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“The Masculine Universal”

Notes on:
Sylviane Agacinski, Parity of the Sexes.

What is really universal in a logical sense…is…the fact of being sexed: all humans are either ‘men or women.’

…abstract egalitarianism affirms the irrelevance of sexual difference

and is untenable in many areas including judicial and political.

…the problem is to know at what level of abstraction a category is theoretically or practically, and thus politically, operative.

Agacinski argues certain realities cannot be analyzed correctly if the operative level is not correct. What reality we attach to the notion of “equality” is at issue here.

From the moment it is established that there is no difference before the law as to whether one is a man or a woman, women can no longer express themselves as such to transform their social status, indeed to defend or promote specific rights.

…the abstract point of view is a good protector of the status quo…

Agacinski makes a reference to Susan Miller Okin’s notion of abolishing gender differences altogether (see my notes on Okin…in preparation). Agacinski seems to doubt the feasibility of this, preferring to focus on “Laboring [sic] to make sexual difference play out otherwise, rather than believing in the possibility of erasing it.”

There is no asexual human archetype but only two fundamental types—masculine and feminine—with which, moreover, variable characteristics are associated.

“[V]irile feminism,” later she will call it “anthropocentric feminism,” are forms that “valorize identification with men”.

This has made achieving male virtues the prize, discounting along the way domestic feminine labor as a labor fully as worthy of appreciation and compensation as any outside the home.

The male-centric order is wedded to the idea of a clear distinction between public and private spheres where different rules of, for instance, compensation obtain.

The message for women in domestic situations:

It is a little as if, instead of denouncing the exploitation of the working class, it had been argued that this labor was stupid and contemptible and that the workers should leave the factory and completely change their activity.

Simone de Beauvoir does not have words harsh enough to describe the emptiness and absurdity of the tasks related to the maintenance of the household, tasks incapable of giving women the opportunity for a ‘singular affirmation of themselves’.

What is intolerable in the housewife’s role and work is not at all the nature of these tasks but, rather, the fact that they are accomplished without pay and excluded from labor considered to be ‘productive.’


Born thieves

In a similar vein, consider the common attitude held toward mendicants—that what panhandlers do in asking for coins is asking for handouts. They are hawking a service for which, if we partake of it, they fully deserve compensation. If you do not believe asking for spare change is hard work, try it for an hour or a day… If you think the work not productive, consider the opportunities it affords to assuage your guilt at being so privileged in not being on the other end of this transaction.* Charity, strictly speaking, is not only justified on utilitarian grounds—by what material good comes of it for others—but by a special service it performs and which only it can perform for the benefactor. Being reminded of how much one should be grateful for is one of the greatest goods that can befall a human being. It is no less so if we pay for the privilege, if I may be so subversive and sententious as to say so. It can never happen often enough.

When someone asks to relieve you of some of your money he or she is doing you a service, like any other, for which, if you accept the offer, you, as with any other good you acquire, ought to pay.

If the point is rarely made it is because, to recall Agacinski’s point, certain goods have been arbitrarily excluded from the realm of those we pay for. We steal from nature, from women, from the relative powerless…from our own mothers because we can, not because we have some tidy justification for doing so.

Am I obviating the eleemosynary impulse altogether? Is true charity, then, impossible? It is indeed much harder to be charitable than is commonly supposed. Not even the dead, in willing their goods to people and causes from whom and which they will in no material sense gain, escape the fact that they owe what it is they “give”. (I won’t rehearse here the rather ancient arguments why this is so—why it is we come into being owing, never stop, and leave encumbered—though I have elsewhere. I will only say they are not economic.)

*If you recognize no such guilt, forgive my presumption. You are unimprovable, let’s hope, because the rest of us are so defective.

[Editor’s note: the aside illustrates Luno’s Diogenean moralism and recalls a favorite passage of his from George Bernanos’ The Diary of a Country Priest.]


The solution proposed by many feminists was to engage men in these unpaid tasks in some fairer proportion. But Agacinski believes this has been “feminism’s most bitter failure.” Again, the relegation of the domestic to the private sphere has exempted it from governmental, that is, public watch. Men deeply resent having what they perceive as their private realm subject to the scrutiny required if the institutions surrounding paid labor should apply.

There is the contradiction that domestic labor when carried out by an unrelated stranger is perfectly eligible for remuneration while the same labor carried out by a housewife is not.

Curiously, the very word “economics” stems from the Greek word oïkos for managing the business of the home.

Marxists, such as Engel and August Bebel, while claiming sensitivity to the plight of women, no less than the capitalist forces of industrialization and the subsequent commercialization of domesticity, have sought solutions exterior to the natural impulses of women: On the one hand, the communalization of childcare, on the other, its commercialization and mechanization. Agacinski asks, “Is there proof that women in general dream only of unloading the care of their children onto others?”

The family economy must be absorbed into the general one. To the extent a labor is productive—and what activity could possibly be more productive than the molding of future citizens and moral agents? (as not a few feminists, besides Agacinski, have noted)—justice requires the kind of recognition for these laboring agents that admits of no ambiguity: material compensation.

[Compensation is not the economic counterpart to eye-for-eye or lex talionis retribution in criminal or juridical contexts. It is more tenuously related to desert. How much do we owe our mothers for having given us birth and nursed us in infancy? In a very important sense, both everything and nothing. We settle for something in between for very practical reasons. Only sons who literally die for their mothers and those who commit suicide approach paying their debt. (Birth is not, for all, an unambiguous good. The suicide and the mother contemplating abortion know this.) Likewise, no billionaire and probably few millionaires deserve their fortune. When people perform great services we pay them fabulous amounts of money. So far we can understand. But what any single flesh-and-blood human being could possibly do to deserve wealth accumulating at the rate of hundreds of dollars per second is long divorced from any relation to a Lockean notion of sweat equity in property. Compensation at its extremes is gesture. That said, Agacinski is right.]

After 1968 what Agacinski calls the “androcentric feminism” of the de Beauvoir type gave way to “separatist,” “communitarian,” or in America “radical” feminism with its Lesbian cast. She finds this more recent movement “beautiful, interesting, and necessary” (as we might judge de Beauvoir’s challenge was in her day), but Agacinski seems to find that while it has contributed a necessary corrective to the de Beauvoirian androcentrism, more and more women are coming to realize value in mixity and sexual difference.

The new challenge is to “politicize” that difference.

Posted by luno in parity, philosophy and sex, motherhood, sex differences, feminism (Saturday August 5, 2006 at 3:05 pm)

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