The challenge for feminism in the present relates to how it responds, ethically and politically, to a global context that is at once geared toward total control and fragmentation. In seeking to contribute to the revival of feminism as a distinctly political project, this article explores the potential of feminist contributions in relation to ethics and politics. The aim is not to reenact, or even to reactivate, the well-worn arguments around universalism and the ethic of care. (1) It aims instead to reclaim the political in feminist discourse, to identify its conditions of possibility, and to consider its location in relation to the hegemonic order that clearly defines the present. Faced with totality, a totality that I argue is based on a hegemonic neoliberal order and a matrix of war, feminism's options appear to be twofold. On the one hand, there is clearly the option of complicity, a form of co-optation into the discourses of the powerful. On the other, there is the option of dissention and contestation. The feminism of co-optation is not intentionally supportive of totality, but rather lacks a discourse based on a radical critique of the present. However, and far more significantly, there is another feminist voice, located in a plethora of spaces and associations, essentially and necessarily transnational, that contests and through contestation enables the emergence of woman as speaking subject, possessing an ever-shifting agency that in itself is circumscribed by time and space, culture and society, the local and the global. This is an engaged feminism, one that refuses co-optation, or uniform definitions of what it is to be a liberated self.
The first part of the article identifies the totalizing discourse of the present and its implications for feminism. The aim of this first section is to clearly identify the present and its constitution in intelligibility. This first section asks simply: What are the conditions of the present and how is feminism and feminist discourse being reconstituted as it is subject to the imperatives of power that define the present social and political order? The second and third sections analyze and elaborate upon the options facing feminist ethics and politics. These options are related to the ontological commitments within feminist discourses, relating in particular to how feminism responds to totality or hegemony. The aim throughout, I repeat, is to reclaim the political in feminism.
The present appears to represent a break from history, a temporal location that somehow encompasses the uncertainties and vulnerabilities associated with late-modern social and political life. There is a sense in which the transformation has taken place and in so doing has firmly established itself in lived experience. The transformation is, however, incomplete, and it is this incompleteness that disturbs, generating in its wake a sense of a world that is unknown and unknowable, a constitutive unease that locates the subject in a temporal in-between, the in-between of past and present. Transformations must hence imply a present dissociated from the past, where the former represents vulnerability and uncertainty, while the latter is the domain of consistency, of bounded selfhood and community. The past, nostalgically recalled, is then imagined as that location that must be retrieved even as the past so remembered is devoid of historical content, shorn of its complexities and uncertainties.
Awareness of transformation must hence raise questions relating not simply to a break from a constructed past, but also of continuities that render the past intelligible, or at least subject to understanding, so that the subjectivities of the present may in some way ask that which is question-worthy. The lived experiences of past generations come to form the memory traces of the present, constitutive of life in the present. The enactment of naming the present in any particular way is not therefore an essentializing act, a striving for exactitude in conceptual formation. …