Polywog

Journal from a First Conference, March 2008

Journal from a First Conference, March 2008

The Ninth Annual Women’s and Gender History Symposium at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign is my first academic conference. Anxiety has eaten me up for weeks as I’ve read the last chapter of my undergraduate thesis over and over, and edited it to a threadbare eight pages. My newest lover teaches me how to breathe and practice “claiming space,” pushing my energy outward rather than letting the energy of my surroundings cave in to the center my body. Christian works at a trendy café in Brooklyn, the neighborhood where he was born and raised, where gentrification rose up around him. Many of his white customers, unwittingly or not, attempt to manipulate his energy through the customer-server relationship: taking, using, ab-using. It is not their white skin that imposes; it is their arrogance. It is because of this he learned how to pick up and shape energy like clay, like a shield, like strength. And so our survival mechanisms make us beautiful: angry-beautiful, strong-beautiful.

There are twenty-four people in the first panel. Can I stretch my energy, my presence through twenty four bodies? Can my body brook the weight of a twenty-four-strong gaze? I’ll be like a sun, shining, shining. I’m a white upper-class seen-and-not-heard girl. I’m a shy try-to-be-invisible girl, a don’t-even-impose-your-own-smallest-presence girl. I take note of the other speakers’ mistakes: some begin their papers without reiterating the title; some begin with muffled voices and only speak clearly after the introduction. I write in my journal: “Enunciate words. Speak with joy.”

In the back of my mind I’m holding a hazy idea—or rather, an intuition—that I want to pursue: too soupy to pick up, impossible to examine with the eye, just algae lurking in a gray gray pond. But there is something in there that I want: something you could find underfoot and pick up with your toes. I’ve been calling it “feminist and anti-racist ways of knowing,” but the term doesn’t really work to describe what I want. It’s just a “placeholder” for something else. When I say “feminist and anti-racist ‘ways of knowing’ that break from Western epistemologies,” I get blank stares and requests for specificity. My lack of clarity eats at me, leaves me dizzy and not breathing. I do not like the flatness of my brain, the algae in my toes, the clouds in my eyes. I want to be sharp.

Luckily, Stan and I were being equally awkward at a wine and cheese gathering this evening. Kicking around the edges of the room, we met and soon discovered we were on the same panel the following morning. We walked back to our hotel together and sat by the fireplace in the lobby, reading our papers and asking each other questions. He’s the only person I’ve had much of a conversation with since I’ve been here. Thank goodness because now at least one person won’t be a stranger tomorrow.

After my panel, I walk slowly across the iced Illinois sidewalks back to the hotel to cry and sleep. It went off successfully enough. The third panelist did not show up, but Stan’s paper on Mary Ogden’s 1930’s Home of Truth colony complemented mine on queers in environmental activism in the early 2000’s, and together the papers provoked questions about separatism, the West, and theory and praxis that were useful and exciting to us both. I remind myself that creation goes hand in hand with breathing: a fire cannot burn without oxygen.

Before I knew they were the keynote speakers, Sara Ahmed and Saidiya Hartman shined through the audience with a clarity of thought in their questions and a clear purpose in their thinking. They ask sharp questions, turning their ideas in their hands, opening them and closing them with nimble fingers, clear eyes. There was some presence surrounding them that the others did not have: contented, critical, clear; elegant, intelligent, sharp. The general air of competition, anxiety, and judgment disappeared when I turned my attention to them. They were academic princess lionesses. How did they get this way? I immediately admired both of them, and I know that this is a part of what I want, part of my desire in academia: to sit with a complexity, to understand it, but not to meld it or blur it.

Something changed in me between Saidiya Hartman’s keynote and returning to Bronxville. My history teacher says periods of fuzzy thinking often precede moments of awakening and clarity. All term my brain has been clouded and overburdened and clogged and gray; disconnected, tired. Sometimes it takes leaving and coming back to wake up. It was getting away; it was leaving and listening.

Before Saidiya began reading her speech, she mentioned it was something of a meditation on methodology. Methodology. The word passed by without much notice on my part. Saidiya spoke about the loss associated with an archive bereft of Black women. She dwelled on two lines about a girl named Venus who slipped, ever momentarily, into a court record. Hartman dabbles with fiction as she attempts to imagine Venus, but ultimately believes that there is no way to have closure on the trauma of slavery and of the absence of girls and women in the slave ship archives. Instead, Venus should remind us that the wounds of slavery are always open. And offering us no tools to close the wounds, she dabbled in the imaginative elements of historical fiction, a medium through which she could morn the absence of Black women in the slave ship archives. After her talk she admitted that she did not follow the rules of traditional historical scholarship: “the unnameable catastrophe of slavery erased any conventional modality for writing an intelligible past.”

Back in Bronxville suddenly the clouds are cleared from my mind. With much to do to prepare for classes this week, I put the conference out of my mind and dip into Borders and Boundaries: Women in India’s Partition. The first chapter lit me on fire. The authors, Menon and Bhasin, situated their work theoretically within feminist history and trauma theory, and explained how their methodology was integrated into these theoretical standpoints. They echoed Saidiya’s talk in arguing that trauma refuses a linear narrative. An adequate historical narrative of a traumatic event would reflect memories that are shattered, fragmented, pre-verbal, and sometimes conflicting. Trauma interrupts a linear, singular narrative. They suggest rather than disqualifying a historical record based on conflicting interpretations, readers “read ‘difference’ and incorporate that dimension in their analysis” (29). To reconstruct a history entirely linearly, piece together some semblance of objectivity out of a shattered collective subjectivity, is to write a history contrary to the way it is experienced.

I realized in reading Borders and Boundaries that what I am getting at with my “ways of knowing” has a very simple name, a name I already knew but did not recognize: methodology. Methodology: it is how we do things. It is praxis. It changes and develops over time, and historians have a history of defining it and breaking the rules of past definitions.

Saidiya’s talk dabbled in imagination, effectively breaking the rules of traditional historical methodology and drawing on a tradition which Audre Lorde’s biographer, Alexis De Veaux, drew on in Warrior Poet: “Whether the written accounts of Lorde’s trip were ‘fact’ or ‘fiction,’ both her journal and aspects of Zami serve as primary sources for interpreting the significances of her experiences…” (379). De Veaux notes that such blending of autobiography and fiction emerges from their symbiotic relationship in African American tradition.

I walked to the library with all this in my mind and once there found one last gift toward the clarity I’d been wanting: Methodology of the Oppressed by Chela Sandoval. Again, methodology. Chela looks to twentieth century canonical theories for seeds of a decolonizing feminist consciousness. She is collecting “oppositional forms of theory, practice, identity, and aesthetics” which she interprets as technologies of resistance. Chela Sandoval, Saidiya Hartman, Alexis De Veaux, and Menon and Bhasin all synchronize around this point of oppositional methodology. And my friend Christian, too, formed his own methodology of the oppressed behind the counters of less-than-empowering relationships with white customers. Where Chela looks to canonical Western writers for seeds of methodologies of the oppressed, I want to look to feminist writers themselves to trace the history and development of feminist methodologies.

My ideas are still broad but I found a beginning language to describe them. I left and came back. And leaving made space for thinking and breathing, making room for one small step toward clarity of mind and purpose. I hope the clouds clear, the water quickens, and the algae dissipates for a time, and perhaps that is the best a conference can do.

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