Travels of the 'Authentic Craftswoman': Representing Lives of Value across Transnational Markets

By Russo, Alexa | Law, Social Justice and Global Development Journal, January 2018 | Go to article overview

Travels of the 'Authentic Craftswoman': Representing Lives of Value across Transnational Markets


Russo, Alexa, Law, Social Justice and Global Development Journal


Introduction

The neoliberal doctrine of free markets and selfresponsible entrepreneurs tends to present itself as the 'only option' and the one 'solution'. (1) Within international development, neoliberalism has manifested itself as the (gendered) 'rational economic woman' of microcredit who takes sole responsibility for her own 'improvement' (Rankin, 2001) as well as the 'authentic native' (Chow 1994) who markets her 'pre-modern' culture for Western consumption. Yet, some argue, there are other options, that is, alternative economies that prioritise people over capital accumulation, the (re)production of flourishing lives over profit. (2) While alternative economies work within capitalist systems in order to survive, they are 'hybrid', as they work in ways that do not adhere to capitalist values, but instead, look to create economic systems that move 'beyond what actually exists' (Santos & Rodriguez-Garavito, 2006: xxii). Therefore, these alternative economic structures, such as worker-owned cooperatives, are not just economic but political spaces, based on principles of equity across race, gender, ethnicity, and, in the case of South Asia, caste, and actively promote solidarity within and beyond one's immediate communities (Coraggio, 2009; Santos & Rodriguez-Garavito, 2006; Gaiger & Anjos, 2013).

In the following article, I analyse the all-women's cooperative, (3) Haath Ka Honar. Haath Ka Honar (HKH) is based in the district of Barmer within Rajasthan, India, and sells contemporary products that incorporate traditional embroidery work. These products are sold to 'niche' international markets that value the artisans' work due to the handicraft's authenticity and the initiative's entrepreneurship.

I argue that, while the handicraft market exists within unequal transnational capitalist and colonial relationships of power, the subjects that the market produces are negotiated by those who inhabit (and represent) these market subjectivities. Beyond simply the production of dominant discourses, HKH's hybrid market subject, (4) the 'authentic craftswoman', is neither individualistically entrepreneurial nor culturally essentialised. Instead, she collectively employs the market to dynamically sustain changing traditions and is entitled to a dignified and sustainable livelihood. However, this production is highly negotiated as these subjects exist within a dominant neoliberal market in which only certain subjects are deemed 'legible' (or 'valuable'). Therefore, representation, as a means of translation, is instrumental within these alternative systems of production, but runs risks of committing 'epistemic violence' (Spivak, 1988) that forces 'intelligibility' in dominant discourses. Hence, I suggest that we cannot merely conceptualise alternative economies in terms of combatting material exploitation within capitalism. These economic spaces must counteract systems of social domination (Quijano, 2006) that have an epistemological underpinning, particularly as carried through mediums of representation, in order to re-define who, and whose (re)productive labour, is worth valuing.

In this paper, I ask the following: How (and by whom) are travelling representations of the 'authentic craftswoman' negotiated and 'translated' within hegemonic systems--systems that require specific subject-productions in order to be legible and of value within transnational (albeit, 'alternative') markets? What are the 'freedoms' (Rose, 1999) and limitations of the hybrid (and gendered) craft subject, produced through encounters in the market between development(alist) discourses with conflicting value systems? And specifically, what are the political effects of the representers in the market, who are necessary for those unable to be heard?

I begin this article by situating my argument within postcolonial analyses of third-world representations and feminist economists' notion of 'women's work', while noting the underlying gendered and racialised values systems that determine who and how particular groups are represented. …

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