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Gender a social construct?



Cologne, 2 July 1996

Erin writes:
"Any 'thing' which is an 'achieved' social status (i.e. one you are not born
with) is a 'thing,' just like 'femininity' or 'republicanism' or
'Catholicism' or 'vegetarianism.' It describes a set of behaviors which are
characterized by certain sterotypical attributes delineated by society. To
remove ot from the realm of 'thing-ness' is to remove it from the realm of
achieved status. Are you sure this is what you are saying, Micheal? That
men are BORN with these 'masculine' attributes, and they occur NATURALLY,
and therefore all gender issues are simply biodeterministic, because
"that's the way God and Nature intended it to be?' "

No, Erin, this is not at all what I am saying. My thinking does not move back
and forth between nature and society. I do not want to explain anything from
natural or social causes, for that is the job of science. I do not have any
quarrel with you describing masculinity as an "'achieved' social status" or as a
"set of behaviors". Social science can even explain how these are acquired. But
masculinity (as well as femininity) is a mode of human being, and human being
is an open question.

The social sciences take human being to be socially constructed, and they cannot
put this presupposition into question without ceasing to be social sciences.
They cannot think the human being as a creation of God, for example, because
this understanding of human being, which has predominated for most of Western
history, is no longer historically viable. The social sciences are a very late
type of thinking which are only an ANSWER to an historical draft of human being
as socially constructed. The social sciences themselves did not and could not
draft human being as a social construct. And here comes Nietzsche again, for,
with his pronouncement, "God is dead", he at least took part in this shift in
the drafting of human being as a divine creation to human being as socially
constructed, i.e. human being as human-made, a genuine 'vicious' circle because
humans themselves do not have it in their hands to posit of themselves what
their being is to be historically.

These days it is thoughtlessly taken for granted that we are subjects, but this
subjectivity of human being is not just a social construct but an event in the
history of being itself.

But Nietzsche was not the only thinker participating in this event. One could
name, say, Feuerbach and Marx as well. These thinkers too only answered to an
event taking place in the history of being, they did not just come up with some
bright ideas. The making (or more precisely: emergence) of human being as
subjectivity, which is the precondition for social science to think at all, is
the result of a long historical process in which the understanding of being
itself shifts and re-forms.

One cannot say that human being as a creation of God is wrong and the social
scientific understanding of human being as socially constructed is true. They
are both true, standing in different and incommensurable truths of being. The
truth of being is nothing arbitrary. It is a simple history that starts with the
Greeks. Philosophy has been the way of coping with this fate of being subjected
to differing fundamental drafts of being and human being during the course of
Western history.

And so I have asked what masculinity is as a mode of human being. Everything
depends here on putting the well-known aspects of masculine behaviour into
relation to an understanding of human being and of being itself and interpreting
them from there.

Since the Greeks, however, being has been understood, in various modulations, as
constancy of presence. Constancy here has to be thought thoughtfully here not
simply as duration in time but as co-standing-ness. Being would then be a
coming-to-stand in presence. Only because a being comes to stand does it have
duration, not the other way round.

But this coming-to-stand is not to be understood as something like a flower
growing and blooming; it is a coming-to-stand AS SUCH, i.e. beings stand in an
openness which is the openness of truth. In other words, this coming-to-stand
has to be taken in by human beings and understood AS SUCH. Thus, being uses
human being to under-STAND the coming-to-stand of beings. Otherwise there would
be no openness and no being of beings as such. Only human beings are thrust into
this understanding of being as coming-to-stand in presence, i.e. only human
beings stand in the openness of the truth of being.

I am attempting to think masculinity without losing sight of the question of
being. Thus I have attempted to interpret it, not only in this list, as a kind
of coming-to-stand in the world of being-with-others. This attempt cuts across
and has nothing to do with the nature/nurture debate. It moves thinking into
another dimension altogether.

The feminist and postmodern discourses on gender are unaware of the
presuppositions they are making in order to understand gender as a social
construct EVEN WHEN discourses themselves are taken as the agents of this
construction.

That's enough for now,
Michael

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