FEMINIST POSTMODERN DISRUPTION OF THE PATRIARCHAL SYSTEM OF BINARY OPPOSITIONS:
PRAXIS IN FOUR PHASES
HANAN A. MUZAFFAR
As a feminist concerned with elevating the fight against women’s oppression, I am interested in trying to seek out the causes for such subjugation and the ways by which women are able to put an end to this subjugation. One of the strongest arguments posed in this direction is one that sees that women’s oppression is connected to the Western view of the world and that understanding this view enables women to understand the reasons for their subjugation and consequently work towards ending this subjugation.
My critique in this dissertation is limited to Western philosophy as an attempt to analyze the subjugation of women from one angle. There is no doubt that this Western philosophy and its effect is not universal to all women but is limited to the West, though its critique can be used to analyze other cultures as long as we remember that there are other criteria that contribute to the subjugation of women in other cultures.
The Western view rests on a strong belief in the validity of observing the world in terms of binary oppositions and in the necessity of proving that one side of the binary is always elevated above the other side. The binary male/female is one vivid example in which male is made superior to female and therefore male becomes capable of oppressing female to maintain his superiority. The need to disrupt this belief in the binary system is therefore a necessary one if women are to succeed in escaping their oppression. This dissertation will present a theory of phases through which feminist disruptions of binary oppositions in selected literary works occur, providing examples of the literature that manifests these phases, and demonstrating how such a theory advances the feminist struggle to end the subjugation of women.
The rendering of our world in terms of opposing binaries reflects and enables the subjugation and oppression of those located on one side of these binaries. Western thought’s bipolar division of the world posits male against female, human against non-human, and self against other, in a complex operation in which the first depends on the second, but seeks nevertheless to eliminate it; male, human, and self set at destroying female, non-human, and Other. Emerging from these more or less general binaries, other more specific binaries also exist: real/imaginary, sane/mad, science/myth, speech/silence. Similarly here the division is forced and the interdependence is neglected, and female, non-human, and Other become defined with, and restricted to, the imaginary, madness, myth, silence, and so on. Iris Young demonstrates how Western metaphysics, in its desire for unity, forces such binary divisions:
Western conceptualization . . . exhibits . . . a logic of identity. This metaphysics consists in a desire to think things together in a unity. . . .
The desire to bring things into unity generates a logic of hierarchical opposition. Any move to define an identity, a closed totality, always depends on excluding some elements, separating the pure from the impure . . . any definition or category creates an inside/outside distinction, and the logic of identity seeks to keep those borders firmly drawn. (303)
And it is by maintaining this binary opposition that these borders between male and female, inside and outside, are kept.
One of the main ideas that unites most feminists is their refusal to acknowledge that system which justifies their oppression on the ground of their being linked to the non-human, the mythical, the mad, or the silent. Toril Moi explains how feminists—and she uses Hélène Cixous as an example—reject this system with its negative implications for women:
For one of the terms to acquire meaning, she claims, it must destroy the other. The ‘couple’ cannot be left intact: it becomes a general battlefield where the struggle for signifying supremacy is forever re-enacted. In the end, victory is equated with activity and defeat with passivity; under patriarchy, the male is always the victor. Cixous passionately denounces such an equation of femininity with passivity and death as leaving no positive space for women. (105)
Therefore, feminists try to expose this division either by proving the fictionality of the division itself, or by asserting that, even within that system, the grounds for oppressing women do not hold.
The contradictions found within this system of dualities result in its collapse as a valid way of representing the world. Not only are the two sides of the fictional binary interdependent, but there are also variations within them that render their fixed division false. It is when this man-made system—that is presented to us as the “natural” way of things or as “common sense”—is exposed that we can come to understand that the two sides of the binary are not separate each in its position but are rather more connected than we are led to believe. Chris Weedon exhibits this point when she argues that any definition—of the natural for example—is elusive as it depends on “common-sense knowledge” which is in itself contradictory:
Common-sense knowledge is not a monolithic, fixed body of knowledge. It is often contradictory and subject to change. It is not always necessarily conservative in its implications. Its political effects depend on the particular context in which it is articulated. However, its power comes from its claim to be natural, obvious and therefore true. It looks to ‘human nature’ to guarantee its version of reality. . . . As common sense changes, ‘human nature’ has to undergo redefinition, and gender is a particularly active site of such change. (74)
Thus our definition of gender and the divisions seen in such a definition must be re-described and the division itself deconstructed and discredited.
Feminists are working on the disruption from various perspectives through works of fiction that try to envision a world outside this binary system and through more theoretical approaches that hypothesize a system of thought that does not force a division of the world in terms of male/female and all its other divisions. While many feminists are working towards this disruption through their work, the need arises for us to attempt to formulate a method by which this work comes together in order to effect a more comprehensive way of changing the social framework that enables women’s oppression. A theoretical approach is therefore needed in order to enable an introduction to, and a discussion of, the disruption of binary oppositions.
Through my study of various feminist arguments I have come to see that their critique of women’s oppression can be enriched if it is coupled with the postmodern critique of Western metaphysics that attempts its own disruption of the binary male/female as it seeks the disruption of all binaries. One of the strongest critiques of the binary system launched from a position other than the feminist one is found in the postmodern critique of Western metaphysics. This critique offers feminists a chance of revising their own critiques using alternative routes to the ones they usually tread. Postmodern theory critiques the binary system of representation that is dominant in Western thought, and it is this critique of the binary system that is useful for feminists who seek to critique Western thought.
The deconstruction of these notions of common sense and/or human nature is best carried out in feminist and postmodernist arguments that demonstrate how these notions, and our belief in them, are all constructs, social or linguistic, that are not based on any true or actual demonstration of the world. There is an affinity that exists between feminism and postmodernism as both theories invite new voices to ask questions pertaining to the formations of power and knowledge. Various feminists have written on this affinity as both theories question the modern philosophies that govern our social and academic practices; philosophies that are constructed around the idea of totalization and universality. Feminism as a set of practices has “initiated the cultural work of exposing and articulating the gendered nature of history, culture, and society,” as Susan Bordo explains (219). Similarly, postmodernism can serve as a kind of pointer that “opens up a space for or points towards the realm of the political” (Alcoff, “Politics” 7), or as a tool which feminists can use to work at deconstructing the system of thought in which they live.
By developing some of the arguments of postmodernism, feminists have demonstrated how this disruption of binaries can be accomplished. Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson are among the critics who see a need for constructing a postmodernism that suits feminists’ needs. Weedon also argues that regardless of its limitations, post-structuralism (or postmodernism) can be used as a tool to critique the oppression of women and is, therefore, a useful tool for feminist practice.1 Jane Flax sees in postmodern theory a way by which feminists can deconstruct common perceptions of gender division:
Feminist theorists enter into and echo postmodernist discourses as we have begun to deconstruct notions of reason, knowledge, or the self and to reveal the effects of the gender arrangements that lay beneath their neutral and universalizing facades. (42)
Joan W. Scott finds in postmodern theory—and she uses the more practical term poststructuralism here—new ways of interpreting the system of Western metaphysics. She writes:
In my own case, however, it was reading poststructuralist theory and arguing with literary scholars that provided the elements of clarification for which I was looking. I found a new way of analyzing constructions of meaning and relationships of power that called unitary, universal categories into question and historicized concepts otherwise treated as natural (such as man/woman) or absolute (such as equality or justice). (134)
Postmodernism then serves as a descriptive discourse that enables the articulation of feminist arguments. Seyla Benhabib argues that “social criticism without some form of philosophy is not possible, and without social criticism the project of a feminist theory which is at once committed to knowledge and to the emancipatory interests of women is inconceivable” (225). Or to use Weedon’s much criticized division, feminist practice can use postmodern theory.2
The task that faces us as feminists is how to utilize the tools of postmodernism in order to help us in the struggle against oppression. Postmodernism opens the grounds for maneuvering within different and multiple positions that we need to occupy so that the binary opposition that causes our oppression can be disrupted. Because of its critique of the view that our subjectivities are fixed, postmodernism offers a place where feminists can manipulate our multiple subject positions in order to provoke changes to the system necessary to our cause. This idea of multiple and changing subjectivity allows us to work within postmodernism without necessarily acquiescing to all its postulates. Our multiple subject positions also allow us to take our fight through multiple phases through which we can understand and disrupt the working of the binary oppositions. And it is by maneuvering between these phases that we can provide the best critique of this system.
The critique of this Western system, either that launched from the feminist standpoint or the postmodern one, branches into three major critiques: that of the subject, the object, and the sign. The subject of Western metaphysics is the individual, or the self, who perceives the object, that being knowledge, the truth, science, or such concepts, and tries to interpret them or define them using the sign, or the language through which these concepts are mediated. Therefore, the three major critiques arise from psychoanalytic theory, which attempts to explain the self; philosophy, which concerns itself with knowledge; and language theory, which studies the sign. I find myself hesitant in assigning the names of thinkers who deconstruct each of these terms: subject, object, and sign. These names are, not surprisingly, male. And although there exists a number of female thinkers in these three fields, the major critics of these three concepts are male. In psychoanalytic theory it is Jacques Lacan whose name is mostly associated with the deconstruction of the subject. And although Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose are the two women who introduced Lacan to me—and I believe to most English-language readers—their work is still mostly dependent on Lacan. In philosophy, and when ideas such as “the truth,” “knowledge,” or “science” are deconstructed, it is originally through the works of Jean-Françoise Lyotard or Michel Foucault. And as for the concept of the sign and its deconstruction, it is the name Jacques Derrida that springs to mind. However, as Weedon, Scott, Alcoff, and the numerous writers who contributed to Linda Nicholson’s volume have demonstrated, our reservations about who introduces the theory should not inhibit us from using such theory.3 In the following pages I will present, briefly, these three critiques of the subject, the object, and the sign and demonstrate their usefulness for the feminist struggle.
I will begin with the deconstruction of the notion of the subject that is carried out in psychoanalytic theory, specifically in the work of Lacan and his translators into English, Mitchell and Rose. As Lacan expanded on Freud’s theories of the development of the subject, he proved that what has been originally believed to be a fixed subject is indeed a fragmented one, and one that is dependent upon the notion of the lack. The lack is felt when the child, in order to adjust to the phallocentric world, learns to repress her/his desire for the mother. Toril Moi explains how in this primary repression the unconscious is opened up as a place where the child keeps the repressed desire for the mother:
The phallus . . . comes to signify separation and loss to the child. The loss or lack suffered is the loss of the maternal body, and from now on the desire for the mother or the imaginary unity with her must be repressed. This first repression is what Lacan calls the primary repression and it is this primary repression that opens up the unconscious. In the Imaginary there is no unconscious since there is no lack. (99)
She thus demonstrates that Lacan comes to define the subject as a lack, or as that which is not since “the speaking subject that says ‘I am’ is in fact saying ‘I am he (she) who has lost something’” (99).
Such concepts as the unconscious or the lack are recurring ones in psychoanalytic theory that is dependent upon the distinctions made between conscious and unconscious and other such binary distinctions like self/other, or symbolic/imaginary. Yet this frequent reference to the ways the psyche is dependent upon binary oppositions is not indicative of the theory’s advocacy for the opposition. Lacanian psychoanalysis is descriptive of the way the individual is formed in this patriarchal society and not constitutive of this formation, i.e., it describes not prescribes. And although feminist critics have attacked psychoanalysis for its insistence on appropriating those same concepts that construct patriarchy, what these theories contribute to the feminist struggle is their attempt to draw attention to the ways the self is dependent upon the other. Lacan and his followers demonstrate how this concept of lack or desire works and how subjectivity is a construct that is dependent upon the relation between the self and the other, and as a construct it loses its claims for unity. Weedon explains, “the political significance of decentering the subject and abandoning the belief in essential subjectivity is that it opens up subjectivity to change” (32). Psychoanalysis, therefore, becomes another tool that feminists may use to deconstruct the system of patriarchy first by exposing the belief in the fixed subject to be a false one, and second by showing how the two sides of the binary are co-dependent, thus the inferiority of one to the other is questioned.
The object of the Enlightenment is the search for the truth. And it is this concept of truth that many postmodernists seek to deconstruct as they expose that the objectivity of the search for the truth is a false criterion since the knowledge produced is dependent upon who produces or defines it. Knowledge becomes power as it allows those who have it superiority over those who do not. Yet this power is self-reproductive, because whoever has it is capable of gaining more power while those who lack it remain continuously in the dark. Postmodernism questions the modernist legitimation of knowledge that allows it to be monopolized by the Western male. As the power of knowledge is put in the hands of one group, it leaves the other groups without such power. Postmodernism shows how this power is being de-legitimated. In The Postmodern Turn Ihab Hasan writes:
The modern episteme, starting early in the nineteenth century, has nearly run out its course; during its movement, the dispersal of discourse, the indeterminance of knowledge, the disappearance of man occur gradually; we may be approaching a new logos, a new immanence of language. (53)
Postmodernism finds itself in this position where it puts into question the very concept that shapes the modernist view of knowledge, what Nicholson terms “God’s eye view.” Hasan’s “indeterminance of knowledge” suggests that knowledge cannot be approached from one single viewpoint—that what constitutes knowledge is ever changing. Therefore, knowledge and truth cannot be universal, as they are not fixed elements.
Similarly, Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition refers to the metanarratives that shape modern philosophy showing that they are no longer valid in our postmodern world. These metanarratives can no longer constitute our way of perceiving knowledge. He writes:
Knowledge, then, is a question of competence that goes beyond the simple determination and application of the criterion of truth, extending to the determination and application of criteria of efficiency . . . of justice and/or happiness . . . of the beauty of a sound or color . . . etc. (18)
So truth that was assumed to constitute knowledge is itself constituted by other factors and by external criteria. It becomes a question of whose truth and whether it can be proven or not.
Since knowledge needs to be legitimated, it remains in the hands of those who have it as they are reluctant to legitimate the knowledge of others. When Lyotard differentiates between the two types of knowledge, scientific and narrative, he exhibits how scientific knowledge, which is the type of knowledge accredited in our age, refuses to acknowledge other types of knowledge, such as the narrative type, and is thus limited to its own circle. Therefore, this scientific knowledge exerts its power to legitimate itself while refusing such power to other types of knowledge. Yet, Lyotard and Foucault both remind us that this power does not come from one source. As Foucault outlines the history of sexuality, he demonstrates how the repression of sex has a multiplicity of points as the power exerted to repress it comes from many foci: religious, familial, legal, etc. So he writes that “power must be understood in the first instance as the multiplicity of force relations immanent in the sphere in which they operate and which constitute their own organization” (92). And it is in this multiplicity of foci that power relations are played out as they are dependent upon the multiple points of resistance that “play the role of adversary, target, support, or handle in power relations” (95).
Feminists move along parallel lines as they question this idea of knowledge and who constitutes it. Nicholson explains that the mere idea of the objectivity of truth is refuted by feminists who believe that what is seen as universal truth is only so in the eyes of the men who constituted it:
Feminists, too, have uncovered the political power of the academy and of knowledge claims. In general, they have argued against the supposed neutrality and objectivity of the academy, asserting that claims put forth as universally applicable have invariably been valid only for men of a particular culture, class, and race. (5)
Much in the same way as postmodernists question the objectivity of truth, feminists question its validity to anyone other than those who constructed it—these being predominantly white men. As postmodernism looks at the economical, political, or social paradigms that shape the formation of truth and knowledge, most feminisms regard the gender issue as the main factor that allows such paradigms to operate.
Again in this deconstruction of the object of the Enlightenment we come to see how two sides of the binary are dependent on each other as power is seen to depend on its multiple points of resistance. Thus Foucault and Lyotard offer feminists another angle from which they can attack the phallocentric views of the world. And although these theories of knowledge are criticized for lacking a practical political outcome, they can become tools much needed in the feminist struggle against patriarchy. Sandra Harding views such theories as a defense against the criteria of knowledge in patriarchy, or:
a defense against . . . the traditional discourses of both objectivism and “interpretationism.” . . . Objectivism places women and feminists firmly outside a tightly defended barricade within which is claimed to lie all there is of reason, rationality . . . [interpretationism] discounts feminist knowledge claims in scientific and everyday contexts . . . by taking the position that while feminists certainly have a right to their interpretation . . . that is just their opinion. (87-88)
Trinh T. Minh-ha also argues that theory that relies on reason—man’s reason—cannot be used by women to liberate them (80). She critiques the quest for a higher truth explaining that knowledge:
leads no more to openings than to closure. The idealized quest for knowledge and power makes it often difficult to admit that enlightenment (as exemplified by the West) often brings about endarkenment. . . . Theory oppresses, when it wills or perpetuates existing power relations, when it presents itself as a means to exert authority – the voice of knowledge. (40-42)
Here theory and knowledge, in their patriarchal sense presented as the only valid theory, become problematic not just for women, but for any group working outside the “existing power relations.” As the term “closure” suggests, theory as “the voice of knowledge” closes the arena for any critique that works from different perspectives. So if, as Weedon suggests, these theories of knowledge “can produce in feminist hands an analysis of patriarchal power relations which enables the development of active strategies for change,” then we need to appropriate them in any way possible (13).
Finally, we come to the postmodern critique of the sign, or the system of representation, more commonly known as poststructuralism or deconstruction, and most frequently associated with Derrida. Derrida argues that the sign, or language, is the instrument that sets the world in binary opposition. He exposes this opposition when he proves that the meanings of words are always changing as their references change, or as Toril Moi puts it:
the interplay between presence and absence that produces meaning is posited as one of deferral: meaning is never truly present, but is only constructed through the potentially endless process of referring to other, absent signifiers. (106)
And since meaning is never fixed, the positing of words in terms of binary oppositions is also never fixed. Thus Derrida’s analysis exposes the fictional closure of binary opposition as it demonstrates the changeability of each of these terms.
This Derridean analysis of language is the base upon which the literary arguments stand in this dissertation since it is the play of meaning that allows me to find meanings that might not be overt in those texts I choose, but meanings that allow for different interpretations to surface. Weedon sees in poststructuralism a way for feminists to analyze the relationship between language and society as she writes:
I would argue the appropriateness of poststructuralism to feminist concerns, not as the answer to all feminist questions but as a way of conceptualizing the relationship between language, social institutions and individual consciousness which focuses on how power is exercised and the possibilities of change. (19)
And it is by using the techniques of poststructuralism and deconstruction that the texts I choose for this dissertation will be read and that the theory itself will be constructed.
In this dissertation, I will be using critiques that are brought out of an analysis of the world that falls within the postmodern realm, epistemologically, psychologically, or linguistically. My approach would therefore follow Fraser and Nicholson’s call for a theory that “would look more like a tapestry composed of threads of many different hues than one woven in a single color” (35). My search is for a productive and flexible theory, one I will create using the techniques of those theorists I have mentioned.
Some feminists might argue against the use of theory in the feminist struggle, one that is by its very nature political and dependent upon personal experiences. They argue that postmodernism is limited in its failure to promote a future for feminists and thus its failure as a ground for political struggle.4 Moreover, some see that postmodern theory ignores the role of experience, a role that has always been important in beginning feminist struggle. And by refusing to acknowledge the role of experience, we deprive feminism of the role of the subject in its struggle:
If we fail to recuperate the subject in feminist terms, are we not depriving feminist theory of a notion of agency that casts doubt on the viability of feminism as a normative model? Without a unified concept of woman or, minimally, a family resemblance among gender-related terms, it appears that feminist politics had lost the categorical basis of its own normative claim. (Judith Butler 327)
Linda Alcoff further argues that this refusal to acknowledge the role of experience has taken feminism from one extreme to another: from “the extreme of taking personal experience as the foundation for knowledge to [the extreme of] discrediting experience as the product of phallogocentrism” (11). Yet the critique of the legitimacy of the criterion of experience in defining our lives does not annul the role of experience totally but merely objects to its role as the only factor in determining knowledge about women, especially the concept of experience is used in contradistinction to theory.
A complete dependence on the notion of experience in determining the appropriate feminist struggle has its own limitations as it draws boundaries around whose experience is to be legitimated as useful to the feminist struggle. It also suggests that there is an essential femaleness that makes the experience of one woman significant to all women. By totalizing woman, some voices of women will still be silenced and oppressed. Therefore, it became necessary for feminism, in order for it to work best, to displace itself from such binary opposites. It is here that women need to identify themselves away from such ideas of totalization. When women in any setting are regarded as one whole group with similar experiences, there develops a threat that leads to excluding those women who do not conform to the characteristics of that particular group. As a result, race, class, or sexual preference will have the same effect as gender does for the patriarchal system. Shared experience serves well as the ground on which coalition politics is built but it should not serve as the only ground that legitimates women’s knowledge.
Earlier feminists found a position in women’s experience from which to construct an identity for women separate from that of men. Yet, as these experiences failed to prove themselves a valid source of truth about all women, it became obvious that using the experience of women in feminist struggle could not avoid becoming a product of phallocentrism as it uses the same criteria of categorizing what is considered femininity and masculinity (Alcoff 10-11). It is important that, as we try to establish our feminist philosophy, we do not fall into this trap. The experiences of women are not universal. Differences exist among women at various levels as they do between women and men and one’s personal experiences cannot be the determining factor of establishing a one and only feminism.
The setting of binaries that was manipulated by patriarchy to separate women from men should not be re-used by women as they try to find their own voice. Very often groups of women who unite to fight the oppression of the patriarchal system fall prey to using the same categorizing that patriarchy enforces. Hence their work and studies focus mainly on women who belong to their group. bell hooks has been among the first to alert to white feminists’ role in excluding black feminists because of their dependence on experience by white feminists. She explains this position clearly in the following lines:
The group of college-educated white middle and upper class women who came together to organize a women’s movement . . . revealed that they had not changed, had not undone the sexist and racist brainwashing that had taught them to regard women unlike themselves as Others. Consequently, the Sisterhood they talked about has not become a reality, and the women’s movement they envisioned would have a transformative effect on American culture has not emerged. Instead, the hierarchical pattern of race and sex relationships already established in American society merely took a different form under “feminism.” (121)
Failure to acknowledge the differences that exist among women leads to the exclusion of such groups as those to which hooks refers: African-Americans, Chicanas, Asian-Americans and other racial groups are very often excluded in feminist books, as are lesbians and lower-class women. Differences exist among women; race, class and sexual preference play important roles in these differences. Yet it is important to remember that differences exist even among women of the same race or class. Not even all lower-class, heterosexual Asian-Americans posses the same identity, and to be led into universalizing is a mistake that needs to be avoided.
Chandra Talpade Mohanty explains that Western feminists, by positioning themselves in the center, resemble the liberal humanists’ attitude that they strive to work against. In the same way that men construct the binary male/female to subjugate women, Western feminists use a similar binary first world/third world to show themselves as having more power:
Universal images of ‘the third-world woman’ . . . images constructed from adding the ‘third-world difference’ to ‘sexual difference’, are predicated on (and hence obviously bring into sharper focus) assumptions about western women as secular, liberated and having control over their own lives. (215)
What Western feminists do not seem to realize is that claiming the center weakens their position as without the periphery—here being third world women—the center cannot hold. “It is not the center that determines the periphery,” Mohanty reminds us, “but the periphery that, in its boundedness, determines the center.” (215)
Depending on women’s experience means that we have to define what “woman” stands for and, as Jane Flax argues, “within feminist theory a search for a defining theme of the whole or a feminist viewpoint may require the suppression of the important and discomforting voices of persons with experiences unlike our own” (48), and it also assumes “an already existing individual subjectivity which awaits expression” (Weedon, 79). Alcoff explains how Scott views this notion of experience:
Scott, thus, turns the naïve empiricist or foundationalist account of experience on its head. In her account, experience is an epiphenomenona, never cognitivey originary but instead constitutively dependent on orders of meaning that originate outside of the individual, and its explanatory value is thereby eclipsed by the theorization of language. (13)
Our understanding of our experiences is filtered through the language we use to represent these experiences. As such, experience in itself cannot serve as the sole foundation of feminist knowledge and politics. Therefore, Moi rightly claims that within these arguments it seems that “feminist theory might thrive better if it abandoned the minefield of femininity and femaleness for a while and approached the questions of oppression and emancipation from a different direction” (148).
The problem, of course, is that any theory, by presenting itself has to refute other theories, therefore placing itself as the theory that works best. Postmodern theory, although built on the critique of universality, is criticized for falling into the same trap when it presents any of its arguments. Thus arguing for the theory becomes a contradiction in itself as it implies the inappropriateness of other theories. Some postmodern feminists realize this problem and warn against the theory’s incorporation of its own universality by positioning itself on the opposing side of modernist theories (Nicholson 11).
In “Social Criticism without Philosophy: An Encounter Between Feminism and Postmodernism,” Fraser and Nicholson explain that:
in early feminist social theories. . . .Theory was understood as the search for the one key factor which would explain sexism cross-culturally and illuminate all of social life. In this sense, to theorize was by definition to produce a quasi-metanarrative. (29)
Believing in the existence of one definite answer led some feminists to form their own metanarratives and to present their provisional theories as “the voice of knowledge,” thus again working within the same Western philosophy that they think they are rejecting.
As the humanist notion of subjectivity is critiqued by postmodernists, there emerges an insistence on this idea of difference as opposed to the notion of a unified agent that is considered by humanists as an autonomous and universal identity. On the construction of identity, Patricia Waugh writes:
for those marginalized by the dominant culture, a sense of identity as constructed through impersonal and social relations of power (rather than a sense of identity as the reflection of an inner ‘essence’) has been a major aspect of their self-concept long before post-structuralists and postmodernists began to assemble their cultural manifestos. (3)
Waugh rightly reminds us that women and other “marginalized” groups have preceded postmodernists in their realization that the self is not constructed autonomously but rather by external factors.
Difference here has to be understood not in its binary male/female but rather as a site for multiplicity. Postmodern theory insists that the subject should be read as a multiple existence. Henry Giroux describes subjectivity within the postmodern as “multiple, layered, and nonunitary”; he proceeds to add, “rather than being constituted in a unified and integrated ego, the ‘self’ is seen as being ‘constituted out of and by difference and remains contradictory’” (24).
This idea again finds its parallel in feminist theory. Teresa deLauretis writes:
I see a shift, a development . . . in the feminist understanding of the female subjectivity: a shift from the earlier view of woman defined purely by sexual difference (i.e., in relation to man) to the more difficult and complex notion that the female subject is a site of differences. (qtd. in Curti 141)
As feminism was attacked from within for being a movement only concerned with a certain class and race of women, this idea of difference becomes vital in the development of the older ideals of feminism that insisted mainly on the difference between men and women, disregarding the differences found between women themselves.
It also became clear that when women work from such binary oppositions as those constructed by Western philosophy the result would be a mere reversal of hierarchy that still works within the same system:
If the struggle for a just society is seen in terms of the move from powerless to powerful for women as a group, and this is the implication in feminist discourse which structures sexual difference in terms of the division between the sexes, then the new society would be structurally identical to the existing organization of power relations, constituting itself as a simple inversion of what exists. (Mohanty 213)
As binary divisions are no longer seen as a factor in constituting the subject, the subject takes on its postmodern non-unitary, almost non-existing self—that is not existing within any fixed criteria. The main argument against such perception of the subject comes from feminists who do not see it as the best time for women to have such a deconstruction of the subject. This becomes a sort of fear of allowing a place within feminism for the decentered subject at the time when the female subject is just beginning to find its place in this discourse:
Once women have experienced themselves as ‘subjects’, then they can begin to problematize and to deconstruct the socially constructed subject positions available to them, and to recognize that an inversion of the valuation of ‘maleness’ and ‘femaleness’ will not in itself undermine the social construction of ‘masculinity’ and femininity. (Waugh 25)
Feminist struggle, therefore, needs a more theoretical account of oppression than the one experience provides. It thus turns to postmodernism because of its “need for a deeper methodological critique of the roots of sexism and patriarchal assumptions in all existing domains of knowledge than an experiential-based feminism could provide” (Alcoff, “Politics” 11). Scott further explains:
It is not sameness or identity between women and men that we want to claim but a more complicated historically variable diversity than is permitted by the opposition male/female, a diversity that is also differently expressed for different purposes in different contexts. (143-4)
Postmodernism provides the tools by which this diversity can be analyzed and by manipulating these tools the feminist struggle can be enriched. It is not necessary for the feminist struggle to refuse the postmodernist decentering of the subject on the claims that it does not allow the category “woman” to exist. Insisting on maintaining a definition of feminism by defining the essential female “hinder[s] alliances with other progressive movements,” as Fraser and Nicholson explain (33). And although the lack of a definition means that feminism cannot be categorized and stabilized, this diversity “adds fuel to the feminist fires of plurality, multiplicity, and difference” (Tong 217). As many feminists have already stated, the category “woman” can be useful as a temporary strategy or as a political tool in describing and criticizing how femininity is perceived currently, without acquiescing to this definition being a universal one (Butler 325, Weedon 66). Toril Moi explains:
It is in the patriarchal interest that these two terms (femininity and femaleness) stay thoroughly confused. Feminists, on the contrary, have to disentangle this confusion, and must therefore always insist that though women undoubtedly are female, this in no way guaranteed that they will be feminine. (65)
Both feminism and postmodernism are needed if we are to attempt to remedy the current injustices of patriarchy. As Fraser and Nicholson maintain, “A postmodernist reflection on feminist theory reveals disabling vestiges of essentialism while a feminist reflection on postmodernism reveals androcentrism and political naivete” (20).
In this dissertation I will theoretically define four phases towards the disruption of the system of binary oppositions, demonstrate how literature manifests these phases, and analyze their implications for literary theory and criticism. Jacques Derrida suggests that women, being located on the margins of the dominant ideology, are best equipped to launch a critique against it. Rosemarie Tong demonstrates:
The condition of Otherness enables women to stand back and criticize the norms, values, and practices that the dominant culture (patriarchy) seeks to impose on everyone, including those who live on its periphery—in this case, women. Thus, Otherness, for all of its associations with oppression and inferiority, is much more than an oppressed, inferior condition. Rather, it is a way of being, thinking, and speaking that allows for openness, plurality, diversity, and difference. (219)
Feminists such as Nancy Hartsock and Tong also suggest that those located on the margins, being the “Other,” have the openness needed to critique and expose the system within which they live:
we need to dissolve the false “we” I have been using into its real multiplicity and variety and out of this concrete multiplicity build an account of the world as seen from the margins, an account which can expose the falseness of the view from the top and can transform the margins as well as the center. The point is to develop an account of the world which treats our perspectives not as subjugated of disruptive knowledge, but as primary and constitutive of a different world. (Hartsock 171)
Thus the position of womanhood becomes a useful category as it enables women to transform the power which subjugates them. The role of victim that the woman plays becomes therefore double-edged as it resists this power imposed and also transforms it while resisting (Moi 148).
Because there is constant change in the position of the marginal—the line defining the center from the margins is always shifting—the marginalized have the ability of a critique that not only subverts the system of binaries but also one in which the foundations for the system collapse and the binaries are disrupted. Bordo writes:
For the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion (as history had just taught us) are played out on multiple and shifting fronts, and all ideas (no matter how liberating in some contexts or for some purposes) are condemned to be haunted by a voice from the margins, either already speaking or presently muted but awaiting the conditions for speech. (221)
In the literature I have chosen to demonstrate these phases, most of the characters and writers exist on these margins whether by reason of their gender, skin color, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or other differentiations. And it is within their position as the “Other” that they are able to construct a way of being that is not limited to either side of the binary. Lacan argues that if the Other is able to speak the whole symbolic order which holds the Other in its position will crumble (Tong 222). The subversion of this system of binary opposition and the system of patriarchy can best be articulated in literature, as bell hooks has stated, since within literature these subversions are not threatened by the reality of forms of repression that exist in the real world, except for censorship.
The different works I have chosen will reflect how each of my four theoretical phases are practiced in the literature. Although the majority of this literature is written by late twentieth-century American writers who are considered marginalized—women, African Americans, Native Americans, Chicanos and Chicanas—I have also chosen a few examples of earlier writers, non-American writers, and non-marginalized writers.
I need to emphasize here that the works I have chosen are not limited to the phases to which I have assigned them. I am using them merely to find examples of these phases. That Toni Morrison’s Paradise for example was included in the first phase does not mean that we cannot find in Paradise examples of later phases. The work is not limited to the phase it is assigned but rather used as an explanation of this phase. Needless to say, the phases are not a hierarchy. Thus again if Morrison’s Paradise exists in the first phase and Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima exists in the fourth it does not mean that Anaya has accomplished more that Morrison has, merely that I chose a sample of his work to explain certain theoretical concepts.
The use of the term “phases”—rather than steps or stages—suggests that they are not defined in a linear structure in which the need for the first step is negated when we move to the second step. These phases operate cyclically and each one provides a necessary threshold for this critique. And because of the ability of the marginalized to move between these four phases, their literature provides the best example of this critique.
Chapter One, “Understanding the System of Binary Oppositions,” will introduce the first phase towards the disruption of the binary oppositions, to understand how the system works and what is gained and lost by it. I will begin by presenting the theoretical background to this phase found in the work of Jean-François Lyotard, Sandra Harding, and Drucilla Barker, who provide an analysis of what this system jeopardizes. These critics argue that the binary system posits two types of knowledge as opposing and finds justifications for applying one while refusing the other. Based upon this argument I will also briefly introduce the psychoanalytic side of the argument found in the work Lacan, and how this argument introduces the same binary working within each individual in the split between self and other.
After the theory is introduced, Toni Morrison’s Paradise will be analyzed as one text which introduces the system of binaries as it manifests itself in a society of African Americans. Linda Hogan’s Dwelling will also be introduced here as an explanation of how one system of beliefs becomes destroyed under the more dominant system and what are the dangers of this destruction. Morrison’s Sula and Kate Chopin’s The Awakening provide further examples to support the argument.
Chapter Two, “When the ‘Other’ Speaks: Subverting the System,” will argue that as a result of this system of binaries, those who are located on the “Other” side of the dominant one will try to speak in order to subvert the system that tries to kill them. French feminists, such as Hélène Cixous and Luce Irigaray, will be presented as those who argue for women, or the “Other,” to acknowledge their worth by using those same attributes that were used to pronounce them “Other.” The argument here is for women to subvert the system of binaries by showing how those features which make them “Other” can actually be those same ones which will liberate them.
Women’s link to nature, silence and madness are also here employed as features that will free women from their position as “Other.” Djuna Barnes’s Nightwood and Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace will be my major examples in this chapter in which silence and madness become tools in liberating the characters. These will be supported by Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony.
Chapter Three, “On Multiplicity and Reciprocity,” introduces the third phase in which the system of binaries itself is questioned. I will present two arguments that question this system. The first one will be Donna Haraway’s theory of situated knowledges which posits that since our positions are shifting, and since what we have is always situated knowledges, we cannot exist completely on either side of the binary but are rather multiple in our positions. The second argument is that presented by ecofeminists who argue that the proof of the fictionality of the binary system is found in nature and it is through our interaction with nature that we can escape the limitations of the system.
Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness will demonstrate Haraway’s argument that we all have situated knowledges and shifting positions, while Gerald Vizenor’s Dead Voices demonstrates how it is our interaction with nature that allows us to understand our multiplicity. Emanuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman will also be used to demonstrate how a person’s subjectivity cannot be fixed to either side of the binary.
The second and third phase are sometimes referred to as essential and anti-essential positions, and in the fourth phase, “Essentialism and/or Constructionism: The Marginal Disrupts the Binary,” I will demonstrate that the two positions are interactive. Similarly, the two sides of the binary can also be shown to be interactive. Diana Fuss demonstrates how essentialism and anti-essentialism are not opposites because they are interrelated. Fuss argues that “the binary articulation of essentialism and difference can also be restrictive, even obfuscating, in that it allows us to ignore or to deny the differences within essentialism” (xii). And it is by understanding how the two sides are interrelated that the binary system can be disrupted. Here I will demonstrate that the position of the marginalized allows for this disruption because by its existence on the margins of dominant thought it becomes more receptive and open to different systems of thought.
Rudolfo Anaya’s Bless Me, Ultima, Edna Escamill’s Daughter of the Mountain, and Alice Walker’s The Temple of My Familiar will be used as examples of how the marginalized possess an openness that allows them to exist on the two sides of the binary without the need to kill either side. So, for example, Walker portrays a character, Lissie, whose openness allows her to accept her former existence as a white man even while acknowledging the injustices laid upon her current character by white men.
By existing on the margins of dominant thought, I argue that the marginalized are more open to incorporating the diverse systems they find around them. It is important as I alert to the importance of being open-minded and receptive of other knowledges, that I endorse this concept in this presentation of four phases by inviting additions to the four phases. So, although I end my dissertation with phase four, I hope to invite further work on this area in which not only the marginalized are seen to possess this ability of disrupting the binary, but also those who are considered to belong to the dominant sex, race, class, etc. Deconstructing the binary oppositions that influence most of our lives cannot be done simply by a decision to stop believing in the binaries. It is a process that takes time, and for that reason, a theory of phases enables a constant revision of the dangers of viewing the world in terms of binary oppositions. As I introduce the ability of the marginalized to best effect this disruption, it is important to revisit our definition of the marginalized as we revisit our definitions of other concepts. An important aspect of deconstructing the binaries is the need to move beyond the limitations of fixed definitions and closed doors, and for that reason, I hope for that my readers will be able to leave this dissertation with the ability to revisit, and add to it further phases in order for the dissertation itself not to be fixed and closed.
1. I see the difference between postmodernism and poststructuralism in that the former is an epistemological theory more general that the latter that refers to the application of postmodern critiques on texts. It can thus be said that poststructuralism is the practice and postmodernism is the theory. While postmodernism deconstructs knowledge, poststructuralism deconstructs language.
2. The title of Weedon’s book is Feminist Practice & Poststructural Theory, a title which incorporates the binary practice/theory which she criticizes as she critiques the system of binaries itself.
3. Some feminists, nevertheless, argue that we cannot use the man’s tools to deconstruct his house. Audre Lorde is one example. I, however, remain a firm believer in advocating and using any tools that are handy. Tools, after all, “possess neither memory nor loyalty; they are as effective as the hands wielding them” (Ling 779).
4. Carol A. Stabile, for example, writes:
In fact, postmodernism replicates the workings of contemporary political debates in the U.S.: both refuse to confront political realities and both operate at a level of abstraction that bears little relation to the realities experienced by ordinary people on a daily basis. (405)