Feminism and Deconstruction
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Feminism and Deconstruction

Diane Elam

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eBook - ePub

Feminism and Deconstruction

Diane Elam

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About This Book

At last - an intelligent and accessible introduction to the relationship between feminism and deconstruction.
In this incisive and illuminating book, Diane Elam unravels:
* the contemporary relevance of feminism and deconstruction
* how we can still understand and talk about the materiality of women's bodies
* whether gender can be distinguished from sex
* the place of ethics and political action in the light of postmodernist theory.
Clearly and brilliantly written, Feminism and Deconstruction is essential reading for anyone who needs a no-nonsense but stimulating guide through one of the mazes of contemporary theory.

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Chapter 1
Unnecessary introductions


How do feminism and deconstruction go together, if at all? Does deconstruction need to be feminized? Or does feminism need to be deconstructed? In either case, it would be possible to be seduced by a narrative of initial mistrust and final reconciliation. However, I am not going to tell the kind of story in which feminism learns to love the hand that corrects the error of her ways, learns to appreciate proper theoretical rigor. Nor am I going to propose that what we need is either a kinder and gentler deconstruction or a deconstruction that can be put back in touch with real problems by the mediating action of women. Thus, rather than introducing feminism and deconstruction to each other or tracing the story of their partnership, I want to argue that there is an interest in setting these two ways of thinking (which do not make a pair) alongside each other, and that this interest does not simply reside in the question of what either one may usefully learn from a partnership with the other.
So, not “how do they go together?” but “how are they beside each other?”. Initially, the two seem to have little in common. Feminism seems to be a political project, whereas deconstruction appears more philosophical or literary. By this account, their mutual interests do not converge. Such an argument does indeed have some merit in so far as convergence is not the right way to characterize the interaction between feminism and deconstrnction. Instead, I will argue that feminism and deconstruction are beside one another in that they share a parallel divergence from (or dislocation of) politics and philosophy. On the one hand, feminism shifts the ground of the political, interrogating the opposition between the public and the private spheres. On the other hand, deconstruction displaces our understanding of how theory relates to practice by rethinking the opposition of philosophical reflection to political action. To draw this distinction out a bit further, it would be fair to say that feminism necessarily upsets the way we think about politics because its activist political movement is inseparable from a critique of the history of representation. And it’s inseparable because of a notion of solidarity. Deconstruction upsets the way we think about philosophy because its analysis of the philosophical tradition is inseparable from an attention to the performative effects of the discourse of analysis itself. This is what distinguishes deconstruction from ideology critique. In short, then, these double displacements undo the map of intellectual and social space inherited from the Enlightenment, and this book will argue that such untying is of crucial contemporary relevance.
The contemporary relevance of setting feminism and deconstruction beside one another may not, however, be immediately transparent. Feminism’s academic success has been accompanied by an anti-feminist backlash in contemporary North America, and the high academism by which deconstruction is often characterized would hardly seem to be just what the doctor ordered. My sense that it is worthwhile to consider deconstruction and feminism together now takes issue with this view on two points. First, I am suspicious of distinctions between academic and practical feminism: in contemporary Western society, being a woman is just as much a philosophical as it is a practical problem. Secondly, I do not believe that deconstruction is as merely academic as it is often made out to be: deconstruction helps one to think about the schizophrenic complexity of contemporary experiences of time and representation.
But is this really saying anything very new? After all, I am hardly the first to take up the possible relationship between feminism and deconstruction, so in a sense the answer is “no.”1 The book does not have a title like “A New Theory of Woman,” because I think one needs to have a healthy disregard for the static prescriptions embedded in modernist manifestos of that sort. I hope, instead, to have approached my topic with a different sort of logic. The introductory chapter will be concerned with the various ways that feminism and deconstruction have been paired – as theories, as movements, as philosophies, and as disciplines. What follows, however, is not a mere summary of positions that have already been mapped out in advance of their exposition. What will be different about this book is not its content (there are other discussions of deconstruction and feminism), but rather the kind of metonymic links or enchaînements it makes possible between and within elements.2 The emphasis, then, is not so much on sorting out answers as it is on posing questions and examining their ethico-political effects.
With that in mind, it is worth saying a few words about the organization of this book. My argument could have moved in any number of directions after it sorted through the general concerns which arise when deconstruction and feminism are placed beside one other. I have chosen to focus on areas which strike me as particularly important. Chapter 2 takes up a series of questions which have been central to feminism: What are women and what can they do? Can gender be distinguished from sex? Where does an emphasis on representation leave the materiality of women’s bodies and the reality of women’s experiences? Chapter 3 considers how feminism and deconstruction allow us to rethink the political and explore the possibility that there is indeed life after identity politics. The concluding chapter considers how feminism and deconstruction give rise to an ethics best understood as groundless solidarity and ethical activism.
However, even the arguments these chapters contain are not meant to be exhaustive. I have tried to offer a series of notes which indicate some of the other areas that could be explored and the other approaches that could be taken. These notes outline previous work and ongoing debates on a variety of issues, and should be used in parallel to my own argument. At one point, this structure, which is designed to preserve the flow of discussion, actually takes on a life of its own. The “Institutional Interruptions” that intervene between Chapter 3 and Chapter 4 should best be understood as a long footnote, which itself tries to reflect upon the problem of situating the debate between feminism and deconstruction.
In this respect, the unfinished nature of the book is constitutive rather than accidental. I have no pretensions that I have told the entire story of feminism and deconstruction, or even that there is an entire story to tell. Likewise, I have no investment in the belief that the final chapter must contain the obligatory happy ending of conjugal bliss. So while my argument wants to imagine the multiple interactions, the variety of intersections of feminism and deconstruction in the hopes of a possibility of social justice, I am steering clear of the heterosexual paradigm that has frequently been unjustly offered up for the couple’s theoretical presentation, just as I hope to avoid any suggestion of producing the final word on “feminism and deconstruction.” This book promises neither “resolution nor revolution,” as Robyn Wiegman would put it, although it may offer interminable analysis.3
For this reason, if there is a structuring principle behind my argument it is the insistence on the formulation of questions rather than the search for conclusive answers. And these questions, as I hope I have indicated, include those which interrogate the book’s own organizing principles, political effects, and ethical implications. That is to say, I am arguing that the real work of the juxtaposition of feminism and deconstruction is the possibility it creates for certain questions to be asked – questions with political-ethical implications, including the epistemological question of who knows more, the one who asks, or the one who replies? Here both feminism and deconstruction share a refusal to privilege the answer over the question in thinking.
The question of privilege also relates to the status accorded to the two protagonists of my title. I think that feminism can do as much for deconstruction as deconstruction can do for feminism; however, it would be an error to think that this implies that we can reach an ideal balance or harmony between the two. As I have said, there is no conjugal happy ending. So I have tried to make this book function like a Rorschach ink blot test, in which what the reader finds will depend on where she or he reads from. Those primarily interested in deconstruction may find an argument for thinking seriously about feminism, while those who have learnt to think in feminism may find themselves moved to take deconstruction more seriously. There exists no neutral reader, and other possibilities will no doubt arise (although those who come to this book with a burning interest in landscape gardening are likely to find little to stimulate them). In short, what I am trying to suggest is that feminism and deconstruction are not mirror images of one another, and it would thus be impossible to treat them in symmetrical ways.


Given that supplying answers is not the only task of thinking and that there will be several ways to read this book, I want to turn to the problems which accompany the attempt to understand the terms of my discussion. The reader may be entitled to expect some answers, for example, to the questions “what is feminism?” and “what is deconstruction?” The answer to both these questions is the same: “it is not, in any simple way, one thing.”
To understand why this is so, it is important to recall that definitions work on the basis of consensus, on general agreement as to what words or phrases mean.4 Limits must necessarily be imposed in order to fix the definition in either synchronic or diachronic terms. However necessary this process is for everyday communication, the danger of thinking you know it all is at no time greater than when it comes to grasping hold of definitions. Definitions threaten to function like final answers which erase the fact that there were ever any questions asked in the first place; their status becomes unshakable, almost natural, and rarely if ever interrogated.
Thus, I think it would be a mistake to offer up easy definitions of either feminism or deconstruction. In this regard, Alice Jardine seems to me to be on the right track when she hints that we will not solve our problems by reaching a consensus about what “feminism” is or exactly who is or is not a “feminist.”5 The same could be said of “deconstrnction” and “deconstructionist.” In each instance, not only will “we” fail to solve our problems, we may not even recognize that we have any in the first place if we spend too much time trying to find the right way down the lexicographical road. I would even go so far as to argue that not only is the search for a universally agreed upon definition of “feminism” and “deconstruction” a waste of time, it is also highly undesirable. For once you think you know what “feminism” and “deconstruction” are, then their political and ethical work is done. As I have already hinted, short hand definitions, while practical at times, can easily lead to caricature, dismissal, and unnecessary limits placed on thought and political action.
Still, the argument can be made that what I am doing here is simply taking a longer route to the same defining end. That is to say, the “isness” (Dasein) of “feminism” and “deconstruction” will inevitably emerge over the course of the book, finally establishing limits which are unavoidable if not permanently necessary. I will concede that such is the problem of any writing, but however correct that may prove, I nonetheless want to postpone establishing my limits for as long as possible. This book, therefore, will neither begin with definitions nor openly establish them at any point; rather it will let such definitions emerge only as the limits of writing necessarily impose them after the fact. As much as possible, I want to keep the act of naming and defining as a site of contestation, for the question that should continually be posed is: who gets to name what?
As a way to postpone establishing unnecessary limits, as a way to keep open the question “who names?” I want to deploy the terms of my argument in such a way as to embrace a plurality of changing definitions, encourage the thinking of feminisms and deconstructions in the plural.6 To put it simply, there is no single feminism or deconstruction to define, only feminisms and deconstructions. This is not to insist, however, that there need be a different feminism for every different deconstruction, or vice versa.7 I want to abandon an easy symmetry between the terms and concede that at times “feminism” becomes dislodged from “deconstruction.” One of the problems this book faces is taking into account the plurality within and between feminism and deconstruction, while at the same time acknowledging that these terms do determine realms, categories, or spaces with a certain coherence or rigor.
In putting it this way, I have, of course, raised the possibility that feminism and deconstruction are theories – although not exactly in the scientific or philosophical sense. Feminism and deconstruction would be theories insofar as they are said to describe observable practices and experiences from a meta-discursive position and, as such, proffer knowledge on the basis of which further practices can be elaborated. “Theory” would also be appropriate in the sense that the term, in departments of literature, serves as a kind of catch-all category for certain interdisciplinary work. As Jonathan Culler describes it, “theory” is a genre of works that “exceed the disciplinary framework within which they would normally be evaluated and which would help to identify their solid contributions to knowledge.”8 Significantly, Culler also explains a popular objection to theory’s disciplinary challenge:
Works claimed by the genre [of theory] are studied outside the proper disciplinary matrix: students of theory read Freud without enquiring whether later psychological research may have disputed his formu lations; they read Derrida without having mastered the philosophical tradition; they read Marx without studying alternative descriptions of political and economic situations.9
In short, theory’s skeptics see a sort of willed ignorance at work, a disregard for the knowledge derived from disciplinary contexts. Feminism, of course, provides a challenge – what is its original disciplinary context? What discipline is feminism removed from in the first place? These questions will form part of the focus for my discussion of crossdisciplinarity in “Institutional Interruptions.” But without taking up these questions now, it would be possible to say much more simply that referring to deconstruction and feminism as theories possibly provides a way to acknowledge their plurality and connectedness, at the same time that it marks both feminism and deconstruction as excessive in the ways Culler maintains.
And yet another danger of thinking of feminism and deconstruction as theories is that of lapsing into a rigid distinction between theory and practice, the distinction in terms of which deconstructive theory has so often been opposed to feminist practice. For this reason, “theory” is perhaps a bad name for the work Culler describes, an all too easy way to contain political practice. I will take up feminism’s and deconstruction’s joint engagement with the political in Chapter 3; at this point it is still worth mentioning that feminism and deconstruction are political practices that do not proceed from theories in any simple way. The threat of theory is that it allows us to forget the interaction with praxis. And in light of the seriousness of this memory lapse, I think it is worthwhile to pause and consider in more detail what happens when we begin to think of feminism and deconstruction as theories. In short, I want to point out what we would swallow if we were to take the theoretical bait.


Whether it is used in the name of academic innovation or political revolution, theory takes its toll. Understood as a set of interpretative generalizations which explain particular texts or justify political actions, theory can actually function as a methodology that contracts rather than expands the field of knowledge and the possibilities for political action. In the case of “deconstruction turned theoretical method of literary analysis,” a sort of party game atmosphere takes over from serious intellectual work: undermine-the-binary-opposition replaces pin-the-tailon-the-donkey as favorite pastime. Which is not to slight the value of the latter; sometimes it’s hard to tell which, through sheer repetitive methodology, is the more ridiculous exercise. In a different light, or perhaps just at a more sophisticated party, deconstruction too often becomes “deconstructionism” – yet another delicate reading of a poem or novel, yet another girls’ and boys’ club on the academic theoretical scene.10 In this instance, we’re back to the problem Jardine posed, where too much time and energy is expended on trying to figure out who’s in and who’s out, who’s allowed to wear the official badge “deconstructor.”
To say this is not simply to bash deconstruction. There is altogether too much of that in the popular press and in academic essays whose authors rarely bother with a serious engagement with the issues. This is the danger when Derrida’s insistence on deconstruction as neither a system nor a methodology has been ignored in favor of theoretical business as usual.11 The ethical obligations of which deconstruction should remind us are abandoned in favor of institutional recognizability.
Likewise, feminism verges on the possibility of turning into yet another form of thematic criticism appropriated by the academy. The most widespread form of this is an endless series of readings, whose theoretical operations could be described as: 1. find the women in the text; 2. women are oppressed in ——; or 3. women find their voice in ——. While there was certainly a great deal of political force behind the readings which first broached these topics so as to connect readings of representations of women to social and cultural positions of women, how many times must these readings be repeated? Is there another kind of injustice committed when all discussions must revolve around “the problem of women” in history, science, literature, society, etc.? Fem...

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Citation styles for Feminism and Deconstruction
APA 6 Citation
Elam, D. (2006). Feminism and Deconstruction (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/1613629/feminism-and-deconstruction-pdf (Original work published 2006)
Chicago Citation
Elam, Diane. (2006) 2006. Feminism and Deconstruction. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis. https://www.perlego.com/book/1613629/feminism-and-deconstruction-pdf.
Harvard Citation
Elam, D. (2006) Feminism and Deconstruction. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/1613629/feminism-and-deconstruction-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Elam, Diane. Feminism and Deconstruction. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2006. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.