Becker and Feminism – Ernest Becker Foundation

Source: Becker and Feminism – Ernest Becker Foundation

The link above is to a piece published by the Ernest Becker Foundation and answers a lot of questions I’ve had about the absence of a women’s perspective in Becker’s work. It’s a fitting end to the series on misogyny that I’ve published here over the last few posts.

This is really worth the read.

 

 

Why do some people refer to sex as dirty?

By sex in the title here, I mean sexual intercourse and sexually related activities. I never could understand the reference. It seemed (and still seems) ridiculous to me. I understand it now, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept because it’s a metaphor that is deeply demeaning to women of course, but frankly, to all of us. The reference could make sense if it aimed at describing sex in a mud bath, but that’s never the intention, of course.

You all know this. It’s no secret. Men are never referred to as ‘dirty sluts.’ It just doesn’t happen. However, women are  routinely called dirty sluts, particularly by the porn industry, but also by some segments of the population with very categorical views of when, where, and with whom it’s okay to express one’s sexuality.

More basically, I heard with my very own ears parents chastising their children for having their hands ‘down there.’ “That’s dirty, don’t do that!” I’m hoping that it doesn’t happen with younger parents these days but I somehow doubt it. There are people on this planet who are pathetically if not pathologically ignorant, so nothing should surprise us. Moreover, cultural references are pretty pervasive and consistent in linking our ‘private parts’ with dirt. The word pudenda, the plural of pudendum, refers to “a person’s external genitals, especially a woman’s,” that according to the very reliable Google dictionary. Pudendum literally means: “thing to be ashamed of,” according to the same reliable dictionary. So, not only are genitalia dirty, they’re also something to be ashamed of. Now, even as a long time social researcher and somewhat cynical sociologist, I still find this reference to genitalia and sex, especially with reference to women as entirely perverse.

On another tangent, but still on the language train, if I want to refer to someone as not being entirely nice, I may call that person an ‘asshole.’ There we go again. It’s no surprise too that our swear words are pretty much entirely focussed on our genitalia and on sex. In French, swearing also involves the genitalia and such, but in Québec, you’re also liable to hear swear words referencing the Catholic Church and items used during the mass.

Since who knows for how long we’ve been alienated from ourselves. We refer to ‘my’ body. What is the ‘my’ that owns a body? We should’t be surprised, though, because that’s language and our language reflects our morality and our preoccupations and we are silently, unconsciously, subconsciously, and daily reminded of death. Language is entirely metaphorical so we express our fear of death not in direct terms, but obliquely, using metaphor. [By the way, if you want a good read: Talking Power: The Politics of Language, by Robin Tolmach Lakoff, Basic Books, 1990). It’s all about metaphor and politics. She’s got a great chapter in there on women and language.]

Alright, I’ll grant you that excrement is not far from being dirt and if mommy doesn’t want you playing ‘down there’ it could be partly because she doesn’t want you spreading shit all over the place. But that’s not the whole story, nowhere near. Excrement has much more meaning for us than that. Norman O. Brown notes in Life Against Death (p.295):

Excrement is the dead life of the body, and as long as humanity prefers a dead life to living, so long is humanity committed to treating as excrement not only its own body but the surrounding world of objects, reducing all to dead matter and inorganic magnitudes. Our much prized “objectivity” toward our own bodies, other persons, and the universe, all our calculating “rationality,” is, from the psychoanalytical point of view, an ambivalent mixture of love and hate, an attitude appropriate only toward excrement, and appropriate to excrement only in an animal that has lost his own body and life.

What does Brown mean when he writes that we are “an animal that has lost his own body and life.” ‘His’ in this sentence refers to humankind, all of us. In some ways I find it strange that Brown uses ‘man’ to include women and ‘his’ whenever a general possessive pronoun is on his mind. However, Brown is right. Taking a shit is a daily, unconscious, subconscious, reminder of our death and that’s distinctly unpleasant. If we thought about it consciously, we would be traumatized. So we use all kinds of metaphors to try to forget all about death or we joke about it. Few are the people who have come to grips with death and live a full life in their bodies, as their bodies, taking pleasure in them and accepting their aging and their annoying aches and pains. These are people who don’t yearn for a life beyond this life, because for them, that just doesn’t exist.

Just one more thing: What the fuck does ‘taking a shit’ mean? Of course we know what it means, but what can we make of it literally? I really don’t know. However, I’d rather leave a shit than take one, thanks. Enough silliness for one day. More later.

 

 

Is Equality Between the Sexes Possible?

Is it possible to have equality between the sexes?

Given the history of sexual relations on this planet, a logical answer would seem to be a resounding NO. But I don’t think that’s so.

Yes, absolutely, I do think that equality is possible. However, it can only be possible when humankind, especially the male fraction of the species, agrees to give up its apotheotic quest for the god-like status of an immortal being. There are hints that there is movement in this direction (more on this later), but we have a long way to go before the bulk of humankind can reconcile itself to the idea that our bodies are all we are and souls do not exist except in our collective conscience.

I sincerely have sympathy for people who want to live forever. Our quest for immortality is the basis for a lot of our sociality. We share a belief in eternal life with others like us. We build institutions and organizations to perpetuate and nurture this belief. It’s an appealing prospect until one begins to read the fine print or we begin to kill each other to defend ‘our’ god against the gods of ‘others’ who dare to try to usurp our vision of the way to eternal life. The way gods work, there can really be only one that is the true god. All others must be pretenders. (This isn’t strictly true. Even one god, the one proclaimed by Moses and Abraham, can be the source of real division, death and mayhem). That said, let’s get to the nitty gritty.

It’s evident that males and females of many species of animal are dimorphic, meaning that the sexes vary in body size, shape and weight, hairiness, and in other easily ascertainable ways. Us humans are significantly dimorphic with males being on average stronger, bigger, etc.[1] So, men and women are not equal in many respects. This has lead a whole lot of conservative thinkers and philosophers going back as far into history as the eye can see to make the logical leap to conclude that these physical inequalities are the natural basis for the social, economic, and political inequality of the sexes. This is patently absurd but it doesn’t stop those who claim a logical basis for their arguments in natural human variation from making their claims on clearly ideological grounds.

It’s certainly true that there is huge variability in male human size, strength and shape. Some theorists might dare to suggest that the Nilotic peoples, especially the Dinka and Nuer, being very tall and thin on average, must be superior to the BaMbuti people of the Ituri Forest in central Africa, who are what we used to call pygmies, and who are very short and compact. The same is true for intra-female variability. The variability of human form is quite evident still, of course, but there is evidence that with international travel and population mixing that the variability that we have seen historically is very slowly attenuating.

Of course, we’ve seen evidence in history that skin colour, eye shape, etc have been significant bases for the imposition of social inequality. We ‘other’ people for all kinds of convenient reasons especially social and economic power. We deny people equality for whatever reason we can dream up or make up as long as it’s in our interests. So, what about the inequality that exists between men and women? Well, I think I’ve repeated it often enough, but it may be worth repeating again. Men have longed for immortality for as far back as we can ascertain. Their literate representatives who have gotten into the history books and have written a huge range of proclamations on the topic going back further than ancient Babylon have been pretty well in agreement that women are a huge stumbling block to achieving the objective of immortality. Women just can’t help but get most of us poor men all lathered up sexually and by that process, take our limited attention away from our focus on our spiritual salvation and eternal life.

It’s pretty common to read in historical documents, including the Bible, of course, that any form of pleasure of the flesh is sinful and leads to eternal damnation. In her book Eunuchs for the Kingdom of Heaven: Women, Sexuality, and The Catholic Church[2] Uta Ranke-Heinemann’s focus is on Church writers, theologians, popes and the like. She also, however, goes beyond her analysis of women and the Catholic Church, to consider relations between men and women taken more broadly. She notes that although it seems that proscriptions and interdictions regarding sex are pretty straightforward in historical texts, we cannot assume that everyone was on board with those specialists, philosophers, theologians, etc., who were often celibates and who lorded it over the masses. It seems the masses weren’t always in agreement with the high and mighty and often ignored interdictions even to the point of suffering persecution and social exile.

Of course, it’s really quite ridiculous to expect people to not enjoy sex. Plainly, there are many circumstances where sex is not at all pleasurable, especially for women and even ejaculation can be painful at times for a small minority of men. Still, essentially, sex and pleasure go hand in hand. I (and I daresay most men) would find it very difficult not to feel some pleasure upon ejaculation. Ironically, according to many writers historically men are not supposed to even experience ejaculation (during masturbation or coitus) unless it’s sanctioned by the authorities and only under very socially proscribed situations. In fact, Ranke-Heinemann notes that church authorities even discouraged sex between spouses, some going so far as to dictate time of day, day of the week, months of the year. Needless to say, the Church fathers were only concerned with male sexual pleasure and regulating it, not female pleasure, which they often assumed never existed.

Let’s not fool ourselves either to think that regulation of sexuality is a thing of the past. Female (and male) genital mutilation is still commonly practiced as well as segregation of the sexes. It’s also still common for states to try to regulate what you can do in the privacy of your bedroom.

One last thing before I move on. It’s clear that not all men are misogynists and women victims. Humans will always find ways of sharing intimacy and revelling in sensual, sexual pleasure no matter what the ayatollah, the pope, imam, rabbi, or whoever goes on about how bad it is and how it detracts from our main goal of immortal life in the presence of our preferred deity. It’s also true that women can have just as much of a stake in immortality as men do. The only difference between men and women in this regard is that men have made up all the rules and women must obey or live eternally in hell.

It’s also clear to me that men and women can equally be jerks, self-serving, mean, nasty, and violent. They may choose different paths to meanness, nastiness and jerkiness on occasion, but elimination of the search for immortality will not necessarily do away with the human condition although I really am optimistic that there will come a time when there will be less basis for stupid, vapid, ignorant human behaviour. The elimination of competition for favour in the eyes of God or just for individual specialness, even on the football field, will take us a long way to equality of the sexes. Just don’t expect dramatic results too soon.

It’s also true, I’m pleased to say, that we can love profoundly and unconditionally. Problem is that we do that in spite of all the social forces that work to divide us when they should be working to bring us together romantically, whether it’s woman with man, woman with woman, man with man or a combination of the above. I’m not saying we should abandon all restraint and engage in all out debauchery, but we should all be engaged in figuring out as we go along what we want rather than have the high and mighty do that for us in the name of a false hope of immortality.

Next: how little innocuous things like words, sayings, and practices can reinforce and even exacerbate sexual inequality.

 

 

[1] See de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex for a detailed exploration of this topic. Germaine Greer takes a slightly different look at sexual dimorphism in humans in her book, The Female Eunuch.

[2] New York, Doubleday, 1988.

What’s So Scary About Women? They’re Devils, That’s What.

Or, they ‘commune with the devil’, i.e., have sex with him. That’s not much better.

For men who dream of immortality, women, who are so clearly associated with Eros, with the  pleasure principle (as psychoanalysis would have it) are a clear and present danger. God is always associated with light, the devil with darkness. It’s a sad state of affairs that men, as long as they’ve been men and not ‘merely’ animals, have felt that women are a major source of their downfall. In fact, Aristotle and many others considered that the ‘vital’ factor in making children rested solely with the male. Women were simply the receptacle for the fully formed life in the sperm. The sperm was where it was at. Aristotle never considered the fact that women might have eggs, embryos that are at least half of the picture in fertilization and mitosis. We can forgive people in the past for not understanding how babies come about but it’s still a mystery for some people apparently.

And procreation is all mixed up with pleasure and sexual desire. Sex is not just about making babies even if the Abrahamic religions denied the notion that orgasm or pleasure were anything more than a distraction from the main goal of sex. Pleasure in sex was always bad, evil, because it drew attention away from the ultimate goal of humankind in bartering with God for access to eternal life. Symbolically, God is spirit, the Devil is body, earth, dirt. Spirit leads to eternal life, the Devil leads to death, eternal death. Our bodies are our own worst enemies. Women just add a double jeopardy to the situation. The equation of women with the devil is clearly derivative of the kind of logic behind original sin, a logic that has prevented equality between men and women for as long as we know.

Historically, artists have not shied away from depictions of women consorting with the devil or as the devil themselves. Look at this image. It’s from a book called On Ugliness edited by Umberto Eco (Rizzoli, 2007).

IMG_2937

It’s on page 190 in a section called The Demonization of the Enemy. The image is from Thomas Murner and is entitled: The pastors of the Lutheran Church make a pact with a buffoon or a madman and the devil. (in Von der Grossen Lutherischen Narren, 1522). Now, that’s pretty weird in itself, but the image contains one representation that is of specific interest to me here. Look at the picture of the devil. Do you see what I see? Breasts and a vulva?

It’s pretty hard for me to escape the idea that Murner had it in his mind that the devil is a woman, dragging men into sins of the flesh by her vile seductions. Poor men! How can we resist the temptation? Well, we can’t. Why? Because we’re animals. No matter how stridently we try to deny it, we are animals and we have all the animal urges needed for a sexually  reproducing species, urges that can be diverted to aims of pure pleasure in any number of ways. Simple. Well, not so simple for a species that wants to live eternally. We see or know of  animals dying all the time, hit by cars, in slaughterhouses, on farms. That couldn’t possibly be our fate. So denying our animal nature is, well, kind of natural for a big brained animal like us. To gain access to heaven we need to deny our animal nature.

According to Murner (and he has a lot of company), women are the source of the fall of man. Original sin was perpetrated by a woman when she convinced poor Adam to eat forbidden fruit. Seductress! Devil woman who leads man into sin, into death, the death of all living things! The only way ‘man’ can convince himself that he deserves eternal life is by denying earthly existence and by putting all his energy into cultural forms of death-denial often in the form of institutions that depict nature as dangerous and deadly to be dominated and tamed at all costs. Include women in the definition of nature in the previous sentence and you have the perfect recipe for misogyny.

The photo below also from Eco’s book reproduces a painting by Franz von Stuck. It’s called Sin and was painted in 1893. The painting is of a young woman wrapped in a huge snake, an obvious reference to Satan, the same one who was the culprit in all the nastiness that went down with Adam and Eve. So, in one stroke, von Stuck clearly associates women with the devil. The snake is a most consistent symbol for the penis in all of human history. So, Von Stuck, the consummate misogynist suggests that this woman may very well be having sex with the devil. So bad! So evil!

sin

Well, it’s all fine and dandy, but in my world, the devil doesn’t exist, making it difficult for women to have sex with him. That didn’t stop The Doors from putting out a song called Woman is a Devil or Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels from releasing a song called Devil with a Blue Dress On.

 

 

That said, there’s no way I could even begin to scratch the surface of historical and modern depictions, in the visual arts, literature, poetry, and other cultural forms, of women as devils, as evil temptresses, out to seduce us poor men thereby denying us a life of eternal bliss in heaven with God.

More to come. Stay tuned. Why aren’t men and women equal?

 

Misogyny: What the Hell? Okay, Let’s Do This.

So, I’ve been putting off writing this post. The reason is that I’ve been reading, reading, and reading some more. There are hundreds if not thousands of books on misogyny and countless more scholarly articles, never mind the (probably) millions of newspaper, magazine, websites, blogs, and other sources I can’t think of right now, that try to understand misogyny or point out it’s catastrophic consequences especially for women, but also for all of us. And there are original sources to be evaluated including religious texts, philosophical works, and ethnographies. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the literature in reading and teaching a course on love and sex, but there are themes that re-occur again and again so it’s not necessary to read every piece of writing on the topic. What I have read is depressing enough.

I want to say that I have no intention of offending anyone by writing these words today, but some people will inevitably take exception. That I cannot control. Like Copernicus, Galileo, and the more contemporary Charles Darwin (although I’m not in the same category of eminence as they are), I must write what I see as the truth based on decades of study and reflection. That said, let’s do this.

As I wrote in my last post, misogyny started when the animal became the human. Of course, we’ve always been animals, subject to all the vagaries and uncertainties that that entails including the challenges associated with survival, including getting enough to eat and drink, protecting ourselves from threats (floods, droughts, volcanoes, rock slides, predators etc.,) as well as replenishing the species by making babies. However, when we evolved sufficiently to become self-aware, which took millions of years, we were able, with our now bigger brains, to try to deny that we were ever animals in the first place. Or rather, we didn’t specifically deny our animality, we just tamed it by making it subject to control by our ‘self’.

Language has long fascinated me and there is plenty of evidence in our languages of the attempted denial or taming of our animality. If I say to you: “My body is really sore from that workout yesterday,” to what does the ‘my’  in that sentence refer? What is it that can claim ownership of the body? This linguistic turn had profound impacts on humanity long before English evolved. Virtually everywhere I look in the anthropological ethnographic literature, we’ve determined that ‘we’ are in fact not just our bodies, but ‘we’ are much more than that. We’ve managed to convince ourselves via our dreams (awake and asleep), our growing imaginations and probably through trances brought on by drugs, dancing or fasting) that we must be a very special animal indeed. This process led Ernest Becker to argue that it’s our ingenuity and not our animality that “has given [our] fellow creatures such a bitter earthly fate.” (EFE, p.5) As we developed selfhood and  our brains grew bigger and more capable, we convinced ourselves through ritual that we were able to control heaven and earth. We invented rituals and projects like the zodiac to convince ourselves that the heavens were in constant intimate relations with us and we read chicken entrails and runes to determine how we might control natural forces that threatened us. We created culture to oppose nature, as Becker argues, and our cultures are more or less elaborate and sophisticated projects to deny our animality and, consequently, our death.

We always knew that animals died and we were not oblivious to the fact that we all eventually meet the same fate. What to do? Oh, what to do? Well, the ‘forces of nature’ were always overwhelming and difficult to handle but we determined that if we pursued the right rituals, we could affect the course of our lives and of nature. We began to bargain with the forces of nature. “You back off and give us good crops and we’ll sacrifice a bunch of sheep to you. Sound fair?” But the forces of nature (gods) were never satisfied and needed constant reassurance that we would feed them. Kingship developed as a way of having a god present at all times to take our gifts and keep us safe. We, however, the weak, vulnerable species that we are also needed constant reminders that we mattered and that the gods were paying attention and were on our side. So, we split our societies into ‘moieties’ or (literally) halves so that we might have someone to compete against to show the gods how worthy we were. That process is still extant in modern society. We tirelessly set up competitions to prove our worth, our value and we do it most frequently for the glory of our God (gods) or, now, our secular god, our country, that institution that ensures us survival beyond our animal lives. Religion has always promised us eternal life. Why else would it exist? Thousands of religions over the course of history have given people thousands of ways of gaining eternal life. Problem is, in a competitive world, if my way to eternal life promised by my religion is the right way, your’s cannot be. Sorry about that.

Now comes the part where the most momentous invention ever to come from the human species was wrought. That’s the notion that if our bodies are mortal, then the only thing we can do is deny them their due. Because we were now connected to the forces of nature we could pretend that we had an inside track on immortality. Gods were immaterial and immortal, we could be too. If we performed the rituals just the right way, we could ensure our eternal survival. Our rituals became increasingly aimed at chastising the flesh, piling corpses upon corpses to assuage the gods. We needed to put emphasis on our selves, our souls, that immaterial aspect of ourselves that would not die if we performed the proper rituals at the proper time. Our bodies became our enemies. The body became associated with death, the spirit with life. Norman O. Brown states that in fact, the earth is the devil’s domain. Disease and death became the twin pillars of evil for us. Life on this earth was transitory, just a preparation for the immortality we could achieve upon our corporal death if we lived right, did the right things. Our denial of death led to our denial of our bodies and our lives. So, in order to live eternally, we were prepared not to live fully in our animality.

So, why do we associate faeces with dirt? Why must we avoid getting dirty? “We read that the men of the Chagga tribe wear an anal plug all their lives, pretending to seal up the anus and not to need to defecate…The body cannot be allowed to have the ascendency over him.” (Becker, The Denial of Death, p. 32) The Chagga men’s denial is our denial. In another post, I address this fact more fully, but for now, what of women?

Well, women were never the primary class of people who presided over ritual. They were much too busy having babies and being domestic. The first class divide then is between men and women, a mostly natural divide to start with, but with time, the most important class divide was between most men and the priestly class. Women need not apply. Not then, not now. (Yes, you can contest this point if you want.)

In fact, for men, their bodies are traitors to them because of their animal nature, their death instinct. When men and the priestly class came to dominate human societies, women were increasingly seen as the epitome of animality. Men ‘othered’ women for their sexuality, their attractiveness to men, for dragging men into a depraved and animal world. Sex became dirty unless it was sanctioned by the priestly class using the proper rituals. Sexual attraction had to be denied at all costs so that it couldn’t infect men’s spirits, their souls. Problem is, of course, we are a species that reproduces sexually so there was a need for a massive investment in ritual to ‘cleanse’ women especially during menstruation and in the regulation of the female being, of the female world which by it’s very nature condemned men to death. Sins of the flesh are a great way to eventually find yourself in hell. (Of course, things are changing and I’ll deal with that too in another post.) Dante’s hell isn’t as present as it used to be in Abrahamic consciousness but we have other ‘hells’ to replace it.

Enough for today. I will follow this set of blog posts with a list of the materials I used in researching this topic, at least the most important ones.

Without getting into too many specifics, my next post is about how women have been treated throughout history and labelled unclean and a threat to men’s ascension to eternal life. For that we need to visit the Old Testament, especially Leviticus, but other sources as well, including Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas and others partly through Jack Holland’s work, but also through many others including Ernest Becker, Norman O. Brown, Otto Rank, Umberto Eco, Uta Ranke-Heinemann and Carol F. Karlsen. Simone de Beauvoir also figures prominently here.

 

 

Misogyny: What the Hell?

On this International Women’s Day, it’s a good time to introduce my next series of blog posts. I don’t intend these short posts to exhaustively cover the topic, but to serve as an introduction and to stimulate discussion and dialogue. In a future post I’ll explain the title above. Much of the significance of this post and those that follow on this topic is summarized in the title.

I’ve scanned a significant sample of the anthropological, historical, sociological, philosophical and theological literature and I’ve done so over decades and there is this stark truth that consistency reveals itself therein: There is no time in history that I can uncover when women were not treated as inferior to men. There is no time, nor place. Oh, there have been matrilineal, matrilocal, and matrifocal societies, but no matriarchal ones, nor have there been ones where women and men have shared power equally other than in Marx and Engels’ concept of primitive communism wherein women had supremacy over domestic life and men over social life, hunting and defence. If it did exist, it didn’t last long.

In response to the pervasiveness of this uneven relationship between men and women, some people might argue (and have they ever) that women are naturally inferior to men and should just accept their place in creation. In fact, this notion has dominated many treatises on the nature of humanity over history. It’s probably more common, even today, than some of us would like to admit.

I reject this notion out of hand, of course, because it’s patently false and the evidence is before our eyes every day. Constitutionally, women are not inferior to men any more than poor people are inferior to rich ones. Differences between the sexes exist of course but they are not grounds for discrimination or prejudice. As Simone de Beauvoir writes in The Second Sex, women have been ‘othered’ not because of any inherent weakness, but because of what they represent to men.

Women have inordinately suffered at the hands of men in history, of that there is no doubt, but many men would argue that women have inflicted their share of suffering onto men too. I’ve known some men who have expressed a profound hatred of women. They seldom can give reasons other than that they were treated unfairly, taken advantage of, abused and rejected. Still, it’s rare to read that a woman has killed her husband or partner during outbursts of domestic violence, while it’s common to read of men killing their wives or partners in the same situations. Men kill women much more frequently than women kill men.

However, for this blog post, I’m not primarily interested in exploring the individual, idiosyncratic expression of misogyny. Rather, I want to explore misogyny as an ideology of very deep-seated human institutional experience, experience that rules our lives as humans of whatever sex and determines to a large extent how we relate to one another in groups throughout history.

Misogyny is defined, for the purposes of this post, as a systemic, overarching and deleterious characteristic of human relations. It divides us. It denies us. It obviously has consequences for all individuals. None of us can escape it’s reach. Women can even be as misogynistic as men (for reasons I will explore later). Men who resist misogyny have a tough go of it because it reaches into every pore or our cultures. It will not be ignored. Still, for humanity to enter a new phase of history, one not characterized by brutality and ignorance, misogyny will have to give way. In the next few thousand words, I explore why that’s the case.

From the time the animal became the human, women have been paying dearly for our flight from death and our longing for immortality. This idea is from Norman O. Brown’s Life Against Death, but it is repeated by other authors in various publications. It’s not often stated in these terms and some explanation of what Brown means here is necessary. Strangely, women are seldom included explicitly in analyses of the human condition and the statement by Brown above is unusual. For Brown, to be human means to be an animal that knows death in a way that no other animal does. Of course animals have a fear of death, that’s very easy to ascertain from simple observation, but animals, unlike humans, don’t make a fetish of it. If they face death as in a predator bearing down on them with intent to kill, they experience fear and flee. If they survive, it takes them very little time to go back to their routine life and the threat to their life is forgotten. Not us humans. No, we carry that fear around, relive it, dream about it, let our imaginations expand on its every detail and we, above all, need to explain it. So far, we haven’t done a great job explaining it. Instead, we’ve spent a great deal of our collective energy denying it, ‘it’ here meaning the death that inevitably catches up to each and every one of us and we’ve been very creative in our denials.

So, at the moment (maybe it took thousands of years) when our ancestors finally ‘became human’ and became self conscious, they realized that their wonderful tummies and the amazing sensations that they felt could not possibly come to an abrupt end. They faced danger on many fronts from predators, natural disasters, feuds and illnesses. They found their loved ones crushed by boulders during a landslide or drowned during a flood. Their bodies were obviously their weakness. They needed a way of transcending their main weakness, their bodies, to convince themselves that they, in fact, did not die although their bodies obviously did. Oh, their bodies might be toast, but not ‘them.’ So they set about creating any number of fantastical immortality-projects to convince themselves that even if their bodies rotted away that ‘they’ would not because they were not just their bodies, not even essentially their bodies, that they had within themselves an immaterial self that survived the end of their bodies. The anthropological literature is replete with descriptions of the incredible number and richness of ways in which peoples have imagined their immaterial selves. These imagined selves are the Yanomamo hekuru and our common variety soul. “Sure, body, you go ahead and rot. I’ll be around forever though. I don’t need you.”

So, what this leads to is essentially and inevitably the systematic cultural denial of the body. As Becker says in Escape From Evil, disease and death are the twin pillars of evil for us. Disease prevents us from enjoying life fully and death cuts it off permanently. Now, that’s no fun.

But what of women in all of this? Well, I’ll get to that in my next post. Suffice it to say here that a major part of our bodily lives is our sexual lives, procreative or not. For men who want to emphasize their immaterial, immortal selves, sex represents a big problem for them. It’s all about body, the great traitor to our immortality strivings. Men could eventually convince themselves that women were essentially body but that they were essentially soul. Now what are the consequences of that?

 

 

What’s So Scary About Women? Introduction

In my last few blog posts I promised I would tackle a most difficult topic and that’s the misogyny embedded in many of our institutions. Well, that’s what I will do over the next few blog posts.

I’ve always liked to try to figure out how things work. When I was a kid I used to dissect and disassemble things all the time. I was forever curious about how things were made, especially mechanical things. Taking them apart was not usually too much of a problem, but to my father’s dismay, putting them back together was sometimes not so easy. My favourite targets were toys and motors but clocks really topped the list. As I got older and went away to a Catholic boarding school in Edmonton for high school, I still had a live curiosity but the priests were not too keen on seeing things taken apart and strewn here and there on campus. They were especially protective of the lab equipment. Looking back on it, I remember also having a keen interest in why people did things the way they did them. I had a hard time making sense of what I came to know as institutions (crystallized habits of thought and life). And, of course, figuring out why I had a penis and my sisters didn’t was top of mind. That said, I would never have dared, after turning 4, to bring up such a subject at dinner time. The disapproval would have been swift and sometimes mildly violent. I felt very early on that certain subjects were absolutely taboo. Still, lots of sniggering went on because we children weren’t yet completely indoctrinated. Of course, we learned a few anatomical things by playing doctor but it wasn’t easy to figure out the moral issues involved. The questions definitely outnumbered the answers in my first two decades of life on earth.

In my early twenties, after a serious sawmill accident, I had back surgery and wondered what to do next. Well, I went a little crazy for a while, smashed up a few cars, got drunk and stoned frequently but I had a couple of mentors that made a huge difference in my life. They prompted me to go to university. I applied to Simon Fraser University (SFU), but was rejected because my grades in high school were lousy so I attended Douglas College in New Westminster for two years, got an A average, had some great teachers and decided at that time to study sociology. On I went to SFU. That time of my life was super exciting and difficult too because of money, to be certain, but also because of sex. I couldn’t seem to get enough of it and too much of my energy went into pursuing it or worrying about not getting any. The sex drive for me was very powerful. It’s hard to concentrate under these conditions. I was clumsy and ridiculous like most of my friends and acquaintances around the subject of sex, but this was the early seventies for god’s sake. We would have been into some promiscuity and there was definitely some loosening of mores but we were mostly unsatisfied. But when all else failed, we always had some beer and weed to make us feel better. Still, I couldn’t help thinking about sex and women. I should now say sorry to all the women I was a dickhead to in those days. It wasn’t me, it was my gonads. Now that I’m 71 that drive, thankfully, is largely attenuated. Frankly, I don’t know how most of us get through our teen years. Our bodies are yelling at us YES and our damned superegos are blocking our genital paths to glory. Oh well, such is life. Eventually, I met Carolyn and that was that. We fit together nicely.

It took me a while to get settled into the academic life. For a long time I called myself a Marxist but I stopped doing that for the same reason that Marx pointed to French syndicalists in the late 1870s saying that if these people are Marxists then I’m not. I still find Marx’s analysis of history very compelling, but I I strayed from looking only at economic matters to studying schizophrenia (R.D. Laing, Thomas Szasz, etc), mental illness, depression (with which I’ve been on intimate terms with), crime, deviance, social solidarity, morality, Norbert Elias and other things. In my last couple of years teaching I taught a sociology course on love and sex. Given what I wrote above, this fit right to my curiosity bag. I got interested in pornography. What is it about porn that makes it such a lucrative business? It’s one of the top internet money makers( yes, people sniggered.) And, of course, I had a long standing interest in Ernest Becker’s work. You just have to check the archives on this blog to ascertain that. Becker’s book Escape From Evil has a lot to say about sex and about misogyny. In fact, Becker’s work is the foundation of my views on this topic.

So, in the next few blog posts I will address Becker’s work to start with, especially his emphasis on evil, animality and our institutional denial of death. Then I want to look more specifically at woman as temptress, as devil. I will follow that up with a look at language and women before turning to marriage and some of the other cultural institutions of sexual relations. Things may evolve as I go along. The order I present issues may change. Your comments might modify my approach too.

I must say, in concluding this introduction, that I, by no means, intend to glorify women and vilify men. We are all ‘guided’ in our actions by our social relations, our language, our sex, our gender, our economic interests, our egos, and a myriad of other factors. Morality plays a huge role although we barely ever mention it. We swim in a moral world but we seldom recognize it. Like fish who don’t know they swim in water, we are the last to recognize that we swim in a moral world. In this series of posts I’ll try to open up that moral world a bit so that we can see more deeply into want makes us tick as humans.

Interlude: Veblen’s The Barbarian Status of Women: an accessible file.

BSW

Click on the link above and I guarantee you that you can read Veblen’s The Barbarian Status of Women, published in 1898. This file is in the public domaine and is available in the internet archive.

I think WordPress hates me. I put up the BSW link above thinking everything is going to go fine because I actually uploaded the file to WordPress. Well, when I click on BSW above, my computer tells me it’s downloading the file….but when I go looking for the damn file, I can’t find it. So I copied the whole damn thing below. 

The Barbarian Status of Women

by Thorstein Veblen

American Journal of Sociology

vol. 4, (1898-9)

 

 

 

It seems altogether probable that in the primitive groups of

mankind, when the race first took to a systematic use of tools

and so emerged upon the properly human plane of life, there was

but the very slightest beginning of a system of status, with

little of invidious distinction between classes and little of a

corresponding division of employments. In an earlier paper,

published in this JOURNAL,(1*) it has been argued that the early

division of labor between classes comes in as the result of an

increasing efficiency of labor, due to a growing effectiveness in

the use of tools. When, in the early cultural development, the

use of tools and the technical command of material forces had

reached a certain degree of effectiveness, the employments which

occupy the primitive community would fall into two distinct

groups – (a) the honorific employments, which involve a large

element of prowess, and (b) the humiliating employments, which

call for diligence and into which the sturdier virtues do not

enter. An appreciable advance in the use of tools must precede

this differentiation of employments, because (1) without

effective tools (including weapons) men are not sufficiently

formidable in conflict with the ferocious beasts to devote

themselves so exclusively to the hunting of large game as to

develop that occupation into a conventional mode of life reserved

for a distinct class; (2) without tools of some efficiency,

industry is not productive enough to support a dense population,

and therefore the groups into which the population gathers will

not come into such a habitual hostile contact with one another as

would give rise to a life of warlike prowess; (3) until

industrial methods and knowledge have made some advance, the work

of getting a livelihood is too exacting to admit of the

consistent exemption of any portion of the community from vulgar

labor; (4) the inefficient primitive industry yields no such

disposable surplus of accumulated goods as would be worth

fighting for, or would tempt an intruder, and therefore there is

little provocation to warlike prowess.

With the growth of industry comes the possibility of a

predatory life; and if the groups of savages crowd one another in

the struggle for subsistence, there is a provocation to

hostilities, and a predatory habit of life ensues. There is a

consequent growth of a predatory culture, which may for the

present purpose be treated as the beginning of the barbarian

culture. This predatory culture shows itself in a growth of

suitable institutions. The group divides itself conventionally

into a fighting and a peace-keeping class, with a corresponding

division of labor. Fighting, together with other work that

involves a serious element of exploit, becomes the employment of

the able-bodied men; the uneventful everyday work of the group

falls to the women and the infirm.

In such a community the standards of merit and propriety rest

on an invidious distinction between those who are capable

fighters and those who are not. Infirmity, that is to say

incapacity for exploit, is looked down upon. One of the early

consequences of this deprecation of infirmity is a tabu on women

and on women’s employments. In the apprehension of the archaic,

animistic barbarian, infirmity is infectious. The infection may

work its mischievous effect both by sympathetic influence and by

transfusion. Therefore it is well for the able-bodied man who is

mindful of his virility to shun all undue contact and

conversation with the weaker sex and to avoid all contamination

with the employments that are characteristic of the sex. Even the

habitual food of women should not be eaten by men, lest their

force be thereby impaired. The injunction against womanly

employments and foods and against intercourse with women applies

with especial rigor during the season of preparation for any work

of manly exploit, such as a great hunt or a warlike raid, or

induction into some manly dignity or society or mystery.

Illustrations of this seasonal tabu abound in the early history

of all peoples that have had a warlike or barbarian past. The

women, their occupations, their food and clothing, their habitual

place in the house or village, and in extreme cases even their

speech, become ceremonially unclean to the men. This imputation

of ceremonial uncleanness on the ground of their infirmity has

lasted on in the later culture as a sense of the unworthiness or

levitical inadequacy of women; so that even now we feel the

impropriety of women taking rank with men, or representing the

community in any relation that calls for dignity and ritual

competency,. as for instance, in priestly or diplomatic offices,

or even in representative civil offices, and likewise, and for a

like reason, in such offices of domestic and body servants as are

of a seriously ceremonial character – footmen, butlers, etc.

The changes that take place in the everyday experiences of a

group or horde when it passes from a peaceable to a predatory

habit of life have their effect on the habits of thought

prevalent in the group. As the hostile contact of one group with

another becomes closer and more habitual, the predatory activity

and the bellicose animus become more habitual to the members of

the group. Fighting comes more and more to occupy men’s everyday

thoughts, and the other activities of the group fall into the

background and become subsidiary to the fighting activity. In the

popular apprehension the substantial core of such a group – that

on which men’s thoughts run when the community and the

community’s life is thought of – is the body of fighting men. The

collective fighting capacity becomes the most serious question

that occupies men’s minds, and gives the point of view from which

persons and conduct are rated. The scheme of life of such a group

is substantially a scheme of exploit. There is much of this point

of view to be found even in the common-sense views held by modern

populations. The inclination to identify the community with its

fighting men comes into evidence today whenever warlike interests

occupy the popular attention in an appreciable degree.

The work of the predatory barbarian group is gradually

specialized and differentiated under the dominance of this ideal

of prowess, so as to give rise to a system of status in which the

non-fighters fall into a position of subservience to the

fighters. The accepted scheme of life or consensus of opinions

which guides the conduct of men in such a predatory group and

decides what may properly be done, of course comprises a great

variety of details; but it is, after all, a single scheme – a

more or less organic whole so that the life carried on under its

guidance in any case makes up a somewhat consistent and

characteristic body of culture. This is necessarily the case,

because of the simple fact that the individuals between whom the

consensus holds are individuals. The thinking of each one is the

thinking of the same individual, on whatever head and in whatever

direction his thinking may run. Whatever may be the immediate

point or object of his thinking, the frame of mind which governs

his aim and manner of reasoning in passing on any given point of

conduct is, on the whole, the habitual frame of mind which

experience and tradition have enforced upon him. Individuals

whose sense of what is right and good departs widely from the

accepted views suffer some repression, and in case of an extreme

divergence they are eliminated from the effective life of the

group through ostracism. Where the fighting class is in the

position of dominance and prescriptive legitimacy, the canons of

conduct are shaped chiefly by the common sense of the body of

fighting men. Whatever conduct and whatever code of proprieties

has the authentication of this common sense is definitively right

and good, for the time being. and the deliverances of this common

sense are, in their turn, shaped by the habits of life of the

able-bodied men. Habitual conflict acts, by selection and by

habituation, to make these male members tolerant of any

infliction of damage and suffering. Habituation to the sight and

infliction of suffering, and to the emotions that go with fights

and brawls, may even end in making the spectacle of misery a

pleasing diversion to them. The result is in any case a more or

less consistent attitude of plundering and coercion on the part

of the fighting body, and this animus is incorporated into the

scheme of life of the community. The discipline of predatory life

makes for an attitude of mastery on the part of the able-bodied

men in all their relations with the weaker members of the group,

and especially in their relations with the women. Men who are

trained in predatory ways of life and modes of thinking come by

habituation to apprehend this form of the relation between the

sexes as good and beautiful.

All the women in the group will share in the class repression

and depreciation that belongs to them as women, but the status of

women taken from hostile groups has an additional feature. Such a

woman not only belongs to a subservient and low class, but she

also stands in a special relation to her captor. She is a trophy

of the raid, and therefore an evidence of exploit, and on this

ground it is to her captor’s interest to maintain a peculiarly

obvious relation of mastery toward her. And since, in the early

culture, it does not detract from her subservience to the life of

the group, this peculiar relation of the captive to her captor

will meet but slight, if any, objection from the other members of

the group. At the same time, since his peculiar coercive relation

to the woman serves to mark her as a trophy of his exploit, he

will somewhat jealously resent any similar freedom taken by other

men, or any attempt on their part to parade a similar coercive

authority over her, and so usurp the laurels of his prowess, very

much as a warrior would under like circumstances resent a

usurpation or an abuse of the scalps or skulls which he had taken

from the enemy.

After the habit of appropriating captured women has hardened

into custom, and so given rise on the one hand to a form of

marriage resting on coercion, and on the other hand to a concept

of ownership,(2*) a development of certain secondary features of

the institution so inaugurated is to be looked for. In time this

coercive ownership-marriage receives the sanction of the popular

taste and morality. It comes to rest in men’s habits of thought

as the right form of marriage relation, and it comes at the same

time to be gratifying to men’s sense of beauty and of honor. The

growing predilection for mastery and coercion, as a manly trait,

together with the growing moral and aesthetic approbation of

marriage on a basis of coercion and ownership, will affect the

tastes of the men most immediately and most strongly; but since

the men are the superior class, whose views determine the current

views of the community, their common sense in the matter will

shape the current canons of taste in its own image. The tastes of

the women also, in point of morality and of propriety alike, will

presently be affected in the same way. Through the precept and

example of those who make the vogue, and through selective

repression of those who are unable to accept it, the institution

of ownership-marriage makes its way into definitive acceptance as

the only beautiful and virtuous form of the relation. As the

conviction of its legitimacy grows stronger in each succeeding

generation, it comes to be appreciated unreflectingly as a

deliverance of common sense and enlightened reason that the good

and beautiful attitude of the man toward the woman is an attitude

of coercion. “None but the brave deserve the fair.”

As the predatory habit of life gains a more unquestioned and

undivided sway, other forms of the marriage relation fall under a

polite odium. The masterless, unattached woman consequently loses

caste. It becomes imperative for all men who would stand well in

the eyes of their fellows to attach some woman or women to

themselves by the honorable bonds of seizure. In order to a

decent standing in the community a man is required to enter into

this virtuous and honorific relation of ownership-marriage, and a

publicly acknowledged marriage relation which has not the

sanction of capture becomes unworthy of able-bodied men. But as

the group increases in size, the difficulty of providing wives by

capture becomes very great, and it becomes necessary to find a

remedy that shall save the requirements of decency and at the

same time permit the marriage of women from within the group. To

this end the status of women married from within the group is

sought to be mended by a mimic or ceremonial capture. The

ceremonial capture effects an assimilation of the free woman into

the more acceptable class of women who are attached by bonds of

coercion to some master, and so gives a ceremonial legitimacy and

decency to the resulting marriage relation. The probable motive

for adopting the free women into the honorable class of bond

women in this way is not primarily a wish to improve their

standing or their lot, but rather a wish to keep those good men

in countenance who, for dearth of captives, are constrained to

seek a substitute from among the home-bred women of the group.

The inclinations of men in high standing who are possessed of

marriageable daughters would run in the same direction. It would

not seem right that a woman of high birth should irretrievably be

outclassed by any chance-comer from outside.

According to this view, marriage by feigned capture within

the tribe is a case of mimicry – “protective mimicry,” to borrow

a phrase from the naturalists. It is substantially a case of

adoption. As is the case in all human relations where adoption is

practiced, this adoption of the free women into the class of the

unfree proceeds by as close an imitation as may be of the

original fact for which it is a substitute. And as in other cases

of adoption, the ceremonial performance is by no means looked

upon as a fatuous make-believe. The barbarian has implicit faith

in the efficiency of imitation and ceremonial execution as a

means of compassing a desired end. The entire range of magic and

religious rites is testimony to that effect. He looks upon

external objects and sequences naively, as organic and individual

things, and as expressions of a propensity working toward an end.

The unsophisticated common sense of the primitive barbarian

apprehends sequences and events. in terms of will-power or

inclination. As seen in the light of this animistic

preconception, any process is substantially teleological, and the

propensity imputed to it will not be thwarted of its legitimate

end after the course of events in which it expresses itself has

once fallen into shape or got under. way. It follows logically,

as a matter of course, that if once the motions leading to a

desired consummation have been rehearsed in the accredited form

and sequence, the same substantial result will be attained as

that produced by the process imitated. This is the ground of

whatever efficiency is imputed to ceremonial observances on all

planes of culture, and it is especially the chief element in

formal adoption and initiation. Hence, probably, the practice of

mock-seizure or mock-capture, and hence the formal profession of

fealty and submission on the part of the woman in the marriage

rites of peoples among whom the household with a male head

prevails. This form of the household is almost always associated

with some survival or reminiscence of wife-capture. In all such

cases, marriage is, by derivation, a ritual of initiation into

servitude. In the words of the formula, even after it has been

appreciably softened under the latter-day decay of the sense of

status, it is the woman’s place to love, honor, and obey.

According to this view, the patriarchal household, or, in

other words, the household with a male head, is an outgrowth of

emulation between the members of a warlike community. It is,

therefore, in point of derivation, a predatory institution. The

ownership and control of women is a gratifying evidence of

prowess and high standing. In logical consistency, therefore, the

greater the number of women so held, the greater the distinction

which their possession confers upon their master. Hence the

prevalence of polygamy, which occurs almost universally at one

stage of culture among peoples which have the male household.

There may, of course, be other reasons for polygamy, but the

ideal development of polygamy which is met with in the harems of

very powerful patriarchal despots and chieftains can scarcely be

explained on other grounds. But whether it works out in a system

of polygamy or not, the male household is in any case a detail of

a system of status under which the women are included in the

class of unfree subjects. The dominant feature in the

institutional structure of these communities is that of status,

and the groundwork of their economic life is a rigorous system of

ownership.

The institution is found at its best, or in its most

effectual development, in the communities in which status and

ownership prevail with the least mitigation; and with the decline

of the sense of status and of the extreme pretensions of

ownership, such as has been going on for some time past in the

communities of the western culture, the institution of the

patriarchal household has also suffered something of a

disintegration. There has been some weakening and slackening of

the bonds, and this deterioration is most visible in the

communities which have departed farthest from the ancient system

of status, and have gone farthest in reorganizing their economic

life on the lines of industrial freedom. And the deference for an

indissoluble tie of ownership-marriage, as well as the sense of

its definitive virtuousness, has suffered the greatest decline

among the classes immediately engaged in the modern industries.

So that there seems to be fair ground for saying that the habits

of thought fostered by modern industrial life are, on the whole,

not favorable to the maintenance of this institution or to that

status of women which the institution in its best development

implies. The days of its best development are in the past, and

the discipline of modern life – if not supplemented by a prudent

inculcation of conservative ideals – will scarcely afford the

psychological basis for its rehabilitation.

 

This form of marriage, or of ownership, by which the man

becomes the head of the household, the owner of the woman, and

the owner and discretionary consumer of the household’s output of

consumable goods, does not of necessity imply a patriarchal

system of consanguinity. The presence or absence of maternal

relationship should, therefore, not be given definite weight in

this connection. The male household, in some degree of

elaboration, may well coexist with a counting of relationship in

the female line, as, for instance, among many North American

tribes. But where this is the case it seems probable that the

ownership of women, together with the invidious distinctions of

status from which the practice of such an ownership springs, has

come into vogue at so late a stage of the cultural development

that the maternal system of relationship had already been

thoroughly incorporated into the tribe’s scheme of life. The male

household in such cases is ordinarily not developed in good form

or entirely free from traces of a maternal household. The traces

of a maternal household which are found in these cases commonly

point to a form of marriage which disregards the man rather than

places him under the surveillance of the woman. It may well be

named the household of the unattached woman. This condition of

things argues that the tribe or race in question has entered upon

a predatory life only after a considerable period of peaceable

industrial life, and after having achieved a considerable

development of social structure under the regime of peace and

industry, whereas the unqualified prevalence of the patriarchate,

together- with the male household, may be taken to indicate that

the predatory phase was entered early, culturally speaking.

Where the patriarchal system is in force in fully developed

form, including the paternal household, and hampered with no

indubitable survivals of a maternal household or a maternal

system of relationship, the presumption would be that the people

in question has entered upon the predatory culture early, and has

adopted the institutions of private property and class

prerogative at an early stage of its economic development. On the

other hand, where there are well-preserved traces of a maternal

household, the presumption is that the predatory phase has been

entered by the community in question at a relatively late point

in its life history, even if the patriarchal system is, and long

has been, the prevalent system of relationship. In the latter

case the community, or the group of tribes, may, perhaps for

geographical reasons, not have independently attained the

predatory culture in accentuated form, but may at a relatively

late date have contracted the agnatic system and the paternal

household through contact with another, higher, or

characteristically different, culture, which has included these

institutions among its cultural furniture. The required contact

would take place most effectually by way of invasion and conquest

by an alien race occupying the higher plane or divergent line of

culture. Something of this kind is the probable explanation, for

instance, of the equivocal character of the household and

relationship system in the early Germanic culture, especially as

it is seen in such outlying regions as Scandinavia. The evidence,

in this latter case, as in some other communities lying farther

south, is somewhat obscure, but it points to a long-continued

coexistence of the two forms of the household; of which the

maternal seems to have held its place most tenaciously among the

subject or lower classes of the population, while the paternal

was the honorable form of marriage in vogue among the superior

class. In the earliest traceable situation of these tribes there

appears to have been a relatively feeble, but growing,

preponderance of the male household throughout the community.

This mixture of marriage institutions, as well as the correlative

mixture or ambiguity of property institutions associated with it

in the Germanic culture, seems most easily explicable as being

due to the mingling of two distinct racial stocks, whose

institutions differed in these respects. The race or tribe which

had the maternal household and common property would probably

have been the more numerous and the more peaceable at the time

the mixing process began, and would fall into some degree of

subjection to its more warlike consort race.

 

No attempt is hereby made to account for the various forms of

human marriage, or to show how the institution varies in detail

from place to place and from time to time, but only to indicate

what seems to have been the range of motives and of exigencies

that have given rise to the paternal household, as it has been

handed down from the barbarian past of the peoples of the western

culture. To this end, nothing but the most general features of

the life history of the institution have been touched upon, and

even the evidence on which this much of generalization is based

is, per force, omitted. The purpose of the argument is to point

out that there is a close connection, particularly in point of

psychological derivation, between individual ownership, the

system of status, and the paternal household, as they appear in

this culture.

This view of the derivation of private property and of the

male household, as already suggested, does not imply the prior

existence of a maternal household of the kind in which the woman

is the head and master of a household group and exercises a

discretionary control over her husband or husbands and over the

household effects. Still less does it imply a prior state of

promiscuity. What is implied by the hypothesis and by the scant

evidence at hand is rather the form of the marriage relation

above characterized as the household of the unattached woman. The

characteristic feature of this marriage seems to have been an

absence of coercion or control in the relation between the sexes.

The union (probably monogamic and more or less enduring) seems to

have been terminable at will by either party, under the

constraint of some slight conventional limitations. The

substantial difference introduced into the marriage relation on

the adoption of ownership-marriage is the exercise of coercion by

the man and the loss on the part of the woman of the power to

terminate the relation at will. Evidence running in this

direction, and in part hitherto unpublished, is to be found both

in the modern and in the earlier culture of Germanic communities.

It is only in cases where circumstances have, in an

exceptional degree, favoured the development of ownership-marriage

that we should expect to find the institution worked out to its

logical consequences. Wherever the predatory phase of social life

has not come in early and has not prevailed in unqualified form

for a long time, or wherever a social group or race with this

form of the household has received a strong admixture of another

race not possessed of the institution, there the prevalent form

of marriage should show something of a departure from this

paternal type. And even where neither of these two conditions is

present, this type of the marriage relation might be expected in

the course of time to break down with the change of

circumstances, since it is an institution that has grown up as a

detail of a system of status, and, therefore, presumably fits

into such a social system, but does not fit into a system of a

different kind. It is at present visibly breaking down in modern

civilized communities, apparently because it is at variance with

the most ancient habits of thought of the race, as well as with

the exigencies of a peaceful, industrial mode of life. There may

seem some ground for holding that the same reassertion of ancient

habits of thought which is now apparently at work to disintegrate

the institution of ownership-marriage may be expected also to

work a disintegration of the correlative institution of private

property; but that is perhaps a question of speculative curiosity

rather than of urgent theoretical interest.

 

NOTES:

 

  1. “The Instinct of Workmanship and the Irksomeness of Labor,”

September 1898, pp. 187-210.

 

  1. For a more detailed discussion of this point see a paper on

“The Beginnings of Ownership” in this JOURNAL for November, 1898.

 

What Will a Post-Employment Future Look Like?

One of my former students, a frequent commentator on my blog, commented on my last post about my disillusionment and the nature of capital. She asked two questions in particular that I will address in this post:

“Do you see hope for mankind’s survival after workers are replaced by robots and machines and software? If so, do you have an idea of how we humans will be able to sustain ourselves once traditional “jobs” have disappeared?”

These are both good questions. To answer the first one, I’ll say right off that I’m no utopian. I leave the musings about future worlds to the utopians, dystopians, novelists and science fiction writers. There are enough Star Wars and Star Treks to go around. Still, there are some things I can say about the future that are science-based and predictable. However, it’s necessary to first think about what ‘mankind’s survival’ means.

The word survival needs some consideration. Ultimately, none of us, nor any of our marvellous creations survive or ‘live beyond’. Science, especially palaeontology, archaeology and related disciplines, have made it clear that our planet has only been around for a few billion years and we, as a species, have only evolved in that last few million. Us modern humans are a very recent addition to the planet and as with everything else, we’re still evolving and will continue to do so until we go out of existence, and that’s a sure thing. I used to challenge my students to come up with an example of anything that was amenable to perception via our senses that had not or would not come into existence at some point and go out of existence at a later point. Everything comes and goes. Life is a process, not a thing. Of course, I’m sure you can come up with a lot of “what if’s” here as in what if we blow ourselves to bits with nuclear weapons before we get a chance to evolve more or less peacefully out of existence? That may happen. We may try to commit species suicide, but it’s highly unlikely that every human on the planet would be eliminated by nuclear war. I’ll let the dystopians speculate on that one.

Besides, species don’t always disappear completely. They often evolve into other species over long periods of time. So, ultimately, survival is not an option for us, nor is it for any other species. It’s not even  an option for mountain ranges and continents, or the universe, according to some scientists. Nothing ever stays the same. Our limited sensual and perceptual abilities and weak sense of time often prevent us from fully appreciating that.

That said, and moving on, mankind will easily survive the advent of robots and extreme mechanization. I think my student’s question was more in line with the question: “what are we going to do when robots do everything for us?” I really don’t know. Probably some of the things we do now. Work will still need to be done. It is on Star Trek’s Enterprise. (Do you think people get paid on the Enterprise? What would they spend their money on, especially when you can order an Earl Grey tea, hot, at the replicator anytime you want without putting a toonie in a slot?)

Marx actually speculated on a post-capitalist world in one of his books, The German Ideology, but lived to regret it because he was afterwards forever branded a wide-eyed utopian. Later in his life he focussed almost entirely on writing Das Kapital, a basically scientific venture. By then he had abandoned his youthful idealistic philosophizing and political pamphlet writing. But I digress.

What I argued in my last post was that employment would come to an end, not work. I should have made that more clear. Employment is a way work gets organized. Working for wages is only one of many ways work can get organized. Slavery is another way. Work can get done too by volunteers. The point is that employment will disappear but work won’t. To take this one step further: Marx concluded (not specifically in these words) that communism will come when we are all unemployed. Now, that’s not strictly true. Markets existed in ancient Egypt, they just weren’t the dominant means of creating wealth. In the future, if things continue as they are, some employment may still exist, but it won’t be the dominant social relation of production.

The truth is, businesses are rapidly eliminating employees in a number of critical large scale industries. Machines have been eliminating, at an accelerating pace, a lot of the more onerous and dangerous tasks we used to perform as a matter or course. Who would have thunk that lawyering could be automated. It can be and already is to some extent. There are research algorithms that can do away with a lot of the work previously done by junior lawyers and minions in law firms. Lawyers will still be with us for some time, of course, but they don’t have any long term immunity from elimination. Same goes for physicians and surgeons. Very few activities we now take for granted have a guaranteed future. That idea seems impossible at the moment, but could a person living when the Gutenberg press was invented have been able to foresee the use of computerized printing, freeways and skyscrapers?

The point here is that the historical trajectory we are on suggests that capital is replacing labour at a greater pace than ever before in the execution of work. The mechanism by which this occurs is the constantly shrinking margins of profit and the inability of the whole capitalist world (not necessarily individual capitalists) to exploit workers.* In practical terms, if a large scale fast-food chain manages to eliminate most of its workforce, it will have a harder and harder time making money. This is partly because in eliminating its workforce it would also be eliminating a major market for its products. Obviously, there is no direct equivalence between workers and their ability or not to buy hamburgers, but if enough businesses eliminate a significant part of their labour force, there is obviously less and less in the way of aggregate wages to buy commodities. It’s true that fast-food workers could go work elsewhere, but if most other large employers are also doing the same thing, there will soon be nowhere to go. Meet a huge number of American workers. That’s exactly  the situation they’re in. Some may ‘choose’ to become self-employed, but that’s just another way of surreptitiously eliminating employment.

Employment will not be eliminated next week, or next month or next year. Probably not in the next 100 years. But it will be. If that’s true, how will we then sustain ourselves? With no wages, what would we do to buy things? Well, the trick here is to avoid thinking about the future in terms of the present. That’s tough. We have stores full of stuff for us to buy. What would they do? Change drastically, that’s what. Can you imagine a ‘store’ where you walk in, take what you need and leave (legally, that is)? Hoarding? Why would anyone hoard if they can get whatever they need anytime they need it? Besides, we have to ask ourselves why we need all the ‘stuff’ we buy. Do we really need it to be happy, to be fulfilled? As I already noted, we can’t think about a future world by simply imposing our current institutions on it.

Wow, is this a utopia I promised not to get into? I don’t think so. The logical conclusion of the elimination of employment is the elimination of employer/employee relations, wages, salaries and the need for any kind of benefits.  Some countries are already moving toward a guaranteed income for everyone out of the pool of income produced nationally by way of industrial production and business profits. Their education and health services are already paid for by the state.

Earned salaries and wages will no longer exist. Won’t that do away with human initiative? Yes, as we know it. But following the logic of the falling rate of profit to its conclusion suggests a number of consequences we cannot predict at this time. What will people do in a world without employment? Lots of things. Like I said, work will not be eliminated and may be more popular than ever. Most jobs will be eliminated however and, frankly, that looks like a good thing from where I sit right now. Many women who for a long time have not been paid for domestic work might also approve. If they don’t get paid for what they do, then why should the rest of us? Seems fantastical, doesn’t it? Well, it’s no more fantastical than the creation of employment in the first place. Jobs have not always existed, that category of labour was created in Europe starting around the 11th century,  but work has always been necessary because things need to get done. What may come of all of this is a much more equal distribution of the fruits of social production. How that would unfold politically I have no idea except to say that it would have to be a global affair. It may not come peacefully either.

As fodder for a future blog post, one thing I’ve always found fascinating is our love affair with our jobs. Maybe a topic for another post. It’s funny, though, why we seem to crave vacations and get lots of congratulations upon our retirement. Maybe we don’t love our working lives so much after all because we seem happiest when we don’t have working lives or when we ‘vacate’ them.

As a bit of an aside, but a point still relevant to make here, some of us were (in my case as a retiree) and are quite happy with the work we did or do. We were/are the fortunate ones. I loved teaching, but I didn’t particularly love my job. I liked the pay too, of course, but a paycheque is only one way that’s possible to reward a person for doing work. I’ll save this for another blog post too.

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*This statement itself requires much more elaboration, but I’ll save that for another post.

Why do we so often refer to sex as dirty?

My next post was supposed to be about morality and that will be the subject of a number of future posts, but I was listening to the CBC this morning and the guest host of the morning program was interviewing a comedian and talking about his upcoming show. That tweaked my interest as I sipped my coffee. The host asked the comedian if his show was going to be clean. The comedian responded that for the most part it would be but that it would also be dirty at times. Well, I just had to weigh in. Morality will just have to wait a bit.

By dirty I know, and you know, that the host and the comedian were referring to the use of  swear words like fuck and shit and piss in his routine. He was not, however, going to make specific reference to the sex act and have some fun with that. That would be too raunchy. After all, you’ve got to keep it safe for a regular audience or they won’t come back to see you again. Swearing, it seems, is fair game. It’s okay to make fun of your wife or yourself in a comedy routine, but it’s not okay to talk explicitly about what went wrong or right the last time you had sex. That will be okay in the not-too-distant future, I expect.

It’s quite telling that in English swearing is almost exclusively sex based or has to do with genitalia or bodily functions of one sort or the other. In French Canada, swearing is entirely different, or at least it was when I was a kid. In French swearing relates to religious things although it can stray into combining sex or bodily functions with objects or persons of religions significance. For instance, a great swearing line in French refers to the ‘holy cream of an old nun.’ It’s probably changing now to a more ‘cleanly’ sex-based expression. Tell me if you know. I’m not up on Québecois swearing behaviour these days. In English, of course, fuck is the word or choice in a number of expressions not at all related to sex, but the word clearly relates to coitus or the sex act. For instance we might exclaim upon seeing a cute cat video: “Wasn’t that just the cutest fucking thing you’ve ever seen?” Or, listen to George Carlin classify people into three categories. He says that there are stupid people, people who don’t give a shit and people who are just fucking nuts!

So, what about this sex is dirty thing? Well, Ernest Becker (in his many books, but especially The Denial of Death and Escape From Evil, concludes that it all goes back to our fear or terror of death,* which also has a lot to say about how women are so often poorly treated in our world and in times past.  So what does considering sex as dirty have to do with our fear of death and the way women are so often (mis)treated?

It’s a bit of a truism to say that we all live and die. Yes, we do, but we don’t necessarily like the dying part so we concoct all sorts of cultural mechanisms to help us deny  that fact. One way we do that is to separate ourselves linguistically from other animal species by referring to ourselves as ‘human’ and to those other things as ‘animals.’ Of course, we are animals and it’s hard to deny that because we’re obviously not plants or rocks, but that doesn’t matter. We deny anyway. That kind of attitude allows us to treat animals in all kinds of nasty ways, because, well, they aren’t human and God did say that he put them here on earth for us to have dominion over. We are spiritual beings, animals aren’t. Enough said.

More significantly however we also take great care to separate ourselves into male and female classes. Yes, I say classes because that’s what’s happening. Just as we consider ourselves spiritual beings and animals as spiritless, we have also contrived historically to consider men as spiritual beings and women as physical beings. In many parts of the world in every time in history women have been considered a lesser species than men.

There’s a simple, yet devastating reason for this. Women remind men at every turn that they are mortal. Women exude blood on a regular basis. Babies are born between shit and piss in an orgy of blood. You lose blood, you die. Men have gone to extraordinary lengths to deny their physicality, their animality, and emphasize their spirituality to the detriment of women. Men in some cultures wear anal plugs to show that they don’t need to shit. They are above that. Menstruating women are often shunned for fear that they might contaminate something or other. Men denigrate women at every turn. Not all men, of course, but our culture and many in the past have built massive institutions that denigrate women. The pornography ‘industry’ is a good example of that. It’s popularity attests to how important sex is to us, but how important it also is to objectify women and treat them as sexual objects and as not quite human. Generally speaking, women are way more important to men for their genitals than for their brains. Hillary Clinton is facing this fact right now in the U.S. Many men just can’t see the president of the United States being fucked. Tell me it ain’t so.

Sin, in Christian, Muslim and Judaic mythology often refers to succumbing to the temptations of the flesh, female flesh that is. The flesh is the territory of the devil. If you want to live forever  in the light of God then stay clear of unauthorized sexual pleasure. “Unauthorized’ here is a critical element in the preceding sentence. Although constantly being revised and rethought, when and how sex gets authorized and becomes okay is strictly defined in cultural precepts. That’s fodder for another blog post.

Oh, we take sex very seriously in our culture, in our time, but we have very contradictory ideas about it. Yes, the sex act is fun and all that, but it also brings us clearly into the physical world and that’s a dangerous place to be if you want to be immortal.

In my next post, I’ll consider how sex and our animality fit into our broader moral world.
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