Feminisms and Intersectionalities Conference.

Yesterday, Roger and I attended the Feminisms and Intersectionalities Conference at UC Riverside. We left a little later than planned, but thanks to FastTrack and the tendency for things to start fifteen minutes late, we made perfect time. The conference was organized around panels comprised of one main presenter, three discussants and a moderator. The audience appeared to be mostly professors and graduate students, only a couple hundred people and some other undergrads as well. We saw HLT Quan and Crystal Griffith, whose rough cut of “The Angela Davis Project” was screened at UCI the other day.

The first session was entitled “Undoing Academia: Creativity, Dissidence, and Feminism” and the presentation was mostly the life experience of an amazing woman, Nawal El-Saadawi. El-Saadawi, a long-time educator, physician, writer and political activist from a poor, Muslim Egyptian family, spoke candidly about the importance of being fearless (of unemployment, poverty, imprisonment, death, hell) and maintaining creativity, particularly in academia. She made a lot of excellent points about how everything is political, and what that means. She said religion cannot be depoliticized and that all wars are economic wars. She illustrated the ways in which colonialist discourse continues to inform language and rhetoric, even in academic circles (maybe especially in academic circles). She cited the regionalization of the “Middle East” as a relic of European imperialism and problemitized the framework of “post-colonial”, substituting instead, “neo-colonial” demarking the fact that colonialist practice is on-going.  All of this was part of wider discussion on how processes of learning in modern, Western academia stifle creativity and dissidence in favor of politics of fear and illusory democracy. She expressed that we need to be aware that ideological formations (such as religions) come out of specific political, economic, social and historical conditions. Her candor was inspiring and her words were profoundly resonant of things I’ve heard, read, and experienced.

Jeff Sacks, a UCR professor of Comp. Lit. shared excerpts from an email he recently received from his chancellor’s office that we assume was sent to his entire department. The email stated that UCR faculty were “blessed to have the privilege of free speech”. At a public institution. In America. HOLY CRAP. He also said some interesting stuff about how the university needs to be re-thought, so as to become an institution of knowledge production for its own sake.

Yenna Wu, another UCR Comp. Lit. professor, citing examples of different ways in which Buddhism has been practiced in Taiwan, posed that religion and secularism is a false dichotomy and spoke about the spiritual movement. El Saadawi problemitized this notion of “spiritual” by claiming it reinforces a mind/body dualism, as well as a division between the self and the other. She said creativity abolishes the line between the self and the other.

The discussion about religious and secular segued into the audience discussion, where things got a little heated. Among what appeared to be the other undergraduates in the room, were several Muslim students, many of whom were veiled. El Saadawi had more or less implied that the way to see through ideology, whatever it may be, is to go back to common sense. By this, she meant acknowledging that due to the myriad interpretations of religious texts, we can assume that they’re not all “correct”, and that in fact (most likely), none of them may be correct, as they arise out of these historical, social, political conditions.

However, her invocation of “common sense” seemed to rub some people the wrong way. One of the veiled students challenged El Saadawi on the grounds that “common sense” isn’t very particularly “common” at all, meaning it isn’t necessarily shared among everyone. Different things inform different people’s formations of common sense. For example, the student’s common sense is informed by her reading of Islam. Here, El Saadawi kind of said religion isn’t common sense, and told the student that she changed the terms of the conversation. This back-and-forth went on for about ten minutes.

I see the point on both sides. Obviously, someone’s religious beliefs are going to impact the way they think about the world. It’s simultaneously ideological and common sensible. But, not being religious, I can’t help but personally side with El Saadawi. Watching this near-argument, which oftentimes became a debate about the function(s) or dysfunction(s) of the veil, I was reminded of what arguing with people about homosexuality is like. When debating with people about Prop 8, for example, and speaking from a position not informed by religion, but rather by what I consider the common sense that everyone deserves the same rights, it’s frustrating when people revert to the familiar rhetorical script, “my religion says homosexuality is wrong, therefore I believe it is wrong”. Realizing that is some people’s “common sense”, whatever that means, I attempt to shift the terms of the debate back to politics and away from religion. I incite separation of church of state. I remind them that their religious beliefs should not be writing my secular laws; that civil marriage has been made a property contract, not a religious institution that it may have been before. Somehow, this never works. Frustrating.

The conference allowed two and a half hours for lunch. Roger and I made our way to Del Taco where we ate and studied for a while. We were some of the first ones back to the conference. Probably less than a hundred people attended the second session, and Roger and I were certainly two of the only undergraduates. Among the audience was Laura Kang and Lilith Mahmud from the UCI Women’s Studies department, but we didn’t say hi to them until after.

The second session was entitled “Archive, Affect, and the Everyday: Queer Diasporic Revisions”. Roger and I both took Queer History Making last quarter, so I went into this presentation thinking a lot of it would be familiar. The presenter, Gayatri Gopinath, compared the work of two queer diasporic visual artists (Allan deSouza and Chitra Ganesh) with Saidiya Hartman’s [apparently] heteronormative memoir, Lose Your Mother in order to give it a queer reading. She drew on some work that we were familiar with, particularly Jose Muñoz and Judith Halberstam.

Her analysis opened up a lot of discussions about what queer theory means, where it diverges from post-colonial studies, and a bunch of other things that kind of went over our heads/I don’t know how to paraphrase, hahaha.

She drew some interesting connections using the idea of “waste”, particularly waste as generative; how queer archives are made up of the “waste” (and ephemera) or excessive material of mainstream history that’s rendered irrelevant. She used this concept of waste in her analysis of deSouza (who superimposed actual human waste on his pictures) and Ganesh (who animated her representations of mug shots with “warm data”, or the information about people not extracted through interrogation—“cold hard facts”). All of this was about “lives that have lost the luxury of the mundane”. It was all really interesting.

Someone in the audience drew our attention to thinking about affect as a hegemonic mode of feeling, which could potentially be really, really interesting.

After the second session there was an hour break before performance artist Monica Palacios. Roger and I went outside and sat at a table where Keith Harris, one of the discussants, and several other audience members joined us. It was cool to converse with these professors about what we’d just seen, as well as the other sessions of the conference. Some seemed surprised we were from UCI, and especially that we were undergraduates.

Lilith Mahmud introduced me to Dr. Kang, who I’d never actually met, but she already knew of me from Prof. Terry, apparently. I’m still geeking out over that. Inside, Roger introduced himself to them both and we all talked more. It was really nice.

Monica Palacios’ performance wasn’t bad. She made me say “lover quesadilla” in front of a roomful of professional academics.

As an aside, the moderator of the second session was Jane Ward, who I recognized right away as being a presenter at the 2007 Pacific Sociological Association Conference that I attended in Oakland. Ward’s presentation on the [in]visiblity of lesbian femininities in non-queer space was one of the first time I start thinking about bodies as text in any sort of academic way. Very cool.

Overall, the conference was incredibly fulfilling and engaging. I look forward to attending more such events in the future.


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