POSTMODERNISM, FEMINISM AND AGENCY
The clearest statement of feminism’s postmodernist character comes from Jane Flax (1990b), who argues (that feminist theory is typical ofpostmodern philosophy and, as such, reveals many of its characteristics. Flax maintains that feminist theory has contributed to the debates and growing uncertainty within Western intellectual circles about ‘the appropriate grounding’, and methods for explaining and interpreting human experience. She (1990b: 41) argues that ‘Contemporary feminists join other postmodern philosophers in raising important metatheoretical questions about the possible nature and status of theorising itself.’
However, it is clear that, as Halberg (1992), Walby (1990) and others maintain, postmodernism challenges the primacy of epistemological discourses and thus undermines the ‘feminist epistemological project’. In addition, there is concern among some feminists that the intersection of feminism and postmodernism might result in feminism becoming incorporated into postmodernism, and losing its distinctive character as a body of critical theory and practice. Others reject feminist postmodernism’s challenge to feminist theory, on the grounds that, as Walby (1990) argues, most feminist postmodernists attack the very basis of consensus in feminist theorising: that is, the emphasis on the commonalities shared by women. Walby further notes that some postmodern theorists (e. g. Baudrillard) may be considered anti-feminist in their thinking.
In addition to the problematic relationship between feminism and postmodernism already outlined, the inescapable fact remains that the primary motivation of postmodernism is philosophical, while the primary motivation of feminism is political. Nicholson’s (1990) position on the intersection of postmodernism and feminism is sometimes ambiguous, but she characterises the theories well. Fraser and Nicholson (1990:19-20) argue that ‘Postmodernists offer sophisticated and persuasive criticisms of foundationalism and essentialism but their conceptions of social criticism tend to be anaemic. Feminists offer robust conceptions of social criticism but they tend at times to lapse into foundationalism and essentialism.’
This surely must be seen as the essential impasse for the development of a postmodern feminism. As Fraser and Nicholson (1990) maintain, within postmodern theoretical thinking primacy is given to theoretical issues determined by the contemporary status of philosophy rather than by social criticism and political practice and engagement. Hekman (1990), like Nicholson (1990), argues for the importance of the intersection of feminism and postmodernism and wants to preserve the feminist concern about power, but at the same time Hekman (1990:156) maintains that feminists cannot simply turn to postmodernism and take away from it what they want. McLennan, drawing on Hekman, maintains that ‘The mission of feminism within the postmodern is thus to politicise it conceding that postmodernism can in turn assist feminism in the process of de-essentializing itself (McLennan 1994:108).
McLennan (1994) contends that the ambiguity and confusion manifested in the work of many of the feminists seeking a ‘partnership’ (Nicholson and Hekman), as opposed to a ‘marriage’ (Flax), between feminism and postmodernism is highlighted in the later work of Nicholson, who (1992) argues that feminists can produce a better and politically stronger theory by abiding by their postmodern inclinations. At the same time, she suggests ‘that the new postmodernist directions for research.. .“must not violate recognised political mandates of feminist research”’ (Nicholson 1992:98). However, as McLennan (1994:116) argues, it is clear that ‘postmodernism does violate’ those political mandates by ‘pluralizing the number of such mandates’, and by failing to identify political priorities.
Feminists have approached the issue of theorising with a view to avoiding essentialism and reductionism in ways other than establishing either a marriage or a ‘partnership’ with postmodernism. Sylvia Walby (1990, 1992) has been one of the most consistent opponents of feminism’s ‘paradigmatic shift’ (Barrett 1990, 1992). She argues:
[In] the face of the complexity of the social world the postmodernist response is to deny the possibility of causality and macro-social concepts.. .[R]ather than abandoning the modernist project of explaining the world, we should be developing the concepts and theories to explain gender, ethnicity and class. Not only is the concept of ‘women’ essential to grasp the gendered nature of the social world but so is that of ‘patriarchy’ in order that we do not lose sight of the power relations involved.
Walby (1992) does not deny that postmodernism has been valuable in terms of its interrogation of feminist theory, and in its critique of feminism’s lack of historical and cultural specificity in the use of terms such as ‘patriarchy’. She recognises the validity of postmodernism’s claim that much of the metatheorising around ‘patriarchy’ has been problematic in terms of dealing with historical and cultural variation. However, as she notes, the solution ofpostmodernists is to deny causality, which she sees as ‘defeatist’. Walby advocates a form of ‘pluralism’ based on a theorisation of different ‘patriarchal bases’ or ‘sites’ to overcome the critique of essentialism and reductionism.
One of Walby’s main criticisms of both postmodernism and poststructuralism concerns their failure to consider power at a level of structural analysis. However, she does recognise the usefulness of the concept of discourse within poststructuralist theory and the centrality of the concept of power in Foucault’s analysis of discourse within poststructuralism. As Weedon (1987:13) notes in her analysis of the Foucauldian concept of discourse and power, ‘if Foucault’s theory of discourse and power can produce in feminist hands an analysis of patriarchal power relations which enables the development of active strategies for change, then it is of little importance whether his own historical analyses fall short of this’.
The intersection of feminism with poststructuralism can be seen to provide feminism with a useful analytical and critical device in the establishment of the relationship between experience and knowledge. In its critique of the ‘rational autonomous self of mainstream liberal social theory, poststructuralism has challenged many of the assumptions on which second wave feminism was based. As Weedon (1987:33) maintains, ‘In making our subjectivity the product of the society and culture within which we live, feminist poststructuralism insists that forms of subjectivity are produced historically and change with shifts in the wide range of discursive fields which constitute them.’ Barrett (1992) argues that feminism’s ‘turn to culture’ (1990) has created a more critical and reflexive feminism. She notes that second wave feminism was characterised by a consensus and confidence around issues of ‘patriarchy’, distinctions along sex/ gender lines, as well as issues of ‘subject’ positioning and sexuality. Barrett goes on to indicate that these categories and ways of thinking within feminism have been challenged by the emphasis on ‘deconstruction’ and ‘difference’ – characterising debates in the field of cultural theory.
Poststructuralism offers feminism the means of moving beyond the analysis of power within social structures, to an analysis of power within a range of discursive fields. In this context, Barrett (1992) argues that the Foucauldian concept of discourse, within poststructuralist analysis, facilitates an analysis of the ‘epistemological power’ of different discourses. That is, she is arguing that the analysis of discourse ‘opens up’ an understanding of the nature and location ofpower within different discursive regimes. Feminism’s intersection with the Foucauldian concept of ‘power-knowledge’ locates the analysis of power at a number of different levels (see Chapter 3).