- Review Essay:An Émigré Consciousness
Readers of Ella Shohat's powerful interventions into postcolonial theory inaugurated by her essay 'Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims' will be delighted to learn of the publication of Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices. This is a fascinating collection of essays that both reprises important thematic strands in her earlier work and extends the scope of her critical interests. The diasporic, New York based Shohat, an Iraqi-Jewish or Mizrahim Israeli has had, in her own words, 'multilayered postcolonial displacements' that afford her plural perspectives on the inter-relationship of colonialism and national formations. Her work is animated by a deep, heterogeneous cultural memory that allows her to confront the relatively recent colonial and ethno-nationalist violence involved in constituting seamless discursive grids such as East and West, Jew and Arab. In the spirit of Edward Said, another creative exile in the liminal space of cosmopolitan New York, Shohat brings extraordinary erudition and critical rigour to bear on the worldly affiliations and national investments of the US academic system and the enduring isomorphic settler-colonial sympathies of the United States and Israel.
There are three aspects of Shohat's methodology and intellectual ethos that strike me as a powerful challenge to the theory and practice of postcolonial and feminist studies and transnational historiography: (1) her emphasis on 'relational thinking' and 'relational maps of knowledge' that work at the [End Page 107] seam of different theoretical frameworks, reinvigorating our historical and imaginative cartographies, suggesting the diversity and complexity of feminist movements, and analysing the formative relationship between anti-colonial theorising and the emergence of poststructuralism; (2) her suspicion of the terminology of the 'postcolonial' in its ambiguous spatio-temporality, its co-optation by and domestication within the US academy, and its potentially disabling political effects; (3) her support for and inventive adaptation of Edward Said, culminating in a brilliant essay, 'The 'Postcolonial' in Translation', which defends his critical impact against Israeli critics who have been eager to deem his work on Orientalism, and by subliminal extension his Palestinian identity, obsolete.
'My work has always been preoccupied with speaking across usually segregated grids … probing the theoretical axioms and historical narratives implied by a given terminology' (p.xv).
In 'Gendered Cartographies of Knowledge: Area Studies, Ethnic Studies, and Postcolonial Studies', Shohat is wary of a hortatory American academic feminism that is prone to ignore its own disciplinary myopia and historical imbrications in colonisation. Shohat, like Edward Said, develops a worldly vocabulary sensitive to the material affiliations, structuring absences and projective power of discourses on race, gender, and ethnicity. She critiques the 'barely perceptible' nationalism that permeates feminist curricula, engendering Eurocentric feminist narratives that mimic the depoliticising function of university disciplinary boundaries. She criticises the exclusionary logic by which feminism and queer studies in the academy tends 'anxiously and politely' to send invocations of gender outside of Western spaces back to the realm of area studies. Race and sexuality within multicultural, feminist and queer discourse tend to be framed as self-containedly American, 'oblivious to the country's colonial history and global presence'. Bleakly, the Middle Eastern diaspora in the US is normatively deflected even by multicultural feminists as 'forever foreign', inadmissible to the American narrative, while the study of that diaspora 'hardly forms a field consecrated within American studies or ethnic studies, or even within area studies'.
Shohat's response to the 'aporias of nationalist thinking in a transnational world' is holistic and dialogical, critiquing conceptual boundaries that 'quarantine' interconnected fields of enquiry. She posits a 'relational understanding of feminism' that assumes a provisional and conjunctural definition of feminism as a 'polysemic site of contradictory positionalities'. Shohat is wary of a vanguard first world feminism that remains profoundly brittle as to the relevance of multiculturalism to feminist struggle. What follows is a brilliant discussion of how a relational feminist analysis might achieve a complex [End Page 108] critique of practices such as cliterodectomy without premising its concepts on a universalist feminism opposing premodern tradition:
"[feminism should] avoid Eurocentric framing narratives that would transform a conjunctural...