Sunday, March 24, 2013

Duke Feminist Theory Workshop 2013

I spent the weekend in a room full of feminist theorists at the 2013 Duke Feminist Theory Workshop.  A story that tells a bit about what the experience was like for me:

During the very last session (a hundred people in a small academic auditorium), a graduate student, sitting right behind me, made a comment.  She noted that the "precarity" (precariousness) that people had been discussing related somewhat to her experience, a student in a room full of faculty with jobs and books, feeling that she needed to have read everything written by the people she encountered, wondering if she'd get a job.

Toward the end of speaking, she began to tear up.  The conversation moved on, but as she sat down she took her classes off because she was crying.  So I wrote her a note and passed it back.

Thanks for saying that and for sharing your personal experience.  Grad school is brutal.   

When the session ended, I stood up and touched base with her.  I told her that if I had attended this workshop as a graduate student, it would have been a nightmare.  I said, "I would have spent the whole time despairing because everybody in here is smarter than I am.  And most of the people in here actually are way smarter than I am!  But it doesn't matter, because I have a job, I have tenure, I've written several books.  I had to keep reminding myself of that this weekend."

This workshop really was about theory.  It consisted of keynote addresses, all of which had some very interesting material, and all of which consisted of some stuff I simply didn't understand.  For instance:

List of things I didn't understand
  • “Obviously a word I’m taking from Heidegger…” 
  • “Here we can hear Spinoza, who of course we have been hearing all along.” 
  • “I’m resisting a hermeneutical foreclosure.” 
  • “I’m not just potentiating.” 
  • “I hear you trying to re-partition sensibility.” 
  • “Necro-political concepts”
  • “She’s doing a great suturing of flows that are circulating…” (Okay, this one I understood, but I just thought we'd gotten to some point of ridiculousness in rhetoric.)
They also made reference to concepts I'd heard of but didn't (sometimes still don't) understand:  the importance of affect (this one I think I get now), biopolitics (from Foucault, but I have no idea), assemblage theory, and Eve Sedgwick's discussion of the "hermeneutics of suspicion," "paranoid reading," and "reparative reading."

I shared some of my notes with my friend Catherine, who'd alerted me to the fact that this workshop exists.  "You're so efficient!" she said.  I told her that no, this wasn't efficiency--it was defensive snarkiness.  I wrote these quotes so that I could share them with my writing group, so I could say to Claire and Conseula, "Can you believe they said that?"

Snark is the wrong response, though.  Catherine framed the event well:  "I don't have time for expertise in feminist theory.  This workshop gives me some basic info I can take home."

It was useful for me to be here, because I see that theory isn't what I do or want to do.  Many parts of the workshop were interesting--even relevant to my work--but ultimately the conversations weren't conversations I wanted to have.  I got tired of them.  At dinner I sat next to a grad student from Iceland who is going to be the first scholar in her entire country to study queer fiction.  Pretty cool.  She and I were sharing thoughts about the workshop, and she said,

"I'm someone who uses tools.  And I feel that I've come to a workshop with people who make tools.  So they've spent all weekend talking about all the different tools and how you make them.  I don't need to know how to make them, because that's not what I do.  I just need a tool or two to use."

I thought that captured my experience perfectly.  I could, in fact, learn how to make them if I paid enough attention, devoted enough time, looked up all the words I didn't quite get, read everything in their footnotes and bibliographies.  But I don't want to do that.  And because I'm not in graduate school, I get to make that choice.

One of the themes of the conference seemed to be "living otherwise" and "thinking otherwise," a theme that suggested a desire for social change and an effort for the work of the scholars presenting to be part of that change-making. But when we started talking about that sort of thing, about change, about "activism" (a word I was actually wary of using because folks seemed so skeptical of it), they seemed not to want to believe it was possible.  The sense I got was that, because I'm a scholar whose work is intimately linked with a desire for social change, I'm naive.  I understood their resistance to a happy ending:  they were writing about incredibly vulnerable people, people existing in a world defined in large part by various kinds of oppression.  The privileged person reading the academic book wants a happy ending, because then that reader is off the hook.  So they resisted that, and I get that and respect it.

But it seemed even larger--that they were skeptical of the notion of social change at all.  And I thought, "Then why are you doing the work you're doing?  Why get up in the morning?"

One of the presenters, Beth Povinelli, said that this was actually one of the questions central to her work:  How do people get up day after day to do work even when they know they're probably going to lose, just as they've lost 100,000 times before?  She said that she felt it wasn't things like "We know we're going to succeed this time!"  It was more subtle things, like laughter.  If you have friends who make you laugh, you'll get up to work to be with them.  A woman in the audience said that she's interviewing activists on the street for her work, and those activists talk about faith and joy as what motivates them (and little happy confetti started poofing out around me because faith and joy are THE VERY THINGS I'm talking about in my chapter on activists).  She commented that she'd heard us talk very little this weekend about either of those things.

So:  a interesting weekend.  I'll have more to say.  I did a series of musings about disability studies and how it was not present in an overt way, but people kept talking about disability (and talking about things that seemed to make disability impossible).

Let me just end for now by saying I had the experience of being a student, and I have a much clearer understanding now of how my students feel when they read the things I've given them and those things just don't make sense.  I recognize how important it is to make my classrooms spaces where people can ask any question, even the most foolish, because that's what will make the conversation useful for everybody.


  1. I am so happy to read this post, as I am finishing up my first year of my MA in Gender Studies. It reminds me of what I loved about WGS at CofC and why I am often so frustrated by the highly theoretical slant here. It's not even that I don't like theory - though as you mention, I am often bored by it. But as I said about a thousand times when we read Judith Butler in my independent study with you, I just can't get behind it when I don't see any application to life outside the academy. And no one has yet been able to explain to me to my satisfaction why everything STILL comes back to Freudian psychoanalysis.

  2. Sarah's point about Freudian theory made me laugh! In college I loved philosophy and still do enjoy a theoretical conversation. But as I've aged and been immersed in the "action" of social change and interpersonal change andobservingfrom that end folks as they exit academia into the world of practice I become increasingly pragmatic. My focus is not even on tools as much as it was it is on relationship,context and function. I don't know if that makes sense.
    As for the laughter- we often say at work, a very stressful low paid work but with a team context- that laughter and camaraderie (in the trenches mentality) is what keeps us going, nourishes us and gives humanity to our work! Great post Alison!

  3. As for Freud... There is a lot of wisdom there buried under his culture of misogyny. He was a keen observer if flawed in missing context and his constructs about our innards still have relevance. I just saw a movie that was very interesting called A Dangerous Method about the relationship between Freud, Jung and a woman who was a pt of Jungs, he had an affair with her and she went on to become a groundbreaking psychotherapist herself, Sabina Speirein!

  4. Isn't there something ...obnoxious, unseemly, out of place....when group of feminist theorists (or any other kind of theorists) are resisting the activist energy (and utopian hope) that makes the people who are vulnerable get up every day. Why do professors get up every day? Because we have classes, and committee meetings, and a good paycheck and if you have tenure, more job security than most people can even dream about.

  5. And, this is why teaching, and connecting theory to lived experience and practice is so much more interesting to me than theorizing. Connecting things that happen inside minds at a university with things that happen to minds & bodies outside it.

    We did any interesting thought exercise to start off a board meeting I went to last week reflecting on the chakras & balance -- to see how grounded we felt as an organization, how capable of movement, how trapped in conceptualizing vs. action, and so on. This conference sounds like one that would feel unbalanced to me--so much head, not enough roots.

  6. Having escaped school in particularly ungraceful fashion, I don't know that I can relate, but this does remind me of the scene in Expecting Adam (though it is NOT my favorite book) where all the academics nod knowingly about Dr Smurf's latest work, when really the lady was just talking about rats in a wading pool decorated with the little blue critters.

    May all your sutured circulating flows hold.

  7. I was married once to a man who was getting a PhD in English literature. I went to many a gathering and party where these graduate students would talk non-stop about literary theory, deconstructionism, the whole thing, and it was agonizing for me because despite being extremely well-read and fairly intelligent, I had not just no idea of what they were talking about but also no interest in what they were talking about. Looking back on it now from my vantage point of being nearly fifty years old, it makes me laugh. I think I only sensed what I know now to have been a humorless pretension from those who had not yet lived.

  8. Does this mean you can better relate to how a layman feels when reading supposedly dumbed down articles that still toss around bafflingly unfamiliar or counter-intuitive language?

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