Darwinian Feminism

Special Session, South Central Modern Language Association Meeting
Austin, Texas., October 31-November 2, 2002

Chair: Nancy Easterlin, University of New Orleans

In just over thirty years, the growth of feminist thought in the academy has resulted in the proliferation of programs of study about and of practical initiatives directed toward women that together signal a significant shift in the values, attitudes, and goals of intellectual culture. Women's Studies programs, for example, in emphasizing the perspectives and attitudes of women, adopt as their starting point the previously unconsidered notion that a significant bias determines both modes and objects of inquiry. But while contemporary feminism has been instrumental in revitalizing questions of knowledge, ethics, and the social purposes of universities, its present theoretical incarnations attest to an array of conflicting positions, including, for instance, an essentialist celebration of the women's bodies and experience on the one hand and a hard constructionist claim that all gender difference is socioculturally produced on the other. While it is unlikely that both stances can be true simultaneously, the recent tendency has been to celebrate such contradictions under the guise of pluralism and to retreat from them into intellectual abstraction.

The fundamental question that contemporary feminism sidesteps by accepting this state of affairs is a definitional one--"What is a woman?"--and the purpose of this session is to promote the view that a properly conceived Darwinian feminism can, in supplying some insight into typical patterns in male and female psychology and behavior, likewise provide some unity and focus within feminist aesthetic criticism (and, by implication, within feminist social criticism). The four papers on the panel are organized so that they move from the most general presentation to the most specific--from a theoretical outline of this new branch of feminism, to a feminist theory of the arts, to an interpretation of a particular female type within a historical era, to a reading of a specific literary work.

In "What Is Darwiniam Feminism?", Nancy Easterlin will draw on scholars such as the anthropologist Sarah Blaffer Hrdy and the psychologist David Geary to present the evolutionary argument that demonstrable normative differences exist between male and female psychology. At the same time, Easterlin will suggest that a recognition of average differences between male and female psychology does not entail essentialism, which conflates individuals with generalizations; essentialism is, in fact, inadmissable in a truly Darwinian model, in which behavior depends significantly on environmental circumstances.

While Easterlin's presentation will provide a general introduction to what might constitute a Darwinian feminism, Ellen Dissanayake will propose, in "The Poetics of Baby Talk," a novel argument about the centrality of mother-child interaction in the origin of the arts. Based on comprehensive research in developmental and cognitive psychology as well as anthropology that demonstrates that infants are born ready to respond to human faces and voices and that their caretakers are likewise predisposed to engage in early interactions or "baby talk," Dissanayake theorizes that the responses to baby talk that adults unconsciously adopt are "protoaesthetic"--that is, comprised of the same features and operations that artists use in artworks. Baby talk, as Dissanayake hypothesizes, structures the rhythms and modes of the adult arts.

Following Dissanayake's paper, a theoretical presentation focusing on the fundamental place maternal behavior takes in the structures of art, Alan Richardson, in "Language Strange: Motherese, the Semiotic, and Romantic Poetry," will combine Dissanayake's research in Art and Intimacy with the concept of the semiotic proposed by poststructuralist theorist Julia Kristeva to interpret mysterious female figures in romantic poetry. These frequently otherworldly women utter semantically empty but rhythmic, muted sounds that render male characters lovestruck, supine, and spellbound. Male romantic poets such as Coleridge, Scott, Landor, and Keats, while fascinated with maternal behavior and apparently intuitively aware of its connection to semiotic behavior, cast a sinister aura over their representations of maternal speech, and in so doing reveal their ambivalence toward female power and sexuality.

Finally, in "There Must Be Fifty Reasons to Leave Your Lover: An Evolutionary Analysis of 'Hills Like White Elephants,'" Michelle Scalise Sugiyama will demonstrate how an understanding of differential reproductive strategies provides new insight into the character of Jig in the classic Hemingway story. Although Hemingway critics of the past twenty years have revised the assumption of earlier scholars that the writer's female characters are typically two-dimensional male fantasies, their argument has not been made on the basis of female psychology. Basing her analysis on a large body of research in evolutionary psychology suggesting that the differential parental investment of men and women results in different reproductive strategies, Sugiyama claims that Jig's decision to abort her child, even though she would rather keep it and even though she knows that this act will not save her relationship with the American, is consistent with findings across cultures about female fertility decisions, that is, about when to bear young and raise them to maturity.

With our culture's increasing interest in the naturalistic basis of human psychology and behavior, a Darwinian understanding of the differences between men and women promises an utterly new direction for feminist theory and practice, one with potentially far-reaching effects. This panel will provide a general introduction to the area and demonstrate a range of ways Darwinian feminism can be applied to aesthetic theories and objects.

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