Feminism, Ideology, and Deconstruction: A Pragmatist View

This will be the reading for Saturday, May 2’s meeting.  We will meet at 4:30 here.

For our introduction, we will use Richard Rorty’s own abstract:

Neither philosophy in general, nor deconstruction in particular, should be thought of as a pioneering, path-breaking, tool for feminist politics. Recent philosophy, including Derrida’s, helps us see practices and ideas (including patriarchal practices and ideas) as neither natural nor inevitable — but that is all it does. When philosophy has finished showing that everything is a social construct, it does not help us decide which social constructs to retain and which to replace.

Rorty and Leftist Hopes

Rorty takes his wider project to be a synthesis of a variety of continental and analytic influences.  From continentals like Hegel and Heidegger, he takes a sense of historicism, that what we call knowledge is always the product of a historical moment.  From other continentals like Nietzsche and Sartre, he takes the idea that philosophy is a kind of self-construction.  From analytics like Quine and Sellars, he takes naturalism, linguistic relativism, and a criticism of empiricism.  All of this is tied together for him by the 19th century American pragmatists, John Dewey first among them.  So his thought revolves around discovering the pragmatic consequences of historicism, naturalism, and linguistic relativism.  What actual use is a particular vocabulary?

He begins this essay with a pithy description of the hopes of leftist academics: “Most intellectuals would like to find ways of joining in the struggle of the weak against the strong.”  They want to use their gifts and competencies in that struggle, and the term most often used for this is ideology critique. “The idea is that philosophers, literary critics, lawyers, historians, and others who are good at making distinctions, redescribing, and recontextualizing can put these talents to use by ‘exposing’ or ‘demystifying’ present social practices.” (pdf 232/pg 227)  The kind of practices he wants to change are usually described as necessary evils; ideology critique strips away that defence.

The most efficient way to expose an existing practice seems to be by suggesting an alternative.  In the Kuhnian model of science, theory change only really takes place when a new model is presented.  He says that immanent criticism of the old paradigm is not very effective in producing change.  It might be worth talking about this; what does he mean by “immanent critique”, and have we seen examples of it producing change?  Rorty thinks the best way to produce change is by suggesting specific institutional changes.

Feminism as Party

Marx, in The German Ideology, criticizes Feuerbach for changing the word “communist” from “member of a revolutionary party” into a category.  Marx and Engels thought their criticisms of the German philosophical tradition substituted reality for illusion, and this was bolstered by the actually existing concrete revolutionary plan.  But in our situation, no one really knows what kind of revolution they want.

The closest the rich democratic countries have to a party or a platform is the feminist movement, but this looks like a reformist rather than a revolutionary movement.  Its political goals are not difficult to imagine being achieved; they are argued for by appealing to widespread intuitions about fairness.  Hence, it is closer to 19th century abolitionism than 19th century communism.

In the 19th century, it was hard to imagine life without private property, but in the 18th century, it was easy to see slavery as a barbarous holdover; and it is easy to imagine a world with equal pay for equal work, women in position of power, etc.

Only when feminism is about more than specific reforms does it look like Marx’s situation.  Like Marx, feminists think piecemeal reforms will leave an underlying evil untouched, but they can’t really imagine a post-revolutionary feminist utopia.  They talk about philosophical revolutions, or revolutions in consciousness, but nothing at what Marx would call “the material level”.  “Feminist” has become a mere category.

This leads to the question: can feminists keep the idea of ideology critique without invoking the distinction between matter (the way people actually do things, as structured by the modes of production) and consciousness (the way people think about what they are doing) from The German Ideology?

What is ideology?  Take Terry Eagleton’s ideas.  He rejects the idea that the term is more trouble than it is worth, and gives this definition: “ideas and beliefs which help to legitimate the interests of a ruling group or class specifically by distortion and dissimulation.”  Or an alternative: “‘false or deceptive beliefs’ that arise ‘not from the interests of a dominant class but from the material structure of society as a whole.’” (234/229)  This last one includes the material/non-material contrast from The German Ideology.

But feminists have a hard time with this contrast, since Marx’s history of the organization of the modes of production—the concrete basis of the “material” part of the contrast—is largely irrelevant to the oppression of women by men.  So if we drop that contrast and use the first definition, we end up in a conflict with the philosophical views about truth, knowledge, and objectivity held by most of the contemporary feminist intellectuals who want to criticize masculinist ideology.

This is because the term “presupposes a medium of representation which, intruding between us and the object under investigation, produces an appearance that does not correspond to the reality of the object. This representationalism cannot be squared either with the pragmatist insistence that truth is not a matter of correspondence to the intrinsic nature of reality, or with the deconstructionist rejection of what Derrida calls ‘the metaphysics of presence.’” (234/229)

Social Constructs

Everything is a social construct, so there is no point in trying to decide between the “natural” and the “merely” cultural.  The question is which constructs to keep and which to discard.

Both pragmatists and deconstructionists can agree with Eagleton that if there are no beliefs not bound up with power, then “the term ideology threatens to expand to the vanishing point.”  But unlike Eagleton, both groups think this is a reason to reject the idea of ideology.

Marx’s distinction between Science and Fantasy is a good example of Derrida’s “full presence that is beyond the reach of play.”  As a Marxist, Eagleton has to echo right-wing criticisms of Derrida when he asks how view of total social construction can ever judge between competing views, or if the validation of a view comes from its political end, how do you validate the political view?  You can’t talk about distorted views without believing in something external to discourse.

So a choice has to be made.  Feminists who want to criticize masculinist ideology, and to use philosophies like deconstruction to do so, must either: 1) redefine ideology, or 2) “disassociate deconstruction from anti-representationalism, from the denial that we can answer the question ‘have I constructed the object validly (as opposed, for example, as useful for feminist purposes)?” or 3) say that the question of whether or not masculinist ideology “distorts” things is beside the point.

Rorty likes the last option.  The first is not worth the trouble, and the second can’t really be done.  He is disappointed with people like Paul de Man who try to get the matter—consciousness contrast back into deconstruction by saying things like “it would be unfortunate to confuse the materiality of the signifier with the materiality of what it signifies” and define ideology as “the confusion of linguistic with natural reality, of reference with phenomenalism.” (235/320, from The Resistance to Ideology)

The right way to refute the claim that literary theory and deconstruction are obviously to reality is to insist that social construction goes all the way down, and that “respect for reality” (from social to astrophysical) is just respect for past language.  Sometimes this respect is a good thing, sometimes it isn’t.  “It depends on what you want.”

Feminists want to change the social world, so they can’t have too much respect for past descriptions of that social world.  The question of the utility of deconstruction for feminism is whether or not once philosophers like Nietzsche or Dewey have convinced us that there is nothing necessary about the social world, can it offer any further help.  Rorty doesn’t think philosophy can help.

It is said that deconstruction offers tools that Barbara Johnson says help show “the differences between entities (prose and poetry, man and woman, literature and theory, guilt and innocence) are shown to be based on a repression of 2 differences within entities, ways by which an entity differs from itself.” (236/231, The Critical Difference)  But the question of whether these differences already exist in the entity, or are they only there after the feminist has finished shaping the object to something closer to what they want is not very interesting to Rorty.  The finding vs making distinction is useless for post-Nietzscheans.

So there is no political point in saying, as Johnson does, that “difference is a form of work to the extent that it plays beyond the control of any subject.”  It doesn’t matter if God ordains something, or if it dialectically unfolds, or if differences plays, all beyond our control; all that matters is if we can persuade people to act differently than in the past.  “The question of what ultimately, deep down, determines whether they  will or will not change their ways is the sort of metaphysical topic feminists can safely neglect” (236/231)

A longer quote,

To sum up: anything that philosophy can do to free up our imagination a little is all to the political good, for the freer the imagination of the present, the likelier it is that future social practices will be different from past practices. Nietzsche’s, Dewey’s, Derrida’s, and Davidson’s treatments of objectivity, truth, and language have freed us up a bit, as did Marx’s and Keynes’s treatments of money and Christ’s and Kierkegaard’s treatments of love. But philosophy is not, as the Marxist tradition unfortunately taught us to believe, a source of tools for path-breaking political work. Nothing politically useful happens until people begin saying things never said before – thereby permitting us to visualize new practices, as opposed to analysing old ones. (236/231)

The moral of Kuhn is important: there is no discipline called “critique” that one can use to get substantially better politics, just like there is no “scientific method” that one can use to get much better physics.  Ideology critique is at best a mopping-up action, rather than path-breaking.  “It is parasitic on prophecy rather than a substitute for it.”

One reason feminists may reject this pragmatist view is that masculinism is so totally built into everything that it looks like only a massive intellectual change in society could budge it, so only a critique on the scale of, say, logocentrism, can achieve the scope of change they want.

Rorty thinks this is getting the relative sizes of the issues all wrong:

Masculinism is a much bigger and fiercer monster than any of the little, parochial monsters with which pragmatists and deconstructionists struggle. For masculinism is the defence of the people who have been on top since the beginning of history against attempts to topple them; that sort of monster is very adaptable, and I suspect that it can survive almost as well in an anti-logocentric as in a logocentric philosophical environment. (237/232)

It is true that the logocentric tradition is bound up with a drive for purity, against contamination by feminine messes.  But that strive for purity is likely to survive in a sublimated form even if we overcome metaphysics.

Pragmatism itself, as a set of philosophical views about truth and knowledge, is neutral between feminism and masculinism.  There are no specifically feminist pragmatist doctrines.  But feminists like Catherine MacKinnon who think of philosophy as something to be picked up and laid down as occasion demands, rather than an indispensable ally, will find in pragmatism the same sorts of tools they will find in the usual continental suspects.  What pragmatism can offer is occasional bits of ad hoc advice about how to reply when masculinists make certain practices seem inevitable.

Finally, Rorty says,

“Neither pragmatists nor deconstructionists can do more for feminism than help rebut attempts to ground these practices on something deeper than a contingent historical fact — the fact that the people with the slightly larger muscles have been bullying the people with the slightly smaller muscles for a very long time.” (238/233)


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