Linda Alcoff points out that,
That constructions are lived, political categories allows feminists to challenge and reconstruct them.
[w]hen the concept 'woman' is defined not by a particular set of attributes but by a particular position, the internal characteristics of the person thus identified are not denoted so much as the external context within which that person is situated [among a network of relations]....If it is possible to identify women by their position within this network...then it becomes possible to ground a feminist argument for women, not on a claim that their innate capacities are being stunted, but that their position within the network lacks power and mobility and requires radical change.*
Furthermore, because what it means to be a woman is constructed, you have the opportunity to change society. If women were innately stupid, incapable and weak, there would be nothing you could do about it. It is only because post-modernism gave you the tools to deconstruct the categories that shaped how you view the world that you were able to envision a new future.
A second threat that has been blamed on post-modernism is the focus on identity politics within the feminist movement. It is, of course, natural that in the same way we realised that gender was constructed that the other facets of people’s identities, including race, class, sexuality, able-bodiedness and numerous other categories, came under the spotlight. And furthermore it was essential to the feminist movement that this was the case, because the experience of a black woman cannot be divided into her experiences as a woman and her experiences as a black person. Her experiences interact in complex ways and can only be understood in conjunction with each other. The idea that there are experiences that all women have in common as women is actually controversial. What we share as women is social inequality. How we experience that inequality is much more varied. Identity politics is often pointed to as the destroyer of the feminist movement as it fragmented experience. But identity politics are not just in people’s imagination. A black woman’s experience of being a woman is different from mine. We can’t just ignore that, especially when ignoring it tends to favour those with privilege. Now, I absolutely agree that choosing to do nothing about women’s oppression, because it seems complicated is entirely useless and helps no one. But blaming this on identity politics, and as a result postmodernism, is not the way to go. This was not postmodernism’s fault. It was a lack of imagination amongst feminists. A vision for a feminist future has to find away to incorporate difference, not pretend it’s not there. (A good discussion of ways to do this can be found here). Because who does ignoring it actually benefit? In fact, what sort of feminism do you want that does ignore identity politics? If we pretend that postmodernism doesn’t exist, what would that feminism look like? (And don’t say the second wave, because postmodern and identity politics were the inevitable conclusion to second wave debates.)
So, what are the dangers of postmodernism? To my mind, the major danger of postmodernism is its focus on the individual. It is not true that post-modernism denies subject positions (in fact see tomorrow on pomo and the subject), but in fact that it creates as many subject positions as they are people. I think this is problematic as I like the idea of community and I am suspicious that individuality tends towards a very Western conception of the self, that perhaps would not fit with conceptions of the self based within the family or cultural group. This form of individualism is in danger of pushing for an individual rights based politics that tends to homogenise experience into a peculiarly westernised view of the self. In other words, we needed to be careful about what we mean by the individual and the self when we think about politics. But to be honest, I think a sensitivity to this problem can be incorporated into any difference-based feminist movement, and as such, it is not immobilising.
It is often said that deconstruction does not give the building blocks to move forward, but, in many ways, that it not the point of post-structuralism. Post-structuralism is not feminism. It is a tool for understanding how the world works. What we want the world to be or to look like is up to us. Post-structuralism is like an artist’s handbook. It shows us how to put paint (words) on a canvas (the world which we construct through language), using various techniques (discourse). We can’t blame the handbook if we fail to make a masterpiece. How we as feminists move forward is to educate and demand that the world recognise that as women we are disadvantaged (in a myriad of ways) and it is time to change. We have to educate people to questions their preconceptions every time they encounter a woman and, for that matter, a man. To ask themselves would I treat this person in this way if they were male, female, black, white, gay, straight, disabled, able-bodied etc etc, until people can be seen as something other than the labels we place on them; until the labels have so little meaning that they fall into desuetude.
* Linda Alcoff, ‘Cultural feminism versus post-structuralism: the identity crisis in feminist theory’, Signs, 13, (1988), pp.433-434.