Feminist literary criticism is one of feminism's success stories. Probably nowhere else in the academy have feminists enjoyed anywhere near the internal success at transforming a patriarchal discipline, dethroning its masculinist tenets, and placing women's thinking, writing, experience, and theory in a position of comparable importance. In part, this may be due to the fact that women have long tended to pursue their academic careers in English literature, so when feminist concepts and politics began making major social waves, which both affected and included the activities and perceptions of women university students, the discipline of English must have found its stodgy collective self up to its metaphorical eyeballs in feminist challenges from its students. Since literary criticism tends to inscribe canonical excellence to its most favored texts by process of conjectural inquiry, thus offering up new readings that reveal new layers of meaning in their tapestries, to successfully enter the female-authored text and use women's questions to reveal fascinating weaves of meaning and intricate complexities of relationships between the layers there is to have succeeded--one need not be able to reach a set of widely agreed-upon Correct Readings of Toni Morrison's Beloved in order to successfully direct critical attention to it. Poststructuralist theory has eliminated the "door" problem and women's work and women's inquiry are no longer missing in action in the English department, which is not the case in most other disciplines at this point. But, as the still-very-marginalized feminist thinkers in those other disciplines continue to attempt to accomplish something comparable, we find ourselves increasingly operating in an environment where feminist theory is understood to be poststructuralist, and where to engage ideas and assertions with feminist questions and critical analysis that derives from other varieties of feminist theory is to find ourselves corrected for not doing feminism properly. The poststructuralist version of feminist theory is now privileged in academia generically because it has been established as legitimately academic in one of the disciplines, and when its proponents lose sight of the local and utilitarian reasons that they chose this particular tool for doing the feminist project within literary criticism, their claiming of poststructuralist feminism as feminism combines with their comparably privileged position as "winners" so that their voice alone is heard. There are consequences to this...
Poststructuralist theory (feminist and otherwise) seems to me to work from a disavowal of the expressible knowability of the content of the world, and, as I said in the beginning of the previous section, to make precious few direct assertions. Its proponents, those who ascribe to it, tend to think of it as a tool rather than a paradigm of reality. The most favored topics of discussion within the poststructuralist medium seem to be discourses--how arguments are constructed, how versions of reality are enscribed, how arguments are won. In practice, I've often found (to my annoyance) that proponents of poststructuralist theory are not bothered by their own inconsistency with their own theories: for example, the Director of the Women's Studies Program who has invited me to leave the program does not seem bothered by the traditional academic notions of "rigor", i.e, standards having to do with how well one performs in the classroom or the program; nor does she apply the poststructuralist critique of "canon" to the body of nonfiction called "text", and instead has major problems with my anarchic predisposition towards the authority of teacher, program, text, and standards of academic excellence as they could ever be "rigorously" (rigidly) rendered in words.
Poststructuralist feminism has a greater emphasis on the possible locations of patriarchal oppression of women, and comes closer to asserting that everything is polluted with patriarchal dynamics--yes, a greater emphasis on that than radical feminism, which in contrast must look like a lot of Pollyanna Good Ship Lollypop chirpings about sisterhood and experience and women can change the world and woman is strong, invincible, and can't be stopped. This is a somewhat disconcerting situation to be in for a radical feminist, because radical feminists have always been the ones who were accused of going TOO far in seeing patriarchal oppression embedded in virtually every social institution. Poststructuralist feminism emphasizes the negation of authority that stands in opposition to the feminist projects and which maintains the patriarchal world. Reciprocally, radical feminism has a greater emphasis on deconstructing certain binary differences that remain inscribed within poststructuralist feminism, especially the binary categories of agency and subjection-to-external-phenomena; personal and political; conscious and unconscious. Radical feminism emphasizes the generation of authority of feminists themselves to engage in feminist projects and transform the world. Poststructuralist feminism works from negasis, radical feminism from genesis.
Admittedly, in many ways, the two theoretical perspectives are describing
many of the very same phenomena, and feminists have usually been justifiably
suspicious of the patriarchal thinking tendency towards division and isolation,
"fixation and dismemberment" (Daly
1978), and especially so when it comes to dividing women from women.
To complain about binary categories in poststructuralist feminism while
arguing single-mindedly that it is entirely a conceptual Other and that
the feminists doing it are all doing the Wrong kind of feminism is not in
keeping with radical feminism's or poststructuralist feminism's best traditions
Speaking of practice, though, this itself is another space in which poststructuralist feminists often seem to be implicitly invoking a binary split between paradigmatic theory and utilitarian practice, as illustrated by Weedon's book title Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory (1987) and being apparent in Scott's previously quoted assertion that feminism needs a theory in order to accomplish its desired practice, which is known to her before the theory has been chosen. Within poststructuralism, practice is privileged while theory is a tool deployed by it.
That's where my central warning comes in. Poststructuralist feminists have an attitude towards their own theory somewhat like this, if you'll pardon the totalization once again: "This is a good theory, because if I 'believe' it, look at what I can justify doing, and my opponents can't argue against it because it is a powerful argumentative tool."
But theory is practice! It immediately models the world in its assertions of What Is So, and when academic feminists enscribe poststructuralism's theoretical tenets as feminist, those assertions become feminist assertions which can be used by anyone to discuss feminism. The content engages the world in a process that yields a product, and process and its consequences must remain concerns for the responsible theorist.
The process of my first engagement with this particular content produced alienation, confusion, and distaste. Even before I had a strong sense of what the overall assertions were, I was reacting to the language, I guess, and I found it unpleasant, inelegant in my head. Far worse than most theoretical writing, poststructuralist theory is often horrendously ugly and clunky and alienating to the reader. It manages to be painstakingly nitpicky in its nuancing while at the same time opaque about its assumptions, and sometimes everything seems to run in passive voice with nouns verbing their way around with no visible means of intentionality anywhere in sight. However, lest I be confused with anti-intellectuals who are dismayed at the thought of having to hold in their minds the string of concepts and images which longer and more intricate sentence structures can weave, or give the impression that I bear a grudge against hyphen-linked ultraspecific metamodifiers or neologisms constraining the reader's thoughts in new and unusual patterns by means of innovative suffixmongering and parapolitical mod/if/ication of textual appEARance and/or the use of slash marks to convey concurrence/ambivalence (or even the parenthetical remark), I want to make it plain that that is not my complaint. Ugly writing doesn't just mean that the sentences are long and full of Big Words, any more than Dick and Jane inanities represent pretty wordsmithery. I'm not going to make any attempt to define pretty versus ugly writing--indeed, the esthetic is preverbal and preanalytical, and to define it would be to replace it with a dead formulaic criterion for excellence--but I find writing such as this to be ugly:
Ironically, Zihlman reproduced a modernist humanist discourse featuring a troubling universal being, woman the gatherer, who threatened to subdue the heteroglossia of women's power-differentiated lives by means of the univocal language of sisterhood, while Hrdy delineates a map of proliferating differences written in to the primate female body that might indicate directions for a postmodernist, decolonizing biopolitics.
(Haraway, 1990, p. 141)
A new social ensemble superior to the nation has thus been constituted, within which the nation, far from losing its own traits, rediscovers and accentuates them in a strange temporality, in a kind of "future perfect", where the most deeply repressed past gives a distinctive character to a logical and sociological distribution of the most modern type.
(Kristeva, 1981, p. 443)
The reader is assaulted by the form of these assertions, which are shaped according to one of the Argumentative principles of rhetoric: they are difficult to argue against in the first place because they are hard to understand. In a world where one of the biggest problems for feminist theorists is that people are not familiar with our concepts and ideas, one has to wonder about their intended audience.
Following up on the feeling-level sense of distaste that I got from a significantly large portion of the poststructuralist feminist theory, I studied matters and looked at patterns and eventually brought out my analytic knife: there is no presence in most of this theory of anyone in the center of the landscape sorting the sand. There is no sense of "I think", or "I feel", or "Well, after reading such-and-such, I found myself wondering this and that, which led me to think that...". Everything comes driving in with the pompous authority of the "Is" assertion. The gaze Is male. The subject Is constructed. The desire Is cathected. The author, who is wielding the pen/knife and cutting up meaning into words and concepts and images, isn't explaining how these things were concluded. Of course, no one would want to be confined to having to explain how every notion or assertion was reached, because that would prevent you from ever having a starting point, but feminist theorists should have a sense of their audience, and poststructuralist feminist writers too often write as if the audience were to be composed of poststructuralists, semioticians, and psychoanalysts, and in those schools of male thought, if you follow them backwards, there is precious little explanation of where the theoretical ideas came from. They are ideas without experiential mothers. The pompous "Is" statement is par for the course in the history of those discourses, in contrast to which feminist theory in general has been written around a tradition of de-mystification of theorization processes (e.g., Johnson 1987). It is hard to argue against a closed package of internally consistent assertions when the person making those assertions is missing from the landscape, creating the impression that this knowledge is intrinsically "out there". The content being asserted with such authority is, paradoxically, the knowledge of the truth that there is no Truth, the objective face-the-facts position that there is no Position from which Facts can be faced. The process of that content is to shift the focus from what one is asserting to how one came to be making that particular deconstructable assertion.
It's a great tool for entering a locked room. It is hard to justify keeping you out of a discourse when you have this tool in your hand. It negates positions by destroying their authority. But the room is no longer the same. The only Truth that can now be spoken is the truth of the importance of winning discursive argument. Ultimately, there is an inconsistency here between poststructuralism-inspired practice and poststructuralist theory, and it threatens to bring down the whole structure of its endeavor in a massive implosion.
Poststructuralism appeals to the democratic impulse in all of us in its assertion that there is no single, unitary truth, but rather a plethora of multifaceted, pluralistic truths from which it is impossible to privilege one over another, and that to attempt to do so, to ensconce one person's truth or one people's value system as Truth, is inherently imperialistic. To assert that there can be no meaningful winner in such a marketplace because there is no such thing as a "better" perspective, because one's notions of "betters" are always completely socially constructed or "always already overdetermined" by their social and temporal location in the world, appeals to the post-humanist anti-capitalist sense of fairness of many a person's social conscience. This is not, however, the same as to assert that excellence, or truth, or the Good and Ideal defy definition and can never be accurately and meaningfully put into words. It is one thing to say, as Robert Pirsig does (1974), that
Quality is shapeless, formless, indescribable. To see shapes and forms is to intellectualize. Quality is independent of any such shapes and forms. The names, the shapes and forms we give Quality depend only partly on the Quality. They also depend partly on the a priori images we have accumulated in our memory. . .. . .In our highly complex organic state we advanced organisms respond to our environment with an invention of many marvelous analogues. We invent earth and heavens, trees, stones and oceans, gods, music, arts, language, philosophy, engineering, civilization and science. We call these analogues reality. And they are reality. . .But that which causes us to invent the analogues is Quality. Quality is the continuing stimulus which our environment puts upon us to create the world in which we live. All of it. Every last bit of it. Quality cannot be defined. If we do define it we are defining something less than Quality itself.
It is another thing entirely to say that quality itself is the product of one's social environment, and that the "names, shapes and forms" we give to quality depend exclusively on the socially shared (and expected to be shared) analogues of reality that we are culturally conditioned to accept. Robert Pirsig can say that he is writing here of something that is good and truthful and meaningful even though his writing is only one, imperfectly rendered way of attempting to capture it in words. The poststructuralists behave similarly, as if they can declare for the quality of the poststructuralist position--that meaning is multiple and plural--over that of someone else who tries to argue that their taste in politics or music are better than someone else's. But according to their own theoretical matrix, they cannot make that claim. If I'm an assertive Nazi who wants orderly sameness and the reinstitutionalization of Propositional definitions of truth and goodness, and you're a nice pluralistic multifaceted poststructuralist, you're in no position to say that I cannot say these things, because that is only true according to your socially constructed understandings of truth and meaning, and if you're "right", you're not right because there is no right and therefore my Nazi attitudes and assertions of knowable standards of right and wrong have to be welcomed among the multifaceted, pluralistic notions that get to play in the anarchic, free-wheeling discourse of ideas that have no inherent quality one way or the other. Welcome to hell.
There is no truth, just your truth and my truth and his truth and her truth and you can't speak for all women and what is a woman anyway but a social construct? And you can't speak meaningfully from your own experience after all because all experience is socially constructed, too, and everything is "already overdetermined" by the way that language belongs entirely to men, so if women use words they are speaking men's ideas with men's tongues so that isn't valid, so therefore what feminists ought to do is practice being mad, invent a new language that deliberately doesn't make sense because making sense is being trapped in the male discourse. There is no agency, only the abject powerlessness of the individual to do anything but be perpetually constructed by the discourse. And death of the subject, let's not forget death of the subject. You aren't here.
Truth? Ha ha ha ha, whose truth? Canon? According to whom? Anything goes if you know how to make it go. Standards are not merely relative, they are arbitrary and related only to whoever is most effective in establishing their own. Purity, accuracy, knowledge, wisdom, meaning? Yeah, right! Sure...look, it is all power, the only thing is power, excellence is whatever those who have the power to define excellence define as excellence. Therefore there is no particularly good reason to listen to anybody out of any sense that there is any sense out there. You know what it is about now-why listen to anything or anybody unless it seems to be directly facilitating your political and economic potential? I'm telling you, it's a dog eat dog world.
Worried about the canon? Hey, the poststructuralist feminists are right on target. Shakespeare is definitely NOT better than Toni Morrison. There's no reason in hell for Shakespeare to the be the definitive English writer of "literature". Toni Morrison has every right to be in there as his equal. So does a Mickey Spillane detective novel, get my drift? There's nothing out there but all these people fighting to establish their own take on what is excellence, nothing but a discourse,. So, okay, you read Shakespeare and you think "Wow, no, really, this is good stuff", but, as the poststructuralist feminists have pointed out, your subjective sense of quality was socially constructed. Or maybe you think Toni Morrison is really cool stuff? Well, same difference. The social construction of quality and excellence that has been working in the world in which you live has been under struggle and some of the social dynamics that led to feminism and civil rights has also led to constructing your aesthetic appreciation in such a way that you like Toni Morrison's stuff now. But, get this, and get it good: there's no quality in Toni Morrison's work, nor in the political objectives of the civil rights movement, or anything else, that isn't socially constructed, and different circumstances would have constructed your head differently. So, here it is the 1990's and I guess you're a bit burnt out from fighting through the '80's, and you want meaningful social change, is that it? Well, now, assuming you're relatively well off materially, like maybe you're white and privileged and male like me, why bother? Your sense of what society "ought to be" is just a social construct, and, believe me, it is easier to adjust you to the world than to try to make the world change to fit your notion of what it oughta be. You hang on to a bunch of ideas, all that idealistic crap, because you think there really IS something that corresponds to Truth, Morality, Society as it Oughta Be. Let go, already! If you'd been born in a different time and space you'd be happy to be a Nazi. With equal validity, I might add. Nothing is real but power, the power to define social meaning, power to construct social constructs, power to own the discourse. . .
I hope that kind of atheism toward Quality kind of bothers you. Even if it doesn't, you should consider, for strictly utilitarian, tactical purposes, the fact that it is likely to bother other people. People will (and already do) rebel against the existentialist atheistic barrenness of poststructuralism's blatant meaninglessness.
If poststructuralist feminism successfully passes itself off as "the"
feminist theory, radical feminism will remain marginalized; before radical
feminists can win enough people over to believing that there is meaning
and yet that it lies with the validity of felt experience--and that communication,
the process of putting that experience into words, is a source of power
for all of us--the modality will shift back to the Propositional. Like two
mean-spirited people playing a cruel childhood game at the expense of another,
Aristotle (Argumentative mode) tosses the frisbee back to Plato (Propositional
mode) and the process of keep-away continues.
Meanwhile, to give further clarity to the dangerous utilitarian aspects of the consequences of this theory, here is a nice poststructuralist set of pluralistic UnConclusions to be sort of finished by / with...
If you wish to view the actual comic strip, click on the thumbnail at left. It takes awhile for the whole thing to load if you don't have a broadband connection (884K JPEG--about 3 minutes at 56K), but you can start reading it as soon as the first row of panels is done.
(Personally I don't think Nicole Hollander and Scott Adams have anything to worry about here).
Alternatively, a cheapie version is available right here, just scroll on down.