Why I Dislike the Term “Kyriarchy”

So there’s this word ‘kyriarchy’, which “seeks to redefine the analytic category of patriarchy in terms of multiplicative intersecting structures of domination”. It got invented only about a decade ago and has acheived a little bit of use on the internet. It’s still by no means a mainstream term, so you could argue that arguing over how good a word it is is a waste of time. But you could argue the same about blogging in general, so whatever.

The greek root of kyriarchy is ‘rule of the masters’ which gives a flavour of what it means – rule of everyone who rules, who dominates. The post here seems to have become the locus classicus for defining the term. The idea is that kyriarchy allows us to talk about discrimination based on sex, race, class, nationality, age, disability, neurological type, and everything else, under one convenient term.

So I don’t want to say the term is stupid and people shouldn’t use it; people can use whatever terms they want. But my reaction to it is somewhat negative, and I’m going to explain the two major reasons for this.

Firstly, the word seems very self-consciously new – in the post linked above by MyEcdysis, it’s given explicitly as better than the ‘old skool’ word patriarchy. It seems to carry the implication that all the previous movements subsumed under this heading had failed to ‘get it’.

Now, that seems…rude to me. This is perhaps a response more emotional than rational, but I feel like slapping the past in the face is counter-productive. I mean, this comes out most strongly with the words ‘communist’ and ‘anarchist’: they both have enormous negative associations (of one-party dictatorships and of bomb-throwing psychopaths). Nothing would be easier than to adopt a replacement term of some sort, a label to distance myself from Marx and Kropotkin and Malatesta and so forth. But who’s done more to promote freedom and equality – me, or them? Dropping the words that they struggled for feels like siding with the reactionary forces who have done so much to malign the words and forge those negative associations. So dropping the word ‘patriarchy’ feels like cutting a link with more than a century of struggles. Maybe I’m just a conservative traditionalist.

There’s a bit more than that though. Bound up in this word ‘kyriarchy’ there is, it seems to me, a line that I’ve heard a lot on various feminist blogs: that the feminist movement needs to apologise for its racism and its focus on the needs of privileged middle-class white American women. Now that – that’s clearly true in some respects. I’m wary of wading too far into this. But I know that the US anti-racist movement was in many places actively anti-feminist, actively used anti-feminism, whether it was MLK and Malcolm X trying to create stable black families with authoritative reliable black husbands and submissive nurturing black wives, or Eldridge Cleaver reflecting on his (then repudiated) rape of white women as “an insurrectionary act”. And I know that feminists were deeply involved in 19th-century abolitionism, and lost a lot of their momentum after the Civil War, when black men but not black or other women were enfranchised. And  I guess what I’m saying is that I feel very reluctant to sign up to the idea that the failures of a past movement (a movement that, whatever its flaws, has been involved in far fewer murders than most, including the movement for mainstream liberal democracy) justify distancing oneself from their terms.

Ok so then the second reason. This word is so general, so unspecific. And that of course is the point. It’s mean to incorporate every oppression that anyone’s ever struggled against. But…it doesn’t actually tell you what those are. If person A is a committed anti-racist LGBT activist, and person B is an anti-authoritarian feminist, they can both attack ‘kyriarchy’ while potentially disagreeing on virtually every issue. So why use the word? Why not use some low-flavour bland term like ‘power-structure’ if your aim is to refer to ‘any and every oppression’ in a low-flavour bland way, and then use various different words – fat-acceptance or anti-capitalism or whatnot, for the particular issues.

More generally, it feels like nebulous ‘here’s a position, it’s anti-oppression, ok I accept it then’ in place of ‘ah, right, I see the examples of people’s lives being ruined, I see how this is part of the real world’. For example, I think racism is horrible. I think discrimination against autistic people is horrible. I don’t put those in the ‘about’ section of this blog because I don’t feel as confident talking about them as I do about gender and economics and animal rights. Throwing them all under a blanket heading seems like it either A) means taking a position I don’t actually know much about, or even know I have (e.g. no-one’s ever told me about oppression X, but it falls under the term ‘kyriarchy’ so I’m sort of ‘opposed to it’ in a very abstract way) or B) needs someone to write down a list of every sort of discrimination so that people can tick them off. Which would be stupid.

Eh. So that was a bit of a random ramble. No disrespect to people who like the word, but it seems pointless to me. I don’t like the idea of replacing concrete, contentful words with an open-ended formula because the contentful words were too ‘narrow’. As Spinoza says, all determination is negation: if nothing is left out or de-emphasised, nothing is said.

9 Responses to “Why I Dislike the Term “Kyriarchy””

  1. freethinker Says:

    People are obsessed with technicalities and accuracies these days, and see words like mathematical units dependent on definitions. Such nominalism belies the power of words, which, beyond their dictionary meanings, contain ideas and emotions and a sense of history.

  2. freethinker Says:

    And words rooted in history give a sense of solidarity. And going for words like ‘kyriarchy’ is more a scholarly aim for accuracy which which alienate those who outside of the academic circles, or, in this case, unfamiliar with the blogosphere. And then words, without the sense of history and solidarity couched in them, can become powerless like Orwellian Newspeak.

  3. Dave S. Says:

    What absolute bollocks, freethinker.

    If words have a power beyond their dictionary definitions, containing ideas and emotions and a sense of history, aren’t you just arguing for a different definition?

    It is important to be factually accurate; I don’t know what you mean by “technicalities” but when it comes to politics, sometimes things which can seem small and insignificant, aren’t.

    For example, there is the attempt by the Right to subvert the definition of Left and make the BNP out to be socialists. It’s complete nonsense of course, but the point is, definitions are important.

    If the definitions in the dictionary aren’t sufficient, then the problem is with the dictionary not with the search for accuracy.

  4. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    “If words have a power beyond their dictionary definitions, containing ideas and emotions and a sense of history, aren’t you just arguing for a different definition?”

    I’m tempted to point out that the words “though”, “cowards”, and “flinch” are a good example of words that, when put together, have a strong sense of history and a strong emotional connection to specific people and events – but which could hardly be ‘redefined’ so as to include that history in their definition.

  5. Dave S. Says:

    That is an explicit literary reference: a dictionary is for words alone. If you want concepts, try an encyclopaedia – that’s what they are there for. “Though Cowards Flinch” is easily decipherable by looking up “Red Flag” in Wiki.

    As for what “strong emotional connection to specific people and events” it demonstrates, that is subjective and not at all at issue. The song is the anthem of the Labour Party, and that specific bit of it I quoted in order to emphasize the potential for leaders to fail us.

  6. EKSwitaj Says:

    I would argue that kyriarchy is useful but not sufficient.

    First, it is useful as a token to demonstrate willingness to include concerns of women who are not white, middle-class, and able-bodied. To be very clear, I’m not talking about the issue of apologising for the history of the movement but about the current exclusion some women feel. While it is useful to use such signals, that by itself is not actual inclusion. (In other words, you can’t just replace patriarchy with kyriarchy and *boom* no more racism in the feminism of white women.)

    Second, there is the issue of generality that you discuss. Kyriarchy is useful precisely where other terms like patriarchy exclude some of the power dynamics, but should not replace patriarchy entirely because that will not always be the case.

  7. SnowdropExplodes Says:

    My understanding of the term kyriarchy is not that it refers to “every oppression that anyone’s ever struggled against” but rather, to the specific ways in which different forms of oppression interlink with one another and support each other.

    If the term is in fact being used in the way you describe, then it is indeed a loss and a step backwards; but as an analytic tool in the way that I understood the term I think it can be quite powerful as a word to show that class, race and sex oppression are in fact related to one another not just by being similar, but by actively strengthening one another.

  8. Alderson Warm-Fork Says:

    Ok, but I guess I feel like specific ways deserve specific words. A very general word doesn’t tell me much about the specific ways that different forms of oppression interact. If the issue is, for example, the way that gender and species oppression interact through the construction ofviolence against other species (hunting, eating red meat) as a marker of masculinity, let’s call that something specific (like, “the male-as-carnivore complex” or something). Saying ‘kyriarchy’ doesn’t tell me whether someone recognises that interaction, or even recognises the abuse of animals as an important oppression – I’m sure there must be some non-vegan/vegetarian people declaiming against kyriarchy.

  9. Why no one should use that word: Kyriarchy instead of Patriarchy | RANCOM Says:

    […] a different critical perspective, try:  Why I Dislike the Term “Kyriarchy” This entry was posted in Anarchism, Feminism, Intersectionality, kyriarchy. Bookmark the […]

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