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She's So Heavy
Is Feminism more political than philosophical? I don't know.
The most popular tweet I made in the past three months was an offhanded comment about the difference between mothers and women. I had no idea how deep was the doo doo in that pile. Still, I’ll try not to pay so much attention to Twitter Analytics but work on a more comprehensive vocabulary on ‘women’ and abortion. I put ‘women’ in quotes because I’m sure none of this applies to women of the Global South but specifically to women in Western Educated Industrial Rich Democracies, the WEIRD world .
This morning’s walk found me listening to the philosopher and feminist utopian Amia Srinivasan with Tyler Cowen, and I found it really uncomfortable to listen to the podcast. In the first place, I have some low level code in my intellect that comes directly from Aldous Huxley who said that an intellectual was someone who found something more interesting to think abut than sex. Srinivasan’s new book is The Right To Sex. In the second place, it didn’t take more than a few minutes, like right after I passed the trashcans at the end of my driveway, for me to hear the dread word ‘problematic’. What’s problematic about the word ‘problematic’ is that it generally indicates a lexical analysis of a topic of discussion. Speech of a certain type can be ‘problematic’, and I can’t think of a better example of the multilevel kind of jumping that a certain kind of thinking than what this conversation ended up conveying.
You should listen yourself. I cannot tell you exactly which special combination of herbs and spices made me somewhat nauseous, in the same way my daughter didn’t know all of the things that made her uncomfortable eating until we went down the path of determining all of her allergies. But it was awfully trying for me to digest stuff like her splitting the difference between ideological ‘incels’ and the involuntarily celibate in a thought experiment question by Cowen about sex work vouchers in the Netherlands, as a specific example of a market mechanism that would aim at ethically legitimizing sex work. Where it all ends up from my perspective is here:
The problem is, thinking about something like that, or thinking more generally about the redistribution of sex, or thinking about sex as a thing to be potentially redistributed, is that we’re working against a background, a patriarchal backdrop on which men routinely think that they are sexually entitled to women’s bodies.
When that’s the real social backdrop, it becomes, I think, very difficult to have these further questions about things like sexual surrogacy in a way that doesn’t problematically feed into the reinscription of women as having a role to play in the sexual servicing of men. This is the view you get from sex workers.
If you take that argument seriously, when and how can you ever get to a point where men are not a part of a patriarchal backdrop? Boiling away this essentialism gets us to the point at which she declares:
No, no, I was talking about the state in particular. I think the thing you’re observing is that I have a huge amount of anxiety about state power, and about different forms of domination, including state domination, which distinguishes me from a certain kind of socialist perspective.
I also have — and I think you’re also noticing this more — not just an anxiety about state power or forms of authority, but also an active embrace of forms of dissensus, innovation, novelty, boundary-breaking, boundary-crossing. And I think that’s absolutely right. I think trans people specifically, but queer people more broadly, often participate in a kind of dissident politics, a politics that wants to slough off certain forms of boundaries and constraints. Not always — I don’t think that the rights of queer people have to rest on them being any kind of political vanguard, just to be clear.
But I do think it’s true that lots of people who have been active in queer politics and queer theory — Judith Butler is one of them — are interested in articulating the way in which trans lives and queer lives can be seen and read as a form of dissidence against gender, but also against class, against racial domination, and so on.
There follows an ample qualification about how this dissident lives of queers need not be the sine qua non of political and philosophical progress, but that seems to leave a great deal of space for a non-excluded middle. In other words, what the hell are we supposed to do with our biology if we aren’t interested in being some kind of experimental test bed for state power, and why are philosophers like Srinivasan even political at all? I think she needs to bake some of that into ethical aesthetics, and maybe her attraction to Walt Whitman. If Whitman can escape her tarring as some kind of patriarchal social conservative incel, maybe there’s hope for the rest of us.
When it comes to the matter of the biology we share with mammals, I tend to prefer to leave it all much to the inherent physicality of sex as something of a primal energy. There is much to be said about the ugliness of brutalist architecture despite the fact that humans require shelter and prior socialists and capitalists have all come up with revolting ways to satisfy that need. If then, philosophers like Srinivasan and those of her intellectual heritage are to be the architects of our urban requirements, we would be foolish to give them eminent domain. If her principle of distrusting state power is legit, which I believe it is, then she’s on dangerous ground problematizing the entire history of sex as she does in her evasion of the question of Japanese fertility. I really would have liked the conversation to deal with some South American school of thought rather than pin the entire matter of fertility on the political pivot of immigration. The women of the Global South don’t have caesarian sections like we do in North America. Our capitalist healthcare system makes profits for OB/GYNs that I don’t think make a significant dent in the difference of infant mortality.
I tremble to say it, but then I suppose I should reiterate my tweet here and now:
”Well my mother did it five times and kept us all. There's a big difference between women and mothers. Better recognize.” In the context of abortion, what are we to believe? Must we believe anything at all? Whatever violence the ideology of incels might produce and/or encourage, the consequences are hardly as deadly as abortion. I’m not so sure that the pro-abortion ideology of political Feminism protects so much as it enables, and this is my fundamental problem here. We abuse democracy with ideological advocacy. If that is inevitable then we should be skeptical.
The difference between women and mothers means everything if we are to accept that the priorities of men (as patriarchs) are a threat to human freedom. Without motherhood, female power is nothing more or less than male power.
The qualification on this is the realm of sexuality itself. But if you accept gender fluidity, you can redefine the meaning of any sexual act or position. So what I’m saying is that sex without procreation is just another postmodern meme vulnerable to its meaning being manipulated or inverted. We won’t wake up from that dream until we have a Children of Men situation.
So what’s left are the ethics of child-free sex, which we now have the luxury of obsessing over in our WEIRD ideosphere, contra Huxley. In that context, let’s give the influencers, poets, priests, philosophers and politicians free rein. So we can get back to Srinivasan’s sexual ethics which I can’t get over in what follows because sex is not child-free.
Without a sense of self-ownership or a legitimizing of some matter of consent, both of which Srinivasan finds problematic in the context of what she interprets are the sexual demands of men on women (or male mammals on the females of the species, absent any cultural imperatives), what indeed are the boundaries of sexual agency? Can no individual man or woman decide to like what they like and live with that? I don’t know how a democratic socialist gets to enter into that equation. I don’t know how anybody gets to be private in their sex lives when universities produce such intellectuals. At the very least here is another blow against anything beyond a common-law understanding of state approved sexual relations. Get the state out of the marriage certification business? Get intellectuals out of the sexual ethics business? Perhaps it’s because she doesn’t want to be an attorney that the language of the jurisprudence of sexual assault doesn’t get enough airplay in the podcast. I don’t hear a bright enough line here.
All I can think of that makes sense at the moment is my intuition that we have not recently faced the kind of stress in society that cuts short this deep and completely fallible thinking. Our survival is not at risk. The cheap unadorned biologicals of human breeding are rather taken for granted in WEIRD nations. So we rather pretend that growth is baked into the system at some level that guarantees we can continue to make institutional progress on these complex questions in ways that will ultimately invoke some kind of state power, not to protect but to enable. Thus there is an industrial creativity that drives utopians. Then again, I do read a lot of science fiction. I do spend a lot of time thinking about how masses of humanity can survive without what we take for granted, and how the powerful can uses brains as a cheap commodity to keep our self-determination at bay. So the shape of socially acceptable sex is a function of control but reproduction happens regardless of that. The definition of ‘surplus sex’ and ‘surplus population’ comes from the same direction, top down.
If all this sounds crazy it’s because I am convinced that the most important thing about sex is that it makes babies.
If Feminism can actually work as a specie of philosophy that assumes we can think properly about sex by rethinking all the sex that ever took place in human society, we’re in for a treat. Yet I’m not quite sure any such philosophy can avoid some kind of eugenic errors. I am convinced that there are economic thermodynamics involved in matters of sexual ethics here in WEIRD. Specifically when we’re talking about abortion, that this is an economic decision, and generally that people aim to get all the sex they can afford and are negotiating for that. The implications of these principles are not something I’ve given a great deal of thought to, but I am willing to change.
People are entitled to make life and death decisions. So if you want to kill an unwanted intruder in your personal space, at the grossest level it essentially makes no difference if it’s a fetus, a stalker or a terrorist. Human beings are essentially territorial of physical, personal & social space.
People’s sexuality is an essentially private matter. We all think it a bit creepy and unnatural to walk around naked and have audiences to our sexual activity. There is something evolutionary in our sense of shame and/or sexual modesty.
People want to make use of the social implications of sexual success. Whether it is a woman wanting other women admire their babies, or men wanting other men to acknowledge their ability to sire. There is something to our domestication of our sexual partners, our taming of the wild and free. We signify upon the discipline of our hungers.
All of this doesn’t have any direction or particular interest to me primarily because I too am one of those who takes our ability to reproduce for granted. We all are hungry enough for sex that we just do the mammalian thing quite well without a need for comprehensive understanding of exactly how it works - thus I am skeptical of the need for a comprehensive political study of how it might work according to a new socialist, libertarian or anarchist metaphysics. I accept that some fraction of us, arbitrarily 20% are queer enough to defy all convention, but that an institutional overproduction on the study of queerdom, like the commercialization of fast food, could present endemic ill health.
I am curious as to the long term implications of the countercultural investment in Dunbar-sized social organization. If the capitalist invention of the corporation is powerful enough to move us from villages to megalopolises there may be some similar invention that changes our wild breeding instincts to a kind of factory-farmed sexual ethics. So the kind of interpersonal alienation we experience in urbanized work / living may be inevitable for sex in WEIRD nations. In the back of my head I really want to hear Srinivasan muster her spite for China’s one child policy recognizing any invocation of state policy implicates war. Short of that she’s a dreamer.
So when it comes to child-free casual sex, those ethics that have no concern with the responsibilities we have for babies have the audacity to tell us that they are about liberation. So they glom onto our need for liberty while seeking the authority to tell us how to think about it and how to do it. Maybe the only kind of sex that’s wrong is the kind authorities tell us not to have. That’s frightening. Maybe the only kind of sex that’s right is the kind authorities tell us not to have. Equally frightening.
When it comes to sex, my whispered words of wisdom are Let It Be. Because even the stupidest most incorrect sex creates babies accidentally. Babies are our heaviest responsibility. They are so painfully and beautifully heavy that if sex didn’t feel so exquisite we’d probably only eat ourselves to death and extinction. Thinking about sex without thinking about babies is wishful thinking.