Associate Professor of English Language and Culture
Utrecht University, The Netherlands
Episodes listened to: 2.1–2.11, 2.30
Thank you for the invitation to review Secret Feminist Agenda and to contribute to its larger aim of thinking about the forms scholarship might take, and how non-traditional forms of knowledge production and publication might find recognition within the profession whilst also seeking to disrupt the norms that underpin it.
I am going to start by situating myself as a human and researcher at the beginning of this review. I do so because it is in keeping with some of the ideas about knowledge and form that underpin Secret Feminist Agenda (and to which I will return), and for two additional reasons 1) the project aims to make peer review public, which means I want the public to know a little more about who is speaking, and 2) to flag my contribution as a peer reviewer who is positioned outside the context of North American academia. I am aware that I am not presenting this peer review in the format you (and possibly the producer of the podcast) may have been hoping I would use. By positioning myself, I also offer you an explanation for why I am writing an essay-cum-letter in response to the invitation to review the podcast, rather than answering a set of predetermined questions that you shared with me. I hope that you will publish this letter as-is in the section of the website where the peer reviews are posted, despite my disobedience. And I hope that this essay-cum-letter will also function as a meaningful piece of peer review for the project, whose aims and form I value.
I am a white, Australian-born academic who has been working The Netherlands since 2016. Before coming to The Netherlands, I worked in Australian academia for a decade. For most of that time (and currently) I have worked in English or Literary Studies departments as a kind of interloper who researches everything but books, and who teaches contemporary literature courses, American literature, and courses on life writing (including creative writing).
My area of research is contemporary forms of personal storytelling in a range of media (the field of life writing studies), and I am particularly interested in non-traditional and non-institutional forms of storytelling. My academic articles, and public commentary, share a concern with marginal and ephemeral forms of culture. My published work has covered forms such as zines, selfies, videos that have gone ‘viral,’ the PostSecret project, and performance-based practices in visual arts and drag. My interest in quirky, marginal texts is motivated by two fundamental questions: How does the way we talk about and reflect on lived experience shape our understanding of what a life is or what it can mean? How do marginal or non-traditional forms of culture produce different ideas about what is important about lived experience and what we can learn from them?
My approach in trying to answer these questions is to pay attention to what feminist and queer scholar Lauren Berlant calls “the kinesthetics of form”—I focus on how genre intersects with the affordances of specific media (its modes of production, circulation and reception) in specific forms like zines and drag, and specific projects, like PostSecret. By looking at the intersection of media and storytelling I try to identify and describe how artists from different places and with varying agendas adopt and explore the potential of personal storytelling outside the institutional sites of professional publishing. I also look at examples where marginal forms are brought into institutional locations, and what happens when this occurs (so of course, I love the idea of bringing the podcast into the realm of scholarly publishing). I use a combination of feminist and queer cultural scholarship, political and social theory, and media theory as my framework for this work, and am often utilizing methodologies of archival research (including building my own archives) and adapting the tools of textual analysis to non-traditional texts.
I give this context for my work and interests because it informs my engagement with and response to Secret Feminist Agenda. I have long been interested in the rise of the podcast as a contemporary cultural space where personal storytelling of a specific kind serves all kinds of interesting social, political and educational ends. I am very grateful to the Press for inviting me to think about the aesthetics and form of the podcast and how it might relate to scholarly publishing as an institutional practice that enshrines particular genres of communication which, in turn, reflect larger investments in how knowledge gets made, and what kinds of knowledge is considered legitimate.
Secret Feminist Agenda, it seems to me, occurs at the intersection of two tracks of intellectual and cultural work. One is concerned with the very contemporary questions about knowledge production and circulation brought about by the shifting nature of media production and reception from centralised institutional forms (broadcast media, publishing houses, university presses, cultural institutions) to a more diverse media environment in which a certain kind of digital self-publishing (blogs, podcasts, online magazines) have gained respectability, validity, and audiences. It also builds on the feminist intellectual tradition that critiques objectivity as the foundation for knowledge production. In the intellectual tradition within the social sciences and humanities, there is a multi-generational commitment to the proposal that all knowledge is situated knowledge. This idea has been expanded by the work of feminists of colour and queer scholars who have critiqued the idealised investment in a singular political body (Woman) that feminism can define and defend.
The two trends outlined above have different time scales: the shift in media practices can be roughly dated to the turn of the twenty-first century, whereas the feminist intervention in the academy can be dated either as far back as 1792, the publication date of Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman.
Across the episodes I listened to, it was clear the podcast is responding to and thinking through the problem of how to continue the primary feminist investment in critiquing institutional forms of knowledge production, while wrestling with the radical shift in forms of publishing associated with institutional authority. This response and thinking through occurs at both the level of form (the use of the podcast, and certain genres of personal storytelling such as the interview and the anecdote) and content (the discussions, ideas, provocations and advice discussed within the podcast).
McGregor is clearly highly aware of, and engaged with, the tensions that come from thinking about these two issues together. For example, she deftly reflects upon how the perception of scholarly forms of publishing (such as the monograph and the journal article) as “outdated” supports the potential erosion of the value scholarly activity in what she refers to as the “neoliberal university” and a scholarly environment increasingly driven by competitive funding applications (discussed explicitly in episode 2.30, but informing other discussions across the series). This is an issue that effects scholars—and their careers and practices—differently in different national contexts. In The Netherlands, Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, for example, the link between competitive funding and research, and the pressures of “societal relevance,” “impact,” or “knowledge valorization” (the clumsy ‘Dunglish’ phrase for these things) is indeed a significant pressure. As are the related forms of research evaluation conducted internally at universities in The Netherlands, and nationally in countries like Australia and the UK (with the ERA, and REF systems respectively). These countries do not have a “tenure” system that is comparable to the North American system, and thus at times the discussion of the “neoliberal” context for scholarly publishing and scholarly work that was discussed in the podcast tended, it seemed to me, to assume a North American context that might limit its effectiveness in translating its argument to listeners beyond that system and geographical location. There are many places in the profession where no-one really “gets” tenure in a way that frees them from expectations regarding research performance and impact.
At the level of form and content, the podcast also thinks explicitly about the modes of publicness and exposure that come with challenging institutional forms of authority and knowledge. McGregor is engaging too with the important cultural moment of what this exposure means for feminist scholars who choose to think in public (that is, outside the institutional setting of the university and its established protocols of speaking, researching, and engagement).
Indeed, the very idea of what publicness is and what it means permeates the project, and from a reviewer and textual critic’s perspective I wondered whether the project acts out the ambivalence many of us feel about costs and benefits that come with wanting the work we do to matter beyond the seemingly closed space of academia with its high barriers to participation (which are not as high in some countries as in others). Once we stop speaking to other academics, we are immediately confronted with the question of audience. Who else might care about the work we do, and why might they care? And how do we talk to them about our research in ways that are meaningful to them, and does not assume that the language we speak in the academy is legible to those outside it? With these issues in mind, I am going to provide some feedback on how I think the project could sharpen its use of the intersection between form and content in future iterations so that both its scholarly contribution, and its effectiveness, are enhanced.
In offering this feedback, I am taking up the position of the “critical friend” (introduced to me by my colleague and friend Danielle Fuller, now at the University of Alberta). All research projects, and particularly innovative ones, need collegial friends who are invested in the success of the project and, because of that investment, are prepared to point to the things that can be improved with the hope that the feedback will prove constructive, rather than destructive.
1. What is the anecdote?
In the long tradition within feminist and queer scholarship in the humanities and social sciences that examines the forms knowledge takes, there has is a strong thread of critical reflection on the genres we use to think with, and to communicate our thinking. Jane Gallop’s Anecdotal Theory, Lauren Berlant’s work on “the case” and “the scene,” Sara Ahmed’s current thinking about complaint, Donna Haraway’s theory of situated knowledges, and Audre Lorde’s suggestion that “poetry is not a luxury,” for example. Secret Feminist Agenda is enacting a political and intellectual commitment to this tradition by utilising the modes of address and storytelling that are the staple of the most successful forms of nonfictional podcasting (such as This American Life, and The Moth). While McGregor never names this form explicitly, I would suggest that she is working with the genre of the anecdote. Very early on in my listening to the podcast, I began to wonder what function the anecdote plays in the project’s scholarly objectives. Does McGregor seek to alter scholarly knowledge by bringing it into the existing genre of the anecdote (i.e. trying to reshape knowledge so that it fits this quotidian genre)? Or is she reworking the anecdote to demonstrate that the genre itself can produce knowledge? And if so, what kind of knowledge does it produce? I ask these questions not to suggest I know the answer, but to prompt some thinking about the role of the anecdote in the podcast and its scholarly objectives both in terms of being recognized as scholarly (i.e. making a contribution to the field of feminist intellectual and cultural practice), and in functioning as a form of communication about scholarship.
The anecdote is put to use in two ways in Secret Feminist Agenda: In the “minisodes” McGregor engages in personal storytelling—anchored in an anecdote—in order to reflect on some larger intellectual or conceptual issue that is currently being debated in feminist intellectual and activist circles, such as the role of negative affect (explicitly failure) in feminist and queer praxis (episode 2.7 “Playing, Losing, Failing”) and the ongoing challenges to thinking of feminism as an intersectional practice (episode 2.9 “Knowing Your Limits”). The second use of the anecdote comes through in McGregor’s interview style. In interviews with a range of people who identify as women and as feminists, McGregor encourages them to provide anecdotes by asking about specific experiences or for specific examples, such as in the episode on gaming (2.10) where she asks Clare Mulcahy to tell the listener how she came to be an avid player of video games, or when she asks the Kendra Marks and Sylvie Vigneux (episode 2.2) to describe the process of having a gender neutral bathroom installed in Law Faculty building where they are students.
I would love to hear more from McGregor—in a genre and form of her choosing—about the anecdote as a practice and form of knowledge production.
2. What is the relationship between scholarship and teaching?
Given the use of personal storytelling and interviews in the podcast, this project also raised for me the question of whether the rising importance of scholarly impact is not so much driving the need for innovation as such, but bringing together elements of academic work that the neoliberal management structures in the profession have attempted to cast as separate (and separable) domains of academic practice, namely scholarship and teaching. It has been widely discussed how the increased use of adjunct faculty in North American contexts, casualized and contract teaching in Australia, the UK and The Netherlands, have reshaped the philosophy and practice of teaching and research as the primary activities of the university. Several times whilst listening to the podcast, I wondered whether what McGregor was doing in Secret Feminist Agenda was more akin to teaching than to research. Given the scholarship/teaching definition of the profession is underpinned by a binary logic of gender (masculinity is associated with research/femininity with teaching), I began to think that a possible scholarly contribution to feminism made by Secret Feminist Agenda is not to bring scholarship out from the confines of the university by publishing it differently, but to bring teaching—as a praxis, an ethics, a political action dedicated to education as a form of freedom—out of the university. Paradoxically, this in itself, could be the most significant contribution the project makes to feminism scholarship. By suggesting this, I am inviting you and Dr. McGregor to extend the boundary blurring impulse of the project slightly further, and consider all elements of academic practice, not just research, as being subject to change through the activity of podcasting.
I want to thank you for the invitation to undertake this public peer review. This has been the hardest thing I have done in a long time; intellectually, creatively, critically. It was a real pleasure to think alongside the project, and to have the opportunity to be a critical friend of the important work the project is enabling.
Keep me posted on how things develop.