05 November 2014

Reports of My Demise (iv)

Virtually no matter the explanation(s) one might seek for male overrepresentation in certain Western artistic traditions and subcultures, a double-bind often lurks in the shadows, sprouted in the fissure between the separatist and integrationist wings of feminism, and eagerly awaiting any conscious man of progressive, radical, uncompromised aesthetic sensibility who either charges or stumbles into the chasm. I am referring to the difference between (a) advocating for women's advancement in traditionally male dominated fields of endeavor, and (b) dismissing such fields of endeavor and their value systems as inherently male and therefore useless to over half the population. The term "difference feminism" is evidently in circulation, though (b) is still an extremist stance, even under that rubric; Naomi Wolf's distinction between "power feminism" and "victim feminism" is in the ballpark as well, but ultimately it also is broader and more moderate than what I am describing.

Sometimes the two modalities are interleaved (dare I say cross-contaminated?), as when Patricia Hill Collins in the course of her eloquently written, painstakingly researched, and elaborately referenced Black Feminist Thought incongruously picks away at positivist methods of "validating knowledge claims" as "ask[ing] African-American women to objectify ourselves, devalue our emotional life, displace our motivations for furthering knowledge about Black women, and confront in an adversarial relationship those with more social, economic, and professional power." (274) Instead, she argues in favor of equal consideration of claims proceeding from "an experiential, material base" of "collective experiences and accompanying worldviews," from a "mother wit" by which "your personal experience is considered very good evidence" (275-6, the latter two turns of phrase attributed in the text to other authors.) Indeed, this is known in "elite white male" circles, and a few other places, as anecdotal reasoning; are we simply to be content, then, that "subordinate groups have long had to use alternative ways to create independent self-definitions and self-valuations and to rearticulate them through our own specialists" (270), or does the ultimate liberation of such groups unavoidably entail winning a piece of the positivist pie?

Wolf fittingly describes an early lecture engagement of hers where extremists from both camps were in evidence:

The ring took turns not so much offering criticism of my work...but rather, calling me to account for myself to them. One woman charged that I was too elitist – I had used compound sentences – while another complained that I was insufficiently academically rigorous, since to make The Beauty Myth accessible, I had used endnotes instead of academic footnotes.

(Fire with Fire, 127; the power/victim taxonomy also comes from this book)

It was, incidentally, with this book that Wolf herself blossomed into a full-fledged integrationist, taking Audre Lorde's famous pronouncement that the "the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house" and riffing instead that only the master's tools are up to the task. The inconvenient fact for both camps, however, especially in The Arts, is that the master had excellent taste in houses. Moreover, even if the sculpture gardens, marble countertops, and manicured lawns are easily dispensed with, the running water, refrigeration, and climate control certainly are less so.

Where does this last realization leave us? I am male and perhaps biased as a result, but on this question I for one am casting my lot with Katha Pollitt:

In the arts, we hear a lot about what women's "real" subject, methods, and materials ought to be. Painting is male. Rhyme is male. Plot is male. Perhaps, say the Lacanian feminists, even logic and language are male. What is female? Nature. Blood. Milk. Communal gatherings. The moon. Quilts.

Haven't we been here before? Indeed we have. Woman as sharer and carer, woman as earth mother, woman as guardian of all the small rituals that knit together a family and a community, woman as beneath, above or beyond such manly concerns as law, reason, abstract ideas – these images are as old as time. Open defenders of male supremacy have always used them to declare women flatly inferior to men; covert ones use them to place women on a pedestal as too good for this naughty world.

(Reasonable Creatures, 44).

Make no mistake, by the way, that not all of the "covert" operatives are men.

Perhaps the aesthetic values of Western musical modernism are a bit less universal and absolute than those of "logic and language," but I for one am less afraid of that constructionist booby trap than that of historically oppressed groups' pre-modern survival tactics becoming posited, even celebrated, as essential markers of identity, as if members of those groups should (still) be happy to have them. Collins' elevation of anecdotal reasoning strikes me as a telltale example of this; Rosin's celebration of women's willingness to compromise as an inherently salutary trait is another. To wit, have all those bumper stickers admonishing us that "Well Behaved Women Rarely Make History" so fallen out of circulation that it has become socially acceptable to praise women as "approachable and consumer responsive" (TEOM, 135), to celebrate their marshaling of "'soft'" power (29) and "social intelligence" (199), to breezily namecheck their "flexibility and responsiveness" (263) and "willingness to adapt and bend to a fast-changing economic landscape" (270); all of this without so much as a peep of concern for what they really, truly want? Indeed ladies, haven't we been here before?

You can hear a few such peeps throughout The End of Men, but only if you're listening carefully for them, for they are articulated near-exclusively through distinctively bourgeois narratives: the footloose and fancy-free single young professional woman who has "mastered the hookup"; the calculating breadwinner wife grasping at jobs, kids, and houses while Mr. Mom vacillates between euphoria and boredom; the all-star PharmD student who pines for "a house by Lake Wisconsin with a path lined by ferns and hostas" (126), who "read somewhere that classical music activates parts of your brain you don't really use" (114), and who for some reason tolerates a do-nothing, know-nothing long-term boyfriend simply "because we crack each other up." (116)

For her part, Rosin is at least apt to lament that successful young women who outpace their male peers find it nearly impossible to "marry up" in the manner of their mothers and grandmothers, and that half-liberated men have been slower to embrace domestic responsibilities than their superstar wives have been to inhabit formerly male professional spaces, leaving the women as overtaxed as ever if not more so. And she is not above granting that working-class single mothers have it rough when, as she repeatedly emphasizes, taking a husband from among their own lot increasingly means gaining little more than another mouth to feed. Marriage, she reports, has in fact become a class privilege in America.

Meanwhile, what is conspicuously absent from the book in my opinion (it is perhaps more of an opinion than a fact, but bear with me) is a woman of any economic class chasing true personal fulfillment through any but the most materialistic, bourgeois avenues. Occupying this void instead is a predictable strawman caricature, the "creative class" of mercenary job-hoppers and rear-guard parasites: "publicity assistant, wine critic, trail mix creator, sustainability consultant, screenwriter." (118) These are indeed the poster children for compromise, artistic and otherwise, however you feel about it. If you are a Creative Type who aspires to outearn your spouse, certainly there is greater potential for that here than virtually anywhere else you might set up shop, certainly this situates you well in the coming Service Economy eclipse, and certainly Hanna Rosin would be happy for you. If we didn't have escapist entertainment (or, god forbid, trail mix) we'd have to invent it; but someone has to probe the outer reaches of aesthetic possibility as well. This is no task for compromisers, and yet it cannot possibly be ideally fruitful if men are the only participants. Yet another double-bind...or is it really?

This dynamic seems not to have occurred to a great many commentators on contemporary gender relations, though perhaps it is more accurate to say that they, like nearly everyone else in the world, just don't care that much about it. Encouraging girls to pursue STEM careers becomes a universal global concern while encouraging them in marginalized artistic disciplines remains strictly an internecine campaign against a decidedly first-world problem. To be sure, I'm certainly in no hurry to convince any promising young student that the life of an uncompromising progressive artist is a sensible aspiration. Really, though, what the hell is a "sustainability consultant" anyway? How truly "creative" does your average wine critic ever get to be for god's sake? And when exactly did "screenwriter" become a reliable, stable career path? Am I just too male to see the dignity and self-fulfillment here? Or is this "progress" something of a hollow victory for women, a mainstream, postmodern update of the blood/milk/moon/quilts meme?

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