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TABOO MEMORIES, DIASPORIC VOICES
By Ella Shohat
Duke University Press Copyright © 2006 Ella Shohat
All right reserved.
Chapter One GENDERED CARTOGRAPHIES OF KNOWLEDGE
Area Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Postcolonial Studies
When gender is invoked outside of "Western" spaces, it is often subjected in the academy to a (inter)disciplinary order that anxiously and politely sends it "back" to the kingdom of area studies. There the designated savants of the day, it is assumed, will enlighten us about the plight of women; each outlandish geographical zone will be matched with an abused bodily part (bound feet, veiled faces, and excised clitorises). A doubly exclusionary logic (that which applies to women and to their geography) will quickly allot a discursive space for women as well as for gays/lesbians/bi/transgender from the diverse regions of the world. Even within multicultural feminist and queer cartographies of knowledge, the diverse regions are often presumed to exist in isolation from the "center" and from each other. Such approaches, I am afraid, have become a malady in women's studies programs, even those that have taken an important step toward multi-culturalizing the curriculum.
Here I want to reflect on a relational understanding of feminismthat assumes a provisional and conjunctural definition of feminism as a polysemic site of contradictory positionalities. Any dialogue about such fictive unities called "Middle Eastern women," or "Latin American gays/lesbians," for example-especially dialogues taking place within transnational frameworks-has to begin from the premise that genders, sexualities, races, classes, nations, and even continents exist not as hermetically sealed entities but, rather, as part of a permeable interwoven relationality. The interlinkingofcriticalmapsofknowledgeisfundamentalinatransnational age typified by the global "travel" of images, sounds, goods, and populations. A relational feminist project has therefore to analyze this new moment that requires rethinking identity designations, intellectual grids, and disciplinary boundaries. I believe we need to reflect on the relationships between the diverse interdisciplinary knowledges constituting multicultural/transnational feminist and queer inquiry: gender and sexuality studies, ethnic and race studies, area and postcolonial studies. Given that there is no single feminism, the question is: How do we orchestrate these conflictual perspectives in order to rearticulate the feminist terrains of struggle within this densely woven web?
In many institutions, multicultural feminists have faced criticism from feminist colleagues who perceive multiculturalism as somehow "bad for women." Multiculturalism, in this view, is at best irrelevant and at worst divisive for the feminist cause. And while multicultural and transnational approaches are applauded, the production of knowledge still takes the form of an additive approach. In contrast, I hope to unpack the idea of the "Middle East" or "Latin America" as unified categories of analysis. The challenge, I think, is precisely to avoid a facile additive operation of merely piling up increasingly differentiated groups of women, men, or transgenders from different regions and ethnicities-all of whom are projected as presumably forming coherent, yet easily demarcated entities. The notion of a relational feminism, in contrast, goes beyond a mere description of the many cultures from which feminisms emerge; it transcends an additive approach that simply has women of the globe neatly neighbored and stocked, paraded in a United Nations-style "Family of Nations" pageant where each ethnically marked feminist speaks in her turn, dressed in national costume. To map resistant histories of gender and sexuality, we must place them in dialogical relation within, between, and among cultures, ethnicities, and nations
There is also a tendency in critical discourse to pit a rotating chain of marginalized communities against an unstated "white" or "Western" norm. This discourse assumes a neat binarism of black versus white and Chicana versus Anglo or East versus West and North versus South-a binarism that ironically repositions whiteness and Westernness as normative. This conceptual binarism-as in black versus white or Eastern versus Western-puts on hold everyone else who does not fit in either category, sitting and awaiting their turn to speak. This "on hold" analytical method ends up producing gaps and silences. The relationships among the diverse "others" remain obscure. The challenge, therefore, is to produce knowledge within a kaleidoscopic framework of communities in relation without ever suggesting that all the positionings are identical. It is for this reason I dispute the clear and neat categorization of spaces allocated to each specific region. My work is more concerned with investigating multichronotopic links in the hope of creating an intellectual dialogue that bypasses the institutional scenario of (American) feminist/queer studies versus area studies. In the first, the logic and discourse of postmodernity is often invoked; in the second, that of modernization and development.
Ethnic studies tends to bracket areas outside the American experience. Highlighting national experiences within the British Commonwealth, postcolonial studies, meanwhile, often overlooks race in the United States. The diverse area studies, for their part, discount their connections to both postcolonial and ethnic studies, as well as the bonds between the various areas. Women's, gender, and sexuality curricula, meanwhile, often reproduce these same divisions. The single subject of women/gender/sexuality is apportioned out so that the West forms the norm, while the "rest" is relegated to the "backyards" of area studies and ethnic studies. In sum, "single ethnicity," "single nation," and "single region" institutional thinking risks impeding critical feminist and queer scholars, political organizers, and cultural programmers who wish to collaborate in ways that go beyond a confining nation-state and regional-geographic imaginary.
Well-meaning curricula and cultural programs, meanwhile, applaud multiculturalism as the sum of the contributions of diverse ethnicities and races to the "development of the American Nation"-a formulation that incorporates a covert U.S. nationalist teleology. Women and gays and lesbians of color, meanwhile, have only intermittently critiqued the aporias of nationalist thinking in a transnational world. Race and sexuality within multiculturalism, feminism, and queer discourse tend to be framed as self-containedly American, oblivious not only to this country's colonizing history but also to its global presence. A corollary to this is the negative exceptionalism detectable in some work on American racism, which conveys a sense of the uniquely awful oppressiveness of the United States. Ethnic nationalisms offer a negative variation on the conservatives' "melting pot" exceptionalism, emphasizing instead "racist" exceptionalism, i.e., a view of the United States as uniquely racist. This position elides the racialized colonial patterns shared by various colonial-settler nations, and thus diminishes the rich possibilities of a comparative approach.
While American studies is hardly acknowledged as an area studies, the traditional area studies, by its very conception, locates its object of investigation "elsewhere." Within these mutually exclusive frameworks, little institutional space remains for 1) the co-implicatedness of the United States and other regions whether politically or culturally; 2) diasporas living in between these worlds. American Women's studies programs tend to replicate these ghettoizations: Required courses focus on "pure" issues of gender and sexuality, while optional, "special topics" courses sweep through "women of color" and "Third World women." Within this approach, U.S. women of color are studied as sui generis, an entity unto themselves, while Third World women are seen as if living on another planet, in another time. Les/bi/gays in Africa, Asia, or Latin America tend to be further elided under the heterosexual frameworks of development studies, as well as under the binarist norms of heterosexuality. Multicultural courses focusing on women of color, meanwhile, tend to sever them from their colonial history, including that of the regions from which they came, with little interest in their multilayered postcolonial displacements. And when area studies begrudgingly makes room for women (not to speak of sexual minorities) of the geography in question, those groups too are severed from the cross-regional interconnectedness of histories and cultures.
American-based postcolonial theory, meanwhile, seldom dialogues with its U.S. context of production and reception. The innumerable postcolonial MLA papers elaborating abstract notions of "difference" and "alterity" rarely put these concepts into dialogue with "local" subalternities. The institutional embrace of a few Third World "postcolonials," largely by English and comparative literature departments, is partially a response to the U.S. civil rights and affirmative action struggles, yet the enthusiastic consumption of the theoretical aura of the "postcolonial" threatens to eclipse the less prestigious "ethnic studies" field. Just as it is important to address the American national framework of "ethnic studies"-and specifically its impact on gender and sexuality studies-it is also urgent to address the tendency of postcolonial studies to ignore U.S. racial politics. Needless to say, the embrace of postcolonial theory and study is welcome, indeed overdue, but we also have to assess its institutional impact and politics of reception.
Given the token space granted critical work in general, institutional hierarchies end up generating a fighting-for-crumbs syndrome. Institutions tend to see people of color paradigmatically, as a series of substitutable others, indirectly disallowing a wider constellation of historical perspectives. Thus some selected academics speakers of poststructuralist-postcolonial discourses-even at times in spite of their radical politics-are seen as less threatening to university administrations than academics who are perceived as potentially linked to angry militant U.S. communities. Fundamentally conservative institutions, in this sense, get to do the "multiculti" thing without interrogating their own connection to contemporary U.S. racial politics. This is not to cast aspersion on specific intellectuals but rather to reflect on the ways in which postcolonial intellectuals, under the sign of "diversity," might be positioned as the "good academics" (much as the media construct "good ethnics"), as opposed to those "vulgar militants," so as to re-create subtle stratifications and hierarchies, even on the margins. The point is not to minimize the racism and subtle prejudice that "postcolonials" also face, nor is it to assume that postcolonials cannot also be activists. The point, rather, is that we be lucid not only about the differences among feminists of color but also about how institutional privileging of one discourse and field of inquiry at any particular historical moment might mean the blocking of other discourses and fields of inquiry, along with the sabotaging of possible alliances between the discursive fields and the communities mediated by them.
Although the face and drift of American studies have dramatically changed over the past two decades, affirmative action remains under attack, and the presence of African Americans, Chicanos/as, Puerto Ricans, and Native Americans in the academy remains disturbingly miniscule. Cultural and academic institutions may celebrate, and even produce, multicultural "stars," and may show an interest in the conceptual spaces opened up by postcolonial hybridity, but the marginalization both of U.S. "minorities" and of the non-English speaking world endures. The critique of Orientalist discourse initiated by Edward Said generated excitement in English and comparative literature faculties, but in its more fashion-conscious versions, including in some feminist scholarship, it has often focused on Orientalist discourse about "them," while "they" remain safely locked in area studies. (Orientalism with a vengeance!) The study of the postcolonial, one sometimes suspects, is relatively privileged in the United States precisely because of its convenient remoteness from this country's racial matters, often relegated to other historical eras and other geographies, in ways that also ignore U.S. global "implicatedness." The vibrant space opened up by "cutting edge" postcolonial theory for critical scholarship is also contested, particularly since, as we have seen, some practitioners of ethnic studies feel displaced by it. Recognizing these tensions, and going beyond them, is crucial for dismantling the institutional barriers raised between postcolonial and ethnic studies.
The diverse interdisciplinary studies, furthermore, have different histories of institutional legitimization. Ethnic studies, women's studies, and gay/lesbian studies programs came about as a result of a 1960s bottom-up struggle among "minorities" to demand scholarly representation. The diverse area studies, in contrast, were instituted top-down by the U.S. defense department in the post-World War Two era. Governmental funding and university expansion of area studies initially formed part of cold war strategic cartographies of spheres-of-influence. Although the face and drift of area studies have dramatically changed over the years and many more voices have contributed to alternative scholarship, the dialogue between area studies and ethnic studies scholars further impacts gender and sexuality studies. For one reason, covert taboos restrict which women and gays and lesbians of color can move, as subjects of inquiry, from area to ethnic studies. For example, although immigration from North Africa and the Middle East dates back to the end of the nineteenth century, and although its flow has increased since the 1960s, Middle Easterners are seen as "forever foreign"; they are only seen as "from there." For some communities of color in the United States, the status of being "of color" is uncertain. Despite a history of imperialist, racist, and sexist attitudes toward the Middle East and North Africa, for example, and despite that region's participation in Third World nationalist struggles, "people of color" status has not usually been ascribed to Middle Easterners. The Middle Eastern diaspora at this conjuncture hardly forms a field consecrated within American studies or ethnic studies, or even within area studies.
Various veiled narcissisms still play a role in such formations. Even in more critical frameworks within U.S. academe, the production of knowledge tends to engender an implicit and barely perceptible U.S. nationalism. It undergirds certain versions of First World feminism, as well as certain versions of multiculturalism as articulated by women of color and queer discourses. Universities, unfortunately, erect disciplinary and conceptual boundaries that continue to quarantine interconnected fields of inquiry. For example, the majority of women of the world are relegated to the margins of most curricula, fenced o within the Bantustans called "area studies"-such as Middle East studies-as though their lives are not also implicated by U.S. agendas and policies, and as though there is no Middle Eastern diaspora in the United States. Although nationalism is often seen as a specifically "Third World" malady, it is no less relevant to the labor, feminist, queer, and multicultural movements within the United States. In going over a substantial number of ethnic studies/women's studies/gender studies/queer studies curricula, it was not difficult to detect a submerged American nationalism that often permeates such practices and epistemologies, giving us a star-striped nationalism with a tan, a nationalism in drag, a rainbow nationalism. The "diversity committees" of educational institutions often glimpse multiculturalism and feminist/gay/lesbian perspectives through a largely unconscious national-exceptionalist lens. And while I have no quarrel with the idea of U.S. uniqueness, I do quarrel with the idea that uniqueness is unique to the United States. Every nation-state has a palimpsestic uniqueness all its own. And along with that shared uniqueness, historical parallels and global links exist between different national formations. The implicit nationalism of many multicultural, feminist, and queer curricula and agendas leads us to miss numerous opportunities for a relational analysis and for a cross-disciplinary and transnational connection.
Only a multiperspectival approach can capture the movement of feminist ideas across borders. We must worry about a globalist feminism that disseminates its programs internationally as the universal gospel, just as we have to be concerned about a localist feminism that surrenders all dialogue in the name of an overpowering relativism. One of the challenges facing multicultural/transnational feminism has to do with the translations of theories and actions from one context to another. In an Arab Muslim context, where feminism is often denounced as a Western import, and where Arab Muslim women articulate their version of what constitutes gender struggle, what would it mean to deploy a poststructuralist perspective that would critique the notions of experience, authenticity, and essentialism? What kind of relational maps of knowledge would help illuminate the negotiation of gender and sexuality as understood in diverse contexts, but with an emphasis on the linked historical experiences and discursive networks across borders? While one does not have to subscribe to any grand Theory with a capital "T," it would be foolish to deny that theorizing is an indispensable element in the envisioning of (any) social and political change. Such a project confronts the dilemmas resulting from, on the one hand, the difficulty of embracing fully an empiricist approach to experience-a method that implies the possibility of a direct access to a pre-discursive reality-and on the other, the difficulty of subscribing fully to a poststructuralism in which experience never seems to exist outside of the discourses that mediate them. The hope, in other words, is to transcend a referential verism (for example, that writing about experiences directly reflects the real) without falling into a hermeneutic nihilism whereby all texts become nothing more than a meaningless play of signification. Experience and knowledge within a multicultural/transnational feminist project, in this sense, have to be articulated as dialogical concepts, an interlocution situated in historical time and geographical space.
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