Deconstruction for Me but Not for Thee

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.

18 thoughts on “Deconstruction for Me but Not for Thee

  1. The trick is to have one’s vanguard notions integrate with the Zeitgeist. The problem is that the liberal society has probably not reached its apogee even yet and is churning away and becoming even more radical and more deconstructive. However, all one can do at this present time is to put out contrary ideas. When people say that the traditional Right wishes to subordinate women to men, the Right has always traditionally responded that it is in favor of masculinity and femininity and sees that men and women have fundamentally different roles in society. This is not enough for many contemporary women who wish to see a less patriarchal bias from what they perceive to be Right-wing opinions, but deep down these things are more powerful than reason.

    One of my principal views about politics is that people are attracted to politics only with a small percentage of their reason. The bulk of their attraction is emotional and pre-rational and irrational. The more that you appeal to these notions, the more you will actually appeal to the generality of people. One of the most powerful political discourses that can ever be enunciated is traditional male and female role models which are positive for both. This goes with the clock of biology and goes with the instinctualism of biology. Everything that goes with biology may be deeply unacceptable at the present hour, but it’s probably the most powerful type of politics that occurs and that can occur. Lots of people will actually be quite impressed and emotionally entranced by the rejection of contemporary sexual-political norms as currently perceived, but they would also be shocked and be deeply scandalized with the politically correct and rational part of their intelligence. Don’t forget, almost everyone who’s educated now has been through the politically correct filter and only perceives reality in that way.

    Yet everybody has a prior, largely biological identity, and if that particular identity is appeased by image, by word, by association, and by the absence of grievance then you will see people come to you. My view is that the more one attempts to rescue female and male ideas of a traditional sort from the maw of the New Left and from second-generation feminism, the more one will have the implicit and the intuitive support of generations as yet unborn.

    • As you say, a great deal of political appeal is aesthetic, and a great deal of it is self-centered. Put these insights together and you see that political must promise that you will look better in the proposed political scheme. I don’t just mean hotter, but all around better.

    • Beyond merely putting out or articulating contrary ideas, we must also live them. That is something we can, and should, all do to the best of our abilities. It is very hard, in my personal experience, for the *nominal* (as opposed to the hard core types) modernist/feminist/egalitarian types to not notice that ‘hey!, I don’t know what they’re doing different but I need to find out.’

      Now, they *will* resist it when you explain it to them – in terms like ‘well, I can see how that works for yours, but it would never work out for our family,’ and the like; so it takes a lot of patience and effort on your part, and at times is very frustrating, but it *has* to be done nevertheless.

  2. “Strategic essentialism, a major concept in postcolonial theory, was introduced in the 1980s by the Indian literary critic and theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak.”(Wikipedia) _Not_ to be confused with Luce Irigaray, who broke with Lacan early on and actually has interesting things to say about male and female modes of being, their ontological implications and spiritual dimensions. However, clinging to the shunned sex “binary” and resisting the new alphabet soup gender orthodoxy, she is one of those old-fashioned essentialist feminists who are now getting excommunicated in PC quarters. They are only good to serve academic theologians’ somewhat pathetic attempts to gain campus cred by recycling the ideological rejects of the POMO vanguard that gets to define the current general line.

    • It’s beside the point, but I went to graduate school with a fellow named Spivak, and I can never hear mention of Gayatri without thinking of him. For reasons that would be hard to explain, this has made it impossible for me to read her name without laughing out loud.

      I’ve never encountered a thoroughgoing anti-essentialist. In fact every anti-essentialist I have encountered was obsessed with essences (which they called “identities”). Their aim was not to abolish essences, but only the essences they didn’t like. So “strategic essentialism” is a perfect descriptor.

  3. Compared to the ancient Buddhists, modern cultural-Marxist “deconstructionists” are mere decadent clowns – their denial of “essentialism” went much deeper than they would dare to go:

    “The misery inducing “salvation” of “nonself” is not something new but something ancient. It began with Buddha who craved God-like power to deconstruct and reinterpret the soul.

    “Therefore, he deconstructed the Hindu idea of the soul. When one starts peeling the onion skin of one’s psyche, he discovers that there is no solid core at the center of one’s being. Your sense of self is an illusion. Reality is nonself (anatman). You don’t exist. Liberation, the Buddha taught, is realizing the unreality of your existence.” (The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization, Vishal Mangalwadi, p. 6)”

    “Mahayana Buddhism said that the Buddhist sage should strive to enlighten all beings. They said it was selfish to be striving for one’s own individual enlightenment, especially when Buddhism taught there was not such entity as the self. By accenting the central Buddhist notion that there was no self, the later Mahayana Buddhists transformed the notion of the Buddhist sage into a totally altruistic being.

    The bodhisattva, like the good utilitarian, is concerned for all persons equally. The bodhisattva “must educate his mind that he may feel in each case the same affection for all creatures that naturally centres in his son, or in himself.”[clvi] There is no privileging of the bodhisattva’s personal sorrows or personal concerns over the concerns of other people. “Another’s sorrow is to be destroyed by me because it is sorrow like my own sorrow…Since a neighbor and I are equal in desiring happiness, what is the unique quality of the ‘self’ which requires an effort for happiness?”[clvii] This is what the bodhisattva continually says to herself: “All sorrows, without distinction are ownerless; and because of misery they are to be prevented…Not just in myself. Everywhere!”[clviii]”

    • It does seem that Buddhism and Cultural Marxism are often found together. I used to spend a good deal of time hunting through bookstores (new and used), and I noticed that those in which the religion section was full of Buddhism had a politics section full of the Frankfurt School and its epigones.

  4. Pingback: Deconstruction for Me but Not for Thee | Reaction Times

  5. You write:

    “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.”

    Are you implying that the anti-essentialists are introducing “strategic essentialism” to give themselves a grounding in reality? I.e. admitting that reality exits?

    Because if that’s the case, they have signed their own death warrant. It’s like with the Structuralists. The moment that they admitted that words have an objective meaning, (rather than symbols for “structures”) they found themselves on the trash heap of history.

    The principle of non-contradiction holds that if there are “essentials” then there can’t be “anti-essentials”. So the “anti-essentialists” would be falling on their own version of the “structuralist’s sword”.

    • They are not trying to get a “grounding in reality” because reality is real, but because it is useful. The word “strategic” always means something done for advantage. Not because it is right, or true. A liar engages in what we might call “strategic truth telling,” not to get a grounding in truth, but to get the upper hand.

      As you say, they thereby contradict themselves–but many books and dissertations will be written to explain why this contradiction is not contradiction

      • I get that.

        As to the contradiction, it will always come out in the end. The Catholic Church is a good case in point with their turn to neo-Modernism, a self contradictory ideology if there ever was one. But 50 years later, the facade just can’t be maintained any longer.

        But back to the matter at hand, what I am observing is that OBJECTIVE REALITY is beginning to reassert itself. Mostly in the area of politics and outside the “academia bubble”, but it would appear that the tide has turned. Brexit and Trump, just to name two are good examples. We will see in the near future ( as soon as today actually, with the Austrian re-election and Italian Referendum today) if there is any follow through.

        But you are correct. There will be many dissertations written in this area. I happened upon one just yesterday. This is a good one for the “delusional” category:


      • “Gaslighting” is a useful term that describes efforts to convince us that reality is a paranoid delusion. I rented the movie of that name not long ago.

      • “… but many books and dissertations will be written to explain why this contradiction is not contradiction.”

        Ha, ha. That would be funny if it weren’t so true, and sad. Reminds me of an article I read awhile back explaining why all of a sudden narcissism is a good thing. The book, I presume, is currently in the works.

  6. Leftists, by Nature of their being as factionalists and partisans, intuitively grasp what the adversarial process is all about in the way that the Right, which takes the point of view of authority (i.e. the objective), never really can. Objective reality, logical coherence, etc. mean nothing in an adversarial process except so many potential obstacles to successfully pleading a case. It isn’t for the advocate to be objective or worry about discovering the truth; that’s the judge’s job. The job of an advocate is to advance his client’s interests by whatever means the rules allow. If that means spending the morning proving that God exists and the afternoon proving that He doesn’t, then that’s exactly what he does. Since there are no longer any rules in the public political process, nor any judge competent to apply the rules and authoritatively decide the truth between the claims of the contending parties, it should come as no surprise that what the Left has to say increasingly acquires the character of the absolutely unhinged. To critique this discourse as incoherent, illogical, factually wrong, hypocritical, and like that is to judge it by standards inapplicable to it. It’s not rational, true, but in all fairness it isn’t supposed to be.

    • You are correct, of course. All Leftist thought is “strategic” and in pursuit of advantage. This does not end when they assume the mantle of authority.

  7. At some point though, the intellectual alt-writers must cease to exercise their right to write the fabulously destructive deconstructionist myths of “Liberalism” and get to the business of actualizing a white man’s will to Perfection. This kind of tangential foray is so much more Orthospherean.


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