Friday, September 6, 2013

Penile Politics Redux

But Jesus immediately said to them: "Take courage! It is I. Don't be afraid."
  -Matthew 14:27

A few years ago I blogged a piece called "Penile Politics" on my old site, Feral Scholar.  Can't link it right now, because the site is trashed, but De Clarke is trying to rescue our old work there.

The rant was during the Bush era, and it was about all the ways that domination-masculinity (related to the weaponized phallus and "balls" as a synonym for courage) shows up in political discourse, and therefore in political decision-making, usually with really bad consequences.  Well... it's back.  No surprise there.  Modern patriarchy is more and more about who has the biggest gun.

Nowadays, the weaponized phallus is encoded in the media as "credibility," even when balls/courage is incredibly cruel and stupid.

Been working on a piece about Richard Beck's book, Unclean, and found that I needed to revisit Nancy Hartsock's canonical feminist book, Money, Sex and Power, putting Beck and Hartsock into a kind of conversation; but since I had given away my books before our Costa Rican adventure, I had to order Hartsock's book through the inter-library loan system.  As luck would have it, two days ago the book came in, and as I was reviewing passages of it, I was also tuned in to developments in Obama's political misadventures with regard to Syria's civil war.

It is remarkable how pertinent Nancy Hartsock's 1983 classic remains to this day in world and national politics... or perhaps not.  Men and a few women who aspire to get into the men's club are running things still, and so the psychology of courageous balls and weaponized phalli is still predominant.

Here is a short excerpt from page 156:

One of the first questions to be addressed is what is meant by sexuality.  Definitions of what is to be included often cover many aspects of life.  For example, Freud included but did not clarify the interrelationships among such various things as libido, or the basic tendency toward being alive and reproducing, the biological attributes of being male or female, sensuality, masculinity and femininity, reproductive behavior, and intense sensations in various parts of the body, especially the genitals.  And Jeffrey Weeks, summarizing our culture's understanding of sex, argues that in our society "sex has become the supreme secret," which is at the same time the "truth" of our being.  It defines us socially and morally.  Moreover, the common understanding of sexuality treats it as a "supremely private experience," which is at the same time "a thing in itself."

We can pause to get hold of that last phrase, "a thing in itself."  We speak of "sexuality" as if it just is, as if it exists apart from a context, cultural or historical.  Returning to Hartsock...

My own reading of the literature suggests that in contrast to these definitions, we should understand sexuality not as an essence or set of properties defining an individual, nor as a set of drives and needs (especially genital) of an individual.  Rather, we should understand sexuality as culturally and historically defined and constructed.  Anything can become eroticized, and thus there can be no "abstract and universal category of 'the erotic' or 'the sexual' applicable without change to all societies."  Rather, sexuality must be understood as a series of cultural and social practices and meanings that both structure and are in turn shaped by social relations more generally  [italics added].

Now, let's review a few lines from recent media mouths on the Obama administration's conundrum over and desire to attack Syrian targets, in retaliation for the use of chemical agents against more than a thousand people.  (I am not debating who did it here; I will treat the issue as if the Assad government has done exactly that.  The possibility that opposition forces did it will only make the position of the Obama administration more absurd and morally bankrupt.)

Now, the loss of British backing of a strike against Syria is a significant blow to Obama’s vision, setting up two undesirable options:  not keeping his word on “enormous consequences” for crossing that “red line,” or going it relatively alone.

US President Barack Obama has been attacked by Israel for his perceived cowardice towards Syria - and the criticism has been echoed by the pro-Assad population of Damascus.

If Congress won’t authorize military force against Syria, the president will suffer a double blow from which he may not recover. Will he attack anyway and risk backlash from a public exhausted by war, or will he suspend attack plans and look emasculated as Damascus and others are already claiming he is? Either way, he and America lose.

So, knock the chip off my shoulder, followed by chicken-chicken, followed by the word "emasculated."  I remember first being exposed to these tropes in schoolyards as a child.

Emasculated.  Un-manned.  Castrated.  The national "balls" have been removed, and so we (a masculine "we") are collectively flaccid.

I could rest my case right now, except that is not my whole case.  It doesn't take a PhD to spot all the man-talk in politics.  The nub of the matter, little pun intended, is in that figurative phallus, that weaponized prick.

How, exactly, did we come to associate the human male's vulnerable little pollinator with aggression and hostility?  And what does that say about our war-based society?  About ourselves, especially about men?

What Hartsock documents through several lines of research is that male sexual excitement in our culture is very often associated with the humiliation, degradation, fetishization, and objectification of the sexual "object."  That is, the recipient of the engorged and hostile phallus.

We have all heard how commonly language that is sexual is used to describe disgust, contempt, and aggression; and we have likewise heard how the language of aggression is used to describe sexual acts (principally from the male perspective).

Obama is being called - not in the media, but certainly in the blogosphere - a "pussy."  That is the opposite, as we know, from having balls.  Women are frequently referred to - in disgust - as "cunts," reducing them to one reviled and erotically fetishized part.  The contempt in these phrases, in the case of Obama being pussy-baited, is then insulting Obama by calling him... a woman (Oh horror!).

If we say someone "got fucked," we don't generally mean, "Wow, how nice for her/him to experience pleasure and intimacy!"  When we say, "Fuck you!" we are not wishing anyone well.  If you warn someone, as I was warned in Basic Training, "Get caught with your pants down, someone gonna pop it to ya," you are telling them that being the recipient, the bottom, is being a loser, and the one on top is the winner, the victor.  When many men talk about desiring sex with a woman, they use terms like "bang that," (aggression and objectification), "hit that," screw, pop, drill, bone, ram, tear that up, cut, bop... you've all heard them. "Fuck" is derivative of a German word for striking something.

During the run-up to the Iraq war, there was a condom company that advertized their new line of rubbers as "Shock and Awe - with bunker buster technology."  Aside from the sheer grandiosity of this term for - once again - a little biological pollinator, the appeal is to sex constructed as hostility and aggression.

French philosopher-pornographer Georges Bataille, quoted by Hartsock on page 158, wrote that sex and killing are similar in that each... intentional like the act of a man who lays bare, desires and wants to penetrate his victim.  The lover strips the beloved of her identity no less than the bloodstained priest his human or animal victim.  The woman in the hands of the assailant is despoiled of her being... loses the firm barrier that once separated her from others... is brusquely laid open to the violence of he sexual urges set loose in the organs of reproduction; she is laid open to the impersonal violence that overwhelms her from without.

Lover equals assailant.  Woman equals victim.

It should be apparent by now, then, why penile politics is so resonantly powerful.  In an old billboard ad from the Bush-Kerry campaign, the ad consisted solely of two side-by-side photographs - one of a cowboy boot and one of a plastic shower-shoe, commonly called a "flip-flop."  Flip-flop -which has been resurrected in the attack-Syria debate - means being indecisive (read:  un-masculine, woman-like).  The juxtaposition of these two images is also evocative of a phallus - the tall, cylindrical cowboy boot - and a vaginal labia - with the down-sweeping wishbone lines of the shower-shoe straps.  Bush is a man.  Kerry is a woman... a flip-flopper, a pussy.

This appeal isn't for men only.  Women are acculturated to these sexual tropes, too, reflexively looking to a strong, protective father-figure when they are fearful, just as submission can be eroticized for women in response to dominance from men (or even a dominant female partner), politically problematic as this may be.  Likewise, in sexual playacting, men can become excited in the submissive role through the thrill of transgression, albeit from a safe position of political privilege - being able to return to being "men" in every other respect.

None of this, that is to say, effaces the problem of male "sexuality" and identity being constructed as domination (and violence, or at least the potential for it).  Transgression-as-pleasure is almost always a function of privilege.

In unpacking the whore-madonna dualism that many men still get off on, Hartsock says...

The dichotomy between spiritual love and "carnal knowledge" is recreated in the persistent fantasy of transforming the virgin into a whore.  She begins pure, innocent, fresh, even in a sense disembodied, and is degraded and defiled in sometimes imaginative and bizarre ways.

Transgression is important here:  Forbidden practices are being engaged in.  The violation of the boundaries of society breaks is taboos.  Yet in the act of violating a taboo, of seeing or doing something forbidden, does not do away with its forbidden status.  Indeed, in the ways women's bodies are degraded and defiled in the transformation of virgin into whore, the boundaries between the forbidden and the permitted are simultaneously upheld and broken.  Put another way, the obsessive transformation of virgin into whore simply crosses over and over again the boundary between them.  Without the boundary, there could be no transformation.  And without the boundary, the thrill of transgression would disappear.  (p. 172)

Interestingly, the same can be said of war and killing.  The (often feminized and-or dehumanized) "enemy," who exists across actual political and cultural boundaries (between clean and unclean, advanced and backward, liberal and illiberal, human and not-so-human), allows a warring society the thrill of violating the taboo against killing.  The excitement of the news media before they realized this latest adventure might not happen, their disappointment at the delay, and their attempts to resurrect the promised attack, all bespeak a vicarious and sometimes direct thrill they anticipated... and their frustration when a society now suspicious of war and worried about money didn't behave as it had in the past.

I don't claim this as an analogy, but as the reflection of a pattern of thought in a society where men - and the handful of their privileged and most earnest female imitators - rule and react consistent with an historically-constructed notion of domination-masculinity.

What is it in common, then, that characterizes sex-as-violence/violence-as-sex and our imperial forays into war?  What is at the base of both?

I will only rub past Hartsock's detailed reflections on object-relations psychology and get straight to the point.

The practice of war and the subjugation of women both shape masculinity because both require of men that they avoid the danger of something Hartsock calls fusion to the project of control.  And here, at last, I can explain why I believe this is particularly important to Christians.

In place of Hartsock's term, "fusion," I will ask the reader to substitute the term "love."  She begins with an analysis of pornography.

In pornography the desire for fusion with the another takes the form of domination of the other.  In this form, it leads to the only possible fusion with a threatening other:  The other must cease to exist as a separate, opposed, and for that reason, threatening being.  Insisting that another submit to one's will is simply a milder form of the destruction of discontinuity in death, since in this case one is no longer confronting a discontinuous and opposed will, despite its discontinuous embodiment... this risk is at the same time a source of sexual excitement.  Pornography, then, must reduce this danger to a titillating risk is sexual excitement is to be created.

In order to reduce the danger of fusion or intimacy, pornography substitutes control.  (pp. 169-170)
The reason women are reviled by men in our male-dominant society is that men define themselves against women - against anything that is construed as "womanly," which means - in essence - weak.  Our horrifying attitudes and actions in the realm of sex grow directly out of this defining our-selves in this way, in this agonal, zero-sum way.  This same way of being leads us to worship war, to want war, to want to experience war - directly or vicariously - as the affirmation of our manhood.  And as a Christian, I have to admit that in every way, this orientation to both sex and war are probative.  I have to prove my (male) self again and again by committing the most fundamental sin - my hard-heartedness.  My ability to resist "fusion."

I will point out my own experience, even now, of being a man - a male in this society.  I fear vulnerability.

I am terrified of it.

Intimacy, someone told me once, means into-me-you-see.  Without my boundaries, I fear I might vanish; this is the fear that is driven into men early and often.  I have been reinforced in that fear all my life by men (and even women who have internalized this idea about men) who let me know in no uncertain terms that to show weakness (read:  vulnerability) is to invite the attack.  I could be hurt.  I might be killed.  I might cease to exist.  Moreover, if into-me-you-see, you might see what I really know myself to be, and I would be unworthy of respect, of recognition, of esteem, certainly not love (without forgiveness, at any rate).

Fusion, vulnerability, love... is very, very risky.  And so like any good soldier, I need to place a protective perimeter around myself, a strategic demarcation with control points for entry and exit.

And yet the Incarnation is not of a controlling God become man, but of a man - a male - who chooses to live in a state of absolute vulnerability, even to being tortured to death on a cross.  He is vulnerable, and he chooses those who were most vulnerable in his society - women, peasants, lepers, the disabled, this sick, the possessed, he imprisoned, the destitute.

There were so many subversions of order in this vulnerability it's hard to know where to begin; but the most profound subversion in some respects - given what I discussed above - was his subversion of masculinity, then and now, constructed as domination and violence.

If only President Obama were able to say now...

"I was wrong to have used the term 'red line.'  It was macho bluster in a political milieu that promotes macho bluster.  I felt constrained by my own desire to retain credibility when it appeared that chemical weapons were used in Syria; but to kill anyone for my credibility, for the credibility of my party, or with future elections in mind would be a terrible crime.  I was wrong, and I have been wrong to put positioning for power on behalf of my country ahead of the commandment, 'Thou shall not kill.'  I was wrong, and my political enemies will make much of me saying so; but I stand before God and my fellow human beings, and I can no longer answer violence with more violence, especially not for an abstraction like 'credibility.'  Today, I am asking the leaders of all countries in the region and countries with influence there to come together to organize a framework for diplomacy that can begin with a ceasefire in Syria determined not by arms.  I have no guarantees this will work; but I have professed a belief in a good God in whose hands I leave history."
So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in them.  - 1 John 4:16

Kyrie eleison.

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