Sunday, 20 April 2008

Simone de Beauvoir, the Second Wave and Modern Thought, part 1.

Post-modernism is often seen as a threat to feminism, as can be seen in a recent discussion over at Lonergrrl. Now I actually agree that post-modernism has created problems for the feminist movement, but these problems are not the one’s cited by Michelle and many other critics. Over the next couple of days (cause this ain’t a single blog post discussion), I would like to address some of the issues that arise from this debate. But today I would like to clear up a little confusion that always seems to arise when feminism is discussed alongside post-modernism- that the second wave is somehow the anti-thesis of postmodern thought. This is actually a misunderstanding of the history of post-modernism and the origins of the second wave movement.

The way people relate to the world is not set in stone. In fact, modern thought and how we create knowledge has a distinct and reasonably well charted, if not uncontroversial, history. During the medieval period in Western Europe, up until about the sixteenth century, people saw the world as a picture, or collection of symbols, which if read correctly would allow access to God. The way people behaved and the choices they made were part of a larger plan that could be interpreted to give a sense of God’s will. Language did not offer a literal representation of experience, but instead people’s words had to be interpreted for meaning. Each word operated like a symbol that took its meaning from its culture, history and the context in which was placed.

With the rise of the modern period, a change in how we understood the world occurred. The stories and symbols of old were no longer understood, but instead seen as an inefficient form of communication (perhaps because of the rise of print culture?). Words came to literally represent objects. The word table was the table. The word woman was a woman. As a result, people took language literally. They no longer looked for hidden meanings, but instead obsessed over the literal meaning of the words on the (newly created printed) page.

This way of thinking about the world was relatively short-lived. It soon became apparent that this understanding of language could not capture the complexity of experience, and after a few thought experiments, the rise of the individual, the Enlightenment and the invention of modern science, some philosophers began to point out its flaws. Now the critique of this way of thinking about the world actually has quite a long history, but it really came to the fore in the twentieth century and was spurred to even greater heights in the climate of cultural pessimism that resulted from world war one. In the sciences, people like Einstein, with his theory of relativity, offered a major challenge to this world view. In the humanities, the major thinkers were existential thinkers, like Sartre and Kierkegaard, and post-structuralists, like Derrida, Foucault and Lacan. Now, while these groups approached the same problem- what to do with modernity- in different ways, they were all motivated from the same problems and they drew heavily on each other. They were creating a postmodern worldview.

One of the major philosophers involved in this critique of modernity, and whose writing was heavily influenced by post-structuralist thought, is the academic and philosopher Simone De Beauvoir, the mother of second wave feminism. Her challenge to the naturalness of gender and her discussion of woman as ‘other’ is directly influenced by post-structuralist thought and, in turn, while most of her writing is of an existentialist variety, The Second Sex places her as a post-structuralist thinker.

From its outset, the Second Wave had its roots in post-modernism. In many senses it had to, because it was the product of a post-modern historical moment. First Wave feminism fought on the grounds that women were different from men, but that difference should not make them second class citizens. The Second Wave argued that difference was socially constructed. They fought from a post-modern world view. Now, feminism and post-modernism have moved on and the Third Wave has extended the discussion of social construction beyond gender into identity politics, and for many people this fragmentation is dangerous. But it isn’t because the Second Wave isn’t post-modern; it’s because the feminist movement has taken post-modern thought to its logical conclusions.

You may have noticed that I have not explored how postmodernist’s view the world and that will be tomorrow’s post: Post-modernism 101. To be closely followed by why post-modernism is dangerous for feminism, and perhaps how to move forward.

ETA: That post-modernism is more than a theory, but a historical movement, means that we do not have the luxury of ignoring it. If you don't like it, then you are going to have to address it and find a way to move past it.


Michelle said...

Interesting, I see where you're coming from with how second-wave feminism has developed as part of postmodern thought. I agree that the interrogation of 'woman' as a social construct could be seen as a part of the pomo project (but as my posts show I'm concerned with where this leads in pomo- the complete deconstruction of the category woman).

I suppose my thoughts on this have been influenced by critiques of 2nd-wave feminism I have read by pomo-feminists e.g. Linda Nicholson and Ann Brooks, who seem to suggest that 2nd-wave feminism held onto modernist concepts of social categories and looked for structural causes of oppression and that pomo (as something different to this) could 'improve' this feminist theory.

Feminist Avatar said...

I eventualllllly get to your main point in post number four. So it's coming I promise (on wednesday). Tomorrow, I have more pomo 101.

I think there are definitely modernist elements to 2nd wave feminism, especially from Marxist feminists, but some of the major thinkers like Shumalith Firestone have came to a sort of reconciliation between structural causes and pomo constructionism.

I also think you can hold onto the idea of structure as a historical force in postmodernism, you just recognise that structure is created by language- rather than mysterious economic forces or whatever.