Saturday, December 16, 2006

The postmodern carnival

A special weekend guest posting from The Wife, who has been on a creative streak recently. This is good, as it means I don't have to come up with something worthwhile to say today. She's already beat me to it.

Pay attention.

I have recently had a few weird encounters with “radical constructionists” that seem to have disturbed me enough to want to share the experience with anyone who is willing to listen.

Not too long ago, I found constructionism a very appealing way of thinking about life. The notion that human identity is not mapped and shaped by nature – biology, genes, etc. – but rather by language and culture, is a curiously rewarding one.

Not only does the reference to the constructed nature of our selves entail immediate political rewards (unsurprisingly, the term “master discourse”, tattered though it has become in the eyes of some of us, flows with disturbing ease from the lips of individuals who have never even read a single line of Foucault), it also promises the subversion of these constructed constraints. If we are constructed by our culture, which in turn is entirely man-made, then nothing stops us from unmaking and redoing the norms according to which it works. Hence the continuing popularity, in academia and elsewhere, of terms like empowerment, subversion and performance. Only to use this slightly dusty jargon gives us a pleasant feeling of having resisted … something.

I must admit that I find these ideas increasingly dubious. Of course it is true that we all play roles and perform identities depending to where we are and who we talk to. But this insight is neither new (role theory was popular in the 1960s), nor does it plausibly support the argument that there is no part of our identity that is beyond the rules of culture and language.

This is not to dismiss the real power of culture over individuals and its function as a differentiating agent. Culture, to put it simply, matters. Specific groups at specific times and in specific places use it to distinguish the good from the bad, the worthy from the unworthy, the powerful from the powerless. And don’t I know it? I grew up a non-believer in rural Catholic Franconia. For a while I tried to be happy as a German in Britain, learning that they are two countries separated, if not by a common language, then by a familial psychosis. And today I sport the scars I earned while surviving as a female academic in the testosterone jungle of a German university. Believe me, I'm all too aware of the culture and power nexus.

Social role-play is clearly both a product of and a means to sustain cultural differences and their effects. If you play well enough, it can also give you a tool to use these differences to your own benefit. I probably would be less troubled by my academic surroundings if I were a better actress (or more confident hypocrite). But while constructionists may be able to describe these cultural differentiations, they cannot explain (entirely) where they come from. Actually, come to think of it, I'm pretty certain that they don’t even really want to explain them - not least because the mere hint at the possibility that much of our culture may have a material – i.e. biological – base is considered “fascist” by cultural relativists.

Reality, however, proves such ideas wrong. Our bodies persistently remind us that they won’t be fooled by our self-constructions, unsettling us with undesired somatic responses such as flushing, sweating and trembling, and ultimately and inevitably, letting us down in the worst possible way by dropping dead. They are a powerful testimony to the limits of constructionism, but they also provide a convincing explanation as to why we have culture: culture consists of the stories we tell about how and why we react the ways we do. The dominance of our bodies over our lives also suggest something else. It reminds us that constructionism, as a set of theories that deny bodily reality, is a form of transcendentalism – a dream of going beyond the limits of these living, breathing, digesting, decaying - and finally expiring - bodies.

Not only is this aspiration futile, it reeks of hubris.

Furthermore, it echoes those theoretical precursors from whom many contemporary theorists wish to distance themselves. Rather than a radical rejection of the bête noire of Humanism, constructionism is its unloved love-child which denies its own paternity. But while being ashamed of your parents may be normal, erasing your ancestry ain’t so easy – in fact, it is wishful thinking.

Watching a recent lecture by Richard Dawkins has confirmed the sneaking suspicion I’ve been harbouring for a while, namely that the only place where we can ever expect to find subversion is material reality, including the body. (Thanks to onegoodmove for bringing this to my attention.) The title of the lecture, adapted from a quote from J. B. S. Haldane, is “Queerer than we can suppose: the strangeness of science.” "Queer" is here used in a very general sense, meaning “strange” and not in the way contemporary literary and cultural theory has redefined it.

Only marginally linked to the term denoting homosexuality, “queering”, in Michael Warner’s words, broadly means "the resistance to regimes of the normal" (Fear of a Queer Planet). The buzzword is used by flocks of eager, aspiring and established academics to describe the subversive power of anything from real-life transvestism to literary style, from Madonna’s antics to Modernist polyphony. And, inevitably, South Park.

Two things have always troubled me about the concept of “queerness” applied in this fashion. First, “resistance to the normal” typically leads to the reinstallation of a new norm (or normative ideal), which is all-too-often pursued with its own authoritarianism. (This is the gist of a terribly nasty piece I once co-wrote on a celebrated novel by Michael Cunningham, which only pretends to transcend difference.)

Second: all this relativist norm-surfing boils down to is the kind of carnival which already Mikhail Bakhtin identified as society’s fun way of maintaining its hierarchies. Queering, then, is politically ineffective because its champions are only playing – they don’t bite (which is only appropriate, since in the ideology of harmonic relativism, biting is forbidden anyway).

What Dawkins explains in this lecture – taking Hamlet very seriously – is that our world is even queerer than we ever will be able to understand. Our petty, little academic queerings pale in the face of the absurdities that make up our reality and that will always remain beyond the reach of our theoretical games.

In this context, the way we see the world is indeed a construction, but it’s one over which we have little ability to influence and much of which happens beneath the level of cognition and language. As Michael Gazzaniga has argued, our relationship with the world is steered by the interpretation of reality of our brains.

I have called this area of the left hemisphere the interpreter because it seeks explanations for internal and external events and expands on the actual facts we experience to make sense of, or interpret, the events of our life.

Hard-core constructionists have it, at best, half-right: human beings certainly do “construct” the world (and, as social, language-using beings, construction usually takes place through narrative); nonetheless, it is wrong to suggest that those constructions either transcend the physical realities of our evolved bodies and minds or that they are limitlessly free-floating.

But see for yourselves what Dawkins has to say (and please just ignore the tiresome opening sequence brought to you by a particular, well-known Bavarian carmaker). His lecture is not only a brilliant exposition on the evolutionary processes which shaped our ability to make sense of our surrounding environment – what he calls the “middle world” – in a way which is meaningful, but, of necessity, limited.

It is also a wonderful testimony to good academic practice: calm, composed and unassumingly witty, Dawkins is refreshingly different from the egocentric histrionics of some of the self-appointed radicals I’ve had the "pleasure" to listen to over the years.

PS: There are some good discussions of similar issues over at Butterflies and Wheels, which can be found here and here.

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