The Academic Feminist Goes Global: A Conversation with Carolyn Pedwell

In this month’s column, our travels in academic feminism take us to the UK for a conversation with Carolyn Pedwell, a Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies at Newcastle University. The conversation explores how a transnational approach to feminist theory can uncover erasures of women’s experiences, and asks what happens when the current culture of commodification puts a price on everything – including empathy.

1)   You are the first “Academic Feminist”  located in the UK, which is also my academic home. You are also originally from this side of the Atlantic (born in Canada), and have recently published a chapter in a book on travels in feminist theory.  How has your transatlantic experience influenced your work?

Crossing borders and boundaries can sometimes make you more likely to question them.  I left Toronto for London 12 years ago to study for an MSc in Gender Studies at the LSE and this was, without doubt, the most significant and transformative event in my academic life so far.  The chapter you mention, in which I discuss my own journey towards feminism, is framed around a comment my Grandfather made after finishing Judith Butler’s Precarious Life (which I had bought him for his 83rd birthday):  He said that he had to read it twice to take it all in but that, for him, one of the key messages was that ‘often what’s not said is more important than what is.’ This observation seemed to cut to the core, not only of Butler’s complex writing style, but also of the critical impetus of feminist studies itself. Feminist studies is committed to addressing the significance of silences, but also to the interrogation of the underlying power structures which naturalise certain ways of knowing while making others invisible. When I asked my mother why she thought my grandfather, a former pig farmer, continues to be more engaged with issues of difference, equality and social justice than most people I know, she wondered if it had something to do with the fact that his parents (her grandparents) would have had to be very open to difference and change themselves to leave England in their twenties and travel across the Atlantic to make a new life in Canada.

While remaining wary of making an unproblematic connection between migration and an attitude of openness and respect to difference, I couldn’t help wondering whether my Mother’s assessment might also resonate with my own.  Moving to the UK two weeks after 9/11 to become immersed in the world of feminist theory made me question just about every border and boundary I knew!  In many ways my work on cross-cultural comparisons in feminist theory – my interest in attending to that which such comparisons can leave out, cover over, or move us away from – seems to link quite closely to my Grandfather’s summary of Precarious Life. Perhaps my work has moved in this direction, in part, because my own passage to feminism (a feminism committed to addressing gendered relations of power in their articulation with racism, imperialism, classism and heterosexism) has taken shape through transnational encounters which compelled me to examine what lies beneath the surface, to think reflexively about my own privilege, and to interrogate those ‘truths’ and boundaries that seem most ‘natural’.

2)   Your thesis (dissertation in U.S. terms), which became a book titled Feminism, Culture, and Embodied Practice, compared practices such as eating disorders and veiling.  Can you talk about the similarities and differences among these practices that came up in your research (without giving too much of your book away!)?

My book’s analysis of the ways in which veiling and eating disorders have been compared is linked to a wider concern I had with the ways in which cross-cultural comparisons of so-called ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’ practices were being mobilised in efforts to contest cultural essentialism, racism and ethnocentrism.  In the aftermath of 9/11 and ‘the war on terror’, feminist theorists drew similarities between Muslim practices of veiling and other embodied practices (from eating disorders to the contemporary fashion for ‘porno-chic’) in part, to disrupt the prevalent portrayal of the ‘liberated, skin-showing Western woman’ against her binary opposite – the ‘oppressed, veiled Muslim woman.’  Scholars argued, for example, that the rise in young Muslim women wearing Islamic dress around the world could be seen as an ‘equivalent’ to the growing ‘epidemic’ of anorexia in the industrialised West: both sets of practices respond to contradictory expectations felt by women globally – the demands of ambitious professional goals and pressure to maintain a traditional female identity. In the absence of any real power or control, veiling and anorexia become coping mechanisms to deal with these competing demands. In many ways, I found these analyses compelling. In my own writing, however, I wanted to think a bit more carefully about the implications of feminists’ comparisons of figures such as ‘the anorexic’ and ‘the veiled woman’ as metaphors for their ‘respective’ cultures. For example, when anorexia is used as a symbol of Western culture’s patriarchal, consumer-driven oppression of women, it is often constructed as a condition ‘caused’ exclusively by media ideals of feminine thinness and beauty. This understanding essentially marks ‘anorexics’ as cultural dupes, rendering the combination of factors that produce disordered eating invisible. Similarly, presenting ‘the veiled woman’ as counterpart to ‘the anorexic’ can reaffirm simplistic representations of ‘the veil’ as the primary indicator of Muslim women’s identity, erasing the complexity of Muslim women’s lives in very different contexts, while also obscuring the transnational processes that allow, for example, for the re-appropriation of the veil. In providing a more in-depth picture of the way that these categories are constructed, my work tries to bring these erasures and complexities to light.

3) Your most recent work is on empathy and international development.  Can you briefly outline the main premise of this work?

This work is part of a book I’m writing, Affective Relations: The Transnational Politics of Empathy (Palgrave, forthcoming), that examines the potentialities and risks of figuring empathy as a tool for transnational social justice.  The idea for the book started from an observation that ‘empathy’ today seems to be everywhere – and is everywhere presumed to be ‘good’. While President Obama has called on Americans to address the nation’s ‘empathy deficit’ for those who are struggling, both inside and outside the nation, feminist and anti-racist theorists have long argued that engagement based on empathy is integral to fostering social justice and solidarity transnationally. Yet precisely because empathy (like ‘happiness’ in Sara Ahmed’s recent work) is so widely and unquestioningly viewed as positive, critical analysis of its limits and problems in the context of transnational power relations tends to be avoided or deferred. As a result, the most pressing questions tend less to be ‘what is empathy?’, ‘what does it do?’ or ‘what are its risks?’, but rather the more automatic refrain of ‘how can we cultivate it?’  Through close readings of a range of ‘affective texts’, from Obama’s political memoirs and speeches, to postcolonial literary works, to best-selling business books, I argue that, although empathy can generate transformative social connections, it can also (re)produce dominant gendered, racialised, sexualised and classed hierarchies and exclusions on a global scale.  In international development professional and training literatures, for example, the language of empathy signals a concern with ‘participatory’ practices of development, yet at the intersection of neoliberalism and postcoloniality, empathy may function less to produce a transformative way of relating to others  then it does to enhance the moral and affective skills of development professionals – skills that have market value in a neoliberal economy in which even emotions, it seems, can now be bought and sold.  Against visions of empathy shaped by neoliberal political will, my project considers the possibilities of a more open-facing ‘empathy of becoming’ that emerges from the affective dynamics of transnational encounters.

4)   You are an editor at the journal Feminist Theory. In your opinion, what are some of the most exciting current trends in feminist scholarship that you’ve observed in this role?

Feminist scholarship is more alive than ever as far as I’m concerned! There’s so much important, stimulating and innovative work being undertaken right now that it’s quite difficult to narrow it down to only a few trends.  Some of the key strands of recent scholarship I’ve found most salient and thought-provoking, however, are analyses of the links between affect, emotion and transnational relations of power; work on the intersections of feminist and queer politics and neoliberalism; and the debates in feminist theory concerning ‘the new materialism’. The journal published a very interesting ‘Interchanges’ discussion on transnational adoption in April 2012 – an issue at the top of many current feminist agendas, and one which touches in various ways on each of the three themes I’ve just mentioned.  Our special issue due out in August focuses on feminist theory and ‘the affective turn’ – with fascinating articles by Ann Cvetkovich, Ranjana Khanna, Clare Hemmings and others that critically and creatively negotiate the seeming schism between theories of  ‘affect’ and theories of ‘emotion’.  Being book reviews editor for Feminist Theory is one of my favorite academic ‘jobs’, because it means that my post tray at work is constantly brimming with new feminist and gender studies books.  Some of the titles that I’ve been most excited to commission for review (and to read on my own time!) this year include Sara Ahmed’s On Being Included (2012), Lauren Berlant’s Cruel Optimism (2011), Judith Halberstam’s The Art of Queer Failure (2011), Rosalind Gill and Christina Scharff’s New Femininities (2011) and Elizabeth Grosz’s Becoming Undone (2011).

Extra Credit!
Adding to the links above, below is a list of resources for those who want to find out more about the issues discussed here. Add relevant resources in comments. Send additional comments – including suggestions for future Academic Feminist interviewees – here.

Scholarly queer feminist working to bridge the academic/online divide.

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    Thanks to reader Jacqueline Rossiter for suggesting the following texts to add to the list of related resources:

    Love and Globalization: Transformations of Intimacy in the Contemporary World edited by Mark B. Padilla, Miguel Munoz-Layboy, Jennifer S. Hirsch

    Intimate Labors: Cultures, Technologies, and the Politics of Care by Rhacel Parrenas and Eileen Boris