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The Language of Feminist Theory

The language of feminist theory has prompted much discussion and debate.
Should feminist theory be written in language accessible to everyone?  Is
there justification for feminists using the sometimes obscure language of
high theory?  These and related questions were discussed on WMST-L in
March 1993; that discussion is reproduced here.  For additional WMST-L files
now available on the Web, see the WMST-L File List. 
Date: Wed, 3 Mar 1993 21:27:00 PST
Subject: request for theory info.
Does anyone have handy, at her or his fingertips, a few references for
articles defending feminists "doing theory" from the attacks against
theory (esp. poststructuralist theory and what's perceived as its
"elitism," "density," "androcentrism," etc.).  One of my students is
doing a research paper on the debate over "women's language" in
theoretical work (as opposed to in lit.).  On the "feminists shouldn't
do theory, or if they do, they should write simply and accessibly and
not build on white male father-figure theorists," (and, by the way,
we're focusing primarily on literary theory), there are well-known
articles by Baym, Marcus, Lorde, Christian, et al.  The only two
I could think of on the "pro-theory" or "feminists need not renounce
doing theory" side were Laurie Finke's "Why I do Feminist Theory" and
, in a rather different vein, Jane Tompkins' "Me and My Shadow."
But I know I've read a number of others.  My student has found a couple
of articles by Gilbert (and Gubar?) critiquing male theoretical style
and suggesting women not emulate it.  I want to be sure he doesn't
simply accept an argument without seeing both sides, esp. since the
debate about the role of theory and styles of feminist theoretical
discourse has been such an energetic one.  If anyone can think of
any useful recent feminist literary theoretical works defending
"theory," I'd appreciate the references.  Thanks.  Marilyn Edelstein,
Dept. of English, Santa Clara U
Date: Thu, 4 Mar 1993 01:43:41 -0500
From: Lissa Schneider <LSCHNEID @ UMIAMI.IR.MIAMI.EDU>
Subject: Re: request for theory info.
The woman who posted this request for information about feminists using
theory did not leave a return address, so I will post to the list:
Perhaps your student should look at Shari Benstock's TEXTUALIZING
Oklahoma Press, 1991).  While she does not "defend" her use of
Lacanian-Derridean discourses, she does an excellant and lucid job
of explicating their importance for feminism and for women.
Also, Juliet Mitchell and Jacqueline Rose's classic introductions
to FEMININE SEXUALITY (New York: NOrton Press, 1982) are good, especially
Rose's.  Also perhaps Toril Moi's SEXUAL/TEXTUAL POLITICS (London:
Routledge Press, 1985).
Date: Thu, 4 Mar 1993 11:35:00 GMT
Subject: Re: request for theory info.
Teresa Brennan has some good comments in her intro to what I
thought was Brennan and Pateman eds, title forgotten, but I now
think may be Brennan ed Between Feminism and Psychoanalysis.  I'd
have thought - for some reason I can't remember - that somewhere
in Destabilizing Theory (Anne Phillips, Michele Barrett) there'd
be something too.
(But also see from a different perspective Susan Bordo's review
of Gender Trouble in Feminist Studies.)
Judy Evans    Politics  Department   University of York  UK
jae2  @  uk.ac.york
Date: Thu, 4 Mar 1993 08:16:21 EST
From: Vicki Kirsch <VLKIRS @ WMVM1.BITNET>
Subject: defending theory
Another source is Joan Cocks' book THE OPPOSITIONAL IMAGINATION
(Routledge) in which she critiques Radical Feminism while imagining
a dynamic space for the critic and the rebel to create theory for
emancipatory ends.
Vicki Kirsch
College of Wm and Mary
vlkirs  @  wmvm1
Date: Thu, 4 Mar 1993 07:31:05 CST
Subject: Re: request for theory info.
bell hooks discusses making theory accessible to all in her books.
Date: Thu, 4 Mar 1993 09:27:15 EST
Subject: Re: request for theory info.
Another interesting book that uses literary theory in a very different
disciplinary space is Patricia Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights.
Laurie Finke
finkel  @  kenyon.edu
Date: Thu, 4 Mar 1993 08:28:00 CDT
From: Virginia Sapiro <SAPIRO @ POLISCI.WISC.EDU>
Subject: Re: request for theory info.
On doing theory: bell hooks' TALKING BACK is very helpful to combat the
argument that theory is just elitist.
Virginia Sapiro, Dept of Political Science
sapiro  @  polisci.wisc.edu
Date: Thu, 4 Mar 1993 09:17:30 EST
Subject: defending feminist theory
I haven't arrived at an answer to the question, but it is one my grad seminar i
n Feminist Theory is grappling with this semester.  We began by sharing experie
nces with Theory-with-a-capital T and with feminism, problematizing their overl
ap. These leads to the conclusion that critiques of feminsit theory from the
position of Theory whose masculinity remains unproblematized are not asking the
right question(s) --hence my reaction is it's usually not worth our while to en
gage in such 'debates.'  Sources that say it better than I include Patti Lather
Getting Smart and Patricia Hill Collins' black feminist epistemology --both
locate the problematic in epistemology, where I think it belongs.
 --103 SIMS IV, SYRACUSE, NY 13244-1230, USA     (315)443-4580          --
 --Bitnet: JLONG  @  SUVM        Internet: JLONG  @  SUVM.ACS.SYR.EDU           --
Date: Thu, 4 Mar 1993 11:12:06 EST
From: Linda Lopez McAlister <DLLAFAA @ CFRVM.BITNET>
Subject: On Writing Feminist Academic Prose
  That's the title of an editorial by Ruth-Ellen B. Joeres in SIGNS
(Summer 1992) which makes an important contribution to the conversation
about accessibility of feminist theoretical writing, I think.
Linda Lopez McAlister/HYPATIA: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy
Women's Studies Dept.      Internet: DLLAFAA  @  CFRVM.CFR.USF.EDU
Univ. of South Florida     Bitnet: DLLAFAA  @  CFRVM
Tampa, FL 33620            (813) 974-5531
Date: Thu, 4 Mar 1993 11:17:38 EST
From: Linda Lopez McAlister <DLLAFAA @ CFRVM.BITNET>
Subject: P.S.
  There's going to be an article about feminist academic journals in The
Chronicle of Higher Education next week which will, I imagine, get into
the questions of High Theory/low theory--or feminist theory in the upper-
case and lower-case as Saunders and Martindale call it in Hypatia 7(4).  You
might have your student take a look at that, too.
Linda Lopez McAlister/HYPATIA: A Journal of Feminist Philosophy
Women's Studies Dept.      Internet: DLLAFAA  @  CFRVM.CFR.USF.EDU
Univ. of South Florida     Bitnet: DLLAFAA  @  CFRVM
Tampa, FL 33620            (813) 974-5531
Date: Thu, 4 Mar 1993 08:19:30 PST
From: Ann Weinstone <syd @ IGC.APC.ORG>
Subject: feminists doing theory
I would recommend "Feminists Theorize the Political" ed. Judith Butler..
Date: Thu, 4 Mar 1993 22:51:59 -0800
From: Jennifer Holberg <jholberg @ U.WASHINGTON.EDU>
Subject: Re: request for theory info.
In reference to the request for feminists defending theory:
I found Robyn Warhol's introductory chapter to her book _Gendered
Interventions_ entitled "Why Don't Feminists `Do' Narratology?" extremely
helpful in my own work.  A very cogent argument and explanation as to why
feminists should, indeed, be doing theory.
|Jennifer L. Holberg                    |
|Dept. of English                       |
|University of Washington               |
|jholberg  @  u.washington.edu              |
|                                       |
|"Whatever it is, let it be without     |
|  affectation"                         |
|                  Marianne Moore       |
Date: Sun, 7 Mar 1993 11:15:54 -0700
From: Harriet Linkin <hlinkin @ NMSU.EDU>
Subject: Re: request for theory info.
College English has been actively publishing some rather interesting
approaches to the issue of "doing" feminist theory in feminist language.
One article that provoked a great deal of commentary is Jane Tompkins'
"Pedagogy of the Distressed" (College English 52 [1990]: 653-660).  And
Olivia Frey's "Beyond Literary Darwinism: Women's Voices and Critical
Discourse" in the same issue is quite enlightening.  I also very much like
Maria Torgovnick's short piece in Profession 90 (1990): 25-27 on
"Experimental Critical Writing" (which discusses how she came to pursue
the experimental critical voice she inhabits in Gone Primitive, 1990).
Hope that's helpful!
Harriet Linkin                          The daughters of lions are
New Mexico State University             also lions.  --Swahili Proverb
hlinkin  @  nmsu.edu
Date: 04 Mar 1993 10:02:35 -0500 (EST)
Subject: Theory
You might check the work of Teresa Ebert or Rosemary Hennessy.  Each
works as a theorist in literary studies.  Ebert had a recent article in
College English which dealt with the reclaiming of postmodern theory
for a feminist or resistance agenda.  Hennessy has a new book out from
Routledge titled Materialist Feminism and the Politics of Discourse.
Sorry i don't have the citations on Ebert's work but the above
mentioned article is quite useful.
Date: 4 Mar 93 14:27:42 EST
From: cmusers <CMDARLEN @ ruby.indstate.edu>
Subject: feminist theory
I am responding to the posting I read on the Women's Studies list.  I
am not quite comfortable with the general posting, but I wanted to
respond to your question about defenses of feminists doing theory.
First I want to say that this is an ongoing discussion that those of
us who "do" theory find (at times) quite exhausting.  I find myself
dealing with questions about accessibility, usefulness, etc. which
seem to perpetuate the illusion of separate spheres of doing and
theorizing and which seem to rewrite the history of feminisms which
have it seemed to me always been theoretically sophisticated (even
when theorizing anti-theory).
I taught Feminist Theories last fall and we began the class with the
debate--the students read Barbara Christian (of course) and a new
piece by bell hooks, published in the Yale Journal of Law and
Feminism, special issue about theory and practice.  hooks' essay is
"Theory as Liberatory Practice."  It re-locates theory in the
everyday and reminds everyone that languages are culturally
constructed and theory is not (as a practice) language specific; it
is an act of agency, and (I would add) inescapable and inevitable and
joyful and playful in our lives.
Good luck.
Darlene Hantzis, Director of Women's Studies
Indiana State University
cmdarlen  @  ruby.indstate.edu
Date: Sun, 7 Mar 1993 22:07 PST
Subject: Responses from Donna Phillips and Temma Berg
The responses from Donna Phillips and Temma Berg follow.
        Donna Phillips wrote:  "Patricia Hill Collins is a Sociologist at
Univ. of Cincinnati.  Two yrs ago I heard her give a lecture on how women
do theory as opposed to how men do.  She was wonderful! The lecture was
from a forthcoming book.  I don't know the name of the book but I believe
the title would "give it away."  Tell student to try Books in Print for
recent "single author" books by  Collins.  (Anything by her is good, but
one book addresses the issue at hand."  [The title is BLACK FEMINIST
published by Unwin Hyman, 1990.  JK]
        I'm missing the first line of Temma Berg's reply (not printed out)
(and I have to retype these replies, since I don't know how to edit/use
parts of received e-mail), but she wrote:  ". . .I have been very concerned
with this tendency to disparage feminists who "do theory."  In an essay
entitled "Suppressing the  Language of Wo(Man):  The Dream as a Common
Language," in Engendering the Word: Feminist Essays in Psychosexual Poetics
(U of Illinois P, 1989), I address these issues.  The book as a whole,
which comes out of the first feminist seminar to be held at the School of
Criticism and Theory, addresses these issues.  I edited it along with Anna
Shannon Elfenbein, Jeanne Larsen, and Elisa Kay Sparks.  I also wrote an
essay about  "Louise M. Rosenblatt: A Woman in Theory," in The Experience
of Reading: Louise Rosenblatt and Reader-Response Theory, ed. by John
Clifford (Heinemann, 1991), in which I suggest that women may indeed do
theory  differently, but women have always done theory.  All the ones you
mention are, of course, excellent.  I just thought you might want to add
these to your list.  I am definitely pro-theory."  Temma Berg, Dept. of
English Gettysburg College, Gettysburg PA 17325
 Marilyn Edelstein   medelstein  @  scuacc.scu.edu
Date: Mon, 8 Mar 1993 08:14:55 -0700
Subject: Re: request for theory info.
To add to Harriet's earlier message, I just read Laurie Finke's article in the
most recent --College English-- "Knowledge as Bait...." and enjoyed it
thoroughly.  Laurie Finke herself is on this list, and I'm sure that she can
tell you far more than I can.  But let me say that her bringing together
principles of pyschoanalysis and feminist pedagogy was unique to me, and has
made me reevaluate my own feminist teaching practices.
atorrence  @  janus.mtroyal.ab.ca
Date: Thu, 11 Mar 1993 09:41:34 EST
Subject: Re: click experience
[First paragraph deleted]
One more thing, while I have your attention.  This is in regard to the recent
discussion over poststructuralism and feminist theory. I discovered today an
essay by Eloise A. Buker, a political scientist at theUniversity of Utah,
called 'Rhetoric in Postmodern Feminism: Put Offs, Put-Ons, and Political
Plays."  It appeared in a book called The Interpretive Turn, edited by David
Hiley, James F. Bohman, and Richard Shusterman (Cornell, 1991). Though I
haven't read the whole essay it seems very interesting.  It is not an essay
that would immediately come to the attention of feminist theorists since it was
printed in a book in which it is the *only* essay by a woman.  All the others
are by men.  It is a defense of feminist "high" theory.
Laurie Finke
finkel  @  kenyon.edu
Date: Fri, 12 Mar 1993 20:51:00 PST
Subject: thanks for refs re: feminists defending theory
Thanks to all those who sent references in response to my query last week
seeking references to work in which feminists defended "doing theory" or
using theoretical language.  Although a number of texts suggested were
familiar to me, some I hadn't thought of in this context, and there were
also new ones I and my student(s) will no doubt find very useful.
Students (undergrads, esp.) seem apt to latch onto any attacks they find
on theory or theoretical language, given their general "resistance to
theory," (which they share with some faculty, and which I assume is
not to unique to undergraduates at my univ.).  I want to expose students
in my Contemp. Critical Theory and in my Feminist Theory and Criticism
classes to as full a range of feminist views as possible, and to not
only works of theory, but commentaries on/critiques of theory.  But
I want them to assess both open-mindedly.
Joan Korenman will (kindly, generously) be compiling the responses
to this query into a new file which will be made available to the
list.  There were certainly a number of useful, interesting, and
revealing responses.  Some people suggested the very texts that
have made my "non-theorist" colleagues throw up their hands in
despair at the opacity of theoretical language, so I don't imagine
they'd be likely to win over skeptical undergraduates.  Others are
wonderful examples of feminists "doing [poststructuralist] theory"
well, even if not explicit defenses of the feminist use of theory.
Some were such explicit rationales or defenses, particularly of
feminists using/rewriting/subverting/changing poststructuralist
A few additional titles that might be of interest to those
following this discussion on the list:
Joan Scott, "Deconstructing Equality-Versus-Difference:  Or, the
Uses of Poststructuralist Theory for Feminism" (was in _Feminist
Studies_ 14 [1988], rpt. in _Conflict in Feminism_, ed. Marianne
Hirsch and Evelyn Fox Keller--an excellent collection of essays)
(it also has a fine essay by Teresa de Lauretis called "Upping
the Anti (sic) in Feminist Theory" and a few other essays relevant
to this issue)
A couple of recent works by Laurie Finke were mentioned; there's
also her earlier "The Rhetoric of Marginality:  Why I do Feminist
Theory" in _Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature_ 5 (1986)
Probably relevant (and I think not yet mentioned) are
Linda Alcoff "Cultural Feminism Versus Post-Structuralism:
The Identity Crisis in Feminist Theory" _Signs_ 13 (1988)
Jane Flax, "Postmodernism and Gender Relations in Feminist
Theory" _Signs_ 12 (1987).
These all address specifically whether and why feminists should
involve themselves in theorizing and especially in poststructuralist
feminizing. I was glad to find a few additional works on the
language in which feminists do theory (for instance, Frey's
fine essay in _College English_ in 1980 on non-agonistic
styles of critical writing).
Anyway, thanks again to all of those who responded; this list
is often invaluable for the sharing of ideas and information.
And I trust the conversation about feminist and/on theory
will continue, in the academy and maybe even on this list,
esp. after Joan makes the file of references available
(and thanks in advance to her).
Marilyn Edelstein, Dept. of English, Santa Clara U, CA
medelstein  @  scuacc.scu.edu
Date: Fri, 12 Mar 1993 20:57:00 PST
Subject: corrections to previous message
Well, I guess this proves one shouldn't send e-mail in the evening of
a very long day.  I didn't mean to coin a phrase "poststructuralist
feminizing" in my just-sent message thanking people for references
to work defending feminists' use of theory.  I meant to say
"poststructuralist theorizing"--although perhaps the coined phrase
is a useful one!  There are a couple of run-of-the mill e-mail
typos in that message, too, but I thought I'd send this lest
anyone wonder what "feminizing" is.
Marilyn Edelstein     medelstein  @  scuacc.scu.edu

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