Saturday, August 25, 2012

Rounding up “our” bodies – does the gender of the border collie matter?

Foucault* said something like “all law eventually becomes administration”; i.e. the law degrades (from most perspectives other than administrators’, anyway).  I say “all philosophy eventually becomes grammar”.  More particularly, too much current human thought hinges on a plural we/us/ours/them etc that is ultimately a mirage. To paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, “there is only the singular” – or at least where there is a choice, the singular should be used instead of the plural. 
The opposing proposition – that the plural can be invoked conveniently, promiscuously and never problematically –  has a common flaw: who exactly are the members of the club?  While, say, “women” and “men” are relatively closed categories, there is still always a perimeter that must be fenced. Or, as I prefer to think, an initially amorphous herd that must be run rings around, in order to congeal as a herd.  Who does this rounding up would seem to be an issue of no small importance, but the modern default setting seems to be that the herd is self-herding; no border collie required. Or if one is acknowledged, it is a benign force – of, by and for the group (to use a more neutral word than “herd”), yet somehow external to the group also.

Post-1960s feminism’s genius has been to make the border collie simultaneously pervasive and invisible (but unquestionably female, in case you were wondering).  This is a big call, so I’ll promptly qualify it by saying that the gendering of “our bodies” is actually our (i.e. every human’s) problem.  In case you are confused here, I’m taking it as a given that “our bodies” is (hugely) disproportionately invoked to describe the collective of female bodies, vs the more-or-less equivalent and opposed collective of male bodies.  Also, I’m taking it that “our bodies” can be used unproblematically in only one way – by a human talking about human bodies.  Of course, any club etc with a defined membership can also accurately refer to “our” anything, but as I’ve said, while one’s gender, or “membership” of male/female is generally clear, invoking the inclusivist plural is the privilege of that gender’s border collie/s alone – only s/he who patrols the perimeter can actually speak for the herd.

To get more contentious (and specific) still, feminism’s problematic catch-cry of “our bodies” has been central to one of last century’s true triumphs of marketing over substance – the selling of abortion as a women’s right, as opposed to a woman’s right.
I'll also back-pedal a bit here, to say that this post is not really about abortion, if you know what I mean – i.e. that I write this as a man talking about a woman’s business (again, note the singular), with no real agenda other that querying false inclusivist plurals in general.   That is, the querying of “our bodies” in the context of the abortion debate may seem provocative, or worse, but I’m using it as a concrete example of what is ultimately (to remind you) an issue of grammar.

But since I may nonetheless have opened a hornets’ nest here, FWIW I’ll opine that the decision to terminate a pregnancy is emphatically one for the putative mother primarily, and the putative father secondarily.  If the putative mother also wants or needs outside counsel, then expressly seeking it from an/other woman/women (rather than man/men) is probably preferable also.  But it is a big step – and a move completely unwarranted, IMO – to base, as it appears to me, a categorical sisterhood (i.e. post-1960s feminism) on that half-hour (or whatever) of female-to-female pre-termination counsel that many pregnant women may have. 

I’ll also pointedly acknowledge the shocking historical baggage here; i.e. that until quite recently, abortion has been largely a matter of men controlling women’s bodies.  Note my happy, correct, and double use of the plural here – when the border collies are herding the sheep, one’s membership of one or the other group is clear-cut, hopefully. (If you are a border collie- or sheep behaviour-expert reading this, please note that I am even less qualified to write on sheep/goat etc, separations than I am on abortion).  But I’m not sure that this shocking, recent history of male oppression of women justifies the grammar-defying “spin” inherent within post-1960s feminism – and if it does, then this surely needs express acknowledgment. 

Moving on (I hope), one possible solution appears either for men to step up and actively reclaim “our” currently unoccupied half of the “our bodies” continent. Re the “our”, I'm certainly not volunteering to be the border collie here, but I'm also equally unwilling to be one of the herded.  More generally, the “men’s rights” type approach has all sorts of problems, of course, many of which are canvassed here.  But the biggest problem here for me (as you may have guessed) is that it would, if taken seriously (no small ask), merely perpetuate/double-up a falsely inclusivist category – and there is also a numerically small, but very real, border-zone of bodies that would not be included in this neat binary “our”.

A better solution would be for contemporary feminism to renounce its “our bodies” founding myth – that is, to simply let every woman have her body, and (as currently appears the case, anyway) every man, his.

* I’m not quite sure whether it was indeed Foucault, but for moments like this there should be an aphorism that “If you can remember the particulars of 1980s deconstructionist theory, then you weren’t really there.”  

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