Imagine There's No Other: Philosophy of Intimacy over Power
written after a philosophy/political science course in Italy, Germany, and France
Imagination is a powerful thing. It's given birth to airplanes, gourmet cooking, movements of music and art—from the intimacy of sculptures on a pedestal, to the bursts of colored chalk on the streets. Imagination makes us alive. However, it can also draw lines and reinforce them between human beings, destroy the capacity for collaboration in favor of ensuring the flourishing of one over the other. The tradition of imagining the sexes as separate species within a species, for instance, keeps us from understanding one another, keeps the violence done to or done by women disregarded. Our concept of the distinct divide between masculinity and femininity deeply drives our concept of our relationship to the other—and limits our exposure to the humanity in bodies we hold privilege and power over.
In considering human conquest and imagination, Hannah Arendt in her essay "The Human Condition" tells us that the world as it is now is vastly different from the world of the ancients. "Only now has man taken full possession of his mortal dwelling place and gathered the infinite horizons, which were temptingly and forbiddingly open to all previous ages, into a globe," she says. How often have we heard that "the world is getting smaller," because we can now fly from the Los Angeles, California to Florence, Italy overnight, as opposed to a time when the idea of another continent was infinite, in the mists of mystery? Yet, is the mystery to be mourned? If ignorance is bliss but "knowledge is power," which does humanity prefer? Knowledge of our globe has driven us to then explore connections with a greater whole of humanity, but also enlarged the scale of destruction. Ignorance in power is destructive. Yet, it seems inevitable that humans would eventually discover their own planet and react to one another, sometimes in horrific ways, bound to sin.
Even before then, was ignorance truly bliss? Not for the other side of the sword, at least. When the unknown was left unknown, the outside left outside, the other left other—our world was still small in its own way, and oppressive relationships still existed and suffered. Slaves obtained from the unknown, foreign distance were still crushed under violence, like the Egyptian enslavement of Hebrews in fear of their numbers. The unknown—a mortal sample of the unknown, in vulnerable form—is taken advantage of. For the good of maintaining Egyptian order and stability, for the myth of "greater good" of one people, another is crushed and beaten and killed, under the power of what once was a welcoming host to starving wanderers.
Since the beginning of time (or at least, the Fall), oppression has also existed under the veil of the relationship between sexes. Often woman is idealized, fantasized, fetishized, praised and shrugged and joked about as the ultimate mysterious other. But keeping woman this perfect mystery is not in her favor. In keeping ignorance of the female narrative, we never raise her to a pedestal of power but keep her in her place, never to be listened to (since men can never understand women anyway), never to be allowed full potential of power or equal influence upon the world in which we equally reside. This is the most intertwined oppression, the most subtle, and the most permeating. In our modern age, at least we have grown much more aware of the oppressions such as these that once ran our world, and we have taken steps and movements toward change.
Keeping in ignorance about the world we share will not do in this modern age, either. The human condition, according to Hannah Arendt, is radically different now. The despondency that every land on earth has already been discovered ought to be refocused, because "[n]othing, to be sure, could have been more alien to the purpose of explorers and circumnavigators of the early modern age than this closing-in process; they went to enlarge the earth, not shrink her into a ball" (Arendt, 250). If anything, knowing our world means we have more possibilities. We have discovered the multifaceted differences with which we coexist in the world, and now cannot renounce the discoveries of other human beings. And most of us would agree, as we live in music and media as a fish lives in water, that we cannot renounce creativity. With all this discovery and interdependence of humanity, we allow ourselves creativity, "we are actually doing what all ages before ours thought to be the exclusive prerogative of divine action" (Arendt, 269).
With that comes no excuse, then, for disregarding our responsibility to one another, for we are living together and we affect one another. We have power in choice, support or protest, and we have power in normalizing. Hannah Arendt wrote of the banality of evil, that ordinary privileged citizens, in supporting or simply allowing the evil of the Holocaust to happen, are also responsible for the success of the genocide. This is the reason we do not only express outrage over a rape case as an individual's wrong but as part of a greater rape culture. When we normalize the idea that "strong, rational" man must prove his dominance (then cannot help being sexually driven), we cultivate the ignorance from which a judge and jury blame a female rape victim for what she was wearing. When we normalize the double standard that a man cannot show emotion, while emotion is all to be expected out of a woman, we cultivate the ignorance from which the system laughs at a male abuse victim for seeking help and not being able to overcome his female abuser.
This concept of sexual divide and dominance is inherent in our shared limbo of western imagination. Jump back to around the Renaissance in Florence, Italy—a time when art and invention is flourishing in excellence—and one can trace back, still, the strain for masculinity as for keeping power. When exiled ambassador Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince to kiss his way back into politics, his concept of ruling power was underlined with the image of being purely masculine and an avoidance of being "effeminate" at all costs. In fact, one chapter even ends with a vulgar metaphor of sexual dominance: "fortune is female and if you want to stay on top of her you have to slap and thrust" (Machiavelli, 101). The personification of fortune (if we can truly call it that, considering this is not how one ought to treat a person) as a woman suits the shared imagination of its setting; in Roman mythology, fortune certainly is female, concentrated into the divine body of a goddess, fleeting and powerful. Yet, even with such idolization, woman is not put on a pedestal for her own best interests. Even depicted as a goddess, the narrative is that it is up to the man to win her over so she'll empower him. Machiavelli's explicitly states that fortune is female, and assumes that fortune has no purpose or pleasure other than to be taken advantage of by a man. The violent language of "slap and thrust" urges the reader (a man in power) to keep in dominance for his own interests; it is even coupled with the assumption that the woman (or the feminine, the other—those under the power of the impulsive, decisive, impressive man) is "more likely to yield that way" and "being a woman she likes her men young [...] wilder and more daring when they master her" (Machiavelli, 101). Here even in enriching Renaissance print we see an explicit example of sexism and the concept of pure masculinity, all decisive and impulsive, all rational and responsible, never room for being effeminate in the slightest or letting oneself be influenced by compassion/empathy for another. Our current rape culture parallels this image of bodily, masculine dominance. We hear "don't be a pussy" at the same time we hear "get some pussy." Possess and attain the female, take in the embodiment of the feminine nature of humanity, but under no circumstances become the feminine. This language still happens today, in our relationships with one another and individual quests for power in our lives. It's part of what's allowed Donald Trump to the power of presidency, a societal acceptance of and even admiration for slogans to "grab America by the pussy" and "Make America Great Again." Though we may claim to frown upon individual rape cases, we make way for power to be equated with violence, and submission to be just part of the nature of being brought to glory. Paradoxically, in our individuality we are cynical and long for power, and never weakness (which we still problematically equate to femininity)—yet as a whole society, in our anger and cynicism we call for a leader to be angry and decisive and powerful for us, to solve all the problems. This problem is not new, and is not long gone, either. In Biblical times, people expected their Messiah to rule and dominate, not serve and sympathize. In our times, some Christians still expect God to bring destruction upon outsiders to prove himself as God (in the way a man perhaps destroys to prove himself as manly). Neglecting the open, nurturing, empathetic side of Jesus, who fully participated in humanity , Christians throughout time and even today may push for dominance rather than vulnerability, to the point that accepting diversity is equated with persecution. So some Christians also make way for our president to be our new political Messiah to submit to, overlooking the inherent harm allowed to fester and normalize. Because the danger is not immediate if it is done to the other, the "terrorist" Muslims, the "pedophile" LGBTQ community, the PoC who should just "go back to your country." Anything different, anything that might permeate the straight white Christian male-dominated purity. We do not deport all the women, obviously, but the image of dominance and taking the goods without being influenced, the language of keeping people in their place, still is derived from a concept of clear-cut masculinity and femininity to be maintained. Especially our violent disregard for the LGBTQ community, the "effeminate" male is a threat, the female that needs no male is also a threat, the very concept of gender being not so clear-cut and roles defined, and any human that embodies that ambiguity, is a threat. And "God sent the shooter" just as He destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah (though the sin of these cities was inhospitality and gang rape).
When humans make themselves judge of where and who to destroy, the result is disastrous. The concept of purification from the other and desperate need to destroy dependence intensified when our technology turned to World Wars.
Perhaps there is another way to look at what we consider the divinely created masculine and feminine and the relationship between one and the other. Emmanuel Levinas, a Holocaust survivor, in his interview recorded in Ethics and Infinity, encourages seeing the masculine and the feminine as a multiplicity rather than a fusion or divide: "instead of dividing humanity into two species (or two genders) [...] the participation in the masculine and in the feminine were the attribute of every human being. Could this be the meaning of the enigmatic verse of Genesis 1.27: 'male and female He created them'?" (Levinas, 68-69). The concept of the clear-cut divide and "balance" of the sexes has often been justified by that Bible verse with a vengeance. We see it angrily quoted today as a way to condemn those who defy our understanding of the gender roles that have "always been," especially against the LGBT community. Yet originally the verse was a praise of the Creator and a reminder of the preciousness of humanity. Perhaps, Levinas suggests, God does not demand we strain to keep the masculinity in the male body and the femininity in the female body, but healthily take in the multiplicity of attributes God has created. Perhaps masculinity and femininity is a spectrum of natures within God's creation of humanity, and being in tune with the feminine while recognizing we can never understand everything about the other will lead us to a more radical, healing, harmonious humanity. Perhaps there is power in that.
Levinas also emphasizes "the other" very often but in a very different light than what we're used to. To Levinas, the other can never become part of us, can never be reduced and consumed into our own growth—but the other must be the drive and meaning of our lives. "Positively, we will say that since the Other looks at me, I am responsible for him, without even having taken on responsibilities in his regard; his responsibility is incumbent on me. It is responsibility that goes beyond what I do [...] I am responsible for the Other without waiting for reciprocity, were I to do for it. Reciprocity is his affair" (Levinas, 96-98). In his philosophy, we must live with eternal, ongoing responsibility to each other, esteeming the other as better than ourselves; it is the only way to live. Levinas explores the idea of the feminine and masculine as the base of understanding this relationship with the other, but criticizes the concept of dominance and duality that comes with what we've turned sex into. He says: "The difference of sex is not the duality of two complementary terms. For two complementary terms presuppose a pre-existing whole [. . .] The other as other here is not an object which becomes ours or which becomes us, to the contrary, it withdraws into its mystery" (Levinas, 67). Esteeming the other as the one to serve and die for, unconditionally, perhaps harkens back to the Biblical image of marriage, of the man being held in more trust and responsibility provided he is willing to serve and die for the woman, the other. Yet too often the value of the physical and emotional intimacy of sex has been skewed into one's own pleasure and power, and even in loving intentions, paralleled to one's claim to now know everything about the other. On the contrary, Levinas argues, we can never claim to know what it's like to be the other. We can love, learn, and grow in deepest intimacy, and "[i]t is not a miscarried knowledge that love is love" but the other will remain a complete human being separate from our own identity (Levinas, 67). We are bound to one another; we do not become one another. This lesson criticizes the well-intentioned shortcuts to empathy we still hear. How often does the well-intentioned privileged person claim, "I know how you feel" to a victim of deeper, systematic injustice? This should not stop us from seeking out and moving toward empathy; on the contrary, it should humble us to know that though we cannot reach perfect singularity and intimacy, we must love unconditionally. We are never done being responsible for one another; our identities are not intimate, but our connections are infinite.
But remember that our responsibility to each other is never finished—and society still has a long way to go to balance the masculine and the feminine. And is it possible to be this selfless without expecting any reciprocation in our individualistic society? We cannot escape being bound to each other, and we also cannot escape ourselves any more than we can escape our imagination, with all its potential both terrific and terrifying. Complete selflessness in favor of the other is also impossible in the human condition. After all, the second greatest commandment in the Bible is to "love thy neighbor as thyself," which would be impossible to uphold righteously if one didn't love oneself. In speaking up for ourselves in the face of injustice, we are not merely avenging ourselves but giving permission to others who share some aspect of our identity. Simone DeBeauvoir does this in her essay "The Second Sex," speaking up against still-active division of humanity and imbalance of power based on sex. She says:
"In actuality the relation of the two sexes is not quite like that of the two electrical poles, for man represents both the positive and the neutral, as is indicated by the common use of man to designate human beings in general; whereas woman represents only the negative, defined by limiting criteria, without reciprocity. In the midst of an abstract discussion it is vexing to hear a man say: 'You think thus and so because you are a woman' [...] It would be out of the question to reply: 'And you think the contrary because you are a man,' for it is understood that the fact of being a man is no peculiarity" (DeBeauvoir, 21).
The fact remains that the system of society still works against those who physically embody femininity, and being the mysterious, mystical other is not synonymous with being regarded as an equal human being. The contributions of half the population are impulsively dismissed, and we miss out on a deeper, richer humanity still. Many may argue that man and woman have separate but equal roles, and are simply meant to complement each other. But not so—man is both positive and neutral, for it's taken for granted a human is a man as much as it's taken for granted a white American is an American; woman has to introduce that she is a female version of the neutral, and in that language itself we already signal a sense of inferiority based upon sex. The assumptions of weakness and objectification are still tied to femininity and women. Many may argue that feminists are only hurting themselves because the gender roles are quite happy and peaceful. But as DeBeauvoir asserts, "There is no possibility of measuring the happiness of others, and it is always easy to describe as happy the situation in which one wishes to place them [. . .] I am interested in the fortunes of the individual as defined not in terms of happiness but in terms of liberty" (DeBeauvoir, 34-35). To deny the full range of human experience to women is to deny the humanity we share.
Sarah Ahmed makes this conversation in her essay "Feminist Killjoys," emphasizing that often the oppressed are blamed for the unhappiness they call out. The goal of feminists is not to keep the peace but to help the world break from a false sense of peace—to reach a more real joy at the price of the illusory happiness in prison. At the painful experience of realization, we take steps toward freedom. Life.
Empathy, once regarded as undesirable and effeminate, is our humanity's greatest strength now. In that sense, "There can even be joy in killing joy" (Ahmed, 87). We can no longer ignore the need to affirm the humanity of others and all participate in the interdependent reality in which we live. We must embrace it. We have the imagination. And within us all, the humanity.
Ellen Huang: "I am a curious, ambitious writer of fairy tales who loves both the fluffy and the macabre. I recently studied abroad in Italy, Germany and France where I hopped on a train the last second, played with kids like there's no age/language barrier, and thoroughly enjoyed the catacombs, respectively. I love my job as Managing Editor of Whale Road Review and creative writing teaching assistant. I have works published/forthcoming in Driftwood, The Gallery, Whispers, Quail Bell Magazine, The Folks, Between the Lines, Wax & Poetry Magazine, Hummingbird Review, and Perfume River Poetry Review."