Refusing to play the postmodern game


Ludic Feminism and After: Postmodernism, Desire, and Labor in Late Capitalism
By Teresa Ebert
University of Michigan Press, 1996. 338 pp., $25.95

Review by Greg Ogle

For those, like me, who had to consult a dictionary to find out what ludic means, the title refers to "playful" feminism. However, the blurb says:

"Teresa Ebert is not playing around. 'Ludic Feminism' knocks the philosophical stuffing out of most of the feminisms and versions of postmodernism ... Ebert's is a vigorous materialistic voice crying the name of Karl Marx in the academic wilderness at the low point of his reputation and the credibility of the left ... For her, labour and desire are not discourses and women's oppression is a set of political realities to be struggled against. Good girl feminists go home. Everybody else, take notes."

What an introduction! I got the notepad ready and ploughed in. The back cover was always going to be hard to live up to, and Ebert did not help her cause by what I thought was a very difficult structure and style. It was not clear that there was a development of argument throughout the book or what separated the content of each chapter.

As in many academic works, the argument often consisted of endless references to other authors, but in this case Ebert often did not explain fully enough the theorists she was criticising. Unless you were very familiar with Judith Butler, Donna Haraway and other postmodern feminist gurus, the argument was difficult to follow. Perhaps I missed the nuances, but I found much of the material repetitive and the book overlong.

However, the real question is whether her critique really does "knock the stuffing out" of ludic theories. By "playful" feminism, Ebert means feminism (and other theory) divorced from materialism. It is this severing of discourse from its material base which is central to Ebert's analysis.

Ebert defines her own stance as resistance postmodernism, which, like much postmodern writing, is concerned with the intellectual construction/representation of reality. However, Ebert's analysis comes out of Marxist theories of ideology rather than the postmodern notion of text and discourse. The difference is crucial.

Ideology in the Marxist understanding is related to a specific historical material base. Consciousness, according to Marx, is derived from experience and social relations. Ideology is related systemically (though not simply) to the material base of society. It is a superstructure built upon a particular economic base (e.g. capitalism).

Ideology is the production/construction of knowledge (thought and practice) which hides and protects the reality of the economic system (the ruling ideology). The struggle for change is then in part to overcome the ruling ideology and expose the real relations of exploitation upon which the system is based.

By contrast, the postmodern analysis of discourse suggests that the production of knowledge is autonomous from the material base of society. The signs which represent reality (i.e. the words/practices) are constructed in language and are therefore related not to the material reality but to discourse. The logic of this knowledge production is internal to the discourse, and there is no underlying systemic logic.

Thus, society becomes a multiplicity of competing discourses rather than a reality structured by systems of material exploitation. The social then is defined by the "play" of competing theories in any given instance.

For instance, my social world would be defined by the particular intersections of discourses of urbanity, nationality, whiteness, middle-classness, maleness, (ex)-Catholicism, communism, liberalism and so on. The intersection of such discourses would always be fluid and liable to be destabilised.

This destabilisation is the key to the ludic political strategy. If there is no material base to a system of oppression, then what is oppressive are the social limitations which are constructed by the representations of particular people (women, gay/lesbian, black) in the dominant discourses.

The liberation struggle then is to allow the signs for women, blacks etc to "play freely" rather than be bound to false notions of what it means to be woman, black, working class etc. Freeing the representations of what it means to be "other", to oppose the totalising vision and celebrate difference, to destabilise the stereotypical understanding of these categories is to open new possibilities to free women, blacks etc.

The best part of Ebert's critique of this ludic theory is the recognition that this postmodern knowledge is itself situated in a particular material reality: the academy. Ebert argues that there is a material reality of oppression and that only those whose basic needs are being fulfilled (e.g. academics) can afford the luxury of forgetting this reality.

In contrast to the ludic concern about representation, she quotes Angela Davis: "The most fundamental prerequisite for empowerment is the ability to earn an adequate living".

While this is a recurring theme, unfortunately Ebert does not make it into sustained argument. Perhaps because it is obvious — but the very fact that it is not obvious in the feminism she criticises suggests that the point needs to be made much more strongly.

The other strength of Ebert's critique is that she takes seriously rather than simply dismisses ludic theory's claim to be politically progressive. The way we construct reality is important, and the concern with how women, blacks, workers etc are represented is not a waste of time.

But to focus on this apart from the material reality is essentially reformism. Deconstructing dominant discourses may free those with the resources to pursue opportunity within the system, but it leaves untouched the system of exploitation which underlies these representations.

By contrast, understanding meaning as ideology, as a construction of a pervasive social system, enables that system to be confronted. For Ebert, the goal of theory is social transformation.

This requires not ludic theory's freedom or subversion of discourse but a historical materialism. Good stuff — although her reference to "patriarchal capitalism" suggests what I think is a very narrow view of material reality.

However, again Ebert's argument needs to be made in a much more sustained fashion. In the context of a postmodern academy which denies the very existence of a social system, the criticism of ludic theory because it can not bring about systemic change does not make sense. If, as the book's publicity suggests, Marxism's credibility is at a low point, then it is not much of a criticism to simply assert that ludic theory is not Marxist.

What is required is a sustained argument explaining why the historical materialist approach is better theory, why its understanding of society is politically more useful and liberating. These arguments appear in patches in this book, and it is encouraging that Ebert's book is just one part of a growing literature which is taking up this challenge. Ultimately though, I do not think that Ebert's book lives up to its publicity.

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