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.         


  1. Excelent piece! I'm sure biologists would add a couple of things, and thus make your distinguished Spanish colleague chase Biology away from their Book of Righteous Posthumanism