There has been a lot of buzz about “Male Studies” this week, since the announcement of The Foundation for Male Studies, which won’t get a link from me. Now I am all for studying men and masculinities, but I don’t think it sounds like there is much value to this particular approach. I don’t want to write about that, though, because I think it has been adequately covered by the articles linked above. The salient issue for what I will discuss is that “Male Studies” positions itself as a rejection of “feminist ideology” and will draw nothing from the work of feminist theorists. In contrast, Men’s Studies, looks at masculinities in particular and draws from (while still sometimes criticizing) feminist theory. “Male studies” positions itself in opposition to women’s studies, whereas Men’s studies does not. What I would like to look at is this question:
Honestly, I fail to understand why men’s studies [sic] have to be run in opposition to women’s studies, since the two are so completely intertwined and, moreover, cover the same ground. As a man, I understand where attitudes like this are coming from, but know also that it usually takes a personal process of challenging established norms and with it a kind of maturation to see beyond the anxiety that is just as virulent in men as is advancing unrealistic and unhealthy notions of body image for women.
I am not trying to single Comrade Kevin out; in fact, the question about “why run male studies in opposition to women’s studies?” comes up several times in the comment thread. I chose to highlight this comment because it is put clearly and succinctly.
I think one part of an answer to why male studies (not men’s studies, which are part of gender studies) has to be in opposition to women’s studies lies in something that feminists have already been discussing for a long time: categories, binaries, difference and essentialism. Male studies does not want to learn from feminism, but instead wants to reassert biological determinism about sex-as-binary and it does so in a way that simultaneously erases the experiences of intersex persons, trans persons, and anyone else who does not fit into this binary. Feminists have already been doing really interesting work that struggles with how categories get defined and how we should understand feminism without postulating a category of “woman” understood as having an essential core.
The way that western thought has defined categories has been deeply involved with dualistic binaries. Marilyn Frye has an interesting and extended examination of the phenomenon of dualistic binary category formation in her article, “The Necessity of Differences: Constructing a Positive Category of Women,” Signs (Summer 1996).
Frye argues that western philosophy has traditionally been interested in methods of category construction that involve a “universal exclusive dichotomy: A/not-A” (994). The logic of this kind of category formation involves thinking of sets that consist of individuals that are “conceived as logically and ontologically independent of each other” (999). The individuals have properties. The A set is defined by a list of properties (or predicates) which are supposed to be necessary and jointly sufficient for membership in the category. Individuals that have all the properties are members of the A set; and individuals that lack them are not members. This method of forming categories involves a “universal exclusive dichotomy” because:
Each set divides the universe (universal) into separate realms (dichotomous), excluding the possibility of any individuals that belong to neither or both realms (exclusive) (999).
But as Frye points out, although this creates dichotomies, there is something odd and lop-sided about them because while the A part gets defined, the ~A (or not-A) part does not get defined. Frye uses the example of trying to define “vanilla” we might come up with a list of properties that vanilla-things have. But the ~A side does not have a similar list of properties, instead it is undefined and will include not only chocolate, strawberry, and rocky road, but also the square root of two and Haley’s comet. “The vanilla/not-vanilla dichotomy makes no distinctions within the ream of not-vanilla” (999).
For most of history, men have been defined as the A side of the equation, and women have been the not-A side of the equation. This is the point that Simone de Beauvoir was making when she remarked that man is “the One” and woman is “the Other” in The Second Sex. Frye notes that one of the reasons that women have been associated with nature (“Mother Earth”), possessions (“she” to refer to cars, boats and so forth), chaos, and the unintelligible (questions about “what do women want?” that make us seem beyond understanding) is because women along with all these other things occupy the not-A side of the male/not-male binary.
One reason that I don’t think male studies has much potential is that it seems to be keeping this structure in place, although it seems to simultaneously be claiming that because of feminism and women’s efforts to critically engage with femininity (which I think itself is a reductive account of what feminists have been doing) the binary has now been reversed. Male studies seems to claim that now woman is on the A side of the binary and man is on the not-A side, and male studies wants to reclaim the A side.
Another crucial thing about A/~A category formation is that even though the ~A side remains undefined, the A side is dependent on the ~A side, because the A side is constituted in opposition to that-which-it-is-not (994). We are pretty familiar with this idea. It was expressed by Aquinas when he answered the Problem of Evil (why does evil exist if God is all powerful and all good?) by saying that evil is the absence of good. To the extent that male studies wants to continue to think of sex and gender as “natural kinds” (with the addition that these kinds are biologically determined so that sex=gender in the absence of pathology) that are dualistic (rather than lying on a continuum or otherwise multiple) and exclusive (if Man, then not-Woman), then male studies will have to place itself in opposition to women’s studies. It has to be in opposition to women’s studies because the A side depends on its opposition to the ~A side.
Men’s studies is not committed to this opposition, however, because it is not studying “universal exclusive binaries” when it studies masculinities (even the way men’s studies talks about “masculinities” rather than “masculinity” is a clue that it is not invested in the A/~A method of category formation). There are other ways to understand categories. As Frye points out, the A/~A category formation is not the only one that is available to us:
If our thinking is locked into this set-theoretic mold, we will see only the alternative of constructing another structure of the same sort and casting ourselves into the A side of it. But it is not necessary to think of categories as sets. Categories do not have to be constructed by a list of predicates and a division of the universe into individuals-with-those-predicates and everything-else (1000).
Categories can also be constructed by working differences into the structure. For this to happen, Frye says that we need to introduce B into the equation. According to Frye, logically positive categories have the form of A:B and do not depend on the negation of the other side(s) of the comparison, but can instead talk about relevant similarities among As and Bs, the differences among As and Bs, as well as the differences among As (and the differences among Bs). In this case we are not defining A in terms of its being not-B. Instead, we can talk about the way that As are different from Bs and the ways that they are similar.
An example of how this works might be found by looking at the question of humans’ relation to other animals. For a long time the question of humans’ relation to other animals was posed as “what makes humans unlike other animals.” Many different things have been postulated: a soul, reason, brain size, brain size-to-body ratio, language, morality and so on. This would be an example of A/~A category construction because the question seeks to find conditions that would include all and only humans on the A side, while excluding everything else. The reason there is emphasis on excluding other animals (rather than rocks, say) is because we recognize that other animals pose the most difficulty because they are more likely than rocks to slip into the category. In fact, part of the reason that the criteria shift is because they were found to admit some animal. For example, when brain size was postulated to distinguish humans from other animals it was then noticed that elephants have larger brains than humans on average.
But we can also examine humans’ relation to other animals without an exclusive interest in what makes us different (or special). For example, we can ask about how humans are similar to animals and how they differ. I think the theory of evolution helps to shift thinking toward these kinds of questions because we have come to see human traits as continuous with animal traits. Evolution encourages us to look for the origin of human traits in traits that are shared with animals, and how these traits are present differently in more closely related vs more distantly related species. This shift in thinking is moving toward A:B thinking, although I don’t think it is all the way there yet.
I think a lot more needs to be said about A:B category construction, and I will probably return to this at some future post. One thing that Frye does not explore that I think is also valuable about understanding categories as involving comparisons of this sort is that it admits of adding further values A:B:C and so forth.
One thing that I do find rather ironic about the way proponents of male studies talk about their project is that they claim they were motivated to begin the examination because of the ideological nature of feminism. But then include:
Lionel Tiger, a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University, said the field takes its cues “from the notion that male and female organisms really are different” and the “enormous relation between … a person’s biology and their behavior” that’s not being addressed in most contemporary scholarship on men and boys.
According to Wikipedia, “An ideology is a set of ideas that directs one’s goals, expectations, and actions.” So starting with “the notion that male and female organisms really are different” is itself an ideological statement. It seems to me that there is nothing problematic about an ideology, per se. In fact, it seems quite impossible to undertake any kind of study whatever without having a set of ideas to direct that study. Although ideology has negative connotations, it seems by this description to be very much like an hypothesis. Any study needs to test a hypothesis, and so I cannot see what is problematic about being guided by an ideology.
In contrast, holding an ideology dogmatically does seem problematic from the perspective of scholarship. I find Tiger’s statement ironic because it is an ideological statement that is expressed in a dogmatic way. He presents the ideology “from the notion that male and female organisms really are different” and the “enormous relation between … a person’s biology and their behavior” as an assumption that will not be questioned or disputed within the discipline. If this premise were itself a question to be answered through study (namely, “do male and female organisms differ?” and “If there are differences, do these differences affect behaviour?”) then we would have an ideology held non-dogmatically. As it is expressed by Tiger these views present a dogmatic ideology, which as I note below, is much more “ideological” in the (mistaken) negative sense of the word than the way that feminists approach the same questions.
Finally, Tiger’s statement also makes a committment to the A/~A method of category construction. Notice that he presumes that there are male and female organisms, and that this division reflects the divisions we find in nature. His view is that if it is a male organism (A) then it is not a female organism (~A), which leaves no room for organisms in the middle. As I noted in the post “Killing: The Phallic and the Vulvic”
…it is far from clear that the way we have divided hormones/gonades/chromosomes/genes and so forth along male/female lines reflects what is present in nature, because nature is much messier. Alice Doumurat Dreger has some really interesting articles about sex, intersex, and what the messy boundaries mean for anti-same-sex marriage laws and sex-testing in sports.
We know that some people have XY chromosomes but external female genitalia and secondary sex characteristics. Others have XX chromosomes and external male genitalia. There is a range of biological presentations even if we confine ourselves to the human species. If we expand to other species (as “organisms” in Tiger’s comment seems to suggest), then it becomes even more complex and messy. For example, before DNA biologists often sexed-species based on gamete size, where large gametes were called ova (eggs) and small gametes sperm, and organisms were sexed accordingly. With the discovery of DNA and ways to examine chromosomes, biologists began to observe that gamete size in different species (particularly birds and insects) does not always correlate with the XX/XY method we use to sex humans. But of course, rather than questioning whether these things line up along the A/~A divisions we have made, we often instead just reclassify (that is re-sexed) the data we are looking at. For example:
Birds are different in that their male and female sex-chromosome roles are reversed from mammals, meaning that the female is heterozygous and the male is homozygous. Also, in birds we use Z and W instead of X and Y. (These letters refer to the general shapes of the chromosomes.) So, a male bird is ZZ, and a female bird is ZW.
I think that there are serious questions about the way that western thinkers have divided the world into two sexes “male” and “female” with nothing in between (See also Wikipedia for more variation on chromosomal sexing of organisms). But these questions won’t be addressed by male studies because they are starting with the dogmatic ideology that there “really are” males and females that “really are” different in important ways that affect their behaviour.
A non-dogmatic way of addressing these issues would be to ask questions like:
- Are there differences between men and women?
- How do men and women differ?
- To what extent are these differences rooted in biological differences?
- To what extent are the rooted in socialization?
- How are men and women the same?
- To what extent are these similarities consistent across cultures?
We could also start at a deeper, more basic level and ask questions like:
- Are there male and female organisms?
- To what extent does the division of animals/plants into males and females reflect the diversity present in nature?
These questions are precisely the kinds of questions that have concerned feminist theorists in a variety of science, art, and social science disciplines including: anthropology, biology, philosophy, sociology and so on.
The idea that there are different ways we can think about categories at a meta-level was a little difficult for me to wrap my head around. But once I started thinking about this, I began to see examples of it throughout western culture. What do you think, blog readers, is it possible to shed the intellectual history of western philosophy and begin thinking about categories in new ways? Are there other reasons that Male studies must position itself in opposition to Women’s studies? Is there anything wrong with ideology, or am I correct that it is only dogmatism that should worry us?