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There’s a status associated with owning a record player and having a great record collection, just like there is with doing anything ‘properly’ or ‘the old-fashioned way’. Owning a first edition of a book or a classic car is a statement, betraying our desire for authenticity in a world that keeps churning out new stuff ...continue reading "DJING: A RESISTANCE TO STANDARDISED COMMODITIES?"

All links in this piece contain graphic images of death.

‘Must we celebrate [death’s] essence once more, and thus risk forgetting that there is still so much we can do to fight it?’ asks Roland Barthes in his essay from Mythologies entitled ‘The Great Family of Man’. It would appear that a photograph that has ...continue reading "TAZREEN FASHIONS FACTORY PHOTOGRAPHS AND THEIR RECEPTION"

It is a phrase which has become ubiquitous in recent years. You don’t feel like having another beer? Man up. Crying because you’ve just been dumped? Man up. Worried about a difficult conversation? Man up. The interesting thing about this phrase, though, is that no-one ever has to have it explained to them. It’s obvious. To man up is to be (more) like a man. What’s difficult about that?

But it is precisely the obviousness of the phrase which makes it so compelling as a comment on our contemporary sense of gendered identity. And because it is so obvious, so blunt even, it is easier to use the phrase in an ironic or tongue in cheek way. In this sense, man up can even apply to women. Stop complaining, be stoic, be like a man. As this (mis)use indicates, there is a contradictory doubleness or duplicity within the phrase, whether applied to men or women, which needs to be unpicked. Judith Butler, drawing on the work of Monique Wittig, points out that popular discourse about gender and traditional philosophy both assign it the quality of ‘being’ (Gender Trouble, p.29). Your gender is what you are, whether you like it or not. This ‘fact’ is what allows us to utter the apparently unproblematic statements ‘I am a man’ or ‘I am a woman’. Language demands that we make this statement about those around us every day, almost with every utterance, whenever we say ‘he says’ or ‘she says’. The phrase ‘man up’ seems solidly part of this tradition, assuming a fixed, knowable core to manliness. It is clear what it means to be a man, the phrase tells us: it is an absolute and unchanging essence, firmly ensconced in the realm of the ideal. This is why the phrase operates as a convenient shorthand, indeed, why it can be used at all.

At the same time, ‘man up’ expresses the injunction that we must become a man, telling us as directly as possible that we are not one yet. In this sense, it operates like the famous Aretha Franklin lyric picked out by Butler: ‘you make me feel like a natural woman’ (30). Aretha does not tell ‘you’ (the man) that he makes her intoa natural woman (the corollary of the ‘natural man’ of ‘man up’), only that he makes her feel like a natural woman. This subtlety of phrasing indicates that the concept of the natural woman (or natural man) is fundamentally alienating, enforcing gender identity as an ideal which it is impossible to attain. This is why for Simone de Beauvoir one is not born, but rather becomes (or, we might add, does not quite become) a woman. Gender is not being but becoming. Nevertheless, ‘you’ make ‘me’ feel like a natural woman. For Butler, the man enforces gender on the woman here as difference (from himself). In the most negative reading of this relationship, we might say that the man imposes upon the woman both the necessity of attaining her ‘natural’ gender identity and the impossibility of ever achieving more than a simulacral approximation of it. Her gender identity must therefore always be one of absolute alienation, something which she is never allowed to forget.

With the phrase ‘man up’, all of us can now take part in a similar process. We allknow what it means to be a man (even if, like St Augustine, we can’t precisely define it when challenged), but we also implicitly recognise that every time we say ‘I am a man’ (if we do) the impossibility of positioning gender as being forces the statement to turn back against us, responding ‘you are not a man’. What the phrase ‘man up’ allows, and the reason why it is always self-ironising, is the ability to point out the alienated identity of those around us, and at the same time of ourselves. Using the phrase makes us into the ‘you’ of Aretha Franklin’s song, telling the other that there is such a thing as a man, but that you (and I) will only ever be in the process of becoming, and never actually be it. We know every time we use the phrase that it is an impossible injunction – it is the injunction of gender itself – but this is why we revel in it. The impossibility does not stop us using it but rather encourages us to use it again, and again, and again.

An Everyday Analysis contributor owns a rabbit who is currently in a stand-off with a cat through a window, as seen here.

This ‘stand-off’ tells us something fundamental about the structure of our desires, and explains a major tenet of psychoanalysis. This is that we do not truly want, nor could we handle, the realization of our deepest and most passionate desires. The cat gazes at the rabbit, occasionally attempting to pass through the window. It is completely obsessed with the rabbit, not taking its eyes off it at any point. If one tries to distract it, it doesn’t work; the cat is in monomania. The rabbit, as the object of desire, is enjoying his position as desirable object. Far from being scared, he safely enjoys the feeling of being desired in the most ultimate way by the Other through the safety of the glass screen which is preventing the traumatic realization of this desire, which would, if realized, lead to consumption and certain death for the rabbit-as-object.

Psychologically, the cat thinks that its every desire tends towards the rabbit; it is completely obsessional. If only it could get the rabbit, the cat would be happy. But another potential trauma is in play. The cat does not realize that should it pass through the glass and realize its desire for the object, the Everyday Analysis contributor mentioned above would be ready to bludgeon the cat to a brutal death with a nearby rolling-pin. There is a traumatic outside to the frame of the image above which would destroy the structure of desire within it.

The point here is that the window is not the blocker of desire or the thing preventing its realization at all, but the very thing which creates and frames the fantasy of both parties, the thing which desire relies upon. Psychoanalysis insists upon this, that we do not want what we truly desire, but rather, we want to hold the object of desire at a distance in order to dream and fantasize about it. The rabbit and the cat need the screen to be in place, in order for the rabbit to feel it is truly desired, and for the cat to feel that it truly desires, giving both a role and purpose. Further, they need the window to protect themselves from the reality of their purer desire which would lead to the traumatic destruction of both. Zizek comments:

Sharpening the paradox to its utmost–to tautology–we could say that desire itself is a defence against desire: the desire structured through fantasy is a defence against the desire of the Other, against this ‘pure’, trans-phantasmic desire (i.e. the ‘death drive’ in its pure form).

The cat vs. rabbit stand-off is in no way unique. Rather, it shows us that we cannot handle the true realization of desire, so we produce a framed fantasy of desire which we hold at a distance, to keep ourselves from this desire to be destroyed. As the Declaration of American Independence tells us, we do not want happiness, we only want to pursue it.

There is an amusing and puerile joke on Twitter. Whenever Richard Dawkins expresses his increasingly unpleasant bile towards Muslims, any other religious believer or, really, anyone who disagrees with him, people tend to respond with the words ‘Your a dick’. Interestingly, Dawkins calls these people ‘illiterate’, and puts a lot of store by grammar. His key demographic of nasty teenage boys, the sort who scoff at people for believing in ‘the sky fairy’, are just the type to shake off criticism by critiquing grammar, or ridiculing somebody who doesn’t have the same God-like grasp of the rules as they do.

Nonetheless, this faith in the clarity of grammar is evidence that Dawkins’s thinking is still theist in character, even if he rejects the usual narratives of God put forward by the major religions. To demonstrate this, I wish to turn to an atheist thinker of a completely different stripe to Dawkins, one who I hope will emerge more atheist than Dawkins in this short analysis, Friedrich Nietzsche.

I’d like to begin by stressing that Nietzsche is absolutely, unambiguously, an atheist. His most famous statement, that ‘God is dead’ would probably suffice enough, but since it is a far richer claim than it initially appears, I won’t dwell on it here. Rather, I will turn to the Nietzsche I will be talking about later in this piece, in which he writes: ‘concocting stories [fabeln – fables] about a world ‘other’ than this one is utterly senseless, unless we have within us a powerful instinct to slander, belittle, cast suspicion upon life: in which case we are avenging ourselves on life with the phantasmagoria of ‘another’, ‘better’ life’. Nietzsche rejects any claims of heaven, of God, of a world to come, in favour of life as we live it, now.

In Dawkins’s pronouncements about language though, this is precisely what he does. We find him claim, ‘English is my native language. My words mean what I intend. If you read them differently because of “social context” that’s your problem.’ Who authenticates that one’s words mean precisely in the way they were intended? Dawkins could claim that his words represent an intended meaning because social context has created generally-shared, but still ambiguous, shared meanings, on which he was drawing when he wrote the statement. However, he rejects meaning shaped by social context. Yet, if his meanings aren’t created by social context, then what does he have to draw on? He may believe that his words mean precisely what he intends, using his own sense of them as a guarantor, but they can only mean if they are spoken or written and somebody interprets them, hence we return to the problem of social context. Furthermore, where did he derive these meanings if not from social context? When he says that English is his ‘native language’, he is giving his words authority precisely on the notion that, as a native speaker, he is better acquainted with the social context of his language. Dawkins though is sure that there is a guarantor of precise meaning, hence there must be another, Platonic, reality, above the spoken one, that guarantees the meanings of his words. If Dawkins believes only in life, what there is for us to experience, words must be made to mean by social context. Otherwise, if words mean, something outside of human beings, outside of social context, must make them mean. What is being concocted here is another world where words have perfect meanings outside of the shifting, unstable language of human beings.

This attitude to language is typical of Dawkins’s unshakeable faith in the absolute power of reason. Could we forget that he is the founder of the ‘Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science’? Of reason, Nietzsche writes that ‘the prejudice [note the idea of pre-judging here] called ‘reason’ compels us to establish unity, identity, duration, substance, cause, materiality, Being – we see ourselves to a certain extent tangled up in error, forced into error; as sure as we are, on the basis of stringent checking, that the error is here’. That is to say, reason is itself a social context (Nietzsche mentions that this worship of reason occurs ‘nowadays’, it is historically situated), which guarantees our sense of our selves and the existence of the world we live in by leading us out of error. Yet who decides what is reason and what is error? What is this world that we are led to, out of this world of error? As in the case of language, it depends upon a world where concepts can be guaranteed by something outside the shifting, amorphous zone of things like social context, which lead us into error. For how can we know what reason is without recourse to the language in which we express reasonable things? Yet as Nietzsche points out, just as our eyes are incapable of determining what we see in astronomy for certain, so language too carries the potential for error.

This is of course not to say that science should be dismissed as just another construct of the social world, that these types of critique are claiming that science is invalid, as many paranoid scientists seem to think. Rather, it is about recognising that atheists like Dawkins, and his increasingly godlike pronouncements on the power of what he calls reason, in fact take a theist position, and create a world outside this one to aspire to. It attempts to make the world homogenous and strictured in a way reminiscent of lots of hardline beliefs of religion. True atheism then would be a new world of unreason, and would, we can hope, see our attitudes to the marginanlised radically altered in a way that reason has never been able to do in its three-hundred year history. And this is absolutely a matter of how we view language. As Nietzsche puts it, ‘I am afraid we are not getting rid of God because we still believe in grammar…’