Okay, so this semester, after the first day on the Allegory of the Cave and bell hook’s Teaching to Transgress (where the main point is to get students to see education as a form of personal transformation and awakening to their own power), I decided to start my Human Nature course with issues that highlight the importance of sex, gender and sexuality (with reference to how these are obviously tied to race).
Yet, an imagined interlocutor may ask: “Why start a course on Human Nature with feminist texts? Shouldn’t you begin with Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Kant…any of the big guys who help us understand that we are all beings who share a common trait? Aren’t we all rational souls reaching toward the good (Plato/Aristotle)? Aren’t we all thinking things, somehow otherwise than our bodies (Descartes)? Can’t we all discover the universal which reveals the human duty to see each other as dignified rational agents (Kant)? Come on, Danny. Aren’t you doing your students a disservice by beginning with gender issues? You aren’t teaching them the history of philosophy, let alone the main themes about human nature. You can’t start this way! Yes, we get it. Sexism is a problem that some students need to know about. It’s a hot topic, for sure! Lots of students currently care about gender and race issues but, come on, you need to teach them about the human condition, not the particularity of the feminine condition or other forms of embodied diversity, not the particularity of your/their own political agendas!! Take my advice, if you want to rock the boat, lady, begin with the standard accounts of human nature so that they have a solid foundation before getting into the tricky contemporary issues. Only in this way can they make a properly informed decision about human nature, which isn’t tainted with your liberal politics!”
And, so, I imagine myself smiling and nodding at this person, thinking all the while: “Ah, okay, you self-righteous prick.” I would think that but then remember that they are thinking this way because they truly don’t understand. They, too, care about teaching and learning and they have been taught and believe whole-heartedly that the history of ideas can be extracted from the history of patriarchy, sexism, racism, settler colonialism, heteronormativity, etc. They believe that at the core of things the beauty of philosophy and the ideas it advances can be saved from such historical problems.
And, so, I genuinely smile and begin again:”Dear friend, you may be right that the history of ideas is important and that philosophies like Plato, Aristotle, Descartes and Kant are helpful and important and that students should engage them. Nonetheless, all those so-called “standard” or traditional accounts of being human were written by men and perpetuated by men as obviously right or worthy of, at least, consideration. Where are the voices of women and people of color? What have they said about what it means to be human? Why is it that when women write about the human condition and it just so happens to emphasize sex, gender and sexuality as relevant, it is seen as “particular” or not “standard” but that when men write about the human condition without discussion of the relevance of sex, gender and sexuality, it is seen as a more relevant account or seemingly a neutral theory? I don’t get it? Why aren’t the accounts of these men, also particular, also steeped in their own biases, their own political agendas?”In other words, whether we begin with Plato or Kant or contrariwise de Beauvoir, we are beginning with philosophies that are unique to the individual and their experience of being human. As you will see when I come to blog particularly about Plato and his erotic world, he, too, was radically concerned with understanding and engaging with what has historically been deemed the “Other” to reason, the mad embodied weak feminine, while someone like Kant advanced the dignity of the human person while also explicitly emphasizing that woman is ‘less than’, dependent on men for their freedom, they are needy. See, many men who are considered to be the traditional philosophers have gendered philosophy, constructing the so-called neutral ideas with an eye to valorizing the status of their own privileges. Aristocratic “swinging d#cks” who had the leisure and support, could see themselves as disconnected from the body, they are minds and, unlike women and those consigned to the working class, they are ‘otherwise’ or ‘more than’ their embodied condition. They possess the ability to conquer the irrational feminine other, discipline it into submission.
Student project for the section. Human Nature Spring 22
The task of being human, from this masculine privileged position, is dominance over the “Other” and so the so-called neutral view of being human seeks to “enlighten” women and other marginalized groups to the their awesome power, their amazing autonomy, objectivity, knowledge which creates and sustains an instrumentalized world where all things that aren’t human [read white male] are things to be used, appendages to the Good of the Subject. In short, this seems like a pretty particular view of the human condition, a view that seems to excise some pretty fundamental aspects of being human, twisting and perverting those things in to problems.
Student projects for this section of Human Nature Spring 22
So with this particularity in mind, I don’t think it odd to begin with authors like Simone de Beauvoir’s (=SB), Genevieve Lloyd (GL), Luce Irigaray (LI) and Marilynn Frye (MF), women who take seriously the construction of the history of ideas from the site of dominating and repressing the Other, the so-called overcoming of the animal/nature in man, the irrational, the multiplicity, the messy, the chaotic. Unlike those who are regulated to the sphere of the natural, the domestic, the emotional, the dependent, men can be neutral, objective, rational, political, free and independent and as such the ideal human is a man.
So, beginning with SB students engage her arguments about how human beings seem to be tethered to binary systems of thought wherein there is the Self and the Other wherein historically men have seen themselves as the Subject while women are always defined relative to him. She is a particularity, while he is the universal and neutral. He is independent, autonomous (whether that be in life or in relation to the body), while she is dependent and needy. This dependence is both construed as one’s who are in need of others for their good but also one’s bound to the body. She can’t escape her embodiment and, as such, she is subject to her emotions, her physical precarity. Ultimately, she, as tied to the body, becomes the marker of sex. As opposed to the neutral being, she is the sexed being and, as such, she is responsible for being the site of sex and sexuality. Obviously, then, she’s essentially the sex object, the inessential thing to be used versus the essential human being able to transcend such things. He’s the ‘more than’ while she is the ‘less than.’
Student projects for this section of Human Nature Spring 22
As we work through the Introduction to the Second Sex, the goal or the light bulb moment, I am hoping to foster, centers upon understanding that the construction or demarcation of woman is not about what women are in themselves but that woman has always been defined relative to men whereby women are compelled to fit or conform to this image of herself. As SB says, “One is not born a woman but becomes one.” And so, I loved reading the following from a student who tied SB to Plato and bell hooks’ understanding of the nature of education:
“De Beauvoir’s essay is somewhat acting like the sun in the “Allegory of the Cave”, exposing the systematic structures of oppression that encase us all, but we are often unable to see by ourselves. De Beauvoir writes how “bourgeois women” are in “solidarity with bourgeois men and not with women proletarians”, bringing us back to hooks’ point on the importance of discourse on a subject and interpersonal connection to bring about meaningful change (de Beauvoir 8). In remarking about the “solidarity” of women with men over other women, de Beauvoir is remarking on the lack of any such discourse, perpetuating the patriarchal cycle. Of course, in order for there to be discourse, awareness of the systemic oppression must be present in the first place.” Student reflection from Human Nature Spring 22
Another student wrote:
“Throughout these readings I began to feel hopeless. Beginning with Simone De Beauvoir’s The Second Sex, I started to realize how this idea of gender and sexuality governs every aspect of my life. How engrained it is in me from my comfort level around different people, to the way I decide to dress, even down to the positioning of my feet. The battle between wanting to be found attractive but also not actually wanting that kind of attention. I felt really trapped and was questioning every thought I had and wondered where it came from and why it was even there to begin with. And if that thought was really me or something I had been conditioned to think. Throughout this frustration my next thought was to fully rebel, not conform to anything, to never wear makeup again, never do my hair, to stop wearing bras forever (honestly though, why do they even exist?). But then I remembered that part of the discussion in class when Dr. Layne asked, if that isn’t still participating in this patriarchal system. And she’s right. So then how is it even possible to break free? If conforming perpetuates these ideals, but so does rebelling? I felt stuck in that cave that Plato was talking about, just staring at the shadows on the walls and even though I knew they weren’t real, I still couldn’t leave.”
Keeping in mind, that through the course of the course, I hopefully help students gain a variety of possible ways we might resist these constructions (ideas and tools from authors as diverse as hooks, Lorde, Plato, Lugones), for the present moment I want them to keep unpacking the barriers, the prisons that all persons associated with Otherness are often locked into. Consequently, the next two classes are centered on Lloyd, Irigaray and Frye, who each contribute to showing the ubiquity of sex and gender not only in philosophy but in almost everything we do.
Student Project for the Unit
Of course, Lloyd and Irigaray’s texts are difficult for students insofar as both demand a background in the “traditional” philosophy that I haven’t given them – concession to the above prickly interlocutor. Nonetheless, they were able to follow the basic ideas, seeing how the Pythagorean Table of Opposites, Plato’s myth of Timaeus, Aristotle’s Form and Matter or Bacon’s horrifyingly gendered discourse about the active power of science to for nature to reveal herself, expose her naked corpse, are discourses which are saturated in demonizing the feminine. In other words, philosophy and the construction of “Reason” has always and repeatedly been steeped in gendered discourse, a discourse picked up and carried over into our conceptions of knowledge and truth. “Reason” for many philosophers has been construed as something other to feminine Nature or Chaos, other to the passive object it seeks to expose. Reason [read the rational male] is able to disconnect from the body; Reason [read rational male] is the Form that gives shape to the empty feminine matter; Reason [you get it] must be hard and penetrating, getting to the real in all that confused mess that is nature, discovering her powers so that we can wield them to our advantage. Reason is about real knowledge versus all those other forms of thinking or knowing which are more subjective, oh those silly soft sciences. We ended that class with the question of whether the idea of Reason was itself something constructed with an eye to valorizing masculinity as that which dominates the other and, if so, does Reason necessarily need to be thought of so narrowly. What would Reason look like outside of patriarchal conceptions of power, of needing an Other to subject?
“Lloyd’s paper she mainly focused on that what is considered rational or reasonable is also associated with masculinity. In the other paper we read for that day, any theory of the Subject by Irigaray, I honestly didn’t understand much of it when I first read it. This was mainly due to her “mimicry” style of writing she used, to undermine and expose contradictions (the only way to be rational is to write the way scholars do). But one thing in her paper that I did resonate with was the idea of “reflection of the subject onto the other”. I think there is often a power dynamic between the “subject” and the “other”, the subject feels compelled to control the other, and the other feels compelled to follow. This is not only unjust for the other, but it causes problems on the subject’s side too, like insecurity about not living up to the norm. This is why I believe this “reflection” of the subject happens, its because the subject is insecure about there own subject-ness, and they will lose power otherwise.” Student quote from Human Nature 22
Finally, the last day of content was Frye’s Sexism who famously begins her essay with a problematic but regularly advanced idea that sexism is about making decisions based on irrelevant distinctions like sex and or gender. Yet, this definition does not satisfy her. Rather, the text revolves around exposing the fact that sex and gender are always relevant in almost everything we do whether it be in how we introduce persons, talk to them, socialize, work, forms we fill out, ways we dress, etc. Sex marking and announcing is everywhere, inescapable and it is demanded, we must announce and mark ourselves at all times or we are unintelligible. Bows on babies are a must. Don’t you know that we must know what genitals a baby has – put a damn bow on that thing! Otherwise how will I know how to treat the baby?
Student projects for the section. Human Nature Spring 22
Frye, of course, connects this to the demand that we constantly perform our gender, a performance which is regarded as natural in those who conform to the gender/sex binary but as a performance in those who don’t. In other words, the natural is shown to be constructed as also a performance and, as such, she further questions the ‘naturalness’ of the sex binary, helping students see the possibility that sex itself has been reified into a binary, a binary that men (and those conforming to the patriarchal system) exploit so as to reinforce the ‘naturalness’ of domination, objectification and the subjection of women as ones who ‘by nature’ should be consigned to the world of being the domestic and reproductive rather than productive. This leads to Frye’s conclusion and the subject of another essay she advanced, Compulsory Heterosexuality, where she emphasizes that the sex gender distinction is related to the particular sexuality of the masculine, a sexuality based on the need to dominate. One student noted this and wrote:
“We ended the class on the topic of masculinity being tied to heterosexuality. A man’s sexual preferences are associated with his masculinity, therefore if one does not identify as being straight his masculinity is questioned. Why is being heterosexual considered normal when there are other ways for one to have sexual pleasure? Why are we obsessed with reproductive sex? Dr. Layne explained that the reason for this is because reproductive sex allows us to reinforce the idea that we need two genders, and support a system of domination and control for men.”
In the end, you can see that we had a lot of fun the first few weeks of class. Ultimately, students have not yet engaged explicitly with “erotic philosophies” but, rather, they are being shown the grounds for why erotic philosophies which emphasize connection and contact, a life of seeing the beauty of transformation and change, of being the kinds of beings who are both/and, both a something and a nothing, both a unity but also a multiplicity, have been silenced and erased under the conditions of patriarchal, phallogocentric, racist, colonialist, capitalist, heteronormative systems. In other words, if we are to live the kind of lives advance in Plato’s Allegory or bell hook’s Teaching to Transgress, we must see how men have historically created a world were all there is is domination, where the only power is ‘power over’ others versus empowering power. Such an “empowering power” under the conditions of patriarchy (all systems grounded in binary oppositions where one side must dominate the other) is silly. As my dickish interlocutor might say:
“Don’t be so naive, Danny. Your philosophy is so feminine, so touch-feely. Don’t listen to her, the “real world” does not care about such silly fantasies of love and connection. They are beautiful myths but, kiddos, they don’t really matter. What matters is conforming to the systems in place and becoming someone who matters. Someone in power or otherwise you will mean nothing!”
Basically, my silly interlocutor does not see the value in disrupting “real” value, the “real” truth that we must control, categorize, know, reduce, excise, discipline…. rather than live in a strange liminal space where ignorance and confusion, suffering and joy, contradiction and paradox are the “real” world. Oh, silly man, don’t you know these are the conditions for the so-called neutral being, the autonomous being, the dominating being. In the end, the erotic world troubles this childish conception of the human by simply exposing its frailty, i.e. the Subject, the seemingly neutral and autonomous human [male] pretending to be the fount of all knowledge, needs us to accept their truth, their reality, needs us to support them. What happens when we stop? When we laugh at their precarity? When we begin to smile at all their dickishness and its very real impotence, its inability to really mean anything because in can not be or become or produce any real value outside itself and its own narcissism, its own self-loathing.
I would like to end with a few more art projects that several students created for their assessment of the short unit.
Poem by Student 1
Philosophy of human nature
To some that might be a real major
Walked into the class as a stranger
Sat down with a bunch of teenagers
Read some mysterious text
Bell Hooks do we know who was next?
De Beauvoir on the Basis of Sex
Hold on man let me get to the text
“in many black settings I have witnessed the dismissal of intellectuals, the putting down of theory and remained silent. I have come to see that silence is an act of complicity, one that helps perpetuate the idea that we can engage in revolutionary black liberation and feminist struggle without theory.”
In summary Bell Hooks stated this
Ignorance is bliss
If you’re not trying to help the problem
Then your butt needs to be on the list
De Beauvoir hey now look what about her?
Second sex woman, many, different, other
“ she is determined and differentiated in relation to man while he is not in relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the subject he is the absolute. She is the other.“
Who said the woman was the other?
Things that we need to uncover
Equality for one another
Painting by student who identifies as a white cis male He expressed during class discussion, that the conditions of patriarchy leave men, like himself, with a dark whole in their hearts.
Another poem by a student:Is it the infinite road for power?Or the prime instinct for significance? Are we just a collection of experiences?Or the authentic author of our actions? Have we lost ourselves in the search for truth?Or have we killed the man for seeing the sun? What is a planet without water?What is love without sacrifice? What are males without females?What are females without males?