Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism
by Craig Owens
from Foster, Hal, ed. The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture.
Seattle: Bay P, 1983.
Li, 31 December 1998
[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
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).
- 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).
1. What is at stake, then, is not only the hegemony of Western culture,
but also (our sense of) our identity as a culture
- 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,
- 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).
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).
A. An allegorical impulse
in contemporary art¡Xan impulse that I identified as postmodernist
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 (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).
la recherche du recit perdu
? ; 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 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
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
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
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
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")
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.")
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 artwork?
3. Can you think of
any other possible oversight to fit in the discussion of postmodern
Criticism: Feminism;Postmodern Theories and Texts