Friday, August 15, 2008


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Wind slumped down
Dust had nowhere to go

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Representation and Transnational Feminism

No need to hear your voice when I can talk about you better than you can speak about yourself. No need to hear your voice. Only tell me about your pain. I want to know your story. And then I will tell it back to you in a new way. Tell it back to you in such a way that it has become mine, my own. Re-writing you I write myself anew. I am still author, authority. I am still coloniser, the speaking subject and you are now at the centre of my talk[i]. - bell hooks

Before writing about representation[ii], I would like to point to the debates on viability of ‘women’ and ‘gender’ as a useful category of analysis and practice in feminist representation, and set out the contesting space in which the issue of representation is being debated. This is to establish that the transnational feminism is a space of multiple feminisms and multiple resistances – mutually constitutive, collaborating and conflicting. In this essay, I would attempt to present complexities of the transnational space as one of the possible reasons for the oppositional identity consciousness among theorists. I will use the complex backdrop as the context for my exploration of transnational feminists’ engagement with the question of representation. I will argue that transnational feminist theorists not only generate theoretical insights to challenge the Western feminist hegemony, rather, also critique one-another to challenge (potentially) essentialistic identity implications of transnational feminism.

The viability debates have been significant in the wake of postmodernist[iii] feminist arguments that by assuming a monolithic identity of ‘women’, the binary man/woman has become a policing device that is regulatory and exclusionary and a signifier of essentialism, hierarchy, and compulsory heterosexuality[iv]. Postmodernists criticize all essentialist conceptions of self and subjectivity, making it a challenge to negotiate political implications of representation without resorting to essentialist notions of women[v]. The differences in theorizing ‘women’, specially coming from Anglo-American feminists, have led some theorists to wonder if feminism is possible at all after postmodernism[vi].

Despite the apparent impossibility of representation of women coming through the postmodernist and poststructuralist theorizing, a transborder space of feminists ‘texts and contexts’[vii] dealing with representation of women has emerged over the period. But this is not an easy space to articulate. To understand this space better, I would make a distinction between the two aspects of transnational feminism – transnational theorizing and transnational activism. By transnational theorists, I imply the diasporic theorists from the South[viii] spatially located in ‘home’, diasporas, nomadic borderlands and those theorists from North who challenge Euro-American feminist biases and intellectually engage with across-border feminist theorists. I use the terms transnational activists and/or movements to include those from the First World as well as the Third World who use discursive frames and organizational and political practices that are stimulated and promoted by their engagement with activist and/or movements beyond their country’s boundries.
The dynamics of feminist theorizing and activism interplay in the transnational space and are difficult to untangle. Who is represented in this space or who could represent whom is problematized on several counts: spatial notions of home and abroad, institutional and intellectual locations, blurring of the line between theorist and activist and fluid positions of the theorists to name a few. To illustrate the difficulty, I would take the example of transnational feminist activism whose impact on international policymaking and development of legislative frameworks through platforms such as the various UN conferences belie postmodern and poststructural pessimism about ‘women’s’ representational capacity, and two postmodern/poststructural transnational theorists, Spivak’s and Mohanty’s[ix] complex subjectivity in articulating their views on women’s representation.

Spivak and Mohanty are recognized as transnational subjects by virtue of their complex Indian and immigrant identities, and institutional locations within ‘multicultural’ societies. But that does not prevent them from posing a counter hegemonic stance to essentialist articulations of theorists from the North as well as the South. Spivak sees the transnational feminist activism, as led by white and ‘Euro-clone’ women within postcoloniality and the diaspora and as a growth of an inescapable generalized value form which flattens the specificities of women’s histories to the UN’s Platform of Action[x]. Mohanty argues that the discourses of global feminism have mystified ‘difference’ and naturalized and totalized categories such as ‘Third World women’ and ‘First World women’ through production and reproduction of differences in the supposedly cross-cultural analytic categories such as ‘women’ and compartmentalize representations through the discourses of internationalism and global collapsing of the dynamic nature of the ‘Third World’ women’s lives into frozen ‘indicators’’[xi]. Spivak and Mohanty want to advocate an anti-hegemonic stance, which appreciates differences among women. Their opposition to Euro-American hegemony in representation constitutes them as resisting subjects and positions them as activist theorists in the transnational space.

Making transnational space and representation further complex are some transnational feminists who critique postmodernists for denying material construction of the category of ‘women’ and simultaneously express their difference with the postmodernist theorists like Mohanty, Ong, hooks, Trinh. According to them postmodernists overemphasize the problems associated with essentialism and universalism in representation. According to the critics, by presenting postmodernist analysis as the only challenge to essentialism, postmodernists assume that the Third World women have been rendered passive and immobile by the Western representations[xii]. The critics would like these theorists to recognize the effectiveness of the local feminist resistances to the Western feminist hegemony and moral and practical concerns of collective action[xiii].

Considering Udayagiri and Suleri’s take on Postmodernism, I assume that they would find Brewer definition of representation problematic as well as difficult to completely reject. Brewer defines representation as a process of semiosis or meaning-making to construct the assumed truth about any category with varying degrees of disclosure or distortion. According to her, It is not essential for the category like ‘woman’ to exist in a material sense in order to be represented but ‘whether or not the category “Woman” exists, the structural constraints under which women live, what women are able or allowed to be in society, are at stake in its representations’[xiv]. Udayagiri and Suleri may find rejection of the category of women metaphorizing the material lives of women of the Third World. But they would find it hard to refute the implications of representation suggested by Brewer. I suggest that paradoxical positionings such as this one reflect ‘critical intimacy’[xv] with representation and it is ‘critical intimacy’ that has to a great extent contributed to theoretical contestations over representation.

The multiplicity of transnational identities surface not only due to opposition to representation which is historically grounded in colonial legacies and Western hegemonic ideologies but also from the fact that transnational theorists have to address diverse audiences. Spivak, for example, sees her interaction with a range of audiences as negotiations of her identity which varies from ‘nation to nation, sphere to sphere, levels of work shading from the academic to grass roots’ depending on the language used and her positioning in the gendered and classed diasporas[xvi]. As result of these negotiations, questions such as who will be positioned where, speak in what tongue and speak as who and for whom become integral to the transnational theorizing.

Transnational feminists theorists have attempted to analyze the semiotic representation of women and how these representations are implicated in power inequalities and the subordination of the 'subaltern'[xvii] or the ‘other’. The construction of the ‘self-other’ binary in the Western[xviii] feminist discourse configures knowledges by legitimising certain questions about the ‘other’ while denying the same questions to the others about the ‘self’. The binary authenticates the pursuit of knowledge about the ‘other’ and their construction as a homogeneous powerless group, victimized by particular socio-economic systems and self-representation of Western women as modern, having control over their bodies and sexuality and decisions[xix].

The ‘self-other’ distinction relates to two notions: First, of epistemic privilege which implies the claim to knowledge embodied in the locations, standpoints and positions vis-a-vis caste, class, race, culture, ethnicity, sexuality, language, history, geography, etc. Second, of epistemic violence, which refers to the violent appropriation and colonisation of knowledge and privileging of imperialistic account as the normative one in the Western textual production[xx].
Mohanty sees power plays in the connections between feminist scholarships, feminist political practices and organizing[xxi] and looking at the concepts of epistemic privilege and epistemic violence from the view she has taken, both concepts are political and discursive and intersected by the relations of power. Both notions could also arise in situations where the Western scholar holds the view that you don’t have to be one to know one and that intention and rigour coupled with a privileged status can help produce an authentic and insightful representation of the ‘other’, and that would be the scholar’s true interpretation of the ‘other’[xxii]. This view may lead us to believe Schenk-Sandbergen that the privileged status of a Western scholar places the scholar in a more advantageous position to make sense of gender relations in the South and produce a more faithful and authentic representations of the ‘other’[xxiii]. There is a danger here of what Mohanty describes as a colonial move of the Western feminist writing in which the Western feminists become the true subjects and the Third World women ‘never rise above the debilitating generality of their “object” status’[xxiv]. Such claims to epistemic privilege also ignore the fact that the global hegemony of the Western feminist scholarship does not have limited circulation to the immediate feminist or disciplinary audience. It’s political implication is global through mechanisms and gatekeeping practices of theorizing, teaching, publishing and dissemination, which also restrict the opportunities of representation of the ‘other’ by the ‘other’[xxv].

Here, it is also useful to recall the distinction made by Spivak between ‘representation’ or ‘speaking for’ or proxy and ‘re-presentation’ or ‘placing a work of art or portrait’. Wright and Schenk-Sandbergen’s views can be understood as the desire to ‘represent’ or ‘speak for’ the subaltern. Their claim to epistemic privilege is based on assumption that the subaltern is not capable of representing themselves. Taken to an extreme end in the absence of an understanding of the ‘configurations of power’ and ‘positional superiority’[xxvi], it may lead to ‘re-presentation’ or substitution of the subject. In this case, ‘representation’ and ‘re-presentation’ are complicit and may lead to epistemic violence through persistent constitution of the ‘other’ as the ‘self’s’ shadow[xxvii]. hooks sees such attempts as appropriation of ‘otherness’ and a denial of experiential identity. Her response to this concern is to find new strategies of resistance, and simultaneously critique essentialism and emphasize the significane of the ‘authority of experience’[xxviii]. Spivak suggests learning to ‘speak to’ rather than ‘listen to’ or ‘speak for’[xxix] and persistent critique to prevent construction of the ‘other’ as an object of knowledge by those who have access to public places[xxx].

In an effort to move away from the self-other binary of the hegemonic Western feminism, Rich used the idea of ‘politics of location’[xxxi]. She forwards a politics of location as a radical materialist political stance that grounds feminist theory in accountability for the situatedness of knowledge production[xxxii]. However, Rich’s ‘politics of location’ has been critiqued for remaining trapped in the in the global-local and Western-nonWestern binaries, encouraging cultural relativism and metaphorizing ‘differences’ through textual analysis, and for conflating ‘Western’ and ‘white’. This conflations reinscribes centrality of white woman’s position within Western feminism[xxxiii]. The linearity of Rich’s politics of location is challenged in Wallace’s analysis of the contemporary diasporic or marginal subject as characterized by multiplicity of positions and allegiances[xxxiv] and also by Agarwal’s description of her position in transnational feminism as multiple, involving simultaneous multiple allegiances[xxxv]. Multiplicity of positionality not only disrupts the linearity but also complicates the politics of location in representation by bringing in the conflicts and struggles which are characterized by power and history[xxxvi]. It also offers transnational feminists opportunities to reflexively analyze fluidity in their own subject positions.

Transnational feminists point to the movement of people or complex disporas, and mobility of information and capital and use limitations of Rich’s formulation of the politics of location to bring up the complexities of transnational reception of the theory[xxxvii]. The transnational reception of theory is linked to the travel in theories and how theories are received by different cultures[xxxviii]. The concept of travel and reception of theories brings out questions related to the routes theories of representation take to travel and how they get translated in different contexts. It raises questions related to the mechanisms and technologies of control that monitor and check the travel and reception. Friedman suggests that there is a need to continuously map the representation politics to locate the points of origin and end of theories. Consistent mapping would disclose that in a globalizing world, there are no points of origin or end[xxxix]. The mapping will also exposes the long held Western anthropological image frames of silent objectified nativity. Such mapping will detail out how the image of the authentic native is turned into a museum piece that puts a demand on the nonWestern subjects to perform nativity to serve Western imagery of ‘authentic’ natives[xl].

Though attnetion to differences through varied discourses have led to acknoledgement of multiple axes of identity but there has also been a trend of selective attention to only dominant froms of differences. Grewal and Kaplan critique emerging orthodoxies in the representation, especially in the USA, where race, class and gender are fast becoming ‘holy trinity’. In such theorizing what gets left out are other complex categoris of identity and social relations which impact subject formation. It ignores the dynamism of a category which multiplies if constituted in transnational cultures[xli]. In such representations, the notion of ‘self-other’, and ‘centre-periphery’, ‘insider-outsider’ models of location is replaced by the notions of hybridity and multi-hyphenated ‘mestiza’[xlii] identities. Theorists like Ang, Brah, Grewal and others place themselves in multiple contexts, wander across nations and problematize notions of ‘home’ by bringing in their transnational experiences, issues of language and displacement, commitment, exclusion, and personal and political transformation positionalities to the transnational feminist representational politics[xliii]. They see their situation as one that gives them insider knowledge as well as a privileged position to develop insights into the ‘inside’ from ‘outside’[xliv]. In the context of hybridity, Spivak’s reflection on the issue of true marginals and contaminated diaspora not only resist the reproduction of self-other distinctions but also contests political positions that assert authencity or epistemic privilege by virtue of being an ‘insider’ at ‘home’[xlv]. There are still others who see the choice between oppositions of ‘home and away’, notions of hybridity and romanticization of the subaltern resistance as dangers to feminist agendas and as persistence of the colonial discourse the cost of which could result in yet again theorization of the ‘Third World’ into silence[xlvi]. hooks expresses similar sentiments while saying that those who have the access to coloniser places and practices should support the struggles of those who are marginal, absent and silent to access these places of privilege rather than speak for them[xlvii].

In this essay, I have tried to summarise the complex relationships of transnational theorists to one another and the various reasons which may be prompting them to interrogate old and emerging axes of identity. My attempt has been to bring forth the concerns which transnational feminists share about representational implications in view of current global feminist networking. Transnational space allows connections between local resistance, immigration, diasporic existence, international feminist politics, and multinational economic processes and creates an interest among transnational theorists to constantly evaluate what may be gained and what may get lost in the process. Exploration of representation gives an opportunity to question the ‘construction of the (implicitly consensual) priority of issues around which apparently all women are expected to organize’[xlviii]. It gives the theorists opportunities to explore diverse feminist theorizing about the ‘difference’, and the values guiding identification and labelling of the ‘difference’. Analysis of representation from a transnational perspective problematizes a ‘purely locational politics of ‘global-local’ and brings into question the inadequate or inaccurate naming and binary divisions of the world[xlix]. Transnational feminist engagement with representation is significant for an ethically accountable analysis of identities and subjectivities.

[i] hooks, 1990, p343[ii] I am using the term ‘representation’ to refer to socio-political representation of the ‘women’ in feminist theories and praxis.[iii] I will use 'postmodernist and poststructuralist' feminisms as a shorthand for feminist theorizing, which has tended to be reflexive upon some of feminist theories’ implicit assumptions and critiques the tendency to adopt a universalizing approach. For this essay, I would define 'postmodernist or poststructuralist' feminist theories as approaches seeking political and ethical engagement on the issue of identity, questioning totalizing discourses, ‘struggling for accountability’ (Rich, 2003, p 29) and a re-evaluating one’s own location.[iv] Butler, 1993 and 1999[v] Flax, 1990, p24-43 & 209-221; Zoonen, p3-4[vi] Zalewski, 2000, pIX-XI & 29-74[vii] Agarwal, 1994, p252[viii] I am using the terms ‘North’ and ‘South’ to denote the differences maintained in the theories and, ‘First World’ and ‘Third world’ in terms of differences maintained in praxis.[ix] Though I see Spivak’s and Mohanty’s works sharing postmodernist/poststructuralist concerns, I acknowledge my understanding as a stipulation because I am not aware if they have identified themselves so[x] Spivak, 2000, p40-42[xi] Mohanty in Kaplan, 1994, p137 & Mohanty, 1991, p6[xii] Suleri, 1994, p244-252 and Udayagiri, 1994, p165-176[xiii] Parpart & Marchand, 1995, p19-20[xiv] Brewer, 1999, p1-2[xv] Spivak, 2000, p16[xvi] Spivak, 1990[xvii] Spivak, 1988, p68-111[xviii] I am using the terms ‘Western feminism’ or ‘Western feminist theories’ for the genre of writing, which discursively constructs the category of ‘Third World women’ as monolithic passive victims.[xix] Mohanty, 1988, p56-57[xx] Spivak, 1988, p76[xxi] Mohanty, 1988, p53[xxii] Wright, 1997, p84-86[xxiii] Schenk-Sandbergen in Wright, 1997, p84[xxiv] Mohanty, 1988, p71[xxv] Mohanty, 1988, p55 and Carr, 1994, p155[xxvi] Said, 1985, p5-7[xxvii] Spivak, 1988, p70-75[xxviii] hooks, 1994, p423-426[xxix] Spivak, 1988, p91[xxx] Spivak, 1990, p59-66[xxxi] Rich, 1986[xxxii] Rich, 1984, p29[xxxiii] Kaplan, 1994, p139-142[xxxiv] Wallace in Kaplan, 1994, p143[xxxv] Agarwal, 1994, p252-255[xxxvi] Mohanty in Ang, 1995, p193 and Mani, in Kaplan, 1994, p149[xxxvii] Mohanty in Kaplan, 1994, p142 and Grewal and Kaplan, 1994, p2-3[xxxviii] Said, 1983, p226-47[xxxix] Friedman, 1998[xl] Chow, 1994, p325-344 and Trinh Minh-ha in Bulbeck, 1998, p207[xli] Grewal and Kaplan, 1994, p19[xlii] Anzaldúa, 1999[xliii] Ang, 1995, p190-204; Brah, 1996, p613-633 and Grewal & Kaplan, 1994, p137-150[xliv] Trinh, 1995, p217-218[xlv] Spivak in Loomba, 1994, p306 and Mohanram, 1996, p283-84[xlvi] Loomba, 1991, p307-320[xlvii] hooks, 1990[xlviii] Mohanty, 1988, p53[xlix] Grewal and Kaplan, 1994, p13
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Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Discipline in Violence

A few weeks back, in a meeting with a political advisor of a bilateral development organization, I discovered a new phrase ‘discipline in violence’. He used the phrase while talking about the unruliness and fundamentalism within the state security apparatus. The phrase hit me – I wasn’t sure how there can be discipline in violence; in my mind an image of a methodical violent person emerged. I also thought about well organized acts of violence, something along planned ethnic cleansing or systemic violence against women on grounds of morality. The images scared me – the coldness of acts was unnerving. But these didn’t convince me about the implied meaning of the phrase. I sought explanation. His analysis saw violence as being a matter of heart or irrational, a psycho-physical act which doesn’t allow reason to prevail. In his view, if a particular form of violence stemmed from brain, it could be disciplined as it would change in the face of logical arguments. It would be open to learn and therefore it would be possible to discipline it. But most violence springs from feelings and desires of the heart to revenge, to hurt and therefore cannot be disciplined. Though the heart-brain argument seemed rather easy bipolarisation, I could see where he was leading. Yet, it was hard for me to associate violence with discipline. At the same time, while he was explaining the phrase I was struck by another thought of extreme discipline as a form of violence. I was thinking of dictatorial political regimes and disciplining of certain sections of a society, like women and dalits, as lowly beings in so many aspects of life that most come to believe that they are actually inferior and incapable.

Noticing my expression, he asked if the phrase ‘discipline in the use of force’ says anything to me. He himself was not convinced that this phrase is the same as ‘discipline in violence’. But he was willing to use it for my convenience. I shared his view that the phrase ‘discipline in the use of force’ is not quite the same as ‘discipline in violence’ despite my lack of the clarity about the latter phrase. ‘Discipline in the use of force’ gave a sense that there may not be feelings of rage or a desire to inflict pain but force could be applied to achieve certain goals. Or one may gain a sense of invisible rage and brutality while applying force in measured proportions in institutionally or socially acceptable manner and so the need to control the use of force. In such a situation, the motivation to be enraged or brutal may not directly belong to the person who is applying force.

The word ‘violence’ seems to contain psychic motivations for destruction or harm and an ability to derive an ever increasing gratification from destruction and harm. It is also about a physically thrilling sensation derived from subordinating those who are weaker. Personally, I sense violence within me when I see meekness, subservience or tolerance for abuse. It is not a feeling to begin destroying or harming the meek/servile/passively tolerant person but it is an extreme form of anger arising from frustration, which if not controlled, may push me to begin hitting meek/servile/passively tolerant person. Here, I can see that I am trying to discipline the feelings of invisible rage or violence that I have within myself. Here, the phrase ‘discipline in violence’ seems to make some sense. But I am wondering if a phrase like ‘disciplining the desire for violence’ is more appropriate to communicate such rage than ‘discipline in violence’. The phrase ‘disciplining the desire for violence’ gives a sense of an effort to control or resist a desire for violence.

If I were to apply the phrase ‘discipline in violence’ to a context of violence against women (because the husband thinks the wife should not have spoken when she did or not done something without his advice), violence against children (because a pedophile thinks the child ‘looked seductive’ and therefore invited abuse, or the child could not do a task that an adult is supposed to do despite being given the opportunity to do it), mass rapes (because the rapists feel they will be putting the woman or her community into her/their place), mass killings (because the killer feels those likely to be killed do not have a right to live or that their killing will serve the purpose of threatening another person/institution), etc, the phrase gives a sense of far more intense and complex violence. In fact, it suggests a ‘thinking form of violence’ that can help organize the feelings of rage or discipline it to be more deadly and more painful. Here, the phrase seems to suggest cold-bloodedness. It suggests not just a capacity to be violence but also a capacity to plan and organize violence to cause optimal destruction or inflict optimal harm. The term ‘discipline in violence’ seems to carry so much force that an inability to plan and organize violence may come across as a lower form of capacity or lesser violent. Perhaps this explains that why in a military or militia set up the war/offence strategists are placed higher than those in the frontline.

The political advisor, attempted to clarify the phrase further. The way he conceived it, the phrase has a few elementary attributes: an irrational mental construct because the constructor or the owner of that irrationality cannot be talked out of it and a physical organization of that irrationality in the form of acting out violence. From his clarification it seemed that the violence is a matter of great attachment to possessor of violence and its subjectivity is beyond introspection. This explanation does hold some truth. The question that arises then is how this unexplainable infective quality of violence that manifests itself in external, physical or mental harm and destruction can be influenced? What can be done to control the disposition for violent expression and pleasure seeking by inflicting pain? If violence is such a matter of heart or so irrational that nothing can prevail against it then discipline in violence can only increase the impact of violence. In such a situation, ineffectiveness of logic pointing inconsistencies in thoughts and analysis that lead to violence is more of a conclusion than an assumption that can be challenged or a barrier that can be attempted to be overcome.

Going back to the phrase ‘disciplining the desire for violence’, a desire for violence appears a stage of infancy and therefore controllable. ‘Discipline in violence’ appears to bring forth a situation in which the desire for violence has matured and is a stage of acting out the desire for violence. Bringing discipline to a performance of the desire for violence suggests more sophistication in that performance. For example, masterminds of a terror bomb blast, carry a sense of extreme violence but do not indulge in direct violence, they nonetheless derive satisfaction by watching others act out on their plan. In this regard, they serve as the possessors of violence, they are the agents of violence as they have an infective ability to induce others and they also have a capacity to derive pleasure/satisfaction or thrilling sensations from an indirect act of violence. This ability to control and plan violence and use others as instruments which enable them to experience vicariously the gratification of a desire they would not like to act out themselves, makes them high impact perpetrators of violence.

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