on PPST volume 30
A Conversation with Ann Orloff, Raka Ray, and Evren Savci, co-editors of PPST volume 30 “Perverse Politics”
Student Editors (SE): Your introductory essay gets at this question, but briefly, how would you situate your volume within the broader landscape of feminist intellectual politics today?
Evren Savci (ES): We align ourselves with transnational and anti-imperialist feminists who problematize “woman” as a universal category that is assumed to represent shared interests that follow from core elements of experience and existence that are also assumed to be shared among women. The volume brings together key empirical examples from around the world that demonstrate the limitations of such assumptions, and tries to think about alternative epistemologies that will lead to a more promising and relevant feminist politics.
Ann Orloff (AO): Many people are insisting on an “intersectional” understanding of feminism, by which I think they mean feminism that takes into account – in addition to gender hierarchies – other relations of power, difference and inequality, such as class, race, sexuality, citizenship status and many more. This is a very significant development. In my view, we also need historical and specifically political perspectives on the kinds of feminism – plural – which emerge from different contexts. The essays in the volume describe different varieties of feminism or gendered political orientations. To the extent that we can undermine the false hope of – or belief in the possibility of -- a perfectly unified and inclusive feminism organized around a single (and historically limited) understanding of gender, rights and equality, we will have achieved our analytic goal of conceptualizing feminist politics as inescapably multiple, embedded in a broader landscape of capitalism and imperialism.
"we...need historical and specifically political
perspectives on the kinds of
feminism – plural – which
emerge from different contexts"
SE: This volume complicates a simple understanding of feminism. How would you define something as feminist, especially if it is “a set of political projects” rather than a “unified movement”? (a) What do you think/how do you feel about the term “feminism”? Must we replace or reshape it?
ES: During one of our meetings, I remember mentioning that I would much more willingly give up “woman” as a category before I give up feminism, and I believe that this is also at the heart of our volume. Inspired by many feminist scholars, the authors in this issue are putting pressure on the effectiveness of “woman,” and still are committed to feminist theory and politics to think about social justice. Feminist thought and movements themselves are always changing, yet generation after generation, many people find feminism’s political vision inspiring and appealing. They challenge the parts they find unfit, modify certain things, add others, but they do not feel that they need to discard feminism altogether. One of the outcomes of this interrogation is that there is no “we” who is in charge, and who could or should replace or reshape feminism.
Raka Ray (RR): There was a time when the term feminism was so synonymous with its dominant liberal expression that I had to distance myself from it. The feminism I embrace today is capacious. It is the opposite of Mackinnon’s Feminism Unmodified. It understands the fundamental inequalities inherent in the gendered ordering of the world, but understands also that while the gendered ordering of the social world is foundational, it does not stand alone. It is co-constructed at the very least with race, class, and nation. This feminism therefore understands why all women do not wish to vote for Hillary Clinton! It is a democratic stance towards the world that must include but does not end with gender.
AO: Speaking as a social scientist as well as political actor, I am in favor of “remaking,” historicizing and contextualizing our foundational terms, including “feminism.” The feminisms emerging in different times and places may have a certain commonality in challenging gendered hierarchies, but the specific elements of the hierarchies to be targeted, and the particular political strategies and tactics to be deployed are sure to vary. I would appeal to a notion of multiplicity – varieties of feminisms, rather than a single feminism, however modified (or not). Feminist analysts should understand that different women will respond differently to particular political hailings (e.g., the Clinton campaign, or MacKinnon’s anti-sex-trafficking projects). Different groups of people embrace different visions of how to challenge very diverse gendered hierarchies. The unity of such projects has to be seen as a contingent political achievement, and we should be prepared for debate and dissent, and the possibility that different groups of feminists will not see eye to eye. Demands for perfect unity and perfect inclusiveness are, I think, harmful. Unity and inclusion cannot be guaranteed prior to politics; a democratic feminist politics consists in (imperfect) claims being made and challenged, and remade. My own feminism is linked with my commitments to social-democratic and anti-imperialist politics, but I can see that other varieties of feminism are also thriving. Each of us as feminist political actors does our best to convince others of the rightness of our calls, but we need to be prepared to debate! I’d like to note also that, in studies of change, multiplicity (or multiple schema, such as might be present in different feminisms) is associated with innovation!
SE: (b) This multiple, perverse approach to “feminism” can be seen as dividing a larger movement. What would an appropriate response be to such a claim?
ES: Perhaps a better way to think of such a movement, instead of “divided,” is as multi-vocal. Isn’t this the case for a lot of social justice movements anyways? There might be a larger rubric under which they fall – not only feminist, but also a lot of anti-racist, anti-imperialist, or anti-heterosexist struggles do not share every single principle, and many groups differ on strategies, priorities, on how to organize. So, why not embrace this already existing complexity instead of imagining unity to be the ultimate goal, or a value in and of itself?
AO: I agree with Evren. I don’t think there is a single movement that could be divided, although it does seem to me that people often wish that such a movement could exist (or think that it once did). Feminist political action has always consisted of different kinds of activities, inspired by different political visions – the extent of coordination and cooperation of such strands of a larger movement shifts over time and place. I do think the essays in the volume encourage a feminist politics that is cognizant of its context in a world shaped by multiple hierarchies, which should make us in the contemporary US academy open to considering the claims and understandings voiced by those in other places.
"why not embrace this already existing
complexity instead of imagining unity
to be the ultimate goal, or a value in
and of itself?"
RR: I agree with both Ann and Evren. We are too attached to the notion of the old organized Left of a singular movement (i.e. class) from which deviations are a threat. We have to think of more fluid formations that perhaps come together and then part as needed, movements in which all people do not share all goals, but are willing to exist with differences within and across them.
SE: Neoliberalism has had myriad effects on and within American higher education, from funding cuts (and even program terminations) in the social sciences and humanities to the broader commercialization of higher ed that risks turning students into consumers. Many have critiqued these consequences for challenging the ways in which social science and humanities scholars are able to make radical contributions within and beyond the academy. How might these effects shape the extent to which (and ways in which) scholars can leverage radical critiques, generally, as well as how they respond to the call for “multiplicity rather than perversity,” particularly?
ES: This is a great question. Yes, many scholars have written, and continue to write about the neoliberal university’s budget cuts, “encouragements” of public-private partnerships, tuition hikes and so forth, all of which have detrimental effects both on scholars and on students: We are put in a position to acquire outside funding for our research and writing and students are put in a position to increasingly see their education as a financial investment despite the increasingly lower and lower chances of returns. They in return become more “pragmatic” – in this economy, critical thinking is not going to help them pay off their massive student loans, feed them and give them shelter. And scholars have limited funding if their research agenda does not match up with that of an “industry,” and we increasingly need to justify liberal arts education and critical thinking, or pedagogy and smaller classrooms, at times to students and always to administrators. Now, I certainly hope that the term “multiplicity” does not evoke some sense of neoliberal multiculturalism. We wrote the introduction very carefully arguing against such a position, and did away with the initial term “plurality” as it evoked pluralism. This might sound like an evasive answer, but I am not sure what else to say other than that scholars will respond to this call at the intersection of the current political economy that affects the university and scholarship, but also their own political – feminist and otherwise – attachments.
AO: It is true that some elements of the restructurings of higher education undermine our capacities for radical critiques, but the complexity of these restructurings calls for a more nuanced analysis. We ought to be careful in attributing to a monolithic “neo-liberalism” all the ills of the contemporary university in the US; instead, we can recognize that capitalism’s creative destruction, or modernity’s challenges to traditional hierarchies – importantly, in concert with movements for social justice -- sometimes have contributed to the opening of spaces for women and other excluded people, for studying topics formerly repressed. But, as Evren notes, we don’t want to see multiplicity neutered into a decontextualized diversity project.
SE: Why do you think now is a good or right time for the “perversity of politics”? What reasons might there be for why, in 2016, we continue to have monolithic understandings of feminism in the global south and east?
RR: The call for the perversity of politics is particularly relevant today in the face of the failure of non-perverse politics, and the inability to grasp a politics not squarely in tune with universalist assumptions of modernity. Politics that are not recognized as being within a certain modernist secularist frame, such as the reaction to the Charlie Hebdo cartoons, are considered “bad” or unintelligible or perverse. So our call here is to recognize that “perverse” politics are a legitimate form of politics and to understand the logics behind them. Why do we still have monolithic understandings of feminism in the global south and east? This is a complex question. It has to do with triumph of liberal and simplistic version of feminism complicit with colonial understandings of gender. The difference between the Global North and South may be economic, but more often it is thought of in terms of progressive versus backward notions of gender. This is the understanding of gender widely taught and accepted and now embodied and enshrined in US foreign policies.
AO: I agree! For me, understanding ostensibly “perverse” gender politics is part of the project of “remaking modernity.” We need to remake this central concept – which always includes understandings of gender – by taking into account its emergence in an imperialist landscape of power, and its linkage both to the destruction of traditional hierarchies and to the creation and sustaining of hierarchies of class, race and nation.
SE: (For Raka Ray) In the 2006 Social Problems Volume entitled "'The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociology"' Twenty Years Later: Looking Back, Looking Ahead," you outline poststructuralism, the relationship of postcolonialism or transnationalism to American Sociology, and the relationship of theory generation to geographic location as three critical "resistances" that "prevent the furthering of the feminist revolution." How would you describe how these resistances matter to feminist scholarship challenges today ten years later (are we still in the "same place" so to speak), and particularly within the context of this current argument to move towards multiplicity framing both practically and normatively within the field?
RR: I think we have definitely moved ahead. First, as work by Julian Go and Gurminder Bhambra shows, there is a slow but steady path being carved for postcolonial theory within Sociology, though this work is not yet gendered. On the question of the geographic location of theory generation we are still not there. The imperial gaze on theory still runs too deep. Yet Zine Magubane, Raewyn Connell and others are trying to work on that front. Some of my own former students (such as Kimberly Hoang in this volume) are incorporating elements of both poststructuralism and postcolonialism into their work, as are other scholars in this volume such as Evren Savci and Elizabeth Bernstein. The challenge that this body of work throws out is both to gender studies and sociology at large. It challenges scholars to look beyond the tradition vs modernity divide within which they have been trained, to refuse to accept social relations in white middle class US as the norm to which all else is to be compared, and to understand the deep connections between global political economy and gender.
SE: Feminist thought transcends disciplinary boundaries, but you are all mostly sociologists. Do you think social science and/or social theory have any special insights or particular tools for feminist thought and feminist politics compared to other modes of thought or disciplinary approaches?
ES: I personally am always compelled by grounded theory – I do not mean this rigidly in the sense of the method that is referred to as “grounded theory” but in the general sense that I prefer theory that emanates from the social, and shuttles back and forth between existing theories and the social world. In this sense I think sociology has huge potential to develop feminist thought, and new epistemologies that resonate with the ethical, political, social, and economic dimensions of social life people negotiate and live through. Sociology also has significant potential not to lose sight of the political economy as we think about gender, sexuality, and race. I believe we brought together essays that fulfill these promises, but in the larger world of US Sociology, these can often remain an unfulfilled potential.
RR: Comparative work is a uniquely powerful tool since it enables us to understand not how but why institutions, problems, social relationships and politics may look different across societies. This is why so many early feminists were anthropologists! But if social science gives us the comparative method, then the postcolonial twist to it is not to center the US or Europe in our comparisons, to make those societies the norm and make other societies the difference, but rather to see gender relations in one part of the globe as entangled with those in another.
AO: We are all sociologists by training, though we are all also located in or affiliated with interdisciplinary units in our universities. We see the potential in sociology for understanding gender, but also its limitations, and the need for expanding sociological understandings with the tools of other conceptual armories. I agree about the great potential of comparative – and, I’d add, historical -- or simply contextualized – analysis to allow us to understand the multiplicity of gendered politics, and to “provincialize Europe” and the US. Comparative, historicized, contextual analysis is perhaps strongest in sociology among the social sciences. Modernity has been one of our discipline’s guiding concepts; the durability of the tradition/modern binary – and the significance of gender in understandings of modernity and its others – poses special challenges – and responsibilities? – for sociologists in unpacking these linkages and reimagining “modernity” and gendered politics as multiple and situated.
"if social science gives us the comparative method, then
the postcolonial twist to it is not to center the US
or Europe in our comparisons, to make those
societies the norm and make other societies
the difference, but rather to see gender
relations in one part of the globe as
entangled with those in another."
SE: The conclusion of your introductory essay suggests the need to “confront” various "feminist attachments,” understood largely as second wave, western liberal feminism. Do you see challenges to these ‘attachments’ as increasingly occurring within intellectual communities? To what extent are such challenges present outside of the academy?
ES: I find feminist attachments to be relevant for all feminists, whether their work is mainly located in the academy or outside of it (though I should say that I find a clear-cut distinction between the two spaces rather untenable.) For instance, the recent declaration Gloria Steinem made about young women voters’ preference for Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton in the Democratic race, because they want to be where the boys are, speaks more than anything to her particular feminist attachments: I believe in her case her desire to have a “woman” president upended her respect for young women. My students feel equally insulted by presumptions that they support Sanders to be with the boys and presumptions they support Clinton because she is a woman – their political positions are more complicated than that. Many of them want to see a feminist politics that simultaneously recognizes the unequal distribution of resources, prestige or authority across bodies that are marked as men and women, and moves beyond an understanding of “female president = feminist politics.”
AO: Politics certainly presents lots of challenges to our attachments! If we are good, imaginative analysts, we ought to be able to recognize our own, as well as others’, attachments, as historically situated, as fallible. Easier said than done. Yet starting from the premise that any single standpoint – liberal, second-wave feminist or otherwise -- provides access to truth is singularly unpromising for understanding the viewpoints of others, and sets us up for unhelpful critiques of “false consciousness.” In our politics, as well as our analysis, we have to be open to contestation. RR: One of the most exciting characteristics of feminist thought is that we have been willing to confront our very foundational attachments – including to the term “woman”. These challenges have always occurred and subsequent generations of feminists have either taken up or failed to adequately meet them. In that sense our call to confront our present attachments is made with hope.
Ann Orloff is Professor of Sociology and Political Science, and Board of Lady Managers of the Columbian Exposition Chair at Northwestern University.
Raka Ray is Professor of Sociology and South and Southeast Asia Studies, and the former Chair of the Department of Sociology, at the University of California-Berkeley.
Evren Savci is Assistant Professor in Women and Gender Studies at San Francisco State University.