The Collector
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The Collector

Divine Decomposition

How and what will we lose when we lose gender and group identities?

Friedrich Nietzsche, by Edvard Munch

“Wither is God?’ he cried; ‘I will tell you. We have killed him”

“What were we doing when we unchained the earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now?… Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions?”

“Do we smell nothing as yet of the Divine decomposition? Gods too, decompose.”

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science

When I was more or less fifteen years old, I had a crisis of faith. I wince as I write the words ‘crisis of faith’. The clichés spring out of my fingertips before I have time to catch them. When I was fifteen years old, I stopped believing in a god. And, whereas religious people talk of a permanent ‘crisis of faith’, I have been subject, ever since, to a crisis of unbelief.

During my first and second semesters of university I was required to read Descartes and Nietzsche. The two philosophers pair well, as they emphasize roughly the same point– we need God for our philosophy to work. Without solid philosophical ground– an Archimedal fixed point, as Descartes would put it– our epistemology, and consequently our ethics, are swept from their footing. We find ourselves, then, in a barren wasteland where the specters of our old belief are merely that, specters. And, what a wasteland it is. I can stomach Nietzsche’s announcement in the marketplace– God is dead! God is dead! –but, it is what we do with the vacuum left by our now deceased beliefs that concerns me. The nightmare that was his master morality haunts me, and yet, without the divine point of reference, how am I supposed to say it is evil? In the fantastical and brutal arena of dialectic, the worst outcome by far is that no satisfactory synthesis is produced.

I have found some ways, modest systems here and there, with which to build upon the divine carcass. However, that enterprise was a matter of intellectual survival; a philosophical rescue mission. When in my essay, The Anti-label Label of Agender, back in December, I wrote that “Gender exists– I don’t deny that. And, gender is important for a lot of people’s identity; I don’t want to take that away from anyone.” I really meant to provide a comprehensive critique of gender and, by illustrating my own experience, to dispense with it.

Let me open a slight derivation in the scope of my argument to say that it was inspired by what have been my first encounters with the philosophy of Ludvig Wittgenstein. It was after two lectures on Wittgenstein's philosophy of language, that I knew I had to revisit the question of gender. As far as I understand, Wittgenstein modified and critiqued his early work, which was characterized by a hard-line belief that the limits of language are the limits of organized and philosophical thought, in favor of a theory of language-games, within which definitions are not Socratic and rigid, but are determined by their use in a specific ‘language-game’. Wittgenstein’s later thought made me think that perhaps I was mistaken by treating gender with an essentialism-or-nothing attitude, and that perhaps gender subsists under its own language-game which is valuable somehow.

I will begin my (very crude) investigation from the starting point of the very basic, but common place, belief that your gender is a part of who you are– a part of your ‘nature’.

However, to say that something is now part of our nature doesn’t seem to be a sufficiently good argument to keep it around. After all, no one would deny that human beings can be by nature violent. Yet, most people would ascribe a ‘bad’ value to being violent.

(1) There must be something that differentiates ‘good’ and ‘bad’ natural traits.

(1.1) But, is gender really analogous to being violent?

(1.1.1) Clearly not if we concede that (1) is true. However, you could say that gender is more akin to a physical trait (such as eye color) rather than a trait of character.

(1.1.2) What is the difference between physical traits and traits of character?

(1.1.2.1) I would say that physical traits is a misnomer from my part, for all that humans are, as far as I understand, is physical.

(1.1.3) Traits of character are distinct in they affect our outward manner. If someone’s behavior is aggressive, we call them ‘violent’. Moreover, we assign a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ value to these traits.

(1.1.4) Whether we consider it to be essential to our individual nature or social constructed and subsequently imposed, we have to establish what gender is to critique it as either a ‘physical’ trait or a trait if character.

(1.1.4.1) If gender is essential, that is to say, inherent to our nature somehow, the I would refer you to my original critique of gender and especially the point about the inconsistency of gender expression. However, the question remains: what is gender if it is essential?

(1.1.4.1.1) If gender is performative, that is to say expressed, then my critique stands. If it is a ‘feeling’, the how can we know that one person’s feeling of being a man is the same to a different person’s feeling of being a man, their outward, and observable, expression being inconsistent with each other? How can we say ‘man’ has any substance if both the ‘feeling’ and the action are different?

(1.1.4.2) However, if gender is constructed, then how can we say that it is a ‘physical’ trait? Perhaps it is analogous to sympathy. Maybe it is so ingrained that it has become instinctual and, in some sense, essential.

(1.1.5) Originally essential, or essential due to social construction, gender exists in some sort of way. However, is it good?

(2) What we define as good and bad is different depending on what system of morality we subscribe to.

(2.1.1) I am someone who does not believe in ‘good’ and ‘evil’, but rather makes a distinction between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ and ‘ethical’ and ‘unethical’. I do so because I act according to a principle called ‘enlightened self-interest’. I believe that everyone is inherently selfish, and that what is ethical is what benefits me– the ethical calculation I perform is hedonistic in the original sense of the word. It is, ideally, rational, not impulsive.

(2.1.2) I desire to live in a rational, humane, and just society and whatever benefits that society and its values is in turn what I desire.

(2.2) Gender is ‘good’ if it has some sort of social utility.

(2.3) Does gender have a social utility?

(2.3.1) Gender is either essential, constructed, or essential and constructed. Gender is also either internal or performative, or internal and performative.

(2.3.2) If gender is essential and internal, then it can not be judged in simple terms of ‘good’ and ‘bad’, for it does not affect our actions. (This is a very dubious claim. Even if gender was just a feeling, it would most likely affect our actions. I don’t understand how gender can not be external. Perhaps it is worth making an external v.s performative difference in terminology).

(2.3.3) If gender is essential and performative, then to judge its utility we would have to determine how any particular gender acts. But, as I have established, there doesn’t seem to be that much cohesion, especially not enough to form a satisfactory definition of what a ‘man’, ‘woman’, or ‘nonbinary’ individual acts like.

(2.3.4) If gender is essential, while also being internal and performative then (2.3.3) still holds.

(2.3.5) If gender is constructed and internal, then to judge its utility we would have to determine how any particular gender feels like and whether those feelings impact them positively in, somehow, an entirely internal way (also a dubious claim).

(2.3.6) If gender is constructed and performative, then to judge its utility we would have to determine how any particular gender acts. But, as I have established, there doesn’t seem to be that much cohesion, especially not enough to form a satisfactory definition of what ‘male’, ‘female’, or ‘nonbinary’ individuals act like.

(2.3.7) If gender is constructed, and is also internal and performative, then (2.3.5) and (2.3.1.6) still hold.

(2.3.8) If gender is both essential and constructed, while being internal then the question is whether a) it benefits the individual, and b) the artificial essential-ism can be reversed through other constructs.

(2.3.9)If gender is both essential and constructed, while being performative then the question is whether a) it has social utility, and b) the artificial essential-ism can be reversed through other constructs.

(2.3.10) And finally, if gender is both essential and constructed, while being internal and performative, then the questions raised in (2.3.1.8) and (2.3.1.9) still hold.

(2.4) Gender’s social utility is impossible to discern without knowing what gender is.

(3) What is gender?

And what, indeed, is gender? Is it term that describes a feeling, a behavior, or something else? I submit to you that, after spending some time exploring gender through this thought experiment, it seems to me that the Socratic regard for purity of definition is not able to grasp what gender is.

I turn my attention to Wittgenstein and his language games. As I understand it, language for Wittgenstein is a set of social practices which overlap in their architecture and substance, but which are not completely analogous with each other.

What if gender was similar to language in that respect? To understand a term in language, Wittgenstein says, we have to look at how it is used. How is the term ‘gender’ used? Well, I don’t know. And, isn’t that the whole problem? I don’t know what gender is because it is used in so many different ways and without satisfactory consistence. How, then, does Wittgenstein’s philosophy of language different from the Socratic approach? I do not know. I will continue to read Wittgenstein’s Philosophical investigations.

Will we lose gender because it is a non-factor we made up, or will we decide that it has no utility, or both? What would we lose if we lost gender? On the carcass of gender, what will grow? I wonder if a future Nietzsche will look back at me and scream, “God is dead! God is dead! You have killed him again!”, or whether the death of gender will be quiet. I hope that it is fruitful, and that it turns out to be a liberating experience– a pressure valve for art and thought which was not able to flourish under our previous beliefs.

I very much doubt that the foundations of our philosophy will change with the loss of gender. But, then again, this has been a very ludicrous, very informal, very careless thought experiment. Not a single word in here should be taken as fact or as philosophically serious. As for how I feel, if it is of any interest to anyone, well, I am looking forward to the day that gender is no longer a factor in our lives. Any unnecessary label we plaster over ourselves seems to me a loss of individuality for the sake of blind belonging. Are we not, in ourselves, enough to be worthy of fraternity and solidarity? What are relationships but what we make of them? What is our very own self but what we make of it? What is a name, or a flag, or an identity that is not of your own making but the privation of an individual from the world?

Is our solidarity strong enough to withstand individualization at this level? Maybe we need group identity in the same way that we need language. Perhaps it is an essential necessity for communal living. Gender may be one of those myths on which we build the constructs of societal existence. It may be off with gender today and nations tomorrow!

I love. And, I do so profoundly and with devotion. I grieve. And, I empathize with those who I see grieve. I feel jealousy and hatred. I feel awe and joy. I fear and I dream. Are these not enough for you? Why must I tell you also about how I look, and when my birthday is, and where I am from? What are these to you? Won’t you ask me about what I believe, or who I love, or why I grieve?

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Pasquino

Pasquino

Essayist and second rate bard.