POSTMODERN FEMINISM AND THE POLITICS OF. RELATIVISM
The problem for both feminist and post-colonial intellectuals is, given this position, how the charge of relativism can be challenged. For critics like McLennan (1992a), as McRobbie notes, relativism is the issue. He raises the question of whether cultural relativism leads to cognitive relativism, encouraging indifference. McRobbie takes issue with McLennan’s conclusions and follows Yeatman (1990b:291-292), who contends that feminists and others who are committed to developing the democratic implications of postmodernism ‘need to firmly distinguish their position from those who take postmodernism to imply an anomic relativism’. In this context, Yeatman cites Foucault who, she maintains, achieves ‘an intellectual “deregulation” of the democratically oriented culture of individualised agency’ (Yeatman 1990b:292). She contends that, where the notion of a self-reflexive agency is relativised, ‘postmodern relativism reveals itself as the last ditch stand of modern patriarchy’ (ibid.). Yeatman goes on to argue that it is imperative that feminists develop the democratic potential of postmodernism while exposing the ‘patriarchalism of relativist deregulation’. In order to do this, Yeatman (1990b:293) contends that feminists have to reject all ‘essentialist tendencies which function to privilege women.. .and the moral authority which these tendencies accord femaleness’.
Yeatman (1994) groups feminist and post-colonial intellectuals within a category of ‘oppositional intellectuals’ in that both offer critiques of epistemological foundationalism. She notes:
Feminist and postcolonial intellectuals. enjoin a politics of representation. Central to this politics is the twofold strategic question: whose representations prevail? Whose voice is deprived of authority so that they may prevail? This is a politics of representation which insists on the material effects of discursive power and which contextualises the institutional politics of the Western university within the world historical dynamics of Western capitalist – patriarchal-imperial domination and its contestation.
In discussing the role of ‘oppositional intellectuals’, Yeatman (1994:30) maintains that feminist and post-colonial intellectuals ‘proceed beyond cultural relativism in their insistence on contested representations within what are putatively singular or common cultures. They refuse to accord a discursive formation coherence through any other effects than those of power.’ Yeatman argues that feminist theorists have carried this over into accounts of their subject positioning. She contends that in the process feminist and post-colonial intellectuals are ‘attempting to open up contested epistemological spaces’ (Yeatman 1994:31). This is evident in the work of feminist and post-colonialist writers such as Trinh T. Minh-ha (1989), Homi Bhabha (1990a) and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (1992). As McRobbie (1994:64) notes, their writings ‘appear unruly and truculent and poetically disrespectful of the boundaries which have guarded and guaranteed the old rules of academia’. The question remains to what extent postfeminist discourses emerging from the intersection of these ‘interlocking oppressions’ articulate a politics of voice and representation which challenge dominant representational politics.
What are the implications for feminism of its intersection with postmodernism and post-colonialism? McRobbie is an enthusiast for ‘the new feminist theory’. She argues that the ‘value’ of the contribution lies in its rejection of the idea of ‘one voice’; in its willingness to explore ‘the relatively unnavigated political continent which lies “beyond equality and difference”’; in its ‘engagement with the politics of difference’; and in its ‘abandonment of the search for the “real me”’ (1994:64). However, as Yeatman (1994:31) notes, there should be no illusion that ‘just because the dominant epistemological order is subject to contest, the material force of this dominant order will not prevail’, nor should it be assumed that ‘multivocalism’ means that all voices are equally represented, hooks (1990:24) considers Meaghan Morris’s discussion of postmodernism in her text The Pirate’s Fiancee: Feminism and Postmodernism (1988), and observes that Morris provides a bibliography of works by women, identifying them as important contributions to a discourse on postmodernism that offer new insight, as well as challenging male theoretical hegemony. However, she notes that there are no references to works by black women writers. The identification of feminism and postmodernism as conceptual and political allies is viewed by Benhabib (1992) among others as highly problematic. She states that a strong postmodernism denies those dimensions which frame feminism as politically dynamic. These include: the denial of a history where women are centrally positioned; the denial of women’s agency; and a denial of gender as a significant category. While postfeminist and post-colonial theorists have recognised the potential of postmodernism to advance a ‘cultural politics of difference’, Edward Said (1989:213) warns against ‘the fetishization and relentless celebration of “difference” and “otherness” [which] can…be seen as an ominous trend’. However, as Gunew and Yeatman (1993:xxiv) contend, ‘there is no question that the ability to deal with difference is at the centre of feminism’s survival as a movement for social change’.