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  • Peggy Phelan

Feminism Politics and Activism

Feminism Politics and Activism

Feminism belongs on the shortlist of recent intellectual revolutions that includes Darwinism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis. Like these other dramatic sea changes, feminism radically alters our perception of history, value, meaning, and experience. The world no longer looks the way it did before feminism, and artists, those maestros of revision, quickly absorbed, translated, extended, and recorded the force of this new vision. Feminist artists of the '70s--from body artists such as Carolee Schneemann and Hannah Wilke to Earth artists such as Ana Mendieta and Mary Beth Edelson--revised the categories of what art is and to whom it is addressed. But the history of feminist achievement is much messier, more contradictory, and more ambivalent, in the fullest sense of that term, than the epistemological and cultural transformations achieved by Darwin, Marx, Engels, and Freud. This ambivalence, sewn right into the political and intellectual core of feminism, has made it extraordinarily difficult to assess feminism's influence and to take its measure in contemporary art.

Almost from the start, the feminism that swept the West in the '60s and '70s was beset with the problem of belatedness on the one hand (how could it have taken so long to see the sanctioned hatred of women at the heart of modernity?) and enormous anxiety about its radical we-want-it-now "fringe" on the other. Not surprisingly, therefore, feminism's history is rife with betrayal, envy, and schisms. Women of color, lesbians, sex adventurers, transsexuals, and even, weirdly, straight white women have suffered the pain of being outcast from the community they want/ed to love and be loved by. Thus the story of feminist awakening is a traumatic one. What makes this awakening more than a melodrama of the anguished soul is that it is a collective trauma that happened with an acceleration and pervasiveness that short-circuited and helped repress some of the high personal costs that individual women and men paid for its success. The notion that "the personal is political" was widely successful in establishing the politics of everyday life and exposing the politics of the art world but not always up to sorting out the emotional and psychic fallout from such rigorous equations. (Laura Cottingham's important video Not For Sale, 1998, documents some of these fallouts but concentrates oil celebrating heroines.) In pointing out this trauma, I am not minimizing feminism's astonishing achievements, especially in art: It is undeniable that the political passion inspired by feminist consciousness infused art in ways that cannot be undone. Nonetheless, as an intellectual and political revolution, feminism differs from previous epistemological transformations because it refuses to be "merely" an intellectual matter. Assessing its influence requires that one go beyond intellectual assessments of feminist history and take into consideration emotional and psychic costs and benefits. Central to these costs and benefits is a pervasiveness of ambivalence that now dominates our lives.

While it is more or less accurate to credit Darwin, Marx, Engels, and Freud with the basic discoveries that spurred evolutionism, socialism, and psychoanalysis, crediting one or two people with the origin of feminism is much more fraught. Many historians of feminism note the influence of Simone de Beauvoir and Betty Friedan, but these acknowledgments almost always come with a heavy sense of apology for establishing an almost arbitrary beginning point. (Registering the" force of belatedness in feminist history, most scholars frequently refer to the feminism of the '60s and '70s as "second wave.") Feminism's anxiety about its origins is one reason why many feminist artists in the '70s tried to revise art history, recovering long-ignored work of women. Linda Nochlin's 1971 essay "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" was the call that revolutionized art history. Artists began to "redo" masterpieces, resisting that the historical imagination of the past include women as more than objects of what Laura Mulvey aptly dubbed "the male gaze." One consequence of this art-historical revision was an acknowledgment that the history of women's lives, experiences, and intellectual and artistic contributions was simply too vast to recover. This loss propelled a political grief that was rehearsed again in the '80s and '90s as AIDS and breast cancer began killing more young people.

The recognition of ignorance at the heart of the historical enterprise prior to feminism has had an enormous influence on poststructuralist philosophy, with its emphasis on the "undecidability" of textual meaning and on antiracist and anticolonialist theory--work often animated by the aspiration to recover a history centered on the experiences of slaves and the disenfranchised. Taken together, these aspirations have changed how history is written, what counts as evidence, who can serve as witness, and who can serve as judge. This role of feminism in historiography illuminates the broader story of feminism's revolutionary achievements. Feminist thinking required more than "filling in" missing content: It insisted on revising the fundamental questions thai defined the disciplines. It also made clear how quickly insights from the present will be themselves a product of both blindness and insight. For example, just as feminists of the '70s were pained to see what dominant history had been long blind to, so too did feminists of the '80s and '90s regret and critique the previous generation's blindness to differences of race, class, and sexuality.

With art history as practice and method in mind, it is worth revisiting the question frequently posed to feminists today: "Is feminism passe?" (It is useful to note that this same question also haunts Marxism and psychoanalysis--and the question about evolution is more severe: Does it exist? The New York Times recently reported that Americans are three times more likely to believe in the Virgin Birth.) The structure of the question is designed to elicit either a yes or no, or something along the lines of "'70s feminism is passe, but...." A more generative way to approach political and historical continuity is to consider which questions exposed by feminism in the '60s and '70s still persist and what forms these questions take so far removed from their initial exposure. AIDS and global capital, for example, have radically transformed the persistent question of women's sexual freedom. For women in South Africa or South Central Los Angeles, sexual freedom is deeply connected to earlier feminist conversations, but now refracted through medical biology as well as differing local economies and cultural politics. The zigzagging successes and failures of feminism throughout the world today--women are routinely prime ministers in some places, and routinely maimed or killed for alleged sexual infidelity in those and other places--are symptoms of the ambivalence that still haunts feminism as an intellectual revolution. Yet that ambivalent zigzag is one of the most radical consequences of feminism as thought practice and, I believe, anticipates the likely trajectory of the next great intellectual revolution, the biogenetic one. Uneven distribution, economic access, and the larger forces of what we might call medical capital will similarly compromise it.

Today, intellectual revolutions cannot but be greeted with ambivalence. In this, feminism's history and future are writ large. Thus feminism remains for me the richest intellectual vantage point for surveying the history of thought over the past 150 years. It leaves nothing untouched in the past or the future, and it infuses our present with both its dismaying failures and its astonishing achievements on the world stage. Feminism makes ambivalence a necessary worldview. In these days of hideous fundamentalism, the capacity to acknowledge ambivalence is revolutionary.


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