'Thoughts that Burn but Cannot be Spoken': Re-imagining the Political within Histories of Feminist Activism

Boyd, Kathleen E. 'Thoughts that Burn but Cannot be Spoken': Re-imagining the Political within Histories of Feminist Activism. 2013. University of Washington, PhD dissertation.
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`Thoughts that Burn but Cannot be Spoken': Re-Imagining the Political within Histories of Feminist Activism is an interdisciplinary cultural study of feminist activism, from 1840 to the present moment, that focuses on exploring how the figure of the feminist activist and her corresponding activist practices are differently imagined in discrete historical moments. Parallel to the history of the 501 (c) 3 non-profit corporation, I move across the disciplines to track how the institutionalization of various forms of activism has differently (re)produced certain kinds of activist subjects whose social imaginaries inform the limitations and possibilities of social movements strategies for social transformation. Rather than constructing a social history of non-profit activism or a sociological study on particular feminist NGOs, my project is interested in tracing how the feminist activist subject is differently imagined in a variety of cultural and institutional domains, ranging from non-profits themselves and academic disciplines, to literary fictions produced in time with social movement activism. More specifically, this project is intent on exploring differing activist sensibilities and "alternative" forms of agency particular to black feminist political traditions in and against the current political context dominated by NGO and non-profit activism.

In order to expand contemporary political imaginations of anti-racist feminist activism, I strive towards three larger and related ambitions. First, this project resituates the current debates on NGOization and the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (NPIC) within a longer, critical cultural study of anti-racist feminist activism that interrupts the temptation to ahistorically or transhistorically universalize the present regime of NGOization as always the case. In this way, I consider how the NGO and non-profit have produced power accommodating activist subjects to different ends, in order to more broadly consider how institutions in civil society are historically and unevenly imbricated in furthering the expansion of state power. Second, my work to explore now "alternative" feminist activist subjects' imaginaries correlates with different theorizations of the relationship between citizens, the state and (global) civil society. In liberal and neoliberal traditions, civil society--and institutions in civil society like the non-profit--are presumed to inhabit a sphere separate from state and economic interests. Turning away from such theories, I follow Antonio Gramsci's work to investigate how institutions in civil society are subject making and world shaping. In a moment where non-profits and NGOs are uncritically celebrated across the disciplines as the most logical mode of social change, and are figured as the preeminent form of political agency for responding to state violence, globalization processes, and inequality at the local, national, and international level, this project considers the distinct ways these institutions are historically (though differently) bound up in what Gramsci calls the "educative function of the state." Finally, while I heavily rely on the work of feminist social scientists and social movement histories to think critically about NGOization and corresponding transformations in state power, this dissertation centers on literary production as an alternative site for thinking critically and historically about feminist activism and moreover, for (re)imagining new ways of being political. Reading historically, across disciplinary formations and "against the grain," I position the literary narratives of social movements as invaluable to emerging histories of feminist activism that, under NGOization, are either disappeared, or in some cases even memorialized in the service of legitimizing the dominant political logics of the present.

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Completed/published
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