Tuesday, November 22, 2005

kick me, I'm postmodern

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.


Jennifer said...

Allow me to weigh in here as I feel caught in the middle -

what you read was a great example of the way feminist activists outside academe feel betrayed by the ivory tower. I wouldn't call it anti-intellectualism, but it comes off sounding similar (i.e. you academics don't work with women "on the ground" and so your theories don't apply to victimized/surviving women)

You may also be wise to look up Nixon vs. Rape Relief here (and elsewhere) http://dawn.thot.net/nixon_v_vrr.html

Essentially, Vancouver Rape Relief & women's shelter was taken to court for refusing to allow a transwoman to volunteer there. AT issue was how the organization was defining "woman" - as bio.born and identified.

While I don't know much about the organization, I'd say their comments on postmodernism + this case cement the organization in a particular type of feminism. I can understand why the author of the snippet criticizes pomo - this is an argument used by feminists ALL THE TIME - that is to say, pomo is male-centric & has little to no relation to real women's lives.

some postmodern theorizing IS apolitical - it's more interested in exploding categories & letting the anarchy reign. This is very tough for those of us dealing with the very real fall-out from gender-based oppression, as well as racism, transphobia, homophobia, colonialism etc.

I think it's valid for the author to ask - how does postmodernism stop women from being abused/ raped/ oppressed????

Anonymous said...

There is also the more generalised issue of whether or not a postmodernist outlook leads people to support the right kind of political action. You only need to look at Foucault praising the rule of the Ayatollahs in Iran to see the problems with reducing everything in politics to a set of subjective competing narratives.
It is also a simplistic, non-academic acceptance of postmodernist ideas that has led to things like having to listen to dumb shits like George W saying "theres no reason why people shouldnt be taught both sides of the story" (about evolution "vs" that risible intelligent design/creationism nonsense). What argument refuting that sort of ignorance does postmodernism put up?
And this may well come across as an attack on Foucault, who was an asshole, but it is by no means an attack on everyone who considers themselves a postmodernist, like your fine self, Mike.

Meredith said...

Jennifer -- I see the point of what you're saying. At some points, it does seem politically necessary to keep some notion of "woman" to use as a basis of political action. At the same time (and I'm pretty sure you'll agree with this), the notion that "woman" is socially constructed in a particular way is also incredibly politically useful. I agree that lots of people have muddied the pomo waters using it as a sort of fun toy -- what can I take apart today?! -- which makes it seem to the (non-academic) mainstream that all pomo is equally masturbatory.
To slightly change the subject, was the VRR & shelter defending its case against pomo to affirm their stance that the trans woman couldn't work there? I don't really have a problem letting trans women into the "club," but I know that others do (Michigan Woman/Womyn's festival (I'm not sure of their spelling), some shelters, some businesses that have "woman-only" hours -- this is, in fact, one of the big reasons I've never gone to the Michigan festival). I've always thought that such a stance did more harm than good. I affirm the use of woman-only spaces in certain situations, but I see no harm and a great deal of good in letting people self-identify as "woman" if they so choose.

Jennifer said...

to offer clarification for Meredith - I'm not sure where Mike pulled that quote about pomo for the blog but it is unrelated to the legal case regarding allowing a transwoman to continue to volunteer for Vancouver Rape Relief & women's shelter.

As a collective member at the centre at York - newly renamed Centre for Women and Transpeople - www.yorku.ca/ywc I'd argue that women & transpeople (not that those are mutually exclusive categories mind you) have much in common when it comes to coalition work against gender-based violence. It only makes sense to work together....

Meredith said...

Yep :)

themikedubose said...

I have to admit to being less concerned with the Vancouver shelter specifically than with the stereotyping of postmodernists and appeal to binary logic which the quote suggests. I also have to admit that I see it all the time in the case of feminists...not to single out feminists, but I seem to have more exposure to them than to queer theorists or those who study ethnicity.

"Anonymous" (if that is your name, Eoin) is very right in saying that some postmodernists themselves believe the hype and do weird things as a result...I have yet to read as much Foucault as I would like, so I'll defer to your judgement.

I will say that I used to be a Baudrillard supporter. I could see how he could nicely be used to analyze the proliferation of mediated image in our society. Then I took a directed readings on him, and I gound out that he seems to honestly believe the world really works that way...somewhere, he bought into his own theories about the world and retreated into a world where his theory was the only concern. To me, this smacks of not binary logic but monologic...he's replaced one set of metanarratives for his self-created metanarrative...and he's not alone among the postmodernists.

It's important to realize that there are postmodern jerks out there. What we need to do is pull out the good stuff and sensibly apply it. If there are two competing narratives, and we (at least, those of us who feel we somewhat have to exist in a postmodern world) feel the need to take a side, we have to realize that our choice still needs to be guided by a logic and morality. Just because we think that morality might not come from some elderly Caucasian sitting on a metal throne doesn't mean that morality does not exist.

But identity politics seems to prefer its definitions, and they seem to feel that they'd be lost without them...so they do their best to reinforce the fact that such definitions exist as real categories.

I understand why...it's much easier to fight a battle when you can easily classify the combattants...but I still think it's wrong, and more importantly, makes those involved think the enemy is "that group over there" rather than a particularly odious idea. The backlash against transpeople is a brilliant example of this. It also leads to the proliferation of categories, which can bind and restrict rather than free...I have one lesbian friend who has expressed particular distaste for the "butch/fem" labels that seem to dominate queer discourse, for instance (sorry if I'm not doing this justice, if you happen to be reading).

The evolution/intelligent design deal is a whole other can o' worms...I feel that this one is poisoned equally by the pomo'ers as it is by the binary fans. The way this debate runs, it seems like you're either with Darwin or God, which makes both sides seem monolithic. We know there's variety in religious dogma, but we're not always aware of the true diversity of evolutionary viewpoints, including emergent biology...but this is a rant that will have to wait until I have more spunk in me.

Jennifer said...

Hmm, let me respond to Mike's disavowal of categories :)

If it were me the poststructuralist intellectual here, I'd say yes, categories do more harm than good. But, as me the feminist activist here - I can say that when you are oppressed on the basis of an identity category in your lived daily existence, it's hard to say "screw categories". I.e. all the black men pulled over for "driving while black" would find it hard to say "I wonder why I was pulled over because race is surely socially constructed so that *can't* be the reason??" :)

So sometimes it is important to name categories to point out systemic oppression.

What is most important is to recognize difference WITHIN a category so obviously not all women experience sexism the same etc. And believe me, there are some women I DO NOT want in my "sisterhood" :)

(I'm currently writing my comps exam on the move from identity based politics to politics based on shared goals/aims so this is all in my head right now)

perhaps part of the problem is not pomo per se, but the way pomo has been represented in the media & by academics in the classroom that leads activists to discount it? I would absolutely say that pomo is useful for examining cultural production, it's usefulness decreases when it is applied to identity.

themikedubose said...

I've been thinking about this, and what I think is more important is to realize that categories are not tied to anything other than our own preconceptions. But the categories themselves are evil because we always forget this.

An example: I was reading Vitek's dissertation (he's writing a postmodern biography of Generoso Pope Jr., the founder of the National Enquirer), and he was bringing up the postmodern disavowal of the distinction between high and low culture. Okay, fine. But many pomo'ers (not neccessarily Jack) will then use this to get rid of the idea of "art"...believing if both poetry and comics are worthy of study, then all examples of each should be held to the same standard of judgement.

This is exactly where (this conception of) postmodernism loses a whole lot of people. "Are you really saying," they might ask, "that A Midsummer Night's Dream is the same as Richie Rich?" They (rightfully) ask this with an incredulous look on their face.

Well, no. There is, of course, art in each medium...Sandman (or eighty other titles) prove that comics can be an evocative medium worthy of communicating truths about the human spirit..and are also badass. And Danielle Steele novels go a long way to showing that books by themselves are not automatically art, and therefore better than everything else, no matter what assholes like Neil Postman claim.

(Incidentally, when I had a job selling water, I read a Danielle Steele novel...and was tempted to emulate Oedipus Rex (in the eyes bit, not in the parent thing) in an attempt to blot the vision of the horror from my sight. Ick.)

This is why postmodernists (at least, the ones with sense who haven't fallen in love with their own ramblings) disavow the distinction between high and low culture. They are not saying that there is no difference between the two...only a moron would think that you view Citizen Kane and The Simpsons in the same way, with the same tools. And they would freely admit that there are real political differences between the value currently placed on (say) Shakespeare and Stephen King. But there is nothing inherent in either the level of culture or its medium which determines an object/text's worth.

Unfortunately, this is the very distiction which non-pomo'ers seem to have difficulty grasping. Of course, we as a society percieve differences between high and low culture...but they are not really there as anything other than our social constructs....that is how they are "not real"...and we probably (hell, no probably about it) would be better off forgetting these distinctions because they lead to so many negative and stereotypical thougths.

The exact same thing is (or at least, should be) behind the pomo disavowal of gender categories. What I was arguing is that while there may be short term benefits for identity politics, ultimately the very concept of identity is so inherently connected to morals, values, judgements, and political power that buying into it in any degree ultimately reinforces the very people who oppressed you to begin with...and this is why the original emnity towards postmodernism shown in the quote raised my ire so much.

Yes, if you get pulled over for "driving while black," it does suck...but is then going to emphasize your blackness really the solution? I personally lean towards wholescale societal change, but then the coffee's just starting to kick in.

Of course, it's possible that I'm a moron who just misread a lot of stuff.