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Feminist Knowledge: Feminist Standpoint


By Rosemary Hennessy - 1995.

Feminist standpoint theory posits feminism as a way of conceptualizing from the vantage point of women's lives. However, in current work on feminist standpoint, the material links between lives and knowledges are often not explained. This essay argues that the radical marxist tradition standpoint theory draws on--specifically theories of ideology post- Althusser--offers a systemic mode of reading that can redress this problem and provide the resources to elaborate further feminism's oppositional practice and collective subject.

I. Feminist standpoint theory occupies a significant place among materialist critiques of Western epistemology. <1> Socialist feminists initially appropriated the notion of standpoint from the insights of Marx, Engels, Lukacs, and others in order to formulate a more coherent explanation of feminism's authority, who it speaks for, and the forces of oppression and exploitation it contests. Standpoint refers to a "position" in society, a way of making sense that is affected by and can in turn help shape structures of power, work, and wealth. Feminist standpoint theorists have posited feminism as this sort of position, a way of conceptualizing reality from the vantage point of women's lives. Most significantly, in attending to the complex material forces that structure the relations between social positioning and ways of knowing, feminist standpoint theories have challenged the assumption that simply to be a woman guarantees a feminist understanding of the world. Instead they argue that the feminist standpoint is a socially produced position and so not necessarily immediately available to all women. As Sandra Harding asserts, not only is there "no typical woman's life," but women's experiences of their lives are not necessarily the same as feminist knowledge of women's lives (Harding 1991, 10-11). Because women's experiences are often framed in terms of the cultural common sense, it cannot be that the things women say always provide reliable grounds for feminist claims about social relations (ibid., 123). For feminist standpoint theory, both the representation of a feminist perspective and its "truth" are reached through philosophical and political struggle (Jaggar 1983, 383-84). <2>

At the same time standpoint theorists insist that the feminist standpoint is a socially constructed way of making sense of the world, they also pose "women's lives" as an empirical point of reference prior to feminism (Jaggar 1983, 387; Smith 1987a). Invariably, however, the material links between feminism as a discourse and women's lives aren't explained. This fraught relationship between knowledge or discourse and "all the rest" is also echoed in various arenas of current feminist debate that treat shifting cultural constructions of "woman" and other social practices that define many women's everyday world, practices like exploitation, sexual violence, or political disenfranchisement. As references to standpoint theory appear more and more frequently in feminist theory across the disciplines, this gap in its logic needs to be redressed. Feminists working in many quarters have generally recognized that basing feminist knowledge in any transparent appeal to women's experience tends to homogenize "woman" as a universal and obvious category. This sort of experiential analysis can lock into the structures of feminist epistemology a naturalized opposition between male and female that erases many of the other social categories across which "woman" is defined. Appeals to women's experience have also frequently had the effect of obscuring the distinction between feminist and women- centered work (Grant 1987, 111). In claiming women's lives as the basis for its authority, feminist standpoint theory acknowledges the inadequacies of an empiricist notion of experience in which the individual subject's relationship to her world is taken to be direct and concrete, unmediated by the ways of making sense historically available to her. But substituting the more inchoate "women's lives" for "women's experience" does not in itself explain the material relation between lives and ways of knowing.

More recent work in feminist standpoint theory has advanced the critique of an empiricist notion of experience in the name of a much more complex understanding of women's lives. In Whose Science? Whose Knowledge?, for example, Sandra Harding contends that taking women's lives as the foundation for knowledge is premised on the claim that "women's lives" are necessarily multiple and contradictory (Harding 1991, 173-81). Acknowledging this, Harding argues, implies that feminists need to replace the desire for unity around women's common experiences with political solidarity based on goals shared with other groups struggling against Western hegemony. Clearly Harding's objective in her latest work is to rethink the subject of knowledge as a complex and often contradictorily differentiated one without conceptualizing difference in individual or additive terms. And in this sense she is emphatically contesting liberal pluralist approaches to multiculturalism and diversity. Her aim is not merely to add to the dominant culture new knowledges from the experiences of marginalized groups, but to disrupt the limits of legitimate knowledge--including its subjects, the kinds of questions it can pose, and their implied answers. But while Harding insists that being a woman doesn't guarantee oppositional knowledge, her argument often slides into the logic of pluralism by default as the basis for knowledge becomes groups of people. Harding contends that it is an advantage to base knowledge in the everyday lives of oppressed and excluded groups. Indeed, a constitutive feature of the many formulations of feminism is that they "started their analyses from the lives of different historical groups of women" (ibid., 123). But what is the relationship between lives and group affiliation? Does one or the other--or both-- provide the basis for a feminist perspective? While Harding insists that for a position to count as a feminist standpoint it must begin in the objective location of women's lives, she also is quite emphatic that the authority for the feminist standpoint lies not in women's authentic renditions of their lives but in "the subsequently articulated observations and theory about the rest of nature and social relations-- observations and theory that start out from, that look at the world from the perspective of, women's lives" (ibid., 124). But what exactly is the material connection between a feminist perspective and its starting point, between theory and lives?

To my mind, feminist standpoint theory has the conceptual resources to explain the connections between lives and knowledges--in the materialist theory of ideology it appropriates from the radical marxist tradition. Starting thought from women's lives can expose the ways in which women are oppressed and exploited, how they resist and often consent to both, and how they sometimes oppress and exploit one another; it can explain the contradictions in the distribution of resources and the ways prevailing knowledges shore up the structures of exploitation that bind women and men in suburb and ghetto, metropole and periphery. But only if this project issues from a perspective that understands social relations in these systemic terms. Of course, it is not "popular" these days to understand ideology in its relation to class and state power (that is, as more than the cultural reproduction of ideas), to maintain that social relations are not merely discursive, or to insist that social analysis explain why (not just how) hierarchical systems of power persist even as they are reconfigured under the more flexible regimes of late capitalism. As a result, systemic analysis is a limit term of sorts in feminist thinking.

By systemic analysis I mean a perspective that addresses social systems--structures of power like capitalism, patriarchy, or colonialism--and posits connections between and among them. Marxism's usefulness for feminism is that it understands the social in precisely these terms--as an ensemble of economic, political, and ideological arrangements. And it is this systemic problematic that informs some of marxism's most powerful conceptual assets for feminism: concepts like exploitation, materiality, and ideology. While feminist standpoint theory does not reject the notion of social totalities, systemic analysis of them is more often than not merely gestured toward and then displaced. As such, it marks an all-but-suppressed alterna(rra)tive, a limit that signals both a site of struggle and a story worth pursuing in the work of several theorists of feminist knowledge and women's lives.

Donna Haraway's now widely read "Manifesto for Cyborgs" radically rewrites any stable notion of identity as the basis for feminist knowledge, even as it details "the actual situation of women" in terms of "their integration/exploitation into the world system of production/reproduction and communication called the informatics of domination" (Haraway 1985, 82). Haraway acknowledges at the start that a transparent identity as women has become historically unavailable for Western feminists. Her proposal for an "ironic political myth faithful to feminism, socialism, materialism" (ibid., 65) outlines an alternative feminist politics rooted in the changes that have transformed Western industrial societies into polymorphous information systems. Out of this history she offers the figure of the cyborg as the new "self feminists must code" (ibid., 82). Haraway's manifesto is framed in a dazzling catalog of the multiform and globally expansive features of the technological revolution of late capitalism. She brilliantly details their effects on the mobility of capital, divisions of labor, and women's historical locations in advanced industrial societies. For all the subtlety and scope of her accounting, however, there is a tension in this essay between two ways of formulating what amounts to the feminist standpoint. At times Haraway represents the feminist standpoint through the antimyth of the cyborg--a position on the boundaries of established cultural categories. But at other times she figures it in terms of the distinctly different logic of women in the integrated circuit--a story of rearrangements in worldwide postindustrial social relations. In one instance, the authority for feminist standpoint derives from cultural identities based on reconfigured group affinities; in the other, it depends on a particular way of making sense of the world.

For Haraway, "women of color" constitute the prototypical instance of both--"a potent subjectivity synthesized from fusions of outsider identities" (ibid., 93). Although her analysis makes visible the racism on which the cyborgean "preferred labor force" for science-based industrial societies depends, the analogy between cyborg and "women of color" does not explain the relationship between two different ways of understanding identity. One of them is founded on an appeal to group affiliation--the Sister Outsiders whom "U.S. workers, female and feminized, are supposed to regard as the enemy," the "young Korean women" hired in the sex industry or in electronics assembly, or African-American women who have risked death to teach reading and writing. The other is imagined as an articulated discursive positioning, "a potential amid the races and ethnic identities of women manipulated for division, competition, and exploitation" (ibid., 93)--in the words of Cheyla Sandoval, "an oppositional consciousness" (ibid., 73). Despite the cyborg's defiance of natural origins or cultural categories like man-woman or human-animal on which traditional Western notions of identity depend, Haraway's conception of "women of color" as a conflation of outsider identities often suggests that a feminist standpoint appeals in some basic way to a logic of group affiliation. <3> At other points in the essay, however, she implies that the feminist standpoint is an effect of ways of knowing--either "elementary units of socialist feminist analysis" (ibid., 91) or a "powerful infidel heteroglossia" (ibid., 101).

The second of these two versions of standpoint characterizes Haraway's analysis of the informatics of domination where she argues for "a politics rooted in fundamental changes in the nature of class, race and gender in an emerging system of world order" (ibid., 79-80). In this narrative the feminist subject issues not from an appeal to empirical group identities but rather from a story that presents the social world as a historical system depending on structured relations among people. It is a story that resists a totalizing vision and yet does not forfeit a systemic one. This formulation of feminist knowledge is eclipsed, however, by the version of feminist standpoint in the essay's closing section. Here Haraway stresses the cultural and discursive dimensions of the cyborg myth and presents feminist resistance in terms of the image of a "powerful infidel heteroglossia." Certainly the image of women speaking in tongues subverts feminism's onetime "dream of a common language" and exposes the totalizing mythology that supported this desire for sameness. But celebrating difference as border- crossing within cultural signification is also suspiciously like those postmodern discourses whose textualizations of difference as heteroglossia, play, and pleasure unhinge culture from the historical "system of world order" that structures it. Early in the essay Haraway asserts that "some differences are playful; some are poles of world historical systems of domination" (ibid., 79). If, as she claims, "epistemology is about knowing the difference" (ibid., 79), the manifesto for cyborgs displaces this knowledge with an ironic vision. By "holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary or true" (ibid., 65), irony relinquishes a way of thinking about difference historically and systemically for the playful logic of both/and, the logic of differance.

In contrast to Donna Haraway's ultimately ironic and play-full postmodern analysis, Dorothy Smith's contributions to feminist standpoint theory conceptualize modes of knowing within a much more emphatically systemic analytic. <4> Smith's critique of the patriarchal power relations inscribed in the social sciences foregrounds the ways in which the disciplining of knowledge operates much like the logic of the commodity. She makes visible the ways academic disciplines produce both economic and ideological value by occluding the dependence of their dominant conceptual modes and their administering subjects on the work of invisible subservient groups--women, blacks, working-class people. These are the workers who feed and care for administrators and clean their workplaces even as their experiences are excluded from the regimes of truth their labor supports (Smith 1987b). She argues for an alternative sociology that begins in a knowledge community outside academic disciplines, in the experiences of those who have formerly been the objects of study. Even though Smith problematizes the notion of experience as a self- evident ground for knowledge, more often than not she relies on an empiricist division between the subject and object of knowledge. While she appropriates Foucault's conception of discourse, Smith frequently refers to women's "direct experience" (Smith 1990) as the basis for feminist knowledge. She justifies her retreat from the radical critique of empiricism in Foucault as an effort to resist what she sees as his overtextualizing of social relations. But her analysis of women's "direct experience" as the basis for feminist knowledge tends to jockey between the objective conditions of women's lives and the discursive construction of the feminine rather than explaining more fully the material relationship between the discursive and the nondiscursive. <5>

Linda Alcoff's arguments for positionality in her often-cited essay "Cultural Feminism versus Post- structuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory" (Alcoff 1988) are important to consider in light of Smith's skepticism about the risks of overtextualizing. Although she has not identified her own work as feminist standpoint theory per se, Alcoff's discussion of identity in terms of positionality, discourse, and location is worth examining because it resonates with Foucauldian inflections of feminist analysis that characterize a growing body of cultural critique. Like feminist standpoint theory, Alcoff's sees women's lives as a necessary point of departure for feminist knowledge, but she understands this referent in terms of a discursively positioned rather than an experiential subject. Alcoff espouses a Foucauldian materialism (a la Teresa de Lauretis) in which subjectivity is the effect of habits and practices including language. But she also promotes the virtues of identity politics in order to maintain for the subject a level of agency that poststructuralist theories have dispelled. As Alcoff sees it, in identity politics materialism means matter, the "fleshy material identity that will influence and pass judgment on all political claims" (Alcoff 1988, 433). However, combining this concept of identity politics with the notion of positionality, as Alcoff proceeds to do in the remainder of the essay, brings into tension several sorts of "materiality": of the flesh or matter, of the "external context within which a person is situated," and of "social critique and analysis" (ibid., 434). Here, once again, we confront feminist inquiry that addresses women's lives and knowledges (and also their bodies) as material but without explaining the connections between them. Unlike Smith--or even Haraway--Alcoff barely gestures toward systemic analysis, relying instead on a more diffused Foucauldian notion of social relations that includes discursive and nondiscursive practices but resists explaining their material relation to one another.

One consequence of this noncorrespondence tends to be an overriding emphasis on cultural analysis with only glancing references to "other" nondiscursive materialities. Another effect is the appearance of a voluntarist subject as the agent of social change. Traversing flesh, context, and meaning, woman's positionality becomes a matter of choice: she is a subject who can "choose" the discursive positions she occupies. "Being a 'woman,'" Alcoff argues, "is to take up a position within a moving historical context and to be able to choose what we make of this position and how we alter this context" (ibid., 435; italics added). Alcoff's formulation of agency in terms of choice indicates one of the ways in which postmodern feminism helps to produce a subject that is more fluid and mobile--socially "constructed" and so not rooted in the historical conditions that supported an empiricist-humanist universal self--but that risks re- enacting some of the key features of that cultural project. As Alcoff herself concedes, some women are historically situated so that their ability to choose what they make of their position or even their ability to alter it at all is highly compromised or even nonexistent, while other women have many options. Like identity and experience, the notion of "choice," so embedded historically in the humanist ideology of the "free" individual, cannot be simply invoked within a postmodern feminist framework. Along with other categories linked to the free individual, it has to be rewritten so as to make visible the systems of exploitation and oppression that affect the historical availability of particular positions to some subjects and not others as well as the possible movement of social subjects across and between them.

Working on the limits of an only vaguely related connection between the discursive and the nondiscursive, between feminist perspectives and women's lives, can bring into relief the ways in which invocations of historical "context," even when the rhetoric of a postmodern subject is invoked, often reiterate the empiricist duality of self-world. Historical materialism's theory of ideology shifts our thinking about these issues to another problematic entirely, one in which the subject and knowledge are situated in the often contradictory relations among knowledge, resources, and power. In promoting historical materialism, I am not calling for a return to a reductive totalizing marxism, nor do I think we need to forfeit the rich and important insights into the nuanced workings of power in specific locations that feminist cultural critique has developed in the past ten years. But I am arguing that feminism's radical vision of possibility for full democracy requires that our analyses be able to explain connections--between what we mean by lives and knowledges, between subjects and contexts, between particular instances and larger social arrangements. The radical tradition of historical materialism in standpoint theory's history makes this possible. But holding onto it is no mean task right now. Laying claim to a systemic perspective means going against the grain of much work in cultural and political theory that equates analysis of social structures and systems with a reductive totalizing logic. It means confronting the interests of those postmodern discourses that militate against making "determinate and causal" connections or that contend the hierarchical structures of social totalities have evaporated in the wake of a critique of foundations in which social reality is always open to the play of differance. <6> And it means insisting that explaining social systems of power--patriarchy, imperialism, exploitation--is as necessary and urgent as ever because those regimes of power that regulate knowledge and people's lives have not disappeared even if they have been reformed. They persist in part precisely because the various facets of the social remain unconnected in our knowledges, even as the triumph of capitalist hegemony continues to rely on an interdependent world-system.

II. Some of the most useful advances in theorizing the material relations between knowledge and people's lives have arisen out of elaborations of Louis Althusser's work on ideology. <7> By foregrounding the material and productive role of ideology in social arrangements, Althusser's theory of ideology stimulated postmodern marxist and feminist formulations of the discursive construction of the subject. As is now commonly acknowledged, Althusser's theory of ideology has also been widely critiqued and for several important reasons. His understanding of ideology's role in social reproduction has been seen as overly functionalist, and his concept of interpellation--which explains the formation of subjects as an effect of the summons of ideology--has made theorizing subversive agency difficult. These problems have been compounded by questions from feminist quarters about the adequacy of Althusserian marxism's homogenous class subject for emancipatory movements that are not organized primarily around class. There are, however, some important features of post-Althusserian theories of ideology that have been useful to materialist feminist efforts to rethink what is meant by standpoint. Chief among them is the concept of the materiality of knowledge. In any particular historical formation, what it is possible to know is both shaped by and in turn helps delimit the contradictory development and displacement of economic and political forces. Under capitalism, the prevailing ideologies or ways of knowing mystify exploitation and oppression by presenting these arrangements as the way things naturally ought to be. Ideology is a material force because it (re)produces what gets to count as "reality," but at the same time other material forces, both economic and political, are shaped by--not merely reflected in--ideology. The materiality of the social, then, is not based in an objective reality outside knowledge or social discourse but rather includes all of a culture's modes of intelligibility within a complex ensemble of economic, political, and ideological practices. From the vantage point of ideology, the material can be understood as that which intervenes in production of the social real by being made intelligible. At the same time, the discourses that constitute the material structures through which ideology works are shaped by the material relations that comprise economic and political practices. This means that "reality," whether in the form of "women's lives" or the feminist standpoint, is always affected by this ensemble of social relations. It is an ideological construct whose parameters are unevenly and contradictorily shaped in specific historical moments by divisions of labor and relations between state and civil society. Women's lives, then, can never be separated from the various and often contesting ways of making sense of them; but at the same time, these lives are not exclusively ideological. In developing theories of ideology beyond the limits of Althusser's problematic, neo-marxists, and feminists among them, have recognized the usefulness of Gramsci's concept of hegemony for conceptualizing the complex relations between knowledge and power. Gramsci's concept of hegemony seems to avoid many of the impasses in Althusser's work while still maintaining the distinguishing global social logic of historical materialism. According to Gramsci, hegemony is the process whereby a ruling group comes to dominate by establishing the cultural common sense, that is, those values and beliefs that go without saying. The cultural power of the common sense is not simply exercised from the top down but is negotiated and contested through a process of discursive articulation. <8> The concept of articulation is a crucial feature of hegemony because it makes possible analysis of very specific discursive practices but without relinquishing an explanatory framework that can make visible their connections to larger social totalities. Gramsci emphasizes that the coherent hegemonic discourse that comprises the common sense is forged out of ideological struggle. The objective of ideological struggle is to reconfigure the common sense in times of social crisis by sifting through the elements of an ideological formation and highlighting those that can serve the interests of a new ruling group or hegemonic bloc (Mouffe 1979, 192). The universal appeal that unifies any hegemonic bloc includes ideological elements from varying discourses, but its cultural power stems from an articulating principle that is always shaped by, at the same time it helps shape, the prevailing contradictory social arrangements it serves to maintain. The struggle to reconfigure a hegemonic ideology or the prevailing regimes of truth is, then, both a process of contesting the articulating principle within a hegemonic formation and disarticulating discourses from one frame of intelligibility in order to rearticulate them in another. But this struggle is not simply a matter of contesting constructions of social reality--that is, it is not just a struggle over words. At issue is the entire ensemble of social relations the construction of "reality" maintains. The concept of hegemony and the systemic theory of the social on which it is premised offer a useful way to address the unexplained relationship between "women's lives" and perspectives on them, between knowledges and their context. First of all, no perspective on women's lives ever captures them in all of their authenticity. Perspectives on women's lives, including feminist ones, are situated both within and against hegemonic knowledge. Feminism's authority as a perspective with a claim to truth and a vision of possibility for women rests on its opposition to the social arrangements hegemonic culture sustains. This counterhegemonic stance asserts that patriarchal regimes of power do give men dominance over women, that they have succeeded historically in part by naturalizing this domination and by eliciting the consent of the dominated, and that these regimes of power are not exclusively gender specific but are traversed by and embedded in other social categories. >From the vantage point of a theory of hegemony, the dualist notion of subject and context is superseded by a whole new--dialectical--logic in which lives cannot be separated from the complex social structures shaping them, including the appropriation of labor, boundaries of state and nation that shape actions and beliefs, and the systems of meaning that make sense of social relations. The theory of ideology implicit in the concept of hegemony is "critical" in the sense that ideology is no longer a monolithic determining force but rather an articulated ensemble of contesting discourses that produces what comes to count as "the way it is." In a system of social relations where resources and labor are divided so that some benefit at the expense of the few, the dominating ideology can never dominate without contradiction. Because it cannot exhaust all social "experience," hegemonic discourse invariably has slips or cracks in its coherence. As a result, it contains space for other discourses that are not yet recognized as a social institution or even project. <9> It is the potentially subversive force of these slips and alternative discourses that constitutes the epistemological basis or authority for ideology critique. "Articulation" is a useful concept for explaining the complex relations between an oppositional discourse like feminism and the prevailing or commonsense ways of making sense of women's lives. Michel Pecheux's post-Althusserian theory of discourse elaborates the dynamics of how articulation occurs within hegemonic culture. Drawing upon Gramsci, Pecheux contends that the discourses in which words are used and in which subjects take up positions are antagonistic as a result of struggles that traverse them but that also extend outside them. The system of differences that constitute meaning and out of which subjectivities are forged is the effect of collective contests in which the stakes are not just words or discourses but the entire ensemble of capitalist and patriarchal social arrangements. Pecheux devises the concept of the interdiscourse to explain the textuality of hegemony. This is a very important concept because it allows us to understand in much more specific terms the discursive processes by means of which subjects are produced and the common sense maintained. As Pecheux formulates it, the interdiscourse consists of two features: the preconstructed and articulation. The preconstructed is the feature of any discursive formation that produces the effect of an "always already there," conveying the sense of what everyone already knows. Articulation is the means by which the subject is constituted through particular co-references that secure the thread of discourse as the discourse of a subject (Pecheux 1975, 116). To the extent that it exercises a limit on the formation of subjectivities and the social real, the interdiscourse functions as the homogenizing force of ideology. The preconstructed has a key role in helping to delay and impede the process of rearticulating existing discursive structures. Even under the guise of reform, it works to maintain traditional paradigms by means of a symbolic order of differences onto which discourses are articulated. The naturalizing effect of the preconstructed reifies these differences and so helps to perpetuate categories of alterity as universal givens. The preconstructed thus becomes a useful concept for examining at the level of discourse the complex interrelations between and among the various nodal points along which alterity is constructed. As the discursive space where the "always already there" secures a hierarchical social arrangement through an "obvious" system of oppositions, the preconstructed serves as an anchor in the symbolic order for the articulation of subjectivities across race, class, and gender differences. While specific articulations of these differences will vary within each historical formation, depending on the particular discourses comprising the interdiscourse, the reification of the hierarchical structuring of difference in the preconstructed constitutes a mechanism by which hegemony operates across social formations. Because the preconstructed is a crucial ideological regulator, it is a powerful site for critical intervention. Once the textual ambiguities concealed by its naturalizing operation are explained--not as a property of language but as the displacement and condensation of the contradictions of patriarchal and capitalist social arrangements--the transformative potential of working on the construction of the subject in the interdiscourse can be unleashed. Women's lives are shaped by ideology both in the sense that their lived "experience" is never served up raw but is always made sense of from a host of vantage points, including those of the woman "experiencing" the events and those of the feminist critic, scholar, or theorist who appeals to women's lives as the basis for her knowledge. Women's lives are only intelligible at all as a result of the ways of making sense of the world available in any historical moment. Understood as always ideologically constructed, women's lives can be read in terms of "woman's" contradictory position under capitalist and patriarchal arrangements where the symbolic economy of an opposition between masculine and feminine comprises only one of the preconstructed anchors and articulating principles of the prevailing truths. The hierarchy often only thinly concealed within this opposition underwrites the ideological construction of the feminine as excess or lack, and is manifest in a corresponding unequal division of labor and allocation of social resources. The concept of the interdiscourse allows us to consider at the level of textuality the discursive mechanisms whereby "women's lives" are constructed across a range of articulated discourses, the effect of a series of subject positions sutured into or against the interdiscourse in any historical formation.

Understanding "women's lives" from this vantage point makes it possible to consider how the patriarchal gender system is imbricated with other nodal points on which difference is articulated so that the categories of gender and sex have not always been congruently integrated in a culture's interdiscourse. It gives us a critical framework that can address the multiple positioning of subjects across a system of differences without reducing these positions to homogenized groups. Finally, it allows us to develop feminist analysis of women's lives that acknowledges the complexity of those lives as they are made sense of in the texts of culture without reducing women's lives to texts.

Thinking of heterosexuality as one of the nodal points in the interdiscourse of capitalist-patriarchal gender ideology makes it possible to address the ways "the regulatory fiction of heterosexual coherence" <10> is written into the culture as a way of making sense of sex difference. Heterosexuality depends on the assumption that sex differences are binary opposites and the simultaneous equation of this binary sex difference with gender. The naturalizing function of this equation contributes to the expressive model of the individual in that the opposition of the sexes is taken to be substantive, preceding social and historical subjectivities as an essence that the core of the self manifests. In disguising itself as a law of nature, this "fiction" regulates the sexual field it purports to describe (Butler 1990b). The fiction of heterosexual coherence is one of the most firmly entrenched and invisible anchors for the ideology of individualism. In naturalizing the organizing principles of identity, it shores up the "tyranny of the proper" that individualism relies on and the international division of labor its far-reaching effects reinforce (Spivak 1985, 86).

The heterosexual and patriarchal "family cell" on which the system of alliances depends provides sexuality with permanent support. It is the site where systems of sexuality, gender, and alliance are articulated. As Foucault puts it, "the family is the interchange of sexuality and alliance: it conveys the law...and it conveys the economy of the regime of alliance" (Foucault 1980, 108). The heterosexual paradigm embedded in the articulating discourses of the regimes of alliance and sexuality serves to guarantee that the deployment of sexuality, in itself potentially disruptive of the family alliance, is brought within the range of interests served by the family at the same time that alliance is being reformed.

The ideological force that the discourse of sexuality exercised historically in the West is specific to the crises posed by the transition to monopoly capitalism--and again, in a different figuration, in the transition to late capitalism. Feminist historians have addressed the ways the deployment of alliance in the form of the ideology of separate spheres bound the nineteenth-century bourgeois family to a capitalist economy through the role it played both in the transmission and circulation of wealth and in the extraction of surplus value from women's productive labor in the home. Sexuality, in contrast, was linked to the reformation of these arrangements. It affected the "free" market economy and operated via "various subtle relays," chief among them the body that produced and consumed (Foucault 1980, 106). It affected the political sphere as discourses of sexuality articulated within the legal apparatus came to provide new mechanisms for colonizing a host of practices in previously "private" spaces--the bedroom, schoolroom, examining room, library.

Reading sexuality under capitalism as an ensemble of discourses whose hegemonic articulation relies on a preconstructed patriarchal and heterosexual organization has several implications. One of them is the insistence that totalities like patriarchy, heterosexuality, or imperialism continue to organize people's lives in systematic and oppressive ways. Implicit in this assertion is the argument advanced by recent feminist work, like that of Sylvia Walby, which contends that the reconfiguration of relations of production under late capitalism, for all of its atomizing effects on social arrangements, has not eroded these systems of domination so much as it has rescripted them. We see this modification now in new household arrangements among the middle class. As gender hierarchies become less rigid in middle-class households, many women spend fewer hours of their day as housewives and are given more permission to leave their husbands, re-marry, or have children without marrying. In comparison with men of a generation ago, many middle-class husbands and fathers are given less permission to take up the traditional position of master of the house and are encouraged to be more "involved" fathers. But even though patriarchal divisions of labor and controls over reproduction are being more flexibly managed in the domestic sphere, this does not mean that patriarchy is disappearing. Household labor and child care are still devalued. Although many middle-class women may spend less time as housewives, they still perform many more hours of housework and child care than men and earn lower wages in a sex-segregated market (Folbre and Hartmann 1989, 93). As the recruitment of more and more middle-class women into the labor market reformulates the ideology of separate spheres and the boundaries between public and private become more porous, one effect has been the production of new frontiers for capitalist and patriarchal colonization. Electronic media and the advertising industry are prime technologies for disciplining the unconscious and the body through the sexual saturation of the subject. In the informatics of domination that increasingly define our everyday lives, patriarchy is alive and well and continues to rely on a preconstructed heterosexual norm even as it helps configure the "postcolonial" boundaries of neo- imperialism.

III. Theorizing discourse as ideology implies that the feminist standpoint is a critical practice, an act of reading that intervenes in and rearranges the construction of meanings and the social relations they support. I have resisted an equation of the feminist standpoint with a marginalized identity ("woman of color" or lesbian) in order to stress this point. Feminist work in general has emphasized that reading is a social act. Drawing on a theory of discourse as ideology, materialist feminists have extended the concept of "reading" to include all of those meaning- making practices that enable one to act and that shape how one makes her way through the world. <11> In doing so, materialist feminists have challenged empiricist conceptions of reading as a process of decoding. However, the increasing appeal of postmodern neo-formalist hermeneutics that emphasize the textuality of culture and the residual empiricism within new historicist versions of cultural studies have made it quite clear that a feminist standpoint aimed at radical social transformation needs a more developed (materialist) explanation of the relationship between reading in this sense and feminism as a critical practice.

Materialist feminism's oppositional practice is critique. As feminist practice, critique has historical affinities with consciousness-raising. However, unlike the empiricist notion of the subject as experiencing self that served as the frame of intelligibility for much feminist consciousness- raising, critique understands consciousness as ideologically produced subjectivity. This framework breaks out of the empiricist dilemma of the self's mediated relationship to the world by opening consciousness up to discourse and history. Derived from a marxian theory of ideology, critique is bound to crisis and to ideology in a definitive way. In that the dominant ideology continually works to seal over the cracks in the social imaginary generated by the contradictions of patriarchal and capitalist social arrangements, it is continually engaged in crisis management. As an ideological practice, critique issues from these cracks, historicizes them, and claims them as the basis for an alternative narrative. Together the operations of critique "work on" the subject-form of discourse by continually historicizing the contradictions in which it is inscribed. <12>

Once ideology is understood as always an uneven and contested ensemble of discourses, the space from which critique issues need not be outside ideology--in science or in a discourse without a subject, as Althusser and Pecheux would have it. Instead, the alternative narrative of critique can be thought of as a counterhegemonic discourse, the enabling conditions for which are the contradictions produced by exploitative and oppressive social relations of patriarchal capitalism. These contradictions comprise the very fabric of many women's lived reality and are embedded in the various and contesting ways of making sense available to them in any historical moment. They leave their mark in the form of textual incoherences in the narratives that form the dominant culture. <13> Textual crises--gaps, contradictions, aporias--indicate the failure of the hegemonic discourse to seal over or manage successfully the contradictions displaced in the texts of culture. But they also serve as the inaugural space for critique. Feminism's history as a critique of patriarchy can be understood in these terms, as addressing gaps in the dominant culture's ways of making sense of women's lives, gaps arising out of the contradiction between the democratic promises of equality and justice in modern societies and women's subordination in all arenas of social life.

One of the distinguishing features of critique is that it not only arises out of crisis, but also causes crises in the narrativity of ideology by pointing to the self-contradictory moments in a culture's ways of making sense. However, these aporias are exposed not through appeal to an "objective" logic or to the logic of signification, but to the historical contradictions they reveal. In other words, critique defetishizes textual contradictions by reading them as ideological displacements of contradictory historical forces. Critique aims not to heal over or resolve cultural crisis, but to demonstrate that internal contradictions in a cultural text are the product of crises in the larger social formation, contradictions that cannot be satisfied by the system as it is at present. As Seyla Benhabib has argued, critique is "crisis diagnosis" that enables future social change (Benhabib 1986, 109). In this sense, it foments and makes use of ideological crisis for social transformation.

IV. As a strategy for intervention in prevailing knowledges, ideology critique offers a way to rethink the feminist standpoint as a critical practice. From the outset, however, this project must confront the incompatibility between postmodern feminist theories of a discursively constructed subject and the group identity that has long served as the basis for feminist practice (Butler 1990a; Ebert 1991; Fuss 1989). Once subjectivity is theorized as an ensemble of discursive positions, no monolithic identity can serve as the subject of representation or liberation. But in acknowledging this it is important to remember that the pressures postmodernism has brought to bear on identity politics are the product of ideological interventions from a range of counterhegemonic sites within the liberal tradition. <14> Postmodern critiques of identity resonate within feminism in part for this reason--because the ideology of representation in which the subject of feminism has itself historically circulated has generated refusals that suggest the limits of identity politics (Butler 1990a). <15>

Taking her cue from Foucault, Judith Butler has argued that the notion of group identity as the subject of a political movement ("women," for example, as the subject of feminism) is itself the effect of a historically specific juridical version of representational politics (Butler 1990a, 2). Because juridical power inevitably produces what it aims to represent, the subject never truly "stands before the law," that is, before its representation in the law or in discourse. Confronting the implications of this insight means that feminists will continually have to monitor hegemonic articulations of "woman"/"women" as the subject of feminism even as we use this group identity strategically. This monitoring requires making visible the material connections between lives and knowledges in a new world order in which information, texts, and "plurivocal discourses" are valued commodities. But it also dictates critical attention to formulations of feminist standpoint theory, like those of Donna Haraway or Fredric Jameson, that equate "standpoint" with the experience of (various) groups (Jameson 1988, 665). Positing the "phenomenologically specific way" a group sees and knows as the basis for its standpoint, as Jameson does, begs the larger question of what constitutes both a "group" and its "knowing" and in so doing reinscribes the feminist standpoint back into an empiricist notion of identity not very different from the liberal juridical one.

If it is acknowledged that the mechanisms of political and social identity are ideological and that it is an overdetermined discursive formation that sets the terms by which subjects are formed, feminists can claim that the grounds for their authority lie in the aims of their counterhegemonic theory. Put differently, from the vantage point of ideology, women's lives are never outside the ideological perspectives or historically available ways of making sense and their accompanying structures of value and belief that circulate in any culture. Women's lives are articulated in a culture's social imaginary and contested in its various counterhegemonic truth claims. One of these counter-hegemonic discourses constitutes the feminist standpoint.

Pecheux's concept of "dis-identification" is a useful way to relocate the feminist standpoint from the group identity of a juridical representational politics to the collective subject of ideology critique. "Dis-identification" constitutes a relation to the hegemonic ideology that is distinct from both identification and counteridentification. The former defines the discourse of the good subject who "freely" consents to the hegemonic interdiscourse. The latter characterizes the position of the "bad subject" who rebels against or counteridentifies with the discursive formation imposed on her by the interdiscourse. However, because the bad subject is a symmetrical inversion of the good, she keeps in place through negation the framework of the hegemonic ideology inscribed in the interdiscourse. (The woman- centered discourses of feminism that merely reverse patriarchy's gender hierarchy, for example, produce a counter-identified subject.) The third positionality, that of dis-identification, consists of working on the subject-form (Pecheux 1975, 158). The authority for a dis-identified position need not be science, as Pecheux argues, but rather a critical discourse that is distinguished by its intervention in the preconstructed categories on which the interdiscourse depends. A way of making sense that dis-identifies with the interdiscourse does so by virtue of the systemic reach of its critique. This "position" is not limited to a reversal of the preconstructed hierarchies on which the interdiscourse is based (the categories male-female, black-white, same-other) but calls into question and then historicizes the historical system of differential relations across which subjectivities are constructed. The dis-identifying subject of critique does not claim any one group identity as its ground but instead "speaks from" the position of a counter-hegemonic collective subject that its theoretical framework and its telos produces. The "place" for the standpoint of critique, then, is not experience as we are used to thinking of it but "an articulated system of positions" in the historical process and the subject produced out of that system (Althusser 1976, 184). The collective subject of the feminist standpoint is the product of a critical discourse or analytic. It is an analytic that supersedes the individual or group identities of juridical representation by exposing the historicity of the preconstructed system of differences on which they depend. In rewriting political identity, this standpoint aims not to eliminate differences but rather, as Cornel West has argued, "to ensure that such differences are not employed as grounds for buttressing hierarchical social relations and symbolic orders" (West 1988, 26). Unlike the subject of a group identity who strives for the reformation of one axis of the symbolic order, the collective subject of a counterhegemonic ideology critique emerges from a discourse that calls for a sweeping rearrangement of the social imaginary and the political and economic structures it supports. Once the feminist standpoint is formulated as this sort of dis-identifying collective subject of critique, the emphasis in its claims for authority can shift from concern over the grounds for knowledges--women's lives or experience--to consideration of the effects of knowledges as always invested ways of making sense of the world. But if feminism embraces this sort of collective standpoint, what constitutes its specificity? What distinguishes feminism from any other radical political agenda? The answer to both questions can be posed from the alternative notion of the subject I have outlined above. This alternative, however, requires a willingness to forfeit the sense of identity that a politics lodged in groups tends to guarantee. If it is understood that feminist knowledge is not prior to but rather produced through theoretical inquiry, feminism's specificity can be claimed as a feature of the systemic analytic that constitutes its mode of inquiry. This analytic reaches from the most local and historically specific to the most abstract level of analysis. And it is this reach that makes it possible to conceptualize alterity at various levels of theoretical abstraction and across multiple modalities of difference. If the object of feminist inquiry is defined as the complex ensemble of social relations in which the feminine subject is reproduced, then, likewise, the collective subject of feminist critique can maintain some specificity--as the subject of a perspective that begins with inquiry into and opposition to the devaluation of "woman" under patriarchy in all of the relations of production it spans. At the same time the feminist standpoint maintains the specificity of its starting point and special interest, it can also align with the subjects of other political discourses that use a systemic analysis of the social production of difference. The specificity of feminist critique, in other words, lies in its particular entry into and articulation of these various levels of analysis. <16> In delineating these explanatory frameworks and mapping out what it means to be a woman in the integrated circuits of late capitalism, the work of feminists like Gayatri Spivak, Donna Haraway, Dorothy Smith, and others displays its dis-identifying strength. Biddy Martin and Chandra Mohanty's (1986) reading of Minnie Bruce Pratt's essay "Skin, Blood, Heart" suggests that Pratt's narrative offers another re-writing of the feminist standpoint. In Pratt's rendering, they argue, identity and community are not the product of essential connections, neither are they the offspring of political urgency or necessity, but the effects of "a constant re-contextualization of the relationship between personal and group history and political priorities" (Martin and Mohanty 1986, 210). It is precisely in offering a framework for thinking this "re-contextualization" that a theory of ideology contributes to feminist practice. In situating the historical construction of the feminine subject in a systemic analysis, it offers feminists one way to explain more fully feminism's own mediated and uneven history. In so doing, feminism's subject is transformed from an empirical group, "women," to the collective subject of a critique that pushes on the boundaries of Western individualism. That the force of this critique is fed by "other" counterhegemonic discourses indicates both the historicity and the ideological limits of a feminist praxis always in the process of re-articulation.


  • 1. This essay is a condensed and revised version of chapter 3 of my book Materialist Feminism and the Politics of Discourse (New York: Routledge, 1992). I want to thank to Linda Lopez McAlister and the anonymous readers at Hypatia for their helpful editorial comments.
  • 2. As a critique of the empiricist subject, feminist standpoint theory shares its historical importance with other feminist epistemologies--cultural, empiricist, and postmodern. In various ways, all of these feminisms have called into question claims to truth in the discourses of modernity. However, while cultural and empiricist feminists tend to offer a description of reality as it transparently appears to women, feminist standpoint theorists typically present a systematic explanation of reality as socially constructed and emphasize the function of women's position in its reproduction (Jaggar 1983, 381).
  • 3. Joan Scott implicitly underscores my contention in her argument that the fetishization of skin in Haraway's "women of color" metaphor has the ring of romantic attributions by white feminists to minority women of the authentic oppositional politics (Scott 1989, 217).
  • 4. Although Smith does not fully elaborate how ideological practices are related to other social practices, she does posit a social analytic that supersedes the marxist base-superstructure model. In discussing the discourse of femininity, she envisions the relationship between discourse and other productive relations as a "a web or cats-cradle of texts, stringing together and co-ordinating the multiple local and particular sites of the everyday worlds of women and men with the market processes of the fashion, cosmetic, garment and publishing industries" (Smith 1990, 167). She does not, however, move beyond analysis at the level of social formation to situate the discourses of femininity in the West within the larger sphere of productive relations that comprise multinational capitalism.
  • 5. I find a similar shifting back and forth in Patricia Hill Collins's (1991) formulation of feminist standpoint. Collins's work is noteworthy because her theory of Black feminist thought addresses the ways in which the lives of Black women oppressed by racism and sexism are rearticulated by Black women intellectuals. While at times Collins attends to the complex relationship between the specialized knowledge of Black feminist thought and Black women as a group (ibid., 30-31), at other times she appeals quite directly to Black women's "concrete experience" (ibid., 208) or uniquely female ways of knowing (ibid., 214) as the basis for feminist standpoint.
  • 6. Neil Lazarus's recent essay (1991) offers an extended critique of these interests--the ways many current conceptualizations of postmodernity mystify the "sustained globality of capitalism."
  • 7. See Lenin and Philosophy and Reading Capital for the fullest developments of Althusser's theory of ideology.
  • 8. For analysis of Gramsci's contribution to neo- marxist epistemology, see Mouffe (1979) and Wolff (1989). For an elaboration of the uses of this epistemology for an emancipatory politics, see West (1988).
  • 9. For further theoretical development of this point, see Hall (1986, 1988), Pecheux (1983), and Williams (1979).
  • 10. This phrase is taken from Judith Butler's very suggestive critique of heterosexual coherence in Gender Trouble (Butler 1990a).
  • 11. Michelle Barrett's definition of ideology as "a generic term for the processes by which meaning is produced, challenged, reproduced, transformed" (Barrett 1980, 97) is one example of what I mean by "reading" here.
  • 12. For overviews of marxian critique, see Benhabib (1986), Stillman (1983), and Thompson (1984).
  • 13. A theory of the discursive construction of the subject supersedes the contradiction Seyla Benhabib (1986) points to in Marx between systemic analysis and the perspective of lived experience. While Benhabib suggests that Habermas's theory of communicative interaction offers the best way to theorize the mediation between these two perspectives, the theory of the subject on which Habermas's notion of intersubjectivity is premised retains problematic empiricist assumptions in its understanding of the relationship between representation and subjectivity.
  • 14. For some theorists, these challenges to the integrity of the liberal subject are inherent in the condition of modernity, an argument that posits postmodernity as the fulfillment or continuation of contradictions within the Enlightenment rather than a break from it. For debates on this issue, see Foucault (1984), Habermas (1987), Lyotard (1984), and Mouffe (1979).
  • 15. Similar pressures from within marxism have made clear the inadequacy of its monolithic subject. For a critique of the contradictions in Marx's theory of the collective singular subject, see Benhabib (1986).
  • 16. Cornel West's (1988) analysis of African- American oppression is a useful model of how to theorize the specificity of a political and ideological standpoint within a systemic analytic. In suggesting that the specificity of African-American oppression is inextricably linked both to a particular problematic and to the systemic reach of capitalist arrangements, his analysis implies ways to consider how various critical perspectives might intersect.


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