THE ‘POLITICAL AMBITIONS’ OF POSTFEMINISM AND. POST-COLONIALISM
Postfeminism and post-colonialism have both theorised the politics of oppression and repression. As Ashcroft etal. (1995:249) note, ‘women, like colonised subjects, have been relegated to the position of “Other”, “colonised” by various forms of patriarchal domination’.
They go on to note that, despite the similarities in feminist and post-colonial theoretical discourses, there have been few points of intersection until recently. In the last ten years, both sets of discourses have become more reflexive in terms of their own agendas, and in the process have been more receptive to critical dialogue and interrogation from ‘convergent’ disciplinary areas. Ashcroft etal. (ibid,.) comment that ‘Feminism has highlighted a number of the unexamined assumptions within post-colonial discourse, just as post-colonialism’s interrogations of western feminist scholarship have produced timely warnings and led to new directions.’
While the dialogue between post-colonialism and feminism has gained momentum and become more critical theoretically in the 1990s, post-colonial feminists such as Mohanty had raised issues in the 1980s which had impacted on the process of critical self-reflection already under way among Western feminists. In ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourses’ (originally published in 1984), Mohanty critiques the ‘totalising’ tendencies of ‘Western feminist discourse and political practice’ (1995:259). In doing so she seeks to establish a distinction formulated by Teresa de Lauretis (1984), a distinction between ‘Woman’ and ‘women’:
The relationship between ‘Woman’—a cultural and ideological composite Other constructed through diverse representational discourses (scientific, literary, juridical, linguistic, cinematic, etc)—and ‘women’—real, material subjects of their collective histories—is one of the central questions the practice of feminist scholarship seeks to address.
Mohanty goes on to outline the ‘colonizing’ tendencies of ‘Western feminism’ and in the process establishes the modernist frame of references within which second wave feminism emerged and operated. She suggests
that the feminists writings I analyze here discursively colonize the material and historical heterogeneities of the lives of women in the third world, thereby producing/re-presenting a composite, singular ‘Third World Woman’—an image which appears arbitrarily constructed, but nevertheless carries with it the authorizing signature of Western humanist discourse.
The process of colonisation described by Mohanty is identified by Gunew and Yeatman (1993) as ‘appropriation’ or ‘who is permitted to speak on behalf of whom?’. They argue that there is a fine balance between showing solidarity with oppressed groups and assuming a position where one claims to speak on behalf of that group. Liberal feminists frequently fell into the role and, as Gunew and Yeatman (1993:xvii) claim, ‘This gesture is of course a profoundly matronizing one and often results in what Trinh has called the nativist line of teaching the “natives” how to be bonafide anti or decolonized others (Trinh 1989:59)’.
Post-colonial feminist theorising thus had an impact on second wave feminist discourses in terms of critiquing their ethnocentricity and colonising tendencies. Post-colonial discourses also had an impact on feminist theorising in the 1980s through the notion of ‘double-colonisation’, by showing that women in countries emerging from colonial cultures ‘were doubly colonised by both imperial and patriarchal ideologies’ (Ashcroft et al. 1995:250).
One such theorist is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Her theoretical critique is situated at the ‘high end of deconstruction’, combining feminist poststructuralist and post-colonialist critiques. McRobbie (1994:69) notes that ‘Spivak works within the discourse of theory but so transforms it as to make it an entirely different kind of practice…For Spivak the community of women can only come after the recognition of difference between women’.6
The work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1985a, 1985b) has been fundamentally concerned with the position of the ‘doubly oppressed native woman’ who is caught ‘between the dominations of a native patriarchy and a foreign masculinist-imperialist ideology’ (Parry 1995:36). In Spivak’s now famous dictum, ‘The subaltern cannot speak’, Parry (1995:37) maintains that Spivak, ‘while protesting at the obliteration of the native’s subject position in the text of imperialism. gives no speaking part to the colonized, effectively writing out the evidence of native agency recorded in India’s 200 year, struggle against British conquest and the Raj’. Parry contends that for Spivak the native colludes in their ‘own subject(ed) formation as other and voiceless’ (ibid.).
Parry traces Spivak’s positioning of the ‘subaltern’ within the discourses of English imperialism, which rendered the ‘native’ generally but the ‘native female’ in particular, outside its discourses and therefore ‘mute’. Parry, in summarising Spivak’s view, claims that
the articulation of the female subject within the emerging norm of feminist individualism during the age of imperialism, necessarily excluded the native female, who was positioned on the boundary between human and animal as the object of imperialism’s social-mission or soul-making.
Mohanty, in her analysis of the limitations of Western feminism’s commentary on ‘third world women’, argues that ‘discourses of representation should not be confused with material realities’ (Parry 1995:37). Mohanty goes on to show that because ‘native women’ are located at the intersection of multiple discourses—including historical, social and cultural—it is possible ‘to locate traces and testimony of women’s voice on those sites where women inscribed themselves as healers, ascetics, singers of sacred songs, artisans and artists…’ (ibid.).This model of multiple subjectivities challenges Spivak’s model of the ‘silent subaltern’.
The limitations of Spivak’s model are addressed by Parry, who claims
Spivak’s deliberated deafness to the native voice where it is to be heard, is at variance with her acute hearing of the unsaid in modes of Western feminist criticism which, while dismantling masculinist constructions, reproduce and foreclose colonialist structures and imperialist axioms.
Spivak’s own acknowledgement of the need for a deconstructivist approach to the idea of ‘global sisterhood’ (Spivak 1986:226) appears to be limited to white Western feminism and does not include the ‘native woman’. Spivak’s dismissal of the role of ‘nationalist discourses of resistance’ (Parry 1995:37) is highlighted by her emphasis on the role of ‘the post-colonial woman intellectual, for it is she who must plot a story, unravel a narrative, and give the subaltern a voice in history.’ (ibid).
There appears to be a conflict of interest in the competing tendencies of feminism, poststructuralism and post-colonialism in Spivak’s work. The political character of these movements is difficult to reconcile. The political ambitions of feminism and post-colonialism are quite different to those of poststructuralism/ postmodernism. As Hutcheon notes,
as can be seen by its recuperation (and rejection) by both the Right and the Left post-modernism is politically ambivalent: its critique coexists with an equally real and equally powerful complicity with the cultural dominants within which it inescapably exists.
Despite Spivak’s commitment to the deconstructive politics of poststructuralism, and her recognition that ‘There is an affinity between the imperialist subject and the subject of humanism’ (1988:202), she seems to stop short at extending this to the ‘politics of subjectivity’ inherent in her model of post-colonialism. Hutcheon (1995:131) notes that both feminist and post-colonial discourses ‘must work first to assert and affirm a denied or alienated subjectivity: those radical post-modern challenges are in many ways the luxury of the dominant order which can afford to challenge that which it surely possesses’.