Sunday, March 25, 2007

Feminism and Postmodernism

Renegade Evolution offers us a righteous rant against the failings of contemporary feminism.

(This essay is turning out to be a bit rambling, more of a brain dump of some of things I'm thinking about rather than a well-structured essay making and supporting an unambiguous point, so please bear with me. Or don't. ::shrugs:: It's a blog: Deal with it.)

As I'm beginning to study Postmodernist philosophy I'm seeing the same sort of problems there that RenEv identifies with feminism, and I suspect the problems with Postmodernism might be related to (if not identical with) what Ren's talking about with Feminism.

Postmodernist philosophy (as I see it) started off as a revolt against the Modernist idea of authority: That patriarchal white European Ancient-Greek-derived capitalistic Christian Western Civilization[see update] was by definition The One Right Way To Live. That to even question the authority of PWEAGDCCWC was heresy, blasphemy, and rank stupidity (for the last gasp of this sort of Modernist authoritarianism, see the introduction to Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind).

I see this sort of revolution against the arbitrary authoritarianism of PWEAGDCCWC to be a Very Good Thing. But somehow, the way was lost. In justly attacking the notion of The One Right Way To Live—i.e. The Truth-with-a-capital-Tee—postmodernist philosophers started to attack the notion of prosaic small-tee truth itself. Instead of attacking the blatant falsity and fallacy of PWEAGDCCWC, the PoMos started asserting that there was no such thing as "truth", that anything anyone said was just as "true" as anything else.

But you can't so easily dispense with the notion of "truth": Small-tee truth is extremely—even fundamentally— entrenched in our notions about what it means to speak and use language.

If the PoMos were really serious about this position, the obvious logical consequence is that it is literally the case that "goo goo ga ga" is just as "truthful" (in the sense that turtles and rocks fly equally well) as "rocks fall when you drop them." That all language reduces to nothing but the clenched fist (dominance) and the bared throat (submission). If this attitude towards truth were accurate, then everyone might as well just stop speaking completely and start shooting.

Philosophers, whose stock in trade are words and language, are of course never going to take this nihilistic metaphysic to its obvious logical conclusion. The only alternative is to bury their commitment to truth in layers of philosophical bullshit. (And I would argue that learning how to bury one's substantive position in layers of bullshit is (with, of course, a few exceptions) the primary goal of contemporary philosophical education.)

The primary technique of this sort of bullshit is to never ever actually talk about some substantive position, or directly discuss the merits or drawbacks of that position. Rather, one talks about who does and does not have the right to speak about that position. How can a man discuss women's rights? How can a white person discuss racial equality? How can a straight guy discuss gay rights? The notion seem preposterous.

Bullshit, especially the really good bullshit (and there's no doubt in my mind that Postmodernist bullshit is of premier quality), always rests on a half-truth. Of course it's true that I, a straight white Western male, can never know experientially what it is to be a woman, or black, or gay, or colonized. I have no standing to talk about what those things are, because I'm not.

While I'm always interested in learning about what it is to be something I'm not, that's not the only purpose of talking. We can talk about objective truth, and—more to the immediate point—we can talk about our shared social constructs. Our social mores, our laws, our language, these are all things we share, that we have to share, that we have to work out together. Even an authoritarian has to persuade or force me to submit; even authoritarianism cannot be established unilaterally.

Postmodernism entails a number of delicious ironies. By attacking truth itself, but still speaking, any writer must him- or herself have a hidden notion of truth—the very antithesis of deconstruction, which (when valid and interesting) aims at uncovering hidden notions of truth, and, more importantly, enthymemes (unspoken assumptions, often unjustified). Even more ironic is that, by attacking authority, writers often set themselves or their class or category as authorities. The discussion just moves from establishing truth about the subject at hand to demanding the authority to establish truth, to demanding the authority to declare who has the right to speak.

One thing I very strongly suspect is rare in any of the academic humanities is any sort of attack on the authority of academic credentials and the academic establishment. I strongly doubt that any person who has spent nearly a decade obtaining a Ph.D. is ever going to strongly argue that their doctorate is a meaningless social construct which gives them no more authority than an ordinary person.[1] Hence this blog, written by a high-school dropout with an average IQ[2], just by existing is a fiercely Postmodernist critique on academic authority.

One really delicious irony is that academia does not have the sort of raw, propagandistic power that its members think they have. By asserting their unquestionable authority, they merely marginalize themselves. Whatever persuasive power academia ever had—outside of putting a veneer of learned babble on established political authority—has been the academic commitment to truth. To the degree that any academic appears to renounce truth, they undermine the only claim to authority they ever really had.

As far as I know, no one who actually gets anything done in liberal/progressive politics really gives the smallest shit about what some Ph.D. in Women's Studies thinks about the Patriarchy. We're out there in the streets trying to elect Democratic politicians so they can appoint Supreme Court justices who will (with all good luck) stop gutting Roe v. Wade.

I have some observations that might hearten RenEv. The first is that Feminism is just as subject to Sturgeon's Law as anything else: 90% of Feminism is crap. It's still important to talk about what specifically is and is not crap, but the fact of the pervasive crappiness is not itself a cause for concern.

As to what to do, about feminism, and about anything else, I can offer only e. e. cummings' advice:
to be nobody but yourself - in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you like everybody else - means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight, and never stop fighting.
Not only the hardest battle, but, at the end of the day, the only one worth fighting.

Update: The tens of millions of people murdered, and the unspeakable suffering of scores of millions more, over precisely which version of patriarchal white European Ancient-Greek-derived capitalistic Christian Western Civilization should prevail is a pretty strong argument that philosophical Modernism is about as completely full of shit as any ideology can possibly be.

[1] I don't want to criticize academic credentials in the substantive fields, especially science and engineering, as well as the humanities, such as history, which still have some degree of commitment to scientific truth. Since people in these fields actually do something, there is an enormous amount of background required to do any sort of productive work.

[2] Some people have accused me of being very smart; I believe they're incorrect. I've met people who really are very smart, and I'm not one of them. I've tested my IQ; it's a little above average, but well within the bounds of statistical normality. My theory is that I seem smart because I have a tolerably good memory, but more importantly, because I have a finely honed bullshit detector, and I'm completely uninterested in bullshitting anyone, especially myself. Once you learn to smell bullshit, when you can sense what's false before detailed analysis, it makes it so much easier to analyze, identify and criticize the source of the bullshit.

It is a sad commentary on our world when sincerity and honesty, especially self-honesty, is mistaken for raw intelligence. You don't need to be a genius to be honest.


  1. I strongly doubt that any person who has spent nearly a decade obtaining a Ph.D. is ever going to strongly argue that their doctorate is a meaningless social construct which gives them no more authority than an ordinary person.

    Which is why my favorite philosopher is Eric Hoffer, who had almost no formal education but read voraciously and had a common-sense view of the world that cut matters to the quick.

    I'm glad you mentioned deconstructionism. I find Derrida's theiry of inverting binary pair assumptions ("God is better than Man," for example) extremely useful. As Sturgeon's Law says, about 90% of what it's used for is bullshit, but that 10% is immensely useful.

  2. Another (?) endorsement of Hoffer. I shall have to read him.

  3. Simon Critchley on deconstruction:

    "Deconstruction is pedagogy ...

    ... patient, meticulous, scrupulous, open, questioning reading that is able, at its best, to unsettle its readers' expectations and completely transform our understanding."

    Lyotard on postmodernism:

    Postmodernism is (usually intense) skepticism of "grand narratives" (aka "myths"*).

    It turns out to be the same thing.

    (* to take one recent example, how many times recently have you heard the narrative "our soldiers are in Iraq defending our freedom and way of life" ?)

  4. If you're serious about trying out Hoffer (his writing is short and easy to read thanks to his aphoristic style), The True Believer and The Passionate State of Mind are the two best, and would only take a day's reading, at most.

  5. Love the bullshit discussion.

    I had some profs who did renounce their degrees as just glorified pieces of paper. They presented themselves as buddies, just like us, except they had read a few more books on a narrowly defined topic. Funny, once one prof told us a PhD is a joke, it seemed to be contagious as several followed suit. Maybe it was just a way to get us to pay for a round after class.

    But I wonder, is PoMo entirely analogous to current feminist problems. They've both rejected Truth as something sent down from higher up - academics or the patriarchy, but, wrt Ren's situation, instead of there being no truth, some are just shifting it to be what one group believes (rad fems). They aren't rejecting Truth from authority; they just want to BE the authority that drives all the definitions and belief systems.

    I'm a product of PoMo schooling, and so I do tend to, at first, accept other truths as equally valid to my own. But later, after looking at their arguments, I often have second thoughts. My hope is that the Truth comes out in rational discourse. Hahaha.

  6. Keep in mind that I do self-identify as a Postmodernist philosopher.

    I try to split my time and attention between positive pro-good-Postmodernism (deprecating social and political authoritarianism establishing big-Tee Truth and promoting democracy and individualism) and negative anti-bad-Postmodernism (deprecating epistemic nihilism and promoting small-tee truth).


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