Disjointed thoughts on contemporary feminism, evolutionary biology, and Elizabeth I

This was written in response to a friend who pointed me toward “Is There Anything Good About Men?,” a talk delivered to the American Psychological Association by Roy Baumeister, professor of social psychology at Florida State University and author of a forthcoming book tentatively titled How Culture Exploits Men.

I should start by saying that I am generally hostile toward feminist and queer theory, and toward what mass culture thinks of as “feminism” in general. This might sound like a conservative position, but I see it as far more principledly liberal than any of the various positions on the contemporary left. With the exception of a few “feminists” who are undoubtedly feminist in influence (and perhaps even nominally feminists) but really work, on my view, in or on very different and more impactful spheres–like Judith Butler (semiotics, globalization, performativity, etc.; someone who seems less concerned with feminism than with gender w/r/t the discursive formation of a subject more generally–earning her the ire of many “establishment” feminists like Martha Nussbaum, whose hilarious and depressing attack on Butler’s style and insufficiently feminist feminism I have if you’d like it) or Camille Paglia (a feminist hated by other feminists and pretty much everybody else [she’s fond of throwing off grandiose indictments of everyone but herself like, “Those who have poisoned the cultural atmosphere in America or gained high position by unethical means must be held accountable. It’s Nuremberg time”], but who really isn’t, in my view, even participating in the same discourse as those she claims to be rebutting and provoking [she’s doing something different and more valuable–again, my bias against mainstream feminism], but working in interesting ways with aesthetics and art vis-a-vis power and, like Butler, performance)–contemporary feminism seems to have become, to sketch a hasty caricature, the biggest and worst manifestation of liberal political correctness. This does not mean that I don’t generally concur with most feminist critiques of contemporary masculine monopolies on power, sexism, heterosexism, etc.; or that I have any problem with many of the feminist “reclamation” (or whatever) projects done in literary and cultural studies over the past few decades (everything from enthusiastically playing up Nefertiti in high-school world history to giving medieval female mystics their due as their period’s intellectual vanguard to painting Willa Cather as a big lesbo)–or, at least, not that I have a problem with the concept of reclamation in itself, so long as there is no question about the motives and means and aims of the project.



Martha Nussbaum


Yet almost always these efforts fall into (and again my bias is visible, here in my verb-choice: “fall into”) an essentially antagonistic rhetoric of identity. As a woman, or as a queer person, or as a Chicano, or as a whatever other identity I identify with, I feel this or that or whatever else, etc. I think this sort of talk, as central as it is to a good chunk of the rhetoric in which we carry out social sciences and humanities inquiry in the academy, is productive only if our goal is a world partitioned into little identitarian enclaves–all the gays in San Francisco, all the Latinos in Chicago, etc.–that all recognize and respect their mutual difference. This is somewhat a caricature, but it’s also a pic of what has happened since the rise of identity politics and criticism and theory over the past 20ish years–minorities are certainly more prominent and respected in liberal democracies (or at least the liberal areas of liberal democracies) as minorities, but the emphasis is still on demonstrating, recognizing, and respecting difference. Clearly we have differences and there’s nothing wrong with calling attention to and celebrating them, but that is, effectively, where it ends for most now. Any attempts to promote understanding (not to mention any sort of commonality) in such an environment seem to me insufficiently rigorous at best and disingenuous at worst.

So, while tolerance is dandy and all, I’m not sure it’s a worthy goal. I don’t know what would be a worthy goal, honestly, and I certainly don’t have any grand solution to offer at the moment; but our dominant mode of understanding society’s dynamics (and I do believe that the feminist/queer/generally identitarian mode has become the dominant mode, from Manhattan to Manhattan, Kansas) is one that tries to squash victimization and alienation with a politics of difference and separation–which just creates new permutations of and paradigms for victimization and alienation. Tolerance has become the watchword for this movement to the extent it’s a movement, but to me tolerance is more of a curse word, an excuse for the lack of an effort to build (or maybe, and more generously, a stepping-stone to) a system in which the entire question of tolerance would be irrelevant. I don’t know how to achieve that, but I’m damn sure that any cultural agenda built on a foundation of celebrating mutual alienation has no chance in hell.

Of course, all this generalizing about identity politics only partially describes, and describes only parts of, what is today lumped together into an amorphous “feminism,” but what I want to emphasize here is my basic displeasure with the tendency to transmute a recognition of difference, which is vital and necessary, into a privileging of difference, which is unneeded and counterproductive. And when it comes to privileging difference, feminism is the postergirl (posterwomyn?–or is that the singular form?). I could go on further, and can elaborate on that/point you to things that I endorse that do elaborate on that, but seeing as I haven’t even addressed the article yet, I should probably shut up…. (Žižek touches eloquently on a lot of my points in a post-9/11 article entitled “The one measure of true love is: you can insult the other.”)



Camille Paglia



So coming off all that, and before I begin to look at Baumeister seriously in his own right, we should give Paglia credit for advancing many of the assertions for which I imagine Baumeister’s research could serve as evidence about ten or years ago, in an uneven and somewhat disappointing collection of essays (I forget which) entitled Vamps and Tramps–in sum, “There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper.” She probably wasn’t the first express such sentiments, but she was the first self-described feminist to shout them from rooftops, so she deserves some credit for bringing this into the broader national (or at least scholarly) consciousness. Her radical sexual scholarship is dilutedly refracted in a lot of Baumeister’s essay, actually. So where we find Paglia talking about female Mozarts and Jack the Rippers, we find Baumeister talking more obliquely of piano prodigies and recently-freed slaves. Same deal though. And so where we find Baumeister saying on the workplace,

All-male groups tend to be marked by putdowns and other practices that remind everybody that there is not enough respect to go around, because this awareness motivates each man to try harder to earn respect. This, incidentally, has probably been a major source of friction as women have moved into the workplace, and organizations have had to shift toward policies that everyone is entitled to respect. The men hadn’t originally built them to respect everybody.

we find Paglia making a strangely similar statement from a different angle and with more vitriol:

Mere offensiveness, which is open to subjective interpretation, is not harassment. The problem with the “hostile workplace” concept is that it is socially parochial: it imposes a genteel white lady’s standard of decorum on everyone, and when blindly applied by management, it imperialistically exports middle-class manners, appropriate to an office, into the vigorously physical and more realistic working-class realm. The mincing minuets and sexual etiquette of the scribal class of paperpushers makes no sense outside their carpeted cubicles of fluorescent light.

In a certain sense I think this analogy between Paglia and Baumeister holds up well period. They’re in different camps and play to and against very different audiences, but the visions of the world implied by their respective claims share a good deal. Baumeister is a white liberal male (and I assume straight) academic calling attention to the ways in which biology rather than conspiracy is responsible for the “oppression” of women by men; Paglia is a white libertarian female pseudo-lesbian pseudo-fascist calling attention to the ways in which feminists have to stop shouting “Conspiracy!” and–if they want to throw off their “oppression”–become militant and ruthless, become more like what Baumeister thinks men are in the pursuit of sex. Another way of saying this is that Baumeister belongs to Paglia’s scribal class of paperpushers brought into being by the conservative, even fascist, feminism of the contemporary left.

The extent to which these two tonally opposed, argumentatively dissimilar bodies of work are two sides of the same coin is important, if only because it’s intriguing that a male academic tempered in the heyday of feminism and sensitive to its concerns would end up making claims that would lead any good liberal feminist woman concerned foremost with resisting patriarchy–concerned, that is, with “fighting” the “oppression” rather than dissolving it–to adopt the radical Paglian positions despised by most good liberal feminists. But that’s only if we assume ideological consistency on the part of the parties involved, which we almost surely can’t. (This goes for everyone, not just feminists, of course.)

So Baumeister’s foundational premise–that on average, individual men are better and worse at everything than individual women, and that this recognition should change the way we think about gender period–is fantastic to my mind but also obvious. If nothing else, I now know where to find empirical data to back up the theoretical suppositions I held already, so that’s good. I’m a relative novice to evolutionary biology (little bit of an ethology background but nothing substantial), so this/his account of how men strive and socialize for and within extremes, however well-known in general, is for me a novel and exciting way of describing these dynamics.

His coolest dealie, though, is his dealie about male expendability and the way it draws an important concept in evolutionary archaeology into a contemporary discussion of gender and power: the concept of waste. The fact that there are endless wiling penises and limited willing vaginas is obvious, but his thinking of males as expendable in general–wars, prisons, poor–while thinking of males as necessary for the progress of the species precisely because of their proclivity toward wastefulness, moves into the social and psychological spheres the almost condescendingly simple notion, advanced by North American prehistorian and anthropologist Robert C. Dunnell, that having an excess of resources helps groups survive. This is obvious on a small scale, but it shook evolutionary archaeology when it came out in the late 80s, because archaeology (and more generally the mapping of prehistory) had long operated on the commonsensical supposition that the more active and genetically fit a given group’s individuals were, the more likely they’d be able to survive hardship. Since Dunnell’s hypothesis (which is still enthusiastically contested), it’s become more common to think that a group with conspicuous overall fitness (ancestors of North American “Clover people,” Rugby players in the Andes Mountains–gorgeous but fast to desiccate–etc.) will fare far worse than the group populated in part by “wasters” (our barbarian ancestors’ ancestors; Sumo wrestlers anywhere, etc.).

I want to use this to look at Baumeister, so that all the spare penises, and all the overstimulated penises doing art, literature, politics, science, etc., become humanity’s fatty tissue, but in two contradictory ways, or on two parts of the body: some men are themselves individually “wasted” to a certain extent (not all have sex; not all have children; not all men get “used”), while their betters, Baumeister’s writers, artists and scientists, overee their society’s waste activities. The men who get used biologically get to waste; the men don’t get used biological just get wasted. What does it say that the apparent means of our success is not merely the capacity for waste but the desire for and commitment to wastefulness in an evolutionary sense? What does it mean that men are essential for civilization to have happened? (This is, by the way, also a point Paglia made–something like “If not for men we’d still be living in grass huts.) It could on the one hand be pessimistically seen as a sort of reinforcement of the notion of patriarchy: sure, men aren’t “on top” anymore, but in Baumeister’s account, they are still the lynchpin–the systems-builders, the actors–they make things happen, and they still relegate women to secondariness and passivity. I imagine this is probably how most feminists, and most good identitarian liberals, will read Baumeister: he says he offers an alternative to the old top/bottom, master/slave model of gender relations, but his model merely recasts top as the extremes and the bottom as the center–this bottom, this center, women, are still inferior.

I think this is a silly way to see it. First because it’s conceptual semantics–the argument about top/bottom here is more an argument about the top/bottom metaphor than it is about the relationship the metaphor is representing–if we use a different metaphor, we feel different connotations–and to the extent we insist on metaphors that recapitulate top/bottom, we’re not making progress, we’re glorifying victimization. Second and chiefly I think it’s silly because it ignores the “mode of resistance,” or the paradoxical silent power, of the object-mass, or individually the subject-made-object.

This idea, which will almost surely seem to have come from nowhere in this discussion, comes out of a Baudrillard essay to which I am almost slavishly allegiant, “The Masses: The Implosion of the Social in the Media,” which argues that since the Enlightenment, the primary mode or resisting the system is that of subject-resistance, for which feminism is of course and again the postergirl. While this resistance is a sort of resistance, it nowhere near as powerful as the resistance techniques (elusive, illusive, allusive, ironic and unconscious he says–sounds unlikely, and I don’t like the word “unconscious,” but still) of the object: the refusal to yield information or produce stimuli of any sort. For Baudrillard this resistance is encapsulated in the “forced silence” of the masses in the face of the one-way media (you can’t send images back through the television!) circa 1985, but it can be seen in any refusal of response. When I ask a classroom full of students at eight on a tired Saturday morning to respond to something, those who would rather not have two potential strategies: momentarily disrupting proceedings by throwing something, chatting with a friend, tapping a pencil distractingly on a desk–the strategy of the subject; or say and do nothing–the strategy of the object. Object-resistance is certainly the more powerful in the classroom context–it changes a roomful of potential subjects, things that will do things, to a roomful of resolute objects, to which I must now do things–and while it’s not conspicuously powerful in the context of the social, it works far better there too. Women as a societal idea are like one of my students, enacting an ironic form of control disguised as a response to subjugation. Think of Elizabeth I and all those men who chase her, while she self-consciously styles herself an untouchable object, the Faerie Queen, the godly, the unapproachable; and all the while she fucks whomever she pleases. In that sense at least, each woman is a potential faerie queen.

That all may seem extreme, but I’m fine with that. It seems to me sufficiently rigorous, and its alternatives are circular and chauvinistic and not productive for anyone, least of all for the perfunctory, reactionary, identitarian feminism that spawns them.




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