Poststructuralist theories thus reject the concept of the humanist subject, and feminist poststructuralism poses a radical challenge to essentialism. The ‘subject’ is no longer a fixed entity, a manifestation of ‘essence’ but ‘a “subject-in process” never unitary, never complete’ (Marshall 1994:108). This anti-essentialist position culminates, as Fraser (1992:66) contends, in a postfeminist stance where a conception of a collective feminist identity may be perceived as totalitarian and dangerous.

Michel Foucault’s deconstructive approach to the ‘subject’ has been influential for many feminists and feminist poststructuralists. Foucault’s ‘subject’ is decentred and dispersed and Foucault insists that we reject ‘totalizing’ discourses and the model of the rational humanist subject. Judith Butler (1990a:136) draws on Foucault’s ‘genealogical’ method to deconstruct the ‘subject’ of feminism. She contests the ‘reification’ of gender implicit in the binary conception of masculine/ feminine subjectivity and rejects any notion of feminine identity. Thus, for Butler, gender is performative, it is an effect of performance and is constituted in performance, so, as Butler notes, ‘it has no ontological status apart from the various acts which constitute its reality’ (see Chapter 9). As Marshall indicates, Butler’s ‘feminist strategy, is to disrupt the performance, to “trouble” the congealed categories of gender through parody’. She notes that ‘Butler’s work is important in its insistence that there is no “essence” reflected by gender – it only takes on a guise of naturalness through repeated and discursively constructed performances’ (1994:110).

For feminist poststructuralists such as Chris Weedon (1987), neither the attempt to redefine the truth of women’s nature within the terms of existing social relations— as in liberal feminism’s attempt to establish equality with men – nor the radical – feminist emphasis on fixed difference expressed as separatism, is politically adequate.

Feminist poststructuralism is thus a significant advance over second wave feminism because it addresses historical and cultural specificity in the experiences of women. Weedon outlines the position as follows:

For a theoretical perspective to be politically useful to feminism, it should be able to recognize the importance of the subjective in constituting the meaning of women’s lived reality. It should not deny subjective experience, since the ways in which people make sense of their lives is a necessary starting point for understanding how power relations structure society. Theory must be able to address women’s experience by showing where it comes from and how it relates to material social practices and the power relations which structure them.. .In this process subjectivity becomes available, offering the individual both a perspective and a choice, and opening up the possibility of political change.

(Weedon 1987:8-9)

Poststructuralist accounts have addressed some of the criticisms raised by women of colour to feminist essentialism. bell hooks (1990:29) suggests ‘critiques of essentialism which challenge notions of universality and static over-determined identity within mass culture and mass consciousness can open new possibilities for the construction of self and the assertion of agency’.

However, while feminist poststructuralist ‘alliances’ have opened up a range of possibilities, there are problems with poststructuralism’s conceptualisation of the subject. As de Lauretis contends in her analysis of Linda AlcofFs (1988) contribution to the debate,

if the poststructuralist critique of the unified, authentic subject of humanism is more than compatible with the feminist project ‘to deconstruct and de – essentialize’ woman [Alcoff], its absolute rejection of gender and its negation of biological determinism in favour of a cultural-discursive determinism results, as concerns women, in a form of nominalism.

(de Lauretis 1993:83)

She goes on to note that, if the concept of woman is a fiction, then the very concept of women’s oppression is obsolete and feminism’s raison d’etre disappears.

There are other criticisms that can be made of poststructuralism’s position on the subject. Poststructuralist critiques of the feminist subject are often predicated on a model of ‘feminist essentialism’s’ failure to take into account differences such as those of sexual orientation, class and race. However, there is rarely any discussion of the materiality of these differences, Modleski (1991:18) notes, ‘once they have served their theoretical purpose of dissuading feminists from claiming commonalties across class and racial lines’.

This raises an additional important issue around the crucial role that marginalised groups have played in critiquing the whole area of identity and subjectivity, and highlights the difficulty of establishing the relationship between experience, social power and resistance. De Lauretis (1993:81) claims ‘that the notion of experience in relation both to social-material practices and to the formation and processes of subjectivity is a feminist concept not a poststructuralist one’. Waugh (1989) draws attention to the fact that many of the critiques of identity and subjectivity emerged from within subjugated groups both inside and outside feminism. As Waugh suggests,

for those marginalized by the dominant culture, a sense of identity as constructed through impersonal and social relations of power (rather than a sense of identity as the reflection of an inner ‘essence’) has been a major aspect of their self-concept long before poststructuralists and postmodernists began to assemble their cultural manifestos.

(Waugh 1989:3)

Poststructuralist critiques have been valuable in problematising the notion of the ‘subject’ as constructed through language, and in providing a vocabulary for feminists struggling with the limitations of earlier approaches. However, as Marshall (1994:111) notes, ‘the refusal of a “subject” for feminist theory leads to serious problems with the status of poststructuralist feminism as a political project’. Marshall goes on to note that, not only does it have difficulty ‘in accounting for its own emergence as a non repressive discourse, but its inherent relativism poses clear difficulties for the inherently normative character of feminism’.

Barrett (1988) defines the essentialism versus nominalism debate in terms of a

‘continuum’, with neither extreme being particularly satisfactory. Alcoff (1988:421) maintains that the way out of the contradictions for feminism lies in ‘a theory of the subject that avoids both essentialism and nominalism’. Alcoff recommends the development of the notion of ‘woman as positionality’. By this Alcoff (1988:431) suggests that we need ‘to construe a gendered subjectivity in relation to concrete habits, practices and discourses while at the same time recognizing the fluidity of these’. She identifies de Lauretis (1986) and Riley (1983) as exemplars of this approach and argues that the notion of positionality is useful in drawing together both subjectivity and structure. Alcoff (1988:434) suggests that from this perspective gender identity is not only relational to a given set of external conditions, but that ‘the position women find themselves in can be actively utilized.. .as a place from where a meaning is constructed, rather than simply the place from where a meaning can be discovered (the meaning of femaleness)’.

Marshall (1994) contends that conceiving of identities as interpreted allows us to negotiate the path between essentialism and nominalism and between agency and determination. She argues there is an inherent tension between the term ‘woman’ as a theoretical construct which implies gender as universally constitutive of the subject, and the realities of really existing ‘women’ who may or may not share a unified ‘gender identity’. Thus the concept of ‘gendered identities’ is useful in implying a recognition of plurality and difference which does not abandon the notion of gender as playing a part in constituting the subject. As Marshall (1994:12) notes, it is ‘precisely the conflict and tension between the centred and decentred conceptions of the subject in feminist theory that contains the potential for theorizing resistive agency, on the part of both collective and individual subjects’.