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Yansane March 20, 2008 A Book Review: Against Empire: Feminisms, Racism, and the West. Written by Zillah Eisenstein Published by Zed Books, London & New York, 2004 INTRODUCTION Humanity is an inclusive yet abstract term that on one hand cohesively places the human experience into one plane where it can be seen and heard as well as interpreted and adjusted. On another hand though, humanity instantly lumps every experience of each person of each place and of each mind into an abstract group that instantly disallows discussions about those differences. In Zillah Eisenstein’s book Against Empire, she seeks to speak about the human experience and more broadly the female experience, in both ways; as a collection of unified needs as well as a term too broad to truly describe the methods and patterns of individuals everywhere. The main point then is that people are as similar as they are different, and that the way to approach both of those truths is simply to accept them as both true. She admits throughout the book the difficulty in accepting this plurality, and yet she demands we realize it, as to her there is no other truth. In order to help the reader realize the main point of diversity in individuals and therefore in the global struggles of all people, Eisenstein speaks of many personal experiences rich with lesson and introspection. She also offers stories of people and groups similar to her only in their diversity of influence and their desire for a better understanding of self and society. She speaks of them in order to make the point that activism persists for all voices even if they seem to be giving separate messages on the surface. In a book that is almost as autobiographical as it is a call to activism, Eisenstein thoroughly and empirically shows that the system of politics and ideas today is inherently and unmistakably linked to race
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and gender, often doing so through her own experience. Reading precise wording all the while investigating with Eisenstein the meanings behind those words we begin to understand that humanity is much more then just one group, it is a collection of multifaceted, “polyversal” individuals with one common goal: equality in context of all possible assorted differences.
SUMMARY The most pervasive theme throughout Against Empire and I think the most difficult to truly grasp is the idea that race, gender, class, and all social struggles are completely intertwined yet must, in order to face them, be recognized and understood for their differences. Eisenstein mentions a lesson from her father that one must embrace difference despite their potential conflicts. It is through conflict that one is forced to create a relationship and thus come to understand that difference (p. 28). Therefore it is better to understand each individual’s story and how similarities bind and also how the differences allow you to learn from each other to gain further ground in a more global push towards equality. Social struggles are completely intertwined and all peoples are more then just one of these categories and almost always more then one group in each. Diversity should not be lumped into an easy to digest group. It should be approached and appreciated for the differences within in order that the details of the variances are seen for what they can offer. Through noticing the differences, change can occur in relationship to and from within those aspects. At the same time, we should allow the conversation to speak about people in broad groupings. For example, it is generally a women’s burden to care for family issues and thus is a global responsibility for the group. Yet every voice matters and must be heard, “We, the big ‘we’ – feminists and women activists across the globe – must carefully listen to each other and learn new ways of seeing and hearing silences and
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whisperings (p. 196).” Each person brings to the communal table their own voice and in order to have a common discussion we must be able to hear each of those voices. Similar to the concept that the individual matters as much if not more then the whole is that dualities in a person or group need not exist and that someone or group can be both a single category or concept and yet made of many. Eisenstein stresses throughout her work that there is not exclusivity in individuality so that one can be part of many and yet many in all. “Singularity and plurality are not positioned against each other (p. 98),” Eisenstein emphasizes. Gandhi’s struggles were towards a cohesive Indian population made up of massively diverse groups only winning against the colonial powers if they both embraced each other as national siblings but also for each of their many faces (p. 101). Enslaved Black women in the 19th century United States were more then just slaves, they were women, and so they became less powerful then their black brothers. They came from vastly different cultures originally in Africa and beyond and eventually grew into mulattos and sometimes mistresses and yet through all the identities had no voice (p. 69). Focusing on these women’s struggles Eisenstein points out that it was they that first began overt opposition to the repression of slavery and of the inherent sexism against them as women in slavery (p. 91). These women used voices from many identities to speak of the oppression they felt as a universal whole. Again the idea of “polyversal” humanity is both difficult to conceptualize and yet intrinsically easy to understand because we each know our own experiences are not of one group and yet part of a whole with the same prides and struggles. Through her own experience as a Jewish American communist civil rights activist with feminist leanings Eisenstein tells of her identification as being all that and yet also as being just seen as simply a white American woman. Her story, any one black enslaved person’s story, an Indian in the lower rungs of caste, they all have “polycentric multiculturalism” which gives their one voice many tones, not one versus the other nor one deafening the other.
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The real difficulty with these concepts is to listen and understand from where they derive. The struggles of today existed before today. The reason we generalize in a certain fashion about some group or another is due to a history that we cannot fully be aware of Eisenstein believes (p. 24). History is no more then a collection of recounted ideas and concepts orated by select groups, usually who were the dominate voice of the time. Yet we still must realize that a “before” existed and with it a set of interpretations and standards that have built onto our societal understand of the world of today. For example, a modern western view commonly not seen by the perpetrators is that Muslims of the Middle East are backwards, inadequate, and barbaric. Women in these areas are nothing but helpless and selfless beings needed to be escorted through life from one safe point to another. Yet, this couldn’t be further from the truth. What western eyes are usually ignorant of is that, for example, women had made major strides towards equality with men in society before the West embraced this idea. Another example is in Western Africa where it was precisely the colonial powers that often claim to have started the feminist movement that actually brought gender divisions to the area (p. 207). Knowing the “before” of a conflict, resolution, term, or concept one can know to where that thing can go. But also knowing the “before” has been constructed for us can we look analytically at those constructs and decipher what we can honestly believe is the closest to where and how certain issues came to be.
CRITIQUE To have a valid discussion about solutions to major global social issues, wording on the issues must be used purposely and empirically. Participants must at once be conscience of overgeneralization as they are of being too self-centered or localized. Eisenstein constantly is analyzing each argument she presents, both those made by others and those from her own voice. By choosing words and terms carefully and consciously, Eisenstein gives validity to her ideas.
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We as the reader learn to trust her voice and at the same time learn to analyze our own reactions to the presented concepts. Part of this is admitting the inadequacy of language to describe the full range of emotions that exist within these social struggles (p. 25). Being aware of the history of the author as well as being conscious of the reality that we the reader come from a particular place, time, and family, we are allowed to walk with the author through all of her concepts in order to understand their weakness before embracing their strength. For example, feminism as a Western term is loaded and bloated with middle class white women’s voices about their own struggle. Its roots are ignored and yet are undeniably in the enslaved black woman’s struggle the decades before. But beyond the US’s borders feminism as a movement has meant at times contradictory things and yet has always been about the need for women as humanity to find balance against burdensome and oppressive forces. The concept of feminism can be used to describe the struggle of all women everywhere who want further equality, but one must be honest that it is more often associated with white western middle class women who place their ideas of freedom and equality above others. Feminism in this context certainly didn’t apply to the black slave women of the time and place who were struggling to assert their own version of feminism, one that was absolutely called something different if called anything at all (p. 186). Similarly speaking, in the United States the veil or hijab worn by Muslim women is seen as both oppressive and backwards and yet feminist from Iran, Afghanistan, and Turkey, for example, have expressed support of being allowed and accepting wearing this piece of cloth. We must understand as mentioned previously where these concepts come from, and how they may mean something completely different to someone else or even from the different facets of one person. The term hijab to progressive women in Iran may not carry the same tone as the term in the United States and so when discussing these concepts one must constantly analyze from where and with what validity they speak.
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As a general overview Eisenstein speaks of what I would consider grounded, thorough, and realistic terms and she demands no less of the reader, but to face the complex and diverse issues of a fast moving global economy I think we need something more then that. We need to mobilize people with a call to action and give guidance with a method from which we can recognize each other’s struggles in terms of our own. With almost every example give in the book, Eisenstein points out its affects, inclusions and admissions to women’s needs and struggles. She claims the struggles are pervasive and need a more focal voice, but it appears to be a call with out girth and with out a cohesive or even recognizable plan to bring discussion to the table. What this book does call for though is a change in thought. This fundamental alteration of just the language we use could be the beginning of the universal change needed in action. It is understandable though that this is the most difficult aspect of people to change; their concepts of the world and people around them. Eisenstein asks us to look at history with a skeptical eye, to look at each other through rainbow lenses, and to not place dualities on each situation but to understand there are many truths, untruths and variations that all exist equally together. But Eisenstein at time borders on too broadly calling every one sexist and racist with out taking into her account her own concepts, mostly that we all have numerous facets that more often then not do not coincide. She goes as far as calling out various women’s rights activists on their language and stance, both challenging the status quo and yet also taking away from a movement that needs the voices she’s derailing (p. 199). As much as Eisenstein says we need to rethink the way we look at social issues and that the only way to move forward is through drastic change, she doesn’t show how that change is possible. The reader is left with a way in which to begin to look at others similar and dissimilar to themselves, but no way to utilize those views to affect the change that is needed. Really, to speak of these ideas versus using them in daily situations, in
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conversations, and in thought in context of social justice is where the divide and difficulty occurs.
CONCLUSION Language must be used consciously and honestly in order to communicate one’s ideas as thoroughly as possible. Through analyzing the words and terms used in conversation about social issues and beliefs we can begin to see differences within and outside of ourselves eventually learning how to grow from the challenges between them. At the same time we cannot forget each person with their individual ideas, history, and makeup cannot neatly be placed in one grouping. They are as much one person in many groupings as they are many categories in one person. Their language about those experiences in a world today where western individuality dominates the market of ideas and policy needs to be heard in all its tones. Women more broadly have struggled to be heard as not just their race or religion or economic role, but as people who have weakness and strength, ideas and beliefs. They have fought in recent human history to be more then a face without a voice to be carried by the men writing their stories. They have fought to be as complex as they need to be to voice their individual needs from the context of their unified gender. Once humanity on a whole recognizes that the people who appear different should be allowed to be different and yet should also be allowed to speak for a group, it can grow into a more cohesive and agreeable yet distinct place. Western individuality, especially pushed by current powerful political leaders, need not define how we each relate. Moving beyond this by reevaluating the very definitions we place on each other’s faces and experiences is the only way the current global empirical economy can grow into a viable and amicable environment for all types.
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