The Center Can(not) Hold: American Studies and Global Feminism

Article excerpt

Turning and turning in the widening gyre, The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the center cannot hold....

William Buffer Yeats, "The Second Coming"

What is a woman of color, a professor in Women's Studies and a scholar of Asian American literature, doing, quoting William Butler Yeats, a male Irish poet of the early twentieth-century? In my comments I wish to urge us toward a discourse in which the figures of falcon and falconer, Yeats's symbol of man's mastery of nature and of society, can be dismantled, even as, in the poet's word, "the rough beast" of the twentieth-century "slouches toward Bethlehem" to be born anew.

In her introduction to Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, Chandra Talpade Mohanty describes a different spatial vision of the world. Not the spiraling gym with its shattered center (of which one must ask, whose center, who is the falconer, who the falcon?), but the vision of "a world traversed with intersecting lines of power and resistance, a world which can be understood only in terms of its destructive divisions of gender, color, class, sexuality, and nation" (2). Mohanty calls for a new structure, evoked in Bettina Aptheker's words, of "a world which must be transformed through a necessary process of pivoting the center ... for the assumed center (Europe and the United States) will no longer hold" (2).

It has been argued that there is now no center, or that the "pivoted" center is everywhere. But, as present insecurities demonstrate, even the paradigm of globalization advanced by theories on postmodern cultures and societies, acknowledges prevailing centers--for economics and finance, in fashion and entertainment, higher education and technology--that continue to aggregate influence and power. These centers, no doubt, are linked to their peripheries for their wealth and power. The chief economist of Deutsche Bank-Asia noted, in a different context, "Thailand and Malaysia are so small. So is Hong Kong. How can they trigger a global market crash? Because markets around the world are linked. The enormous bull run of the dollar has been central to pulling in the money to finance America's `Goldilocks' economy. In essence, America's boom has been financed with other people's money" (Thurow B7). But these linkages should not disguise the dominance of specific players. James Flanigan, Senior Economics Editor of the Los Angeles Times, observed, "The astounding world-wide stock market turmoil of [October 1997] signals ... a demand by global investors that all countries adapt their economies to the dictates of open markets." By "open markets," however, Flanigan explained that he meant "the triumph of the American economic system of open markets over state-run economies" (Flanigan A1). This slippage from the trope of "open markets" to the identification of American dominance is where one should pause to ask: what does the American system--of markets, of media entertainment, of political organization, of technological innovation--signify in the context of global feminism?

The recent critiques of feminism as a Western-produced discourse offer an initial direction. Indeed, from outside white Euro-American academe, American women writers and scholars of color, such as Angela Davis, Judy Yung, and Chela Sandoval have introduced the categories of race and ethnicity, to focus attention on what I call "U.S. women's studies." Until recently, this field had elided the contributions of nonwhite women to social movements and neglected the study of their culture-specific, immigrant-history-specific struggles in the United States. Rebuttals to the new scholarship reveal the fears of the "balkanization" of American society, should race and ethnicity enter as analytical tools in the methodologies of the social sciences and humanities.

My aim is to focus on the question of women's studies in order to make an alternative although not an oppositional argument. …

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