Sunday, November 23, 2008

New CIVILesbianIZATION COLUMN: Love Deepens

Regardless of the legal status of our relationships- or the distressing lack of legal status for most of us- queer people continue to find and keep love. Julie R. Enszer explores what happens after twelves years in a relationship- and ...
EDGEnewyork.com Style Feed - http://www.edgenewyork.com/

Friday, November 21, 2008

Looking Backward on the Feminist Literary Theory Class - in the mind of Virginia Woolf

Preamble

Such a simple proposition as a course discussion should hardly need a preamble, but I’ve recently drunk deeply of Derrida’s Archive Fever and, enamoured of his structure, I find myself wanting to emulate, or copy, though that sounds so banal. Nevertheless, this response is simply a copy so banality may be appropriate. Let me begin with a story—one I was telling someone recently, perhaps you?—for many years, I took a holiday on Virginia Woolf’s birthday, January 25th and often the day she took her final swim in the Thames, March 28th, I found describing it as a final swim gathered me fewer looks askance than to say, baldly, the day she died. The point of this story is simply this: for many years, two days of my life were dedicated to Virginia, reading her, thinking of her, pretending to be in her mind. And while I beg you to tell this to no one, sometimes, I still do it. As I did here, creating a copy, not a reflection for that is too accurate and of an artfulness greater than I could muster, perhaps an emulation, the desire to create a copy with the awareness of the inability to achieve such perfection, of not what Virginia would have said, but rather how she might have said it. So it is here where we begin.

Essay

Polemical. Shrill. Strident. Unsubtle. Screed.

Are these words of praise or condemnation? I will return to that question, but let me begin by defining feminism and feminist literary theory with a detour through a definition of feminist theory along the way. It is cold outside today, and the sun sinks now too early in the day. Without leaves on the trees outside my window, it shines in my eyes between three thirty and four thirty in the afternoon. I’m hungry for the sun, though, so I let it shine in my eyes, probably to the future detriment of my cornea. Why does this matter? It seems to me that one of the most fundamental ways that we come to understand the world and more importantly to think critically about the world is through our eyes, through what we see and observe, yes, but also through what we read. This is why in defining feminism I think about my eyes and the sun and where it shines brightly and where it doesn’t, for where it doesn’t shine brightly is where we need to hold up a torch, a lamp, some other source of light and then direct the gaze of the world. What is feminism in this allegory? Feminism is not the torch, the lamp or the source of light, feminism is the hand that holds it and the “still small voice” that asks the world to direct its gaze.

I imbricate feminism here and the voice of G-d that Elijah hears; the story of Elijah in I Kings is also part of the story of Jezebel if you read the prophets not for the stories of the fathers, but also for the stories of the mothers and sisters, which it seems to me that that is part of what feminist literary theory is: a system of both reading and excavating stories of the mothers and the sisters. As Virginia Woolf writes, “a woman writing thinks back through her mothers” and since then, we have all be trouncing around the gardens with Alice in search of our mothers. You will see the way I imbricate here, not feminism and G-d, but Virginia and Alice, and in doing so suggest a matriarchal lineage and an extension perhaps of that definition, which becomes so elusive the further I consider it, of feminist literary theory because you see if we have defined the feminist as the hand to hold the light and the voice to direct the gaze, and the literary as the stories of the mothers and the sisters, I’d like to suggest by the implication above that the literary is both the reading and the writing and re-reading and re-writing of these stories of the mothers and the sisters by the daughters and the sisters and the granddaughters and the sisters. As we’ve seen, the division between the writing and the theory, between the theory and the practice, between the writing and the practice, is as faulty as the division between Elijah and Jezebel, though one’s story is told and repeated in greater detail, but on that I do not want to dwell, so let me return to the garden, the garden where the women are reading the stories of the mothers and the sisters. We find them in the gardens, with their heirloom tomatoes and their large sunflowers and the many roses and daisies and poppies, the time is sometime before now, long ago, perhaps, though not too long ago. These women are joyful; it is the joy of feminist literary theory and feminist literary practice as women sat among the flowers seeing them as if for the first time with the splendor of their new-founded fragrance and the glory of their brilliant colors; although the garden, like the sun outside my window, fades. It is cyclical, in the seasonal way, though, not a repetitive way, and so the garden changed through fall and winter, and the stories of the mothers and the sisters and their readers, which we thought might be unusual or unique, are still tied to the other stories, the old stories of the fathers and the brothers and they raise the palimpsest of Elijah’s despair, “I am no better than my fathers,” and some wonder, are the daughters, the mothers, no better than the fathers and the brothers? And they are unsettled, and it is, as some would say, good.

Lest I be too caught in bombast and aware of your time, I shall return to the original question, which was, as you will recall, not about feminism, nor feminist literary theory, nor feminist theory, which I realize I’ve hardly attended to at all, though feeling obliged I shall remind you of Miss [sic] Rich, “Theory—the seeing of patterns, showing the forest as well as the trees—theory can be a dew that rises from the earth and collects in the raincloud and returns to earth, over and over. But if it doesn’t smell of the earth, it isn’t good for the earth.” Which unwittingly takes me to my original words that occasioned this meditation for I began, you will recall, with these words: polemical, shrill, strident, unsubtle, screed, and I asked you if they are words of praise or condemnation and now perhaps you will see that in fact they are neither though nor are they simply descriptors for they have been tainted too much through improper gendered usage. If I were bold, I might ask, how many have you been called, as though name-calling might be measure of something. . . of what? This I do not know, so I refrain from the question as I wish others would show similar restraint though that is not quite accurate because restraint is exactly what we need less of, though to say it is to risk the assignation of the very words with which I began something that I am neither trying to avoid nor am I seeking to invite. So let me make this plain and hasten to my conclusion. Those five words are simply that: words, yes words. They are with their champions, as we’ve seen, and I’ve recently read a quite compelling analysis of feminist polemics by Miss [sic] Flannery (1) speaking of documents from the feminists in the 1970s, but champion these words they may they remain to me simply words; four adjectives and a verb with aspirations to return.

(1) Feminist Literacies, 1968-1975. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2005.

Post-Script

I’m aware of the perils of positing oneself as other than what is and remain as always at the disposal of the gentle-lady who drives this “mystery ride” and happy to comply with an alternate response which might be, in the end, more directly responsive to the challenge posed and less fussy though inevitably, invariably, less fun.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Reflections on the Feminist Blogosphere

My first thought about feminism and the blogosphere is the way the blogosphere operates as a contemporary archive of women’s lives. As someone interested in the everyday lives of women, seeing a documentation of women’s lives for future researchers is an exciting proposition. I hope that the systems of digital archiving will allow some of these at least to persist for future analysis.

There are a variety of blogging communities that each have different personalities and engagements of women and of feminists. The largest blogging communities are, I think, Blogger and LiveJournal. It’s interesting to tool around each. LiveJournal is in my wanderings much more personal writing directed at groups of friends whereas Blogger is more of a public space where the blogs are more widely available and often have a particular topical focus, even if that topic is the attentions of one person. Blogging software and distribution has developed a lot in the past few years and the ease of access and, particularly with Google’s acquisition of Blogger, the ease of searching has increased. On my own blog, which is simply an archive of my attentions (and, probably more accurately, obsessions), most of the visitors come from Google searches, often on particular authors or books (Judith Butler is the lead on this front, though Mary Oliver is a close second). The technology of WordPress has always interested me because it offers more functionality, but that functionality requires more time to master and so I stick with Blogger. In many ways, the technology platform informs what is available and how information is presented on the blog and thinking about the implications of that are interesting.

Two other pieces of technology are important to me in the blogging world. First, MacJournal which is the program that I use to blog. It’s easy and keeps on my computer an archive of the blog which is entirely searchable. I love that because there are times I’m looking for something that I wrote or referenced and the software is a wonderful tool for recalling things. The other piece of technology that I love is the Google Reader, which aggregates blog feeds for me. No more remembering a blog to visit it. Whenever I want to read blogs, I just go to Google Reader and there are all of the blog entries that I’ve not read. I can selectively read or I can review everything from my communities of interest or if I feel overwhelmed by the 500 entries, I can quickly mark them all as read.

Newer technologies are affecting the blogging communities in interesting ways, and perhaps undoing the communities. Facebook is in many ways more interactive than blogging communities. The other day, I asked on my status update, “What journals/magazines/periodicals are you reading and why?” So far seven people have responded from my network of friends. It’s interesting to see who responds and what they are reading. I’ve used the status updates to get tips on jogging and other things. In that way social networking offers an interesting intervention into personal relationships and intellectual projects. Twitter has a similar function and I integrate my Facebook status updates with Twitter which links two networks for me. The limitation of these interfaces is the length of space for updates. One of the critiques of blogging is the amount of recycled data and information. This is valid. Writing thoughtful, serious blog entries is time consuming and there are moments I wonder, to what end? Similarly, with the limited time and attention that Facebook and Twitter allow, I wonder, how are we working to develop sustained modes of inquiry and conversations that are longer than 140 characters? Finally, what do all of these communication tools say about public/private dichotomies, for instance, or personal-internal/public-external dichotomies? I think about this everytime someone says after I think I have disclosed something, “Yeah, I read about that on your blog and/or Facebook.”
Paling around with Bill Ayers

A few people have asked me about the lecture of Bill Ayers on Monday night at All Souls Unitarian Church in northwest Washington, DC. So I’ll take a few moments for a blog post on this topic. First, I couldn’t resist titling this blog using a Palinism with her name embedded in it. Ayers was speaking today with Michel Martin on Tell Me More on WAMU. He articulated quite well in the radio interview why the moniker terrorist is inapt. It’s worth listening to the interview if you’re interested in that. The reason I went to the lecture is that The New Press, one of Ayers publishers, asked me to go along and help out with the event which was booked eight months ago when the expectation was a small group of a couple of dozen people would gather to here him talk about progressive education. The New Press has published a few of his books including City Schools, City Teachers. Ayers became a larger player in this election not through his own actions but through the actions and words of Palin and McCain. In fact, most of his work of late focuses on teacher education and by and large, while he spoke about the election on Monday night, the bulk of the lecture was about education. Ayers is inspiring on this topic speaking beyond the usual rhetoric of education in today’s public forum to talk about education as a transformative process in which people can learn to think about the condition of their lives and what creates those conditions. His educational model and theoretical orientation comes from the civil rights movement, where his work began. The event on Monday night was sponsored by DC Voice and Teaching for Change, two organizations invested in progressive public education. While there were less than a handful of protesters at the event on Monday, the room was brimming with people eager for Ayers messages about education. What struck me is his passion for education and his belief in the power of education to transform people’s lives and their capacity to understand and transform their own lives. Ayers understands both the facility of the contemporary discourse, which seeks to distill complex problems into sound bite solutions, and even implications himself with a knee-jerk reaction to such reductionism and then takes the audience through his own process of needing to reframe such solutions to a broader lens and a thickened complexity. He doesn’t offer easy answers but invites everyone to join in a journey of thinking about and working to solve through multi-faceted and complex interventions the problems that face us in education and more broadly in our own democratic society. In this way Ayers is inspirational and a visionary.
A few other things struck me about Ayers lecture. First, he celebrated the election of Barack Obama but with the spirit of a long time organizer, he was clear to articulate that the election of one person in no way limited the work ahead of us. I appreciate that. He also talked about the devastating losses for the GLBT communities in California, Florida and Arkansas and I appreciated that as well. Finally, I find it inspiring to hear someone like Ayers speak because of his history of activism. In particular, to see someone in person reflecting on his lifetime of activism is a good reminder that life is continuous and one’s concerns are persistent. Moments of fame or infamy are temporary, but one’s life of activism is persistent and continuous. So that was my evening with Bill Ayers. I’m glad I went.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Part 2 Article on Lesbian Poetry at AfterEllen.com

The second installment of the article on Lesbian Poetry is up at AfterEllen.com. Many of my favorites are mentioned. I encourage you to read it.

Exploring Women's Studies: Looking Forward, Looking Back

The book is a collection of essays by women who were Woodrow Wilson fellows in Women’s Studies, which means they received a grant in support of their dissertation work which had a particular relevance to Women’s Studies. It’s a useful collection of essays, both for the way that it provides a history and background of important questions to women’s studies and the way it demonstrates the trajectory of careers for the scholars contained in the book. I was one of the discussion leaders on this text in my Feminist Literary Theory class and these are the questions that I posed from the book.



  1. 1.Sabrina Barton’s essay, “Feminist Film Theory and the Problem of Liking Characters,” raises interesting questions for both film and for other creative, critical, and theoretical texts. Barton concludes, “I have suggested that creating a context for discussing why we like or dislike characters (heroes, villains, and everything in between) can help to establish a more flexible and accessible approach to feminist film analysis and can do so without sacrificing critical or theoretical sophistication. I would also suggest that differing critical approaches (images of women, Woman as image, cultural studies, and so on) be taught as differing approaches rather than as a one-way line of development in which better models outsmart and make superfluous what has come before” (p. 345.) What do we think about this notion of “liking characters” in relationship to literary texts of all sorts—critical, creative, and theoretical? What does Barton sketch out as the feminist stakes in this question? What do we make of her investment in pushing feminist film theory to engage outside of the academy? Is that important to literary theory as well?





  1. 2.Reading through the anthology, Exploring Women’s Studies: Looking Forward, Looking Back, I was interested in the articles that demonstrate the possibilities of interdisciplinarity in both research and theoretical thinking and, particularly, how those possibilities open up new modes of inquiry. For instance, I was struck by Leila Rupp's article about Drag Queens and how her work as a women's historian turned to include ethnography. I also found Kornbluh's turn in Women's History with the Politics Left IN of talking about maternalist reformers' sexuality. These moves seem to demonstrate one way that Women's Studies can open up disciplines and bring new types of inquiries to scholarship. What opportunities for interdisciplinary work do we see in this text and where to we see barriers to interdisciplinary work demonstrated in the articles? As a related question to this and given the two articles I mention, we may want to return to Professor Smith’s assertion, Queer the Turtle: This couldn’t have happened without feminist theory. The articles of Exploring Women’s Studies begin to provide some intellectual history to the roots of queer theory in feminist theory.




  1. 3.The second task that the anthologists, Berkin, Pinch, and Appel, put to the scholars anthologized in Exploring Women’s Studies: Looking Forward, Looking Back was "to reflect on their own careers, for we believe that the history of the field of women's studies might be glimpsed in such autobiographical reflections." What did you learn from these reflections throughout the book? Did you make any particular observations about these reflections or draw any specific conclusions from them? What do these reflections say and not say about the disciplinary location of Women’s Studies?


Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression by Jacques Derrida

This book reflects part of the reason why I wanted to go to graduate school. Archive Fever is a long meditation on archives using Freud, Freud’s “archive” and a book about Freud as the source for its meanderings. It was originally given as a lecture in London on June 5, 1994. One of my mentors suggested that I read this in conjunction with my project of putting together an Electronic Lesbian Poetry Archive. I’m glad I did.
Archive Fever isn’t the sort of book that you pick up at Borders and say, “Gee this sounds like an interesting afternoon read.” (For that I have Toni Morrison’s new book Mercy and Marilynne Robinson’s new book Home, both of which are waiting for me for the end of the semester.) Rather Archive Fever is the sort of book that you read because you are thinking about archives, what they mean, what they contain, how they are constructed.
Derrida organizes this lecture into six parts: Note, Exergue, Preamble, Foreword, Theses, and Postscript.
In the Note, Derrida begins not “even at the archive,” but with the word. he traces it’s meaning from the Greek Arkhe which names “at once the commencement and the commandment.” Through this Note, he explores the authority of archives from the Greek superior magistrates, the archons, and the domiciliation of the archives as physical locations and most importantly outlines the way that archives appear to have authority, physical location and consignation but ultimately “shelter itself and, sheltered, to conceal itself.” This is what he wants us to realize before we even begin to contemplate the archive: the nature of an archive is to be both authoritarianly transparent and authoritatively concealed.
Exergue means literally the place on a coin beneath the design where the date and location of it’s making occurred. For Derrida, this section of the letter “plays with citation.” He begins by explaining how archives are both “traditional and revolutionary; at once institutive and conservative.” The crux of this for him is “archival violence.” He then explains how the inscription of the archives occur, through printing and circumcision. Derrida argues that in order for an archive to exist it must be constructed to live in an external space, “there is no archive without consignation in an external place which assures the possibility of memorization, of repetition, of reproduction, or of reimpression,” and then he associates this with the Freudian death drive. For as Derrida writes, “There would indeed be no archive desire without the radical finitude, without the possibility of a forgetfulness which does not limit itself to repression.” Derrida connects the printing of documents or inscription with circumcision, “it leaves a trace of an incision right on the skin: more than one skin, at more than one age.”
In the Preamble, Derrida writes about the three meanings of the impression. First, as scriptural or typographic, literally the inscription of signs. Second, impression as “a notion. . .associated with a word and for which, together with Freud, we do not have a concept.” Finally, the third impression is that left “by Sigmund Freud, beginning with the impression left in him, inscribed in him, from his birth and his covenant, from his circumcision, through all the manifest or secret history of psychoanalysis,” etc.
The Foreword is actually Derrida’s analysis of a book by Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi called Freud’s Moses: Judaism Terminable and Interminable. I’m not going to trace Derrida’s discussion about this book, though it’s fascinating, but rather simply note that it is here that Derrida explains that while the archive seems to point to the past, it “should call into question the coming of the future.” I found this very provocative and even inspiring. He writes, “It is a question of the future, the question of the future itself, the question of a response, of a promise and of a responsibility for tomorrow. The archive: if we want to know what that will have meant, we will only know in times to come” (p. 36.)
The Theses is the heart of the book. It is what all of the previous discussions have been preparing us to understand. Here Derrida explains that both the future is spectral and the structure of the archive is spectral. Here Derrida explain how the concept of the archive is troubled from archive fever. “It is to have a compulsive, repetitive, and nostalgic desire for the archive, an irrepressible desire to return to the origin, a homesickness, a nostalgia for the return to the most archaic place of absolute commencement” (p. 91.) The three theses Derrida posits are, “Freud made possible the idea of an archive properly speaking, of a hypomnesic or technical archive, of the substrate or the subjectile (material or virtual) which, in what is already a psychic spacing, cannot be reduced to memory.” Second, “the archive is made possible by the death, aggression, and destruction drive,” and third, the archive is shaped by the “archontc, that is paternal and patriarchic, principle only posited itself to repeat itself and returned to re-posit itself only in parricide” (p. 95.)
Finally, the Postscript notes that while archives only contain trace of what happened there, not the thing itself, we will always yearn to know what was lost, what burned and disappeared with the ashes.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Wedding Vow by Sharon Olds

This morning I was reminded that one of the things that makes me happiest in the world is poems by Sharon Olds. Taken from The Writer’s Almanac.

The Wedding Vow


by Sharon Olds


I did not stand at the altar, I stood

at the foot of the chancel steps, with my beloved,

and the minister stood on the top step

holding the open Bible. The church

was wood, painted ivory inside, no people—God's

stable perfectly cleaned. It was night,

spring—outside, a moat of mud,

and inside, from the rafters, flies

fell onto the open Bible, and the minister

tilted it and brushed them off. We stood

beside each other, crying slightly

with fear and awe. In truth, we had married

that first night, in bed, we had been

married by our bodies, but now we stood

in history—what our bodies had said,

mouth to mouth, we now said publicly,
gathered together, death. We stood

holding each other by the hand, yet I also

stood as if alone, for a moment,

just before the vow, though taken

years before, took. It was a vow

of the present and the future, and yet I felt it

to have some touch on the distant past

or the distant past on it, I felt

the silent, dry, crying ghost of my

parents' marriage there, somewhere

in the bright space—perhaps one of the

plummeting flies, bouncing slightly

as it hit forsaking all others, then was brushed

away. I felt as if I had come

to claim a promise—the sweetness I'd inferred

from their sourness; and at the same time that I had

come, congenitally unworthy, to beg.

And yet, I had been working toward this hour

all my life. And then it was time

to speak—he was offering me, no matter

what, his life. That is all I had to

do, that evening, to accept the gift

I had longed for—to say I had accepted it,

as if being asked if I breathe. Do I take?

I do. I take as he takes—we have been

practicing this. Do you bear this pleasure? I do.


"The Wedding Vow" by Sharon Olds from The Unswept Room. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Sunday, November 09, 2008

How to be a Poet by Wendell Berry

How To Be a Poet


by Wendell Berry


(to remind myself)


Make a place to sit down.

Sit down. Be quiet.

You must depend upon

affection, reading, knowledge,

skill—more of each

than you have—inspiration,

work, growing older, patience,

for patience joins time

to eternity. Any readers

who like your work,

doubt their judgment.


Breathe with unconditional breath

the unconditioned air.

Shun electric wire.

Communicate slowly. Live

a three-dimensioned life;

stay away from screens.

Stay away from anything

that obscures the place it is in.

There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.


Accept what comes from silence.

Make the best you can of it.

Of the little words that come

out of the silence, like prayers

prayed back to the one who prays,

make a poem that does not disturb

the silence from which it came.


"How to be a Poet" by Wendell Berry from Given. © Shoemaker Hoard, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Thursday, November 06, 2008

An Open Letter from Katherine V. Forrest on the Election Results

Yesterday was just a very difficult day.  Such gladness over Obama and all he symbolizes, watching the national euphoria.  And yet the sharp slap in the face that none of it includes us.  Yet again the line is drawn through us, we're left to peer in the window.  This time it seems a much worse feeling, at least for me, because I'd let down my guard and stopped steeling myself, for the first time I'd let myself hope. 
 
We will win this of course.  We actually won it in 2003 with the most important civil rights decision of my lifetime, the Supreme Court's 6-3 Lawrence vs Texas decision that struck down sodomy laws under the equal protection clause.  I've always known that the continuing hodge podge of discriminatory state laws and the opposition by the single most legitimizing agent for the prejudice against us -- the churches -- would eventually land us back at the Court.  Where we will then be accorded--under the same clause--the final and definitive decision that will end the practice of putting our lives on a ballot for a majority to decide.
 
I'm getting over the personal stuff, I feel a little better today and have more perspective.  In order to get this thing passed in California, they had to argue that we already had rights as Domestic Partners.  How big a concession is THAT, given where we were a decade ago?  The fact is, except for our losses, the right wing got their heads handed to them on Tuesday.  Gay people were voted into office all across the country.  All the abortion crap got voted down, it's no longer a viable political issue, it's dead dead dead, folks.  Assisted suicide was passed in Washington State, stem cell research will happen, the Supreme Court appointments are ours for hopefully the next eight years. Their right wing VP candidate became a figure of national scorn, the religious right as a political power has been left where it belongs, on the margins.. 
 
So good things are happening.  We are the great unfinished business of this nation, and it will indeed get finished.  I trust it will hurry along because I ain't gettin' any younger.  Now that I've lived to see a black president, I want to see it all.  As a friend of ours in Australia emailed yesterday, "Whilst a black President is certainly a good thing, let me know when the President is a black lesbian...."
 
Here's to the bright future.
 
Katherine

Distributed by the Lambda Literary Foundation

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Monday, November 03, 2008

Noel Sturgeon: "Theorizing Movements: Direct Action and Direct Theory"

Brief intro by Julie
Noel Sturgeon
Professor of Women’s Studies, Washington State University
PhD, History of Consciousness, UC-Santa Cruz

Book: Ecofeminist Natures: Race, Gender, Feminist Theory, and Political Action, Routledge, 1997.

“Theorizing Movements: Direct Action and Direct Theory”

“nonviolent direct action movement”
identifying characteristics:

  • •affinity groups

  • •consensus process

  • •nonviolent direct action

  • •multifaceted radical democratic politics


“Read movement’s practices and structures as a form of theorizing through practice” she calls it “direct theory,” a lived analysis of contemporary domination and resistance



To make the “direct theory” visible, “thick description”: an interpretive layering of practices, symbols, actions, and social structures
Alternated called “critical hermeneutics” an interpretation that seeks a ‘deeper’ meaning but considers that meaning as partially constructed by my interpretation and thus always open to further interrogation.

Interested in promoting “a wider understanding of the processes of social and political change than generally founding social movement theory”

Description of affinity groups, how they come together, how they do their work, how the effect a broader dialogue about democracy.

Theorizing the Direct Action Movement
Sturgeon examines oppositional discourse of the movement as a way of changing discursive frameworks
Method to rework consent and authority

Uses her “direct theory” approach to retheorize social movement approaches

  • •Analyze social movements not only as oppositional, but provide new historical dimensions and critiques of what activists are doing

  • •Integrate in gender relations to broad structural changes

  • •Use feminist theories to understand social movements

PhD Reflections #2

With four weeks into the semester, I think I should easily be able to list the things that challenge what I know and confirm what I know, but I struggle with generating such a list. I think part of the struggle is the inculcation into graduate school over the previous two years which has taught me a great deal to set aside my knowledge and explore new knowledge, not from the perspective of how does it confirm or challenge me, but how does it transform me through the engagement with it. With this framework, I can easily point to a variety of readings that have transformed me through this semester. One of the areas I am trying to read closely and consciously within is related to race and how race and the social structures around race are constructed, sustained, and transformed. I’ve found Peggy Pascoe’s work on miscegenation law incredibly meaningful in this exploration as well as the different ways of writing about race from West and Fenstermaker and Omi and Winant. These works, each coming from different disciplinary locations, provide me vital fodder for my thinking about race, though I find myself still very much in the muck and with few conclusions of my own. What I do know and have confirmed through my work this semester is that thinking about race and using lenses that ask how does this work engage telling histories and stories of people of color is important and I want to be a central part of my scholarly work. Though in this confirmation remains the challenge for myself of how that will actually happen.
I find the more creative expressions about race so far from this semester most interesting and provocative. From Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman to Octavia Butler’s Kindred to Compensation and Jennifer González’s thoughtful explication of Renée Green’s body of work, I find new and provocative ways to think about race and how it works in creative and artistic projects. The works challenge because they demand engagement to explore and really think through critically how race is being used in the works and what the work is saying about larger circulations of race in our society. The existence of this work also confirms for me the importance and possibilities of engaging such questions in a body of creative and artistic work.
With regard to new directions for my own thinking, I’ve been thinking a great deal about the creation of knowledges and the theories that underpin the production, distribution, and disseminations of knowledges. I have a penchant for theory, but am suspect of “the linguistic turn” in theory in the past two decades and particularly the sorts of work that it has produced. While on one hand, I find the work of Butler, for instance, as one who is deeply engaged in linguistic and philosophic theoretical configurations, compelling. As I read her work I am again impressed by how she grounds it in useful frameworks for making it applicable and meaningful to political conversations. At the same time, I see Butler’s work being used by many scholars to generate work that is not as responsive to constructing and acting on a political agenda. Reading Alaimo and Hekman’s Material Feminisms, I’ve been challenged to examine how theoretical apparati are shaping work and to think about my own work in more material ways. While I find these theoretical works interesting, I ask myself regularly, how do I use this in my own work and to what degree do I want to engage in theory? Lately, I’ve been trying to think about my work as “theoretically informed, but not theoretically engaged.” This formulation came about in part from hearing Dr. Dill speak in response to a question about positioning her work in relationship to Jasbir Puar. She responded that that was “not a theoretical dialogue I engage in.” I found this refreshing and opening a new way of thinking about work, one where choices are made regularly and strategically about what work to do and how to position the work.
Increasingly in my reading during the semester, I am noting how significant the terms of engagement that scholars set for their work are. The framework of projects, including what material to consider, what material not to consider, what is the audience, how are personal experiences used or excluded, what stake the author has in the work, what political significance the work could have, interest me intensely. It seems to me that as much as the research that scholars do and the thinking and writing that they do in relationship to the research is important, a large part of that importance is shaped not in the research, thinking, and writing itself, but in the framework of the project. For instance, Joann Meyerowitz in her book, How Sex Changed, mounts an important history of transsexuality in the 20th century United States. What she doesn’t include in the book is a sustained consideration of the medical communities and their impact on constructions of transsexuality. Anne Fausto-Sterling, on the other hand, grounds her work in the body, biology, and medicine. While Fausto-Sterling doesn’t produce a history, she does produce a wonderful interdisciplinary study of sexuality and the body. Both of these books explore similar issues, but each take the work in different directions. Initially, I thought that the differences were disciplinary, but in thinking further about the books, I see the disciplinary difference, but I also see a different theoretical and intellectual framework at play in each of the books and wonder if that is as significant – or more – than the disciplinary differences.
        There are two dilemmas, or dissonances, that are uppermost in my mind as I write this. First, the issue of time, and second, the myth of comprehensivity. On time, I am increasing thinking about both the significance of time to the production of work, both scholarly and creative, and about how time should be thought about and “managed” in this world. As a worker in a variety of organizations, time management was my mantra. There were days of scheduled meetings, task lists, and projects. In some ways, this work is similar, but there is a greater need for ruminative time – the time to read, reflect, and have space for generative work. Creating that ruminative time and using that time is a new skill to learn. There is another aspect of time that I’ve been thinking about and coming to understand as well. I’m thinking about it as perspectival time. Perspectival time is the arc of distance from thinking and writing for perspective, which ultimately should yield new insight and/or confirmation of previous thoughts and work. Finding a balance between these two types of time, ruminative time and perspectival time, which each have different valences while balancing them with skills of time management that can continue to drive work forward through the creation of milestones is something that feels like a dilemma for me at this time, or at least an observation that comes out of a feeling of discomfort and change.
        Martha Nell Smith reminded me to banish the myth of comprehensivity and to focus on building the archive of my own knowledge and work to make it as deep and wide as I need and want it to be. Comprehensivity is hard to give up, though. It is the allure of graduate school; the notion that an intense and in-depth period of time and study will result in mastery of some particular area. Martha says, this is a myth. She says, she has studied Dickinson for over thirty years and has more questions now than when she began. This desire to gain extensive knowledge, even comprehensive knowledge is alluring and with Martha’s admonishment, it becomes a tension to be managed. The outcome I’m desiring now is the capacity to pursue intensive study with the zeal for being comprehensive but with the self-awareness that such comprehensiveness will never be achieved.

PhD Reflections #1

One of the requirements of my program is to write bi-weekly reflections. I’m going to post my first two at this time.

Wrapping up the first two weeks of classes has a particular sense of satisfaction. The routine begins to emerge for each week. How to marshal the materials necessary for each class, how to read and prepare, what my thinking processes and energy level will be like throughout the week. I like the routine and the sense of having some mastery of the administrative details of my life. This is one of my confirmations of the first few weeks: my belief that much of life is administrative is confirmed. There are new administrative tasks, certainly, in this graduate program, but the labor of administrative work continues, and mastering it, or at least attending to it in a diligent way, has rewards, if not today at some point in the future.
For me the greatest challenge to what I know is what I’ve come to regard as an on-going process through graduate school: more reading, more work leads to more questions and more awareness of what is not known by me. On one hand, the gratifying thing about the mix of classes that I have this term is the overlap and tangential relations between and among the many things that I am reading. For instance, Joanne Meyerowitz provides a brief description of the work of the sociologists Kessler and McKenna who were referenced in readings last week for WMST 601. On the other hand, there is the persistent sense that there is so much material to be read, considered, digested, and integrated that even reading in a focused and ostensibly comprehensive way for four years will not bring mastery. It will bring simply a larger list for future reading and consideration. This is a challenge in the sense that it is humbling and presses on the need for continued humility. It is also a challenge because it focuses anxiety on production. How will I ever have something to say in the scholarly conversation? How will I ever write with even confidence let alone authority? Managing the dialogue between the humility, which feeds the reading and thinking, and the anxiety, which would like to suppress them, is one of my challenges.
There are a variety of new directions in my thinking. Some of them came from a conference that I attended this week, Lifting Belly High: Women’s Poetry Since 1900. Susan Stanford Friedman in her seven-minute address at a plenary outlined new directions for feminist scholarship in poetry that I have been regarding as my own personal roadmap. There is an essay taking form in my mind that looks at three lesbian-feminist poetry collections and considers the forms of production that brought them into existence and reads the texts as emblematic of particular concerns of the communities at the time of publication. It’s an exciting synthesis for me. I’ve also been thinking and reading and looking for examples of interracial couples in lesbian cultural productions and what they mean. This started in watching The Watermelon Woman in WMST 601 and I think will shape my final project for that class. It will give me a way to think and write about race in new ways that I hope will be quite fruitful.
Also I’m reading wantonly. I circle footnotes and references and find the underlying texts and articles. I don’t read them all, but I find them and peruse them. Some I read thoroughly and obsessively. I have stacks of books in different projects or areas of interest. I take one from each stack and read a chapter of each. I don’t finish them all. I return books that don’t interest me at this time. Some I love so much, I order them used online so that I can reread and write in them. I’m committed to taking time, particularly this first year, to simply explore the world where my mind takes me and to explore the recesses of my own mind with little regard for what I would have in the past thought was right and proper or a “good investment of time.” I’m just reading and exploring and accountable to no one but myself.
Learnings that have created dilemmas or dissonances for me tend to fall in the material world. Barbara Boswell’s presentation on the retention of junior faculty of color at the University of Maryland was disturbing to me, especially one of her reactions to the research project – thinking twice about entering the academy and knowing that she would have to work three times as hard to achieve tenure. For me, the tension is between knowing a problem and not having the role to solve the problem, but also it is knowing that the problem will persist. As time goes on I will be in various roles and doing various things, which will require me to balance my own ethics about addressing institutional racism while simultaneously fulfilling institutional demands. I know from previous work in a variety of settings how difficult that is.
The other dissonance that is most palpable for me at this point is in classes. I’m amazed at how relatively conservative I find many of my classmates to be. I experienced this in the MFA program as well. Although I shouldn’t be, I continue to be surprised by the conservative moment that we are in and how that shapes people. In my feminist literary theory class, I’ve been surprised at the basic lack of information that many of the students have about feminism. I continue to be surprised by the persistent appeal of being a housewife and the legitimizing of that “option” that continues. While I hardly want intellectual uniformity, I am amazed at how the ground has shifted in seeing the world since I was an undergraduate. I find myself torn between wanting to hold up a mirror about the conservatism, but also not wanting to make waves or be too confrontational. Finally, there is the classroom balance, too, of being incredibly excited about the readings and wanting to engage in them immediately and deeply but not wanting to alienate other students. This is for me a delicate balancing act. I think I’ve improved greatly though the MFA, but it persists for me. I try to hold back in discussion, not speak first, not reference other materials, but sometimes it happens and I worry that it creates a difficult or unpleasant environment for others. As the semester goes on, I’ll get behind in the reading as well, and that will help!