When I used to write at Beams and Struts we often spoke of post-postmodern (or integral) thought. While the term post-postmodernism is quite jargony, the idea behind it is easy to grasp. Post-postmodern is an attempt to create a new cultural formation which incorporates the best of the postmodern world and yet adds its own distinctive elements: hence post-postmodern.
One of, if not the, central insights of postmodernity is that the world is pluralistic (pluralistic not inherently relativistic). It’s a world of different languages, different cultures, different gender identities, different ethnicities, different sexual orientations. Every person is a blend of these plural, diverse expressions. One’s social location or context heavily influences one’s worldview.
In its best moments, there’s a healthy appreciation of plurality in postmodernism.* No one group or identity gets to be made the norm to which all the others are then judged. Men aren’t the norm for being human and women aren’t simply deficient men (as say in Aristotle). European or European-descended peoples aren’t the norm of civilized humanity to which all other peoples are regarded as primitive or backward. Heterosexuals aren’t the norm for healthy sexual orientation to which everyone else is compared (nor is monogamy the norm for intimate, sexual relationship). Homo sapien sapiens aren’t the norm of earthly creatures to which all animals (or sentient life itself) are judged.
And vice versa for all of the above.
There is no center around which everything or everyone else orbits. That’s what I mean by postmodernism.
Post-postmodernism then builds up on that central insight. It adds a simple proposition: that there is a way to begin to weave and bind and join these pluralities. It does so not by trying to reduce the plurality back to some earlier form of imposed and artificial uniformity (e.g. colonialism) but in a respectful way. A way that recognizes that we are inherently always and already part of each other’s existences, though not in co-dependent nor in a forcefully imposed manner.
Consequently post-postmodern can be also be called integrated pluralism. It’s a movement towards integrating the multiplicities of existence.
If I turned it into a simple formula it would be: first postmodernism then post-postmodernism. First plurality, then integrating the plurality.**
This series is my very rough attempt at articulating some elements of a post-postmodern way of thinking and being specifically in relation to the question of men in Western societies. Part I laid out a vision of integrating male voices within the postmodern pluralist world. Part II discussed a man’s discourse built upon pain and wildness. And in Part III a deeper look at these issues are explored in the world of spiritual practice.
So first we need to take into account some postmodern insights. We want to make sure we don’t end up reinforcing views that are less than postmodern, i.e. less than pluralistic (pre-postmodern rather than post-postmodern to use the jargon). We need a healthy postmodern, pluralistic base upon which to potentially weave integrating or integrative thoughts.
This talk by Gabrielle Burton is a very good example of a healthy pluralistic view around sex, gender, and sexuality.
In it she describes three related but distinct spectra:
Gender identity is a spectrum (or a continuum of fluid expression)
Biological sex as a spectrum
Sexual orientation as a spectrum.
Under biological sex there’s male, female, and intersex. Under sexual orientation we have (mainly) heterosexual, (mainly) homosexual, bisexual, polysexual, asexual. Under gender identity we have a huge range of diversity.
Burton’s point is that none of those are binaries. Not even biological sex. The tendency of our minds is so naturally prone to creating simplistic binaries: male versus female, straight versus gay, masculine versus feminine. (We’re going to explore that last one–masculine/feminine–as it shows up in spiritual literature.)
Further her insight is that when you consider all three of these spectra as distinct from one another you can see a multiplicity of diverse combinations. e.g. A predominantly or even exclusively heterosexual man who likes periodically to dress in women’s clothing (gender expression), whose biologically male. That’s different from someone born biologically male who transitions to being biologically female (transgendered versus cross-dresser). Or a bisexual woman with fluid gender expression and identity. Or an individual with either male or female biology who does not identify according to a classic gender profile whose most often sexually attracted to women.
The various permutations are basically endless. We need to keep this crucial point in mind because it’s all too easy to reduce plurality back to simple binaries.
Which brings us back to this idea of a stallion energy, a wildness in men, discussed in Part III.
In spiritual communities this stallion energy is often labeled the masculine (as in The Divine Masculine). This energy is in then contrasted to the feminine (The Divine Feminine).
In the spiritual literature these masculine/feminine qualities are typically described as sexual essences–essences here being different from biological sex, gender expression, or sexual orientation. (See for example the writings of David Deida.)
The hypothesis of a sexual essence is that all of us–of all sexual orientations, gender expressions, and biological sexes–have both masculine and feminine essences (or energies) within us. For most people they have a dominant (say masculine) and therefore will be attracted typically to someone who has an opposite dominant essence (in that case, feminine).
This school of thought expends a great deal of ink and energy arguing that feminine does not mean women and masculine does not mean men. Masculine and Feminine are energies or essences, not (supposedly) indications of biological sex or gender.
I’ve written elsewhere at great length about why I think this masculine/feminine framework is not an entirely helpful one to really understand and work with this energy. I’m not going to repeat that entire argument here but the basic points are the following:
1. Using inherently gendered terms to describe something defined as non-gendered inevitably brings up gender. Why use specifically gender-based terms to describe something defined as non-gendered?
2. By calling these essences feminine and masculine, it often brings up people’s views on biological sex since it’s very common to conflate biological sex and gender. Remember from the talk above, biological sex and gender expression are different spectra. Biologically an individual could be male (that is have a XY chromosomal structure) though that male’s individual’s gender expression as a man could exist in a multitude of different forms.
Very often then calling a sexual essence masculine I believe indicates the following in the minds of many, if not, most of its hearers:
- a biological male
- with traditional or stereotypical “guy”, “masculine” gender expression and identity
- most likely, a heterosexual male.
- (very possibly) assumed to be white.
All that from the word masculine. Technically according to the spiritual literature none of those four markers is indicated by the term masculine: it’s not supposedly about being a male, it’s not solely confined to heterosexual or conventional male gender expression or only to be true for white men.
Simply put, the reason these writings have to spend so much time arguing that feminine doesn’t mean women and masculine doesn’t mean men is that (in my opinion) most everyone thinks feminine equals women and masculine equals men.
For the record, I’m all for having intelligent conversations about gender but when a person says there’s a masculine and a feminine energy and then say that those terms aren’t referring to gender but to energies then gender issues will be experienced and (mis)interpreted as ahistorical, archetypal energies. For example the masculine is said to be directive, while the feminine is receptive. But this leaves open a huge possibility to revive a very traditionalist cultural and social construction of gender where men are in charge and women are subservient.
3. Once mistake #2 is made (where masculine and feminine are confused with biological sex, gender, or both) it denies men and women capacities inherent to their beings by arguing that they must incorporate the capacities of the other side of the polarity. So for a man (ahem, excuse me the masculine) to be nurturing, compassionate, and embracing he has to become like a woman (er embrace the feminine). Compassion, nurturance, and embrace are said to be feminine characteristics. Just as how a woman has to become like a man in order to be a leader, a strong personality and so on. Since strong, forceful, agentic expression are said to be masculine–which again is supposed to be ahistorical sexual essence but in practice is a codeword for our very contingent human social and gendered expressions.***
4. By describing this energy as a sexual essence it has a tendency in our marketplace of spiritual practice to reduce Eros to sex and sexuality rather than seeing sexuality and sexual relationship as one very important expression of Eros but not the entirely or Eros altogether either. The whole rise of so-called Neo-Tantra in the West often falls into precisely this failure.
5. It sets up our experience and understanding of these energies as inherently polar. In a polarity one begins dominant in one side or another (say by nature more masculine than feminine). Then the only option in a polarity is to switch to the other pole (in this case embracing the feminine). And then one must come to some integrated space, a union of the two energies. But as we say above, gender, biological sex, and sexual orientation aren’t polarities–they’re each a continuum, a range of possible, fluid expression. What if what people describe as the masculine and feminine sexual/spiritual essences is actually pointing to something real but placing it within the framework of a polarity reduces the subtlety of possible experience and insight? (I’m going to argue that point in a second).
Given 1-5, to put it bluntly, there’s a lot of confusion and ignorance in this world. The feminine-masculine discourse of spiritual teaching doesn’t met the standards of critical postmodern inquiry. It doesn’t grasp the nuanced relationship between biological sex, gender, and sexual orientation. It doesn’t recognize how each of those exist along a spectrum. It’s very prone, in my estimation to believe itself to be using sexuality and sex as a metaphor for living a more Erotic life altogether, when in practice it’s often reducing Eros to sex, thereby potentially re-objectifying human beings (usually with an implicit or explicit heteronormative bias).
Now when I wrote my original piece I was criticized for denying the validity of the energies that people point to when they describe the masculine and the feminine. I explicitly stated in the piece that I didn’t feel that way. I did then and still now in fact believe they point to something crucial and meaningful but that didn’t seem to get through to a significant number of readers. It’s true however that I didn’t elaborate greatly on how I experience and understand those energies. I was more focused there on critiquing the frameworks and interpretations around the issue.
I stand by those critiques (I’ve repeated him here after all). I still hold to my argument that we need to start first with a postmodern pluralistic framework and from there see if there is something left of value in this spiritual world–something these sexual essence writings are correctly intuiting and pointing to even though they are framing it in inadequate ways. Something that could perhaps catapult us into some kind of post-postmodernity.
I do believe those teachings are onto something but that important something is currently all tied up in very regressive, uncritical views about biological sex, gender expression, and sexual orientation.
What if these energies are real? But what if how we relate to them can change our experience of them? What if there are more or less adequate frames of reference with which to interpret and experience these energies? And what if a binary/polarity structure is a limiting way of experiencing them?
Consider Carl Jung whose work lays behind much of the masculine/feminine discourse in New Age and contemporary spiritual circles. Jung described the animus (masculine) and anima (feminine). He is often criticized (rightly) for overlaying his understanding of animus (masculine) and anima (feminine) with Victorian social and gender construction, claiming something to be universal which was (at least in part) highly contingent. With the postmodern came a deconstruction of Jung’s unconscious social and gender lens. As a result however animus and anima as energies have largely been denied.
So the postmodern turn loses animus and anima while the New Age and spiritual teachings basically keep the framework as is and don’t take seriously enough the postmodern critique. Hence the New Age (and frankly much of integral thought) is in my estimation quite regressive on this front.
These are difficult topics. They’re complex, multifaceted. It’s taken three lengthy posts just to get to the point to be able to talk about these issues. I get the impulse to just have a simple discussion with simple terms. I sympathize with it, but I don’t think in the end it’s very helpful.
In Part IV I’ll explore my sense of how we might connect to our a multiplicity of energies referred to in the spiritual traditions under the garb of diverse biological sex and gender identities. How we might be able to retrieve some of these energies and merge them with a more critical interpretive lens.
* There are also plenty of dark sides and limitations to postmodernism. I’m not particularly focused on those in this piece but they do exist and I’ve written about them elsewhere. Indicating a desire for a post-postmodern world is already a sign of (partial) critique of postmodernism.
** In actual practice of course it’s not so formulaic.
*** I’m not denying (quasi)universal distinctions based on biological sex. I get accused of this frequently, though I don’t actually think that way. When we separate gender from biological sex and realize biological sex is itself a continuum then yes there could very well be in my mind intrinsic differences to the (multiple) biological sexes. That doesn’t change my view that having unconscious discussions about biological sex and gender under the guise of a non-gendered, non-sexed discussion of sexual essences at best doesn’t work, at worst can be very destructive.