Meet Scholar Cameron Awkward-Rich
Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of Sympathetic Little Monster and the chapbook Transit. He is a Cave Canem fellow and poetry editor for Muzzle Magazine, and his poems have appeared/are forthcoming in Narrative, The Baffler, Hayden's Ferry Review, Indiana Review, and elsewhere. Cam is also currently a doctoral candidate in Modern Thought & Literature at Stanford University.
Below, Cam and I dig into questions around academic vs. pop culture feminism, the merits and dangers of trigger warnings, and the role of gender studies departments moving forward.
1. The first question I'm itching to ask: How does the feminism you see in the news/pop culture diverge from the feminism you engage with academically? Is there a rift?
Well, I have to begin by saying that this is an impossible question. Impossible, in part, because these two spaces you mark out, “pop culture” and “academia,” are full of internal contradictions.
I suppose there are two main differences. First, the feminism I encounter in the academy tends to have a much longer memory. To risk sounding like my mother, I think the way information circulates these days (i.e. the internet, and specifically: the list, the hot take) makes concepts and conversations seem new, even when they are quite old. Which is not necessarily a bad thing! But I do think it creates a warped image of feminist history.
Second, perhaps more than popular feminism, academic feminism is really never settled and is a method rather than a goal. This is not always true, but at its best feminist analysis recognizes that because gender is historically and culturally contingent, what we require from feminism—if we define it, minimally, as a political vision oriented toward a world in which sex/gender don’t constrain life chances or opportunities—is also historically contingent. I think often pop culture analyses tend to come down to “is X feminist or nah?” (think of all of the internet debates about whether or not Mad Max: Fury Road was feminist) whereas—in part because it has a longer memory—academic feminism tends to ask questions like “how does gender function in X? To what ends?”
It’s also important to say that sometimes preferring questions to answers and having a long memory is beneficial and sometimes it is less so. For instance, I’m not sure that feminism in the academy has much to say about how to best live a feminist life at this particular moment in history. One exception is Sara Ahmed’s work, and she recently left the academy because of its failure to be, for her and others, a place in which a feminist life can unfold. But these are the kinds of questions I think pop culture is focused on: what to consume, how to react, how to relate to other people, what to do.
On the one hand, I do think it’s true that this kind of “lifestyle” or consumer feminism can never get at the roots of oppression or truly redistribute power. But, on the other hand, I also think it might be true that these forms of feminism—which want things like more and three-dimensional female, queer, trans, poc characters in TV and film; products that are made with marginalized people in mind, rather than as afterthoughts; you know, social recognition—can train us to want more from the world in general, to be attuned to other spheres: the prison system, healthcare, the university, and so on.
2. How about now, with the election? What do you think the election means for gender studies moving forward?
Oy. Well, I think dealing with the ramifications of the election is going to require having a long memory, being willing to look back to arguments, strategies, and habits of thought from the darker times (before Roe v. Wade, the decades between the gender clinics and the overturning of trans healthcare exclusions in public insurance, etc.). I think it’s also going to require turning back to questions that for many of us seem settled: the harm of sexual violence, the necessity of unlinking the concepts of ‘person’ and ‘man’, the difference between ‘free speech’ and ‘harassment’. And by ‘turning back’ I don’t necessarily mean making the arguments over again, but defending them relentlessly as norms of public engagement. Which means that we need a clear picture of how they became norms of public engagement in the first place, what forces (economic, psychic, demographic) are participating in the erosion of these norms, and so on.
Which is to say both that we will need gender studies more than ever and that anyone who believes this will have to actively defend the departments, centers, and programs in which it and all of the other ‘identity knowledges’ happen.
Also, selfishly, I think that this whole affair is going to make for some great books re: the role of gender in the election, beyond the “Clinton’s loss in places Obama won proves that the US is more sexist than racist” hot takes. For example: liberal investments in sex/gender normativity, those naked statues of Trump, and trans scapegoating post-election; Trump’s creepy dad masculinity and the imagined specter of the virile immigrant; that moment when the Republicans made a spectacle of disavowing Trump because his rhetoric, which began by dehumanizing Muslims, Latino immigrants, black people, and so on, crossed a line in its dehumanization of (white) women.
3. All fascinating examples of controversial gender issues manifesting in pubic reaction. What do you see as today’s controversial feminist/identity topic in academia?
This is a surprisingly interesting question. It might simply be that I live under a rock, but I’m having a very hard time coming up with topics that are controversial within academia, at least not in the way we’re used to thinking about academic or intellectual controversies. We often point back to the feminist “sex wars” as an example of such a controversy, or conflict over the place of trans in feminist and/or queer studies (I’m not suggesting that this one is settled, but it seems, at least within academia, to now be more of a question of “how do these discourses interact,” not “are they posing an existential threat to one another such that only one can be seen as valid”); conflicts like this are clearly about ideological/political differences.
But when I think of the recent controversies they all seem, instead, to be fundamentally rooted in the increased precarity of academic jobs—especially in the humanities/social sciences, where the various “identity knowledges” are housed. That is, academic controversies now seem to be about how to enact inclusivity and/or intersectionality in the classroom, curriculum, conference hall…any of the institutional spaces of academia.
The whole trigger warning debate is a good example. I really don’t think anyone disagrees with the premise that the classroom should be as accessible as possible. I especially don’t think anyone in gender, ethnic, disability studies disagrees with this premise. But I do think that many of the hostile responses, at least from those folks, come from the sense (and the reality) that trigger/content warnings as university policy that might require professors to predict and preempt any and all bad feelings, rather than as good pedagogical practice, can easily become yet another tool of administrative oversight that would lead to a shrinking of what it is possible to do in the classroom. (To be upfront, I still cannot quite comprehend how it is that students have been repeatedly positioned as the source of this anxiety, rather than, say, the neoliberal university itself).
4. Yes, trigger warnings are a hotbed of controversy, and I’d never thought of them before in the context of academic job precarity. How about feminism on campus? Do you it becoming more intersectional?
I’m going to equivocate and say: in some places, in some cases. You have to understand that, if you include my time in undergrad, I’ve been “on campus” for only 9ish years, and at two very different institutions, which allocate resources for feminist/anti-racist/queer/crip scholarship very differently. So it’s hard to say anything about “campus” generally. But I think gender studies has, for a long time, been oriented toward considerations of how race, class, gender, sexuality, ability, nation, and so on work together and against each other. Sometimes this orientation is substantive, sometimes not.
If by “on campus” you mean student activism, my answer is: I have no idea! But I suspect so – one of the benefits of not having a long memory is that it is much easier to acquire new and ever more expansive frameworks, to take the need for inclusivity as a given.
5. Have these trends impacted your scholarship on trans studies?
Well, I suppose that I am obsessed with controversy, with what it means to do substantively intersectional thinking, and what doing so gets us.
For example, I like to say that my dissertation project is about forms of “trans maladjustment” in literature and theory. But what this means is that I found myself endlessly frustrated by a particular kind of commonsense rejection of trans identity as mental illness within trans studies/activism, which extends to a commonsense rejection of a link between trans identity and a wide range of pathologized forms of feeling and habits of thought. I find this rejection frustrating because 1) simply taking for granted that trans identity is not a mental illness does little to stop people from taking for granted that it is, 2) this move is profoundly ableist insofar as it leaves intact the underlying premise that there are some configurations of cognition/emotion that cannot produce useable knowledge, and 3) things like untroubled agency, self-sameness, and good feeling seem like bad descriptions of trans life and cultural production.
In our present moment, many people recognize that there is a huge and hugely productive overlap between trans and disability studies/activism, and scholarship is increasingly moving in that direction, which is great. But I am convinced that to do substantively intersectional trans/crip thinking requires going back to the founding moments of the field, when trans scholars insisted on their authority by insisting that they weren’t “sick,” because this insistence has continued to shape what is thinkable/feelable within trans studies. So the work of my project is to develop modes of reading with, rather than against, familiar forms of “trans maladjustment” in order to offer some models of what trans/crip epistemologies might have been and might still be. Does that make sense?
Basically, substantively intersectional thinking often or even always requires upending basic assumptions and reworking common sense, which is hard work!
6. You’re also a poet, and so I’m wondering: how does poetry play in a role in your contending with these topics?
Poetry is where I go when I need to work out an idea. I think that this is true of many people, so poetry is also where I go when I would like to encounter new ideas, stranger versions of commonsense. So, inevitably, I write about poetry as one place that these other models of trans knowledge-making can be found.
But I also suppose that I like to keep the writing of poetry and the doing of academia separate, at least to the extent that I can, because poetry has sustained me during my grad school years, as a place to retreat, to re-sharpen my creativity. It would lose that magic if I also considered it “work.” Also as a writer, performer, and editor (for Muzzle Magazine, a handful a special issues, and as a contest judge), having some hand in allowing work by marginalized folks to circulate in the world feels to me like a tangible good in the way that scholarship rarely does.
7. Stanford’s Modern Thought & Literature website indicates that your dissertation project addresses transmaculine forms. What do you think is most often misunderstood about transmasculinity?
This isn’t about transmasculinity in particular, but one of the most often misunderstood things about trans identity generally—both in and outside of the academy—is that people seem to think of trans as a political identity (like Democrat or radical feminist) with a more or less coherent ideology, rather than a social one (woman, black, gay) which is political only insofar as claiming that I am a black person, for instance, is a claim that there is no—and ought to be no—contradiction between blackness and personhood.
Of course, trans, like queer (and like lesbian, once upon a time), can be a political identity. I can say I’m trans and mean that I am ideologically opposed to the binary sex/gender system, for example, but it need not mean that. This misunderstanding often underlies hot takes that oppose things like trans identity and feminism, trans identity and free speech, trans identity and the right to privacy, and so on. Not only is this like comparing trees and oranges, but it is also, frankly, a framing that allows people to publicly debate whether trans people are people, while denying that that is what they’re doing.
A trans person saying “I would like to be able to use the bathroom that best corresponds to the gender I live without fear of being legally ejected from that space” is clearly not saying “I am trans and therefore do not believe in sex/gender segregated spaces,” though they might not. What they clearly are saying is: “I am a trans person and would like to be able to fully participate in public life.” You know, like a person.
8. I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s fascinated with your work and wants to engage with it beyond Writing on Glass! Where can we buy your books and follow along?