English 555 - Feminist Theories

Eva Cherniavsky

SLN: 13745

M, W 1:30-3:20

This course is neither a survey of something called “Feminist Theory,” nor does it focus on any one orientation or topos within feminist theory (on a feminist theory, in other words). Rather, it seeks to lay out and explore a problematic: the articulations of theory with politics. To be sure, every practice (political or other) entails a theory (whether explicit or not), just as every theory is irreducibly political. Yet theory and politics are not simply convertible, insofar as politics --- the capacity both to operate within and contest relations of power – depends (for example) on the self-determination of subjects, and their capacity for deliberative action, that theory calls persistently into question. This is not to invoke the old quarrel between post-structuralism and identity knowledges (just when the historically oppressed emerge as the subjects of knowledge within the academy, the argument went, the elite purveyors of post-structuralist theory proclaim the death of the subject) – precisely because antagonists on both sides of that debate were typically interested in managing or resolving the incommensurability of theory and politics. In general, participants in that debate sought either to place theory in service to urgent political projects on the Left, or to insist that we subordinate the scope of political work (and imaginings) to the insights of theory. In this course, I propose to explore the non-identity of theory and politics as necessarily and productively irresolvable. Simply put, theory (in both its structuralist and post-structuralist forms) insists on the splitting of the subject and the limits of our (individual and collective) self-mastery -- on a critical orientation to agency and opposition that politics must ultimately suspend. The course is organized around materials and debates that invite us to approach the articulation of theory with politics as a valuable and ongoing (unfinished) labor in the pursuit of an always receding horizon.

Our reading will be organized into three sections. An initial section on “Economy” will consider some of the key feminist explorations of the material and symbolic economies in which subjects, objects, and abject embodiment are (re)produced. This section will include Gayle Rubin’s “The Traffic in Women,” Laura Mulvey on “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror, Judith Butler’s Antigone’s Claim, Hortense Spillers’ “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe.,” selections from Donna Haraway’s Primate Visions, as well as Karen Joy Fowler’s short novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. In a second section on “Epistemology,” we will engage a few important meditations on the subjects of feminism and its objects of study, including Nancy Hartsock’s and Chela Sandoval’s differing visions of feminist standpoint, Kimberle Crenshaw’s germinal essay on intersectionality, Robyn Wiegman’s reflection on intersectionality in “Critical Kinship,” Gayatri’s Spivak’s “Can the Subaltern Speak?” alongside her more recent reflections in “The New Subaltern,” Rey Chow’s “The Protestant Ethnic and the Spirit of Capitalism,” selections from Saba Mahmood’s The Politics of Piety, and (and in relation to) Our Sister Killjoy, a novel by Ama Ata Aidoo. A third section, “Pleasure and Danger (or, Complicity),” will explore the implications of the theoretical prospects, practices, and aporias opened in the first two sections with specific reference to the politics of identification and desire in and in the wake of the (so-called) “sex wars.” Materials for this section will likely include Laura Kipnis’s experimental video Ecstasy Unlimited, Liz Grosz’s “Lesbian Fetishsim?,” Kobena’s Mercer’s “Reading Racial Fetishism,” Carla Freccero’s “Notes of a Post-Sex Wars Theorizer,” Gayle Rubin’s “Thinking Sex,” and Octavia’s Butler’s final novel, Fledgling.