Radical Feminist Resistance

Month: February, 2014

Let them eat text: The real politics of postmodernism

FROM: off our backs, August/September 1999, V.29; N.8 p. 7, Word Count: 2852

by Karla Mantilla

“After doing some reading in postmodern theoretical texts, several things about the theory suddenly struck me as incongruous. I have been trying to see not just what postmodern theorists say about their theory, but more importantly, how postmodern theory functions in the world–what are the effects of adopting postmodern thinking and theorizing. What became clear to me after some reading was that the overarching effect of postmodernism is to silence thinking and speaking, both personally and politically. I am aware that this is a rather outrageous statement given the attention postmodern theory pays to privileging the voices of

marginalized people, to giving voice to those previously unheard, and to investigating the silences embedded in the dominant discourse (to sling a little postmodern verbiage myself). However, in a deep reading of how postmodern theory functions, I find that these claims are little more than lip service. The important thing to see is not what postmodernism says it does, but how it actually functions.

One of the things that has made me especially curious about postmodernism has been my experience working with interns, for the most part, undergraduate college students, at off our backs. Often, as may well be imagined, in the midst of getting a mailing out, shipping out back issues, or some other tedious office chore, I tend to get involved in discussions of feminism with interns. More frequently than I wish, after offering my perspective on a particular event or theory, interns will reply to me, “You can’t say that.” My usual reply is, “I just did.” I don’t mean to be flip in my response, but I am trying to communicate that you can in fact state your opinion without self-censorship or an overexaggerated reluctance to say something that others disagree with. You can in fact state things clearly and concretely, however controversial. Others can disagree, but you do, after all, get to say things

One intern, assigned to cover an anti-choice event, became confused about how “You can’t say that anti-choicers are wrong–they have a viewpoint too. You really can’t say any viewpoint is wrong.” She actually became confused about her stand on abortion after hearing the fervent beliefs of anti-choicers. Not that she was convinced by the merits of their arguments–that would have been at least an honest mistake. It was her inability to hold any argument as being more valid than another, so that as long as there are competing positions on any topic, she seemed unable to take a stand on it. This, as I see it, is the cumulative effect of postmodern academic teachings on students of women’s studies these days. They are rendered unable to take even the most obvious of stands with any conviction.

The advent of postmodernism as the prevailing academic theory is of great significance, not only within academia but for feminist as well as progressive social movements. There are several problems with postmodernism, the first of which has to do with the way it has coopted some of the key insights of radical feminism, but stripped them of their political impact.

Radical feminism, diluted

One of the core insights of postmodernism is that everything is socially constructed–gender, race, class, personal attributes, etc. Postmodernists take great pains to elaborate on every nuance of every social system that has been constructed. There is great emphasis on constructions arising from particular places in the social order–a white rich American man will ascribe to a worldview that confirms and legitimizes his position. This is nothing new–radical feminists had this insight years ago–social systems profoundly shape and determine people’s lives in ways that don’t seem readily apparent–even intimate and personal aspects of people’s lives such as gender roles, sexuality, even their sense of self.

What is really interesting is the way postmodernists theorists write as though this is big news. Radical feminists have been saying this for years. And in a classic patriarchal reverse (a la Mary Daly), postmodernists accuse radical feminists of being essentialists, that is, believing that gender and other qualities are biological. That is precisely the opposite of what radical feminists have been saying all along–that since gender is so thoroughly socially constructed, it can be constructed differently, more equitably. Where radical feminists do part ways with postmodernists is their understanding of just what a difficult project this is to undertake. And the radical feminist view that this has not yet happened nor could it happen so facilely is why they are accused by postmodernists of being essentialist–because although it does not arise from biological differences, there is now a significant difference in the ways women and men are raised and socialized, hence there is currently a great difference in some ways. I think of postmodernists as a brand of “you’ve-come-a-long-way-baby” feminists–blithely in denial about just how deeply patriarchal conditioning runs and patriarchal institutions are entrenched.

Subverting the subordinate paradigm

In addition to the cooptation and subsequent dismissal of radical feminism, another even more insidious way postmodernism subverts the subordinate paradigm is the way some of the key insights, while claiming to allow more voices to speak, actually silence all voices, causing proponents of postmodernism to be muzzled and muddied in their speech and writing.

Postmodernism: the master’s tools

The hallmarks of postmodernist thinking are tools and methods that serve to reinforce the way things are now. Even while espousing radical politics, the cause of marginalized people, working against all oppressions, the tools of postmodernist thinking foil the project from the start. Some of the primary tools that have the effect of silencing speech are as follows:

Writing style–Although the obtuse writing style is an easy mark for criticism, it must be emphasized again that even highly educated people struggle with its nuances and meanings. As I have struggled to make it through the painfully dense and clumsy prose that is characteristic of postmodernist writers, I have discovered that the thinking underneath the layers of prose absolutely does not merit such convoluted presentation–the ideas are no more complex or complicated than ideas in progressive, marxist, feminist or other theories. This writing style is more than inconvenient and cumbersome–it has an effect.. As Katja Mikhailovich writes in Radically Speaking (see review in this issue) “My first response, and the response of many women I have talked with since, was to doubt my own intellect and ability to make meanings of these texts.” The effect (presumably unintended but effective nevertheless) is to create self-doubt in the intellectual abilities of the reader and to discourage students from theorizing about their own experiences and lives thereby making the connections necessary for radical consciousness and activism. The ability to create theory is relegated to those in authority–professors and their ilk. Even thoughtful and analytical students come to see theory making as excessively complex and out of their reach.

Another conspicuous feature of postmodern writing style is an abiding hesitancy and reluctance to say anything definitive. Witness the reflexive self-doubting parentheses and unanswered questions posed for effect. Also there is much “calling into question,” “moving toward a theory of…” and “calling for a discourse on…” in the place of definitive statements. Statements are frequently qualified out of existence. New words are made up almost daily (the old ones I presume are too precise in their meaning) which add mystique and uncertainty about what is really meant. Finally the advent of the irritating, unnecessary, and inappropriate “s” on the end of every other word rounds out the obfuscation (added even to nouns which are already plural)–“knowledges,” “discourses,” or “positionalities.”

It is ironic that with this prolific onslaught of postmodern verbiage and theory, hardly anything is in fact said. Sheila Jeffreys points out in Radically Speaking that “…in post-modernist feminist writing there is much agonising on how hard it is to speak or write.” The net effect of all this is to silence and muzzle speech and to inhibit taking a strong clear passionate stand on anything.

Denunciation of the meta-narrative–For the uninitiated, a “meta-narrative” is an explanatory statement–one that attempts to explain something as a generalizable concept rather than simply describe a specific individual situation without any generalizations. So according to postmodernists, any time someone uses the dreaded “meta-narrative,” they may be suppressing and silencing other voices. If you are willing to say something definitive, someone somewhere is bound to disagree. If you are saying something with which no one disagrees or no one feels is wrong, you are probably not challenging the status quo (or anything for that matter). It is a grave mistake, however, to conclude that you must self censor because, by speaking, you silence others’ speech.

The other feature of the denunciation of the “meta-narrative” is that it effectively subverts the meaning of the personal is the political. In postmodernism, the personal, rather than being the political, becomes only and exclusively the personal–any attempt to create bonds between oppressed individuals or to raise consciousness about how individual experiences are really reflective of larger social forces is reinterpreted as silencing other voices. Any attempt to make generalizations is seen as silencing and rendering invisible those people for whom the generalization does not apply. This defies a basic understanding of the concept of a generalization–of course it is not true for every single person in the group–it is, after all, a generalization. Exceptions alone do not, however, disprove the validity of generalizations. If I make a generalization that people stop at red lights while driving, certainly it is true that occasionally, some people do not; however it is an accurate and useful statement that people stop at red lights. It describes, with reasonable accuracy, a social phenomenon. To say that the generalization is not true simply because a few people do not fit it, is ludicrous and leaves us unable to describe or name even the most obvious social norms.

The overall effect of this turn away from “meta-narratives” is to stop people from being able to describe their social conditions, from being able to generalize about personal experiences in their lives, from being able to see the commonalities of experience that can mobilize them to see problems as political rather than personal. The net effect is a lot of women’s studies students saying, “You can’t really say that,” about even the most basic truths.

Denunciation of binarisms–Binary thinking involves thinking in dualistic mutually exclusive categories such as good or bad, gay or straight, woman or man, etc. In postmodern thinking, binarisms are bad (that in itself is an unavoidable binarism). Some theorists say that binarisms are the root of all oppression–that without them we could not oppress others. Unfortunately, without binarisms, we also cannot make a definitive statement. Making a statement, especially a political one, requires that we say one thing is better than (or worse than) in some way than another thing. If we avoid binarisms (a feat which some postmodernist writers do manage to approach in their flailingly uncertain prose), we cannot say, for example, liberation is better than oppression, being fed is better than starving, being healthy is better than being sick.

By demonizing binarisms, the effect is to stifle clear articulate speech. People become so mired in trying to avoid choosing one thing over another that they are rendered incapable of sustaining a passionate conviction on any topic.

Taking the social out of social constructionism–What is perhaps most fascinating about postmodern theory is that for all the talk of how things are socially constructed, they forgot the implications of “social” in social construction. After their supposedly new insight that nearly everything is socially constructed, they do not advocate much for transformation at the social level, ie. for changes in institutions, social norms, social structures such as the family, etc. Instead there is much attention to individual acts of transgression of conventional social norms as a way of highlighting that social norms are constructed and not natural or inevitable. This kind of rebellion in postmodernism is a very isolated activity–it consists of individuals taking it upon themselves to fight battles all alone. There is not an emphasis among postmodern theorists for building a critical mass of people united in a social movement which could begin to effect changes at the social level. There is instead a very superficial understanding of the how social forces work–a naive and libertarian emphasis on individual actions and choices as though the cumulative effect of each isolated individual choice or action will effect largescale social transformation. The net effect of such an atomization of individual activities serves to prevent rather than foster social change.

The curious timing of postmodernism

What I find most interesting about postmodernism is not what postmodernists say about it, but how it functions in the real world (and I’m assuming there is one) in terms of social change. The effects of the intimidating and obfuscating writing style, of inhibiting generalizations and so the formation of commonalities between people, of ruling out binary thinking and so eviscerating impassioned convictions, and of overemphasizing individual rather than collective action is to create a multilayered system of disconnection, silencing, and disempowerment.

What is also interesting is the timing of the advent of postmodernist theory. As Somer Brodribb and Barbara Christian point out in Radically Speaking, postmodernism came into vogue in academia just when the voices of women and people of color began to assert a significant presence there. It seems that when groups other than those in power attempt to say things, suddenly truth dissolves into meaninglessness. This is a little too coincidental for my taste.

The coincidence becomes even more striking when it becomes apparent that this is not the first time this has happened. Right after the first wave of feminism, in the 1920s, when women had made some advances, had gotten the vote, and began to gain some access to academia, another nihilistic kind of theorizing became the rage in academia–relativism and existentialism. Again, just when women were trying to gain access, and to articulate our points of view, suddenly nothing was meaningful anymore, everything was relative, and meaninglessness was lauded as high theory.

I suggest that postmodernism is nothing more than the new relativism and that relativistic theories emerge as a new line of defense when power structures are becoming threatened. It is a very insidious and crafty defense because it mouths the words of liberation while simultaneously transforming them into meaninglessness. The real agenda is masked in clever obfuscation–to preserve the status quo by rendering dissent meaningless and ineffective, unable to gather any social or political power. Notwithstanding postmodernism’s purported intention to deconstruct social norms and by so doing, make way for changes, its actual effect is to atomize peoples’ experiences, obliterate the potential for solidarity, silence articulate and forthright speech, and render passionate convictions meaningless. It leaves us unable to condemn anything as wrong or oppressive with clarity, certainty, or conviction. Furthermore, nearly all of the so-called insights of postmodernism are simply rehashed and depoliticized versions of radical feminist ideas. Postmodernism is a theory which denounces the act of theorizing, it is speech that silences voices, it is writing that stultifies and obscures, it is a position which advocates no position at all, it is a politics which refuses to take a stand on anything. And we must see the politics of that–it is a viper that women’s studies and English departments have nursed to their collective bosoms. It is a theory, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. It is a stealth theory that contains a virus which, once incorporated, explodes all possibility of impassioned righteous collective action for changing the conditions of our lives.”

And, today, in 2014, we can build on this article of 1999 to say that, apart from extremists such as MPAs (Male Privileged Agitators), “we” are “unable to condemn anything as wrong or oppressive with clarity, certainty, or conviction” – *except* radical feminism.

In her last paragraph she gets to the heart of why that is: postmodernism “mouths the words of liberation while simultaneously transforming them into meaninglessness. The real agenda is masked in clever obfuscation–to preserve the status quo by rendering dissent meaningless and ineffective, unable to gather any social or political power”

Taken from this link and with thanks to Jackie:



A year ago, I wrote this article:

A year on and it’s all still true so I am re-publishing. I hope that women in their millions will ditch male supremacist illusions of romance and join the fight for women’s liberation on 14 January 2014 instead.

“Our deeply conditioned belief in “romantic love” keeps us in abusive relationships. We look for deeper meanings, we say that “he loves me really” when he fails to live up to any kind of basic human standard, or “I can change him”. A belief in “romantic love” overrides experiences of beatings, rapes and psychological torture. We will find it, no matter what. We must. All the messages we have received from birth tells us it is there – what is wrong with us that we can’t find it? We are taught we are incomplete human beings without the love of a man. We must suffer in the hope that one day we might be given it. For real.”

I will be joining other women tomorrow to do this:

Women’s silence cannot be bought with roses





The class of women learn to compete with other women; to see each other as rivals while constantly vying for male attention. From birth through to girlhood and into adulthood, male attention is something we are taught to aspire to. We should be prettier, thinner, more docile and appealing than the next girl/woman. We are also taught to disbelieve each other when we speak out and to protect men from other women by blaming those women for what men do. Some of the loudest rape apologists are women (1 of the women panellists on #bbcqt last night, for example, vociferously agreed with rape myths spouted by a male misogynist speaker).


This is not an unhappy coincidence. It is part of the social construction of compulsory heterosexuality where women are emotionally, financially and physically bound to men. That dependence is deeply tied to self-esteem, self-worth and our very sense of self. I actually remember, pre-feminist days, saying, and thinking, that I didn’t “get on with” other women much. How many (heterosexual) women say “I prefer men’s company“? That’s because other women are only good for confidences when talking about men and problems with men. Everything about compulsory heterosexuality is centred on the needs of men – including relationships between women.  Other women sustain us in our relationships with men through their emotional support; they encourage us to see “the good” in him; they are there for us when we cry in frustration and despair. And we do the same for them. We have learned from a very young age that this is how our relationships with each other should go.

Only male supremacy benefits from this. We lose out. As part of compulsory heterosexuality, other women serve as cheerleaders for men and are our conditioning’s echo-chamber versus our lived experiences. The role of other women helps to tie us to compulsory heterosexuality rather than break free of it.

A lesbian friend of mine once observed how heterosexual women behaved in the showers at her local gym. “They scrub themselves in places I would only do at home. They do it because I am invisible. All other women are invisible. Only men are seen and matter to them.” This seems to me to be a microcosm of how relationships between women are played out under hetero-patriarchy.


Whether it‘s too deeply entrenched for women to acknowledge it or not, we do know when heterosexual friends will always put men first. This teaches us how unimportant we are to other women. When we do find women we can relate to, in different ways, all kinds of possibilities open up. This  includes the possibilities that we can love this woman in all ways, including romantically, spiritually and sexually. It is one of the reasons why so many heterosexual women flirt with, or fall for, lesbians. They have never been treated as if they matter to other women. Many of us fall in love with our friends but. Compulsory heterosexuality! Only men are important. There’s lots of denial, selective memory loss and explaining this away instead of exploring the possibilities of love for women.


When we realise we have been separated from each other by male supremacist ideas of competition and rivalry, it can be a significant shift in our feminist consciousness. It opens up a new world. It is the start of the possibilities of romantic and sexual love for other women. For many feminists, the political realisation that they can be pro-woman and counter their conditioning is a pivotal moment. Through feminist consciousness-raising, we realise that each individual woman we meet has something unique to value in and of itself. Chances are, she has not encountered that kind of full acceptance outside feminist circles. I certainly had not until I met lesbian feminists who showed me a new way of finding intimacy and care between women.


For many of us, our CR (consciousness-raising) involves coming to terms with ourselves as survivors of male sexual violence. And that almost every woman we meet is a survivor. We come to terms with the fact that our reality does not match the myths borne of male supremacy. As survivors, we are dismissed, disbelieved and not listened to. We know that it is the protection of men which is at the heart of society’s concerns and that we will be punished, blamed and ostracised if we dare to name our abuse and abusers. As feminists, we can ensure that women we meet know we believe them, that we listen to their truths and empathise and understand them. Our personal stories, and struggles, are rooted in submission, torture and abuse, as a subjugated class. If other feminists cannot hear us, who can?


All of this is what I call “sisterhood”. It is not a cult. It is not a way of saying “you must be in my group”. Far from it. In fact, meaningful “sisterhood” results in taking responsibility for our actions and behaviour towards other women, in keeping with our feminist ideology.


In a recent article (I give the link below), about “sisterhood”, the concept is referred to as an “identity”. An important part of the CR process where women move towards (radical) feminism, is dismissed through labelling that process “identity politics” by a small minority of those involved with online radical feminism. There is nothing wrong with describing the ways in which feminism has impacted on our own individual lives and/or labelling it. In fact, it’s helpful to do so because it shows how the CR process interacts with feminist theory. Some write as though radical feminism has not changed them at all. They see it as an intellectual pursuit of no consequence to their daily lives or a rhetoric they spout which bears no relationship to how they behave. If this is the case, I question just how far radical feminism has truly reached them. We learn that the world is dominated by male supremacy, that our class has soaked up, and internalised, that domination, – and yet that has not affected us and the way we live our own lives? Wow. Incredible.


Online “sisterhood” is believing other women about their own experiences under patriarchy, understanding other women when they are in trauma, yes, holding women accountable for what they do, but also understanding why women may lash out in trauma and distress at each other. In order to understand, we do need to be able to communicate with each other, to articulate where things have gone wrong, and where we have made mistakes.

The online climate of being able to move on far more easily than IRL (a simple click of a block or defriend button on Facebook and poof! the problem has disappeared), without even attempting to resolve conflict, is all too easy. The impermanent, spontaneous way of communicating over the internet does impact heavily on the concept of “sisterhood” because there is often not the opportunities to communicate differently. Text communications are easily misunderstood and misinterpreted and that adds to our challenges (I wrote a more detailed blog post about this subject  )

We all make mistakes, mis-communicate or misunderstand each other. “Feminist ethics” means that we hold ourselves to account so that we can learn how to do better in our attempts to collectively sustain a movement. That has always been an ongoing challenge for feminism.


However, we face another challenge which is distinctly contemporary. The whole phenomenon of online blog posts, of immediate interaction with hundreds, if not thousands, of others, simultaneously, encourages egos, egotism and allows narcissists and psychopaths to come to the fore and take centre stage. Some of those women use the rhetoric of “sisterhood” in order to control, influence and manipulate. Observations over time may make it clear who is doing this. Similar patterns enact themselves in all spheres of online spaces (I’ve been around and watched the same phenomenon develop over and over in a variety of spaces. A friend watched one person being scapegoated and hounded out of a seemingly innocuous online forum about classical music!).

After a while of observation, it may be clear who is in the online (radical) feminist space for the thrills of non-stop conflict and trolling and ego-massaging and who is there because of commitment to the fight against injustice towards women, as a class, and individually. We should take our observations seriously, act accordingly, and not be afraid to face up to abusive behaviour even though it runs counter to the concept of “sisterhood”. “sisterhood” should not cloud our judgement to such an extent that we ignore unethical behaviour. I have recently experienced appalling behaviour with some elaborate cover-ups – my bottom line is this: If specific behaviour would not be tolerated within patriarchy, then I am fucked if I’ll put up with it in the name of “sisterhood” activism.


I am arguing that the political notion of “sisterhood” is very far removed from a “cult” or an empty, sickly promise of love and care forever more. It is a political strategy within the fight to end male supremacy. We cannot even begin to tackle male entitlement if we have not freed ourselves of the condition which sets up other women for our ridicule, contempt, rivalry, hatred and competition.

Destroying patriarchy is a long-term goal. It probably won’t happen in our life times. In the meantime, we have to sustain our political activism if we are to start building the “bricks of resistance” (I think that’s a mis(?)quote from Lierre Keith). We start with undoing the conditioning which has kept us from each other. By teaching ourselves, and each other, that it is possible to value, love and care for other women. We cannot fight patriarchy if we are kept apart. No class at war goes into the fray divided and separated.

Only by learning how to provide sustainable alternatives to patriarchy can we truly build on top of “sisterhood”. “Sisterhood”, like lesbian feminist communities for radical lesbian feminists, sustains us when we ride into battle with patriarchy. If we don’t have alternatives where we can breathe freely, all we have is war without end and we burn out and our activism dies.

For a completely alternative view to the concept of “sisterhood” read this:

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