Nonlinear Histories of Feminism

My interest in feminism is fairly limited. But I still enjoy engaging with feminist scholarship — it’s self-reflexive, usually intrepid and normally quite accessible. Furthermore, feminist scholarship has a creativeness to it, an intellectual restlessness. And when these features are turned to towards the feminist movement’s recent past, it animates a set of themes of interest to historians, such as chronology, causality and time. It is these issues that I want to probe in this post, using recent debates on the history of feminism as a conduit for thinking about historical narrative.

Traditionally, the history of feminism has been written with reference to waves — first-wave, second-wave, etc. Yet this narrative has been subject to several criticisms, most recently by Victoria Browne.9781137413154 In Feminism, Time, and Nonlinear History, she argues that there is a Whiggish, ‘progressive’ model of time inherent to the traditional history of feminism, where it is assumed that each wave supersedes, and thereby improves upon, the previous one. Amongst other things, Browne suggests that this approach limits the radical potential of certain sections of the feminism movement — schisms are created between feminists of different generations, whilst any attempt to re-animate, or learn from, past waves is perceived as backwards or anachronistic. Feminism, Time, and Nonlinear History therefore advocates for a less restrictive understanding of time, one that acknowledges nonlinearity and respects the different ways in which events are experienced, understood, become resonant. Browne contends that feminists need to develop a more nuanced approach to history, dispensing with notions of linearity and continuity in favour of repetition, reinvention or re-appropriation.

There is promise in Browne’s work (a full review of which an be found here). I am especially taken with her discussion on the need to rethink the linearity of time and accept that temporality can move in multiple directions. Her comments connect with a similar argument made by Claire Colebrook, who has also critiqued the Whiggish narrative of feminism. Yet Colebrook stresses a different way of reading history to Browne, one that is reliant on a Deleuzean theory of time (c.f., Browne’s criticisms of Deleuze).

What Colebrook calls ‘stratigraphic time’ refers to the potential for each event to be both of its time and thoroughly untimely: an event, she argues, can follow others events in a chronological sequence, but can also reconfigure that sequence in new ways. Think of the archetypical artist, to take one hypothetical example. Let’s say her work is largely unappreciated and ignored during her lifetime. But let’s also say that the occasion of her death imbibes her earlier work with fresh significance and meaning. Her death is thus an event in time, which followed others events in a chronological sequence; but it also possessed a potential to retroactively animate earlier events, the artist’s life and artwork.

Moreover, consider the examples used by Colebrook. She argues that the creation of new philosophical concepts like subjectivity were products of their time, but allowed the re-reading of earlier philosophical texts with this new knowledge in mind (e.g., Plato could now be read by someone interested in subject-positions). Likewise, capitalism is/was a product of its time and followed feudalism in a chronological sequence. Yet capitalism was also able to fold time back upon itself, for it was only after its emergence that we could reinterpret earlier feudal societies in terms of the concepts capitalism prized (e.g., the exchange of labour) or created (e.g., the modern family).

By relying on this reading of stratigraphic time, Colebrook is able to argue for a different role for the past in the feminist movement’s present. The past need not simply be disconnected or studied in isolation from the present. Feminism can be both historicist and counter-historicist — it can contextualise texts but also read them anew, from new perspectives and with recourse to different values. In so doing, the past can be affirmative, productive even: we can read earlier texts ‘not according to the time within which [they] occurred to a time [they] might enable.’ The past can animate new futures.

Now, I have little to say on Browne/Colebrook’s contribution to feminist debate: I am not a card-carrying member of the movement, and, were they written down, my feminist credentials could not fill the back of a postage-stamp. But there’s an obvious spillover between the history of feminism and the writing of history more broadly. My attraction to Browne and Colebrook is that they both challenge the idea of time as linear, singular and infinite. But, more significantly, they decouple temporality from causality — e.g., just because third-wave follows second-wave feminism chronologically does not mean that the former cannot operate on the latter, cannot imbibe it with new meanings, new values. The implications of this debate on history-writing are wide-ranging (imagine composing a historical narrative that privileged the retroactive movement of causality, of the way in which time folds continuously back upon itself). It’s for this reason that I remain an avid reader of feminist philosophy: it has a heuristic value, an ability to produce new ways of knowing, thinking, becoming. If we let it, feminist debates over history can fold back upon, and radically transform, how we write history.


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