This musing is clearly dated. It was written almost a decade ago and in response to books and articles I was reading at the time, most of which were published in the 80’s or 90’s. Keep that in mind when reading it. I debated not posting this one. But I made a commitment to post all of these musings so I’m posting this one, too.
At this time I am running across many references to gender issues in the books and articles I’m reading. More specifically, performativity, spectatorship, commodification, voyeurism, flaneurism, mirrors, transference, otherness, alterity, queerness, femininity, and other theoretical vehicles for discussing issues of gender and orientation. Often the author’s stated or implied purpose is establishing equality of some alternative frame for femininity or queerness, challenging existing paradigms. Arguments can almost seem polemical at times, positing not only equality but going farther, just to make the point, seemingly suggesting the replacement of the traditional heterosexual (white) patriarchal, hegemonic, capitalist, aggressive, social order which currently oppresses and deludes us with a feminist or queer hegemony – intentionally stated in an overly dramatic manner, meant as representative of the force and bias of some of these arguments…and commentary on them, as some authors are clearly ‘yesing’ too hard.
I find the structure of many of these arguments troubling, and not because I find the underlying intent or perspective of these arguments troubling – quite the contrary — different ways to parse reality fascinate me and in general, I am sympathetic to their concerns. But aside from my sentiments (or as the authors of this type of critical theory would say, if we acknowledge my sentiments as influencing my perspective but bracket them out for a moment, we can focus on the subject of this musing), I think that while the stated purpose of such arguments is often to establish legitimacy for an alternative point of view, in actuality, the way too many of the arguments are structured is actually antithetical to achieving that goal. Too many clearly identify and elaborate on the mechanisms of oppression external to the oppressed/delegitimized, but do not expend commensurate effort recognizing the agency and complicity of the “oppressed” in their own oppression. For instance, a common theme I’ve encountered lately in these writings may be summarized as: Man as subjugator and consumer, Woman as object, subjugated, and commodity. Saying this does not go into the full complexity and dynamics of the social orders governing the situation. Where is the woman’s agency? In the way an objectified and subjugated woman markets herself she assumes agency and attempts to maximize the influence and authority she derives from her position. Doing so becomes the vehicle for her to assert her intelligence, confidence, and power, but also perpetuates the hegemony. She is both victim and perpetrator, complicit in her own subjugation, and I don’t really see this acknowledged in these articles with any profundity. Neither is it acknowledged that much of the motivations, goals, etc. of men, the subjugators, are determined by influential women in their lives as well as those they would seduce. So in a way the subjugated determines and helps construct the habits of the subjugator, including those habits which are oppressive – and moreover, may even use this influence over the subjugator as a weapon against other subjugated individuals. In this regard, the power structure is inverted. It is the dominant aesthetics, motivations, and desires of the subjugated which the subjugators submit to and enforce in the hopes of impressing the subjugated. The subjugated can be seen as the arbiters of value and constructors of order for the subjugators – this is getting messy! As Nietzsche noted (paraphrasing), “…which of us is Oedipus? Which the Sphinx?” (To be clear, I am making my own polemical argument at the moment, so please don’t take this as serious and nuanced critique.)
What I am driving toward is that it seems as though we, both as individuals and groups, are always both the marked term and the unmarked term…both the object and the subject…both the subjugator and the subjugated…both the phallus and the womb…both a winner and a loser…both king and slave…..and what one sees of the power structure is a function of one’s vantage point and what part of the structure one is looking toward. Moreover, that something like the rules of visual perspective, even parallax, govern our logical explorations of psychological and social structures, as well. All of these critiques may be read into the folds of the underlying order, when viewed from just the right vantage point. All of them are true to varying degrees and yet none of them completely or accurately capture the underlying truth. So if one looks toward those aspects in which one is the marked term and focuses on them, then that’s primarily what one will see.
It is important to acknowledge this, too, because implicit or stated assumptions that heterosexual white males find themselves to be masters of the universe accords to them more power and agency than they in fact possess and importantly, acknowledging the limitations and nuance of their roles and the degree to which they are coerced or compelled into performing them more accurately and usefully reduces the perceived threat they represent and makes addressing the legitimate concerns about male, white power structures more tractable. That I’ve read so far, there seems to be no writing which explores the issue of what it might mean for feminist theory or queer theory if one entertains the notion that the vast majority of those who are considered the oppressors have no more freedom of choice and the same (but no more) responsibility for maintaining the social order than any other group. Acknowledging such actually makes a powerful argument that the subjugators are mere equals of the subjugated and begins to level the playing field, so to speak.
Lastly, there is a larger point that may be made about critical theory and the sorts of logical exercises undertaken by its authors. If one wants a thorough, logical, valid argument, it can take innumerable forms. One can argue both for and against a point with equal validity. The validity of a logical argument is, to an extent, independent of the subject-matter of the argument, and merely only indicative of one’s depth and accuracy of perception of the structure from a particular vantage point and through a particular lens. No more claim to truth can be made than this. We can only judge whether the argument is valid from that vantage point when looked at through that lens. This says little, if anything at all, about how well the argument relates to the underlying reality of the structure. This is similar to the syntax of code being valid independent of the semantics used in the code or the application of the syntax to any given objective; and that accurately understanding the semantics tells us nothing about the underlying syntax,though it does relate to the objective — either way, it is erroneous to see a correlation between syntax and semantics. Given this, the logical validity of any argument is not indicative of its truthfulness. Rather, one might say that logical validity is a useful check on any given perspective and is a necessary, though not sufficient condition for a successful argument. (This may be true technically speaking, but any observer of politics and entertainment knows logical validity is not a precondition for the ideas that sway popular culture.)For this reason, all of these arguments are to be taken …with a grain of salt… Logic is useful, but it is rarely truthful. It is a useful measure, but it is not the only measure and may not be the most important measure in any given situation.
What matters most is what we believe and the vantage point we choose and that, as a society, there is variation in vantage points and lens, but not too much or too little (and that what constitutes too much or too little is a function of the scale, complexity, heterogeneity, and rate of change of the society and its ordering parameters.) It is in choosing our vantage point and lens that we exhibit agency and which is indicative of our motivations and character. But the resulting logical perspective is only marginally more or less accurate and insightful than anyone else’s and is almost sure to deceive and obfuscate as much as it reveals and clarifies.
Finally, all of this suggests that the particular argument we make is only of marginal value compared to any alternative argument that could be made on the subject; but the fact that we are making the argument is invaluable and what ultimately matters for us as individuals and as a society. For in making the argument, no matter its value as a more or less accurate representation of the underlying order, there is tremendous value in putting it forth in the social discourse and creating an opportunity for all of our collective perspectives to coalesce around a similar vantage point — and there is value for us as individuals and a society in sharing this vantage point — any vantage point, and a similar, shared kit of lenses, and constructing shared, valid arguments through these so that there is a certain symmetry and coherence from experience to perspective to lens (tool for parsing reality) to logical understanding of existence. Of course, such an argument can also lead to great institutionalized cruelty. So this sharing of perspective — of coalescence — is valuable and powerful, but it, too, does not ensure that we have coalesced around ethically appropriate and useful goals.
What interests me most is orchestrating the evolution of this coordinated system of experience, perspective, thought, and action, putting it to use in an egalitarian, transparent, humble and useful manner; and making such orchestration manifest in the built environment as scaffolding for people and society.