Stories that Matter Now: Feminist Classics & Feminist Desire in the Contemporary Classroom
As scholars who live with feminist texts, the work of teaching is often a project of return. We carry our well-worn copies of books and articles, revisit underlinings that remind us of earlier preoccupations and enduring questions, make new notations in the margins of a text, feel a sense of amazement when a text “works” (or doesn’t work) in the classroom. Jordy Rosenberg (2014) describes the experience of living with a text—for them, Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble—as the realization of the text itself as an event:
Many of us have read Gender Trouble—or sections of it—countless times. We return to it. Maybe this is the fidelity of which Badiou speaks: something happens, an “event,” and it cracks open a seam in the reproduction of the status quo. The labor of remaining truthful to this seam, and to forcing open the seam to the point of political transformation might become your life’s work. And it is, perhaps, related to the endless reading of a text—a text that is an event.
But the event-ness of a text unfolds alongside other events, and “Teaching the Feminist ‘Classics’ Now” takes as a point of departure a desire to archive contemporary pedagogical practices, dilemmas, and challenges as a way of understanding the ecology of academic feminism. While we are invested in a temporality we call “now,” we remain purposefully ambiguous about what constitutes the now. “Now” might describe #MeToo, the Trump era, the United States’ forever wars, and the institutionalization of women’s studies in the US university. More than anything, we imagine “now” to index a series of questions: What must I teach now? What would I never teach now? How do I teach texts that have elisions and gaps that are “now” often the source of Left condemnation? What do we want from feminist texts, and what do we want our students to want from those texts? These critical queries necessarily point to our felt life as feminist scholars who come to the projects of reading and teaching with a sense that this labor is political and/or potentially transformative. These queries [End Page ix] also suggest that for academic feminism, the project of pedagogy is inextricably bound up with affect.
Each article in this special issue sits with a “classic”—an author, an article, a monograph—and grapples with the pleasures, perils, possibilities, and politics of teaching that work “now.” The feminist classics of now are named not to keep them static but in recognition that feminist theory performs different work in different times, and what becomes the object du jour may not suit or mobilize feminist work in uncertain times to come. Indeed, part of the critical impulse of this special issue is to return to particular questions about the feminist classics as objects: What do our attachments or detachments to certain classics tell us about the field as it is currently constructed and/or as we, as scholars, currently construct it? These questions necessarily require authors to grapple with “good” and “bad” feminist objects—at least objects that are constructed as such in a particular era. We notice in the essays herein a construction of our pedagogy through affects of love, care, and respect, but also in defensiveness, proprietary urges, and certainty in attempting to work through and even “fix” the status of feminist classics as objects in and of the feminist classroom. Though these “ugly feelings” are fleeting wherever they appear, we want to call attention to these patterns of asserting narratives of lack/absence and the teacher/syllabus/ classic object as the cure so that we always remain lovingly wary of our own attachments to pieces of feminist theory in our pasts, presents, and futures. At its best, this issue and feminist theory remain not guarded but generous—capacious and self-aware that the feminist classroom, and hence the feminist classics, are always open to interpretation and hence always involve risk, failure, and letting go. It is out of this sense of the complex and ever-changing enterprise of feminist teaching and feminist thought that we offer these often vulnerable, thoughtful, and reflective essays and conversations.
What each of the pieces in this special issue make apparent is that for the project of academic feminism, critical pedagogy and critical thought are inextricably intertwined. To consider what we teach and how we teach—along with what we don’t teach—is necessarily to engage questions about the stories we tell about the field as its past, its aspirations, its imagined future. Indeed, Clare Hemmings’s (2011) field-transforming diagnosis of the field’s primary “stories” haunts this issue, which remains thoughtfully engaged with the attachments the field has had in a particular moment to certain narratives, objects, and forms of inquiry. The dialectic of desire and disappointment that defines these essays, we argue alongside Hemmings, is the very object of analysis as much or even more than the specific “classics” on display. In fact, this tension about and between feminist objects in the classroom is definitive of the self-critique that we argue defines the discipline of women’s and gender studies—from struggles around “the lavender menace,” to the difference wars, to the porn wars, to the institutional name/proper objects debates, to the curriculum wars, to today’s TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) wars. All of these terms, including the circulation [End Page x] of the term “war” to describe feminist debate, suggest the significance of conflict to feminist thought’s intellectual formation, and the classroom (and sometimes the public conference) as its imagined “front.” Rather than imagining conflict resolution, this issue and these essays interrogate the value of feeling, and feeling “bad,” in the classroom—with and about the classics.
Our organization takes its cue from Hemmings’s critique, starting with pieces that critically interrogate the desires that go into teaching feminist classics, including critical feelings of resentment, ambivalence, disappointment, and intergenerational conflict, as well as deep wonder, respect, and care. Covering the work of feminist critics and curators Barbara Smith, Gayatri Spivak, Gayle Rubin, and Maria Lugones, among others, the first section recursively thinks through how we feel about and through feminist thought—how we revise and recalibrate our critical desires—in our stagings of feminist theory in the classroom. Digging into the use of “bad” feminism and feminist thought’s history of thinking through objectification in the classroom, the second section engages directly in “bad objects”—or classics of feminist thought that have atrophied in an accumulation of negative affect, particularly around their identification with whiteness. Starting with a brilliant conversation among prominent scholars of feminism, race, and performance about feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, this section works through not recovering but reorganizing our pedagogical, critical, and political commitments to “classic” essays by de Beauvoir, Virginia Woolf, and Adrienne Rich in an era where their perspectives might seem narrow regarding race and class—and in the case of Mary Daly, a text that has been labeled an early TERF text that essentializes “women,” going against both the Butlerian poststructural turn in feminist studies and contemporary political investments in trans studies. The essays here mobilize deep engagement through an acknowledged critique, finding pleasure and pedagogical value beyond designating bad or pure proper objects of feminism. Instead, this section imagines how we might reanimate the terms of feminism through feminist failure without declaring ourselves judges or victors, without the repudiatory turn that Wiegman locates in her essay in the first section. Rather than turn away from the bad objects of feminisms past, these essays turn toward them generously and generatively.
Praxis, while emphasized in earlier essays, is the deep focus of the final section of this special issue—how to remake the feminist classroom in the face of the “impossibility” of some critical desires and the realization of others. If pedagogy is indeed a feminist “art,” as Shannon Winnubst suggests in her own essay on radically remaking feminist foundations, then what do we do with our “good” feminist objects now; how do we make room for them, center them, assign them through and with their troubles? The essays, conversations, lessons, and reflections in this section promise in part to disrupt and make anew the field of feminist thought within the feminist classroom through their identification and redeployment of classics—particularly within the realm of Black feminist study. [End Page xi]
As much as we are documenting feminist pedagogical responses to the Trump era, to the corporate university, to an era of deep institutionalization of women’s studies, to #MeToo, and to Black Lives Matter and #SayHerName, we are also documenting this moment of shift as a moment in shift. If feminist pasts teach us anything, it is the unfolding of feminist futures, surprising and myriad. Our own investments in feminist thought’s metacritiques and methodological debates then animate the structure and selection of this special issue from start to finish, and in fact our own interest in curating or taking the pulse of the feminist classroom now. This also means our own exclusions—for instance, the insistent Black/white dyad as the preoccupation of feminist thought, often to the exclusion of other multiethnic feminist could-be classics, or the lack of reckoning with standpoint theory and other major social science feminist “classics”—haunt this issue and, one could argue, the field. Even submissions on transnational feminism, the juggernaut of feminist theory and pedagogy in the late 1990s and early 2000s, were hardly to be found—a sea change of great significance in the now of the feminist classroom even as we know that the scholarly field of transnational feminism remains vital and robust. We account for these repetitions and absences not as an excuse but as an offering to other constructions of the feminist classroom “now” that remain unfolding, uncaptured, unnarrated by this issue.
And so we come back to critical desires—those fulfilled and thwarted—and the way they animate the politics of feminist scholarship and pedagogy with both an urgency and an endurance. If some texts offer a “break” in the seam of feminist theory, especially for scholars of a certain generation, this issue looks back to previous generations of scholarship to restitch and recover the materials of feminism for the now. This special issue renarrates various ruptures and continuities, plots a different timeline for the feminist classroom for the time being. We offer the pieces herein as meditations on and tools for feeling our way through the feminist classics now.
Jennifer C. Nash is Associate Professor of African American Studies and Gender and Sexuality Studies at Northwestern University. She is the author of The Black Body in Ecstasy: Reading Race, Reading Pornography (Duke U Press, 2014) and Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality (Duke U Press, 2019). Her third book, Birthing Black Mothers, is forthcoming with Duke University Press.
Samantha Pinto is Associate Professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Difficult Diasporas: The Transnational Feminist Aesthetic of the Black Atlantic (NYU Press, 2013) and Infamous Bodies: Early Black Women’s Celebrity and the Afterlives of Rights (Duke UP, 2020). She also co-edited Writing Beyond the State (Palgrave, 2020) with Alexandra S. Moore. She is currently working on a third book, Under the Skin, on race, embodiment, and scientific discourse in African American and African Diaspora culture, as well as a book of essays on feminist ambivalence.