I was in San Diego this weekend for the Feminist Infrastructures and Technocultures conference, an assembly of scholars for the UC FemTechNet: a loose network of feminists doing work in technology-related fields ranging from science, technology, and medicine studies (ST&MS) to the digital humanities. Since feminism was both the organizing principle and theme of the weekend, we all spent a lot of time thinking about what feminist praxis and collaboration can mean and look like specifically within tech fields. While I do want to write a followup blog highlighting the amazing work of specific artists and critics that I saw while in San Diego, this post will be a more general reflection on feminist praxis as I experienced it at FemIT.
By way of opening this meditation, I feel the need to explain my title: “ladybrainz” became something of a catchphrase for me at the conference after a well-meaning but ambiguous evening presentation led by Victoria Vesna in which participants were asked to talk about the “female brain.” The panel opened up with a recorded interview with neurologist Mark Cohen, whose baffling riffs on the mysterious nature of a woman’s mind invoked gender stereotype after gender stereotype without much scientific explanation but plenty of personal anecdote. We went on to read, as a group, selections from Louann Brizendine’s The Female Brain, a pop scientific account of gynecic gray matter, while panelists took turns giving their stories of what ladybrainz mean to them.
What frustrated many of us in the audience, however, was the ambiguity of what was unfolding. Were we meant to take these stories as satire? As violence to the work of dedicated feminist ST&MS scholars that had been presenting all day? As a critique of how uninformed people are about gender and brains? Or was the panel what it seemed at first glance: an attempt to reconcile humanities understandings of gender with scientific ones by ignoring the historical situation of the sciences within culture? There was a little pushback from the crowd, but overall everyone seemed too stunned or tired or confused to react. The conference was a bit over schedule at this point, and our group from UCSB had to leave in order to catch a shuttle before the panel had concluded, but the encounter with ladybrainz was etched into my mind, so to speak.
This had wrapped up an otherwise invigorating day of conversations and lectures that I felt were really important to witness as a junior feminist scholar. After introductions and a framing of our conference activities in terms of temporalities and networks, the day started out on quite a heavy note, with a session dedicated to honoring the legacies of Leigh Star, Beatriz da Costa, and Anne Friedberg, all of whom have passed away in the past five years. I have long been interested in the politics of citation, and these tributes and literature primers were the perfect way to call attention to the work of foundational women in the field.
However, it was the affective intensity of these presentations that I found to be so important. Here, in the context of a professional gathering, I saw scholars cry at the podium. It didn’t ruin the panel. In fact, people in the audience cried with them, and some went up to lend their support. It was in this moment that I felt I was in a truly academic feminist space – one that is defined equally by intellectual rigor, historical context, future directions, and community supportiveness. Far more than just being a feel-good experience, for me it was an intervention – on the intense competition of academia, on the isolation of solitary scholarship, on the narrative of the intellectual making tough work/life balance choices, on the prohibition of women in power showing emotions. I’m sure this has happened at other events, but it was my first time encountering it. I will remember these moments as I navigate my own career.
Overall, as with other feminist conferences and unconferences I’ve been to, there were many moments that made me profoundly grateful for feminist network in my life. But there were moments that I hope we can learn from, as well.
Several weeks ago, my colleague Micha Cárdenas sent a message out to the FemTechNet listserv urging them to explicitly address the historical violences, exclusions, and appropriations of “feminism” writ large by constantly qualifying with terms like anti-racist (or my own preferred term, race-conscious), queer/Trans inclusive, and so on. This is particularly important in interdisciplinary feminist events like FemIT – we all approach feminism from such different angles.
There were fewer queer feminists and feminists of color than I am used to in a gathering, but I kept an open mind about the lack of qualifiers in talks and conversations. The conference organizers did, for example, actively encourage us all to think about accessibility: talk more slowly, read your slides, always use a microphone. The extent to which the presenters successfully accommodated these requests differed. While accessibility only scratches the surface of disability activism in and out of the academy, it is a baseline condition that so few conferences achieve. I appreciated this a lot.
But certain small things – segregating graduate student presentations to the second day, when few senior scholars attended, concentrating the women of color in the very last late-night screening session, the handful of serious queer work in the face of “playful” cooptation of concepts like trans subjectivity and queer time, a comment here or presentation there – reminded me of Micha’s important email, and of the work we do when we add all those qualifiers to our feminisms. So many of my friends and colleagues (and, indeed, members of the FemTechNet listserv) insist that “feminism” works against and is respectful of all oppressions, and that anything less is not feminism. However, leaving these inclusions unspoken covers over feminism’s troubling history.
Covering over history is not an appropriate ally move. I loved FemIT, don’t get me wrong – but as a group, we were not conscious enough of the the intersecting racialized, ageist, heterosexist, and ableist exclusions of feminisms and technocultures in academia. I hope in the next iteration, we can correct some of these oversights.
These observations may seem detached from the conference proper, but they were on my mind all weekend. Part 2 of this conference reflection will focus on the astounding display of specific ladybrainz I saw at the conference. Until I can write those out, and in order not to end on a sour note, I will link you to some of these amazing scholars and artists, in true FemIT form, organized according to an online list randomizer:
Christina Agapakis, synthetic biologist and bioartist: http://agapakis.com/
Zeinabu irene Davis, professor, filmmaker: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zeinabu_irene_Davis
Tina Takemoto, performance artist: http://www.ttakemoto.com/
Susana Ruiz, game designer and social activist: http://takeactiongames.com/TAG/HOME.html
Credits from Conference Website: UCFemTechNet is grateful for the support of the University of California Humanities Research Institute, the University of California, Santa Barbara Center for Information Technology and Society, and at UCSD the Visual Arts Department, which is hosting the event in their departmental space at SME, the Science Studies program,the Department of Communication, the Critical Gender Studies program, Sixth College, the LGBT Resource Center, and the Women’s Center.