Grieving, Remembering, Storying: For Helene From Donna

Helene Moglen
By Donna Haraway

Three years roughly twenty years apart mark my tribute to Helene: 1980, 2005, and 2018.

Dean Helene Moglen welcomed me to UCSC in 1980 as the first tenured faculty appointment in Feminist Theory in the United States, a job that transformed me. From the beginning, Helene offered friendship that grew into a touchstone of my life. Helene was the new Dean of Humanities and Arts, and she was on a tear to make feminism and feminist theory flourish here. When she came to Santa Cruz in 1978, setting up her family in the Provost House, she chose Kresge College as her base. Hers was far from an obvious decision because at that time, for too many UCSC people, including the Chancellor, Kresge was “nowhere,” literally, not even on the campus bus route. Of course, for its people Kresge was definitely already somewhere, indeed a center of things, some of which Helene’s changes threatened. In that reworking, Helene put Kresge on many new maps, at UCSC and beyond, with her extraordinary feminist institution building, mentoring of students and colleagues, taste for the importance of good food in sustaining the pains and pleasures of common work, and talent for rooting friendship in lively curiosity.

In the early 1980s, her resolute commitment guided the reconstitution of Women’s Studies into a Program and then the Feminist Studies Department that could and did survive many dangerous changes in university culture to this day. None of what she did was without controversy. She had opponents as well as allies in all of her projects, including her strong approach to sexual harassment. She had both the courage and the generosity of soul to understand that nurturing principled conflict as well as collaboration, in Angela Davis’s terms, had to be at the heart of a robust feminism.

I and many others were the recipients of her gifts of courage and generosity as she guided academic programs and research organizations into existence. I remember especially the diverse and large gatherings of women graduate students and faculty around scrumptious food for evenings of sharing our work and visions around the circle. She helped us recognize each other in the deepest sense of that term across disciplinary and political differences. She helped us need each other. The half-life of some of Helene’s endeavors was painfully short, but in every case she then put her energy into building something else, helping to reshape, transform, reinvent, and generate possible futures with gusto. Her administrative and intellectual support helped make the Board of Studies in History of Consciousness and then the History of Consciousness Department into a unique and generative scholarly entity well beyond UCSC. Until her death, she was a constant presence at the Center for Cultural Studies colloquia, week after week giving the kind of questioning and attentive support that is necessary to keep communities alive.

Helene founded the Institute for Advanced Feminist Research in 2002, a formation that lasted until 2010. Over those eight years, Helene helped shape its emphasis on transnational justice. Rooted in narrative and psychoanalytical questions and materials, Helene approached these themes in a special way, marked for me by her co-organzing an AFR conference in 2005 that resulted in a co-edited book with anthropologist Nancy Chen called Bodies in the Making: Transgressions and Transformations. The conference rested on a year of transdisciplinary reading and discussion among faculty and graduate students, and the book came out in 2006 with New Pacific Press in Santa Cruz, which sought to publish “small, innovative, and culturally significant works that the mainstream might consider small potatoes” (copyright page). That kind of commitment to progressive, place-rooted institutions was typical of Helene.

But what draws me back to that conference and book is an engagement with aging and death that knotted Helene and me together in Bodies in the Making. Helene’s essay examined a hard personal fact revealed by her mirror. Her face stared back in the guise of her mother’s, with a collapsed wrinkle-seamed neck, “a flower on a crumpled stem” (p. 136). Helene used this reflection to explore what she called “trans-aging” and the necessary processes of resisting melancholy and instead mourning loss in a way that emphasizes “the constant, erratic movement that takes place in consciousness across, between and among the endlessly overlapping stages of life” (p. 139). In the experience of mourning, she proposed a self that “surfaces in moments of conscious reflection as an accretion and layering of innumerable selves: a compilation that is subject to endless revision…psychically available for elaboration and conversion” (pp. 138-39). Her insights were immensely helpful to me at just that moment, when I gave my talk at the conference only a week after my father died, in his honor, about his body linked for all of my life to his agility on crutches and infusing my own experience as an aging woman running with my young dogs in the sport of agility. The talk was “Notes of a Sportswriter’s Daughter: Companion Species.” In the intensity of my immediate loss, Helene helped me tell stories about materially grounded subjectivities and selves that were full of the human and nonhuman, living and dead, memory and experience, revision and endurance. In short, Helene helped me venture into story telling when it mattered in intimate and public ways.

My last meeting with Helene was in June 2018 over tea and pastry at Kelly’s French Bakery, where I asked her to think with me about her early days at Kresge College as I prepared to give the college’s Commencement Address a couple of weeks later. Helene gave me documents and shared stories about Kresge’s activism and cultural-psychological discourses in the initial period. But she seemed less hopeful about many things than she usually was, including the university. This seemed to me to be a mutation in her long-term optimism, a mutation that was profoundly influenced by our current political abyss and consuming, Internet-saturated, social and psychological apparatuses. I did not agree with all of her critique, but I felt her generative mourning as she reached for a renewed sense of Kresge’s and UCSC’s many selves in the present. Continuing to research today’s Kresge for my talk, I found so many ongoing, transformed engagements with social and environmental justice in the practice of continuing face-to-face encounters. It made me happy to be able to show Helene that her Kresge still lived in innovative ways. I think that gave her some comfort at the beginning of what proved to be a summer full of too much pain. It gives me comfort that my last meeting with Helene strengthened for both of us the capacity to love and care for place, place that is in our hands whether we ever intended or deserved it or not, place that has shaped us in ways we know and do not know and that we carry with us into what is not yet, in both living and dying.

Donna Haraway is Distinguished Professor Emerita of the History of Consciousness and Feminist Studies Departments. Read Jim Clifford’s reflection on Helene Moglen, or learn more about The Helene Moglen Lecture in Feminism and Humanities.