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13th annual feminist theory workshop at Duke University, North Carolina

Written by Jessica Wild


In March of this year, I was lucky enough to attend the 13th Annual Feminist Theory Workshop held at Duke University in North Carolina, USA after gaining generous funding from the School of Sociology and Social Policy to attend. The workshop took place at what is a critical sociological and cultural moment for feminist academia and social justice activism. It is a moment catalysed by a series of global events ranging from the controversial presidential election in the United States and increased state control of women’s bodies and sexual rights, attempts to ban gender studies from the curriculum in Hungary or the widespread mobilisation of Tarana Burke’s Me Too campaign via social media platforms more recently.

Key events such as these, as well as many others, have had significant and far reaching implications for feminist thought and praxis, often placing feminist academics and activists at risk for seeking to secure the rights of women and other marginalised groups, or for endeavouring to push forward an inclusive feminist agenda. Crucially, those most at risk are minoritised women, trans and non-binary folk who have been systematically othered through structural conditions, and who are frequently marginalised further because of internal battles amongst feminist thinkers themselves. This reality constitutes the current landscape we are working in and thus underscores the value vested in conferences and workshops such as this one, which provided a vital space in which to consider the changing terrain of feminist theory. It allowed for an interrogation of the new demands placed upon feminist scholars posed by changes in globalisation, the question of species, bioethics, environmental devastation, and the ever-changing arenas of the scope of sexuality and difference.

Attended by around 250 people from around the world, the workshop provided a timely opportunity to ‘take stock’, to reflect, and to explore new ways of working to confront these challenges through an intersectional feminist lens. It was organised pedagogically in order to promote and facilitate focused study and critical debate, which crossed field, disciplinary and national boundary lines. It provided a unique opportunity for students and early career researchers to engage with internationally renowned scholars in a sustained dialogue about feminist theory as an interdisciplinary domain of inquiry.  As such, the two-day conference was structured around a series of presentations from established academics, as well as panel discussions and presentation specific ‘breakout’ sessions or working groups, which provided an inclusive and academically rigorous space in which to engage with fellow attendees, hailing from over 40 countries worldwide.

The keynote speakers spoke to four distinct topics, all addressing some of the most urgent issues we currently face, carefully weaving together complex themes of gender and sexuality. In this they offered new non-(hetero)normative, decolonial ways of understanding the world and theoretical meaning-meaning, which instead interrogate and seek to dismantle hierarchies of race, gender, privilege and class. The first of the speakers was Professor C Riley Snorton, who works on histories and representations of race, gender and sexuality and who has written extensively on black trans identity. In his keynote paper, Professor Snorton discussed the ecologies of meaning vested in mud and the constitutive presence of swamps to racial practices and formations in America, drawing upon historical narratives such as those provided by Harriet Jacobs who escaped from slavery and later became an abolitionist (see Mud: Ecologies of Racial Meaning, Snorton, forthcoming).

This was followed by a paper from Professor Lauren Berlant, who discussed the possibility of sex positivity in an age of #metoo, amidst widespread sexual violence disclosures. She situated this question within the context of her most recent work on the ‘flatter affects’ of inconvenience and humourlessness, drawing upon examples from contemporary media such as the 1998 film Happiness. In this she discussed the satisfaction vested in rejecting the ‘pleasure economy’ of heteronormativity’ (see The Inconvenience of other people, Berlant, forthcoming).

The third keynote presentation was delivered by  Professor Kim Tallbear, expert in indigenous peoples’, technoscience and the environment. Her highly engaging paper on the colonisation of indigenous peoples’ sexuality and the imposition of heteronormative understandings of love and relationships offered up new ways to conceptualise decolonial sex and relations, for a more ecologically sound and sustainable world. In this she discussed the value of polyamory practice, drawing upon her own lived experiences of this detailed in her blog.

Professor Jocelyn Olcott (speaking in place of Professor Anne Anlin Cheng who was unable to attend), addressed care and the value of love, in the fourth keynote presentation. In this, Professor Olcott examined the extent to which the value of love can be reconceptualised in the context of care as always relational, using a feminist-Marxist theoretical framework. In this, she investigated why commodification is often the only way in which value is typically ascribed and which at the very moment of commodification is simultaneously devalued, particularly when set against the backdrop of contemporary neoliberalism.

The conference was filmed during the course of the two days, and keynote speaker presentations can be viewed on YouTube (day 1 and day 2).  Written with thanks to the School for enabling my participation.