Closing reflections on Hakim’s ‘Erotic Capital’

I know this blog post is about a week later than I intended it. I’m ridiculously busy and spending half the time enjoying my last few weeks of being 25. Doing this book review has reminded me of the importance of sociology as a discipline, including how it can be informative towards feminist and wider gender issue discussions. I have a few specific points I’d address that sum up aspects of my thinking on this book:

What informs our understanding of gender?

Such a general question: what informs gender notions? One of the things about working in a sociological area that hits close to home is that the researcher will have some personal stake or experience in this issue. Gender is arguably one of the few issues that people can escape for better or worse.

Hakimappeals to a variety of sources to create her notion of femina sociologicus [note: Destre told me not to say ‘homo feminis’ due to the absurdity of it] by a variety of qualitative and quantitative sources:

  • Interview histories: some of which Hakim admits details are ‘changed’ for dramatic effect, as well as the standard ethical anonymity reasons. Some of her interviews often tell a story, but seem so contrived and suggestive I feel they are unhelpful. For example, Hakim’s examples of the two sisters (one ugly, one attractive) where one predictably has self esteem issues and is an underachiever, and the other is a social climber.
  • Cultural references: Hakim references a bit of erotica such as ‘The Story of O’ and ‘Secret diary of a call girl’. The point of these references are to establish a sense of zeitgeist of how real people live. Cultural references are a good resource for getting insights on social perspectives and issues, but methodologically speaking lack the rigour of strong operationalism
  • Public health data: This is really the meat of the research that backs up Hakim’s conclusions. One may quibble about the comparison issues of say USA and Finnish datasets or the measuring and melding of the data, but I see this as immaterial to the conclusions made which were coarse grained. The data gives an indication for instance that more male men report a lack of sexual satisfaction than females in the data. When looking at massive datasets, we may entertain exceptions from personal experience or testimony, but as social scientists, one should know better than to regard personal or anecdotal testimony higher than the wider dataset. I thought this point was unhelpfully highlighted when incumbent London Mayor Boris Johnson reported in the Mayoral debate that crime in London was down significantly and a person in the audience reported she’s never seen so much knife crime around her before. This point may have made Boris red in the face, but the data is dispassionately more comprehensive, even if it tells us things we don’t want to accept

Lemma: Ideology and prejudice

I’d like to talk a bit about prejudices now. Prejudices can take a whole variety of forms. A few months ago I was making a music suggestion to someone who will remain nameless of a band they would like. I made this decision on the basis of knowing their interests and wider outlook on life. However it was because I biased the conversation by talking about Black Metal in the same sentence that primed her to say she would immediately not like it. Months later a facebook post magnanimously accepted the bias involved in her initial judgment. Cognitive bias 1, passive aggressive okayguy.

There is currently a book review of Magnanti’s book on Sex Myths which would also point to a greater commitment to ideology than actual facts. Note how few of the empirical points or the methodology are critiqued, and how the review reads as the immortal: ‘it’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it’. Hakim embarrasses feminists. Which feminists, you might ask? As I’m sure Hakim would identify with the advancement of womankind. The ones who are committed to being a vague unspecified feminist. The kind who is like the Christian who refuses to acknowledge that denominations exist and genuine disagreements and disputes can and should exist even among people who are supposed to be allies. It’s one thing to acknowledge your opponents, its another to misunderstand your detractors.

The commitment to an ideology undercuts the commitment to facts, conclusions, or the revision of said ideology. This was a big problem in Adorno’s work where his view on social research was basically anti-methodology and all theory, and even ventured to essentially say that ‘research’ is an undermining conspiracy against his agenda. Antisophie said in a comment earlier this month how when anyone says ‘I believe’ it immediately smells fishy. Nobody should be allowed to say ‘I believe’ in an argument, you either justify your conclusions or you don’t contribute constructively to a discussion. Feminism as an ideology with propositions is definately a bad idea. The immunity to criticism is also really bad. Liberal men have spent hundreds of years adopting this position of engaging in amicable disagreement about the most fundamental notions. It upsets me when there are politicos who refuse to accept a conclusion contrary to their own, solely on the basis that it is not their own. This is dogmatism, and challenging notions such as whether sex work is always criminal, or whether sex work is ‘oppressive to women’ needs to be challenged, opened up and critically considered. Dogmatism has no place in decent social thinking.

The Ski Jumpers

One objection about subcultural research is that it overemphasises the deviants of society. What about people who are boring and not part of a subculture? If we judged solely by media representation the year of 1977 most Londoners would be savage punks opposing the Queen or protogoths in the early 1980s. The point about the Ski Jumpers is that while there were movements of social ‘cool’ credibility through things like subculture, it didn’t affect everyone. In fact, most people wish to overlook the naff fashions of yesteryear, like the Ski Jumper. Likewise, we might think that Hakim is overemphasising erotic capital, even if we concede the data about sexual focus between men and women, or her points about how sex work should be considered a legal enterprise, perhaps for most people it would not change their mundane lives.

Is Hakim overemphasising the place of Erotic Capital for women? My initial thought was that this may only apply to something like the upper 2-4% of attractive women. However Hakim would have a reply to this, in the idea of upper class ideals and virtues filtering down social classes. Hakim links this to the idea of Elias Norbert’s take on the historical process of social etiquette which was initially held by aristocratic classes that was then filtered down to other social classes through guidebooks. Erotic capital could also have a ‘filtering’ process, it may be the upper percentile of extremely attractive women who provide the recipe of success that can in some ways be replicated such as good manners, social attractiveness, improving coded signifiers of attractiveness like jewelry, hairstyle, fitness etc. In that way, highly attractive people who use erotic capital successfully act as trendsetters or shepherds for others to follow as a guide of erotic capital’s successful execution. My initial critical thought is therefore addressed.

I also think it is fascinating how Hakim links Hoschild’s work on ‘The Managed Heart’ as a piece of microsociology to the macrosociological theme of Elias’ social filtering. Methodologically speaking, Hakim tries to breach the qualitative/quantitative gap, as well as the micro-macro in the social. feminis socialis is both homo sociologicus and homo economicus.

Phsyiognomy, the worrying conclusion

Hakim alludes to Erotic Capital as if it were like the process of Shaw’s Pygalion, transforming from a peasant to a queen. If there was a 19thC English writer that I’d allude to with Erotic Capital, it’s Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’ is a story of a man trapped by his beauty, but also simultaneously blessed by his beauty. The world of Hakim’s erotic capital is quite a cynical one. A world that says that the pretty candidate gets the job in an interview; the most attractive barrister wins the case and that your looks will be an asset or a discredit in the same way that say, your economic background or education might.

In essence I think that Hakim has not discovered a new way of female emancipation from men by manipulating their sexual urges to benefit the former. Rather, she’s unveiled a new form of discrimination. There’s no legal opponent for not discriminating on the basis of one’s looks, and in the most intimate of competitions (sexual), that is the truest of judges.

I put forward the normative question: is that really how we want to judge society and our values as modern people of today? Hakim would say yes, and point to how private sector employees tend to have a beauty premium over those in public sector, where looks are valued in commercial ventures. The problem with Hakim’s world is not that she’s given us the wrong depiction of the social reality, the problem is that it looks like she’s right. More than anything this is the worrying concern. A similar problem with Goffman’s ontology, where is the authenticity of the social in the interaction-based world of erotic capital? How much of the real person is behind all that flirting and nice presentation for others?

When Goffman shows intricately the ways in which the ‘front’ stage of social performance permeates so much, I think how in the early 21st century the personal has become commodified: people can talk about what they’ve had for breakfast on Twitter or Facebook and even though these experiences are immensely personal (and mundanely boring), they immediately lose rights to those thoughts and ideas, as they become official data owned by Facebook and privacy is diminished. The cultural focus on the personal in television programs such as documentaries which try to document how people feel in their experiences, or the proliferation of 24 hour media even further limit the scope of privacy or authenticity for public officials and significants, for they are always on ‘stage’. So too is the social presence to want to be these celebrities. We are always on the front region of Goffman’s stage and Erotic Capital shows how one of the most personal worlds we inhabit (our sexuality, attractiveness and set of social intentions) are essentially a commodity.

Perhaps many women may read Erotic Capital as a guide to social and economic advancement, I read it as a pessimistic reminder of how authenticity is under attack.


Feminism, a counterpoint: On bell hooks’ ‘Feminism is for Everybody’

Since the blog ‘A Year of Feminist Classics’ started their monthly online reading group last year, I’ve tried to follow a few of their books that I could find easily. In this post I will consider Feminism as construed by bell hooks in the book ‘Feminism is for Everybody’. In particular I will frame her understanding of feminism in a way that is completely antithetical as a response to social and cultural inequalities to my favourite social thinker: Theodor Adorno

bell hooks defines Feminism essentially as a commitment to the end of sexist oppression. This is such a vague definition it allows for a variety of feminisms. One of the overriding themes of hooks’ book is that there are different kinds of feminisms within the unitary aegis of the label ‘feminism’. Once the influence of some feminist ideas and social and legislative reforms came to pass, a counter-discourse, or several counter-discourses emerged to critique the former reformer feminists as disingenuous and appealing to their sense of priviledge. Priviledge and the appeal to priviledge is something I don’t quite understand in this literature, but it serves as a way of pointing out how one form of oppression may take place even in a critical discourse.

There are at least three ways in which my experience of reading hooks’ ‘Feminism’ is utterly different to my ongoing read of Adorno. Firstly, Feminism, much like Liberation Theology or the committed socialist Marxists, consider activism and social reform as essential to the movement, as well as the ‘theory’ that underlies it. Secondly, feminism is distinctly optimistic. Thirdly and finally, feminism, according to hooks, has a commitment to accessibility in terms of the understandable nature of the ideas and proposals addressed, and in co-opting all people (women across all divides and men).

Feminism as praxis; Adorno as theoria

Feminist movements, feminist literature and feminist ideas, in its 19thC inception through to today emphasise activist activity. To call for the end of sexist oppression is to call for a state of affairs in the world. Feminism shares much with Marxism in that it calls for action and change, as well as a theoretical understanding of the world (cf. Feuerbach’s 11th thesis).

Action is important, because what is wanted is a better world. This may seem obvious to some but one must appreciate that there are many who are invested in the status quo for a variety of reasons. It would seem according to hooks, that there is a certain amount of division of labour within the feminist movement, there is a place for all levels of activity, from theorising in the academy, to large scale reform and grassroots movement. hooks calls for feminist television channels and radio for example. Since the book was written in 2000, I wonder what the author would think of Anita Sarkeesian’s ‘Feminist Frequency’ or the influential role of the bloggosphere.

The role of praxis seems almost entirely absent in the work of Adorno. Adorno is committed to the analysis of culture and the way in which the oppressive nature of capitalism is maintained through mass media (the culture industry). By contrast to the likes of Horkheimer or Mercuse, Adorno seems distinctly committed to the all encompassing influence of capitalism in such a powerful way that the reform towards more egalitarian relations is increasingly difficult to achieve. Adorno is, as I would bluntly put it, a Marxist without the communist revolution. It is very much in following his intellectual forebears Weber, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, pessimistic.

Optimism versus pessimism

Feminism strives for a better world, and it should be said that the conditions have vastly changed in the reform of the social, legalistic and economic conditions of women. hooks points out that these changes for women should raise the question ‘changes for whom?’. For example, the place of contraceptive measures has liberated the sexuality of many women in allowing them to be more forthcoming about their sexuality, but this is only for a section of the female population for whom contraceptives are affordable or culturally viable. Even when advancing the dialectic of feminist critique through class, ethnic and lesbian discourses, reform is implicitly implied through advancing the feminist conversation. Inherent to the feminist cause is the possibility and actuality of social change towards the elimination of sex based oppression.

This is an interesting counterpoint to Adorno, who leaves very little in the sense of social and economic reform. There are glimmers within Adorno’s thought to suggest that there is a limited possibility for social criticism in culture, and even though Adorno addresses a largely different discourse to gender inequality, he hardly thought that radically positive change would happen in the condition of capitalism. Adorno takes an almost Kantian turn in looking at the conditions of possibility when it came to the mass media, and in looking at the conditions of possibility for the subsuming of culture under capitalism, also sets the conditions for its downfall, and such conditions are far too tight to give much optimism about change.

The role of accessibility

The most amusing aspect of comparison is accessibility. There are two senses of access that hooks considers. Firstly there is the accessibility of understanding, that feminism as an idea is presented in simple readable language that people can understand whatever their education level is. hooks even suggests the importance of audiobooks for promoting the message to the non-literate, I’m quite a fan of the audiobook as a medium. hooks insinuates at various points that while the presence of feminist academics is a great way of establishing institutional status and credibility for the movement, there is a risk of alienating their materials in the technical jargon and difficult language of the academic that prevents the ordinary person from reading and understanding it.

I have a few things to say about the importance of certain insights from feminist theory, namely, the role of sympathy, and the benefit of gender reflexibity on the history of philosophy or the methodological insights that can come from a gender sensitivity to the construction of knowledge, but I’ll leave that to another post perhaps as that is not confined within hooks book. To be an intellectual within an activist movement means to communicate to an audience who has a set goal for a concrete outcome, as such, communicability is vital. Accessibility is deeply linked to activism. I have noticed on the occupy websites for instance that one of their ground rules is to aim to communicate in a way that is understandable for many people.

What of Adorno on this regard? Well, Adorno is notoriously difficult to understand and I think that is what motivates much of the criticism from many later people to call him ‘elitist’. Adorno’s alleged elitism comes from the influence of philosophy and social theory; psychoanalysis and serialist modernism. To understand Adorno’s critique of society means that it would help to also understand expressionism. Were it not for my interest in Kant, sociology and the music of schoenberg, as well as my cultural outlook that despair is the most fundamental expression relevant to the contemporary world, I probably wouldn’t read Adorno. I hardly keep accessibility in mind when I am familiar with many of the authors and ideas that he refers to (but not all, it should be said).

Adorno writes as an academic. Adorno even acknowledges his priviledge as an academic author in the essay “Free Time”. There comes a point in understanding an issue where it is necessarily complicated, and being impenetrable to the general public seems a distantly difficult goal. This is of course, the goal of anyone who tries to publically promote an academic discourse, many do so by glossing over certain things or just getting to the punchline. For many issues this is not very easy. I wonder if there is a link between his pessimism of social change to the difficult way in which he writes.

hooks uses accessibility in a second sense, in trying to get more people involved with feminism and that they can see it as something relevant to them or something that they can contribute to. One thing that I find interesting about hooks’ other sense of accessibility is something I did not suspect, namely men. Men are apparently important to the feminist movement. hooks states that men can help in a few specific aspects, through activism and through their everyday understanding of the world through gender (for instance, if they are involved with the upbringing of children or engaged in relationships with women). As a man reading this book, seems to me that it is important to be self conscious of gender, not only in observing it in the world, but in one’s own behaviour and beliefs.

Final Remarks: other aspects of feminism

In self-reflection, we need to take account of our own internal sexisms, this may be learned or developed. Sometimes the perpetrators of sexism are themselves women, and the battle to eliminate sexism may involve confrontations with women upholding patriarchy. Reflexivity is a crucial aspect of the movement, and I would say further, any activist cause. Consciousness raising is a related and important aspect of the feminist discourse. In identifying and calling out instances of patriarchy or the cultural assumptions present in culture, we may discover the underlying values and ideology of the discourses in everyday life and the mass media. Consciousness raising is an aspect of the feminist cause that is perhaps the most understandable to a wider audience, for instance noticing how children’s products are marketed differently between the genders, or how toys for children reflect cultural assumptions such as the passivity of females and the activity of males.

One ongoing theme of my own thought is the important role of pessimism, both in the sense of (a lack of) positive social change as well as in the Schopenhauer sense of an ethical insight to frame one’s life. My growing interest in feminism comes from consciousness raising, but it may stop at the way it conflicts with my pessimism. In emphasising the activist component of the feminist movement, hooks frames the disagreements between feminists as a dispute on the way to achieving the shared goal of eliminating sexist prejudice. Certainly more can be said on the theoretical import that feminism might bring, but perhaps I’ll leave that for another post. I find it really refreshing and challenging that feminism for many people is an activist cause rather than an armchair pursuit. Many feminist identifying groups have been very good at the DIY punk style ethic of activism. But will it stop me from being a pessimist? I’ll leave that for future posts to try and work that one out.

Sense and reason: reading about women

As much as we get a lot of unhelpful and bemused responses from it, we at the Noumenal Realm are reading about women. Life has been too hectic to write about Karl Popper less even still reading it. As part of a personal outreach for my own immortal soul, I often make an attempt to think beyond the typical intellectual history of Kant and Aristotle and with that intent I have this year followed a blog called “A Year of Feminist Classics”. Some of these works are interesting and caught my curiosity especially because I have been meaning to read some of the works on their list. Most notably, Wollstonecraft, Mill and Perkins Gilman’s ‘Herland’, the latter of which I discovered in a sociology class years ago. For this post I am going to consider Wollstonecraft’s ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ in conjunction with J.S. Mill’s “On the Subjection of Women”. This post is going to be content-less and I will mainly consider the methodological roles they play.

Sensibility and Wollstonecraft

Wollstonecraft’s work was incredibly difficult to understand for me. It was not written with overly technical language, it was originally written in English (a language I know well) so there are no translation issues, and it doesn’t use any new words or introduce difficult concepts. If anything, for these aforementioned factors this is exactly a good kind of work to write as a publically distributed pamphlet  because of its easy to understand nature. For me, however, I found it difficult because I cannot say something that is overarching and overly general about the work because it touches on so many issues, and it seems to do so without a distinct direction, except of course, Vindicating the rights of Women.

Sinistre said to me half jokingly, that if this work were any less broad and sporadic in the topics it addressed and the way it jumps into other issues, it would be aphoristic. This is, I later discovered, a distinct and purposeful writing style used by Wollstonecraft to appeal to what was understood as sensibility. Perhaps in today’s critical eye, this would be seen as offending or aggrivating a feminine stereotype, but for this period, I understand this kind of writing in terms of being about women, by a woman, and written for the public, to be an effective writing strategy.

Do not get me wrong, I think this work raises a whole lot of important issues: women were unfairly socially immobile and subject to the whim of a senior male, be it their husband, fathers or brothers; women were unable to contribute to aspects of a nation’s social, economic and intellectual richness and by virtue of the female capacity of pregnancy, they were deemed essentially different to men in respects unrelated to gender. This kind of writing passes me by too quickly, and I find it difficult to have a systematic or argumentative understanding of a process. But then again maybe that is because I only read it once. Sensibility is the notion of appealing to the feelings of an agent, as a writing style to adopt it is to engender sympathy with the plight of the female by a (probably) predominantly male 18thC audience. This goes in line with the philosophical beliefs of the Scottish Enlightenment philosophers of the time, such as Thomas Reid, David Hume and even Adam Smith. I think that Wollstonecraft would have probably been a little familiar with Hume. Appealing to the passions in the way that she does has political and social force here in here writing. How successful is the appeal to sensibility as a writing style? I think there are good virtues to this writing style, even if I personally find it difficult to grasp.

  • Appealing to a commonsense language does not intimidate readers as much
  • Appealing to feeling and encouraging sympathy is a good way to deal with a general audience
  • Appealing to sensibility for a female author would establish a sophistical sense of sympathy, in essence, a woman writer is writing ‘in the way a woman would think’ (Hey, I’m trying to be historically considerate here, I know this kind of thing doesn’t wash today)
  • In our modern terminology, we can see this work as having a ‘consciousness raising’ agenda and implicitly suggesting action to be taken

To this end, I begrudingly accept the force of this method of writing. I think my only reservation about the work is that there are so many issues addressed it is overwhelming to comprehend them all quickly. I think that is both significant of the asystematic writing style of Wollstonecraft, and the plurality of all the challenges that women faced at the time. It should be said, unfortunately, that many of the challenges faced by women addressed in ‘Vindication’ are still pertinent today. Unfortunately, now there are even more issues.

“Reason”: Mill’s argument on capability

A lot can be said about Mill’s work ‘On the Subjection of Women’, but I will limit myself to one argument. If anything should be said about JS Mill pertinent to this post (other than the fact that his form of utiliarianism resembles Kantian sensibilities, he is the author of a much-ignored work called ‘A System of Logic’ where he thinks that mathematics is a posteriori, or that he was a child prodigy who crashed very hard in early adulthood as a result of a pushy parent, who was also a philosopher, I’ll leave that for my less feminist oriented posts) is that he was a member of Parliament and proposed that women should have the right to vote. Unfortunately his proposal was rejected widely by the Parliament of the time. In true feminist fashion, he was not just about ideas but action.

Mill as a philosopher seems to take more argumentative elements than Wollstoncraft, one particular argument he has is very interesting. Men disallow women from various activities, such as certain trades or politics, because of their perceived lack of ability. But if a person were incapable of doing something, their abilities would automatically disallow them from said activity. The action of legislative measures against women seems irrational if you believe women are incapable of entering a certain trade, because the act of disallowing entails that they are at least able to do it, or that men are threatened in some way by women’s potential ability.

This argument proposes a fork: either you assert that women are incapable and let that in itself disallow women from professions, or you stay honest with your prejudice against women and say that they are ‘not allowed’ to join because of some other reason. If you were to follow this latter route, a proponent of the disallowal of women would then have to be challenged on whatever reason they gave that they were not allowed. If you were then to follow the former route and say that women were by nature of their sex incapable, that is basically an empirical question. It is inconsistent to disallow women and also say that they are incapable. This is an interesting turn of the old ‘Ought implies Can’.  Reading ‘Subjection’ was highly entertaining because feminism is brought to my more familiar home of philosophy, and that is a very good argument that Mill brought up. This is a good example of a ‘reason’-focused or argumentative approach to understanding the plight of women.

Coda: Nora and Verstehen

Another of the classics that I read was ‘A Doll’s House’ by Henrik Ibsen. This is a story about the financial dealings of a woman who pretends to be many things to many people. Nora pretends to be a childlike innocent ‘Doll’ for her husband Torvald, while takes a more ‘professional’ approach when taking an illegal loan to support her husband when she was ill. Nora is many different people: to her husband she is a doll, to her friend Christine she is more herself, and perhaps most interestingly, Nora as a character is given a bit more depth in that she deals with other men who are not her husband, and acts in ways which are independent of her husband’s volition.

Christine’s character also gives a dimension to the roles women play when she addresses a past romantic sentiment for a man before she married another. Christine married for money, which was needed to support her sick father. The great success of A  Doll’s House is that Ibsen highlights the inner world of a woman. Women take many different social roles in relation to men. At the end of the play, Nora’s great revelation is that these roles that she has to play are suffocating to her wellbeing and despite all the faces she has, she does not recognise her own. Ibsen to his own admission did not intend to write this as an explicitly female-oriented story, but more a generic one, but in addressing the domesticity of women as well as their complexities, we are given a sympathy of these characters that we can wear their shoes and feel what they do in line with Weber’s notion of understanding value-intentional behaviour.

As a personal note, I was quite emotionally moved by Nora’s decision at the end of the play. I thought the ending of the relationship was distinctly painful for them both, but necessary. The one interesting thing that Nora said was that her husband would be a better person as a result of her leaving. In Ibsen’s play there are no distinct villains, just actors in the Goffman sense who play roles, their inner lives shed light on their intentions.