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Nausikaa Schirilla

Culture Concepts at Work

On Uma Narayan: Dislocating Cultures. Identities, Traditions and Third World Feminism

 Discussion of Culture Concepts


Uma Narayan:
Dislocating Cultures. Identities, Traditions and Third World Feminism.
New York – London: Routledge,
226 Seiten
ISBN 0-415-91419-1

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  Within the interculturality debate the concept of culture itself has not been given adequate attention. A captivating study by Uma Narayan takes up this challenge as well as offers an absorbing inquiry into current issues of international feminism. Uma Narayan is of Indian origin and teaches philosophy in the United States. Her study is, among other things, a reaction to cultural experiences she has experienced in the USA. It is its wealth of autobiographical content that makes the book so readable.


  Throughout the book's five parts, the theoretical discussion of the culture concept revolves around feminist issues in relation to postcolonial images of India. In the first part, Narayan addresses the concept of culture underlying the assertion that feminism is an externally imposed transformation bearing a characteristic Western imprint – an assertion articulated by Hindu nationalists and third-world experts alike. The second part deals with colonialist and more recent accounts of the culturally specific function of Sati (the practice of widow-burning). The third part examines the cultural status of violence against women in the USA.


  In the fourth part Narayan focuses on the ambivalent expectations that »authentic insiders« must fulfill, meaning people like herself who are instrumentalized as authentic witnesses of their culture. As a consequence they are assigned various, divergent roles and confronted with highly troublesome ascriptions. Finally, she takes up the issue of the colonialist construction of concepts which she exemplifies through Indian food customs.

 A Flexible and Open Culture Concept



  Narayan demonstrates that many Western feminist authors and Hindu fundamentalists operate with nearly identical concepts of culture: They see culture as a homogeneous, static, immutable, and uncontestable configuration. Against this Narayan posits a flexible and open culture concept that is internally diverse. She elaborates this by demonstrating that her own feminist commitment is not a result of her "foreign" education or the like, as many Hindu nationalists are wont to claim. Instead her stance owes itself to acts of opposition on the part of her mother and grandmother and the internal inconsistencies to which they were subjected. Her feminism has grown from the experiential background of her culture and from the rebellion of her female relatives. In this light the allegation of an externally imposed resistance seems absurd. In effect, such a claim serves to deny any dissident potential within her own culture.

»The concept of culture acquires its force as performative effect rather than by virtue of its incorrect definition. In deconstructing the workings of this culture concept she demonstrates the various constructions, shifts, and realities generated by it.«


  However, it is insufficient solely to conceptualize or define culture differently. As Narayan shows, the concept of culture acquires its force through performative effect rather than by virtue of its incorrect definition. In deconstructing the workings of this culture concept she demonstrates the various constructions, shifts, and realities generated by it. Concepts such as cultural identity, indigenous national culture, and the like, involve totalizing constructions that go back to the confrontation with colonial rule. They reproduce the images of colonialism even though they were intended to counter them. Narayan argues that these concepts are, at the same time, the outcome of a political and discursive struggle and the instruments of this struggle. As a result, previously isolated or sporadic customs, such as Sati, could become the epitome of Indian culture. On the basis of numerous contradictory phenomena, Narayan demonstrates that the specific contents of this authentic culture or identity are chosen in the same arbitrary and selective way that Westernizing practices are. Discourses of authenticity are discourses of power. According to her, feminists ought to take a skeptical position concerning all these »constructions of the political imagination«.

 Plea for Diversity and Heterogeneity



  Furthermore, Narayan shows very clearly that contemporary Western feminists have been appropriating the colonialist discourses. She illustrates this point on the basis of discursive strategies, rather than merely how oppressive practices against Indian women are depicted. The monistic Western discourses explain them by culture or tradition. Tradition is presented as an ahistoric and atemporal phenomenon, and religion is regarded as a self-explanatory pattern. Often there is a concern with the same beliefs that Indian feminists offer resistance to, albeit with different strategies. The functional role of a discourse based on the culture concept becomes evident in the chapter about violence against American women. In contrast to the way in which violence against women is represented in India, culture is not invoked as an explanatory concept in the United States. No feminist would think of making a distinctive cultural feature of the fact that American men beat women.

Nausikaa Schirilla teaches at the Institute of Education of the Goethe-University Frankfort (Germany).


  The upshot of Narayan's analysis is a plea for diversity and heterogeneity. While believing that feminist issues are comparable across cultures even in spite of extant differences, she challenges feminists to learn to perceive both commonalties and differences partially and locally instead of totalizing them into a unitary feminist agenda.


  Dislocating Cultures is a convincing analysis of discourses of identity and authenticity which will not appeal only to feminists.

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