I, Jacques Derrida, Used To Be A 97lb Weakling!

Anthropologist Pascal Boyer has written a wonderfully contrarian essay for Cognition and Culture criticising the “crashingly banal assumptions” behind supposedly radical theories of human nature.

While Boyer is clearly making mischief, his main criticism of the post-modernist idea that human nature is entirely socially constructed is spot on.

While there are clear social influences in how we understand ourselves, the extreme relativism of saying everything is ‘defined by culture’ tends to evaporate when examined too closely.

But on closer inspection, it generally turns out that the initial, amazing, challenging statements in fact disguised crashingly banal assumptions. Suppose you point out to your academic ideologue that, for instance, if maleness and manhood really are completely unrelated… then it is puzzling that an extraordinarily vast number of [socially constructed] “men” happen to be [chromosomal] “males”, and that such a coincidence is spooky. You will probably be told that you did not quite understand the original statement. What it meant was that the meaning of maleness could not be derived from possession of the Y chromosome…

Or if you point out that some forms of insanity occur in many cultures at the same rates, that they trigger highly similar behaviors, are associated with the same genetic predispositions and correlate with similar neuro-functional features, you will be told that you did not understand. What was meant was that the cultural construal of madness was not derived directly from brain dysfunction…

At which point, you might be forgiven to think something like “so that was what all the fuss was about?” and you would be right of course. When push comes to shove, the flamboyant, earth-shattering, romantic, swash-and-buckle assault on our entrenched certainties seems to be, well, a bit of a damp squib.


Link to Boyer’s essay ‘There is no such thing as sexual intercourse’.

11 thoughts on “I, Jacques Derrida, Used To Be A 97lb Weakling!”

  1. This article is an incredibly reductive treatment of complex and very interesting theories.

    If they actually claimed what this author claims they claimed, then yes, they would have been a completely uncompelling,uninteresting, patently vacuous waste of time.

    They may be wrong, in part or altogether, but they were certainly not dismissible the way this article suggests.

  2. I’m with you, Pascal S., I think it’s too easy to write off this work as a banal stating of the obvious.
    “extreme relativism of saying everything is ‘defined by culture’ tends to evaporate when examined too closely”. (not that I’m sure relativism can “evaporate” in the first place)surely the point is that we only have one approach to understanding both culture and its products, namely deconstructing the way we have built up these constructs. That one then sees the deconstruction as another construct and so on should only underline the point, How can we get beyond the idea that we can only accede to what we think or believe through language-based definitions or perceptions? And this makes them automatically social, part of a shared process within groups of the species.

    I see this work as mirroring cognitive psychology’s understanding of e.g. visual perception as being an internal, and often misleading (cf. optical illusions)interpretation of external stimuli and as a part of deconstructing what human think of as reliable thought processes to see them as a hit-or-miss heterogenous collection of cognitive-physical reflexes (fundamental attribution errors etc – marshalled into a workable system for the time and place by communal (i.e. cultural)pressures.
    Isn’t part of the problem that social constructionism (to compact a host of different systems) is sometimes taken as negating a physically conditioned bedrock to “human nature”? I don’t think it does, but I do think it questions our means of access to this substratum and the possibility of “understanding” ourselves and the rest of the world.

  3. “I think it’s too easy to write off this work as a banal stating of the obvious.”

    What is “the banal” and “the obvious”? Modernist philosophy has tended to take these terms as self-evidently useful but recently feminist and post-post-structuralist critics have argued that a problematization of these concepts is necessary in order to deconstruct the meaning of “meaningfulness” in modern discourse.

    It is argued that the “banal” and the “obvious” are, in fact, often the most meaningful and most important of all statements. To resist the “banalization” of the banal is to resist the proto-fascism represented by marginalizing the “proletariat” of obvious facts, by the “bourgoisie” of ‘interesting’, ‘novel’, ‘useful’, ‘not stupid’ ideas.

  4. Ah, it’s our old friend, the straw man! Boyer isn’t even trying to engage with these thinkers on their own terms, and he spends time knocking down arguments that don’t exist.

    Yep there’s a lot of bullshit from the cultural studies/lit crit crowd but then I think we can agree that neuroscience isn’t entirely free of this taint either, nor any other field.

    1. errrrr….why couldn’t I make this point so well as ian leslie..

      perhaps Discourse Analysis is bad for the brain!


  5. Post-modernist are easy to make fun of. I remember in a graduate seminar, after reading Foucault’s History of Sexuality, making a comment about his sexuality killing him [as a result of biology ie viruses]and every one of the women in the seminar giving me that look.
    Somehow this post seems to be the same; taking a shot at an easy prey just to get that look!

  6. Does anyone here think that culture defines human evolution or would that be getting the cart before the horse? Perhaps what is male and what is female are determined as much by sexual selection (as described by Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and others) as by culture. Over the years, I’ve developed my own agentless, evolutionary, anthropological no-fault theory of sex and gender in which there is no man behind the curtain guiding their development and “patriarchy” is a chimera.

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