Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

just speak nearby/working towards ideas

rayj's picture

Initially, I thought about feminism across different geographic locations as global feminism, as a feminism rooted in nations, defined and given flavor by the nation as a whole. That is, thinking about American feminism and Indian feminism and Ghanaian feminism and French Feminism. But then, that is SO American-centric of me. When I try to think of a certain American feminism, it’s impossible. Just to think of Bryn Mawr feminism strikes me as impossible. And I’m not trying to suggest that we’re all special feminist snowflakes, or that there is not sense of shared feminist thought or identity. But our shorthand, our labeling of feminisms as rooted in some national identity/location/region can have the possibility of flattening and erasing nuance from how feminists express themselves in a variety of contexts.

In rethinking what it means to look at feminism across geographies, I become stuck a second time in thinking it is problematic, the problem of borders as constructed. Borders are much more porous than the word connotes. There are not physical walls, and while there maybe be language differences across borders, this is only in an official sense, and has little to do with lived experiences. Borders are more of a cheesecloth than a steel wall. And as this cheesecloth allows for exchange and movement of language and people, it allows for exchange of ideologies, experiences, and identities.

Looking at documentarian Trinh Minh-ha’s Reassemblage, which was filmed in Senegal, but is purposefully not about a culture, a region, a way of life. Drawing heavily on post-colonial theory, Minh-ha’s work resists Western mode of narrativization and directed gaze, which destabilizes and disorients viewers used to this way of documenting, of representing the other (or the self, for that matter). Is it important to note that Minh-ha is Vietnamese and is presenting footage of a Senegalese village? That question, itself, reveals certain Western biases about non-Western people being, in some way, a shared community, one in their abject poverty and lack of fully industrialized, fully realized societies.

Minh-ha’s style is self-consciously opposed to Western academic methods of scholarship and work. Most succinctly and beautifully put by Minh-ha, herself, she does “not intend to speak about, just speak nearby.” This phrase has struck with me, and it seems to be at the root of my own understanding of what it means to do feminism, to be feminist. The directed gaze of Western academia suggests an authority, a seeing and subsequent reporting out of what has been observed, objectively. To counter this, Minh-ha asserts her own lack of authority by suggesting that she cannot speak ABOUT this village, she can only speak AROUND it, she can approach the village, she can approach coming to understand their lives through her own experiences, but she can never truly be an expert on them. And for me, this is decidedly feminist.

And for me this is decidedly global.

And for me this is decidedly geographic.

And for me this is decidedly local.

And for me this is decidedly community.

Vietnamese Woman.
Senegalese Women Men Children
American (not)Woman//femalebodiedperson//gender-confused//feminist-confident

And when I write american I bristle. When I reduce myself, Minh-ha, those people she spoke nearby in Senegal in the same way, that feels wrong to me. I want to be an international feminist without nationals. But to ignore those identities feels equally unproductive in thinking about anything, but specifically, here, in how I imagine feminists here and there and everywhere. So I am still stuck, in a way, in my ideologies. Which isn’t really something for me to be frustrated about at all. The project of trying to reconcile these views is productive and rich and educative at every turn.

What I am also interested in are the ways in which geographic is defined, the scale and scope of what I call something that is GEOGRAPHIC. It seems somewhat related to being global, but also more limited than that. And on the micro level, what does it mean to be attentive to geographies? What does it mean to be a feminist in the Cloisters and then a feminist in Thomas? Those may seem to be extremely minute geographic differences, but they are within the scope of my current situation, and, I think, could provide a way of looking at things on a larger scale, a scale it is almost impossible to imagine.

Informing this idea of understanding feminisms across geographies, across the globe, across the street, is Judith Butler’s work with grievable lives (Frames of War: When is Life Grievable?), which interrogates Western conceptions of humanity, and how we decide who to spend our grief on, to be capitalistic. Similarly, who counts as feminst? Do you have to be familiar with The Canon?  Do you have to consider suffrage a watershed moment for your movement? For your sex? Do you have to have a Western understanding of even what it is to be female, to be male? Who is a part of our movement, who doesn’t get a voice? To call to mind the work of Spivak, who do we speak for and who do we silence, deliberately or more covertly?

What I want to do is play with the form of video, to see how that medium could facilitate my exploration of what it is to be a geographically sensitive feminist. I have been thinking about Minh-ha’s work since I saw it a year ago, and am equally influenced by feminist video artists and feminist art collectives that concerned themselves with the intersection of visual media and feminist ideologies and politics. Scholar of media and culture Marita Sturken, as well as Lucas Hilderbrand (author, Inherent Vice) have discussed the liberatory possibilities of video art and of the act of documentation. This is not without a critical glance, though, an understanding of the ways in which documentation is a troubled category and ideological frame for making sense of our world and the world of others.
This essay has somewhat turned into a statement of intent, a proposal for the work I want to do in the next weeks. This video I have in mind to make, I have been ruminating on it for a while, and this is perhaps simply me being opportunistic and using this class as a frame, structure for my work, to guide me and give me purpose. I feel compelled to make it, although what IT will be, exactly, is unknown. I feel compelled to share it, or to have the intention of sharing it, and the intention of an audience. Can I speak nearby? Can I document but not document? Can I capture but not capture? Like a cloud, like vapors, like queer theory, these are things I can just gather near me in a wide net, but can never truly hold or call my own or keep to myself or claim as property or preserve, fix, freeze in time/space.
So I suppose this web event is me saying, I’m working on this THING and we’ll see how it goes, and also, as always, questions, questions, I have so many questions.


Anne Dalke's picture

"More of a cheesecloth than a steel wall"

Wow. what strikes me first is what an extensive space you've traveled (speaking intellectually, not geographically) from your first web-paper, which was all about the "decidedly feminist" character of Satrapi's "telling her readers how she wants to be read." Now you are exploring what seems to me to quite the opposite position--that of resisting such positions, resisting all related modes of "narrativization and directed gaze," taking instead as your model Trinh Minh-ha’s intention "not  to speak about,  just speak nearby.”

I'm very excited to imagine with you, and be one member of the audience, for the video you can now begin to imagine making. I also agree that documentaries are troubled categories for this sort of project, because of their long history of offering clear ideological frames for viewing, but it's precisely for that reason --the possibility of an intervention--that I think this project shows real promise.

Your statement of intent put me in mind of a few other things, which might feed the fire:

* you know that there's a whole field called Feminist Geography?
See, for example, the journal, Gender, Place and Culture --which I think is generally way too border-attentive for your purposes, but you might find some of the work there generative.

* several of your classmates are also troubling the notions of fixed identity and ideology; see, for instance, What's that Word for When You Have to Break It to Find It?

*for my genre class, where we're about to look @ Neil Gaiman's A Game of You, I just dug out some material highlighting "the holy moment" from Waking Life. Do you know this rotoscoped film? Stylized, surreal, dream-like, and…

opening of possibilities, I think. Here's the transcript of Chapter 11, and here's the holy moment itself!

So maybe your next web event should be the storyboard, or some other concrete step "towards" your video? Which would then be your final project for this class?

P.S. another reason I think you can make this film is that your writing has a filmic quality. You repeatedly evoke such sharp, vivid images--"more of a cheesecloth than a steel wall," we're not "all special feminist snowflakes," etc. etc.....