Category Archives: Tales from the Ivory Tower

Rey Chow on “the enemy”

Last fall I had a (brief) series that I called Powerful Quotes from Empowered Women.  Like many posts on my blog, it was mainly a tool to help me process material for my work – in the case of PQfEW, to gather thoughts for weekly response papers in Feminist Studies.  I’ve decided to continue that series, since in my reading I keep coming across staggering quotes from women who’ve managed to articulate my concerns or interests more accurately than I’ve yet learned how to do.  I may or may not comment on these excerpts, since my notes on them are usually for exam purposes, but you always should feel free to comment or ask questions about context.

From Rey Chow’s Writing Diaspora.  Italics are hers, bolding is mine (wanted to remember her names for the four tactics).

I use “enemy” to refer not to an individual but to the attitude that “women” is still not a legitimate scholarly concern.  Depending on the occasion, this enemy uses a number of different but related tactics.  The first tactic may be described as habitual myopia:  “You don’t exist because I don’t see you.”  The second is conscience-clearing genitalism:  “Women?  Well, of course! . . But I am not a woman myself, so I will keep my mouth shut.”  The third is scholarly dismissal:  “Yes, women’s issues are interesting, but they are separate and the feminist approach is too narrow to merit serious study.”  The fourth is strategic ghettoization:  since “women” are all talking about the same thing over and over again, give them a place in every conference all in one corner, let them have their say, and let’s get on with our business.  These tactics of the enemy – and it is important for us to think of the enemy in terms of a dominant symbolic rather than in terms of individuals, that is, a corpus of attitudes, expressions, discourses, and the value espoused in them – are not limited to the China field.  They are descriptive of the problems characteristic of the study of non-hegemonic subjects in general.

I find this passage useful because Chow describes acts of sexism that are performed or spoken by individuals, but emphasizes they are performed or spoken in the service of a larger system of ideas of which the performer or speaker may or may not be aware.  A lot of bloggers rely on the word patriarchy as shorthand for this ideology that minimizes or erases women, but I’ve noticed that some people are suspicious of the word or the anthropomorphization of a system of concepts.  Rey Chow, I think, nicely sums up the relationship of people and ideas in that system.

Besides, I can think of an example I’ve heard of every one one of those tactics.  Habitual myopia – the students of Dead White Guy literature who defend their narrow focus by insisting that it’s where all the Great Literature’s at.  Scholarly dismissal – the professor who waved away Eve Sedgwick in our weekly reading group because he just couldn’t see the applicability of her ideas, even though the rest of us could.  And so on and on. . . .

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