It is time to speak of content: the content of poststructuralist feminist theory. To summarize its tenets. To show that I managed to attain some comprehension of that which was taught in this class.
I find this difficult, for a variety of reasons.
It's not because I'm unduly intimidated by feminist theory. If asked to summarize radical feminist thought, marxist feminist thought, liberal feminist thought, or for that matter the anti-feminist perspectives of either the reactionaries like Marabel Morgan or Phyllis Schlafly or the peculiarly configured anti-woman critique of the existing status quo represented by Esther Vilar, I could do so. I've been on this beat for awhile.
But even to begin this section gave me a moment's pause, because even after four years of fairly continuous study of the type of feminist theory called "poststructuralist", I still find it difficult to render a summary of what poststructuralist feminists think the world is like, or consists of, or works like, etc--its content as a theoretical world-view.
It appears to me that this entire theoretical enterprise--poststructuralist theory, including poststructuralist feminist theory-- focuses more on what types of assumptions allow one to dis-assume other things and therefore move beyond them: tools, rather than assertions. If poststructuralist theory (feminist and otherwise) stayed fully within those parameters (if such a thing were possible at all), we could perhaps consider it openly to be "anti-theory theory", and consider whether or not theory in itself is a meaningful thing to engage in or consider.
But there are some assertions of "What Is So" that keep
appearing and reappearing within this toolbox of methodologies and tactics,
and these take on theoretical assertiveness to form a poststructuralist
framework (contradiction-in-terms though that may sound). Therefore, although
the following consideration of content misses, I daresay, much of the focus
that its proponents would give poststructuralist feminist theory, I think
it does capture the essence of what is actually being asserted by the poststructuralist
feminist project, and since I am a theorist, I take assertions rather seriously.
Scott (1990), makes a highly utilitarian argument to feminists on behalf of poststructuralist theory: "...We need theory that will enable us to articulate alternative ways of thinking. . . it seems to me that the body of theory referred to as poststructuralism best meets all these requirements." (p. 134). This enabling process of which she speaks implies a pre-existing situation in which alternative ways of thinking have not been available, and, indeed, the simple consideration of the exclusiveness (male, white, Eurocentric, etc.) of the canon in literature as a barrier to female participation (e.g., Robinson 1983; McKay 1987; Kolodny 1980) illustrates her point. A similar barrier to female intellectual participation insulates academic thinking in general.
Male logic, for much of the history of western civilization, was not a narrowly circumscribed set of courses within a dusty and ignorable academic discipline called philosophy, but was the means of determining right from wrong in the early Greek courts; the means of determining proper theological perspective, which in turn would become inscribed as law during the days before separation of church and state; and were the formal rules for political debate on the floors of Parliament or, to a less formal extent, even public face-offs such as the Lincoln-Douglas debate in American history (in the days before sound bites and the glorious pursuit of inanities). Logic ruled proper thought in the classroom, setting down what could or could not be asserted. And it did so by acknowledging the existence of emotion and picking it up with rhetorical tweezers and carrying it out back to the discard pile of bodily based, volatile, dismissible and ignorable subjectivity.
Inspired by Nye and her discussion (1990) of the history of (male) logic, I would like to propose a theory of a patriarchal two-forked binary system of argument about meaning and legitimacy, of which the first and predominant fork is the Propositional fork.
The Propositional fork depends on the establishment of some sort of Authority that accurately, objectively corresponds to Quality so that we can know where it lies. Canon. God's word. Science. Instead of pursuing the winning of arguments with a cynical utilitarian approach, there is the conviction of the true believer that purity of thought and clear rational derivation of Truth from First Principles will invariably lead to Right Answers and Wisdom and so forth. How does one attain Truth and Right Answers? First, by being unemotional, rising above one's horribly subjective feelings and pursuing one's object of study through the rigorous application of the Holy Methods indicated by the First Truths. Certainty-chasing rigorous laboratory science and its obsession with purity and detachment is the central bastion of the Propositional ideal. Celia Kitzinger (1990) shows us the true face of the Propositional tradition in science in the middle of her exposé of the discipline of Psychology:
In the United States there is an ongoing debate about the coherence of psychology as a discipline, and the perceived threat of psychology's approaching demise has led some professionals to recommend an increasing emphasis on teaching a logical positivist value system focusing on operational definitions, antecent-consequent relationships, and universal and generalizable laws-the sort of psychology that omits altogether a political perspective and denies its own political location. . .
One of the rules fundamental to the traditional construction of psychology
is that it is an apolitical domain of technical expertise. In becoming psychologists,
feminists have often had to submerge their political commitments under a
concern for objective science. Their research may have political implications,
but it is not in itself political.
. . .And this is at the root of the problem: the core of psychology's disciplinary definition includes some concept of objectivity and neutrality; it is an apolitical science. . .engaged in feminist practice, we are excluded from the category of 'psychologist'; practising as 'psychologists', we are no longer acting as feminists. Let me illustrate how this definitional process has worked in my own experience.
. . .When I speak of social structure, of power and politics, when I use language and concepts rooted in my understanding of oppression, I am told that what I say does not qualify as 'psychology'. Because those who control the definition of 'psychology' act as gate-keepers for the professional refereed journals, I cannot be published in them. Although I am constantly asked to contribute chapters to edited books and articles for the radical press,. . . my work is generally rejected by the editors of refereed journals. . .In terms of employment and promotion within psychology, refereed journal articles count for much more than chapters in books [etc.]. . .I. . . have found it extremely hard to get employment. . .
Propositional dynamics come into play in the university classroom, too: the earnest belief that expertise and excellence and wisdom are accurately revealed by the possession of the proper college diploma, the good course grade, the good test grade.
This pretentious obsession with purity and detachment, method and truth-by-recipe has been a perennial irritant to feminists trying to give voice to their own theoretical position. Ruth (1981), for example, says that
The feminist challenge is met with all the anger and resistance one would expect from a company of threatened warriors trying to preserve their own territory. That they have had to have recourse to their arsenal of weapons however is an indication of their response to feminism... Those [males] who were in control could so readily camouflage their positions [as neutral] and by calling on the "rules" - which they themselves had decreed--attempt to counter the charges [of masculinist bias] by ruling them out of order.
...Weapon 1: Methodolatry--"[You can't (or did not)] fit [your experience] into a verifiable proposition deductible from general principles, and that's what you must do according to the rules of the game"....
This brings me back to Scott and the poststructuralists.
The utilitarian usefulness of poststructuralist theory to which Scott turns to address this problem lies with its denial of singular truth, of essential meaning in text or criteria for excellence, therefore placing the very process of canonization (and the articulation of absolute truths against which contradiction can only be falsehood) in a state of theoretical suspension. This sets the stage for the articulation of the alternatives, such as women's writing and women's experience, and therefore she recommends having this theory available as a tool for women (and, by extension, other left-out marginalized people) trying to pry themselves into the discourses that have excluded them.
Even the simplest of manual tools that have no moving parts, such as carrot peelers or crowbars, can be dangerous if one does not know how to use them, and more complicated tools such as food processors or pneumatic drills can only be used safely once a person has a minimal understanding of how they work. Furthermore, such understandings are necessary in perhaps even more detail if one is to have the desired effect on the materials which one is working with those tools. Faced with a locked door of solid iron, a person with a vast and complex toolbox could resort to using a key, a welding torch, or a bundle of dynamite, any of which would serve the purpose of removing the problem of a locked door, but not with equal results in terms of the effects that the tools have on the door, the surrounding structure of the building, or perhaps whatever lies on the other side. Of course, not everyone who finds themself facing a locked door is conveniently endowed with an infinitely deep and inclusive toolbox (indeed, if they were, the concept "locked door" would be rather difficult to construe, wouldn't it?)--we are not all issued keys, for instance--and particularly if one happens to be at least as much locked in as locked out by a given door, the availability of any tool whatsoever might be considered a blessing if it looks like it might do the job, and to hell with the consequences. Nevertheless, as Susan Griffin (1978) likes to point out, there are always consequences. We know what door we're speaking of here, and of what lies beyond it: we're talking about the process of constructing social meaning, of making society be what it is through articulate participatory interaction in the public intellectual world. That door has kept women locked out for a long long time, while the process takes place beyond those doors. The political stakes--and the determination to keep women from the process beyond the door--should indicate that the door is one of the best that the door-makers could design. The three chivalrous French male toolsmiths (Foucault, Derrida, and Lacan) who have most directly handed poststructuralism over to feminists (even as radical feminists were cooking up some tools of their own) have more than implied that their tool will take care of the door, which indicates that it is a tool of considerable power. If I knew nothing more about it than that, I would examine it cautiously. At this point, having studied this obscure and opaque tool for four years, I have a pretty good idea of how it works and what its side effects are, and although you may say that I'm not trapped in or locked out in the same sense that women are, and that the decision is not mine to make, I strongly recommend against using it.
Kolodny (1980 / 1991) speaks of the experience of trying to introduce women writers into courses in literature and of being told by male colleagues to stick to the canon, that the canon's member compositions were chosen on the basis of obvious and discernible excellence, and that the scarcity of female-authored text within the canon is either an accident or an artifact of what femaleness means and has been caused to mean. Arguing against this entrenched position, she says, is like trying to get through a minefield. Key parallel questions arise: "where [aesthetic value] resides (in the text or in the reader), and, most importantly, what validity may really be claimed by our aesthetic 'judgments'" (p. 108). With these questions, which deconstruct the foundation of the canon, Kolodny, like Scott, uses the poststructuralist tool, but Kolodny shows more consideration for the implications for alternative assertions of quality and meaning:
In our heart of hearts, of course, most critics are really structuralists (whether or not they accept the label) because what we are seeking are patterns (or structures) that can order and explain the otherwise inchoate; thus, we invent, or believe we discover, relational patternings in the texts we read which promise transcendence from difficulty and perplexity to clarity and coherence.
This need for a theoretical apparatus for doing so, however, is not reconciled here. "All the feminist is asserting, then, is her own equivalent right to liberate new (and perhaps different) significances from these same texts", she continues (p. 110), recommending as an epistemological solution a "playful pluralism responsive to the possibilities of multiple critical schools and methods, but captive of none" (p. 111).
Kolodny's playful pluralism and the multiplicity of meanings and values and excellences that correspond to its establishment as a theoretical assertion are sort of reminiscent of the liberal humanist attitude towards free speech and of the press. However, the liberal humanist notion was oriented around the belief that if all thinkers could participate equally and freely in the "marketplace of ideas", the actual quality of the good ideas would be discernible, and that in this way the collective humanity would slowly but surely arrive at a clear and accurate, or elegant and beautiful, sense of things as they are best understood and thought of. The poststructuralists' pluralism, in contrast, deconstructs the notion of clarity, quality, elegance, accuracy, and beauty, rendering all of these things contextually contingent, making multiplicity a theory of meaning rather than a method of arriving at meaning. As with Robyn Warhol and Diane Herndl's discussion of the title of their anthology Feminisms (1991), poststructuralist feminism is in part about getting away from singular meaning and the idea that we can or should have accurate and collectively shared analogues of reality, or even that there is a reality rather than a multiplicity of realities to have analogues of in the first place.
This establishment of multiple truths and meanings and of the essential inability of anyone to justify privileging one as "more real" than another, is a great offensive tool with which feminist critics can engage patriarchal thinkers and their assertions. Gallop (1982 / 1991) writes of Irigaray in action --
Irigaray's tactic is a kind of reading: close reading, which separates the text into fragments of varying size, quotes it and then comments with various questions and associations. She never sums up the meaning of Freud's text, nor binds all her commentaries, questions, associations into a unified representation, a coherent interpretation. Her commentaries are full of loose ends and unanswered questions. As a result, the reader does not so easily lose sight of the incoherency and inconsistency of the text.
That could be seen as a victory for feminism.
What is true for exterior considerations such as things and what they mean is also true for "subjects", i.e., conscious individual selves and what those selves think and want and desire, or what they think they want and have been caused to desire, and so forth.
Linda Alcoff (1988) writes about the poststructuralist concept of the "social construction of the subject" and discusses the arbitrary meaning of the self to itself, a content composed of attitudes, beliefs, intentions, and values that are in no way authentically a part of the "nature" of the individual, but instead are constructed (along with the myth of the subject, itself being an ideology constructed by the humanist discourse) by external cultural discursive process.
"There is an interesting neodeterminism in this view. . . [The] rejection of biological determinism is not grounded in the belief that human subjects are underdetermined but, rather, in the belief that we are overdetermined (i.e., constructed) by a social discourse and/or cultural practice. The idea here is that we individuals really have little choice in the matter of who we are, for as Derrida and Foucault like to remind us, individual motivations and intentions count for nil or almost nil in the scheme of social reality"
The popularity of poststructuralist theory among feminists originated with feminists in the field of literature and literary criticism, but the theories define their applicability to "the world as text"--the idea that we "read" the entire world that we know of just as we read text Kolodny (1980 / 1991).
Once the originally limited and exclusionary sense of "text"
is expanded to include communicative practices in general, the hegemony
of social construction is easier and easier to assume and assert. The discourse--any
environment in which the reader encounters some form of discussion of the
meaning of something, "not a language or a text but a historically,
socially, and institutionally specific structure of statements, terms, categories,
and beliefs" (Scott 1990)--is
the birthplace of the official meaning which foregrounds and silences and
stands in place of the multiplicity of pluralistic meanings of realities.
This is an inherently political process at all times because readers do
not come to the discourse equally armed. This is not the liberal humanist's
"free marketplace of ideas", this is power struggle over the right
to define things, which is the ground upon with the wars of discourse are
waged. And women, especially, have been locked away apart from the processes
of discourse which, at any given point, have created the world women live
in and women themselves.
Furthermore, since everything is always already a text that constructs reality for the reader and the reader for the reality, and is the dynamic mother of the meaning of everything that the reader can know, she is always already a product of the existing discursive practice. This relegates all possibilities for liberation to the margins--behind, to the sides of, or beyond the illusion of processes of deliberate conscious engagement with the world by subjects who act and think their own thoughts. This hegemonic-discourse situation is a problem for the poststructuralist feminists, who, as feminists, are by definition about the business of trying to empower women.
The situation worsens with the insights brought into poststructuralist theory via psychoanalytic theory-- theories that originally apply to sexual desire and sexual identity are understood to apply more generally, in much the same manner that literary theories concerning text are understood to apply to virtually everything, as I discussed above
Irigaray (1977 / 1991) takes
the high road and writes of the possibility of a female language that, by
virtue of being rooted in the
female body and feminine sexuality--there is female writing, and female
language, but it never attempts to "mean" something, to objectify
the signified. Male language is thought to objectify what it signifies in
much the same sense that male sexual desire objectifies its objects of desire,
through a goal-driven objectifying erotic impulse of desire-fulfillment.
This is derived from the Lacanian
notion that the phallus is the only thing that can stand for (signify)
anything else. In its original sense, this is the concept that, if the female
identity is constituted from the discovery of her "castration",
i.e, lack of a penis, then female identity is defined by the missing organ,
signified by it as surely as male identity; but, by expansion and elaboration,
everything that exists and can ever be represented (signified) by
something else called a signifier is always already represented and can
only be represented by a phallus. This is a rather depressing situation
for women who like to use language, because language basically consists
of signifiers and, as you can well imagine, women get tired of having all
those pretentiously omnipresent dicks in
their mouth every time they want to speak. At any rate, Irigaray can
conceptualize the possibility of a women's language in which such signification
(and therefore objectification of the signified) does not occur, and in
which "an 'other meaning' [is] always in the process of weaving itself,
of bracing itself with words, but also of getting rid of words in order
not be become fixed, congealed in them" (p. 354).
Kristeva (1981), more concerned about Lacan's phallus, has taken the road closer to the ground and determined that language is a bad idea for women, that women can never speak as women, for to speak is to be constituted already by the male discourse which language itself is. Woman is the unknowable, and, as Derrida might say, she derives her position of freedom from being constituted by the discourse from the very fact that she is not spoken within it except as Other, which means absence. "If women have a role to play. . . it is only in assuming a negative function: reject everything finite, definite, structured, loaded with meaning" (1980 , p. 166-67). "A feminist practice can only be. . . at odds with what already exists so that we may say 'that's not it' and 'that's still not it.' By 'woman' I mean that which cannot be represented, what is not said, what remains above and beyond nomenclatures and ideologies" (1980, p. 134-138). Cixous, while less vehement on the matter of women's revolutionary role as negators, also asserts that "Language conceals an invincible adversary because it's the language of men and their grammar." (1976, as reported in Kolodny, 1980 / 1991, p. 101)
Once cannot even hope to conceptualize oneself meaningfully as a self-transparent social construct discernible in terms of and against the backdrop of those active contextual structures, because the subject is not unitary, but fragmented and multiple and plural (e.g., Benstock, 1988 / 1991), as is the case with reality in general. The unconscious self belies the myth of the autonomous singular subject from the inside much as a consideration for the power of language and text (in the larger sense of the word) do for the outside. Part of one's mind is conscious, but below that, and pulling more interesting behavioral, emotive, and cognitive puppet-strings, is the unconscious, which is not easily seen by the actor because she is not transparent to herself. The unconscious is a more profound definer of who one is, what one does, etc. The unconscious itself is externally configured by events taking place while one is largely helpless, passive, and inert (i.e., infancy and early childhood). Therefore, even the self-conscious attempt to see the self and the aspects that have constructed one's self (and, through that, one's ideas about how things should be, or what things in life have quality) must be understood to be processes that are directed and affected and configured according to desires and cathexes that operate below any level of conscious self-awareness possible to the individual making the attempt.
In general, if I may risk a generalization, the primacy of language as powerful over all understanding and all meaning operates centrally throughout the system of poststructuralist assertions, explaining the situated powerlessness of all individuals as due to the irrevocable and omnipotent activity of its signifying process.
That (making a generalization, that is), in and of itself, is problematic, though. The poststructuralist theorist would state that the type of thought which produces generalization erases differences and artificially constructs a model of reality which is unavoidably enmeshed with my own position as constructor of generalizations, thus making it a discursive practice inseparable from my own socially constructed stake in the discourse and my own desires towards the theorists and their thinking. In order to maintain the subject matter as a subject position and thereby refrain from totalizing poststructuralist feminist theorists and theories within my own imperialist rendering of their conceptual experiences, it may be necessary to forego the privilege of generalizing. As Alcoff (1988) notes, a similar problem of major political and theoretical importance faces feminism due to the very inability to speak of women without totalizing the category and subsuming the meanings and experiences of the variously multiple and plural and ever-differentiated be-ing of women--
In attempting to speak for women, feminism often seems to presuppose that it knows what women truly are, but such an assumption is foolhardy given that every source of knowledge about women has been contaminated with misogyny and sexism. . .
The [poststructuralist] response [to the question of how, therefore, to define "women"] has been to reject the possibility of defining women as such at all. Feminists who take this tactic go about the business of deconstructing all concepts of woman and argue that both feminist and misogynist attempts to define woman are politically reactionary and ontologically mistaken. . . Using French post-structuralist theory these feminists argue that such errors occur because we are in fundamental ways duplicating misogynist strategies when we try to define women, characterize women, or speak for women, even though allowing for a range of differences within the gender.
Somewhere along the line, this entire line of thought and manner of thinking started to sound highly familiar to me, and perhaps for good reason.
There seems to be a two-forked binary system for maintaining power, and the second fork is the Argumentative fork. The Argumentative fork is the one in which notions such as Truth, Real Knowledge, Morals, etc., are sort of laughed off the stage, and the attention is on utilitarian effectiveness in argumentation. Aristotle's attitude towards "rhetoric" was very much in alignment with this: tactics for winning debates, for influencing listeners. Our modern advertising industry has an Argumentative face, as does the current Presidential contest in America. So does our courtroom, in which fewer and fewer people think that Truth and Justice are anything but laughable concepts, and in reference to which recent news coverage of the rape trials of William Kennedy Smith and Mike Tyson revolved around strategy and "spin" and tactics. There was little or no sense of surprise or outrage that the mechanisms, allegedly designed to make sure that justice was done and that right was protected from wrong and so forth, were actually responding to tactics designed to work the system first and foremost. Argumentative dynamics come into play in academia in the set of attitudes towards education that stress the utilitarian (i.e., job qualification) purposes for attaining a college degree or a passing grade in the classroom or on the test-with a cynical disinterest in "learning", expansion of one's "consciousness", attainment of "wisdom", etc.
Here is more from Kitzinger's exposé in which you can see the Argumentative face of male logic in action:
I was working on an analysis of psychological rhetoric. . . and decided to test my own theoretical analysis by putting it into practice. I resubmitted this same paper on human rights to the BPS annual conference (which, ironically enough, had rejected my previous submission on 'rhetoric in psychology'). But the resubmitted version was disguised in the rhetorical garb of positivism-empiricism. (Actually, this started as a joke--could I produce a convincing parody of social psychological writing?--and was elevated to the status of a test case when a colleague suggested submitting the paper.)
'How do people construe their rights?' the title demands: questions make good titles, because it suggests that science is about to provide an answer. . .I follow the question mark with a colon (grammatically incorrect, but accepted and reproduced in the conference programme), and the subheading, 'a study of alternative schematisations'. This last word is an example of 'terminological oversophistication' (or 'big words'. . .), and use of the colon ('titular colonicity') has been described as 'the primary correlate of scholarship. . .My summary begins with a sentence containing two passive verbs (contributing to the aura of objectivity). . .and I list five references in the first two sentences. . .The last sentence of the first paragraph ends with the (outrageously rhetorical!) claim that contemporary social and political debate over human rights issues 'is conducted in strident and highly charged ideological terms to which rational and objective scientific inquiry could bring much-needed clarification'. . .
The paper was accepted.
Think of the Argumentative position as a fall-back position. In times when well-ensconced secure hegemony is firmly in the hands of whoever is in the ruling-party slot within the patriarchal system, a straightforward assertion of values and beliefs (Propositional mode) may be apparent. There is Truth and we know what it is. There are Standards and these are the ones. There is a Cream of the Crop and it has long since risen to the top and you can be sure that the Emperor on this Throne is just like God on His Throne in Heaven Above.
But since patriarchy tends towards competitive patchwork divisiveness, and invasion and conquest are perpetual modalities, there are times when whoever is in the ruling slot must address major challenge from alternative possibilities for power. Authority becomes multiple. There is the possibility of that dangerous space of free speech in which all the ideas can be heard and the quality of different visions compared and tasted in the minds of those who hear. Argumentative mode works then as both a retreat and a retrenchment. The devout belief in standards is undercut with cynicism. We acknowledge that there are special places for holding arguing contests (discourses) in which we assume that, for the players, outside of winning or losing arguments, there is no meaning, morality, or truth.
Eventually, people tend to get tired of the blatantly barren meaningness of this mode and demand a return to principles--for example, although the rape trials of William Kennedy Smith and Mike Tyson did not generate much outrage about the lack of heartfelt pursuit of Truth and Justice, the later murder trial of O. J. Simpson definitely did. Invariably, though, such a cry for a return to principles includes a return to Standards. For as long as the situation holds, though, Argumentative mode gives the appearance of constituting a real attack on the legitimacy of the propositions present in Propositional mode.
The transition from Propositional mode to Argumentative mode usually occurs when someone starts pointing out that the legend of being able to work from standardized systematic criteria for determining excellence really only amounts to rule following: in other words, that the Propositional is just a false face put on an underlying Argumentative modality. Some come out to play the "excellence game" with the cynical awareness that it is just a game, and others dismiss it as irrelevant because they know it has nothing to do with excellence, but without having recourse to any alternative that could or does.
I think the poststructuralist theoretical mode is no more and no less
than a new and pernicious form of the Argumentative mode of male logical
discourse. The expected response from defenders of poststructuralist theory
to all of this would probably include or even begin with the claim that
I have totalized poststructuralist feminism. As long as I am in the process
of doing so, I will offer at this time the broad generalization that the
content of poststructuralist thought teaches powerlessness and, in its implications,
disempowers, that already it is working primarily to limit, rather than
empower feminists and their ability to enter their observations and experiences
into the academic viewscreen.
Patriarchy is nontrivial, and a realistic feminism cannot afford to underestimate the enormity of what women are up against. If we dismiss too easily the claims that poststructuralist feminist theory makes for the hegemony of patriarchy in those aspects of life that we want to call "identity" or "experience", we run the risk of saying, in diluted form, "What oppression? Why, you women can do anything you set your mind to, and you shouldn't listen to this feminist crap about social processes that limit you, because those ideas will only make you feel powerless."
And yet, while I think it is necessary for feminist theory to ask, "Can we, as feminists, avoid reproducing familiar concepts and evaluations that are already enscribed with patriarchal political dynamics?", or "Can we even use the language without having our thoughts and expression shaped by the imprint of patriarchy embedded in language?", it is an altogether different thing to make the strong theoretical assertion that the answer to "Can we...", over and over again, is no.
To address a response to all this, I'd like to start first of all with the question of generalization and of whether it is meaningful or appropriate or fair to speak of poststructuralist feminism in such sweeping unifying terms when, in actuality, each article written by each poststructuralist feminist is actually its own feminism, and "poststructuralist feminism" a social construct that ignores the multifaceted, pluralistic diversity of ideas and writings and perspectives that have been grouped under that term. When poststructuralist feminists themselves find it useful and necessary to make a categorical statement, they tend to fret and worry self-consciously in print about the exceptions to the general rule that they are forced to make in order to do so, and of how they are disrespecting differences and specificities and therefore distorting matters in their act of representation and signification, and of how their own history and intentions and position in the overall scheme of things has probably led them to such a skewed and incomplete and distorted impression, and so forth-all of which their theory says is inevitably going to be the case. While I find that I'm in easy and complete agreement with this assessment of conceptual affairs, as is the feminist tradition which has most specifically influenced and inspired my thinking, there is a meaningful difference which might best be understood as a difference in attitude. Apart from poststructuralist feminism, most feminist theory acknowledges the legitimate practice of making generalizations, despite the beforementioned problems. For example--
My business here is to sketch out some broad generalizations about differences between men and women... rather than to dwell on the many striking exceptions...
All group differences... tend to be oversimplified, absolutized, in everyday thought; irregularities, ambiguities, are smoothed over to save mental effort; our view of them is governed by principles of mental economy as inexorable as those that govern visual form perception...
This tendency can be so destructive socially that people who have seen some of its ugly consequences--for example, in the formation of racial and ethnic stereotypes--often angrily oppose the formulation of any group concepts whatsoever. But the fact is that we cannot orient ourselves to social reality without forming hosts of such concepts. They are indispensable; the best we can do is to pay strenuously disciplined attention to their limitations.
(Dinnerstein 1976, pp. 55-56)
As a theorist, my position is that the ultimate legitimacy of theory depends upon the art (not the science) of generalizing: to see your own personal situation as a situation that could be occupied, interchangeably, by other people, and their situation by yourself, for that matter. A sense of what is meaningful, good, right, or socially permissible runs the high risk of being self-centered in a micro-level version of ethnocentricity unless it can be abstracted so that what is right or meaningful is understood to be a product of context and interaction, not just of who happens to be contemplating the specific action at a specific time under specific circumstances. Although there are ethical problems with the process of generalizing, I think that there are definitely problems also with not doing so.
Radical feminism, through its emphasis on feeling-based ways of sensing meaning, provides a key to responding to the poststructuralist philosophical attack on generalizations as conceptual distortions with no validity apart from the biases of the person who makes them.
Closely allied with the view that women do not think meaningfully is the view that women's thinking is occluded by emotional and/or bodily processes. Menstruation, especially, has been thought to interfere with women's ability to think clearly or behave sensibly (e.g., Fausto-Sterling,1989). In a larger sense, above and beyond the direct implication of menstrual cycles, it is alleged that women don't think properly because their feelings keep getting in the way, and rational thought is of course divorced from feeling. Whereas some women have resented the implication that they cannot engage in rational thinking as effectively as any man, and have perceived the "women are emotion-driven" attitude as a sexist epithet, others have criticized the male model of detachment, objectivity, and rationality and called for a revalorization of the emotional.
Carol McMillan (1982) refers back to Hegel and his notion of the absolute mind, which could transcend objectivity and subjectivity divisions but did so by eliminating "romanticism": subjective thinking was thought to be erroneous because it lacks any criterion for evaluation, and evaluative criteria are necessary in order to establish the authority of public authority, providing a universal element capable of transcending the "merely natural, instinctive, and subjective level of feelings." (p. 6).
Women, unlike men, were thought to learn in some odd mystical way, by "breathing in ideas" (p. 7). On the one hand, this would seem to imply that women have access to ways of knowing that men do not share in; even that women have a sort of mystical effortless access to knowledge whereas men have to work at it in order to understand their world. But at the same time, the odd mystical "intuitive" means by which women acquired knowledge was assumed to be erroneous, as if women had claimedit for themselves instead of having it attributed to them by the same men who also made claims for its illegitimacy!
The western theological and philosophical contempt for the body, for sensation and bodily processes, became enshrined in the Western mind-body split, and this melded with the attitudes towards women and feelings, indeed, were part of the same overall attitude process: ". . . much unashamed prejudice against women may have been based not so much on male pride or on a lust for power as on a philosophical conception of the distinction between human beings and animals, between reason and emotions. . . " (McMillan, 1982, p. 23)
In contrast to these traditional attitudes towards feeling as a way of knowing, women theorizing about patriarchy and women's oppression and potential liberation have often depended heavily on emotion-driven intuitive processes, exactly the ones contemptuously attributed to women, exactly the ones that male science and male philosophy rejected (and, I might add, continue to reject!) as valid and accurate epistemological pathways to knowledge.
Carol McMillan writes, "To define a judgment as one based on intuition draws attention. . . [the agent's] ideas and judgments are not reducible to a straightforward description of the situation about which [the agent] is thinking." (p. 41). Taking issue with Hegel's equivocation between absence of criteria and meaninglessly subjective judgments, she quotes Ludwig Wittgenstein on the subject of excellence in the complex sense exemplified by artistic endeavors such as playing the violin beautifully and expressively, "There are also rules, but they do not form a system, and only experienced people can apply them right. Unlike calculating rules, what is most difficult here is to put this indefiniteness, correctly and unfalsified, into words."
Radical feminist theorists, in speaking to each other and developing theory and discussing women's ways of knowing (e.g., Belenky, Clinchy, Goldberger and Tarule, 1986; Schaef, 1981), have generally been especially inclined to privilege personal experience; they have legitimated subjectivity, and invoked feeling, emotion, sensation, and intuition to explain how subjective experience can guide a woman to accurate, rather than arbitrary, knowledge. Collective sharing and comparing of experiences is also highlighted as important for women and the expansion of their knowledge. Because radical feminism has for the most part not been a theoretical fixture in the academic university setting, and because these general explanatory notions have been adequate for many feminists who rely on such methods, a more rigorous explanation of radical feminist epistemology has not been necessary. Critics have often misunderstood these notions and beliefs about meaning and knowledge to refer to an essentialist female claim for "intuition" as a mystical key to truth, and I'm strongly inclined to think that similar misconstruals have played a part in poststructuralist feminists' impression that radical feminists are all "essentialists", naive people who are oblivious to the fact that women's experiences are not transparently available to them or conveniently ready to be spoken of if the world would only give them a chance to be heard and to hear each other (see, for example, Weedon 1987; Alcoff 1988; and the discussion that de Lauretis, 1990, provides concerning this very tendency).
I have understood radical feminists to be making a different set of assertions, despite an occasional theorist who did indeed seem to be making reference to women's knowledge via essential female nature (e.g., Griffin, 1978, in particular), although even then I've never been sure whether or not they were being metaphorical or literal about that. At any rate, the usefulness of a rigorously delineated epistemology that would justify these claims and practices seemed apparent to me; one place in which this was developed is the work of Robert Pirsig (1974), whose theories of meaning and knowledge proved useful to me in a prior paper I wrote, "The Radical Feminist Perspective In (and/or On) the Field of Sociology". Among other things, these theories will allow me to address the question of generalization as an art that depends on pattern-recognition skills that pre-exist language and culture (if the ability to recognize patterns does not for each and every one of us pre-exist language and the network of signifiers that comprise language and culture, how do we each acquire it?).
Once language has been acquired, ideologies and cultural constructs do exist, but not in a central space of epistemological omnipotence--underlying any system of cultural constructs that are shared and are expected to be shared is the entire latticework of interactive relationship of the subject to the entire world, and that latticework of relationship has real consequences of sensation and emotion that are experience for us, which is interpreted through the medium of the analogues of reality that we hold onto, which are socially informed, true enough--but always through a process that seeks the elegance of fit in such a way that analogues of reality are perpetually refreshed through experience. The process of knowing, therefore, is "hermeneutic" in the sense that Charles Taylor (1971) uses the word, and in fact the only way that an oppressive ideology which constructs misconstruals about the world can survive constant modification and elimination through experiential deconstruction of the faulty social analogues that form its content is by traumatically intervening in people's processes of interpretation of what they feel, of methodically "trashing" emotion as meaningless, dangerous, subversive to rational thought, as, ultimately, the cause of physical pain. Such an arrangement does, of course, exist--it is enshrined over and over again in the institutions of patriarchy. Sexually asymmetric, the system most thoroughly separates what one thinks from the feeling-centered analogue-refreshening process for young boys, who are subjected to systematic physical and psychic terrorism for expressing feelings, (including feelings about being physically and psychically terrorized for having feelings, an example of the vicious circle phenomenon Erving Goffman (1961) called "looping") and then teaches them what to think based not on their felt experiences but on didactically presented instruction in how to be, which emphasizes control and power as primary virtues. Later, as adults, these are the people who are privileged to make decisions, to define reality in the public sphere, to wield personal violence in the private sphere, and thereby to control women.
Girls, while less thoroughly distanced from feeling, are methodically disregarded and trivialized for what they think, and are also didactically instructed in how to be in ways that emphasize feelings as commodities and emotional interaction (with men, especially) as duties and virtuous behavior, thus preserving some of the pleasant aspects of emotional existence while rendering them "safe". Radical feminist observations to the effect that men parasite off of women's energies like so many vampires at a blood-feast (see Daly, 1978, for example) refer to this phenomenon. Feelings, therefore, should join sexuality and reproduction in feminist analysis of what is most thoroughly women's own, but from which they are most alienated. (MacKinnon used that phrase construction to centralize sexuality in "Feminism, Marxism, Method and the State", 1982.)
To generalize, to categorize, to speak of multi-plural-different myriads of people (or their projects) by grouping them and then making sweeping statements about those categories while eliding differences that exist within the categories, is necessary, inevitable, and not so problematic for questions of language and power as poststructuralist feminists worry, because the intellectual knife with which I make those distinctions, highlighting some differences while ignoring others, is being wielded with the best artistry I've got at my disposal, and if I do it elegantly and for reasons that appeal to your own non-arbitrary experientially-informed impressions of the world, you will find yourself nodding. If, on the other hand, you feel something is skewed about how I use that knife and you get a feeling that something is inelegantly "wrong" about the categories I create and the relationships that I establish by doing so, you may want to deconstruct my categorization system, which will not only tell you more about whatever it was that I was speaking of in those categorical terms, but also will tell you more about me. What leads you to do so, though, is a feeling. And every deconstructive project relies entirely on using the same kind of knife. Thought requires categories. Social theory, in particular, does so. As Judith Stacey and Barrie Thorne, authors of "The Missing Feminist Revolution in Sociology" (1985) point out, "Complex contemporary societies cannot be grasped, or even studied, whole" (p. 310). Theory is a schematic and broadly sweeping set of generalizations that enable us to make sense of the world. As long as theorization is understood to be art and not some kind of capturing of the entirety of reality in an objectively accurate verbal box, there's nothing wrong with that.
Therefore, if I've "totalized" poststructuralist theory in this section, I'm inclined to think that worse things have been done to theories with less friendly intentions, and, given my foreknowledge of the principal intended audience for this paper, the effectiveness of my theoretical cut depends on your sense of whether or not I have made a reasonable generalization about the trends and assertions common among what is called poststructuralist feminist theory.
Continue to Next Section