CULTURAL POLITICS AND THE ACADEMY
Contemporary debates within feminist theorising have been reflected within the academy through the medium of Women’s Studies. Yeatman (1994:42) observes that the position of Women’s Studies within ‘the contemporary university has to do with making institutionalized knowledge accountable and responsive to contemporary politico-ethical challenges’. As such, it is ‘the site of a radical critique of modern western epistemology’ (ibid).
The intersection of feminism with poststructuralist and postmodernist discourses has encouraged a greater level of reflexivity around feminist epistemological debates and about its positioning within the academy. Morris (1988:8) notes that Foucault’s conception of the ‘specific intellectual’ has been very useful for feminist theory and critique in allowing institutional struggles to occupy a ‘politics of everyday life’ rather than being confined to academic debates relegated to an ‘ivory tower’. As Morris goes on to note, feminism has both benefited from and been actively engaged with ‘this kind of reconceptualization of academic polities’ (ibid). Yeatman (1994:48) maintains that Women’s Studies, and more particularly feminist theory, is making a significant contribution to the
new wave of theorizing in the humanities and the social sciences…This new body is both supremely skeptical and democratic in relation to the values which are also embedded in knowledge…This kind of analysis creates a space for those who have been ‘othered’ in discourse.
However, there have been concerns raised about the remoteness of contemporary feminist theorising from the reality of and operation of power in the academy. Paul Smith in an essay entitled ‘Men in Feminism’ (1987) contends that poststructuralist feminist theory ‘however “feminist” it may be, and howsoever “feminist” is construed—does not exist outside the academy’ (Smith 1987:34, 267, n. 2). However, Smith does indicate in a note that he is referring only to what is known ‘in the academic vernacular’ as poststructuralist feminist theory.
Meaghan Morris comments on the significance of recent theoretical debates within feminism for the creation of ‘sites of resistance’ within the academy. She states that intellectual work needs to go through a process of self-reflection in order to transform itself politically. However she notes that
one of the most important consequences of the notion of the ‘specific intellectual’ is not to translate ‘specificity’ as ‘confinement’, but rather to begin to accept firstly that work produced in an academic context.. .can be used and rewritten in unpredictable ways…elsewhere: and secondly that this movement can run the other way: academic theorization can and should transform its practices by learning from the experiences, the concepts, and the methodologies developed by people in broader social and political movements.
Morris notes that the ‘intensity’ of feminist theoretical debate, which has emerged from feminism’s intersection with poststructuralism and postmodernism, has corresponded with the emergence of feminism as a significant ‘presence’ in the academy. It has also reflected feminism’s engagement with a number of wider ‘political struggles’ around race, ethnicity, class and nationality. Additionally Morris maintains that it has run concurrently with a weakening of feminism as a significant social force.
Despite the growth in the importance of feminist theoretical debates in the academy, Morris comments on the absence of references to feminist writers within many of the discourses around postmodernism and poststructuralism. She raises the question of why the ‘critically associated work of Catherine Clement, Helene Cixous, Luce Irigaray, Shoshana Felman, Jane Gallop, Sarah Kofman, AliceJardine, Michele Le Doueff, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, or Jacqueline Rose’ (Morris 1988:10) is not referred to in the same way as many of the male literary and cultural critics. She goes on to note that if we add to this list those who have been concerned with theorising modernism/postmodernism we can add ‘Janet Bergstrom, Mary Ann Doane, Elizabeth Grosz, BarbaraJohnson, Donna Haraway, Teresa de Lauretis, Angela McRobbie, Patricia Mellencamp, Tania Modleski, Nancy K Miller, Naomi Shor, Kaja Silverman, Judith Williamson’ (ibid.). Further, Morris states that if we consider writers and theorists who have investigated the ‘polities’ of postmodernism, then ‘the works of Nancy Hartsock, Carol Pateman, Juliet Mitchell or Chantal Mouffe’ (ibid) should be added. The work of Anna Yeatman, Michele Barrett, Patricia Waugh, Nancy Fraser, Linda Nicholson, Susan Bordo, Judith Butler, Christine di Stefano, Joan Scott, Seyla Benhabib and many more can also be added to the list. In addition Morris (ibid) observes that the ‘new theorizations of politics by writers differently placed in histories of racism and colonialism’ has produced an area of writing vibrant in its interweaving of cultural criticism and politics. This includes writers such as Geeta Kapur, Trinh T. Minh-ha, bell hooks, Sneja Gunew, Rey Chow, Angela Davis and Gloria Anzaldua.
Morris also raises the related issue of the way women artists and feminist theorists have been portrayed by male cultural critics. She points to the work of Andreas Huyssen (1986) and Craig Owens (1983), who, she contends, identify postmodern women artists and feminist theorists ‘as objects of commentary5 but as not ‘engaging’ in a debate with postmodernism. As Morris (1988:14) ponders, ‘Doesn’t this distinction return us precisely to that division between a (feminized) object-language and a (masculine) meta-language that feminist thought has taught us to question for its political function, rather than for its epistemological validity?’. She goes on to question how Huyssen (1986) can confirm Owen’s view that feminism has not been fully engaged with debates around postmodernism, while at the same time ‘conceding that crucial aspects of postmodernism would be “unthinkable” [Huyssen 1986:220] without the impact of feminist thought’ (ibid.). It is Huyssen himself, who in his essay ‘Mass Culture as Woman: Modernism’s Other’, comments that the preoccupation of ‘male authors’ with imaginary femininity ‘can easily go hand in hand with the exclusion of real women from the literary enterprise [Huyssen 1986:45]’ (Morris 1988:14). It is hardly surprising then, as Morris goes on to comment, that if we follow Huyssen, a postmodernism dominated by male ‘authors’ ‘could be seen as renewing one of the inaugural gestures (in Lyotard’s sense) of modernism: inscribing its “bafflement” by an imaginary, “absent”, silent femininity, while erasing and silencing the work of real women in the history and practice of the theoretical enterprise’ (ibid.).