- Toward a Feminist Turn
With minor editing for publication, I have let this piece stand largely as it was delivered in 2015. It seemed fitting, however, to amend a postscript. There I reflect on what I learned from the reception of this talk and others like it that I gave shortly afterward. The intervening presidential election of 2016, and the new worldwide feminist resistance set in motion by it, offer one answer to a central question posed here: What will it take to bring feminism out of the shadows? The need for less “stuck” and predictable conversations about feminism is a priority. The times call out to all feminist killjoys!—K.C.
The charge of this genealogical plenary is an “anniversary charge,” to take the long view and ask ourselves: What critical works and theoretical approaches have been important to the field of western American literary and culture study, what is important currently, and what could or should we do in the future? Those questions ask us to think about but also beyond the Western Literature Association as an organizational and intellectual enterprise.
My own interests are in feminist thought, and I make several claims. One is that it would benefit scholarship in US West studies to put feminism on the agenda not only of this fiftieth anniversary conference but especially of the future agenda of western studies. Feminist thought as feminist thought is not much on the table these days, and this is not a western studies phenomenon exclusively (American studies, for all its innovations, shares similar limits). Feminism’s embattlement no doubt is a sign of the postfeminist times in which we live and the chilling effect of postfeminism on political climates, including in universities. Doing feminist work, making the case for it, has gotten harder. Embattlement also owes to the complexities of feminist theory itself and its own genealogical quandaries and theoretical paradoxes. For example, is working [End Page 11] on “women” as opposed to “gender” theoretically naïve? That is a question, one we don’t take up in western literary studies much since “women” is usually taken for granted. I too invest in “women” as an ongoing profound social and ontological category, but, in contexts of feminist studies, one must make a case. As postfeminism lives into what looks like a third decade, many feminists ask anew in what relation we situate our work, or ourselves, to feminist studies as a field, or to explicitly feminist epistemologies? If we work on women, do we do so as feminists or as scholars of feminist studies as a discipline, or as critical race feminists, Indigenous feminists, material feminists, and what differences, in which contexts, do such distinctions make? What about feminist thought in relation to queer and/or transtheory, to studies in gender, or to masculinity?
Obviously in fifty years Americanist literary scholarship has seen a lot of critical turns, and scholarship on the West tracks in relation to them. Most of us will know recent major turns—toward “theory” and poetics, and an expansion of materials considered legitimate evidence, including popular culture and literature, diaries, visual culture; toward race and gender as analytics; toward the sociality of space; toward the transnational / hemispheric / critical regional; and recently, the turn toward comparative settler Wests, trans-Indigeneity and an ethics of refusal, and queer dwellings and rurality. Feminist work on the West has been entangled in all of them, as have “they” been entangled in and often brought about by the innovations of feminisms, including especially the work of women of color feminism and, in a related but distinct category, the work of Indigenous women and Indigenous feminism.
I want to gesture to the arc of that work and urge an invigoration of explicitly feminist thinking, even a feminist turn. The reasons to do this seem obvious. A “feminist turn” would transform studies of the West by moving in feminist directions the fields in which West study is embedded and embattled: Indigenous studies, settler theory, border theory, transnational and critical global studies, cultural geography and space/place studies. These fields have feminists in them, and yet as fields they don’t articulate themselves through feminist studies...