Nature/Nurture: Slash To The Rescue
Posted by dlende on September 9, 2009
Slash is cool – creative writing, community, and alternative imaginations all wrapped in one. Like I said at the end of my post Sex, Lies and IRB Tape: Netporn to SurveyFail, if I want to understand slash, I’d read some.
And so I have, exploring recommend pieces over at Whispered Words. Cassandra Claire’s The Very Secret Diaries on the Lord of the Rings made me laugh and laugh. Greyworlf’s Kirk/Spock And In the Darkness Bind You was erotic, intense, and well-written, a classic of slash according to Whispered Words.
But today I want to expand on what I thought was a throw-away line in that post, and connect it to some of what Greg wrote about in his post on ethnography, hard-wired assumptions, and sexuality in SurveyFail Redax. (For more on SurveyFail, see Rough Theory; you can also follow the controversy in more detail through the links rounded up at Anti-Oppression Linkspam Community.)
The throw-away line was this: “But nature/nurture is dead (except perhaps in slash?).”
Today I am making it the punchline. Slash can save the day for nature/nurture.
Nature versus nurture refers to the debate of genes versus environment, human nature versus culture, of our animal side versus our civilized side, and so forth. As Greg said, it’s a very old theme in Western thought. In SurveyFail, Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam operated from a restricted and dichotomized view of nature versus nurture, where nature, dictated by evolution and primitive brain circuits, dictate sex differences and sexual interests. Here’s how Greg put it:
In their responses to some of their critics, Gaddam offers the blanket explanation that, ‘When we talk about the ‘oldest parts of the brain’ [the subcortical regions], it is in the context of the tectonic tussle between these and the prefrontal cortices that give rise to the peaks of our culture and the terrain of our behavior.’ Daniel points out that Gaddam describes an opposition in the brain between the ‘oldest’ pre-cultural, primitive elements and these newer cortices that produce culture; nature v. culture played out in brain layers.
Slash can change that. Not by having nature and nurture meet in a bar (though if someone knows some slash on that, by all means leave a comment!), but in how slash works as an imaginative process.
Quite simply, nature vs. nurture is an oppressive division. Slash reworks the relationship between nature/nurture in ways that help us in our thinking and that are closer to the actual reality of how nature/nurture works.
I want to focus first on the “/” itself. Here’s the relevant piece from the Fanlore wiki.
The term ‘slash’ refers to the virgule (or forward slash) that links two names in a slash pairing—for example CharacterA/CharacterB… Needing a way to refer to all such pairings and the entire genre of writing, [writers] referred to them and it as “/”… This was in the early eighties. When verbalizing this punctuation mark in conversation (from the early eighties on), it was, of course, said out loud as “slash.” Eventually (primarily in the mid- to late-eighties) the term itself (“slash”) started appearing in print. That is, fans wrote or typed “slash” and not “/”.
But the meaning of the “/” has changed and expanded since then. People started to do slash, in the sense of imaginative, erotic writing with all sorts of pairings, not just the standard Kirk/Spock or other male/male combinations. Fanlore highlights two general meanings of the “/” now:
“It’s only slash if it’s about a non-canon (or ‘unconventional’) relationship.”
“It’s only slash if they were both straight before they met each other.”
So instead of nature vs. nurture, now we have nature/nurture in a non-canonical relationship. And nature and nurture aren’t straight anymore. They don’t mean what the big-wig intellectuals (and other media producers) want, for example, a straight heterosexual coupling of genetics and environment. Now it’s based on what we can imagine, not what we assume.
Let me give an example of the old nature vs. nurture. Steven Pinker is a good character for nature, with his Daedalus article, Why Nature and Nurture Won’t Go Away. He argues strongly against a blank slate view, and gives us evolution, genetics, and innate traits – his “human nature.” (Also, his flowing locks, who could resist?!)
As for nurture, I’m going het. Judith Butler is my character, since she was used in eruthos’ excellent rebuttal to Ogi Ogas, and then became a point of discussion in Greg’s post. (I know, I know, I’m so traditional.) Here, our supposed “natures” are culturally constructed and regulated through ideologies and discourses. Rather than acting out genetic imperatives, we act out cultural dictates, performing them through the “regularized and constrained repetition of norms.”
Oh, it’s all so brilliantly 90s. Just so When Steven Met Judith.
Isn’t it in desperate need of some slash?
What has me particularly excited about “nature/nurture” is that the slash keeps in play some basic concepts that people use all the time. In his article, Pinker is right that “holistic interactionism” doesn’t quite cut it. It is rather like anthropologists’ standard line, “it’s complicated.” Not a good communications strategy. It gets worse when we try to talk about interactionism. One of the leading approaches is called developmental systems theory. I know, your eyes already glazed over.
But take a fraught sexual relationship and say, “it’s complicated.” Everyone gets that! Even better, their eyes lit up.
Slash rescues nature/nurture. Rather than some vast array of complex explanations, slash brings the focus back on nature and nurture, and the inevitable relationship between them. And it does so in all the unconventional, radical, inventive ways that slash signifies.
That brings me back to that first set of stories, The Very Secret Diaries. Suddenly all sorts of potential relationships emerge between the Lord of the Rings characters. Yet the Diaries have their own forms (“Sam will kill him if he tries anything”). Both relationships and forms are not limited to the canonical presentation, to good vs evil or nature vs. nurture. In these stories even the Balrog and Gandalf can get it on!
This imaginative approach is actually closer to what the science tells us, where epigenetics and brain plasticity have fundamentally undercut an innatist view of biology and scholars like Susan Bordo and Anne Fausto Sterling have emphasized the importance of actual bodies in our understanding of gender and its construction.
But slash is not just about the “/”, the unconventional relationship. It’s also about reimagining the principle characters. Slash overturns the compulsory roles we imagine for nature and nurture.
Take the story And In the Darkness Bind You. Rather than Kirk as passionate and Spock as rational (a traditional nature/nurture pair), each explores new aspects of being and acting. Spock turns reflective and emotional rather than logical, Kirk is consumed by guilt and unrealized possibilities. Through what they experience and do, Kirk and Spock take form outside any standard characterization. And their story is grounded in the concrete details of sex, of bodies and wetness and emotions engaging, not ideas about what sex is for (Pinker) or how it is performed (Butler).
Again, this is closer to how things actually work and how we need to imagine those workings. I have advocated for the importance of experience and behavior, for example, the everyday brain and our everyday life or the role of embodiment in health. Greg does much the same with his work on balance. Anthropologists have already reworked our ideas of human “nature,” recognizing that culture is part of human nature, whether it’s a two-million year tradition of tool manufacture or our chimpanzee cousins and their rich behavioral traditions. Our understandings of “nurture” are next, of understanding how biology and human development play central roles in how culture works. Culture as systems of symbols and as discourse is just so Spock.
So here’s another way to see nature/nurture. Nature and nurture lust for each other. They want to get it on. They couple, in the most unconventional and non-traditional ways you can imagine. They always couple, even if they are still “nature” and “nurture.”
As Joan Martin writes, “Slash is a wonderfully subversive voice whispering or shouting around the edges and into the cracks of mainstream culture. It abounds in unconventional thinking. It’s fraught with danger for the status quo, filled with temptingly perilous notions of self-determination and successful defiance of social norms.”
In this sense, slash and nature/nurture is about women’s imaginative reworkings of two central male characters in Western civilization. And that’s a good thing.
For more, see the previous posts in the Slash and SurveyFail Series
Sex, Lies and IRB Tape: Netporn to SurveyFail “These particular researchers make everything worse. First comes their incredibly naïve and prejudiced assumptions about fanfiction and the people involved. As numerous people pointed out in response to Ogi Ogas’ shemale comparison, the logical equivalent for slash is not shemales but men who enjoy reading about two women engaged in lesbian sex (a rather standard feature in most male-oriented porn).”
SurveyFail Redax: Downey Adds to Lende “Like so many other human brain functions, sexual desire stretches through these layers, triggering processes that link together ‘oldest’ and ‘newest’ parts of the brain. Like I said, this is erotica: written, visually-processed, imagined, arousing, sexually stimulating… a cascade of stimuli and effects (with plenty of loops and doubling backs) that combines different brain functions.”