Feminisms points to the critique of the great narrative of history, showing the meshes of power that sustain the universalizing discursive networks. Feminisms denounce and criticize. Therefore, it must be thought and remembered. However, these statements are not enough. It is always a problem to know what past is spoken, what past should be remembered and what can / should be forgotten?
Margareth Rago, Brazilian historian and researcher
I was between 15 and 16 years old when impacted by my father's leaving home and now living in a family supported by my mother and her workday of 12 hours teaching children, I left an upper middle class private school to study at a public school that served a poorer population in a country city in Brazil.
The reality I had known until then was surrounded by privileges and possibilities, and this permeated my notion of the world – I was not yet aware that it was not universal. In the new school, the options for the future that were presented to us were very limited: the aims there were to get a high school diploma and join the lesser-paid workforce. Although we were all just a few years away from the tests that in Brazil give access to universities, the possibility of going to college had never been verbalised or considered by that school. Our reality was not hegemonic, our knowledge was not science or technology, our memory was not institutionally relevant. Our best future was binary: not becoming young mothers as women and not getting involved with gangs as men.
Still, by this time in my life I had codes and ways of access to the institutions and structures that could help break this dichotomy: whiteness, a notion of English, good writing, books at home, and so on. The institutions opened for me and this year, at 34 years old, I'm finishing a master's degree, the first of my maternal family. In that span of almost 20 years, I became a feminist activist and a woman who loves another woman, even though as a teenager I had never heard about the history of the LGBTIQ + movement. Like many others, I migrated to the largest city in my country – Sao Paulo – and now I live in a large metropolitan capital.
Through the memories of the many feminists and relationships I was able to establish and I learned to theorise what in my teens was just a sensation: the awareness of my non-universality. I destabilised certainties, questioned naturalised norms, and learned to exercise listening and reflexivity to some extent. But it was not until the beginning of my master's degree, after knowing feminist technology initiatives in Brazil, that a certainty that accompanied me throughout this path of deconstruction was shaken: I became aware of my ability of not only to learn but to build knowledge and technology.
Through the memories of the many feminists and relationships I was able to establish and I learned to theorise what in my teens was just a sensation: the awareness of my non-universality.
When I began my research on community networks and feminist infrastructures in February 2017, I did not know what were network topologies, protocols, backbone, servers and autonomous networks, among other words. I did not think network was not synonymous with the internet, nor reflect on the existence of a network of submarine cables that structure the internet globally. I did not cover the camera on my computer or cell phone and did not worry about secure passwords – although I had already witnessed sexist cyber attacks and Edward Snowden's mass surveillance report in the United States was already well-known and even turned into a Hollywood movie.
By the end of the research, I made a point of registering that starting this process with so many unknowns does not invalidate me as an interlocutor, nor as a producer of knowledge and technologies. This is important if we think that, like me, many people moved away from the debate around cybercultures, digital technology, networks and infrastructures and that this is aggravated by an intersectional perspective when we consider structural and historical inequalities such as gender, race, ethnicity and class. This is not just an individual matter, but it is about denying access to places of power for some social groups. The monotony of interlocutors, besides perpetuating these inequalities, can also be a dangerous limit for the field of study itself, impoverished by echoing few voices and reverberating the colonialist legacy that contaminates our knowledge and practices even in Latin America.
I bring this little piece of my own story in this text to propose a reflection on memory and feminist research so we can think together about some questions that cross these two moments separated by 20 years in my life: who are the legitimate sources of information about some reality? Which bodies, stories and lives are worthy of being shown? How much we hide our own views and biases when we take on the task of showing, of building researches, texts, videos, drawings, photos as memory devices? How do we record the memory of absences, of what has not been said and the memory of our own unequal relations?
Which bodies, stories and lives are worthy of being shown?
Something that I learned from diverse women in my master's research, in which I was able to meet Latin American groups that put memory as an important guideline in the field of feminist technologies, is that a feminist network should "respect and rescue the memory of its communities and its women". One of these groups self-named Vedetas, mobilising the name itself to resist to the erasing of important parts of Brazilian history:
Vedeta is the name of the houses-like structures that were located on the beaches, from which the coast was guarded. During the War of Independence of Bahia State in Brazil, in the early nineteenth century, a black ex-slave named Maria Felipa took the Island of Itaparica for assault. For a few weeks, her female troops were on watch in these little houses, knocking down Portuguese vessels. The women of the troop were known as vedetas and were very popular in the common imagery of Itaparica, being associated with the song of capoeira Maria Twelve Men. Maria would be Maria Felipa, who would have knocked down 12 men at once.
This practice of thinking about the encounter between different groups in a perspective of alliances that rescues and values the memory of diverse women can inspire us not only to build new technologies but also new sciences. Reclaiming memory, thus, is part of a dispute of which history and perspectives are worthy of being remembered, documented, archived and considered as knowledge building.
In this context, my argument in this text is that memory emerges as a powerful guideline for feminist research ethics and methodologies, as it can help us in three ways: 1) in promoting an alliance between academic research and the need to document the knowledge and memory of women and non-hegemonic groups; 2) in helping to prevent the appropriation of local knowledge by the researchers and the research institutions when combined with other ethical guidelines; 3) as a practice that can contribute to activate listening and build a link between different knowledge.
Ethical guidelines and memory
When there is some space to talk, for example, to a black transvestite, is it permissible for her to talk about Economics, Astrophysics, or is she only allowed to talk about subjects relating to being a black transvestite? Is knowledge built outside academic space considered knowledge?
Djamila Ribeiro, Brazilian philosopher*
In dialoguing with the theoretical legacy of black women and bringing the perspective of the place of speech (lugar de fala in Portuguese), the Brazilian philosopher Djamila Ribeiro emphasizes the importance of locating components that are understood as the universal condition – for example, and in particular, discussing race and racism can not be the task of black people only. White people must think and talk about racism, but not speaking for, with or about the experience of black women, but from their own position, they should discuss whiteness and its place in structural racism, recognizing that being white is not the universal condition and that we need to challenge whiteness as the foundation of racial categories. The author brings the contribution of several black feminist theorists who have long denounced how the imposition of an appearance of universality, neutrality and objectivity has acted to maintain discriminations, violations, violence and hierarchies, forging interlocutors who are perceived as more socially legitimate to ‘gauge truths’ and produce knowledge, while creating places of institutional silence for many others.
While it is crucial to have more diversity of people conducting research in different fields of knowledge, as feminist researchers we are challenged to ‘hack’ institutions whenever possible if we want to transform them. If researching is many times an institutional act, the commitment to memory could be a path to archive knowledge and practices of women and social groups that are often silenced.
If researching is many times an institutional act, the commitment to memory could be a path to archive knowledge and practices of women and social groups that are often silenced.
There is, however, a recurrent concern in feminist research: we often wish to avoid the reproduction of practices that we critically evaluate in the content of our researches while doing it, such as the reproduction of hierarchical or universal schemes that can reinforce power asymmetries or erases the plurality of local experiences and situated knowledge.
Supported by the various women who build these paths, we often try to conduct our research free from a pretension of "objectivity," "neutrality," or even of reaching definitive truths and without establishing previous binarisms. These commitments are expressed in some choices and efforts, which are not always fully achieved, but that are guiding our research process and we seek to keep as much as possible: 1) open for listening and dialogue with local knowledge and practices; 2) capable of looking at multiple situations in which tensions, continuities, resistances and negotiations are established and escaping from generalisations; 3) away from the reproduction of a hierarchical division between academia-researchers and object-society; 4) open to the flow of events and ideas in research (and writing); and 5) to maintain a reflexive posture, promoting a constant evaluation of our methodologies, practices and ethics in each milestone of the process (as the awareness of privileges and power asymmetries demands a change of attitude that goes beyond simply declaring them in the papers that emerge from our researches).
Certainly, achieving total rupture with colonialist legacies and power asymmetries is impossible, especially from an individual perspective in a world so crossed by structural inequalities and discrimination. Even for the sake of our emotional health, as feminist researches, we are not pursuing purity or perfection, but we are trying to build research processes from other paradigms and perspectives that pass through experimentation, expressing choices and subjectivities, questioning assumptions, and assuming (and embracing) contradictions and vulnerabilities.
In a meeting of the Feminist Internet Research Network (FIRN) early this year, we discussed The Feminist Internet Ethical Research Practices, including memory among them. We considered that if the politics of knowledge building is also about resisting being forgotten, we must ask ourselves: if people have always been forgotten, how can this be addressed? How can your projects contribute to preserving memory and building archives for the community and the participants in the research process?
Many feminists’ theories* have also proposed the valorisation of local knowledge and the retrieval of women's memories and narratives. If we consider that most researches bring together different women, as academics and those from territorialized communities, our research documents have the potential of gathering different memories and narratives.
Considering the fruitful reflections of feminist theories at this point, I would like to propose that we add a question in this framework: how can we preserve community and participants memory without the pretension of speaking for them? Is it possible to embrace a perspective of knowledge encounters that produce relevant archives for all groups involved in the process from each one of the perspectives?
How can we preserve community and participants memory without the pretension of speaking for them?
Memory and knowledge appropriation
It is important to recognize that the process of experimentation we sometimes build aiming to adopt new research practices also brings risks. A specific risk that I would like to highlight at this point is that there is a common desire for breaking hierarchies between researchers and researched. We also often use the anonymisation of communities and participants to avoid describing people and initiatives in a way that surpasses constructed consent or exposes them to attacks. On the other hand, when making these kinds of choices, we are walking a thin line, often flirting with the possibility of mixing those voices with our own in a way that can lead to the individual appropriation of multiple knowledges. And often in the eyes of society, we are supported by the legitimacy of research institutions.
As a white female researcher with access to academic institutions, it is important to recognise that even among non-hegemonic subjects – as feminist women in the global South – the combination of multiple inequalities (such as race, ethnicity, class, gender) emphasise the importance of memory is being activated together with other ethical guidelines and questions. The memory in our research should seek to produce institutional and accessible archives from the stories and narratives that have been historically silenced, but with the need of not romanticising the communities or us or even erase our place of speech. This highlights the importance of also producing memory of our experiments, registering mistakes and positive outcomes that emerge when we search alliances that construct narratives and memories without being privileged interlocutors appropriating knowledge.
This highlights the importance of also producing memory of our experiments, registering mistakes and positive outcomes that emerge when we search alliances that construct narratives and memories without being privileged interlocutors appropriating knowledge.
In other words, this led us to think about memory as a resisting act that should also be crossed by an intersectional perspective or other perspectives that could help us to move away from a pretension of universality and have multiple memories of our diversity. But also lead us to think about the memory of our privileges and the documentation about our own limits and reflections regarding its role in structural inequalities.
How can memory help to build an alliance between different knowledges?
Memory can activate our listening and lead us to plan the appropriate time to interact with communities and participants. Also, it stimulates us to try to expand the approach of looking for answers to research questions, but also aiming to know and respect local narratives and to be reflexive about our own position (and the tensions and destabilisations that emerge from this reflexivity are understood as power here, not as contradictions that can or should be stabilised). By doing this approach we could produce expansive documentation, mobilising research institutions to help us to resist the process of delegitimising the history and memory of certain social groups and bodies, but also bringing issues that have been erased under the semblance of universality and impartiality to the surface.
Clearly, these reflexive guidelines will be challenged by different realities in our researches and perfection is something impossible to reach. It is also important to consider that internet and digital data-driven methodologies will face new and specific challenges regarding practices around memory – but they can also be more important than ever.
We must consider that big tech companies have the aim to control what should be recorded and shared, and that they also often mobilise a huge amount of data not only to know and predict user-behaviour, but aiming to influence and control them. Then memory is about reclaiming the past, but it is also about disputing the control of our futures by insisting on being present, in existing and in questioning assumptions. It seems important to reclaim memory based on guidelines as alliances, transparent processes, risk evaluation and consent, and keeping in mind that company surveillance processes and digital data storage take place in non-transparent ways with the main goal of generating political control and monetisation. Reclaiming the feminist practices regarding memory by thinking about new contexts and new power relations can help us challenge digital technologies that perpetuate notions of universality and objectivity while keeping their interests and political choices opaque.
Reclaiming the feminist practices regarding memory by thinking about new contexts and new power relations can help us challenge digital technologies that perpetuate notions of universality and objectivity while keeping their interests and political choices opaque.
On the other hand, digital platforms have been mobilized by social groups to gather old incidents of abuse and harassment and build digital collective archives, as #metoo and #blacklivesmatters movements have shown.
In this context, the proposal here is more than think about memory as a solid tool or something that could bring definitive and peaceful answers, but to invite us to think about how we can activate memory from multiple perspectives in our research process about internet and digital technologies? Can we help to keep other imaginaries and narratives alive? What can we register about our own privileges and the methodologies and guidelines we are building to deal with them? How can we hack academics and produce feminists archives that not only are important to re-signifying our past and present, but is crucial to dispute and build different futures?
I would like to close these reflections with a quote from a friend that can help us link memory and future. In the process of knowing Vedetas better in the past few years, Fernanda Monteiro, a Brazilian transhackblackfeminist, told me in an interview for my master research:
“There are two perspectives of memory’s importance when one comes to feminist infrastructure and infrastructures of affection: one is to try to keep memories from being erased again, to try to stop the process of invisibility of memory, specifically in relation to these female bodies. And the other is from a futurist perspective, which means to understand that the past and future are actually part of the present. Memory is presence, it is not only a major event or a historical situation, but it is a moving construction”
Feminist Internet Ethical Research Practices: https://www.genderit.org/resources/feminist-internet-ethical-research-practices
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