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Elizabeth Grosz: Untapped Questions in Women's Studies

Elizabeth Grosz, the new Jean Fox O'Barr Professor in Interdisciplinary Feminist Studies.

One of the leading scholars in women's studies, Elizabeth Grosz is the Jean Fox O'Barr Professor in Interdisciplinary Feminist Studies in the Program in Women's Studies at Duke. She comes to Duke from Rutgers University, where she worked in the Women's and Gender Studies Department from 2002 - 2012. Known for her study of French philosophers and feminists, Grosz will teach classes this fall on feminist theory and thought.  She has published many scholarly articles and several books, most recently, Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics and Art (Duke University Press 2011).

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In an interview for the Women's Studies Newsletter, Melanie Mitchell asked Grosz about her scholarship and expectations in Duke classrooms.


Q: You are a strong proponent of public education and spent the past ten years at Rutgers University in New Jersey.  What convinced you to come to a private institution and what do you see as your greatest challenge in the classroom here at Duke?

Grosz: Duke has a strong reputation as a university that takes theory and the production of theory that is socially relevant very seriously. I spent a semester at Duke in the Women's Studies Program in 2010 and was awed by the number of seminars, reading groups, conferences and extra-curricular material available at Duke, and it provided real intellectual stimulation for me. Public universities and schools are going through a profound economic crisis where there will be greater and greater pressure to produce suitable knowledge for a narrowly conceived job market. Duke remains one of the few universities that is committed to the social sciences and the humanities as if they are values in themselves, as if knowledge itself matters, and not just a tightly focused job-orientation. This was for me the draw to Duke; but also, having some experience of the students already, it was an immense pleasure to teach classes here. Perhaps the greatest challenge in the classroom is mobilizing the privilege that students coming to Duke experience for some social (and artistic) good.


Q: Now, I am taking this statement completely out of context but I am curious; in an interview you gave you said:

"The interesting question is not who am I, what am I, how am I produced, or how is my identity stabilized -- although these aren't irrelevant questions. The more interesting question is how do I act, what enables me to do this, what acts in me when I act? And switching to the question of acting from the question of identity is a powerful shift. It's a different way of understanding how we organize, what in us is organized, whether we require a plan, and whether we require a certain intentionality. These things are all at stake."

And what I'd like to ask is: how is that statement indicative of your personal/academic philosophy about feminist studies and can you explain how that perspective influences what you're trying to accomplish in the classroom?

Grosz: This statement is indeed very important for me, and very important in how I would like classes to go. Who am I and who adequately or inadequately recognizes me are questions that are natural for us to ask, but they are questions about a self, an identity that I already have. I am interested in trying to liberate forces that are inside subjects and bodies that cannot be directly identified, that aren't about recognizing me and my centrality but about opening myself up to the world. This is what learning is.

So I am less interested in what many call 'identity politics,' a politics based on who one is and what categories one fits into -- though this is an important first step -- than I am about a feminist politics that is based on difference rather than identity, on forces outside oneself rather than what is merely within, on the world rather than oneself. Teaching needs to be challenging, to challenge students to think hard, and to think beyond themselves so that they might also see the world and its forces. This for me is the major challenge of the classroom.


Q. In fall you will be teaching two classes, WST 199S Thinking Gender: An Introduction to Feminist Theory for undergraduates and WST 860 Major Figures in Feminist Thought: Derrida for graduate students. Likewise in spring you will be teaching an undergraduate course, WST 372 Freud and Sexuality and a graduate course WST 860 Major Figures in Feminist Thought: Irigaray. 

Grosz: Yes. These classes will serve, I hope, to introduce some key ideas and some key thinkers to graduate and undergraduate students, thinkers and concepts that some at least may not have understood before. Derrida and Irigaray are among the most significant thinkers in 20th century thought and beyond, and it will be good to look at the work of these theorists (and those that write about them) carefully and in a step-by-step fashion.

They will be the objects of investigation for the graduate level classes; for the undergraduate classes, I will introduce students to concepts of power, and how power complicates (and even produces) individuality. We will look at the work of some of the major theorists who enabled the development of contemporary feminist theory -- Marx, Hegel, Freud, Foucault, Irigaray, Kristeva and others -- and will explore how their writings may help us to address contemporary feminist problems.


Q: What do you see as the great untapped intellectual question facing those in Women's Studies?

Grosz: This is a very good question and one over which there is much disagreement. For me, if questions of subjectivity and identity -- questions about who am I? and who are you, the other? -- have dominated Women's Studies for the few three decades of its existence, then I hope that questions about materiality, the world, the universe, life, animality, technology -- questions that interest physicists and biologists -- may also become key questions for feminist theory.

There are so many questions about reality, about what is outside ourselves, to be asked that it is exciting to contemplate how these questions will come to affect us and transform us. Feminist thought is still in its infant stages: I can imagine exciting new feminist questions erupting about the place of men and women not only in history and culture but also in nature.