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Gender and Sexuality in the World of Literature, Essay Example

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Introduction

One of the general conceptual tasks of contemporary feminist theory is to radically re-read the canon of Western literature, in order to isolate symptoms of discourses that address sexuality and gender. With such an appropriation of the tradition, it is possible to understand how literary works have recapitulated already existing social discourses and furthermore contributed to the formation of social discourses that determine categories of sexuality and gender. This task is especially pertinent when considering that throughout its history Western literature appears to have conferred negative gender roles to the female, that is to say, roles determined by a patriarchal framework which conceives the world from the viewpoint of the male. As Ellen Goldberg observes, “the symbol of the feminine has been used in Western literature primarily for the purpose of empowering or transforming the male hero/half.”[1] In Goldberg’s reading, the feminine only exists as a supplement to the male: it is the male that is the necessary figure in this tradition, whereas the female is essentially a contingent symbol, whose only subjective necessity is determined in relation to the male. Yet, in the last instance, the feminine’s necessity is also an illusion, since it depends entirely upon the existence of the male: the female is devalued.

The genesis creation myth of Adam and Eve can easily be interpreted as one such crucial example from the tradition. As Shere Hite suggests, “Adam and Eve are the earliest symbols of reproduction, “sin” and the double standard toward women.”[2] This entails that the Adam and Eve narrative plays a central role in establishing “gender division as the fundamental principle of a new social order and to establish the basic “personality traits” of these two “original beings” as the prototypes for future society.”[3] Accordingly, it would seem that the story of Adam and Eve becomes an example of a patriarchal discourse par excellence, and its continued re-telling within Western society would be tied to how it distributes gender and sexual identity roles, thus essentializing what it means to be a man and a woman. Using the theory of Judith Butler, it could be said that Adam and Eve correspond to a notion of the gendered body. In Butler’s terms, this entails the notion of gender as a form of performative “doing”, which implies that ever-evolving social processes create that which is assumed to be essential sexual difference. In this regard, sexuality is in actuality conceived throughout the tradition by the manipulation of such gender roles, whereby the feminine is assigned, for example, following Goldberg, a status of unnecessary supplement to the male. Reading the literature in this way shows how the Western tradition continually performs this “doing”, creating a gendered female body which it then essentializes through its tradition, disseminating a discourse that assigns the male and female concrete roles within a social structure.

However, perhaps the Adam and Eve story does not necessitate such a reading. For example, Ken Stone, relying on the theory of Butler, argues that the narrative may not be a clear instance of what he terms “the heterosexual contract”,[4] meaning that an ambiguity exists as to what Adam and Eve tell us about gender and sexual roles. Certainly, this ambiguity can be identified in the Western literary tradition’s constant re-interpretation of the genesis myth. In this regard, it is precisely John Milton’s Paradise Lost and its particular account of this story that lends itself to a probable sympathetic feminist reading. Certainly, the academic literature seems unclear, on this issue, as depending on perspective, some suggest that Milton’s Paradise Lost is thoroughly masculine in its account (i.e., McColley, 1999), whereas other theorists argue that the poem is a critique of such divisions. (i.e., Nyquist, 1998) However, by using the aforementioned approach of Butler, perhaps what emerges from Milton’s piece is itself an account of gender construction, wherein the apparently sexualized natures of the protagonists are rather themselves the results of “the Fall of Man” understood as a social discourse that intends to order society along gender lines. This would be a case of Milton himself showing how the gendered body is created by social processes. In order to demonstrate this thesis, it will be argued that Milton posits a unity of Adam and Eve, not making any essential difference between them. It is rather the vengeful God that evokes the punishment to Adam and Eve and the figure of Satan that provokes the Fall of Man that embody two performative social forces. Satan represents the process of ascribing gender roles, conferring to Eve the senseless act of betrayal, while God himself acts as the social structure that not only accepts the gender role, but also perpetuates it. Milton’s account of the Fall of Man, from a Butlerian perspective, would therefore entail an account of how gendered bodies are both created and perpetuated within societal structures and discourses.  Hence, following Wittreich,[5] what is crucial about Milton’s Paradise Lost is not that it takes an explicit masculine or feminine stance, but rather that it reveals how the gendered body is put into performance. To develop this thesis, the essay will proceed as follows: 1) Provide a brief synopsis of Butler’s theory of the gendered body 2) Offer a brief overview of Milton’s Paradise Lost, and how it has been approached in the academic literature through the lens of feminist, sexuality and gender theory 3) Advance a reading of Paradise Lost that would demonstrate its fundamentally Butlerian account of the social discourse’s production of the gendered body.

Butler’s Gendered Body

Butler’s theoretical project is multi-faceted and ever-expanding. Yet a basic contention of her work is the attempt to radically question how sexuality and gender are formed by societies. Hence, one of her key critiques is performed against a notion of a “material” or biological reduction of sex. That is to say, gender and sex are separate from the biological distinctions, and from a feminist reading must be considered as separate. As Butler summarizes her project in Bodies That Matter, “I would like to raise the question of whether recourse to matter and to the materiality of sex is necessary in order to establish that irreducible specificity that is said to ground feminist practice.”[6] Butler thus wishes to critique the notions that the biological distinction between sexes may serve as the foundation of a feminist critique. In so doing, however, Butler’s more radical theoretical claim is that “matter” or the physicality of bodies do not determine sex and gender, but rather that the latter are entirely the products of a social discourse. By doing so, Butler thus avoids any essentialism of sexuality: sexuality is the contingent product of particular social discourse formations. Hence, for Butler it is the very “material” itself that appears to create biological distinctions which is “constructed through a problematic gendered matrix.”[7] The point here is to discern this matrix, that is, the discourse that forms materiality as biological distinctions. But this is not, at the same time, to suggest that there is no material existence, as though Butler were an idealist. Rather, “the unsettling of ‘matter’ can be understood as initiating new possibilities, new ways for bodies to matter.”[8] Hence, Butler, by criticizing the particular discursive interpretations of matter, does not do away with matter, but rather realizes that matter itself can be transformed in any number of ways. And in this very freedom of transformation, one strips matters of its essentialism and instead realizes it as possibility.

Here, it is important to underscore the political and feminist relevance of Butler’s gesture. By demonstrating that matter has been conceptualized and is not a presupposed foundation, then it is possible to show that matter has a history, that it has been understood in different ways. And because it has been understood in different ways means that matter itself does not define or essentialize, but rather can be employed to make new definitions.  Feminist theorists therefore re-interpret matter to create alternative political and theoretical spaces for existence. In this regard, Butler’s project can be said to bear a close affinity to the work of Michel Foucault. For example, in Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, the author attempts to demonstrate the different ways in which sexuality has been conceived historically. This is not the denial of the existence of sexuality, but rather the de-essentialization of sexuality. Because sexuality is conceived in different ways, it means that there is no singular way to conceptualize sex. Giving sexuality a history shows this particularity and thus opens new forms of thinking and of conceiving sexuality. For Foucault, the establishment of this history is concordant with asking: “what are the games of truth by which man proposes to think his own nature?”[9] This is Butler’s exact point of critique: what are the matrices of thought that attempt to provide a definition of what is the nature of the human being? For Butler, not even the physical, that is, matter, is inseparable from this “game of truth”, it is itself a product of a matrix of understanding. And precisely with the unveiling of the mechanism of this process of understanding it becomes possible to both de-essentialize sexuality and the body, thus advancing new possibilities. In this regard, it is what Butler terms “the matrix” in the above citation that is crucial to understanding her account, because it functions in a manner analogous to notions of discourse and social formations. Such discourses are instance of what Butler terms the “heterosexual matrix”, a matrix that, if absent, would entail “that the stability of..gendered position would be called into question.”[10] It is this heterosexual matrix that produces what Butler terms “the gendered body”, that is the link of a social role to “matter.” Hence, the heterosexual matrix or discourse in general is involved in “the disciplinary production of gender (that) effects a false stabilization of gender in the interests of the heterosexual construction and regulation of sexuality.”[11] (110)  It is by identifying the workings of this production, which lets us understand how sexuality is maintained. There is a constant performing of these bodies as genders, a constant performance that is conceived of as “stabilization” or an essential sexual essence. Bodies continuously perform within a discourse that attempts to regulate and define gender roles, striving to introduce stability and clear definitions as a form of structure: this is a process of “doing” that continually ascribes gender roles and regulates sexuality.

The Status of Paradise Lost within Feminist Theory

John Milton’s Paradise Lost has been an important reference in feminist literary theory. This is not only because of the text’s canonical status within the Western tradition, but moreover follows from its treatment of the genesis myth and the story of Adam and Eve, a story in which gender and sexual roles are clearly paramount. As Roberta P. Seid suggests, “the story of the creation of Adam and Eve and their fall from grace in the Garden of Eden has probably been the inspiration for more representations and images of women’s bodies than any other source.”[12] However, what is particularly problematic for feminists is that the “fable, as it has been interpreted by male religious leaders, contains all the elements of patriarchy’s gender strategy…the story of Adam and Eve has been used to establish women’s moral weakness.”[13] Accordingly, with this traditional patriarchal view of the story in place, Milton’s own interpretation of the story becomes interesting as a case of whether Paradise Lost merely re-iterates this patriarchal social discourse that has dominated the historical reception of the myth.

Milton scholars and feminist theorists appear to be split on this issue. Furthermore, within the context of contemporary literary theory, it is even debatable as to whether so-called feminine or masculine readings of Paradise Lost are predominant. As McColley notes, “thirty years ago, a largely ‘masculinist’ critical consensus thought that Milton conformed to a traditional reading of the biblical Eve as inherently trivial, vain, and inclined to fall:”[14] The masculinist scholarship portrays Paradise Lost as not substantially differentiating from the patriarchal reception of the myth that Seid identifies, whereas  recent feminist scholarship has represented an upsurge in “showing how Milton shatters this stereotype”,[15] furthermore declaring that Milton’s work “struck off the chains of custom.”[16] However, this is not to suggest that the “feminist” Milton is now an established figure in scholarship. Nyquist argues that such feminist readings are too forced, as “differences that in Paradise Lost are ordered hierarchically and ideologically tend to be neutralized by a critical discourse in formal balance and harmonious pairing.”[17] In Nyquist’s view, feminist interpretations basically read feminism into Milton’s work, thus transforming the clear distribution of hierarchy into forms of relations that are more sympathetic to the feminist approach. At the same time, such debate in the scholarship can be said to not indicate anything essential about Milton’s work itself, but rather demonstrate a textual hermeneutics that reads its own prejudices into the text of Paradise Lost.

In light of the tension of such feminist and masculine receptions, a reading such as that of Wittreich’s is intriguing, in the sense that he essentially offers a middle ground. Whereas Wittreich does not deny the masculine presence of a patriarchal discourse in Milton’s writing, he nevertheless argues that what is at stake in Paradise Lost is a moment of patriarchal self-recognition, in which the system realizes its own production of gender classifications. As Wittreich describes it, Paradise Lost is “the moment when patriarchy, becoming aware of, admits to its own division; in the moment when feminism invades male-sponsored

…male-biased discourses.”[18] Hence, Milton’s text plays the delicate role of both remaining within a patriarchal framework and simultaneously critiquing it, a critique that opens the possibility for a radical feminism. For Wittreich, Milton’s text therefore marks a moment when patriarchal discourse realizes that the sexual and gender differences it considers to be essential are rather the products of its own performance.

From the viewpoint of a Butlerian approach to Milton, Wetterich’s reading is of particular interest, insofar as it suggests that Milton is offering an account of how social discourse forms gender identities. Hence, the potential feminism of Milton rests upon the manner in which he exposes how gender roles are created through his account of the genesis myth. Milton discloses the mechanism of how societal discourse produces gendered bodies, that is, how in Butler’s terms the genesis myth is itself a matrix of performative doing that creates these roles. But the crucial point is that this disclosure is itself a feminist gesture. Because Milton exposes the workings of the structure, he makes it open to analysis and critique. By showing the transience and contingency of these very confirmations of genesis roles he thus realizes a proto-Butlerian account of how the gendered body is formed.

4.0 Reading Paradise Lost Through a Butlerian Lens

Clearly, to justify such a proto-Butlerian approach to Milton, what is necessary is to isolate key instances in the text of Paradise Lost that would correspond to the basic framework of Butler’s schema. From this viewpoint, Milton appears to describe how the “heterosexual matrix” produces the presupposed “stability of gender classification.” One of the ways by which to justify this account is to contrast the pre-lapsarian ideal of Adam and Eve’s existence with the Fall of Man. In other words, the Fall itself would be representative of the production of such gender roles, whereas the pre-lapsarian state would indicate the absence of any sexuality and gender classifications. This itself is a crucial issue of contention in the feminist interpretations of Paradise Lost as Kent Lehnhof notes: “generations of Milton scholars have agreed that Paradise Lost asserts a genital conjugality between Adam and Eve prior to the Fall.”[19] The reason why this issue is significant is that such intimacy would entail that sexual difference was part of the “idealized” state of nature of the pre-lapsarian period. Accordingly, Milton would appear to be radically non-feminist, insofar as he has essentialized sexual relations: If the Fall is consistent with what Butler terms the heterosexual matrix and the production of gender roles, then Milton, in contrast, has idealized sexual difference from the outset.

Lehnhof, however, suggests that Milton does not confer gender roles in the pre-lapsarian stage. “In the same way that Adam and Eve’s ‘bodily’ integrity disallows a delineation of sexuality, their ‘spiritual integrity’ also undermines such an idea….In their unfallen world…Adam and Eve are completely unaware of this sense of self-division. They can recognize no plurality of wills because the internecine conflict that fragments the will in this fashion has not yet come into being. For this reason, sexual intercourse in the pre-lapsarian condition cannot be recognized as such, for intercourse becomes recognizable as sexual, social, and political only after the singular human self is fragmented into the sexual, the social, and(or the political agent.”[20] From the perspective of Lehnhof, Milton’s account of the pre-lapsarian does not include a gendered body nor a dominant patriarchal discourse such as the heterosexual matrix precisely because there is no essentialism in Milton’s Garden of Eden, that is to say, there is no division. It is thus such a unity which could be conceivably discovered in Adam and Eve’s interactions in Book V of Paradise Lost, whereby Adam refers to Eve as “Heaven’s last best gift, my ever new delight!…O sole in whom my thoughts find all repose, my glory, my perfection!”[21] The unity of Adam and Eve is found in the necessity of one for another, what Lenhof terms an absence of division that demonstrates that the idealized nature does not contain the conflict necessary to the gendered body and sexual difference. In this regard, Milton’s de-essentializes the division, attempting to enact a harmony between the sexes in the pre-lapsarian stage.

The transition to The Fall of Man is essentially the “doing” or performance of the gendered body, introducing division into the pre-lapsarian unity. Whereas it is Eve’s succumbing to the satanic temptation that brings about the Fall, her susceptibility must not be viewed as an indictment of feminine vanity and lack of strength (which would only repeat the masculinist readings), but rather that, in a Butlerian style, the temptation is that, which confers such qualities to Eve. Eve is passive to the temptation, as it is Satan that sets in motion the entire process. It is Satan, as Milton details in Book 2, who decides to enter Eden – this decision is independent of Adam and Eve, completely distinct from their existence as fragile bodies, as what Butler would term a matter that can then be formed in whatever way by a dominant social discourse.  For Eve herself challenges the very merit of the satanic temptation, thus showing that traits of vanity and lack of will are not innate to her: “Serpent, thy overpraising leave in doubt / The virtue of that Fruit, in thee first prov’d.”[22] Here, Eve herself expresses ambiguity over the nature of the satanic temptation, thus demonstrating that the temptation is something imposed upon her. As Revard summarizes this passage, “the very process of being led to the tree is the process of being led astray.”[23]  From a Butlerian perspective, it is such that the heterosexual matrix leads everyone astray, but not astray from a true path or a true essence, as this would be merely a repetition of the essentialization at the heart of the heterosexual matrix. Rather, it is the being led that is crucial in this passage, as the entire Garden of Eden assumes a form of a particular discourse that determines the leading, such that the Satanic temptation initiates the general sexualized difference.

Furthermore, it is God’s punishment for the transgression that entails the perpetuation of the roles that the satanic temptation has engendered. That the Satanic serpent argues to Eve that,  as Revard phrases it, “breaking God’s sole command would be only a petty trespass”[24] and therefore would not be repeated, shows how the very ascription of such genders roles and the doing of this process is presented as harmless, bearing no repercussions. Yet the carrying out of the punishment that perpetuates the sexual roles caused by this trespass  shows that the body is continually subject to the workings of this matrix following God’s response. It is in this sense that one could say that God is precisely the social structure that perpetuates the initial production of the delineations that the Satanic Fall causes, such that God is the persistence of the ideology that Satan begins. Genders are created through the temptation and remain in “process” by the punishment of God, a sequence that is made lucid by the radical break it marks from the pre-lapsarian period. Essentially a new order is created, and the story operates as a situation in which God and Satan together can be said to perpetatuate the Butlerian heterogeneous matrix that turns the matter of the bodies of Adam and Eve into “bodies that matter” as purely gendered bodies.

Conclusion

Whereas the literature on Paradise Lost is contentious regarding possible feminist and masculine readings of Milton’s masterwork, it is the poem’s vivid ascription of  significance to the sexual difference that clearly makes it a continued thematic of debate. Taking a Buttlerian approach to the issue perhaps gives one a more nuanced view of the subject, insofar as this framework does not explicitly maintain either Milton’s feminist or masculine intentions from the outset, as if to reify what it means to be a feminist. Rather, Paradise Lost becomes a reflection on how such gender difference emerges within society itself, as Adam and Eve, moving away from the pre-lapsarian state, become bodies that are performed upon by the greater social structure. The power figures of Satan and God act upon the fragile bodies of Adam and Eve, turning both of them into bodies, that is matter, by initiating division into their ideal. At the same time, however, such a depiction of what Butler would call the heterogeneous matrix opens the possibility for its criticism. By exposing the mechanisms of how bodies are acted upon by processes exterior to them, the exposure of the workings of the structure itself becomes a radical critique of the structure. The strength of the Butlerian approach is precisely in that it moves beyond any basic assumed positions of feminism contra patriarchy, establishing how gendered bodies may be established on a foundational level, a gesture that is simultaneously radically feminist in its intent, to the extent that it exposes this process of doing. The question of whether Milton is feminist or not is from this viewpoint irrelevant. As Wittreich notes, Paradise Lost rather offers a moment of recognition concerning how the dominant discourse operates, a moment that in itself is an invaluable resource for feminist theory.

Works Cited

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex”. London: Routledge, 1993.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. London: Routledge, 1990.

Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Random House, 1978.

Goldberg, Ellen. The Lord Who is Half Woman: Ardhanarisvara in Indian and Feminist Perspective. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2002.

Hite, Shere. The Shere Hite Reader: New and Selected Writings on Sex, Globalization and Private Life. New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011.

Lehnhof, Kent R. ““Nor turnd I weene”: Paradise Lost and Pre-Lapsarian Sexuality.” Milton Quarterly 34, no. 3 (2000): 67-83.

McColley, Diane K. “Milton and the Sexes.” In The Cambridge Companion to Milton, edited by Dennis Richard Danielson, 175-198. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Milton, John. Paradise Lost: A Poem. Volume 1. London: Printed for Sharpe by Whittingham, 1821.

Nyquist, Mary, “The Genesis of Gendered Subjectivity in the Divorce Tracts and in Paradise Lost.” In Re-membering Milton: Essays on the Texts and Traditions, edited by Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson, 99-127. London: Methuen & Co, 1998.

Revard, Stella P. “Milton’s Dalila and Eve: Filling in the Spaces in the Biblical Text.” In Arenas of Conflict: Milton and the Unfettered Mind,  edited by Kristin Pruitt McColgan and Charles W. Dunham, 271-282, London, England: Associated University Presses.

Seid, Roberta P. ““Too Close to the Bone”: The Historical Context for Women’s Obsession with Slenderness.” In Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders, edited by Patricia

Fallon, Melanie A. Katzman, & Susan C. Wooley, 3-53. New York: Gulliford Press, 1991.

Stone, Ken. “The Garden of Eden and the Heterosexual Social Contract.” In Bodily Citations: Religion and Judith Butler, edited by Ellen T. Armour and Susan M. St. Ville, 48-71. New York: Columbia University Press, 2006

Wittreich, Joseph. “John, John, I blush for thee!” Mapping Gender Discourses in Paradise Lost. In Out of Bounds: Male Writers and Gender(ed) Criticism, edited by Laura Claridge and Elizabeth Langland, 22-54. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990.

[1] Ellen Goldberg. The Lord Who is Half Woman: Ardhanarisvara in Indian and Feminist Perspective (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2002), 123.

[2] Shere Hite. The Shere Hite Reader: New and Selected Writings on Sex, Globalization and Private Life (New York: Seven Stories Press, 2011), 580.

[3] Ibid., 50.

[4] Ken Stone. “The Garden of Eden and the Heterosexual Social Contract.” In Bodily Citations: Religion and Judith Butler, edited by Ellen T. Armour and Susan M. St. Ville (New York: Columbia University Press, 2006), p. 50.

[5] Joseph Wittreich. “John, John, I blush for thee!” Mapping Gender Discourses in Paradise Lost. In Out of Bounds: Male Writers and Gender(ed) Criticism, edited by Laura Claridge and Elizabeth Langland, 22-54. (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990).

[6] Judith Butler. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (London: Routledge, 1993), 29.

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] Ibid., 30.

[9] Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, Volume 1: An Introduction (New York: Random House, 1978), 7.

[10] Judith Butler. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex” (London: Routledge, 1993), 51.

[11]Judith Butler. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (London: Routledge, 1990), 135.

[12] Seid, Roberta P. ““Too Close to the Bone”: The Historical Context for Women’s Obsession with Slenderness.” In Feminist Perspectives on Eating Disorders, edited by Patricia Fallon, Melanie A. Katzman, & Susan C. Wooley (New York: Gulliford Press, 1991), 29.

[13] Ibid., 29.

[14] McColley, Diane K. “Milton and the Sexes.” In The Cambridge Companion to Milton, edited by Dennis Richard Danielson Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University), 175.

[15] Ibid., 175.

[16] Ibid., 175.

[17] Nyquist, Mary, “The Genesis of Gendered Subjectivity in the Divorce Tracts and in Paradise Lost.” In Re-membering Milton: Essays on the Texts and Traditions, edited by Mary Nyquist and Margaret W. Ferguson, 99-127. (London: Methuen & Co, 1998), 98-99.

[18]Joseph Wittreich. “John, John, I blush for thee!” Mapping Gender Discourses in Paradise Lost. In Out of Bounds: Male Writers and Gender(ed) Criticism, edited by Laura Claridge and Elizabeth Langland, (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1990), 47.

[19] Lehnhof, Kent R. ““Nor turnd I weene”: Paradise Lost and Pre-Lapsarian Sexuality.” Milton Quarterly 34, no. 3 (2000), 67..

[20] Ibid., 68.

[21] Milton, John. Paradise Lost: A Poem. Volume 1. (London: Printed for Sharpe by Whittingham,

1821), Book V: 25-29.

[22] Ibid., Book IX, 615-616.

[23] Stella P. Revard, Stella P. “Milton’s Dalila and Eve: Filling in the Spaces in the Biblical Text.” In Arenas  of Conflict: Milton and the Unfettered Mind,  edited by Kristin Pruitt McColgan and Charles W. Dunham (London, England: Associated University Presses), 278.

[24] Ibid., 279.

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