Militarism patriarchy capitalism pornography
My thanks to Patricia Willis, who has been tireless in putting together this series, who has been a detailed coordinator, an inspired and thoughtful teacher, an engaged activist, and a friendly voice on the telephone until I had the pleasure of spending a little time with her in person this afternoon.
Gratitude also to Wake Forest University, and to all of you who have taken time out of your schedules to be here tonight. My thanks as well to the other speakers in this series, Catharine MacKinnon – who preceded me, and whose critique of liberal law and its relation to gender is a pivotal work in the larger critique of modern society – and Ann Wright, a personal friend and collaborator in the effort to expose militarism and mobilize resistance against the obscene resource wars that our government is waging against the peoples of Iraq, Afghanistan, and now Pakistan.
When Dr. Willis asked me to do it, she said she wanted me to talk about the relations between militarism, patriarchy, capitalism, and pornography… which sounds like a socio-political salad. In eating this salad, we have access to a lot of different dressings, or idea factions with names like liberal feminism, radical feminism, womanism, post-constructionism, anti-feminism, Marxist-feminism, ecofeminism, third-world feminism, and on and on.
A point that has to be made, however, is that these ideological dressings and this salad of categories – militarism, capitalism, patriarchy, and pornography – are haut cuisine, served almost exclusively in universities. This taxonomy is not part of the lexicon of most people. It’s the language of high-order thinking that is part of the social ecology of the university – and I’ll acknowledge here and now that calling it “high-order” thinking is an assumption within that same university culture. The university is predicated upon this assumption.
It’s a useful assumption, as long as we recognize the limits of its utility, and the taxonomies of social phenomena — like militarism, patriarchy, capitalism, and pornography — are also useful. We just need to put them back together when we’re done.
This freezing and disassembly of a reality that constantly emerges in a far more complex way is one of the main standpoints of the Academy. Universities subdivide reality as a matter of course, and so people take a course in psychology, or business management, or anthropology, or horticulture, or geography, or physics. This is both a reflection of and reproduction of specialization in the division of labor. And the university itself represents a cultural division of intellectual labor, which is enforced by credentialing, and mid-wived by the rituals of higher education.
Nonetheless, this is a useful taxonomy as long as we understand its limitations and dangers. The greatest difficulty with it is that each of the categories listed — patriarchy, militarism, capitalism, and pornography — is itself contested by the very people who spend a lot of time studying it, those being students, teachers, writers, and activists.
Before I do that, I need to make reference to some polarities, or unified opposites: the polarity of abstract versus concrete, of universal versus local, of public versus private, and of covenental relationships versus contractual relationships.
If I describe pornography, for example, as sexually explicit media, then I have abstracted, or universalized, the category. If I describe it as an industry, then I am somewhat less abstract or universal. If I describe a production process in a specific building and time, with specific people who have specific histories, then I am more local and specific; as I am local and specific if I describe a specific pornographic genre being consumed by a specific 40-year-old man sitting at a specific address on his computer, masturbating.
In fact, an enormous number of men — from teens to late middle age — do predominantly two things during personal, private time on computers: they watch (and masturbate to) pornography, and they play war games. I’ll come back to that in a moment, because it’s a somewhat-abstract, yet somewhat-concrete example of a connection between militarism and pornography.
The instant gratification as a sense of control and power that connects both these online activities is so obvious that I’m surprised there haven’t been multiple books written about that connection.
On the question of public versus private, we need some historical perspective to denaturalize this duality, since it has only fairly recently in the sweep of history been enshrined as a neutral abstraction by liberal law. Historically, this division between the public sphere and the private sphere was a highly gendered cultural norm, wherein men occupied public spaces in male-hierarchies or as abstract equals, and where women were consigned to the private sphere which was a male-over-female domain. The irony that privacy rights law can be used by some women to protect themselves from some men is as inescapable as the fact that the abstraction of the law, pretending that men and women are equal, generally favors the status quo… or male social power over women. Dr. MacKinnon’s book, “Toward a Feminist Theory of the State,” has laid out this contradiction very well.
The distinction between covenental and contractual relationships is even more obscure to us because the notion of contract is so completely embedded in modern culture.
Wambdi Wicasa wrote in 1974, “A CONTRACT is an agreement made in suspicion. The parties do not trust each other, and they set ‘limits’ to their own responsibility. A COVENANT is an agreement made in trust. The parties love each other and put no limits on their own responsibility. Indian Leaders made Treaties with the Great White Father and called them Covenants, sealing them with the smoke of the Sacred Pipe. The trouble began when the Great White Father, his Lieutenants and Merchants, looked on the Treaties and called them Contracts. Thus began — in the basic religious difference — the conflict between Cultures.”
Carole Pateman’s book, “The Sexual Contract,” is canonical on this topic, in particular the implicit contract between male and female sexual partners that traditionally means one woman is protected from all other men by one man, in exchange for fealty to that one man. In contractual relations there is always the expectation that one has to “hold up his or her side of the bargain.”
It’s not surprising that capitalism sprang from the same modernist impulse, with its philosophical axiom being something called a “social contract.” What Pateman points out is that with the waning of the medieval age in the now-dominant culture, and with the rise of modernism, patriarchy changed, too. Women were ruled by fathers in medieval society — what Pateman calles “paternal” patriarchy. With the entrance of contract theory and abstract equality, patriarchy became fraternal… that is, each woman was potentially available — abstractly — to all men. The shift from paternal patriarchy to fraternal patriarchy was accompanied by the development of liberal law, the notion of privacy rights, the contractualization of human relations, a global surge in colonization to underwrite capitalist expansion, and — with consequences that are frighteningly apparent nowadays — the commodification of the biosphere.
The philosophical corollary to this cultural tapestry was Cartesian dualism, with its separation between a so-called objective reality and intellectual or cultural “constructions.” Modernism was defined by the belief that the objective is the last word — and with this word, the apotheosis of science; and post-modernism, which I consider just the latest instantiation of modernism, was a reaction against this objectivist dogma, an instantiation that has drifted into claims that the cultural construction is the last word. This flipped the hierarchy, but it re-embraced the dualism.
Alf Hornborg wrote, as an academic, “It is not a coincidence that postmodern paralysis is a condition that mainly afflicts academics, for it is only at a distance that human meanings assume the appearance of ‘constructions’.”
In his book, “The Power of the Machine – Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment,” Hornborg also points out that knowledge is never simply the apprehension of objective facts. “[M]aterial conditions” — he writes — “never directly determine human behavior, for humans can relate to those conditions only through a specific system of meanings.”
As he suggests, knowledge is constructed within the limits of those meanings, yet upon a so-called objective environment.
Maria Mies noted that the social constructionists had simply re-appointed the same old dualism.
In her book, “Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale,” Mies also identifies a common thread between male domination of women, colonialism, and the destruction-through-commodification of the biosphere. That same common thread appears in the phenomenon of men playing war games on their computers and jacking off to the most overtly woman-humiliating genres of pornography: that common thread between male domination of women, colonialism, and ecocide is the conquest-ideal.
The conquest of women. The conquest of colonies. The conquest of nature. Women are called children; colonies are called children in the same spirit; and nature is seen as a woman to be, as Francis Bacon said, plundered for her secrets.
So with that preface I’ll take note that I am a man. For that reason, I am disqualified from speaking personally about the experience of being female; and for that same reason, I want to focus my talk on the experience of being a male. I cannot speak to or judge too harshly the accommodations that women make in their actual lives to the manifest reality of late capitalist — and still white dominant — patriarchy. I can, however, say what I think men should be doing differently; and I will.
I’ll say it now, in my best Romper Room vocabulary. Remember the DO-bees and DON’T-bees… oh well, I’ve seriously dated myself. Here is the Don’t List for men. Do not dominate. Do not humiliate. Do not retaliate.
That’s a hard don’t list for men, when the culture tells us incessantly and forcefully that to be a man means to dominate, to humiliate, and to retaliate. These are equated with strength; and they are counterposed to all things quote-feminine-unquote. This male norm of masculinity-as-conquest is ruthlessly policed in male culture, which is also a hotbox of probative escalation.
I could ask everyone in this room if you fear unknown men to raise your hand. You see I’m raising mine. Men proving themselves to other men can be the most terrifying thing you’ll ever see. I say that as a military veteran who worked in eight conflict areas, in Vietnam, Latin America, the Caribbean, and Africa. Men proving themselves to other men is as dangerous as it gets. There are people right here in this room who would be alarmed by the sudden sound of multiple male voices laughing nearby, because that sound can be so pregnant with mischief. Males are bonding. Escalations are possible.
This is male culture that idealizes the conquest of women, the conquest of colonies, and the conquest of nature. It is probative conquest, too; and it requires trophies for the other men to whom you are proving yourself, and as proof of masculinity to display for women.
If you can think back to the time in this terrible occupation of Iraq when Abu Masab al-Zarqawi was the boogy-man — when the media propagated the lie that every attack and every bomb was being made by this one wicked being — and if you can remember when Zarqawi was killed, the Central Command Public Affairs Officer who stood before the breathless media in the Green Zone was backgrounded by a giant photograph of the obviously dead face of Zarqawi.
This was a hunting trophy.
In displaying this most dangerous game, the Central Command was demonstrating its prowess in a war story that has been a social convention for so long that it has become a cultural memory, an axiomatic belief accompanied by deeply enculturated emotional resonance.
The idealization of the military, of the warrior, of the armed defender is so sacrosanct that every politician in the country feels obliged to genuflect as they talk about “heroes in uniform,” and “our brave men and women in the military.” The addition of women to that idealization has not fundamentally changed the fact that warfare is still the testing ground for masculinity; but it is a cultural advance — albeit a contradictory one — by liberal feminism, that public figures have to include women in this sinister idealization at all.
The realities of war are never abstract, no matter how many times pontificating generals announce how much they abhor the reality of war, or no matter how many times sycophant journalists make the idiotic claim that no one dislikes war more than those who fight them… this in reference to officers who sought out every combat opportunity they could find as a means of personal career advancement. While we are taught to praise them for their service-ethic, the reality is much more about naked ambitions combined with a deep desire for male-recognition in the role of conqueror.
The war in Southwest Asia right now is characterized by destabilization of culture and vicious bullying of the local populations, combined with terror attacks from helicopter gunships, bombers, and armed unmanned aerial drones. Our heroes are still mostly non-combatants; and our combatants are obliged by their mission statements to control a population… which translates into dominate, humiliate, and retaliate. Think of Iraq and Afghanistan, and very soon now Pakistan as Obama goes east to get his bones, as captive populations, with our heroes in uniform acting as jailers, and we can make sense yet again of the discoveries of the Stanford Prison Experiment — where playacting the role of prison guard turned average college students into pain-inflicting sadists within a week.
We live into stories. I know that’s not how most sociologists or psychologists explain our meaning-making behavior; only religions seem to have held onto this idea… which goes some way to explaining their persistence, for ill and for good. The fact is, human beings are storied. We receive stories, then we live into them. There is a story about America that we’ve all heard, and the living into that story is called citizenship, because it is a national story, and the protagonist is the citizen. And while the ideal is portrayed as Washington crossing the Delaware or Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation or Rambo fighting the politicians who supposedly stabbed the Vietnam heroes in the back… most of us cannot live directly into the big story that is the idealization of the citizen, so we behave as something called “good citizens” as our way of living into the story that the ideals construct for us.
Stories tell us how we are to be and how we are to know.
Even a one-minute television ad is a story, telling us who we are and how to be and how to know.
Pantene, because you’re worth it; or — mobilizing simultaneous attraction and repulsion — Preparation H, gives relief and doesn’t require surgery. Advertisers know more about the material power of the narrative than most cultural constuctionists. All people in all times and all places are storied people.
Coming back to the issue of capitalism, and being more concrete than that one word – capitalism — can be, I’ll say coming back to imperial-core, late capitalist consumerism; US culture reflects the globally generalized financial architecture, within which the US has been for several decades — until now — the global consumer of last instance, ensuring the so-called virtuous cycle of capital. The fact that it was built on a house of credit cards at home, and the hegemony of a too-big-to-fail US dollar abroad, is not my subject tonight. In our de-localized, ever-more-monocultural, technology-dependent world, we are experiencing a surfeit of stories — most designed to correct the capitalist nightmare of people having enough. When people have enough, capitalism has a crisis. That crisis is held back by demand production. Advertisers create new needs, and sell them into the psychic spaces of our own alienations and anxieties.
Postmodernist recognition of these very-plural narratives is an important challenge to the self-assuredness of a highly technologized society, but postmodernism became too clever by half in its critiques of modernist assumptions. In challenging the metanarratives of capitalist science and development, the critique was aimed at an older, more stable form of modernism.
This widening anachronism left postmodernism vulnerable to the episteme of plain, garden-variety consumerism: the ideology that says choice is freedom, and now even something called “identity” is available for a kind of shopping aisle selection.
I still prefer the term personhood to identity, because personhood — for me — embraces the whole phenomenon of experience without reducing it to identity, and in a way that is more permeable to all the influences of culture and our ecology.
The abstraction and atomization of core-nation consumer culture pretends that is has escaped the inextricable relation between our physical ecology, our culture, and personhood. By that I mean that the ideology of self, of the ever-choosing individual, whether that is Homo economicus or the selection of de-localized, shopping cart identities. It’s liberalism in its slyest form.
It fails to come to grips with issues of real power and privilege, and it fails to acknowledge how our de-localization is tearing down the complexity of a bioshpere that has taken billions of years to develop. Liberalism tells us a story about the abstract equality — equality before the law — of white, black, brown, of native and foreign, of male and female, of rich and poor, gay and straight, and yet we know that concretely that these equalities just ain’t so.
Being more specific still, liberalism tells us that men and women are equal. What does that mean? What do we mean by this equality? We are not the same morphologically — and I don’t mean to exclude those few who fall into neither category. By and large, we are overwhelmingly a sexually dimorphous species, so the equality can’t be physical. I can’t give birth, and I can’t nurse, and I have experienced neither menarche or menopause.
This is an embarrassment to liberalism to say this, because the equality of liberalism is disembodied; so the liberal reply is that we are all equal before the law, or that we are all morally valued equally. But, of course, that’s not true either except as an abstraction. When we point this out, then liberalism shifts premises on us, and says that it means “equal opportunity.”
Game over. Accountability canceled. It’s about something called opportunity, disembodied, floating, ahistorical, waiting to be breathed in out of the ether.
Abstract equality legitimates concrete-power and ends up preserving and even reproducing hierarchies that devalue people.
Patriarchy is a practice and an ideology based on the devaluation of women.
What the great radical feminists pointed out, which seems clear to me at least, is that women-as-a-group are different from men-as-a-group, culturally but also physiologically — and culture and physiology never ever exist apart in the concrete world — but that difference is not grounds for the establishment of oppressive hierarchies. Now we know that these hierarchies exist, and have existed. Basic to those social hierarchies is the male-conquest-ideal… control of women, control of colonies, and control of nature.
We may not like them, but we swim in the actual soup of this system, doing the best we can with what we know and have. Like it or not, our personhood always being permeated by culture-as-it-is, which is in turn always permeated by the ecology, which in turn shapes personhood, and so forth.
Being in the hierarchies means it is difficult – sometimes impossible – to see these big pictures, because life is lived in little pictures.
So the hierarchies themselves are formative of our personhood. This questioning of sexual hierarchy imposed on difference required historical subjects — women themselves — to pose the question; and posing the question was itself a radical political practice carried directly into that ecology where patriarchy was and is practiced with the least mediation — the private sphere.
Let me stop and take a quick survey. How many of you have ever felt humiliated by your own chosen actions while applying for a job, or a scholarship, or a school, or in managing a relationship?
Folks, we make compromises with power every single day. Does that mean we have to come up with some abstract principle that conceals the contingent necessity for compromise?
I bring this up, because I want to inoculate us against the First Amendment.
That got some head-scratching started.
I want to talk about pornography before I’m through tonight; but I have to say this right out of the gate: I am not proposing the criminalization of anything, and the First Amendment falls into that abstract liberal law category. I don’t want to talk about pornography in general; and I haven’t the least intention of raising hypothetical questions about pornography. I am going to critique actually-existing pornography. The First Amendment cannot be used to immunize pornography from critique, any more than it can immunize perfectly-legal Nazi propaganda from critique. What the First Amendment is, is a big red herring.
Three very prominent themes in commercially produced pornography are… are you ready? Can you guess?
Domination. Humiliation. Revenge.
There is such a thing, concretely, in every society, as male-culture. That it is male culture is not disproved by the fact that women can and do sometimes act in ways that are similar to male-cultural norms. These are cultural norms, not laws of physics.
Domination. Humiliation. Revenge.
Folks, this is male-culture ideology; and it is part and parcel of the social hierarchy of men-over-women. These are not merely ideas. These are deeply emotionally resonant norms embedded in patriarchy, and they are highly, highly eroticized.
Now there’s something I hear all the time, and I think it’s silly as hell: Rape is not about sex; it’s about power. Who thought that up? When in knowable history has sex ever been independent of or innocent of power? Of course rape is sexual. It is sexualized force; and it is forcible sex.
The abstraction of sex out of its actual cultural and historical context is a liberal stunt in reaction to conservative prudery. Conservatives say sex is bad; so we say sex is good. Neither of these notions is tenable, because both are uncritically simplified, and each makes a straw man out of the otheer.
People enjoy sex… well, some people do… and some don’t. The critique on the table is not whether sex feels good or not.
People like to eat McDonalds and smoke cigarettes; but that doesn’t mean it’s “good.” And asserting someone’s rights in these regards — when we are simply critiquing it — is a red herring.
I said earlier that If I describe pornography as sexually explicit media — a very abstract way of describing it, then I have drained the content of the category of any tangible reality. The reaction of paternalist patriarchal conservatives, male and female — those who we identify with the religious right, for example — does not challenge the abstraction of the category, sex, but puts a minus-sign next to it. A straw man, of course, because the conservative position is not that simple either.
The liberal reaction to the straw-man conservative reaction has been to put a plus-sign alongside the category, arguing from the rootless, placeless, ahistorical position that – quote – sex is good – unquote.
Both these positions accept the unstated premise that sex can be generalized thus, that it can be abstracted out of history, out of our specific social ecologies, and out of real systems of social power.
Combine this tendency to treat all issues as if history is simply a playground of abstract ideas… combine that tendency with another unexamined two-stage premise — that we must be effective in pursuing political agendas, and that that efficacy is possible only in the arena of public policy — and we have a situation wherein the tail of the political agenda begins to wag the dog of honest criticism.
We have intellectual dishonesty on both sides of a debate.
The debate about abortion is a classic example, where each side of the barricades is driven to simplify, obfuscate, and employ disingenuousness in order to strengthen its own half of the public controversy. A decision that is, in fact, for real people, complicated, situated, unique, and often very momentous, is reduced to two words: life and choice, both polemical simplifications that try to squeeze this visceral, often painful, and always extremely complicated circumstance with real people into some universal principle that is forced to externalize complexity — that is, the specific realities of real people. So, instead of a critical account — one that takes a fearless look at these complexities without the distortions of a long standing policy agenda — we get this polarized and mutually dishonest one. And, of course, we also get an impasse.
Pornography is just as contentious, although the critical debates over it haven’t filtered into the kind of all-consuming policy-agenda struggle as the question of abortion. It has turned into a struggle over an abstract principle enshrined as the First Amendment. The result has been the exclusion of one of the most important critical voices — in my opinion — with regard to actually-existing pornography — not the abstract pornography that is contested in the narrow debate about what is abstractly called “protected speech.” That critical voice has been radical feminism, a standpoint quite distinct from liberal feminism because it has refused to accept the tendency to compartmentalize public discourse in categories that implicitly privilege public policy struggles as the touchstone of critical discourse. Not least, because public policy, and all the dominant ideas about it, are still man-world.
Radical feminism put the challenge out there that made it the skunk at the party. It asked the question whether real sex — in all its manifestations — has ever existed, or can ever exist, in a universe apart from actually-existing social power. This refusal to subordinate critical questions to the unexamined premise of the primacy of public-policy debates created embarrassment on both sides of the pornography debate between conservatives and liberals.
Instead, radical feminists focused on the most direct and sexual form of domination in actual practice: rape… also a favorite porn story convention (as well as being one aspect of the industry’s actual practice).
As it turns out, the stark and disturbing lens of rape reveals several dimensions of our social relations. The domination of women-as-women by men-as-men has long served as a metaphor, and therefore a model, for other forms of domination. And this is the juncture at which I need to take notice of something I’ve left unsaid so far.
Our standpoint now, in this talk, is eurocentric, core-nation… imperial. I’ve already made several references to the conquest of women corresponding in our minds to the conquest of nature. And I’ve already made reference to the construction of masculinity being centered on the conquest ideal. Now I have to fess up, that this is not the whole story. While emulated within the 20th Century by non-Europeans during the heyday of “development,” the conquest of nature notion has its deepest historical roots in the Atlantic, where hydrocarbon industrialism took off and facilitated European, then American, colonialism.
The conquest-ideal I’ve described is something available only to males in the imperium. The men in the periphery, in the colonies, formulate masculinities, even oppressive masculinities; but they are not identical with masculinity that is constructed from a standpoint near the apex of the inter-national pyramid. Concomitantly, femininity is constructed differently in colonized communities. These differences are not an outcome of chosen identities in a diffuse social plurality, but determined to a significant extent by the relations between the colonizer and the colonized.
And colonization is always racialized.
We needn’t go across the ocean to find our examples. We live in North Carolina, where we are still largely segregated by race… separated spatially — with, of course, consumer spaces as our primary cross-racial shared space — and separated residentially, culturally, socio-economically, and ecologically.
If we want to see a snapshot of the racial divide, one that has been layered over with new contradictions since the 1991 peso collapse and the wave of immigration from Latin America, we can simply think back on the variant reactions between white and Black, as well as between white and Black women, to the OJ Simpson murder trial.
That difference is accounted for by two dramatically different standpoints: one group with colonial privilege, and one living as the colonized. White women share Black women’s fear of men; but Black women also fear the police because Black people have good reason to fear the police. So white folk put the burden of proof on OJ; but Black folk put the burden of proof on the police. History matters; and so does standpoint.
Another lens though which we can explore this standpoint variance is through rape. It’s a dense, complicated intersection, this race and rape; so I’ll only sketch it here and leave you to reflections on your experience. I’ll start with prison figures, just to reiterate the coloniality of the white-Black — and more and more white-Brown — relation… Barack Obama’s presidency notwithstanding.
More than 60% of the people in prison are now racial and ethnic minorities. For Black males in their twenties, one in every eight is in prison or jail on any given day. Until the economic collapse hit and forced states to halt increasing prison population — which they are just trying to figure out now, for fiscal reasons — one out of every three Black males could expect to spend time incarcerated in his lifetime. It’s a stunning figure, and it is based on laws adopted to end-run the abolition of Jim Crow, as well as huge sentencing disparities.
The interesting thing about prison, in this context however, is how we – white, non-incarcerated men in particular — think about prison. In any all-white-male gathering, when the topic of prison comes up, the topic of rape nearly always comes up too… usually as a form of humor that has the character of someone whistling past the graveyard.
Men’s concern about rape — a source of constant threat and subliminal fear for women — is generally not very acute; but when the possibility of being raped themselves is brought forward, then it becomes scandalous and terrifying.
Part of that white-male terror is associated with the dread-laden fantasy of being raped by Black men, which maps directly onto an old Southern colonial standby meme: the notion of the Black satyr, of Black men as predisposed — moreso than other men — to commit rape. This notion has been trotted out by every demagogue in the South during the most vicious anti-Black pograms; and it is still central to the world-view of the white-male conservative political base in the South, but also now more generally.
It was a proprietary standpoint, with women as property and men as embodying the actual people, wherein the dominant male was protecting His women from contamination by the male Other.
Black men have historical experience of being persecuted, using the feared or alleged rape of white women; and Black women have been involved as the sisters, mothers, aunts, grandmothers, friends, and spouses of the very Black men who were persecuted using trumped-up rape charges. As Andrea Dworkin wrote:
“In the United States, with its distinctly racist character, the very fear of the dark is manipulated, often subliminally, into fear of black, of black men in particular, so that the traditional association between rape and black men that is our national heritage is fortified. In this context, the imagery of black night suggests that black is inherently dangerous. In this context, the association of night, black men, and rape becomes an article of faith. Night, the time of sex, becomes also the time of race–racial fear and racial hatred. The black male, in the South hunted at night to be castrated and/or lynched, becomes in the racist United States the carrier of danger, the carrier of rape. The use of a racially despised type of male as a scapegoat, a symbolic figure embodying the sexuality of all men, is a common male-supremacist strategy. Hitler did the same to the Jewish male. In the urban United States, the prostitute population is disproportionately made up of black women, streetwalkers who inhabit the night, prototypical female figures, again scapegoats, symbols carrying the burden of male-defined female sexuality, of woman as commodity. And so, among the women, night is the time of sex and also of race: racial exploitation and sexual exploitation are fused, indivisible. Night and black: sex and race: the black men are blamed for what all men do; the black women are used as all women are used, but they are singularly and intensely punished by law and social mores; and to untangle this cruel knot, so much a part of each and every night, we will have to take back the night so that it cannot be used to destroy us by race or by sex.” END QUOTE
Colonizers always racialize the colonized, which is to say, subtract an element of the colonized person’s basic humanity.
What white men fear in their fantasies about prison is that the tables will be turned. They already have been taught — as men — that sex has an aspect of domination and vengeance. The language we hear in pornographic conventions, language that has been tested for its marketability, includes “Take that, you bitch,” or “I’m gonna make you squeal.”
It drips with aggression, no pun intended.
We all know that many men see having sex with a despised man’s wife, daughter, mother… is seen as pure vengeance. We are all familiar with the use of sexual language to describe extreme aggression…. part of the will to dominate. Men already see this, and we have already internalized it, and white men who haven’t been to prison, but who fantasize their dread of prison, also already see prison as a place where the protection of their privilege will disappear, and where the Black rapist of the white imagination will have the opportunity to get revenge.
This notion of a frontier between safe-world and dark-dangerous-world – a frontier that has to be guarded and policed – is fundamental to the narrative of every prison, and of every war.
One of the major difficulties of reforming prisons is that many people see the possibility of rape in prison to be a legitimate part of the convicted person’s comeuppance. We, as a society, have legitimized sexual revenge, rape as revenge and domination, every time we celebrate the notion that one of the bad guys — however we define that — will get what’s coming to him in prison.
If you misbehave, this trope tells us, your comeuppance will be that you will become like a woman. You will become subject to rape.
Sexual humiliation is understood very well for its power. We saw that in the photos from Abu Ghraib. We see it in our literature and films. It is acted out explicitly in much pornography.
The intersection of race and sex brings two taxonomies of power together; and the mix has proven volatile in more ways than one. The Black man-white woman pair — in reality or imagination — is still the trigger for white masculine insecurity… and rage. Proprietary rage, fueld by the fear of contamination spilling across one of those sealed frontiers.
One of the ways that rage is eroticized — and made manageable — is in a pornographic film convention that features a white woman with one or more Black men.
As culture has evolved in the US, younger folks have become less scandalized by interracial pairing, not surprisingly at the same time that younger people tend to get less exercised by same-sex erotic affinities; and many of us are tempted to see this as progress of a sort. I am. It is.
But this hasn’t been the whole story of our newfound tolerance of sexual diversities; and let me say for the record that I celebrate that the world has become a somewhat less hostile place for many members of our human family.
A critical concern with the actual culture of tolerance described here is that the tolerance is embraced not for its political content — which is potentially subversive of power — but because this tolerance is part of a live-and-let-live attitude of disengagement… or rather, I might call it a permanent state of irony, a flirtation with meaninglessness, or — what Richard Rorty called approvingly — light-minded aestheticism.
If that light-mindedness, and the un-named imperial privilege that is its precondition, is challenged critically, that challenge has met with defensive rationalizations, the most pernicious of which is that the mere act of transgressing norms is somehow — and magically — subversive.
On the contrary, the transgression of boundaries — and this applies erotically as well as counter-culturally — validates the boundaries themselves; because the crossing of the boundary is the kick. Nancy Hartsock writes, in her book, “Money, Sex, and Power”:
“In pornography, the body — usually a woman’s body — is presented as something that arouses shame, even humiliation, and the opposition of the spirit or mind to the body — the latter sometimes referred to as representing something bestial or non-human — generates a series of dualities… Pornography is built around, plays on, and obsessively recreates these dualities. The dichotomy between spiritual love and “carnal knowledge” is re-created in the persistent fantasy of transforming the virgin into the whore. She begins pure, innocent, fresh, even in a sense disembodied, and is degraded and defiled in sometimes imaginative and bizarre ways.
Transgression is important here: Forbidden practices are being engaged in. The violation of the boundaries of society breaks its taboos. Yet the act of violating a taboo, of seeing or doing something forbidden, does not do away with the forbidden status. Indeed, the way women’s bodies are degraded and defiled in the transformation of the virgin into the whore simply crosses over and over again the boundary between them. Without the boundary, there could be no transformation. And without the boundary to violate, the thrill of transgression would disappear.”
I tend to agree with Dr. Hartsock that transgression, then, as a value in and of itself, ends up promoting self-indulgence and self-involvement as magical antidotes to social boundaries, while having the opposite, or at least no, effect on the structural conditions that constituted the boundaries in the first place.
It has the character of trying to shock one’s parents to get noticed.
Without an analysis of power, we might fail to see that dominant groups always transgress boundaries… that this transgression is a prerogative of power.
Now let me remind us that — in this respect, especially — imperial militarism — IN PRACTICE — is the same as the aspect of pornography that Hartsock describes, and moreso now in the information age.
Near the beginning of this talk, I painted the picture of a core-nation, middle-class male, sitting at a computer. This male was either watching porn and masturbating, or he was playing war games — that is, entertaining himself by pretending he was killing human beings. In both cases, this man at the monitor was engaged in a kind of voyeurism, the voyeurism of sex and the voyeurism of war.
In some ways, our zeitgeist might be characterized as voyeurism… as participation from an anonymous distance in transgressive-thrills.
Our man at the monitor can participate at a safe distance in a gang-bang or a firefight. Anyone who might happen to see him and not his monitor — and maybe not his lap — would see a man sitting at a computer, who is outwardly very different from the intra-psychic imaginings of that same man.
A liberal political description of this empirical picture — the man sitting in front of the monitor — is that he is not bothering anyone, and that whatever he is doing on that computer is his choice. Fair enough.
But a critical political description requires us to ask questions about that intra-psychic space, about the physical ecology and the ideational ecology and the historicized culture that all impinge upon and constantly re-determine the whole gestalt of this man at the computer. Who are the real people caricatured in the porn flick? What happens in real wars? When the game is over, what real lives are resumed, and how have those real lives been affected?
Near the beginning, I posed a few polarities: abstract versus concrete, universal versus local, public versus private, and covenental relationships versus contractual relationships. Now I want to come back to these polarities to close.
Men who are trapped in the mind-numbing and anodyne grid of core-nation middle-class existence, and simultaneously trapped in the expectations of male personhood — based still on the idealization of conquest — live into stories or recreations of that conquest vicariously. Concretely, there are billions of dollars being made to satisfy the market for vicarious fucking and killing, and the development of these vicarious-thrill commodities uses real people for their development. Porn uses so-called models or actors, but also producers and directors and pimps. War game developers rely heavily on the experience of people who have actively participated in killing people in actual wars… still extant.
The objectification of women and enemies, one to reduce her to a sex toy and one to reduce him or her to a corpse, is abstract to the imaginary person watching the man at the monitor. The actual consequences of objectification that is part of the everyday experience of women and so-called enemies is not abstract in the least. These objectifying consequences involve rape kits, body bags, funerals, addiction, captivity, and fear. Plenty of fear.
Enemies are always feminized and racialized. The American soldier calls the Iraqi a “hadji” when the Iraqi is at a distance, and “bitch” when the soldier has a boot on the Iraqi’s neck.
When women told us that the personal is the political, they were telling us that we — as men — were pretending that power was an issue only in the polis, in the town square or work site where men pontificated.
Women told us that there was a power dynamic at home, too, where the violations of good will and good faith are deep and hurtful because this is where we men most liked to pretend that we were in covenental, not contractual, relationships.
Our violations of good will and good faith in the private sphere were not contract violations, but betrayal of a covenent of friendship, again as Wambdi Wicasa said, “an agreement made in trust [wherein] the parties love each other and put no limits on their own responsibility.”
Militarism, capitalism, patriarchy, pornography…. these are the tendencies of power in one-single emergent reality; and we have our day-to-day, concrete, local, and even private practices to negotiate a system that holds us all within it. And the best I can offer is that simple challenge to men, that might give our sisters, all members of the human family, and ourselves a breathing space to figure out how to move toward a story and a world of covenants, not contracts. That challenge is the don’t-list.
We can do this a day at a time, so it isn’t overwhelming. Today, we can say as men, I will pay attention. Today, I will not dominate. Today, I will not humiliate. Today, I will not retaliate. Not even vicariously.
Thank you, and God bless you for your patience and attention.