Mimi and I have collaborated on a number of academic and creative projects over the last several years, including Threadbared most obviously, and various conference panels as well. But the most formal of these collaborations – we are thrilled to finally announce! – is now available to the public in the form of companion essays, published in the latest issue of the leading international journal of gender and women studies, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society.
As part of our feminist commitment to collaboration (and our mutual brain crushes on each other), we wrote these companion essays to offer related points of departure for thinking about fashion and beauty as processes that produce subjects recruited to, and aligned with, the national interests of the United States in the war on terror. The Muslim woman in the veil and her imagined opposite in the fashionably modern –and implicitly Western— woman become convenient metaphors for articulating geopolitical contests of power as a human rights concern and a counterterrorist measure. These essays examine newer iterations of this opposition, post 9/11, in order to demonstrate the critical resonance of a biopolitics on fashion and beauty.
In “The Biopower of Beauty: Humanitarian Imperialisms and Global Feminisms in the War on Terror,” Mimi Thi Nguyen asks that we extend our imagination to think about the distribution of beauty, and the attachment to it, within and between empire’s subjects and citizens as a part of imperial statecraft. That is, how hearts and minds are recruited through the appeal to beauty, and how state but also feminist invocations of “women’s rights are human rights” are made meaningful through such an appeal and all that it is imagined to promise. Grappling seriously with the brief life of the non-governmental organization Beauty Without Borders, which established a Kabul Beauty School in the aftermath of the 2001 US invasion of Afghanistan, what is happening when the promise of beauty to educate and to liberate is invoked simultaneously with the urge to war and to destroy? How are women in general, and the burqa-clad bodies of “Afghan women” in particular (an image that condenses and organizes knowledge about Afghanistan and its forms of gender), produced as a population through this traffic in beauty? What notions of beauty engender the measure but also a medium of personhood and rights? How to explain this chain of associations that produces beauty as a prerequisite, a pathway, to good governance? Looking to Beauty Without Borders (with its this deliberate allusion to the transnational social movement organization Médicins sans frontiers), Nguyen traces the disparate but connected forms of liberal and neoliberal power, the production of a subject in relation to rearticulations of feminism and civil society but also empire through these assemblages – new strategies and technologies, deeply embedded notions of beauty and virtue, democratic linkages of self to world. She argues that it is beauty’s invocation in humanitarian imperialisms and global feminisms that requires us to expand what it could mean to foster life in the long shadow of war and neoliberalism.
(As a fascinating footnote, Beauty Without Borders is now the name of a project by Astronomers Without Borders, about the “beauty of celestial events”!)
Minh-Ha T. Pham’s essay, “The Right to Fashion in the Age of Terrorism” examines the configuration and effects of the fashion-as-a-right discourse that emerged in the weeks and months after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City. Pham proceeds by considering the following guiding questions: Why, above all other kinds of consumerism promoted “to get the economy back on track” after 9/11, was fashion consumerism especially significant? How was fashion tied to democratic rights in this historical moment? And how did this association induce enthusiastic consumerism from women who, in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, had “no heart for shopping”? This essay suggests that the construction and instrumentalization of a post-9/11 ethical politics of fashion depended on a neoliberal articulation of fashion as the measure of and means to a multiplicity of democratic rights imagined as under threat by anti-capitalist terrorists.