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This article examines the implications of what may now be seen as a postmodern trend in feminist scholarship regarding the study of African women. It argues primarily that the rigorous critiques emerging from postmodern feminist debates have not only failed to confront in practice the politics of producing feminist knowledge(1) but may push farther into the background (given the attention these debates presently claim) what remains an ongoing intellectual and political hegemony. If the African case is a reflection of the state of affairs in similar feminist constituencies, then we must call into question not only the potential of postmodern discourses to yield much-needed strategies for restructuring feminist relations but also the validity of feminism itself as a political project.
Feminism and the Postmodern Alternative
The pressures generated on a number of fronts have shaken to their very roots the basic premises that until recently sustained feminist scholarship. The dissenting voices of women of color, lesbians, and poor and working-class women, among others, have forced the realization that universal explanations of women's lives often fail to capture women's specific circumstances across time and space. These explanations may also ignore other structures of domination, thereby undermining the potential for alliances with other marginalized groups. Nowhere have these pressures raised as much controversy as in cross-cultural scholarship, in particular the literature on Third World women.(2) But the flurry of critiques now appears to center largely around the content and contours of postmodern discourses. It seems that the task of choosing among "alternative" models has been made easier:We have found ourselves in a "postmodern" world, at a postmodern point in time, one that offers postmodern solutions to feminist challenges.(3)
Postmodernism has come to characterize a uniquely complex condition in current academic discourse. Its manifestations in both mainstream and feminist forums can hardly be fit into a composite set of ideas. As Linda Hutcheon remarks, "The radically disparate interpretations and evaluations of postmodernism are in part the result of its particular politics and the curious 'middle grounds'. . . it occupies, inscribing yet also subverting various aspects of a dominant culture. . . ."(4) However disparate they may seem, these interpretations share a common skepticism with the totalizing "assumptions of the modern age, particularly the belief that reason and scientific enquiry can provide an objective, reliable, and universal foundation for knowledge."(5)
Jean-Francois Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition describes the state of knowledge in a postindustrial society that has severed its roots from Hegel, Kant, Marx, and other dominant tendencies in Western philosophical thought. Lyotard's analysis signifies the death of "science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse . . . [whose authenticity is based on an] explicit appeal to some grand narrative."(6) The postmodern wave is seen to have destabilized all we have come to regard as stable. Its points of contention with the "modern" leave no illusions as to "the inhibiting effects of global, totalitarian theories."(7) As many postmodernists argue, the relations of power in society are closely associated with the "ability to control knowledge and meaning, not only through writing, but also through disciplinary and professional institutions, and in social relations."(8) Succinctly stated by one of postmodernism's major theorists, "The exercise of power perpetually creates knowledge and, conversely, knowledge constantly induces effects of power."(9) Difference in postmodern analyses assumes an essential currency. Where it represents diverse and oppositional others, the pluralism of discourse "refines our sensitivity to differences and reinforces our ability to tolerate the incommensurable."(10)
Postmodern feminist scholarship reflects both the disparate interpretations and the common themes of its mainstream discourse. The emerging discourses promise to "sensitize us to the interconnections between knowledge claims . . . and power . . . [where] our own search for an Archimedes point may conceal and obscure our entanglement in an episteme in which truth claims may take only certain forms and not others."(11) The postmodern trend has spurred rigorous critiques of feminist scholarship and practice. We have witnessed the emergence of theoretical projects that seek to "deconstruct notions of reason, knowledge, or the self and to reveal the effects of the gender arrangements that lay beneath their neutral and universalizing …