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In essays on the subject of centricity, I've most often used the image of a geometrical circle, which, as I explained here,  owes someth...

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


"Tradition takes what has come down to us and delivers it over to self-evidence; it blocks our access to those primordial 'sources' from which the categories and concepts handed down to us have been in part quite genuinely drawn. Indeed it makes us forget that they have had such an origin, and makes us suppose that the necessity of going back to these sources is something which we need not even understand."-- Heidegger, BEING AND TIME, p.43.

I don't expect I'll ever become a big Heidegger fan, in part because in recent years I read a translation of the "dueling lectures" that he and Cassirer gave opposite one another at Davos, Switzerland in 1929. While Cassirer's lecture might not have been his best work, Heidegger was flat-out BORING.

Still, certain aspects of the Heidegger philosophy work for me, at least on a poetic level, such as his concept of geworfenheit, usually translated as "throwness." Neither version appears as such in the passage above, but the oblique reference to "origins" is helpfully glossed by Robert Cavalier at his webpage, Overview of Being and Time:

"'How we find ourselves' expresses the fact that we are thrown into a 'world' already there before us -- this is most evident in the radical sense of Birth. Hence, one is literally 'thrown into a world' beyond one's control -- but this 'world' is not merely a particular environment -- it has its place in history: one is, broadly speaking, thrown into a historical moment."

Thus, long before Steve Gerber invented Howard the Duck, Martin Heidegger too found himself "trapped in a world he never made."

The idea that one is thrown into history (and by extension, into biological reality as well) might be a useful corrective to exaggerated ultraliberal claims as to the social construction of human reality, such as this one from poster JR on 12-2-09:

"Traditional conceptions of gender roles state that women, and by extension the feminine, are weak, and that men, and by extension the masculine, are strong."

This is part of her attempt to prove that said conceptions are at the root of hetero male antipathy for gay males, who are also conceived of as being effeminate and "weak" for being more like women than men. The reason that I call this statement "ultraliberal" (that is, taking sensible liberal concepts to an eccentric extreme) is simple.

It is not a "conception" that women are "weak" and men are "strong." It is, far more than any of the statistical verdicts that JR Brown has endorsed on her comment-posts hereabouts, a "fact."

Such a statistical verdict does not exclude the possibility that some women are physically stronger than some men. Nor does it nullify the niggle that women can be as "strong" with respect to their gender's physical potential as men can be with respect to theirs.

Based on a comparative scale like the ones JR champions when she thinks it supports her positions, men are "strong" insofar as they can move more sheer mass than can "weak" women.

I know that JR knows this, because everyone knows this. I'm forced to emphasize the obvious because JR's statement so flagrantly omits it. By putting aside the physical nature of the two sexes--"what has come down to us," in Heidegger's words-- she manages to structure her argument to elide this fact and so imply that symbolic attributions of strength and weakness are largely sociocultural constructions. And they are not.

Now, there exist real "conceptions" that arise from this statistical fact. One "conception," with which I would not have argued had JR put it forth, would be that the greater physical strength of men led them, in most cultures, to conceive that "strong" men should be the leaders and "weak" women the followers. That's a conceptual extrapolation from a particular fact but not a fact as such, and several developments of modern liberalism demonstrate its false logic.

From this base fact also arises the conception that JR does cite-- that gay men were effeminate and therefore "weak" like women-- though the etiology is not as crystal-clear as JR presumes. If one takes as a given JR's statement that the stereotype's oldest known manifestation is to be found in the days of the Roman Empire, that in no way proves that the the stereotype was articulated by hetero Romans, as JR implies. JR claims elsewhere that gays are quite capable of circulating their own stereotypes as cultural markers, and that their preference for hypermasculine bodies is one such marker, albeit apparently only of recent coinage. By that token it's also possible that early gays created the "mincing queen" stereotype themselves. One might well imagine the "mincing queen" stereotype arising as a marker that set the ancient gay apart, so that his society did not hold him to the same expectations as that society did for straight males. (The situation with lesbians would obviously require a different set of cultural markers, given the differing set of societal expectations.)

But whether straights or gays created the "weak effeminate" stereotype, there would be no question that it too could properly be called a "conception." Stereotypes, whether positive or negative, belong to that symbolic universe in which humanity lives while seeking to explore, excuse or understand the demands of their "given" natures in terms of biology and history.

The essential problem with the ultraliberal's tendency to overemphasize social constructedness of that nature is that it does a disservice to the complexity of our existence.

To the best of our knowledge no human being, prior to being born, asks to be either male or female. One is "thrown" into that somatic situation and then seeks as best one can to maximize life with that "given" status. (Even the surgical attempt to change that status is still a strategy to deal with the "given" status). One thus inherits not only one's biological potential and proclivities but also a long history of historically-originated cultural strategies through which men and women seek to maximize their lives, sometimes in conflict with one another, other times in cooperation.

Heidegger certainly was not a liberal, but his philosophy does bear a degree of resemblance to classical liberalism in that the individual does not simply accept his/her "thrown" nature, but ideally strives to evaluate every aspect of his existence (which is as close as I want to get to his concept of *Dasein* in this post).

In evaluating literature that is strongly aimed more at one gender than the other, one must determine what is "given" about it in terms of its history and the biological nature of said gender. JR attempts to address the historical nature of the adventure-genre through a purely social conception:

"Culturally-widespread conceptions of ideal maleness emphasize strength, both as a positive trait in its own light as well as a marker of masculinity.

Therefore, culturally-widespread conceptions of ideal maleness produced by men for male consumption (in the form of pulp fiction, action movies, and superhero comics, among others) reject femininity, both as a general marker of weakness and as a specific marker of gayness. This leads to the presentation of hypermasculinity as the ideal male state in such works."

The problem here is that JR has equated the portrayal of strength that one finds in the dominant type of adventure-hero with "hypermasculinity," which is an ultraliberal distortion of the literary mythology. I've already shown elsewhere that a pop-culture mythos like that of Superman does not "reject femininity" simply because the mythos is predominantly oriented toward a male readership. The "women men see" in such works may not be the way women want to be seen, any more than the "men women see" in women's romances are the way men want to be seen. But in neither case are we dealing with "rejection," and therefore we are not dealing with this incoherent conception of "masculine incoherence."

One can certainly find particular authors in the adventure-genre who reject femininity in a statistical sense-- that is, women have no substantive presence within a given mythos. Conan Doyle's novel THE LOST WORLD provides a strong example of this syndrome that does not necessitate willfully distorting the text, as JR and Noah Bertlatsky do in their considerations of Golden Age SUPERMAN comics. But negative depictions do not cancel out positive depictions, except for those who have made up their minds to see what they want to see.

I'll have more to say in a future post on the subject of the "throwness" of biological natures and how they affect each gender's dominant preferences, but for the present this will be the last response to JR's comments.

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