Wednesday, May 25, 2011

"The wish was father to the thought"

At the very end of The Tyranny of Science, a book collecting a series of four lectures Paul Feyerabend gave at Berkeley in the early 1990s, this question is asked of Feyerabend:
In relation to what you said the first day, talking about the Furies, namely that the mother was seen as just a breeding oven, I would like to understand the reasons why in such an evolved society as it was in ancient Greece, women were not considered as such, as women.
Here is Feyerabend's reply:
In the play itself this idea is introduced by Apollo, who represents a new kind of religion. For the Furies the mother is not just a breeding oven, it is a blood relative. So there are two parties and the question is how the new party arose. I do not know that. Athena's solution is that both parties have made contributions to the history of the city and should be remembered by it. Was it implausible to make the assumption that women are a breeding oven? Not on the basis of what was known at the time. Women gave birth. They bore the child for nine months. They became pregnant as a result of intercourse. This was known and that is not being denied. What is being denied is, to use modern terms, is that women make a genetic contribution. That is a very subtle matter which at that time could only be dealt with by ideology.
This response is both interesting and unsatisfactory, in the way that the book as a whole is both interesting and unsatisfactory. The book is unsatisfactory, for me, because, as Feyerabend himself anticipates more than once in these lectures, I would have preferred a more "systematic" account of the "rise of rationalism" and his argument that (quoting the back cover) "some very basic assumptions about science are simply false and that substantial parts of scientific ideology were created on the basis of superficial generalizations that led to absurd misconceptions about the nature of human life". He explains why he does not offer such a systematic argument (e.g., systematization is part of the problem; fair enough), yet I desire one nonetheless. I'll have to look elsewhere (any recommendations?). The book is interesting, in part, because Feyerabend tells stories, including the stories contained in some of the Greek tragedies, to illustrate some of the problems with the stories told by the early philosophers. He is also at pains to remind us of the context of the tragedies, as well as of such artifacts as Plato's dialogues, how what we read is necessarily only an aspect of how they would have been experienced in their own time. All this is very well and good. However, he is often unclear about the significance of some of what he relates, or perhaps he assigns a different significance than they seem to reveal to me.

But back to the question and response. I was amused that, after four days of Feyerabend's lectures, the person asking is able to innocently use the word "evolved", implying a telos of progress at odds with his thesis, or that the "rise of rationalism" is necessarily a good thing. When I first read the question, I admit that I read it as wondering how the "evolved" Greeks did not consider women as people, like men. I quickly read past the "considered as such, as women", which evidently has more to do with their biological function, as women, as those who give birth, etc. My misreading made me laugh (and actually provided the kernel leading to me writing this post), but the implied telos of progress remains and serves as a useful point of departure.

Interestingly, Feyerabend hints that the notion that women are merely "breeding ovens" is, relatively speaking, for Aeschylus, a new one. He notes that, for the more ancient Furies, the mother is a "blood relative", or in our scientific language, a genetic contributor. He notes that Apollo's idea overturns this. What he doesn't say is why that might be. He observes that the idea that women are merely "breeding ovens" is not implausible given the knowledge available to people at the time, but he doesn't say anything about why such a new idea would be appealing. I would like to suggest that the Oresteia is in a sense a dramatization of the domestication of the female, a manifestation of the hiding, the covering up, of the older matriarchal order. By the end, the Furies have been tamed; they have become "the Kindly Ones". (It is, by the way, entirely coincidental that I completed Jonathan Littell's astonishing novel by that name just prior to reading The Tyranny of Science.)

I've made the argument (or, well, assertion) multiple times already that the histories of philosophy and science would look a lot different if the experience of women were considered worthy of attention, or if those disciplines had been practiced by women, rather than by men off doing Important Work. I originally said this based on some reading, but really on little more than a hunch. Lately, however, I have been reading works that have both reinforced this conviction and deepened my understanding and appreciation of the problem. One of these was a book I read last year by the late Marxist historian George Thomson with the very dry academic title, Studies in Ancient Greek Society: The Prehistoric Aegean. To quote from the back cover, Thomson "traces the economic and social development of Greece in the Bronze Age and deals with the evolution of epic poetry" including "detailed discussions of such topics as matriarchy and land tenure." It's a boring, somewhat convoluted story as to how I ended up reading this fairly obscure book, but I'm glad I did: it's a fucking monster, deeply learned, incredibly erudite, often over my head, at times unexpectedly very funny (his occasional rants about bourgeois historians are frankly awesome), and fascinating as hell.

With respect to the topic at hand, one of the interesting things Thomson does is trace the roots of the Greek myths, including, among other things, how they were cobbled together over centuries from disparate stories about various local gods. Another is trace the attitudes the Greeks had towards others and towards their own past. For this, he surveys a variety of reports, from Herodotus, Eusebius, Strabo, Aristotle, Thucydides, with references to confirmations from Plato and Aristophanes: "The Greeks were well acquainted with the realities of primitive society":
Surrounded as they were by more backward peoples at various stages of savagery or barbarism and by the advanced but archaic empires of the Near East, the civilised Greeks did not fail to observe that the status of women in these surrounding countries was very different from what it was in their own.
Without going into great detail (or excerpting several whole pages), the upshot is that these peoples employed a wide range of matriarchal characteristics, from different rules for descent and matrimony to different configurations of property and labor to more egalitarian sexual roles. Thomson says, "There is no reason to discredit this tradition. Athenians would not have fabricated a story which represented their ancestors as savages" and quotes Thucydides thus: "The Greeks lived once as the barbarians live now." But, he writes, already reaction had set in:
The materialist view of social evolution was irreconcilable with the doctrine, fostered by the growth of slavery, that Greek and barbarian were different by nature. If such things as primitive communism, group-marriage, and matriarchy were admitted into the beginnings of Greek civilisation, what would become of the dogma, on which the ruling class leant more and more heavily as the city-state declined, that its economic basis in private property, slave labour, and the subjection of women rested on natural justice? If the writings of the later materialists, Demokritos and Epicurus, had not perished, we might well have possessed a more penetrating analysis of early Greek society than Aristotle's. But they perished partly for that reason. Plato wanted the works of Demokritos to be burnt, and his wish has been fulfilled.

No serious student can read Aristotle's Politics without admiration for the author's erudition and insight. If that book had perished, the world would be the poorer. But this must not prevent us from recognising its limitations. He knew that the Greeks had once lived in tribes, and he must have been familiar with the tradition that they had once been without slaves. He was presumably aware of the part assigned to Kekrops in the history of matrimony, and in any case he had before him the example of contemporary Sparta, where the rule of monogamy was so little binding that half a dozen brothers might share a wife between them and adultery was not punishable or even discreditable. Yet, accepting the city-state as the only possible formation for civilised life, he constructs a theory in which the original nucleus of society is identified as the married couple dominated by the male and supported by slave labour. The principle laid down by Thucydides was precluded from the start.

Where Aristotle failed, we cannot expect much of Herodotus. During all his travels the truth stated so lucidly by Thucydides never dawned on him. All he has to say of the Egyptian matriarchate is that 'sons were not obliged to support their parents, but daughters were'—alluding to the rule of inheritance; and the remark occurs in a passage where he is more concerned to divert his readers than to interpret the facts. Hence it is not surprising that he introduced his account of the Lycian matriarchate with the observation that 'it is unparalleled among the peoples of mankind'. The wish was father to the thought. The significance of this misstatement is that it represents what [...] the Greeks of his day were predisposed to believe.
In case my point in discussing these two books together is unclear, I'll finish up by simply observing that it has always been in the interests of ruling classes to naturalize their power and the social and property relations informing that power. Likewise, it has always therefore been necessary to avoid or obscure any history—specifically, the central role of women—that reminds us how things otherwise have been and still could be.

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Thursday, May 05, 2011

International Day of the Midwife

It could be said that, though I've been leftwing for more than 20 years, I became truly radicalized, truly feminist, in connection with questions of birth and childcare. I'll say more about that in future posts, but today is International Day of the Midwife, and though I failed to observe International Women's Day here on the blog, and I let another May Day go by without marking the occasion, I'm not going to miss this one.

So this is in honor of all the midwives, all the doulas (especially my dear friend Emily Pelton, who was our excellent doula), all the childcare providers, all the women persecuted as witches throughout history in the transition to capitalism (and also Karen Carr, who today was able to negotiate a plea agreement against ridiculous charges that could have put her in prison for more than 30 years). Thank you. Without you we are nothing.

(Here is the World Health Organization on the day, and the Midwives Alliance of North America with a list of useful links on midwives and ways to mark the occasion.)


Monday, May 02, 2011


Our eternal war with Eurasia needs no justification, yet has always been justified.

Update - 9pm: I learned about the death of Osama bin Laden during last night's long baseball game between the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets, first via Phillies blog threads I participate in, then from the ESPN broadcast team. Soon, chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A" could be heard circling the stadium, no doubt to the bemusement of the players on the field. Much was made of the notoriously difficult Philadelphia fans' ability to "get this one right". As if they would be anything other than virulently patriotic. The threads alternated between patriotic, celebratory guff and half-hearted talk about the game at hand, which for once, it was said, was meaningless in the face of Important Good News. A few voices here and there expressed some ambivalence, but for the most part, patriotism brought everyone together, rallying everyone around Obama. Post-game wraps dealt with the game in a perfunctory manner: the Phillies lost, but it's ok, it was a Good Day. I was annoyed (I wanted to talk about the game!), and I felt, renewed, my isolation from the political culture at large. Why do I still allow myself to be surprised that there is still so much distance? The persistence, ten years after the fact, in most Americans' abject ignorance of any sort of coherent explanations for why things happen is, somehow, still, dismaying for me.

"To the extent that people are euphoric over Bin Laden's death, this is a measure of the permanence of his achievement." So says Richard Estes, at American Leftist, in his excellent post on the subject: "[T]here is a perverse, unacknowledged alliance between al-Qaeda, neoliberals and neoconsevatives, as all three groups are in agreement about the urgency associated with the need to marginalize and impoverish workers even if it is in the service of strikingly different visions of the future." He also includes some updates, with useful links on the failure of the option Bin Laden represented, its irrelevance to the changes shaping the Middle East now.