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Friday, August 07, 2009

It's a man's man's man's world - but it wouldn't be nothing...

This is a man's world...

Susan Okin’s 1979 essay on Rousseau, Rousseau’s Natural Woman, remains a feminist landmark in the literature on Rousseau. Okin carefully goes through the Second Discourse to disentangle what Rousseau meant by natural and how human nature within nature – a human nature unencumbered by society – is to be imagined. She notes that Rousseau does not imagine that the nuclear family existed at the beginning. Rather, men and women existed, so to speak, side by side, and if their sexual congress resulted in a pregnancy, this did not particularly concern the man, nor did it particularly concern the woman to make any claim on the father. In this section, in a long footnote on Locke, Rousseau attacks the British version of the state of nature:

“At this point in the Discourse, there is a long footnote in which Rousseau attacks Locke for his argument that the nuclear family existed even in the state of nature.5 Whereas Locke had claimed that the helplessness of human offspring meant that the race could not survive without the institution of monogamy, Rousseau argues that this is a prime example of the failure of phi- losophers to get beyond social and moral developments and back to the true state of nature. The human female, he asserts, is quite capable of rearing her child unaided, and since no man knew which child was his, what possible reason could there be at this stage for any man to participate in the rearing of any woman's child? Though Locke may want to justify the family as an institution, he cannot show it to be necessary, or even comprehensible, in the natural order of things. As Rousseau says (and it is important to note the form of this argument because of what he himself does subsequently):

Although it may be advantageous to the human species for the union between man and woman to be permanent, it does not follow that it was thus established by nature; otherwise it would be necessary to say that nature also in- stituted civil society, the arts, commerce, and all that is claimed to be useful to men. [Okin, 1979: 397]

As Okin notices, Rousseau’s conception of human nature accords to women, in this Ur-scene at the beginning of the world, a full independence in relation to men. Which is why the next move he makes is so logically puzzling:

“The transition, in the Second Discourse, from the original state of nature, in which the sexes were equal and independent, to the patriarchal family, is very sudden, and of critical importance for the subject of this paper. In a single paragraph, and virtually without explanation, Rousseau postulates a "first revolution," in which, to- gether with simple tools and the first huts, which together constitute "a sort of property," appears the very first cohabitation in the form of the monogamous nuclear family. Suddenly, and without justification, since up to this time women have been supposed capable of fending for themselves and their offspring alone, Rousseau intro- duces a complete division of labor between the sexes. Previously the way of life of the two sexes has been identical. Now, he says, "Women became more sedentary and grew accustomed to tend the hut and the children, while the man went to seek their common subsistence."10 With no explanation, then, we have the division of labor between men as breadwinners and women as housewives. This division of labor, moreover, means that the entire female half of the human race is no longer self-sufficient. Since it was this very self-suffici- ency which had been the guarantee of the freedom and equality that characterized the original state of nature, one might expect some commentary on this suddenly introduced inequality, but one will not find it. Rousseau describes these original families as united only by the bonds of "reciprocal affection and freedom," but it is also made very clear that, since the male is assigned the only work which Rousseau considers to be productive of property, the family's goods belong to him alone.”

Okin presses here upon a “rhetorical syllogism”, as Aristotle would call it, that reappears in Emile. The two works were composed in the 1755-1760 period, which also included the writing of Julie. The pattern is the same: we have, on the one hand, a primary equality, and on the other hand, a defense of dependence. Let me get ahead of my texts, here, and say that what is at issue here is solitude. Can a woman be solitary? In the creation story as Rousseau has inherited it, women are simply dependent by way of a divine fiat. The enlightenment gesture one would expect would be clearing away the theological impression – which Rousseau, following Locke, does. But Rousseau does not want to import England into the primal scene: rather, the New World. In so doing, Rousseau creates an insurmountable logical problem for himself – from the New World, we only get to the patriarchal world by an illegitimate violence – illegitimate in that it does not reflect or extend our nature. This is a truth too far for Rousseau, which is why he revisits the creation scene, this time using the language not of Locke, but of the Bible. And yet still, the dice give him snake eyes – one and one.

I’ll end here with this passage from Emile:

In everything that concerns sex [sexe – sexual parts, sexuality], women and men have throughout relations and differences: the difficulty of comparing them comes from that of determing in the constitution of one and the other what is a matter of sex and what isn’t. By comparative anatomy, and even by one’s particular inspection, one finds between them general differences that don’t seem to concern sex. But they do, although by ties that are outside of our capacity to perceive: we only know where the ties are extended [LI NOTE: I’d bet Charles Darwin knew this passage, since it so exactly reflects what he says about sexual selection in the Descent of Man] the only thing that we know with certainty is that all they have in common is the species, and all that they have that is different concerns the sex. Under this double point of view, we find between them so many relations and so many oppositions that it is perhaps one of the miracles of nature to have made two beings that are so alike in constituting them so differently.

These relations and these differences ought to have some empire on morals: this consequence is sensible, conformable to experience, and shows the vanity of disputes on the preference or equality of the sexes: as if each of the two, going towards their natural ends according to their particular destination [LI NOTE: I have italicized this phrase, which we shouldn’t let slip past – this is, of course, the logic of the proper place, which we have seen in Aristotle – the power of place is just in being the proper destination of the thing of which it is the place], were only the more perfect in this, that they resembled each other the more! In what they have in common they are equal; in what they have that is different, they are not comparable. A perfect woman and a perfect man ought to resemble each other in intellect no more than they do in face, and perfection is not susceptible of more and less.

In the union of the sexes, each concurs equally in the common object, but not in the same manner. From this diversity is born the first difference assignable between the morals of one and the other. One must be active and strong, the other passive and weak: it is necessary that one will want and can do, and it is sufficient that the other resists little.

This principle established, it follows that woman is especially made to please man. If man must please in his turn, it is by a necessity less direct: his merit is in his power: he pleases by this alone, that he is strong. This, I agree, is not the law of love: but it is that of nature, anterior to love itself. “ [My translation]

LI will treat this in another post.


northanger said...

that is an awesome video. i like that Tweet girl.

Can a woman be solitary? can a man?

roger said...

Yeah, but I wish it had been longer. I'd love to see about ten minutes of that. And where are tweet's other vids? I'm on the prowl for them.

northanger said...

don't laugh, i'll kick you. Smoking Cigarettes

P.M.Lawrence said...

There is rather more to hunter-gatherer subsistence economics division of labour and child rearing than Rousseau thought. Never mind the active help of a father being useful, grandparental contributions are too. Without those the mortality of mother and child rises and spacing between births goes up, and a culture with only maternal input might not even be self sustaining.

Anonymous said...

"...a culture with only maternal input might not even be self sustaining."



roger said...

Mr. Lawrence, Rousseau was trying to strip away all social properties to get to the foundation of society. Your account of hunter gatherer societies doesn't, I think, counter Rousseau's picture, and it rather detours around the fact that mothers can help daughters, thus obviating any of the difficulties you point out to autarkic motherhood. The cat, the dog, the pig, animals that Rousseau would have seen, reproduce via the mother's nourishment of the young, and the father's absence.

By projecting a very English nuclear family to this moment in which society is born, Locke didn't get the point. Rousseau did.
I'm not sure why

P.M.Lawrence said...

By "obviating", do you mean "eliminating" rather than (as I would read it) "mitigating"? And by "mothers can help daughters", do you mean only daughters, by implication exposing practically all sons at birth, or worse?

For, up to about the age of seven, a human child needs constant adult attention and care in many things it cannot do for itself (this care and attention can cover several children and be carried out by others from time to time, e.g. the extended family members, but by hypothesis only the mother is available for this). From seven to fourteen, only food and some few longer term resources need be provided, for the child needs only to be minded from time to time rather than continually. From fourteen to twenty-one or so, the adolescent can even do these other things for him or herself, in circumstances of sufficient subsistence resources, but has no surplus to start a new generation.

Pull all this together. Children come roughly three to five years apart, in those conditions with their nutrition. Discarding most of the boys, women might indeed maintain their numbers and produce a few but sufficient drone men as a sort of bycatch. But I do not consider this to be "natural", in the sense used, because I do not suppose that it would come naturally to women. Rather, I consider the natural scheme to be women breeding and keeping such children as survived, a scheme which to be done frequently enough to maintain numbers needs frequent "inputs" of care, attention and foods other than gathering can yield. But the scheme supplies these things, from occasional presents of meat and hunting products from men, from care and attention from grandparents and young uncles and aunts (freeing up the mother to gather further afield and better), from teaching and role models to equip the children both to fend for themselves and to be able to repeat the cycle, and so on - because it is natural to give these things, at least in extended families.

roger said...

Mr. Lawrence, when I wrote mothers helping daughters, I simply meant mothers helping daughters who have babies with the babies. Grandmothers, if you will.