I was just reading Joan W. Scott’s ‘Fantasy Echo: History and the Construction of Identity,’ which was published in Critical Inquiry (volume 27, issue 2) in 2001. I have some problems with it, primarily that I don’t think ‘physical female’ is the sort of term one ought to casually throw out when discussing basic ties between women across contexts. It also has a whole lot of ideas well worth discussing.
For a while I have been writing critically about identity, insisting that identities don’t preexist their strategic political invocations, that categories of identity we take for granted as rooted in our physical bodies (gender and race) or our cultural (ethnic, religious) heritages are, in fact, retrospectively linked to those roots; they don’t follow predictably or naturally from them. There’s an illusory sameness established by referring to a category of person (women, workers, African Americans, homosexuals) as if it never changed, as if not the category, but only its historical circumstances varied over time. (285)
Continuities need attention, and it is so important to look to the past to see who we are. But sometimes to do that is to overwrite the histories of people who conceived of their identities and communities differently to the people who claim (ideological, communal, etc) descent from them. To be, say, primarily attracted to people of one’s own gender in the Middle East a thousand years ago has profoundly different implications to those it does today, not only because of a shift in borders, but in the concept of nationhood; not only because of the coalescence of identity politics but because of varied ideas of the constitution of sex, gender, and sexuality throughout the region and across time. Can we talk about those solidarities, or at least connections? Yes, definitely, and also definitely with caution. It’s not just the content of categories that changes over time, it’s the boundaries of those containers.
[…]the history of feminism, when told as a continuous, progressive story of women’s quest for emancipation, effaces the discontinuity, conflict, and difference that might undermine the politically desired stability of the categories termed women and feminist. […] the category of identity is retrospectively stabilized. What might be called the fantasy of feminist history secures the identity of women over time. The particular details may be different, but the repetition of the basic narrative and the subject’s experience in it means that the actors are known to us – they are us.’ (290)
And that doesn’t just mean fitting the lives of women who have gone before us to our own ideas and narratives. It means making a lot of assumptions about what ‘woman’ meant, and it often means fitting people who identify otherwise into the category of woman, and leaving out women who aren’t recognised as such.
To claim ‘woman’ as a universal category can be to claim and overwrite so much experience. To claim solidarity through universality so often means to not acknowledge all that makes up that universe. It is often to not acknowledge difference, and that difference is frequently of more marginalised women who have so much more to worry about than gender.
I am not seeking to discredit feminism by pointing to the importance of fantasy in enabling identifications that transcend history and national specificity. Instead, I want to argue that thinking about the operations of fantasy deepens our understanding of how a movement like feminism works and, at the same time, avoids attributing essentialist qualities to it. (303)
I think we have a problem, we in the feminist movement, with essentialism. The problem is not just in less marginalised people overwriting the experiences of more marginalised people in the here and now, as much as the appropriation and misuse and ignoring of the narratives of non-white women by white women that is so rampant irritates me in particular. The problem is in how we treat our histories – and the extent to which we claim ownership with that “our”. I want us to keep in mind that we cannot essentialise not only in the here and now, but across space, across time.
Our fantasies of solidarity are best moved beyond fantasy, made solid, by choosing to work across our boundaries rather than by misusing them.