Rita Felski. Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture. New York: New York University Press, 2000. 214 pp. $25.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8147-2706-5.
Reviewed by W. Douglas Catterall (Department of History and Government, Cameron University)
Published on H-Minerva (April, 2001)
A Synthesis of Feminist and Postmodern Theory
A Synthesis of Feminist and Postmodern Theory
Since the 1960s, theories of semiotics, difference, and agency have pushed at the boundaries of the humanities and at the tolerance of humanities establishments. Rita Felski's latest offering, Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture, takes stock of the theoretical foment and creative ideological tensions of the past decades. To be sure, Felski has a strong interest in various feminisms and their place within and without the grove of academe. The concerns of feminist theory intersect with those of so many other fields of inquiry, though, that Felski's collection of essays affords the reader a perspective of this broader landscape as well. The result is a valuable if uneven overview of important issues and suggests points for future interdisciplinary conversations that will be important to a wide range of scholars.
Felski opens her inquiry by describing the critical persona that she brings to the table. While she sees the postmodern as describing a form or forms of culture as well as a set of perspectives on culture, Felski is less sure of its precise content and value. Feminism, for example, does not necessarily share a common agenda with it in her view. Having established a critical stance for herself, Felski proceeds to define her terrain. She wants to explore the conceptualization of historical time and in particular how individuals construct and conceive of their place in time. The remaining essays are meditations within this mental space, with feminist theory serving as one of several pathways into the pasts and presents Felski interrogates.
Felski begins with a discussion of class identity. She criticizes the tendency among cultural theorists to narrow their analyses of class and class identity to the working class, with other social groups, notably the lower-middle-class receiving less attention. Analyzing class in terms of the social costs and implications of upward (and downward) mobility would, she contends, result in a less dichotomous view of class. It would also provide a picture of class less dependent on valorizing a particular class historical trajectory, by which measurement the lower-middle-class, which cultural critics have seen as opposed to women's social advancement and slavishly if unsuccessfully imitative of elite behavior, is a group unworthy of serious attention.
Have implicitly introduced the theme of historical time, Felski takes a broad look at the relationship between conceptualizations and judgments of history as expressed in the terms modern, postmodern and everyday life. Her conclusion is that in embracing postmodernity some scholars have prematurely trumpeted the end of historical time. The modern, standing in for historical time, Felski suggests is neither a particular experience of time nor a particular cultural phase. Rather it is a multiplicity of experiences of time, some "traditional" and some not so, and provides cultural space for a range of groups (among them women) to contest both the past and the present. Felski also desires to liberate everyday life, the point at which history is in a sense generated, from feminist scholars who define it as a female sphere and those who see in it a site for studying repressive social structures. For Felski, everyday life is "a way of experiencing the world" that one can profitably analyze but should not reify.
Having come out firmly in favor of historical time(s) Felski devotes the remainder of her essays to exploring her views on time and the location of groups in culture in a series of case-studies. Her discussions range from work of Judith Krantz to the role of philosophy in a West with a shifting intellectual elite to feminism's ties to aesthetics. In each of these chapters Felski teases out the workings of time, history and culture interacting in a particular context. As a collection of reflective essays, much of what Felski has to say in Doing Time is necessarily synthetic and broad in scope with only occasional details to anchor the reader in the context of an argument. This approach works best in those essays in which Felski is making a fairly circumscribed point, as in chapter two, an essay on class, or chapter six, an exploration of the relationship between perceptions of time and perceptions of the sexed/gendered body.
It is much less successful, however, in dealing with unwieldy phenomena. Chapter three, on the nature of experienced time, a topic that has also been explored in depth by the likes of Paul Ricoeur, comes to mind. The "big picture" feel of many of these essays also distracts from Felski's efforts to relate feminist scholarship to postmodernism, although chapters six, eight and nine do provide interesting insights on this score. These reservations aside, Felski very effectively states the need for a more nuanced (and less polemical) reconsideration and revisitation of the issues that cultural studies has raised in the past decades. It is as an ambassador not just to the many people in her own field but to those outside of it that Felski should be especially praised. I look forward to subsequent contributions.
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W. Douglas Catterall. Review of Felski, Rita, Doing Time: Feminist Theory and Postmodern Culture.
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