â€œFeminism consists in calling attention to and eradicating gender-based oppression.â€
– Iris Marion Young
â€œRepresentation of the world, like the world itself, is the work of men; they describe it from their own point of view, which they confuse with the absolute truth.â€
– Simone de Beauvoir
I was having a fairly high-level political conversation with a Puerto Rican nationalist comrade for whom I have a lot of respect. He is a brother who takes his politics very seriously, and has even taken his commitment into a prison cell with him in the past. At one point in the discussion, I mentioned that I wanted to think about how a topic looked when I put it under a gendered power lens. He had been following my work, and he said, â€œYeah, youâ€™re really into that. Whatâ€™s that about?â€
Another comrade and close friend, an Asian-American woman whose revolutionary passion is white-hot and who demonstrates a tireless work ethic, who more than once told me that she isnâ€™t sure she could be called a feminist and that while she understands my objections to pornography and prostitution as the commodification of intimate life and manifestations (material and ideological) of male power, she is uncomfortable with where the line may be drawn between this critique and the kinds of intimacy that might involve a non-commercial sharing between sexual partners of erotic material they themselves have produced for their own pleasure.
Yet another comrade, a white male around my age who was talking about a situation where an African American-led initiative related to Left regroupment/refoundation efforts blew up in peopleâ€™s faces when gender issues within the group were raised. He called this a secondary contradiction, and that is the same term that the groups leaders used when describing the meltdown in a formal self-critique. I argued that we might ought to dispense with the notion of primary and secondary contradictions, to which he replied, â€œAre they equal then?â€
Some days ago, I was talking with another person, someone who grew up politically in the feminism of the late 70s, but who was slowly pulled out of politics by work and family, and who now seems to want to re-engage. She admitted that her familiarity with much leftist thinking â€“ particularly Marxism â€“ was limited, though her familiarity with (radical) feminism was very thorough. She was feeling overwhelmed by the scale of the idea of defeating patriarchy (or andrarchy, or male supremacy â€“ you choose), and almost felt guilty about being concerned with it given all the deadly issues of war and lethal poverty that preoccupy us all. She is very interested in regenerating many of the public discussion of gender that was absorbed in the reactionary interlude of the 1980-90s. What, she asked, was I doing about all this? That question was conditioned by her keen awareness that I am a â€œheterosexualâ€ male (which I could challenge, but wonâ€™t here) â€“ not exactly the demographic room where feminist allies are found in abundance.
Iâ€™ll answer her question first here, the same way I answered it over tea then.
The entrenchment of gendered power is so deep and multiform, and operating in so many dimensions, and it is so completely naturalized as to be nearly invisible to critique, that I can only do whatever I do in the finite circles where I spend my time. I hope I am not rationalizing when I say that those finite circles â€“ the Left, if we want to put a political category out there â€“ are also where I find the most consistent commitment to active, engaged political practice and reflection.
It is to the Left that this is written.
No one is born a revolutionary, and no one begins life and the formation of their personality in anything except a social setting. For the vast majority of human beings, that begins with the bond formed with nipples in our mouths.
Our selves are first formed before language and logic in a deeply dependent setting where there is neither clarity nor focused intent. No political or economic theory has yet successfully accounted for this in its frame of reference. Politics is seen as the province of willful adults; yet every person engaged in politics is personally and powerfully shaped by the physical-cognitive-affective experiences of childhood dependency and development.
Not only that, this personality is formed in relationships with other people and the world. Subtract those relationships, and there is no essential â€œselfâ€ to go back to. This would imply that we cannot â€œgo backâ€ in the sense of willing ourselves against our own socialization. We canâ€™t back out. We can only go through. And we can only know the world through that socialization, because there is no total â€œobjective realityâ€ available to us, but only the accumulation of what is taken in by our senses, subjected to learned means of interpretation, and remembered as experience.
Nothing is socialized so early or relentlessly as sexuality; and sexuality is internalized in deeply sensual, affective, and resonant ways long before we have developed the capacity for critical cognition.
Thatâ€™s why I will return several times in this essay to mothers. Mothers and motherhood are, for the overwhelming majority of people everywhere, the original and primary source for the sensuality, the affect, and enduring resonance in the human personality.
Mothers, who are the first relationship for most of us, are themselves personalities who are carrying in them the history of generations of socialization, as well as socializing responsibilities for others. The relationship between infant and mother, then, is the infantâ€™s first experience of community â€“ of being in the world with other people â€“ and in the fortunate cases, where a deep intersubjectivity operates.
I will rely on Jessica Benjamin to flesh out this notion of intersubjectivity â€“ which is an attempt to transcend old psychoanalytic theories about drives and object relations.
From â€œRecognition and Destruction: An outline of intersubjectivityâ€:
â€œA beginning has been made with the introduction of the term intersubjectivity â€“ the field of intersection between two subjectivities, the interplay between two different subjective worlds to define the analytic situation. But how is the meeting of two subjects different from the meeting of a subject and an object? Once we have acknowledged that the object makes an important contribution to the life of the subject, what is added by deciding to call this object another subject? And what are the impediments to the meeting of the two minds?
â€œTo begin this inquiry, we must ask: what difference does the other make, the other who is truly perceived as outside, distinct from our mental field of operations? Isn’t there a dramatic difference between the experience with the other perceived as outside the self and that with the subjectively conceived object? â€¦ â€¦ the difference between the other as subject and the other as object is crucial for a relational psychoanalysis.
â€œThe distinction between the two types of relationships to the other can emerge clearly only if we acknowledge that both are endemic to psychic experience and hence are valid areas of psychoanalytic knowledge. If there is a contradiction between the two modes of experience, then we ought to probe it as a condition of knowledge rather than assume it to be a fork in the road. Other theoretical grids that have split psychoanalytic thought â€“ drive theory versus object relations theory, ego versus id psychology, intrapsychic versus interpersonal theory â€“ insisted on a choice between opposing perspectives. I am proposing, instead, that the two dimensions of experience with the object/other are complementary, though they sometimes stand in oppositional relationship. By embracing both dimensions, we can fulfill the intention of relational theories; to account both for the pervasive effects of human relationships on psychic development and for the equally ubiquitous effects of internal psychic mechanisms and fantasies in shaping psychological life and interaction.â€
Somewhere in this relationship between mother and child â€“ with its sensual, affective, and cognitive development â€“ the erotic dimension of the personality takes form, and does so in conjunction with the socialization of sexuality in all its forms.
According to Nancy Hartsock, â€œwe should understand sexuality not as an essence or set of properties defining an individual, nor as a set of drives and needs (especially genital) of an individual. Rather, we should understand sexuality as socially and historically constructed. Anything can become eroticized, and thus there can be no â€œabstract and universal category of â€˜the eroticâ€™ or the â€˜sexualâ€™ applicable without change to all societies. Rather, sexuality must be understood as a series of cultural and social practices and meanings that both structure and are in turn structured by social relations more generally. Thus, â€˜sex is relational, is shaped in social interaction, and can only be understood in its historical context.â€™â€
Infants begin with our only state of pristine ingenuousness, because they have not learned to differentiate. As time goes on, the child will differentiate herself from her mother, and then there is the possibility of recognition â€“ of the other and the self.
The fact that most infants are primarily in community with their mothers is an outcome of a sexual division of labor. And it sets up a situation for boys that, once they begin the socialization process that includes the demands of masculinity, they achieve their own â€œnormativeâ€ sexuality by distinguishing themselves as not-like-mother, not female, not feminine. The demands of masculinity, as constructed in patriarchal society, transform the mother â€“ his first experience of sensuality, affect, recognition, and community â€“ into a threat to his achievement of masculinity, that is, the set of expectations imposed on him for being male in a male dominant society.
â€œThus, the boyâ€™s construction of self in opposition to unity with the mother, his construction of identity as differentiation from the mother, sets a hostile and combative dualism at the heart of both the community men construct and the masculinist world view by means of which they understand their lives.â€ (Nancy Hartsock, â€œMoney, Sex, and Power â€“ Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism,â€ 1983, p. 240)
Conversely, for girls, who will themselves often become mothers, that continued identification with the mother carries with it all the dynamics of being stripped of much social power.
Of course, a male-centric society lays this at the feet of the mother, when things donâ€™t go well, instead of at the social forces that circumscribe her.
Anyone who believes that these pre-literate forces of the personality do not shape social thoughts and actions throughout life is in denial or delusion. The less understood these forces are, the MORE forcefully they will assert themselves.
Society in general, especially men (but womenâ€™s internalized acceptance of gendered power is a powerful social reproduction mechanism), is not prepared to understand or struggle against patriarchy except for certain reforms â€“ and then only in a very liberal and superficial way. While my own self-critique for how Iâ€™ve behaved in the past (and still occasionally backslide into today) and my fairly relentless critique of how my own political family of the Left has dealt with feminism and â€œthe woman questionâ€ (I hate that term.) does not mean that I donâ€™t recognize how much more advanced the Left is in its intellectual fluency on questions of power.
My critique of the Left on gender is a labor of engagement with cherished comrades in order to strengthen our struggle for the transformation of society.
I still cling to the belief that (1) the question of gender has absolute primacy â€“ on par with capitalism and national oppression â€“ as a revolutionary struggle, and (2) that the first layer of people, outside those already actively engaged on this issue, who must be won over to this position are those on the Left. This is not merely an ideological fit, so to speak; it is based on the fact that leftists (I suppose I could just say socialists) are not merely people occupying a space along some continuum of politics, but that they are individual people who are generally characterized by their passionate objection to injustice and oppression, and many have already internalized the ability to be self-critical.
(Note: I do not mean to imply by the above dissection between capitalism, gender, and national oppression that these exist in ways that are extricable from one another, or that the struggle against any of the forms of oppression should be focused solely on a single aspect. Further along I will argue with the notion of schematically applied primary and secondary contradictions, but for now, I will simply note that these are aspects of the same system. I am a monist.)
So, just speaking for me, my assertions on behalf of feminism (or womanism â€“ a better term in my view) are primarily directed toward my comrades on the Left, and I am also interested in how to talk with feminists/womanists who were rejected and marginalized by the Left about what it will take to put the struggle against capitalism and the struggle against male supremacy back together again.
Gender is not superstructure. It is deep base. The only thing deeper is ecology.
The world population as this is written is estimated to be 6,480,778,798. The population of the United States as this is written is estimated to be approximately 297,726,011. It is estimated that women constitute 51.72% of that total.
This means there are around 3,351,858,794 living women in the world today. In the United States, there are 153,983,893 women in the United States. The United States share of the worldâ€™s women is around 4.6%.
India has around 437,707,750 women, almost three times as many women as the US; and Chinaâ€™s female population is 675,625,504, well over four times the US female population. So in just two countries, there are around seven times as many people, including seven times as many women as there are in the US.
If we combine Indonesia, Brazil, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Russia, and Nigeria, there are approximately 505,310,774 women â€“ over three times the US again. So, out of the women living in the nine most populated countries in the world, with the US ranking third, women in the US are outnumbered by about ten to one.
Women in every one of those countries, including the United States, are economically and sexually exploited. The forms and intensity of that exploitation, however, is very different; and the greatest differences are arguably between the US and the rest as an aggregate, especially if we use available economic data to study these differences.
American women suffer from significant rates of domestic abuse, rape, sexual assault and harassment, and they are routinely paid less than men for the same work. They are more financially devastated by divorce, more vulnerable to homelessness (very often provoked by the need to escape a batterer), and there are very sharp differences between white women and people of color with regard to infant mortality, death during childbirth, and disease generally â€“ a reflection of dramatic differences in both income and net worth. Studies show significant morbidity for eating disorders associated with the high social premium put on appearance as womenâ€™s most â€œvaluable assetâ€ (this is directly related to sexual reduction and objectification); that girls reaching puberty experience high rates of depression corresponding to social pressure to turn their attention from gaining mastery over skills to competing with other girls for the attention of boys. Female students in the US are more often ignored and marginalized in classroom settings. And young women who enter the commercial sex trade overwhelmingly have histories of poverty and-or juvenile sexual abuse, accompanied in the majority of cases (in metropolitan countries like the US) by chemical dependency and rape â€“ this applies to the sex trade from stripping to pornography to prostitution.
Some forms of exploitation and abuse are regionally specific.
In Bangladesh, women who resist menâ€™s advances have acid thrown in their faces, marriages are arranged for very young women, and older women who have lost mates are neglected often to the point of death.
In areas in Africa and Asia, genital mutilation is widely practices, ranging from clitoridectomy to infibulaton (removal of both clitoris and part or all of the labia).
I some regions of south and southwest Asia, honor killing is accepted as a valid practice against rape victims.
Female infanticide is still practiced in regions of both India and China.
Women are still denied legal equality in many countries.
Virtually all womenâ€™s prisons around the world are hellholes of sexual exploitation and rape. And rape is characteristic of almost every war. (Rape actually occurs in every society â€“ even in â€œpeacetimeâ€ â€“ with brutal regularity.)
Immigrant women are vastly exploited as cheap domestic labor in many countries, including the US, Japan, and Kuwait.
Gender is definitely NOT a â€œsecondary contradiction.â€ Mao Zedong, who was fond of using this term, especially in his essay â€œOn Contradiction,â€ never discussed gender in this regard, and in fact exhibited in his references to nature the same masculine dualism as any capitalist, e.g., â€œManâ€™s conquest of nature,â€ which was a phrase that was used during the Great Leap Forward, possibly Maoâ€™s greatest political (and environmental) disaster. (I will explain the association between dualism and masculinity further down.)
This same dualism was evident among virtually every socialist leader. It is reflected epistemologically in the notion of a double contradiction, arranged hierarchically.
I could describe instances of violent systemic male power for quite some time, but the point I am making here is that women are exploited and abused not just based on their national, racial, or class positions, but virtually all women are in some way exploited and abused as women. The point I was making before the catalogue of horror is that it is a mistake to look at womenâ€™s circumstances in the US, Western Europe, Japan, Australia, and other highly developed regions, and generalize their common experience to stand directly for the experience of all women. The majority of the worldâ€™s women are not only experiencing oppression as women at the hands of men (in this respect all women have something in common), but in conjunction with the desperate economic conditions associated with the underdeveloped world.
Failure to appreciate these differences led some women â€“ and still does â€“ to take the conditions of women in the core nations as the basic frame of reference for studying and fighting womenâ€™s oppression. At its broadest, this error was one of unrecognized and unacknowledged privilege. More specifically, it was Eurocentric. Even more specifically, some people have taken their own personal experience as the basis of studying the social conditions of women â€“ often with that experience being one of profound class and national privilege, which included the intellectual cloister of the Academy.
The importance of so-called third-world feminism has only grown with the accelerated integration and standardization of the capitalist patriarchal world system under â€œneoliberalism.â€
The fact, however, that the forms of this oppression are different is not adequate to dismiss the fact of womenâ€™s near universal social subordination to men today, and that this basic fact has been in force for all of our recorded history. The variance in the forms of oppression does not erase the fact that men universally dominate, exploit, and oppress women. This essential fact strongly suggests that the variance in forms has something to do with the articulation of gendered oppression with other historical contingencies â€“ geography, historical development, class, national oppression, and â€“ not least â€“ adaptation to both acute and chronic social crisis.
The even more controversial suggestion here is twofold. Gender is itself a class system, based on more than merely relation to means of production, which attaches itself to and separates the biological sexes. And gender not only preceded class formation historically, it may very well have created the social template for class, caste, and racial-national oppressions, as well as the metaphor for the exploitation of the natural word that has led us into an ecological catastrophe.
Gender â€“ herein meaning a system of oppressive social power exercised by men over women â€“ is not separate from other social power dynamics, i.e., class and racial-national oppression, nor is it reducible to them or subsumable within them.
Two other key characteristics of gendered power make it both deeper and more difficult to confront than other social struggles against oppressive power.
First, we are all socialized into our most personal and intimate understandings of gender from birth, and so gender and the personal, emotional, and sensual experience of gender is far more deeply conditioned, and far less susceptible to critical interpretation and intervention. Gender is more deeply naturalized; that is, it is experienced as something that is more axiomatic â€“ like a law of nature â€“ than latter socializations into nation and class.
Second, this system of power is erotically inscribed, and so there are many instances where the oppressed are socialized to experience physical attraction to the oppressor â€“ often cued by the same behaviors and attitudes that constitute men as a dominant gendered class.
Given what I said above, that the first layer of people who should be won over to a deeper analysis of gendered oppression are the Left â€“ both women and men â€“ and among them the Left intelligentsia (academic and organic) and revolutionary activists, in order to grapple with the difficult problems in describing gendered oppression â€“ problems in the philosophical dimensions of semiotics, linguistics, epistemology, ontology, and phenomenology â€“ it seems appropriate to begin there. Gender as a material social system is powerfully reproduced in these dimensions. Identifying the ways in which gender ideology operates is an essential rooting out process, that begins from the outside in order to work our way nearer the center.
I will try a biological-anatomical metaphor for consciousness (itself a fairly paradoxical subject).
Symbols can be seen, albeit only analytically, as the cell forms of meaning within linguistics, which are comparable to organic tissues, which is then constitutive of ideas (organs), constitutive of epistemology (organ systems), existing in a coherent system of inter-referential and mutually-supporting feedback loops called world view, and sometimes, ideology, (organism) that then relates to practice (environment) in a dialectical (mutually constituting) way.
Using mothering as an example â€“ which is an idea freighted with symbolism, with meaning, constructed linguistically out of a phallocentric milieu, often reflexively idealized (within the whore-moddonna paradigm), integrated into every ideology in way that is deeply emotionally resonant â€“ the point of being immune to criticism â€“ and actually inscribed in our psychology, our culture, our property relations, and the law.
Wikipedia describes semiotics thus:
â€œSemiotics – or semiology – is the study of signs, both individually and grouped in sign systems, and includes the study of how meaning is made and understood.â€
Mothering is absolutely essential for the reproduction of capitalist patriarchy, yet the idiom of the market as well as the idiom of male power completely devalue it. Giving without the expectation of an exchange â€“ value for value â€“ is considered irrational. In gender relations, male activity in the â€œpublicâ€ is garlanded with prestige (even when much of it is ludicrous to the point of self-satirizaton), while â€œmereâ€ mothering is seen as somehow mundane.
Genevieve Vaughn, writing in â€œFeminist Semiotics for Social Change: the Mother or the Market,â€ connects feminist-womanist and historical materialist interpretations, when she notes:
â€œExchange value is gift value split off from use value and transformed into a relation of abstract qualitative similarity of each commodity with all the other commodities on the market. In fact all the commodities that are produced for the purpose of exchange have in common the abstract quality that they are not gifts, and the work that produces them may be seen as having that same abstract quality. Exchange value is the reciprocal assessment of all the commodities on the market regarding the quantity of abstract labor value they contain. Exchange creates a totalizing exclusive category into which gifts do not enter (at least overtly). The exchange value of a present commodity therefore establishes a potential relation of the exchanger to the commodity of the other which was previously sold and to the future commodity which s/he will eventually buy with the money. The ‘gift’ of exchange value is just the gift of knowledge about the commodity – of what it is in relation to all the other commodities – the exchange value satisfies that socially based, abstract need to know which is actually a need of all the exchangers regarding all potential sales and acquisitions since each will give up her or his own commodity only for one with an equivalent value. For gift giving, the implication of value is â€˜I give something to you, therefore you are valuable to me.â€™ There is a corollary to this however: â€˜I give something to you and not to someone else, so you are valuable to me – more than they areâ€™. This also has the effect of giving me the power over the decision. For exchange value the implication is: “I exchange with you for something, so it is valuable to me (while you are not)” Here also the exchanger is valuable because s/he the arbiter of value. Giving to satisfy needs transfers value to the other, while withholding the gift or even the exchange, gives value (in this case power) to the self.â€
Continuing with semiotics, using an excerpt from philosopher Marilyn Frye, from her superlative essay, â€œTo See and Be Seen: The Politics of Realityâ€:
â€œReality is that which is.
â€œThe English word â€˜realâ€™ stems from a word that meant regal, of or pertaining to the king.
â€œâ€˜Realâ€™ in Spanish means royal.
â€œReal property is that which is proper to the king.
â€œReality is that which pertains to the one in power, is that over which he has power, is his domain, his estate, is proper to him.
â€œThe ideal king reigns over everything as far as the eye can see. His eye. What he cannot see is not royal, not real.
â€œHe sees what is proper to him.
â€œTo be real is to be visible to the king>
â€œThe king is in his counting house.â€
What I will add to Frye, to make a linguistic point is that liberal law, which emerged after the loss of aristocratic power to the bourgeoisie, in defining a dualism between public and private life, described a â€œrightâ€ of privacy as pertaining to every MAN as a king, i.e., â€œa manâ€™s home is his castleâ€ (his realm). This immunized the private realm, where men prevailed against women, as MEN and WOMEN, from intervention by the public realm â€“ the liberal state.
The old is incorporated into the body of the new. (We still â€œgive awayâ€ brides at weddings.)
Note how symbols, pregnant with affective meaning, are combined into linguistic representations that form ideology. Ideology naturalizes and conceals power relations, making language itself profoundly political.
How can we blithely accept that so-called gender-neutral appellations like Man (to represent homo sapiens) are somehow benign? Generic man, mankind, he, and him are definitely not content neutral, any more than the news you watch on television is â€œobjective.â€
God is a He; Jesus, Mohammed, Abraham, Buddha, et alâ€¦ all Heâ€™s. Womenâ€™s voices in history (his story), when they are heard at all, are often relegated to what Andrea Nye called â€œthe impotent marginality of poetry and hysteria.â€
So we not only see the primacy of the He in our linguistic practices, but the epistemology of which these practices are the working parts is male-centered in a way that constructs masculinity â€“ a male archetype â€“ then makes it the only legitimate point of viewâ€¦ to which I will return in a moment.
Nye says, commenting on Luce Irigaryâ€™s â€œThe Sex Which is Not Oneâ€:
â€œLanguage is not a neutral instrument that is used to state a variety of facts and arguments nor is style an embellishment that must be avoided in fact-stating language. What passes for factual objectivity often amounts to obsessive repetition. In a description that could easily be applied to much contemporary analytic philosophy, she [Irigary] describes the dangers:
[quoting Irigary] â€˜If we continue to speak the same language, we are going to reproduce the same story. Begin again the same stories . . . same discussions, same disputes, same dramas. Same attraction, same ruptures. Same difficulties, impossible to repair. Same . . . Same . . . Always the same.â€™ [end Irigary quote]
â€œSuch a language, Irigary continues, passes over our [womenâ€™s] bodies, our heads, loses itself and loses us. The same problems repeat themselves â€“ other minds, reference truth. Philosophy as a â€˜theoretical disciplineâ€™ becomes a skirmishing according to established rules (or in some recent formulations, a â€˜playâ€™) that has no direct bearing on the struggle between the rich and poor, colonist and colonized, men and women.â€
I have to wonder, as an aside, how much sectarianism on the Left is perpetuated linguistically, as Irigary said, by remaking the â€œsame discussions, same disputes, same dramas.â€
â€œEpistemology, from the Greek words episteme (knowledge) and logos (word/speech) is the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature, origin and scope of knowledge. Historically, it has been one of the most investigated and most debated of all philosophical subjects. Much of this debate has focused on analyzing the nature and variety of knowledge and how it relates to similar notions such as truth and belief. Much of this discussion concerns the justification of knowledge claims.
â€œNot surprisingly, the way that knowledge claims are justified both leads to and depends on the general approach to philosophy one adopts. Thus, philosophers have developed a range of epistemological theories to accompany their general philosophical positions. More recent studies have re-written centuries-old assumptions, and the field of epistemology continues to be vibrant and dynamic.â€
So, moving from linguistics to epistemology â€“ not implying some straight line, but written language like this proceeds linearly â€“ letâ€™s take a moment to examine knowledge claims from the standpoint of gendered power.
Many of the people I associate with see themselves as socialists, and many of them come out of a Marxist tradition of social inquiry and activism. This method began with a powerful critique of bourgeois epistemology â€“ of its reductive reasoning, its empiricism, its tendency to compartmentalize, and its failure to attend to relationships between phenomena. In particular, there was an emphasis on exposing the myth of objectivity that characterized the most powerful episteme in the bourgeois cosmos â€“ the practice of science. Marxism did not reject the efficacy of science. Clearly, the scientific method enabled people to exert higher and higher levels of control over what we generally think of as nature â€“ which was objectified. But Marxists said that even the decisions about which questions to subject to scientific inquiry are made with a point of view, a goal, and therefore were conditioned by the class interests of those who financed or practiced science. Marxists also paid special attention to the relation between the actions of human beings and the development of ideas, and to how human activity changed the environment, which once changed in turn altered the future actions of humans. This attention to interactions was schematized using Hegelâ€™s idea of the dialectic, but Marx rejected the notion that ideas appeared whereupon they were acted out upon the environment. Reversing that causal relation, Marx said that our lived experience â€“ our activity â€“ give rise to ideas that are reflections of that experience.
This was an important challenge to ruling class power, because it exposed the fact that much of what was presented as â€œnaturalâ€ was in fact not natural at all, but constructed by social relations characterized by the exercise of power. What stood for knowledge, claimed Marx, was actually ideology â€“ a way of knowing (an epistemology) that simultaneously portrayed existing arrangements of social power to be natural (or god-given) and therefore out of reach of political interventions, and that concealed the fact that one class systematically exercised violent, exploitative power over another.
One aspect of Marxist epistemology, however, that was not effectively challenged â€“ and the aspect of dominant ideology that has its roots in gendered power â€“ is dualism (discussed in detail further down).
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines phenomenology as â€œthe study of structures of consciousness as experienced from the first-person point of view. The central structure of an experience is its intentionality, its being directed toward something, as it is an experience of or about some object. An experience is directed toward an object by virtue of its content or meaning (which represents the object) together with appropriate enabling conditions.â€
Though the Left, and here I refer explicitly to socialist and national liberation revolutionaries, has been ruthless in its critique of bourgeois science, exposing it for its pretensions of objectivity, it has largely failed to connect scientific discourse and practice with is gender dimension â€“ it is male science, too. Yet the application of such bizarre reconstructions as â€œthe science of Marxism-Leninismâ€ to real politics was experienced by male revolutionaries as a Sonâ€™s rebellion against the Father â€“ led by men against men.
The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy further describes phenomenology: â€œPhenomenology as a discipline is distinct from but related to other key disciplines in philosophy, such as ontologyâ€¦â€
Ontology is the so-called â€œstudyâ€ of the nature of being and existence.
In Caroline Whitbeckâ€™s â€œA Different Reality: Feminist Ontology,â€ she used this familial model to describe male rebellion and female exclusion even in revolutionary politics.
â€œMasculist dualist ontology has been developed two related lines. The first, and older, line of development generates patriarchy in the strict sense â€“ the rule of the fathers, with its hierarchical organization of political life modeled on the organization of the patriarchal family. This view is followed, and to some extent is replaced by individualism, with what might be called â€˜the rule of the sons.â€™ The resulting view of family, political, and psychic life, however, presupposes the preceding patriarchal view.
â€œThe sisters are rarely mentioned in the theories of liberation associated with the rebellion of the sons against the fatherâ€¦ The absence of any reference to the sisters [except as â€œour womenâ€ â€“SG] symbolizes a key feature of individualism; that is, individualism reflects the concerns of a certain group of men, those whose primary experience of domination was at the hands of a father or monarchâ€¦â€
Whitbeckâ€™s example of dualism that permits the separation of â€œpatriarchyâ€ and â€œindividualismâ€ without making a fundamental challenge to male power serves an analogue for the present-day false dichotomy posed by (the real) petit bourgeois liberal (mostly white) feminists who see womenâ€™s struggle as one of libertarianism opposed to religious conservatism. The argument of libertarian feminists against theocratic conservatism itself is based on the complete acceptance of the liberal social and political framework, which posits formal, abstract equality with women while immunizing existing institutions and cultural practices from any disruption of non-abstract male power. Liberalism and conservatism both preserve male power, in spite of their differences.
Whitbeck moves from this critique of the continuity of male power through social struggles to the issue of ethics, which is steeped in liberal (patriarchal) ideology.
Her discussion of ethics provides a good segway into an examination of the â€œrational actorâ€ trope in capitalist patriarchy, which is a liberal and contingent form of gendered dualism, that makes each a subject against all others, who are objects.
Whitbeck refers to John Laddâ€™s challenge to the dominant notion of ethics, in his essay â€œhe Distinction Between Rights and Responsibilities: A Defense.â€ This challenge is mounted from previous challenges to the account of ontology of a Hobbesian war of all against all and social Darwinism, as well as a challenge to the social atomization inhering in most positivist-liberal accounts of society. This atomization thesis is what led Whitbeck to refer to liberalism as â€œindividualism.â€
Whitbeck and Laddâ€™s challenge is directed at â€œrights-basedâ€ ethics, which is predicated on he Darwinian-capitalist-masculinist account of ontology, from which the dominant ideology concludes the existence of the â€œrational Manâ€ (now PC-ed into â€œrational actorâ€ without changing a thing about gendered power).
â€œAccording to the rights view of ethics, the concept of moral right is the fundamental moral notion, or at least the one of preeminent significance. People are viewed as social or moral atoms, armed with rights and reason [remember this word, Reason â€“SG], and actually or potentially in competition or conflict with one anotherâ€¦ If any attention is given to relationships on the rights view, it is assumed they exist on a contractual or quasi-contractual basis and that the moral requirements arising from them are limited to rights and obligations.â€
(Note the dis-embedded universality and abstractness of this account of human beings.)
This version of ethics, as noted earlier in this post, completely devalues mothering â€“ as one example â€“ and takes phallocentric, â€œpublic lifeâ€ as its point of reference; exposing again the gendered public-private duality at the center of our societyâ€™s epistemology, and the hierarchical relation between each pole.
Ladd and Whitbeck counterpose an ethic of â€œresponsibilityâ€ that begins with a redefinition of personhood. People are not heremtically sealed social units with abstract equality written over obvious and concrete inequality. Each person is fundamentally defined a counter-individualist account as being socially constituted through her or his own existing relationships. The seeming paradox that this anti-individualist account displays more respect for practical individuality should not be lost on anyone.
â€œWhat I call â€˜the responsibilities viewâ€™ of ethics takes the moral responsibilities arising out of a relationship as the fundamental moral notion, and regards people as beings who can (among other things) act for moral reasons, and who come to this status through relationships with other people. Such relationships are not assumed to be contractual. The relationship of children to their parents is a good example of a relationship that is not contractual. In general, relationships between people place moral responsibilities on both parties, and these responsibilities change over time with changes in the parties and their relationships. (Newborns cannot have any responsibilities, and for that reason may be regarded as immanent people.) Each party in a relationship is responsible for ensuring some aspect of the otherâ€™s welfare or, at least, for achieving some ends that contribute to the otherâ€™s welfare or achievementâ€¦ Rights and obligations do have a place within the responsibilities view. Human rights are claims upon society and upon other people that are necessary if a person is to be able to meet the responsibilities of her or his relationshipsâ€¦â€
This issue of motherhood â€“ as we can see â€“ exposes the limitations of my own dear Marxist approach, which was focused by the work of two men (Marx and Engels) on one extremely important aspect of social life, the valorization of capital. Neither Marxism nor anything else can qualify as some grand unifying theory of everything, as Marx-ISTS have often implied. It is not surprising that Marx once quipped that he was not a Marxist.
[HERE IS A N EWS FLASH: Fellow socialists, Karl Marx did not discover every tool required to conclusively identify and resolve every social question. I say this explicitly, because the belief to the contrary is often implicit in the way some of us talk.]
The gender blind spot on the left was created by a series of practical and conceptual leaps. And it was reproduced on the left through every separating and sectarian tendency that chose sides against one another based on which particular version of which particular dead communist they selected as their omniscient prophet.
First step â€“ Marx and Engels develop a theoretical orientation with the explicit goal of working class praxis. They are taking their own contemporary world as their point of reference, and combining various earlier philosophical and political ideas â€“ most significantly, the socialism of Saint-Simone and Fourier, the dialectic of Hegel, which they â€œturned off its head and stood on its feetâ€ with Enlightenment materialism. The primary object of Marxâ€™s study was capitalism, using British manufactories as his lab-model. Neither Marx nor Engels, as intellectually ambitious as they both were, ever laid claim to discovering THE key truth. They saw a classless society as the ultimate goal, and tried to think about how to get there from here. In the process, they wrought changes in social and political thought that moved the bar forward in history to themâ€¦ we could never go back before them again.
Second step â€“ Individuals and groups study Marxism, now developing into its own intellectual tradition. By the time of the Russian Revolution, where Marxism played a very central role in the formation and line of the victorious Bolshevik Party â€“ in very specific space and time, and NOT transferable elsewhere â€“ there is already a tendency to treat Marx as an infallible prophet. Lenin actually said that every word Marx wrote was correct. Marx himself would have choked on his beer at such a claim. Marxism is being treated more and more like a religion, especially with the development of state-socialism under Stalin (and later Mao), and its â€œprinciplesâ€ more and more like catechisms. (Trotsky doesnâ€™t get off the hook here, but he never actually ran a state.)
During this process of transformation from an interpretive method into a doctrine, women engaged with Marxism â€“ like Kollontai, Zetkin, and others â€“ begin thinking about how the Marxist principle of denaturalization (not yet called that) might be expanded to them, as women. Male leaders, including Lenin, grant the right to legal equality for women, but remain resistant to the idea that womenâ€™s oppression as women can be dealt with until the male-led socialist revolution happens. Engels had set this idea up in his treatise on gender, The Origins of the Family, Private Property, and the State, and ambitious and important attempt to deal with the issue, but on that was still written from a male standpoint, that was markedly positivist, that was shot through with Victorian male prejudices in its characterization of naturally-chaste women, and that attempted to push gender inside class.
Third step â€“ Socialism is militarized in garrison states by hostile encirclement, and has succeeded only in societies that are still majority peasant. Development (for defense, and based on Marxismâ€™s own acceptance of the man-over-nature hierarchical dualism) becomes a priority, and women are again locked into traditional roles â€“ this time with pressure from socialist states â€“ in order to deal with the â€œmore urgentâ€ tasks of defending the revolution. Feminist challenges to this idea and policy are met with intense hostility, and socialists reassert the class-is-the-primary-contradiction thesis, implying that all struggles must be around one singular â€œmain-blowâ€ effort, which is, of course, class. Feminism is dismissed in a generalizing way, often with little attention paid to its actual proponents, as petit bourgeois, and elaborate theses are sketched out explaining to communist (overwhelmingly male) cadres why gender relations and gender inequality are reducible to reflections of capitalist economy.
Fourth step â€“ Neither the relations of production in socialist states nor the gender relations constructing the family that articulated with those relations of production were changed. Only distribution was altered. With the collapse of the eastern Bloc, capitalism was quickly restored, and though it is generally unacknowledged, many of the reactionary impulses that had free reign during the social catastrophe that followed were powerfully conditioned by gendered family relations â€“ especially male despotism in the home.
Note: Militarism and masculinity are deeply interfused. Transforming a society into a military garrison will give that society a decidedly masculinist character.
In the absence of any real engagement with the central questions raised by women struggling against their oppression AS WOMEN, by men, (overwhelmingly male-led) socialists united with the least radical sections of feminism that base their arguments on liberal notions of formal equality, corresponding to a â€œrights-basedâ€ ethic. Ironically, this is the section of feminism that takes its philosophical cues fromâ€¦ the petit bourgeoisie.
There is also a powerful element of male sexual self-interest asserting itself into the gender question â€“ and â€œsexual liberationâ€ is prioritized (to give males greater access to female bodies) as an issue, while it is nearly impossible to find leftist examinations of rape, domestic abuse, or the traffic in womenâ€™s bodies.
This accounts for why leftist men will consume pornography, and reflexively defend it on (liberal, abstracted) civil libertarian grounds that make their right to view the material the phallocentric point of reference, instead of asking what the conditions were during the production of the material for the women who are performing in it. Odd how Marxists who in every other case focus on the process of production suddenly go blind to it on this topic.
Many leftist women have been misled, in my view, to embrace this civil libertarian perspective in an understandable reaction to the Victorian constraints on their own sexuality that threaten them from the theocratic right-wing. But in uniting with the â€œrightâ€ to consume pornography as an abstracted free-speech issue, they themselves are reducing the abstract product to a neutral image (reifying it) and placing their attention on the RIGHT OF THE CONSUMER (What does that sound like?) with no attention to what happened to women in the production process. In non-abstract reality, this material not only does not appear out of the mists without a history of production, its content is NOT neutral. It is objectifying, exploitative, and hostile to women.
(An aside to my comrade who asked â€“ pornography here is not defined as non-commodified, erotic material or practice between, for example, lovers. I cannot generalize about such material, because to assess its ethical or even political content we would have to look at each instance of it and the context in which it is produced. The claims by commercial pornography advocates and apologists that those who critique pornography from the left are [a] anti-sex, [b] puritanical, [c] anti-male, or [d] trying to amputate eroticism from life, are scurrilous slanders.)
Objectification has extremely important implications. Objectification is an essential component of all violence.
Objectification is the process arising out of the subject-object duality.
Alf Hornborg (The Power of the Machine, 2001) has a very strongly developed thesis on dualism, mostly from an ecological perspective, that explores its several dimensions:
â€œ[C]onventional Western dualismâ€¦ regards nature as material and society as communicative, and the two as mutually exclusive domains of reality.â€ (pp. 4-5) [Conventional gender ideology regards women as â€œnature.â€ â€“SG]
â€œWe seem to have difficulties understanding exactly in which sense human ideas and social relations intervene in the material realitiesâ€¦ Rather than continuing to approach â€˜knowledgeâ€™ from the Cartesian assumption of a separation of subject and object, we shall have to concede that our image-building actively participates in the constitution of the world. Our perception of ourâ€¦ environment is inseparable from our involvement in it.â€ (p.10)
â€œIn Cartesian modernityâ€¦ the inclination to distinguish the self from its material surroundings is conducive to the inclination to treat even people as objects void of deeper significance. Other human beings risk appearing to us primarily as corporeal entities, rather than as signs of deeper essences inviting exploration.â€ (p. 137)
The association between objectification (phenomenological) and violence (ontological) is well established. Whether or when one precedes the other is contingent. The phenomenon in war of assigning a pejorative name to â€œthe enemyâ€ (note how this term abstracts a mass of human beings) in order to dehumanize (objectify) them is well known. Soldiers are often reluctant to kill, and a good deal of that reluctance has to do with a deep taboo against taking other â€œhumanâ€ life. So calling an enemy a kraut or gook or hajji is part of a process of objectification, of reduction to an object. A lynching victim is a â€œnigger.â€ A domestic abuse victim is a â€œbitch.â€
This dynamic works in a curious bidirectional way. Obligation by circumstance (as during a contested military occupation like Iraq) to dominate a population or fight an enemy leads soldiers to objectify as a way of self-justifying. But that which is objectified in advance also invites violence. The objectification of women is a fundamental rationale for rape. Objects are meant (in our instrumental Cartesian worldview) for USE. We use women, use nature, use workers, use subjected nations and castes. The subject USES the object, or completely devalues it.
One notion that is closely associated with the phenomenon of objectification is â€œobjectivity.â€ This notion warrants a very close look because it maps directly onto the liberal â€œrational actor,â€ and is integral to male (as well as bourgeois and â€œwhiteâ€) social power.
Evelyn Fox Keller, a feminist scientist, noted in â€œFeminism and Scienceâ€ that â€œas long as the course of scientific thought was judged to be exclusively determined by its own logical ad empirical necessities, there could be no place for any signature, male or otherwise, in that system of knowledge. Furthermore, any suggestion of gender differences in our thinking about the world could argue only too readily for the further exclusion of women from science. But as the philosophical and historical inadequacies of the classical conception of science have become more evident, and as historians and sociologists have begun to identify the ways in which the development of scientific knowledge has been shaped by its particular social and political context, our understanding of science as a social process has grown. This understanding is a necessary prerequisite, both politically and intellectually, for a feminist theoretic in science.â€
The claim to absolute objectivity is both a fundamentally male claim and a bourgeois claim. Marxists have long noted that the process of scientific knowledge seeking is deeply value-laden.
Note that I am not saying that no objective reality exists, based on the fact that patriarchal bourgeois scientists assert the existence of a pure objectiv-ITY. Science is a social product, but it also has a material basis. Overlooking that has lead to what Keller calls a â€œnihilist retreatâ€ into radical postmodern skepticism that borders on saying there is no objective reality at all.
The dualism of the objectivity claim exists in relation to its opposite â€“ subjectivity. Nature is the object of the subjectâ€™s (male scientistâ€™s) inquiry (penetration). Francis Bacon actually said of natural science â€œFor you have but to follow and as it were hound nature in her wanderings, and you will be able when you like to lead and drive her afterward to the same place againâ€¦ Neither ought a man to make a scruple of entering and penetrating into those holes and corners when the inquisition of truth is the whole subject.â€
In many respects, human cognition is metaphorically structured.
The claim to objectivity is inextricable from the notion of emotionless reasoning. Keller again:
â€œThe ideological ingredients of particular concern to feminists are found where objectivity is linked with autonomy and masculinity, and in turn, the goals of science with power and domination. The linking of objectivity with social and political autonomy has been examined by manyâ€¦and shown to serve a variety of important political functions. The implications of joining objectivity with masculinity are less well understood. This conjunction also serves critical political functionsâ€¦ an understanding of the sociopolitical meaning of the entire constellation requires an examination of the psychological processes through which these connections become internalized and perpetuatedâ€¦
â€œâ€¦Our early maternal environment, coupled with the cultural definition of masculine (that which can never appear feminine) and of autonomy (that which can never be compromised by dependency) leads to the association of female with the pleasures and dangers of merging, and of male with the comfort and loneliness of separateness.â€
I have a quote on this blog masthead from Audre Lorde. Lorde was the author of an essay called â€œThe Uses of the Erotic.â€ I said earlier that the erotic dimension of each life begins its formation very early, almost from birth.
Lorde said that our general understanding of the erotic as something very instrumental and genitally focused was wrong, a distortion created by a society that objectifies people.
“We tend to think of the erotic as an easy, tantalizing sexual arousal. I speak of the erotic as the deepest life force, a force which moves us toward living in a fundamental way.”
Marcuse tried to capture the same concept as something called cathexis â€“ a subject-to-subject psychic connection to the world. He suggested that a non-alienated erotic life would be such that sexual energy would be carried into creative work, and creative work contained within our sexuality. In figurative language this is the idea of a deep spiritual connection.
Nancy Hartsock described eros as â€œfusion with another, sensuality and bodily pleasure, and creative activity.â€
All three are describing a kind of directed energy. Hartsock notion of fusion is very compelling here â€“ â€œthe making of one out of more than one.â€
â€œThe making of one out of more than one, sensuality in a broad sense, and finally the pleasure of competent activity â€“ all represent aspects of erosâ€¦. An expansion of the termsâ€¦ such as this can aid efforts to examine the effects of eros on the organization and construction of community. By recasting eros in these terms, we are in a better position to trace the associations of masculinity with power and violence, and to see the variety of ways in which our society puts eros into the service of violence and even death. In the area defined by each aspect of eros [fusion, sensuality, creative activity], the cultural choice of violence or hostility erects profound barriers to the construction of a humane community.â€
In fact, concludes Hartsock, in male-dominated society, where the first formation of menâ€™s identity as men is rejecting the fusion with his mother and differentiating himself from that first sense of community, community is re-constructed as conflict. It is this experience, which boys across almost all cultures share at some level, that might account for the remarkable similarities between (violent) masculinities across almost all cultures.
This applies from football culture to gang rape to war.
The one thing all cultures still share is the basic sexual division of labor for infant care and child-rearing. (The one thing they are more and more sharing, albeit n its different guises, is a capitalist world system, in a metastatic imperialist phase of exterminism.)
Hegemonic male sexuality is constructed as hostility and aggression. It defines community as agonal, not mutual. This childhood drama of consolidating male sexual identity through rejection of the female is basic to that development. The world of the child is constructed symbolically and affectively long before it is constructed cognitively.
Just as Marx, in his examination of work, identified inhering antagonism as definitive of the economic class relation, left and radical feminism, in its examination of sex, has identified antagonism at the heart of gender.
Just as Marx described economic ideology, Hartsock describes gender ideology:
â€œWe cans stateâ€¦ with some confidence that the culturally produced dynamics of hostility that structure sexual excitement [objectification, fetishizaton, humiliation, domination] correspond to masculine sexuality that depends on defiling or debasing a fetishized sexual object. Thus we are dealing with a gendered power relation based on what our cultural has defined sexuality. In turn, this cultural construction of sexuality must be understood to express the experience of the ruling gender. This of course is to be expected. We should recall the significance of the second assumption I have taken over from Marx: The ideas of the ruling class express the dominant material relations in the form of ideas. Thus, what our culture has made of sexuality expresses the dominance of men over women in the form of ideas. But just as the ideas of the capitalist class are at once the ideas that express its experience and its dominance and also those that structure social relations for other classes, so too we can expect that because of masculine cultural hegemony, the sexual dynamics typify some women.â€
Erotic fusion in the male sexual cosmos is danger â€“ intimacy. Instead of making one of more than one, male sexual hostility is expresses as fetishization, the reduction of women to their body partsâ€¦. sometimes even to sexual props women wear (acting these vengeful dramas out with two men or two women still involves a symbolic female, a bottom, a fem). One is not made of more than one. Two are divided between subject and object.
This is where a study of the content of pornography is important â€“ beyond the study of its production and the women exploited in that production. In pornography, men are relieved of the danger of intimacy; they can fetishize and reduce women; and the other thing they can do is silence them. Pornographic images have no possibility of demanding their subjectivity, much less the intersubjectivity of fusion. The image of a female stranger is objectified absolutely. The male can substitute control for the perilous business â€“ at least from the standpoint of how his sexuality was constructed in antagonism to the mother â€“ of fusion.
We must study pornographic scripts to understand why pornography is far more important than a mere policy issue. It is a special and powerful ideological weapon.
â€œLoathing of the body [always a reminder of mortality -SG], in the sense that bodily needs and desires are humiliating, appears in another way in pornography in the form of the contrast between the manâ€™s self control and the womanâ€™s frenzied abandon. It is consistently a woman who isâ€¦ â€˜humiliated by her desire, her helplessness, and materiality.â€™ These issues of control and humiliation are clearâ€¦ This insistence on independence and control on one side and a victim humiliated by her own desires on the other appears frequently. The presence of a victim, one who submits in fact, requires another who remains in the control of another, and the woman who is humiliated by her desires and materiality, expresses and records the reversal/revenge of infant and childhood experience.â€ (Hartsock, p. 173)
This is the conflation of sensuality (an aspect of eros) with shame.
When I was in the army, we were all pornography consumers. A very common pornographic script was the woman who was â€œbeggingâ€ to fellate an emotionally distant or scornful humiliating male. A very common reaction of those who watched (and sometimes the male in the film) was to utter, â€œYou fucking bitch,â€ as they were aroused. It is difficult not to see this as symbolic revenge against the mother who knew each male when he was completely dependent, rooting for the nipple.
Hartsock goes on to point out how masculinity is associated with death, and death with creativity (the last aspect of eros). Anyone who has studied military masculinity will know what this means. Machismo is a kind of death-cult. And sexual fusion culminating in death is a widely used and popular dramatic convention in our society. It has affective cultural resonance. Fusion risks the loss of male identity when â€œone is made of more than one.â€
To be continued with:
Now that weâ€™ve seen what the masculinization of eros looks like, letâ€™s return to the â€œrational man.â€