A trade model of the creation of the patriarchy Saturday, Mar 16 2013 

I’m a third of the way through Gerda Lerner’s The Creation of the Patriarchy, and enjoying every page of it.

While I think the questions Lerner is asking are fascinating, I can’t help feeling that her answers to them are needlessly complicated. So I thought I’d put down my own initial thoughts as I read through the book.

At the heart of Lerner’s analysis (so far) is the following observation: “Sometime during the agricultural revolution relatively egalitarian societies with a sexual division of labor based on biological necessity gave way to more highly structured societies in which both private property and the exchange of women based on incest taboos and exogamy were common.”

Lerner outlines a number of different theories explaining this observation, distinguishing, in particular between arguments that see the rise of private property preceding the establishment of male control over female reproduction, a view she associates with Engel; and arguments that see the reification and commoditization of female reproduction as precursor to the creation of private property, a view she attributes to Levi-Strauss.

The problem with both these views, per Lerner’s own critique, is that they implicitly assume a single (male) agency – a truly historical explanation of these observations requires a causal mechanism whereby both men and women, each with full agency and acting in their own perceived (though possibly short term) best interests would choose the observed shift in social structure. Any explanation that does not allow for equal choice on both sides essentially relocates the point where gender equality was violated to some other (earlier) point, thus avoiding the very problem it set out to explain.

Obviously, this is not really my field, but thinking about it, here’s my basic outline of a model that explains the shift Lerner describes:

Every society has two basic tasks – the procurement of food for short-term survival and the propagation of the species for long-term survival. The fundamental challenge is then to divide these tasks among the male and the female of the species.

Consider, to begin with, the hunter-gatherer world. This world has two sets of tasks related to food procurement – each equally valuable, since both contribute roughly equally to the food supply; but one task (hunting) is more prone to result in bodily injury and death. Since male reproductive capacity is both unverifiable and (effectively) unconstrained, so that men are relatively dispensable (and not subject to the same mortality risks as women in child bearing), it is functionally optimal for men to take on the more hazardous task (hunting), while women gather. Note that Lerner provides a slightly different logic for the functional basis of this division – situating it in the more limited mobility of women given their child rearing roles – but in either case the point is that men hunt, women gather, and since both activities are roughly equivalent in value, the resulting social organization is egalitarian. In particular, the balance in food procurement contributions means that the sexual terms of trade can be determined independently of the terms of trade in food procurement. In fact, there is no real reason for sex to be traded for advantage at all, and therefore no need to define sexual property rights.

Now consider what happens to this happy equilibrium when a new technology – agriculture – is introduced that both lowers the hazards of food collection, and eliminates the need for two distinct food procurement tasks. For men, the lower mortality rate means that their sexual services, always fairly marginal, are rendered even more valueless – their only remaining social function is as food providers, a function they must embrace so as to avoid becoming irrelevant. For women, the greater productivity and stability of agriculture means that the value of their sexual capacities relative to their food gathering skills has increased. This would be true even if we assume that women have an absolute advantage in food production, so that even if women are better at agriculture than men, their relative advantage is sexual, so that it would be rational for them to specialize in reproduction and essentially outsource food production to the men. This is especially true because the alternative – trading in male sexuality – is unviable, both because as a commodity male reproductive capacity is not especially valuable, and, more importantly, because it is unverifiable, especially to an outsider, so that anyone trying to trade in male reproductive capacity is very likely to end up with lemons.

The introduction of agriculture thus creates trade between two domains that where hitherto independent and self-sufficient – the domain of food procurement and the domain of reproduction. For this new form of exchange to function, both sides must have something to trade – thus on the one hand you need the creation of private property as means of granting men control over food production, and on the other hand you have the reification of female sexuality. Note that this reification need not initially come with the transfer to male control; initially the property rights over female sexuality may still be held by women themselves. But the transformation of female sexuality into something to be traded sets the stage for the later appropriation of these rights.

This appropriation is made possible, of course, by the relative time horizons of the two functions being performed. As specialization progresses, and men are increasingly responsible for the short-term survival of the group, while women are increasingly responsible for its long-term survival, the balance of power, once so heavily weighted towards women, increasingly shifts towards men. In the long run, specializing in sexual propagation leaves women in roughly the same situation as a country that chose to specialize in the production of capital goods, depending on another country for all its consumables. Both countries need each other, but the latter can survive much longer without the former than the former can the latter. Because technology advances slowly, however, this eventual outcome of specialization is unimaginable to the agents who choose to specialize initially – the woman who first trades on her reproductive capacity cannot possibly imagine a world where her role as a food gatherer will become irrelevant.

What agriculture thus makes possible is the fundamental patriarchal trap of the specialization by gender of food production and reproduction, a specialization that is accompanied by simultaneous creation of both private property and trading in female reproduction. As agricultural technology advances, the specialization will grow more extreme, with women being both increasingly limited to and defined by their sexual role, and being increasingly driven to reify and celebrate that role in themselves, as being their chief means of competing with others of their sex. Men, conversely, will compete by usurping the means of food production from others, with the resultant increase in mortality levels serving as a further supply constraint.

Obviously, this is all speculation, and I have no idea how well the model above fits with the available facts. Still, it’s what I was thinking about as I read Lerner’s book, and I think it provides an account that is at least as plausible, and at least as successful at explaining the fundamental shift she is seeking to explain, as the theoretical arguments she provides.



The Political Yeats Sunday, Jul 15 2012 

I’ve been thinking a great deal about Yeats this weekend, as a result of reading an essay by Adrienne Rich. In Blood, Bread and Poetry, Rich writes of reading Yeats in her student years, and speaks of

“this dialogue between art and politics that excited me in his work, along with the sound of his language – never his elaborate mythological systems. I know I learned two things from his poetry, and those two things were at war with each other. One was that poetry can be “about”, can root itself in, politics. Even if it is a defense of privilege, even if deplores political rebellion and revolution, it can, may have to, account for itself politically, consciously situate itself amid political conditions, without sacrificing intensity of language.”

This surprised me, for two reasons. First, because I’ve never thought of Yeats as an especially political poet. This is a man, after all, who wrote in ‘On Being Asked For A War Poem’ that “I think it better in times like these / A poet’s mouth be silent, for in truth / We have no gift to set a statesman right”. And second, because much as I’ve always loved Yeats poetry I can’t help thinking of him as conservative, reactionary, and patriarchal to the point of misogyny – everything, in short, that Adrienne Rich spent her career fighting against. It’s true that Rich goes on to call Yeats out for this, the other thing she ‘learnt’ from his poems she says, is “that politics leads to ‘bitterness’ and ‘abstractness’ of mind, makes women shrill and hysterical, and is finally a waste of beauty and talent.” Yet her she is, decades later, acknowledging Yeats for introducing her to the political potential of poetry.

Thinking about it, it seems to me that in the end Yeats was too good a poet to be either political or apolitical.


Joan Miro: Dream Astronomer Wednesday, Jul 4 2012 


(Joan Miro, Autoportrait)

The National Gallery’s new Miro exhibition (Joan Miro: Ladder of Escape) is an eye-opener in more ways than one. Not only does it showcase both the vivid color of Miro’s painting (to which online images simply do not do justice) and his exquisite and unerring sense of balance, it also provides a fresh perspective on both the breadth and depth of Miro’s art.

Personally, I’m extremely fond of Miro, but I’ve always thought of him as basically a whimsical surrealist, creator of such hauntingly delightful images as the Dog Barking at the Moon and the Woman Listening to Music, and the man behind peinture-poisie such as This is the Color of My Dreams.

What the new exhibition shows us is a more politically engaged Miro, a painter deeply responsive to the world he lived in and the times he lived through. Beginning with early Catalan peasant paintings, with their flag-waving patriotism,

(Joan Miro, Head of a Catalan Peasant)

Miro’s paintings and profoundly reflective of the political climate he lived in, a point the exhibition drives home by placing the paintings in their historical context. Like Dali (Soft Construction with Boiled Beans, Autumn Cannibalism), Miro responds to the premonition of war in almost barometric fashion – the shapes in his paintings seem to twist and bend under the pressure of history (see, for instance, the Woman Fleeing from Fire), creating images that are at once nightmarishly grotesque and hauntingly accurate. Where Miro differs from Dali is that in place of the latter’s exquisitely detailed draftsmanship, Miro gives us the unmediated crudeness of tormented shapes and primal colors, so  that his paintings (such as The Two Philosophers, Man and Woman in Front of a Pile of Excrement, or a series of Paintings from 1936 that use tar, sand and shoe polish) are immediate and savage in a way that Dali’s are not.

Joan Miró. Still Life with Old Shoe. Paris, January 24-May 29, 1937

(Joan Miro, Still Life with Old Shoe)

But perhaps the most haunting of Miro’s political paintings on display at the exhibition is the Barcelona Series, a collection of fifty lithographs drawn from 1939-1945. Seen individually, these black and white drawings, with their outlandish shapes and their stick-like figures, seem almost like caricatures. Taken together, they become a haunting catalog of nightmare, snapshots from the darkest recesses of the surreal imagination, and possibly the most devastating series of images to come out of Spain since the drawings of Goya.

But political engagement is not the only thing this new retrospective showcases. It also highlights the variety and experimentation of Miro’s work. To be one of the true masters of surrealism is achievement enough, but the exhibition shows us that Miro never stopped developing as a painter, never stopped growing in new and unexpected directions. So in addition to Miro the surrealist we get Miro the abstract expressionist, with three great murals, and the incredible Fireworks triptych, and the visceral beauty of his burnt canvases. It is a testament to Miro’s influence on the artwork of his century, that wandering through the exhibition I was reminded, at different points, of Chagal, Kahlo, Cornell, Rothko, Twombly and Rauschenberg – and all this over and above the inescapable comparisons with the other surrealists. Perhaps the most stunning illustration of Miro’s development as an artist is provided by his Autoportrait (above) – in which an immaculately constructed self-portrait from the 30’s, is overlain, two decades later, by a grafitti-like reduction to its essential shape. It’s the perfect image of Miro’s unique genius.

That said, the true highlight of the exhibition for me was the Constellation series of paintings, including People at Night Guided by the Phosphorescent Track of Snails, Woman Encircled by the Flight of Birds, and the Ladder of  Escape (from which the exhibition takes its title). Each of these paintings is a minor miracle of balance:pulsing with lyrical energy, the ambiguity of the individual shapes offering an infinity of interpretations, even as the brilliant background coloring, and the impeccable arrangement of shapes, creates an aesthetically ravishing whole. Placed side by side, as they are in this retrospective, the effect of these masterpieces is breathtaking, as though someone had rendered your most secret dreams in a series of carefully plotted star charts, and hung them up in some magical map room of the soul. That these works were painted while Europe was being torn apart by the Second World War, only heightens their emotional impact, reminding us how great art must not only respond to History but resist it, counterbalancing the violence and suffering of the human condition with visions of hope and beauty. But in the end these paintings need no explanation, no amplification through context; they are, in and of themselves, works of the most exquisite visual music, absolute in their genius, and guaranteed to leave all who see them with stars in their eyes.

L'estel matinal

(Joan Miro, L’estal Matinal)

White wash Friday, Mar 5 2010 

Morgan Thorson / Low ‘s Heaven

Picture yourself in a room full of people in silly white clothes, going through a series of ritualized and faintly absurd movements with expressions of blank sincerity on their faces, all to the accompaniment of the kind of synthetic organ music usually reserved for elevators and spa waiting rooms. Is it a new kind of yoga class? Some sort of new-age revival meeting? Rec hour at an asylum for recovering catatonics? No, it’s Heaven, as imagined by the Morgan Thorson dance company. God isn’t dead, he’s just been dulled into stupor. (more…)

Metamomusphosis Friday, Mar 5 2010 

Okay, so here’s the deal. I know this blog was supposed to be all about books and movies and I know it was kind of fun while it lasted, and I know that if you’re reading this then chances are that you, like me, have been waiting for the day it makes a comeback.

But let’s face it. It’s been two and a half years since I last posted on this site. This parrot is dead, dead, dead. (more…)

No Role for the old man Wednesday, Nov 14 2007 

Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country for Old Men

[warning: spoilers]

Watched No Country for Old Men over the weekend – Joel and Ethan Coen’s impressive but ultimately unsuccessful adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name to the big screen.

The gifts reserved for age Tuesday, Oct 9 2007 

Philip Roth’s Exit Ghost

For surely now our household hearths are cold,
Our sons inherit us: our looks are strange:
And we should come like ghosts to trouble joy.

– Tennyson, ‘The Lotos Eaters

Why is it that a ghost returns? Is it really in order to seek justice for the wrongs done to him, or in the hope of contact with a loved one, or to protect those he loves from harm? Or is it just that, by meddling among the living, the ghost hopes to reclaim for himself some vestige of past excitements, some inkling of what it meant to be alive? Does the torment of the grave lie not in anguish, but in the slow suffocation of the self, the knowledge that all we once were is lost forever?

This is the idea at the heart of Philip Roth’s intriguing new novel Exit Ghost. Nathan Zuckerman, Roth’s familiar alter-ego, has spent the last 11 years of his life living in almost complete isolation in the New England countryside – a period in which he has become both impotent and incontinent. Returning to New York after his long absence, ostensibly for a medical procedure that promises to restore his bladder control, he finds himself suddenly thrown into the world of the living, and proceeds to seize upon it through a series of spontaneous and unbalanced decisions that he recognizes as madness even as he makes them. Why then does he perpetuate such foolishness? Because he wants to be, in his own words, “back in the drama, back in the moment, back into the turmoil of events! When I heard my voice rising, I did not rein it in. There is the pain of being in the world, but there is also the robustness.” It is this doomed attempt to hold on to one’s slipping existence, this rage against the dying of the light, that Exit Ghost gloriously celebrates.

Light and gravity Saturday, Oct 6 2007 

Bela Tarr’s The Man from London

To describe Bela Tarr’s starkly ravishing new film The Man from London as film noir is, I think, to miss the point substantially. It’s like describing Hamlet as a murder investigation. Tarr’s film is so much more – a celebration of aesthetic possibility, a testament to the unflinching power of the camera’s gaze, an uncompromising vision of what film, as a medium, is capable of. Every shot, every frame in this film is put together with the skill and patience of a master craftsman – producing an effect that I can only compare to the best work of Bergman and Tarkovsky. Whether it’s a wizened old man crumbling bread into his soup; the same old man balancing a billiard ball on his nose while an accordion plays in the background and a man dances around him with a chair; the abstract image of a ship’s prow, the central line dividing the screen into two parts, light and shadow, life and death; the clockwork of figures descending a ship’s gangway and stepping into a waiting train, like the souls of the damned arriving in Hell; or just the image of a man standing alone in the gleaming glass cage of a railway switchbooth that becomes a metaphor for man’s fundamental isolation – every scene in this film is pure poetry, every scene combines the bleak realism of a Hopper painting with the immaculate lighting of a Cartier-Bresson photograph. And Tarr’s shots of the human face reveal a nakedness so severe, so absolute, that you almost feel like his film should be rated NC-17. Bergman, in an interview about Nykvist, says that the greatest achievement of cinematography is that is has conquered the human face. Watch The Man from London and you will see exactly what he means.

Lust, Yawn Wednesday, Oct 3 2007 

Perhaps the most challenging thing about watching Ang Lee’s new film Lust, Caution is managing to remember that it’s not In the Mood for Love. It’s not just the presence of Tony Leung that brings the parallel to mind – it’s the costumes, the lush interiors, the slow, nuanced unfolding of an impossible relationship.

Normally, this would be high praise. Except that the plot of Lust, Caution is so at odds with the quiet mellowness of Kar Wai’s masterpiece, that the end result is an awkward, patchy piece of work that tries to be both frenzied espionage thriller and unlikely love story and is convincing as neither.

It didn’t happen one night Saturday, Sep 22 2007 

Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach

Early in Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, there is a scene where a pair of newly-weds sit glumly working their way through an unappetizing English supper, keen to get on with their evening but feeling that certain proprieties must be met. It’s a feeling of being trapped by an unacknowledged rule that readers of McEwan’s new novel will find familiar, as they ask themselves why they’re bothering to go on reading this thing when they could be out enjoying the last of the Fall sunlight.

To put it mildly, On Chesil Beach is not McEwan’s most successful novel. In fact, it’s barely a novel at all, more like an insecure short story blustering its way into novel status by adding a lot of padding and pretending to be a lot more grown up and serious than it really is. (more…)

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