I am very excited to be part of a new special issue of Feminist Theory called “Doing Feminism: Event, Archive, Techné,” edited by Carrie Rentschler and Samantha Thrift, and featuring contributions from Kate Eichhorn, Anna Feigenbaum, Elizabeth Groeneveld, along with an article on feminist meme culture by Carrie and Samantha. This issue takes up questions of feminist historiography and movement-making in relation to a wide range of media practices, as Carrie and Samantha outline in their introduction. My contribution examines networks in building feminist history through a study of 1970s newsletter culture.
Network imagery and language was prevalent across a range of lesbian-feminist periodicals and newsletters in the 1970s. The names and purpose statements of these publications give a sense of the role mediated communication played in imagining a movement that would, above all, bring into the fold women who were not yet enfranchised as feminists. Countless publications featuring the word “network” in their title stand alongside other names invested in the political possibility of communication, such as the San Francisco-based Telewoman (1977–1986), which attached the Greek prefix “tele,” meaning “over a distance” — telephone, television, telegraph — to the shape of the newsletter form, but also to the idea of woman: Connected over distance are subscribers in need of information for practical reasons, but also for more emotional forms of care, such as to ameliorate isolation or provide access to mental health services. Reads Telewoman’s masthead: “We provide networking services for lesbians who live anywhere through this newsletter… . We connect lesbian mothers. We make referrals to women’s service organizations, lesbian-feminist therapists, and give job/housing information. We connect city lesbians and country lesbians. We serve isolated lesbians and integrate them into the local and larger women’s communities.”
From “She Who Owns the Press: The Physical World of Early Feminist Publishing” by Barbara Sjoholm (2012):
It’s difficult to convey the sheer butch glamour of printing. This black-fingered, muscle-building blue-collar work was just the sort of thing that many women found we really liked doing in the 1970s and early 80s. The Second Wave had more than its fair share of car mechanics, plumbers, carpenters, and electricians. Some women went into the trades because the paychecks were much better, and some forced their way up from apprentice to master because they were tough rabble-rousers. Others founded carpentry collectives or car garages so that we women didn’t have to depend on know-it-all men to build our fences or repair our cars.
Some women went into the printing trades for some of the same reasons as women fought to join the United Brotherhood of Carpenters—better paychecks and the love of loud noise. The majority, I suspect, were more like me—strong enough to haul boxes, determined enough to learn how a press worked and to stand on my feet for hours, but not really all that interested in trouble-shooting printing problems and dismantling and reassembling machinery. Like me, they were in printing for the thrill of it, lured by the vision of a process that created words on paper that could be turned into pages, bound into books, placed on shelves, bought and sold, held in hands, and taken into the heart and mind. That could transform the world.
There was often an obstacle between the woman writer and her public. That obstacle was a printing press. In the 1970s, that changed.
The other day I was talking with a friend who does a lot of art writing. Gabby was nervous about a text she had just submitted to a “serious” art journal. Worried it was “too personal,” she anticipated disapproving notes from her editor, a VERY SERIOUS LADY. I get it—art writing is notoriously detached and prone to posturing—but I also felt a bit of, “REALLY, is this still a thing!? We still have to feel self-conscious about making work that’s “too personal?”
I had just finished reading Alison Bechdel’s Are You My Mother (2012), a totally shattering account of the artist’s relationship with her mom, heavy on childhood gay shame and told against the backdrop of psychoanalytic and feminist theory. In it, Bechdel reflects on beginning her career with Dykes to Watch out For (1987–2008), a comic strip that represented her world but was at arm’s length from autobiography. Later she transitioned to working on explicitly personal material through her memoirs about her mother and father (Fun Home, 2006). She credits this transition to the influence of Adrienne Rich:
The question of “writing the self” is of course an old debate in feminist theory. Our French sisters—Cixous, Wittig, Kristeva, Irigaray—were all about l’écriture feminine, taking a poststructural approach to following the gendering of texts and language. American lesbian feminists like Audre Lorde and Rich told us about feminism by telling us about getting cancer, embodying the sting of racism, feeling ambivalent about the motherhood we’re supposed to love without question.
So if we already know all this stuff about women’s genres as bound up with autobiography, why the renewed interest in this debate right now? This is the question that’s been guiding a great deal of my reading over the last six months. I’m especially curious about framing this question in relation to media.
At the end of February I had the chance to help some super smart women—cheyanne turions and Hazel Meyer—throw together some readings for an iteration of the salon-style reading group, No Reading after the Internet, hosted on the occasion of Hazel’s exhibition No Theory No Cry at Art Metropole in Toronto. The centerpiece of the readings was Kate Zambreno’s “semiautobiography” Heroines (2012), a non-fictionish, experimental text that offers a speculative history of the wives of modernism—Zelda Fitzgerald, Vivienne Eliot, and others—set against Zambreno’s reflections on being the precariously employed academic wife of a tenure-stream research librarian. Zambreno writes with impunity about the necessary messiness of telling our stories; the body and the psyche figure prominently, and crying, sweating, avoiding the shower, getting our periods, or dealing with a rash are all valued epistemologies for communicating our emotional selves. Alongside Heroines we read selections from Ann Cvetkovich’s Depression: A Public Feeling (2012) and Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004). The reading group took place at Art Met; we sat amongst the work and began the reading by listening to Hazel talk about her practice, which is very much engaged with these questions about thinking through the body, the messy self, and the inseparability of emotions and politics.
As a blogger—Heroines began as online writing—Zambreno is interested in how her access to a network of other feminist writers, and her own publishing platform less bound to ideologies of genre, alters the experience of being a woman artist, but also raises totally unresolved issues from modernism such as “what is the work? Who is the author?” (282). She writes:
“Online we negotiate and navigate what it means to be a writer, for some of us what it means to be a woman… . Yet of course many of us don’t write every day. That’s why I think of this form as a form of l’écriture feminine: a rhythm of silence and raw emotion, these fervent utterings… . A dialogue, a communication: the Internet. So intimate. These writings are the shudderings of the ego and lamenting the wound. We blubber and ooze. Texts that are raw, vulnerable, bodily and excessive. Sometimes freaking out in public. We are naked, like Karen Finley. My blog at times feels like a toilet bowl, a confessional, a field hospital” (286).
For the last couple months this blog has turned into a series of images about feminism and computing or the Internet. This is partly about me being too preoccupied to do much writing, but it’s also a way of reflecting on Zambreno’s suggestion that networked computing is a key moment for feminist modes of expression. Now that we write or make art online we are simultaneously freed up from the isolation imposed by the gendered political economy of print publishing or art criticism, but also acutely aware of how some of the problems faced by the ladies of modernism stay the same across media forms: for example, women’s work can now be dismissed because it’s “just on tumblr.”
Computers appear often in Bechdel’s reflections on her process in Are You My Mother. Bechdel at her desk working on a series of macs over a twenty-year period is a backdrop that’s easy to miss in the text because it’s so quotidian; but then attention to the ordinary is sort of key to this whole question about feminist genres.
On that note, I’ll end this with an image from Are You My Mother.
Feminist Computing #3: Alison Bechdel’s macbook pro with ergonomic stand:
Yesterday I read Anna McCarthy’s (very short) essay in the current issue of Social Text (subscription required). It’s called “Casio” and it’s a personal essay about a Casio calculator she bought at a garage sale when she was twenty-three. McCarthy doesn’t use the calculator but can’t bear to part with it and the essay is a really beautiful reflection on the objects we attach to and what they mean to us across a great span of time. It’s also about moving, and the all the reckoning with objects and our attachments that this upheaval brings. This is the aspect of the essay that I attached to.
McCarthy describes an argument with her husband over the calculator during “what was a particularly grueling apartment move”:
“It was three in the morning, and he walked into my study with a look of desperation and a trash bag. I was sitting amid piles of books, assembling boxes. Can I pitch this, he asked, gesturing to the Casio on the desk. No, I said, growing shrill. No way. Absolutely not. He looked at me and suggested I take an Ativan.
But a talisman is better than an Ativan, especially when it works through the preemptive properties of forethought. By letting me fantasize about a disaster, the Casio reduced the probability that a real one would actually happen. The coincidence would be too great. Over the years, this fetish value has proven far greater than the thing’s value as a calculator.”
There are those who hold on to objects when they move in case they want to feel something for those objects again one day. This holding on happens under the guise of “I might need this later.” Then there are those who use a move to purge, often with abandon for future attachments, wanting to lighten their life in whatever way they can.
The weight of attachment is a bit different when it comes to the objects we share. When you end a relationship and divide your things in preparation to move, practically, and symbolically, away from the other, there are all kinds of half-truths you tell each other through objects. “You can have it, I never liked it anyway” can be a way of refusing to continue to share the same attachments to a thing; a gesture that wards off more hurt. “I have nice memories of that and I’d really like to keep it” marks a shared history that you won’t begin to deny. And then once you move and you’re still sorting through the detritus, the choices made about what to keep and what to throw away are always loaded with dead or far-too-present thoughts about what your attachment to an object meant in the past, and what it means right now, balanced with the suspicion that you might feel differently about it in the future.
I’ve finally posted my comprehensive exam readings lists. I’m putting these up because I’ve found other people’s lists enormously helpful in forming my own and I hope this will provide a resource for other students in the Communication and Culture program, and for other students putting together readings lists on cultural studies, communication studies, feminism, queer theory or online media. Assembling a list is a collaborative process, one with other students in your field, in your program, with your committee, and with the authors of the texts you’re reading who have followed citations of their own. In my program we write our formal questions toward the end of the reading process, so I’ll update with those once I’m finished with them.
In addition to my own lists, here are a couple of links to other lists that I’ve found helpful. If you have others, please add links in the comments.
Pamela Ingleton, PhD candidate at McMaster:
Cultural studies, social media, public sphere, the everyday, authorship
Fenwick McKelvey, PhD candidate at Ryerson:
Communication studies, code politics, digital research methods, political economy of information
Simon Fraser University Graduate Program in Women’s Studies:
Very comprehensive on feminist theory and cultural studies.