THE CULTURAL POLITICS OF THE ACADEMY:. MODERNISM AND THE ABSENCE OF GENDERED VOICES
What becomes apparent in reflecting on the theorists and critics of modernism and postmodernism is that there is an overwhelming monopolisation of the debate by male writers and an attendant marginalisation of feminist writers and issues within these debates. Examples of the absence or marginalisation of feminism’s
contribution to modernism’s project, as Marshall (1994) notes, can be seen in the fact that writings by feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft and Harriet Martineau were virtually ignored by classical social theorists. The absence of feminist issues and gender-related issues more generally is apparent in the work of more contemporary theorists such as Habermas. As Marshall (1994:22) notes, Habermas’ model ‘suffers from his lack of attention to.. .gender relations as organizing principles in the modern age, which leads to questions arising about his relevance to feminist theory’. Fraser (1989) also points out that Habermas neglected the gendered character of modernity. Benhabib criticises Habermas for his failure in restricting ‘the ideal of autonomy’ to the standpoint of ‘the generalized other’. She states that
This results in a corresponding inability to treat human needs, desires, and emotions in any other way than by abstracting away from them and by condemning them to silence.. .Institutionaljustice is thus seen as representing a higher stage of moral development than interpersonal responsibility, care, love and solidarity; the respect of rights and duties is regarded as prior to care and concern about another’s need; moral cognition precedes moral affect; the mind, we may summarize, is the sovereign of the body, and reason, the judge of inner nature.
Benhabib’s critique of Habermas’ model highlights some of the limitations which feminists have identified in the modernist paradigm: notably the privileging of reason over affectivity which is implied in models of individuated autonomous subjectivity, and the valorisation of the generalised, universal other as against particularity. Benhabib’s critique emphasises ‘inter-subjectivity’ and she seeks to ‘re-orient Habermas’s disembodied autonomous ego to recognition of the concrete and particular’ (Marshall 1994:103). Benhabib’s critique of Habermas conveys gaps in the modernist analytical framework more generally. As Marshall (1994:24) notes, from a feminist perspective, the failure of these theories ‘has been their inability to come to terms with sexual difference—to theorise particularity’ in a way that does not ignore, obscure or marginalise issues of gender and feminist critiques.
The emergence of the Women’s Movement in the 1960s and 1970s brought forward a range of women and feminist writers offering a critical voice to discourses in literature, art, politics and social theory. These voices served to highlight the absence of gender-related issues and feminist debates in modernist discourses; however, not all women writers set out to critique the lack of a gendered reference point. In fact many critics, particularly in the US, ignored both feminism and postmodernism. The work of one American writer and cultural critic represents many of these tendencies and, while somewhat atypical, provides an interesting example.
Susan Sontag is valorising of high modernism and, as McRobbie (1994:80) notes, as America’s best-known woman intellectual, one has to be curious in ‘so singular an intellectual project as Sontag’s, and [her] unswerving lack ofinterest,…in all [the] debates which have fuelled the establishment of feminist criticism..Sontag has little or no interest in feminist debates or more generally in questions of gender. McRobbie (1994:79) contends that this distance between Sontag’s work and questions of gender is related to the lack of a gendered frame of reference for the period of ‘high or late European modernism’, which is the area in which Sontag has written. McRobbie states that ‘there was no critical place for women unless they demonstrably transcended gender. There was no available space to speak as a woman’ (ibid.). Sontag has maintained her distance from concurrent feminist debates, critiques and issues. Stylistically she has seemingly had no interest in critical feminist discourses and practices and, as McRobbie notes, her own critical style of writing is modernist:
This puts her in the same kind of relationship to those figures who remain in her canon.. .[Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes]…as feminist art critics like Janet Wolf. ..or Griselda Pollock are to feminist artists like Barbara Kruger or Nancy Spiro in the USA.
The work of many literary and cultural critics can be contextualised within a broader analysis of the modernism/postmodernism debate as it emerged in the US. Andreas Huyssen’s work After the Great Divide (1986) attempts to map the cultural transformation of Western society through examining the relationship between modernism and postmodernism. Huyssen (1986:181), an American cultural critic, describes the ‘cultural climate’ of postmodernism as ‘defining sensibilities, practices and discourse formations’ which, he maintains, ‘distinguishes a postmodern set of assumptions, experiences and propositions from that of a preceding period’. He goes on to ask whether this cultural transformation has generated new aesthetic forms or whether it is mainly recycling modernist strategies and techniques, ‘reinscribing them into an altered cultural context’. While Huyssen sees the process of transformation as establishing a new cultural milieu, his understanding of postmodernism is very much an ‘aesthetics’-related one, and the philosophical implications of postmodernism are not significantly engaged with.
He maintains that the attempts to contextualise postmodernism, as either distinct from modernism or as directly continuous with it, are inadequate. As Huyssen (1986:182-183) notes, to ‘have questioned the validity of such dichotomous thought patterns is of course one of the major achievements of Derridean deconstruction. But the poststructuralist notion of endless textuality cripples any meaningful historical reflection on temporal units.’ Huyssen attempts to locate postmodernism in terms of its relational nature, ‘mapping’, ‘several territories.. .on which the various postmodern artistic and critical practices could find their aesthetic and political place’ (ibid.). By using the concept of ‘mapping’ Huyssen is drawing on both Derrida and Foucault as conceptual reference points. In fact, as with many American
writers in the area of cultural politics, Huyssen conflates postmodernism and poststructuralism, conceptually and analytically.
In this process of ‘mapping postmodernism’ through a range of disciplines, Huyssen (1986:184) notes that, while ‘the postmodern break with classical modernism was fairly visible in architecture and the visual arts, the notion of a postmodern rupture in literature has been much harder to ascertain’. He maintains that postmodernism ‘migrated’ to Europe in the 1970s, appearing in the work of Kristeva and Lyotard in France and Habermas in Germany. He also notes that paralleling this geographic migration was a disciplinary migration from the arts to social theory. Huyssen comments that by ‘the early 1980s the modernism/ postmodernism constellation in the arts and the modernity/ postmodernity constellation in social theory had become one of the most contested terrains in the intellectual life of Western societies’ (ibid.).
In discussing the development of postmodernism and poststructuralism since the 1970s in the US, Huyssen argues that a consensus has emerged that if postmodernism represents contemporary thinking in the arts, poststructuralism must be its equivalent in ‘critical theory’. He also notes that in both France and the US, poststructuralism is seen as much closer to modernism than is postmodernism. In the process of contextualising the debate within the US, Huyssen (1986:208) maintains that ‘it is no coincidence that the politically weakest body of French writing (Derrida and Barthes) has been privileged in American literature departments over the more politically intended projects of Foucault, Baudrillard, Kristeva and Lyotard’. Huyssen maintains, that Barthes has become a major figure, as has his significant work The Pleasure of the Text, for many American literary critics. Huyssen (1986:211) argues that Barthes ‘positions himself safely within high culture and the modernist canon, maintaining equal distance from the reactionary right which champions anti-intellectual pleasures and the pleasure of anti-intellectualism, and the boring left which favours knowledge, commitment, combat and disdains hedonism’.
It is in this context that Sontag’s work can be understood—at least in part. Sontag is a spokesperson for high modernism like many of the male writers whom she has spent most of her time researching and being influenced by, e. g. Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, Elias Canetti. As McRobbie (1994:83) notes, Sontag’s work is characterised by a ‘defence of high modernism as a defence of the role of the intellectual in a world which seems dangerously anti-intellectual’. In addition her work can be see as ‘shying away from those notions of a politically engaged art which emerged throughout the 1970s’. Sontag represents for McRobbie ‘the image of a woman writer, for whom distance has been central, but whose distance from the intellectual community of the last twenty years, including the community of feminist intellectuals, cannot be construed as anything other than a loss’ (ibid.).
While much feminist writing, particularly in the area of feminist literary criticism, has pursued a very different course, ‘looking to non-canonical works, and by developing a critical language aimed at understanding their meaning, rather than assessing their value’ (McRobbie 1994:81), Sontag has developed both stylistically and substantively, as McRobbie (1994:81) comments, a diametrically opposed approach to that of feminist critical practice. In most of her writing the ‘sensibility of literary modernity which Sontag explores, enters into and shapes her own critical style of writing…’ (McRobbie 1994:84). As McRobbie observes, there is little trace of her own personal voice, or of gender; ‘Sontag’s modernity is stripped bare’ (ibid.).
Sontag has operated at the interface of modernism and postmodernism, a position which she shared with writers such as Benjamin and Barthes. Her writing is uninfluenced by many of the movements in art and culture which reflected a range of aesthetic sociocultural movements by feminist and subaltern groups. McRobbie contends that, against the
decanonization of art by literary theorists, the relativism of cultural values by a new generation of black intellectuals, and the rediscovery of a huge stock of women’s art and women’s writing by feminist intellectuals, Sontag holds out in favour of what she perceives as the great, the good and the (seriously) terrible.
Despite Sontag’s commitment to European high modernism which released her from any obligation to engage with feminist discourses or Voices’, Sontag has not occupied the intellectual high ground within the academy in the same way as her male counterparts in the area of cultural criticism, e. g. Walter Benjamin and Andreas Huyssen. While gaining access to the privileged world of the American academy, unlike many feminist cultural critics whose voices remain marginalised, her contribution to cultural commentary and criticism has not been recognised as original, substantial or profound as feminist writers of equal intellectual stature such as Simone de Beauvoir and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Unlike these writers, Sontag has ‘spurned the personal and the feminine as the objects of study’ (McRobbie 1994:950). However, as McRobbie points out, ‘history, art and culture have moved far beyond that moment when women had to forget gender to be taken seriously’ (ibid.).