Why might feminism and poststructuralism be described as an uneasy alliance?
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Why might feminism and poststructuralism be described as an uneasy alliance? This essay will look at what feminism is and then what poststructuralism is. Then I shall look at the links between the two areas. Feminism can be traced back to the early 19th century. It contains several different theoretical perspectives that are quite often contradictory to each other and can also be looked at in three main ways-empirically, theoretically and politically. Feminism originated from the works of Hegel, Marx and liberal political theory and each of these created a different strand of feminist thought. The path of feminism started in two separate strands. One started with Hegel the German philosopher and the other with liberal political theory. Hegel's strand produced Existentialist feminism and Marxist feminism. Existentialist feminism is mainly associated with the work of Simone de Beauvoir; this work then went on to influence psychoanalytical feminism that is associated with Freud and more recently Lancan. Existentialism also produced a strand that is known as New French feminism. New French feminism is associated with Irigaray, Cixous and Kristeva. This in turned created then area of feminism that this essay is concerned with- poststructuralism; this is associated with the work of Foucault, Derrida and Judith Butler. Poststructuralist Feminism has spawned post-feminism and black/colonial feminism. Existentialist feminism also produced Marxist feminism that is linked to Feminist critical theory, which is associated with Benhabib and is also linked to black post/colonial feminism.
Nietzsche was the one who first focused and philosophised on power. And he did have a great influence on Foucault. It was however Foucault that looked at the relations between power and knowledge. Power had previously been looked at as a negative thing (to have power is to say no) but Foucalut disagreed with that view. Power now operates through new modes of activity rather than through the limitations of existing ones. Power cannot be owned and does not come from the state and individuals do not own power. Instead, Foucault proposes that power is not a commodity but a network with threads extending everywhere. To study power you need to look at point of application of power rather than intention. (Sarup, 1988) "He wants us to shift our attentions from questions such as 'Who has power?' or 'What intentions or aims do power holders have? To the process by which subjects are constituted as effects of power" (Sarup, 1988) He believes that power produces reality and that we cannot exercise power without knowledge so they are linked. Other poststructuralists such as Derrida developed a concept called deconstruction. It is a way of theorising the world in order to make us see that what we believe as essential is actually socially constructed. He was also influenced by the work of de Saussure's codes and saw them as an endless play of difference.
Lacan talks about how the 'self' may be understood through linguistic terms and semiotics. He argues that the individual only comes into being through the acquisition of language, where the individual can be differentiated from an other. Kristeva developed Lacan's theory by saying that the 'self' only comes into being when we are separated from our mother and locate ourselves under the 'rule of the father' (patriarchy or as she called it phallocracy). Kirsteva argues that women need to place themselves in the part of society that challenges the existing symbolic order. Feminist poststructuralism is divided into two main strands one that is associated with Foucault and the other which is associated with Derrida and Lacan. Feminism and poststructuralism are 'an uneasy alliance' especially when it comes to the work of Foucault. His idea that subjectivity is a product of discourse is not liked by feminists as it denies women the ability to argue against patriarchy. It denies this because Foucauldian theory says that everything is true if you hold knowledge. For example if you believe patriarchy to be a good thing this is true and if you believe it to be a bad thing this is also true because we are all constructed by separate discourses. Feminists who don't agree with poststructuralism criticise it because it can lead to pluralism, relativism and individualist politics. There are many problems between poststructuralism and feminism but they complement each other and many feminists such as Irigaray Butler use it to help theorise feminism.
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