The Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter has published a very wierd article which claims in part:
The "postmodern" supposition that sex is nothing more than a "constructed social identity" threatens the very concept of "woman" while leaving intact the oppression of women. Little wonder that the sophistry of "deconstruction" - primarily developed and promulgated by white men such as Michael Foucault - has found such favor in our sexist society. But whenever off our backs publishes a two-page paean to "deconstruction" which cites Colin Powell and Jerry Springer as its only "authorities" ("Identity Politics and Progress", off our backs, April 1998) it is time for a reality check in a world in which women are routinely discriminated against and murdered because they are women. "Deconstruction" may very well eliminate the perception of such injustice by mutilating the bodies beyond all recognition but the injustice itself will continue unabated.
Now, I want to come out and state, for the sake of the record, that I am not disagreeing with the ultimate goals of this organization. Hell, I've never even heard of the organization before following the link the other day. And yes, for the record, the opression of women and violence against them is horrible, icky, and nasty, so my goals are basically aligned with theirs.
Now, my point: this group's observation quoted above shows a complete lack of thought or attempts to understand postmodernism. It is unnuanced, stereotypical, and knee-jerk reactionary. In other words, they are looking for a scapegoat to distract from their own lack of intellectual engagement.
When I was in a grad theory class, the major beef that some of the students seemed to have with postmodernism (other than the fact that many of its proponents could not write anything comprehendable) was that by deconstructing the essential existence of categories, it was saying that there were no categories at all. Furthermore, by deconstructing these categories, postmodern (they argued) rendered political action impossible. The only possible recourse, then, was to ditch this way of thinking and stick with our modernist politics, thank you very much.
This reminds me of the die-hard Christians who seem to think that Atheism is nothing more than a license to act sinful...that if one doesn't believe in God, then one just does whatever they please regardless of the harm to others. This view also reminds me of those who see anarchists as a bunch of people who think we should throw away the government, rule ourselves, live for ourselves, and to hell with everyone else.
For some reason, we mock the simplistic view that one has to be evangelical Christian to have morals, and we mock the view that one has to believe fully either in our government or in chaos. These are simplistic readings which show a lack of critical engagement, we (rightfully) say.
Why, then, is it okay to kick postmodernism using the same mindset?
Now, I am not the most fervent postmodernist out there, but it does make some good points. And while I am quite capable of slinging around the theory to support my argument, this ain't that kind of blog. But we cannot simply say "postmodernism says this," because the amount of things postmodernism does say is huge...because there are multiple varieties of postmodernism (the avant-garde engagement of Jameson, the weird literary formalism of Hassan, the "everything is illusory" world of Baudrillard). But what most people mean when they use the term "postmodernism" is really just a stereotype of people playing a meaningless intellectual game. What I would like to do is suggest that we have to look at these things with an open mind towards the true complexities of intellectual existence before we dismiss them with stereotypes.
Something I go over with my freshmen is the "social construction of reality" does indeed say that the categories under which we operate are constructed socially. What it means to be "a woman" or "a black" or "a working-class" is contextual, constructed, often entirely so. However, that your identity as a Jew or Latino is socially constructed is relatively unimportant if you are being beaten up with an axe-handle as the result of that identity. The students, being relatively reasoning individuals, get this.
Just because something is socially constructed and thus not really real does not mean that construction is not very real in terms of effects. You can deny the reality of an image, still be upset by and work to overcome its consequences, and be entirely logically and morally consistent. Postmodernism is more than capable of sustaining political action because (unless you are reading something written by an idiot or are yourself unbendingly literal) it does not say that since large elements of our lives are constructed, we should treat everything like a dream.
Furthermore, if you deny postmodernism, you are also denying the denial (if you follow me) of manichean logic and "essential" truths...because these are the things against which any good postmodernist should rally...they are the "shared feature" of most varieties of postmodernism (if such a thing can be said to exist).
To my mind, the question is less "how can you be postmodernist and politically active" than it is "how can you not be a political postmodernist?"
Elsewhere, I have railed against the annoying tendency of pro-choice activists to fall into a "you are either entirely with us or you are entirely against us" intellectual binary (this was, incidentally, in response to my being told that I wasn't allowed to have an opinion on abortion unless I could gestate a fetus). This binary, I argued, plays into the "women are reproduction machines" argument which is part of the system that has been oppressing women in the first place. It, unfortunately, is a mindset similar to that of many postmodern-hating lefties out there.
And yes, it's not a suprise that there are varieties of feminist thought out there that buy into the construction of gender roles as essential and natural (which seems to be an undercurrent in the Center's article)...but it's still kind of stupifying that people can call themselves political activists when, rather than wanting to change the system, they really just want to bend it to their purposes. This isn't activism, it's opportunism.
Short term change is a matter of getting ahead. Long term change is a matter of fundamentally altering the system. To do the latter, you have to question the thoughts, ideas, and assumptions at the basis of that system. This is what postmodernism does, if you let it by fully exploring it and considering the consequences.