The Netherlands Research School of Gender Studies had their research day conference on 26th May 2014 in Amsterdam. The day was titled – Doing Gender in the Netherlands: Feminism in Transition (Activism, Institutions and Canons). I was there to present a paper: Tumbling Wall: Adrienne Rich Dismantles a Male Form. My paper spoke about the ghazal, Ghalib, and Rich, focusing on the 60s, in America, the coming together of poet and poetic form.
It was pouring. Water dripped from the corners of my coat leaving little pools wherever I went. My boots squelched. Rain drops made concentric circles on the canal water. Everything looked so grey and grim. Inside the aged buildings of the UvA, underneath original beams, sitting on freshly draped white linen chairs, over cups of coffee and generously made butter cookies we talked of contrasts and constructive confrontation. It was a day when stillness was questioned and ideas stirred. I wrote some notes and made some drawings. Of which the notes I am going to share with you.
Dr. Rachel Spronks pointed out how feminism needs to be transformative and transgressive. She explained in detail how these two aspects in feminism are interlinked for exchange and action. She said that where we find ourselves today is not a post-feminist era; for there are new forms that we see feminism in. The hierarchies in feminism – gender, race, class – and what do we land up with – activism, art and scholarly debate. The purpose of the day was to solidify efforts, navigate – truth; and landscapes – twin topics – gender + sexuality, personal + social – the co-relations and the interaction. These are always viewed as institutions and paradigms but it has interdisciplinary potential – an academy of thinking through culture that includes:
– Interdisciplinary umbrella of interactions – commonalities, pushed to undo comfortable truths
– “Less convinced about our own truths” (RS)
– Revisit canons of critical agency
– Reorganizing gender studies
– Undoing told, undoing the shackles
– Coming out narrative – coming out as a feminist
How to respond to contrast.
Female part-time work – undercurrent of patriarchy
Pivotal dilemmas: social equality + inclusion
Engagement of critical agency
Vibrancy of contemporary feminism in civil society
“Continuum” (RS) (I was so reminded of Adrienne Rich – this term I first discovered through her works) of feminist production, she urged us to “go, do gender, and enjoy” (and I sat there and asked myself – why? – why was I there? And where I fit in – or didn’t – in this community, or whether his was indeed a community).
In many of the discussions that day I noticed the importance given to the body. The physical body, where it is placed in research and what role does it play. In most academic work – we are in a three-way didactic relationship – positioning of the researcher, the text and the author and where are ‘you’ physically placed, location. The ability to do the research, the consent, the permission, the ethics, we are in many ways studying a body as well – and how do we deal with intimacy and privacy issues. I thought of the many times I face these dilemmas and what my purpose was. To be intuitively aware of what truths are told and who they are told through. I also thought of how sometimes, the body is there, it is present but then it is not bodily enough – it is much more elusive. The discussion lead us towards the work of Elizabeth Grosz – corporeal feminism, Foucault on autonomy, framing of people on gender.
Another fascinating research was on the nature and nurture role of the brain: the plasticity of the brain; brain sex; biological materiality of the body and the role of environmental influences. I discovered that there is an entire movement on how sexual orientation can be changed (no, not in the Middle Ages, apparently today, I had not realized how bullish some of these groups are or can be) – homosexual and heterosexual – “train the gay away” – what is wrong with us? In India, they are trying to criminalize homosexuality. Really, again, what is wrong with us? There are differences made in research as well between male and female – we talked about how sex works as an independent variable in research. Gender and the brain – does gender decide the brain or brain decides the gender – this is not just a neuro-scientist issue. Slowing down science. Resolve and dissolve – not important – but map them. The researchers call this the trojan horse of real issues, to use it to take away rather than actually have impact. So how does feminism change the sciences? We spoke about post-structuralism and the female scientist and subjects – and the male weight. Queering neuro science. And then there is also transexuality, transgender, Judith Butler – ambiguity of identity, and boundary objects. To learn the art of tolerating the ambiguousness. And how can we use this to see things, use of objects as a lens – to get a focus.
Can institutions dismantle/reorganize queer theory. One of the researchers Marieke van Eijk spent years working at a gender identity clinic. Mid-western American, international standards, expensive – class based – access to some, with mandatory counselling – removal to have access to treatment. Sara Ahmed’s “Strange Encounters” – historically grounded ß this was questioned. The study examined the role and character of private organizations in the process of political globalization. Recognition of diversity – not one way of being (I thought of how we had been reading Astrid Erll’s and she had mentioned: robust plural identities). To put these matters into perspective we analyzed – monolithic entities – heteronormative ideas – we are forced to rethink and how all of this (today) had created a bunch of cascading questions, one opens up into another.
I discussed Alison Bechdel (oh how much I love her), Dr. Donald Winnicott’s theories of mirror and children (that we had already studied with Dr. Lewis Krischner and Prof. dr. Dawn Scorczewski in their Master Class at the VU), Romania’s latch-key generation and communist symbols of nostalgia by Codruta Pohrib (who is also working on Erll), feminism in South Africa and Coetzee amongst many other intellectually stimulating debates and discussions.
I loved talking to Anja Meulenbelt, her speech was inspiring and funny, she blogged and took some lovely pictures of the day: http://www.anjameulenbelt.nl/weblog/2014/05/27/een-dag-academisch-feminisme/ (including a few of me – sounds of dripping water need to be imagined as you view my picture so please do the needful).
There were people there, who summarized many of my thoughts in enviable vocabulary, and sometimes I caught myself questioning what was being said – that does not sound right, or where is this headed. Sitting at the edge of the seat, nodding my head, looking, waiting, listening, watching the rain, the words that bounced, rooms that opened and closed, people who came and left, mugs of half-finished coffee, crumpled paper, hangers. I came home late, my head was throbbing, at home hot food and a warm bed were waiting. I snuggled into familiar arms, my mind noting, highlighting and remembering – this is indeed a gift. I am, and will remain, one of the fortunate ones.