Post-modernism and progressive values


13 comments posted
Excellent post

I was frankly bewildered by Liza's essay at first, there were so many wrongheaded assumptions in it. Since when is feminism as a whole synonymous with academic feminist deconstructionism? Sure, to an academic feminist deconstructionist the two might be synonymous, but those folks live in a bubble. And the beef with NARAL seems to go way beyond disagreement with the effectiveness or accuracy of a single ad. Grumblings about "matriarchy" and the implication that a pro-choice organization shouldn't be quite so pro-choice -- WTF?

Personally, I think it's always been a mistake to use "choice" as the label for reproductive rights. It doesn't sound important enough, frankly; people use the word "choice" when they're talking about menus and consumer products. I prefer to talk about "bodily integrity." That's what's at stake -- whether the government gets to control my BODY. In a nation founded on the very principle of personal liberty, it is obscene to contemplate not having sovereignty over one's own physical being.

As for Kos: Has anyone visited the site today? Kos put up a poll asking people to vote for Sean or Rachel, the volleyball players who have been featured in those weird ads. It's unbelievably snarky. Rachel "won," of course, and the comments are enough to curl your toes. The frat boys are screeching crap like "Bring back the pie fight ladies! They were hot!" while female posters are pathetically trying to please the boys by squealing about the joys of being objectified and how those nasty old feminists (not them!!!) are no fun at all!

I don't think I'll visit Kos again.

Sassafras's picture
Posted by Sassafras on 25 August 2005 - 7:24pm
You see, those volleyballers, don't bother me

It's the #1 reason I developed a dislike for Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin. It's a cultural thing. We don't do MacKinnon and Dworkin in Puerto Rico with the same fervor they do here in the US. Latin American feminism was never about negating sexuality.

But let me go to this,

I was frankly bewildered by Liza's essay at first, there were so many wrongheaded assumptions in it. Since when is feminism as a whole synonymous with academic feminist deconstructionism? Sure, to an academic feminist deconstructionist the two might be synonymous, but those folks live in a bubble.

You've got to be kidding, right?

I was under the assumption that after NOW was accussed of being too WASP (this is back in the 70's), that the whole point of the feminist movement afterwards was not just about empowering middle-class anglo-american women but all women. Growing up in Puerto Rico and a feminist, this was the #1 criticism Puerto Rican feminists had of NOW at the time because Puerto Rican feminist activist were dealing heavily of how issues of anti-imperialism and globalism were intrinsic to the exploitation of women in the 3rd world.

I mean, for chrissake, there was a whole town in Puerto Rico (I think it was Jayuya) that had 0 population growth thanks to fertility experiments paid for by the US government and PFizer.

Maybe it's that post-structuralist theories were intrinsic to political activism in the 3rd world. You still have to admit that, historically, the philosophers who lived May 68 had a huge impact in the political discourse all around the world.

And the beef with NARAL seems to go way beyond disagreement with the effectiveness or accuracy of a single ad. Grumblings about "matriarchy" and the implication that a pro-choice organization shouldn't be quite so pro-choice -- WTF?

I'm sorry but they were condescending. I am old enough to have grown up around a lot of the people who are either heading organizations like NARAL or retiring from them. The tone was condescending at first and maternalistic. It changed into a real conversation later on, but at the beginning, believe me, they were all about telling us what to do for them; not about what we could all do together for the cause.

We were not equals in that conversation, and it shows with their decision to pull the ad. Not because anybody played devil's advocate but because Arlen Specter told them to do so.

Sigh.'s picture
Posted by on 27 August 2005 - 1:40pm
Missed marks

I can't speak for Sassafras, but what she seemed to be pointing out about the dKos thread is the juvenile frat boy remarks, which go hand-in-hand with the STFU message many of them direct at feminists.

Also, "empowering middle-class anglo-american women" vs. post-structuralism I think is a false dichotomy.

And "maternalistic" does indeed add a sexist flavor to what is not necessarily sex-based behavior. Or are you suggesting something beyond what anyone leading a political organization might be seen to do?

media girl's picture
Posted by media girl on 27 August 2005 - 2:31pm

Bitch had a great article about the word "choice" last year. The term lost its significance as a result of being coöpted by marketers:

The word's primacy in the arena of reproductive rights has slowly caused the phrase "It's my choice" to become synonymous with "It's a feminist thing to do"—or, perhaps more precisely, "It is antifeminist to criticize my decision." The result has been a rapid depoliticizing of the term and an often misguided application of feminist ideology to consumer imperatives, invoked not only for the right to decide whether to terminate a pregnancy, but also for the right to buy all manner of products marketed to women, from cigarettes to antidepressants to diet frozen pizzas. It seems that if you can slap a purple or pink label that says "for women" on a product, choosing to buy it must be a feminist act.
tps12's picture
Posted by tps12 on 30 August 2005 - 2:10pm
Oh yeah

The high minded get lowbrow. It's all in good fun, though, right?

media girl's picture
Posted by media girl on 25 August 2005 - 7:50pm
Good post but

I obviously disagree with a lot of your criticism of me. We do agree that the ad sucked and that they really need a better ad agency.

Will definitely reply to your post on my blog --which, btw, is always the first place where my DailyKos posts appear.'s picture
Posted by on 27 August 2005 - 1:20pm
Looking forward to it


media girl's picture
Posted by media girl on 27 August 2005 - 2:33pm
Different reading of poststructuralist theory from Pandagon.

Sassyfras says above:

Sure, to an academic feminist deconstructionist the two might be synonymous, but those folks live in a bubble.

I don't think that's fair to people doing theory -- whatever kind of theory you want to call it, let's just, for the sake of convenience, lump the theory since the rise of theory as a discipline together -- who do engage with the world and do do political work: Giyatri Spivak and Judith Butler spring to mind.

I also take issue with Media Girl's understanding of the poststructuralist assault on Truth with a capital T. Apprehending poststructuralism as portraying everything as relative and as knocking the legs out from under our ability to make moral judgments is a common misapprehension: but it is a misapprehension. I'm far from an expert on Derrida, for instance, but anyone who can read his work without discovering a strong moral sense in it, well, missing the point.

Duplicating what I wrote over at Kos, here's what I get from poststructuralism, as a political thinker:

# It calls attention to Truth as a something that is largely contingent upon who gets to be listened to. This insight doesn't jettison the reality of, for instance, someone being beaten to death. But it does insist that I wonder who's telling the story and why and insists that I always remember there's no such thing as an innocent, bald recital of the facts.

# It forces me to be deeply suspicious of any foundationalist movement. Nostalgia, the desire for purity, the desire for the homogeneous point of origin, all of these are dangerous, monolithic ways of thinking. We need the freedom of recognizing that people, movements, the polis, are all heterogeneous, that we don't all come from some one, authentic place, and that while we have goals, we don't have a teleology. And any effort to clamp down on that difference is violent.


That said, I agree with a lot in this post (not least of all your criticism of Kos for his disingenuous claims of 'just being this guy'), and I've also learned a lot, too. You've certainly converted me to be a "liberty-focused" pro-choice person rather than a "privacy-focused." It'll take some thinking to understand this point as an ideological approach and not just as a frame, but it strikes me as thinking that's worth it.

Karl the Idiot's picture
Posted by Karl the Idiot on 29 August 2005 - 7:30pm
Perhaps I misunderstand post-structuralist theory

In fact, I probably do, because it has never made much sense to me.

But I think the dichotomy of poststructuralist vs. "foundationist" (which I have never heard of) you offer serves as a straw man to be knocked down easily, without addressing the question at hand.

Treating statements as simply texts that cannot truly reveal the author, but only an implied author -- who in turn will appear differently to each reader -- points to the subjectivity of story, of narrative, without disallowing for Truth. It's also not postmodernism, but the "Chicago school" that is derided by postmodernists (and authors who've gotten their fingers into the Wikipedia so far). So I am not saying that one story = Truth, but that Truth can exist independent of narrative.

If a tree falls in a forest, and I hear a plane crash, does that mean the tree didn't fall?

Okay, we're getting rather esoteric here. But I do see a real problem -- post-structuralist or not -- where political discourse as degenerated to the point where not only are values subjective and positions on issues subjective, but also now "facts" are considered subjective.

And so we have a mainstream media that does not "fact check," because that would somehow be "unbalanced" or "biased," and so we get outright lies that are presented as "facts" simply because someone said them. And we're left with "He said she said" kinds of conflicts that are called "discussions" on supposedly higher quality news shows like the NewsHour.

Are we experiencing global warming? Of course not! Because Bush says there aren't enough facts!

Did we start the war on Iraq to "spread freedom"? Of course! Because Bush now says so!

Does torture happen? Are women raped? Are men assassinated? Oh, we can't say, that would be "baised."

And thus the dialectic is dead, and democracy degenerates into dog and pony shows.

media girl's picture
Posted by media girl on 29 August 2005 - 9:03pm
Bemused by the Left's attempt to distance itself from

post-modernism. First, let me say that your post above rocked. I am relatively new to the blog world. I got interested last spring, inspired mostly by a crop of rabidly right wing students at my college going on a witch hunt for folks like me. That lead me to various blogs, where folks were dealing with the same beasts (e.g. The Leadership Institute and David Horowitz). Since discovering the blogosphere, I have been trying to get my bearings on various debates. The end result of that project is one firm conviction and one ambivalent concern. First the firm conviction, like your post so eloquently put it, pro-choice is about liberty. And, I too am frustrated with what I have witnessed of the "pro-Democrat" strategy, even if the guy/gal is pro-life. I am also totally pissed off at how marginalized women's issues are. I have to also add that I am blown away at how easily and snidely folks brand pro-choicers (even working at NARAL) as wingnuts. The best piece of advice I could give these "progressive" folks who want to sideline pro-choice issues is to go read Lawrence Lader's book, Abortion II (1973). You will get a pretty darn good portrait of what this country was like when women didn't have access to birth control or legal abortions.

Now, for my ambivalence over the "dump postmodernism" strategy. (Sorry for using your blog to work this out). I am someone who got a PhD in Continental Philosophy. I specialized in the French Feminism, particularly Luce Irigaray. I know Butler's work well and have often defended it. I find the insights of Continental feminists (this is how I prefer to call these thinkers, rather than post-modernists) incredibly powerful, as well as useful for political acitivists (of which I am one, a NOW president in my local chapter). A bit more: I don't tend to embrace "relativism," nor do I think that all of these "post-modernist" thinkers are just mere relativists who see all "truths" as ideologies that have won out. I think that many people have misunderstood or misread Foucault, Derrida and others. I sometimes blame this (rather elite of me) on the way these theorists gotten taken up outside of Philosophy and hence disconnected from the 20th century movements that influenced them. Foucault's work, for example, is multi-faceted with different periods, including a rather intense love affair with libertarianism. I think Foucault's thought works well with pragmatism, which is a view of truth that is close to how a lot of "reality-based" people would think about the world. Anyway, to really develop this would take too long.

I am ambivalent about this strategy because, if I am completely honest with myself, I have tended more toward classical liberalism (JS Mill, for example) to defeat the right wingers in arguments. I totally avoid Continental thinkers and arguments, particularly because I don't think their critiques are useful or helpful for this particular war we are having. Moreover, when I look at the strategy of a place like the leadership institute, their MO is to accuse all lefties of being post-modernists, which they equate with relativism. It is an overly simplistic dismissal. But, what really irritates me about it is that it works to deflect attention from their embracing of the worst kind of relativism, the "might makes right" stuff that we find Thrasymachus defending in Plato's Republic. I think that sort of relativism is far more dangerous than the geneaological analyses of Foucault, or the close textual readings of Derrida, dedicated to exposing certain logical paradoxes.

I will stop there. Sorry, got too fired up.

Above all, GREAT POST! I am passing this along to quite a few folks.


aspazia's picture
Posted by aspazia on 29 August 2005 - 9:20pm
Everyone is misunderstood, it seems

I look at the Wikipedia entry for "Chicago school," to which the author(s) relegate Wayne C. Booth, and read:

According to Aristotle and the Chicago school, the most important aspect of a work was plot, followed by character, thought, and then diction. Aristotle's last two aspects - melody and spectacle - are less important to the Chicago school.

...which is exactly the kind of pre-determined criteria that Booth argues against. (He also does so against Marxist criticism and feminist criticism, which perhaps explains the mischaracterizations of him by people who favor those approaches. The victors write the history.)

And yet here I am, finding myself to be a leftie in today's crazy world where anything not virtually fascism is labeled as socialism, yet I was never really drawn into post-modernism. So I'm not trying to distance myself from it, for I was never close to it.

I appreciate your response, and am finding this whole thread to be very enlightening and educational for me.

media girl's picture
Posted by media girl on 29 August 2005 - 10:44pm

Checked back here on the off-chance that I needed to reply to something...and found that there's no need because media girl has already said everything that I would say. In every single post. We must have the same brain.

Heavens, I feel so superfluous.

Sassafras's picture
Posted by Sassafras on 30 August 2005 - 11:56pm
Though I could add this...

...that what I was objecting was not postmodernism itself so much as the academic tendency to equate feminist theory with feminism. I prefer -- insist on, really -- a simpler, earthier definition of feminism: It means believing women are people. It means believing women are full human beings. And vis-a-vis "choice" (I hate that term), it means asserting that women own their own bodies and, like all human beings, are entitled to sovereignty over their own persons. Those are fundamental values that every human being on this planet can embrace, regardless of education level. You sure as heck don't need to read Derrida or be a deconstructionist or even know what the heck deconstruction IS to get behind the kind of basic human liberty and gender equality I'm talking about.

As for the whole academic poststructuralist debate, here's my take in a nut: Tremendously valuable in teaching us to read behind the text and tease out the embedded assumptions. Can go too far when we lose sight of the fact that there are, indeed facts.

Sassafras's picture
Posted by Sassafras on 31 August 2005 - 12:15am