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Quotes: universalism and binaries

October 15, 2010

Here is the lengthy quote I decided not to clunk up the previous post with, from Barbara A. Mann’s Iroquoian Women: The Gantowisas. This passage made so many things click in my brain (as did a lot of things in that book, turning me into such a fangirl). As Paula Gunn Allen put it in her foreward, “Most of all, it evokes a sense of great relief and discovery: Yes, yes, I think, passage after passage. Yes, that IS how it goes: I’m NOT crazy, I’m just Indian.”

Yeah. And a lot of other people really have learned to think through binaries this way, which I had a hard time believing before. (Like in one 20th Century German Literature course, I had a hard time believing that this was really the theme, heavy-handed as it struck me. With the obvious overlap there.) In my own case, I think it’s as much the way my individual mind works as cultural ideas I grew up with, but how can you separate the two anyway?


It is just another face of colonialism, the our-size-fits-all mentality at work, busily retrofitting the monoculture of the “West” over all Other cultures, straining, stretching, lopping, compressing, and if expedient, annihilating the original the better to cram it into the “metanarrative” most comfortable to Euro-observers in a process I have elsewhere dubbed, “Euro-forming the Data”…

Just as it twisted the meaning of the Twins, Euro-forming frustrated attempts to explain the concept of gendering by insisting that gender implied conflict, since, in the European narrative, the sexes are polar opposites, and polar opposites must always be deadly rivals: Two of anything necessitates their being at odds…

Such a schema sets up the genders as competitors who can never comprehend one another: “Women are from Venus, and men are from Mars,” as my students assure me. Gendering could, therefore, only be evidence that the “battle of the sexes” was raging in Iroquoia, since it was “only natural” that women competed with men in the zero-sum game of life… The “opposite natures” of men and women had to have meant that men and women were slugging it out for control of society, for, just as in the western world of adversarial dualities where “whites” must win out over “blacks”, capitalism must win out over communism, and God must win out over the Devil, in the Iroquoian world, Man must, of course, have won out over Woman.

No narrative framework could be farther from–or more inimical to–the actual meaning of either the Twins or gendering. The so-called “metanarratives” of patriarchy, racism, monotheism, and Manicheanism waging eternal war against matriarchy, integration, poly/a/theism and relativism are not nearly as “universal” as Eurocentrics would have it. Quite the contrary, in the European/Iroquoian instance, none of the metanarratives of the two cultures coincide.

Understanding this intellectually and working with it practically are two distinct propositions… Opposition still rules their [students’] perceptions: opposites may attract, or opposties may repel, but two of anything, especially genders, inevitably implies antagonism. No other framework seems possible to them for the discussion of gender. “If we’re going to be honest,” they argue, “we” must concede that gender has to be about male supremacy and female subservience, patriarchy and matriarchy, and, for the feminists in the crowd, oppression and resistance.

I have been depressed to find that many practicing scholars are not much more advanced in their multicultural grasp than my students.

I’ve noticed a lot of the same kind of misunderstandings and misrepresentations in Western interpretations of (rather similar, simplified and lumping as this is) Taoist philosophy, BTW. A lot of people just can’t wrap their minds around yin and yang, which is a lot more similar to Twinship than Western binary models.

I would also add that very few North American cultures seem to have set a limit of two human genders, at all (as discussed in a couple of earlier posts.)

Michael Garrett puts it much more simply, from a related culture (Tsalagi), in Walking on the Wind (p. 91):

There are grave differences between an approach emphasizing “this and that” and the approach emphasizing “this or that” or, in the extreme, “this versus that.” It is the oppositional nature of the latter two approaches that can result in discordant feelings, thoughts, and actions.

I would throw in “the things arising from ‘this’ and ‘that’, and all these other factors”, but… 🙂

More specifically gender-related implications from Mann, since I can’t just leave it alone. 😉 pp. 78-79

Although it is not often acknowledged (at least not out loud, at least not in academia), Euro-feminist philosophy is as ardently Eurocentric as any other western school of thought. Feminism operates from European premises and uses European strategies. In particular, feminism often unthinkingly partakes of the Euro-supremacist “right” to speak for and about Others…

Worse, I have found that, once confronted, western feminism harbors little interest in abandoning European myths when they happen to be working for western feminist agendas, as they often enough do–in the pernicious myth of universality, for instance…

The gantowisas and gendering are particularly troublesome to feminists, since Haudenosaunee fact and feminist myth collide rather resoundingly over the issue of patriarchy. Western feminists have a political stake in defining the slit-eyed patriarchal oppression of women as “universal” and “unbroken” since The Beginning of Time. As a result of this proposition, some are loathe to admit that any culture might ever have existed that did not oppress women. Still less are they open to the proposition that men ever existed who did not automatically scorn women. In their rush to demolish patriarchy, they do not hesitate to manipulate Native cultural truths, heedless of how much damage they may be doing Native lore or of how zealously they may be Euro-forming tradition in the process.

Yeah, I got frustrated by this kind of thing before I got coherent words to wrap around the problem. When my own experience does not coincide with popular theories, guess what has to give? (Obviously, not every individual “Western”* feminist does this, before people start objecting.) There’s the cultural myth of Progress to deal with here–along with refusal/inability to believe that any society has ever managed anything resembling an egalitarian outlook–which runs smack up against the continuing erosion of political and economic power and increased violence against women and children with assimilation which some of us have been experiencing. It seems pretty clear to me that these very different situations require different approaches to remedy the unfairness.

Even worse in a way, this universalist bulldozing can be interpreted in a similar way to the ridiculous determinist rationales offered in the same cultures: if this has always inevitably been the case, maybe there’s some good reason for it. 😦 Several people have gotten angry when I pointed this out.

I have been really glad to see more stuff lately from Native feminists online, including Jessica Yee (loved Making the connections: Sexual Violence in Native Communities) and Anishinaabekwe.

See also Alternative social relations and organizations for some examples not fitting the universalist assertions, along with The Untold Story of The Iroquois Influence On Early Feminists.


* What about those of us who come from west of the “West”? (I guess you could make an exception and keep heading east to get there. Or something similarly silly. Better yet, just ignore people who complicate things.) Very few people even seem to register the dodginess of that terminology, much less “New World” (to whom?), they’re so used to hearing it. I have wondered about this since I found out what “the West” is supposed to be referring to, as a kid.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 16, 2010 1:22 am

    Barbara Mann sounds really, really interesting. I learn a lot from your posts about her work; might have to get some of her books, too!

    (And, yes, the “West” = Europe terminology always seemed weird to me — seemed like it must date from before Europeans knew that there was anything west of Europe. I’m not sure anyone’s ever made up a better term for the European-derived cultural bloc; both European colonization of the Americas *and* British colonization of Australia and New Zealand — and the persistent dominance of European-derived culture in those places — make “the West” a weird term for that bunch of related cultures.)

    • urocyon permalink
      October 16, 2010 2:14 am

      Glad you enjoyed it; I keep feeling like a broken record, repeatedly quoting one author. 😉

      Actually, AFAICT the current “West” is a relic of the Roman Empire’s split. Some other ideas about this, all having West in relation to the “center of the earth” Mediterranean. The Doctrine of Discovery borged the Americas, Australia, etc. into “The West”. One of the weirder bits there? “When referring to current events, the term ‘Western World’ often includes developed countries in Asia, such as Japan, Singapore, Taiwan, and South Korea, that have strong economic, political and military ties to Western Europe, NATO or the United States.” If that doesn’t show some interesting priorities…

      It continues to surprise me how some terms are considered neutral descriptions.

  2. October 16, 2010 1:30 am

    Also, I wonder if the “Western” (ack!) feminist tendency to deny that there were ever any non-patriarchal cultures might stem, in part, from rejection of earlier feminist imaginings of ancient matriarchies (in ancestral Western cultures in the Mediterranean or Asia Minor, though; Native American, Asian and African cultures get short shrift even from white feminists *looking* for alternatives to Western patriarchy) that were later debunked.

    Feminist scholarship is often dismissed as utopian fantasy or woo by non- or anti-feminists, especially when talking about possibly-matriarchal ancient societies, so white feminists looking to be Taken Seriously as Academics (harrumph!) might bend over backwards trying to accommodate standard Western narratives in their analysis of history.

    Of course, another possible root might be in radical feminism, which posits women’s oppression as the first, prototypical oppression…

    • urocyon permalink
      October 16, 2010 2:33 am

      I wonder about that, too. Gimbutas, and some of the people drawing from her work, in particular didn’t end up doing many favors there.

      But, there is also the tendency to assume that you can have a patriarchy or a matriarchy–but one group or another must have some kind of hegemony going. (Yeah, as Mann points out.) More egalitarian setups, much less the distinction between “matrilineal, matrifocal, matrilocal” and “matriarchal”, just don’t get considered much AFAICT.

      That’s one of the big problems I’ve had with radical feminism (not with all radical feminists!): the universalism, and not just in this context. Besides my personally seeing patriarchal setups as more of a symptom, in a way that’s interrelated with other oppressive ways of thinking and behaviors and hierarchies, rather than as the granddaddy of them all.

      • urocyon permalink
        October 16, 2010 2:41 am

        I should probably add that I can understand why pretty much everybody is inclined to try to interpret things in ways that make sense to them. (No, I’m not excluding myself at all!) The problem comes when you have trouble wrapping your mind around what other people are telling you, so you ignore them and maybe dismiss what they’re saying altogether. And maybe start getting hostile from the cognitive dissonance. Which is easier to do if you’ve learned certain ways of looking at the world.

  3. October 16, 2010 1:31 am

    ^adds Pacific Islander and indigenous Australian to parenthetical list of often-forgotten non-Western cultures

    • urocyon permalink
      October 16, 2010 2:41 am

      Thanks for adding that!

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