What sort of discipline is women’s studies?

Some of the central tenets of women’s studies — and gender or multicultural studies — of patriarchy, intersectional oppression and social constructionism are, as noticed by Toni Airaksinen, unprovable and unfalsifiable. (We’ve had some discussion of Popperian falsifiability elsewhere; maybe this is another opportunity.) Social constructionism, I would argue, stands as a legitimate scientific theory: it can be either confirmed or refuted by biological evidence (Cf. John Dupré, Ian Hacking, Nancy Cartwright, etc.). The other two tenets, however, don’t work with the dominant model of scientific hypotheses, and don’t fit nicely as philosophical, sociological or political theories either. If they are considered philosophical theories, it has to be recognized that they began with their conclusions as premises; ergo, they are circular, and only confirmed by circularity. Neither conjecture has even the loose falsifiability to belong to a social science like sociology, and their refutation (were it possible) would mean the closing of their scientific branch, so they cannot be (relevant) sociological theories. Finally, very few theories that fall under the branch of “political” are fundamentally political; usually, they begin in another, more atomic field and are only secondarily responsive to the political realm. So, calling them political theories begs the question. It makes the most sense to classify theories like patriarchy as quasi-theological conjectures instead of philosophical, sociological or political ones.

To demonstrate the point: firstly, schools like these posit an original sin: some of us are born with privilege, and only through reparations or race/gender-denunciations can we overcome it. They also, again like Christianity, possess a disdain for the current, real state of things: where Christians posit a celestial heaven for the afterlife, progressive idealists embrace utopian visions materially impossible to accomplish (whether through problems with central planning or otherwise), or at least humanly unrealistic. To fuel the utopianism, historicism or a disregard for enlightened economic, historical or sociological analysis comes with the politics. Another tenet of religion is its typical weak exclusivism (van Inwagen, 2010): religions take themselves to be logically inconsistent with other sects (that is, if two belief systems are logically consistent, one is not a religion), and hold that, for people in the typical epistemic state of its adherents, it is rational to accept that religion. This mild exclusivism is very obvious for movements like third-wave feminism, so far from Steinem; it is also easy to see that stronger exclusivism not only follows from weak, but is applicable to the leftist ideologies as well: proponents of a religion must find opponents that possess the same epistemic certifications to be irrational. Also, the same exceptionalism, and infiltration into politics, is familiar to religions (like Christianity and Islam) as well as feminist theorists that seek to distort the law into beneficial means, beyond its legitimate jurisdiction.

Finally, Ludwig Feuerbach wrote in the 1840’s that theology was truly anthropology: Christianity was an appraisal of man, and the story of mankind. Gender studies sees this reversed: what might euphemistically be termed social science or anthropology, sociology, etc. is discovered to be instead a new sort of theology. Facts are subordinate to belief and orthodoxical obedience, and the probing essence of reason is dismissed for the docile, hospitable nature of faith. It seeks to see God, or masculinist oppression, in everything. This is another instance of its discontent for anything formerly satisfying; until the tenets of women’s studies are part of mandatory classroom cirricula, its students will consider themselves forever oppressed. Creationism’s proponents wrestled fruitlessly as evolution replaced their faith in American middle schools. Feminists will try tirelessly to invade grade school as well, until faith can again triumph over critique.

Gogol Bordello and Multiculturalism

Donald Trump is about to be President of the United States. Trump’s victory is the result of a great plethora of political and cultural attitudes. It is not a “white-lash” (both candidates failed to attract the hispanic and black audience); it is not because America is, beneath the diverse veneer, intrinsically racist, sexist, xenophobic, islamophobic, homophobic, etc., etc.; it’s not simply that Bernie might have won had the DNC not been skewed in Hillary’s favor, nor is Trump’s unexpected win simply a retaliation from general conservatives after a double Democratic term. One of the largest elements in Trump’s victory is the cultural shift toward political correctness, and the backlash from not only conservatives but apolitical entities as well. People on the left won’t understand (except maybe accelerationist Marxists), but the infiltration of academia by progressive ideas, the shifting of institutions into liberal political pandering, and the emerging call for the repression of free speech has bent a great migration of non-Republican and nonpartisan minds into the Trump vote.

Establishment-left politicians are effectively finished after the failed Clinton campaign, just like the old-school GOP is finished following the election of their ugly duckling. What emerges from the left wing will most likely be more radical and extreme than Donald was to his political label. The movements all function under one shared umbrella, one unlikely to back down now that its worst nightmare is in charge for four years. Moving on from these facts, and recognizing that political correctness is a feature of the direction of left politics in general, I’ll comment on my first real experience with the anti-neoliberal left.

As a freshman in college, I took an introduction to Multicultural and Gender Studies course (the sheer fact that cultural, ethnic studies and gender/sex studies are combined implies the sort of ideological commitments necessary to teach these classes). My professor, unlike many in the major, let us be led into her viewpoints, rather than beginning sharply from her own and forcing us to abruptly commit or retaliate (as happens in Political Scienc classes). This approach is more gentle, more clandestine, leading to a greater deal of brainwashing. A few weeks in, she asked, “What is race?” I answered promptly, “a social construction.” MCGS155 was, in a sense, the first class I became utterly submissive to my teacher, and participated at any opportunity. When asked, “What is gender?” I vocally distinguished between the genitalia (sex) between our legs, and the identity in our heads. Thus far, the beliefs I was committed to then are the same I possess now.

Over the semester, however, I was taught lessons that were more sinister, more nefarious, and at times wholly offensive to the reality of the world. When my professor explained that she needed a male professor to negotiate her wages at my university (because women are not taught how to negotiate or argue, while men are tacitly trained to be argumentative and authoritative), I thought it made perfect sense, and it does. Then I was asked, gradually, to believe all women’s experiences were like this, all the time. Gender and racial monoliths began a glacial formation. Through the acceptance of small-scale experiences, a larger picture began to manifest in my mind: that of systematic discrimination and, eventually, oppression.

Prior to taking the multicultural and gender studies course, the word “oppression” was rare to encounter, especially when applied to a contemporary setting. Oppression was what the victims of Transatlantic slavery faced, for me. Indeed, outside of academia and far-left politics, that’s what oppression is: forced servitude. When leftist vocalizations of “oppression” take to the social field, the primary apolitical connotation is slavery, and so slapping the label on our government or culture can only arouse the most sincere feelings of empathy and rage. “Oppression” was used in my class to describe the conditions under which any and all minorities live in the United States. Using such an authoritative word, I began to understand American society as functioning modern-day slavery. Toni Airaksinen points out that women’s studies classes are built on the conjectures of “patriarchy, intersectional oppression, and social constructionism.” To note that “oppression” does not realistically describe any specific group’s position in American society would be to upset my professor, the major, and an entire national field of study.

The epitome and eventual product of my brainwashing was an extended argumentative essay, in which I concluded that Gogol Bordello was, among other things, cultural appropriation, offensive to diasporadical cultures, faux-ethnically inclusive, and, in some mystical sense, racist. I argued that Funkadesi (a South African-styled, funk/hip hop group liked by Obama) was the true gender and cultural warrior. As a teenager I used to enjoy Gogol Bordello as fun, raunchy music; within three months, however, I’d called them “insincere,” “promoting global fornication” with a “condescending attitude of hemispherical and cultural superiority.” My class, effectively, destroyed the fun in life.

Even as I wrote the anti-Bordello essay (calling Eugene Hütz a “homogenizer”), I felt that what I was arguing was somehow off. When I hung out with friends, friends who enjoyed Gogol Bordello, my conscience nagged that I ought to confront its problematic elements and put an end to their uninformed participation in oppression; another part of me, more internal and sensible, told me uninformed participation is a staple of human aesthetic enjoyment, and launching into a leftist tirade was not only off-kilter but immoral and misanthropic. After I passed the class I learned to reneg the Anglo-Saxon hatred and reinterpret Gogol Bordello not as cultural offensive, but culturally celebratory, inclusive, and self-aware. 

An element, one that I now consider essential to far-leftist politics, that dominated the course was its utter lack of appreciation for any actual social progress throughout history. This is done singularly and topically. In the beginning of class, we discussed the image of America as a “melting pot”; this ideal was rejected in the 1980s as assimilative: the Western Caucasian template would dominate the pot, as minority groups lost their identities (i.e., globalization). The great celebration of the census bureau that we might all mix together our distinctions and emerge more wholesome was decimated by my professor’s politics. Then, we discussed multiculturalism: instead of the stew of the melting pot, American immigrancy and citizenship would come together as a mosaic or kaleidoscope, with our distinctions still celebrated even as we learned to function together. Multiculturalism, for the second third of my semester, seemed enlightened: different groups would no longer be processed into a Western canon. However, this too was to fail as equally problematic. (Those of you outside of culture and gender studies who might think multiculturalism is still upheld as the ideal, guess again.) My teacher proposed that our society must enter something like a post-multicultural state. Multiculturalism was too tokenizing, too uninformed, too patronizing; somehow, the Caucasians had won again, and we had to move on to new philosophical horizons.

This tradition of dissatisfaction with formerely satisfying solutions is across the board with modern leftist movements. Just lately, a (brilliantly un-self aware) Guardian writer Zoe Oja Tucker wrote about college-aged men being severely punished for a sexist sheet of paper, all while desperately holding on to an ideology that says this sort of punishment is culturally nonexistent. The far-left has been eating itself alive for a while, like when Canadian Black Lives Matter protesters shut down a Gay Pride parade. One might suspect that post-multiculturalism will be answered by a sort of apartheid, and indeed, that seems to be the case with new segregationist options offered for minorities. (The pre-Civil Rights are back, but the positions have switched.) Meanwhile, by squabbling over increasing theoretical accuracy, legitimate gains that have been made are seen as neutral events, or political façades for continued oppression. Thus, the entrenched Marxist doctrine (which informs much of the left’s perception of politics nowadays) that society is composed of only two groups, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, at once twists into the cultural Marxism of “oppressor” and “oppressed,” and simultaneously loses its secondary category to internal disputes over minute aspects of the ideology itself, enlarging at once the first, privilege-possessing class. Progress in women’s rights, gay rights, etc. are even seen as PR-masks for the real tyranny – that of capitalism – by Marxists. So when law is passed specifically to aid the working class, not even this can satisfy the theory of endless, eternal oppression. The dissatisfaction with solutions is also seen with Marxists’ continued rejection of campaign voting: even though an increase in the third-party vote would alter American politics for the next campaign, Marxists across the board have rejected participation, dismissing the entirety of presidential elections as a corporate charade. (In essence, never doing anything for their own progression. Yet this dead philosophy hangs on.)

Leftist political scientists don’t care about legitimate social progress, because the great bureaucracy of professionalized philosophy requires tedious publishing year after year, and if ever theoretical perfection (or genuine satisfaction) were reached, the opportunity for tenure is lost. Thus, utter shit is churned out, like studies on online drinking photos promoting “regimes of gendered power,” dildos as tools of oppression, critical analyses on testicles, or studies on how to convince young women they are systematically oppressed. Freud would probably have castrated himself before he saw his methodology used for such off-base and imbecilic purposes today.

Feminism fought and won victories: in its first wave for voting rights, in its second for sexual freedom and abortion rights. It is not fighting for equally protecting legislation anymore. It is now fighting a culture war, and the only way to fight a culture is by seeking to replace it with a new ideology, and there is no immediate reason to assume the new one will be better than the old one. Third-wave feminism might best be described with a quip occasionally offered by its constituents: “if you’re not offended, you’re not paying attention.” (Or: “if you’re not finding oppression: look harder.”) Thus, the quality of “uninformity,” i.e. ignorance, discussed earlier, so despised by leftists and attributed to any of their opponents, is reckoned as the price to pay for not being enraged all the time. We must be offended constantly, or risk ignorance; this sort of position, of course, propels the lack of satisfaction with actual social progress, disturbs the sense of civil mobility, and leads to a rejection of enjoyment of almost anything.

“We’re all nothing but bags of stories”: Carlos Castaneda as a Countercultural Icon and Budding Post-Modernist

Exploring the countercultural 1960s and the origin of Western New Age, one cannot bypass Carlos Castaneda. He became a celebrity writer because of his bestselling book The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge that was published by the University of California Press in 1968. The book was written in a genre of free-style dialogues between a Native American shaman named Don Juan Matus and Castaneda himself, who claimed that he worked with Don Juan for many years. The Teachings describes how Castaneda learned to use three hallucinogenic plants: peyote, jimson weed, and psychedelic mushrooms. After ingesting these substances, Castaneda went through mind transformations and learned that there were other realities besides the ordinary one. Later, it was revealed that he made up the whole experience, but this never affected his popularity.

Carlos-Castaneda-The-Teachings-of-Don-Juan

Of course, a book like this was well-tuned to the then-popular hallucinogenic subculture, and the link between Castaneda’s text and the psychedelic ‘60s is the most common explanation of his popularity. Yet I want to argue that this is a very narrow view, which does not explain why Castaneda’s follow up books, which had nothing to do with psychedelics, continued to enjoy popularity well into the 1990s. In fact, by the early 1980s, Castaneda became so paranoid about hallucinogens that he forced his girlfriend to undergo drug tests before allowing her to sleep with him. I also argue that viewing Castaneda exclusively as one of the spearheads of the New Age does not explain much either. The appeal of his texts went far beyond the New Age. In the 1970s and the 1980s, for example, his books were frequently assigned as conventional course readings in anthropology, philosophy, sociology, religious studies, and humanities classes.

Let me start with some biographical details. Castaneda was born Carlos Arana in Peru to a middle class family and moved to the United States in 1951. He tried to enter the world of art but failed. Then, for a while, he worked as a salesman while simultaneously taking classes in creative writing before eventually enrolling in the anthropology graduate program at UCLA.

Originally Castaneda did not care about hallucinogens and the emerging hippie culture, but eventually UCLA (and the broader California environment), which was saturated at that time with various counterculture and unchurched spirituality projects, made him choose a sexy topic: the use of psychedelics in a tribal setting. The book which made him famous, The Teachings of Don Juan, originated from a course paper on “power plants” and from his follow-up Master’s thesis. I want to stress that both papers were essentially attempts to find a short-cut to satisfy the requirements of his professors. His first professor, an anthropologist, invited those students who wanted to get an automatic “A” to find and interview an authentic Indian. Despite a few random contacts, Castaneda could not produce any consistent narrative, and had to invent his interview. This was the origin of his Don Juan character. Then he followed requirements of his advisor, Harold Garfinkel, a big name in sociology at that time and one of the forerunners of postmodernism. Garfinkel made it explicitly clear to Castaneda that he did not want him to classify and analyze his experiences with Don Juan scientifically.

What Garfinkel wanted was a free-style and detailed description of his work with the indigenous shaman as it was and without any interpretation. Thus it was through collective efforts that Castaneda produced a text that by chance caught the attention of the university press as a potential bestseller. Essentially, Castaneda took to the extreme incentives provided to him by his professors and by the surrounding subculture. He internalized these incentives by composing a fictional text, which he peddled as authentic anthropological research. It is interesting to note that in 1998, just before he died, Castaneda made the following mischievous remark in his introduction to the last anniversary edition of The Teachings of Don Juan: “I dove into my field work so deeply that I am sure that in the end, I disappointed the very people who were sponsoring me.”

The popularity of the first book gave rise to the whole Don Juan sequel, which made Castaneda an anthropology and counterculture star. The combined print run of his books translated in 17 languages reached 28 million copies. And, as I mentioned above, despite the revelations that his Don Juan was a completely fabricated character, the popularity of his books was increasing throughout the 1970s. In fact, to this present day, libraries frequently catalogue his books as non-fiction.

It seems that Castaneda’s appeal had something to do with overall trends in Western culture, which made his text resonate so well with millions of his readers. For this reason, I want to highlight the general ideological relevance of Castaneda’s books for the Western zeitgeist (spirit of the time) at its critical juncture in the 1960s and the 1970s. Various authors who wrote about Castaneda never mentioned this obvious fact, including his most complete biography by French writer Christophe Bourseiller, Carlos Castaneda: La vérité du mensonge (2005). So exploring the ideological relevance of the Don Juan books will be my small contribution to Castanediana.

To be specific, I want to point to two themes that go through all his books. First, he hammered in the minds of his readers the message of radical subjectivism, which in our day it is considered by some a conventional wisdom: What we call truth is always socially constructed. Don Juan, who in later books began speaking as a philosophy professor, repeatedly instructed Carlos that so-called reality was a fiction and a projection of our own cultural and individual experiences, and instead of so-called objective reality, we need to talk about multiple realities. In an interview for Time magazine, Castaneda stressed that the key lesson Don Juan taught him was “to understand that the world of common-sense reality is a product of social consensus.” Castaneda also stressed the role of an observer in shaping his or her reality and the significance of text in Western culture. In other words, he was promoting what later became the hallmark of so-called postmodern mindset.

Second, fictional dialogues between the “indigenous man” Don Juan, whom Castaneda portrayed as the vessel of wisdom, and Castaneda, a “stupid Western man,” contained another message: remove your Western blinders and learn from the non-Western ones. Such privileging of non-Western “wisdom” resonated very well with Western intellectuals who felt justified frustration about the hegemony of positivism and Western knowledge in general and who looked for an intellectual antidote to that dominance. By the 1990s, this attitude mutated into what Slavoj Zizek neatly labelled the “multiculturalist’s basic ideological operation,” which now represents one of the ideological pillars of Western welfare-warfare capitalism.

At the end of the 1970s, several critics tried to debunk Castaneda. They were able to prove that his books were the product of creative imagination and intensive readings of anthropological and travel literature. These critics correctly pointed out that Castaneda misrepresented particular indigenous cultures and landscapes. Besides, they stressed that his books were not written in a scientific manner. Ironically, this latter criticism did not find any responsive audiences precisely because social scholarship was moving away from positivism. Moreover, one of these critics, anthropologist Jay Fikes, who wrote a special book exposing Castaneda’s hoax, became a persona non grata in the anthropology field within the United States. Nobody wanted to write a reference for him, and he had to move to Turkey to find an academic position.

What critics like Fikes could not grasp was the fact that the Castaneda texts perfectly fit the emerging post-modernist thinking that was winning over the minds of many Western intellectuals who sought to break away from dominant positivism, rationalism, and grand all-explaining paradigms. To them, an antidote to this was a shift toward the subjective, individual, and spontaneous. The idealization and celebration of non-Western knowledge and non-Western cultures in general, which currently represents a powerful ideological trend in Western Europe and North America, became an important part of this intellectual revolt against the modern world. I am sure all of you know that anthropology authorities such as Clifford Geertz (until recently one of the major gurus of Western humanities), Victor Turner, and Claude Lévi-Strauss were inviting others to view any cultural knowledge as valid and eventually erased the border between literature and science. They also showed that scholarship can be constructed as art. Castaneda critics could not see that his texts only reflected what was already in the air.

Castaneda_Time magazine

The person who heavily affected the “production” of the first Don Juan book, which was Castaneda’s revised Master’s thesis, was the above-mentioned sociologist Garfinkel. As early as the 1950s, Garfinkel came up with ideas that contributed to the formation of the post-modern mind. I am talking here about his ethnomethodology. This school of thought did not see the social world as an objective reality but as something that individuals build and rebuild in their thoughts and actions. Garfinkel argued that what we call truth was individually constructed. Sometimes, he also called this approach “people’s sociology.” He stressed that a scholar should set aside traditional scientific tools and should simply narrate human experiences as they were in all details and spontaneity. Again, today, for many, this line of thinking is conventional wisdom, but in the 1950s and the 1960s it was revolutionary. Incidentally, for Castaneda it took time to figure out what Garfinkel needed from him before he rid his text of the vestiges of “positive science.” To be exact, Castaneda could not completely get rid of this “science” in his first bestselling book. In addition to the free-flowing and easy-to-read spontaneous dialogues with Don Juan, Castaneda attached to the text an appendix; a boring meaningless read that he titled “Structural Analysis.” In his later books, such rudiments of positivism totally disappeared.

When Castaneda was writing his Master’s thesis, Garfinkel made him revise the text three times. The advisor wanted to make sure that Castaneda would relate his spiritual experiences instead of explaining them. Originally, when Castaneda presented to Garfinkel his paper about a peyote session with Don Juan, the text was formatted as a scientific analysis of his own visions. The professor, as Castaneda remembered, rebuked him, “Don’t explain to me. You are nobody. Just give it to me straight and in detail, the way it happened. The richness of detail is the whole story of membership.” Castaneda spent several years revising his thesis and then had to revise it again because Garfinkel did not like that the student slipped into explaining Don Juan psychologically. Trying to be a good student, Castaneda embraced the advice of his senior colleague. So the final product was a beautiful text that was full of dialogues, rich in detail, and, most importantly, came straight from the “field.”

I interviewed some of Castaneda’s classmates and other scholars who became fascinated with his books at the turn of the 1970s. Many of them had no illusions about the authenticity of Don Juan. Still, they argued that the whole message was very much needed at that time. A quote from Douglas Sharon, one of Castaneda’s acquaintance, is illustrative in this regard. In his conversation with me, Sharon stressed:

“In spite of the fact that his work might be a fiction, the approach he was taking—validating the native point of view—was badly needed in anthropology, and, as a matter of fact, I felt it was a helping corrective for the so-called scientific objectivity that we were taking into the field with us.”

I want to mention in conclusion that Castaneda not only promoted the postmodern approach in his novels but also tried to live it. Before the age of Facebook and online forums, Castaneda, with a group of his followers, became involved in an exciting game of identity change. They came to enjoy confusing those around them by blurring and constantly changing their names and life stories. For example, people in his circle shredded their birth certificates and made new ones. They also performed mock wedding ceremonies to make fun of conventional reality. To those who might have had questions about this “post-modernist” game, Castaneda reminded: “We’re all nothing but bags of stories.”