Judith Newton. Feminist Studies. Volume 16, Issue 3. Fall 1990.
“New Historicism” is generally identified with a set of “postmodern” assumptions and historicizing practices that informs several kinds of criticism and, indeed, several disciplinary fields. Among the positions attributed to New Historicism, for example, is the assumption that the “real” is apprehended only in “language” and that language, for the most part, refers to systems of meaning rather than merely words. New Historicism is also associated with the assumption that languages or systems of meaning are constructed, historically specific, and political and that they are expressed not only in words but also in social institutions and practices. It is identified with the related assumption that human beings are immersed in symbolic systems through which they are identified and in which they apprehend the world; or, more precisely, it is identified with the assumption that human beings are immersed in multiple sublanguages or discourses that operate as parts of symbolic systems as a whole. Written texts, according to the same set of assumptions, are immersed in discourse too. They may respond to the “real” but they have a “worklike” function, heavily conditioned by the various sublanguages by which they are informed. Written texts, therefore, are assumed to construct the “real” to which they also respond. They are a part of “history,” and a central project of New Historicism is to read them in relation to some construction of “experience” or the material world.
From the perspective of these assumptions and practices, of course, much feminist work, especially materialist feminist work, might be called a form of New Historicism, too. Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, the “postmodern” assumptions and historicizing practices currently associated with New Historicism, although they have been attributed to male (if not masculinist) literary practices and philosophies, were partially generated by the epistemological breaks of the women’s movement and by the development of feminist theory and scholarship in the 1970s. The way in which these assumptions and practices get articulated, however, differs in feminist and nonfeminist work and is tied to the politics, the needs, and desires of the practitioners. It is to some of those differences that I wish to address myself in this paper.
What I wish to focus on, for the most part, is the relation between some characteristic tendencies in materialist-feminist literary criticism, in what might be called feminist New Historicism, and some tendencies that characterize the New Historicism most deeply influenced by a certain literary critical reading of Michel Foucault. I wish to focus on this relationship in particular, because Foucauldian New Historicism is the most fashionable form of New Historicism, the most likely to become if not the latest orthodoxy then at least the hottest commodity around, and because it stands to influence all our thinking and our work. But I wish to focus on this relationship as well because Foucauldian New Historicism represents certain tendencies in Foucault and in appropriations of Foucault that cross disciplinary lines. The relation of these tendencies to feminism is at once subtle and troubling.
The relation between feminist and Foucauldian New Historicism involves links with Marxist criticism as well. Among the many meanings of the word “historicism,” indeed, are some which may be reconciled with assumptions that inform all three. Historicism, for example, is sometimes associated with the position that all ideas and beliefs are historically situated or relevant to the age and that an adequate understanding of the nature of anything and an assessment of its value are to be gained by considering it in terms of the place it occupied and the role it played within a process of historical development. 10 If one takes this emphasis, however, upon the historically situated nature of all thinking, to be one core assumption of the historicisms which my title names, it might seem clear that Foucauldian New Historicism, like most current versions of Marxist and feminist criticism as well, has moved some distance from that older historicism—scientific Marxist theory and literary critical practice. For in contrast to the latter, most current forms of Foucauldian and feminist New Historicism, and Marxist criticism too, have embraced some version of the idea that history as well as literature is constructed and that there is no scientific or even privileged access to the past.
In practice, however, this line of division is less clear-cut than it may seem. For despite the obligatory paragraph or introduction emphasizing the constructed nature of our knowledge of the past, in the applied analyses of the texts, the Foucauldian New Historicist, poststructuralist Marxist, and feminist critic, understandably eager to get on with the literary/historical work at hand, are liable to refer to their models of history as if they afforded fairly reliable access to the past after all. Our work, our desire, often prompt us to be less skeptical about our knowledge than our theories would seem to require.
The more consistent lines of division between the historicisms which my title names have to do with the way in which history and power are conceived and with the degree to which progressive agency in history is made to seem possible. These divisions, to be sure, have something to do with the theories of knowledge to which I have referred, for the idea that literature, history, and experience itself are apprehended in culturally constructed languages or symbolic systems is sometimes extended to the view that human beings are imprisoned within discourse. And the rejection of scientific knowledge of the past is sometimes accompanied by a rejection of totalizing knowledge or even large-scale models of domination and subordination. But here again, the degree to which skeptical positions are consistently embraced, beyond or even within the introductory paragraph, has much to do with what work the critic hopes to accomplish. And the latter has much to do with the political commitments, the needs, and desires of the critic.
In the pages that follow I want briefly to consider some of the ways in which Foucauldian New Historicism is like two versions of one old historicism, traditional and poststructuralist Marxist work, and some of the ways in which it differs. I also wish to explore in detail how both the similarities and the dissimilarities enter in to the relation of Foucauldian New Historicism to what might be called that “other” historicism, feminist politics and analysis.
It might seem odd at first that I have chosen to illustrate the relations between traditional Marxist, New Historicist, and feminist criticism by analyzing some readings of Charles Dickens, and indeed the choice, as with most historical actions, is in part the result of chance. But “Dickens,” as it turns out (whether conceived of as an author or a set of texts) has been significant for historically oriented criticisms in several ways. Dickens has been significant for traditional Marxist criticism in that his texts deal explicitly with social issues and in that he writes at a period in which, according to Georg Lukacs, the forces for making change were particularly clear. He has been important to poststructuralist Marxists for similar reasons and as a site on which to revise more traditional Marxist readings. Dickens may prove significant for Foucauldian New Historicism too but for opposing reasons because the attraction here appears to be to those novels, like Bleak House, which might be seen as suggesting that social institutions like the legal system operate outside of individual human agency and so are impervious to change. The 1980s, finally, have seen a new surge of feminist writing on Dickens, a development which, I shall argue, marks a politically significant turn in feminist thinking about the role of women and of the feminine in culture.
In a traditional Marxist, like Arnold Kettle, who explicitly roots himself in Marxist politics, and whose analysis of Oliver Twist was published in 1951, pervasive and identifiable relations of domination and subordination are assumed and so is progressive agency or resistance. Agency is to be found within the novel’s world, in the operations of the novel upon us, and in the critic who facilitates the novel’s progressive work. In more current forms of Marxist criticism as well—although poststructuralist critiques of totalizing knowledge have left their trace and although dominant forms of power and their interests are more variously defined and agency more tenuously asserted—the lines of continuation are often clear. Thus David Simpson’s reading of Bleak House, published in 1982, alludes if not to the poor and the bourgeoisie then to “vested interests,” an “exclusive clique,” and to an excluded class. Agency, moreover, is retained within the characters and within the author, too, and by implication within the critic, who valorizes Dickens; and it is Dickens rather than the text who is the site of “moral intention,” “coherent protest,” and “radically creative” strategies.
In the more popular forms of New Historicism, however, which tend, interestingly enough, to be those that do not explicitly root themselves in a political movement, this critical line appears to end. D.A. Miller’s reading of Oliver Twist, for example (first published in 1981), and his reading of Bleak House (first published in 1983), although they have less close reading of historical events or non-literary texts, suggest many of the Foucauldian assumptions and emphases of a New Historicism which practices a more thoroughgoing “cross-cultural montage.” Drawing upon Foucault’s notion of a new type of power whose very diffusion precludes its being located in an attackable center, Miller’s essays have little truck with broad-based relations of domination and subordination or with groups in power whose interests may be defined.
In Miller’s reading of Bleak House in particular, “power organized under the name of Chancery” is faceless and anonymous; its interests, other than those of creating business for itself and therefore perpetuating its existence, are impossible to gauge. This power, moreover, can never really be resisted. What seems outside Chancery’s power, what seems to limit or contain it—the family, the detectives, the police—not only functions to make “the power organized under the name of Chancery” seem bearable but is ultimately within that power, doing the very work of what it seems to limit. The role of the text, moreover, is not to spark resistance through a representation of the way that discipline permeates the novel’s and perhaps the reader’s world, but it is to train us to endure it and thus to defend the status quo. This defense of the status quo, for example, inheres in the way that the novel keeps us off guard by suggesting that Chancery is and is not everywhere and that the family is and is not outside its power, by the way the novel keeps urging us in effect to work at maintaining an outside world to Chancery even though an outside world may be an illusion.
Yet Miller is excessively vague about the degree to which the novel’s representations of power actually represent anything outside the novel and about the degree to which the novel’s ideological operations correspond to ideological operations more broadly produced and distributed. Miller too, that is, seems to train us in not knowing whether we are inside or outside the world of power which Bleak House may or may not be said to represent. Seemingly outside the disciplinary system which he so dexterously describes, in this model of the world, in which every outside turns out to be an inside, the critic acts as part of the policing system too. Indeed, the critic as revolutionary in Arnold Kettle appears to have given way to the critic as district attorney for the prosecution, that is, to D.A. Miller.
It is in this distance between Foucauldian New Historicism and traditional and contemporary Marxism, I would suggest that Foucauldian New Historicism is most distant from feminism, although in many ways appearing more involved than traditional Marxism with issues of gender. Kettle, of course, in contrast to a poststructuralist Marxist like Simpson, does not deal with gender, the family, or women’s cultural agency, and one would hardly expect that of a male Marxist critic writing in 1951. Marxism in the 1950s conceived of the inequities of gender as the products of private property and class division and saw the family, in so many words, as a “dependent variable” of a mode of production chiefly driven on by men. Gender divisions, therefore, were something to be resolved in the working out of class struggle, a struggle implicitly led by males. In traditional Marxism, moreover, human identity is always primarily shaped by class. In Kettle’s reading of Dickens, it is not surprising to find that some of the central concerns of feminist analysis, the construction of gendered identity and of familial or intimate “personal relationships,” are implicitly identified with the domestic and the feminine and therefore with what is marginal in history. Dickens, for example, in focusing on class struggle, is said to raise issues which make the “whole world of Jane Austen tremble.” Oliver Twist, in contrast to Emma, is said to deal with what can be called “Life,” not with “the day-to-day problems of human behavior,” while Dickens’s “nauseating” sentiments about mothers are said to interfere with his portrayal of real relations.
Yet even Kettle’s 1950s’ model of history, which focuses on broad-based relations of domination and subordination and which identifies male domination and female subordination as a secondary set of oppressive relationships, seems far more conducive to feminist revision than Miller’s Foudauldian model with its faceless “power” and that power’s evenhanded involvement and subjection of us all. For models of history, to be useful, must allow us to account for our experience. Most feminists begin with the experience of women’s systematic subordination as a group, despite real class and race differences, when they try to construct theoretical explanations for how social relations operate. Models of history, to be useful, must also allow us to carry on our work, and even feminists deeply influenced by poststructuralist distrust of totalizing knowledge characteristically see broad-based relations of domination and subordination as a necessary postulate and prelude to most forms of feminist political labor. One form of this labor, of course, might be to complicate and interrogate the necessary postulate.
In Miller’s often brilliant Foudauldian reading of Bleak House, although familial and intimate relations are often a point of focus, broad-based relations of domination and subordination, such as those of gender, disappear. All are within “power” and are victimized by power in turn. Because the ideological operations of power are carried on homologously throughout nineteenth-century culture, moreover, gender and class appear to make little difference even in the degree to which women and men perpetuate disciplinary power or in its effects. Thus “the family will sometimes be shown as only a slight modification of Chancery’s bureaucracy (comfortably domesticated with the Jellbys) or of the police (one of whose different voices can be heard in Mrs. Pardiggle, ‘the moral policeman’ who regiments her own family in the same spirit she takes others ‘into custody’).” Gender as a subject of overt analysis has been elided, but all in theory; because, on the level of critical practice, certain habits of thought, which owe their existence to traditional gender dichotomies, seem to lurk.
Despite the fact, for example, that female and male characters are generally construed as acting homologously in their relationship to power, women’s power is said to be a reflection or extension of the “power organized under the name of Chancery,” which is power-organized-under-the-name-of-a-public-institution-run-by-men. Although Miller’s reading tends implicitly to assume that the metaphors that characterize the activities of elite male-run institutions (stagnation, for example) are those that characterize the activities of female characters as well, the most dramatic developments in the novel—the detection of Lady Dedlock’s secret and the capture of Hortense—have been produced by a desire which a public-institution-run-by-men calls into being. For in Miller’s deft reading, Chancery, in all its formlessness and indecipherability, prompts Dickens to produce and the reader to long for some representation of power that is limited and comprehensible. Because these forms of power are introduced into the novel primarily in the characters of the lawyer Tulkinghorn, and police inspector Buckett, the most distinctly active, although ambivalently productive, forces in the novel remain implicitly (although never explicitly) masculine. Because Dickens’s representation of power in Bleak House is assumed to reproduce the operations of power in nineteenth-century culture at large, “real history,” as in Kettle, is still mainly a masculine affair.
In our feminist reading of the text (and I draw here on several feminist readings between 1973 and 1985, with extensions and revisions of my own), the text’s representation of gender difference, as one would expect, is a central point of focus. The novel tends to be read as a site on which threats to traditional gender difference are reproduced and then recontained. The power of some women, like Jellyby, Pardiggle, and Snagsby, for example, is seen as different from “power organized under the name of Chancery” in that these women’s power tends uniformly to undercut the privilege, status, and comfort of males. Each of these women is indicted by the text for having exercised surveillance and control in the service of an unbecoming enhancement of her own ego, and in each case this misdirection produces disorder in the household—drunken servants, dirty rooms, unruly children, and, most importantly, henpecked men. Mr. Jellyby, for example, is so miserably submerged in “the more shining qualities of his wife” that he appears throughout the novel leaning his head against the wall, and the meek and poetical Mr. Snagsby is said to be not only one bone and flesh with Mrs. Snagsby but one voice as well, “that voice appearing to proceed from Mrs. Snagsby alone.”
Women’s social experience as a whole, moreover, is often seen as being constructed somewhat differently from that of men’s. Lady Dedlock’s flight and the sight of Hortense walking “shoeless through the wet grass” have been read by Ellen Moers as part of a larger pattern in the novel whereby women are linked to reckless, independent movement outdoors. The significance of this physical movement, which is produced as negative when it works against male interest or fails to sustain an appearance of male control, is enlarged by the numbers of women characters who have moved out of the domestic sphere to maintain some role in the public sphere as well—Esther in her charitable work, Mrs. Bagnet who operates a musical instrument shop, Caddy who takes over Prince’s school and makes it pay. Movement, of both sorts, is also formally embodied in the split narrative which gives Esther over half the story. For in contrast to the covertly gendered voice of the omniscient narrator with its focus on the grim side of things (on death, decay, the absence of change), with its reduction of people to types, and its detached and disembodied use of present tense, Esther’s overtly feminine narration is embodied, connected, and inclined to emphasize life, the future, change, and the possibility of happiness.
In our feminist reading the link the novel forges between women and movement is primarily contrasted rather than made homologous with the images of stagnation and decay which are frequently assigned to Chancery and Parliament, that is, to public institutions run by men. This split, moreover, is read as a reworking, a re-presentation of historical developments about which Dickens may have felt some threat-the newly perceived dominance of women writers in the fiction market, for example, and the emergence of organized feminist activity in the late 1840s and early 1850s. Thus, in our feminist reading it is not Chancery alone, Dickens’s representation of power organized in a male public sphere, but his representation of the rebellious energies of women that also drives on the narrative’s development. Our feminist reading emphasizes that the most significant police action in the novel ends in the arrest of a murderess, Hortense, and the central detective story works to uncover a woman’s sexual secrets and desires.
The pursuit of Lady Dedlock, moreover, is given significance beyond itself, for Lady Dedlock’s desire for her lover and for upper-class status is seen as representing multiple kinds of female desire, both social and sexual, and as resonating with the disorder of that first desiring woman, Eve. As the illegitimate daughter of these failed mothers, even the self-sacrificing and desire-suppressing Esther is somehow tainted. The outer limits of women’s autonomous desire and its potential threat to social order are represented, of course, in the French foreigner Hortense, whose murder of Tulkinghorn may be linked to her homoerotic jealousy of her mistress. As still another of Lady Dedlock’s alter egos, Hortense represents the socially disruptive nature of women’s desire at its most extreme and is associated with a woman from the streets of Paris in the Reign of Terror.
In our feminist reading of the text, therefore, the most dramatic developments in the novel emblematically enact the curtailment not just of Chancery’s formlessness and indecipherability, as Miller suggests, but also the chaotic threat of women’s autonomous desire. Miller’s Foucauldian reading, in contrast, phases out broad-based relations of domination and subordination and elides what feminists see as the text’s representation of, investment in, and anxiety over gender difference and women’s agency (while also maintaining some fairly traditional, polarizing, and gender-bound equations of “history” with men). But there are other differences as well in the way that history is being conceived. In adding an analysis of gender difference and women’s agency to the text, our feminist reading does more than put women in, offering a ladies’ auxiliary set of concerns. It also changes the way in which we might understand Dickens’s representation of the male-run public world on which Miller implicitly focuses and it complicates the way in which we might understand Miller’s own representation of power.
Miller argues persuasively, for example, that Dickens has constructed Chancery within a dual discourse, first working toward containing that power and then doubling back to imply that the power of Chancery cannot be contained after all and is in fact everywhere. Such contradictions, Miller implies, reproduce or represent the way that nineteenth-century bureaucracies in fact presented themselves or were experienced, and these same contradictions functioned as a means by which bureaucracies perpetuated their control. Here, in its tendency to naturalize a representation of dominant forms of power as inescapable, Miller’s essay intersects with the best-known Foucauldian forms of New Historicism. But where Miller sees in Dickens’s representation of Chancery a re-production of power as it operated in nineteenth-century culture as a whole, our feminist reading might see a set of investments having to do with gender.
Both Miller’s reading and the feminist one I shall present, for example, see the middle-class family as an institution constructed in relation to the public sphere. The middle-class family, that is, was to offer a refuge from the hostilities of the public sphere, and thus on some level it was to make that sphere bearable and so facilitate business as usual. In Miller, however, the middle-class family as represented by Dickens, and, seemingly, as constructed in nineteenth-century culture as a whole, remains-ideologically speaking and despite a complex set of displacements-a dependent variable of a male-run public world. The internal dynamics of the family are therefore muted; and Miller, although he sometimes refers to the family as Esther’s and although he alludes to women’s work, makes little note of the gender arrangements and gender inequalities by means of which this construction of the family was secured. Miller, indeed, frequently implies that women’s and men’s relations within the home are not only homologous but also inexplicably harmonious as well; the only familial conflicts his reading officially registers are the largely masculine struggles represented by an allusion to Monk’s “oedipal and sibling rivalry” in Oliver Twist.
Our feminist reading, in contrast, brings Dickens’s representation of gender conflict within the family to the fore, and in so doing it might render the ideological dynamic between representations of the family and representations of a male public world more complex. That is, it sees Dickens’s representation of a malerun public world as dependent upon his representation of the middle-class family. The construction of the middle-class family as refuge depended on a division of gender identities and roles which excluded middle-class women from the public sphere and defined them as different from men because they lacked or contained autonomous desire. This division, moreover, was inherently unstable, for if dominant versions of separate spheres ideology functioned to rationalize the inequity of denying autonomous desire to women while liberally granting it to men, they also inevitably offered women a dual discourse, offered them a set of self-interested (masculine) terms alongside self-sacrificing (feminine) terms in which to imagine their identity and their lives.
A version of the discourse of self-interest is employed by Mrs. Jellyby, Mrs. Pardiggle, and Mrs. Snagsby in conducting missions, pursuing business, and practicing detection without a license. It is this set of terms that Lady Dedlock refuses to relinquish when she walks to her death and chooses to expire on the steps outside her lover’s grave and that Hortense retains when she submits to Buckett with the line “I pity you and I despise you” (p. 692). In Bleak House and in representations of history, our feminist critique suggests, middle-class women resist the containment of their desires, destabilize the construction of the bourgeois family, and disrupt the ideological economy of self-sacrifice, by which the hostilities of a male-run public sphere are compensated for and also licensed. All of this, our reading suggests, shapes Dickens’s representation of Chancery and the dynamics of a male-run public world.
That Dickens imagines females evading custody, persistently resisting house arrest, suggests, of course, why Chancery might be represented as what cannot be contained—because Dickens sees women failing to provide refuge for men by refusing to suppress their autonomous desires. But the persistence of female desire also suggests why, for Dickens, Chancery ought not to be contained either, why, for Dickens, Chancery might be most compellingly produced as a form of power that cannot be resisted. For is some manifestations of “power organized under the name of Chancery” are represented as oppressing males too, other manifestation of that power might be seen as representing the power of men, a power secured through property and exercised by custodial care and control of dependent women.
This custodial power of men over women is ostentatiously, although unsatisfactorily, represented in Sir Leicester, who is repeatedly associated with Chancery and with Parliament; all three, of course, are representatives of the principle that property is inherited through the male line. If Chancery, as the text suggests, works to sustain a status quo that keeps Lord Dedlock at the top, the latter returns the favor, duly believing that to sanction any complaints in regard to Chancery would be to encourage “some person in the lower classes to rise up somewhere—like Wat Tyler” (p. 12). Dedlock’s status in the world, however, is also defined and secured by his position as head of house and as caretaker of his wife. It is this feature of Dedlock’s position above all that Tulkinghorn, who also works for and is sustained by Chancery, means to reestablish or protect in his exposure of the ways in which Lady Dedlock has violated the rules of masculine possession. A parallel investment in custodial care, moreover, appears in minor figures who drive on Chancery’s power, and whose goal in life is to keep themselves in business so they may, in the case of Vohles, support a father and three daughters, and in the case of Guppy, secure a home and install Esther in it. The lord chancellor himself acts as a father figure to Richard and Ada.
Significantly, Dickens’s satire of Chancery and of Sir Leicester is mitigated by the sympathy with which he portrays them in the role of providers. Sir Leicester’s “gallantry” to his lady is “the one little touch of romantic fancy in him,” and the lord chancellor as father figure is “both courtly and kind” (pp. 9, 29). Still, neither is particularly satisfactory in this role. The lord chancellor is “a poor substitute for the love and pride of parents,” and Sir Leicester appears to have purchased his lady’s hand without having secured her heart (p. 29). This paternalism is further delegitimated through the association of both men with Tulkinghorn, whose investment in Sir Leicester’s power is fueled by a distasteful misogny: “There are women enough in the world,” he is fond of saying. “They are at the bottom of all that goes wrong in it.” That misogny is punished, of course, although it is also justified by the act of murder that Hortense commits and the implied secret of her homoerotic passion. Then Tulkinghorn’s misogny is formally disavowed along with its own homosocial intensity as Tulkinghorn’s dry bachelor-like pursuit is taken over by the familial Mr. Buckett: “What is public life without private ties?” (p. 628).
But if the text formally disavows the unsatisfactory paternalism of Sir Leicester and Chancery, it is only to revise and possess it more firmly in the paternalism of Jaryndyce. Mr. Jaryndyce is officially a victim of Chancery; and Bleak House, as Jaryndyce has restored it, is deliberately contrasted to that institution. It is a house linked with light rather than fog, flowers rather than mud, and views rather than enclosure. Jaryndyce himself, moreover, although old, is distinguished from Chancery and Sir Leicester both by being linked with change and motion and with robustness, rather than stagnation and blight. Jaryndyce and his house, indeed, with their delightful irregularities, suggest nothing so much as nature that has been left to take its course rather than nature enclosed or polluted by the upper class or by legalities. And yet Bleak House, like Mr. Jaryndyce, is “old-fashioned” like Tulkinghorn and Lord Dedlock—like Chancery itself. And Jaryndyce effectively reworks one of Chancery’s powers. In his multiple and self-sacrificing provisions for Esther, he is the tradition of paternalism at its most natural and benign, a tradition handed on by Jaryndyce to Alan Woodcourt along with Esther and a cottage—so much property through the male line.
Dickens’s investment in this masculine inheritance, I would suggest, goes a long way toward complicating our understanding of the contradictory way in which he has imagined Chancery’s power; it suggests, on the one hand, that Chancery is being contained and then doubles back to imply that the power of Chancery cannot be contained after all and is, in fact, everywhere. The intent of Miller’s argument, as I have suggested, is to imply that such contradictions reproduce the way that nineteenth-century bureaucracies presented themselves or were experienced, but the same contradictions might also be read as one effect of Dickens’s investment in the male custodial power which Chancery drives on or represents. For the operation of even so oppressive an institution as Chancery, like the class and race power of some men over others, is made bearable to a degree if it supports less powerful men’s control and ownership of women. If men must be slaves, as Dorothy Dinnerstein has put it, they can at least be rich ones.
Our feminist reading, therefore, sees in Dickens’s representation of Chancery as that which cannot be contained, a sign of his ambivalent investment in its power, an investment that has much to do with gender. And Foucauldian readings like Miller’s, I would suggest, are open to a parallel interrogation. I would like to end this essay by alluding to some current theories about the implied politics of this trend in its many, mainly male, appropriations of Foucault.
The investment of many male poststructuralist philosophers, including Foucault, in theories arguing the totalizing force of discourse or disciplinary power has very often been seen as a response, especially in men once on the Left or in men otherwise invested in social change, to the political disillusions of the 1970s—the dissipation of revolutionary fervor after 1968, the invasion of Czechoslovakia, the failures of Maoism, the disasters of Cambodia, the coming to power of the New Right, the failures of Marxist history to predict historical development. Some critics of Foucauldian New Historicism, moreover, suggest that its practitioners continue to invest in totalizing constructions of power as a way of participating in the very power that they have critiqued, as a way of compensating for a sense of political helplessness and disempowerment.
This same investment, I would like to suggest, should also be read in relation to another significant feature of the 1970s’ and 1980s’ landscape, the emergence of the women’s movement in its second wave and the entry into the academy of a feminist scholarship that was also politically at the cutting edge. Ironically, male poststructuralists did not generally respond to the feminist movement as the one bright feature irradiating the postmodern gloom but, if anything, as further cause for throwing politics into question. For if male leftist intellectuals in the 1970s had begun to feel that they were not the solution after all, within feminism they were the problem too. If they experienced increasing impotence in relation to the structures of capitalism, they were now being pushed to relinquish phallic power. If they were obliged to watch the dissolution of a vital movement which had in some respects been theirs, they were now forced to witness the beginning of a revolutionary “party” to which many were hostile and to which in many ways they were cordially not invited.
Indeed, Rosa Braidotti has suggested that envy of feminism has been as much a part of the picture as guilt or a sense of threat: “Lacking the historical experience of oppression on the basis of sex [white, male, middle-class intellectuals] paradoxically lack a minus. Lacking the lack, they cannot participate in the great ferment of ideas that is shaking up Western culture; it must be very painful indeed to have no option other than being the empirical referent of the historical oppressor of women and being asked to account for his atrocities.” What better time to speculate about how unified subjectivity is a myth; how knowledge is interpretation, the truth value of which is low on an intellectual’s list of priorities; and how oppressive discourse scripts and recontains the very resistances that it provokes. For to invest in the inescapability of dominant forms of power, to insist, as Miller does, that women and men are in it equally together, is not only to deny the efficacy of feminism but it is also to render feminist analyses obsolete. As in Dickens, this may be a form of compensation and of control.
The desire for control at the very least is a force to be reckoned with in many masculinist applications of Foucault’s work and here once more is a lesson in how politics, personal needs, and desire inflect theory. Much Foucauldian work, in its aversion to constructing broad-based relations of dominance and subordination, in its aversion to identifying interests and specific groups which those interests oppress, appropriates Foucault in his rejection of totalizing knowledge and specifically scientific Marxist theory. Yet, like Foucault himself, much Foucauldian-based work recuperates totalizing knowledge in a different form. A certain lust for homology, increasingly familiar to Foucauldian New Historicist work, often performs this totalizing labor—by flattening out some forms of difference, such as those between women and men or between men of different classes, by repetitively locating the same, declassed and degendered power dynamic or ideological operation throughout a text or culture, and by implying that an officially degendered but implicitly male and elite power always, in a sense, wins.
Feminists, of course, have also appropriated Foucault as a means of extending, complicating, and sometimes legitimating forms of feminist analysis which converged with or preceded those of Foucault himself. Feminist critiques of masculine elitism in Western knowledge; feminist emphases upon the role of discourse, or language, in the construction of culture; feminist theorizing about the social construction of sexuality and the body; and feminist definitions of power as less hegemonic, less unified, more multiple, more local, more resisted than traditionally understood—all of these preceded Foucault, although feminist scholars later drew upon his theories. Feminist appropriations of Foucault, however, have largely deviated from those of nonfeminist men and again the difference has much to do with needs, desires, and politics. Despite the fact that feminists have been influenced by skeptical poststructuralist philosophy, and despite the political setbacks of the last few years, many feminist critics still operate not only out of an experience of gender oppression but also out of a belief and investment in change. Thus, they tend to retain not only a sense that those with power may be identified and their interests to some extent gauged. They also tend to retain a sense that progressive human agency is possible, no matter how qualified by the shaping force of dominant ideology.
Belief in the possibility of identifying power, belief in the possibility of progressive agency and change are, of course, preconditions for feminist and all oppositional politics and have been preconditions for the scholarly projects that grew from them. One such project, beginning in the early seventies, is that of writing women into history. In literary criticism this project was first carried on as an attempt to recover the voices of female writers conceived of as writing from the margins or as forming a female subculture. More recently, however, emphasis has shifted to defining the role of women and constructions of the feminine in shaping dominant culture itself. Many feminists now work on Dickens and on other discourses by men as a means of demonstrating not just how male writers have symbolically limited and contained women through representation but as a means of reading the logic by which men’s fears and anxieties about women and women’s agency—as mothers, as participants in family enterprise, as volunteers—structured the whole of what we have thought of as male capitalist ideology and a masculine public world.
Such readings of culture, I have tried to suggest, are helpful to us in understanding not just the nature of women’s impact on social relations as a whole but also the nature of dominant masculinist ideologies themselves—in Dickens, in the nineteenth century generally, and also in the masculinist histories and literary critical fashions of the present moment. At the same time, feminist readings, in adding an analysis of women’s agency, gender relations, and gender conflict to their constructions of both the domestic and the interrelated public sphere, will tend to construct dominant ideology as less monolithic than many Foucauldian New Historicist readings. In adding another layer of tensions to the historical picture, feminist critics tend to see dominant ideology not just as more complexly oppressive but as more internally unstable, as constantly in need of reconstruction and revision, as creating the conditions that make social change and the agency of the weak possible.
This tendency to see dominant ideology as unstable, which is deeply rooted in the political commitments of the present and the past, may have an impact upon the way white feminists respond to the dismantling of their own dominance over theoretical discourse within the U.S. women’s movement. For many years, of course, white women’s subjectivities, even their reconstructed feminist subjectivities, have been under fire as racist, along with their propriety attitude toward “feminist theory.” Now like white males at the end of the sixties, white middle-class feminists are more clearly seen “as part of the problem too.” As they begin to take these criticisms seriously, moreover, as they begin not only to talk and think but to act, to insist that women of color be hired in women’s studies programs, to work at integrating race and ethnicity into their own analyses of gender, they are being called upon to give up privilege within institutions, within women’s studies programs, and within the field of feminist theory too. Some white feminists, indeed, anticipate the decentering not only of themselves but also of gender as a category of analysis. Perhaps “women’s studies” may give way to something more like the study of “diversity,” and expertise on “diversity” has not been the province of privileged white women. What has been and is going to be white middle-class women’s response?
Elizabeth V. Spelman has written about the ways that privilege finds ever deeper places to hide, about the ways in which tolerance, for example, or postmodern emphases upon the relativity of all knowledge may shore up the privilege they were meant to challenge. (If I cannot control the production of truth, then there is no truth at all. Everyone is as wrong as I.) Will privileged white women take up the theoretical dodges employed by white Western men? Recent critiques of “woman” and theorizing about multiple subjectivities and multiple truths have not generally been accompanied by an abandonment of subjective identity altogether or by the relativism of knowledge as a whole. We have not so far had a rash of white feminists declaring that racist discourse scripts the very resistance that it provokes. Will it prove the case, then, as Wini Breines has argued in a recent essay, that privileged white feminists harbor fewer illusions of grandeur than white men? It is too early to say. We in higher education are still a long way from the structural changes in women’s faculty and curriculum and in feminist theorizing that we are beginning to imagine. If white feminists are more humble and less given to illusion than white Western men, it seems clear that we have illusions of our own to let go of and greater humility to learn. As we analyze the theoretical dodges and self-indulgences of our white male colleagues, we need to reflect, in a continuing way, on the danger of falling into our own.