Sunday, May 13, 2018

Sherry Ortner / Is Female to Male as Nature to Culture? - Summary, Review and Criticism

Sherry Ortner’s “Is Female to Male as Nature to Culture?” 1972 article stirred up feminist and anthropological discourse of the time by elucidating the observation stated plainly by its title. In “Is Female to Male as Nature to Culture?” Ortner argues that empirical findings show that all human cultures distinguish male from female, while favoring the former. The base for this distinction lies in the universal search for that which distinguished mankind from all other animals, “the superiority of man over beast (Ecclesiastes, 3, 19). This search leads us to separate the body (found with all animals and often very similar to that of humans in terms of bodily functions) and mind (which is perceived as unique to humans). This distinction between body and mind is a base for a binary structure which seperates nature and culture, earthly and spiritual, pure and profane (see also Mary Douglas / Purity and Danger and Julia Kristeva’s “Powers of Horror”) and so forth. The woman was driven to the nature side of this binary equation while the man was assigned to culture. The woman’s ability to bear and nourish children placed her closer to nature (see Simone de Beauvoir / The Second Sex).

 

According to Ortner, because the female was a human in the full sense, it was possible to turn her into a complete “other” - like me but not me. The otherness of the woman was hence institutionalized in various social formations such as family, politics and economy. This was a grand scale project aimed at maintaining Man’s sense of a special place within existence. This project did not stop with men and women and also moved on to races, religions and classes as part of the attempt to portray the “correct” and worthy human.

 

Ortner’s article drew wide scale attention, commentary and controversy and turned into one of the most quoted texts in Feminism. Criticism came in the form of arguments holding that Ortner is working through Western Judeo-Christian concepts which cannot be universalized. Ortner’s “Is Female to Male as Nature to Culture?” was also criticized for undermining the Feminist agenda by essentializing the difference between men and women and weaving it into the fabrics of human culture and even ontology.  




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