Seyla Benhabib (1992, 1994), in her essay ‘Feminism and the Question of Postmodernism’, maintains that ‘no other text has marked the contemporary discussion concerning the complex cultural, intellectual, artistic, social and political phenomena which we have come to designate as “postmodernism” as much as Jean Francois Lyotard’s (1984) short treatise on The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge’ (Benhabib 1992:203).

Central to Lyotard’s ‘postmodern condition’ is a recognition and an account of

the way in which the ‘grand narratives’ of Western history, and in particular enlightened modernity, have broken down. Postmodernism tends to claim the abandonment of all metanarratives which could provide legitimate foundations for truth. Waugh (1992), while acknowledging the significance of Lyotard’s contribution, maintains that the concepts were already familiar in the thought of Nietzsche, Wittgenstein and Foucault, amongst others. As Waugh (1992:3) notes, what began to emerge was ‘a tendency or mood across a range of disciplines which involved an intense sense of dissatisfaction or loss of faith in the forms of representation, the political and cultural practices associated with Modernism and modernity’.

Postmodernism invented the story of its own genealogy, as Waugh maintains, returning to earlier thinkers such as Nietzsche, Bataille, Artaud and even de Sade as well as more recent theorists such as Barthes, Foucault, Derrida and Lacan. The immediate intellectual context of Lyotard’s book (1984) was, as Waugh (1992) notes,

the demise of structuralism and the development of a poststructuralist critique of systems of knowledge which assume a stable/depth/surface relation such that a hidden ‘core’ of truth may be archaeologically uncovered with the appropriate tools of excavation and causally related to an apparently contingent surface.

(Waugh 1992:6)

In Lyotard’s work—and in the work of Derrida, Lacan and in Barthes-meaning was shown to be indeterminate, all texts implicated in an endless intertextuality so there could be no space outside the text. As Waugh (1992:6) elegantly comments, ‘History becomes a plurality of “islands of discourse”, a series of metaphors which cannot be detached from the institutionally produced languages which we bring to bear on it.’

There are distinct parallels between postmodernism and feminism. As Benhabib (1992:203) notes, ‘viewed from within the intellectual and academic culture of western capitalist democracies, feminism and postmodernism are two leading currents of our time…each in its own way profoundly critical of the principles and metanarratives of western Enlightenment and modernity’. She maintains that Lyotard is right in highlighting the end of the ‘epistemology of representation’ and in searching for alternative cognitive and normative options to what has become an increasingly challenged and no longer convincing intellectual paradigm. Benhabib further maintains that feminist friends of postmodernism are correct to note the significant alliances between their own position and postmodernism’s critique of Western thought. However, she contends that where Lyotard and postmodern feminists go wrong ‘is in their assumption that the end of metanarratives or the death of Man, History and Metaphysics (Jane Flax) allow only one set of conceptual or normative options’ (Benhabib 1992:210). While it is clear that both feminism and postmodernism are theoretical movements growing out of the demise of the modernist epistemology, the real question for feminism is, as Benhabib (1992:204) notes, ‘[are] the meta-philosophical premises of the positions referred to as “postmodernism” compatible with the normative content of feminism, not just as a theoretical position but as a theory of women’s struggle for emancipation [?]’

THE POSTMODERN CRITICAL ENTERPRISE

By the 1980s, postmodernism was being used in three broad senses: as a term to designate the contemporary cultural epoch ‘largely viewed in apocalyptic terms’ (Waugh 1992:3); as an ‘aesthetic practice’; and as a development in theoretical thinking which represents a critique of the assumptions of the Enlightenment or the discourses of modernity and ‘their foundation in universal reason’ (ibid.). Alongside these developments, McRobbie (1994:6) notes that the 1980s also saw a crisis in the future of Marxism in the context of sociology and cultural studies, and representational politics more generally. She contends that ‘Lyotard’s critique of the metanarratives of history coincided with the emergence of the post-colonialist critic, the subaltern subject who could not find a comfortable space of identity for herself or himself within the Marxist (class) analysis of history’. The locus of construction of identity shifted from traditional categories of class, work and community to ‘other constellations of strong cultural meaning: the body, sexuality, or ethnicity, for example; nationality, style, image, even subculture’ (ibid).