Some notes on criticality (please note these are notes!).
It was wonderful to launch our new Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths last week. .We had such a lively and energetic discussion of some of the problems we come up against as feminists. I felt lucky and privileged to be part of the discussion.
Let me share with you some of my brief opening comments.
The first time I came to Goldsmiths was in June of 2000, for a conference organised by Angela McRobbie on “Reinventing Feminism.” I remember getting lost on route to Deptford Town Hall and feeling rather daunted. But I also remember the energy of being in that room; I often experience feminism as energy, the energy of making feminist connections can be how we survive being depleted by doing feminist work.
It is certainly the case that Goldsmiths has had a long feminist history across a range of sites, and there are now members of the centre from 12 different departments or units. Feminism at Goldsmiths has involved different kinds of projects, archival as well as academic, protests as well as programmes. In launching this centre today we are thus not creating a new academic community, but rather formalising a community that has a long and varied history. We partly wanted to do this – formalise or to give form to -because although those of us who are here know other feminists who are here it is surprisingly difficult to find feminism at Goldsmiths for those who are newly arrived or visiting. I used to be quite aware that if you scrolled down the list of the many departments and research centres on the College’s website, you would not find any of the words (Gender, Women, Sex, Sexuality, Trans, as well as Feminism) that might make you aware of where we are located. We wanted the word “feminism” right there, as a reorientation device; a way we can find each other, certainly, but also a way of showing that any institution committed to criticality, to creativity, to knowledge as power, to social justice, needs feminism up there, right up there.
Up there; right up there: I am implying something by these words; you might be able to hear the implication. I am implying that part of the work of feminism in the academy, as well as elsewhere, is the work that it takes to make, to keep, feminism as part of our work. We often have to be quite insistent, if we are not the word slip away, a slipping which is often more than about loss of a word. Part of our work is to keep “feminism” alive; that word that connects us to so many histories of struggle that had to take place, which had to have already taken place for some of us in this room, maybe most of us in this room, to be here at all. Events like this one, the launching of a new Centre for Feminist Research should rightly involved celebration; we are marking an arrival, we are recognising the effort of that arrival. There is lot of work just to get to this point. One of the things I love about feminism is this: the attention and concern for the question of labour, for whom does the housework, what we might call institutional housework. There are so many mundane and ordinary tasks that are necessary for a centre to exist, work that require using our limbs, not just heads, but hands and feet; leg work, handwork. I still think this remains such an important feminist question: housework. Who does the work that is essential to the reproduction of the possibility of an existence? Institutional house work like other housework is so often under-valued and unevenly distributed. I want to acknowledge here all the students as well as many of my colleagues who have lent a hand to make this centre possible.
What make a centre for feminist research possible is also what makes a centre for feminist research necessary. Or I might even say: the Centre for Feminist Research was necessary before it became possible. And this centre is necessary because we need feminism to explain what we are up against – deeply embedded and entrenched inequalities including gender inequalities – as well as to transform the worlds we explain. One of the commitments of this centre is to feminist genealogy: to thinking about feminist intellectual and political histories as a collective and vital resource that help us understand as well as live in the present.
So we had to make the Centre for Feminist Research possible because it was necessary. We can still ask: Why here? Why now? I alluded earlier to the importance of getting the word “feminism” up there alongside other words like “critical”. I want to make a stronger argument: it is because of the use of words like “critical” that we have to work even harder to get words like “feminism” up there. As many of you here will know Goldsmiths’ own institutional identity is predicted on being critical. We use critical as an adjective in front of pretty much everything. So I have called the kinds of sexism at Goldsmiths, critical sexism, the kinds of racism, critical racism. I am being cheeky of course. But there is an argument too: critical sexism and critical racism is the sexism or racism reproduced by those who think of themselves as critical and thus not involved in the reproduction of sexism or racism. This problem of how criticality can allow reproduction is not specific to Goldsmiths, by any means. But it is an issue. The assumption of being critical and cutting edge can often mean not seeing how we implicated in mainstreams, including mainstream forms of oppression.
So there are many teaching programmes offered by Goldsmiths across a range of departments in which there are courses in which only a white male European intellectual genealogy is taught; not only that, there are individual and institutional defences in place for justifying and reproducing that restriction of, well, the universe. As some of you know, I am a feminist killjoy. I consider it an essential part of my job description. I even have the t-shirt! So I am always willing to point these restrictions out. And how often, when I do point them out in the form of a critique, that critique is dismissed as “identity politics,” or I am called a 1980s feminist, as being date; out of fashion, out of time. We need to learn from the techniques of ant-feminism, which are, in effect, the same techniques for justifying sexism.
You can see our first major workshop on May 9th is on sexism. Our tagline is: sexism a problem with a name.
It is a simple starting point: the time for feminism is not over. The time for feminism is just beginning. We wanted to launch our new centre based on old histories with a discussion by feminists either of their own experience as feminists at Goldsmiths or in relation to their own departments, centres, networks or practices. It is a chance for us to hear how feminism happens, where feminism happens, at Goldsmiths.
I first became cautious about criticality when I began doing research into diversity work in universities. The first time I expressed this caution was in 2004, in an article “Declarations of Whiteness: The Non-Performativity of Ant-Racism” published by borderlands.
I wrote here:
Before posing this question through an analysis of the effects of how whiteness becomes declared, we could first point to the placing of “critical” before “whiteness studies,” as a sign of this anxiety. I am myself very attached to being critical, which is after all what all forms of transformative politics will be doing, if they are to be transformative. But I think the “critical” often functions as a place where we deposit our anxieties. We might assume that if we are doing critical whiteness studies, rather than whiteness studies, that we can protect ourselves from doing – or even being seen to do – the wrong kind of whiteness studies. But the word “critical” does not mean the elimination of risk, and nor should it become just a description of what we are doing over here, as opposed to them, over there.
I felt my desire to be critical as the site of anxiety when I was involved in writing a race equality policy for the university at which I work in the UK, where I tried to bring what I thought was a fairly critical language of anti-racism into a neo-liberal technique of governance, which we can inadequately describe as diversity management, or the “business case” for diversity. All public organisations in the UK are now required by law to have and implement a race equality policy and action plan, as a result of the Race Relations Amendment Act (2000). My current research is tracking the significance of this policy, in terms of the relationship between the documentation it has generated and social action. Suffice to say here, my own experience of writing a race equality policy, taught me a good lesson, which of course means a hard lesson: the language we think of as critical can easily ‘lend itself’ to the very techniques of governance we critique. So we wrote the document, and the university, along with many others, was praised for its policy, and the Vice-Chancellor was able to congratulate the university on its performance: we did well. A document that documented the racism of the university became usable as a measure of good performance.
This story is not simply about assimilation or the risks of the critical being co-opted, which would be a way of framing the story that assumes “we” were innocent and critical until we got misused (in other words, this would maintain the illusion of our own criticalness). Rather, it reminds us that the transformation of “the criticall” into a property, as something we have or do, allows “the critical” to become a performance indicator, or a measure of value. The “critical” in “critical whiteness studies” cannot guarantee that it will have effects that are critical, in the sense of challenging relations of power that remain concealed as institutional norms or givens. Indeed, if the critical was used to describe the field, then we would become complicit with the transformation of education into an audit culture, into a culture that measures value through performance.
Assuming one’s criticality can be a way of not admitting one’s complicity. I think complicity is a starting point. We are implicated in the worlds that we critique; being critical does not suspend any such implication.
I think gradually my argument has become stronger (though I am very aware of the performative contradiction of being critical of being critical!). In the conclusion to On Being Included (2012) I refer to the problem of criticality in a different way, which is closer to how I described it in my comments for the launch:
I should note as well that I have experienced the most defensive reactions to such points from white male academics who think of themselves as “critical.” When criticality becomes an ego ideal, it can participate in not seeing complicity. Perhaps criticality as an ego ideal offers a fantasy of being seeing. As I suggested in chapter 5, critical whiteness might operate as a way of not seeing in the fantasy of being seeing: the critical white subject by seeing his or her whiteness, might not see themselves as participating in whiteness in the same way.
I would be tempted to name the phenomena I am describing here as “critical sexism” and “critical racism”: the kind of sexism and racism reproduced by critical subjects who do not see the reproduction because of their self-assumed criticality. I would note here that my own college in which many academics have a critical self-identity (the college even identifies itself as critical) there are regularly events, often organised under the rubric of critical theory, in which speaker lists are all male and all white (where there is not even a “but one”). We need to point out the places where “criticality” itself becomes complicit with the reproduction of the same. I should also note here that many practitioners suggested to me that universities are particularly hard institutions to do diversity and equality work because academics tend to think of themselves as “critical subjects,” and thus tend not to see themselves as part of a problem.
I think what I would like to pick up is “criticality” as a “fantasy of being seeing” or of being able to grasp processes that would otherwise be hidden from view. I think what is at stake in this fantasy is how the problem then becomes something that is “over there.” I am reminded of one time when a male student in one of my Women’s Studies classes occupied a considerable amount of time and the space by talking about how men tend to occupy time and space. Critiquing something “there” can be a way not only of not critiquing it “here” but of enacting the very problem you are critiquing there (critique as a way of redoing by appearing to undo, in sum). Indeed, the identification of the problem “there” becomes part of the performance of the problem “here.”
I would not follow this observation with a call for self-critique. In my experience self-critical whiteness, or self-critical masculinity, is no less occupying of space. The time taken up by self-critique is still time taken up.
I think I need to spend more of my own time working through what is at stake in critical racism and critical sexism. I make it a new year’s resolution!
I want to share one last set of observations before this feminist killjoy takes some time off. Below are some comments I shared during my department’s anniversary conference last November. I didn’t explicitly frame my comments in terms of the problem of “criticality” but I did try and discuss how sharpening our analytic tools to read what is “out there,” can be a way of not sharpening the tools we need (which are not the masters tools, as Audre Lorde would teach us) to dismantle what is “here.”
I am so pleased to be part of this panel. I am so pleased to be part of this department. I want to say right at the beginning what some of my colleagues might be tired of hearing me say, as I am saying it so often, probably too often: and that is that I am not in or from Media Studies, the field whose future is our question. But that is a useful starting point, because if I am not in, or from, I am still here and I am speaking. I often describe this department as a “home for waifs and strays,” by which I mean: this department has provided a shelter for those of us who did not feel at home in a traditional discipline. It has provided shelter but not at the expense of taking media seriously as an object of study; nor at the expense of thinking how the academic field of Media Studies can contribute to policy or to a reflection with publics and as publics about the role of media in deciding the kind of future we might have, where the “we” of course is kept open as part of the question. But this sense of being open to those who are not at home elsewhere has what for me made this department so full of creative vitality. I think we can claim that, should claim that, as part of a legacy.
I speak today as someone whose primary political and intellectual attachments are to feminism, anti-racism and queer politics. These attachments shape not only the kind of work I do, in terms of research or teaching, but also how I think of the university itself, the university whose future we also need to fight for, if Media Studies is to have a future, but also the university as what we need to work on, as well as work at. I will return to this “on” by looping through an example.
On October 23rd there was a headline on BBC news. You would have read it; it was a headline repeated endlessly and it was familiar. “Blond Girl, 7 removed from Dublin Roma family.” This case followed quickly from another case in Greece; and led to a series of cases, in which racial profiling, to stop and search the signs of darkness, because reproductive and familial profiling, to stop and search for the fair children lost into dark homes. Now this is familiar, I am sure most of us here have a sense of how to read this. We have been trained in Cultural Studies: we have the tools. We can see how race and reproduction of have come a double bind: we can see how “saving the white child” has become a technique for governing populations; we know how the reproduction of whiteness works to generate a crisis, in which whiteness is under threat; we might know how the constitution of the Roma peoples as criminal is part of a history of European racism. I want to suggest that far from knowing how to read this, we have yet to have the tools to read this, to generate a full explanation of what is going on. If Media Studies is to have a future, we must as it were “start again,” each time something like this happens, it cannot be confirmation of what we already know.
My own work on racism (particular my books, Strange Encounters and On Being Included) began with the figure of the stranger. I suggest that the stranger is not someone we do not don’t recognize but that the stranger is the one already recognised as a stranger, a body out of place. The stranger is a “dark figure.” The racialization of the stranger is not immediately apparent disguised by the strict anonymity of the stranger, the one who after all, we are told from childhood, could be anyone. But we learn from this example how the “could be anyone” points to some bodies more than others. This “could be anyone” thus only appears as an open possibility, stretching out into a horizon, in which the stranger reappears as the one who is always lurking in the shadows. Frantz Fanon the Black psychiatrist and revolutionary who diagnosed for us the psychic effects of colonization also taught us to watch out for what lurks, seeing himself in and as the shadow, the dark body, who is always passing by, at the edges of social experience.
You might be thinking: why I am speaking of this? Because if we follow the stranger as a figure, we are travelling into the heart of the body of Media Studies. This figure is saturated by affect; it is what I call “sticky,” it carries with a history that does not have to be named or declared, a history that is available as a resource with which to make judgments about who or what is the problem. And contained in this figure, are a set of distinctions between light and dark that have become an intrinsic part of the moral as well as social landscape. When we think of places as rough, they become dark neighbourhoods (darkness can register from class and racial difference); colonialism itself was imagined as lighting up the dark places, bringing others into light, into modernity, into whiteness. Every category of thought that we exercise in creating a body of work that we might call Media Studies (such as modernity, humanity, democracy, freedom) are saturated by these racial histories, that make distinctions for us, even without us.
So what does that mean when we are thinking about the future? It means that questions of race and racism, which are entangled with reproduction and the family, and thus gender and sexuality, are fundamental to Media Studies. They should not be assigned to a race course, or a gender course. They should not be given as one lecture on a social theory course, as they often are. Race, gender and sexuality are often treated as “particulars” and thus dislodged from the general. Even in this department, now with 7 female professors, and 5 Black or Minority Ethnic members of staff (diversity should not be reduced to a body count, but numbers can be very affective!), I struck by how some of our curriculum gets stuck. We don’t need a diversity audit (though I think it would be a good idea) to tell us how much of the set reading for some of our core courses represents a white male European intellectual tradition. It is like the default setting, what tends to reproduced unless we consciously aim for it not to be reproduced. And the message is this: that this is the foundation; that this is what our house is built upon. We too can create our own strangers, bodies that pass by at the edge of social experience; shadows that fall because of what and who we light up. Two years ago a third year Black British student came to my office in tears. She said to me that the course on Media, Ethnicity and Nation, was first time in her university experience that she felt her own experience had been represented in the materials she was reading. She came to me with grief in her heart, the kind of grief that comes from the retrospective realisation of not being included, of not being, of being not.
We all need to learn how not to make strangers by assuming certain bodies (including bodies of knowledge) as the bodies at home. Whilst I do think of this department at Goldsmiths as a shelter, and whilst I am grateful for the dwelling (for this dwelling) I think the future rests not on building more or even better houses, but on unhousing, on bringing the walls down. Those lodged as particular can dislodge the general. That, friends and colleagues, is my hope.
I wish all my fellow feminist killjoys all the best over the break (or just a break, that can be enough!). If you are sharing a family table, that place we tend to accumulate feminist killjoy memories, I am sending you killjoy solidarity!