Friday, July 31, 2015

James Baldwin’s existentialist critique of gender, misogyny, and homophobia and its value today, Part 1

[I’ve been scratching away at this two-part post for a few months. In light of recent events, I feel obliged to wrap it up and put it out there. In this first part, I describe and challenge Baldwin’s existentialist-influenced “maturational” model of authenticity. In the second part, I talk about (and admire) his existentialist analysis of gender categories, misogyny, and homophobia, especially in US culture.]

When I wrote at the beginning of the year about my 2014 favorites, I didn’t post about my favorite academic article. So I’m going to correct that. The best article I read last year – in the sense of intellectual fruitfulness – was Molly Farneth’s 2013 “James Baldwin, Simone de Beauvoir, and the ‘New Vocabulary’ of Existentialist Ethics”,1 which “explores the striking similarities between the new ethical vocabulary in Baldwin’s early Paris essays and that of Simone de Beauvoir’s emerging existentialist ethics, particularly in their use of a coming-of-age metaphor to talk in moral terms about innocence, guilt, and responsibility” (170). I found the piece significant not as much for its primary argument about the “striking similarities between the language of the expatriate Baldwin and that of the emerging ethics of French existentialism, especially as developed by Simone de Beauvoir” (172)2 as for its discussion of how Baldwin, remarkably and courageously, not only examined the concept of bad faith in terms of gender, misogyny, and homophobia but called out American culture as being saturated with bad-faith masculinism.

There are several parts of the discussion that need to be kept separate. First, there’s Farneth’s argument about the influence of existentialist ideas – specifically Beauvoir’s “maturational” model of authenticity – on Baldwin’s thought:
Just after Beauvoir wrote The Ethics of Ambiguity, in which she stated that ‘adolescence is the moment of moral choice’, Baldwin arrived in Paris, became familiar with the existentialists and their philosophy, and began to write in moral terms about childhood, adulthood, innocence, and responsibility.” (172)
I’m convinced by this argument. While Baldwin didn’t acknowledge the influence and even wrote negatively of the existentialists, it seems unlikely that he arrived at such similar ideas by coincidence. Most likely, he absorbed ideas circulating in Paris and was either not fully aware of or forgot their source.

Then there’s the actual moral “coming-of-age” argument made by Beauvoir and Baldwin, by which I’m not convinced. In an earlier post, looking at Sartre’s analysis of anti-Semitism, I sketched out existentialist ideas about bad faith and authenticity. Briefly, the existentialists argued that the human condition is one of freedom and responsibility. Living authentically means recognizing and accepting this freedom and responsibility – accepting that our identities and choices and those of our society are contingent rather than predetermined. But, they contended, people are often overwhelmed by this freedom and responsibility and take refuge in bad faith, claiming identities and choices as preformed or scripted. Sartre saw anti-Semitism in these terms: anti-Semites fearfully fled the contingency of their existence by choosing to believe that their identity and nature – and those of Jewish people - are essential and immutable. This was an “extreme” case, but Sartre recognized this dynamic operating in a variety of everyday and political contexts.

The existentialists considered the choice of living authentically or living in bad faith to be a central moral question. To hide in bad faith was itself an immoral choice, and led people to other immoral choices and acts. But they only tangentially addressed the key question about why or how some people come to choose authenticity and others bad faith (or, better, what circumstances lead people in one direction or another), or why at some times masses of people can come to opt for bad faith. What they didn’t develop, in other words, was a sociology of authenticity. Sartre’s notion that bad faith was a sort of “original choice” that colored every aspect of a person’s life was, first, never quite convincing and, second, just pushed off the central sociological question. His general impression that bad faith resulted from moral weakness and cowardice left unexamined why some were morally weak while others - particularly, in his view, Resistance activists - had the strength and courage to live authentically.

Enter the maturational model, which suffers from the same problems. For Beauvoir, and then Baldwin, the choice of authenticity or bad faith is one made as a person emerges from childhood. “This is the core of the existentialist ethics,” Farneth explains:
In Beauvoir’s formulation, the transition from childhood to adulthood is a crucial moral transition, in which the individual recognizes that the world is made and remade by human beings, and that he or she has a responsibility to contribute to this project. (177-8)
Sartre saw children’s play as wholly innocent in the sense that children know that their play is entirely imaginary and has no impact on the real world. Beauvoir views childhood in similar Edenic terms:3
[A]s a child, each individual believes that the world simply is. Beauvoir continues, ‘He [sic] knows that nothing can ever happen through him; everything is already given; his acts engage nothing, not even himself’ (37). The child learns and explores, but he or she pursues and attains these goals within the limits of the given world. (175)
As people grow, however, they develop the capacity to recognize the contingency of human choices and human reality:
‘With astonishment, revolt and disrespect the child little by little asks himself, ‘Why must I act that way? What good is it? And what will happen if I act in another way?’ He discovers his subjectivity; he discovers that of others. And when he arrives at the age of adolescence he begins to vacillate because he notices the contradictions among adults as well as their hesitations and weakness. Men stop appearing as if they were gods, and at the same time the adolescent discovers the human character of the reality about him’ (39).

…In the age of adolescence, in other words, the child begins to question and challenge the rules, values, and authorities that constitute the given world. (175-6)
Adolescents’ awakening to the world’s contingency and their own freedom and responsibility, and the choices it demands, is an intense experience, and “[a]lthough the collapse of the ‘facticity’ of the world is a kind of liberation, most individuals face it with fear and trepidation” (176):
Adolescents experience this freedom as a crisis, in which they must decide how to respond to the non-givenness of the world that they had taken for granted. Adolescents may recognize their freedom and responsibility for shaping themselves and the world around them, or they may reject this freedom and responsibility and cling to ready-made identities and values. ‘Adolescence’, Beauvoir writes, ‘appears as the moment of moral choice’ (40). The adolescent must ask the question, If my identity and my world are not fixed or immutable, how shall I live? (176)
The choice of an authentic life is frightening, demanding, courageous, and rare, according to Beauvoir:
The ethical individual is the one who acknowledges his or her own freedom and responsibility for creating him- or herself and the social world, and who engages in concrete projects to extend this freedom to those who are oppressed. (174)

…Very few of us navigate the age of adolescence and emerge as liberated human beings. To do so, individuals must first recognize themselves and their world as the products of human decisions and actions. Second, they must recognize that they are also capable of deciding and acting. Finally, they must recognize their responsibility for deciding and acting in ways that create the conditions under which others will also recognize their own freedom. (177)
The retreat into bad faith, the “desire for ‘external guarantees’ and ‘accepted models’,” in the Beauvoirian framework, “stems from the uncertainty the individual faces in adolescence” (175):
Beauvoir argues that many people simply turn away from the questions that arise in the age of adolescence, taking refuge in the rules and values of the given world. These individuals evade the responsibilities of freedom by remaining childlike, living under the unquestioned authority of others (Beauvoir calls this type of person ‘the sub-man’) or actively propping up those authorities in order to guard the given world against assault (‘the serious man’). The latter, the serious man, becomes a fanatic, who sets as his goal the preservation of the given as such. In so doing, he ignores the subjectivity of other human individuals and is willing to sacrifice those who threaten to upset the social order. This, Beauvoir writes, ‘is the fanaticism of the Vigilantes of America who defend morality by means of lynchings’ (50).” (176)
This maturational model of authenticity and bad faith influenced Baldwin, who also considered that “moral maturity entails the abandonment - or, at least, the critical interrogation - of fixed or given identities, values, and authorities. One must assume responsibility for one’s role in crafting an identity and contributing to the social world” (183). He “shares Beauvoir’s rejection of essentialism and of the ‘natural’, as well as her insistence that this rejection is a mark of moral maturity” (178). Baldwin’s term for bad faith is “innocence” – “the willful refusal to accept responsibility for oneself and one’s social world” (183):
To be innocent is to refuse to engage in the risky process of choosing, acting, and taking responsibility for one’s complicity in the identities, values, and authorities of the world.

…This type of preserved innocence is morally corrupt; it is the state of being of individuals and societies who refuse to take responsibility for their role in making and remaking the world. For Baldwin, as for Beauvoir, this state of being is connected to tyranny and violence. In order to protect the fixed or given world, the ‘innocent’ will sacrifice those who appear to threaten its static categories. (183)
Arguing that “freedom is hard to bear,” Baldwin, like Beauvoir, believed that those willing to forgo what Farneth describes as the “comfort and security” offered by essentialist claims and the belief that “the world is stable and steady” were few, especially in the US, which he saw as a culture of preserved innocence (184-5).

There’s something to this developmental model (mischaracterized by Farneth as a metaphor), and the idea of a “moment of decision” we all face can be useful in helping people to appreciate what’s at stake in the choice between essentialist security and existential freedom. But in general I think the model is shaky and, like Sartre’s analysis, leaves the most important questions – concerning why some people choose to cling to a bad-faith innocence while others accept their freedom and responsibility - unanswered.

I don’t believe that childhood is innocent in the sense alleged by Sartre and Beauvoir. The argument that children’s play is grounded in a belief on their part that the world simply is and that their actions have no real effects isn’t especially convincing. I haven’t been a child for a long time or spent a great deal of time with children, but my memory and sense are that children see their play in a complicated way – both recognizing it as play on one register and believing in the reality of the play universe and their actions within it on another. Along with other animals, we have a need for effectance, and imaginative childhood play is one of the means by which we get a feel for our ability to affect the world around us and the limits of our effects. In a healthy childhood and culture, the process in which freedom and responsibility are increasingly accepted is a gradual growth process. This is very different from a model of childhood unfreedom and irresponsibility giving way to an age in which freedom and responsibility are thrust upon us and we have to make a stark choice whether to accept them despite having no previous experience of them or skills to manage them. The latter is the model for an unhealthy childhood.

This is important because I think that Sartre, Beauvoir, and Baldwin, perhaps because of the conditions of their own childhoods and the nature of their societies, internalized a sense of ontological insecurity and a lack of effectance and projected this onto childhood in general. This sense is pervasive, but it’s not universal. Sociologically, it may well stem from the conditions under which people develop as children, not just those of the family environment but the cultural and political context in which they’re raised. Generally speaking, it seems, certain conditions tend to foster a more natural growth into freedom and the responsibility it entails. To the extent that our environment is a healthy one which fosters ontological security, we’re less likely to experience freedom as frightening and to cling to the false security found in essentializing identities and naturalizing the social order.

1 In Soundings 96(2): 170-88.

2 Farneth notes that Baldwin didn’t claim any such influence, and in fact wrote negatively about the existentialists at times, but argues that, in light of the evidence, “[w]hile the nature of Baldwin’s conscious debt to the French existentialists is unclear, his own literary coming of age in Paris hinged on his adoption of several of the themes being developed and debated by them.” (172-3)

3 It’s unsurprising that this kind of Garden of Eden framework would be developed by people raised in Christian cultures.

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