Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Masculine military, feminine art: or, Ethan thinks out loud, talks out of ass

(I've been poking at this essay, off and on, for the past five days now. If it's a mess, it's because I'm just kind of aggregating it as ideas come to me. If it's really misguided, it's because I'm just thinking out loud, and not very carefully at that. Please, let me know! I want to refine these ideas and get a better understanding of things, and since I realized that wasn't happening with me just writing to myself, I decided to post this one raw.)

UPDATE: Here's Justin's response.
UPDATE II: See bottom of post.

This feminism 101 post by Melissa McEwan is (genuinely) interesting, and I imagine for many people it could actually be quite useful. Given that it's by McEwan, and thus written from her usual mainstream liberal feminist perspective, I have many disagreements with it, but regardless: interesting, useful.

I would like to, more respectfully than my usual, disagree with this aspect of its analysis in particular:
All of which happens inside an environment which is coded masculine to begin with—which is why corporate work is considered serious and important, while the arts, which are coded feminine, are considered unserious and superfluous.

Which, in turn, is why the National Endowment for the Arts (feminine) is constantly in threat of being defunded, but solemn discussion about reducing the budget for the Defense Department (masculine) is considered a hilarious suggestion
McEwan then goes off of a tangent about Democrats and Republicans, my objection to which I'm sure I don't need to state. But regarding the quoted section: I agree that "the arts" are generally coded feminine, while the military is coded masculine. But the straightforward cause and effect McEwan imputes (i.e., the gender coding is the reason for the difference in funding/support) is, at best, oversimplified.

My immediate reaction on reading it was to say to myself, "No, that's exactly backwards," but it's not. If I were to say that McEwan had it backwards, I'd be saying that the military is coded masculine so that it could be funded better, etc. Which is not the case. Rather, it's an example of the evolution of social norms under the pressures of power, as I've written about before*. McEwan's pairing of the military with the arts is a wonderful opportunity to point this out.

*Re-reading that post, hah, I certainly know more about Naomi Wolf now than I did then, yugh.

There are many ways to determine or define or describe the lineage of our current society, but however you do it, military activities have been coded masculine at pretty much every point in that lineage. The same cannot be said of the feminine coding of the arts; in fact, that coding is extremely recent (think of warrior poets, the machoism of the Romantics, etc.), and even at this point I would suggest that it is not nearly so pervasive as the masculine coding of the military--drumming or electric guitar playing, say, is coded extremely masculine, and think about how many of the last 100 movies you saw were directed by women.

What is the reason for this difference in the vintage and strength of the gender coding of these two pursuits?

Military pursuits are perhaps the most important function of civilization; if not, they are certainly the main mechanism by which civilization maintains itself. For a detailed explanation of this, pick up anything with the name "Derrick Jensen" on it, but briefly: civilization, being the organization of people into cities, means that large numbers of people live on land that cannot itself provide the resources that those people need to live; therefore, civilization must import resources from outside, which requires a constant process of expansion, which inevitably leads to violent conflict. So, for as long as there has been civilization, military activities have been essential for that civilization's survival. As long as there has been civilization, the masculine has been privileged (the reasons for this are hazy, as far as I know, and I'm sure it's not so linear as I'm making it sound, but for now let's accept it as a first principle), and so we see why the masculine coding of the military has been so long-lived and pervasive. And, considering that all of this stuff continues to be true for contemporary society and in addition we've now got the immensely profitable military-industrial complex goin' on, it's easy to see that the selective pressures on the society will keep its evolution proceeding along those lines for the foreseeable future.

Art, though. What's the deal with that? I'm not going to pretend like I know a lot about the history of art's social role, because my understanding is much more of a vague outlines thing than any kind of expert knowledge. So, frankly, I'm going to gloss over the long-view historic thing a bit by saying that, in various ways, for most of civilization's history art has played at best a neutral role as regards the interests of power, but more often and in general has served those interests more than not. Court patronage, nation-building culture, that sort of thing. To a large extent the same is true today.

But things have been changing, and, keeping in mind the admitted vagueness of my knowledge on this subject, I would tentatively place the beginning of the change with (what else?) the industrial revolution, gradual at first but with, as with everything associated with the industrial revolution, a kind of bewildering acceleration in the past hundred years or so. Art, to a certain extent, resists the commodification, the mass-production that comes along with industrial capitalism. Of course, to a much greater extent, it is subsumed within it, I'm not naïve enough to not see that, but at least in concept, the idea of the artist is the idea of the individual, the idea of the art-object is the idea of the idiosyncratic.

Or maybe it's not the difference between concept (artist as individual) versus common reality (artist as producer, or content provider) so much as the idea that art contains within it the possibility of resisting industrial capitalism. As the Situationists would not put it but to use their terms, art, stripped of its official structures, has in it the possibility of détournement--subversion--and of the dérive--spontaneity of a type unusable by power.

So, as capitalism advances, increasingly colonizing all areas of life and the world, art increasingly has to either rebel against it, in which case it is opposed to the interests of power, or serve it, which does not require a recalibration of priorities but does require a huge recalibration of methods (serving the power of a king's court is very different from serving the power of CEOs and part owners). In particular, art that serves the phase of capitalism we currently find ourselves in has to be amenable either to mass production, to marketing, to fashion, to being chintzy, planned-obsolescent, and interchangeable, or to being a trophy for rich people, reflecting back to them their best conception of themselves (in which case it is basically serving the old-fashioned purpose of art, but this is a niche in an expanding market).

At this point I think we can see why a feminine coding of art has been becoming more and more prevalent. On the one hand, art that actually is opposed to power's interests can be dismissed as irrational and meaningless, or even dangerously hysterical. On the other hand, art that serves the needs of production can be treated as subservient and submissive.

To be continued....? You decide.

UPDATE II: Picador says in comments what I think I was trying to say all along, and is hilarious to boot:
...Power can redefine activities and groups as masculine/feminine, thereby modulating their social status, depending on whether they serve or oppose the interests of Power.

E.g.: if the Pentagon were to determine that US military supremacy could only be assured by deploying legions of pregnant women dressed in pink leotards quoting Andrea Dworkin and blowing soap bubbles, 1) the Pentagon would deploy such forces, and 2) our culture would immediately redefine pregnant women in pink leotards quoting Andrea Dworkin and blowing soap bubbles as supremely masculine and kick-ass.

[Hilarious case-in-point examples elided; see comments.]

...it can be done deliberately, and selectively, by those who control the media discourse regardless of any inherent "masculine" or "feminine" traits of the target... It's not that Group A is demeaned because they are feminine; they are demeaned because they are a threat to power, and power demeans them by deliberately classifying them as feminine.


Justin said...

Kind of busy today, I'd normally write a whole post in response but I don't know if I'll have time for that, so this comment will do for now. I'll try to write more later at my home...

First, the gender framework/model for explaining the difference between the arts and military is cracked. I'm a little disappointed that you accepted the genderizing of those two categories/institutions. Beyond that, to accept (not that you did, but Mcewan did) that this explains why the military is venerated and well funded and the arts are constantly under attack is an example of ideological blindness. She is shoehorning these things into a feminist framework to make a point, but there are much more obvious reasons for the disparities in funding. Namely - the military is a very important tool of elite interests, the arts, not so much.

Secondly, as you pointed out (and in contradiction to your concession to the gender roles) the arts are hardly feminine. The arts are male dominated and often quite sexist. I don't need to quote a Rolling Stones song to make that point.

Visual arts (painting, sculpture, etc.) are a little more gender neutral, but not by much, and the gains have been in the last century. Traditionally, however, the arts have primarily been a tool of the powerful. Paintings/sculptures were a tool of the powerful to awe little people and to put a very visual reminder that some people were important enough to have paintings and sculptures in their likeness. This is why it was such a scandal when various artists, like the impressionists, started painting portraits of peasants. They were considered people unworthy of artistic talent.

An example; look up the history of Michaelangelo's David. He created that for military/nationalist reasons. Those magnificent sculptures of Caesar were created to help him seize political power by presenting himself as a man of all people by adorning his likeness with visual talismans from various factions. And so on.

A lot of that political/military context has fallen away from visual arts because other mediums have replaced them as the primary tools of the powerful; namely photography and television. When the president wants to remind people of his power and why they should follow him, he doesn't commission a stunning painting, he takes to the airwaves and talks to them.

What I am getting at, I think, is that the reason the arts are constantly threatened is because they are no longer important tools of the powerful, not because they are 'feminine' (which they aren't, being very masculine and male dominated now and especially in the very recent past.)

Ethan said...

I obviously didn't say this very well. Your last paragraph is exactly the basic point I was trying to make.

I agree with what you say about "the arts" being male-dominated, and about the historical factors of it (I did discuss both of those things in the post, the historical part, though I didn't get into specifics because I don't know them well, was kind of the core of my point).

But I don't think it's a contradiction to say that a field remains male-dominated and also is being increasingly coded feminine. A field being gender-coded doesn't necessarily mean that primarily people identifying (or identified by others) as that gender dominate the field.

Instead, it's a general societal perception: the military is manly, the arts are kind of womanly (or even girly). And I think that is, contemporarily, accurate. The general conception of "the artist," or for that matter people who take an interest in art beyond the casual, as opposed to "the soldier" or people who take an interest in the military beyond the casual, is laden in characteristics, primarily negative ones, that are thought of as "feminine." And while the womanly-artist is, as I said, more recent than the manly-military, and still not nearly as pervasive, I think it's gaining.

Does that make more sense?

Justin said...

(btw, I think my comment may have sounded harsher than I intended)

Yes, your response makes sense, but I just don't agree that it is coded as strictly male/female as put here to make any generalizations. I think I can agree that some specific forms of art are gender coded, but not all, and it has to be taken on a case by case basis that does not lend itself to the gender based framework offered here.

I think you could say that ballerina dancing is female coded, and street art/graffitti is male coded, and both are considered by many to be useless. Graffitti art is more reviled/attacked than ballerina art. What is the difference? Graffiti art is a very explicit attack on the powerful because it rejects the idea that all public space should be dominated by those who have the money to rent it.

Under the McEwan framework, ballerina dancing should be attacked because it is feminine, and graffitti art should be widely supported since it is masculine. You could go case by case through artistic disciplines and I think you'd find that the gender thing is meaningless.

Soj said...

I'd further add that the military has not (and still is not) always encoded as "male".

There's a great series in Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon about how the Greeks had two gods of war, Aries and Athena, and how one represented the "brute force let's smash em" mentality (aka "male") and the other was "let's use guile and wit to overcome enemies" aka "female".

Quite an interesting passage and I think you might enjoy reading it.

davidly said...

Hmm. Coding. Masculine, feminine. Perhaps "animus, anima". No matter what you think about Jungian psychology, this idea of coding - whether it's active or passive - is certainly more complex than gender imagery.

I know where you're coming from and Justin clarifies it regarding useful tools of power. It should be added that ballet could just as easily be seen as yet another outpost of female subjugation - more an expression of male dominance.

And I wouldn't be the first to suggest that the female ideal (art/fashion?) - at once embraced and rejected by women who strive towards it and complain about its oppressive nature - is of male origin (homosexual? And if so, where does that place "masculine/feminine coding"?).

And of the kind of woman who would one moment lament the girly role, only to find herself criticizing another for her weight, or choice of attire: I have experienced, more times than I can recount, the assertion that if women ran things, there would be no war. Likewise I have heard the argument ad infinitum that "When a man does it, he's considered strong, but when a woman does it, she's a bitch."

It's a valid argument. Many of us consider the SoS to be just one of those. But we are outnumbered by those who think she is simply a strong woman who "gets things done", doesn't stand in her husband's shadow and, by the way, is such a champion of the arts.

That's debatable. And you don't have to ask me how I think she rates vis a vis willingness to warmonger. If we are around long enough, I'm sure someone will erect a statue of her standing proud.

Conversely: Is the feminine strong? Is war weak? And is the subjugation of women masculine and feminine respectively?

I think they are all a bit of each. And that brings us back to "What's convenient to power?"

There. Now I've talked out of my ass. I hope you're happy.

davidly said...

I also think the post to which you refer is accurate as far as misogynist coding goes in a male-dominated world. I'm just not sure that the coding itself is male-dominated. I guess that may be beside the point.

Ethan said...

Justin, I think ballet vs. graffiti can be a pretty illuminating example, because the society at large has chosen to view graffiti not as art but as crime--which is itself coded masculine (I wish I had Are Prisons Obsolete? handy to quote on what happens to female prisoners in the male-coded penal system). And the masculine coding of crime brings me to a point that I think might be getting covered up, which is that the coding doesn't always result in "masculine good feminine bad." In the case of crime, it is I believe coded masculine--but deviant--so as to justify a harshness in punishing it that wouldn't be accepted were it coded feminine (i.e., a different type of harshness is required for feminine punishment).

If this is starting to sound like a just-so story, well, maybe it is. I still think that gender coding is one of several useful lenses to look at things through.

Soj, I guess I should get around to reading that at some point. Stephenson's behemoths have a way of making me put them off. Did love Snow Crash though. As far as feminine coding of aspects of war, fair enough. I think I'm realizing one thing I did wrong in the original post was making it all sound more absolute than I mean it to be.

davidly, it absolutely is more complex than gender, which I probably should have specified in the original post. Gender is just one aspect of it. But as far as the "some women" you describe--everyone in our society has fallen victim, to some extent, to its programming. And women have far, far more dehumanizing (or at least disempowering) programming coming at them than men do, from the instant of birth. So that many women will recognize these mechanisms of oppression while engaging in them themselves is very sad, but perfectly understandable. We all do the same thing to a greater or lesser extent. When you say I'm just not sure that the coding itself is male-dominated, you're right insofar as men and women participate in it, but that's kind of like saying that you don't think capitalism is capitalist-dominated, because after all we all do buy things.

Clinton is a weird case and I've never been sure what to make of her. I mean, I know exactly what to make of her, but I don't know what to make of our cultural response to her. There is definitely a lot of the strong woman=bitch thing going on with her, of course, but if polls are to be believed she's still incredibly popular. So, I don't know. Maybe she's killed enough people to overcome it.

Ethan said...

By the way, in response to Justin's fears of coming off sounding harsh: I didn't take it that way, Justin. The same goes for other comments. I hope people take mine the same way. Friendly!

Picador said...

With all due respect, I think you've misread McEwan's argument about "the arts", largely because she's very sloppy in her terminology. "The arts" in McEwans' essay is represented by the NEA. We're not talking here about classical sculpture, or electric guitars, or about Hollywood. Pop art can fund itself -- it's free-market, big business, i.e. masculine. Classical art that glorifies power is funded by fairly conservative elite organizations (again, masculine). Projects funded by the NEA -- or, more importantly, the sorts of things associated with NEA funding in the popular imagination -- are contemporary high art, experimental, transgressive. This is what McEwan means by "the arts" being coded feminine: it's quite a limited and specific subset of the actual arts per se.

There are some deeper problems with the essay. McEwan, as usual, is writing with an overwhelming confirmation bias, using trite equations that make her analysis sort of useless (e.g., if fat people "code as feminine", then what's the story with misogynists' love for John Hagee, Jerry Falwell, and Rush Limbaugh?). But those criticisms are off topic in this thread.

Justin said...

I considered that, actually, but I don't think it is valid. For one thing, there are an awful lot of art forms funded by the NEA that have a lot of crossover with art forms not funded by it. Then the question becomes, why is something funded by the NEA and why is something not. In McEwan's framework, one would expect that feminine arts would not get funding, and masculine arts would. Its precisely the opposite.

Ethan, Goddammit, I spent 3 hours last night responding to you on my blog.

Justin said...

Actually, opposite is not the right word because it is not necessarily true that all masculine arts are unfunded and feminine arts are funded, I should say that there is no gender demarcation in funding. I still think gender coding forms of art is pretty sloppy thinking in the first place.

Ethan said...

Picador, I think you just gave me a "duh" moment where I realized what it is I'm talking about, especially your mention of Rush Limbaugh.

I think what I'm trying to say is that McEwan's conception of gender-coding is limited as a result of being so rigid, and that the same thing can be coded masculine or feminine in different contexts, depending on the speaker's attitude (usually as a proxy for power's attitude, whether the speaker is conscious of it) towards what they're speaking about.

So, art is feminine when it is transgressive in certain ways (so that it can be considered irrational), and masculine when it is transgressive in other ways (i.e., when it is considered criminal, as with graffiti); art is feminine when it serves power in certain ways (submissively), and masculine when it serves power in other ways (as with nationalist literature, for example, or when it reinforces masculinity for purposes of consumption).

Similarly, the military is almost always masculine, but when it needs to be derided it is feminine (I remember specifically after the Haitian earthquake Rush Limbaugh saying that the military under Democratic presidents is always reduced to being "Meals on Wheels," which I guarantee you is received by its intended audience as a feminization).

As far as the NEA, I'm not sure--you might be right that that's how McEwan intends us to read it, but my feeling is more that she equates arts in general with the NEA because of her overall statist tendencies, much as several of her posts seem to think environmentalism begins and ends with what the EPA is doing.

Justin, I'm sorry! I saw your post, but am waiting to respond to it until I can devote the attention to reading it carefully.

Justin said...

nah need to feel obliged, I was joking as in blaming you for occupying my evening.

Ethan said...

If I feel obliged, it's internal, not from you. I got your joke, don't worry!

Peter Ward said...

...art, stripped of its official structures, has in it the possibility of détournement--subversion--and of the dérive--spontaneity of a type unusable by power.

Eh? If I'm not mistaken, it was the powerful who brought what we in the west call "art" into existence in the first place. With Justin, I agree that (relative) lack of investment in art reflects it's lack of utility for power. But it has utility -- not as an industrial product -- as an object of financial speculation. And it is arguably financial capitalism that has kept art with a capital A going at all.

In this sense, art is just as "masculine" as war it just doesn't get used as much.

By the way, I think reterming what are essentially class problems as (arbitrarily)* masculine or feminine actually undermines attempts to talk about these matters clearly--and I think that's the point. McEwan can't well advocate Syndicalism--so she's concocted a metaphysical dualism to reconcile the horrors** that inevitably result from a class system with her own worship of and desire for power--class power is okay, as long as it's feminine class power (ruled by wise Democrats).

*Devised it seems by reviving old-fashioned and quite crude gender stereotypes--man, war-like/woman, nurturing, e.g.

**Which she treats dishonestly, and euphemistically, of course.

Jack Crow said...

The professionalization of art is almost always masculine/legitimate, but not masculine/criminal, unless the criminality is intended not as actual transgression, but as a schemed, power funded subversion of the maternal/repressive or the paternal/senescent which, at the moment of contest, obstructs a new masculine/oppressive which has not yet eliminated its competition.

Picador said...

After thinking a bit longer, I agree that there's an even deeper problem with McEwan's framing. I don't mean to be overly critical of her -- her core thesis about how squishy stereotypes are used by the partiarchy to feminize==demean certain activities/groups is just about right. And I think I agree with her that in some sense patriarchy is prior to class difference generally. But she doesn't seem to see how Power can redefine activities and groups as masculine/feminine, thereby modulating their social status, depending on whether they serve or oppose the interests of Power.

E.g.: if the Pentagon were to determine that US military supremacy could only be assured by deploying legions of pregnant women dressed in pink leotards quoting Andrea Dworkin and blowing soap bubbles, 1) the Pentagon would deploy such forces, and 2) our culture would immediately redefine pregnant women in pink leotards quoting Andrea Dworkin and blowing soap bubbles as supremely masculine and kick-ass.

For a concrete demonstration of how this works, watch the movies "300" and "Top Gun" and tell me how, since "gay codes as feminine" according to McEwan, a bunch of oiled-up naked gay dudes slapping each other's asses came to be regarded as the ultimate symbol of American masculinity. Or for that matter, if "fat" and "gay" and "weepy" and "nurturing" all code as feminine, how an organization like "The Family" full of obese Christian men all weeping on each other's shoulders and expressing their deep love for Jesus becomes the nerve center of the politics of misogyny in America.

Obviously, I'm indulging in the same deliberate feminization-as-aggression that McEwan calls out. But the fact that it is even possible to do this deliberately should clue her in to the idea that it can be done deliberately, and selectively, by those who control the media discourse regardless of any inherent "masculine" or "feminine" traits of the target. This completely inverts the process McEwan complains about. It's not that Group A is demeaned because they are feminine; they are demeaned because they are a threat to power, and power demeans them by deliberately classifying them as feminine.

Jack Crow said...


You seem to have struggled with the essentialism that rests at the heart of industrial and post-Enlightenment patriarchy and the liberal feminist critique of the same. Abused and abusers sharing the common bond of domination and submission - in the same way that slave owners defined their slaves as Black-Not-White for so long and so often that descendants of those slaves developed an image/theory of themselves as Black!-Notwhite.

And you have rejected that essentialism, I think.

Coming closer to Ethan's rather remarkable denial of gender duality and essence itself.

A hard road to walk, but worth it I think.


This reminds me of a brief and recent dispute with Echidne. She criticized the conservative/libertarian denial of "public good(s)" as an opportunity to take a fairly standard and unsurprising liberal position on the welfare state. She literally could not accept that even the Scandinavian social democrat states were indivisible from their war powers, their property defining authority, their receipt of corporate dues, and the exploitation of labor.

Another kind of essentialism - but hard to identify and even harder to point out without losing the audience to its own necessary biases.

I suspect a connection between liberalism* and essentialism, in general - though I have yet to make or encounter a solid case towards that end.

* - This includes both kinds of American and European liberalism - the social democratic and the conservative, which differ only as to who should benefit from national/group identity, how rights should expand within that identity, who arbitrates identity, and how.

Identity is the key, I think. Post-enlightenment liberalism (that is, the socialization of investment in the State) depends upon it in ways that even a Roman Pater paterfamilias could not understand, and whose power could not encompass the modern range of it.

Ethan said...

Peter--transforming Art with a capital A into just plain ol' things people do for themselves is what I was trying to get at with the "stripped of its official structures."

I agree that McEwan applies the gender lens to the exclusion of others, and quite probably for the reasons you say--but that does not make the lens itself invalid, just her specific application of it.

Picador, I probably should have just started out with what you're writing here, but unfortunately you're the one who thought of it and wrote it, not me. Unfortunately for me, I mean. That's my way of saying yes, yes yes. Hope you don't mind, I'm doing an update quoting you. (If you do mind let me know and I'll take it down.)

Jack, I wonder sometimes if essentialism, identity, what have you, are in some way a sort of necessary-evil intermediary stage, both for individuals and for societies. Or, no. That's not right, that's too teleological. I should say maybe they are that at best.

Speaking personally, the "gay" identity (or actually identifier; I never really comfortably identified with gay culture as such until, ironically, more recently) is something I attached myself to very early, as soon as I formulated an understanding that there was something different in my sexuality than the society at large accepted as the default. Applying that identifier, with all the ready-made definitions, explanations, and communications that came along with that, allowed me to differentiate myself, and gave me the breathing room I needed to figure out that the identifier, finally, did not actually identify me at all. Letting go of the identifier was a difficult and lengthy process, as I had built up an attachment and near-dependency on it. In fact, it took the equivalent of a huge systemic shock (falling hugely in love with a very genderqueer person, in this case) to allow me to fully move on from it.

In a similar way, an oppressed group (blacks, women, whatever) may need to come to a collective identification (notwhite, notmale) in order to recognize the fact of the oppression (e.g., it's not just me, it's not just my family) and the nature of it (i.e., we are notwhite/notmale people being oppressed as notwhite/notmale people), which are, possibly, prerequisites for the beginnings of successful opposition to that oppression.

The question, then, is at what point those essentialist identifiers can safely be dropped, and what it takes to drop them.

Ethan said...

I should have said, "at what point those essentialist identifiers can safely be dropped without ceding ground to the oppressors..."