EVERYTHING SO NEBULOUS:
FETISHIZING THE SELF AND THE ARGUMENT FOR GENDER*
|If everything is so nebulous about a matter so elementary as the morals of sex, what is there to guide us in more subtle moralities?|
- Ford Maddox Ford,
SOCIAL CATEGORIZATION AND EXISTENTIAL ANXIETY
There is a large body of evidence supporting a paradigm of social behavior that suggests that every individual accomplishes the task of being human by coming to grips with three basic existential anxieties of the human condition. These anxieties express themselves in the need for order, meaning, and membership that all human beings encounter. 
Across both time and culture, societies have successfully contained these existential anxieties through the primary social categorizations of religion, ethnicity or nationality, race, social class, and sex/gender. 
Ontologically preceding any single individual's life, carrying the weight of tradition, and borne by the consensus of their colleagues, these social categorizations provide every individual with some sense of orderly arrangement, meaningful definition, and group belonging. These categorizations, which shape and control the immediate social milieu in which people live out their lives, appear to be embedded in the very nature of reality, as if they were concrete features of the world itself. Thus they provide answers to the questions of order, meaning, and membership before the individual becomes even vaguely aware that such cultural "facts" can be opened up to doubt.  As a result, these categorizations are especially potent and central in giving to social members their sense of both individual and collective identities.
DIFFERENCES AMONG THE SOCIAL CATEGORIZATIONS
Prehistorically and historically, membership in a religious group has been nearly synonymous with being a member of a given society. Only in the past few hundred years have these two categories become distinct.  And while the emergence of nation-states is recent, being a member of a given society has also almost always been tantamount to having some kind of ethnic or "national" identity. 
In the modern world, social class appears much less rigidly fixed than the other categories. But the class structure of Europe in the Middle Ages, the dominance of social class in so much of the non-industrial world today, and the subtle distinctions of class and especially the influence of the upper class (however defined) in all societies still, demonstrate that this has been and continues to be a significant and powerful social categorization.
Of these basic categorizations, race and sex/gender are the two that are characterized by inherent physical features, i.e., by individual features independently rooted in physiology. Although religion, nationality, and social class are often identified with physical symbols, these symbols are not physically inherent, but are attached to members of the category by informal social practices and explicit rituals.
In this regard, race becomes particularly instructive. Even though presented in visible physiological features, the categorization of race does not become evident, much less salient, unless there is some other, differently featured group with which to compare. In fact, order, meaning, and membership are all rooted in comparison and contrast,  a point whimsically captured by T. S. Eliot in his "The Ad-dressing of Cats":
So this is this, and that is that.
Again, I must remind you that
A dog's a dog,
A cat's a cat.
This needs to be seen as a crucial point, for it is only through comparison and contrast that members of society come to know what things mean, what to expect of them, and how to act toward them.
THE LEGACY OF ERNEST BECKER: CULTURE AS HERO-SYSTEM
Throughout the corpus of his work, Ernest Becker has argued that individual self-esteem and self-worth are inevitably based upon a sense of "being special."  The endemic human longing to be special leads directly to the painful dilemma artfully summarized in another bit of verse, this time in W. H. Auden's brief poem:
For the error bred in the bone
Of each woman and each man
Craves what it cannot have,
Not universal love
But to be loved alone.
Becker locates this craving for what is impossible--to be loved and valued above all else, above all others--in the undifferentiated nature of humanness itself. Our lack of specialization as a species, the absence of any intrinsic sense of appropriate behavior or direction in life, leaves us in the dark about accomplishment, importance, significance, worth or value.  Without an internal locus of assessment and being unable to act effectively while suspended in ambiguity, humans must turn to external comparisons to establish a basis for determining what to do, and how well or poorly we have done it.
Becker's view of this process is in some ultimate sense tragic, for it is in attempting to satisfy this impossibility--to be loved alone, to be loved more than, to be better than anyone else--that humans do the most harm to themselves and to one another.  Compelled by existential needs, craving what cannot be, individuals independently set into motion what Becker sees as the paradoxical but inevitable source of evil: the creation of groups, each member of which must see themselves and their fellow members as better than those of other groups. So it is they, and not the others, who are entitled to more of whatever is desirable or scarce, from celebrity to wealth, in order to establish and maintain self-worth.
...it is only in society that man [sic] can get the symbolic measures for the degrees of his importance, his qualification for extradurability. And it is only by contrasting and comparing himself to like organisms, to his fellow men, that he can judge if he has some extra claim to importance. 
The thing that feeds the great destructiveness of history is that men [sic] give their entire allegiance to their own group; and each group is a codified hero system." 
In Becker's terminology, a hero system refers to the cultural means through which individuals can become special and thus achieve significance and worth. There must be some scheme of things in which the isolated individual can transcend his or her separate physicality and amount to something more than a mere momentary organismic presence. "If I matter to someone, then my being counts, but if I am looked up to by hundreds or thousands, well, that really establishes my worth!" Human culture is, in effect, says Becker, a patterned system of viable heroic models, an integrated set of culturally valued social roles. Taken together, they provide the frame of reference and set of instructive alternatives through which effective and successful behavior becomes possible. The result is that each individual can achieve meaning and value, which are only possible in a collective context. 
THE LEGACY OF ERNEST BECKER: THE FETISHIZED SELF
To some degree all social roles carry with them a heroic dimension. But social roles provide not only the means of self-ennoblement. They also provide the means for self-transcendence, the necessary psycho-social tools by which the struggling organism can get hold of itself, take command of its own inherent ambiguity and open-endedness, and in some organized way move itself effectively through its social environment.
Becker alludes to this process in his discussion of "normal fetishism".  Just as we gain control over an object by treating it "largely in terms of what we can do to it", so too are we able to gain control over our own self (i.e., that object which is me) by "doing to it", by treating it in some delimited way.  Society provides us with just such pre-assembled, delimited ways in the form of social roles. Social roles are the primary instrumental means of gaining ascendancy over our otherwise vague, nebulous, and elusive "selves". As Becker says, "Without routine compulsiveness, we would all literally fade away; we would be able to marshal no ego at all." 
From the mundane roles of everyday life, to those endowed with a quixotic heroism, to the core identity roles of religion, ethnicity and nationality, race, social class, and sex/gender, all social roles literally "en-able" self-fetishization. They are thus essential in allowing humans to "put themselves into effect." 
A MODERN DILEMMA: THE LOSS OF COMPARISON
The categorizations of religion, nationality, race, social class, and sex/gender historically have served very important functions. They have acted as identity anchors for individuals, as organizing principles for society, as vehicles for members of a culture to become heroes and so achieve humanity and at least some slight sense of immortality in the face of death. But the world that we inhabit today is one in which these core identities--identities that have traditionally assuaged our basic human anxieties regarding order, meaning, and membership--are fading, failing, or under attack.  At the same time, these identities are simultaneously undergoing a resurgence, condoned (particularly by the left) in terms of diversity and multiculturalism, while condemned in terms of racism and ethnocentrism.
Nationalism is a case in point. In spite of the fact that it may be the Achilles' heel of the 20th century (as Toynbee warned), we still devoutly resist giving up our national and ethnic identities, as we are too well reminded in such places as the Middle East and central Europe. Yet the destruction wrought in the name of nationalism is increasingly unacceptable. And so it is with religion, race, social class, and sex/gender as well. Yet the functions these categorizations have served still need somehow to be met. How these functions will be satisfied in the future is yet to be determined. But it would be foolhardy to think that whatever we mean by human nature will, in this regard, change quickly, or perhaps even change at all. Thus it remains safe to conclude that humans will continue to assuage their existential anxieties through socially established identities. So the questions become, which identities, and how can we implement and honor them without differentiating, distorting, and discounting or devaluing others' identities in the process? What identities should we make, and what should we make of them? These are the essential questions, but they cannot be answered either well or effectively until we fully understand the nature of the answers we have provided ourselves so far.
Because successful life requires comparison, humans have consistently created social dualities, as Durkheim and Hocart (among many others) were well aware. In creating these dualities, people have always asserted themselves to be members of the preferred category, establishing social roles for themselves that provide for valued self-enactment, while creating a contrasting, disvalued counter-group in the process. 
However built into human nature this tendency may be, a system of values is evolving in the modern world which makes it increasingly unacceptable, both legally and morally, to impose such invidious dichotomies, and even more impermissible to damage others in their service. Especially in the West, the discriminatory treatment of individuals on the basis of race, religion, creed, ethnicity, socio-economic status, national origin, or sex/gender is more and more proscribed. All such categorizations are now seen as morally flawed, obsolete, indefensible.
Yet, like so much else in life, this remarkably constructive development in human history cuts in more than one direction. However commendable has been the resulting increase in human equality and justice, the decrease in self-enabling self-definition strikes at the heart of heroic possibility.
THE SINGULARITY OF SEX/GENDER
It was noted earlier that race does not become socially salient until there appears a physically different group (another "race") with which to contrast and compare; indeed, until this happens, race as a source of identity does not exist (as we see repeatedly in the autobiographies of Black Americans). The same can be said for the other categorizations. But in the case of sex/gender we must add some particular qualifications.
We have said that divergent groups within the same categorization must come into social existence before that category takes on significance in forming meaningful social identities. Since homogeneity can be approximated in religious, national, racial, and even class composition, these categorizations are neither necessarily nor always present in human societies.
This cannot be said with regard to sex/gender; human societies must be and certainly they have always been heterogeneous. 
More important is the fact that no society can effectively impose a separation of the sexes to the degree that different races or religions or even social classes can be separated. 
But most important of all is that, despite pejorative stereotypes and negative generalizations, human reproduction and the social arrangements surrounding reproduction require that the two sexes are brought together on a one-to-one basis in some kind of potentially intimate relationship. Each sex/gender still will inherit and very likely subscribe to derogatory and disvalued stereotypes and caricatures of their "opposite". Yet much more than in the case of any of these other categorizations, males and females encounter one another in some way in the normal rounds of daily life. And in doing so, their perceptions and evaluations of sex/gender will be those most vulnerable or at least susceptible to challenge. To put this in Shutzian terms, even though the sexes may initially interact in terms of their social typifications (mitwelt) of one another, by virtue of their very nature, these interactions carry the most likelihood of becoming "We relationships" (umwelt). It is these relationships of mutual co-presence which are most able to challenge and transfigure these stereotypes.
Finally, the likelihood that qualities of interpersonal care and concern will find their way into these cross-sex/gender encounters is greatly increased because of the sex/gender role specialization of females in Western societies, which has been in the direction of social sensitivity, interpersonal skills, and relationship values. 
A TENTATIVE CONCLUSION, MODESTLY PUT
All this thus leads to the tenuous possibility that of all the core categorizations upon which humans are dependent for their personal identities and social worth, then, sex/gender may be the one that is possibly the most benign, i.e., having the least harmful effects. Or perhaps it is more accurate, as well as more constructive, to say that the categorization of sex/gender has the most potentiality for self-correction.
Sex/gender is a categorization in terms of which group members have always contrasted their differences, making comparisons which are probably as old and inevitable as time. And yet, by bringing two specific members of opposite sex together in a personal and unique way, it provides the one structurally guaranteed opportunity for each participant to perceive and experience the other more fully as a person, to counter group stereotypes with firsthand experience, and to do so in a one-on-one encounter which offers the greatest possibility of softening, moderating, or modifying these distancing, devaluing pre-conceptions.  At the same time, this potential for change, by being the most threatening, may also foster the most initial defensiveness.
Invariably, the first question asked of newly announced parents regards the sex/gender of their infant. If there is a certain delectability in awaiting the birth to find out which the baby will be, this sweetness lies in both the temporary nature of the wait and the finality of the answer when it comes. In some ways it is like an amusement park ride or a horror movie (perhaps apt analogies when speaking of children)--we can afford to be surprised or shocked because the arena of possibility is so securely circumscribed. Listen to the comments of a new father:
"The nine months of pregnancy are the only time in your life when you get to relate to someone without knowing whether they're male or female. It's wild. Some days, the kid's kicking and he's a sumo wrestler, other days she's a prima ballerina. But the point is the kid can still be either. I wouldn't give up one second of not knowing." 
Yet the subtext of this comment is equally clear: once the sex/gender of his child is known, some very real parameters will begin to settle firmly into place. "The kid" can no longer be either a sumo wrestler or a prima ballerina (just notice how sex specific those two roles are!); the process of choice, the elimination of alternatives, must begin. Do we really think it could be otherwise? Would we want it so?  Could we actually sustain all that open-endedness, both psychologically and socially? 
I believe that these questions are not either rhetorical or "sexist" (although on occasions they can be), but are ultimately existential. Just as sex exists for necessary biological reasons, gender exists to serve important psychological and sociological functions. Certainly I would not claim that these functions could not change, but it may well be that they lie much deeper than we have been willing or perhaps even able to acknowledge.
NOT SO FINAL REFLECTIONS, A MOMENT'S PAUSE
The argument for gender that I have tried to outline here is not made simply academically nor is it made from some self-serving or strictly ideological perspective. In actuality, the argument for gender is made cumulatively and in practice by individuals and societies themselves as they struggle with the problematic nature of their own existence. It is not just coincidental that we know "Is it a boy or a girl?" to be perhaps the most universal of all questions. In contending with the open-endedness of our own being, we humans have had to invent and maintain our own constraints: the truth of the matter is that we cannot survive without them, nor can we pretend to conform to some non-existent constraints that are neither presented nor imposed by nature.
Having borrowed so much from Becker in defining the problem, it would make for a neat conclusion to find in his work some solution. But like so much critical thought, the diagnosis is more comprehensive and successful than any recommended cure. In the final chapter of his last, post- humous book, Escape From Evil, Becker himself cryptically remarked that, "One of the last thoughts of the great William James was that when all is said and done there is no advice to be given." 
And yet Becker does try to give us something more to go on:
The task of social theory is not to explain guilt away or to absorb it unthinkingly in still another destructive ideology, but to neutralize it and give it expression in truly creative and life-enhancing ideologies. 
It is especially crucial to note that Becker does not say we can do away with ideologies. Thus the task incumbent upon those of us, women and men, who understand and accept the devilish paradoxes of being human is clear: to foster the creation of life-enhancing ideologies which will serve both the limitations and the higher possibilities of humankind. Such ideologies will have to come to grips with the limits of choice--with our psychological limits in managing as much choice as we have created for ourselves, and our social limits in providing that range of choice that we often think we want or ought to have.
CONTINUING THOUGHTS, A PERSONAL REAPPRAISAL
As I continue to reflect on my attempts at understanding human behavior, I have discovered that apparently I have taken to heart Marx's famous maxim, that while humans are free to choose, they are not free to choose any way they want.  Of course, all parents, whether they know Marx or not, discover the commonplace profundity of this insight as they herd their own young toward adulthood. Along with proprieties regarding bedtimes and bad words, manners and morality, chief among parental chores is the responsibility to inculcate in their children the particular limits of choice that recognize and confirm the particular groups and the larger society to which both parents and children belong. 
Many of these limits articulate in concrete form the more profound boundaries of the human condition that I think of as "human parameters." The conventional wisdom knows such boundaries to "be there" as ultimate reality, while the more reflexive, analytical, and studied intellectual knowledge of the social sciences views these particular expressions of the limits of choice as socially constructed. Since they are socially constructed (goes this latter reasoning) these realities are amenable both to de-construction and to re-construction. And so while the conventional wisdom treats these realities as fixed, the wisdom of the social sciences treats them as open to variation, negotiation, radical alteration, and even disappearance. It is in this arena of the analytic knowledge of the academic that we find discussions that speak of such ideas as "re-inventing the male/female relationship," "liberating all people from the constraints of gender," or even "creating a gender-less world," all of which statements carry almost no meaning (except perhaps for being totally "barmy") in the commonsense world.
Being self-located and hanging out (so to speak) in the juxtaposition of these two epistemological frames where sociologists often can be found, I have continued to re-evaluate my ideas regarding "natal identities"--race, ethnicity, sex/gender, nationality, and (perhaps to a lesser degree) religion and social class (to which list anthropologists might add age and kinship)--the social categories we use in forming the core of our individual beings. What I have concluded to date is that I need to introduce two significant corrections to what appears above.
First, I made the error of being captivated by the liberal proclivity to think that natal identities other than sex/gender (which I exempted for reasons that follow) were candidates--reluctant candidates, to be sure, but candidates nonetheless--for demobilization. Perhaps I should add that in actuality this liberal tendency sees that only a partial demobilization (perhaps the more accurate phrase should be "a standing-down", to continue the military metaphor) is possible: eliminating the negative elements of such social categories while still retaining their positive and commendable qualities. Such a solution is very often desired; perhaps it has best been expressed by Neal Gabler in an op-ed piece in which he espoused the benefits of societal multi-culturalism while at the same time insisting on the continuance of a society-wide set of binding cultural values,  making a curious distinction between moral relativism (bad) and cultural relativism (good), a rather strained contradiction that would bring immediate agony to most social scientists.
Against the background of this seductive prospect, I further compounded my naivete by concluding that sex/gender was the natal identity that offered the most hopeful opportunity for positive re-construction, a re-construction that would allow us, in the words of Eviatar Zerubavel, "to break away from the mental cages in which we so often lock ourselves, yet still avoid chaos."  Or, as Edward DeBono has put it, "Enough rigidity to give context, meaning, and security. Enough flexibility to give change, improvement, adventure, hope." 
As I just quoted Ernest Becker (in words distinctly evocative of those of Zerubavel, although written some 16 years earlier), "The task of social theory is not to explain guilt away or to absorb it unthinkingly in another destructive ideology, but to neutralize it and give it expression in truly creative and life-enhancing ideologies." Yet the caveat remains: however creative and life-enhancing we may be able to make it, what we construct will of necessity still be an ideology--both constraining as well as enabling.
My conclusion, based on what are still good but now necessarily qualified reasons, was that, since men and women usually met one another within the endogamous confines and contexts of their other identities and quite often, if not always, in intimate and personal circumstances of mutual valuing, sex/ gender transcended all the other natal identities. That is to say, for reasons that were simultaneously insistent and subtle, sex/gender offered the most optimistic ideological frame within which positive stability and progressive movement were both possible. I thought the nature of these intimate cross-sex encounters provided, relatively speaking, the most opportunity for self-correction and the least likelihood of abuse.
I have come to be less secure in both conclusions; I was over-optimistic about how much of a prospect sex/gender offered for "the most enlightened ideology" and less than sanguine about how much all the other natal identities would, in fact, "wither away". More recent experience has added qualifying pieces to this puzzle of human identity. Some of that experience has been anecdotal, and since that is one of the more powerful ways we actually make sense of our commonsense world--the world we inhabit most of the time--I present it in this form.
On first hearing, I was impressed, as I believe were many Americans, by the presence and presentation of Maya Angelou's 1993 Presidential Inaugural Poem. But as I have had opportunities to read and reread the poem and to muse over it in its printed form, I had some additional thoughts about its implications. Here is the May Angelou's poem in full: 
On the Pulse of Morning
A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.
But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly,
Come, may you stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow.
I will give you no hiding place down here.
You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Face down in ignorance.
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.
The Rock cries out to us today, you may
stand upon me,
But do not hide your face.
Across the wall of the world,
A River sings a beautiful song. It says,
Come, rest here by my side.
Each of you, a bordered country,
Delicate and strangely made proud,
Yet thrusting perpetually under siege.
Your armed struggles for profit
Have left collars of waste upon
My shore, currents of debris upon my breast.
Yet today I call you to my riverside,
If you will study war no more. Come,
Clad in peace, and I will sing the songs
The Creator gave to me when I and the
Tree and the rock were one.
Before cynicism was a bloody sear across
Brow and when you yet knew you still
The River sang and sings on.
There is a true yearning to respond to
The singing River and the wise Rock.
So say the Asian, the Hispanic, the Jew
The African, the Native American, the
The Catholic, the Muslim, the French, the
The Irish, the Rabbi, the Priest, the Sheik,
The Gay, the Straight, the Preacher,
The privileged, the homeless, the Teacher.
They hear. They all hear
The speaking of the Tree.
They hear the first and last of every Tree
Speak to humankind today. Come to me, here
beside the River.
Plant yourself beside the River.
Each of you, descendant of some passed
On traveler, has been paid for.
You, who gave me my first name, you,
Pawnee, Apache, Seneca, you
Cherokee Nation, who rested with me, then
Forced on bloody feet,
Left me to the employment of
Other seekers--desperate for gain,
Starving for gold.
You, the Turk, the Arab, the Swede, the
German, the Eskimo, the Scot,
You the Ashanti, the Yorba, the Kru,
Sold, stolen, arriving on the nightmare
Praying for a dream.
Here, root yourselves beside me.
I am that Tree planted by the River,
Which will not be moved.
I, the Rock, I, the River, I, the Tree
I am yours--you passages have been paid.
Lift up your faces, you have a piercing need
For this bright morning dawning for you.
History, despite its wrenching pain,
Cannot be unlived, but if faced
With courage, need not be lived again.
Lift up your eyes upon
This day breaking for you.
Give birth again
To the dream.
Women, children, men,
Take it into the palms of your hands,
Mold it into the shape of your most
Private need. Sculpt it into
The image of your most public self.
Lift up your hearts
Each new hour holds new chances
For a new beginning.
Do not be wedded forever
To fear, yoked eternally
The horizon leans forward,
Offering you space to place new steps of
Here, on the pulse of this fine day
You may have the courage
To look up and out and upon me, the
Rock, the River, the Tree, your country.
No less to Midas than the mendicant.
No less to you now than the mastodon then.
Here, on the pulse of this new day
You may have the grace to look up and out
And into your sister's eyes, and into
Your brother's face, your country
And say simply
These promising words were spoken on January 20, 1993. Only several weeks later, the New York Times published a list of current ethnic wars.  A total of 48 separate conflicts were identified and briefly described. What connected these two seemingly disparate events--Maya Angelou's poetry of optimism and longing, and this discouragingly long list of wars, of death and destruction--was the litany of names they both contained: the names of religious and ethnic and national identities. The names the poet sang of in hope were the names in the name of which individual members of different groups were earnestly attempting to kill one another! Whether coming together or staying apart--or, as is more paradoxically the rule, struggling to do both simultaneously--these names point to identities that no one wants to give up.
Here clearly was a case, in the words of Thomas Hardy, where "if a way to the better there be, it lies in taking a full look at the worst." 
It is "the group alone" that can confer immortality, writes Ernest Becker; in the modern world, "it is the nation that offers immortality to all its members."  "What men have done is to shift the fear of death onto the higher level of cultural perpetuity" [my emphasis]; now holding "for dear life onto the self-transcending meanings of the society in which they live, onto the immortality symbols which guarantee them indefinite duration of some kind, a new kind of instability and anxiety are created."  In seeking to counter his most feared evil, that of "extinction with insignificance [original emphasis]", Becker writes, "man is responsible for bringing more evil into the world..." 
Thus there in the pages of the New York Times were vividly displayed the two sides of the national-cultural group-identity coin, and the absolute dilemma they pose for us. As Isaiah Berlin has observed, in speaking of the cultural pluralism that Angelou was celebrating and incidentally disposing of the naive distinction that Neal Gabler wished for in his op-ed piece, "What is clear is that values can clash--that is why civilizations are incompatible... These collisions of values are of the essence of what they are and what we are [my emphasis]... The notion of the perfect whole, the ultimate solution, in which all good things coexist, seems to me to be not merely unattainable--that is a truism--but conceptually incoherent.... We are doomed to choose, and every choice may entail irreparable loss." 
The choices, and the evil and loss they provoke, can be large, epic, and blatantly visible, as in the battlefields of war; but they also take place in the most personal and poignant recesses of the human heart. Witness this poem by Mary Gilmore:
I have grown past hate and bitterness,
I see the world as one;
Yet, though I can no longer hate,
My son is still my son.
All men at God's round table sit,
And all men must be fed;
But this loaf in my hand,
This loaf is my son's bread. 
The title of this poem? "Nationalism"!
And so once again, I am reminded, as I am so many times these days, of that unconscious message in Garrison Keillor's tagline, when he softly concludes his imaginary tales of the American heartland with the well known words "Well, that's the news from Lake Wobegon" (the name of the town itself a plea-full pun), "where all the men are good looking, all the women are strong, and all the children are above average."
1Michael A. Toth and Joseph C. Bentley, "Discovering the Obvious: A Master Paradigm for the Social Sciences", in Symposium Proceedings of the National Social Science Association, 1987.
2 See, for example, Harold R. Isaacs, Idols of the Tribe, New York: Harper and Row, 1975.
3 If a viable culture is one which provides satisfactory answers to these questions, then a truly successful culture is one in which the answers are so total, immediate, and reassuring that the questions themselves never intrude upon awareness. From this perspective, the history of Western civilization is characterized by an increasing clarity of the questions accompanied by an increasing haziness of the answers.
4 See Andrew M. Greeley, The Denominational Society, Glenview, Illinois: Scott, Foresman and Company, 1972.
5 I do not want to worry the question of nationalism too much; certainly it comes into its own only in its modern form. The point here is that groups had some kind of specific "entity identity" long before the emergence of the modern nation-state, and for our purposes here we can treat these as similar.
6 For example, the family historian John Demos writes, "...knowing lies, above all, in the element of contrast: what was versus what is, the differences, the similarities, and all the shadings in between." See his Past, Present, and Personal, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986, p. xii.
7 Becker's argument finds its most deliberate and complete exposition in three works which together form a trinity: The Birth and Death of Meaning (2nd Edition), New York: The Free Press, 1971; The Denial of Death, New York: The Free Press, 1973; Escape From Evil, New York: The Free Press, 1975.
8 See E. H. Mizruchi's relevant concept of "boundlessness" in his Success and Opportunity: A Study in Anomie, New York: The Free Press, 1964. The absence of an internal source of social guidance is, of course, the theme that underlies all of Durkheim's work, especially that on suicide and religion.
9 Becker's view is curiously resonant with that of R. D. Laing's in his Politics of Experience, New York: Ballentine Books, 1967.
10 Becker, op. cit., p. 12.
11 Becker's complex, profound, and unsettling argument is found in his posthumous work, Escape From Evil, New York: The Free Press, 1975, p.153.
12 This need for recognition is the argument that Fukuyama recently presented as the explanation for the ultimate and inevitable (thus History-ending) success of liberal democracy. See Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man. New York: The Free Press, 1992.
13 "Everyman as Pervert", in Angel in Armor, New York: The Free Press, 1969, pp.1-38. See also Becker's discussion of ritual and fetishization in Escape From Evil.
14 It is this self-referential process which Mead describes so well. See especially George Herbert Mead, Mind, Self, and Society. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1934.
15 Becker, Angel in Armor, p.14.
16 I am particularly fond of this phrase because it seems to sum up the existential situation; i.e., the human animal is the one which has to solve the problem of putting itself out into the world in one form or another, to enact itself into being. This is the process that Berger refers to as "externalization". See Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy.
17 See my "The Buffalo are Gone: The Decline of the Male Prerogative," paper read at the annual meetings of the Pacific Sociological Association, San Diego, CA., April 1982.
18 It is important to point out that the counter-group is not an inherently intended consequence of this process, and, in fact, it may not be very desirable or even desired. But the logic of the activity seems to demand the creation of "the Other."
19 We might even surmise that the dichotomy of sex was the first of all social dichotomies, since some awareness of it must have been unavoidable from the very beginning.
20 These categorizations imply a continuum that runs from what essentially cannot be separated at one end (sex/gender) to what essentially must be separated at the other (nationality).
21 For an outstanding discussion of this point, see Carol Gilligan, In A Different Voice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1982.
22 This is not to say that such modifications always occur, or occur to the degree that either party might wish them too. For a discussion of the viewpoints that might be exchanged and how this might be facilitated, see Michael A. Toth and Sherwin L. Davidson, "Lives Together, Worlds Apart: The Ties That Double Bind", paper read at the annual meetings of the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, Dallas, TX., October 1982.
23 Quoted from "Boy or Girl? Should You Know Before Birth?," by Anne Bernstein, Parents Magazine, Sept 1984, Vol. 59, No 9, pp.49-54.
24 I am reminded here of my favorite rhetorical sex-role question, which occurred to me after I learned of the common maternity ward practice of immediately putting pink and blue bows or caps on the heads of new-borns to denote their sex. Question: "Why do nurses do this with spanking new babies (who, of course, couldn't care less themselves)?" Answer: "Because they don't come that way."
25 Imagine, for yourself, how long you would feel comfortable not knowing the sex of your own child? What causes the discomfort? And what reasons do you come up with for why you want or need to know?
26 Escape From Evil. New York, The Free Press, 1975, p. 169.
27 Ibid., p. 162.
28 The literal reference is to Marx's statement that "Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered from the past." Not content with this dispassionate critique, Marx concludes with his characteristic polemic: "The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living." ("The Eighteen Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte." in R.C. Tucker (ed.), The Marx-Engels Reader. New York: Norton, 1970, pp. 436-525.)
29 I am using the word "belong" in the double sense of both "being a member of" and "being owned by" social groups.
30 "Morality Molds Us Into One", Neal Gabler, The Oregonian, Tuesday, June 16, 1992, p. C7. This piece was originally written for the L.A. Times.
31 The Fine Line: Making Distinctions in Everyday Life. The Free Press, New York, 1991, p. ?
32 The Mechanism of Mind. Harmondsworth, England: Penguin, 1971. p. 205.
33 As it appeared in the New York Times, January 21, 1993, p. A10.
34 On Sunday, February 7, 1993, p, 12.
35 The second of three epigrams quoted in Ernest Becker's Escape From Evil.
36 Escape from Evil, pp. 65, 160.
37 Ibid., p. 5.
38 Ibid., pp. 4-5.
39 "The Pursuit of the Ideal", in Isaiah Berlin, The Crooked Timber of Humanity: Chapters in the History of Ideas, Henry Hardy (ed.). New York: Alfred Knopf, 1991, pp. 12-13.
40 From Peace and War: A Collection of Poems, Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 26.