Review: Feminism For Real

[Jessica Yee, editor. Feminism For Real: Deconstructing the Academic Industrial Complex of Feminism. Ottawa: Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2011.]

I bought this book about a year ago, originally with the intent of reading it during school and then later with the idea of making it a sort of symbolic first book after finishing my grad work and ending my own brief resubmersion in the academic-industrial complex, but neither of those plans quite worked out. It was already near the top of my to-read pile when I heard the editor speak a few weeks ago, earlier on the same day as my own book launch event in Hamilton, Ontario. Her lively, radical patter (even with the jokes you could ever-so-faintly sense she’d used a hundred times before) ensured that nothing more would bump it out of position.

The book is a collection of pieces by mostly-young, mostly-women, a significant proportion of whom would identify as Two Spirit or as queer in some sense. Indigenous women are at the centre of the book but there is plenty from women of colour and white women as well, not to mention a couple of pieces by people identifying their gender in other ways. The pieces range in form from poems to dialogues to personal essays to polemics, and the voice and tone even among pieces of similar form range widely as well. All of them are what Yee (who identifies as a “Two-Spirit multi-racial Indigenous hip hop feminist reproductive justice freedom fighter” (18), and who now goes by Jessica Danforth) describes as “truth-telling” (11). These truths are the truths of struggle told with firm grounding in the living of it, both the pain and the joy. They are also, in many instances, hard truths about the painful friction between the lived realities of those struggles and the constraining, mis-fitting boxes that many of the contributors have felt pushed into by dominant feminist discourse in universities, in the agency sector, and elsewhere, and the oppression they have faced in spaces and from organizations and people they were told were supposed to be liberatory, allies, comrades.

Though its approach and tone are its own, this book certainly feels like a part of the tradition built by many and diverse pieces written mostly by indigenous women and women of colour over the decades which have criticized dominant feminisms and put forth their own visions. The particular sensibility embodied by this volume feels like it may owe something to both indigenous understandings of pedagogy and to the grassroots DIY ethic of the anti-authoritarian strand of radical politics on Turtle Island, but I don’t know enough about the former or about the relationship of the editor and writers to either to say so with any confidence. Regardless of where it comes from, the approach embodied by the book demands a different way of reading, certainly than academic feminist texts but probably also than a lot of popular mainstream feminist writing too.

Academic writing, because of how knowledge is made and circulates through university contexts, presumes that the writer knows and writes in reference to an established field. What is written may agree or it may differ, but it is expected to do so deliberately and knowingly, with existing discourse as reference point and anchor. Failure to know that field is a significant point of criticism. Reading practices pay significant attention to finding points where the field of reference has been misunderstood and tend to be focused on criticism and on a profoundly ungenerous relationship to the words on the page. And, as anyone who has ever spent time at a pub with graduate students knows, this culture of relating to ideas and to the people who hold them tends also to shape less formal spaces and practices that are connected to universities as well. None of this is specific to feminist academia, but neither is feminist academia immune to it. (For another moment in my own ongoing attraction to and profound unease with academic knowledge production, read the last review I wrote, which is of a very different book, but which was written while I was already reading this one. I think, in a way, that earlier review is at least partially an act of putting the two books in a sort of implicit dialogue.)

I’m not sure that the analagous phenomena in spaces outside the academy are exactly caused by how it happens inside, as this book sometimes seems to be implying, but they do happen. From what I have heard, knowledge of a certain field and mastery of a certain discourse, both heavily marked by race and class, remain informal but necessary components of admission to the label “feminist” in many spaces that are not on university campuses as well. (Again, this kind of exclusion is far from unique to feminist spaces or identities, but those are the focus of the book.) And often because the people with the power to manage that kind of gatekeeping have been able to access a university education, the content that is used to mark the insider-outsider distinction in non-academic spaces is often related to the shape of the feminist discursive field within universities. In these contexts, I don’t know that the practices of relating to texts and to people are necessarily identical to those in the academy — there isn’t the same socially organized pressure towards hyper-critical reading, for instance — but there is still often a reflexive application of a sort of list of vocabulary and political checkboxes, with relationship to the text/person in question shaped by how many boxes get checked.

As well, in both kinds of spaces, existing discourse and categories get treated as more important than the messiness of experience that doesn’t fit them, which privileges those who do and hurts or excludes those who don’t.

My sense is that not only does this book criticize that state of affairs but it embodies an approach to knowing the world and to textual intervention in the world that is premised on being read in ways that reject it too. I think that approaching this book with hyper-criticism based in grounding in texts rather than life, or less rigorous checkbox-based gatekeeping, will pretty much guarantee that you will miss the point and fail to learn what this book has to teach. Rather than elevating a grounding in and mastery of existing discourse, this book grounds knowledge production in experience of struggle. This book takes the stand that if a given person’s experience doesn’t fit the boxes, categories, and expectations that predominate even in a supposedly resistant discourse like feminism, then the problem is not the experience but the boxes, categories, and expectations. This is a rejection of — and this is not language that appears at all in the book, but it is how I’ve come to think of it — the reification that is endemic to most academic approaches to knowing the world and to our current social relations more broadly. And it is a rejection of knowing the world in ways that are not centrally about people’s struggles for survival and liberation. As Ashling Ligate observes in one of the later pieces in the book, “There is a lack of urgency in academia to link the anecdotal stories and statistics in our readings to a real need to resist and dismantle patriarchal and [neo]colonial structures of oppression” (156).

This book demands reading practices that are generous and that actively listen. It demands that you understand that what is being written is grounded in the local circumstances of one person’s life, so your mileage may vary and your way of talking about things may not be the same. It also demands an appreciation of the fact that the sharing of those circumstances is a powerful gift to allow you to understand your own life and how your life is connected to the person doing the sharing. You must be active in realizing that gift, though. You must be open to making the link between someone else’s firm statement that X is their reality, and the hard lesson that because Y is your reality, you have been complicit in X. The refusal of hyper-critical reading practices is not so much that you must not disagree but that disagreement must happen not in the form of dismissing texts (and therefore people) but in the form of engaging people (and therefore texts). As both a basis for active, self-reflective, consciously mutual knowledge production, and as a mode of building relationships and alliances based not on sharing a particular category but on work and actively maintained affinity, “Dialogue is radical,” to quote Ligate and Krysta Williams (163).

There’s lots about this book that feels consistent with the political sensibility that has grown in me over the course of a lot of years of thinking and acting and thinking some more — the grounding in experience and in struggle, the valuing of knowledge production and political work organized around dialogue, the emphasis on interconnection, and a variety of other factors. Not that it is all as organically present for me as it seems to be for those whose voices are in this book. As I wrote in a brief bio elsewhere, I started from and can still all too easily revert to a “faux-objective, overly intellectualized, and disembodied place” as I move through the world. The pull of knowing and writing based in discourse disconnected from lived experiences of struggle is strong, as is the pull of creating community- and movement-based spaces that are bounded by radical-sounding shibboleths that centre some and exclude others in all the usual ways. One kind of work done by this book and others like it, when read by me and presumably by others approaching it from similar places, is that it functions as a kind of reminder and call action. I don’t know about other folks, but I need to encounter such reminders pretty much on an ongoing basis, and such calls to action are an incredibly important source of grounding in the never-ending cycles of reflecting and acting and reflecting some more.

So I encourage people who are active in or identify with struggles for social change, feminist or otherwise, to pick up this book and read it. Particularly, I encourage you to read it in ways that refuse to automatically dismiss it. Seek out the connections between what the writers say about their experiences, and what you have experienced yourself — it might be parallels, or it might be that you have been complicit in causing exactly that sort of pain. Think about the political sensibilities that inform the writing, the approaches to knowing the world, and the approaches to acting in the world that are in this book. Think about instances in which your life or someone else’s life doesn’t fit your chosen framework for understanding oppression and resistance, and think about what it means to allow the experience to challenge and change the framework rather than the other way around. Think about what it means to create movements and to create knowledge and language that refuse to be captured by the relations of ruling that organize the vast majority of universities, social service agencies, and other institutions, and about how to do so in a way that is not about ineffectual purity politics or ideological fantasy of some future event but that is about making change and building power here, now, for real.

[Scott Neigh is a writer, parent, and an activist based in Sudbury, Ontario. He recently published two books looking at Canadian history through the stories of activists, which you can learn about here and buy here. This review originally appeared on his personal blog, as have many other book reviews.]

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