What’s the Point of Conferences, Anyway?


That was the recurring thought running through my head as I fussed over my PowerPoint presentation slides for the Social Research Social Justice (SRSJ) and the Women’s and Gender Studies (WGS) conferences two weeks ago. Reading and re-reading my slides and papers to check the coherency of my writing, I felt the weight of presenting bearing down on me more acutely with every additional hour that I stayed back at the library.

I spend many nights like this at the (usually empty) library, slogging through readings, writing papers, sifting through research databases. More often than not, I find myself wondering why I consign myself to this hermetic existence as I watch my friends and other KU students leave to hang out with friends, watch a movie, or party the weekend away, essentially to “live the college life.” Some days, when the work has been intellectually rewarding, I am able to counter the appeal of this alternative lifestyle and offer justification for my choice to go the extra mile; other days, on the other hand, when the readings and research are particularly tedious and frustrating, I become irritable and cynical, internally echoing some of the common grievances I’ve heard my peers lob at the enterprise of scholarship:

“What’s the point of theory, anyway? What’s the point of research and research conferences when they have nothing to do with the real world?”

And so, I found myself increasingly lamenting the pointlessness of my scholarly endeavors in the week leading up to the conferences as the stress of the semester took its toll. Thus, it was with the specter of these doubts about the utility of scholarship that I came to approach the conferences with a tinge of indifference, apprehensive about their ability to speak in any meaningful way to my learning experience.

I am glad to say that I was emphatically proven wrong.

On Friday, April 8th, I presented my research paper titled “The Doctrine of State Responsibility: The Case of China in Sudan” at the SRSJ conference at Muhlenberg College. Written for an international law course I took last spring, my paper examined the extent to which the Chinese government was culpable for the acts of its national oil companies (NOCs) in perpetrating human rights abuses in their oil investment ventures in Sudan. Dr. Clemens, my faculty supervisor for my independent study on postcolonial theory this semester did a fantastic job moderating my panel, allowing connections to be drawn between my research regarding China’s international presence and the other panelist, Kellie Dietrich’s research on China’s one-child policy.

Despite the seemingly vast divide separating our projects on China’s international and domestic issues, a common theme that emerged through the Q&A session is the lack of foresight that plagues governments worldwide in carving out viable policies that are politically, economically, and ethically sound.  In China’s case, what seemed like a very straightforward, no-frills, business-only investment model for African countries has revealed itself to be more complex in practice than on paper. With civil strife raging unabatedly in places such as Libya and Sudan, China is increasingly finding itself inevitability embroiled in human rights issues as a result of turning a blind eye towards despotic regimes in the service of facilitating economic goals that not only mars its international reputation, but impedes even its initial goals of economic gains. Likewise, its domestic policies on population control show a similar trajectory of producing more immediate, short-term gains but reveal a set of unintended and problematic blowbacks such as a severely disproportionate male to female population ratio in the long-term.

These policy-execution difficulties are not unique to China and illustrate the complexities of establishing clear cause-effect relationships in the vast tangle of socioeconomic, political, and cultural factors that contribute to whatever issue a policy is designed to ameliorate.

The following day, I presented again at the LVAIC WGS conference at DeSales University, this time on a paper entitled “The Bride Price and Children of the New World: Liminality and the Fate of the Postcolonial Female Subject.” Written for my Women Writers around the World class with Dr. Clemens last semester, my paper examines the consequence of occupying a liminal space for the female postcolonial subject who is caught between her native and Western colonial cultures. Once again, I had the opportunity to make connections between my research and those of other students. It was especially invigorating to be able to talk to people from other universities who were also invested in their scholarship and to be immersed in an atmosphere that promoted the exchange of intellectual ideas. Marlana Eck’s keynote speech served as a much-needed source of encouragement to persevere in the field as a young female scholar despite the challenges, and a reminder to be thankful for the many “womyn-fluences” (as she calls it) who have helped to inspire and build us along the way.

Throughout the two days I spent at both these conferences, I got the chance to witness abstract theory translate to very real and material issues across the globe. As I listened to presenters talk about ethnic discrimination in Russia largely due to an insistence on a monolithic “Russian” national identity, and the complications faced regarding the integration of Russian minorities into the Baltic States (i.e., Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania) at the SRSJ conference, I recalled the readings earlier this semester regarding the difficulties of creating and maintaining a unified, homogenous “national identity” in a postcolonial milieu. At both conferences, LGBTQ struggles resulting from the insistence of imposing unyielding male/female binary norms were also highlighted. A presentation on the use of Snapchat as a possible means of reducing stereotypes through exposure to other cultures according to the Intergroup Contact Theory (IGCT) allowed me to see the potential for social platforms to be utilized as a means of exposing and undermining the myth of the other.

In short, theory has everything to do with the real world. The fact that it does not vociferously announce its presence in the realm of practical, everyday life experiences does not mean it is not intricately woven into its fabric, its true nature concealed. What struck me as a common thread running through these various presentations is how easily we forget that history and reality as we know it has been constructed, and thus heightening our susceptibility to conflations of the socially engineered as “natural.” It is this amnesia that is arguably to blame for a large proportion of the issues we observe in society today. Maybe this is the hopelessly naïve scholar in me speaking, but I think theory has a place in unveiling these cognitive fallacies, providing tools for critical analysis from which to mount a plan for remedial action. Don’t get me wrong, theory is not an adequate substitute for action; in fact, subsequent inaction renders it pointless. Nonetheless, theory is a necessary prerequisite for the birth of corrective action, providing a common framework and vocabulary for the inception of critical discourse.

But even without all the intellectual stimulation provided by these conferences, this one encounter I had at the WGS conference alone made it all worth it. A lady came up to me after my panel was over and said: “I thought I was the only one who felt this way.” I found out that she was born in Uganda and had migrated to the U.S. as a child (if I remember this correctly) and had also grown up experiencing the push and pull of her native and adopted Western cultures. She had heard about the conference after recently moving into the area and decided to check it out. Being able to say “No, you’re not alone, there’s a whole bunch of us out there and an entire field of scholarship on this topic!” was one of the most profound instances of connection I have experienced. The opportunity to share that moment of connection with someone else was made all the more priceless having personally experienced the relief in being able to relate to the concept of the postcolonial liminal subject and the vocabulary it accorded me to articulate the inner tug-of-war between my cultural identities.

All in all, I am thankful to have had a platform to share my voice and the opportunity to be reminded that my work belongs to a much broader community of scholarship and scholars. I am especially thankful also to Dr. Clemens, who first sparked my interest in the postcolonial in her Intro to World Literature course during my junior year, and who has since been integral in helping me find my voice through subsequent classes and this independent study.


Feminism: Power, Desire, Interest, and the Voice of the Subaltern

Discussions on female sexuality and empowerment have reignited across social media in recent weeks, largely thanks to this nude selfie of Kim Kardashian. As with all issues of debate, public response has been divided into two camps, each arguing Kardashian’s public display of sexuality as for or against the feminist agenda of advancing women’s rights. Scanning through a few of these opinions, a common thread that emerges across these opposing arguments is the difficulty of representing and asserting female sexuality in a global capitalist economy that objectifies women.

This conundrum illustrates how easily we as humans take our agency as subjects for granted, especially in a digital epoch teeming with avenues for individual and communal expression and action. However, “since human subjectivity is constructed by ideology (Althusser), language (Lacan) or discourse (Foucault), the corollary is that any action performed by that subject must also be to some extent a consequence of those things” (Ashcroft 10). Given that postcolonial subjectivity is constituted and governed by imperialist rhetoric, the readings this week question the assumption that feminism as an intellectual and political discourse can operate independently of the collusion between power, desire, and interest to advance the rights of women across the globe (Spivak 272).

This article from The Guardian came up this week on my Facebook newsfeed, serving as timely reminder of the susceptibility of feminist discourse to co-optation by the narrative of the middle-class, Western woman, who is herself also circumscribed as a subject by the global capitalist economy. Addressing the issue of domestic labor in the UK (composed of local and migrant female workers from lower socio-economic groups), the article poses this question to its readers:

“Think of your colleague on the next computer, or the person who lives in the house opposite. What do you know about them? Their immediate family’s names, probably. Pets, maybe. Jobs, interests, what they got up to at the weekend? Bar a few gaps, you could probably give a pretty good potted history of these acquaintances. Now what about your cleaner?”

Who is this cleaner, this subaltern woman?

Can she speak?

The conspicuous silence of the cleaner emphasizes middle-class feminism’s blind spots regarding the representation of their less-wealthy counterparts both within the country and across the globe, echoing the question Spivak addresses in her famous critical piece “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

Defined as subaltern in an androcentric and colonial order, women and colonized subjects share many parallels in their experiences that seem to make for natural allies between the two groups. Both the feminist and the postcolonial subject oppose domination exerted in the form of patriarchy or imperialism, utilizing similar strategies of resistance to challenge the extent to which these dominant discourses have structured modes of representation and language crucial to the construction of identity and subjectivity in the subaltern female or colonial subject (Ashcroft 117). Yet, the proliferation of articles such as Spivak’s in recent years highlights the profound impact of the forces that construct (and thus limit) the agency of the subject seeking political recourse.

The Guardian piece is one of many examples that points to the unfortunate reality that feminist discourse has been surreptitiously infiltrated by the discourse of Western imperialism, making strides for white, middle/upper-class women while erroneously assuming that this progress transcends cultures and socio-economic classes to meet the differing needs of women across a vast range of socio-cultural, economic, and political contexts. Gender is at once over and under emphasized as a crucial factor in the structuring the lives of the postcolonial female subject; “we say too little and too much at the same time” when we pinpoint gender as the common denominator underlying all oppression (Mohanty 68).

In “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses,” Chandra Mohanty asserts that Western feminists who subscribe to this reductionist mode of thinking only succeed in perpetrating the binary of men as oppressor and women as the oppressed. Coupled with the nationalists who uphold the binary of colonizer/colonized in reaction to imperialism, both discourses effectively silence the voice of the subaltern woman. There is no space for the subaltern who is both a postcolonial and a female subject, her identity subsumed under the calcified dichotomies of men/women and colonizer/colonized. Consequently, the question of agency for the subaltern woman is doubly compounded under a system of “double colonization.”

Effectively silenced, the subaltern woman is instead spoken for and represented by a multiplicity of voices driven by the interests of the elite. Mohanty generates a whole list of concrete examples to illustrate this phenomenon. She asserts that feminist discourse, dominated by the narrative of the middle-class, white woman, has served as colonialism’s unwitting handmaiden in perpetuating colonial mentality by constructing a “reductive and homogenous notion” of “third-world difference” in their presentation of a composite, singular “third-world woman,” an illusive Other arbitrarily constructed without regard for their identities as “real material subjects of their collective histories” (Mohanty 62).

Western, middle-class feminism, in assuming the universality of its experience, imposes its culture on the rest of the global female population when it evaluates the “third-world woman” as Other and prescribes political action according to Western values and beliefs. Represented this way, the “third-world woman” is essentially characterized by dependency relationships, and is a victim of male violence, patriarchal kinship systems, religious ideologies, and economic developmental policies. As a result, the image of the “third-world woman” as controlled and produced by the first-world is religious, traditional, ignorant of their legal rights, sexually repressed etc. (80). She is, in essence, backward in every respect compared to the first-world woman. In this way, the western woman is able to construct herself as the center and a beacon of progress to be emulated (81).

This mode of representation is especially prevalent in depictions of Muslim women, as evident in Leila Ahmed’s “The Discourse of the Veil.” Islam, judged according to Western ethnocentrism, is continuously and systematically produced as an inferior Other, especially in its oppressive practices towards women. Therefore, the veil became “the most visible marker of the differentness and inferiority of Islamic societies” as a symbol of female oppression in Western discourse, when in fact, it is worn in reality for many different reasons across a range of socio-cultural, economic, and political contexts (322). As such, Ahmed shares Mohanty’s contention in writing that “the Victorian male establishment…captured the language of feminism and redirected it, in the service of colonialism, toward Other men and the cultures of Other men” (321).

Thus, these theorists extend Said’s claim regarding the oft-ignored complicity between the seemingly disparate domains of the political and the intellectual to the feminist movement, revealing how Western feminism has erroneously overstated the explanatory power of gender in explaining the oppression of women.

All this to say that the agency of all social groups are not equally constituted.  The subaltern who is both postcolonial and female is doubly marginalized, constrained by Western and local patriarchal hegemony that renders her voiceless. Thus, “For the ‘true’ subaltern group whose identity is its difference, there is no unrepresentable subaltern subject that can know and speak itself…” (Spivak 285). However, the issue is not so much her ability to speak as much as recognizing the dominant forces that determine (and thus limit) when, where, how, and why her voice is heard, thereby increasing its susceptibility to misrepresentation. Considering larger forces such as the international division of labor created by the global free-market economy as well as localized socio-cultural and political forces is therefore essential in addressing the real, material needs of women across cultural and class lines.