‘East’- ‘West’/‘West’-‘East’ as one Itinerary for Travelling Concepts

Therese Garstenauer, University of Vienna (Austria)

Keywords: Knowledge, Situatedness, East/West

My paper presents a set of ideas that have travelled for a while. Its first version was an abridged outline of my Ph.D. thesis - on collaboration between Russian and ‘Western’ gender scholars - which then was enriched and amended by inspirations taken from colleagues’ papers. Furthermore, I have gained experience of teaching and advising in the field of Gender Studies that I did not had when I first drafted this paper. These two strands are reflected in the present version.

First, I would like to write a few things about myself, my educational and professional situation. It is, of course, a nice thing to get to know your colleagues. And it is a lot easier than writing about concepts and theories. But this is more than just self-indulgence. On reading the others’ papers, I found it tremendously interesting to see under what circumstances Women’s and Gender Studies is put into practice. The institutional setting - among other things - has indeed an influence upon what can be thought, developed, published, discussed, and how this can be done. Are there departments of Women’s Studies? Or Gender Studies? Are there respective departments, professorships, course programmes, syllabi? (1)

It is imperative that I consider my own position (situatedness if you will) within the ‘East’-‘West’ relations I want to deal with. How ‘Eastern’ or ’Western’ is Austria? Or is it in between (neutral, in cold war terms)? Am I quite a ‘Western’ person when going to Russia, but maybe less of a ‘Western’ person when going to the UK? Why am I interested in the topic anyway? In order to find out about and subsequently fight inequalities, or maybe to help those poor backward people in Russia? (2)

When I attended my first Travelling Concepts meeting in Trento in January 2004, I was a freelance social scientist (with occasional teaching jobs at Vienna University) and a Ph.D. student with little time left for dealing with my thesis. Meanwhile, since May 2004, I have been a collaborator within the Research Centre for Gender Studies at Vienna University (and still a Ph.D. student with even less time ...). Despite its name - I am using Vienna University’s official English translation -this centre is not a research unit, but one in charge of coordination, information and curricula development related to gender studies. Consequently, my post is an administrative one. In Austria, there is only one university department of Women’s and Gender Studies (Linz), whereas at other universities there are different kinds of coordination centres, some university units like ours, some project-based. I think this information may prove interesting for discussions on disciplinarity, multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity, transdisciplinarity etc. (3)

Now that I am working at the Centre, I am often taken to be a specialist in Gender Studies. I can’t blame people for thinking this, because there is this job at the centre, my teaching (about which I will write more in the next paragraph) and the topic of my Ph.D. thesis. Still, I would rather be known as a sociologist of science who deals with Gender Studies and adopts aspects of gender in her work, because that is what I have been trained for (4). Maybe I am too picky here, but I think it is about more than just names. I am convinced that interdisciplinarity can only work when one is firmly grounded in her discipline in the first place, knows her craft, as it were. Interdisciplinarity should by no means imply knowing ‘a little bit about a lot of things’ (as the late Peggy Lee - not a member of the Travelling Concepts group - has put it) (5). This seems close to what Soula Pavlidou means, when she writes: ‘When a term/concept “travels” from one [disciplinary, TG] field to another (or from one culture to another) the old context is left behind, and another one usually becomes operative; and in this new context a different bundle of significations may accompany the/some nuclear meaning that was supposed to be carried over. An interdisciplinary approach would probably have to assess both contexts in order to gain full understanding of what is going on.’ Eniko Demeny’s investigation into the use of the concept of gender in different disciplines - which does not make them Women’s, Gender or let alone Feminist Studies - also seems very promising.

Furthermore, I would like to mention my experience as a Lecturer in Gender Studies at Vienna university during the past summer term. Gender Studies is not a course of studies in its own right in Vienna, but it can be combined as a set of optional courses on a modular basis with the curricula of other disciplines. There are only a few general Gender studies courses (all of them introductory), whereas the rest of the respective lectures are provided by specialists from various disciplines. Together with a colleague of mine, a historian, I taught a course called ‘Introduction to Methods and Theories of Gender Studies’. I always found it amazing that in most cases I know, introductory courses are taught by junior staff. It seems to be unpopular and tedious work. But then, to give an overview of what is going on and what has been going on in Women’s and Gender Studies in the last few decades (and beyond), to people who know nothing or preciously little about this field, one had better be a very experienced scholar and researcher. In our case, we had to prepare the lecture course in a short time (mostly our spare time, come to that), and we had very little opportunity to deal with topics that belong to our own fields of research. Often it meant hasty skimming over texts, to get another lecture prepared in time . . . . This experience has made Päivi Korvajärvi’s paper which deals with, among other things, the interconnections between research and teaching, more interesting for me than it would have been, say, half a year ago.

This situation of having to cover a wide span of time, topics, theories, disciplines in comparatively little time, reminds me of things I have heard and read about in connection with Women’s and Gender Studies in Post-Soviet Russia. Anna Temkina and Elena Zdravomyslova call a state like this, where a multitude of various previously unavailable ‘Western’ (philosophical, sociological, feminist . . .) texts get translated and thus accessible within a short period, ‘discursive chaos’ or even ‘discursive omnivorism’ (p. 18). The metaphor of Eastern Europe as a student/pupil who has a lot to learn from the ‘West’ (in the position of the teacher) is one of the dichotomies that Peggy Watson (2001) describes as characteristic of the unequal relationship between ‘East’ and ‘West’.

This association brings me back to my starting point: my entrance card to Travelling Concepts. I should like to recapitulate my initial ideas, namely the question of East and West within Women’s Studies.
Co-operation between Russian and ‘Western’ researchers in the sphere of Feminist, Women’s and Gender Studies (FWGS) has intensified since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Quite a number of joint conferences, research projects and publications have happened since that time. However, in such co-operation certain problems are likely to occur, due to its unequal, often hierarchically structured nature. These problems caught my interest and became the focus of my Ph.D. dissertation. This project is initially based on findings of my diploma thesis (6) on FWGS in Moscow and takes up questions and problems that arose in connection with my research on the topic so far. Since the late 1980s, gendernye issledovaniia (7) have evolved in Russia, representing an intersection of academic research, grassroots women’s organisations and governmental gender policies; partly explicitly breaking with, partly continuing traditional ways of conducting research on gender relations in society; partly drawing upon, partly rejecting ‘Western’ influences. The political changes in Russia connected with Perestroika and Glasnost and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union have facilitated and enhanced contact between Russian and ‘Western’ researchers and growing interest in collaboration has occurred.

Scientific practice usually implies communication and mutual reception between researchers in different parts of the world. Needless to say, this holds true for FWGS in Russia and elsewhere as well. However, the exchange does not appear to be one between equal partners. Hierarchical relations can be observed, which seem to correspond with the difference between Russia, representing the ‘East’ on the one hand and the so-called ‘West’ on the other, with the ‘East’ often being the inferior part in such relationships. These structural inequalities aroused my interest in the topic, all the more since FWGS claim to represent an alternative to science-as-usual with its specific hierarchies and structures of power.

The notions of ‘East’ and ‘West’ can frequently be found in publications and discussions of Gender researchers involved in such co-operations. However, the uses and meanings of these terms often appear to be rather unclear and vague. They imply - or sometimes conceal - different kinds of unequal relationships that concern academic, financial, political and other aspects. The terms ‘East’ and ‘West’ draw one into viewing the respective other in a generalising, simplified way. It seems characteristic that the term ‘West’ most often appears in Russian articles, while the respective ‘Westerners’ write about ‘East’, with Russia being a considerable part of it. The unequal, hierarchical relationship between the two can make effective communication and co-operation between researchers from either side difficult or impossible despite initial mutual interest. Misunderstandings, distrust, arrogance, humiliation, and unwillingness to understand each other or even to communicate are likely to occur. Such phenomena have been voiced by researchers, publicly as well as off the records.

In my study, I want to attempt to open up the black-box terms ‘East’ and ‘West’ in the context of research co-operation in the field of FWGS. The manifold unequal and hierarchically structured relations that constitute - or are sometimes hidden behind - ‘East’ and ‘West’ shall be analysed, with regard to their discursive production as well as to the institutional and organisational conditions of this production. By means of semi-structured interviews, participant observation (e.g. at conferences) and analysis of published and unpublished texts I shall get a grip on the practice of ‘East’-‘West’ co-operation in FWGS.

My connection to ‘Travelling Concepts’ follows two main lines: on the one hand, I shall ask what the uses and meanings of ‘East’ and ‘West’ are like in research co-operation between Russian and ‘Western’. Here, of course distinctions other than that between ‘East’ and ‘West’ will pertain: hierarchies within academia, boundaries between Feminist and Non-Feminist Science, between disciplines, between research and politics, centres and peripheries etc. Some of these distinctions correspond to an ‘East’-’West’ axis, others will have a logic and structure in their own right. One must, of course, bear in mind, the nuanced character of concepts like ‘East’ and ‘West’ - East/West of what? - and that there are may even be various degrees of ‘Easternness’ and ‘Westernness’. Veronica Vasterling’s paper suggests a notion of ‘West’ that is different from mine, because it is not (only) opposed to some ‘East’, but to a whole ‘non-Western’ world. ‘East’ and ‘West’, as used in a previous version of Sabine Grenz’s paper, can also refer to the German situation which is special in that it is rather clearly defined in its territorial boundaries, insofar as the border between the two is also (seemingly) clear cut. We could, furthermore, ask whether ‘East’ and ‘West’ play a role within the context of the Travelling Concepts group.

On the other, I will have a look at what happens to terms and concepts like feminism or (sex/)gender when they are received in Russia while they have been developed elsewhere. Furthermore, I will trace how far Russian research in FWGS is taken note of in the ‘West’. Here, feminist critiques of hegemonic ‘Western’ feminisms come into play (Narayan and Harding, 2000). The issues of language, translation, misunderstanding, shift of meanings etc. will be discussed. For a theoretical framework of the transfer/travel of concepts, the works of Edward Said, Mieke Bal and Csaba Dubcsik might provide useful material.

Summing up I would propose that the central concepts of my paper shall be knowledge, how it is constructed and passed on within (academic or other) practice, and the situatedness of these activities (who does what, where, and under what circumstances . . .).

According to Edward Said, theories travel just like people do (Said 1983, p. 226). Sabine Grenz has asked very insightfully whether it is the concepts or rather us who are travelling. I guess that the concepts are travelling because we send them on their way, pick them up, deal with them, make our own sense of them and because we travel in order to meet fellow researchers, discuss about concepts together . . . and the travelling continues.

1. Country reports have been published by ATHENA that might serve well as a basis for our discussions.
2. It may sound strange, but when I was doing my diploma thesis on Gender Studies in Moscow, I had the idea that with my efforts I might make Russian research(ers) more visible from the perspective of German speaking countries. It soon became clear, however, that they were doing just fine without me, that Russian Gender researchers had more effective ways of making themselves visible than being mentioned in the diploma thesis of an Austrian student of sociology.
3. The papers of Clare Hemmings, Iris van der Tuin, Päivi Korvajärvi, Soula Pavlidou and Veronica Vasterling give me the impression that they would, like me, appreciate a clarification of these terms. I think that, Ulla Holm's paper in which she discusses 'multidisciplinarity, interdisciplinarity proper, transdisciplinarity, neodisciplinarity and adisciplinarity' are discussed is takesing an important step towards 'rais[ing] our awareness about what we actually do'.
4. Strangely enough, my situation appears to be the opposite of other members of the Travelling Cconcepts group who see themselves as Feminist or gender scholars, whereas their teaching often has to be assigned to and named according to a traditional discipline, most frequently English or American literature or another language-related subject. This refers to the papers of Josefina Bueno Alonso, Silvia Caporale Bizzini, Liana Borghi, Giovana Covi, Luz Gomez and Soula Pavlidou.
5. Apparently, I represent a fairly conservative point of view as far as interdisciplinarity is concerned, displaying that 'miffed suspicion' Liana Borghi is writing about in her paper. In order not to be misunderstood, I would like to emphasise that I am not saying 'Interdisciplinarity is (always) superficial, therefore it is bad', but rather 'If interdisciplinarity means superficiality, it is no good'.
6. See Garstenauer 2000. In this thesis, I tried to figure out the most important criteria and distinctions that are negotiated within the field of Moscow Women's and Gender Studies. Furthermore, some of the ideas for the present outline were developed in conceptualising a joint research project that, unfortunately, could not be realised (Wohrer and Garstenauer, 2002).
7. Literally, gendernye issledovaniia can be translated as ‘Gender Studies’. However, the term covers a broad range of meanings. It would be more comprehensive and adequate (albeit inelegant) to translate it as ‘Feminist and/or Women's and/or Gender Studies’. In this outline I will use the term Feminist, Women's and Gender Studies (FWGS). For a brief discussion of a translation of 'Gender' into Russian, see Aristarchova, 2000.

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