Thursday, June 26, 2008

On Women and Men. Again.

Somehow the media became interested in the story of an Albanian woman who became the man of her family. No, this is not about sex surgery. But it is about the ways in which we think of men and women, and the arrangements in our societies around this. The New York Times (and then many others) ran a story about an Albanian woman, now in her 80s, who has taken the alpha-male role in her family: she gave up her woman lifestyle, took on male clothes, sworn herself to virginity (unclear why, as someone pointed out to me today, 'real men' are not expected to do this...) and became the head of the family. From that moment on, she was accepted by everyone as a man (except for this virginity thing, I know), since - says the story - this is an old custom in Albanian communities.

I have read of a species of fish where there's only one male per flight, but if he dies, the alpha female changes her sex and becomes male. Trying to figure out where I got this info from, I ran across a lot of other interesting stuff about sex changes in fish. Now, I've said it again, I know we are not fish, but I think it is interesting that we tend to ignore this information and regard any transgression of our 'given' biological sex (we assume it is a given, and there's no doubt about it) as an anomaly. I wonder how would we think of men and women - and those who do not comfortably fit in these two labels - if we would adopt a different viewpoint.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Challenging the Homogeneous Nation from Within

I've finished reading Michael J. Shapiro's book Methods and Nations (2004, Routledge). It is an interesting reflection on collective imaginaries of the nation: how we imagine our nation is not only shaped by our own context (education, social status, class, gender, race, ethnicity, access to power and resources) but also by the public discourses around our nation. Shapiro argues - following the foucaultian framework of power/resistance and Terdiman's discussion of discourse/ counter-discourse - that such public discourses are not as uniform and homogeneous as they claim to be, but are always negotiated and challenged by various voices in our societies in theater, music, painting, and film.

These are interesting discussions, though primarily focused on the US context and the erasure of the Native history from the narrative of the (US) American (white) national identity. I resonated with one of the examples: as a child, far away from the American continent, I read Fenimore Cooper's books about the far wild west. I remember feeling sad for the last of the Mohicans. And I remember feeling happy about the white'n'red friendship between the two main characters, the settler and the last native of the tribe, trying to re-enact the spirit of their adventures in my backyard, with a bike instead of a horse... But, as Shapiro points out, I never questioned the narrative, the context it presented me, the view of the North American continent as a vast and impressive land to be conquered by the settlers. I never questioned why the Mohican was last of his tribe. I took it for granted. I never thought there could have been civilizations on that empty land - and if they were, I never wondered why they disappeared (after all, history did teach us that some civilizations do in fact disappear - at least, that's the story we are used to).

Cooper's scripted account of western landscape is therefore of a piece with the process through which the imposition of a European state model of social and political organization 'overcoded' the prior affiliations that were to become, cartographically speaking, a vanishing 'Indian country'. (Shapiro, 2004: 110).

Coincidentally, in a group discussion last night, I was reminded that we do tend to view history as the history of the survivors. And that we still tend to disregard the importance of everyday, peaceful life - after all, once the ancient Egyptian or Mayan civilizations were gone, what was left was the evidence of their rulers' greatness (read the pyramids or other historical sources describing the life of the most important leaders of that society). It is surprising, given our Western obsession with individualism, that we are also eager to accept that in the 'grand scheme of things' we do not count. It is only NOW that the individual can and should matter; in history, we're not interested in her/him. Maybe this has something to do with the ways in which we accept the decimation of some non-Western societies as a matter of fact, a matter of historical social Darwinism...

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Another solved mystery: Gays are nothing more but Women!

Another blow to my social constructivist belief that we interpret sexuality through a social lens that sets boundaries on what is acceptable, puts it in a box and then labels it - homosexuality is this; heterosexuality is that. A new study from Sweden reveals, according to National Geographic, that:

In some ways the brains of straight men and lesbians are on similar wavelengths, the research suggests. Likewise, gay men and straight women appear to have similar brains, in some respects. The findings are new evidence that homosexuals may be born with a predisposition to be gay.

Ah, I feel relaxed. Finally another mystery has been solved: it is biology! Yes, biology makes us 'women' or 'men' or, in some instances, 'gay' - or rather, female brains trapped in, well, male bodies... So much for my insistence on considering our social context in understanding our identities and our gender, cause we all know we cannot fight biology! (Which is not to say that I do not understand why some want to resort to the biological argument to counter the repudiation of homosexuality and the idea that one is 'made' gay, and therefore one can be 'un-made' - see some of the posts below).

I wanted to read the actual scientific article produced by Ivanka Savic-Berglund and the team at the Karolinska Instituet, but unfortunately I could not find it. From my experience, there's quite a long way from the actual research and the popularization done in mass media. The only research by the same team I could find was one focusing on hormonal responses in heterosexual men, women and homosexual men. Now, maybe it's a good thing that I couldn't find the original article, cause many of the technicalities elude me, but I figured out that what they were arguing is that smelling particular hormones (derived from male sweat and female urine) trigger particular reactions in our bodies. While heterosexual men had this biological response to the hormones derived from female urine, heterosexual women and homosexual men had this response to the hormones derived from male sweat. That's as much as my understanding takes me.

Leaving aside the fact that I can picture in my lay, social science-shaped brain, how one can smell the hormones from sweat (but I cannot picture for the grace of me how, in everyday life, you'd be able to do that with the hormones in the urine...), I'm still left with more questions than answers:
  • How is one to be defined as a homosexual man? I remember a conversation with a man who identified as gay, and told me there's no rule saying if you identify as gay you may not have had - or still have - heterosexual experiences. Since you'll say he was not a 'real' gay, I'll add that he was the president of the most prominent gay and lesbian association in that place.
  • On the other side of the coin, how is one to be defined as a heterosexual woman or a heterosexual man? I know, you'll say it's quite easy, see with whom they share the bed, but I beg to differ. I think sexuality is a bit more than sharing the bed, and there are many instances in which we would feel attracted to the 'wrong' sex (and of course, strongly deny it afterwards, or simply get violent about it).
  • I'm also confused as to why we spend so much time trying to prove that homosexuality and heterosexuality are biological categories, when so much of our history has shown that different cultures in different times had different homo/heterosexual practices. I know that I've been raised without curry in my food, and I can smell curry from miles apart and refuse to eat any curried dish - but my biological reaction is not innate, but learned. Should I be raised with a curry-based diet, I'd probably have a different reaction to it (which is not to say that in some cases, I might have just been allergic to it, and that's the end of the discussion).I'm not sure the food-based comparison is the best in this case, but now it seems able to convey what I'm trying to point out: that what appears to be biology cannot be divorced from the social context. Something that genetics has long pointed out, and then forgotten: there's no independence between genes and environment, just as I think there's no independence between what we call and identify as sexuality in human beings, and our bodies.
Some other blogposts and opinions on this: By the Fault, The Chronicle of Higher Education, MindHacks, In Repair, ...

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Pinky and the Brain

I love Pinky and the Brain. Especially when the Brain says "The same thing we do every night, Pinky - try to take over the world!"

According to Mark Steyn, the protagonist of the recent debate on freedom of speech, the Brain and this evasive and homogeneously imagined group called "the Muslims" share the Napoleonic desire of conquering the world. Ah, I'm more relaxed now... I thought it was the 'Gypsies' in Eastern Europe, then the 'Asians' in the Western world that would conquer the world - and hey, 'conquer' is not the right world. Like the Trojan horse - or like the ancient Greeks into the nascent Roman Empire - they would infiltrate 'our' safe havens and transform them into their own:

You move to an area, and you multiply, and multiply, until every natural resource is consumed. The only way you can survive is to spread to another area. There is another organism on this planet that follows the same pattern. A virus. Human beings are a disease, a cancer of this planet, you are a plague, and we are the cure. (Mr. Anderson, MATRIX)

Exercise: Replace 'human beings' in the last sentence with your choice of groups (anything you want, from homosexuals and feminists to Muslims and Gypsies...). We are witnessing the creation of a new common enemy: the Muslims. Well, we have been witnessing it for a decade now... A whole section of the blogosphere has devoted lengthy posts to supporting Mark Steyn, a columnist and writer, who has recently been the subject of a human rights trial in British Columbia, Canada. The complicated matter can be summarized as follows:

1. Mr Steyn wrote a book - My opinion: One of those Thomas Friedman-type of books that only full-of-themselves editorialists write, where they select particular examples, they generalized based on them and come up with judgmental decisions about where the world is heading to.

2. Mr. Steyn had excerpts of his book printed in Maclean's magazine - My opinion: Those excerpts are indeed annoying and disturbing for anyone who does not believe in authoritative generalizations on how an alarming birth-rate among a group called "Muslims" will take over the world.

3. Thanks to that article, the author found himself brought in front of a human rights tribunal and defended himself by appealing to the good old freedom-of-speech argument.

4. Journalists, bloggers and commoners found themselves divided on the topic: is it right to invoke the freedom of speech? is it right to put barriers to freedom of speech, even if those barriers are motivated by open society, liberal democratic values?

Now, I've tried reading the article in question. It is long, boring and, to me, biased. Deeply biased. Not only in the choice of the topic, in the formulation of the argument, in the choice of words - but primarily in dividing the world into "Muslims" and the "West" - both categories which mean whatever the speaker wants them to mean, but with no practical applicability. I've also tried reading some of the bloggers' reactions. I'll just say that quotes like this:

This so-called “Muslim Human Rights Tribunal” has a 100% conviction rate, so it’s highly unlikely that Steyn will be found innocent. Oddly enough, the far-left here in America has been silent about this Stalinist assault on free speech in Canada, but I guess that’s because they too are terrorist sympathizers just like the Canadian government. (the Hot Joints blog)

are filled with the same prejudices and biases, basically failing to go beyond a simplistic hatred towards a group that doesn't exist (there is no "Muslims" as such, just as there is no "Christians" or "Buddhists" - there are churches, there are leaders, there are people affiliated with particular denominations, there are variations, there is multiplicity and yes, there are individuals who invoke religion and do quite crazy stuff, and so on, and so forth).

As an intellectual who has espoused the controversial social constructivist perspective, I think we need to engage with this scapegoating, othering technique through which we divide the world and human beings into categories, then generalize about the group and attach the generalizations to individuals.

Oh, and if you feel like disagreeing, here's another thing: I'm not buying into any religion! Here you go!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Down memory lane

For some obscure (though probably deeply relevant) reason, I've always remembered that one of my former colleagues used to have a Canadian maple leaf tattoo on his arm. I could almost picture it in mind, a rather small red-and-white rectangular. That is, until today, when my colleague remarked that it was never a maple leaf, but rather a flame. A flame?!? Not a maple leaf?!?!

Down memory lane, things are always in a flux. You think you remember what has happened, what you felt, what you did. But it is only a reconstruction in your mind. Occasionally, you are reminded that memory is not a faithful mirror of a past lived experience, but a contextual instant of symbolic reconstruction.

I guess I should explain why I think this is important: lately I've heard a lot of talk about the return to one's community, to one's culture. The importance of the past, the past that marks you and your community as distinct from others. I, for one, fear this return and this excessive focus on one's past. Ivaylo Ditchev, in a remarkable essay (The Machines of Forgetting, 1998), wrote: "to remember means to forget, you remember one thing insofar as you forget another".

So, when we go down memory lane, not only are the memories we recover relying on our present purpose and state, but we also seem to be unable to take in everything. We want to recover our communal past, but what is it that we forget? I've never felt part of a community in the sense of identifying with it. I think we do integrate a lot of our surroundings in our personality, but I also think we are not tied through an invisible umbilical cord with an elusive community. When we buy into the communal past, we forget about what type of community we are talking about. We choose to ignore the fact that we might not be tied to everyone in that community; we choose to ignore the plurality of communities within communities and cultures within cultures; hell, we choose to ignore the wrongdoings, the violence, the hierarchy within that group.

I listened to a BBC podcast about the ancient Greek myths which made me think that our view of the past, of the communal history is very much different from the ways in which the past was taken as a point of reference by the ancient, pre-nation-state communities. For the ancient tribes in Greece, mythology served as a remembrance of the past and as an ethical repertoire for human behavior in particular situations; but this mythology was never stable. Myths had different endings, offered different perspectives - in today's words, they were incoherent, because they did not offer one single view of the events or the people/gods. I thought that was interesting, cause today, in our thirst for the roots, for our 'communities' and our 'culture' we look for a frozen past, a frozen repository of culture which would indicate with clarity who we are today.

Identity is now constructed in a quite different way...Memory can be foreseen, hence the identity based on it is also predictable... Memory becomes predictable, identity is collective, the risks of uncontrolled emotions are reduced to the minimum. In front of the monument we are all supposed to feel in debt towards the heroes, at a commemoration we tell the best we know about the deceased, the family album will make us feel happy together." (Ivaylo Ditchev, 1998)

Photo credits: alicepopkorn

Monday, June 9, 2008

Tell me your name, I'll tell you if you are a criminal...

Globe and Mail reported today on an 'outstanding' piece of academic work: the work of two Shippensburg U scholars on correlating first names with criminal behavior. So, if your name is Jarit, Alec, Ivan or Ernest, watch out, there's a criminal future ahead of you...

Dr. Daniel Kalist (whose
webpage contains nothing of his research, but a lot about German shepherds - hey, I love those dogs!) and Dr. Daniel Lee have done some statistical work (excuse my arrogant ignorance when it comes to stats, but I don't really buy the assumed 'objectivity' of numbers) to show how first names and criminality correlate. Now, correlation does not mean causal relation, but then it must mean something, right?

As the above mentioned article describes, "rather a name suggested the presence of a set of background factors, such as poverty and broken families, that predisposed a young male to delinquency". * Sigh * I'm relaxed now, it's all about those young, poor, single mom type of dysfunctional men!

And indeed, the researchers (should I even call them like this?) add "We show that unpopular names are associated with juveniles who live in...female-headed households or households without two parents"... Damn all those women who have kids and then live on their own! I say it's all their fault. Their fault, because they are predisposed to choosing those awful, criminality correlated names for their soon-to-be delinquent boys!

Can anyone tell me why some people get a phd? And how come they get a job? I just hope their research was not funded from public funds! In any case, I'd recommend this brilliant piece of work to be added to the archive of useless research.
Yet, after laughing my heart out, I'm still left with a bitter taste: it's not about the results of this research, but about it's assumptions. About how these assumptions are being carried and embedded in the research, leading to conclusions of the type mentioned above.

Photo credits: Steven Fernandez

The totalizing gay identity...

The other day I was surprised to discover (against my stereotypes!) that a red-neck town has quite a vibrant (at least on paper) gay community. I picked up the magazine in question and took it home, planning to read it later and blog about it at some point. I was particularly interested in two articles, both dealing with violence against gay community. Talking about a Statistics Canada study based on 2004 figures on violence against GLBT community, the author writes:

The accused [the perpetrator - m.n.] hates and loathes homosexuals so much, he attempts to erase us, destroy us when 'confronted' by one of us (Gay Calgary and Edmonton, April 2008, issue 54)

I' m often reminded that this type of hatred is almost visceral: some people are hated simply because of their sexuality. Logic has little relevance here, since reasoning can be used to support all purposes, as long as everyone accepts the underlying assumptions and values. Even more, in such instances, people come to be defined solely by their sexuality - their whole identity, everything they do or say, is taken as a token of their 'deviant' sexuality. Foucault made a good point - in my view - that the 19th century's medicalization of sexuality transformed homosexuality into a state of mind, a state of being. The reverse of the coin is that the more we push people to identify themselves as homosexuals (this being the marker of their identity), the more they are bound to rally behind the label and to draw strength from it. In the end, I'm afraid we are left with an insurmountable difference: the more you identify with a label, the more the classification principle involved in defining that label becomes 'naturalized'.

One thing which I have a hard time to understand is why some people get so personally offended when they figure out a person is gay. Not to point a finger at anyone, but it is as if they feel they are personally targeted by the other person's sexual orientation. It's true, I've often felt that other people's sexuality was imposing and it made me feel uncomfortable, and weak, but I do not think this is the case in this situation. What people fear is the fact that they could be deemed as 'desirable' by the gay community which, in turn, would make them gay. I find it such as twisted way of thinking!

Monday, June 2, 2008

What does it take to be smart?

I was just about to blog about the extensive discussions I had over the weekend on disciplinary boundaries and the role of philosophy in social sciences, when I read an article in the newspaper about Alia Sabur. University professor at 19, clarinet prodigy at 10, BA in applied mathematics, doctor in materials sciences and engineering, and black belt in tae kwon do.If you search for her online, there's plenty of media stuff out there celebrating her as a woman or as a Muslim.

For myself, I'm just amazed at this human being's accomplishments, it makes me think of how much we could do if we wanted to. I know, you'll say that she's a prodigy and therefore she doesn't count as one of us, the regular John Doe's without our regular IQ levels. And I agree, to a point. But from that point on, I'm rather a believer in the social processes that shape us.

I've recently learned about
Susan Polgar from the documentary My Brilliant Brain. She's a wonderful example - at least for me - that we can all reach the levels that we want to reach, if we only have the social support for it.
It made me think of Basil Bernstein's work on education and class ( The Structuring of Pedagogic Discourse, 1990); Bernstein puts forward a complex (and eclectic) argument on how pedagogic strategies, knowledge framing and transmission, and class are inter-related. His core argument is that education is permeated by power from the ways in which we classify something as knowledge (e.g. logic as knowledge), to the ways in which a child gains the ability to recognize the rules of classification and apply them. Thus, education is a social process through which the child is taught, if you want, the rules of the game from the day one of her existence. Middle-class children are able to recognize various classification systems, which are primarily class-rooted: the mundane one (e.g. this is food), but also the more 'scientific' one (e.g. this is an apple; an apple is a fruit; a fruit is a plant a.s.o). As our society is dominated by a middle-class, bourgeois power structure, education systems are modeled after its values, and consequently pupils who have been socialized within those values have higher success rates. Or at the least that's how I imagine the whole thing to be.

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