Chandra Talpade Mohanty and Communication Studies
Summary and Keywords
Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s intellectual projects have consistently foregrounded a deep and rigorous critique of power—the power of capitalism, colonialism, and racialization, ethnic nationalism and heteropatriarchy—and have established the significance of feminist perspectives for struggles for economic and social justice. Her work is generative and provocative for critical cultural communication scholarship in providing methodological tools with which to think about the nexus between power and knowledge, discourse, the appropriation of the local and the particular for the formation of the global and vice versa, the formation of universals abstracted from their histories and social formations such as the “Third World Woman,” identity, and historical materialism. Hers is an intellectual project, grounded in feminism, that takes on the thorny task of carving out solidarities through critique. Her project delineates its own ideological standpoint and formulates a feminist historical materialism that strives methodologically to hold local particularities and their global implications in a tight grip. Mohanty’s work is, in fact, a provocation to formulate modes of analysis that are founded on a careful epistemological critique, such that it has often been used most productively to unravel the formulation of ethnocentric universalism. As such, Mohanty’s work has been particularly relevant for the fields of black cultural studies, feminist media studies, postcolonial communication studies, transnational media studies, race, and communication within critical cultural communication studies.
Working with an abiding “internationalist commitment,” Mohanty has formulated a feminist vision that audaciously hopes for a world that is “pro-sex and -woman, a world where women and men are free to live creative lives, in security and with bodily health and integrity, where they are free to choose whom they love, and whom they set up house with, and whether they want to have or not have children; a world where pleasure rather than just duty and drudgery determine our choices, where free and imaginative exploration of the mind is a fundamental right; a vision in which economic stability, ecological sustainability, racial equality, and the redistribution of wealth form the material basis of people’s well-being.” (Talpade Mohanty, 2003, p. 3) The enduring quality of Mohanty’s work—her oft-cited essay “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse” was first published in 1984 when she had “barely completed her Phd” (p. 221) and continues to be required reading for coursework in gender studies, critical cultural studies, and postcolonial theory—resides in her commitment to envisioning and practicing a feminist mode of knowledge production that unflinchingly and directly aims to intervene in hegemonic discourses of capitalism, colonialism, race, and heteropatriarchy. Hers is an intellectual project that takes on the thorny task of carving out solidarities through critique, of writing a rigorous ideological critique while delineating its own standpoint, and of formulating a feminist historical materialism that strives methodologically to hold the particular and the universal together in a tight grip. As such, Mohanty’s work provides the student of postcolonial studies, feminist theory, critical race theory, and critical cultural communication studies productive methodological levers with which to craft an analysis that holds together a complex cultural, local, and particularistic critique along with a macro analysis of global political economy. Mohanty’s work is, in fact, a provocation to formulate modes of analysis that are founded on a careful epistemological critique that has often been used most productively as a provocation to unravel the formulation of ethnocentric universalism. This article discusses Mohanty’s key arguments, focusing on concepts such “Western feminism,” “colonialism,” “standpoint,” “identity,” and “historical materialism.” It places Mohanty in conjunction with sociologist and cultural theorist Stuart Hall as well as with some of the key premises central to Marxism to track the ways in which she charts a project for transnational feminism that is always in conversation with black cultural studies and women of color feminism. Mohanty’s significance for critical and cultural communication studies or media studies is also examined.
“Under Western Eyes”
In “Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarship and Colonial Discourse,” the essay that has, in many ways, defined Mohanty’s intellectual investments and contributions, she writes of “critics of Eurocentric humanism who drew attention to its false universalizing and masculinist assumptions,” (Talpade Mohanty, 2003, p. 224) to reveal the ways in which “Western feminism” constructed the “composite and singular” category, “Third World Women,” by colonizing the “material and historical heterogeneities of the lives of women in the Third World.” The essay is read and taught in multiple ways. It works as an introduction to the body of work that has been categorized as “transnational feminism” or “Third World feminism” and “women of color feminism” through its effective and rigorous critique of white, liberal feminism. It works as a significant contribution and intervention within postcolonial theory foregrounding the crucial analytic of gender and reinforcing the ways in which knowledge production is deeply intertwined with colonial and liberal systems and structures. Also, the essay—like much of Mohanty’s body of work—is productive for students of critical and cultural theory and critique in highlighting key methodological levers. Her project explicitly works to reveal the ways in which the local and the global, the particular and the universal, the micro and the macro, critique and solidarity can be held together in a single analytical and political frame. She has not always been read in this manner, however, as Mohanty herself notes in “Under Western Eyes Revisited: Feminist Solidarity through Anticapitalist Struggles.” Even though “Under Western Eyes” works out a careful critique of the ethnocentrism of generalizations such as the “Third World Woman,” some of her critics read her as making an argument against all forms of generalizations. Moreover, while her essay suggests that commonalities should be constructed on the ground of local particularity, she was seen to privilege “the local over the systemic, difference over commonalities or the discursive over the material” (p. 224).
It is in this context that I want to highlight two terms that Mohanty uses both descriptively and analytically in this essay, namely “Western feminism” and “colonizing.” Mohanty’s use of these terms reveals the complex analytical work she undertakes in both critiquing the ethnocentrism of certain universals while also working to build generalizable concepts that can be used to construct solidarities. She is categorical that her use of the term “Western feminism” should not be read as an argument for the presence of a monolithic body of intellectual work; something called “Western feminism.” The specific texts, in fact, that Mohanty analyzes in this essay are the monographs produced under the series “Women in the Third World” by Zed Press in the 1980s. She argues instead, using similar postcolonial analytics that Edward Said made significant in his seminal work Orientalism, that “Western feminism” is that mode of narration and analysis that codes others as non-Western and therefore itself, she insists, as Western. In other words, Mohanty reveals the working of an episteme through the use and the analysis of the term “Western feminism.” She points to the ways in which narrative and analytical strategies constitute a subject as subject, in this case, the non-Western or Third World woman as well as “Western feminism.” Rather than reveal something called “Western feminism,” she shows her readers the ways in which knowledge itself is constituted as such. The construction of the subject of “Third World Woman” enables the concurrent construction of “Western feminism,” which is thus also constituted as legitimate and legible knowledge.
Mohanty draws on Marxisms and women of color critique in the United States to define colonization as a “relation of structural domination and a suppression—often violent—of the heterogeneity of the subject(s) in question” (Talpade Mohanty, 2003, p. 18). If the term “Western feminism” reveals the working of an episteme, then Mohanty’s delineation of “colonization” is a methodological lever that enables the analysis to hold a cultural critique along with a political economic evaluation together in a single frame. Read in this context, Mohanty’s stated goal in this essay of “make[ing] clear that cross-cultural feminist work must be attentive to the micropolitics of context, subjectivity, and struggle, as well as the macropolitics of global economic and political systems and processes” (Talpade Mohanty, 2003, p. 223) becomes a necessary and significant intervention in critical cultural and feminist analysis. In other words, Mohanty’s formulation of colonization in this context—in line with some of the most significant contributions of postcolonial theory—enables analysis to move between conceptions of identity, experience, affect (often categorized together as culture), and the abstractions conceived by macro structures of the political economy. For instance, it enables a scholar to analyze the articulations or linkages between identities or identifications produced in popular media stories and the social formations within which they operate. How does the conception of women’s empowerment through entrepreneurship (with microfinance schemes, for instance) articulate with both national projects of neoliberalism in the Global South and global capitalism? How have social movements against heteropatriarchy with particular local inflections been appropriated by powerful corporations and the state? These are just some of the questions that can be approached and analyzed by the methodological levers that Mohanty emphasizes.
This brings us to a discussion of Mohanty’s formulation of identity and her intellectual investment in “standpoint.” An important argument that Mohanty makes—inaugurated in “Under Western Eyes”—is that liberal humanism, including liberal feminism, conceives of men and women as always already formed “men” and “women” prior to their entry into the arena of social relations. Contrary to this, she notes emphatically that “women are constituted as women through the complex interaction between class, culture, religion and other ideological institutions and frameworks . . . They are not ‘women’—a coherent group—solely on the basis of a particular economic system or policy. Such reductive cross-cultural comparisons result in the colonization of the specifics of daily existence and the complexities of political interests which women of different social classes and cultures represent and mobilize.” In other words, Mohanty insists on a formulation of gender—of identity itself—that is historical and material, but, in turn, she calls on an analysis of political economy that is situated, contextual, and particular. It is insufficient for instance—in fact, utterly problematic—she would argue to insist on (1) tracing the contours of capitalist patriarchy along universalist terms, even as the particular and historical underpinnings of such a formulation are obfuscated and (2) to keep stating that such a system of capitalist patriarchy produces “men” and “women” along identical lines with identical desires, ambitions, and modes of identification. To put it simply, Mohanty’s formulation of identity argues that we cannot think that capitalist patriarchy takes the same form in every historical period and in every regional context within which it appears and is reproduced. Additionally, it is inaccurate to conceive of the experiences, the identifications, the dreams, desires, and ambitions that are engendered by capitalist patriarchy, everywhere that it appears, as identical. And yet, Mohanty is invested in solidarities across particular sets of identities, particularities, and regional specificities.
To delineate how she holds this investment in the particular with an emphasis on the universal together, it is imperative to turn to Mohanty’s intellectual and political investment in standpoint theory. Pointing to the success of “politicized identity movements,” she argues—following standpoint theorists like Nancy Hartsock and Sandra Harding—that it is productive to think of identity not in “essentialist” anatomical, epidermalist terms but instead to envision it as a standpoint that emerges as a consequence of politicized thinking about experience and affect. She notes, for instance, that, it is not just the fact of being an indigenous woman “that led to the formation of the Indigenous Women’s Network (IWN) in North America, but the analysis of the systems of colonial and sexual oppression, and the solidarity generated through collective action to confront these oppressive systems and practices that constituted IWN as a group.” In a similar vein, she offers the example of the transnational feminist group “Women Living under Muslim Law” (WLUML), as one that “traces its identity to a unity around the analysis of Muslim law in terms of its gendered impact on women in different Islamic nations (Moghadham, 2005). What unites the members of WLUML is not a reductive or essentialist construct of their identity as Muslim women (their victim status), but a common critique of the experience of living under and struggling against unjust patriarchal and religious fundamentalist regimes” (Talpade Mohanty, 2010, p. 533). Mohanty has argued explicitly that she does not claim that “all marginalized locations yield crucial knowledge about power inequity, but that within a tightly integrated capitalist system, the particular standpoint of poor indigenous and Third World/South women provides the most inclusive viewing of systemic power” (Talpade Mohanty, 2003, p. 232). Thus, Mohanty’s conception of solidarity and the universal embraces the particular; it in fact grounds itself in the local and the particular. This is a conception of solidarity that pushes against the line that is drawn between scholarship and activism. Moreover, her formulation of identity bases itself in feminist standpoint theory, as articulated by scholars such as Nancy Hartsock and Sandra Harding, and women of color critique, including intellectuals such as Angela Davis and Audre Lorde, precisely because it is deeply focused on identity working as a foundation for the critique of power.
As such, Mohanty’s formulation of identity might be usefully read along with British sociologist and cultural critic Stuart Hall’s reconceptualization of identity as “identification.” Hall reworked Louis Althusser’s theorization of “interpellation” or “hailing” in his formulation of identification. Critiquing Althusser, Hall argued that “an effective suturing of the subject to a subject-position requires, not only that the subject is ‘hailed’, but that the subject invests in the position” (Hall, 1996, p. 6). In other words, he theorized identities/subjectivities as “sutures” and “suturing” as an articulation. He argued therefore that “a theory of ideology must begin not from the subject but as an account of suturing effects, the effecting of the join of the subject in structures of meaning” (Hall, 1996, p. 6). Hall’s formulation of identification enables one to examine the structures in dominance—the state and its ideological apparatuses—but also the negotiations of the subject within discourse. Mohanty’s investment in a feminist standpoint, when read in conjunction with Hall’s conceptualization of identification enables the critical cultural scholar to methodologically foreground the maneuvers, negotiations, investments, and struggles of subjects even as the analysis builds a complex description of the ideological and institutional structures of power.
In “Under Western Eyes Revisited,” an extended revision of her early essay, Mohanty discusses the continuities between the project that “Under Western Eyes” inaugurated—namely, to “draw attention to” the “material complexity, reality, and agency of Third World women’s bodies and lives,” which was significantly and precisely what was left out of “feminist theorizing”—and her more contemporary project of delineating “what is unseen, undertheorized, and left out in the production of knowledge about globalization” (Talpade Mohanty, 2003, p. 230). These continuities can be traced to her methodological investment in historical materialism. Mohanty’s conceptualization of historical materialism is deeply influenced by feminist standpoint theorists, who in turn read and reworked the historical materialism of Karl Marx and Georg Lukacs. She also notes that her formulation draws on “postpositivist realists” who provide an analysis of experience, identity, and the epistemic effects of social location. As such, she suggests that her perspective can be defined as both materialist and realist and is “antithetical” to postmodern relativism. In other words, Mohanty’s intellectual investment in conceptions of difference, the local, the particular, identity, and experience is not focused on describing alternative trajectories for the project of modernity. Nor is she interested in thinking about identity or the particular through conceptions of the “fragment” or opacity. Deeming her work as antithetical to such projects, she argues that there are “causal links between marginalized social locations and experiences and the ability of human agents to explain and analyze features of capitalist society” (Talpade Mohanty, 2003, p. 232). Methodologically, she notes, such a perspective is “grounded in historical materialism.”
To elucidate and elaborate on Mohanty’s conceptualization of historical materialism, it is important to consider the formulation of the idea within Marxism. I will use the work of Karl Marx, who has been an influential philosopher for scholarship that is concerned with materiality and with ideology, and Stuart Hall’s reading of Marx in order to do this before working my way back to Mohanty. One could argue that Marx’s essay The German Ideology haunts the work of even those poststructuralists who refuse to use the term “ideology,” and materialism like a specter. In this essay, Marx and Engels set out to critique German idealist philosophers who they argued had separated consciousness and social practice to such an extent that the realm of ideas or consciousness now becomes “fetishized to a thing-in-itself” and becomes understood as the “very source and ground of historical life” (Eagleton, 1991, p. 70, 71). In other words, they argued that in the work of the German idealists, ideas had become unmoored and untethered from the social, political, economic worlds from within which they were produced. In this context, we can read Mohanty’s project in “Under Western Eyes” as well as in the essay that revisits that original contribution, “Under Western Eyes Revisited,” as doing the work of revealing the tether, the suture that linked the knowledges about the Third World produced by “Western feminism” to the political and economic and cultural worlds of this feminism. Moreover, Marx and Engels had argued that “the production of ideas, of conceptions, of consciousness, is at first directly interwoven with the material activity and the material intercourse of men, the language of real life” (Marx & Engels, 1978, p. 154). They laid out some key theses that have come to frame classical Marxist formulations of ideology, including the “materialist premise,” or the conception that ideas arise from and reflect the material conditions that produced them, the “thesis of determinateness” or the argument that social transformation must first occur within the level of the material and the “thesis of ruling ideas” or the contention that “the class which is the ruling material force of the society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual” (Hall, 1986, p. 31).
All three premises have subsequently been critiqued for being economically deterministic, for suggesting that the “truth” of an ideology can be determined by revealing its economic base, for thus reducing ideas to merely “reflexes” and “echoes,” for defining “particular forms of consciousness as class-specific” and for arguing that certain ideas (ruling ideas) are the “exclusive property” of the ruling class (p. 31). Critiques, including most significantly by Susan Heckman, have also dogged feminist standpoint theory that reworked Marxism for its purposes and has been influential for Mohanty’s work. Without dismissing any of these critiques, Hall has suggested that some of these emerge from reading Marx’s work dogmatically. In this context, Hall has argued that “as soon as we divorce ourselves from a religious and doctrinal reading of Marx . . . the openings between many of the classical uses of the term, and its more recent elaborations, are not as closed as current theoreticist polemics would lead us to believe.” Hall reminds us that Marx was specifically referring to bourgeois thought, particularly its distorted aspects, when he speaks about ideology. Any Marxist discussion of contemporary ideologies that are socially and politically specific therefore must draw on but also extrapolate from Marx’s foundational premises on ideology. In other words, Hall argues that one can think of “materialism” in Marxist theory as “determination by the economic in the first instance,” and thus that no social ideas, practices, or relations can be seen to “float free of the determinate effects of the concrete relations in which they are located” (Hall, 1986, p. 43), and yet to not assume therefore that the level of the economic can determine the contents of thoughts and ideas of particular social classes or groups. Hall’s theorization of a “Marxism, without guarantees” thus allows one to conceptualize ideology through the “materialism” of Marxist theory without ascribing to reductionism. This is precisely the ways in which Mohanty appropriates Marxism and reworks it for the project of Third World feminism as well.
To circle back to Mohanty’s formulation of historical materialism: she conceives of it methodologically in two ways, one, to track, trace, and reveal the social, political, and economic ground from which knowledge, which carries the sanction and weight of power, emerges. She does not refer to “Western feminism” as “ruling ideas” but does note that this discourse “carries with it the authorizing signature of Western humanist discourse” (2003, p. 19). In other words, she delineates the particular ground from which abstractions bearing the sanction of knowledge emerge. Second, she links the materiality of subalternity to a standpoint, a set of political ideas and a political critique. Just as it was productive to read Mohanty in conjunction with Hall in the context of the formulation of identity as a concept, it is generative to read the expressions of historical materialism as a methodology within the projects of both scholars. Such a reading reveals the ways black cultural studies and Third World feminisms have engaged with Marx and Marxism: This is a critical reading that appropriates Marxism for the intellectual and political projects of critical race theory and transnational feminisms Mohanty, again following feminist standpoint theorists and women of color scholarship, is thus able to conceive historical materialism as a methodological perspective that enables a critique of heteropatriarchal capitalism, ethnic nationalism, and globalization by foregrounding the standpoint of the Third World woman even as she is critical of the kind of methodological sleight of hand that transforms the particularity and historicity of the woman from the Third World into the abstract category that is “Third World Woman.”
Critical and Cultural Communication
Chandra Talpade Mohanty’s intellectual project and methodological interventions are extremely generative for critical cultural communication scholars. Her work explicitly compels critical cultural communication scholarship to think with and through gendered difference. Following Mohanty, it becomes necessary to think and examine the ways in which large political economic and epistemological projects—capitalism, colonialism, liberalism, globalization, and the like—produce and reproduce anatomical and epidermal difference as taxonomic categories. In other words, her project acts as a provocation to examine the discursive and ideological processes through which categories such as “Third World Woman” are produced and sustained and what political and epistemological purposes the production of such categories serves. Additionally, her work enables the critical cultural communication studies scholar to ask significant questions about the politics of representation. It compels scholars to ask why and through what processes the complexity of living social relations and the bodies enmeshed within them are translated into types and representational categories. Feminist media studies scholarship including the work of scholars such as Rupal Oza, Bishnupriya Ghosh, Raka Shome, Radhika Parameswaran, Radha Hegde, as well as Angharad Valdivia, Patricia Hill Collins, Jacqui Alexander, and others are significant in this context. Using Mohanty’s interventions in the discussions about identity, historical materialism, and discourse as a starting point, critical cultural communication scholarship makes important interventions in the examination of ideology, popular culture, and political economy. For instance, critical cultural communication studies’ examination of national iconic figures—Martin Luther King Jr., Angela Davis, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama, M. K. Gandhi, Winnie Mandela—can provide us with a provocative opportunity to learn about the processes of interpellation (hailing) and thus analyze popular media as the institutionalized practice of ideology, but also allow us to analyze the unity of an ideology at a particular historical conjuncture In other words, extending Mohanty’s interventions, this form of scholarship could formulate an argument that considers why certain types of iconic figures become popular at certain historical moments. Moreover, through iconic figures, one could examine the ideological articulation of different types of interpellation marking the body of a single individual and thus transforming it. This is because icons and symbols play a special role within the nation’s master narrative—they condense political institutions, struggles, social movements, cultural complexities, and contestation into an inviolable moment or sign. As an example, one could examine the ways in which Angela Davis was variously interpellated as “brilliant intellectual” and “beautiful fugitive” by the American news media in the 1960s and 1970s when black power resistances were at their peak. These two types of interpellations come together in the figure of the Jezebel, which is called forth in the news media descriptions of Davis’s trial in the Marin County Courthouse incident in 1972. The identification and deconstruction of the figure of the Jezebel allows one to examine the ideological unity that emerged at this particular historical juncture: a liberal, white bourgeois ideology that defines the progressive nation as one that encompasses difference and celebrates individual accomplishments but one that will not tolerate radical challenges to its defining structures.
Also, Mohanty’s project is suggestive of critical cultural communication studies’ examination and analysis of identity and identity formations. Using her urgent call to foreground the material and the historical, it has become significant for critical cultural communication scholarship to historicize identity formations, to critically analyze the ways in which investments in particular kinds of identifications at specific historical moments work as modes of resistance as well as the ways in which certain historical conjunctures demand and require being sutured to particular identity forms in order to be legible. The critical cultural communication studies’ examination of ethnic and white nationalism is an instantiation of this mode of analysis. As such, Mohanty’s work has been particularly relevant for the fields of black cultural studies and feminist media studies within critical cultural communication studies.
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