The Fury of Oleanna: Visceral Art and Privilege

9 01 2013

What David Mamet “meant” to say with his controversial drama Oleanna is irrelevant, for the purposes here. Divorce the frustrating artist from this powerful work, and you have a compelling artistic rendition of the amorphous concept of “privilege.” Oleanna in its visceral effect on certain audiences is much more interesting than whatever milquetoast political point its author may (or may not) have been trying to make. This disclaimer is necessary because I am not even passingly interested in defending Mamet or Oleanna as a piece of historical/political commentary.

Privilege is often employed in debate as a way to explain why a particular individual or group of individuals thinks or acts the way they do. But it is rarely sufficiently detailed to create a picture of the social relations at play. Being skeptical of the concept of the “privilege,” as I am, is not the same as saying privilege (male privilege, race privilege, heteronormativity) does not exist. It is more skepticism of its power as an explanatory phenomenon in social dynamics.
Read the rest of this entry »





Quantifying Social Science Units

17 01 2012

The positional advantage enjoyed by classes of individuals–privilege–is an important factor in operation of social systems. I worry, because particularly on the left, it is considered a very important–often the most important–factor, but I don’t know exactly what it means, or, more to the point, how it works. Reified from an explanatory concept to a concrete concept, it is often little more than a rhetorical cudgel that can have a desultory effect on civic discourse, and thus become trivialized. It should go without saying that exactly because privilege in some sense or another “operates,” its trivialization is a real problem.

Richard Dawkins’ Selfish Gene was a revelation to me in high school, at least to the degree I could understand it. I re-read it every few years, and so when the 30th Anniversary Edition dropped* I was particularly excited, the added sections and footnotes serving something like hidden bonus tracks. When I got to the short section where Dawkins first suggests the existence of “memes,” the cultural (or social) equivalent of genes–indivisible units of learnable cultural information, I recalled for the first time really disagreeing with it when I first read the book. It was almost viscerally unpleasant. The short excursus on memetics is dissonant from the rest of the book, which while packed with thought experiments and analogies is actually pretty stolidly scientific and meticulous.

A week or so ago a Twerkuffle** broke out between various political writers and journalists on my Twitter timeline. The details of it aren’t important; the relevant portion is that the word “privilege,” as in “racial privilege,” was used a number of times, and I had a reaction similar to that I had when first encountering “memetics”. This got me thinking about what the two concepts–“meme” and “privilege”–have in common and why they strike a resonant tone with each other in my mind.

Social scientists, and the journalists/essayists (I’m just going to call these people “writers” from now on) who synthesize social science for public debate, have always had trouble with this kind of thing. From the Enlightenment until probably around Marx’ time, political philosophers and other intellectuals had a sort of tic where they would reify concepts to explain observable behavior or historical conditions–you know the tic I’m talking about; it was usually expressed by Capitalizing the first letter to make it seem Big and Important and deserving of a Proper Noun. This is actually a kind of logical fallacy, and it makes reading a lot of the early modern philosophers so grating. I don’t believe in an Over-Soul that can actually act on the natural world. It’s like when you meet someone who says they don’t believe in a god but they do believe in an “energy” that we’re all a part of. That’s nice, but it’s also either meaningless or just employing a synonym for god.

Dawkins raises and moves on from the idea of memes in just a handful of sentences, but the “work” on them has been plentiful, and the concept has certainly entered popular consciousness. What bothers me is when they are treated as actual, concrete entities that can be studied somewhat quantitatively, but they haven’t been properly defined. Remember that in The Selfish Gene Dawkins was advocating for the “gene-centered” view of evolution by natural selection. A debate then raging (and still on-going) in evolutionary biology was at what “level” natural selection operated: are “traits” selected? Individual organisms? Groups? Entire species? Dawkins and his fellow travelers were arguing that in fact natural selection is unconcerned with anything of a “higher” level than genes–he famously said that bodies are nothing more than machines meant to ferry genes around. Evolution is the process of differential survival of competing alleles in a genome.
Read the rest of this entry »





Just Don’t Get Married, Asshole

10 05 2011

If it takes a Herculean effort to talk to your wife for five goddamn seconds, why the hell are you married?

Maybe its heartbreak–something causes us to treat male-female relationships as inherent contradictions, impossible, necessary evils, insufferable and fraught with disappointment and latent hatred.

But there’s nothing to this. In fact, I have to believe the contrary is the case. There’s no relationship more obviously necessary than sexual and intimate relationships between men and women. Certainly, people make bad choices about whom they choose to couple up with. But where there are failures, frustrations, or insufferable assholes like the guy in the Klondike commercial who can’t stand to talk to his wife for five goddamn seconds, the problem is almost always with one’s self, not with the other person.

Choosing to be with someone you can’t really stand is because of some defect one sees in oneself–a sense of insecurity that creates a terror of being alone, a feeling of unworthiness, suspicion that somebody else’s love or attention is unwarranted and so counterfeit–or really, what we could call a Groucho Pathology, that you wouldn’t want to join any relationship that would have you as a member.

It’s hard not to be scared of trusting that someone wholly independent of you really does have your best interests at heart; that they truly love you and want to see you happy. It takes bravery to accept that condition and to just sink into the warmth of it. So we invent narratives that justify our fear and cowardice.

This manifests in men in the asinine impulse that there is more pleasure in “the hunt” than the catch; and in women with equally asinine impulse that only men for whom they have to compete are worth their time. Whatever evolutionary sources there are for these impulses are not determinative–they can’t be, because the impulse to devote one’s self to, and even sacrifice one’s self for, a mate responsible for child rearing could be equally so attributable–and is indeed found in all types of species. Besides, there’s little in our evolutionary hard-wiring that can’t be tempered or even over-ridden by the capacity for social conditioning that is just as much a result of human evolution.

Perhaps this is a view enriched by rose colored glasses. My parents are still married after thirty four years and are very evidently best friends. This has created in me, and I assume my sister, too, an intense desire to make sure that whoever we decide to settle down with forever be our best friend. And I don’t doubt that if I moved in with my best friend, shared finances with my best friend, and had to make important life decisions with my best friend, we’d often get annoyed with one another, and have a need for privacy now and then.

But these superficial “problems” pale in comparison to the happiness and comfort that would attend getting to share my joy and my most troubling fears with somebody who understands me better than anybody else, and who has sworn to stick with me no matter what.

Not that friendship is enough. It helps if you look at the person you’re with and want to eat them like a meal–and vice versa. You need both, I think. Sometimes having one allows the other to bloom. Sometimes both arise simultaneously. But if there one’s thing pop culture has taught us, it is that women will settle for a slob who can’t stand them if he’ll just stick around, and men are happy to have a suspiciously hot wife even if listening to her talk for five seconds is akin to getting a urinary catheter inserted.

"Tell me about your day."

Perhaps a sign of the growing equality of women is that “take my wife, please” is no longer the sole joke construction that all marriage-based “comedy” is built on. There’s also, “my husband is a mildly retarded ape.” See, for example, every family sitcom this century.
Read the rest of this entry »





Yuppie Crisis: Manchildren!

2 03 2011

A number of times in my life, I’ve been in that situation where you can smell violence an instant away and you have to make a terrifying fight-or-flight decision. Sometimes, when you know that there’s no reasoning with someone, when you can feel the violence about to erupt, you have to make the decision to throw the first punch, or be clobbered. Unless you’ve got ice water in your veins, this is about the worst feeling you can have, and very hard to describe. You’re operating on the reptilian brain. In those true fight-or-flight moments, your bowels loosen. Terror nearly paralyzes you, and you go into a state of near unconsciousness. It’s terrible. Absolutely terrible.

Was I “manning up” when I threw that punch? When I stumbled back to my apartment covered in blood, was I the image of manhood? Is the gnarled bone under my left eye a mark of manly honor? These days, free from the anger of my late teens and early 20s, I see violence as essentially an expression of weakness, not strength. I see being a man as having strength of character, not strength of will.

Now You're a Man

The very memory of those experiences make me furious when people use the phrase “man up.” Do you really want to calibrate “manhood” to toughness and grit? If so, you prepared to settle the question with your hands? If not, you don’t get to tell anyone to “man up.” Why do we want to resurrect a discredited and dangerous conception of “manhood” that celebrates the worst in human nature as a way to goad someone. It insults the millions of people who would give anything to escape from this very condition of violence or even intimidation as conflict resolution.

I moved out of my parents’ house when I was 17. I’m 29. In the 12 years I’ve lived on my own, I’ve basically supported myself, worked jobs that entailed cleaning toilets, sweeping warehouses, stuffing envelopes. I paid my bills, sometimes by hook and crook. I traveled. I got an education, worked myself into a profession that paid me well, returned to school to get a post-graduate degree. That entire time, I pursued individual projects and areas of inquiry. I’m cultured enough to know all the culture I don’t know. My apartment is stuffed with books and movies and art. It’s messy, sure. I dream of a life with a woman who will be my partner-in-crime, whose mind and strength of character I can respect, admire, and adore. I have an occasionally embarrassing weakness for small animals and babies.

I’m also single. I download movies and obsess over stand up comedy. I hate doing dishes. I spent, cumulatively, at least a full two weeks last year beating Super Mario Galaxy and New Super Mario Brothers Wii, and starting Super Mario Galaxy 2. I wear t-shirts and order out more than I cook. I occasionally drink to excess, among other indulgences, and I have no interest in fine clothes or expensive matching furniture. I don’t give much thought to how my apartment is decorated, except to make sure its comfortable for my guests and conducive to rest and relaxation.

Am I a man?

Are We Not Men?

Today, I’m in a bit of a panic over this question because a woman named Kay S. Hymowitz knows what it means to be a man, and she’s very prepared to lecture me about it. Ms. Hymowitz never outright tells me what I need to do stop being a “guy” and start being a “man” but she sure knows what she doesn’t like, and its worth quoting at length:

Not so long ago, the average American man in his 20s had achieved most of the milestones of adulthood: a high-school diploma, financial independence, marriage and children. Today, most men in their 20s hang out in a novel sort of limbo, a hybrid state of semi-hormonal adolescence and responsible self-reliance. This “pre-adulthood” has much to recommend it, especially for the college-educated. But it’s time to state what has become obvious to legions of frustrated young women: It doesn’t bring out the best in men.

“We are sick of hooking up with guys,” writes the comedian Julie Klausner, author of a touchingly funny 2010 book, “I Don’t Care About Your Band: What I Learned from Indie Rockers, Trust Funders, Pornographers, Felons, Faux-Sensitive Hipsters and Other Guys I’ve Dated.” What Ms. Klausner means by “guys” is males who are not boys or men but something in between. “Guys talk about ‘Star Wars’ like it’s not a movie made for people half their age; a guy’s idea of a perfect night is a hang around the PlayStation with his bandmates, or a trip to Vegas with his college friends…. They are more like the kids we babysat than the dads who drove us home.” One female reviewer of Ms. Kausner’s book wrote, “I had to stop several times while reading and think: Wait, did I date this same guy?”

Because I’m unmarried, I am apparently in a hybrid state of “hormonal adolescence” and “responsible self-reliance.” Ms. Hymowitz doesn’t want to say what she means here, which is that being a man means being married and bourgeois in the yuppie sense. Note that the milestones of manhood she lays out are a high school diploma, financial independence, marriage, and children. The only things missing from this “hybrid state” she invents out of thin air are marriage and children. Of course, what does that mean for me, who fell in love with a woman he would have loved to marry, but that didn’t work out, sadly.

Poor Me.

Why, it would seem that my manhood has more to do with her decision than my personal choice. My manhood has nothing to do with me, the efforts I’ve poured into improving myself, confronting my insecurities and weakness, and bettering my situation in life, but with my relationship to women. Does this mean that girls don’t become women until they’ve been accepted by a man? Well, that doesn’t sound right.

Ms. Hymowitz has nothing on me when it comes to questions of prolonged adolescence–you see, I made a similar general argument months ago, though mine was based on some biology as well as social evolution, and omitted the whole “the stuff you likes determines your gender role” canard:

Judd Apatow has become a wealthy man writing movies about men delaying entry into adulthood, typically paired with that favorite of contemporary pop culture, the lopsidedly hot, infinitely patient and wise woman. The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Funny People, and Knocked Up, not to mention spiritual Apatow movies like Role Models and I Love You Man are packed to the brim with these inevitably pot-smoking, excessively comfortably dressed man-children. That’s well and good for us dudes (we can afford to slack off and grow up when the appropriately hot and patient lady comes along) but, again, it’s not symmetrical. The biological realities of pregnancy and motherhood are incompatible with the social institutions that determine economic and personal security.

Read the rest of this entry »





Of Sex, Gametes, and Judd Apatow.

26 09 2010

Last week after writing about my favorite primate, the bonobo (sorry humans), I got thinking more about the biological basis for how our society is ordered. I also got thinking more about sex. Given the base level amount of thinking I do about that (which is quite a bit), this means I was thinking, really, quite a lot about it. And while this may have been a cause for concern to friends when I happily informed them that I’d been having sex dreams about them, it was nevertheless fairly welcome. There’s no greater freedom, I think, than sex. It wasn’t lasciviousness that moved George Orwell to focus so heavily on Winston and Julia’s sex life in 1984, to have The Party’s secret police working on a way to “abolish the orgasm.”

...but it's all they have

There are a lot of psychological and emotional issues tied up with sex that can add dimensions to it; but in all-things-equal conditions, sex is the highest form of intimate interaction humans have one to another.

Socially, sex is tied to gender roles. Learning to be both an object and agent of lust and taking pleasure in both is not easy (which is very unfortunate). Thinking about sex got me thinking about gender roles, and in outlining this here piece I began to worry that it’d be taken as reducing women’s rights to a question of their sexuality. That’s a dangerous thing, and not at all my intent. But ultimately we are one species with two genders, and those genders are, equally, sexes. Who we are as men and women is derived to a great deal from our sexuality. Our biology determines that much at least. The strong impulse to sexual pleasure and gratification is one of our most animating human urges. It isn’t dirty, it isn’t unfortunate, it isn’t shameful or lewd. It’s beautiful. It’s comes as close to being a “gift” as anything we’ve developed over the course of millions of years of evolution. The combination of self-awareness and sexual pleasure make us so fortunate among all the animal kingdom that, ironically, I’m almost compelled to infer a designer. (Though, I’m totally not ever going to infer a designer).

I’ll never understand why “foodies” can flaunt their gluttony, taking digital pictures of their food at restaurants, shamelessly overpreparing meals they then catalog for the public, but discussing your affection for various kinds of sex play is lewd. Frankly foodies gross me out. Lustiness I adore. Fetishizing food is odd. Passion is inborn.

What biology has determined in us and in our sexuality doesn’t make the social institutions which, over the course of human history, have bonded women to inferior status, segregated them into caregiver labor, and otherwise shackled them to the “household,” natural or morally right.

Women represent 91% of graduates from nursing school. Ninety eight percent of preschool and elementary school teachers are women; 82% of elementary school teachers, too, are women. The majority of workers in elder care are women. Women have always been tasked as caregivers by the division of labor in human societies. At least now they’re getting paid for it–or are more likely to be getting paid for it. But why, in our supposedly egalitarian society, are the high-stress, high-burnout, low-pay, caregiver fields almost exclusively the wheelhouse of females?

I have made no bones about the fact that identity politics is deleterious to human progress. A proper material analysis of the systems of society lead inexorably to the conclusion that only class-based solutions can justly reorder society.

That said, it can’t be doubted that throughout human history, it has rained shit on one gender more than the other. That there has been essentially an uninterrupted chain of uneven exploitation of women since humanity’s social beginnings makes it almost silly to refer to the “plight” of women. At this point it isn’t a plight. It’s the way things are.

While Europeans were exploiting Black and brown people, Islamic expansionism was destroying indigenous cultures, various indigenous American empires were overrunning each other, and the poor were being exploited since…well, basically since the agricultural revolution, within each of those societies, women have been exploited in their labor, denied active liberty and self-determination, been controlled sexually, and otherwise made appendages of their fathers and husbands.

We needn’t even go so far back. According to Gordon Wood (or, as he was referred to in Good Will Hunting, Gwahdan Wood) in his seminal The Radicalism of the American Revolution, many of the court records found in pre-revolutionary America didn’t refer to women by their names, but by their relationship to men, referred only as “Wife to” “sister to” “daughter of.” Like slaves, a woman’s social and civic identity was defined wholly by her relationship to the patriarchal head of the household.

Why?

The Gamete Game

Read the rest of this entry »





Sisterhood is Power: The Fear of Science

17 09 2010

Paradise.

Bonobos are awesome. As closely related to us phylogenetically as our very violent cousins the chimpanzees, bonobos exist in refreshingly peaceful social groups. Those groups are dominated by females, although there is some dispute as to whether they are strictly matriarchal.

The status of males in bonobo communities is related to the status of their mothers, and the status of females is generated by the relationship of females one to another. The mechanisms of status in their society are based on cooperation with regards to food, grooming, and casual sex and sex play, including both opposite- and same-sex genital rubbing and oral sex. Bonobo males are also distinct from chimps in one very important regard: they are attentive and affectionate to the young of the group–all the young of the group. Chimps, on the other hand, tend to murder the children of rival males.

Monkey cousins.

The “selfish gene” theory gets a bad rap for its supposed implications for human society. The gene-centered view of evolution by natural selection, which says that natural selection operates on the level of the gene rather than the individual, makes people, particularly social theorists, very uncomfortable, exactly because of things like male chimp infanticide tendencies–not to mention chimp patriarchy and forced copulation. If humans are nothing but elaborate mechanisms meant to perpetuate individual genes, are we reduced to our biological imperatives? “Should” our society look like that of our closest relative? Is our society ordered against our will, by millions of years of primate evolution?

English moral philosopher Mary Midgley must’ve felt shaken, dismissing Richard Dawkins’ seminal The Selfish Gene by saying she hadn’t “attended” to it because she thought “it unnecessary to break a butterfly upon a wheel.” In 1997, Barbara Ehrenreich and Janet McIntosh were disturbed enough by what they termed “secular creationism” to write an essay, “The New Creationism: Biology Under Attack” specifically about the academic tendency to dismiss evolutionary exploration of human society. They illustrated their point with a horrifying anecdote about a presentation by social psychologist Phoebe Ellsworth, wherein Ellsworth’s mention of DNA prompted a fellow academic to incredulously ask, “You believe in DNA?”
Read the rest of this entry »