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essay: Overdetermination and a Responsibility to Act

Posted by miranda on December 3, 2001 at 18:18:13:

Overdetermination and a Responsibility to Act

Overdetermination is the concept that everything affects everything. I would like to analyze how this theory affects all of us in our everyday lives. Specifically, I would like to address the overdetermination of gender and why we should all act responsibly to change the current division of the sexes. There are many things that we may disagree with in the world, but as the theory of overdetermination shows, we will inevitably affect these things in some way. If we choose to participate in the things we disagree with, even if only on a small scale, we are furthering the existence of these things. If you believe this theory, if you see that every choice you make and every little thing you do affects something larger, that everything in existence is caused by everyone involved in it, then you will see that you have a responsibility to make all decisions with the weight of the world on your shoulders.
In Marxist theory, overdeterminism means accepting that one can never know all the causes of anything. As there are an infinite number of causes of any one event, focusing on only one or a few causes leads to an impartial analysis. We can never fully understand the world or anything in it, because we can never know all causes behind any one circumstance. A partial analysis is only the creation of a theoryóusing some objects, qualifications, and notions of causality to explain.
In class, we have been talking about the capitalist system and itís flaws. Itís hard to stomach the fact that some child in Indonesia makes my GAP shirt, that the beef in the dining hall is the leading cause of the loss of tropical rainforests, and that the corrupted market may not be ďfreeĒ at all. But itís easy to slough off the blame: How can I know where my clothes come from? Probably all the clothes in the mall are made in some developing country. Am I just supposed to wear a potato sack? And I know that the meat industry does lots of bad things, but why should I stop eating meat? One less person consuming it wonít make a difference. And our market and our government arenít completely perfect, but we have about the closest thing to freedom in the world! So, one can compromise oneself and oneís social conscience. One single person isnít causing all the problems in the world, so why should one alone feel responsible for them? If one is benefiting from the capitalist system, then it doesnít seem so bad. Why should one fight it on someone elseís behalf, just because they arenít as lucky or donít work as hard as others? Well, if you have no regard for other human life, then donít. But if you do see problems in the world, any participation in them is furthering their survival.
Letís leave capitalism for a bit and see if overdetermination plays a role some other way in our lives. The concept of race is worth examining. It is now scientific knowledge that there is only a human race and that all racial subcategories are merely fictional tools used to divide populations. These divisions are made either by groupings of genetic origin or phenotype. Yes, some people of the same genetic origin or phenotype may share a culture or religion. But because two people may share one genetic make-up or one look does not necessarily mean they have anything in common. If you believe in race, that people can be divided into groups based on their physical characteristics, and that these groups of people somehow share a set of inherent qualities, you are a racist. Even if one agrees that the existence of race is merely a culturally inflicted idea and that these categories are intangible, the concept of race is perpetuated every time one labels another as black or white, makes an assumption based on racial stereotypes, or even checks the appropriate race box on the oneís tax form.
Gender can be addressed in the same context. There are two established sexes in our society, male and female. (In reality and relation to X and Y chromosomes, there are 5 or more.) There are also two established roles or genders for all people to fit into, masculine man and feminine woman. Upon examining any given population, it would be very difficult to pinpoint all the characteristics that define these two groups, mainly because the members of one group share about as much as any group of ďblackĒ people. Maybe physical characteristics like breasts and long hair represent women. Yet, obviously not all women have long hair these days and what about a woman who had her breasts removed because of cancer? Is she no longer a woman? Then maybe there are character features that define these two groups, like that men are aggressive and dominant, while women are loving, sensitive to emotions, and more inclined too child-rearing. But Iím sure we all know cool-headed, sensitive guys, and I certainly have some girlfriends I wouldnít trust with a baby for anything. Are women naturally the best caregivers because they give birth? That wouldnít be allowing men a fair chance. These roles of masculinity and femininity are entirely constructed by society. They do not naturally occur. Expected body images, career paths, and even personal goals enforce these roles. Women and men are expected to maintain separate, opposite appearances and roles in society. And why?
Letís just examine the roles we play. Appearance: the ideal man has big muscles so he can protect his skinny, weaker opposite. Women wear make-up to enhance their naturally beauty, and men donít have to do anything to enhance their natural faces. Is it because men in their natural state are fine, but women are somehow defective? Why must women remove all traces of hair from their body and faces while men can once again remain natural? Do women really enjoy spending weeks of their livesí time removing hair from their bodies, or do they feel it is necessary because it is expected, because otherwise they would be ostracized? Maybe it is only expected because men internally hold some pedophilic fantasy of a hairless and delicate girl that they can easily control. The point is, whether you believe we still live in a patriarchal society or not, you must question the reasons that genders are so strongly preserved. It makes sense that men may view women differently and somehow lesser than themselves if we women buy into the stereotypes. When we do everything we can to maintain our status as the high-maintenance, body- instead of brain-oriented, Cosmo reading, desperate for a man, make-up and pump wearing princesses waiting in our towers for our prince charmings, how can we blame them for seeing us as such?
The point is not, however, that men are maliciously oppressing women (not most of them at least) or that we must all swear off lip-gloss and trashy magazines for eternity. The point is that gender is just another absurd way of putting people into little boxes to make society run smoothly, and once again, smoothly on someone elseís terms (someone that has the power to install these standards.) If you see anything at all wrong with the current division of gender, you should fight it every way you can. There was a girl in a neighboring community who was forced by threat of retention to wear a dress instead of pants to her graduation. My father tells me I should lay off the peanut butter and make friends with the Stairmaster. Girls at our own liberal Mt. Holyoke are ridiculed for having underarm hair. Do these things bother anyone else? Just because there are standards for women, for their clothes, hair length, weight, attitudes, aptitudes, sexuality, and depth doesnít mean that these are the right standards. Yet every time you unquestionably put on a dress, complain about your weight, or shave your armpits, you are personally reinforcing the system that says those are the right things to do. And by participating, you are making it harder for the rebels. Itís like agreeing that there are no inherent differences between ďracesĒ, and then laughing at racist jokes. As long as you participate in the misunderstandings, you are responsible for them. The Marxist theory of overdetermination should shed light not only on our economic system and government, but on all aspects of our lives. We should perform no action without first questioning it, because every decision we make is an enactment of some dogma.




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