The Womb of the Social: Nurturing the Birth of ‘Mothering’ Contractions

Gustavo Guiterrez writes that “Human history has been written by a white hand, a male hand, from the dominating social class” (1976, 6). Guiterrez goes on to say explain that “Attempts have been made to wipe from their minds the memories of their struggles” but, “This is to deprive them of a source of energy, of an historical will to rebellion” (1976, 6). Likewise, Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza shows that “Historians, philosophers, and anthropologists have emphasized that current scholarly theory and research are deficient because they neglect women’s lives and contributions and construe humanity and human history as male” (1984, xvi). These sentiments exhibit the imperative behind the work of Virginia Held and why the perspective she offers is so elucidating and so integrally vital, especially in regards to political and social thought and theory.

Indeed, Held, herself, makes these precise distinctions in her assessment of societal organization and corresponding social contracts stating that
Actual societies are the results of war, exploitation, racism, far more than of social contracts. Economic and political realities are the outcomes of economic strength triumphing over economic weakness more than of a free market. And rather than a free market of ideas, we have a culture in which the loudspeakers that are the mass media drown out the soft voices of free expression (2011, 782).

In this way, Held is both critical and skeptical of social contract theory’s validity and premises, explicitly questioning its framing narratives. If we look back to our Paleolithic ancestry we will find that our ‘Original Position’ in regards to social formation and interaction is perhaps nothing resembling the civilization of independent contractors supposed necessary by social contract theorists. The necessitation of the social contract proposed by such contract theorists as Rawls, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, etc,.., seems to be rather ahistorical, in that,they are something of a Westernized reflection of post-agricultural revolution societies posited upon pre-Neolithic civilizations, cultures, and contexts. Held concludes that “To see contractual relations between self-interested or mutually disinterested individuals as constituting a paradigm of human relations is to take a certain historically specific conception of ‘economic man’ as representative of humanity” (2011, 782). From an evolutionary perspective such a posturing would lead to a diminishment rather than an advancement of a species’ evolutionary fitness, that is, it’s ability to succeed in passing it’s genes on to the next generation. What is displayed in the assessments of many social contract theorists is perhaps a fetishization of the predominating structures and institutions as an idealization (perhaps even an idol-ization) set as a welcomed alternative to a fallaciously conceived ‘state of nature’, which is far more representative of the bias implicit within the ‘contractual’ framework rather than anything historically or anthropologically sound.

Instead, what we will see in humanity’s early stages are loose confederations of close-knit, kin-based hunter/gatherer societies that are familial in orientation. Humanity, then, is primarily relational rather than contractual. This seems to give added precedence to Held’s notion of ‘mothering’. Contracts create ‘obligations’, they do not create bonds, kinship, or relationships. Within the social contract individuals are incentivized or coerced to do only their duty, that is, to do only what is required of them, pursuing self-interest above all else with the exclusion of only that which causes harm to another. In this regard, contracts thrive upon ‘volunteerism’, ‘noninterference’ and ‘inaction’. Where as, Held’s focus upon the mother/child relationship centers upon “relationships that are nonvoluntary” and responsibilities that are “noncontractual…where the primary motive is concern for another’s welfare” (Calhoun 2011, 780). Even Rawls,himself, recognizes that “No society can…be a scheme of cooperation which men enter voluntarily in a literal sense; each person finds himself placed at birth in some particular position in some particular society, and the nature of this position materially affects his life prospects” (2011, 695). Kant, too, falls short here. Kant declares the universal imperative to treat others as ends in themselves yet, even his categorical imperative is implicitly self-centered, still treating others as means to an end, in that, one only treats others a certain way as a means to achieving their own preferred treatment. In other words, one’s self remains the ultimate end. Maternality or ‘Mothering’, instead, is responsive to needs, emphasizing care, “fostering transformative growth,” leading to “trust, cooperation, loyalty, and moral concern” (Calhoun 2011, 780). Held seems to make clear that the flourishing (blooming, blossoming, growth, development) of the individual and the flourishing of the community/society will require a ‘nurturing’ cultivation. Nothing short of a mother’s love will do.
Calhoun, Cheshire. “Virginia Held: Introduction.” In Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts, 2nd ed, edited by Steven M. Cahn, 778-781. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Gutierrez, Gustavo. “Where Hunger is, God is Not.” The Witness . April 1976.
Held, Virginia. “From Non-contractual Society: A Feminist View.” In Political Philosophy: The Essential Texts 2nd ed, edited by Steve M. Cahn, 782-795. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
Fiorenza, Elisabeth Schussler. In Memory of Her: A Feminist Theological Reconstruction of Christian Origins. New York: Crossroad Publishing co., 1984.

One response to “The Womb of the Social: Nurturing the Birth of ‘Mothering’ Contractions

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