Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Feminism and the Newest Social Movements

Just a quick post to point people towards "'Becoming-Woman?' In theory or in practice?", an article by Michal Osterweil in Turbulence, a new British "journal-cum-newspaper that we hope will become an ongoing space in which to think through, debate and articulate the political, social, economic and cultural theories of our movements, as well as the networks of diverse practices and alternatives that surround them."

In the article, Osterweil celebrates the increasing importance in the newest generation of social movements around the world of "the visibility and centrality of critical and reflective practices captured perhaps most famously by the Zapatista phrase caminar preguntando – ‘to walk while questioning’." She goes on to note a couple of instances where she has heard this and other aspects of the sensibilities of these movements connected explicitly to feminism and an image of the feminine. She writes of her excitement about this connection, or this potential connection, but her simultaneous disappointment that our movements, our spaces, and our projects can so seldom deliver on this connection in a substantive way.

Her concluding paragraphs:

For who can deny the transformative and lasting effects of feminism? No, it hasn’t ushered in an age of equality or the end of patriarchy, machismo, or capitalism, but it has profoundly transformed our social relations, our cultural norms, our very ways of being and seeing in the world. Whatever our gripes with its multi-generational manifestations – and believe me there are many – there was/is something about the feminist movement that has made it effective in truly widespread, durable and still dynamic ways: becoming a part of the ‘common sense’ (at least in the global North). I am not claiming that other movements like civil rights, labour, environmental and others haven’t had important effects, but I do think feminism-as-movement – as an ethic and sensibility that forces people to consciously and continuously challenge dominant norms – is quite special.

Yes, feminism has certainly been rife with conflicts, rifts and problems. Open conflicts have taken place between and among women from different economic and cultural backgrounds, of different sexual and gender identities, and from and within different global regions: it is/was continuously the object of critique. However, understanding these conflicts as wholly negative is in part a problem of how we read conflict and critique. For I believe that one of the reasons feminism has been so significant, despite its most problematic manifestations, is precisely because it has managed (or been forced) to really engage the conflicts and complexities that have traversed it throughout its history: conflicts between universalism and difference, cultural values and rights, North and South, etc. And because the multiple and at times contradictory elements that comprised it have subsequently worked to transform the discursive and lived spaces of feminist articulation to life and politics. Some of the most important insights about organising across differences came as a result of the fact that women of colour, queer women, anarchist women and women from the global South (among others) critiqued, seceded and worked to change what was perceived as a hegemonic feminism. While there is no doubt that the critiques must continue and the conflicts still exist, it is also undeniable that they have been extremely productive, if not constitutive of some of feminism’s most important contributions and insights into the nature of power and social change. This ethos and ability – the experience – of engaging the intersectional complexities of life despite, or even with and through, conflicts and differences without falling apart or disbanding was part of what made the Escanda gathering so powerful.

Concluding Thoughts

I think that at their best our recent movements have the potential to have similar lived lessons emerge from encounters and even clashes among our different elements. It is that potential people were sensing when they referred to the movement as woman, as new, as exciting. However, while the language of networks, affinity groups and difference have been critical additions to our political vocabularies, they can also quite easily justify a level of complacency and comfort about remaining within our differences – as separate groups. Moreover, while we have imagined and deployed this discourse and rhetoric of difference, becoming and affect, I fear we have forgotten about the lived and messy level of experienced conflict, as well as the time and effort it takes to work through them productively. Recognising irreducible differences, attempting to work with forms of organisation that are more fluid, dynamic and based on affect and pleasure, rather than structure and strategy, are key and important elements of the ‘new politics’, but they are not sufficient. Nor, I would add, is theorising and calling them part of a new post-representational political logic.

Ultimately one of the most important lessons of feminism, as well as of Zapatismo and other sources of inspiration for our new politics, is that the most important insights come from lived and unexpected experiences, including lived encounters with difference and lived experiences of the limitations of certain political models and ideologies. If we only talk and theorise amongst ourselves we are very unlikely to come across encounters that disrupt our ways of doing and thinking. So it is not sufficient to come up with a new narrative of social change: the terms and modality of the conversation must be recast as well. However, we need more people talking, arguing even, to truly change the terms of the conversation. That is why despite my serious reservations about the choice to publish this issue of Turbulence, I feel that it may be OK. Or rather I hope that through its attempt at opening up an ongoing space and project of interrogation and reflection – where it may itself be an experienced object of critique – without trying to definitively capture a snapshot of, or define absolutely an adequate politics for our movements, it could turn out to be a good thing. But only if people engage with it, argue with it, add to it…

Read the whole article!

(Found via this post.)


Gabriel said...

I hope readers of this blog may accept my invite to visit my new blog and perhaps become regular friends over time....Greetings to all progressives from Ireland


Michael said...

I'm glad to hear feminists are drawing inspiration from the indigenous people of Mexico. For too long, white feminists have been content with climbing the corporate ladder. Achieving the position of CEO seemed to be the peak of success.

It's encouraging to hear some feminists have moved away from that kind of conformism.

Good blog.

Scott said...

Hi Gabriel...generally speaking, I'm not a fan of spam-like comments -- that is, those which do not engage at all with the content of the post they are attached to -- even when it is leftist spam. But as you have a new blog, I'll let you have a freeby...and good luck with your blogging!

Hi Michael...I appreciate the frustration to which you are giving voice, but I think I would suggest you are overgeneralizing. I think that it might make sense to expand "white feminists" in your comment to "middle-class white feminists who theorize from their oppression but not from their privilege." There is a rich history in this country, for example, of white working-class feminists in the trade union movement and in the anti-rape movement advancing politics that are critical of the behaviours you name in some of their middle-class sisters. Of course, often enough it has been possible to mount anti-racist critiques of their politics too, and anti-racist feminists of colour and indigenous women have definitely done so, but that would at least differ from the ones that you make.

I would also suggest a closer reading of the article that I have linked and quoted from -- one of Osterweil's points is that feminism, for all that it has failed to achieve and for all that it has not rooted out whiteness (for example) from the centre of its politics in many contexts, has still demonstrated more willingness to wrestle with such issues than almost any other movement, and this openness to constant critique and self-reflection is actually a similarity with some aspects of Zapatismo that the newest social movements in the West are trying to learn from.

Leyna said...

Very interesting and honest article. I think what Osterweil is expressing vis a vis social movements is the tension that always seems to exist between theory and practice, a tension not unique to feminism.

I just finished reading an article on feminism and postmodernism. The authors came to the conclusion that part of feminism's success on being a progressive movement was its propensity to be self-critical, which can in part be credited to the institutionalization of the feminist academy. Of course, there is more to it than that. The contemporary movement itself speaks to a wide audience- women, people with disabilities, women of colour, the working classes as well as men who suffer from oppression.

I am skeptical of Osterweil's assumption that feminism is somehow a failed enterprise. It is difficult to even view feminism as a cohesive movement- that is why we speak of feminisms in the plural. Yet, despite the biases and prejudices of the second-wavers, they nevertheless laid the foundations for our ever evolving contemporary movements. And regardless of what the media will tell you, feminism is not dead. Rather, there is a more grassroots approach to activism, nowadays.

But the grassroots approach to activism sometimes has its limitations, I suppose. I will stop here before I get off topic...


Scott said...

Hi Leyna...first of all, not too many people here in Sudbury are doing interesting political blogging, so it was nice to come across your blog a couple of weeks back!

Yes, I think what you draw out in terms of tensions (or ambivalences or contradictions) is central to what I found interesting about this piece. And of course, as you say and as I have written about lots before on this site, those tensions are not at all unique to feminism, though it is a particularly interesting case to learn about for the reasons that Osterweil outlines and that you elaborate further in your comment.

Actually, I would be inclined to read Osterweil's us of ideas about "failure" with respect to feminism in that light -- that is, in the context of her not only seeing those tensions but recognizing that they have positive aspects. In particular, I read her as trying to capture the tension between the fact that feminism has been more substantive than most other social movements in trying to really address challenges from its own margins versus the fact that its success in doing so despite that substantive effort has been mixed at best. That ambivalence has the potential to be a source of real learning for all of us, I think. And obviously feminism is not dead -- the first dominant media pronouncement to that effect was in 1972, or something like that, so it is hardly a source to be taken seriously on the subject. And I didn't read Osterweil as asserting that it was dead or complete or abandoned or anything final like that. So I didn't read her as meaning "failure" in some sort of absolute, it's-all-done kind of sense either, but rather as a way of getting at some of the ways in which it is still a work, or rather many works, that are still very much in progress, and still wrestling with the many challenges from their own margins.

And I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the limitations of grassroots activism, either here or in a post at your own site! :)

Michael said...

I did generalize, but my experience with white feminists has largely been that they are not very class conscious. I recognize there are many committed socialist feminists, Marxist feminists, anarchist feminists, and so on. I was only meaning to speak from experience.

Leyna said...

Thanks, Scott. I was also very excited to find socially conscious Sudbury blogger. :) I'll put something together very shortly about grassroots organizing.

Michael: There is an obvious discrepancy in what you are saying. Perhaps you should examine that a little more closely.


Scott said...

Michael: That's fair enough, I guess, though it was hardly clear from how you originally said it that you were speaking about a specific subset of feminists, based on your own experience with them, and in light of the knowledge that there were many other feminists to whom it did not apply. It also implicitly raises a larger question about how we should go about engaging with people of whose politics we know we have legitimate criticisms, yet who still have political things to teach us in other areas.

Leyna: I'm looking forward to it!