Clearing Ground and Making Connections: Modernism, Postmodernism, Feminism

Carolyn DiPalma & Kathy Ferguson. Handbook of Gender and Women’s Studies. Editor: Kathy Davis, Mary Evans, Judith Lorber. 2006. Sage Publication.

This chapter provides a brief introduction to some of the most interesting debates in modernism and postmodernism, describes how those debates find expression in feminist inquiries, and offers a brief vision of feminist pursuits informed by those debates. Key points of contestation are shaped by four overall convictions: (1) the terms modernism and postmodernism are fundamentally relational, and strategically illuminating these shifting relations can be productive; (2) gender is brought to visibility as an analytical category somewhat differently in modern and postmodern thinking; (3) feminist energies produce a particular stance toward method, a set of expectations toward various practices of inquiry; and (4) feminist thinking is best served by productively engaging tensions between modern and postmodern thinking.


Numerous debates within feminism move among issues and opinions associated with modernism/modernity and those associated with postmodernism/ postmodernity. However, these terms shift and slide around one another with tricky agility; it is difficult to pin them down for examination or judgment. Lawrence Cahoone suggests that the term ‘modernism’ has been used in a ‘famously ambiguous way’ (1996: 13), while the authors of a feminist glossary flag modernism as ‘a contested category which has dominated the writing of twentieth-century literary history’ (Andermahr, Lovell, and Wolkowitz, 2000: 169). Michel Foucault remarked in his 1976 lectures at the Collège de France that we are stuck with the term ‘modern’ because there is no other word we can use, and that the term has become completely devoid of meaning (2003: 80).

The term ‘postmodernism’ fares little better; the same feminist glossary finds ‘an almost infinite variety of pathways and combinations’ within this term, throwing so broad a net as to catch ‘most of the major social theorists of the second half of the twentieth century’ (Andermahr et al., 2000: 209). Linda Nicholson describes the postmodern critique of modernity as ‘wide ranging,’ explaining that it ‘focuses on such diverse elements as the modern sense of the self and subjectivity, the idea of history as linear and evolutionary, and the modernist separation of art and mass culture’ as well as ‘the idea of transcendent reason’ (1990a: 3). Kwame Appiah goes farther, fearing to enter ‘the shark-infested waters around the semantic island of the postmodern’ (1997: 423).

Each of these authors sketches a struggle between the need for these concepts and the impossibility of figuring out what they mean. If these terms are so difficult to apprehend, how is it that we continue to try to do so? And what feminist goals does this continued struggle serve? Following the advice of those who preceded us, we do not offer precise definitions of ‘modernism’ and ‘postmodernism.’ Instead, we sketch a map of some key points of contestation between the vague territories implied by their usage. Our incursions into this turbulent political and intellectual space are shaped by four overall convictions.

First, the terms are fundamentally relational; they take their meaning and do their work within the implied or explicit relations they sustain to one another. As we frame our inquiry around the key terms modern and postmodern, we implicitly constitute these categories as at least somewhat unified and oppositional; this move is useful in ways we sketch below, but is unhelpful in unpacking the diverse kinds of arguments that reside within each category. In other words, in order to compare postmodern and modern thinking we have to push the differences within the categories to the background so that the differences between them can emerge. This analytic move could itself be thought of as modern in that it depends on solidly bounded categories conceived as mutually incompatible; our challenge is to make this oversimplification worthwhile both by using it to illuminate key debates and by calling it into question through strategies that continually bring the two kinds of thinking into relation with one another.

Second, gender is brought to visibility as an analytic category in both modern and postmodern thinking, but in somewhat different ways. The modern vector has enabled feminists to recognize and name the inconsistent expectations of gender as a problem requiring redress, and to seek greater gender equality or revolutionary transformations in gender order. The postmodern vector has nudged feminists toward taking gender as a verb: ‘to gender’ is something one does, something that is done in discourses and material structures. While the more modern feminist thinkers generally take gender as an aspect of life that we have found and then look for ways to make it work differently, the primarily postmodernist thinkers tend to take gender as a category we have produced and then look for strategies for inventing it otherwise.

Third, feminism’s encounter with the world of method is both uncertain and robust. There is a relationship between feminist analyses of the world and the methods used to produce/express those analyses. Engaging with the questions raised by the vectors of modernism and postmodernism while staying open to the concerns of those seeking a particular method that earns the descriptor ‘feminist,’ our inquiry takes feminist energies to produce, not a particular method, but a stance toward method, a set of expectations that we bring to a variety of practices of inquiry.

Fourth, feminist thinking and acting is best served by seeking engaging ways to connect modern and postmodern thinking, to work within the problematic relations, and to find the tensions productive rather than crippling.

Modern and Postmodern: Shifting Meanings and Productive Relations


While we eschew the search for precise meanings, we nonetheless find the dictionary (Oxford English Dictionary On-line; Webster’s New Twentieth Century Dictionary) a useful place to start: not because it pins down definitions, but because it flags multiple possible meanings that might be pursued. The English word ‘modern’ comes from the Latin term modernus, meaning ‘of the present time,’ and the Latin word modus, or measure. While some literary theorists entertain a tradition that confines ‘modernism’ largely to the twentieth century (Groden and Kreiswirth, 1994: 512), broader conversations among critical theorists, which we are using in this chapter, sketch the modern as that which interrupted and transformed European feudalism. Some combination of capitalism, secularism, individualism, rationalism, humanism, and liberal democracy became hegemonic, while class and race warfare, gender disturbances, anti-colonial frictions, and feudal remnants interrupted and complicated the dominant vectors of power. Modern thinking, anchored in and indebted to the Enlightenment, typically ‘lays claim to a certain exclusivity of insight’ (Appiah, 1997:425) in various domains—one best route to knowledge, one superior truth, one ultimate ground of politics, one best narrative of history.

Feminist scholars have both claimed a place for women within the modern, as do historians Natalie Davis and Arlette Farge (1993), and noted women’s forced exclusion from it, as in Joan Kelly-Gadol’s (1977) famous essay ‘Did Women Have a Renaissance?’ and David Noble’s (1993) history of women’s exclusion from European scientific and religious traditions. The logic of these inquiries pursues the question consistently posed by Cynthia Enloe (2001)—where are the women?—in order to understand and demonstrate ‘the reality of women’s lives’ (Davis and Farge, 1993:2). These inquiries require feminists to have some idea, no matter how qualified, of who counts as women and what counts as real.

The kind of thinking associated with the modern has been crucial to feminist arguments for women’s emancipation. Foucault goes so far as to see in modernity ‘a society whose historical consciousness centers not on sovereignty and the problem of its foundation, but on revolution, its promises, and its prophecies of future emancipation’ (2003: 80). Foucault’s lectures track the transfigurations of modern scientific, economic, and political revolutions, their mutations through racial, national, and class struggles, and the reassertions of sovereignty in pursuit of state-centered reformulations of revolutionary promises; however, he sees little gender turbulence in these otherwise dynamic relations. Yet the measure of the modern for feminism can be taken in large part from the resources modern thinking provides to name gender as a category of analysis rather than an unremarkable fact of life, to critique male dominance as oppression rather than nature or divine order, and to seek women’s rights and liberation through political reforms or revolutionary transformation.


Perhaps the most obvious meaning of postmodern takes post to be a prefix meaning after, behind, later, suggesting a linear sequence—modern is followed by postmodern, just as feudalism was followed by modernity. Here postmodern is grammatically like postwar—simply the period after the modern. Jean-François Lyotard (1979), for example, names the postmodern as the successor to the modern, and The Glossary of Feminist Theory refers to postmodernism as ‘a new condition of society’ (Andermahr et al, 2000: 207). David Harvey (1990) theorizes postmodernism as a distinctive historical condition emerging in the late twentieth century out of successive waves of space/time compression and the accompanying pressures of capital accumulation. Cahoone refers to this view as ‘historical postmodernism’ because it takes the political, economic, and cultural organization of modernity to have changed sufficiently to count as a ‘novel world’ (1996: 17).

Yet the term postmodern could summon a different grammar—rather than relegating post to the subordinate position of prefix, with modern as the anchoring root term, postmodernism might be a compound word, a coming together of two equal meanings. The noun post comes from the Latin ponere, to place. In noun form, post can mean a place, notably a place where troops are garrisoned, aid is offered, or trading occurs. Post modern, here, would be grammatically more like post office or post exchange. Postmodernism as a noun + noun combination could be the place from which to take the measure of the modern. Taking the measure of the modern might best be done from the perspective of the postmodern, since modernity does not come clearly into focus until one can be, at least to some degree, outside of it. The postmodern could be a site from which one can get a fuller view of the modern, an outpost or incursion into the modern, a place where one can get one’s bearings, gather some resources, pause before reentering.

Continuing our dictionary explorations, in verb form post can mean ‘to put up on a wall…or other conspicuous place’; ‘to announce, publicize, or advertise by posting notices’; ‘to hasten, to travel with speed…to inform, as of events.’ To get at this potential meaning, post needs to become an infinitive: [to] post modern could be, grammatically, like to post a message or, going back to the original meaning of modus, to post the measure. Postmodernism as a verb + noun combination could be that which announces the modern. Instead of warning people against trespassing by posting notices, postmodernism invites people to trespass on the modern. A post can ‘denounce by a public notice’ and can ‘publish a name… as lost or missing.’ [To] postmodern is to denounce some aspects of the modern and to point out that other parts are lost or missing. Postmodernism could be that which keeps us well posted on the working of the modern.

In any of these grammatical formulations, postmodernism is clearly a way of thinking indebted to the modern. The exclusivities that various modernist philosophies and institutions have claimed—science’s claim to be the best route to knowledge; rationalist or realist thinkers’ assumptions of an unchanging foundation for understanding; Marxist narratives of the transcendent grounds of history; liberals’ assertions about a primary origin of psychology or politics—are disrupted by postmodern responses. The loose family of ideas gathering under the term postmodernism brings a dispersing, pluralizing energy to the unities of the modern; it is a ‘space-clearing gesture’ (Appiah, 1997: 432) pushing against various realisms and challenging their legitimating narratives. Yet these multiplying strategies can be pursued in a variety of ways. Because modernism tends to narrate history as a process of evolution or a sequence of stages, the first grammar of postmodern, in which post is a prefix, is actually the modernist understanding of the term. The alternative grammars, in which post becomes a noun (a place) or a verb (an act), recruit postmodern energies to define themselves. While this sort of word play is itself evocative of postmodernism, it also fits us out with two additional points of entry into the modern-postmodern relation: as a site from which to investigate the modern, and as a way of announcing/informing/ transgressing it. These playful invitations to think the relation differently do not replace the more common reference to historical sequence, but they provide useful feminist supplements to it.

Postmodern thinking has been vital to feminist attempts to trouble the limits of gender as a category of analysis and to make feminist expectations of gender into uncomfortable nodes for internal questioning. The alternative grammar of feminist postmodernism permits and encourages active exploration and transgression of gender prospects, power, and performance from multiple strategic points. In short, postmodern feminism examines the liberatory costs and benefits of thinking gender differently.

Modern and Postmodern Interpretations of Gender

Gender can be understood as both the social or cultural organization of sexual difference and as a system of power relations privileging men and masculinity as prior to and more worthy than women and femininity. Contemporary gender thinking often sways between two arguments: one for gender’s relentless persistence, as seen, for example, in women’s lower wages, greater vulnerability to violence, exclusion from power, or devastation by globalization; a second for gender’s dislocation—as shown in practices of performativity that queer and amplify gender categories, as well as through discourses and technologies of production, representation, and abjection. Gender analysis, framed in modern terms, becomes a way of empowering women to struggle against male dominance and to imagine their own liberation. In modern feminist conversations, the concept of gender shifted from a property of grammar and developed to move away from biological foundations grounded in the concept of sex (male and female) and toward more abstract cultural underpinnings (masculine and feminine). Gayle Rubin’s term ‘sex/gender system,’ meaning a ‘set of arrangements by which a society transforms biological sexuality into products of human activity,’ was very influential on this point in the mid-1970s (1997: 28).

Yet, many also questioned this separation as overly sterile and as refusing to recognize overlapping links in diverse constraints and pressures informing both biology and culture. Gender, framed in postmodern terms, offers a site from which to problematize the gender categories that modernism produces and requires and to muster resources for trespassing against those categories. By conferring gender in increasingly explicit terms, modernism declares the presence of gender. However, the demands of maintaining order, delineating meaning, and avoiding the possibility of questions for any category are persistent. Modernism’s desire for clarity produces an abstract yet constant need for category fortification against absent but anticipated difficulties. Postmodern gender thinking requires the presence and certainty of modern gender thinking in order to have a site of confidence on which to wield troubling questions about category assumptions, differences, excesses, and limitations. In this sense, postmodern gender thinking does not simply come after modern, but helps to produce it by serving as the implicit (needed) absence through which a (definitive) presence can be figured. Judith Lorber (1993) provides an example of this dynamic in her examination of biological foundations as ideological productions that have worked to reinforce the assumptions of sex and gender as dichotomous variables. Other examples of this enterprise include Thomas Laqueur’s (1990) investigation into historical changes from a one-sex model of natural law (with male as telos) to a two-sex model, based on an increasing faith in science which, by the eighteenth century, claimed empirically provable different male and female bodies; Suzanne Kessler’s (2000) analysis of the key role of penis size in the ‘dilemma’ of ambiguous genitalia; and Anne Fausto-Sterling’s (2000) inquiry into the culturally informed scientific practices of gender politics and the construction of sexuality.

By looking briefly at feminist engagements around questions of subjectivity, intersectionality, power and politics, and knowledge and representation, we can illuminate some of the shared conversations and abiding tensions inhabiting modern/postmodern struggles within feminist thinking about gender.


Modern energies have largely directed feminists toward claiming subjectivity for women to gain entry into the domains of rights-bearing or revolution-making subjects. Feminist developmental psychologists, most famously Carol Gilligan (1982), have named and investigated ways of thinking and judging in women’s voice; feminist standpoint theorists such as Nancy Hartsock (1983) have looked to women’s productive and reproductive labor as the potential grounds upon which a feminist viewpoint can be achieved. These approaches offer a subject-centered hermeneutic in which a self, understood relationally, is a source of knowledge and action in the world; these approaches also predictably raise fears, such as those expressed by Denise Riley (1988) and Diana Fuss (1990), that claiming a particular subjectivity for women will lead to essentialism (attributing a timeless essence to all women, as patriarchal theorists frequently do). In turn, others, including Hartsock (1990) and Jane Flax (1987), express counter-fears that subjectivity as a stable ground for knowledge is being questioned by postmodernism just when women are in a position to claim a coherent subject position for themselves.

Postmodern approaches to subjectivity typically focus on subjects as the outcome rather than the source of historical processes and power relations. For example, Judith Butler’s (1990) arguments for performativity, approaching gender as something one does rather than something one is, problematize expectations of regulative modernist gender categories. Focusing on the doing of gender rather than on the identity of a subject prior to the doing, Butler (1990) invites postmodern energies to deconstruct the presumed foundations of all subject positions and at the same time alarms some, including Seyla Benhabib (1992), who fear that this sort of feminism will lead to a ‘theory without addresses, that is, without real women or men’ to rally and recruit (Humm, 1995: 217).


Another aspect of the discussion of gender as framed in contrasting modern and postmodern terms stresses the need to connect gender to race, class, age, sexuality, disability, and other vectors of power. Both modern and postmodern feminist thinkers would likely agree that gender always operates in relation to such other vectors. The differences are in the ways these thinkers name and govern such relations of meaning and power. The modern move incorporates the intersections of gender, race, class, etc., by multiplying the available subject positions that women might occupy, proliferating the categories with which gender is required to work: ‘white working class lesbians,’ for example, or ‘disabled women of color.’ While to multiply gender is in some ways to destabilize it, the mandate to name a coherent subject position from which various subalterns can speak tends to restabilize the (multiplied) categories around the intersection of terms most needed to protest subordination.

Postmodern feminists generally agree that gender does not stand alone as an analytic category and must be considered in relation to other salient practices of power, but postmodern thinking multiplies gender practices with the goal of disrupting them altogether rather than reconsolidating a better set. The impossibility of ever completing the list that usually starts with ‘gender, race, class…’ accounts for what Butler (1990) calls ‘the embarrassed etc.’ at the end of such sets; rather than expecting closure, the postmodern move sees feminist inquiry as best served by understanding gender as always already intertwined with other analytic and political energies.

The postmodern move is not exhausted through resisting and trespassing modern concerns; rather, the move proceeds toward an internal critique of postmodernism’s own reliance on presence and absence, focusing on and questioning the tugs and pulls within webs of relations that work together to momentarily (if at all) produce a glimpse of something that might be (always already mistakenly) taken to be gender. Elsa Barkley Brown points to this aspect when she states ‘all women do not have the same gender,’ arguing that although Black women may be recognized as both raced and gendered, ‘one cannot write adequately about the lives of white women in the United States in any context without acknowledging the way in which race shaped their lives’ (1997: 276, emphasis in original). Going beyond the insistence that gender is something we do, these thinkers multiply and mobilize genders to the point that gender becomes impossible in the sense that no useful generalizations about it can be made, and thus the term becomes difficult to use at all.

Power and Politics

Feminism’s liberal and radical struggles for political change have generally tried to unify women and their allies to win changes in the laws, policies, or practices of states, organizations, or social movements. Such political activities generally reflect a modern understanding of power as force and politics as struggle, although feminists may at the same time strive among themselves to enact power as empowerment and politics as cooperation. These two contrary pulls generally go together because no matter how ecumenically feminists define ‘our side’ and how inclusively we act toward each other, there is still ‘the other side’ whose advocates have to be confronted and persuaded or defeated.

Feminisms operating under postmodern declensions do not so much dispute as dislocate the parameters of politics of struggle. Postmodern feminism works on two political levels: to insist that we acknowledge and respond to difference or otherness, to ‘let difference be’ by lightening the hand of order and diminishing demands for conceptual or historical mastery; and to locate the workings of power prior to and productive of the subjects said to wield it. The ‘space-clearing operations’ (Appiah, 1997) of postmodern politics playfully or ruthlessly track down the remnants of modern faith in a unified subject or singular trajectory of change; while the modernistically inclined may or may not appreciate the political energy involved in clearing a space, they are apt to answer, ‘fine, but what, exactly, are we supposed to do in this space once it has been opened?’

Knowledge and Representation

Feminism with a modern face generally operates with a considerable debt to a stable distinction between appearance and reality. While some feminists talk about explaining the world by seeking valid and reliable knowledge to represent reality, and others talk more about understanding the world by uncovering the hidden or distorted meaning standing behind surface accounts, both approaches are dependent on a stable relation between language and the world that language apprehends. Postmodern feminists, in contrast, problematize representation by seeing it as productive of reality claims rather than reflective of a prior grounds or foundation.

Like most speakers for oppressed groups, feminists speaking with a modern inflection see a resource embedded in their subordination: being on the margins of the social order gives us a fuller and more complete view of the world, puts us ‘in a better position to speak the truth’ (Foucault, 2003: 53). The postmodern face of feminism problematizes claims to truth because knowledge, in this view, is the outcome of and has its very conditions of possibility in power relations. Knowledge here appears not so much as a truth but as a ‘truth-weapon’ (Foucault, 2003:54) or a truth-effect. Practices of representation then become not transparent vehicles or even dense narratives but mobile fields of power within which meaning is constructed and clarity achieved through insistence.

Feminist Stances toward Methods of Inquiry

Feminist intellectual work ranges across modern and postmodern methods, methodologies, and epistemologies. This range of inquiry is not well captured by conventional distinctions between empirical and normative or quantitative and qualitative, since feminist inquiry is generally informed by political commitments exceeding these distinctions. Recognizing the difficulty of discussing feminist method, Sandra Harding (1987a; 1987b) teases out questions of method, methodology, and epistemology intertwined in both feminist and traditional research discourses. Working primarily within a modern frame of inquiry, Harding describes research methods as ‘techniques for gathering evidence,’ methodology as ‘a theory and analysis of how research should proceed,’ and epistemology as ‘issues about an adequate theory of knowledge or justificatory strategy’ (1987a: 2).

However, approaching research and methods from a postmodern position confounds the still-useful categories of method, methodology, and epistemology, and articulates available stances along another axis of differentiation. Recalling that postmodern can allude to the site from which to take the measure of the modern, a postmodern take on feminist research methods suggests a different set of distinctions among research practices, one based on what each is able to accomplish. We suggest three groupings of feminist research activities—explanation, understanding, and disruption—organized within categories that reflect the self-understanding of the participants as well as the achievements and limitations of each from the point of view of the others. These categories capture moments of method/ methodology/epistemology clusters, rather than fully characterizing people or studies or arguments. Each category reflects a different expectation about the work that scholarship is intended to perform; each, when pursued exclusively, has built-in limitations; each puts useful pressure on the others. They are all ‘empirical’ in that they all identify data to be recorded, reported, and analyzed; the difference is in (a) what counts as data and (b) what one does with the data.

Approaches and Expectations

The first category, ‘explanation,’ is familiar within conventional social scientific practices; it asks: ‘how are X and Y related?’ or ‘what causes X?’ This approach seeks to explain something, to identify patterns, to establish cause and effect relations, perhaps to predict future occurrences. Compelling explanations allow one to build models, to identify trends or patterns, and to claim clarity and/or objectivity for one’s accounts. ‘Explanation’ is primarily rooted in a modern conception of scientific inquiry and knowledge production; it assumes a stable connection between words and things and then strives for the most accurate (or least inaccurate) available account.

The second category, ‘understanding,’ is an interpretive approach that also usually relies upon a stable relation between language and the world it conceives. ‘Understanding’ is a narrative inquiry; it asks, ‘what does X mean?’ This approach analyzes available interpretive possibilities, articulates contesting cultural contexts, and contrasts one interpretation with another. It does its work by pushing its categories (for example, class analysis, gender analysis, etc.) farther and farther into the world; it often takes an historical approach, looking at the production of contrasting understandings over time. This approach is good at contesting the prevailing stories with counter-stories, with creating alternative accounts of things. ‘Understanding’ is obliged to modernism in its attempt both to properly interpret appearances and to search for distortions of reality by those in power.

The third approach, ‘disruption,’ is a genealogical or postmodern approach; disruptive research approaches ask, ‘why are we asking this question?’ It is historical, working to denaturalize categories and question claims to knowledge by asking ‘how does it come to be?’ It tends to destabilize all meaning claims and is good at calling attention to the will to truth that inhabits inquiry. Disruptive strategies find, behind every set of appearances, another set of appearances; unlike modernism, there is no stable ‘there,’ it is appearances all the way down.

Limitations and Strengths

Feminist inquiry benefits when the strengths of each approach are brought into a contentious and productive conversation with one another. Yet each is susceptible to reductionism, to being overly simplified.

Ruthlessly pursued, ‘explanation’ tends to be ahistorical, to avoid the more postmodern move of looking at the process of coming to meaning. It is good at highlighting important relationships between factors (often called ‘variables’), and good at giving us useful stories about the material world, but its unexamined roots in modernism make it generally unaware of itself as a story. Yet the explanatory approach is not reducible to positivism, in that it can be employed with greater awareness of its own self-constitution.

Ruthlessly pursued, ‘understanding’ tends to assume, with modernism, that there is an order waiting to be found behind the misleading appearances that veil reality. The ‘there’ that is out there is complex, and requires careful interpretation, but it can be grasped through the proper stance of attunement, or unambiguous use of language, or a full historical accounting. However, it tends to neglect its own role in putting this order in place by the act of reaching for it. The reductionist version immunizes itself against surprises by framing its inquiries in ways that eliminate ideas or events that do not fit the dominant narrative. Yet ‘understanding’ is not reducible to the clearly modernist practices of universalizing or essentializing grand theory; it can provide an analytic frame while still making the more postmodern move of calling attention to the limits of that frame.

Ruthlessly pursued, ‘disruption’ makes it difficult to articulate political commitments because its debt to a postmodern stance means every value is subject to further deconstruction, every story to further unraveling. Any truth claim becomes problematic, so it is hard to distinguish between those one can embrace and those one rejects. The reductionist version of genealogy is frequently decried as relativism because it does not provide stable, more modernist grounds for choice. Yet by insisting on the limits and costs of even the most compelling stories, it resists its own will to power by offering a more chastened vision of alternatives.

Examples and Epistemology

Feminist explanatory inquiry is exemplified in much work on political economy, women and politics, women and development, and other areas in which the end result requires the clarity necessary for generating a solution, resolution, or policy recommendation. Work by, for example, Roberta Spalter-Roth and Heidi Hartmann (1999), Ruth Dixon-Mueller (1991), and Christine Bose (1991) marshal facts as data from which to advance hypotheses, build models, and offer findings. Their techniques for gathering evidence (method) require identifying and collecting facts to serve as data upon which they employ a gender-driven analysis. The results of this analysis (methodology) will reveal the ways in which examining women as a group, or gender as a category, provides information that would otherwise escape notice. Their focus on explanation tends to foreground observation and reason while backgrounding epistemology. Implicitly, the theory of knowledge that impels this work is some version of the familiar correspondence theory of truth, in which accuracy of fit between words and things can be achieved by choosing words with care and cautiously defining terms.

For feminist interpretation (also sometimes referred to as hermeneutics), understandings are produced by engaging stories for the purposes of finding richer and fuller accounts of meaning. The techniques for gathering evidence (method) identify relevant sites of representation, including narratives, documents, or other texts, as data to be analyzed. The methodology entails reading those stories with meticulous attention to submerged details, exposing the arrangements of power that hide parts of the story, and uncovering more complete connotations. Such unveiling opens the possibility of different stories, new meanings, and altered arrangements of power. Much work in feminist ethnography, object relations theory, and standpoint theory, including that done by Nancy Hartsock (1983; 1990), Patricia Hill Collins (1991), Nancy Chodorow (1978), and Beth Roy (1998), operates largely within an interpretive frame. Epistemologically, interpretive work relies on exposing the ordered reality that stands behind misleading appearances, holding responsible the powerful interests that created those appearances, and advocating a different and better order.

Feminist disruptions are explicitly postmodern; they purposefully take their data from conflicting locations, recognize multiple meanings actively in play and trace their consequences. Like interpretive understandings, genealogical disruptions look for data in practices of representation, including narratives, documents, and other symbolic sites; disruptive inquiries ask how we come to have these stories, what the limits are of intelligibility within stories, and what the effects are of their circulation. Disruptive approaches read against the grain to expose unarticulated dependencies and complicities among claims to meaning and to mark the limits and exclusions entailed in realms of intelligibility. Much writing by Joan Wallach Scott (1988; 1992), Judith Butler (1990; 1999; Butler and Scott, 1992), Donna Haraway (1985; 1988; Haraway and Goodeve, 2000), Wendy Brown (1995; 2003), Toni Morrison (1990), and Laura Hyun Yi Kang (2002) employs multifaceted deconstructive energies in making the familiar strange. Epistemologically, this approach elicits the capriciousness within any appearance of order, flagging the costs of grand narratives, the seduction of origin stories, and dangers in the will to power over truth.

Cultivating Feminist Relations

While some feminist discussions continue to assert the priority of either modern or postmodern perspectives, more commonly, the value of each is acknowledged and some constructive, or at least livable, relation is sought between them. For example, Kathi Weeks urges feminists to get beyond ‘the stagnation of our thinking’ that accompanies a sterile paradigm debate between mutually incompatible positions (1998: 155). Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak calls for these contrasting energies to ‘become persistent interruptions of each other’ (1987: 249). Simply picking a ‘winner’ becomes untenable once the contributions of each are recognized as needed for feminist intellectual and political projects. Similarly, after sketching the ways in which modern and postmodern energies tug in opposing directions, any straightforward synthesis of the ideas has been rendered unworkable; further, the idea of a synthesis of competing views into a larger and coherent whole is itself deeply implicated in modern perspectives and quite inhospitable to the deliberate unfinishedness of postmodern thinking.

There is both a theoretical richness and a pragmatic usefulness in approaching these debates not for the purpose of declaring one side true or virtuous while the other is false or vicious, but rather to ask what sorts of questions each approach most adequately explores and what kinds of politics each one can help us to accomplish. Given that feminists need both kinds of thinking to energize our work, and that inevitable frictions are produced by their conversations, what is a feminist to do? Several responses to this dilemma have been offered.

Strategic Essentialism

One of the first feminist thinkers to usefully tackle the tension between the cherished incompatibilities of postmodern and modern (in her case, Marxist) thinking is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (with Ellen Rooney, 1997). Luce Irigaray’s earlier poetic feminist explorations of mimesis, while sometimes read as naturalizing women, anticipate strategic essentialism by using the tool of unfaithful replication to combat fixed ideas. Spivaks term ‘strategic essentialism’ proposes a way into, rather than a way out of, these feminist dilemmas. To use essential understandings strategically, Spivak argues, is to employ an ‘embattled concept-metaphor’ needed in feminist struggles despite the dangers it poses (1997: 358). ‘The strategic use of an essence as a mobilizing slogan or master word like woman or worker or the name of a nation is, ideally, self-conscious for all mobilized. This is the impossible risk of a lasting strategy’ (1997: 358). Noting that ‘a strategy is not a theory,’ Spivak encourages us to hold onto the deconstructive energies made available by our theories to problematize the stabilizing moves that strategy requires. Strategic essentialism is a tension-filled space flagging ‘the dangerousness of something one cannot not use’ (1997: 359).

Rooney, in her conversation with Spivak, notes that ‘it remains difficult to engage in feminist analysis and politics if not “as a woman”’(1997: 357). The ‘essentialism’ in the concept allows us ‘to speak not simply as feminists but as women, not least against women whose political work is elsewhere’ (1997: 357). The ‘strategy’ preceding and guiding the essentialism locates its political heart, its dream, not in a ‘formal resolution of the discontinuity between women and feminisms’ (1997: 357) but in needed political energy to keep struggles, including struggles among women, animated and engaged.

In her 1999 Preface to Gender Trouble, Butler similarly explores ‘the important strategic use’ of claims to universality; such claims ‘can be pro-leptic and performative, conjuring a reality that does not yet exist, and holding out the possibility for a convergence of cultural horizons that have not yet met’ (pp. xvii–xviii). Both Spivak (with Rooney, 1997) and Butler (1999) cherish the utopian hopes sketched by ‘a future-oriented labor of cultural translation’ (p. xviii) in which possibilities are kept alive because we need them.

Irony and Counterpoint

Haraway (1985; Haraway and Goodeve, 2000) and others have brought irony to the table as an art and technique for holding together ideas that are both necessary and incompatible. ‘Irony,’ Haraway argues, ‘is about contradictions that do not resolve into larger wholes, even dialectically, about the tension of holding incompatible things together because both or all are necessary and true. Irony is about humor and serious play’ (1985: 65). The arts of irony enable feminism’s justice projects by allowing us to act politically without ignoring the complexity of competing ideas or pretending that contradictions have been resolved into a consistent program. Irony facilitates the juggling acts needed for coalition politics, in which partial convergences of agendas replace stable fusions of identity or permanent political homes.

Brown’s argument for counterpoint, ‘a deliberate practice of multiplicity that exceeds simple opposition and does not carry the mythological or methodological valence of dialectics or contradiction’ (2003: 367), is, despite her disclaimer, similar to irony as sketched above. The musical juxtaposition of contrasting elements can ‘bring out the complexity that cannot emerge through a monolithic or single melody’ (2003: 367). Counterpoint, like irony, recruits modern and postmodern energies to put pressure on one another, ‘holding together the inherent slide of gender on the one hand and the powers comprising regimes of male dominance on the other’ (2003: 367). Counterpoint and irony become tactics to multiply fields of meaning and to keep contrary impulses in play so they can enrich and contest one another.

Local Use of Global Theory

Another approach to these tensions calls on the theoretical purchase offered by universalist or global understandings married to the situated complexities of local applications and investments. Haraway ‘insists on situatedness, where location is itself a complex construction as well as inheritance’ (2000: 160). Both politics and knowledge are implicated in this move toward the local: ‘objectivity,’ Haraway argues, ‘is always a local achievement’ (2000: 161). Foucault argued that postmodern thinkers can still call on the modern: while he objected to the ‘inhibiting effect specific to totalitarian theories, or at least—what I mean is—all-encompassing and global theories’ he nonetheless found in them ‘tools that can be used at the local level’ (2003: 6). The use of such tools locally has meant we have ‘cut up, rip[ped] up, torn to shreds, turned inside out, displaced, caricatured, dramatized, theatricalized’ the ‘theoretical unity of their discourse’ (2003: 6). Such appreciative assaults on the coherence of the modern in the service of local critique suggest ‘a sort of autonomous and noncentralized theoretical production, or in other words a theoretical production that does not need a visa from some common regime to establish its validity’ (2003: 6).

In her work on transnational women’s movements, Amrita Basu (2003) seems to take Foucault’s advice. Basu suggests it may be time to rethink the bumper sticker ‘Think Globally, Act Locally,’ and replace it with ‘Think Locally, Act Globally’ (2003: 68). Basu’s concerns are generated by local receptions of transnational feminist campaigns:

Women’s groups most enthusiastically have supported transnational campaigns against sexual violence in countries where the state is repressive or indifferent and women’s movements are weak. Conversely, transnationalism has provoked more distrust in places where women’s movements have emerged, grown, and defined themselves independently of Western feminism. (2003: 74)

Grappling with the ‘tearing up’ and ‘turning inside out’ of local women’s movements in relation to transnational feminist networks, she calls for continued conversations: ‘global visions need to be further infused with local realities, while appreciating that the local is not merely local, but infused with global influences’ (2003: 76).

Each of these engagements with the intersections of modern and postmodern feminist thinking offers resources for continuing to think/act the disruptions of the postmodern in connection with the unities of the modern. Future directions for feminist thinking are likely to build upon these efforts to stay open to contradictory meanings, to remain honest about enduring frictions, and to keep moving toward feminist political goals.