Affecting Feminist Subjects, Rewriting Feminist Theory

By Ilya Parkins

Issue 2.2 | October 15, 2011

Clare Hemmings. Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory. Duke University Press, 2011. 272 pp.

Clare Hemmings’s Why Stories Matter: The Political Grammar of Feminist Theory is poised to prompt a major rethinking of feminist theory, and more importantly, of how we construct our histories of this field – and what this says about feminists’ intellectual investments and our futures. This is an engagingly written and highly original close reading of theoretical debates in the pages of top feminist journals including Signs, Feminist Review, Feminist Theory, and European Journal of Women’s Studies, among several others. Hemmings offers a well structured analysis of what she argues are the three dominant narratives in feminist theory of the last fifteen years or so – progress, loss, and return – arguing that each emerges from and indeed reifies a particular kind of affect in the contemporary, Western feminist theorist. The result is a stimulating book, one that has the power to interrogate the reader’s theoretical commitments, the stories she tells herself about her field, and the stories she tells others, including, if she teaches, her students.

Hemmings is interested in the pernicious ways that things get left out in narratives about the history of feminist theory since the early 1970s, and how both what is missing and the pieces that do get represented structure understandings of what feminists are doing when we write theory now. In her introduction, Hemmings steps away from the kinds of motivations we might attribute to an undertaking of this kind; rather than offering a “corrective” to the kinds of stories that are told over and over (and over and over, as her subsequent analysis makes alarmingly clear) about the points of theoretical contention in the feminist archive – over racism, imperialism, and poststructuralism, for example – she writes,“[t]he realization of feminist theory’s multiplicity, then, leads me to want to analyze not so much what other truer history we might write, but the politics that produce and sustain one version of history as more true than another, despite the fact that we all know that history is more complicated than the stories we tell about it” (15-16). Instead of engaging in a contest of “better,” more “accurate” accounts of feminism’s intellectual history, Hemmings wants to examine the motives for and effects of our portrayals: she wants to prompt a deep re-examination of the very terms of our engagement.

The first half of the book is the most eye-opening – and, for this feminist reader, the most unsettling. Hemmings devotes a chapter to each of the themes – progress, loss, and return – as they are solidified across a spectrum of debates in feminist journals from the late 1990s to the present. Her unique methodology involves an experiment with citation practices: she builds her argument through close reading and juxtaposition of excerpts from journal articles, but rather than cite them by author, she simply notes the journal and the year in which they were published. This allows her to do two things: first, to refrain from individualizing theoretical positions, instead seeing this citation strategy as the best way to locate repetitions, patterns that cut across the field, saturating it. Second, this methodology allows Hemmings to acknowledge the institutional conditions of the production of common positions – that “the writing of individual feminist stories situates us institutionally [in shared intellectual communities, editorial boards, and university departments] rather than only in relation to individual others” (134).

To expose these ubiquitous narratives, Hemmings’s method is to cite three or sometimes even four quotations from various journal issues to underscore the uncanny similarities between articulations of various positions. Everyone, for instance, seems to recount the apparently earth-shattering break between materialism and poststructuralism in precisely the same ways, by referring to the same theorists and systematically blotting out references to others who might complicate the trajectory that is being presented. The overall effect for the field is deeply worrying, because it reveals the extent to which an unquestioned feminist “common sense” operates in our work, even though feminist theory has been developed to challenge the dominance of “common-sense” or hegemonic explanatory frameworks and narratives. Even without Hemmings’s penetrating analyses of her excerpts, the citations in themselves are an important wake-up call. The patterns she reveals speak for themselves, which constitutes a needed interruption in narrative frameworks that are too comfortably lodged in the field. The comfortable entrenchment of such “common sense” positions, she argues, is animated by and also reinforces feminists’ affective commitments to various accounts of themselves as feminist subjects.

Hemmings’s respective chapters on progress and loss narratives show that these two most common stories that feminists tell are deeply entwined with, and even dependent upon, each other. The progress narrative is founded on the claim that feminist theory has evolved beyond its misguided roots, a past that relied on the concept of a singular and universalized ‘woman’ as the subject of feminism. That past, according to this story, was characterized by a lack of recognition of diversity among women. The account underscores the redemptive structure of the progress narrative; it supposes that shortcomings of early second-wave feminism have been overcome through the miraculous power of poststructuralist and anti-racist critiques. The loss narrative reverses this claim, with its exponents lamenting a quasi-mythical ‘golden age’ of feminist theory in which the field was clearly aligned with its activist roots. Here, poststructuralism represents a de-politicization, casting contemporary feminist scholars as power-hungry careerists who use the field as a rung on the academic ladder, and prompting “a call for the restitution of experience as the ground of feminist criticism” (87). For Hemmings, the valorization of experience privileges the social scientific analysis of gender over work in the humanities, and implicitly questions the validity of the latter as a feminist tool.

In the third chapter, Hemmings highlights what she calls the return narrative, which implicitly reconciles the progress and loss narratives. The return narrative best describes the current moment in feminist theory. It could be seen as an attempt to find a “third way” by acknowledging the strengths and the excesses of both progress and loss narratives. Hemmings’s use of the collective first-person voice to describe this approach works well to highlight how this narrative has come to dominate as the common wisdom of feminist theory today. Glossing “return,” she writes,

we can agree that the last thirty to forty years have not been all bad, that there were some important political and intellectual lessons to be learned about difference and exclusion – but that it is now time to pull away from the deconstructive abyss – which has become its own orthodoxy anyway – and move beyond critique (97).

A way forward from this recognition, according to the advocates of “return,” lies in the “renewed interest in materialism” (97) that has been so visible in the past decade. This new materialism is principally articulated in response to the perceived absence of the body from feminist theory after the linguistic turn.

In outlining the three dominant narratives, Hemmings focuses in particular on the temporal logic that underwrites these narratives. This methodology assumes discretely bounded generations of feminist scholars, separated by decades: the 1970s was the ‘bad’ or ‘glorious’ decade, depending on the author’s affinities, the 80s was the decade of anti-imperial feminisms, the 90s brought the ‘posts,’ and so on. In an illuminating application of her affective analysis, Hemmings – someone whose own feminist history does not fit the generational distinctions being reinforced in these narratives – uses the example of her own emotional response to this temporal logic in order to trouble it, without becoming solipsistic. Another of her primary concerns with the temporal logic of these accounts of the history of feminist theory is that they exclude major figures and critical movements which do not fit the chronology they assume. She writes,

I still remember my surprise when I […] realized that discussions about sadomasochism in the lesbian community had been raging long before the “sex wars” and that black feminist and transnational critique had been a consistent component of feminist theory, rather than one initiated in the late 1970s or 1980s (13).

One effect of the invisibility of this history is to confine interventions and their initiators in a single period, “temporally fixed” (46) and outside the mobile history of feminist theory: critiques written by women of colour, for example, become fetishized as a relic of the 80s and distinguished from the poststructural critiques which are said to have followed them. Hemmings suggests that affinities between these tendencies are rendered invisible, the work of those who do not follow from this decennial split goes unrecognized, and current anti-racist criticism is obscured.

Having traced the three narratives, Hemmings moves in the second half of the book to consider some case studies and various possible points of intervention in such narratives. The first chapter in this second half is a disappointment after the dazzling analysis that precedes it. This chapter, “Amenability,” begins by rehearsing Hemmings’s previous argument in too much detail – a tendency which is repeated throughout the book, unfortunately recalling the same repetition of discourses that Hemmings wants to challenge. The chapter then offers an account of the transcendent feminist subject that animates the ostensibly very different progress, loss, and return narratives. But the point has already been made, and this supposedly deeper exploration of affinities among positions obscures rather than clarifies the issue. This chapter offers some compelling ideas, but ultimately suffers from a lack of focus and unclear purpose.

Hemmings remedies this confusion with two final chapters that are meant to provide potential alternatives to the common narratives. In “Citation Tactics,” she returns to Judith Butler, having briefly traced the functioning of citations of Butler in both the progress and loss narratives. Butler, she argues, haunts every one of the arguments or tensions her book has traced. Here Hemmings’s chief intervention is to read Monique Wittig back into the histories of feminist theory, via Butler’s rich reading of Wittig in Gender Trouble. Her tactic is “recitation,” with the emphasis on “re,” on resignifying through near-repetition. What would happen, she asks, if Wittig – largely overlooked in stories of the “separation of feminism from poststructuralism” (181) – was consistently cited as a formative influence on Butler, rather than Foucault? Would this “exonerate” Butler in her apparent turning away from feminism and resituate her in the lineage of feminist theory rather than haunting its margins, as loss narratives would have it? Here Hemmings asks questions that one does not realize needed posing, but underscores in her answers just how crucial these questions are.

In her final chapter, Hemmings analyzes the affect of feminist horror. Relying on Kristeva’s theorization of horror, she dissects discussions of practices that Western feminists have grappled with – female genital cutting, for example – and draws out the horror at the “unthinkable” that pervades feminist writing. This, she says, is evidence of the limits of empathy and relationship with the feminist “other” in a framework that can only write feminist history in singular, linear narratives. Hemmings argues that horror functions to “cast out the abject, to reconfigure…feminist subjectivity as coherent, and to mark others as fully readable” (223). This, she says, “make[s] it impossible to challenge assumptions about inequality in anything but the most banal ways,” and she ends with a plea for new narratives, ones that give us a future with “some unpredictability” (226). 

Indeed, Hemmings shows us that unpredictability has been sacrificed for the comfort of theorists and the security of our positions as feminist subjects. Though feminist theory has, in the last decade, embraced mobility and contingency as watchwords, these values have not translated into our own narrations of the field. The great contribution of Why Stories Matter is to ask feminist theorists to be accountable, in our tellings, to the political commitments that animate our story-telling in the first place. Hemmings manages to articulate a host of nagging but unformed worries I have had about the state of this field as I represent it to students, prompting me to an immeasurably valuable rethinking of how to translate the field in my everyday practice as a feminist teacher. Since much of the potentially transformative impact of feminist theory is felt in its teaching, this kind of mediation fundamentally matters.   

Ilya Parkins is Assistant Professor and Coordinator of Gender and Women’s Studies at the University of British Columbia Okanagan. She publishes in the areas of feminist theory, fashion, and theories and cultures of early 20th-century modernity, and she is the co-editor of Cultures of Femininity in Modern Fashion (UPNE, 2011). Her book on temporality and femininity in early 20th-century fashion designer self-representations is forthcoming with Berg in 2012.