Reflecting on feminist epistemology

In the latest issue of Feminist Review, Jackie Stacey’s reflects on Robyn Wiegman’s 2012 book Object Lessons:

object lessons

At last, the psychic life of feminist critical practice has been anatomised with devoted attention to the detail of its academic protocols and its wider transformative ambitions. […]

Object Lessons has an ambitious scope: the diagnosis of a whole series of interconnected intellectual fields, including, but not restricted to, academic feminism. If I had to try and sum up the whole book (which is quite a challenge, as it is long and densely argued) I would say that it offers a post-oedipal account of the affective epistemologies of identity knowledge production. Wiegman’s concept ‘identity knowledge’ is a pivotal term employed throughout the book to describe the formation of academic fields organised around categories, such as gender, sexuality, race and nation. This is a book seriously attuned to the forceful sense of the political desires behind the field formation of projects like gender, queer, whiteness or American studies, and to the ways in which these desires necessarily mean that the knowledges produced will fail to deliver what they were required to promise, and will sometimes even produce the exact opposite of their good intentions. But this is not a pessimistic book, and its publication is not a sign that we should give up on such projects (though it explains why we may sometimes feel like it). Rather, Object Lessons explores how we might build into our critical practices a fuller account of how affective forces drive discursive formations and shape the patterns of their institutionalisation. This book asks us to theorise more carefully what we mean by critique, and what we think is political about the kinds of critique we produce; and it asks us to think about the necessary limits of these politicised fields to deliver the impossible promises we have invested in them. […]

The book’s focus on the affective dynamics of epistemology indicates a central tension between the psychic investments and the critical (and meta-critical) practices at stake in the politicised fields it tracks. We might follow Wiegman in thinking about this affectivity in terms of the only partially tangible atmospheres and moods circulating in these field imaginaries, which remind us of the structuring forces of projections and fantasies in our work. When combined with affect, epistemology becomes less an abstract theory of knowledge and more an account of embodied and charged fields of contestation. And that is the point here. According to Wiegman, the knowledge we produce in these politicised projects is inextricable from our own desires and anxieties, in ways to which we may remain oblivious and over which we may have much less control than we wish. Whether conscious or not, there is an inevitability to the in-built dynamics of such projects within the academy. These are not obstacles to be overcome in the future, nor are they barriers to better knowledge; rather, Object Lessons argues, the frustrations and disappointments in the recent histories of these subjects are a consequence of the constitutive promises that drove their founding. Once produced within the landscapes of these field imaginaries, these affective knowledges have taken on lives of their own, following unpredictable routes and becoming agents of their own consequences and futures. In short, if these fields had psyches, this book maps what they might look like.

If you want to share your reflections on feminist knowledge production, epistemology or methodology, our call for papers (including shorter Open Space pieces) for our forthcoming issue ‘Where are we at with feminist methods?’ is still open until 1 September 2015. Find out more here.

Edit: Jackie Stacey’s Open Space piece is free to view until the end of September 2015.

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