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.

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