This is the sixth—and last—of a series of posts.
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The Trauma’s Return
In “Sexism and Economic Growth,” the first chapter of his book Gender, first published in 1982 (Berkeley, CA: Heyday Books), Ivan Illich distinguishes between sex and gender, as he is using those terms:
I use gender [. . .] in a new way to designate a duality that in the past was too obvious even to be named, and is so far removed from us today that it is often confused with sex. By “sex” I mean the result of a polarization in those common characteristics that, starting with the late eighteenth century, are attributed to all human beings. Unlike vernacular gender [vernacular meaning “native,” “home-grown,” which is to say “local,” as Illich next indicates], which always reflects an association between a dual, local, material culture and the men and women who live under its rule, social sex is “catholic” [that is, as “social,” it is also “universal” (or at least universal-izable), which is what catholic originally means, rather than “local”], it polarizes the human labor force, libido, character of intelligence, and is the result of a diagnosis (in Greek, “discrimination”) of derivations from the abstract, genderless norm of “the human.” Sex can be discussed in the unambiguous language of science. Gender bespeaks a complementarity that is enigmatic and asymmetrical. Only metaphor can reach it.
“Only metaphor can reach it.” The “it” in question is nothing other than the non-polar, non-polarizing, non-competitive, asymmetrically complementary duality, as Illich calls it in that passage and throughout the book, of gender itself. “It” is the very duality revealed in the metaphors of such myths as that of Medusa. It is also that same “it” that is revealed in the metaphors of the story of Medusa’s head as Freud retells that story, wherein the petrifying fear that genitally stiffens the would-be-omnipotent man-child who catches sight of the Mother’s genitals is nothing but the reactive, apotropaic attempt to thwart such a vision of duality, a vision which threatens to de-throne the boy.
That male, the one who is so threatened by the prospect of a split, a tear, a cleaving or riving beyond mending, because it draws borders that cannot be crossed around the power of his sort of childish, magical male, is the very male who, by Illich’s reading, tries to set himself us as definitive of the human being as such, then orders everything to fit his own little and belittling size. He does that by reducing everything down to a one single size small enough for him, small as he is, to control.
Genitally equipped as he is, with all his precious hanging parts, that male lacks the genuine power defined by capacity as such, the empty openness to receive: the capacity of the Womb itself, the Mother, “Mother Nature.” He is so unmanned by the mere glimpse of such awful, dreadful, original, all-originating, gaping capacity that the boy stiffens in terror before what he glimpses.
He certainly cannot have that!
So he reduces everything down to his own small dimensions, a one-size-fits-all mode and model of what it is to be a human being, which he then does all he can to impose on everyone everywhere. Only that apotropaic reaction will profit the so frightened, frozen-stiff male-child of the Medusa myth, in Freud’s retelling of it.
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The fundamental addition Illich's thought allows us to make to Freud’s retelling of Medusa’s myth consists of adding a further tale of how such petty profit emerges and accumulates. To end this post and the entire series to which it belongs, I will briefly recount that further tale below.
My recounting begins by pointing out that the only way profit itself can come to the gender-frightened boy-child of Freud’s version of the Medusa myth, is in a reduced, be-littled size to match that scared-stiff boy-child’s own. The profit itself must come small-sized enough to fit that Little Man who so desperately seeks it.
Well, the only profits so petty that it can profit such a child-man is, to put it bluntly, purely “economic” profit, in the modern sense of that term. That is, the right-sized profit must come to the boy in the form of money, as Marx, for one, knew and said.
Accordingly, the child-man manufactures and spreads scarcity, to use Illlich's exactly appropriate term. That scarcity, in turn, manufactures such felt-needs as only the child-man’s own petty products can fill. By the purchase of such petty substitutes for “goods,” consumers put money in the man-boy’s coffers. The more such profit he can plunder, the more secure he feels.
Thus, as Illich writes on the very last page of Gender (page 179): "Scarcity is historical, as historical as gender or sex. The era of scarcity could come to be only on the assumption that 'man' is individual, possessive, and, in the matter of material survival, genderless—a rapacious neutrum oeconomicum."
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Fortunately, however, for us all (even that frightened little boy), Medusa is persistent. What it more, her natural capacity is infinite, which means “without limits or borders,” as is her generativity. She is capacious enough in her power to make use even of the desolation spread everywhere by the very fear of her.
Medusa, which is to say gender in the form of the Mother, makes use of that desolation by letting the system that produces it, the very system set up by the boy-man’s apotropaic reaction against her, escalate itself to the point where it finally breaks-down, as such self-escalating systems inevitably do. It is at that very point of ultimate break-down that, at last, the door opens to permit Medusa’s break-though.
When that happens, but only then, will Medusa—the trauma of the asymmetric sundering that is gender—return.
She will return not with a vengeance, but with a kiss.
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Of course, I am speaking in metaphors.
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NOTE: The ideas behind this entire six-post series on “The Kiss of Medusa and Trauma’s Return” first came to me a few years ago when I was serving as faculty advisor for Dr. Sharon Adams’ fine dissertation, Seeking the Face Behind the Face: Rosenzweig and Nietzsche Opening to the Feminine Divine, for which she received a doctoral degree in the Joint University of Denver-Iliff School of Theology Ph.D. Program in Religious and Theological Studies. Her dissertation may be accessed at:
It was also because of advising Sharon on that project that my interest was kindled in Ivan Illich’s book Gender, which is so rich in material deserving of serious attention that I will probably devote a future series of posts to discussing it further. Above, I only touch on its richness.