Entries tagged with “Simone de Beauvoir

Letters to My Tutor…
Reading: America Day by Day

My dearest Simone,

You write of Harlem as if it’s the same America as the rest of New York City. I wonder whether people at the time were upset about that. Even in my lifetime there was still this heavy sense that black America was America with an asterisk. It’s not so much less true nowadays as it is that many right-thinking people, as you say, have declared that being a different skin color isn’t a problem anymore as long as you’re just like white America in every other way. A lot of lip service is given to multiculturalism, but I find that most (particularly middle-class white Americans) are not comfortable with that concept in practice beyond a colorful holiday or the like; in social situations and everyday encounters, (middle-class) white people expect non-whites to act white or at the very least to acknowledge that the white way is the right way (gender roles, household makeup, family structures, rules of politeness…) In some ways the “racist” South is more geared toward accepting cultural difference than the rest of America. Among people who believe that a god made the “races” separately, there is a deeper acceptance of the idea that you have to learn to live with difference somehow; they do not as readily accept or apply the concept that homogeneity is the solution to inequality due to racism. I often heard growing up that in the North a white person can have a black person over for dinner, but they can’t be friends, while in the South, a white person can’t have a black person over for dinner, but they can be friends. After living out West for a while, I find it easy to imagine the genesis of that statement.

I appreciate the bits of history that you include. I was not familiar with the “Father of Harlem” Philip A. Payton, the black man who spearheaded the idea to rent spaces in difficult-to-fill apartment buildings to blacks. I was familiar with the “white flight” that you described, that as blacks moved into more of the apartment buildings in Harlem, whites left the area en masse. A recent article in the Washington Post makes note of a trend toward more segregated neighborhoods in Prince George’s County resulting from affluent blacks wanting to live in neighborhoods with other affluent blacks. Some of the comments may speak to the fact that despite the promises of post-racial rhetoric, it may not be so simple for blacks, even educated, affluent ones, to pass for white once skin color is discounted and further they don’t want to. I’m interested in whether the trend in Prince George’s County is present elsewhere.

I will write more on February next time.

With all my heart’s sweetness,

The Changing Role of Women in Models of Human Evolution
Annual Review of Anthropology
Vol. 15: 25-66 (Volume publication date October 1986)
L M Fedigan
In lieu of an abstract, the publisher reproduces the first page of the article. (Link)

Letters to My Tutor…

My dear, kind Madame,

Reading Linda Marie Fedigan’s “The Changing Role of Women in Models of Human Evolution,” I was again struck with the thought that women in academia are more attuned to academic bias which is, I suppose, as one would expect.  Much the same as when reading the review for “Groups That Don’t Want In: Gypsies and Other Artisan, Trader, and Entertainer Minorities,” there was an undertone of “Here’s the state of the literature…such as it is,” and justifiably so.  In American schools there is this pretense that academia is more independent than it is; that there is some raison dêtre other than support of the state and the status quo.  There is a sense that new and innovative and pragmatic thinking will be appreciated, but it is a false sense for the most part.  It seems that many American academics like to believe that they love Plato Socrates when really they are just as Aristotelian as the rest of the Western world.

In an essay on Americans (Philosophical Writings (Beauvoir Series)), you write that the existentialists believe that the realness of freedom lies in pursuing some end and effecting some real change upon the world and this is why you “approve, to some extent, the American way of judging a man by what he has done.”  A man is not simply the product of his birthright, but more the product of his accomplishments.  I believe that your observation is true, that this is a real ideal in American culture.  And I believe that it is this ideal that requires the pretense of appreciation of the novel in American academia.  If a man is what he does, there is a different valuing and definition of “doing” than what one finds in other Western cultures.   Birth is given to the notion that hard work based on skill or knowledge or facts is always rewarded.  However, this ideal is much more real in American folklore than can be found in actual practice.  Conservatism in academia has a much longer and deeper history than American pragmatism.

As to some of the specifics of the review, there seemed to a consistent narrative in the literature reviewed that cast women’s reproductive abilities in a negative light.  The fact that women had babies held them back and made them dependent on men for protection and sustenance.  Fedigan writes that the prevailing ideology as far as who gets to reproduce is not only a matter of selecting for desirable male traits, but also a matter of men choosing which women should be so lucky as to serve as incubators for the genetic stuff of the superior males.  She writes: “…Darwin helped to pioneer what I call the ‘coat-tails’ theory of human evolution: traits are selected for in males and women evolve by clinging to the mean’s coat-tails.”  Female reproduction is a hindrance or at most an aside.  Male reproduction, on the other hand, is the stuff that builds and sustains.

Thinking more modernly, we have these notions of the world in crisis because women are having babies; overpopulation will be the death of us all.  Damn those women!!  I remember this being a particular gripe of my first anthropology professor, “Women having babies is not the problem,” she often cried out.  I didn’t love my first anthropology professor in that way that many women often love their first anthropology professors, but on this we agreed.  The world in crisis couldn’t have almost entirely to do with the consumption and output of modern societies, could it?  It seems these narratives of how women having babies is a problem for women, for cultural development, for the health of the planet are deeply embedded in modern human societies.  I think it would make for interesting study to look at them all.

Men laid claim to their own bloody and violent birthing schemes.  I think the popularity of “Man the Hunter” comes from a desire to take ownership of an ability natural to women.  The blood and guts and endurance and bonding that comes from hunting is much more important to how human cultures evolved and developed than any contribution of women.  Men can be tough, too!  I think the popularity of looking to other primates or modern day hunter-gatherer societies for clues into the development of early human cultures does much to support male-dominant schemes of early cultural development in that doing so limits the type and scope of questions asked even when those questions would tend to look more favorably on female contributions.  I think the focus on the tangible and easily measurable leads to significant shortcomings; it’s so easy to misinterpret or ignore significance in these comparisons.  Things that look the same across cultures may not have the same significance, may not have the same mind applied to the thing.

I’ve always thought that women giving birth was the key to understanding early human cultures and the development of cultures and the male desire to dominate in culture as well as the methods he uses to do so or claims to have done so.  I’ve always believed that early cultural traditions and rituals surrounding the importance of women giving birth are key to understanding the prevalence of misogyny across modern cultures.  I’m not sure of the influences that lead me to this place, but I’ve thought this since I was very young.  I believe there was much Marxist thinking floating around in rural Mississippi.

OK, it’s getting late again.  Reading Fedigan, I feel very encouraged to read more of Friedrich Engels.  I agree with him that it seems that women played a more significant role in early human cultures and that that role fell into decline.  I am interested to know more of the details of his thinking.

Yours in mind and spirit,

I had been thinking over the past couple weeks that maybe I should scrap everything I’ve done so far and just have a fresh start in the “new year.” If I had a clearer sense of how to blog about my self-study in anthropology, I might be more inclined to do just that. Though I won’t rush to scrap anything, I will change things up a bit. I’ve been revisiting helpful shaping and learning experiences from childhood — rereading certain books, adding some volunteer community service, being directed more by interest than canon (the important works have a way of making themselves known during the course of foraging). I’ve been reminded of how I often interacted with texts as if either the author or one of the characters were my tutor and/or friend; this often fueled the drive to read more works by and about a particular author. Reading  “Philosophy of Science in Anthropology” really pulled me back into that world of author as tutor, and I enjoyed that feeling and the sense of motivation it inspired. And so, I’ve decided to take a tutor.

It’s not that I’m opposed to the oxygen-breathing variety of tutor. I made some efforts several years back to acquire such, but never with much success. I had a few good conversations and read some things I might not otherwise have read. Perhaps after I have studied more and written more it will be easier to acquire a real-time guide. For now I will go with my childhood technique. It would seem that the desire to return to this technique has been prowling in my subconscious, waiting. In the last review I read, “Women’s Voices: Their Critique of the Anthropology of Japan,” Mariko Tamanoi makes mention of someone I’ve long admired. Tamanoi writes that Simone de Beauvoir considered the body to be a negative concept to be conquered by the mind; Tamanoi disagrees. She argues, “A woman’s mind, situated in her body, knows no separate existence.” This mention of Simone de Beauvoir serves more as illustration in midst of a discussion of feminine personal politics (sexuality and reproduction); it’s not the thrust of a discussion, but it’s one I would like to have. I do not find it as easy to disagree with Beauvoir. Some of my most cherished readings from childhood embrace the mind/body dichotomy.

I’ve long brushed against the works of Simone de Beauvoir, but I’ve yet to read the full text of any of her work. I do not know why I have denied myself this pleasure, but now that De Beauvoir is to be my tutor, I will feast. Well, at least, this is my intention. Additionally, I have hopes that reading De Beauvoir will spur a more rigorous engagement of my French language studies. I intend to blog about my readings in anthropology as if I were corresponding with De Beauvoir. Hopefully, there will be a natural growth of “relationship” as I read. I haven’t kept up a written correspondence with anyone in quite some time as the practice was already in severe decline in my youth, but I love letter writing and I believe this will provide a more comfortable context for me. I’m excited that the local library has volumes of De Beauvoir’s correspondence in addition to her more scholarly work. I came across an old journal with a single entry and decided to start my correspondence…


Just now I looked inside a diary given to me by my recently deceased friend. I made one entry dated 9 May 2008. I noted that Daniel probably bought this for me at the charity shop where he volunteered. I made mention of my desire for a mentor who was female and French. I am certain that I had thought of Madame then, but at that time I had hopes of meeting an oxygen-breathing mentor. I had brushed a reddish-brown hair from the page before starting to write, and I wondered, after my hasty gesture, whether there would be another…it’s just that easy to miss someone, isn’t it? There was a phone number written on the page opposite the front cover and another for “CARL” on the third lined paged. Apparently, I was also thinking of self-guided learning at the time because graduate school seemed quite impossible (and it still does).

I wrote on a cool afternoon during the archaeological dig class. I wish that I could take that class again, but that’s quite impossible as well I think. My short, simple sentences prompted me to pen that I was writing for USA Today. We were waiting for someone to identify bone found in one of the dig units; there was thought that it might be human bone. I didn’t make note, but it turned out to be a deer burial; I believe two deer burials have been unearthed in the same general area.

I made note of having gone to a small party: “Let’s see — I was about to list the attendees, then thought the better of it. Sometimes you don’t want to remember everyone.” I then wrote of Eudora Welty as if she were a friend, as is my habit with favorite writers. I once shared the same four walls with her during an event held in her honor. I prefaced the bits about Eudora by writing that I was off to myself like a good wallflower, observing (during class and probably at the party as well).

I am currently reading a collection of essays on a Eudora Welty short story, “A Worn Path.” I am also reading a biography of Jack Kerouac. Looking at my desk bookshelf I noticed that I have a slender volume titled “An Introduction to Existentialism.” Perhaps I should give that a quick read in preparation for reading Madame’s work? It won’t be my first introduction to existentialism, but I could use the refresher.

I hope this satisfactorily fulfills Madame’s request that I write a brief note about a moment in my day… something that sheds light on the me that I wish Madame to know and guide… something that perhaps reveals a secret that I didn’t at first intend to share.

Yours in mind and spirit,