chapter  3
31 Pages

Feminist theory as ‘power/knowledge’: the ‘two sciences’ thesis revisited

Liberation ideas did not completely disappear from feminist thought in the mid-1970s. Instead, they went underground. They are tacitly expressed in what is possibly the most popular theme in the feminism of ‘difference’, namely the criticism of binary oppositions, dichotomies, or dualisms as they are variously described.1 The function of the underground presence of liberation ideas is to confer moral credibility on the later ideas which are, I shall show, more appropriate to an authoritarian exercise of power than to any confrontation with it. There is, then, an ambivalence about power behind the interest in this theme. While both sides of this ambivalence need to be shown, I shall begin by demonstrating the connections the theme of binary oppositions has with unjustified power for it is such connections which explain the repression of liberation ideas rather than vice versa. The continued presence of liberation theory and its direct oppositional stance will be demonstrated in the next chapter once the reason why it must remain covert has been established. It is clear that the contradictory stance towards power must not become obvious if the ideas in question are to find acceptance. But it is not the oppositional stance which is concealed-rather, this is exaggerated. The critique of binary oppositions is presented as a radical way of thinking which is in opposition to the most entrenched power structures of Western civilisation. What is concealed, therefore, is the fact that this theme so readily lends itself to authoritarian uses that it can only be understood as a function of an aspiration for power. In arguing this I will, then, necessarily be exposing some of the conceptual slides and built-in incoherencies which are the means of its concealment. I will be revealing the ‘surrationalist’ character of this kind of feminist thinking. (To remind the reader: ‘surrational’ is a term I borrowed from David Joravsky, who defined it as ‘a show of rational discourse, camouflaging a basic refusal to meet the tests of genuine reason’ (see Introduction: p. 10).)

I shall look at the discussion of binary oppositions or dualisms mainly as it is often found in the growing number of feminist textbooks, readers, anthologies, conference reports-the sorts of writings which help constitute ‘women’s studies’ as a movement, either by means of an introductory presentation of ideas for students or other newcomers or by means of the statement of an assumed common orientation. I shall be reconstructing a very typical argument and so it should be noted that the individual instances of this will naturally vary slightly. This argument often goes under the name of ‘deconstruction’.2 However, there is also a ‘serious’, more intellectually legitimate kind of deconstruction which is found less often than that which I reconstruct here and the analysis of which I have reserved for Part III. But it is the many ‘surrational’ versions of deconstruction that I shall now argue are intellectually incoherent, serve a political function and do the latter by means of the former.