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Poststructuralism

November 11, 2007

The following is from from a thread on Foucault and poststructuralism:

Has anyone given thought to Michel Foucault’s concept of social construction? So, to Foucault, both sex (malefemale) and sexual orientation (heterosexualhomosexual) were constructions and were maintained by those in positions of power. In other words, sex and sexual orientation do not exist, per se. They are, rather, simply names used, as part of our social narratives or discourses, to reinforce existing power structures.

Similarly, there has been considerable debate over AS. Is it high-functioning autism? Is it a separate condition on the spectrum of pervasive developmental “disorders”? Currently, the American Psychiatric Association is considering placing AS under a new category of Obsessive-Compulsive Spectrum Disorders in its upcoming DSM-V codebook.

From this standpoint, AS, like sex and sexual orientation, does not exist. It is merely a way in which people with high power statuses categorize (label) certain members of a population. Hence, whether AS is a disorder or merely an example of genetic diversity depends on one’s perspective. Since one is dealing merely with words, there is no way to objectively address this issue.

Anthropomorphizing, or reifying, our lexicons is merely a way in which we maintain an imaginary sense of order in our environments. IMO, it is fine to do so, as long as we don’t take our narratives too seriously.

I am a consistent nominalist on such issues. IMO, there is no such thing as “the world.” It is merely a construction. The universe, a particular nation, a specific organization or group, etc. are abstractions and nothing more.

For instance, many political elites have elected to construct a world based on the assumption of a war on terror, i.e., that universals such as terrorism, counterterrorism, freedom, etc. actually exist. The advantage of taking poststructuralist, and other nominalist, standpoints is that I can, if I so choose, reject these universals, these social constructions, in favor of others of my choosing (just as the universals proposed by the American Psychiatric Association can be dismissed at will).

To me, poststructuralism is an immensely liberating perspective. The elites hold onto their power through the spell of realism, viz., the lie that universals are objectively real and cannot be challenged. When groups (people who share common goals and values) elect to challenge them, they have often instituted significant social changes.

When I say that universals, concepts, and abstractions do not exist, I do not deny that certain conditions (whether a result of nature and/or nurture) influence people in ways they may define as positive or negative. I am suggesting that the manner in which we organize apparently similar attributes of individuals under categories or names (like AS or the war on terror) is an act of will and intentionality.

We can reject the categories (universals or abstractions) as “real things” while acknowledging the attributes and how they interface with social experience.

Many people who regard themselves as belonging to an oppressed population will attempt to find a way to distinguish themselves (speech, mannerisms, interests, etc.) from others not in their reference group.

Nietzsche was closer to being an existentialist than a poststructuralist or nominalist. In effect, Sartre, Camus, etc. replaced Nietzsche’s “creativity” with a search for meaning. However, either way, one is required to adopt a kind of essentialism or realism.

You and I exist. We are particulars, to use the philosophical term. On the other hand, what we construct has no existence. It is, IMO, simply a way of classifying things, concepts, ideas, etc.

For instance, some sexologists say that there are 5 sexes (others that there is only one sex – female). Well, how many sexes are there: 1, 2. 5, or some other number? My response would be: We can construct sex differences in any manner which makes sense. Perhaps all of these schemes would be appropriate in different contexts.

Truth, in my view, is just a word for socially constructed knowledge (not generally defined the same as a fact, by the way). Whatever societies or groups construct as truth is truth. Wink How’s that for relativism.

I have noticed the change watching BBC America (a cable channel).

A similar popularism has affected U.S. broadcast journalism. At one time, the standard for pronunciation was so-called General American (aka American Standard) – a modification of the American English commonly spoken in the upper Midwest. (It is what I learned and used in radio news once upon a time.) However, regional variants have been increasingly encouraged among both anchors and reporters. These days, General American sounds kind of stuffy to the average listener or viewer.

Not to be glib, but, IMO, categories are undeniable until one denies them. It is the power embedded in our narratives and categories which discourages people from recognizing that they have no inherent reality.

I accept the existence of particular realities, such as you or I. “Reality,” however, is merely an abstraction. Realists and idealists have argued for millennia about the nature of reality. Nominalists, on the other hand, simply reject metaphysics, or speculative philosophy, altogether as being a thoroughly untenable concept and without convincing evidence to support its existence.

Which set of concepts should we accept as real? Western capitalist hegemony or Islamist legislative (shariah) hegemony? Who gets to decide which is real?

I am a critical poststructuralist. “Nihilism” is a term open to many definitions; and there is no agreed-upon standard for placing people under its rubric.

The properties are the attributes of particulars. However, the names we give to particular colors or color schemes are social constructions.

Objectivity is determined through the use of shared methodologies within a scientific community. A growing tendency among many scientists (not only social scientists either) is to move away from realism and positivism to postpositivism, i.e., the recognition that more than different methodologies might lead to very different conclusions concerning the same subject matter.

I see no evidence that systems of thought exist. I cannot see them, taste them, or touch them. Therefore, the burden of proof is on the one who claims them as realities.

Current thinking among theoretical physicists is that one’s methodology, one’s perspective, can actually change reality. I am not qualified to judge the merits of that position. However, as a sociologist, I have seen how the rigorous use of diverse methodologies can yield thoroughly different results.

IMO, there is no such thing as “the world.” There are particular objects which are organized and named through social discourse.

Nominalism, poststructuralism, etc. are anti-metaphysics, which is why so many people find them to be immensely frustrating. I am referring to the relations between particulars. I have no use for speculations regarding various universals, whether truth or some other abstraction.

Well, you have simply defined truth as an absolute. However, others are not required to conform to that definition. I could say the same thing: Truth is relative to social construction. Since you disagree, you deny
truth. Neither statement is logical.

You are, it appears to me, confusing subjectivity with social construction. I never mentioned the term “subjective,” other than as a perjorative (i.e., “subjective idealism”).

I would obviously acknowledge that there are certain properties and laws which can be empirically observed. However, once we describe them and place them into a category (the EMS) and subcategoies (x-rays, ultraviolet, infared, UHF, VHF, etc.), they cease to be merely observed phenomena and become constructions. The term “indicant” is commonly used in research to distinguish phenomena from the scales and indices used to measure them.

Solipsism is akin to a kind of hyper-Kantianism, i.e., an extreme version of psychological constructivism (not to be confused with constructionism). I am a superadmin (super administrator) on a large chat service (a volunteer position), and I regularly run into people who say that reality is within or we each create our own realities. That is very different from social constructionism – whether the phenomenological sort advocated by Peter Berger (The Social Construction of Reality) or Michel Foucault’s poststructural variety.

Many people do not recognize that “the postisms” are, for the most part, anti-humanist. That is to say, they reject the concept of a universal human nature.

Not only AS, but most dialogues about socially constructed categories have been framed in a patriarchal context. Personally, I would like to see all categories regarding individuals reconstructed from an anti-essentialist perspective, i.e., no universal essences of AS, of femininity, of masculinity, etc.

Most of my students are not old enough to remember the feminist movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Yet, they still seem to believe in two sex-typed “natures.” However, their descriptions of those alleged natures differ considerably from their modes of construction a generation ago.

The AS construct poses more of a threat to normative social constructions of femininity than of masculinity. So be it. The assault on fixed gender roles largely stalled in the 1970s. If juxtaposing AS with femininity can aid in the deconstruction of universal notions of essential human natures, then perhaps it should be explored further (aside from its personal benefit to certain individuals).

I am often “accused” of being an epistemic subjective idealist by those unfamiliar with the distinctions which social theorists, such as myself (and presumably philosophers, as well), make between idealism and nominalism. Though Bishop Berkeley was both an idealist and nominalist, such a combination is rare. Personally, I do not find idealism to be particularly useful.

IMO, there is much to be gained through melding aspects of poststructuralism, post-empiricism (aka post-positivism), and neopragmatism (Rorty).

For instance, in my own work, if a particular theory (say one of the social exchange theories) helps to explain reform in a particular religious organization, I can use it (neopragmatism), but that doesn’t necessarily imply that it is the only theory which can do so (post-empiricism). Debating such unknowns, however, borders on metaphysical speculations which most nominalists would frown upon. Moreover, the play of power dynamics in all social discourse (Foucault) should give one pause before making overly ambitious statements about one’s models.

IMO, there is no reason why poststructuralism, source analysis, and textual criticism cannot be compatible on the level of epistemic (and ontological) nominalism. In any event, most historical research would fall under what Kantian philosopher, Wilhelm Windelband, referred to as idiographic (contingent) knoweldge, as opposed to nomothetic (generalizing) knoweldge. Poststructuralism, like other approaches to nominalism, assumes contingency.

Aleister Crowley (founder of thelemic magick), whom I have studied in depth (participant-observational/ethnographic research), virtually embodied Nietzsche’s ��bermensch as a master mythopoeist.

The linguist turn was in the 1970s! However, similar debates are occurring in most of the social sciences and humanities. In literary criticism, one of the principal debates is between the more traditional (and formalistic) “new criticism” and the “new historicism” which is explicitly poststructural.

Some confuse the epistemic relativism of poststructuralism (which is basically what you described) with the ontological relativism of some NRMs (new religious movements), e.g., all paths lead to God.

The dominant tendency among second-wave feminists was essentialist. However, there was also a Black feminism which developed simultaneously (some would argue much earlier especially with those Black women rooted in the Mid-Southern, rather than Southeastern, states) with middle-class white feminism. Alice Walker’s 1983 term for that Black feminism “womanism” has usually be adopted for it.

In my field, the simplistic notion of “the oppressors” vs. “the oppressed” has largely been replaced with more nuanced views of a matrix of domination. A person who might occupy an oppressor category (status) in one context might occupy the position of an oppressed person in another.

IMO, rejecting universal essences (in any sense other than Locke’s nominal essences) is revolutionary, but more on that later.

When referring to deconstruction, I have in mind, not only a thought experiment but a direct challenge to the ontological reality of all categories, including sex and gender (and AS for that matter). These categories are not real, but, IMO, the tropes (attributes) of the particulars they are classifying may or may not be genuine.

Is AS high-functioning autism? Is it a separate “disorder”? Does it merely point to genetic diversity and is not a disorder at all? Should it be incorporated into a new category, the obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders (being proposed for the DSM V)? How many sexes are there? One? Two? Five? Each of these questions can be answered affirmatively or negatively depending on one’s rubrics. In other words, once Aristotle’s essences are rejected, his law of noncontradiction also collapses.

Each semester, I tell my students that I reject the war on terror (not that I think we should do a better job fighting terrorism but that I thoroughly reject the category itself). Rejecting received knowledge as true in essence is revolutionary – and can serve to distinguish a revolution from a mere coup d’etat.

Women have been classically defined by their empathy – by their alleged possession of the (fictive) maternal instinct. AS may be perceived of robbing women of their supposed “womanhood.”

Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when I was in graduate school, there was tremendous optimism that, before reaching the 21st century, sociologists would have made considerable headway toward resolving many social problems. (It is no accident that Comte selected the term “positivism” for his post-Newtonian approach.) The gradual acceptance of post-positivism among many former positivists, and others, reflects considerable skepticism with positivism. (Positivists have sometimes been mocked as “the sunshine boys and girls” among other sociologists.)

What I would say is (with apologies to Kuhn) that evidence is paradigm-specific. It is grounded in textuality. Once
one moves to another text or narrative, the standards of evidence might change, too. This approach avoids metaphysical speculations concerning issues of isomorphism.

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