Although this article by Karla Mantilla appeared more than two decades ago in the radical feminist newspaper OFF OUR BACKS (August/September 1999, Vol. 29, #8), it remains relevant as we try to hang on to — and base our political work on — reality. Postmodernism continues to thwart the thinking, speaking, writing, and theory so necessary to unite and organize for radical change. In the feminist struggle, for example, it undergirds transgender ideology that has replaced “sex” with “gender,” claiming that transgender women are women because they say so, thus denying females recognition as an oppressed sex class and making women’s liberation unintelligible.
In the workers struggle, too, postmodernism rejects generalizations and undermines materialist thought and history. It colludes against class consciousness by dismissing the actual economic situation in which people are born and live while carrying on the ruling class ideology that “success” is all about the abilities of an individual — like being “smart” and how hard one works. Recently, the postmodernist challenge to reality has contributed heavily to “alternative facts” that feed conspiracy theories about election fraud and even to the dismissal of the protective effects of wearing a mask to control the pandemic. – The Editors
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by Karla Mantilla
After doing some reading in postmodern theoretical texts, several things about the theory suddenly struck me as incongruous. I have been trying to see not just what postmodern theorists say about their theory, but more importantly, how postmodern theory functions in the world—what are the effects of adopting postmodern thinking and theorizing. What became clear to me after some reading was that the overarching effect of postmodernism is to silence thinking and speaking, both personally and politically. I am aware that this is a rather outrageous statement given the attention postmodern theory pays to privileging the voices of marginalized people, to giving voice to those previously unheard, and to investigating the silences embedded in the dominant discourse (to sling a little postmodern verbiage myself). However, in a deep reading of how postmodern theory functions, I find that these claims are little more than lip service. The important thing to see is not what postmodernism says it does, but how it actually functions.
One of the things that has made me especially curious about postmodernism has been my experience working with interns, for the most part, undergraduate college students, at off our backs. Often, as may well be imagined, in the midst of getting a mailing out, shipping out back issues, or some other tedious office chore, I tend to get involved in discussions of feminism with interns. More frequently than I wish, after offering my perspective on a particular event or theory, interns will reply to me, “You can’t say that.” My usual reply is, “I just did.” I don’t mean to be flip in my response, but I am trying to communicate that you can in fact state your opinion without self-censorship or an overexaggerated reluctance to say something that others disagree with. You can in fact state things clearly and concretely, however controversial. Others can disagree, but you do, after all, get to say things.
One intern, assigned to cover an anti-choice event, became confused about how “You can’t say that anti-choicers are wrong—they have a viewpoint too. You really can’t say any viewpoint is wrong.” She actually became confused about her stand on abortion after hearing the fervent beliefs of anti-choicers. Not that she was convinced by the merits of their arguments—that would have been at least an honest mistake. It was her inability to hold any argument as being more valid than another, so that as long as there are competing positions on any topic, she seemed unable to take a stand on it. This, as I see it, is the cumulative effect of postmodern academic teachings on students of women’s studies these days. They are rendered unable to take even the most obvious of stands with any conviction.
The advent of postmodernism as the prevailing academic theory is of great significance, not only within academia but for feminist as well as progressive social movements. There are several problems with postmodernism, the first of which has to do with the way it has coopted some of the key insights of radical feminism, but stripped them of their political impact.
Radical Feminism, Diluted
One of the core insights of postmodernism is that everything is socially constructed—gender, race, class, personal attributes, etc. Postmodernists take great pains to elaborate on every nuance of every social system that has been constructed. There is great emphasis on constructions arising from particular places in the social order—white rich American man will ascribe to a worldview that confirms and legitimizes his position. This is nothing new—radical feminists had this insight years ago—social systems profoundly shape and determine people’s lives in ways that don’t seem readily apparent—even intimate and personal aspects of people’s lives such as gender roles, sexuality, even their sense of self.
What is really interesting is the way postmodernists theorists write as though this is big news. Radical feminists have been saying this for years. And in a classic patriarchal reverse (à la Mary Daly), postmodernists accuse radical feminists of being essentialists, that is, believing that gender and other qualities are biological. That is precisely the opposite of what radical feminists have been saying all along—that since gender is so thoroughly socially constructed, it can be constructed differently, more equitably. Where radical feminists do part ways with postmodernists is their understanding of just what a difficult project this is to undertake. And the radical feminist view that this has not yet happened nor could it happen so facilely is why they are accused by postmodernists of being essentialist—because although it does not arise from biological differences, there is now a significant difference in the ways women and men are raised and socialized, hence there is currently a great difference in some ways. I think of postmodernists as a brand of “you’ve-come a-long-way-baby” feminists—blithely in denial about just how deeply patriarchal conditioning runs and patriarchal institutions are entrenched.
Subverting the Subordinate Paradigm
In addition to the cooptation and subsequent dismissal of radical feminism, another even more insidious way postmodernism subverts the subordinate paradigm is the way some of the key in sights, while claiming to allow more voices to speak, actually silence all voices, causing proponents of postmodernism to be muzzled and muddied in their speech and writing.
Postmodernism: The Master’s Tools
The hallmarks of postmodernist thinking are tools and methods that serve to reinforce the way things are now. Even while espousing radical politics, the cause of marginalized people, working against all oppressions, the tools of postmodernist thinking foil the project from the start. Some of the primary tools that have the effect of silencing speech are as follows:
Writing style—Although the obtuse writing style is an easy mark for criticism, it must be emphasized again that even highly educated people struggle with its nuances and meanings. As I have struggled to make it through the painfully dense and clumsy prose that is characteristic of postmodernist writers, I have discovered that the thinking underneath the layers of prose absolutely does not merit such convoluted presentation—the ideas are no more complex or complicated than ideas in progressive, marxist, feminist or other theories. This writing style is more than inconvenient and cumbersome—it has an effect. As Katja Mikhailovich writes in Radically Speaking (see review in this issue [OFF OUR BACKS (August/September 1999, Vol. 29, #8]), “My first response, and the response of many women I have talked with since, was to doubt my own intellect and ability to make meanings of these texts.” The effect (presumably unintended but effective nevertheless) is to create self-doubt in the intellectual abilities of the reader and to discourage students from theorizing about their own experiences and lives thereby making the connections necessary for radical consciousness and activism. The ability to create theory is relegated to those in authority—professors and their ilk. Even thoughtful and analytical students come to see theory making as excessively complex and out of their reach.
Another conspicuous feature of postmodern writing style is an abiding hesitancy and reluctance to say anything definitive. Witness the reflexive self-doubting parentheses and unanswered questions posed for effect. Also there is much “calling into question,” “moving toward a theory of…” and “calling for a discourse on…” in the place of definitive statements. Statements are frequently qualified out of existence. New words are made up almost daily (the old ones I presume are too precise in their meaning), which add mystique and uncertainty about what is really meant. Finally the advent of the irritating, unnecessary, and inappropriate “s” on the end of every other word rounds out the obfuscation (added even to nouns that are already plural)—“knowledges,” “discourses,” or “positionalities.” It is ironic that with this prolific onslaught of postmodern verbiage and theory, hardly anything is in fact said. Sheila Jeffreys points out in Radically Speaking that “…in post-modernist feminist writing there is much agonising on how hard it is to speak or write.” The net effect of all this is to silence and muzzle speech and to inhibit taking a strong clear passionate stand on anything.
Denunciation of the Meta-Narrative—For the uninitiated, a “meta-narrative” is an explanatory statement—one that attempts to explain something as a generalizable concept rather than simply describe a specific individual situation without any generalizations. So according to postmodernists, any time someone uses the dreaded “meta-narrative,” they may be suppressing and silencing other voices. If you are willing to say something definitive, someone somewhere is bound to disagree. If you are saying something with which no one disagrees or no one feels is wrong, you are probably not challenging the status quo (or anything for that matter). It is a grave mistake, however, to conclude that you must self-censor because, by speaking, you silence others’ speech.
The other feature of the denunciation of the “meta-narrative” is that it effectively subverts the meaning of the personal is the political. In postmodernism, the personal, rather than being the political, becomes only and exclusively the personal—any attempt to create bonds between oppressed individuals or to raise conscious ness about how individual experiences are really reflective of larger social forces is reinterpreted as silencing other voices. Any attempt to make generalizations is seen as silencing and rendering invisible those people for whom the generalization does not apply. This defies a basic understanding of the concept of a generalization—of course it is not true for every single person in the group—it is, after all, a generalization. Exceptions alone do not, however, disprove the validity of generalizations. If I make a generalization that people stop at red lights while driving, certainly it is true that occasionally, some people do not; however, it is an accurate and useful statement that people stop at red lights. It describes, with reasonable accuracy, a social phenomenon. To say that the generalization is not true simply because a few people do not fit it is ludicrous and leaves us unable to describe or name even the most obvious social norms.
The overall effect of this turn away from “meta-narratives” is to stop people from being able to describe their social conditions, from being able to generalize about personal experiences in their lives, from being able to see the commonalities of experience that can mobilize them to see problems as political rather than personal. The net effect is a lot of women’s studies students saying, “You can’t really say that,” about even the most basic truths.
Denunciation of Binarisms—Binary thinking involves thinking in dualistic mutually exclusive categories such as good or bad, gay or straight, woman or man, etc. In postmodern thinking, binarisms are bad (that in itself is an unavoidable binarism). Some theorists say that binarisms are the root of all oppression—that without them we could not oppress others. Unfortunately, without binarisms, we also cannot make a definitive statement. Making a statement, especially a political one, requires that we say one thing is better than (or worse than) in some way than another thing. If we avoid binarisms (a feat which some postmodernist writers do manage to approach in their flailingly uncertain prose), we cannot say, for example, liberation is better than oppression, being fed is better than starving, being healthy is better than being sick.
By demonizing binarisms, the effect is to stifle clear articulate speech. People become so mired in trying to avoid choosing one thing over another that they are rendered incapable of sustaining a passionate conviction on any topic.
Taking the Social out of Social Constructionism—What is perhaps most fascinating about postmodern theory is that for all the talk of how things are socially constructed, they forgot the implications of “social” in social construction. After their supposedly new insight that nearly everything is socially constructed, they do not advocate much for transformation at the social level, i.e., for changes in institutions, social norms, social structures such as the family, etc. Instead there is much attention to individual acts of transgression of conventional social norms as a way of highlighting that social norms are constructed and not natural or inevitable. This kind of rebellion in postmodernism is a very isolated activity—it consists of individuals taking it upon themselves to fight battles all alone. There is not an emphasis among postmodern theorists for building a critical mass of people united in a social movement that could begin to effect changes at the social level. There is instead a very superficial understanding of the how social forces work—a naive and libertarian emphasis on individual actions and choices as though the cumulative effect of each isolated individual choice or action will effect largescale social transformation. The net effect of such an atomization of individual activities serves to prevent rather than foster social change.
The Curious Timing of Postmodernism
What I find most interesting about postmodernism is not what postmodernists say about it, but how it functions in the real world (and I’m assuming there is one) in terms of social change. The effects of the intimidating and obfuscating writing style, of inhibiting generalizations and so the formation of commonalities between people, of ruling out binary thinking and so eviscerating impassioned convictions, and of overemphasizing individual rather than collective action is to create a multilayered system of disconnection, silencing, and disempowerment.
What is also interesting is the timing of the advent of postmodernist theory. As Somer Brodribb and Barbara Christian point out in Radically Speaking, postmodernism came into vogue in academia just when the voices of women and people of color began to assert a significant presence there. It seems that when groups other than those in power attempt to say things, suddenly truth dissolves into meaninglessness. This is a little too coincidental for my taste.
The coincidence becomes even more striking when it becomes apparent that this is not the first time this has happened. Right after the first wave of feminism, in the 1920s, when women had made some advances, had gotten the vote, and began to gain some access to academia, another nihilistic kind of theorizing became the rage in academia—relativism and existentialism. Again, just when women were trying to gain access, and to articulate our points of view, suddenly nothing was meaningful anymore, everything was relative, and meaninglessness was lauded as high theory.
I suggest that postmodernism is nothing more than the new relativism and that relativistic theories emerge as a new line of defense when power structures are becoming threatened. It is a very insidious and crafty defense because it mouths the words of liberation while simultaneously transforming them into meaninglessness. The real agenda is masked in clever obfuscation—to preserve the status quo by rendering dissent meaningless and ineffective, unable to gather any social or political power. Notwithstanding postmodernism’s purported intention to deconstruct social norms and by so doing, make way for changes, its actual effect is to atomize peoples’ experiences, obliterate the potential for solidarity, silence articulate and forthright speech, and render passionate convictions meaningless. It leaves us unable to condemn anything as wrong or oppressive with clarity, certainty, or conviction. Furthermore, nearly all of the so-called insights of postmodernism are simply rehashed and depoliticized versions of radical feminist ideas.
Postmodernism is a theory which denounces the act of theorizing, it is speech that silences voices, it is writing that stultifies and obscures, it is a position which advocates no position at all, it is a politics which refuses to take a stand on anything. And we must see the politics of that—it is a viper that women’s studies and English departments have nursed to their collective bosoms. It is a theory, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It is a stealth theory that contains a virus which, once incorporated, explodes all possibility of impassioned righteous collective action for changing the conditions of our lives.
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Karla Mantilla is a longtime collective member off our backs, a major radical feminist newspaper that published from 1970 to 2002 when it became a quarterly journal until 2008.She is the author of Gendertrolling: How Misogyny Went Viral and has taught sociology and research methods at various academic institutions. She is currently the managing editor of the scholarly journal Feminist Studies.