A roundtable to celebrate the publication of Tani Barlow’s In the Event of Women (Duke University Press, 2022), and to discuss how to reposition feminist critique historically in light of the methodology and arguments Barlow advances in her book.
The virtual roundtable “In the Event of Women” was independently sponsored by the Modern Languages Association’s Modern and Contemporary Chinese Forum. As the organizer of this roundtable, I invited seven other feminist scholars whose research interests cover the studies of history, social sciences, literature, and culture in China, Japan, and Korea. The roundtable serves a dual purpose: first, to celebrate the publication of Tani Barlow’s In the Event of Women (Duke University Press, 2022), and second, to discuss how to reposition feminist critique historically in light of the methodology and arguments Barlow advances in her book.
In this new monograph, Tani Barlow employs and contests French philosopher Alain Badiou’s notion of the “event” by analyzing how the biological female body “discovered” in the modern period appeared historically in China, as elsewhere, as a newly realized truth. Modifying Badiou’s event in the absence of a subject, Barlow argues that an event is so called when someone arises out of the latent totality of the conditions of historical possibility to politically act on a new truth. This claim is historicized in her exploration of “the event of women” in the fabrics of Chinese colonial modernities in the late nineteenth through the first half of the twentieth century.
What is woman? This is a fundamental question that gender and women’s studies scholars face. Many of us may have had a traumatic moment encountering the famous Lacanian saying, “woman does not exist,” realizing that the identification of woman is always second-handed, based on what she “lacks.” Barlow’s book is thus ontologically assuring: she tells us that woman is not simply the effect of naming or imagination based on differences or exception; she is a universal and tangible “thing” in history. She locates modern womanhood in the infrastructure of corporate imperialism. Her assertion that “the woman is a thing” moves gender studies from the realm of superstructure (ideology, language, and representation) to infrastructure (what is materialized via the complex networks of financial capital, transnational corporations, and commercial ephemera). Through her illuminating reading of the fascinating examples of commercial ephemera and her astute analysis of modern Chinese vernacular sociology in corporate advertising, among other sites, Barlow shows us that “woman” is not a discursive construction, but a historical and political becoming that was part and parcel of the edifice of capitalism and modernity.
Recorded on January 7, 2022, the stimulating conversation began with Tani Barlow, speaking about the background to writing the book. In the Event of Women, Barlow explains, is a project that continues her intellectual inquiry on the subject of women, as embodied in her 2004 monograph The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism and later projects on the “modern girl.” By paying attention to what other scholars consider to be the historical detritus in modern China, Barlow has found the material conditions for the rise of modern womanhood, which allows her to make the argument that “women’s political emancipation … revolved around the physiological and sociological question to square a circle, to figure out how men and women are both equal and different.”
Barlow’s long-term friend and collaborator, Ruri Ito spoke next, to whom In the Event of Women is dedicated. In her contribution to the roundtable, Ito recollected the exchanges between Barlow’s scholarship and Japanese academia in the past twenty years, mutual dialogues that beautifully come to fruition in the book. Rebecca Karl, then, commented on Barlow’s unique method of historical analysis, which is characterized by a “refusal to narrate.” This, she noted, makes the book “rich, exciting, infuriating, and refreshing all at the same time.” Karl also pushed us to think further about how to historicize the event of women by positioning this event in relation to the event of politics writ large.
Reflecting on her own scholarship on socialist state feminism in light of the book, Suzy Kim described her reception of the book as “a process of whacking away at the weeds, to cut through the needless opposition between biology and sociology…doing away with the nature/nurture binary.” She thanked Barlow for “getting us back to women as subjects, not as latent participants in events…but as evental in her struggle to assert a natural right to be human,” quoting from the book’s conclusion. Likewise, Nicola Spakowski described her reading experience as “breath-taking” and “dizzying.” In her perspective, the book has not only added modern Chinese thinkers to the Hall of Fame of modern thought, but also brought together different fields, theories, temporalities, and historical actors, forcing us to rethink “the very fundamentals of China studies.”
Interested in the heuristic method, Sharon Wesoky pushed us to think about “the event of women” in relation to knowledge production, subjectivity, and political struggle. She asked a series of questions in response to the book. How do we understand body and sexual politics in relation to capitalism? How does the “embodied nature” of women relate to other political or ideological truths? How does feminism resolve the contradictions between social life and the physiological truth about women? As if in response, Xueping Zhong commented that Barlow’s book does an excellent job of putting disparate materials in a generative and historicized way, in so doing making visible “the mediational and constitutive forces” in colonial modernity. Zhong finds Barlow’s discussion to be tension-filled and dynamic, due to the coexistence of the modernizing and the revolutionizing strands in the event of women.
Finally, in my own remarks, I pointed out that Barlow’s book has demonstrated that the possibilities of both gender justice and gender injustice have always already been present in the capitalist infrastructure, and the materialization of modern womanhood was a constitutive part of the on-going infrastructural revolution. Therefore, the question “what is woman” possesses more historical revolutionary potential beyond what canonical Marxism (i.e., livelihood or class struggle) can explain.
Responding to the comments and questions, Barlow emphasized that the book’s title “In the Event of Women” indicates that we are still in the long and unresolved political and historical process for gender justice and gender equality. Reminiscent of the Maoist theory of “continuous revolution,” we concluded that this book empowers as it delivers the message that anyone can recognize and install the truths of women in the course of history. The historical mission of forging ahead in the event of women thus lies in every one of us.
An in-person roundtable “In the Event of Women,” also sponsored by the MLA’s Modern and Contemporary Chinese Forum, will take place at the 2023 MLA Convention in San Francisco. We will continue our unfinished conversation in a more “eventful” setting. In the event of women, we will be back.
Ping Zhu is Associate Professor of Chinese literature at the University of Oklahoma and serves as the acting editor-in-chief of Chinese Literature Today. She is the author of Gender and Subjectivities in Early Twentieth-century Chinese Literature and Culture (Palgrave, 2015), the co-editor (with Zhuoyi Wang and Jason McGrath) of Maoist Laughter (Hong Kong University Press, 2019), which won Choice’s Outstanding Academic Title, and the co-editor (with Hui Faye Xiao) of Feminisms with Chinese Characteristics (Syracuse University Press, 2021).