One of the things that happens to you if you run a radical feminist, gender-critical page or blog, or even if you just comment on articles from this perspective, is that some dewy-eyed young third-wave ‘feminist’ will turn up and explain breathlessly that you just need to read some Judith Butler, or perhaps some Halberstam, and the error of your ways will become clear. It’s all just a misunderstanding, you see.
It’s a bit like long-time atheists, who are often experienced and critical refugees from early doses of religion, being told to read the Bible. It’s not that the assumption of truth may not be questioned; it’s that the well-meaning evangelist has no idea that the questions have long since been asked, and answered.
This is terrifying, of course; a generation of young women who have done courses in gender studies believe themselves to be educated feminists, when all that they have studied is how to collaborate in their own oppression. Personally, I think that a woman taking a gender studies course is analogous to a black person taking a segregation studies course; and a woman taking a gender studies course taught by a man is analogous to a black person taking a segregation studies course taught by David Duke. (But then I’m old and grumpy.) The ability to identify and ruthlessly critique systems of structural power is completely absent, because obfuscating it is part of postmodernism’s job. But I suppose I could be a bit more polite and just quote Audre Lorde:
“For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. Racism and homophobia are real conditions of all our lives in this place and time. I urge each one of us here to reach down into that deep place of knowledge inside herself and touch that terror and loathing of any difference that lives here. See whose face it wears. Then the personal as the political can begin to illuminate all our choices.”
Postmodernism and its bastard child, queer theory, are the master’s tools. They have less than nothing to offer to feminism, because they conceal and obscure the big systems of real oppression by focusing on small differences in identity and privilege, and further obfuscate with deliberately complicated and obscurantist language, so that no one ever says: “Look, Mummy, the Emperor has no clothes.” And the monster that is patriarchal capitalism rolls on unhindered.
Far from being anachronistic and ignorant of postmodernism, radical feminism has offered multiple criticisms of it as fundamentally patriarchal, and has been doing so for some time. Martha Nussbaum wrote an excellent critique of Judith Butler’s opus as far back as 1999, finishing with these words:
“Butlerian feminism is in many ways easier than the old feminism. It tells scores of talented young women that they need not work on changing the law, or feeding the hungry, or assailing power through theory harnessed to material politics. They can do politics in safety of their campuses, remaining on the symbolic level, making subversive gestures at power through speech and gesture. This, the theory says, is pretty much all that is available to us anyway, by way of political action, and isn’t it exciting and sexy? In its small way, of course, this is a hopeful politics. It instructs people that they can, right now, without compromising their security, do something bold. But the boldness is entirely gestural, and insofar as Butler’s ideal suggests that these symbolic gestures really are political change, it offers only a false hope. Hungry women are not fed by this, battered women are not sheltered by it, raped women do not find justice in it, gays and lesbians do not achieve legal protections through it.
“Finally there is despair at the heart of the cheerful Butlerian enterprise. The big hope, the hope for a world of real justice, where laws and institutions protect the equality and the dignity of all citizens, has been banished, even perhaps mocked as sexually tedious. Judith Butler’s hip quietism is a comprehensible response to the difficulty of realizing justice in America. But it is a bad response. It collaborates with evil. Feminism demands more and women deserve better.”
Here, in similar vein, is an excerpt from Karla Mantilla’s powerful article Let Them Eat Text, also from 1999, which makes the point very clearly that postmodernism exists to obscure, and hence to protect, systems of patriarchal oppression.
Sheila Jeffreys’ 2003 book Unpacking Queer Politics traces the origins of queer theory to the move away from gay liberation politics and towards an imitation of heterosexist dominant/submissive relationships amongst gay males, a move which focused on male sexual libertarianism rather than a genuine opposition to structures of power.
All of these critiques largely predate the transactivist movement which reifies gender and thereby props up sexism.
But my favourite so far is Somer Brodribb’s 1992 book Nothing Mat(t)ers: A Feminist Critique of Postmodernism, which is both trenchant and extremely funny. Brodribb understood the essential foolishness and futility of Virginia Woolf’s “procession of the sons of educated men”. She recognised pretentiousness, and laughed at it; an approach we could do with adopting more often in this era of extreme political correctness and intolerance of dissent.
There are a great many male left-wing academics and commentators of all genders today, to whom this rather cutting diagnosis could be applied:
“I define poststructuralism/postmodernism as a neurotic symptom and scene of repression of women’s claims for truth and justice. Postmodernism is the attempted masculine ir/rationalization of feminism. I prescribe a listening cure for this masculinity in extremis, this masculine liberal philosophy in totalitarian form. How can one recognise a PMS (postmodern/poststructuralist) man? An individual suffering from the PMS Political, Personality and Discursive Disorder exhibits at least three of the following delusions:
- Does not know how to listen. Cannot deal with narrative structure.
- Is bored, fascinated and melancholic.
- Thinks his word is God. Or at least, confuses his penis with a deity.
- Is narcissistic, constantly gazing into mirrors, sufaces, looking glasses. Even when not looking directly in a mirror, sees his reflection everywhere.
- Cannot make a commitment. Fears the political engagement of others.
- Despises matter but appropriates its form in a contrary and fetishistic way.
- Thinks any critique of sexism is easy, superficial, unfair, and cheap.
- Worst feeling: connection to and responsibility for another.
- Favourite feeling: exterior control and interior flux.
- Favourite acts: repetition, sacrifice.
- Favourite authors: de Sade, Nietsche.
Postmodernism is the cultural capital of late patriarchy. It is the art of self-display, the conceit of masculine self and the science of reproductive and genetic engineering in an ecstatic Nietschean cycle of stasis.”
Bring it on, Judith Butler.