Saturday, 6 December 2008

More on difference and diversity

Infra has, both in the comment section to my last post and on his own site, raised some very interesting points. I may not succeed in answering all of them directly but would certainly like to expand on what I have earlier written.

The first place that I would like to start is with Infra's always necessary re-statement of the precautionary principle, "First do no harm" and his warning of the danger of unforeseen consequences. No-one with any knowledge of 20 century history can be in ignorance of the mortal dangers that are inherent in any ideology. No matter how benign its early proponents may be, there are those who cannot see the spirit for the letter and, in pursuit of the perceived "greatest good for the greatest number", sanction atrocity. (Not only sanction, moreover, but steel themselves to perform it. One of the major preoccupations of Himmler, for example, was how to prevent psychological damage to SS personnel whose ideologically motivated actions were in direct conflict with their consciences. I am not, by the way, here implying that Nazism had any benign intentions but merely recognising that many of its adherents did).

Caution, however, should not extend to inactivity. None of us, in anything we do, can be aware of all the consequences of our actions. This is why free and open debate is necessary. What I write, here and elsewhere, is my contribution to the debates about gender, difference, patriarchy, Goddess etc. It is only from such debate that we can minimise the chances of malign consequences from benignly intentioned acts. We can never, however, totally avoid such consequences We might, for example, save a man from drowning - are we then responsible for the subsequent deaths if he turns out to be a serial killer?

Infra sees potential danger in some of my ideas. Good. I do not want, and have never wanted, uncritical acceptance. And I have never really wanted to think safe thoughts but to try to push boundaries - to ask questions and suggest possible answers.

To get more to some of the substance of Infra's criticism. He says that the evidence is that in other, older, cultures gender roles have been less contingent on physical sex. I am not familiar with the particular research on which this evidence is based but it certainly ties in with my own perceptions. And this is my major cause for hope - that there are ways of ordering society in order to accommodate and celebrate human diversity. If I believed there were no such ways, I would have succumbed to despair long ago - or perhaps have remained a Christian so that I could hope for a later paradise.

I am a little familiar with the literature of the later medieval and early modern periods and agree with Infra that the particular construction of gender that now prevails had its origin in the last couple of centuries and that in earlier times it was different in many ways. Also, it is clear that within the gender norms there were at all times variants - some accepted, some tolerated, others proscribed. Gender and sexuality have always had a degree of fluidity. In the medieval period women would be working alongside their husbands in the the various crafts and trades and were even admitted to membership of some guilds. This was particularly true when the ranks of the trades were much reduced by the effects of plague and the widows of members were vital in the transmission of expertise to apprentices. It is also true that women were not unquestioning about their roles and obligations. Chaucer's satirical depiction of the Wife of Bath, for example, with her celebration of experience as opposed to authority, has a very contemporary resonance. Christine de Pisan can also be mentioned in this regard. However, my contention is that such fluidity was only allowed within fairly strictly defined channels. And that this definition was based upon biological difference - with childbearing and rearing being the main social role of women, who, to all intents and purposes, were, unless widowed, legally seen as the property of men.

With regard to classical thinking, there was certainly a great deal of subtlety and recognition of fluidity within it. The problem with such written record, however, is that it is only really fully accessible, even now, to an elite who have had the time and the inclination to devote themselves to study. The rest of us have had to rely on filters - secondary or even tertiary (or beyond) sources. Thus in the later medieval period, these ideas, although studied and discussed in the emerging universities, would only reach the general population through the offices of the often barely literate, and nominally celibate, parish priest- long after any possibly dangerous thoughts were removed. Thus the ideas of the ancients were first filtered through such as Augustine and his precursors and successors, and then through commentary upon commentary before being regurgitated in homily and confessional. Scholars can look at, discuss and admire, for example, the thoughts of Peter Abelard, but, for most, all that is known of him is his love affair with Heloise and his subsequent castration. No doubt this was recounted as a cautionary tale in numerous homilies - rather like certain tabloid newspapers today will, with relish, tell of the dangers of celebrity and too much cleverness.

The officially prescribed line was that the purpose of women was childbearing and rearing. They could choose to renounce this and offer themselves to the Divine Lover, but this was the only really accepted alternative, It also stated that women were inferior - whether by reason of their wandering womb or otherwise. I also believe that this was not universally accepted - but that deviation from it was only tolerated within the limits of "propriety" - which fluctuated in severity from time to time. Gender, as publicly perceived, was built upon the physical differences between men and women. It is still being reinforced. As despite the recession, people are buying for Christmas, many boys will be given toy guns or cars or Action Man while girls given dolls - either of Baby or Barbie. And what would be the reaction to a boy who asked for a doll? Or, having been given one by accepting parents, took that doll to school? My feeling is that this binary division and the values attached to it have their roots in male envy at women's ability to give birth. The fact that not all women are able to or choose to do this is irrelevant to the general perception - besides which there were, and in some cultures remain, very strong restrictions on women's right to choose. And the word envy is deliberately chosen. In my reading of the meaning of these words, envy is the desire to have the possessions or attributes of another whereas jealousy is the desire to keep one's own possessions or attributes to oneself - as in "the lord thy god is a jealous lord". Other cultures may have developed other ways of dealing with this envy - we have perversely and negatively enshrined it.

That there was opposition to this is also clear - for example the appearance and acceptance of women prophets in times of turmoil such as prevailed in England after in the 1640s and 1650s. But after each such aberration, there was a reassertion of the old order. Just as in the late 1940s and early 50s there was the move to get women back into the home. This time, however, there was something new - a large, educated, enfranchised and, for the war years, economically independent group of women. Things could not return. The genie was now out of the bottle - and despite the best efforts of fundamentalists of all persuasions, she will not be tricked back in.


Infra said...

Good. I do not want, and have never wanted, uncritical acceptance. And I have never really wanted to think safe thoughts but to try to push boundaries - to ask questions and suggest possible answers.

Our positions are much the same, here. Any position with potential likely involves risk, often substantial in degree; and uncritical acceptance, in my view, tends to indicate a flaw that we've overlooked. Any idea that has a chance of substantially modifying a system must come from a reevaluation or reworking of the fundamental principles of that system (otherwise it would simply be a reshuffling of already existing ideas, as pointed out by Foucault) and, as a result, would contain some element of destabilization. This being something likely to provoke some form of resistance.

So it isn't that I see a focus upon issues regarding reproduction, even to challenge them, as risky. I see it as particularly risky, especially in regard to its relation to current, fundamental assumptions.

But I suppose that this is a matter of one's chosen strategy more than anything else.

I would rarely recommend inaction except as a tactical maneuver.

And that this definition was based upon biological difference - with childbearing and rearing being the main social role of women, who, to all intents and purposes, were, unless widowed, legally seen as the property of men.

There are some points that I'd dispute here, such as childrearing being the main social role; my understanding is that is one of several. One reason for this is emerging research, such as that in Connelly's Portrait of a Priestess: Women and Ritual in Ancient Greece. Her argument is that while women were more or less powerless in certain spheres, such as that of direct involvement in public policy, a dominant social role for women was in religion, especially seasonal ritual and prophecy -- things that structured the societies themselves, and directed their activities to a substantial degree. This includes the domestic sphere. The influence was by no means minimal; it could decide the course, even the survival, of entire nations.

Views of women in regard to reproduction were involved in both of these things.

But this relates to issues of power analysis, and thus, again, to issues of one's chosen strategy. The idea of "the power behind the throne" is often played down, or even dismissed with prejudice. But I think that that's a serious mistake. Machiavelli is a case in point, and only one of the most obvious: how many societies have been directed in particular ways, over the course of decades and even centuries, because of one slim book?

The publication of Onanisme is another event to consider. It was the source of the masturbation panic of the 18th to early 20th centuries, bringing untold pain to untold numbers of men and women. It also happened to be an advertisement.

I suppose that our differences in approach relate to a fundamental question, and to the ways in which we're answering it. Biological aspects, especially reproductive issues, wield particular influence. But why is this the case? Why that particular concern?

To put it simply: women are able to give birth, whereas men cannot. But why does this matter so much?

It's the answer to that question that, in my view, determines the ways in which we would and can work to institute any large-scale social change. What options does a focus upon the idea of envy provide, and how useful are they likely to be?

Brian Charles said...

I fully accept your point about the position of women in ancient Greece. There is also the evidence from the grave goods of the nomadic peoples of the Eurasian steppes, from the last century BCE ,as detailed by the archeologist Jeannine Davis-Kimball, of women who were both priestesses and warriors. But my comments were about western medieval christendom - one and a half to two millennia later and well after the misogynist project had finally triumphed under the sway of Rome.

Contrary to the old cultural myth of progress from savagery to order, the status of women is seen to have been suffering a steady and inexorable decline from antiquity and only begun to recover in the last couple of centuries.

The pathology that I am addressing is the one that I see motivated this gradual erosion.

Infra said...

I'm familiar with Davis-Kimball's work (although, to my knowledge, her methodology and conclusions have been the subject of substantial criticism, much as is the case with Gimbutas -- the issue of gendering in archaeology has been a subject of heated debate in recent years). Marinatos and Budin are worth reading in this regard, too, although their focus is more on the ANE.

I understand and appreciate your point about a focus on post-Roman Europe, especially after the formation of Christendom as a pan-national identity. But I think that what I'm arguing applies in that context as well. One of the points that Connolly made is that we can only identify some aspects of social power and position by examining things that we normally don't consider, or only consider in particular ways. In the case of Ancient Greece, this was in regard to iconography. (This was also a focus for Marinatos; Budin's work was more linguistic.) But do we have a reason to believe that this wouldn't apply, in equal force, to these historical contexts as well?

If we're to postulate a steady and inexorable decline starting in antiquity, to echo your phrase, I would think that these things need to be taken into account; otherwise we may misidentify the dynamics, and this can cause our attempts to address the situation to go awry. Seeing gradual erosion may not be so different from seeing gradual progress, and may be subject to similar errors.

It's one of the things that we've learned from deconstruction: original simplicity is rare. Original complexity is far more common, if not the rule. (This being something reflected in intersectional analysis.)

That's why I'm wondering about why the issue of capability for birth, and the lack thereof, seems to hold such sway. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that this has been a more or less constant driver, and that it is based upon envy, what do you think was its origin? Why do you think that it's such a powerful force?

If this is simply an observation of biological and reproductive function, do we really have any way to address this other than through the encouragement of a particular view? And if not, is this any different than any other form of ideological enforcement?

If we can only have recourse to encouraging a certain view, then we find ourselves in a position in which one thing is inevitable: a doctrinal power struggle. That's why I see it as particularly dangerous.

Especially if there are other interpretations, and other sources -- but that in spite of this, this remains the explanation that we choose. Our attempts to modify the system may end up perpetuating it.

Brian Charles said...

Both "the Prince" and "Onanisme" certainly had effects - but the former, I think from reading it several decades ago, merely codified what had been long practised.

I cannot fully comment on "Onanisme" having never read it, but its very title reflects is origin in christian doctrine - concealed, I understand, but backed up with scientific obdervation.

Your last question will have to wait until I have slept - I am too tired to make sense for much longer.

Infra said...

Just to follow up on your last two points before I go ahead and get my sleep, too... I'll probably forget them by tomorrow morning, but they pretty much conclude the argument that I'm advancing. Kind of good to put 'em out there and nip the rehash in the bud while we've got the chance.

When it comes to Machiavelli, yes, his work was essentially a distillation of political and military practices. But it was this distillation that made it effective. Two other works in the same vein are Clausewitz's Vom Kriege and the Sun-Tzu.

That they were distillations and codifications does not weaken the point. It strengthens it. They took disparate elements and worked them into a coherent, workable, applicable whole. This increased their utilization.

A similar point applies to Onanisme (although I might have gotten the title wrong, there -- it might have been Onania). It leveraged the story of the sin of Onan, and effectively cemented it as a reference to masturbation. The doctrinal interpretation was that Onan's sin was in his disobeying Yahweh's order to father children; spilling his seed on the ground was simply the way that he did it, and wasn't the sin itself.

The author connected this with diseases that were prevalent at the time, general concerns over health and contemporaneous advertising methods, and then used it to sell snake oil medicine. (Our modern equivalent would probably be an infomercial.) The point being that, as with the above, it was the distillation of all of these ideas into a coherent whole that gave it its impact. It wasn't the ideas themselves.

It's this kind of thing -- impact apparently being related to the construction of a whole out of disparate parts -- that makes me wonder about the "why?" Isolated ideas seem to be far less effective, although their removal can cause far more complex structures (compared to those they can construct) to collapse. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation is a great example, especially considering their effects on broadening the persecution of heretics and the attendant increase in related massacres and military conflicts.

It's kind of like playing a game of Jenga blindfolded -- except that it's with societies instead of wooden blocks.