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  • World Alienation in Feminist ThoughtThe Sublime Epistemology of Emphatic Anti-Essentialism
  • Bonnie Mann (bio)

The earth is the very quintessence of the human condition.

Hannah Arendt

We are tied to place undetachably and without reprieve.

Edward Casey

The alliance between feminism and postmodernism1 in the American academy has brought about a revolution in feminist epistemology. The early feminist epistemology of unmasking, of sorting through appearances to get to the real underneath, has been discredited as "essentialist."2 Feminist standpoint epistemology was an attempt to respond to this accusation by using social location as a "standpoint" from which at least local and situated knowledge could be articulated.3 More recently, many feminists have taken on the epistemology of the simulacrum. Here "the real" plays a part only as that which dissolves into the appearances themselves. Behind the appearances, if there were such a place, would be only an abyss of absence.

With this revolution in feminist epistemology comes a wholesale displacement [End Page 45] of the feminist project. Others have argued that the feminist political project is displaced in the alliance with postmodernism.4 On my view, the epistemological and political displacements accompany and instantiate an even deeper level of dispossession. The ultimate price we pay for the feminist alliance with postmodernism may well be a material displacement, in which we are dispossessed of our ability to inquire into and articulate our relationship to the earth itself. We find this planet we inhabit, this physical place that sustains us moment by moment, to be effectively shut out of what now passes as "good" feminist inquiry.

In 1958, Hannah Arendt wrote already of "the advent of a new and yet unknown age," marked by world-alienation, a "twofold flight from the earth into the universe and from the world into the self" (1958, 6). The "unknown age" has now been named. Postmodernity takes this flight one step further than Arendt foresaw, however, and even folds the universe and the self into discourse. World-alienation has taken the form of the self-enclosed universe of the text. Our sojourn in the world of signs is so paradigmatic of "the postmodern condition," that asking the question of our relationship to the physical planet we inhabit seems naive and nostalgic. Anything we might say about the earth, after all, is already in language, already bound up in discourse. To speak of an "earth" or "nature" that exceeds discourse is to find oneself locked, even so, within discourse. Having lost our belief in the referentiality of language, in the relation between words and things, we are stuck with signs that refer only to other signs.

A capitulation to our very real physical and phenomenological experience of world-alienation finds here its theoretical form. We give in to placelessness. As Edward S. Casey writes, "To say 'I have no place to go' is to admit to a desperate circumstance. Yet we witness daily the disturbing spectacle of people with no place to go: refugees from natural catastrophes or strife-torn countries, the homeless on the streets of modern cities, not to mention 'stray' animals. In fearing that 'the earth is becoming uninhabitable'—a virtual universal lament—we are fearing that the earth will no longer provide adequate places in which to live. The incessant motion of postmodern life in late-capitalist societies at once echoes and exacerbates this fear" (Casey 1993, xiii). Intellectually, we find ourselves in equally desperate circumstances, trapped as we are inside a language that can refer only to itself. This self-enclosure becomes a kind [End Page 46] of no place, a world-alienated space without place,5 and feminist thinking is set adrift from the physical places that give feminist thinkers our moment by moment sustenance. In its alliance with postmodernism, feminism has capitulated to the placelessness that so marks our phenomenological experience at the turn of the millennium.6

Yet we inhabit this planet. Faced with its destruction we are compelled to make sense of our relationship to it and to act to save it. A feminist philosophy that turns its back on the earth embraces, rather than contests, the world-alienation of which Arendt spoke. Yet our alienation...


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