In an email message to me a couple of days ago, Spike noted that comments on various threads had revealed certain categorical errors. He said he'd try to find time to respond to the comments himself, and I said, "Look, you write such interesting, insightful stuff; I don't want it buried deep at the end of a thread, especially since I have the feeling these issues might come up again. If you're going to write an analysis of this, why not write something I can post as an entry? I'm really busy right now and could really use a guest blogger, if you wouldn't mind...." And it turns out, he didn't mind at all, and very graciously agreed to write a post for me.
So here it is: my very first guest post, courtesy of Spike.
In the comments to From the Perspective of a Man and Carnival of Feminists XV, two criticisms of Holly's statements made the error of confusing physical properties with culture. Timothy was concerned that while the thread of the comments under "From the Perspective of a Man" emphasized the importance of not damning a whole category of people when insulting a particular individual, this concern ran against the grain of what he felt was Holly's critique of "straight white men." Holly's response has already made the point that criticizing the dominant perspective is not the same as criticizing a group of people. What interested me was the way Timothy collapses a cultural or ideological category (the dominant perspective of the straight white male) with a biological category (men).
In the discussion of the Carnival, a similar, but slightly more complicated error led Jay to question Holly’s use of a Chinese character in the design of her web page: he was concerned about the appropriation of Asian culture by non-Asians. It seems to me that Jay’s concern also rests on a conflation of a cultural or ideological category with, here, a geographical one. This mistake is a bit less obvious than Timothy’s so I should explain why I think Jay makes it. Jay suggested that it was ironic that Holly included a link to Jenn’s piece Unbound Feet in the Carnival, when Jenn had also posted a little rant (Jay’s term) about Western appropriation of Asian culture, since it would appear from the top right of Holly’s page that she’s a white woman but she includes a Chinese character. (Holly and Jay have already had an exchange about this over the issues of etiquette and the reason Holly has the character on her blog so I won’t belabour these points.)
Now it may be a bit unfair for me to discuss Jenn's writing here – it's not her blog, I don't even know if she's reading this – so I will stress this qualification: I am not attributing any intent to Jenn, I'm only commenting as a reader. I have read both of the posts that matter here. The first thing to be noted about the "rant" is that it is a rant. It is not a thoughtfully crafted argument about the point she wants to make – unlike the elegant piece she wrote on "unbound feet," which is a careful and powerful argument. Now ranting is quite important and I would encourage more of it. But I suspect that the tone of the rant is part of the reason Jay felt he had license to question Holly's use of the Chinese character: the rant reads like a defence of the integrity of Asian culture against Western power. It would be possible – but I believe it would be very ungenerous – to suggest that this goes against the argument made in "unbound feet," which is a powerful claim for feminist resistance to female identities imposed by Asian American men on Asian American women.
So the problem that lies under Jay's use of the rant from Reappropriate is this: what is "Asian culture," that has some kind of identity that needs to be defended? Asia is a big place, with lots of language groups, many different religions, different rates and forms of urbanization, different histories…one could go on. These forms of diversity even mark a single country like China.
And Asian nations and cultures have fairly fraught relations with each other due to the region's long historical experiences with conquests and empires. Consider the experiences of Chinese, Korean, or Filipino immigrants in Japan. Or consider the attempted colonization of Korea by Japan and by China. Or China's occupation of Tibet, or its invasion of Vietnam in the late 1970s. Asia does not look like a homogeneous entity from a cultural, political, social, or economic perspective. Asia is a geographical term, not a cultural entity. Indeed, to the extent that we can even refer to a notion like "Asian culture," it is the product of orientalism: a colonial project to construct an "other" to secure "Western" identities.
I said that I think a notion of "Asian culture" would stem from an ungenerous reading of Jenn's writings cited here because I think both pieces, in different ways to be sure, are demands to be allowed to make of herself the person she would be autonomously. So to the extent that Jay would have no problem with Jenn's autonomy before pressures from "deranged and cranky" Asian American males ("DACs"), he ought not have had any issue to raise with Holly's autonomy. The problem for Jay comes up because "Asian," as a subordinate identity within the West, and Asia, for a couple of hundred years a subordinated region internationally, come to feel like something to be asserted and defended as a way of redressing these injustices. I get that, but I also suspect that as a political project it is doomed to fail because "Asia" can be no less an artificial unity, imperially papering over important cultural and political differences, than "the West" is. These geographic entities only become cultural unities through acts of domination.
Why do these category errors matter? There are a lot of reasons I could give: for example, I'm very interested in philosophical materialism. I have been trying to work out a way to think about consciousness that situates it in relation to and as a part of the material world without the kinds of reductions that I see in Timothy's and Jay's assertions. But I think there is also a larger political stake here. Holly's student in "From the Perspective of a Man" asked Holly simply to invert her perspective – if he could see the world from the point of view of a woman, could she try to see it from a man's perspective? That would be equality, right? Well, no it wouldn't, as Holly points out, because she has to see the world from a man's perspective all the time: the dominant perspective contributes to domination by making itself appear natural and inevitable. The subordinate perspective is, please forgive me for saying so, the Freudian repressed: it cannot go away but it cannot easily be expressed.
When we reduce culture or consciousness to geography or biology, we make the cultural forms or ways of thinking appear to be natural. And by becoming "natural," dominant perspectives define nature and, in turn, justify themselves through category errors: biology or geography become destiny. So it's not just a matter of giving "equal time" to subordinate points of view. The dominant ideologies have to be denatured in order to be overthrown.