Tuesday, 22 April 2008

Postmodernism 101, Part 3.

The major criticism of post-structuralism is that it does not appear to allow for change. What do you mean, you cry. Well, if how we view the world is shaped by how we are trained to see it, how do ideas change? How can we have a shift from the medieval to the modern to the postmodern view of the world? The answer to this lies in the gap between the sign and experience. As discussed yesterday, language can never fully capture human experience and, because of this, language is never stable. The word women can mean so many things and, yet due to the huge number of people and experiences it encompasses, it can mean almost nothing at all. The flexibility of a single word allows for new experiences to be adopted under its label, like transwomen under women for example. With each new experience, the word 'woman’ expands and is altered at the same time. And the word ‘woman’ is now different, so when it encounters a new experience how it adapts will be different from if it had never encountered transwomen. Language constantly adapts to account for change.

Yet, this still leads to a problem. If a sign, such as ‘woman’ just keeps expanding its definition, how do we result in real change? How do we destroy the concept of ‘woman’ and with it the patriarchal system that places women in a subordinate position to men, if the system just keeps finding new ways to oppress more people? And this is a great question. And there is not a single answer to it.

One solution may be that presented by thinkers, such as Thomas Kuhn, is the paradigm shift, where one way of understanding the world is dramatically dismissed and replaced by another. From a post-structuralist perspective, a paradigm shift would involve a sudden realisation that a particular construction of the world does not adequately explain the experience it encounters. Perhaps in the context of gender, we suddenly have to throw the concept of biological sex out of the window in light of evidence that penises and vaginas are actually the same thing and so gender is a totally ridiculous way of defining the population (just an imaginary scenario). As a result, we have to rethink how we categorise people. Now, even with paradigm shifts, the new solution is not pulled out of the ether. A new solution will be based on alternative knowledges or concepts that exist in society, which will be adapted for the new experience- but ultimately something ‘big’ (like the move from medieval to modern) will be recognised as having happened.

An alternative is a more gradual process. Language will adapt to new experience and eventually words that have no real significance shall fall into desuetude. So, eventually the experiences of women shall become so diverse that woman is no longer a useful explanatory category. Or, perhaps, in a more cheerful sense, we can now imagine a world where gender does not mean inequality, so we work very hard to change people’s minds and the language that they use, so that they no longer view ‘women’ in the same way.

The paradigm shift seems more exciting, but it may be the latter that defeats patriarchy in the end. Tomorrow, why post-modernism is and is not dangerous for feminism.

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