restricted access Ludic Feminism and After: Postmodernism, Desire, and Labor in Late Capitalism (review)
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Reviewed by
Teresa L. Ebert. Ludic Feminism and After: Postmodernism, Desire, and Labor in Late Capitalism. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 1996. xiii + 338 pp.

Ebert believes that the current moment is one “of crisis for revolutionary politics” and that this crisis originates within the discourses of ludic feminism (and other ludic theoretical stances) and postmodernism and their privileging of desire. She defines ludic feminism as “a feminism that is founded upon poststructuralist assumptions about linguistic [End Page 564] play, difference, and the priority of discourse and thus substitutes a politics of representation for radical social transformation.” As a result of these positions, feminism’s revolutionary potentials have been significantly reduced “to matters of textuality, desire, or voluntarism.” The limited scope of feminist thinking and writing (“a more and more restricted, ahistorical, and localist genre of descriptive and immanent writing”; “written in a ‘feminine’ language”; “avoid[ing] abstract concepts”; “rely[ing] on . . . forms of intimate self-writing”) has limited, if not altogether precluded, emancipatory change for all peoples, since “the very issue of emancipation has been occluded in ludic feminism: dismissed as itself a totalizing (read totalitarian) metanarrative.”

Frustrated by utopian promises of change (Donna Haraway’s cyborg futures, for instance), Ebert calls for historical materialist critique as a means to revive feminism’s revolutionary potentials. In contrast to utopian “dreams” of a changed future, historical materialist critique “historically situates the possibility of what exists under patriarchal capitalist relations of difference . . . and points to what is suppressed by the empirically existing: not just what is, but what could be.” In short, then, this mode of critique and analysis “is the means for producing transformative knowledges.”

One of Ebert’s main problems with much current feminist thought is that its practitioners are removed from both the historical and the material. Much contemporary ludic theory, Ebert argues, can be termed “theory as play,” meaning that it “addresses itself exclusively to cultural politics, understanding cultural politics as the theater of significations, resignification ([Judith] Butler), remetaphorization ([Drucilla] Cornell), and redescription ([Richard] Rorty).” Such a theoretical positioning “substitutes the personal (playful meditation) for the political (historical explanation), and in so doing . . . Iegitimates, among other things, a pragmatic pluralism that tolerates exploitation (as one possible free choice).”

According to Ebert, transformative change must be predicated on an understanding of social totality (“No praxical knowledge can be a local knowledge”), and “[t]he only way to acquire such a knowledge of social totality is to theorize diverse social practices in relation to each other and through the laws that foreground their necessary relations.” Such an overarching understanding is beyond the purview of ludic [End Page 565] theories since they position such an understanding as totalizing and therefore as violent. Furthermore, ludic theories cannot create any material change since, in their readings, “there is no secure knowledge of the real or notion of justice on which to act—only the continual repetition of contingent acts of judging that invent their own idiom, their own criteria as they go along.” Through detailed discussions of the work of ludic theorists (including Jean Baudrillard, Judith Butler, Drucilla Cornell, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Elizabeth Grosz, Donna Haraway, Jean-François Lyotard, and Gayle Rubin), Ebert shows the ways in which she sees their theories as ultimately complicit (in their effects, if not always in their intentions) with current economic and social conditions, the very same conditions these theorists claim to be working to overthrow. She also spends time tracing the threads of what she calls “retrofeminism” and “power feminism” (Camille Paglia, Katie Roiphe, Naomi Wolf) and shows the way in which these threads can be woven together with those of ludic theories to “shift the site of struggle from socioeconomic emancipation to the sensuous maximizing of bodily pleasures and the libidinal liberation of the individual . . . . displac[ing] the social collective with the bourgeois monad and eras[ing] the political through the violent reinscription of the body.”

For Ebert, the answer to all of these problems is “red feminism.” Only Marxist thought, she believes, offers a “rigorous, coherent, and total account” of the social whole. Relations of production and exchange construct everything—from gender to desire. Through a Marxist...