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Feminism and Women's Studies


Feminism and Position Envy

Features article from Arena Magazine, Number 4, April/May 1993. Sofia discusses "the subsumption of feminism," which she defines as efforts to contain and minimize the damage feminism might wreak on male-centered norms, and particularly directs her argument toward the academy.

In Arena Magazine no. 1, feminist philosopher Marion Tapper criticized a feminist tendency to "ressentiment", hanging on to old grudges and self-definitions as victims, refusing to accept that desired reforms have taken place. In universities at least, Tapper proposed, feminists do exercise power in the form of moral censorship, determining limits to what is and is not sayable. Yet attainment of this moral legitimacy means that the tactics in what Joanna Russ called "the suppression of women's writing" have been partly superseded by what I am calling "the subsumption of feminism", efforts to contain and minimize the damage feminism might wreak on male-centred norms, especially in the academy. Feminist moral authority acts as a censoring super- ego, forcing resistance into devious and ambivalent forms. No longer sayable in policy, anti-feminism is marginalized, like the unconscious, into unofficial or disguised expressions - for example, what's said when feminists aren't in the room. What looks like feminist "ressentiment" may well be a response to covert and subtle forms of anti- feminism.

The subsumption of feminism relies partly on conventional tactics in the suppression of women's writing. As Russ notes, active bigotry is both rare and unnecessary in the "high culture" of academe, where sexism and racism can be maintained simply by acting "in the customary, ordinary, usual, even polite manner". This tactic simply comprises the unthinking conduct of business as usual for good-humoured, polite, and usually non-macho men like those who suggest to their university's governing body that "wives of academics" be employed as translators, or who schedule research seminars between the close of day care and the evening meal. Then there are the old standbys of tokenism and ghettoization: timetabling the feminist topics so near the end of term that they exert negligible influence on students' overall approach to the subject; assuming that what men do is of "universal interest" while women do "women's business", that men do "philosophy" while women do "applied philosophy", and so on.

The entrenched tradition of not acknowledging women authors continues, sometimes in combination with token recognition of a single woman author. Many academics and journalists - including, regrettably, some women - tend simply to refer to "feminists" without citing them by name. Perhaps they are only pretending to know about feminism. Perhaps feminist works are read but simply not cited. Or perhaps their knowledge comes from sources not considered citable within established masculine academic conventions: arguments with friends, lovers, wives, ex-wives; conversations with feminist colleagues, or from marking feminist students' writings - this last a convenient way to absorb feminism from the position of "one who is supposed to know". Non-specific references to "feminists" can go hand in hand with the subsuming attitude "We've heard it all before!", indicating a refusal to acknowledge the difference between merely registering that a feminist voice is nagging, and actually listening and responding to its specific claims, or even finding out about differences between feminisms.

Guy Rundle's editorial in Arena Magazine no. 1 exhibits some of these problems. It subsumes feminism in a list of "socialists, feminists, anarchists, environmentalists, and others" who are criticized for their superficial responses to "contemporary developments", whose attempts at coalition building are proclaimed as "doomed to failure" and who, supposedly, have not recognized that "underlying social conditions have radically changed" since the formulation of "dominant left analyses". Yet the second half of the editorial describes "the world of the cyborg" using ideas, analyses and terminology whose sources are not mentioned, but includes one immediately recognizable to readers of Donna Haraway, whose "Cyborg Manifesto" is a socialist-feminist account of identity in the information age, aimed at reformulating a leftist political agenda based on recognition of fundamental changes in the character of knowledge, work and subjectivity in postmodern cultures. The habit of suppressing or subsuming feminist work overrides the demand for conceptual and analytic coherence. Rundle covertly relies on the contributions of the very "socialists, feminists ... and others" he had ostensibly rejected.

The male academics who "privately" try to dissuade the wife of one from continuing a joint feminist research project, or the research group which meets off campus, accepting the drinks and childcare provided by a student wife but rejecting as "outrageous" her request for part of the consultancy fees: these men are self-interestedly maintaining the split between public and private while resisting or undermining feminist influence. It's much easier to accept the theory that structures of oppression and privilege permeate throughout the social body, including sites like the home and pub, than to apply it to one's own behaviour.

Men's refusal to engage personally with feminist analyses of sexual politics can be excused via a non-traditonal source: anti-humanism, based on the critique of falsely universal, psychologistic accounts of human subjectivity, and in favour of strong social constructionist accounts. The private is thought of as the realm of the intimate, the subjective, and the experiential - things women may value, but which anti- humanism derides. Anti-humanism justifies methodological critiques of feminism as merely "experiential", and can also be mobilized in dismissing caring styles of learning, teaching, and management: "She's a popular supervisor, especially with women, but that's just because she does all that touchy-feely therapy stuff". Yet feminist teachers who do the work of female ego-support recognize that women's seemingly "excessive" need for reassurance is not a problem of individual psychology but a legacy of centuries of female exclusion from higher education and leadership. We need not just equal opportunity, but also extra encouragement, to overcome that legacy.

The noli contendere defence is an increasingly common resistance to feminism. In the apparent opposite of subsumption, feminism is put on a pedestal, relegated to that safely distanced plateau known as "the high moral ground". Feminist statements about theory, method, and politics are recoded as incontestable "moral" claims and ruled outside the bounds of the more "secular" and pragmatic business of rational debate. Thus men can avoid openly contesting feminist claims and defer examination of the moral, emotional, and political commitments implicit in their own supposedly "impartial","objective" positions.

The noli contendere defence fits in with the tried and true ruse of exnomination, Roland Barthes' term for the failure to name one's own class or political position. Feminist ethnographer Bette Kaufman has recently taken postmodern ethnographers to task for this. She asks: "How does one argue with a text that resorts continuously to "just my (partial, biased) point of view" but does not account for the local politics of that point of view?" The ethnographer Rabinow, for example, categorizes feminists as "political subjects" but positions himself beyond local politics as the occupant of a "worldwide macrointerdependency". Not just in ethnography, but also in communcation and cultural studies, it is quite possible for white male theorists to preach "specificity" and "locatedness" from the very panoptic, pseudoQuniversal position their theories have supposedly deconstructed.

This same ruse works hand-in-glove with another new and invidious class of tactics in the subsumption of feminism: announcing the "post-political". The male academics who criticize feminism as pass in their comments on student essays which have drawn on feminist work, or the editor who claims that new social movements are already an "exhausted force" and takes for granted "the inevitable failure of the grandiose demands for liberation" of the 1960s (Rundle, Arena Magazine no. 3) are attempting to subsume feminism into the past, as something over and done with. They demonstrate profound ignorance of the character of feminist struggle, specifically, its multi-level strategies and its long-range view.

A related post-political move is to ignore feminist contributions to the theory and critique of postmodernism that affirm utopian thought, political commitment, and social responsibility. Instead, the white, male, often French writers who proclaim the end of liberationist meta- narratives, the outmodedness of political commitment, the collapse of "critical distance" are taken as authorities; local political histories are ignored. Or, as in Rundle's first Arena Magazine editorial, feminist alternative visions may be invoked without being cited.

In a variant tactic, the abandonment of feminist and leftist ideals is excused by malaise over the fall of European communism P an entirely unconvincing claim when made by Australian (ex-) leftist men, who, as historian Jill Matthews pointed out to me, were never famous for extolling the Soviet Union as the model socialist society.

It is particularly irksome that these post-political and exnominating tactics are frequently deployed by people ostensibly committed to theories which propound the impossibility of any single voice or standpoint having a privileged purchase on the truth of culture or history. Overt allegiance to such theories does not seem to prevent the "post-political white boys" (PPWBs) from smugly assuming their version of post-1960s social movement history is correct and incontestable, ignoring the quite different political realities experienced by the many feminists, indigenous people and environmental activists who have not abandoned hope of liberation from oppression and who are urgently working for a more habitable world.

What gives impetus to the subsumption of feminism? The traditional motives of misogyny, masculine supremacism, and fear and defensive trivialization of female collectivities of any kind persist, but newer motivations are at work amongst those who do not want to appear as the enemies of feminism.

For men of the Left, following careers in bureaucratic or academic institutions often means abandoning revolutionary commitments and settling into the niche prepared by scholarly father figures and old boys' networks. However, for women and other previously excluded groups (for example, Aboriginal people), entry into such institutions is not an abandonment but a continuation of political struggle as minorities within a white, androcentric work culture.

I hypothesize that post-political and exnominating tactics are often deployed from a very particular historical position: that of New Left men who believe "the Left" ended when they became politically inactive and/or institutionalized. Detached from social movements that evolved through the 1970s and '80s, they may downplay the historical and theoretical continuities between "the Left" and feminism (or environmentalism). This allows feminism to appear as something "other" to post-leftist men, something to be "taken account of" from some unnamed pseudoQuniversal perspective that neatly confines feminism within a list of pass "isms".

According to early psychoanalysts Mary Chadwick and Melanie Klein, there is a relationship between the masculine search for knowledge, the disparagement of women's intellect, and fertility fantasies. Boys initially identify with their mothers, and are disappointed to discover their lack of maternal reproductive organs, which they envy. This "womb- envy" is disavowed in identification with the phallic father, and sublimated into cultural productions and processes of discovery from which women are excluded, where men imagine themselves as generative parents giving birth to brainchildren and new bodies of knowledge.

Now that significant numbers of women have achieved tertiary education, it is less a question of denied organ envy than guilt-laden position envy. Aside from envy of jobs for women where affirmative action policies are in place, I also suspect envy of feminist political and moral positions. Those who consign feminism to the "high moral ground" or proclaim it finished may at another level be jealous. Feminists possess something post-leftist men want, but which their own solipsistic and defeatist theoretical narratives say is no longer fashionable or necessary to want, namely, a vital political and personal commitment to a community of affines in long-term struggle.

In both womb-envy and position-envy, masculine lack is recognized then disavowed in an ambivalent defensive strategy. On the one hand, what women possess is given excessive definitional importance: if women have fertility, define them as mothers and control them through the patriarchal family. Likewise, if feminists have moral legitimacy, define them as moralists and subsume them in a list of "isms". On the other hand, the desired feminine possession is disparaged, then covertly appropriated for the masculine side. Just as man's mental fertility was valued over the merely biological feats of motherhood, so the post- political masculine voice claims something superior to mere moral legitimacy: it occupies an even higher plane from whence it proclaims its particular experiences universal and incontestable truths (for example, "liberation narratives are pass"). Adrift from their own political origins, the PPWBs have ascended into an ethical and political "nozone" where they drift as free ex-radicals, ready to bond and stabilize at any theoretical sites that can excuse their lack of committed position, or offer a passage back into the comfortable tradition of exnominated and god-like authority.

How can genuine dialogue be renewed between male cultural critics and their feminist colleagues?

Male thinkers and writers may feel victims of feminist "bloody-mindedness", finding themselves criticized for not reading feminist works, and criticized when they do for getting it wrong. Admittedly, many feminists have been stingy with encouragement for men who attempt to engage with feminism. But many well-meaning men have made the mistake of approaching feminism like any other field of knowledge: a topic to "get on top of" and subsume in an efficient list of "isms" of which one claims knowledge. They can't understand why feminists aren't satisfied by their efforts.

Underlying the apparent bloody-mindedness is a demand for a different approach to acquiring knowledges, one reliant on negotiation rather than mastery. For feminism is not a terrain to be conquered or a position to adopt, but a process to which one commits oneself: shuttling between norms which are constitutive of one's very social "identity", and the emergent, utopian, and not always fully articulated spaces of feminist theory and cultural practice. Accommodations to, subsumptions of and pretences at mastery over feminism may well signify stoppages in this process of negotiating knowledge; open refutation might be a healthier sign. In her essay "Situated Knowledges", Donna Haraway outlines a model of knowledge not based on the "god-trick" of a self-identical subject claiming to oversee everywhere at once, but on negotiation between the multiple and partial subjects/objects of knowledge. This view of knowledge is associated with a politics of affinities and alliances forged across partial identifications.

The positionless subject remains committed to a model of objectivity as an overseeing mastery - even where its theories proclaim the contrary. It cannot negotiate affinities and alliances because it can't or won't recognize the partiality of its own identity and knowledges, nor admit dependence upon subjugated knowledges. The situated white male academic subject would have to negotiate the conflicts, dis-affinities, and potential alliances between those parts of his self that are committed to leftist and feminist goals and visions, and those which accord with traditional academic norms and privileges - one of those "personal", "psychological" tasks whose avoidance is readily justified by anti-humanism, not to mention "political correctness" panic.

Clear-sighted evaluation of one's gender, race, or class privileges ought not induce guilt-laden analysis, permanent moral impotence, or the utter renunciation of privilege. Rather, it can facilitate commitment to making morally responsible use of one's privileges and partial knowledges in alliance with other knowing subjects. Without commitment to this risky, painful, but ultimately empowering process of negotiation, the positionless subsumers of feminism will continue reviving the very tradition of authoritative mastery that their own theories proclaim is no longer credible, and so reproduce the conditions that give rise to their troubling "position-envy".  

Zoe Sofia is a West Australian academic.  

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The material in Arena Magazine is copyright. Permission is given to republish articles, in either electronic or paper form, so long as:

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Arena Magazine No.4 April - May 1993

Contributors : Zoe Sofia
Last modified 2005-01-20 11:20 AM

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