Undoing Gender: New Experiments in Social Deconstruction

‘The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says, “It’s a girl”,’ the American politician Shirley Chisholm once said. Exposed in this insight is the miraculous power of language; all that is required for something so fateful to be determined is not biological nature, not even social imposition, but, simply, speech. So seemingly simple is this mechanism, in fact, that some are doing their best to change it. It was revealed this week that a pre-school in Sweden has decided that the use of gender-specific pronouns such as ‘him’ (‘han’) and ‘her’ (‘hon’) is to be prohibited, in favour of gender-neutral terms, in an attempt to reduce the effects of linguistically determined gender-stereotyping.

The school, aptly name Egalia, is tackling an issue which has been firmly on the feminist agenda since Dale Spender’s influential book Man Made Language appeared in 1980. There Spender argued that, far from passively capturing the way that the world appears to us, language actively constructs the way that the world is. More specifically, the state of language, according to Spender, structures the world in a way that promotes males and inhibits females, whether by exclusion, alienation, control, or construction. The claim was supported by the famous studies in linguistics carried out by the American anthropologists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, whose extensive research on Native American languages led to the hypothesis that the structure of language restricts and determines our cognitive categories. It is hard to report an event in English without using the tense-marked words that the grammar requires, and it is hard to encode a fact in Hopi without marking its testimonial status, that is, whether it is first-hand knowledge, second-hand, third-hand, and so on, as required by the structure of the language. Importantly, it makes it hard to think outside of these limits, and, consequently, hard to behave outside of them. The way that we mark gender according to our grammatical structure is no different, an assumption which the new Egalia policy operates on. Continue reading “Undoing Gender: New Experiments in Social Deconstruction”

Eugenics in America

Elaine Riddick is just one of 60,000 Americans who fell foul of a shocking policy of eugenics operative in the United States for the majority of the last century. On June 22 Ms. Riddick will tell, to a task force specially assembled for victims such as her, the story of how in 1968 she was sterilised at the hands of US government at the age of 14.

Ms. Riddick was raped and impregnated when she was 13 years-old by a neighbour in her hometown of Winfall, North Carolina. She was singled out by a social worker to be “feeble-minded”, and after giving birth through Caesarian section, with putative “consent” from her fearful and illiterate grandmother, who signed with an ‘X’ the necessary forms, was subjected to tubal ligation, permanently preventing her from producing any future children. These actions were carried out under a eugenicist movement in the US, beginning in 1907, ending in 1979, and sanctioned by laws in 32 states. (Full report on BBC News website).

The policy of sterilisation reportedly targeted women deemed to be sexual deviants, homosexual men, people on welfare, people who were mentally ill or suffered from epilepsy, criminals, and delinquents. The idea placed emphasis on the attempt to preclude the necessity of supporting those who most likely would be able to support neither themselves nor the rest of society by removing altogether the means for their creation. Speaking to the BBC, Professor Paul Lombardo of Georgia State University, editor of a book on the history of eugenics in America, said:

We have in this country have always been extremely sensitive to notions of public stories of inappropriate sexuality

We exercise that most dramatically when it comes to times in which we think we’re spending individual tax money to support people who violate those social norms. It’s our puritanical background, running up against our sense of individualism.

Continue reading “Eugenics in America”

Art for Love’s Sake

Recent neurobiological research has shown that viewing art stimulates the brain in a way that mirrors the experience of romantic love. The study, conducted by Semir Zeki, Professor of Neuroaesthetics at University College London, scanned and mapped the brains of participants who had been asked to look at a variety of paintings from such artists as Botticelli, Turner, Monet and Cezanne. It was found that experiencing art releases into the orbito-frontal cortex of the brain a significant quantity of the neurotransmitter dopamine, a biochemical associated with love, happiness and sociability, as well as drug use and certain psychological disorders.

The result comes at an ideal time for the art world in Britain, which has felt itself to be targeted by the extensive cuts in public spending. The correlation between aesthetic experience and happiness gives extra leverage in justifying the arts according to standards of public interest, a justification which normally consists in pointing out the economic benefits of the revenue which art institutions can generate. Speaking to the Sunday Telegraph, Stephen Deuchar, director of the arts charity Art Fund, said:

I have always believed art matters profoundly so it is exciting to see some scientific evidence to support the view that life is enhanced by instantaneous contact with works of art

Professor Zeki’s work in neuroaesthetics also stands to be of high value to the philosophy of art. This latest link between art and love is just one of many discoveries made by Zeki which coincide almost seamlessly with what artists and theorist about art have said for centuries, perhaps even for thousands of years. Plato, in his dialogue The Symposium, recounts a speech in praise of Love (Eros) made by Socrates which describes a journey of ascent from sexual love, through aesthetic appreciation of the body, to a spiritual love of the soul, arriving finally at the contemplation of the Platonic Form of Beauty itself. Continue reading “Art for Love’s Sake”

A Lesson in Abstinence

Allegory of Chastity, by Hans Memling (1475, oil on wood)

Early Wednesday afternoon, when Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire, moved to introduce a Bill to ‘require schools to provide certain additional sex education to girls aged between 13 and 16; to provide that such education must include information and advice on the benefits of abstinence from sexual activity; and for connected purposes’, she set alight to the feminist blogosphere (See here, here, here, and here, for examples).

Central to the feminist criticism is the clear gender asymmetry contained in the proposal, as immediately pointed out by her detractor Chris Bryant, Labour MP for Rhondda (a transcription of the debate is to be found here). ‘For a start, the Bill is just about girls,’ complained Bryant, ‘I am not an expert, but it seems axiomatic to me that if we want to tackle teenage pregnancy, we have to talk to the boys and the girls.’ Continue reading “A Lesson in Abstinence”

Lost Wittgenstein Writings Unearthed

Christiaan Tonnis ~ Ludwig Wittgenstein / Pencil on board / 1985

It is 60 years to the day since Ludwig Wittgenstein died. What better way to mark the occasion than to rediscover an archive of the enigmatic philosopher’s work?

The University of Cambridge announced this week the existence of an archive consisting of two boxes of Wittgenstein’s manuscripts and papers, which after careful examination and preparation by Professor Arthur Gibson, is hoped to be published within the year. The collection, totaling 150,000 words, reportedly contains the work now posthumously published as the Brown Book, complete with a revised opening and 60 added pages of manuscript. An emergent exercise book with ‘a pinkish cover’ is also said to be included in the archive, which may be what has come to be known by scholars as the Pink Book, a work that has so far eluded publication. Continue reading “Lost Wittgenstein Writings Unearthed”

Surrealism and Philosophy

With the Tate Galleries showcasing a pair of exhibitions dedicated to two of its most cherished exponents this summer, Surrealism is back. The truth is, it never went anywhere. Ever since it was unleashed by the influential French poet Guillaume Apollinaire – perhaps from somewhere deep in our collective unconscious – the term Surreal has paradoxically become a common part of our everyday language.

The wild geometries and rural Catalonian landscapes of the painter Joan Miró hang currently on the walls at the Tate Modern in London, and Tate Liverpool are expecting an abundance of bowler hats, blue skies and pipes imminently for their René Magritte exhibition in June. Ahead of these events, however, one blogger reminds us that far from originating with figures like Miró and Magritte, or even André Breton, author of the Surrealist Manifesto and self-styled leader of the Surrealist group, the ethos of the surreal had been in the air of the art world from as early as 1860. The French Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau is highlighted as a particularly strong precursory example. (In fact, something of the surreal aesthetic occurs as far back as the mid-1500s, in the unique work of the Italian painter Giuseppe Arcimboldo). Continue reading “Surrealism and Philosophy”

The Price of Life and Peter Singer

What is a life worth? It is difficult to understand what this question even asks. Does it ask; What kind of thing, or what amount of a certain kind of thing, could satisfactorily replace a human life? This does not clarify the original question so much as point out what it is that makes it initially so hard to grasp. That is, it is implicit in the question that it is possible that a life can be ‘worth’ something at all which, taken in the sense of a given life being replaceable by something of commensurate value, appears to be a mistaken assumption. Or is the second question just misleadingly worded? If we were to ask instead what kind of thing a life is worth giving up for, then the possible contexts in which one might be inclined to agree that the loss of a life can be justified by the certain good that it may bring about begin to come to mind. Continue reading “The Price of Life and Peter Singer”