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Social Text 20.3 (2002) 67-78

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Area Studies, Gender Studies, and the Cartographies of Knowledge

Ella Shohat

Soon after September 11, the media resumed their habitual attack on "liberals," "progressives," "antiwar radicals," "unpatriotic leftists," and "politically correct multiculturalists." This time, Ground Zero was presented as evidence in the war not simply against terrorism but also against "PC multiculturalism." The advocates of "postmodernist cultural relativism," it was suggested, would have to admit their defeat in the Culture Wars. Islamic fundamentalism, Talibanism, bin Ladenism and, of course, the oppression of women, were now to be seen as documents of the barbarism of non-Western civilizations. Essentialist theses of the kind produced by Samuel Huntington and Bernard Lewis again occupied center stage, reenacting the consoling and narcissistic narrative of an ancient civilizational war now reaching our own megalopolis. Henceforth, the demise of the multicultural Left requires no further proof. Case closed.

Yet Manichean narratives and Enlightenment binarisms have also haunted coalitionary work along the whole spectrum of the Left, particularly when issues of multiculturalism and feminism have been at stake. The postmodern abandonment of the Universal has continued to produce anxieties about how to defend women's and gay/lesbian rights given the global plurality of cultures, at times triggering a full return to the false dichotomy of modernity versus tradition. Written in the spring of 2000, this lecture is included in the 911 special issue of Social Text in the hopes of engaging a more complex discussion about gender, race, and cultural difference in the context of violent transnational conflicts. Despite its traumatic magnitude, September 11 is neither the end of history nor its beginning. The multiculturalist/transnationalist feminist critique of the production of knowledge developed over the past decade has not lost its relevance; rather, it has gained renewed urgency.

When feminism is invoked in academic institutions outside of "Western" spaces, it is often subjected to an (inter)disciplinary order that anxiously and politely sends it "back" to the kingdom of area studies. There the experts of the day, it is assumed, will tell us about the plight of women; each outlandish geographical zone will be matched with an abused bodily part. A doubly exclusionary logic (that which applies to women and to their geography) will quickly allot a discursive space for women as well as [End Page 67] for gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender people from diverse regions of the world. Even within multicultural feminist and queer cartographies of knowledge, the diverse regions are often presumed in isolation from the "center" and from each other. Such approaches, I am afraid, have become a malady in women's studies programs, even those that have made an important step toward multiculturalizing the curriculum.

Here, I want to reflect on a relational understanding of feminism that assumes a nonfinalized and conjunctural definition of feminism as a polysemic site of contradictory positionalities. Any dialogue about the fictive unity called "Middle Eastern women" or "Latin American gays/ lesbians"—especially one that is taking place within a transnational framework—has to begin from the premise that genders, sexualities, races, classes, nations, and even continents exist not as hermetically sealed entities but rather as part of a permeable interwoven relationality. Interlinking critical maps of knowledge is fundamental in a transnational age, typified by the global "travel" of images, sounds, goods, and populations. A relational multicultural feminist project has to reflect this (partially) new moment that requires rethinking of identity designations, intellectual grids, and disciplinary boundaries. We need, I believe, to reflect on the relationships between the diverse interdisciplinary kinds of knowledge constituting multicultural/transnational feminist inquiry: gender and sexuality studies, ethnic and race studies, area and postcolonial studies. Given that there is no single feminism, the question is, How do we orchestrate these conflictual perspectives in order to rearticulate the feminist terrains of struggle foregrounding the densely woven web of relationality?

In many institutions multicultural feminists have often faced criticism from feminist colleagues who had perceived multiculturalism as somehow "bad for women." 1 Multiculturalism, in the view of these colleagues, is at best irrelevant and at worst divisive...


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pp. 67-78
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