This past weekend I had the privilege of attending and presenting some of my research at the National Women’s Studies Association’s annual conference. I’m still processing all of the wonderful difficult conversations I was witness and participant to in this space, but Sara Ahmed’s keynote speech at the conference resonates through all of it. Ahmed approached the conference theme of precarity through a long meditation on “Feminism and Fragility,” with persistent metaphors of breaking against walls. According to Ahmed: “So much is, so many are, involved in a breakage.” Despite their social nature, these walls are often invisible to those who aren’t pushed into them, leaving the meanings behind stories about breaking against walls often unintelligible to those who don’t share the experience. Believing in these walls is feminist work, as is honoring the expression and knowledge of those who reveal the walls we don’t see. Ahmed presents clumsiness—meaning an awareness and embrace of the “bumpiness” of equality—as the basis of a queer ethics. “Smoothness,” in this formulation, is a form of violent adjustment to a world with walls that are positioned to break one’s self. These walls harden history, and histories then themselves become walls. Ideas of the past become themselves the agents of breakage in the present.
I am unable to capture the breadth of Ahmed’s work here, but I would like to pause here to discuss the formulations I’ve referenced above as a breakage in popular conceits that reference the digital world as a space without walls. Many of us engaging the digital world in our best intentioned practices emphasize democratization of knowledge and information without institutional boundaries as a path away from the violent walls that are built of and around human difference. I know I am guilty of these formulations in my own work. Sara Ahmed’s observation, that “feminist theory taught me that reality is usually just someone else’s tired observation” interrupts this project of rebuilding knowledge structures by forcing us to consider our own situated selves and the necessary epistemic violence of all claims to knowledge of the past and the present. As a historian, I find this work particularly jarring, but also profoundly necessary. If, as Ahmed argues, “the histories that bring us to feminism are often those that leave us fragile,” effective feminist work might come from making those fragilities visible, and from refusing to harden them in place. As a historian, I have been trained in an awareness that no information can exist outside of narrative. As a feminist, I have been trained to question those narratives, and to preserve their essential messy elasticity. Ahmed warns, “working at an institution can mean inhabiting whiteness.” This is my reality, and these are the walls that smooth a path for my own practices.
As we work for the Cultural Heritage Informatics Initiative, we work inside of the massive institution of this university and universities writ large, and we are necessarily constrained and informed by the politics of that positionality. I, for one, will bear in mind Ahmed’s definition of non-performativity—the condition by which “something is named in order to not bring something into effect”—as I pursue my own specifically naïve project goals of democratizing knowledge and expanding archives. I will attempt to be attentive to and explicit in naming the walls my own project builds or buttresses, and to call attention to the fact that not all walls provide evidence of themselves. As Ahmed warns, “coming up against the wall, you come up against what others are invested in not noticing.” Disrupting toxic institutions is, in this sense, a project of making these walls widely visible as they build the intelligible boundaries of even digital space.