- Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices
Ella Shohat is an Israeli Mizrahi Jew of Iraqi background who teaches film and cultural studies at New York University, and is perhaps best known as the co-author, with Robert Stam, of Unthinking Eurocentrism (1994), a compendious and incisive study of Western cinematic representations of the "Third World." Shohat's work, highly sophisticated yet eminently practical, situates itself at the intersection of multiple global cultural vectors and force fields in the most interesting and productive manner. Her work has taken on particular importance in the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by the United States and its confederates. There can be few critics better equipped to investigate and guide us through the cultural-political ramifications of these events and the complex processes which they have set in train.
I can still remember the sense of exhilaration and excitement of listening to Shohat deliver an earlier version of one of the chapters in this stimulating volume in 1994, "Taboo Memories, Diasporic Visions: Columbus, Palestine, and Arab-Jews." What was and remains compelling was Shohat's brilliant examination of the "Orientalization" of Sephardim/Mizrahim, dating back to the dual expulsions of Jews and Muslims from the Spain of Ferdinand and Isabella at the end of the fifteenth century. Though I was not yet aware of it, Shohat had at this time already published an essay entitled "Zionism from the Standpoint of its Jewish Victims," the title of which suggests the force and brilliance of her project. Borrowing from Edward Said's magisterial "Zionism from the Standpoint of its Victims," Shohat situated her discourse vis-à-vis both Zionism and Israel, and the Palestinians. Her point was that the seemingly univocal and monolithic narrative of Zionism was principally a European Ashkenazi construction that overrode the histories of Jewish communities in Africa and West Asia in pursuit of the telos of the creation of a Jewish state.
The idea of the situation of narrative or discourse is one with both Sartrean and Saidian overtones. Shohat's favoured term for her approach to criticism is "relational," but her thinking could also be termed "worldly" in Said's sense. She seeks to offer a dynamic analysis of narratives, concepts, [End Page 188] images, and tropes that are themselves in flux. Her readings, accordingly, come with a strong sense of their own situatedness in both history and geography, even as they locate their objects in spatial and temporal matrices. Typically, Shohat offers readings that articulate, in a particularly enabling and convincing manner, feminism, Third Worldism, and class, and that feel free to address the "Third World" that is present in the First World—matters of race, ethnicity, class, and gender politics as they nave developed in the United States and Europe. In her introduction, "Gendered Cartographies of Knowledge: Area Studies, Ethnic Studies and Postcolonial Studies," Shohat distills her argument, having first distinguished her project of relational reading from mere relativism, and offered as an example the multiple inflections she reckons necessary to critique the practice of cliterodectomy,: "A relational analysis would thus have to address the operative terms and axes of stratification typical of specific contexts, along with the ways these terms and stratifications are translated and reinvoiced as they 'travel' from one context to another" (11).
We can say, then, that Shohat is working with a very strong sense of how not only theory, but also cultural representations, narratives, and discourses more generally "travel," are received, and have ramifying effects in new spatial and temporal locations. However, her work is more hopeful than Said's own narrative of the institutionalization, domestication, and taming of putatively radical theory, and her critical practice bears out this optimism.
The result is a splendid collection of essays, deploying a wide variety of forms, and with a broad range of interests: disciplinary and metacritical reflections, including a discussion of the problems of the term "postcolonial"; discussions of gender representation in films of and about the Third World; essays on translation and...