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.


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.

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…)

Pip Squeak Wednesday, Sep 12 2007 

Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip

There is a scene in Lloyd Jones’ Mister Pip where Matilda, the novel’s (then) 13-year old protagonist, is caught writing the name of Pip (from Dickens’ Great Expectations) next to the names of her ancestors, which she’s been asked to memorize. Scolded by her mother for sticking the name of a make-believe person next to those of her kin, Matilda replies that though Pip isn’t a relative, she still feels closer to him than to all the strangers whose names she’s been made to write in the sand.

I know exactly how she feels. Pip, or rather the specter of Pip that hangs over Jones’ novel, is about the only warm or believable character in the whole book – the only one I can bring myself to feel anything for, and that mostly for Dickens’ sake. Everyone else in this book is so two-dimensional, so much a stock character, that it’s a wonder that they manage to stay upright when a wind blows across the island.

Jones’ Mister Pip is a feather-weight of a book whose chief merit is that it’s really, really short. In fact, even calling it a novel feels like an exaggeration – it’s more like a collection of crumbs and odd tit-bits left behind from the great feast of the Dickensian novel.

Animal’s Spirit Monday, Sep 10 2007 

Indra Sinha’s Animal’s People

Serre, fourmillant, comme un million d’helminthes,
Dans nos cervaux ribote un pueple de Demons,
Et, quand nous respirons, la Mort dans nos poumons
Descend, fleuve invisible, avec de sourdes plaintes. [1]

– Baudelaire

[plot spoilers]

In the opening poem of Les Fleurs du Mal, from which the quote above is taken, Baudelaire gives us a litany of nightmarish images, then concludes by speaking of one “more damned than all” – l’Ennui. Yet boredom is the one monster you’re unlikely to encounter in Indra Sinha’s magnificent if somewhat overwrought novel Animal’s People, a book that more than makes up in ambition what it lacks in finesse.

Ho Hum Friday, Aug 31 2007 

Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl

[some spoilers]

Given the hype and prestige surrounding the Booker Prize, I suppose it’s only inevitable that we should see the advent of the Booker Prize Book. Not a book that wins the prize, you understand, but a book that seems to have been written for the prize, just as some movies seem made for the Oscars. You know the type – usually set in or around World War II and featuring a bleak countryside, a family (often missing at least one parent) scratching out a barren existence on a farm, a general air of sexual frustration, a main protagonist dreaming of escape from his / her small town existence, a colorful cast of villagers, some form of sexual assault or entanglement, guilt, shame, nationalism and / or faith, an unlikely friendship / love affair, partial redemption, epiphany, a sense of loss.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of the finest novels of the last fifty years have been written around precisely these themes. Peter Ho Davies’ The Welsh Girl, however, reads like nothing so much as a haphazard amalgam of these stock elements, welded together with considerable skill but very little inspiration, to create a novel that is not so much bad as plain dull. It feels unfair to use the word formulaic for a book so painstakingly written, so rich in prose, but it’s the word that, reading the novel, comes most often to mind. (more…)

A Real Find Tuesday, Aug 21 2007 

Catherine O’Flynn’s What Was Lost

When I was nine years old a couple of friends and I formed our own detective agency and set out to solve crime. The fact that we didn’t actually have a crime to solve didn’t deter us; the way we saw it, there were thousands of crimes that went undetected everyday, so all we had to do was find one. That way, not only would we get the glory from actually solving the mystery, we would also get the credit for discovering the crime in the first place.

Armed with this philosophy and nurtured on a steady diet of Enid Blyton’s and Three Investigators, we proceeded to scour our neighborhood for ‘clues’. We searched systematically through the local rubbish dump, and were genuinely surprised to find no severed body parts. We spent hours tailing unsuspecting strangers, right up to the point when they turned suspicious. We climbed over a neighbor’s wall into the one vacant house on the street, convinced that it was a den for drug-runners and / or smugglers, and proceeded to dust the windows with talcum powder in search of fingerprints. Our adventures lasted three months – by the end of which time our locality’s obstinate law-abidingness coupled with growing parental concerns about what we were up to put an end to our sleuthing. In the years since, I’ve lost touch with my fellow detectives (to the point where I don’t even remember their names) and had almost forgotten about the whole project.

Until, that is, I was reminded of it by Catherine O’Flynn’s marvellous debut novel What Was Lost. Here at last is the kind of book that makes reading through the Booker long list worth it – a novel that is at once heartbreaking and hilarious, a scathing critique of our consumer society married to a bittersweet meditation on loss and regret. Part Office Space, part To Kill a Mockingbird, What Was Lost is a delicious treat of a book; one that suggests that O’Flynn is someone we’re going to be reading for a long time to come.

A life in fragments Thursday, Aug 16 2007 

Anne Enright’s The Gathering

“This is what shame does. This is the anatomy and mechanism of a family – a whole fucking country – drowning in shame.”

Anne Enright, The Gathering

Another day, another Booker prize long list book, another novel about a family mourning for the loss of a loved one. Sigh.

This time around the deceased is one Liam Hegarty, and the person mourning him, or at least the person whose mourning we are witness to, is his younger sister Veronica. Liam, a long time alcoholic and quintessential black sheep, has drowned himself in the sea off Brighton, and his death shatters his younger sister, who has always been close to him (they are less than a year apart in age). What follows is 250 pages of fractured, hysterical narrative as Veronica tries to make sense of Liam’s death and the life that preceded it. There are many things to confront here: a murky secret from their childhood together, from a time when, abandoned by their parents, they lived for a while in their grandmother’s house; the myriad jealousies and rivalries of a family of twelve children; Veronica’s growing recognition that her own life, though perfectly pleasant and successful by every conventional standard, has somehow turned out to be unsatisfying and false. (more…)

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