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Feminist Theory weekend at Duke University

March 21, 2010

Yup, that’s how I’d been spending my last days of the weekend beginning Friday, though I’d to leave halfway today as I’d a bunch of things I had to do before Monday, much to my disappointment, as I was then unable to participate in the seminars that followed and the roundtable. Also, I wished I had brought my laptop with me as that would have enabled me to take better notes instead of my rather inadequate scribbling.

The seminar kicked off with a keynote by Catherine Mills of University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, on the topic of ultrasounds and the ethics of reproduction, being and representations of life. Working in the areas of bioethics and the politics of life (also the corporeality of life) that are the material-being of her new book. In her talk, Catherine complicates the notion of the relationship between the ultrasound (in its various transformation, from two-dimensional to four-dimensional) and the maternal being, and the discourse of the personhood of the foetus. In explaining that her interest in this project arises from the debates surrounding genetic technologies, where parents are compelled to ‘create’ the ‘best possible child,’ she also looks at the rhetoric and language surrounding pro-life/anti-abortion groups and movements through the medium of these visuals. Some of the critiques of her talk involves the uncertainty with how one can posit a particular point from which affect is said to be arising from, and the position of the maternal (mother-to-be) and a more distant viewed of these photographs. Mill is clear that she is steering away from the discursive debate in religion and also acknowledges the inadequacy of her knowledge on the methodologies that one can employ through a greater understanding of visual culture. Of course, one of the most asked and unanswered question is the extend to which ultrasound (and the advent of technology) change our perception of the meaning of life or the sanctity of life based on our very conceptualization of what life references, as well as the notion of precarity. You may want to read her other works here and here that one can consider as lead-ups to the current work in which she is doing.

After reception, we have a talk by Robyn Wiegman, who is professor of Women Studies and Literature at Duke (and whose class on the Foundations of Feminist Theory I am taking this semester) on feminist pedagogy, which continues the conversation on what it means to have a feminist-centered pedagogy we have had in our classroom and through the different pedagogy teams that she has had our class pioneered. The whole aim of such a pedagogical move is help all of us inhabit the conversations and critiques taking place in the classroom, and to also inhabit the position, history and conditions of the various critics and theorists whose work we study, regardless of our personal relationship to these people. She talks about the archive of the footnote as central to the development of academic feminism and the move from manifesto-style writing to theory. She also talks about the wishes and desires that we bring with us to the classroom and into the course and how we are able to deal with that, and how our wishes evolve and desires change as each discover our personal stakes, our critical moves and head-on confrontation with our intellectual and personal desires. She talks about not being committed to any particular direction or object. I am not always sure if there’s a dialectical openness to her move or whether it is a desire to distant herself from the role of an ideologue. The move she made in her address became a source of wonderment and slight confusion among other participants to the workshop, especially to those who had not been part of the ongoing conversation students such as myself have been engaged in in the classroom, but the ending is that many interesting question arises. Elizabeth Grosz went so far as to suggest that feminism should be posed as question and not as a solution. In this respect, I very much agree with her, because the feminist question always remain with me throughout all I’ve gone, whether on an intellectual or personal level, and no increased consciousness has ever provided a closure to any of the questions that would have arisen. Wiegman has an interesting chapter from her forthcoming book that readers of this entry may wish to check out as it would give a better ‘visual’ of what I’m describing here. Also, there is a small discussion on the selection of texts that one could make in feminist pedagogy, and there is always the idea of a choice of one text over the other.

Alas, I arrived too late, the very next day, for the third keynote, which was given by Coco Fusco, on the subject of the used of sex and gender in the ‘war against ‘terrorism.’ I missed most of her talk where she provides the theoretical background to her performance project, which is a video on a ‘simulation’ bootcamp that female participants go through that approximate that one finds in interrogation room the likes of Guantanamo. This site provides a summary of the video she showed us during the conference. There was a lively Q&Q session that followed thereafter where everyone became interested in the psychology, rhetoric and discourse on torture, the framing of the torturers versus the tortured and the role of gender as interrogative weapons. She has written a number of books, including “A Field Guide for Female Interrogators” which you may wish to check out, if you’re interested in the form of demonstrative performance she is doing in this project. It would be interested to have a seminar at some point where one can tease out the problematics and dimensionalities of the meaning of ‘torture’ in all its manifestation, as I believe that could have a theory-to-practice implication.

The final keynote is that by Rey Chow, a newly hired senior professor to the Literature Program at Duke. She talked about Foucault, Deleuze and an Australian photographer by the name of Helen Grace. She is interested in seeing how one may locate the discourse of Foucault, and Deleuze on Foucault, within the larger context of postcolonial imaginaries.To do this, she uses the idea of captivity through that object-image that is captured and contained by the camera lens (a comment was made later by one of the participants that she did not allow room for the expansion of the containment as physical and psychical spaces evolved). She is interested in then following this object through the fetishizing lens (something which she writes about in greater detail in the paper that was selected to be read for this workshop). She also then tried to read Foucault through the Deleuzian lens (not having read Deleuze on Foucault at this time, I can only comprehend second-hand through the quote of others, so I will desist from comment at this stage). For Chow, Foucault is a somewhat avant-garde figure with a very European modernist outlook that requires intervention before it could be brought into postcolonial subjectivity,though I am uncertain myself what that intervention would look like (or I may be misunderstanding Chow as it’s 3 am now and I need to get to bed).
I hope to have more conversations with her on this at some point, and when that happens, I will post updated notes.

But one of the major highlights of the conference is being able to see how women studies is done in different institutions, both within and without the US (I wished I have had more time to engage in conversations with all the participants but time did not permit me from being able to spend more hours talking to them). It is interesting how gender/sexuality/women/feminist studies take on different occupations and residencies in different institutions. What is lacking though, is the presence of feminist interest in those working within the ‘hard’ social and natural sciences. I know that such interest exists as I’ve read work by practising women scientists who are interested in seeing how the feminist question can be constituted and relevant to their own practices as scientists. However, I am interested, after overhearing some of the conversations that were going on, on how critique works for all these different people. I hope that next year I will have more time to spend on this.

UPDATE: Now that I am remembering this, I should note that Chow places her analysis within her interest in the proliferation and ubiquity of certain media (or ‘new’ media) practices. Wiegman actually posed a question on the absence of ‘gender’ and ‘woman’ in the discursive layers of Chow’s talk. I think the question is posed more as a fascination with the way in which gender has gone from the very concrete and sometimes ‘to-your-face’ presence to becoming sublimated within the analytics of discourse that ‘senses’ its ‘presence’ through its ‘absence’

One Comment leave one →
  1. March 22, 2010 12:13 am


    These are fantastic and illuminating reflections on the Feminist Theory Workshop at Duke University. Like you, I too, could not attend the final roundtable. I hope they’ll put it up on their website. I was able to attend my seminar. Our conversation revolved around these 3-4 points:
    1. affect
    2. violence
    3. bio-politics and bio-ethics
    4. the object of feminism and feminist theory

    I liked how Rosemary Hennessy summed up our concerns by saying that any theoretical intervention has to be concerned about what sustains life. This focus enables us to keep our commitments to Marxist theory, feminist theory, deconstruction, post-colonial theory, and so on and so forth. I like the focus of “what” sustains human life and caring for that through our work.

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