Radically Speaking
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Radically Speaking

Feminism Reclaimed

Diane Bell, Renate Klein

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eBook - ePub

Radically Speaking

Feminism Reclaimed

Diane Bell, Renate Klein

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Showing that a radical feminist analysis cuts across class, race, sexuality, region, and religion, the varied contributors in this collection reveal the global reach of radical feminism and analyze the causes and solutions to patriarchal oppression.

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Deconstructing Fashion

Susan Hawthorne
You are standing in a crowd
moving sideway crablike
I watch as you negotiate the spaces
reading an absence in the movement of your body
Your style is French
your dress too
I begin from the top:
a bataille beret
is set at a jaunty angle1
your hair hangs forward
splitting your forehead in two
on your torso
a derridean sweater and
an irigarean jacket
hanging loose
a kristevan belt
holds up
faded foucault jeans
from behind all I can see is
a cape of lacanian obscurity
and on your feet
runners with deleuze
inscribed on the heel
I turn and leave
doubting that we speak the same language

1. Some years after this was written, baseball caps with the names of Foucault, Derrida et al. appeared on the market!

(Re)Turning to the Modern: Radical Feminism and the Post-modern Turn

Kristin Waters
The struggle between post-modernism and feminism has been a particularly difficult one, dividing feminists and detracting energy from the practical work which has been a basis for the Women’s Movement On one side is the view that post-modernism provides a logical intellectual progression for feminism. This view holds that feminism as a modern intellectual discourse is either dead or passĂ©, that its foundational and essentializing approaches are outmoded, and that its insights can be safely absorbed and transformed by post-modern theory. On the other side is the view that post-modern theory signals a treacherous diversion away from feminist ideals and goals. It holds that a gendered analysis is necessary for understanding our world, and that feminist theory can interactively illuminate analyses made from standpoints of race, class and culture.
Certain pieces of intellectual history become clear as one moves through the sound and fury of this dispute. Post-modernism gained currency in the USA in the 1980s and has influenced contemporary feminism, just as earlier and ongoing feminist challenges to hierarchy, polarity, modern meta-narratives, and traditional constructions both of individuals and social institutions, have been absorbed by post-modernism. So genealogically, feminist theory in the USA largely precedes and informs post-modernism, and not the reverse.
Feminist theory has, from the beginning, provided critiques of modern theories from the Enlightenment to the present Feminism has also used both the theories and methods of modernism to further its goals. When this has been done self-consciously and self-critically it has proved to be enormously powerful. For many academic disciplines, feminism provides a major critical apparatus, and strong theoretical tools that make excellent use of, but are not limited to, gender analysis. So feminism has combined the exploration of new terrain and the creation of new approaches with a cautious but determined use of tradition. Much of academic feminism has accomplished this while remaining true to the political commitment which radical feminists count as essential. This often means scrutinizing the connections between theory and practice to ensure that they are strong, challenging theory which is too removed from the everyday, and seeking innovations to bridge the gap between colleges and communities. Making our own approaches vulnerable to challenges about the connections with practice, we count as a strength.
In the academic realm, during the last decade, post-modernism has moved forward and in some places supplanted feminism, posing as the smarter, more intellectual younger sister who will carry forward the baton. So while in the intellectual sphere, feminism and post-modernism continue to influence each other, what remains on a different but connected plane is the political struggle between the two, which will take place in the publishing houses, on journal editorial boards, on university hiring and tenure committees, and at conferences and meetings, but not, generally, in the streets, where feminists often find our bases of support, our sources of inspiration, our ground for theory, and our field of practice.
That is not to say that what goes on in the streets, in our communities, and at various governmental levels will not be affected because, as with (other) feminist struggles with patriarchy, the more time and energy absorbed in disputes about origins, legitimacy and power, the less time there is left over for action. In a sense then, this struggle, like many in the past, deflects feminists from forging alliances with communities and from putting our feminist currencies to work in practice.
My purpose is to set out some of the major criticisms of post-modern theory, and then to examine a few special cases of the general criticisms in order to construct an argument about what I see as some of the more nefarious connections between post-modern and modern theories. I suggest that the post-modern move to “destabilize the subject” is a reiteration of the modern argument against abstract ideas and I explore the political effect of this piece of high theory. I then argue that the post-modern move away from reason toward desire is a way of harnessing in the successes of feminist philosophy by once again confining women to the ghetto of desire and irrationality, as Enlightenment philosophy has done in the past. Finally, I claim that the post-modern emphasis on style is another way of putting the old-fashioned “feminine” back into feminism—by shifting attention away from substance that has concrete and material ramifications, toward a style which is elusive and obscure, ungrounded and apolitical. Indeed, each of these shifts, characterized as post-modernism and feminist post-modernism, has the effect, I will claim, of moving feminism away from its roots in politics and making feminism safer for the academy, but not safer for women.

Post-modern Theory Undefined

To what degree is post-modernism the rightful heiress of a moribund feminism, and to what degree is it something else in disguise? The effects of post-modernism on feminism are explored in Somer Brodribb’s searing critique, Nothing Mat(t)ers, in which, by directly engaging the texts of Foucault, Derrida, Lacan and others, she argues that post-modernism’s “Dionysian delirium is another mask of masculinist reason”, (Brodribb: 1992, p. xi). Her detailed survey of the terms “post-structuralist” and “post-modernist” reveals a stunning lack of agreement about meaning, appropriately enough, considering the slippery character of these terms. “Post-structuralism” is preferred by post-modern feminist Judith Butler (among others) whose assembled collection with Joan W.Scott, Feminists Theorize the Political (Butler and Scott: 1992), is largely an attempt to demonstrate post-modern contributions to contemporary feminism and to chastise feminisms that are not au courant in a post-modern way. But such is the confusion surrounding these theories that one of Brodribb’s sources “describes how Jacques-Alain Miller (Lacan’s son-in-law and literary executor) shocked an Ottawa conference
“by saying that ‘post-structuralism’ was not a word used in France” (Brodribb: 1992, pp. 7–8). In other words, although the theories themselves originated in Europe, post-structuralism appears to be a US phenomenon. Adding to the state of confusion in which these theoretical phenomena seem to thrive, John Rajchman says, as to post-modernism:
Foucault rejected the category; Guattari despises it, Derrida has no use for it: Lacan and Barthes did not live and Althusser was in no state, to learn about it; and Lyotard found it in America (Brodribb: 1992, p. 10).
Given the rejection of post-modern theory, even by its founders, why are the claims for feminism to be post-modern so insistent?
In particular, why is post-modern theory so attractive in the United States, while it is largely disclaimed even by those credited with inventing it, in its countries of origin? (see Delphy pp. 383–392 this volume). Just as designers look to Milan for high fashion, must American academics look to Paris and the rest of Europe for high theory? One senses that the critique of modern theory is only perceived to be valid when it has the stamp of approval from the home of the Enlightenment—like the child who rebels against a parent and then wishes for the parent to endorse the rebellion. Post-modernism, as a theory which looks to context and location for explanation, needs itself to be contextualized and located, historically and culturally.
Brodribb locates post-modern theory within the traditional mind/body dichotomy of modern metaphysics, and the patriarchal schemata of psychoanalysis. Writing in a creative and exploratory manner reminiscent of the exuberant feminist writing of Mary Daly, Brodribb explains:
I define poststructuralism/postmodernism as a neurotic symptom and scene of repression of women’s claims for truth and justice. Postmodernism is the attempted masculine ir/rationalization of feminism (1992, p. 20).
Brodribb sees post-modernism as an attempt to disassemble “feminine” matter traditionally and negatively associated with women, while reconstructing “masculine” form (1992, p. 147). In contrast, radical and socialist feminists have reclaimed and recast matter and women’s bodies to provide a concrete, integrated analysis of the relations between mind and body. Borrowing the notion of praxis from Marxism, contemporary feminism draws a non-dichotomous view of mental and physical relations and rejects the polarizing approach of western traditions. For radical feminists, theory generates from women’s unglamorous, embodied experiences and has emerged from grassroots accounts of rape, violence, displaced homemaking, childbirth, childrearing, unemployment, and also of love, work, friendship, mothering, and care. Making these concerns clear concomitantly makes obvious how post-modernism clashes with feminism. Post-modern theory is taken up with the Lacanian immaterial, the Derridean concern with structure and the silencing of women, or with Foucault’s thanatical preoccupations (his obsession with death), with law, and with order.
Post-modern theory has been criticized by both traditional and feminist philosophers. In connection with these criticisms, which I shall briefly recount, related considerations arise. What is the genuine connection of post-modernism to various modernisms? Does post-modern theory deconstruct and move beyond the modern text or does it merely drape traditional modern theories, like empiricism and Freudianism, in a post-modern cloak as a manner of maintaining the modern biases against women and persons of color? Does the emphasis on desire reiterate the ancient and Enlightenment theories’ denial of the attribute of reason to women —what Brodribb describes as “the irrationalization of feminism”? (1992, p. 20). And is this accomplished through the technique of producing a style which is so seductive, so cosy with the cutting edge of theory, and so enamored of new, if vague terminology, that the lure becomes irresistible? Is it possible that the so-called insights of post-modern theory are really insights produced by years of feminist theory and then appropriated by post-modernism? Can a rapprochement between feminism and post-modern theory be managed in a way that skirts the political dangers while taking advantage of theoretical insights? Raising these questions constitutes a first step in problematizing the relationship between these theories in a way that is sensitive to political as well as theoretical concerns.

Post-modern Theory Examined

The predominant philosophical criticisms can be distilled to three sorts: that postmodern theories are self-contradictory, that they are incoherent, and that they are nihilistic. The first type of criticism holds that these theories are contradictory because they deny the possibility of truth while at the same time proclaiming it. Post-modern discourses manage to wield a rigid authoritarian force about the indeterminacy of claims of all kinds, creating a kind of modern day Liar’s Paradox, asserting the truth of the claim that there is no truth. In part this criticism generates from the post-modern dismissal of modern meta-narratives such as those provided by Hegel, Marx, and Enlightenment Theory. In Lyotard’s view, grand narratives are reduced to a rough equality with smaller, competing discourses which vie with each other for a kind of persuasive acceptance (Lyotard: 1984). Larger truth claims are to be substituted with smaller, more pragmatically-based ones. But the traditional epistemological knots seem to be irresistible:
Thus, even as he argues explicitly against it, Lyotard posits the need for a genre of social criticism which transcends the local mini narrative. Despite his strictures against large, totalizing stories, he narrates a fairly tall tale about a large scale social trend (Fraser and Nicholson: 1990, p. 25).
Fraser and Nicholson identify one contradiction in post-modern theory: the simultaneous rejection and acceptance of meta-narrative discourse. Indeed for Lyotard, the rejection of old meta-narratives accompanies his creation of new ones. In the next section I explore the post-modern concept of “subject positions” to show the contradiction underlying assumptions about universes of discourse and what are deemed to be legitimate subjects. The sweeping stricture in post-modernism against truth claims is so broad that other examples of contradictions abound.
The second general criticism derives an incoherence from post-modern theory’s negative character, primarily aimed at Derrida and deconstruction, but it can also be found in Lyotard’s views on social criticism and in the antifoundational character of all post-modern theory. This criticism holds that the insistence on instability, indeterminacy, and reversal undermines the possibility of a positive construction of concepts. Theory-building itself becomes an impossibility as a result of the post-modern attack on philosophy. It is not only philosophy, but positive theoretical endeavor in any field which suffers under this approach. As a specific example of this criticism, I will show how the transformation of reason into desire by post-modern theory reiterates the modern attitude toward women and at the same time undermines access for feminism to powerful methodologies.
In a third and related mode, it has been widely argued that the lack of positive content and retreat from moral claims undermine all moral action, resulting in nihilism. As Fraser and Nicholson suggest:
[Lyotard’s] justice of multiplicities conception precludes one familiar, and arguably essential, genre of political theory: identification and critique of macrostructures of inequality and injustice
(1990, p. 23).
Moral theory, social theory, political theory, and one can argue, other philosophical theories as well, depend upon at least a bare-bones common normative ground of discourse on which discussion and dispute can be based. Erasure of this basis leads to a denial of the possibility of justifying moral judgments and to a nihilistic outcome, according to this criticism. The denial of a normative content, I shall argue, results in a movement away from substance and toward a focus on style which undermines the political basis of feminism. Further, by focussing on issues of style, post-modernism attempts to return feminism to the traditional realm of the “feminine” as defined by modern theory. The prevalent Enlightenment account of the proper sphere for the ideal lady, exemplified in the writings of Rousseau and Kant, is to attend to fashion and style, since the moral realm is not intellectually available to them.
These are condensed versions of philosophical formulations of the criticisms. Many of these criticisms have been originally articulated by feminist...

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Citation styles for Radically Speaking
APA 6 Citation
[author missing]. (1996). Radically Speaking (1st ed.). Spinifex Press. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1566783/radically-speaking-feminism-reclaimed-pdf (Original work published 1996)
Chicago Citation
[author missing]. (1996) 1996. Radically Speaking. 1st ed. Spinifex Press. https://www.perlego.com/book/1566783/radically-speaking-feminism-reclaimed-pdf.
Harvard Citation
[author missing] (1996) Radically Speaking. 1st edn. Spinifex Press. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1566783/radically-speaking-feminism-reclaimed-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
[author missing]. Radically Speaking. 1st ed. Spinifex Press, 1996. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.