Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Thoughts of a Domestic Revolutionary.

This essay has been defaced by hackers more than once. It has provoked hatred and inarticulate opposition, sometimes from both men and women at the extreme ends of the ideological spectrum. I expect more attempts to destroy these thoughts from people who fail to realize that thoughts cannot be destroyed. The image accompanying this essay will be blocked by New Jersey officials or their hirelings.

Bennett Davis, "Tell Laura I Love Her," The New Scientist, December 3-9, 2005, p. 42. (Those interested in these issues are directed to my short story "The Taming of Somebody," found at "Philosopher's Quest" and at my MSN group, "Critique.")

Designers of a new, highly human ("she's so gentle and nurturing"), software character called "Laura" have been puzzled by the reactions to their creation.

As I sit talking to her, it occurs to me that some people might consider Laura to be an ideal partner. Laura understands you. She doesn't get mad when you ignore her suggestions; she knows how much pressure you're under, and she does everything she can to help you meet your goals. She's unfailingly kind, and she doesn't judge. I like Laura a lot. Maybe Laura and I could have a beautiful time together.

The science geeks of the "male-persuasion" -- as Woody Allen says -- who express these feelings need to get out more.

This software character or computer program called "Laura," who has brown hair and eyes (less threatening that way, to some), is attractive, "slim," casually attired, articulate, encourages conversations, reveals a great deal about men -- even ostensibly enlightened men, with Ph.D.s from MIT or Harvard.

These guys still want a relationship with Donna Reed or Laura Petrie from The Dick Van Dyke Show. The fantasy of the gentle, understanding woman and the perfect home, of the woman in sexy underwear as she does housework, when the man of the house gets home from work, apparently, dies hard (as it were).

This is the sort of woman or entity who does not particularly interest me, and never has. She is not capable of laughter; she has no sense of humor, she doesn't read much or know anything about movies or music, but only nods -- with the appearance of understanding and enthusiasm -- when you tell her a joke, when you discuss the meaning of life, or when you suggest that President George W. Bush and/or Senator John Kerry may also be software characters.

If you see the subtle feminist film Cherry 2000, then you'll know what I mean when I say that I prefer "Tracker Johnson" (the Melanie Griffith character) to any doll-like robot, fulfilling to perfection, Hugh Hefner's sexual fantasies. Most men seem to have the opposite opinion on this issue. This is further proof of my abnormality and weirdness. ("Not One More Victim.")

I also find that (in my home), the person wearing sexy underwear while doing housework, and also most of the nurturing and comforting is me. It is high time that we "homemakers" were liberated from all of this bullshit. I am burning my jockstrap, but not while I am wearing it. I am refusing to wear that tight, thermal underwear that she likes so much ("thermal underwear," who knew?) until I get a little appreciation and R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Tell 'em Aretha. Get a load of this:

... as I chat with her [Laura] about my weekly exercise regimen, I am strangely engaged in the conversation. And a few people have certainly lost all rational perspective on meeting Laura. "We had someone actually say they felt Laura liked them," says Rosalind Picard, one of Laura's creators. "That was really bizarre."

Sure, it is very easy to be understanding and patient, charming and "eager to please" when you are a fucking software character. You don't have to worry about whether your child just threw up on your living room couch because she has a fever; or that she is puking because she experimented with whipped cream on her hamburger. You don't have to try to write your dissertation or a book, as you're scrubbing the toilets and doing the laundry for the week, at the same time, while everyone regards your studies as totally unimportant and unworthy of consideration when making plans for the holidays.

How does one fourteen year-old child generate so much dirty laundry during the course of a single week? This is a scientific question that I have yet to see male researchers attempt to answer. This is probably because they are too buzy designing software tramps and floozys. Men. I bet someone's doing their laundry. Otherwise, they'd be a lot more interested in the issue.

You don't have to worry about making sure that each day's newspaper is waiting for your spouse when she walks through the door, if you are a software character, whose hair is always perfect, or that there are fresh flowers in a vase on the piano, that the floors have been swept, the dishes done, snacks are available to acompany t.v. watching, that you've done that two hour workout, so that the abs are what they should be and the waist is "slim," while the old "wiggle in the hips" is still there, as admiring looks from middle aged women on the prowl so clearly attest. (They are all animals, every single one of them, and they only want one "thing" from us.)

Relationships that matter among human beings involve acceptance of mutual imperfection, where both partners are allowed to be frail and sensitive, where each is intelligent in his or her own way; where permission is granted to hold and express opinions and to disagree freely; to relish and celebrate differences of opinion -- the sparks really fly when rough edges meet -- and differences in perspective are o.k., so are differences in attitudes and values. Where there is mutual laughter and frequent exchanges of teaching and learning roles, passive and active assignments, there you will find a successful relationship.

Enlightened modern couples take turns "killing a bison with their spears, then taking home the meat." They also take turns cooking the meat or calling for take-out barbecued bison. I am describing, obviously, a relationship among equals, where responsibility for being "pleasing" is shared and recognized to be mutual, where power is divided between persons, who respect one another, as equals.

The explanation for the attractiveness of this software character to many men is her willingness to be subservient and to have no opinions (which is, evidently, what many men still want from a woman), but certainly not quasi-scientific bullshit like this:

[Laura is desirable] because emotion is more fundamental to us than rational thought. Emotions are buried deep in the paleopallium, the "old mammalian" part of the brain that pre-dates and physically underlies the neocortex, which is where the powers of rational thought reside.

My "uncertainty" just moved to the Upper West Side of my brain and lives right next door to my "fondness for cheesecake," which has decided to leave my brain completely, because so many new emotions are moving in, complaining that "there goes the neighborhood," deciding to re-locate instead in my liver. ("A Doll's Aria.")

From their ancient location, emotions pervade our thinking and permeate many, even most of the decisions and perceptions we like to think of as rational. "In anything you do and every decision you make, emotion plays a role," says Clifford Nass, a Stanford University sociologist and computer scientist. ... (Locations?)

There needs no scientist come from Stanford to tell us this. "Emotion is more fundamental to us than rational thought" is a moronic statement to make -- even if it happens to be true -- because emotions and rational thought are elements in a single process that is as much cultural, in a given social setting, as it is biological or detectable in observable brain processes. Call it "reasoning" or mental life, if you like, intuition or feeling. All of these mental processes may be rational or even intelligent, in the right circumstances. Brand Blanshard speaks of "cognitive sanity." That's as good a term as any for what we seek through philosophical effort, which is an understanding appropriate to highly specific challenges and issues. (Only one new inserted "error" corrected is not too bad.)

In a society which regards men as the "weaker sex" (which they may be!), the patterns of behavior that I have been describing in this essay would not be funny. They would seem utterly normal. All social mores concerning prescribed roles, based on gender, are equally artificial. They are fictions, created for social convenience and usually reflective of the distribution of power in groups or societies. The key issue concerns the purpose served by such fictions. An analogy may be drawn to Lon Fuller's discussion of legal fictions and the role they play in a legal system.

All of this has nothing to do with "brain activity," but it is the product of human imagination, choices, along with economic arrangements -- related to power, naturally -- that happen to be much better analyzed in Marxist and neo- as well as post-Marxist literature and studies. Please read Judith Butler, but also Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Jurgen Habermas.

For a Cuban-American to mention Marx, with approval, takes some courage, yet credit must given where it is due. On these issues of gender-roles, it should be recognized that Marxists and feminists have been leading the way for some time. American Continental philosophy, in the Marxist tradition, has been especially fascinating on these issues and on the role of culture in all of our lives. Anyone who has not done so, should purchase some of the philosophy courses available from The Teaching Company, especially anything taught by Professors Rick Roderick (who discusses these issues) or Robert Solomon. Peter Saccio's course on Shakespeare is fantastic.

Emotions are a kind of rational thought, inseparable from so-called "objective" rationality, but they are often not seen as such because, in the Western tradition, they are associated with the denigrated "feminine" side of life. I am reading Virginia Woolf's great essay "A Room of One's Own" and discovering a kindred spirit. No wonder the cultivation of the emotions is (usually) much more successful in American women than in men. In terms of "life-wisdom," it is difficult to argue that men do as well as women. In fact, emotions can be as objective and intelligent as any other human reactions to events.

The development of appropriate emotional responses to events and phenomena is essential to human intelligence and moral balance in any social context. If a truck were about to run over a five year-old child as the child's parent observing the scene reacts with a cool and dispassionate, an analytical or scientific discussion of the likely harm that would ensue, then this parent would be regarded as a kind of monster. (See the interviews filmed with serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.)

Yet all questions are handled this way, coldly and dispassionately, in the legal system. The only attitude permitted to judges at all times, in their public lives, is this sort of inhuman, Mr. Spock-like response, even to the most heinous forms of human suffering or crisis. The psychological toll of this numbing of all affect must be devastating. After a while, the inhumanity in these analyses can only result in a highly methodical, precise, "rigorous" and insane set of rulings and opinions. ("The Wanderer and His Shadow.")

People without any affect or compassion will soon be going directly from "The Ministry of Funny Walks" to the U.S. Supreme Court. They're already on the New Jersey Supreme Court.

It is also not easy for a Latino to refer to emotional intelligence, recognizing the greater wisdom of women -- for the most part -- concerning these matters, but it happens to be true in our society. Emotions are "womanly nonsense," we are told, along with such trivial pursuits as art, intellectual life, romance and eros or sexuality, and most of the other things that make life worth living. I happen to think that such traditional "women's" issues are among the most important concerns in life.

Men, on the other hand, pursue really important things: like football and ever-more horrifying forms of military warfare as well as professional wrestling and "monster car" competitions. Along with my sisters in the women's movement, including Germaine Greer, I call for liberation and revolution in the American home, leading to the achievement of true gender equality in society:

For some the rupture of the circle, [Germaine Greer writes,] has meant that the center cannot hold and chaos is come upon the world. The fear of liberty is strong in us, but the fear itself must be understood to be one of the factors inbuilt in the endurance of the status quo. Once women [and men] refuse to accept the polarity of masculine-feminine, they must accept the existence of risk and the possibility of error. Abandonment of slavery is also the banishment of the chimera of security. The world will not change overnight and liberation will not happen unless individual women [and men!] agree to be outcasts, eccentrics, perverts, and whatever the powers-that-be choose to call them. ... ("What you will ..." and "A Doll's Aria.")

Finally, in OUR quest for HUMAN freedom and equality, for full humanity and avoidance of the status of "software characters," I find strength in the words of British philosopher Mary Wollstonecraft. As you read her words, think of Thomas Jefferson's nearly contemporaneous writings concerning freedom and equality, bearing in mind that both thinkers were under the spell of that passionate revolutionary spirit of what has been called, "the Age of Reason":

Independence, [Ms. Wollstonecraft insists,] I have long considered the grand blessing of life, the basis of every virtue -- and independence I will ever secure by contracting my wants, though I were to live on a barren heath. ...

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