New at this

I. Learning

Let’s start with a few pedagogical principles. First, learning takes time. Matrix style fantasies of uploading “skills” to your brain (essentially what most policy-makers and ed tech enthusiasts think learning is) notwithstanding, learning is processual, and actually spending time on it is part of the process. Often it is a training of the body as well as of the mind: learning, for example, to read long books is a bodily discipline that is different from the ability to read short things. (The erroneous belief that reading a long or sustained argument or narrative is merely more of the same is why reading in quantity often is not taught.)

Second, in order to learn we have to be in a state of willingness to learn. Pedagogy experts call this “growth mindset”; Nancy Sommers and Laura Saltz call this “the novice as expert.” I’m suspicious of prescribing feelings and attitudes, but I am certainly willing to grant that it is much harder to learn when you think you have nothing to learn.

Third, we are all learning all the time. We cannot confuse learning with formal education. The ideological confinement of learning to formal education (and the further ideological association of formal education with youth, which is counterfactual) only obscures the ways that people in all life phases must learn. Think of a new parent’s learning curve, or the massive onboarding not only of information but of concepts that must happen when you move to a new geographic area or a new job, or when you undertake a new project, or when you buy a house or flat for the first time (if some rare cosmic alignment or, more usually, intergenerational wealth tranfer makes that a possibility for you). In my late thirties, I have still never learned to wear makeup and I am still trying to cultivate the bodily discipline of suffering something (“lip gloss”) to come between me and my coffee. (So far the results are not good; I don’t like it.) It is not only the young who are learning; it is, however, more socially acceptable for the young to admit that they are learning. Learners should not be shamed for learning at any age.

II. Formal schooling and emergency learning

In our formal schooling, we are taught things that we are told we need to know, which seem to us more or less practical at the time. How many generations of students have moaned that they’ll never need to use trigonometry (say), not thinking of the training in abstraction that it gave them? I’m obviously a believer in “useless” education, of course; I’ve been involved with it one way or another basically my entire life. The great advantage of formal schooling is the way that it forces you out of yourself; it makes you say, it’s true, this is not about me; it’s about someone else, or something else, and it’s something I don’t necessarily intrinsically care about, but all the same I need to know about it; my knowledge of the world is not sufficient if it is limited to the things that already interest me.

There are many problems with formal schooling too, obviously. Some people are made to do more of this traveling outside themselves than others; to give an example from my own education in Virginia public schools, for some students, Virginia history was a story of their own rocky but ultimately glorious path to the present, dotted with Great Men whose legacy led straight to them. For others, Virginia history was a history of their domination, in which they figured, but rarely as protagonists or as victors; Virginia history as taught in our schools did not lead straight to them; like junior Prufrocks, they were “not Prince Hamlet” in this drama. And for others still, Virginia history was a history of other people; it was the history of a geographic territory in which you happened to be, to which you were a complete outsider despite being, perhaps, “from” there.

I think it’s fine to learn a history of other people. It’s actually a good idea. But the pattern of who has to learn quickly to abstract, to take in “irrelevant” things or things that don’t seem of immediate use is not random, nor does it happen just once. Some students get a soft, slow onboarding to the kind of stretch you have to make to think trigonometry matters to you (or is worth learning despite “not mattering”); others have to get there much earlier and much more often, and when this early extra stretch fails (which it well might), those students may become “turned off” from formal education. It can create a sense that “there is something to learn here, but I can’t learn it; it’s not for me.” (There’s a third, unhappy possibility that I won’t get into much, which is embracing a radical individualism in order to identify with power.) So I’m not saying it’s all roses. Formal schooling is often ideological, violent, oppressive. But to me, when it works, that cultivation of curiosity in things that “don’t matter” (to oneself) is so valuable for creating capacities for further learning, for the ability to say later, in other circumstances, “yes, I have something to learn, and I can learn it.” Formal education is not the only place you could get this, obviously. But if we are thinking about people in academia (which I am), then formal education is at least one of the places where we should have gotten it.

Outside of formal education, there is also the “emergency learning” that we all do. (I just want to stop here for a moment to note: not all informal learning is emergency learning. This is not a comprehensive taxonomy of learning.) For some of us, emergency learning can coincide with formal education; at other times it can’t or doesn’t. When I google eco-friendly ways to clear a drain, that’s emergency education; I need information now because my goddamn drain is blocked. When a Black parent teaches their kids how to respond to cops, that’s emergency education. When a teenager goes to Planned Parenthood for birth control, that’s emergency education. It’s learning that we seek out, or are given, because we definitely, practically need it. When we seek out emergency education, we are learners; we are new at this. Emergency education is practical. Often, it is about ourselves.

When we’re outside of formal education, and even when we’re in it, a lot of our learning is emergency education. Sometimes our formal education prompts emergency education: we learn someone else’s history, and then we realize we know fuck-all about our own, and think that maybe we should find out. It is about ourselves but unlike with the Revolutionary War battle sites that we’ve been hearing about since third grade, we are new at this; in a way, we are new at ourselves. Sometimes this means a shift in academic study: for example, we can pursue Asian American history formally, if we want to (we can now, anyway—students and faculty once protested to make this possible, and that, too, is something we might learn on an emergency basis); when it does, we still have to have mastered the “mainstream history.” And sometimes it doesn’t mean that; sometimes it just means you’re finding some stuff out on your own time, in the interstices of your day job. (The “emergency” doesn’t necessarily mean you do the learning fast, or that the need for it comes on suddenly. Realizing that you’ve always regretted never learning music and taking music lessons could be emergency learning.)

When we do emergency learning, we are putting ourselves in the position of a beginner, someone who is new at this. We might never get to be more than beginners; we might learn just enough. We know that we have something to learn, and we hope that we can learn it, because we need it. We get it where we can: Tumblr, Instagram, third-hand Audre Lorde channeled through an Anita Sarkeesian YouTube video or a pop feminist memoir. When we need it, it doesn’t matter where it comes from; we’re willing to give it a go if it works, just like I’m not that concerned about the credentials of whoever wrote some blog post about clearing a drain using baking soda. And that’s fine. Not everyone needs or wants to be a theorist of gender and sexuality, just like not everyone with a shower needs to be a plumber.

I will not exactly be blowing your mind when I observe that some people have to do more emergency learning than others.

III. Mainstream feminism as the emergency learning of the relatively privileged

A lot of our learning about gender and sexuality is emergency learning. We only study these topics formally if we luck into it; it’s always considered an add-on in a general university education, and people who actively make it their primary area of study are typically marginalized within the academy. Gender and sexuality programs are always on the verge of being cut; it’s both more prestigious and safer to be a “feminist historian” than a “women’s studies professor.” Even in humanities disciplines in which the study of gender and sexuality (and also race, although this is even more marginalized than gender and sexuality in academia) is now considered important, you often kind of have to luck into it, or you might only get “Judith Butler week” on the intro course (where a chapter or two of Gender Trouble has to do the work of standing in for the entirety of western feminist thought).

Nevertheless, some people are going to have to learn about gender and sexuality whether they want to or not. The oppression of women as a group, as women, is so thoroughgoing that even the most privileged women sooner or later have to find out about the pay gap, whisper networks, mansplaining, and the innumerable “or a bitch” double binds (you’re maternal or you’re a bitch; you’re a slut or you’re a bitch; you’re invisible or you’re a bitch; etc., etc.) of everyday mainstream femininity. The only real alternative to experiencing gender as an incoherent mass of isolated incidents is to learn something about gender, which is to say about feminism. Not all women are feminists, obviously; in fact most are not. But patriarchy will oppress you whether you want it to or not, and either you try to make sense of it or you don’t.

This is the situation of mainstream white feminism, including most academic women (who are overwhelmingly privileged, white, cis, straight, and partnered, although there are obviously exceptions). We have done some emergency learning about ourselves—and gone no further. The benefit of emergency learning—its practicality, its immediacy, its applicability—is also its limitation, especially for people who don’t really have to do that much emergency learning. Learning about the wage gap (almost always stated in the terms that apply primarily to white women) is actually pretty basic. It’s “gender-based oppression exists and is not great.” It requires no reconceptualization, or theorization, even, of the category “woman,” for instance. The emergency learning that you have to do (and it is usually not optional) to survive as a working class woman, a disabled woman, a trans woman, a Black woman requires more emergency learning, more advanced levels of emergency learning. The wage gap is such beginner feminism. So if you’re as privileged as Sheryl Sandberg, reading Lean In might be all the emergency learning you need. It might help you! (Just you.)

I once taught A Room of One’s Own to a group of first-year undergraduates. They were new at thinking about gender and not at all new at watching Disney films, so they found the thought experiment of Shakespeare’s equally talented sister absurd. “Why doesn’t she just dress as a man?” they said. The answer, of course, is that exempting one woman from the punishments of femininity does nothing to liberate women as a group. But on an emergency education basis that was limited to the emergency at hand, their answer made sense.

In her keynote for the recent Scholar Activism conference at the British Library, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argued that personal experience is important, but it is not sufficient. If we understand the world solely on an emergency basis, to make sense of our own problems, we will never arrive at a vision for justice. Mainstream feminism shows this so clearly. Is the wage gap bad? Sure. But so is the global pattern of poverty that forces women to migrate to the US to do domestic labor so that rich heterosexual white women can lean in without having to have a tricky conversation with their male partners about housework. These things don’t actually happen in isolation, but if you occupy certain positions, you can limit your emergency learning enough that they can seem to do so.

Or, to put it another way, if you’ve done all of your learning about gender and sexuality on an emergency basis (and most of us have), then it’s perfectly possible to be a “feminist” and not have heard of Catharine MacKinnon, think “the male gaze” is just literally when men look at something, and, (not having read it, or not having read more than a chapter) think the argument of Gender Trouble is that gender is a spectrum and it’s kinda fluid. (That is not the argument of Gender Trouble.) You might not grasp the analytic distinction between sex and gender, nor know much if anything about feminist work (including Butler’s) that complicates that distinction. Becoming a feminist because you need it is not the same thing as having taken Women’s Studies 101. If you didn’t need it to help you unblock a drain, you might not have thought very much about gender or sexuality per se at all.

This is not a reproach. There is always more to learn about everything in the world, and if I knew a lot about plumbing, perhaps my whole worldview would change, the way Lila Mae’s worldview shifts in The Intuitionist when she trains as an elevator inspector and becomes an intuitionist. And it might not be immediately obvious how gender and sexuality structure so many aspects of daily life (the concepts of “public” and “private,” for example—the right to privacy being the thin wisp of the law that currently protects US women’s still-very-conditional right to abortion). It is the case, though, that there are a lot of people who don’t think that gender or sexuality should ever be a matter of formal learning, that it can only ever be emergency learning, “me-search,” and that it should never go beyond this.

The value of gender and sexuality studies as a field (although not the only value) is that it brings into relief knowledge that is typically seen as not-knowledge: you’re imagining it, it’s a feeling, it’s not in the (official) archive so it doesn’t exist, it’s not in the (official) archive so it doesn’t matter. Studying it doesn’t only mean you learn some facts and concepts, although they are good facts and concepts to learn. They also alter what it is we think we mean by a “fact” or a “concept” when we realize just how much has been left out of what we were once told was the whole story. This is a compromise, of course. It is institutionalization. It is not as if the academy is innocent. By enshrining this work as knowledge we risk reiterating the hierarchy that delegitimized the history and theory of women and sexual dissidents in the first place. “We ask that you approach this material with a clear understanding of the long history of her thoughtful and successive mentorship, the singular brilliance of this intellectual, the international reputation she has rightly earned as a stellar scholar in her field….” But this is true of all knowledge-making practices. And we might learn from the field that, for instance, men can experience misogyny—that in fact, much policing of masculinity is based on misogyny. We might learn that a penis is not a phallus. We might learn that “biological sex” is far from a straightforward concept. We might learn that all of our concepts of gender and sexuality are embedded in historical conditions that change, and that contingency does not invalidate a category. We might learn some things about people who are not ourselves—if we accept the premise that we have something to learn, and can learn it.

IV. New at this

Imagine the amount of emergency education Shakespeare’s sister would need to convincingly pass as the “opposite” sex. Even Shakespeare knew this; in Twelfth Night, Viola’s lapses in masculinity are a constant source of anxiety. Passing for a gender is hard even if it’s “your” gender: think of Malvolio, tricked into thinking yellow tights could constitute desirable masculinity and then violently ridiculed for it. Shakespeare’s sister would be trying to make it in the cutthroat world of Elizabethan theater while learning masculinity on the side. She’d be new at masculinity, like Viola is new at masculinity. But Malvolio is also new at masculinity, in a way, just like I’m new at letting lip gloss interfere with my coffee.

It’s not contemptible to be new at something. We are all new at things; we’re all doing emergency education all the time. But it is problematic to be new at something and think that our own newness means that our every realization is not just new to us but also new.

What does it mean to be “new at this”? Sometimes it means you haven’t done the reading. That’s ok, but if you are new at this and want to be less new, then you should do the reading.

Other times, though, it means you haven’t paid the price.

But why should there be a price?

V. Old and new: misalignments

Recently we’ve seen controversies around the UK government’s consultation on the Gender Recognition Act of 2004—and in particular, a wave of rising transphobia instigated by a number of senior feminist-identifying academics and public figures who claim to speak for “women” (a group that exists very securely for them when defining “women-only spaces” but which is illegitimate and oppressive when a trans woman inhabits it, or appears to). I am obviously not linking to any of that; if you have avoided it so far, all I can say is lucky you. As I’ve witnessed its unfolding with horror all summer, I’ve been brought back time and again to the idea of being “new at this,” and the ways that queer generations are evoked.

In particular, it brought back the conversation spurred by Jack Halberstam’s 2014 post about oversensitive students, whose desire for non-abusive learning spaces was cast as a “neoliberal” demand (on which see Sara Ahmed). The framing of queer generations, and of the new generation owing something (something specific) to queer elders who had it so much worse, is repeated in the transphobic cis “feminist” claim to true and sole ownership of misogyny and injury. Young, ungrateful queers, we were told in 2014, were being too sensitive. We see it, again in H*dley F******’s accusation that “men” (she means trans women) are daring to tell her, a genuine cis woman, what it’s like to be a woman. You’re new at this; respect your elders. You haven’t paid the price. It’s fairly transparently a threat: you must pay. And we see it again in the way that certain “feminists” have staked a claim to an earlier and more “radical” feminism; “we’re the originals,” they claim. It is a claim to expertise and the respect that expertise is due, a claim made by way of “personal experience,” since in fact transmisogynists can only hold their position if they ignore the vast body of scholarship on sexuality and gender. “Huh, could sex and gender be linked?” is so not a new question that we’ve been there and gone and gone beyond; there is something so heartbreaking about looking up from rigorous debates about the limits of feminist new materialism to see people yelling on the internet that women can’t have penises. Read a book. Even the claim to prior experience isn’t very solid; in reality, this portrait of second-wave lesbian feminism as necessarily and homogeneously trans-exclusive is a fiction, as Emma Heaney has shown. But I am less interested in the holes in this claim to authority than the generational structure—as Keguro Macharia points out, a kinship structure—that it presumes.

Which brings us around, of course, to the Avital Ronell case, and to the thoroughly upsetting letter in support of Ronell by a number of leading feminist scholars (although, as Andrea Long Chu has pointed out, it would be inaccurate to call Ronell herself a feminist scholar). It is deeply disappointing to see so many brilliant thinkers defend Ronell on absolutely irrelevant grounds, even if, as Lisa Duggan argues, it was a strategy cynically addressed to the values of a university administration. It is all the more disappointing, perhaps, in light of a different place where we could have used a few voices of authority using their powers for good, namely the attack on trans people in the UK. If ever we could have used Judith Butler pulling a Marshall McLuhan “you know nothing of my work,” this was it.* Instead, she used her position as one of the world’s foremost theorists of gender, sexuality, and power to defend what is at best exceptionally terrible, abusive advising.

Yet I think the Ronell allegations and the discourse around them help us to see more about what is at stake in this generational framing, especially when those closing ranks around Ronell, or trying to “broaden the conversation,” are distinguished not by a particular political or theoretical commitment but rather by being, well, distinguished. Marisol LeBrón put it very well: “This is the generational aspect I think. A kind of ‘this is the way it’s always been done and this is the way I came up’ that is an undercurrent to these debates.” What is being defended as good is a certain kind of relationship between the queer elder and the ephebe, a dynamic of queer reproduction and queer survival which is also absolutely a dynamic of material circumstances that we might call, provisionally, pre- and post-2008. Macharia explains this well in his gloss on the demands of “queer kinship”:

It emerges as repeated assurances that younger scholars respect and follow the work of older scholars.
Kinship as mutual obligation—even love, or perhaps duty—cannot exist under ethno-patriarchy. The power asymmetries make mutuality impossible. These power asymmetries are most visible as demands for respect, deference, honor.

This is what seems to me to underpin the logic of queer generations, literalized in the grad student/advisor relationship. It’s an ultimately conservative repetition of, or replacement for, a structure that queer theory would otherwise disavow, the “impossible” patriarchal demand on the Child: “to live from the outset an after-life as ambassador of the dead without, in the process, becoming a mere ambassador of death. … He must live, that is, in perpetual arrears.”** In many ways, those being targeted by cis “feminists” in the UK and those potential and actual victims of harassment/bullying that Halberstam called “neoliberal” and that Duggan has more recently called “neoliberal” are the same people: late Xers, millennials, and postmillennials, ungrateful ephebes, most of them (or should I say us) definitely doomed to live in perpetual arrears of the most basic sort, often for having paid tuition at places like NYU, and infantilized into our forties for that very reason. By that logic, we’ll never have sufficiently paid the price, can never pay it off, and will therefore never not be “new at this,” even when, as in the UK case, it’s the supposed elders who haven’t done the reading. The second sense of “new at this”—not having (sufficiently) paid the price, paid dues, paid back—too easily substitutes for, and obliterates, the other sense, the sense of learning.***

VI. Back to learning

The thing is that we do owe something to those we would call forebears, when they are part of the historical and intellectual continuity that made our own categories possible. And we owe something to expertise too, to the learning that is not just emergency learning for oneself, to learning both formal and informal gathered over years. We owe something in a way that we owe something to biological parents: they gave us life, and we didn’t have a choice about it; sometimes our forebears turn out to be awful (or partly awful and partly not) but they still made us. As gutted as I am by her signing that letter, I will always feel I owe something to Judith Butler and her powerful thinking. That’s why it’s such a betrayal when real expertise becomes a warrant for demanding deference instead of a pedagogical responsibility. That’s why it’s so outrageous that Reitman has been cast as taking advantage of Ronell for seeking her feedback on research—as Annie McClanahan rightly puts it, “IT. IS. CALLED. BEING. AN. ADVISOR.” A grad student being “new at this” field—in the most literal sense, not (yet) having done the reading and needing to—became transformed through a notion of “queer kinship” that all too perfectly echoed patriarchal kinship into the kind of “new at this” that had not yet paid the price, that could only ever owe.

To come back to the scenario that is more local to me, we have a different distribution of newnesses, in which a lot of cis feminists and “feminists” who have done just a bit of emergency learning about gender and sexuality are claiming the position of the experts, experts on being women by virtue of having paid the price, which those who are “new at this” (new at being women, that is, but of course not everyone who’s new; not cis girls, for instance) have not. Just to be clear: this is a price (i.e. misogyny) that as feminists we are supposed to be united in agreeing that no one should have to pay. Yet this claim to expertise makes perfect sense if we imagine that emergency learning is the only learning, or, to put it another way, that personal experience is the only source of knowledge about gender and sexuality. (I think it hardly needs observing but just in case: it is not.) It is true that trans women sometimes say things that are annoying, or wrong; some of them are “new at this” in the sense of not necessarily having done much or any reading around gender and sexuality any more than your average cis woman. But they are afforded no leeway to be new in that sense; whereas cis women, equally new or newer in the sense of not having done the reading, are thought to instantly trump trans women’s expertise in the register of personal experience, in the register of having paid the price for being women. (Having paid the price for being trans, it seems, does not “count”; they still “owe.”) If we want to talk about “neoliberalism,” perhaps we can look at the model of learning that sees only that learning which is immediately applicable to oneself as valid or real, in which YouTube plumbing videos are good but reading Gender Trouble is unnecessary and maybe even self-indulgent.

This conflation of newnesses, and the erasure of learning beyond emergency learning on which it depends (the learning that takes one outside oneself), is a way of relabeling violence as pedagogy, and it is anti-intellectual as well. It is “teaching a lesson” as beating. It rests on the fallacy that learning is an office of youth, where youth is a category of subjection to legitimate violence. (That is to say: it makes plain the violence on which the designation of “youth” is constituted under patriarchy.) We can learn something from paying a price, but being made to pay is not a pedagogy. Pedagogy means: letting people who are new at this learn, and not imagining that we have nothing to learn ourselves. I absolutely do not mean this in some liberal “let’s all be nice to each other and hear all sides” way. In fact, I believe that “being nice” and the regimes of favor that it entails often lead straight to abuse. What I mean is: let’s not confuse doing the reading for paying the price.

*This is not an endorsement of Annie Hall or its director.

**Lee Edelman, “Against Survival: Queerness in a Time That’s Out of Joint,” Shakespeare Quarterly 62.2 (Summer 2011): 167, 168.

***Further muddying the waters are the gleeful harangues of non-expert opportunists hoping to discredit feminist philosophy while clearly having no idea about its actual contents.

Thanks to Rachel O’Connell for helping me think through some of this.


  1. This is fantastic, Natalia. Thanks. I just quit Facebook and Twitter in despair but rest assured I will be retweeting it when I come back.

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