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Notes, Thoughts, and Questions

Spring 1993

by David Foss

January 28, 1993

Living a caricature of a person. “I wish I were a real person.” What is this voice that sours the light of each confrontation with a mirror? The whisper that corrupts the possibility of a self-less interrogation of one’s world? Perhaps the abandonment of the possibility of such a dis-embodiment of perspective would not be so heinous a failure if neutrality were not so essentially tied with what we take to be purely and most truly human. The seeds of an unavoidable genderizing (is there such a word?) of one’s self-image spoil our reach for full personhood. Such words! Such fate! But I am a man. How can I know but only a small part of the womanizing of woman? Woman: where the gender of one’s person overwhelms her capacity to be, without gender. Woman: where gender is something less than, partial of, the human condition. As if man were free to know the human condition, et. al., and know by its reflection that he is master of his fate. But these are all gross delusions of grandeur. And it is perhaps the women of our world who are closest to such a realization. The human condition — the experience of being humanly constituted — is essentially sexed. Should we strive to overturn the myths of female inadequacy, or turn (as well) to a full assault on the myth of male adequacy?

Oppression is a difficult and complex phenomenon. In many ways it seems essential to our constitution as social beings. In many other ways, it is not at all clear what it is. If there is anything to this notion, it seems that it must acknowledge the sorts of self-annihilation experienced as a part of being essentially reduced to one’s body. Gender oppression, universally (as far as I am aware) most tenacious in its destruction of female identity, must be included under the rubric of oppression if the term is to have much use or meaning for us. Two attempts at such an articulation of oppression are made by Sandra Lee Bartky and Marilyn Frye. While they sketch a promising picture, some confusions remain.

Problematically, there are a number of conceptual extensions both Bartky and Frye emphasize which may work more to conceal the full extent of gender oppression than reveal its form and content. Quite correctly, both draw attention to the disintegration of self-esteem under the weight of unattainable and contradictory measures of social worth. Women are systematically reduced to a sort of quasi-person status, bombarded by images of personal inadequacy — in terms of body-image, intellectual vitality, and societal self-sufficiency — and cornered by a social environment which will not hear their voices without indexing the content with the “female” subscript. Woman is never “person”, simply. She is forever “female”. And this, in turn, is terribly relevant in a system in which, for men, “being male” vanishes from the sub-text of their voices, to the extent that the words appear without qualification or cultural indexing.

But can we, from the recognition of such a broad set of mechanisms, conclude that it is “for the benefit of” and “instituted by” men, over and against the culture of woman? This, I fear, is a mistake. It is easy to be convinced that such mechanisms are oppressive; and indeed they are. And from the designation of oppression, we may feel fully justified in seeking out who oppresses and who is oppressed; as though oppression is only intelligible in a context where such categorical divisions can be maintained. Must oppression be seen in such a light? Must there be an oppressor for there to be an oppressed? What does such a categorization do to our understanding of the mechanisms of oppression themselves? I fear that the eager partitioning of society into such hierarchies is more a feature of the oppression than its cause (or substructure). Forcing such a conceptual schism on our societal context may conceal wider, and more pervasive avenues, of which gender-allocation is but a small (though terrible) expression. Frye is more guilty of pressing such a schism than is Bartky. But in both thinkers, there is a tendency to view the subordination of women as though it were engineered purely for the benefit of men, by men.

This is not an objection which attempts to claim that women don’t benefit also. Nor is it an objection directed at proposing a significant dis-benefit for men. My objection is that such bantering, about who benefits and who suffers, endangers our capacity to see the mechanisms of oppression clearly. The allocation of blame is dangerous in a context in which the suspect system of oppression exercises its influence by similar means. Gender oppression functions primarily, and most potently, by a series of caricatures, which are then pressed onto the human condition: a woman is not wholly human, because “woman” is but a mere shadow of personhood — a caricature of what it is to be a person. The imposition of such identity-conferring caricatures distorts our treatment of others, and ourselves. Stereotyping, an increasingly essential mechanism for social living as a society increases in size, and inter-personal relationships are pressed to the extremes of acquaintance, is a bulwark of the very system of oppression we are attempting to defeat. Stereotyping is the effect of imposing a model of oppression which demands the conceptual schism between oppressor and oppressed. There is room for blame. There is room to make such attributions. But the making of such distinctions, and the placing of such blame, must itself be as suspect as the mechanisms of gender-confinement, if we hope to overturn the system itself. We must insist on our humanity, on our personhood, if we hope to be successful in dismantling the substructures this: the most tenacious of oppressions.

February 9, 1993

What is this thing called gender? How deeply it cuts into this mortal frame! But of all the dwellings of this world — one’s home, one’s people, one’s place of being — gender remains the most hidden and determining focal point of personhood. What is woman? What is man? I am my people. I am — dare I say the word — American. I am Caucasian. I am Man; Manly; Male. And yet, with each pronouncement, the inadequacy of each name becomes suffocatingly clear; each naming simultaneously throws its containment about my being, and falls away, absurd against its inability to comprehend my being. Each naming fails just as it succeeds. The moment each asphyxiation (as-fix-iation), each labeling, each defining, comes closest to my introspective vision of where I stand — the moment I can see the full adequacy of a term as it is applied to my self-definition — my being transcends its boundary, and points beyond the folds of this or that word. I am my people, and yet betray my people to a self beyond conformity. I am American, and still reject such patriotism as might demand the implied devotion to a unified ideal of nationalism. I am American, but reject the most fundamental tenants, the holy trinity, of consumerism, materialism, and expansionism. I am Man, but remain hopelessly ambivalent toward his obligation to falsely transcend his sex; I am Manly, but despise his resolve to eschew the full humanity of his being: his emotion, his music; I am Male, but have known, and still know, the full comportment of personhood escapes the stark individualism his name implies.


  1. What constitutes “feeling comfortable” or “natural” in one’s clothing or one’s role?
  2. What is the draw, the attraction, of playing at the boundaries of gender?
  3. Can we make categorical bifurcations without normative prioritization?

Voice. A departure from the language of perspective. It permits the apprehension of value beyond the limits of unity or relativistic equivocation. Within the language of perspective, a vision is evaluated against its object; a seeing is comparable by virtue of its alignment, parallax, and translatability, to the variety of other seeings. But voice, phonics, permits of a wider articulation of value. No longer are we confined to strict standards of transcription; we can see — nay: hear — a beauty generated of the polyphony directly. Dissonance, harmony, development, resolution. This is the language of the new, and much older, idea of beauty — and value. How does one articulate a vision, but by a language incidental to the seeing? Thus the language of perspective pushes the speaking of value to the side. But the polyphony requires articulation. The articulation is the valuation. The beauty is not in the mere seeing (now in the mere hearing), but is essentially within the singing; the harmonizing of voices. How do we sing together, but by a simultaneity of listening and speaking? A joining of sensitivity for other, with an offering or articulation of self. Voice demands reciprocity.

It is no longer adequate to allocate the roles of speaking and listening to separate individuals, on whatever grounds: To say that one person should be aggressive, individual; and the other to be receptive, self-less. The absurdity is not far from view. How can we sing together if we separate the faculties of listening and speaking? And this is what has been done. Man: he is his own man, a rule unto himself, aggressive and individual, he knows what he wants, and he gets it. Woman: she is devoted to her man, nurturing his needs and wants, raising his children, receptive and pleasing, she has no greater desire than that her lover be heard. He is speaker. She is listener. How absurd! He is too manly to heed the voice of adversity. She is too womanly to contribute the voice of reflection or experience. And the air is filled with such a calamity by men, and such a deafening silence by women! Such dissonance is intolerable for any ear of artistic bearing. Poetic justice demands a new “vision”. A vision that is not visual, but aural perhaps. Indeed, it demands a new song, a true song: a song of Justice.

I was, at a time, gender ambiguous. My long hair, soft features, fair skin, a delicate shy manner, brought many elders to call me “little girl”. Likewise, my sister joined the fray. Her shorter hair, rounded features, freckled skin, shy but stern manner, brought many of these same elders to call her “little boy”. It was perhaps confused further by the reluctance of my parents to strongly signal our gender identities. While I cannot recall ever wearing a dress, or the like, I can neither recall my sister being so attired for any occasion other than church. Whether walking in the park, or attending some summer fair, we were repeatedly greeted with “such beautiful little girls,” or occasionally, “such lovely little boys!” It bothered both of us, though I have always suspected that my sister suffered more for the embarrassment. I seemed to feel some degree of pleasure at having fooled someone’s expectations. I was not what I seemed. My appearance was, and remained through the third or fourth grade, gender ambiguous.

February 11, 1993

Ruth Hubbard, in her paper Have Only Men Evolved?, observes:

... The mythology of science asserts that with many different scientists asking their own questions and evaluating the answers independently, whatever personal bias creeps into their individual answers is cancelled out when the large picture is put together. This might conceivably be so if scientists were women and men from all sorts of different cultural and social backgrounds who came to science with very different ideologies and interests. But since, in fact, they have been predominantly university-trained white males from privileged social backgrounds, the bias has been narrow and the product often reveals more about the investigator than about the subject being researched.

This views the scientific enterprise as one which may achieve perspicacity by the aggregation (or occlusion) of a multiplicity of dogmatisms. We are imagined as simultaneously trapped within our histories, and capable of “seeing” into the true, indeed transcending our situatedness, by a conspiracy of the total variety of personal histories. In a sense, Hubbard suggests that scientific realism is quite impossible for the individual (especially an individual of privilege), but becomes surprisingly probable for a research community which attends to its marginalized members/voices. This view is not unique to Hubbard, but it is particularly well documented here. The feminist attack on scientific androcentrism often centers upon the inability of the practice to transcend its social embeddedness, if on no other basis than the necessity of linguistic conformity.

Every stage of scientific investigation is societally “infected”, from the capacity to observe phenomenon (limited by the range of categorical options immediately available in the language, or easily derivable from present forms), to the articulation of theories which “account” for the flood of data observed (where our notions of rationality, causality, and simplicity, conceal the centrality of expectation and familiarity). Science gets mucked-up (a good technical term) precisely when it treats its own cultural presuppositions as ontologically confirmed by its findings. This move is made possible, in part, by the claim that science can achieve perfect (or near perfect) clairvoyance with respect to the natural (meaning necessary) order of things. “The male is naturally dominant because we (scientists) see him everywhere as dominant over the fairer sex.” Never mind that there is literally no evidence which could falsify this claim; both in the sense that observations to the contrary are not “evident”, and it would make no sense (it would be to some degree unintelligible) to claim that the evidence we do “see” leads elsewhere.

The effects of “bad science” are especially insidious when its “findings” are pronounced as political necessities and imperatives. But can any science make such a claim? Is there such a thing as “good science” here? Clearly, the atrocities of pseudo-scientific sanction throughout our recorded political history, from British Imperial prerogatives to the Final Solution, are not a source of pride for the scientific project today. And much of the blame for these past indiscretions has been attributed to botched experimental verification. Data that should have counted as falsifying the bad theory was either misread or discarded. Alternative theories which would have contradicted the politically attractive one, while accounting for all the relevant data “equally well”, were systematically devalued or ignored. And the feminist assault on “masculine” science has tended to make equivalent charges of the contemporary practice. Women are marginalized within the theory, in large part, because they are marginalized in the community. Theory cannot justify “fact” here. There are, presumably, many alternative theories which account for the data equally well, but fail to justify or necessitate the oppression of women. There is a large volume of data conceptually inaccessible to a misogynistic observer, which would render the prevailing “scientific” support of gender prioritization untenable. Male-centered science is just bad science.

But, once again, is there any “good science” in this sense? It is quiet attractive to suppose that we could, by some mechanism or discursive strategy, arrive at a clear and unambiguous vision of the world. But this is our world. We are caught, as the scientist and the feminist must ultimately realize, forever saying more about who we are — about who we ought to be — than about any subject being researched. In a very real sense, it is forever ourselves who are the objects of investigation; not merely in the sense that our “place” in the world is successively revealed by further scientific enquiry into our surroundings, but also in the sense that the necessities, imperatives, and possibilities rendered visible by such observations are entirely our own. We own them. We are responsible for them. We are their source, their object, and their matter. This is to say that the shape and form of our world, both factually and normatively, will always illuminate more about the observer than the observed. Hubbard was half right when she said, “the product [of science] often reveals more about the investigator than about the subject being researched.” Science cannot escape its embeddedness: historically, socially, humanly. Its embeddedness is essential for its meaningfulness.

So what’s wrong with “masculine” science? It would seem, under such conditions (where the linguistic infection of observation corrupts the extra-personal character of the endeavour), that science must acquire a revised sense of self. Its mission cannot merely be a finding of Truth (at least when Truth is intended to denote a fabric of meta-physical characteristics the world in which we find ourselves). The point of science must be, as it has long attempted to be, a reaching beyond dogmatisms; a reaching beyond prejudices and expectation. The model of a plurality of voices, balancing each private prejudice by every other, is only adequate if it involves the private abandonment of particular dogmas, as well as the wider public revision of world-views. Science cannot give us a dogma beyond reproach. At best it can offer a field of play, in which a certain empiricism mixes with a chorus of voices, each telling again the story of who we are, and who we ought to be — not as a convergence of perspectives, but as a symphony of possibilities.

March 4, 1993

“Permit the person/world to emerge from behind the name”

Stomachs and hands.

metaphors of detail which signal, alternatively, appetite and power.

what is threatening: signs of submission, or friendship/trust?

where is the difference between friendship and trust?

Power and non-conformity.

March 24, 1993

From the Oxford English Dictionary:

pornography :
Description of the life, manners, etc. of prostitutes and their patrons [from B`D<0 (porne) meaning “harlot” and (DVN,4L (graphein) meaning “to write”]; hence the expression or suggestion of obscene of unchaste subjects in literature or art.

Helen Longino :
I define pornography as verbal or pictorial representations of sexual behavior that, in the words of the Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, have as a distinguishing characteristicthe degradation and demeaning portrayal of the role and status of the human female ... as a mere sexual object to be exploited and manipulated sexually.” In pornographic books, magazines, and films, women are represented as passive and as slavishly dependent upon men. The role of female characters is limited to the provision of sexual services to men... (Helen E. Longino. Pornography, Oppression, and Freedom: A Closer Look. p.42)

Pornography, whatever else it does, sexualizes radical submission. Does this mean that any context is pornographic which characterizes submission as sexual? Amid the tangled images of sexuality and gender-dominance patterns, is it possible to strike out against the pornographic oppression of women, without loosing sexuality altogether?

What makes a work a work of pornography, then, is not simply its representation of degrading and abusive sexual encounters, but its implicit, if not explicit, approval and recommendation of sexual behavior that is immoral, i.e., that physically or psychologically violates the personhood of one of the participants. Pornography, then, is verbal or pictorial material which represents or describes sexual behavior that is degrading or abusive to one or more of the participants in such a way as to endorse the degradation. (p.43)

On her way toward filling out exactly what is meant by “sexual behavior” (as including the wide range of activities structured around the sexual stimulation of at least one participant) and behavior which is “degrading or abusive”, some serious philosophical questions are raised. It seems, we must be a realist about the (sexual) interests, desires, and experiences of persons, such that they themselves might be mistaken. It is the nature of the coercion implicit to pornography that women, as well as men, find pleasure in the sexuality so prescribed, even if this pleasure (for most women, and some men) rarely actually accompanies the realization of the attendant fantasies. It does not matter that someone agrees to be a slave, or imagines that slavery might be “fun”. Slavery is wrong.

This later definition also permits of pornographic representations of the oppression of men. For Gloria Steinem, it seems, such an extension is not possible; for it is essential to pornography that it somehow radically genderize the participants:

... pornography is not about sex. It’s about an imbalance of male-female power that allows and even requires sex to be used as a form of aggression. (Gloria Steinem. “Erotica vs. Pornography”. p.250)

It’s about what it is to be a sexual being.
It teaches us what our bodies are.
It limits our physical landscape.

we can only be our bodies sexually.
we can only be sexual pornographically.
sex is war
passion is possession

We are sexual beings.
Sex is our core
it is our blood

played out in our fantasies of erotic being
is our deepest enactment of human being
it is our most intimate exposure

and conversation

to seize sexuality
to control these fantasies
is to seize

and control
personhood itself

sex is communication,
laid bare in the light
of our most naked becoming.

To some extent, the essence of pornography will remain remote until we can identify a manner of representing sexuality by some other light. Pornography is not merely the representation of human sexuality, but a degenerative perspective upon human sexuality. But how do we see our sexuality from the light of its pornographic “aspect”? What other sexuality is there?

erotica :
A representation of a sexual encounter between adult persons which is characterized by mutual respect... one in which the desires and experiences of each participant were regarded by the other participants as having a validity and a subjective importance equal to those of the individual’s own desire and experiences. Similarly, a representation of a nude human body (in whole or in part) in such a manner that the person shown maintains self-respect — e.g., is not portrayed in a degrading position... (Longino. p.42)

That a representation of the nude body is placed in this context is not explicitly an endorsement of the equation of nudity with sexuality, though it does implicitly resonate with that popular assumption. What is significant is that the depiction of sexuality be clearly delineated from the depiction of denigration, or self annihilation. Still, it is important that erotica be linked to depictions of sexual partnerships, and not merely the depiction of “abstract sexuality”.

Nudity, as itself sexual in isolation, is as much an effect of the pornographic ideal as is the equation of violence with sexual excitement. How else could the viewer identify such a depiction as an object to be possessed, conquered, or even succumbed to? A breast is a breast is a breast. How could this bit of flesh be construed as comporting mere sexuality, without implicating a pornographic relationship between the viewer and itself? Perhaps we can have an erotic nudity. But it will be no mere nudity. Look to the eyes, the posture, and measure this image’s conversation with your gaze.

Is the expression “eat me” necessarily pornographic? “Eat me, and be eaten”. How much can we let mutuality rest unspoken? There, in the images, we may witness a coming together, and a sharing of bodies. How will we know when one participant is submerged to the other? How will we know when such a submersion is depriving her of her personhood, or robbing him of his dignity?

Look at or imagine images of people making love; really making love.[...] there is likely to be a mutual pleasure and touch and warmth, an empathy for each other’s bodies and nerve endings, a shared sensuality and a spontaneous sense of two people who are there because the want to be. (Steinem. p.247)

In rape it is not impossible, or even unlikely, that the woman will receive some clitoral stimulation while being violently assaulted. As if the betrayal of humanity weren’t sufficient to the harm she suffers, she must also suffer her own sexuality, as a weapon used to deprive her of her own self possession. Did she feel pleasure? Perhaps. But it is a sick “pleasure”, which tears from her most inner being the unity of “pleasure” and happiness. No longer can she abandon herself to her sexuality. Her trust in others has clearly been violated. But the crime runs deeper. She can no longer trust herself, not merely in her judgment of others, but in the experience of her own sexuality.

Might the same be said of the achievement of pornography? Whose sexuality is this anyway?

It is, I suggest, the particular crime of pornography that a woman’s sexual “pleasure” is rearticulated, or redirected, for the Other — it belongs to her partner.

Notice what the mores do to the male.

I want poetry.

I find no greater pleasure than in providing my partner her most profound pleasures. No greater pleasure. But she inevitably feels somewhat uncomfortable. How can I be happy without achieving orgasm? How can I be pleased without intercourse? She feels inadequate if I do not seek these things for myself, in every act of “making love”. But I do not seek these things always. Indeed, I do not seek these things most of the time. Why should this be all the man wants? Our popular imagination certainly thinks it is. A real man just wants to “fuck” her. “Wham bam thank you ma’am”. Then to lie back a smoke a few cigarettes. Whose sex is this? It certainly is not my own.

March 24, 1993 (later)

Is there a power in non-conformity? Must one conform in order that power be wielded? Certainly power is exercised by conformity. A conspiracy of support is ultimately necessary for any voice to measure as more than a passing breath. But what of that voice itself. Must it be the voice of convention, in order that it be moving, or even heard? Will it even be heard if it is merely the voice of convention? In order that it register within the popular imagination, a voice must be sufficiently conventional to be intelligible, but also sufficiently dissonant to arouse attention. The non-conformist may not be understood, but the absolute conformist will never be heard. No. I’m mixing terms. Conformity: be like the group. Convention: patterns of acceptable behavior. Conventional conformist: You ought to behave and speak like we do. Conventional non-conformist: It’s not the case that you ought to behave like “we” do. Non-conventional conformist: You ought to behave and speak like we, who reject the mainstream, do. Non-conventional non-conformist: huh?

what a silly exercise.

conformity: the mechanism of enforcing (or the measure of) compliance with popular norms.
convention: the set of norms themselves.

April 22, 1993

Characteristic of the systematic diminution of woman by her gender is a fabric of norms which individually, and collectively, reduce her socio-political presence. The subjugation of woman is effected by a series of practices, mostly implicit, which coordinate these norms, and deprive her of public authority. In the manner of Marilyn Frye, it should be noticed that we risk seeing these practices (as well as their constitutive norms) as merely inconvenient, or trivially maladaptive in their social function, if we fail to recognize the ways in which each individually conspires with the whole cloth of interlocking mores. By attending too closely to the peculiarities of particular norms or practices, we risk concealing the wider system of which they are a part. Specific mores may clearly be locally oppressive, such as virgin/whore dichotomous stereotyping, and most oppressive practices may not require a wider context of coordinated subjugation to strike us as hideous, such as the institution of pornography. Nevertheless, the crime of gender cannot be fully appreciated without a recognition of the degree to which there is cross fertilization (even a substantial interdependence) between localized mores and practices. Woman is trapped by her gender, not only by the contradictions of all that “woman” conceptually stands for in this culture, or merely by the physical intimidation and violence to which she is subjected in virtue of her sex, but by all that conspires to forcibly embody her in thought and action. She is made wholly body, against the weight of western history and our inherited disdain for the fragility of embodied existence. Our world is against her, by its most profound orientation.

To see how seemingly distinct social constructions conspire in such a fashion, it will be helpful to explore two unlikely interlocking forms of gender oppression: body image and rape. They are unlikely co-conspirators only in the most superficial sense. On the surface, the enforcement of an aesthetic of radical slenderness may seem entirely disjoined from the physical brutalization of women by men. Or if significant interplay is admitted, it may at first appear as though the embrace of slenderness by many women is a rejection of sexuality, and so contrary to (or at least in tension with) the explicit project of rape, which violently sexualizes the victim. However, the tension between these two institutions should not be exaggerated. Like the tension between the categories of nice girl (virgin) and fun girl (whore), it is dominated by a deeper concert, which binds woman to a degenerative identity.

Modern female body-image is dominated by an ethos of slenderness. There are a number of factors which converge upon the feminine body, effecting a broad range of psychosocial neuroses, from self-inflicted anorexia to the socio-moral repugnance of obesity. In some respects, the body of woman is particularly susceptible to the paradoxes of our capitalist culture, which demands simultaneous devotion to consumption and production (or to indulgence and control). In such a bulimic culture, which takes care to rigidly confine woman to her gender caste, it is hardly surprising that the practice of bulimia should be commonly mirrored in her private life. So much the subject of rigid custom, woman will suffer the contradictions of that custom as constitutive contradictions within her very consciousness. Insofar as woman is the representative of body for her culture, her body will be the primary symbolic vehicle of this culture’s physical expression. She must embody the values imposed throughout (as these values do often extend to the “spirits” of men). In apparent contrast, anorexia, while manifesting the ethos of slenderness generally, embraces puritanical control, at the expense of consumption. It appears to express (as a rejection of consumption) a reach for power (over self and appetite) and youth. There are other dimensions of slenderness, not the least of which carries the cosmetic arts into the body itself. The maintenance of an emaciated frame has joined the obligatory painting of skin (make-up), as well as the battery of fashion duties, which simultaneously aestheticize woman’s (valuational) essence and distract or diminish her moral presence.

Cultural bulimia, anorexia, and the internalization of cosmetic duty intersect in a cluster of oppressive female body norms. Yet, body norms do not act in isolation, and to a large extent depend upon a global fabric of gender oppression. The “culture” of rape may initially seem a rather distant cousin to slenderness, if a member of the family at all (in spite of a common effect both institutions share with respect to the subjugation of women), especially when we attend to the explicit rejection of sexuality essential to many instances of anorexia. The obsession with youth, with pre-adolescent body types, and with symbolic innocence (via both youth and pre-sexual being), can be read as a rejection of female sexuality by young women who find their sexuality (as manifested directly in their mothers, or more generally in the pornographic reduction of women to breasts and hips) a betrayal of their personhood. Nevertheless, the ethos of slenderness and the institution of rape significantly report and reinforce each other. Even the anorexic, eager to reject her sexuality, does so at the cost of physical presence. She embraces a symbolic vanishing, fostered by the collision of shame and sexual destiny, and thereby furthers her own moral concealment. If there be any essence to rape, it must be closely analogous to such a rejection of moral presence. But a more substantive cultural overlapping exists between rape and body image, which exposes a deeply troubling feature of our world.

Some initial comments concerning rape, and the “culture” it represents, will help clarify the dimension along which this overlapping occurs. Within the language of rape, the woman is positioned as tacitly eliciting sexual attention, such that she is responsible for the management of her sexualization. If she is raped, we (including her reflective voice) ask first if she did something to invite such an assault. But the language of responsibility and control, which grants women the paradoxical power to author their victimization, further helps to conceal the fundamental manner in which rape, and the constellation of assumptions which help sustain its reality, violently commoditize women. Woman is rendered property, possessible, material, by a violent othering. We need only look as far as the practice of war to witness rape as a symbolic possessing of a whole people.

There are, briefly, at least three distinct programmes (unconscious though they may be) effected by the reality of rape. First, the culture of rape effects a silencing internal to sexual intimacy, by the imposition of a sexuality inimical to communication. Rape culture infects sex by corrupting the possibility of mutual vulnerability and the communion of intimacy. It insists upon a model of sexual being which excises dialogue and language from erotic contact. Second, rape violently enforces the myth of property, by the symbolic possessing of persons and space. Property here is a metaphysical thesis, infecting the totality of our world (to be a thing is to be owned), in which we are trapped in a zero-sum game of world-allocation. Rape is co-extensive then not only with the general project of undermining the autonomy (self-ownership?) of women, but also with a wider culture of radical materialism. So this ‘effect’ of rape is two-fold: that objects are essentially possessed, and that women are objects by and for possession (notice that “violent possession” would be a redundant expression in this context). Third, rape is a vehicle for the climate of fear by which cultural order — patriarchy in particular — is maintained. This is a fear which infects nearly every aspect of social living: beyond the local corruption of intimate communication, and the deep imposition of property norms. Man must protect woman, from nothing less than the violence she “elicits” in him.

Recalling the cultural schizophrenia with respect to the ideals of possession and consumption (“having your cake and eating it too”) manifested in the reality of bulimia, a whisper of the presumptive core of rape echoes through the “violent” turn to anorexia. There is, in anorexia (seemingly the least likely kin to rape among the children of slenderness), a fear and suppression of a “second self”. Appetite is seen as a kind of “monster within”, over which the will must rule by domination. The self (will/man) struggles to “protect” the self (whole) from a shadow self (appetite/body/woman). Sound familiar? The body is fundamentally positioned as a thing to be controlled. Slenderness, even as an expression of cosmetic “art” or duty (which regards the body not merely as the canvas, but as the medium), essentially involves an articulation of body as an object of manipulation, control, and possession. Given the further equivocation of woman with her body, essential to both the institution of rape and the “virtue” of thinness, this vision of body is a vision of woman.

Rape and slenderness intersect most prominently in the conception of appetite which blames woman both for her physique and for his desire. She is made the embodiment of appetite (is this redundant?), and by extension, all desire. By wholly embodying (i.e. placing in the body) the virtue of woman, slenderness deprives her of reason (as virtue), and echoes the alienation of sex from language intrinsic to rape. Analogous to the third aspect of rape culture enumerated above, slenderness functions to deprive woman of material (and by extension political) presence. Indeed, the two conspire by the imposition of fear (rape) and shame (body image) to reduce the moral significance of her voice.

By what each does individually, and together, to woman should be adequate ground to censure both for moral evil. However, like much of what feminist analysis reveals concerning social structures which effectively oppress women, the evil practiced by rape and female body image extends beyond gender. We are witness to institutions which conceive appetite as permanent, eternal, and inherently evil. Our bodies are implicitly viewed as things over which we must remain forever diligent, at the risk of being consumed by our matter. Whether played out in puritanical witch hunts, bulimic purges, or “Tail-Hook”-style rape ‘parties’, woman is assaulted as part of a cultural schizophrenia in which mind and body are categorically divorced, and mind obtains absolute moral authority. It is a context in which linear power reigns supreme (whether we call it by patriarchy, capitalist aristocracy, or by some other name), and oppression of most persons is naturalized and maintained.

May 6, 1993

Ego. That solipsism of mind which imagines the self to be prima facie sovereign to its being. Such insularity as it projects upon our natures contradicts the essence of our humanity, and drives compassion from the realm of intelligibility; confusing love with selfishness, and empathy with foolishness.

May 17, 1993

Is feminism about hating men? This is at its very core, an absurd suggestion. Feminism is particularly directed against such categorical gender defamation. At its closest approximation to this pronouncement, the feminist might be said to hate “Man” (and reflectively, to hate “Woman”) insofar as this term, and the class of stereotypes it manifests in our culture, enforces the paternalistic battering of persons by their gender. If by men we mean those male individuals who personify the cultural norms which normatively stratify the gender castes, then the feminist can consistently hate them. If, however, by men we mean the male sex as such, then it is manifestly as inconsistent for the feminist to condemn this membership so long as her position condemns the devalorization of women by the imposition of gender castes.

Feminist Philosophy
Phil-789-01, Georgetown University
Spring 1993
(© David Foss, 1993)

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