bell hooks, Critical Regionalism, and the Politics of Ecological Returns by Christina Van Houten

This essay addresses the ways in which bell hooks’ thinking turns to a politics of critical regionalism, by tracing a line that discursively connects materialist feminism, antiracist activism, and ecological Marxism. In particular, I argue that hooks’ critical regionalism develops in the 1990s, beginning in Yearning: Race, Gender, and Cultural Politics (1990) as her challenge to the exclusionary politics of difference dominant in postmodernist theory and extending to her argument for a spatialized feminist subjectivity in her memoir Bone Black: Memories of Girlhood (1996). We can understand critical regionalism as a cultural movement that, critical of postmodern aesthetics, argues for the persistence of geographical history in contemporary thought. We can read hooks as participating in this cultural logic precisely because she argues for a radical decentering of subjectivity away from patriarchy, racism, and classism and the formation of alternative coalitions on the basis of common local and regional social relations.  This means that hooks turns to critical regionalism and its theories and politics of spatial culture as a way to think through issues of race and gender oppression in the United States and the globalized world.

To that end, we can read the spatial developments of hooks’ feminism as representative of larger developments within feminist theory, particularly with respect to issues of identity and its politics and their relationship to place. Indeed, to read hooks’ feminism is largely to read an extensive history of the theoretical and practical, academic and activist approaches within the feminist movement—including, among others, identity politics, standpoint theory, and critical regionalism. Like Adrienne Rich in “Notes Toward a Politics of Location” (1985) and Chandra Talpade Mohanty in “Feminist Encounters: Locating the Politics of Experience” (1995), hooks’ nineteen-nineties feminism thinks through the ways in which the politics of location become crucial to both historically interpreting and theorizing experience, as well as forming the basis of feminist solidarity and activism.  Like Gloria Anzaldúa in Borderlands/La Frontera (1987), hooks argues for further articulation of the regional categories of a feminist geopolitics.  And like Gayatri Spivak and Judith Butler, who in Who Sings the Nation-State (2007) argue for the importance of critical regionalisms in the deconstruction of nationalism by challenging the borders of national identity, hooks begins the twenty-first century by also making critical regionalism the starting point for thinking through feminist citizenship. What this periodization suggests is the development of a collective project of a feminist critical regionalism that responds to cultural problems of postmodernism and to the social, political, and economic conditions of globalization and neoliberalism.

There is a distinction in her praxis. For Rich, Mohanty, Anzaldúa, Spivak, and Butler feminist critical regionalism turns predominantly on questions of identity, citizenship, or border crossings. To give one example, Spivak and Butler argue that global feminisms need to reinvent the state “beyond the nation-state into critical regionalisms” (77).  The point of this project of feminist critical regionalism is “to oppose unregulated capitalism” by performatively engaging more abstract political structures of welfare, citizenship, and language communities (78).  Especially for Spivak, critical regionalism is a solution that is neither national nor determined by the state: its “undoing of the connection between birth and citizenship” is both a deconstructive genealogy of the concept of democracy and a move towards it (91).  Whereas Spivak and Butler’s concept of critical regionalisms “goes under and over nationalisms but keeps the abstract structures of something like a state,” hooks’ concept moves away from an exclusive focus on political and economic registers (94).  She instead frames critical regionalism in terms of political ecology and, in so doing, joins a feminist politics of place with an explicit project of environmentalism.  To a certain degree hooks’ concept of feminist critical regionalism bridges Spivak and Butler’s systemic political and economic analyses with what we might know as ecofeminism.  Bina Agarwal has described the ecofeminist movement as consisting of four principles, two of which we can see intersecting in hooks’ work: the attempt to expose the commonalities between gender oppression and environmental destruction that is mainly a product of patriarchal dominance; and the praxis of combining feminism and ecological thought to work toward egalitarian, nonhierarchical structures (68).  However, hooks’ subscription to the remaining two principles is more tenuous: that in a patriarchal worldview women are identified as closer to nature and men closer to culture, and by extension women and nature are deprivileged in relation to men and culture; and that because of this intimate comparison women have a responsibility to cease male domination over both (68). This means that hooks’ critical regionalism in theory and practice is inclined toward ecofeminism’s more radical feminist tenets (rejecting the subjugation of women and nature and working toward social and environmental justice) than its cultural feminist principles (an essentialist view of the differences between women and men or a retreat from public politics toward a focus on individual lifestyle).  More than that, however, I would argue that any environmentalism in hooks’ critical regionalism is more inclined toward a Marxist political ecology: her linking of gender oppression and environmental destruction and her work toward social and environmental justice stems from a larger critique of industrial capitalism and neoliberal development.

By the time hooks writes Belonging: A Culture of Place (2009), her critical regionalism works within a complex dialectic of center and periphery, local and global that holds in tension multiple spatial levels—the home, the region, the nation, and the world—and their potential as sites of resistance—for anti-racist, feminist, and anti-globalization movements. hooks argues that this spatial consciousness proved important because it allowed her to recognize the way in which her Kentucky childhood imprinted on her oppositional habits located in the connection between “black self recovery and ecology” (3). More to the point, hooks argues that through her critical return to the U.S. South—and specifically to a critical return to the domestic space of her Kentucky home—she found a space, “an untouched truly wild wilderness that would resist being tamed by the forces of imperialist white supremacist capitalism” (19). Thus, her critical regionalism simultaneously turns toward the problems of feminism, racism, materialism, domesticity, and ecology.  hooks makes the home front and family life spaces of critical resistance—the starting points for reckoning the contradictions of democracy, capitalism, and sustainability.

Postmodernism and Materialist Feminism: The Politics of Locational Feminism

To begin, I am going to contextualize hooks’ critical regionalism in the developments of American feminism after the 1970s, specifically as they relate to debates on the influence of poststructuralism and postmodernism on feminist theory and praxis.  In simple terms, this is marked by a shift from the “sisterhood is global” ideal of seventies feminism—what Audre Lorde challenged for its “pretense to a homogeneity of experiences covered by the word sisterhood that does not in fact exist” (68)—to the institutionalization of academic feminism in the 1980s, which largely resulted in poststructuralist-influenced critiques of essentialist categories of identity. [1]  As Ursula Heise has noted, this resistance to essentialist categories of identity challenged “assumptions about the inherent characteristics of individuals and groups deriving from specific categories of nationality, ethnicity, race, gender, or sexual orientation” (5).  But importantly these challenges to identity and subjectivity were also formed in relation to developing theories of spatiality.  With the growing explanatory power of terms like postmodernism, globalization, and neoliberalism, theories of identity and subjectivity were rewritten in relation to these spatial concepts as a way to comprehend the ways in which their various economic, technological, political, and cultural components constitute our global present.  It is in this context that we can read a turn in feminist theory to a spatial rhetoric of location, multipositionality, and migration (Friedman 18).

The effects of globalization on feminist theorizing are numerous: including, for example, the privileging of identities shaped by hybridity, nomadism, and transnationalism as a resistance to national hegemonies; the turn to multiculturalism, cultural studies, and new historicism as challenges to totalizing theory; and the valuation of marginality as a means to address problems of exclusion, underrepresentation, and hierarchy, and to destabilize dominant culture, master narratives, and unjust power relations. Moreover, the very way in which we think about U.S. academic feminism is itself a product of this spatial turn. As Susan Stanford Friedman has noted, a consequence of “the intensification of globalization as a condition of postmodernity” is that it has become common “in feminist theory to refer to the position one occupies, the standpoint from which one speaks, and the location within which one’s agency negotiates” (22).  But important to this feminist theorization of identity is the double emphasis on material systems that discursively construct subjects: “what constitutes this space is the interaction of what is often called the axes of difference established by the social order” (23). This reading of feminist history puts in tension both radical feminist movements and academic feminism, making political connections between identity constructs and the spatial realities of geography, race, class, gender, and sexuality.  It is from this intersection that feminist critical regionalism offers an alternative map to neoliberal capitalism, one in which the local concerns of feminist politics are read in relation to global power relations.

hooks is particularly instructive for the way in which her scholarship responds to developments in the feminist movement occurring in the 1980s and 1990s: for example, oppositions between activist and academic feminisms, feminist theory and postmodernist theory, and feminist theory and globalization. Yearning is an instructive starting point for intervention in these debates because it serves two functions: it is a book of cultural criticism that theorizes the potential for an aesthetics of postmodern blackness; and it is a book of feminist theory that problematizes the academic and cultural dominance of postmodernist theory to the exclusion of anti-racist politics. The goal of combining these two critical projects is to develop a larger transformative politics, what hooks describes as a liberatory pedagogy of radical postmodernism (8).   Here, I must clarify my terms.  I read hooks as less subscribing to postmodernist theory than working within the narrative category of postmodernism, which sees the emergence of a new cultural logic following the process of modernization being declared complete concurrent with the rise of multinational capitalism and neoliberalism.

This project requires some maneuvering.  In the first place, hooks grapples with the political implications of the relationship between feminist theory and postmodern critiques of difference.  A central question for hooks is the potential for academic work to become a larger social praxis: for example, how to theorize identity and subjectivity by building upon feminist history’s activist and academic movements, especially the Redstockings’s radical slogan of “the personal is political” with a locational feminism that initiates praxis moving, in her words,  “from margin to center.”  As an outgrowth of this specific question, hooks more broadly interrogates the discourses and knowledge systems she is using to theorize this radical postmodernism.  Since the cultural practices of postmodernism have crucial intersections with neoliberalism (fragmented subjectivity, individual rights, market-based populist culture, atomized social relations), hooks must acknowledge the ways in which her theorizing of feminist subjectivity confronts the materiality of postmodernism and the real economic, political, and social effects this discourse has on the feminist movement.  [2]

hooks begins Yearning by arguing that “cultural criticism has historically functioned in black life as a force promoting critical resistance” because it has “enabled black folks to cultivate in everyday life a practice of critique and analysis that would disrupt and even deconstruct those cultural productions that were designed to promote and reinforce domination” (3).  Working within the framework of what Rosemary Hennessy has called “resistance postmodernism,” hooks refuses to make an arbitrary distinction between academic feminist theory and radical feminist praxis on the grounds that cultural texts have political value because they represent the ways in which social totalities continue to structure daily life (3).  Rather than refusing the cultural discourse of postmodernism altogether, she instead approaches its critique of difference strategically: redefining systems of value, divisions of labor, and the allocations of resources central to the social construction of difference in order to repurpose concepts central to postmodernist theory for materialist feminism (Hennessy 3).  In this context, hooks establishes the conditions for the politics of postmodern blackness: a political commitment to difference that challenges capitalism’s “aestheticization of daily life” that conceals racism, sexism, and class conflict in its stylization of social relations.  Put simply, it is cultural criticism grounded in oppositional politics to promote critical resistance.

Despite describing the parameters of this radical postmodernism, hooks argues that this theorization of postmodern blackness is impossible in the context of the political climate of nineties academia and related developments in cultural studies.  This is because, she argues, “[m]any academics involved with cultural studies do not see their work as emerging from an oppositional, progressive, cultural politic that seeks to link theory and practice, that has at its most central agenda sharing knowledge and information in ways that transform how we think about our social reality” (6).

While she acknowledges that this conservatism is symptomatic of larger university politics, hooks nevertheless takes her colleagues to task for their discursive commitment to theorizing difference while still remaining indifferent to the concrete needs of marginal groups.   What needs to happen is for cultural critics to change the direction of postmodern theory, offering theoretical paradigms connected to political strategies.  In this context, a “radical postmodernist practice,” grounded in a “politics of difference,” must incorporate the voices of the displaced, marginalized, exploited, and oppressed.  Instead, hooks argues, “contemporary discourse which talks the most about heterogeneity, the decentered subject, declaring breakthroughs that allow recognition of Otherness, still directs its critical voice primarily to a specialized audience that shares a common language rooted in the very master narratives it claims to change” (25).  hooks provocatively charges that from the perspective of a black woman that postmodern discourse reinscribes race and gender differences (if not racism and sexism) into cultural theory because of its failure to recognize, for example, black female presence.  Thus, her quarrel with postmodernist theory is predominantly one of praxis.  For hooks, it is unacceptable for postmodern theory to be used as simply a rhetorical device.  However relevant postmodern critiques of identity, subjectivity, or essentialism might be, a focus on categories of “otherness and difference” becomes problematic when postmodern theory cavalierly dismisses concerns of identity politics as being “self-interested” and not a necessary part of a collective political movement (24).  In this context, hooks is one of many to reiterate that without an attention to the politics of the marginalized and the material conditions of their daily living, postmodernism shows little commitment to a politics of difference or radical liberation struggle (26).

To theorize the conditions of postmodern blackness, hooks first turns to constructions of radical black subjectivity and, in so doing, confronts postmodern feminist discourse on identity politics.  In working through the paradigm shift from standpoint feminism to postmodern feminism in the 1980s and 1990s, hooks uses a comparative framework to think through the relationship of identity and culture in relation to both “a politics of difference” and “a politics of location.”  Taking both paradigms into consideration, hooks ultimately argues for a kind of relational standpoint theory, connecting the ethical and political critiques of feminist identity politics with neoliberal conditions of global development.  With this move, hooks does not have to abandon concepts like “social totalities,” useful for the articulation and critique of systems of dominance (capitalism, patriarchy, racism.), or “identity politics,” useful for initially thinking through the way in which social totalities alienate and fragment individuals. [3]Instead, this standpoint allows hooks to claim identity politics as a model to explore marginality as potential spaces for liberation struggle while at the same time refusing theories of development grounded in essentialism.  Thus, she argues for the idea of identity as multipositional and emergent from a constellation of subject positions:

Turned off by culture vultures who want me to talk “race only,” “gender only,” who want to confide and limit the scope of my voice, I am turned on by subjectivity that is formed in the embrace of all the quirky conflicting dimensions of our reality.  I am turned on by identity that resists repression and closure […] a space of radical openness on the margins, where identity that is fluid, multiple, always in process could speak and be heard.  (Outlaw Culture 244)

This approach has been described by Ann Ferguson as a “positional identity politics.” In this formulation, individuals assigned an identity by normative social definitions “develop an identity politics based on this social positionality that resists constituting a new essence of femininity, blackness, multicultural whiteness, upwardly mobile working-class-ness” (107).  Rather than thinking through identity in terms of postmodern fragmentation, “positional identity politics” becomes as a means of building political solidarity “with others defined by a similar positionality to fight for certain justice demands” (107).

To conclude my reading of the spatial developments in hooks’ feminism, I am going to address two critiques of her nineties feminist theory.  With different emphases, both David Harvey and Allison Weir have challenged hooks’ theoretical use of space—Harvey in terms of hooks’ romanticizing of discursive space to the exclusion of material politics, and Weir in terms of hooks’ theorization of a positional identity politics that potentially limits global feminist solidarity.  In his analysis of “Choosing the Margin As a Space of Radical Openness,” Harvey concedes that hooks’ turn to “spaces on the margin” shows important “political struggle against capitalist domination,” but he nevertheless challenges her “turn to the supposed indeterminacy of spatiality as the moment of freedom, the site of resistance, and therefore the seedbed of social change” (Justice 110).  According to Harvey, hooks’ theorization does not adequately address the “historical-geographic materialism” of the margin: meaning, hooks does not spatialize the political strategies that would actually allow for her feminist theory to become an emancipatory politics.  [4]  Not only does her theory of “voices from the margin” make exceptionalist claims based in problematic identity politics, it also posits a belief in the uniqueness of place “outside of theory” (110). Put differently, hooks’ rejection of meta-theories makes her work “slide into a postmodern world of fragmentation and unresolvable difference, to become a mere point of convergence of everything there is as if openness is by definition radical” (104).  This critique of hooks’ radical feminism, then, is largely an issue of academicization.  hooks represents the problematic encounter of academic feminism with postructuralist theory that I have already described; and her feminist theory, as it responds to disciplinary pressures, liberal scholarship, and institutional politics, moves away from geography, history, materialism, and (perhaps most damning) praxis.  Rather than reading hooks’ “voices on the margin” as a way to connect spatial theory with identity and subjectivity, Harvey instead reads them in conflict and having separate political goals.

In a different context, Weir has argued that hooks’ positional identity politics “is not a sufficient basis for politics” because it has “reduced women’s identity to a simple matter of category, defined through opposition to another category.”  She ultimately charges not only that positional identity politics “takes women’s identity as something given and objective,” but also that the locational differences among women make a feminist geopolitics impossible  (114).  Although I tend to agree with Harvey and Weir that discursive analysis of identity alone makes for an incomplete political project, I think that both blur the distinction between larger feminist issues and the particularities of hooks’ feminist theory and practice.  More to the point, I think both of these critiques underestimate the spatial politics and specifically the local/global dialectic that grounds hooks’ positional identity politics.

In her insistence on pluralism within academic theory and political activism, hooks’ approach argues for identity politics from the vantage of multiple marginalized groups.  For hooks, to read “a politics of difference” and “a politics of location” comparatively is to subvert static notions of identity and spatialize discursive sites of political resistance.  It is also to use postmodern feminist theory as the starting point for political praxis: in addition to theorizing the multipositionality of identity, this spatialized politics also calls for a reckoning with the social systems that determine material inequality on the basis of identity constructs.  In this praxis, marginality becomes “a central location for the production of a counter-hegemonic discourse that is not just found in words but in habits of being and in the ways one lives” (Yearning 149).

But she offers the distinction, however, that the “margin” is a discursive position from which challenges hegemonic discourses.  “As such,” she argues that she does not speak “of a marginality one wishes to lose—to give up or surrender as part of moving into the center—but rather of a site one stays in, clings to even, because it nourishes one’s capacity to resist” (150).  For example, in the context of her feminist theory, two margins seem to exist: the discursive space of the margin in which Ain’t I a Woman (1981), Feminist Theory (1984) and Teaching to Transgress (1993) that argues for cultural consciousness and social change; and the material space of the margin, narrated acutely in Bone Black, that shows the effects of economic, racial, and gendered marginality on her personal development.  This spatialization reflects the postmodern condition in which there is no outside to capitalism—or its systems of domination.  More to the point, it takes seriously Fredric Jameson’s theorization of “cognitive mapping,” a process that seeks to re-imagine a political subject capable of resisting the alienating effects of capitalism, and by extension facilitates the formation of a global class-consciousness.  Thus, it is persuasive to read hooks’ representation of feminist movement “from margin to center” as engaging in the kind of “cognitive mapping” Jameson calls for “[t]he new political art (if it is possible at all) will have to hold to the truth of postmodernism, that is to say, to its fundamental object—the world space of multinational capital—at the same time at which it achieves a breakthrough to some as yet unimaginable new mode of representing this last, in which we may again begin to grasp our positioning as individual and collective subjects and regain a capacity to struggle which is at present neutralized by our spatial as well as our social confusion.  The political form of postmodernism, if there ever is any, will have as its vocation the invention and projection of a global cognitive mapping, on a social as well as spatial scale” (54).

It is in this context—in the dialectic tension of discourse and materiality, personal and political, center and periphery, and local and global—that that hooks not only describes a standpoint for radical black subjectivity but also theorizes the conditions for a radical postmodern praxis.

Class Matters: Towards a Feminist Critical Regionalism

In Where We Stand: Class Matters (2000), hooks reframes her radical liberatory project in terms of a politics of materialist feminism and identifies class as the subject central to American culture and its problems.  Although she does not explicitly name the transition to this form of global capitalism “neoliberalism,” hooks certainly describes why “class matters” in terms of neoliberal political and economic developments.  Specifically, in narrating a history of American capitalism since the 1970s, hooks emphasizes the ways in which neoliberal policies that promote free-market ideologies and global flows of capital are grounded in systems of exploitation.  For example, some consequences of the neoliberal agendas of deregulation, privatization, financialization, and state redistribution she describes include the feminization of labor and poverty and the acceleration of uneven geographical development.  On a more personal level, hooks suggests that blindness to the issues of class, not to say the politics of consumer capitalism, means that most Americans “cannot see the changing face of global labor—the faces of the women and children whom transnational white supremacist capitalist patriarchy exploits at home and abroad to do little work for little pay” (6).  Thus, in addition to problematizing the ways in which neoliberalism has changed the parameters of American citizenship and daily living, hooks also questions the potential efficacy of radical political movements for social justice, civil rights, and women’s liberation as challenges to neoliberalism.  She wonders if the class bias inherent in postmodern theory or the class-based academicization of American feminism has either deradicalized cultural critiques of racism, sexism, classism, and heteronormativity or unwillingly converged with neoliberal rhetoric on multiculturalism or diversity (105).

In this analysis of class in American culture, therefore, we can locate both a critique of the neoliberal framework of politics, economics, and culture and a strategy for resisting the neoliberalization of culture.  In the first place, hooks challenges the ways in which neoliberal economic and political policies have promoted consumerism, privatization, and individualism to the exclusion of communalism and collectivity.  She approaches her critique of neoliberalism in the context of materialist feminism, mapping a feminist project that critiques both culture and social relations.  For hooks, this project turns on redefinitions of “family,” “home,” and “regional community” as they are constituted by and constitutive of neoliberal developments in global capitalism and class relations.   hooks’ emphasis on the importance of these terms as spaces of resistance is not new.  In Yearning, for example, she argues for an attention to the ways in which “the perpetual construction of econonomic and social structures deprive many folks of the means to make a homeplace” (46).  She suggests the discursive act of “remembering should enable us to understand the political value of black women’s resistance in the home” and “provide a framework where we can discuss the development of black female political consciousness” (46).  However, in Where We Stand hooks begins to systematically address the economic and social structures that refuse the building of domestic spaces—family, homeplace, or community—as a challenge to sexism, racism, and social dysfunction.  To describe the shifts in her terminology before and after the 1970s, hooks first gives a brief history of the emergence of the neoliberal form of capitalism: an institutional framework of government, big business, and mass media that sought to dismantle the welfare state and attack organized labor so as to restore class power to the upper class and, of course, accrue wealth.  To secure these aims, this institutional framework has perpetuated a neoliberal ideology that privileges individual entrepreneurial freedoms and work ethic and stigmatizes poverty, making allies with nonwealthy citizens who prefer affiliation with the rich over the poor (45).  The cultural effects of the these neoliberal economic and political policies have included a shift away from community-oriented daily living, the valuation of individual libertarianism, and the stigmatization of poverty.  Thus, neoliberalism represents a global moment of intensified class divisions.  While some citizens were locally struggling to meet basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter, the economic elites were globally profiting from their privations.  For hooks, this is a significant departure from the decades before the 1970s.  She imagines her childhood home as embodying now-lost democratic values—however nostalgic, solidarity with the poor, spiritual work, communalism, and sharing of resources (40-41).

While this project of redefinition is certainly historical in scope, I want to emphasize the spatiality of this project.  Choosing “family,” “home,” and “regional community” as the subjects of her critique problematizes the hierarchy of spatial scales through which class politics are constructed.  Indeed, it is here that hooks’ critique of neoliberalism opens up to a strategy of resistance.  To borrow Neil Smith’s phrasing, hooks’ project attempts to map “our whole geographical construction of material life” (73).  The specific domestic connotations of her critical framework not only puts in tension the personal and the political, the public and the private, center and periphery.  By translating among spatial scales (the individual, the communal, the local, the regional, and the international) and thereby making explicit a connection between personal politics and the politics of globalization, hooks’ project also maps a feminist alternative to neoliberalism that confronts the universal and transnational qualities of global capitalism (Harvey, Spaces 49-50).  This is a significant move when we remember that spatial scales are socially constructed, historically contingent, and politically contested; and that spaces are social products that function as a way of reinforcing ideologies of patriarchy and capitalism (Smith 76).  To repeat “the personal is political” in the context of anti-systemic movements is to argue for individual justice against the depersonalization of economic life; to emphasize homeplaces or regional communities as counters to globalization; or to consider the material relations among spatial scales as is the case with a feminist politics of location as challenging the neoliberalization of culture.

Before moving my analysis to hooks’ elaboration on feminist critical regionalism, I must first give pause to a second effect of hooks’ problematization of class. I want to suggest that in critiquing class relations in American neoliberalism hooks is also critiquing developments in academic feminist theory. [5] Specifically, hooks is critiquing the turn to formalism without a politics—a turn to discursive theory, for example, disengaged from political praxis.  Nancy Fraser has offered a similar narrative, suggesting that there is a degree of convergence between the ideals of second-wave feminism and the demands of neoliberal capitalism.   Fraser argues that a major shift in the political culture of capitalist societies coincided with the rise of neoliberalism: “claims for justice were increasingly couched as claims for the recognition of identity and difference” (108).  In terms of development in feminist theory, then, this meant a transformation of second-wave feminism into “a variant of identity politics” that “tended to overextend the critique of culture while downplaying the critique of political economy” (108).  The effect of this critical shift was “the tendency to subordinate social-economic struggles to struggles for recognition,” and specifically in the context of the academy, “feminist cultural theory began to eclipse feminist social theory” (108).  Fraser ultimately calls for the reinvestment of feminism’s “struggles against personal subjection to the critique of a capitalist system which, while promising liberation, actually replaces one mode of domination by another” (115).  That is to say, Fraser calls for the reinvestment of academic feminism in political praxis.

hooks ends Where We Stand with a similar call for reinvigorated political praxis.  But in addition to thinking about the potential gains of more real-world political engagement, hooks begins to exemplify the “concrete strategies and programs that address material needs in daily life as well as needs of the spirit” (130).  One solution she offers is “education for critical consciousness that begins when children are entering the world of consumer capitalism” (88).  hooks suggests that this kind of education would promote both a shift in values away from consumerism and “predatory greed” and alternative modes of living.  In what she describes as “a back-to-nature lifestyle,” the “radical young” schooled in these critical pedagogies would be better equipped to not only “face the realities of class and work to create a just society” but more practically “work for environmental rights” (88).  Indeed, I would argue that she points toward a politics of critical regionalism as precisely the program to engage the kinds of anti-neoliberalism and counter-globalization movements she is describing.

Significant to hooks’ theorization of a feminist critical regionalism is her specification that it is a politics of resistance.  In Belonging, she argues that thinking critically about place in terms of both material history and vernacular culture becomes a way to challenge hegemonic social relations.  For hooks, this politics of resistance necessarily begins with an attention to class relations and the effects of accumulation by dispossession in specific places—in her case, the rural South.  From the start, hooks specifically describes the effects of neoliberalism and globalization on the local economy, writing about the problems of racial segregation, mountaintop removal, shifts to industrial agriculture, discriminatory real estate practices, and gentrification of dispossessed lands.  This narrative suggestively illustrates not only that uneven geographic development becomes an asset for neoliberal expansion; but also that theories of conservation and environmentalism themselves become crucial to the neoliberal privatization of nature.  The decision to return to Kentucky becomes, in its politicizing of the tension between regional development and global capitalism, an attempt to theorize the homeplace as a place of resistance. Thus, the grounding of critical regionalism in an analysis of class politics provides hooks with a standpoint from which to begin a cultural critique.  “Making the connections between geographical location and psychological states of being was useful,” hooks points out, because it enabled her to simultaneously recognize “the serious dysfunctional aspect of the southern world” and “the strategies of resistance that were life enhancing” (19).  Put differently, hooks puts into practice her theorization of a radical feminism, in which a regionalist framework can work in defense of universalist individual and group issues (human rights, citizenship, social justice) at the same time that it focuses on the particular histories, contexts, and needs of a localized place.  Feminist critical regionalism as mode of analysis allows her to critique the neoliberalization of Kentucky’s culture and economy, and in this comparative project propose a radical new way of thinking through the political potential of the South as a region, a sub-culture, and a homeplace.

What hooks theorizes, then, is the way in which a feminist politics of critical regionalism becomes a cultural geopolitics. To say this is to suggest that she offers a way of spatializing political strategies across political, economic, social, and cultural lines.   For example, in Belonging, the framework of critical regionalism refers simultaneously to a constellation of concepts: a postmodern aesthetic of blackness that moves away from cultural nationalism and that is sensitive to the politics of vernacular forms (130); a resistance to regionalization and the political atomization of the periphery (50); the way in which black women fashioned their homes as an oppositional world to racist, classist, sexist privilege (132); a commitment to planting organic, sustainable farms as alternative modes of production and consumption (205); or a relocation to the South in the process of “return migration” as an attempt to reinvest in black communities (60). It is certainly possible to read hooks as pursuing a nostalgic longing for a lost communalism or a disappearing subculture.  But having acknowledged that sentimental reading, I would like to suggest another: namely, that hooks’ project of critical regionalism contains a strong utopian element that not only shows the potential of reading the region as a liberatory space but also provides the conditions for preserving this sub-culture.   Here, the intersection of critical regionalism and political ecology become important.  To prevent the disappearance of a radical southern black sub-culture, hooks argues that it becomes crucial to “invoke the memory of a sustained oppositional living sub-culture” (181).  This requires “both naming black folks collective estrangement from [their] agrarian pasts and taking steps to uncover the true nature of culture of belonging as well as the naming of the trauma that took place when country life lost meaning and visibility” (181).  This project also requires more black thinkers, writers and critics to be engaged in ecological politics, thinking of cultural productions in terms of environmental protection, land stewardship, and nature conservation (213).

It is in this context that hooks’ mapping at the start of Belonging becomes more provocative: in writing about the environment issues of sustainability reach beyond Kentucky; in challenging Appalachian mountaintop removal we fight for working-class solidarity; and in contemplating issues of regionalism there are connections between black self-recovery and ecology.  In this mapping, hooks makes clear that the politics of critical regionalism necessarily intersect with issues of local and global environmentalism and sustainability.  In spatializing this project of feminist critical regionalism against neoliberalism, hooks also theorizes more explicitly the potential of moving the politics of the margin to center. 

 

Notes

[1] See: Krista Comer, “Taking Feminism and Regionalism Toward the Third Wave” (2003); Susan Stanford Friedman, “Locational Feminism: Gender, Cultural Geographies, and Geopolitical Literacies” (2001); Jane Gallop, Around 1981: Academic Feminist Literary Theory (1992); Ursula Heise, Sense of Place and Sense of Planet: The Environmental Imagination of the Global (2008); and Allison Weir, “Global Feminism and Transformative Identity Politics” (2008).

[2] See David Harvey’s A Brief History of Neoliberalism, 42; and Rosemary Hennessy’s Materialist Feminism and the Politics of Discourse, 3-6.

[3] This is consistent with Hennessy’s reading of the usefulness of postmodern discourse for materialist feminism.  See, “Materialist Feminism in the Postmodern Academy” in Materialist Feminism and the Politics of Discourse, 1-36.

[4] David Harvey provides a six-point schema that elaborates on this spatial geopolitics, including: the discursive activity of “mapping spaces” is a prerequisite to the structuring of any kind of knowledge; mapping is a discursive activity that incorporates power; social relations are always spatial; material practices transform the spaces of individual and collective experience; institutions can be spaces; the imaginary is of crucial significance in the search for alternative mappings of social processes.  I would argue that a careful reading of hooks’ “voices from the margin” responds to these points.  See, Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference, 111-113.

[5] This should be a far from shocking proposition since Harvey in A Brief History of Neoliberalism has suggested the inverse—that a critique of postmodernism is a critique of neoliberalism (198).

 

Work Cited

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Anzaldúa, Gloria.  Borederlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza.  San Francisco: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987.

Bulter, Judith and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.  Who Sings the Nation-State?: Language, Politics, Belonging.  New York: Seagull Books, 2007.

Comer, Krista.  “Taking Feminism and Regionalism Toward the Third Wave.”  A Companion to the Regional Literatures of America.  Ed. Charles Crow.  New York: Blackwell Publishing, 2003.  111-128.

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Harvey, David.  Justice, Nature, and the Geography of Difference.  New York: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

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Mohanty, Chandra Talpade.  “Feminist Encounters: Locating the Politics of Experience.”  Social Postmodernism: Beyond Identity Politics.  Eds. Linda Nicholson and Steven Seidman.  New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Rich, Adrienne.  “Notes Toward a Politics of Location.”  Women, Feminist Identity, and Society in the 1980s.  Eds. Myriam Díaz-Diocaretz and Iris M. Zavala.  Amsterdam: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1985. 7-22.

Smith, Neil.  “Geography, Difference, and the Politics of Scale.”  Postmodernism and the Social Sciences.  Ed. Joe Doherty, Elspeth Graham, and Mo Malek. London: MacMillan, 1992. 57-79.

Weir, Allison. “Global Feminism and Transformative Identity Politics.”  Hypatia 23.4 (Fall 2008): 110-133.

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