Alcoff, Linda. "Cultural Feminism versus Poststructuralism: The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory." Signs 13.3 (1988): 405-36.
Concept of woman is problematic because it invokes the limit, contrasting Other, or mediated self-reflection of patriarchal culture. Woman is overdetermined, always an Object to be defined by men who are underdetermined, supposedly free to define themselves.
Cultural feminists respond to this by redefining women according to their present activities and attributes, construing passivity as peacefulness etc (407) but not challenging the defining of women per se.
Poststructuralist (French) feminists reject the possibility of defining women at all, arguing that the politics of gender or sexual difference must be replaced with a plurality of difference where gender loses its position of significance (407).
Alcoff feels both positions are inadequate.
Cultural feminism is the ideology of a female nature or female essence reappropriated by feminists themselves in an effort to revalidate undervalued female attributes. Mary Daly, for example, finds sexual difference essential to explaining how men's fear of and desire to dominate female creative energy. Adrienne Rich also links female consciousness to the female body and identifies patriarchy as the subjugation of female creativity (409-10).
Alice Echols coined the term cultural feminism to describe its essentializing tendencies and promotion of a female counterculture (411). If gender differences are innate, then the cultural feminists focus on an alternative feminist culure is politically correct. Alcoff feels feminists of oppressed nationalities or races (e.g., Cherrie Moraga, Audre Lorde) tend not to essentialize women or position maleness wholly as Other, seeing both as very problematic (412).
One must acknowledge that the innateness of gender differences in personality and character is at this point factually and philosophically indefensible (413). Though we can applaud feminist peace activists, they may be reproducing dominant cultural assumptions about female maternal love and nurturing powers, promoting unrealistic expectations that many women cannot satisfy (413). This does not mean the political effects of cultural feminism have been all negative. But while promoting positive attributes we should not promote the restrictive conditions that gave rise to those attributes (414). Cultural feminists fail to criticize the construction of the subject by a discourse that weaves knowledge and power into a coercive structure that constrains individuals to certain idenitities. Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault argue that the humanist subject believed to be discoverable beneath ideology is in reality a construct of that very humanist discourse (415). No repression of some essential identity in the humanist sense. But there is a neodeterminism in arguing that we are overdetermined or constructed by social discourse and cultural practice (415-16). Such macro forces are unpredictable; individual autonomy and intentionality is nonexistent.
Alcoff disagrees with this erasure of any room for the individual to maneuver within social discourse or to reflect effectively on such discourse or to challenge its determinations (417). Applied to woman the post-structuralist's view is nominalistic, designating woman as a fiction that must be dismantled. Via Derrida, woman is a rupture in logocentrism who must avoid demarcation in order to hope to defeat logocentrism and its oppressive power by asserting total difference (417).
Foucault also rejects all constructions of oppositional subjects as mirror images that recreate the discourse of power. But Alcoff believes such deconstruction leaves room only for a negative feminism that refuses to construct anything (e.g., Kristeva). Post-structuralism, however, is attractive because it promises the freeplay of a plurality of differences unhampered by predetermined gender identity and it is able to analyze how the subject is constructed through social discourse. But how can one mobilize people without a positive alternative and should feminism adopt an approach that threatens to deconstruct the female subject and feminism itself?(419) Is undecidability of identity a model from which feminists should learn?
Alcoff thinks not. Feminists need to have misogny validated rather than rendered undecidable (e.g., Derrida's reading of Nietzsche). A nominalist position on subjectivity de-genders analysis, making a feminist politics problematic. Post-structuralism thus undercuts ability to oppose the mainstream insistence on universalizable, apolitical methodology that ignores particularities, levelling individuals on either basis of social constructionism or classical liberalism (420). Justice and truth go out the window because race, class, and gender are constructs and therefore incapable of validating such conceptions (420-21). [Alcoff seems slippery here in saying that such positions posit that underneath we are all the same).
Might we not alternatively explore woman's experience of subjectivity without such reductions or dilemmas?
Teresa de Lauretis tackles the problem of how to position oneself outside an oppressive discourse by displacing oneself deviously within it, the problem of feminist discourse that seems both excluded from discourse and imprisoned within it. Not a problem of making the invisible visible, as if the essence of gender were out there waiting to be recognized by the dominant discourse (423). [Similar to making the silent speak?] De Lauretis summarizes the problem: de-gendering the subject commits us to a generic subject that undercuts feminism; gendering the subject articulates female subjectivity in a space distinct from male subjectivity catching us up in an oppositional dichotomy controlled by a misogynist discourse. A gender-bound subjectivity leads to essentializing the male/female opposition as universal and ahistorical (424).
In Alice Doesn't Lauretis argues that subjectivity is defined by experience, the complex of habits resulting from the engagement of a self in social reality. Lauretis sees a way out through political, theoretical, self-analyzing practice (424-25, [hazy assertion]). Lauretis later argues that consciousness is never fixed because discursive boundaries change with historical conditions. What emerges is multiple and shifting but Lauretis gives agency to the individual while placing her within particular discursive formations.
Denise Riley also argues against biological and cultural determinism in War in the Nursery: Theories of the Child and Mother, in which she notes the need for avoiding denying sexual difference (nominalism) and essentializing it. Alcoff likes the way Riley problematizes her key concepts throughout her study. Riley and Alcoff also note difficulty of defining individual needs either by the individual or by external agents. Yet needs exist and responding to them shouldn't commit one to essentialism (e.g. child care example), though this is a risk (427). Political action shouldn't be avoided because women's needs are problematic or perceived as non-universal.
Alcoff does not reject metaphysics, arguing that it is an attempt to reason through ontological issues that cannot be decided empirically (429). Alcoff rejects psychoanalytic approaches very cursorily (430). Lauretis argues that language is not the sole locus/source of meaning, that habits and practices are crucial in the construction of meaning and of gender in history. Somehow habits are both concrete and fluid (431). Fluid because historical, subject to change--thus our conclusions are contingent and revisable (431).
Alcoff also supports an identity politics, wherein one's identity is taken as a political point of departure, a motivation for action. One's identity is always a construction yet also a necessary point of departure (432). One chooses an identity as a political point of departure. Identity politics rejects disinterested rationality, siding with Marxist class analysis in its emphasis on materialism--one must acknowledge a fleshy, material identity to make political claims. Gender is now seen as a position from which to act politically (433).
Woman defined as a particular position with emphasis on the external context in which the person is situated. This position is relative to its shifting context or network of relations yet not undecidable (433-34).