Cleaning up post-patriarchal confusion

An introduction

Words often do not match reality. This is obvious to those who are alert as they make their way through the world: Is the mother to whom I refer as a „single mom” really raising her kids all by herself? Might not the female small farmer from Tanzania whom the Chinese agricultural expert calls „backward” in fact be smarter than him? Is the unemployed woman growing vegetables in her garden really without work? Is the „weaker” and „fairer” sex, as many people still call it, really so weak and fair?

This problem has always been there: Words do not reflect reality „as it is” but present a debatable image of it. For reality is never identical with the words and phrases used to represent it. 

I can call my neighbor a refugee, a Muslim, a tax evader, a girlfriend, a mother, an Afghan, or a jobless person. Each word refers to a certain aspect of this unique being, but none covers the whole. In using certain words, I can describe a person or situation by linking them to specific qualities or functions, upgrading or downgrading them and thereby exercising control, enabling fruitful relationships, or changing the world in other ways. As language never perfectly mirrors reality, it can be used for different purposes: to foster or to hinder a good life.

The issue becomes even more capricious when you realize that words do not exist in isolation, but in conjunction with, among other things, each other to form what we refer to  as „symbolic order” in this book. Humans need such structures in order to orient themselves in the world and to communicate. At the same time they are able to change them if they prove to be awkward or destructive. However, constant change is intrinsic to language, and this change can also be deliberately shaped. This book is about the life-conducive shaping of language and, by extension, of shaping our world.

The declining order patriarchy

In 1996 a book was published in Italy, titled „It happened, not by accident.” The authors, philosophers from the The Milan Women’s Bookstore Collective,put forward the idea that patriarchy has come to an end. Since that time at least, more and more people, women and men, have become convinced that we are living in a time of transition: the time of declining patriarchy. The specific symbolic order that for centuries has determined much of humanity’s perception of the world and the reality of life, even to the point of confusing it with reality itself, is now dissolving.

As far as we know, this order that is now passing was formulated systematically for the first time in classical Antiquity, in Athens during the fifth century BCE. This formulation presents the world as divided into two static spheres of the „higher” and the „lower.” A quote from Aristotle’s Politics illustrates how the patriarchal order was gradually imposed by use of linguistic binary notions, each consisting of higher (controlling) and lower (submissive) positions that define, endorse and stabilize each other:

„…for the soul rules the body with a despotic rule, whereas the intellect rules the appetites with a constitutional and royal rule. And it is clear that the rule of the soul over the body … is natural and expedient … Again, the male is by nature superior and the female inferior, and the one rules, and the other is ruled … There is … a science of the master, which teaches the use of the slaves; for the master as such is concerned … with the use of them. … while they [the masters] occupy themselves with philosophy or with politics.” (Aristotle, Politics. Translated by Benjamin Jowett, New York 2005,

Hence, the body relates to the soul as the female relates to the male, the lesser to the better, the governed to the governing, the slave to the master and being a passive object to politics and philosophy. Beginning with Aristotle’s world construct, and much more so over the following centuries, conceptual binaries have followed this basic hierarchical structure: human civilization is afforded a position of pre-eminence over nature, practice becomes the obedient effectuation of theory, the occident is placed over the orient, the state over the family, the market over the household, freedom over poverty. 

Finally, in medieval Christianity, which was deeply rooted in Aristotle’s worldview, God is conceived of as an absolute, higher and independent principle: „Lord,” „creator,” and „father” all at the same time. He is thus guarantor and controller of all things. 

Although European Enlightenment has dethroned God the Lord, it substituted him with concepts like „reason,” „science,” „objectivity” (and more recently „market” and ”money”). However, the convention of static, dualistic binaries remains, and the link of „the higher” with masculinity, reason and freedom on the one hand, and „the lower” with femininity, corporality and subjection on the other, is unchanged and continues to have a manifold impact on society.

Post-patriarchal thinking 

In the days of the declining patriarchy, more and more people are recognizing that the world does not necessarily have to be framed according to the dictates of this static and dualistic order of discourse. At the same time, we recognize that a better order will not emerge by itself. 

The collapse of old pseudo-certainties causes a kind of dizziness; after all, in the post-patriarchal confusion, we literally do not know what is up and what is down: Do emotions now dominate reason? Are money and profit no longer at the center of economic activity and the object of all desires? Around what will our living together concentrate itself if the logic of the market no longer determines everything? Around the household or the state or around a kind of community  that has yet to be named? What will still be seen as work, what will be leisure? Who will be paid for what? How are we to say what and how something is, in the midst of all the debris left behind by the collapse of the concept of the (married) couple? How do we bring new order to these jumbled up concepts?

Even seemingly familiar „big words” from the tradition of critical resistance out of which we, the authors, come – („the political left,” „criticism of globalization,” „equal rights,” „liberation,” „solidarity,” „justice, peace, and integrity of creation,” and so on) – become suspect of being infected by the dualistic order and therefore not being appropriate for shaping the post-patriarchal world. This is an important reason why such words that our readers might be expecting do not appear in this book.

The female thinkers who first spoke about the end of patriarchy have created a word for the political and cultural work that must now be done: they call it „work on the symbolic.” We, the authors of this book, also use the term „post-patriarchal thinking.”  What is meant with both phrases is that we are taking up the feminist critique of thedualistic order, but that we do not stop there; rather we pursue it in a constructive and inventive way, as we begin to bring a new order into the world. Thus, fury and complaint about our status as victims and discriminated people will no longer be at the center of our attention. Instead, our attention shifts to the responsibility for a newly organized good life for all seven billion dignitaries on the vulnerable planet Earth.

A Con-fusion of stories

For many years, the nine women who wrote this book together, have been engaged in this post-patriarchal work on the symbolic, alone or together in ever new projects. We have not organized ourselves as association, but meet each other again and again in changing configurations during weekends, conferences or actions. Under different names we have been and remain already publicly present : for example, as „Ethik im Feminismus”, „Weiberwirtschaft”, oder ‘beziehungsweise weiterdenken”. Since our first post-patriarchal Symposium in summer 2002 in Salzburg we have published many texts. This book will be published on the internet to enable unhampered collective writing with all those who want to join and contribute to this post-patriarchal reflection.  

Findings for the time being

In this collaboration process we have developed a list of concepts or notions, which could be the start of a new order. In this publication we present a collective vocabulary which we hope will generate discussion. The longer we talk and shape the world, it will become clearer which words we do not need any more, which words will be pushed to the margins and which will be thrust towards the center. New words have already been generated: for instance sheconomy, shitology, intervital encounter. Sometimes a new combination of familiar words solve a problem of naming, for example when we speak of political love or of freedom in relation. Step by step, in ever new attempts we have already cleaned up and newly organized the symbolic order so that it better fits the reality in which we find ourselves today. 

We have captured this intermediate result of this post-patriarchal work of new naming  in the form of an Alphabet. It has the advantage that we do not fix our readers into one particular system, but rather enable them, to start reading this book wherever they want to and to become attracted by some words and to let other words be. The disadvantage is that overlaps and repetition could not be totally avoided. 

Cross references (in bold) refer her to the appropriate lemmata. On the website we have created for each article its own field for comments, where working on this concept can be continued, connections to other notions be made and new words can be proposed. We will not arrive at closing the fundamental gap between words and realities; they will keep distinguishing themselves from each other. However, we believe that much of the good life can be brought into the world when we give new shape in a creative way to the relations between reality and the symbolic order.