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Gender Studies: Anthropology

Power, Representation, And Resistance: Lending Ears And Voices

Finding resistance in the interpretation of genital cutting—as, for example, freedom from desire, or in the experiences of factory workers possessed by spirits—as liberation from the monotonies of the assembly line may seem odd. Are these painful and debilitating experiences the ground of resistance? Or the symptoms of a system that makes women the handmaids of their own oppression? Can resistance be unconscious? And if so, is resistance a sign of agency?

In direct counterpoint to these readings of the subjectivityless women in whose bodies the social world demonstrated its own violence and limitations there emerged in the 1980s another body of literature whose aims were to give expression to the conscious agencies of dominated women and other minorities, especially in the Global South.

Giving voice, or facilitating the self-expression of others—often through narrative forms that included biography and autobiography, fiction, poetry, and tokens of other expressive culture—became the commonplace gestures of well-intentioned anthropologists. These self-consciously feminist writers introduced a salutary counterbalance to those older texts in which the words of women, never mind their thoughts and experiences, were obliterated in generalizing and ostensibly genderless statements about "the way things are." The felicitous result: the textured life-worlds of soap-opera-watching housewives in Egypt, of ambitious but marginalized poor women healers and middle-class merchants on the Indonesian periphery, of devout Pentecostals in South Africa and proudly political mothers in Argentina, all entered the canon of ethnography, irrevocably transforming it in a humanist direction.

Works in this oeuvre share a certain descriptive quality. They also share an ambition to translate, both literally and figuratively, the experiences of others. Ironically, perhaps, the instruments of that translation have been the concepts of gender—including men and women—and experience. For this new anthropology has made its claim on the basis of a presumptive capacity for readers to recognize, as the experience of women (or men), the representations provided by anthropologists.

In light of all the anthropological evidence that being female or male differs between cultural contexts, and after all the theoretical labor aimed at debunking the universalist presuppositions of structural functionalism and then structuralism, there remains in feminist anthropology an indissoluble commitment to the transcultural and transhistorical viability of woman as a category of infinite translatability. The same can be said of gender, which appears to be an empty category but which nonetheless works through the presumption that the social difference organized through reference to sexual difference is distinct from all other kinds of difference.

This presumption has been called into question by a number of minority writers from the Global South. They have insisted that there is no material referent for the abstract category of "woman," and that, to the contrary, those named as women are subjects whose lives are determined by complex webs of politico-economic and therefore discursive forces, whether these be ones of race, class, location, or other principles. The implications of these claims for comparative gender studies have been enormous and deeply sobering, insofar as they suggest that there are not comparable communities of women whose experiences can be described and then compared. If some anthropologists ceded this point by advocating the self-representation of indigenous women (or by reading indigenous expressive forms as inherently self-representational), they did so in the face of an even more radical critique. The most acute proponent of that critique, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, argues that "subaltern women" cannot simply be ascribed or asked to inhabit the same kind of subjectivity that defines the position of white males in the European metropole. They cannot make themselves heard, except through a self-translation that rends them from their original location of invisibility and transforms them, through an ironically "enabling violence," into the kinds of beings whose speech is heard and recognized but only to the degree that it resembles that of its listeners.

Spivak's intervention made translation a question not only of technique but one determining the very possibility of gender studies. To be sure, translation had always been a question for comparative gender studies in anthropology, but it was defined much more narrowly. Originally it was recognized mainly in the comparative lexicons that anthropologists produced to demonstrate the relativity of kin terms (in places where men and women use different pronouns and kin terms). Since then it has been addressed through a variety of idioms, with silence and indirection often standing for women's incapacity to achieve or command a language of universal legibility. Conversely, silence and indirection have been read as indices of intentional resistance to dominant modes of communication (Gal). In a particularly innovative study of domestic intimacy in Sumatra, James T. Siegel demonstrated in 1969 how mistranslation, of the kind that lets women comprehend their treatment of men as patronizing indulgence (and hence indicative of their power) while also permitting men to read the same gestures as ones of deference (and hence testimony to their relative importance), actually facilitates gendered inequity and an odd kind of stability in Atchenese households. Siegel's writings offer an alternative theory of translation, one in which incommensurabilities in language and interpretation do not so much prohibit communication as they facilitate incompletely comprehended social relations, ones infused by power, which is dissimulated in the gaps between interlocutors. This does not make mistranslation a scene of resistance, any more than the translation of a subaltern woman's experiences into the representation of subalternity (for Western women readers) makes her an equal collaborator in global feminism. In very different ways, then, Siegel's and Spivak's insistence that power dissimulates itself in language and in claims to translational adequacy reveals the need for reflection upon the situation of speaking and reading. This problem is not mitigated by a recognition that globalization has brought about an increasing traffic in the terms and discourses emanating from the Anglo-American and European West.

Lexicalization and the transportation of idioms and concepts from one location to another—especially those concerning gender and sexuality, women's rights and human rights—do not guarantee that their meanings will be constant or comparable. Reflecting on the instability of the category "woman" across continents, languages, and power divides, and recognizing that anatomy does not obviate translational problems, contemporary writers have also reflected on the history and intensification of instabilities in the so-called biological being of women in the context of technological modernity.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Gastrula to Glow dischargeGender Studies: Anthropology - Kinship And/or Gender?, Rituals Of Becoming: The Making Of Sexual Difference, Feminist Interventions: The Legacy Of The Seventies