a philosophy blog

“Freedom and Fecundity”

Notes on:
Sylviane Agacinski, Parity of the Sexes.

[Agacinski, in this chapter, critiques Simone de Beauvoir. She does so, in our view, with considerable accuracy. Beauvoir is complicit, like J. S. Mill before her and many since (Susan Miller Okin, in particular, here, since Agacinski mentions her by name), in buying into a central doctrine that has, at least in modern times, facilitated the continued oppression of women: the idea of the sexless human, a neutered moral entity suitable for framing in social and political terms. This has entailed denigrating the uniquely feminine sensibility and expression of being: motherhood, both as giver of life and its nurturer. For Beauvoir, the maternal role has been used against women since the beginning to prevent her from achieving a “genderless” notion of freedom. Agacinski points out that, far from genderless, this generic notion is the old male idea in drag, as it were, continuing the tradition of devaluing the proprietary feminine.

It should be noted that we take the “nurturing” role associated with motherhood in a broader sense than that apparently used by Agacinski at least in this chapter of her work. A woman instantiates the role even when she has little interest in physical motherhood. Motherhood as concern for the creation and maintenance of relationship is a way of experiencing and reacting to reality that transcends the bearing of literal children. The prostitute, the muse, the hag, the virago, the pedestalized femme fatale, or the mere “better half,” no less than the strong mother figure to needy men and their projects, enact this script.]

“The feminine body is constantly described as a burden of flesh enclosing woman in either an erotic or childbearing passivity and turning her into an object, an instrument of masculine activity and desire.” Beauvoir does not question the relative devaluation implied here of the “passive”.

The setting of child birth as the central assignment of woman cannot have been solely the male desire to rob her of opportunities elsewhere. Women, as much, have insisted on it.

Nietzsche writes in The Gay Science that for a woman ‘man is only a means: the end is always the child.’

Beauvoir’s vision corresponds with the internalization of a dominating masculine ideology.

The freedom Beauvoir takes over is that of Sartre and the Kantian tradition. “This freedom is essentially negativity, the power to say no, in all the forms this might take.”

Sartrean existentialism sexually distributes facilities:

…for men, freedom and the innate power to continuously transcend themselves; for women, the natural tendency to let themselves to be confined in immanence and to be treated as objects by men.

The opposition between a passively endured destiny and a sovereignly decided project corresponds poorly to the act of giving life, which is simultaneously the effect of both a natural imperative (what was previously called an instinct) and a deliberate project involving a choice.

[Hence, the male notion of unencumbered choice does not apply, nor its implied conception of freedom.]

It is a natural event, because, even if one desires it, provokes it, or helps nature, it is naturally part of the program of the species, the program of life. It is also a call to responsibility, because what ‘happens’ with this event is an existence which is neither physically nor morally sufficient, one that must be expressed not in ‘its supreme truth’ but, rather, as the possibility of a meaning. This meaning is never already constituted or immanent, nor is it a matter of a sovereign, solitary decision of an individual; it is sought after in an effort of sharing. It is the effect of the human desire to live with another, to make the other an end and not a means. To give life, for a woman as for a man, cannot be reduced to the fact of enduring, whether you like it or not, the destiny of a species that is doomed to ‘reproduce itself’ and that charges woman with the bulk of this task.

[And yet, for men, there is a perceptible element of “endurance” involved. A boy’s first dream is never that of becoming a father. His first dreams are of becoming an astronaut. If fatherhood later happens to him, as Weininger noted, it is almost never his intention, the reality of it quite literally must succeed in bringing him back to earth by the gravity of responsibility. He does not take his cue from immanence, from the teeming snarl of birth and death in the natural world. If his interest turns there, it is in an effort to see what can be done about it, what can be conquered. But he may never overcome the feeling that in so doing he has in an important way failed. Gravity won out. He was compromised.

In the physical sense, males never lose their virginity for the simple reason they never have it. What they loose, to the extent they do (and all, who survive, do to a considerable extent), is intimacy with the heterocosmic. Even in literal success he fails. A boy who in fact does become an astronaut inevitably comes to see his project as motivated less by wonder than by material ends, a project with very earthly parameters. What power he achieves is always burdened by this fact. His moral task becomes graceful deportment in failure.

Criminality is where he starts from. Innocence was never an option, let alone a post partum state. He races from it with the same intoxicating speed that characterizes his appropriation of the rest of his experience. The very temptation to partake of it after the fact compounds his responsibility. There is no legitimate way back.]

The question of birth, which is no less profound than the question of death, is that of thought seized by a destiny it has not chosen—living, giving, life, dying—and not of a thought that would decieverything itself.

The freedom to think and act does not consist in negating all necessity, it consists just as much in grasping destiny.

[“Grasping,” as opposed to his “making” destiny.]

Freedom shows itself as negativity throughout philosophy: in Descartes’

…resistance to a deceptive god and the radical doubt that consciousness opposes to this god to the essential possibility of resisting, in which Sartre sees the privileged expression of freedom, and that permits him to write: ‘we have never been so free as under the Occupation.’

[We make the best of our fetters. Enduring them we develop new methods of being free.]

Nietzsche’s amor fati cited. [This is the feminine aspect of Nietzsche, Weininger clearly saw.]

Temporality seems to affect every thing and every existence. The empty idea of eternity cannot be the basis of our relation to the future, nor can the simple experience of the finituof things.

Beauvoir treats women as handicapped by their bodies, “biologically trapped.”

Motherhood did not deserve this brutal denigration—even if it cannot be women’s sole mission or constitute an imposed role, and even if the patience and devotion of mothers have long been abused.

Freedom, as I define it, cannot be conceived of as the lofty sovereignty of the subject. It is also the freedom to give, to accept the demands of the other, and not only the freedom to act upon things or to dominate others.

[Cf. Lorenne Clark’s criticisms of classical liberalism and her use of Isaiah Berlin’s prepositional modes of liberty: the freedom to as opposed to the freedom from.]

The feminine vocations “inextricably integrate activity and passivity.”

Probably thinking especially of Sartre, Agacinski writes:

Existentialism, like most modern thought, is vain enough to believe in the autonomy of the subject and to recognize therein a privileged form of freedom.

Philosophy has always been uneasy with birth. With few exceptions (such as Kierkegaard) the philosopher sees himself as pure thought—he seems never to have been born. Simone Beauvoir is still, as philosopher, Plato’s granddaughter: she does not mix mind and flesh.

…behavior traditionally qualified as ‘maternal,’ far from being an enclosure in some sort of immanence can constitute a universal model of an opening to caring (souci) alterity in general.

[But openings haunt men…]

Of the “unjustified child”: “…if it happens that the child, and then the adult, does not feel completely unjustified, it is because the person who cared for him when he was young counts for something.” It is his mother that builds from a gratuitous nothingness the necessity of his existence.

[The mother of a son who too easily succumbs to oppression by his father creates a fatal weakness in the son. For she stands as a living symbol of resistance against an oppressive world. If she does not perform her role heroically, he, the boy, will lack this essential resource for his own survival. She does not have to win, indeed winning might have a negative effect. But it is not even clear what ‘winning’ would mean here since it suggests a contest when justice is never that: it is always a losing proposition, but no less an imperative for being so. She only need never stop struggling. Time will come to her rescue if nothing else. For the boy, however, her strength in adversity, her dogged persistence in the face of meaningless itself, will be a lifeline at his time of trial. Woe to him whose mother accepts defeat. This is her second and no less critical vocation: it is her responsibility to create meaning in life where there is none. (Editor’s note: Luno on why young men kill themselves… he implies that otherwise it will be left to the boy’s own powers of imagination to invent heterocosmic meanings—for which life is at best a take-it-or-leave-it-affair—but these will not treat the feminine and all that it stands for with the greatest kindness… That, or not survive.)]

Beauvoir falls short:

…one might expect a woman philosopher to dare to contest the absence of meaning imputed to procreation…

Is not sexuality precisely the domain in which activity and passivity are the inseparable aspects of the same process?

…a mother’s care for her children, from the moment of gestation, is in complete opposition to a feeling of self-sufficiency or the illusion of being ‘a value.’ It is for the other that the mother cares, not for herself, but, far from seeing this as sacrifice of self, the responsibility she takes for her child is one form of her freedom. …This does not mean that a woman is only a mother, but when she is, she does not mutilate herself, she passionately fulfills a part of herself.

[And the responsibility cannot be imposed on her from without. Hence, the immorality of mandated childbearing. The act of bringing unwanted, unloved life into the world is criminal. But the precise instant in which an act of irresponsibility threatens to become crime cannot be governed by precise rules, unlike in masculine moral schemes. It is the ultimate judgment call maby a woman: it is in this way that she asserts or fails to assert her identity, that is to say, her worthiness as a specifically feminine, not generic, human being. Abortion is indeed a species of murder, but this only shows that, for a woman, there are worse crimes than murder.]

Posted by luno in parity, de Beauvoir, motherhood, abortion, sex differences, feminism (Monday August 7, 2006 at 1:37 pm)

No comments for “Freedom and Fecundity”»

No comments yet.

Leave a comment


(required but not published)

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI

Creative Commons License