Friday, April 15, 2011

Fighting the Inevitable?

Now and again, it can be hard to think something and its opposite at the same time - or perhaps more accurately, it can be hard to remember that one is the kind of person who thinks it important to try and think something and its opposite at the same time. Yesterday I redrafted (for the umpteenth time) an article on natural childbirth, which more or less consists of me siding with the second-wave critique of obstetric domination against the the third-wave suggestion that those crazy seventies hippies got it all wrong about cesareans and epidurals not being such a great idea, because, y'know it's all discourse innit? Wheeling out the "discourse-all-the-way-down" argument in reference to a process in which someone separates your viscera with a knife is probably, quite rightly, around about the place where reductive social constructivism lapses into almost pure self-parody (and, of course, don't get me started on how much damage has been done to the reputation of my dearest Jackie D by persistently associating his name with this kind of nonsense...c'mon now chaps, when he says "there is nothing outside the text", he doesn't mean text, he doesn't even mean language). Nonetheless, having spent the best part of yesterday thinking about material resistances to discourse, this morning, I find myself obsessing about the discursive construction of gender and its paradoxes. This is largely in response to:

1) These striking images which have been doing the rounds on the femi/philo end of the blogosphere:

They hail from this blog, and depict the vocabulary used in children's toy ads by gender. 'Nuff said I reckon.

2) A conversation I had last week about the trouble with Foucault. Interestingly, it seems to me that in response to Foucault, everyone I know comes out with the same phrase, in almost exactly the same tone. "He's not wrong" they say, wishing to signal their assent to the irrefutable suggestion that subjects (particularly liberal humanist ones who like to imagine they popped out the ground like mushrooms) are not given, but a product of relations. But there is something about the color of those relations in Foucault's world which isn't quite right either. And what isn't quite right, it seems to me, is exactly what is revealed in the pictures above. That is, the idea that social relations - and particularly those relations by which beings come to be - should be understood solely in terms of power, dominance and war, rather than love or nurturing, is itself deeply gendered. Which I suppose amounts to an observation about how one of the axiomatic accounts of how subjectivity is constructed through relation, is in fact, reliant of a notion of relation which is itself constructed...or at least, as with all things, in part.

3) One of my old school friends brought her new son round yesterday afternoon, and told me about some entirely lunatic things people have said to her about him...including the fact that, apparently, he has a strong chest, a way with the ladies, and a fairly decent right hook. Her response to this has been, after bafflement and shock, something along the lines of "He's six weeks old! Could you not wait a bit before you start demanding he acts out your anxieties about masculinity?" Evidently, children of both gender have this kind of stuff foisted on them from the get go...I am wondering, however, whether there is something about the deep contradictions embodied in a male baby (the impenetrable, self-sufficient citadel as vulnerable and dependent squiggle of flesh)...that makes people particularly uncomfortable, and hence to interpret a neonatal attempt to get basic co-ordination over a limb as an act of aggression or daring-do.

So what's the upshot here. That nature is both an ally and an adversary for an ecofeminist-Derridean with an Aristotelian bent? That not all and every appeal to nature is the same? That we need to be able to distinguish between the desire to naturalize structures of domination, and the use of nature to resist those structures? Clearly, the bog-standard appeals to sociobiology or ethology so frequently trundled out by the boys (yes it really is a hundred thousand years of evolutionary history which have insured that only men are capable of flipping burgers on a gas-fired barbecue) should be given the short-shrift they deserve. And this is of the utmost importance with respect to the confluence of the twin myths of the neoliberal patriarchal subject...that man is "naturally" violent and egoistic. From my experience teaching ethics to undergraduates, it would seem that many of the kids have pretty much swallowed this one whole (frankly, they are so in thrall to the impossibility of adapting "natural" impulses that I'm fairly surprised they don't routinely urinate up the walls.)

That said, appealing to nature is not only used for disciplinary or ideological purposes. Ideology is passing the cultural off as the natural...and while the far end of the social construction spectrum will maintain that everything is culture and hence everything is ideology, there is, at the same time, really significant emancipatory potential in being able to say that some things just aren't good for us, or for the environment. It really matters that we are able to explain why people shouldn't blow the tops of mountains, or why its not okay to organize a society on the basis of a system of production in which many people are expected to perform alienating repetitive tasks for the aggrandizement of a minority. It's not clear to me that we can do this without using some concept of nature...without saying something like "it is the nature of lakes that they don't respond well to being filled with fertilizer," or "it's the nature of people that its not good for them to spend three hours a day commuting in a crowded train." But what seems important is that we use a complex post-constructivist account of nature, rather than returning to a bad-old-essentialist version.

This would seem to involve the recognition that the natural - such as it is - is:
i) Both material and ideal
ii) Not universal but underdetermined (Note: not entirely indeterminate or relative)

Okay...this is a whole can of worms, and my Friday afternoon brain is not up to it right now...

In the meantime, let's all just have a pleasing start-of-the-weekend daydream about what the world would look like if a lot less time was spent assuming that the boys have got to fight...

1 comment:

  1. The thing about baby boys really struck me. I read an article by a journalist mother of two boys and a girl a while ago, and she said that it struck her that the male anatomy makes little boys especially physically vulnerable vis a vis girls, and that this vulnerability is both very evident and culturally buried. A close friend of mine in Rome just had to take her 4 yr old to the A&E because his foreskin had got stuck and he was in agony (she made it just in time for it to be pushed back manually, rather than cut), and as she was telling the story it was like she was divulging all this arcane knowledge about the fragility of the male body that is sealed, culturally, within the bounds of the experience of the mother-of-boys. Boy babies are never babies - they are 'little men', as people invariably call them. Imagine calling baby girls 'little women'?!!!!!