Travels of the 'Authentic Craftswoman': representing lives of value across transnational markets.

Author:Russo, Alexa
Position:Special Issue: Gender and Development
 
FREE EXCERPT

Introduction

The neoliberal doctrine of free markets and selfresponsible entrepreneurs tends to present itself as the 'only option' and the one 'solution'. (1) Within international development, neoliberalism has manifested itself as the (gendered) 'rational economic woman' of microcredit who takes sole responsibility for her own 'improvement' (Rankin, 2001) as well as the 'authentic native' (Chow 1994) who markets her 'pre-modern' culture for Western consumption. Yet, some argue, there are other options, that is, alternative economies that prioritise people over capital accumulation, the (re)production of flourishing lives over profit. (2) While alternative economies work within capitalist systems in order to survive, they are 'hybrid', as they work in ways that do not adhere to capitalist values, but instead, look to create economic systems that move 'beyond what actually exists' (Santos & Rodriguez-Garavito, 2006: xxii). Therefore, these alternative economic structures, such as worker-owned cooperatives, are not just economic but political spaces, based on principles of equity across race, gender, ethnicity, and, in the case of South Asia, caste, and actively promote solidarity within and beyond one's immediate communities (Coraggio, 2009; Santos & Rodriguez-Garavito, 2006; Gaiger & Anjos, 2013).

In the following article, I analyse the all-women's cooperative, (3) Haath Ka Honar. Haath Ka Honar (HKH) is based in the district of Barmer within Rajasthan, India, and sells contemporary products that incorporate traditional embroidery work. These products are sold to 'niche' international markets that value the artisans' work due to the handicraft's authenticity and the initiative's entrepreneurship.

I argue that, while the handicraft market exists within unequal transnational capitalist and colonial relationships of power, the subjects that the market produces are negotiated by those who inhabit (and represent) these market subjectivities. Beyond simply the production of dominant discourses, HKH's hybrid market subject, (4) the 'authentic craftswoman', is neither individualistically entrepreneurial nor culturally essentialised. Instead, she collectively employs the market to dynamically sustain changing traditions and is entitled to a dignified and sustainable livelihood. However, this production is highly negotiated as these subjects exist within a dominant neoliberal market in which only certain subjects are deemed 'legible' (or 'valuable'). Therefore, representation, as a means of translation, is instrumental within these alternative systems of production, but runs risks of committing 'epistemic violence' (Spivak, 1988) that forces 'intelligibility' in dominant discourses. Hence, I suggest that we cannot merely conceptualise alternative economies in terms of combatting material exploitation within capitalism. These economic spaces must counteract systems of social domination (Quijano, 2006) that have an epistemological underpinning, particularly as carried through mediums of representation, in order to re-define who, and whose (re)productive labour, is worth valuing.

In this paper, I ask the following: How (and by whom) are travelling representations of the 'authentic craftswoman' negotiated and 'translated' within hegemonic systems--systems that require specific subject-productions in order to be legible and of value within transnational (albeit, 'alternative') markets? What are the 'freedoms' (Rose, 1999) and limitations of the hybrid (and gendered) craft subject, produced through encounters in the market between development(alist) discourses with conflicting value systems? And specifically, what are the political effects of the representers in the market, who are necessary for those unable to be heard?

I begin this article by situating my argument within postcolonial analyses of third-world representations and feminist economists' notion of 'women's work', while noting the underlying gendered and racialised values systems that determine who and how particular groups are represented. In this section, I also introduce the concept of hybridity to better conceptualise the ways subjects do not (fully) conform to these dominant systems. After describing my methodology, I then analyse the 'authentic craftswoman' as represented by HKH employees and within the marketing material of HKH's client, specifically focusing on this subject's hybridity and negotiations with hegemonic discourses. I end my analysis with my thoughts on the role of representation within alternative economies.

The (in)visible and (de)valued: Analysing the 'rational economic woman', third-world authenticity, women's work, and hybridity

In the following section I situate my question within existing theoretical and empirical literature on the (gendered) neoliberal development space in order to analyse the discursive negotiations over the (re)production of the 'authentic craftswoman'. I explore neoliberal representations of the 'third world woman', racialised notions of authenticity, the status of women's reproductive labour in capitalist systems, as well as the transformative potential of hybrid subjectivities. I undergo this analysis in order to understand what is (and is not) recognised and valued within hegemonic discourses that HKH artisans negotiate, but also to conceptualise the space to create subjectivities other than those demanded by these discourses.

To understand the production of the 'authentic craftswoman', I begin by examining feminist analyses of neoliberal development(alist) representations of the 'third world woman'. I utilise the concept of 'developmentalism' (Escobar, 2012; Madhok, 2013), to mean a form of governmentality (5) with logics and practices that seek to produce subjects who are 'amenable to "development"' (Madhok, 2013: 1), the latter which is 'a technical, political, ethical and intellectual project' (2013: 2). I furthermore understand 'development' as a normative pursuit that may have changed its focus and specific aims, but continues to partake in systems of coloniality (Quijano, 2007), that is, normalised Eurocentric ideas of 'progress' that invisibilise exploitative economic systems (Madhok, 2013:28; Kapoor, 2004: 628-630). Developmentalism, in a relatively recent discursive shift very relevant to the craftswomen at HKH, has instrumentalised neoliberal logics to make the (gendered) entrepreneurial subject the bearer of development. As Rankin (2001) describes, neoliberal governmentality utilises political rationalities of 'self-regulating markets' and techniques, commonly microcredit, in order to produce the self-responsible 'rational economic woman' who is 'empowered' through market linkages. While previously the 'third world woman' was represented as a 'victim' to be saved (Mohanty, 1988), Wilson (2008, 2011) has noted that under neoliberalism, the 'victim' has now become the 'agent'. This new 'third world woman' is gendered 'naturally' efficient and altruistic--a member of the 'deserving' and industrious poor who will bring her family and community out of poverty. Moreover, this image retains the implicit Western viewer who has the moral responsibility to 'rescue' the woman from her 'backward' culture through market intervention (Wilson, 2011: 329). Through the market, gendered inequalities, both within and outside of the economic sphere, appear incidental or 'solved', and any economic exploitation faced is simply 'overcome'.

Additionally, there are significant epistemological implications to these (new) representations of the (speaking) agentic third world woman. These representations unquestioningly glorify the 'pure, unmediated subaltern voice' (Kapoor, 2004: 637), thereby hiding the Western subject/consumer/donor 'masquerading' as both knower and (absent) representer of the 'transparent' Other (Spivak, 1988). (6) This presumed translatability of her speech into the oppressor's language is a violent act of epistemic 'plundering', of forcefully translating the untranslatability of the subaltern discourse (Chow, 1994: 132, 139; Spivak, 1988: 300). These representations are therefore complicit with, through discursive erasure of, international modes of economic exploitation (Spivak 1988), the very systems that women in the third world collectively mobilise against (Wilson, 2008: 83). As Spivak notes, however, there is a 'line of cultural difference within the 'same culture'' that joins the interests of international elite managers of the transnational NGO complex (2003: 618), thereby producing a classed representation of the 'third world woman' who serves as a foil for a global elite woman (Dosekun, 2015). (7) Spivak's hidden knower may also be the 'native informant' (1988: 284) who commodifies 'difference' as 'ethnic culture' that is then 'packaged and 'niche'-marketed' (Kapoor, 2004: 631). (8) Spivak concludes, whether victimised or 'given voice' through Western or local elite, this 'violent aporia between subject and object status' (1988: 306) is a form of epistemic violence that silences the subaltern.

In addition to the discourse of the 'rational economic woman', I argue that HKH simultaneously navigates the racialized discourse of third world authenticity, which has similar epistemic concerns. As Chow argues, in representations of the subaltern, this 'defiled native' (e.g. colonised and exploited) is presumed to have a 'lack' that can be compensated for, by the good Western liberals or third world nationalists, by 'giving' her an 'authentic' voice (1994: 131). Chow maintains that we have a desire to look 'underneath' this defiled image to find the 'authentic' in order to provide ourselves with a mythical alterity that is nostalgically 'outside' of modernity--unchangingly Other, and therefore governable and complicit with systems of coloniality (1994: 140-45). We make 'them' almost like us, just 'not quite' (Bhabha, 1994) --with the 'not-quiteness' marking the boxed-in area of...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP