‘MARGINALISED VOICES’ AND ‘THE POLITICS OF. DIFFERENCE’
Feminism has been confronted by debates emanating from its ‘margins’ and
from the theoretical challenges raised by postmodernism, poststructuralism
and post-colonialism. A major area of debate for second wave feminism has been its ability to deal with differences among women, without losing the impetus that derives from a unified and coherent movement for social change. Postmodernism and poststructuralism have assisted feminist debates by providing a conceptual repertoire centred on ‘deconstruction’, ‘difference’ and ‘identity’. Within this wide frame of reference all knowledges are defined as ‘situated ones’ (Haraway 1991).
Sneja Gunew and Anna Yeatman (1993:xiii) show how post-colonialism ‘loosely defined as a body of theories which offer a place to speak for those who have been excluded from Western metaphysics’, together with poststructuralism, gives us ‘the tools to deconstruct these homogenizing categories so that it is possible to admit difference, not simply as the self confirming other, but as the admission and recognition of incommensurabilities’. Elsewhere Yeatman (1995a) notes that these challenges have emerged, in the post-colonial era, to what she describes as ‘the assimilationist character of the universal or humanist subject’ (1995a: 51). A ‘politics of difference’ does not articulate pluralism per se but rather ‘implies incommensurable differences which cannot be subsumed under one universal category’ (ibid.). As Yeatman (1995a:52) explains, in order to understand how this kind of difference can develop, one has to understand the fundamental challenge that is posed to the idea of a unitary national identity or human subject.
The emerging postfeminism or ‘feminist pluralism’ of the 1990s not only demonstrates that both the universal subject and the national community is ‘internally fractured’, but understands that this ‘fracturing applies also to feminism’s own identity, as representing the interests of women’ (Yeatman 1995 a: 52). The nature of a humanist emancipatory politics meant, as Yeatman (1995a: 53) notes, that ‘a subject could be positioned as both black, for example and woman, but this meant she had to subscribe to the most heavily marked of these identities and its polities’. As Yeatman goes on to argue, this is meant for a black woman or a working-class woman subscribing to either a black or working-class status and to its ‘contestation’. In each case, ‘the feminine subject within the oppressed race or class was asked to subordinate her own distinctive claims to what would further the well being and good of the whole race or class’ (ibid.). The implications of these ‘positionings’ for a feminism dominated by white, middle-class women were clear: they were the only group ‘whose subject status threw into relief the condition of women as a marked term and oppressed group’ (ibid.).
The type of politics emerging from this latter perspective is a politics which valorises ‘separatism’; a kind of ‘separatism’ which ‘advances an identity claim on behalf of a group in a way which denies reciprocity of respect for its others’ (Yeatman 1995b:197). Yeatman contends that this type of ‘separatist’ or ‘identity polities’ can be identified in both feminist and bicultural movements. An example of biculturalism, despite the contested nature of the territory, can be applied to the concept of cultural difference in
New Zealand and the relations between Maori and Pakeha. Margaret Wilson and Anna Yeatman, in their text Justice and Identity Antipodean Practices (1995), claim that ‘Maori and Pakeha constantly run the risk of overlooking both New Zealanders who fall outside this binary and the complexities within these two identities’ (1995:viii). They also raise the question of how adequate a bicultural policy and practice can be without being part of ‘a multi-cultural policy and practice’.
Within a framework of feminist or Maori separatism, there are claims to the privilege of sovereign selfhood, as Yeatman (1995b:97) comments, ‘in the same way as those who have had privileged subject status have done’. It is not the claims to territorial integrity which are at issue within any questioning of a separatist identity politics. What is at issue, and what is problematic about such a politics, as Yeatman contends, ‘is the claim to sovereign selfhood which is often made in ways which appear to deny reciprocal respect for that same claim on behalf of others’ (ibid,.). She goes on to show how a separatist politics operates in the case of feminism and Maori: ‘Feminist separatists who have designed a moral universe that excludes men operate in such a way as to deny justice. The same occurs when Maori separatists make identity claims that seem to deny the historical fact of Maori coexistence with Pakeha’ (ibid).
The conception of selfhood that emerges from these ‘separatist’ positions has been problematised by contemporary feminist and post-colonial theorists who have posited a conception of selfhood which is ‘contradictory, incoherent and multiple’ (Yeatman 1995b:207). Both cases offer a conception of selfhood which is characterised by what Bartky (1990) calls an ethical ambiguity. Yeatman (1995b:208) claims that, while feminist and post-colonial theorists of difference reject the concept of the unified sovereign self in favour of ‘a selfhood that is contradictory, hybridised and disjunctive, they do not abandon the claim to sovereign selfhood for the post-colonial or feminist self. The concept of self that emerges is a contested one, ‘contesting the oppressed subject positioning that specifies the terms of the selfhood’ (ibid). The challenges posed to the claims to sovereign selfhood that are raised by post-colonial and feminist theorists of difference change the conception of ‘modern sovereign selfhood’ by their abandonment of ‘the premise of indivisibility’ (Yeatman 1995b:209).
The ‘politics of difference’, as outlined by Gunew and Yeatman (1993), is one which challenges strict binary oppositional logic. Larner (1993), in her analysis of bicultural politics in New Zealand, suggests that New Zealand needs to move beyond the bicultural model of Maori-Pakeha differences. Trinh T. Minh-ha deconstructs the Western model of ‘individuated subjectivity’, which posits a conception of the ‘self in opposition to and in a hierarchical relation to ‘other’. Trinh (1989) suggests that, ‘In a society where they remain constantly at odds on occupied territories, women can only situate their social spaces precariously in the interstices of diverse systems of ownership.’ She goes to state that women need to cut across borders rather than fetishising them ‘into a spectacle of difference’ which in the end ‘disavows difference’.