Playing with Categories
Day 5

"The Paper Has Been Good to Think" (Levi-Strauss)

"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 postioned in that era." (Making Gender, p. 180)

I. When a metaphor-maker reads an anthropologist...
she begins with Cynthia Ozick, "The Hole/Birth Catalogue"
(Ms. Magazine, 1972; rpt. Art and Ardor: Essays 1994).

II. Ortner, "Is Female to Male as Nature is to Culture?" ("odd classic" from same year: 1972)
(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)

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. Whatever doctrine we may be considering, whether it be a doctrine like that of Descartes, or of Leibnitz himself: we always imply that the will follows, more or less, from the understanding or at least accompanies it, so that 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. Thus each individual man is the realization of a certain conception which dwells in the divine understanding. In the philosophic atheism of the eighteenth century, the notion of God is suppressed, but not, for all that, the idea that essence is prior to existence; something of that idea we still find everywhere, in Diderot, in Voltaire and even in Kant. 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. In Kant, this universality goes so far that the wild man of the woods, man in the state of nature and the bourgeois are all contained in the same definition and have the same fundamental qualities. Here again, the essence of man precedes that historic existence which we confront in experience.

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 it. That being is man or, as Heidegger has it, the human reality. What do we mean by saying that existence precedes essence? We mean that man 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)

it is not in giving life but in risking life that man is raised above the animal; that is why superiority has been accorded in humanity not to the sex that brings forth but to that which kills... (29)

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).

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)

Great examples in the feminist history of science,
of how our language shapes our world...

What do you see?

From Life Support USA: "A human sperm tries to penetrate the egg"

From BBC News: "Fertility is improving, research suggests"

From From West Virginia University Center for Reproductive Medicine: "mature egg and sperm"

Emily Martin. "The Egg and the Sperm: How Science Has Constructed a Romance Based on Stereotypical Male-Female Roles."
Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society16, 3 (1991): 485-501.
It is remarkable how 'femininely" the egg behaves and how "masculinely" the sperm....Gerald Schatten and Helen Schatten liken the egg's role to that of Sleeping Beauty: "a dormant bride awaiting her mate's magic kiss, which instills the spirit that brings her to life". Sperm, by contrast, have a "mission," which is to "move through the female genital tract in quest of the ovum." One popular account has it that the sperm carry out a "perilous journey" into the "warm darkness," where some fall away "exhausted."' "Survivors" "assault" the egg, the successful candidates "surrounding the prize." Part of the urgency of this that "once released from the supportive environment of the ovary, an egg will die within hours unless rescued by a sperm." The wording stresses the fragility and dependency of the egg, even though the same text acknowledges elsewhere that sperm also live for only a few hours.

Evelyn Fox Keller, "Gender Language and Science" (1996 Templeton Lecture).
Until fifteen years ago, the experimental work done by biologists on fertilisation provided ample evidence to support chemical and mechanical accounts the sperm could penetrate and activate the mechanisms for the activity of the egg were looked for; inactivity requires no mechanism, and such mechanisms were assumed not to exist.... Today a different metaphor has come to seem more useful, and clearly more acceptable. In contemporary textbooks, fertilisation is more likely to be cast in the language of equal opportunity. My favourite definition is from a textbook widely used by molecular biologists by Alberts et al called Molecular Biology of the Cell, but it is representative: Fertilisation is defined as "The process by which egg and sperm find each other and fuse"....In fact the research goes further, as if confirming some very deep seated fears. Current research sometimes endows the egg with archetypal powers: the egg sends out microvillae which "grasp" the spermhead and "drag" it to the ovum. Other, unwanted, sperm are incapacitated, ejected, or simply destroyed.

I suggest that this story illustrates exactly the ways in which language can shape our thinking and acting. It frames our attention, our perception and the fields in which we can envision ways to move....both metaphors were manifestly productive, albeit of different effects. One led to intensive investigation of the molecular mechanisms of sperm activity while the other fostered research permitting the elucidation of mechanisms by which the egg would have to be said to be active as well....this is a story about how gender ideology shapes the ways in which all of us see the world, men and women alike.

Eileen Talone, "Women Unite, Take Back Control of Human Development!"
(Essay for The Story of Evolution February 11, 2005).
An organism has already run the gamut before it enters the world. In the case of sexually reproducing organisms, the male gamete won the statistically improbable prize of fertilizing the more discriminating female gamete, and through the process of zygotic development, is not guaranteed long life anyway. Any talk of selection begins in the formulation of the genotype....

My ultimate interest in sexual selection, as it is, was, and ever shall be, is in the world of human sized things and matters of human interaction....Geoffrey Miller, the author of Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped Human Nature, believes the importance of female choice in nonrandom sexual selection (that is, the second round of elimination that take place at sexual maturity) was overlooked when Darwin first suggested it in The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, and has recently been accepted with the theories of biologists like Zahavi (cited by both Mayr and Miller), who reinforce the logic of female choice- as women produce far less gametes than males, they cannot waste their genetic material as freely as males....

Not for nothing have we inherited these costly brains, and since as Darwin posited and Mayr insists, the individual and not the the object being selected, it is the responsibility of the individual, whether male or female, to decide what it requires of mates and companions. Through selection we arrive at not perfection, but opportunities to develop who we are collectively through personal agency.

Or, as 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).

As Orah asks, Could it be that we are gendered by the way others watch us: that the watching imposes a gender upon us? rather than the watching penetrating to something within us, it clothes us in a gendered body? it genders (categorizes-generalizes-normalizes) our bodies?

As Elle thinks, gender is a game, an unfortunately serious game....I see as negative... a lack ofi willingness in society to let gender be seen for the game that it is, and for the lack of fluidity allowed in looking at gender as a spectrum. Gender has nothing to do with biology, and everything to do with clothing, makeup, the way we sit....

There are many other "things to think" (which we haven't time for today...)

So...where has this "family romance" gotten us (so far)?
A couple of take-home snacks:
Coursekeeping, to close:

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