Media & Feminist Theory: Strategy: Dreams of a Common Language

Fusion is Possible…

Krista Geneviève Lynes

“We plead to each other,
we all come from the same rock
we all come from the same rock
ignoring the fact that we bend at different temperatures
that each of us is malleable
up to a point.

Yes, fusion is possible
but only if things get hot enough—
all else is temporary adhesion,
patching up” —Cherrie Moraga, “The Welder” [1]

In 1978, Adrienne Rich published The Dream of a Common Language, a collection of poems in which she reflected on the relation between love, power and consciousness. The collectivity she referenced here was fictive, hypothetical and utopian—quite literally a dream of a common language. The dream, of complex and emancipatory feminism(s), echoes Gayatri Spivak’s call in Death of a Discipline  for a collectivity to come as a result of one’s work, the join of feminist praxis with broad movements for social justice.[2] Both Rich and Spivak sought to stress the work involved in community-building, in spaces of social struggle, but at large also.

In this respect, the MA Media Studies Students in the Department of Communication Studies at Concordia University have been working creatively and passionately over the last several weeks to build a complex and emancipatory unity within the student movement. Their statements testify to their nuanced reflections on the differential access to education within the programme, the use of the term ‘strike’ and the historical resonances of the term within labour movements and other forms of collective action, and the need to engage actively with the community at large, faculty and staff. They have also—in their protest, media activism, public statements and organising—sought to give voice to the importance of creativity and diversity in university programmes across Québec and further afield.[3]

My Media & Feminist Theory course this week was meant to cover several readings articulating contemporary visions of the ‘dream of a common language.’ Coincident with this week’s readings, Concordia University sent out a “Notice: Obstruction of campus facilities and classrooms” to students and faculty.[4] The subtitle of this notice indicated it was a “Message to the Concordia Community about the Code of Rights and Responsibilities”. The appeal to ‘community’ in this subtitle begs the question of what kind of community was envisaged, protected, and/or shored up by this statement, and on what common ground the appeal to collectivity rested.

The Notice began by noting that “the majority of university activities have continued relatively unimpeded during ongoing student protests”. The tenor of this opening statement, it appears, is meant to indemnify a majority of student protesters from the “persistent disruptive activity in a limited number of areas”, and thus to separate out the majority of respectful protesters from “a minority of protesters who refuse to respect the rights of others”.[5] It thus couches the Notice within a broader language of support for peaceful demonstration and freedom of speech. Incidentally, the University’s position is bolstered by the comments (and ‘Likes’) on Concordia’s Facebook page, which also seem to indicate the larger student body’s support for such disruptive gestures, which are seen to prevent students from pursuing their education and entering classrooms.

There are several troubles, however, with this statement, written to (and presumably also on behalf of) the Concordia community. The first of these is that the behaviour the University is seeking to curb is precisely the kind of disruption which makes the strike efficacious. Should the striking students simply choose to demonstrate behind a cordon sanitaire, at a remove from classrooms and campus, the University could continue to adopt a ‘business as usual approach’ even as it supports freedom of speech among the striking students.  The University’s support for strike activities which are “the peaceful expression of divergent views within our community” thus innoculates it against the form and content of the student’s demands.

Far more troubling, however, is the vision of community valorized by the Notice. The foundations of the Notice are grounded in rights-based claims: that the protesting students have the right to ‘peaceful protest’, the professors and staff to ‘carry out their professional duties’, and students at large to ‘attend classes’. These rights are secured by the Code of Rights and Responsibilities and the Security Policy. What appears renounced in this Notice is the work of community-building, of devising a ‘common language’ resulting from exchange, dialogue, negotiation, wars of manoeuvre and wars of position. More than this, though, the Notice replaces the ‘dream of a common language’ posited by Rich and others with a ‘common language’ of a very different kind, which is all too common in the neoliberalisation of higher education: the very framework of individual rights the Notice articulates.

Donna Haraway’s early version of the ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ was entitled “The Ironic Dream of a Common Language for Women in the Integrated Circuit”. Here, she voices her suspicion regarding the focus on commonality as a basis for political struggle (that a common standpoint and a common goal can ground common action). At the same time, she offers a critique of a different and more pervasive ‘common language’, the logic of rationalization. She calls rationalization “the common coin through which all resistance to instrumental control disappears and all heterogeneity can be submitted to disassembly, reassembly, investment and exchange”.[6] In her terms, the logic of rationalization produces an “informatics of domination” (although it might also be called a “language of supremacy” qua Chela Sandoval).[7] The discourse of individual rights is present in much of the coverage of the student action. Kim Sawchuk provided an incisive analysis of one aggregious example—the proposal in the ‘News’ section of the Montreal Gazette proposing that demonstrators should be paying for security during student demonstrations (after one or two days) because otherwise Montreal taxpayers are paying for a group to demonstrate “effectively for profit”.[8] The effective erosion of the public sphere is grounded in an economic calculus that makes a mockery of the notion of ‘free speech’.

The necessary corrollary of the language of individual rights is the discourse of security (and hence the joining of the Code of Rights and Responsibilities with the Security Policy in the Notice to the Concordia community), which safeguards members of the community against one another, and particularly against unruly behaviour (the details of which remain sufficiently vague as to warrant calls to Security by faculty, staff and students alike). What remains an open question is what forms of activism, protest, creative engagement are tolerated by ‘the community’, and what effects such political forms can have on the very real demands voiced by the striking students.

The question of what constitutes an infraction opens up the question of power and knowledge, the rule-bound logics by which one becomes recognizable in the public sphere, counted and accounted for. But it also opens up onto the history of creative political action, the possibility of being unruly, of misbehaving to challenge specifically the inscriptive force of Haraway’s ‘informatics of domination’.

Certainly feminist activist art has always involved tactical interventions, presenting provocative images and statements (for example, Martha Rosler or Barbara Kruger), demonstrations (the new genre public art of Suzanne Lacy and others), or confrontational performances (Valie Export), distributing posters (the Guerrilla Girls), stickers and electronic messages (Jenny Holzer). Often, such activism borrows from the tactics of street theatre or guerrilla theatre. Amelia Jones has argued that “[a] more useful model for feminism […]  might be to think of the situational specificity of how particular acts, images, texts, structures, and body movements function”.[9]

This week, we were supposed to read together Rosi Braidotti’s work. One student, Katja Philipp (PhD student, Communications) suggested instead that members of the class hold an intervention, an art walk and silent march from the Concordia to UQAM campuses, and proposed that participants read Rosi Braidotti’s “The New Activism: A Plea for Affirmative Ethics”. In this article, Braidotti calls for the join of ‘affirmative ethics’, political activism and critical theory. In this article, she argues that feminism is “quite unique in having stressed the equal importance of creation and critique—in a double gesture that historically defines its specificity”.[10]

This creativity seeks to mobilize untapped desires and imagination, and to concretize such resources in material relations. The movement is not oppositional but affirmational, emerging out of a different set of premises, affects and conditions. As such, Braidotti articulates a mode of creative action which is both poetic and prefigurative, which seeks to found positive alternatives. In this vision, difference is not essential but a project or process, one which is in her terms ‘ethically coded’.[11]

The focus on the individual rights of the students (either to attend class or to protest) radically interrupts the efforts to speak across the diversity of the student body, and to imagine a collectivity in and through a nuanced account of difference. It renounces from the outset the sociality of academic space, and particularly of the classroom (not as an aggregate of individual students but as a collectivity in process). This rights-based discourse is intimately connected to the language of security, since self-possession is both a ‘natural right’ and guaranteed by the defense apparatuses (psychic, economic and physical) of contemporary society. The invitation that faculty, staff and students call Security in the Notice thus serves not only to ‘protect’ individual members of the community, but also to atomize that very community, and thus to support the vision of higher education proposed by the very tuition hikes the students are striking against.

I return to Donna Haraway, and specifically to her question, “What kind of politics could embrace partial, contradictory, permanently unclosed constructions of personal and collective selves and still be faithful, effective—and socialist feminist?” The question acknowledges the contradictory, processual and partial nature of collectivity, and yet does not renounce on the possibility of figuring a complex collectivity, in the poetic proposal not of a common language as a common denominator, but of a dream of a common language, a dream that requires creative encounters in the spirit of activist engagements through the last century and beyond.


[1] Cherrie Moraga, “The Welder” in This Bridge Called my Back. New York, Kitchen Table:  Women of Color Press, 1983: xi.

[2] See Krista Geneviève Lynes, “Collectivity and the Classroom without Guarantees”. http:// altunies.wordpress.com/2012/03/19/media-feminist-theory-strategy-collectivities-and-situated-knowledges/.

[5] Clearly, given the nuanced work of the MA Media Studies students, they would fall within the scope of the respectful members of the community, particularly given their committed labour to ‘respecting the rights of others’.

[9] Mary Flanagan, Jennifer A. González, Guerrilla Girls, Margo Machida, et al. “Feminist Activist Art, a Roundtable Forum, August 24-31, 2005”. Feminist Formations. Vol.19, No.1 (Spring 2007): 7.

[10] Rosi Braidotti, “The New Activism: A Plea for Affirmative Ethics” in Art and Activism in the Age of Globalization. NAi Publishers, 2011: 265.

[11] Ibid, 268.

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