One of the books I admire most about second wave feminism is Katie King’s Theory in its Feminist Travels. That notion of making disparate sources “speak” to one another is at the heart of my current book, The Politics of Women’s Culture, as I attempt to depict the bigger “conversations” going on about the women’s culture trope. However her more recent work has been equally influential. In a 2004 article preceding her soon to be (in paper already it appears) released book Networked Reenactments: Stories Transdisciplinary Knowledges (more on that here), King took up various history programs in the U.K. and U.S. as well museum exhibitions to explore making time in history making.
King’s work, along with Kath Weston’s on Gender In Real Time, motivated me to take down to the grassroots level these highly theoretical discussions as I attempt to discuss the divergences in women’s culture during the second half of the 1970s. As feminists lay waste to the sexist depiction of history, Raising Clio’s Consciousness and getting Up from the Pedestal, there remained a sort of critical vacuum as narratives of women’s liberation relied so heavily on women’s status in the past. Into the void stepped one of two options, the “reinsertion” of women into the story, or a complete recreation of the story itself.
In writing about historically informed art activist pieces created in the 1970s, I’ve been struggling with how to describe what they did. I’ve already written about the more conventional notions of sticking women into the story, but the more imaginative recreations and reclamations have been slippery. I took one tact at the Berks this past summer, which I enjoyed but that doesn’t quite fit into the present MS. Re-reading both Weston on Butler, and King on history making in non-academic arenas today provided the impetus I needed to rethink these projects.
Briefly, The Life and Times of Donaldina Cameron (TLTDC) involved artists Suzanne Lacy and Kathleen Chang “becoming” two “historical” figures, a “real” person, Donaldina Cameron and an “invented” one Leung Ken-Sun. In The Malta Project artists Cheri Gaulke and Anne Gauldin traveled to conduct on site a series of performances and rituals in/about Goddess worship in prehistory and its ruination by patriarchal Christianity in which Gaulke embodied a Christian priest and Gauldin became a priestess of a matriarchal Goddess.
King draws on a fascinating book, Hopkins’ A World Full of Gods, which presents a sort of historiography as televised faux-documentary that resulted when five scholars who began work on it couldn’t sort things out. King description of the resulting book, in which Hopkins writes history as well as about history making processes, as a “momentary melding of pastpresents in imaginative reenactment” could not more perfectly fit what Gaulke and Gualdin did in 1978 in TMP whereas her use of Handler and Gable‘s work on Colonial Williamsburg re-enactors “who are promised semiprofessional recognition within social historical practice but instead end up as engineers of a “feel good” atmosphere” pretty accurately sums up academic reactions to work like that of Suzanne Lacy and Kathleen Chang in TLTDC.
Hopkins’ context of a “real” “failed collaboration” is paralleled nicely in TLTDC. Chang and Lacy’s piece altered radically from Lacy’s original conception of working “alongside” Asian American feminists to explore the historical issue of white women rescuers of Chinese “prostitutes.” When Asian American feminist activists declined to participate in the project, Lacy, along with Chang, reconceived the piece as a metaphor for working across racial divides. The “discontinuities” “discursive practices” and “model of knowledge” all cited by Hopkins as issues that precipitated his failed collaboration also are pretty apt descriptions of why Lacy’s envisioned collaboration failed. Lacy and eventually Chang, embraced a notion of affinity with the past, a discourse of specific art activist practices, and a model of knowledge production that simply would not import, in this case across activist communities.
King’s reaction to the playing with notions of historical accuracy (L and C created a faux historical newspaper as part of their project as well as a fictionalized identity for Chang) sums up the divergences in the way history is “used,” by varying feminists in the 1970s, with similar results.
The “uses” of history here are alarmingly various in their political, epistemological, commercial, religious, and scholarly imports. Nor does history serve only the purposes of the so-called present: also, alarmingly, the past and present are simultaneous in this screenplay, so intermixed that directions of causation and influence cannot be linear and progressive.
In TLTDC history flows both forward and backwards. Adjudication of the past never occurs as it provides a springboard to the more germane issue, the inability of activists to cross various divides.
In a second case study King explores the “debunking” approach of Handler and Gable in regards to historical reenactment in Colonial Williamsburg. I was immediately reminded of the similarities in the approach taken by scholars critical of the uncelebratory uses of prehistory exemplified by TMP.
As King notes, the guise of presentism as a means of discrediting, alongside pretenses of notions of accuracy and objectivity are all simply means of elevating one historical standard over others. The idea of “debunking” rests on some idealized notion of “purifications” that serves some specific need (i.e. professionalism, academicization) when King claims
Processes of knowledge production conflated as “products” make academic capitalism another culture industry, partially privatized, partially funded by the state.
The government of Malta was quite hospitable to Gaulke and Gauldin precisely because they marketed their temple sites as tourist attractions, yet most feminist archaeologists and theologians could not run fast enough from the vision of history presented in The Malta Project. The knowledge production resulting from the artistic practices of Gauldin and Gaulke buttressed a certain vision of a specific state, while working against that in other knowledge communities, namely academic feminism in the United States.
Additionally, just as the lines of who controls what counts as history came into play over the debates about matriarchy, prehistory and the past, so too King notes of television’s “historical shows”
each “spectacle of production”–that is to say, their “dramas” contrived from setting communities of practice together in both staged and unexpected ways, with the lines of authoritative and alternate knowledges played out and recombined. Professional knowledges are elevated, while their boundaries are threatened; they are valorized and even democratized, but within melodramas of reenactment and experimentation.
The Matla Project invited/cajoled participants, the people of Malta and visiting artists, just as Lacy and Chang invited/incited their audience, to witness a sort of faux “historical” re-enactment, of that which may or may not have ever been. As evidentiary bases did not provide the epistemological foundation. Instead they utlized a different set of criteria completely for judging the past, the emotive, the intuitive, the evocative.
As King argues in her final case study, a discussion of the Smithsonian exhibition “Science in American Life,” visitors to the museum are invited to participate/position as
reenactors, shadows, witnesses, a play at being “there”: on set, on site, in that past, in a past–mentally enacting, reenacting, experimenting, speculating, trying to find evidence for various pastpresents.
Whose evidence? What pastpresent? Making history involves engaging with time, but also place and space. What happens when the terms are challenges, inverted, or dismissed?
Chronology becomes a tool for scale making, which allows for grained historical analyses of varying degrees, creating layers of “locals”: the day, the year, the decade, the century; for example, each describe a different grain for assessing the level of detail, particularity, locality. Scale making and chronology are engaging partners. Together they make what anthropologist Kath Weston calls “time claims.”
In both the pieces I write about, the artists are unfettered by the notion of specificity that hampered historians in the 1970s in regards to history as the ‘what happened in a specific place at given time.” They commit acts of willful anachronism seeking to reconcile colliding discourses in ways that are useful to them. At various times, the intersections of time, place and space are rendered differently. As the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan notes, there are three, not mutually exclusive, potential relationships between temporality and locality. “Time as motion or flow and place as a pause in the temporal current” is the notion of history as a timeline with specific moments being marked as significant via their inclusion. “Place as time made visible,” offers a more fixed notion of history, implying that something specific and significant happened at a particular time and place, which must be preserved or commemorated. Finally, “attachment to place as a function of time” reflects a notion of history as a series of moments that unfold in a specific location, ultimately rendering it significant
Audiences at various depictions of the past are invited to engage in what King, quoting Chela Sandoval, calls “differential movement” or quoting Kath Weston “modest witnessing …a place for regrouping in the wake of those moments when things come undone.”
Having unravelled the thread of history as it existed in 1976, these activists felt free to reinvent something more malleable and as a result set of on a path that within a few years would have them on the “wrong” side of the culture wars.