Tag Archives: philosophy

Why we need fat activism

This shouldn’t be necessary, but it is, especially after the ridiculousness that was Sunday’s “Dear Abby” response.

We need fat activism …

Because fat people are still discriminated against in our homes,
in our jobs
, in our schools, in the streets;

Because fat people are still denied basic rights;

Because some people really don’t understand that fat people are not driving up healthcare costs;

Because fear and hatred of fat people is so common that some of us are afraid to leave our homes;

Because when we choose to put ourselves first, for whatever reason and in whatever manner, we are told we are being selfish and unhealthy;

Because even our families do not always accept us as we are;

Because we have almost no fat spaces of our own;

Because when we try to create fat-only space, average and slender people demand to be included;

Because we are told to lose weight or we will die;

Because when we choose to reject diets and diet culture and make peace with our bodies we are attacked, insulted and rejected;

Because people do not understand that diets don’t work;

Because when we are raped, people say we should be grateful anyone even bothered to have any kind of sex with us and our attackers aren’t held accountable;

Because when we express anger at being treated like second- and third-class citizens, or like some strange not-human thing, we are told we are imagining things — and just lose weight already;

Because we are the unwilling victims of experimental medicine;

Because when we explain why we need fat-only spaces, we are told we are only justifying our “illness” to one another and then given condescending lectures about why should lose weight;

Because fat people who have become thin look at us with pity and revulsion and say, “I used to be fat, too, but I lost the weight and so can you. If I can do it, anyone can!”;

Because those of us who have rejected diet culture in favor of cultivating healthy habits are told we are “glorifying obesity”;

Because a paradigm shift is long overdue;

Because not all feminists take fat women’s troubles seriously, and we are ignored and overlooked in order to take care of things that affect “all women”;

Because even when we do try to assert and fight for our rights, we’re told we take up too much space and that the real reason we’re angry is that we’re not thin;

Because there isn’t enough room to list all the reasons;

Because together we have the strength and courage to take the risks and make the choices;

Because too much of the world we live in wants us silent or, preferably, dead;

Because Audre Lorde was right — “our silence will not protect us.”

Based on “We Are Lesbian Separatists And We Won’t Be Silenced” by jody jewdyke. I recently reread her work and realized so much of what she wrote rang horribly familiar, just for different reasons. No copyright or intellectual infringement is intended. No appropriation is intended, only the acknowledgment that fat oppression is real and is one of the multiple oppressions that still exists.

Phillip English & the Identity Politics of Material Culture

The home of Phillip and Mary English was built in 1685 on Essex Street in Salem, Massachusetts.
(Image from University of Missouri)

Material culture is fascinating. It can be as simple as a flint arrowpoint or as elaborate as hand gilded furniture, as beautifully functional as a Wedgwood teacup or as ridiculously simple as a copper kettle — the pieces available for interpretation are varied and many. Understanding how it shapes identity, how it alters and creates cultural identity, is more challenging.

The story of Phillip English (or Philippe L’Anglois), a Jersey merchant who immigrated to Salem in the seventeenth century, is an excellent example. A merchant who brought foreign goods to New England, he also forced the insular Puritan community to cope with those unlike themselves — and in the process created a new cultural identity. He prospered in his given profession as an Anglicized Frenchman in a British colony, forcing his contemporaries to acknowledge not only the necessity of his presence, but his intrinsic worth as well. In the interim, however, by creating and maintaining an identity separate from the other Salem merchants, he occupied a psychological and cultural borderland. This created tensions with his Puritan neighbors, true, but the psychological space in which they met and conducted their business gave rise of the “polite consumer culture” of the eighteenth century.

That Phillip English was partially responsible for the rise of a polite consumer culture that eventually modeled itself on Georgian gentility is not surprising. Much of what he imported were goods popular among the gentility. His actions, coupled his very existence in that time and place, contributed to the transition away from Puritan homogeneity to commercial homogeneity. The interplay between commerce and culture transformed the social universe, because “polite culture” was concerned more with outward symbols of success than it was eternal salvation. Once gentility became a sign of economic and social prosperity, your appearance became everything. To be part of this imagined community required purchasing its trappings.

This meant people were not only purchasing an identity, they were altering culture through the acquisition and display of new and exotic goods. A New England origin for the idea of “keeping up with the Jones,'” perhaps?

Of course, the meaning given to material goods can change and, subsequently, change culture. Those who believed that the luxurious possessions they owned reflected their worth identified as Georgian gentility. At the same time, others who were resistant to capitalism and the new culture unfolding, and those of the lower classes, saw those objects quite differently. This difference of interpretation became more evident as the eighteenth century wore on. The culmination of this reinterpretation was the result of the Patriots, who created new meanings for material goods and the connection between them and a person’s character.

By altering those meanings, the Patriots (and earlier, those opposed to the polite consumer culture) distinguished themselves and their politics from everyone else. This began to alter culture. With their emphasis on purchasing domestic goods as opposed to foreign imports, the Patriots created an “American” identity that endures to this day.

Isn’t it interesting how what we choose to buy, or not buy, reflects our culture and cultural perceptions? Material goods can alter or even create culture and culture alters and creates material goods.

For more on this topic, and to learn about Phillip English’s brush with the Salem Witchcraft Trials, read Purchasing Identity in the Atlantic World by Phyllis Hunter.

19th Century Working Women (as told by Rebecca Harding Davis)

In the young and industrializing United States, the effects of Republican Motherhood and what Jeanne Boydston termed the “pastoralization of housework” led to a new ideology among the emerging idle middle class. Broadly, this class saw itself as prosperous and virtuous; it saw the working classes, and working women in particular, as promiscuous at best and wicked at worst. Rebecca Harding Davis, herself a member of the middle class, used fiction to attempt to combat this stereotype and create empathy between the classes by introducing a working woman named Deborah in Life in the Iron-Mills. However, while Davis’ portrayal of Deborah was a short-term success, it ultimately failed because it reinforced the existing gender system.

Deborah is presented as the victimized working woman instead of the depraved and promiscuous slut. Both stereotypes are middle class creations, but Davis chose one over the other to criticize class inequalities and prejudice toward immigrants. Accordingly, Deborah is described as a new immigrant worn beyond her years, a hunchback and loyal and caring to a fault. Davis knew that in order for a middle class woman to empathize with her character, said character had to be the exact opposite of what the reader expected. Deborah is thus shown in a positive light — while the other women who work at the mills go off to party and drink, Deborah goes home to tend to her family, returning to the mills to deliver dinner to her brother. This similarity allowed middle class readers to view Deborah as human, creating a sense of empathy for those who are oppressed only by a capitalist system and not through any cause of nature.

Most Western ideological systems exist only by binary oppositions and the nineteenth-century gender system was no exception. In order to prove domestic bliss as a wife and mother was the ideal, the system needed something to define itself against. Under this ideology, women were, as Boydston wrote, “ill-equipped to venture into the world of nineteenth-century business”; if wives and mothers who kept to their houses were the ideal, then women who worked outside of the home were somehow abnormal. They were even considered not to be women because they displayed traits more commonly reserved for men, the “breadwinners” who dwelt in the duplicitous and cunning outside world. Women who sought employment outside the home were symbolic threats to this concept of manhood and male authority.

Reality however, as Davis knew, was very different; through Deborah, she presents a woman who had theoretical possibility to be any woman. Despite this, however, Deborah lives up to this idealized standard; she is the “victimized heroine” injected with a shot of harsh reality, a way for her to pacify her middle class readers while still managing to convey her message about class inequality. Davis exacerbates this implicit claim by redeeming Deborah in the end, showing her audience that all the working woman lacks to be live up to the middle class standard of womanhood is material goods. By humanizing Deborah, and by extension working women in general, she sets up the middle class standard as the norm.

Was this Davis’ intention? Possibly. Davis may have redeemed Deborah as form of polite and discreet mockery. It seems more likely, though, that Deborah’s redemption is another aspect added to create empathy — and in this Davis succeeded.

However, Davis was a middle class woman representing a working class woman; her representation was slightly off kilter from the ways in which working class women presented themselves. Fanny Fern was much more straightforward, her style blunt and succinct. She is angry, not philosophical. Nor does she merely want to invoke pity. Instead, Fern wanted to force the “rose colored glasses of ideology” from the faces of the middle class. These women, she argued, are laborers and they are still women.

Fern refused to draw a line between womanhood and labor. Instead, she and others posited that the “romance of labor” was a fiction and the girls of Lowell Mills, who received so much attention, were not so much laborers in hard industry but country girls of New England. Middle class society did not wish to see reality and so created a fiction that worked within their ideology. It was easier to see working women as women who could not or would not keep to their homes, instead of women working to support themselves or their families.

To give Davis her due, she did strip away the fiction to show the true horror and horrendous necessity of factory life. Unfortunately, she maintained the romance of labor via her ending. Any working woman would have known that intervention by a kindly Quaker was unlikely; within the realm of possibility, but highly improbable. Davis’ happy ending is not realistic, but it did appeal to her readers. Deborah’s constant and selfless suffering is rewarded with an elevation, via material goods, to the middle class through the intervention of a well-meaning middle class woman. It may have been a cry to the public to act, to alleviate the conditions of people working in the mills, but it ultimately reinforced middle class hegemony.

Female Figurines and a Cult of the Great Goddess in Prehistoric Europe (Part II)

Venus of Willendorf
(Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Over generations, it can be construed that Neolithic men and women did begin to wonder if something or someone controlled their ability to procreate in the same way they controlled agricultural production. Thus was born the belief in a power that controlled female reproduction, and “thus was born the concept of the Goddess/es” who were nature personified.1 Such a shift in viewpoint, from innate to supernatural, may have been inevitable — but it may have also diminished the status of women. While still extremely important (they were, after all, the ones who bore children) the very fact that this ability was eventually considered a “gift” and not a natural power surely contributed to loss of the mystique surrounding human reproduction and to the later male control of female reproduction.

Given the number and position of goddesses in later Bronze Age Mediterranean pantheons, it’s likely they had Neolithic roots.2 However, the Neolithic era encompassed a six thousand year period in which change, while coming in more frequent intervals, was by no means universal or uniform. Certain specific images and themes are present well into the Bronze Age, including the cow, bull and horns to name but a few. However, if they too had a profane rather than sacred origin, then it becomes impossible to state with any certainty that a Neolithic settlement rife with female images and horns was the home of a people who worshiped a goddess.3

One such site is Catalhoyuk which is located in what is modern-day Turkey. Its excavator, Melaart, posited that this as an example of a Neolithic people who worshiped a mother goddess, especially because the upper levels the settlement (appx. first millennium BCE) contain representations of the Phrygian Mother.4 However, this leap is somewhat ill-formed; to assume that the Phrygian Mother was worshiped in her 1000 BCE guise several millennia earlier is not quite prudent. Melaart and Gimbutas both believe that Neolithic settlements devoted to fertility and reproduction that are centered on, but not limited to, humans are representative of a culture with a goddess. While in some instances and places this may be true, it must be remembered that the cosmological shifts are neither uniform nor universal.

Although much of Catalhoyuk is devoted to the importance of reproduction, there is no indication of the Phrygian Mother or any type of goddess.5 Instead, it’s possible the animal and reproductive imagery were not bound up in an especially religious society, but represented that society’s dependence on animal fertility. This, then, even explains the connection of the horns and the seated woman (from Level 2) giving birth since the “horns may recognize the dependence of humans on cattle.”6

Within this framework, the themes and images are not sacred but profane in the spiritual sense. And yet, because the culture is cognizant of its needs, the images are important because they teach and remind the community of its social and economic structure. Even the “enthroned” female figure mentioned above continues to express this dependence in other ways as well; the figure was found in a grain-storage room that connects to the main room, and its placements may have been meant to symbolize that human reproduction is merely an expression of the “human dependency on cereals and other domesticated plants”.7 Also, several other female figurines from Level 2 were found in or near grain-deposits and bundles of grain were found with figures in other rooms not associated with food storage or preparation.

One possible conclusion from this interpretation is that the figures at Catalhoyuk represent not a goddess, but are rather a part of a socioeconomic framework that likely governed the lives of its occupants. The myriad expressions of human dependency, however, do not necessarily negate a spiritual connection; the people who inhabited this level of the site may have practiced a form of proto-animism that would lay the foundations for the development of the Phrygian Mother in later centuries. This is more than likely the case at Catalhoyuk. Any assumptions about the female figurines as goddesses are the result of a modern bias that posits that a goddess “would be depicted with an iconographic image denoting human female reproductive capacity” (Roller: 1999: 38).8 And as such, if Catalhoyuk was not a settlement of goddess worshiping people then it was not the religious center of the Konya plain as Melaart once proposed.

While this conclusion about the figurines at Catalhoyuk would appear to negate the idea of a cosmological shift that made the profane figures sacred, it must be remembered that change is gradual and does not always occur along a broad spectrum but in isolated pockets. Roller admits to there being an ideological change during the Neolithic because her entire purpose is to seek the Neolithic origins of Cybele, considered to be an evolutionary offshoot of the Phrygian Mother.9 However, her main point — and one well made — is that it is impossible to pin an argument on one site that contains a multitude of figures and ignore the long-term themes. Neither the Phrygian Mother nor her more famous incarnation, the Magna Mater, was ever pictured as a mother, but as a woman surrounded by animals, much like the Minoan Queen of Mountains and Mistress of Animals that are found at Knossos on Crete and Akrotiri on Thera.10 In point of fact, the Roman authors Varro, Ovid and Livy all describe the actual Magna Mater that was imported to Rome as “a small, dark sacred stone not formed into any iconographic image”11 , but it is the themes and accents that remain constant. While the origins of the extant Phrygian Mother Goddess are unknown, it is clear that the symbols, themes and beliefs that surround her have Neolithic beginnings.

The Neolithic was a time of changes for all people as well as for the earth itself. Like Childe’s agricultural revolution, the cosmological shift that occurred during the Neolithic cannot be appropriately dated or pinpointed on a map, but what is clear is that it had occurred by the beginning of the Bronze Age. The goddesses of the Mediterranean pantheons did not emerge overnight; the Early Bronze Age versions still known today were surely intact by the Late Neolithic, if only in certain areas. However, to randomly categorize a Neolithic female figure as either sacred or profane, without consulting its context, is ridiculous because the simple fact remains — no one really knows. Any theory is conjecture. Well thought out and well researched conjecture, but conjecture nonetheless.

Thus it is impossible to make many absolute assertions about the figurines, especially when faced with their Bronze and Iron Age descendants that do not appear to mimic pregnancy, menstruation or even any known goddess. Perhaps the Bronze and Iron Age figures often found in domestic settlements or houses are the remnants of “a tradition that was ancient even to [women]” in later years, or perhaps they were part of a tradition of female reproductive control not easily eradicated by later governments and policies.12 Although the artists have long since turned to dust and their purpose remains unknown, the figurines of the Neolithic continue to fascinate, intrigue, frustrate and inspire everyone from archaeologists to theologians to the world at large.

1Teubal, 290.

2Johnson, 3.

3Johnson, 270.

4Gimbutas, 107-8.

5Roller, Lynn. In Search of God the Mother. University of California Press: Los Angeles, 1999.

6Roller, 31.

7Roller, 31.

8Roller, 38.

9Roller, 39.

10Gimbutas, 109.

11Roller, 265.

12Teubal, 300.

Works Cited and Referenced

Antanaitis, Indre. “An Archaeomythological Approach to Meaning of Some East Baltic Neolithic Symbols.” From the Realm of the Ancestors. Ed. Joan Marler. Knowledge, Ideas & Trends, Inc., Manchester: 1997. 145-162.

Berggren, Kristina. “The Capestrano Warrior, Marija Gimbutas and the Chinese Merciful Mother.” From the Realm of the Ancestors. Ed. Joan Marler. Knowledge, Ideas & Trends, Inc., Manchester: 1997. 188-193.

Christ, Carol P. Rebirth of the Goddess. Routledge: New York, 1997.

Gimbutas, Marija. The Language of the Goddess. Harper & Row: New York, 1989.

Johnson, Buffie. Lady of the Beasts. Harper & Row: San Francisco, 1988.

Marinatos, Nanno. The Goddess and the Warrior. Routledge: London, 2000.

McCoid, Catherine Hedge & LeRoy D. McDermott. “Toward Decolonizing Gender: Female Vision in the Upper Paleolithic.” American Anthropologist, June 1996. 319-326.

Rabinowitz, Jacob. The Rotting Goddess. Autonomedia: New York, 1998.

Roller, Lynn. In Search of God the Mother. University of California Press: Los Angeles, 1999.

Teubal, Savina J. “The Rise and Fall of Female Reproductive Control as Seen Through Images of Women.” Women and Goddess Traditions: In Antiquity and Today. Ed. Karen L. King. Fortress Press: Minneapolis, 1997.

60 second book review: “Borderlands”

Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera is, perhaps obviously, about borders — of language, culture, sexuality, gender, class, spirituality, race, belief, religion, history, literature, family, ethics and morality. In other words, lots of fun stuff. This book is incredibly relevant to the way we live in the new millennium, not just with respect to race, class and culture, but to sex, gender and belief as well. Investors and analysts and politicians talk a lot about globalization and the global economy, but what they seem to ignore is that we are many people with many beliefs. We are not so much a global society as a border society, and those borders are not limited to the physical and geographical. Anzaldúa realizes this; in fact, I would say that Borderlands/La Frontera, while about living along the U.S./Mexico border, is about everything but that. It’s about what happens when cultures and beliefs collide, when capitalism and racism combine to disenfranchise those the dominant race considers Other. It’s also explains how even among the Other one can be even more Other, to the extent of seeming monstrous.

“The struggle has always been inner, and is played out in the outer terrains … nothing happens in the real world unless it first happens in the images in our heads,” she writes. We constantly live with divided loyalties, just as we may live with multiple oppressions, and Anzaldúa knows this. Her entire point is to exult in these borders — because it is when we are conscious of these borders that we connect with other people.

Even her language bears this out; she writes mainly in English (the language of the dominant group, the language she learned from childhood that was “correct”), but adds bits in Castilian, Tex-Mex and Nahuatl. This has the effect of marginalizing readers, making them feel Other, but more than that it allows Anzaldúa to rejoice in the way her world has many borders. It that allows her to claim — whether with “permission” or not — pieces of each culture. By doing so, by embracing and exulting in the smoky, hazy, ambiguous borders, she is creating culture and religion and belief and gender and sex … and inviting us to do the same.

[Bookish Note: 60 second reviews are not written in 60 seconds; they’re not really designed to be read in 60 seconds either, although they probably could be. They are so called because they short and to the point. It’s all about getting down to brass tacks, really. Oh, and just to be safe, no one sent me this book, it was bought with my own hard-earned cash.]

Archaeology’s Ultimate Purpose

Recreated row house in Jamestown

The rise in popularity of the History Channel and other similar programs on other channels and networks recently led Bookish Miss to pondering how important the fine details are to the general populace’s understanding of history.

While watching a program on ancient Pompeii, I was nodding along to everything being said; then the narrator stopped and I frowned. But, I thought, what about … ? They didn’t talk about …

The devil is in the details, right?

Well, not always, I was reminded. This led me to my bookshelf, specifically to Stephen Bertman’s Doorways Through Time: The Romance of Archaeology — which is not, at first glance, a scholarly book. Even at second glance, its place on any reading list likely appears dubious at best; it is, after all, a compilation of several short sketches about people. In fact, Bertman devotes most of his work to concisely and succinctly reconstructing and understanding the lives of ancient and not-so-ancient people. Accordingly, since the book is about the individual lives of people, there is not much by way of technical details, extensive descriptions of artifacts or discussions relating a particular item to a particular site, feature, zone or level.

Like most of those popular history programs, that’s not the point. The best example of Bertman’s intent is in the final chapter, “Portrait of Pocahontas.” He begins by recalling the myth, then delves into history to detail the ships that sailed for what would become Virginia, including information on their passengers and cargo. There is also discussion regarding the English in Jamestown; he writes “between best of friends and worst of enemies lies the story of Jamestown and the Native Americans … a story written in village campfires long cold and the embers of cottage timbers set ablaze.”

Archaeology is invaluable; some records do remain from this time and the years that followed, but material remains are a viable and much needed resource because they allow us to see a bigger picture. Accordingly, Bertman details the various items recovered and places them in the context in which they are of the most importance — what the final accumulation tells us about their lives.

One of Bertman’s examples is the colonists’ fear of both the known and unknown. He explains this by discussing the sheer volume of weapons uncovered, including crossbows, cutlasses, rapiers and other swords, caltrop (a metal object with four sharp points) as well as muskets, pistols, bullet molds, bandoliers (to hold gunpowder) and grapeshot for a cannon. Other artifacts are also discussed, including how their interpretation illustrates how these people lived from day to day.

For most scholars who skipped or dismissed Bertman’s prologue, introduction, conclusion and epilogue, the most obvious problem with this book is its lack of contextual detail with respect to the artifacts. He does not seek to investigate a certain site or perform a particular test on any given artifact in order to understand a minute part of a culture, but rather he draws on the work of several archaeologists and other scholars to put together a picture of how our antecedents may have lived. Indeed, he is very plain in the beginning and the end — his book was written to be an easily accessible look at the broader swath of history, made fuller by archaeology, and he refuses to allow technical details to weigh down his words. He does provide endnotes, however, for that exact purpose.

However, it is important to the larger discussion about the value of archaeology, history and the use of material culture. What Bertman did nearly 25 years ago is precisely what those history shows aim to do today. Outreach archaeology, public history — it all boils down to collecting information, analyzing it, making the appropriate connections and disseminating it to the public in a palatable format.

This is important and those “buts” don’t always matter. If we don’t do it, someone else (Disney anyone?) will.

Bertman’s own words put it best:

“It is easy for modern archaeologists, surrounded by so many quantitative techniques, to be dazzled into forgetting their qualitative mission. Their purpose is and always should be a fundamentally human one: to discover and narrate with honesty and compassion the story of lives once lived. The archaeologist’s duty is to keep faith with the ghosts, to serve as a medium for those who no longer have voices of their own.”

Bertman currently teaches at Lawrence Technological University in Missouri.

Bertman, Stephen. Doorways Through Time: The Romance of Archaeology. Tarcher/St.Martin’s Press, 1986.