MSc Thesis: Cognitive Dispossession
Gender Studies, Gloria Anzaldua & Destabilizing Categories
This paper will argue that theory not only matters, but is an integral part of gender studies, because the exploration of feminist epistemology is central in understanding and challenging the systemic, quotidian and interactive inequalities that exist in our world. I will focus on theories presented in Gloria Evangelina Anzaldúa’s book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, (Anzaldúa, 1987), using her conceptual tools to evidence my arguments. The core of this paper will outline Anzaldúa’s work on destabilizing categories in order to show its central importance in gender studies. Specifically, I will demonstrate how theory allows us to question seemingly axiomatic boundaries, which can also help us to challenge marginalization and provoke new pedagogies. This essay considers the following topics; questioning boundaries, marginalised incorporation, and transformative pedagogies.
Butler (1993, 9) argues that gender is performative, and “stabilizes over time to produce the effect of boundary, fixity, and surface we call matter”. Her statement of the ‘effect’ of boundary illustrates the theoretical ambiguity and the plasticity of this concept. Stylistically interdisciplinary, the area of gender studies encompasses a dynamic panoply of theories, though typically the discipline is largely concerned with gendered power relations, and analysing and challenging patriarchy and oppressive normalcy. Power and inequality and its transmutation are central in feminist epistemology.
Gloria Anzaldúa was a Chicana (a chosen identity of some Mexican-Americans), lesbian, queer and feminist theorist. She viewed inequalities and global social problems such as sexism and racism as being the wounds of the world, encouraged by a simplistic mode of thinking. The epicentre of gender studies is feminist theory, used to examine the basis of “social justice, social change, and social policy for women and other marginalised groups” (Hesse-Biber & Piatelli, 2012, 178), and further, to analyse, critique, and transform these contexts. I argue that in this sense, feminist theory can be seen to be primarily concerned with healing. This was certainly Anzaldúa’s tenet, her belief of the purpose of her work, growing from her root faith that everything is connected and intertwined, teaching that dichotomies consist of pieces of the larger whole. Realising this enables people to tread the path of healing themselves and the world. In realising that dichotomies are fabricated and that identity is malleable, this enables us to disentangle from socially ascribed norms and work towards redressing the harm which has affected our lives.
The development and application of theory to the structures of power and society, specifically in relation to gender and sexuality, can enable us to dig deeper into the forms inequalities take. Usually taken for granted and therefore conventionally unseen, feminism allows us to map out the boundaries and dichotomies which create unequal power relations. Feminist theory enables us to consider what produces these boundaries and delve into further analysis; it is a tool which helps us conceive of the complicated nexus within which we exist. Theory offers feminism, “new angles of vision that can create opportunities for raising new questions, engaging in new kinds of relationships” (Hesse-Biber & Piatelli, 2012, 178) information which we can synthesise into novel frameworks, which in turn helps shine a light on our understanding of the world. These structures may challenge and/or complement the accepted norms around us, but importantly for this essay, theory allows us to assert critiques over our putative conceptualisations and beliefs. Without it, it may be difficult, some may argue impossible, to challenge conventionally accepted assumptions and evolve in our thinking.
Questioning the Boundaries.
A central tenet of gender studies is its questioning knowledge production, meaning and in particular identity; indeed, "identity formation is at the centre of feminist theory" (Garland-Thomson, 2011, 34). Epistemological historiography has been racist and androcentric; it continues to carry features of ‘modernity’ and coloniality, privileging some groups of white men over everyone else (Mignolo, 2000). Western academic discourse uses and teaches an existential belief in oppositional concepts and alterity. Though it has been somewhat useful in comprehending basic identity formation for example, Anzaldúa’s writing argues that this simplistic proposed perspective on the world is outdated, and stunts our epistemological and ontological development. Keating (2008, 65), a close friend and colleague of Anzaldúa, considers her companion’s cathected work at length in her writing, and notes that this border-dichotomous framework freezes our potential and increases dogmatic assumptions, creating poisonous tensions between people and things. If we position our politics, pedagogies and our daily lives according to this simplistic outlook “we assume that there is only one right way to think, act, theorise, or self-define” (Keating, 2008, 65). This is why people experience a splintering of identities, whereby they cannot comfortably fit into descriptive boxes and they feel isolated. Theory can challenge this stagnation and limitation through suggesting and embodying different and unusual perspectives for consideration.
Indeed, Garland-Thomson (2011, 13) states that a crucial part of gender studies has been its exploration of ‘identity destabilisation’ which has in turn drastically contributed to our understanding of feminist epistemology. The insight offered in Anzaldúa’s work lies in her theoretical framework, that questions the Eurocentric notion of border; a binary-oppositional form of thinking which fails to deal with contradiction, conflicting those who embody it, ontologically and in praxis. She shows how in this way, the conventional theoretical paradigm finds itself stuck at paradoxes; this has the effect of isolating marginalized groups. This is because this framework and these forms of dichotomy have originated from colonial historiography which supports “the unjust socio-political framework under which we currently live” (Keating, 2008, 64) producing, amongst a torrent of other things, restrictive epistemologies and incohesive behavior. It is self - and sociably - limiting, and this simplistic discourse contributes to dire personal consequences for people, major social problems whilst in the process reinforcing its own hegemony.
In one of her poems in Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, Anzaldúa describes the ontological and geographical effects of the U.S. Mexican border, "1,950 mile-long open wound diving a pueblo, a culture running down the length of my body, staking fence rods in my flesh, splits me splits me me raja me raja" (Anzaldúa, 1987, 2, italics in original). The border isolates marginalised groups, those that find themselves on the wrong side of the borders which were erected by privileged elites. Like Anzaldúa, Fanon (1952) also uses similar emotive descriptions of his experiences of his ‘self’, at his subjectivity being wounded and being psychologically sliced up by imperialistic paradigms, “by the Other, the White Man, who had woven me out of a thousand details” (83). Previously he states, “overnight the Negro has been given two frames of reference within which he has to place himself” (Fanon, 1952, 82) demonstrating how, in this case, dichotomous categories and hegemonic frameworks of understanding have sincere metaphysical and material implications. Anzaldúa proposes that these conventional categories are unable to define subjects, effectively stunting and limiting revolutionary capabilities and potential (Keating, 2008). Her pedagogy teaches they actually oppress us. She does not deny their momentary utility, but she “puts these classifications into a more holistic perspective” (Keating, 2008, 62).
The ‘Borderlands’ is used to describe and unpick this paradoxical state, and in contrast to mainstream discourse, it accepts and explores those contradictions and ‘the unknown’ (Mohanty, 2003; Wiederhold, 2005). In this state, it creates existential possibility to reflect on unity. Individuals who inhabit the spaces between the cracks, who feel alienated and who divergently wander outside the bubble of ‘normalcy’ find themselves in "painful yet also potentially transformational spaces where opposites converge, conflict, and transmute" (Keating, 2009, 10). This, in a geopolitical, metaphysical and ontological sense, is 'the Borderlands’. Anzaldúa thus creates a new conceptual space where people living in contradiction may find themselves enduring border-crossings.
Western feminist discourse has often reflected a privileged feminism which is tailored to the concerns and experiences of white middle class women (Dill & Kohlman, 2012). The absence of Chicana and Latina women’s experiences in literature is one example which highlights this Eurocentric dominance in knowledge production and the real effects of colonial subordination. In the light of this, Anzaldúa was early in her decolonial feminist exploration of Mexican historiography. Mohanty (1991, 324) notes how her work and that of other feminists from marginalised subjectivities have helped to create a space of solace for those who are harmed by various forms of inequality. This makes make feminism more accessible to and reflective of such groups, broadening its agenda to be more inclusive. If this does not happen, feminist epistemology and collective action will continue to be disproportionately, and ironically, concerned with privilege. This in turn contributes to the devaluation and subordination of marginalised groups.
As feminism has often been guilty of this, Anzaldua emphasises the importance for us to acknowledge intersectionality and challenge a pattern which assumes oppression as being experienced “along a single categorical axis” (Crenshaw, 1989, 140). This single categorical axis becomes a limiting border which “splits the subjected inside, as it splits us from histories and possibilities through the colonial excision” Lugones (2005, 87). Crenshaw’s concept of ‘intersectionality’ deeply acknowledges intersecting categories and levels of oppression. Without close attention to this, marginalised experiences and needs will continually be ignored in hegemonic discourse. Anzaldúa directly explores this fundamental concept, and her work delineates how its theoretical incorporation can be used to challenge imperial relations and power structures. The process of blurring borders brings new visionary insights as it incorporates and actively pursues neglected and multiple realities. Women of colour or other individuals who feel their experiences are unaccounted for are enabled through Anzaldúa’s text to ponder over their own identities and insights outside of dichotomous boundaries, in effect crossing into the ‘Borderlands’.
Thus, the destabilisation of categories allows their dissolution, albeit temporarily, and provokes further reflection over our seemingly indeterminate existence. In this transcategorical state one can reflect on the gaps that we often do not see, the silent discourses that we do not hear. The absence of published works by U.S. Latina authors’ pre1980s is a poignant example of silence in knowledge production, and coloniality permeating publishing companies (Torres, 1991, 271). At the same time, the growth in Latino literature and recognition of Anzaldúa’s work represents a growing resistance to racism, sexism, and other wounds, ultimately producing new epistemologies. The borderlands and the mestiza consciousness, the latter concept I will explore later, are examples of the potential of transformative politics and pedagogies thanks to binary categorical dissolution.
Alienation and resistance against normalcy means that subjects can experience an increased awareness and interest in inequality, indeed Wilkerson (2011) comments that "being regarded as outside the norm gives one less stake in upholding it, particularly when it turns out to be punitive, unjust - or impossible" (212). The recognition of one’s oppression can encourage connection between others, according to shared pain for example. Thus, theory enables a sense of belonging. Border-dwellers can thus resist their imperialist categorisation, observe its malleability, its destructive impact and then foster creative environments which can produce alternative meaningful systems with theory. This helps provoke resistance as “those who are socially marginalized cannot realize their emancipatory goals without the understanding the intractable aspects and the malleable, contestable features of the world” (Code, 2014, 11) helping people to facilitate and realise their synergistic potential.
From dichotomous tensions, one forms what Anzaldúa refers to as a ‘mestiza consciousness’. This embodies multiplicity, paradox and contradiction, weaving understanding out of conceptual crossovers, out of paradox (Mohanty, 2003, 80). Anzaldúa believes that feminism and hybrid consciousness recognises intersectional notions of oppression and can help provoke resistance to privilege and transform realities. These states belong to those who navigate multiple realities at once, those who are transcategorical. Anzaldúa, (1987) writes about her personal insights on such an experience, "As a mestiza...I am cultureless because, as a feminist, I challenge the collective cultural/religious male-derived beliefs of Indo-Hispanics and Anglos; yet I am cultured because I am participating in the creation of yet another culture" (80-81, italics in original). New meanings can be forged from paradoxical splits, producing a climate of revolution whereby "as we heal our own internal splits and self-alienation...we transform ourselves and the world" (Keating, 2009, ix).
Those who find themselves inhabiting various categories at once, can manipulate this space which is conventionally considered a disadvantage and create new meanings, ideas, forms of agency, and pedagogies where we can “at once, see through serpent and eagle eyes” (Anzaldúa, 1987, 100). This means that transcategorical exploration by the ‘mestiza consciousness’ in the ‘Borderlands’ creates what Lugones (2005, 86) refers to as an ‘active subjectivity’ wherein transformative politics can be assembled. Anzaldúa’s encourages turning contradictory ruptures into new sources of power whereby inhabiting paradox can teach us valuable heuristic lessons.
Anzaldúa utilises shamanic and indigenous knowledge in her pedagogies and believes that spiritual awareness can help us challenge power relations. Shamanism refers to spiritualism outside mainstream religions and is often ignored in mainstream narratives (Williams, 2013, 6). Indigenous references to the sacred are “often condemned as essentialist, escapist, naïve, or in other ways apolitical and backward thinking” in western hegemonic discourse (Keating, 2008, 55). Yet, insights from shamanic cultures can profoundly problematise and challenge the dominant paradigms of understanding, and modernisation.
As theory is transmitted to us through language, Anzaldúa also proposes in her work that words are causal, “her writing calls attention to what is worldy and unworldly in our interaction with symbols… it destabilizes the meanings of our most familiar terms” (Wiederhold, 2005, 117). Anzaldúa’s blending of styles in Borderlands reflects a belief in the profound power of words in influencing our reality, highlighting how meaning making is interactive and mutually constituting, vital in creating discourse countering hegemonic pedagogies and novel dialogue. Indeed, in following many non-Eurocentric worldviews, Anzaldúa's work is exemplary in showing us how “words shift reality” (Keating, 2012, 52).
Additionally, the creation of meaning needs interpretation for comprehension. Theory provides a place of reference to frameworks which can then by analysed and discussed. Anzaldúa reminds us of inter-disciplinary sources of knowledge and the limited descriptive abilities western academia and language itself. It is important to invest in the neglected sources and expressions of knowledge, as it allows us the opportunity to ponder over underrepresented trajectories and critique colonial and globally persistent teachings and Anglo-American trajectories of history. Lara (2005) notes how Anzaldúa’s beliefs are threatening to the status quo, precisely because they destabilize the framework in which the privileged inhabit. By questioning assumptions, “feminists push the boundaries on traditional theoretical paradigms and conventional methodological techniques and create spaces for innovative knowledge building and research practice” (Hesse-Biber & Piatelli, 2012, 178), reflected very clearly in Anzaldúa’s work.
This paper has argued that theory is an integral part of gender studies using Gloria Anzaldúa’s book Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza to illustrate the foundational importance of categorical destabilisation. This allows a 'mestiza consciousness' whereby paradoxes can be explored, and which marginalised groups can identify with, and facilitates the production of novel ideas, alliances, and pedagogies. Gender studies attempts to understand and challenge inequality by targetting oppressive normalcy and patriarchy. That Anzaldúa crafted her work according to her vision of interconnectedness allows a fusion of paradox for people to observe unity - a form of conceptualisation that challenges oppressive structures and systemic inequality, often made possible by promoting an oppositional take on reality.
Theory is the mechanism through which these experiences can transcend through thought, language and weave into congruent epistemologies, allowing us to broaden our understandings. Alterity has marginalised, I would propose, most people. Although this is sincerely problematic, out of this Anzaldúa has produced a theory of the Borderlands whereby the mestiza can create unity, thanks to their transcendent borders of existence, creating new potential through the revaluation of marginalised knowledge. This highlights how significant theory is to gender studies, as destabilising categories is one of the central characteristics of the discipline.
- Anzaldúa, G. (1987). Borderlands/La Frontera, The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
- Butler, J. (1993). Bodies that Matter. On the Discursive Limits of Sex. New York: Routledge.
- Campos, J, D. (2011). The Shaman & Ayahuasa, Journeys to Sacred Realms. Michigan: Divine Arts.
- Carastathis, A. (2014). The Concept of Intersectionality in Feminist Theory. Philosophy Compass, 9/5: 304 – 314.
- Code, L. (2014). Feminist Epistemology and the Politics of Knowledge: Questions of Marginality. In Plomien, A., Hemmings, C., Henry, M., Evans, M., Wearing, S., & Madhok, S, (Eds.). The SAGE Handbook of Feminist Theory, 9 - 15. London: SAGE Publications.
- Crenshaw, K. (1989). Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics. University of Chigago Legal Forum, 140: 139 -167.
- Dean, J. (2013). Feminist Politics. In Evans, M. & Williams, H,C, (Eds.). Gender: The Key Concepts, 87 – 93. New York: Routledge.
- Dill, T, B., & Kohlman, H, M. (2012). Intersectionality: A Transformative Paradigm in Feminist Theory and Social Justice. In Hesse-Biber, N, S, (Ed.). The Handbook of Feminist Research, Theory and Practice, 135 – 153. California: SAGE Publications.
- Fanon, F. (1952). Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto Press.
- Garland-Thomson, R. (2011). Integrating Disability, Transforming Feminist Theory. In Hall, Q, K. (Ed). Feminist Disability Studies, 13 – 47. Bloomington: Indian University Press.
- Hemmings, C. (2005). Telling Feminist Stories. Feminist Theory, 6(2): 115 – 139.
- Hesse-Biber, N, S., & Piatelli, D. (2012). The Synergistic Practice of Theory and Method. In Hesse-Biber, N, S, (Ed.). The Handbook of Feminist Research, Theory and Practice, 176 – 186. California: SAGE Publications.
- Johnson, K. (2012). Transgender, Transsexualism, and the Queering of Gender Identities: Debates for Feminist Research. In Hesse-Biber, N, S, (Ed.). The Handbook of Feminist Research Theory and Praxis, 606-626. California: SAGE Publications.
- Keating, A. (2008). “I’m a citizen of the universe”: Gloria Anzaldúa’s Spiritual Activism as Catalyst for Social Change, Feminist Studies, 34(1/2): 53–69.
- Keating, A. (2009). The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader, Durham: Duke University Press.
- Keating, A. (2012). Speculative Realism, Visionary Pragmatism, and Poet-Shamanic Aesthetics in Gloria Anzaldúa—and Beyond. Women’s Studies Quarterly, 40(3/4): 51-69.
- Lara, I. (2005). Daughter of Coatlicue: An Interview with Gloria Anzaldúa. In Keating, A (Ed.). EntreMundos/Among Worlds, New Perspectives on Gloria Anzaldúa, 40 - 56. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Lugones, M. (2005). From within Germinative Stasis: Creating Active Subjectivity, Resistant Agency. In Keating, A, (Ed.). EntreMundos/Among Worlds, New Perspectives on Gloria Anzaldúa, 85 – 100. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Mignolo, W. (2000). Local History/ Global Designs: Coloniality, Subaltern Knowledge, and Border Thinking. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
- Mohanty, C, T. (1991). Introduction. In Mohanty, T,C., Russo, A., Torres, L., (Eds.). Third World Women and the Politics of Feminism, 1 - 47. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Mohanty, T, C. (2003). Feminism Without Borders, Decolonizing Theory, Practising Solidarity. Durham: Duke University Press.
- Ortega, M. (2005). Apertures of In-Betweeness, of Selves in the Middle. In Keating, A, (Ed.). EntreMundos/Among Worlds, New Perspectives on Gloria Anzaldúa, 77 – 84. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Pilcher, J., & Whelehan, I. (2004). Fifty Key Concepts in Gender Studies. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.
- Stewart, J., et al. (2011). "What is theory?”. Journal of European Industrial Training, 35(3): 221 - 229.
- Tanesini, A. (2013). Feminist Epistemology. In Evans, M. & Williams, H,C, (Eds.). Gender: The Key Concepts, 81 – 87. Oxon: Routledge.
- Torres, L. (1991). The Construction of the Self in U.S. Latina Autobiograpraphies. In Mohanty, T,C., Russo, A., & Torres, L, (Eds.). Third World Women and the Politics of feminism, 271 – 288. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Vásquez, M, E. (2005). La Gloriosa Travesura de la Musa Que Cruza/ The Misbehaving Glory(a) of the Border-Crossing Muse: Transgression in Anzaldúa’s Children’s Stories. In Keating, A. (Ed.). EntreMundos/Among Worlds, New Perspectives on Gloria Anzaldúa, 63 – 76. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Wiederhold, E. (2005). What Do You Learn From What You See? Gloria Anzaldúa and Double Vision in the Teaching of Writing In Keating, A, (Ed.). EntreMundos/Among Worlds, New Perspectives on Gloria Anzaldúa, 109 – 120. New York: Palgrave Macmillan
- Wilkerson, A. (2011). Disability, Sex Radicalism, and Political Agency. In Hall, Q, K, (Ed.). Feminist Disability Studies, 193 - 217. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
- Williams, M. (2013). The Shaman’s Spirit, Discovering the Wisdom of Nature, Power Animals, Acred Places and Rituals. London: Watkins Publishing Limited.
- Woodman, M., & Dickson, E. (1996). Dancing in the Flames: The Dark Goddess in the Transformation of Consciousness. Boston: Shambala Publications inc.