Serendip is an independent site partnering with faculty at multiple colleges and universities around the world. Happy exploring!

Notes Towards Day 6: "This Paper has Been Good to Think"

Anne Dalke's picture

Notes towards Day 6: 
"The Paper Has Been Good to Think" (Levi-Strauss)

From the Rachel Grobstein Gallery

"The argument of a young, white, middle-class female academic, trying to figure out how to live a life as an embodied woman while launching a career as a disembodied mind, evidently touched something in many others similarly positioned in that era." (Making Gender, p. 180)

I. Working a little first on our own embodied/disembodied experiences here:
"Bringing home" Tuesday's conversation about "making the world safe for diversity"

Naming one another? (better: naming who we don't know!)

justouttheasylum's query
about hand-raising (even as
moderated by y'all): does it encourage or repress diversity?

rae: I don't know how to pause my thoughts...multitasking in listening and thinking at the same time...
I think that it's something people do a lot.

Posting every week in the forum encourages diversity
(nothing yet from daisy, emily s, kylee, meredith?)
only 1 posting from a # of others....

4 postings @ fall break, or 10 @ the end of the semester,
isn't going to be of help to any of us:
(if you missed the first few, you should do double for a few weeks...)

consulted w/ webmaster re: anonymity.

if you choose a pseudonym, there's no way to link to your name,
but how revealing you are might allow for identification....

Also: if you find that really is your forum--if your postings are longer than a paragraph/
if you really want to spend some time thinking-and-talking through an issue @ length,
you might turn them into blog postings, and link to them from the course forum;
that let's the conversation keep "flowing"....

Another possibility for diversity-increasing
(and a way to get into the conversation):

how would you feel about also each doing one posting this semester which is a summary of our class discussion?
(Also to count for that week's work? A way to get other voices/accounts than mine in the forum;
also good practice for you in stepping back and really listening to what's being said....?)

I also expect you to attend (@ least) TWO outside talks, and to write about them
in the course forum (if you are counting, that can count for your posting that week).

The first of these will be Sherry Ortner's public talk on
in Dalton 300 @ 4 p.m. this coming Monday, Sept. 21st--w/ a reception afterwards in the Anthro Lab.

It's not about gender per se (sounds as if it will be more about class),
but it will form part the latest part of the narrative we will be hearing
about the evolution of how she has been thinking about gender (not as a segregated category!)

This is the key idea motivating “The Problem of 'Women' as Analytic Category”—>
which starts to gnaw @ the problem of category-making,
arguing that analysis focusing on a polarized male/female distinction
may produce distortions as problematic as those
which ignore women and gender in the first place:

"an over-emphasis on to the disadvantages women share with, and to sweep under the rug the many real advantages that
some women share with some men....we will have to learn to tread that fine line between reifying (and thereby "naturalizing") the genders on the one hand, and, on the other, allowing the male/female distinction to disappear back into the fog of gender-insenstive "variables" from which it has only recently been rescued." (137138).

Reminder that Sherry will also join us in Tuesday's class.

In preparation, please read three more of her essays:
"Borderland Politics and Erotics," pp. 181-212 in Making Gender, and
two essays from a later collection, Anthropology and Social Theory:
"Reading America: Preliminary Notes on Class and Culture"
and "Power and Projects: Reflection on Agency."

both now available on-line: go to /~adalke/gasworks
type in the username and password, download and print the essays ("Ortner.pdf")

(Don't miss footnote #18 in the first essay. Sherry is talking about woman mountaineers who like climbing together because then they "didn't have to rely on [men], to worry one might question our strength or our ability to climb where only men had gone before," and then she says, in the footnote, "I went to a a woman's college, and in retrospect I think it was for essentially these kinds of reasons. Perhaps this is the place to thank Bryn Mawr College, without which I am quite sure I would not be doing what I am doing today.")

Put your thoughts and questions about Sherry's evolving life-work on the forum
so she can have a sense, ahead of time, of what she is stepping into
(also happy to take any suggestions about how we might run the class...).

II. Some interesting thoughts so far about the shift from
the discipline of science into that of social science:

ebock: So when Ortner asserts in her first "Is Female to Nature..." (I can never get the title right, honestly) that women are inevitably the intermediaries of nature and culture because of their socializing of babies and their production of meals (refining raw products), etc., I just wanted to shout "NO!" Not because it's wrong, because in a lot of cases its true (not all but a lot), but because it felt like it was perpetuating the linkage of body to woman and non-embodied to men....anthropology has always felt like a problematic field to me: trying to find universals, and using ethnographic observation methods instead of accumulating raw data (like sociology, right?), etc. 

justouttheasylum: Reading about gender and sexuality from the social scientist's lens offered a unique experience: I found that 'people were allowed to come into the picture'....while science tries to find objective, logical, and calculated ways to classify that reduces variables, social science allows the 'diagram' on the page to have a name, a point of view and a different way of life. However, social science is a discipline that too is guilty of trying to force squares into circles.

other thoughts (not about Sherry's argument per se, yet, but about the shift in perspective/methodology/focus/questions/answers....?

shifting into lecture mode: some background

Ortner's "odd classic" from 1972: "Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?"
(as she says later: intended to shock/served as lightening rod)
found explanation for the pan-cultural fact of universal secondary status of women
in her identification w/ something every culture devalues: "nature"
(culture "being minimally defined as the transcendence...of the natural givens of existence"...
envision[ed] ... as a small clearing within the forest of the larger natural system" [38-39],
logically, would disparage it)

Rick Reinert, "Forest Clearing"

striking geneology of essay:

grandfather is Satre's Existentialism and Humanism (1948)
mother is Simone de Beauvoir's The Second Sex (1953)
grandchild is Ortner's own revisionary coda (1996)
that (somewhat unawares?) finally acknowledges her family identity....


What do you see?

How do you know what you are seeing?

What do you see?

How do you know what you are seeing?

Satre, "Existentialism and Humanism"(1948):
If one considers an article of manufacture--as, for example, a book or a paper-knife--one sees that it has been made by an artisan who had a conception of it; and he has paid attention, equally, to the conception of a paper-knife and to the pre-existent technique of production which is a part of that conception and is, at bottom, a formula. Thus the paper-knife is at the same time an article producible in a certain manner and one which, on the other hand, serves a definite purpose, for one cannot suppose that a man would produce a paper-knife without knowing what it was for. Let us say then of the paper-knife that its essence--that is to say the sum of the formulae and the qualities which made its production and its definition possible--precedes its existence. The presence of such-and-such a paper-knife or book is thus determined before my eyes. Here, then, we are viewing the world from a technical standpoint, and we can say that production precedes existence.

When we think of God as the creator, we are thinking of him, most of the time, as a supernal artisan....when God creates he knows, precisely what he is creating. Thus, the conception of man in the mind of God is comparable to that of the paper-knife in the mind of the artisan: God makes man according to a procedure and a conception, exactly as the artisan manufactures a paper-knife, following a definition and a formula....Man possesses a human nature; that "human nature," which is the conception of human being, is found in every man; which means that each man is a particular example of an universal conception, the conception of Man....

Atheistic existentialism, of which I am a representative, declares with greater consistency that if God does not exist there is at least one being whose existence comes before its essence, a being which exists before it can be defined by any conception of first of all exists, encounters himself, surges up in the world--and defines himself afterwards. If man as the existentialist sees him is not definable, it is because to begin with he is nothing. He will not be anything until later, and then he will be what he makes of himself. Thus, there is no human nature, because there is no God to have a conception of it. Man simply is. Not that he is simply what he conceives himself to be, but he is what he wills, and as he conceives himself after already existing--as he wills to be after that leap towards existence. Man is nothing else but that which he makes of himself. That is the first principle of existentialism.

De Beauvoir (as per Ortner):
the female is more enslaved to the species than the male.... (28)

she, too, is an existent, she feels the urge to surpass...Her misfortune is to have been biologically destined for he repetition of Life, when even in her own view Life does not carry within itself its reasons for being.... (30)

What Ortner adds (remarkably), is not only the analytic that
the whole scheme is a construct of culture rather than a fact of nature...the result of a (sadly) efficient feedback system (41),

but also the catch 22:
women's consciousness:--her membership... in culture--is evidenced by the very fact that she accepts her own devaluation (30)

20 years later, she offers a very clear (to me: enormously helpful)
correction (and deepening) of her argument:

"The biggest substantive "error" in the paper may be the main point...that a linkage between female and nature, male and culture "explains" male dominance... (177).

cantaloupe: Sherry Ortner...made an idea I had last year more clear....a muddled thought that was based on the fact that men were more free than women because they can impregnate a woman and then run off....It's an interesting though - one that  I am not sure leads to the fact that women are lower in society than men - but definately one that leads to the roles that are inherently taken by men and women.

Actually, I think the answer was there all along, in Sartre,
and Ortner (belatedly) unpacks it in the final paragraphs of her second essay:

My own way of thinking about to think of them as existential questions, even riddles, which humanity everywhere must face. Of these, one of the most central is how to think about the confrontation between humanity and nature, that is, between humanity and "what happens...without the voluntary and intentional agency, of man"...or between humanity and...those processes that proceed autonomously in the world, and "that limit the possible" of human action....the problem of the relationship between what humanity can do, and that which sets limits upon those possibilities, must be a universal problem...

And the gender relationship is always at least in part situated on one nature/culture border--the body...the two oppositions easily move into a relationship of mutual metaphorization: gender becomes a powerful language for talking about the great existential questions of nature and culture, while a language of nature and culture, when and if it is articulated, can become a powerful language for talking about gender, sexuality, and reproduction, not to mention power and helplessness, activity and passivity.... (179)

Ortner (eventually) says,
My interest lay much more in understanding the politics of the constructions of such linkages, than in the static parallelism of the categories (180).

There are many other "things to think" where shall we go today?

  • "seeing egalitarianism" (vs. looking for oppression?)
  • male dominance intentional or side effect?
  • "body feminists" vs. more socially oriented?
  • the feminine psychic mode (?):
    the feminine personality tends to be involved with concrete feelings, things and people, rather than w/ abstract entities; it tends towards personalism and particularism. A second, closely related, dimension seems to be that of relative subjectivity (35)

    Every society must have social categories that transcend personal loyalties, but every society must also generate a sense of ultimate moral unity for all its members above and beyond those social categories....that psychic mode seemingly typical of women...tends to disregard categories and to seek "communion"
    ...associated with the highest levels of the cultural process (37)

  • the psychic mode associated with to get involved more directly with people as individuals and not as represenatives of one social category or another (40)

Where has this "family romance" gotten us (so far)?
A couple of thoughts:

  • gender (oppression/structures) are metaphors (concrete instantiations)
    of the abstract human quest to make meaning of our lives (to "transcend" its limits)
  • (this picks up on our discussion of "why we make categories": to organize the chaos of life)
  • those stories--no matter what their beginnings or composition--can be revised
  • such revision is (pace the existentialists) the paradigmatic human activity

    rae: To me, the importance of Bryn Mawr’s being a women’s college has to do with a commitment to educating women/females/people who have been discriminated against based on their sex/gender or perceived sex/gender.

    cantaloupe: A women's college started because it was a safe haven for a group of people who were seen as inferior to learn.  Now, a woman going to college isn't abnormal, but we remain a college for that group of people.  In doing so I think we are inviting other types of people - people floating on the gender binary or the sexuality spectrum or anything else - to come to Bryn Mawr as a safe haven to learn.  It's a secret to the outside world who still sees us as just a women's college.  I think we are also empowering a giant spectrum of people.

    What other applications do you see now, as we move from ecology to existentialism?
    How well does the latter philosophy work for you,
    as a way to frame the world and your place in it?