By Beth U.
It’s winter and I am reading. I find myself devouring older U.S. feminist criticism (and criticism of this criticism) in order to think about the now: all the cracks, heroic optimism, anger, inadequacy, misdirection, bravery and labor of feminism/s—the messiness of messy people pushing social boundaries, expressing what it is at stake, taking the fall, finding joy, exposing fragility and strength and rage.
Together, feminist efforts demonstrate that “no single, objective reality or monolithic power exists; rather, we all participate in a web of dominations that are contingent on ourselves” (Laura Agustín 2007: 194).
True, but I’m also in search of hope, and siding with action. And the effort that making power visible takes in addition to talking or writing about it.
bell hooks writes: “Critical writing counts for very little when critics speak about ending domination, eradicating racism, sexism (which includes the structure of heterosexism), class elitism in our work without changing individual habits of being, without allowing those ideas to work in our lives and on our souls in a matter that transforms” (1999: 42).
She further claims: “it is often the ‘cool’ cultural critics who both labor in the academy and depend on its structures of validation for regard and reward who must invest in the production of new hierarchies that still keep in place patterns of coercive competition and domination” (1999: 43).
hooks’ point here is that “self-critical reflexivity in and of itself is not enough to effect a meaningful change in social relations–ultimately, only social action on-the-ground can achieve that end” (Susan Hyatt 1998: 60, writing about The White Issue of the journal Transition).
I am a feminist and a trained academic (so is hooks for that matter). As such, I often think about what it can mean to be anti-establishment. First of all, I love that term: anti-establishment, even though I am not certain what it can mean these days, or if it is truly possible to be anti-establishment and alive at the same time. My fascination is not merely theoretical, but embodied. I’ve labored within competitive academic structures for years. I have been institutionalized and am just beginning to pick through the impact of this institutionalization on my thoughts and writings about feminism/s.
I’ve been thinking about how anti-establishment moments and their participants, many lost or subsumed, shape current theories/efforts/lives? What can friction between feminist agitations & anti-establisment ones reveal now? What are anti-establishment versus feminist legacies? What can we learn, revisit, remember?
Feminism/s are ever-evolving. We need to recognize the errors of past efforts. But there is transformation, too, in bringing visibility to the words of the past and in thinking about why certain lives are overlooked now, even in feminist canons.
Eduardo Galeano writes against the historical amnesia of the Americas. This interests me. Silence interests me, as I face my own erasures–imposed and self-imposed. And courage interests me, the radical self-love it takes to be a visionary-in-action.
Archives interest me: at the moment, the “archives” of used bookstores and online treasures. Most of the texts and books, the essays and speeches I am reading and re-reading (from the multitude of U.S. feminist social movement expressions of the last 50 years or so) come from my own stockpile of thrift-store finds. I remain fascinated by feminist, womanist, queer, working-class, trans*, post-colonial, and anti-racist thought that came out of or otherwise built upon (or challenged) the anti-establishment moments of the 1920s-1970s, which as Adrienne Rich (1993) clarifies are not necessarily synonymous with avante-garde ones (although these interest me as well).
As early as 1984, Ellen Willis claimed that much of the history of the U.S. women’s liberation movement and in particular radical feminism “has been lost, misunderstood or distorted beyond recognition” (229).
What can these trajectories tell us about current SWERF (sex work exclusionary radical feminist) and TERF (trans* exclusionary radical feminist) debates?
Adrienne Rich also wrote about feminist erasure, or the assumption that feminist texts emerge from nowhere, rather than from a rich legacy of thought: “this is one of the ways in which women’s work and thinking has been made to seem sporadic, errant, orphaned of any tradition of its own” (1979: 11).
So we need to revisit the genealogies of older feminist writings. I agree with Kate Zambreno when she states: “I am struck by how many feminist critics, in their theories of radical writing, have drawn on male, modernist, precursors, as opposed to the more neglected women writers of that same period, without much to say about the women vampirized within those texts” (2012: 81).
I am also struck by the poetics of Hannah Arendt (1959: xi): “even in the darkest of times we have the right to expect some illumination, and that such illumination may come less from theories and concepts than from the uncertain, flickering, and often weak light that some men and women, in their lives and works, will kindle under almost all circumstances and shed over the time span that was given to them on earth.”
I find illumination in the lives of feminist thinkers and makers who flicker on the margins. There is a certain glee for me in discovering the words of a previously unknown (to me) feminist thinker. And my interests are in the lives and doings–the thoughts, creations, and everyday choices–of people as much as their theories.
I love finding the nascent prickling of ideas in slim, dusty treatises. It disturbs me however, that these ideas, some discussed decades ago, can seem new. I also hate that many of the earlier thinkers are often obscured by academic and other scaffolding erected by those officially charged with knowledge-production. Knowledge builds on other knowledge for sure; yet we need to acknowledge whenever possible where ideas came from, whose embodied experiences generated them.
Even if feminist writing made it into the canon at one point or another, this does not guarantee its continued visibility and recognition. When we revisit and make visible the work of feminists from earlier times, even if our engagement with this work is to disagree with it, we write against the erasure of activism that made such work possible.
As Rich stated “Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for women more than a chapter in a cultural history: it is an act of survival. Until we can understand the assumptions in which we are drenched we cannot know ourselves” (Rich 1979: 35, emphasis mine). I would amend that this act is not just for women, but for anyone interested in feminism.
Agustín, Laura (2007) Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labor Markets and the Rescue Industry. Zed Books.
Arendt, Hannah (1970) Men in Dark Times. Mariner Books.
hooks, bell (1999) Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life. Henry Holt & Co.
Rich, Adrienne (1979) On Lies, Secrets, and Silence. New York: WW Norton & Company.
Willis, Ellen (2014) The Essential Ellen Willis. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Zambreno, Kate (2012) Heroines. Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e) Active Agents Series.