It’s only happenstance that I’ve got consecutive gender posts. Derrida spoke about prioritisation in binary pair, and the inherent symbolic connotation. Sex and gender are two examples.
At the risk of overstating the obvious, masculinity holds the priority in this pair bond. Masculinity traditionally conveys hardness, strength and logic, whilst femininity conveys softness and weakness and emotion. This is what Beauvoir intends by her use of the other sex—male and other. Even in a non-binary frame, maleness still prevails over everythying else. Of course, in this broader world, male may trump female, but in an appeal to nature fashion, female trumps intersex in the same way the light-skinned people of colour trump their darker-skinned counterparts.
English even has derivative terms such as hysterical, an emotional state rooted in the Greek hystera, the uterus or womb. Etymologically, the word was invented by the Greek under the impression that this behaviour was a deviation from male normaly.
In the physical world, this male-female terminology generailises to penetrator and penetrated—penetratrix, anyone? We routinely refer to plugs and connectors with prongs as male and recepticals are female. At first glance, it might be tempting to assume that penis is somehow related to penetration, but it’s not so, as penis derives from tail.
In music there is the notion of cadence, the beats of a rhythm. Classically speaking, there are masculine and feminine cadences. And if you guessed that masculine cadences involve strong beats and feminine cadences invlove weak beats, you’d be correct.
Feminine Cadence a musical cadence in which the final chord or melody note falls on a weak beat
The reason I am writing this is as a reminder to the predjudice langage embeds and perpetuates. Even if we have lost the connection to the original intent, the sense remains. We should actively seek other terms that don’t promote this anachronistic belief system.
It’s also easy to get carried away and over-specify the domain. So, terms like manhole, manuscript, manipulate, and such are, let’s say, false cognates, in a manner of speaking. There are no counterpart womanholes—sophomoric humour notwithstanding—, womanuscripts, and womanipulation, though it might be fun to write some exposition with the intention of satarising these and words with a similar structure. I’m not sure I could womanage to carve out the time to get there.
In a different space, we’ve got master-slave word pairs. In computers, there may be master and slave drives. I’ve heard people point out the insensitivity of this notion without grasping that projecting American (or wider-world) human slavery on this rather than understanding this pairing existed well before the New World was even ‘discovered’. This is where hysterical political correctness needs to step down and give way to education.
I love finding Trolley Problem takes. If I had spare time, I’d set up trolleyproblem.com to archive the content. This graphic contextualises the problem. In university, I recall discussing different nuances, including the medical doctor problem of saving a Nobel Prize laureate at the expense of 5 indigent people, whether health compromised or not, so this perspective of privilege is not new. The twist here is that this flips the neutral decision with you in control of the path of the trolley but without knowing anything about the people on the track to the capitalist deciding between another capitalist versus workaday proletariats. It’s almost always frame in from a consequentialist perspective.
Foucault wrote about épistémès, where knowledge and perspective are contextualised in time and place. The bottom picture sums up how the mortgage crisis was resolved in 2008. Too Big to Fail (TBTF) financial institutions were salvaged at the expense of ordinary citizens. Main Street was sacrificed for Wall Street. Considering Derrida, Wall Street had the privileged position over Main Street or High Street.
In the midst of COVID, you can see the argument playing out in the UK and US, as the top route is to close businesses to reduce social contact and the bottom route is to open business because it inconveniences a few shop owners. Note that even people on the bottom path are shouting for the switchman to send the trolley careening down their path.
To some extent or another, humans appear to need order—some more than others. Societies are a manifestation of order, and we’ve got subcultures for those who don’t fit in with the mainstream. Humans are also a story-telling lot, which helps to provide a sense of order. Metanarratives are a sort of origin story with a scintilla of aspiration toward some imagined semblance of progress.
Some people appear to be more predisposed to need to ride this metanarrative as a lifeboat. These people are typically Conservative, authority-bound traditionalists, but even the so-called Progressives need this thread of identity. The problem seems to come down to a sort of tolerance versus intolerance split, a split along the same divide as created by monotheism in the presence of polytheism.
In a polytheistic world, when two cultures collided, their religious pantheons were simply merged. In a blink, a society might go from 70 gods to 130. On this basis, there was a certain tolerance. Monotheism, on the other hand, is intolerant—a winner takes all death match. The tolerant polytheists might say, sure, you’ve got a god? Great. He can sit over there by the elephant dude. Being intolerant like a petulant schoolboy, the monotheists would throw a tantrum at the thought that there might be other gods on the block. Monotheists won’t even allow demigods, though there is the odd saint or two.
This is a battle between absolutism and relativism. The relativist is always in a weaker arguing position because intolerant absolutists are convinced that their way is the only way, yet the tolerant relativists are always at risk of being marginalised. This is what Karl Popper was addressing with the Paradox of Tolerance.
In a functioning society, a majority of the metanarratives are adopted by the majority of its constituent. On balance, these metanarratives are somewhat inviolable and more so by the inclined authoritarians.
A problem is created when a person or group disagrees with the held views. The ones espousing these views—especially the Traditionals—become indignant. What do you mean there are more than two genders? You are either male or female. Can’t you tell by the penis?
I happened to read a tweet by the GOP declaring their stupidity:
The Vice President, a living anachronism and proxy for the American Midwest Rust Belt superimposed on the Bible Belt, he tells his sheep that “The moment America becomes a socialist country is the moment that America ceases to be America…” Americans as a whole are pretty dim, and it seems to get dimmer the higher one ascends their government. Pence seems very firm in affirming a notion of American identity, but not accepting that identities change. He may become upset if he finds out that George Washington is dead—in fact, there are very few remnants of the original United States aside from some dirt, trees, and a few edifices—and the country is still the county. Some people have a difficult time grasping identity. It makes me wonder if he fails to recognise himself in the mirror after he gets his hair cut.
Interesting to me is how people complain about this and that politically. Most of this is somewhat reflexive and as phatic as a ‘how are you?’, but some is more intentional and actioned. Occasionally, the energy is kinetic instead of potential, but the result is always the same: One power structure is replaced by another.
As Lacan noted, as people, we believe ourselves to be democratic, but most of us appear to be finding and then worshipping some authority figures who will promise us what we desire. We desire to have someone else in charge, who can make everything OK, someone who is in a sense an ideal parent. I don’t believe this to be categorical, but I do believe that there is a large contingent of people who require this.
As an aside, I’ve spent a lot of time (let’s call it a social experiment) in the company of social reprobates. What never ceases to amaze me is how these social outcasts seem to have a strong sense of right and wrong and how things should be. Conveniently, they exempt themselves from this scope, so if they steel to buy drugs, it’s OK, but if someone else gets caught, they should get what’s coming to them.
About a year ago I was chatting with a mate, and I shared an observation that the biggest substance abusers in high school—”the Man’s not going hold me down” cohort—are the biggest conservatives. A girl a few houses down from me became a stripper, but her political views are very Conservative, an avid Trump supporter.
One woman I know is a herion-addicted prostitute. In her eyes, she’s fine (sort of—without getting into psychoanalytics); other women are junkie whores. A heavy dose of assuaged cognitive dissonance is the prescription for this, but it confounds me.
Getting back to the original topic, people who need this order are resistant to deconstruction and other hallmark notions of poststructuralism. They need closure. This translates into a need for metanarratives. When confronted with the prospect of no Truth, they immediately need to find a substitute—speculatively, anyway, as denial and escalating commitment will kick into overdrive.
The same problem mentioned above comes into play here. A few years ago, there was an Occupy Wall Street group, and like atheists, there are myriad reasons why people participated. One of the commonest complaints by the power structure and the public at large is if you don’t like the status quo, what status should replace it. None of the above was never an acceptable response.
It doesn’t matter that in this universe we occupy there is more disorder than order, and entropy rules, pareidolia is the palliative. And religion remains an opiate of the masses.
I’m wondering whether I should delve into Lacan. I am only vaguely aware of him and have never read any of his published essays or lectures. From what I’ve gleaned, I may end up down some rabbit hole. His interest in the function of language interests me, but his analogy of that to psychoanalysis is disconcerting.
The analogy is fine, but I have a problem with the entire field of psychoanalysis as I view it as pseudoscience. As with Freud and Jung, the speculation around the unconscious and their metaphors are fine storytelling, but that’s about it.
My interest is in his structural approach to language and the notion I share concerning the lack of specificity in language, but it seems to me that my time would be better spent reading Derrida.
Lacan is categorised as both a structuralist and a post-structuralist, which might be correct given the period in which he lived, but I am still trying to figure out how he might be considered to be a post-structuralist, as he seems to be concerned with a sense of order, which is somewhat antithetical to this worldview.
That language is arbitrary is tautological, an analytic claim. It’s true by definition. Structuralists, i.e. Saussure, had known this even before the postmoderns, e.g. Derrida, came into the picture.
Trigger Warning If sexist perspectives offend your sensibilities, continue at your own risk. This is not meant to offend, rather just to illustrate, but you’ve been forewarned.
Where it might be most apparent is in aesthetics. So, when describing the appearance of a woman in a positive light—I’m a guy, so indulge me, please—, one might describe her by one or more of these descriptors:
Cute (or Kawaii, if you’re into the Anime culture)
A 10 (or something along an otherwise arbitrary if not capricious scale)
Each of these is a term to indicate some aesthetic quality. Each capturing a connotative notion, and of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
I am not going to attempt to illustrate the nuances between these terms. As with any preference-oriented terms, the relationship between and within a given term. What I think is beautiful may not be to you.
What I think is beautiful today, I may not feel is beautiful tomorrow. Speaking in terms of music, there are plenty of songs I thought were ‘good’ when I was growing up, but I don’t like them anymore. Take a look at fashion in the past and how silly it might look now. If you are older, take a look at some pictures of how you dressed in your teens or twenties. You may have felt like quite the chick magnet in the day, and now you cringe and no longer wonder why you spent as many nights alone as you might have.
As a test, gather 100 images of different, say, women—I’m staying with the trend—and rank them from 1 to 100; rate them cute, sexy, whatever. Record your choices. Do this each day for a month and see how steady your choices are. It will be extremely unlikely that there will be no variation no matter how carefully you try to define your classification to remain consistent—and this is just communicating with yourself. Now imagine if you have to consistently convey this to other people.
The song is about a man and a woman playing a courting game. In my interpretation, she is being coy so as not to be slut-shamed, seeking plausible deniability as she worries about what her mother and father, the neighbours, her brother and sister, and even her aunt, might think.
The kicker for the revisionists is ‘Say, what’s in this drink’ as if it’s been spiked; she’s been roofied; he’s plying her with some date rate drug. This interpretation is preferred to the more period-probable scenario that she’s conveying a signal that she’s feeling a bit tipsy and giving him the go-ahead with a wink and a nod. The decorum of the day suggests that she ‘ought to say no, no, no’, but she wants to say yes and stretches the encounter with another cigarette.
OK, so this isn’t at all about Foucault’s rhetoric. My main riff this year is the assertion that there is no Truth, only rhetoric—or should I rather say Rhetoric. I created a Reddit post asking for references to other philosophers (or whomever) who had made a similar claim, to which I was offered Vico and Rorty. Unfortunately, there were only two responders, and their assistance was superficial.
What I did encounter by one of the responders was a criticism similar to that levelled at Foucault, hence the inspired title of this post. This critique at its essence is that having proposed no positive solutions to the issues I point to, I cannot defend my position. In fact, as with Habermas‘ fault with Foucault, evidently, I have disarmed myself.
I find this line of argumentation weak tea at best. To argue that one has no claim to declare something incorrect if they don’t have a correct replacement for it is absurd. For example, I don’t know what 13,297 ÷ 1,492 equals arithmetically; but I can assert with confidence that it does not equal 2. Moreover, to criticise, one doesn’t need the ‘ability to generate positive alternatives’.
“There is no truth but rhetoric.”
So when I say there is no Truth but rhetoric (for non-ontic concepts), I am making a Truth statement. As such, this assertion—by my own admission—is only as strong as the rhetoric I can muster to its defence. Alas, my defences are weak, and so the argument fails. Were I to make a stronger argument—a more convincing argument—, it might be accepted as Truth.
Evidently, my first mistake was to separate ontic and non-ontic, which is to say things existing apart from their given names and those whose existence is entirely fabricated. An ontic thing might be a stone, a tree, a planet, a star, or the sensation of pain. These things exist even without language, a label, or an observer. As Saussure and other structuralists have noted, in semiotics, there is the signified (or referent) and the signifier—the object and the identifier. In the context of language, these are tautological.
Non-ontic things are conceptual, freedom, truth, justice, rights, gods, and so on. I may opt to replace non-ontic with language-contextual or some such to sidestep the taxonomical quagmire. Or perhaps I’ll adopt the dichotomy of concrete versus abstract. These concepts do not exist outside of language. They are wholly constructed in a complex system created by humans—and humans whilst humans have done OK with complicated systems, they have an abysmal track record when it comes to complex systems. By analogue to the physics of solids, there is more space than atoms, and the atoms and their constituent particles are in constant motion—zero-degrees Kelvin, be damned. Our senses perceive something to be there, but as in that scene in The Matrix, ‘there is no spoon‘.
In my mind, leveraging Saussure’s ideas are useful to depict the differences in the concrete versus the abstract.
The famous painting depicted above illustrates explains the difference between a signifier and a referent. In this image, there is only the signifier. Magritte makes clear the distinction with the text, Ceci, n’est pas une pipe: This is not a pipe. It is merely a depiction of one. To be even more arcane, the image is a signifier to another signifier that in turn refers to the referent.
A sign is the device that encapsulates the concept. It may be visual—an icon (an illustration of photograph) or a written word or even Braille—or it can be spoken or signed, as with American Sign Language. These are all signs.
Notice when one considers a sign that a concrete cat (or in French, chat), it is pretty clear to what one is referring. Above the line, we see the signified, the idea conveyed by the sign. This doesn’t mean that everyone sees the silhouette depicted above, but it is a catlike thing, a feline animal, a mammal, normally with four legs and a tail. Perhaps you are thinking of a particular cat. But to someone with a grasp of the language in which you are communicating, when you say cat, there is little room for ambiguity. In fact, if you are trying to teach someone a different language, say, French, you could show them the cat with the chat signifier, and they would grasp your meaning almost instantaneously.
All language is arbitrary and socially constructed, so there is no connection between the words—say, the spelling or shape of a word—and its referent. The words cat and chat do not look like cats.
There are concrete things that cannot be so readily translated into an icon; for example, the wind. However, one could fairly quickly be able to articulate or gesticulate, as the case might be, the notion of wind. The same cannot be said for the abstract concept of justice.
As I’ve mentioned before, justice, especially one of the restorative or retributive varieties, is a euphemism for vengeance. The distinction is supposed to be found in the intent, but intent cannot be known; it can only be inferred. And, speaking of Foucault, justice can only be delivered from a power position.
But the notion of justice relies heavily on social construct; it has geo-spacial dependencies. What is considered to be just in ancient times may not be considered just now. What is considered just in one country might not be considered to be just in another. And this is more than a difference in instantiation. It is due to the arbitrary if not capricious articulation of a nebulous concept.
Returning to Foucault, (Christian apologist) Nancy Pearcey declares his stance paradoxical: “[when someone] states that it is impossible to attain objectivity, is that an objective statement? The theory undercuts its own claims.”
First, Pearcey merely asks a question about objectivity, but it doesn’t matter. The answer is: this may as well be an objective statement, but it’s just another language game. Wittgenstein (and Russell and Heidegger and Rorty…) was on the right path when he pointed out that the ambiguity inherent in language provide cover for all sorts of mischief. I’m only pretty sure that Derrida might yield paydirt as well. Besides, let’s pretend for a moment that there exists some objective truth, there is no reason (language game; except in accepting the broadest definition, reason is a capability elusive to many if not most humans) to expect that this truth is either accessible or verifiable anyway. The best one can do is to pose a more convincing rhetorical argument.
Reason /ˈrēzən/ (noun) the power of the mind to think, understand, and form judgments by a process of logic
A similar critique has been advanced by (another Christian apologist) Diana Taylor, and by Nancy Fraser who argues that “Foucault’s critique encompasses traditional moral systems, he denies himself recourse to concepts such as ‘freedom’ and ‘justice’, and therefore lacks the ability to generate positive alternatives.”
So whilst I’ve just managed to stream-of-consciousness my contention, I am not in a position to resolve anything. For now, I’ll settle for documenting my position as I continue to search for other supporters and formulate a more cogent response, a more robust rhetorical presentment.
If anyone can direct me to resources relevant to my position, let me know in the comments. I’ll appreciate it. If you don’t agree—which would be expected, as this is the accepted orthodoxy—feel free to comment as well.