Re-imagining Audre Lorde’s ‘Sister Outsider’ in an era of online conferences (Emily F. Henderson)

‘Sister Outsider’, Audre Lorde’s famous collection of essays, is imbued with conferences. How might this work have differed if it had taken place in the COVID era of online conferences…?

Citing Audre Lorde has become a common practice in scholarship on feminism, race, sexuality and indeed on intersectionality more broadly. Particularly the essay ‘The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’, which, perhaps because of its self-explanatory title and the concise message contained therein, is easily citable without the citing author having to fully read or engage with Lorde’s work. This practice could perhaps be reduced if more Lorde citers took the time to read other essays contained in the essay collection Sister Outsider, as it contains a piercing piece, ‘An Open Letter to Mary Daly’, which critiques the mining of Lorde’s and other Black feminists’ work for citations (particularly by white feminists) without full engagement.

While I had previously read some of the essays in Sister Outsider, during lockdown this summer I took the opportunity to read the whole book cover to cover. As always tuned into what I have come to call the ‘conferences radio station’ (see this book), as I was reading I realised that several of the essays in the book had originally taken the form of conference talks, and moreover that several of the essays include mentions of conferences and scenes or interactions taking place at conferences. With the exception of the first essay in the book, ‘Notes from a Trip to Russia’, which centres around conference travel, and ‘The Master’s Tools will Never Dismantle the Master’s House’, which is written in response to being invited to be discussant on the one panel at an NYU conference where women of colour and lesbians were represented, the conference mentions are brief.

As is often the case with in-passing conference mentions, conferences pop up like sequins sewn onto the fabric of the text, but are not part of the warp or the weft. However when drawn together the sequins form a pattern – conferences are spaces of hostility and also important meeting places, particularly for marginalised scholars. 

At the same time as reading Sister Outsider through, I have been discussing with fellow conference geek and co-editor of Conference Inference James Burford how COVID will impact both the practice of attending conferences and the field of scholarship that surrounds them. We have been discussing how attending online conferences will shape academia, especially if the trend continues even when/if the pandemic subsides.

In this discussion I feel torn, as I am aware of and have personally researched the myriad ways that conferences are exclusionary and, while online conferences are accompanied by their own exclusions, it is clear that online conferences often provide more democratic access to conferences. However I am also aware that online conferences are not the same, and that, while many people feel like this, it is difficult to defend because it is difficult to defend why and how this may be the case. This is particularly because the benefits of conferences are indirect and long-term, and notoriously difficult to quantify. The nearest I have got to explaining the benefit of in-person conferences is the concept of ‘meetingness’ (see Mobile Lives, Elliott and Urry), or the connection in networks that is ‘activated’ and maintained by the ‘intermittent co-presence of…members’ (p. 53). 

During our discussion, I postulated that it will be much harder for conference ‘defining moments’ – or those moments where a conference is marked out as the conference where… – to occur in online conferences. For in my ongoing observation of the ways in which conferences become seen as significant in academic fields and academics’ lives I have noted that much of this significance is constructed among people who are present at the conference – a sense of ‘buzz’ – and the way in which that conference is represented to those who were not there – with a (un)healthy dose of FOMO. 

I suddenly wondered what Sister Outsider would have looked like if Audre Lorde had been speaking at online conferences instead.

Firstly, it has to be said that the essays in Sister Outsider which are based on conference talks have a particular geography. The six conference talk essays were all presented at conferences in the Global North, in the US, and they all seem to be based on invited talks. Audre Lorde’s famous essays are not based on papers from 15-minute-presenting-to-3-people-including-the-chair-and-other-speakers experiences. These were prestigious events to which many people did not have access.

Big US academic association conferences are present – MLA (Modern Language Association), NWSA (National Women’s Studies Association) – where registration fees are high and acceptance rates may be low. And these conferences were not just anywhere in the US – Lorde was presenting in elite spaces such as Mount Holyoke (one of the Seven Sisters, a prestigious set of East Coast Liberal Arts women’s colleges), Amherst College (known as one of the ‘little ivies’ – a prestigious Liberal Arts college) and Harvard University.

Who was able to be there when Lorde was delivering these talks? Lorde’s work has been picked up as having universal applicability for scholarship all over the world. However the audiences for whom she wrote these essays – with whom she was at times pretty frustrated – were very situated in the hallowed halls of US academia. What effect did that have on the terms of account in which Lorde was writing? If she had been writing for an invited keynote at an online conference with invisible, silent delegates from an unpredictable range of destinations, with many more allies present as well as many more potentially hostile listeners…with the potential for racist, sexist and homophobic ‘zoom bombers’ to appear…how might that have shaped those famous essays such as ‘Uses of the Erotic’ and ‘The Uses of Anger’, which were written for US conference audiences?

When it comes to the incidents that Lorde analyses as illustrations of exclusionary academic practices, I find myself wondering (anachronistically) what these could have looked like if she had been attending online conferences, and how these interactions would have turned out differently.

The essay ‘The Uses of Anger’ includes the following incident:

‘I speak out of direct and particular anger at an academic conference, and a white woman says, “Tell me how you feel but don’t say it too harshly or I can’t hear you”’

Audre Lorde (2007 [1981], p. 125)

And the 2020 reimagined webinar version…

During an online conference, I am listening to a presentation and feel a growing sense of frustration and anger during the presentation and the conference in general. As I listen I feel more and more frustrated and can’t decide whether to stay or not. Also open on my computer is another essay I am writing, and social media and email alerts keep popping up on the screen, reminding me of things I haven’t done yet and conversations I am more eager to be part of. I think about writing something honest in the chat window, but when I look at what people are saying it is all banal – empty compliments, suggestions to read their own work, offers to set up yet more online events and networking spaces. The thing keeps flashing with new information but much of it is benign approval in the form of pale pink ‘thumbs up’ symbols. In the end I decide to write a complaint in the chat window. I type a few words and read them a couple of times. They seem so incongruous against all the other ‘chat’. I press send. I realise that accidentally I have logged into the seminar without adding my name properly, so it is not clear who the comment is from. They don’t know who I am; I don’t know who they are either. One of the convenors replies to me using the private chat function “This is not an appropriate tone to use in this public venue – please delete your comment immediately or we will do this for you”. I leave the comment in place and exit the event. 

What if ‘The Uses of Anger’ had turned out completely differently as a result? What if it had become ‘Angry? Don’t bother – go and do something else or find a better webinar’?!

There are other important-seeming moments. When Lorde told an anecdote at a conference about her daughter being called a ‘baby maid’ (‘The Uses of Anger’, p. 126), if this had been an online conference would she have heard people laughing? Would she have assumed that people could take this as a negative incident rather than a joke? Would people have put the laughing/crying emoji in the chat window?

What if, when Lorde had attended the First Annual Conference of Third World Lesbians in 1979 – interestingly given the comments about conference geography above, this was held in the US, in Washington D.C – it had been an online conference? This conference marked a moment where she ‘could sit down together’ (p. 73) with men and develop a sense of connection and coalition, leading to the essay ‘Man Child: A Black Lesbian Feminist’s Response’. If Lorde had been grouped together with randomly selected delegates in a virtual break-out room, how would this discussion have proceeded? Would she have stayed in the room? Would she have formed her own room?

What if the Black literary conference where Lorde heard a ‘heterosexual Black woman’ state that ‘to endorse lesbianism was to endorse the death of our race’ (‘Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving, p. 51) had been an online conference? Would Lorde have heard that above the sound of her kettle boiling as she distractedly made her 4th cup of tea, or have muted the event briefly to take a phone call? (See recent Conference Inference post on distractions). 

Finally, would Lorde’s thinking have been the same if she had not moved her body to different places for the purposes of giving talks to academic conferences? ‘Notes from a Trip to Russia’, which is based around travelling to a conference in Russia, details a transformative two-week trip Lorde took as ‘invited American observer’ at the ‘African-Asian Writers Conference’ in 1976. This trip had a profound effect on Lorde, based on her embodied experience of the travel, the surrounding activities and the interactions at the conference. She was so marked by the experience that she was dreaming about it weeks after she returned. The experience was shaped by the lived experience of socialism – the different experience of her racialisation in relation to the whiteness of Moscow – the confusing connections sparked with different women along the way – into all of which Lorde was plunged: the effect of travelling to be in a different place for a conference. The intensity of the impact that this short trip had on Lorde leaps from the page and acts as a prelude to the essays that follow.

It is part of the Conference Inference approach to query the mundane processes and practices that form the stuff of conferences, that surround and carry along any knowledge production happening in conference spaces. Thinking ahead to a new academic year that includes little prospect of attending conferences feels quite bleak, and I think this has infused my writing in this post. It is exciting to think about the different voices that are included in online events, and the talks I may be able to access in different places in months to come.

Perhaps as we get more used to online conferences, more ‘defining moments’ will seem to occur in these spaces and we will get better at attending to them as well as just attending them.

On the other hand, providers will certainly get wise to the potential profit to be made, and we will see many events move behind a paywall in the year to come. I do wonder what Lorde would have said with that different, perplexing but potentially more inclusive online audience in her mind as she wrote those essays. I also wonder how participating in online academic conference interactions would have influenced her sharp, insightful illustrations of the micro-aggressions that are ubiquitous in these spaces. The placing of the body in these online spaces is so different – will this also be something we learn to feel acutely, and, for those of us who read academic bodies as an analytical process, something that we are attuned to? 

Emily F. Henderson is Co-editor of Conference Inference and tweets as @EmilyFrascatore. Her publications on conferences and a wider reading list on conferences can be found here.

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