The Trouble with Difference

The Trouble with Difference

Since the late 1970s, feminist theorists and scholars have been attacking, subverting, and attempting to dethrone the universalist liberalism of earlier women’s-rights advocates who spoke in the name of a unified, homogeneous womankind. From that point on, the dominant motif in women’s studies and in much multicultural scholarship became “difference,” the insistence on a multiplicity of identities and subjectivities among subordinated people. This break with the universalism of an elite feminism following in an Enlightenment tradition represented a considerable advance for feminist theory. Fragmenting universalist assumptions helped reveal previously invisible or even suppressed understandings of inequality and domination. The idea of difference contributed to similar multicultural explosions in other corners of progressive and democratic thought and activism.

But the centrifugal force created by anger against an elite left’s universalist claims has had negative consequences as well. The explosion set into orbit an indeterminate number of independent identities traveling in no apparent relation to each other. Those who peer at the skies of progressive possibilities sometimes find that no generalizations can any longer characterize what is progressive and democratic and what isn’t. It is not the articulations of many different axes of oppression that is problematic but the way in which these are isolated insights, their authors not attempting to theorize larger historical patterns. It is not the numerous foci of identity that are problematic but the solipsism of these identities.

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Duggan | University of California Press Gardels