Volume 9 Number 2 1996

Critical Feminism: Argument in the Disciplines, Kate Campbell (ed), Open University Press, 1992, 224 pages, 10.99 paperback.

Critical Feminism is a collection of essays from academics in a range of disciplines who, broadly speaking, address the impact of feminism on their field of concern. The dominant field, in the sense that most contributions come from this quarter, is literary criticism. There are additional pieces on art theory/criticism, history, psychology and social work. Campbell explains that the purpose in bringing together what might seem a disparate group of papers is to pursue the strategy of pushing feminism beyond its contemporary accommodation in the academy to a more critical transformatory stance. In this sense this book reflects recent discomfitures within academic feminism which have ironically arisen with the 'success' of feminism in certain academic areas. There is a suspicion that in becoming 'successful' feminism may have become merely academic, or that it spends its time theorising (or metatheorising) and has forgotten its commitment to social change. For this reason Campbell promotes a critical feminism, although the exact nature of this version of feminism is not made clear by a reading of these varied papers.

It is, of course, the convention that a reviewer should tell the reader about the contents of each chapter of a collection of essays before starting a critical appraisal; however, with this book I find it almost impossible to forestall the critical comments because it is with the conception of the book as a whole that I have such difficulty. An edited text is obviously meant to be more than the sum of its parts and it is with this 'more than' that I have difficulty rather than with the parts. I am prompted to ask, "What is the purpose of drawing together such a motley crew (since this is how they seem in juxtaposition to one another) of papers and presenting them as an even loosely unified statement on academic feminism?" It seems to me problematic in two ways: first, academic feminism or, as I would prefer it, feminist scholarship, is now extensive and each disciplinary subdivision has its own canon. Because of this, it is increasingly difficult to produce one book which seeks to cover a broad scope without being superficial; but feminist scholarship has gone beyond the need for the superficial and so for most academic readers such an enterprise seems superfluous. It may, of course, then be said that 'state of the art' papers which review developments are useful for those less immersed in existing canons.

Whilst I would not disagree with this in principle, it brings me to the second element that I find problematic: this is not a 'state of the art' type of book. Indeed, I am inclined to feel that something of an injustice has been perpetrated on some of the authors who have closely followed the goal of broadly reviewing their field and have thus produced useful, clear but rather general papers. This is because authors in the field of literary criticism, which is also the field of the editor of the collection, have written much more densely theorised and specialised papers. This gives the reader the impression that in literary criticism feminism is indeed a scholarly and intellectual activity, whilst elsewhere it is still on the ground floor grumbling about inadequate representation and influence.

For this reason, it would seem to be unfair to compare the contributions of those who are not literary critics with the historians and social scientists. If we were to focus on the paper by Paula Nicholson we would find an extremely clear and cogent argument about the problems encountered by feminism in a field which is dominated by a positivist science paradigm and which has perhaps been more resistant to feminism than other social sciences. Nicolson pursues the argument that psychology has constructed the feminine as deficient (in comparison to the male norm) and explores how this operates through three substantive areas, namely pre-menstrual tension, post-natal depression, and sexuality. It is written in a way that would be accessible to all levels of readership, and it presents well the idea that feminism must transcend the mere 'addition' of women as a category of existing academic disciplines.

If we then turn to the chapters drawn from literary criticism or feminist art theory/criticism we find we are launched into a completely different level of debate. John Goode's interesting and challenging piece required the reader to know a great deal about existing debates in the field although he is most skilful in taking the reader through the early stages of his paper. But then, I would argue, fully to appreciate his line of argument the reader must know quite intimately the texts he uses, most particularly George Eliot; equally the conversation between Griselda Pollock and Mary Kelly which is given a careful and illuminating introduction by Margaret Iversen, is at a level of debate quite different from the papers from the other disciplinary backgrounds.

Ultimately, I felt that there were some interesting intellectual nuggets here. The paper by Rick Rylance in which he discusses representations of masculine sexuality in 1950s literature was particularly stimulating. Deborah Thom's paper on the two strands of feminist work in history, namely feminist history and the history of women, made clear the basis for the development of these two conflicting tendencies in feminist work. I was left a little unclear of where she stood on the question of critical feminism even though Thom at least does address herself fairly explicitly to this broader question - an issue which seems to be largely forgotten elsewhere. Dominelli writes in rather a different register because in her field of social work she is concerned with practical intervention and 'training'. It is unfortunate that such different concerns (eg the politics of feminism in social work teaching as opposed to the teaching of history) could not be addressed somewhere. Because of this silence it is all to easy to imagine that one is a practical endeavour and the other an intellectual pursuit - which is exactly the kind of thinking this book sets out to challenge.

I cannot end this review without commenting on the fact that two of the articles were by men. Many feminists object to the practice of including male authors in feminist anthologies. I feel fairly neutral about this, especially if the men concerned have interesting things to say; however, the tone of apology, the potted autobiographies included to prove that the two men were really aware, and the focus on themselves as masculine producers of texts became tedious. Indeed, I suspect that if these passages in their (otherwise interesting) papers were subjected to a feminist psychoanalytic reading we might come to some quite disturbing conclusions. Ultimately, therefore, I felt a sense of dissatisfaction with the book and whereas I could imagine that I might recommend one or two of the papers to students with specific interests, I do not feel the collection produces a sufficiently coherent argument to be otherwise useful for teaching.

Carol Smart
University of Leeds.


Copyright Carol Smart 1996

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