connie Butler’s statement at Feminist Futures, which I paraphrase here, that you cannot understand the work of today without examining the feminist work of the past—it is just that I would like to amend that statement with an additional one: you cannot understand the work of today without also examining the work of today.

This task is, however, deeply complicated by the fact that the present seems so difficult to access through the usual vocabulary. In trying to have a discussion about the present, we’ve often found ourselves hampered by the richness of our language at hand, which cannot be divorced from its historical roots and imperatives. It is a strange paradox that this richness has become our present poverty, keeping us from moving forward empowered by our presence in our moment.

For us, these precedents contained within language and signs have been partly to blame for the thresholding of this discussion, with our positions circumscribed by the past as we attempt to push forward into the future. We thought, ‘what if we didn’t have to use this language? What if, instead of calling it “feminism,” we called it “lived practice,” or any other substitute, to see if that opened doors? Where would that discussion take us?

If we artificially unburden ourselves of these precedents, and with new lightness, advance, what kind of a room might be there, waiting for us?

Well, temporarily, this is that room—it’s a town-hall. Rather than being stuck at the threshold, looking in, holding onto language from the past, let’s just agree to leave it at the door. We’ll pick it up again on our way out.

In the place of certain of these problematic signs we have suggested a number of substitutes, listed in the “Dictionary of Temporary Approximations.” While in essence we probably would have preferred to use empty symbols, like “A” for “feminism” and “B” for “protest,” the difficulty of actually carrying out that conversation alarmed us.

Instead we have chosen temporary semantic replacements, which (we hope) will be easier to use in conversation! While these words also come with their own baggage, in this case practicality trumped the purity of the symbols; as we said in the call for participants, by taking the emphasis off of the signs, we hope to return it to what is signified by them in the first place.
Interestingly, the transcript shows that the "temporary approximations" were a subject of the conversation but were not, themselves, used in the discussion as they were presumably intended to be used. After a 15-minute break in the middle of the discussion, Linden acknowledges the irony:
LL: I wanted to start out with just a brief acknowledgement that we were interested in introducing the dictionary in an effort to get away from semantics, the difficulty of finding a shared language as so forth. It was intended to be a kind of effort to, um, excavate a bit about what these terms that we are loyal to actually mean. That said, the irony is that in an effort to avoid semantics we have fallen back into that trap. So instead, I wanted to take actually the suggestion of Ulrike and just try and invert this a little bit. So, we want to now ask the question, what are the ways that we are implicated in sexism/misogyny so forth. Let’s try to get at it from that angle and see how that works instead.

Speaker 1: Well I’d like to start with your dictionary of temporary approximations and in terms of like our participation in relation to sexism every word that you have suggested has taken out the sex or female sex or subjugated sex experience within that word so from misogyny you go to prejudice, um, from motherhood you go to parenting, and from feminism to lived practice, and patriarchy to subordination, um, and it’s, you know, it’s something at as feminists y’all did to try to change the language to make it more open but in a simple way I see that, um, the specificities of sexism in a patriarchal culture that denotes sex and gender were removed in an attempt to make it easier for us to talk, I find that questionable.

LL: It wasn’t really an attempt to make it easier to talk; it was just an attempt to make it easier to associate those terms that were just intended to be placeholders I mean a-symbolic placeholders…

Speaker 1: Exactly.

LL: So, I mean, we are very much interested in…

Speaker 1: I mean, are they a-symbolic if they…

LL: No, of course not, that’s what we’re discovering here – that it’s not working to use them.

JK: I guess I would also like to say that, I mean, taking the specific gender implications out of these terms was something that we really really struggled with and we have so many versions of this dictionary and, I mean, also, we all know, and Liz and I would be the first to admit that it’s flawed but we’re just proposing it as a hypothesis and what’s so interesting for me to hear are the reasons why it doesn’t work, you know? Reasons, like I mean, not only why it doesn’t work but also suggestions on how we could maybe tweak this experiment and make it more productive.

Speaker 5: Well, I mean, sort of earlier when Ulrike brought up that she would get critiqued for not having more feminism in her work or whatever and I respond to this sort of, I agree, or I don’t agree, but I think it’s interesting that you wanted to, that you were interested in changing the word – which I may or may not agree with that decision, but I think that the evacuation of the specificity around the words is something to think about and I think that oftentimes it happens where we move into spaces that are supposed to be encapsulating or whatever where everyone fits under some umbrella term and often that lacks the specificity…Look, I don’t know how lived practice would be without feminism, if you just said it somewhere for something. So I guess I can say that.

Speaker 3: Well, I understand that you are just trying to trick us like, you know, that we’re still talking about feminism using something else

Speaker 5: No, I know, I know, I know.

Speaker 3: To remove the whole pressure around that word, I don’t think, it’s not really a problem.

Speaker 22: But what she’s talking about what that word means, and and and I think it’s ok. It almost like lived practice is this word that you put there alongside feminism and we’re all talking about feminism and we all know that and um we don’t have a problem with it and I think that somewhat implicit in the dictionary is that these terms are problematic for many people, but the purpose of being here and talking about them is to unpack the meaning of the words so it’s not counter-objective but it is really like there are the words themselves and the watered down words, the potentially non-offensive versions alongside um but we really know what we’re what we’re talking about.
And of course the discussion continues to query the effects of consciously changing the language.

In their paper, "Notes on Returning to the Future," Linden writes:
Recently, Jen and I have been told, by a number of prominent feminists from various generations, that feminism is dead. We are troubled that this is their perception when we see so much life in it still. In an effort to recuissitate [sic] feminist discourse, we wanted to publicly explore the question: what does feminism look like today?

It seems to us that the predominant understanding of feminism is coded by a body of works, actions, and texts produced in the ‘60s and ‘70s, such that it has become nearly impossible to talk about contemporary feminism in a way that doesn’t tie it to an historical moment. Is it any wonder, then, that so many of our peers see themselves as post-feminist, or not feminist at all, when the word “feminism” is so explicitly defined by the past-tense? It is ironic that today we find ourselves hampered by the richness of our language at hand, which has not been diverted from its historical roots and imperatives. It is a strange paradox that this richness has become our present poverty, keeping us from moving forward empowered by our presence in our moment.
I wonder who these prominent feminists are-- and what they mean by dead. (Linden doesn't say.) Curiously, my reading of the transcript doesn't match Linden's characterization of the discussion:
At the town-hall, there were some successes with using the symbolic language of the dictionary as we intended, although this led to a discussion of the dictionary’s operations and an exploration of further additions to it. The eagerness to add to the dictionary pointed also to a risk inherent in introducing it in the first place; for some, the relief that came with using a contemporary language to discuss contemporary practices led to a desire to develop a dictionary for “real world” use.
Hmmm... What I concluded from reading the transcript was that finding new, "contemporary" language for feminist use was fraught with problems. The main feature of Linden and Kennedy's "temporary approximations" was the stripping out of gender. I suppose I'm curious at the notion that "contemporary" feminism isn't about gender. (Or that the presence of gender is an obstacle to "contemporary" discussion.)


Josh said...

This reminds me of nothing so much as Gramsci's having had to use code words for "Marxism", "Communism", &c. when he was in a fascist prison.

Lesley Hall said...

I'm not sure you can 'create' language that people will use. The term 'Women's Liberation' arose organically out of its particular historical context of the marginalisation of women's interests in other liberation movements (and was in itself not exactly unproblematic). Similarly 'suffragette' was a reclaiming of the journalistic term.

Josh said...

Lesley, There are still people who are outraged when one says "suffragette" instead of "suffragist." It's like the Trotskyites.

That said, it seems to me that "African American" spread very quickly thanks to the advocacy of a very small group. Possible "black" as well.

hschinske said...

I apologize for not having something more substantial to add to this very interesting discussion, but may I just mention that the third "[sic]" is unnecessary? "Jen and I have been told" is correct, just as "I have been told" would be correct. Thanks.

Helen Schinske

Timmi Duchamp said...

You're right about that third "sic"-- ^ I've removed it. Thanks. I think that construction must have been getting on my nerves...

Kristin said...

This is fascinating. As for the broader question - how can feminists talk to each other - I wonder if it has less to do with the rich traditions from the 1960s and 1970s than with a confusion over which tradition people are coming from. I almost think all feminists should have an encyclopedia of feminisms they could turn to . . .

And this conversation reminds me of a conversation I observed on Feministe. A guest blogger named Maia drew fire for a post on the inclusion of children's spaces, and in her next post, dated July 28th, 2010, titled "ain't I a mama"? she talked about some of her problems with "mainstream feminism." What-stream feminism? She didn't use polite white-middle class language to do it. The result was 437 comments attacking and defending her, which resulted in a change of moderation policy on Feministe. Nobody ever defined what she meant by "mainstream feminism." Race didn't enter the conversation for quite some time, and class was largely absent from beginning to end. I read through a lot of comments and then gave up in despair. How can we talk about how we talk about feminism???

Here's maia's post: