Mohanty and Jacqui’s Feminist Genealogies

Alexander, M. Jacqui, and Chandra Talpade Mohanty. Feminist Genealogies, Colonial Legacies, Democratic Futures. Thinking gender. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Essay: “Women Workers and Capitalist Scripts,”

In Chandra Mohanty’s “Women Workers and Capitalist Scripts,” the issue of gender and feminization of the work force adds to an increasing complexity of class and class struggle. The essay begins by acknowledging this heterogeneity among the Third World woman-worker, and then proceeds to articulate the common interests and common forms of exploitation that are shared in ideological meanings (“homework” and “housewife”) that expose an ideological symmetry between forms of geographically-separated exploitation. The shared experiences are primarily three fold: (1) that women labor is defined in patriarchal definitions, (2) that these are transformed through capitalist exploitive processes and (3) the challenges of unionizing, organizing and recognizing their own common interests. According to Mohanty, this feat can only be achieved through a historical study that analyzes these instances of exploitation as a “process of gender and race domination,” and that re-conceives of “woman as agents rather than victims” (7).

Similar with Balibar and Wallerstein’s arguments about race, Mohanty argues that ideological forms of sexuality—in this case, the “housewife worker” who is unpaid (or unfairly paid) for their unskilled labor—are symptomatic to a capitalist system that seeks to incorporate women into the workforce while losing very little (to none) surplus-value in the process (hyper-exploitation). By defining working women as housewives, the women as members of a workforce are always secondary to their family roles, enabling those further up the social hierarchy (usually men) to profit from their labor.

Of course, capitalism didn’t create these hierarchies or indigenous caste systems (as is the case in India), and in Mohanty’s terms, “the integration of women into the world market is possible because of the history and transformation of indigenous caste and sexual ideologies” (13). In other words, the world market forces were opportunistic, and were able to utilize on an already-existing social hierarchy in order to exploit those who were already at the bottom of it. On one hand, these market forces were “simply respecting” the established hierarchy of the indigenous peoples, while at the same time, they were manipulating and transforming these roles in order to exploit the workforce. By making the point that these hierarchies were merely reinforced by the world market rather than engendered by it, Mohanty seems to be arguing for the solidarity of women workers, for while the types of sexual and racist ideologies may differ in content from one instant to another, the very form of the world market reinforcing existing hierarchies (where women are almost always on the bottom) is a “common interest” shared by the women workers of the world. The ideological symmetries that she specifies are concepts that communicate (1) “unskilled labor,” (2) the tediousness of the task at hand, and (3) the secondary, supplementary nature of the occupation in comparison to being a housewife.

These ideas culminate towards the end of the essay, when she expresses that “interests can be characterized as ‘objective’” and that “the content of needs and desires…remains open for subjective interpretation” (23). By splitting the “interests” into objective and subjective concepts, solidarity can be produced among the women workers with the objective interests in mind, while local communities can still defend the specific contents of their needs. In order to produce this solidarity, first there must occur a redefinition of women’s work that is not patriarchal, but casts women in roles of their own agency and “thus indicates a political basis for common struggles” (28). The common struggle is self-evident in their ideological conflicts to be defined as both worker and woman through definitions that make work, and therefore wage-labor, a type of unnecessary leisure.

Response to “Introduction”

The condescension and sniding that many academics in the humanities are apt to perform whenever we are confronted with that haunting term that was once ours but was hijacked by the forces of corporatism and capital, multiculturalism, is perhaps too fast a snide, too quick an instance of hit-and-run disqualification—any instance that the term is brought up, we at once are reminded of diversity training programs, of quick inculcation and upward assimilation, rather than the politics of inclusion and identity that first utilized the term. Multiculturalism in the 1980s was an attempt to bypass all instances of institutional racism by shifting the paradigm towards a tolerance for other cultures. Multiculturalism was meant to provide a respectful and non-presumptive attitude towards others, creating diversity in the workplace and institutions, effectively turning the American melting pot into a multicultural salad, where all elements work together, are equally delicious, and are never meant to dissolve into a single cohesive mass. In this essay I want to investigate the merits and demerits of this multiculturalism by comparing it to its contemporary alternative, cross-culturalism, which takes a step back from plurality and “mere tolerance” towards a politics of responsibility.

In their Introduction to Genealogies, Legacies, Movements, Mohanty and Jacqui Alexander resist “relativist postmodern” for its refusal to acknowledge real social locations and the structural violence experienced by other races, and instead they attempt to bring about a cross-cultural politics, which substitutes relativism for “responsibility, accountability, engagement, and solidarity” (xix). Rather than asking for a global sisterhood in feminist politics, or an equalizing abstraction of identity under a humanitarian guise that attempts to call for global solidarity, claiming all women to be under a similar patriarchy, Alexander and Mohanty stress an understanding of unequal relationships between identities. They see a danger to women of color in post-modern relativism that allows white women, in a move of self-abstraction, to identify with third world women and women of color despite their privilege, their ignorance of intersectionalities of race, class and gender, and their own complicity with the forces of repression that work to marginalize women of color.

Alexander and Mohanty ask for a cross-cultural politics rather than a multicultural politics, stressing that such a new politics would produce “a comparative, relational feminist praxis that is transnational in its response to and engagement with global processes of colonialism” (xx). Such a comparative praxis would enable self-reflection through the Other, would present the deep contextual knowledge that refuses abstraction between different groups, and would project the inequality and structural violence that certain groups allow while others suffer. While multiculturalism permits a rapid complicity with capitalism, cross-culturalism “cannot be about self-advancement, upward mobility, or maintenance of the first world status-quo. It has to be premised on the decolonization of the self and on notions of citizenship defined not just within the boundaries of the nation state but across national and regional borders” (xli). Though they call this type of politics “transborder participatory democracy,” I find “cross-cultural” more apt, as it distinguishes this radical politics form the corporatism of multiculturalism that Alexander and Mohanty are moving against. Indeed, cross-culturalism proliferates not an ideology of self-empowerment, but a hyper-awareness of how one’s own empowerment may be disempowering to others, transcending national borders in this awareness. Yet, what of solidarity then between these groups? How does one create alliances when there is no demarcating line between the oppressed and the privileged, but rather a long hierarchy from better to worse, where towards the bottom lies multiple variations of intersectionalities, turning the American multicultural salad where all is equal and eaten, into a cross-cultural shish kabob, where all minorities are cooked under an oppressive fire and gutted on the same wooden stick, yet who must be consumed one at a time, on a ladder of value.

Assimilation metaphors aside, Alexander and Mohanty qualify their call for a new politics by pointing out that these new cross-cultural women’s movements “cannot be purely reactive in relation to the state” (xl). The experience of being a women of color, or being oppressed, cannot alone qualify one for full understanding within a movement, but rather “it is, in fact, the interpretation of that experience within a collective context that marks the moment of transformation from perceived contradictions and material disenfranchisement to participation in women”s movements” (xl). Here Alexander and Mohanty seem to be invoking group testimonials in everything but name, situations where every member of a group must reflect upon their own oppressive experiences and perhaps experiences of performing oppression on others. In these testimonials, everyone is represented in their particularities, yet, at the same time, are solidified as a group through the very act of testimony and interpretations of that testimony by the group. While Alexander and Mohanty use the word transformation to capture this process og group formation to the individual, could we also not use the words interpellation, self-conditioning, etc.? Does not this act of testimony—as a speech act, as a performative gesture—not require an audience for a collective that might as well be arbitrary? In other words, if interpretation of experience is all it takes to produce a “belonging to” within a community, what matters then of individual context and experience other than as self-reflective (or guilt-producing) narcissism to quickly bypass the feeling of being abstracted? How is being asked to select a moment of personal history, what is perhaps a total exception to the norm of that history, then to have that history interpreted in strange and horrific ways to better understand it in the mission-statement of the group, witnessing the meaning of that experience transformed from something personal and long-forgotten into a structural problem that perhaps had nothing to do with one’s own autonomy and decisions, but rather his gender, race or class, in order to become a participant in a political social movement—how is this “interpretation” any different than the amusement brought about by a magic show when a member of the audience is asked to participate by coming on stage, among the gaze of the audience and their own timidity, only to immediately find himself cut in half, picking the wrong cards again and again, or unable to recognize their own loved ones, merely through the powers of suggestion, meaning making and group pressure? What difference is it then to sacrifice the meaning of experience for the group’s entertainment, their feeling of companionship, or their need for solidarity?

If cross-culturalism is a politics meant to dissolve the abstraction of the group, which makes all instances of oppressive identities equal, then what does cross-culturalism have left to suture individuals into groups and those groups into movements, than affective regimes produced by group testimonials, where it is not what is said that sutures, but the act of saying itself, of offering a piece of personal history, a piece of one’s soul to the group, that interpellates the individual into a collectivity? Such a performance of group solidarity is, of course, not new. It is a remnant of religious interpellation continued today in a modern form par excellence by the religion of Scientology, whose “Free Personality Test” is perhaps little more than a means of extracting personal information, of establishing trust between the participant and the observer, giving the individual the option between group solidity or the insidious possibilities of blackmail, gossip, and even state intervention.

Yet, in this disjuncture within cross-cultural politics between the individual and group solidarity, one finds hope, as usual, in Gayatri Spivak, and in her efforts to rethink cross-cultural politics by emphasizing affect, by “grounding feeling”:

We ‘know’ that to ground thinking upon feeling cannot be the basis of theory, but that ‘is’ how theory is ‘judged in the wholly other’, that ‘is’ the ‘ghost of the undecidable’ in every decision, that ‘is’ how the ‘truth’ of the work is set of posited [gestzt] in the work(ing)…we cannot get around it in the name of academic or arty anti-essentialism (256).

If affect is all that grounds such movements, then so be it. But “grounding feeling” and affect are quite different, where affect may induce one to the powers of suggestion and group feeling of companionship despite arbitrary interests, “grounding feeling” depends on a self-reflective meditation, not on one’s own personal interests, nor on they ways they relate to the world directly, but to the things that one cares about, to the emotions that demand certain roles be taken up, certain ways of engaging with the world, as well as the guilt that must be attended to through global responsibility for one’s own actions. As Spivak says of authors who investigate women’s work in Southeast Asia, as well as activists on the subject, “we had difficulty recognizing theory because it was not framed in a Heideggerian staging of care, or a Derridean staging of responsibility” (258).

Through Spivak’s analysis, the staging of identity politics seems to dissolve under a politics of care and responsibility. Grounding thinking upon feeling is to feel/think of ground itself, to admit, before direct group intervention or testimony, of what one cares about and how one is to take responsibility for that caring. Multiculturalism thus begins to set; a politics of cross-culturalism eclipses it, and how we appropriate theory, how we “take up” the transnational turn, how we seek to produce alignment, with the goal of reaching a critical mass that may substantially shift a paradigm that allows oppressive forces, will determine the effectiveness of this politics of caring and responsibility.

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