Feminist Subjects and Feminist Action: A Pragmatic Post-structuralist Account of Oppression and Resistance
Tarver, Erin C.
This dissertation is a philosophical feminist account of the relationship between subjectivity and oppressive discourse. Feminists have rightly pointed out that philosophical accounts of the universal or neutral subject are untenable, and often hold that sexist, racist, heterosexist and classist speech and practices have negative consequences at the level of subjectivity for women and the other populations who are their objects. Yet, efforts to account for these consequences have been philosophically inadequate in virtue of their problematic ontologies of selfhood, agency and language, as well as their frequently question-begging approaches to proposing political change. Drawing on the philosophical work of Michel Foucault, Judith Butler and John Dewey, I argue that a better feminist account of situated subjectivity would conceive oppressive discourse as particularly entrenched patterns of interaction, which give rise to relationally-constituted meanings whose effects may be variously described as subjective, discursive, material or political. Using examples of contemporary popular political discourse about women political figures in the United States, I argue that the interactional and relational character of the patterns of meaning that are typically understood as simply oppressive of a particular group are in fact constitutive of a constellation of more and less privileged and oppressed subjects, and moreover, that these meanings and subjects are concomitantly shaped by their particular geo-political situations. Given this pragmatic and post-structuralist account of subjectivity and political discourse, I argue that feminist efforts to resist oppression by changing everyday interactions and meanings are legitimate and have the potential to effect widespread political change, though this is by no means guaranteed. However, because efforts to change meanings (sometimes called “resignifications”) may also be counterproductive, feminists must be able to adjudicate between such efforts, and may do so most effectively by using a pragmatic method.