LITERATURES OF THE SOUTH IN CONVERSATION WITH IMPERIAL FEMINISM
AN ARTICLE BY ARTURO DESIMONE
In the following piece, the literature of the South refers mostly to literature on the Caribbean and Argentina, and the migration of its citizens to Europe. This indirectly touches upon my own origins (I am an Argentine citizen who was born and raised in the Caribbean, and later migrated to the Netherlands and then back to Argentina, to explore anew the history of dictatorship and exile that determined my own Diasporic course in life). Drawing from various examples of literary embattlements, I argue that the literature of the South discloses the reality of imperial feminism, and why the existence and relevance of ”imperial feminism” needs to be confronted and discussed by feminists beyond the conventional discursive parameters.
Not long ago, Trinidadian author VS Naipaul publically insisted upon the supposed inferiority of women writers. In newspaper interviews, he infamously boasted of being ”better than any woman writer alive”. This may have come as a surprise to his readership as Naipaul had previously helped champion imperialist-feminism in his non-fiction thriller, The Return of Eva Perón, loaded with counterinsurgency prose. His travelogue presents Argentina under the 1970s anti-Peronist and anti-communist junta. It shows Argentina as a country without a history, attempting to ”appear white” and therefore, more virulently racist than any Anglo-colonial society. The book is predominantly devoted to showing how Argentinian and Uruguayan subversives exhibit childish and murderous traits as if to suggest their deserving fate in the regime’s disappearance-chambers. The account utilizes a persuasive rhetoric, designed to legitimize Western complicity in both its support for the junta’s atrocities and for the Tories’ Falklands skirmish. Naipaul also repeatedly denounces the evils of macho culture. For example:
“The act of straight sex, easily bought is of no great moment to the macho. His conquest of a woman is complete only when he has buggered her. This is what the woman has it in her power to deny; this is what the brothel game is about, the passionless Latin adventure that begins with talk of amorL. A tuve en el culo, I’ve had her in the arse: this is how the macho reports victory to his circle, or dismisses a desertion. Contemporary sexologists give general dispensation to buggery. But the buggering of women is of special significance in Argentina and other Latin American countries. TheChurch considers it a heavy sin, and prostitutes hold it in horror. By imposing on her what prostitutes reject, and what he knows to be a kind of sexual black mass, the Argentine macho, in themain of Spanish or Italian peasant ancestry, consciously dishonors his victim. So diminished men, turning to machismo, diminish themselves further, replacing even sex by a parody”1
Here, Naipaul, international connoisseur par excellence of brothels, is in keeping with the dictum of ”write what you know”. However, without knowing his autobiographical relationship with brothels, his work resembles that of a typical investigative reporter’s exposing ”patriarchy” for a European audience. The paperback The Return of Eva Peron, along with The Killings in Trinidad, were written in the 1970s but first published in 1980.
The Return makes a classic of imperial feminism written by a man. ‘Imperial feminism”, a system intimately known to Naipaul, always at home in his own alienation, is an outsider to imperial feminism being at once a Caribbean macho and an Oriental who could have easily been the chosen subject of this style of ”purple prose” (as Edward Said had angrily referred to some of Albert Camus’ ”anti-revolutionary” passages on Algeria in Orientalism.) When Naipaul writes to give pleasure, as in the hilarious novel Half a Life, he achieves it outstandingly; his novels inhabited by only immoral, diabolical people flaunt the originality of his work. When Naipaul writes to destroy, it goes well.
Perhaps because my family history was determined by Argentine state terror and exile, reading The Return aroused almost physical revulsion, complete with the effect of an existentialhang-over for the following days. Afterwards, I appreciated Naipaul more fully: his nonfiction remarkably creates nothing,merely reporting. The travelogues report almost nothing of Argentina, not of Trinidad, and maybe less so of India ( ”a wounded civilization”), while faithfully applying detail to exposing the European liberal reaction towards these cultures, including the currency of imperial feminism and other rhetorics of power to be expected. These often bristle in what remains unsaid in the opinionated metropole.
”Anti-feminist” statements made by Naipaul and other writers in the 21st century seem strictly designed for subversion, arousing spectacular media outrage. Rather than authoritatively expressing or reinforcing a view widely held by conservative society, Naipaul outright objects to the current consensus/status quo. Naipaul himself clearly cannot keep a straight face while giving his statement, effortlessly providing insurgent entertainment—that of an undoubtedly important Caribbean novelist, who often stands in grotesque, honest admiration of imperial legacies.
Naipaul’s 2009 mediatic statements could be called a kind of ”secondary sexism” rather than the acts of patriarchs. To say ”patriarch” implies a position of institutional authoritarian power, often backed by the Church or religion. “Secondary sexism” here is meant to parallel the term ”secondary anti-semitism”, by which Theodor Adorno refers to the new anti-Semitic expressions characterizing the post-Holocaust era of European apologetics. This followed the rise of West European support of the state of Israel and after the institutionalized Holocaust education.
Statements of neo-patriarchy, or ‘secondary sexism’, such as those of Naipaul’s in 2009, confirm that neo-patriarchal society serves to arouse the ire of dominant, establishment affiliated feminists, including in feminist scholarship.Today, it is far more commonplace for men who formerly assumed a conservative approach to gender politics to later come forward as vigilantes touting ”male feminism”, surreptitiously opening a backdoor for returning patriarchy: it often seems impossible to distinguish the vigilanteism of men calling out ”sexism” with the conservative societal role of a man who steps in to ”defend women” and to reinstate ”respect for women”. This starts with policing men who are non-conservative about expressing sexuality, typically concluding in the effort to protect a woman from herself and her own “lack of respect.” The enthusiast legions of ”feminist men” make histrionic declarations against ”rape-culture ”, usually in the press of first-world, imperial countries.
The ”male feminism” is the kind of political behavior that emerged during a time of pro-Israeli hysteria when any critic of Israel was met with official censure. Many came forth, falsely sobbing in tune with the Holocaust films, then calling out the ”anti-Semites” among the left and the Arabs. Such gestures by non-Jews, suggested undisclosed anti-semitic motivations: the importance of ”looking good for the Jews” as ”the Jews destroy anybody in their way these days” in the time of obligatory laudations for Spielberg, the sterile canon of compulsory philosemitism ( by now passé and blown over) and the persistence of Israeli public relations (“the most moral army of the world”, it declares). Closet anti-Semites at last stepped forth to denounce the Islamic menace on the same pretexts by which previous generations denounced those to-be-eliminated Jews and colonials populating the migrant neighborhoods in European cities.
Today, feminism is incorporated into US military foreign policy. The European Union, a declared ”military worm and economic powerhouse” (an attempt at tongue-in-cheek on the EU Charter’s website), employs the latest innovations in gender-theory as weaponry in its projects of transnational debt-subordination.
Like the arsenals first tested in experiments at MIT laboratories, gender-theory has been pre-tested in the climate of witch-hunts on college campuses, for application in new forms of nonviolent interstate warfare between the (Northern) European Economic Area and the South. The structural violence is spearheaded by what critical economist Ulrich Beck called Germany’s “accidental empire” and “Merkevellianism”.
Debt-colonizing, aid-showering countries impose gender-hypotheses-education in school systems as if it is on a par with basic literacy or math. This is prescribed as a prerequisite for debt-relief—part and parcel to the alemanizaçao or Germanizing influence of neoliberal policies on creditor countries such as Portugal and Spain. It also extends to far poorer countries like the Philippines. Few within the left have pointed out cultural colonialism in a way other than glorifying it. The most noteworthy ”exception” on ”the left” has been Pope Francis who has openly criticized ”cultural colonialism.” The more Atheistic editors of Jacobin magazine might sooner quote experts to dissect the madness of countries that appear unready for the popular hypotheses of gender theory in basic education.2 Bergoglio’s critique is valid, despite the fact that he is not really ”progressive”, more ”conservative”. The Left, when defending a powerful Center’s transnational impositions of gender theory, must answer his challenges regarding any intermarriages between celebrity theorists and the EU.
Among newly debt-stricken countries in Europe (coyly named ”the P.I.G.S3” by economists) and Third World debtors, Gender Theory today evokes those values rigorously imposed from the top down in the global economic hierarchy. North Occidental Creditor-countries determine how debts get paid, and who gets financial, medical or educational aid. This is what the EU Charter calls its ”Normative Power” in its jargon as a force of negotiation. The Northern-occidental first world countries (Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, and more globally dispersed Anglo societies) may dictate what kind of emergency or fiscal relief flows to the South.
Relief comes in the exchange of concessions, desired performances and platitudes. A crucial stage is when the Southern nation in crisis accepts institutionalized ”gender theory” in primary and middle schools, or gender-based political billboards in outdoor spaces.
The country exporting gender theory ironically assumes a directive, macho position, whereas the typical ”macho” Southern society is ”feminized” – not necessarily by feminist education but by the traditional submissive position of the thwarted, penetrated colony.
Northern cultural values, partly rooted in utopian-protestantism, are more likely to have instant affinity with the vision of relative, deconstructed ”gender”. But these should not be imposed as ransom. When forced, they end up resembling colonial expressions once used as weaponry by 19th century France in its enlightened imperialism in Algeria. The imposition of Butler’s theories by Europe on the South doubly ignores the important progressive forces and authors in Arab countries, such as the brilliant thought of Fatima Mernissi from Fez, Morocco.
Mernissi provides a far more comprehensive, passionate vision of Arab society and the role of sexuality—for example, her theory that Arab society is actually hetero-phobic deserves more than obscurity, having been significantlyovershadowed by the hype of Western intellectual industries’ exportations. Western exports include intellectual products as well, flooding subsidiary, economically coerced nations.
The term ”post-feminist”, preceded by “I am not a feminist, but”, will always attract the accusatory language of a protest that might invoke the rhetoric of Margaret Atwood (writer and protagonist of the Canadian 20 dollar bill) in her unfortunate Handmaid’s Tale, accusing the self-labelled ”post-feminist” woman of being an intellectually inferior and morally bankrupt “Uncle Tom” or ”collaborator” in patriarchy. During a war of fierce linguistic, moral and identity-motivated battles, all the associations reserved for ”collaborator” with its obvious implications from the Jewish “kapos” in concentration camps come to the fore. There is the danger of such a situation emerging when Israel’s Jewish critics are met with a new kind of anti-Semitism against ”self-hating Jews” in a world that had changed radically since the pogroms of pre-war Europe. The Jewish critics of Israel, more than any others, were concerned with the meaning and moral core of a fight against anti-Semitism being lost due to misuse of Israeli PR Office. After the successes and mainstream assimilation of once-underground movements, there is a need to reassess where and how gender inequality manifests in the new world order.
Neoliberal economics, pioneered by Thatcher, redesigned a world in which communicative practices like marketing and public relations take precedence in post-industrial societies, and can be better filled by a warped and undermined version of the more ”female” values of nurturing communication and calming internal disputes among the powerful. Men in Canada and its neighbors are noticing more prosperity for them in marriage as women outpace men in education and earnings growth, leading to “gender role reversals”. In all likelihood, new female capital might reinforce the conservative values of marriage by allowing for the superficial upside-down inversion of gender roles typical of conservative society: a frivolous trade-off in which traditional roles of dependent caretaker and breadwinner are switched around.
Naipaul’s secondary sexist statement reduced him to the status of sought-after notoriety and devil’s advocate. Knowing Caribbean literature, it is this Arubian-born poet’s belief that behind the posturing, there is a reason why Naipaul superstitiously emphasized that he, as an octogenarian, is better than any woman writer still alive perhaps assenting that Jean Rhys, from the island Dominica – not far from Trinidad – who died in London, having known poverty and obscurity, was a better Caribbean writer in English and a female.
Jean Rhys novels created a world unafraid to show women in their weakness yet surviving, albeitsurviving unspectacularly, without the armor and constant glory that marks the lives ofmost survivors. Hers is the world of a hated white during the post-colonial uprisings against her former slaver family in Dominica, yet more heavily scapegoated by apologetic European liberal elites. Wide Sargasso Sea shows a classic example of what could be considered the rise of political correctness: as a disciplining parlance of European liberal elites, whose demonstration of self-awareness further carves their status as civilized savants.
The socially-progressive Rochester from England escaped from the set of Jayne Eyre in Rhys’s book as he become an enraged self-righteous torturer, perturbed by his own morality. He punishes the white Dominican and the white negress Antoinette in what he pretends is a Philanthropist’s act. As cultivated and socially-conscious Brit, he passes as guiltless. Wide Sargasso Sea’s tragedy unveils the scandalizing hypocrisy of colonial psychology, and of the colonial self-critique. The grotesque militancy of awkward ”salon anti-racism”, is expressed by those elites most responsible as major economic beneficiaries of racism.
The Tunisian film director Abdellatif Kechiche’s movie Venus Noire, (Black Venus) is a more recent testament than Rhys’ to the hypocrisy of salon antiracism and the dominant Western spectacles of colonial self-critique in all their sadism.
The 2009 film serves as an epic confrontation between the Venus Noire: a South African slavegirl, first reduced to Piccadilly circus attraction and then tortured in court by the British progressive bourgeoisie. The progressives arguing the feminist and humanitarian plight of charity to the woman become almost no different from the jeering circus-goers of unwashed castes. The utilitarian, liberal elite’s salvific intentions led only to more pornography.
While they quasi-unconsciously declare her inferior, their accusations are not those typical of the shameless race-hatred of her manager—the boer South African slaver, whose loathsomeness the elites can point out, while smugly declaring their own exoneration of colonialism. Did Kechiche’s Venus point to none other than today’s humanitarian industry, producers of the widely disseminated, glossily packaged coverage of the sex-trade in Eastern European women?
”Sex slavery abolitionism” has been marketed to upper middle class palates as “White Slavery”, recalling the stories of white slave odalisques exploited by Arabs in the era of so-called Orientalism, while trivializing the historic abolition of slavery. Plethoras of feminist organizations4 entered an unlikely political alliance with the Christian Evangelicals’ big-philanthropy to promote the humanitarian anti-prostitution, anti-trafficking movements. But these fronts of humanitarian industry, with nonprofits’ commercial success evident in the slickly produced informercials,target a survival strategy of immigrants fleeing abject poverty, instead of the cause of poverty itself. “Abolitionism” forms part of the anti-immigration politics legitimizing ”humane” deportations of illegal immigrants in countries such as France and the Netherlands. .Can the selfrighteous colonial critics of colonialism wash their hands by invoking the easy gender and color politics in daily spectacle media?
The humanitarian industrialists and NGO captains of industry are no better than the pimps, traffickers and pornographers they sometimes expose. The pornographer goes from the Western United States or Germany to contract the women of Eastern Europe or Latin America, taking advantage of their poverty, paying them less, establishing superiority to the countries that staff dull porn-flicks.
But the humanitarian traffics another pornography: that of trafficking’s victims in need of salvation by-deportation and enlightenment by condescending missionaries. The legal economy of colonial NGOs and activists specialize in traffic the other way by creating deportations of the foreign labor migrant back to the Third World, while reinforcing a constellation of NGO firms that resemble Protestant missionary churches in the former colonies and peripheries.
Such activists deny the prostitute what might be her last remaining stratagem for physical and economic survival left after colonialism, reinforc poverty and socio-economic inequality between the given countries. Jean Rhys, one of the literary intellectual critics of modernity in the 20th century, earned recognition only in her old age. A new emerging establishment of young feminist intellectual grew up not on 20th century Rhys, but her rivals’ Brönte’s and Austen’s mythology of continental women’s social ascendancy into the middle class.5
Rhys’ heroine, villainous colonial witch of Jane Eyre’s dream, was condemned by middle class political correctness of the era and unnoticed in her naked suffering.
1. From The Return of Eva Peron and The Killings in Trinidad, Naipaul VS, Knopf 1980.
2. Luckily, they are able to see why right wing pseudosciences, such as the unproven theories of Creationism, sponsored by Christian fundamentalist lobbyists, need not replace evolutionary theory in schools in the USA, even if it is worthwhile allowing the overwhelming evidence for evolutionary theory to be challenged with new, hopefully non-biblical perspectives.
3. Portugal, Italy, Greece, Spain.
4. see this article by in Open Democracy http://www.opendemocracy.net/5050/elizabeth-bernstein-janet-r-jakobsen/sex-secularism-and-religious-influence-inus-politics.
5. The study Why Love Hurts, by the sociologist Eva Illouz, offers criticism of Jane Eyre and Vanity Fair as novels featuring a liberal ideology about social mobility and class ascendancy.