Feminism and Postmodernism

  • Sabina Lovibond
Part of the Communications and Culture book series (COMMCU)


The term ‘postmodernism’ exerts an instant fascination. For it suggests that ‘modernity’ is, paradoxically, already in the past; and consequently that a new form of consciousness is called for, corresponding to new social conditions. But of course it does not tell us what the distinctive character of these new conditions, or of the accompanying consciousness, is supposed to be.


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Notes and References

  1. 1.
    Specifically, I shall draw on Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trs. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (1984).Google Scholar
  2. Manchester, Manchester UP (hereafter PMC); Maclntyre, After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory (1981), London, Duckworth (hereafter AV);Google Scholar
  3. Rorty, Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1980), Oxford, Blackwell (hereafter PhMN)Google Scholar
  4. and ‘Pragmatism and Philosophy’ in his Consequences of Pragmatism (1982), Brighton, Harvester — reprinted in Kenneth Baynes, James Bohman and Thomas McCarthy (eds) After Philosophy: End or Transformation? (1987), Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press.Google Scholar
  5. Obviously the attempt to capture any complex argument in a brief survey is liable to lead to some oversimplification, and in particular it should be noticed that Rorty in PhMN refers to the Enlightenment separation of science from theology and politics as ‘our most precious cultural heritage’ (p. 333). The main motive of his book, however, is to voice a ‘hope that the cultural space left by the demise of epistemology [i.e., of the commitment to rendering all discourse commensurable] will not be filled’ (p. 315), and this identifies him for our purposes as an anti-Enlightenment theorist. The themes of After Virtue are developed further in Maclntyre’s more recent book, Whose Justice? Which Rationality? (1988), Notre Dame, Indiana, University of Notre Dame Press.Google Scholar
  6. 2.
    For an expression of this kind of intellectual monism, cf. Kant, Preface to The Metaphysical Principles of Right (in The Metaphysical Principles of Virtue, trs. James Ellington, 1964, p. 5): … inasmuch as there can be only one human reason, so likewise there cannot be many philosophies; that is, only one true system of philosophy based on principles is possible, however variously and often contradictorily men may have philosophized over one and the same proposition’.Google Scholar
  7. 3.
    AV, p. 244.Google Scholar
  8. 4.
    PMC, p. 41.Google Scholar
  9. 5.
    PMC, p. 38.Google Scholar
  10. 6.
    PhMN, p. 318.Google Scholar
  11. 7.
    AV, p. 201.Google Scholar
  12. 8.
    PMC, p. 82.Google Scholar
  13. 9.
    For ‘moral organism’, cf. F. H. Bradley, Ethical Studies, Oxford, Oxford UP, 1962, p. 177;Google Scholar
  14. and for ‘significant whole’, cf. H. H. Joachim, The Nature of Truth (1906, republ. 1969), Westport, Conn., Greenwood Press, pp. 68 ff.Google Scholar
  15. 10.
    Lyotard, for example, sees in the postmodern experience the ‘truth’ of the modern one (the former, he says, is part of the latter and inherits from it the maxim that ‘all that has been received … must be suspected’ (PMC, p. 79); Maclntyre’s position by contrast seems more akin to that of postmodernists in the field of art and design, where the distinguishing mark of the school has been found in a certain relation to the past — a reappropriation of traditional forms of expression, combined, however, with a historical knowingness acquired in the passage through modernity (cf. Charles Jencks, What is Postmodernism?, 1986, London, Academy Editions, p. 18).Google Scholar
  16. 11.
    PhMN, p. 318.Google Scholar
  17. 12.
    For this characterisation of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ liberty, cf. Isaiah Berlin, ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’ in his Four Essays on Liberty (1969), Oxford, Oxford U.P.Google Scholar
  18. 13.
    AV, p. 239.Google Scholar
  19. 14.
    For this reading of Republic VII, cf. Luce Irigaray, Speculum of the Other Woman, trs. Gillian C. Gill (1985), Ithaca, Cornell University Press, pp. 243 ff.;Google Scholar
  20. and for a fuller reconstruction of the idea of masculinity as transcendence, cf. Genevieve Lloyd, The Man of Reason: ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Western Philosophy (1984), Minneapolis, Unversity of Minnesota Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. 15.
    Marx and Engels, ‘Manifesto of the Communist Party’ in Karl Marx, The Revolutions of 1848: Political Writings, Vol. I, ed. David Fernbach (1973), Harmondsworth, Penguin/NLB p. 70: ‘Constant revolutionizing of the means of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned …’Google Scholar
  22. Marshall Berman pursues this analysis in depth in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (1982), New York, Simon and Schuster, ch. II.Google Scholar
  23. 16.
    For a review of the problems here, cf. Alison M. Jaggar, Feminist Politics and Human Nature (1983), Lanham, Maryland, Rowman and Allanheld ch. 4.Google Scholar
  24. More polemical discussions of the shortcomings of orthodox Marxist approaches to the ‘woman question’ can be found in Christine Delphy, ‘The Main Enemy’ in her Close to Home: A Materialist Analysis of Women’s Oppression (trs. and ed. Diana Leonard, London, Hutchinson, 1984)Google Scholar
  25. and in Heidi Hartmann, ‘The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: Towards a More Progressive Union’ in Lydia Sargent (ed.) The Unhappy Marriage of Marxism and Feminism: A Debate on Class and Patriarchy (1981), London, Pluto Press.Google Scholar
  26. 17.
    Cf. Jürgen Habermas, ‘Modernity — An Incomplete Project’ in Hal Foster (ed.) Postmodern Culture (1985), London, Pluto Press.Google Scholar
  27. 18.
    Republic VII, 519ab.Google Scholar
  28. 19.
    The exposure of this fantasy has been one of the concerns of feminist writing on pornography: cf. Susan Griffin, Pornography and Silence: Culture’s Revenge Against Nature (1981), New York, Harper and Row.Google Scholar
  29. 20.
    ‘Naturalist or materialist’: there exists in the theory of knowledge a spectrum of positions prompted by the failure of the Cartesian quest for certainty. At one end of the spectrum — the ‘positivist’ end, so to speak — we have for example, W. V. Ouine’s vision of ‘epistemology, or something like it, simply fall[ing] into place as a chapter of psychology and hence of natural science’, and his programmatic statement that ‘We are after an understanding of science as an institution or process in the world’ (cf. ‘Epistemology Naturalized’ in his Ontological Relativity and Other Essays, 1969, New York, Columbia U.P., pp.82, 84); at the other, ‘critical’, end we have a variety of views which take the latter programme in a political sense and search out the hidden power-relations underlying not only (natural) science, but everything else to which the honorific title of ‘knowledge’ is assigned. ‘Epistemic naturalism’ can function as an umbrella term covering this whole spectrum of positions; ‘epistemic materialism’ is probably best reserved for a subset of them, namely those which seek to apply the Marxist method of historical materialism to the processes in question. (But Marxism does not exhaust the subversive options, which indeed can no longer be summed up without residue under the heading of ‘critique’ — witness the work of Nietzsche and Foucault).Google Scholar
  30. 21.
    For Peirce’s position, cf. ‘How to Make Our Ideas Clear’ in his Collected Papers, Vol. V, Harvard, Mass, Harvard U.P. 1934, p. 268: ‘… all the followers of science are animated by a cheerful hope that the process of investigation, if only pushed far enough, will give one certain solution to each question to which they apply it … This great hope is embodied in the conception of truth and reality’.Google Scholar
  31. 22.
    Critique of Pure Reason, A648/B676.Google Scholar
  32. 23.
    Ibid., A644/B672.Google Scholar
  33. 24.
    Plato, Phaedo 89d.Google Scholar
  34. 25.
    PMC, p. 65.Google Scholar
  35. 26.
    PMC, p. 52.Google Scholar
  36. 27.
    PMC, pp. 65–6. This theme is echoed by Rorty’s account of the motive forces of post-epistemological discourse, which includes a reference to ‘individual men of genius who think of something new’ (PhMN, p. 264).Google Scholar
  37. 28.
    PMC, p. 81.Google Scholar
  38. 29.
    PMC, p. 77; cf. Kant, Critique of Aesthetic Judgement, §23.Google Scholar
  39. 30.
    Cf. Perry Anderson, ‘Modernity and Revolution’ in New Left Review 144, p. 113 — a passage which, incidentally, contains a useful corrective to the tendency to confuse eliminating contradiction with suppressing difference.Google Scholar
  40. (For a more extended reply to the charge that discourse aiming at (universal) truth necessarily seeks to ‘unify coercively a multiplicity of standpoints’, cf. Peter Dews, Logics of Disintegration: Poststructuralist Thought and the Claims of Critical Theory (1987), London, verso, pp. 220 ff.; the words quoted appear on p. 222).Google Scholar
  41. 31.
    PMC, p. 39. For reasons of space I have omitted any discussion of Lyotard ‘s conspicuous divergence from Nietzsche in claiming that ‘justice as a value is neither outmoded nor suspect’ (p. 66). I do not think this need prevent us from getting to grips with his overall argument, since the idea that justice ought to be salvaged receives very perfunctory attention in PMC in comparison with the idea that universality ought to be jettisoned.Google Scholar
  42. 32.
    Cf. Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals, New York, Random House, 1969 (hereafter GM), Essay II, §16.Google Scholar
  43. 33.
    GM, Essay III, §25 (trs. Walter Kauffmann, 1969); The Gay Science, New York, Random House, 1974, (hereafter GS), §265 (trs. Kauffmann, 1974).Google Scholar
  44. 34.
    Twilight of the Idols, ‘The Problem of Socrates’, §6 (trs. R. J. Hollingdale, 1968), Harmondsworth, Penguin.Google Scholar
  45. 35.
    ‘Many’, not all: obviously this conception rides roughshod over the claims of a ‘feminism of difference’. I believe that reflection on sexual difference can be both intellectually and politically enabling, but incline ultimately towards the view that ‘Glorification of the feminine character implies the humiliation of all who bear it’ (Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia, trs. E.F.N. Jephcott, 1974, London, NLB, p.96). However, I cannot argue the point here.Google Scholar
  46. 36.
    Cf. GM, loc. cit. (Kauffmann, p. 154): ‘A predominance of mandarins always means something is wrong; so do the advent of democracy, international courts in place of war, equal rights for women, the religion of pity, and whatever other symptoms of declining life there are’. This feature of his thought should be kept clearly in view over against reminders — however valid — that Nietzsche is not a crude prophet of aggression, nor his ‘will to power’ equivalent to bloodlust (cf. Gillian Rose, Dialectic of Nihilism: Poststructuralism and Law Oxford, Blackwell 1984, pp. 200 ff). No doubt it was vulgar of the Italian Futurists to babble about ‘war, the sole hygiene …’, but the fact remains that for Nietzsche it is, in the end, a sign of spiritual poverty to regard war, injury and exploitation as detracting from the perfection of the world.Google Scholar
  47. 37.
    F. Nietzsche, Ecce Homo, New York, Random House, 1969 ‘Why I write such good books’, §5, trs. Kauffmann: ‘Has my definition of love been heard? It is the only one worthy of a philosophy. Love — in its means, war; at bottom, the deadly hatred of the sexes’.Google Scholar
  48. 38.
    GS, §377 (trs. Kauffmann).Google Scholar
  49. 39.
    GM, Essay III, §12 (trs. Kauffmann).Google Scholar
  50. 40.
    F. Nietzsche, Daybreak, Cambridge, Cambridge U.P., Preface, §4 (trs. Hollingdale, 1982).Google Scholar
  51. 41.
    GS, §362; and cf. GM, Essay III ad fin., where the statement that ‘morality will gradually perish now’ refers to the same historical prospect.Google Scholar
  52. 42.
    Cf. F. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil, 1973, Harmondsworth, Penguin §§231–9.Google Scholar
  53. 43.
    In the neo-Nietzschean discourse of the present day, the theme of ‘hostility to feminism’ is, not surprisingly, repressed. But this repressed material has a way of returning in contexts where the Enlightenment project of legitimation is up for criticism. An example is supplied by Vincent Descombes, expounding the views of Lyotard in Modern French Philosophy, trs. L. Scott-Fox and J. M. Harding (1980) Cambridge, Cambridge U.P., p. 182: ‘… in more general terms, no sooner do we become aware that truth is only the expression of a will to truth than we must face the fact that this “truth” betrays a timid rejection of the world in as much as it is not a “true world” (stable, ordered and just)’. Notice the taunt: a timid rejection! This is the same rhetoric by means of which Nietzsche seeks to put the Enlightenment on the defensive — a rhetoric which associates the truth-orientated habit of thought with ‘castration’ (in the psychoanalytic sense).Google Scholar
  54. 44.
    Certainly, the idea of the outsider or ‘nomad’ (the individual who gets by, morally speaking, without any home base) has its own pathos, and even — in a rationalist context — its own justification (we have to deny ourselves false comforts in order not to be diverted from the quest for true ones, i.e., for a better world). But as the badge of a self-constituting élite — a Nietzschean ‘aristocracy of the spirit’ — it is merely the flip side of the bourgeois order. The nomad is the ‘other’ of the reliable paterfamilias; he is the ‘untamed’ male who has escaped from the trap of domesticity (cf. Gilles Deleuze’s ‘terrible mothers, terrible sisters and wives’: Nietzsche and Philosophy, London, Athlone Press, trs. Hugh Tomlinson, 1983, p. 187).Google Scholar
  55. This cultural cliché is beginning to attract some well-deserved feminist criticism: cf. Deborah Cameron and Elizabeth Frazer, The Lust to Kill: A Feminist Investigation of Sexual Murder (1987), Oxford, Polity Press, esp. pp. 52–69; 155–62.Google Scholar
  56. (Barbara Ehrenreich’s The Hearts of Men: American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment (1983), New York, Doubleday, also contains relevant material).Google Scholar
  57. 44.
    PMC, p. 54.Google Scholar
  58. 46.
    AV, p. 242.Google Scholar
  59. 47.
    It is sometimes suggested that this kind of ‘legitimation from within’ could not serve to keep the Enlightenment project in being, since its internality to the discourse on which it operates prevents it from being a genuine legitimation at all. This seems to be the reasoning of Lyotard, who also says of (postmodern) science that it is ‘incapable of legitimating itself, as speculation assumed that it [science] could’ (PMC, p. 40, emphasis added). But this comment would be entirely out of place, were it not for an (unexamined) assumption that any ‘legitimation’ worthy of the name requires access to an absolutely transcendent standard of validity, i.e., to something exempt from the finite and provisional character attaching to all human discourse. (A related assumption can be seen at work in the attempt to discredit Enlightenment modernism by attaching fetishistic capital letters to the regulative ideas it invokes: ‘Reason’, ‘Truth’, etc.).Google Scholar
  60. 48.
    ‘Pragmatism and Philosophy’ in Baynes, Bohman and McCarthy, After Philosophy, pp. 55–6.Google Scholar
  61. 49.
    Cf. AV, p. 30.Google Scholar
  62. 50.
    AV, p. 245, emph. added.Google Scholar
  63. 51.
    And of course those of socialism too, though it seems desirable to streamline the argument here.Google Scholar
  64. 52.
    Cf. Cameron and Frazer, The Lust to Kill, p. 175. (In its original context this remark refers to a ‘pluralism’ of sexual practice.)Google Scholar
  65. 53.
    AV, p. 201.Google Scholar
  66. 54.
    AV, p. 238.Google Scholar
  67. 55.
    AV, pp. 68–9.Google Scholar
  68. 56.
    AV, p. 244.Google Scholar
  69. 57.
    Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, I, 2 (ethics is a branch of politics).Google Scholar
  70. 58.
    AV, p. 203.Google Scholar
  71. 59.
    Cf. Beyond Good and Evil, §239; other relevant passages are GS, §356 and Twilight of the Idols, ‘Expeditions…’, §39. Maclntyre is of course aware of the contentiousness of his all-things-considered portrayal of Nietzsche as an Aufklärer, but decides to brazen it out (AV, p. 241); however, in view of Nietzsche’s clear perception of his own work as a logical development of the Kantian ‘critique of reason’, I am unconvinced that Maclntyre succeeds in locating any flaw in the self-consciousness of his (Nietzsche’s) texts. As a postcript to the foregoing discussion, I can warmly endorse these words of Seyla Benhabib and Drucilla Cornell in their Introduction to Benhabib and Cornell (eds) Feminism as Critique (1987), pp. 12–13: ‘Despite many common elements in their critique of the liberal concept of the self, feminist and communitarian perspectives differ: whereas communitarians emphasize the situatedness of the disembedded self in a network of relations and narratives, feminists also begin with the situated self but view the renegotiation of our psychosexual identities, and their autonomous reconstitution by individuals as essential to women’s and human liberation’.Google Scholar
  72. 60.
    Cf. for example Deborah Cameron, Feminism and Linguistic Theory (1985), London, Macmillan, Ch. 7;CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Toril Moi, Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory (1985), pp.99 ff.;Google Scholar
  74. Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision (1986), London, Verso, esp. Introduction;Google Scholar
  75. Chris Weedon, Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory (1987), Oxford, Blackwell, Chs 4, 5.Google Scholar
  76. 61.
    For a non-feminist statement of the case against ‘political correctness’ in the sphere of taste, cf. Robert Elms in New Socialist, May 1986. Curiously, some of Elms’ ‘designer socialist’ claims in this article have a very Platonist ring (‘… there is no divide between form and content, they are both a reflection of each other. Good things look good …’); but in his mouth these claims are far from bearing a rationalist meaning, since Elms assumes, in defiance of any ‘Platonist’ tradition, that what looks good is more knowable than what is good — that, in fact, appearances outweigh theory in the making of political value-judgements.Google Scholar
  77. 62.
    Elizabeth Wilson, Adorned in Dreams, London, Virago, 1985, p. 244. Notice that in her chapter on ‘Feminism and Fashion’ Wilson does not limit herself to a simple critique of puritanism, but closes with a strong prescriptive message: ‘The progressive project is not to search for some aesthetically pleasing form of utilitarian dress, for that would be to abandon the medium; rather we should use dress to express and explore our more daring aspirations’ (p. 247, emphasis added).Google Scholar
  78. 63.
    ‘Permitted Pleasures’ in Women’s Review, August 1986 (order of excerpts reversed).Google Scholar
  79. 64.
    Cf. Catharine A. MacKinnon’s description of sexism as ‘a political inequality that is sexually enjoyed, if unequally so’ (in her Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law, Harvard, Mass, Harvard U.P. 1987, p. 7).Google Scholar
  80. 65.
    Moore (op. cit.) tells us that ‘Femininity is not indelibly stamped onto us, but continually in a process of recreating itself.’ But this does not deter her from writing of ‘the early seventies, [when] some women were desperately trying to have the right kind of sexual fantasy that didn’t actually involve any of the things that make sex exciting’. Despite the playful tone, these words clearly imply that we know what it is that ‘makes sex exciting’. Well, do we know? It is too easy to say that if you are interested in ‘sex’ then you can’t help knowing. On one level that is no doubt true; but strategically, a more fruitful principle for feminists (and other opponents of patriarchy) would be to assume that we still have everything to learn.Google Scholar
  81. 66.
    These are the possibilities I once tried to capture in terms of Quine’s notion of a ‘pull toward objectivity’: what this phrase suggests is that we can pull the other way, i.e., that there can be a conscious, politically-motivated resistance to the processes of socialisation (cf. Sabina Lovibond, Realism and Imagination in Ethics, Oxford, Blackwell, 1983, pp.58 ff., 194).Google Scholar
  82. 67.
    Terry Eagleton’s words about the ‘characteristic post-structuralist blend of pessimism and euphoria’ (‘Capitalism, Modernism and Postmodernism’, New Left Review 152, p. 64) seems very much to the point as a comment on the politics of ‘crevices’ and ‘moments’.Google Scholar
  83. 68.
    Cf. §4 of Iris Marion Young, ‘Impartiality and the Civil Public: Some Implications of Feminist Critiques of Moral and Political Theory’ in S. Benhabib and D. Cornell, Eds Feminism as Critique Oxford, Polity, 1987. As should be clear by now, I am unpersuaded by the view of ‘Enlightenment’ which prompts Young’s statement that ‘we cannot envision such a renewal of public life as a recovery of Enlightenment ideals’ (p. 73).Google Scholar
  84. 69.
    That is, it does not constitute an argument against conceiving of feminism as essentially a single movement (because constituted by a single aim — the aim of ending sexual oppression).Google Scholar

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© Sabina Lovibond 1990

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