The discussion started by Column No. 29 on the abortion issue gave me the idea of developing my ideas on sexual difference a little further.
I have resisted the temptation to call this column Engendering GA, not merely because the play on words is about as trite as Yogi Berra‘s quote about déjà vu, but because the term gender is used today to imply that there is no fundamental difference between the sexes, that feminine and masculine roles are socially determined. The traditional French reply to this utopian denial of the facts is vive la différence!
But in order to speak about this difference, we must first attempt to understand it in originary terms. GA has said little about sexuality. Its theory of desire, founded on the primary relation of mimesis, is suspicious of any attempt to specify the objects of desire.
In my Abortion column, I suggested the following definition of sexual difference: Men relate to others externally; women have the additional potential of an internal relation to a human other. To be biologically equipped to bear children is what a woman is (and what a man is not)–which does not mean that it need be the essential determinant of her (or his) behavior. The germ of the feminist argument that men resent female superiority is that women have a way of relating to others that is inaccessible to men. But this definition is not biological; it is anthropological. Otherness is an exclusively human category.
The abortion issue touches directly on the nature of this internal relation; when does the fetus become a human other and cease to be a mere part of the woman? But of far greater interest is the way in which this conception of sexual difference can enlighten us about the chief subject of these columns, which is love.
My original idea was to call this series Chronicles of Resentment. But as I especially emphasized in Column No. 6, if there is one thing that saves us from resentment, it is love–sexual, romantic love. Clearly we can understand love up to a certain point without referring to sexual difference. Although the religious and literary tradition gives a quite different picture, in the Athens of Plato‘s time, the only culturally interesting form of love was homosexual. The expulsion of sexual difference from Greek eros is one of the founding gestures of mature Athenian culture, and certainly of philosophy. But the culture of sexual love in the West since the Middle Ages has returned to its heterosexual roots; modern homosexuality is best understood as a deviation from this norm.
The notion of love that I have attempted to develop in these columns, as well as in my recent seminar, is that love is essentially tenderness, the caring awareness by each of the other’s vulnerability, and therefore of his or her need for love. The obvious source of this sentiment in the originary scene is mourning for the central being torn to pieces in the sparagmos. But the specific quality of the love-relationship as it develops in Western culture reflects the integration within external human relations of the internal otherness of the mother-child relationship. This relationship is fundamentally non-rivalrous. Lovers can indeed become rivals; they are as subject to the mechanism of mimesis as anyone else. But what makes the love relationship tender is the non-mimetic appreciation of the other’s difference. The infant in the womb–and for a long time afterward–is incapable of mimetic rivalry; this only begins with the assumption of full humanity in the possession of language. To engage in conflictive mimesis, as any two-year-old knows, it is essential to be able to say no.
The mother’s tenderness for the child in the womb cannot be reciprocated; it is she who recognizes its need for her care. In contrast, the tenderness of lovers is reciprocal. (A relationship in which one party depends unilaterally on the other is unworthy to be called love.) Love is an external relationship between adults, yet it strives toward mutual internality, as if each were the nurturing mother of the other. Each treats the beloved not as a potential rival but as an object of asymmetrical caring. The love-relationship lacks the biological element of internality; it achieves cultural grandeur by attempting to reproduce in an external relationship the visceral necessity of an internal one. As the deaths of Tristan and Isolde, Romeo and Juliet, and countless others exemplify, the true lover cannot live without the beloved.
These reflections on romantic love lead us to examine the role of love in Christianity, the central cultural system of what Hegel called the Romantic era. The love of each for each, which I have qualified as omnicentric–each becomes a center for every other–is proposed in the Gospels as an alternative to the symmetrical opposition of rivals. Turn the other cheek rather than retaliate in kind; go the extra mile rather than draw a line in the sand. The moral duty of asymmetry is associated with maternity in the figure of the other as a child that recurs so frequently in the Gospels. A recent lecture by my UCLA colleague, historian Scott Bartchy, emphasized early Christianity’s subversion of the symmetrical male relationships of the Roman empire. This suggests that we should understand Christian love (agapé) as modeled on the asymmetrical caring relationship of internal otherness. What Jesus proposes is the feminization of external relations as a non-sacrificial means of deferring violence.
I will conclude with a reference to Flaubert‘s Madame Bovary, probably the most significant novel of the nineteenth century. The excesses that bring about Emma‘s downfall are more financial than sexual. She is the first literary character of consumer society. As the author might have said, Madame Bovary, c’est nous.
Emma ends badly, but her passion for consumer goods is prophetic of a society in which we can all differentiate ourselves without directly competing by using consumption to make a statement of our social being. Emma is unconcerned with rivalry in the real world; the mimetic models she finds in books and magazines provide her with consumption patterns–including adultery. If mature market society has resisted the final conflict predicted by Marx and so many others, this is the result of the rise of consumption as a mitigating factor in social confrontation.
Can we find a more specific linkage between the modern phenomenon of consumption that mediates between symmetrical rivalry and linear hierarchy and the relationship of internal otherness? Emma is disinterested in motherhood; she cares more for her possessions than her child. Can we say then that the meaningful consumer goods of consumer society are (like pets) cultural substitutes for children that allow us solace within ourselves from the rivalrous externality of the social world? These ideas require further reflection.