‘New directions in feminist thought’
Professor Angela McRobbie reflects on the event ‘New directions in feminist thought: in times of urgency, anger and activism’ held online on 10 November. This event for PhDs and ECRs was co-organised by the GSRC at City; the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths; and Media and Communications at the LSE
It was a delight to listen, over the course of a whole day, to a set of quite dazzling presentations — all delivered with verve, intensity and precision in 10 minutes a piece. There was also a lot of coherence across the work-in-progress, both thematically and methodologically. Maybe this is less surprising given the common interests amongst the three departments hosting the event; but nevertheless there was a lot that was unexpected, at least to me. The most pleasing thing is that we were witnessing, I would say, the consolidation of a body of work which has directly engaged with and incorporated elements of the range of different new feminisms which have come into being in the last decade. As a kind of ‘take’ on the presentations, I’ll offer first a few reflections on what is shaping up; and then briefly on themes I noted as being less prominent; and then I’ll end up with a few comments that may be useful at a more general level.
First, there is a new feminist political economy of the social media entertainment complex emerging, the livelihoods of the YouTubers and the precarity of platform capitalism for women seeking to make a living there. This marks an extension of the intersectional feminist debates about gender and precarity in the creative economy. If there is even more isolation and competition amongst the new influencers and fashion and beauty bloggers, how can modes of solidarity and communality be envisaged? The YouTube economy is drawing in so many participants looking to monetise their niche expertise while also investing in so much tech and equipment, and this marks an emergent labour market less visible, perhaps, than the Uber and Deliveroo casualised economy. In the course of the day this area of debate touched also on codes of visibility and on the politics of the gaze and how the seeming freedom of social media is underpinned by the re-instatement of traditional double standards in regard to female sexuality. How does a sex work economy, for instance, operate in the world of platform capitalism?
This area of debate also pointed in the direction of an interesting and perhaps under-developed alliance between feminist media studies and social policy and criminology. A much stronger inter-disciplinary field could possibly emerge with more scholarship, more Masters courses and possible posts spanning Media, Sociology, Social Policy, Law and Criminology. The fruits of this kind of combination could be seen in the plenary talk by Amy Hasinoff in her discussion of so-called ‘revenge porn’. She extended her debate to touch on the problems with feminist incarceral politics and how it contributes to the prison-industrial complex in the US, arguing instead for an approach which foregrounds restorative justice. Indeed, this thematic of violence against women, from coercive control to spy camera abuse, also point to the need for further reflections on the value and the limits of the concept of ‘representation’ and what might better explain the recursive dynamics of re-mediation such as the pop media re-enactments or re-stagings of so many real life ‘cases’.
This is also something of an old-fashioned feminist post-structuralist point that when factual cases are subject to so many genres of re-telling then a proliferation of truths emerge which nowadays includes, of course, a set of feminist truths. It might be fruitful to go a bit further here and interrogate the discursive underpinnings of the categories in play in several of the presentations. For example: what are the historical conditions which allow the ‘activist’ nowadays to come forward as a feminist actor in the field? What does ‘being an activist’ entail? How are the boundaries of this ‘activity’ established? Who does the defining here — and with reference to what set of criteria? How are power relations pursued within the field of feminist activism? What hierarchies appear? How does feminism, and in the case of one of the remarkable presentations, how does African feminism produce or give shape to its own subjects? I am reminded here of the influential essay by Judith Butler back in 1992 on ‘Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the question of postmodernism’ where she discusses the contextual making of the feminist subject. Within a certain historical framework of largely white heterosexual feminism during the second wave the power of this kind of feminist subject to establish a hierarchical field of feminist demands in this case prioritised the heterosexual woman and mother and excluded the lesbian from within the discourses of the feminist critique of the family. We could extend this to the present moment when there are claims to feminism from so many different directions: when even a capitalist consumer culture makes its claims to a feminism of sorts, which thanks to its power and influence it is able to define to fit with its own interests, and ‘profit from feminism’ (I sketch an outline of this in my new book Feminism and the Politics of Resilience).
To conclude, there was a sense throughout the day that the intersectional and international feminist politics of anger, rage, violence and survival as manifest in so many of the presentations is producing a corpus of research which depends on and animates the scholarly terrain of media, sociology and cultural studies.