A women’s cultural theory?

Having grown up academically in a discipline that has been heavily influenced by the model of the man of reason, I’ve wondered what theorizing would look like if women had been more in charge.  What changes would there be if theorizing reflected not the cliches of a detached, man-in-his-study life but rather the experiences of the very attached, maternal life? 

Such questions run the risks of reckless generalizing and objectionable essentializing.   Still, we can recognize an answer, at least when we see a theory that emphasizes social connectedness and mother-child interactions.  And Natalie Angier in the NY Times has a report on one.  Let me emphasize first that what is interesting at least to me is the filling out of the space of possible theories.   Whether this entry, which has gotten quite a bit of approving scholarly reaction, is going to continue to survive all critical scruntiny is beside the point for the moment. 

Ellen Dissanayake, Angier tells us, has a theory about the evolution of art; that is, a theory about why the (nearly?) universal characteristic of producing art appears to have been part of human evolution. What is its survival value?  Here are two theses that may catch one’s eye:

Through singing, dancing, painting, telling fables of neurotic mobsters who visit psychiatrists, and otherwise engaging in what Ms. Dissanayake calls “artifying,” people can be quickly and ebulliently drawn together, and even strangers persuaded to treat one another as kin. Through the harmonic magic of art, the relative weakness of the individual can be traded up for the strength of the hive, cohered into a social unit ready to take on the world.


Perhaps the most radical element of Ms. Dissanayake’s evolutionary framework is her idea about how art got its start. She suggests that many of the basic phonemes of art, the stylistic conventions and tonal patterns, the mental clay, staples and pauses with which even the loftiest creative works are constructed, can be traced back to the most primal of collusions — the intimate interplay between mother and child. … “And aesthetic operations are what artists do. Knowingly or not, when you are choreographing a dance or composing a piece of music, you are formalizing, exaggerating, repeating, manipulating expectation and dynamically varying your theme.” You are using the tools that mothers everywhere have used for hundreds of thousands of generations.

So enjoy the article! Or read Ms. Dissanayake’s recent Art and Intimacy: How the Arts Began.