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.
By: on 5 Dec 2009