Sunday, October 9

Cuttings 8 - Essentialism Vs Constructivism

determinism, noun: a theory or doctrine that acts od the will, occurrences in nature, or social or psychological phenomena are causally determined by preceding events or natural laws. / the philosophical doctrine that every act, event and decision is the inevitable consequence of antecendents, such as genetic and environmental influences that are independent of the human will.

constructivism, an explanation: identity as a social construct, something designed and implemented and perpetuated by social organisation and structures, rather than merely 'true' / the 'natural' self as a construct, selfhood as a construted idea, something not naturally produces by bodies or by birth --> subjectivity.

I wrote an essay last year for a cultural theory module and it has some relevance i think - how far can a performer construct their identity? Can a song escape the influence of culture? Is there anything natural or biologically innate in the writing of a songwriter? No? Then what about the sound of a singer's voice? Is vocal technique and its effect on the listener up for manipulation? Or does it possess a degree of natural essence, some 'truth'?

Here is that essay, the especially relevant bit is marked out by ***** before and after!
Its very rough writing because it was in preparation for an exam, not to be handed in an as a proper essay...


>What is at stake in the debate about ‘essentialism’ in cultural theory? In answering this question refer to the work of Luce Irigaray, Susan Bordo and Kate Soper.


The debate about ‘essentialism’ is has profound implications on our conception of the body, identity and the self. It forces the interrogation of entrenched assumptions about what is ‘natural’ and ‘unnatural’ and significantly shifts the emphasis of our attitude towards humanity, history and lived experience. When applied to contemporary society, at stake in the debate about essentialism is also the fate of crucial practical, political and cultural concerns. With reference to the work of Luce Irigaray, Susan Bordo and Kate Soper [in that order?], this essay will focus on the fierce debate about essentialism as it manifests itself in gender theory, examining what is at stake in the different sides of the arguments about gender and sexual identity. In conclusion, it will attempt to answer the question and to explore what is at stake in the debate about essentialism itself, both in gender theory and in cultural theory more generally.
Essentialism is the doctrine which insists objects (or bodies) have an essence or ideal nature that is independent of and prior to their existence. Derived from pre-culture and expressing a fundamental truth, our bodies by this theory are understood as having an inner truth, irreducible and immutable. Our identity is seen as destiny, outside of any history or context – fixed, stable in some sort of interior core. Before delving into the arguments and counter-arguments surrounding this theory, it is important to clarify, especially when dealing with gender-sex concepts, the distinction and affiliation between essentialism and biological determinism.
When Michel Foucault developed his poststructuralist theory and argued that ‘Sexuality must not be thought of as a kind of natural given’, the word ‘natural’ was not intrinsically linked to ‘nature’ in its biological sense. Jeffrey Weeks asserts however, that essentialist tradition ‘underpins such phrases as “biology is destiny” (The Body and Sexuality, 1996). In Irigaray’s critique of Freud, there seems to be some parallel between her anger at his ‘tendency to fall back upon anatomy as an irrefutable criterion of truth’ and her desire to subvert the fixity or ‘essentialism’ of identity. Therefore, though essentialism is based in the metaphysical than the biological, there will be some inevitable overlap in investigating the work of the poststructuralist theorists. This blurring of definitions will be addressed again at the end of the essay in light of its findings.
Amongst those fundamental moral wrongs at stake in essentialist discourse, is the justification of political persecution such as the violence done to homosexuals, subordination of women in a naturalised sexual hierarchy and the repression of female sexual desire. As explained by Kate Soper in ‘Nature and Sexual Politics’ (1995), it is the use and exploitation of ‘nature’ as a socially constructed category which allows the medical/ ‘legitimate’ discrimination of same-sex relations on the grounds of ‘perversity’ and ‘unnaturalness’. It is the policing of sexuality through the wrongly employed concept pf ‘nature’ which enables the naturalisation of male supremacy. It is the coding of femininity with naturality that has served to justify the differential treatment of women and the claim of inferior natural capacities of female biology which has led to their subordination. However much essentialist ideology is dismissed, what is clear is that is has been utilised in justifying sexual oppression and exploitation throughout history.
*****In referring to Irigaray, whose work has provoked much controversy and misunderstanding in relation to essentialist and anti-essentialist conceptions, this essay will concentrate on her strategic reading of femininity as mimicry, which subverts the notion of feminine ‘essence’ or ‘truth’. ‘Femininity’, she explains in ‘The Sex Which is Not One’ (1985) must be ‘preserved and maintained’ my women in order to keep her value on the exchange market (sexual, social, economic). But Irigaray conceives this ‘femininity’ as a masquerade; a role and an image imposed upon women by male systems of representation. This suggests that far from any inner truth, ‘femininity’ is surface-level, a compulsory performance influenced by essentialist ideals ingrained in male cultural expectations and an ‘uncompensated’ effort on the part of women.
Judith Butler also talks of performativity and the textuality of the body in ‘Gender Trouble’ (1997). Having looked at some of the major issues at stake in applying an essentialist viewpoint, we will now move on to examining what is at stake in the extreme opposing argument of those such as Butler who argue that ‘the body is not born, it is made’ and that the natural biological body is a fiction, a construct of society and culture. Susan Bordo in ‘Unbearable Weight’ (1993), analyses the implications of such convictions. She believes that Butler’s anti-biologism invites a lack of regard for the biological consequences of altering our bodies with for example, dieting, plastic surgery and technology which challenges the biological clock. If there is no ‘truth’ or category of nature, then what can be the harm in distorting out bodies? She explains that our bodies have become ‘alienated products’, the flip-side, perhaps, to essentialism.
In light of her particular emphasis on the context of a post-industrial capitalist world, the insistence on the option to ‘fabricate’ our bodies and therefore ‘manipulate’ our identities through imitation may threaten as much as it liberates. What is the joy of ‘creative agency’ for a women, she asks, in a society of image-obsession ‘in which addictive bingeing and purging, exercise, compulsions, and “polysurgical addictions” are flourishing? If total textuality implies the possibility of re-writing, editing and re-interpreting our bodies, the dangers are obvious in a society obsessed with weight and physical perfection. It places women in a double-bind – offering them freedom to design their own femininity and constantly making them feel defective through advertisements encouraging them to change their bodies.*****
Soper has criticism of both Butler and Bordo, clinging to middle ground in the debate and claiming that their anti-realist theories which deny nature as matter, systematically undermine the force of critique against gender-bias or repression of sexual desire (for example) by insisting on the arbitrary and wholly political determination of the body. That is, she argues, how can the repression of the subject be justified if there is no conception of a natural organism being distorted. Further, by reducing the bodies to ‘artefacts of culture’, utterly constructed by culture, then can a line be drawn at genetic engineering and the capacity to invent, patent, own and exploit nature? Culture ends up just as imposing as the nature whose arbitration they so fought to deny. Perhaps least abstractly, Soper questions the more generally argues point against the complete abandoning of essentialist principles, which suggests that without any ‘natural’ yardstick there are no standards for evaluation. Rape, sexual abuse and torture are harder to condemn without the concept of biologically and psychologically ‘unnatural’ violence.
Essentialism and biology are distinctly different, yet both the essentialist and anti-essentialist camps seems to have distorted and exploitation of the concept of ‘nature’. Essentialists misused ‘nature’ in order to justify persecution, repression and hierarchy on a biological ‘natural basis’. Extreme social constructivists deny the category of ‘nature’ altogether and by implication negate the biological significance to the body so that dangerous experimentation with dieting, exercise and genetic engineering seems less ‘immoral’ in the essentialist sense. [Perhaps is nature itself was accepted in its natural form, it could be used for positive purposes and oppressed minorities such as homosexuals would not be so sceptical of using the vocabulary of ‘natural’ to accurately describe themselves, though it was the misuse of the concept which was used in their persecution. But unfortunately, unless you adhere to totally essentialist notions, it is impossible to conceive of ‘nature’ as existing outside of cultural construction.]
At stake in the debate about essentialism, therefore, are the dangers not only of essentialism but also of the theories which have gone to the other extreme in order to oppose essentialist tendencies. As is evident, enormous amounts rest on the insights and convictions of this debate. Sexual identity in a fundamental concept which feeds directly into power relations, religion, politics, psychology, social work. Perhaps most obviously, gender politics can be directly equated with race and class identity politics. At stake in the debate about essentialism in cultural theory is the framework for understanding the forms and nature of gender, race and class identity politics in history, contemporary life and perhaps most importantly, for the future.