03 November 2014

Reports of My Demise (ii)

It was at one time in the not-so-distant past a central concern of crusaders for gender equality that men learn to define success more intrinsically and less materialistically, that we become conscious of how the need to dominate imprisons us as well as our targets. Take, for example, Warren Farrell's contention in in The Liberated Man (1975) that, "Every step of the masculinity value system encourages the need for external approval and appearances of success rather than internal approval or human satisfaction" (104). "The pursuit of excellence," on the other hand, "is the pursuit of balanced personhood, a free body, an open mind. It is being able to contribute my all to my work by causing it to contribute to me. ...It is first choosing one's love as one's goal and then seeking a way to make a living through that love." (59)

These words were aimed at men, but, as Farrell himself would later become infamous for insisting, perhaps there are a few women out there who could also use a refresher. When Rosin, for example, appeals pejoratively to the scare-quoted phrase "creative pursuits" (48) as metonym for the new male obsolescence, she casts her lot with this group. And while she continues to chase headlines, rankling orthodox third-wavers from the "college, professional class" with bold claims that "the patriarchy is dead," a classic deconstructionist question dangles in the breeze: whose definition of "pulling ahead" are we using here, and whose interests are served by it? Further, why exactly is it that the New Economy places such a premium on soft skills, self-mediation, compromise, and accommodation, and what are the broader implications for a capitalist society so thoroughly structured by such demands?

The single such implication explored in The End of Men is that women seem to be willing and able participants in this brave new world while men merely bristle and bluster. Fair enough. Is there more? Certainly there is if data wars are your style. My concern here, however, is less with Rosin's basic thesis than with her smug obliviousness both to the injustices of the service economy and to the ongoing utility of individualism in certain (not all) areas of human endeavor. Her book is a giant missed opportunity to interrogate the unreasonable, unjust demands this economy makes on its grunts, the differing demands it makes on them based on sex, race, orientation, class, etc., and the superficial conclusion that personal malleability is an inherently salutary trait simply because it makes for more eager cogs in the machine. "Hire for personality, train for skills" certainly has a feminine ring to it; but it also points to the corporate need to mystify and obfuscate, to find front-line people who will always smile and wave even as they are being #$%ed in the #$%.

In The Arts as well, as this rhetoric of Cardboard Men and Plastic Women becomes, if not always in those words, ever more mainstream, the harder it becomes to ignore the gendered aspects of art-specific dialogues on compromise, self-mediation, and collaborative practice. Musicians certainly are accustomed to enduring our share of well-warranted handwringing over more quotidian gender-related issues: discrimination in orchestral hiring practices, college professors sleeping with students, the benefits and drawbacks of identity-based curation, and so on. The gendered character of aesthetic polarities themselves tends to live a bit further off the grid. It is rarely invoked in other than veiled, coded, or humorous terms ("his girlfriend broke up with him after she found out he liked jazz"), since a double-bind of knee-jerk reactions awaits any commentator, male or female, who endeavors to verbalize what everyone else was thinking but was afraid to say.

Against my better judgment, then, allow me to attempt a crude taxonomy anyway, keeping in mind the core assumptions of The End of Men and, as a last resort, social constructionism, as safety valves. The polarity of solitary, physical, masculine work versus collaborative, face-to-face, feminine work has a clear analog both intrinsically and historically with that of high art versus entertainment. So does Rosin's pet issue of masculine single-mindedness versus feminine accommodation. The solitary artist uncompromisingly creating from whole cloth was a staple romantic archetype throughout the era of Western male hegemony from which our contemporary notions of high art are descended, whereas today even all-white, all-male groups (e.g. Kneebody) are falling all over themselves to declare their sovereignty from this paradigm, so far has the pendulum swung in the other direction. Co-composition, personal relationships with fans, and an equal sharing of administrative burdens among ensemble members are overdetermined core values of a great many contemporary musical organizations. You've probably read about them on the internet many times over the last decade, and there can be no denying their heritage in traditionally constructed femininity.

It is but a stone's throw from all of this to more parochially musical territory, such as abstraction/representation, absolutism/narrativity, and untexted/texted. It also goes without saying that the mastery/nurturance and competitive/non-competitive gender polarities potentially loom large in music education, as well as in the determinist/experimentalist aesthetic polarity. Finally, bringing it all home to the backbeat of socio-political context, a feminine, accommodating, self-mediated, tit-for-tat posture vis-a-vis the capitalist system is an inherently bourgeois, self-preserving maneuver, whereas a masculine unwillingness to be placated by the system's individual material rewards is a prerequisite for anyone wishing to spearhead real change. I have personally known too many bold activist women, starting with my own mother, to be able to write that last sentence without cringing just a bit; and yet, if you'll permit me my own occasional anecdotal riff a la Ms. Rosin, certainly most of them have been quite far indeed from the trappings of traditionally constructed femininity. Could that possibly be a coincidence?

This is a crude rendering of some awfully intricate territory, and it is only muddied further when we try, necessarily, to separate questions of aesthetic valuation from those of gender essentialism. Did I put all the good stuff in the men's column? Or do I only think it's the good stuff because I'm a man? Essentialist theories of gender demand a high degree of aesthetic relativism: men and women are different and therefore will make different art; both are valid because no one can change who they are, and it doesn't matter whether or not you "like" it aesthetically. Constructionist theories of gender, ironically, better support aesthetic essentialism: there is good and bad art, and if certain genders and sexual orientations become associated only with certain aesthetic modalities, that is merely an unfortunate consequence of their regressive, polarized constructions, which we can change if we really want to.

Certainly I am not here to lapse into the same black-and-white thinking for which I have impugned Rosin above. The larger project of liberating ourselves from regressive, circumscribed gender roles of all types is not one of coming up with new, equally polarized ones; it rather lies, as the most sober commentators on the issue have always maintained, in refusing to be hemmed in by convention, and thus being individually able and willing to take what we need from any point along the continuum and leave the rest behind on the scrap heap. Certainly it is entertaining and thought-provoking to read chronicles of women behaving as only men once did, sexually, professionally, and domestically; a mere reversal of polarity, however, can't possibly count as progress, and there can be no a priori acceptance of these changes without evaluating how they play out-in-the-world.

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