The basic ontogenetic insecurity of males, beginning in the womb amid the mother’s threatening female hormones, is matched by their phylogenetic insecurity. Males are expendable for the good of the species. Intraspecific male-with-male combat, however furious, is normally ceremonial rather than lethal and often effects territorial distancing. This distancing reduces intense individual interaction, thereby among human beings giving more play to the “objective” elements in conscious attention. The corresponding relatively nonceremonial character of combat in females tends to be either perfunctory or furiously real. Masculinity often leans toward braggadocio. Males feel a defensive need to advertise the female as the “weaker sex,” which basically means weaker in ceremonial combat and all that it entails, for in other arenas the female is probably the stronger. . .
— Walter J. Ong, Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness
While under the sign of gender women might be subordinate, under any economic regime they are only the second sex. They are forever handicapped in games where you play for genderless stakes and either win or lose. Here, both genders are stripped and, neutered, the man ends up on top.
— Ivan Illich, Gender
Like the male ego and the capitalist economy, the modern state is founded on fear. All three are founded on the same fear, one fear in particular. In a famous line from a speech he gave in the depths of the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” For the male ego, the capitalist economy, and the modern state, that is more than enough. It is specifically that fear—the very fear of fear itself—that founds all three.
To say the same thing differently, and to carry it one step further, the male ego, the capitalist economy, and the modern state are all three founded on the denial and repression of fear itself, specifically on the denial and repression of that fear that is literally root-fear itself, the very root of fear as such: the fear of death. The modern state, the capitalist economy, and the male ego are all three alike founded on the denial and repression of the fear of death.
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“From death, from the fear of death, arises all knowledge of the All.”
That is the opening line of Franz Rosenzweig’s introduction to the first part of his great work, The Star of Redemption, first published in German in 1921. What he means by “knowledge of the all” (Erkennen des All) is the presumption to be able to know it, the claim that it is possible to have such knowledge, as the title he gives his introduction makes clear: “Über die Möglichkeit, das All zu erkennen,” “On the Possibility of Knowing the All.”
In a class once, one of my philosophy professors in graduate school defined philosophy itself as “the attempt to give a rational account of all things.” Even back then, that was not what I meant by that word, though I certainly acknowledged then, and still do, that such a definition captures well enough the sense of the term insofar as philosophy takes itself to be what gives birth to what we call “science,” which in the whole is just such an attempt, one “to give a rational account of all things.”
That is also the sense Rosenzweig gives the word in The Star of Redemption—“philosophy” in a sense that he contests in that work. That is philosophy insofar as it “takes it upon itself to throw off the anxiety of earthly existence, to take away from death its poison sting, from Hades its pestilential breath,” as he puts it in the third sentence of the book.
It is nothing but a delusion that such knowledge of the all is even possible, and a dream born of that delusion that through such knowledge “man” might eventually be able to establish “dominion and control” over nature, as Descartes states to be the aim of the “method” he recommends be adopted in his Discourse thereon. That is, to return to Rosenzweig’s terms, it is delusional to think that earthly life can ever be made impervious to anxiety, death deprived of its sting, or hell of it stench.
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In my immediately preceding post, the first in this present series under the general title, “Shattering Silence of Peace,” I addressed the process of transition that Walter J. Ong, following Roger Callois, traces in The Presence of the Word: the transition from a society in which war is taken as the rule and peace as the exception, to one in which peace is taken as the rule and war as the exception. As I also already suggested in my preceding post, that process could well be called one of general “de-polemicization.”
What above all gets “de-polemicized” in the process at question is nature—understood as Aristotle understood physis, from which we get our English word “physics,” in opposition to techne, whence come such English words as “technique,” “technical,” and “technology.” War (Greek polemos) gets removed from nature as Aristotle defined that latter notion, namely, as that from which comes whatever emerges of itself and serves no purpose—whatever is an “end in itself,” to use a traditional but distorting way of putting it. War is torn out of nature so conceived and delivered over instead into the domain of the technical, in the broad sense of that which must be made, to serve a purpose.
When peace gets thus cast as the underlying rule and war as the interruptive exception, nature herself ceases to be defined by war any longer. Instead, nature comes to be cast as the place of a sort of original peace. In turn war, removed from nature, becomes itself something essentially “man-made.” War becomes something men wage against one another, instead of belonging to the very nature of nature herself.
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Combining what Ong writes in The Presence of the Word with what he writes more than a decade later in Fighting for Life, from which my first epigraph for today’s post is taken, discloses that the process of de-polemicizing nature intersects with another process, that of the de-ceremonializing of war and combat—that is, the de-ceremonializing of the polemical as such. Thus, at the same time war undergoes a process whereby it ceases to belong to nature (physis) and instead becomes something artificial (a matter of techne), war also undergoes a process whereby it becomes less and less ceremonial.
Perhaps that intersection of the two processes of the de-polemicization of nature, on the one hand, and the de-cermonialization of war, on the other, can be at least partially accounted for in terms of what Ong sketches out in my epigraph passage about the thoroughly hostile character of the maternal womb for males of the species—about “[t]he basic ontogenetic insecurity of males, beginning in the womb amid the mother’s threatening female hormones.” Talk of nature herself as a “womb”—as in “the womb of nature”—is an old commonplace.
Perhaps, then, the very ascription of polemos to nature in the first place derives from the predominately male experience of the natural, maternal womb. It would then be expressive not of anything itself “natural” to all premodern societies, but only to so called “patriarchal” ones. To the both ontogenetically and phylogenetically indispensable female of the species, the natural, maternal womb is not such an utterly anxiety-provoking place as it is to the ontogenetically and phylogenetically expendable male. (No wonder we men would want to develop the technology for making “test-tube babies”! We can control a test-tube womb!)
Precisely in becoming something man-made, rather than something belonging to nature herself (the pronoun is telling here, and I have been trying to be consistent in using it: “nature herself”), war ceases to be something against which man must be so driven to build a shelter for himself, a buffer against the hostile environment of nature, that womb. But such shelter and buffering is just what the ceremonialization of the polemical so typical of male combat provides for the genetically insecure male psyche, the psyche that so desperately feels itself in need of them. As Ong describes in such passages of Fighting for Life as the one I’ve used in my epigraph, the “ceremonial” nature of “infraspecific male to male combat”—which is to say man-made “polemics,” or “warfare” in the broadest sense— has precisely the effect of “distancing” the combatants to provide such accommodations.
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As Ong remarks a bit later in the same passage, “Masculinity often leans toward braggadocio.” “Braggadocio,” it bears noting, is a way of posturing, of puffing oneself up like a cat upset by an intruder on its territory. It is only when fluffing up no longer works to keep the intruder at a distance that the catfight begins. In contrast to feline fur-fluffing, however, bragging is a distinctively linguistic activity. Thus, it is only when the boastful words stop flying that the fists start to do so—or the swords to start cutting, the guns to start shooting, the bombs to start dropping, or the like.
Thus, the ceremonialization of warfare guards against the very lethality of war between men. However, if in the very process of what we might well call being “de-natured”— that is, taken out of nature and turned over into men’s hands—war is also de-ceremonialized, then war is loosed from all the restrains with which either artificial ceremonies for distancing and posturing, or natural tendencies for keeping combat perfunctory and brief, guard against war automatically escalating into something lethal whenever it occurs. In being loosed from its ceremonial constraints, having already been loosed from any natural restraints, war is thus freed from all bounds. It is set free to become boundless.
All wars now threaten to become total war. At least in terms of their potential lethality, an equivalence of wars is established.
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The process of taking polemos out of the womb of nature and putting it into the hands of man pacifies both nature and the feminine, turning the maternal womb from the scariest of all places for men into something they can handle—indeed, into something that now “nurtures” them, rather than subjecting them to wave after wave of lethal assault. As part of that, women in a man’s world get treated as delicate, requiring masculine “protection” in exchange for all their nurturing: Women become “the weaker sex,” as Ong notes.
Pushed to its limit, this pacification—what we might well call the literal dis-em-powerment—of nature and the feminine as such eventually results in just the sort of situation Ivan Illich describes in my second epigraph for today’s post. That is a situation in which the liberation of women from domination by men comes to present itself as though such liberation were a mater of establishing an equivalence between men and women, but in which that equivalence itself is defined in exclusively masculine terms that, however, can no longer even be acknowledged as such. What is characteristically masculine—in all its from-the-womb anxiety-ridden insecurity—comes to be universalized, which is to say counted as universally true for all human beings without exception. In that sense the masculine gets “neutered,” as Illich puts it. That is, what is really essentially masculine is no longer given as just one side of what Illich, as I’ve discussed in my earlier series of posts on “The Traumatic Word, calls an “asymmetrically complementary duality,” but is instead counted as the unquestioned, exclusively definitive ideal for all, to such a degree that it is no longer even visible as only one side of an irreducible duality.
Thus, equivalence between men and women is projected solely in terms that actually only ensconce the now “neutered” man in a position of dominance that can no longer even be acknowledged, since the very words of acknowledgement have been repressed beyond recall. In every position that might be adopted after that, “the man ends up on top,” as Illich indecorously but accurately puts it.
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We might put Illich’s general point this way: Establishing equivalence is anything but establishing genuine equality, since the very measure of equivalence is determined by only one side of an asymmetrically complementary duality.
Equivalence turns out to be part of the problem, rather than part of the solution—to use a current commonplace of which I’m fond. Indeed, equivalence turns out to be a hardening of the problem itself, what we might well call a petrifaction of the problem, a literal turning of it into stone. Equivalence thus provides a rock-hard organ to penetrate all resistance and guarantee perpetual dominance. Now the man can always stay on top.
(Finally! A safe place at last for all of us who are so constitutionally insecure!)
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To be continued again.