“Bracketing” and The Second Sex
May 29, 2010

Le Deuxieme Sexe
Image by ainudil via Flickr

Fortuitously, the day on which I was planning about writing about Simone de Beauvoir’s philosophy of love as articulated briefly in The Ethics of Ambiguity also happens to be the day that the New York Times decides to run a review of the newest translation of her landmark feminist work, The Second Sex. I haven’t read The Second Sex, but it’s the work that Beauvoir is most well-known for, so I was curious to learn a little about the content.

Here’s what I learned: If the passages excerpted in the review are any indication, then The Ethics of Ambiguity is the better of the two, by far. Here’s a taste from the review:

 Females of all living species are “first violated … then alienated” by the process of fertilization. Derogatory phrases like “the servitude of maternity,” “woman’s absurd fertility,” the “exhausting servitude” of breast-feeding, abound. (How could they not, since the author sees heterosexual love in general as “a mortal danger?”) According to Beauvoir, a girl’s first menstruation, which many of us welcomed with excitement and pride, is met instead with “disgust and fear. ” It “ inspires horror” and “signifies illness, suffering and death.”

Yeeeeah. Wow. But the misstep I find most intriguing is when Beauvoir insists that, “one is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” That sounds a lot like Sartre’s argument—which I criticized yesterday—that biology plays no causal role when it comes to sexual desire. Nor, Beauvoir argues, does it play any causal role when it comes to gender identity. Even if you think gender is fluid and malleable (which I do), that seems kind of absurd.

And it’s absurd for the same reason. Beauvoir and Sartre both, I think, ignore the lessons of the existentialist’s best friend: the phenomenologist.

Phenomenology is a philosophical tradition very closely tied to existentialism; so much so that many major works of phenomenology contain pretty major traces of existentialist thought (such as in Heidegger’s Being and Time), and vice versa (such as in Sartre’s own Being and Nothingness). This cousin to existentialism concerns itself with the study of being-in-the-world, or the organizational features of our experience of the world. Most works of phenomenology do this without making any judgments about the character of the world itself.

Husserl, one of the fathers of phenomenology, called this “bracketing,” by which he meant setting aside questions about the world around us. For example, a phenomenologist might describe the experience and sensation I have of typing out this blog post on a keyboard and staring at a screen, but he is describing it only as it exists in my head, without making any judgments about the nature of the actual keyboard or screen … or, for that matter, about whether they even exist at all.

Existentialism works best, I think, when it, too, brackets these questions. That’s because, while existentialist notions of the nothingness and infinite freedom of consciousness don’t seem to bear out from empirical study—human beings are fairly predictable and causally determined, by and large—it is an incredibly potent description of the phenomenological experience of being a person.

So Beauvoir and Sartre are correct to a certain extent. Sartre is correct that one doesn’t experience sexual desire as a purely biological sensation (what would it even mean to have a sensation like that?), and Beauvoir is correct that one experiences the behavior and social conventions we attach to gender identity as completely conscious, voluntary things that we could shed at a moment’s notice. But just because we experience the sensation of freedom, doesn’t mean we are free in anything beyond the phenomenological sense.

Update: Okay. Maybe I’m just digging myself deeper, but I feel like I need to clarify some things. So for the record, here’s what I was not doing in the above post:

1.) Offering a critique, in any way, shape, or form, of feminism.

2.) Offering any meaningful critique of the whole of The Second Sex. (It’s no sleight to say that it’s not as good as The Ethics of Ambiguity on a conceptual level, because The Ethics of Ambiguity is damn near perfect.)

3.) Dismissing Beauvoir (who, I should stress again, is one of my favorite philosophers).

4.) Suggesting that gendered behavior is solely the result of rigid biological determinism.

This post was meant mostly as a critique of existentialism. For that critique, I took as a premise that while much of gender is fluid and culturally constructed, biological/physiological factors are not completely irrelevant. That doesn’t just apply to gendered behavior but to a whole host of different character traits; I just chose to focus on gender specifically because it seemed timely with the review coming out today.

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One Last Thing On Sartre
May 28, 2010

I want to highlight this comment because I’m pretty sure it’s correct and I was wrong earlier:

I think you’re misreading Sartre on the relation between sex, masochism, and sadism. Masochism and sadism are distinct from sexual desire. They’re related attitudes towards the Other but by no means identical. Actually, Sartre’s definition of sexual desire is different from the two precisely because it involves mutuality: “desire is the desire to appropriate a body as this appropriation reveals to me my body as flesh.” (pg. 506 in Hazel Barnes’ translation) In other words, the masochist tries to be “just flesh” for the Other, the sadist tries to make the Other be that “just flesh.” Sexual desire pure and simple in Sartre slams those two together — the desiring subject tries to make the other flesh while experiencing himself as flesh.

Obviously, in day-to-day life, we tend to think of sadism and masochism in sexual terms, but I think, in Being and Nothingness, sexualized sadism and masochism would actually have to be some kind of “composite attitude” that would be neither purely desire nor purely sadism/masochism.

Anyway, I don’t know if that makes Sartre’s views that much more plausible. It certainly doesn’t make them less bleak. But I do think it’s unfair to him to say that he casts sex in such strict terms of dominance and sado-masochism.

I’ll admit to being a little out of my depth when it comes to Sartre, and perhaps for that reason I shouldn’t have been so quick to try and critically evaluate him. When I studied him in class, I found him maddeningly elliptical and counterintuitive, and he’s still not my favorite existentialist philosopher (although No Exit is excellent) by a long shot—but it’s true that I didn’t do him justice here. Thanks to N.A. for the catch.

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Flesh and The Look (Or: What is Love? Jean-Paul, Don’t Hurt Me.)
May 28, 2010

Description unavailable
Image by diametrik via Flickr

Yes, that’s right: I will continue to shamelessly reuse the joke in the title until I’m done trying to answer the question.

In Being and Nothingness, Sartre lays out a significantly darker conception of love than Aristophanes. For him, persons are forever torn between the “facticity” of their existence (that is, the factual presence and character of objects and phenomena in the material world) and the infinite freedom and nothingness of consciousness. Because this freedom is profoundly disturbing to us, we run away from it and impose limitations on ourselves, most notably by identifying ourselves with “the look” of others—the look being our own perception of their perception of us.

We can also direct the look towards others, and this is potentially an act of violence because it imposes definition on them and constrains their freedom. It draws them away from their consciousness into “flesh,” the medium by which they experience pure facticity.

So for Sartre, love and sex are just another way of acting out this struggle. Love is a way of diminishing the anguish of our internal struggle by identifying ourselves with the look of another who ostensibly “loves” us, while also directing our own look at that person in an attempt to enslave her and assert dominance.

In sex, one does this by causing such intense pleasure that it draws the other unbearably close to the flesh. And in both sex and love in general, the impulse one feels at any given moment is either inherently sadistic or inherently masochistic; one either wishes to dominate the other or be dominated.

I suspect there’s an inkling of truth in Sartre’s argument for the nothingness of consciousness, but the rest of this argument leaves me cold. For one thing, it admits no room for human empathy; everything is a power struggle. And even if you buy into such a relentlessly dark view of human nature, you have to deal with Sartre’s assertion that sex is purely about this power struggle—that there isn’t even a biological motivation. (No, really. He says that.)

Fortunately, Beauvoir is around to save the existentialist notion of love from Sartre.

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