Friday, December 11, 2015

Review: Methodology of the Oppressed

[Chela Sandoval. Methodology of the Oppressed. Minneapolis MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2000.]

I'm not sure quite what to make of this book. There's no doubt that it is bold and visionary, and I get why the book from which I learned about it spoke of it so highly. There is something remarkable about the way that it combines a deep-down commitment to movements -- not just the notional nod of many scholars who perform radicalness, but a commitment that feels genuine and not at all weakened by time in the academy -- with a headlong plunge into canonical big name white dudes whose work exemplifies what grad students mean when they say "theory." Some of the ways it rethinks the larger sweep of history and context have the potential to be very valuable. But I think a core goal that the book sets for itself -- or at least what looks like one of the core goals to me -- is extracting useful tools for folks engaged in struggle on the ground, and I'm just not sure how successful it actually is in doing that. And there are some choices that it makes in both the stronger and weaker portions of its work that I'm not sure I understand.

It begins by talking about "the postmodern." Even just that single word points to a way of articulating shifts in the social world that makes me wary, and there are a number of other ways that this book talks about the world that evoke a similar reaction in me, but I think in this instance it is worth holding that wariness in check. I think its language and my reaction to it are a combination of the age of the text -- it was published 15 years ago, and parts of it were written upwards of 10 years before that -- as well as the author's interest in drawing on different sources than I might usually think of looking to. Unlike some other folks whom I've seen use the language of "the postmodern," she is clearly tying it to some very material changes in the world, including aspects that the left of today most often generalizes under the term "neoliberalism."

Starting in the mid-20th century, Western scholars -- including those who were or soon became superstars and icons -- began articulating new ways of understanding the social world and therefore the self as fragmented, partial, and complex, and very different from the more unitary, coherent selves at the heart of liberalism and the versions of marxism that had dominated to that point. The way I've seen this change described (and often criticized, on the left) has understood it as a change in the ways that analysts approached the social world and selves, rather than a change in the social and the selves being analyzed. (The change is variously attributed (in a favourable tone) to scholars doing smarter things or (with derision) to a scholarly retreat from the totalizing narratives people supposedly need to struggle for liberation.) Sandoval argues, however, that this change is not just about changes in the academy and changes in analysis, but that it reflects actual material changes in subjects and the ways that subjects are shaped by the social world. Or, rather, some subjects changed in the second half of the twentieth century. She argues that privileged citizen-subjects in the global north, in the second half of the twentieth century, came to be formed under different circumstances than had been the case earlier. Decolonizing struggles and other struggles for justice and liberation in the middle of the century caused a crisis in colonial capitalism, which reconfigured in a way that no longer permitted privileged citizen-subjects in the global north the same stability and unity and privilege that they had earlier been afforded. Which, except for the way that most conventional marxists tend to leave out the importance of decolonizing and other struggles in creating the crisis that capitalism answered with neoliberalism, doesn't sound all that unfamiliar to an ear trained in the early 21st century left. What is interesting, beyond the centring of anti-colonialism, is how the changes that I more often see talked about in terms of privatization, deregulation, attacks on labour, and so on are show as connected to shifts in how selves are formed through experiences of the social world. And in becoming more fragmented and partial and complex, citizen-subjects in the global north are not actually doing something completely novel: they are becoming more like colonized and other marginalized people have always had to be. (It makes me think of this long quote I posted a decade ago from Mohawk scholar Taiaiake Alfred, which includes him thinking, in response to white industrial workers up in arms about neoliberal capitalist globalization, "Looks like we're all Indians now, heh?".) And given this understanding of what critical Western scholarship in the second half of the twentieth century was doing, the book argues that such scholarship is worth seriously engaging with, including some instances that movements have not to date regarded as being very useful or very 'political' in an on-the-ground sense.

As part of this, another important assertion that this book makes is that this work of critical scholars in the privileged, seemingly sheltered environment of the academy in the global north is actually taken from and/or responding to the struggles of colonized and otherwise marginalized peoples. The implication is that such scholarly work already belongs at least partially to colonized people, or at least is connected to their struggles, even if nothing said directly by the elite Western scholars listed as "author" concedes this connection. Which means these are perfectly valid resource for marginalized folks in all sorts of other places to take up. The book doesn't really dwell on the ways in which this amounts to appropriation by Western scholars, but rather demonstrates how the anti-, de-, and post-colonial "we" can make use of those ideas, given that they they were really theirs in the first place. And of course there are often crucial things that the white dude critical superstars of the Western academy miss, so as colonized and otherwise marginalized subjects reappopriate their ideas, they can also fix them.

I don't know if I entirely buy all of this, but they are powerful and seductive claims.

But here's an example of one of the choices that the book makes that I don't understand: In characterizing the shift towards what it describes as the "postmodern" social world, it relies pretty heavily on a single essay published by marxist literary critic Frederic Jameson in 1984. Now maybe part of that is to illustrate what I was just talking about, because the book points out the ways in which this essay captures something real, but also the things that the essay misses because of where and how it was produced. But I don't get why so much weight was put on this one essay. Why not consult other sources that are situated in other ways? I mean, I'm convinced by the assertion that shifts in social relations produced shifts in selves, and just from my own other reading I think at least some of the general shape of this shift is captured both by Jameson and by the use that Sandoval puts him to, but surely that one essay isn't worth spending that much space on, and we could learn more by turning some of that space to other sources. Couldn't we? Or maybe I'm missing something.

Another pillar of the book is the success of US Third World feminists in the 1970s and 1980s in building on practices that colonized and otherwise marginalized folks had engaged in for survival and struggle for many years in many places, and advancing a distinctive and powerful kind of consciousness, politics, and movement. Sandoval herself was active in this movement, also described as women-of-colour feminism or anti-racist feminism. Using US feminism as an example, she argues that most social movements in the 20th century adopted stances that could be categorized as "equal rights," "revolutionary," "supremacist," or "separatist," each with associated practices and politics, and various flavours of feminism adopted each at different moments (56). What the US Third World feminists did was introduce a fifth type, which she called "differential," which allows a sort of strategic, contextual switching among the different stances. She argues that this ability to shift politics and practices in response to the different demands caused by the much more fragmented and complex social organization of domination and subordination in the postmodern world, while still having it guided both by a sound analysis of the social world and a firm ethical/political sense, is something that all movements need to learn how to do to function effectively in today's terrain of power.

Moreover, she argues that for movements to be able to enact this sort of differential politics, they have to be comprised of people who have at their disposal a particular set of tools for politically navigating the world. She argues that the demands of surviving in a highly marginalizing environment has forced many women of colour in the US, and many colonized subjects in contexts around the world, to develop skills of this sort without necessarily having language to name them. However, she argues that many Western critical scholars from the middle of the 20th century onwards advanced analyses that boiled down to essentially the same set of critical skills. Again, this was an instance of scholars picking up on the changed circumstances for privileged citizen-subjects, and observing and reasoning their way to approaches to understanding the world that oppression had long ago forced on those who had long since been colonized or otherwise seriously marginalized. The book goes into great detail to demonstrate how, a few years after Franz Fanon wrote with such brilliant insight into the experience of self by colonized people, Roalnd Barthes wrote a book doing something similar for white citizen-subjects in the global north, and describing in his own way these "oppositional technologies of power" (82). As in the earlier conversation about Jameson's essay, Sandoval points out some key things that Barthes missed that prevented him from linking his analysis to lived, hopeful experience of resistance. But nonetheless, she argues that his insights were crucial, even though that significance has mostly been neglected by contemporary scholars and activists.

Though again, I'm puzzled: Even granting that Barthes did this thing early and well, and that it doesn't usually get recognized, why is it worth spending so much time talking about what he did when we already have more politically useful articulations of similar ideas coming from the very movement that Sandoval helped build? I'm unsure.

Sandoval argues that these insights have been discovered again and again and again. I won't try to capture all of their nuance, but they involve capacities for critically reading the world -- for reading signs and systems of signs, and taking them apart -- and then for intervening in the deceptive sign systems that rule our lives in ways that build from there towards justice. They involve being able to tactically switch among modes of reading and acting in the world guided by an underlying commitment to justice and thriving. They've been lived by colonized and oppressed people for centuries, but in the changed environment after the middle of the 20th century, countless critical scholars in the West -- she doesn't engage with others in quite as much depth as she does with Barthes, but she does touch on quite a few -- have advanced analyses of the world that include these oppositional technologies, albeit under many different names and in many different configurations. Part of her goal with this book is to break down what she describes as "an apartheid of theoretical domains," where all of the various traditions and activists and scholars who cover very similar territory stay more or less separate and not aware of their similarities. Moreover, she wants to draw all of this scholarly work into the context of the insights of US Third World feminism and its operationalization of these technologies of power and self in the service of actual on-the-ground struggle.

There's lots here that resonates with me. My own political formation fits within the broad stream that writer and activist Chris Dixon has described as "anti-authoritarian," a loosely-knit rad left political tendency that in part traces its lineage to the women of colour feminist movement that Sandoval was a part of (along with anarchism, prison abolitionism, and others). Certainly part of the sensibility that anti-authoritarian politics have inherited by that route makes the political spirit of this book as it engages with various big scholarly names feel familiar to me. She never quite uses the phrase later popularized by John Holloway, of us existing "within, against, and beyond" social relations of domination, but the idea is there and central to her approach to thinking about struggle. She has a commitment to a kind of mutually transformative, practice-based politics of coalition that...well, I'm not sure I've ever really had the chance to live them out, but they've always felt to me like what we need. And personally, I think that contextually shifting political practices grounded in an underlying radically transformative commitment to justice and liberation just make sense -- for all that boosters of reified versions of marxism decry such political mobility, I think it reflects a stauncher commitment to materialism than any doctrinaire adherence to a single organizational form or a singular supposed path to revolution.

And I think that, as descriptions of how people enact such politics, this book's outline of these various stances and technologies of opposition as a methodology of the oppressed, or a methodolgy of emancipation, works. They aren't necessarily intuitive ways of characterizing these things, but that very fact makes them useful for those who alredy have some level of identification with these traditions in reflecting on how we engage with the world. But I'm really unconvinced that anyone is going to be able to take up and learn these technologies and this methodology based on reading it like this. Maybe I'm wrong about that. Maybe that isn't the point of the book anyway. But it seems to me that people -- both people pushed into learning these things as survival strategies, and more privileged folks who take them up a bit more consciously as part of a different sort of politicization process -- are going to continue to learn them, or not, in the ways that already happen, and a highly theoretical book like this is not going to facilitate that process.

I would also be interested in the author's reflections on the ways in which some of the crucial insights from US Third World feminism have been taken up since this book was published. In particular, my sense is that there are ways that they have been taken up by a wide range of people in the academy, and in various academic and non-academic spaces by relatively privileged folks, that distort their radically relational and dynamic core and instead substitute a premise of a reified and vastly oversimplified way of thinking about both identity and the social world. (It is often this reified and simplified version that today's various versions of class-reductionist politics attack in their tiresome polemics against "identity politics", rather than engaging respectfully with the full complexity and power of these ideas.) How would this more recent history of how the legacy of US Third World feminism of the 1970s and 1980s has been taken up change the book's project, or at least change its approach to advancing said project?

And so I end where I began: this book contains some profound ideas and some powerful insights. But overall, I still don't know what to make of it, and I'm not really sue what to do with those ideas and insights.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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