First off, I should insert that this new enterprise seems to be a success. He loves it, his level of toilet training is far from perfect but certainly adequate, and the opportunity to have multiple 3 or 4 hour chunks of guaranteed work time while the sun is up every work week should jump start progress on my main project from glacial to merely slow.
The phenomenon of political interest here is not, however, how it has gone, but why I, faced with the pending commencement of something which could relatively easily provide me with more of something whose lack I was keenly feeling -- work time -- felt moderate but quite persistent anxiety about it in the lead-up to two Wednesdays ago.
There are some individualistic and quite uninteresting psychological factors that were probably operative: the fact of change itself, for one thing. Uncertainty over details in the six weeks preceding. The possibility that it would begin and then, for some reason, not work out. The fact that even though I have a high opinion of the institution he is attending now -- it is a Montessori pre-school -- I cannot help but see it as a first step towards institutions about which I have serious political misgivings but where he will undoubtedly end up going.
The interesting part is this: I can't shake the feeling that my anxiety at this transition -- quite a minor one, really, at least in terms of the amount of time affected by it -- has to do with the transition at the other end, when I began my role of stay-at-home parent. L was 9 months old and it happened at the same time as our move from Hamilton to Los Angeles, which meant that an already challenging shift had its impacts on me potentiated by all sorts of other tricky changes happening simultaneously.
A good way to begin pointing the way between my isolated individual experience and the political implications is the following quote from renowned feminist sociologist Dorothy Smith:
Leonore Davidoff and Catherine Hall have described how, during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in England, the domestic sphere of the middle classes became increasingly isolated from the more and more exclusively male worlds of business, politics, and science. While women remained at work in the particularlities of domesticity, men of the middle classes were active in businesses that connected them to the impersonal, extralocal dynamic of the market; they were also active in the public discourse that emerged in talk with other men in the clubs and coffee houses of Britain and Europe and in the saloons and places of public assembly in North America where the topics of journals, newspapers, and books were discussed. A radical division between the spheres of action and of consciousness of middle-class men and women emerged. The peculiar out-of-body modes of consciousness of the nascent ruling relations required a specialization of subject and agency. The formation of the middle-class male subject in education and ideology aimed at creating that extraordinary form of modern consciousness that is capable of agency in modes that displace or subdue a local bodily experience.
According to Joan Landes, women's exclusion from the emerging public discourse, associated with the Enlightenment and with the rise of capitalism as a general economic form of life, was essential to men's capacity to sustain what she calls 'the masquerade of universality.' The public sphere was defined by a gender order that excluded women. During the French Revolution and later, women's attempts to organize in public 'risked violating the constitutive principles of the bourgeois public sphere.... [They] risked disrupting the gendered organization of nature, truth, and opinion that assigned them to a place in the private, domestic but not the public realm'. Men confronting men did not raise the spectre of particularity whereas women bore particularity as their social being. Hence men associating exclusively with men could avoid recognizing 'the masquerade through which the (male) particular was able to posture behind the veil of the universal'. [references in original]
This quote really resonated. It is, perhaps, not making a terribly original point for those with some background in feminist thought. The idea of masculinity being associated in our culture with mind, with the universal, and femininity with body or emotion and with the particular is quite well established. What struck me about this quote was that it is not stuck just at the level of ideas and imagery or even merely individualistic psychology, but talks about the actual historical social basis for the production of quite different and gendered modes of subjectivity.
Not only that, but it feels true to my experience of myself. I know in my body exactly what she means by phrases like "[t]he peculiar out-of-body modes of consciousness" and "that extraodrinary form of modern consciousness that is capable of agency in modes that displace or subude a local bodily experience" and even "the masquerade of universality." Admittedly, if I were to explore my experience of it in more detail and trace its origins on an individual level there would be quirks of personality and of family-of-origin experience that push me in similar directions, but Smith's connection of it to gendered social production of subjectivities feels right as well and is undoubtedly underlying the individual factors. I can see it not only in myself but through my interactions with (most of) the people with whom I share emotional intimacy of various sorts and levels, and what they have to say about their lives and how they go about saying it. Perhaps one of the most everyday reminders of this reality is in my relationship with my primary partner and the contrast in how we engage emotionally with some of the smaller details of daily life -- I like yummy things as much as the next person, for example, but finding a new product at Trader Joe's or discovering an interesting new recipe does not seem to bring me quite the same level of delight as it does for my partner, or even really interest me in the same way. (And I shouldn't need to say this but in a culture that reflexively devalues things associated with femininity I feel the need to add that noting this capacity to appreciate the local and particular should not be taken as in any way implying any inability on the part of this highly capable scientist and academic to engage with text-mediated public forms of consciousness.) And Smith's description is certainly consistent with my observations of gender dynamics in activist spaces, particularly the tendency of (white) activist boys (me included, though I think quite a bit less now than I used to) to blow hot air about things they have read and seen but to expend what sometimes seems like extraordinary amounts of energy to keep their/our own personal experiences not only out of conversation but completely outside of their/our own politicized awareness.
The quote also relates very directly to my experience of becoming a stay-at-home parent. Among other things, that represented the forcible transition from a life which allowed me to indulge in those "peculiar out-of-body modes of consciousness" precisely whenever I pleased to one in which I could no longer "displace or subdue [my] local bodily experience" whenever it was convenient.
Generally speaking, I spend a lot of my time living in my head and a lot of the time that I spend there involves engaging in dialogue with texts: I read things and I think about them and I write things. I have perfected the art of reading while walking down the street and even when you see me without a book, often I am writing something in my head. Or doing some kind of reflection that is a sort of post-text consumption processing and/or preamble to writing. Of course I don't want to exagerate my disconnection from the particulars of everyday life in how I'm describing this -- though this particular vocabulary to describe the process is at least partly new to me, deliberate engagement with the particular and the embodied has become an increasingly clear personal and political priority for me over the last decade. But even so, going from a fair amount of discretion about where and when and how that process moved forward to suddenly spending ten to twelve hours a day, five days a week, as the person solely responsible for the health, wellbeing, and entertainment of a baby and then a toddler meant being forcibly submerged in the local, the particular, the embodied. Being with a baby or a toddler or a pre-schooler for extended periods of time mandates such a subjectivity. Full stop. I've become more skilled than I was initially at finding ways and opportunities for sneaking bits of text as if they were a sip from the bottle hidden in the bureau drawer, but no amount of artful dodging can get away from the fact that doing even a halfway decent job of being what you have to be for a little one requires a different mode of subjetivity than middle-class men are taught to experience as natural (and as their inalienable right).
The transition was a bit of a shock. Mind you, it was a shock that was good for me, but it was still a shock. And I should add that I'm not trying to romanticize the experience of being a stay-at-home parent -- regardless of the gender socialization from which you are starting, its moments of delight and deep satisfaction also inevitably come packaged with boredom, frustration, exhaustion, and isolation. There are still times when I seek retreat into text, like bringing a book with me when we are going, yet again, to throw stones in the nearby creek. But I think the transition did force a process which has perhaps subtley but definitely significantly (though certainly not decisively or finally) shifted my engagement with consciousness that is local, particular, embodied. When since my own childhood would I have spent twenty minutes crouched in front of a post crawling with caterpillars, just watching?
The points of particular relevance to where I started this post can be found in that transition. How I navigated it is, inevitably, particular to me; I'm sure other boys would do it quite differently. But for me, it was important to frame the shift -- and remember, at the time I really could not articulate it as I have in this post, I just knew I had to get used to something being different -- as being a political and even a moral imperative. I can picture feminist women that I know rolling their eyes at that and asking why I couldn't just go ahead and do it, and I also recognize that this involved the rather strange approach of taking things that for me had a great deal of their origin in those "peculiar out-of-body modes of consciousness" and using them to facilitate my engagement with a quite different mode of consciousness. But don't knock it, it (more or less) worked.
The thing is, this involved me attaching a particular kind of value to my parenting work -- value that it deserves, certainly, but also value of a sort that means that the prospect of deliberately laying down some small part of that responsibility, particularly for what felt like selfish reasons like getting more work time, felt like a bit of a betrayal of the political and moral imperative that helped me take up the responsibility to begin with. Which made me anxious.
Yeah. Boys are dumb. I know this.
In any case, I raise this because it seems like a useful way to talk about the issue of gendered modes of consciousness, particularly in relation to how they have been socially produced. Understanding this particular reality, and understanding in the body and not just in a cerebral way, could be important for anyone engaged in the ongoing process of wrestling with their gender socialization. And on a personal level, once he actually started attending pre-school, the anxiety went away. Over the longer term, as L gradually needs less and less intensive parental supervision, I think the struggle will be to avoid losing whatever lessons I have learned from the shocking transition of consciousness even as I embrace with enthusiasm and energy whatever new realities life brings.