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  • Risking Justice:Women’s Studies Beyond Measure
  • Miranda Joseph (bio)

“That justice exceeds law and calculation … cannot and should not serve as an alibi for staying out of juridico-political battles … justice is always very close to the bad, even to the worst for it can always be reappropriated by the most perverse calculation. … And so incalculable justice requires us to calculate. … we must take it as far as possible. … Politicization … is interminable.”

—Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law” (1992)

In finding my way and making my peace with a (so far) nearly twenty-year career as a full-time faculty member in women’s studies (with a substantial secondary affiliation with LGBT studies) while sustaining fundamentally anti-identitarian theoretical, political, and methodological orientations, Robyn Wiegman’s thinking has been importantly enabling. Her essays on women’s studies envision the possibility of commitment to these spaces as infrastructure for serious and unconstrained intellectual endeavor, shameless in its engagement with Theory. In a passing remark from the audience of a conference session, Wiegman urged that we in women’s studies, as we embrace and debate the inter- and transnational as rubrics for our work (from the repurposed domestic buildings on the fringes of campuses in which we are so often located), not ignore, but rather engage the larger and better-funded internationalizing projects of our universities in their fancy, new, centrally located buildings on our campuses. This imperative has stayed with me, inspiring my own recent effort to engage across substantial theoretical, methodological, and political differences with those doing a large and well-funded policy- and media-ready social science [End Page 135] project in a fancy new building down the block.1 That is, I have taken Wiegman to be offering an expansive and empowered mode of inhabiting the field and the university.

At the same time, Wiegman’s works incisively identify and assess the constraints against which we must be vigilant. In Object Lessons (2012) and her earlier women’s studies essays, she recognizes the neoliberalization of the university that has been the focus of much of the recent critical work on the academy.2 But she has chosen to focus on explicating the constraints of our own making, those we project/construct as necessary to the fulfillment of our desires, our political desires specifically. While Wiegman has never, to my understanding, rejected the aspiration of feminist scholars to contribute to the cause of social justice, she has identified and criticized interpretations of “the political” that narrow our field of view and action, confine the temporal and methodological range of our knowledge projects, and ultimately limit our potential contributions. In her response to Wendy Brown’s “The Impossibility of Women’s Studies” (1997), which she pointedly titled “The Possibility of Women’s Studies” (2005), Wiegman suggests not that women’s studies is inadequately feminist, but that contemporary feminism might not be adequate to women’s studies (41). As she explains in Object Lessons (2012):

Many of my own critical inquiries of the last decade have … been tracking the range of despair that might be said to turn U.S. academic feminism “against itself.”3 Throughout this work, I have been developing an argument … that contemporary U.S. feminism in not adequate to the knowledge project of Gender or Women’s Studies, which means that I have been refusing to consign the itinerary of the interdisciplinary project feminism inaugurated to any public political manifestation of it. My goal has been to argue instead for the importance of differentiating among feminism’s various and incommensurable deployments.


Wiegman’s position has reminded me of a defense of basic science (now disparaged as “curiosity-driven science”)—and the unpredicted though potent discovery—in the face of relentless pressure to produce knowledge that can be immediately commercialized (Joseph 2010, forthcoming). In a stricter analogy, she would have been arguing against the imperative to undertake “policy-ready” research, which has been explicitly advocated by some in gender/women’s studies and is powerfully compelled, whether we like it or not, by the demands of privatizing “entrepreneurial” universities for grant- and contract-funded research. But Wiegman’s concern has been less with the imperative to...


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pp. 135-142
Launched on MUSE
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