ISSUES OF SUBJECTIVITY, DIVERSITY AND DIFFERENCE . WITHIN FEMINISM
The issues of subjectivity and identity within feminist theorising are closely related to issues of epistemology within feminist theoretical analysis and the relationship between feminist knowledge and women’s experience. Feminist debates in the 1990s are more reflective of the ongoing debates around feminist epistemology and theory both from within and outside feminism (see Chapter 2). Sandra Harding’s ‘Reinventing Ourselves as Others: More New Agents of History and Knowledge’ (1993) is a case in point, reflecting on her earlier work (1986) on the relationship between experience and knowledge, her latest writing ‘examines the kinds of subjects or agents of history and knowledge and the kinds of projects that are generated by the “logic” of standpoint theory’ (Harding 1993:142). She characterises these as ‘reinventing ourselves as “other”’. Harding argues that some feminist epistemological positions have claimed that only women and women’s experiences can generate feminist knowledge. Her work is clearly informed by the feminist debates of the 1980s and goes much further than previously in making problematic the concepts of ‘experience’ and ‘oppression’.
Harding (1993:148) amplifies this position in arguing that it is maintained that only those who are African-American, or lesbian, or working-class, or Third World, can originate anti-racist or anti-homophobic or anti-bourgeois or antiimperialist insights. She asks whether it is true that only the oppressed can generate knowledge, and proceeds to question whether an understanding of oppression can only come out of an experience of oppression. As she maintains, the perspectives of those outside ‘of the fiercely fought struggles to claim legitimacy’ can often appear illegitimate or even ‘monstrous’, and gives examples of ‘male feminists; whites against racism, colonialism and imperialism; heterosexuals against heterosexism; economically over-advantaged people against class exploitation’ (Harding 1993:144). Her point is that there is a real danger in equating of certain types of ‘experience’ with ‘the truth’ and with valid knowledge, and that it is important to understand the concept of ‘contradictory identities’ and ‘contradictory social locations’ for feminist theorising.
Harding has redefined aspects of feminist standpoint epistemology (see Chapter 2) to incorporate more fully the concept of contradictory identity and contradictory social locations within feminist methodological analysis. She notes that
The kind of contradictory identity and social location that is a consequence of following standpoint logic in fact has already appeared in a number of analyses, with the assistance of analyses that began in lesbian lives (and were almost always first generated by lesbians), lesbians and heterosexuals have learned to ‘read against the grain’ their otherwise spontaneously heterosexist experience.
In discussing the contradictory nature of experience, Harding maintains that it is not ‘experience’ itself, but thinking from a contradictory position, that produces feminist knowledge. As such, feminist knowledge is not something that need only be generated by women, or oppressed women: it can also be generated by men and other groups:
the point is to develop strategies that encourage men as well as women, whites as well as people of colour, straights as well as gays and lesbians, the
economically over-advantaged as well as the working class and the poor to become active agents of historical understanding.
Harding’s interpretation of the contradictory and contested nature of feminist epistemological and methodological debate in the 1990s might be surprising to some feminist theorists, but Harding is not alone in being influenced by such debates. Marshall (1994:104) contends that feminist theories of the subject have flourished in ‘exposing the androcentric bias of grand theories of “unencumbered selves”’, but have ‘floundered in implicitly or explicitly replicating gender polarity.. .or the binary opposition of male and female, rooted in bodily existence’. As Alcoff (1988) maintains, in feminist theories of the subject it has become an opposition between ‘essentialism’ and ‘nominalism’.