MODERNISM, POSTMODERNISM AND FEMINISM
Waugh (1992) argues unequivocally that feminism clearly emerged from Enlightenment modernity, with its conceptions ofjustice and subjectivity as being ‘universal’ categories. However, she notes that, in articulating issues of sexual difference, feminist discourses weaken the extremes of universalism in Enlightenment thought. It is in this sense of articulating difference that Waugh argues feminism can be seen as postmodern.
However, as Waugh indicates, feminism recognises a contradiction in its attempt to establish an epistemological base predicted on ‘a self-conscious awareness of its own hermeneutic perspectivism’ (Waugh 1992:189); that is, that women look for equality and recognition based on cultural and ideological formations, which feminism seeks to challenge. She charts the emergence of these challenges and cites Julia Kristeva’s work ‘Women’s Time’ (1971) as an early move in that direction. However, she notes that feminism cannot sustain itself as an emancipatory movement unless it acknowledges its foundation in the discourses of modernity. Waugh argues that it is possible to draw on the aesthetics of postmodernism without embracing its more negative aspects. The key issues for both postmodernism and feminism are those of ‘identity’ and ‘difference’. She claims that ‘Both have assaulted aesthetic or philosophical notions of identity as pure autonomous essence’ (Waugh 1992:190), and both feminism and postmodernism have helped reformulate the issues of agency, personal autonomy and self-determination.
Central to Waugh’s argument is the concept of autonomy. The significance of this concept, in Waugh’s view, is both its centrality as an Enlightenment concept and its role in the construction of various models of subjectivity. Crucial to both feminism and postmodernism is the deconstruction of liberal individualism. She contends that postmodernism, like feminism, has been concerned with a reexamination of concepts such as subjectivity and autonomous self-determination. Therefore, feminism, like postmodernism, has provided its own critique of essentialist and foundationalist assumptions. However, argues Waugh, as a political practice feminism cannot completely turn its back on ‘enlightened modernity’ as, to be effective as an emancipatory movement, it must have a belief in an effective ‘human agency’, in the importance of historical continuity, in formulating identity and in historical progress.
Waugh argues that the deconstruction of ‘the other’ cannot be accomplished without an accompanying effect of fragmentation of the self. She maintains that ‘strong’ postmodernism, or the celebration of radical fragmentation, can be seen as an acknowledgement of the impossibility of producing an ‘ideal autonomy’. Waugh argues that the concept has functioned in a similar way within aesthetic discourses to suppress the historical and political challenges of cultural and art forms to traditional aesthetics. She maintains that feminism has been engaged in a struggle to reconcile context- specific difference or situatedness with universal political aims. She points to Lyotard’s comment on ‘emancipatory discourses’, where he maintains ‘there can no longer be a belief in privileged meta-discourses which transcend local and contingent conditions in order to ground the “truths” of all first order discourses’ (Lyotard 1984). From this perspective gender as a category cannot be used cross-culturally to explain the practice of human societies. Waugh makes the important point that ‘totalities’, such as the concept of political unity, need not mean uniformity, and that Lyotard unnecessarily conflates the concept of totality with that of totalitarianism.
The concept of ‘femininity’, as developed by some postmodernist ‘discourses’, is seen by Waugh as problematic. ‘Femininity’, argues Waugh, has been used to signify an ‘otherness’ which has effectively been essentialised as the disruption of the legitimate (or the ‘Law of the Father’). Waugh argues that the postmodern espousal of decentring as liberatory says little about women as beings in the world, who may continue to find themselves displaced even within a critique of epistemology, which has supposedly deconstructed the centre and done away with the margins. Waugh maintains that postmodern theory increasingly draws on a highly idealised and generalised notion of femininity as ‘other’ in its search for a space. It rarely talks about women or feminism as a political practice.
Waugh argues that postmodernists’ obsessive preoccupation with collapsing frameworks of Western knowledge conceals an unconscious fear of the loss of legitimacy of Western patriarchalism. This fear, argues Waugh, is manifested in different ‘cultural forms’ within contemporary culture, including: addiction to bodybuilding; violence to women; growth of religious fundamentalism; new forms of pornography; movies which represent women as a threat, e. g. Fatal Attraction. Baudrillard’s work is seen as the most nihilistic of postmodernist writers and as highly problematic for feminists. However, Waugh points out that many women writers use elements of postmodernism (particularly the emphasis on disruption and deconstruction), while rejecting the more nihilistic elements, for example Angela Carter, Margaret Atwood, Maggie Gee and Fay Weldon.
There are a number of problems with Waugh’s critique of feminism’s intersection with postmodernism. The first is that she conflates the categories of feminist and women writers and subsumes both categories of writer within an essentialist model of experience, assuming that feminism can be equated with women’s experience. Second, her theorisation of the concept of subjectivity and agency draws heavily on the modernist liberal humanist conception of ‘the subject’. She argues that ‘women’ have always experienced themselves in a ‘postmodern fashion’, decentred, lacking agency, and claims that this was one of the reasons why women felt they had to occupy the centre (and a totalising position) in the early 1970s. Waugh maintains this was why women began to seek ‘a subjective sense of agency’ and collective identity. She suggests feminist writers may have needed to formulate a sense of identity, history and agency before they could consider deconstructing them.
Waugh goes on to repudiate the postmodern claim that there are no longer any generally legitimated metanarratives. She argues that even within ‘a postmodern age’ patriarchal metanarratives continue to operate, and the implications for notions of the ‘feminine’ continue insidiously to function. Habermas, Waugh argues, is part of a critical theory tradition which critiques Enlightenment philosophy because it is too narrowly defined. According to Waugh, however, he seems oblivious, like other thinkers in the same vein, to critiques of modernity raised by feminist theory. She calls for an examination of alternative feminist models of identity which can add to earlier debates which have ignored feminist debates of the last twenty years. She points to psychoanalytic theory as a crucial area in this regard. She claims that her model allows us to think of subjectivity in ways which do not simply repeat the Enlightenment concept of modernity, nor completely dismiss it.