Comments on “The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism” by Craig Owens
In this 1983 essay, Owens displays an admirable grasp of postmodernism and feminism and their confluence in the visual arts. He combines the most advanced theories and theorizings of the time – Fredric Jameson, French “post-structuralists” and French feminists, Freud and Lacan – with meticulous readings of concrete visual arts by feminist and female American artists. He has demonstrated how American feminist and female visual artists have partaken of the radical import of postmodernism in their art to subvert masculinism or patriarchy in representation and the visual arts in general.
(1) While Owens in this essay favors both postmodernism and feminism, I think that he favors postmodernism at the expense of feminism. He makes it appear that the male theorist-gatekeepers of postmodernism – at the time, at least – would not want feminists or feminism to enter the scene. He criticizes these theorist-gatekeepers, and we can understand him, since he views postmodernism as a positive site of radicality.
He however leaves aside the problematic relation feminism has with postmodernism. He quotes Paul Ricouer to establish the cultural feel of postmodernism: “All meaning and goal having disappeared, it becomes possible to wander through civilizations as if through vestiges and ruins…” As many feminists have pointed out, this tourist-position often invoked by theorists of postmodernism is in reality occupied by males – well-to-do Western white males, in particular, and not by most females in the US or elsewhere. It is not only postmodernism (as a theoretical field) that has left aside women. More importantly, postmodernity (as a socio-economic-cultural reality) has itself marginalized women – in real everyday terms, and not primarily in the field of visual arts.
(2) Which brings me to my second point about Owens’s essay. While I share his solidarity with the desire of feminist visual artists to render masculinism or patriarchy problematic, I think that his standard of radicality is the thought of the French theorists – post-structuralists, feminists – that he invokes in this essay. While I agree that masculinism and patriarchy in representation in general and the visual arts in particular should be questioned and subverted, I feel that doing this without really connecting with real women – I mean the majority of women in the country and the world, with real exploitations, oppressions, struggles, hopes and dreams – is not as politically radical as Owens’s tone may suggest. I think that feminist art should really connect with its constituents – women – so that it can really bring forth real change in the real world. Feminist art should know the particular level of political consciousness of women and start to work from there. Without a knowledge of the concrete situations of women – their issues and political consciousness – and their aspirations, postmodern feminist art will only cater to an elite group of artists and critics, who will debate endlessly on how best to subvert the signifier, representation, etcetera. This idea, I got from Jameson – whom Owens criticizes in this essay. Is it really politically good to subvert representation when you are trying to depict wife-beating?
(3) Terry Eagleton, whose name does not appear in Owens’s essay, has said that postmodernism is a child of a political failure – of the Left, of course, which includes feminism. If you can’t attack and destroy masculinism or patriarchy in the real world, you can always subvert them in the visual arts. According to him, postmodernism became a substitute for real political struggles. Many feminist critics view the 80s as a decade of the reign of conservatism – “a decade of greed” is how writer Barbara Ehrenreich describes it. I think that Owens’s essay is a symptom of the general mood of that decade, which is a different decade from the radical 60s. While I do salute the feminist or women artists whose works he discusses – Laurie Anderson, Mary Kelly, Martha Rosler – I think that their “subversion” is too academic to be appreciated by the vast majority of women in the country. Without that appreciation, I think, feminism marginalizes itself as only one among the many discourses available to an elite coterie of artists and critics. I think that feminism should break out of that pigeonhole and reach out to wider audiences of women, to become relevant to their lives.
(4) Some theorists have also described postmodernism as “the cultural logic,” not only of “late capitalism,” but of American global hegemony. We are speaking here not of the America of the vibrant feminist movement of the 60s, but of the America of the late 70s and the 80s – Jameson dates the start of postmodernism to 1972 – when progressive movements, including feminism, were as a whole on the retreat. I think that Owens’s essay is a symptom of that retreat. I have doubts as to whether the postmodern-feminist visual arts that he champions in this essay will be politically relevant under the present circumstances in the country.
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