If you have not already done so, you may wish to read the
Introduction to Gnomica.
Thursday 18 October 2012
Read gnomica 1-150 here!
I feel there is something unexplored about woman that only a woman can explore.
Georgia Okeeffe (15 Nov 1887 – 6 Mar 1986)
It is my hope that by arguing against this essentialist view about half of humanity I shall in no way be seen to denigrate this iconic artist whose large paintings of the small I very much appreciate for their gorgeously colored ‘analyses’ of a world of which most of us are percipiently unaware. Nor, I hope, shall I excite the ire of anybody who disagrees with my rejection of this dreadfully common notion that only if you are X can you understand X-ness or what it is to be X – the words that follow are, after all, merely an expression of personal opinion and not some unimpeachable statement about an eternal verity.
Let it be noted at the outset that I abhor and loathe essentialism of any kind. (Don’t know what that is? Please check here, here, and here.) To me it is a kind of lazy intellectual shorthand for exclusionary (or, if you prefer, inclusionary) exceptionalisms of one sort or another.
To push the matter to the absurd extreme to which in my view it must always and inevitably lead, should I, then, deplore the (apparent) fact that I am utterly and completely un-understandable by any other human on earth? For who could possibly understand someone like me who was born an American citizen in Africa, lived through the German invasion of Oslo in April of 1940, escaped to Sweden shortly thereafter, grew up and went to school in Sweden and in Southern California, didn’t really get to know my father until I was nine, was bullied relentlessly for being the ultimate outsider when I first came to this country after WWII, lived in two worlds, went to school at Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, and Harvard, lost an adult son to a stupid accident, had a Chinese wife, …? Even in this little snippet you can appreciate how grotesquely this kind of self-parading begins to verge on a pathological narcissism about one’s own total specialness over and above that of all other humans toiling in this vale we call living a life. It truly is ludicrous, bizarre, absurd beyond imagining. If … if this makes me un-understandable, then we are all un-understandable and incapable of communicating with each other on any level, because “you can’t possibly know what it’s like to be that exquisitely unique and utterly special creature that is … moi !”
You just haven’t walked in my shoes!
Needless to say, this is the self-obsessed mindset that paves the booby-trapped path to that high sense of one’s own eternal and a priori fascinating forms of victimization.
Let me return somewhat briefly to O’Keeffe’s point. It is not a certainty she espouses but merely a feeling. Fine. Now, this notion of something unexplored about ‘woman’ that ‘only a woman’ can explore requires closer scrutiny. Thus, while I take ‘woman’ to be generic, ‘only a woman’ I take to be quite specific – ‘woman’ is an essentialist concept, ‘only a woman’, a particularized instance of ‘woman’. What then enables the particular instantiation – with her necessarily limited participation in ‘woman’ – to do such exploring? If, for example, she is ‘only a woman’ who is 25 years old, would she do a better job of getting at ‘woman’ than a man who is 75 years old (here, the axis of identity is, as they say, gendered)? Or if ‘only a woman’ is Han Chinese, would she do a better job of getting at ‘woman’ than a black ‘only a woman’ (here, the axis of identity is ethnic)? Or can a childless woman really get at ‘woman’ better than a married man who is a biological father (here the axis of identity is [biological] parental status)?
In other words, would a white 25-year old childless woman be able fruitfully to explore ‘woman’ in the case of a black 45-year old woman who has give birth to one daughter and one son?
And as is obvious, the possible points of identity are in effect infinite. For example, all other points being equal, suppose one has blue eyes and the other has brown eyes – or, far more impressionably, polio has affected one but not the other. And so forth … endlessly promoting a kind of valorizing narcissism of differentials.
My point is simply this: if only a woman can explore something unexplored about woman, why should gender (‘only a woman’) be the sole criterion for exploring? Why not age or ethnicity? No woman outside university seminar rooms or academic literary journals is definable by any one essentialist trait – the possible traits are all but uncountable! What the operation entirely and, in my view, fatally ignores is human imagination. No, I’ve never been a woman and never given birth to a child, but it doesn’t take a huge amount of human imagination on my part to appreciate what a mother might well feel if her daughter dies.
In fact, thankfully I don’t need to be X in order to have a fairly good sense of how X might well react to or feel about a number of things he or she experiences. “I think I know how you feel,” is not necessarily the banal fatuity of which some would convict its speaker. I mean, come on, give that speaker some credit for being first and foremost a member of the human race and only secondarily a member of the female gender or a member of a given age cohort or a member of some given ethnic group – and a member of whatever other irrelevantly accidental differentiae of which she may be possessed.
Thus, much as I admire O’Keeffe’s art, the sentiment she expresses above strikes me as no more coherent than any other parochial mysticism. And, finally, I trust that, again, these musing – and that’s really all they are — will not inspire a fire of ire from wounded constituencies electing to be ‘offended’ by my ‘insensitivity’.