Theories and Texts
The Discourse of Others:
Feminists and Postmodernism
by Craig Owens
from Foster, Hal, ed. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture.
Seattle: Bay P, 1983.
31 December 1998
Postmodern knowledge [le savoir postmoderne] is not simply
an instrument of power. It refines our sensitivity to difference and increase
our tolerance of incommensurability. ¡VJ.F. Lyotard, La condition
Thesis: I have chosen to negotiate the treacherous course between
postmodernism and feminism, it is in order to introduce the issue of sexual
difference into the modernism/ postmodernism debate¡Xa debate which
has until now been scandalously in-different (59).
D. The avant-guard sought to transcend representation in favor of
presence and immediacy; it proclaimed the autonomy of the signifier, its
liberation from the ¡§tyranny of the signified¡¨;
postmodernists instead expose the tyranny of the signifier, the
violence of its law
Decentered, allegorical, schizophrenic . . . ¡Vhowever we choose
to diagnose its symptoms, postmodernism is usually treated by its protagonists
and antagonists alike, as a crisis of cultural authority, specifically
of the authority vested in Western European culture and its institutions
1. What is at stake, then, is not only the hegemony of Western culture,
but also (our sense of) our identity as a culture (58).
In the modern period the authority of the work of art . . . was
based on the universality modern aesthetics attributed to the forms
utilized for the representation of vision, over and above difference in
content due to the production of works in concrete historical circumstances.
. . . Not only does the postmodernist work claim no such authority,
it also actively seeks to undermine all such claims; hence, its generally
deconstructive thrust. As recent analyses of the ¡§enunciative
apparatus¡¨ of visual representation¡Xits poles of emission
and reception¡Xconfirm, the representational system of the West admit
only one vision¡Xthat of the constitutive male subject¡Xor,
rather, they posit the subject of representation as absolutely centered,
unitary, masculine (58).
The postmodernist work attempts to upset the reassuring stability of that
mastering position. This same project has, of course, been attributed by
writers like Julia Kristeva and Roland Barthes to the modernist
avant-garde, which through the introduction of heterogeneity, discontinuity,
glossolalia, etc., supposedly put the subject of representation in crisis
E. It is precisely at the legislative frontier between what can be represented
and what cannot that the postmodernist operation is being staged¡Xnot
in order to transcend representation, but in order to expose that system
of power that authorizes certain representations while blocking, prohibiting
or invalidating others. Among those prohibited from Western representation,
whose representations are denied all legitimacy, are women. . . . This
prohibition bears primarily on woman as the subject, and rarely as the
object of representation, for there is certainly no shortage of images
1. Here, we arrive at an apparent crossing of the feminist
critique of patriarchy and the postmodernist critique of representation;
this essay is a provisional attempt to explore the implications of that
intersection. . . . I have chosen to negotiate the treacherous course between
postmodernism and feminism, it is in order to introduce the issue of sexual
difference into the modernism/ postmodernism debate¡Xa debate
which has until now been scandalously in-different (59). (Note
7: Many of the issues treated in the following pages¡Xthe critique
of binary thought, for example, or the privileging of vision
over the other senses¡Xhave had long careers in the history of philosophy.
I am interested, however, in the ways in which feminist theory articulates
them onto the issue of sexual privilege (78).
II. "A Remarkable Oversight" (²¨©¿,
A. An allegorical impulse in contemporary art¡Xan impulse that
I identified as postmodernist (60).
1. Laurie Anderson¡¦s multi-media performance Americans
on the Move (60).
2. I had overlooked something¡Xsomething that is so obvious, so
¡§natural¡¨ that it may at the time have seemed unworthy
of comment. It does not seem that way to me today. For this is an image
of sexual difference or, rather, of sexual differentiation according to
the distribution of the phallus¡Xas it is marked and then re-marked
by the man¡¦s right arm, which appears less to have been raised
than erected in greeting (60).
3. Like all representations of sexual difference that
our culture produces, this is an image not simply of anatomical difference,
but of the values assigned to it.
4. If I return to this passage here, it is not simply to correct my
own remarkable oversight, but more importantly to indicate a blind
spot in our discussion of postmodernism in general: our failure to address
the issue of sexual difference¡Xnot only in the objects we
discuss, but in our own enunciation as well <«Å§G,
a. Marxism privileges the characteristically masculine activity of
production as the definitively human activity (Marx: men ¡§begin
to distinguish themselves from animals as soon as they begin to produce
their means of subsistence¡¨); women historically consigned to
the spheres of nonproductive or reproductive labor, are thereby
situated outside the society of male producers, in a state of nature.
. . . What is at issue, however, is not simply the oppressiveness of Marxist
discourse, but its totalizing ambitions, its claim to account for
every form of social experience. But this claim is characteristic of all
theoretical discourse, which is one reason women frequently condemn it
as phallocratic. It is not always theory per se that women repudiate, nor
simply, as Lyotard has suggested, the priority men have granted to it,
its rigid opposition to practical experience. Rather, what they challenge
is the distance it maintains between itself and its objects¡Xa distance
which objectifies and masters (63).
B. To prevent a phallologic relapse in their own discourse, many feminist
artists have, in fact, forged a new (or renewed) alliance with theory¡Xmost
profitably, perhaps, with the writing of women influenced by Lacanian psychoanalysis
1. Many modernist artists, of course, produce texts about their own
production, but writing was almost always considered supplementary to their
primary work as painters, sculptors, photographers, etc., whereas the kind
of simultaneous activity on multiple fronts that characterizes many feminist
practices is a postmodern phenomenon. And one of the things it challenges
is modernism¡¦s rigid opposition of artistic practice
and theory (63).
III. A la recherche du recit perdu
A. Lyotard defines a discourse as modern when it appeals
to one or another of these grand r?cit
for its legitimacy; the advent of postmodernity, then signals a crisis
in narrative¡¦s legitimizing function, its ability to compel
B. "Most people"¨ does not include Fredric Jameson, although
he diagnoses the postmodern condition in similar terms (as a loss of
narrative's social function) and distinguishes between modernist and
postmodernist works according to their different relations to the "'truth-content'
of art" (65).
C. Symptoms of our recent loss of mastery are everywhere apparent
in cultural activity today¡Xno where more so than in the visual
arts. The modernist project of joining forces with science and technology
for the transformation of the environment after rational principles of
function and utility (Productivism, the Bauhaus) has long since been abandoned;
what we witness in its place is a desperate, often hysterical attempt to
recover some sense of mastery via the resurrection of heroic large-scale
easel painting and monumental cast-bronze sculpture¡Xmediums
identified with the cultural hegemony of Western Europe (67).
1. Postmodernist artists speak of impoverishment¡Xbut in a very
different way. Sometimes the postmodernist work testifies to a deliberate
refusal of mastery; for example, Martha Rosler's The Bowery
in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems (1974-75), in which photographs
of Bowery storefronts alternate with clusters of typewritten words signifying
a. On the one hand, she denies the caption/ text its conventional
function of supplying the image with something it lacks; instead, her juxtaposition
of two representational systems, visual and verbal, is calculated (as the
title suggests) to "undermine" rather than "underline¡¨
the truth value of each (68).
b. More importantly, Rosler has refused to photograph the inhabitants
of Skid Row, to speak on their behalf, to illuminate them from a safe distance.
For ¡§concerned¡¨ or what Rosler calls ¡§victim¡¨
photograph overlooks the constitutive role of its own activity, to be merely
representative (the ¡§myth¡¨ of photographic transparency
and objectivity) (68-9).
c. Despite his or her benevolence in representing those who have been
denied access to the means of representation, the photographer inevitably
functions as an agent of the system of power that silenced these
people in the first place. Thus, they are twice victimized: first by society,
and then by the photographer who presume the right to speak on their behalf.
In fact, in such photography it is the photographer rather than the ¡§subject¡¨
who pose¡Xas the subject¡¦s consciousness, indeed, as
conscience itself (69).
d. In this work, . . . she has nevertheless pointed negatively to the
crucial issue of a politically motivated art practice today: ¡§the
indignity of speaking for others. Rosler¡¦s position poses
a challenge to criticism as well, specifically to the critic¡¦s
substitution of his own discourse for the work of art (69).
IV. The Visible and the Invisible
A. A work like The Bowery in Two Inadequate Descriptive Systems
not only exposes the ¡§myth¡¨ of photographic
objectivity and transparency; it also upsets the (modern) belief in
vision as a privileged means of access to certainty and truth (¡§Seeing
is believing¡¨) (70).
B. That the priority our culture grants to vision is a sensory impoverishment
is hardly a new perception; the feminist critique, however, links the privileging
of vision with sexual privilege (70).
1. ¡§Freud articulated the ¡¥discovery of castration¡¦
around a sight: sight of a phallic presence in the boy, sight of a phallic
absence in the girl, ultimately sight of a phallic absence in the mother.
Sexual difference takes its decisive significance from a sighting¡¨
C. But what does it mean to claim that these [six women] artists render
the invisible visible, especially in a culture in which visibility is always
on the side of the male, invisibility on the side of the female (72)? The
following are some examples:
1. When Sherrie Levine appropriates¡Xliterally takes¡XEdward
Weston¡¦s photographs of his son Neil posed
as a classical Greek torso, is she simply dramatizing the diminished possibilities
for creativity in an image-saturated culture, as is often repeated? Or
is her refusal authorship not in fact a refusal of the role of creator
as ¡§father¡¨ of his work, of the ¡§paternal
rights assigned to the author by law? (73).
2. Levine collaborates with Louise Lawler under the collective title
¡§A Picture is No Substitute for Anything¡¨¡Xan
unequivocal critique of representation as traditionally defined (E.H. Gombrich:
¡§All art is image-making, and all image-making is the creation
of substitutes.¡¨) (73).
3. When Lawler shows ¡§A Movie without the Picture,¡¨
as she did in 1979 in Los Angeles and again in 1983 in New York, is she
simply soliciting the spectator as a collaborator in the production of
the image? Or is she not also denying the viewer the kind of visual pleasure
which cinema customarily provides¡Xa pleasure that has been linked
with the masculine perversions voyeurism and scopophilia (73)?
4. When Cindy
Sherman, in her untitled black-and-white studies for film stills (made
in the late ¡¥70s and early ¡¥80s), first costumed
herself to resemble heroines of grade-B Hollywood films of the late ¡¥50s
and early ¡¥60s and the photographed herself in situations suggesting
some immanent danger lurking just beyond the frame, was she simply attacking
the rhetoric of ¡§auteurism by equating the known artifice of
the actress in front of the camera with the supposed authenticity of the
director behind it¡¨? Or was her play-acting not also an acting
out of the psychoanalytic notion of femininity as masquerade, that is,
as representation of male desire (73-5)?
5. When Barbara
Kruger collages the words "your gaze hits the side of my face" over
an image culled from a '50s photo-annual of a female bust, is she simply
"making an equation . . . between aesthetic reflection and the alienation
of the gaze: both reify"? Or is she not speaking instead of the masculinity
of the look, the ways in which it objectifies and masters (75-7)?
A. In the visual arts we have witnessed the gradual dissolution of
once fundamental distinctions¡Xoriginal/copy, authentic/ inauthentic,
function/ ornament. Each now seems to contain its opposite, and the indeterminacy
brings with it an impossibility of choice or, rather, the absolute equivalence
and hence interchangeability of choice (77).
B. The existence of feminism, with its insistence on difference,
forces us to reconsider. For in our country good-bye look just like hello,
but only from a masculine position. Women have learned¡Xperhaps they
have always known¡Xhow to recognize the difference (77).
1. What is your view about Martha Rosler's argument that to photograph
the inhabitants of Skid Row constitute a double victimization¡Xfirst
by society, and then by the photographer, who presumes the right to speak
on their behalf? (68-9)
2. Can you think of other examples applicable to the term "The Visible
and the Invisible" Owen used in the essay to discuss postmodern feminist¡¦s
3. Can you think of any other possible oversight to fit in the discussion
of postmodern feminism?