Feminist Critique

On May 9th our new Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths had its inaugural conference on Sexism. It was an intense and difficult day, as you would expect: to talk about difficult experiences means allowing difficulty to enter the room; to talk about the intractability of power can mean coming up against that intractability. It is interesting to note that in my 20 years as a feminist academic (including 10 years of being based in Women’s Studies) this was the first academic event I have attended that foregrounded the question of sexism. This was inaugural conference as a centre, so why did we choose to have our first event on Sexism? It is quite simple, really; I might have said this, already. For feminism to have a future in the academy, we have to name, challenge and revolt against sexism: the problem with a name.

One of the claims we made in our description of the event was that the language of sexism has somewhat receded from what we might call “feminist theory.” I might call this a general impression I have acquired over time, an impression that no doubt reflects my own trajectory from student to lecturer, and the contours of the academic spaces I have tended to inhabit. I know there are many feminists in the academy as well as outside the academy who have never stopped talking about sexism; who have not stopped addressing questions of sexual violence, gender inequality, and social injustices.

But I do have this impression, an impression, of the flicker of feminist critique wavering over time. When I first read feminist theory as a student in Adelaide University in the late 1980s, it was the critiques of how sexism is structural to disciplines that left some of the sharpest and strongest impressions on my mind: this was how I learnt about the politics of universalism (how man becomes universal, woman particular); this was how I learnt about binary logic (how some become the positive terms, others negative: woman as not man); this was how I learnt what is meant by structure, how structures reproduce themselves around certain bodies by assuming those bodies as norms.

Are we still learning from critiques of sexism within disciplines? Are we making these critiques? We might assume we are not making these critiques because feminist critiques have transformed the disciplines. But have they? I have used the term “critical sexism” to describe the kind of sexism reproduced by institutions that think of themselves as being critical and thus not implicated in sexism. Critical sexism is not that different to uncritical sexism, of course; it is simply another way sexism is reproduced by creating an impression of distance from what is being reproduced. Over the past decade many students have relayed to me that they have had a hard time accessing feminist theory or doing feminist projects in their own institutional or disciplinary contexts. Some have said to me feminism itself tends to be seen as passé. This sense of feminism as “passed it” is how feminism ends up not being taught; there is fantasy of feminist digestion, as if feminism has already been taken in and assimilated into a body and is thus no longer required. The fantasy of feminist digestion is a little bit like diversity: a fantasy fold. In the past year I have been looking at curricula in social and cultural theory and  I have been struck by how many courses are organized around or even as a white male European genealogy. Once the pressure to modify the shape of disciplines is withdrawn it seems they “spring back” very quickly into that old shape.

But what about within what we call “feminist theory”? I want to share with you some speculations on why within some feminist theory, the term “sexism” may have dropped out of use. Just let me return to one quote from an early article by Elizabeth Grosz, that I discussed here:

Feminist theory must always function in two directions if it is to effectively challenge patriarchal knowledges. On the one hand, it must engage in what could be called a negative or reactive project of challenging what currently exists, or criticizing prevailing social, political, and theoretical relations. Without this negative or anti-sexist goal, feminist theory remains unanchored in and unrelated to the socio-theoretical status quo. It risks repeating the problems of the past, especially patriarchal assumptions, without recognizing them as such. But if it remains simply reactive, simply a critique, it ultimately affirms the theories it wishes to move beyond. It necessarily remains on the ground it aims to contest…coupled with this negative project must be a positive constructive project, creating alternatives: producing feminist not simply anti-sexist theory (1990: 59).

Grosz is implying here that there are two kinds of directions for feminism; and that both directions are necessary. As I commented in my earlier post, “Feminism is Sensational,” I have learnt much from Grosz’s affirmative readings over the years. I want to ask questions about the narrative being told because I care about feminist work. I am interested here in how an affective picture is created through a clustering of words: sexist is placed near critique, negative, reactive, in contrast to feminist, which is placed near constructive, positive, creative, alternative. Although both directions are deemed necessary, it is quite clear from this description that the second direction is given more potential, or perhaps we could just say it sounds more interesting:  it is a more hopeful, exciting, direction. The first direction is more like a work-horse: something dreary and dogged; necessary but not really quite as sparky or imaginative.

The implication of this clustering is that feminism is more creative and inventive when it is not engaging in critiques of sexism. Indeed critique as such becomes identified with the past as well as present rather than the future: as what keeps us on the ground of what is or what has come to be. Can we de-cluster these terms? Could trying to understand sexism be a creative project? Can refusing to leave the ground of the present be what opens up that ground?

I am particularly interested (of course!) in the association of anti-sexism with being negative and reactive. I think what is being evoked here is a rather familiar figure, that of the complaining moaning feminist, the complaining feminist, yes the feminist killjoy; always stuck in the mode of negative critique. An expression I have often heard used is “knee jerk feminist critique,” as if being critical of sexism is an automatic bodily response that stops us from engaging more positively, thoughtfully and generously with the world. A “kneejerk feminist xx” implies that a critical feminist reading, response or reaction to something is  blocking a more fruitful, close encounter. So Grosz herself describes the “standard kneejerk feminist readings” of Darwin in her 2004 book, The Nick of Time. In fact in this book Grosz only mentions sexism twice, both times as something she is not interested in. By implication sexism is identified as a problem with feminist critique rather than a problem that feminists critique. But this is a much wider issue: I have read countless references to “knee-jerk feminist responses,” or “knee-jerk feminist reactions” or “knee-jerk feminist calls.” I think it is time to wonder about this use of knee-jerk as a description of feminist work. If feminist critiques of sexism are knee-jerk, we might need to affirm the intelligence of feminist knees.

The critique of critique as a bad feminist habit is also evident in a recent interview with Karen Barad. She writes: “I am not interested in critique. In my opinion, critique is over-rated, over-emphasized, and over-utilized, to the detriment of feminism.” Barad implies that students are so well trained in critique they can “spit out a critique with the push of a button” (2012). She later describes critique as negative and as a way of putting something down, or putting something aside. Again: I want treat this clustering of terms as pedagogy. Again: I am interested in the implication that critique as such (whether or not it is feminist critique) has become an automatic process.

It might be the case that critique has become a habit in some places. But I also wonder if there is an emptying of critique of content (and thus direction) by assuming critique to be without content (and thus direction). Surely what critique does depends on where – and where not  – critique is directed. I doubt very much that critiquing whiteness is something students have learnt to spit out. In fact, much of what needs critiquing still seems to go unnoticed in our academic worlds.

I think back to my own academic training, especially my postgraduate training in critical and cultural theory in the 1990s. I still remember very well one session on Jacques Lacan. The Professor said something like: there are two stories, one of the phallus; the other of desire. She told us to bracket the story of the phallus so we could engage with the story of desire. In other words we were asked to put the question of phallocentrism to one side so we could learn with and from the text. That was a more explicit “command” version of what I was taught elsewhere: that it was better not to critique sexism, not even to notice sexism, in order to engage with a text (and not just any texts, but certain kinds of texts that had already achieved the elevated status as “theory”).  I was taught to suspend critique as a mode of engagement. The example shows us that the object of critique matters; that there are practices of reading that might teach us to critique some things by bracketing others. In fact in my more recent encounters of teaching in this area, I have noticed how often students are encouraged to read an established (often white male) intellectual genealogy loyally, lovingly, as well as affirmatively. Often with reference  to the difficulty of some of this material, the pedagogic aim seems to be more one of digestion than contestation.

[As an aside it is my view that we would enable more originality in feminist theory if we began with a less loving embrace, and took the critiques of how sexism is structural to disciplines as the occasion for new thought.]

Feminist critiques of sexism are thus dismissed quickly in order to preserve a more loving digestion of the male philosophical canon. No wonder: this is a love with longevity. And then within feminist theory, feminist critiques of sexism are identified as a negative habit that holds feminism back from a more positive and loving engagement with the world.  The narrative implied: to free feminism we need to let go of critique. And perhaps in this injunction to “let go” more than critique is given up. I am also interested in how other key feminist terms -sex, gender, women, patriarchy, intersectionality, identity – are identified as terms that block movement. In a lecture given at Duke University in 2007, Grosz returns to the idea from the 1990 article that feminist theory has two directions: one critique, that is orientated toward the history of the present (what she describes as the “inertia” of what is) and the other, transformation, which is orientated toward the future, what is yet to come, and is concerned with the invention of new concepts.

But rather than suggesting we need both directions, she argues that the negative mode of critique is what needs to be transcended. Indeed negative critique gets associated with other terms that become, by virtue of this proximity, negative terms: identity politics, intersectionality, the personal (she calls for a 5 year moratorium on the use of memoirs). She suggests these kinds of feminist critique are holding feminism back (critiques of sexism become a kind of backward temporaity). And probably the strongest criticism she makes of this style of feminism is that it is how we make feminism about ourselves. In other words a concern with questions of sexism, questions of sex, gender, race, and ethnocentrism etc. becomes rearticulated as concern with ourselves; a form of narcissism. She then calls for a feminist theory which is not about “us” but to use her terms is about the real, about materiality, cosmology.

Now I am all for an expansive feminism. But the implication is that the concern with sexism as well as other empirical phenomena, things that exist or happen to exist, is how we become restricted, how we restrict ourselves (to ourselves) or, to use a term from her lecture, become “caged.” Feminist critique becomes a form of self-restriction; how we stop ourselves from being or going everywhere. Perhaps this is how, within feminism too, sexism is located as a “problem of perception,” as if we would stop being restricted by sexism if we stopped restricting our concerns to sexism.

We might end up lodged in our particulars; endlessly giving our particulars. In case this sounds like I am simply rejecting Grosz’s narrative, I do understand the impulse behind it.  I can understand this call to go beyond critique: if sexism keeps coming up, despite feminist critiques, in response to feminist critiques, it is tiring, it is exhausting. And I can also understand why for some a feminist house is roomier if it is not assumed that being a feminist or doing feminist theory requires talking about women, and gender, as well as sexism.[1] It can be tiring to be lodged somewhere: being the female lecturer, who is given the gender course, or is asked to do the gender lecture on the theory course, being the person of colour, who is given the race course, or is asked to do the race lecture on the  theory course. When I was in Women’s Studies as a feminist of colour, I was given the Race course; lodged in the Race course that was lodged in the Gender programme, a particular within a particular. And we know that if we are lodged there, others would not have to be there: the university can keep its universal free of our particulars. Even when we want to be lodged in these places it can feel like a restriction, and it can contain the work we do.

So I can understand this difficulty even if I regret its consequences. But I think there is a bigger issue.  What I have learned from following the word “sexism” around in recent months is that we have a new generation of feminist theory that has been understood as all the more profound and radical insofar it does not refer to women, gender, sex, sexuality, sexism. I am not implying here that feminist theory has to engage with the question of sexism; nor even with questions of sex, sexuality or gender. But I am interested in how feminist radicalism becomes identified in terms of its relative distance from these very terms.  It might be an irony (or then again maybe not) that many of the new articulations of feminist theory that call for a renewed materialism or speculative realism, seem so deeply suspicious of feminism having a referent at all. Perhaps some forms of reference become permissible or desirable (referring to a world beyond ourselves) by giving up other forms of reference. In other words, a political or historical referent is given up as if this reference is simply self-reference. Some feminist theory becomes defined either explicitly or implicitly against the wrong kind of feminists: those who assume feminism has a referent in the social or political world, who are too attached to the empirical, or the wrong kind of empirical.

Let’s think about it. Sexism: how male became universal, female particular. Now sexism and other related terms are understood as something particular which prevents us from entering the universal/university. Is this why the language of sexism has receded, by being associated with what holds us back, what stops us from generating new concepts about the world?

This is an open question.


If the wrong kind of feminists are the ones who insist on speaking about sexism then we might need to become the wrong kind of feminists.


If we start with sexism, we might proceed differently. If we try to explain how sexism is reproduced, how patterns hold their shape (sexism as a “holding pattern”) we might engender different kinds of feminist knowledge. We might create from trying to explain what we come up against, how things keep taking the same form. We might enact alternatives as we live with the consequences of what we name. To make sexism a starting point is to follow a different route, one that might return us to earlier feminist trails that have become rather faint from under-use. Perhaps keeping making sexism our question requires us to be inventive, creative, curious, bold, and brave. We might need to think with our knees. We might need to be kick ass feminists.

And being a kick ass feminist is a world making project. This is what I learned from our event: making sexism our example, exhibiting sexism, critiquing sexism, generates new feminist knowledge and understanding. We learn from what we come up against. And being against what we come up against matters.


Barad, Karen (2012). “Matter feels, converses, suffers, desires, yearns and remembers” (an Interview). http://quod.lib.umich.edu/o/ohp/11515701.0001.001/1:4.3/–new-materialism-interviews-cartographies?rgn=div2;view=fulltext%5B/embed%5D

Elizabeth Grosz (1990). “Contemporary Theories of Power and Subjectivity” in Sneja Gunew (ed). Feminist Knowledge: Critique and Construct. Routledge: London.

—————– (2004). The Nick of Time: Politics, Evolution, and the Untimely. Durham: Duke University Press.

[i] For example Karen Barad (2012) implies that the question what makes x feminist if x does not refer to women or gender is an unsophisticated even dumb question: “A decade ago I would often get the following question: ‘Since your work is not about women or gender, what does it have to do with feminism?’ My answer, of course, was: ‘Everything.’ Happily, the question you have asked is light years beyond the kind of thinking that motivates that question. And I am assuming then that the level of conversation has shifted since that time, and that I can jump right in.” I think if theory does not refer to women or gender, then it is a good question, an open and timely question, to ask what makes this theory “feminist.” Perhaps when “everything” becomes the feminist answer, we need to repose the feminist question.

Barad later notes: “This is a feminist project whether or not there are any women or people or any other macroscopic beings in sight,” implying that what makes it feminist is the attention to the dynamic nature of matter and the sense of the past as open (“The past and the present and the future are always being reworked”). For me too, the long history of feminist critiques of the gendering of the matter/form distinction show how the rethinking of matter as well as time as such is a feminist project, whether or not we refer to women or any other microscopic beings, though I would argue that understanding how beings such as “women” become stabilised and recognisable is the more difficult and demanding feminist project. Perhaps I can qualify this “too.” I think a model of the past as open is a condition of possibility for feminist work, but that feminism also requires harder work: we need to understand how possibilities are closed down (or even given up in advance of their loss) so that we can intervene in, or transform, what has come to be lived, enacted and reproduced as being necessary or necessary for being. What I am implying is that feminism becomes philosophically as well as politically more adventurous when the empirical (what has become stabilized or given) is the starting point. This is another sense in which: starting with sexism can be a way of generating new feminist knowledge.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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