Blog, Interviews

Telling Stories Differently: An Interview with Clare Hemmings

Professor Clare Hemmings works in the Department of Gender Studies at the London School of Economics. At a recent event in Amsterdam, Duygu Erbil and Clara Vlessing from SNS got the chance to ask Professor Hemmings a couple of questions about the relationship between her work and life writing.

Professor Hemmings

Student and New Scholar Network (SNS): The International Auto/Biography Association and New Scholars Network (IABA SNS) is a community of students and early career scholars interested in life writing practice and scholarship.

We wondered, how would you position your work in relation to the study and theory of life writing?

Clare Hemmings (CH): Thanks for interviewing me for the blog! I guess the first thing to say is that I come out of literary studies as an undergraduate and then I moved into feminist studies. So, I’ve done quite a bit of work on life writing in one way or another but that’s not my main area of focus.

The main area of overlap for me is in the question of storytelling, memoir, and histories of thinking about gender, sexuality, race, and class. Where life writing comes into that is though my interest in the contradictions that form the fabric of anybody’s life narrative, not as something that needs to be ironed over or in some way straightened out, but actually as the stuff of a life worth attending to and as the nature of how storytelling works.

I’m interested in the tensions between a mode in which the contradictions of memory all crowd in on you in one go, and the demands of narrative which push towards coherence. The demands of the form are at odds with the ways in which we experience our own stories, or the ways in which we experience other people’s stories. My particular interests then – in thinking about how we tell stories about changing gendered habits over time, for example – draw on that difference between contradiction and form. I tried to make this difference central to what I say in Why Stories Matter, where I argue for telling stories differently.

SNS: In your recent blog “In Praise of Revolutionary Feminism” for the LSE UCU Strike Archive you draw on Emma Goldman, Angela Davis, and Leslie Feinberg as revolutionary feminists who have lived, what some might call, “exemplary” lives.

Through our own work on memory and activism, we often encounter a debate between those who promote stories of exemplary lives to inspire activists, and concerns that such stories risk reinforcing a “great men” version of history and cannot give meaningful insights about -or direction to- collective political practices.

What is your reaction to such debates? How would you frame your own use of feminist lives?

CH: I’m so happy that you’ve seen that blog! It came out of a strike action at the London School of Economics and a group of people teaching in the Gender Department wanting to do teach-outs, where we introduce students and each other to lives and work of revolutionary feminists. What was interesting about that was the attempt to kind of narrate the ‘extraordinary life’ and the realization that you can only do that through examining the intersections between different causes – so in Feinberg’s case thinking about the links between left and union activism and trans activisms.

The most exemplary lives that I can think of within that framework are those that attend to at least two aspects of social transformation. I suppose even in that framework you have to multiply what people are specifically interested in, in order to see the complexity. Emma Goldman has a similar kind of set of contradictions that she takes with her everywhere.

There is something about the pull of exceptional lives that is very affective for people like me who just live ordinary lives. There is something about the inspiration they provide that isn’t about expecting to be like that person but is actually about a production of affect: like an awe or a yearning or a kind of wonder that produces an ethical relationship to politics. That isn’t only about what’s possible to do strategically but what’s possible to think. Even if it can’t be. How do these extraordinary lives enable us to think differently?

SNS: Both in Considering Emma Goldman and in today’s lecture, you turn to creative life writing to supplement your analysis. Elsewhere in your work you use the term “stories” to cover both fiction and non-fiction.

Why blur the fictional and non-fictional (both in your work and in your terminology)? What are the benefits and limitations of creative writing in academic work?

CH: You know I think there is something about failure… I think so many academics (and I think I’m probably one as well) have actually wished that they were novelists or think of the novelist as the absolute example of genius: being able to tell something in a way that doesn’t require persuasion but requires or invites immersion in another world.

What I love the most fiction-wise is where I am so completely immersed in that world that I’m not aware of being continuously drawn in. That feeling of pleasure in the voice of the fiction writer is something that I have always loved to read but I’ve also thought was missing from a lot of academic work: in terms of the craft of writing that engages an audience and has the capacity to hold the person, and help them imagine another world. People like Lauren Berlant or Gloria Anzaldua or Judith Butler are able to somehow do that – either without any form of fiction or in Anzaldua’s case with combining fiction and academic narrative.

Feminists of colour, queer writers (who are very influential for the fields I work in) are often in and out of academic, poetic or fiction writing. I’m thinking historically of Audre Lorde, as well as Adrienne Rich. That was hugely influential for me as an emerging queer feminist scholar. How do you generate a world that you invite other people into, even if it is only temporary? Because of that I’ve always thought of theory as also a form of storytelling.

So, it’s almost the other way around: I think of the generic – of talking to one another or writing – as always a question of storytelling. I think of theory as a way of trying to tell a story from a level of analysis. In that sense I like to think of high theory as fictionalizing because of the way in which it tells a story that you’re asked to enter into and suspend your disbelief. Some of the most persuasive philosophy does that, like the beginning of Gender Trouble: “Ok let’s imagine that gender does not emerge from sex, but that sex is an effect of gender”. It says, “I know you don’t believe me but let me tell you a story so that what I’m saying becomes plausible”. There is something very pleasurable about thinking about story as a way to engage with other people’s ideas that isn’t only about critique, that is also about generosity.

SNS: In the past few months, you’ve been involved in strike actions with the UCU. The increasingly precarious state of academic jobs is a problem around the world (including in the Netherlands where we are currently), particularly affecting new scholars. 

Following on from your work on “memory archives”, where would you locate the memory archives of the academic labour struggle? Are there particular stories in the struggle against the neoliberal university that other generations might not be aware of?

CH: That’s a great question and a tough one! Isn’t it awful the ways in which academic casualisation, inequality, precarity, erosion of pensions and security and so on, is now the norm in academic institutions? Of course, it’s not surprising because that’s one of the things that happens with the feminisation of any sector. So somehow this fantasy of “it used to be better” is also a very appealing fiction.

Well to some extend that’s true. But, of course, that was partly based on academia being ‘minority’. The kind of benefits of professional academic life were largely predicated on it being a white male profession. The moment you open access up you also end up with this increased precarity. Both because of the devaluing of gendered, of colour, working class labour, but also because of the expansion of higher education without increased resourcing.

I think some of the earlier critiques of neoliberalisation of the academy remain pertinent here. And of course, the critiques of the academy by black feminist theorists: Gail Lewis and Paul Gilroy in the UK, Francoise Verges in France, Gloria Wekker in the Netherlands and so on. These Black feminist critiques are also of the ways in which academic practice is so restricted and limited that it can’t necessarily accommodate difference or diversity, from an intersectional perspective.

One thing that is very difficult is drawing on those old critiques to say that we don’t just want a university that isn’t precarious. We want a university that also challenges disciplinary boundaries, methodological reductionism and histories of hierarchy. Because it’s those restricted understandings of knowledge that are also challenged by the expansion of higher education and unless you make those challenges you end up with a reduced workforce that’s just put-upon and abused.

What is really heart-warming around the current generation of activism, within and outside of universities, is the refusal to except its ivory tower thinking (in terms of disciplinary divisions and knowledge production), and focusing too on other sites of engagement as important for knowledge generation. Sites like activism, but also artistic and visual culture, use of social media, different forms of poetry and prose and so on. I think increasingly with the cost of higher education and the fact that it’s incredibly precarious, that people are looking to other areas for being able to do innovative, interesting work.

For those of us fully institutionalised in academia like me, that’s also a really important lesson: to not always think that where change is going to happen is going to be where you are. Academic production on climate change, for example, is decades behind the activist knowledge about that. One can learn from activists but also learn from the people who have always straddled those areas of activist, poetic, academic production, which has challenged those disciplinary boundaries as well!

We need a fuller challenge to the ways in which higher education works as a whole, and I think the decolonising movement – lead by dissatisfied and politicised students – has been raising those questions most forcefully in the UK.

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