Wednesday, December 4, 2013

CONTEXT: Postmodernism's Material Benefit to Society

When I tell people I'm a doctoral student in theology, with a particular interest in poststructuralism and queer theory, they have an inevitable follow-up question.

"What are you going to do with that?"

Sometimes it's asked with a detectable sneer, an undisguised contempt for the waste of a good brain in such an arcane discipline. Sometimes it's asked quizzically, with genuine puzzlement on the part of my interlocutor. Never is it something I want to be asked.

I mean, there are only three possible answers, right?
  1. Ordination (and that one is clearly out, if you've known me for five minutes).
  2. Academia.
  3. "No idea. HAHA oh god you're right, I'm wasting my life, let me switch to STEM despite not having studied any science since the age of 15."
It's the people who seem to be hoping for answer 3 who really bug me. There's a broad cultural trend here in the US toward the devaluing of humanities and especially of anything with a postmodern bent. I think it's part of a depressing economism undergirding US society (even more so than UK society, in my experience): if something doesn't have an immediately apparent material benefit, people genuinely can't comprehend why you would do it.

But the fact is, postmodernism does have a material benefit, if we would only apply it. The primary lesson of postmodernism is still what it was in 1967: il n'y a pas de hors-texte. Detractors use Derrida's words to dismiss deconstruction, poststructuralism, and the whole project of postmodernism as sophistry, caricaturing our work as immaterial language games; but the point is not "there is nothing outside the text," but "there is nothing outside context."

(Yes, there's a not inconsiderable irony in the fact that a statement about the supreme importance of context is so often taken out of context.)

The lesson of postmodernism is: Everything we do, say, and think is historically and contextually contingent -- profoundly, radically so. Is that the same thing modernism was trying to say? Kind of yes; but we're trying to say it in ever new ways, because clearly the lesson hasn't stuck.

For example, I woke up yesterday to this infuriating story: "Men and women's brains are 'wired differently.'" The BBC, of all things, recites a new iteration of the same tired neurosexist hogwash that was so comprehensively debunked in Cordelia Fine's wonderful book Delusions of Gender. It's terrible science and terrible reporting on science. It's cissexist, it's reductionist, and it's just utter BS.

My criticisms are ideological, of course. That's a term lobbed at postmodernists by detractors who like to think of themselves as unbiased viewing subjects who coolly take in all the scientific evidence before forming a judgment based on the facts. What these small-o objectivists don't realize is that this is an ideology too. It's more insidious, because it's an ideology that disguises itself as an objective view-from-nowhere. Feminists have long been aware that there is no view-from-nowhere, and to claim otherwise is an at best disingenuous, at worst nakedly malicious perpetuation of oppression.

The gift of postmodernism is epistemological self-awareness. Everything we think we know as an objective, timeless truth is radically contextual, and postmodernism is the practice of constant vigilance, of consistent suspicion of truth-claims.

"Men and women's brains are 'wired differently.'" There are so many profoundly contextual assumptions packed into that short headline: that "men" and "women" are clearly definable, discrete categories; that there is meaningful difference between men and women, rather than wide variation among all people; that the wiring of the brain tells us anything useful about human personalities; that brain wiring is predetermined and perhaps immutable; that there's a "right" way to be a man or a woman; etc. etc.

And there are so many real-world injustices that are perpetuated by the uncritical parroting of this ideology. The murder of trans women, the wage gap, the war on reproductive freedom -- none of this takes place in a void. It's all a part of the context within which it's seen as acceptable to report cognitive bias as scientific fact.

Postmodernism is not a disconnected, immaterial, ivory-tower discipline that's all about proving how clever you are. It's a tool for justice, and it matters.

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