Radha Hegde. The Sage Handbook of Gender and Communication. Editor: Bonnie J Dow & Julia T Wood. Sage Publication. 2006.
The point of feminist inquiry—and for me its continuing appeal—has always been in its refusal to accommodate the status quo.
~ Joan Scott (1999, p. xii)
If feminism has taught us anything, it is the importance of scholarship that is driven by a vision of democratic transformation—a vision that should serve as impetus for our intellectual endeavors at this global juncture. The emergent issues and complex repercussions of the globalizing process require sustained attention to both the layered construction of context in our scholarship and the logics that constitute the gendered subject of our inquiry. In this essay, I reflect on the challenges of extending the global reach and scope of communication scholarship on gender and sexuality.
To think globally about globalization requires a critical engagement with its complex contradictions and also with the disciplinary structures that frame our mappings of the world. The serious, gendered consequences of globality require intervention and scholarly attention. How and why do we refine and direct a feminist analytical gaze to engage with the realities and consequences of colliding global processes?
Producing feminist knowledge about the global order is not just about supplementing new information. It is also about recasting the geographies of knowledge and radically revising the ways in which we formulate our questions. To do this we need to ask questions about the unquestioned and often unquestionable premises on which the seemingly transparent logics of globalization rest. As Hardt and Negri (2000) argue, the forces of globalization are neither univocal nor neutral, and the political task is to reorganize and redirect these multiple processes to new ends. A commitment to democratic ends and a refusal to perpetuate the status quo provide cogency of purpose for feminist scholarship.
Engaging with the implications of the global swell requires first of all that we resist insular conceptualization of issues and pay attention to dominant discursive structures within which we conceptualize our research terrain. As problems in a global world get progressively multilayered, we in the academy, by extension, cannot force our analyses into disciplinary straitjackets. This ability to connect our research initiatives to macro-structures sharpens methodological choices and shapes the significance of our contributions. These are trying times to do global feminist work because at every turn and level there is either a direct or indirect dismissal of gender issues. For example, despite the fact that reality as experienced on the ground is clearly both gendered and racialized, the subject of gender is visibly absent in most discussions of globalization (e.g., Bergeron 2001; Freeman, 2001; Gibson-Graham, 1996). Under the global sway of neoliberalism, with its celebration of consumerism and privatization, social issues are recoded as private challenges, and this compromises the very idea of political agency. As Comaroff and Comaroff (2000) write, “It is not just that the personal is political. The personal is the only politics there is, the only politics with a tangible referent or emotional valence” (p. 305). To feminists, this twist has a palpable irony. Media’s celebration of so-called postfeminist freedoms displaces feminism, making it seem “decisively aged and redundant” (McRobbie, 2004). As the strains of neoliberalism and postfeminism reverberate globally, feminism experiences another international wrenching.
Globalization, militarization, and the rise of new patriarchal formations pose complex challenges for women’s democratic futures. Women’s issues, particularly from the global South, are being visibly drafted into the public sphere in troubling ways by varying constituencies—local, national, and global. In a 2001 radio address, Laura Bush gathered support to “kick off a worldwide effort to focus on the brutality against women.” She appealed “to our common humanity” and reminded her listeners that “all of us have an obligation to speak out” against the Taliban’s brutality against Afghan women. Feminists need to pause and pay critical attention to the renewed entrance of the benevolent gaze of the West as well as to the retelling of the liberation myth that has been triggered by current geopolitical events. In actuality, this form of hypervisible acknowledgment of the victim status of women distracts attention from the everyday struggles of third world women. The dichotomous classification of cultures in simple, clashing binaries restages in stark terms the static, stereotypical coding of difference. As Scott (2002) writes, “Lines are being drawn, categories produced, to give schematic coherence to the messy entanglements of local, national, regional and international politics” (p. 5). The deployment of these racial and gendered categories of difference have serious consequences for knowledge production in the academy. For feminists, the recent turn of events has served as a wake-up call to respond to global imperatives. The challenges are grounded in thinking simultaneously about intellectual work and its relationship to building a truly democratic transnational feminism.
Across the social sciences, the intellectual momentum to address issues of globalization is closely accompanied by disciplinary boundary debates and dilemmas. Scholars who are driven by the study of emergent global questions gravitate intellectually to others across disciplinary lines who share a common political horizon and a scholarly outlook that is critical of “departmental business-as-usual” (see Rosaldo, 2001), providing productive disruptions to disciplines that otherwise tend to be sedentary. It is true that feminist scholarship has traditionally entertained an ambiguous affiliation to disciplines since the political project itself provided a provocative alternative space from which feminist scholars could advance a radical critique of dominant epistemological structures. The current world situation has posed an opening to reimagine feminist theory and praxis against the shifting configurations of globalization.
Disciplinary locations both limit and influence the nature of feminist investigation, especially due to the rampant protectionism practiced by disciplines (Appadurai, 1996). To add to this policing, the historical paths of particular intellectual fields also shape the formations through which international issues are introduced (see Calhoun, 2001). In the field of communication, feminist scholars who wish to pursue global questions have to critically engage with canonical intellectual structures and the forms of knowledge that have been historically valorized. In this chapter, I discuss why this is a necessary step as global feminist scholarship develops its theoretical edge and incisive methodological bases to understand, represent, and analyze the multiple types and levels of global intersections.
Our work as feminist scholars is intricately tied up with that of other cultural workers striving for the same democratic ends. Activist work, particularly work done by feminist NGOs in the third world at the grassroots level, has contributed substantially to a global awareness and informational base about women’s exploitation. This, in turn, has significantly influenced both academic inquiry on transnational issues and the project to deconstruct the assumptions that drive dominant versions of academic feminism in the West. How do we represent and integrate this decolonizing move into our theoretical perspectives? Wrestling with the provocative question raised by Spivak (1988), “What is the constituency of an international feminism?”(p. 135), is an extremely important reminder as we think through the relation between feminist inquiry and global politics. From our various academic locations, we need to pay close attention to how feminism is articulated both in its global and local inflections within the conceptualization and circulation of our research. Internationalizing is not merely the comparative assemblage of difference or the hierarchical ordering of gendered oppression from various parts of the world. The goal is ultimately about building an innovative feminist intellectual space that is responsive to global and local forces and that, at the same time, does not fetishize the transnational over the national and the popular over the everyday.
This chapter deals with feminist engagement with gender in global contexts and examines how the shape of this practice is influenced by intellectual boundaries within disciplines. In the context of corporatized demands for utility-based education, feminist research, particularly on the global South, is beset with obstacles. Scholarship concerning third world cultures and gender is embedded in a fraught colonial and Orientalist history which one must learn to negotiate from within and across disciplines. What are the limits and opportunities posed by disciplinary affiliations and boundaries for feminist scholarship and its political project? I outline how the formation of intellectual spaces in the academy, and more specifically within departments of communication and media studies, has influenced feminist representation and circulation of research on transnational gender issues. To do this, I consider three topics: (a) the larger terrain of feminism and its transnational transformations, (b) the influence of the model of area studies on communication studies, and (c) the space for transnational feminist inquiry within cultural studies in communication. I conclude by outlining how and why global feminist perspectives can revitalize the theoretical and methodological reach of communication research and contribute to alternative understandings of globalization.
Feminism and Global Transformations
Theorizing the transnational collision of cultural, economic, and political forces is a central concern of feminist thought today. Feminist scholars concur that our scholarship must go beyond facile cultural relativism to provide strategic and differentiated understanding of the ways in which gendered categories are being calibrated in the current global context (Shohat, 1998, 2001; Young, 2003). They agree that new global forms of cultural production, consumption and sites of oppression need interdisciplinary investigation and attention (Basu, Grewal, Kaplan, & Malkki, 2001). The reconfigured global landscape has led to the diversification of the feminist project in the academy and hence to a renewed problematization of what constitutes the subject of feminism. The driving question is, How do we complicate the analytical understanding of the constitution and mobilization of gender inequality and its impact on the experiential realities of women’s lives in a global context?
Shifting Registers of Feminism
Collective academic memory casts early academic feminism as “a romance in which the impulse of social activism, committed pedagogy and scholarly aspiration were integrated by the intense energy of a women-centered consciousness that was both personal and experienced as collective” (Moglen, 1997, p. 182). The appeal of feminist organizing around a singular identity was soon disrupted with resistance from the margins, but the passion for social change still singularly defines the community of feminist scholars. For scholars who take their feminist politics seriously, there is always a persistent questioning of what distinguishes feminist research and makes it stand apart from other types of inquiry. As Dow and Condit (2005) assert, the “moniker of feminist” is reserved for research that is oriented toward the achievement of gender justice (p. 449). The very concept of gender justice and equity is, however, being subject to transnational feminist critique, as critical feminist scholars forge an alternative internationalism prompted by a heightened level of intellectual self-consciousness.
The synchrony of the theoretical-cum-political project of feminism has enabled scholars to address issues of social justice and concurrently to produce a stringent critique of the practices of knowledge production. As de Lauretis (1987) notes, no boundary separates or insulates feminism from other social practices or makes it impervious to the institutions of civil society. The mapping of feminism as originating from multiple points of departure served both to explode the myth of the unified category of woman and to pave the way for more nuanced, historicized readings of the particularities of women’s locations. We are at a stage when feminist engagement must transcend mere acknowledgement of difference but include, as Friedman (1998) notes, “a commitment to difference as a (if not the) major explanatory paradigm mediating all analyses of gender” (p. 69). The feminist challenge is to find innovative, intellectual approaches by which to realize this integrative paradigmatic view in our research pursuits.
The emphasis on pluralism and multivocality resulted in extending the reach of feminist inquiry not only to pay attention to issues of race but also to take seriously the impact of colonialism and imperialism on gender (Hegde, 1998; Shome & Hegde, 2002a, 2002b). This changing focus of feminist scholarship has been precipitated by the global scenario and also in part by the changing demographics of the academy. The increasing presence of diasporic, third world scholars in the West with very different personal and political relationships to geographical locations in the global South has contributed to the emergence of postcolonial research directions in the field of communication. In light of the new questions that are being crafted and examined, it is inevitable that canonical frameworks are being questioned. Feminist scholars recognize that anticolonial struggles and gender issues of the global South cannot be ignored and are in fact critical to the overall advancement of feminist theorizing and understanding of gender subordination and resistance (see Bhavnani, 2001). In a globalized world, Friedman (1998) argues, the register with which we need to think about feminism has shifted from the temporal to the spatial:
A locational approach to feminism incorporates diverse formations because its positional analysis requires a kind of geopolitical literacy built out of a recognition of how different times and places produce different and changing gender systems as these intersect with other different and changing societal stratifications and movements for social justice. (p. 5)
The new global configurations of power that produce gendered absences, erasures, and silences demand strategic forms of theorizing in order to explain gendered encounters with modernity and its global variants. Racialized and gendered regimes of the nation combine with the mobility of transnational structures of capitalism to re-narrate patriarchal power. In the complex meeting ground of these intersecting forces, it is the gendered subaltern body that slips through the unaccounted and undocumented spaces between the local and the global or the national and the transnational. In response to the ways in which gender tends to be appropriated or redefined in the context of globalization, feminist scholars are arguing for a more inclusive, relational, and contextual understanding of gender in the context of race, class, sexuality, national boundaries, and shifting patterns of power (see Kaplan & Grewal, 2002; Shohat, 2001).
These global crossroads present stumbling blocks as well as opportunities to pursue interdisciplinary and oppositional epistemological practices. Ideally, the subject of feminist inquiry is driven by a commitment to social justice and not by the mandates of what constitutes the naturalized object of disciplinary interest. Realistically, reconciling academic expectations and political conviction is complicated and often results in disillusionment with traditional disciplinary divisions and academic structures. Given the territorialism of disciplines, Nelson and Gaonkar (1996) remark that the advice to intellectuals to pursue what matters whatever the consequences is far from harmless. Doing revisionary work requires disciplinary and institutional maneuvers on the part of scholars who study transnational questions of gender, especially when they are situated outside of departments or programs of women’s studies. In order to address the mosaic of issues that constitute the crisis of gender in globality, an incisive feminism has to bridge the national/transnational divide on multiple levels.
Consider some examples of global issues that envelope women’s lives—sex trafficking, the global trail of domestic workers, violence against women in all its varied forms, the gendered backlash of immigration policies worldwide, and the gendered implications of new forms of empire. Clearly, the manipulation of the presence and absence of the female body by the collision of discourses and regimes of power requires both theoretical and methodological breadth in order to bring into focus what de Lauretis (1987) calls “the space-off,” or the space to be inferred from the frame. Mobilizing around these transnational issues has added political momentum to feminist scholarship and enabled more intellectual-and praxis-oriented alliances between first and third world locations. Organizing around a global sisterhood platform is becoming less meaningful in the contemporary context: neither gender nor feminism is singular or homogeneous. Gender struggles are increasingly located and made visible in conjunction with other types of oppression. The World Social Forum (WSF) held in Mumbai, India in 2004 provides a striking example of the new conditions for feminist internationalism. This mobilization for alternative democratic futures was shaped by the oppositional energies of various social justice movements committed to resist the consequences of neoliberal globalization. The Mumbai Forum is hailed as a landmark because record numbers of women participated and drew worldwide attention to the urgent and continuing issues of violence (see Sen & Saini, 2005; Vargas 2003). It is the convergence of multiple social issues and the dramatic nature of their interrelationship that sets the stage for a changing international feminist agenda.
The Global Subject of Feminist Inquiry
How does academic feminism reflect the global and local interweaving that is taking place in the articulation of the feminist movement? How does the subject of feminist academic inquiry come into focus against the backdrop of globality? These questions motivate scholars to redefine the scope of feminist scholarship and seek theoretical frameworks and vocabularies both within and across disciplinary boundaries. Cross-national issues have forced academic feminist thinking to go beyond culturalist explanations and strive to provide more strategic accounts of transnational formations of power as they suppress, control, and exclude women’s participation in the economic and social spheres. We need to reread the social and economic terrain with the intent of recovering those evicted from the centers of globality. As Sassen (1999) writes, devalorized components of the economy are “articulated with sectors considered central but are articulated in ways that present them as marginal, backward, unnecessary” (p. 356). The feminist subject of transnationality offers a strategic site for rendering more dynamic conceptualizations of gender and globalization.
Let me briefly examine the situation of domestic violence when it is compounded by the global mobility of capital and first/third world split—the backdrop against which feminist theorizing is being reimagined. I was asked a few years ago by a lawyer to provide testimony to immigration authorities for a young woman who was severely abused by her husband, a software engineer recruited from India to work in a major U.S. corporation. I was requested to write a letter to support a petition filed by the woman to the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service for a visa extension allowing her to stay in the country and to work. The attorney suggested that I explain why the United States is a much better place for a woman in her situation, as the social system in India would not allow her the freedom or ability to flourish in any way. As a feminist, I resented the logic in this mission and of course the structured West/rest argument which, the lawyer told me, was the only way that this woman could be granted an extension to stay in the country and negotiate child visitation rights. This scenario revealed an interesting twist on Spivak’s (1990) notion of strategic essentialism: essentialize the barbarism of the country left behind to differentiate it adequately from the civilized, progressive structures of the United States. The highly male-dominated information technology world plays right into the racialized, gendered hierarchies coded into the immigration policies of the United States. If a highly skilled worker on what is known as an H-1 visa divorces a spouse, she is immediately deportable. A gender and class bias is built into the structures of immigration through laws that favor productive contributors to the economy and give low (if any) priority to the wives of the largely male, skilled foreign worker cohort.
I cite this case to demonstrate what the coming together, the collision, of categories entails in terms of the study of gender and the complexities of women’s lives and identities. This is a case where citizenship, nation, ethnicity, class, political economy, and the law are all imbricated—where categories clash, logics are defined and identities are caught within large discourses of self, other, and nation. This case also demonstrates that issues such as domestic violence in the transnational realm require analytical approaches that disrupt traditional models that focus on the dysfunctional immigrant family, patriarchal home, or individual subject as units of analysis. There is nothing essentially Indian about spousal abuse, nor is there a badge of victimhood that distinguishes Indian women. Yet, in the retelling of cultural narratives in this example, a coherence is secured though the deployment of rigid binaries. The case also demonstrates how the categories of private and public are disrupted in this borderless economy. As Bhattacharjee (1997) argues, if we attend to the global parameters of immigrant women’s experiences, “there are no unambiguous spaces to be labeled ‘public’ or ‘private’” (p. 323). A similar dichotomous bind secures Orientalist images such as the reductive interpretation of veiling as the ultimate marker of Islamic women’s subordination (see Abu-Lughod 2002). Culturalist explanations often reinforce the colonial prototype of the third world woman as a victim in need of saving (see Hegde, 1999; Khan, 2001).
The illustrations described above demonstrate the need for locally nuanced, transnationally situated, relational understandings of gender politics. The situations in which these illustrations occur have to be located against the intricate web of economic, social, and political forces, both contemporary and historical, against which these practices gain meaning and significance. Refusing this analytic move is to perpetuate the idea of a third world woman as always brought into focus in contradiction to the West and its modernity—a subject denied contemporaneity with the West (Ong, 1988; Shih, 2005). Although subject to extensive critique, the image of the third world woman as passive victim continues to persist and demands further examination of its formation. Ultimately, feminist focus on the global rearticulations of patriarchy and the contradictory positioning of women vis-à-vis modernity should be able to advance, as Lowe and Lloyd (1997) write, a “new conception of the political subject” (p. 19).
As many critical scholars have pointed out, the challenge for feminism today is not only to globalize its reach but to be able to read globalization oppositionally or from below. This foregrounding becomes especially important in accounting for the new formations of invisibility where, as Spivak (2002) states, the subaltern is both made to unspeak herself and converted into the production of data. Ultimately, it is the commitment to the centrality of gender that sustains the momentum of feminist inquiry. Feminist scholars have made provocative arguments and continue to offer pragmatic suggestions about how to rethink the intellectual pursuit without compromising feminist politics. Sangari and Vaid (1990) make a compelling argument that feminist historiography is about rethinking historiography as a whole:
Such a historiography acknowledges that each aspect of reality is gendered and it is thus involved in questioning all that we think we know in a sustained examination of analytical and epistemological apparatus and in dismantling of the ideological presupposition of so-called gender neutral methodologies. (p. 2)
This is a choice, they write persuasively, offered not in a tokenist spirit but as one open to all historians. This transformative choice is, as Radhakrishnan (1996) notes, a form of historical and political inevitability that cannot but be made. In a more recent formulation, Sangari and Chakravarti (2001) write that all historical shifts in social formation and modes of production have to be reexamined against changes in patriarchal structures (p. iv)—a point to be taken seriously in the landscape of global transformations.
To summarize, the dynamics of globalization have created new forms of control and exacerbated older forms of exploitation with regard to women. With the shifting axes of power, the very fabric of everyday life has been redefined, throwing static views of culture, communication, and identity into crisis. To broaden the theoretical scope of feminist thought, we need to problematize cultural practices and performative routines that write and overwrite the female body in multiple sites across the globe. As feminists, the goal is to explain and expose the workings of a complex network of power that colonizes women’s lives worldwide. The enterprise of globalizing the reach of feminist inquiry is complicated by disciplinary locations and equally by the relational politics of the first and third world dynamic in terms of the production, circulation, and reception of knowledge (see John, 1996; Narayan, 1997). It is through interdisciplinary exchange that global feminist scholarship can sustain itself and contribute significantly to the transformation of knowledge production. In the next section, I turn to the field of communication and address the genealogy of spaces made available for studying the international and the impact of the field’s history on feminist research on global issues.
The Globe, Gender, and Communication Studies
How does the world beyond the nation enter the academy and its disciplinary quarters? This is a complex, institutional narrative with significant epistemological and curricular overtones that overflow into individual, intellectual trajectories.
Enclaves of International Study
If one looks at the development of the communication discipline, as with most other social sciences, the spaces to consider world regions have been few (see Lee, 1995; Vitalis, 2001). The communication discipline in its infancy naturalized the domain of public reason and dialogue, straight from the fountain-head of Greek rhetorical tradition. In spite of its humanist base and predisposition to the study of culture, there has been considerable pressure, especially in the late 1950s and 1960s, to gain status and legitimacy as a social science. Communication, particularly mass communication, evolved largely into social science influenced by behaviorist psychology favoring experimental methodologies and quantitative analysis. Within this evolution was also a clear separation of the domestic and the international, complete with a fundamental assumption about the autonomous, masculinist agent and an undisputed emphasis on a homogeneous nationalism. My goal is to demonstrate how the study of race and gender in the non-West have been situated in the discipline and how this positioning is now being challenged in light of global conditions.
Classical Orientalist scholarship and its representation of the non-Western world helped justify the colonial enterprise and its civilizing mission. As Said (1979) argued, “Orientalism is more particularly valuable as a sign of European-Atlantic power over the Orient than it is as a veridic discourse about the Orient” (p. 6). This early scholarship and its later transformations via area studies have left an enduring epistemological legacy across the social sciences, such as the Orientalist images of racial and gendered bodies, the colonial hierarchy of cultures, and the failure to recognize the violence of colonialism in the third world. The logic of area studies that developed during the Cold War years was articulated to provide policy recommendations and support the work of the U.S. government. Through language training and fieldwork, social science disciplines provided pragmatic and instrumental knowledge about world regions (see Burton, Ibryamova, Khanna, Mazurana, & Mendoza, 2002). This orientation, together with its associated assumption of liberal modernization, has played an important role in the organizational structure of cross-cultural knowledge. Secluding geographical areas of study carried over to disciplines like communication, a field conceptualized in post-World War II years (at least in its avatar as social science). The domains of intercultural and international communication rose as the area enclaves within communication, and their canonical modes of inquiry are now being put to the test.
In a detailed critique, Rafael (1994) makes the point that area studies are positioned as integral, yet subordinate, to the epistemological authority of the disciplines. This model institutionalized the separation of world regions from disciplinary boundaries and kept the unquestioned centrality of national interest as the organizing principle. The consequences have been far-reaching:
For within the interdisciplinary optic of the liberal notion of area studies, the area and presumably its populations remained at a safe remove, managed by the operations of the social sciences into stages of comparable development, cultural groupings of discrete ethnolinguistic realms. (p. 97)
Hall’s 1947 report on wartime academic developments states that area instruction was devised to train people quickly to do specific and limited jobs and was of necessity largely makeshift (see also Wallerstein, 1997). Simpson (1994) chronicles the influence of government programs on the early development of communication research in the 1940s and 1950s: “In truth, the primary object of U.S. psychological operations during this period was to frustrate the ambitions of radical movements in resource-rich developing countries” (p. 7). Within intercultural communication research, the instrumental orientation contributed to essentialized portraits of nationality groups, static representations of culture, and an overall gender blindness.
Today the demand for skills to survive in multicultural environments has become a justification for internationalization of academic initiatives (Holzner, 2002). Instrumentalist knowledge about managing cultural differences circulates in a social context where the value of a subject of study is directly related to its market demand (Rutherford, 2005). Over time this management of international consensus translated into the management of difference rhetoric spurred by apolitical versions of corporate multiculturalism. These developments are all centered on the assumption that culture is insular and contained within geographical boundaries. In this globe-trotting vision, there is no mention made of the violence of colonialism, patriarchy, racism, whiteness, or for that matter, history (see Collier, Hegde, Lee, Nakayama, & Yep, 2002; Nakayama & Martin, 1999).
Impacts on Feminist Knowledge
The significant issue here is how this academic itinerary of the area studies model and its epistemological consequences for communication have in turn impacted the production of feminist knowledge. In a field that has been so fiercely instrumental from its inception, the incorporation of feminist perspectives—particularly global, postcolonial ones—has been slow (see Carillo Rowe, 2000). If we wish to promote what Spivak (1993) characterizes as a transnational literacy about global feminism and not a facile touristic view of cross-cultural difference, then our mode of engagement should begin with the fact that gender and globalization are ineluctably political processes. Feminist scholars have offered trenchant critiques of the exclusion of gender in the research on development and communication, with its strong emphasis on theories of modernization (see Bhavnani, Foran, & Kurian, 2003; Steeves, 1993; Valdivia, 1996). Promoting the value of Westernization, this line of inquiry implicitly endorsed concepts of the intrinsic backwardness of third world societies and of women ensconced in a state of antiquity waiting to be saved from unmentionable third world contagions. Feminism gets equated with Western women, thereby infantilizing the gendered subaltern from the third world and rendering her, as postcolonial feminists have theorized, both speechless and objectified.
To study globalization through a feminist optics is to place subaltern lives at the center in order to examine and theorize power and inequalities. The feminist goal is, after all, to make visible the multiple ways in which the female body disappears within the overarching influence of universalizing discourse. Neither the autonomous subject of Western liberalism nor the pastiche personality of postmodernism begins to address the realities faced by third world women (see Hegde, 1999). Pursuing area-specific feminist scholarship often requires a justification of its disciplinary fit and relevance. In a disciplinary context where sound-bite information about cultures predominates in reserved curricular spaces, the process of addressing the politics of subalternity is a fraught process, particularly in terms of seeking disciplinary validity.
Recovering silenced voices registered only as numbers or statistics is often a very personal quest for feminist scholars. Participating in global feminist work motivates researchers to engage in projects that seek to restore dignity and voice to the overlooked female body. A burgeoning of critical research on questions of race, nation, and gender has raised global antennas. Ethnographic work on diasporic groups, transcultural communities, and global media flows utilizing interdisciplinary frameworks are also is making a visible impact on the theoretical contours of the discipline. No longer concentrated within one domain, this increasingly interdisciplinary critical research is appearing with a commitment to issues rather than to disciplinary divisions. Scholarship, particularly over the last decade, has problematized the notion of disciplinary enclaves set aside for the study of global regions formed in a dated colonial mode of knowledge production.
Rafael (1994), speculating on how an immigrant imaginary would complicate the integrationist logic behind the cultures of area studies, writes:
For indeed, the category of the immigrant—in transit, caught between nation-states, unsettled and potentially uncanny—gives one pause, forcing one to ask about the possibility of a scholarship that is neither colonial nor liberal nor indigenous, yet constantly enmeshed in all these states. (p. 107)
Feminist scholarship on third world areas is similarly complicated by globalization and productively unsettled by an emerging nomadic sensibility permeating the academy.
Transnational Feminism and Cultural Studies
A renewed awareness of an intertwined global history has become very apparent in the post-September-11th environment when local and remote experiences have been connected in personally and politically explosive ways. The assertions of American exceptionalism have rearticulated a moral calculus demarcating the incommensurablity of the West and its Others. It is within this space that we see a renewal of essentialist discourses and representational logics in the portrayal of race, gender, and culture. This in turn has led scholars within cultural studies to engage with the production of the civilized subject of the West and with how this very construction is predicated on the quarantining of the racial and sexual other (see Puar & Rai, 2002).
The primary concern for political engagement is what brings feminism and cultural studies together or, in more material terms, what makes global feminist scholars in communication gravitate towards cultural studies. According to Hall (1992), for cultural studies, the intervention of feminism was “specific and decisive,” as it reorganized the field in concrete ways (p. 282). The relationship between feminism and cultural studies has a history of difficult and productive moments (see Franklin, Lury, & Stacey, 1996). But today both intellectual projects find themselves at a global moment, confronted by new types of questions that need innovative analytical turns. In his 1996 interview, Hall repeatedly emphasizes the need for cultural studies to be open-ended, to be reinvented by new international influences. In addition, both projects overlap in the engagement with the problematics of Western modernity and the politics of knowledge formation. Hall’s articulation of cultural studies as a diasporic narrative redirects attention to the historical structures of colonialism and the impact of the West on the politics of race (see Morley & Chen, 1996). Gendering this historical narrative in multiple local domains constitutes the current transnational feminist preoccupation.
Presenting these connections and points of overlap between cultural studies and feminism is not to overstate the closed boundaries of either. The appeal of both to progressive scholars is the fluidity of the two fields and their hybridic ability to absorb, transform, and recharge their political critique. Regarding the internationalist spirit of cultural studies, Chen (1998) writes that although the specificities of oppression vary, gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, and class have been coordinating categories across geographical, national, and regional boundaries. Dominant versions of academic feminism grounded in assumptions of whiteness and liberal individualism have been slow in integrating global perspectives but are now beginning to emphasize both the importance and need to do so (see Gedalof, 1999). It is clear that feminism and cultural studies can mutually complicate or “interrupt” each other, to echo Spivak’s famous words (1990, p. 44). Both share an oppositional view of knowledge and a commitment to what Grossberg (1997) calls “politicizing theory and theorizing politics” (p. 4).
To scholars who engage in feminist scholarship on third world issues, institutional locations play a significant role in how their research circulates and is received. When situated in disciplines like communication where the sites to pursue international questions have traditionally been limited (as discussed earlier), the “conjunctural” quality of cultural studies is intellectually seductive. Pedagogical issues also play into this scenario. According to Rooney (1996), women’s studies has an enormous advantage over cultural studies in that its students are a politically conscious constituency before they enter the field of women’s studies. This connection to so-called real-world politics serves as a reminder that the field is not ideologically neutral or merely disciplinary.
This is a serious issue when discussing topics related to oppression, women, and the third world in classes where one does not have a politically engaged student body. There is a sense of experiential and political disconnect that makes the feminist project outside of women’s studies very vulnerable to what Rooney (1996) calls political neutralization. For many feminist scholars in communication, there is a disjuncture between their teaching experience and their global research interest because of the traditional cordoning of disciplinary areas. But as the national and transnational scripts intertwine in the real world, these disciplinary structures are beginning to yield. The days when we did a week or a chapter on the global are formally over. How, for instance, do we teach a class in communication today and talk about culture without referring to the gendered and racialized fall out of global discourses of immigration, war, and nationalism? Or how do we address any topic in communication without referencing globalization? How do we decide what vocabularies and disciplinary division best represent the exploration of these issues? The examination of these issues and reconceptualization of gender, culture, and communication are central to critical inquiry. This persistent energy to combine our intellectual and interventionist work captures the pedagogical purpose of both feminist scholarship and cultural studies.
Cultural studies scholarship is entering new ground as globalization and new technologies reorganize our economic, cultural, and social life. The concerns of cultural studies have gone beyond the textual to a much broader understanding of media practices, the politics of representational practices, and identity productions (see Couldry, 2000). An impressive body of interdisciplinary cultural studies knowledge in the international arena presents an enabling moment for global feminist scholarship (see Abbas & Erni, 2005; Valdivia, 2003).
The extraordinary popularity of cultural studies today in the academy worldwide is linked to its refusal to adopt a language of universalization, to a resolute insistence on local specificity, and to a self-conscious problematization of speaking positions. Cultural studies provide an academic rubric to bring together a network of progressive intellectual practices. In its internationalist turn, cultural studies calls into question both the modern assumption of a natural isomorphism between the national and the cultural and the hierarchical ordering of national entities (see Stratton & Ang, 1996). The arrival of postcolonial work within cultural studies has furthered the international agenda by introducing the need to historicize cultural practices. Grossberg (2002) argues that postcolonial studies have contributed to an enriched understanding of contexts:
If contexts have to be understood in geographical and historical terms, then at least part of the understanding of any contemporary social context involves its location within the history and geography of colonialism as a crucial and deep structure of North Atlantic modernity. (p. 369)
Postcolonial studies have revitalized the space of cultural studies by placing issues of race, gender, nation, citizenship, and sexuality at theoretical center stage. It is this coming together of various critical intellectual strands that gives cultural studies both its rigor and vibrancy. If cultural studies tends to overemphasize the popular, then a feminist optics serves as a reminder that we need to return to the subaltern, to concerns about class that were the original emphasis of the Birmingham tradition. We need to think about media in ways other than just popular culture and to resuscitate an analytical interest in the constitution of everyday life. Transnational feminist disruptions of the boundaries between private and public, national and transnational, center and periphery resonate with the worldliness of cultural studies. The spirit of Hall’s (1992) comment about cultural studies—”It can’t be just any old thing which chooses to march under a particular banner” (p. 278)—is just as true for transnational feminist scholarship.
In this essay, I have tried to map the disciplinary and societal landscape that feminist communication scholarship faces as it globalizes. My sketch of this terrain rests on the premise that knowledge is situated and that we have to be responsive to the material circumstances that frame our intellectual pursuit. Foregrounding the complex construction of gender in the global moment poses methodological challenges that involve, as I have shown, navigating disciplinary structures and boundaries. As I emphasize throughout, there is a critical need to examine genealogies of disciplinary spaces and the ways in which they influence and shape the very object of inquiry. This is an important and necessary metatheoretical exercise for feminist scholars who are trying to construct alternate narratives of globalization—narratives that focus on gender as produced within the economic, social, and political layers of contemporary life.
The current context presents feminists with an opportunity to produce complex representations of the contradictions and inequalities folded into the globalizing process. Feminist and other critical scholars concur that globalization has to be examined as an inherently contradictory process and, hence, has to be studied from below— paying attention to local specificity. Kellner (2002) argues that globalization, as a theoretical construct, varies according to the assumptions and commitments of the theory in question. It is no surprise that, as feminist scholars point out, many accounts of globalization are masculinist and completely overlook women. Alternatively, they render women as passive and unproductive and naturalize their subordination (see Ong, 2000). Global processes are sustained by the reproduction of inequities. Reading the global dynamic through a feminist perspective should render visible the selective and unequal promotion of identities in the new configurations of social and economic life.
In closing, I would like to return to the body of the global subaltern whose entry into the global circuit is manipulated by the racialized, sexualized regimes of transnational capital. A woman in a call center in India with an assumed name conducts a faceless masquerade with a customer half way across the world. Here is a global worker whose presence and insertion in the virtual limbo needs to be contextualized. Her story has to be situated as part of a global postcolonial narrative. She is certainly not what popular discourse would have us believe—the cause of the “fear and loathing” of “pissed-off programmers” in the U.S. who are losing their jobs to global outsourcing (Pink, 2004, p. 96). Friedman (2004), in his paean to a flattened world, sees Indian call center employees as “liberated” by a job with a global corporation. He writes that “many have credit cards and have become real consumers, including of U.S. goods, for the first time. All of them seem to have gained self-confidence and self-worth” (p. 413). These facile conclusions completely bypass the fact that transnational formations, while they enable women to escape some social regulations, also subject them to other types and patterns of global subordination.
Where do we begin the narrative of an overworked larynx and how it enters the global circuit? What registers do we use to document the experiences of women whose invisible labor holds up global cities? What critical lenses do we employ to understand the representational modalities within which gendered lives in the global economy are cast? How do we read the images in popular discourse and their impact on social experiences? We need more ethnographically grounded work where global questions of gender and sexuality are considered within the political economies in which everyday experiences are defined. Communication and media cultures provide points of access to examine the complex intersections of the local and global, individual and community, homogeneous and hybrid. It is within the communication terrain that we can examine how the narratives of race, class, gender, citizenship, and the globe merge into the experiential and the quotidian. Complex social issues are exceeding the scope and reach of epistemological frameworks, and it is important to pay attention to these interstitial positions in order to reveal the limits and normative centers of our theories.
Feminist emphasis on epistemological self-reflexivity and openness to interdisciplinary perspectives can energize our efforts to produce alternative understandings of globalization. The feminist commitment to progressive politics reminds us to ask questions that expose contemporary formations of power, focus on sites of agency and resistance, and thereby challenge hegemonic accounts of globalization. In short, feminist questioning enables us to step outside the discipline only to revitalize it. With Friedman (1998), I believe that our intellectual pursuits as feminists in the academy do matter. They matter in terms of how we represent, circulate, and above all keep gendered experiences visible in the global public sphere.