I don’t write a lot here about being Scottish. I haven’t ever made much of it in my academic work, in my professional life. I haven’t lived in Scotland since 2003, and my nationality usually comes up in conversation only when someone is trying to identify my accent. It’s ironic, given that I am presently in a situation where I can’t leave the US until my pending visa renewal has been processed. But I’ve never felt more deeply connected to Scotland than I do right now.
As a student at Edinburgh University, I avoided the Scottish Literature classes because I didn’t want to focus on my own tiny almost-nation; I wanted a bigger world. I had already spent time in London, where I learned that being markedly Scottish made you a bit funny, not to be taken too seriously until one had moderated one’s accent. At Edinburgh, I read about feminism and postcolonial studies and critical theory; I also met the British class elite for the first time, and I realized how little many of them knew or cared about the world I came from. I left, to study abroad in California and then for a postgraduate degree in England and then to the US again, first for my PhD and then to work; I came home as often as I could to visit family, but I haven’t looked back all that much.
I’m looking at Scotland now, every day, reading articles and watching video and talking back and forth in person and on social media. But I’m not looking back. I’m looking forward.
Watching London politics over the past few years has broken my heart, as the official discourse seems to move ever closer to the American version of things where the conversations are always about money, never about people, despite powerful and vibrant protest. Growing up in Glasgow during the Thatcher era, I remember being confused about what this thing called democracy I learned about in school was supposed to be, since the government of the country had so manifestly little interest in or respect for the people around me; I remember my mother explaining carefully about Middle England and the politics of scale. Somebody with the same questions today could expect different answers.
My entrancement with the steady upswell of Yes is not terribly much about nationalism. That’s a reason I’m glad, in the end, that I don’t have a vote in Thursday’s referendum. I am Scottish, I will get a Scottish passport if such things come to exist, but I don’t live there; it’s a decision for the people who do, regardless of where they come from. And the people I am close to who live there have, many of them, been shifting steadily from a wary “don’t know” to a chorus of Yeses. Or, as we say in my native dialect, Aye.
“We’re no putting up a border, we’re just putting our house in order”: what Yes means for many of those voting is not so much separatist nationalist fervor (as it seems often to be described by those south of the border), as it is a resounding, passionate, affirmative NO. Campaigners for union focus on the economic gain to be found from the wealth of the south of England; they sentimentalize about the histories of power and privilege that tie the United Kingdom together. And a Yes to Scottish independence says no to all that. It says “I would prefer not to.”
With the affirmative grassroots movements that are gathering, that seem to me to be much more important than the Scottish National Party, a vote for independence has the potential to be to be a vote of no confidence for the capitalist nation-state as it stands. It’s a vote against “the economy” as the determinant of everything. It’s a vote, maybe, against the lingering sickening powerful feeling that the British Empire is something that those who benefited from it (think of ships built in Glasgow for the triangle trade; think of Elvis Costello and Robert Wyatt’s powerful song Shipbuilding) should consider a source of pride, rather than a source of shame.
In Butterfly Rebellion, which is a great account of the structure of feeling that Scottish independence has become, Robin McAlpine writes:
In a room behind a locked door, behind a policeman, behind a gate, behind another policeman, a group of millionaires get together. One, an old Etonian, nominally runs the country. The others, the CEOs of big corporations, actually run the country. They decide on a strategy: terror. We. Will. Take. Your. THINGS. From. You. It’s a fair trade, of sorts – give up your chance of self-determination and in return we will give you the cheap things that you love. This is Britain.
Some of the Yes campaign responds by offering reminders that Scotland would still be a rich country. But I’m more convinced by the Scottish actor and comedian Elaine C. Smith:
If you live in an affluent area, have a good job, drive a couple of nice cars, a good pension, a holiday home in Majorca and your kids are at private school, then why would you want change? I’ve enjoyed many of those advantages in my own life.
But surely life has to be about more than your own personal comfort? Isn’t your life made worse when you know that half a mile away from your home there are people living in abject poverty through no fault of their own, with no hope, no future, no dreams of a better life.
The left “no” side has offered up the argument that division makes for a smaller chance of equality, but that still comes close to the idea that what Scotland really needs is the trickle-down wealth from London – which would surely have worked rather better than it has, if it were going to.
The Yes vote is a No to predictability chosen out of fear. It’s a vote for admitting that things won’t necessarily get better right away, but that it’s worth trying to see if they can get different. When I think about what it might mean for the universities of Scotland, my first instinct is fear: with no fees and reduced access to UK funding, how will research get the funding it needs? And yet when I pause and think, it’s all possibility. Universities as they are don’t work terribly well as places to promote learning; the world has moved faster than they have, with their paywalled depositories and closed books. What would an alternative university be like? What kinds of knowledge might get shaped there, with an opportunity to start from scratch? This could be a time to collaborate on finding out.
Let me finish with a couple of images from the Scotland I grew up in. I come from Springburn, which Wikipedia will tell you has some of the the highest unemployment and poverty rates in Scotland, and some of the worst health. We lived in a council flat across the road from a beautiful park, where I walked almost daily past the imposing ruins of Victorian greenhouses that once housed winter gardens:
The garden picture looks like how Scotland and Scottishness feel to me today. Something old, slipping into disrepair, no longer functioning but lumbering on; it’s not so much that I think that is Britain as it feels like the dominant way we have of doing and thinking politics. And twining around and over and through, persisting even in darkest winter, a thousand shoots of nascent possibility, already green and growing, uncontainable. What if we let them bloom?
As I gear up for my first semester at the University of Maryland, I’m thinking a lot about academic and social positionings, offline and on. More particularly, about my own online positioning and how it has changed over the past four years as I’ve made the transition from graduate student life to completing my dissertation and going on the market, to being an assistant professor in a teaching-focused university teaching composition, literature, and doctoral-level theory classes, to my brand-new status as a tenure-track professor doing interdisciplinary work at a large public research university. The change in my online persona has been marked and undeniable. I have become much, much quieter.
My presence on Twitter used to be constant and vocal: livetweeting every conference I attended in queer studies, critical race studies, digital media; following and retweeting emerging news and political events (I most vividly remember the 2011 London riots); arguing; celebrating the benefits of the platform as I moved through the world in community with my Twitter friends, advocating its use both as a space for succinct, low-stress writing and as a platform for public intellectual discourse. I still livetweet most of the conferences I attend, but I don’t read like I used to, and I haven’t engaged in Twitter debate for a long time. Everything I’ve ever said about the importance of Twitter is truer than it ever was now that the platform has become so central to so many kinds of public life – but some recent discussions about #Ferguson made me realize that I don’t access the stream the way I used to. I think that Zeynep Tufekci (to pick one post from the dozens on the subject in my web history) is absolutely right in calling attention to the un-algorithmed Twitter feed as vital to the possibility of media justice; nevertheless, I followed and shared Ferguson news from inside my Facebook filter bubble. That was an interesting experience in itself; I learned that my activity there is such that I was given wall-to-wall Ferguson coverage and very few ALS Ice Bucket Challenges (though now the Challenge has crossed the Atlantic I’m seeing more of them). My Twitter feed, when I accessed it, had a much less unified perspective.
For those of you who follow digital humanities debate on Twitter, you may recognize the influence of Noel Jackson’s recent posts (storified by Adeline Koh) in this moment of contemplation. The abhorrent firing of Steven Salaita from the position he had accepted but not begun at the University of Illinois for his vocal, emotive public tweets against the genocidal war in Gaza is another thread that has been leading me to think about scholarly, political, and personal positionings. A third is the new publication of a second installment of Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class in Academia recently published in the Seattle Journal of Social Justice, which I have been working my way through
Jackson calls attention to the relative silence of online networks of academics in the realm of digital humanities when it comes to the protests in Ferguson. He argues that if the humanities are to be public at all, then humanists must engage with what is happening on the ground. I agree with this premise, though critical caveats by Elizabeth Losh (Respect, Niceness, and Generosity) and Ernesto Priego (On the Public Humanities and the Reign of Opinion) on the ways that public online personae and political investment are rarely transparent reflections of one another ring very true. My own time away from Twitter has brought me to a deep appreciation of the temporality of the blog post.
I have seen some exchanges on Twitter in Jackson’s wake that illuminated for me why some tend to remain silent: when fear of appropriating a discourse not one’s own leads a white scholar not officially trained in race studies to hold back from expressions of solidarity with Black Americans, for example. People of color and those marked as other speak, knowing that their silence will not protect them (this article by Ramona Fernandez, a long and painful read, tells a story of what it can be like to endure that silence); silence does protect those who pass more seamlessly into the mainstream, where the risk is rather that we will appear to be giving assent to the violence of the status quo, and also that this appearance will become reality (read Sara Ahmed on the different experiences of bodies in systems that are or are not shaped around their movements and needs).
So, then, I’m reflecting on my own shifts in outspokenness and privilege. Switching the locus of my online activity from Twitter to Facebook has been a retreat into such a protective silence for me, in many ways. It has not only been that; it has most immediately been a question of demands on my time as I shifted from graduate school (in which I had the immense privilege of being well funded and generously mentored by radical scholars) to a full-time position with a high teaching load. It has been a recognition of the institutional impossibility of maintaining the kind of openness I had as a student, once I realized that the tenure-track position I had been incredibly lucky and (again) incredibly privileged to maintain was not going to be a good long term home; going on the market without the support of a cohort of equally anxious peers was a lonely thing, and Facebook provided a higher ratio of comforting dog, cat, and baby pictures to distract me. It has also been a sign of the attention I’ve been paying to happier events in my personal life, which I wanted to share with those I am more than with a scholarly audience. I do want to defend Facebook a little against the many who steer clear of its voracious surveillance and advertising; I’m far from the first to find that it’s become the digital space of the less digitally savvy, which for me includes many faraway friends and family. My Twitter feed, for all it has 1000+ followers, feels as if it reaches mainly the like minded, whereas on Facebook I’m constantly confronted by those awkward interactions between relatives, friends, and acquaintances (these include a fair number of internet-only friends and acquaintances with whom I’ve been interacting for more than ten years) whose life experiences are radically different than my own.
Anyway. I’m writing this post now, I think, as a reminder of the ways in which my new academic position charts a new relationship to scholarly visibility and privilege. I am no longer, praise everything, on the market; I am in a position where the things I want to do and the things I will be professionally rewarded for line up as well as I could hope for them to do. I may not have tenure yet, but I have access and a voice that have the potential to be powerful. And I need to use it mindfully; I need to use it well.
My summer has thus far been spent moving, with little time for web updates. But I have had two collaborative pieces come out in the past few months, and not yet got around to linking them here.
The first was a real first for me: co-writing with my romantic and domestic partner. We reviewed Volume 7 of Aqueduct Press’s WisCon Chronicles series, Shattering Ableist Narratives, for Disability Studies Quarterly. I edited Volume 6 in the series and WisCon is, as I’ve described here before, a home for me and a place where I find both community and significance for my work beyond my academic sphere. Disability studies is something that I have only recently been beginning to delve into, in part because of the focus on widening access and challenging ableism that I have seen over the years at WisCon. I’ve also been learning about it because it is the field within which my partner, Kathryn Wagner, is doing research in Clinical Psychology, so we thought that this review would be a fun way to explore the intersection of our scholarly work after she came with me to WisCon and experienced the convention first hand. It proved to be just that, and we hope to do more writing together in the future. For those who enjoy the review and the volume and want more WisCon, Volume Eight: Regenerating WisCon has just come out, edited by Rebecca Holden.
The second piece was part of a roundtable published by the online International Journal of Communication. I was invited by Henry Jenkins and Nick Couldry to join an illustrious line-up of media and communication scholars exploring “the Participatory Promise of Contemporary Culture and Politics,” in groupings organized around themes of creativity, labor, politics, knowledge and education, and platforms. I was part of the “politics” grouping, in the illustrious company of Danielle Allen, Nico Carpentier, Moya Bailey, Natalie Fenton, Henry Jenkins, Jack Linchuan Qiu, Mirko Tobias Schaefer, and Ramesh Srinivasan. I learned a lot from our dialogues about the uneven dynamics of participation as democratic political theory, utopia/dystopia, revolutionary and/or reactionary force; all of the roundtable’s segments are accessible and thought-provoking reads, and I recommend them highly.
I am overdue on a few announcements here; let me start with the biggest one.
This fall, I will be moving to the Washington, DC area to start a new position as Assistant Professor in the Department of Women’s Studies at University of Maryland College Park. I will be joining the Program in LGBT Studies as it becomes a part of Women’s Studies, and I’m looking forward to being a part of this changing moment for gender and sexuality studies at Maryland. I will also be teaching in the undergraduate honors college as part of the Design | Culture & Creativity program, a first- and second-year interdisciplinary living-learning program focused on digital culture and featuring the spec-fictional tagline of a curriculum for “independent thinkers and problem solvers who imagine that which does not yet exist.”
As will hopefully be clear from all that, this position could not be more of a dream job; it feels tailor-made for my idiosyncratic collection of interests, and it will give me the scope to explore them in ways I am only beginning to imagine. And College Park is, of course, the home of the Maryland Institute for Technology in the Humanities, as well as so many scholars – in my new department and elsewhere – whose work I have been reading and engaging for years. I am honored and overjoyed beyond words to have this opportunity.
I’m excited to announce that the 1889 feminist utopia to which I wrote the introduction, New Amazonia: A Foretaste of the Future by Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett, is now in print – with a beautiful cover from Aqueduct Press’s Heirloom Books imprint.
It’s a strange book; typical of the burgeoning utopian fictions of its time, yet with some unusual interventions to make regarding technology, medicine, writing, and gender. Here’s the first paragraph of my introduction:
When Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett sat down in the late 1880s to imagine a world 500 years hence, she can little have imagined that her words would be pored over in another century, on another continent, in a community gathered around the kinds of imaginative engagement with gender that she was pioneering. L. Timmel Duchamp has described feminist science fiction as a “great conversation”; Corbett’s speculations about New Amazonia are part of that conversation’s prehistory, a fictional contribution to political debates with which the writer was intensively engaged. The book you are holding is a piece of utopian fiction, but it is just as much a feminist rant––entertaining, educational, and more than a little over the top. Hilarious at some moments, it is shocking and dispiriting in others. It forces us to remember how easily feminist hope can coexist with racism, class hierarchy, imperalism, and the ableism that justified eugenic reproductive policy. Utopias and rants are both genres that make presumptions and prejudices acutely visible.
You can buy the book directly from Aqueduct, in print or ebook (which I recommend, since they are a small publishing house doing amazing work to support innovative and radical feminist science fiction), or from Amazon.com.
My second panel at MLA was a roundtable on “Tumblr Vulnerabilities” with Aren Aizura, Roy Perez, Nick Mitchell, Kara Jesella, and Jeanne Vaccaro. My notes are a little scattered, but I’m posting them anyway. I was respondent and was trying to gather key phrases to bring together at the end in a live post on tumblr itself, but I didn’t quite manage to pull it off; I shared my notes for that attempt at my rarely-used queergeektheory tumblr anyway.
Apologies for any mishearings; please comment or email me if there’s anything I should change.
I am back, exhausted, from MLA in Chicago. I didn’t manage to tweet the entire convention this year (though social media coverage is so much more diverse than it used to be, I no longer feel as compelled to), but I do want to share the archives of the panels I was on. My panel on new approaches to science fiction criticism, with Gerry Canavan, Clarissa Lee, and Rebekah Sheldon, was wonderful; it left me feeling excited to finish my book and get it out into the world so that we can carry on talking about speculation, futurity, and queer imaginaries. I collected the responses from Twitter:
Happy New Year!
Like so many other academics, I’m starting 2014 with MLA. I’m on two panels this year, at the very beginning and the very end of the conference:
New Approaches in Science Fiction Criticism, with Rebekah Sheldon, Gerry Canavan, and Clarissa Ai Ling Lee (sadly Jamie “Skye” Bianco can’t make it) – on Thursday at 7pm in McHenry, Chicago Marriott
Here’s an abstract of my paper:
Living in the Future: Speculative Fiction’s Queer Cultural Politics
Queer times break with the straight and narrow paths of reproductive futurism: lingering or refusing, flashing up in moments of ephemeral utopia or doubling back to reanimate the pleasurable and/or painful past. But where does the speculative narrative act of imagining the future – frequently embodied in the genre of science fiction – fit within this frame? This talk will draw from a larger project on speculative fiction and queer time that explores how science fictions by feminists, queers, and people of color engage in temporal critique by working through rather than against the normative temporalities that queer scholars including Lee Edelman, José Muñoz, and Elizabeth Freeman have identified. The practice and performance of affective world making has been central to queer temporal studies; I link it with the idea of world building, or concretely planning a fictional world, that is important in science fiction theory and criticism in both academic and fan cultures. Science fiction’s world building creates utopian visions, dystopian fears, and futuristic projections that can seem to uncritically reproduce normative life narratives and chronologies of technological progression. Drawing on fiction and theory by Samuel R. Delany as well as on feminist science fiction fan cultures’ grassroots practices of knowledge production, my talk will argue that new temporal frames emerge from the uses to which science fiction’s futures have been put. What practices make it possible to live inside such futures as they refract into the present?
Tumblr Vulnerabilities, with Aren Aizura, Kara Jesella, Nick Mitchell, Roy Perez, and Jeanne Vaccaro – 12pm Sunday in Indiana-Iowa, Chicago Marriott.
Here’s the summary:
How is the microblogging platform Tumblr an affective space for queer and dangerous critique in and outside the academy? What are the politics of blogging on Tumblr as scholars in a professional climate where “online presence” is the consummate CV attribute? How does Tumblr provoke or align itself with the specter of the digital humanities and its proprietary software platforms?
I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface of Tumblr itself, but I have a lot to say about informal online networks in relationship to professionalization and queer critique; I’m looking forward to some great conversations on this panel.
Hope to see you there!
I’ve just come back from the 40th Anniversary Celebration of the University of Oregon’s Center for the Study of Women in Society, where I was invited to participate in the Sally Miller Gearhart “Worlds Beyond World” Symposium on Feminist Utopian Thought. It was a really wonderful weekend, gathering together writers and thinkers from several generations; I was quite overwhelmed to be wandering around the same space as the writers whose work has shaped my intellectual world. Most of all Ursula K. Le Guin, but also Suzy McKee Charnas, Vonda McIntyre, Kate Wilhelm, Sally Miller Gearhart herself, Larissa Lai, Andrea Hairston, and L. Timmel Duchamp. And I participated in a quite joyous panel with Grace Dillon, Joan Haran, Andrea Hairston, and Kathryn Allan; it was wonderful to share our scholarly speculative excitement with an audience of academics, writers, and fans.
I was in Oregon in large part because I have just finished editing a special issue of the UO-based Fembot Collective’s online open access journal Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media and Technology. I’m very proud and very exhausted; we worked through an intense peer review process to publish 12 essays in a time period far shorter than most academic journals are able to manage. The essays vary from dense, lyrical scholarly works on the history of physics, new media art, and somatic capitalism, reproductive futurism, and Margaret Atwood to multimedia performance; there is an audio interview about Octavia Butler, a cyborgian dollhouse, and pieces on Lois McMaster Bujold, Cabin in the Woods, Sue Lange’s novella We, Robots, brainwave-scanning technology. There’s even a piece by the grand dame of feminist science fiction theory, Donna Haraway, and a collectively written review of a new book on her work.
“The boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion” (149). So Donna Haraway wrote in 1985 in “A Cyborg Manifesto.” When I composed a call for papers around this evocative line, I hoped to solicit work that would address the continuities and the transformations between the chimeric time of Haraway’s 1980s and our own uneven present, more than 20 years on. The response was successful beyond my wildest hopes. Feminist science fiction, in the collective analysis of the writers gathered here, proves to be a diverse and amorphous category in which real and imagined science and technology bleed into one another. The essays call attention to the ways in which fictions and realities of scientific speculation shape how we experience the nexus of gender, new media, and technology––from the gendered history of physics to the migration of brain-scanning technology out of laboratories and into the world, from imagined visions of reproductive technologies to sentient robots to the social consequences of cataclysmic change in urban landscapes.
Samuel R. Delany wrote in 1984 that science fiction is not about the future, but is rather a “significant distortion of the present” (177). In a world where not only technologies and their marketing but also social and political discourse draw continually from popular culture’s science fictions, this insight has grown ever more important. How do science fictions distort our perceptions of what is real and what is possible––and how should we mediate those distortions? Which should we critique and which should we embrace? If our times are science fictional, then the feminisms they demand must be technological and ripe for speculation. Joan Haran and Katie King’s essay calls for “science fiction feminisms” as well as “feminist science fictions” and “feminist sustainability”: this issue showcases the diversity of meanings contained in all three of these phrases.
Since this semester began, I’ve been in one of those phases where as soon as one piece of work finishes, you dash madly on to the next deadline without raising your head. I’ve created several half-finished blog posts during that time, including notes from my time at the second Critical Ethnic Studies conference––that one at least will eventually be posted.
For the moment, though, I want to share one of the products of my recent busy-ness (well, of last semester’s busy-ness, really).
In the dim and distant past when I was working on my first dissertation chapter, I talked about it with L. Timmel Duchamp, who runs the feminist science fiction publisher at Aqueduct Press. I told her about the earliest text I had worked on in my historical exploration of popular feminist utopias, Elizabeth Burgoyne Corbett’s 1889 New Amazonia: A Foretaste of the Future. She was intrigued; I shared the PDF version I had scanned from microfiche with her; and it just so happens that Aqueduct has a fairly new Heirloom Books imprint with this set of goals:
Aqueduct Press’s series of Heirloom Books aims to bring back into print and preserve work that has helped make feminist science fiction what it is today —work that though clearly of its time is still pleasurable to read, work that is thought-provoking, work that can still speak powerfully to readers. The series takes its name from the seeds of old- er strains of vegetables, so valuable and in danger of being lost. Our hope is to keep these books from being lost, as works that do not make it into the canon so often are.
Fast forward a couple of years, and New Amazonia will be the third volume in the Heirloom series. Details are here; it will be in print in early 2014. I will post again and share more of the details when it actually comes out…