FEMINISM, ‘PLURALISM’ AND THE POLITICS OF. RELATIVISM
At an epistemological level, there is a need for a radical and critical feminist epistemology to challenge the male monopoly of knowledge and exclusion of women from both the production of knowledge and positions of power. However, feminism’s intersection with poststructuralism and postmodernism has led some feminist theorists to voice concern about the direction of feminist theory. Patricia Waugh (1992) explores the relationship between feminism and postmodernism. She argues that feminism clearly emerged from Enlightenment modernity, with its conceptions ofjustice and subjectivity as being ‘universal’ categories. However, Waugh maintains that feminist discourses, in articulating issues of sexual difference, weakened the extremes of universalism in modernist thought. She argues that, in this sense of articulating ‘difference’, feminism can be seen as postmodern. Waugh notes that feminism does recognise a contradiction in its attempt to establish an epistemological base, in that women look for equality and recognition based on cultural and ideological formations which feminism seeks to challenge.
Feminism, like postmodernism, argues Waugh, has provided its own critique of essentialist and foundationalist assumptions. However, as a political practice, feminism cannot completely turn its back on ‘enlightened modernity’, she says: to be effective as an emancipatory movement it must have a belief in an effective ‘human agency’, in the importance of historical continuity and historical progress. She argues that feminism has been engaged in a struggle to reconcile context-specific difference or situatedness with universal political aims, and she makes the important point that ‘totalities’, such as the concept of political unity, need not mean uniformity. Waugh argues that the postmodern espousal of decentring as liberatory says little about women as beings in the world who may continue to find themselves displaced even within a critique of epistemology which has supposedly deconstructed the centre and done away with the margins.
Seyla Benhabib (1994) offers a critical overview of the alleged convergence between feminism and postmodernism. She argues that many feminists have accepted three main theses associated with postmodernism. One is the concept of the ‘death of man’, or the end of humanism, which means the dissolution of philosophies that begin with ‘the subject’, subjectivity, or human consciousness. A second theme identified by Benhabib is ‘the death of history’, which refers to the disappearance of ‘grand narratives’. The third element is the ‘death of metaphysics’, which means the end of the attempt ‘to discover absolute truth, or the “essences of things’” (Benhabib 1994:230). While Benhabib recognises the importance of these issues within feminist theorising, she expresses a concern that, if they are engaged with too uncritically, they threaten not only to eliminate feminist theory as a distinct enterprise, but to dissolve its emancipatory goals in the process. Benhabib maintains that in their ‘weak’ versions these theories are useful, but in their ‘strong’ versions they are counterproductive for feminist theory, politics and practice. Benhabib maintains that a ‘weak’ version of the ‘death of man’ thesis ‘situates’ the subject in context, and is valuable in stressing variability and diversity. The more radical version, however, reduces ‘the subject’ to an endless state of flux. This latter position is both unhelpful and damaging to feminism: as Benhabib maintains, it provides no means of understanding how women could become more autonomous and change the circumstances of their lives. Similarly, Benhabib points out that much the same position exists for ‘the death of history’. While it is important to recognise that there are no absolutes in historical change, if all forms of theorising about patterns of change are rejected, then there is no way of promoting successful emancipatory struggles.
Benhabib maintains that, while postmodernism can illuminate certain problems for feminism, any attempt to link feminism with a ‘strong’ postmodernism would lead to incoherence and would make effective theorising impossible. Benhabib argues that a ‘strong’ postmodernism leads feminism into a position where it is reticent to formulate a feminist ethic or concept of autonomy because of a fear of lapsing into essentialism. She argues that this has produced in feminism ‘a retreat from Utopia’. She maintains that ‘Postmodernism can teach us the theoretical and political traps of why Utopias and foundational thinking can go wrong, but it should not lead to a retreat from Utopia altogether. For we, as women, have much to lose by giving up the Utopian hope in the wholly other’ (Benhabib 1994:230).
Barrett (1991) has maintained that postmodernism’s tendency to deconstruct and fragment some of the central concepts used in ‘modernist’ social theory has shifted the focus of theoretical debate from structural analysis to an analysis of ‘discourse’. The implications are to produce a highly dispersed and fragmented analysis of power, which fails to locate the source of power in any specific location or social group. The implications for feminist theory and epistemology are, as a result, highly problematic because of a denial of causality within the plurality of sources of power articulated through this model.
Barrett argues that the significance of poststructuralism, in particular for feminist thinking, has made ‘classic materialist’ models of social power seem less politically useful for feminist analysis. She recognises that poststructuralism challenges traditional notions of causality, but maintains that Foucault’s concept of discourse is valuable in this respect because it facilitates an analysis of the nature of epistemological power of discursive regimes. Barrett (1992:204) points out that the new critical feminism that has emerged has moved away from the more ‘determinist’ models of ‘social structure (framed as capitalist, patriarchy or gender – segmented labour market) and focuses on culture, sexuality and political agency’.
Barrett maintains that evidence of a ‘paradigm shift’ within feminism can be seen to have taken place already. She claims that the debate within feminism around ‘equality/difference’ which has characterised the past decade of Western feminism can be seen as a paradigmatic shift of that order. However, Barrett argues that feminism is too indebted to ‘modernist’ values to be able to totally reject the context in which it was formed. She maintains that a total postmodern abandonment of binary structures would be rejected by many feminists. She argues that we can speak of ‘a gendering of modernity’ (Barrett 1992) as a new critical enterprise, and maintains that it is becoming increasingly possible to identify debates on the implications for feminism in the various critiques of modernism and modernity.
Barrett’s generally positive view of feminism’s intersection with poststructuralism does contain reservations. She argues that debates around ideology and subjectivity have shown that we need a better conception of agency and identity than has become available in either anti-humanist poststructuralist thought or its humanist/ modernist predecessors. Barrett and Phillips (1992) recognise there is now a concern that the process of self-criticism operating within feminism might lead to a move away from the goal of production of accurate and systematic knowledge, and that feminism may lose sight of the hierarchies of ‘white male privilege’. They make the point that more recent theory does not equal better theory. However, they argue that it should not be assumed that nothing new can ever be added to the debate. As Barrett and Phillips (1992:7) maintain, ‘To claim transcendence is to ignore our own position in history; to reduce debates to their essential context is to deny the power of context and discourse.’
The question facing feminist theorists is how far feminism should go in engaging with contemporary theoretical debate around postmodernism and postructuralism. As Barrett (1992:215) notes, ‘in legitimate critique of some of the earlier assumptions we may stray too far from feminism’s original project’. Barrett (1992:6) cites Bordo’s (1990) comments in this regard: ‘Susan Bordo.. .has argued that too relentless a focus on historical heterogeneity. can obscure the transhistorical patterns of white male privilege that have informed the creation of the Western intellectual tradition.’ Bordo recognises the new scepticism about the use of ‘globalising’ categories within feminist theory. She recognises, and considers, feminism’s appropriation of ‘deconstruction’ and the call from within feminism for new ‘narrative’ approaches aimed at the adequate representation of ‘difference’. She maintains that the influence of poststructuralism has shifted the central concerns of feminism from a specific practical ‘political’ emphasis to questions of adequate theory. Bordo (1990:152) argues that, as a result, feminism has been diverted from an analysis of ‘professional and institutional mechanisms through which the politics of exclusion operate more powerfully in intellectual communities’, and she goes on to say that, at the same time, feminism deprives itself of analytical tools for critiquing those communities. However, Bordo claims (in a note) that her main criticism is directed at the programmatic adoption or appropriation of poststructuralism. She maintains much poststructuralist thought— particularly as manifested in the work of Foucault—is useful in terms of offering interpretive tools and analytical devices rather than theoretical frameworks for analysis.
Bordo argues that, while in theory all ‘totalising’ narratives may be equal, in the context of Western history and actual relations of power characteristic of history, there are significant differences between the ‘meta-narratives’ of gender theory, and those in the white male intellectual tradition. The latter, argues Bordo, being located at the centre of three axes of privilege—race, class and gender—had more to lose in giving recognition to ‘difference’. Feminist theory, as Bordo points out, is not located at the centre of cultural power. She maintains that feminism, being an ‘outsider discourse’ and a movement born out of the experience of marginality, has been far more attuned to issues of exclusion and invisibility. She warns against the dangers of the paralysis that could accompany the self-doubt and criticism that feminism is experiencing, and maintains that a decade ago feminist academics were preoccupied with the concept of ‘otherness’. However, she argues that feminist academics have been ‘accepted’ within a masculine patriarchal academy, and concludes that ‘our language, intellectual history and social forms are “gendered”; there is no escape from this fact and from its consequences on our lives’ (1990:152). She maintains that academic institutions have only just begun to absorb the messages of ‘modernist’ social criticism, to allow them to escape any further challenge to their epistemological and power bases.
The process of self-reflection, which has characterised feminist thinking in the 1980s and 1990s, has accompanied changes in both the nature, and form, of patriarchy in a range of cultural, social, political, economic and institutional sites. One of the results has been a breakdown in the consensus of second wave feminism and a movement towards a ‘feminist pluralism’. As Ramazanoglu notes,
since academic social theorists are increasingly under some pressure to acknowledge feminist social theory, those unsympathetic to feminist politics are offered a level of engagement between feminism, poststructuralism and postmodernism which is intellectually challenging but extremely abstracted and also insensitive to the political point of feminism.
What conclusions can be drawn with regard to any fundamental shift in orientation for feminism? McLennan (1994:118) argues that ‘feminism cannot completely give up on a critical rationalist conception of ideology’. As he continues, ‘[Postmodernism,] immensely valuable as it has been as a kind of conceptual agent provocateur,.. .will, I think, be superseded by a more rounded and positive theoretical orientation’ (McLennan 1994:120). Both postmodernism and poststructuralism can be seen as valuable theoretical interventions in a feminism which, while superficially characterised by coherence, was internally riven by divisions based on race, ethnicity, class and sexuality. However, it is argued by some branches of feminism that there needs to be an articulation of feminist epistemologies for feminism to pose a significant challenge to the academy. As Elizabeth Grosz contends:
The choice.. .is not between maintaining a politically pure theoretical position (and leaving the murkier questions of political involvement unmasked); or espousing a politically tenuous one which may be more pragmatically effective in securing social change. The alternatives faced by feminist theorists are all in some sense ‘impure’ and ‘implicated’ in patriarchy. There can be no feminist position that is not in some way or other involved in patriarchal power relations; it is hard to see how this is either possible or desirable, for a freedom from patriarchal ‘contamination’ entails feminism’s incommensurability with patriarchy, and thus the inability to criticise it.
She notes that feminism’s engagement with patriarchy not only provides the conditions under which feminism can become familiar with what it criticises, but it also provides the means by which patriarchal dominance can be challenged. Thus, from the perspective of second wave feminism, postmodernism and poststructuralism’s effective denial of the status of all epistemologies renders feminism politically and epistemologically powerless, and must ultimately lead to feminism’s rejection of a ‘long term relationship’.