Historical Problematics of Gender/Sexuality and the Global

Ulrike Strasser
UC Irvine

Heidi Tinsman
UC Irvine


Anjali Arondekar
Feminist Studies
UC Santa Cruz

Cynthia Brantley
UC Davis

Michelle Hamilton
UC Irvine

Eve Oishi
Cultural Studies
Claremont Graduate University

David Serlin
Communication and Science Studies
UC San Diego

Peter Sigal
Duke University

Ulrike Strasser and Heidi Tinsman proposed to co-convene an HRI residency group which aimed to center feminist and queer analysis on historical problematics—questions about the recovery and uses of the materiality and meanings of the past—hat are transnational, transregional, or, as the case may be, approached most effectively in terms of comparison and distinction across different parts of the world. Conceptually, we sought to bring together a number of vibrant intellectual conversations taking place across the humanities and social sciences: discussions of globalization, world history, feminist theory, queer theory, and the study of masculinities. Despite their frequently shared points of focus, these thematics have too often remained separated, and at times even antagonistic. A central goal of this residency group consisted of interrogating the genealogies and politics of these divisions and carving out intellectual spaces for communication across these disciplinary divides. In our view, only a multi- and interdisciplinary approach can grasp the complexities of the historical problematics of gender and sexuality within a global framework.Our emphasis on the historical (as distinct from the discipline of history) is meant to privilege scholarship of multiple (inter-) disciplinary orientations that interrogate “global,” “transnational,” or “world” processes pre-dating the contemporary moment of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, which are so often hailed as unique for their startling degree of market integration and population flows. While not at all precluding a discussion of this more contemporary moment, one primary goal of the group was to underscore how profoundly global (albeit in quite different ways) other moments in time have been and how gender and sexuality critically shaped connections across areas of the world. Simultaneously we proposed that thinking in terms of “the world” or “the global” might not always be best conceived as a task of “identifying connections,” but, just as importantly, as a task of talking about lack of connection, actual separateness. (This is distinct from the issue of talking about “difference” which may or may not be generated through processes of domination, itself a powerful form of “connection.”) We asked how might we think about “the historical” in terms of world and acknowledge issues of connection/influence/domination without always employing a narrative that privileges contact and influence, or that functions firstly to show us how “the world has always been connected” or to excavate the “roots” of today’s global moment. We proposed that feminist and queer theory paradigms are especially critical to such a project since these have long sought to make connections and comparisons among gendered and sexual experiences, while simultaneously being deeply suspicious of mega-narratives and adamant about heterogeneity.To begin with one vibrant intellectual conversation, scholarly discussions about globalization, produced disproportionately within literary and cultural studies, have been concerned with the mobile and heterogeneous nature of social formations that have mediated transnational flows of commerce and people, particularly those occurring amid post-World War II processes of decolonization, mass migration, and neo-liberal capitalism. Although these discussions are often formulated against the backdrop of some understanding of the historical, they are seldom linked systematically to historical narratives about the post-World War II period, even less so to historical accounts of the many earlier moments of increased global circulation of goods and people. “History,” if it appears at all, takes on a static role and functions as an anchor for grounding literary or cultural analysis in the “real.” It is not methodologically operative as an open-ended negotiation about the material and symbolic legacies of the past.Conversations about world history (and/or sociological theories of “world systems”), on the other hand, have more frequently focused on the evolution and consequences of transregional markets and political regimes that brought people into contact and conflict with one another considerably prior to the contemporary moment. (“World history” thematics reach back to so-called “ancient” times, and have been especially concentrated on the period of European imperial expansion, 1500-1900.) These scholarly approaches have largely privileged the economic above the cultural, and they have honed in on the political in a traditional sense rather than on politics more broadly conceived. Thus the function of cultural negotiations and contests over representation in the making of global connections and divisions remains on the analytical periphery of this scholarly debate. Not surprisingly, elaborations of this type of “world history” on the whole have also had very little to say about gender and sexuality.Feminist scholarship and queer theory, with their claims that formations of gender and sexuality fundamentally shape the politics of all societies and among societies, should be central to both of these other discussions. Yet while a great deal of exciting feminist work and queer studies scholarship has begun to appear on transnationalism, post-modernism, and post-colonialism, this scholarship has focused overwhelmingly on the 20th century (especially the last half), and is still too often marginalized within “broader” discussions of globalization. At the same time, the large body of work by feminist historians and other scholars working on non-contemporary thematics is most commonly still generated within older paradigms of specific nation-states. Feminist scholars have only recently begun to enter the “world history” conversation as full participants, mainly to discover that its parameters do not preclude but also do not necessarily foster transnational gender analysis.Finally, we propose to bring conversations about globalization and world history into a sustained dialogue with the rapidly growing field of masculinity studies, which only partially and insufficiently overlaps with queer studies and feminist scholarship. Scholarly meetings such as the planned conference on “Hegemonic Masculinities and International Politics” (May 2005, sponsored by the Centre for International Politics and the BISA Gendering IR group) with its stated objective of exploring how “masculinities are produced within and are productive of global politics” reflect the timeliness of this goal of our residency group. Globalization in its current and its earlier incarnations invariably has entailed the production of hegemonic and marginal masculinities. Patterns of capital accumulation, imperial domination, labor systems, and mass migrations have always been gendered, involving the mutual construction of masculinities and femininities.Even though world historical and world systems studies, as discussed above, have centered their analyses on domains of economic and political life in which men are the main historical actors, this scholarship has not critically examined the cultural dynamics that code these domains as “masculine” in the first place. Nor has it analyzed how such codings intersect with global processes of domination, differentiation and connection. In other words, world historical studies of political or economic hegemony have yet to be linked to studies of hegemonic masculinities.Scholarship on masculinity in turn has focused primarily on the modern and postmodern period and on national rather than transnational articulations of masculinities (a few exceptions notwithstanding). There still remains considerable room for broadening the temporal scope of these analyses and situating them in a global framework. There also remains the pressing need of integrating queer studies and feminist scholarship more consistently into analysis of masculinities. Queer theory’s problematizing of gender from the vantage point of sexuality has to be central to understanding hegemonic as well as marginal masculinities to guard against the tenacious heteronormative assumptions underlying most social theory. Similarly, feminist scholarship’s attention to the power differential between men and women (what Robert Connell calls the “patriarchal dividend”) is simply essential to capturing the significance of gendered power in the making of all masculinities in almost all known societies.In this light, one important goal of our residency group is to produce a volume that brings together these different strands of conversations about gender/sexuality and the global and offers multiple perspectives that straddle existing disciplinary and chronological divides. This type of book–a kind of reader in cutting-edge scholarship on the topic– should be of considerable appeal to scholars concerned with developing multi/interdisciplinary approaches to questions of gender, sexuality and the global. It should also find interested readers in the various institutional sites discussed above.Our own interest in this residency group grows out of both our individual research projects and also an ongoing collaboration on issues of gender and sexuality in a world context that began in winter 2002. At the time, we co-designed and team-taught a lower-division world history survey (1400-1870) that placed the study of gender and sexuality squarely at the center of the historical narrative. Given the scarcity of teaching materials and the difficulties of combining feminist scholarship and the dominant world history paradigms, this proved to be a challenging but also very educational undertaking. We subsequently co-authored an article that traces the omission of gender from the major world history narratives and presents strategies for expanding existing accounts to integrate analyses of gender and sexuality at this crucial time when the relatively new and growing field of world history is being shaped. To further illustrate the possibilities of feminist interventions in world history narratives, we also recently co-authored a teaching case on the transatlantic slave trade for which “The History of Mary Prince, A West Indian Slave Related by Herself” (1831) serves as the main primary source.Our experience as collaborators is a strength that we can bring to a residency group, and so is our combined expertise, which bridges the early modern and modern divide and stretches across Europe and the Americas. In addition, we have each been grappling with the historical problematics gender, sexuality and the global in our respective individual research projects.Ulrike Strasser’s earlier work, which culminated in the monograph State of Virginity: Gender, Religion and Politics in an Early Modern Catholic State, centered on the intersection between gender, sexuality, religious reform, and state formation in early modern Europe. The interdisciplinary study elaborated a critique of Western, especially Weberian, modernization narratives from within European history. Building on this work but expanding its range to the global, her current project investigates how Jesuit missionary activities in Asia and Latin America and the reception of their narrated experiences back in Europe co-produced political, religious, sexual, and gender identities on the colonial periphery as well as in Europe’s metropolitan areas. On the one hand, the project links the activities of Jesuit missionaries, an exclusively male group that embodied a distinct type of clerical masculinity, to the civilizing mission and the imposition of European regimes of gender and sexuality on indigenous people. On the other hand, the project traces the connection between the colonial civilizing mission in the Indies and various attempts to civilize “others”, believers of other faiths, social and sexual misfits within Europe–literally referred to as the “other Indians”–as this internal civilizing mission evolved through the dialectical confrontation of the local and the global. Strasser has also been involved in interdisciplinary collaborations. She is a co-editor of Gender, Kinship and Power: A Comparative and Interdisciplinary History, which features anthropological and historical study of kinship arrangements in a range of societies.Heidi Tinsman’s past work, which culminated in the book Partners in Conflict: The Politics of Sexuality, Gender, and Labor in the Chilean Agrarian Reform, 1950-1973, examined the centrality of sexuality to class formation, national development projects, and political struggle that culminated in, and ended, Chile’s experiment with socialism under Salvador Allende. Her current project is a transnational history of consumerism, gender, and labor that explores connections between Chile and the United States generated by expanded neoliberal economies and authoritarian politics in 1970s and 1980s. Specifically, the project looks at the impact of Chile’s profitable fruit-export industry during the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. It interrogates how U.S. cultures of consumer choice, health, and the body are partially enabled by global dynamics that elsewhere foster labor exploitation and political repression, especially of women workers. At the same time, the project examines the political meanings of how Chilean workers became imbricated in new forms of consumer culture as relatively cheap imported goods became available to the rural poor for the first time. It considers how rural women’s control over cash-wages enabled profound challenges to family patriarchy, and the ways that consumer issues placed women at the forefront of grassroots challenges to military rule. Tinsman’s interest in transnational dynamics has also inspired her to co-edit a recent special issue of The Radical History Review on “Our Americas: Cultural and Political Imaginings,” which explores “the Americas” as a paradigm for disrupting older area-studies models and making transnational historical projects more fully interdisciplinary. She is currently finishing an edited volume on this same subject.