Scientists against pomo
The scientific opponents of postmodernism are considered first. This campaign, called ‘The science wars’ was based on a conflation of, or a serious confusion between: (1) non-positivist social science perspectives such as constructivism and ethnomethodology; (2) postmodernism; (3) feminism (used as an undifferentiated term of abuse); and (4) antiracism. The self-styled defenders of science know so little about humanities and social science that they do not, and indeed, cannot, distinguish between them. For feminists hostile to postmodernism, the ways in which ‘defenders’ of science treat the two perspectives as coterminous is maddening in its inaccuracy. The ‘defenders’ of science including Gross and Levitt (1994), Sokal and Bricmont (1997) and Koertge
(1998) are all naive believers in a pre-Kuhnian view of science. Collins
(1999) , Callon (1999) and Mackenzie (1999) are well-balanced accounts of the campaign by a few scientists against social scientists’ accounts of science and against postmodernism as an ideology. The science warriors, as Collins (1999) calls them, are usually just as angry about the feminist literature on science, which they also label ‘postmodern’. As well as pouring abuse over Collins, Pinch and Latour, they attack Keller (1983, 1985), Harding (1986, 1987, 2000), Schiebinger (1989, 1993, 1999) and other feminists. Many of these women have queried the ‘objectivity’ of much science and scientific practice, but none of them is a postmodernist. The men from Science Technology and Innovation Studies (STIS) have defended their practice and epistemology (see special issues of Social Studies of Science, 1996 and 1999) but they have not argued with the science warriors to defend the validity of the feminist critiques of science.
Sullivan (1999) is a physicist who contributed to Koertge (1998), and who is prepared to engage in careful, scholarly, reasoned debate with an historian of science, Mackenzie (1999). Sullivan summarises the belief system of the science warriors as follows:
Imbued with a congeries of ideas known as postmodernism, certain scholars in the humanities and social sciences question the epistemological assumptions of physical and biological scientists. In particular, the main thrust of postmodernist criticism seems to be the denial of the possibility of objective knowledge, so that social factors do not just influence scientific progress: it is claimed that they enter the content of scientific knowledge. (1999: 215)
This matters because these ideas are influencing public opinion about science and even worse, they have got into schools: ‘Implementing a postmodernist doctrine known as constructivism’ (ibid.: 215) ‘specialists’ have destroyed high school science. Gross and Levitt (1994) linked postmodernism to left-wing political views, to feminism, to African
studies and to gay and lesbian studies, arguing that American higher education had been taken over by dangerous subversive groups. The contributors to Koertge (1998) are most worried about ‘postmodernism’. The two groups have in common a firm belief that science is objective. There are two problems with the science warriors’ position. First, most of the people they label postmodernists are not: they do not use the ideas of postmodernism at all. Second, as Callon (1999) shows, the science warriors have not actually read the work of any of the postmodernists. Callon summarises the science warriors’ argument as: ‘are you willing to encourage these postmodernists and cognitive realists who corrupt our youth and bring decay to our civilisation?’ (ibid.: 262).
Overall, then, none of the science warriors have actually read and understood any of the postmodernists. They have reacted violently to some postmodernists’ use of some ideas from the natural sciences as metaphors (failed to recognise that they are metaphors), lumped those postmodernists in with the scholars of STIS, and created a panic. In many ways, the science wars are irrelevant to this book. I have dwelt on them for three reasons: first, STIS is an area that fascinates me not only for its own ideas but because it is so stubbornly impervious to feminism; second, because the sweeping together of everything disliked under a label of ‘pomo’ is equivalent to sweeping together everything under a label of ‘feminism’; and third, because the science warriors’ attacks on pomo received such massive press coverage (articles in the quality press, major reviews in the New York Review of Books, Times Literary Supplement, etc.) whereas the feminist attacks on pomo received no coverage at all in the general media.
This manic ‘defence’ of objectivity in science is only relevant to this book insofar as the confusion of postmodernism and feminism means that there has been a climate resistant to arguments from activists who wish to attract more women to science (Whyte, 1985), retain them in science (e. g. Glover, 2000; Rees, 2001), change the focus of scientific research (Lederman and Bartsch, 2001; Wyer et al., 2001), and even develop ‘women-friendly’ science (e. g. Mayberry et al., 2001). Indeed, as Donna Haraway (1988) pointed out, if women adopted a postmodern position, and believed that science was only rhetoric it absolved them from any need to grasp post-Newtonian physics. Adopting the strongest possible social constructivist position about science allowed women to slump back from mistressing ‘hard’ scientific ideas, rationalising: ‘They’re just texts anyway, so let the boys have them back’ (1988: 597).
feminists against pomo
Lyon (1999: 80) argues that: ‘Feminists frequently hesitate before the brink of full postmodernism.’ Sceptical and hesitant feminists have not been slow to point out that the leading exponents of postmodernism were men. Many of the scholars who have argued that postmodernism renders extant research outdated, outmoded and passe are middle – class, white men in secure jobs in industrialised countries. Thus Fox – Genovese has commented: ‘Surely it is no coincidence that the Western white male elite proclaimed the death of the subject at precisely the moment at which it might have had to share that status with the women and peoples of other races and classes who were beginning to challenge its supremacy’ (1986: 134).
Fox-Genovese is an African-American woman. She has pointed out that the origins of postmodernism lie in Paris after 1945 among white men (Levi-Strauss, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard) who are or were misogynist, sexist, and, in Foucault’s case, gay. A similar point is made by Somer Brodribb (1992: 7-8) when she states ‘postmodernism is the cultural capital of late patriarchy.’ For those feminists hostile to postmodernism, its intellectual origins are inherently antiwomen: ‘postmodern theory’s misogynist and very specific historical origins among post World War II Parisian Intellectuals – from Levi – Strauss and Lacan to Foucault and Derrida – require excessive intellectual modification and machinations to include women’ (Hoff, 1994: 151).
The debate about whether women can be flaneurs, or have to be flaneuses, if there can be such people, is particularly relevant here. Elizabeth Wilson (2001) explains the idea of the flaneur as follows. The flaneur arrived as an archetype with the urban revolution of the late eighteenth century. He was a creature of Paris in the opening decade of the 1800s: a symbol of a modern city. The flaneur walked, loitered, lurked and observed the city: its people, its buildings, its spectacle. He has no occupation, unless he is an artist gathering material for a novel, an epic or a painting. The urban lower classes are an object of amusement, cafes and restaurants allow time to spend pleasurably, window shopping is a regular pastime, while gossip, fashion and developments in the arts are a diversion. Wilson summarises the ideas of Walter Benjamin, and Siegfried Kracauer, who developed sociological analyses of the idea. The flaneur is an onlooker, a watcher, an observer, and particularly a male whose gaze both objectifies women and embodies modernity. Joseph Mitchell’s (1993) story of Joe Gould and his (mythical) Oral History of New York can be seen as the story of a flaneur: Gould wandered New York for 35 years claiming that he was writing a modern equivalent of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall. As Wilson points
out, during the 1980s as sociological interest in consumption and in the postmodern city with its culture and tourism economics of signs and space (Lash and Urry, 1994) grew, so too did interest in the flaneur. Tester’s (1994a) edited collection marked the arrival of the concept in British sociology.
After Tester’s collection appeared, the idea of the flaneur became embroiled in a debate about whether there could be such men in the Bluewater Mall or at Euro Disney. Could there be flaneurs not in cities but in postmodern consumer centres? Such debates are not relevant to this book. However, alongside that discussion, Janet Wolff (1985, 1990, 1994) a sociologist of art and culture had argued that although there was, in theory, a flaneuse (that is, the word had, in the nineteenth – century Larousse Encyclopaedia, a feminine form), in fact, only men could actually behave as flaneurs. There was no way that women could use the city in the ways that men could. A woman strolling in the Paris of 1807 was liable to be branded a harlot, not a fine fellow or an artist gathering material. Wolff illustrated her claims with case studies of women painters, contrasted with males from the same artistic movement. Tester himself avoided the issue: ‘The question of the gender specificity of flanerie is very much an area for debate’ (1994b: 19).
Elizabeth Wilson (2001) stresses that the essential quality of the flaneur is that he takes possession of the city by his gaze: he is the embodied male gaze. The male flaneur observes women, and exercises a seigniorial gaze upon them. This gaze is theoretically similar to the petrification of the Medusa’s head, in Lacan’s work, which fixes women permanently ‘in the stasis of otherness’ (Wilson, 2001: 82). If one accepts this link between Benjamin’s flaneur and Lacan’s Medusa head, then the concept of the flaneur is ‘just’ another sexy sociological idea that turns out to be a male-only idea; a theory that is really a male game, another concept which sounds analytically powerful but actually excludes women. The debate between Wolff and Wilson reveals the problems attendant on trying to harness postmodern ideas such as the Medusa gaze to feminist ends.
It is debates such as this – and, as Wilson (2001: 83) comments ‘Debates among feminists seem often to begin as differences of emphasis and end as polarised antagonisms’ – which have divided feminist sociologists over postmodernism. There are intellectual doubts and the feeling that postmodernism undermines the potential for radical social change. Gordon summarises the tension: ‘we find an irreconcilable difference between feminism’s commitment to mass, systematic social change for women, and those strains of postmodernism that find all modern “revolutions” suspect’ (1993: 109).
Among the women anxious that postmodernism will destroy feminism and mounting a vigorous attack upon it is Brodribb (1992) who
reaches rhetorical heights which leave the majority of us gasping. Her opponents – those feminists who wish to become postmodernists, or adapt postmodernism to their own ends – are called ‘ragpickers in the bins of male ideas’ (1992: xxiii). The violence of the debate, and hence the anxieties underlying it, can be seen in a highly-charged debate in Women’s History Review (vol. 5, no. 1, pp. 19-24) between Hoff (1994, 1996), Kent (1996) and Ramazanoglu (1996). Mascia-Lees et al. (1989) argued that in Anthropology postmodernism was predominantly about men appropriating insights from feminism (and Marxism) to create a ‘prestige discourse’ for their own career advancement. Marjorie Wolf (1992) makes similar claims. Singleton (1996) discusses the uneasy relationship between feminism and postmodernism in the sociology of science.
Felski offers a neat summary of the two opposed positions on the coming of postmodernism:
For some it is a narrative of progress, as feminism sheds its essentialisms and universalisms to achieve a more sophisticated stage of theoretical consciousness. For others it is a narrative of the fall, as feminism is lured from its true goals by internecine squabbles and the spurious prestige of French avant-garde thought. (2000: 71)
Dorothy Smith (1999: 97-8) has two main objections to postmodernism. She argues that, first, postmodernism has imported the ‘univer – salised subject of knowledge’ while it repudiates it: ‘The unitary subject of modernity is rejected only to be multiplied as subjects constituted in diverse and fragmented discourses’ (ibid.: 98). Second, by prioritising language/discourse, postmodernism drives a wedge between the specific local practices of people’s everynight/everyday lives and the lan – guage/discourse which the postmodernist studies. For Smith, this imprisons the sociologist in ‘a phenomenal world in which nothing ever happens’ (ibid.: 98) and prevents her from studying the world ‘in which people are active’ (ibid.: 98). Smith goes on to argue that the postmodernist feminist position is antithetical to sociology: it denies the ‘possibility of discovery’ (ibid.: 109).
Many of the contributors to the collection edited by Bell and Klein (1996), defending radical feminism, argued that the biggest danger is from postmodernism. The editors include a ‘po-mo quiz’ ridiculing postmodernism (Bell and Klein, 1996: 558-61). A section of their volume is devoted to criticisms of postmodernism, including a reprint of Joan Hoff (1994), Barbara Christian’s (1996) ‘The race for theory’, and Christine Delphy’s (1996) ‘French feminism: an imperialist invention’. The editors summarise their position on postmodernism as follows. ‘The post-modern turn is apolitical, ahistorical, irresponsible, and selfcontradictory; it takes the “heat off patriarchy”’ (Bell and Klein, 1996:
xix). Overall, therefore, feminists have been deeply divided in their responses to postmodernism. Lined up against Brodribb, Smith and Delphy are some very distinguished feminists, to whom we now turn.
feminists for pomo
As Flax points out, much feminist scholarship has been ‘critical of the contents’ of the Enlightenment dream, yet simultaneously ‘unable to abandon them’ (1993: 447). For Flax, postmodernism is particularly threatening for feminism because ‘Three of the discourses feminists have attempted to adapt to our own purposes, liberal political theory, Marxism, and empirical social science, express some form of this Enlightenment dream’ (1993: 448). For Flax this is not a proper feminist response. Because the Enlightenment was a male cosmology feminists must abandon it, to create their own. Flax is confident that the insights of postmodernism will set women free from a childlike state in which we wait for ‘higher authorities’ to rescue us, clinging to a naive myth of ‘sisterhood’. Similarly, Patti Lather argues: ‘The essence of the postmodern argument is that the dualisms which continue to dominate Western thought are inadequate for understanding a world of multiple causes and effects interacting in complex and non-linear ways, all of which are rooted in a limitless array of historical and cultural specificities’ (1991: 21). Since 1991 she has developed her postmodernist feminism in, for example, Lather (2001). Jane Flax (1990, 1993) argues that: ‘Postmodern philosophers seek to throw into radical doubt beliefs … derived from the Enlightenment’ (1990: 41). She lists among the beliefs thrown into doubt: the existence of a stable self, reason, an objective foundation for knowledge, and universalism. As she forcefully expresses this: ‘The meanings – or even existence – of concepts essential to all forms of Enlightenment metanarrative (reason, history, science, self, knowledge, power, gender, and the inherent superiority of Western culture) have been subjected to increasingly corrosive attacks’ (1993: 450).
Judith Butler (1990, 1999) is one of the best-known exponents of postmodern feminism or feminist postmodernism. Butler (1990, 1999) published Gender Trouble, an influential book both in establishing queer theory and in disseminating the ideas of poststructuralism (a. k.a. postmodernism) among American feminist writers. Butler originally wrote Gender Trouble to challenge the anti-lesbian biases she saw in the assumptions in feminism that all women were heterosexual. She drew on French poststructuralism and applied it to American theories of gender and the ‘political predicaments of feminism’ (1999: ix). She wanted to carry out a ‘feminist reformulation’ (ibid.: ix) of postmodernism, instead she found herself celebrated as an advocate of postmodernism. By 1999 when her second edition appeared, the book had been trans
lated into several languages (but not French), and postmodernism had transmuted and spread into many fields. Butler is not, of course, a sociologist, but a scholar in humanities: in the sphere of postmodernism, however, the distinctions between sociology, cultural studies, and the humanities are not hard and fast.
Maggie Maclure (2000), an educational researcher, is certain that feminists must swim in the postmodern tide:
Feminism cannnot afford to keep its distance [from pomo]. It is all the more urgent that feminists engage in deconstructive play, in order to defend women’s writing, and the specificity of women’s voices, from erasure. But the status, and the possibility of such play with always be problematic in a discursive space where play is always already defined as the pastime of male theoretical cross-dressers. (ibid.: 63)
Sandra Harding (2000) is perhaps the most famous feminist to adopt a postmodern position, arguing that it has the most intellectual power of any feminist perspective yet devised. None of the feminist postmodernists in social science have adopted the philosophy naively or uncritically because they recognise that feminist modernism sets out a tough agenda. Linda Nicholson (1999: 113) describes the task as follows: ‘How can we combine a postmodernist incredulity towards metanarratives with the social-critical power of feminism?’
My own position on postmodernism is ambivalent. I am totally opposed to adopting French theory merely because it is exotic, fashionable, and mystifying. I am equally opposed to rejecting French theories merely because they are exotic, fashionable and mystifying. It is not clear why some of the theorists have been seized on and valorised (especially Foucault in sociology), while others are left in French obscurity. For feminists, I see no alternative but to engage with postmodernism and its implications. Ignoring it, or feigning incomprehension, will leave feminism dying, like a beached whale. Active engagement with the postmodernists is essential.
The arguments of Fox-Genovese about white men discovering the death of the subject just as they were being forced to share the prestige of being the subject with women, non-whites, and other former ‘outcasts’ are clearly correct. The parallels with the vogue for Freud in the early part of the twentieth century are striking. The intelligentsia after the First World War were enthusiastic about Freudian ideas: they were progressive for thinking about shell shock; they were complex and demanding; they came from Vienna, a city with a great intellectual pedigree; they were new; they were a paradigm shift; and because of their concern with sexuality, they shocked older people and conservatives rigid. They were, therefore, perfect for a post-war generation. Conveniently for intellectual men, and for some women ‘too young’ for
First Wave feminism who felt out of tune with its Puritanism and purity crusading (see Delamont, 1989a and 1992a), Freudianism provided a ‘modern’ reason for rejecting First Wave feminism and all its works. Vicinus (1985) explores this in some detail.
In the final section of this chapter I want to explore the main consequence of postmodernism for the majority of sociologists and anthropologists: the consequences for what ‘counts’ as academic writing. Amanda Cross’s (1981: 148) heroine Kate Fransler spoke of the new forms possible to women in making fictions of female destiny.