First published on Feminist Review Blog, September 10, 2018, here.
Circa 1980’s, USA
The politics of location
Theory in the flesh
The privilege of partial perspective
El Mundo Zurdo
Conjurations & fusil missiles
Make (r)evolution irresistible
Poetry prose polemic fiction
Displace reframe and recompose
The single as the multi-verse
Even then Bambara warned
that wholeness was no trifling matter
“Are you sure, sweetheart?” she said
“A lot of weight when you’re well”
This not-quite poem is a bricolage of citations. Barring stanza three, it is composed almost entirely of the words of US feminists: Adrienne Rich (1986 ), Cherrie Moraga (1981), Donna Haraway (1988), Chela Sandoval (1991), Gloria Anzaldúa (1981), Toni Cade Bambara (1980, 1981). The ideas they express emerge from, and intervene in, several interrelated histories—colonial, racial, ethnic, class, gendered, sexual, bodily. To follow their logic is to parse dominant ideas into ensembles of contingent facts.
The challenge to the so-called universal held a dual promise: a decolonisation of mind and a re-imagination of freedom. The insistent eruption of the diversity of experiences, perspectives, myths, metaphors, visions was never an end in itself (though the market did strive where it could to domesticate it as a species of variety). It was above all an interpretive summons: a call to rethink and re-vision pastspresentsfutures. To re-examine experience, to specify it. The call to arms was a call for complexity. Specification as a first step towards rethinking the interrelations that constitute the social-ecological whole.
The forms of expression reflected this impulse. Testimonials. Fiction. Historical excavation. Memoir. Oral history. Poetry. Ceremonies. Fantasy. Biomythography. Theory. The inter of relations refracted in the imploding of timelines, concepts and domains, in the trans-creation of literary genres, the visual arts and theater. The material-nonmaterial, analytical-spectral, psychic-spiritual, ideological-poetic combining in new ways to speak – to, from, for, with, of, near – beauty, desire, justice, history, law and love. Binaries were inverted, subverted, on occasion subtended. In the exuberance of the moment, structure/subject, individual/community, history/agency, nature/culture, body/mind, subject/object all appeared poised to slough off the weight of history and point to terra incognita.
The subsequent trajectory of this flourishing is disparaged as ‘identity politics.’ On the Right, it is dismissed as hateful and socially divisive. Many liberals feel it has gone too far in disrupting a shared social compact. On the Left, there is concern that identity has usurped class.
Black Lives Matter and the Water Protectors at Standing Rock (contemporary US movements that provoke greatest ire) give lie to claims of divisiveness and of indifference to collective well-being. Both offer a profound critique of US economy and culture, its fossil-fueled racist necropolitics, its commitment to little more than bare life for those within and outside its borders. Both re-vision society in ways expansive and inclusive. Both exemplify moral courage, political acuity, non-violence. The transformations they seek are not narrowly racial or nationalist but collective and transnational; spiritual as well as political. They ask us to attend with care to the inter-webbing of life. Like their forbears, they unravel the false binaries that continue to structure our thinking.
Identity politics has encountered the same hostility that has historically met movements for redressal of injustice. Every life-affirming principle that grounds its re-dreaming of society is caricatured by those in power. Inclusion of the hitherto excluded is deemed exclusion of the hitherto included. Justice for all is considered injustice for the privileged. Pluralising ideas to account for a diversity of experience is regarded as a dilution of excellence. It would seem as George Orwell (1949) says in 1984, ‘War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.’
To argue that one’s location in the social structure shapes one’s perception and experience is not to suggest that this relationship is self-evident. The question of how it should be understood is a matter of intense debate; not just across positionings in the social structure (gender, race, class or sexuality, in India caste) but within them also. These matters can never fully be settled, making feminism (like other movements) an always evolving, argumentative sphere.
Form and genre are at the heart of such creative contention. The relations between location and knowledge are proffered in multiple, overlapping ways. Asserted via polemic. Demonstrated by means of argument. Gradually unfolded in a novel, anthology, film or play. Obliquely or directly invoked in poem, song or rap. Transformed ritually by ceremony and storytelling. Reimagined in speculative fantasy. Defamiliarised by satire, wit. Conjured by visuality’s lucid dreaming and startling clarity. Each form is a specific invitation to seeing, feeling and knowing anew. A doorway to terra currently incognita. Each addresses the interrelations between being and knowing, the particular and the whole, in the register most appropriate to it.
Forms and genres carry specific burdens. The expressive arts, fiction, poetry enable us to experience the skin, soul and energy of ideas. They may delineate certain connections, merely hint at others. The more didactic forms—argument, assertion, analysis—are obliged to explicate. In them it very much matters how a problem is framed, what connections are made, what is deemed significant and what not. One does not wish to overstate the difference. Both make sense of experience. Through the expressive arts we sense the making of experience, its coming into being. The didactic arts help us make sense of experience, render it intelligible. The processes are distinct but not firmly separable.
Specificity as a first step towards rethinking interrelations: identity politics’ potential is most fully realised when this insight is properly integrated. And it is here that even those who practise it may fall short. As an example, I draw on the debate around #MeToo. Sex, sexual pleasure, sexual liberation, sexual harassment and sexual violence have always been central feminist concerns. But the current explosion of testifying about harassment and assault is arguably without parallel. Across the globe, women from every sector of society have spoken out. Some have named their abusers. Others have chosen not to. In India, a list that anonymously accused a number of male academics of harassment was shared widely over the internet. #MeToo has also included men attesting to harassment, naming male and, in a couple of instances, female harassers. Unsurprisingly, most stories have been about male assaults on women.
Sexual abuse may be described as a violation of interrelatedness. A distortion and negation of the mutuality that is existence. Even as we are inescapably individual, and distinguishable as such, we exist in always already prevailing relations of intimacy—I would go so far as to say, of intersubjectivity. This is likely why the violation of one’s will or body is so thoroughly dispiriting. Something elemental is dishonoured. I do not locate sexual violence outside history or culture, for it is an indisputably social phenomenon. But this a priori might explain some of the affective intensity around the issue; why hostility haunts disagreements in ways that exceed what is attributable to a polarised climate and social media norms.
There has been a generational aspect to the differences. In the US, this has been most evident in relation to author Junot Díaz (whose revelation of child sexual abuse was followed by women testifying to his subsequent abuse of them in adulthood) and philosopher Avital Ronell (accused of sexual abuse by a male graduate student); in India, in relation to the list of male academics named as harassers. At times it has seemed as if the pain and anguish of younger feminists has been inaudible to older feminists; its viscerality eclipsed by, or subordinated to, specific concerns. In the US, this has included fear among some of a rerun of the sex wars of the 1980s, a bolstering of a Puritanical cultural seam, concerns with due process and Title IX, trial by social media, and in the Díaz case of racial dynamics. Not everyone has shared all of these concerns. In India, the disagreement has devolved primarily around the absence of due process in the circulation of a list of male names without details of accusations or accusers; not far behind, however, has followed the same concern about creeping moralism in context of the ruling party’s social conservatism.
A significant shift in context partly accounts for some of the difference in perspective. In the US, the sexual freedoms fought for by the generation that came of age in the 1960s are taken for granted by those in their 20s or 30s. They require no ‘defense’. A diverse sexual landscape characterises the present with a wide range of gender and sexual self-naming. At the same time, the pressure to be sexually active (compulsory sexuality?) seems to have produced its own counter-reaction with some young people consciously choosing celibacy and asexuality. Economic precarity has also widened the generational gulf. The neoliberal capture of the academy and the uncertain future facing graduate students has shaped the US conversation about pedagogy, power, fear and the star system in the Avital Ronell case.
Specific to India, the expansion of higher education has opened the university to first-generation students. Many have felt pressured by the equation of modernity and freedom with a certain form of sexual self-expression. Uncomfortable but unable to stand their ground, when the opportunity to tell their stories and name names presented itself, the arguments for due process felt like one more admonition. Given the pervasive nature of sexual harassment and the abysmal record of legal and institutional redress, the cumulative power of a collective naming of abuse (and at times of an abuser) took precedence over all other considerations.
A vital debate has ensued and excellent analysis produced. But fault lines quickly emerged, transforming the noisy into the nasty public square. Disagreements over how sexual assault should be understood and addressed have been attributed to race, status, age, caste, sometimes justifiably, sometimes not. Each side has accused the other of a failure to understand the negative consequences of positions taken. Concerns over ‘trigger culture’ and the neo-liberal production of brittle subjects have not been equally shared. There has been much talking past each other, much intemperate discourse. It is not hard to see why things unfolded in this way. And yet, it was not inevitable. Feminist insight regarding specificity and interrelations could have enabled a thinking with the multidimensionality being expressed.
Why has it been difficult to get analytical hold of the emerging discourse beyond binary descriptions such as pro or anti due process; pro or anti Ronell; or as a stand-off between sex radicals and sex moralists? How does one account for the absence of an appropriate engagement with relevant facts of abuse/abusive subcultures in interventions authors would deem ‘principled’? What is lost if the present is seen via the lens of past feminist divides? Why does calling out abuse negate eros; is the line between them really that indistinguishable? Does one abuse elide another or in any way explain it?
The problem is partly one of genre. Much of the discussion has unfolded through dispersed serial interventions via forms that require brevity and privilege opinion, reportage and rebuttal. It is up to readers to synthesise the different threads of conversation. However, the volume of expression and the fleeting nature of these media make this difficult. The destructive effects and diminishing returns of discursive shredding are all too evident. Social media posts, blogs, news articles and op-eds cannot stage layered, intertextual, cumulative encounters with culture, power, narrative frames, pain, skin and soul. We need forms that facilitate prismatic explorations of the themes that have emerged.
Perhaps #MeToo can become raw material for more textured (re)considerations of issues, an archive for art and other interventions. For example, a reader of discussions around Junot Díaz could gather his heart-wrenching account of sexual abuse in childhood, the equally moving narratives of many he later treated carelessly or abused, the open letter of feminists alerting us to the racial politics of reception in this case, the interventions of scholars in Puerto Rican studies. And alongside call for fresh submissions and the opportunity to rewrite/overwrite/ghostwrite. Such a collection would offer a for(u)m capacious enough to think with and through the intersectional and interstitial of experience, the true promise of identity politics.
Bambara, T.C., 1980. The Salt Eaters. New York: Random House.
Bambara, T.C., 1981. Foreword. In C. Moraga and G. Anzaldúa, eds. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Watertown: Persephone.
Haraway, D., 1988. Situated knowledges: the science question and the privilege of partial perspective. Feminist Studies, 14(3), pp. 575–599.
Moraga, C. and Anzaldúa G., eds., 1981. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Watertown: Persephone.
Orwell, G., 1949. 1984. London: Secker & Warburg.
Rich, A., 1986 . Notes toward a politics of location. In A. Rich Blood, Bread and Poetry. New York: Norton.
Sandoval, C., 1991. U.S. third world feminism: the theory and method of oppositional consciousness in the postmodern world. Genders: Journal of Social Theory, Representation, Race, Gender, Sex, 10, pp. 1–24.