The following journal, “COVID, Contagion, and Cracks in the System,” is about feminist engaged research in pandemic times. We ask what feminist engaged research is and looks like in this novel time, if we can consider it novel at all. As Mel Chen (2020) reflects on the current moment: “these viral particles have a physical and interactive character segregable enough to be called ‘novel,’ and yet so much of what is being witnessed feels odd and familiar” (emphasis in original). Chen elaborates: “COVID-19 both is and isn’t the name of the virus. It is many things–many histories, many bodies, many politics.” Our journal collective is motivated by precisely that point, that COVID-19 has not occurred in a socio-political vacuum. As such, coronavirus exposes our shared proximity to precarity, even as its effects unfold in radically unequal ways. In other words, it is not COVID-19 that ultimately takes lives, but rather, as Judith Butler (2003) writes, “we are undone by each other” (p. 13). Yet, Butler later seems to argue that this understanding of our interdependence gets precluded by “our exposure to violence and our complicity in it, with our vulnerability to loss and the task of mourning that follows, and with finding a basis for community in these conditions” (p. 9). That is to say, both during and before the COVID-19 pandemic, we have always already been radically interdependent and yet vulnerability and mournability have likewise always already been distributed unequally. It is these ideas of interconnectedness and unequal vulnerabilities that are being signaled in our title “COVID, Contagion, and Cracks in the System.”

As the world began shutting down in response to the pandemic, many of us hoped that doing so would likewise stall its many systems of oppression and offer us an opportunity to refashion the world on more equitable terms. And it was in this pandemic context–at once offering feminist hope and necessitating feminist thought and intervention–that our class, “Feminist Engaged Research” began our remote meetings via zoom. We found ourselves asking and re-asking the question: what new forms would a class on feminist engaged research have to take on in these pandemic times? As we repeatedly asked this question, we also acquired new tools with which to think about what is meant by “feminist engaged research.” While it became clear that the definitions of the title’s three components–feminist, engaged, and research–are contested and never neatly defined, we identified the phrase’s salient features. We came to see feminist engaged research as a way of at once attending and extending to lived realities. Doing so paves way for reciprocal and coalitional work that can have material impacts. Additionally, we also stretched the methodological possibilities of “research,” imaging old, new and creative ways to do, write, and engage with our work. 

These ideas of feminist engaged research inform our journal. “COVID, Contagion, and Cracks in the System” offers a wide range of methodologies and topics of focus. Each entry approaches a specific sociocultural moment or phenomenon–a “crack in the system” unearthed in the pandemic’s context–and situates the conversation within broader feminist concerns. Topics are equally as diverse in terms of spatial scale; they span from a focus on the global, the national (U.S), and the local (Middlebury, VT), to an interrogation of the movement and (re)assembling of people in and across spaces and geographies. 

The entries are as follows. Ellie Broeren and Hannah Gellert’s speculative history of abortion access during the COVID-19 pandemic offers a sequence of four vignettes that each take place in a different city across the United States. The creative (re)telling of these imagined narratives illustrates the social constructedness of “reproductive choice” and the material consequences of local policies and social injustices that bar women from access to abortion. Cat La Roche’s essay on elderly care likewise highlights a familiar narrative as shaped in new ways by the pandemic. La Roche reveals the shortcomings, inaccessibility, and, oftentimes, outright inhumanity of elderly care facilities as not a new phenomenon, but one that has been exacerbated by the pandemic nonetheless. La Roche ties the politics of care to the politics of mourning, arguing that naming who is mournable and who is worthy of care are part of the project of defining who is human. Sophie Hochman similarly interrogates the politics of mourning in her essay on social media responses to the death of Breonna Taylor. Hochman argues that these responses are representative of a particular kind of activism that, too, has in many ways been shaped in the pandemic context. She sees these affective responses as illustrative of the dominance and limitations of nomification and surveillance capitalism in social media activism. Louisa Vosmik likewise takes social media activism as a point of reference in her critical interrogation of instagram aesthetics. Specifically, Vosmik analyzes social media representations of Vermont orchards in relation to Champlain Valley Orchard’s COVID-19 outbreak among H2-A visa workers. Ultimately, she argues that whiteness in Vermont functions as ideology, masking itself as innocent and erasing the state’s complicity in racial violence. Vosmik’s essay turns inwards, as it is both reflective and locally-specific to Middlebury College. In fact, this work is part of a broader pedagogical campaign aimed to raise awareness of the ways in which whiteness–in Middlebury and elsewhere–solidifies its own naturalness through exclusion and erasure. Micah Raymond shifts spatial scale once again, turning attention to the household and arguing that these pandemic times were also queer times. Raymond explores how quarantine “pod” formation offered an opportunity to queer the family, as people assembled and reassembled across space and households in ways that departed from the heteronormative nuclear family template. As a conclusion piece, Professor Essig’s “Staring into the Abyss” takes as its focus these very “cracks in the system,” asking the questions: How is it that we got to this point of radical inequality? And why have we not yet addressed these deep and dangerous fissures? Essig concludes our journal with an image of looking downward, deep into the cracks and seeing the desperate need for a new political praxis, a new way to do real and material social justice work.   

Taken together, “COVID, Contagion, and Cracks in the System” aims to bring feminist thought, feminist praxis, and feminist engaged research to these pandemic times. 

Tate Serletti, on behalf of the Feminist Engaged Research Collective

Works Cited:

Butler, Judith. (2020). “On COVID-19, The Politics of Nonviolence, Necropolitics, and Social Inequality.” Verso Books.

Butler, Judith. (2003). “Violence, Mourning, Politics.” Studies in Gender and Sexuality 4(1).

Chen, Mel. (2020). “Feminism in the Air.” Signs “Feminist Theorize COVID-19: A Symposium.