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The "Difference" of Postmodern Feminism

Author(s): Teresa L. Ebert


Source: College English, Vol. 53, No. 8 (Dec., 1991), pp. 886-904
Published by: National Council of Teachers of English
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/377692
Accessed: 13-05-2016 02:44 UTC
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Teresa L. Ebert

The "Difference" of
Postmodern Feminism

As feminism has sought to contest patriarchy in ever more diverse sites of


culture and increasingly to interrogate power/knowledge relations in a variety of
disciplines, its languages have become more complex and difficult. This creates
the paradox of a feminism much more capable of reunderstanding reality-and
thus changing it-in profoundly different ways and yet much less accessible and
understandable to those whose lives it seeks to affect. In other words, a widening gap is developing between the advanced languages and discourses of feminism-especially postmodern feminist theory-and its main constituency: those
women (and men) who rely on its insights and the movement it articulates to orient their lives in more egalitarian and non-exploitative ways-in sexual relations,
in raising children, in the politics of the work place and domestic arrangements.
In fact, the difficulty of recent (postmodern) feminist theory has led many to reject it altogether as too remote and politically ineffective. But I believe that
postmodern feminist theory is necessary for social change and that, rather than
abandon it as too abstract, we need to reunderstand it in more social and political terms. I have thus attempted in this essay to rearticulate some of the main
theoretical concepts of contemporary feminism in a more available language
and, more important, to offer a political rewriting of these concepts. My text,
therefore, is a series of explanatory speculations on feminist theory, its main
concepts and the way these concepts enable a feminist rewriting of patriarchy.
In doing so, it points to the emergence of what I call "postmodern materialist
feminist theory."

In feminism, as elsewhere, "postmodern" has become a loaded and politically volatile word. Many feminists are opposed to it, worried that such a term
may trivialize the serious import of feminism, which is intervention and social
change. Underlying such mistrust is the common misunderstanding of postmodernism as a fad based on passing desires and trivial pursuits. This may be true of
some aspects of postmodernism, but it is not at all characteristic of postmodernism in general; it is a significant political, cultural, and historical development.
Teresa L. Ebert teaches postmodern critical theory and feminism at the State University of New York at

Albany. She has completed a book on postmodern materialist feminism called Patriarchal Narratives

and is at work on another on feminist theory and postmodern politics. In 1990 she organized and directed

the conference on "Rewriting the (Post)modern: (Post)colonialism/Feminism/Late Capitalism" at the


University of Utah where she was a Fellow in the Humanities Center.

College English, Volume 53, Number 8, December 1991


886

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Postmodern Feminism 887

It might be helpful, then, to make a distinction between different modes of


postmodernism, and to think of it not as a monolithic discourse but as an ensemble of conflicting discourses. Among these I distinguish two key clusters: "ludic
postmodernism" and "resistance postmodernism." Briefly, ludic postmodernists address reality as a theatre for the free-floating play (hence the term "lu-

dic") of images, disembodied signifiers and difference, as in the works of


Lyotard, Baudrillard, and Derrida. Through textualizing strategies such as parody and pastiche, they seek to drive a wedge between signifier (word) and signified (meaning) and thus vacate the established relations between language and
the world. This results in a rhetorical or textual politics aimed at obscuring prevailing meanings and disrupting the oppressive totality of what Lyotard calls
"cultural policy" (76). But in deconstructing grand narratives (such as emancipation), identities (like gender, race, and class), the referent, and experience as
unfounded and divided by difference, ludic postmodernists end up dismantling
the notion of politics itself as a transformative social practice outside language.
This ludic view of politics is becoming so dominant that it is now common to call
postmodernism "postpolitical."

In opposition, I would like to articulate a resistance postmodernism that


views the relation between word and world, language and social reality or, in
short, "difference," not as the result of textuality but as the effect of social
struggles. Language acquires its meaning not from its formal system, as Saussure proposes, but from its place in the social struggle over meanings. Names of
racial groups, for instance, are not a consequence of the textual play of difference but the outcome of the struggles over the signifiers (names) and meanings

used to make sense of these groups-as in the conflicts over the terms,

"Negro," "Black," "African-American"-and their effects on the social situation of the racial other. Resistance postmodernism, thus, draws its linguistic theory not from Saussure but from Bakhtin and Voloshinov, who argued that the
"sign becomes an arena of the class struggle" (23) or, more generally, of social
struggle. Out of this politicized difference, resistance postmodernists can build a
new socially transformative politics of emancipation and freedom from gender,
race, and class exploitation.
There are thus two radically different notions of politics in postmodernism.
Ludic politics is a textual practice that seeks open access to the free play of signification in order to disassemble the dominant cultural policy (totality), which
tries to restrict and stabilize meaning. Whereas resistance postmodernism, I contend, insists on a materialist political practice that works for equal access for all
to social resources and for an end to the exploitative exercise of power.
The problem, to my mind, with most feminist discussions of postmodernism-whether they oppose or embrace it-is that they treat ludic discourses and
practices, particularly those of Lyotard and Derrida, as largely synonymous with
postmodernism. Feminists have, by and large, failed to see that postmodernism
is itself divided by a radical difference. This tendency is quite evident not only in
such poststructuralist works as Alice Jardine's Gynesis but also in more social

and political encounters like those in the collection Feminism/Postmodernism,


edited by Linda Nicholson. I believe this preoccupation with ludic postmodern-

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888 College English


ism and its politics as the primary frame of postmodern feminism jeopardizes the
feminist agenda for social change. Instead, feminist theory needs to articulate a
resistance postmodernism on which to build a transformative, materialist
postmodern feminism.
I would like to begin my discussion of feminist theory and postmodernism
with some comments on the question of rewriting. Contemporary feminism, in
its most productive sense, is a cultural critique and practice of social change that
seeks to transform those relations of power, namely patriarchy, which are left
largely undefined and even concealed by all other theories of society and movements for social change, including classical Marxism. Feminism raises the issue
of gender as the basis for the organization of society-from the production and
distribution of wealth and the division of power to the construction of identities
and ways of making sense of reality. It argues that all other divisions in culture,
especially class and race, are deeply imbricated in gender divisions and may
even be predicated on them. Feminism rewrites not only our knowledge of but
also our construction of society by inscribing gender in social relations-that is,
by articulating the gender differences patriarchy requires but naturalizes "as the
way things are," and conceals in the illusion of universality. Feminism exposes
the fraud of the inclusivity, justice, and universalism of patriarchal categoriessuch as "man" and "human nature"-showing how these mask the power relations, exclusions, and exploitation inscribed in them. But feminism does not simply inscribe gender-that is, difference, the Other-into culture, it is also a political practice aimed at abolishing the relations of exploitation flourishing out of
those gender differences-particularly, but not solely, the oppression of women.
"Rewriting" is a (post)modern strategy for what I call "activating" the
"other" suppressed and concealed by dominant modes of knowing: it articulates
the unsaid, the suppressed, not only of texts and signifying practices but also of
the theories and frames of the intelligibilities shaping them. Voicing this silenced
"other" displaces the dominant logic-dislodging its hegemony and demystifying its "naturalness"-and unleashes an alternative potential. Thus, in inscribing
gender, feminism disrupts patriarchal power and intervenes in the operation of
patriarchal ideology.
Patriarchy works through a double move that, on one hand, asserts and depends on binary oppositions of gender differences but, on the other hand, naturalizes these necessary differences as biological and thus the inevitable effect of
"nature," thereby making them "unnoticeable" and not in need of change.
Woman, as feminist theorists have repeatedly demonstrated, has thus been
rendered the silent, invisible other in patriarchy; her "difference" is both nominally acknowledged and not deemed worth noting. In particular, her "different"
condition-the inequality, injustice, and oppression of women based on this difference-is largely unseen. Patriarchy, in other words, feigns an "in-difference"
to the very difference (woman/gender) on which its existence depends.
In opposition to this patriarchal in-difference, feminism is an ongoing process
of contestations and rewritings of difference in the struggle against patriarchy.
Feminism, I must emphasize, is not a monolithic form of opposition. In fact,
there has been considerable distress over what has been called the "agonistics"

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Postmodern Feminism 889

of feminism, the contestations within feminism itself over social, political, theo-

retical, and strategic priorities. But I think we have to view these struggles
among various feminisms as necessary moves for dealing with the historical
limits and appropriations of specific feminist theories, strategies, and practices.
In fact, we can conceptualize feminism as a dynamic ensemble of contesting rewritings not only of patriarchy but of different feminisms in order to develop
more effective practices for transforming patriarchal social relations.
I would like to focus in this particular rewriting of feminism on activating a
"political difference" that can then be used for a more productive rewriting of
patriarchy. I will argue that for this project of rewriting to be politically effective, it must move beyond merely reversing the hierarchy that suppresses the
other or simply displacing the hierarchy altogether in the celebration of the local
and the regional. Instead it needs to inquire into the power relations requiring
such suppression. Differences, I will contend, are produced by social conflicts
which ultimately privilege one set of differences in order to serve the interests of
dominant social relations. Feminist rewriting thus not only needs to reveal the
concealed other but also to ask why it has been suppressed. It needs to examine
what is at stake in its exclusion and what the political consequences of its articulation are: what practices, ideologies, and relations its silence legitimates and
reinforces. Then it needs to articulate the social struggles in which difference is
inscribed in order to activate old and new sites of resistance, opposition, and
change.
Feminism inscribes gender in culture and society in various opposing ways.
In fact, feminism is engaged in contestation over the "difference" of difference--over the status of gender, or more specifically of "woman" as the sexual
"other," and thus how to write difference into culture as well as what to write as
a difference. The current debate in feminism is mainly over identity and difference, in which a postmodern notion of difference calls into question the very

possibility of identity, which has been the philosophical foundation of such


modes of feminism as "cultural feminism." It displaces and rewrites the conflict
between equality and difference: an opposition that has largely been seen as the
prevailing issue in feminist theory until recently. Before elaborating on this notion of postmodern difference, it would help clarify the issues to briefly review
the conflicting theories of identity-equality-difference.

Various feminisms, from Enlightenment and liberal feminism, on one hand, to


cultural and radical feminism, on the other, have attempted to define women's
positions in society-and thus the basis of women's oppression as well as an
agenda for change-in terms of either a basic equality with men or a fundamental difference between men and women. The Enlightenment and liberal feminist
argument for a "natural" equality between men and women depends on the be-

lief in an inherent human nature based on a rational consciousness immanent in

men and women alike. In other words, the "self-hood" of women is the same
as, that is, "identical" with, their immanent human nature, specifically, their rational consciousness (which is the same as men's). Any differences between men
and women are thus thought to be the result of the violence of an unjust society
that prevents women from fully developing their innate (human) reason. By

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890 College English

denying women access to education, to economic independence, and legal responsibility-as is still the case in many parts of the world--or by continuing to
restrict women's economic opportunities and individual rights (as in abortion),
patriarchal society cripples and distorts women's innate capabilities-which they
share with men-and denies women their "natural rights" to fully develop their
reason and achieve "self-fulfillment," to use a favorite term of liberal feminists.
For many feminists, the claim made by Enlightenment and liberal feminism

for a "sameness" and "identicalness" or "identity" between men and women


erases, or at the very least, glosses over social and historically constructed differences. Thus a statement such as the Seneca Falls Declaration of 1848, which
resolved "[t]hat the equality of human rights results necessarily from the fact of
the identity of the race in capabilities and responsibilities" (Schneir 82) is seen
by many feminists as erasing and subsuming women's difference into the dominant norm which is viewed as masculinist. For feminists who subscribe to the

existence of fundamental differences between men and women, equality then is


impossible since it merely reproduces discrimination against women by failing to
account for and include their "difference" in society. In order for equality to be
achieved, it needs to take into consideration women's separate needs deriving
from their different biological and social conditions. For instance, economic
equality is not merely an issue of open access to job opportunities but is also dependent on making special provisions for child care and maternity leaves.
Obviously these contesting modes of feminism converge in places; some notions of equality, for instance, do not argue so much for a "sameness" between
men and women, as they acknowledge the differences between them and instead
posit equality as the indifference to difference for the purposes of ending legal
and economic discrimination. Or as Juliet Mitchell points out in her essay,
"Women and Equality," liberal and social democratic notions of equality in capitalism recognize that "there are differences but these should not count" (30).
Cultural and radical feminists, on the other hand, argue for and celebrate the
fundamental differences between men and women, commonly treating these differences as deterministic and largely inherent traits. The explanations for such differ-

ences vary considerably among these feminists, ranging from biological causes, as
in Shulamith Firestone's claims that "biology itself-procreation-is at the origin
of the dualism" (8), to social and cultural factors. In environmental explanations,
women's different modes of thinking, characteristics, and values are seen as developing out of women's nearly universal participation in, and often their confinement
to, the domestic sphere and its duties and responsibilities, especially mothering and

the care of dependents, whether young or old. As one of the main documents of
contemporary radical feminism, Roxanne Dunbar's "Female Liberation as the
Basis for Social Revolution," puts it, "'maternal traits' " are "conditioned into
women." Dunbar adds that "most women have been programmed from early childhood for a role, maternity, which develops a certain consciousness of care for
others, self-reliance, flexibility, non-competitiveness, cooperation" (550). Carol
Gilligan, for example, contends that women and men generate opposing forms of
moral reasoning and ethics: women are concerned with an "ethics of care" and a
"morality of responsibility," whereas men, because of their different socialization

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Postmodern Feminism 891

and experiences in the "public" world, stress a "morality of rights" (5-23). Other
feminists, from Charlotte Perkins Gilman to Mary Daly, find that women as a group

are creative, peaceful, nondominating, and healing, whereas men and the patriarchal institutions and practices they have produced are destructive, violent,
exploitative, and dominating. In addition, many feminists also elaborate related
sets of differences: women are considered-whether by biological or social factors-to be situated primarily in the body and the contingencies of everyday reality

(as in housekeeping and child care); thus women tend to be focused on the concrete
and contingent and to be more sensuous, emotional, and associational in their
thinking while men emphasize the rational, abstract, scientific, and theoretical
modes of knowing.
However, for poststructuralist feminists these differences are themselves a
mode of identity, and the binary oppositions between those feminists advocating
equality-that is identity or sameness between men and women-and those feminists claiming a difference between men and women is a false opposition. For
equality and difference are "supplementary," the term Derrida devises from his
reading of Rousseau in Of Grammatology: the one is inscribed in the other. Thus
postmodernists read difference, as it is articulated by radical and cultural feminists, as an identity, and identity as difference. For instance, the "female difference" celebrated by cultural and radical feminists is seen by poststructuralists as
constituting an "identity" that is just as determining and congruent (that is just
as "identical") with the self-hood of a woman as is the "rational" identity of

Enlightenment and liberal feminists. The only distinction here is that this

"female identity" is differentiated from rather than seen as the same as men's
identity. Thus while both those feminists believing in equality and those committed to difference have critiqued the generic humanist self-man as the universal,

all encompassing figure-and revealed its exclusions and blind spots, they all
still subscribe to such basic humanist tenets as the autonomy, unity, and inviolability of the self, a self that is identical with itself or "self-same," whether that
self is defined in terms of a coherent rationality or maternalism. All still believe,
as Matilda Joslyn Gage stated in her 1893 text, Woman, Church and State, in

"the political doctrine of the sovereignty of the individual" (240): in other


words, the autonomous individual of free will and agency required by capitalism.
Moreover, both modes of feminism are alike in essentializing an "identity" for
women-whether based on a "sameness" or a "difference" between women

and men-in terms of which women are defined as sharing the same set of traits
and experience, thus constituting a unified group. For Enlightenment and liberal
feminists, this unity is the human race itself. For cultural and radical feminists,
the differences between men and women constitute an identity, unity, and cohesion within the groups defined by the two categories, thereby erasing the differences within each category, specifically the differences of class, race, and sexual
preference among women. Both modes of feminism-those advocating equality
and those claiming difference-are what I call "identitarian" feminism because
of their essentialist commitment to identity.

In opposition to identitarian feminism is what I call "differential" feminismthose feminisms developing largely out of poststructuralism, that is, out of ludic

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892 College English


postmodernism, and which conceive of difference not as an identity but as selfdivided, as always split by its other. They are concerned not with the difference
between but with the difference within. Thus no entity, whether an individual or
the category of women, is an autonomous, self-contained, self-same identity;
rather it is always different from itself, divided by its other.

But what do we mean by identity and difference here, or rather what are the
contested meanings attached to these terms? Difference, in the humanist epistemology, is always understood as the difference between one particular, indi-

viduated subject and another-one particular, unique category and another.


"Difference between" constructs identities by delineating the clearly marked
boundaries between coherent entities or individuals that are self-same, identical
with themselves, in their difference from the other. According to this "logic of
identity" in which difference participates: "A" is always "A" because it is not

"B"; a chair is always a chair because it is not-that is, it is different from-a

table. By positing separate, individuated, and bounded entities, the logic of identity creates a ground of certainty-if a chair is a chair and nothing but a chair,
then we can, at any given time, rely on it as a chair. To simplify a complicated
philosophical issue, we can say that difference between is a quest for certainty.
The contestation of postmodernity with "difference between," then, is the contestation with certainty-with the unshakable grounds and foundations which
give the traditional humanist epistemology a basis from which to know the real

in a "decidable" manner. This is another way of saying that the postmodern


quarrel with the essentializing "difference between" is a quarrel with decid-

ability.

Postmodern difference overturns identity and displaces the ground of decidability. And of course, the question for feminism is how can it build a transformative politics on a postmodern difference that throws out certainty and destabilizes identity. I will attempt an answer later by showing how resistance

postmodernism situates "difference within" back in the social and reads undecidability not as a result of textuality but of social struggle. But first I want to
specify this rewriting of difference as it is commonly articulated in ludic postmodernism, particularly poststructuralism. Ludic postmodern difference is the
"difference within" signification-it is the play, dispersion, and diffusion of distinctions circulating throughout textuality. In other words, in ludic postmodern
difference texts, (or any entities, including individuals), are not self-contained

and definite identities, possessing an "irreducible quality" or individual

uniqueness; rather they are traversed and divided by "differences within": they
are a "tissue of traces" of the endless dissemination of differences in the relations of signification.
To understand how this dissemination of differences destabilizes meaning, we
need to briefly recall some of the main presuppositions of Derridean deconstruction. Derrida radicalizes the idea of difference in Saussure, who argued that "in

language there are only differences without positive terms" (120), in other

words, without identity. The sign for Saussure consists of a relation between a
signifier and a signified, which anchors the signifier and thus meaning, but Derrida dispenses with any secured or stable signified-what he calls the "transcen-

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Postmodern Feminism 893

dental signified." Difference, for Derrida, is the relation of signifiers to each


other in language, and language, in turn, is nothing but the play (dissemination)
of difference. Meaning, then, is the result of a chain of signifiers without signifieds or referents. Language, in short, is nonrepresentational: it means not because it refers to a world "out there" but because it is a system of differences
among signifiers. We thus have no direct access to what is commonsensically
called reality; our knowledge of the world is always mediated by language. But
this is not so much a denial of "reality" as a reunderstanding of our relation to
reality: there can be no practice or arena outside the play of signifiers or rather
outside the relations of difference that constitute meaning. As Derrida says, "all
experience is the experience of meaning" (Positions 30). Herein lies the destabilizing of identities and the overturning of certainties. Since language is a
nonrepresentational system of differences, our knowledge of the world becomes
a mode of textuality marked by the gaps, slippages, absences and undecidabilities generated by differance. Derrida rewrites difference itself-spelling it with an "a," differance, to designate the postmodern inscription of a difference within difference itself: a difference that is both "differing" and
"deferring," both spatial and temporal.
Deconstructionists, and ludic postmodernists in general, argue that this "difference within," differance, undermines the entire logic of identity grounding
Western thought. As I suggested earlier, the dominant concepts and knowledge
used to make sense of-to construct-reality in the West are all organized in
terms of binary oppositions between two seemingly different, self-contained

identities-such as "man/woman," "Activity/Passivity," "Sun/Moon,"


"Culture/Nature," "Head/Heart," "Logos/Pathos," to borrow a list from the

French feminist critic H6l1ne Cixous (63, 64). Moreover, these binaries are both
hierarchical and patriarchal ("phallogocentric"). The first term of any binary
pair is privileged and given priority over the second term, and this primary term,
as Derrida, Cixous and others have demonstrated, is always associated with the
privileged position of the male, of the phallus in Western society. The certainty
or truth of Western thought is thus determined by this hierarchy in which the
primary (male) term is not only privileged over its other (female) term but is designated the defining term or norm of cultural meaning. Poststructuralists-deconstructionists and feminists alike-attempt to dehierarchize and dismantle
these dichotomies by showing that the seeming priority and identity of the primary term is, in fact, a fraud. In any binary opposition, for Derrida, the difference of the primary term is not outside but "within" the term itself: any identity

is always divided within by its other, which is not opposed to it but rather
"supplementary." However, the logic of identity banishes this "difference with-

in" the privileged term by projecting its "otherness" onto a secondary term
seen as outside, thus representing the "difference within" as an external dichotomy. In doing so, the phallogocentric logic is able to assert its primary (male)
terms as seemingly coherent "identities without differences," as self-evident

"presences" and to exclude and suppress the "dangerous supplement," the


(female) "others" on which these illusory identities depend.

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894 College English


In other words, it is only by excising the other (the female) inscribed within
the male, that the male acquires its primary status in the binary opposition male/

female dominating patriarchal social relations and gains presence and selfsameness while the female is constructed as other, as lacking, and as subjected
or secondary to the primary male term. In short, woman is constructed in what
Luce Irigaray, in Speculum of the Other Woman, calls the "specularizations" of
Western patriarchal discourse, in which woman is the mirror-image, the negative
reflection of man. Male is thus not a clearly bounded identity different from
female but is instead self-divided and traversed by its other, that is, by the
female, which is its supplement, the difference on which it depends for its coherent meaning and full existence. Deconstruction is thus a critical operation
that demonstrates how the binary other is always the suppressed supplement,
the difference inscribed within a term, and concludes that there can be no decidable term, no self-present identity that can assert meaning with any certainty in
culture. This undecidability-the inscription of difference into identity and the
removal of its self-sameness-is the mark of ludic postmodern difference. Thus
the position of Derrida and most poststructuralists, including many feminists,
"is not against sexual difference. It's against the transformation, the identification of sexual difference with sexual binary opposition" ("On College and Philosophy" 71).

The inscription of (ludic) postmodern difference is what Jardine calls

"gynesis-the putting into discourse of 'woman' " as that space of the other, of
the excluded. But the woman inscribed by poststructuralism, according to Jar-

dine, is "neither a person nor a thing, but a horizon . . . a reading effect, a

woman-in-effect that is never stable and has no identity" (25). She is the unrepresentable excess, the trope, for all that is excluded, unknowable, and other in
phallogocentric discourse. Or as Shoshana Felman puts it, she is "the realistic
invisible, that which realism as such is inherently unable to see" (6). Thus to dis-

rupt mimesis, to dismantle the representations that exclude her and to dehierarchize the binaries that subject her is seen as a subversive act. In this
sense, all poststructuralist writing, whether by men or women, engages in displacing phallogocentric discourse. L'ecriture feminine participates in this deconstructive inscription of difference, of woman into phallic discourse, and at
the same time rewrites the process. Irigaray, in fact, formulates a mode of deconstruction she calls mimeticism: the act of mimicking or miming women's assigned position in phallic discourse as the specular representative, the mirrorimage or mimic of the male. As Toril Moi describes Irigaray's practice, "Hers is

a theatrical staging of the mime: miming the miming imposed on woman,

Irigaray's subtle specular move (her mimicry mirrors that of all woman) intends
to undo the effects of phallocentric discourse simply by overdoing them" (140).
Poststructuralists and ludic postmodern feminists deconstruct and dehierarchize
the dominant discourses through "textualizing" strategies that disturb representation. They demystify its naturalness, exposing its constructedness and showing
its clarity and decidability to be a fraud based on exclusion of the other-that is,
of woman.

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Postmodern Feminism 895

Thus for many, an effective poststructuralist feminism, as Linda Alcoff points


out, can only be a "wholly negative feminism, deconstructing everything and refusing to construct anything" because, and here she quotes Kristeva, if "A
woman cannot be," that is, if she is always already the negative representation,
the "other," then "It follows that a feminist practice can only be negative, at
odds with what already exists so that we may say 'that's not it' and 'that's still
not it')" and "rejecting 'everything finite, definite, structured, loaded with mean-

ing, in the existing state of society' " (418). I would like to emphasize that
"negative" as it is used here does not carry its commonsensical meaning. It is

essentially a Hegelian concept meaning negation and surpassing-the sense in


which, for example, Adorno titles his famous book Negative Dialectic. Negation
is a strategy of resistance against the existing order.
In contrast, that side of l'ecriture feminine that seeks to produce feminine
writing out of the female body is seen as not just a negative practice but a
"positive" or creative one, and as such it risks essentializing the feminine and
constructing a new identity anchored in a reified notion of the body. This risk is

especially evident in the uses and adaptations of l'ecriture feminine made by


other feminist critics, but one which the inaugural theorists such as Irigaray try
to guard against. Irigaray in fact warns against trying to define woman and thus
reproducing the "Logic of the Same," or rather the logic of identity and decidability. Instead she claims women "must, through repetition-interpretation of
the way in which the feminine finds itself determined in discourse-as lack, default, or as mime and inverted reproduction of the subject-show that on the
feminine side it is possible to exceed and disturb this logic" (Moi 139; I have
used Moi's translation of this passage because it is clearer; for the full English
translation of Irigaray's text see her This Sex Which Is Not One 78). Thus
woman, as Irigaray writes her, is not an individuated, coherent, self-same identity, nor is she merely the specular surface on which the male projects his negative reflection. Rather, "'She' is indefinitely other in herself" (This Sex 28;
emphasis added).
Woman, for Irigaray, "(re)-discover[s] herself" in the multiplicity of her plea-

sures and desires-that is, in her jouissance, which is the excess of her sexuality, of her being, of her desires that patriarchal discourses cannot represent
and thus cannot know. She identifies "herself with none of them in particular";
thus she is multiple, plural, "never being simply one" (This Sex 31). Woman is
thus self-divided, different from herself. This "difference within," dividing
woman, derives, of course, from the feminist rewriting of Lacan's rewriting of
Freud, who first exploded the unity of the humanist self, showing it to be split
by the divide between the conscious and the unconscious-a split which, Lacan
argues, traverses us as we enter language or the symbolic order and distances us
from the imaginary. In writing "herself," woman engages in a double move that

both "speaks" her excess-that which patriarchy cannot grasp, can represent
only as silence, as absence-and simultaneously disrupts the very binaries and
decidability of patriarchal discourse which has trapped her. As Cixous says in
"The Laugh of the Medusa":

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A feminine text cannot fail to be more than subversive. It is volcanic; as it is written it brings about an upheaval of the old property crust, carrier of masculine investments; there's no other way. There's not room for her if she's not a he. If she's
a her-she, it's in order to smash everything, to shatter the framework of institutions, to blow up the law, to break up the "truth" with laughter. (258)

The "feminine text" woman writes is, above all, woman herself; for woman in
poststructuralism, whether l'ecriture feminine or "gynesis," is a trope, a rhetorical effect; she is the product of textuality as the regime of difference (within),
deferment, and differing.

How can this textuality, this writing of woman back into patriarchal dis-

course-whether gynesis or l'ecriture feminine-be subversive? How can it


"blow up the law" and "break up the 'truth,"' as Cixous claims? It is subversive because it empties the patriarchal representations of phallogocentric discourse of their meaning-it rejects, as Kristeva says, "everything finite, definite, structured, loaded with meaning, in the existing state of society." The
"law" or "truth" of patriarchal society is the law of the phallus-which is the
logic of identity, the logic of the Same, of the singular, inviolable One that suppresses its other. It is this patriarchal regime of decidable representations that
produces the male as the privileged, empowered term and subjugates woman as

the excluded other. Thus, according to Barbara Johnson, "Nothing could be


more comforting," and, I would add, necessary, "to the established order than
the requirement that everything be assigned a clear meaning or stand" (30-31).
As a result, disrupting the clarity and certainty of meaning, dehierarchizing binary oppositions, inscribing the difference within, celebrating undecidability, and
speaking woman's unrepresentable excess (her jouissance) through such textual
strategies as deconstruction, mimicry, parody, pastiche, free association, and so
on, are all subversive acts: they denaturalize and expose the illusion of identity
and certainty on which the regime of patriarchal representation rests, and they
depose the male/phallus from its privileged seat as the primary term, as the One
and the Same. They are, in short, ludic interventions in the dominant patriarchal
cultural policy.

But are they enough? Even Irigaray admits that "A woman's develop-

ment"-by which she means her inscription of the multiple, plural female imagi-

nary suppressed by patriarchal discourse-"however radical it may seek to be

would thus not suffice to liberate woman's desire," because traditionally, as she
says, "woman is never anything but the locus of a more of less competitive exchange between two men" (This Sex 31-32). In other words, she is produced in
social and economic relations, in social struggle.
Thus while these ludic postmodern feminist deconstructions are necessary, I
argue that they are not sufficient to emancipate women (and men for that matter)
from the regime of patriarchy. These strategies do indeed destabilize and disrupt
the regime, but they do not transform it because they are essentially formalist

moves based on a textual notion of meaning and a panhistorical, transocial,


purely formal notion of language and discourse. I am not contesting the
poststructuralist arguments that reality and individuals are always already

mediated by language and made intelligible only through the operation of differ-

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Postmodern Feminism 897

ence. What I am contesting is this formalist notion of language, and in doing so I


rewrite postmodern difference-that is "difference within," differance-as a political difference, a materialized differance. In the process, I am articulating a resistance postmodernism through which we can rewrite feminism and inscribe a
new theory and critical practice I call "postmodern materialist feminism."
The textual notion of meaning that dominates poststructuralist thinking, including l'ecriture feminine, is based on the ideal of meaning as the effect of the
internal laws or play of language as a formal system. Therefore the Kristevian
strategy of emptying the world of meaning becomes a purely cognitive act. But
meaning is neither a matter of identity-of correspondence of reference between
the word and the world-as humanists contend, nor is it a matter of a tropic slippage, of differance-that is, a lack of correspondence and nonrepresentation between word and world-as poststructuralists claim. Instead, I argue that meaning is a matter of social struggle over the relation between signifier and signified,
and the sign itself, to paraphrase Voloshinov and Bakhtin, is an arena in which
social conflict fights it out.

But what specifically does it mean to say the sign is the arena of social struggle? First, we need to retheorize the sign not as the correspondence between a
single signifier and signified (as in humanist linguistics) nor as a free-floating
chain of signifiers (as in poststructuralist semantics). Instead we can reconceive
the sign as an ideological process in which we consider a signifier in relation to a
matrix of historically possible signifieds. The signifier becomes temporarily connected to a specific signified-that is, it attains its "meaning"-through social
struggle in which the prevailing ideology and social contradictions insist on a

particular signified. Such a relation is insecure, continually contested and


changeable. Signifieds are challenged, struggled over, and displaced by opposing
ideologies asserting other signifieds in relation to a particular signifier in order to
support their own meanings and practices and to propose their own "reality."
The signified which gets picked up and inscribed in the relation of signification is
the one that contributes to the legitimation of the prevailing ideology (the prevailing ideology is not always the dominant one; in a specific local site of strug-

gle, the prevailing ideology can temporarily be the opposing ideology). Also

keep in mind that since the relation between signifier and signified is continually
struggled over, the assertion of an oppositional meaning or signified can be readily displaced and appropriated by the dominant ideology. Examples of the social

struggles over signifiers and their signifieds include those over the terms

"Negro," "Black," and "African-American"; over the salutations "Mrs.,"


"Ms.," or over the privileging of the signifier "he" as the signified for the ge-

neric or universal "one."

To say that language is the arena of social struggle and that difference is a political difference is to say that difference-difference within, differance-is always "difference in relation"; in other words, difference within is always "difference within a system," specifically difference in relation within the system of
patriarchy. But to even raise the specter of system-that is of global relations, of
structure-at this moment is to bring the full barrage of anti-totality rhetoric
down on one: for many of those engaged in contemporary modes of knowing

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898 College English


have answered Lyotard's battle cry, to "wage a war on totality" (82). Thus the
prevailing discourses embrace the concrete, specific, and local while rejecting
theory and abstraction; they reduce poststructuralism to an antistructuralism, although not even Derrida denies the necessity of structure; they substitute mere
pluralism for the multiplicity of conflictual differences, and replace the global

analysis of social relations with a Foucauldian micropolitics. As Fredric


Jameson has commented, "at least a few of the most strident of the anti-totality
positions are based on that silliest of all puns, the confusion of 'totality' with 'totalitarianism' " (60).
I believe feminism must be skeptical of the uncritical rejection of totality, of
simplistic equations of difference and pluralism, and of celebrations of the concrete. It must refuse to participate in naive abstractions in the name of concreteness. Certainly many of the most recent developments in feminist theory
follow this anti-totality, pluralistic trend. The current rewriting of "difference
within" as difference within the category of "women"-that is, in terms of the
specific diversities among women in terms of race, class, ethnicity and so on-is
a necessary move but an inadequate one precisely because it engages in an unexamined localism. Feminists involved in this rewriting of difference in terms of a
local, specific plurality include such significant writers as Joan Scott, Denise

Riley, Teresa de Lauretis, Gayatri Spivak, and Donna Haraway. A pluralistic


difference is advocated because it seems all-inclusive and, through its concrete
specificity, capable of countering the exclusions of the repressive hierarchical
regime of patriarchy. But pluralism itself involves a very insidious exclusion as
far as any politics of change is concerned: it excludes and occludes the critique
of global or structural relations of power as "ideological" and "totalizing."
In arguing for pluralism and against totality, some feminists are engaging in a
politically counterproductive "war" on other feminists as totalizing theorists.
The contradictions and animosities of this "war" show quite clearly the problems ludic postmodernism poses for feminist theory. For example, Nancy Fraser

and Linda Nicholson take Lyotard as the norm for postmodernism in their
essay, "Social Criticism without Philosophy," and this leaves them in an un-

tenable position. While they have serious reservations about Lyotard's critique
of metanarratives, they use it largely uncritically to question the validity of a
number of feminist theories (including those of Firestone, Nancy Chodorow, Ca-

tharine MacKinnon, and Gilligan) for being "quasi-metanarratives" with "an


overly grandiose and totalizing conception of theory" (29).

But the exemplar of ludic postmodern feminism and its shortcomings is

Haraway's "A Manifesto for Cyborgs" (also included in FeminismlPostmodernism). Haraway attempts to rewrite a socialist, materialist feminism as an "argument for pleasure in the confusion of boundaries," as a local network of differences among women, and as a rejection of any notion of system and totality as

an "erasure of polyvocal, unassimiliable ... difference" (201). At the core of

her essay is her attack on MacKinnon's radical feminism as "a caricature of the
appropriating, incorporating, totalizing tendencies of Western theories of identity grounding action" (200). In fact, MacKinnon has become the straw-woman
for attacks on feminist totalizing: one critic has even called her both "Lenin"

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Postmodern Feminism 899

and "Hitler" (Mullarkey 720). Such attacks on committed feminists like MacKinnon, who have long been on the frontlines of critique and intervention in the

systematic exploitation of women's sexuality and labor should be a serious


warning to us to rethink the political consequences of feminist involvement in ludic postmodernism. For much recent feminist theory under pressure of ludic
postmodernism not only denies the insights of radical feminism, but it also abandons the sustained critique of patriarchy as an ongoing system of exploitation.
So much so that patriarchy-which the socialist-feminist Maria Mies has called
the necessary "struggle concept" of feminism-has now become the taboo word
of recent feminist theory: it cannot be said without the speaker risking being
called a reductive totalizer or even Lenin/Hitler.

But a postmodern materialist feminism based on a resistance postmodernism,


I contend, does not avoid the issue of totality or abandon the struggle concept of
patriarchy; instead, it rewrites them. Totality needs to be reunderstood as a system of relations, but such a system is not a homogeneous unity as the Hegelian
expressive totality proposes: it is an overdetermined structure of difference. A
system-particularly the system of patriarchy-is thus always self-divided, different from itself and multiple; it is traversed by "differences within," by differance. Or to be more precise, it is divided by historical contradictions and social conflict. Difference in postmodern thought displaces social contradictions.
In rewriting difference as "difference-in-relation," we can show how differences
are never free-floating, but rather how differences coalesce into social contradictions, into the "other" inscribed within the system. Moreover, most existing
systems of difference are organized into unified patterns of domination and subordination involving power relations, oppression, and exploitation, and thus social conflict. Since such patterns are never fixed and stable, but always them-

selves divided by difference-that is, by their other-they are split by

contradictions and thus open to change. This is the key issue for feminism,
which must intervene in the power relations organizing difference in order to end
the oppression and exploitation grounded on them. If totalities are structures of
differences and thus multiple, unstable, changeable arenas of contradictions and
social struggle, then they are open to contestation and transformation. But such
transformations are themselves contingent on analyzing the ways in which the
operation of power and organization of differences in a specific system are overdetermined by other systems of difference, because systems of differences are
also situated in a social formation-which is itself a structure of differences

made up of other systems of differences, including the social, economic, political, cultural, and ideological. Systems of differences, then, are determinate, but
they act on each other, their relations, and differences in overdetermined ways.

What are some of the consequences of these concepts for rewriting patriarchy? First patriarchy is an economy of differences, not a unified homogenous "totalitarian totality." It organizes all differences according to a hierarchy
of gender divisions which it represents as natural and inevitable. But such an organization of differences according to gender is not fixed and stable but trav-

ersed by contradictions and continually contested and struggled over by the


other: that is, by differences excluded, suppressed, and exploited. Patriarchy is

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900 College English


thus a totality in process, a self-divided, multiple arena of social struggle. The
differences and contradictions within patriarchy congeal at specific historical
moments, providing sites of oppositions and producing sites of alternative subjectivities and significations in which individuals can take up their places as resisting agents. Feminism is thus generated out of the confluence of differences
and contradictions within patriarchy itself, and the site from which I speak as a
feminist rewriting feminism rewriting patriarchy is an unstable, fluctuating place
within the convergence of some of those contradictions, struggles, and differences within patriarchy.
Although patriarchy is multiple, fragmented, and divided, it is able to represent itself as a seeming unity that is coherent, inviolable, and always the samein other words, continuous. But this is an ideological effect-which is not to say
that this highly differentiated and contradictory structure is not hegemonic. Obviously it is, and it has been extraordinarily effective in reproducing its
hegemony and projecting its illusory unity throughout recorded history so that it
seems transhistorical and synonymous with human nature and society. But this
seeming historical "continuity" is not so much the continuity of the same but
rather of different reconfigurations of the patriarchal, gendered ordering of difference in conjunction with other systems of difference-in other words, of different reconfigurations of an ongoing structure of oppression. More specifically,
patriarchy reproduces itself differently in relation to diverse modes of production, for example, in the variations between feudal and capitalist patriarchy.
Patriarchy, in other words, is a structure of difference existing in relation to
other structures of differences which act on it, producing contradictions and differences within it. It is one of the systems constituting a social formation, and it
acts with and on other systems in an overdetermined way. For instance, patriarchy operates on such other systems as the social, economic, political, cultural, and ideological to organize their multiple differences in terms of the hier-

archical binary opposition of male/female. Thus cultural and ideological


representations are gendered, and economic production and the labor force are
divided by gender as well. But these are not uniform and consistent divisions for

they are "overdetermined" by the pressures from these and other systems,
which in turn act on patriarchy. For example, the traditional gender division of

labor in capitalism has been to relegate women primarily to the domestic


sphere-to the (re)production of life and the use-values necessary to sustain itand to assign men primarily to the "public sphere"-the arena for the production and control of things and the surplus value or capital they generate. But the
contradictory and changing demands of late capitalism for a highly skilled and
educated labor force, while continuing the need for a cheap readily available labor pool, pressure the traditional gender division of labor and bring women into
the public sphere at all levels of the economy and class structure.
The need for women managers and executives, the need for women to take on
the positions of authority, for example, creates a contradiction, a "difference"
within the specific division of gendered traits or features, causing a slippage or
shift in the alignment of these differences. Thus women are allowed, even required, to acquire some of the marks of authority such as assertiveness, a com-

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Postmodern Feminism 901

manding voice, and desexualized dress. Men, on the other hand, are increasingly
encouraged to take on some of the domestic responsibilities along with the traits
necessary to do the work, such as a more flexible sense of time and more nurturing and emotive behavior to accommodate these realignments in the gender division of the labor force. These overdetermined shifts in the gender division of la-

bor generated by the contradictory pressures between patriarchy and the


economic in turn affect other spheres, such as the cultural and ideological, creating "differences," shifting alterations in the representations of gender, as for example, in the prevalence of bigendered figures like the working mothers in advertisements and Michael Jackson in popular culture. In fact, the changes in the
articulation of an economy of gender differences are so considerable, I suggest
we are witnessing the emergence of a new historical configuration of patriarchal
difference: what I call "postmodern patriarchy."
Patriarchy, then, is a global relation of oppression based on a hierarchical organization of differences according to gender in which men as a group are privileged and women as a group are exploited. At the same time patriarchy is different from itself and different in history; in other words, the specific articulation of

oppression is diverse and varied. Patriarchy, then, is continuous on the level of


the structure or organization of oppression-the asymmetrical division of all differences according to gender-and discontinuous (that is, different from itself)
on the level of the particular practices of oppression. In short, patriarchy is a differentiated, contradictory structure that produces identical effects differently.
For instance, the specific configuration of the economy of differences in
postmodern or late capitalist patriarchy in the United States is quite distinct
from the configuration of differences in contemporary fundamentalist Iran, and
both of these vary from those found in feudal Europe. Yet for all their differences-in-relation to each other, they share the same dominant organization of
differences according to the binary opposition of male/female. They produce the
same effects: the oppression and exclusion of woman as other. Women in
postmodern patriarchal America, Islamic fundamentalist Iran, and feudal Europe
share the same collective identity that results from-is an effect of-their shared
position within the patriarchal structure of oppression. But women occupy the
"same" position within patriarchy differently. Thus their "identity" is not an

identitarian one; they are not the "same" as each other although they are all
subjects of the same structures of oppression. Nor are they the "same" in their
difference from men, although within the economy of power relations they are
all situated in the same asymmetrical position, yet they are subjugated in that
position differently.

I want to return now to the question of recent feminist inquiries into the dif-

ferences within woman as a category: differences of race, class, nationality,


colonial subjugation, and so forth. Most of these critics, from Scott and Riley to
de Lauretis and Spivak, engage in a form of "contextualism" that participates in
many of the problems of ludic postmodernism. They articulate what Scott calls
"the specificity of female diversity and women's experiences" (45) in terms of
the particular, local articulations of patriarchal oppression, or as Riley puts it, in
terms of the "ways in which women are positioned, often harshly or stupidly, as

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902 College English


'women' . . . both in language . .. and what gets carried out" (3). As my discussion has already indicated, I think such inquiries into women's different positions in the specific, local conjunctions of oppression are necessary, but I find
serious problems with this "localism." All too often it fails to relate the specific
position and differences of women back to the global relations of patriarchal oppression, because these global structures of difference are dismissed as totalizing
and thus (punningly) as "totalitarian." Contextualism tends to read the local difference in terms of a proliferation of other local details without relating these to
the larger determining (or more precisely "overdetermining") structures of difference. At most what results is a "net of localities," and some of these, such as
Spivak's readings of Mahasweta Devi's stories (as in her In Other Worlds), are
remarkably rich, complex and dense, but they are only specifications of local
differences. Yet for all the immense diversity among women on the level of the
local manifestations of patriarchy, we must also analyze their relation to the
dominating structures of oppression, no matter how differently they occupy that
"same" position, in order to understand the dimensions of patriarchal oppression which extend from a professional white woman working on Wall Street and
gang raped while jogging in Central Park to a young Pakistani village girl gang
raped by the village men for refusing to marry the much older man chosen for
her.

Moreover, contextualism reifies the local detail as a referent by which to anchor the specific difference of women as a new identity-an identitarian identity.
Thus "difference within," which disrupts and displaces identitarian identity, increasingly reinscribes it. For it isolates particular women in their local differences and reinstates individualism and uniqueness: for every woman, in and of

herself, becomes individual and unique in her particular race, class, national,
and age positionality-that is, in her difference from other women. Such local

contextualism occludes the ways in which all these specific, different, and

unique women are all similarly produced in the asymmetrical power relations
and organizations of differences that is patriarchy. It suppresses women's position in "difference-in-relation" to a system of oppression.
My contestations with contextual feminism are not scholarly and cognitive
but political. A great deal is at stake in how we rewrite "difference within,"
whether as a new contextualism or as "difference-in-relation" to structures of
oppression. For an emancipatory politics that seeks to intervene in and transform patriarchal structures of oppression which organize and "overdetermine"

every woman (and in a different way, every man) can only be formulated

through the critique of the global relations of difference, through an intervention


in the structures of oppression: both at the macrolevel of their structural organization of domination and at the microlevel of different and contradictory man-

ifestations of oppression. Ludic postmodern feminism-whether gynesis,


l'ecriture feminine, or the more recent Foucauldian and contextual pluralismall confine their analyses to the microlevel of differences and inhibit any feminist
intervention in the structures of the patriarchal totality. It is my hope that
postmodern materialist feminism-based on a resistance postmodernism-with
its dialectical critique of both the structures of difference-in-relation and the spe-

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Postmodern Feminism 903

cific articulations of these differences, will develop a transformative theory and


practice that can contribute to the end of patriarchal exploitation.
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