Taking the Pulse

By Chelsea Estep-Armstrong and Katie Detwiler


For thinking about “The Legacy and Future of Gender Studies at the New School” we were offered the opportunity to to take pause, and take the pulse of the contemporary moment at the New School. Through dozens of conversations with PhD students and faculty in each of the seven schools of the university and almost every discipline, we attempted to get a sense of the complex and contradictory terrain of Gender Studies and feminism in the New School right now– a terrain on which the new Gender Studies program will be situated and responsive to.  While we recognize that vibrant discussions are happening in universities all over around the current state of feminism, Women’s studies, Gender Studies and Queer theory, we wanted to asked how these wider debates are enacted–how they are alive– right here?  How are people using Gender Studies and feminism in their work?  Who is not using it?  Why has an institution such as the New School, which claims a progressive history and character, had such difficulty sustaining an organized Gender Studies presence? What does this reflect?

From the outset, both the form and content of this project carried a presence/absence tension:

On the one hand– this project was paradoxically both inspired and enabled by the absence of an organized Gender Studies Program   While this absence is indexical, thick with history and contestation, it also offers a unique point of entry: allowing us to reimagine the parameters of the field and formulate a program of study that reflects the specific interests of our own university; a program that is able to craft questions that a diverse range of people and disciplines have affinities for and mutual stakes in.

On the other hand, if it was the absence of a Gender Studies program which incited the demand for our inquiry, it was also in some sense the success of the feminist project–the hard-earned elevation of Gender to an axiomatic status and a certain level of common sense–which actually allowed us to travel the heterogeneous intellectual terrain of the university: to reach registers of common resonance in Sociology, Economics, and Parsons the New School for Design, to ask the same questions of Political Science that we asked of Jazz, to engage the university administration, the student body at Lang and Psychology in the same sort of dialogue, to not assume that our conversations couldn’t translate from Philosophy to the Milano School for Urban Management, from Drama to Anthropology.  Asking questions about feminism and gender provided a line of flight which allowed us to access a meta-level of conversation across these different pockets of the university, constituting a field in which disparate disciplines could be given equal weight.

What we can offer here is our impressions of certain  densities, “patterns,” pressure flows that indicated dilemmas held in common—impasses, questions, shared anxieties which perhaps illuminate the shape of an ever elusive “zeitgeist” – a pulse of the university—shot through with popular discourses and broad reaching debates.

Whenever and wherever we took our questions, our conversations invariably expanded  with ease into discussions of politics, psychoanalysis, neoimperialism, performance art, pop culture, value creation, materiality, affect, temporality, and philosophies of history.

Interwoven with these thematics, the policies, structures and practices by which we  constitute  ourselves as a university also flashed up in interviews—during “on” and “off the record” moments–  suggesting that maternity leave policies, day care policies, the structuring of institutional space,  hiring and tenure decisions, institutional memory  and pedagogical  practice were undergirding, poking through, structuring, the “knowledge  field.” We asked, and people echoed, what is the relationship between institutional knowledge and institutional conditions? One interviewee suggested that very different kinds of work and knowledges within the institution were all acting in relation to shared institutional conditions—without always acting on them in coherent or explicit ways.  Another interviewee suggested that this is one of the fundamental problems with contemporary politics: “that it is always forgotten that the extent to which any political discourse has any agency is only in so far as it materializes itself in the devices, structures, and systems that we are using. That politics depends on making certain experiences structured into our material existence.”

Necessarily, these institutional conditions–and the experiences that they incite–are historical  In interviews, there were questions about and fragmented references to an earlier Gender Studies Program at NSSR, the sensational terms of its collapse and lingering fallout. In our own disciplines’ archived syllabi, one can see a traceable arc of moments when gender, feminist methodology, and sexuality were given explicit attention and an ambiguous shift when gender’s predominance dispersed. There were references to famous feminist scholars who had come to the New School (in anthropology, in economics, in psychoanalysis, in philosophy) paired with a wondering as to why many had left.

There are fascinating projects being done all over the university–engaging with questions related to gender which found entry through different moments in the history of feminist thought.  For example, a posthuman return to 1970s feminist film theory for ideas about radical reconfigurations of representation, subjectivity, and perception. Another– a critical analysis of female perpetrators of violence in the occupation of Iraq, and the instrumentalization of female sexuality as a weapon of torture. An economic analysis tracing patterns of feminizing labour markets.  A return to 19th century material feminist practices as critiques of the organization of labor, domesticity, and ownership as it relates to sustainable design.  Beyond these projects, many asserted they could not be doing the kind of work they are doing–regardless of the content of their research– without being informed by feminism—that feminism is about the kinds of questions one asks, about a crafting of attention to expand possibilities of what can even occur to someone as a question—and is not necessarily tied to particular objects of study.

And here, a primary density: many people responded to our questions by describing and accounting for women as such, while others were invoking a more methodological feminism which takes as its platform a project of de-essentialization, deeply problematizing an assumption of a unified feminine subject. We found, refracting out from this distinction, a set of interrelated tensions.

For example, one interviewee suggested that a feminist influence on poststructuralism and deconstruction has made it possible to assert that “no one, today, can claim the same sort of  confidence in any self-evident identity, as may have been possible in previous  generations.” Meanwhile, others we spoke with wondered if this reflects a situation in which deconstruction has become an end in itself. Specifically amongst PhD students, we found an expressed anxiety and frustration that once a space had been opened up through critique, it was unclear what, exactly, to do with that space. The project of de-essentialization has contributed to a de-centered political terrain, rich with possibility–but in the absence of any asserted truths– also without clear directionality. One PhD student, using a deconstuctive feminist analytic to de-essentialize racial categories, wondered if deconstruction, instead of an end, could be a platform, a starting point, from which a different kind of claim could be made.  Part of the pulse, then, is both a rejection of identity politics–seen as based on indulgent, exclusionary, essential categories–and a grappling with what politics could look like in the absence of self-evident identities.

Another discourse we encountered that circulates around this dynamic holds that where poststructural and deconstructive claims have been embraced, insofar as they have complicated paradigms of domination and resistance, structure and agency, others feel as if these methodologies are esoteric, employ obscure language, violate empiricism and therefore make commensurable political debate impossible, ultimately giving rise to political impotency and apathy.

We found, through our interviews, that the anxiety about making certain feminist claims in light of a changing political terrain is tied up in a recognition, and perhaps corresponding fear, of complicity—complicity with neoliberal and imperialist projects couched in terms of the emancipation of women. One interviewee held the opinion that even the language of empowerment and consciousness raising could be deployed oppressively when translated cross-culturally.  Another example can be found in a current dissertation project which is addressing precisely this way in which discourses about women’s rights violations are taken up to justify neoliberal, military, and humanitarian interventions.  In another interview, the deployment of categories of traditional and modern around the female body emerged as one of the most fundamental obstacles in feminist politics. In this and several other conversations, people expressed a desire to create distance from feminism insofar as it has been co-opted into the neoliberal projects, state department feminism, and imperial ventures coded under discourses of emancipation.  At the same time, one faculty member required that critiques of feminism specify which feminism, which neoliberalism, pointing out that, for her, any position that is not also a critique of capitalism and imperialism is, in fact, not feminist to begin with.

As is already evident here, our discussions were rife with affective interjections–uncertainty, fear, frustration–that variously seemed to motivate, spill over, inform, or contradict academic opinions about Gender Studies.  Indeed, when we reflect back on the transcripts of our interviews, they appear as dispositional minefields, studded with gestures to betrayal, anxiety, nostalgia, contempt, off-color jokes and off the record disclosures– A sense that a younger generation was betraying the political projects and promises of other generations.  Anger  and frustration at what appears to be a shared generational political apathy in the face of widespread social injustice. A sense that one can claim feminism, but that feminism can also claim you– can become an academic and social liability. Nostalgia for a past politics that seemed more certain in its directionality and its claims and a frustration with that nostalgia.  Contempt for theoretical approaches that seem to harbor secret utopias.  Male anxiety about authority to teach feminism.  Women’s resentment about always having to teach it.

We took these affective reactions to questions about Gender Studies and feminism to be both indexical and surprising– after all, these debates are nothing new, these problems not altogether untheorized. But they were right there– affective charges– suggestive debris of past debates, past movements, past political projects–which indicated to us that these projects are in fact left unfinished.

Not least among these affective charges is–the impatient demand to “move beyond” a  second-wave demographic, to put to bed tired, exhausting debates which have found no easy answers.  Many of the people we spoke with, but certainly not all, problematized this language of waves, interrogating what kinds of rhetorical, conceptual and political devices are at work in this kind of language. The “newness” seems to posit distinct  ruptures, clean breaks with the past–assuming a homogeniety and historical boundedness. It suggests that there is nothing radical or unknown in first wave and second wave feminism.

This exigent impulse seems to reinforce a historicist assumption that if we could only make a clean break with the past– create a new wave, a new school, a new theory– we could shed the weight of history: one foot in front of the other, “the march of progress.”

In fact, the new is not embraced because “antiquated” projects  have been completed—rather, these projects persist because they have failed. Feminist methodologies with the aim of revolutionary social justice did not resolve the pervasive problems of material inequity. A recognition of this failure is not a move to obliterate and conceal the many successes that have been achieved along the way, but to acknowledge that what has been abandoned is still, in many ways, left undone. Projects that have failed leave traces, preserved possibilities. Indeed, several people offered that the arrested potentialities of 19th and 20th century feminist thought will remain viable so long as the lived reality of social injustices persist—so long as we grapple with questions of representation, or questions which spin around and problematize a nature-culture binary. The resistance to revisit that which was never completed to begin with ought to be questioned with the same skepticism which impels the retreat from those projects.

One student we spoke with suggested that we might differently deploy the language of waves to emphasize both continuity and change, conceptualizing new waves as not just washing away the first, but swallowing them, integrating them, bearing them along as possibility.

Just as we cannot reject in total, earlier feminist political projects, we must also recognize the shifting terrain in which “third wave” feminists– deeply influenced by poststructuralism, postmodernism, and popular culture, enact their politics.  One of the most important innovations in poststructural and queer theory has been precisely the disruption of epochal thinking, of linear historicism, of narrative sequencing.

Rather than see the third wave’s “decentered politics” as exemplary of a retrogressive backlash and the depoliticization of feminist goals, we must remain open to rethinking and retracing the boundaries of politics, to questioning the boundedness of the political.  As equally unsatisfactory as is the cliche “out with the old, in with the new” is “geez, the youth these days!” The complicated task we are therefore faced with is developing a more sophisticated understandings of feminist histories, commonality and difference across feminist generations, temporality, and the political. We must ask ourselves: who benefits from the assumption that old projects have been completed, and who or what benefits from the assertion that new projects are politically inert?

In one conversation, it was suggested that the impulse to bound history into waves is tied up in the entrenched feminist paradox –the denaturalization of identities on the one hand and the invocation of them on the other.  Reflecting on our interviews, it seems that our contemporary political climate demands that we attend precisely to the question of how it is we can maintain projects while recognizing that identity categories are provisional, contingent, and fluid. Instead of the crack in the foundation of feminism, is this its sophisticated theoretical and political edge?

Through our foray throughout the university, we found that other disciplines enact this tension as well. For example, our conversations in Jazz and Design were illuminating in thinking about the difficult translation between de-essentialization and re-inscription.  There, the constant work of deconstruction and construction, denaturalization and reharmonization are the order of the day and are unselfconsciously deployed in the practice of those disciplines. Where we, as social scientists, seem to get stuck–theoretically and politically–between accounting for women as such while simultaneously employing a methodology that puts into radical question any notion of a singular subject–let alone a feminine subject– these disciplines offer some conceptual and methodological insights. The contrafact, in jazz–a method of improvisational composition that overlays new melodies on familiar harmonies.  The prototype, or beta-product, in design–permanently unfinished, an idea or model that is constantly reworked, reformulated. These are modes of work which enact particular temporalities, by embracing change and impurity and eschewing permanence. They seem to act on and be responsive to the immediate present– as too, do forms of activism, social justice and policy reform–whereas many forms of theoretical and social scientific work operate with a longer duree.  One interviewee, when reflecting on if there is a specific contribution the New School can make to the field of Gender Studies, asserted that it is the New School’s unique constitution—with a strong design and social science presence—that can make it a university of and for the 21st century. However, this strength is manifested only if institutional space can be carved out and sustained where different scales of work and temporality push against each other, intersect, and can be mutually informative.

In nearly all of our conversations, we encountered a hunger for exchange across disciplinary boundaries—and a sense that certain structural problems in the university constrain this possibility. In light of this, it was offered that we must take seriously what it means to materialize interdisciplinarity—rather than tokenize it—and what epistemological, political, and authoritative assumptions we are actually able to uproot.  Gender Studies– a ready made interdisciplinary field without an orthodoxy, without an authoritative canon, without a singular methodology—offers a potential space in which different modes of creative expression, different methodologies, different relationships to truth and critique could participate.

And yet, many of our conversations turned to an ambivalence about institutionalizing this space, suggesting that as soon as there is an effort to  institutionalize something, it runs the risk of becoming rigid, consumed with the often impossible task of mission statements and consensus making– it can become prescriptive and vulnerable to the politics of institutional exclusion.  This ambivalence about making Gender Studies an institutional presence circles back to the presence/absence paradox that we gestured to initially—and the slippery balance between maintaining a critical disposition and achieving common sense.

With this in mind we return to think about the title of this conference– “No Longer in Exile” — and wonder what  critical potential  actually exists in “exile” and how we might retain a critical edge in bringing Gender Studies more fully into the university in the form of a program. Theodor Adorno wrote that “it is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home.” Edward Said writes, in his Reflections on Exile that, “The exile knows that… homes are always provisional. Borders and barriers, which enclose us within the safety of familiar territory, can also become prisons, and are often defended beyond reason or  necessity. Exiles cross borders, break barriers of thought and experience. ” Exile is life led outside habitual order. It is nomadic, decentered, contrapuntal; but no sooner does one get accustomed to it, than its unsettling force erupts anew. Though the Gender Studies Program may now be “out of exile,” it must resist what Judith Halberstam and others have identified as the refuge of the good, the right, and the true–resist letting language and thought recede into orthodoxy and dogma.  Feminism, itself, has been a way of thinking that is not redemptive, never comfortable, but always  challenging, pushing, critiquing, transgressing, unsettling. As one faculty member put it: part of being feminist is having “a committment to an epistemology and undoing it at the same time.”

Loosely echoing this, Clive Dilnot, a designer and philosopher here at the New School, offers that designers invoke an approach that always throws a new idea, a new product, out to the world as “THIS!?”–as an exclamation and question at once; as a prototype that is never certain but nevertheless carries with it a vital energy; a statement which addresses a problematic with a confidence that is agile, adaptable to what returns as response; A claim or question that is as retrospective as it is prospective.

Might we all–NSSR, Lang, the Administration, Parsons, The new Gender studies minor–find kernels of inspiration in this approach?  Or, perhaps put another way, can the clarity of a good question, if enough people are asking it, hold the status of a claim? Insightfully crafted questions travel—thus, churning up the innocuous and loosening our assumptions. If there is a fear that institutionalizing Gender Studies dulls its critical edge, or on the flip side, that NOT institutionalizing Gender Studies is what allows it to lose its incisive power–it becomes clear that many people share common ground in insisting that it is in fact the importance of gender, not the impotency, that frames the contestation.  We offer that it is the perhaps the power of our questions that in fact maintains a kind of critical edge.  If our questions are crafted within the bounds of a “discipline” then they must also be mobile, they must also travel out.

Can a program oriented around clear questions take the dispersion of political anxiety and uncertainty, and channel it multi-directionally, not necessarily aiming toward a  pure collective consensus, but that allow for affinities to form around mutual interests and contestations –affinities as light constellations that are flexible, yet compelling, that diffuse and grow dense, but that always cross cut disciplinary boundaries? Can we craft questions which demand an exigency– a willingness to name injustice and be responsive to it– but that are also patient–depend on us listening to, and not just hearing, the polyvocal echos and ripples that return as response?