FEMINISM, POSTSTRUCTURALISM AND SUBJECTIVITY
Feminist epistemological and methodological debates of the 1980s and 1990s have been both informed and transformed by feminism’s interrogation of postmodernism and poststructuralism. Chris Weedon’s Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory (1987) sets out the relationship between feminism, poststructuralism and subjectivity, and comments that feminism and poststructuralism are both centrally concerned with the issue of subjectivity. Weedon argues that poststructuralism, like feminism, has been keen to ‘deconstruct’ the concept of the ‘subject’ within the liberal humanist tradition in order to understand, theorise and make problematic the nature of meaning produced within this tradition. Feminism’s intersection with postmodernism (and in particular poststructuralism) has provided feminism with a range of critical frameworks, including ‘discourse’, ‘deconstruction’ and ‘difference’, which have been used to challenge and refine traditional assumptions of identity and subjectivity.
Weedon claims (1987) that the poststructuralist concept of discourse is centrally important for feminism. She maintains that discourse refers to ways of constituting meaning which are specific to particular groups, cultures and historic periods. It is drawn from the work of Michel Foucault (see Chapter 3) who used it to highlight the multifaceted nature of power. In developing a feminist poststructuralist perspective, Weedon contends that feminism must investigate the discursive ‘sites’ of male power as they are articulated and legitimised in institutional structures of power and forms of knowledge.
Feminists are aware of the significance of the concept of ‘discourse’. In discussing the impact of Foucault’s concept of discourse for the development of a feminist historiography, Gail Reekie (1994:1) comments: ‘More than any other writer associated with poststructuralism, Michel Foucault has provided feminist historians with a legible set of guide maps for this always hazardous journey out of structuralist and modernist thinking.’ She goes on to note that for many academic women ‘trained in social history and women’s history, the shift from experientially grounded accounts of historical reality to discourse theory has produced something like a crisis of faith in our home discipline’ (ibid,.). Within Foucauldian analysis discourses are multiple, and suggest competing, potentially contradictory ways of giving meaning to the world. They offer ‘subject positions’ for individuals to take up. Discourses vary in terms of the power they offer individuals, and also vary in their authority.
In contrast to the liberal humanist assumptions of the unified, rational self, poststructuralism—and more specifically feminist poststructuralism—proposes a subject which is fragmentary and contradictory. Feminist poststructuralists reject the concept of an essential, unified female nature, and feminist poststructuralism offers, according to Weedon (1987:125), ‘a contextualisation of experience and an analysis of its constitution and ideological power’. As Weedon suggests, the advantage of this strategy lies in the fact that an awareness of the contradictory nature of subjectivity highlights the possibility of choice in different situations and between different discourses.