A follow-up roundtable, one year after the publication of Tani Barlow’s In the Event of Women (Duke University Press, 2022), to discuss how to reposition feminist critique historically in light of the methodology and arguments Barlow advances in her book in the spirit of voluntary and continuous action.
Tani Barlow’s monograph In the Event of Women (Duke 2022) adopts a dialectical materialist framework for the history of sex and gender. According to the theory of historical materialism, capital’s victory is a necessary and intermediate stage of historical development. The advent of women in modern commercial ephemera, as Barlow argues in the book, is also a necessary and intermediate stage of recognizing women’s personhood. Just as Marx’s theory of historical materialism posits that the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles, Barlow’s concept of “in the event of women” posits continuous political struggles over the truth of women that is central to the progression of history.
Viewed within this dialectical materialist framework of political struggles over women’s personhood, Barlow argues, the advent of women in modernity is only the beginning of the story: corporate imperialism was by no means the final winner – it simply animated a new stage of struggles in material history by endowing women with a bio-physical reality (truth) to be the equal of men. In the Event of Women details the continuous political actions to inch toward this truth, until it is fully realized in history. It calls on people to participate in the making of historical events – which bring new things to the world – through voluntary actions.
In this spirit of voluntary and continuous actions, we held our roundtable “In the Event of Women, Again” at the Modern Language Association meeting in San Francisco on January 8, 2023, exactly one year after our first virtual roundtable “In the Event of Women.” Participants included Tani Barlow (Rice University), Rebecca Karl (New York University), Suzy Kim (Rutgers University), Nicola Spakowski (University of Freiburg), Sharon Wesoky (Allegheny College), Xueping Zhong (Tufts University), and Ping Zhu (University of Oklahoma). During the 75-minute roundtable, we discussed the intertwining of biology and sociology in the event of women, the unique importance of the event of women in modern history, the abundance of the trope of women in modernity, the role of the LGBTQ+ movements in the event of women, as well as the importance of doing non-disciplinary or anti-disciplinary intellectual projects.
According to Barlow, her book contests several continental philosophers, including Alain Badiou and Michel Foucault, whose psychoanalytic assumptions make it impossible for their theories to include the historical subject of “women.” At the same time, Barlow takes issue with Joan Scott’s concept of gender as a category of analysis. By showing the material conditions that enabled the event of women in Chinese treaty ports in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Barlow has made it clear that gender is not simply “an epistemic event,” but rather spans the natural and the social. Gender is both represented and presented in history. The book has thus transformed feminist critique into a powerful revolutionary theory by integrating it with dialectical materialism.
In the Event of Women proposes a liberating logic to center the dialectics of the constituting and revolutionary forces in modernity. The modern, commodified woman is simultaneously a biological and physiological subject with full natural rights. This biological and physiological truth of women was installed under the material conditions of capitalism worldwide, but as an installed truth it also triggers continuous political struggles aiming to realize its promise of social justice. One can find many examples of such political struggles from twentieth-century revolutions.
In her 2004 monograph The Question of Women in Chinese Feminism, Barlow emphasized the future anterior tense (what will have been) that the modern Chinese authors chose to use in their feminist writings. In the Event of Women represents Barlow’s own employment of the future anterior tense for a kind of revolutionary and universal feminism: as women, we will have been the reproductive equivalent of men with full natural rights. But this future will not happen automatically; we cannot just sit back and passively observe or narrate history. “In the event of women” means that individuals and collectives must take politically inspired actions again and again in the long durée of history.
In the words of Tani Barlow, who signed my copy of In the Event of Women: “Let us go on making liberation together.”
Ping Zhu is Associate Professor of Chinese Literature and Culture at the University of Oklahoma and serves as the acting editor-in-chief of Chinese Literature and Thought 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).