Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Gender difference - a social construct?

The question is often asked if gender is a 100% social construct.

My answer is yes. Gender is a social construction created, however, in response to our biology of sexual reproduction. The function of gender is to prescribe the social conduct required for sexual interactions. While biology determines the sexual apparatus of the body and embeds in us procreative instincts, gender is a set of forms and behaviors that we adopt being strongly induced to, inducted into indeed, by our early environment and mostly by parents who more or less apply the norms prescribed by society for a biological boy or girl.

Gender becomes strongly embedded in the body as it relates to the sexual aspirations and wishes. That means gender is about how we will realize our sexuality, about how we will couple, not just relate, with others. Just because it is a social construct does not mean that it is easy or painless to change it or go against it. Therefore it is not purely performative as a social role.

Gender is the way we present our sexual aspirations to ourselves. Such presentation in principle should admit a huge variability. This option is eagerly embraced by the proponents of a "gender spectrum" or continuity denying the validity of masculine and feminine gender expressions. For them the cultural standard should be really a choice of the proper ratio of the masculine and feminine.

So why would we have two genders? Just because there are two biological sexes?

Partly yes, but since we are speaking beings that interpret everything and try to apply and extract meaning to and from each and every fact and act of our lives, the gender expression is due to the semantics of sex rather than to its reality. In other words, because we speak we express sex through gender - that is, we make it complicated. Alenka Zupančič takes it further: because we have sex, she says, we need to develop language to handle it.

In the 1990s, Joan Copjec, a feminist, wrote an article deriving gender difference from the antinomies of Kant. According to her paper, man is the dynamic failure, meaning that he does not rise to the occasion, while woman is an existential (or mathematical) failure, meaning that she does not exist. The latter statement is, of course, scandalous, and of Lacanian provenience.

Let me recount Copjec's argument in the form of anecdote.
There we have It - the elusive and obscure signifier of desire. Hidden in the unconscious and totally inaccessible. Lacan calls it the Phallus.
The man has It yet knows he is not It but because he has It he is sure he will become It.
The woman is sure she is It yet she does not have It but is sure that somehow she will obtain It.

This is really a Lacanian version of Freudian "penis envy" - now distributed between the genders, albeit asymmetrically, owing to the split between the modalities of having and being.

In explicit and yet very elucidating sexual terms we can say this:
The man has it (the penis) but does not have the erection. So he is not It.
The woman is It (she is the erection) - but she does not have it.

Now the failure, the lack, is distributed - not equally but so that each gender can complete the other. Just like it was explained by Aristophanes in old Plato's account.

Speaking more closely to Copjec's terminology, man's dynamic failure is the failure to master the delivery of power - as he presumes to have what it takes but is challenged to make it work, cannot make it It. Woman is It but does not believe it - she has to have somebody prove it to her. Man can do it as he directs the power he creates toward her. The proof is seen as love. Love proves that she is It.

Casting this discussion in terms of power - and I consider power a transmission of energy or force in a semantically organized manner - seems to me a more socially acceptable simplification. That is why I sometimes say that gender difference is founded on the relationship to power. Man is the creator and generator of power while the woman is its recipient and beneficiary - and thus its judge.

---
References:
Copjec:  "Sex and the Euthanasia of Reason" - in "Supposing the Subject" - Verso 1994
Zupančič: "What is sex?" - MIT 2017. page 43

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Christianity is Humanism

What is religion? Religion is a way for individuals to deal with the void in their soul - their existential anxiety. We are not going to do away with its individual dimension but we must somehow deal with institutional power built on human religious impulse. Here I think that Christianity has a certain advantage.

Let us start with a simplified bullet point list of major world religions:

  • Judaism - we are God's chosen people and we communicate and negotiate our existence with God
  • Judeo-Christianity - we are promoted from chosen people to children of God
  • Islam - we are God's slaves or at best tenants and have to submit to the Supreme being
  • Buddhism - God is the void and we are happy to join the void
  • Hinduism - God is the system of the world


The story goes like this - in comic-book grand narrative style:
Abraham sees a burning bush and realizes that the void in his soul is the only void. The void is unique. The sole and universal God speaks to him. From this event Judaism has developed as a practice of the chosen people to enter into dialogue with the Absolute.

Jesus comes along as an activist for existence and claims that he is the Christ, totally human and totally divine - and designated to die and be resurrected to prove all that. So starts the development of Christianity and it starts with Christ as the first existentialist activist. He claims that by accepting death we become children and heirs of God and God has become one of us. He is not a teacher, not a sage - but an activist like we have them nowadays. The actions of Jesus as Christ, the death and resurrection are presaging the "postmodernism" of Nietzsche and company.

Judeo-Christianity splits off the Orthodox East and the ancient original rites and develops into Catholicism and Protestantism in the West. They all become institutions. Judeo-Christians think themselves to be children of God and so having to behave like them.

Islam enters the stage - prior to Protestantism of course - and, while acknowledging the Abrahamic priority, reveals a teaching harsher than the Abrahamic one. Namely, we are not God's heirs and children - we are his slaves, or tenants at best, - and ought to live in submission. God is no longer the void but the whole of being and we are merely supplicants rather than participants.

Islam and Judeo-Christianity resemble each other in the judgment of human obligation as subordinates to God but differ very much in the concept of the status of human beings with respect to God.

The Asian developments of Hinduism and Buddhism, having taken place before Christ, resemble the split between Catholicism and Protestantism in Christendom. Hinduism is a religion of a God that is the system of the world. As far as I understand, human beings are not really important to this type of God. Perhaps for this reason, Buddhism basically asserts that human existence would be best served by its own denial and devolution into the divine void.

In my view Christ (born: Jesus) is still the guiding figure in the development of our modern religious sensibility.

The religion of Christ, if it existed, and which is not to be confused with the current forms of Christianity, would be profoundly humanistic. Christ does not care if God's existence can be proven - we, humans, have trouble proving our own existence to ourselves. That proof is otherwise known as Love - the elusive state of the soul that everybody is seeking. The main ethic of Christ's religion is not faith but a deep respect and awe for the courage of human existence. Or, to paraphrase Tillich, it is the faith that arises after God has died.

Here is a story by a Polish writer, Witold Gombrowicz, told in his autobiographical novel - "Trans-Atlantic." He gets stranded in Buenos Aires in 1939 and cannot go back to Poland because the Germans started WWII. He stays in BsAs (he really lived there for 20 years or so) and observes his kin folk, arrived on the ship with him, immersed in the life of the locals. One of those people is an older Polish military officer who has a young adult son. The officer upholds high Polish moral standards for himself and his son and really wishes they could fight somehow against the enemy. Unbelievably, with his acquiescence, his son succumbs to the seduction of a rich, vaguely homosexual, Argentinian. The novel ends in a surreal party or orgy where the protagonists proclaim that the idea of sonship should take precedence over that of fatherhood. Or in splendid and clever French translation - "filistrie" over "patrie". The moral is that we will no longer serve the fatherland but forge ahead creating a "sonland." Or Christ taking over from the Father.

The religion of Christ really does not exist. What we have is a seed of the idea embedded in Judeo-Christianity as a sort of contraband. Not sure what to do with it presently, I suspect that in the right moment it will supply strength and a source of meaning to Western civilization.

Gombro's "Trans-Atlantic" shows that the religion of Christ can open its seed in our time, even when vaguely clamoring for various sorts of liberation, through such a thing as an LGBTQ moment.

Modern atheism is not helping because it covers up the existential void with a scientific void. Neither is the exhortation to return to Enlightenment values because they exclude anything beyond the rational and objective. Existentialism, psychoanalysis (Jung invoked Christ's model directly) and other modern and postmodern directions are aiming better. Somehow paradoxically, they stand with Christ taking the position of profound respect for the courage of existence which will allow us, in due time, surpass Judeo-Christianity as well as Enlightenment.

Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Aggression, trauma, empathy and sex

Disclaimer: This text is full of questions I am currently exploring. Even if the answers sound assertive they are tentative. None of the material is of ethical nature.
We are violent and aggressive beings. Aggression is an action aimed to suddenly cause a major change, a trauma, in the body - one's own or another. We harbor aggression for the body of the other and, sometimes, for our own. We have the ability to deliver trauma through aggression. How do we receive trauma? We respond to trauma typically in a massive affect similar to the affect accompanying aggression. I would call this affect empathy - empathy to another's traumatic pain or to one's own.

Trauma connects violent aggression and empathy.

What is trauma? Trauma is a violent change in the conditions of the body. Sudden pain, twisted arm or ankle, limb ripped off in car accident, gun shot wound. But also closely missed contact with danger - a missed high-speed collision on the road. Perhaps also speeding on a motorcycle to twice the freeway speed? Perhaps intrusion perceived as a happy event - such as pregnancy?

Trauma is generally an intrusion of other bodies into our body.

There are types of intrusions and interventions of other bodies into ours that we have been persuaded to accept. It would be appropriately prepared food and drink and also dental or medical instruments. The introductory hand-shake is a bodily intrusion we have been taught to accept under suitable social conditions. In a reversed scenario of intrusion we have been trained to properly expel waste and keep it at a distance from the body.

Another type of traumatic intrusion are sexual acts. The chief example is, of course, the classic male-female intercourse - but there is definitely a range of activities when bodies engage each other in an intrusive way. Among those we would have passing touch (other than the handshake), eye gaze or passing glance, a dance embrace.

I cite such a wide range of activities as traumatic to be able to point out how much trauma we are able to deflect and treat as merely potentially traumatizing - such as a car ride or visit to the dentist. Sexual intercourse among long-term partners is no longer traumatizing. We normalize and habituate ourselves to trauma.

Human beings have a tremendous ability to absorb trauma and aggression. Moreover, we also desire it!

The violent fantasy of popular action/adventure genre is a proof that we imagine ourselves as violent beings. Of course, as Lacan would say, we only imagine it so that it can become real. We need the fantasy so that something can happen in the real. Men are the warriors slaughtering monsters - the heroes properly and rightfully executing their power and attracting and subjugating females. If women prefer to romanticize domestic tranquility they do this in order to be mothers - undergoing the trauma of childbirth and wielding power over the child's life and death, a child whose emerging life is trauma itself, as Lyotard has observed. And women variously accept and rebel against the dominance of the conquering warrior hero.

Imaginary violence is also pervasively present in everyday language - especially in usage related to achievement. In business talk the competition will have "their ass kicked," or you will "bust your ass" to get something done. Imaginary bodily intrusion and affect is clearly implied.

Not to be omitted should be the popular interest in sports - especially team sports - which enact a safer variant of war.

The safest way to act out violence and aggression is sex.

Sex is a bodily intrusion and entanglement that we simply survive unharmed. Sex can be practiced by a single individual - where arousal and/or masturbation can generate a strong affect. The intrusion is more pronounced when more than one body is participating. Large part of the two-body problem is related to the semantics of the interaction of two individuals - which is a topic in psychoanalysis.
Sex is the act where our innate violence and aggression is readily accepted and absorbed. Sex is trauma embodied in a basically unharmed body - opening the way for empathy. Sex is trauma we are built for. The satisfaction sex provides cannot be understood only in terms of pleasure, Freud already having discovered the limits of pleasure, but in terms of contact with the trauma underlying our existence which will often involve pain. Individuals will run extreme risks to obtain sexual satisfaction. Political power that wishes to regulate and restrict sex, because it sees it as one of the loci of aggression and violence, ought to be very careful about unleashing more violence.

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Libertarianism as a centrist ideology

In our current political situation in the US, where the left and right of the political spectrum appear as noisy fringes of Alt-Left and Alt-Right,
there is a lot of space in the center. Therefore, Libertarians have a chance to be seen as a centrist and moderate ideology.

And it is not a false choice. Libertarianism is clearly the core American ideology - one where the protection of individual liberty and autonomy of choice is the founding principle of the nation. Presently, many have lost sight of that fact.

To broaden the appeal of their ideology libertarians need to assert principles that appeal to their potential, and at once sympathetic and skeptical, wings.

The main principle was well stated by Penn Jillette, more or less so, - "if you think about solving a certain problem think how could you solve it by giving people more freedom". This applies to drug prohibition, health care and school choice. This is the core libertarian principle.

To reach the liberal left libertarians ought to assert the John Rawls principle - that change will cause no harm to the weakest in society. Not to "marginalized groups" but to those actually economically and politically weakest - the homeless, those afflicted with illness, single parents, the unemployed. The status of the weakest will not suffer setbacks as a result of policy.

To reach the conservative right libertarians ought to assert the conservation principle. That would mean that beneficial outcomes that have been already reached shall be protected. This means to protect the good things about the system that has been created. This means, for example, tax-protected retirement arrangements and availability of medical care.

Therefore we have three things:
  • be pro-liberty - this is the libertarian no-brainer, because - duh - it's in the constitution
  • protect the weakest - compassion in governance, the "liberal" principle
  • protect the gains - any future solution, market-based or not, will not compromise the existing beneficial outcomes

Professing such ideas, broadening the standard message of liberty, Libertarianism will have a chance of entering the center field of US politics.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

Alt Left and Right and their maternal politics

Antifa and Alt-right - two twins (call them Alter-R and Alter-L) - both longing for the mother, for the maternal system of politics.

The mother is inclusive. But to be inclusive she needs to exclude properly - to discriminate. And here the Alter-R and Alter-L differ. For the Alter-L she only includes those she likes - those that have no fascism, no racism, no xxx-phobia, no hate. For the Alter-R she discriminates  on the basis of "blood and soil". There is a purity test in maternal politics. The impure shall be expelled.

Mother has to include and discriminate because she has only one womb. The beings that share it will be indulged in boundless communion with her body and other bodies like themselves. This is the fantasy that Freud viewed as the foundational human desire.(*)

But those of us who are not the Alter twins - are post-Oedipal. We are all different. We can be called all different names - conservatives, liberals, libertarians, traditionalists. We want a different system of politics. One where all the different people can commune and interact out of their choice. Out of their free choice because they each occupy their own apartment in the political space. In psychological terms that apartment is called the ego, in terms of personal power it is called "boundaries", in terms of politics it is called basic human rights.

I would call it the paternal system of politics. This term is inspired by Judeo-Christianity which is foundational to our civilization. The father is symbolic, he does not have a single womb - but a house with many apartments - as it says in the Gospel of John. We are gladly adopted children, individually adopted on the basis of accepting grace. This allows us to claim our "human rights." (**)

Some call this system, system that protects our individual liberties, an odious patriarchy. But in fact it is not at all male-dominated. It is the system where the male energy self-regulates by inhabiting the domain of the Word, the Logos. Consequently, the Logos regulates access to the Mother, to the place of desire. It's a post-Oedipal system. The satisfaction of desire, access to knowledge and power, are all negotiated by the word rather than conquered by force or obtained by a pious purity test.

The maternal politics project of Alter twin brothers is fundamentally aimed against the Logos. It is for people who are all alike to live in the unity and purity of the communal womb of the state. In essence it is fascist.

The paternal world is for a lot of different people to live independently and peacefully together and be able to approach each other safely by traversing the construct of the Logos. It is essentially liberal.

(*) Freud's identification between the mother and unconscious desire is confirmed by the unceasing popularity of the word "motherfucker".
(**) The father as a symbolic function has been developed in Lacan's psychoanalysis which modernized the work of Freud. Freud discussed a primordial fantasy of murdering the father to gain access to the space of desire, a story paralleled by the myth of Oedipus.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Misguided attacks on postmodernism

Current conservative and libertarian repudiation of postmodernism is unwarranted and arrogant. Actually also ignorant. The term "postmodernism" has been in circulation since around 1980 and associated with Lyotard's proclamation of distrust toward "grand narratives." Yet the distrust has been in fact brewing for more than 200 years.

Since the time of Enlightenment a new direction of thought has been initiated - a direction dedicated to serving the question about how it is that we know rather than discovering and explaining what we know. This was the Kantian revolution, which Kant himself called Copernican, that put all knowledge in question and created the foundations of the endeavor called science. Yet at the same time Hegel dedicated his work and talents of persuasion to modernizing the older great questions of philosophy and gave rise to Marxist thought.

These two streams of post-Enlightenment philosophical thought have been with us for the last 200 years and both are in some way embedded in what is now called the postmodern philosophy. American political ideology seems disdainful of both since it is mostly founded on thought just prior to the 1800s and has been enormously successful in history. Marxism and Hegelianism maintain that we are determined by the circumstances of history and social situation and our project ought to be to understand and possibly influence those conditions. The Kantian lineage emphasizes epistemology, or the science of getting to know and value things, which studies various aspects of human experience.

After 1900 Marxism has been tainted by political regimes that embraced its versions to enslave millions. In its more benign editions Marxists pursued adaptation to existing political systems (e.g. the Frankfurt school) - seen by their foes as relativism. Yet also in 1900s a new impulse was given to the Kantian flank by Husserl who initiated a new program of phenomenology while Freud started talking about the unconscious. Phenomenology is the rightful descendant of the Kantian revolution and the progenitor of existentialism with Heidegger and Sartre being its main exponents. While these two existentialist standard bearers professed variously Fascism and Marxism the fact remains that their work was mostly dedicated to the Husserlian program of study of the depths of human experience - wherever that study took them. Quite often, and absurdly so, it led many to Marxism, through its attractive call to action to enact the ideal, - which is these individuals' unconscionable error.

To our contemporary classical American liberal, libertarian or conservative, postmodernism's main faults are its denial of "objective reality" and its presumed embrace of relativism. The examples of that are the tenets of gender theory that seem to contradict firm scientific facts of microbiology and physiology and the dead-ends of identity politics where individuals are captives of their social, racial and infinite other intersecting situations. Yet the same liberals and conservatives would be hard pressed to justify human rights or the idea of equality before the law by recourse to science or objective reality. They would have to reach back to Locke for natural law or to God. Here postmodernism with its emphasis on the subjective is really a strong ally of classical liberalism.

Let's play postmodernists now. Objective reality is only objective as far as the subjective constitutes it as such. Hannah Arendt so explains Husserl's discovery: "just as every subjective act has its intentional object, so every appearing object has its intentional subject." Objectivity is a social and subjective convention while reality is not. But we do not have access to reality other than mediated by social constructs such as language. I could quote Lacan or Derrida here. The exceptional situations where we access raw reality is sex, death as well as intense pleasure and suffering. Outside of those situations we filter reality into facts that can become objective so that we can construct knowledge as well as values. Nature, or reality, does not care about our facts, be they objective or not. Nature does not care how we interpret her gifts and torments. Nature does not care about our knowledge of reality.
How do we know that? Well, postmodernism is still working on the question.

The capacity to create and discern objects in uncreated reality is a unique faculty of the subjective. The subjective faculty demands a standing as a human right and the full protection of the law. Perhaps the subjective is what is unconsciously talked about in the US Declaration of Independence as the "pursuit of happiness"?

Postmodernism is largely concerned with the structure of the subjective human experience which is more "absolute", more commanding, than objective reality. That subjective experience also demands protection as a human right, broadly expressing a call to sexual freedom, - manifested currently loudly by the Left through identitarian LGBTQ demands.

The classical liberal or conservative decrying and ridiculing postmodernism should ponder the idea that perhaps just because certain notions are socially or subjectively constructed rather than naturally arising it is not easy or painless to shift them for an individual or for a population.

Let us take up two concepts, variously dear to and hated by, both conservatives and leftists.

Gender is a social construct. It is a social presentation of a subjective sexual desire. That sexual desire has a source in reality - but, as subjective beings, we don't know as a matter of experience while actual biological science has a pretty good handle on the issue thanks to the objective science of chromosomes. Science is objectifying us in its theories while we do that through gender which for the Left generates some type of LGBTQ creature - while on the other end of the spectrum - a husband or wife - another socially constructed gender role. I am sure Camille Paglia would agree.

Property is clearly not a law of nature. It is a social construct expressing our subjective desire to be in control of our life, its limited span and of the production and consumption of goods that support it. Animal in the forest has no career, no property, does not make a living and leaves no estate to its descendants. Property is a subjective construct which we make function with the force of reality. Objective force of reality - in this case known as economic power. I am sure Mises would understand.

For the classical liberal and libertarian postmodernism should not be a challenge but a perspective and a methodology to see the issue of political and human rights as the right of the subject to constitute the objective world.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Religious or secular civilization?

America is a product of the European Enlightenment. Of the thought of Diderot, Montesquieu, Voltaire who gave us the idea of human rights partially owing to the earlier thought of John Locke. Enlightenment is the breakthrough that defined the European civilization. It is founded on the assumptions that human reasoning can reach insights and results about how people should be governed. These insights do not come from sources of eternal wisdom - whether they be Christian, Judaic, Muslim or Taoist - or those of "native" peoples. They come from current rational debate that chooses its sources of knowledge on the basis of reason. Knowledge coming down to us as an authoritative teaching of wisdom is to be excluded from participation in the political process. This is especially true of teachings of religious nature. Knowledge influencing the political process and ideologies is to be secular in nature.

America is conflicted about the nature of its civilization - in a way it is an adolescent child of Europe. America has a strongly religious population that professes the Judeo-Christian religious tradition as a founding principle of its political system. I hope America will deal with its religious legacy without a major conflict and resolve it in a manner similar to Europe. Europe has already determined that as a civilization it will not allow religious teachings to determine political choices. Despite, or perhaps due to, much longer religious tradition and religious conflict, Europe has decided, more or less at the end of the 30-year war in 1648, that religion is a matter of private individual choice.

Both America and Europe are getting themselves into a lot of trouble by allowing the settling of large minority populations that profess adherence to varieties of religious beliefs and wish to be governed by principles derived from those beliefs. The adherents of Islam even make the claim that they will never stop to strive for the whole world, or a country or civilization, to be governed by a law flowing from the teaching of Islam. Islam is the religious movement most visibly incompatible with the idea of secular civilization, but other religious ideologies - such as Russian Orthodox or American fundamentalism - should also be viewed with suspicion.

Multiculturalism is the idea that various religious ideologies can be reconciled and find some compromise while being allowed to participate in the political process. In other words that the political power structure can be the result of a compromise between rivaling religious traditions. Multiculturalism has been to a large degree promoted and adopted as a project in the US and Europe - and leads us in a dangerous direction. It leads toward religious conflict and civil war because many religions espouse intransigent totalizing views of the origins of authority and law. A religion, in its essence, is a response to a basic human subjective anxiety of death, a response becoming an institution and an objective source of authority and power. The roots of religious feeling are immensely strong as they reach into this basic existential anxiety and therefore religion is especially dangerous when it is allowed to play a role in the political realm of power.

The achievement of secular civilization is to limit the reach of religion and bar it from entering the realm of temporal power brokering on the national or social scale - known as politics. The discourse over political ideology, of the law, of political figures, of economic choices, artistic expression, - is then allowed to be free. Free from the imposition of totalizing sources of authority which bind us into the basic anxieties of our life. That subjective problem is best dealt with privately or as a matter of private choice in the so-called communities of faith that are free to operate as enclaves within the secular civilization.

This is of course written in the wake of the terrorist attacks against "Charlie Hebdo" on January 7, 2015 (and now after the Copenhagen attacks on Feb 14-15) and after public reaction condemning violence with roots in Islamic religion. Secular civilization that has overwhelming support in Europe and America has of course its implementation problems, identified variously as racism and colonialism, and these can be addressed in the atmosphere of safe public debate, with free speech, free from religious terrorism and other irrational prejudice.

We need to support the secular civilization as it respects religious freedom among other freedoms. Religion needs to respect the secular civilization.