As a sixteen year old girl I slept each night under a poster of Billy Idol. The refrain from his biggest hit Rebel Yell kept echoing through my mind as I wrote this book review of Katie King’s Networked Reenactments: Stories Transdisciplinary Knowledges Tell.
The mental collision of my 16 year old and almost 44 year old selves is an example of King’s idea of pastpresents “in which pasts and presents very literally mutually construct each other.” That historians drag the present into the past is largely considered a bad thing, even as we historians recognize that my two selves of course are contained within one body. How the presence of the present working on the past can be construed not as “presentism” but as the ability to deal with multiplicities is a good way for historians to approach this book, and they should all read it. However, in this review, I want to focus on why academic feminists should also pick it up.
Scholars familiar with Katie King’s first book Theory in its Feminist Travels might be surprised that her the title of her latest seems to have no references to gender or feminism. Fear not, between the first chapter on “Xena feminism” and the conclusion “Toward a Plea for a Feminist Transdisciplinary Posthumanities” King offers plenty of insights ripe for application to and by feminists interested in the politics and practices of knowledges production.
King describes hers as
a funny kind of feminism … oddly relative, oddly decentered, oddly grounded. Relational or differential, I and others might call it.
The “feminism” envisioned here is one of “more, and more, and more” which is going to be difficult for people who wish to find the goal, the endpoint, the target to accept.
King recognizes this, noting that
for many feminisms one risk here is somehow turning out on the wrong ‘side.’ The side I don’t want to be on is the one that substitutes metric accountability for messy reworked ‘mature’ trust or substitutes standardized policies for contingent practices worked out in good faith.
A traditional book review along the lines of this chapter does X and that chapter does Y could not even remotely capture the geist of this book. I can tell you the book begins with an introduction by Donna Harraway, a preface that discusses “reeanactment” and an introduction that situates the book historically and introduces lots of ideas. Three chapters consider ‘90s television in the context of globalization, museum exhibitions in the context of the culture wars, and historians and their academic friends on TV (This chapter discussed previously) followed by the conclusion in which King sets out more details of the more, more, more.
Methodologically, each of the three case studies reveal ways three domains, outlined below, operate pastpresently.
1. knowledge work – work cultures centering on knowledge and information systems and technologies as economies themselves
2. culture, crafts, and industries – public cultures sewn up with economic developments amid shifts in cultural value
3. academic capitalism – displays of national interests, global economies, and ideological shifts of the nineties which have made their way into Anglophone academies
King’s book proceeds along multiple lines replete with neologisms and phrases rendered in italics to denote their significance. King excels at evoking rather than defining. As she states “this book is not the way … it is one way … it could be some other way too.”
Rather than taking on the impossible task of summarizing the book, I’ll leave you to the fun of frolicking through it yourself to instead focus on the conclusion. Still please don’t come reading with expectations of definitional clarity. The closest King approaches to defining is the parenthetical notation at the end of “subsections” (this is how I register …”) but even then it is not clear whether the parenthetical statement refers to the paragraph to which is directly attached, as rendered below, or to the entire subsection of that chapter it concludes? Who knows and honestly knowing is not the point.
Although the conclusion is titled feminist transdisciplinary posthumanities, King considers the concepts in the following order
Registering the Posthumanities
So I wish to notice myself and others learning to be affected and wish not to take the thing for everything it is about. These hopes move along with additional concerns shared between reenactments and a feminist transdisciplinary posthumanities. They outline risk, commercialization, timing, and convergences across old and new media. They involve often forced entry into environments with mandates to do work that make only too explicit, inequities, limitations, inadequacies and fears. All this being one form, for better or worse, of feeling alive to more, and more, and more (this is how I register the “posthuman.”)
Play between the extensive and intensive is another price in any rigor of scholarship that prizes knowledges in active making and alive revision, in relational shifts between exquisitely sensitized mappings of authority and much scaling and scoping among alternatives and between territories. (This is how I register transdisciplinary.”)
So, as expressions of and within a range of trans knowledges, these tactics are a feminist feature of the differential consciousness Sandoval enjoins: transnational, transgenic, transgender, transmedia, transdisciplinary: these emerge out of the conditions of postmodernity, and feminisms find them to be daunting companions species, always to much and not enough. But however we work it, in terror and possibility, the default is transformation” (this is how I register ‘feminism’)
Registering transdisciplinary + posthumanities + feminism
And the deeply colonial project that once was the humanities should not be recuperated as relatively innocent now, instead of being clear that a not yet finished project to accountability and redress for roles played in that colonialism is being only too easily erased in the exigencies of restructuring. A struggled after “posthumanities” tasks itself, from the very depths of restructuring to refocus on many projects of decolonialization, antiracist politics, feminist transformation, and sensitized transmedia knowledge practices. This is how I register a feminist transdisciplinary posthumanities
On this quest is a “networked” “embodied” “reenactor” assembled from “training” via various “kits” [forms of reenactment/reenaction] which lead to the acquisition of various “counter-parts” of this “body” which facilitate “embodied epistemologies”
For example, “television reenactments” are “among such world counter-parts [of] the emotional engagement that manage knowledge worlds by foregrounding particular epistemological melodramas” training viewers who become “more embodied and more sensitive to such melodrama”
Because King is particularly interested in play, she devotes considerable time to “gaming” which she views as “coproducing a sensory medium and a sensitive world” resulting in “cognitive sensorium” in which more parts of the “body” are acquired for “embodied epistemologies.”
However she sees “commercializations of culture, learning, and entertainment” occurring all over the place, in musuems, in social media, etc that form various “kits” that enable “training sessions” to occur in “other levels of distributed cognition and being.”
This “networked” aspect decenters “human exceptionalism” because “we play roles that matter, but not roles in which we own the action.” We are in and of the “kits” through which “we work out and feel how it is that we all move around among various networks, together or in spots emergently self-organizing.”
Implications for Academic Feminisms
For academics King has many uneasy propositions. The more more more is not going to be found (only) in archives, between the covers of books, or in other typical materials of scholarship, but in letting many media “do” what they “do best,” i.e. the transdisciplinary part of her argument
Transdisciplinary work recognizes that “each knowledge world [discipline] does what it does best” but not in isolation or sole ownership of the material from which each “best” is crafted.
Everyone’s special things tend to belong also to others, who inspect them in ways often quite alternative, and we have to relearn or unlearn stuff about our own things all the time too.
This work isn’t going to “feel” like the work that many of us were trained to do any more than it is going to be made from our usual materials. Opening ourselves up
allows us to care for and about knowledge’s not fully available to consciousness or open for elegant management.
This is a knowledge constructed from/of affect as above (all?) else
learning to be affected is what this book is all about.
Following Bruno Latour, King is convinced that
learning to be affected means exactly that: the more you learn, the more difference there exists.
We are talking “assemblages” or “articulation’ over “accuracy” and articulation” doubt over certainty in flexible knowledges. This would be the posthumanities part.
The analogy she uses, noting that the affectual is going to rely on ‘television, novels and comics” and ideas of play and amusement, is the “horizontally integrated entertainment industry” as opposed to a vertically organized production of say history which used to move from archive to scholar to single authored text to book/journal where it then died except for the few works that become influential via citation, all of which is still in a very tightly bound world.
Affect opens up the idea of multiple simultaneous reactions, and drawing on Chela Sandoval*, in what will be the most comfortable part of the book for many academic feminists, King elegantly circles back to the concept she introduced at the start of her book, pastpresents, revealing how Sandoval took “a history between 1981 and 2002” and “works out with” it the ways a historically situated “vocabulary lives now on the web, in links to scholarship, on blogs and in online reference sites and travels within and among knowledge worlds and feminist identity politics.” King suggests that feminisms will have to pivot, network, and decenter tactics as needed, using skills from various “kits” in order to “learn to be affected within transnational webs of power.”
If all this is worrying you, no need to freak out, because as King argues we’re already there. You just may not have noticed yet.
Transmedia and transdisciplinary knowledge worlds came to register and index each other in particular sensitivities over the course of the nineties. Media technologies and their products come to matter – and they continue to matter, to create, to make material, to literalize, to solidify those relationships. Globally restructuring academies, repositioned within and among enterprise and heritage culture industries and national economies of image, history and science as well as money, are also working out their own version of transmedia transdicplinary storytelling.
Prof Henry Jenkins’s MIT website (he is now at USC) provides an illustration, graphically, of the way that academic identities will be reconfigured in vastly different ways from the rigid delineation of the tripartite model pedagogy, scholarship, service that currently dominates.
Restructuring academia, understood to be situated in far broader contexts than is normally depicted, provides the topic of the final section of the conclusion. Working through and with Donna Harraway, and mirroring the introduction written by her, King takes Harraway’s idea of “positive reinforcement properly done” into an extended dog training metaphor to explore the “how” of an “ ethical ‘training kit’ for restructuring across the commercial and academic (and more?) in which everyone learns to be affected.”
Julie Thompson Klein’s 28-actions of a 5-step “protocol for project-driven interdisciplinary integration intended to create ‘robust knowledge’ ” as a sort of restructuring R and D combines with a reenactment R and D, that while shorter, is equally complex and involves the work of reenaction and the work of affectivity, which are “how we learn to acquire new body parts of distributed bodies” that “allow us to inhabit knowledge worlds sensitized by neurosensory specificities.”
The how? Through a pretty intensive project of unlearning. Leave behind the rigid and delineated in favor of “making use of what you have on hand and seeing what you can put together with it.” Forget producing the definitive anything as knowledges are always only “contingent and suggestive” in this transmedia hunting and gathering process.
What the reenactments, reenactors, and reenactions described and analyzed here index, together with what the materialities of reenactment studies in its own creation might offer us, are entry point into various “rigors” of learning to be affected. By scoping and scaling among their various “kits” we come across opportunities for becoming progressively more alive, and, though each new exquisite sensitivity to each already existing but yet momentary horizon of possible resources and infrastructure, local exigencies, and differential membership, we add these to our worldly territories. And we learn to do that without taking each one as all and for everything it might also turn out to be.
In order to learn to be affected, the central project of the book, academics must become open to using various kits comprised of different sensitivites that will allow us to affectively approach the ever shifting terrain that constitutes the field of producing flexible knowledges.
In yet another pastpresent, one with a briefer event horizon than the one I introduced this review with, I read Clare Hemmings Why Stories Matter shortly after I read Networked Reenactments, and while the two books are quite different, they now exist in my mind together. Hemmings outlines historical narratives told in /of feminism from 1970 to 1990 and then turns her attention to affect as well, so I suppose thematically the two authors share an interest in both storytelling and emotions.
However beyond that, in the stories of my mind, the two fit together in multiple ways. How we tell stories, about feminism, about the past, matter, in both sense of the word. King seems to have taken many of the “lessons” taught via postmodernism narratives of history and merged them with the material turn histories have taken (the subject of Hemmings book) to create an incredibly provocative, at times exhausting, idea of how to approach ideas of/in about the past. No, this isn’t a how-to book. It’s the sort that graduate students are going to be poring over, but it has a great deal to offer feminisms in light of the tight narratives Hemmings reveals we have constructed.
For my own work, which takes on one of Hemmings’ narratives, the progress one that moves from bad 1970s essentialist feminism to good 1990s postmodern feminisms, King’s brief reference to Marija Gimbutas, an incredibly controversial archaeologist. who inspired feminist art activists to “jump” of the into the unknown of “prehistory” and the notion of reenactment in regards to feminist performance art’s production of histories, are currently working on my mind the most. Activist-historians reliance in the 70s on feeling has often been used to discredit them, but King’s book has helped me to think about the desire to “be” in the past, the way that feeling led to different knowledges, and to the structures that kept those processes and products apart. More about that later.
*In many regards for the scholarly feminist reader the most fascinating aspect of this book is the extended conversation King engages in with Harraway and Sandoval. It feels a bit like eavesdropping in Santa Crauz’s HisCon hallways, in the best possible way.