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Skeptical FeminismReview - Skeptical Feminism
Activist Theory, Activist Practice
by Carolyn Dever
University of Minnesota Press, 2003
Review by Kevin Aho, Ph.D.
Jan 25th 2005 (Volume 9, Issue 4)

There is a fundamental tension in contemporary feminism between 'theory' and 'practice'. Traditional theorizing has long been interpreted by feminists as problematic insofar as it represents a mode of abstract generalization that is detached from the particularities of concrete experience, producing theories that are authoritative, hierarchical, and exclusionary. Feminism, by and large, seeks to ground theory in concrete practices in order to recognize the oppressive relations embodied in these practices. The tension, therefore, is this: how can the local complexities of material practices, so important to feminism, ground the abstractions inherent to any theorizing? According to Carolyn Dever,

[t]his is the double bind of theoretical production: abstraction from the local is, on the one hand, useful and necessary; on the other, it represents the failure to account for all the material claims and challenges the local evidence presents (5).

In her pioneering new book Skeptical Feminism: Activist Theory, Activist Practice, Dever traces the historical developments of this tension in feminist theory-production from popular, activist, and academic perspectives as they emerge from the second-wave woman's movement in the United States, from the early 1970's to the present.

The book consists of five chapters representing key developments in the history of feminist theory. Chapter One, "The Future of an Ideal," addresses the women's liberation movement in the late 1960's and early 1970's and the consciousness-raising movement that subsequently emerged. This movement attempted to ground theory in the concrete, personal experiences of women in order to raise awareness of the exclusionary political relations that are already embedded in everyday social practices. Put in another way, "the personal is political." This awareness of common experiences will allegedly result in an empathic "sisterhood," an emotional union or coalition that women can turn to for a sense of solidarity and strength. Dever problematizes this grassroots movement by revealing how its concerns are not universal for women insofar as the movement has a tendency to interpret the practical experience of femininity through the lens of traditional patriarchal conventions, neglecting those experiences that are non-domestic, not "white, middle-class, and heterosexual" (35). Moreover, the movement merely engages the individual "symptoms" of patriarchal oppression rather than the deeper, more systemic social and historical conditions that cause these symptoms (39-40).

Chapter Two and Chapter Three represent the heart of Dever's project, with a thorough investigation of the role psychoanalytic feminism plays in the United States. Chapter Two, "The Activist Unconscious," explores the feminist critiques of Freudian psychoanalysis in the mid 1970's and the impact of Lacanian analysis in the early 1980's. This turn to psychoanalysis represented a shift away from grounding theory in individual bodily experiences to a more abstract ground, namely, the unconscious mind (53). By initially attacking Freud's conception of the woman as inadequate or inferior to the extent that she does not posses a phallus, critics such as Kate Millett suggest that a woman's psychological trauma is not a product of innate anatomical conditions, but a result of a culture and history that already devalues the sex and gender of women. Following Lacan, feminist theorists further attempted to "de-biologize" the early Freud by suggesting psychoanalysis is not fundamentally concerned with empirical body parts but about the ways in which a patriarchal background of linguistic and social meanings unconsciously shapes the way men and women interpret themselves from childhood on, tacitly imposing conformist standards of heterosexuality and domestic "normalcy." By focusing on the linguistic and social conditions that invariably determine the unconscious mind, feminist theorists can begin to get clear about how and why the female myths of passivity, motherhood, and the nuclear family persist in the West.

Chapter Three, "The Feminist Body-Politic," continues this argument by applying the insights of psychoanalytic theory to body-politics. Dever illustrates the ways in which social power relations are built into sexed-bodies to the extent that Western culture unconsciously privileges the myth of the male-dependent vaginal orgasm. Theory grounded in feminist body-politics begins to dismantle this myth by appropriating the sex studies of Alfred Kinsey in the early 1950's and Masters and Johnson in the mid 1960's. These studies reveal that the clitoral orgasm is the only female orgasm, and feminist theorists embrace these empirical findings by suggesting they do more than merely emancipate the woman from male sexual dependency. They also deflate the taboo against self-knowledge embodied in masturbation and expose the weaknesses of traditional heterosexual feminism by that revealing lesbian relationships may be the most personally and sexually fulfilling insofar as women have a deeper knowledge of their own bodily desires.

In Chapter Four, "The Feminist Abject," the author reveals how feminists in the late 1970's and early 1980's used novels to express their concern over academic feminist theorists who were becoming increasingly formal, detached from the concrete particularities of everyday life. By using examples of self-loathing and humiliation exhibited in the filth and contingency of the woman's body-functions, these authors attempted to ground feminist theory in the material body by subverting the very assumptions of purity and asceticism inherent to the academic life of the mind.

Chapter Five, "Obstructive Behavior," explores how feminist theory has appropriated the category of "lesbian" as one that further deflates the authority of heterosexual feminism, an authority that fails to come to grips with a background of patriarchal assumptions. As Dever writes,

Women who fail to consider the erotic potential of other women are trapped in a patriarchal web, living their lives and setting their expectations only in terms of their relationships to men; thus, feminists fail to confront their full investment in patriarchal power until they confront the personal politics of their bedroom (144).

The assumptions of heterosexuality have a pernicious tendency to exclude not only homosexuals, but others on the margins, poor women and women of color. By focusing on the categories of "gay" and "lesbian," Dever shows how feminist theorists are able to dismantle the ways in which the conception of "normal" has been socially and historically constructed. This deconstruction allows for a more open and inclusive theoretical posture.

Dever rightly concludes that feminist theory--in order to remain committed to the myriad complexities of everyday life and to resist the exclusionary and hierarchical tendencies of abstraction--needs to be constantly invented and reinvented. This "cyclical renewal" is embodied in the very history of feminist theorizing itself. Feminist theory has, for the most part, continued to keep the lines of dialogue open between academic and non-academic practitioners and ceaselessly challenged assumptions of normativity, specifically the practices of the white, middle-class, and heterosexual.

Dever does a masterful job at revealing how this historical tension creates the common thread that politically binds together the various strains of feminist theory. While her book is well-written and clear, it does require some background knowledge in feminist philosophy. It is ideal for scholars and graduate students interested in a comprehensive historical overview of feminist social theory.

 

2005 Kevin Aho

 

Kevin Aho, Ph.D., College of Arts and Sciences, Florida Gulf Coast University


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