Women’s Leadership Network Wednesday Webinar 9.2.22
Part 1 – why my research is not feminist
I was invited by Catina Barrett of the Women’s Leadership Network to rethink my PhD through a feminist lens. If you can bear to read all 80k words, or just want to dip in, you can find the full dissertation here.
I finished my PhD in 2021. It was an interesting experience of theory and activism running alongside one another, feeding each other, and my working life changed hugely during the course of it. It was always forward-facing, so when I return to it now even though the river has rushed by, it still feels fresh. My research was about lots of things, and mainly it was about making the visible, invisible – so that we could imagine a new future – in the case of my research, for community education, but I learned much much more about how to see the world differently.
I wanted to start today by saying to you that the reason why it wasn’t a ‘feminist’ piece of work in the first place – as in, I didn’t choose an off-the-shelf feminist methodology – is to do with where I situated my ethics. They came from within me, rather than being imposed by an externally-constructed methodology: so ‘feminist methodology’, or a ‘critical realist’ methodology etc. That’s the nature of posthuman research – it’s couture. You construct it from your ethics outwards, rather than following the shape of what already exists. If your head is wrestling with that, it took me four years to realise that my original research question was untenable: if posthuman thinking is about making the containers we’re in invisible, in order to see beyond them, how could I even include the container of ‘class’? I had to rethink, and write the containers out of my own research architecture – and that included feminism.
Learning to rely on a personal ethics was a theoretical and practical endeavour. It came out of me studying posthuman thinking from 2015, so let me set that up for you first of all.
Posthumanism can mean a number of connected things so let’s take cyborgs out of the picture. The stream of posthuman thinking I followed was the critical posthumanism of Rosi Braidotti, who I studied with at Utrecht University summer school 2015 to 2019. Braidotti defines poshuman as:
Let me unpick those. Imagine the figure of Vitruvian Man. During Enlightenment times, this David Beckham-esque figure was the poster boy for what became to be seen as human. By extension, anyone less hench, less physically gorgeous…less male, less white – the list goes on – began to be seen as less-than-human. In fact, the (feminist) philosopher Simone Bignall claims that the further we get from the Vitruvian ‘ideal’ in today’s world, the closer we are to death.
Post-anthropocentric means de-centring the human. We share this earth with living things which we have hunted, mined and ravaged to extinction. Posthumanism isn’t just about education, it’s transdisciplinary, which is why we see posthuman lawyers and anthropologists protecting the rights of rivers, otters, mountains and trees, in law. It’s time to stop thinking that humans have all the answers.
So posthuman research means rethinking what it means to be human, and rethinking the dominion humans have over everything else on earth. It means looking at the systems, structures and processes that hold the current inequalities in place. And it means not only finding a way to end the troubles – in this research, of community education – but a way to end the structures, systems and processes that cause these troubles. A useful way to express this is via the concept of ‘monuments and documents’ introduced by Foucault – not a feminist. We need to topple the monument, for any real change to happen. Not just play around with the documents that hold the monument in place.
So all the ‘containers’ had to be placed to one side. Feminism, anti-racism, anti-ableism, class analysis, queer theory – they are structures, systems and processes too. They belong to an externally imposed ethics in every case. That’s why my research was not feminist.
Part 2 – why my research is feminist
My research is feminist, because I am feminist. And because I drew deeply on the work of feminists, whilst holding the space for posthuman thinking. The work has feminism in its genealogy, but not just feminism. In fact academic genalogy is a feminist concept. And because the critical posthumanism of Rosi Braidotti is grounded in her feminist genalogy. She has chops, she used to do the photocopying for Simone de Beauvoir (who did the photocopying for Sartre, but that’s another story).
My feminism is troubled and problematic. Leaving a rough old coal town at 18 for university I ran not towards boys or gigs (well, maybe a bit of that) but towards feminism, to find myself rejected because I was a working-class dolly bird. Down the years I came to understand that the dominant brand of feminism in the UK was white and middle-class. From my outsider perspective, it seemed to embrace female queerness and disability (I’m tentative about this) but had no place for you if you were Black, working class or at any point in your life had carried a pair of bollocks. I’m not sure things have changed much, for many in my generation. I’m welcome in feminist spaces now because I pass as middle-class – hopefully my use of the word ‘bollocks’ in the previous sentence shows you I’ve no interest in passing.
Feminism for me is a joint effort to dismantle the patriarchy and we can only do that in solidarity with all those harmed by it (and that includes men and non-human entities). The Women’s Leadership Network is the only space I occupy which is genuinely intersectional. There are enough people here with a bone-deep commitment to intersectionality and to transnational feminism to make it work.
So all of that infuses the personal, affirmative ethics which guide the research.
Back to those ethics, before I identify the feminist strands of thinking which run through my work. Posthumanism – post-Vitruvian and post-Anthropocentric. The man who was up to his eyes in shaping all of that is the 17th century Dutch Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza (there’s a pun there, he was an optometrist). The next generation to Descartes, who was the guy who separated the world into binaries. Spinoza argued instead for a ‘god-in-all-of-us’, an animate life-force which we share and which we have an equal right to – by the way, this frames much of my work, finding out what happens when we pool that life-force (‘joy’) and put it to work. He was on the losing side back in the day, but his work now is inspiring non-binary approaches to living. Spinoza’s great work, published posthumously, was ‘Ethics’, in which he argued that if “god” was in all of us then our ethical code was too. I embraced this and I’ve lived it for seven years now.
The easiest way to define ethics is that they are what – bone deep – you know are important, your values. And to enact them is to live with integrity. I don’t claim my ethics are feminist, because I don’t hold them up to any yardstick created by anyone else. They are as feminist as I am, which is to say slightly uneasy with that definition, because of how feminism so often is, but committed to resisting patriarchy. And they are feminine; rightly or wrongly my life is socially constructed as a woman. And – thank goodness – many women are beginning to articulate how they see the world differently to the patriarchal hierarchies and structures we have inherited from men.
Cartography and Genealogy
My literature review is a map: Rosi Braidotti defines ‘cartography’ as a political and theoretical landscape; in my research it guided the development of a bespoke methodology and inspired activist projects which ran alongside the research and informed it in turn. What is mapped is the genealogy of thinking. Feminists have always brought bodies back in – into this family tree – in various ways, and being mindful of genealogy means you don’t leave texts without authors floating around. Real people formed this thinking and although I haven’t done a detailed analysis of my reference list, a sample suggests that 50% of sources were women and most of them writing in the 21st century: unlike many of the guys in ‘the canon’. Thinking about how little airtime women scholars got until recently (and how this has been interrupted by Covid even for white middle-class women, feminism’s own ‘Vitruvia’), a picture which is even worse for disabled scholars, working-class scholars and scholars of colour: this is resistance. I politely refused any argument about whether blogs or tweets were ‘academic’ enough (and my supervisors, both cis-male, were always supportive). I’ll give you an example of that – a Twitter pile-on by guys who argued that shame researcher Brené Brown’s work didn’t ‘count’. That’s Dr Brené Brown, a Professor at the University of Houston, Texas, whose work draws consistently on 20+ years of research (and counting).
At the Utrecht Summer School, Braidotti exhorted us each year to read one book a week; if I didn’t manage that I certainly read an article each week and there are 300+ sources on that reading list, constructed over six years. I also worked hard to find perspectives from women and men far from the Vitruvian ‘ideal’, including from indigenous scholars living in settled lands. My friend and posthuman colleague Kay Sidebottom has done some brilliant work to bring these perspectives to the fore.
Citation is politics and I took my responsibility to amplify these voices sincerely. I’ve got a strong social media presence, so I amplified thinkers: from a single tweet to a complex tome (Karen Barad being the hardest I wrestled with). This included the posthuman pals I read diffractively with: writing in, around and through one another’s words in shared documents, discussing on Zoom. If anyone’s interested, Kay and I are currently running a diffractive reading group looking at one chapter of Braidotti’s ‘Posthuman Feminism’ each month. It’s worth saying that not all the women writers on my list would self-define as ‘feminist’ and not all the male writers are completely in thrall to the patriarchy.
Relationality and Constellations
Back to Spinoza, remember that his ‘god-in-all-of-us’ was a joyful energy that we shared with other humans and non-human entities. This makes his philosophy inherently relational and brings bodies and feelings back into play. Braidotti refutes René Descartes splitting of the world into binaries, so convenient as an argument for colonialism: “bodies embrained and embodied brains” makes us whole again and of course for Spinoza and many others there is a spiritual element too, often found in nature, which some feminist thinking is not afraid to embrace. Again, Indigenous and Black scholars such as Robin Wall Kimmerer lead the way on this.
Feminism is not an individual pursuit. Like posthumanism, it thrives in community. We pool our energies in order to put sorrow and pain to work as joy and when we are tired we return to community to refresh: Karen Walrond’s work on activists as ‘lightmakers’ is evocative of this. We are not afraid of the visceral, the emotional, the spiritual. All my work since, during and before the PhD has been about community, but I see community very differently now than I did when I was a locality worker for the NHS. There it was all about parameters, constitutions, hierarchies and power. Now I work with the posthuman concept of ‘constellations’: time-limited, open-bordered, common-purposed communities of difference. For some years I was part of a loose constellation of educators known as the ‘Dancing Princesses’ from a trilogy of books we co-wrote. Men and women in FE and HE slipping out from underneath their institutional KPIs and clearing spaces to dance together, to create new futures. All constellations have their time and last year when I listened to the history of the Dancing Princesses being slotted neatly into some sort of FE timeline, I knew that time was up. Other constellations have, of course, come along.
Potestas and Potentia
It’s time to talk about power. Some women find their power in the natural world, and always have done. This is not inconsistent with posthuman thinking at all. We now know that you can be a thinker and have faith: indeed, assumptions of atheism have prevented Black, Brown, Indigenous and Gypsy women from belonging to feminism for many decades (alongside racism of course). Catina taught me this when we worked together as part of the Network of Equalities Networks.
Feminist power should not be patriarchal power, yet it so often presents as such and it’s hard to call out when feminism is being explicitly claimed, as Black women have found since the 1960s – see bell hooks for more on this. Spinoza comes to the rescue (not in a patriarchal way, since he’s long dead). Writing in Latin, he had two words for power at his disposal:
Potestas – power as usual, hierarchy, individual power, status, the tree 🦚
Potentia – collective, activist power, influence, the rhizome 🌱
(Rhizome is a botanical reference from Gilles Deleuze, a scholar of Spinoza who helped to bring his work back to attention in 1970s Europe. A rhizome is a plant which doesn’t grow up tall like the tree, it finds its own persistent, subversive path, coming up across the road or the neighbour’s garden. Think bluebells. Some posthuman thinkers also like the mushroom metaphor).
Because of how some ‘feminists’ behave, and because not all men support the patriarchy, I have always resisted saying that potestas is male and potentia female but there’s something of the yin and yang about it – socially constructed of course. It’s a different kind of leadership. Potentia is certainly changing things in education, but there’s no chance of the monument falling just yet, sadly – until hierarchical leadership either moves out of the way or changes significantly. Its joyful nature is an act of resistance; putting sorrow, pain and frustration to work in a series of microjoys (thank you Jo Fletcher-Saxon) which are consistent, intentional ‘minor gestures’, to cite Canadian artist and thinker Erin Manning.
A great place to start with Spinoza-infused potentia is ‘Joyful Militancy’, written by Canadian activist and film-maker carla bergman (who uses lower case in spelling her name to de-centre the human and honour bell hooks) and co-writer Nick Montgomery.
Slow Practices of Healing and Care
Three huge influences on my work were the thinkers Jasmine Ulmer, Leigh Patel and Nancy Kline. If you’ve worked with me before you’ll have encountered Thinking Environment practice, where the component of Ease is used to slow things down and cut out the noise. Kline works with ‘waves and pauses’, lengthening silences to move towards truly independent thinking. Patel writes about intentional pausing as resistance and Ulmer writes similarly about what she refers to as ‘slow ontology’; her work is particularly beautiful and I recommend her article ‘Wildflowers’ as an entry point. Slowing down is a practical resistance in the face of capitalism’s noise and velocity, which exists with the intention of keeping us busy so we do not think.
These are one set of practices: the practice of ‘slow’, or ease as we say in a Thinking Environment. And there are other practices – values practices – which relate closely to feminist practices of solidarity, healing and care. I was particularly influenced by the work of Irish feminist scholars such as Maggie Feeley, who works with men as well as women, and whose work – a truly community based approach to literacy – draws on trauma-informed practice with survivors of the notorious Magdalene ‘laundries’ and their families. I don’t need to tell you how closely feminism is tied up with practices of care, always ‘women’s work’, which makes it even more heartbreaking when feminists don’t care for one another. Maggie is part of a constellation of Irish authors and researchers developing practices of care at all stages of education’s lifecycle.
Practices of ease and care are written into my research through a broader practice of values. In fact ten values emerged from the fieldwork – a mass observation survey – as being key. Love is one, care is another. At the Women’s Leadership Network, you talk about trauma-informed practice and that’s certainly catching on as the latest thing across FE. A friend tells me that her inbox is full of emails from private companies selling her ‘trauma-informed’ training, in my experience they often don’t even bother to say trauma-informed what. Words utterly matter when we are trying to think ourselves into the new, which is what we must do to retain hope and energy for the work. Recently, I’ve been using the word ‘healing’, to encompass practices which are essentially feminist: practices of care, solidarity, love, ease and hope in times of collective trauma.
Spaces to Think
The architecture for these values-led practices rests on the consistent, regular, opening of spaces in which people come to share and refresh their potentia energy though the co-production of thinking, writing and ideas. Rosi Braidotti would call these ‘drinking from Spinoza’s champagne’ and the annual summer school provided the same function for me. Usually facilitated more or less in a Thinking Environment, current spaces include twice-weekly Ideas Rooms, twice-weekly Writing Rooms, various slightly more focused thinking spaces such as one fortnightly around social purpose education, and, also fortnightly a Solidarity Thinking Space. This work has taught me so much about open and closed spaces and experience teaches me that any space should be open until it needs to be closed, for the protection of those within. So the Solidarity Thinking Space, open at first, has settled into a closed cohort of people connected via their working class identity, other intersections notwithstanding.
I used to talk about safe spaces, came to love the Women’s Leadership Network for its conception of brave spaces and am now embracing the idea of protection: protecting and protective spaces. Aboriginal scholar Tyson Yunkaporta opened my eyes to the fact that there is no such thing as safety in Aboriginal worldviews. He writes that assumptions of safety places people in a passive role, at the mercy of authorities who may or may not intervene. Australia has of course a disgracefully recent history of ‘intervention’ with Aboriginal families, removing their children to places deemed more safe, in common with the treatment of other Indigenous people worldwide. Circles of protection also go deep into this country’s ‘indigenous’ knowings and the rhizomatic ‘spaces to think’ which informed and emerged from my research also open and close with this connection.
Crucial to these disciplined, facilitated events is the practice of equality. The few rules, rigorously held, include a request for role, rank and ego to be left at the door. The first two are so strongly part of the culture that it’s rare to see the rule broken; ego is harder of course because it requires high-levels of self-awareness to see when it’s in play. Setting the spaces up as both pro-social and anti-competitive (therefore anti-capitalist) communicates a clear expectation that we will do ‘the work’ on ourselves, in order to do ‘the work’. Many ‘feminist’ spaces say that they are equitable, my experience is that the structures and processes that we take for granted actually work against this, until we change them.
I can’t end this talk without mentioning my two companion species, both of them resolutely male. Many of you will be familiar with The Bowerbird. In my research he started out as representing a research principle; that what has most value is exactly that which ends up on the cutting room floor, when all anyone (and their structures, hierarchies, processes) cares about is the data requirements of Ofsted or some KPI. The male blue satin Bowerbird hops around the forest floor in south east Australia, picking up the blue shiny things of human detritus – bottle tops, condom packets, straws. He uses them to decorate a bower he has built not to live in, but to attract a mate. He represents the skill and practice of curation, which has the potential to tell the stories forgotten in FE – those outside the KPIs and the headline tragic life stories – the stories, often, of staff. My curation work with Catina on the Community Learning Mental Health Project which was coterminous with the first part of my PhD showed me that educators had forgotten to tell their own stories.
He became such a visible and engaging symbol of my research that I – and others – began to see him as my companion species. I loved the non-human element and the eye-catching photos. He came to have his own emoji 🦚 Over time, he sort of developed a life of his own – Braidotti would call this a figuration, an actor on the scene. He appeared at conferences and in presentations where I wasn’t present, he took me to Australia, and he became for me a talisman of my ethics, reminding me to ‘walk my boundaries’ and keep myself in line.
And of course, my cat Rooney, definitely a tomcat though not an entire one. I am not sure how I would have survived a very solitary lockdown without his company.
Did it bother me that they were blokes? Not really because neither of them patriarchally oppresses anyone (as far as I know). Though I was pleased to learn that when the female Bowerbird chooses her mate all the other bowers get kicked over (and recycled) and even happier to learn that while the younger females looked for the nicest bower, the old birds like me chose the best dancers! The fact is that feminism isn’t the answer, dismantling the patriarchy is and that needs all of us on board, including people of all stripes, across all dimensions of difference, the needs of the earth and the future and my non-patriarchal Bowerbird and cat.
I would prefer not to…
I entitled this talk, “I would prefer not to…feminist resistance and posthuman thinking.” I am so over any narrative around resilience in FE, or anywhere really. Whatever the good intentions, resilience ultimately places the burden on the victim. I by far prefer ‘endurance’, which recognises that we are all overburdened with various kinds of shit and which implies graft, patience and possibility. This is my kind of resistance, and my kind of activism too – remember Erin Manning’s ‘minor gestures’, JoyFE’s #microjoys. Just raising the hand and saying, no. No to oppression, no to capitalism. That won’t stop a tank in Tiananmen Square, but daily, patiently, collectively it will build a resistance, a different kind of revolution. We are already here and ‘we’ are all we have, constituted by Braidotti as, ‘we-are-all-in-this-together-but-we-are-not-one-and-the-same’ (the best portmanteau word since ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’). This work requires doing the work on yourself to do the work. It requires not rescuing or fixing, but listening while people work it out for themselves, “help is the sunny side of control,” as the writer Anne LaMott so powerfully claims. Potentia driven by posthumanism rather than by any silo (including the monument and documents of feminism) does not seek like minds, rather like values, who are willing to travel together in constellation for a while.
“I would prefer not to…” is described by FE lightmaker Elizabeth Draper as ‘Joyful First Aid’. A quick fix to hold the space for deeper work, it buys a pause to find clarity. Clear is kind. Recently, shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown has been considering her position with Spotify, where her hugely successful podcasts are exclusively broadcast. She was protective enough of her life’s work (and that of many others) to take a pause when the Joe Rogan situation broke. And she was piled on, mercilessly, by former supporters who did not allow her this room to breathe and find out the information she needed to make a decision. Pausing is sometimes all we have.
This has been a fascinating experience and I’m so grateful to the Women’s Leadership Network for inviting me, and to you all for coming (or watching, if you’re watching later). I hope my dissertation defence is clear! Not not feminist, just not limited by feminism.
Click here for the cartography which accompanied this talk.