Public Letter from Ros Petchesky:
Letter to Zillah’s Friends/Colleagues at Ithaca College on the Occasion of Her So-Called Retirement, or How to Cope Without the Queen of Counter-Fashion
Dear Friends in Ithaca – and especially Tom, whom I want to thank for including me in this day’s festivities:
I’m sitting here in New York City trying to imagine how best to console you for what might seem, on superficial glance, to be a huge loss—for the Politics Department, Ithaca College, and many of you personally—in Zillah’s decision to retire from teaching and move on to a different kind of life. After all, hasn’t she been the utmost exemplar among you in all things intellectual, political, ethical, culinary, athletic, medical, and, not least, fashion-related? How will you go on? How will you know what to think, how to interpret the elections, how to organize against racist and sexist and classist assaults, what to cook for your dinner party, and most of all, what to wear?
Well, as a close friend who has known our Zillah for probably as long or even longer than most of you, I feel it is my responsibility to guide you toward a more realistic and actually optimistic perspective in this new situation. To start, consider the fact that Zillah has the worst sense of direction of anyone on the planet. Now you may believe this applies only to logistics or geography, but I want to suggest Zillah’s waywardness reaches further. First, let’s talk about intellectual directions. When political theorists were mainly interested in familiar old boys (Rousseau, Locke, Hegel, Marx, and all that gang), Zillah had to take us through a dozen frustrating detours, through patriarchy and gender and power relations and women’s labor and so much else. When feminist political theorists thought they had all that figured out, well of course Zillah had to go zig-zagging away to pluralize feminisms and hopelessly complicate gender with race, colonialism, global capitalism, militarism, cyberspace, sexualities, hatreds (more popularly known as “affect” these days), and Hillary. When post-modern theorists were comfortable with their trinity of Foucault, Deleuze and Derrida, Zillah went wandering off again, confusing “real” theory with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, scientific racism, women soldiers, Chinese workers, Caster Semenya, Barack, Michelle, and Hillary again. So I say to younger scholars who want to keep up with intellectual fashions, or who seek a secure place in your discipline and in today’s academic job market, Zillah’s example might not be your guide to success.
Or let’s take a look at politics. Now, I realize that everyone assembled here is likely to agree that activism and engagement in the events of our world are necessary assets for political scientists and good citizens. But how many political issues does one really have to be on top of? And what if we crave to be in a single, easily identified political camp? Here again, Zillah leads us in a thousand directions at once, and just when we think we’ve gotten our bearings, we’re veering off down another track. We can be feminists who sincerely believe in gender equality and women’s empowerment, but we’d better make sure that includes women who wear hijab and recognizes “women’s bodies” as including all sizes, shapes, colors, and genitals. We can adopt staunch anti-racist politics, but an uncompromising defense of reproductive rights for all and opposition to all kinds of gender-based violence had better be front and center in our anti-racism. We can go door to door for Obama in Pennsylvania or Ohio, but don’t for a minute let him off the hook when it comes to drone attacks in Pakistan and Yemen or forced deportations or not shutting down Guantánamo and Bagram—rather, stand up in opposition. Actually, when Zillah is around one is ill-advised to identify with “left” or “right” or “West” or “East” or “black” or “white,” because you’ll find all these categories coming apart before your eyes (and don’t even try to call that “post-modern” or think you know what that means). So my point here is, shouldn’t you all be breathing a sigh of relief? Think of the endless political confusion and disorientation you’re being spared thanks to Zillah’s decision to wander off into the sun.
Finally, on the topic I know everyone thinks is where Zillah reigns supreme, clothes, let me respectfully suggest that here too fashion does have its standards. I mean, come on, what’s with the green and purple and orange all mixed together, the alternating gigantic and teeny-tiny bags, the flounces over tights and hip-hop sneakers, or the miles of chains and beads and rings and earrings to the shoulders? Is this polyversal, polychromatic Eisenstein-sense-of-style any kind of example to set for I.C.’s students? How will they go out and be successful in the corporate world, where everyone knows the mandatory color scheme must never depart from various tones of beige, grey, white or black? Isn’t there some benefit to having the paragon of counter-fashion a little less visible, a little less able to divert young bodies down dangerous and deviating paths?
Yet we can always hope that freedom from the confines of academia will change Zillah’s wanton, misguided ways. Why, who knows? We might even find her one of these days studying religious mysticism, advocating for free T.V. dinners for all, wearing neutral-toned pants suits, or (don’t kill me on this one, Zillah) playing golf. One never can predict with Zillah. So take heart, Ithaca people, you might be able to reap a double advantage from Zillah’s hasty decision to flee the coop. On the one hand, you get to unburden yourselves of the influence of dubious behaviors and ideas that will get you into trouble every time. On the other, you can follow vicariously as Zillah leads you toward new territories and fashions neither you nor she ever dreamed you’d discover. So don’t say good-by, say hello to Zillah anew, and in that spirit, sing with me:
HELLO ZILLAH (to the tune of “Hello, Dolly”)
Hello Zillah, well hello Zillah – we can’t wait to see your next amazing run!
Where will you stray, Zillah? We can’t say, Zillah, but we hope you’ll take us with you
for the thrills and fun.
So keep on traveling places, invading cyberspaces, writing books and blogs that keep
our minds aglow.
We know the world needs you, hope that Obama reads you,
You’re the counter-fashion queen, health food, yoga, hot cuisine,
Zillah, we’re just saying, go girl go!