Situating gender research: thoughts from a feminist conference
Since my last blog post, I relocated again and I am now writing from Bucharest, where I will stay until the end of July for my last secondment, hosted by tranzit.ro/Bucuresti. I feel it would be premature to share any considerations about the city and the local artistic panorama, but I have already had the opportunity to appreciate the kindness and expertise of Raluca Voinea, co-director of the Association, and to meet with some artists and practitioners, engaging in stimulating exchanges and opening myself to new trajectories and perspectives. I will have the opportunity to share a more complete and cohesive reflection on the city and the secondments experience in the upcoming months.
In this post, instead, I want to briefly reflect on my participation in the 11th European Feminist Research Conference (15-18 June 2022), titled Social Change in a Feminist Perspective: Situating Gender Research in Times of Political Contention, at University of Milano-Bicocca in Milan, Italy. Articulated through ten thematic strands, round tables, workshops and keynote presentations, the conference brought together researchers coming and operating from different parts of Europe, thus generating a great picture of the current state of feminist research across sectors, countries, departments, and subjects.
As part of the panel Filmmaking, Performing Arts, and Politics, I presented a paper titled ‘This Is Making Me Uncomfortable: Rethinking the Generative Capacity of Discomfort as a Tool of (Artistic) Collective Prefiguration’. Negative emotions, such as shame or distress, play a crucial role in biopolitical subjectivisation. The social – and economic – need for integration requires people to regulate moods and behaviours, reproducing hegemonic power relations. Building on pre-existing affective history, gendered and racialised subjects are expected to perform significant emotional labour to attune to the dominant mood and uphold a general sense of comfort. As with reproductive labour, this too has to be made invisible to preserve the emotionally sanitised social space and prevent any friction or violent reaction. Conflictual feelings are similarly overlooked even within collective emancipatory processes in favour of empathy and consensus. The hypothesis put forward in the paper is then to move away from cohesion to explore the potential of discomfort as a tool for political organisation, especially when turned into a collective endeavour. Following Sara Ahmed’s description of discomfort, I employ the term to denote an affective state of uneasiness and vulnerability in relation to distressing contexts. Hence, discomfort is not assumed as a topic but as a practice, which can then be articulated in different forms and purposes.
Feminist artists have often incorporated discomfort into their practice to deconstruct and denaturalise gendered, classed and/or racialised roles and identities and express the alienation inherent in reproductive labour. Tapping into this lineage, I discuss projects by Valentina Desideri and Denise Ferreira da Silva, the Feminist Health Care Research Group, and Manual Labours, in which the practice of discomfort moves away from the realm of representation and singularity to become a space for collective creation and mutual support. Drawing from their work, I suggest that operating through discomfort as a collective practice might represent an opportunity of aesthetic-political prefiguration, operating on both intimate and structural levels, which detracts affects from processes of commodification and enables other forms of subjectivation and relation. In the given examples, prefiguration occurs through the creation of new social structures and forms of organising, the elaboration of new vocabularies and the resignification of existing affective spheres. In the case of Manual Labours, the political-creative action directly infiltrates reality through self-organised policymaking. Furthermore, the (affective) labour of enquiry, discussion, and elaboration is exposed and socialised among the participants, who jointly define the terms of their engagement and responsibility. Moving away from neoliberal toxic positivity or ‘feel good’ rhetoric around participation and care, to endure discomfort collectively, unpacking its social and political connotations and socialising the labour that derives from it, might open a space for more sustainable, honest, and generative forms of creative and political work.
The conference offered me an interdisciplinary, intersectional, and transgenerational context in which to connect with other researchers and get to know other research trajectories, even outside my specific field. It was particularly stimulating to observe the different ethical and political positions that, although all drawing from feminist politics, met and sometimes clashed, reproducing existing tensions and contradictions. In some of the presentations and discussions, I perceived the difficulty of tracing operative genealogies, which elude strengthening essentialist or exclusionary positions. However, these were rare instances compared to the broader affinity perceived in this group of more than six hundred participants and in the detectible alliances; the inspiring contributions and conversations, challenging hegemonic epistemologies and practices; the capacity to rethink and produce our own tools and knowledges, inside and outside the institutions.
Still, it has been inevitable to wonder what it means to organise and participate in a feminist conference. It is important to note that academic conferences are generally restricted environments, operating according to neoliberal institutional mechanisms that structurally prevent or hinder access to other subjectivities. This necessarily collides with the values and principles that should guide feminist practices. An irredeemable friction that has characterised the recognition of these issues within the academy from the beginning, as described by bell hooks in Feminism Is for Everybody:
By the late ’70s women’s studies was on its way to becoming an accepted academic discipline. This triumph overshadowed the fact that many of the women who had paved the way for the institutionalization of women’s studies were fired because they had master’s degrees and not doctorates. […] Before too long the women’s studies classroom had replaced the free-for-all consciousness-raising group. Whereas women from various backgrounds, those who worked solely as housewives or in service jobs, and big-time professional women, could be found in diverse consciousness-raising groups, the academy was and remains a site of class privilege.
Hence, I want to reiterate the great privilege that persists in the possibility of taking part in these type of events, and their essential partiality in reflecting current urgencies and practices. Over those same days, I had the opportunity to visit feminist social spaces around the city – both historical and more recent – and encounter other activists, some of whom I had also met and listened to in the conference. While appreciating and recognising the value of these moments and the great contribution given by scholars and researchers to the dissemination of feminist knowledge, it is crucial to remember the roots of feminist politics and acknowledge all the people, the groups, the places where it actually flourishes and expands, in the margins of the official institutional circuits.
 S. Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotions, Edinburgh University Press, 2004; S. Ahmed, ‘Affective Economies’, Social Text, 79, vol. 22, n. 2, Summer 2004
 “To feel uncomfortable is precisely to be affected by that which persists in the shaping of bodies and lives. Discomfort is hence not about assimilation or resistance, but about inhabiting norms differently.” in S. Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotions, Edinburgh University Press, 2004, p. 155
 bell hooks, Feminism Is for Everybody: Passionate Politics, Cambridge, South End Press, 2000, pp. 9-10