“Reflections on the Performativity of Knowledge
and the Changing Urban Landscape”
- Browne, Chapter 11 in Moss & Falconer Al-Hindi (pp. 140-148)
- Roelvink (2011) Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and the imagining of diverse economic possibilities, Progress in Human Geography, 35, pp. 125-127
- Houston, McLean, Hyndman & Jamal (2010) Still methodologically becoming: collaboration, feminist politics and ‘Team Ismaili’, Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, 17, pp. 61-79
- Modlich (2012) Women Plan Toronto (1985 – 2000) and Toronto Women’s City Alliance (2004 – and struggling on): Experiences and lessons, Universitas Forum, 3
For those who would like to write a Reading Response for Nov 28, here are four questions that you may consider to prompt your writing:
- Kath Browne’s critical engagement with feminist geography aims to draw attention to the ways that power and privilege function even within a sub-discipline that is self-consciously focused on destabilizing dominant relations of power. Her comments remind us that manifestations of power can be obvious and oblique, and that even (especially?) those who are committed to social justice work must constantly interrogate their own complicity and ability to reproduce hegemonic power relations. (See also de Leeuw, Cameron & Greenwood’s work on the “good intentions” within community-based research with Indigenous peoples.) How do you interpret Browne’s critique in relation to other material(s) we have read this semester? Put another way, does this critique resonate, or does it demonstrate gaps in other text(s)?
- Houston et al offer a rare look into the mechanisms of collaborative research, which provide insights into the ways that power is reproduced and challenged through the on-the-ground research practices (eg, who is responsible for interviewing? Who “owns” or has access to the data?). What does this reflection tell you about the way that knowledge is produced through the practice of research?
- In Roelvink’s contribution to the forum on Eve Sedgwick’s work, she focuses on Sedgwick’s argument that knowledge is performative (and the effect this argument has had on research into diverse economies). In short, “knowledge as performative” means that the analyses we produce (and the ways we bring research into being) have an affective result, one which “limits and/or facilitates possibility” (p. 127). Reflect on your experience of university education as it relates to Roelvink’s commentary. How has the knowledge you’ve acquired had performative effects?
- What lessons from Modlich’s description of WPT/TWCA are applicable to our semester-long discussion about social inclusion in cities and attempts to craft feminist urban futures?
We began the semester by exploring feminist geographies, both as a field of inquiry and as a framework to examine urban social inclusion. In this meeting, our last of the course, we reflect on what this field/ framework has offered, or how it has enabled a particular mode for considering feminist urban futures.
As a field of inquiry, feminist geographies offer the space to engage a cross-disciplinary set of questions about social justice and social inclusion in cities. From considerations of housing policy to discussions of embodied memories and attachments to place, feminist geographies allow us to bring together seemingly disparate conversations about urban change. In turn, this newly unified set of stories can be brought to bear on what it means to negotiate and craft a life in the city.
Because this field began out of a desire to attend to the experiences of women and marginalized groups and to dismantle dominant power relations, feminist geographies ask us to foreground questions of power. This means interrogating how power is reproduced in mundane and exceptional ways and examining how power and challenges to power are contingent on multiple, intersecting factors (from the ways that economic trends are translated into policy to the ways that fear is perpetuated through discourses of social difference). As Kath Browne’s chapter reminds us, however, feminist geographies need to check themselves for their own (unintentional) boundary setting practices that exclude certain topics/ bodies/ forms of analysis. While some may perceive this demand for critical reflexive practice as a challenge to a field that is itself on the margins of disciplinary geography, Browne frames this demand in a generative way, noting that recognizing privilege can “enable possibilities for productive exchanges, questioning contemporary orthodoxies, and contesting specific relations of power” (p 147).
In fact, this quote (and Browne’s chapter generally) gets to the essence of the field itself and thus provides an important reminder to feminist geographers to critically reflect on the knowledge they produce, the research/ analytical practices they employ to produce that knowledge, and their very mundane workplace practices. Browne’s comment on workplace practices is significant in terms of producing inclusive spaces. As many of you have noted in class, seemingly innocent questions (about identity, for example) eat away at feelings of safety and belonging. Many of you have talked about the ways that the questions, “Where are you from? But where are you really from?”, serve to produce palpable boundaries between an in-group and a group of “others”. Such questions bring into being both the boundaries and the groups (real and imagined though they are).
Interrogating power and privilege within our own work is akin to making the invisible visible: it requires us to refuse the logics that stabilize power. It demands that we see and tease apart the ways that privilege operates and is produced as “common sense”. Rebecca Solnit’s writing ranks among my favourite in her ability to do this work. [This is just one of so many examples.]
Yet, there is also something to be said for how we conduct and represent our analyses. This is the focus of Gerda Roelvink’s essay about the ways Eve Sedgwick’s work has been taken up by economic geographers. Roelvink demonstrates the influence that Sedgwick’s theorisations about the performativity of knowledge have had on those, like JK Gibson-Graham, who try to re-think and intervene in uneven development. Sedgwick compels us to consider the work that our scholarship and activism does in the world: do we critique for the sake of criticism, or is our critique productive? Does our critique reproduce the very problems that we seek to dismantle? Again, these questions demand that feminist geographies -and feminist activism- are reflexive about the very ways they are brought into being.
Houston et al’s article about ‘Team Ismaili’ offers a similar but distinct window on questions of reflexive research practice. This text is an example of a rare behind-the-scenes discussion about the mundane logistics, ethical considerations, intellectual collaborations, and interpersonal relationships that are all part of the research process. For me, its focus on practicalities and honest reflections about what succeeded and what failed miserably exemplifies what I have come to love about feminist research: that it teaches not just through the expounding and application of theory but also by exploring, without hesitation, lessons (wins and losses) from the field. This is the kind of scholarship that can only improve our efforts to be ethical and reflexive in our work (and it foreshadows the kind of conversation that will occur next semester in my Qualitative Methods course!)
Finally, the Modlich text grounds our discussion in another example of social activism aimed at the creation of feminist urban futures. On the one hand, this text provides ample evidence of how women can affect social change in small and large ways. Women Plan Toronto’s workshops and publications had effects both on the people involved and on a wider audience of planners, policymakers, Toronto Star readers, etc., and their work continues to serve as a model for feminist urban activism being conducted across Canada and elsewhere. On the other hand, this text signals (albeit unintentionally) its pitfalls through its very representation. By locating women’s activism within the familiar narratives of consciousness raising and Betty Friedan, Modlich tells a particular version of which women’s lives were foregrounded in the efforts to include women’s voices in planning and designing the city. While the more recent iteration, TWCA, is said to “reflect far more accurately the full range of diverse women and girls living in Toronto” ( end of p. 5), the framing of its history remains a concern because it implies a narrow, unconsciously racialised framework that facilitates a certain kind of activism while ignoring how power and privilege operate within its own structures. As the other readings for today suggest, attending to this gap is fundamental to any effort to produce progressive social change.