- Ella Shohat (Editor)
Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminisms in a Transnational Age. New Museum (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Sneja Gunew
This book was compiled a few years ago and was based on a conference held in 1993, but far from preserving musty debates and old controversies, its combination of critical issues, writers and visual documents meaningfully intervenes into current discussions surrounding globalization and the relationship to the national and local. While all the contributors are North American, their range and diversity rescue this book from glib generalizations that homogenize what happens in North America or the U.S. in the name of deconstructing (in the fullest sense) its assumed monolithic culture. Those contradictions are energetically addressed and the contributors offer a nuanced engagement with the paradoxes of cultural differences within a context that functions as the primary reference point for defining the "West," or Europe, or globalization itself.
To talk about multiculturalism today when it is defined in so many places and from so many positions is a daunting undertaking. However, with Ella Shohat’s opening essay we are launched into the continuing debates around identity or subjectivity (whatever it takes to simultaneously pose and destabilize this concept). As Shohat puts it, in a statement which echoes the concluding chapter of the influential Unthinking Eurocentrism, which she co-wrote with Robert Stam, "theory deconstructs totalizing myths while activism nourishes them." A decade later, judging from current conferences and other sites where these issues are debated, including the art world itself, even activism is trying to move beyond totalizing categories, those assumptions which are ultimately confining and even paralyzing. As Shohat states, "Identities and identifications are not necessarily coterminous, and one’s socially constructed identity often does not necessarily dictate one’s politics." Easier perhaps said than done when we inhabit a world where individuals are interpellated quite often through superficial, phenotypical markers. Indeed, as the introduction puts it, "Looks and identity, this volume suggests, are inscribed within the politics of visuality, but the politics of visuality also need to be reinvoiced in relation to a rich polyphony of alliances." And it is precisely a "reinvoicing" of the visual which takes place in many of the essays. As is so often the case with such analyses, personal experience fuels some of the insights. Shohat documents the fact that formations of racialization are given different meanings in different contexts by her own experience of being considered a "black" Iraqi in Israel, to transmutating into "brown" when she lands in the U.S. One heeds Shohat’s injunction that "Multicultural feminism is thus less concerned with identities as something one has than in identification as something one does." How can one work productively with these interpellations over which one has no initial control? At the same time Shohat also warns readers that versions of American nationalism continue to underpin even those readings which attempt to illustrate the diversity within the U.S. so that minorities are pitted against each other rather than creating possibilities for collaboration. The question she poses toward the end of her introduction continues to haunt contemporary debates: "How do we redefine national interest when the post-independence nation-state has become a vehicle for national elites increasingly integrated into the culture of transna-tionalism?"
The essays which follow offer many sharp perceptions. Adrian Piper’s discussion of the fraught politics of "passing" is complemented by succinct visual material. Remaining with the emphasis on outward characteristics, Kathleen Zane’s essay "Reflections on a Yellow Eye: Asian I(\ Eye/)Cons and Cosmetic Surgery," uses the controversial writings of Hawai’ian author Lois Yamanaka to illustrate the point that the demand for eye surgery is not an inevitable symptom of internalized racism. Lisa Jones’s meticulous historic and materialist study of the hair trade offers lugubrious detail of where the actual hair comes from and ponders whether there is truth to the contention that one source is cadavers. Lynne Yamamoto’s photograph of an installation by Jeannette Ingberman and Papa Colo which shows a fall of hair caught up in an old-fashioned mangle offers its own sardonic evidence as counterpoint.
The distinguished cultural activist and performance artist Coco Fusco, who collaborated with Shohat on this volume, gleefully examines the tradition of reclaiming accessories of oppression and wearing them as signs of subversion (one thinks of the recent history of the chador here) but also sounds the caution that "Unfortunately [...] this celebratory position tends to depoliti-cize and equate all forms of identity twisting, reaching the point at times of assuming that women are what they wear. [...] It collapses the historical, political and social influences in the construction of identity and appearance into a superficial reading of identity as appearance, complementing the impulses of a society that uses consumption as its model of cultural assimilation." A great deal of the visual material illuminates the varied ways in which such subversions may be represented.
Nor does this collection avoid the somewhat controversial issue of criticizing those who are traditionally perceived as allies. Janet Henry’s "WACtales: A Downtown Adventure" traces a fable that has been duplicated many times over the last few decades in the debates surrounding the retrospective analyses of second-wave feminism as a movement which primarily served the interests of middle-class white women. Henry’s story of the Women’s Action Coalition in New York is indeed a cautionary tale which reveals the need for sensitive coalition building rather than the assumption that women will automatically be unified in their response to political events. Isabelle Gunning’s careful critique of Alice Walker and Pratibha Parmar’s well-known film Warrior Marks (much used in classrooms) reveals both the necessity for, as well as the difficulties (and pain) involved, in such critiques "amongst ourselves."
M.A. Jaimes-Guerrero’s " Savage Hegemony: From ’Endangered Species’ to Feminist Indigenism" examines the double burden of American Native women who marry out or leave their reservations and are subsequently pitted against the sexism of patriarchal tribal councils as much as against white racism. The essay goes on to examine the ways in which Native artists, classified and identified by government agencies, are discriminated against by the very policies which are meant to safeguard the "authenticity" of Native art and artists. The ways in which policies and values ricochet back onto those who are meant to be in the same political coalition is also analyzed in Wahneema Lubiano’s essay "Talking About the State and Imaging Alliances" where she looks at the "complicity of many blacks in state-ordained Native American genocide." Given these contradictions and minefields where might be the way forward be located? I should confess that in a recent upper-level women’s studies class on dias-poric women and the ways in which feminist analyses might deal with their contradictions and future directions I used quite a number of these essays as discussion-generators. In the eyes of the young women in the class, their realities now consisted of trying to remain committed to working for social change (running the risks of encountering Shohat’s totalizing myths mentioned earlier) in an era when they themselves often embodied the corporeal circuitry of multiple traditions and categories. They could have echoed Maria Hinjosa in her dialogue with Catherine Benamou when she states: "I, we, embody multiculturalism in this country. I’m part Mexican, I’m part Jewish, I’m part Dominican, I’m part African-American, part Puerto Rican, part Catholic, part san-tera, I’m any number of combinations of things and they’re all right here embodied in one person." Their comments could have resonated as well with May Joseph’s contention that "[c]ultural citizenship is a nomadic and performative realm of self-invention." These performances and critiques, as well as the considered and careful analyses contained in Dutt’s and Grewal’s separate studies of what "human rights" mean in some contexts and Caren Kaplan’s carefully choreographed essay on what it meant for (some) Jews to become white in the U.S., exemplify a cautious optimism that insights may slowly and painstakingly illuminate a way beyond the last decade’s engagements with the politics of identity and some of the paralyzing impasses of identity politics.
- Those Voices Speaking Now by Neil Querengesser
Books reviewed: Rudy Wiebe: Collected Stories, 1955-2010 by Rudy Wiebe
- Varied Stories by Rita Wong
Books reviewed: A Larger Memory: A History of Our Diversity, With Voices by Ronald Takaki and Choose Me by Evelyn Lau
- A Timely Save: Canada’s Pre-eminent Feminist Theatre Company at Thirty Years by Kirsty Johnston
Books reviewed: Nightwood Theatre: A Woman’s Work is Always Done by Shelley Scott
- Crossing Boundaries by Pilar Somacarrera
Books reviewed: Imaginary Origins: Selected Poems 1997-2002 by Cyril Dabydeen and Play a Song Somebody: New and Selected Stories by Cyril Dabydeen
- Asian American/Canadian by Jennifer Jay
Books reviewed: Orientations: Mapping Studies in the Asian Diaspora by Kandice Chuh and Karen Shimakawa and Writing the Hyphen: The Articulation of Interculturalism in Contemporary Chinese-Canadian Literature by Susanne Hilf
MLA: Gunew, Sneja. Transcultural Feminisms. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 25 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #176 (Spring 2003), Anne Carson. (pg. 185 - 188)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.