The Politics of Identity and Experience
Joan Scott's "The Evidence of Experience" explores the effect produced when the notion of 'experience" appears to take on a foundational authority. A very disparate group of scholars -- including those seeking to restore the occluded narratives of race, gender, and sexual practices; those challenging the false objectivity of empiricism or the limits of Marxism; and those resisting the "linguistic turn" -- all look to experience as an authentic, accessible, and communicable source of knowledge. This recourse to experience is perceived by those practicing it as oppositional and progressive, but as Scott points out, it leaves the dominant ideological system intact: it shores up the belief in a prediscursive reality, a unitary subject preceding experience, and the objective authority of the historian. In response to this reaffirmation of the dominant paradigms of the discipline, Scott calls for a critical genealogy of the most basic premises of historical research. Recognizing that such a fundamental challenge cannot be launched from within a discipline, Scott calls for an interdisciplinary encounter in which literary and historical ways of reading might, in Gayatri Spivak's words, "'interrupt' each other, bring each other to crisis." The crisis provoked in historians by more literary ways of reading involves a destabilizing of the correspondence between words and things, of the singularity of meaning, of the possibility of resolving contradictions in a linear narrative of progress and unification. Anticipating objections to this literary turn in the practice of history, Scott insists she is not promoting linguistic determinism and the obliteration of human agency. Her goal, instead, is to expose the historical context in which identity, experience and agency are constituted and constrained. From her own encounter with "reading for the literary, " Scott emerges with the conviction that an historical understanding of the ways in which identity and experience are discursively constituted will not preclude agency but rather open up the possibility of more dramatic individual and collective transformations.
In "Situating Locations: The Politics of Self, Identity, and 'Other' in Living and Writing the Text, " Jayati Lal points out that studies focusing on gender and development often inadvertently produce a power structure in which the "Third World [is] a resource for Western theory." The oppositional logic of self versus other, white versus black, is problematized by Lal's demonstration that the designation of who is Other or outsider shifts with each new situation. She finds on returning home to India from her advanced training in the West that her research status as an "authentic insider" is un-