Sunday, 12 October 2014

Do Women and Men Actually Exist?

A couple of weeks ago I attended a conference on posthuman politics in Mytilene (Greece). It was dominated by critical posthumanists (with a few transhumanists thrown in for good measure), most of whom seemed to be convinced that “humanism” and “dualism” were brought into the world by the devil (or, which is more or less the same, dead white males) to make life hard for oppressed minorities (i.e. people with the wrong skin colour, gender, sexual orientation, or species membership). Some presenters suggested that we seek guidance from Buddhism or “spiritualism” (teaching us the all-oneness of all things etc.) to overcome the dominant worldview. Towards the end of the conference I was so thoroughly fed up with the consistent and never really questioned damnation of dualism-and-humanism, which was believed to dominate Western philosophy and thinking (and hence politics) in general and to be the root of all evil, that I could no longer contain myself. After a the final presentation (in which Stefan Sorgner very originally managed to utilize the shared anti-dualist stance in support of his not very original argument for the ethical equivalence of traditional education and genetic cognitive enhancement, thus bridging the gap between posthumanism and transhumanism), I committed unspeakable sacrilege by asking what was actually wrong with dualism. My question remained unanswered. Apparently it was too obvious what was wrong with it to merit any explanation.

Of course, Cartesian substance dualism is very implausible, but is there anyone out there who still believes in it? Today? The same holds for humanism, or Humanism, with a capital H. Very few, at least in Western Europe, still believe that humans have been created in the image of God, or something like that, elevated and positioned above all other living creatures, to rule the earth and everything that lives on it. But it is hard to deny that there are differences between humans and other animals. How categorical they are, and how relevant, is of course a different question.

Anyway, after the discussion (which focussed on other issues) was over, I was approached by the Spanish artist and self-declared meta-humanist Jaime de Val, who essentially accused me of being an undercover agent of the establishment, hell-bent to destroy the tender plant of metahumanism (or posthumanism, or whatever). By questioning the validity of the habitual anti-dualist stance I had revealed myself as the enemy of the people, and it was made very clear to me that I didn’t have any business being at that conference in the first place and that it would be very much appreciated if I didn’t show my face again (that is, at similar events planned for the future). When I tried to direct the argument away from the personal and back to the issue of dualism, I suddenly found myself debating the question whether men and women actually exist, which I had, rather naively, proposed as an example of a duality (one of many) that actually existed. It seemed to me that the existence of men and women was undeniable, but I could probably not have picked a worse example, judging by the wrath that the example provoked in my opponent. I was brusquely told that men and women did not exist and that the fact that I did believe in their existence just demonstrated the depth of my ignorance. 

Unfortunately I didn’t learn much more than that, so I don’t really know why de Val thought men and women did not exist and what exactly he meant by it. I suppose it’s got something to do with posthuman politics. By affirming the existence of men and women, I probably committed to some sort of hierarchy between the two, inviting people to think that if women are really in some substantial way different from men, then perhaps men are justified in treating them differently. Or my ontological claim was tantamount to saying that every person must be either male or female, that nobody can be both or neither, and if there are persons that seem to be both or neither, then they need to be ostracized as monsters, assigned to either of the two categories, or changed in such a way that they can plausibly be regarded as either male or female. Needless to say, that was not what I had intended to convey.

It seems to me that we should be able to make claims about the existence of differences without thereby making certain normative commitments. I’m more than happy to concede that there exist, or may exist, people who are neither male nor female, people who are both, people who are biologically male but feel female and vice versa, and who knows what else. And as far as I’m concerned, they can all live merrily and do whatever they damn well please. It’s none of my business, and I’m not partial. But that doesn’t change anything about the fact that some people are actually men and some others are actually women, and that most people are either men or women, and I don’t really see anything wrong with that. I don’t see any need to diversify the sexes through reconceptualization or (for the more practically minded) genetic modification and thus to abolish the basic sexual dimorphism characteristic of our species. That is probably because I’m fine with being a man.

I can assure you I’m not blind to the fact that many of the differences that we see between the sexes are socially constructed. My point is not that there is still a biological foundation to the distinction between male and female (although I find it hard to understand how that can be denied), but rather that socially constructed differences are as real for us as biological differences. The distinction is not so much ontological as experiential. In our life-world, in the way we experience the world, men and women undoubtedly exist. And so do animals and machines, subjects and objects, the self and the other, the human and the non-human, the living and the dead, adults and children. Those differences are real. It may be theoretically possible to structure the world differently, to pay more attention to other differences and less to these, but it is very hard to actually live by an alternative (non-dualistic) ontology. Even posthumanists act like humanists most of the time, simply because it would be very difficult not to. You may fervently deny that there is any relevant difference between human agency and the agency of things, but you will probably not try to convince your furniture of this. Instead you will give a talk at an academic conference, where you will talk to other humans, who will politely listen to you, one human (in most cases male or female) subject talking to other (again mostly male or female) human subjects. Inanimate objects and animals (several cats and dogs who appeared to be living in the university buildings) were ignored, on solid humanist grounds. And during the breaks people visited the toilets. There were two kinds, one for women and one for men, which I’m sure is very oppressive, but it actually worked. Nobody seemed to be confused by it. I wonder why that is.         

If you want to stay young forever, try jumping off a roof

In her dystopian novel “The Year of the Flood”, Margaret Atwood describes a place where women periodically go to get their ageing faces and bodies rejuvenated. They go there because they are frightened by the signs of mortality that their flesh exhibits. Yet when they come out, after all those signs have been removed for the moment, they are still frightened because they are already wondering when the whole thing might be happening to them again. “The whole signs-of-mortality thing. The whole thing thing. Nobody likes it, thought Toby – being a body, a thing. Nobody wants to be limited in that way. We’d rather have wings. Even the word flesh has a mushy sound to it.”
We resent being just another thing in the world, with its implications of limitation, lack of autonomy and true agency, passivity, and ultimately destructibility. We’d rather have wings, that is, some means to escape from our basic thingness, our being shackled to the material world, in which everything is subject to change, and everything is bound to perish in the end. Of course there is also a sense in which our bodies, made out of mushy flesh, are not things, a sense in which to be a mere thing actually appears preferable to being a living body. A thing may not be alive, but that also means that it cannot die, and if your fear to die is great enough, then you may prefer not being alive at all.

But perhaps it is not so much death that we fear, but ageing, that is the loss of our youth. “I hope I die before I get old”, Roger Daltrey once sang with The Who, almost fifty years ago now, giving voice to the anti-establishment sentiments of a whole generation, but also to the fear that one day one may end up being just like them, simply by growing up. I never really noticed there was a difference between the fear of death and the fear of ageing, until I read what Atwood wrote next, following the passage quoted above: “If you really want to stay the same age you are now forever and ever, (...) try jumping off the roof: death’s a sure-fire method for stopping time.” Is this just a bad joke, or is there more to it, some keen insight into the nature of our desire to stay young forever? That desire is, after all, (by logical implication) a desire to stop time, and if you can only stop time (for yourself) by dying, then the desire to stay young forever is tantamount to a desire to die. It’s a cleverly concealed death wish.

Unless, of course, eternal youth does not rule out change, so that we could go on changing, gathering experience, co-creating ourselves and the world we live in, without having to age. I don’t think that is possible, though, because it is not only our bodies that age. It is also our minds. To not age one would have to be like Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up,  who every night forgets what he has experienced that day and who remains forever untouched by the events in his life, which means that he doesn’t really have a life. And that is precisely why he ultimately represents death (as well as eternal renewal, which cannot occur without death). Atwood is right: eternal youth and death are one and the same, or more precisely: the one can only be gained if you are willing to pay the price of the other.