Okay, so this semester, after the first day on the Allegory of the Cave and bell hook's Teaching to Transgress (where the main point is to get students to see education as an invitation to personal transformation and an awakening to their own power), I decided to start my Human Nature course with issues that highlight the importance of sex, gender and sexuality (with reference to racism and colonialism as well - but these interconnected issues become the focus in the next section of the course).
Yet, before I discuss these texts and students reaction/engagement, an imagined interlocutor may ask:
"Why start a course on Human Nature with feminist texts? Shouldn't you begin with Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant...any of the big guys who help us understand that we are all beings who share a common trait? Aren't we all rational souls reaching toward the good (Plato/Aristotle)? Aren't we all thinking things, somehow otherwise than our bodies (Descartes)? Can't we all discover the universal which reveals the human duty to see each other as dignified rational agents (Kant)? Come on, Danny. Aren't you doing your students a disservice by beginning with gender issues? You aren't teaching them the history of philosophy, let alone the main themes about human nature. You can't start this way! Yes, we get it. Sexism is a problem that some students need to know about. It's a hot topic, for sure! Lots of students currently care about gender and race issues but, come on, you need to teach them about the human condition, not the particularity of the feminine condition or other forms of embodied diversity, not the particularity of your/their own political agendas!! Take my advice, if you want to rock the boat, lady, begin with the standard accounts of human nature so that they have a solid foundation before getting into the tricky contemporary issues. You can save those issues for the end of the semester if you have time. This format insures they can make a properly informed decision about human nature untainted by your liberal politics!"
And, so, I imagine myself smiling and nodding at this person, thinking smugly: "Ah, okay, you are a self-righteous prick." Certainly, I would think that but hold my tongue. I would give myself the chance to remember that this imagined interlocutor thinks this way because they love philosophy and believe it can truly change lives. They, too, care about teaching and learning and they have been taught and believe whole-heartedly that the history of ideas can be extracted from the history of patriarchy, sexism, racism, settler colonialism, heteronormativity, etc. They believe that, at the core of things, the beauty of philosophy and the ideas it advances, can be saved from such historical problems.
And, so, I genuinely smile and begin again:
"Dear friend, you may be right that the history of ideas is important and that philosophies like Plato, Aristotle, Descartes and Kant are helpful and central and that students should engage them. Nonetheless, all those so-called "standard" or traditional accounts of being human were written by men and perpetuated by men as obviously right or worthy of consideration/canonization. But, where are the voices of women and people of color? What have they said about what it means to be human? Why is it that when women write about the human condition and it just so happens to emphasize sex, gender and sexuality as relevant, it is seen as "particular" or not "standard" but when men write about the human condition, without discussion of the relevance of sex, gender and sexuality, it is seen as a more relevant account or even a neutral theory? Aren't their texts also saturated with arguments about sex and gender? I don't get it? Why aren't the accounts of these men also seen as particular? Why are they exempt from the charge of holding philosophical ideas steeped in bias or politics?"
In other words, whether we begin with Plato or Kant or, contrariwise, de Beauvoir, we are always beginning with philosophies that are unique to the individual and their experience of being human. As you will see when I come to blog particularly about Plato and his erotic world, he, too, was radically concerned with understanding and engaging with what has historically been deemed the "Other" to reason (the seemingly weak and chaotic feminine) while someone like Kant advanced the dignity of the human person while also explicitly emphasizing that woman is 'less than', dependent on men for their freedom, they are needy. See, many men who are considered to be the traditional philosophers gendered philosophy, constructing the so-called neutral ideas with an eye to valorizing the status of their own privileges. Aristocratic "swinging d#cks" who had the leisure and support to see themselves as disconnected from the body; they are minds and, unlike women and those consigned to the working class, they are 'otherwise' or 'more than' their embodied condition. They possess the ability to conquer the irrational feminine other, discipline it into submission.
Student project for the section. Human Nature Spring 22
The task of being human, from this masculine privileged position, is dominance over the "Other" and, so, the so-called neutral view of being human seeks to "enlighten" women and other marginalized groups. These poor unfortunate souls (women and those we colonize) need to see the awesome power, the amazing autonomy, objectivity and knowledge of being human [read: colonizing/domesticating male], a power and wisdom which creates and sustains an instrumentalized world where all things that aren't human [read colonizing/domesticating male] become things to be used, appendages to their good. In short, this seems like a pretty particular view of the human condition, a view that seems to excise some fundamental aspects of being human (ignorance, confusion, emotion, embodiment, being multiple and ever-changing), twisting and perverting those things in to problems that their amazing mind can use to its own advantage.
Student projects for this section of Human Nature Spring 22
So with this particularity in mind, I don't think it odd to begin with authors like Simone de Beauvoir (=SB), Genevieve Lloyd, Luce Irigaray and Marilynn Frye, as feminist philosophers who take seriously the construction of the history of ideas from the site of dominating and repressing the Other. Each, in their own way, suggest that the ideal human advanced in "traditional" philosophy is really a man and essentially so.
So, beginning with SB, students engage her arguments about how human beings seem to be tethered to binary systems of thought wherein there is the Self and the Other. Historically men have seen themselves as the Subject while women are always defined relative to him, she is only understandable as Not-Man, a privation. Since man is the universal and neutral being, she is a particular and the negative. Thus everything associated with her will be painted as not only embodying the things that are irrelevant about being human, the things that don't matter but, moreover, she is further marked as that which the human being does not want to be or should not want to be. He is independent, autonomous (whether that be in life or in relation to the body), while she is dependent and needy. Do not be dependent and needy. So silly, my dear. Keeping in mind feminine dependence is construed as both a) one's who are in need of others for their good but b) one's bound or subject to the body. Unlike the ideal human [read male], she can't escape or transcend her embodiment and, as such, she is subject to her emotions, her physical precarity. The example I tend to use is a simple one. Do people not often blame women's cycles for their moods? Yes. But don't men have hormonal bodies too? Yes. Okay, then how many times have you blamed a man's mood on his daily testosterone spikes? Lightbulbs.
Ultimately, she, as tied to the body, becomes the marker of sex. She can't be the universal because she is the being who differentiates sex difference. Without her there would be no sex difference. Unlike man who is somehow unsexed, it is she who sex. Her and her sex make her different, making her otherwise than the ideal human being. As such, she is responsible for being the site of sex, the object of sex and the receptacle for male sexuality. She is always responsible for that sexuality. She is that which lures men out of their unsexed, rational world and toward the body. It is her fault. Obviously, then, she's essentially the sex object, the inessential thing to be used versus the essential human being able to transcend such things. He's the 'more than' while she is the 'less than.'
Student projects for this section of Human Nature Spring 22
As we work through the Introduction to the Second Sex, the goal or the light bulb moment, I am hoping to foster, centers upon understanding that the construction or demarcation of woman is not about what women are in themselves (the so-called essence of woman) but that woman has always been defined relative to men whereby women are compelled to fit or conform to this image of herself as the being which is otherwise than man. As SB says, "One is not born a woman but becomes one." Just as one becomes a doctor, or becomes a philosopher, becoming a woman is about making repeated decisions both conscious and unconscious versus slipping into the idea that we are "naturally" feminine or masculine. No. These identities are constructed and reinforced as real via the repeated and continued performance of this becoming woman, performances that many of us are blind to. Here, this connection to a lack of awareness on the part of many people to reinforce the reality of women's second class status, to their being regulated to the inessential, reminded one student of Plato and bell hooks' understanding of the nature of education. She writes:
"De Beauvoir’s essay is somewhat acting like the sun in the “Allegory of the Cave”, exposing the systematic structures of oppression that encase us all, but we are often unable to see by ourselves. De Beauvoir writes how “bourgeois women” are in “solidarity with bourgeois men and not with women proletarians”, bringing us back to hooks’ point on the importance of discourse on a subject and interpersonal connection to bring about meaningful change (de Beauvoir 8). In remarking about the “solidarity” of women with men over other women, de Beauvoir is remarking on the lack of any such discourse, perpetuating the patriarchal cycle. Of course, in order for there to be discourse, awareness of the systemic oppression must be present in the first place." Student reflection from Human Nature Spring 22
Another student wrote:
"Throughout these readings I began to feel hopeless. Beginning with Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, I started to realize how this idea of gender and sexuality governs every aspect of my life. How engrained it is in me from my comfort level around different people, to the way I decide to dress, even down to the positioning of my feet. The battle between wanting to be found attractive but also not actually wanting that kind of attention. I felt really trapped and was questioning every thought I had and wondered where it came from and why it was even there to begin with. And if that thought was really me or something I had been conditioned to think. Throughout this frustration my next thought was to fully rebel, not conform to anything, to never wear makeup again, never do my hair, to stop wearing bras forever (honestly though, why do they even exist?). But then I remembered that part of the discussion in class when Dr. Layne asked, if that isn’t still participating in this patriarchal system. And she’s right. So then how is it even possible to break free? If conforming perpetuates these ideals, but so does rebelling? I felt stuck in that cave that Plato was talking about, just staring at the shadows on the walls and even though I knew they weren’t real, I still couldn’t leave."
Keeping in mind, that through the course of the course, I hopefully help students gain a variety of possible ways we might resist these constructions (ideas and tools from authors as diverse as hooks, Lorde, Plato, Lugones), for the present moment I want them to keep unpacking the barriers, the prisons that all persons associated with Otherness are often locked into. Consequently, the next two classes are centered on Lloyd, Irigaray and Frye, who each contribute to showing the ubiquity of sex and gender not only in philosophy but in almost everything we do.
Student Project for the Unit
Of course, Lloyd and Irigaray's texts are difficult for students insofar as both demand a background in the "traditional" philosophy that I haven't given them - a nod to the above prickly interlocutor who still insists I should start with "traditional" thinkers before getting into their critics. Nonetheless, despite not starting with them, students were able to follow the basic ideas, talking about the gendered nature of the Pythagorean Table of Opposites, Plato's myth of a rational Father Creator and irrational chaotic Mother material, Aristotle's Form and Matter or Bacon's horrifyingly gendered discourse about the active power of scientific men to force nature to reveal herself. These philosophies are discourses which are saturated with sexist connotations, connotations that have real effects in the world. In other words, philosophy and the construction of "Reason" has always and repeatedly been steeped in gendered discourse, a discourse picked up and carried over into our conceptions of knowledge and truth that we impose on very real people. "Reason" for many philosophers has been construed as something other to feminine Nature or Chaos, something other to the passive object, the feminine space or matter. Reason [read the rational male] is able to disconnect from the body; Reason [read rational male] is the Form that gives shape to the empty feminine matter; Reason [you get it] must be hard and penetrating, getting to the "real" in all that confused mess, uncovering the secret powers of Mother Nature, so that we can wield them to our advantage. Reason is about real knowledge versus all those other forms of thinking or knowing which are more subjective - oh those silly soft sciences. Poetry, playfulness, dancing, seduction, those aren't real knowledges, real disciplines, they are just things for fun. That don't discover the concrete, the actual, the quantifiable. Real reason must demarcate, expose, categorize, define, be clear, visible (as Irigaray emphasizes using Freud, knowledge must be like the visible genitalia of the phallus and unlike the absence that female genitals seem to imply). We ended that class with the question of whether "ideal Reason" is simply another way to express the traits of the ideal human, i.e. the essential or universal human, showing again that both reason and human seem to belong to the class of persons who seek to dominate the objects they wish to know.
But, are these really the only forms of Reason - the categorizing, the defining, the exposing? Does Reason necessarily need to be thought so narrowly? What would Reason look like outside of patriarchal conceptions of power, of needing an Other to subject? Finally, questions about the motivations that patriarchal orders may have to want to demonize or dominate the Other arose. One student, reflecting on the confusion they had about both Lloyd and Irigaray's texts, wrote:
"Lloyd’s paper mainly focused on that what is considered rational or reasonable is also associated with masculinity. In the other paper we read for that day, any theory of the Subject by Irigaray, I honestly didn’t understand much of it when I first read it. This was mainly due to her “mimicry” style of writing she used, to undermine and expose contradictions (the only way to be rational is to write the way scholars do). But one thing in her paper that I did resonate with was the idea of “reflection of the subject onto the other”. I think there is often a power dynamic between the “subject” and the “other”, the subject feels compelled to control the other, and the other feels compelled to follow. This is not only unjust for the other, but it causes problems on the subject’s side too, like insecurity about not living up to the norm. This is why I believe this “reflection” of the subject happens, its because the subject is insecure about there own subject-ness, and they will lose power otherwise." Student quote from Human Nature 22
Finally, the last day of content was Frye's Sexism who famously begins her essay with a problematic but regularly advanced idea that sexism is about making decisions based on irrelevant distinctions like sex and or gender. Yet, this definition does not satisfy her. Rather, the text revolves around exposing the fact that sex and gender are always relevant in almost everything we do whether it be in how we introduce persons, talk to them, socialize, work, forms we fill out, ways we dress, etc. Sex marking and announcing is everywhere, inescapable and it is demanded, we must announce and mark ourselves at all times or we are unintelligible. Bows on babies are a must. Don't you know that we must know what genitals a baby has - put a damn bow on that thing! Otherwise how will I know how to treat the baby?
Student projects for the section. Human Nature Spring 22
Frye, of course, connects this to the demand that we constantly perform our gender, a performance which is regarded as "natural" in those who conform to the gender/sex binary but as a performance in those who don't. In other words, the natural is shown to be constructed. It is also a performance that is carefully prepared and, as such, she further questions the 'naturalness' of the sex binary, helping students see the possibility that sex itself has been reified into a binary, a binary that men (and those conforming to the patriarchal system) exploit so as to reinforce the 'naturalness' of domination, objectification and the subjection of women as ones who 'by nature' should be consigned to the world of being the domestic and reproductive rather than productive. This leads to Frye's conclusion and the subject of another essay she advanced, Compulsory Heterosexuality, where she emphasizes that the sex gender distinction is related to the particular sexuality of the masculine, a sexuality based on the desire to dominate (Irigaray also comments extensively on this sexuality of the masculine). One student noted this and why this helped them see that under patriarchy, masculinity is tied to heterosexuality, writing:
We ended the class on the topic of masculinity being tied to heterosexuality. A man’s sexual preferences are associated with his masculinity, therefore if one does not identify as being straight his masculinity is questioned. Why is being heterosexual considered normal when there are other ways for one to have sexual pleasure? Why are we obsessed with reproductive sex? Dr. Layne explained that one possible reason for this is because reproductive sex allows patriarchy to reinforce the idea that we need two distinct genders, with one being the source of power/control. Natural sex as reproductive sex supports a system of domination and control for men.
In the end, you can see that we had a lot of fun the first few weeks of class. Ultimately, students have not yet engaged explicitly with "erotic philosophies" but, rather, they are being shown the grounds for why erotic philosophies which emphasize connection and contact or a life outside of domination, are needed. We need to move from power conceived as 'power over' others to empowering power found in thinkers as diverse as Anzaluda, Lorde, Lugones, Plato, etc. But, my imagined interlocutor returns and reminds me that such an "empowering power" is silly. As my dickish interlocutor might say:
"Don't be so naive, Danny. Your philosophy is so feminine, so touch-feely. Don't listen to her, the "real world" does not care about such silly fantasies of love and connection. They are beautiful myths but, kiddos, they don't really matter. What matters is conforming to the systems in place and becoming someone who matters. Someone in power or you will mean nothing!"
Basically, my silly interlocutor does not see the value in disrupting “real” value, the “real” truth that we must control, categorize, know, reduce, excise, discipline…. rather than live in a strange liminal space where ignorance and confusion, suffering and joy, contradiction and paradox are the “real” world. Oh, silly man, don’t you know these are the conditions for the so-called neutral being, the autonomous being, the dominating being. In the end, the erotic world troubles this childish conception of the human by simply exposing its frailty, i.e. the Subject, the seemingly neutral and autonomous human [male] pretending to be the fount of all knowledge, needs us to accept their truth, their reality, needs us to support them. What happens when we stop? When we laugh at their precarity? When we begin to smile at all their dickishness and its very real impotence, its inability to really mean anything because he can not be or become or produce any real value outside himself and his own narcissism, his own self-loathing.
I would like to end with a few more art projects that several students created for their assessment of the short unit.
Philosophy of human nature
To some that might be a real major
Walked into the class as a stranger
Sat down with a bunch of teenagers
Read some mysterious text
Bell Hooks do we know who was next?
De Beauvoir on the Basis of Sex
Hold on man let me get to the text
“in many black settings I have witnessed the dismissal of intellectuals, the putting down of theory and remained silent. I have come to see that silence is an act of complicity, one that helps perpetuate the idea that we can engage in revolutionary black liberation and feminist struggle without theory.”
In summary Bell Hooks stated this
Ignorance is bliss
If you’re not trying to help the problem
Then your butt needs to be on the list
De Beauvoir hey now look what about her?
Second sex woman, many, different, other
“ she is determined and differentiated in relation to man while he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the subject he is the absolute. She is the other.“
Who said the woman was the other?
Things that we need to uncover
Equality for one another
by student in Human Nature Spring 22
Painting by student who identifies as a white cis male
He expressed during class discussion,
that the conditions of patriarchy
leave men, like himself, with a dark whole in their hearts.
Another poem by a student:
Is it the infinite road for power?
Or the prime instinct for significance?
Are we just a collection of experiences?
Or the authentic author of our actions?
Have we lost ourselves in the search for truth?
Or have we killed the man for seeing the sun?
What is a planet without water?
What is love without sacrifice?
What are males without females?
What are females without males?