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The Problem of Strategy: How to Read Race, Gender, and Class in the Colonial Context
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The Problem of Strategy:
How to Read Race, Gender, and Class in the Colonial Context
Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Strategy works through a persistent (de)constructive critique of the theoretical. “Strategy” is an embattled concept-metaphor and unlike “theory,” its antecedents are not disinterested and universal. “Usually, an artifice or trick designed to outwit or surprise the enemy”(Oxford English Dictionary)

— Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, Outside in the Teaching Machine

One of the founding assumptions of this book is that no social category exists in privileged isolation; each comes into being in social relation to other categories, if in uneven and contradictory ways. But power is seldom adjudicated evenly — different social situations are overdetermined for race, for gender, for class, or for each in turn. I believe however that it can be safely said that no social category should remain invisible with respect to an analysis of empire.

— Anne McClintock, Imperial Leather

In a recent interview, ironically entitled “In a Word,” Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak revisits the term “strategy,” and argues for the use of precise critical “strategies” in academic scholarship. As the quotation above indicates, her notion of “strategy” strives for a political accountability, for a situated reading that prioritizes a local context that by definition cannot function as a blanket “theory” that is then applied to all like-sounding cases. “A strategy suits a situation,” she reminds us, “a strategy is not theory.” While Spivak’s work on “strategic essentialisms” is well known, and often misunderstood as an excuse to proselytize on the virtue of academic “essentialisms,” her particular articulation of the critical necessity of the notion of “strategy” itself has often been overlooked.

I begin my review of Anne McClintock’s Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest with an invocation of Spivak’s notion of “strategic” readings to situate McClintock as one such admirably engaged and embattled “strategic” reader. McClintock’s collection of essays wrestles with situating and balancing the problematic variables of race, class, and gender in readings of the colonial context within a range of hermeneutical discourses. While it is critical commonplace in current academic parlance to speak of the imbricated discourses of race, class, and gender, McClintock calls for a critical reading of empire that demands a rigorous re-conceptualization and historicization of such utterances. Race, gender, and class, she argues, are to be called “articulated categories” that “are not distinct realms of experience, existing in splendid isolation from each other, nor can they simply be yoked together retrospectively. Rather they come into existence in and through relation to each other, if in contradictory and conflictual ways.” (5) These categories thus do not derive their signification from a fixed point of origin, but instead are “articulated,” unfolded from uneven and often opposing locations. Operating within such a methodological framework, McClintock’s book offers three related critiques of “the project of imperialism, the cult of domesticity and the invention of industrial progress”(4). Each critique points up the tendency in earlier critical work to overemphasize one term of the articulation at the expense of the others. For instance, McClintock demonstrates how the cult of domesticity in late nineteenth-century England has as much invested in hierarchies of race as it does in traditional taxonomies of gender. Or that imperialism has as much to do with gender asymmetries (both within and without the colonial context) as it does with the more pronounced impositions of class and race.

McClintock’s heuristic gestures reflect the same kind of constant structural scrutiny that she brings to bear on the analytical categories of race, class, and gender. One of her preliminary moves is to locate herself firmly at the juncture of a range of traditionally separate theoretical schools:

An abiding concern of the book is to refuse the clinical separation of psychoanalysis and history . . . and to rethink the circulation of notions that can be observed between the family, sexuality and fantasy (the traditional realm of psychoanalysis) and the categories of labor, market and money (the traditional realm of political and economic history)


McClintock similarly refuses to conceive of time and history as a...