From a draft of my book The Culture of Hope, 1995:
Chapter IV. Cultural Implications of the New Cosmology
1. Guidelines to the Solution of Cultural Problems
The cosmology of a culture profoundly affects what it can or cannot do. Consider how Taoism in China, for example, encouraged technological innovation while somewhat discouraging a mathematically based science. Or how Renaissance cosmological ideas spurred exploration, industry, and new financial instruments. Or how Mayan calendrical expertise made possible kinds of institutional memory that in turn organized city states and empires. In the previous chapter I have discussed how our own culture is beginning a cosmological revolution; what practical guidelines arise from the new cosmology, that can help us repair the cultural damage created by our old myths and generate new myths, more hopeful, more internally consistent, and with a better basis in fact?
As we have seen, power is not the only, or even the most important, factor in social events. The theory of power depends on a cosmology of one-way linear cause and effect. Very few events in the universe can be accurately described in this way–indeed, the whole art of scientific experiment is needed to isolate straight cause-effect processes. In human affairs, oppressors are causes and victims are the recipients of effects. However, the overwhelming majority of real events, especially in the human sphere, are nonlinear and cannot be reduced to a dualistic oppressor/victim or cause/effect model. Moreover, the more deterministic and one-way a system is, the more subject it is to thermodynamic decay. Thus any would-be oppressor is condemned to the realm of entropy: the greater the power, the swifter it seeps away. It took Stalinist communism only seventy years to dissipate; Hitler’s national socialism less than twenty. The most important implication of this observation is that if tradition is defined as human institutions that have lasted a long time, and if longevity is not thermodynamically consistent with oppression (the exercise of one-way power relations), then the older a tradition, the less likely it is to be oppressive, and the more likely it is to have enjoyed the consensus of the broad mass of its participants. This principle–the first of our guidelines for the solution of social problems–is not new; contemporary social theorists have not yet caught up with the simple insight of Confucius.
A second guideline is that to the extent that human arrangements are an outgrowth of natural evolutionary possibilities and potentials, they will be successful. Since it is nature’s way to generate emergent forms and processes, this fact does not constitute a limitation on our social arrangements: rather it becomes an opportunity for them, one which, if neglected, will likely lead to decay and collapse. Thus if a political and legal system is predicated upon a struggle for power between the sexes and between racial groups, and neglects the actual opportunity nature presents for loving cooperation and cross-fertilization, we can expect that system to ossify and die.
A third guideline is that freedom is constituted not by the ability to “have one’s own way,” but by the actual process of creative work and and evolutionary emergence. Freedom is what happens when, given the choice of A and B, we invent C. Thus political freedom, which is usually taken to mean freedom of choice, is secondary to true freedom, which is the freedom to create. If people need freedom of choice in order to select the needed materials, physical or spiritual, for the making of their work, then political freedom is important. But if those materials are already at hand, or materials are not needed, then political freedom is meaningless and may even be a nuisance, like having too many soap powder brands on the supermarket shelf, too many e-mail messages, or too appetizing a dessert tray. Self-discipline is far more important to true freedom than the choice of material goods or even lifestyles. Likewise, access to a living tradition of creative work (connection, that is, with our evolutionary past) is far more important to true freedom than any ideology of revolution, because a living tradition empowers the imagination, whereas revolution diminishes the available tools of creativity. The fact is that in the long run the only really free people are the ones who have developed their gifts to the point where their contributions to others are indispensable. Thus relationships in which one person’s welfare is heavily dependent upon another’s, such as parenthood and all other forms of service, are not, as the avant-garde has thoughtlessly assumed, the medium of oppression but an opportunity for freedom. Finally, creation can consist not just in the addition of new entities to the world, but also in a beautiful refinement or simplification of what already exists.
A fourth guideline takes the form of a revision of the vexed question of equality. The issue is not hierarchy versus equality. Legitimated self-adjusting hierarchy assures a measure of practical equality. Rigid linear hierarchy under the guise of theoretical equality destroys equality. Equality of persons is achieved through complexity of relationships and multiple interdependence within the community. These in turn are brought about by a rich medium of functional and evaluative hierarchy in the realm of work organization, ideas, art, ethics, and science. A theater or a laboratory, whose activities may be highly stratified in their service of the ultimate goal of truth or beauty, generates a remarkable cameraderie because of the many indispensable work niches that are opened up by the hierarchy itself. Props, lighting, costume, are subordinate to mise-en-scene, mise-en-scene subordinate to action, and action subordinate to the total artistic meaning of the play; but actors, director, designer, costumer, lighting techies share a wonderful easy creative equality as a result.
A fifth guideline is that spiritual values are real. The lack of them kills a culture, by destroying its economy, and stunts its individuals. The presence of them can easily override and eventually reverse economic disadvantage. They are the strange attractors that draw out of a chaotic yet interacting human system emergent forms of order.
Closely related to this guideline is its corollary, a sixth: that economic matters are not the bottom line. The economic value of goods depends on how much they are desired, and desirability depends on other values, such as esthetic, moral, or veridical ones; these are generated by the creativity of human beings and of the rest of nature.
A seventh guideline is that the human world is not a tiny insignificant speck in the universe. Measured in terms of space this planet is indeed smaller relatively than a grain of dust, and measured in terms of space our tenure upon it but an eyeblink. But measured in terms of unified complexity, interconnection, significant event, emergent properties and evolutionary history, our momentary place bulks huge in the cosmos. A single human brain possesses more potential brain states than there are particles in the physical universe. More happens in a year in one of our forests than has happened on Mars for the past million centuries. It would take more bytes of information to describe Belgium than it would to describe an entire galaxy (given that there are no other “belgiums,” or living worlds, within it). Thus any ideology which is based on the “tiny insignificant speck” worldview (such as that we might as well give up the enterprise of civilization and devote ourselves to exciting as many of our membranes as possible before we die) is founded on a false premise.
Using these guidelines, then, let us examine two major avant-garde movements, feminism and multiculturalism. Though there is much to applaud in the moderate versions of these movements, the tenets of radical feminism and radical multiculturalism are in fact not so much a description of the problem, as its main source. Equipped with a more sophisticated cosmology we may now be in a position to construct better cultural myths that will help us rather than hinder us in our shared goals of better art, more integrated, human, and classical in the best sense.
2. The Feminist Myth of Patriarchy
After a few heady years of revolutionary righteousness and manifest destiny in the seventies and early eighties, feminism began to find itself trapped in a web of contradictions. These contradictions become particularly acute when a rapprochement between feminism and environmentalism is attempted. On the face of it, “eco-feminism,” the marriage of radical environmentalism and radical feminism, looks like a natural. Both have a satisfyingly contrarian flavor, both seem designed to annoy the imagined world of cold (male, capitalist, scientific) efficiency, both have a warm, pacifist, and emotional tone, both have an egalitarian basis (equality between sexes, equality between species). Yet bringing them together intellectually has proven very difficult. It has even been necessary to invoke the biggest, and unfortunately most two-edged and unwieldy, weapon of all, which is the idea that rational consistency and logical coherence are themselves the bugbears of an oppressive masculinist and species-centered hegemony, that instead, the truth is what good people want it to be. But how do we tell who are the good people? If power is the only social reality and social good, then as Plato’s Thrasymachus argues in the Republic, the powerful must be the good!
One of the most important historical strains in feminism is the insistence on individual human rights, an insistence which paradoxically goes back to the seventeenth-century bourgeois-capitalist invention of democracy as a way of making the world safe for trade, profit, and no-strings-attached employment practices. Individual liberty took on a grander and nobler aspect in the nineteenth century (consider Beethoven’s Fidelio, or the lives of the romantic poets) and became a metaphysical imperative in the existentialism of the twentieth. Although liberation was originally conceived as mandated by Nature, as in Rousseau’s system, the very notion of human nature itself eventually became targeted as an oppressive mystification designed by the powerful and wicked to oppress the good and weak. Some existentialists (Sartre, for instance, in La Nausée) saw nature as the final cloying seduction that would lure us away from the lonely and precedentless path of the authentic free subject. In the politics of the twentieth century this strain of thought is realized in two important ways: as the emphatic rejection of racism, and, eventually, as the feminist denial of the proposition that anatomy (or biology) is destiny.
But here’s the rub. Radical feminist environmentalism is deeply exercised over whether human beings are part of nature or not. If human beings are not part of nature, and if our own peculiar capacities give us power over nature, and if that is the right and proper state for us, then human sovereignty over nature, including the destruction of it when it thwarts our freedom, becomes justifiable. If human beings are part of nature, then everything we do must be natural and there can be no natural basis for complaint about our destructive activities. Our destructiveness would be no different from that of a giant meteor, or a volcano, or a swarm of locusts. The only solution is to say that in our present (“fallen,” technological) state we are alienated from nature, but that our true and proper state, toward which we should strive, would be to be just another species in a harmonious ecology. For us to be just another species cannot mean anything but that biology, i.e. anatomy, should be destiny. The problem is compounded by yet another strain in the contrarian ideology of the last two hundred years: the notion that western Man (I use the masculine noun intentionally) has become alienated from his body, from nature itself as it is immediately present to him in his feelings, impulses, and desires. The roots of this idea are also very distinguished: we can list Rousseau again, the Romantics, Freud, D. H. Lawrence, and the whole modernist performance tradition from Isadora Duncan to Jerzy Grotowski. A large wing of feminism has adopted the position that women’s ethics and esthetics are superior to men’s precisely because women are closer to the body and to nature: hence the French feminist idea of “writing through the body” and the fashion among some American women poets of writing poems about the taste of one’s own menstrual blood.
If we are to be just another species, and if we are to live through our bodies, and if we are to accept rather than oppose the restrictions that nature imposes upon us, then we cannot at the same time assert that biology is not destiny. We cannot simultaneously claim that our brains are better (and different) because of our biology, and that biology makes no difference to the quality of our brains. We cannot simultaneously assert that we ought to be docile members of a human and natural community, and that we are radically free individuals. Within the feminist community deep political strains and splits are opening up along the lines of these logical inconsistencies. Anyone who has observed intra-feminist politics can vouch for the astonishing virulence, bitterness, and underhandedness of its factional struggles. The “mommy track” controversy, which directly pitted the idea of special female reproductive virtues against the idea of the irrelevance of biological difference, together with its agonizing subtext of the ticking of the biological clock, is a case in point.
Other struggles involve the proper attitude toward men. If men are simply the same as women, then how can the imbalance of power between them (an imbalance which is the sine qua non of feminist belief) be explained? Sheer historical coincidence? If women are the same as men, then surely they would be just as capable of tyranny as the other sex, and thus it would be unfair to blame men for doing what women would have done if they had had the chance. If the advantage of being socioculturally enfranchised is that one can cultivate superior moral and intellectual virtues, then men must be better than women. If sociocultural enfranchisement is, on the other hand, corrupting to those virtues, then women would be wrong to desire it. But if men are by nature morally inferior to women, more power-seeking and tyrannical, the feminist position begins to look dangerously like a sexist one, attributing moral and intellectual differences to biological causes. If childbearing does not put people at a disadvantage in other spheres of activity, then it cannot explain the imbalance of power; but if it does put people at a disadvantage, then it should come as no surprise, and should not be construed as an indictment of society, if childbearers are not as active in other spheres of life. Professional athletes do not win many Nobel prizes; one finds few leading mathematicians among the ranks of the cordon bleu. Indeed, when fair-minded feminists consider the list of great human achievements–penicillin, the plays of Shakespeare, the art of the fugue, calculus–they cannot deny that these were gigantic gifts to the human race, often created at enormous sacrifice and in the face of bitter opposition and incomprehension. It seems fantastic, insane, to attack their givers for their privileged position. Think of poor Blake, or Mozart, or Van Gogh, or Hopkins, or Kafka, and the struggle of their brief lives to give their art to a hostile public; the idea of their having some special social advantage because of being male is morally obscene. Many women in the feminist movement, who love their fathers, brothers, husbands, or especially their sons, have all along denied the premise that male achievements were simply the symptoms of privilege. It makes more sense not to attack the givers of these great gifts, but instead to recognize the work of mothers as being entirely commensurate with them.
Finally there is a deep feminist ambivalence about the very nature of the goods that they feel they have been unjustly denied. Those goods are not so much the kind that are consumed; indeed, one of the complaints against society is that women have been made into passive consumers, spenders, recipients rather than makers and doers. It is the more intangible kind of goods, consisting of the opportunities to act and create, and the debt of obligation others owe one for acting and creating, that has been refused to women. But those very opportunities themselves must have been made by men, since men have arrogated to themselves the role of making. Thus the goods women want have the taint of having been made by men.
This problem is an agonizing one, and various mutually contradictory solutions have been proposed. One is that women have been prevented from creative activity by men. But part of the heroic story of male creativity has always been the artist’s or scientist’s or philosopher’s long struggle for recognition, the bitter resistance to class, ethnic, religious and personal oppression; could not women have won the same contest? Perhaps the male model of Oedipal rebellion is the wrong one; but how could one differentiate between those male insurgents and the contemporary struggles of liberated women? Is it not an abject borrowing of male methods?
Another solution is that women have all along been just as successfully creative as men. The problem with this idea is that it denies the premise that men have effectively reserved the creative roles for themselves. The argument then shifts to the proposition that women’s creative activity has not been properly recognized. But there are only two sexes of people who could recognize such achievements: men and women. If men are as tyrannical and corrupt as the history of sexual oppression suggests, then recognition by men would itself be an undesirable boon, signifying that the achievement itself met the corrupt criteria of the enemy. Or suppose men were not as evil as this, but were basically fair-minded, if perhaps blinded by their own political history as oppressors. Was not the spectacle of women begging for their attention and praise a rather ignoble one? Should they not earn it instead of nag for it? If recognition by other women is the only desirable thing that has been lacking, women have only themselves to blame for their obscurity. And is not the desire for fame, for the everlasting name, for the monument and commemoration and place in history–is not this desire itself a male fantasy, a silly kind of pissing on fireplugs, an assertion of hierarchical male values, that women should rightly reject?
The great myth of the patriarchy embodies many of the contradictions and anxieties of radical feminism in a narrative of the origin and moral drama of the human race. That myth has many versions, some of which contradict each other, and many different historical timescales, but we can summarize it thus.
Originally a matriarchy ruled human society. In this golden age the female values were uppermost: human equality, nonviolence, sharing, love, caring, an organic and personal relationship with Mother Nature (Gaia), a consensual system of decision-making, and a wholesome and natural system of spiritual and bodily health. Sexual taboos were unknown and unnecessary; conflicts were resolved through communal negotiation and sharing; prejudice, war, hierarchy, money, private property, objective science, and alienating systems of logic and quantification and technology were unknown. There was no sexual division of labor. Society was centered on the home, which was a holy place, and on nurturing child care. The dead were revered; fear of death was impossible because the selfish individualism that makes us afraid of losing our personal consciousness was never allowed to arise. Wise matriarchs, representing the goddesses of a bountiful earth, gave advice, oracles, guidance, and gentle correction. The central symbol of creativity, artistic and otherwise, was the womb, and the female arts of weaving, singing and storytelling were extensions of the mysterious work of the womb.
Into this arcadian age of happiness entered a new and terrible force. Male lusts for property, the exclusive sexual possession of women, individual self-display, and dominance could no longer be restrained. A patriarchy struggled with and eventually usurped the matriarchal rule. Women were subjugated and became the property of males, serving them as slaves. Private property was introduced, with all the anxiety, alienation, injustice and vanity that go along with it. Male aggressions erupted into bloody and violent wars. Elaborate social hierarchies were established. A cold, alienating system of logic and empirical reason replaced the older, more organic and intuitive wisdom. Sex was poisoned by the introduction of sexual taboos, and by the exclusive possession of the female and her reproductive capacities by the male. Terrified of death, limited to a narrow definition of the self that included mind and consciousness but excluded the unconscious, spiritual and communal elements of personal being, human beings clung to a miserable existence. A public world of marketplaces, courts, armies, temple priesthoods, and impersonal institutions replaced the home as the center of human life. Laws, codes and punishments replaced sharing and consensus as ways of resolving disputes. Science arose as a way of repressing, dominating and exploiting Nature, and we became increasingly separated from the web of natural life. The cold, sadistic gaze of impersonal reason replaced warm intuitive feeling as the way to understand the world. The symbol of creativity became the phallus, and the act of creation was imaged as rape.
It was only in the west that the patriarchy fully triumphed. Other cultures, gentler and less exploitative, preserved remnants of the old wisdom. Even in the west a sisterhood of wise women–artists, visionaries, midwives and intellectuals–carried on the traditions in secret. They were oppressed and labelled as witches when they were discovered. Their heroic resistance to the patriarchy has recently won for them the franchise, but there is no way that the patriarchy will ever give up its real power. Modernity, with its alienation, rationalism, and anomie represents the triumph of the patriarchy. Colonialism and capitalism are destroying the traditional cultures, and many women have gone over to the enemy. Western technology is now on the verge of creating an ecological crisis, and the Earth itself will protest against its long rape by some natural catastrophe.
This myth has all the delights of paranoia, combined with the full satisfaction of our very human desires for purity, scapegoats, self-justification, and a morally noble explanation for one’s own imagined or real personal failures. Some of its propositions also contain a grain of truth.
What are its disadvantages? The most obvious one is that taken as a whole the myth is not supported by the historical, mythological, archeological, ethological, anthropological and sociological evidence. As far as any reputable ancient history is concerned, there never was an exclusively matriarchal golden age. In mythology, Apollo indeed replaced the chthonic goddesses at Delphi, but he was also replacing the cult of Poseidon, and his voice was the priestess of the Oracle, who wielded enormous political power among the Hellenes. His sister Artemis gained cult power through the whole period, and Athena replaced Ares as the leading war-deity. Later, in Rome, goddesses of nature, love, domesticity and fertility made big comebacks, while Jupiter languished; and even in Christianity it was the cult of the Virgin Mother that built the cathedrals. Old gods and goddesses are superseded by new gods and goddesses; it will not do to select for study only the goddesses who are replaced and the gods who are elevated.
Archaeology tells a story of male hunters and female gatherers who are succeeded by male farmers and female weavers, but does not support the myth. Ethology–especially the work of Jane Goodall–shows unquestionably that our primate cousins, and thus probably our primate ancestors, were violent, possessive both sexually and territorially, highly hierarchical in social organization, and even more prone to wars, child abuse, and rape than we are. Anthropology gives us many examples of healthy matriarchal systems (as many of them in the west as elsewhere) but always in societies which also contain a powerful patriarchal or male-dominated system as well. These last distinctions are very important, for there is no reason why a matriarchy cannot happily coexist with a patriarchy; and not all male-dominated systems are necessarily patriarchal. Moreover societies with strong matriarchal power structures do not seem to be any less violent, hierarchical, or ecologically exploitative than societies without them.
Sociology would point out that the three main characteristics attributed by the myth to the patriarchy–its primitive and violent brutality, its stultifying conservatism and moral stuffiness, and its cold, legalistic, scientific rationality, detached from the warm reality of the body–could not possibly coexist. The myth’s alienating science and technology, for instance, would require a revolution against conservative attitudes and an environment protected against violent brutality. Feminists who contend that new technology and ideas are breaking up the old pattern of women’s subjection are in direct contradiction to the feminist “golden age” theory. If the patriarchs are both rational and stuffy, they certainly will not have the spirit and energy to be brutal and violent. And if the myth resorts to elaborate theories of conspiracy, in which the patriarchy masks its violence behind legalism and science, the element of stuffiness and stupid conservatism is lost, and the enemy seems more brilliantly cunning and diabolically collusive than the worst dreams of the paranoid. If the myth chooses only one of the three patriarchal characteristics, it falls apart, or at least can only cover a limited period of history and loses its larger moral implications. To tell the truth, the myth is so flexible as to be easily stretched to cover whatever it is that its adherents currently dislike about the imagined enemy: but by the same token it tells an incoherent story and is therefore almost untestable by the sciences.
But since the integrity of these very sciences by which we arrived at the new cosmology is itself called into question by the myth of the patriarchy, as male justifications for the status quo, I shall argue for the replacement of this myth by a better one on other grounds than on the clear evidence. (If the evidence is tainted, it can therefore be used neither by the challengers of the myth nor by its defenders; indeed, what untainted evidence could we use to decide which parts of the evidence were tainted, and which were not?) Indeed I intend to show that the feminist counter-myth I propose is in much better accord with the evidence, even evidence cited by the adherents of the old myth. But the grounds for my argument will instead be the internal self-contradictions of the old myth, and its manifest conclusion in despair; and the greater imaginative richness, consistency, and hopefulness of the new.
3. A New Feminist Myth
The new myth recognizes the coexistence of different sources of authority in society, so that matriarchy can coexist with patriarchy. It is aware, as the myth of the golden age is not, that the repressive and hidebound patriarchy described by the myth could not possibly create the revolutionary social, intellectual, and technological changes which have resulted, for good or ill, in modernity. The new myth distinguishes between patriarchy and another, newer form of social organization that we might call “juventocracy”–the rule of unattached young men (and increasingly) women. The new myth acknowledges values in the modern “western” political, intellectual, scientific, religious and artistic tradition that no true feminist would wish to sacrifice to the myth of the patriarchy. It includes an enormously important historical change, the overthrow of the patriarchy, which is totally ignored in the previous myth. It avoids a sexist attribution to the male of a special criminality, and also avoids a debilitating and sexist attribution to the female of a special purity. Further, it avoids the dualistic Cartesian separations between nature and culture, nature and humanity, nature and nurture which are implied by those sexist attributions. It is not anti-intellectual, as the other myth tends to be, and thus it does not undermine as it does the achievements of the great female intellectuals together with the great male ones. It is not Luddite, and therefore does not rely for its credibility on an ideal world population some five billion smaller than our present one. To a fair-minded and educated feminist of either sex it offers a way out of the procrustean dilemma presented by the myth of the patriarchy, that in order to be a loyal feminist one must accept an account of human history that is improbable, self-contradictory, sexist, simplistic, and unsupported by the evidence. Finally, the new myth presents a reinterpretation of contemporary sexual politics which is diagnostic of its difficulties, sympathetic, and full of hope for the future.
Like any other narrative of history, the feminist myth I propose here is partial in scope and subject to exceptions of all kinds. However, it is, I believe, less inherently contradictory and more productive of friendly effort for the future than the former myth, and makes possible exciting insights into coherent connections among large masses of historical evidence. These insights might prove to be rich material for a new centrist art of storytelling. “Once upon a time,” then. . .
In traditional societies ranging from the hunter-gatherer stage to the agrarian empire, the human world divided itself into two moieties, the male and the female, with two somewhat different cultures, often two different dialects, and two different forms of authority, the patriarchy and the matriarchy. Together they carved up reality: in early cultures between the male region of hunting and the female region of gathering; in later cultures, between production and reproduction, and between the public (the village, marketplace and city) and the private (the household). For millenia there was a rough parity between these two spheres, with some fluctuations as technological and political changes slowly spread.
The household was the core of a traditional society’s economic, artistic, intellectual and spiritual life. Though the male patriarch had always been its titular and administrative head and the leader of its protectors, it was the women of the household who held the real power of decision and the conduct of its life and creative activity. Like a university, which is in some ways a survival of the ancient household structure, and which is judged not by the efficiency of its administration but by the creative activity of its faculty, a household’s vitality and direction lay in its women. The extended family and the widespread use of servants and slaves provided a constant oral community within which the female culture could flourish, arranging marriages, telling stories (“old wives’ tales”), training and indoctrinating the children in their first five or so formative years, creating the web of gossip that constitutes a community, performing the central religious rituals that were the spiritual and ideological heart of society, making clothes and fabrics and preparing food.
The major economic activities were carried on in the home. On the periphery would be the menfolk, the farmers, hunters, craftsmen, warriors and traders, who constituted the household’s outer shell and conducted its tenuous and infrequent relations with other communities and the outside world. In a world in which everybody belonged to someone, the peasant to the chieftain, the chieftain to the king or emperor or paramount chief, the king to the gods, and in which ownership denoted an intimate, reciprocal, and emotional attachment, women indeed “belonged” to the household and thus nominally to the household’s head. But he too “belonged;” and it would be inaccurate to equate ownership in this sense with modern property ownership. It would be much closer to the sense of the genitive when we speak of our children as being “ours,” or when a dean refers to “her” faculty. Women were no more slaves or property than children or university faculty are. This model is roughly true of most traditional societies, both past and present.
Within the traditional male value system very few men desired those goods valued by the female culture, and within the female value system equally few women would desire male-valued goods. Exceptional temperaments like Tiresias or Virgil’s warrior-maiden Camilla might cross the sexual boundaries from time to time, and if they did it with panache they might thereby win a kind of wondering praise. Greek tragedy and comedy often treat of such characters, and they are usually accorded great sympathy even when they commit questionable actions.
Given the state of medicine and technology, early societies could scarcely be arranged in any other way. No reliable form of contraception existed (fertility was controlled when necessary by infant exposure) and disease and famine usually required the maximum birthrate to counter the shortness of life expectancy and to replenish the population. Male upper-body strength, size, and aggression made a significant difference in a world largely without machines, as did female physical dexterity, sensitiveness, and flexibility. There was no substitute for breastfeeding. A protected environment for children and for expectant and nursing women was essential. It was only in the nineteenth century, and only in very advanced economies, that technology began to alter this state of things. Safe feeding-bottles and pasteurized milk may have contributed more than any other invention to the end of sexual specialization. From a modern point of view that old system was very wasteful of human intellectual and imaginative talents, which I assume are on balance equal between the sexes: males would have little opportunity to develop natural aptitudes suitable to the female culture, and in women some talents suited to the masculine life would likewise be wasted.
There is no evidence that women in significant numbers refused to accept the division of labor, or despised the female culture, or yearned to join the male culture and were prevented from doing so. In women’s writings there are some protests about the state of things; but women writers were self-selected by their choice of a traditionally male medium of expression. In like fashion one might expect western practitioners of traditional Chinese ink-painting to be defensive and uncomfortably aware of their status as interlopers in a foreign discipline. The women’s oral tradition tends to criticize men for not keeping their side of the bargain (just as the male tradition scolds women for not keeping theirs) but it rarely attacks the terms of the contract itself. It might be argued that that there was much more female discontent than shows up in the record. There is a multitude of evidence of unsuccessful religious, ethnic, dynastic, and economic rebellion from ancient documents and monuments, and from contemporary anthropological accounts, evidence which by its very presence would counter any claim that gender protest could have been erased from the record. Only with the emergence of the modern world does such protest begin to appear, and even there only in a minority of the population. Those few women who did choose a “male” role were often regarded by both sexes as patterns of excellence–for instance Sappho, Diotima (as philosopher), Queen Berenice of Alexandria, Lady Murasaki, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Hildegard of Bingen, Margery Kemp, Juliana of Norwich, Saint Teresa of Avila, Saint Joan, Christine de Pisan, Marie de Champagne, Elizabeth of Urbino, and Elizabeth Tudor among others.
The world thus divided between the patriarchy and the matriarchy presented a profound problem to the young males of the group, especially those of exceptional personal strength, intelligence, and talent. They were not unlike the young males of the baboon or chimpanzee troop, who must either accept the domination of the high-ranking senior males or settle for a position of marginality on the outside of the troop, deprived of reproductive opportunities. It was from this group that a new force emerged, which I call the “juventocracy.” This force would, after many centuries, unseat the patriarchy. A part of the old male culture, released by the gradual growth of new technologies and increased leisure, and finding its desire to play a significant and creative role in society blocked both by the old patriarchy and by the monopoly held by the matriarchy over the household and the dynasty, broke away and created its own new value system. More mobile and innovative than the traditional matriarchy/patriarchy, it began to develop arts, technologies, activities and ideologies of its own (many of them recorded in epic poetry). Its archetype was the hero, and its central idea was transformation. In modern terms we would say that it emphasized evolution rather than ecology. Through a series of dialectical metamorphoses, prompted by a sort of Oedipal impuse to honor, emulate and supersede the past, it eventually brought forth an extraordinary series of institutions: cities, writing, precise and enduring records of the past, new communications technologies, money, individualism, democracy, accounting, art as an ideological rather than just a decorative and celebratory activity, logic, bureaucracy, science, power-assisted production technology, and political liberty.
This development can be seen in the west as passing through three phases. First was the age of the heroes, which may have begun with and been associated with the invention of writing and historical records. Next came the age of legitimation, roughly coinciding with the rise of the state, in which the young usurpers, attempting to justify their rule, devised the legal and cultural systems that underlie modern society. Last came the age of technology, in which the juventocracy came to duplicate and replace many of the functions of the old matriarchy.
Many myths and stories recount the rebellion of the heroic juventocracy against the rule of the patriarchs. Of course the whole matter is fraught with guilt and shame, and haunted by questions about the legitimacy of the hero’s rule, once he has taken over the leadership of the city. The earliest known epic, Gilgamesh, attests to this anxiety. One common pattern, by which painful parricidal feelings can be exorcised, is to have the old king’s younger brother actually perform the act of regicide and usurpation. When the king’s son kills the usurping uncle, he is at one and the same time legitimately overthrowing a member of the patriarchal generation, and reasserting a lost legitimacy by avenging the death of the father. Examples of this pattern include the stories of Aeson, Pelias and Jason; Agamemnon, Aegisthus and Orestes; and Hamlet the elder, Claudius, and Hamlet the younger. But the young hero cannot be so easily divided into the wicked usurper and dutiful avenging son; part of Hamlet’s moral agony is that he sees himself in Claudius and Claudius in himself. Sophocles’ Oedipus is indeed both fratricidal “younger brother” and grieving son, both parricide and just avenger, both usurper and true heir.
In this heroic overthrow of the patriarchy the young male hero looks for an ally in his sister or lover (sometimes she is, by mythological implication, both). Jason enlists Medea, Orestes Electra, and Hamlet Ophelia. In other words the young male rebels originally hoped for a corresponding rebellion by the young women against the patriarchy. Here the myth predicts painful difficulties: the patriarchy was in the long run the best protector of the rights, freedoms, and powers of the matriarchy, and the matriarchy, which reproduced the very life of the tribe, could not be sacrificed. Thus the young female ally of the hero finds herself in terrible predicaments: abandoned by her unreliable lover, and forced into infanticide, like Medea; guilty of matricide, like Electra; or, if unwilling to leave the protection of the patriarchy, spurned by the hero, like Ophelia.
This new juventocratic system was from the beginning in direct competition with the old patriarchy and fought it vigorously; it tended to leave the old matriarchy alone, because the task of reproducing the society was too important to be tampered with. Hamlet is enjoined by his father’s ghost not to harm Gertrude; Orestes is pursued by Furies for his mother’s murder. Remembering with some bitterness, however, the struggle to free itself from the conservatism of the matriarchy (symbolized by such myths as the hero’s battle against engulfing female monsters), the new culture tended to take a rather condescending and even mocking attitude toward the matriarchy, even as it took over from the dying patriarchy the task of maintaining and protecting it. However, it was never as good at this task as its predecessor; and eventually it would break the contract with the matriarchy that it had inherited.
Anxiety about the legitimacy of the new heroic regime, and the divisiveness that was the result of the destruction of paternal authority, led to the creation by the juventocrats of a more elaborate legal system that would maintain order and legitimate the new rulers. At first the tyrannos who replaced the king would find ways to claim the old king’s authority for his own, and the patriarchy would be apparently restored; but with each new rebellion the credibility of orderly succession would be lost. The personal charisma of fatherhood itself began to fade, and though there were many attempts (such as the doctrine of the divine right of kings) to replace it, history was running the other way. The young heroes were forced to develop democratic and consensual forms of government, governments of laws not men. The Oresteia concludes with such a transfer of authority from family and personal authority to legality and the vote. Antigone is the story of a woman who conservatively resists the new legality; her insistence on proper burial for her brother, as the anthropologist Robin Fox has brilliantly pointed out, reasserts a much more ancient tribal law. Of course the irony and tragedy is that her dead brother is, many layers deep, one of the new usurping juventocrats. Much later, during another period of expansion for the juventocracy, Shakespeare would work through the whole long tragedy in his two historical tetralogies, Henry VI-Richard III, and Richard II-Henry V. Prince Hal must find a new way to restore the legitimacy lost when his own father, Henry IV, usurped the throne of Richard II. He does it partly by making his surrogate father Falstaff into a sort of sacrificial victim.
We can see the struggle between the new democratic/heroic culture and the old patriarchy very clearly in such central political documents as Locke’s Two Treatises of Government, which forms the basis of Anglo-Saxon democracy and thus most national constitutions. The first treatise is devoted exclusively to a bitter and comprehensive attack against the patriarchy as enunciated by Robert Filmer, that is, against the rule of fathers. That attack was not merely a rhetorical one. It finds its concrete expression in the executions of Charles I of England, Louis XVI of France, and Czar Nicholas of Russia. But having overthrown the patriarch, one must either be totally amoral in the pursuit of unifying political power (Machiavelli), or establish a social contract (Locke and Rousseau). Or one can rely on the supposed natural virtues of the uncultivated noble savage, which replaced the older image of human nature as the product of an inherited natural sociality, enshrined in and cultivated by the patriarchy/matriarchy. But as in King Lear, the goddess Nature who stands up for bastards seems to sanction the most horrible atrocities; uncultivated man is more savage than noble. The nobility of those technologically “primitive” people that the European explorers discovered was, so the anthropologists found, not the result of an imagined wild free natural innocence, but of the intactness of their patriarchal/matriarchal social structures. And Rousseau abandoned his own family in typical Faustian style.
The patriarchy, then, has since become a rather feeble political force in the west, surfacing occasionally in the form of local political patronage, western ranch structure, good-old-boy networks, and the Mafia; but it, and the ideals of loyalty, honor, tribalism and chivalry it enshrined, have been much eclipsed. Feminists who attack the patriarchy surely have the wrong target; their betrayer was the new democratic individualist modernity. Matriarchy and patriarchy are mutually supportive, whereas individualist modernism must despite itself erode the matriarchal foundations. The modern crisis is that the old patriarchy is no longer able to protect either itself or the matriarchy from the modern world.
For even though its interest lay in preserving the ancient matriarchal system, the new modernism could not help diverting the matriarchal sources of economic, psychological, cultural and spiritual nourishment. The rule of the juventocracy, sanctioning as it did the replacement of old ways of doing things in every generation, was enormously innovative not only in political philosophy but also in science, art, and technology. New textile machinery replaced the household weavers; writing and history replaced the oral tradition; democracy and bureaucracy replaced the old matriarchal consensual hierarchy; labor-saving devices and industrially prepared foods took away some of the household’s raison d’etre, schools and universities took over the role of educating the young, and industry soaked up the labor market, thereby depriving the household of its vitalizing retinue of servants and companions. The center was decentered as more and more of the household functions were distributed through a grid of impersonal social institutions. The tasks that remained seemed more and more repetitive, trivial, and boring, and began to attract the scorn of feminists. The arranged marriage, which involved the whole family, was replaced by modern ideas of romance. Personal freedom and mobility grew by leaps and bounds, especially for the young, first for men and later for women. The population shot up as a result of better hygiene and more food, inflating societies to the point that even the most powerful traditional houses, like those of the Bourbons and Hapsburgs, or more recently the Marcoses in the Philippines, the Brezhnevs in Russia, and the Somozas in Nicaragua, were unable to respond adroitly to the increased flow of information.
In visual art, music, philosophy and science a two-phase process was at work: first, a rejection of patriarchal ideas, and then an undermining and betrayal of the matriarchal element that remained. The traditional visual icon was replaced in the Renaissance by perspective and realism, as the patriarchal system of natural emblematic significance was overthrown. This was the first phase. Then, in the late nineteenth century, came the second phase: the modernist rejection of realism itself, of any kind of derivation of the image from nature, a rejection that marked the symbolic death of the matriarchy. Likewise in music the patriarchal polyphony was replaced during the Renaissance by the nuove musiche, in which the word was to be the master of the music: the juventocratic logos would now dominate the paternal pattern or harmony (this latter word cognate, by the way, with arms, aristocrat, order, and ritual ). In the late nineteenth century we see the second phase, in which traditional melody and tonality are in turn undermined and questioned; the new music was “not for old women.” In philosophy, likewise, as the patriarchs lost their power, logos replaced the patriarchal nomos as the ruler of cosmos, and mind was separated from and elevated above matter. Then in the nineteenth century epistemology triumphed and the mater-matter itself was first reduced to passivity, and then to a state of poststructuralist absence. In science the early patriarchal/matriarchal world, which was alive, sacramental, and indissoluble, and in which anatomy was destiny, was first replaced by the dead, dissectable, manipulable and materialistic universe of Francis Bacon and Doctor Faustus, and then by the relativistic/quantum universe in which matter has disappeared altogether.
It is surely significant that in visual art both the iconic and the representation of nature are returning, that in serious music harmony, melody and tonality are making a comeback, that in philosophy there are those who dare to call themselves realists and who even posit a cosmos as the region of broadest ethical concern, and that in science the theories of the likes of Whitehead, Prigogine, and Wheeler seem to indicate that the universe is alive and whole after all. Perhaps the story isn’t over, and perhaps a new-old kind of hope, heralded by the centrist movement, is emerging.
By the nineteenth century the rebellion of the juventocracy had entered a new phase. Having outgrown the need for paternal legitimation, the young men who made up the new modernity began to reject the ancient contract with the matriarchy that promised women permanent protection and bonded economic service by men in return for a relative certainty that a male’s children were his own. Contraception separated sex from reproduction and from the rest of human life. Society seemed so crowded that the dominant ethnic groups no longer saw the need to replenish their numbers, and ignored the demographic trends which foretold a total ethnic transformation of their societies, and a passing over of the power to determine the composition of future societies into other hands. The result was “sexual liberation,” which was the death knell of the old matriarchy.
Mozart’s Don Giovanni marks an important phase in this process. The young hero is not content with overthrowing the old man, but has broken the ancient contract with the matriarchy and has used his male sexual force to attack the sanctity of marriage and family. (Goethe’s Faust likewise goes beyond the Renaissance Faust in betraying and destroying Gretchen, the woman who would be his wife). It is of the utmost significance that Don Ottavio (Octavius was, of course, the “legitimizing” successor to the murdered patriarch Caesar) is himself incapable of dealing with Giovanni and protecting his Donna Anna from the powerful young sexual predator. It takes a patriarch, the Commendatore, who must be brought back from the dead to do so, to restrain the sexual depredations of the young hero; the juventocracy is helpless to protect the reproductive system of society. We find much the same line of mythic thought in Richardson’s Clarissa.
A similar pattern of betrayal of the woman by the sexually liberated male is played out in the great nineteenth century novels: Madame Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Note that in these works the young woman colludes in her own betrayal; she is torn between identifying with her magnificent rebellious betrayer, returning to the maternal system out of which she has come and which she must herself betray if she is to be liberated, and seeking out the kind and authoritative father whom she will not find because her lover has got rid of him. Mozart and Da Ponte draw her character in Donna Elvira. In Wuthering Heights Cathy becomes, like Electra, the accomplice of her brother-lover, the rebel Heathcliff. In Pride and Prejudice, on the other hand, the male betrayer, Wickham, is finally seen by Elizabeth in his true colors, and she must come painfully to terms with the wisdom of the matriarchy even though her own mother has betrayed and dissipated it. In order to recover that wisdom she must transform Darcy, the young nonconformist, into a true and gentle patriarch who will be a fit partner for her own prospective renewed matriarchy. In Middlemarch Dorothea rebels against her husband Casaubon who is inadequate both as patriarch and as lover; and in choosing the charming and boyish Ladislaw for her lover she takes over for herself not only a matriarchal role, but also a patriarchal one.
The current feminist movement is in fact a reaction against the effects of sexual liberation, a reaction which has borrowed some of the rebellious rhetoric of its opponent. If the males broke the old contract, why should not the females do so too? But if they do, what role is provided for them in the spiritual and social economy? What will replace the traditional system of the matriarchy, so deeply human, creative, and fulfilling? In desperation and anxiety some feminists abandoned the old matriarchal value system and culture and sought to appropriate traditionally male roles and values instead. They imitated what they thought were the male virtues of aggression and the desire for dominance. It is naturally insupportable to adopt the values of the enemy, and thus tacitly admit defeat by him; therefore the only recourse was to claim that those values were female values all along, which had been prevented from realization by male tyranny. Worse still, freedom seemed to demand the betrayal of the culture of the mothers; but to admit this to oneself was too anguishing. Feminist rebellion resembled that of the young male heroes so closely that it was very hard to see that it was these very brothers and lovers who were their enemy, or at least the occupiers of the ground they coveted. It makes a kind of sense, then, to divert the attack, turning it against a patriarchy that does not really exist except in the imagination. In this light one can deeply sympathize with feminism, and admire the development of its ideology as a courageous and intellectually agile struggle for psychic survival.
But once the generation of transition has passed, and women no longer feel unconsciously that they had no part in creating the values by which they must live, the feminist anxiety and unconscious rage at defeat may well abate. It is entirely within the principles of the new game of modernity that women should participate in it equally with men. The technological/capitalist/democratic system does not in itself care what sex one is; it does not even care very much whether or not one is a human being or a robot, as long as the job gets done. Within the democratic and capitalist-trading ethics of the new dispensation the fact that to a large extent men invented the game does not make it their exclusive possession. Indeed, like the westernized economy of Japan, the women may end up playing the game better than their teachers.
It became psychologically necessary for some women to claim that they were oppressed throughout those many centuries. It seems much more plausible, however, that within the women’s world those male values and activities were regarded as boring boy-noise, less interesting than the vital activities of arranging marriages, childrearing, running a household, tending the ancestral spirits, weaving beautiful textiles, perfecting the ancient art of cooking, and maintaining personal relationships. Those activities are now on the way to being like hunting, riding, sailing and gardening: archaic forms of work that have become pleasures reserved to a wealthy and leisured class. Perhaps it is more comfortable for the rest of us not to miss them too much, even to tell ourselves that they are the burdens of oppression. Then the problem is how to avoid demeaning the traditional values of the matriarchy, of service, love, and wholeness.
One of the advantages of the new feminist myth is that it may tend to diminish the causes for hatred between men and women. Within the context of the old myth of the patriarchy it is easy enough to collect an infuriating list of traditional misogynistic and ill-tempered male diatribes against women, and turn them into a sexual casus belli . But when we realize that for most of history there were three rather distinct cultures, a patriarchy, a juventocracy, and a matriarchy, the case becomes more understandable as another example of natural human xenophobia, not very different from what we can see between ethnic groups even today. The fact that the women’s culture was largely an oral one makes it a little harder to collect an equivalent set of female complaints at and criticisms of men. Still, it is quite clear that Geoffrey Chaucer was good-naturedly tapping into a rich and vital oral tradition of female misanthropy in his portrait of the Wife of Bath and in her tale; and the same tradition crops up frequently in fabliaux, in topical drama from all periods, in anthropologists’ accounts of traditional and emerging societies, and in women’s letters, oral history, and the like. The fact that the sexes have often found it hard to get along with each other is neither new nor remarkable; and it is not surprising that they should relieve their feelings by verbal abuse.
It is clear that in some male individuals, perhaps enough to constitute a minority tradition, misogyny became systematized into sexism, a belief that women are innately inferior to men. Though there have always been wiser heads to contradict them, both male and female, and though it is possible that within the women’s tradition there existed serious and systematic beliefs in the inferiority of men, masculinist sexism does stand as a hideous blot in the human record. Some avant-garde critics have interpreted the whole human tradition of art, literature, and science as expressions of patriarchal sexism. The new myth, however, does not require the wholesale rejection of the great human masterpieces of imagination and intellect. And it does not require the distortion of literary history to fit a mold of pro-male, anti-female propaganda. For there are surely far more male villains in fiction, poetry, drama and narrative sculpture and painting than female villains. While male villains can plumb the depths of inhuman evil, female villains are almost always treated with subtlety and sympathy. Dido nearly steals the show; Cleopatra certainly does and transvalues all the Roman values. We surely find ourselves applauding Medea and Clytemnestra despite our disapproval of their violent crimes, and it is hard to imagine that the Athenian audience would have felt differently. There are perhaps at least as many heroines in literature, of various kinds, as heroes. Penelope, Alcestis, Electra, Antigone, Beatrice, Rosalind, Viola, Portia, Milton’s Eve, Tess Durbeyfield and so on are glorious archetypes of full human being; and one cannot look at the sculptures of the Greek goddesses and Medieval Virgins without a shiver of recognition of the divine human essence.
Furthermore, it is not at all clear that women are represented in the arts in any more stereotypical ways than men. One could certainly categorize male characters in as limited and as unhelpful a way as the virgin-mother-whore-slave pattern that some have professed to see in male portrayals of women: hero-father-fool-slave, for instance, and then one could likewise trim the rich and complex artistic creations one finds to fit this trivial procrustean bed. For every passive female character there is an equally passive Richard II or Bishop Proudie or Pip; for every male adventurer there is a magnificent Judith or St. Joan or Dorothea or Isobel Archer; for every female failure, Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, there is a male Werther, Antony, or Lear.
If women have often been portrayed in the domestic context, this may have more to do with the demands of realistic representation than with oppressive ideology. I have already suggested that the domestic scene has not until recently been considered an inferior one, but rather a state of the highest honor. In fact we might well marvel how many past fictive heroines have been depicted in quite atypical situations, engaging in typically male activities and adventures; as if the male authors yearned to have enthusiastic female comrades but were rebuffed in their implied invitations by women who would rather stay sensibly at home. Every whole man understands the great sigh of joy with which Othello greets Desdemona as she descends from her storm-tossed ship: “Ah, my fair warrior!” It is the prospect and hope of such equal comradeship that makes the tragedy more terrible. Some of the “misogyny” attributed to male writing is surely a misreading of a misguided male appeal to the intelligent young woman to throw off the shackles of the matriarchy, which is disappointed when the lady turns out to have more sense than to do so!
The same can perhaps be said for those studies based on the old myth, which claim that for art and literature to represent, even to gaze at, is an essentially dominating and tyrannical male act. Such radical feminist criticism either itself represents something, in which case it stands accused of its own indictment and its publication is an act of bad faith, or it does not represent anything, in which case, making no assertion, it does not need to be corrected. And the Gaze seems to be even more offensive when it is not directed at oneself, and one does not get the attention one deserves, than when it is so directed. Such double-binds are the figments of despair; what we need is hope. More dangerous in the long term, because it may affect one of our few avenues of unwelcome, unexpected, and therefore salvific knowledge, is the notion of “male science,” which again relies on the myth of the patriarchy. In refutation of old-myth-based claims that the male mind is linear, it should be pointed out that while indeed the glories of linear algebra and mathematical logic were first revealed by men, so also were the even more beautiful contemporary fields of non-linear algebra, fractals, dissipative systems, multivalued quantum logic, catastrophe theory, and chaos. Another target of old-myth critique is the linearity of male narratives, especially the “grand narratives” that give meaning and direction to human activity. Here one might point out that women were the traditional tellers of old wives’ tales and fairy tales. Recent studies of narrative, moreover, demonstrate that there is nothing quite as nonlinear as a good story, with its strong temporal asymmetry, its fanlike branching of alternative futures and surprising collapses of the field of possibilities into new gestalts. Stories, like great music, are not predictable until they are over, and often not even then. Male “dualism” is another favorite target; males, it is claimed by the patriarchal myth, tend to separate mind and matter, spirit and body, culture and nature. Here it should be pointed out that men were also the originators of the great monist systems, like the mystical philosophy of the Upanishads, Darwinian evolution and Whiteheadian process philosophy.
In the patriarchal myth, the dominant oppressive culture dualistically equates men with culture, women with nature. Such an interpretation ignores such facts as the clear reversal of this schema in nineteenth century America, when it was the men who were seen as close to nature, and the women (nearly twice as many of whom graduated from American high schools in the period than did men) who were associated with culture. A glance at almost any old western movie will confirm this observation. It is the men who are like animals, who live in the wild, who solve things by bodily action and are no good at writin’ and speechifyin’; the women who are the schoolmarms, the pianists, the embodiments of civilization, negotiation, custom, and reason. Indeed one might make a case for such a reversal throughout the nineteenth century, starting with Joseph Conrad, for whom women, like Kurtz’s Intended, are a shining light of spirit and culture in a savage and bestial male world. Going further back it might be noted that the divine powers representing the mind are usually female: Athena, Santa Sophia, Urania, the Shekinah. In conclusion, it is surely the adherents of the old myth who in current debates on sociobiology and human evolution insist dualistically on the utter separation of sex and gender, biology and personal rights.
There is no question but that the old matriarchal/patriarchal system did severely limit the potentials of both men and women, and waste talents which could not fit into the stereotypical gender roles. Nor is there any question but that the liberating effect of the rise of the modern world was first experienced by the young males who, for the most part, created that modern world; and it is only recently, both because of socioeconomic forces and because women began to demand it, that women have begun to experience the same liberation. Though institutions of great value–the extended family, the old brotherhoods and sisterhoods–have been lost, perhaps forever, we must assert that the individual liberty that we got in return is far beyond them in value. As the struggle for equal rights is not yet over, we must not relax our efforts in that direction. But it is not accurate to portray that struggle as the effort of an oppressed sex to throw off the tyranny of an oppressor sex. Nor would it be wise in the long run to do so. Some, perhaps many, of the classical values and institutions of the old matriarchy and patriarchy may be salvageable, reshaped and detached from the restrictive elements that limited human achievement. Moreover the struggle is one in which both sexes have an interest, and will not be achieved if one sex is excluded or alienated by being the target of hatred and prejudice.
Nor should the struggle be glibly described as the throwing off of an evil and tyrannical old system designed to foster the interests of a few. Given the technological limitations, the old patriarchy/matriarchy was a remarkably fair arrangement for making sure that everyone in society got some chance for fulfilment, even if the necessities of survival dictated that one did not get much choice as to the kind of fulfilment one would be offered. It was a very human and personal system, and we can still learn from it. If we forget it or suppress it or distort its history to suit our politics, we will paradoxically cut ourselves off from one source of creative social change in the future. Modernism is not the last word in human achievement, and new generations will want to create cultural environments of their own. Past wisdom is often a great storehouse of evolutionary potential for a society (witness how the Renaissance used apparently outdated classical ideas and values), and the postmodern world will need all the wisdom it can get.
By the same token it would be unjust and counterproductive to attack the very process of modernization, the technological, scientific, and political change which brought to us the remarkable new opportunity we have for a kind of social arrangement that allows such wide choices for both sexes. If it was indeed men who initiated and until its final phases drove that change, this is a reason for gratitude to the male sex, not for resentment. Resentment would be appropriate only if after a reasonable period of readjustment male modernity had refused to share what it had discovered, once it was asked. But this cannot yet be said to be the case. At present we are in a new age of heroes, or rather, of heroines, who are doing what their brothers began to do three thousand years ago. The technology for this liberation is now available; it is the gift of their brothers, but it will not and should not determine what they do with it or how the heroines will transform it once they take command of it. But the emergence of the heroines is not enough. I believe that the new myth predicts and recommends a revival of the patriarchy, in its best sense–as the conserving wisdom of the old men, of that husbandry and concern for the past and the future that characterizes, for instance, the best aspects of the environmental movement. And as Don Giovanni shows, the young men do not yet have the wisdom and insight and compassion to restrain themselves and each other from heroic sexual exploitation. There needs to be an antique, honorable counterweight that will transform their sexual aggressivity into gentle and humble knightliness.
Furthermore, the full richness of human experience will not be properly represented in our culture without a healing and restoration of the matriarchy as well. The household is rightly the center of human life. Most children need a stable and loving home environment in order to achieve their potential. The greatest arts are, I believe, not those which cause a stir on museum walls or extend some “shocking” modern or postmodern critical theory into yet another posture or attitude, but those arts which intensify and fill with meaning ordinary human existence, that make a home into a place that recalls all our beautiful and tragic past, and point to futures that are as human as they are strange and adventurous. New technologies of communication and data processing are making the home once more a viable economic entity, where men and women can lead full and public lives. Now we need truer myths of our past, that will enable women and men to live together without rancor and prejudice.
4. The Myth of the Oppressive West
The myth of the oppressive patriarchy deceives its followers by promising a story of moral regeneration and underdog crusade, but delivering a set of logical, moral and psychological double binds which can cripple its adherents. Still more paralysing and self-destructive in the long run is the avant-garde myth of “western hegemonic dominance.” These myths, with their traps, excuses, contradictions and double binds, are as much the enemy of unfulfilled human potential as any brutal sexist or arrogant racist. Sexists and racists can be opposed with firmness, imagination, compassion, hope, and a cheerful mind. But the aggrieved myths that catch and concentrate and praise the free-floating hatred and the shamed shame that are the leeches of our human condition, and fasten them on their followers, do not allow the exercise of the creative human virtues. They penetrate the mind and heart and suck out their imaginative nourishment; or to change the metaphor, they turn mind and heart against themselves and kill the seeds of hope.
What is the myth of western hegemonic dominance? Essentially it proposes that a single social and racial group–white Europeans–developed an alienating, hierarchical, and dualistic mode of thought which, by sacrificing the human values of bodily experience, relatedness and harmony with nature, gave them a kind of Faustian control over society and nature. Other human cultures lived in peace and mutual tolerance with their neighbors, welcoming their cultural differences, but the western conquerors were racist by nature, and oblivious to the cultural riches they were destroying. The victims could have raised the economic and technological demon to defend themselves, but did not wish to, because of their greater wisdom, which warned them against the perils of ecological destruction, social discrimination, commodity fetishism and economic oppression.
The new western tribe of cold, grasping, and arrogant white males, closely identified with the oppressive patriarchy as described in the previous section, spread out over the world and reduced the other cultures to colonial subjection and slavery. The process continues unabated, as the west moves into a new phase of “late capitalist” economic colonialism; its most subtle twist is to use “western values,” which are in fact hypocritical systems of control and mystification, to maintain its dominance. Among those so-called values are rationality, empirical objectivity, democratic due process, the control of the body and emotions by reason, delayed gratification, and such abstract, essentialistic ideals as goodness, truth and beauty. The central tenet of western ideology is that there is only one overarching truth; this totalizing idea denies the diversity and relativity of cultural values, and the great ideals of diversity and pluralism.
The traditions of western art, literature, science and philosophy are riddled with hidden justifications for oppression, and thus politically poisonous, except for some works, which were either composed by persons of nonwestern ancestry or were influenced by nonwestern sources. Western mathematical, physical, and chemical sciences reduce the living world to a passive and inanimate colonial victim, to be exploited and raped by technology for the sake of power. Western biological science, especially the theory of evolution, in asserting that human beings are subject to biological constraints and possess a human nature, is fundamentally racist and should be controlled or abolished. The continued teaching of the western artistic and literary canon in schools and universities is a racist ploy to suppress other cultures whose achievements are as great or greater. The purpose and net result of all these western techniques has been to keep the masses of people in the third world, and their brothers and sisters, the minority populations in the west itself, in a state of poverty, misery, and powerlessness.
This myth, despite its compelling story, apparently clear scapegoat, and occasional correspondence with fact, is deeply self-contradictory and in essence a counsel of despair. It can only harm the very victims it pretends to elevate and justify. Let us examine its factual errors and inconsistencies, so that by correcting them we can construct a truer myth, one less harmful in its effects.
The first factual error is that the west is uniquely patriarchal in its organization and worldview. The opposite would be much closer to the truth. If the west is unique, one of the ways it is so is that even before the twentieth century brought worldwide cultural communication, the west had largely overthrown the patriarchy of authoritarian fathers and substituted a legalized and individualized government of men appointed without regard to their family status. It had then begun the journey toward the emancipation of women; and by the time worldwide communication came about, the west was more advanced toward gender blindness in its institutions than any nonwestern society.
Nor is the west unique in its ethnocentrism, xenophobia, and racism. All three are culturally universal, though they tend to diminish among the elite and better educated groups in any society. Indeed, one of the problems of democracy is that it empowers the broad masses of people, who because of their poorer education are much less likely to be tolerant of differences than the elites tend to be. The recent appearance of bitter ethnic conflicts among the newly enfranchised peoples of eastern Europe once the educated communist elite was overthrown is a good example; another is the eruption of tribal genocide in Africa once the colonial elites had given way to populist native rule. Racial and ethnic prejudice is a normal feature of every society, from Serbia to Brazil, from China to Honduras, from Lebanon to Australia, from Sri Lanka to Azerbaijan. It is only in those countries in which there is a serious attempt to wipe out racism, mostly, that is, in the west, that racism is considered anything other than commonsense.
Indeed, prejudice and stereotyping could be seen as the essential mechanism of all human (and perhaps all mammal, vertebrate, even animal) perception and information-processing. Our visual and acoustic pattern-recognition systems work by comparing new stimuli with earlier ones and categorizing them with what they resemble from previous experience (i.e., prejudice), and by iterating and emphasizing small quantitative differences until they appear to be major differences of kind (i.e., stereotyping). This is the “default option” of any intelligent system of knowledge and memory, and it takes great discipline and vigilance to override it. The European traditions of classical study, objective scientific experiment, the Grand Tour, and the like, were deliberate efforts to override this default option, to overcome the Baconian idols of the tribe, the cave, the marketplace and the theater, and to give the educated person the capacity to look at something clearly, without prejudice. Paradoxically, though, the very ideal of unprejudiced scientific objectivity is condemned by the detractors of the west as a cold and inhuman perversion. Paradoxically again, it may have been this very capacity, this unnatural ability to overcome prejudice, that was the key to European success in world conquest; such minds could adapt to the unfamiliar, see how it worked, and act accordingly. The story of the Aboriginal tribesmen who were able to recognize and perceive Captain Cook’s rowboats but could not notice his ship because it was so huge and unfamiliar, is a disquieting index of the limits of human awareness, limits that western science was designed to overcome. It is indeed one of the tragedies of history that despite these disciplines, many educated Europeans and Americans fell for the horrible and intellectually lazy superstition of racism, descending to the level of the human norm, to the racist mental habits of the very people whom they despised for their lack of rigorous objective self-criticism.
Another factual error in the myth of the west is that the west was unique in instituting slavery. To the contrary, many human societies have practiced some form or other of slavery. It seems to be almost a cultural norm in those stages of human cultural development from the early agrarian empire, through the city state, feudalism, and mercantile colonialism up to the ascendancy of the national urban industrial middle class, when it begins to die out. It is found throughout the ancient and classical Mediterranean, most of the high civilizations of south and south-east Asia, among the precolonial African kingdoms, and in the Precolumbian American empires. It is still practiced in some parts of the Islamic world.
But here a distinction must be made. Slavery as commonly practiced, for instance in the old Greek and Roman empires and in China, did not necessarily involve racism. Freed slaves could and did rapidly integrate into the general population; indeed, the population of contemporary Europe is descended in part from slaves belonging to Greek and Roman masters. The final form of slavery, as practiced by mercantile colonialism, was peculiarly virulent, involving large differences in technological development between the enslavers and the enslaved, early industrial forms of exploitation of labor, and especially racism, compounded by obvious differences in skin color, which acted as a marker to prevent easy social assimilation into the general population. It is in the struggle against this form of slavery and its after-effects that a large part of the social conscience of Europe and America has been formed. In this light the myth of the west, which attributes a special evil to the white race, can be seen as merely the obverse of the ideology of the mercantile racists, and is as damaging to the cause of human justice as its original. It promotes a loyalty among the once oppressed to the psychological mindset of oppression, and perpetuates the cultural damage done by race slavery.
The west is not unique in the practice of conquest and imperialism. The imperialistic exploits of Islam and the Han Chinese, the expansionism of the great Mesoamerican and Andean empires, the epic conquests of the old African kingdoms and the odyssey of the ancient agrarian peoples of Taiwan who swept through the East Indies on their way to Polynesia and Madagascar, are now under study by historians, archeologists, and linguists. One of the greatest waves of conquest was that of the Bantu peoples of west Africa, who drove east and south, enslaving or exterminating the indigenous Pigmy and Khoisan peoples that they encountered, to meet the Boers in the seventeenth century as they trekked north from the Cape of Good Hope. There are no human beings anywhere who live where their ancestors always lived; we are all the children of interlopers, conquerors, enslavers, aliens, as well as of their victims. There is also no cultural purity anywhere in the world, no set of simple and unadulterated folkways, no authentic wellspring of human innocence.
One of the principles of the myth of the oppressive west is that the west is unique in suppressing and controlling the body and its emotions, and in conceptually dividing the body from the mind, soul, or spirit. Every known culture, however, has traditions, institutions, and training designed to control the body and to suppress some of its autonomous functions. For instance, all societies have an incest taboo, almost all have some kind of formal training for the skills of hunting or dancing or martial arts, most have some form of ordeal, such as circumcision, to mark the coming of adulthood, and many, such as the Indians, the Tibetans, the Chinese, the Japanese, have long traditions of extreme asceticism designed to bring all functions of the body and the emotions under the control of the spirit. It might be in the interest of those who have little stomach for such disciplines to claim them to be the tools of hegemonic western control; but wherever such critics went, they would find the same thing.
An important element in the myth is that the oppressive west is unique in imposing a barrier between human beings and the natural world. On the contrary, the fundamental human distinctions between nature and culture and between the “natural” elements in the human makeup and the “supernatural” ones, are culturally universal. Different societies, and different moieties and historical periods within societies, draw the line differently between body and soul (are the emotions physical or spiritual? Is there a sharp dualism or a subtle hierarchy?), but almost all draw the line. The “westerners” Jesus, Plato, Lucretius, Augustine, Descartes, Hume, Berkeley, Blake, Hegel, and D.H. Lawrence, all had wildly different views of the matter; but the distinction is not unique to the west. Indeed, just the opposite might be argued: that the west is the only culture to have seriously questioned the distinction between the human and the natural, the body and the soul. Western evolutionary theory shows the continuity of the human with the natural; western biopsychology interprets mental, emotional, and spiritual events as real, effective higher-order activities of a physical body. There are dualists and monists in every great human cultural tradition; in the west monism has been given some of its best intellectual arguments, by thinkers from Heraclitus and Parmenides to Whitehead and de Chardin, from Democritus and Lucretius to Darwin and Wheeler, from Emerson and Swedenborg to Freud and Marx.
Another error implicit in the myth of the west is that human beings are born as blank slates and are inscribed and determined by culture (which, depending on the severity and purity of the myth-exegetes, is determined by social conditions, which are in turn determined by economics and the struggle for power). Most of the scientific evidence–from neurochemistry, neuropsychology, sociobiology, twin-studies, physical anthropology, and genetics–indicates that to the extent that either is a determinant of human behavior, the “nature/nurture” or “heredity/culture” ratio is something like 70/30. That is, a child’s genetic inheritance is going to be two to four times more important statistically in determining how successful he or she will be in society than his or her upbringing. However, and this is an important distinction, the success of the social group into which a child is born is highly dependent upon its general level of culture, education, and technology. Thus a gifted child born into a stunted or self-limiting community–an Amish village, an urban youth gang, a colonial plantation–will normally succeed only in the terms of that community; it would take an exceptional individual to reject that community, a rejection which might well feel like a betrayal.
A more subtle error is the myth’s assumption, that to assert the greater importance of genetic heredity over social construction in the determining of the individual is tantamount to racism. The inference does not in fact follow at all. For instance, the dependence of the individual’s potential upon his or her genetic inheritance could be perfectly consistent with the following non-racist positions: that the races have statistically different distributions of talents, but the distributions are of equal value; that the races have exactly the same distribution of talents, though within a given race there is great variation in individual abilities; that the races are extremely recent and transient phenomena in the history of the human species, and their differences are completely superficial; and that the “races” do not in any serious genetic sense exist at all, since there has been so much interbreeding within the general human population that differences in skin-color and so on are statistical variations within a single actively communicating gene pool.
It should be noted that a community filled with clever and talented people with excellent genes might well make a false technological turn or poor cultural choice, or through bad geographical or meteorological luck find itself trapped in a cultural pattern that employed the potentials of its members to relatively fruitless ends; and the result might well look very like an “inferior race.” The disadvantages of such a community might well make it vulnerable to another society which had had better luck in its choices and circumstances, and which would, until a better scientific understanding of genetics came along, rather naturally assume that its own individuals, rather than its institutions, were innately superior to those of its rival. The weaker society would then be faced with the agonizing choice of giving up its own counter-productive cultural practices and adopting some of its enemy’s, ceasing to exist as a society, or continuing to justify the reasonable but uninformed racial prejudices of its oppressor. The point is that it should be possible to make a critique of a culture, while maintaining the primacy of nature over nurture in the makeup of the individual, without necessarily taking a racist position.
The most fundamental contradictions in the myth of the west arise from the question: is there one set of coherent, correct, and genuine values, or many, or none? The first alternative, that there is only one, is ruled out by the tenets of pluralism, diversity, and cultural relativity; but in the morass of contradictions that the myth generates, it keeps coming back as a tantalizing but treacherous guide. Suppose we take the second alternative: that there are several different correct and genuine value systems, without an overarching value system to translate and adjudicate among them. In the absence of a higher value system, how could we say that they are correct and genuine, or incorrect and false? Western values, for instance: if they are false, against what standard? In what terms can pluralism and diversity themselves be defended, if they are only the values of one group and have no higher standing? Why should it be wrong for one value system to swallow up the others? Particularly irksome is that the ideas of equality, pluralism, and relativity were pioneered by the west. The west has always been intensely curious about and attracted to other cultures, a trait which is not universally shared. Most of what the world knows about other cultures was discovered by western anthropologists, who were often fiercely committed to the culture they were studying and deeply skeptical about their own; anthropology was a western invention.
If there is no overarching “human nature,” but only a plurality of culturally determined concepts of the human, how can there be human rights? If one ethical system believes in clitoridectomy or slavery, and another does not, how do we decide which is right? If there is a plurality of true value systems, there must be values other than the economic and the political; if true happiness can consist in the life of virtue or mystical experience, divorced from materialistic concerns, then those who lead such a life would surely be only too glad to leave the miseries of wealth and power to the west. But if the west is on an equal footing in a contest with all other cultures, then it has humiliatingly and totally “won.” If other cultures did not perceive it as a contest, then they need not complain that they have lost, since they were non-competitors. If western values–that virtue is its own reward, that we should prefer personal and interpersonal goods to materialistic ones, that we should practice thrift and delay gratification, and so on–are simply hypocritical mystifications to deceive the oppressed, without an overarching set of ethical rules we would be quite free to praise these subterfuges in the struggle for success. Would it even be an absolute virtue to practice what we preach, since there are no absolute virtues? If the values of the west are those of denial of the body and the emotions, then who could envy them a wealth they cannot enjoy? But if on the other hand the west is hedonistic, lazy, and wasteful, how can it have achieved its economic success?
Western values may be hierarchical, dualistic, or alienating, as the myth claims; but they cannot be all three. Hierarchy, which implies a branched structure of inclusion and connection, a wholeness whose top-down control is balanced by bottom-up feedback, is, as we have seen, the least alienating of all systems. (Of course the only effective kind of hierarchy, human or biological, is one which is legitimated by consent, regulated by due process, and flexible in its accommodation of differences; ineffective hierarchies can offer neither threat nor benefit to their neighbors.) Hierarchy is a way of multiplying levels of inclusion and control, so as to avoid complete lack of structure and connection on one hand, and a barren, uncommunicating dualism on the other. Without the idea of biological hierarchy, we must either think of the human body as a mere valueless piece of matter, or as an illusion of the soul or spirit, or as a partner in a dualistic combination of soul and body that can neither sense nor act, because the natures of soul and body are so different. The west has pioneered the attempt to find substitutes for hierarchy in human organization, but to no avail; the best we can do, it seems, is to legitimate, loosen, strengthen, and complexify it by democracy, federalism, and the separation of powers. “Network” systems of organization, which some have proposed as an alternative, turn out to be either hierarchies in disguise, or else little hivelike totalitarianisms which sacrifice diversity and freedom to consensus and political correctness.
If there is a plurality of different true value systems, then there is a plurality of goods defined as such by those value systems, and thus no competition, and no possibility for injustice, since the good of one would not involve the loss of the good of another. To the extent that there can be injustice in the allocation of goods, the contestants must share a value system. The kicker of a field goal should not feel aggrieved that his achievement does not count toward his earned-run average. The idea of justice and the accusation of injustice depend upon the overwhelming of diversity, the resolution of pluralism into unity, the replacement of relativism by shared absolutes.
The third alternative in our analysis of values in the myth of the west–that there is no such thing as correct values–offers even less comfort, though it is the last resort of thinkers like Foucault, who have the intelligence to perceive the traps of the first two. Without values, power is the only constraint upon desire. If this is the case, the moral complaints of the “loser” cultures are without substance, though they might be a useful and effective strategy for persuading sentimental members of the “winner” culture to abandon their own interests and yield themselves up for plucking by their erstwhile victims. It might seem that such a world would be pleasant for the strong and horrible for the weak; but I believe it would in fact be even more horrible for the strong, who in their greater insight, clarity and leisure would perceive without self-deception and distraction the horror of a valueless world.
However we take the myth of the west, then, we are faced at every turn with despair. It is indeed despair for the west, as morally irredeemable; what reparation would be possible for its imputed crimes, if they are unique? Any moral accounting of the story as told by the myth should lead to all westerners committing suicide in part payment for their crimes. But it is despair also for the “third world” and the “minorities,” as losers either in the game of values or in the game of power. If the west is as bad, as powerful, as cleverly conspiratorial, secret, and self-aware, as the myth proposes, then there is no way that it will give up its power, and no way to force it to do so. Indeed, the only intelligent recourse would be to give up the struggle and learn to enjoy the doubtful pleasures of the oppressed: the satisfaction of physical desires, the oppression of those even weaker than oneself, the relinquishing of any attempt at objectivity, the sense of complete irresponsibility for one’s own condition, the loss of anxiety about the past and future, and the feeling of solidarity with others who have likewise given in.
This despair is concretely exemplified in the condition of the “underclass” in some economically advanced countries with large “ethnic minorities.” Within the myth of the west, any personal individual success tends to undermine the proposition that the racist majority, by oppressing the ethnic minority, renders the individual member of it incapable of positive action (since it is culture and society that determine the individual’s achievements, not that individual’s genetic inheritance). Thus personal achievement by a minority individual is by its very nature a betrayal of the myth that is the “loyalty oath” of the oppressed group and an affront to other members of the group who have not succeeded in rising above the general condition of economic misery, poor education, drug-addiction, teenage pregnancy, and unemployment.
There are indeed oppressed groups, which, if group identity translated easily into individual identity, should receive massive reparations sufficient to enrich every member. But another paradox of despair emerges here: if oppression does lead to personal damage, and if personal damage makes an individual less capable of contributing to society, and if one’s personal deserving is measured by the extent of one’s contributions to society, the greater the social reparations one deserved, the lesser the personal ones. According to the anthropologists, it is in the nature of human beings to desire fair exchanges, a fair balance between what one gives and what one receives. The double-bind of the myth is that the more one deserves as a member of a group, the less one deserves as an individual; the more one were given in compensation as an “ethnic minority,” the less one would find oneself, as a person, in a satisfactory and respectable condition of fair exchange with one’s neighbors. The political need to assert the determinism of cultural, social, political and economic factors over biogenetic or personal spiritual ones essentially makes individuals helpless and shamed, and empowers only the “caring professions” and political leaders that are paid to look after them.
One final act of despair has been to deny the very reality of the person, the self, the individual, to assert that the self is only a social construct. If we do so, we also abandon the only unit in which it makes sense to talk about right and wrong action, ethics, morality, and obligation. If I do not have a real self or person, then I cannot have any personal moral responsibility. Perhaps the social group to which “I” belong has such a responsibility, as the author of the social construct of the self, but that cannot translate into any obligation on “myself” to do anything about it, since there is no myself to be obligated. If society wants you to behave differently, it had better change you; you cannot change yourself. And so we return to the ideological reeducation camps, and so on.
To sum up, then, perhaps the worst and deepest feature of the myth of the oppressive west is that it ends up doing exactly the opposite of what it was designed to do, rendering impossible any improvement in the world’s glaring social and economic inequalities, dissolving the sources of moral authority that might mandate such improvement, paralysing the victims of injustice, and exonerating those who have happily escaped it from any obligation to help; because, being socially determined, they cannot be expected to take an individual initiative to do so without the aid of forced social reeducation. Like the myth of the patriarchy, the myth of the oppressive west is good only for one thing: to serve as a justification for personal failure, an argument against hope, and a rationalization for despair. As large areas of the globe descend into ethnic conflict, and racial separatism becomes fashionable in America itself, the myth of the west becomes increasingly recognizable as just another version of the ancient hatred story–of heathen Turks or imperialist Greeks, of idolatrous Sinhalese or fanatical Tamils, of grasping Armenians or ruthless Azerbaijanis, of loveless whites or violent blacks, of lazy Arabs or expansionist Zionists. The fact that this essentially racist myth is being propagated by the very people who claim the mantle of desegregation and civil rights makes its widespread acceptance still more tragic.
What are we to do when one of the chief intellectual and imaginative instruments of the movement toward racial equality and human enfranchisement, the myth of the oppressive west, turns out to be not only false and self-contradictory, but deeply damaging to the cause it was designed to serve? The answer, I believe, is to seek out a different myth, that better enshrines the truth, and that will serve as a fruitful guide to positive action. To do this, though, will require a radical rethinking of many of our most deeply-held assumptions, and a redefinition of many of our fundamental terms. The very words “race,” “ethnic,” “nature,” and especially “west” may need to be transformed or even abolished in their present meaning. We must radically redefine the “nature-nurture” debate and the “nature-culture” distinction. We must rechart the story of human history upon a projection that no longer distorts it out of true recognition. We must find the courage and the intellectual subtlety to be able to reassert some unfashionably absolute ideas, such as truth, goodness, and beauty, though on a new footing that will contain and neutralize the philosophical objections that led to their rejection. We must dare to stare once again into the horrifying, beautiful, and challenging implications of our evolutionary descent from our animal ancestors. And we must discover in the heart of what seem to be humanity’s darkest and most terrible traits–our xenophobia and aggressiveness–the roots of some of our finest and most beautiful moral capacities.
Clearly the old myth, of mechanistic essentialistic oppressive dualistic white males ravaging an unoffending world, will not stand up. What can we replace it with? What is the “west”?
The answer is that it does not exist in the sense of being a single culture, even a dominant single culture. If we see it as “a” culture, we might well be inclined to identify it with some particular race or ethnic tradition, and be rightly disturbed if it unfairly dominates some other culture (whatever that means) just as worthy of consideration. Instead, let us trace the emergence of what is often called the west but is in fact a composite culture, composed of hundreds or perhaps even thousands of highly different human cultures from all over the world, a multiculture which is rapidly becoming world human culture, and which is enormously fertile of new diversity within itself.
The great theme of human prehistory, that is, the period before writing, monuments and records began to connect the generations by other means than memory, is divergence, sparagmos, separation. According to genetic archaeology, the technique of tracing back mitochondrial DNA lineages, the human race is most likely descended from a single small population, residing, probably, in Africa. Since that time the huge migrations of hunter-gatherer groups, and then later the invasions and diffusions of farming peoples all over the world and their genetic isolation in new habitats, produced enough genetic diversity to form distinguishable races, and the budding and branching of several major language groups.
Since the beginning of recorded history, however, the pattern has changed. The same technology that produced records and communications also produced agricultural, metallurgical, political and military institutions that led in turn to empires, huge amalgamations and assimilations of peoples and languages, trade and interbreeding. The theme now becomes unification; not the disappearance of cultural differences, but the denser and denser superimposition of them within the minds and lives of individuals, and the emergence of larger concepts, of logic, science, money, law, and art that could contain the diversity and make sense of it. During this time, like tiny flaws or “seeds” in a liquid undergoing crystallization, certain cultural nodes formed, around which the emerging unity of world culture began to take shape. Those nodes included the pyramid empires of Africa, Southwest Asia, and Central and South America, and the great riverine irrigation civilizations of India and China. As time went by, some of these growing centers of convergence merged in turn.
Let us trace the development of what was perhaps the largest and most important tributary of this huge human river: the one that began in Mesopotamia. Seven major phases can be distinguished.
The first is the Mesopotamian phase, which connected a great swathe of Middle Eastern peoples, from the mountains of present-day Iran and Turkey to the forests of Lebanon. Trade links formed with the ancient Indian civilizations, with Egypt, and with the farmers and herders of Europe and the Mediterranean. Through Egypt came influences and traders from Nubia and the east coast of Africa. The story of Abraham’s migration from Mesopotamia is but one episode in the great cultural and genetic mixing that was going on throughout the fertile crescent.
The second phase can be called the Greek phase. Through the Phoenicians and the Hittites, the Greeks absorbed masses of cultural material from Mesopotamia and further east. Egypt and especially Crete contributed their own influences. The invasion of Dorians from the north brought new currents into this human river of ideas and genes. And then the explosion of the Greek colonial empire began to unite the cultures of the whole Mediterranean and the Black Sea, connecting Etruscans, Persians, Indians, and many other peoples from Asia, Africa, and Europe.
The Roman empire, like the Greek, is often thought of as “western” and homogeneous, but in many ways it was a thoroughly mongrel culture. Its main currents were Italic, Greek, Celtic, Jewish, and Egyptian, but again dozens of other peoples, from Picts and Germans in the north and Dacians and Parthians in the east to the peoples of North Africa in the south and of the Hispanic peninsula in the west all contributed their ideas, arts, rituals, religions, and technology. The Romans traded with the Indians, the Chinese, the East Africans and the peoples of Scandinavia, Russia, and Siberia.
The Muslim civilization in turn inherited much of the cultural riches of Greece, Jerusalem, and Rome, via Alexandria and Byzantium, and added to them powerful and original influences from Africa and the Orient. As it spread, it deepened the links with India and China, and added new influences from as far away as Indonesia. Its many flowerings in Arabia, in Cordoba, in North Africa, in Turkey, and in the Indus valley, integrated the old learning with new developments in logic, poetry, mathematics, medicine and metaphysics.
The next phase might be called the European. During the Dark Ages, waves of new cultural influences, and new genetic strains, poured in from Asia and northeastern Europe: Goths and Wends and Tatars, Magyar and Finnish shamanists from the Altai, Slavs and Teutons. Through Sicily and Spain and Hungary the heritage of Muslim civilization began to infuse the emerging culture of medieval Christendom. The old civilizations of Greece and Rome were rediscovered; and in due time the influences coalesced into that incandescent period of creative integration and imagination, the Renaissance. Now all those accumulated intellectual disciplines, whose roots spread out over much of Africa and Asia, were focused into that remarkable human achievement we call science, the union of mathematics with controlled observation and experiment, which marks a fresh phase in the evolutionary history of the universe. The integration of these ideas was unique; though most human groups had already contributed to it, the “butterfly effect” by which it came together could only happen in one place, where the accumulation was densest and the pressure highest.
The next phase, the Colonial period, was the time of the metastasizing of this remarkable and ancient human “disease,” the radiation of this new cultural species across the whole planet. Though the techniques of the European conquerors felt to their victims like the special strangeness of an alien culture, this was a tragic illusion; science and technology were not merely a European invention or possession, but, as I have shown, the direct creation of most of the human species, and indirectly the proper achievement of humanity as a whole. Colonial peoples such as those of India and Africa were sometimes unaware that they had contributed some of the key ideas that their colonial oppressors now used against them. Now at last the relatively isolated cultures of the Americas, of sub-Saharan Africa, and of Oceania began to pour their own contributions into the great stream of the human plenum.
At present we are rightly appalled by the atrocities of the colonizers. But it is only the fact that they took place in the full glare of historical record and advanced communication, that they were conducted with greater technological efficiency, and that they were essentially the last wave of human integration, that distinguishes them from the bloody genocides of the past; genocides that are part of the dark inheritance of every surviving nation or tribe, without exception. The great virtue of this emerging world civilization, falsely called the west, was that it was passionately interested in other cultures, and could so profoundly imagine the world of the other that the other was no longer the Other. Orientalism, despite the sneers of the likes of Edward Said, was a movement of extraordinary imaginative generosity: we see it issue forth in the exquisite Japanese visual sensibility of Mary Cassatt and Aubrey Beardsley, in the Chinese musicality of Gustav Mahler, and in Yeats’ Noh plays. The Benin bronzes transformed European sculpture. Anthropology was invented, at its best the first systematic attempt by any culture to see another culture as it sees itself. In the stories of Rudyard Kipling, that are rightly considered by Indians to be masterpieces of Indian literature, in Melville’s Typee and Omoo, in Gauguin’s painted Tahiti, in the African influences of Picasso’s Demoiselles d’Avignon, in the great translations of non-European literatures, in Black Orpheus, in Frank Lloyd Wright’s Maya architecture, in Frida Kahlo and The Plumed Serpent and Joseph Conrad and Joseph Needham and above all in jazz, the emerging world culture ecstatically took to itself the inner life of the Other.
The last phase might be called that of the information age. This period can be compared to the “shaking down” and integration of ideas, cultures, and racial strains that took place in Medieval Christendom, wherein the old tribes of Europe lost part of their political identity but gained the heritage of all their neighbors; a period that flowered in the Renaissance. We have much more to integrate, and there is an even stronger reactionary tendency toward tribalism and Balkanization, in fear of the terrible light and pressure of full humanity. That reaction presently goes under the banner of “diversity” and “pluralism” in America; it is not deeply different from the bloody conservatism of the Serbs and Croats, of the Azerbaijanis and Armenians, of Israeli fundamentalists and Palestinian extremists.
One paradigmatic expression of the new world integration is Peter Brook’s Mahabharata, whose cast contains members of almost every major ethnic group. But we can find it also in many contemporary phenomena: “World Music,” the international financial markets, the worldwide concern with environmental issues, telecommunications, the World Health Organization, international science, the worldwide interest in the space program, and throughout the arts. The media link the world in nanoseconds. Japan has outdone Europe and America at their own industrial game, and the “little dragons” of the Pacific rim are doing so too. Huge common market areas emerge. The last legally racist regime, South Africa, has dissolved itself. One of the special characteristics of the information age is that the artists of it are no longer predominantly European and American, exercising an imaginative sympathy for other peoples. They are of all backgrounds, and live within a world where there is no privileged center of initiative or special insight. Indian anthropologists study white American natives. Kurosawa gives us the definitive Shakespeare, YoYo Ma the definitive cello, Midori the definitive Mozart. The Latin American novel sets the fashion in fiction, west African griots set it in music. The coathors of scientific articles read like an international directory of names. When the Berlin Wall came down there was a great performance in Berlin of the Carmina Burana, with a Black American soloist, a Jewish conductor, a German orchestra, and a Chinese choir.
This story of the emergence of world culture might also have been told with some plausibility from the viewpoints of the Indian subcontinent or from that of the coasts of the South China Sea, rather than from that of the Mediterranean, as I have done here. Europe was a backwater at the very beginning and during the Dark Ages. It would be harder to tell it as if its center of intensity were anywhere else, and those three nodes were themselves closely connected for thousands of years. Today its center is everywhere on the globe, though there are still places where because of concentrations of wealth, education, population and tradition, the fire burns most brightly.
But the point is that for any self-styled local culture to set itself against the “west”–that is, against the composite world culture–is pathetically futile and self-destructive. Even if there are aspects of that local culture that the “west,” communicating and remembering humanity, has not yet absorbed, imagined, understood and internalized already, one can be sure that in a short time it will have incorporated them and reactivated them in itself. There are no real “minorities”; we are all members of the majority, or we are nothing. There is nothing to stop what is called “cultural appropriation,” even if we felt morally obliged to prevent it. Since such appropriation is indistinguishable from the fame that all peoples want, and since cultural goods, unlike material ones, are not removed from their originators when they are transferred to others, there is no good ethical reason for preventing it.
Not that the majority is homogeneous and undifferentiated. Consider the integration of peoples that happened in the Middle Ages. It gave rise to the deeply diverse national cultures of Europe; the Romance Languages were all originally dialects of Latin. Diversity, such is the genius of the human species, is inevitable. We will certainly want to revive or continue the beautiful stories and rituals and arts and metaphysics of specific cultural groups, especially those from which we can trace immediate genetic descent. But we will have no exclusive rights of possession over them, and no responsibility to keep them pure of contamination by other traditions, unless for scholarly or antiquarian or esthetic or sentimental reasons we wish to do so.
Diversity will not go away. But in the future that diversity will exist on a common basis of economic, political, and scientific understandings which can be ignored only at the cost of self-exile from the human community: understandings that include the free market, self-government, verifiable experimental protocols, and the evolutionary theory of the universe. These understandings are not especially glamorous in themselves, though the story of their emergence is an epic one: they are like an effective sewage system or clean water. But a demand for ethnic identity which dispenses with them, and which denies the brotherhood and sisterhood of our species, is hopeless and doomed.
5. A New Multicultural Myth
Let us sketch out a brief account of the process by which our ancestors evolved into human beings. In this perspective it is clear that no human group is uniquely pure and good, or uniquely oppressive and wicked.
Consider the human body and its remarkable differences from the bodies of other mammals. One of the most obvious is our nakedness; we stand hairless but for odd tufts here and there emphasizing such body parts as the head and face, and the genitals. All other land mammals of our size, and all of our relatives the primates, including all tropical primates, are covered with hair. Human beings, moreover, are pantropic in their habit; they live in all climates. Without clothing and/or shelter they would be at a massive disadvantage. Human beings, like other species, evolved through the mechanism of natural selection. If a species would be better off with hair, to maintain a constant body temperature, hair will be selected for. How and why did we lose our hair? As can be seen in the case of the peacock’s tail and the antlers of the great elk, which were the result of sexual selection rituals but which are handicaps in the struggle for survival, sexual selection can contradict the biological law of selection for adaptive fitness. The most plausible explanation for our nakedness, then, is that it is the result of sexual selection in ritual courtship, and that we developed clothing originally both for ritual body decoration and also to replace for thermal purposes the hair that we had lost. The invention of clothes, a by-product of our ritual, enabled us to survive even in cool temperate and arctic climates; as hair was no longer necessary for survival, it never came back. Thus our nakedness is a result of our early culture.
Here we see a new kind of reflexive feedback enter the already tangled, iterative and turbulent process of natural evolution. Cultural evolution, a process of change in behavior that can happen in a single generation and be passed down through imitation and learning to the next, now takes a hand in biological evolution, in the iterated cycle of sexually- or mutatively-generated variation, selection through the preferential survival of useful traits in the population, and genetic inheritance. Biological evolution takes millennia; cultural evolution takes years. Yet the culture of a species, especially in its effect on sexual and reproductive success, is a powerful determinant of which individuals survive to reproduce. The faster process of change–culture–will drive and guide the slower one–biology.
Many of the other peculiar characteristics of the human body can be explained in the same way: its upright stance, its long infancy, its developed vocal chords and otolaryngeal system, its extraordinary longevity (especially in the female), its relatively early menopause, its relative lack of specialized armaments (big teeth and claws, and so on), its opposable thumbs, its superbly refined and coordinated fine motor system, its continuous sexual readiness (most animals are in heat only for a few days in the year), its huge brain. The upright stance reveals the full beauty of human primary and secondary sexual organs to each other; bipedalism frees the arms and enables hunters and gatherers to carry meat and vegetables home, and therefore compels them to have to remember who gets which share. Thus it also helps us to have a headquarters to carry things back to, a ritually charged homeplace, and a kinship system that can serve as a set of rules for who gets which share. It enables parents to carry babies in their arms–babies who are helpless because they require a much longer infancy period than the young of other species, a long infancy demanded by the need to program children in the complexities of the tribal ritual. The upright stance also made possible the face-to-face mating position, thus encouraging that extraordinary mutual gaze which is the delight of lovers and the fundamental warrant of the equality of the sexes: an equality which was absolutely essential if the human traits of intelligence, communication and imagination were to be preferred and thus reinforced.
Our ritual songs, improved every year, demanded complex voice-production systems that could also come in useful for communication in the hunt and other cooperative enterprises. Our long old age enabled the elders, especially the post-menopausal wisewomen, to pass on the ritual lore and wisdom. Our lack of bodily armament was compensated for by the development of weapons, which could be wielded by thumbed hands liberated by our upright stance and controlled by an advanced fine motor system. Thumbed hands were required to enact the ritual actions, and smear on the ritual body-paint, and carry the ritual objects, and make the ritual clothing, and gather the seeds and roots for our tribal kin. Sexuality was extended and intensified, relative to other animals, and was adapted from its original reproductive function into the raw material of an elaborate ritual drama that pervaded all aspects of society. And the great brain mushroomed out, transforming its substructures to the new uses and demands that were being placed on it, pushing out the skull, diminishing the jaws, wiring itself more and more finely into the face, hands, and speech organs, specializing particular areas of the right and left to handle new linguistic, musical, and pictorial-representational tasks, developing a huge frontal lobe to coordinate everything else and to reflect upon itself and its body and its death, and connecting that higher-level reflective consciousness by massive nerve bundles to the limbic emotional centers–thus creating a unity of function between the intellectual and the passionate that is close to the heart of our deepest shame as well as our finest achievements, and which has thus been denied by most of our modern avant-garde philosophical systems.
From this point of view personal physical beauty takes on new importance. When we fall in love, and thus mate and have offspring, we do so often because we are captured by such qualities. We look the way we look as a species, largely because that was the way our ancestors thought intelligent, strong, loving and imaginative–ritual-ready–animals ought to look. We are the monument to our progenitors’ taste.
Many of our creation myths show an intuitive grasp of the strange process by which the cultural tail came to wag the biological dog. The story of the clothing of Adam and Eve, where (the awareness of) nakedness is the result of shame, which is in turn the result of self-knowledge, expresses one aspect of it. Again in Genesis the punishment of Eve for her acquisition of knowledge, that she must suffer in childbirth, nicely expresses the fact that one of the parameters of a big-brained viviparous species like ourselves is the capacity of the female pelvis to allow the passage of a large skull. Hence also the beauty for the male of the female’s wide hips and the motion they make when walking. The big (and to the male, attractive) breasts of the human female, and her dependency upon a protecting male during lactation, also referred to in Genesis, are likewise the sign of a nurturing power that can deal with a long infant dependency, and thus produce human beings of intelligence, wisdom, and esthetic subtlety. Babies without protecting fathers must enter adulthood earlier, and cannot be fully instructed in the tribal ritual; they thus need smaller brains, and smaller-hipped and smaller-breasted mothers to bear them.
If the human ritual as we have envisaged it was to have its original evolutionary function, it must have involved a dark, shameful, and terrible element. For if some members of the tribe enjoyed greater reproductive success, others must have enjoyed less. If some were selected as preferred mates for their intelligence, wit, loving nature, prudence, magnanimity, honesty, courage, depth, sanguine disposition, foresight, empathy, physical health, beauty, grace, and strength; others, the dullards, whiners, liars, blowhards, hoarders, spendthrifts, thieves, cheats, and weaklings, must be rejected. The most brutal throwbacks–the rapists, those who grabbed the food and did not share it, those who could not follow the subtle turns of the ritual and internalize the values that it invented and implied–would be cast out from the tribal cave, into the outer darkness where there is wailing and gnashing of teeth. Defective infants would be abandoned on the mountainside; adults polluted by impiety, crime, incest, madness, disease, or their own exercise of witchcraft would be led to the borders of the village lands and expelled. Oedipus, who was exposed though not defective at birth, is among other things a symbol of our guilt at such rejection: when he does return, as all buried shames must, he pollutes the city with his unconscious incest. The Old English monster Grendel, that wanderer of the borderlands, the descendant of Cain, is another type of such outcasts, and the image of the scapegoat.
Indeed, the fragile virtues of the human race would have been impossible without this terrible and most shameful selection process. If we consider how morally imperfect we are as it is, and how the best and most recent research shows that moral traits are to a considerable extent inherited, it may be a grim satisfaction to reflect how much worse we would be if we had not selected ourselves for love and goodness. Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac at the command of the Lord (whom we may take, for mythic purposes, to be the evolutionary imperative of the human species, the strange attractor drawing it into being) is necessary, paradoxically, to bring about a more loving and juster humanity. We had better be worth the price.
Our moral growth has, more recently, caused us to recoil in revulsion from those ancient selective practices; but that growth was partly their result. The process has not entirely ceased, and we had better face up to the fact. Every time a woman chooses a man to be her husband and the father of her children, for any good personal reason–for his gentleness and his wit, his confident strength and his decent humility–she is selecting against some other man less noble in character, and either helping to condemn him to the nonentity of childlessness or to be the parent, with some less morally perceptive woman, of children who are likely to inherit their parents’ disadvantages. It is horribly cruel and shameful, if we think about it, but I believe there is a strange and terrible beauty to the magnitude of the mating choice, that is at the root of the troubled exaltation we sometimes feel at a wedding.
The rituals of sacrifice, and their later and more subtle developments as tragedy or eucharist, are the human way of rendering this ancient horror into beauty. Sacrifice has a peculiar element, which we might call “commutation”: every sacrifice commemorates a previous sacrifice, in which some much more terrible act of bloody violence or costly loss was required. Abraham is allowed to sacrifice a ram instead of his son who was due to the Lord; the Greeks can burn the fat and bones and hide of the bull to the gods, and eat the flesh themselves. Instead of a whole firstborn son, only a shred of flesh from the foreskin need be given. When the process has been going for a long time, the sacrificed object can become apparently rather trivial. Cucumbers are sacrificed in some African tribal societies; Catholics and Buddhists burn candles; almost all Christians break bread. Thus every sacrifice is an act of impurity which pays for a prior act of greater impurity, but pays for it at an advantage, that is, without its participants having to suffer the full consequences incurred by its predecessor. The punishment is commuted in a process that strangely combines and finesses the deep contradiction between justice and mercy. The process of commutation also has much in common with the processes of metaphorization, symbolization, even reference or meaning itself. The Christian eucharistic sacrifice of bread not only stands in for the sacrifice of Christ (which in turn stands in for the death of the whole human race); it also means, and in sacramental theology is the death of Christ. The Greek tragic drama referred to, and was a portion of, the sacrificial rites of Dionysus–both a use and a mention, as the logicians say, or both a metaphor and a synecdoche, in the language of the rhetorician.
The invention of ritual sacrifice, or rather its elaboration and adaptation from the division of the spoils of the hunt and the disposal of the bodies of the dead, may have begun a process of increasing suppression of the proto-human eugenics I have described. The commutation process gradually took the teeth out of social selection. Instead of the normal expulsion or killing of the polluted, there was occasional human sacrifice; instead of actual human sacrifice, scapegoat animals were killed. More and more egalitarian religious ideas arose, as in the anti-elitist cults of Krishna and of the Buddha in the Hindu tradition, the Greco-Roman myths of the gods in disguise as beggars, the later cults of Mithras and of popular Egyptian deities, the social criticism of the Hebrew prophets, and the Christian warning that the last shall be first and the first last. A larger and larger proportion of the population was permitted to have offspring. Tribalism came to be despised. Arranged marriage ceased to be the norm. Aristocratic ideas of the inheritance of good blood went into decline. Meanwhile a celibate priesthood came into being in many traditions, clearly and unambiguously signaling that reproductive success was no longer the reward for ritual excellence.
We rightly condemn eugenics and applaud the increasing humaneness, the humanity, of the emerging civilized morality. The word “human” itself means the rejection of the terrible process by which we became human. And if commutation in this sense also means meaning, then meaning is in another way the same thing as sacrifice. But if we think we can safely suppress the memory of how we became human, and of the price of our new freedom, we are quite wrong. To reject such practices should not mean to repress them from our memory. If we forget them, the basis of our shame and also the basis of our beauty as the paragon of animals, we may, in some time of terrible stress, find ourselves repeating them. We are indeed at this time trying to repress them. The symptoms of that repression are manifold, and it should come as no surprise to find them concentrated in our avant garde: our contemporary hatred of technology (while we use it only the more avidly); the element of rabid superstition in our fear that we are destroying Mother Nature; our anxiety about any implication of psychobiological differentiation between the sexes; and our bad conscience about race and ethnic diversity. We have few rituals left to enable us to accept and take on the burden of our inescapable impurity.
In giving up tribal eugenics we have irrevocably declared our commitment to technology. As civilization matured, it kept the routine individual eugenics implicit in the choice of reproductive partner. In a sense we could say that the move toward civilization is a move toward an increasing democratization of reproductive choice. Instead of the tribal collectivity deciding who should not have children, we all did, individually, by discriminating against all other potential reproductive partners than the ones we chose. The selective process was thus rendered weaker, more subtle, less consistent, and much more variable. In contemporary society, where casual sexual promiscuity, medical intervention, and birth control tend to frustrate the process of genetic selection through reproductive success, we are in the process of giving up even the individual option for selecting and passing on valued information by genetic means. Nevertheless, over the last few thousand years we have been developing other means of passing on such information: oral poetry, writing, the arts, organized social institutions, and now computers and other advanced electronic technology. Furthermore, we will soon be in a position to correct by means of gene therapy the diseases, distortions, and deficits which would once have condemned a cave-dweller to exposure, exile or ritual sacrifice. Thus technology, especially biotechnology, is the opposite and alternative to racism and eugenics, which is the ancient aristocratic theory of species improvement. Technology is a further development of the evolutionary process of meaning. These systems have become the DNA of a new, inconceivably swifter and more complex form of life, a new twist in the evolutionary spiral.
The process of self-selection by which our species evolved is also, perhaps, largely responsible for our racial differences, however superficial they may be. There are examples, such as the guenon monkeys, of genera that have divided into a multitude of new species purely on the basis of sexual selection, females preferring males with a narrow range of exaggerated features, and so promoting the genetic isolation of monkeys of that racial type. Luckily, though the human species does possess an inclination to find beautiful what resembles the racial norm, it also possesses an opposite attraction toward exogamy, toward the exotic, the racially different, which is one of the fundamental reasons for the hybrid vigor of our species and its great success.
Xenophobia, the fear and hatred of strangers, is built into human nature. The underlying biological reason for xenophobia is territoriality, the seizing and keeping of enough space and resources to feed oneself and one’s kin. A young computer expert of my acquaintance recently wrote a computer game program that amusingly illustrates the principle. He was trying to design a game that would illustrate ethical principles. First he created a slowly self-renewing field of available and usable energy, graphically represented by different intensities of green. Next he created an evil entity, represented by a red dot, and a good entity, represented by a blue dot. Both good and evil dots were mobile, and moved about harvesting the green energy field. A heavily engorged dot, red or blue, would fission into two daughter dots. When an evil dot encountered a dot of either color, it was programmed to attack it, and, if it were stronger (had absorbed more green energy), it would destroy its enemy. A good dot, on the other hand, would not attack other dots; if it were attacked by an evil spot more powerful than itself, it would be destroyed, but if it were itself more powerful, it would “convert” an evil dot into a good one. As was its initial purpose, the game showed that altruism paid off in the long run; the good dots eventually triumphed even when the initial odds were heavily in favor of the evil dots, and there was no more red on the screen. But one day my friend ran the program a little longer, and noticed that quite soon after the victory of goodness, the blue dots had multiplied so swiftly that they had eaten up all the energy in the green energy field; and without food they suffered a catastrophic die-back and became extinct. He then tried starting off with only evil dots, and noticed that in their unrelenting hatred, greed, and ruthlessness they quickly spaced themselves out territorially and were able to maintain a balanced ecosystem.
The point is that ethical principles are not always what they seem. We may need elements of our xenophobia; the biological xenophobia of our immune systems is what keeps us healthy and alive. A body without xenophobia is a body with AIDS. Though indeed we should not rest within the human default option of racist or ethnocentric xenophobia, and require education and discipline to help us overcome it, we should not wish to abolish it as the default option, as that which we rise above–even if we could, which we can’t without radically rewiring the human brain. As long as we can and do rise above it, it is in itself a healthy and appropriate reflex and should not be condemned as avant-garde liberals often condemn it. The whole point of discipline is to override such reflexes; any athlete knows the process. It was only a culture that hated discipline, then, that was forced to deny and attempted to repress as evil the natural human suspicion of our odd-looking neighbors. Perhaps, then, the myth of the evil racist west may even be the product of a kind of mental laziness, a fear of self-discipline.
Indeed, territoriality and xenophobia may be the basis of our finest virtues. In Konrad Lorenz’ description of the mating ritual of the greylag goose, the lifelong bond (and unmistakable personal recognition and affection) of a “married” pair of geese is created, cemented, and partly constituted by the triumph ceremony. This ceremony or ritual dance is centered upon a ritualized and stylized attack by each loving spouse upon a third, absent and counterfactual goose, in which what seems at first to be a hostile assault upon the partner is deflected and spends its energy upon the imaginary “enemy.” A goose is normally a highly territorial animal, attacking any fellow goose of either sex that trespasses upon its preserve. Lorenz points out that species without a territorial and aggressive drive, like schooling herrings, do not recognize each other as individuals and thus are incapable of any personal or prolonged pair-bond. (Herring, then, would seem to exemplify the ideal sexual life as envisaged by those psychologists in the French existentialist tradition, like Lacan, Foucault, Deleuze and Guattari, who make themselves the enemies of repression.) Thus personal recognition, individuality, and love evolve as an exception to an existing default option of xenophobic hostility, and paradoxically could not exist without the default. This idea is confirmed by neurochemical evidence: the human neurotransmitter vasopressin, which is closely associated with aggression, is also deeply implicated in the drive to stay with and cherish one’s mate and protect one’s offspring. Without the resistance to strangers there could be no individuality and love. Perhaps the saving human inclination to find racial difference sexually interesting is a genetically internalized part of this process of making exceptions, which leads to personal love.
To return to our interesting computer game, perhaps it is personal love, and the art which makes the triumph ceremony so beautiful to look at, and the intelligence that is necessary to discipline the default option, which can renew the green field of energy and open up fresh fields outside the confines of the computer-space. The inoffensive, unprejudiced and gentle blue dots, left to themselves, will browse and reproduce themselves into extinction; unreconstructed red dots will survive, but their lives will be nasty, brutish, solitary, and short; what we need to be is red dots which have disciplined themselves to be blue when the occasion merits, and which are thus able to change the rules of the game and contribute to the energy-field itself.
6. The Mystical Conjunction of the Sexes and the End of Race
Though I have sketched out the shape of new myths that can serve us better, as well as reflect the facts more accurately, the question remains, what are the cultural consequences and artistic implications if we were to adopt these new myths.
We have in the past two centuries experienced just the beginnings, just a delicious foretaste, of the astonishing cultural riches that flow from the contributions of women to the literate public modern world. Those riches can be divided into three parts. Part is simply the release into a new sphere of action of the full and multifarious talents of one half of the human race. Part is the emergence into the electric brightness of written and recorded culture, of centuries of beautiful old oral traditions, like ancient recipes passed down mother to daughter, bearing the dense human accumulation of experience and value. The effect will be like that amazing moment in Greek, English and Icelandic history when the oral epics and sagas were written down, and when the ancient magical world thus injected its great shot of vitality and genetic material into the rational literate future. This emergence or renaissance will begin to happen when the newly “liberated” generation of daughters is able to listen carefully to the voices of its mothers.
Another part of this new cultural richness may be the somewhat different perspective on the world afforded by the biological differences of women and men. This last can be exaggerated; for once a human being has combined his or her inherited biological nature with a nurturing culture to produce a true self-generating individual, and so entered into the superconductive medium of human imagination, once he or she has experienced the opening of sympathy that results, nothing human is ever alien. One of the worst aspects of the old myth is the idea that one can only know what one has experienced, and that anybody who isn’t one cannot share the experience of a woman (or a black, or whatever). If this is so, then we are all cut off from each other, because everybody’s experience is different; thus, incapable of empathy, we are incapable of love for anything other than a self-created image of the other. As a result, all of life must be a relentless struggle for power; and if this in turn is the case, we human beings are not worth moral concern, and the most oppressive systems are no worse than the least. They may even be better for other species.
The miracle of the human imagination is that it can understand and experience others sometimes even better than it can understand and experience itself. I do not feel my own experience until I have imagined it; and thus I may sometimes feel another’s experience more authentically than he or she does–and that person may feel mine more authentically than I do. This leap takes the resources of the classical arts, and the hope they embody, and is one of the reasons why art is indispensable. Art, at its best, is telepathy. George Eliot surely understood the male mind as well as any male, and Leo Tolstoy the female mind as well as any female. Nevertheless, as Virginia Woolf put it, there is a shilling-sized spot on the back of each person’s head that we need the other sex to see for us because we cannot see it for ourselves. A shilling was not a large coin; this proportion seems just. (Some old-myth ideologues would make it the size of a millwheel.)
At present the great flow of women’s creativity is partially blocked by the presence of the old patriarchal myth, as well as by the remnants of male prejudice against women and a new male resentment of the injustices of the patriarchal myth itself. Rage, self-hatred, self-justification and the opportunity to blame one’s own failings and weaknesses on someone else are poor soil for creative growth. The prejudice against science horrifyingly cuts many women off from the richest source-materials of their creativity. Once the fury subsides we can look forward to a long and lovely period in which the female culture luxuriously and comprehensively transforms and is transformed by the male culture; the long-awaited marriage and wedding-night of the human species itself. And out of that marriage, what divine child, begotten of technological artistry, intuitive wisdom, and scientific insight, born into the culture of hope, might be the issue?
We must find institutions, perhaps electronic cottage industry, perhaps a new conception of the workplace which includes nurseries and schools, which begin to reintegrate human activities in such a way as to reconstitute the ancient institution of the House, the household, in such a way as not to divide the sexes and not to limit human opportunity. We must develop an ideology of nature which does not divide human beings from nature but which at the same time recognizes the human role of stewardship and leadership in the proces of natural evolution. There will be room in such a conception both for the traditionally female talent for balancing relationships and recognizing interdependencies, and for the traditionally male talent for transforming action.
We must reshape our educational system to demonstrate the unity and interconnection of all knowledge, and its essentially dynamic and active nature; so that no boy can escape it as a narrow specialist, and no girl can avoid the hard calculations of science and mathematics. We must make the structure of education conform to what we now recognize as the informational shape of the universe itself: a gigantic hierarchy of structures reflecting its own evolution from the most primitive, simple, and disconnected to the most concretely complex and interdependent; a hierarchy which at its higher levels begins to generate feedbacks between the lower and higher that tangle the hierarchy and transform it into a heterarchy–thus freedom and a new creativity are born into the world. Such a picture of the universe could incorporate both the organic virtues of the women’s culture and the logistical expertness of male modernity.
We must recover the ancient psychic technologies of beauty and morality and place them into an interactive and creative dialogue with the new technology, so that they transform each other. We must recover the performative and oral elements of the arts, and those elements of traditional moral behavior that wisely regulated our impulses. Some elements of chivalry, especially, can be detached from feudal and theological dominance systems and regenerated as a curb on male violence and desire; there is a knightliness that women properly expect of men. Likewise the disciplines which were developed during the emergence of modernism–the objectivity and fairmindedness enshrined in the idea of democracy and in the scientific method–should be allowed to fuse with traditionally female capacities of empathy, tact and subjective insight.
We must especially “revision” the institution of motherhood, and place it back into the rich web of human relations of which modernity has unintentionally stripped it. We must recover the best and noblest element of the old patriarchy, that is fatherhood; not just as a greater participation by the male in the mothering tasks, though this is an important priority, but in the role of tutor, trainer, hero, model of what it is to shoulder an adult life and adult responsibilities. Needless to say, this is a task for women also; but perhaps it suits men’s inclinations better, as nurture, empathy, and that astonishing primal cultivation of personal intelligence suit women’s. Motherhood is the highest of all arts, higher than music, poetry, painting: it creates intelligence where none existed before. The first five years, we know now, are more formative of a human being than all the rest. It is as absurd to expect half the human race to take up this grandest of all tasks as it would be to expect every human being to go through the sacrifice, terror and suffering of being an artist. Mothers should have the respect and awe we reserve to the other great shamans of the human enterprise.
We may profitably take as the model of the truly liberated human being Virginia Woolf’s notion of the partnership in the psyche between the male and the female self. Her meaning was not that we should all be androgynes, but that the inner man in a woman should be given his due and allowed his voice, though under the control of a rich and dominant femininity; and the same for the inner woman within a man. A society shaped upon such a model would be an astonishingly creative one, I believe; and it would have an unexpected bonus, that it would bring out the ridiculous and hilarious comedy of the world and of human life far better than does earnest avant-garde postmodernism. Our being in the world as hairy reproducing animals with divine capacities really is quite wonderfully absurd. Sex is one of the things that teaches us this, when it is not turned, as traditional societies sometimes turn it, into something merely dangerous and evil; or as the ideological avant garde turns it, into a serious and hygienic duty. There will be a new era of love, friendship and cooperation between the sexes on the large social scale. The present state of nearly military hostility, paranoia, and uncooperativeness between the sexes in the developed countries cannot persist, for simple demographic reasons: it cannot reproduce itself into another generation, because it damages the very process of reproduction when it prevails.
Lunatic current fashions, such as the discounting or denigration of female beauty, will dissolve; if “real power” is money, and if money is based on desire, then to be desirable is to be really powerful. Only a value system superstitiously based on old means of economic exchange, getting paid for one’s labor, could ignore or hate the legitimate and innocent potency of beauty. As it is in our current fashion, only males are permitted in good conscience to capitalize on their physical beauty, a state of affairs that is manifestly unfair and wrong. (Of course, females do still use their beauty, but they do it with an unnecessarily bad conscience.) An artwork is valuable because it is beautiful, and this is the most guiltless form of economic value we know. By the same token, it is much more just and beneficial that people should get paid for their beauty than that they should get paid for their self-enslavement to some inhuman repetitive task which could be done by a machine.
There will be a greater acceptance of the differences between men and women, an acceptance broadened by the fact that one’s sex is going to be increasingly a matter of choice. Our present crude methods of changing sex will be replaced by a full and perfect transformation, with all the reproductive biology to match. Thus if one does not like the social expectations that come along with one’s own sex, one can easily change to another. There will be a much wider variety of sexual roles. The creative and transforming cultural role of the homosexual will get increasing respect and affection, and will diversify itself into further beautiful elaborations. The grand stabilizing and fathering role of the patriarch will return, together with the tragic dignity that his presence gives to all human beings around him. The young male hero will be celebrated, not as in the last two hundred years as the paradigm of human achievement, but as the agonist of arete, the limited but splendid adventurer that he is. The new young heroine will join him, receiving for the first time in history her proper recognition as the adventurer of the mind and the transformer of all frames of reference, the questioner of all easy certainties and comfortable illusions. And the matriarch will return, the madonna, who is the central moral pattern and most perfect image of what it is to be human, the great giver, the wise Sophia, the Shekinah, the Kuanyin, the Uranian goddess.
There must be an era of forgiveness and apology and reconciliation between the sexes, when we recognize the injuries we have done each other and fall in love again with the humanity we share and the amazing differences between us. There is a lovely motif in Mozart which has been called the forgiveness theme. It’s in Cosi Fan Tutti, The Marriage of Figaro, and triumphantly in The Magic Flute: let it be the melody by which the time is remembered. Imagine what it would be like to live in a culture with no systematic resentment between the sexes.
Though we will be able to choose our sexual roles, we will never achieve a total detachment of gender from sex, a total polymorphousness of human sexuality. We will always be weighted by what we are and what we have been; a woman who has been a man is not the same as a woman who has never been anything else. Freedom is in part the ability, so to speak, to change speed and direction; but it is also the possession of such personal mass as to make those changes significant. The dream of total escape from identity and history is really, if the dreamers knew it, a desire for complete triviality. If the transsexual’s imagination is poorer than that of the woman who has never been a man, she may not be able to experience as clearly, accurately and vividly in real life what her sister is able to experience vicariously. She might not be as good an advocate for her cause as her wiser sister. But what we are is not the same as what we can imagine. And there are some things, inextricably involved with our sexual nature and our gender, that irrevocably make us what we are: motherhood and fatherhood, and all the bonds and obligations of kinship. If we were ever to abolish these, we might be freer in a sense, but we would not matter. A human race without the madonna and child, without the the special painful love of father and daughter, and all the other elements of our biological identity, may not be worth its ecological expense.
There are always going to be the pangs of sexual love, requited or unrequited. We will never abolish sexual jealousy, without abolishing the amazing experience of sexual intimacy whose loss constitutes the experience of jealousy. Men and women will always fight, because their reproductive interests are different by the very nature of things. In itself the fighting is part of the creative friction of our extraordinary species, like the creative friction between the rebellious adolescent and the conserving adult. At present the sexual conflict is aided and abetted by powerful social movements and interests, but it will continue, though in a much less destructive and acrimonious form, without them. When the conflict is framed in terms of power, it tends to be sterile; when it is framed in terms of love, it is fertile.
The marvellous thing about the sexes is that they seem to have been designed by evolution as a feedback dyad, a sort of algorithm of mutual transformation whose chaotic self-organizing products themselves take an active and free part in the shaping of history. The biological result of sexual union–the conception of a unique new human being whose view of the universe adds to it an unprecedented dimension–is a beautiful natural metaphor of the psychological and spiritual aspects of the relation between the sexes. It is a risky procedure always, this recombinant DNA of the spirit, dangerous, mysterious, and terrifyingly open to an incalculable future. It is one of the chief ways in which the universe generates a new moment every moment, this catastrophe at the edge of the past, at the vertiginous edge of all ecology and system. If we follow the counsels of the old myth of the oppressive patriarchy we might, by an utter disengagement of the loving conflict, achieve a kind of stasis; but that stasis is death. The life of the universe is largely entrusted now to the adventure of sexual love; let us follow where it leads.
The present hatred and mistrust between the sexes is deeply related to the mistrust and hatred between races and ethnic groups. How are we to deal with the old human reflex of xenophobia, of that prejudice that is built in to our perceptual and cognitive systems as its indispensable default option? How can we avoid making differences where none exist? By now all the races are pretty thoroughly mixed genetically. There is not a single African-American in America who is not also a descendant of the enslavers. Nor is there a single White in America who does not have some trace of Black genes (if only through Zanzibarian traders or Spanish Moors or the children of Eighteenth-Century black prostitutes in London and Paris and Naples and Amsterdam). Thus there is nobody who could not claim to be both the victim and the perpetrator of ancestral oppression. But there is still enough statistical isolation between populations so that the superficial markers, of color and facial features, are recognizable as belonging to certain groups.
These final reflections on the matter of race point to one simple, practicable, and as things now stand, virtually inevitable answer to the problem of racism. If we really want to get rid of racism, let us intermarry. Let miscegenation thrive. To the extent that the races are genetically isolated at all, the offspring will possess hybrid vigor; and they will have such mixed ethnic loyalties that they will not be able to keep a straight face among ethnic ideologues on either side of their family. The comfortable lie is that interracial children are troubled and unhappy; actual study and experience shows just the opposite, that they tend to be well adjusted, cheerful, and unusually creative. That lie is usually the sign of a concealed racism, as prevalent among the oppressed as among the oppressors, that secretly desires the cultural barriers that racism supports, and the guilt and despair that flow from them, a lie most often found among those publicly most self righteous in condemning racism.
A few generations of interracial marriage–and the process has already begun–will produce such an extraordinary range of skin color and facial type that the human type-generalization system will simply be overwhelmed. The variety of racial subtypes will approach numerically the variety of individual and family differences. Racial difference will get absorbed into the much more powerful human individual face-recognition system. We will still be able to hate our neighbors, as the racially identical Croats and Serbs do each other; but if we do not choose to assert some divisive “cultural identity” (which is either an illusion or the product of poor education) we will no longer be unwillingly labeled by our skin or hair. The reason why the culturally different Germans and Swedes and Italians and Irish were able to integrate into American society, when African-Americans met much higher obstacles, was because they could not be racially distinguished from their oppressors. Unless they chose to reveal their background, they were subject neither to prejudice by the established population nor to even more insidious calls for loyalty to the oppressed group. Let us interbreed, then, and be done with the whole wearisome business of race and “diversity.”
Although at present it does not seem very likely, we can still hope for a time of greater tolerance and love between ethnic groups. In the medium-long run, we are all going to be so mixed ethnically that systematic racism will simply be too exhausting and confusing to maintain. The mechanism of prejudice and stereotyping is an absolutely natural and indispensable tool of thought, being essentially no more than snap generalization from ad hoc evidence and second-hand authority. The double meaning of the word “discrimination,” as the practice of race prejudice and the essential function of our senses and taste, is no coincidence. Racial mixing will tend to make that usually useful tool unavailable as a lazy default option in cases where a careful judgment of a human being on his or her merits is demanded by efficient practice. Prejudice survives because, to some extent, it works, if only in a self-confirming fashion. There is no way for a prejudiced person to know whether his or her prejudice is objectively justified or not, and so the prejudice is maintained, to be on the safe side. But if, as in a profoundly mixed-race society, there are simply too many categories into which a given case might fit, the brain will go to the next easiest method of judgement, which is the inspection of the actual details of the case; and so be forced to judge a person, as Martin Luther King put it, not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character.
Once racial mixing is so complete that racism is impractical, we may even choose to reinvent racial differences as a form of entertainment, art, fetishism, or self-expression. By biotechnological means we might be able to make ourselves look like the ancient Maya aristocracy with their strangely flattened skulls, or like the flowerlike footbound maidens of old Chinese tradition, or turn ourselves into pigmies or Masai giants or Nordic supermen. If there are no social roles, then there are no social roles to play when we want to play roles. Who knows the limits of human perversity? Consider the magnificent and pathetic transsexuals of Paris is Burning. The world would be poorer without them. Nor should we forget that yet another of our perversions is the delicious rage of censoriousness that we sometimes let ourselves feel about such practices; and why should we not feel that rage, as long as we do not or cannot act on it? In a strange poetic way extreme racial differences in facial features and bodily conformation sometimes express the terror and strangeness of the divine in people, as a caricature can sometimes show, nightmarishly, the essence of personality. The gods always seem to possess an exaggerated form of the racial characteristics of their worshippers. Perhaps we even breed toward those beautiful and terrible ideal masks, by choosing mates that look like the images in the temples. But these bizarre possibilities are for another age than ours, one which, under the sign of hope, will have the luxury of freedom from political tendentiousness and ignorant bigotry.
More distantly still, if we settle in other star systems, rendered remote from one another by the time-dilation of relativistic space-travel, the human race may become isolated once again into racial groups adapted to diverse environments, and may have to rediscover the arts of ethnic tolerance that we are presently struggling to invent today. Then the irony will be the strange, humiliating wisdom of that ancient time, that will make our descendants feel how superficial are all their intellectual and moral and technological advances . . .
In the meantime, however (as I write Los Angeles cleans up from three days of race riots), we must search for ways to mitigate our given human ethnocentrism and xenophobia. Robin Fox’s solution is characteristically wise, trenchant, and disillusioned: not to try to eliminate prejudice and stereotyping, but to replace bad stereotypes with good ones. This, however, is a cultural, not a political task; even a hint of political motivation in the cultural transformation that is required will arouse the paranoia that always accompanies the anxiety of ethnic difference, and the not always unjustified suspicion that the cultural educator is indulging his or her own prejudices. The work of cultural persuasion must be noble, generous, self-effacing, and devoid of criticism of those it seeks to convert; its motivation must be to show them a richer way of living in their own terms. We will reach this more difficult, but more just and humane, way of dealing with people the more swiftly if we treat racism not as a moral, but as a cognitive failure, and cease to use it to justify our own prejudices against, and superiority to, the uneducated, the bluecollar worker, the Southerner, or whatever. If racists are presented in the media as boors and trash, instead of what they most often are, which is decent traditional people with narrow horizons, they will not recognize themselves in their portraits and will rightly doubt the honesty of the painter and the veracity of the message. Contemptuous hatred is the least constructive reaction to a bigot; it simply reproduces the bigotry in another form.
One vigorous strain in the art of the future will be the experience of the half-breed, the mestizo, the immigrant, the child of mixed ethnic background, the anthropologist with a foot in two cultures. The complexity of cultural background that such people possess constitutes a rich palette and vocabulary of artistic expression, as we can already see in the work of artists like Amy Tan, Paul Simon, Yoyo Ma, Ismail Merchant, V. S. Naipaul, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and David Byrne. In our present era of ethnic sensitivity our principle is that only someone born and bred into a given culture can truly understand and speak for it. What the new art will demonstrate is a wiser principle, that only someone who comes from the outside can learn to love a culture deeply enough to see its soul. Who understood America better than de Tocqueville, or England better than Henry James, or Japan better than Yeats, or Europe better than Borges? The paradox and tragedy of the diaspora Jews was always that they were able to express the genius of the nations among which they dwelt better than the natives themselves; and as international travel for the purpose of business, tourism, academic study, and sport becomes the norm in people’s lives rather than the exception, we are all going to approach the condition of wandering Jews. This is fertile ground for art, and if we understand it with sufficient fortitude, a great cause for hope.