Monday, August 3, 2015

James Baldwin’s existentialist critique of gender, misogyny, and homophobia and its value today, Part 2

[I just learned from this nice piece in Salon that yesterday was Baldwin’s birthday. One featured quotation seems apt: “[O]ur humanity is our burden, our life. The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his [sic] beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.”]

My previous post, drawing on a 2013 article by Molly Farneth, discussed existentialist themes in James Baldwin’s work, focusing on the influence of Simone de Beauvoir’s “maturational model” on his thought about bad faith (or, as he called it, innocence) and authenticity. To summarize, for Baldwin as for Sartre and Beauvoir, living authentically meant recognizing and accepting the contingency and ambiguity of identities – choosing existential freedom and its attendant responsibility rather than hiding behind essentialist claims. In that post, I challenged Beauvoir and Baldwin’s contention that a moment of choice between authenticity and bad faith occurs as we mature, particularly in adolescence, when a small portion of people bravely (but inexplicably) opt for authenticity while the rest retreat into what is no longer the natural innocence of childhood but has become a bad-faith innocence.

While I don’t think their coming-of-age model best captures how people grow into authenticity or bad faith, I’m impressed by the fact that they wrote about gender and sexuality in these terms in the middle of the last century. It’s difficult to overestimate the misogyny and homophobia that pervaded the political culture of the era, or how strongly these were linked. The work and thought of Jean-Paul Sartre, despite his perspicacious analysis of the bad faith of racial, nationalist, and other identities, were suffused by misogyny and homophobia.1 In this, Sartre was simply representative of his time. The woman and the homosexual (or “invert”) were seen as fundamentally threatening to the survival of the “Free World,” linked in the political imagination to totalitarianism and decline. This was true not only among conservatives, but across the political spectrum.2 Few were those who spoke out against the concrete treatment of these groups in political life, and even fewer who dared openly challenge the ideology at the core of their marginalization, exclusion, and policing.

In this context, Baldwin’s 1949 essay “Preservation of Innocence” was remarkable. He didn’t seek merely to defend the victims of homophobia and misogyny from false and harmful stereotypes, but turned the tables on their oppressors, going after the celebrated masculine identity and calling it out as a form of bad faith. Subverting cultural prejudices, he recognized that this identity made for a perfect case study of “innocence.”3

As Farneth describes, in “Preservation of Innocence,” Baldwin
turns his attention from racial categories to gender and sexual categories. In the first half…, Baldwin defends homosexuals against the claim that homosexuality is unnatural, by speculating on the concept of the ‘natural’. In the second half…, Baldwin turns to a discussion of hypermasculinity in contemporary American fiction. In connecting the two, he claims that homophobia results from people’s fear of the instability of gender categories; it is a violent effort to stabilize particular conceptions of manhood and womanhood.” (180; my emphasis)

…Baldwin discusses the nature of man and woman and their relationship to each other in the context of his discussion of homosexuality for two related reasons. First, Baldwin is trying to show that ‘natural’ gender categories are, in fact, human made. Like Beauvoir, who…argued that appeals to ‘nature’ attempt to oppress and silence those who threaten the status quo, Baldwin contends that such appeals attempt to eliminate uncertainty and ambiguity. …[I]n the second section of his essay, Baldwin argues that homophobia itself is the violent response of the ‘immature’ men and women who refuse to recognize the paradox of the sexes toward those who threaten gender categories. In this way, his argument about the contingency and complexity of gender identities is linked to an argument much like Beauvoir’s, about the tyranny of individuals who refuse to acknowledge the ethics of ambiguity and instead attempt to shore up the given world. (182; my emphasis)
Baldwin recognized that efforts to find essences of gender and sexuality are quixotic, Farneth writes:
Every attempt to establish the ‘natural’ qualities of men and of women fails. The evidence for the essence of gender or sexuality that one might try to amass from myth, legend, literature, and human experience is wholly contradictory and confounds the effort. (180)

…Baldwin notes the vast quantity of literature that has attempted to pinpoint the nature of the sexes and their relation to one another. Every such attempt, however, has simply added to the impossibility of the endeavor, for each assertion of what constitutes man or woman is confronted with an ever-growing number of counter-assertions, throwing these categories back into confusion. And yet it was this discomfiting ambiguity that produced the desire for clarification in the first place. (181)
As he wrote:
The nature of man and woman and their relationship to one another fills seas of conjecture and an immense proportion of the myth, legend, and literature of the world is devoted to this subject. It has caused, we gather, on the evidence presented by any library, no little discomfort. It is observable that the more we imagine we have discovered the less we know and that, moreover, the necessity to discover and the effort and self-consciousness involved in this necessity makes this relationship more and more complex. (quoted in Farneth, 181)
Given this, to live authentically (and thus ethically), “one must accept the ambiguity of these identities; thus, Baldwin notes, concluding the first section of the essay, ‘the recognition of this complexity is the signal of maturity; it marks the death of the child and the birth of the man [sic…and sigh]’ (598) (181; Farneth’s emphasis).

But Baldwin argued that US society was particularly incapable of living with this complexity and ambiguity, leading to identities and attitudes in grotesque bad faith: “Baldwin claims…the American male attempts to ‘preserve his innocence’, to remain like a child in the world of clear-cut and ready-made categories” (182) “One may say,” he suggests,
with an exaggeration vastly more apparent than real, that it is one of the major American ambitions to shun this metamorphosis. In the truly awesome attempt of the American to at once preserve his innocence and arrive at a man’s estate, that mindless monster, the tough guy, has been created and perfected; whose masculinity is found in the most infantile and elementary externals and whose attitude toward women is the wedding of the most abysmal romanticism and the most implacable distrust (597). (quoted in Farneth, 182)
“Violence against homosexuals” in the fiction of popular writers like James M. Cain and Raymond Chandler, “that brutality which rages unchecked in our literature,” was, according to Baldwin, “part of the harvest of this unfulfillment, strident and dreadful testimony to our renowned and cherished innocence” (599) (quoted in Farneth, 182-3).

I believe that this existentialist framework - focusing on authenticity (the recognition of the complexity and ambiguity of identities, the acceptance of freedom and responsibility), bad faith (the retreat to the security of essential, “clear-cut and ready-made categories”; the denial not only of one’s own freedom and responsibility but of other people’s authentic projects; the policing - sometimes violent – of established categories and identities), and how “innocence” perpetuates oppression – is robust and extremely useful in talking about gender and sexuality. I’ve been wrestling with what this means in practice. What does it mean to live gender and sexuality authentically?

My ideas about this are still inchoate, but I’ve been working out a few principles:
first, approach gender using the existentialist definitions of “authenticity” and “is”; second, frame all questions about gender in a way that applies to everyone – we all share the same existential condition – rather than to one category or another (e.g., cis women or trans women), while remembering that people have different bodies and bodily experiences and therefore different problems and needs that we collectively need to address; and third, always keep in mind that our thinking about gender has developed in a patriarchal, male-supremacist society and that our actions will either perpetuate this system or challenge it.

The existentialist approach. In one sense it comes down to the difference between the existentialist meaning of authenticity and the traditional, essentialist meaning, which, I’m sorry to say, means that we need to be clear about what our meaning of “is” is. In the traditional framework, to say that someone is, for example, a man is to say that there exists a category “man” with an essence – biological, psychological, spiritual - which exists prior to and apart from any person’s self-identification or any group’s definition. A person is a man in the same sense that a table is a table. So authenticity is determined by congruence with this essence. Some who might self-identify as men are not authentically men because they lack the qualities deemed essential to this identification.

The existentialist approach is pretty much the complete opposite. People aren’t identities in anything like the sense that tables are tables. We’re free – and we’re all equally “condemned” to be free in this way – to create and recreate our own identities as long as we live. Authenticity, in stark contrast to the traditional view, means recognizing this freedom and the contingency and complexity of identity – that there are no “clear-cut and ready-made categories” existing apart from how we define and live our identities. Again, this is a moral question: refusing to accept the contingency of identity and retreating into pre-formed categories is dishonest, hinders our own development, and contributes to oppression.

The shared condition. This understanding of authenticity can move us in a fruitful direction. But only if we appreciate that we’re all authentic, or, conversely, in bad faith, in exactly the same way, and we’re all equally capable of being either. It’s not a question that only affects certain categories of people. As Christina Richards argues,
[G]iven that gender is not considered one of the existential givens, everyone is ‘condemned to be free’ with regards to their gender. We may further reasonably consider that anyone who is not trans (in that their gender is unconsidered) is in bad faith for refusing to recognise their choice (about what aspects of masculinity and femininity they take on), and for refusing to act upon it.4
I would put it slightly differently: Because living gender authentically means rejecting essentialism and recognizing that we’re necessarily free (in the existential sense) in our choices of how we identify and live gender, we can’t assume that trans people are living authentically from the fact of being trans, because we don’t know – until we ask people – that they’ve rejected essentialism and accepted their existential freedom. But we can’t make any such assumptions about non-trans people, either. If someone’s living as the gender they were assigned at birth or performing their gender in ways considered stereotypical, we don’t necessarily know whether or not they’re acting out essentialist beliefs or conforming to societal expectations or living their own free project. And this is all complicated by the fact that as social beings our understanding of gender comes shaped by society, so it can be difficult to tease out conformity from what’s freely chosen, even within ourselves. We can only resist essentialist thinking, abandoning the search for essences of any sort at the core of our identities and living with contingency and ambiguity.

The patriarchal context. Recognizing that gender categories aren’t, in contemporary society, neutral is of great importance. The essentialization of these categories, their association with differently evaluated qualities, and the policing of their borders are all driven by a hierarchical system of oppression. All of these have to be resisted – individually and collectively - in order both to fight oppression and to enable people to pursue their free projects. Existential freedom isn’t the same thing as social-political-economic freedom, and in living our free projects regarding gender we face different problems and have different needs (involving law, policy, reproductive and other health care,…); reducing the problems and fulfilling the needs are social obligations. It’s also important to keep gender in perspective. It’s not the only identity, and often it isn’t especially salient; it’s also not the only axis of oppression.

So these are my thoughts as they’re developing. I’m still struggling with some questions which aren’t at all specific to trans people, but also continuing to read those perspectives (Anne Enke’s Transfeminist Perspectives in and beyond Transgender and Gender Studies is in my queue). And I remain impressed by Beauvoir and Baldwin.

1 One could point particularly to “What Is a Collaborator?” and “Holes and Slime,” but misogyny and homophobia aren’t incidental to a few works – they run through his philosophy as a whole. Even works addressing the bad faith of racism, fascism, and nationalism are frequently framed in homophobic/misogynistic terms.

2 See especially K. A. Cuordileone’s great Manhood and American Political Culture in the Cold War; The Lavender Scare; and chapter 6, “Literary Fascism and the Problem of Gender,” in David Carroll’s French Literary Fascism.

3 In fact, I often wonder whether Sartre would recognize the similarity between the rightwing anti-Semites whose bad faith he describes and, for example, contemporary Russian gangs who target gay and trans people for harassment and violence.

4 2011. “Transsexualism and existentialism.” Existential Analysis 22:2 (July).

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