[Mappings: Feminism & the Cultural Geographies of Encounter]

By S, Susan; O'Brien, Susie | Resources for Feminist Research, Winter/Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

[Mappings: Feminism & the Cultural Geographies of Encounter]


S, Susan, O'Brien, Susie, Resources for Feminist Research


In response to the question of whether it is ever possible to really know the "other," anthropologist Sherry Ortner offers the simple rejoinder, "try."(f.1) The spirit of that suggestion, the straightforwardness of which masks the hard work it demands, inspires Susan Stanford Friedman's Mappings: Feminism and the Cultural Geographies of Encounter, a rigorously optimistic analysis of what happens when feminist theory meets the politics of other progressive cultural movements such as postcolonialism, multiculturalism and poststructuralism. Tracing the development of feminist theory from a focus on a homogeneously defined "woman" to an emphasis on the plurality of women's experiences, Mappings seeks to define a new working space for feminism that moves not beyond, but between, differences to find a new singularity of perspective and purpose. A literary scholar by training, and one who has already established a significant reputation through her work on modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and H.D., Friedman here productively combines the insights of literary theory with those of anthropology and cultural geography to critically analyze the new configurations of identity, community, and power engendered, for better and for worse, by the forces of globalization. The book advocates what Friedman terms a "locational" feminism "based not upon static or abstract definition, but rather upon the assumption of changing historical and geographical specificities that produce different feminist theories, agendas and political practices" (p.5). Where her approach differs crucially from the difference-focussed feminisms of the past two decades is in her insistence on a dialectical movement between alterity and identity, conflict and communality, and localism and globalism, through which meaning is generated and -- most importantly -- through which positive political change can and does occur.

Mappings contributes to feminist debate inside and outside the academy in at least three crucial ways. First, it offers a critical survey of the field of academic feminism as it has developed over the last three decades, with an emphasis on the ways it has been informed and complicated by overlapping movements such as postcolonialism and race studies. Second, it demonstrates the significance of the theory it surveys and advances by grounding it in analysis of an electic selection of creative texts. Finally, and for me perhaps most significantly, it explores the question of what it means to be a feminist working in the academy, positing the conjunctions and contradictions between theory and activism.

As the title suggests, this book is in part a mapping exercise, highlighting the state of the field, and identifying key landmarks. The title also emphasizes Friedman's argument for the inclusion of geopolitics as an important determinant in identity and power relations in addition to the familiar axes of gender, class, race and sexuality. Until recently, as she points out, Jameson's injunction to "always historicize" has assumed the status of a mantra, with the consequence that the significance of space has been neglected. Mappings argues convincingly that we need to develop a geopolitical literacy, to start to address "questions of power as they manifest in relation to space on the planet Earth" (p. 109), in order better to understand the historical patterns of oppression and resistance towards which feminist scholarship has traditionally been directed.

The image of mapping is also significant in the way that it highlights, by implication, the tension between discourse -- the map, and an inferred pretext -- the literal ground which gets turned into territory through the mapping process. …

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