Thursday, 8 August 2013

Who Can Afford Sanctification?

or, Can We Get There From Here?

In my last post, in which I wrote about Terry Eaglton's Why Marx Was Right, I shared Marx's claim that we cannot really engage in praxis (that is, activity that we do for its own sake and not as a means to our economic ends) and cannot really actualize our potentials (I'm not always sure what the means, but bear with me) if we are unable to meet our material needs, or even uncertain in our ability to do so. This leads to a pretty simple conclusion: the bourgeios are able to self-actualize and the proletariat are not. Further, the bourgeios are often able to self-actualize through their work and the proletariat cannot; while a CEO could very well work as hard as the person bussing tables at three different jobs, the CEO is working on themselves and not just at their job, which can't be said so easily for the serving staff.

Abraham Maslow has made a similar observation in his hierarchy of needs: meeting basic needs like food and physical security are preconditions for self-actualization. Pure Land Buddhism also contains a similar idea: true enlightenment is not available in this world, but there is another world in which a meritous practitioner can be reincarnated called the Pure Land in which our material needs are all met, allowing us to focus on attaining enlightenment without the distractions which weigh us down here. There are traditions, then, both psychological-sociological and Vedic, that ask what precisely the material conditions of enlightenment are.

All this stands in stark contrast to my experience and understanding of Christianity. The Beatitudes, which are generally considered to be part of the heart of Christianity, bless the poor rather than the rich, and Jesus tells us that it is harder for a rich man to enter heaven than for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle. Indeed, there is a tendency in Christianity (or, anyway, progressive Christianity) to conflate Christ with the poor, likely because Jesus tells us that we are treating him as we treat the hungry, thirsty, naked, and imprisoned. I'm fully aware that there are other trends in Christianity, which conflate wealth 'n health with divine favour, but the sort of Christianity with which I am familiar suggests that Christ-likeness might look a lot like homelessness (cf the Franciscan and Benedictine monks). I do not mean to deny the close ties between Christ and the poor, or the serious challenges wealth can present for spiritual well-being, but I do want to suggest that Marx's insight--that pursuing activities for their own sake rather than for your stomach's sake (and this probably includes a lot of religious transformation) is a whole lot easier when you aren't starving--is one that it might help us to remember.

I think that I can pretty uncontroversially identify "becoming Christ-like" with praxis and self-actualization. Given that, I have a few ideas, but I don't know how or if these ideas work together.

On the one hand, we Christians can maybe celebrate the fact that we have strategies for acheiving praxis without having all of our material needs secure. Indeed, it's perhaps easier for progressive Christians to imagine sanctification among the poor than among the rich. I'm also reminded of Hinduism's provision for the labouring class, in which they can shed karma through their work (the yoga of labour). At least for the moment, it would be incredibly prudent for us to consciously develop what it means to become Christ-like when we have urgent material needs calling us in other directions. Even in the most successful communist society imaginable, we would still have material needs and we would still be vulnerable to illness and injury, so these strategies for praxis-in-privation will still come in handy. I should say that lots of folks are already working on exactly this project, but I think we would benefit from recalling Marx's insight more explicitly.

On the other hand, we Christians are called to feed the poor--that is to say, help them meet those material needs. Now, Jesus didn't say to what ends we should help them meet those needs; it certainly doesn't say we should feed the poor because it's easier for rich people to enter the Kingdom of Heaven than for poor people to do so. The trouble is that when I was reminded of the yoga of labour, I was also reminded of how the yoga of labour was used as justification for serious economic and social inequalities in the caste system's later incarnations. So, sure, on the one hand it's probably a good idea to find ways for poor people to work out their salvation which don't rely on the luxuries of wealth, but that work can often be a distraction from the other work we should be doing to help the poor not be poor. I'm not saying it's inevitable that one leads to the other, but it's awful tempting.

The way forward might be the one I expect you're thinking of already: one of the things we do to become Christ-like is feed the hungry, visit the imprisoned, etc. My becoming-Christ-like, my self-actualization, consists at least in part of helping out poor people. Hopefully, if we're taking sanctification/praxis/self-actualization seriously enough to tackle the self-actualization-for-the-poor thing, we will automatically be working on the helping-the-poor-not-be-poor thing. (But maybe that's excessively optimistic.) It might be disconcerting to think that we have one kind of praxis for the rich and another for the poor, since by definiton the poor cannot help themselves not be poor and call it praxis, and bending down from our privileged pedastals to dictate a strategy for praxis-in-privation could become paternalistic and patronizing really quickly, but it's probably squeamishness that's freaking me out on this inequality rather than actual concern for justice. The poor have to roll differently because their lives really are different. So I still think there's a link here, where helping other people pursue Christ-likeness or praxis is, itself, the pursuit of Christ-likeness or praxis. At any rate, I promise to think more about it.

Tuesday, 6 August 2013

An Enemy of Utopia for Utopia's Sake
A while back I read Terry Eagleton's Why Marx Was Right, his defense of Marxism. The book is organized into ten chapters, each rebutting a typical argument against Marxism. I would have found this an effective structure--it is one of the reasons that I bought the book--if he hadn't frequently wandered from the topic or covered material he had already addressed in a previous chapter. As far as style goes, Eagleton is direct and readable, but he relies overmuch on imperfect metaphors or examples and at times he reminds me a lot of C. S. Lewis in the latter's most snide and uncharitable passages. To give one example of many possible ones, Eagleton tends to make a lot of unnecessary potshots against postmodernism, and I say that they are unnecessary because he could deal with particular postmodernist criticisms of Marxism without making ad hominem attacks against postmodernists generally. Maybe this sporadic sniping seems really weird to me in part because the Marxist friend I know best also calls herself a postmodernists, so the two schools of thought apparently are not locked in mortal combat; he can be dismantling postmodern critiques without trying to discredit all of postmodernism. And instead of spreading his many arguments against postmodernist ideas over the whole book, he could have organized them into one chapter, as he does with all of the other critiques. This is far from the only example of his uncharitable and snide handling of his critics, but it is the one I found most glaring.

As a very general assessment, I don't think reading this book will make you walk away a communist, but I sure hope it would make you walk away with very serious reservations about capitalism. Eagleton's defenses of Marx and his critiques of capitalism are astute, but I would say that he does a better job of showing why we should ditch capitalism than he does showing why we should adopt Marxism. This imbalance is partly a consequence of the structure, but it remains the case that he doesn't explain why Marxism is better than the other non-capitalist options, because there are other options. For instance, there are more kinds of communism than Marxism, but there are also things that aren't capitalism that also aren't communism. Marx wasn't the only one who has provided resources for anti-capitalist thought, cf the Gospel of Luke.

I haven't much more to say about Why Marx Was Right as a whole; when your defense consists mainly of refutations of refutations, you don't work out much of a larger system for me to interact with (not that he has to, since he's working with a preexisting system, i.e. Marxism). However, Eagleton's greatest strength is probably his habit of incorporating lesser-known parts of Marxist thought into his defenses. Not only are these claims probable-sounding and interesting, but if they turn out to be true they'll be rather important. I'd like to share and discuss some of these ideas here.

1. There is such a thing as a universal human nature. In particular, humans have material needs, and this fundamentally effects our behaviour. This feature doesn't differentiate us from other animals. What does differentiate us from other animals is our ability to self-actualize; our ability to assess, learn about, and improve ourselves is also part of our nature.
I tend to be pretty hard on the idea of a universal human nature (in fact, if there's one argument that will tempt me to start ignoring you entirely, it's an appeal to human nature), so it's generally good to be reminded that there is at least a bare minimum of such universal nature and that that minimum determines quite a lot about us.

2. Thought cannot really be abstract; it is always grounded in materiality. First, physical bodies are the condition of thought in the first place; you can't have minds without brains. Second, thought originates from its ability to fulfill material needs. If thought did not fulfill material needs, we would never have evolved or practiced it. All thought, abstract or otherwise, has physical needs beneath it.
Marx would go on to say that these physical needs to some extent determine all thought, regardless of how apparently abstract/disinterested, or that we should at least not be surprised to find that our abstract thought covertly (even to us) serves our material needs. I find this logical process a little far-fetched--the origins of a thing do not so totally control what we can use it for--but I feel like the case is overstated rather than incorrect, especially considering what we know about human cognitive biases and how bad highly abstract thinkers tend to be at introspection/self-awareness.

3. Following #1 and #2, Marx was somewhat anti-philosophical. Eagleton says that Marx has an aversion to abstract thought. Just as thought is based in materiality, any system of thought that deserves our attention must begin with the recognition that human beings have material needs and emotions bound up with those needs. There cannot be reason divorced from those needs or emotions. Further, any philosophy that is not about those needs is omitting basic data about the world.  (Of course, Marxists can be just as guilty of this, in that many of them tend to think of people as non-gendered, etc.)
We might be able to imagine sci-fi contexts in which there are perfectly rational creatures, but it wouldn't tell us much that would be of any use to us. Further, refering to the next point, I don't think we can accurately imagine a disinterested or immaterial intelligence anyway.

4. Any radical break with the present--as in communism, but you can think of a lot of things, like abolition or gender equity or the Protestant Reformation--will result in a society that cannot be predicted from the present. In other words, even Marx doesn't really claim to know what a communist society would look like or how it would be organized. That sort of thing could only be figured out in situ, without the pressures on thought, philosophy, etc. that our current economic system makes. But, more importantly, a radical break from the present, at least in the case of Marxist revolution, would mean that a whole different set of people will be making the important decisions, and those decisions wouldn't really be freely theirs if they could be predicted in advance. This might make communism hard to sell because people want to know what they're buying, but it is unavoidably true.
What interests me about this idea isn't just that it explains the lack of specifics a lot of communists give about life under communism (excepting Fourier, of course), but that it seems relevant to a lot of arguments I see people getting into. Whenever someone makes claims about what would happen if some radical change took place, I want to shout that they can't possibly know that; if we had any evidence to go on, then it would not be a radical change because it would have happened already. It might seem like a decidedly pessimistic view of the imagination, but it's really just a pessimistic view of our imagination's predictive power.

5. Since I'm rather interested in praxis as a word (I tend to be more worried about orthopraxy than orthodoxy, but I also just like Greek words with ties to theology), I was interested to learn that Marx talks about praxis in terms of its ancient Greek context. Praxis in Greek thought refers to the activity of free-born citizens, not slaves; further, it refers to activity done for its own sake and not as a means to an end, especially not an economic end. This is what Marx, and Marxists, mean by "true production" (as opposed to "false production").
I am very drawn to the idea of praxis in this sense. As far as goals go, developing a society in which praxis is possible to all sounds like a great idea. But I'm wondering if the idea of praxis can be entirely consistent with the previous points about thought's material basis; Eagleton describes communism as a system in which material needs are met so that true production becomes possible, but it's not as though we ever stop having material needs. Hunger renews itself.

6. Negative depictions of communism tend to show uniform citizens robbed of any individuality, like drones or the Borg, but according to Marx, utter homogeneity is capitalism's dream, not communism's. Equality--the cry of the French Revolution and of liberals* everywhere--is a bourgeois value. Capitalism views employees as equal because they are interchangeable, like the parts of a machine. Anyone can work at McDonald's. Money, or exchange value, realizes the ultimate dream of equality: all money is perfectly equal because it is perfectly interchangeable. Under communism, Eagleton says, we are able to self-actualize (see the first point) and engage in praxis (see the fourth point), and it is these two things that produce individuality. No two things, and no two people, are exchangeable; people are unique.
While I'm suspicious of the dichotomy presented here, I found I was forced to agree with the general point that capitalism is no defender of individuality--for example, I can imagine little more uniform than suburbia--but there also seems to be a bit of equivocation between equality as a political right (equality before the law, gender equality) and equality as interchangeability. It's not a lot of equivocation, but there's just enough for room to quarrel.

7. Eagleton notes that Adorno described Marx "as an enemy of utopia for the sake of its realization," which I thought was a neat phrase. It means, roughly, that in order to achieve the utopian society you're looking for, one must make realistic assessments both about the world as it is and what must be done to make the world into what it ought to be. Dreamers can't realize their dreams if they don't wake up. Which seems obvious, but it's sometimes good to make seemingly-obvious claims explicit. (We might also be able to say that Marx was an enemy of philosophy for the sake of philosophy's realization.)

While these ideas are Marx's, as elucidated by Eagleton, I think what makes most of them interesting is that we don't need to be Marxists, or even communists, to find them interesting and consider whether they might be true. Certainly, if true, all of these ideas would be very useful to non-Marxists as well as to Marxists.

*It might seem a surprise to readers, especially American ones, that I use the word "liberal" a bit dismissively, since I must look rather liberal to them. In Canada we have (at least) three major political parties: the Conservatives, the Liberals, and the New Democrats. This reflects the spectrum of respectable political positions, those being conservative, liberal, and socialist (which in Canada does not mean communism so much as capitalism with many socialist reforms). There's a history of use here that I don't want to get into, but in brief liberalism is seen by some of the academics I learned from or hang out with as a failed attempt to make conservatism into something nicer that, ultimately, found more hygienic ways of achieving conservatism's unethical ends. Alternately, it could just mean "not left enough." I'm perhaps not as hard on liberalism as this mini-definition would imply, but we could say that I'm skeptical of liberalism's abilities to achieve its better intentions. So my use of "liberal" here does not mark me as conservative but, rather, as socialist.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

"Her Naked Glory": Objectification and Female Nudity in Television and Film

I've been reading* a bit of commentary about "Blurred Lines" and Game of Thrones, particularly regarding female nudity and objectification. In the comment sections more than the articles themselves I've noticed a few people (mainly women, incidentally) asking if female nudity couldn't be empowering (or be read as empowering) in certain cases. While the individual comments I saw were not really well worked out with regard to "Blurred Lines," which we probably cannot read as empowering if we're being honest about the video, I still think that this is a question worth asking. I don't really have an answer, but I do want to break this broader question into a few more specific ones.

1. Are representations of female nudity always erotic?
I ask this because male nudity isn't always erotic. In the first season of Game of Thrones (the only season I've seen), there is a lot of female nudity but there is also some male nudity. In the first instance of male nudity that I recall, there is really no sense that that nudity is erotic. It's humiliating and objectifying, yes, but not erotic. (A man is forced to march naked and tied to a horse as a punishment for attempting to murder another character.) So my suspicion is that, if male nudity is not always erotic, then female nudity wouldn't be, either.

2. Are representations of female nudity always objectifying?
I have little to say about this, except that if the answer to this question is no and the answer to the previous question is no, we have to ask the next question.

3. Are representations of female nudity, when erotic, always objectifying?
Again, for reasons like those above, I am assuming that it isn't. The example that's usually cited here is lesbian pornography (as in real lesbian pornography, made by women about women for women, not pornography made about lesbian women by straight men for straight men), but the example that comes to mind for me might be Irene Adler in the BBC's Sherlock. She appears naked as a way of exercising power, and I think her agency is deliberately emphasized in that scene, but I'm not always sure that this sort of agency is maintained as the representation crosses the fourth wall. In other words, can a female character still be objectified for the sake of male viewers while maintaining agency within the fiction?

(Note that you can set this up as a chart, with two columns and two rows; the columns would be erotic/non-erotic and the rows would be objectifying/non-objectifying. I've covered three of the four cells now, but the fourth, non-erotic objectification, is pretty obvious, I think, in that if non-erotic nudity is possible, then non-erotic objectifying nudity must be, since objectification does not rely on eroticization to function. That statement is a pretty important piece of evidence, though.)

4. If the answer is no to questions 1 through 3, then under what conditions do representations of female nudity a) become erotic and b) become objectifying?
This is the question that really interests me, and that I am most ignorant about so far. I suspect that I know the answers to #1-#3 as far as I am asking those questions abstractly: so, representations of female nudity almost certainly aren't always inherently erotic. But maybe, in the cultural and representational settings I inhabit, the conditions making nudity both erotic and objectifying are always present; maybe, under patriarchy, where the assumed viewpoint of any text is both male and heterosexual, and where male heterosexuality assumes subject status at the expense of female subjectivity, representations of female nudity always become erotic and objectifying, regardless of the text's own features. I'm not saying that any of this is true, just that I could believe that it is true without much convincing. But I would need some convincing.

The point where I resist this story that I've posited is where, under patriarchy, male heterosexuality's assumption of subject status always entails objectifying women. I think it's easy to do, and that we (as in "heterosexual men" and not "you and I") are encouraged (by whom?) to assert subjectity at the expense of female subjectivity, but I don't think it's inevitable. That's one place where I'd need convincing. And I'd also need convincing that the assumed reader/viewer is always male and heterosexual. (In other words, just because patriarchy is big and strong doesn't mean it's omnipotent and omnipresent.)

In other words, we are confronted with the problem--the same problem, really, that all textual or cultural interpretation confronts in some way or another--of where meaning resides: intention? reception? context? form? Does a film objectify women, or does the director objectify them, or do the veiwers? Do well-intentioned viewers, watching a well-intentioned and well-executed film, nonetheless objectify nude women when watching in a patriarchal context? Can the act of watching, in anyway and by anyone, recover agency for women represented erotically when nude? Or is it some formal (or intertextual) feature of the film itself that objectifies or does not objectify nude women, and that feature trumps anything you or I might bring to the text? The answers to these questions certainly aren't obvious in the general case of textual interpretation or the specific case of representations of female nudity.

We can ask a version of question #4 of women even when clothed, obviously: Under what conditions do representations of women a) become erotic and b) become objectifying? However, because we criticize films for gratuitous nudity and not for a gratuitous presence of women (the problem is the exact opposite), I think there is something special about nudity that lends it to objectification. (Notice, too, that when people criticize a film for gratuitous nudity, they almost always mean female nudity, not nudity in general.) And gratuitous female nudity does seem for most people to mean "erotic objectification of women" in and of itself, which makes me think that these questions are particularly apt, since if female nudity is not always objectifying, then we ("you and I" this time, not "heterosexual men") should probably be criticizing films a bit more pointedly and accurately than just saying "gratuitous nudity" without explaining how it is objectifying in this case.

(I'm assuming feminist reasons and not prudish ones for criticizing a film for gratuitous nudity. While rather prudish myself, I don't consider prudishness grounds for criticizing a film; it might mean you don't like the film, but it has no bearing on the film's quality.)

5. Are representations of female nudity ever empowering for women, and under what conditions?
Which is the question I started out with. It isn't a question I feel I can answer, though, this time not because of ignorance (as in #4), but because I'm a dude. I feel that this particular question is probably one that men can't answer.
(The title quote comes from Paradise Lost and refers to a pre-lapsarian Eve. There's some obvious baggage with that quotation--for example, Milton's spectacular sexism--which is why I chose it. Because, you know, so-called empowering nudity might come with misogynist baggage.)
*OK, skimming.
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