You can't judge a book by its cover

Tuesday, November 14, 1995

Transitions: New Australian Feminisms
Edited by Barbara Caine and Rosemary Pringle
Allen & Unwin, 1995. 237 pp., $24.95 (pb)
Reviewed by Carla Gorton
Women's studies texts are no longer dowdy looking books your eyes skim over on the library or bookshop shelf. Feminist writers today are, it seems, concerned more than theoretically with the politics of representation. Charmaine Brown has designed a striking cover for Transitions, but what lies inside? The essays in this book are based on papers presented at an Australian National University Humanities Research Centre Summer School in February 1994. The collection, which claims to be an exploration of new directions in feminist scholarship, reflects the current academic preoccupation with postmodernism. Essay topics span areas such as research methodology, feminist psychology, application of feminist scholarship to music, prostitution, art and representation, popular culture and the "grand narratives" of patriarchy and capitalism. The editors claim that the new Australian feminism is becoming internationally recognised as a combination of psychoanalytic theory (based on the ideas of Lacan) and a theory of social signification (read the work of Bathes). The editors and some contributors to this book do, nevertheless, raise some concerns about the overwhelming post-structuralist and postmodernist framework of feminism today. Is feminist theory, they ask, while complaining about a hierarchy of the disciplines, itself in danger of setting up hierarchies with philosophy as the gatekeeper for what is important? One of the main arguments for the adoption of postmodernist theory is that it enables feminism to address diversity and difference. Yet the new theories of difference often give us a new and different rigidity instead. In analysing two different "readings" of Madonna as pop icon, for example, Ien Ang claims that there is a "fundamental incommensurability between two competing feminist knowledges, dramatically exposing an irreparable chasm between a white and a black feminist truth. No harmonious compromise or negotiated consensus is possible here." Ien Ang thereby writes off the possibility (and historical practice) of unity between black and white feminists on a whole range of issues. Much of the work in this book is intellectually challenging, but many of the arguments presented, particularly how current social relations are characterised, reflect a lazy approach to analysis. For example, Gibson-Graham argues that we should ditch Marxist analysis on the basis that this "model" can lead to political disappointment and exhaustion. Yet many feminists who have called for fundamental change to this society which is based on women's oppression have not shied away from the task of struggling for such change because it was a bit difficult. Instead, these feminists explored both theory and practice in a women's liberation movement which contains a rich history (of both successes and mistakes) for us to draw upon, learn from and build on today. As has become common with the application of postmodernism, categories upon which even this collection of essays rest, such as "women", "feminism" and "women's studies", are under question. For some, women's studies itself has outlived its usefulness. Pringle, in her contribution "Destabilising patriarchy", states, "The search for overarching 'systems' or 'logics' of oppression is misplaced. Gibson-Graham (1993) has observed that 'capitalism' is still treated respectfully as a noun: global, monopoly, post-industrial or late capitalism. This reinforces the feeling that we can never change it significantly or get outside it." But real life is not as easy as simply declaring that social systems don't exist rather than face the challenge of trying to change them. Pringle claims, for example, that the "family" no longer serves any purpose in regard to understanding women's oppression. Yet capitalist restructuring (austerity budgets, privatisation, etc) around the world is pushing the responsibility for health care, child-care, aged care and many other social services back onto individual families, and therefore women's unpaid labour. Reading this book, it is hard to ignore the nagging feeling that, while some feminist academics are busy deconstructing the very basis for the existence of their discipline, the "powers that be" are happily continuing to exploit and oppress us along class and gender lines. If this is so, what does it mean for the struggles still to be waged by women against sexual violence, poverty, job discrimination, lack of child-care and other social services provision? In fact the editors of this text raise a similar point when they explain that some writers are questioning whether "postculturalism" marks a retreat, or even a denial of the "structures" which still oppress women. Unfortunately, none of the essays in Transitions seriously explore whether this it the case.