Debility and Frailty – on whose terms?

Feminist Review Issue 111, themed ‘Debility and Frailty’ was published earlier this month. In this blogpost, Yasmin Gunaratnam draws out the key conceptual and theoretical ways in which this issue of the journal discusses disability and its intersectional living, cultural representation and geopolitics. 

Our call for papers for the new Feminist Review themed issue on “Debility and Frailty” took some of its inspiration from Nasa Begum’s article “Disabled Women and the Feminist Agenda”, published in Feminist Review in 1992. Disability activist Begum, who died in 2011, demanded that feminists give attention to how the lives and concerns of disabled people are marginalised in both feminist and disability politics: “Writing as an Asian disabled woman I want to open up a debate about the position of disabled women and demand that a concerted effort is made to ensure that our needs, wishes and aspirations are incorporated into all feminist debates” (p.70). We hoped that more than two decades later, a themed issue of the journal might build upon Begum’s demands and provide further opportunities to discuss disability and its intersectional living, cultural representation and geopolitics.

Although we invited contributions on both “debility” and “frailty”, most of the papers in the issue have taken up matters of debility – a category radicalised from its heavily medical encodings by those in critical disability studies, history and feminism. The term has been used by the medical historian Julie Livingston to refer to ‘the impairment, lack, or loss of certain bodily abilities’ (2005, p.113). More recently, the feminist scholar and queer theorist Jasbir Puar (2012) has elaborated on Livingston’s framing of the concept, and it is Puar’s work that has generated much interest among our contributors.

For Puar, the relentless pursuit of profit creates debility through the slow depletion of marginalized populations. At the same time anxieties about health, disability and needs for care are financially exploited. Puar’s complex analysis investigates what is at stake in the demand for bodily capacity and also how new technologies (such as those that calculate our risks of disease) are redistributing the meaning of health, disease and disability so that the boundaries between disabled and non-disabled bodies are insecure. “The political mandate behind such … a move from disability to debility” Puar writes, “would not be to disavow the crucial political gains enabled by disability activists globally, but to invite a deconstruction of what ability and capacity mean, affective and otherwise, and to push for a broader politics of debility that destabilizes the seamless production of abled-bodies in relation to disability.” (p. 166).

Remarking on our aspiration to consider both of the terms debility and frailty in the themed issue, Margrit Shildrik suggests that, “One might well argue that frailty remains better grounded in lived experience, that it allows us to face the differences of ageing or ill-health head on.” (p.13). Shildrik’s article “living on; not getting better”, with a focus upon British austerity politics, questions whether the concept of debility is any more useful experientially, politically and empirically than disability. In proposing a “disability politics of transness”, Alexandre Baril feels that the concept of debility can be useful in developing a composite or “assemblage” model, which recognises that the experience of transness can sometimes be debilitating. Baril ventures, “The application of tools from disability studies to trans issues in the proposed assemblage not only uncovers cisnormativity in disability movements, but also denounces ableism in trans movements.” (p.37).

In her essay on taking the play that she wrote about her disabled son to India – “Don’t Wake Me: The Ballad of Nihal Armstrong” – Rahila Gupta remains uncertain about the political value of either of the terms debility or frailty. “Both terms imply weakness, brittleness, delicacy” Gupta feels, “connotations that take away agency from disabled people and emphasise their need for care and dependency and perhaps reflect the carer’s perspective.” For Anna Hickey-Moody, Puar’s conceptualisation of debility risks erasing differences of sensation, time and affect between bodies. She turns to feminist new materialist theory and arts practices with people with intellectual disabilities to demonstrate how such methods of feminist practice can become “a form of activism that allows us to bring out and appreciate modes of being and practices of relationality that are not yet perceptible or, if they are perceptible and visible, are often undervalued.” (p.160)

Despite a seeming reluctance to investigate how “frailty” as a category might contribute to feminist projects, as editors of the issue we felt that there is a need for more critical discussion of the term, especially its gendered connotations and roots. In her research for the issue, Feminist Review editor Sadie Wearing came across a fascinating text, The Aegis of Life from 1830 (already by then in its 20th edition) in the British Library. The Aegis of Life is a vivid example of the overlapping of anxieties over sexuality and gendered expressions of productivity and fitness within the concepts of frailty and debility. These find expression in the history of sexuality in the equation of (sexual) debility and (human) frailty, with forms of sexual dysfunction caused by (among other things, including ‘intense study’) indulgence in ‘self-abuse’.

More generally, as well as drawing attention to the historical legacy of words and signification, we would like to know more about what might be happening in the apparent feminist reluctance, or at least ambivalence, in engaging with frailty and its associations with bodily weakness, susceptibility and a wearing away? Is there a risk that frailty can become an abjected other of debility? And if so, then with what consequences?

You can tweet to Yasmin or follow her tweets: @YasminGun.









Debility, disability and the human

Following the publication of the latest issue of Feminist Review 111 on ‘Frailty and Debility’, Dan Goodley and Rebecca Lawthom write a blogpost on the recent developments in the discourse in the field. They are optimistic about the potential of the notion of debility to provide a place where those of us failed by late capitalism can connect around our shared precarity. But they also have some critical responses to debility.

Disability studies has much to say about the human. Historically, disabled people have been excluded from the category. And our contemporary socio-economic times of austerity risk, yet again, dehumanising disabled people. We live in a time of neoliberal-ableism where the privatisation of the self, the marketisation of everyday life and mantras associated with austerity politics are enshrined in a belief that global citizens will work and shop themselves into positions of self-sufficiency that no longer require the support of government nor the services of welfare systems (Goodley, 2014).

Disability reminds us that being human need not follow such a rigid definitional process and that human worth is so much more than labouring and consuming. Indeed, we know that being human means being vulnerable and this inherent vulnerability has long provided a meeting point for activism, harking back to long-held debates in feminism especially around an ethics of care as a response to human vulnerability (Kittay, 2007). Disability studies, too, has consistently made a case for human qualities associated with interdependence and support. Being human is precarious. We need other humans and non-humans in order to live.

Jaspir Puar has recently introduced herself to the disability studies field by reclaiming debility as a political and human commons on which we can find comradeship (Puar, 2007). We welcome any theorisation of vulnerability when it captures the ways in which the human body risks being exposed; worked to death through its engagement with neoliberal capitalism. We also welcome the notion of a debility commons: a place where those of us failed by late capitalism connect around our shared precarity. But, we also have some critical responses to debility.

First, we wonder if debility might feed into recent discourses associated with the frailty of the human condition that is viewed as a pathology requiring the interventions of psy-practitioners (and thus further augmenting their professionalization of everyday life). Engaged scholar activists such as Psychologists Against Austerity have recently noted that neoliberal discourses around unemployment require people to submit to their own vulnerabilities in ways that their lack of socio-economic activity as an indicator of personal deficiency. Psychologists against austerity have identified five Austerity Ailments:  Humiliation and Shame, Fear and Mistrust, Instability and Insecurity, Isolation and Loneliness; Being, Trapped and Powerless. In contrast to the politicised version of debility espoused by Puar, debility risks being folded into these austerity ailments which are then picked up on by the discipline of psychology as requiring interventions ranging from confidence building to strengths assessment to cognitive behavioural therapy. Precarity is positioned very much within the individual. And this presumes that the individual has the agency to transform their thinking and behavior (to get better, to gain more capacity, that they need to change), thus sidestepping structural aetiologies of precarity (Goodley and Ecclestone, 2014). And this kind of discourse positions neoliberal ideology as natural, austerity is needed and debility as something to be managed. We heard recently at a conference that debility is the last thing that disabled people need in a time when their vulnerabilities are being writ large in these troubling political times.

Second, we wonder if the horizontal appeal of debility – as a shared category and common for us all to occupy in a time of austerity – risks undoing the political work of disability activism. Our own sense is that the distinction between humanness (embodied in neoliberal-able humanist discourses) and disability (a dominant signifier of being very much Other than human) is very much alive and well in our late capitalist society. In collapsing this binary – in calling out to debility – we risk ignoring the very material, immaterial and phenomenological ways in which disabled people are excluded from the rigid humanist human category and, perhaps even more importantly, bypassing the radical work done by disability to the human world. Whilst the British Equality and Human Rights Commission has morphed into an umbrella organization for all diverse groups it is interesting to note that the organization has retained a disability committee – in recognition of the important differences that remain for disabled people and their allies. The horizontal appeal of a term such as debility – which we welcome as a political strategy for bringing disability together with other transformative identities associated with queer, feminism and postcolonial thinking – risks erasing the political potency of disability politics; a politics that has often not touched the sides of political debate (historically ignored by Marxist, feminist and postcolonial thought to name but a few transformative arenas who can be accused of being at the very least disability-lite in their work). From a critical and often excluded sitpoint, disability studies alerts us to the ways which the binary of able-disabled, valued-worthless and capacity-debility are very much alive and well in the world.

We welcome the new issue of Feminist Review. Scholar activism needs to engage with new terms from the academy, such as precarity and debility, whilst working and advocating with allies who do not have such access to vocabulary. Many facets associated with debility work for us: but only alongside a politics of disability.


Goodley, D. (2014). Dis/ability studies: Theorising disablism and ableism. London: Routledge.

Ecclestone, K. & Goodley, D. (2014): Political and educational springboard or straitjacket? Theorising post/human subjects in an age of vulnerability, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, DOI: 10.1080/01596306.2014.927112

Kittay, E. (2007). ‘A Feminist Care Ethics, Dependency and Disability.’ APA Newsletter on Feminism and Philosophy 6(2), 3–7.

Puar, J.K. (2009): Prognosis time: Towards a geopolitics of affect, debility and capacity, Women & Performance: A journal of feminist theory, 19 (2), 161-172 Retrieved 5th June 2013


Dan Goodley is Professor of Disability Studies and Education at the University of Sheffield. His writing has sought to unravel and contest the dual process of ableism and disablism including Dis/ability Studies (2014, Routledge) and Disability Studies (2011, Sage). He is a father to two daughters, a keen Nottingham Forest FC football fan and a Beatles obsessive.
Rebecca Lawthom is Professor of Community Psychology at Manchester Metropolitan University. Her work engages at the intersections of feminism, disability and migration. Publications include Community Psychology (Wiley Blackwell, 2011, with Kagan, Burton and Duckett) and Qualitative Methods in Psychology: A research guide (Open University Press, 2012, with Banister, Bunn, Burman, Daniels, Duckett, Parker, Runswick Cole, Sixsmith and Goodley). She loves Glastonbury Festival and the music of Ron Sexsmith.

Tweet Dan and Rebecca at: @DanGoodley @RebeccaLawthom


Dr. Anna Hickey-Moody is the Head of the PhD in Arts and Learning at the Centre for The Arts and Learning, Goldsmiths, and the editor of  ‘Disability Matters’, an anthology which explores how ideas and experiences of disability come to matter across assemblages of media, through vectors of affect and experiences of pedagogy. In this article she argues for the radical potential of dance choreographed and performed by people with intellectual disabilities to remake their social faces.

Medical knowledges of disability still largely construct social faces of people with intellectual disability. They attribute particular significances to their physical features and argue these are signs of a specific kind of subjectivity. Space is rarely provided for the proliferation of alternative, relational, sense based knowledges. In this blog post, I discuss this ‘bleed’ of medical discourses from the clinical context to the social/everyday and argue it is political: it shapes the meaning that disability can come to have.  I gesture towards some critical perspectives on medical discourses of intellectual disability and explore some ways that dance with people with disabilities might open up medical discourses. As conceptual tools, the Deleuzo-Guattarian ideas of prospects and functives (1996: 134-162) offer a useful way to contextualise medical knowledges of intellectual disability. Prospects and functives articulate some limits of medical discourses and explicate the politics of knowledge construction undertaken within medical discourses. They offer an insightful way of reading discourses of intellectual disability in light of medical purposes and also in terms of other possible ways for making meaning that medical discourses are not able to realise.

The Politics of Making Faces

Functives and prospects are ideas that consider the ways scientific systems, such as medical discourses, operate. Deleuze and Guattari (1996: 117-33) remind us that scientific systems have been developed in order to shape the physical world rather than conceptualise it. Medical terms, or the terms constituting any discursive system, form parts of a set that is constructed on a plane of reference. Deleuze and Guattari (1996, 1987) argue that thought constitutes (and in turn is constructed upon) a plane of immanence. Art is constructed on (and makes up) a plane of sensation. In a similar manner, science builds and inhabits a plane of reference. A plane of reference is comparable to a three-dimensional graph:

Science is haunted not by its own unity but by the plane of reference constituted by all the limits or borders through which it confronts chaos. It is these borders that give the plane its references. As for the system of co-ordinates, they populate or fill out the plane of reference itself. (Deleuze & Guattari, 1996: 119-120)

A plane of reference is constructed through discursive systems. As a discursive system, medical knowledges are composed of ‘functives’ (1996: 118) or elements of physical functions that are actualised within a discursive system.

As a method of construction, discursive systems are both pragmatic and political – “[s]cience … relinquishes the infinite, infinite speed, in order to gain a reference able to actualise the virtual”. In other words, while art and thought open up the actual to possibilities of the virtual, science (or medicine) crafts physical positions through accessing limited parts of the virtual. The ‘normal body’ imagined within contemporary medical discourses constitutes a majoritarian analytic position. This position is not actualised in the body of one human being as much as it is constructed through medical analyses of many different human bodies. – Think about the ‘human’ genome project, a ‘mapping’ of the human body that required thousands of bodies to make. Although this imagined ‘norma’l body is not a singular, corporeal active agent per se, as an ideal it holds much power. This power is attributed to the imagined normal body through the medical discourses that construct it. They are mutually constitutive.

Medical discourses should remain firmly grounded in problems of medical practice, as they are discursive systems that serve to ‘mend’ problems within medical science. Such context-specific tools cannot be employed to repair conceptual problems. The understanding of bodies afforded through employing the medical term ‘intellectual disability’ within the conceptual structures of medical discourses imposes a set of negative limits upon bodies. These ‘limits’ are performed through the words ‘intellectual disability’, suggesting an embodied lack. In contrast the medical face of disability created through the words ‘intellectual disability’, a dance piece or painting is created by humans, but its impact on culture: the pedagogical work it undertakes in inviting new ways of seeing and relating, in effecting economies of exchange, can not be confined to once discursive system – sensations open up discursive or closed systems. This affective pedagogy of aesthetics is a spatial, temporal assemblage in which historicized practices of art production, ways of seeing, spaces and places of viewing are plugged into one another and augmented. Subjective change is part of a broader assemblage of social change, activated by the production of new aesthetic milieus. New faces are made, through new feelings. Dance made and performed by people with intellectual disabilities offer new ways of relating to intellectual disability, and make new social faces through feeling.

Launching this week with a public debate on austerity and disability, a new Disability Research Centre at Goldsmiths, University of London which aims to explore and address some of the biggest issues facing disabled people today and features a focus on Disability Arts.

Too much responsibility? On the demands made of feminist scholarship

Last month, we published Paniz Musawi Natanzi’s post, ‘Feminist responsibilities: thinking about art history, epistemology and geopolitics‘, a reflection and response to Victoria Horne’s article, ‘Kate Davis: re-visioning art history after modernism and postmodernism‘, published in Feminist Review issue 110. Here, Victoria Horne responds in turn.

This is a brief response to the thoughtful and comprehensive blog post written by Paniz Musawi Natanzi, in which she identifies and critiques a number of the arguments put forth in my earlier Feminist Review article. I would like to question two of the criticisms levelled by Musawi Natanzi:

First, Musawi Natanzi argues that ‘black women artists’ experience cannot simply be reduced to a “parallel” but independently working universe’ to that of their white sisters. And, as she diagnoses, ‘Horne’s idea of re-visioning and re-citing can only be applied to social formations that can refer to a disciplinary canon. How do we read contemporary women’s art that has no art historical canon of its own to refer to?’ I believe we in fact share common ground here. My use of the word ‘parallel’ was not intended to imply an equivalence in social, economic or legal context; instead, I contend that an equivalence or, at least, correlation in re-visioning artistic strategies can be observed between the approaches Lisa Gail Collins uncovers in African-American feminist photography and those I have identified in Kate Davis’ art practice. The question here is not necessarily one of market-recognised artistic canons, but of how historical subjectivities are produced and disciplined via visual materials, including in Collins’ book the pseudo-scientific archives of slavery in colonial America. The reference was not intended to offer an exhaustive argument in this regard, but to indicate that different subjects may have different histories, and that the creative expression I termed re-visioning may be observed in numerous contexts, as those subjects engage with a variety of archival materials (a question I would like to investigate further).

Secondly, Musawi Natanzi enquires, ‘So, is there an Afghan art history?’ I admit, I am not particularly well placed to answer that question. My own research concentrates on the development of art history in Anglo-American contexts, mostly British in fact, given my access to local archives and materials. Taking a historical view I would suggest that ‘art history’ emerged as a recognisable, professional discipline with a certain level of academic and educational standardisation across the field, in the late nineteenth century. Donald Preziosi has written extensively about the formation of art history’s institutions at this time as serving to legitimate the imperialist ideologies of the modern nation state. The establishment of art history therefore serves as a kind of cultural support for nationalism. Recent research published by James Elkins in Is Art History Global? attempts to answer just that question. He traces the number of art history departments and peer-reviewed journals (admittedly, these categories are biased frames from the outset) and finds that the vast majority are still located in Western Europe and North America. There are important distinctions to be made here. If we accept that ‘art history’ names a discipline and set of practices that has roots in the imperialist West, would we want an ‘Afghan art history’ and what would it look like? This integration/autonomy debate has of course been a well-acknowledged problem within feminist writing on art history for many years, and is increasingly a reflexive problem for feminist art history itself, in response to the ascendant hegemony of a mostly Anglo-American developmental narrative. There already is an abundance of writing on this topic, so I’ll move on to highlight the following claim:

‘Complicating the approach to women’s artistic work shows the limits of Horne’s strategies of “re-visioning” and/or “re-citing” since these are not capable to look at art histories, but assume a world untouched by colonialized epistemologies.’

Such an assumption was never my intention. My understanding is that contemporary processes of economic globalisation have their roots in colonial-era powers and discourses, alongside art history’s cultural operations. And I believe (following Dimitrakaki, 2013) that maintaining the singular ‘art history’ encourages us to remain attentive to those harmful legacies that accompanied the instituting of the discipline while developing wariness of globalisation’s ceaselessly assimilative operations. This singularity might also, in an optimistic vein, assist us in the quest for transnational feminist solidarity via the recognition of shared political goals, even in the face of deep ideological and material differences. While this criticism is one I shall be considering further, I disagree with the characterisation of my article as ‘marginalising non-white artistic experience’. I was engaging with a particular artist who lives, works and exhibits in the neighbouring city to where I live; it was necessarily a tight analysis of her artwork and the questions it poses in regards to European art history and UK suffrage legacies etc. In general my research engages with instituting processes on a micro-level, thinking about how small acts reproduce and/or resist existing limits of disciplinary thought. Of course I hope that these analyses might offer useful epistemological tools beyond the immediate context of its subject. As mentioned, I attempted to gesture towards some of these in the article itself.

Ultimately, Musawi Natanzi’s critique exhorts greater ‘feminist responsibilities’. I would not necessarily oppose such an aim but I remain cautious of the excessive demands we often make of feminist research – hence the title of this response. If one of feminism’s achievements has been to challenge the notion of a universalising approach to scholarship, we must accept that many arguments, tools, or methodologies are bound to be provisional and open to reinterpretation, even reshaping, in face of the varying exploitations and oppressions faced by women under global capital. I hope that my article provides, or begins to provide, such a perspective for those of us working in the field of art history.

Victoria currently holds a Paul Mellon Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Edinburgh. Her co-edited collection of essays on feminism, art and historiography is due to be published by IB Tauris in 2016.

Feminist responsibilities: thinking about art history, epistemology and geopolitics

In the first of what we hope will become a more regular feature on the blog, we publish a response to an article recently published in Feminist Review. Here, Paniz Musawi Natanzi responds to Victoria Horne’s ‘Kate Davis: re-visioning art history after modernism and postmodernism‘ (free to access until the end of September) from issue 110. Victoria Horne will be responding in an upcoming blog post in the next few weeks – so stay tuned!

Feminist responsibilities: thinking about art history, epistemology and geopolitics.

In her article ‘Kate Davis: re-visioning art history after modernism and postmodernism’, Victoria Horne (2015) examines in a “feminist analysis” the artistic work of Scottish artist Kate Davis. Horne’s feminist framing challenges androcentric art historical discourses that marginalise the position and meaning of women artists’ artwork as a visual form of knowledge production.

Horne reveals through a “feminist logic” the marginalising power of “paternalistic structures” through which art history produces disciplined knowledge (ibid: 35-36). Characteristic of this approach are the strategies of “re-visioning”, which is the artistic re-framing and critical engagement with canonical artworks, and “re-citing”, which links matrilineal history to the present from a feminist perspective (ibid: 47). Looking at the post-second wave feminism era, Horne argues that by reframing and re-evaluating canonical artworks, women artists position their “political critique” (ibid). The visual statement characterises feminist art production and hence needs to be recognised by the discipline of art history (ibid: 35).

Despite her deconstructive approach Horne does not describe her own work as postmodern or informed by poststructuralism. Rather, she argues that the academic over-usage of deconstructive methods in analysing knowledge and power relations have replicated “metanarratives” that do not grasp the critical potential of women artists’ visual “political critique” (ibid: 35). If Virginia Woolf calls for the necessity of “a room of one’s own” for women writers, then Horne argues that women artists have produced artistic visual knowledge of their own since the 1960s that needs a visible place in art history (Woolf, 2000). By locating the relation between art, epistemology and politics of visibility, Horne’s article touches upon a widely ignored connection between feminist studies and art historical knowledge production: she invites us to “seriously” consider “art’s potential” to think “differently” about art history and “women’s labour” (Horne, 2015: 36). Horne’s thorough feminist examination of Davis’ “visual research” invests into “a form of feminist historiographical labour”, rendering visible processes of women’s exclusion and marginalisation from the past to the present.

Horne’s criticism of the systematic exclusion of “canonically or economically marginalised” women artists in art history also challenges “universalist perspectives” ignoring “the particularities of an artist’s encounter with and relation to cultural production and it’s historical legacies” (ibid: 38). Touching upon the “parallel complexity” that links white women artists’ art production experience with “African-American female artists” Horne equates the social, political and legal experience of colonialism, slavery and on-going racialisation with male supremacy, domestic violence and chauvinism (ibid: 43). Thereby, Horne fails to consider the accumulative and intersectional power of discrimination that creates space for the very epistemic violence she aims to challenge in her article.

In order to shape a responsible and critical feminist art historiography it is necessary to consider how “embodied epistemologies”, as the geopolitical feminist thinker Jennifer Hyndman (2004: 309-310) calls it, shape the “particularities” (Horne, 2015: 38-39) of embodied experience. In this case, black women artists’ experience cannot simply be reduced to a “parallel” but independently working universe. The racialisation of bodies is interwoven with processes of heteronormative gendering. Experiencing processes of gendering, racialisation, precarity, and ableism, and living in spaces with morbid infrastructures, on-going conflict and political violence all hinder women’s artistic production, and differ vastly depending on one’s local and geopolitical space of living. Hence, Horne’s idea of re-visioning and re-citing can only be applied to social formations that can refer to a disciplinary canon. How do we read contemporary women’s art that has no art historical canon of its own to refer to?

Exemplary for the pitfalls of universalising art histories is Afghanistan, where British and US-American colonisation and invasion has strongly influenced how fine, modern and contemporary art is being taught since the end of the 19th century. Decades of war since the end of the 1970s brought art production and its exhibition in public spaces to a general halt. So, is there an “Afghan art history”?

Contemporary women artists in Afghanistan received wide attention with the reconstruction of the Afghan nation-state and liberal peace building in the years succeeding the US invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Not primarily for the quality of their art, but for the fact that they were female residents of post-Taliban Afghanistan. While the quality of the artwork has strongly increased throughout the past 14 years, the instrumentalisation of women’s art has not. The textual and visual work of Afghan-US-American artist and scholar Amanullah Mojadidi shows that engagements with the blue chadari (Dari-Farsi word for burqa), or the use of graffiti is “co-opted and instrumentalized” by western governments and donors (Mojadidi quoted in Montagu, 2014 [PDF]; see also: Mojadidi quoted in Burke, 2011) since women artists are perceived as symbols of progress and civilisation.

It seems unavoidable to consider the influence of local customs while taking into account to what extent and how Euro-American aesthetic ideals, drawing practices and topics have shaped Afghan arts in times of colonisation and continuing liberal-peace-building. The scope of “re-visioning” and “re-citing” has proved to be a narrow feminist strategy that presupposes an art historical canon to which modern and contemporary women artists can refer to. The “archaeological labour” (Horne, 2015: 50) that contemporary Afghan women artists have done seems to be more critical when not engaging with issues of gender since it is hard to tell whether the artist is pleasing the eyes of its funding patron or her own need to visualise embodied experience.

Complicating the approach to women’s artistic work shows the limits of Horne’s strategies of “re-visioning” and/or “re-citing” art history since these are not capable to look at art histories, but assume a world untouched by colonialized epistemologies. A feminist analysis of contemporary artwork needs to develop a strategy that does not replicate exclusive techniques. The next question should be how to read contemporary women’s art without marginalising non-white artistic experiences within and outside of Europe and the US.


Burke, J., 2011. Kabul’s graffiti guerrillas put the writing on the walls. The Guardian.

Hyndman, J., 2004. Mind the gap: bridging feminist and political geography through geopolitics. Political Geography, 23(3), pp.307–322.

Montagu, J., 2014. Contemporary Visual Art in Afghanistan: ‘An Art of Laughter and Forgetting…’ In: M. Crimmin, E. Stanton, S. Oxenbridge-Hastie and C. Wood, eds., Art and Conflict. A Research Enquiry supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Royal College of Art 2013-2014. London, pp.45–55.

Woolf, V., 2000. A room of one’s own. Penguin classics. London: Penguin.

Paniz Musawi Natanzi is a PhD candidate at the Centre for Gender Studies at SOAS. Currently, she is based in Tehran where she conducts her fieldwork on Afghan women’s visual knowledge production in Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan in times of on-going insecurity and liberal-peace-building in Afghanistan. She holds a BA in Political Science from the Free University of Berlin’s Otto Suhr Institute (2013) and an MSc in Comparative Political Thought from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London (2014). Since 2012 Paniz has published amongst others in the German daily newspaper taz. die tageszeitung, the French revue l’imparfaite and has a forthcoming book chapter which is going to be published by Hurst & Co and Columbia University Press in 2016.


Call for papers for ‘Currents’ issue

Deadline for issue 113: 15 September 2015

Feminist Review welcomes submissions to its Currents Issue for publication in the journal in line with its aims. The FR Currents Issue profiles cutting edge, interdisciplinary feminist research that engages with contemporary topics in feminist, gender, sexuality and women’s studies that is likely to direct future scholarship, that attends to intersectionality and that leads transnational feminist thinking. In the annual Currents Issue the Feminist Review Collective prioritises work that is methodologically innovative and/or addressing prevalent issues in novel and important ways and welcomes work from cross-regional perspectives. All submissions to the Currents Issue are initially reviewed by two editors and, if selected, sent on for peer review. The deadline for the next Currents issue is 15 September 2015.

If you have any questions about submission for a Currents Issue, please contact Sadie Wearing [] in the first instance.

Submissions must be made via Feminist Review’s online submissions system.

For details about FR house style and submission guidelines, please visit our Palgrave website.

Neoliberalism, whiteness and representations of female success: An interview with Karen Wilkes

Karen Wilkes’ article, “Colluding with neoliberalism: Post-feminist subjectivities, whiteness, and expressions of entitlement“, appears in the latest issue of Feminist Review. Here, we catch up with her to find out more about her research.

FR: Your article usefully brings together scholarship on neoliberalism, post-feminism and whiteness to examine representations of affluent white women within contemporary popular culture. You argue that western popular representations of successful femininity hinge on “performances that normalise the values, cultural capital and aesthetic tastes of the dominant white upper and middle classes”. In particular, your article focuses on the advertising of the American fashion brand Michael Kors as well as the media portrayal of elite business women such as Karren Brady (high profile media personality and vice chair of West Ham Football Club) and Sheryl Sandberg (CEO of Facebook). Could you tell us a bit more about your analysis of these cultural sites?

KW: I was keen to explore the way in which popular cultural sites appear to be neutral and ‘normal’, yet on closer inspection and with analysis they appear to support the dominant ideological interlocking frameworks of patriarchy and capitalism. The representations of white femininity in the Michael Kors Spring 2015 advertising campaign, is of particular significance due to the location of the fashion shoot. The theme of the collection appears to be ‘representations of the leisure class and their yachting culture’, as the campaign has been set and staged on a beach and at the site of a luxury yacht. The Michael Kors caption which accompanies the images states that “there’s this attitude that you can and should have it all”. Such statements appear to universally invite audiences “to have it all” and yet the messages of white standards of beauty, heterosexuality and luxury that are communicated in the images hail a specific economic and social group, and invoke the neoliberal principles of individualism and middle and upper class bourgeois consumption. My analysis has aimed to examine the way in which representations of expensive and luxury consumer lifestyles are a vehicle to encourage adoration of individualism, wealth and materialism.

The Michael Kors campaign is significant for the way in which such representations appropriate and rework traditional representations of middle class women as principally decorative (Craik, 1994) and  “emblem[s] of beauty” (Hobson, 2005: 10). The status of white middle and upper class women as special is conferred by their elaborate, visual displays, which alongside their appearance with muscular white men, reaffirms heterosexuality as the norm and her superior social position is conveyed by her leisured and ornamental body. Thus, the thin, white woman’s performative display of relaxing on a yacht is a combination of elements which signals to the viewer that she is the ideal and is enjoying the “perfect life” (Redmond, 2003: 175).

I was also interested in elite business women who have access to the media and use the language of feminism to make their messages regarding individualism and capitalist success appear to be universally relevant to all women. I think that it is the idea of universalism that is a theme that links the luxury branding in campaigns such as those for Michael Kors and the messages that are expressed by Karren Brady and Sheryl Sandberg that interlock and aim to create a climate of entrepreneurial free-market success that appears to be available to all women.

FR: What do you think some of the effects of these kinds of representations are? Do you think they have different effects on differently positioned women (in terms of race and class)?

KW: I think the effects of these kinds of representations are to place the responsibility for ‘success’ on the shoulders of the individual. The idea being that if they could succeed (Brady and Sandberg) it is possible for other women to succeed as they have done. However, they do not take into consideration the gender, class and race categories that intersect and structure social, racial and economic inequalities. Brady and Sandberg are both white women from privileged backgrounds, and I believe that attention to this fact is minimal in the media. The effect is that the realities of black and white working class women’s lives are not the subject of discussions. Their experiences continue to be marginalized, as exemplified by Brady’s response in the Guardian interview, that she has not seen any evidence of the economic policies pursued by the current administration, adversely affecting vulnerable people.

With regard to the representations in the Michael Kors images, alongside celebrating the visibility of personal wealth and materialism, they are projections which directly target young women to engage in conspicuous consumption as a form of distinction, and the aspirations that affluent white women are encouraged to aspire to are to conform to the ideal standards of beauty, to be visibly decorative and to be sexually attractive to men.

The effect is that the contemporary dominance of the language of neoliberalism and the common sense assumptions that have been established by this ideology – competitiveness, individualism and the free market as beneficial to all – allows for a new generation of women to be encouraged to focus on beautification and consumption as evidence of the ability to make choices, rather than the choices that women as active citizens make.

FR: You highlight an interesting point about the potential contradiction in the media’s message to women – i.e. we are simultaneously supposed to constantly focus on our beautification as well as aspire to professional success. However, you argue that ultimately “by enlisting the interlocking discourses of whiteness, consumer citizenship and the call to employment, these are messages that facilitate neo-liberal market demands”. Could you expand a bit on how these three discourses interact?

KW: The three discourses interact by ‘speaking to each other’. There are historical discourses of whiteness which disseminated a version of white femininity as superior, and can be located in Victorian women’s elaborate styles of dress and the values they held regarding manners, good taste and sophistication. There are elements of this construction of white femininity as inherently superior which are reproduced in contemporary representations such as those in the Michael Kors advertising campaigns. Although the ability to subscribe to these very narrow prescriptions of femininity requires a disciplining of the body through “hard labour” (Craik, 1994: 73), they are made palatable by interacting with discourses of neoliberal feminism which encourage independent economic participation in the form of employment. The rewards for being competitive and securing professional employment are to be found in consumption as a leisure activity. However, these calls to employment have largely been lucrative for white middle and upper class women, who have gained access to professions that require technological and information training and are also tied to the neoliberal values of wealth creation, thus meeting the needs of the free market.

FR: You point to how white upper and middle class women are invited to share power within the existing white, patriarchal capitalist system through “complying with narrow patriarchal beauty ideals”, by promoting individual success and aspiration, and by not challenging race and class oppression. In what ways is your analysis informed by or connected to black feminist critiques of the long history of white women’s collusion with “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (to use bell hooks’ term)?

KW: My analysis is directly informed by black feminist critiques, and specifically bell hooks’ critical analysis of the way in which the feminist movement was a vehicle used by middle and upper class women to further their own agendas for social and economic parity with their male counterparts. This was to the detriment of white working class women, black women and gay women whose concerns were marginal to more media friendly message of equality professed by white middle class women in the movement. Through the course of writing the article, I have learnt that there is a longer history of white middle class women benefitting from feminist movements such as the middle class women who benefitted from the Victorian feminist movement in the 1900s, as discussed by the historian Catherine Hall and the academic Vron Ware. I have also drawn on postcolonial studies which highlights the way in which white femininity has historically occupied a privileged position within colonial discourses of whiteness (as discussed by Cecily Jones), which was constructed and procured and held up as the superior opposite to black colonized women, principally achieved through their status as beneficiaries of patriarchal colonial power.

The work of Patricia Hill Collins and intersectional scholars such as Elizabeth R. Cole and Natalie J. Sabik have also informed my analysis for their particular focus on the way in which they theorise white standards of beauty as examples of power and privilege in white patriarchal systems.

FR: Calling your approach intersectional, you highlight the interaction of whiteness, heteronormativity, neoliberalism and patriarchy in the production of idealised femininity. Why did you choose this approach and what do you think it brings to the analysis?

KW: I chose this approach to support my analysis of the way in which white femininity is represented in popular visual texts and specifically how this ideal is dependent on categories and social positions working together; it is only possible for the white beauty standard to be the ideal because it enlists specific valorised classed and racialised identities to secure its position. Contemporary discourses that celebrate the material success of the individual are facilitated by neoliberal appropriations of the language of second wave feminism. What it adds to the analysis is to demonstrate how oppressive and marginalising practices do not operate hierarchically (Trepagnier, 1994: 202). They interact and bolster each other, and I am keen to undertake analysis which helps to explain how representations of white femininity and neoliberalism are effective by being seemingly neutral, universal and relevant to all women.

FR: You are currently working on a book on ‘gender, whiteness and destination weddings’ (for Palgrave Macmillan). Could you tell us a bit more about this?

KW: My monograph, provisionally titled Destination Weddings, Postcolonial Whiteness and Gender also examines the discourses of idealised white femininity in contemporary visual representations. However, the book focuses on the celebration of the white female body as princess brides who are centrally positioned in the niche tourism product of weddings in the Caribbean. The monograph is interdisciplinary in its approach and focus as it combines visual analysis, postcolonial theories and black feminist theories to examine representations of destination weddings which interlock with visual discourses of the Caribbean, packaged as ‘paradise’. I will be using an intersectional approach to explore the way in which the consumption of the Caribbean is represented as entitlement to luxury and also as an expression of distinction for affluent white women.

I will draw on whiteness studies scholarship and postcolonial approaches, to address the foregrounding of whiteness within discourses of luxury, which also directs attention towards exploring the continuities of colonial discourses and themes of paradise in nineteenth-century travel writing within contemporary tourist brochures. Close inspection of historical discursive formations offers insight into the layering of classed, racialised, gendered and sexualised symbols that are combined with repeated images of black waiters serving in cherished tourist spaces. The aim of the book is to gain an understanding of the way in which visual tourism discourse attempts to conceal the ongoing economic inequalities between the global North and the global South.

Karen Wilkes holds a PhD in Cultural Studies. Her interdisciplinary research into visual texts includes analyses of gender, class, sexuality and race in historical and contemporary visual culture. Her most recent publications have explored the representation of the white female body in tourism images of the Caribbean.

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.

Vacancy: Social media and digital communications assistant

We – at the journal Feminist Review – are looking to recruit a part-time (4 hours per week) social media and digital communications assistant to enhance our profile.

For the person specification, please email:

Application is by CV and covering letter. The covering letter should make clear your relevant skills and experience and why you would be suitable for the post. The deadline for applications is the 31 August 2015. Interviews week beginning 14 September.

If you have any questions please contact Yasmin Gunaratnam:

Issue 110 now online!

issue110Issue 110 of Feminist Review is now available online, containing four new peer-reviewed articles:

irreconcilability in the digital: gender, technological imaginings and maternal subjectivity” by Helen Thornham

colluding with neo-liberalism: post-feminist subjectivities, whiteness and expressions of entitlement” by Karen Wilkes

Kate Davis: re-visioning art history after modernism and postmodernism” by Victoria Horne

between Islamophobia and post-feminist agency: intersectional trouble in the European face-veil bans” by Dolores Morondo Taramundi

The open space pieces include poetry, a personal narrative of tattoos, atheism, feminism and Blackness, a report on ethnic minority women’s view of the UK Home Office immigration campaigns, and reflections on Robyn Wiegman’s book Object Lessons.

The issue also contains 10 book reviews, all free to access.

Full table of contents available here.

Make sure to keep an eye on the blog later this month and throughout the summer – we will be featuring author interviews, responses to articles, extracts from open space pieces and more once the issue is officially published.