WOMEN'S STUDIES: INTERDISCIPLINARY IMPERATIVES, AGAIN.
There will be no space here to answer adequately the questions I have posed above, but surely that does not obviate the political need to ask them. Although this need might be articulated in a number of ways, what concerns me specifically is the negativity about both feminism and women's studies that currently shapes the sell-reflexive accounts of contemporary feminist politics written by academic feminists. From this decade's early lament, Feminism without Women: Culture and Criticism in a "Postfeminist" Age, to the recent "What Ails Feminist Criticism?" and "The Impossibility of Women's Studies," we are witnessing a powerful expression that the academic project of feminism is now at an end. Where both Tania Modleski and Susan Gubar worry that poststructuralist theory has denuded feminism of its raison d'etre-speaking as and for women-Wendy Brown finds women's studies "politically and theoretically incoherent, as well as tacitly conservative" precisely because of the way it forwards women "as an object of s tudy."  Too bound to "women" and not bound enough, academic feminism today has come to be figured as both cause and locus for various kinds of failure by, toward, or in the name of women.
Central to this failure, even in texts that share little in the way of theoretical perspective, is a concern for academic institutionalization: for the way that certain trajectories of feminist theory, at the expense of others, have become "hegemonic" (that is, institutionalized); for the way that the academic discourses have themselves become central, displacing community-based knowledges and models of institutional intervention based on social activist agendas;  for the way that the success of women's studies entails a disciplinary function in the institution, a policing of borders that subverts, or seems to, feminism's ability to critique the academy itself.  A lament about the domestication of feminism via academic institutionalization, then, underlies the "apocalyptic" formulation that academic feminism is now at an end.  in "Success and Its Failures," Biddy Martin summarizes one way this lament takes shape: "Having delimited a proper object and carved out particular domains, having generated a nd disseminated specific analytic practices, having developed consensus about at least some key political problems, and having been institutionalized on equal footing with other academic and administrative units, Women's Studies has lost much of its critical intellectual vigor. Women's Studies has now settled in." For Martin, this settling in is not the end of feminism or of women's studies but a diagnosis of the state of "stasis" that characterizes academic feminism in its present tense.  To put this in the language of this forum, women's studies, as the institutional context for feminist interdisciplinary study, has short-circuited, via institutionalization, the "doing" of feminism in its most radical intellectual sense.
At the University of California, whose nine campuses make it one of the largest public systems of higher education in the United States, there are a total of twelve full-time faculty in women s studies. At UC-Irvine, which houses two of these full-time positions, there are nearly forty full-time faculty in English and comparative literature, thirty in political science; sociology is doubling its size to fourteen in the next two years; anthropology has fourteen. These figures are not unusual, nor do they raise an unusual question: what constitutes "equal footing" for feminists in the academy when the contemporary production of intellectual subjects, like prospects for employment, relies on, indeed necessitates-thirty years after the founding of women's studies-the very departmental structures of disciplines that feminist scholarship has so carefully thought itself against?
This question gets to what I consider to be the contradiction at the heart of this forum's focus: that the current organization of knowledge, time, and resources (not to mention prestige) undermines the rigorous development of feminist interdisciplinary study. This is the case not because interdisciplinarity per se is now under assault in the university but, rather, because those identitybased knowledges that have used interdisciplinarity as one of their primary explanatory arguments have never ceased to be under siege. By this, I mean that the new knowledges that have emerged as intellectual extensions of radical social movements have not achieved a status equal to disciplinary projects-have not yet become in the organization of the university valid and distinguished "knowledges." Identity gives rise, in other words, not to a set of historically and theoretically significant issues (not, that is, to research agendas that push the envelope on what we mean by interdisciplinary study), but to management strate gies designed to deal effectively with the university's concern for "diversity." Here I am thinking of women's studies curricula that must rely on cross-listed courses, thereby achieving interdisciplinarity only at the level of the student and there only as an "effect" of the overall curricular plan. Or in those cases where interdisciplinary programs have achieved some kind of curricular autonomy, it is often the case that they have done so by becoming solo engines for undergraduate education, fulfilling campus breadth requirements of the "multicultural" kind. it is the disciplines, then, that provide the intellectual content for upper-division and graduate training while interdisciplinary units are consigned to a service function in managing diversity at the introductory level.
What's most odd about this situation is that it is often the very faculty affiliated with interdisciplinary units who will argue most vociferously against the kinds of developments-of undergraduate curriculum, full-time FTEs, Ph.D. programs, and departmentalization-that might give to interdisciplinary units the authority to claim interdisciplinarity as an intellectual project in its own right. This is a holdover from the earliest days of interdisciplinary formation, when the idea of marginality within the materiality of the institution mirrored an understanding of the political that placed marginal groups as both outside and against power. But certainly it is not the case that feminism, in particular, lacks power in the contemporary university; and it is not clear to me that we can continue to make claims for the importance of interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching without radically rethinking the composite relationship among identity knowledges, institutional resources, and the organization of disciplin es. Therefore instead of thinking: "What is feminist method?" (itself a disciplinary question), we might consider the ways in which method has served to guarantee the reproduction of disciplinary logics in both the sciences and social sciences, and how this methodological imperative is supplanted in many of the humanities by a focus on objects of study as the value term for disciplinary reproduction. Teaching our students how to think about the practices that have underwritten disciplinary guarantees to knowledge-rather than teaching our students how to partake in that guarantee-may be one way of producing a future of intellectual subjects who do not reproduce the disciplines as the material basis of the organization of knowledge that has shaped (I would venture to say) nearly every scholar reading this forum.
When Martin writes, then, that "[m]any feminist scholars find their departmental homes more capacious and invigorating than Women's Studies,"  we can read her observation not as evidence that women's studies has lost its critical intellectual edge but as an index of how powerfully the disciplines-cast here in the language of "home"-serve as the knowledge formations under which feminist intellectual subjects continue to be formed. To challenge this disciplinary belonging requires not simply a desire to think against the disciplines but also the material conditions and resources to foreground feminist interdisciplinary study as a critical project in its own right. What we need to do, if I can position my own assessment of the situation as an imperative for collective political aspirations, is to find new ways of arguing for interdisciplinarity that refuse its domestication as a service function for diversity in the contemporary university and that rigorously rethink the university's organization of knowledg e from institutional spaces that are committed, in fiscal resources, tenure, and promotion practices as well as curricula,, to interdisciplinarity. If we do not invest in the possibilities of institutional interdisciplinary spaces and the new intellectual subjects they we run form, we run the risk of mistaking feminism's critique of individual disciplines as the composite future of feminist knowledge itself.
Robyn Wiegman is the Margaret Taylor Smith Director of Women's Studies at Duke University. She has published American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender (Duke University Press, 1995) and three edited collections: Who Can Speak? Authority and Critical Identify (University of Illinois Press, 1995), Feminism Beside Itself (Routledge, 1995), and AIDS and the National Body: Writings by Thomas Yingling (Duke University Press, 1997). She is currently completing a manuscript called "Object Lessons: Feminism and the Knowledge Politics of Identity." Her textbook, Literature and Gender, was published by Longman in 1999.
(1.) See Tania Modleski, Feminism with out Women Culture and Criticism in a "Postfeminist" Age (New York: Routledge, 1991); Susan Gubar, What Ails Feminist Criticism?' Critical Inquiry 24 (summer 1998): 878-902; and Wendy Brown, "The Impossibility of Women's Studies," differences 9 (fall 1997): 79-101. Although its bibliographic citation is 1997, the Special issue on 'Women's Studies on the Edge" did not appear until late in 1998. For a lengthy critical response to Gubar, see my "What Ails Feminist Criticism? A Second Opinion," Critical Inquiry 25 (winter 1999): 3&2-79. See Brown, 83.
(2.) This is certainly one way to read Martha Nussbaum's "A Professor of Parody" (New Republic, 22 Feb. 1999, 3745), which attacks the entire body of Judith Butler's work for its political "quietism," which is to say,. in Nussbaum's words (p. 45), that "Hungry women are not fed by this, battered women are not sheltered by it, raped women do not find justice in it, gays and lesbians do' not achieve legal protections through it." This determination of the "real" of feminist politics significantly obviates Butler's critical intervention into philosophical discourses, rendering the academy outside of, if not against, the necessary politics of social transformation By reducing the effect of Butler's work to her own understanding of Butler's theoretical moves, Nussbaum reasserts the feminist political project as one unified around questions of state-based change. Forget that Butler and others, often under the sign of sexual identity, have been critical of just such a notion of proper leftist agendas.
(3.) I hope it is dear that these various critiques of institutionalizaton are contradictory, that scholars who ascribe to one may be wholly unconcerned with another, that there is no uniformity in the analysis of how and why institutionalization has gone wrong.
(4.) For an extensive discussion of what I call here "apocalyptic formulation," see my "Feminism's Apocalyptic Futures," New Literary History 31 (autumn 2000): 805-25.
(5.) Biddy Martin, "Success and Its Failures," differences 9 (fall 1997): 102. Martin's essay finally resists the apocalyptic formulation by challenging women's studies as a field formation to move outside of those knowledges that have historically been the center of its analysis, humanities and social sciences. "It would be naive and dangerous," she writes, "to think that the work of Women's Studies, or of feminism is over. The question is whether the work can be done in the context of the programs and intellectual formations we have established and institutionalized" (130).
(6.) Ibid., 103.
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|Date:||Jun 22, 2001|
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