DISCOURSE, DIFFERENCE AND THE IMPLICATIONS FOR. FEMINIST EPISTEMOLOGY
Feminist poststructuralism, in focusing on the issue of power in subject positions and discourses, addresses the critiques that have been made of different branches of feminist theory, for their uncritical application of terms such as patriarchy and for their essentialist views of concepts such as ‘women’ and ‘oppression’. Poststructuralism can also, through its analysis of discourse and power, locate feminist questions and issues, discursively and institutionally.
Many feminists have looked to the work of Michel Foucault, particularly his analysis of power, as a resource. Rosemary Pringle and Sophie Watson (1992) examine the relationship of power and the state, using a Foucauldian model of power. They argue that power should not be analysed in terms of a metatheoretical model of power either in sociopolitical or economic terms. Power, as drawn from a Foucauldian analytic frame of reference, facilitates an analysis of power in terms of local and institutional context and establishes the possibility of ‘resistance’ and contestation. McLennan notes that
a feminism suitably influenced by the work of Michel Foucault would see power as a micro-level phenomenon and a socially pervasive one, its multiple forms and effects saturating not only official political institutions, but being ‘immanent in all social relations’ [Pringle and Watson 1992:65].
However, one of the questions facing Foucauldian feminism as raised by McLennan (1995a) is whether this approach involves a ‘theory’ of power at all. McLennan argues,
.. .the most that emerges is a pan-societal vision of micro-conflict,.. .It is just this analytical ‘pointillism’ that has led more structurally inclined feminists to warn that ‘fragmentation has gone too far’, and that overly postmodernist feminism leads in effect ‘towards mere empiricism’ [Walby 1992:31].
Barrett and Phillips (1992), while acknowledging the significance of feminism’s ‘turn to culture’, and while recognising the importance of concepts such as ‘discourse’ and ‘difference’ and ‘deconstruction’ for feminist theorising, have some reservations about feminism’s intersection with cultural theory. Anne Phillips (1992) maintains that, in the context of a rethinking of contemporary political theory, feminist theory cannot afford to situate itself, in any total sense, for ‘difference’ and against ‘universality’, for in doing so feminism’s epistemological challenge to the ‘power – knowledge’ base of the academy is undermined.