There’s a ton of discussion out there at the moment about post-structural/postmodern feminism and the way its responsible for undermining a) the material basis of the analysis of patriarchy and b) woman as a political category. And claims about this are being made on all sides.
This is a thorny thicket of thickety thorns. We have a whole lot of philosophy, starting roughly with early deconstruction (late 60s), and running up to queer theory (early 90s onwards). We have the dissemination of deconstruction in the 80s and 90s, and how that fed into popular ideas of ‘postmodernism.’ And then we have how that idea of ‘postmodernism’ is interacting with ideas coming from queer theory, and how all of that is informing popular discourse.
The rough sketch ends up looking something like this: Early post-structuralism/ deconstruction argued that everything was ‘discursive’ or ‘textual’ and didn’t believe in material reality. Postmodernism is all about the ‘play’ of signifiers and how everything is ‘constructed’ through discourse. Then Butler comes along and invents queer theory by arguing, in essence, that bodies are discursively constructed, and we end up where we are now, and it’s probably, in origin, all Jacques Derrida’s fault.
I have a bunch of dogs in this fight. I am a post-structuralist feminist. I am also, unreservedly, a second-waver, and a socialist feminist, and am committed to the material analysis of patriarchy, because without a material analysis of patriarchy we can’t, fundamentally, explain anything. I don’t think these two positions are inconsistent with each other, and so I get a little troubled when ‘post-structuralism’ is used to mean ‘discursively-constructed’ and then to mean ‘biology doesn’t exist’ and then to mean ‘women don’t exist’….because in the bit of post-structuralist thought where I hang-out (the bit that descends from Beauvoir and Derrida through second-wave deconstructive French feminism), the whole point is understanding that patriarchy works by erasing women, and by erasing and appropriating the material (and maternal) reality of women’s bodies.
So, I want to do a little parsing of the intellectual history, and try and think through what’s going on with it, and how it’s intersecting with where we are now. My reason for doing this is totally to do with my own intellectual and political interests. There is a load of important and useful stuff in post-structuralist feminism which is in danger of being lost by the way post-structuralism is being collapsed into queer theory. There’s no necessary reason why you should be interested in any of this, and it’s probably going to get a little academic/technical in places, but if you are interested in it, I hope this might be helpful.
Part 1: Postmodernism, deconstruction, and ‘discursive constitution’
One of the things that’s going on here (and here I’m going to come off like a philosophy-snob, and, um, *awkward shuffle*), is that deconstruction was largely disseminated in the Anglo-American university through English Literature – because Anglo-American ‘Analytic’ philosophy has historically thought that French philosophy isn’t really philosophy at all (when I was at uni the English Department decided to give Derrida an honorary degree, and the Philosophy Department more or less threatened to stand outside with placards reading ‘JACQUES DERRIDA IS A BOUNDER, A CHARLATAN AND A CAD’). In the late 60s Derrida published the three texts which made his name – Of Grammatology, Writing and Difference, and Speech and Phenomena – all of which used an analysis of language and meaning to advance his philosophical position. Quite understandably, because of this focus, his work spoke particularly to people who were in the business of thinking about language and texts, and was taken up enthusiastically by people working in English – and then other humanities more broadly – from the late 70s and particularly through the 80s. How this work was received is its own complicated story, but, to do a little violence to the history, it can more-or-less be captured, I think, by one famous phrase – “there is nothing outside the text.”
This little string of words – which over time, has become something of an axiom – crops up on page 167 of the English translation of Of Grammatology, and has often been taken, by both advocates and critics, as an expression of what, in philosophy, we would call ‘linguistic idealism’ i.e. the idea that everything is language, and that hence, material reality is entirely ‘discursively constituted.’ This idea – accompanied by other Derridean ideas about the way meaning arises through the ‘play’ of signs – then coalesced with other parts of post-structural theory – Lyotard, Baudrillard, Foucault – and formed the philosophical underpinnings of the description of cultural postmodernism, which was principally an aesthetic phenomena arising from the proliferation and repetition of images and signs in a globalized, technological, advanced capitalist society. There is an interesting phenomena about signs – when they are repeated over and over they start losing their meaning (try saying your name 50 times and at some point it will cease to mean ‘you’ and it’s weird), and the cultural sensibility of the late 80s and 90s (hey there Gen Xers), was all about the alienation, ennui and general sense of inauthenticity that arises from being bombarded with images and signs, repeated ad infinitum, and broken up and bricolaged together in various more-or-less random sequences. We mostly dealt with it by being mad-ironic about everything and wearing lots of kitschy clothes (hey there hipsters), and watching Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch films on a never-ending loop. Good times.
Anyway, back to Derrida. The point I want to make, and it’s been made, but it needs to keep being made – is that ‘there is nothing outside the text’ doesn’t mean there is nothing outside the text. And what I mean by that is that when Derrida says ‘text’ he doesn’t, fundamentally, mean text-as-in-language. This is where the issue of the dissemination of philosophy through English literature becomes pertinent – because, from my perspective, deconstruction is not fundamentally a theory of language. Derrida was using language or signs to make an ontological point – a point about the structure of reality. And that point wasn’t ‘reality is entirely made of language,’ it was ‘everything that exists exists in networks of relation to other things.’ The point he was making by talking about signs – and he could just as well, and did later, have been talking about subjects, or political states, or works of art, or pretty much anything – is that meaning arises through its relational context, but that Western philosophy, and Western theories of subjectivity, are obsessed with ignoring and erasing that. We like to think that human subjects are self-sufficient, in-dependent, self-identical, invulnerable. That we are not affected by or dependent on the world around us, and we owe no particular ethical or political debt to anyone. Which is bullshit (and specifically, neoliberal-capitalist-patriarchal bullshit).
So, when I, or anyone I know who works in French feminism, reads ‘text’ in Derrida, we don’t read ‘language,’ we read ‘relation.’ Or, if we want to be technical about it, what I read is ‘spatial and temporal relation.’ So, ‘there is nothing outside the text’ (a better translation of the French is ‘there is no outside-text’), becomes ‘nothing exists which is completely separable from its spatial and temporal relations.’ Which is true. Unlike, ‘nothing exists which is not language.’ Which is manifestly untrue. (Here we might also note that this change in meaning when you read Derrida in the context of the philosophical tradition he’s working in is a pretty good demonstration of his point about the way that meaning is contextually determined). So, that’s the first point. The deconstructive strand of post-structuralism is not a form of linguistic idealism, and doesn’t support the claim that material reality is entirely ‘discursively constituted.’ It is rather, an ontological claim about the necessity of what I’d call ‘fundamental constitutive relation,’ specifically aimed at critiquing the way patriarchy and capitalism is invested in pretending we are not relational beings. Hence, post-structural socialist feminism. (Jordan Peterson is not completely off his head when he says postmodernism is a form of cultural Marxism, and if you quote me on that I will be cross).