Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Burqas, Complicity, and Fragmentation

So there has recently been a dust-up in the U.S. feminist blogosphere about the choice by a prominent white feminist blogger to use the imagery of a woman in a burqa as a supposedly humorous way to attempt to illustrate the sexism of certain conservative bloggers who are outraged at a different white feminist blogger having the nerve to have breasts while posing for a picture with a mass murderer of Iraqi children who shall remain nameless (but who also happens to be a former Democratic president of the United States). There's all kinds of backstory here, and I refuse to go into it or even link to it. What I am interested in is this post, which points out that the white feminists who posted the image "forgot something small but very important: they are feminists from and blogging within a colonizing nation. A colonizing nation that is in the process of bombing the holy hell out of the very women that they find so easy to make fun of," and the comments that follow from it.

First of all, I am not going to comment on the actual presenting issue. Brownfemipower does that far better than I could in her post and then repeatedly and with great patience in the comments section, and so do a number of other women, and in this post BFP reprises the issue and gives a nice, long list of authors that you can read if you still don't get what is being said. There is really no excuse for "not getitng it" at this point, and certainly no excuse for the refusal to listen, the refusal to engage seriously with patiently presented analysis, and the serious disrespect directed at BFP and those who supported her in comments by at least some of those who resented her naming of colonialism. Indeed, part of what really struck me about this instance was that the appropriation of this specific piece of imagery -- not just this kind of thing, but very specifically the use of the burqa in this way -- has been talked about and analyzed in lots of different spaces for years. And yet still the resistance is fierce when a woman of colour points out how oppressive that appropriation is.

One aspect that interests me and that I think I can legitimately comment on is what is revealed by the process of dialogue that happened in the comments section -- not its details, but its general shape -- and what I can learn from that about engaging in politics from positions of privilege within a colonizing nation, something that is integral to my everyday and so something I obviously have to think about a lot. Though this conflict is occurring in a feminist context, and that does give some aspects of it specificity, I think it is still possible to derive lessons from it that are more general. And I want to make clear that even though this does come from a feminist context, I am not intending my commentary as an attack on white feminist women, but rather trying to figure what I myself and white progressives and leftists in general (including feminist women and pro-feminist men) can learn in terms of our political practice from the hard intellectual and emotional labour that radical women of colour (and one white leftist woman) have already put in to this discussion via the post and the comment thread.

The conflict made me think of two words: complicity and fragmentation.

The relevance of the first of those words should be obvious, I think. A big part of the point that BFP was making was about how easy it is for white North American progressives, including white feminists, to ignore our existence "from and...within a colonizing nation". The subsequent discussion went on to illustrate this point quite nicely by example, and to reaffirm for me a point that is not new but persists in its importance: that liberals and leftists in North America, particularly those of us from privilege of various sorts, have almost no tradition of grounding our politics in our complicity. A few nooks and crannies aside, starting there is completely alien to us. Rather, we tend to ground them in some combination of our experiences of oppression and intellectual analyses that are untethered to our direct experience -- both of which are necessary, of course, but not at all sufficient.

The importance of grounding your politics in your complicity as well as everything else is not a new one. During her brief period of blogging, for example, it was a theme Darkdaughta wrote about more than once. But the sharpest, most insistent presentation of it that I have encountered is from the work of Sherene Razack, a legal scholar in Toronto. In her book Looking White People in the Eye, for example, she writes:

In proposing to begin with where women stand in relation to one another, two concepts are significant: complicity and the interlocking nature of systems of domination. In chapter 4 I noted that when we as feminists engage in 'saving' other women, what we fail to consider is how we are implicated in the subordination of other women. An attention to complicity has not strongly engaged in feminism because, for the most part, we continue to avoid any inquiry into domination and our role in it when we confront issues of difference and diversity. Instead, each of us feels most safe in these discussions anchored in our subordinated position by virtue of being of colour, disabled, economically exploited, colonized, a lesbian, or a woman. Identifying as part of a marginalized group allows each of us to avoid addressing our position within dominant groups and to maintain our innocence or belief in our non-involvement in the subordination of others. Knowing the difficultings involved in confronting our own role in systems of domination, we may find that being anchored on the margin is more preferable. Yet, if we remain anchored on the margin, the discourse with women subordinated to ourselves stops, and various moves of superiority, notably pity and cultural othering, prevail. We become unable to interrogate how multiple systems of oppression regulate our lives and unable to take effective collective action to change these systems.

Again, I want to emphasize that Razack frames it in the context of feminism because the book is largely an intervention into debates about feminist law reform, but I'm making the point more broadly -- the devices available to men, particularly privileged men, often differ somewhat from those available to feminist women in enacting this "race to innocence" (Razack again) but the same basic problem is nearly universal in North American liberal and left spaces.

Part of our resistence to grounding our theory-and-practice in our complicity is obvious: it's freakin' hard. I think it is made worse by our North American culture of individualism, which makes it tricky for us to differentiate between our unchosen place in oppressive complexes of social relations and our responsibility for the choices we make within that place, but even with that taken into account, it causes me a certain amount of psychological anguish to really hold in my head the brutal realities with which I am complicit in ways for which there is no simple individualistic escape. Razack herself talks elsewhere in the book about how difficult it is to really address this and to actually do the work of putting our complicity at the centre, and talks a little about some of her own struggles with it.

I think there is more to be said than that initial look at the understandable psychological inertia to seeing one's own complicity, however, and that's where the idea of fragmentation comes in. I guess fragmentation is on my mind because of recently reading and even more recently participating in discussions of John Holloway's book, Change the World Without Taking Power. I have written a review of it, but it isn't a review that necessarily does justice to how he talks about fragmentation, and I think I'm maybe going to be using it a bit differently than him in what I write here anyway. But that's why I'm thinking about it.

Anyway, I think that social fragmentation is part of what makes it difficult for those of us with privilege in North America to see our complicity, particularly colonial complicity. Holloway's argument is that one of the central characteristics of capitalist society is fetishism, which he adapts from Marx but uses in a much broader way. He argues that the social flow of human interrelationship by interconnected doing is broken and we come to see the world, in part because the world under capitalism kind of functions this way, as being all about relationships between things rather than relationships between people. We therefore see the "state" as a thing, for example, rather than as a complex of relationships among people. We see a corporation as a thing having independent, abstract existence, rather than as a form of relations among people. This permeates how we understand the world. Therefore when one of these "things" is doing something, even when that is really just a reified abstraction of a relationship in which we are a participant, it is easy for privileged progressives and leftists to distance ourselves from what is going on without even seeing that we are doing so. And not only are we participants, but because human beings are social and who we are comes to be in large part via social processes, who we are is created by our place in those oppressive relations -- but because we don't generally see what's happening as relations, we don't see how it relates to us.

This serves to keep us nice and insulated from our actual material place in the social relations that constitute the social world. It is very easy for privileged progressives and leftists in North America to see it as these abstracted nasty institutions doing nasty things to often quite abstractly understood people far away, rather than seeing our role in this complex of relationships, and the role of that complex of relationships in shaping who we are and our political discourse and practice and so on.

In the situation that sparked this, this made it easy for many of those who were critical of BFP's post to completely miss the point of what she was saying. Much of the defense of the offensive imagery depended, implicitly or explicitly, on constructing a "we" incorporating the women who made the image and those whose existence is invoked by the use of the image. But because actual social relations are so obscured, so fragmented both in practice and even more in our discourse, it was easy to construct this "we" based not on the actual material relationsihps from which a "we" might reasonably be constructed, but rather on abstraction. The "we" did see part of the material relationship, which has to do with gender oppression being very real both in North America and Afghanistan, but it made it easy to avoid seeing the fact that the social realities in which we as privileged progressive and leftists exist in North America, including middle-class white feminist women, are in part shaped by the fact that we benefit from and, willing or no, contribute to five centuries of booted white feet being placed firmly on brown necks. What does that mean for our politics? For our theory? For how we can theorize "we"? For what we should talk about on our blogs? Obviously I don't claim to have any magical answers, or perhaps any answers at all, but I think the first step is asking those questions.

(Btw, one of my most spectacular exhibitions of this blindness happened when I was in university. My first regular venue for publication was an op/ed column in the student paper at the university I went to. At one point, I had read a few interesting and insightful things about the accomplishments of progressive forces in the Indian state of Kerala. So I figured I would share some of that with readers as a way of trying to puncture the "there is no alternative" myth and the myth that resistance can never achieve anything. The people whose struggles I was so briefly and shallowly reporting the results of remained abstracted to me until I got a phone call from the president of the association of students on campus who trace their heritage to Kerala -- in the privilege that allowed me to simply avoid seeing that there were flesh-and-blood people attached to what I was saying, it hadn't even occurred to me that there were probably dozens of students on campus who traced their origins to that state, and whom I could've interviewed before I wrote. It turned out okay -- they seemed to like the article and they invited me to a dinner they were having -- but it was still a huge lesson. In retrospect, though I didn't explicitly construct it this way in the article, I too was building an abstracted "we", as in "we who are concerned about social justice", and imposing that with absolutely no conception of the ways in which my privilege was and is causally connected to their very need to struggle.)

The fragmentation is not just social, however, but also is a fragmentation of individual human beings. One of the ways in which some people tried to counter the fact that we are privileged citizens of a colonizing nation was to point out, well, the they oppose the war and so do most feminists, and that should be enough. Which completely misses the point, of course. I think being able to see this as a legitimate answer, however, is related to the ways in which self is fragmented, so that recognition of some level of complicity can be, in complete obliviousness, held "out there" in some peripheral circle of our politics, as something that perhaps informs their content and can be addressed by taking an abstract position against one war, but never has to be taken "in here", to the centre, so that it might inform the very shape of our politics.

It is also relevant to the fragmentation of self in a deeper way, too. One of the things that I have found most helpful from feminist thought -- particularly feminist thought grounded in multiple oppressions, but present in almost all feminist thought -- is an emphasis on overcoming such fragmentation, in treating human beings as exactly that: whole human beings. Yet this refusal to bring our complicity to the centre of our politics, of our daily thinkings-and-doings, is an experssion and a reinforcement of that fragmentation. When we deny it, avoid it, vanish it, we deny and avoid and vanish self, because it is part of how self was formed and selves like ours act to reproduce it every day. Bringing our complicity into the centre of our politics is not just an act of accountability for privilege, then, it is an also an act of resistance in the service of our own liberation -- it is a refusal to be fragmented and, by owning those aspects of self shaped by socializiation as one who benefits from structural domination of others, we can find ways to resist that domination from the position that we hold within those relationships, rather than repeatedly falling into blindness and guilt and active refusal to listen to things that draw attention to the parts of ourselves that we have hidden.

All of which is, as always, easier said than done. But I think that one way white progressives and leftists in North America can begin to shift our political traditions, our political practice, is by being mindful about foregrounding human beings in our analysis and resisting fetishization -- by being attentive to the very material social relations between "I" and whoever else we are talking about (and the discourse that has grown up around those relations) and by doing our best to resist the temptation to cooperate in our own fragmentation. And another way is by automatically asking, "How am I implicated in the phenomenon that I am talking about?" Because given the totalizing impact of capitalist social relations, particularly the way the most recent phase of neoliberal globalization is ensuring that fewer and fewer corners of geographical space and social life remain unpenetrated by them, odds are that you/we/I are complicit in some way, whatever the issue.

And of course, on a much more immediate level, listening and being respectful would be a good start too.

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