Feminist Politics and Academic Feminism: A Postfeminist Interface
by Stanimir Panayotov
What will the woman of the future be? This implicit question is never asked in policy making, but it underwrites much of particularly feminist policies. You would think that the question is more relevant to academic feminism, but as an academic feminist myself I am trained to deconstruct the obvious: Policies are instrumental to drafting the future well beyond the immediacy of correcting the current course of history. Thus, asking the question on the woman of the future is not just a musing on theory, it is a thing of the present, and the problem entails real life consequences for women’s empowerment as such.
Yet often one can sense that policy making is this flatly pragmatic ideology of the present. Why? Broadly construed, there are two worlds of feminist politics and empowerment today: the one of realpolitik and the one of academia. How are the two worlds of today’s feminisms working together, if they do at all? And what impact for women’s empowerment can the interface between these worlds hold?
The interface is, at best, underdeveloped. The neocon and postcapitalist advent against higher education has produced a global academic ivory-towerism and feminist and gender scholars are part and parcel of that culture of political insufficiency that the modern day university has become. But as a feminist philosopher and theorist, I can assure every political feminist who cares little about the world of theory that in the enforced ivory-towerism of irrelevance we inhabit, we know well at least the basic names of development theory and practice, yet the opposite is rarely (or never) true. Before even thinking of making a proposal about how to change that, and what benefits would such an interface offer for empowerment itself, I need to deal briefly with the unpleasant business of intra-feminist critique.
Every time someone tries to persuade you that one cannot compromise women’s plight globally or locally, by either destabilizing womanhood conceptually or simply by delving into “theory,” a certain hypocricy is rehearsed. While “applied feminists” (this, sadly, often includes social scientists) often decry the impossibility of bifurcating politics and policies by questioning whatever is left of the notion of “woman” in official documents and statutes, all the while they already sustain a division within womanhood that belittles the condition of specifically disproportionately marginalized women – marginalized also by their approach, which often requires to think of “third world” women, for example, as the last beacon of traditional womanhood. Developmentalist feminism has long been a subject of critique. But the deeper problem, before even interfacing realpolitik and academia, is not that feminist policy often does not consult or seek to apply theories of academic feminist provenance, but that it itself functions as a blind theory that orientalizes women according to whatever local governmental and “traditional” powers there are. Empowerment follows development follows underdevelopment, and the last is inherently sexist and colonialist.
In such a context, how can “applied feminists” even touch upon debates whether we are already living a fourth wave of feminism? The abyss between the two worlds of feminism appears to be too dramatic, but the question on the future of the woman today requires to be able to suspend the immediacy of “today” in order to transcend that abyss. Academic feminism is not just a series of cultural hoaxes around gender and toilets, dead-naming, or J. K. Rowling’s trans rants. The research there comes from the real lives of women that policy makers are dealing with. Some rich examples to offer for feminist politicians and policy makers would be to at least consider the work of J. K. Gibson-Graham (The End of Capitalism (As We Knew It): A Feminist Critique of Political Economy) or the collective called Laboria Cuboniks (their Xenofeminist Manifesto: A Politics for Alienation) who open vistas of empowerment that need to be thought of pragmatically.
Feminist politicians and policy makers’ work is to give advice and hope their word is going to be heard and implemented in real life, thereby effectuating women’s empowerment. To the dismay of many of them, this is exactly what academic feminists hope to do too with their research. The former, however, often function as the gatekeepers of the latter. This is why one of the things feminist policy makers need to do today is to at least start slow debates on issues raised by what is condescendingly critiqued as high brow feminist theory. We should stop embracing the status quo’s production of feminist irrelevance. If we are to develop successful feminist politics, and polity, we cannot continually develop (feminist) development as such. The global disparities in the state of affairs among women in different geographies is often used as a pretext to avoid a head-on engagement with the persisting questions feminist theorists raise, and which usually deserve no mention (if there is ever any awareness of them, that is).
To call for an interface between the two worlds of feminism today presumes that there is a singular cultural and theoretical approach to gender issues, which is false. In realpolitik, a two-pronged approach is even now in action. Many international bodies and agencies dealing with gender issues are forced by circumstance to differentiate and take tough decisions on funding and priorities according to lazy cultural stereotypes: gendering toilets is irrelevant in third world countries, female genital mutilation is irrelevant for the developed world, etc. This is irresponsible at best. There is no point to ignore and exoticize current debates in fourth wave feminism as irrelevant simply because they belong to the future, but to turn to such debates and literatures requires to step outside third (or even second) wave feminisms. They do not belong to an imaginary time to come: those who call themselves (feminist) theorists are theorists because, in the essence of their work, they are literally seers, almost oracles. And there is nothing wrong in itself to look in the future with the gaze of an oracle, albeit policy makers are not quick to acknowledge they do the same by drafting political agendas and funding schemes and priorities.
There is no potential hurt in deepening what is already a double consciousness in “applied feminism.” The power disbalance between the two worlds of feminism itself contributes to disempowering women, or at least whatever is considered their womanhood. Laboria Cuboniks, in fact, describe something similar by stating that “[xenofeminsim] seizes alienation as an impetus to generate new worlds. We are all alienated – but have we ever been otherwise? It is through, and not despite, our alienated condition that we can free ourselves from the muck of immediacy.” The current feminist abyss is alienation within alienation.
I do not mean to imply that policy makers, and politicians too, are not reading any feminist theory, philosophy, gender studies. They probably do, and their hearts belong where they need to. The power disbalance that academic feminists experience is not something to be changed soon, but it is not something to be embraced either. To implement ideals, goals and policies, feminists across the board need to step across developmentalist theories and policies and have a modicum of curiosity and responsibility: disengaging with so-called academic feminism is precisely a form of passive-aggressive dismissal, and the feminist power disbalance I describe here, for better or worse, imputes analytical and political responsibility to non-academics. Because this power disbalance is and would not be an immediate object of change, feminist policy makers in particular would only benefit to imagine that they do not quite know what empowerment looks like, and that this is OK. Alternatively, we all risk to disempower empowerment itself.