The relationship between feminism, postmodernism and epistemology is a complex one. Yeatman (1994:15) maintains that ‘what can be argued is that a postmodern feminism, or one which is refracted through the politics of difference, is a feminism committed to a specific epistemological polities’. She identifies a number of dimensions which characterise such an orientation. These include: a critique of modernism and theoretical traditions emerging around modernism based on a model of deconstruction; an articulation of marginalised or ‘minority’ voices to resist the universalising aspect of theorising based on a model of the commonality of oppression; a rejection of fixity of ‘binary constructions of difference’ and a simultaneous emphasis on the fluidity and indeterminacy of such constructions. In addition, Yeatman lists the following dimensions: a theory of knowledge which emphasises relationalism not relativism; a recognition of the historical contingency and specificity of theorising, and a concurrent recognition of the possibility of paradigmatic shifts within theoretical models; the recognition of the role of the theorist in relation to both ‘institutionalized intellectual authority and to their actual and prospective audience’ and a contingent recognition of their ‘embodied subjectivity’. Finally, Yeatman cites a recognition of language as being strategic within theoretical debates; in Grosz’s (1988:100) terms ‘a material, active, productive system’.
Yeatman views the epistemological politics of postmodern feminist theorising as ‘an emergent polities’, which she sees as a product of more wide-ranging political and cultural movements, of which feminism is one. In an earlier analysis of the relationship between feminism, post-colonialism and postmodernism,
Yeatman (1990b: 289) contends that postmodernism’s identification of the need for a pluralistic conception of subjectivity and agency has been ‘shaped’ by sociocultural and political movements of the late twentieth century. These have included expressions of revolt against ‘the monovocal structures of modern patriarchal possessive individualism’ (ibid.), including the articulation of a politics of self-determination from post-colonial movements, the wide-ranging and expansive movements around multiculturalism and anti-racism within the context of an urbanised or ‘developed’ cultural context, and feminist movements: ‘All these movements have disrupted the dichotomous structure of subject and other which underpinned the private property relations of modern patriarchal individualism by disestablishing the “other” as a permissible term’ (ibid.). As Yeatman optimistically contends, postmodernism enjoins a new and qualitatively distinct stage of democratisation. However, she notes that this view is not necessarily one held by those emerging from, and still engaged within, postcolonial and anti-racist struggles. She recognises that, from the position of those who are contesting their status as ‘other’, ‘postmodernism appears as the efforts of the modern imperial, patriarchal master subject to manage the extent and direction of the crisis…’ (Yeatman 1994:27).
Yeatman cites the work of Edward Said and Cornell West who, as postcolonial and anti-racist intellectuals, view postmodernism as lacking the dynamics of an emancipatory politics. As Yeatman (1995a:51) notes, emancipatory movements are only accepted as authentic to the extent that they accept the leadership of a universalist emancipatory politics. She maintains that, for ‘a consciousness of multiple and interlocking oppressions to be possible, the idea of universal human emancipation has to lose legitimacy’. Yeatman contends that this has occurred through post-colonial challenges to ‘the assimilationist character of the universal or humanist subject’ (ibid).