Power Lines: On the Subject of Feminist Alliances

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Like the complex systems of man-made power lines that transmit electricity and connect people and places, feminist alliances are elaborate networks that have the potential to provide access to institutional power and to transform relations. In Power Lines, Aimee Carrillo Rowe explores the formation and transformative possibilities of transracial feminist alliances. She draws on her conversations with twenty-eight self-defined academic feminists, who reflect on their academic careers, alliances, feminist struggles, and identifications. Based on those conversations and her own experiences as an Anglo-Chicana queer feminist researcher, Carrillo Rowe investigates when and under what conditions transracial feminist alliances in academia work or fail, and how close attention to their formation provides the theoretical and political groundwork for a collective vision of subjectivity.

Combining theory, criticism, and narrative nonfiction, Carrillo Rowe develops a politics of relation that encourages the formation of feminist alliances across racial and other boundaries within academia. Such a politics of relation is founded on her belief that our subjectivities emerge in community; our affective investments inform and even create our political investments. Thus experience, consciousness, and agency must be understood as coalitional rather than individual endeavors. Carrillo Rowe’s conversations with academic feminists reveal that women who restrict their primary allies to women of their same race tend to have limited notions of feminism, whereas women who build transracial alliances cultivate more nuanced, intersectional, and politically transformative feminisms. For Carrillo Rowe, the institutionalization of feminism is not so much an achievement as an ongoing relational process. In Power Lines, she offers a set of critical, practical, and theoretical tools for building and maintaining transracial feminist alliances.

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“For twenty years, those of us who came of age through multiracial feminism and teach feminist studies have been talking about alliance building as key to liberation struggles. Yet time and again, I have heard students understandably ask what alliances look like, how they can be part of them, and how they will know whether the alliances are working. With theory that is both nuanced and sophisticated, relevant and provocative, Aimee Carrillo Rowe gives us answers to these questions.”—Becky Thompson, author of A Promise and a Way of Life: White Antiracist Activism
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822343172
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 9/25/2008
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 1,541,994
  • Product dimensions: 6.10 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Aimee Carrillo Rowe is Associate Professor in the Rhetoric Department and the Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry program at the University of Iowa.

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Power Lines

On the Subject of Feminist Alliances

By Aimee Carrillo Rowe

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8920-0



Toward a Feminist Politics of Relation

I am writing to you from my girlfriend's puffy red chair perched by the window, looking out over the lake as fall blows into Iowa, now my "home." Except when I refer to "home" from here, I mean California. But when I refer to "home" from there, I mean right here. I belong in these places. I belong to and with people here and there. And I long for each in its absence, and neither is complete without the other. And it's more than these two. There's also Seattle, the rainy state where I worked on a Ph.D. and delivered my sister's son beside my brother-in-law. Then there's Connecticut where I lived by the sea and worked hard and sometimes joyfully for a year. I am not "the same" here and there. In each I long for the other.

This chapter aims to provide a glimpse at what is at stake in a politics of relation. The theoretical frame I outline gestures toward what is possible when feminists of privilege account for their investments in and complicity with domination. In this sense, the frame I outline under the rubric of "be longing" is, in many ways, inconsistent with the logics of exclusion and segregation that arise in the following chapters. This disjuncture marks the fragmented location of the Chicana falsa, of the bridge called my back, of the abyss between what constitutes the deeply embedded structures of racism that constitute our daily lives and the sketch of what is possible as we attend to the institutional intimacies of this dailiness. It speaks to where we are, even as it gestures toward what might be possible. In many ways it underscores the power of hegemonic belongings to interpellate subjects to remain complicit with the strictures of segregation and the affective, material, and political consequences for doing so.

This chapter fills out the argument that whom we love is political. The sites of our belonging constitute how we see the world, what we value, who we are (becoming). The meaning of self is never individual, but a shifting set of relations that we move in and out of, often without reflection. I aim to render palpable the political conditions and effects of our belonging to gesture toward deep reflection about the selves we are creating as a function of where we place our bodies, and with whom we build our affective ties. I call this placing a politics of relation. It moves theories of locating the subject to a relational notion of the subject. It moves a politics of location from the individual to a coalitional notion of the subject.

The chapter title plays on the notion of interpellation. Louis Althusser's well-known parable (1998) of a cop hailing someone, "Hey, you there!" reveals this function of power. The subject must respond to the hailing because she recognizes that it is she who is called. Whether she chooses to run from the police officer, or turn to face her; whether she complies or rebels, who she is constituted in her recognition that she has been hailed—her recognition of that she is the subject of this hailing. "Be longing" seeks to provide a potentially resistive hailing, or what Chela Sandoval (2000) calls "reverse interpellation." "Be" and "longing," phrased as two words, placed beside each other, not run together, phrase a command that disrupts, and thus renders visible, the terms that inform "belonging." The command is to "be" "longing," not to "be still," or "be quiet," but to be longing. This being is a command to which we are already responding. We are always already being hailed by our various (be)longings from the moment of our birth, from those moments well before our births: moments of conquest and settlement, of miscegenation and antimiscegenation, of mixing and blending and resistance. We tend to overlook the ways that power is transmitted through our affective ties. Whom we love, the communities that we live in, whom we expend our emotional energies building ties with—these connections are all functions of power. So the command of this reverse interpellation—signified by the empty space between "be" and "longing"—is to call attention to the politics at stake in our belongings, to attend to the ways in which our being is formed through our longings, and to envision alternative modes of interpellation. How might our subjects be constituted if we were hailed by the needs and demands, struggles and joys, of those whose lives and loves are excluded from the realm of our affective economies (see Butler 2004b, Gross 2006)?

This work is to reverse, or better, to multiply the sites of power that hail us, urging us to consider the ways in which power becomes intelligible through a politics of love. This shift gestures toward a frame in which we imagine the subject as engaged in a continual process of placing herself at the edge of her self and leaning and tipping toward the others to whom she belongs, or with whom she longs to be—or those others who become her. Jean Luc Nancy (1991) calls this tipping the clinamen in his efforts to think the relationship among the limits of community, the failure of communism, and the formation of the "individual." He writes: "One cannot make a world with simple atoms. There has to be a clinamen. There has to be an inclination or an inclining from one toward the other, of one by the other, or from one to the other." The clinamen evokes the moment in which poetry "swerves" from its structured path (Thom Swiss, personal communication, December 9, 2003); the path from which the subject would potentially swerve is that of the lone traveler, the individual. In its most radical form, this swerve would entail unmooring the subject from the individual, framing her becoming as always already structured through the various communal sites into which she is inserted and inserts herself. There is no subject prior to infinitely shifting and contingent relations of belonging which temporarily define the contours of her being.

A politics of relation may be understood through the metaphor of a body in motion: this body "does not coincide with itself. It coincides with its own transition: its own variation" (Massumi 2002, 4). As with the body, the subject does not arrive at its becoming once and for all through its stagnant signification within a particular moment in time, although salient moments may stand out as particularly punctuated. Rather, the subject arrives again and again to her own becoming through a series of transitions—across time and space, communities and contexts—throughout the course of her life. She may be known, then, not through her fixity within logics of the mythic "I," but rather by virtue of her own variation. Belonging is the condition of possibility for this variation (Segrest 2002). A politics of relation is not striving toward absolute alterity to the subject, but rather to tip the concept of subjectivity away from individualism and in the direction of the inclination toward the other so that being is constituted not first through the atomized self, but through its own longings to be with. Belonging precedes being.

I seek an alternative to a notion of identity that begins with"I"—as does the inscription "I-dentity," which announces itself through its fixity: "I am ..."—to a sense of "self" that is radically inclined toward others, toward the communities to which we belong, with whom we long to be, and to whom we feel accountable. Perhaps "positionality," with its multiply placed "i's," is a more appropriate signifier. This is the space I seek to name in the following section of this chapter, to be revisited in the third section. I think of it as differential belonging —shifting the terms of interpellation from the individual subject to the spaces between them. These belongings may be multiple, shifting, and even contradictory (in terms of the norms they produce, the politics that drive them, the conditions for loving they request, or demand): family, neighborhood, friends, allies, colleagues, social groups, lovers, nations, transnations. These sites of belonging are political as they operate in relation to power: with and through, as well as against, in resistance to, and possibly in directions that redefine and redistribute it. The inclination in the final pages of the chapter is to think more fully the latter. There I consider stories and theories from those who live that potentiality.


Location, Speaking, Belonging

Tell me / Whom you love, and I'll tell / You who you are. —Creole saying, quoted in Lazarre 1992, 132

In this section I argue that the politics of location frames "location" through articulations of identity in which the relational conditions productive of that location are erased. As such, the role and conditions of belonging, as well as the potentially critical agency involved in its constitution, get overlooked. This erasure gives rise to and reifies an individualistic approach to location, eliding the subject's production through the various modes of belonging into which she is interpellated—to whiteness, to other women as lesbian, and to U.S. citizenship, for instance—without interrogating the conditions that enable, or would potentially disrupt, those communal sites which hail our affective investments. The analysis in this section seeks to render these conditions visible, or otherwise palpable, in order to enable the formation of critical agency, in the form of new modes of accountability for one's location. To do so I untangle the ways in which location, speaking, and belonging function as mutually constituative processes.

Adrienne Rich's work on the politics of location (1986) is a productive point of entry to theorize this limit. Her work has influenced much feminist and critical theory by providing a pivotal intervention into the political conditions of theory production (see Mohanty 2003). I turn my gaze to a set of conversations that have emerged in the wake of Rich's politics of location manifesto in an effort to reveal the ways in which belonging emerges within the text and/or subtexts of this discourse as a condition of possibility for thinking location and as conditioned by the politics of speaking. While the debates surrounding the politics of location extend well beyond those accounted for here, my interest in the transformative possibilities of transracial feminist alliances entails a focus on the threads through which white women and women of color are potentially (dis)connected from/to each other. The move I seek to make, from location to relation, entails centering belonging as a point of departure for naming and imagining location, as opposed to an effect of location. This is a politics of relation, for it raises questions of accountability and imagination in the direction of social change.

In "Notes on a Politics of Location," which appeared in her 1986 book Blood, Bread, and Poetry, Adrienne Rich interrogates her positionality as a white, Jewish, lesbian feminist from the United States. The piece provides what Gloria Anzaldúa (1987) would call an "accounting" for Rich's privilege, which serves as the previously overlooked and invisible experiential grounding of her theorizing. Rich's gesture aims to enable a transracial feminist solidarity by critiquing exclusionary conditions of subject formation and thus to denaturalize their universalizing effects on her feminist theory production. To achieve this effect, Rich investigates her own location from below—which standpoint theory tells us provides a more complete picture of power relations because the oppressed are not deluded by their own investments of power. Given her privileged positioning, how did Rich come to this "view from below"? What relational conditions produced such a knowing to enable her to acquire this vantage point? Here I suggest that these questions, unasked and unanswered by her text, signal its disjunctures. That is, in spite of her efforts to position herself as a coalitional subject, Rich fails to locate location within community. In this way, she does not hold herself accountable to the allies who enabled her self-reflexive vantage. So ultimately, "Notes on a Politics of Location" constructs Rich's identity as "enlightened white feminist" as an individualized location. In failing to interrogate the relational conditions out of which her seeing arises, Rich undercuts the coalitional impetus of her self-reflexive gesture.

In "Notes" Rich vividly maps her own body, its geographical and 29 historical location, and states that it is a "body that has more than one identity" (1986, 215) as she strives to map out the specificity and confluences of a politics of location. She writes: "To locate myself in my body means more than understanding what it has meant to me to have a vulva and a clitoris and a uterus and breasts. It means recognizing this white skin, the places it has taken me, the places it has not let me go" (215-16). These bodily markings and the multiple axes through which she names her location work against the universalizing tendencies of whiteness. I return later to this question of where the white skin takes the person who bears it and the spaces from which it displaces her. But for now I wish to call attention to communities to which Rich holds herself accountable and those that she seeks to challenge. Rich's efforts to mark the specificity of her white feminist positionality respond to the many critiques of white feminism that had already emerged by this time from a host of feminists of color. Notably, the editors of This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, Cherríe Moraga and Gloria Anzaldúa (1981), challenge white feminists to grapple with their own oppressions and privileges in order to address the issues dividing women over race, class, and sexuality "head on." In marking the specificity of her white female body Rich unsettles the universality of white femininity, produced over and against the particularity of the racialized bodies of women of color. The specificity through which she marks her body articulates its particularity in such terms that the bodies of women of color are exposed, and yet reveals the privilege that its white particularity acquires: from her well-nourished bones and strong teeth to the control she exercises over her body—from her choice to type to her freedom from rape and forced sterilization. Her text thus ironically performs a double gesture of both asserting and displacing Rich's privilege. On one hand, she delivers this speech across the United States and abroad and her discourse becomes widely celebrated, which may be understood as a function of her privilege (see Wallace 1989). On the other hand, she breaks the unspoken code of white belonging by specifying the relationship between her whiteness and that privilege. Her positionality as white woman serves as a means, then, for her to undercut that very authority.

In 1988 Wallace was a participant—along with bell hooks, Stuart Hall, Coco Fusco, and others—in a symposium titled "Third Scenario: Theory and Politics of Location Symposium," held at the Midlands Art Centre in Birmingham, England. The symposium was dedicated to the interrogation of Rich's notion of "location" within black and third world film (Akomfrah 1989, 5). Wallace begins her talk by expressing her anger at having "been asked to speak within a framework defined by a white feminist who has probably exercised more power than any other in the United States in determining the essential reading list for Afro American and Third World feminist literature, a list which neither includes nor mentions my own work" (Wallace 1989, 43). In this way Wallace marks the politics of her own location as one that is constituted through subalternity in relation to the (de)legitimizing speaking practices of feminist knowledge production. Returning to the question of Rich's engagement with feminists of color in "Notes," Wallace argues that Rich's Blood, Bread, and Poetry serves a "gatekeeping" function through its exclusion of her own works, as well as those of other women of color such as bell hooks (Wallace 1989, 48). Her reaction to this exclusion is ambivalent, given that she has "always read Rich with great pleasure and self-recognition. So it breaks my heart, although no more than it breaks my heart to read any text produced by the West" (49).


Excerpted from Power Lines by Aimee Carrillo Rowe. Copyright © 2008 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Preface: Color in My Lines xi

Introduction: On the Subject of Feminist Alliances 1

1. Be Longing: Toward a Feminist Politics of Relation 25

2. Bridge Inscriptions: Toward a Methodology of Feminist Alliances 47

3. "Women" on the Inside: Whiteness, Heterosociality, and the Subject of Feminist Alliances 93

4. Zero-Sum Feminism: On the Interface between "Feminism" and "Alliances" 129

5. Power Lines: Toward a Feminism of Radical Belonging 179

Epilogue: Pilgrimage 199

Appendix A: Solicitation Letter 201

Appendix B: Interview Questions 202

Notes 205

Works Cited 227

Index 243

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