Comentary on “Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence”.

By being assimilated under the same label as homosexual men, lesbian existence is deprived of their own particularities. It is clear that both homosexual men and women face social rejection by being brought up in a background where heterosexuality is enforced as the official and the only fully acceptable form of sexuality. But lesbian existence is a profoundly female experience, like motherhood or childbirth and it means both the rejection of compulsory heterosexuality and the breaking of a taboo, resulting in a challenge to male power. Rich thinks that lesbians have been erased from feminist discourse as well. Her response to this fact is expressed in “Compulsory heterosexuality and lesbian existence” (1983) in which Rich invites the feminists to question heterosexuality and examine it as an institution and not just as a sexual alternative. Compulsory heterosexuality is thus analysed in this text as one of the institutions by means of which patriarchy exerts its power. In order to examine this institution, Rich studies and comments on several authors who develop issues related to male power and women submission in their work, rendering such issues as universal, as they take place in every society, culture and race.

Cattle-woman

Starting with “The origin of the family” by Kathleen Gough, Rich comments on Gough’s eight items of male power – the denial of female sexuality, to force male sexuality upon women, to exploit their labour or to control their produce, to rob them of their children, to confine them physically, to use them as objects in male transactions, to cramp their creativeness and to withhold from them large areas of knowledge- and expands each item by introducing a list of actual practices through which women have been kept under male control in all societies and throughout history. These practices range from clitoredectomy, infibulation, rape, incest, prostitution and masochistic oriented images of women in pornography to the structure of the nuclear family, the economical dependence of wives, the feminization of poverty or the use of high heel shoes. The topic of male power and control over women is also developed by Catharine MacKinnon. MacKinnon’s reference to the eroticization of women’s submission, is connected to the above mentioned aspect of pornography, but in this case the focus is set on the sexualization of women at work, which is doubly damaging in the case of lesbians, as not only must they conceal their real sexual, emotional and psychic identity, but they are also expected to behave according to the traditional role assigned to all women: flirtatious, complaisant, supportive, mother-like.

Another remarkable aspect for Rich is that according to a psychoanalytic view, male domination is seen as the result of the mythic male hang ups about their incapability to fulfill the expectations they have about female insatiability. Rich thinks that their fear is more probably triggered by the possibility of women’s indifference; thus they must control women’s sexuality, as their sexual access to women is seen as crucial in a male orientated culture. The means through which they gain access to women are analysed by Kathleen Barry. Barry establishes parallels between women slavery and the daily life of women and examines instances of master-slave behaviour such as prostitution, marital rape, incest, wife beating, pornography, bride price, selling daughters, the purdah or genital mutilation among others as ways of exerting power and controlling women.

Given that the term “lesbianism” has been polluted by all these psychoanalytic and mainstream patriarchal scholarship views, and it has turned too simplistic, failing to convey the complexity of lesbian existence, by making reference to a purely genital and sexual reality, the term lesbian existence is needed in order to convey other aspects such as the sharing of psychic and emotional joy, friendship, and comradeship.

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Be my Valentine: gift giving and other poisoned apples.

Anthropologists have looked into the matter of gift giving as a universal feature in human societies. In primitive societies, some of the reasons for it can be found in the establishment of bonds of kinship. Lévi-Strauss stressed the importance of the prohibition of incest in human societies as a way of making women available for “trade” by men of their tribe with men belonging to other tribes, more than as a way to ward off physical deformity or psychological damage. This was his particular extension of Marcel Mauss’s theories in “The Gift” (1925), which emphasized the symbolic rather than economic value of gifts exchanged.

Now, how do this apply to our society and our circumstances today, as we get ready for this Valentine’s social obligation? I understand that in Anglo-Saxon countries the Valentine gifts go to lovers and friends. In my country, Spain, it used to be for couples only, although due to the cultural influence exerted by the USA through TV sitcoms, some (especially kids) feel compelled to spend twice the money/effort/time. When I was a child, the only thing we did was to laugh at those who were dressed in red in St. Valentine’s Day, because it meant that they were in love, and we used to chase them in order to kiss them (they tried to escape, of course, that was the fun of it).

Nowadays, in adult terms, I find that gift giving is a double edge sword. What should we do with gifts? Ideally I was very much for personal gifts, and I try and make them myself, at least for the ones whom I regard as special people. But I’m afraid the chances to put my foot on it are similar. All the effort and love that you invest may not be appreciated, and I have seen some of such personal gifts been cornered or discarded. Some people are used to expensive stuff or high quality goods and as you are involved in a relationship, they feel free to give their opinion which is not always directly proportional to what you have invested love-wise. Should we just go to a shop and buy stuff with the little money that we have in these turbulent times of economical crisis? The stuff we buy may just be equally discarded… What to do then? I have always thought that a good criteria for gift giving is taking into consideration your lover/friend/relative’s tastes, hobbies & fields of expertise. My mother is always happy to receive some Black&Decker device for her birthday.

You can also bear in mind your own strong points: I paint as a hobby, and sometimes I give a painting as a present. Another possibility is a practical gift, although it is not valid for everyone, some people prefer to be the receivers of a frivolous object they do not really need, or would prefer to be given something that otherwise they would not acquire, like something “luxurious” (SPA bonus, massage, expensive perfume). I was very happy to receive a set of moulds for cakes last year.

The negative aspect of personal gifts is that if the thing you are giving away is criticized, it feels personal too. I was able to experience this not long ago and it made me rethink all my policy with this kind of stuff. Also, there are gifts that get too personal: once I received the book “The Whore’s Son” (I happen to have a son) by Richard Russo as a birthday present. I was astonished. As an explanation, the one who bought it for me, told me that it was a very famous author that she heard me talk about. I could not recall the moment when I was supposed to have mentioned Richard Russo at all. It was the very first time that I heard about him, but that person insisted through flattering my literary knowledge (as Freud’s saying goes, we are defenceless when it comes to flattery, or at least that is what that person might have thought). I have always seen that book as a show of hostility towards me (I know very well that person and she is capable of such a “detail”), and I do not like much its presence.

To sum up, I think I will change my policy towards gifts and stop gift giving and taking altogether.

High brow stuff and real life

It is really amazing… The level of abstraction that some minds have achieved. In those times when I feel quite down about my own mental capacities, my mind shifts to this question, drifting away from duty, as it is doing right now. I mean, how could all those theorists, essayists and scholars reach that level of abstraction if not for having their basic needs fulfilled?

In one of my previous posts I mentioned Einstein and the rules he designed for his wife, which included being spared the children presence, having any obligation towards his wife or having to clean, iron or cook at all. Sometimes I wonder, is it possible to mix daily stuff and high brow thinking in just one mind? Or, does one influence the other? What happens when one has to deal with thugs, traumatized people, bullies, cheats, busybodies, hand-to-mouths and spiritual destitutes -who are just part of REAL life – in a daily basis, make ends meet, take care of others, cook, clean, wash, put up with weird bosses and then one has to write an essay on, let’s say…, the importance of Freud’s psychoanalytic theories applied to the way an author’s identity conditions the meaning of a literary product from a diachronic perspective? Can you do that while you are thinking in your children’s timetables, your workplace deed in lieu of foreclosure, the shopping list, sexual harassment or bullying at work? How could Derrida or Lacan write those nearly indecipherable texts about whatever they are talking about?

Spleen and ideal (copy)The point is that there are innumerable societies within our society and our world and it is so different for people depending on their background… How can I feel identified with someone who seeks to be indecipherable in order to exclude the non-elite niche dwelling people? How can they get so far away from reality into their own world of concepts with no visible results in the improvement of their fellow men/women’s lives? Can we really afford to spend so much time in theoretical masturbation while there are so many things to improve at a practical level? Is it really better to spend our time enclosed in our ivory tower?

I marvel at Frederick Douglass, who learnt to read and write and became someone out of his own will power in the worst scenario possible. He, who interchanged bits of bread for literacy with poor white boys, who had to work like a mule, and was shunned, enslaved and oppressed. He certainly was not in an ivory tower and he made it and manage to help others in the process. He dealt with real life and its real issues.

Oh gosh… Exams…

Here I am, tired as if I had been digging up a trench. All I have been doing is studying for my exams. Sociolinguistics on Wednesday and Literary Criticism on Friday – which has not been much of a success, if I am sincere…-. I am dog tired, plumb-tuckered… And there are two exams left! My mind is still full of data, and I am feeling a bit defeated because of my failure to spot Derrida in my exam on Friday. I really find this man difficult to read. He sounds very scholarly and expert. I mean, when you finally get to understand what the guy is actually saying, you really find it interesting and intelligent, but reading Derrida gives me a headache. I was much more keen on reading Roland Barthes. Above all “Mythologies”. R.B. makes a very clever analysis of society through popular culture such as Hollywood films about the Roman Empire, Pressing-catch or propagandistic photography in politics. It is clever, enlightening and great fun. The article on propagandistic photography is great and while you are reading it, you see what Barthes actually means, as this is daily stuff that you experience in your life whenever the elections time gets close.

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It would be great to have elections now in my country. As I witness how people are thrown out of their homes, how no one seems to be able to find a job anymore, how my own boss is drowning in debt, how they make it more and more difficult here for you to create your own company and people apply in other countries, how I may become one of the nearly six millions of unemployed people any minute now, politicians here keep lying and spending money from our taxes we pay and from the E.U. bailout in becoming filthy rich. The same politicians who filled our walls with posters, with photos in which they had that “dreaming-of-an-ideal-future”gaze, or this face-to-face sincere look in their eyes, or that family guy air about them, must be laughing their heads off at us for having put them in such an advantageous position.

The fact is that corruption has always been endemic here. It is very sad that the rules to the game are so dirty that everyone who gets near the power-centre  starts emitting a characteristic stench of putrefaction due to their systematic disregard of the people, of the base of the pyramid of power.