We delivered a paper about the BACK TO THE FUTURE . . . project at the Feminism Now conference at the Brooklyn Museum in March 2009.  We have posted that paper below, and a link to the video here.

Liz Linden: Hello!  My name is Liz Linden and this is Jen Kennedy. Before we begin our paper, I wanted to briefly lay out some context for what we will be describing since what we are here to deliver is actually some notes on a larger project occurring right now, outside this room.  I am an artist, and my practice promotes, at its fundament, a kind of literacy about our shared, immediate environment.  My work makes an effort to return attention to the many intrinsic, existential absurdities and conflicts arising out of the friction between common forms and quotidian contents, between our “values” and what we actually value. 

Jen is a writer and historian, working on a thesis that considers how we might upend our usual thinking about the Situationist International by re-evaluating their activities from a feminist’s perspective.  She is a writer for whom praxis is primary. 

I’d say both our practices come with a healthy sense of skepticism and irony, which we each, as a rule, attempt to engage in positive archaeologies of the received ideas around us.

Recently, Jen and I have been told, by a number of prominent feminists from various generations, that feminism is dead.  We are troubled that this is their perception when we see so much life in it still.  In an effort to recuissitate feminist discourse, we wanted to publicly explore the question: what does feminism look like today?

It seems to us that the predominant understanding of feminism is coded by a body of works, actions, and texts produced in the ‘60s and ‘70s, such that it has become nearly impossible to talk about contemporary feminism in a way that doesn’t tie it to an historical moment.  Is it any wonder, then, that so many of our peers see themselves as post-feminist, or not feminist at all, when the word “feminism” is so explicitly defined by the past-tense?  It is ironic that today we find ourselves hampered by the richness of our language at hand, which has not been diverted from its historical roots and imperatives.  It is a strange paradox that this richness has become our present poverty, keeping us from moving forward empowered by our presence in our moment.

Our first effort at confronting this question of current feminism was a project called “Back to the Future: an Experimental Discussion on Contemporary Feminist Practice,” which was a public town-hall meeting that we held at the Whitney Museum on the evening of February 21st.

We framed our event as a public experiment in the suspension of disbelief, a language-game, with the goal of using a provisional, substitutive vocabulary to rehabilitate some of the more inflexible elements of the feminist phrasebook.  Our event aimed to look at what, in our contemporary conception of feminism-as-lived-practice, we hold to be intrinsic and innate to our moment.  In an effort to explore what happens when we are forced to discuss feminism in a language rooted artificially, explicitly and solely in the present by temporarily setting aside the terms of the past, we developed a “Dictionary of Temporary Approximations,” to be used only for the duration of the town-hall.

In writing the dictionary, we selected problematic words that, in our view, had helped fix feminism in one historical position, and we suggested temporary placeholders to be used in their stead in the discussion.  While we would have preferred to use empty symbols, like “A” for “feminism” and “B” for “protest,” the difficulty of carrying out that conversation was prohibitive.  Instead, we chose as symbols various semantic placeholders, which would be easier to use in real-time.

At the town-hall, there were some successes with using the symbolic language of the dictionary as we intended, although this led to a discussion of the dictionary’s operations and an exploration of further additions to it.  The eagerness to add to the dictionary pointed also to a risk inherent in introducing it in the first place; for some, the relief that came with using a contemporary language to discuss contemporary practices led to a desire to develop a dictionary for “real world” use.

We also had some success in gathering answers to our preliminary question of what feminist practice looks like today.  We began this discussion with a question about small gestures that people make which they see as part of their larger lived practices, and those answers ranged from never buying dolls as presents for girls, to not crossing one’s legs on the subway, to cooking for friends in order to bring people together as a form of local coalition-building.  These kinds of gestures inevitably gave way to discussions of much more far-reaching ones, such as choosing to be an artist and accepting the non-traditional priorities that entails, and fostering a kind of art-historical revisionism to re-claim a place in the cannon for female artists.

Another fascinating reflection of contemporary positions within the movement came up relatively early in the discussion, when one participant mentioned the lack of black people in the room.  While some participants were interested in discussing why this was the case and how greater diversity could have been afforded the event, others were more invested in putting the question aside, and embracing the lived practice model’s emphasis on personal relativity and standpoint.  As one participant mentioned, exclusion came up in similar circumstances at Feminist Futures, and there it was suggested that focusing on the absence of certain positions actually functioned to stifle discussion of the other differences that were present in the room.  Lived practice does, however, contain the seeds of its own critique in that with so much difference and individuality inherent in its expression, how does one create a united movement?  How do we effectively confront these differences, absences, and horizontal conflicts without allowing them to prevent us from speaking at all? 

Jen Kennedy: These questions, which point to the ways we might critique the operations of the experiment, surfaced and resurfaced a number of times throughout the conversation. The debate that was sparked regarding the complexities of our semantic/symbolic approach for example, opened up a meta-critique of the structure of the event.  In short, the discussion turned to a question that has weighed on Liz and me from the preparatory stages on: what kind of frame were we making for feminism and for ourselves?

As Rosalyn Deutsche pointed out in a recent feminist roundtable published in Grey Room, every idea we receive and every action we take is from within frameworks that largely determine the meaning of these ideas and actions. Thus it is necessary to admit that these frames  — the exhibitions, panels, conferences, and journals—play an important role writing history, shaping politics, and so on.  Since, like all enclosing structures, frames are constructed through gestures of exclusion, it was not surprising that many of the participants at Back to the Future wanted to consider ours. What did it achieve and what did it exclude? What did it say about feminism?

We had originally hoped that by foregrounding the artificial and hypothetical character of the event we could create a space that would allow us to take for granted our interpellation at any given moment in order to investigate what we do in the face of it. And, as Liz already mentioned, we wanted to harvest examples of these practices to help us glean what feminism looks like today.

Our working model for what it takes to make a political gesture contained two steps. First, one must identify a power structure and our relationship to it.  To ask, in other words, how am I implicated in the uneven social relations produced by a given structure? How am I sexist, for example?  The second step involves following this identification with an effort  toward action that will complicate, critique, or even just make legible the structures in question. Of course by action I am not simply referring to what one might think of as traditional modes of protest, but also that which can take place in a classroom, a conversation among peers, and so on at the level of daily life. As the experiment unfolded it became clear that the assumption that we had made about the relationship between these two steps – that the first was always contained in the second – was not always assumed by others. Put differently, many participants weren’t interested in discussing their feminist actions without first assessing how we are sexist.

Locally, the experimental framework that we created with the hope of exploring lived-practices, material practices, was identified as one of the structures that that we must first define our position in relation to in order to make a political gesture, in this case the gesture of participation in the experiment.  Of course, this is an accurate assessment.  Like any action ours was embroiled in and produced a set of social relations that themselves represent structures of power.  And, following this line of thought, the framework questions became an important methodological issue. How do we, while recognizing that we are always interpellated by one structure or another, begin to think about action nonetheless?

These questions concerning the framework produced by the event itself gave way to three main lines of inquiry:

The first was a question of scale.  We had, as we have already mentioned, proposed a model of feminism-as-lived-practice to facilitate an exploration of how we each articulate or confront feminism in our day-to-day lives. It was our hypothesis that by turning our attention to this heterogeneous field, together we might come closer to understanding the forms of feminism today. Instead, we found that this model generated an interesting debate within the audience not only, as one would assume, about its stakes in terms of coalition building or constructing a unified movement out of disparate, independent actions, but also concerning the limits of conceiving of feminism as something one embodies.  This particular debate was divided along three lines. While some participants found pointing to particular actions or gestures impossible given their concept of feminism as the totality of their being, others felt that since feminism is something they embody it is necessarily small.  Still others were interested in how if feminism is something we embody, it can be mobilized or made legible to the external world? 

The second, and perhaps most obvious, line of inquiry that followed from the structure debate was concerned with issues of mastery and authority. While the fact that the experiment was hosted by the Whitney museum, and that we were surrounded by Pollock and DeKooning to boot, was briefly considered, the focus really turned to our positions as the initiators of the conversation. The example of lived-practice that Liz initially offered, holding doors open for men, was perceived by some as reproducing middle-class, white hetero-normative positions and, indeed, this may be true.  The argument that seemed to follow from this, that the experiment itself, the framework through which we hoped to initiate a discussion about feminism, reproduced middle-class, white hetero-normative positions, offers a much more interesting case-study for the relations that unfolded over the course of the experiment. Liz and I began with the position that, if we assumed we were working from a heterogeneous field and, as the lived-practice model implies, each individual was speaking from a position of self-identification, then the conversation could only reflect the demographic of the room.  In a sense, we were our own material and whether we wanted to perceive this as diverse or unified returns to us to the point that Liz brought up earlier about choosing to look outside for difference or more closely at the nuances within the group we formed at that moment. While overall people were sympathetic to the desire for self-identification we did encounter a few instances when some participants were placed by others in positions with which they did not necessarily self-identify.  On the one hand, this was an interesting shifting of authority, a mutation from the sort of self-identification implied by the lived-practice model to a more denotative mode of othering, in short coup de terre of what feminism can be made to mean.  On the other hand this denotative approach seemed to imply a relational hierarchy both within our discussion and within feminism itself.

The third topic that developed from the structural debate, concerned both the limitations and successes of the semantic operations we proposed.  The dictionary was intended to free us from semantic disagreements in an effort to ultimately reinvest the signs themselves with the values we wanted them to represent.  Instead, people became so invested in the idea of reinventing the signs that inexorably we engendered a discussion of the problematics of our various choices of the placeholders. 

Many participants noted that our placeholders were relatively emptied of gendered content.  While we were aware that purging a discussion about feminism of certain problematic and yet uniquely gendered terms might threaten the specificity and urgency of the discourse, it is our contention that we were doing exactly the opposite; by taking the emphasis off of the sign, we returned it to what was signified by the sign in the first place.  The Dictionary was intended to open up our discourse, and to that end, the temporary terms sidestepped binary conceptions of gender, and other potentially limiting assumptions.

What was lost, in unseating the usual signs became a whole other conversation unto itself:  Was the emptying of gender from the new terms a help or a hindrance to the discussion?  Was it a betrayal of feminism?  Was there a better way to express feminism today than “lived practice”?  Was it possible to agree on a new language, and if not, would the heterogeneity of the new terms create additional problems for the movement, trying to build bridges from our past into our future?

Counter-intuitive to our own vision of the project both Liz and I initially responded to these framework questions by trying to achieve consensus.  Although we stated in our introduction that we “recognize that “lived-practice” is an extremely heterogeneous field and that practices that might be visible to one individual or community might not be to another,” I found myself, at first, trying to restate the terms of the experiment in such a way that the entire group could agree with them. When certain individuals took issue with the use of the word “small” for example, I suggested that we change it to “local” thinking that would be more widely palatable. Looking back it seems that while on the one hand we had an intellectual commitment to heterogeneity and wanted to harvest this difference, on the other hand, this had to compete with a desire for unity and consensus.  Initially, and at various moments throughout the event, the latter overtook the former, which has become even more obvious to us since we recently finished transcribing the event. 

One of the most provocative articulations of this desire for consensus came up late in the discussion when one participant offered voting as a strategy to work through a set of issues and, in particular, to resolve the debate regarding whether one could be feminist and not identify as woman.  This gesture, which another participant pointed out was patriarchal in and of itself, raises complicated and important questions about the language of politics. What do we gain through the voting that may not be achieved through debate, for example? What do we do with the results of the vote? Does the majority “win”?  What would that even mean in this case? What kind of divide does it create between those who vote yay and those who vote nay? It was precisely the recourse to this type of political form that we were throwing into question when we proposed lived-practice as a hypothesis for taking seriously a feminism based on our modes of being in the world, not instead of but in addition to traditional modes of activism. How, for example, is feminism meaningfully articulated through one’s quotidian life? How do these moments get communicated, virally or otherwise? Can they become the impetus for larger-scale change? And, what is at stake when we suggest that through moments of community, small scale and among peers – however temporary, spontaneous or constructed – feminism-as-lived-practice may provide a site of critical resistance?

LL: These are all important questions that must be meaningfully and thoroughly explored, and yet at the same time, one can see how far we had roamed from our original, very specific question:  What does feminism look like today?  It is perhaps inevitable that it should be so, that the portrait we would paint would be provisional, and shifting.  And while “Back to the Future” certainly did not follow the methodology we laid out at the beginning of the experiment, and the data we gathered was not nearly as linear and legible as we had hoped, and there were moments when we, as the moderators, found our actions at odds with our aims, we did succeed in making our feminisms, our movement a little more visible, a little more verbal, in all our disparate, thoughtful, varied, conflicting and conflicted replies.  Our experiment did not yield a thesis of any kind, but, like many successful failures, it did point to something perhaps more valuable: many, many more questions.

That experiment, now, is passed; let’s return from the retrospective to the future, this place from which we write, from where we are speaking.  Looking back at the failures and successes of our first experiment, it is clear that we are striving in our practices to make our sensibilities visible.  We are making ourselves visible not only to each other to build shifting alliances and imperfect frameworks, not only to previous generations to gain their support and strength, but also to future feminists. What will our moment, our movement, have achieved?  What coalitions will we have constructed and dismantled? What gaps left behind by the past are we trying to fill in? 

If, as one participant in Back to the Future pointed out about the 60s and 70s feminist moment, their language arose out of the need to describe situations for which there were no words, what liminal spaces are we filling in now with the language, the actions we are inventing?  If we are filling in the cracks created by past feminist techtonics, shifting into and out of alignment with our own needs, what gaps are we leaving behind us?

We are squinting into the distance, trying to see ourselves as we will-be-seen, from the future.  We are writing our own histories, in our silence or as we speak.  Let’s not be voiceless for fear of speaking wrongly or out of sync. Let’s speak loudly, let’s allow ourselves these questions, and then let’s listen for the answers…they will come to us from each other, and from the feminists of the future.