Funded by the Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies, graduate student Margaret Peters attended the Feminist Theory Workshop (FTW) at Duke University

Posted on Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Margaret Peters Headshot

Margaret Peters
PhD student
Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies

In March 2019, the Institute funded my trip to Duke University’s Feminist Theory Workshop. The experience was extremely affirming for me as an emerging feminist scholar and academic; feminists from around the world came together in two days of deep discussion, engagement and disagreement. I was able to make connections with a number of emerging scholars, who were invested in feminist theory and practice. I also networked with more established professors who offered me reading lists of theory, and advice on my teaching. I have never felt so welcomed, challenged, and acknowledged in an academically rigorous environment.

The first day began with talks from C. Riley Snorton and Lauren Berlant. Snorton pointed to the physical location of the swamp, only some miles away from the workshop’s location, arguing that this landscape of the uninhabitable was produced by slavery as a “zone of nonbeing,” where “to live in a place with too much life could render you to death.” Claiming the swamp as a Black thing allowed Snorton to start from a place that affirms blackness, rather than starting from the violence of anti-blackness. The swamp thus represents an unliveable space where some survived—which perhaps could function as a metaphor for the current political climate. While Snorton aimed to begin from a politics of refusal, Berlant instead began her talk by turning to the inconvenience of other people as a positive and useful thing, asking how it might be possible to “lose what’s poisonous without losing what makes life worth living.” Berlant’s proposal that sex and rape might be part of the same continuum of “inconvenience” proved to be controversial with the other workshop attendees, but it was clear that this controversy was perhaps part of her proposal, as inconvenience is rarely straightforward. Berlant pointed to the rise of erotophobia in the media, and a fear of sex justified by the trauma of rape. Instead of starting from a place of violence or trauma, however, she advocates for sexuality as noisy, comedic, and disturbing—that is a sex that disturbs our sense of self as separate from others, something that reminds us that we are not sovereign.

The second day was originally to begin with a keynote by Anne Anlin Cheng, but she unfortunately could not attend. Instead, Jocelyn Olcott took her place, asking how it might be possible to place a value on care that is outside of commodification. She argued that neoliberalism has failed to place any kind of value on care, and that putting a wage on housework will not change this concern. Commodification of care work cheapens this labour, keeping it in the realm of the feminine, and fails to make care profitable, in part because care elides our understandings of capital production. This early glance into Olcott’s emerging theory on care as uncommodifiable was especially useful to a lecture I myself was soon to give on care and disability; while many early independent living activists advocated for personal care workers, they shied away from using “care” in their language. While listening to Olcott’s discussion, I wondered about the conflict between feminist theoretical understandings of care in contrast to these early disability activists.

Finally, Kim TallBear gave the last keynote, pointing to the many ways that settler colonialism upholds and encourages hetero-monogamous relationships to the detriment of Indigenous relationality. Like Berlant, she refused the clear lines we often create around questions of sexuality, arguing that anthropocentrism erases the potential for sex and love beyond human bodies. Indigenous relations are often rooted in ceremonial kin making that extend the family beyond the biological or even the human. By recognizing the ways that settler colonialism has erased the potential for nonmonogamous relations and nonbiological relations, we can begin connecting ourselves not only to the other humans around us, but also to the nonhuman animals, to the thunderstorms, or the earth as well. It is especially important, TallBear argued, to constitute “good relations if possible” by being accountable to the Indigenous peoples, to their land, and to your relations there.

After the keynotes, the workshop attendees were divided into groups so that we could discuss. In this discussion group, we addressed the ways that starting from a place of affirmation, of care, and of relationality can be incredibly transformative, especially within institutions that are becoming increasingly neoliberal. Thinking through accountability was an especially fruitful theme that resonated throughout the workshop, and all four keynotes challenged the workshop attendees to be accountable to the past violence, but also the present and future justice inherent in relationality. Berlant ended the workshop by asking us if the quote “being in life without wanting the world” made sense to us. I personally read this as being committed to a different present, rather than imagining an impossible future. It is always possible to postpone an impossible future, but we need to begin being in life, even if this impossible future never arrives. Rather than clinging to a progress narrative that might say that things are “slowly changing,” we have to enact that change now, and be in our lives presently. I would argue that according to the 13th annual Feminist Theory Workshop, emerging feminist theory is swampy, inconvenient, but careful and relational.

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