Depending on my spatiotemporal location, I interpret the ambiguous title of the conference for which an earlier version of this essay was written—Gender’s Future Tense—differently: is it a grammatical error? Or a linguistic innovation? When I occupy a privileged position at an American university, the twist of grammar against itself suggests an imaginative, sometimes violent expansion of language to create new possibilities of signification or to make room for excluded or erased voices. Yet outside the university, a grammatical error, coupled with my accent, represents an embarrassing failure of assimilation and of speaking language properly. Depending on its relation to ethnicity, race, and class and the location of an utterance, accent and linguistic errors can generate suspicion or worse, intensify racist violence against immigrants.

However, since this article is for feminist audiences, I can safely assume that the twist of grammar is meant to invite rethinking the relation between gender and future, and for me this reflection begins with the question of whether “gender” is a noun or a verb. If gender has grammatical tenses, including future tenses, then it can be a verb, a grammatical category used to express, as any English dictionary can tell us, action or modes of being. Hence the question in my title, “Shall we Gender?,” pertains first of all to the relation between gender and action. Of course we are accustomed to frequent uses of the past participle “gendered,” which describes us and the world of having been formed by gender power relations in different ways. But to gender ourselves?  In the future?

I. “Where?” Or How to Lose a (Second) World

Let me begin with the “where?” in my title. As an immigrant from Eastern Europe, whose undergraduate college days in Poland coincided with Solidarity activism—subsequently crushed by marshal law—I grew up with the intense urgency of political action, but action separated from gender as a meaningful political category and with a bizarre experience of class in the aftermath of a classless society. I learned feminist theory in the United States. I consider myself a feminist theorist, but neither Western nor Eastern-European.  The notion of dislocation, which influences my reflections on gender and action, is, of course, a frequent issue in feminist work. Nonetheless, I find it difficult to analyze it in my own writings because of the erasure of Eastern European feminist struggles in transnational feminist thinking in the United States. Writing, after all, cannot happen in isolation. This erasure of Eastern European feminisms complicates first of all the First/Third World, Global North/Global South, West/non-West divisions in feminist studies. Second, it calls for a different political analysis of class in the former so-called “classless” societies.  For example, women of my generation raised in classless societies witnessed or participated in the revolutionary struggles of dissident workers and intellectuals against the socialist totalitarian regime, only to see the rise of the new liberal state and its market ideology (or worse, right-wing nationalism) take the place of our aspirations for freedom and democracy (see Grabowska 2012 for a discussion of socialist legacies of Polish feminism and the erasure of the second world). So while I grew up with the urgency of oppositional action, my experience of class in socialist Poland had been pre-empted in advance by the ideology of the already-achieved classless state in the “Second” world.

Similarly, new methodologies are needed to analyze gender in societies where feminist movements have been delegitimated, first by the communist regime and then by the post-communist right, which accuses feminism of imposing the discredited communist ideology of class warfare onto relations of the sexes (see, e.g, Hoser 2013). Transnational comparative feminist and leftist critiques of the “social realisms” (for instance, in Eastern Europe, China, and Cuba) are desperately needed—critiques without apologetics or Western fantasmatic projections of wish fulfillment onto these societies. First of all, such a critique cannot be abandoned to the right because it will be and has been used against feminism. Second, feminist confrontation with state socialism can work as a corrective to false generalizations in so many Western leftist critiques of capitalist neoliberalism, for instance, in Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism (2009).  And finally, we need to examine that historical past in order to confront the transnational dimensions of the contemporary “gender war” in Eastern Europe, and even more importantly, to reimagine the alliance of democracy and socialist feminism (see, e.g, Graff 2014 and Korolczuk 2014 for an analysis of transnational dimensions of “gender war” in Eastern Europe).

Although I will focus my remarks in this section on Poland (because of linguistic limitations and the limited space of this essay), I would claim that, for feminisms in Eastern Europe in general, the socialist past represents the inextricable contradiction between domination and liberation imposed by the repressive state/party apparatuses in order to invalidate not only feminism but any grass roots women’s agency and collective self-definition. During the socialist regime, women were deprived of any possibility of acting as women and were positioned instead as the passive beneficiaries of the “liberation” by the repressive socialist state. The state-sponsored liberation of women as part of the universal liberation of the working class explicitly prohibited any feminist action, whether it was in the street, the workplace, or the university, since all these locations were equally suspicious places of dissidence. To be sure, the communist liberation of women without women brought important progressive changes, like the 1956 liberal abortion law in Poland, improved access to free education and to work place advancement, and equal pay for women. Yet these advancements coexisted with secret police surveillance, the patriarchal division of labor in the family, sexism, homophobia, compulsory heterosexuality, and the persistent, often deliberately engineered food shortages, which aimed (unsuccessfully) to substitute atomizing struggles for individual survival—for instance, crowds storming food stores after waiting for long hours—for collective political action against the regime. Consequently, during state socialism women could have access to education and advance in the workforce, but on the condition that they did all the domestic labor and that they participated in the compulsory masquerade of feigning “support” for the regime either by being forced to become party members (often a requirement in the workplace) or repeating appropriate slogans while smuggling subversive meanings in between the lines. (In parenthesis I want to remark that it is not an accident that Judith Butler is one of the most prominent gender theorists in Poland, since we all had been so well trained in both compulsory performativity of social roles and in their often ingenious parodic subversive repetition. The new task her work presents is the extension of performativity so that contemporary democratic struggles also include gender dissidence. But then of course it is an open question whether performativity practiced in daily life in the communist regime changes the meaning of performativity itself).

The disastrous effect of this socialist liberation” of women without women is the delegitimation of gender as a meaningful category of political struggle, collective self-definition, or analysis of personal experience. Another closely related legacy inherited by feminism in the “Second World” is the distrust of feminism.  In Poland, a very unlikely complicity between the Communist Party and the Catholic Church managed to ridicule feminism as the Western capitalist “alien” import created by hysterical women—incompatible with intellectual, socialist, national, family, and religious values.  This delegitimation of feminism survived the collapse of the totalitarian regimes and persisted during the so-called transition to democracy, which literally trampled the bodies of women, since one of the first triumphant markers of that democracy was the repeal of the 1956 “communist” pro-choice legislation and the institution of one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. In the post-Solidarity democracy, the rise of feminism as a political, economic, and intellectual movement coincided with extremely restrictive legislation in the sphere of reproductive rights and with the persistent association of gender with the former ideology of the corrupt communist regime. Ironically, feminism was delegitimated as an alien Western thing during communism, but in the post-communist liberal state it is regarded as a dangerous leftover of the repressive communist past. As Agnieszka Graff claims, “Polish feminism can be viewed through a series of paradoxes. It is a movement that began its growth by denying its own existence; it uses third wave tactics to achieve goals typically associated with the second wave of feminism; it exists in a cultural climate of backlash, but this backlash was not preceded by any feminist gains” (Graff 2003, 114). Feminist and queer struggles for gender equality remain uncanny as they have been consistently labeled as “illegal aliens” at the moment when they touch what is most familiar and quotidian in political life. This undermining of gender struggles by both socialist and liberal regimes should give us pause when we hear Western leftist claims that feminist and LGBTQ movements have become acceptable, not because of action and organization of their participants, but because of their appropriation as market commodities.

In Poland, as a result of this postwar history of the delegitimation of gender as the catalyst for collective action and intellectual analysis, the institution of political feminist grass roots movement—in coalition with the LGBTQ, decolonization, and the struggle with anti-Semitism—occurred belatedly in the 1990s and has been an ongoing political struggle ever since. At stake in this struggle, which occurs in the universities, media, streets, churches, and the parliament, is first the reclaiming of gender as a legitimate category of intellectual analysis, legal, cultural, and economic critique, as well as a key issue for political mobilization. Second, it is a struggle for the transformation of oppressive gender relations, especially the struggle with homophobia, which has double roots in socialist and religious ideologies.

The ironic measure of the growing success of these political and academic acts has been the “war on gender” declared by the Polish Catholic Church and the political right in the fall of 2013 (see, e.g,  Przewodnik Krytyki Politicznej,2014 for a good progressive, mainstream guide to both gender war and feminist queer responses). Although transnational in its reach, the gender war is mobilized by both the media and the pulpits in Poland in order to stop the spread of the pernicious “communist ideology” of gender, which supposedly destroys biological and spiritual dimensions of sexual identities, national and family values, morality, and civilization itself. [1] For the religious right, LGBTQ is the “schizophrenic,” and thus ultimately auto-destructive outcome of radical feminism (Hoser 2013). Because gender (or dzender) and queer are imported English words into Polish language, they are easily manipulated to appear as sinister foreign terms designating potentially anything or everything that provokes fear of the unknown, which far exceeds the specific fears of those who do not fit normative heterosexuality. This un-locatable, fantasmatic sense of danger is used to justify the growing sadism of the implementation of the already incredibly restricted anti-abortion law, homophobia, as well as the questioning of the intellectual validity of gender studies. According to Polish feminist Agnieszka Mrozik, the specificity of gender studies in Poland lies in the fact that they are a belated and still a very “scarce commodity:” they emerged in Poland in the mid-1990s as 1- or 2-year postgraduate studies (still not yet available to undergraduates) funded primarily by high student tuition and EU funding, not by the state, and therefore not able to offer the free public higher education available in other fields (Mrozik 2010).

As this short analysis implies, the erasure of Eastern-European women and feminism in transnational feminist studies limits the theoretical and historical analysis of gender and class, on the one hand, and troubles the First/Third World, Global North/Global South, West/non-West divisions, on the other hand.  Yet, what these disastrous after-effects of the liberation of women without women also suggest is that action is the central category of the feminist analysis of gender. What this means is that we need to think about gender not only as a catalyst for political action, but also as an action in its own right.  Thus, although I agree with Linda Zerilli that action is the basis of feminist political analysis, I disagree with her claim that action-centered feminism is antithetical to a theoretical feminism (Zerilli 2005).

II. To Gender is to Act

If to gender is to act, what kind of theory of action is at stake here? To answer this question, I want to turn to Hannah Arendt’s political theory of action, which is not explicitly connected with gender, but becomes so in my interpretation of her work.  The rapidly growing interest in Arendt studies has produced numerous feminist critiques and creative reinterpretations of different aspects of her work, ranging from the issues of freedom, judgment, responsibility, Zionism, refugees, body, plurality, natality, and narrative, to race, rights, sexuality and agonistic politics.[2] Drawing on this vast body of scholarship, I want to propose that what is especially useful for feminist analysis of gender is Arendt’s theory of action, because her theory does not presuppose a common collective gender identity, contested by feminists since the 80s, or the shared experience of oppression, and yet provides a robust theory of political agency. Instead of a common identity, action requires a plurality of political agents since no action can be started in isolation. In the context of Arendt’s work, this plurality of participants and the meaning of action itself have to be interpreted on at least two levels. First, each action is always mobilized by specific political  goals and material interests, which in the context of feminism include struggles against racism, capital, anti-Semitism, homophobia, police brutality, gender discrimination, decolonization, the struggle for reproductive rights of all women, and the sovereignty of First Nations. With very few exceptions, this material, “objective” aspect of action is the least developed of Arendt’s thought, and in order to flesh it out we need to turn to other feminist theorists, for example, to Kimberlé Crenshaw, Gayatri Spivak, Uma Narayan, bell hooks, Chantal Mouffe, Agnieszka Graff, Bozena Uminska, Patricia Williams, and the contributors to this special issue, among so many other feminist scholars and theorists.

Yet, what Arendt adds to feminist analyses is the emphatic claim that action is irreducible to a means-ends rationality. First of all, even the pragmatic feminist goals and strategies of action are not only determined by existing relations of power/knowledge, but also generated by alliances, contestations, different interpretations of these relations, and negotiations about future alternatives among the actors themselves. That is why the material objective “interests” of feminist action, such as the struggles with gender discrimination, poverty, and racism, disclose not only patterns of domination, but also an objective “inter-est,” or in-betweenness, by which the participants of action are inter-related among, separated from, excluded from, and bound to each other (Arendt 1958, 182). This in-betweenness shows the manner by which actors inhabit, are marginalized by, or, like Arendt’s pariahs, are excluded from the common world (see Seth [2009, 132-41] for an illuminating discussion of Arendt’s notion of a pariah in the context of anti-Black and anti-Muslim racisms). The political alliances formed in opposition to discrimination do not require, as Amy Allen (1999) points out, common identity or the common experience of oppression, but the common commitment to act together. In addition to contesting the objective patterns of gender discrimination, the political alliances formed in the process of action also create among their participants the second level of in-betweenness, which consists of the unpredictable interactions among the actors themselves during the course of the event. Because agents can relate to each other in multiple ways, this inter-subjective modality of relationality cannot by determined in advance by the given structures of power, political goals, tactics, or affiliations of agents (Arendt 1958, 183). We can point to many contemporary examples of these unpredictable interactions, such as political protests in Istanbul’s Gezi Park in 2013, which began as a protest against the destruction of the park and grew into a demand for a change of government. The current political actions in the US protesting police brutality against African American men and women experiment not only with different tactics—from rallies, marches, and die-in protests to the formation of Black Lives Matters and Black Women Matter movements—but also enact in the process different modalities of interracial, gendered relations.

The main reason action does not presuppose a common gender or racial identity or agency based on that identity is because political acts are relational, dependent upon the mutual exposure of actors to each other; on affecting and being affected by others. Action occurs in and is shaped by what Arendt calls the incalculable “web” of human relations (183). Ultimately, what distinguishes action from what feminist sociologist Margaret Somers (1994, 615) criticizes as the category of “behavior. . . [measured by] rational preferences” are its two fundamental performative effects: first, the creation of agency in the process of the act itself and, second, the initiation of a new beginning in politics. In other words, Arendt’s model reverses the agent/action relation: it is not agency that explains action, but instead action that creates agency for the first time. Rather than pre-existing action as the property of the individual or collective subject, the inter-relational agency is itself created through praxis. These forms of action, like the annual March 8th feminist and LGBT political street theater in Poland (“Manifa”), inaugurate alternative modes of relationality and change habitual gendered modes of being.

Action creates agency because it generates new forms of political power. This is another crucial contribution of Arendt’s political theory that is relevant to feminist theories of gender and politics. Arendt distinguishes power generated through action, which depends upon human plurality and alliances, from violence which destroys such plurality. But even more importantly, Arendt distinguishes the generative power of action from the already constituted, or what she calls “conditioned,” relations of power/knowledge—the complex patterns of racism, capital, anti-Semitism, homophobia, gender discrimination, or biopolitics. Occurring in the context of the historically constituted network, a new ‘syntax’ of power is nonetheless generated among actors who “join themselves together for the purpose of action, and it will disappear when, for whatever reason, they disperse” (Arendt 1963, 175). Each action “gathers together the isolated strength of the allied partners and binds them into a new power structure” (170). By gathering together strangers in the polis, praxis augments their capacities and creates new possibilities in political life. Consequently, what the participants of action lose is their isolation and powerlessness; what they gain is agency and power. In stressing the constituting, interactive character of power generated through action, Arendt provides a crucial intervention into a politics based on liberal individualism, communitarianism, the presumed universality of political agency, and the impersonal forces of history.

Since action generates “constituting” (or  shall we say “gendering?”) power among the participants, it creates the possibility of a new beginning in political life. Whether it occurs on a miniscule local or revolutionary collective scale, each action initiates something unexpected, “infinitely improbable” (Arendt 1958, 178): it interrupts historical continuity and the re-production of the relations of power/knowledge. In a profound sense, the outcomes of actions are unpredictable and surprise the agents themselves. This is the implication of Arendt’s (1963, 175) claim that action is fundamentally intertwined not only with the realization of urgent political goals but also with “the world-building capacity.” As a response to the marginalization or exclusion from the political, such a “world building” capacity is one of the crucial issues in women’s struggle with political and economic dispossession. Although Arendt’s theory of action is not explicitly related to gender, there is one exception. In a very suggestive formulation, Arendt (1963, 42) argues that transformative action enacts with others the “birth” of a new world. The political birth of a new world, or what Arendt calls the politics of natality, not only implicitly inscribes the gendered inflection of possibility into the political, but also connects it with the creative aspect of political freedom rather than with heteronormative procreation.

To conclude: once we think of gender in terms of action, then we need to analyze it not only in terms of the already constituted forms of power but also in terms of constituting, unpredictable, inter-relational, and future-oriented ways of interacting. Is it not action that allows us to think about gender’s future tense in the first place?

III. Who?

Although it depends on human plurality, action not only creates intersubjective agency for women and new “gendering” power structures, but also discloses the uniqueness of each  gendered agent. Since it is action with others that reveals our uniqueness for the first time, such uniqueness cannot precede action—acting with others is in fact its condition of possibility. There is no doer without the deed; no uniqueness without collective participation. Consequently, uniqueness can be glimpsed only retrospectively, in the aftermath of all these activities. That is why I disagree with Chandra Mohanty (2003, 80-2), that speaking from within collective participation in revolutionary struggles is antithetical to singularity. In fact, singularity depends on such struggles. However, I do agree that such singularity cannot be confused with liberal individualism.

Arendt calls this paradoxical singularity disclosed through action “who” and distinguishes it from “what,” which she associates with shareable attributes and qualities forming group identities and subject positions. By reinterpreting “whatness” in the context of feminist theory, I argue that such attributes are shaped by power relations of race, gender, division of labor, institutions, ethnicity, age, nationality, occupation, religion, race, sex, as well as all kinds of affiliations and contributions that we make. As feminist and critical race theorists have argued, these attributes are relational, imbricated in the patterns of power and knowledge, caught in hierarchies or exclusions, and reshaped by the struggles against such exclusions.

Needless to say, “whatness” corresponds most closely to gender understood as a noun, the meaning of which emerges from within the differential relations of power and therefore is intertwined with objectification, discipline, normalization, abnormality, or exclusion. That is why the “whatness” of gender, race, or class cannot be classified too quickly as “identity politics,” however fluid and hybrid these identities might be, because it also implies a politics of relationality. As we know, feminist, race, and LGBTQ theorists have proposed many competing understandings of this relationality: one of the most enduring models proposed by Black feminist critics is “intersectionality” (Kimberlé Crenshaw), followed by the ongoing debate whether this model implies “separateness” of identity categories or “inseparability” of relations (to use Lena Gunnarsson’s (2015) apt formulation). Other crucial formulations of relationality include “speaking in tongues” (Gwendolyn May Henderson); performativity (Butler); queer assemblages (Jasbir Puar); the semiotic, affective intensities (Kristeva); and the fourfold interval of sexual difference, (Irigaray), to name only a few of the most compelling feminist theoretical models. 

Action, in so far as it manages to generate new relational power structures and create the possibility of a new beginning, can change the meaning of the “what” of gender. Yet, in addition to transforming the constituted gendered networks of power/knowledge and to redefining the very notion of gender as a constituting, unpredictable, future-oriented interaction, action also discloses the uniqueness of a “who.” There is enough “gender trouble,” to use Butler’s famous phrase, when we understand gender either as a “what”  so why is the concern with singularity disclosed through action important for feminist politics? As a marker of singularity, the “who” is intangible, since it exceeds relational meanings of gender or race. Such singularity can only be posed in the form of a question: who are you? And when we attempt to answer this question in the form of either individual or collective self-definition, rather than to disclose it through actions, the answer invariably slides into “what.” As Arendt (1958, 181) puts it, “the moment we want to say who somebody is, our very vocabulary leads us astray into saying what he is; we get entangled in a description of qualities he necessarily shares with others.” Since, as Cavarero (2000, 44) points out, uniqueness depends on the exposure to others, on a kind of “perspectival dislocation” and being beside oneself, it is accompanied by the obscurity of political motivations and the obscurity of ourselves to ourselves. Consequently, the disclosure of singularity through action inverts the usual oppositions between inner and outer, public and private, self-knowledge and collective understanding. Once we depart from the premise of the autonomous political subject—collective or individual—as the basis of  politics, we have to accept that actors not only do not know others with whom they act, but, as Arendt insists, they do not know themselves.  The uniqueness of a “who” is the limit of cognition, language, and discursive structures. That is why the disclosure of singularity pushes political language to the limits of expression: “The manifestation of who the speaker and doer unexchangeably is, though it is plainly visible, retains a curious intangibility that confounds all efforts toward unequivocal verbal expression” (Arendt 1958, 181). Uniqueness disclosed through action opens the possibility of a feminist collectivity in which singularity, belonging, and antagonistic relations co-exist.

Although Arendt does not follow this line of analysis consistently, her own work on totalitarianism, refugees, homosexuality, and anti-Semitism shows that whatness—or the political, cultural, gendered, and religious affiliations and attributes of subjectivity—can be either ossified into biopolitical norms or destroyed altogether. Both biopolitical normalization and thanatopolitical destruction of worldly attributes we share with others invariably lead to the destruction of the uniqueness of agents. Consequently, although the “who” and “what” of agency are irreducible to each other, they are nonetheless intimately interconnected. Note, for example, that although the disclosure of uniqueness occurs in the form of a question “who are you?” not every mode of address will reveal singularity. On the contrary, we can immediately enumerate many contexts and many modalities of the address, which will obliterate such a disclosure in advance: a police interrogation, torture, a border crossing investigation, racial profiling, and so forth. That is why the what/who distinction, which makes sense only in the context of joint action, is invariably gendered, racialized, and entangled in the whole network of relations of power/knowledge. Yet, although singularity of a who depends on this network, the uniqueness disclosed through action also exceeds it and remains irreducible to categorization.

One of the most poignant recent political actions in the United States insisting on remembering the uniqueness of the Black women killed by police was the #SayHerName Vigil in Remembrance of Black Women and Girls Killed by the Police, which took place May 20, 2015 in Union Square, New York City, accompanied by a report about police violence against black women written by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and Andrea J. Ritchie (2015). Family members of Tanisha Anderson, Rekia Boyd, Miriam Carrey, Michelle Cusseaux, Shelly Frey, and Kayla Moore—the victims of police killings—together with artists, scholars, and activists, gathered together not only to break the silence about police brutality against black women and expand the political opposition to such murderous violence, but also to disclose and remember the uniqueness of each of these women through sharing in public their names, photographs, stories, and experiences. As the organizers of the event wrote in their press release: “The event will lift up the stories of these women and recognize that although Black women are killed, raped and beaten by the police, their experiences are rarely foregrounded in our popular understanding of racialized state violence” (#SAYHERNAME Vigil Press Release 2015).

Thinking of gender in terms of political action redefines it not only in terms of the tension between the constituted/transformative intersubjective power, but also in terms of the singularity of each gendered, racialized agent. Disclosed through acting with others, such a singularity is both dependent on and exceeds every relational attribute of identity.

IV. When? Or the Temporality Between Past and Future

Since the meaning of gender-as-action emerges from the tension between the historically constituted and the newly constituting, inter-subjective power, gender’s temporality is caught in the antagonistic relations “between past and future.”  In an essay of the same title, “Between Past and Future,” Arendt elaborates upon the tension between action and the retrospective struggle over its meanings in terms of the agonistic temporal interval between “no longer” and “not yet.” This temporal interval occurs in both intellectual and political practices since it foregrounds the fact that the contentious meaning of events is generated from the future. As a brief example, Arendt points briefly to the predicament of resistance fighters against Nazi occupation. Despite their location in the underground, and thus outside any institutionalized public space, the insurgents, by acting in concert against oppression, managed to create among themselves relations of freedom. Yet, the drama of this generation was that their action left no remembrance in its aftermath; consequently, it was an event without enduring meaning, which even the actors themselves failed to remember. This example presents two temporalities: the temporality of the legacies of past actions addressed to the future (for example, the legacy of feminist and antiracist struggles) and the temporality of the belated retrospective meanings of these struggles which come from the future.

To explore this gap between the past and the future, Arendt turns to a short parable by Kafka in which an unnamable male protagonist, a “he”, is caught in the struggle between the forces of the past and the forces of the future. For Arendt, Kafka’s parable shows us the superimposition of the two battlegrounds: the first battleground is the struggle between the forces of the past and the forces of the future; and the second battleground is associated with the insertion of embodied subjectivity into this antagonistic interval. The past in Kafka’s text is not merely an archive or a historical determination of the present, but an active antagonistic force confronting the future. More paradoxically, the future is not a domain of prediction, anticipation, or a utopian orientation of action, but an antagonistic force clashing with the past. In their struggle, the past threatens to swallow the future through its conditioning force; or perhaps fights against its oblivion, or perhaps struggles for the transmission of the alternative possibilities of being together, which have never been realized. By contrast, the future struggles either to erase the past, or to give it a different meaning, or perhaps to recover new possibilities of becoming. For Arendt, this struggle with time and in time represents an important aftermath of action. The agonistic interval between the past and the future is where the collective significance of historical events—such as struggles against police killings of black men and women in the United States or the gender war in Eastern Europe—is continually contested, obliterated, and recovered. This temporal gap is a domain of both political struggles and judgments about what has happened, what might have happened, or what could have happened otherwise. Consequently, the meaning of an event that failed in the past can change dramatically when it is taken up as an inspiration by future generations. And conversely, an event that succeeded in the past can be completely forgotten.

Although Arendt (1968, 10) calls this text a breathtaking “thought-event,” she also criticizes the limitations of Kafka’s masculine protagonist in a manner reminiscent of feminist critiques of subjectivity. What is ripe for feminist interpretation is not only Arendt’s non-linear notion of the time of action but also her critique of the male protagonist in Kafka’s story. Arendt’s first objection is that Kafka’s male protagonist, in the manner of a universal, philosophical subject, desires to transcend the struggle and temporality in order to reach an impartial transcendent position of an objective historical judgment. Thus “he” is not aware that the conflicting gap between the past and the future is the only standpoint of judgment and interpretation. By contrast, the Arendtian subject—and let me imagine her as a “she” who lives, acts, and thinks with others in the interval between the past and the future—knows that there is no transcendence of this antagonistic gap. On the contrary, it is precisely this inter-ruption of  historical time that constitutes the event of thinking as well as the event of political action. I would like to suggest that this antagonistic interval between the past and the future is the temporal modality of feminist, situated knowledge/action.

The second feminist implication of Arendt’s revision of Kafka is her claim that acting and judging events are intertwined with the entry of an embodied subject into this hiatus in historical time. The very notion of the conflicting interrupted time, of the gap between the past and the future, appears thanks to the insertion of the embodied, relational, and, I would argue, racialized, gendered subjectivity, always already exposed to others and enmeshed in the intangible web of inter-human relations. By acting, relational subjectivities split the temporal continuum into antagonistic forces and tenses, which, as Arendt (1968, 11) puts it, shape and focus on the body. And the question that Arendt does not pursue, but Cavarero (2000, 61) and other feminist readers raise, is whether this body is sexed, gendered, and racialized. Surprisingly, it is Arendt’s refection on temporality that links the discontinuous contested time of history with the embodied dimension of thinking, writing, and acting. Although Arendt does not develop further the importance of the body, numerous feminist methodological approaches to embodiment—from standpoint theory, biopower, race theory, psychoanalysis, and new materialisms to transgender theories—reveal intimate interconnections between bodies, power, pleasure, affect, and sensation. As a mediating instance between the psyche and the political world, the subject and the other, biology and power, the body is another interval forming and formed by socio‑linguistic, libidinal, and political relations. Escaping subject/object, active/passive dichotomies, the bodily interval is intertwined with antagonistic power relations, affect, and eroticism, as well as—and this is a crucial “Arendtian” modification of feminist theory—discontinuous temporality. If we reread Arendt’s ideas of the gap between the past and the future and the body in feminist terms, then such discontinuous temporality provides an alternative not only to linear, progressive historicism or to the refusal of the future, but also to the recursive temporality of repetition.

The entry of embodied, relational subjectivities into the political, or what Arendt calls natality, generates a battle of its own because it adds a third force to the struggle between the past and the future. The political birth of embodied subjectivity, always already disclosed to others prior to appearing to oneself, not only occurs in the antagonistic break in time, but also creates a deflection of historical forces, out of which the possibility of a new event, a new action, and a new agency might emerge. Arendt argues that we do not know the starting points of the forces of the past or the future, but we do know their terminus—that moment when they clash. By contrast, the third force of embodied, human acting and thinking begins at the site of this temporal antagonism, but we do not know when and where it will lead. For Arendt (1968, 12) this deflecting third force, which originates in the gap of time, is “the perfect metaphor” for the activity of thinking, such as feminist collective reflections on genders’ future tense. This gap, this “ever-changing time-space… created and limited by the forces of past and future” is where thinking, judgment, and action originates.

The task of activists, writers, historians, and I would add antiracist feminist LGBTQ thinkers, is to preserve this agonistic interval in time and its paradoxical negative determination of gender “by things that are no longer and by things that are not yet” (Arendt 1968, 9) because that is where and when the activity of thinking occurs. By contrast, domination, discipline, ideology, and different forms of biopower aim to close this interval in order to restore historical continuity and institute a either softer or stronger version of historical determination. Following my feminist interpretation of Arendt, we could say that feminist inter-relational thinking about gender is necessarily agonistic; that is, it does not consist in asking the right questions, much less in giving the right answers, but instead in keeping the spatiotemporal gap of inquiry open. Needless to say, “the location” of such a thinking is equally paradoxical since the interval between “no longer and not yet” is both determined and groundless.

My re-reading (against the grain) of Arendt’s (1968, 14) notion of the spatiotemporal agonistic gap in time created through the insertion of the gendered body in relation to other bodies as a metaphor of feminist thinking of gender in relation to action embraces her conclusion that the experience of such thinking “can be won, like all experience in doing something, only through practice, through exercises.” Contesting the distinction between theory and practice, feminist thinking about the future of gender in the gap between no longer and not yet is indeed an intersubjective experiment to “gain experience in how to think” and how to act, and does not  “contain prescriptions on what to think.” It is the task of feminist criticism to insert this agonistic interval again and again whenever thinking or action seem to exhaust themselves or to repeat comfortable conclusions. In Arendt’s (1968, 13) words: “this small non-time-space in the very heart of time, unlike the world and the culture into which we are born, can only be indicated, but cannot be inherited and handed down from the past; each new generation, indeed every new human  being...must discover and ploddingly pave it anew.”

To propose that gender is inseparable from political action and its agency is to reconfigure its significance and its temporality. As a crucial dimension of historical, situated existence, gender becomes an intersection between the already constituted historical relations of power/knowledge and the inaugural transformative forces of acting together with others. Intertwined with power and antagonism, its peculiar relationality also discloses an irreducible tension between multiplicity and singularity of agents. Indeed, as my discussion of Eastern European feminism suggests, feminist struggles in Poland with both the legacies of the communist past and with the neoliberal present open another gap between the past and the future. It is in this gap that both feminist political and intellectual struggles for different future and the reactionary the right-wing “war on gender” are currently waged.  The future legacy of these conflicts remains uncertain; however, what is clear is that the “war on gender” wants to eliminate both political antagonistic plurality and discontinuous temporality of gender in order to restore a fictitious nationalistic historical continuity and the ideology of “reproductive futurism” (to evoke Lee Edelman’s provocative formulation).

To conclude: the interval into which I hesitate to enter

Instead of developing the above conclusion further, I would rather tell a story about another event and another gap in feminist thinking and struggle. In so doing, I follow Arendt’s emphasis on the importance of narrative in political struggles, especially when theoretical articulations of these struggles are lacking. An older Eastern European woman enters the American Embassy after waiting in a long line in order to obtain a visa so that she could visit her daughter who works at a university in the United States. During the interview with the immigration officer, the woman is interrogated on a number of issues ranging from family relations and bank accounts to the workplace of her daughter, now a naturalized American citizen. “What does your daughter do?” the male officer asks, flipping through the paperwork. “She works at a University,” the woman replies. The officer raises his head and laughs as if he heard a good joke, and after a while responds, “This must be a good cleaning job.” Taken aback, the woman, who as a former illegal migrant worker used to dream about cleaning offices rather than private homes in Chicago, remains silent for a moment, but then throws on the officer’s desk her daughter’s business card, on which she is described as a university professor and a director of graduate studies. The officer turns red, apologizes, and gives the woman a ten-year-long multiple entry visa to the United States without further questions.

This minor incident is rather insignificant in comparison with the tragic plight of refugees and ever growing victims of hate crimes all over the world. Nonetheless, the particular constellation of issues it discloses-- of migration, working-class women, the American imaginary construction of all Eastern European women (and I suspect all non-Western women) as stupid and uneducated;  the contempt for cleaning women but, especially, migrant cleaning women; the relationship between cleaning, immigration status, and intellectual labor; the relationship of powerlessness and defiance; the presumption of the intellectual superiority of the West and the inferiority of the rest of the world—never ceases to enrage me. It points to a space of isolation and the paralysis of thought rather than to the enabling gap created by feminist acting and thinking with others. For the time being, I hesitate to enter there, at least not yet.  However, the confrontation with the continuing erasure of feminist struggles in other parts of the world—in my example, in Eastern Europe—with time will perhaps transform this absence into a more capacious modality of feminist thinking and acting.


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[1] Gender and feminism are in fact so dangerous as to be the main target criticized in the annual pastoral letter of the Polish bishops to be read in all parishes during Christmas, 2013. See “Zagrozenie rodziny plynace z ideologii gender—List Pasterski na Niedziele Swietej Rodziny” (2013).

[2] For the most comprehensive overview feminist engagements with Arendt, see Honig 1995. See also, e.g., Duhacek 2002; Zerilli 2005; Ziarek 2008; Butler 2012; Diprose and Ziarek 2013; Gines 2014.


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