Gender Focus Reads – The Global and the Intimate: Feminism In Our Time

by | July 28, 2012
filed under Books, Can-Con, Feminism

The Global and The Intimate coverby Jarrah Hodge

If there’s one thing I miss about doing my undergraduate degree in Women’s Studies it’s the opportunity it provided to read new and emerging research and academic commentary on a wide range of feminist and gender issues. Recently I lucked out and had a chance to go back into that world when I was offered a review copy of The Global and the Intimate: Feminism in our Time, which is a new collection of academic writings edited by UBC Geography professor Geraldine Pratt and Columbia University Associate Dean and literary critic Victoria Rosner.

The collection challenges the split we tend to perceive between the global and the local/intimate/personal. It also challenges us to think beyond our usual standpoint and background through its inclusion of writings from five continents and a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds. It invites us to both recognize how geography shapes and alters lived experiences as well as to form connections across those boundaries.

One of the essays in the collection I found most interesting was Sidonie Smith’s reflection on the book Zlata’s Diary and other “stories of suffering ethnicity”. I had never really considered how narratives like Zlata’s (about her girlhood in Sarajevo in the early 1990s) have been commodified and become one of the main tools Westerners use (not necessarily deliberately) in understanding global human rights issues. However, Smith points out this sentimentalizing of the “suffering victim of ethnic nationalism in extremes” ends up taking away from Zlata’s historical and geographical specificity as she is compared to and conflated with Anne Frank.

Other contributions are a bit more personal, such as Rachel Adams’ story of finding out her newborn son has Down syndrome and realizing how this connects her globally to parents of children with developmental disabilities. There’s also Min Jin Lee’s dismantling of stereotypes around interracial love, specifically talking about her own experience being confronted with the belief that all marriages between Asian women and white men are “the mail-order kind.”

Overall it’s a varied and fascinating text. I interviewed Geraldine Pratt and Victoria Rosner over email about the process of compiling their book and the importance of the issues it addresses:

Me: Both of you come from very different disciplinary backgrounds. How did you come together to edit this book? 

V: Gerry and I do come from very different academic backgrounds — she is a geographer and I am a literary critic. We also live in different parts of the world: I lived in Texas when Gerry and I first met, and she resides in Vancouver. We were introduced by another geographer/literary critic pair: Cindi Katz and Nancy K. Miller. As editors of the journal WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, they had the idea that the journal should be serially guest-edited by scholars from very different disciplines. And so they put Gerry and me together. The journal issue went very well, and we decided to extend our collaboration into a book. I do have the idea that it can be very productive to collaborate with people from way outside your field. Every discipline has its own proclivities, its own blindnesses, its own habitual bugbears. Working with someone who doesn’t share that history can lead to productive insights and some healthy self-examination.

G: Yes, we were beneficiaries of two intellectual match-makers. Victoria had just completed her book on Modernism and the Architecture of Private Life and I am a social/cultural geographer. Knowing that we have mutual but different interests in space, place and everyday life, Nancy and Cindi thought that we might come up with something interesting. And although we do come from very different disciplinary backgrounds we are both a bit undisciplined. Victoria’s book is as much about architectural history as it is about literature, and human geographers are notorious interdisciplinary magpies. Beyond an interest in place and space, we share a common body of feminist theory.

Me: How did you go about getting submissions? Were there any topics that people wrote about that really surprised you – that you hadn’t thought about before?

V: Given the topic of our volume, we were really ambitious about circulating our call widely and assembling a roster of contributors from as many areas of the world as possible. I think we did everything but post our call for papers in Times Square. We got many, many submissions, but there were also a lot of obstacles — among them the monolingualism of the project and the established nature of networks of scholarly circulation. Many of the essays we received did surprise us, in the best of ways. I did not expect to have an essay on oysters in this volume! Nor did I anticipate the kinds of implicit conversations that sprang up among the essays: Inderpal’s work on “security moms,” for instance, ” in relation to Marisa’s on incarcerated women.

G: The process was a little different for the Women’s Studies Quarterly issue and our new book. The time frame for the journal was quite short and, as Victoria says, it involved a widely-distributed call for papers, with somewhat disappointing but predictable results in terms of geographical coverage. With the edited book, we republished three of the papers from the journal issue but wanted to come at the theme fresh, asking authors who we thought would have fascinating things to say about the global and intimate but who had not contributed to the earlier journal issue. Again we wanted papers from a range of disciplinary and geographical locations. In many senses an edited volume is a dream (and possibly self-indulgent) academic exercise: you invite and try to cajole people whose work you admire to think a bit about a theme of your devising. Not every one accepted our invitation but we were excited that so many extraordinary scholars did.

With our invitation we sent each author a long description of how we thought the pairing of the global and intimate might open up feminist (and other) perspectives but we left the substance and style of the contribution wide open, with faith and optimism that we would find the structure and thematic continuity as the papers came in. And, yes, the oysters were a surprise but such a necessary one because this focus brings to the book an engagement with the ‘new materialism’, and forces the question of what feminist theorising is or can be when gender is no longer at the forefront of the analysis. We might not have commissioned an essay on seed catalogues but Agnese Fidecaro’s analysis of Jamaica Kincaid’s writing about them within the frame of the global and intimate is fascinating and brings a postcolonial perspective into the mix.

Me: Your book moves away from some more traditional academic text territory by including more diverse perspectives and some more personal/narrative writings. Do you hope this will make the book more accessible to a wider audience, or were you intending this to be more for academics?

V: We didn’t include personal pieces in order to attract a non-academic audience, though I am very glad if these chapters make the book more approachable and engaging. From the beginning, we have been interested in process and in the kinds of experiences that are generally veiled in the academic work product. At first we asked our social scientists to write autobiographical accounts of their fieldwork. But we wanted to make the option to write in a personal mode open to contributors of all backgrounds. So we went wider — we asked for pieces that explored the personal experiences that were powerful sources for professional work. In fact you can see this emphasis on process in pieces that are not first-person: in the Sangtin Writers contribution, for example.

G: As well, we want our text to be accessible to students and used to structure course syllabi; the personal writing may offer a way in for some students. And as we discuss in the introduction, feminism has a long history of intermingling personal and scholarly writing, in part as a way of challenging what counts as knowledge. And so we continue within this lineage. Layered onto this traditional feminist approach to personal writing are concerns about de-colonising knowledge production, an absolutely critical concern within any text conceived within ‘the global,’ and one that the Sangtin Writers, for instance, address in their chapter. As editors we’ve tried to strike a balance between helping authors clarify their arguments and communicate as clearly as possible to a wide international audience and retaining the different cadences and styles of writing that exist within different cultural writing traditions.

I would add that within my discipline of geography at the moment there is a huge amount of interest in writing social science otherwise and experimenting with writing and form. I’ve turned my research transcripts into a testimonial play, for instance, and several geographical journals have dedicated entire issues to creative non-fiction written by ‘traditional’ geographers. Some of this enthusiasm for alternatives to conventional academic writing stems from a desire to reach a wider audience, some reflects a commitment to exploring ways of decolonising knowledge production, and some comes from the widespread interest in affect and performance and the different epistemological registers in which varying forms of writing and representations operate. They work differently and work on the reader/audience differently. These interests and concerns are alive for us and the authors who contributed to the book as well.

Me: Why do you think considering the intersections of the global and the intimate is important to feminists?

G: It’s a really rich pairing. I’m not sure if Victoria and I were the first to pair the terms but the coupling seems to resonate; I’ve heard it being used at various conferences that I have attended recently. What I like about it is that it forces attention on scale and at the same time disrupts scalar conventions. The more typical pairing is the global and the local but our pairing brings the global closer in to the scale of the body and, given the tendency to gender and sexualize intimacy, it keeps gender and sexuality and sensuality at the forefront of analyses of the global. I really like a point that Agnese Fidecaro makes in her chapter, that intimacy doesn’t work within the same juridical or territorial logics as more obviously spatial concepts such as the home, the local or the global. With its association with the unruly body, she argues, intimacy has a way of opening closed or enclosing structures or concepts. In other words, it can have a productively disruptive effect. At the same time, the global directs attention beyond local contexts towards the intimate intermingling of lives across and between places. It intimates the difficulties of working with and theorising about women living in varying circumstances in different parts of the world. It invites an engagement with materiality, economic processes, emotions, affect, bodies all at the same time. It’s hard for feminists to lose sight of economic processes and militarism and geopolitics when the global is brought into the mix.

V: Our introduction, together with Ara Wilson’s chapter, tries to rigorously read the global dimensions of intimacy alongside the ways that structures of intimacy can inform ideas about globalization, to read each category against the other. I think it’s useful work for feminists, a very productive form of critique in which we draw on the traditional strengths and interests of feminists and try and guide the field to an engagement with contemporary issues and problems. To stay relevant and useful, feminism has to bring something fresh and important to today’s geopolitical debates. What is the feminist approach to global warming? To the crisis around the Euro? To the Chinese government’s one-child policy? The old rallying cry was for global sisterhood, but that’s far too simple a position to adopt today. We need to understand and respect differences among women, even as we maintain the value of tolerance, universal rights, and damn it, equal pay for equal work!

Me: What do you hope the impact of the book will be?

G: In the first instance, we simply hope that it will be read. We hope it is accessible enough to be used to structure undergraduate courses across a range of disciplines. We like that so many of the authors either write about risks they have taken of working in different forms and media or actually take these risks within their chapters in the book, for instance by writing in the personal voice. It would be wonderful if our book provokes more of this risk-taking in form and voice. The book is also enthusiastically interdisciplinary and we hope that it models the kind of interdisciplinary conversations that are possible.

V: Our book arose out of an unlikely collaboration between a literary critic and a geographer, and we hope that it will go on to produce more unlikely collaborations. When Women’s Studies departments began to spring up, they were considered radical step for the humanities and social sciences (the hard sciences have a much longer history of interdisciplinarity). Now interdisciplines are everywhere. We are trying, in this book, to renew the radicalism of the interdisciplinary, to see what happens when a newcomer peers in on a hermetic academic debate and says — why not look at it THIS way? And it turns out to be a question that helps the field leap forward.

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