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.

6 comments:

Stefan Kac said...

Nancy Isenberg
White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016)

p. 53, re: William Byrd's observations of early eighteenth century Carolina -- "The little work that actually got done was performed by the female poor."

And in the relevant endnote, NI adds:

"The idea of women doing all the work and "husbands lie snoring in bed" is a much older theme." (p. 342)

Of course my immediate reaction: you mean Hanna Rosin was not, as her publisher's blurb would have it, "the first to notice" such things just a few short years ago?!

That said, one of Rosin's more prescient observations in The End of Men is that this combination of male idleness and female bootstrapping is a specifically lower-class phenomenon, and I think this raises an interesting chicken-or-the-egg question when it comes to investigating (1) how a callous disregard of the poor was/is rationalized to/by people who should know better, and (2) the many and various ways that cycles of poverty perpetuate themselves through tacit social conditioning. By which I mean, for example: under patriarchy such a state of affairs of course threatens to attract its share of organic hostility simply for swimming against the current; and at that point the shame associated with male inability or unwillingness to provide takes on a life of its own, with the potential to break subsequent generations of poor men before they've had a chance to know any other way.

Stefan Kac said...

Marshall McLuhan
"Looking Up to My Son"
pp. 76-77
in The Mechanical Bride
(2002 Gingko Press edition) [orig. 1951]

"Pictorially, the ad links the most lofty sentiments of motherly devotion and sacrifice to a dream that is unconsciously crude and base. This helps to explain how it occurs that refined and idealistic women in our world are so often the mothers of ruthless men who enslave themselves to the low drudgery of avarice or who live in thrice-heated furnaces of passion for dubious distinction. The objectives of a commercial society, when filtered through the medium of maternal idealism, acquire a lethal intensity. For women don't invent the goals of society. They interpret them to their children. In her Male and Female, Dr. Mead explores the American paradox of "conditional love," showing from many points of view the emotional structuring which results, especially in boys and men, from affection that is tendered or withdrawn as a reward or penalty, at first for eating and toilet habits, later for assertiveness at school and in business. In this prevalent situation a child or adult merits love only when he is successful. The present ad is that entire drama in capsule form. But the drama is not of recent origin, as Dr. Mead is aware."

Stefan Kac said...

Meaghan Morris
"Banality in Cultural Studies" (1988)
www.researchgate.net%2Fpublication%2F312989011_Banality_in_cultural_studies&usg=AOvVaw2mNB66QrhaI9Cv6y7z-vAD

"... [Iain] Chambers [in Popular Culture] argues that in looking at popular culture, we should not subject individual signs and single texts to the "contemplative stare of official culture." Instead, it is a practice of "distracted reception" that really characterizes the subject of "popular epistemology." For Chambers, this distraction has consequences for the practice of writing. Writing can imitate popular culture (life) by, for example, "writing through quotations," and refusing to "explain...references fully." To explain would be to reimpose the contemplative stare and adopt the authority of the "academic mind."

"Chambers's argument emerges from an interpretation of the history of subcultural practices, especially in music. I've argued elsewhere my disagreement with his attempt to use that history to generalize about popular culture in The Present. Here, I want to suggest that an image of the subject of pop epistemology as casual and "distracted" obliquely entails a revival of the figure that Andreas Huyssen, Tania Modleski, and Patrice Petro have described in various contexts as "mass culture as woman." Petro, in particular, further points out that the contemplation/distraction opposition is historically implicated in the construction of the "female spectator" as site, and target, of a theorization of modernity by male intellectuals in Weimar.

"There are many versions of a "distraction" model available in cultural studies today: there are housewives phasing in and out of TV or flipping through magazines in laundromats as well as pop intellectuals playing with quotes. In Chambers's text, which is barely concerned with women at all, distraction is not presented as a female characteristic. Yet today's recycling of Weimar's distraction nonetheless has the "contours," in Petro's phrase, of a familiar female stereotype—distracted, absent-minded, insouciant, vague, flighty, skimming from image to image. The rush of associations turns irresistibly toward a figure of mass culture not as woman but, more specifically, as bimbo.

"In the texts Petro analyzes, "contemplation" (of distraction in the cinema) is assumed to be the prerogative of male intellectual audiences. In pop epistemology, a complication is introduced via the procedures of projection and identification... The knowing subject of popular epistemology no longer contemplates mass culture as bimbo, but takes on the assumed mass cultural characteristics in the writing of his own text. Since the object of projection and identification in post-subcultural theory tends to be black music and "style" rather than the European (and literary) feminine, we find an actantial hero of knowledge emerging in the form of the
white male theorist as bimbo.

"However, I think the problem with the notion of pop epistemology is not really, in this case, a vestigial antifeminism in the concept of distraction. The problem is that in antiacademic pop-theory writing...a stylistic enactment of the "popular" as
essentially distanced, scanning the surface, and short on attention span, performs a retrieval, at the level of enunciative practice, of the thesis of "cultural dopes." In the critique of which...the project of cultural studies effectively and rightly began."

Stefan Kac said...

(On Morris)

OOFDAH. So, if the mere "contour" of someone's rhetoric so much as "obliquely entails a revival" of bygone female stereotypes, then at that point "a vestigial antifeminism" is *all up in there*, even if the text "is barely concerned with women at all"? And it makes *no difference* that said "contour" is, in the end, *not actually* "presented as a female characteristic" therein? This is pretty dicey! In the same way, so is my original post here.

Regarding Morris's account (and to be clear, I know nothing of the people or the works, only the rhetoric given above), for the sake of communication remaining feasible to any degree at all, I think the surface/literal reading must be indulged on its own terms, temporarily perhaps, but for long enough at least that people can, eventually, at some point, somewhere in a far away academic land, engage in dialogue beyond mere accusations of hidden intent.

Still, the "contour" is not to be ignored. We have to find some way to reckon with the contour. That task starts with naming it. The problem is that once we have named something, we great apes are not so great at keeping our contours straight from our names, our materials, our intentions... One minute we have merely "perform[ed] a retrieval at the level of enunciative practice", the next minute we have bombed our entire discipline back to its respective Stone Age (metonymized here into Weimar, which is way over my head). This is what happens when it takes one to know one, a delicious piece of children's rhetoric to which adults quickly and infinitely regress wherever know-ledge is disputed along lines of social standpoint. Woe to any epistemological messengers who might later turn up dead this way.

Stefan Kac said...

(Morris, cont.)

I've read stacks of this late-1980s gobbledygook and I've gone deep into the North American Scrabble lexicon, and still I have never seen the word "actantial" before. Turns out it's not in Scrabble at all, and not even Google is much help here. As best I can tell, what this word indicates is that Morris has triangulated her way to the dark island "white male theorist as bimbo" by conceptualizing the already-mapped islands as literary characters engaged in an agonistic, plot-bound struggle. In this episode of the dramedy Cultural Studies, she posits two characters onscreen along with a third offscreen character whose presence is unmistakably evidenced by certain other visible "contours", e.g. the fact that Black (male?!) culture tends to get most of the screen time throughout season ten of this dramedy, whereas in seasons one through nine it was femmy European literary pap onto which the white man projected (while also, oddly, identifying with it too).

Long story longer, the reason mere "contour" matters, in spite of being incredibly tenuous in the conventional epistemological sense, is that "The past is never dead. It is not even past." As theorists, it is totally fair for us to say to ourselves, "I've seen this movie before and I don't like how it ends." There are, admittedly, two booby traps we set for our feeble hominid brains this way. One is the infinite regress wherein it takes one to know one. The other is the plight of Taleb's Turkey, the animal kingdom's answer to the financial analyst, who, based on a long-term retrospective trend, wakens the day before Thanksgiving confident of being well fed and cared for.

And so, re: the possible genderedness of distraction and contemplation, rugged individualism and collaboration, nurturance and competition, we must always treat this genderedness as a retrospective and not a prospective construct. The gory retrospective details are themselves difficult to handle gracefully; merely pointing them out often seems to invite them into the realm of the prospective. This is not at all my intention here. Quite the opposite, actually. I think it is up to those who would affirmatively, prospectively reclaim such gendered archetypes as affirmative gender identities to convince us through their actions rather than their words that this supposed reclamation has been an affirmative choice, not to mention actually a good idea.

Stefan Kac said...

(Morris, cont. #2)

I am eager to dispense with all sexual divisions of labor, role, identity, etc. (this is not at all the same as dispensing with the gender binary, about which I confess I am more ambivalent), if for no other reason than that those archetypically male traits which I do exemplify seem to have become quite incompatible with the traditional male role as it is played today. In that connection, Morris' implicit location of the "contemplative stare of official culture" as male does indeed supply some useful context for all that has changed in the cultureverse since 1988. To relate this directly to some recent reading, the picture of technological postmodernity painted by Tim Wu's The Attention Merchants and Nicholas Carr's The Shallows is one wherein any "contemplative" act worthy of the name is an inherently oppositional act, and indeed can only be achieved via a certain instrumental opposition to the technologically determined status quo.

The ethic of distraction has engulfed even "official culture," and it has found, as detailed in these two books, no shortage of (mostly male) apologists. If the laboratory evidence detailed by Carr is to be believed, then contemplation is indeed a sort of epistemological privilege. It's precisely the kind of privilege that men in rigidly patriarchal societies have historically reserved for themselves. In Cultural Studies, meanwhile, it is rendered as merely one culture among many; here, the "official culture". Cultural Studies can render it as male, but not as privileged: the relativistic streak permits only the first, and not the second. This is not too helpful at this particular moment in history. Dare I say it is emblematic of the very techno-determinist, UX-flavored directions that the movement for gender equity has taken.