“Why Does Patriarchy Persist?” 2: The Ghost

Roy Herndon Smith

This post is the second in a series of discussions of Why Does Patriarchy Persist?, by Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider (Polity Press 2018).

The first post in the series concludes: Patriarchy persists, in part, because it institutionalizes the contradiction between the good we believe we are doing (in Gilligan and Snider’s case, resisting patriarchy) and the cruelty (in Gilligan and Snider’s case, the emotional abuse exemplified in The Still-Face Experiment) we unconsciously perpetuate. (https://wheredustis.com/2019/08/07/why-does-patriarchy-persist-1-the-still-face-experiment-2/)

This post concludes: Patriarchy persists because the hierarchical ghost continues to possess those of us who have identified it and think that, in so doing, we are, in Gilligan and Snider’s words, “leaving patriarchy” (p. 121).

…the culprit is a ghost…—“Adam,” quoted in Gilligan and Snider, p. 2

the ghost possesses
the office, the lab, the man
in the tweed jacket

the man in the shirt
the mother and the baby
the absent speaker

the still-faced mother
the crying, screaming baby
the still-faced baby

the still-faced man with
the still small smile, the still voice
behind the still face

we don’t remember
we remember in nightmares
the ghost possesses

The first post in this series ends with the question of why Gilligan and Snider, those who did and do still-face experiments, and others unconsciously construct and perpetuate this moral contradiction.

After reading Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider’s description of a youtube video of the still-face experiment (“Introduction,” Why Does Patriarchy Persist? 2018, Polity Press, p. 11), I watched the video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=apzXGEbZht0) a number of times.

The first few times, I did not attend closely to the scenes prior to the ones of the experiment. Only after numerous viewings of these introductory scenes did I awaken to what the video was doing.

The awakening began with puzzlement about why the first scene of the video is a close-up of a very young baby, probably under three months old, who is not the older baby who is the subject of the filmed experiment. An unseen someone, it sounds like a woman (the voice is indistinct), may be talking to the baby. The baby’s arm is also being jiggled, I surmise, by this person. The person operating the camera cuts this speaker and jiggler out of the scene. The video thus minimizes the viewer’s sense that the baby is embedded in a social milieu.

As we watch the baby, an unseen narrator begins to make the first intelligible statement of the video, “Babies this young are extremely responsive to the emotions, and the reactivity, and the social interaction they get from the world around them.”

In the middle of this statement, the scene shifts to a close-up of the narrator, a man, dressed in a brown tweed jacket, a button down shirt, and a tie, in an office—I surmise it is his own— with wall shelves filled with journals, books, and a few personal items; a label informs us that he is “Edward Tronick, Ph.D., Director, Child Development Unit, Harvard University,” The scene is of a professor at work; he speaks calmly and professionally, with authority, as if he assumes he knows what he is talking about and is educating us, his viewers, his students, who don’t know what he knows.

While he continues to speak, “This is something we started studying,“ the scene shifts to a another view of Tronick, in the same shirt and tie, but without the jacket, standing and looking at and talking (we do not hear him, only the now, again, unseen Tronick who is narrating the video) and listening, with a slight unchanging smile (the camera shifts) to a standing woman holding a baby who is (Tronick tells us later) about a year old. The woman appears to be saying (we don’t hear her), “Yes,” while nodding and smiling at the Tronick (we don’t hear him) who is talking to her. The baby looks at the camera (and, I surmise, the unseen person operating it) with a neutral expression. When the mother stops speaking and looks away from Tronick and down at the baby and jiggles her (Tronick later calls the baby “she”) arm, the baby responds by glancing away from the camera and down at her mother’s chest; as the woman looks back at Tronick, the child, still without changing her neutral expression, looks back at the camera. The woman’s smile disappears into an intent and serious expression as she looks at Tronick. The camera briefly returns to Tronick, in shirt sleeves, with the same slight smile, talking to her (but, again, all we hear is the unseen Tronick continuing to instruct us), “oh, thirty-four years ago, when people didn’t think infants,” the scene shifts back to Tronick speaking in the office, “could engage in social interaction.”

Only after a few more viewings of these opening scenes, and a lot of time thinking about them, did I realize the absurdity of Tronick’s statement. As long as there have been people, they have been interacting with “babies this young,” including infants, like the first baby, who have not yet learned how to express what they feel through their facial expressions, as able to “engage in social interaction.” Even strangers often go googly-eyed and coo at newborns they meet. Mothers and other primary caregivers respond to newborns’ behaviors as social messages. They comfort newborns who cry. They smile at and talk to newborns who gaze toward them. And newborns respond back. They cry when they don’t like what someone is doing to them. They calm down when someone rocks and comforts them.

This mutual responding is not something learned or achieved; it inheres in us as sentient social beings; we do not exist without it. Infants in orphanages (https://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/06/neglect) whom caretakers treat, without empathy, merely as objects, stop responding with external signs of what they are feeling; for instance, they stop crying because they learn that crying does not elicit a response; their stopping crying is a direct response to, that indicates their accurate perception of, the emotional neglect. If the neglect is pervasive and lasting, as it was and is in some institutions, the resident infants respond by failing to thrive; their cognitive and emotional development slows and sometimes stops; some die. Studies have shown that infants’ nervous systems and sensory organs, their brains, their biochemistry, all they are as bodily beings, develop in response to social interactions. In short, this research explicitly confirms (it does not discover) what “people” have always known, that infants are social beings. Observational studies confirm the common knowledge that mothers and other primary caregivers respond to and explicitly think of newborns as the socially responsive beings they are.

At the time I first watched the video, I knew that infants, including newborns, are inherently social beings, and not only from my own interactions and observations of countless others’ interactions, with them; I had also read the research (including a brief mention of the still-face experiment that did not describe specifically how it was done) that confirms this knowledge; I had even written a chapter in a book about the implications of this research for understanding faith development in babies (“Infancy: Faith before Language,” Chapter Four of Felicity Kelcourse, ed., Human Development and Faith, Chalice Press, 2005). Yet it took numerous viewings of the video before I realized that the subtext of Tronick’s opening statement directly contradicts what I know. Here is the statement again, this time with the subtext in brackets, “Babies this young [like the seemingly unresponsive newborn shown here that you viewers, like ‘people’ before we did the still-face experiment, think is not capable of social interaction] are [we have discovered through still-face experiments like the one we will be showing you] extremely responsive to the emotions, and the reactivity, and the social interaction they get from the world around them.”

This subtext points to why the video opens the way it does. In order to make a convincing case for the still-face experiment being the site of the discovery of babies’ sociality, the video must get viewers to disregard what they actually know each time they socially interact with babies or observe such interactions; only such forgetful viewers will accept the premise that “people didn’t [and don’t] think that infants could [and can] engage in social interaction.”

Only such people will also accept, without thinking about it, what Tronick does throughout the rest of the video. From the first moment the video introduces her to us, we viewers see and hear the one-year-old baby who is the subject of the experiment being socially “responsive.” For instance, she looks at the person filming the experiment. And just before the scene shifts back to Tronick’s office to end the introduction, she actively protests her mother putting her into a high chair. If we viewers are to accept the claim that Tronick discovered, through the still-face experiment, that babies, including babies as old as the one in the experiment, are socially responsive, the video has to get us to disregard not only what we know from our past experiences and observations of interactions with babies, but also what we are currently seeing, hearing, feeling, and knowing. From this point in the video on, Tronick tells us what the child and her mother are doing, as well as what the child is feeling. The video thus replaces our knowing, through our own direct and empathic senses, of the sociality of the baby we are watching and listening to, with Tronick’s narration. It thus also uses our implicitly denied and thus alienated knowing of the baby as a social being as evidence that what Tronick implies we think, that babies are not capable of social interaction, is false and that Tronick possesses the truth (that we can all perceive, but only after Tronick awakens us to what we are perceiving).

In the above, I have implied that “the video” is the agent of this replacement of our knowing for ourselves with Tronick’s narration. Tronick and the people who made and produced the video obviously believe the still-face experiment is the site of the discovery of infantile sociality. They are both the “people” who forget what they know, through their own senses, and the researchers who have “discovered,” as if it had not been known before, what they know. They are thus not the conscious agents, rather they are also targets, of the erasure of the sense of knowing what they actually do know outside of the experiment and of the replacement of this trust in their own senses with trust in researchers, such as themselves. Something they are not conscious of is controlling them, as they do the experiment and as they make the video; through the video, this something is attempting to control us, the viewers.

Carol Gilligan and Naomi Snider identify, as a “ghost,” the agency of gender, racial, age, religious, caste, and class hierarchies that erases and replaces the knowing-for-themselves of not only the subjugated, but also those who dominate. But they miss, as I did during my first viewings, how this ghost possesses the makers of, participants in, and viewers of the video of the still-face experiment. I forgot what I know, even though, in a book and a series of articles I wrote between thirty and fifteen years ago, I identified and analyzed how the ghost of hierarchy possesses and erases the knowing of people in contexts like those the video portrays.

Another answer to the question, “Why Does Patriarchy Persist?,” is that patriarchy persists because the hierarchical ghost continues to possess those of us who have identified it and think that, in so doing, we are, in Gilligan and Snider’s words, “leaving patriarchy” (p. 121).