I’m at the 2017 Shakespeare Association of America, and write this after a day thinking about the (in)accessibility and (non)diversity of scholarship and Shakespeare. Karen Raber’s plenary on Queer Natures, Arthur Little’s panel on The Color of Membership, and Simone Chess and Will Fisher’s seminar on Early Modern Trans*Historicity all challenged us to think and act differently about difference and personal, structural and socialised phobia. In effect, we have been conferring about the (in)opportunities to confer, to participate, to matter.
Arthur Little powerfully called out members of our professional community who refuse to commune: those who do not include themselves in sessions about contemporary inclusion. For those of us who do attend such events, there is (I hope!) the shared experience of commitment to such values and an investment in valuing and celebrating historical forms of difference. We sometimes ask what these issues look like from the point of view of the patriarchy, of white superiority, of ablism or a binary-gendered position, but as a general rule we would not want to prioritise or re-enable such positions.
Meanwhile Atlanta is also hosting a conference for furries in a hotel connected by a bridge to the SAA hotel. Until yesterday, I had no idea the word ‘furries’ or the identities it underpins existed, and when I walked into the hotel next to ours and was confronted by hundreds of people dressed in gloriously-coloured anthropomorphic animal costumes, my first thought was that someone had spiked my drink. I was confronted with the new, the unexpected, the different and the fantastic. My colleagues and I responded with all the emotions such situations prompt: curiosity, fascination, embarrassment, the desire to look and the uncertainty about whether it is right to look.
I don’t want to conflate the various kinds of difference we explored yesterday at SAA with the difference of furry identity, but I am struck by the challenges this experience poses to the historical work we have been doing. When we historicise phobia, power and difference, we generally do so from a position of intellectual or cultural superiority: we are historicising forms of power-based differentiation which we ourselves do not or would prefer not to perpetuate. But our mutual conferring with furries presents us with new kinds of difference, and in effect places us in the subject position of dominant, normative identities – non-furries – confronted with unexpected difference. Allison Hobgood and David Houston have written recently about staring and disabled bodies, about the response of those who see themselves as normative to the surprise of meeting people who act or present as non-normative. I lived that issue yesterday: both the surprise and the sheer number of furries around us made it difficult not to look. And of course I wanted to look, not only because of my own curiosity but because it felt phobic not to look. And to my surprise, looking prompted immediate responses: furries looked back, interacted with me, and I found myself challenged by the practical difficulty of establishing eye contact with someone whose eyes I could not see.
There are issues here around play, fantasy, identity, human-animal relations, masking, bodily size (these costumes add both bulk and height to the human body) and even colour, though not in the sense that we usually use that word. However much I want to challenge the historical and contemporary issues of people who feel fear when confronted with difference, I myself found it unnerving to be unexpectedly amongst people whose faces and bodies I could not see and whose identities I did not understand and, perhaps crucially, could not name. So here we are, Shakespeare Associates, discussing difference and inclusivity, whilst also being excited and surprised by modern forms of difference. In our responses and experiences, we are embodying the normative subjectivities we usually critique. How does that feel?
I’ve written this during SAA itself. Please forgive typos or incoherence, but I wanted to record my responses as they happened, and invite others to respond.