Following on from this post, where could we start, if we wanted a theoretical understanding of oppression that was broader than economic oppression? Marx claimed to start from labour, and we’ll need to find an aspect of life that’s similarly fundamental. I’m going to see what can be done by starting from how people ‘make sense of’ the world, not just theoretically but practically.
I’m going to try to trace out how this might provide some understanding of patriarchy and human-supremacism (aka ‘anthroparchy’), though I hope it will also provide insight into other matters, and will try to lay out how in future posts.
Let’s try to make a very very broad comment about how people understand the world: people like stories. Narrative structures are more emotionally satisfying that static structures or structures that don’t resemble action, so people tell stories about their lives to make sense of them.
Can we then make any very very broad comments about narratives? Are there any shared features of all stories? Well, stories need a hero, and they need the hero to be driven to action in seeking something they do not already have. So there’s a basic division between the seeking hero and the sought prize, which may be a state of affairs (e.g. safety), or may be concentrated into some particular item (e.g. the grail), or personified into a person (e.g. a princess).
But of course, just as there would be no story if the hero already possessed the prize, there would be no story if they had no difficulty in attaining it. So there’s another basic division between the protagonist and the antagonist, between the hero and those forces that they must struggle against. Often this is personified in the figure of a ‘villain’, though sometimes it is something less personal (e.g. a mountain that must be climbed).
So we can say that there are three broad ‘roles’: hero, villain, and prize. There are also, of course, background characters, minions, sidekicks, etc. etc. And we can take a sort of axiom that, other things being equal, people will cast themselves as the hero in their own story.
Given this axiom and this very abstract (and so hopefully fairly safe from being completely rejected) analysis, we can now ask – how does reality intervene, and mess things up?
The most obvious complication is that there are more than one person, and so our personal narratives may clash with, or accord with, those of others. So for example, let’s say you get into a fight with X, and in your head you’re the hero and he’s the villain. You talk to a third person afterwards. If they agree, and say “X is a nasty piece of work, they needed to be taught a lesson” then you’ll feel secure and reassured. But they might say “Why would you do that to X? They’re such a nice person, what’s your problem?” then there’s serious cognitive dissonance, because now you don’t know if you’re the hero or the villain. Things don’t make sense, you are tormented by doubts.
More broadly, everyone will want to be the hero, and yet will find that they are sometimes the hero, sometimes someone else’s villain, and sometimes the prize that hero and villain fight for. And sometimes they are just a background character in someone else’s story. Sometimes subject, sometimes object; sometimes a person confronting the world, sometimes a part of the world. It’s not just meeting other people that brings home to us this personal ambiguity – we can already discover it simply by seeing that we can construct multiple equally plausible narratives out of the same events – things can be seen from different perspectives. But other people bring it out most forcefully.
Now, there are two ways to deal with this. One would be to try to make a more complex story, without a single hero – with multiple sub-plots and characters who take up different roles. But this would be difficult, and less reassuring than continuing to think that the world revolves around you.
The other way is to set up a single narrative and suppress alternatives (obviously this will never specify every detail, but will provide a framework for how to look at events, of greater or lesser strictness). To do this you will have to compel people to act, speak, and think in a certain way, and all the familiar methods will be needed, ranging from violence to fraud to indoctrination.
In particular, the three ‘roles’ mentioned above will become three distorted ‘identities’. The first identity, I’ve already referred to under the name ‘dominator’, but I’d also like to suggest the term ‘archon’. It’s usually not a good sign when people decide to invent their own words, but hey, I feel like it. I define ‘archon’ as ‘always hero’ – an identity incompatible with being the prize or small part in someone else’s story, but only with being always hero, the subject, the centre, the person.
A natural consequence is that someone with such an identity will be unhealthily identified with power and conquest, because everything must be them triumphing, not them receding or fading away or letting others get on with it. They will also have to psychotically distort their sense of themselves, by affirming whatever differentiates them from others and from the world and suppressing whatever shows their continuity with it. They are active, never passive, viewer, never viewed, and everyone must identify with them and see things from their point of view.They are, one might say, persons – to the extreme.
The word ‘archon’ seems appropriate here for a few reasons. It’s from ancient Greek for ‘first’ or ‘ruler’, and brings out the link between dominating others and ‘being first’, primary, central. It’s a term that fantasy authors have used for various beings of pure power, which fits with the idea of a sort of never-quite-realised image of the pure power-seeker, a ‘purified’ version of mere personhood. And of course, it neatly brings out the connection with ‘anarchism’, the principled opposition to all archons.
Conversely, from the role of ‘prize’ is constructed the opposite identity, what we might ‘anti-archon’ or ‘antarchon’. To identify as antarchon is to always be the object of someone else’s striving – to suppress all distinctively person-ish activities, indeed to not act at all as far as possible. To assimilate onself to an object, and to find one’s satisfaction and value in being a highly valuable and desired object – and, as the method of realising this, in being ‘possessed’ by an archon. It is to perceive the experience of being dominated, taken, conquered, and mastered as the fulfilment of your essence.
Finally, what of the villain? I have a corny new word for this as well, ‘alter-archon’ or ‘altarchon’. Altarchons don’t simply play the villain role sometimes, but are defined as always and only playing that role – they can only be perceived as dangerous and threatening, and never identified with. They resemble the archon in being active, assertive, and so forth, but they’re the baddies, not the goodies. The only good one is a dead one. Needless to say, people would rarely identify themselves as such, only someone else – and if they did, it would be a sign of desperation.
Alternative labels might be drawn from Jungian psychoanalysis, which astute readers may have noticed a resemblance to. Archon, antarchon and altarchon; ego, anima(-us), shadow.
We can now pose a third question – how, and based on which factual influences, will society map these identities onto particular groups? As general trends, we might suggest that
1) the divisions will be more rigid and more harshly enforced when conflict is independently likely or necessary – the more you kill, the more you have to deny empathy with those who you kill;
2) the divisions will reflect all other power-structures: any imbalance of power will give the more powerful a better chance of defining themselves as archons (which in turn entrenches that power) and others as altarchons or antarchons.
3) most vaguely: to the extent that the way people act ‘fits’ with narrative schemes, they will be written into the appropriate identities.
So for example, we might enquire about the three most basic and robust such definitions: those of animals, women, and children in opposition to men. Children are a more complicated case that I’ll put aside for now, but with, say, animals, it’s clear that point 2 is operative in determining how any set of definitions will look, if it is imposed: animals are largely powerless in terms of the power to contest definitions, since they can’t communicate symbolically with humans.
Thus ‘archon’ would be identified with ‘human’; whatever aspects of the non-human asserted themselves as individuals would be defined as altarchons, summed up in the term ‘beast’, while whatever bits of the non-human world did not assert or individuate themselves would be amalgamated into the feminised ‘mother nature’, bountiful, but needing humans to ‘tame’ her to ‘make her fertile’.
The only question then was whether these definitions would be imposed, or none, and the fact that we have been at war with nature for millions of year pretty much decided that (by point 1). Right now, however, not only has the necessity of systematically killing animals to survive disappeared, but the necessity of moving beyond an oppositional and exploitative relation to nature has replaced it. This is the basis of optimism for many animal rightists.
A much more difficult question is about sex. For what reason was the initial, basic, mapping of male=dom, female=sub established? We can see how it could maintain itself once established, but what was the original cause, the origin of patriarchy? Possible answers include:
- men have more muscles and don’t get these weird incapacitating growths in their stomachs, so when they disagree with women they have a purely physical advantage
- men spend more time in hormonal states that encourage aggression, and/or women’s experience of birth and breastfeeding encourages habits of nurturance that inhibit aggression
- the need for women to bear, nurse, and look after children prevents them from engaging in other forms of labour that seem more ‘heroic’ and self-assertive
- the greater sexual competition between males leads them to fight more, and this means that male struggles and victories are the most socially interesting events, which helps them to dominate the group’s narrative
- the greater sexual competition between males forces them to resolve their conflicts through laws and formal agreements rather than actual emotional healing or friendship, and this in turn gives them an organisational advantage that lets them work together for nefarious ends
(along the lines of Man A:’let’s stop fighting over women A and B. I’ll have woman B, you have woman A.’ Man B: ‘sounds good, let’s do it.’ Woman A: ‘wait, what?’)
I don’t want to decide between these – it’s quite possible that some or all are simultaneously involved. Different writers, both feminists and non-feminists, have talked about each one.
But what they generally suggest is something like point 3. above – the patterns of activity imposed on men and women by biology encourage stories where men are the heroes. They also generally suggest that the origin of patriarchy has its roots in power and aggression.
The ultimate result, anyway, is that masculinity and humanity get defined as ‘whatever distinguishes a person from nature – absolutised’, and femininity and animality get defined in opposition to this as ‘whatever persons share with nature – absoluted’. The humanity of women is denied simultaneously with the personhood of animals.
In consequence, we end up with
1) a one-sided understanding of what a person is;
2) a conflation of ‘human’ with ‘person’; and
3) a conflation of ‘male’ with ‘human’.
All three are tied together, whether as a singular or a mass noun, in the word ‘man’.