Postmodern 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.

Lisa Li
31 December 1998
I. Introduction II. "A Remarkable Oversight" III. A la recherche du recit perdu
IV. The Visible and the Invisible V. Conclusion VI. Questions

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 postmoderne

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).

I. Introduction

  1. 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 (57).

  2. 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).

  3. 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).
  4. 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 (58-9).
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 (59).

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 of women (59).

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¨©¿, ¬Ýº|) 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, µoªí(²z½×¡B¥D¸qµ¥)> (61).

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 (63). 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

* recit=±Ô­z, ¬G¨Æ; perdu=¥¢¥hªº, ³à¥¢ªº

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 consensus (64).

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 themselves 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 inebriety (68). 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¡¨ (70-1). 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)?

V. Conclusion 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).

VI. Questions 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 artwork?

3. Can you think of any other possible oversight to fit in the discussion of postmodern feminism?