Sunday, August 29, 2021

Who erased women? (1)

The Guardian ran an article a few weeks ago by an Australian feminist, Jane Gleeson-White. She claims that women are being erased by patriarchal economics (because women's domestic work has not been commodified).

It's an odd argument because a patriarchy, by definition, recognises the reality of the sexes. Whether you support the idea of a patriarchy or not, it could not exist without an acknowledgement of the existence of men and women. 

And yet Jane Gleeson-White is correct that there is something like an erasure of womanhood happening in modern society. I wrote about this last month following a debate I had on social media. My opponent argued that it was impossible to define womanhood because womanhood meant whatever people wanted it to mean and that it was "bigotry" to argue otherwise. I pointed out that if womanhood can mean anything and is purely subjective then it is effectively meaningless - it is being erased as a meaningful category.

So who or what is erasing womanhood? In my post I connected the problem to a Hobbesian metaphysics. I won't repeat the argument here, as I'd like to focus instead on how the matter has been argued for politically.

For some decades, the debate about sex followed the general logic of liberalism. Liberals sought to maximise individual autonomy, which was understood to mean maximising the freedom to self-determine and self-define. This meant that predetermined aspects of life were looked on negatively as fetters on the individual. Such predetermined aspects of life included those things we are born into rather than choosing for ourselves, such as our race, our sex and our ethny. The important thing for liberals was to find a way to make such aspects of life no longer matter.

When it came to making our sex not matter, an early step was to separate sex and gender. Being masculine or feminine was no longer something tied naturally to our sex but was instead a separate thing, "gender", that was an oppressive and artificial social construct that could be abolished through such measures as advertising standards or educational programmes. If masculinity and femininity could be abolished, men and women could be made to be the same, and therefore "equal". The fact of biological sex would no longer matter and the liberal project would be realised.

Furthermore, by making gender separate from biological sex it was possible to have a range of personalised expressions of gender. Gender could now be held to be multiple and fluid. Individuals could identify with one or more of a bewildering range of new genders.

And if it is what I identify with that defines my gender, why not make this the same for my sex? It is my identity that now defines my sex rather than the other way round (i.e. instead of my body defining me as male or female, my identity defines whether my body is male or female).

The emergence of transsexualism, as well as the ever expanding variety of "gender expressions", poses a challenge for feminism. The category of womanhood has become, at the very least, leaky. Those who are biologically male can now claim to be part of the women's movement and to occupy female spaces, and it isn't clear if the concept of a woman's movement will make sense to those raised to believe in 52 or more genders.

There has been resistance by old school feminists. The problem is that they have run into the problems that anyone challenging liberalism faces - they are accused of discriminating against a previously oppressed group fighting for the right to self-define ("transphobia"). 

Which brings me to Kathleen Stock, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex. She is a lesbian radical feminist, but not really of the type your parents might have known. She has been forced down the same path as the rest of us - she realises that the tide of politics is against her and that what is needed is a rethink of some of the assumptions on which politics is based.

In an online lecture she does a remarkably good job of getting to the heart of things, namely the feminist project to make our sex not matter. She admits that radical feminists have had a project to abolish gender, but argues that this is not achievable. She adds that even if it were possible to abolish these distinctions, this would not be desirable, as it would remove important sources of meaning, identity, camaraderie and achievement for individuals. 

Nor does she think it wise to abolish social norms regulating relationships between the sexes. She notes that these have been looked on negatively in previous feminist thought as "trapping" the sexes into certain roles, but responds by looking into the literature on social norms and finding that they are inescapable for humans who are hardwired to be social and that they can have a beneficial effect. She gives as an example the social norm that it is dishonourable for a man to hit a woman as having a rational origin in the different size and strength of men and women. 

She finishes by arguing that social norms should be judged on whether or not they promote the well-being of men and women. This is, again, a reasonable position with a long pedigree in Western thought, although it does require some debate on what constitutes well-being.

There are some promising aspects of Professor Stock's lecture. I think it's been common for feminists to uphold the categories of male and female only as markers of entry into a political class. The importance of the category of womanhood then becomes for women to seek and to uphold the rights and privileges they have within the political/economic system.

I think it's possible that Kathleen Stock still thinks at least a little along these lines. She says elsewhere, for instance, that, 

There’s a liberal idea that we’ll just keep progressing towards a glorious Utopia. I don’t think that’s right anymore. The picture of human nature that underlies it is flawed. The relationship between men and women is probably always going to be, on some level, antagonistic.

She still puts, at the forefront, the idea of men and women being locked in an antagonistic relationship. Similarly, she says in her lecture that although there are social norms that are beneficial for men, she is only interested personally in promoting those that are beneficial for women. So she is still placing herself on "team women" rather than trying to arrive at some larger framework that will be workable for both sexes.

Nonetheless, she has moved the argument a considerable way toward something else, in particular, by recognising that sex based cultural practices are not only real and inevitable, but also mostly play a positive role in helping to regulate the relationships between men and women, and in providing a source of meaning and identity.

In my next post I'll look in more detail into Professor Stock's lecture. There's some interesting information that's worth delving into.

Sunday, August 22, 2021

What does it mean to be modern? (2)

 In the first part of this series, I quoted Michael Allen Gillespie's definition of modernity: its core, to think of oneself as modern is to define one's being in terms of time. This is remarkable. In previous ages and other places, people have defined themselves in terms of their land or place, their race or ethnic group, their traditions or their gods, but not explicitly in terms of time...To be modern means to be "new," to be an unprecedented event in the flow of time, a first beginning, something different than anything that has come before, a novel way of being in the world, ultimately not even a form of being but a form of becoming.

To understand oneself as new is also to understand oneself as self-originating, as free and creative in a radical sense, not merely as determined by a tradition or governed by fate or providence. To be modern is to be self-liberating and self-making, and thus not merely to be in a history or tradition but to make history. 
If you see yourself this way as a modern, then logically you will end up cutting yourself off from your own tradition. You will no longer be a culture bearer.

It took some time for this logic to fully work its way through Western culture. You can see it at work in Australia by the 1940s, at least in the corridors of power. It took an even more radical form by the 1960s. For instance, Malcolm Fraser, who was soon to become PM, gave a speech in 1968 criticising the languages on offer at the University of Melbourne. He complained that the university "recognises the following languages - French, German, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Italian, Russian and Japanese" and that "the list as a whole is one belonging to the last century except for one of the languages mentioned."

What he meant is that only the Japanese language was relevant to Australia in the twentieth century. He had no sense of affinity with the Western cultural roots of his own country. He was defining himself, and his nation, in terms of "time," which then allowed him to rupture the culture of his own country, on the grounds of what was "modern" or "new".

It got worse. Fraser did not see himself as a culture bearer, but by the 1990s it was common for it to be denied that there was any culture to be borne. I remember contributing to a debate at the University of Melbourne where the phrase "Australian culture" was mentioned. It led to a quizzical riposte of "What is Australian culture?" as if it were surprising to hear the claim that there was such a thing.

Nor was this just a local phenomenon. At around the same time, I watched an interview on TV with someone from Austria. He too was stumped when asked about culture and replied "What is Austrian culture anyway?". I thought this particularly curious coming from someone living in the heart of Vienna.

Since then the schools have focused in an unrelenting way on presenting Australian history as being a story of oppression and discrimination. It has had the intended effect of disconnecting many people from their own past.

One point to be made here is that for things to change you would need to do something more than just tweak the school curriculum. If the teachers see themselves as moderns, and if this means defining yourself not in terms of land or place, ethny or tradition, but as a continuous "becoming" into something new and self-making, then there will not be a positive account of one's own history. It will always be something to be broken from.

If we are no longer culture bearers then what are we? It strikes me that moderns are tourists. They still need the connection to a living culture, but no longer identify with their own. And so they act like outsiders experiencing the cultures of others. This does not just mean experiencing these cultures when travelling overseas, but in their own countries as well. Perhaps this also contributes to the push in Australia to have Aboriginal culture as the national culture, even though an overwhelming majority are not Aboriginal. This would be odd if we thought of ourselves as culture bearers of our own tradition, but for a modern who does not see themselves this way, but who still wants a connection (as an outsider) to a culture, it makes sense. (Which explains as well why moderns are comfortable with the "welcome to country" ceremonies - they don't see themselves as connected to land, people or tradition, and so don't mind being placed in the position of "guests" and "outsiders" to another culture).

By rejecting the role of culture bearer, the Western individual has lost a significant aspect of his being. As culture bearers, we take the baton from past generations, attempt to live up to their achievements and to pass them on to future generations. This gives us a standard to measure ourselves by, or even to surpass, a mission in the world that requires us to live up to an ideal, and a reason to feel a pride in what we represent. It connects our individual efforts in life to a larger and enduring communal tradition.

So how do we break from modernism? There is a lot that could be said, but I'll focus on just a few points. First, modernism relies on a belief in linear progress - that we are making continual progress toward ever more advanced forms of society. For many people, the main evidence for this is technological progress. We now have smart phones and smart TVs, a growing array of apps and this is held to be proof of progress.

What we should be pointing out is that these kind of technologies are just tools. They can be used for beneficial purposes or for harmful ones. For instance, if a young girl has all the latest communications technology, but it just carries junk culture to her, culture that is likely to lead to poor life outcomes, then in what way is the technology a measure of progress? What is more important, surely, is the quality of the culture she inhabits, and whether this culture encourages her to develop along higher, rather than lower, lines, in terms of her commitments, her virtues, her maturity, her wisdom, her relationships. The state of culture does not inevitably advance, it only improves over a period of generations, via much love and self-sacrifice - which is one reason to admire and to be grateful for the positive aspects of culture that we do inherit.

Then there is the issue of eschatology - of the idea of human history culminating in the end days. This is a feature of both pagan (e.g. Ragnarok) and Christian theology. The danger is not with the religious belief, but with its secularisation into a humanistic belief in a linear progress of humanity to some ultimate end point. Linear progress then becomes part of an implicit religion that is difficult to challenge, first because it is an aspect of the overall world picture of moderns through which people try to make sense and meaning of their lives and, second, because it is left implicit and so is absorbed as part of the general culture which means it is less likely to be examined.

This does not mean that a belief in linear progress can't be challenged, but we shouldn't expect easy victories. I think the key steps here are not only to point out that society hasn't progressed in the ways it was expected to, but also to provide an alternative world picture to replace the one that moderns cling to. One task, then, is a recovery of ideas that were once central to Western thought, particularly those that relate to the ordering of self and society toward higher goods.

One final point. I have emphasised the importance of being a culture bearer. Western culture was, until recently, a richly developed, "grand" culture. The next step, however, may not be to uphold the most sophisticated, urbanised aspects of this culture. It may be necessary to re-establish our own cultures and traditions at a smaller scale and at a local level, at least to begin with. To maintain continuity might require a measure of adaptability.

Sunday, August 15, 2021

What does it mean to be modern? (Part 1)

What does it mean to be modern? Michael Allen Gillespie, in his work The Theological Origins of Modernity, gives this answer: its core, to think of oneself as modern is to define one's being in terms of time. This is remarkable. In previous ages and other places, people have defined themselves in terms of their land or place, their race or ethnic group, their traditions or their gods, but not explicitly in terms of time...To be modern means to be "new," to be an unprecedented event in the flow of time, a first beginning, something different than anything that has come before, a novel way of being in the world, ultimately not even a form of being but a form of becoming. 

To understand oneself as new is also to understand oneself as self-originating, as free and creative in a radical sense, not merely as determined by a tradition or governed by fate or providence. To be modern is to be self-liberating and self-making, and thus not merely to be in a history or tradition but to make history. To be modern consequently means not merely to define one's being in terms of time but also to define time in terms of one's being, to understand time as the product of human freedom in interaction with the natural world. Being modern at its core is thus something titanic, something Promethean.

This description of modernity helps us to understand why people have such difficulty in breaking cleanly from the modernist project. This project is now something that we live within, and by its nature it has broken with the past as a living tradition, making it difficult to connect to any genuine alternative.

Gillespie goes on to trace the development of the concept of modernity. Modernism, in its current meaning, took some time to emerge. Those who wanted to challenge either the present or the recent past, often did so by looking back to antiquity rather than by embracing "modernity". Gillespie mentions the "quarrel of the ancients and the moderns" that took place in the seventeenth century. When I did some further reading on this I learned that in France the establishment literary figures who supported throne and altar were the ones who considered themselves "moderns". These writers attacked the more radical literary figures who looked back to antiquity. So there was not yet a progressivism in the form that we would recognise.

What is more recognisable are movements like the Italian Futurists of the early 1900s. Below is a sketch by the Italian architect Antonio Sant'Elia that was part of a series called "The New City" (1914).

Sant'Elia's vision of the new city has been described as follows:

The city was a backdrop onto which the dynamism of Futurist life is projected. The city had replaced the landscape as the setting for the exciting modern life. Sant'Elia aimed to create a city as an efficient, fast-paced machine. He manipulates light and shape to emphasize the sculptural quality of his projects. Baroque curves and encrustations had been stripped away to reveal the essential lines of forms unprecedented from their simplicity. In the new city, every aspect of life was to be rationalized and centralized into one great powerhouse of energy. The city was not meant to last, and each subsequent generation was expected to build their own city rather than inheriting the architecture of the past.

The Italian Futurists were influential enough to have buildings approved by Mussolini, such as a new train station in Florence completed in 1934:

The heating plant and main controls cabin for this station are considered masterpieces of Futurist architecture (1929):

In Australia you can see modernism extending its influence among the elite in the interwar period. It was not uniformly so in the 1920s, though. Here is part of a speech given by Sir William Irvine, who at that time was the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Victoria. In opening a local high school in 1928 he said,

Such schools present the young with opportunities of rising not merely to technical and industrial efficiency, so that they may make more money or higher wages. That is a useful object and may be the aim of the majority who enter this and other schools but there is something higher.”

The more chances given to the rising generation in the way of education, says Sir William, the better for all concerned...It was the aim of education to bring the minds of people into paths of thought leading to vistas of intellectual truth and beauty. Secondary education should be a means of drawing out the creative intellect of the youth of this fair country, in order that their efforts would lead towards the benefit of all, so that their minds might be uplifted above the sordid cares of ordinary life, and so that they might enjoy the priceless heritage of English history. 

Irvine is clearly not interested in the technological alone and he holds the heritage of his own people in high regard - and so is not entirely a modern. But in the 1930s there continued to develop a strongly technocratic spirit in Australia, and it dominated at the highest level politically in the 1940s. After WWII there still existed a pride in the past at the local level, with the formation of local historical societies, the writing of local and family history, the erection of monuments to honour pioneers and so on. But even this changed by the 1990s. By this time there was an intensely focused campaign, particularly in the schools, to reject the past as something oppressive, something that was not to be identified with.

By this point, it was no longer so easy to think of yourself as a bearer of a culture or of a tradition. This was a logical end point of the understanding of what it means to be modern as set out by Michael Allen Gillespie. If we define ourselves as self-originating, not tied to people or place, nor to history, then it is logical to cut our ties to the past and to our own tradition.

We are no longer culture bearers. That has deep implications that I'll discuss in the second part of this series.