Feminism is centrally situated at the intersection of a number of intellectual debates emerging from the dialogue between modernism and postmodernism. Benhabib (1992:210) notes that, confronted with ‘debates about the “end” or “transformation” of philosophy and the emergence of a postmodernist agnostics of language, feminists feel ambivalent…’ She maintains that, while feminists want to take advantage of the postmodern intellectual challenge for the development of alternative epistemological positions, they are getting distracted by an engagement with postmodernist debates which sideline ‘gender’ as a productive category for analysis.

One of the advocates of a postmodern feminism is Linda Nicholson (1990, 1992). She argues against the traditions of an Enlightenment rationalism and teleological character of the ‘metanarrative’ tradition. In the process of rejecting such a tradition, Nicholson asks whether, in the process, we find ourselves left with a position of total relativism. She points out that one can reject the idea of a general social theory while still retaining the idea of cross-cultural criteria of truth:

To speak of criteria of truth immanent to the practices which generate them is to focus on the situational elements which make proof possible or not. This approach suggests an alternative mode for interpreting relativism.. .[Relativism] becomes a life possibility rather than a theoretical position.

(Nicholson 1992:86)

Nicholson claims that postmodernism does not entail the abandonment of common values and beliefs; nor does it entail abandoning politically useful tools, e. g. categories such as gender, race and oppression. She contends that what is required is a shift in how these categories are used and understood. Nicholson maintains that one of the most important elements of postmodernism is understanding theory as a tool and how social theory is judged in terms of its usefulness. She claims that the postmodernist stance does not necessarily involve a total break with all aspects of modernity. Nicholson argues that the position she is developing is legitimately continuous, with aspects ofmodernity.3 Further, she maintains that the ‘universalizing thrust of modern social theory’ (ibid.) (for example in theories like Marxism) has frequently employed such general categories so as to exclude or foreclose genuinely disruptive elements of movements such as feminism, anti-imperialist struggles, anti-racism and gay rights struggles.

Nicholson argues that feminist theorists see their work and the process of theorising as tied to a political movement. As a result, feminists have to address the problem of postmodernism’s lack of political strength. Nicholson maintains that feminism, alongside postmodernism, can already be seen to have made critiques of Western philosophy and social theory. However, as the contexts within which the critique emerged were different, feminism’s critique has not been identical with that of postmodernism. Feminism’s critique of the academy and traditional scholarship has been based on the premise that the bias and limitations of traditional scholarship come from its masculine patriarchal character. Feminists have argued that texts written by women have been overlooked in favour of those written by white Western men. In addition, patterns of thinking and abstraction have reflected ‘masculine’ modes of thought.

Nicholson argues that feminism has recognised the historical embeddedness of all theoretical perspectives which include feminism. She points out that feminism could hardly criticise other theoretical models without recognising the deficiencies in its own position. However, as she contends, feminism has displayed a casualness about the specific historical context of its claims. She argues that feminism can produce better and politically stronger theory by moving more clearly in a postmodern direction and by abandoning cross-cultural causal models. According to Nicholson, a causal model is not the only means for depicting and explaining cross-cultural pervasive phenomena. She maintains that there is a need to accommodate diversity in terms of a comprehensive explanation of such concepts as sexism.

So what are some of the gains and losses of feminism’s intersection with postmodernism. McRobbie (1994:63) sees ‘postmodernity as marking a convergence of a number of discourses each of which opens up new possibilities for positioning the self. These debates find expression in the work of a number of postmodern feminists, Rosi Braidotti’s (1992) work is a case in point, with her rejection of central concepts in the ‘modernist armoury’, including her rejection of the defence of theoretical reason, the unity of the subject, and of equality, which she defines as ‘domination’. As McRobbie (1994:67) observes, Braidotti defines these ‘Enlightenment concepts’, as ‘part of an apparatus of regulation and subordination hidden under the great achievements of rationality and knowledge’. For postmodern feminists and for subaltern discourses, as McRobbie points out, both the status of thinking and of Western intellectual thought itself is called into question. Braidotti (1992:181) states that ‘Feminists propose that reason does not sum up the totality or even what is best in the human capacity for thinking.’

However, as Benhabib (1992) argues, there are strong and weak versions of the postmodernist conception of ‘the death of Man, of History and of Metaphysics’. She notes that, whereas in their weak versions these theses unite critiques from a range of different debates and theorists, in their strong versions they ‘undermine the possibility of normative criticism at large. Feminist theory can ally itself with this strong version of postmodernism only at the risk of incoherence and self­contradictoriness’ (Benhabib 1992:213).

Benhabib contends that the feminist counterpoint to the ‘Death of Metaphysics’ would be ‘Feminist Skepticism Toward the Claims of Transcendent Reason’, and she argues that for feminist theory ‘the most important “knowledge-guiding interest” in Habermas’ terms, or disciplinary matrix of truth and power in Foucault’s terms are gender relations…’ (Benhabib 1992:213).4 For some postmodern feminists gender is no longer seen as a credible or legitimate category for analysis and, as Linda Alcoff (1988) has observed, feminist theory is undergoing a ‘crisis of identity’. As Benhabib notes, the ‘postmodernist position(s) thought through to their conclusions may eliminate not only the specificity of feminist theory, but place in question the very emancipatory ideals of the women’s movement’ (1992:213).

A related problematic dimension for postmodern feminism is the issue of subjectivity and gendered identity. Braidotti (1992:183) contends that the crisis of subjectivity produced by postmodernity ‘offers many positive openings’, while McRobbie (1994) maintains that postmodernism does not mean that we have to do away with the subject but rather to ask after the process of its construction. Benhabib is less convinced by Flax’s (1990b) version of the postmodern ‘subject’. Benhabib (1992:211) distinguishes her own position on the subject from that of Flax, as ‘a move toward the radical situatedness and contextualisation of the subject’, while situating Flax’s position as within ‘the French tradition in stipulating the “death of the subject”’ (ibid.).

In developing the position more fully, Benhabib (1992:214) contends that the weak version of the thesis of ‘the Death of Man’ situates the subject in ‘the context of various social, linguistic and discursive practices’. However, as Benhabib notes, in the strong version the subject ‘dissolves into the chain of significations of which it was supposed to be the initiator’ (ibid), and the strong version of ‘the Death of the Subject’ thesis is incompatible with the goals of feminism.

The implications of this position for the operation of the concept of gender and ‘gender identity’ are articulated in the work ofJudith Butler (1990a). She is concerned ‘to extend the limits of reflexivity in thinking about the self beyond the dichotomy of “sex” and “gender”’ (Benhabib 1992:215). For Benhabib the logical outcome of Butler’s position would mean that the gendered self did not exist, and the self becomes reduced to ‘a series of performances’. Butler (1990a: 25) notes, ‘there is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender; that identity is performatively constituted by the very “expressions” that are said to be its results’. Benhabib (1992:215) asks: If we adopt this view of the self, what possibility is there of transforming those ‘expressions’ which constitute us, as we are ‘no more than the sum total of the gendered expressions we perform’? This position has clear implications for the concept of agency and ‘undermines the normative vision of feminist politics and theory’ (ibid.).

Butler (1990a: 143) confronts the relationship between agency, identity and politics. She contends that the concept of agency is contingent on the ‘viability of the “subject”, where the subject is understood to have some stable existence prior to the cultural field that it negotiated’. This model of the relationship of the subject to discourse and culture understands that there is a relationship, but is unspecific about the nature of the relationship and does not understand the subject as constituted by that relationship. Butler claims that this model makes a number of false assumptions about the relationship between agency, discourse and the subject. It presumes that ‘agency can only be established through recourse to a prediscursive “I”, even if the “I” is found in the midst of a discursive convergence’. In addition, it assumes that ‘to be constituted by discourse is to be determined by discourse’, so that the possibility of agency is foreclosed.

Butler attempts to resolve the difficulty by maintaining that ‘to be constituted by discourse is not to be determined by discourse’ (ibid.), and she maintains that ‘agency’ is located within the possibility of a variation in the repetition of gender performance. However, as Benhabib (1992:218) observes, where are the resources for that variation to come from? ‘What is it that enables the self to “vary” the gender codes? to resist hegemonic discourses.’ Butler’s argument is unconvincing at the level of the operation of agency, which for both feminist theory and politics is the essential dynamic for the articulation of resistance. Benhabib contends that

neither the fundamentalist models of inquiry of the tradition, which privilege the reflective I reflecting upon the conditions of its reflective or non-reflective existence, nor the postmodernist decoding of the subject into bodily surfaces ‘that are enacted as the natural, so [that] these surfaces can become the site of a dissonant and denaturalized performance’ (Butler, 1990), will suffice in the task of explaining how the individual can be ‘constituted by discourse and yet not be determined by it’.

(Benhabib 1992:218)

The third dimension of a postmodern feminism which raises problems for a feminist politics is the question of the Death of History. Benhabib (1992:212) argues that the feminist counterpart to the Death of History would be the ‘Engendering of Historical Narrative’. She notes that Western intellectual history has been recorded and narrated as ‘his story’ and that the philosophies of history which have characterised the Enlightenment ‘have forced historical narrative into unity, homogeneity and linearity’ (ibid). The consequence of this has been the marginalising or obliterating of the histories of different groups. Benhabib notes that once again there are ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ versions of the Death of History. The weak version calls for the end of ‘grand narratives’ which are essentialist and monocausal. As she notes, ‘Politically, the end of such grand narratives would mean rejecting the hegemonical claims of any group or organisation to “represent” the forces of history…’ (Benhabib 1992:219). The ‘weak’ version of the Death of History defined as the end of ‘grand narratives’ has found favour with some feminists sympathetic with postmodernist claims. Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson (1990) are in the forefront of these debates. They maintain that the practices of feminist theory and politics in the 1980s have produced a new set of pressures which have operated against the construction of metanarratives. They identify changes in the ‘class, sexual, racial and ethnic awareness of the movement’ as altering the ‘preferred conception of theory’ (Fraser and Nicholson 1990:33).

While supporting the ‘weak’ version of this model, Fraser and Nicholson avoid the implications of the ‘strong’ version. As Benhabib (1992:220) notes, the ‘strong version of the thesis.. .would imply a prima facie rejection of any historical narrative that concerns itself with the long duree and that focuses on macro-rather than on micro-social practices’. Nicholson and Fraser do recognise this ‘nominalist’ tendency in Lyotard’s work, but sidestep the issue. Benhabib maintains that Fraser and Nicholson are arguing more for a neo-pragmatist than a postmodern model. She states that by ‘postmodern feminist theory’ Fraser and Nicholson mean a theory that ultimately is pragmatic and fallible, that would accommodate a range of categories, ‘forswearing the metaphysical comfort of a single feminist method or feminist epistemology’ (Benhabib 1992:221). However, Benhabib contends that the model that Fraser and Nicholson use is not postmodernist and that they are able to reconcile feminist postmodernism with feminist politics because they have replaced ‘the “hyper-theoretical” claims of postmodern historiography’ (ibid.) with a theoretical pragmatism.