“Feminist Futures” Class Review

By Audrey Sage Lorberfeld, Digital Technical Specialist

For three hours each Monday evening, January 30 through February 20, the Academy hosted a Brooklyn Institute for Social Research class called Feminist Futures, for which I was lucky enough to be the staff liaison. My classmates ran the gamut from PhD students to artists to professors to web developers to librarians and archivists. Our professor, Danya Glabau, guided us through the intellectual history of the intersection of science studies and feminist theory. Professor Glabau’s syllabus included the writings of such luminaries as Donna Haraway, Bruno Latour, Evelyn Fox Keller, and Emily Martin. To complement these readings, the Academy was able to provide some of its own treasures as well.

One such item was the Traité d’osteologié, published in 1759 with text by the Scottish anatomist Alexander Monro and illustrations supervised by Marie Geneviève Charlotte Thiroux D’Arconville.  D’Arconville studied anatomy at the Jardin Du Roi and translated Monro’s earlier text into French for this volume. Although her name does not appear anywhere in the text (her plates were published under the protection of Jean-Jacques Sue, a member of the French Royal Academy), it is generally accepted that d’Arconville is the hand behind the gorgeous images. Among her plates are incredible depictions of male and female skeletons that display features associated with each gender. She renders the male skeleton as large and statuesque and places him in front of a backdrop of Classical architecture. Her female skeleton, on the other hand, is more petite and stands in a less assertive position. Noticeably, her rib cage is extremely narrow while her wide hips and pelvis are very emphasized. There is speculation that the image of a narrow rib cage is meant to associate the skeleton with upper class women who usually wore corsets.

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Female skeleton from Traité d’osteologié (1759)

Paired with this item for a unit titled “Feminist Objectivity” were Donna Haraway’s “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Karen Barad’s “Meeting the Universe Halfway: Realism and Social Constructivism Without Contradiction,” and Michelle Murphy’s “Immodest Witnessing: The Epistemology of Vaginal Self-Examination in the U.S. Feminist Self-Help Movement.” Among other topics, we guessed at what our authors might have thought of today’s quantified-self movement and whether or not data about the self could be categorized as an extension of that self. Further, we asked: what happens to this paradigm when you engage with its exponential commodification? Could self-awareness excuse the self from the ‘wrong type’ of objectification? We also spent a significant part of the class analyzing what Haraway’s idea of “seeing from below” might mean in our current political climate.[1] We queried, is it possible to adopt Haraway’s type of situated knowledge and avoid being ableist?

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“Feminist Futures” class taking place at the Academy.Image source: Suzanne Schneider, Director of Operations and Core Faculty at Brooklyn Institute for Social Research.

One of my favorite quotes from this part of the course was “rational knowledge does not pretend to disengagement.”[2] I took this to mean that pushing for a type of feminist objectivity that highlights seeing from below and/or something Barad calls “agential realism” does not mean that you are disengaging from your subject.[3] Rather, it means that you are striving towards a feminist typology of embodiment that focuses its recuperative energies on welcoming emotions and relationships as data, all the while keeping in mind that “no knowledge is innocent.”[4] This was a very powerful idea to me as a woman working at the Academy in a nexus of technology, history, and public service.

We rounded out the class with a viewing of Crania America, a book published in 1889 by Samuel George Morton, a famed phrenologist. Included in his tome are illustrations of different race’s skulls along with commentary on their corresponding mental abilities. He describes his project as demonstrating that  “a particular size and form of brain is the invariable concomitant of particular dispositions and talents, and that this fact holds good in the case of nations as well as of individuals.”[5] He goes onto say that:

A knowledge of the size of the brain, and the proportions of its different parts, in the different varieties of the human race, will be the key to a correct appreciation of the differences in their natural mental endowments, on which external circumstances act only as modifying influences….[5]

As you can imagine, this item generated a passionate conversation. Highlights included discovering that the roots of cybernetics (a field which began in WWII) come from the ancient Greek adjective κυβερνητικός, meaning ‘good at steering’ (n.b. the militaristic and authoritative implications); the theory behind Chela Sandoval’s term “US third-world feminist”; and the layered irony within our assigned texts regarding authority and boundaries.

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Skull from Crania America (1889)

While this course was challenging, we made sure to keep the conversation approachable and friendly. This litmus test of a Brooklyn Institute for Social Research-The New York Academy of Medicine Library collaboration solidified our belief that:

Together [our two institutions] can make the histories, presents, and futures of science and technology relevant to the lives of work adults, supporting the development of knowledge and interest in these crucial aspects of our complex and ever-changing society. (Professor Glabau)

We hope you join us next time!

References:

[1] Haraway D. Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. Feminist Studies. 1988; 14(3): 575-599. (Quote on p.583).
[2] Haraway D. Simians, cyborgs, and women: the reinvention of nature. New York: Routledge;1991. (Quote on p. 196).
[3] Barad K. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Realism and Social Constructivism without Contradiction. Feminism, Science, and the Philosophy of Science. 1996;256: 161-194. (Quote on p.179).
[4] Warren K, Cheney J. Ecological Feminism and Ecosystem Ecology. Hypatia. 1991;6(1): 179-197. (Quote on p. 191).
[5] Morton S. Crania americana. Philadelphia: London, J. Dobson; Simpkin, Marshall & Co;1839. (Quote on p. 274).