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“Postmodernism is basically a reaction against all the major tenets of modernist thought. That is, it is a reaction against a primarily epistemological discourse that assumes a knowing and active subject seeking access to objective reality, which, at least theoretically, can be understood in it’s totality.” 1
The rise of postmodernism in academia in the 1960s and 1970s has had a profound influence on all areas of critical theory, not least of all feminism, which was gaining prominence at the same time. While both engage with extensive critiques of modernity from related perspectives, postmodern theory in fact challenges key elements of the feminist emancipatory project; such as rights, subjectivity, and the cherished notion of ‘woman’. In spite of this, an increasing number of feminists are engaging with postmodern ideas to further develop the sensitivity of feminist theory to phallologocentric discourse formations and determine alternative discursive practices. Despite the continued charges of nihilism and cynicism, the feminist engagement with postmodern positions offers great potential for a genuine reconstruction of feminist theory and practice. The major characteristics of postmodern critique are encapsulated in Grant’s passage above. Postmodernism criticises the modernist ‘epistemological discourse’ - the structure of theories that claim ahistorical meta-concepts as foundations, such as God, Truth, Reason, Freedom. These theories posit particular philosophical subjects; for instance the ‘knowing’ man of reason - the major Enlightenment subject who knows or makes claims to universal knowledge of the ‘objective reality’ that surrounds him. This reality is a singular world which exists ‘out there’, independent and intrinsically separated from the knower-subject, and which forms passive ground for his theoretical or empirical inquiries. This gathered knowledge accumulates through linear historical time and forms the trajectory of humanity’s Progress. The postmodern perspective instead sees objective, unified reality as illusionary. The
We must be aware of the dangers in trying to isolate general themes from a wide variety of texts which are claimed to fit under the umbrella of postmodernism. See Butler 1992:5.
subject cannot ever know it in totality, as it does not exist as an objective ‘out there’ - instead the world and its interpretations and representations exist as multiple, unfixed, and contingent on local historical circumstances. The subject’s Cartesian wholeness is fictive also - it is instead fragmented and always in the process of becoming - it is ‘never fully constituted, but is subjected and produced time and time again’3. The subject/object distinction collapses; the subject is instead structured through the surrounding discourses which weave it into existence. The former ‘universals’ - truth, history, morality, are similarly produced through these particular, situated discourses, discourses which exert power through their regimes of knowledge formation. Feminist theory has significant overlap with this overarching critique of enlightenment thought, sharing its criticism of rationality and hierarchical dualism. However while feminism challenges modernist epistemology and the Cartesian subject from the position that they are intimately linked to the masculine while devaluing the oppressed feminine, postmodernism attacks the same terms as part of its wider assault against all metasymbols and meta-narratives of modernism. It is this relentless critique which positions postmodernism in opposition to many feminist theories, which tend to be both historically and theoretically based in modernism. Humanism underpins the liberal feminist tradition, while Marxism underscores Marxist/Socialist feminisms. Together with radical and psychoanalytical feminism, they share the Enlightenment notion of emancipation; to liberate a universal ‘women’ from the oppressions of universal patriarchy, in its many formulations and definitions. Postmodern feminism challenges the terms, descriptions, and aims of the feminist canon as failing to escape the ‘phallologocentric thought’ of the Enlightenment and thereby confined to enact the same exclusionary practices which it struggles against.
A key part of this critique centres on the feminist subject of ‘woman’. This followed on the heels of black and lesbian feminist criticisms that saw ‘woman’ as invariably being white, middle class and heterosexual. While postmodernism’s emphasis on plurality and multiple subjectivities provides a space legitimising the search for these marginal voices, postmodern feminism goes further than simply opening up ‘woman’ to intersecting qualifiers (based on stratifications of oppression) - in Butler’s words, ‘it would be wrong to assume in
‘Phallologocentric refers to the Enlightenment philosophical systems of thought which elevate rationality and the masculine phallus.
See for instance hook’s criticism of the exclusivity the feminist ‘sisterhood’, which she saw as ‘informed by
advance that there is a category of ‘woman’ that simply needs to be filled with various components of race, class, age, ethnicity, and sexuality in order to be complete’6. Formulating these intersecting categories and politically mobilising around their intersecting oppressions is the basis of the identity politics that underpinned second wave feminist movements.7 Despite its effectiveness in political mobilisation, (identity) politics based on these modernist characterisations has fundamental limitations. The political rigour with which identity is defined can lead to a ‘hierarchy of oppressions’, in which individuals gain a right to speak based only on the accumulations of these markers of oppression.8 The position of political subjects within this hierarchy can only be determined by which position is most oppressed and therefore given priority over others.9 Postmodern feminism thinking destabilises this kind of framework. Trinth Minh-ha sees difference as ‘...beyond and alongside identity... The idea of two illusionary separate identities, one ethnic, one woman... partakes in the Euro-American system of dualistic reasoning and its age-old divide-and-conquer tactics’ . Trinth challenges the unity of the modern subject to exist in stable political arrangements, where the subject must slot into, write from, and represent coherent subjectivit(ies). Difference is always undermining identity which erodes the stable formations of identity politics. This deconstructive approach goes straight to the core of feminist theory, destabilising the very concept of ‘woman’ that it attempts to emancipate. These conceptual tools are used by postmodern feminists to critique other branches of feminism based around an essentialised
racist and classist assumptions about white womanhood’ hooks 1984:46. Further, ‘Divisions will not be eliminated by wishful thinking or romantic reverie about common oppression despite the value of highlighting experiences all women share‘ (44). Instead she views postmodernism as opening up spaces for ‘the voices of displaced, marginalized, exploited and oppressed black people’ (25).
Butler 1990:15. Rutherford 1990:107.
Other problems with this position include a) that individuals become recognisable only as function of difference (a black woman always speaks as a black woman and never outside this subject position), and b) the individual is assumed to be able to represent an entire category - the black woman represents all black women. See Elam 1994:74-5.
The difficulty of privileging some categories over others may be an outcome of the feminist tendency to label the various forms of discrimination against women as all political oppression; as June Jordan says ‘If I, a black woman poet and writer, a professor of English at a State University, if I am oppressed then we need another word to describe a woman in a refugee camp in Palestine or the mother of six in a rural village in Nicaragua or any counterpart inside South Africa’. Rutherford 1990:112.
female subject. Uncritical variants of ecofeminism reverse the man/women, culture/nature, master/mastered dualisms to celebrate woman’s position as close to nature. These ecofeminist discourses thus speak for the position of a universal essentialist woman and impose the same hierarchical dualisms, albeit reversed, as they criticise. The epistemology of modernism is a unitary whole - changing around the dualisms will not escape this phallocentric discourse - the feminine values argument ‘...will fail to privilege these values because their argument leaves the dichotomy that defines that inferiority intact’ . Critical branches of ecofeminism share these postmodern deconstructive techniques in its critique of essentialist ‘cultural’ ecofeminisms and patriarchal discourse on nature.12 Certain ‘her-story’ variants of feminist historiography espouse a similar reversal; they choose to write history self-consciously from a ‘female perspective’. These techniques are important in vitally providing a gendered historical lens to rework and reread history. However they fail to escape the limitations and power/knowledge formations of the discourse of History, which is intimately coupled with (the history of) philosophy and the position of woman as ‘Other’. Thus Crosby writes, ‘where once history revealed the truth of man’s identity... now history reveals the truth of women’s lives, the fate of being a woman, of being ‘the Other’’ . ‘Woman’ is thus still trapped in patriarchal epistemology, the ahistorical Other. The question of ‘otherness’ is highly contentious in feminist and postmodernist debate. While de Beauvoir’s momentous Second Sex first provided a comprehensive account of woman as Other, and hence inferior to man, within some postmodern feminist thought, it is this otherness itself which is celebrated.
14 13 11
Luce Irigaray looks beyond the philosophy of
the subject to explore alternative, feminine positions. The active subject is constructed through the specular economy of phallocentric psychoanalysis, which divides and separates in line with the master signifier of the phallus.15 Thus the created subject/object distinction is
Hekman 1990:17. For further detail of the critical practices of ecofeminism, see Plumwood 1993:19-40. Crosby 1991:153.
Irigaray does not classify herself as a postmodernist, though her critiques of subjectivity and of binaries contribute to a body of theoretical work which could be called ‘postmodern’. See Butler 1992:4 for the difficulties of defining ‘postmodern’ critique.
For more detail, see Irigaray 1985a: 26-31,60-2.
reliant on this phallocentric underpinning, and must always end in hierarchal configurations which privilege the (phallic) subject. 16 All such dichotomies and the structure of language itself (following the Lacanian construction of the symbolic order) refer back to this basic phallocentric discourse - thus women must find new ways to speak to avoid this phallocentricism and hence speak for themselves, ‘If we keep on speaking the same language together, we’re going to reproduce the same history...the same difficulties, the same impossibility of making connections’17. In contrast to the singular phallus, a woman’s sex organ is multiple, the desires of her multiple erogenous zones cannot be represented in phallocentric language, feminine writing is multiple, conflating the ‘I’ and the ‘You’ to be true to the female body which is always touching itself - the ‘ceaseless exchange of herself with the other without identifying either’ . As the lack of woman cannot be seen, Irigaray writes the female body as escaping Lacan’s violent signifier - the body is not a referent that we have privileged access to, but is rather contingent on and merges with, the spaces which constitute language as difference, marking the woman’s fundamental exclusion.19 Her rewriting of the body avoids the essentialism of other feminists by not appealing to binaries which fix and stabilise. Rather she posits a ‘writing through and with the body rather than writing of the body’20, that leaves the female body unbound by phallocentric discourse. Another example is Alice Jardine’s account of gynesis, a postmodern feminist approach to valorising otherness through the textual practice of inserting the feminine as the lost other into texts.
This acts as a counterpoise to the ‘negative gynesis’ of patriarchal
discourse’s repression of the feminine. However, the postmodern feminist tendency to uncritically equate universal ‘the other’ with woman runs the risk of losing theoretical grasp of sites of specific women’s oppression (whether through Foucauldian power/knowledge formulations or more traditional Marxist/feminist analysis). Moi states this criticism
Irigaray 1985b: 275. Irigaray 1985a: 205. Irigaray 1985a: 31. For an example of this writing, see Irigaray 1985a: 205-219. See Ahmed 1998:92-3 for more detail. Elam 1994:62. See Jardine 1985:24-5 for an exposition of the gynesis process.
succinctly - this practice ‘deprives the feminist struggle of any kind of specificity. What is repressed is not otherness, but specific, historically constructed agents’. Thus woman are not repressed because they are other, rather this association comes about through an ‘ideological manoeuvre designed to mask the concrete material grounds for oppression’22. De Beauvoir and Irigaray amongst others have demonstrated that phallocentricism’s key role in structuring the varied discourses of power around woman as other in various contexts, and thus ‘the other’ is not simply a surface mask that oppressed women wear. However to claim no material grounds for the women’s oppression would be misguided and extreme application of this thought. Moi’s criticism is representative of the ongoing and deep rift amongst feminist espousing materialist analyses and those endorsing discursive methodologies, of which we will discuss in more detail later. While most contemporary feminist theory does not uncritically accept the first wave feminist goal of making women like men, this drive for sameness - the contradictory posture for women to reach the privilege(s) of the male in patriarchal society - lives on in the form of equal rights. While women’s rights have been hard fought for around the world and represent key gains in improving women’s lives, a postmodern critique can illuminate the limitations of feminist usage of rights discourse and provide alternatives. While feminists have long criticised rights-based approaches as always being indebted to the male political subject, the postmodern critique comes from a different direction - asserting that as (political) subjects are (re)emergent from the discourses that weave and surround them, rights should not be accorded to the subject, but rather that the discourse of rights produces particular political subjects who can hold them. Sometimes this results in dangerous, unresolvable oppositions, such as in the abortion debate, where in the discourse of pro-life rights, all humans have a right to life, while for pro-choice, all women have a right to choose. No balance can be struck, since there is no common language that express the rights of both sides. An appeal to rights in this case must try to find grounding in essentialised notions of ‘the natural’. An analogous situation arises in considering the subject of law; who, for example, can occupy the claimant subject in sex discrimination cases, which are underwritten by patriarchal legal frameworks? It is unlikely to be as broad as the feminist discourse’s
This example is adapted from the Moi 1988:79. In her words, ‘In the language of the foetus, the mother is a murderess, in the language of the mother, the foetus is a virus’.
understanding of the sex discrimination subject.24 Much of the discourse on woman’s rights emerges from the international arena of gender politics and development. These development discourses have remained steadfastly wedded to modernistic notions of progress and economic development. Postmodern feminist concerns have been closely linked here to postcolonial critiques of Western hegemony (inside and outside feminist discourse) and can be particularly useful in providing frameworks for feminist debate over feminist concerns in a north/south context. Despite increasing radicalisation of certain gender/development discourse, the overriding tendency is still to characterise women in the south as vulnerable, helpless victims, the global ‘other’.
Postmodern feminist discourse can be useful in destabilising this discourse of ‘Third World woman’, bringing the role of the development/analyst into question, whose authority had been ‘maintained and reinforced (until recently) by their virtual monopoly over the discourse on ‘Third World women’’26. At the same time it must remain consciously self-reflective to be sensitive to new developments in theory which effect its application.27 However, despite the support of key Third World feminists, such as Spivak, Mohanty, and Ong, much of feminist thought and practice emerging in the third world are of socialist feminist backgrounds, eluding to the difficulties postmodern feminism has in proposing clear practical outcomes within this context.28 So far we have seen the important critical contributions of postmodern feminism to feminist theory. However it is postmodern feminism’s failure to achieve ‘practical outcomes’ or ‘be relevance to woman daily lives’ in the eyes of feminist critics which has lead to much suspicion and criticism. Many feminists see the postmodern shift away from identity
See Butler 1992:13, and Ahmed 1998:23-44 for a more indepth discussion of women’s rights and postmodern feminism.
Shifts in development thought such WID, WAD, and GAD has broadened gender awareness but not necessarily the awareness of oppressive development discourses. See Parpart 1995:14-5.
One example in the context of the postmodern feminist/development nexus is over the particular analysis of postmodernism itself provided by Jameson’s post-Marxist description of postmodernism as ‘the cultural logic of late capitalism’ . This serves to historicise its theories and provide new ways of examining the contemporary rise of global capitalist discourse with its omnipresent commodification, and how they interact with patriarchal institutions and discourses at local, national and international levels. This has relevance for postmodern feminist development theory analysis of third world women as embedded in transnational capital networks, and the rising forms of globalised resistance to this order. See Jameson 1984:56 for his exposition of postmodernism as ‘cultural logic’.
thinking as profoundly apolitical.
Nancy Hartsock takes on conspiratorial overtones, ‘Why
is it that just at the moment when so many of us who have been silenced begin to demand the right to name ourselves... that just then the concept of subjecthood becomes problematic?’30. In general, while modernist feminist theory has had a very close and entwined relationship with feminist practice, postmodern theories have instead emerged from various critiques of modernism. This reinforces the position that postmodern feminism is disconnected to the political real world. Although this debate can slide into the entrenched polar standpoints of material vs. discursive, or essential vs. relativist, many feminist position themselves in between the two extremes, acknowledging that while postmodernism taken to its extreme (and practised by its mostly middle class male proponents) may be indeed apolitical or nihilistic, postmodern ideas can contribute and may indeed be necessary for sharper, more effective feminist theories. This incorporation frequently sees selective mapping of postmodern elements into the feminist theoretical domain while real world feminist practice often remains steadfastly modern.31 What avenues are there, then, for postmodern feminist practice? While Irigaray and Cixious sketched new ways of writing outside of phallologocentric discourse, many postmodern feminists look towards Foucault's idea of resistance as harbouring the greatest potentials for postmodern feminist political practice. He sees resistance is a organic response to hegemonic power/knowledge discourses that act to repress us through oppressive subject formations. By disrupting and disturbing these dominant discourses, it may be possible to construct less repressive power/knowledge formations.
This focus on local resistance
encourages feminists to explore localised mechanisms of female oppression, while eschewing resistance based on universal notions of male dominance. The educational institution is a key conduit in subject formation with our society, where individuals are initiated into literary discourses and taught to read in particular ways and to particular ends. Reconfigurations of repressive gendered discourses can come about if particular attention is paid to the canon of texts which are used for school study, and how
See for instance, Grant 1993:134, Parpart 1995:5. Hartsock, ‘Foucault's on Power: A Theory for women’, in Nicholson 1990:163-4. Ahmed 1998:23.
For a brief analysis of Foucault’s potential for political action, see Hekman 1990:175-188. Foucault himself never specifies how local resistance could be applied to a political program.
teachers are taught to teach students and thus assist in the (re)production of male and female reading subjects.
This is vital to displace the institutionally supported dominant texts which
place women in patriarchal relations and encourage them to take up masochistic modes of femininity, allowing instead for texts with offer and support alternative female subject positions which resist the patriarchal order. This transformative power of texts is demonstrated by the key role of fiction in the women’s liberation movements since the late 1960’s, and demonstrates the discursive contribution to radical feminist’s consciousness raising groups.34 Postmodern feminist analysis, in rejecting the radical feminist dichotomy of male=oppressor vs female=oppressed, may find pave the way for a more fruitful collaboration with men in feminist projects. The automatic label of ‘oppressor’ that some branches of radical feminism give to men both ignores the complex construction of masculine subjectivity and thereby closes off its analysis, and alienate otherwise supportive men from feminist causes. Going beyond this dyad opens up men to their responsibility to deconstruct the affirming discourse of patriarchal masculinity and open up to new, resistive ways of performing their gender. Just as the feminist canon has both modern and postmodern elements and aspirations, formulation of postmodern feminism find it difficult to escape from engaging in modernist emancipatory notions. While staunch advocates of the postmodern approach (for instance Butler, Kristeva), may reject all traces of modernism, the woman subject, emancipation, feminists such as Moi offer more pragmatic positions ‘if we still live in metaphysical space, our necessary utopian wish to deconstruct sexual identities always runs up against the fact the patriarchy oppresses women as women’. This comment recognises the hard political and theoretical choices that must be made to allow for collective political action in the world even Butler uses the words ‘our subordination’ when referring to the feminist struggle. We have seen that postmodern analysis is ‘the very precondition of a politically engaged critique’36 and how vitally relevant it is for keeping feminism true to its emancipatory aims
For further writing on the feminist deconstruction and the education system, see Weedom 1987:168-171. Weedom 1987:173. Butler 1992:19. Butler 1992:6-7.
while exploring new discursive arrangements to build alternatives to phallocentric discourse and its associated subjectivities. Genuinely engaging in postmodern theory while remain true to fundamental ideas of feminism is no easy task.37 However it is the creative dissonances between postmodernism and feminism which offers the potential for both new theory and practice.
Poovey sees‘the challenge for those of us who are convinced that both real historical women exist and share certain experience and that deconstruction’s demystification of presence makes theoretical sense is to work out some way to think both women and woman’ Poovey 1988:52-3 [quoted in Grant 1993:137.]
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