“There is, it should be evident, no universal patriarchal framework that [global feminism] attempts to counter and resist – unless one posits an international male conspiracy or a monolithic, ahistorical power structure. There is, however, a particular world balance of power within which any analysis of culture, ideology, and socioeconomic conditions necessarily has to be situated.”2
“…disrupt the notion of fixity, to discover the nature of the debate or repression that leads to the appearance of timeless permanence in binary gender representation.” -Joan W. Scott
We are beneath water, surrounded on all sides by a seemingly homogenous, dark sea that is unbroken by light, bubbles, particles, and sound. Now come the creatures of the abyss, swimming with their hobgoblin lanterns poised directly in front of their massive eyes; now come luminescent jellyfish, undulating blindly along with unseen currents. With each passing bit of bio-light that passes, we see a little of our surroundings, but only the very smallest space. We see the sea is teaming with particles and that there are bubbles that slowly flit from the gills of the light-bearing creatures. Once the light has passed, the darkness closes in again.
My friend says to me once we reach the surface, “The ocean is a vast, expansive darkness!” Another of my fellow divers says, “The ocean is teaming with strange life! Each so different from the next!” And a third cries, “The pressure of the depths is suffocating! How much more comfortable it is above the water!”
Now each sets out to writing a chapter in our book about the ocean. Here are their chapter descriptions:
The need for a high-beam, intense light when exploring the depths is not only necessary, but demanded. One cannot navigate the depths without a light tool of some kind. The type of light recommended is the “Halogen ismvs. The Darkness” model that has been available for decades. The best manufacturer from whom to purchase such a tool is the Occidental Academics Illumination Studios.
There is no possible way to speak of the incredible diversity of life found in the depths. Each creature is their own individual, sharing nothing in common with his/her neighbor, each seems locked-away from the other, floating in an immense darkness seeking sustenance in the cold, lightless depths.
Stay on the Beach
Diving to these levels is not recommended. The pressure in ones eardrums, the ringing in the head after, not to speak of the countless hours wasted in adventuring down into such valueless places makes these journeys a waste of time. Save yourself the trouble. Pack a light snack, enjoy the sun’s rays safely, splash in the shallows, and lounge on the beach should you be tempted to dive below the surface.
We can determine a number of things about the authors from their exclamations and their chapter descriptions, but what we do not know is far more profound: the geographical location of this diving expedition, the history of the expedition, the history of the authors/explorers, the exact depth of the expedition, the time of year of the expedition, the length of time of the expedition. In fact, we do not even know the purpose of the expedition. Indeed, using the word “expedition” laces the adventure through with an official, National Geographic tone of scientific discovery. Are we perhaps looking for the Titanic? Or looking for new species of aquatic creature? Or simply out for an amusing scuba dive?
“…language is a system that constitutes meaning. (Cabrera, QoG p. 321)”
“These limitations are evident in the construction of the (implicitly consensual) priority of issues around which apparently all women are expected to organize. (Mohanty, p.182)”
In diving into a discourse about concepts that are recognized as feminist, there is the temptation to assume that categories of meaning and basic concepts (such as “experience, objectivity, causality, and the subject of history”3) have been pre-established. In fact, in using even simple words (like man and woman; masculine and feminine; gay and straight), it can be likewise tempting to believe that the meanings of these words are somehow representative of categories that are concrete and distinct, and often oppositional.
Constructing our language in such a way that creates and allows monolithic, homogenous, ahistorical, categories of oppositional difference limits a concept’s capacity to expand beyond the context of our own cultural imaginations. This is an effective means to limit the scope and efficacy of unsettling ideas that challenge the ways we perceive our culture and deepen our understanding of the world.
An example of this is the assumption that some monolithic, ahistorical Feminism is caught in conflict with some monolithic, ahistorical Patriarchy. What this ignores, indeed, what it inspires, is an abstract, oppositional conflict that is grounded in essentialist, binary, and universalist thinking. Cutting across borders, politics, cultures, religions, races, histories, and economies, this “colonial feminism” or “imperial feminism”, with its roots in US and Euro-centric academia, decontextualizes the specific struggles of women* around the globe.
“An analysis of ‘sexual difference’ in the form of a cross-culturally singular, monolithic notion of patriarchy or male dominance leads to the construction of a similarly reductive and homogenous notion of what I call the ‘Third World[/South] difference’ – that stable, ahistorical something that apparently oppresses most if not all the women in these countries. And it is in the production of this Third World[/South] difference that Western feminisms appropriate and colonize the constitutive complexities that characterize the lives of women in these countries. (Mohanty, p. 19)”
Additionally, the corporatization of US culture (and education) has led to a consumerist, commodity, or protocapitalist feminism that focuses myopically on capitalist values – profit, competition, hyper-individualism, accumulation – while soothingly emphasizing the importance of exercising one’s “power of choice” to advance one’s station within US corporate culture while buying this brand of anti-aging cream instead of another.
This feminism stresses women’s advancement in US corporate culture as central to the feminist struggle. One of the costs of this “protocapitalist feminism” is that under the noses of today’s US women (many of whom seek profit over political involvement), we are seeing a systematic undermining of many of those rights we have taken for granted over the course of a generation.
What is often forgotten in the rush to competitively shape-shift-up in US corporate culture, are those upon whose backs US women stand. What are the added costs of commodity feminists who are more interested in their personal advancement than in those making the very commodities they feel they so richly deserve? Or the effects of shifting our production (dirty and cheap) overseas, to increase the profit of our businesses while decreasing the amounts we pay for flowers and blouses at the register?
The point is we must expand the understanding of “choice” and “empowerment” beyond our own personal, socio-cultural context toward the understanding that women and children are often the workers whose labor and human rights are so often over-looked and undervalued in the rush to produce goods for a commodity-addicted populace, even if this means visibility and acceptance.”
Historical and Cultural Context
“Changes in the discursive context affected the shape of feminist identity and practice. This is because modern feminist identity, feminism, and its practice arose from the historical deployment of established political discourses.”3
My particular and specific experience (as opposed to “identity”) as a white, middle-class, somewhat-well traveled, individual who identifies as female, who grew up in a Christian household living in the SouthWest of the United States at the end of the 20th century and into the 21st century, has shaped the context through which I experience the world.
I am mostly same-sex oriented, though I feel that the gay/straight binary is just as restrictive as the female/male; feminine/masculine binary. The concept that encompasses much of this gender/sexuality trouble in the culture as I experience it today, revolves around an explicit and implicit emphasis on heteronormative social mores.
A specific example of the heteronormative occurs when well-meaning folks ask female-female couples “Who wears the pants in the family?” The expectation is that one will exhibit more “masculine” traits while the other will exhibit more “feminine” traits. There are also examples of the heteronormative that revolve around sexual behavior, not only within the straight community, but in the queer world as well.
The heteronormative and the unquestioned acceptance of gender/sexuality binaries is something I have found promulgated by many people who themselves have known the exterior fields of marginalization. One of the most unfortunate aspects of this is that both feminists and the gay community have for a number of years been less than accepting toward transgendered and gender queer individuals. My hope is that this will continue to change and that our ability as human beings to be open to ambiguities, rather than labeled “identities” and co-opted for profit’s sake, will continue to expand.
The expedition must be located in context and the authors, whose vision and language communicates the depths they see (or choose not to descend to see), must too be located in their particular contexts. Similar to the parable of the 6 blind men and the elephant, but laced with an interwoven matrix of influences and biases that begin beneath the structure of language itself to address why we are blinded and in what ways. How do we know the elephant is an elephant at all?
(Edit August 4,2013: The word Kyriarchy is a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza that functions much better than Patriarchy. Learn more about it )
“If this challenge is accepted, … we will pay attention to language and to the processes through which categories and meanings have been articulated’; otherwise, we will continue to impose models on the world that perpetuate conventional understandings rather than open up new interpretive possibilities.”3
*“The assumption of women as an already constituted, coherent group with identical interests and desires, regardless of class, ethnic, or racial location, or contradictions, implies a notion of gender or sexual difference or even patriarchy that can be applied universally and cross-culturally. (Mohanty, p.21)”
1. Cabrera, Miguel A. Language, Experience, and Identity: Joan W. Scott’s Theoretical Challenge to Historical Studies2003
2. Mohanty, Chandra T. Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity2003
3. Butler J., Weed, E. editors The Question of Gender: Joan W. Scott’s Critical Feminism 2011