Friday, October 30, 2009

Which came first: gendered division of power or some other division?

[this is an image of the quilted artwork of Susan Brubaker Knapp, and the image was found here]

A commenter here offered the following (see "Shaukat said...), on a topic which I realised doesn't really have a "home" here, as it's not a subject I'm that interested in discussing, as it tends to become highly intellectual in a way that academically brain-trained people enjoy while allowing us academically trained white men to not confront atrocities directly, with direct action, such as rape and genocide. There's a place for conversing about such matters, of course. I'm just not sure I want my blog to be that place. Ironically, the link Shaukat shares below is from a blog I used to comment at years ago, Feral Scholar.

But I left it for good when I realised it catered to white men's privileges and entitlements to put down women of color. I felt many of what the white Leftist men were saying, that was sexist and racist, never should have been approved as comments to begin with. But that was his blog, and this is mine!

Here I wish this space to be very welcoming and safe for radical women of color. And, beyond that concern, nothing is more boring to me than theorising a past that cannot be known, especially through lenses which refuse to see gender as anything but biological and not own how being white informs the viewing of societies that are and were not. Such is not exactly the case with Joel Kovel, however, some of whose writing (theorising) appears below. It's his whiteness, more than his manliness that he doesn't seem to be able to overcome or come to terms with, or understand.

Here he argues that there was a time where humanity mutated not genetically, but socially-politically, in the context of male raiders taking females hostage thus introducing force and violence against women into societies where such raiders existed.

Here's the commenter's remarks:

Shaukat said...

Not sure if this is the right place to post this (feel free to move it to a more appropriate entry if you like) but the linked article by Joel Kovel is, I believe, an excellent piece that attempts to uncover the origins of patriarchy and male domination, the origin of which he locates in the sexual division of labor. Would be interested to know what you think.

Here's the content of that URL, minus typos and many of the comments there, only some of which I'll copy and paste below:

Section entitled “The Gendered Bifurcation of Nature” (pp 118-121)

[Already with the unnecessarily "studious" lingo. Academics love to show off.]

The first map of the human species was drawn according to ‘him’ and ‘her’, in that produced configuration of sexuality known as gender. Gender is the original dividing line within humanity; all constructions of humankind, whether within humanity or between humanity and nature, are inscribed by it. There is nothing more ‘material’ (to the common origin of words, material and mother). Sex is of the earth, and the primary dividing lines between genders were between earth-transforming labor. From this matrix (there is the root again) arose the beginnings of domination, and all future dominations, including that effected by capital, are shadowed by that of male over female.

This is not an exercise in politically correct male-bashing, but the recognition that the history of domination would be radically incomplete unless the role played in it by the construction of the masculine gender were acknowledged. The actual origins must remain shrouded in an impenetrably distant past. Nevertheless, everything that is known (though all too often ideologically denied) about the human species compels the reconstruction of the following, which we state succinctly and according to the ideas already developed about human nature, so as to bring us to the essential points:

* In the original, hunter-gatherer, phase of society, the first differentiation of labor occurs according to sex, generally speaking, with males hunting and females gathering — along, needless to say, with their work of reproduction. Note that this labor produces the gender itself, and that its origins were a genuine differentiation, with mutual recognition, fluid social relations and self-determination. Such can still be seen in the cultural remnants we have of these peoples, and by the reconstruction of the quality of self-experience derived from it: the ‘dream-time’ of Australian first peoples, the wandering of souls, the manifestations of Trickster, and so forth.

* The phase encompasses the great span of human prehistory, and entails a great range of human-natural transformations, including the domestication of animals and the origins of agriculture. Though without domination, the original division of labor set forth males as the takers of life and females as life givers. Moreover, the death-dealing tools of the hunt, and the fact of its often being carried out by roving bands, prepared a way for something worse.

* Here a sporadically occurring event may be certain even though no concrete first instance can be brought forward. Its agent was masculine, not as individual hunter, but as a subset of the collective; a group, or band of hunters. Its stimulus would vary, being composed however of internal as well as external forces, the latter being, say, a threat to survival, such as disease or drought, which compelled a search for new resources; while the former was a function of the psycho-dynamics of the male group. In any case, the event in question was the transformation of a hunt into a raid, with the object being not now the obtaining of food and skins from animals, but the expropriation of productive labor from other humans, taking not the life of another creature, but the life-giving and building power of one’s own kind.

* This necessarily involved the seizure of women and children from a neighboring collective. We would suppose a threefold violence; killing or driving off the males from the attacked collective, denying the self-determination of the seized women and children, and the forcible sexual violation of the captives.

* This act was a profound mutation in human being. It created a whole new conjuncture, which in time became a structure. First, the possibilities of exploiting another’s labor are introduced, always in the direction of male over female. Second, the potentials for enduring social divisions are grounded in this, again male over female; these are to extend forms of the hunting band, to the warrior band, and to the ruling class, with any number of intermediate and modern variations, such as the Vatican Curia, the NFL Superbowl champions, corporate Boards of Directors, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Politburo, and secret societies like Yale’s Skull and Bones. There is a sense in which the whole world has been run by male groups since the beginnings of history. Third, the genders are further produced by this, with sharply opposed identities constituted by master and slave. And fourth, violence — physical force along with the culture glorifying this — had to become institutionalized in order to hold on to what had been stolen.

* The structures imposed by the original seizure of female labor had dramatic expansive possibilities. Social violence entered the lists of the dangers to which societies are exposed. The violence invited retaliation and/or defense, and it came to define ever larger social aggregates with expansive dynamics, as each particular group underwent a compulsion to achieve power relative to others. Internally, the drive toward power caused struggles for leadership and social control. The result, after innumerable twists and turns we are unable to detail here, was the emergence of the Big Man, the Chieftain, the King, the Emperor, the Pope, the Fuhrer, the Generalissimo, and the CEO.

We would emphasize again that these principles would variously be applied across a vast range of situations. There is no need, either, to imagine a single such event radiating outward to encompass the rest of humanity. But what has to be underscored is the absolute dynamism of this event, and the fact that it amounted to a real mutation of human society as potent as anything in the realm of genetics. Out of the nexus of original male violence arose codified property relations, as a way of holding onto what had been taken: hence the notion of legitimacy follows that of violent seizure. Similarly, the institution of patriarchy emerged, as a system of apportioning women and assuring ownership and control over children — a never ending dilemma for a man who sows his seed and moves on, as the Big Man must. Property, in this sense is not primarily that which attaches to the self, like clothing and jewelry (although in stratified and wealthy societies, the control over personal consumption is quite significant), but rather the power of producing — and re-producing — life and the means for life. The control over labor generates civilization, and this originates in the forcible control over women.

It follows that domination and property are gendered from the beginning. This means that a basic alienation is introduced at the foundations of society — alienation being the reflex, at the level of human being, of ecosystemic splitting. The dominant male identity is formed in this cauldron. From the beginning, its reference point is the other males in the hunting/warrior group, with whom it associates and identifies; coordinatively, it comes to shun and deny recognition to the subjected female. A purified male-Ego comes to define the dominant form taken by the self, which enters into the exfoliating system of splits constituting the emergent civilization. Subjectively, this alienation becomes inscribed as a progressive separation from the body, and from what the body signifies, namely, nature.

A polarization between the human and natural worlds ensues, with masculinity occupying the human (=intellectual, far-seeing, spiritual, powerful and active) pole, and femininity the pole of nature (=instinctual, limited and body-based, inconstant, weak and passive). The gendered bifurcation of nature has been set going, to configure the relations between genders, and between humanity and nature, all the way to the ecological crisis.

I'll put in a few comments from the original blogsite, to show how such conversations tend to go, if they go at all. Please note: Stan is the blog's white male moderator. Peggy is a regular white commenter there and her background is in anthropology and feminism. If she's reading this here--hi Peggy!

And then there are the others... white dudes with little to no feminist consciousness:


This is the most retrograde piece of writing I’ve seen in a while. [...] He/she naturalizes the violent domination of women by men. There is no substantiation for his/her claims about human prehistory.
16 November 2005, 12:48 am

I'm not sure that is what the piece is saying. Pointing out something that used to happen in the past, even the pre-historical past, is not ‘naturalising’ it, merely reporting it. Part of the whole point he is making is that there is nothing ‘natural’ (or unnatural) about human behavior, despite its having grown up unconsciously. The very fact that our reason can identify trends within human development, and critique whether they are positive or negative, as well as posit alternatives, means that the subjugation of women by men (a historical fact) is no more ‘natural’ or defensible than thinking brown cords are less fashionable than blue jeans.

His claims about human prehistory do seem to be based on deductive reasoning, rather than hard (archaeological?) evidence, but does that render them completely without merit? If there is another explanation for how gender roles came to be solidified around the biological fact of physical gender, then perhaps it should be explained, or posted.
17 November 2005, 6:10 am

[Ah, eionmonkey shows his bias right away: noting "the biological fact of physical gender" as if physical attributes necessarily assign meaning and value. A good example: in Nazi Germany having blue eyes meant something, as did having brown eyes. Blond and blue-eyed was regarded as intrinsically "better" according to the racist beliefs of the Nazis. In this country, while being blond and blue-eyed still has its perks: you're more likely to get a modeling job at Abercrombie & Fitch, for example, those physical attributes alone do not constitute a separate "race" from other white people (such as Ashkenazi Jews) in the way that they did seventy years ago in Germany. Although they do still function to produce valued meaning, as anyone who has read Toni Morrison's The Bluest Eye can attest.] [...]

Stan: [...]
Joel Kovel is a colleague of Maria Mies, and her work argues vehemently against the naturalizaton of women. When JK is saying “Sex is of the earth,” that is not HIS position; he is engaging in a bit of literary ventriloquism.

Alas… the perils of excerpting.
18 November 2005, 6:58 pm

milosevic to eoinmonkey:

"His claims about human prehistory do seem to be based on deductive reasoning, rather than hard (archaeological?) evidence, but does that render them completely without merit? If there is another explanation for how gender roles came to be solidified around the biological fact of physical gender, then perhaps it should be explained, or posted."

How about this: once class differentiation became a permanent feature of (some) human societies, the rulers quickly realized that an effective way to enhance their own wealth and power would be to increase the number of serfs and slaves under their domination by attacking and subjugating neighboring societies. This program would obviously have generated resistance from the targeted nations, both those which were also class-divided and those which were not.

Overcoming this resistance would have required large numbers of disposable soldiers — arrow-, spear-, and sword-fodder. In order to produce these troops in the required quantities, it would be necessary for the social managers to assert control over the means of (re)production — to convert women from citizens into baby-making machines, denied the right to control their own bodies and lives. This innovation would itself have required an appropriate ideology to normalize and justify it. And once this whole process was underway in one society, there would have been strong pressure to emulate it in all its neighbors, again in order to make possible the otherwise insane waste of human effort and emotion inherent in having babies, supporting and socializing them until maturity, and then sending them off to die to serve the interests of a tiny clique of nobles, warlords, and priests.

I think that there is rather more historical evidence to support this theory than the one advanced by the writer in question. For a discussion of this, I would suggest a book called “The Chalice and the Blade”, by Riane Eisler.
23 November 2005, 9:12 pm

[milosevic, for me, takes far too many liberties with his assumptions, particularly in imbuing men with some power to control women, which he neither explains the history of, or sees a problem with stating as a given. For example, "to convert women from citizens into baby-making machines" implies women are not the converters. Why? He just assumes men have this sexist role, this dominant power.]

When the human species first emerged, we were all foragers. Big game hunting came along much later, after we had developed the technology and kinds of social organization needed to capture and kill big fast animals. We were not naturally endowed with such capacities, as were wolves and large cats. We were omnivores, like bears, and our diet and means of subsistence were certainly more like those of bears than those of large hunting animals. Our protein supply would have come from insects and small animals like mice. We were the prey of the large carnivores for a long time before we were predators. We probably first developed means of defense against the predatory animals before, and on the way to, becoming predators ourselves. Thus there was a long period of time when males and females would have been on an equal footing wrt food-procuring techniques and abilities. Females were handicapped by childbearing and nursing, but they could forage as well as males, as they still do. There is no reason to suppose that during this long period of time a gendered division of labor, based on "hunting" versus "gathering", was in operation.

AFTER the technology for big-game hunting was developed, THEN there MAY have come into being a gendered division of labor, based on the ability to engage in displays of virtuosity along the lines of running fast for long distances and throwing projectile weapons far and hard enough to bring down large and fast animals. Still, it seems to have been not so much a matter of subsistence labor as a matter of sport, displays of skill, as it is today. In those particular kinds of display, men seem to have always had the edge. But day-to-day food supplies would still have been obtained by foraging.

The domestication of animals and plants on a regular basis resulted in a profound transformation of human social organizations. This period is generally known as the Neolithic, it began about twelve thousand years ago, and is distinguished from the phase known as Paleolithic, when people lived by foraging, and domestication of plants and animals was uncommon, because it was unnecessary. Foraging provided enough for all. When this ceased to be the case in certain areas, then people took to growing their own food, so that they could have a larger supply of it. For a long period of time after the domestication of plants and animals, people lived peacefully in small settlements. Last time I read about the Neolithic, the small settlements showed no sign of needing defense from raiders. As soon as raiders appeared on the scene, settled people built defenses against them. Those settled people had weapons as well as the raiders. If Neolithic settlements were raided, which I do not know if they were or not, it would have been by desperate bands of outcast people. The loot would have been food, or stuff that could be traded for food or other useful valuables, like what thieves and robbers of today look for. But raiders were at a distinct disadvantage until the advent of horseback riding, about 4000 BC. By the time horseback riding and raiding became, for some people, a way of life, full blown civilizations with irrigation systems and walled cities and iron tools and the rest were already in existence. With a horse, you could get in and out fast, the horse was the first military vehicle, and it became the prototype of military vehicles thereafter.

So maybe we can blame it all on the horse.

The abduction of women and children by bands of male raiders, who wanted the labor of those women and children for the sake of their own subsistence, did not, to the best of my knowledge, happen until way later -- i.e. in modern times in the Amazon. But that is a whole 'nother story. If anyone has specific evidence of raiding and abduction of women and children as a phase in human prehistory, please bring it forward.

And if the raiders simply killed or drove off the men and abducted the women, are we to suppose that the men and women in the settlements were unable to defend themselves and their families against such onslaughts?

Kovel asserts: "This act ['killing or driving off the males from the attacked collective, denying the self-determination of the seized women and children, and the forcible sexual violation of the captives'] was a profound mutation in human being. It created a whole new conjuncture, which in time became a structure."

Or in other words, Kovel is here asserting that bands of men raiding settlements in the above stated manner constituted an evolutionary, transformation of human society as a whole. In implying that this forcible violence against women was an evolutionary human development (virtually inevitable? Like capitalism?) Kovel really loses me, because this is all fantasy, with no material evidence to back it up, and much material evidence, as well as much logic, to contradict it.

I hope I need not go on. But reading that far in Kovel's article, I got riled, and proceeded to write my original refutation, which alas for posterity has been forever lost in the bowels of the internet.[...]
24 November 2005, 9:21pm

[I'm with Peggy: "In implying that this forcible violence against women was an evolutionary human development (virtually inevitable? Like capitalism?) Kovel really loses me, because this is all fantasy, with no material evidence to back it up, and much material evidence, as well as much logic, to contradict it."]

Peggy is an anthropologist, and this is valuable food for thought. One point that is in her post and that Kovel also means to suggest - a point they may have in common - is the point that gendered power may have emerged BEFORE class power, and very well may have served as the model for future forms of social inequality… … before the advent of agriculture, the development of class, and the introduction of warfare.

Much of the speculation about which came first - class or male supremacy - has been characterized by a paucity of archeological information (thanks to Peggy for filling some things in); but more importantly, the hoary left agenda to subordinate the question of gendered power within a class-first (primary contradiction) framework has been selective with facts to make them fit the agenda (and often just wrong). This raises my own index of suspicion that the male-led left is not as immune as it often pretends to plain dominant-class (seeing gender as a class system) interest in preserving power. That gender is do deeply psychologically embedded only serves to make it more difficult to exhume the gender-ideology hiding inside constructions of secondary contradiction, “woman-questions”, and the embrace of liberalism on questions of gender while eschewing liberalism (in favor of revolutionary analysis and action) with regard to class.

Kovel’s aim, however imperfectly he might have pursued it with this excerpt, is to show the connections between gendered power, colonization, and ecocide - based on white male capitalist objectification as the rationale for domination… with gendered power serving as the epistemic base model. He and Peggy are both exquisitely sensitive (as they should be) to the operation of naturalization in this regard.

Since beginning my reading of feminist-womanist literature and theory in earnest three years ago, I have been drawn further and further toward the conclusion myself that gender preceded class, though I see them as absolutely inextricable and therefore without hierarchy in relation to “one another.” A quick look at the language used to describe relations between colonizer and colonized, between “Man” (of course) and “Nature”, and men and women, reveals a very consistent linguistic reflection of this.

I am working on a very comprehensive piece for posting soon that will attempt to observe this whole question from many angles - this time starting with semiotics, linguistics, and working out from there.

Many male leftists have been dismissive of these linguistic questions, behaving as if prevailing attitudes of the past, providing the excuse for leftists of today to get off the hook. They will tell you about primary contradictions until they are blue in the face, while a woman somewhere is washing their dirty drawers or cleaning their hotel room.

I don’t mean to crack over-hard on male leftists, but they have the virtue, fro the most part, of having accepted self-criticism as part of their practice without becomng defensive. Those are props. I push at us because I think we are the next layer that has to be won over to the revolutionary ideas and practice of feminism-womanism.
25 November 2005, 9:22 am

milosevic to Stan:

"I push at us because I think we are the next layer that has to be won over to the revolutionary ideas and practice of feminism-womanism."

I’d be a lot more sympathetic to this idea if it didn’t seem like most of the people who identify themselves as “radical” “feminists” have an unhealthy fascination with state power. Dworkin and MacKinnon, for example. The punch line always seems to be more laws, more cops, more gun control, more censorship, more taxation — in other words, the revolutionary agency which is going to liberate women from men turns out to be the existing capitalist state, and almost anything which further entrenches its control over the lives of ordinary people is thought to be A Good Thing. I don’t consider that to be a particularly revolutionary agenda.

[I'd jump in here to blast this guy off the page, but Stan responds appropriately.]

Somebody will say here “not all feminists agree with those policies”. Perhaps not, but there is a remarkable lack of public criticism of hese kinds of ideas from the womanists, as far as I can see. The only people who bother to oppose them are liberal feminists. If I have to choose between people who support the institutions of ruling class power, with civil liberties, and people who support the institutions of ruling class power, without civil liberties, I’ll go with the former, every time.

All of which is to say that I don’t enjoy being a slave for the corporations, and I don’t feel particularly sympathetic towards people who seem to want to be cheerleaders for the corporations’ enforcement and extortion agency, the capitalist state. I find it more than slightly odd that a body of theory and practice which started off thirty-five years ago, as “women’s liberation”, emphasizing the intimate connection between women’s oppression and class oppression, has mutated into “radical feminism”, which amnesties the state and the people who own it, so that it can blame the whole problem on individual men, who it considers to be an undifferentiated reactionary mass. It’s not particularly hard to figure out whose interests are served by that kind of theory. And it’s not unreasonable to assume that the gradual transformation of a promising social liberation movement into another ideological prop for the capitalist state, was something other than an accident. It’s almost like somebody planned it that way.
25 November 2005, 2:35 pm

This is a gross misrepresentation, though the same one we’ve heard for years, of rad-fems, and displays not one iota of study of womanism. The most trenchant and on the money critique that has been written, to my view, of liberal law, using marxist categories, was from Catharine MacKinnon.

This is the same left male hostility to feminism I’ve seen a hundred times.

What actual feminist theorists have you read? This might give a starting point to have this conversation. There are dozens of things calling themselves feminism out there, including the crap from Camille Paglia and her reactionary ilk.

I’m serious. What feminists are you referring to, specifically and individually, and what did they say? This kind of artillery salvo does absolutely zero toward reaching any clarity or precision.

Your characterization with regard to “civil liberties’ is a grotesque straw (wo)man.


Stan - One strong argument for the primacy of gendered power distinctions over class distinctions comes in Nancy Chodorow’s gentle book, The Reproduction of Mothering, in which she shows on a psychological level why male human beings would feel compelled to assert their superiority over females, sometimes aggressively. Although psychology is generally considered an individual matter, Chodorow argues that almost all male human beings go through the experiences that would lead them to derogate women. This does not mean that almost all male human beings *do* derogate women, as there are many means to mitigate the factors that push them in this direction. Chodorow’s book in no way suggests that women deserve derogation, or that they have somehow earned it. The main thing is that the urge for boys to push away from, and prove themselves superior to girls and women is *learned* and happens in early childhood. Chodorow’s work is worth reading, even if you end up disagreeing with what she says.

[I don't buy Chodorow's theory at all, except and unless we take it as a given that male supremacy is already in place, so that boys grow up learning which sex is presumed superior. MacKinnon has good challenges to such theorists, who seem to forget that we first need to understand that male supremacy is in place, and also how such an enforced ideology impacts everything, including the devaluation of motherhood, the valuation of manhood and "it's a boy!", and the rampant misogyny that boys grow up absorbing, consciously or not.]

Let me know if all this doesn't answer your question, Shaukat. What I truly despise about such conversations is the ways in which they just assume Indigenous people don't exist, don't carry stories of their past, and ought not be consulted as the "experts" on such subjects. Indigenous Australians, for example, have been around for about 50,000 years. Why does it not occur to white folks to inquire about the history of humanity from them? One answer is because many Indigenous people, if not impacted dramatically by white men, tell stories about their ancestors, as did the Jews. Not "literal" stories, either. (Christians take note.) But is the knowledge offered by Indigenous Australians not important, and if so, who decides what's important to know? A society that has survived for 50,000 years, until white men came and fucked everything up, might have something to say about oh, for example, sustainable living!

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