Feminism without Borders: Inquiry vs. Business

Cover of Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity Title: Feminism without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity

Author: Chandra Talpade Mohanty

Publication Date: 2003

LC Call Number: HQ 1870.9 .M64

I can’t even begin to write about this book as a whole, because it is long, complex and dense, but just as an introduction…. Mohanty wants to write about worldwide feminism and in particular the condition of Third World Women (a term she defines carefully and uses advisedly) while at the same time being very careful not to flatten “women” into a coherent group with identical interests. This means that she has to take all the nuances into consideration: legal and social differences in the status of women around the world and in different social strata, economic and class issues, the effects of race, the way that family is constructed, and everything else that affects what “women” means in that particular context in time and space.  So, yeah, this is really difficult.  It means recognizing that there is no way to immediately solve all the problems of sexism and racism and imperialism in the world because everything has to be addressed carefully, one context and one social group at a time, and it means that it’s quite difficult to find a position from which one can speak.  It’s overwhelming, but as Mohanty points out, all alternatives are oppressive and center women of privilege, so—she is probably right.   The post on the first chapter of the book at A Year of Feminist Classics includes a better discussion of this than I can give here.

I should note that, according to Mohanty’s definition, third world women can include women in wealthy countries who are poor, have migrated or are of color, because they are affected by globalization in much the same way as women in poor countries and often end up doing similar work. Mohanty’s methodology is one that she describes as eclectic, but it has a strong Marxist component, and she is deeply concerned with globalization and the ways that women around the world are exploited—and how women resist exploitation, and are discouraged from resisting.  Early in the book, she uses examples such as Indian lacemakers and women workers in Silicon Valley to show both how she thinks about the economic conditions of women and to teach her readers how such distinctions can be made.  She also includes a really interesting discussion about why it is so difficult for conditions to improve for such workers. Mohanty, then, actually shows how some analysis is actually possible when taking all these things into account.

But what I really wanted to focus on was a different part of the book. In the last several chapters, Mohanty quickly shifts focus to higher education in the United States. This seemed like a very strange move; there is a huge social and economic distance between many of the issues that she discussed earlier in the book and the problems of higher education. It was a real surprise, then, to find myself thinking about the goals of higher education, the problems of temporary part time educational labor, and the dangers of allowing commercial interests to participate.  Despite the strangeness of the way this fits into the book, I was really excited to see it, and if the book had been split into two, this may actually have been the half I’d have been interested in reading, if only because I work in higher education myself and am acutely aware of some of the problems she describes.

Mohanty is very concerned with the privatization of higher education, in particular, the relationships that have been formed with governmental and business interests.  She cites several authors who have written about the expansion of the military-industrial complex into various institutions and shows that even theoretically public higher education is implicated in this complex.  She’s concerned with the research done in universities is given a monetary value as “intellectual property,” so that it can be sold to military and industrial types.   With this move, the university becomes part of the economy, and is presumed to have its own economic interests.  Mohanty writes:

[I]mmense power as well as oppression is dispersed, funneled through, recycled, consolidated and above all justified through the daily operations of US universities newly resurrected through the processes of economic globalization.  It is this link between the university and other scapes of global capitalism that recycle and exacerbate gender, race, class and sexual hierarchies that concerns me.  (173)

In short, Mohanty argues that by participating in the project of globalization, the university gives up its pretensions of creating an atmosphere in which intellectual freedom is the primary value and democratic citizenship is an important goal.  Mohanty describes a set of ideals under which higher education is a means of both distributing and thinking through justice and equality. She points out the discrepancy between the university’s involvement in structures that create oppression throughout the world and the ideals on which the academy is supposedly built. The “entrepreneurial university” as she calls it, not only contributes to exploitation elsewhere in the world but also uses labor in a way that perpetuates inequalities of class, race and gender by employing white male professors on the tenure track, a large number of (mostly white female) adjuncts for less prestigious teaching work, and what she would third world women in menial and staff positions.

There is a ton going on here, so I’m going to look closely at only a couple points.  First, Mohanty is worried about the decay of the concept of public goods. She contrasts the more traditional ideals of the academy with the concept of “corporate citizenship,” which find the ideals of citizenship in the work of the self-interested capitalist marketplace:

Ideas of the public good, collective service and responsibility, democratic rights, freedom and justice are privatized and crafted into commodities to be exchanged via the market.  The institutionalization of capitalist citizenship at the corporate university thus profoundly transforms the vision of the university as a democratic public space, a sanctuary for nonrepression. (184)

This reminds me very strongly of the arguments Siva Vaidhyanathan makes in The Googlization of Everything, which I wrote about early in the life of this blog.  Vaidhyanathan’s interest is narrower; he focuses on the ways in which Google has co-opted many functions formerly assumed to be those of the university and privatized them in service of corporate profits.  He’s skeptical of Google’s user-friendly public image and points out their US-centric nature and their status as a for-profit company.  Although he doesn’t address the problems within the academy in that book, I’d recommend it to anyone who finds this argument compelling. I found that Mohanty’s critiques gave me more perspective on Vaidhyanathan’s argument as well.  Curiously, she criticizes the Human Genome Project, which he used as an example of promising collaborations rather than exploitative ones.

In any case, back to Mohanty: she finds  many problems with corporatized education and, for her, they are all linked together. She writes about the devaluation of her own field, women’s studies, and others that do not produce income but are intended to increase the amount of justice and equity in the world. She writes about the demographics of labor as I’ve mentioned above. She briefly discusses access to education and how public defunding decreases access, while information is instead being sold as described above.

I was a little surprised how close she came to discussing the problematic publishing practices of scholars and the need for open access, and then disappointed that she didn’t quite get there. I didn’t really expect it, of course, but it is such an important part of the constellation of things that she describes.  Current academic publishing practices provide profit to multinational publishers who may or may not embody some of the problems with globalization but who certainly contribute to the corporatization of the academy by charging outrageous prices for their journals and increasing money pressure on the academy.  Not only that, of course, but by limiting access, they contribute to the restriction of scholarly knowledge to the elite, which is a huge part of the problem that she describes.  Not only that, but the open access movement represents a kind of resistance that may be of interest to her.  Since Mohanty is not a librarian, of course, this is not at the forefront of her mind—but maybe it should be. Social justice types need to start thinking about this stuff.

In any case, Mohanty is hardly the first to note the shift of the university’s priorities from a place of free intellectual inquiry to a place where future workers can be trained.  Mohanty doesn’t discuss how and when this shift took place; from what I understand, it happened when just as higher education became accessible to those other than the elite.  The ideal of the academy as a place where citizens are created is—historically complicated. It’s been embraced within critical pedagogy for sure; I love critical pedagogy, but it’s hard to cast it as an integral part of the academy when it’s actually a radical movement.  Thus, I’m not sure about her characterization of the ideals of academic life, and I suspect that this shift to the corporate university comes about, historically, as a result of some of the changes that happened as a result of letting in people who were not previously considered worthy. This makes it a little complicated, actually, but I don’t think that it undermines her point about the importance of the kind of inquiry she wants to support and the difficulty of supporting it under the current circumstances.


Filed under Professional or Philosophical

7 responses to “Feminism without Borders: Inquiry vs. Business

  1. Excellent review again. I think you handled the book wisely. books like this are simply too much to handle in one post. I am still interested in reading something slowly and together. Are you? This Bridge maybe or an anthology I found that like Mohanty is attentive to inequality in both power and culture.

    I think Mohanty is just not tuned in to the publishing issues you raise, but I agree that they matter. My husband is the Dean of Libraries here and hear his concerns about cost–at the same time the state legislature is slashing budgets for higher ed.

  2. Thanks for your kind words! I’d write another post about the chapter that focuses on Minnie Bruce Pratt, which was really really interesting to me, but I just don’t have the emotional energy for it. I agree that reading something slowly and together is a good idea; let me know when you want to do it.

    Your point about the state slashing funds is a really important one, and that’s actually part of the connection to Vaidhyanathan here; one danger of raising funds from other sources is that state support will dry up and public institutions (of higher education in particular, but maybe not only them) will be left to fend for themselves and thus forced to maintain relationships with business even when it doesn’t forward their mission. It is a serious problem.

    • Absolutely. If governments don’t fund education at all levels, K-college, then that gives corporations as excuse to step in and educate for consumerism not citizenship, as Mohanty so vividly describes. And focus on private needs not common good.

      I liked the chapter on Pratt, too. I was able to pick up a used copy of the book with her account, but I haven’t read it yet. I think that is a good approach for each of us to think about what we bring to situations.

      Glad you are interested in reading together slowly. I just posted about a book of feminism that I liked and asked if anyone wanted to read it with me. Two total strangers said that they did. It’s called UNSPEAKABLE, and starts with the idea that feminism is essentially about opposition to the status quo. She also discusses other definitions of feminism. I suggested reading a section a month till May. The reading is not dense–I wanted a break after Mohanty–but the need for voice is a topic that interests me. The book is available from Spinifex Press as an ebook–which means you can get it immediately. Check it out. I would love to discuss that one with you.

      There is another book that I’d like to read together, Decentering the Center, a theoretical anthology. not only feminism but globalization more generally. I have a post coming up on one of the articles. I only read a little. It was an ILL and I wasn’t up for more theory right now. I want to read more of it sometimes though. I knew and like several of the authors. And I would still like to reread This Bridge, if I can find my copy.

      http://feministtexicanreads.wordpress.com/ has made a list on goodreads of feminist books by women of color. There may be other books there that would be good.

      Amy said they hadn’t decided if FemCl would continue. With so little involvement I suspect it won’t. I like to keep a bit of feminism in my reading.

  3. Aha, I thought I’d seen a post about something like that on your blog, but hadn’t seen it when I went back and looked. I don’t read e-books, so I can’t get Unspeakable instantly, but I’ll pick up a copy. Agreed about taking a break from theory. Also, now that I’ve mentioned Always Coming Home in the last post, it occurs to me that that might be a good one–its format is unusual, as it’s somewhere between a novel and a series of short stories, with some writing of a more anthropological (but fictional) nature thrown in. Given some of your other posts about science fiction, I think you’ll enjoy it too.

  4. Oh–looks like it’s ONLY available as an e-book, so I guess I won’t be able to read it. That’s too bad. 😦

    • I am so, so sorry. It is available hardcopy in Australia where it was published, but getting it would cost a lot for postage and you’d have big delays. Maybe we can try something else later.

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