The Long Way Forward

I’ve just finished reading Marilyn French’s _Beyond Power_, and it is an amazing, goose bump-inducing feminist work. I’d like to share some quotes from and some thoughts on this fabulous tome. (I’ll come back and provide more citations later—I don’t have the book with me– only my notes).

In it, French describes the history of the patriarchy and the ways it has divided us.

Patriarchy is a system under which power is seen as the greatest human good. This includes both the power-to act, and especially power-over others (otherwise known as control). French argues that our society has not always been organized in this fashion, and her first chapter describes (with some conjecture) what early matri-focal life was like (p 18).

Since patriarchy began, however (3,000 yrs ago, she says), human characteristics have been divided into those seemingly “masculine” (such as aggression, the mind, control, dominance, etc) and those seemingly “feminine” (including nurturing, gentleness, the body, and submissiveness). Note that these categories are culturally associated—French does *not* claim that they describe the essence of men and women. In fact all humans/life contain both categories. After the patriarchy began, women were dominated by men throughout the centuries (cite).

As French states,

Certain values are fundamental to patriarchy: control is the highest good, control over nature—transcendence—is the mark of the human; men are human and women are part of nature; it is necessary for men to prove their loyalty to the transcendent by demonstrating power over nature (and, by extension, women, flesh, and feeling). (p 112)

Men are always on a mission to transcend and control the natural through thought (as Descartes p 117), through religion (p 114-116, 118), or science (p 117). As Frances Bacon says about men controlling science,

The mechanical inventions of recent years do not merely exert a gentle guidance over Nature’s courses; they have the power to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations.

Again, he says,

I am come in very truth leading you to Nature with all her children *to bind her to your service and make her your slave*.(all p 117, emphasis mine).

Of course, since women are associated with nature, men are also on a mission to dominate and control them. Sex, then, reminds men of their own natural, bodily state and thus it is dirty and needs regulation (cite). The patriarchy uses The Word (that is, religious, political, and social rules and mores) to control and regulate sex and relations with women. This is a tool used to distance men from nature. Patriarchy claims that The Word was always here in the world (John 1:1). But that’s not true. Man brought The Word to the world and laid its matrix onto nature (cite).

Since men are fundamentally a part of nature, they will not be able to transcend it through regulation, meditation, prayer, skyscrapers, nuclear ventures, and/or domination. Transcendence is not possible—we are always already being-in-the-world (I think that phrasing is Heidegger’s).

But we don’t need to “transcend” this world in order to reach the good stuff—it’s already here in this world. Mary Daly calls the fundamental makeup of this world spirit-matter, which emphasizes the sacredness of being. As she says,

I think matter is extremely alive and spiritual in the deepest sense

For me, the word “spirit” has other-wordly connotations, and is inexact for that reason. However, I do love the way Daly uses it.

All this domination via regulation, innovation, and commodification is bad, since it harms both women and men (and nature too). As French says,

Domination is an ill, not because of some abstract moral principle, but because of a concrete moral fact: it makes people unhappy. Domination makes impossible the most essential and felicitous element in life: trusting mutual affection.(p 85).

This seems obviously true to me. French says,

Domination is a hysterical attempt to emulate God [sic], to be in complete control of nature, others, and self; it is not possible for human beings (p 137).

So, patriarchy is bad because it doesn’t maximize human pleasure (couched here as “trusting mutual affection”) but instead makes the powerful paranoid and suspicious, and makes life miserable for the powerless (cite).

What can we do about it? French claims that we should return to (or begin) a more matri-focal society without valuing dominance or power. That is, we should eschew the characteristics more associated with the “masculine” (such as dominance, aggressiveness, anti-nature, division, anger, isolation, transcendence, etc) and focus on those “feminine” characteristics (such as nature, being-in-the-world, community, compassion, warmth, empathy, etc). Again, French is not claiming that either set of characteristics is naturally divided into gendered types (hence her use of the quotation marks). Instead, she’s claiming that one set of these characteristics are more likely to promote pleasure, and the other is more likely to bring misery (for both the powerful and the powerless). That the characteristics she chooses happen to be more associated with the “feminine” is interesting to note, but she acknowledges that they do not naturally belong to women—they are human characteristics.

Unfortunately, I wanted to read in this book about a concrete long-way-forward. How can we, without valuing power, expunge the P? Which particular steps can we take? Participating in community building and women’s culture is a start. Men may see that our community based happiness and joy is superior to power, which is a miserable drug and those who pursue it get no satisfaction (just by reading the top comments on this Rolling Stones video we can see how miserable those are for whom the pursuit of power does not bring satisfaction. Big TW on those comments). However, I wonder if we can really accomplish so much using this tactic.

Another problem with the pursuit of power is that it turns life into a linear path, rather than cyclical. The telos of life is power, and the quality of life is measured by the degree to which that goal is achieved. The nature of power is that one can never have enough of it. Thus, the telos (satisfaction) can never be fully reached. Under a matri-centric system, we would see life as a cycle, rather than a marathon. As French says,

Another powerful element in the patriarchy is the idea of purpose. Because this ideology shifted humans’ vision of life from a cyclical to a linear shape, life was endowed with an end, which was both a terminating point and a telos. Most simple cultures—and, we may hypothesize—matri-centric cultures—envision life as part of the eternal recurrence of nature. Just as the seasons change, the moon alters its shape, animals are born, grow, and die, so each returns again, as winter moves back into spring, the moon returns to its fullness, and new young animals reappear. Worship of the goddess, with its emphasis on regeneration—on the snake, the butterfly, and other symbols of transformation—seem to have envisioned human life in a similar fashion, as cyclical, offering a rebirth through transformation. A cyclical vision of life precludes end, for circles have no end. (p 272)

I love this passage! I was raised a “non-denominational born-again evangelical Christian” whose end goal in life was to be raptured by age 18 or to save others through my religious zeal (Ew). As I gave up that religion, I was bothered for a while by a so-called “god-shaped hole”—that is, a sense of a lack of purpose in my life. I ended up using academic philosophy as a personal panacea for this perceived lack, but eventually found that a hyper-rational approach to life left out many important aspects and was not the solution I had hoped for. Again, I strained for a purpose. French has shown me that this pattern of thinking—that there must be some goal that my life is directed at—is highly patriarchal. Instead, I should see myself as a unique part of nature existing right now in a cycle that began well before me and will (hopefully) continue long after.

So, to conclude:

Under the patriarchy, power is the highest good.

The pursuit of power involves domination. Domination makes everyone miserable, and total domination isn’t possible.

The long way forward out of patriarchy involves eschewing patriarchal values and choosing a more “feminine”, cyclical life course. I would like more info on how this solution actually smashes the p.

What other revelations can a matri-centric world view bring?! I look forward to finding out!

About smash
Women's liberationist.

9 Responses to The Long Way Forward

  1. This is such a wonderful review of Marilyn French’s book. I’ve had a copy of Beyond Power sitting on my bookshelf for ages, but it’s looked so detailed that I just haven’t got around to reading it. Your description really makes me ready now!

    I especially love this quote:

    “Domination is an ill, not because of some abstract moral principle, but because of a concrete moral fact: it makes people unhappy. Domination makes impossible the most essential and felicitous element in life: trusting mutual affection.”

    It’s why we can’t have a class system and expect any kind of true happiness; our relationships with one another are all we have.

  2. KatieS says:

    Yes, a wonderful review, I agree, Smash. And WOJ, I have always thought that about the class system. What a great quote, domination prevents, “trusting mutual affection.”

  3. smash says:

    WOJ and Katie, thanks so much for the positive feedback :).

    The book really is rather long, with a few passages chock full of examples that can be a tad dry. However, the feminist theory in it is so rich that I gobbled the whole book up. What I liked most about it is the discussion of the patriarchy as a real system that squashes so many valuable (and attainable) goods. As you say, WOJ, our relationships with one another are all we have. This leads me directly to the desire to create a rich women’s culture. However, it’s so rare to find feminist women, and even more difficult to find radicals IRL. Of course, it’s always possible to create women’s culture with non-feminist women, but I feel that non-feminist women often see each other as competition, which is not an instance of “trusting mutual affection” at all. I’m actively seeking ways to cut through this, though.

    For example, a few weeks ago the ladies in my family got together for a make-up party. I love my grandma, my aunts, my cousins, and my mom and I wanted to spend time with them. However, I am actively opposed to hiding my face behind products designed to disguise my “flaws”. I decided to go to the event, however, because I believed that participating in women’s culture (and family life) was more important than maintaining the purity of my beliefs in action in this instance. I ended up having a great time sharing food, laughter, and many many hugs with these amazing women. The products were entirely tertiary to the event (behind community building, and food). Maybe next time the coming-together can begin outside commercialized beauty products.

  4. Mary Tracy says:

    Smash, I am speechless. I am in awe at the amazingness of this post. Honestly, I take off my flowery, pink feathered hat in your name and in this post’s awesomeness.

    As I have mentioned before, this book was my first introduction to the world of radical feminism. I was 23 when I read it and I swear to goodness, I could feel my brain expanding while I read it. To be honest, it took me a while to come to terms with some of the things in it. But I was eventually won over by its truth. Yes, I won’t even apologize for using that word, I believe there is more truth in that book than in any other book I’ve read before or since. I have never encountered a single feminist who has read it, and I think it’s a shame. It is so powerful it should be mandatory reading for everyone, feminists in particular.

    A billion kudos to you for writing about it. I’ve been meaning to for ages, but my extreme perfectionism gets in the way. It is a difficult task to summarise 546 pages in a single post. But you’ve done it, and it’s a great read. So thank you.

    I am the proud owner of that very edition you see in the photo, so if anyone wants to know more, just ask 🙂

  5. smash says:

    Mary Tracy, thank you for your kind words! I’m so glad we both loved this book. I would love it if everyone I know would read it. Yes, it has re-framed my perspective. Yes, it is full of *TRUTH*!

    Moments like this, where I find myself connecting with other women on topics I believe in, make all the struggle worth it.

    In other words, :).

  6. Yay for this review 🙂 Have you read French’s “The Women’s Room”?

  7. smash says:

    Thanks phonaesthetica. I have not– do you recommend it?

  8. Pingback: on moral relativism « smashesthep

  9. Pingback: Is it Possible to Abolish the Patriarchy and Pornstitution? « smashesthep

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