But throughout the summer, I was having a horrible time actually working on my dissertation. First I'd committed to writing a methodological article on a feminist materialist critique of media archaeology--but every time I sat down to do the lit review or aim my sights at Wolfgang Ernst, I felt myself getting sucked into a black hole of philosophical vitalism (a Bermuda Triangle of Spinoza, Bergson and Deleuze). I felt like I couldn't write anything without having the entire weight of continental philosophy in my back pocket (which, not being a philosopher by training, was presenting a problem). I felt impotent to even know where I could start, as I stared down the barrel of a 300 page project that loomed ominously empty on the Word document before me.
However, this summer I also got recruited to join a Feminist Writing Group organized by the insightful Laura Portwood-Stacer, who I met at Now! Visual Culture. "Feminist Writing Group?" my friends scoffed. "Doesn't seem like your kinda thing." I tend to be a little too aloof and much too cantankerous for such dynamics. I'm often the student who would sit in seminar and doesn't make a peep, and loathes the eyes of strangers on my work. But I volunteered some work for the second session, thinking it would be good motivation to get my Copenhagen paper written--and as a straight up history, I figured it would be safe and not too over-exposing. However, when my one-week deadline emerged, I was still days behind on having something to show. I couldn't bail on the group, but also knew I couldn't send a 4-page lit review and retain any self-respect. I hit the panic button, and emailed out the only other reasonable paper I had relating to feminism, a Feminist New Materialist Critique of Media Archaeology that I'd presented at the New School that past spring and planned on presenting at SCMS in 2013.
I spent the week on edge. This was intense theoretical work, couched in brazen, sometimes arrogant writing. I'd never exposed this to any of my professors, or anyone who even really had a background in feminist critical materialism (i've pretty much taught myself). I also, perhaps predictably, thought the piece was damn near perfect, and hadn't anticipated revising it much for SCMS. I was in a cold terror about what others might say, and nervous that no one would have anything to say. When the day of the actual group arrived, the group was almost twice as large as the first meeting, and all new people, and mostly university faculty (a "real world" step up from my grad student status, however much I take myself seriously).
I gave a stuttery introduction and prepared for the worst--and instead, lo and behold, I got the best. Not ceaseless praise or neck-wringing admonishments, but critical attention trained at making this work better while still highlighting what I did well and where I could push further. I've only occasionally ever received such honed, invested, and engaged feedback from peers or profs. And amazingly, this active, brilliant group of lady-minds managed to help me shed the cloak that had been holding me back from writing for almost two months. Stop trying to dismantle someone else's work. You know what you're doing, so just move forward with your own ideas. Show us what you're really capable of. When I woke up this morning, I could stop thinking--"what if I did this? what if I argued that?" Suddenly I realized the first chapter of my dissertation had been sitting in my Dropbox all along, just mangled into a bunch of different pieces I'd been too hesitant to pull together. I woke up at 8, was at the library by 11, and had my own intervention written by 12. By the time I tapped out for happy hour at my favorite bar, I had 17 pages of a chapter--cobbled, slapped together, in terrible need of stitching, but a start, with a clear outline of what I'm doing and where this project is going.
The mental deep freeze is over. I'm going to write this bastard. And all it took was showing my work to a group of strangers invested in questions of knowledge production, sensitive to the struggles of a grad student, but not willing to let something half-wrought slide by: a lesson in feminist orientations and co-relationality if ever there was one.