Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Change Discourse: Public and Private Worlds

Our lives are lived in the public domain. No doubt, we all have our secrets, but even those are framed using  the belief systems available to us through public discourse.

Why does this matter? How does it affect experience?

Experience is interpreted through a framework of beliefs and values, and the conceptual division between public and private has political ramifications.

The political world is the world of public discourse - its lexicon of beliefs and values is imparted to each new generation. The normal channels through which we categorize, label, judge, evaluate, perceive, recognize, and contemplate are forged in an ongoing dialogue with the world, the broad shape of which we inherited from our communities (and any opportunities for cognitive mobility our intelligence might voluntarily take advantage of.) Much of it is viable and veridical. Much is also skewed to the ruling interests.

The lexicon changes but slowly, not through individual originality, though it may open windows to original expression at certain times in history (i.e., times where the technology is changing.)  Charismatic individuals can recast the narrative in new ways for which the collective discourse has readied and prepared us (even so, these people are frequently condemned).

Who each of us is in the public world is very much a part of our identities as private people. If you are a woman, for instance, your personal and social identity is still largely defined by the roles you play in the lives of men.  In turn, the roles of men and women evolve with the types of division of labour required to support the economy given a level of technology. 

Women's lives throughout history were until very recently restricted to the private sphere. While it is said that the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world, in fact, to express any of her thoughts, women must conceive and articulate their thoughts in terms that are comprehended in a public world that has been almost entirely defined by men who had economic power.  Women's personal identities were defined through the interests and needs of the men: Mother, lover, madonna, whore... Woman means wooed by man; i.e., wife of man.  Consider also the distinction in language between matter and spirit, and the patriarchal nature of religion, and also the symbols for masculine (mind) and feminine (body). Matter/Mater... More on this later.

The default gender is the masculine. Political power (political majority) is not measured in terms of how many women there are in relation to men, or even how many women there are in boardrooms in relation to men, but that we have to relate woman's success to that of the norm, the default gender, male.

Every thought we have can be articulated, but then it has already been forged in the public discourse. Even if we keep to ourselves, our selves are more publicly determined than self-determined because our opportunities to articulate our identities to ourselves are framed and validated in the public sphere. If there's too much of a discrepancy between how we view ourselves and our public reception, we lack legitimacy and credibility (the fault lies with us) and we feel alienated, disenfranchised, marginalized, even crazy. (Enter Betty Friedan... but what was that? A change in economic roles due to new technology, which is what created the open window.)

So what is the "private sphere"? Is it the sphere dominated by women? No, it's the sphere demarcated, defined and dominated by the historical economy. The economics of the home is publicly defined, and that definition informs our expectations of the roles of women and types of discussion men will engage in about their private lives. The default reality is the public world.

Due to changes in how we produce and distribute goods, larger numbers of women have access to the public domain than ever before. But being a woman doesn't make one's talk less patriarchal. If the discourse is becoming less patriarchal, it is because social organization around the modes of production requires it, or it is because we are becoming more aware of the affect of our institutions during times of change, and more aware of the effect of the terms of discourse. We no longer see our social institutions as natural arrangements, but as historical developments and therefore we can question them.

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