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.

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.