Muddying the Waters: Coauthoring Feminisms across Scholarship and Activism

Muddying the Waters: Coauthoring Feminisms across Scholarship and Activism

by Richa Nagar

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Muddying the Waters: Coauthoring Feminisms across Scholarship and Activism by Richa Nagar

In Muddying the Waters, Richa Nagar uses stories, encounters, and anecdotes as well as methodological reflections, to grapple with the complexity of working through solidarities, responsibility, and ethics while involved in politically engaged scholarship. Experiences that range from the streets of Dar es Salaaam to farms and development offices in North India inform discussion of the labor and politics of co-authorship, translation and genre blending in research and writing that cross multiple--and often difficult--borders, Nagar links the implicit assumptions, issues, and questions involved with scholarship and political action, and explores the epistemological risks and possibilities of creative research that brings these into intimate dialogue.
Daringly self-conscious, Muddying the Waters reveals a politically engaged research and writer working to become "radically vulnerable," and on the ways a focus on such radical vulnerability could allow a re-imagining of collaboration that opens new avenues to collective dreaming and laboring across sociopolitical, geographical, linguistic, and institutional borders.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252096754
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 10/30/2014
Series: Dissident Feminisms
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 256
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Richa Nagar is a professor of gender, women, and sexuality studies at University of Minnesota and co-author of Playing With Fire: Feminist Thought and Activism through Seven Lives in India.

Read an Excerpt

Muddying the Waters

Coauthoring Feminisms Across Scholarship and Activism

By Richa Nagar


Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-09675-4


Muddying the Waters

Coauthoring Feminisms across Scholarship and Activism

I can formalize responsibility in the following way: It is that all action is undertaken in response to a call ... that cannot be grasped as such. Response here involves not only "respond to," as in "give an answer to," but also the related situations of "answering to," as in being responsible for a name (this brings up the question of the relationship between being responsible for/to ourselves and for/to others); of being answerable for ... It is also, when it is possible for the other to be face-to-face, the task and lesson of attending to her response so that it can draw forth one's own. —Gaytri Chakravorty Spivak, "Responsibility"

The notion of "solidarity" that still pervades much of the left in the U.S. ... dresses itself in the radical rhetoric of the latest rebellion in the "darker nations" while carefully maintaining political action at a distance from our own daily lives, thus producing a political subject (the solidarity provider) that more closely resembles a spectator or voyeur (to the suffering of others) than a participant or active agent, while simultaneously working to reduce the solidarity recipient to a mere object.... At both ends of this relationship, the process of solidarity ensures that subjects and political action never meet; in this way it serves to make change an a priori impossibility ... [and] urges us to participate in its perverse logic by accepting the narrative that power tells us about itself: that those who could make change don't need it and those who need change can't make it. To the extent that human solidarity has a future, this logic and practice do not! —el Kilombo intergaláctico, Beyond Resistance Everything

The intellectual basis for the demand to decolonize the academy has been eroded by skeptical, postmodern philosophies that have called into question the founding terms such as humanism, identity, progress, truth, and liberation. Postmodernism ... [has opened] up new ways to diagnose the causes of oppression and to critique domination, but it has also resulted, particularly in the humanities, in a demoralization and confusion about what unites our diverse constituencies, what language we can use to make demands, and what vision we are working toward, just as it has called into question the ability to invoke any "we" here at all. I believe we need today to re-invoke that "we" that would include all groups targeted by identity based forms of oppression. —Linda Martín Alcoff, "An Epistemology for the Next Revolution"

Muddying the Waters is about ever-evolving journeys that confront and embrace the messiness of solidarity and responsibility. In describing and analyzing these journeys—frequently through stories, encounters, and anecdotes—this book aims to both separate and intimately link the question of scholarship with that of political action. These chapters—based on essays written between 1994 and 2013, often with coauthors, collectives, co-artists, and comrades—engage this relationship without claiming the label of activist scholarship, and without invoking categories such as transnational, postcolonial, or women-of-color feminisms as pure bodies of thought that can help us sort through the challenges posed by these journeys. Far from providing a methodological engagement with questions such as "how to" undertake transnational feminist studies or alliance work across the borders of academia and activism, then, this book places question marks on the utility and logic of neat positions and categories. I underscore the necessity of muddying theories and genres so that we can continue to embrace risks of solidarities that might fail and of translations that might refuse to speak adequately.

When academic engagements become locked into pure theoretical positions and loyalties, the possibility or impossibility of solidarity and responsibility is already pronounced, sometimes through their dismissal or celebration as self-contained categories such as "deconstructivist theory," "postmodernism," or "activist scholarship." Consequently, the journeys in and through which the complexities of solidarity and responsibility are felt, known (however, partially), and struggled with, either get relegated to methodological appendices of critical ethnographies or articles on "action" research, or they are dismissed a priori as invalid or unworthy of academic discussion. Such segregated conversations also serve to reinforce the problematic division between "abstract thinking" and "concrete doing."

A related problem arises when the lenses that academics deploy to address questions of epistemic hierarchies betray the logic and investments emanating from our own locations. Structural asymmetries grant metropolitan researchers access to more resources, richer rewards, and control over the means of widespread dissemination of knowledge. This material hierarchy can result in a taken-for-granted epistemic hierarchy in which metropolitan knowledges are privileged as "sophisticated" and where nonmetropolitan knowledges are perceived as "raw data" or stories that need to be framed and put into perspective by the formally certified intellectual. Critical scholars have long recognized the need to provide an ongoing critique of these co-constitutive hierarchies, and have grappled with ways in which we can name, interrogate, and unlearn our privileged analytical frameworks. More frequently, however, one encounters a wholesale dismissal, or a radical reinterpretation, of "other" knowledges on the terms of the supposedly more evolved paradigms. At the same time, metropolitan assumptions of privileged understandings are often deflated in encounters with nonmetropolitan subjects or interlocutors who may neither acknowledge nor respect this hierarchy and who may be disdainful or critical of metropolitan academics, their misplaced priorities, or their inadequate frameworks.

These politics of language, location, engagement, and epistemic hierarchies raise several questions: Can notions such as solidarity and responsibility, trust and hope, vulnerability and reflexivity serve a useful purpose in ethically navigating the forms of epistemic violence in which metropolitan academics are, and will always remain, complicit? Is it possible to ethically navigate this terrain without lumping different kinds of epistemologies and knowledges into simple categories where one is regarded as inherently superior to the others, or where all are deemed as commensurable, and therefore, legible, transparent, and comparable to one another? Can such ethics be articulated in ways that do not foreclose an intermingling of stories, truths, and affects, on the one hand, and commitments to scholarly objectivity, on the other?

While some scholars have approached these questions through concepts such as sustainable epistemologies (Scheman 2012), others have framed their arguments in terms of the sites from where scholarship should emerge (Mohanty 2003, Mama 2009, Alexander and Mohanty 2010), as well as the need to question the separation of methodology from theory (Bennett 2008, Nagar and Swarr 2010). For example, Naomi Scheman's inquiry into the responsibility of the public university underscores the importance of the social contracts that are contingent to research and discovery, teaching and learning, and outreach and public service of the university, and that necessarily involve those who are subject to or vulnerable to the work of the university (Scheman 2012). Bennett, in comparison, frames the dilemmas facing Africa-based feminist research by refusing to draw a line between theory as a way of approaching realities and experiences, and research methodologies as the "how" of engaging with those realities and experiences and of making alternatives possible when injustices emerge (Bennett 2008, 3).

For a growing number of university-based intellectuals, "activist scholarship" (Sudbury and Okazawa-Rey 2009a) and "ethnographies of activism" (Chari and Donner 2010) have become important rubrics for working through the abovementioned questions of location, engagement, and responsibility. Critical of the tendency to separate activism from scholarship, Sudbury and Okazawa-Rey "argue for activist scholarship as a model of active engagement between the academy and movements for social justice" and commit themselves to making "activist scholarship possible as a viable mode of intellectual inquiry and pedagogical praxis"(Sudbury and Okazawa-Rey 2009b, 3). In examining innovative and participatory research methodologies developed by activist scholars in partnership with social movements, however, they also remain alert to "the danger of producing an idealized vision of collaborative or anti-oppressive research, recognizing that even research with emancipatory intentions is inevitably troubled by unequal power relations" and "ethical and political complicities and contradictions" (Sudbury and Okazawa-Rey 2009b, 3).

Some politically engaged scholars, in contrast to Sudbury and Okazawa-Rey, fear that the creation of a more permanent institutional space for activist scholarship might displace the model of objective, value-free inquiry. For instance, Kamala Visweswaran provides the example of Hindu nationalist groups who were active in the school textbook controversy in California to remind us of the multiple meanings of "politics" and "activism" and of the dangers of automatically elevating political engagement to a higher platform. She argues that there are times when it may be as important to uphold the model of objective inquiry as it is to recognize that fellow activists may not share the same goals or political sensitivities (Visweswaran 2011). She argues that

activist scholarship or social science must too often presume agreement on what constitutes the political in order to place "action" on the agenda. And yet what constitutes the "political" is radically contingent upon time and place ... This is all the more reason not to let an a priori understanding of something called "activism" or "politics" unreflexively shape scholarship. Now, more than ever, we need a commitment to thinking the political through its multiple guises.... To do so, I would argue that it is often productive to separate—but not detach—the question of scholarship from political action. (Visweswaran 2011, 77)

While we may argue whether or not it is truly possible to separate scholarship from political action without "detaching" the two, it is worth grappling with the ways in which we might attend to the radical contingencies of time and place while also resisting simplistic assumptions about shared political sensitivities or agendas. Susan Geiger and I have proposed what we call "situated solidarities" as a way to facilitate this grappling (see chapter 3). In attending to the specificities of geographical, socioeconomic, and institutional locations of those who enter into intellectual and political partnerships, and to the particular combination of processes, events, and struggles underway in those locations, situated solidarities resonate with Chela Sandoval's "differential consciousness," Carole Boyce Davies's "critical relationality," Sara Ahmed's "ethical encounters," and Jodi Dean's "reflective solidarity" (Sandoval 2000, Davies 1994, Ahmed 2000, Dean 1998).

Sandoval's conceptualization of "U.S. third world feminisms" necessitates differential consciousness as a mode of theoretical engagement that is flexible and tactical in its analysis and intervention based on context and climate (Sandoval 2000, 41). Davies similarly underscores relational and deeply contextual negotiation, articulation, and interrogation of a variety of resistant and multiply linked discourses. As an "inherently migratory" epistemology, her notion of critical relationality "asserts the specificity of the other," but "moves beyond singularity or sameness to varied interactions, transgressions and articulations" (Davies 1994, 41). This fluidity allows for an "anti-definitional" analytical space in which multiple theoretical positions interact relationally in one's critical consciousness to create "complexly-integrated and relational theoretics" that allow for "possibilities of alliances which recognize specificities and differences" (Davies 1994, 41). In an analogous vein, Ahmed calls for deconstructing "stranger fetishism" by working toward an ethics of encounter. These ethics require opening up the encounter in order to learn—without an expectation of fully accessing—a stranger's thick histories and complex positionings in time and space, as well as their connections to other places and times that enable such a meeting. This articulation is reminiscent of Jodi Dean's vision of "reflective solidarity" that envisions feminist solidarity as rooted in two moments—"that of opposition to those who would exclude or oppress another and that of our mutual recognition of each other's specificity" (Dean 1998, 4).

Muddying the Waters resonates with and extends these and similar understandings by laboring through the concepts and promises of radical vulnerability and love, reflexivity and risk, translation and coauthorship as mutually constitutive and interdependent in knowledge making and alliance work. In these journeys of the "I" and the "we," defined by situated solidarities, the possibilities of alliances are inseparable from a deep commitment to critique that is grounded in the historical, geographical, and political contingencies of a given struggle. These are journeys enabled by trust with the ever-present possibility of distrust and epistemic violence; journeys of hope that must continuously recognize hopelessness and fears; and journeys that insist on crossing borders even as each person on the journey learns of borders that they cannot cross—either because it is impossible to cross them, or because it does not make sense to invest dreams and sweat in those border crossings.

In a way, Muddying the Waters can be seen as an academic memoir, a self-conscious attempt on my part to become radically vulnerable, even as I share knowledge and truths that become possible only through coauthorship with many others. I turn the gaze upon myself as a researcher, writer, and cultural worker who has wrestled with critiques of identity and meanings and possibilities of authorship and politics through academic projects. These projects have been undertaken across places as far removed from each other as the classrooms of the University of Minnesota, the streets and neighborhoods of Dar es Salaam, and the villages of Sitapur district in Uttar Pradesh. Places, and the languages in and through which those places become alive or are rendered invisible or powerless in academic engagement, become significant "characters" in this story of my academic journey as the chapters grapple with the politics of taking on research sites and making expert knowledges, as well as the politics of leaving places alone when one cannot adequately grapple with one's responsibility to those sites of knowledge making.

Wounded Truths / Troubled Fields: Considering Stories, Solidarity, Suspicion, and Hope through Sangtins' Diary


Once upon a time a learned man who considered himself highly accomplished climbed on a boat. The simple boatman respectfully welcomed him. As the boat started sailing, the pundit asked the boatman, "hey, do you know anything about capitalism?"

The boatman folded his hands, "I am an illiterate man, sir. How would I know about capitalism?"

"What's the point of living in such darkness? You have wasted twenty-five percent of your life," the learned man pronounced as he tossed some pan-masala in his mouth.

As the boat sailed further, the pundit was once again taken by an urge to establish his intellectual authority—"So, you are a laborer. I am sure you have heard of Marxism!"

"Where would I learn about that, Sahab? I have no clue what Marxism is."

"What a pity. you have ruined fifty percent of your life ... But you must be married. don't tell me you haven't heard of feminism."

When the boatman expressed his ignorance of feminism, too, the pundit declared seventy-five percent of the boatman's life wasted. Before the boatman could respond to this declaration, the boat began to sink in mid-stream. The boatman said to the scholar, "Punditji, you know everything. Now, swim."

But alas, the pundit had not learned to swim.

"Punditji, I have merely wasted seventy-five percent of my life, but you are just about to lose all of yours!" Saying this, the boatman quickly swam across the river. The scholar drowned.


Excerpted from Muddying the Waters by Richa Nagar. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments, ix,
Introducing Muddying the Waters: Coauthoring Feminisms across Scholarship and Activism, 1,
1. Translated Fragments, Fragmented Translations, 23,
2. Dar es Salaam: Making Peace with an Abandoned "Field", 50,
3. Reflexivity, Positionality, and Languages of Collaboration in Feminist Fieldwork, 81,
4. Representation, Accountability, and Collaborative Border Crossings: Moving Beyond Positionality, 105,
5. Traveling and Crossing, Dreaming and Becoming: Journeys after Sangtin Yatra, 124,
6. Four Truths of Storytelling and Coauthorship in Feminist Alliance Work, 158,
Notes, 183,
Glossary, 191,
References, 195,
Index, 205,

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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
She dragged Dean in.