The ‘Pomo’ Backlash: Looking at Feminism in the Aftermath of Postmodernism (Part 1)
Guest post by Maggie H.
Poststructuralism, also referred to as postmodernism (1), has been majorly influential on recent feminist theory, especially within the context of Academia. This is an analysis and a critical assessment of postmodern ‘feminism’ from my own radical lesbian feminist standpoint. I will first highlight some key issues coming from the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970’s (i.e. background on feminism, as it looked like before postmodernism). I will then look at the academic feminist theoretical postmodernist turn of recent years, and later point out to Queer culture as an offshoot of postmodernism. I will also explain why postmodernism is seriously antithetical to the goal to eradicate the oppression of women, and conclude with hope for resistance. This essay is also the result of a research into postmodern feminism that I had been doing for University. Here, I analyse some postmodern ‘feminist’ works.
The 1970’s Women’s Liberation Movement grew out of grassroots female-only organising against patriarchal oppression, feminist consciousness-raising groups, other inspiring liberation movements and the struggle against the male-identified sexual revolution of the 1960’s ( as explained in D. Bell and R. Klein eds., Radically Speaking: Feminism Reclaimed, 1996; and in A. Dworkin, Right-Wing Women, 1983). The women’s movement was built upon gathering many women’s accounts of their experiences of the reality of male domination (see C. MacKinnon, Are Women Human? And Other International Dialogues, 2006).
Consequently, a political radical feminist analysis emerged –identifying women as a sex class, oppressed because of their sex in a patriarchal society (see A. Koedt, E. Levine and A. Rapone eds., Radical Feminism; 1973). This theory was predicated upon real, experienced issues that were affecting women’s lives. As one of the manifestos of that time declared:
“Women are an oppressed class. Our oppression is total, affecting every facet of our lives. We are exploited as sex objects, breeders, domestic servants, and cheap labor. We are considered inferior beings whose only purpose is to enhance men’s lives. Our humanity is denied. Our prescribed behavior is enforced by the threat of physical violence.” (Redstockings Manifesto, in R. Morgan ed., Sisterhood is Powerful; 1970: p. 533)
A sex class system was thus recognised (see K. Millett, Sexual Politics; 1970), and the primary goal of Women’s Liberation Movement was for all women (across race, class, ethnicity, etc) to unite together in political sisterhood and work towards the eradication of this system (Koedt et al, 1973; Morgan, 1970).
A central emphasis of Second-Wave Feminism (which is still very much present in radical feminist politics today) was placed upon the liberation of women from patriarchal oppression, rather than ‘equality’ (Greer, The Whole Woman; 2000; Koedt et al, 1973; Morgan, 1970). Radical feminism sees liberation as being the ultimate goal for all women. We argue that what is most politically important is to liberate all women from all different sites of oppression and shapes that patriarchy takes. Various sites of male oppression of women include, for instance (though not limited to), traditional sex/gender roles, compulsory heterosexuality, culturally enforced ‘feminine’ beauty practices, the pornography and prostitution industries, and reproductive technologies.
In the 1980’s-1990’s, there came a well-documented backlash against radical feminism, the Women’s Liberation Movement and against a strongly women-centred Women’s Studies in the Academia. Academic feminist theory increasingly distanced itself from politics and became more deconstructionist (as explained in Bell and Klein eds., 1996), and postmodernism gradually took over academic feminism (source: Marysia Zalewski, Feminism After Postmodernism; 2000).
In Bell & Klein eds’ Radically Speaking, Kristin Waters explained that feminism provides theoretical and analytical tool for gender-based analyses for many academic fields, but postmodernism started co-opting feminism. A plethora of predominantly male writers (such as Foucault, Derrida, Freud, Nietzche, Lacan or Lyotard, etc) colonised the bibliographies of the earliest postmodern ‘feminist’ writers, suggesting that this new type of supposedly smarter and more intellectual kind of feminism was principally influenced by male institutions and scholarship –as further explained by Renate Klein and Joan Hoff in the same (Radically Speaking) book.
In the process of what Hoff called the ‘phallic drift’ that poststructuralism is, intellectual academic women unintentionally forgot to form great communication with other women. Post-structuralism also emerged at a crucial moment in women’s herstory, just as second-wave feminists were being able to communicate with women across classes, races, etc and trying to create a newly unifying language. Waters agrees that postmodernism appeared as oppressed people were “gaining a voice and political momentum” (p. 285). Then, a newer generation of academic women came along. They revered male philosophical thinkers and were claiming that they could use male-centred theories to transform women’s history.
In her boundary article ‘Feminism and the Politics of Postmodernism’ (1992). Linda Nicholson (a postmodern feminist) names the work of several male thinkers at the start of her article, but she is a philosopher and her background is unlikely to be previous feminist movements. In The Lesbian Heresy (1993), Sheila Jeffreys remarked that postmodernist writers like e.g. Diana Fuss tend to analyse things like gender and sexuality in Foucaultian terms, and male authorities may shape those theorists’ worldviews. Fuss had included nineteen works by Derrida in her bibliography, and her starting point was not 1970’s feminism.
In her book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture and the Body (2003), Susan Bordo suggests that “Developing… [postmodern] discourse requires reconstructing the feminist paradigm of the… 1970’s, with its political categories of oppressors and oppressed… a feminist appropriation of some Foucault’s later concept can prove useful.” (p. 167). She wants feminists to listen to men and appropriate their works, thereby implying men supposedly ‘know better’ than those feminists of the 1970’s. Suggesting that men know better than women about female experience is so reminiscent of some old-fashioned misogynistic ideology. Furthermore, why would women, including lesbian and feminists, use the work of a gay man who barely noticed women in his theory and whose insights on the social construction of sexuality were preceded by lesbian feminists’? (see Jeffreys, 1993)
Elisabeth Grosz, in Space, Time and Perversion: Essays on the Politics of Bodies (1995), admitted that there was apparently an intellectual constraint on developing a women-centred theory in the academia, and reluctantly suggested that male-supremacist models of theorising were preferred for academic acceptance (as Klein,1996, also pointed out).
As Canadian radical feminist Somer Brodribb was analysing the works of prominent postmodern male academic thinkers, she courageously declared:
“The rule is that only man may appear as woman… This is his narcissistic solution to his problem of the Other. But… to create her in his image, he must be able to take her image, educating her to sameness and deference… And I have to make arguments that sound extravagant to my ears, that women exist, that women are sensible… And… to speak against masculine culture is so uncultured.” (in Nothing Mat(t)ers: A Feminist Critique of Postmodernism, 1992; pp. xvi-xviii)
With its obsession with deconstruction, postmodernism presents no threat to structures of male dominance. After radical feminist theory arose from grassroots accounts of male violence against women, experiences of violations of bodily integrity, etc and a commitment for women to unite against patriarchy, postmodernism has been working on undoing our theory. It opposes ‘metanarratives’, rejects a universalised ‘women’ category (e.g. Judith Butler, Gender Trouble; 1990), and tries to undermine the sex-based class analysis of the Women’s Liberation Movement. However, there must be a concrete political subject to speak for in feminist politics as women are defined in the context of their sex within society.
Oppressed groups need a basis for political action in order to defend themselves. Women need to be visible if we are to further our interests. We have historically been invisiblised. Even bell hooks (in Yearning, Race, Gender and Cultural Politics; 1990, p. 24) argues for postmodernism to recognise the existence and involvement of women of colour in theory-writing and art production.
To radical feminists, women must work together towards the elimination of all social divisions amongst women, not by rhetorics of intersectionality (e.g. like in Lena Gunnarsson’s journal article, ‘A Defence of the Category Women;’ 2011). Rhetorics of intersectionality do not recognise sexism as underlying all forms of oppression. Contrary to popular myths, radical feminism has always included writings from women of colour (and sometimes non-Western women) in its anthologies (e.g. Bell and Klein, 1996; Koedt et al, 1973; Morgan, 1970). When feminists sincerely identify patriarchy as the main enemy, they will not be tempted to support detestable hierarchies among women (as explained by Denise Thompson in Radically Speaking). I thus disagree with Linda Nicholson (1992) when she suggests that opposing ‘totalizing perspectives’ (p. 59) can be a politically useful. What about a unifying analysis of male violence against women, for instance?
Katja Mikhailovich (in Radically Speaking, 1996), a PhD student who was working in a rape crisis centre, tried to find a new political contribution to dealing with violence against women in studying postmodern feminist works. She could find none to share with her colleagues in women’s services. She described the postmodern fragmentation of women into differences and deconstructional analyses as unable to provide a framework for examining gender-based violence or validating women’s experience of it. Deconstruction of truth about women’s embodied experience of violence is precisely what happens in courts of law, where many victims get blamed and shamed.
Postmodernism, as established by Foucault and Derrida, rejects the notion of universal truth, objects totalitarian concepts of truth and sees oppression in terms of multiplicity. I see this as a mechanism by some academic elites for preventing a positioning of sex-class consciousness amongst women. Mikhailovich (1996) agrees that there are many differences between women, but she rightfully says that difference is simply a part of various life experiences and that should not stop it from being used as a way of connecting and uniting for women.
Waters (1996) explains that radical feminists have a rather pragmatic approach to identity politics. All women are recognised as oppressed on the basis of sex and encouraged to unite against this, but there are also male-created differences between women (e.g. race, class, education, etc) that are very real (Koedt et al, 1973, p. 309).
There are some exceptions to rejection of the category ‘women’ by feminist academics. Some encourage at least a moderate use of the category ‘women’. For instance, Gunnarson (2011) at least admits that:
“… there was something quite disadvantageous about all women’s lives and that this something had to do with their being women. […] Thus, stating that women share a common position as women is not the same as maintaining that women are the same.” (pp. 32, 33)
Nonetheless, Gunnarson (2011) still maintains the use of what she calls ‘strategic essentialism’ (p. 30), leaving the existence of women as a sex class divided and questioned. Clearly, there are many forms of oppression in a capitalist, patriarchal society; however, postmodernism claims relativism. Postmodern feminism tells us “it is not quite like that”; that women’s reality is multiple, that things can happen by chance, that there are different points of view (Gunnarsson, 2011), that oppression is “semiotic” (Brodribb, 1992), and so on. Postmodern theorists write to confuse readers into not perceiving their own material oppression.
Radical feminists engage in materialist critiques, denouncing existing oppressions –to be perceived and abolished. We are women who talk about real, material oppressions of women (e.g. Mary Daly, Gyn/Ecology, 1979). Postmodern ‘feminist’ authors ignore such concepts, stating that history is discourse, and interpersonal relations are ‘performance’ (as in Butler, 1990).
The postmodern project contributes to the erasure of the female biology (as written about by Charlene Spretnak, in States of Grace: The Recovery of Meaning in the Postmodern Age; 1991). At least postmodern feminist Jane Flax (in a Signs article, ‘Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist Theory;’ 1987) still admitted “…there are anatomical differences between men and women” (p. 636). However, Judith Butler (in Gender Trouble, 1990) denied that there was such a thing as the female sex or biology, and claims that it is ‘essentialist’ to say so. Yet women’s bodies are a central target for patriarchal oppression (Rowland and Klein, 1996, in Radically Speaking). The atrocities done to women in the real world damage their bodily integrity.
In her book Of Woman Born (1977), Adrienne Rich had warned that female biology tends to be denigrated and ignored by patriarchal thinking, as this is not something that can be experienced by men. Rich argued that female biology had to be reclaimed, outside of the realm of gender roles, and had to become viewed in a more positive light. Janice Raymond (in A Passion for Friends; 1986) had repeatedly denied that radical feminists are ‘biological determinists.’ Women are not ‘naturally’ nurturing, etc but there are certain reproductive capacities in the majority of female bodies (Daly, 1979), hence women are defined and oppressed as a sex class by our ability to bear children. Menstruation, pregnancies and lactations are a core reality to many women’s embodied experience (Spretnak, 1991). Yet within the realm of patriarchal postmodernist scholarship– these bodily phenomena –because they exist outside the male embodied experience, just disappear into ‘texts’. Women’s experience no longer matters.
The fact that women’s bodies are being dehumanised through their interpretation as ‘texts’ (i.e. the pomo ‘body-as-text’ ideology) in postmodern feminist thinking shows that this theory is so far removed from the reality of women’s lives. According to Renate Klein (1996), postmodern feminism invisiblises and symbolically ‘dismembers’ women through theories of disconnection and dissociation.
This is particularly visible in the work of the pro-prostitution postmodern writer. Shannon Bell (in Reading, Writing, and Rewriting the Prostitute Body; 1994) conceptualises the flesh-and-blood human female body as an object –‘referent’. The rewriting of the ‘prostitute body’ entails a positive framing of prostitution through discussing how prostituted women “inscribe their own bodies in diverse and contradictory ways…” (p. 4). The ‘prostitute body’ no longer has any inherent meaning. Prostitution is not seen as exploitation or sexual violence against women by johns and pimps here. Those forms of abuse do not inscribe themselves onto her body or experience. Instead, the prostituted woman is portrayed as ‘choosing’ to feel empowered by her role. Once again here, the subordination and abuse of women in prostitution becomes invisible.
This is reminiscent of the fragmentation of prostituted women’s minds that Melissa Farley described (Prostitution, Trafficking and Traumatic Stress; 2003), after doing a large-scale and cross-country research on prostituted women. Farley explained that the abuse the majority of women experience in prostitution and pornography is so unbearable that prostituted women have to compartmentalise mentally, fragment their minds from their bodies to be able to survive the brutal commodification and violation of their flesh by the sex industry. Postmodernism, as a form of academic dissociation from reality with a ‘body as text’ analysis, feeds into similar mental fragmentation.
In the name of postmodern writing, women’s bodies are reduced to ‘texts’, body parts and denied real humanity. This shows a split between academic feminism and political feminism. Even Marysia Zalewski (2000) could not come up with a concrete explanation of the postmodernist approach to reproductive technologies. By denying the reproductive capacity of women as a sex class, by denying that women’s bodies are real –physical flesh and blood (not ‘texts’) that can be harmed– postmodern feminists are unlikely to recognise reproductive technologies as invasive procedures and escalation of violence against women (as documented by Gena Corea, in 1988). Nor are they likely to recognise pornography as male hatred of women (as documented by Dines’ Pornland, 2010; Dworkin’s Pornography: Men Possessing Women, 1979; and Jeffreys’ Industrial Vagina, 2009) or feminine beauty practices as harmful, patriarchally institutionalised practices (Jeffreys, 2006). I seriously wonder how postmodern ‘feminists’ would conceptualise women’s experiences of female genital mutilation in the so-called ‘third world’?
The constant postmodern prioritising of style over substance is another attempt to ‘feminise’ feminism, i.e. tame it with vague and obscure texts wrapped up in a seductive style, creating a diversion from the lack of concrete substance. When feminism becomes too femininely ‘polite’ to address real issues, and too ‘stylish’ to reach women who are outside of complex academic readership, it is unlikely that it will stir up women to passionate political anger and rebellion. Instead, what remains is a form of academic dissociation that attempts to irrationalise feminism. Let me examine central tenets of postmodern ‘feminism’. As Kristin Waters pointed out:
“In a post-modern world, theories become discourses, words become signifiers; both books and bodies become texts to be read, studied, and dissected, criticisms become deconstructions; and people and groups become fragmented selves, reason becomes desire, and substance becomes style.” (Waters, in Radically Speaking, 1996, p. 285; italics in original)
There is a rational goal in identifying common interests and shared experiences between women, but since postmodern ‘feminism’ favours desire over reason and denies there is such a thing as truth, its analyses stick to the sphere of the theoretical and never moves beyond this.
[This is part one of a two part post. Part two will be appearing shortly.]
Maggie H. is a lesbian feminist and a separatist. She frequently reads the Radical Hub, and has commented here before. She is a sociology student in the School of Social and Political Sciences at University in the UK. She has taken a temporary break from radical feminist blogging (during her studies), and plans to come back to the radfem blogosphere under a different screen-name after graduating.
1. I use the term ‘postmodernism’ more frequently than ‘poststructuralism’ in this essay because, although some poststructuralists do not like being called ‘postmodern’, postmodernism is the broader term that encompasses both the postmodern arts & culture and postmodern theory (or poststructuralism). Therefore, to me, poststructuralism basically is another name for postmodernism as a theory. According to Linda Nicholson (1992), ‘poststructuralism’ is more often used in the context of literary analyses while ‘postmodernism’ is preferred in the realm of social and philosophical theory.
Nancy Hartsock Postmodernism and Political Change Issues for Feminist Theory
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Somer Brodribb Nothing Matters. A Feminist Critique of Postmodernism
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