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Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La frontera: Cultural Studies, “Difference,” and the Non-Unitary Subject Essay

In 1979, Audre Lorde denounced the pernicious practice of the “Special Third World Women’s Issue” (100). Ten years later, the title of one of the chapters in Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Woman, Native, Other—“Difference: A Special Third World Women’s Issue”—al- ludes to the lingering practice of acknowledging the subject of race and ethnicity but placing it on the margins conceptually through “special issues” of journals or “special panels” at conferences. In her “Feminism and Racism: A Report on the 1981 National Wom- en’s Studies Association Conference,” Chela Sandoval critiqued the conference’s structure, which designated one consciousness- raising group for women of color yet offered proliferating choices for while women (60). Nine years later, a conference at UCLA on “Feminist Theory and the Question of the Subject” replicated this scenario, presenting a plenitude of panels on different aspects of the question of the subject, while marking off a space for “minority discourse” that simultaneously revealed the unmarked status of the generic (white) subject of the other panels. Isaac Julien and Kobena Mercer, the guest editors of a special issue of Screen, formulate its title as an ironic question: “The Last Special Issue on Race?” They point out that the logic of the “special” issue or panel “reinforces the perceived otherness and marginality of the subject itself.” In their critique, they invite us to identify the relations of power/knowledge that determine which cultural issues are intellec- tually prioritized in the first place … to examine the force of a binary relationship that produces the marginal as a consequence of the authority invested in the center.

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The persistence into the 1990s of discourses and practices that reinscribe the margin and the center indicates the problems inherent in theorizing “difference.” In “The Politics of Difference,” Hazel Carby suggests that discourses on difference and diversity in the 1980s functioned to obscure structures of dominance. Linda Gordon offers a “white-woman’s narrative and perspective about the appropriation of the notion of differences among women by a white-dominated women-studies discourse” in her article “On Difference” (100). The réinscription of the politics of domination within the discourse on difference inheres in part in the practice of theorizing difference within a paradigm that implies a norm and the tolerance of deviance from it (Gordon 100 and Spelrnan). The “additive” model, in which heretofore excluded categories are “included” in an attempt at correction, works against understanding the relations among the elements of identity and the effect each has on the other (Spelrnan 115 and Uttal).

This critique has been accompanied by an awareness that the failure to produce a relational theory of difference (Lippard 21) is not just a sin of omission, a result of “laziness or racism,” but points to a profound “conceptual and theoretical difficulty” (Gordon 101-02). What is needed is a new paradigm that permits the expansion of categories of analysis in such a way as to give expression to the lived experience of the ways race, class, and gender converge (Childers and hooks). The writing of women of color is crucial in this project of categorical expansion, producing what Cherrie Moraga calls “theory in the flesh” (Moraga and Anzaldua, Bridge 23). This embodied theory emerges from the material reality of multiple oppression and in turn conceptualizes that material- ity. The embodied subjectivities produced in the texts of women of color allow for an understanding of “gendered racial identities” or “racialized gender identities” (Gordon 105).

Cultural studies would appear to provide ideal terrain for themapping of this new paradigm, with its “commitment to examin-ing cultural practices from the point of view of relations of power”and its understanding of culture as both “object of study and site ofpolitical critique and intervention” (Grossberg et al. 5). However,it is important to keep in mind that the current attention to theintersections of race, nation, sexuality, class, and gender within cultural studies is the result of struggles initiated by people of colorwithin the British movement to construct “new political alliancesbased on non-essential awareness of racial difference” (Grossberget al. 5). Lata Mani and bell hooks, among others, express concernat cultural studies’ potential failure to articulate a new politics ofdifference—”appropriating issues of race, gender and sexual practice. and then continuing to hurt and wound in that politics ofdomination’’ (hooks, Discussion 294).

In what follows, I will examine Gloria Anzaldua’s theory ofmestizo or border consciousness and its contribution to paradig-matic shifts in theorizing difference, as well as contentious issuesin the reception of this text: on one hand, the enthusiastic embraceof Borderlands/La fronlera: The New Mestizo by many white feministsand area scholars and. on the other, the critiques voiced by somecritics, particularly Chicana/o academicians.

Given the above discussion on the conceptual difficulty in theorizing difference, it is understandable that a text like Borderlandswould be warmly received. But, as Chandra Talpade Mohantypoints out, the proliferation of texts by women of color is not nec-essarily evidence of the decentering of die hegemonic subject (34).Of crucial importance Is the uwv the texts are read, understood,and located. Two potentially problematic areas in the reception ofBorderlands are the isolation of this text from its conceptual community and the pitfalls in universalizing the theory of mestizo orborder consciousness, w hich the text painstakingly grounds in specific historical and cultural experiences.

Unlike Sandoval’s use of the adjectives “oppositional” or “dif-ferential” in her theory of consciousness, Anzaldua’s choice of theterms “border” and particularly “mestizo” problematizes the wayher theory travels. Clearly, non Chicana readers and critics mayrelate to the “miscegenation” and “border crossing” in their ownlives and critical practices. For example, in her discussion of David Henry Hwang’s play M. Butterfly, Marjorie Garber uses the term“border crossings” in a way similar to Anzaldua to describe theactivity of presenting binarisms (West/East, male/female) in orderto put them into question (130). The point is not to deny the ex-planatory power of Anzaldua’s model, but to consider the expenseof generalizing moves that deracinate the psychic “borderlands”and “mestizo” consciousness from the United States/Mexicanborder and the racial miscegenation accompanying the colonization of the Americas that serve as the material reality for Anzal-dua’s “theory in the flesh.” If every reader who identifies w ith the border-crossing experience described by Anzaldua’s text sees her/himself as a “Newr mestizo,” what is lost in terms of the erasure ofdifference and specificity?

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Other readings are possible that resist the impulse to read thetext as one looks in a mirror. Elizabeth Spelrnan cautions againstwhat she calls “boomerang perception: I look at you and comeright back to myself” (12). Appropriative readings are precludedby the constant interrogation of the conditions and locations ofreading. It is one thing to choose to recognize the ways one inhab-its the “borderlands” and quite another to theorize a consciousnessin the name of survival, to transform “living in the Borderlandsfrom a nightmare into a numinous experience” (Anzaldua. Border-lands 73).

A useful strategy in teaching or reading Borderlatuls is to locateboth reader and text: the reader, vis-4-vis plural centers and mar-gins, and the text, w ithin traditions of theorizing multiply embod-ied subjectivities by women of color3 and living in the borderlandsby Chicanas and Chicanos. Contextualizing the book in this man-ner, rather than reading it in a vacuum, helps avoid the temptationto pedestalize or even fetishize Borderlands as the invention of oneunique individual. Given the text’s careful charting of mestizo con-sciousness in the political geography of one partic ular border,reading it as part of a collective Chicano negotiation around themeanings of historical and cultural hybriditv would further illumi-nate the process of “theorizing in the flesh,” of producing theorythrough one’s own lived realities. .Angie Chabram-Dernersesiandocuments Chicana texts dating from the early 1970s that repre-sent “shifting positionality, variously enlisting competing interestsand alliances throughout time and space” and “multiple evocations of a female speaking subjecc who affirms various racial identities”(85-89). Women of color thinkers such as the writers in Bridge andSandoval were developing notions of multiple subjectivity in a con-text of political resistance in the early 1980s. In the mid-80s, Chi-cano artists such as David Avalos and the Border Arts Workshopattempted to expose, or even to celebrate, the political and eco-nomic contradictions of the border that sustain the officially illegalbut unofficially sanctioned market in undocumented workers fromMexico. In Chicana/o criticism, the border constitutes a powerfulorganizing category in such works as Sonia Saldivar-Hull’s “Femi-nism on the Border: From Gender Politics to Geopolitics” and thecollection Criticism in the Borderlands: Studies in Chicano Literature,Culture, and Ideology, edited by Hector Calderon and Jose DavidSaldivar.

In her discussion of “deterritorializations,“ the displacementof identities, persons, and meanings endemic to the postmodernworld system, Caren Kaplan examines the process of “reterritori-alization” in the movement between centers and margins and howthat process of reterritorialization is different for First World andThird World peoples. For Kaplan, the challenge of the First Worldfeminist critic is to avoid “theoretical tourism” (or in the case of.Anzaldua’s text, becoming “boarders in the borderlands”), to avoid“appropriating . . . through romanticization, envy, or guilt” (194)by examining her simultaneous occupation of both centers andmargins: “Any other strategy merely consolidates the illusion ofmarginality while glossing over or refusing to acknowledge cen-tralities” (189).* Rather than assuming /Anzaldua’s metaphors asoverarching constructs for like-minded theoretical endeavors, itmight be more helpful to set them alongside the metaphors gar-nered from the rigorous examination of one’s own lived personaland collective history. Kaplan argues that recognizing one’s ownprocesses of displacement “is not a process of emulation” (194);Minnie Bruce Pratt slates: “I am compelled by my oum life to strivefor a different place than the one we have lived in” (48-49; quotedin Kaplan 364).

Universalizing readings of Borderlands occur in the larger“postmodern” context of increasing demarginalization of the cul-tural practices of people of color as well as the simultaneous desta-bilizing of certain “centered” discourses of cultural authority and legitimation (Julien and Mercer). Although many critics of thepostmodern proclaim, either nostalgically or celebratorily, the endof this and that, very few focus the crisis of meaning, representa-tion, and history in terms of the “possibility of the end of (Euro-Jethnocenlmm” (Julien and Mercer 2). Stuart Hall, former directorof Birmingham’s Centre for Contemporary’ Cultural Studies(CCCS) and a black Jamaican who migrated to England, savoredthe irony of the centering of marginality at a conference entitled“The Real Me: Post-modernism and the Question of Identity”:

Thinking about my own sense of identity, I realise that it hasalways depended on the fact of being a migrant, on the differ-ence from the rest of you. So one of the fascinating things aboutthis discussion is to find myself centreed at last. Now that, inthe postmodern age. you all fed so dispersed becomecentred. What I’ve thought of as dispersed and fragmentedcomes, paradoxically, to be the representative modern experi-ence! This is “coming home” with a vengeance! Most of it 1much enjoy—welcome to migranthood. (44)

Hall sees it as an important gain that “more and more people nowrecognize . .. that all identity is constructed across difference,” buthe also insists that narratives of displacement have “certain condi-tions of existence, real histories in the contemporary world, whichare not only or exclusively psychical, not simply ‘journeys of themind’” (44). Whereas Jean Baudrillard and other Eurocentricpostmodernists explain the fragmentation of identity in relation tothe end of the Real, Hall refers here to what some have calledthe Real that one cannot not know, the “jagged edges” of povertyand racism.

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For this reason, Hall proposes the possibility of another kindof “politics of difference.” New political identities can be formedby insisting on difference that is concretely conceived as “the factthat every identity is placed, positioned, in a culture, a language,a history.” This conception of the self allow s for a politics that con-stitutes “ ‘unilies’-in-difference” (45), a politics of articulation, inwhich the connections between individuals and groups do notarise from “natural” identity but must be articulated, in the dualsense of “expressed in speech” and “united by forming a joint.”

Anzaldua’s Borderlands exemplifies the articulation between the contemporary awareness that all identity is constructed acrossdifference and the necessity of a new politics of difference to accom-pany this new sense of self. Dorinne Kondo points out the difference between deconstruciions of fixed identity that “open out” theself to a “free play of signifiers” and Anzaldua’s representation ofmultiple identity in the ‘play of historically and culturally specificpower relations” (23). While Anzaldua’s w riting recognizes the im-portance of narratives of displacement in the formation of her sub-jectivity, she is also aware of the material conditions of existence,the real histories of these narratives. Hers is a “power-sensitiveanalysis that would examine the construction of complex, shifting‘selves’ in the plural, in all their cultural, historical, and situationalspecificity” (Kondo 26).

Borderlands maps a sense of “the plurality of self” (Alarcon,“Theoretical” 366), which .Anzaldua calls mestiza or border consciousness. This consciousness emerges from a subjectivity structured by multiple determinants—gender, class, sexuality, and con-tradictory membership in competing cultures and racial identities.Sandoval has theorized this sense of political identity that allowsno single conceptualization of our position in society as a skill devel-oped by those marginalized in the categories of race, sex, or classfor reading the shifting of the webs of power (“Report” 66-67).

She sees the term “women of color” not as a single unity but as aconscious strategy, a new kind of community based on the strengthof diversities as the source of a new kind of political movement.Her theory legitimates the multiplicity of tactical responses to themobile circulation of power and meaning and posits a new. shiftingsubjectivity capable of reconfiguring and recentering itself, depending on the forms of oppression to be confronted. Anzalduaenacts this consciousness in Borderlands as a constantly shifting process or activity of breaking down binary dualisms and creating thethird space, the in between, border, or interstice that allows contradictions to coexist in the production of the new element (mestizaje,or hybridity). Crucial in her project are the ways “race” works inthe complex “interdefining” and “interacting” among the variousaspects of her identity.* Her essay “La Prieia” (the dark-skinnedgirl or woman), published in Bridge, already introduced the concerns she will explore in Borderlands: her relationship to her darkIndian self and the denial of the indigenous in Chitano/Mexicano culture. It is the representation of the indigenous in the text thathas evoked the most critical response from Chicana/o and non-Chicana/o readers alike.

Primary among these concerns are what are seen as the text’sessentializing tendencies, most notably in the reference to “the In-dian woman’’ and the privileging of the preColumbian deity Coat-licue, which obscures the plight of present day Native women inthe Americas.* This wariness toward the invocation of “Indi-an ness” and the pre-Columbian pantheon must be contextualizedin the contemporary critique of the cultural nationalism of the Chi-cano Movement, which engineered a romanticized linking be-tween Chicanos and indigenous cultures as part of the process ofconstructing a Chicano identity. Many of us are engaged in an on-going interrogation of the singular Chicano cultural identity pos-ited by dominant masculinist and hcterosexist discourses of theChicano Movement and the role indigenismo played in this exclu-sionary process.

This seems to me to be the crucial distinction between theproject of such Chicano Movement artists as Luis Valdez or Alu-rista and Anzaldua’s project in Borderlands: whereas the first in-voked indigenismo in the construction of an exclusionary, singularChicano identity, the latter invokes it in the construction of an in-clusive, multiple one. The theory of mestiza consciousness dependson an awareness of subject positions—a concept which Diana Fussmaintains represents the essence of social constructionism (29)—working against the solidifying concept of a unitary or essential“1.” Fuss suggests that the seeming impasse between “essentialism”and “social constructionism” is actually a false dichotomy, and shecalls attention to the ways they are deeply and inextricably co-implicated (xii). Perhaps more productive (and more interesting)than firing off’ the label “essentialist“ as a “term of infallible critique” is to ask what motimles the deployment of essentialism (xi),which carries in itself the potential for both progressive and re-actionary uses. In her discussion of subaltern studies, GayatriSpivak speaks of the “Strategic use of positivist essentialism in ascrupulously visible political interest” (205), an analysis that wouldfocus “essentialist” moves in Borderlands in terms of “who,” “how,”and “where”: the lack of privilege of the writing subject, the specific deployment of essentialism and “where its effects are concen-trated” (Fuss 20).

On more than one occasion in the text, Anzaldua, who as aChicana lesbian of working-class origins enjoys no privilege in thecategories of race, culture, gender, class, or sexuality, explicitly ar-ticulates her project: “belonging” nowhere, since some aspect ofher multiple identity always prohibits her from feeling completely“at home” in any one of the many communities in which she holdsmembership, she will create her own “home” through writing.

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Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La frontera: Cultural Studies, "Difference," and the Non-Unitary Subject Essay

In 1979, Audre Lorde denounced the pernicious practice of the “Special Third World Women’s Issue” (100). Ten years later, the title of one of the chapters in Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Woman, Native, Other—“Difference: A Special Third World Women’s Issue"—al- ludes to the lingering practice of acknowledging the subject of race and ethnicity but placing it on the margins conceptually through “special issues" of journals or “special panels" at conference

2017-08-04 16:16:02
Gloria Anzaldúa's Borderlands/La frontera: Cultural Studies,
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