Tuesday, October 23, 2007

your thought-provoking, um, thought of the day.

it's everyone's favorite rabble-rouser and sacred cow-tipper, laura kipnis. in her new (relatively, i've been meaning to get my hands on it for awhile) book The Female Thing: Dirt, Sex, Envy, Vulnerability she takes on the female psyche within this alleged "post"-feminist culture. in other words, in this age of advancement, why are we all - and especially why are women - still so effed up?

the following is a long quote from her Sex chapter, coming on the heels of animated discussions of the clitoris, the elusive g-spot, frigidity, vibrators, and dr. phil. these two pages contain some serious rain on the cultural parade, and i like how she clearly and concisely lays out what seems to me a glaring blind spot in what we think of as our understanding of women:

"...maternal instinct is also a concept that arises at a particular point in history - namely, when there was a social necessity for a new story. With the industrial revolution, children's economic value declined: they weren't necessary additions to the household labor force, and once children started costing more to raise than they contributed economically to the household, there had to be some justification for having them. Ironically, it was only when children lost economic worth that they became the priceless little treasures we know them as today. On the emotional side, it also took a decline in infant-mortality rates for parents to start treating their offspring with much affection - when infant deaths were high (in England prior to 1800 they ran between 15 and 30 percent for a child's first year), maternal attachment ran low...With smaller family size - birthrates declined steeply in the nineteenth century - the emotional value of each child also increased; so did sentimentality about children and the deeply felt emotional need to acquire them.

Human maternity has had a checkered history over the ages, it must be said, including such maternal traditions as infanticide and child abandonment, sending children to wet nurses following birth and to foundling hospitals or workhouses when economic circumstances were dire. In other words, what we now like to call an 'instinct' is a culturally specific development, also an economic luxury. Which isn't to say that an invented instinct feels any less real; it can feel entirely profound. But it does mean there's no reason it can't be invented differently - or invented in men as well - when social priorities dictate."
[Emphasis in the original.]

an invented instinct. yes! and she critically points out that while many women certainly experience it as an 'instinct,' when you account for all the evidence, such a simple explanation falls far short of the mark.

how many of our other 'instincts' can be assessed in this way? how many of our other sacred cows are largely artful stories? and to what extent, and how, does it matter when we try to think about social change?


Cara said...

I'm actually not quite sure that I buy this.

It probably comes a lot from reading The Girls Who Went Away, about women and teens who were forced into surrendering their babies for adoption. They were specifically told over and over again to not feel attachment to their babies, that their babies weren't really theirs, they belonged to someone else, one day they would have a "real" baby, etc., using this same logic. The problem is that many of the women telling their stories recount strongly believing this to be true and were not attached . . . until they gave birth, and then all of a sudden, they couldn't help it.

It was quite interesting, really. And I'm not exactly sure how to reconcile that with this.

Also, I saw this book in the store and read the back and was instantly suspicious of it. So maybe that plays a role, too :)

DancingFish said...

She is totally right (from an evolutionary perspective) that things due to culture are not instincts but I have issues with this argument as well. Saying maternal instinct is a recently arisen concept is way off base in the first place! In an evolutionary context, parental instinct is widespread throughout various types of organisms.
Also, the maternal behaviors (really most all traits and behaviors) are due to genetic (instinctual) and environmental (cultural) infulences. Her argument seems to discount any genetic influences and it may be far too simplistic to attribute maternal behaviors (which we now incorrectly call instincts) to the cultural pressures only.

Very interesting post!

JW said...

Complicating things further, I dislike children and any maternal feelings I have are activated solely by my cats. Who are my dear sweet wittle babies, etc. Instinct or socialized expectations? Misdirected or not?

kate.d. said...

JW- definitely socialized. domesticated animals have figured out a sweet deal, i tell you what! but i'm the same way with my cat (as my recent vet bill can attest).

as for the evolutionary angle, i'm certainly no scientist, and the biological imperative to procreate and ensure the survival of one's child is pretty unassailable.

but i think i'm not talking about that exactly - some of which, certainly, factoring into protective mother behaviors - but how that imperative functions in this society with all these other contexts. and how those contexts, and the attendant attitudes, have wildly shifted over the centuries and radically changed the nature of "childhood" etc. in essence, it's short-sighted to imagine that this has always been the way mothers have felt about "their" children, because historically it's not.

Kate said...

I think the bigger issue than figuring out when maternal instinct has or hasn't existed is tackling the idea that humans have "instinct" at all. Rats have circadian rhythms that largely determine when they go into labor; cats know to make certain noises when they see flying prey. But part of the coolness of the way we adapted -- big brains that make us inherently adaptable to all sorts of environments (rather than instinctually bound to one environment we evolved in) -- is that we ended up being born with very few "instincts." There might be culturally mandated behaviors that we have that look instinctual because they sometimes map onto ones we see in other primates, like "maternal instinct." But I'm just not convinced -- and this is a pregnant woman very excited about having her first child talking -- that there is such a thing as a biological, maternal instinct. We're not going to find a gene for it, and we likely won't find variation in "instinct" with, say, prenatal hormone exposure. It just doesn't make sense.

So while on the one hand I think we have some good evidence from child studies that humans do have some instinct to be nice to each other in many contexts, and that when they feel safe and relaxed they are not selfish or mean, I think that generalized niceness is about it in terms of how we treat each other. The rest we figure out in the context of our environment and culture.

(Of course, I have a huge post up right now about mutability of biology, so this stuff is very much on my mind right now!)