I recently dragged the concept of “homonationalism” into the Orthosphere, feeling rather like a cat that proudly deposits a mangled meadow vole or titmouse on the hearthrug of its owner. Homonationalism, you will recall, is the proposition that Western societies are nice to homosexuals because this allows them to be nasty to Muslims. It was the theme of a conference hosted by the philosophy department at my university (and as no counter-conference was staged in the football stadium, we must suppose that homonationalism is a proposition with which the university administration substantially concurs).
Prowling through the blogosphere this morning, I pounced upon another postmodern academic concept, which I have since tortured and tormented, and which I here drop on the hearthrug for you to admire. The concept is “strategic essentialism,” a brainchild of the French feminist Luce Irigaray. Underground Pewster tells us that the Rev. Isabelle Hamley, recently appointed Chaplain to the Archbishop of Canterbury, is a disciple of Irigaray, and that Rev. Hamley’s soon-to-be-defended doctoral dissertation is nothing less than “An Irigarayan Reading of Judges 19-21.”
I am not what some would no doubt be pleased to call an Irigaray scholar, so my “unpacking” of the concept of “strategic essentialism” may leave it somewhat soiled, rumpled and torn. If I have misrepresented it, pleased be assured that it is only strategic misrepresentation.
For those who dwell beyond the ivy-clad walls of academe, “essentialism” is a pejorative name for the doctrine that some classes of phenomena are what philosophers call “natural kinds.” That is to say that the category exists in its own right, naturally, and has therefore been discovered rather than invented. These natural categories are contrasted with artificial categories, or what those in the know call “cultural constructions.” These artificial categories exist because we invented them, and we invented them because we found it useful to think in these terms.
The class of animals known as birds is, for instance, a natural kind, whereas the class of animals known as pets is a cultural construction. If humans got out of the habit of keeping pets, the category would loose its utility, fall out of use, and be forgotten.
For years now the cool kids on campus have been “anti-essentialists” who believe most or all classes of phenomena are cultural constructions. From this it follows that they believe the world can be radically transformed if we simply think and talk about it in a different way. The anti-essentialist world has no bones, so it can be cut up in any way that we please. This doctrine flourishes among intellectuals who inhabit a world of symbols and have only passing familiarity with the world of things. At bottom, anti-essentialism teaches that we can wish nice things into existence, even as we wish nasty things away.
Wishing away nasty cultural constructions is called “deconstruction.”
The problem for the cool kids is that plenty of people wish that they and their categories would go away, and on the doctrine of anti-essentialism, they and their categories have no justification other than utility. And since they and their categories are largely useless, this is no justification at all.
Thus the need for “strategic essentialism,” or what might be better called anti-essentialism with unprincipled exceptions.
Its motto: deconstruction for me, but not for thee.