Phallogocentrism; the Politics of Binaries and Strategic Writing in Female/Male Ethnography

Phallogocentrism; the Politics of Binaries and Strategic Writing in Female/Male Ethnography
By James Addicott (2012): jamesaddi@hotmail.comtwofaces

“Phallogocentrism” is defined by Jacques Derrida as: ‘the system of metaphysical oppositions’ (1978: 20) predominant in Western philosophy that has until recently been written by men. Donna Haraway argues that this black/white and divisive logic has produced ‘dualisms’ that ‘have all been systemic to the logics and practices of domination of women, people of colour, nature, workers, animals’. The examples she offers of these ‘troubling dualisms’ are ‘self/other, mind/body, culture/nature, male/female, civilized/primitive, reality/appearance, whole/part, agent/resources, maker/made, active/passive, right/wrong, truth/illusion, total/partial, God/man’. These divides have been written into Western culture and it is difficult to conceive of society and culture, or produce knowledge about the phenomenon of the world, without the use of them. Haraway determines that ‘the phallogocentrism of the West’ as being inscribed by ‘White Capitalist Patriarchy’ (1991:117; 175; 197).Like Haraway, N. Katherine Hayles argues that it was not necessarily Derrida’s philosophy that exposed this logic of binary divisions but the new age of ‘Informatics’[1]; communications, technology and science were to highlight these divides and this ill-conceived Western logic in knowledge production. Hayles states that:

‘…the dialectic between absence and presence came clearly into focus with the advent of deconstruction because it was already being displaced as a cultural presupposition by randomness and pattern. Presence and absence were forced into visibility, so to speak, because there were already losing their constitutive power to form the ground for discourse. In this sense deconstruction is the child of an information age, formulating its theories from strata pushed upward by the emerging substrata beneath. (1999: 44)

This suggests that in the postmodern era the information-revolution will expose binary distinctions set in place by bourgeois, white, Western men. Living without binary division set in place by language should resolve social oppression such as sexism (man/woman), classism (bourgeois/proletarian) or racism (black/white). Hayles and Haraway argues that Informatics offer posthuman cyborgs an escape from the ‘maze of dualisms’ (Haraway, 1991: 181) and ‘fashion images of (themselves) that accurately reflect the complex interplays that ultimately make the entire world one system’ (Hayles, 1999: 290). However, deconstructionism was not everything it was cracked up to be. Haraway notes:

I, and others, started out wanting a strong tool for deconstructing the truth claims of hostile science by showing the radical historical specificity, and so contestability, of every layer of the onion of scientific and technological constructions, and we end up with a kind of epistemological electro-shock therapy, what far from ushering us into the high stakes tables of the game of contesting public truths, lays us out on the table with self-induced multiple personality disorder. (1991: 197)

To this problem of a “self-induced multiple personality disorder”, Haraway confesses that: ‘Binaries, rather suspect for the feminist I know, can turn out to be nice little tools from time to time’ (111). It seems that binaries remain an essential part of language and theory. But one problem exists; by feminists re-deploying male binaries, Dely argues that there is a ‘risk is that feminism might model itself after the phallogocentric exemplar in an inverse manner, taking up again its norms and representations’ (2007: 9). The question this leaves deconstructionism is with, is: between the men and woman whose texts are more binate in their logic, and, therefore phallogocentric?
In response to this, this essay will critically compare the writing strategies adopted by male and female ethnographers. It will cross compare a selection of ethnographic texts written by men and women on the topics of sexuality, prostitution and autoethnographic representations of the self.  In these areas this essay will look for the uses of binaries in the construction of the author’s arguments. It will present the thesis that written binaries, far from being “useful little devices” – as Haraway claims –, are in fact being deployed power-tools; appropriated (knowingly) in a post-modern, post-industrial, post-Informatic and post-deconstructs age in ethnographic reports written by men and women. In this respect, like language or writing, phallogocentrism persists in Western academia; it is a logic of domination that academics are bound up in and cannot become disengaged from. In the conclusion the finding presented will show that the ethnographies written by women (more than men) are inclined to deploy phallogocentric logic as counter-active form of argument construction as Dely (2007) suggests. Although women are more susceptible to phallogocentrism by inverting its logic they also mediate and prolong the continuation of phallogocentrism. It is of my opinion that men/women should not shy away from this masculine logic, since it seems impossible to extinguish, but persist in using it as a power-tool to advance or deconstruct both pro-masculine and pro-feminine arguments until some kind of middle-ground can be achieved.

Written Gender & Sexuality

The first male and female ethnographic texts to analyse are both written on the topic of sexuality in Greece. Hirschon’s (1993) essay Open Body/Closed Space: The Transformation of Female Sexuality was published as part of a series of papers in a book entitled Defining Females: The Nature of Women in Society. Shirley Ardener edited the book with the task of examining ‘certain basic assumptions relating to the definition of women’ (Ardener, 1993: vii). Hirschon had spent a year in Piraeus (Kokkinia) in the main port of Greece. The focus of her study was ‘the examination of certain perceptions of the sexual nature of women, showing how this is thought to differ from men’ (51).
Conversely, Loizos’ (1994) essay entitled A broken mirror Masculine sexuality in Greek ethnography, was published in a book entitled Dislocating Masculinity: Comparative Ethnographies (eds. Cornwall and Lindisfarne). In the preface the editor’s describe the aim of the book as, ‘a sustained cross-cultural enquiry (into) local experiences of ‘hegemonic masculinity’ (which are) deconstructed to reveal the complexities of gendering and gendered difference’ (1994: intro). Loizos argues that, ‘I am not happy with statements about ‘masculinity’ in Greek culture as substantive generalizations, even though it is easy to concede that some clustering of related concepts exists’, furthermore, ‘(t)he idea has been to suggest that not only is there no single sense of masculinity in that abstraction called ‘Greek culture’, but that from one local context, institution, domain or discourse to another we can easily find contrasting ways of being masculine’ (66; 78). Therefore, one hand there is a feminist text that aims to deploy binaries and one the other hand a masculine text that aims to deconstruct any clear-cut generalisations.

From the outset Hirschon’s text depends heavily on the use of binary distinctions to construct her argument. The text aims to, ‘examine beliefs regarding (women’s) physical and biological attributes and their position as these relate to the states of ‘open’ and ‘closed’’ (51). She argues that, ‘(t) The theme which unites these is that of control and restrain, which is exercised both externally – through social convention, and internally – as a moral force’ (52). Before entering into the main body of the text, Hirschon’s introduction has already established the dichotomies: men/women, open/closed, external/internal.

In his attempt deconstruct the binaries that Hirschon reveals, Loizos citing Demetrios J. Constantelos’ anthropologic work on Greece, states, ‘young men… since they do not know women, are pastriki, that is, clean and pure’, and consequently, ‘male virginity is the ideal’ (1994: 75). Thus, Hirschon’s rigidly constructed nature/culture dichotomy becomes slightly blurred by Loizos assertion that the sexuality of young Greek men are also constrained by cultural determination. However, it should be noted here that this is not a direct, empirical observation made by Loizos himself, but in referance to Demetrios. Nevertheless, a strategically placed shadow of doubt begins to appear over one of Hirschon’s clear-cut division: men/women.

In regard to issues of gender and space in Greece, Hirschon notes that an important part of Kokkinian culture is expressed in the idiom: ‘Get married and open your house’ (1993: 55). Hirschon continues to note that ‘to the sexual dichotomy is added a spatial dimension: the locus of the woman is domestic, within the home… while the place of the man is… in the outside world’ (ibid). Her argument places open/closed woman inside the inside/outside divides in socio-symbolic spaces. On the topic of domestication and social space, Loizos presents to the reader another ‘kind of man’, ‘who whom I term ‘domesticated men’’. Loizos explains that ‘(t)hey cannot stay at home, but their participation in coffee-shop and tavern is a much more measured affair. They do not emphasize their autonomy, but stress their constrained condition as responsible householders with obligations to support women and children’ (1994: 77). While such a statement supports Hirschon’s arguments that the male space is the public space, it also compromises Hirschon’s idea of the inner moral force that women alone are subjected to by the use of the words “some” and “kinds”; some men are also internally restrained by external moral cultural codes in male spaces.
What we can draw from the analysis of these first two texts is that they have both been written in a post-deconstructionist era. Whereas Hirschon actively deploys several binaries to construct a collective narrative for the group of women she wishes to empower (men/women, internal/external, inside/outside, open/closed), Loizos writing aims to fragment blur or complicate any fixed boundaries. The pro-feminist text deploys phallogocentric logic while the pro-masculine text is deconstructionist.

Writing Prostitution

Carla De Meis ethnographic research into Brazilian prostitution (2002) and Neil McKeganey research into Scottish prostitution reveal similar inside/outside, home/street divides to those discussed above.
De Meis fieldwork with prostitutes began in 1989 as part of a medical research group working in a prostitution zone called Mangue in Rio de Janeiro. Her ethnography borrows Brazilian anthropologist Roberto Da Matta’s (1991) idea of there being two ‘complex dichotomies’ in Brazil. According to Da Matta, these complex dichotomies ‘create the metaphors of “house” and “street” as two essential sociological categories for understanding Brazilian society’. De Meis explains that, ‘(t)he universe of the street… is a place of distrust, anonymity, incomprehension, and… “every man for himself,” the law of the jungle. Accordingly, the symbolic space of the house is orderly and peaceful, while the street is a dangerous place characterized by its lack of rules’. The idiom “every man for himself” does imply, as Hirschon has argued, that the outside world of the street is a masculine space. However unlike Hirschon, De Meis’ text does briefly take into account the troubles that men also encounter in this outside space. She proceeds to argue that this dichotomy ‘reflects the rationale frequently found in traditional societies’, in which ‘the ideas of “good” and “bad,” “pure” and “dirty,” and “high” and “low” are intrinsic’ (2002: 4; 7). This suggests that that social dilemma that a Brazilian prostitute repeatedly faces in her line of work is crossing the binary inside/outside: inside the feminine space of the home (good/pure/high) and outside in the masculine space of the street (bad/dirty/low). This would suggest that De Meis’ findings draw many parallels with Hirschon’s work in Greece; that social spaces are divided into inside/outside, male/female but De Meis goes one step further.
De Meis concludes that the Brazilian prostitutes she has researched are not outcast from society but rather trapped within a third “liminal space”. Victor Turner argued that ‘liminal situations or liminal personae’ are to be found in-between rigid social structures in a dimension he refers to as “communitas”. He explains that, ‘(c)ommunitas is almost always thought of or portrayed by actors as a timeless condition, an eternal now, as “a moment in and out of time,” or as a state to which the structural view of time is not applicable’ (1974: 265; 238); like an eternal-reoccurrence or continuing present continuous. De Meis explains that for Brazilian prostitutes ‘(l)ife is lived moment by moment’, she further states about Da Matta’s complex dichotomy that: ‘(w)e must be careful not to view this model as static. As with any other model, it is, in essence, arbitrary. Reality is dynamic and defies classification. People’s subjectivity is like a river that never stops flowing’ (14; 20). The issue of Brazilian prostitution is clearly not as clear-cut or black and white in a cultural, social, spatial, and linguistic sense as Da Matta’s division might suggest. Therefore, by a pre-existing binary in her text and then incorporating her research findings, backed by Turners theory of liminality, her text deconstructs Da Matta’s “complex dichotomies” by positioning Turners liminal space in-between his static division.
While De Meis is concerned with the spread of the HIV virus in Brazil, McKeganey’s text considers political idea of decriminalising prostitution zones in Scottish urban spaces. What is strikingly strange about his research is that it takes an approach that can only be described as ethnographic “curb-crawling”. He notes:

When I drove past a few minutes later she did not look into the car at all and I was not at all sure she was working although when I then pulled up she approached the car and asked if I was looking for business. When I explained to her what I was doing she said that I should have been in the area the previous night because it was ‘really busy’. When I asked her to estimate how many women had been working on the previous night she said, ‘At least three that I know of’. (154)

The divide that separates the interviewer from interviewee, self from other, is defined by the boundaries of the car’s windows and shell that draws a division between external and internal space.
McKeganey’s text is also spatially aware. He writes: ‘small numbers of women could be seen walking slowly along the harbour front or standing in doorways in the adjacent streets’ and has a quantitative focus on numbers and prices: ‘During a series of two-hour fieldwork visits to Aberdeen it was common to see around 30 to 40 women working on the streets within the tolerance zone area, with additional small numbers of women working outside the zone’ (154-156). The legal boundaries that define these zones are taken for granted; his observations are on multiple bodies in space, as a means of politically challenging those divisions. By including their own interview responses, and taking a more qualitative approach to issues of space, his text relies a lot less upon binaries in constructing the narratives of the prostitutes he observed. However, by researching prostitutes working inside/outside the legal/illegal zones in urban spaces his own ethnographic observations are naively phallogocentric and re-establish the divisions that are already set in place. While considering ways to redefine these boundaries he seems blissfully unaware of the enumerative, objective and ‘pimp-like’ domination of the spaces he observes as he calculates and quantifies human bodies in those spaces in capitalist terms.

Writing ‘The Self’ Strategically

Autoethnography, or writing ethnography about personal experiences is a practice that Ann Oakley (2007) explains, ‘is often seen negatively, as a form of inexcusable self-indulgence, especially in academia’ (23). Geertz (1988) refers to this form of ethnography as an “I-Witness account”, which he distastefully refers to as ‘author-saturated texts’ (141). It is on these grounds that Geertz picks apart Malinowski’s diary that was written in New Guinea in 1914-15 and 1917-18 and criticises him for contracting, what Barthes called, “diary disease”. Oakley takes a totally different view of autobiographical texts and argues that, ‘writing autobiographically is especially important for women: words, the text, construct subjectivity and therefore the authentic self in opposition to distorting cultural ideas’ (2007: 23). In terms of linguistic divisions, it is important and relevant to this essay how the self – the “I” – is represented within the text in opposition to the “Other(s).”
Malinowski’s diary continuously establishes a boundary between “I” and “They”. “The village” and “villagers” are referred to in derogatory racist terms: ‘neolithic savages’ (Geertz, 1988: 74): ‘I was terribly vexed by the fact that this nigger has dared to speak to me in such a manner’ (1967: 272), ‘”Exterminate the brutes’” (Geertz, 1988: ibid). “They” are fixed into a subordinate position while Malinowski’s “I” is placed into a dominant position. This racist, ethnocentric, Western, discourse is precisely the type of phallogocentric science that has prompted Derridaian deconstructionism.
Oakley’s text also constructs a binary between I/Them. She writes herself as Othered from the doctors she visited after breaking her hand in an ice skating accident. This is achieved by stating that the notes they wrote about her body where written in, ‘a foreign language, a language of insiders, like the freemason’s handshake’ (12). The deployment of freemasonry as a metaphor is significant since it suggests white, western, masculine, and ruling-class control – similar to the ‘bourgeois, male-dominant, and racist’ (133) superiority that Haraway rejects. This forms her written-based dichotomy between “I” and “Them”. However her diary notes are written to appeal to an external feminist audience. Aware of this, by separating “I” from “Them”, she also alienates “Us” from “Them” insiders. “They” are fixed into a dominant position while “We” readers are placed into her subordinate “underdog” position. The distance is formed through the medium of two texts, “her” writing versus “their” written notes.
Although Malinowski’s self/other, superior/interior divides are painfully obvious, the most striking thing about his diary is the way that the local villagers, customs and cultures are all subdued to the external world; nature. The environment, places or surrounding space are the main focus of his text and often subsume his own self. ‘Cold, damp day, sky and sea great; the mountains blue, hung with mist’, he writes, ‘(m)arvelous sheet of rain hanging over the sea like a curtain, coming closer’ (129; 157);

I sat on the beach for a while; start; I thought about objective reality: the stars, the sea, the enormous emptiness of the universe in which man is lots; the moments when you merge with objective reality, when the trauma of the universe senses to be a stage and becomes a performance – these are the moments of true nirvana.

In his text he is connected to the external world. Sometimes losing his sense of self to become an object of that universe. He is continuously reminded of this objective world as it affects his moods, feelings, health, and emotions. He describes this as a “mixed identity of circumstance.” His feelings, moods and emotions are all associated to the external environment and issues of physical health: ‘The dark (mass) of the island rising behind (creates) a strange mood’ (227), he writes in one passage. Normally, he writes himself as active, male, Western authority. But at the same time in a passive role, subject to the control of his ‘objective’ environment – of which women and savages are also described objectively, as objects (see women: 273, natives: 235).
Active/passive is a binary that Oakley also deploys. She manages to grammatically position herself into the role of the subject by changing the active sentence into the passive: ‘I broke my arm,’ is what I find myself saying, but, of course, I didn’t. My arm was broken by the sinister ice’ (14, italics added). Therefore, the external ice, and the rules of the ice-skating ring where she broke her wrist, is written as an active, external phenomenon that violently, forcefully, and suddenly intrudes into her internal world – ‘she’ becomes the victim, the subject of the sentence. The corporeal violation is external, and is written so that she is the internal victim, her recovery process is written in the active: ‘I’m am doing something for myself’ (19). Both authors write themselves as having agency but victims of an external world. However, in this active/passive division Oakley writes herself as a sudden victim of the external world, and split between the ridged divides of internal/external, active/passive, whereas Malinowski’s text represents him as constantly connected to an external objective world that affects him in waves or a tidal-like motion. This suggests that Oakley is more susceptible to the external, sharp, divisions that extrude into her “Self”.
‘Needless to say a terrible melancholy, gray like the sky all around, swirling around the edge of my inner horizon (54), writes Malinowski while filling up with despair about the realization of the outbreak of World War II; ‘Suddenly I tumble back into the real milieu with which I am also in contact’ (235), he writes about his daydreams while sitting on a beach. Malinowski’s inner world is a subjective dreamland and the relationship between his mind and body is never discussed other than in the sense that the mind can sometimes drift away. Ultimately, the mind, body, and environment are connected. Conversely, Oakley writes about the mind and the body as separate phenomenon. She states: ‘Although we live in our bodies, our social and personal identities are separate from them’ (15). She then begins to relate this division to academia by stating that, ‘academics repeat a prominent cultural motif in shunning corporeality as a subject of discourse: the cerebral is better’. (19, italics added) Her division between body/mind (identity), corporeal/cerebral, becomes engendered when she argues that ‘studying the body is a bit like studying women, who historically have been seen as more about bodies than mind and personal identities’ (20). Therefore, the mental, the mind, the ‘dominant’ academic appreciation of the cerebral, becomes engendered as ‘male’ while the body is engendered as ‘female’. Her appeal is for the latter (female) to overcome the former (male). “Women” in her argument are internal, embodied, subjective, passive, recipients of an external, active, academic, rational and culturally distortive, “Malinowskian-style” world. Academia is one political site where passivitvity, domination, external victimisation, rape can be overcome, rationally, actively, through the body, through the hand, and through writing. In the spirit of Haraway and Hayles, she argues that the aim is for feminists to overcome the divides her text identifies.
Malinowski book includes several binaries (e.g. self/other, mind/body, male/female, civilized/primitive, active/passive) but these still need to be “dug-up” from the text before they can be deconstructed. However, the construction of Oakley’s argument actively toys with similar sets of dualisms, which are all exposed and lay on the table for the reader to relate to. Written in a postmodern, poststructural, and post-Derridean era, we can only accept that this was a deliberate strategy on her behalf.


This essay has presented a selection of texts written by men and women, masculinists or femininists. While Phallogocentrism has underpinned the theoretical frameworks that this essay has deployed and understood as a dominant, patriarchal, masculine, construct, the logic of phallogocentrism has been more evident in feminist texts. It seems as if in the battle of genders, feminists are fighting fire with fire. On one side of the spectrum, Hirschon, Oakley, McKeganey and Malinowski’s texts can only be descried as binary-heavy. While De Meis’ anthropology also deploys several binaries, they are opened by her inclusion of Turner’s concept of liminality. On the opposite side of the spectrum Loizos has actively deconstructed feminist arguments by complicating any fixed notions of male/female sexuality. All the writings from men have shown little or no awareness of the binaries in social spaces that Hirschon and De Meis have written about. This is interesting as it suggests that space is still appropriated by men, as it was by Malinowski in the 1910s – particularly McKeganey’s legal/illegal approach to tolerant/illegal zones for prostitution. Whereas the binary constructions set in place by men, especially in social spaces, feminists in retaliation are using logic of the phallogocentric.
Most academic texts extend two hands to the readers: ‘on the one hand… on the other hand’. Situations in the ‘real’ social world are far less clear-cut than academic texts – which are all written strategically – would often like to admit. As De Meis argues: “reality is dynamic and defies classification.” However, since theory itself is based upon generalisations, then social movements such as feminism, masculism, multiculturalism, liberalism, socialism and capitalism, etc. will require the binary logic of metaphysics and language, as well as the protection from the oppositional forces that deconstructionism can provide; a build and destroy logic. Mastering the dynamic of solid-modern phallogocentric logic with liquid-modern deconstructionism is the challenge for situating knowledge in the postmodern future.


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[1] ‘Following Haraway’, Hayles defines “Informatics” as ‘the technologies of information as well as the biological, social, linguistic and cultural changes that initiate, accompany, and complicate their development’ (1999: 192)


One thought on “Phallogocentrism; the Politics of Binaries and Strategic Writing in Female/Male Ethnography

  1. Pingback: Genetic Fallacy: The Aim (and Downfall) of Postmodern Social Deconstructionism – The Philosopher's Journal

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