Postmodern Feminism is a particular kind of Postmodernism and a particular kind of feminist theory that has become prominent in feminist thinking over the last couple decades. In order to understand it, first we must examine Postmodernist epistemology in general, and then compare Postmodern feminism to other feminist perspectives. While there are many critics of Postmodernism, it provides a very useful theoretical perspective.
Postmodernism is, well, post modern. So what's modern? While there are several philosophers from the"modern" generation, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) is considered the most influential. Sartre said that existence precedes essence, that is,"essence" or the meaning of things, is not given by God, but is a machination of man. There is no ultimate force or meaning, meaning is something we make up for ourselves as we go along. In the existentialist view of Sartre, we are entirely free to make our own choices and create our own meanings. Any time we do not accept our essential freedom, we are acting in bad faith. Critics of Sartre's view questioned the place of societal expectations in individual's lives: Do we really all have complete freedom? Simone de Beauvoir, in The Second Sex, said that we are all brought up in a world defined by men, where women are defined as "Other" or not normal (maleness being the norm). According to de Beauvoir, no woman in this society can act outside of this constriction. The Structuralists were also critical of Sartre's views. Claude Levi-Strauss, using the work of linguist Ferdinard de Saussure (1857-1913), saw that the structure of language, looked at as a whole, could tell us something about society's structure. Levi-Strauss believed that there are rules of human relations and culture has rules centered around binary oppositions like good/bad, male/female, up/down. Learning the language containing these binaries, one is not free to think outside its confines.
The next important step towards Postmodernism is Michel Foucault. In The Order of Things, he starts with this list, from Borges, that is supposedly from a Chinese encyclopedia and divides the animals of the kingdom into the following categories:
While the humanist modernism of Sartre placed man as central and surmised that God was dead, Foucault said Man was Dead. This negation of the centrality of man was a direct challenge to Sartre. In fact, to make the challenge even more clear, the French title of The Order of Things was Les Mots et les Choses ("Words and Things"). Sartre's autobiography was entitled Les Mots ("Words").
Another important philosopher to mention is Jacques Derrida, who continued the rejection of essentialism in almost everything. A search for meaning is pointless, because there isn't one. What would be most freeing is to liberate our thoughts from binary oppositions (male/female, nature/culture, speech/writing). Derrida's rejection of a single truth is important to an understanding of Postmodern feminism.
Postmodern Feminists have built on the ideas of Foucault, de Beauvoir, as well as Derrida and Lacan (who I'm not going to talk about). While there is much variation in Postmodern feminism, there is some common ground. Postmodern Feminists accept the male/female binary as a main categorizing force in our society. Following Simone de Beauvoir, they see female as having being cast into the role of the Other. They criticize the structure of society and the dominant order, especially in its patriarchal aspects. Many Postmodern feminists, however, reject the feminist label, because anything that ends with an "ism" reflects an essentialist conception. Postmodern Feminism is the ultimate acceptor of diversity. Multiple truths, multiple roles, multiple realities are part of its focus. There is a rejectance of an essential nature of women, of one-way to be a woman." Poststructural feminism offers a useful philosophy for diversity in feminism because of its acceptance of multiple truths and rejection of essentialism." (p. 19, Olson).
This is in contrast to some other feminist theoretical viewpoints. Feminist empiricism, or liberal feminism, sees equal opportunity as the primary focus. They are concerned with "leveling the playing field." It does not question the nature of the knowledge or the structure of human interactions, but rather the events that go on within that structure. Accepting the idea that there is a single knowable truth has led liberal feminists to use the accepted methodologies in research, believing that they just need to be used in different ways.
Radical feminism has focused on how deeply entrenched the male/female division is in society. Women have been oppressed and discriminated against in all areas and their oppression is primary. Their focus has been to detail how the male dominated society has forced women into oppressive gender roles, and has used women's sexuality for male profit. Radical feminist proposals for change include creating woman-only communities to embracing androgyny. Criticism of radical feminism include that it suggests that men and women are two separate species with no commonality and that it romanticizes women and interactions between women.
Famous Postmodern feminists
Three writers have been instrumental in the establishment of Postmodern feminism as a philosophy: Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Julia Kristeva. There are many others who deserve mention but in this cursory treatment, they're not going to get it.
Hélène Cixous is a writer of prose who built on Derrida's works to criticize the very nature of writing. According to Cixous, man's writing is filled with binary oppositions but woman's writing is scribbling, jotting down, interrupted by life's demands. She also relates feminine writing to female sexuality and women's body concepts. Her idea is that development of this kind of writing will change the rules that currently govern language and ultimately (remember what Levi-Strauss thought) the thinking processes and the structure of society.
Luce Irigaray is a psychoanalyst whose primary focus is to liberate women from men's philosophies, including the ones of Derrida and Lacan, on which she's building. Irigaray takes on Freudian and Lacanian conceptions of child development, and is one of the thousands who criticize the Oedipal complex. However, since Western culture is not going to abandon Freud, Irigaray has three strategies for woman to "experience herself as something other than 'waste' or 'excess' in the little structured margins of a dominant ideology." (Tong, p 227): 1. create a gender neutral language, 2."engage in lesbian and autoerotic practice, for by virtue of exploring the multifaceted terrain of the female body, women will learn to speak words and think thoughts that will blow the phallus over;" 3."mime the mimes men have imposed on women. If women exist only in men's eyes, as images, women should take those images and reflect them back to men in magnified proportions." (Tong, p. 228). This means wear red high heels.
Julia Kristeva rejects the idea that the biological man and the biological woman are identified with the "masculine" and "feminine" respectively. To insist that people are different because of their anatomy is to force both men and women into a repressive structure. Kristeva openly accepts the label of feminist, but refuses to say there is a "woman's perspective":
"The belief that 'one is a woman' is almost as absurd and obscurantist as the belief that 'one is a man.' I say 'almost' because there are still many goals which women can achieve: freedom of abortion and contraception, daycare centers for children, equality on the job, etc. Therefore, we must use 'we are women' as an advertisement or slogan for our demands. On a deeper level, however, a woman cannot 'be'; it is something which does not even belong in the order of being." (Kristeva, New French Feminisms, as quoted in Rosemarie Tong)
Kristeva sees the problems of women as Other similar to the problems of other groups excluded from the dominant: Jews, homosexuals, racial and ethnic minorities. Like other Postmodern feminists, she viewed the use of language as crucial. In her view, linear, logical "normal" writing was repressed, and writing that emphasized rhythm and sound and was syntaxically illogical was unrepressed.
Critiques of Postmodern Feminism
A major critique of Postmodern Feminism is its seeming identification of women with the feminine and the biological body. Many view Postmodern Feminists as valorizing women and the feminine over male and the masculine. To many feminists I have known, the idea that we should embrace the feminine, or "mime the mimes men have imposed on women" (Irigaray) feels awfully similar to the pressure to be feminine from the dominant society. Some of us didn't want to wear feminine looking dresses when our mothers tried to make us to go to the patriarchal church and we don't want to wear them in graduate school either.
However, most of the criticism in this vein simplifies Postmodern Feminism. As we have seen, there are widely varying viewpoints within this theoretical framework. While this diversity is sen as empowering by some feminists, many are concerned with the potential loss of feminist community. With no essential philosophy accepted by all feminists, it is difficult to make political action.
One of the most prevalent criticisms of Postmodern Feminism, and Postmodernism in general is its apparently nonsensical writing. Much of the writing of Postmodernists reject linear construction in their writing. And so accusations of eliticism have been leveled at the Postmodern Feminism as a whole. Critics contend that only few academics can participate because the jargon is so thick, and that "true" feminists address issues of political import. Considering that Postmodernist reject essentialist, there is an obvious lack of conceptual understanding of Postmodern Feminism reflected in these criticisms. Also, because linear, syntaxically normal speech and writing are viewed as part of the propaganda of the dominant order, breaking them down the linguistic power structure is, in their philosopies, an important part of undermining that power. So in fact, being obtuse and chaotic is their way of introducing change and therefore offering new meanings.
Postmodern Feminism has resulted in some of the most ground breaking research in the last twenty years. Its major technique, discourse analysis has been used in many different fields to ask many different questions. A logical progression of Postmodern theory, it has revitalized feminism by questioning many assumptions that were previously unexamined. While as of yet it has not been a major presence in the field of library and information studies, the number of studies utilizing it is steadily increasing.
Lydia Alix Fillingham, 1993. Foucault for Beginners. Writers and Readers: NYC.
Michel Foucault, 1970. The Order of Things. Random House: NYC.
Hope Olson, 1996. The Power to Name: Marginalizations and Exclusions of Subject Representation in Library Catalogues. Unpublished dissertation UW-Madison.
Rosemarie Tong, 1989. Feminist Thought: A Comprehensive Introduction. Westview Press: Boulder CO.