PhD Oral Exam - Sophie Cook, Film and Moving Images Studies
Avant-Folk Experiments in Late Twentieth-Century American Feminist
Moving Image and Literary Self-Representation
This event is free
School of Graduate Studies
When studying for a doctoral degree (PhD), candidates submit a thesis that provides a critical review of the current state of knowledge of the thesis subject as well as the student’s own contributions to the subject. The distinguishing criterion of doctoral graduate research is a significant and original contribution to knowledge.
Once accepted, the candidate presents the thesis orally. This oral exam is open to the public.
In the 1970s, influenced by a confluence of radical politics, social justice movements, and new intellectual paradigms including postmodernism, poststructuralism, and postcolonialism, American women embraced personal and collective storytelling with vigor. Feminist historians including Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson, Janet Theophano, Marianne Hirsch, and Amelie Hastie have since reframed once peripheral acts of self-inscription—from letter and diary writing to scrapbooking and recipe collecting—as central to the ongoing social and political objectives of the feminist movement, rethinking female authorship along the way. This dissertation builds on their important scholarship to focus specifically on the unique intersections of folk traditions with radical formal and political experimentation in feminist self-representational art made by queer and BIPOC women between the 1970s and the early 2000s. Representing a wide range of intersecting identities, the artists whose work I explore confront the limited and limiting patriarchal conventions of personal narrative and narrative “truth,” but they also challenge mainstream American feminism’s often exclusionary politics by exploring paradigms of sexuality, class, race, and ethnicity in addition to gender. Their interventions exemplify why and how personal storytelling became a privileged means of counter-discourse and rebellion for women across a diversity of subject positions and a range of media.
The enactment of socially radical goals through formally radical techniques places the texts I examine squarely within a lineage of historical avant-garde movements. At the same time, feminist interventions led historians and artists alike to reconsider and reclaim traditional (and traditionally “feminine”) discursive practices and “folk” traditions like the cookbook, the family album, and the folktale. The seemingly incompatible or contradictory intersections of “folk” and avant-garde, tradition and experimentation, and the domestic and the radical are in fact highly generative, and they set the stage for further subversions of any clear distinctions between art and theory, self and other, memory and History, fiction and nonfiction, and public and private.
Autobiographical, ethnographic, and archival representational practices have historically upheld white colonial and patriarchal regimes of knowledge and power. Rethinking and remaking the mechanics of representation to suit their own unique identities and subject positions, feminist artists and authors began to experiment with newly hybridized modes that subvert rigid generic boundaries and rules. This thesis examines the “auto-archival” work of filmmakers Michelle Citron, Margaret Stratton, and Nina Fonoroff, Chicana author Norma Cantú, and graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel, who reimagine and remake personal and family archives. Contextualized by the legacy of Zora Neale Hurston, the “fictional autoethnographic” strategies of filmmakers Cauleen Smith and Cheryl Dunye and authors Cantú and Laguna Pueblo writer Leslie Marmon Silko are seen to invent auto/biographical stories and collapse collective histories into single, folklore-inflected life narratives. Finally, in “gastrography,” a representational mode exemplified by the writing of Alice B. Toklas and Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor and the new media experiments of Michelle Citron, explorations of individual and collective identity are enacted through recipes and food narratives. These works are explored as invitations to “cook up” each of the authors’ subjectivity and identity. In each case, the imaginative and literally creative acts of feminist “Avant-folk” storytelling restores the stories of marginalized women to public attention and historical discourse, rectifying gaps in the representation of the communities to which they belong on their own terms.
My approach blends close readings of illustrative moving image and literary texts with scholarship from a variety of disciplines in order to investigate the ways in which different modes and media of expression are inextricably linked with self-construction, self-knowledge and self-presentation. This dissertation is indebted to Catherine Russell’s scholarship on experimental ethnography (1999) and archiveology (2018), as well as Leigh Gilmore’s feminist theories of women’s self-representation (1994). Finally, inspired by and taking my cue from the very artists whose work I explore, I have attempted, where possible, to create a text that is itself fluid, that resists imposing singular meanings, rigid generic boundaries, or monolithic definitions on texts that understand identity not as a stable entity but rather as multiple, even contradictory.