Sunday, August 06, 2006

Let's hear it for the boys.

I am still unable to post images. I think an optimistic vision of relations between men and women is conceivable and achievable. Keep your fingers crossed. (This link may be blocked and hackers will regularly deface this text, as evidenced by print outs of this essay, but I will do my best to cope with these difficulties.)

What is masculinity today? What does it mean to be a man in a post-Alan Alda, "gentler-and-kinder" feminized culture? Is it still a man's world? If not, can we at least pretend that it is?

Much depends, of course, on age. Dick Cheney and G.W. are products of a simpler era, when "men were men." For that generation of men it was still possible to refer to someone as "Dick," without insulting him. Some of my readers still refer to me as a "Dick," no doubt out of love. (See "Richard and I.") Those of us still in our "Wonder years" ("YOU ARE FORTY-EIGHT!") are more deeply affected by the cultural revolutions of the sixties than Cheney or Bush could ever be, also by the counter-revolution of the Reagan eighties. The neo-conservative reaction is known in my home as la contra-reforma. (All appropriate accents are to be supplied by the reader since they are unavailable on this ancient keyboard.)

Many of us persons of the male persuasion now describe ourselves simply as "confused." Women have always known this and prefer to do the thinking "for us" in most of our relationships. "Benevolent despotism," they call it, whereas men describe women's treatment of us as plain old fashioned despotism. We yield to our women not out of acceptance, mind you, but because we are, allegedly, the weaker sex. We ask them only to be gentle with us.

There are benefits and disadvantages associated with our new freedoms concerning gender roles. Naturally, none of this applies to morons, who are still happily living in a mental climate dating from around 1955. "Lucy, I'm home ..." The rest of us have to decide what masculinity and femininity mean in this bizarre hall of mirrors that is contemporary America.

In what follows, I shall resolve all difficulties of this sort by explaining the facts of life to you. I will explain where babes (and babies) come from, but never "chics"; I will analyze the appropriate gender roles or options for all of us; then I will apply these ideas to a number of current disputes, or at least one, while alluding to seemingly unrelated controversies concerning religion and science. I am sure that these controversies are reflective of the same profound social and cultural tensions encountered in gender theory and debates. Finally, I summarize my observations and provide a parting thought.

You may wish to gather your notebooks and highlighters. A main objective of this essay is to annoy literal-minded and humorless "politically correct" persons of all genders and political persuasions. I will now pause, briefly, to allow the legal eagles to catch up with me. Judges may wish to have their law clerks write a memo explaining all of this, using short and simple words, possibly providing pictures to help them understand the many abstract concepts to which I shall refer.

Babies are not delivered by a big stork, but are made possible, partly, by what the stork symbolizes. (Yes, Freudians, you got that one right!) The male sexual organ has been worshipped as a religious symbol, feared as a representation of natural powers that are mysterious and unfathomable, and it has been associated with everything from nuclear missiles to the Empire State building. These latter phallic images being examples of mens' "wishful thinking."

The male quest for power or "achievement" -- defined very differently by, say, Bill Gates, Muhammad Ali, Picasso, Woody Allen or Ernest Hemingway -- is a matter of sporting the biggest possible erection, so as to charm the greatest number of "nubile" females. Gore Vidal explains things for the mentally challenged in need of "memos":

HE is designed to make as many babies as possible with as many different women as he can get his hands on, while SHE is designed to take off from her busy schedule as astronaut and role model to lay an egg and bring up the result. Male and female are on different sexual tracks, [according to what we've learned from Darwin,] and that cannot be changed by the Book or any book.

I think Gore is right, as usual, when it comes to traditional gender roles or "natural" functions in society. He is also pretty accurate in describing our genetic programing. Most men, myself included, awake every morning with an erection. Clearly, nature intended us to have more than waffles in the morning. Yet the realities of our busy schedules today, not to mention the uncooperative nature of many females in the mornings ("I'll be late for work!"), results in the frustration of this divine plan. I call this female uncooperativeness "original sin."

Technology and complexity, economic and cultural transformations have "frustrated" many traditional roles for men and women. Nature has not caught up with the ways that we live now. Genetics is silent on the subject of who has to do the dishes, scrub toilets, or raise children. Women interpret this silence as God's instruction to men to discharge these necessary tasks.

Men have to be very specific with women because all silences will be interpreted by gal-pals against male interests. A relationship with a woman is like international peace negotiations -- any misinterpretation could be tragic, depriving men of both waffles and (worse!) what waffles symbolize.

From Wollstonecraft to Greer women have figured out not only that they are the equals of men, but that they are entitled to be treated as such under law. Furthermore (and this is indisputable), women have realized that they could not do worse at governing or controlling societies and economies, science and the arts than men have done in the past -- or than men are doing now -- despite the inexplicable continuing control of these endeavors by men. Shrewdly and unfairly (unfairly because this is obviously cheating), women do not hesitate to ask for directions when they need them. This allows them to arrive at their destinations on time.

It turns out -- and I regret to tell you this if you are a guy -- that men are the weaker sex. This insight has been experienced as a devastating "blow" (as it were) to male egos. We have less endurance, less capacity for recovery from psychological and other injuries, live shorter lives, have a much more difficult time with directions, even with maps, and are less organized than women.

On the other hand, we are good at killing bugs and moving furniture. We are also fun at parties. Hence, we are left with increasingly less power, soggy waffles in the morning, and many cold showers. Evolution seems to be distinct from progress, at least when it comes to relations between the sexes.

All of this leaves men and women with a new uncertainty in our sexual and gender roles. When men had absolute power in their homes -- an era known to us as the "good old days" -- we simply belowed loudly, beat our chests, dragged the carcass of the animal we killed during the course of the day (preferably a Communist!) into our living rooms, asked our women to cook the thing and later asked them to put on that negligee from "Victoria's Secret."

Now this pleasant arrangement has been unsettled. Women kill the dinosaurs, bring home exquisite dinners or have us provide the meals, make all the important decisions, prohibit cigar smoking in the house, and bring home skimpy underwear for us to wear, purchased at "Victor's Secret." It is woman's turn to be on top.

This is not entirely catastrophic when it comes to male dignity. For one thing, the world will be better run by women. I think we all know that, even when we refuse to admit it. Also, think of how liberating it is to be FREE of the pressure to repress emotions all the time. We get to decide what human genetic programing means or requires now.

Men no longer have to pretend to omniscience or attempt to control "rigidly" all things, including ourselves. Best of all, we must refrain from violence. I hate the violence which characterizes so many men's lives. This has a lot to do with my rejection of traditional masculinity, especially very early in my life. I cannot help associating masculinity with fascism, an evil form of political organization, which can be detected in degrees in many places and settings, including the United States of America, where we must always struggle against this tendency.

We can enjoy creating and sharing beauty, playing with our children, choosing fidelity to the one or two women that we will love over a lifetime. Those of us who have chosen very limited sexual lives can make that side of us about pleasing someone we love, rather than insisting that we be pleased all the time, while ignoring the needs of lovers -- who are also partners -- something which one or two men might have been guilty of in the past, which all of us must guard against in ourselves.

I am suggesting that we may be better off with new choices -- freedom rather than acceptance of programing -- about what it means to be a man or woman. Besides, we have an opportunity to recognize how much these categories, male/female, overlap within ourselves for all of us. We can now see that neither biology nor culture is destiny, since we have the power to choose and define gender "for" ourselves. (See "Judith Butler and Gender Theory.")

Freedom is always scarier than obedience. Childhood is always easier on the nerves, but it is a lot less fun than adulthood. With adulthood, we acquire power over our own lives. Hatred, including the hatred of men by women, who have forgotten what feminism was and is about -- equality and freedom for all -- is the "sin" to be avoided.

Men and women who have not forgotten what it is to be boys and girls, will be better at caring for their children and at coping with life's misfortunes. They will be better adults by being a little more child-like.

Finally, this leads to an important insight in connection with America's so-called "science wars." So much of our understanding of rationality or of what it means to be "professional" or "rational" is the product of outdated sexual identities or roles. Are lawyers getting this? It is time to rethink such concepts. Maybe we can say the same of our religious beliefs. They are too often contaminated by an outdated sexism.

Rationality can now be understood in much more flexible ways for a more uncertain and complex universe that contains entities with multiple locations, paradoxes, chaos, superstrings. The universe (like most women and few men) is good at multitasking. If it is true that logos was traditionally captured in "hard" masculine metaphors, whereas mythos was seen in "soft" feminine terms, then it may be time to collapse the boundaries of these concepts, recognizing the ways in which they exist only in relation, each within the other, mutually dependent. (See the Matrix.)

Thus, our scientific learning is filled with symbolizing and metaphors, even with religious concerns. It should be recognized that the same minds that worship and love, also inquire into the essence of the universe or moral goodness, usually for the same reasons, hoping to find meaning and truth.

If the word "God" still points to something important and real for Western civilization (and I think it does), then it may have to do with a total inclusiveness or "unity" that allows opposites to share their essences by discovering that all that is estranged or other, is already within and not outside of us, through love. If we are separated from someone that we love, for example, then we can concentrate on that love and remember the person emotionally, until we find her physically.

Denigration of these forms of knowing -- which are very popular in the world -- results from a trivialization of traditionally female forms of thinking. These ways of thinking (and yes, it is "thinking") allow feelings a cognitive role in our calculations. This is to require not simply logical or linguistic correctness in rationality, but (in addition to such correctness) a hope for wisdom. Wisdom and ethical sensitivity are part of what is meant by "rationally optimal solutions" in this so-called "feminine" mindset.

There is nothing unscientific about this intellectual orientation. There are great philosophers and other thinkers giving expression to these ideas, from Mary Wollstonecraft to Fritjof Capra and other contemporaries, whose works may be associated with these ideas in unsuspected ways. See Edith Wyschogrod, Spirit in Ashes: Hegel, Heidegger, and Man-Made Mass Death (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985), also I am finishing an essay that I plan to discuss soon by Agnes Heller, "Philosophy and Need," in Radical Philosophy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1984), p. 7-51.

It may help to apply all of this -- and no, we have not left our subject far behind -- to discussions of religion and science, as forms of knowing, so as to decide where we stand on the controversy over the alleged "irrationality" of lingering religious beliefs. Kurt Andersen, a writer I admire, displays the prevalent skeptical attitude to religion of educated, upper-middle class Americans:

For practical reasons -- reasons both of politics and civility -- it ordinarily behooves our tiny minority of reality-based infidels to keep quiet about our astonishment that most of our fellow citizens are in thrall to fantastic medieval fever dreams, just as it behooves secular minorities in Islamic countries to keep their modern [notice the assumption about what is "modern"] sentiments to themselves. In countries like ours ... liberals need to pick their battles.

Rationality for Mr. Andersen seems to involve a masculine toughness about seeing things as they are, avoidance of "medieval" fantasy or imagery, since he sees this avoidance as essentially "scientific" ("modern" and not "medieval") or concerned with "reality" as it is. This attitude in America reveals the poverty of a Freudian "reality" principle in a post-Freudian or neo-Jungian/Laingian-Lacanian world. Please read June Singer's summary of Jung's system, also her book "Androgyny."

Nothing is more real than dreams or more important than what dreams, including collective dreams (art and religion), alone can tell us. Besides, fantasy and imagery are found everywhere in our scientific "literature" -- an apt word for that rich and true "White" mythology (Derrida) which we call "science" -- since science involves narratives with imagined characters comparable to those found in Wagner's Ring cycle: leptons, particle pairs, superstrings, entropy, genes, neurons. These are all concepts invented to describe our human understanding and experience of the universe. In the realm of gender thinking it may be time to adopt a kind of ecriture blanc.

It is only the stories or theories we create -- including scientific accounts -- that make facts meaningful and digestible, so that we can use them. Stories are the mirrors that become doors; this is because they reflect a universe that shares in a kind of story-logic, like the biography of any person. Both nature -- as revealed by science -- and every human life, may be understood as a narrative or plot.

W.B. Gallie, Philosophy and the Historical Understanding (New York: Schocken, 1968), p. 1: "I have tried to supply ... the proper starting point [in historical-philosophical thinking,] the concept of a story, regarded as a form of human understanding sui generis and as the basis of all historical thought and knowledge." ("Immanuel Kant and the Narrative of Freedom.")

Rationality is more feminine than we thought, so is science. Perhaps religion is a little too masculine, as traditionally understood. If so, then this may be Mr. Anderson's true complaint. Religion is interpreted too literally by many of our fellow citizens. On that point, we agree. Isn't such literalism part of an excessively masculine notion of rationality? A feminized masculinity reflected in our new variable rationality allows us to continue to seek control and predictability, while remaining flexible and creative in our reasoning about all things.

"Rationality and science are beyond gender!" Exactly my point. Both rationality and science are inclusive of all genders. So is God, if you wish to use that word. Until we realize that we are symbol-making, metaphor-wielding, LINGUISTIC animals, whose thinking can only take place by means of languages pervaded by notions of gender and sexuality, human hopes, fears, wishes ... we will make little progress. No, this doesn't deprive us of truth, as a concept. It only makes that concept of truth richer, for we discover a universe as complex and mysterious, as baffling and elusive as we are. See Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1933), pp. 175-220 (the philosophy of "process") and my essay on Ernst Cassirer's philosophy. Don't be surprised if both good scientists and poets, seeking to convey truth, become (unknowingly) theologians.

The universe is both mirror and door, so are our thought-processes and languages. Think of Lacan's mirrors set facing each other. Newton's masculine nature of absolute mechanical determination coincides with Einstein's feminine "relative" space-time continuum, as well as the mysteries of quantum particles, particles known to be as evasive and unpredictable (yet powerful) as a woman's insights into one's character. One of these days I will have to take on Rorty's Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature.

A woman I love knows me. I mean she really knows me. In the act of knowing, she alters me (for the better). But then, she can say the same about me. I know her. Perhaps humanity and the universe are involved in a similar mutual process of "knowing" or discovery. Humanity is how the universe knows itself. A useful analogy for the universe (or God) may not be a distant, authoritative Freudian "father-figure"; but rather, a parent and child relationship, where each participant in the dialectic reflects and constitutes the other's identity. This thought leads to the gnostic idea that God is best sought within the self. Divine and human then become a unity or dialectical partners. (See "Elaine Pagels and the Secret Texts of Christianity.")

Opponents of humane philosophical efforts contend that the idea that humanity and the universe are "kindred," is a myth. I am sure that such a criticism is not only false, but almost incoherent. Where do persons come from, as a species and individually, if not from the universe? We are made up of matter originating and still part of the same universe that we seek to understand, because it has produced us. It would be bizarre or even insane to suppose that what produces us and makes us up is not "kindred," like saying that your leg is not related to the rest of your body.
So what is mistaken for childishness or immaturity, a lack of toughness or "rigor" may really be only a new way of growing up. We grow up by learning to "play," intellectually and morally, also by loving. We no longer need to be trapped in confining, inherited roles as men and women. These roles affect all of our thinking and conceptualizing. This doesn't mean that truth is unobjective or unreal. We are finally liberated (mostly by women!) to be fully human, to accept masculine and feminine aspects of our protean natures in highly complex, media-saturated societies, where survival may well depend on the ability to recognize or "see" the humanity of others and ourselves -- or even, as I suggest, to "play nicely with others" -- without abandoning all that is singular or unique and valuable in our individual histories.

This is something for the good folks in Washington, D.C. to ponder: Do Americans always play nicely with others?

Labels: ,


Post a Comment

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home