Feminist Approaches to Citation
by Maiko Tanaka
A friend and I are in the middle of a year-long mail correspondence project. This monthly letter writing practice was suggested by her as a way to give concrete form to conversations we’ve been having about what kind of project we’d like to collaborate on. Through this process I’ve noticed that we carry into our letters something we do through email and in person: citing texts and projects that inspire or support us in one way or another. The texts we cite are responsive to previous letters we’ve written and they focus on sharing resources and supportive words for dealing with our different fears and struggles with writing.
There is one particular poem that my friend quoted in her letter from last December that struck me when I first read it. I think it demonstrates what is vital and politically potent about this practice of citation. The piece is from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric, in which she describes subtle and aggressive encounters with racism from her own lived experiences as a black woman navigating public, personal and professional spaces. Here is the passage my friend had transcribed:
When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, you remain behind the wheel another ten minutes. You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level and want time to function as a power wash. Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists a medical term – John Henryism – for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend.1
In her letter, my friend cites this poem as giving shape to a specific process of language assimilation she put herself through as an immigrant in Canada. But it also exposes the effects of erasure and stress that these experiences have on the body over time, impacting its capacity to perform and carry on. For my friend, Rankine offers words that confront and address her in a way that simultaneously invokes ache, joy and power.
In an academic context, the purpose of citation is to acknowledge sources and ideas often attributed to authority figures and seminal texts. In the context of our letters, citation expands this practice in multiple directions outside of the academy. In our letters, we acknowledge the source of our prose and situate its significance. But in my letters, I also acknowledge the reader – my friend – which in turn opens up the potential to situate the reader’s own experiences as also being significant. But this is not just about seeing one’s personal experiences “represented.” In her letter, my friend also expressed the desire to share Rankine’s work with friends and colleagues, pointing to the potential for building up a collective dialogue around how racism feels through the body for those who experience it, experience it differently or don’t experience it at all. This act of turning a personal source of empowerment into collective agency is something I have learned is a legacy of feminist pedagogies for collective empowerment and transformational change.
In her 1991 text “Bibliography and a Feminist Apparatus of Literary Production,” feminist theorist Katie King addresses the race and genderblind spots of the academic field of bibliography studies from a feminist perspective.2 She describes a US-wide workshop from the late 1970s developed by Lenore Hoffman, which had students initiate collective research into women’s literature from regional contexts. One of these workshops had students going door to door in their local neighbourhoods, asking residents which women in the area were writing poetry. King sees this as using feminist pedagogy to de-centre the academy as the legitimizing apparatus of bibliographical knowledge by empowering students to experiment with research. Following King, a critical feminist bibliographic practice asks what and for whom are we invested in when we cite, what do we consider having value, and what kinds of new research can be produced? King implicates the researcher as a political agent, writing that “Stories about the production of stories require feminists to engage in this story-making, not merely to analyze it – there are no innocent positions from which one can only look on.”2 She thus stages an epistemological shift by asserting that the practice of bibliographic assembly cannot happen from an analytical distance and that researchers must acknowledge themselves as actively involved in the production of texts, histories, disciplines and communities.
In its Spring 2013 issue, this magazine published an artist project called FAGing it Forward, produced by the Feminist Art Gallery (FAG).3 This project enacted a participatory platform for citation aimed at making visible the lineages and legacies of inspiration and support that make up a feminist art community. A four-page spread displayed photographs of over 250 nametags stuck to the walls of the gallery, living room and kitchen, each tag presenting two names: the person attending an event at the FAG and the name of a feminist the attendee wished to acknowledge. Artists Deirdre Logue and Allyson Mitchell (founders of the Feminist Art Gallery) describe how this works:
When you come to the FAG, we ask you to make a nametag: first, with your name – so we can all know who each other is – and second, with the name of a feminist/queer/politicized artist, poet, rock star, writer, friend, inspiration, mentor, matron or lover – someone you want to make visible, someone you want everyone to know about… It’s how we tell each other about the people who matter to us. It’s how we build a community not restricted by money, geography or proximity.”3
Citation here is not only an acknowledgment of sources of inspiration, but also realizes the community it references, performatively bringing it into being. FAGing it Forward accounts for the various ways a community of women artists regenerates itself and thrives. In their 2006 book A Postcapitalist Politics, J.K. Gibson-Graham4 analyze case studies from the Philippines, the United States and Australia that they identify as exemplary of the building of “community economies.” In doing so, they propose a re-thinking of economy, from something that is highly structured and deterministic to a “contingent space of recognition and negotiation” that can only happen through accounting for the social interdependencies that support their subsistence and prosperity.5 Contrasted with a star-powered art world that thrives on exclusivity and celebrates individualized virtuosity, these ideas resemble FAGing it Forward in the way they consider an ethical practice of exchange through citing unrecognized forms of sharing, labour and support. The walls of the gallery/kitchen/living room – and the ongoing conversations that take place through the events in the space (from the “party, potluck, angry letter writing frenzy, free-schooling, cat petting, the backyard screening, directed reading, protest sign making, incantation, or herbal tea and gluten-free muffin top artist talks”6) – are entangled and driven by a politics and ethics of feminist forms of relation and support. This kind of practice is not just a utopian exercise. The urgency is in articulating and enacting the recognition of different values outside of deterministic relations and divisions of labour reproduced from this art world – an art world that parallels capitalist logic. FAGing it Forward emphasizes citation as a living methodology.
In 2006, in New York, during an intensive on art and social engagement at The Kitchen in which I participated in, Lauren MacDonald, an Atlanta-based artist, and fellow intensive participant, created a powerful moment of citation that I will never forget. Her action was prompted by an equally powerful proposition from Palestinian artist Emily Jacir, who was the guest lecturer that day. The big news at that time was the Israeli bombings in Lebanon. Jacir had printed out dozens of emails that had arrived in her inbox that week from friends and acquaintances describing what was happening on the ground during the bombings. She passed out a different printed email to each of us in the program and asked us to work with it as material for a socially engaged artistic response in the commercial art gallery district of Chelsea where The Kitchen is located.7 For her response, MacDonald excerpted a line from the email she had been issued: “Last night was probably the most frightful night I have ever experienced in my whole entire life,” and handwrote it in sidewalk chalk across the exteriors of buildings in the centre of Chelsea. At the bottom of the quote, she provided a link to the author’s blog for any passersby and Chelsea residents whose curiosities were piqued about what the sentence is referring to.8
What struck me was how this citation put seemingly remote events into proximity, bringing the lived experience of war to places where people may not have any idea of what was happening. During the process of editing this piece, my friend Nicole Liao pointed out what makes this a novel and critical use of citation: “Conventionally, citation bridges texts and ideas, to provide proof, lineage or authority to an argument or statement…This use of citation by Jacir is great because citation here is used as a means to bridge physical and virtual space, not to mention the radically disjointed experiences in time and space (for example, we are both occupying the same present, yet your present is traumatic while mine is not)”. Jacir and MacDonald cite the firsthand experiences of war as proof or authority of the US-backed bombings that were otherwise supressed by American mainstream media and expand the possibility of using citation to legitimize embodied, personal and political experiences. This furthers the idea of citations as sources and sites for further engaged responses, actions and other forms of dissemination in urgency. The simple but contentious act of Jacir spreading these emails treads the lines between text, oral history and lived experience, which opens up new possibilities for how felt experiences might creep into political consciousness in clandestine ways. The event still stays with me today, almost a decade later.
I’ve since gone back to Rankine’s quotation many times, and each time I read it I see new nuances in its details and the context it’s quoted within. Sometimes I even realize I’ve completely misread a word due to my friend’s nearly illegible handwriting. This particular act of citation functions not merely as providing the source of an idea or paying due to its author, but is specific to the situation it brings into being, from the time and place of its writing by the original author to the time and place of its quotation in the letter by my friend. It’s also specific to what I was doing and thinking as the reader, as well as the thing that prompts me to search for the letter so I can read it again. And it’s specific to the time in our lives when the words of wisdom from the shared text are nourishing and vital for both of us. The words from the quote and the ways it is set up by my friend cannot be separated. Together they make up an entangled source of wisdom and support, performed as a resource for the future. It is also specific to the durational form of exchange9 we have set up for ourselves, creating the possibility of enriching our understanding over the long run. It is something felt, lived and particular.