Freedom, Structure, and
the Passage of Time
By questioning, and then discarding the easy notion that the patriarchal oppression of women within a system that worships male power exists because men benefit from it being that way and therefore caused it on purpose, feminists found themselves moving from the old, mechanistic understandings of power, which were based on the notion of a rigid, innate connection between actors and their social location within a fossilized social structure.
This was new; some of the women who thought along these lines and reached theoretical insights such as those outlined here began to realize that these theories they were formulating bore an interesting resemblance to concepts in modern theoretical physics--
Space-time is really timeless; all events are interconnected but not causally, and can be interpreted as part of a process of cause and effect only when they are read in a single direction. Thus the world of subatomic phenomena, that which underlies everything in the universe, is "feminine"--nonhierarchical, fluid, transient, many-sided, and eternal.
If we apply the metaphor of subatomic phenomena to human existence, we discover an exciting new model. Interconnection, interplay, is the cause of everything that exists. Power is neither substance nor force precisely but the coming together of particular things in a certain way, at a certain moment.
(French 1985, p. 499)
That everything is energy, that everything moves, that everything is somehow discrete or separate, and interrelated or interconnected--these seem rather vital scientific facts that politics would do well to examine. Furthermore, as Arthur Koestler wrote, "The nineteenth-century model of the universe as a mechanical clockwork is a shambles and since the concept of matter itself has been dematerialized, materialism can no longer claim to be a scientific philosophy".
Nor, I might add, can materialism any longer claim to be a political philosophy.
Both quantum physics and feminism are "second generation" critiques of the old order, going even further than those "first generation" revolutions which acted against the dominant theory of determinism.
(Morgan 1982, p. 291)
Traditional sociological concepts have posited social structures as the determinants of the political situation of individuals, and emphasized the deterministic quality of social composite categories such as gender and class, which were seen as the fundamental "building blocks" of the social structure. Feminist theorists equated these concepts with "wave" concepts of matter and energy, to which the new theories of radical feminism were adding the "particle" understanding and including them both (Morgan 1982). Traditional "clockwork" structural-functionalist views and political-social concepts were equated with classical celestial mechanics, Newtonian and Cartesian mechanical physics, whereas radical feminism was seen to resemble the dynamic theories of Faraday, Maxwell, Einstein, and Capra (French 1985; Morgan 1982).
This altered not only the vision of oppression, but also the vision of possible social transformation. While retaining the revolutionary intent and adversarial stance implied in previous conflict theory, radical feminists reconceptualized revolution, seeing in individual initiative and personal participation in the interactions of which society is formed the locus for revolutionary social change.
Beneath every sociopolitical organization lies a more or less flexible morality, an interwoven set of values in which certain qualities are central...Patriarchal structures will alter as human ends change, and it is impossible to predict what new forms will supersede them.
(French 1985, pp. 535, 537)
Though the men own the outer world, that world is merely a reflection of their totally reversed inner reality. Their having persuaded us to internalize this chimera, to let them dominate our inner as well as our outer world, is the triumph of a mirage, a sleight-of-spirit...
A corollary to thesis that since reality is only what we give the energy of our belief to, what we feel as real, all systems are internal systems: patriarchy does not have a separate existence outside us; it exists only inside us and we project it onto our external screen. It follows, then, that the instant patriarchy ceases to exist inside our hearts and minds, it dies everywhere.
(Johnson 1987, p. 320)
The problem with these contentions for most sociologists will probably be their resemblance to "presociological" popular assumptions about people's freedom to live and behave as they see fit (and, therefore, their personal accountability for how they do behave). Agency has indeed been reintroduced here, in such a dramatic way that oppression again becomes a difficult concept. Social structure has ceased to play the coercive role of denying people their freedom and determining their circumstances. In the worst spirit of New Age mysticisms, social reality would seem to be redefined as whatever we (collectively) conceive it to be.
In a sense, these are not misconstruals of feminist theory, at least not entirely. The spirit of optimism, and the conviction that social change lies within our grasp as agents who can act freely, is very much a part of the feminist vision. And yet, it is also important to see that radical feminism does not denigrate or diminish the enormity of the problem, and the real existence of structure and its capacity to oppress people is central to its theoretical tenets--indeed, is central to its theoretical origins.
Philosophers may be equally bothered by the tendency of theorists to speak as if the transformation from patriarchy to a feminist future is an inevitable and irreversible process, outside of which the species could not survive for much longer, and of such intrinsically perceivable value to all people at all stations in life that its success would seem virtually preordained. And yet, feminists are deeply concerned about the need to awaken people to the priorities at hand, and engage them with these perspectives lest silence and the lack of exposure take their toll.
As I said before, an intersubjectively shared but incorrect world-view of society that separates feelings from analytical thought, once established, denies people's actual lived experiences at the same time that it shapes them in particular by lying about them generally, in terms of what things mean and how they fit together. In contrast, in a context of interaction free of the cognitive restraints created by (and as) the patriarchal world-view, the fact that we all share the ability to assess our experiences and use that ability to construct and update our intersubjectively shared patterns of understanding would mean, more often than not, that the social check of communication would reveal compatibility of our individual images of reality with the images that other people have
These are two different possible situations, with aspects and elements of each situation involved in our present-day social reality. Their coexistence being ultimately irreconcilable, this implies that our current situation is a bit of a battlefield of world-views and world-possibilities. The enormity of patriarchal oppression seems to exist, paradoxically, alongside of the vitality of our capacity for deliberate social change and the virtual inevitability of eventual social transformation. One thing that may clear up these apparently contradictory assertions is a more thoughtful inclusion of the Einsteinian fourth dimension, the passage of time. Our normative notions of social arrangements, structure and power do tend to be three-dimensional: static and materialist (describing the state of being as a thing in itself). To move towards the post-materialist vantage point advocated by French and Morgan, it is necessary to do some conceptual housecleaning, altering social theories wherever they depend on descriptions of reality that do not include the unfolding of relationships over time as well as across other dimensions.
Lest my own theoretical house be out of order, the first of these conceptual housecleaning chores I wish to address myself to is a critique of Pirsig's "instantaneous" (p. 233) romantic quality experience. The hypothetical person seeing a tree cannot really experience a preanalytical timeless sense of self-in-relation-to-tree after all, since nothing occurs instantaneously. Pirsig's own critique of intellectuals who believe that events and things can only be experienced through intellectual concepts that interpret them begins with their tendency to overlook the time lag between sensory reception and intellectual awareness:
You can't be aware that you've seen a tree until after you've seen the tree, and between the instant of vision and instant of awareness there must be a time lag. We sometimes think of that time lag as unimportant. But there's no justification for thinking that the time lag is unimportant...The past exists only in our memories, the future only in our plans. The present is our only reality. The tree that you are aware of intellectually, because of that small time lag, is always in the past and therefore is always unreal...Reality is always in the moment of vision before the intellectualization takes place. This preintellectual reality is what Phaedrus felt he had properly identified as Quality.
[Intellectuals] usually have the greatest trouble seeing this Quality, precisely because they are so swift and absolute about snapping everything into intellectual form. The ones who have the easiest time seeing this Quality are small children, uneducated people and culturally "deprived" people.
But since light does not travel from place to place instantaneously, but instead has a velocity, the tree that is preintellectually sensed is also already in the past. In fact, impulses travel down human nerve fibers at a much slower rate, so the time lag between light leaving tree and light hitting eyeball is followed by a much larger time lag between light hitting eyeball and brain receiving it as visual sensory stimulation.
This does not mean that Pirsig's distinction between romantic and classical Quality assessments is based entirely on faulty foundations, though. It is still reasonable to theorize that sensation and emotion precede comparison with memory and intellectual categorization of one's experiences. Thus, while the mystical authority of immediate here-and-now realness that Pirsig claims for the romantic Quality assessment does not hold up, the notion of a sensory and emotionally-driven response to reality prior to intellectual interpretation retains its political implication for sociological purposes: it can explain perception and knowledge that is not fully enslaved by culturally shared notions and ideological distortions of reality.
Not all social theories survive a consideration for the passage of time with their original implications unscathed. Traditional structurally-based theories have viewed the social order, which forms the backdrop for any individual's behavior, as if it were a static, timeless entity to which the individual must respond. It is as if the patterns of human behavior that form structures were things in themselves, formed of mindless concrete like a fortress, rather than patterns of individual people who act and respond in the same time frame as the single hypothetical individual whose behavior is being explained. Traditional interactionist theories, meanwhile, have conceptualized individual human beings as if the universe had been brought into being the very instant before the micro-level interactions under consideration start to take place, so that the objectives, perceptions, and values of individuals are treated as rationally derivable from analysis of the immediate situation or else built into the human package as drives and instincts. It is as if no individual had the capacity to observe human interaction and notice patterns that would enable her to predict outcomes that would result from various possible behavioral choices. Both structuralist and interactionist perspectives, therefore, tend to be "flat", lacking a fully integrated sense of the passage of time. A more accurate perspective acknowledges that history is real and tends to be taken into account by interacting people; but also that social structures are structures of dynamic motion rather than being static, and are visible only over a period of time, during which all of the individual participants can act. Social structures are the afterimages of the behaviors and interactions of individuals who have the capacity to independently perceive reality and behave with agency and purpose. The historically emergent patterns called social structure allow for predictions about outcomes of behavior which can be taken into account by individual actors in their interaction with other people because they all have locations and roles within that structure. The patterns that form those structures are alterable through the process of altering one's own individual behaviors and, especially, by intentionally affecting other individuals so as to encourage them to alter their behaviors as well. Thus, social structure patterns are both recreated and yet modified by the composite total of individual behavioral patterns. Social structure and micro-level interaction between individuals are two aspects of the same thing: they exist in a relationship with each other that is itself interactive; and as a unified thing, this relationship between individual interaction and social structure describes the human social condition as neither aspect alone can sufficiently do.
These assertions may not represent an obvious revolutionary departure from conventional sociological perspectives. That human interaction and social structure are aspects of a unified whole is actually a cornerstone concept of the discipline. But, to paraphrase Heidi Hartman, the marriage of structure and interaction within sociology is like the old English common law marriages: structure and interaction are one, and that one is structure. Individual behavior is accounted for by reference to location in the social structure and exposure to the cultural milieu of ideas and concepts. Social structure is seldom accounted for by reference to individual beliefs, perceptions, observations, and resultant interactive behavior patterns.
One direct result of this unquestioned belief in the primacy of structure is the widely shared and seldom questioned belief that social order, if it is to exist at all, must be imposed and enforced. Social structure, rather than something that emerges from the communication and interaction of equal and unoppressed people, is thought to require (or even consist of) a hierarchy of decision-makers in which those above have authoritative power over those below. The sociological perspective may lack the direct insistence on a necessary agent to impose social order, but in a more indirect fashion tends to see social structure as primarily causative of adequate social functioning, and since it is not seen as emergent, the imperative of having viable social structure translates into the same requirement of a hierarchy of decision-makers to maintain social order.
Radical feminists do not share this assumption. French (1985, p. 500) posited that "Anarchy--order without dominance--may be a possible form for human life as well as subatomic phenomena...anarchy is not the absence of order, but a delicate interaction." By necessity, in order for such a program of interactive social change to be realized, with or without a structural blueprint for the postpatriarchal world, order of some meaningful sort adequate to address the communicative and interactive problems of individuals for which societies exist must occur without reference to any type of structured authority, without the existence of power over other people.
The ability and innate tendency of individual free human beings to observe and notice patterns in the world around them directly implies that they would make predictions about the behavior of other people on the basis of social patterns that they observe, and that they would take these predictions into account in determining their own behavior. Call those observable patterns "social structure", and this becomes an assertion that individuals will notice and adapt to social structure without any formalized system of norm enforcement or systematic organization of hierarchical authority. Call this system "anarchy" and it becomes an assertion that anarchy will seek its own stable social structures without anyone having to impose them upon anyone else. It may be true that some sort of formal structure would be necessary to organize communication patterns if a highly efficient and densely populated society is to function as an anarchy. The important point is that the processes by which informal social norms constrain people's behaviors do function and do play a major role in establishing and preserving social order, and do not depend on authority, coercion, and official mechanisms for punishing nonconformity as do laws. Although existing societies may differ in the extent to which people are individually intolerant of nonconformity in general, a certain degree of cohesiveness or social gravity tends to arise from the fact that people do need each other physically, emotionally, and intellectually, and from the fact that ultimately we all share the same world and are capable of understanding each other's experience.
Not everyone considers themselves to be oppressed, and among those who do, there are a great many who would have objections to the assertion I've made here, that under patriarchal constraints we are all oppressed, albeit to different degrees. In a world where the most powerful are disposed to preserving the status quo in general and deliberately accumulating more power over other people for themselves in particular, it is easy and feels right (at least some of the time) to blame them for maintaining patriarchal oppression. If they were not deliberately oppressing us, there would be nothing between us and the freedom we seek, the oppressed might say. It may be true that being oppressors does not benefit the oppressors, but they certainly seem to think it does, and they behave accordingly, with great zeal. In the face of ideology that denies the existence of oppression and social inequality, it can be very liberating to give voice to the righteous anger that the oppressed feel, and anger tends to seek a target. No culprit oppressors? It's not their fault? Such claims can easily sound as they do to Mary Daly, who accuses feminists who don't blame men of intellectual cowardice; such claims can sound like apologist ideology that negates the validity of anger and the energizing effect it can have on those who seek liberation.
A third and final bit of conceptual housecleaning of the temporal-dimension sort contends with this phenomenon. There is a tendency for the less oppressed, more powerful people in the system (adults, especially men, especially materially wealthy men; etc.) to see themselves as benefiting from maintaining power over other people, despite the fact that it costs them in the long run to do so. This is important, since the tendency to see their hegemony as desirable leads to power-seeking and counter-revolutionary anti-feminist behaviors on their part (e.g., see Faludi 1991). I have already said that the sexual polarization process distances men from their own emotional sensitivities, which greatly cripples their ability to critique the social analogues of reality that are passed on to them even when these analogues do not mesh with their actual felt experiences. However, there is another major factor operating in harmony with that tendency. There would have to be: men in general may be strongly alienated from their feelings when compared to women, but no one would be able to make even simple decisions if they were completely divorced from feelings, and history shows that men are in fact able to interpret their own feelings of being oppressed by other men, despite ideologies to the contrary, and often rise up in rebellion.
The simple term for it is attention span. To use force and coerce another person in order to realize one's will does, in the very long run, contribute to a global pattern of destructiveness that endangers the species as well as many other of our companion species on this planet--patriarchy is ultimately very dangerous. Even in the middle span of one's own life from year to year and decade to decade, a person is far better equipped to get what he or she wants through the non-violent forms of communication and the building of trust and cooperative networks, because the cost and energy expenditure of coercion is so high (especially in those areas of human need that are most obvious only over a period of years: emotional belongingness, the good will of one's neighbors even under conditions of vulnerability, etc.). But in the immediacy of a situation in which one's will is at least momentarily thwarted by other people's opposition or disinclination to voluntarily cooperate, coercion may indeed seem to be less time-consuming, and if one could coerce without long-term consequences, it would be. Sometimes, such is the case. Sometimes, indeed, small-scale social conflicts may be best addressed by adrenalin-backed flight or fight response. As Marilyn French warns, it is most likely impossible to completely eliminate coercive power from human interaction, although it is probably possible to cease to base our entire social apparatus on it as the central principle. The politics of attention span, therefore, are critical to maintaining a false sense of the advantageousness of oppression. Whenever non-coercive tactics can be made to work without very high short-term costs, they tend to be far more efficient tactics because of the much more expensive results of coercion in the long run.
Attention span in the general sense is a gender issue. Some researchers and theorists attribute patriarchy and coercion to a male tendency to be irritable, easily frustrated, and impatient, and declare these to be innate biological characteristics of the sex. Others are more inclined to deny the importance of hypothetical predispositions of this type in males, and emphasize that irritability and impatience are culturally constructed as "masculinity" (e.g. see Miedzian 1991).
Where attention span becomes politically crucial is in the process of interpreting one's feelings, the mechanism by which one gains first-hand knowledge of one's social circumstances. Immediate situations yield immediate and visceral sensations and corresponding emotions, but social situations of great complexity cannot be felt immediately because the pattern that carries their meaning can only be observed over a long period of time. A person who has been effectively taught that feelings are ignorable and dismissible as valid sources of cognition is probably not much less likely to have immediate emotional reactions to being attacked and bitten by a pit bull, and to react on the basis of those feelings. They are, however, less likely to pay serious attention to more vague, complicated feelings full of ambivalences and curiosities and uneasinesses if those feelings don't seem to have anything to do with obvious and immediately understandable circumstances. Such a reduced emotion-driven attention span is a widespread condition under patriarchy, and particularly so among men. Situations that a woman might see as consequentially connected to behaviors of months or years before and the feelings that they caused in other people might be perceived by a masculinized man strictly in terms of the more immediate events and attitudes in evidence in the current situation. Ongoing discrepancies between actual experiences and the social analogue of expected experiences and their supposed meanings can be recognized as a pattern, but only if one has the attention span to notice them over time and make the connection. The type of non-goal-directed, introspective, feeling-oriented thinking that is necessary for these processes is not encouraged in men, and does not mesh well with the defensive strategic considerations of competitive endeavors that are. Since the desirability (for men) of power and authority over other people is directly promoted by the social analogue of patriarchal society as a fact, the process by which oppressor males would come to recognize that oppressing others is not in their best interests would involve their long-term engagement with their own feelings about the life they are living (which would be a deviant process for them). Even if it led them to question what they have been taught about the desirability of having power over other people, that desirability is closely tied in with explicitly sexual notions of masculine viability (i.e., sex defined as domination of women), which would imply having to question the entire conceptual construct system of what masculinity is, what heterosexuality is, and what a woman is. The process by which an oppressed male might come to recognize that another group of men have power over him is far less complicated, since it doesn't necessitate questioning the desirability of power over other people, but only of the fairness of the circumstances under which some category of men exist in power over him. Indeed, it is worth noting that male revolutions against male oppressors have abounded, but have mainly tended to replace the old bosses with new bosses, leaving the patriarchal system of power over other people, and the belief in its desirability, intact.
Nevertheless, if we respond to willful oppression and the belief of oppressors that they benefit from oppression by blaming them and believing that they do indeed benefit from the situation, we allow them to project their oppressive world-view as reality. Angry and determined revolutionaries who decry the injustices of the world are everywhere to be found, but so long as they concede the desirability of power over other people, they convey little besides the jealous conviction that they'd like the world better if they were the ones running it, and even though their tirades against the injustices perpetrated by the powerful often fall on sympathetic ears, they ultimately have little to offer as an alternative. The rhetoric of cynicism about those in power, so long as it is still coupled with a cynical affirmation of the desirability of such power, is the voice of those who would exchange old bosses for new bosses.
The possibility of liberation lies with a different vision and a decentralized, perpetual individual politics of everyday interaction. Without a widely shared vision, and its activist expansion through communication, individual changes in interaction will accomplish little. However, each individual commands resources in the form of energy and the potential for cooperative endeavors, and if those resources are deployed in such a way as to support non-archist egalitarian interactive arrangements, and are made available most commonly to other individuals whose interactive modality is in keeping with such a vision, the energies of our agency and our belief systems goes increasingly towards realizing a feminist world and moving beyond the patriarchal one. Each individual must move against the backdrop of the social structure, and the system of social rewards and punishments leads each of us to make decisions and participate in endeavors that are profoundly patriarchal, at least some of the time. Nevertheless, at any given moment, each of us is part of what the rest of us experience as the social structure, and can make a difference in the outcomes of another's behaviors. This is rendered effective through communication, so that the likely behavior of people with the different vision of feminist interaction is known and can be predicted; therefore just as the personal is political, the theoretical is tactical. In the absence of real shifts in the ways that people make themselves available to each other, though, radical feminism is just another set of idealistic dreamware; the personal is political, it is the political, it is where politics is located for all practical purposes. There will be no meaningful opportunities to "overthrow a structure", because the problematic structures are maintained in reverberating interaction, constantly, through our everyday and moment-to-moment behaviors and belief-systems.
Freedom begins with spontaneity and initiative. I can write of the inevitability of feminist transformation with confidence because I am, in fact, writing about it, and so know that action is being taken. Whatever predestination evinces a feminist outcome to the modern struggles may be evoked to explain my participation in the feminist enterprise, and in this sense it is true that the social context in which I live, when taken in its entirety and in all its complexity, might be said to be causing my behavior. However, that is not how I experience it. Ultimately, when agency is removed from consideration, causation tends to depart with it, leaving one with correlated conditions. There is much to be said for speaking from one's personal experience--that is the point from which one attains one's perspective on things--and although structure and interaction are unified and need to be understood as unified if we are to comprehend society, our perspective is the perspective of the particles that are doing the interacting. From our vantage point, structure is a verb and every one of us is engaged in its activities. History, and revolution, are ours. We make it happen. And so it is and shall continue to be. As Robin Morgan says (1978, p. 306), "May your insurrection and your resurrection be the same".
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