Thursday, September 18, 2008

Why Women Wear Makeup: Sarah Palin As A Medium of Communication

I missed my 9/17 posting. I'm working on a comment connecting Sarah Palin's annointment to "VP wannabe" with Levi-Strauss' view that marital relations in pre-modern societies are a form of slow communication, with women being the medium, but I haven't been able to pull together the appropriate citations. The basic idea is that, by selecting Palin, "Grandpa" McCain tapped into primal notions concerned the exchange of women and incest taboos.


Joshua Greshin Gunn has a relevant post at his Rosewater Chronicles blog:


The appeal of the Palin pick to a certain set of conservatives is, however, not really postmodern at all. The contrast between Palin and Clinton is. If we focus on Palin alone, we find that a very “primitive” form of communication is in play: the exchange of women. However flawed we have come to learn Claude Levi-Strauss was (e.g., he falsified his data), his central observation about kinship systems remains uncontested: for whatever reason, society as we know it is based on the exchange of women; it is based on the circulation of women as objects. From a theoretical standpoint, there is no reason that men or children are not exchanged, it just happens that women have been the object of value, for good or ill (mostly ill). The Palin pick is an indirect reminder of this basic, social dynamic. To denote its special status as an event, let us capitalize: the Palin Pick.

In her monumentally influential study Psychoanalysis and Feminism, Juliet Mitchell bends over backwards to protect Levi-Strauss from the charge of anti-feminism. It’s amusing to read, but we must remember this study is almost forty years old and published in the last gasps of the second wave. Nevertheless, she correctly underscores that Levi-Strauss’ theory of kinship understood familial relations as a form of communication, a dynamic establishment and reestablishment of society through the exchange of signs:

Levi-Strauss has shown how it is not the biological family of mother, father, and child that is the distinguishing feature of human kinship structures. . . . The universal and primordial law is that which regulates marriage relationships and its pivotal expression is the prohibition of incest. This prohibition forces one family to give up one of its members to another family; the rules of marriage within “primitive” societies function as a means of exchange and as an unconsciously acknowledged system of communication. The act of exchange holds a society together: the rules of kinship. . . are society.

Contemporary society as we know it is a displacement, or rather a metonymy. Carol Pateman’s book, The Sexual Contract, advances a very convincing argument that this “primordial” exchange is the basis of contractarian theory itself: the so-called “social contract” is at some mythic remove the law of exogamic exchange. Pateman argues this is also what Freud was after in his recovery of Darwin’s myth of the primal horde. It all comes back to an agreement or promise made over an exchange, and historically, the object has been the body of woman.


Seen in this light, the appointment of Palin goes beyond anti-feminist. By resurrecting the notion that women are objects of exchange, McCain's selection completely denies the feminist movement and is an attempt to reintroduce women as chattel.

1 comment:

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