Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Sarah Nicholson - The Evolutionary Journey of Woman: From the Goddess to Integral Feminism


The following is my review of Sarah Nicholson's recent book, The Evolutionary Journey of Woman: From the Goddess to Integral Feminism (Integral Publishers, 2013). Sass was kind enough to send me a PDF review copy of the book.

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When I was 20 years old or so, I began reading the Collected Works of C.G. Jung on the recommendation of an art history professor who correctly intuited my affinity for Jung's approach to psycho-spirituality. As an adjunct, I also discovered (again) the work of Joesph Campbell, who was the editor of The Portable Jung, one of the better introductions to the writings of Jung, grouped thematically. I was previously familiar with Campbell's work from his PBS series with Bill Moyers (based on his, The Power of Myth) in the 1980s.

The parallels between Jung's model of psychological individuation and Campbell's model of the monomyth took me back to Campbell's work, especially The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Bollingen Series, No. 17), which then took me back to the work of Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner.

In essence, the hero's myth, which Campbell called the monomyth, is a symbolic narrative of initiation, a process that can be broken down into three stages - separation (from family, community, previous identity), [crossing the threshold in answer to "the call"], initiation (physical and psychological trials, often involving a confrontation with the divine feminine and a need to find atonement with the father), [decision to take the gifts acquired back to the world or not], and return (bringing the "boon" bestowed or earned back to the world, sharing the gift with others, no longer fearing death).

Within those three larger movements, Campbell identified 17 individual stages for the whole process - stages that are common to many (if not most) of the world's best known hero's quests.

One thing you may have noticed, however, is that this model is distinctly masculine. While Campbell occasionally made reference to the monomyth applying to women as well, there is little evidence of this in his work.

The question is this: What does the evolutionary journey (individuation) of woman look like?  Can her story be framed within this same structure, or is there a unique path that women follow in their own trasnformational process?

These are the questions Nicholson addresses in her book.

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From the Introduction:
"In the midst of a period of internal and external exploration, fueled by the desire to understand the significant disparity between my socio-cultural context and my inner calling - which insisted that life was deeper, wider and wilder than social norms and material goals suggested - I found the work of Joseph Campbell. This meeting was deeply affective. His exploration of the hero beautifully articulated the core purpose of human life as attunement to the path of awakening, and this spoke to me directly."
As she explored the areas of mythology, religion, and spirituality, she discovered the "deeply androcentric nature of these worlds." In her book, Nicholson seeks to find and follow the heroine, to discover and share her story and to "explore woman's evolving relationship with what it is to be human."

To outline the broader project of book, here is the table of contents (personally, I find the table of contents, the references, and the index to be good indicators of whether or not I want to read a given book):
Joseph Campbell and the hero’s journey
Mysticism and mythic symbol
The hero’s journey as perennial philosophy
The hero as ‘everyman’
Feminist critique of the hero
Feminist approaches to the question of Woman
The First wave of feminism
The Second wave
Sex versus gender
Psychoanalytic and poststructural feminism
Woman, mythology and the religious symbolic
Feminist theology
Mary Daly: Reweaving the journey
Carol Christ: Thealogy
Goddess spirituality and the Great Mother
The God problem
Jungian archetypes
The archetype of the self for women
Towards the third wave and beyond
Time and the evolution of feminist thought
The discourses of the Third wave
Subjectivities of inter-relation: corporeal feminism
Process philosophy and the Nomadic Feminist subject
Third wave religion: Buddhism’s nondual philosophy
Non-dual philosophy: Transontolog
Definition: The Name of Woman
Integral theory: New tools
Towards an Integral feminism
Woman - through the quadrants
Evolutionary consciousness
The limits of evolutionary theory
Wilber’s evolutionary theory
Holonic theory
Developmental eras of consciousness
From Origin to Integral: The work of Gebser
Wilber’s Integral Theory of development
The Archaic Stage
The Magical Stage
Habermas: Social Labor and the father
Bacofen: Mother right – Father right
Pre-modern Gender: Wilber’s suppositions
Man the hunter
Foraging: woman the gatherer
Evolutionary continuity: sociobiology and sharing
Sexual dimorphism
The collective hunt
The sedentary woman
The father and the question of work
Feminist archaeology: Re-capitulating the evidence
The Question of Venus
Symbolism of the Magical stage
The Mythic stage
Stages of consciousness: From Magic to Mythic
Gimbutas and the Great Goddess
Critique of the Goddess hypothesis
Remembering and inventing the Goddess
Re-reading the Mythic evidence
Epochal mutation: From Mythic to Mythic-Agrarian
The Metamorphosis of Myth: The Tales of Inanna
Inanna: The Great Death
Mythic-Imperial Stage
The Hero and the Warrior
Mythic-Agrarian: The Iron Age
The Mental Rational Stage
Formal Operational Cognition
From Monotheism to Globalism
Feminism: Emergence vs. Oppression
Gender Stratification: Coercion and Voluntarism
A rebuttal to Co-creative theory
Capacity Development
Woman and the cultural symbolic
From mythos to religion
The separative self
Pathological dominance
The rise of feminist consciousness
Integral answers
Towards the horizon
Self abnegation: Women’s estrangement from the divine
Women’s divine horizons
Adult development theory
Critique of developmental theory
The first stages of development
Women in the conventional
Critique of gendered theories of development
Girls development and adolescence
The developmental journey of the hero/ine
A developmental junction: Achiever or Affliate
Differentiation and the separative self
The Post-conventional tier
Integrated vs. Construct Aware
The Post-Postconventional tier
The transcendent stage
The Unitive stage
Practising the sensible transcendental
Horizontal and vertical, terrestrial and heavenly
To be incarnated? Archi-ancient and forever future
Returning from the Journey with Gift Giving
Hands – the Discourse of Integral Feminism
Next Steps: Sacred Marriage
Her chapters (2 and 3) on the history of feminism are very instructive for readers who are not familiar with this material - and few of us outside of academic feminism read most of the authors she references. They also provide a solid foundation for her later explorations of a uniquely heroine-oriented myth and a critical framework for her deconstruction of gender in Ken Wilber's integral theory.

Inanna and the Descent to the Underworld

The myth she feels drawn toward is one of the oldest human myths, the Sumerian myth of Inanna, Queen of Heaven and goddess of lust, love, fertility, and warfare. However, it's important to note that she is not the goddess of marriage. Her domain is lust and she is associated with extramarital sex and affairs, and she can often be found in taverns seeking the adventure of new sexual partners. The Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh also makes reference to Inanna's well-known disregard for her lovers (after the act).

Nicholson understand's Inanna's narrative as a classic hero's tale, or heroine in this case. Her story was the genesis for her book, and even though she chose to expand the study beyond Inanna's myth, she felt pulled back to the myth.
For two years her story was the topic of this book, but the need to establish an Integral feminist philosophical and methodological position that could adequately contextualize her story in terms of stages of consciousness, the evolution of gender dynamics, and changing representations of the female divine, became increasingly clear to me. Thus this book is focused on the greater schema. Yet, no matter how much I put Inanna’s story aside it continued to return to the text. 
One of her best known myths is "Inanna's Descent to the Underworld." Staying true to her nature, when Inanna is rescued from the Underworld, she must choose someone to replace her there. The first few people they come upon are all mourning servants, but then they come upon her husband, Dumuzi, who is not mourning at all (far from it), and she chooses him to go with the demons and take her place in the Underworld.

Any effort to analyze the goddess figure in history requires discussing and critiquing the work of the archeologist Marija Gimbutas. Despite her popularity among lay readers (especially in New Age goddess movements), archeologists and anthropologists have offered harsh and thorough criticism of her Goddess Hypothesis. Gimbutas' main idea is that all of the world's variety of goddess figures can be traced back to a single neolithic goddess or divine feminine figure. Further, she contends that this period of "peaceful, matrilineal, agricultural and primarily sedentary culture of Mythic Old Europe" ended with the invasion of nomadic herders who brought with them domesticated horses and lethal weapons. According to Gimbutas, these invaders brought to Europe "myths of conquering warrior hero gods" (p. 105).

Aside from the vast criticism of her model in archeological and interpretive grounds (which Nicholson spends a couple of pages outlining), there is also the issue of the pre/trans fallacy (an idea developed by Ken Wilber) in assigning trans-rational capacities to a pre-rational culture. An additional issue is that many anthropologists and archeologists believe that it was agriculture that ushered in the patriarchal dominance from which modern goddess movements seek to extricate themselves [see references: 1, 2, 3], not nomadic herders.

Here is the stance Nicholson takes on Gimbutas' work:
While not absolutely explicit, it is clear that, in keeping with feminist methodology, Gimbutas’ archaeo-mythology is a liberally intuitive and creatively interpretive method. She moves her subject matter out of the realm of archaeology and into the realm of mythopoesis and in doing so blurs boundaries and distinctions, utilising but going beyond the scope of the material evidence. Yet despite these methodological problems, there is much rich material in Gimbutas’ extensive research that should not go unutilised.... (p. 107) 
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Integral Feminism

Nicholson uses Ken Wilber's model of integral theory to underpin her larger project in this book. For this reader, the time spent on Wilber is the weakest part of the book (but I suspect this is less about the book and more about the seeming need for every book using integral theory to spend a couple of chapters explaining Wilber's AQAL model, as if homage must be paid).

To be fair, Nicholson is perfectly willing to criticize the weaknesses in Wilber's theory, and when it comes to sex and gender, there is a lot of room for criticism. 
It is my intention, utilizing the philosophy and methodology of Integral feminism, to follow woman’s journey through the broad waves of human development, as Wilber presents them , to her arrival in feminist consciousness. Along the way I examine how Wilber positions woman and I make feminist incursions into this history where necessary. (p. 63)
Jean Gebser and Jurgen Habermas, primary sources for Wilber's integral model, also get their due from Nicholson. In chapter four, the author offers a thorough and cogent critique of Wilber's (via Habermas) views on the division of work and gender roles in the "Magical" stage of human evolution.

The evidence seems relatively clear that early horticultural societies were not terribly divided in work roles according to gender (as Wilber would have it). Wilber espouses somewhat of an essentialist position on gender and gender roles, and while there are essential differences in some respects, gender roles are (or were) more egalitarian and less rigidly divided.
Studies of contemporary horticultural societies show an equal distribution of productive work between men and women. Both women and men “plant, weed, harvest, and transport crops” after new areas of land have been cleared and prepared for cultivation, mostly by men (Huber 2006, 71). This is likely to have been the case in the Neolithic period also. (p. 109)

While moving towards the socially conventional ‘roles and rules’ of concrete operations and conventional morality, the early Mythic [13] period would not yet have the reified differentiations of gender roles and status divisions that are demonstrated in later stages. (p. 109)
 As horticulture became agriculture with the invention of metal tools, especially the hoe and later the sword, humanity moved from a early mythic worldview to a mythic-agrarian worldview. Kinship loyalties now played a lesser role in culture than did political/power loyalties. Dependence on and subservience to a king was now central in daily life.

By tracking these societal changes alongside changes in the Inanna story, the myth becomes reflective of the lives of its tellers.
The Sumerian mythologies of the goddess Inanna straddle the divide between the early Mythic and Mythic-Agrarian stages. Inanna is a particularly important case study. Encapsulated in the very first written mythic narratives, she is both a unique representation of the heroine and of the divine in female form. In this guise she represents the archetype of the Self as envisaged through the Mythic stage. The significant changes that occur in the manner of her representation as the Mythic stage transitions to Mythic-Agrarian demonstrate the shifts in consciousness that occur during this period. (p, 112)
Nicholson details some of the changes that occur in Inanna's myth over that period of time (roughly 2,000-3,000 BCE). This is how the author characterizes her subject:
 The Mythic Inanna embodied the values of adventure, curiosity, knowledge, sensuality and deeper self-knowledge through mysticism. As a spiritual hero she is both agentic and communal, transcendent and yet deeply immanent. As a goddess, Inanna fully represents the burgeoning consciousness of the Mythic Age. Fundamentally different to the mother Goddess espoused by Gimbutas [16], Inanna is a goddess of exploration and knowledge. (p. 113-114)
From here, Nicholson continues to trace the evolution of the archetypal feminine Self, the development of a heroine's myth, through Wilber's psycho-social stages of development.

Final Thoughts

This is a book I found to be educational, enlightening, thought-provoking, and with which I sometimes found myself arguing. Isn't that what good books should do? Being as familiar as I am with both Campbell and Wilber, however, it was easy to let Nicholson lead me on the "evolutionary journey of woman."

As a man who works with other men on issues around gender roles, this feels like an important book for men to read, at least as much so as it is for women. Perhaps nowhere is this so true as in the integral community, with its reliance on Warren Farrell and David Deida as essential leaders in masculinity.

The integral community, in particular, with so many of the primary authors being male and holding essentialist positions, dictated in part by Wilber, has alienated a lot of women. For example, here is a passage from the "Integral Operating System," based on the writings of Carol Gilligan:
Male logic, or a man’s voice, tends to be based on terms of autonomy, justice, and rights; whereas women’s logic or voice tends to be based on terms of relationship, care, and responsibility. Men tend toward agency; women tend toward communion. Men follow rules; women follow connections. Men look; women touch. Men tend toward individualism, women toward relationship. (Wilber, 2012)
Seriously? To define the feminine as communal, caring, and immanent and the masculine as agentic, rights-oriented, and transcendent is so painfully reductionist that both men and women should be turned off by this androcentric nonsense.

Now, we have Sarah Nicholson's book and voice to add some justice, autonomy, and individualism to the heroic journey of the integral feminine.

  1. Hughes, SS & Hughes, B. (2001). "Women in Ancient Civilizations". In Adas, Michael. Agricultural and pastoral societies in ancient and classical history. Temple University Press. pp. 118–119.
  2. Eagly, AH, & Wood, W. (June 1999). "The Origins of Sex Differences in Human Behavior: Evolved Dispositions Versus Social Roles". American Psychologist; 54 (6): 408–423.
  3. Erdal, D. & Whiten, A. (1996). "Egalitarianism and Machiavellian Intelligence in Human Evolution" in Mellars, P. & Gibson, K. (eds) Modelling the Early Human Mind. Cambridge Macdonald Monograph Series.
  4. Wilber, K. (2012, Mar 11). The Integral Operating System. Part IV: What Type Are You? Retrieved on August, 4, 2014, from https://www.integrallife.com/member/ken-wilber/blog/integral-operating-system-part-iv-what-type-are-you

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