Some thoughts on Homeric gender politics


It’s almost too obvious to say that the Homeric epics are misogynist. What strikes me is how systematically misogynist they are, how they have to keep repressing a feminine element that always threatens to resurface. Sometimes it does, most dramatically when Hecuba bares her breast in an attempt to dissuade Hector from rejoining the battle, more mundanely when the soldiers chide each other for being womanly.

Every story that is, on the face of it, about the relationship between a man and a woman is displaced into a story about a rivalry between two men or about the loyalty between two men. The presenting issue in the Iliad combines both moves: Helen is induced to be unfaithful to her rather unimpressive husband, Menelaus, but this marital tension is displaced into a rivalry between Menelaus and Paris (abortively staged in Book 3) and then of course balloons into an international conflict lasting a decade. Achilles’ apparently sincere love for his war captive, Briseis, quickly becomes fodder for rivalry with Agamemnon. This does not explode into violence due to party loyalty, but Achilles can only join back into the captive after the death of his beloved comrade Patroclus (male loyalty) opens up a more serious male rivalry with Hector. That then sets up the uneasy truce between Achilles and Priam — where two men, united in their grief over men, call a temporary halt to the war started over a woman.

This aggressively homosocial gender politics may work in war, but it starts to fall apart when we turn back toward home in The Odyssey. And that incoherence is brought to a head in the figure of Penelope. On the one hand, Homer seems to be trying to set up some kind of tension through the constant reminders of Agamemnon’s fate — will Penelope really be faithful, or will Odysseus be betrayed? On the other hand, there are only two ways for a human woman to be: either utterly devoted and submissive or maliciously traitorous. (Helen shuttles back and forth, but at any given moment she is either one or the other.) At times this strains credulity, as when we learn how happy Briseis was at the prospect of becoming the lawfully wedded wife of her husband’s murderer, or what Penelope exults after Telemachus basically tells her to shut up because he’s the man.

There is no room for a woman who is seriously torn, though Penelope sometimes come close. Unable to give her a complex internal life, Homer instead puts her into a complex situation where she can’t be sure whether her husband is dead or alive. If we ask why she doesn’t simply tell the Suitors to leave, the simplest answer is probably that if she did that, she wouldn’t be a proper submissive woman — open wilfulness, even in the service of faithfulness to her husband, is breaking the rules. Her only weapon is passive-aggression, exemplified by the burial shroud trick.

In the later epic tradition, it is the women who start to get what we moderns would identify as a complex interior life — above all the impressive figures of Medea and Myrrha, who are faced with a genuine internal conflict (whether to betray her father for Jason and whether to seduce her own father, respectively). As for the men, we see profound depths of emotion — to a point that is almost comical from a modern perspective at times, or at least from the perspective of impatient student readers who are tired of all the crying — but never real depth of character. The price they pay for their relentless repression of the feminine is being stuck at the surface of things.

A Hegelian footnote to Nancy

In the acknowledgments to the collection The Birth to Presence, Nancy confesses that he has not always found it possible to provide bibliographical references for his quotations: “Some readers may take this to be oversight or a blameworthy hastiness, even if the reference is to a well-known text. (‘What is “well-known” isn’t known at all,’ writes Hegel; I know this sentence well, but I don’t know where to locate it in the Phenomenology of Mind.)”

For various reasons, this confession has always stuck out in my mind — it is a reminder of the greater fussiness of English publishers with regard to quotations, and the irony of the specific quotation in question is of course striking. Hence I believe that during the course of my year-long tutorial over the Phenomenology, I would have noticed the quotation if it actually appeared. And my evidence for this bold claim is that I did in fact notice it when I came across it in Addition 2 to paragarph 24 of the Encyclopedia Logic (pg. 59 in the Hackett edition):

In this way the Logic is the all-animating spirit of all sciences, and the thought-determinations contained in the Logic are the pure spirits; they are what is most inward, but, at the same time, they are always on our lips, and consequently they seem to be something thoroughly well known. But what is well known in this manner is usually what is most unknown.

What do you think, readers? Is this most likely the passage Nancy had in mind, or is there a closer match elsewhere?

Neoliberalism bibliography: Is anything major missing?

I recently came across this bibliography of neoliberalism assembled by William Davies. My question for you is whether you believe there are any significant gaps in it. Please, please leave your comments here rather than or in addition to Facebook or Twitter — I’m hoping to create a ready reference.

Stop saying “love” when you really mean “liberal tolerance”

I’ve noticed that among progressive Christians, “love” works as a kind of rhetorical trump card. Christians are supposed to “love,” hence you should be nice to people, hence you should be a liberal — or something to that effect. Are you worried about illegal immigration? Stop worrying and deploy some love. Does acceptance of homosexuality bother you? Well, I’ve got bad news — accepting homosexuality is a form of love, therefore you should do it. Case closed!

Presumably this rhetorical tactic does work in some individual cases, most likely people who were already uncomfortable with conservative Christianity and just needed that last little nudge. And it does make sense to try to deploy the most powerful and intimate Christian virtue if you’re trying to make radical changes to people’s moral and political commitments.

In the end, though, it rings hollow. Most of the time, it seems like “love” is a translation for “liberal tolerance,” which overlaps only very partially with love, if at all. Does “love” really mean that you don’t make any effort to change the loved one’s behavior if you believe it to be self-destructive? Does “love” mean letting someone rest content with a way of life you believe to be beneath them? That’s not how it’s ever worked when I’ve loved or been loved. Maybe you grudgingly come to accept that you can’t change the loved one, but that’s normally the end of a long and bitter process, not step one.

Further, does “love” mean supporting government policies to impersonally help someone? If my sister became homeless, I don’t think my go-to solution would be to write my Congressman and demand greater funding for shelters. And if you are trying to goad people into taking radically self-sacrificing actions on behalf of the homeless, or illegal immigrants, or whoever, I would remind you that love has degrees, and you may well learn that the person has enough on their love-plate with their day-to-day obligations to their own family.

A diffuse love that vaguely includes “everyone” isn’t love at all — it’s liberal tolerance accompanied by sentimental feelings. And I agree, it would be better if people would embrace liberal tolerance, with or without the sentiment. But that’s not love, and anyone who has thought about love seriously — which would presumably include any committed Christian, for instance — is going to see through the cheap rhetorical ploy that wants to pass off generic liberalism as the most profound Christian virtue.

The demonization campaign against trans women

When people think of “demonization,” they usually think of the simple act of painting someone as evil and irredeemable. My research for The Prince of This World convinced me that a further step is necessary if you really want to turn someone into a demon — like the medieval Christian God, you must actively set them up to fail, inducing the “free choice” for which you will blame them. A demon is a creature who has just enough moral agency to be blameworthy but not enough to effectively change their situation. The overt “demonization,” making them out to be nihilistic rebels who seek only destruction, is actually only the last step in the complex victim-blaming process.

Hence, for example, the “superpredator” rhetoric against black men in the 1990s was not demonizing simply because it painted black men as malicious for its own sake, but because it was used as justification for sending black men to institutions that everyone knows for a fact increase criminality, and then leaving them few employment or housing options when they got out. The crimes committed are still the individual’s “choice” in some minimal sense, and there are always those exceptional individuals who manage to completely turn their lives around, etc., but the net effect is that society has a reliable pool of “demons” — against whom mainstream society must be protected (even though the individuals involved have suffered immeasurably more violence from society than they could possibly dish out to society at large).

A very similar dynamic is occurring with the trans bathroom laws advanced by various Republican legislatures. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s not hypocritical for a Marxist to participate in capitalism

[Note: This post is prompted by nothing in particular. I just want to have it on hand so as to save me some typing when the next person cleverly diagnoses the hypocrisy of a Marxist who participates in capitalism.]

The Marxist critique of capitalism is that it is a totalizing system that forces everyone to participate in it. Hence it is not hypocritical for a Marxist to participate in that system while working toward a revolutionary change in the mode of production.

Just the opposite: it would be profoundly hypocritical for a Marxist to presume that they could individually “opt out” of capitalism or preserve themselves from complicity with the exploitation and destruction the capitalist system produces. That would mean buying into the capitalist illusion that everything is ultimately determined by individual choices.

Yes, it is possible to be more or less exploitative, more or less complicit with the very worst — but charging money for Marxist books, for instance, is not hypocritical. If you think it is, then you simply do not understand Marxist theory, full stop.

Bernie Sanders’ next move: A constitutional convention

Bernie Sanders

It seems increasingly likely that Bernie Sanders will fail to win the Democratic nomination. Even if he does manage to beat the odds, however, his entire candidacy is based on the premise that our system is broken. Hence, whether or not he wins the nomination, I believe that the only possible next step for Bernie Sanders is to declare a constitutional convention.

Note that I said “declare.” The existing U.S. Constitution includes an intentionally laborious process by which one may call for an official constitutional convention — but a constitutional convention that follows a pre-existing template is not a constituent assembly at all. It is just a committee to reform the existing arrangements.

The Founders themselves devised a new ratification process for our current Constitution that did not follow the rules set out in the Articles of Confederation. We should follow their example and declare a genuine constituent assembly to replace an order that has become every bit as unworkable as the Articles of Confederation were in their day.

Why should Bernie Sanders take up this solemn responsibility? Because he can, and because no one else will think of it. And if Trump tries to get in on it, he can declare, with the backing of natural law and the custom of all nations from time immemorial, that he has called dibs.

The time is now! Senator Sanders, you owe it to your followers and to all future generations of Americans to reinvent American government from the ground up. In Year Zero of the Third American Republic, we shall all well and truly Feel the Bern.


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