Saturday, July 25, 2009

Nothing there but what we put there?

James Schall once wisely observed that,

The initial choice that each of us has to make in life is whether we think the world and ourselves already exist with some intelligible content to define what we are or whether there is nothing there but what we put there.

The orthodoxy these days is that there is nothing there but what we put there. Take, as an example, the views of Professor Judith Butler of the University of California. She believes that there is no natural basis to masculinity and femininity, that gender is merely a performance:

... gender is a performance ... Because there is neither an “essence” that gender expresses or externalizes nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires; because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all. Gender is, thus, a construction ...

This puts the issue neatly enough. Judith Butler is taking the view that there is nothing there to define us as men and women, only what we ourselves put there as a performance or act. She correctly identifies the opposing view, but rejects it.

The opposing view is that there is an objective good embedded within masculinity and femininity to which we aspire as individuals. It is understood, in this view, that masculinity and femininity have an "essence" - that there is a real, underlying, permanent quality of masculinity and femininity that we can recognise and which is then expressed in various ways by individuals and within cultures.

So we have two diametrically opposed positions. The first position, that gender is a mere construct, is usually justified in terms of human freedom and choice. It is argued that we should be free to choose our own identities and that we cannot do this if we are limited to an unchosen masculine or feminine identity. The aim then becomes to overthrow the traditional distinction between masculinity and femininity in order to make human identity fluid and multiple.

There are some powerful arguments against this liberal view. One of them is put by James Schall, who writes:

we are seemingly freer if there is nothing there in the first place, if we are solely responsible for our world and our own being. The trouble with being so absolutely free that nothing is presupposed, however, is that what is finally put there is also only ourselves ... on this premise, no reason can be found not to be something else tomorrow.

This suggests two things. First, if there is no objective good to which my identity is connected - if my identity is something I just put there myself according to my own will - then there is a loss of meaning and significance to who I am. Second, if I can change my identity at will, then my very sense of self - of who I am - will begin to dissolve. I will not have a stable identity.

It's not difficult to apply this criticism to the works of Judith Butler. According to Judith Butler, the freedom to self-define requires more than a denial of gender. She wants both gender and sexual orientation to be self-defined; to achieve this, she wants to deny even the distinction between male and female:

Butler argues that sex (male, female) is seen to cause gender (masculine, feminine) which is seen to cause desire (towards the other gender). This is seen as a kind of continuum. Butler's approach - inspired in part by Foucault - is basically to smash the supposed links between these, so that gender and desire are flexible, free-floating and not 'caused' by other stable factors.

In a Butlerian universe, we would be made free by denying the existence of men and women; of masculine and feminine; and of heterosexuality. But there's more:

Butler says: "There is no gender identity behind the expressions of gender..." In other words, gender is a performance; it's what you do at particular times, rather than a universal who you are.

... This idea of identity as free-floating, as not connected to an 'essence', but instead a performance, is one of the key ideas in queer theory. Seen in this way, our identities, gendered and otherwise, do not express some authentic inner "core" self but are the dramatic effect (rather than the cause) of our performances.

David Halperin has said, 'Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence.'

It's not (necessarily) just a view on sexuality, or gender. It also suggests that the confines of any identity can potentially be reinvented by its owner...

So there is no authentic inner core identity to who we are in a Butlerian universe. There is nothing, no essence, to which such an authentic self could refer.

Is there not a tremendous cost to such a freedom to self-define? Aren't we giving up a real, meaningful substance to our own being in order to gain such a freedom? What kind of a self are we left with to exercise our freedom to self-author?

(In my next post, I'll continue this theme by looking at the thoughts of a devotee of Judith Butler, Professor David Gauntlett.)


  1. How depressing that some would think that they are nothing more than random vibrations of a glob of molecules.

    How lonely and small and lost and drifting would it make one feel if they thought that there was no point of origin, no natural built-in inclination to behave a certain way, and no signs to navigate by. To have total freedom to go where you will and construct your identity as you will yet have no standards to be guided by? At least the animals have instincts; do the adherents to this philosophy consider themselves lower than the beasts of the field?

    I shudder at the moral consequences of a worldview that thinks that there is no moral significance to their mere existence, and that they can shape that existence any way they please. How much evil may be wrought by someone such as this? How unable are others to oppose such evil, since (I assume) another's identity and predilictions are equally valid?

    Lastly, we've already been down the road that the belief in the perfectability of man takes us. Do we really want to go that way again?

  2. EW, an excellent comment, thanks.

    It's such an important issue. A traditionalist would argue that we can be free only as our "situated" self (as it's put in academic terms). We can only be free as we are really constituted: as men and women, as Americans, Australians or Japanese, as moral beings and so on.

    Freedom then really means being able to discover and live through these important aspects of our being within a community. It means being free to be a man or a woman; an American, Australian or Japanese; a moral being etc.

    For liberal moderns, freedom means a condition of being "unsituated" or "unconstituted". According to liberals this makes us "free-floating" and able to do or be anything.

    Logically, though, as the liberals in my article themselves admitted, it leaves our own self without "an authentic inner core" and hence unanchored, formless and disconnected. So rather than enjoying a positive sense of freedom we are more likely to
    feel disoriented and alienated.

    Nor, it might be added, should freedom be thought of as the sole good animating a society. It's radically reductive to think that it should be. Most societies, our own included until recent times, balanced a range of goods, including charity, mercy, courage, honesty, grace, integrity, wisdom, beauty, love, loyalty, honour, modesty and courtesy.

    Is it any wonder that Western culture has become coarser when we have forgotten these other goods?

  3. Mark, I dont know why you bother too much with dissecting the rotting corpse of eighties-style feminist ideology. I doubt whether feminists take it seriously now.

    In the long run there are no essences because evolution implies never-ending mutation. But the long run can be a long time, maybe hundreds of millions of years.

    The genomic evidence indicates that the Y-chromosome, which regulates the expression of sexual identity in mammals, is about 150 million years old.

    ONe can say that biological identity is somewhat conserved whilst sociological equity is somewhat constructed. But sociological equity must somehow conform, or at least not contend too much with, biological identity.

    But this conclusion is not very palatable to those who believe that anything goes in the domestic economy.

  4. Post-modernist liberals who try to pretend that differences between racial and sexual groups are mainly sociologically constructed rather than biologically conserved are just blowing smoke. They are fighting a rear-guard battle against science and they deserve nothing but contemptuous derision.

    Patriarchy is inevitable given that females must still rely on males to provide for them during breeding and brooding phases of parenting. The evolution of the human brain reflects this specialisation of the sexual division of labour. Scientific American reports:

    over the past decade investigators have documented an astonishing array of structural, chemical and functional variations in the brains of males and females.

    These inequities are not just interesting idiosyncrasies that might explain why more men than women enjoy the Three Stooges. They raise the possibility that we might need to develop sex-specific treatments for a host of conditions, including depression, addiction, schizophrenia and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

    Furthermore, the differences imply that researchers exploring the structure and function of the brain must take into account the sex of their subjects when analyzing their data--and include both women and men in future studies or risk obtaining misleading results.

    The evidence of recent years confirms that well-meaning attempts to abolish patriarchy can cause, rather than curb, much grief. The obvious case is Aboriginal society where the collapse of male patriarchy has unleashed a maelstrom of cultural horror.

    Closer to home the attenuation of patriarchy has helped to condemn large numbers of higher-status females and lower-status males to mate-less or child-less misery. But Left-liberals must continue their "experiments in living", such as multiculturalism, indigenous self-determination, androgyny etc

    No wonder so many young men grow up confused. Their teachers and elders are simply clueless on what it is that makes a man tick (hint, its not being a "metrosexual").

  5. I see that the Rudd govts feminist Left-liberals want to reduce fathers access to children. According to a report in the Australian:

    THE shared parenting laws that have given divorced fathers more time with their children will be rolled back because of the power of left-wing feminist women in Kevin Rudd's cabinet.

    That is the view of men's groups that lobbied for the laws when the Howard government was in power, and who now fear "that 15 years of progress in getting fathers and children to spend time together is about to be undone".

    "I met with (Attorney-General) Robert McClelland a few weeks ago, and it was clear to me that these laws are being rolled back," said Sue Price, of the Men's Rights Agency.

    "They (the Rudd government) say they are reviewing the law, but basically the law will change because in the Labor government there are a number of women who are well and truly indoctrinated in a 1970s feminist movement background, and they do not value the role of men in society.

    HOward made some reforms to improve gender equity on this score. In most areas Rudd has more or less aped Howard. But this is one area where Rudd can throw considerable sops to the Left-liberals. The media-academia complex will always give the feminist-legalists an armchair ride.

    The reduction of male parenting rights caused terrible grief amongst men who rarely got to see their own children or saw them raised by other men. Average men who get divorced are axiomatically regarded as border-line spousal and child abusers, almost by definition.

    Its little wonder that average young men are so uncertain about their job. They have steadily lost access to male elders who can initiate them into the rites of manhood, they are continually mocked for being useless and clueless and they are stereotyped as women-bashers when the evidence indicates that violence against women is at rather low levels.

    Violence against men, by a handful of predators, seems to be ticking up. Again, this is probably due to the collapse of established patriarchal systems such as respect for lawmen, priests and military officers who tended to keep the Lord of the Flies on a short leash.

  6. Quoting "This idea of identity as free-floating, as not connected to an 'essence', but instead a performance, is one of the key ideas in queer theory. Seen in this way, our identities, gendered and otherwise, do not express some authentic inner "core" self but are the dramatic effect (rather than the cause) of our performances."

    In such as case, a normative individual could be well within his rights to describe himself as "queer".

    But if this is true: "David Halperin has said, 'Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence.'"

    ... then it shows that "queer theory" is not so "free-floating".

    Again, we see the inherent contradictions in the so-called "progressive" left.

  7. It has been pointed out at View from the Right that leftists posit that all sexes and genders (all five or so of them!) are merely social constructions, lest anyone be constrained by their inborn condition.

    Yet, it is also claimed that homosexuality is inborn and immutable, thus any discrimination against homosexuality is particularly cruel. The contradictions of leftism are indeed breathtaking.

  8. Having seen her picture, I would have to agree that Ms. Butler's identification as a "woman" could only be called a performance. And not a very good one, at that.

  9. Those who think gender is a "performance" must not have children.

  10. Anonymous, agreed. As a parent you observe just how quickly the differences between boys and girls manifest themselves - well before they even begin to talk and communicate.