Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Pretty, Ugly, Plain


Once when my friend was seventeen, a woman stopped her in the shopping mall and said, “Do you want to be Miss Teen Santa Clara?” And she said yes, because why not, and she came in runner up that year for Miss Teen California. She took the modeling contract they offered her, too, and stood thin and blonde and flushed in front of the fan, wheat-blonde hair blowing out behind her.

She auditioned for a role in a musical adaptation of The Ugly Duckling, and they cast her as the beautiful swan, and she drove every day across the hill into Santa Cruz for the long hours of rehearsals. Sometimes they didn’t need her while they ran the other numbers, sometimes for hours, so she went out on drives, wandered the beaches.

“Hey there, pretty,” shouted one man, who was with a group of men. “You a mermaid?”

She was walking the shore, alone. Dusk drew dark to the horizon. Some of the men sat on the pier. Some stood.

“You look like a mermaid,” he said. “Why don’t you give me your number?”

The men clustered around her, and my friends heart pounded, and she didn’t know if she’d be able to get away to the silver honda her daddy bought her for high school graduation. She smiled and acted calm as she wrote out her number, like she wasn’t a fish they’d caught on their line, like they might not decide to reel her in and gut her.


“Just shut up and enjoy it,” my friend’s mother said to her, when she went in for her first temp job. She’s twenty-two and just out of college, very pretty, with long dark hair, and dark eyes, and pin-up curves accented by her pencil skirt. Men have been talking; have been leering; have been gearing up to touch.

“Just enjoy it,” her mother repeats, “You’ll miss it when you’re not pretty anymore.”


“Why are you even trying?” The girl is blonde, tan. The letters “UCSC” are printed in yellow across the butt of her trim blue sweat pants. She stands next to the treadmill on which my friend is working out, her hands on her hips, a white towel tossed over her shoulder.

She sneers at my friend’s ass, the shape of which she can’t even discern underneath the baggy sweats that hide the fact that my friend is much smaller than she looks. She’s slender, though not as painfully thin as when she was at her most anorexic. After years of sexual abuse, she hides the contours of her body underneath clothing made for much larger women, each bulge and billow and fold suggesting flesh that isn’t really there. She feels like it’s there, though, still has the anorexic’s view of herself in the mirror, the conviction that her body is spilling everywhere, uncontrollable, insatiable, massive.

The blonde’s eyes flick derisively from shrouded ass to bared face. “It obviously isn’t working,” she says. “Leave the machines for someone else.”


“You act well enough,” the art director of the musical theater institute I’m attending tells me, “but your singing is really incredible. You could play any kind of roles, as long as you lose weight.”

Every day, there’s the toilet, the calorie count below starvation, the hours of exercise. Emotional control has slipped away–I cry when the wind blows, and then rage a second later. I’m not eating enough to run my brain. The pounds won’t shed, won’t shed. I can’t be the person I’ve always wanted to be. My body refuses, hoards its energy, would rather pitch into a faint than burn any more of its stores.

“Why are you eating that?” mom says, when I’m back on food again. “You really need that?” She’s furious about something else, and she wants to make me hurt, and this is such a good way. I throw away the food and she complains about the wasted money.


My friend is very skinny and very tall. She’s the kind of tall that attracts your eye across a store. She’s the kind of skinny that draws bad remarks. “You play basketball?” “Are you anorexic?” No one asks if she’s a model; she’s not that kind of tall and thin. Turns out you can be stretched too much, drawn too narrow. People watch her bones and her back.

She wants to stretch free and become the thing she feels she’s growing into, but her mother wants her home in the nest. Her heart is fragile. There are health reasons to keep her home. It’s not health that makes her mom insist she wear makeup on her way out of the house, that makes her police her clothes for any hint of something too butch, too goth, too hard.

My friend argues for leaving home. Going to a college far away. Getting to meet new people. Getting to choose her own clothes. “I don’t want to be here forever,” she says.

It’s the end of a long argument that, in her mother’s opinion, should have been over a long time ago. Her mother can’t believe she continues to press. Decisions have been made. The shoe has been dropped.

She fixes her daughter with hard eyes. She grabs away the half-eaten bowl of cereal. Milk spills over the edge onto the table. “You’re as ugly on the inside as you are on the out.”

Monday, August 30, 2010

Why aren't you having babies?

Goia De Cari abandoned her doctoral thesis in math at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the late 1980s. Here's a bit of what she has to say about what it was like being a female doctoral student in math at that time:
When I was at MIT, several professors asked me, "You're married, so why are you here? Why aren't you having babies?" One of my professors asked me to deliver cookies to a seminar. I was driven out of my office an overly amorous fellow student.

It's such a difficult thing, with sexism, to suss out exactly what's happening. All the time while these things wer ehappening, the quesiton was in my mind, Is this sexism, or is it something else? I'd think, oh, I'm making a mountain out of a moelhill. It's just a plate of cookies! It's trivial, isn't it? Why is this bothering me? It's after a zillion little things that are no big deal that it sneaks up on you.

The above is from an interview by Julie Rehmeyer that appears in the June/July issue of the Notices of the American Mathematical Society, The Mathematical Dramatist: Interview with Gioia De Cari. After leaving mathematics, De Cari became an actor and a playwright. The interview is running in the Notices because a one-woman play, Truth Values: One Girl's Romp through M.I.T's Male Math Maze, which premiered last summer at the New York International Fringe Festival, has been running in a variety of venues around the US and is of interest to the mathematical community. (It won the Festival's 2009 Overall Excellence Award, by the way.)

Aqueductistas will understand why I was thinking about Life's Anna Senoz as I read the interview. Here's a bit more of what De Cari says:
In 2000 or so I did a solo show called The 9th Envelope that was like an Alice in Wonderland fantasy story, and I wove in some interludes about math. What really surprised me was how capitaved audiences were by the math parts. People would come up to me afterward to talk about them. I thought, "Oh wow, my next show better be all about math!"

That was the genesis of Truth Values. But as I got into it, I found there were all kinds of things that were dfficult about turning autobiographical material into a work of art. In particular, how do you find the right tone? My perspective was that everyone I had known in the math world was just doing the best they could, even if it wasn't as good as it needed to be. I didn't want to go in a negative direction with it, but the play also couldn't leave out the sexism, because that was a strong aspect of what happened to me. I was fighiting with myself about it, thinking, "Look at how far MIT has come. I shouldn't bring this up now."
But then Larry Sumemrs came along. [In 2005, while Sumemrs was president of Harvard, he remarked in a public forum that he believed that differences in inherent aptitude were a bigger factor than sexual discrimination in the low numbers of women in the upper echeleons of academia.] When he said that, that's when I thought, I've got to speak up here.

The most upsetting thing to me, even more than Summers's comments, was what happened to Nancy Hopkins in the wake of the comments. She was a biologist at MIT, and she was there when Summers made his remarks. She said afterwards that she left because otherwise she would have blacked out or thrown up. The press just ripped her to shreds over this. She got hate mail for a year.

As an artist, you have more license to say certain things than academics or scientists do. So at that point I felt like I had a responsibility to speak up, and I finished the play.
Go read the rest of the interview here. And check out her website here-- it's a wonderfully geeky blend of art and science.

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Interview With L. Timmel Duchamp on SFWA Blog

The SFWA (Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America) blog has reprinted my interview with Timmi, which originally appeared in the Broad Universe newsletter.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Trash, Bootstraps, and the Undeserving Poor

Over on Scalzi's blog, people are discussing the phrase white trash. Says commenter Lysana at 61:

It’s often easy to spot white trash. One Confederate battle standard or American flag item on the wardrobe and my antennae go up. Sorry you seem to think it matters that some of us know the signs while you don’t.

"Well, sure," says Other Bill, at 63, "I know the signs. Just like we all know the signs for poor black trash and poor puerto rican trash, right?"

At Alas a Blog, we've got a tiff going on in comments about how poor people shouldn't buy nice things, since they've got to save up their money so they can break out of poverty. RonF says at 12:

The desire for better material goods/healthcare/housing/food/etc. is what motivates people to get better education/training and work harder and longer in order to move up to the economic point where they can afford those things.

People who presumably aren't poor, and certainly aren't the poor people in question, feel free to comment on the responsibility of poor people's economic decisions, as Sebastian H says at 14: "Isn’t it kind of a question of which nice things? A TV may or may not be a good example of acting irresponsibly, but a Cadillac almost certainly is."

But these comments come from the same assumption: that we know what poor people want, and it's to escape poverty. They come from another assumption, too: that it's possible for the poor people to escape poverty if they make the right decisions.

But people in generational, grinding poverty, may not share these middle class assumptions and experiences.

I'll let Dorothy Allison speak to both arguments, with excerpts from her short story collection Trash.

From the introduction:

My family’s lives were not on television, not in books, not even comic books. There was a myth of the poor in this country, but it did not include us, no matter how I tried to squeeze us in. There was this concept of the “good” poor, and that fantasy had little to do with the everyday lives my family had survived. The good poor were hardworking, ragged but clean, and intrinsically honorable. We were the bad poor. We were men who drank and couldn’t keep a job; women, invariably pregnant before marriage, who quickly became worn, fat, and old from working too many hours and bearing too many children; and children with runny noses, watery eyes, and the wrong attitudes. My cousins quit school, stole cars, used drugs, and took dead-end jobs pumping gas or waiting tables…. We were not noble,not grateful, not even hopeful. What was there to work for, to save money for, to fight for or struggle against? We had generations before us to teach us that nothing ever changed, and that those who did try to escape failed…

I had sweet-tempered cousins and I saw them get ground down. I had gentle aunts and it seemed they almost disappeared out of their own lives. Is it any wonder that when I set out to write stories, I made up women like my grandmother, like my great-grandmother? Troublesome, angry, complicated women with secretive, unpredictable natures… I wrote to release indignation and refuse humiliation, to admit fault and to glorify the people I loved who were never celebrated…

I originally claimed the label “trash” in self-defense. The phrase had been applied to me and to my family in crude and hateful ways. I took it on deliberately, as I had taken on “dyke”–though i have to acknowledge that what I heard as a child was more often the phrase “white trash.” As an adult, I saw all too clearly the look that would cross the face of any black woman in the room when that particular term was spoken. It was like a splash of cold water, and I saw the other side of the hatefulness in the words. It took me right back to being a girl and hearing the uncles I so admired spew racist bile and callous homophobic insults. Some phrases cannot be reclaimed.

Boycotting Fox News

A major strand in the Reducing Global Machismo panel at Wiscon was Fox News and its fear and hate-mongering. I wanted to pass along this link to Color Of Change's organized effort to boycott Fox. You can turn off Fox in your household - they'll even give you a free sticker as incentive.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Women's Equality Day

Here in the US, it's Women's Equality Day-- the 90th anniversary of the passage of the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, which gave US women the right to vote. The text of the amendment is clear and simple:

Section 1. The right of the citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

The text of the Equal Rights Amendment is equally simple:

Section 1. Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.
Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.
Section 3. This amendment shall take effect two years after the date of ratification.

It was passed by the US House of Representatives in 1970 and the US Senate in 1972. Richard Nixon endorsed it, if you can believe that. 35 states ratified it, but three more were needed for passage. In Illinois, where I was living at the time, the Illinois State Senate approved it, but not the House. I was among those who worked to get it passed, but Phyllis Schlafly did her damnedest (one of her favorite stunts being the delivery of home-baked pies to the legislators by women claiming to be defending their virtue against feminists determined to make them use single-sex bathrooms--another of those myths invented to defame second-wave feminists) and apparently succeeded. Illinois was not alone in coming close to ratification-- seven other states gave approval in one chamber but not the other. And five states that ratified actually rescinded their ratification.

So here we are, almost forty years later. And the amendment keeps getting proposed every year, and every year keeps failing.
The Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, was drafted by suffragist leader Alice Paul and introduced in Congress in 1923 to fix the deficiency of the 14th Amendment by providing the constitutional foundation that women have equal protection under the law. The ERA passed Congress in 1972 but failed to be ratified by three-quarters of the state legislatures. Every year since 1982, the ERA has been reintroduced in Congress and repeatedly shot down. Opposition to it has been consistent and vitriolic.

"For far too long this nation has deprived women of a constitutional guarantee of equality," says O'Neill. "But our progress has clouded this fact. We must educate women that they do not have the same rights as men in this country. We must work together to re-ignite a movement of advocates who refuse to accept second-class status for women."

NOW's entire statement can be read here.

Hmm. I'm starting to remember all the stupid things people said to me when I was leafleting and lobbying legislators. Schlafly, it strikes me in retrospect, had a lot to do with pitting "housewives" against "feminists." "Feminists," she preached, were out to rob "housewives" of their home and financial security (besides making them share bathrooms with men and open doors for themselves). Not that Schlaffley herself was ever a housewife...

Links for a Thursday Morning

--Nic Clarke engages at length with Joanna Russ's The Female Man and Vandana Singh's novellas, Distances and Of Love and Other Monsters. (In case you missed her earlier posts on Russ's work, last spring she engaged with Russ's The Adventures of Alyx and Extraordinary People and last winterwith Russ's We Who Are About To....)

--Kelly Jennings reviews Eleanor Arnason's Mammoths of the Great Plains and Tomb of the Fathers for Strange Horizons.

--Aliette de Bodard's essay The View from the Other Side, a discussion of non-Anglophone sf-- has been posted at Asimov's SF (though minus its endnotes).

-- I may be the last person alive to have heard about this, so it will probably be old news to everyone reading, but DC comics have not only given Wonder Woman a costume makeover, but also eliminated her Amazon history and replaced it with a trauma-driven, rootless history. Here's a snippet of Shelby Knox's take on it , in a post titled "Wonder Woman in Pants Is Not A Feminist Win" (link thanks to Suzy at Echidne of the Snakes):
Here we go again, it seems. Wonder Woman donning what looks like skinny jeans is being spun as a direct result of the successes of the Women’s Liberation movement, a reaction to requests that female superheroes do a little less baring of buns and a lot more kicking them. Yet in stripping Diana of her overt sexuality the new writers have missed the reason Wonder Woman was a feminist heroine in the first place. As originally portrayed, Diana Prince was sexy not because of her bare legs and cleavage but because her personhood wasn’t defined by them and her powers not derived from fashioning herself for the male gaze. She could work a 9 to 5 job, hold down a relationship, subvert international conspiracies and toss the villains in jail, and perhaps, as the first cover of Ms. magazine suggested in 1972, even be president—and the way she looked was, as it should be, simply an aside.

While it’s yet to be seen whether this costume change signals an intent to again strip Wonder Woman of her super powers, it’s disconcerting to learn that the writers are creating a new back story for the character that deprives her of her upbringing on Paradise Island with her mother, Queen Hippolyta, and her Amazon sisters in favor of being smuggled out of her homeland as a baby as it was destroyed. Wonder Woman’s original feminist creator’s intent in giving Diana the Paradise Island upbringing was to insinuate she knew gender equality existed because she’d lived it and that her powers were derived from living with and learning from her sisters. In effect, all women could become “Wonder Woman” if they tapped into the feminine power around them and strived for a gender just world that, we know from real live history, really did and can exist. Is this rewrite an attempt to impose the myth of “post-patriarchy” on the character, in which she no longer needs to dream of and fight for equality because she’s achieved it?
Real heroes, I guess, invent themselves out of nothing.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

In the Name of Science, Part 1

An article in a new issue of Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature (a special issue subtitled "US Women Writing Race") examines Mary Bradley Lane's 1881 utopia, Mizora: A Prophecy. I remember hearing a few years ago that a new edition of it had recently been published (I think this must have been the 1999 Bison edition), but after reading a review of it in the New York Review of Science Fiction (by Gwyneth Jones, if I'm recalling correctly), I decided to pass on reading it myself. As a utopia, judging by the review, it sounded not just tedious, but awful. Katherine Broad's "Race, Reproduction, and the Failures of Feminism in Mary Bradley Lane's Mizora" pretty much makes the case that the book really can't be considered feminist, though the publishers of the 2000 edition markets the book as "an 1880s radical feminist utopia." Yes, Mizora is a separatist utopia where men do not exist and women have produced a "scientifically" ordered "civilization." But Lane's founding assumption is that perfection is embodied in women who have blonde hair and blue eyes and perfectly healthy bodies. And as Broad remarks, "Mizora is not just about women's abilities to control nature, technology, sexuality, and labor. It is also about women being controlled." (262)

What most interests me in Broad's article is her discussion of the role science and technology play in creating this racist utopia. The most glaring "science" in Lane's utopia is an extreme eugenicist practice supposedly responsible for creating a "perfect" society. Mizora achieved its "perfection" after centuries of eugenic practice: "Crime is evolved from perverted natures, and natures become perverted from ill-usage. It merges into a peculiar structure of the brain that becomes hereditary...The only remedy was annihilation. Criminals had no posterity." As Broad remarks,

In this simplified narrative of historical progression, crime is not an act but a person--the criminal--who disappears along with other social undesirables like men, blacks, and even brunettes. Not surprisingly, the mentally and physically disabled cared for in Looking Backward have no place in Mizora. Scientifically aided and state sponsored evolution works in the name of progress to facilitate the emergence and perpetuity of a superior civilization whose advanced status is determined by the legibility of citizens' biologies and their supposedly corresponding inner pathologies. (258)

Sad to say, the notion that crime is not so much an act but a person comes horribly close to mainstream thought in the US today-- that, at least, is the subtext of current practice (as opposed to the principles of, say, the US Constitution). In short, Lane's assumption is that "criminality" is genetic in origin and found in the genes of brunettes, women of color, and all men.

According to Broad Lane also uses "science" to eliminate poverty and industrialized labor. "Lane achieves egalitarianism only be eliminating the need for laboring classes and the negative associations of low-class and immigrant workers." In Mizora, "cooks are chemists and housekeepers artists who have chosen their highly respected positions through the natural calling of their innate abilities. Once their domestic actities are considered scientific they becme 'respectable', a transformation that simultaneously elevates and undercuts traditionally female activities by granting importance only through scientific validation." (259) This seems less like actual science, though, than job reclassifications. (Spin control!)

But in what sense are any of these techniques "scientific" or "science"-based? It seems to me that science here has become a referent not to a method for producing knowledge, but rather to any set of techniques exerting control over nature and human perception. Lane seems to take science to be nothing more than a set of tools allowing people in power to reshape the world and manipulate human nature and social organization. Utopia is achieved, then, by using such "science" to extrapolate on the basis of one's beliefs.

I should probably note that a reviewer at the SF Site had this to say about Lane's depiction of science:
Lane's portrayal of the Mizoran society's development as largely a result of advancements in science is fairly remarkable. While it ignores any possible detrimental consequences of scientific discoveries, and the issue of unisexual mammalian reproduction is basically ignored, the existence of video-phones, carbon dioxide enrichment of greenhouse crops, and the understanding of food preparation as a form of experimental chemistry are remarkable.

But then he also found the book eminently--and comfortably--"feminist":
Lane's Mizora shows women to be intelligent, cooperative and capable of peaceful productive higher civilization. However, its feminism is in no way strident; men are more ignored and forgotten than hated, and its surface-world female heroine appears largely taken aback by her civilization's barbarity. [...] for women, Mizora will certainly be an interesting look into the mind of an obviously intelligent Victorian woman, and for those other men an interesting cultural and literary landmark of women's literature that at least isn't stridently anti-male.

Hmm. So he doesn't notice the racism, or if he does, it doesn't bother him enough to mention it. But what he does mention is that despite the absence (and exclusion of men) from this "utopia," its "feminism" isn't "strident"! Well Lane's "feminism" doesn't come anywhere near my own notion of feminism, anymore than Lane's view of "science" matches my own notion of science.

Not surprisingly, while I was reading Broad's article, I easily recalled that numerous examples of such "scientific" practices abounded in the 19th century, under the banner of  pseudo-sciences like eugenics (aka Social Darwinism), craniometry, phrenology, etc. But after finishing the article, I realized that we constantly encounter fresh examples of the same kind of thinking today, in the 21st century-- particularly in studies designed to establish that characteristics that conform to entrenched beliefs and attitudes about race, gender, and sex differences are biologically determined and not an artifact of social organization. Obviously we often see this in psychological studies designed to establish race, gender, and sex differences. But we also encounter this in studies of the brain. (Think of how frequently MRI scans of particular areas of the brain center on an obsession with establishing differences between the brains of men and women!)  And of course in the never-ending search for genetic evidence explaining every sort of social behavior as hard-wired. Such differences are presumably what granting agencies want to fund. But considering the limited resources available for research in the sciences that isn't aimed at either building bigger and deadlier weapons or garnering greater profits for multinational corporations peddling chemicals of one sort or another, such a focus is a terrible waste and distraction.

Inspired by Liz Henry

Liz found a remarkably stupid Chip McGrath Paragraph in the NYT three months ago. I think this month he outdid himself:
On paper, anyway, Ms. Peters is too old for the role . . . But to say that Ms. Peters doesn’t look her age doesn’t begin to describe her seemingly eternal, Betty Boop-like girlishness. Her porcelain skin is untroubled by wrinkles. Her kewpie-doll smile defies gravity. When she turned up for lunch at an upper West Side restaurant recently, her eye-snagging bosom pillowed distractingly from a low-cut dress, and the humidity had injected an extra jolt of abandon into her trademark corkscrew curls. Perhaps her secret is this: Lunch consisted of precisely two glasses of Pellegrino.
Her "eye-snagging" what did who now? Maybe McGrath loses his reason when he thinks of Swedes (Peters is, of course, Italian-American, but is currently in swedeface for a production of A Little Night Music). His perspective is, uh . . . remarkable.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

On vacation

For the last week I've been doing a bare modicum of work, in deep relaxation mode. I began with a trip to the Columbia Gorge, where I ate and drank tasty things, took in the fabulous scenery that graces the Gorge, and visited the Maryhill Museum. Birds were a bit sparse in the heat, but I happily sighted a black-throated sparrow while eating dinner in Hood River, a white-throated swift near Ellensberg on the drive home, and in the Gorge itself some kind of hawk I couldn't identify. I actually failed to catch sight of the peacocks that roam the grounds of Maryhill. I figure they were hiding form the heat, since the outdoor temperature at the time of my visit was a degree or two above 100F.

A collection of historically and ethnically diverse chess sets makes up one of the permanent Maryhill exhibits, and I loved the newest one, which had been added since my last visit, designed and made in porcelain by Inge Roberts in 2008. I especially like the rooks--
castles or tall houses that remind me of the Rapunzel tale with faces peering out of some of their windows. The current temporary exhibit featured the glass work of William Morris, including a video of he and his team making a couple of the pieces on display at Maryhill. All of the pieces were either vases or bowls. Many of the vases were engraved with images of flora and fauna; some, though, had three-dimensional figures (made of glass or in some cases metal) of ground squirrels, lizards, pine cones, leaves, and other flora and fauna, mostly from the Pacific Northwest. (You can see photos of some of them here.)

Back in Seattle, I've been visiting the Union Bay wetlands. I've been noting the changes there as the year turns. Now, at high summer, Shovellers Pond has all but dried up-- making me realize just how shallow it must be in the winter and spring. For the last few weeks I've been really interested in a pied-billed grebe, which is an odd-shaped, fairly elusive water bird. It can swim really fast underwater, and can also swim with its head just barely above water. Today I saw it with what I think must be a mate-- and sitting on a nest
in an area of water full of water lilies and reeds. Once it settled on the nest, it was almost invisible. Only a few yards from it, a blue heron was stalking a fish (and at one point moved so quickly it scared a female mallard, who relocated itself in a hurry, to keep out of the heron's way. It took the heron about fifteen minutes to move in on the fish, taking one agonizingly slow, stealthy step at a time, its neck thrust out, far ahead of its body. As it moved, it stepped into deeper and deeper water, until finally only about an inch of its legs remained visible above the surface. And then suddenly the heron pounced, thrusting its beak into the water. When it pulled its beak back out of the water and straightened up, it held in its beak a black bottom-fish, which it then began to eat. After it had gotten the
whole thing down its throat (and it did take awhile), it then went through a series of movements, stretching its neck and opening its beak as wide as it would go. Through my binoculars, I could see the lump of the fish being shaken, bit by bit, down the heron's neck.

Is it a coincidence, I wonder, that I decided I wanted to have fish tonight for dinner?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Resistance Is Possble: Memories of an Hour with Chandler Davis (Part Two)

In the Q&A, historian Georg Iggers, who is about eighty-nine, compared Davis to E.P. Thompson, another scholar whose displeasure with the Soviet intervention in Czechoslovakia did not turn him against the Left. Chan was flattered and said that he certainly admired Thompson’s position and was unhappy with the failure of nerve that characterized the likes of François Furet. Another attendee asked Chan about his thoughts on what obstacles existed to combining the pursuit of science and mathematics with a social justice agenda. Bringing up the role that the Black-Scholes equation played in the financial meltdown, Chan observed that, so long as there are institutional rewards, so long as the bosses and the process of professionalization encourage mathematicians’ or scientists’ indifference to social justice, the problem is likely to persist.

Attorney, Heidegger scholar, and bon vivant Vince Gugino—at sixty-one, one of the youngsters in the audience—asked about how Chan’s experience of living under social democracy in Canada affected his perspective. In the course of his answer, Chan expressed pride that Canada had realized that the U.S. was the aggressor in the Iraq War and had not joined the Alliance [sic] of the Willing. In part, such resistance is possible because Canada is a small power. But Chan wished that it had been more vocal about its resistance and stood up to the U.S. more visibly. Chan’s daughter (Hannah, I assume) found herself working in 2003 with the U.N. delegation from Gabon and said to them directly, you realize that Powell’s lying; and they’d said, “Yes, but please—we are a small country.” Again, Chan suggested that small countries ought to take a public stand.

To the more general issue of why there is less resistance to the crimes of the powerful, Chan alluded to his thesis of the Grenada effect: “So easily, without resorting to reason or even to coercion, can the powerful change opinions, just by having the power.” But he added that in most cases in the U.S. and around the world, you don’t have to resort to an ideological explanation: the powerful are using physical force and the threat of physical force to suppress resistance and change attitudes. That’s why you have to admire the heroism of the people of Cuba and Gaza.

The discussion ended, if I recall correctly, with a conversation about why there seemed to be less resistance to the Iraq War than there had during the U.S. war against Vietnam. I suggested that the neoliberal revolution deliberately set out to make sure that Americans, lacking the financial security we’d had in the Sixties and early Seventies, were more apprehensive about making trouble. Chan pointed out that many millions of people around the world had demonstrated against the Iraq War before it even started, protesting on a scale that hadn’t happened until many years into the Vietnam War, if ever. I mentioned that historical amnesia was a big factor: Eric Alterman, when the Iraq War started, blogged that our protest was over and we’d failed, as if there was no point to continuing to resist; and history should have taught him better. Professor Iggers brought up the draft and spoke of his years in the late Sixties and early Seventies working at the Buffalo Peace Action Center and counseling draft-age youths: although it was in a working-class black neighborhood, for the first couple of years he worked there, only middle-class white guys showed up for counseling—that changed in late ’71 or ’72. Dr. Gugino suddenly realized that he’d been one of the working-class white guys whom Iggers had counseled!

People’s energy was flagging, and the audience was shrinking further (not necessarily because of osteoporosis); I adjourned the event. I had the privilege of talking with Iggers for a few minutes: evidently he and his wife had met Chan through Lee Lorch—they’d been in Little Rock when Lee’s wife had dived into the mob to rescue one of the young black women going to Central, as a result of which Lee had been fired and had to seek work in Canada.

The store sold about ten copies of the book—pretty much every household that’d stayed halfway through the event or longer bought a copy.

"People Need to Talk to Each Other": Memories of an Hour with Chandler Davis (Part One)

Following is an account of Chandler Davis’s 11 August talk at Talking Leaves . . . Books, reconstructed entirely from my memory. For that reason, probably about a third of it is inaccurate.

The talk was attended, at its peak, by a little over twenty people; some of the younger attendees left early, as a result of which the audience comprised not so much the Old Left as the Superannuated Left: median age was over seventy (My adviser, the ever-youthful David Schmid, was committed to attending; but he got a flat tire on the QEW and spent the evening stuck in Ontario. Comes of not having The Hulk as my adviser, I guess). Many of them were mathematicians Chandler had invited. I learned a lot about them that I had not been aware of during my years in Buffalo—I’d had a good sense of poet, mathematician, musician, and bibliophile Scott Williams’s accomplishments, for example, but had known little about Steve Schanuel and nothing except scurrilous anticommunist gossip about Bill Lawvere. Turns out Bill, according to Scott, is a mathematician of a much higher caliber than SUNY-Buffalo would ordinarily have been able to attract, except that he’d been redhunted out of jobs in the U.S. and Canada and needed work. Also he’s a longtime SF fan, who saw Campbell, Boucher, and Gold together on a 1952 panel about the future of SF. Indeed, one of the remarks that most interested Lawvere was my noting when introducing Chandler that he’d collaborated with Sturgeon.

The talk and discussion lasted about an hour. Loath to read his own prose or to present material that was already in the book, Davis spoke somewhat ex tempore for about twenty of those minutes, then gave an impassioned recitation of a couple of his poems and opened up the discussion. My sense is that he’s not terribly at ease in the monologue genre, whether in public talks or in private exchanges: his delivery was slow and tentative, except when he was recounting past conversations. It seems to me that he needs an interlocutor to energize him.

I’d characterize the themes of his talk as “Humility and Ethics.” Early in the talk, Davis spoke of the circumstances surrounding his work in support of José Luis Massera, which, as recounted in It Walks in Beauty, led to the creation of the American Mathematical Society’s Committee for Human Rights. And this project generated some interesting alliances. Evidently a colleague from the anti-Communist Left (“I can’t help remembering,” Chan interjected, “the cartoon from the Thirties that shows a policeman beating a group of demonstrators, one of whom protests, ‘But we’re anti-Communists!’ to which the cop says, ‘I don’t care what kind of Communists you are!’”) said to him, I expect you will be less stringent about these abuses when they occur on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and Davis replied, “Nations that claim to be practicing socialism should be held to a higher standard!” And that was an ambiguous response, of course; but it gave the colleague the impression that Chan had moved from an uncritical acceptance of the Communist line to a far more skeptical position; and he asked Chan, “Hm, when was your Kronstadt?” And Chandler said it was a 1951 interview he’d read between Jean-Paul Sartre and Edwin Moïse, oddly enough, since Sartre is often stereotyped as an uncritical supporter of Communism. By 1952, when he read the piece, Chan had already realized that the Soviet Union was a dismal tyranny; but only then was he able to reconcile that with the fact that he very much admired working with U.S. Communists toward shared social justice goals, often better than with other Lefties and activists. Sartre had said many positive things about Communists in that interview, and added, But you trust them less and less the closer you get to the [topic of the] Soviet Union.

In the 1970s, when Davis gained some public attention (including a tv appearance) for protesting the Vietnam War, a reporter asked him whether he was a Marxist-Leninist, and he thought the best response was Yes. He no longer believes that it was a good idea to offer that answer, or that it reflected his convictions: he takes Rosa Luxemburg's side against Lenin's. If asked by a supporter, say, of Castro, whether he thinks that a state aspiring to socialism should be able to defend itself, he would say yes; if asked then whether he thinks that the forces arrayed against such a state are committing grave injustices, he would say yes; but if asked subsequently whether that state consequently had the right to enforce ideological unity, he would say No: if we are going to achieve a just society, a worker-controlled system, socialism, characterize it how you will, people need to talk to each other. People need to be free to associate with whomever they see fit and to say whatever they see fit and have it heard. He would say to the radical uneasy with dissent, we have a lot in common; but a difference between us is that you think the world is simple; I think it’s complicated.

To be continued.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The Many Moods of Chandler Davis

Ann Keefer's photos of the Chandler Davis talk on 11 August at Talking Leaves. A nice evening, about which I hope to write soon. Click on any photo to enlargify it.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Reading tea leaves in the bottom of the cup

I know that many, many authors check the Amazon rankings of their books at least once a day. Believe me, I understand. Because, excepting royalty statements, most authors find it almost impossible to get on-the-ground information about sales. Since Aqueduct Press opened an account with Amazon back in 2004, I've been able to check the sales-- daily-- of all the books we have on Amazon. And I soon discovered a disparity between sales ranking and actual sales. To give you an example (though not using the titles of the books involved), today I noticed that three books had sales rankings in the 800,000s. One of these was a title that had sold 15 copies in the first ten days of August, another one that had sold 3 copies in the first ten days of August, and the third a title that had sold all of 1 copy during that same period.

I'm just saying. 

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Vanishing girlhood

An article I read today in Colorlines saddened and horrified me. Michelle Chen's Is Environmental Injustice Morphing Little Girls' Bodies cites yesterday's New York Times report, which discusses a new study:

The new study included 1,239 girls ages 6 to 8 who were recruited from schools and examined at one of three sites: the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in Manhattan, Cincinnati Children’s Hospital or Kaiser Permanente Northern California/University of California, San Francisco. The group was roughly 30 percent each white, black and Hispanic, and about 5 percent Asian.

At 7 years, 10.4 percent of white, 23.4 percent of black and 14.9 percent of Hispanic girls had enough breast development to be considered at the onset of puberty.

At age 8, the figures were 18.3 percent in whites, 42.9 percent in blacks and 30.9 percent in Hispanics. The percentages for blacks and whites were even higher than those found by a 1997 study that was one of the first to suggest that puberty was occurring earlier in girls.

The new study is being published on Monday in the journal Pediatrics. It was paid for by government grants and conducted at hospitals that are part of the Breast Cancer and the Environment Research Centers, a group formed in 2003 after breast cancer advocates petitioned Congress to set aside money to study possible links between environmental exposures and breast cancer.
For the white girls, obesity was taken to be the primary factor-- a factor not relevant to the early puberty of the girls of color. One of the authors of the study, Dr. Frank Biro, "said he did not think weight was the whole story. He said it was possible that environmental chemicals were also playing a role, and added that he and his colleagues were now studying the girls’ hormone levels and lab tests measuring their exposures to various chemicals."

Chen's article adds this:
As Susan Shane explained in a 2008 Colorlines essay, early puberty tends to produce complicated dilemmas. Girls often find themselves physically maturing at a faster pace than they learn how to deal with sexual contact, and may face certain cancer risks later in life.

The findings dovetail with earlier research by the Columbia Mailman School of Public Health, which has tracked elevated exposures to environmental toxins in mothers in low-income New York neighborhoods. The data reflect a disturbing prevalence of chemicals known to be endocrine disruptors, including common plastic ingredients known as pthalates.
Consumer society-- our society-- is mad. That's all I can say.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Sometimes when the earth moves, we need technology to notice it

This morning I learned that a "slow" earthquake expected to last several weeks is now in progress, under the Olympic Peninsula and en route via the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Vancouver Island. It started early Sunday morning in an area north of Olympia and west of Tacoma and is now on the move. I'd previously had no idea that such earthquakes even existed. (Good thing we can't actually feel them, yes?)

According to Vince Stricherz, writing for UWNews.org,
Episodic tremor-and-slip events have been associated with the entire Cascadia subduction fault zone, which runs along the Northwest coast, as well as a dozen other dangerous faultlines worldwide. The fault zone is created by the Juan de Fuca tectonic plate sliding beneath the section of the North American plate where western Washington is located.

It is believed the two plates are locked together by friction near the surface but that they slide past each other easily at greater depth, where heat has made the rock more pliable. Slow-slip events are likely to be occurring at a depth where the plates transition from being locked to being free-moving, Malone said.

"Models indicate these events are loading a little extra stress on the fault zone," he said.

Interest in slow-slip events has been intense in recent years because they alter stresses in the subduction zone, which ruptures in magnitude 9 megathrust earthquakes on the order of every 500 years. The last one occurred in 1700. (The earthquake that caused the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami had a magnitude of 9.1.)

With better understanding, changing slow-slip patterns might provide hints in advance of the next Cascadia megathrust quake, said John Vidale, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences and director of the seismic network.

"Maddeningly, we have no understanding of why the episodic slow slip lasts a month, rather than the few seconds of a normal earthquake or the continuous motion of flow deeper in the Earth, and we aim to figure it out," Vidale said.
As someone living in the Cascadia subduction zone, I couldn't be more fascinated.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Links for a Monday

Unlike most other places in the US, the weather here in Seattle has been all over the map for the last few weeks. (I am grateful, even if this has been a rough year for my tomatoes.) I've been listening to a CD of Birdsongs of the Pacific Northwest, and have begun to identify some of the birds who hang out in my yard that I never can seem to get a good look at. I've also been starting to identify birds that I see (often with the help of my mighty binoculars) on my visits to Union Bay as well as various parks in Seattle. It's a slow process! But it occurred to me last week that it's much more fun this way. (Most fun is when it's the behavior, rather than the markings or shape of the feathers or beak or length of the neck that nails it for me.) So I've been wanting, really, to post about my adventures watching birds. But I'll defer that pleasure and instead offer you a few links to check out:

--Last week at The Rejectionist it was Feminist Science Fiction Week.
Here's a story for you: we grew up in a very small and unpleasant town, with parents whom we ADORE, do not get us wrong, but whose politics are very... well, different from ours. We were well on our way to a content middle-class life of fluorescent-lit day jobs, picket fences, and voting Republican (our mom recently unearthed a fan letter we wrote to Ronald Reagan at a tender age). What happened? you may well ask, as we clearly took a hard turn for the road less traveled in between then and now. We wonder that ourself sometimes (possibly drama club?) and the best we can come up with is: Sci-Fi. No, seriously. Bear with us.

Science fiction: it does not have the greatest history. For every Lieutenant Uhura, there are a whole truckload of Kirks, and even Uhura had to wear that fucking uniform. But as long as science fiction has been written, the ladies and the queers and the people of color have been hijacking that shit for their own excellent ends, and the results are what we might describe as transcendent. You take White Man, Captain of the Universe; we'll take Octavia Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin, Sheri S. Tepper, James Tiptree Jr., Samuel Delany, Mary Shelley, and the legions of people they have influenced and inspired. We started reading that stuff young, and it did its percolating somewhere in there under the surface, so that when finally we got out of Dodge and met people doing the righteous work of the revolution, everything just sort of clicked. When you grow up reading about planets without gender it doesn't seem very odd that a person in your real life might feel the gender they live is not the same as the sex they were born with. When you spend your formative years obsessed with a story about transgender mutant prostitutes inhabiting post-apocalyptic Washington, D.C., it's not really a stretch to envision an anarchist, self-governing utopian future. When you read Samuel R. Delany as a kid, once you put your brain back in the ear it came out of it's no big deal when someone sits you down and says, Look, kid, pull your head out of your ass and recognize the privilege your white skin affords you.
The week's posts include interviews with Nnedi Okorafor, Elizabeth Hand, and Arwen Curry-- who's making a documentary about the life and work of Ursula K. Le Guin-- and an essay by Neesha Meminger on the importance of fighting to claim a voice in stories and mythologies. Go check all of it out!

--Over at the Bookview Cafe, Ursula Le Guin's "Art, Information, Theft, and Confusion" (posted in two parts; part one can be found here, part two here) considers influence, exchange, and borrowing, the difference between imitation and emulation, homage vs plagiarism, and sharing vs theft and piracy.

--The Telegraph has an interesting article by Gaby Wood on Penguin editor Eunice Frost, who eventually became Penguin's first woman director.
Along with the firm's founder, Allen Lane, she revolutionised the way we read by making good writing accessible to anyone for the price of a packet of cigarettes. So much was she the guiding spirit of the historic house that its penguin mascot and logo is named 'Frostie' after her. In 1958 she became the first woman in publishing to be awarded an OBE for services to literature.
(link via Paula Guran and Cynthia Ward)

An over at the Nation, Willam Greider's The AIG Bailout Scandal makes it crystal clear why Timothy Geithner is so opposed to Elizabeth Warren.
The five-member COP [Congressional Oversight Panel], chaired by Harvard professor Elizabeth Warren, has produced the most devastating and comprehensive account so far. Unanimously adopted by its bipartisan members, it provides alarming insights that should be fodder for the larger debate many citizens long to hear—why Washington rushed to forgive the very interests that produced this mess, while innocent others were made to suffer the consequences. The Congressional panel’s critique helps explain why bankers and their Washington allies do not want Elizabeth Warren to chair the new Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.


The most troubling revelation in this story is the astonishing weakness of the Federal Reserve and its incompetence as a faithful defender of the public interest. In the lore of central banking, the Fed is awesomely powerful and intimidating. As regulator of the banking system, it has life-and-death influence over banks. As manager of the economy, it has open-ended authority to intervene in the financial system to restore stability, as the central bank did massively during the crisis.

Yet the Fed was strangely passive and compliant when it came to demanding cooperation and sacrifice from the largest financial institutions. Timothy Geithner was then president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, the lead regulator of Wall Street’s largest banks. He briefly insisted they must accept the burden of rescuing AIG. But the bankers called his bluff and blew him off—and Geithner deferred to their wishes. The taxpayer bailout followed. The episode is relevant to the future, because Geithner is now Obama’s Treasury Secretary and in charge of preventing the next taxpayer bailout.
Let's be thankful for brilliant women, yes? (And wish the people who most desperately need their advice would actually listen to them for a change!)

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Wednesday evening, in Buffalo

Two Aqueductistas will be appearing at a bookstore event in Buffalo on Wednesday. The Aqueductistas are Chan Davis and Josh Lukin, the bookstore is Talking Leaves, and the event is a celebration of the publication of It Walks in Beauty: Selected Prose of Chandler Davis, a book edited by Josh Lukin and published by Aqueduct Press. Chan and Josh will be reading and signing.

Samuel R. Delany, by the way, recently posted this comment on his Facebook page:
I'm reading a really fine book, of great interest to historians of the middle 20th century, people who like science fiction, and general fans of clear thought and good fiction: It Walks in Beauty: The Collected Prose of Chandler Davis, edited by Josh Lukin.
I do wish I were able to attend myself. I'm sure the discussion will be both entertaining and stimulating.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

"The labor, as always, remains all theirs"

One of the articles in the twentieth-anniversary issue of differences that I recently read has got me revisiting some of the issues I raised in The Matter of Tongues, my Guest of Honor speech for WisCon 32. In "Here are the Dogs: Poverty in Theory," Gayle Salamon begins by remarking
We have a contemporary theoretical discourse about gender in the United States; we have a critical theoretical discourse about race. That these theoretical discourses are ever changing, often overlapping, and hotly contested from without an within is a barometer of their robustness. We have not produced a similar theoretical discourse on class, despite the legacy of Marxism and its insistence on the centrality of class in social analysis. That class has been the undertheorized member of the modifying triumvirate of race-gender-class within the contemporary politics of diversity has oft been noted, but this has not been sufficient to reinvigorate its waning presence in considerations of difference and identity. Why might this be so? How are class, identity, and voice linked-- or separated-- within contemporary narrative and memoir, and what theoretical presuppositions around each of these terms underlie such connections and disjunctions?(168)
In my speech, I named intelligibility has a key problem for writing and reading stories by/about various "others." In her article, Salamon goes on to look at an aspect of that particular problem. She starts by considering a work published in 2007:
In the introduction to Poor People, William Vollmann reflects on some of the canonical work in the literature on poverty and considers the conditions of their making. He tell us that writing on poverty cannot be done successfully by people who are themselves poor. The suggestion that the poor are the least able narrators of their own poverty offers from the outset a vexed relation between language and poverty, a vexation that inverts the relation between voice and authenticity that we have often come to expect form literatures of difference. Within this logic, Vollmann is able to write his book Poor People because he was never poor, Steinbeck succeeds with Grapes of Wrath because he transcends his "poorish" origins, and George Orwell, who was once poor, could only have written Down and Out in Paris and London because he escaped that condition. Books about the poor, Vollmann explains, are neither by nor for the poor, a circumstance to which he seems resigned. (168-169)
And what is his reasoning?
Those living in poverty, Vollmann propounds, cannot understand their condition, its complexity, or themselves. The poor, through no fault of their own, are a simple people. Poverty itself has simplified them, and thus the language used to both address and describe them, Volmann suggests, should be simple.

The assertion of this kind of moralist anti-aesthetic is astonishingly common when the subject is poverty. The contention that linguistic complexity invites or enacts a kind of corruption on the part of the writer and that language describing the poor must be mimetically impoverished, as bare and minimal as the lives of the poor themselves, is both a misrecognition of the lives of the poor and inattentive to the complexities of languages of poverty. (171)
Salamon then notes that Orwell is a vehement proponent of this point of view. She looks at Down and Out in Paris and London and sees him objectifying poverty and muses about the way in which he separates himself from "the poor with whom he works, lodges, and tramps": "It may only be the rich who look at the poor and see poverty. The poor certainly do not see one another that way." (172) Analyzing Orwell's language when writing about his personal experiences of poverty, she concludes
Language that is simple, direct, and clear is unmanageable in the grip of poverty, both for Orwell the writer and Orwell the down-and-out narrating character. Indeed, during the humiliations of his encounters with the laundress, the tobacconist, the shopkeeper, he does not once utter "I," settling back into it only after the present tense misery of those three weeks has passed.

In such texts as these, a disidentification with the poor is the only enabling term for speaking about the poor, even by the poor themselves. The experience of poverty is unspeakable in some profound way, Orwell's prose seems to suggest, but if it is unspeakable, if he is neither able to tell the laundress the truth of his situation nor able to summon the narrative "I" to help his description, every last mundane detail of his daily life is suddenly rendered vastly more intricate and impossible, and in a way that requires untruthfulness, "a net of lies" constantly. (173)
Salamon then returns to Vollmann-- and his confronting his subjects with the question "Why are you poor?" Vollman is apparently disgusted with the responses he gets. Apparently, since as Salamon says "Poverty, for Vollmann, is the only thing to be said about [a woman he is interviewing]," this is all he can think to ask. As she ripostes
One would not ask 'Why are you a woman?' Or, "Why are you black?'...To ask 'Why are you poor?' of a poor person does not absolve but rather holds him or her responsible for both his or her circumstance and its transparent narration. The question assumes that self-narration offers meaning that is then transparently available to the writer and his or her readers in turn. It asserts a great many things and then puts the weight of explanation on the poor; the labor, as always, remains all theirs. (175)

Monday, August 2, 2010

Looking Ahead

We have a couple of new covers to show off, of books forthcoming in early 2011.

Gwyneth Jones's short fiction collection, Universe of Things, will be released in January. Here's the cover image for it:

And Andrea Hairston's new novel, Redwood and Wildfire, will be released in April. (I'll be telling you more about it soon.) Here's the cover image for it:

Sunday, August 1, 2010

In search of a "contemporary language" for feminism

Several years ago, participating on a panel at WisCon, I noticed that people from different generations were using the same words to mean different things, depending on one's generation. In the context of the panel such difference in usage meant, of course, that several threads of the same conversation worked at cross-purposes. Later, I wrote a paper on "the discursive instability of feminist sf" (which was published in a WisCon special issue of Extrapolation and eventually collected in The Grand Conversation). The subject has continued to interest me, and so when I read in an article by Emily Apter (in the 20th Anniversary issue of differences) a reference to a tactic deployed at a feminist conference held at the Whitney Art Museum a year and half ago, I had to investigate. Here's a bit of Apter's discussion of the conference:
In fall 2008, I received an e-flyer circulated by two Whitney Independent Study Program participants, Jen Kennedy and Liz Linden. Announcing an event billed as "Back to the Future. . .An Experimental Discussion on Contemporary Feminist Practice," it was both an invitation to and a preparatory brief for a town-hall meeting that took place at the Whitney Museum of American Art on February 21, 2009....

....Listening to the discussion at the Whitney, I was struck by the fact that while temporal references abounded (labor time, the biological clock, intergenerational tensions in the women's movement), nobody addressed the problem of time as such. This was all the more striking given that Kennedy and Linden's manifesto-questionnaire highlighted contemporary feminism's stakes in rethinking historical and temporal markers. The periodization of the women's movement, the gerundive condition of "lived practice," the coexistence of multiple chronotopes that "untime" the temporal measures of capitalist labor and tempo were signaled as defining concerns by the language of their short Dictionary of Temporary Approximations. "In drafting this dictionary," they wrote, "we have intentionally selected potentially problematic works that evoke the past and have thus helped pin feminism in one historical moment. In their stead, we have suggested temporary placeholders to be used for the duration of our discussion. [...] HOW DO YOU PRACTICE FEMINISM TODAY? KEEPING IN MIND THAT WE HOPE TO CREATE A SHORT LIST OF WORDS PROBLEMATICALLY ROOTED IN THE PAST, ARE THERE ANY CHANGES YOU WOULD SUGGEST?" [upper case in orig.] There was an interesting double desire to preserve keywords of feminist history while assigning them different values as placeholders of the present.--"'Women's Time' in Theory"
Apter then gives a few of the definitions from the temporary dictionary. Her interest in all this is in fitting it into Julia Kristeva's schema, which was proposed in an essay on "Women's Time" published in Signs back in 1979. Kennedy and Linden.

I'm interested, instead, in Kennedy and Linden's sense that 21st-century feminism is hampered by its sense of history and a framework that may be getting in the way of imagining feminism's future. So of course I went to Google and did a search. I found a site Kennedy and Linden maintain, which has a transcript of the event at the Whitney as well as other stuff, including a paper titled "Notes on Returning to the Future," a paper given in March 2009 talking about the event at the Whitney. The transcript is interesting-- it identifies most of the speakers by number rather than name. (The transcript is also full of typos, though.)

On their site, Linden and Kennedy have reproduced a form that attendees of the event signed-- including an agreement to participate in the "experiment"-- "I have read the above and agree to engage in the outlined methodology and the Dictionary of Approximations provided. I understand that the goal of the meeting is not to undermine the achievements of feminisms past, but instead to explore the nature of feminisms present." Designating the event as an experiment is interesting-- particularly given that it was being held at the Whitney.

Here's a bit from Kennedy and Linden's introduction to the discussion:
While it is certainly true – and inspiring – that feminism has seen increased attention in the art world in the past few years, the understanding of feminism that is being worked with is so often coded by a body of works, actions, and texts largely produced ‘60s and ‘70s that it has become difficult to talk about feminism in a way that doesn’t tie it to an historical moment. When we met this fall, the question that seemed to preoccupy both Liz and I [sic] was, why? In other words, what is it about the nature of feminism present that makes it so difficult to speak about when it seems that many of us urgently want to?

In saying this, it is not my intention to diminish the significance of history in shaping the present or to suggest that these recent conversations were anything but important on many many levels. Certainly, my own debt to feminist practices of the past is immense. Nonetheless, after independently attending and listening to a number of feminist exhibitions, panels, and symposia, both Liz and I noticed, between us and among our peers, a frustration that our primary concerns were not being addressed. Very simply, we didn’t recognize our own feminist practices in the commonly deployed descriptions of feminism. Here, I should add that by peers I do not simply mean individuals within a certain age bracket but rather a more amorphous, trans-generational group, that comes in and out of focus through shared experiences, commitments, concerns, and so on…Today, for example, while some of us in this room identify as feminists, others believe that this is a term that should be left in the past. Certainly, we need consider both of these positions – as well as all of those between – to really grapple with the issues at hand.

It is with all of this in mind that Liz and I started to think about organizing a conversation on feminism-as-lived-practice. It’s our hope that by sharing and exploring how we each articulate or confront feminism in our day-to-day lives – through the ways we work on and shape the world around us – we might come closer to answering the question: what does feminism look like today? Or to slightly amend this: what are some examples of what feminisms look like today?

Of course in doing so we come against the charge that this model lacks the unity of purpose necessary for a movement to succeed and this may be true. We also recognize that “lived-practice” is an extremely heterogeneous field and that practices that might be visible to one individual or community might not to another. Undoubtedly, this discussion would take a different form in a different group, or even if we added or subtracted individuals from this one.

Frankly, it is largely our shared discomfort with speaking on behalf of others that makes the model of lived-practiced so appealing to both Liz and I [sic]. At the same time, we recognize the need to effectively confront these differences – or horizontal conflicts – without allowing them to prevent us from speaking at all.

So, while taking these concerns into consideration we would, nonetheless, like to propose the experiment we are about to begin as a hypothesis for taking seriously a feminism based on our modes of being in the world, not instead of but in addition to traditional modes of activism. How, for example, is feminism meaningfully articulated through one’s quotidian life? How do these moments get communicated, virally or otherwise? Can they become the impetus for larger-scale change? And, what is at stake when we suggest that through moments of community, small scale and among peers – however temporary, spontaneous or constructed – feminism-as-lived-practice may provide a site of critical resistance?

Liz Linden: Hi there. I wanted to take a moment to do a bit of housekeeping, and clarify our methodology and goals for this experiment.

I would like to start by reiterating something Jen said while inserting my own disclaimer, and say only that the feminism of the past is extremely valuable to me as well. Our intention in laying out our frustrations with feminist discourse is not to undermine it as a whole, or say that historicized discussions of feminism have no place, or do not enlighten us to a degree on our feminism now. I completely agree with Connie Butler’s statement at Feminist Futures, which I paraphrase here, that you cannot understand the work of today without examining the feminist work of the past—it is just that I would like to amend that statement with an additional one: you cannot understand the work of today without also examining the work of today.

This task is, however, deeply complicated by the fact that the present seems so difficult to access through the usual vocabulary. In trying to have a discussion about the present, we’ve often found ourselves hampered by the richness of our language at hand, which cannot be divorced from its historical roots and imperatives. It is a strange paradox that this richness has become our present poverty, keeping us from moving forward empowered by our presence in our moment.

For us, these precedents contained within language and signs have been partly to blame for the thresholding of this discussion, with our positions circumscribed by the past as we attempt to push forward into the future. We thought, ‘what if we didn’t have to use this language? What if, instead of calling it “feminism,” we called it “lived practice,” or any other substitute, to see if that opened doors? Where would that discussion take us?

If we artificially unburden ourselves of these precedents, and with new lightness, advance, what kind of a room might be there, waiting for us?

Well, temporarily, this is that room—it’s a town-hall. Rather than being stuck at the threshold, looking in, holding onto language from the past, let’s just agree to leave it at the door. We’ll pick it up again on our way out.

In the place of certain of these problematic signs we have suggested a number of substitutes, listed in the “Dictionary of Temporary Approximations.” While in essence we probably would have preferred to use empty symbols, like “A” for “feminism” and “B” for “protest,” the difficulty of actually carrying out that conversation alarmed us.

Instead we have chosen temporary semantic replacements, which (we hope) will be easier to use in conversation! While these words also come with their own baggage, in this case practicality trumped the purity of the symbols; as we said in the call for participants, by taking the emphasis off of the signs, we hope to return it to what is signified by them in the first place.
Interestingly, the transcript shows that the "temporary approximations" were a subject of the conversation but were not, themselves, used in the discussion as they were presumably intended to be used. After a 15-minute break in the middle of the discussion, Linden acknowledges the irony:
LL: I wanted to start out with just a brief acknowledgement that we were interested in introducing the dictionary in an effort to get away from semantics, the difficulty of finding a shared language as so forth. It was intended to be a kind of effort to, um, excavate a bit about what these terms that we are loyal to actually mean. That said, the irony is that in an effort to avoid semantics we have fallen back into that trap. So instead, I wanted to take actually the suggestion of Ulrike and just try and invert this a little bit. So, we want to now ask the question, what are the ways that we are implicated in sexism/misogyny so forth. Let’s try to get at it from that angle and see how that works instead.

Speaker 1: Well I’d like to start with your dictionary of temporary approximations and in terms of like our participation in relation to sexism every word that you have suggested has taken out the sex or female sex or subjugated sex experience within that word so from misogyny you go to prejudice, um, from motherhood you go to parenting, and from feminism to lived practice, and patriarchy to subordination, um, and it’s, you know, it’s something at as feminists y’all did to try to change the language to make it more open but in a simple way I see that, um, the specificities of sexism in a patriarchal culture that denotes sex and gender were removed in an attempt to make it easier for us to talk, I find that questionable.

LL: It wasn’t really an attempt to make it easier to talk; it was just an attempt to make it easier to associate those terms that were just intended to be placeholders I mean a-symbolic placeholders…

Speaker 1: Exactly.

LL: So, I mean, we are very much interested in…

Speaker 1: I mean, are they a-symbolic if they…

LL: No, of course not, that’s what we’re discovering here – that it’s not working to use them.

JK: I guess I would also like to say that, I mean, taking the specific gender implications out of these terms was something that we really really struggled with and we have so many versions of this dictionary and, I mean, also, we all know, and Liz and I would be the first to admit that it’s flawed but we’re just proposing it as a hypothesis and what’s so interesting for me to hear are the reasons why it doesn’t work, you know? Reasons, like I mean, not only why it doesn’t work but also suggestions on how we could maybe tweak this experiment and make it more productive.

Speaker 5: Well, I mean, sort of earlier when Ulrike brought up that she would get critiqued for not having more feminism in her work or whatever and I respond to this sort of, I agree, or I don’t agree, but I think it’s interesting that you wanted to, that you were interested in changing the word – which I may or may not agree with that decision, but I think that the evacuation of the specificity around the words is something to think about and I think that oftentimes it happens where we move into spaces that are supposed to be encapsulating or whatever where everyone fits under some umbrella term and often that lacks the specificity…Look, I don’t know how lived practice would be without feminism, if you just said it somewhere for something. So I guess I can say that.

Speaker 3: Well, I understand that you are just trying to trick us like, you know, that we’re still talking about feminism using something else

Speaker 5: No, I know, I know, I know.

Speaker 3: To remove the whole pressure around that word, I don’t think, it’s not really a problem.

Speaker 22: But what she’s talking about what that word means, and and and I think it’s ok. It almost like lived practice is this word that you put there alongside feminism and we’re all talking about feminism and we all know that and um we don’t have a problem with it and I think that somewhat implicit in the dictionary is that these terms are problematic for many people, but the purpose of being here and talking about them is to unpack the meaning of the words so it’s not counter-objective but it is really like there are the words themselves and the watered down words, the potentially non-offensive versions alongside um but we really know what we’re what we’re talking about.
And of course the discussion continues to query the effects of consciously changing the language.

In their paper, "Notes on Returning to the Future," Linden writes:
Recently, Jen and I have been told, by a number of prominent feminists from various generations, that feminism is dead. We are troubled that this is their perception when we see so much life in it still. In an effort to recuissitate [sic] feminist discourse, we wanted to publicly explore the question: what does feminism look like today?

It seems to us that the predominant understanding of feminism is coded by a body of works, actions, and texts produced in the ‘60s and ‘70s, such that it has become nearly impossible to talk about contemporary feminism in a way that doesn’t tie it to an historical moment. Is it any wonder, then, that so many of our peers see themselves as post-feminist, or not feminist at all, when the word “feminism” is so explicitly defined by the past-tense? It is ironic that today we find ourselves hampered by the richness of our language at hand, which has not been diverted from its historical roots and imperatives. It is a strange paradox that this richness has become our present poverty, keeping us from moving forward empowered by our presence in our moment.
I wonder who these prominent feminists are-- and what they mean by dead. (Linden doesn't say.) Curiously, my reading of the transcript doesn't match Linden's characterization of the discussion:
At the town-hall, there were some successes with using the symbolic language of the dictionary as we intended, although this led to a discussion of the dictionary’s operations and an exploration of further additions to it. The eagerness to add to the dictionary pointed also to a risk inherent in introducing it in the first place; for some, the relief that came with using a contemporary language to discuss contemporary practices led to a desire to develop a dictionary for “real world” use.
Hmmm... What I concluded from reading the transcript was that finding new, "contemporary" language for feminist use was fraught with problems. The main feature of Linden and Kennedy's "temporary approximations" was the stripping out of gender. I suppose I'm curious at the notion that "contemporary" feminism isn't about gender. (Or that the presence of gender is an obstacle to "contemporary" discussion.)