- Uncertain Futures:Institutional Brokenness and Other Feminist Quandaries of Belonging
The question posed in this roundtable—how to keep the impressive strength of disciplinary machinery from inhibiting feminist solidarities and justice work—holds a personal poignancy. Not only does this question throb with ethical longing but also bespeaks more than a little loss. It evokes the very familiar problem of interpersonal fracture despite shared values, and gestures more broadly to the ironies of institutional life: the ways institutions and fields mediate and, in certain circumstances, abrogate relationships while legitimizing, engendering, and co-opting our work.
Perhaps the question has a particular resonance because at the moment that I first entertained it, my personal context was—and still is—flooded with precisely that kind of brokenness and institutional ambivalence. In one instance, [End Page 131] a number of people close to me, and some a bit less proximate, as well as myself, all of us with feminist commitments, find ourselves caught in several interrelated, institutional disasters. In these interrelated institutional disasters, disparate forces collude and collide: our various economic ties to our school, our respective reputations on the line in different ways. Our care for and investment in one another was tested, used, and interrupted. I’ll spare the details, not because they don’t matter but because in their basic outline, they constitute a familiar scenario.
The point is, that I find myself remarkably and unfortunately despairing about the question at hand, since it seems that even at a time within the field of biblical studies and theology when we have everything going for us in terms of political efficacy—shared commitments, sharp social theorizing, intense passion—we can’t quite get it together on the very practical and institutional application of power and justice that we describe all the time. One might say we are too mired in the power structure and promises of the institutional setting. This is probably true but somewhat inescapable since it’s the basis on which we all know each other.
Feminist solidarity has always been a haunted concept, of course, implying at various times and places particular class, racial, cultural, sexual, and gender-normative expectations and values. That is to say that when people come together on the basis of a certain cause, no matter how noble or necessary the cause may be, they find themselves already swept up in a number of other relationships—capitalism, nationalism, heterosexism, sexism, or other powerful imaginaries—that provide the troubling subtext to their longings and affiliations. As it turns out, collaboration and complicity are two sides of the same coin.
It’s not that feminist politics and thought have not tried to accommodate and revise themselves to these critiques. They have, and quite successfully. Feminist thought has been remarkably resilient, its ebb and flow, its various “waves” attesting to not only ongoing relevance but also a kind of self-reflective set of resurgences. However, its accommodations and revisions and the increasing inclusivity of the feminist analytic may also, it seems, extend some of the fantasies attending solidarity. For example, they extend the fantasy that enough striving and strategizing will allow the category of “feminist” to continue to be stable ground upon which to form connection. They extend the fantasy that if we can just figure out what exactly is keeping us apart, then we can somehow supersede it. Indeed, they extend the fantasy of an “us.”
The “us” fantasy becomes even more fragile when we consider broader political landscapes. Feminist solidarity is haunted not only by its more sinister collaborations but also by those who find “feminist” to be an aggressive, threatening, or irrelevant category. As feminist literary critic Jane Gallop writes:
Feminism derives its authority from the rhetorical claim to speak for the interests of women in general, rather than only for a restricted group [End Page 132] of women, rather than only for self-identified feminists. In relation to that claim, feminism has always found the nonfeminist woman a thorny problem, a gnawing contradiction. Does feminism speak for those women who don’t identify as feminists? Are they our constituency or our adversaries? If we speak for them in disregard of...