Some of the things I will be writing about in the near future kinda demands of the reader that she has a basic knowledge about what the hell I’m talking about. So this post is an attempt to provide that, even though I have no idea to organize and explain. But we’ll see how it goes once I start writing!
As you may already know, I’m studying for a Master’s Degree in Cultural Studies. It’s a huge topic, naturally, and it is (alas!) based on philosophy and the history of ideas (I’d personally would really love to see a bit of anthropology, biology and psychology in there as well, but what can you do). And what these studies aim to do, for the most part, is to expose the structures we live by.
Basically, you have two directions: essentialism and structuralism.
Essentialism says that we all are born with an essence of something transcendent; if you are a woman, you have the essence of the feminine in you, immanent. It is something that indeed makes you a woman, which cannot be altered. For example. This school of thought is basically a no-go in the academic circles for the time being, you surely will lose all cred if you went there.
Because its opposite, structuralism, is kinda what flies. There is no spiritual meaning, there is no essence, there can only be culturally constructed structures. I know! How depressing is that, right? But there you go. You are a woman, because you are structurally socialized into believing you are one. The good news is, though, that you can really just performatively change yourself into something else, if you just learn to think outside the structure.
Language holds a big part of the curriculum; language is a structure which structures the culture, because it makes it possible to convey meaning. So the words we use get loaded with meaning while we use them, and we must all agree on this meaning for the system to work. This is where it gets tricky, because how we use our words will structure the structures. We have somehow ended up with a world where we have pairs of words (and thus concepts) like culture/nature, man/woman, reason/feeling and so on, where the first word is thought to be more valuable then the latter one, for no apparent reason at all (I blame Aristotle, by the way, the guy who invented dualism and the gap between spirit and matter).
So most of my studies for the time being is all about exposing these structures, be it gender issues, environmentalism, surrogacy, economy, language, whathaveyou. Since everything is merely a structure, everything can be exposed in order to make the world a better place.
Personally, I’d rather combine essentialism and structuralism, as I believe in both. I don’t think we are just empty vessels waiting to be filled with meaning and content, I believe we have an essence. Only, I believe we have plenty of structures, too, like an onion. You can peel off layer after layer of structures, but there is a core somewhere in the middle.
And that is the essence.