Editor’s Note: SolPurpose is dedicated to a multi-perspectival celebration of the sacred and meaningful in our lives. Part of this project is the encouragement of more scholarly voices in the conversation. This essay, adapted from a much longer academic paper on the embodied origins of gender identity, connects nature, mind, and culture in a unifying poetry of experience. We are pleased to invite you to look within yourself and accept or challenge its conclusions…
Our bodily experiences of landscapes and surfaces are “the existential ground of culture and self,” and therefore a valuable starting point for their analysis. Using a phenomenological approach presented by interpreters of Merleau-Ponty’s work, along with studies on disgust and materiality, we can review how masculinity and its resulting misogynistic revulsion of the female body is found through the male body’s engagement with basic, sensual dyads such as sky/earth and dry/wet. We will find that every embodied experience is always-already dual and gendered before its particulars reach consciousness, so that the perception of certain substances continually reinforce misogynistic and body-denying tendencies. Once women (and homosexual men) are subconsciously associated with “the below” – a basic bodily experience touching the under-realm of the anus, the disgusting, water, moisture, chaos and death – it is easy for them to be feared and hated.
Father Sky/Mother Earth
We begin with the basic distinction between the sky and the earth. The sky/earth experience is rooted in the upright postures of the body. The horizon line serves to separate “above” from “below,” and becomes the limits of our horizontal vision of the earth. Sky and earth associate with the theme “expansion and containment,” which may be the minimum content for all art and myth. Sky is up, earth is down, and up/down has metaphorical significance in a drooping posture, which typically goes along with sadness, sickness, and depression, and an erect posture affiliated with health and a positive emotional state. Similarly, consciousness tends to be equated with up and unconsciousness with down.
The horizon line migrates onto our bodies as a belt-line (or in some cases a neck-line), separating above from below. Mary Douglas and Pierre Bourdieu describe how above/below is further mirrored in a conceptual framework of public/private. The head contains “noble organs of self presentation which concentrate social identity, the point of honor,” whereas the below contains “its hidden or shameful private parts, which honor requires a man to conceal.”
We can see how this above/below orientation finds its way into “the vertical axis” of the modern, postcolonial body. Lock and Farquhar: “As a boy grows up…the ‘lower bodily stratum’ is regulated or denied, as far as possible by the correct posture (“stand up straight,” “don’t squat,” “don’t kneel on all fours” – the postures of servants and savages), and by the censoring of lower bodily references along with bodily wastes. But while the low of the bourgeois body becomes unmentionable, we hear an ever increasing garrulity of the city’s low – the slum, the ragpicker, the prostitute, the sewer — the ‘dirt’ which is ‘down there.’ In other words, the axis of the body is transcoded through the axis of the city – and while the bodily low is ‘forgotten,’ the city’s low becomes a site of obsessive preoccupation, a preoccupation which is itself intimately conceptualized in terms of discourses of the body.” Updike: “Mouths are noble…they move in the brain’s courts. We set our genitals mating down below like peasants…”
The human body recapitulates the principle order of sky/earth not just as the general above/below, but also as the specific mouth and anus. These endpoints are crucial in the conceptualization of the disgusting. Disgust, being an “aversion emotion,” connects with fear and hatred. James Aho, in exploring orifice phenomenology, brings attention to the concept “unclean,” which in Portuguese is imundo, referring to “what lies outside the common everyday world.” Dirt, writes Mary Douglas, is likewise “matter out of place.” Orifices and their effluvia are experienced as unclean or other worldly, extraordinary, unbelievable, impossible. “Consider the vagina,” writes Aho. “How, it might be asked, can blood, urine, and human life — three not only different but completely contradictory things — all come from the same aperture on a woman’s body? Impossible!” Aho’s examination of orifice experience also underscores the metaphorical significance of holes. “In prison, the ‘hole’ is where the most despicable criminals are thrown. A squalid, dingy residence is judged a ‘hole.’ A ‘hole’ in one’s argument is a gap, a weakness…The death of a loved one invariably leaves a ‘hole’ in one’s heart. A hole, in other words, is a not. It is an absence of being.” I will spend the remainder of this essay exploring various phenomenological reasons why women’s bodies are pulled into association with holes, filth, trash, dirt, and terrifying death.
Pierre Bourdieu points out in The Logic of Practice that Sky and Earth logically relate to light and dark, which directly touch the experience of day and night, hot and cold, and dry and wet. Therefore, from the basic, albeit significant division above/below we can move swiftly into men’s experience of dry/wet. In Male Fantasies, historian of fascist masculinity Klaus Theweleit uncovers how misogyny is driven basically by a fear of dissolving boundaries. There is a reactive need to affirm the male body’s hardness, dryness, and invulnerability; there is a need to distinguish air from water, stone from mud, containment from chaos. He focuses on proto-Nazi fascist boy’s habit of associating women with wetness and oceanic energy.
One thing the pioneering water researcher, Theodor Schwenk, points out is that air moves largely in accord with water, not the other way around. This knowledge (conscious or peripheral) may create anxiety in men who have subconsciously identified with the transcendent qualities of air and light. “Every system of rivers, every lake, every sea, is an organic totality with its own circulation, and to each of these belongs the air space above it, to a great height.”
Another more obvious reality about water (and woman) is that it is essential to all life. It is also endlessly transmutable, moving readily from one shape to another: from ice to stream to rain, it exists in all shapes and sizes. Schwenk considers water the mediator between earth and sky, as well as a potent archetypal model for the flow of time itself. “There is such unlimited movement in this sheath of water encompassing the earth that on a global scale it can be regarded as an organ mediating between earth and cosmos, integrating the earth into the course of cosmic events and enabling it to take part in these events.”
From one perspective, because the female body is associated with water, and because water is inherently spherical, sacred and life-giving, we can say that women are considered by men to be sacred and mysterious. However, the experience of water is ambiguous. Men depend on water, but too much water (as in a deluge), or not enough water (as in a drought), kills. One of the most compelling sensory experiences a body can have is immersion in water, which can be fearful and/or highly pleasurable. Oceanic womb fantasy can quickly turn into a terrifying deluge myth.
The experience of dry and wet touches the more foundational perceptual scheme above/below also because water travels downwards, and the driest places are always up high. So we can see how natural processes such as rivers, oceans, and floods are associated with moisture and slime occurring in or upon the male body, especially the orifices. Theleweit describes how the swamp, within fascist male fantasies, symbolizes the flowing, wet world associated with women; waters and swamps can absorb objects without changing in the process: after an object sinks in, their surface becomes calm again. They are penetrable, the impressionable medium par excellence, but can also trap and destroy. “In other words, they are remarkably alive; they can move autonomously, fast or slow, however they wish.” Swamps, like quicksand, are solid and liquid at the same time – and this “hybrid” or “impure” condition, alongside their capacity for killing, made them very well suited as “displaced” designations for danger and the forbidden. This attribute of closing back up and leaving no trace invites the presence of hidden things, things from secret realms, from the domain of the dead. Since swamps became peaceful again afterwards, you cannot tell how dangerous they are, so it is easy for them to be seen as embodiments of deceptiveness.
The feminization of moisture and fluids is continually frustrating because men’s bodies are filled with fluids. Nevertheless, “[a]t some point, his bodily fluids must have been negativized to such an extent that they became the physical manifestations of all that was terrifying…” James Aho: “If sexual organs are dirty, it is clear who is responsible for their distentions and effusions: She is.” Moist places and any area that produces foul smells, according to Kolnai, are “pregnant with death,” and are therefore avoided or disposed of by any sensible, ethical man.
Identity is found through difference, so the male body is understood as closed anatomically (dry and clean) and this helps men become closed relationally (not dependent on others). As a self-sufficient universe, as a stone phallus, the closed male body is not part of a network of relationships “but remains arrested in narcissistic awe”, hence, it is not responsible to others. A body that is perceived as not wet and excreting cannot relate to other wet and excreting bodies.
Related to the sky/earth dyad is the popular iconography of bird and snake. I think it is clear we should include animals into our phenomenological, archetypal landscape informing gender identities because some of them, such as birds and snakes, would have been widely experienced in direct association with sky and earth. Animals were also the first depictions humans ever made.
The bird and the snake can open us to qualities of our own bodies and minds that we missed before. We can trace their iconography back to the sixth millennium B.C in central Europe. The snake is logically a symbol for ground and therefore the eternal female, (appearing as the biblical mind-giving serpent), but can also stand for male resurrection. That each symbol contains its opposite reflects the (Gestaltian, Derridian, Lacanian) understanding of identity-through-difference, the reciprocity between self and other.
Theweliet spots this sexual symbolism of bird and snake in post-industrial Europe as the falcon and the medusa. There are a few other phenomenological contexts here: movement and stillness, soft and hard, air and stone. “Yet everything points to the conclusion that it is man’s fear of reverting to something that might prevent him from soaring off toward a new form of male domination, on the high-flying ‘falcon’ of his notion of the phallus. He is afraid of falling back into a state of intermingling with the opposite sex — a state in which his own power would dissipate. Falcons have an aversion to moist surroundings.”
Aboriginal Australians experience birds, who can leave the world of flesh and wing their way through the invisible, as messengers of the transpersonal unconscious – while the Rainbow Snake, “who arcs upward across the sky and then dives back into the earth” personifies all the dangerous-yet-life-giving forces in the land. Birds evoke air/breath/spirit/mind, and snakes evoke earth/water/matter/body. The famous bird-man figure found in the Lascaux cave indicates that the human mind may have been experienced in prehistory much like it is today: centered in the head, and able to soar through an inward sky like a bird. It appears that we have always had flying dreams, and Christian angels are also depicted as bird-men. The bird-man iconography, from prehistory, reifies consciousness as metaphorically likened to wind, breath, spirit, and birds.
Birds fly in the sky (related to planes and pilots) and snakes live in the ground (farmers, miners, and the “underground” dark businesses). We can see gender, class, and the above/below dyad transcoded onto the animals. Birds become noble, snakes wicked and dirty. They should be in the water, but they are on land instead. We can use Douglas’s “matter out of place” to better understand the symbolic complex within the phenomenological snakes, “which propel themselves across the earth without any feet at all, and whose very touch therefore contaminates. The same goes for bats, who reside in the air like birds but have no feathers, and clams and crabs, who live in water but have neither fins nor scales.” Thus, the hybrid condition of snakes is connected with dirt, the impure, the female. The appropriateness of form following function, and the higher vision of the bird, is allocated to men.
Of course consciousness may also be associated with snakes. In the Judeo-Christian religions the snake, as a serpent, brings knowledge of good and evil to humans. The snake in tantricism represents kundalini energy and the rise of the subconscious into the conscious, and the conscious into the superconscious. Crystal clear sky and scaly, material earth may even relate to the functions of the right and left hemispheres of the brain, the former being ‘crystalline’ in its approach and the latter snake or ‘dragonlike’.
Human experience hinges on a meaning-giving body that seeks, finds, interprets, and investigates surfaces as they appear and in terms of what they signal and represent. The above/below duality that all upright bodies experience correlates with male/female archetypes not only due to historically situated cultural constructions, or to intentional, patriarchal agendas, but also to material, bodily conditions. Rather than reifying modern sex-roles and gender differences, this realization uncovers what we can call “gender-landscape reciprocity” and helps us to understand how truly gendered phenomena are before they even reach consciousness. By keeping an eye on how these subtle structures of association color our experience, we can transcend them, reducing misogyny and homophobia within ourselves. “Realization and liberation are simultaneous.”
For the entire essay from which this was adapted, email me.
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