Wikipedia’s Women Problem

We Can Edit

There’s much to say about women and Wikipedia… for instance, about the so-called “gender gap” that (it is said) can be seen both among the encyclopedia’s editors, who are overwhelmingly male, as well as in the articles themselves, which tend to treat topics historically coded as male at greater length and with more seriousness than they cover topics associated with women.

Indeed, a lot has been written about the topic, but one of the smartest commentators on these issues was Adrianne Wadewitz: see her HASTACS blog, and entries such as “Wikipedia’s gender gap and the complicated reality of systemic gender bias”.

Wadewitz mentions what she calls “categorygate,” the furor sparked by Amanda Filipacchi’s New York Times Op-Ed: “Wikipedia’s Sexism Towards Women Novelists”. See also James Gleick’s article for the New York Review of Books blog: “Wikipedia’s Women Problem”.

In this context, it’s worth noting that though there are now (roughly parallel) categories for (say) women novelists and male novelists on the English Wikipedia, this is not the case on the Spanish Wikipedia. Here (for instance) the category escritoras is simply a subset of the broader category escritores, and there is no corresponding division of “escritores masculinos.”

This disparity between the treatment of (women) writers on the two Wikipedias is, of course, partly for linguistic reasons, stemming from differences between English and Spanish. But only partly. And in any case, why should such different ways of encoding gendered identities within language remain sacrosanct?

Interview in

Jon Beasley-Murray

I was interviewed by Amador Fernández-Savater for Jon Beasley-Murray: “La clave del cambio social no es la ideología, sino los cuerpos, los afectos y los hábitos”. An extract:

12- Los movimientos políticos que te interesan son “enigmáticos, invisibles, misteriosos y fuera de lugar”. No representan ni se dejan representar. Funcionan de alguna manera como los propios afectos: opacos y sin discurso articulado, sin demanda ni proyecto. Pero ese tipo de fuerza, ¿puede ser algo más que destituyente? ¿Puede convertirse también en un poder constituyente, creador de instituciones que organicen nuestra vida cotidiana?

Jon Beasley-Murray. ¡Son muchos los movimientos políticos que me interesan! O, en otras palabras, son muchos (¿todos?) los que tienen su costado enigmático, invisible, misterioso y fuera de lugar. Para mí, no se trata de escoger los movimientos que te gustan y apostar todo en ellos, como si se tratase de una carrera de caballos. Los movimientos son procesos de experimentación y los resultados nunca se pueden predecir ¡ni prevenir! Esa experimentación sin garantías es la esencia de la política, de otro modo no estamos hablando de política, sino de implementación de planes técnicos. En cada caso, en cada momento, está presente la posibilidad de ambivalencia, de error, de desastre.

No vamos a ninguna parte sin reconocer esa opacidad inherente e inevitable de la política. Mejor afirmarla que negarla o intentar eliminarla. Sobre todo, porque es desde ese lado oscuro que emerge cualquier posibilidad de lo nuevo, de la creación. Así que lo veo todo al revés de como lo plantea tu pregunta: lo que es claro, visible, ordenado, previsible y cognoscible me parece que nunca puede ser constituyente, porque (para bien o para mal) es pura repetición de lo mismo.

Pero bueno, algo que aprendemos del hábito es que la repetición de lo mismo es otra ilusión: aún dentro de las repeticiones más regulares, algo se escapa, entra siempre la opacidad y el enigma. Y es por esto que debemos atender a estos momentos, de desviación y deriva, por sutiles y (casi) invisibles que sean.

13- Si no es la toma del poder, ¿qué sería un éxito, un logro, una victoria para los movimientos que te interesan?

Jon Beasley-Murray. La creatividad, la creación, la invención de nuevas formas de vivir; la expansión de lo común, de la comunidad. Un éxito nunca acabado, por supuesto; una victoria siempre por venir. O, en palabras del marqués de Sade, supuestamente en reacción a la Revolución Francesa: encore un effort si vous voulez être vraiment républicains! (todavía un esfuerzo si queréis ser verdaderamente republicanos)

There should be a second piece before long, with a focus on corruption. In the meantime, there’s quite a lively discussion of this one, not only in the comments on, but also on a page dedicated to Podemos on Reddit.

“La furia” and Other Stories

Silvina Ocampo, La furia

“El vestido de terciopelo” (“The Velvet Dress”), a short story found almost halfway through Silvina Ocampo’s collection La furia y otros cuentos, is narrated by a young girl, eight years old. The narrator is very much ancillary to the story’s main plot, which concerns a dressmaker from the Buenos Aires suburbs who comes into the city so that an upper-middle class woman client can try out a dress before setting out on a European vacation. It is not even clear why the girl is there: everyone assumes that she’s the dressmaker’s daughter, and she’s been dragged along against her will. She helps out with the fitting, for instance by gathering up some pins that are dropped on the floor, but her main contribution is her repeated commentary: “¡Qué risa!” (“What a laugh!”). Incongruous from the outset, this refrain becomes ever more out of place as events steadily turn to the weirder and the worse: the dress barely seems to fit, its embroidered dragon takes on a life of its own, the woman can’t take it off (“It’s a prison,” she says [159]), and finally all of a sudden she drops down dead. The dressmaker’s response is to lament the money spent making a dress that she can now no longer sell: “It cost me so much, so much!” (160). And the girl? “¡Qué risa!”

Welcome to the world of Ocampo’s short fiction, in which the strange and the fantastic so often erupt with surprising violence from the mundane and everyday. But seen through the eyes of a child, or perhaps some other character who is marginal to or not fully integrated within the events that unfold around them, the tone that the stories take is frequently at odds with the uncanny horrors that they relate. Ocampo depicts daily life as constantly susceptible to the emergence of sinister doubles, inexplicable cruelties, abrupt reversals, and sudden death. Take another example: “Voz en el teléfono” (“Voice on the Telephone”), which begins as a one-sided conversation in which the narrator, despite his reluctance (“I hate the telephone!” [193]), is explaining to his partner why the other day he was reluctant to light her cigarette. This involves a “history of matches” and takes him back to his childhood when, during his fourth birthday party, he and his fellow-toddler guests lock their mothers in a room and set the house ablaze. But the entire tale is told in such a matter-of-fact manner, and simply to explain a moment of social awkwardness. What’s more, having briefly described his last sight of his mother–“her face looking down, propped on the balcony balustrade” (202)–he shifts immediately to report on the fate of an antique Chinese chest of drawers that, “happily” was saved from the fire. Some of its carved, wooden figures, however, were damaged: not least one of “a woman carrying a child in her arms that looked a little like my mother and me” (202).

The fact of looking “a little like” is key, I think. For what’s most uncanny about a double is that it is never entirely the same as its twin. What’s sinister about any resemblance is that it’s the same but somehow in a different key. Or more generally, for the most part the power of Ocampo’s narrative arises from the fact that it portrays scenarios that we can almost recognize, but not quite. And perhaps we can’t always quote locate with great precision the point at which things start go veer towards disaster, however much hints of the grotesquerie to come are embedded even in a story’s opening lines. Everything is just a little bit off from the start, and as such the stories reproduce the perspective of those who are already somewhat out of place: the girl tagging along with the seamstress; the suburban lower class in the fancy apartment; the child trying to make sense of the mother’s conversation; the woman making the best of a bad marriage; and so on and so forth. And by the end of it all you’re wondering who the real freaks are. In “La casa de los relojes” (“The House of the Watches”), for example–another tale told by a child–a party gets out of hand as a small mob decides to iron out the wrinkles in the local hunchback’s suit, and then by an irreproachable extension of the same logic, to iron out the hunchback’s back, too. All this is told in the form of a letter to a teacher, as a sort of “What I Did in My Summer Vacation.” It ends with the promise to write again once the author finds out what’s happened to the hunchback, followed by final salutation of warm regards from a “favourite student” (55). But what lessons are being learned when the whole world is apparently out of kilter and yet nobody quite seems to register the disarray?

All this could be read as in part political allegory: “El vestido de terciopelo,” for instance, is set during the epoch of Juan Perón’s first presidency, and as such its combination of the uncanny with the threat of class-based violence reminds us perhaps of Julio Cortázar’s “La casa tomada.” (Christian Rodríguez makes this comparison here.) Likewise, both this story and “La casa de los relojes” might make us think of (Ocampo’s husband) Alfredo Bioy Casares’s collaboration with Jorge Luis Borges, “La fiesta del monstruo.” The mob, then, would be a specifically Peronist mob; and the dressmaker from the suburbs and her incongruously comic child sidekick with their deadly handiwork would represent the threat of the cabecitas negras to the housewives of the Barrio Norte. This is too crude (or too reductive), but it would still be worth considering the more general potential political charge of Ocampo’s stories, which is finely balanced between horror and sympathy for the marginal and the outcast. The fact that the “other” is never completely other, but perhaps just a degree or two distinct from “us,” can be (and often is) taken as a cause for elite anxiety or panic. In Ocampo, on the other hand, however she was fully part of that elite, there’s also the treacherous thought that the privileged and those who pass for “normal” deserve a comeuppance, that vengeance against them is never completely unjustified or misdirected, if not necessarily in the horrific form that they consistently seem to get it in her short stories. The furies, after all, are not entirely wrong.

After Posthegemony


Paper given at “Reflecting on Latin American Studies: Perspectives From 25 Years of Scholarship and Practice”
The 25th Anniversary Conference of the UNC/Duke Consortium in Latin American and Caribbean Studies
Durham and Chapel Hill, NC, February 2015

“After Posthegemony”

It would be hard to underestimate the impact on me of the Duke/UNC Program in Latin American Studies (as it was then still called). I arrived at Duke in 1994 without any specific intention to study Latin America: I was interested rather in theoretical questions that involved authors such as Gilles Deleuze, Pierre Bourdieu, and Antonio Negri. But I soon found Latin American Studies to be a productive setting to pose those questions, and the Duke/UNC Program a hub of lively and challenging discussion on precisely the issues that my questions sought to address. How best to think about political agency and organization? What roles were played by culture on the one hand and the state on the other? What concepts best illuminated and explained both contemporary and historical social movements? Asking such questions in the context of specific political and social conjunctures in Latin America, from populist mobilization in Argentina to Maoist insurgency in Peru, forced me continually to reconsider the formulation of my concerns and what was at stake in my investigation, as well as preventing (I hope) my replies from becoming too arid and abstract. The path I took was formed by chance and serendipity: Peronism, for instance, became a key part of my dissertation owing to the fact that I took an inspiring class on the topic with Danny James and Alberto Moreiras; I became fascinated by Sendero Luminoso thanks largely to the opportunity provided by a Ford Foundation-funded exchange with a parallel consortium of institutions in Peru.

I was above all motivated by the fact that the structure of the Duke/UNC Program gave such latitude to student initiatives, and that we had so much input into shaping the intellectual agenda. This was because of the key role played by working groups, run collaboratively with faculty mentors. So Alberto and I, with the help of many others over the years, organized a long-running and very active group on “Culture and State in Latin America,” which became a vital part of the professional and intellectual experience of an entire cohort of graduate students. We invited countless visiting speakers, organized numerous workshops, and contributed to or co-sponsored myriad other events. But the heart and soul of the group were our regular meetings in the house that was the then home of (what was) the Duke Center for Latin American Studies, where we read and debated texts, fuelled by endless supplies of snacks, beer, wine, and pizza, as well as the odd cigarette that would lead program administrator Natalie Hartman to chide us for leaving the butts strewn on the ground outside. These were intense meetings and they made for an experience that has certainly stayed with many of us. Indeed, it would not be far-fetched to say that the “Culture and State” group has had a quite profound effect on an entire field, an impact that is registered in the first place through a whole series of subsequent publications by former working group members. None of this would have been possible without the foresight of those who planned the Duke/UNC Program with such a central role for student/faculty collaboration, and the trust (and resources) that those who administered the program, Natalie Hartman especially, put into our activities.

In my case, what came out of my involvement with the Program and my experience with the “Culture and State” working group was a dissertation, subsequently heavily revised into a book, on “Posthegemony.” Indeed, the concept of posthegemony was first articulated, so far as I am concerned, as part of an event organized in part under the auspices of the Center for Latin American Studies: the 1998 meeting on “Cross-Genealogies and Subaltern Knowledges,” which was also (somewhat notoriously) the last hurrah of the Latin American Subaltern Studies group. In any case, it is in Posthegemony that I ultimately managed to combine the theoretical questions that had first brought me to Duke with the experience in Latin American Studies (and Latin America itself) that led me to refine and even rethink those questions. The book is an ambitious one (in its earlier incarnation as a dissertation, it had a subtitle proclaiming that its historical scope was from October 10, 1492, to April 13, 2002) in which a theoretical argument contesting the concept of hegemony, as made popular in cultural studies, and the notion of civil society, as found often in the social sciences, runs (almost) parallel to studies of socio-political conjunctures in Argentina, Peru, Chile, El Salvador, and Venezuela.

Along the way, I try to articulate a new way of thinking the grounds of politics, and the relationship between culture and state, in terms of affect, habit, and multitude. I argue, in brief, that instead of focusing on ideologies, in the sense of meaningful (mis)representations of social reality, and on discourses, in the sense of systems of significations and beliefs, we would be better off thinking about politics in terms of dispositions of bodies that are animated (and managed) by flows or blockages of energy that never fully enter into conscious calculation or understanding. I further suggest that would-be hegemonic projects that claim to underwrite the legitimacy of a state-centered constituted power are anchored on the simultaneous repudiation and appropriation of a more fundamental constituent power that constantly exceeds their grasp. My mantra, the slogan that repeats throughout the book across its various contexts from the initial moments of Spanish colonization in the Americas to the so-called Latin American “left turns” of the past twenty years, is that “something always escapes”: something escapes both the institutionalized organization of political movements and the concepts and theories (hegemony theory, civil society theory) that are invoked to explain and understand them.

Read more… (.pdf document)