Saturday, September 26, 2020

Triliteral Commission

If there was an intersection between students of linguistics and conspiracy theorists, one of the things they could fantasize about would be a Triliteral Commission of people trying to dominate the world by spreading the use of three-letter short names for famous people like GBS, BHL, JFK and LBJ, and so on, which would account for Monsignor Ross Douthat, Apostolic Nuncio to 42nd Street, who's out today ("The Meaning of Amy Coney Barrett") rejoicing in advent of justice-to-be Amy Coney Barrett not as human being but as cultural symbol replacing the Notorious RBG—

if elevated to the Supreme Court, she will probably enjoy more celebrity than the typical justice. She’ll be more of an R.B.G.-style cultural symbol — as A.C.B., Glorious or Notorious — with her own distinctive, if considerably smaller fan base, plus a certain type of critic who regards her fecundity as threatening or irresponsible, her claim to any kind of feminism a cheat. (Obviously if she plays a role in changing the court’s abortion jurisprudence, the latter antagonism will be sharpened.)

And what she's going to be a symbol of is "conservative feminism":

Amy Coney Barrett, President Trump’s choice to take [Ginsburg's] seat, is a signifier of a different sort. In her combination of elite accomplishment with a faith and a family life that’s unusual among her high-achieving peers, what she condenses isn’t the recent history of feminism but a question that its success has created: Namely, can there be a conservative feminism that’s distinctive, coherent and influential, at least beyond quirky religious subcultures like the faculty at the University of Notre Dame?

And then he devotes the rest of the column to elaborating his personal vision of what this "conservative feminism" of which the Glorious ACB will be the symbolic embodiment is going to be like, with tons of links and name-dropping, and an almost Trotskyite nicety of distinction between the various more or less mutually hostile isms with which it can be compared and contrasted: not like the anti-feminisms of Joan Didion ("arch" and vintage 1972) or Phyllis Schlafly ("mass-movement"), adaptive rather than oppositional in the sense of accepting all the gains women have attained through the women's movement but hoping to recover what has, in Ross's opinion, been lost, sex unhad and babies unborn, a sense of alienation for which the solution is

not to march deeper into Marx or Judith Butler but to integrate feminist insights with ideas from the old regime about the centrality of marriage, children and religious commitment to the good life.

One thing it doesn't have is any references to the actual opinions of justice-to-be Amy Coney Bryant, possibly because she hasn't written or said anything publicly on the subject—I don't know whether she has or not, but I'm pretty sure Ross doesn't either, and doesn't in fact care. What he's interested in is the fact that she's a distinguished enough jurist that Leonard Leo is confident of getting her on the Supreme Court, even as she also has seven kids and an attachment to a reactionary religious community. She is a literal embodiment of Ross's views, the subject that "conservative feminism" will describe. What she thinks isn't of any importance; her essence is more important than her existence. 

Which brings me to Wikipedia's "List of Conservative Feminisms", which bears a weird resemblance to Douthat's column, in that it compares and contrasts some 20 opposed isms, but only articulates one of them with any fullness, and one that happens to have been produced by a man, another distinguished conservative jurist, Richard Posner:

  • Richard A. Posner "suggest[s]" "'conservative feminism' .... is ... the idea that women are entitled to political, legal, social, and economic equality to men, in the framework of a lightly regulated market economy."[13] Posner tentatively argues for taxing housewives' at-home unpaid work to reduce a barrier to paid outside work[14] (argued by D. Kelly Weisberg to be rooted in a Marxist feminist argument for waged housework)[15] and argues for sex being a factor in setting wages and benefits in accordance with productivity, health costs with pregnancy, on-the-job safety, and longevity for pensions.[16] Posner is against comparable worth among private employers,[17] against no-fault divorce,[18] in favour of surrogate motherhood by binding contract,[19] against rape even in the form of nonviolent sex,[20] and for a possibility that pornography may either incite rape or substitute for it.[21] Posner does not argue for or against an abortion right, arguing instead for a possibility but not a certainty that the fetus is "a member of society"[22] because libertarianism and economics do not say one way or the other.[23][a][b][c][d] Posner argues that the differences between the genders on average include women's lesser aggressiveness and greater child-centeredness[24] and has "no quarrel" with law being empathetic to "all marginal groups".[25]

Which is certainly a hoot and far more entertaining, with its mix of crusty ingenuity and thorny eccentricity, than anything Douthat might come up with, but what they have in common seems like a belief that if feminism is important at all, it's too important to be left to the ladies.

By the same token Douthat's foray into semiotics, his use of technical terms like "signifier", is a sign of the attitude that women's role in feminism should be mainly symbolic, while men can take care of the content. It's certainly not an index of his familiarity with semiotics, or he wouldn't use nonsensical concepts like "the meaning of Amy Coney Barrett" (semiotics joke; "What is the meaning of life?" "The quality or condition of being alive, what else do you need to know?"—the word "life" has an ascertainable meaning; the phenomenon life isn't a sign, but a thing-in-itself, and asking it to have a meaning is just a category error).

And his appeal to the Glorious ACB looks like an example of what Claude Lévy-Strauss referred to as the "floating signifier", an empty sign on the hunt for a referent like a virus looking for a host cell to cannibalize, as a vehicle for him to dramatize his own views, as if anybody could possibly care.

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