Wednesday, March 23, 2011

on how i get dressed up and play house, kind of

Today, I found myself scrubbing the floors in my apartment, wearing this:

and thinking about this:

Ah, la vie d'une femme...

Monday, March 14, 2011

my marxist feminist dialectic brings sartre to the yard

This week for my political philosophy class I read, for the first time in full, the Communist Manifesto. And, don't tell Joseph McCarthy (or the Tea Party or my politicalphilosophy professor) but I actually kind of liked it. Or liked parts of it. What's most intriguing to me about the Manifesto is that it presented a different way of reading history.

I had a conversation with a friend who studies history this weekend about different approaches to historical criticism. First, there's what we all learn in high school and introductory college classes. This is the history of The Great Men Who Made a Difference, the teleological history we trace from Antiquity to Rome to the Christian Empire to the Renaissance and the Reformation to the Enlightenment to Romanticism to Industrialization. This is the story of Plato and Aristotle, of Nero and Caesar, of Augustine, of Christopher Columbus and Gutenberg, of Luther and Calvin, of Vol
taire, of Newton, of Rousseau. This is The Man's history, who tends to be rich and white.

There's also what is called microhistory. This is historical study that concentrates its efforts on a single person, a single event, a single place, and tries to draw out larger conclusions. As Charles Joyner explains, microhistory is the "search for answers to large questions in small places." This is the approach I have been (unwittingly) taking to Loïe Fuller in my thesis research - I use one specific dancer at one specific time in her career as a lens for considering women and society during the Belle Époque. This is, for sake of comparison, some wo/man's history.

With the Communist Manifesto came another approach to historical study, one that scrutinizes interactions between large groups of people. This claims to be the everyman's history.

Marxist history has the advantage of trying to look at all - or many - groups in a society, where our traditional "high school" model looks at The Privileged Few and tends to disregard the history of the quotidian many. Not that I am very familiar with historical analysis, but the problem that would seem to present itself in marxist history is that it aims to draw too specific of conclusions from too large of a field of study - the very opposite of what microhistory proposes.

But enough on historical analysis.
By some happy accident, this week I'm reading some Jean-Paul Sartre (above, left) for my political philosophy class and some Simone de Beauvoir (above, right) for my class on women in French art and culture [Note: yes, those links are both to the Marxist Internet Archives. Funny].

De Beauvoir's The Second Sex is great. If I had brought more than one bra along on this trip, I would already be stoking a fire in the alley behind my apartment. Among the gems I've come across are the following:

"Le problème quand elle souhaite une histoire, une aventure, où elle puisse engager son coeur avec son corps, c'est de rencontrer un homme qu'elle puisse considérer comme un égal sans qu'il se regarde comme supérieur."
"The problem is, when she [the liberated woman] desires a romantic intrigue or adventure to which she can commit her heart and her body, finding a man she can consider her equal and who does not consider himself superior."

"Une femme qui n'a pas peur des hommes leur fait peur."
"A woman who is not afraid of men, frightens men."

Reading her along with Sartre and Marx is really enlightening, but I have to say I'm glad to be reading all this (1) two decades after the Berlin Wall and the USSR and (2) off of American soil. The Second Red Scare may have died with McCarthy in 1957, but thinking that far to the left is still considered bad form where I'm from.

From Sartre I read his in/famous lecture, "Existentialism is a Humanism," which again I enjoyed - at least parts. His emphasis on action really speaks to me, especially when it comes to the example of love, which he uses several times. "But in reality and for the existentialist, there is no love apart from the deeds of love; no potentiality of love other than that which is manifested in loving." Does this sound like a line from that familiar song to anyone else? "...In the end the love you take is equal to the love you make." Or that one time when, at church nonetheless, I made that great speecho: "On apprend l'amour en le faisant [Love is learned in the making of it]." For the record, I was trying to explain that we create love in cultivating it, or that we learn to love truth in living it, or something. Actions though. That's what's important.

It's about actions, not ephemeral feelings or unfulfilled wishes. Concrete deeds. Totally with you on that one, Sartre.

I'm gearing up to hear Sartre and Marx ripped to pieces tomorrow by my more conservative political philosophy professor, so I thought I'd just put out some good vibes in the universe for these guys. I guess my final attitude is this:

There's certainly something to be learned from these "enemies of liberalism" (as tomorrow's class lecture is entitled) so while we explore the shortcomings of their philosophies, can't we have a moment to consider potentially positive contributions? Seek to understand, not first to disprove, right?

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

positive feedback: high school biology meets molière and tocqueville meets pascal meets women's history

It's been awhile since I've made a new post, but I've got some ideas floating around I thought I'd throw out there to see if they're totally ludicrous or not. So here goes.

The genesis of these ideas lies in Michaelyn Podany's AP Biology with my lovelies, John Massengale and Tara Westlund, sometime in March 2007. A month away from the AP exam, we discussed biological feedback systems, which as far as I understand fall into two main categories: negative feedback systems and positive ones.

Negative feedback systems maintain "homeostasis," a fancy way of saying balance. In a negative system, two or more influences oppose each other to keep the system at equilibrium. The body's internal thermostat is a good example of a negative feedback system: if internal temperature starts rising, the body starts sweating because evaporating water molecules off of the skin carry heat away, cooling the body back down.

Positive feedback systems have the opposite effect. Two or more influences in a positive system amplify one another in a kind of "vicious cycle": one influence intensifies a second, which in turn intensifies the first. In Podany's class we used the example of childbirth: contractions produce oxytocin, a hormone that stimulates more contractions, which in turn stimulates the production of more oxytocin, creating more contractions, and so on.

Hang on to this idea of positive feedback while I explain a second phenomenon. The next step in my logic comes from relations between the nobility and the upper-crust of bourgeois society in French society of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Back in the good old days before 1789, French society was divided into three "estates": the nobility, the clergy, and the tiers état, a catchall for everyone who didn't fit into the first two groups. Under the feudal system, that third estate was mostly comprised of peasants, artisans and city dwellers (the bourgeoisie, which word shares a common ancestor with our -burg as in Pittsburg). For a long time, this class looked nothing like the first two, namely lacking the manners and spending power of the nobility and the clergy. However, over time, members of the bourgeoisie grew increasingly wealthy and began to (try to) model themselves on the aristocracy. Molière actually wrote a play called Le Bourgeois gentilhomme ridiculing this class's attempts to imitate the nobility, acquiring the latter's decadent tastes but not its refined manners. "But, at bottom, everyone above the masses resembled one another; they had the same ideas, the same habits, the same tastes, were inclined to the same pleasures, read the same books, spoke the same language," wrote Alexis de Tocqueville in his analysis The Old Regime and Revolution. "The only difference was in their rights."

The point to retain from this bit is that as the more exposure the bourgeoisie had to the nobility, the more the top of the third estate came to resemble the aristocracy, and the more economic clout they gained, the more aware they became of the inequality of their disadvantaged political situation. Nothing, they felt, divided them from the nobility except some silly titles and privileges bestowed by medieval monarchs - and even those had since been commodified, up for sale to rich members of the bourgeoisie.

In this I want to stress that the Revolution sprang from the third estate's realization that it wasn't so different from the privileged classes. 1789 would have been totally unfathomable under the feudal system in which the first and third estates looked so different. When the bourgeoisie started to resemble the aristocracy, they realized they were missing something.

What I'm getting at is this: you can't want something unless you feel its lack. In order to desire something, you have to realize that you don't have it.

Pascal says something similar in his Pensées. "For who is unhappy at not being a king, except a deposed king? . . . Who is unhappy at having only one mouth? And who is not unhappy at having only one eye? Probably no man ever ventured to mourn at not having three eyes. But any one is inconsolable at having none." (409)

In the case of the bourgeoisie, they realized over time that compared to the nobility, that in terms of political rights they had "only one eye" while the nobility had two.

Okay. Are you still with me? Let's recap the two essential ideas I wanted to distill here:

(1) The "vicious cycle" principle: in systems of positive feedback, two influences reinforce and amplify one another.

(2) The "big yellow taxi" principle: in the oft-repeated words of Joni Mitchell, "you don't know what you've got 'til it's gone." Because humans can get used to just about anything, we have to be made aware of what we lack, and as in the case of the French bourgeoisie, that comes with exposure to people who resemble us, except in one (or a few) glaring ways.

I think these two ideas, used in conjunction, might be useful in approaches to women's history. It is probably not very useful or enlightening to look back at history aiming to condemn the past's "misogyny." I certainly don't mean that by today's standards lots of practices, laws, and attitudes were not discriminatory to women. I also do not mean that those discriminatory practices, laws, and attitudes are in any way justified. Instead, I think it is important to realize that our ideas about gender parity are products of gradually increasing rights and mobility and increasing awareness.

What I mean is this. In French history, the third estate had always been aware that it was "different" from - that is, "inferior" to - the nobility, contrived as that difference and inferiority was. It was only with increased power and growing resemblance to the nobility that the third estate recognized its unjustified lack.

In the same way, women have been recognized as distinct from - very often meaning in contemporary contexts "inferior" to - men. But do you think a woman in 18th century England saw herself as a man's equal? Do you think she thought herself capable of becoming prime minister? a doctor? a professor? the next Newton? I would argue not. Why do girls today see those possibilities open to them? Because of a continually expanding circle of possibilities.

Gender parity is a positive feedback system. Little by little, expanding influence made for expanding rights, which made for expanding influence, and again expanding rights. Women gained access to universities, the coming generations saw professors, then department chairs, then university presidents. Opening opportunities to women made (and makes) them think differently about themselves and push for more opportunities.

I do want to point out that in studying women's history, it is important to recognize this process and thus that an era may not have even been aware of its gender discrimination. That means to me that we should be less concerned with reproving the gender paradigms of the past by our own standards and more concerned with how women operated within their contemporary paradigms of gender relations. The first attitude makes the fatal mistake of considering contemporary thought the teleological end of all previous thought: "No one has gotten it totally right until today!" but forgetting that tomorrow's thought will likely be revising today's, too.

... which always makes me wonder what the next generations will think about our contemporary paradigms. "How backwards society was at the turn of the 21st century!" What are we not yet aware of? What positive feedback systems are in the works?