FEMINISM AND THE ‘POLITICS OF DIFFERENCE’
The issues of subjectivity and experience within feminist theory have been deconstructed by poststructuralism and postmodernism. Feminist poststructuralism challenges feminism’s tendency to view both subjectivity and women’s experience as ‘unitary’, monovocal, and characterised by a unified discourse. Poststructuralism, specifically feminist poststructuralism, establishes ‘experience’ as contradictory and identity as plural. Yeatman notes that, even where ‘feminist theorizing remains tied into the distinctly essentialist presuppositions of liberal, radical and socialist feminism, this theorizing cannot continue, innocent of postmodern feminist theorizing and its embrace of the politics of difference’ (1994:13). Yeatman goes on to note that, ‘to the extent that postmodernism appears to be the discursive terrain on which the politics of difference is currently being played out, feminism and postmodernism can be understood, as in a relationship of reciprocal interpellation’ (ibid.).
The intersection of feminism with poststructuralism and postmodernism has, in the multiplication of the grounds of difference, permitted difference as such to emerge. As Yeatman notes, ‘it is not swallowed up in the monological politics of inversion which a binary political contest requires’ (1994:15). Difference poses a new set of requirements for feminism and, as Yeatman goes on to argue, contemporary feminism ‘as it is refracted through a politics of difference may be seen as responding to this challenge’ (ibid.). As has been apparent from the preceding arguments, and as Yeatman contends, ‘the emergence of the category of difference has permitted feminist theory to investigate the materiality of the discursively interpellated female subject, and thereby to open the significance of difference in embodiment for the politics of difference’ (ibid).
Contemporary feminist theory is the product of epistemological upheavals which have characterised its own as well as other disciplinary areas, such as the social sciences and the humanities. Felski (1989:35) raises the question: ‘How, then, is feminism to legitimate and sustain its own critique of patriarchy, once it recognizes the existence of a more general legitimization crisis which questions the grounding and authority of all forms of knowledge?’ Contemporary feminist theory in its intersection with postmodernism and poststructuralism is having to reassess its previously held epistemological assumptions. It is in the process of having to come to terms with its affinity with postmodernism, and it is therefore confronted with issues of how to situate its own value commitments in relation to the pluralistic and relativistic implications of postmodernism and poststructuralism. As Yeatman (1990b:284) contends, ‘feminism lies on the cusp of a paradigm revolution and the features of the alternative emergent paradigm are not yet clear’.