7th European Feminist Research Conference, Utrecht, 4-7 June 2009.
By Jonathan Dean (LSE Gender Institute)
Whilst much of Europe recoiled in the aftermath of the alarming election results, this huge gathering of feminist academics provided much needed intellectual respite from the current political and economic malaise. Utrecht, the fourth largest city in the Netherlands, supports a huge and well-resourced university, replete with an internationally renowned women’s and gender studies programme. A little worryingly, the British contingent was minimal, an unfortunate state of affairs given the avowedly transnational orientation of much contemporary feminist research. Despite the absence of Brits (indeed, the Netherlands and Scandinavia accounted for probably more than half the delegates), the sheer numbers of feminist researchers present (around 600 of us, apparently) and the conference’s glossy, professional veneer meant that this almost felt like the apotheosis of the feminist “long march through the institutions.”
As would be expected for such a large conference, the research topics covered were extremely wide ranging but, despite this, a number of recurrent themes popped up. Theoretically, there were recurrent expressions of dissatisfaction with a perceived dominance of feminist theory by the discursive at the expense of the material and, similarly, anthropocentric understandings of agency and politics. Consequently, a number of papers – in keynotes and panels – explored ways of re-engaging notions of materiality and non-human (or, rather, post-human) agency within feminist academic production. Several different approaches were suggested: Claire Colebrook, in a lucid and often witty keynote, drew largely on Deleuze to advance an “anti-organicist” understanding of agency, whilst a number of panel papers – as well as keynotes by Karen Barad (via video-link) and Amade M’charek – drew on aspects of genetics and feminist science studies to re-assess the role of materiality in feminist theory. This trend towards exploring ways of rethinking materiality in feminist theory (adding up a new movement dubbed the “new materialism” by some) is undoubtedly timely, but it seems particularly prone to produce confusion and befuddlement among the audience. As someone with a lamentable knowledge of the natural sciences, when Amade M’charek posted a cross section of a cell on a power-point slide, I felt like my ability to think across academic disciplines was being stretched to breaking point.
More within my disciplinary comfort zone was the very strong emphasis throughout the conference on troubling the boundaries between academic knowledge production and artistic creativity, with several keynotes and panels exploring the intersections of art and feminist politics. Included in the conference programme were feminist art exhibitions and excursions to local art museums and galleries, whilst one of the most intellectually impressive keynotes came from Griselda Pollock’s exploration of relations between trauma and feminist ethics via a psychoanalytic reading of some paintings by Israeli feminist artist Bracha L. Ettinger. However, much the most prominent manifestation of this was a half hour documentary in which up and coming Dutch hip hop artist Bad Brya was shown in conversation with several prominent Dutch women’s studies professors, culminating in the composition of a track entitled ‘What’s Up With Gender?,’ which was performed live in front of an appreciative audience (you can find it here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bu2LOXAs-8k).
Aside from these main themes, the keynotes were always excellent and at times sensational. Anne McClintock provided an immensely powerful, if rather saddening, feminist reading of the leaked Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo torture photos, whilst the intellectual highlight of the conference for me was undoubtedly Sara Ahmed’s wonderful reflections on the role of “happiness” in feminist theory and politics. The social highlight was the conference party in Utrecht city centre, in which the hypothesis that feminists can’t dance was resolutely falsified.
Towards the end of the conference, a new European gender studies network, AtGender, was launched amidst much fanfare, as was a new DVD, Rosi Braidotti: A Portrait, in which Braidotti recounts key aspects of her life story and her work. Much to my chagrin, we were not given a full screening, but rather just a selection of preview clips and a glass of champagne. Braidotti’s presence was felt throughout, and so it seemed appropriate that she was given the task of providing the closing remarks. As political apathy prevailed across Europe, Braidotti admonished both the populist left and the populist right for rejecting the cosmopolitan, social democratic Europe which she seemed to want the conference to embody. The event, to be sure, was glitzy, professional, diverse and inclusive, yet somehow, like the utopian vision of European social democracy Braidotti sought to advance, it felt a little too good to be true.