Sunday, 4 December 2011

The Poetry of Gender

If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: "This is simply what I do."
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations. § 217

As men, we are bred into a culture of power. Like Achilles battling Xanthos, we are bent on dominating the forces around us. We declare war on our surroundings. We take but we do not give. We drain the well, but we see no need to nurture the contents of it. This is a very direct pathology and an easily identifiable psychological problem. It should not be controversial.

The notions of masculinity and femininity are really just poetic notions, and they have no substance other than that of marking out a dynamic, a relationship of give and take, push and pull, action and reaction. They do not stand as independent concepts, so much as polar points in the material flux of life. The pulling back and the breaking of the wave. The Spring and the Autumn, the darkness and the light. The penis and the vagina.

We get into trouble when we try to understand the two as separate entities. They are not. No one thing defines the man. No one thing can be said to be feminine in quality. What we use these words for is nothing more than a pointing to the variant coordinates on a scale of living experience. All of us can be said to experience being male, and female. All of us can be said to experience being dominant and being submissive and it is most healthy to understand where one falls on this scale at any one time.

It is also vital to the human experience to be able to experience shift from masculine and feminine according to the moment. A man cannot experience the power of his masculine physique without an emotional pliancy. A woman cannot bear children without an emotional resolve, a strength of spirit. Masculinity and femininity are existentially fluid. Our biologies are nothing more than predispositions. We do with them what we will.

Even on a physical level, we shift from masculine and feminine all the time, within the act of love, in moments of sporting prowess or emotional assertion. The man dominates the woman, the woman dominates the man. Our “genders” are quite incidental. They are starting points, but there is ultimately a great freedom in how a human being chooses to express their biological character.

In the context of relationship, a particular “gender-specific” physical and hormonal disposition can be directed towards giving or receiving, dominating or submitting. The most interesting moments in the human experience tend to be the use of a masculine body to experience a feminine vulnerability, or a female physicality to express dominance. In these moments we realise that our genders are nothing more than aspects of a complex relationship with ourselves and others.

Some might say that it is not important. That the issue of gender is redundant. But this view itself is based on a rigid and archaic understanding of gender, of the masculine and the feminine. It betrays a western analytic understanding of how language relates to the world and to experience. But as with all concepts, all words and ideas, not one does, or needs to, correspond to an object. What words do is point to the relationships between other words. Words are not objects in and of themselves.

In this sense, defining masculinity and femininity is a useless project. There is no way to actually say when a heap is a heap. The constant search for such a defining moment in our experience is what diverts modern philosophy away from from truth and ideas and into self-serving loop of perpetually introverted dialogue.
Where meaning exists, if it exists at all, is in the relationship words and ideas have. This is really where the poetry of gender comes in.

Being a man, or being a woman is not what we should be interested in. I am not interested so much in “exploring my masculinity” for its own sake. I have just as little interest in that as I do the politics of the feminine. What is most important is our relationships, with ourselves, each other and, crucially to the modern condition, our environment.

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