Feminism, Constraint, and Radical Interactionist Theory

To separate feeling from thinking constrains interaction between individual and the entirety of the rest of reality, and between each individuals' experience of reality and the socially shared analogue of reality. Patriarchy has self-perpetuating tendencies which can be understood as products of the severe constraints placed on interaction as it would otherwise occur. These constraints exist in our minds; they themselves, with their proscriptions on taking individual feelings seriously as a basis of knowledge, exist as shared conceptual structures (Johnson 1987) which, insofar as they form the basis of behavior and of the interpretation of behavior for most people who form our environment, are quite vividly real.

Oppression, the result of (or the experience of) this self-perpetuating form of interactive constraint, is a situation in which the apparent social consensus, the culturally shared and expected analogue of reality, would come into unresolved conflict with experience-based emotionally-informed assessments of reality made by the individual. This illustrates an interesting relationship between the existence of objective reality and experience of oppression--not that oppression is caused by or causes lack of objectivity in the structuring of shared cognitive norms, but that they coincide as part of the same pattern of reality (a type of constrained epistemological and social interaction). Oppression is an interactive phenomenon; it is felt, or sensed by the input of emotion, which precedes interpretation. The intellectual sense of harmony and elegance can guide the interpretation of those who dare to interpret, moving feeling into perception, or intellectual awareness, and one has consciousness of oppression. Oppression does not exist only in the individual's mind (subjective reality) or in the world external to the mind of the oppressed individual (objective reality), but in the abstract epistemological relationship of self to context and to interpretation and expression, and it has an effect on the individual independent of whether the individual successfully analyzes the situation and conceives of it as an oppressive one.

Inequality, a dimension of oppression created by the competitive exerting of control, does not (as linear models of power imply) mean that the most successful oppressor-controller "wins"; no one is free. This is the essence of fluid-essentialism--a conceptualization of oppression without a class of "culprits" who are successfully oppressing to their own benefit. Patriarchal oppression is characterized as an immobilization contest in which men compete with each other in an attempt to paralyze and rigidify the behavior of as many people as possible. The "winners" are significantly less tightly constrained than the "losers", but are nevertheless considerably more immobilized themselves than they would be in the absence of this enterprise.

The interactive processes of patriarchal oppression explain and are explained by the specific system of shared belief and concepts which delineate patriarchal society. Although all human social activity is constrained in certain universal ways, and presumably any social system would come with its own specific forms of interactive constraint, the patriarchal system happens to be a constraining system which limits interaction and communication in such a way as to create and maintain inflexibility, which is experienced as oppression.

(Since the processes and the structures are actually aspects of each other, and both of them aspects of the overall phenomenon of specifically constrained interaction, the apparent tautology and paradoxical cause-and-effect loop is entirely legitimate; the conceptual distinction between process and structures is an artificial human convenience that makes description easier, but they do not actually have separate existence).

I have been describing constraint in gender-neutral terms, but the specific pattern of oppressive constraint is necessarily gender-specific. That is, the value system of patriarchy constructs the experience of and meaning of emotion differently for men and women, diverting the currents of sexual expression into differently constrained patterns in such a way that the desire to express sexuality is harnessed to polarized concepts of sexual viability. The operation of patriarchal constraint focuses on us sexually. It works by polarizing society by gender, defining the genders rigidly according to sex-appropriate behavior, and then tying the intensity of sexuality to these constraints-

I think that sexual desire in women, at least in this culture, is socially constructed as that by which we come to want our own self-annihilation. That is, our subordination is eroticized in and as female; in fact, we get off on it to a degree, if nowhere near as much as men do. This is our stake in this system that is not in our interest, our stake in this system that is killing us.
(MacKinnon, 1987, p. 54)

Sexuality is a powerful force which may have a tendency to help individuals transcend social constraint; but when tightly constrained itself, it can also work as a conservative constraint-preserving force, as when access to sexual experience is socially organized so as to be readily available only to those who conform to the behaviors delineated by their prescribed role.

This has profound effects upon the gendered construction of goodness and properness of thought, mood, personality, and behavior. These patterns are intricate, but key among them is the major pattern in which constraints upon women put a more emphatic discouragement on analytical thinking and input into the social analogue (i.e, women are considered even less than men to be capable of seeing anything for themselves, or having thoughts worth hearing) whereas the constraints upon men are more emphatic in setting restrictions on the acknowledgement, expression, and interpretation of feelings. Women are emotionally exploited as sources of empathy and rapport, for feelings as commodities separated from meaning and power and self-determined purpose. While less thoroughly distanced from feeling, females are methodically disregarded and trivialized for what they think, and are also didactically instructed in how to be in ways that emphasize feelings as commodities and emotional interaction (with men, especially) as duties and virtuous behavior, thus preserving some of the pleasant aspects of emotional existence while rendering them "safe". The advantages of having interconnected emotional rapport and interpersonal communication are thus partly preserved but separated from the social-analogue-refreshening processes (French 1985). Radical feminist observations to the effect that men parasite off of women's energies like so many vampires at a blood-feast (see Daly, 1978, for example) refer to this phenomenon. Feelings, therefore, should join sexuality and reproduction in feminist analysis of what is most thoroughly women's own, but from which they are most alienated. (MacKinnon used that phrase construction to centralize sexuality in "Feminism, Marxism, Method and the State", 1982.)

Men, less discouraged from lofty cognitive processes and less behaviorally constrained in action, are tightly constrained in emotional terms. Due to the epistemological centrality of emotion, this cuts men off from a clear sense of the meaning of things. Deprived, therefore, of a good part of the information necessary for an understanding of their circumstances, men's implementation of the authority to act and the responsibility for determining action through analysis pits their authority against their lack of good comprehension of the very area of which they have charge. Although one use of the authority to act in an area about which one has very little understanding is to decide not to act at all, the situation is inherently frustrating and tends to encourage behaviors that seek control-that which can be controlled can perhaps be at least partially understood, and then at least the capacity to act may be of use. When a gendered value system that actively values the male possession of control (French 1985) exists alongside of this dynamic situation, or perhaps gives rise to it, the tendency is increased. Men, therefore, function as the agents of the prime directive of the patriarchal constraint system: establishing and maintaining control for its own sake. Under such conditions, the degree to which norms can be stretched or experimentally abandoned is sharply curtailed, and rigidly disciplined predictability is attained at the expense of flexibility and responsiveness (French 1985).

I have been giving an overview of the "micro" / interactive component of radical feminist theory of oppression. On a more "macro" level, fluid-essentialist radical feminist theorists have explained themselves more often and more completely, so people are more likely to be aware of the tenets involved. This is not to say that the "macro" level is an area in which radical feminist thought is less open to attack. In seeking to understand the origins of patriarchy, radical feminist theorists confront a difficult task, since patriarchy seems to be as old as recorded history. This implies that any rendering of historical processes by which human society became patriarchal is likely to be hypothetical and beyond the scope of verification by the data available to us, now and possibly forever. Fisher (1979) and French (1985) both construct theoretical models for the origins of patriarchy, each of which contend that prior to patriarchy we existed and interacted as a social species in a manner that did not oppress women or, for that matter, anyone else. The social change that led to patriarchy is described in both hypothetical reconstructions as involving social responses and interpretations of a materially real sexual difference--the reproductive capacity of women. I described earlier the sense in which compliance with gendered patterns can be eroticized for individuals, thus effecting constraint. On a more utilitarian and practical level, constraining sexuality directly addresses the process of reproduction, a crucial area that would probably be targeted for control by a society facing survival threats-a small, unexpected fluctuation in the birthrate in either direction or of the social circumstances of birth, for that matter, could constitute a crisis for small and precarious societies.

The focus upon the politics of reproduction thus makes gender political, due to essential biological sex differences (thus making such theorists "essentialists"). The social meaning of that difference, on the other hand, is definitely not an automatic one (thus making their essentialism "fluid"), since it was different before patriarchy, and since patriarchy was not necessarily an inevitable phase anyway:

If we consider that our species existed for some two hundred thousand years without imposing burdens on a subject class, and that the phenomena discussed in these pages have existed only for a little over five thousand years, during which survival has been rocky and imperfect, it is clear that the stages [of patriarchy] traced [in this book] were not inevitable in form. At the moment, it looks as if even the liberality of the evolutionary process has been stretched...patriarchy had a long run for its money...but the point of no return is close. Apocalypse or change are our only alternatives. Given the long prehistory of our species, I imagine the second will prevail.
(Fisher 1979), p. 405)

There is not a widely agreed-upon "myth of origin" among radical feminists, though. Marilyn French conceptualizes a historical changeover to patriarchy as the result of the tension between matrifocal society and the male desire to be more important in the overall scheme of things (which would have been a "timeless" tension until the rise of patriarchy). Elizabeth Janeway (1971) looked in the same direction as Nancy Chodorow (1987) and identified the cause of patriarchy as the psychodynamics of infant and mother or child and mother, seeing patriarchy as the (ahistorical, ongoing) male response to fears of female power which originate in each man's childhood. Robin Morgan (1982), although she does not give a specific account, strongly implies that women were for the most part responsible for leading us into the social arrangements which became patriarchy, although at the time they did so those arrangements were not destructive or oppressive to us. My favorite theorist of patriarchal origins, Elizabeth Fisher, described a historical set of conditions revolving around the social pressures of material necessity that arose during the "neolithic revolution" when we changed from hunting and gathering to farming and the domestication of animals, and posits that reproductive control came to displace reproductive capacity, both symbolically and materially, and ended up largely in the hands of men. Ultimately, verification is difficult if not impossible, but knowing the origins of patriarchy is not critically necessary for a theoretical rejection of its inevitability or goodness for the species.

There is actually considerably more agreement on form and effect. Most radical feminists say that women's oppression is a fundamental model for men's pursuit of power over other people-the process of dominating women was expansively broadened to oppress category after category of men, too. The urge to dominate must exist as part of the effect of patriarchy on men; and the liberation of women from this systematic oppression is a fundamental prerequisite for the liberation of all people from what is actually a universally destructive social pattern.

Once established, patriarchy has an equilibrium all its own. Deprived of input into the social analogue, individuals spend their lives disregarding their ability (and that of others) to see matters for themselves; they tend to accept this situation as normal, and even those who listen to their intuitive sensibility find interpreting what they intuit to be a difficult project. Meanwhile, patriarchy has long since come to include a self-perpetuating value system that condones physical as well as other social violence towards deviants from conceptual and behavioral norms.

Patriarchy, the control-obsessed response (French 1985) of the human species to certain forms of stress (Fisher 1979), maintains a specific social analogue of reality by constraining interaction as if the elimination of individual perception (or at least the sharing of it with other individuals) were the only "reality check' keeping society functioning instead of dissolving into a meaningless collection of randomly behaving individuals holding dangerously warped concepts and behaving in destructive and unpredictable ways. Military attitudes towards individual free will and the role of individual thinking is a particularly vivid example (Slater 1991). Just as the military mode of order and control is thought to be more appropriate than democracy on the battlefield, patriarchy in general may be an adaptation to a crisis requiring order and control for similar reasons of urgency outweighing the advantages of freedom, flexibility and experimentation. French and Fisher consider the possibility that the rigidity of patriarchy may have had some utilitarian use within a limited context of scarcity and physical-environmental duress. They imply that patriarchy may be best understood as the response of the species to survival-threatening stress, a reactive valuation of control and preservation of the status quo in the face of threatening contextual situations, but that it has long since outlived that context.

The worship of Control-as-God forms a closed system. Orthodoxy for its own sake is the quintessentially patriarchal process, and control of the social analogue--which means prevention of change--is the product. The traditional patriarchal religious concepts of social order attributed order to a transcendent masculine control-obsessed God (French 1985; Johnson 1987) and denied the possibility that mere individual humans (especially women) could make improvements by contributing any new insights or meaningful critique of the existing concepts of social or physical reality. There is a modern Godless version, too--the "monkey fallacy" (Watts 1966):

According to the deists, the Lord had made this machine and set it going, but then went to sleep or off on a vacation. But according to the atheists, naturalists, and agnostics, the world was fully automatic. It had constructed itself, though not on purpose. The stuff of matter was supposed to consist of atoms like minute billiard balls, so small as to permit no further division or analysis. Allow these atoms to wiggle around in various permutations and combinations for an indefinitely long time, and at some time in virtually infinite time they will fall into the arrangement that we now have as the world. The old story of the monkeys and typewriters.

In this Fully Automatic Model of the universe[human] beings, mind and body included, were parts of the system, and thus were possessed of intelligence and feeling as a consequence of the same interminable gyrations of atoms. But the trouble about the monkeys with typewriters is that when at last they get around to typing the Encyclopaedia Britannica, they may at any moment relapse into gibberish. Therefore, if human beings want to maintain their fluky status and order, they must work with full fury to defeat the merely random processes of nature.

(1966, p. 58)

Therefore, preservation of the status quo and conformity to the social consensus takes a high priority; since meaning and order are believed to have arisen spontaneously rather than as the result of individual cognition and communication, people's feelings about the quality and meaning of things, including their own experiences, are relegated to the discard barrel of dismissible and dangerously volatile subjectivity.

Social change is possible at all only because successful identification and elimination of deviant nonconformists, who begin to trust their own abilities to figure out life and the universe for themselves, has not been a perfect process but rather a statistically operant one. To deviate has meant to gamble. Some gambles paid off in the sense that communication of new ideas and concepts made it past the barriers of doctrine, and in chaotic, jerky spasms interaction has apparently demonstrated a long-range tendency towards loosening of constraint.

When power is thought about in terms of the need for control as a response to crisis, it is possible to consider circumstances under which control / power-oriented ways of constructing social relations might be desirable without necessarily seeing power as inherently desirable and therefore inevitably sought. This makes it possible to explain its presence as the central motif in society as we know it while leaving room to theorize an alternative social configuration in which oppression would not be endemic. And oppression is intrinsic to any social system that is designed around power. Control requires inequality and tends to require hierarchical stratification, which would again be a useful adaptation to a crisis situation, since centralization of authority is a means of acquiring short-term efficiency and control at the expense of flexibility, creativity, and long-range effectiveness).

Plainly, though, say the radical feminists, patriarchy has no redeeming features as a way of being for us at this point, however utilitarian it might or might not have been for us in the past--

The only true revolution against patriarchy is one which removes the idea of power from its central position, and replaces it with the idea of pleasure. Despite the contempt in which this quality has been held for several millennia, pleasure, felicity--in its largest and deepest sense--is actually the highest human good...

To restore pleasure to centrality requires restoring the body, and therefore, nature, to value...If women and men were seen as equal, if male self-definition no longer depended upon an inferior group, other stratifications would also become unnecessary...

The foregoing is a sketch of feminist beliefs...the movement is not aimed at overthrow of any particular government or structure, but at the displacement of one way of thinking by another...Feminism increases the well-being of its adherents, and so can appeal to others on grounds of the possibility of greater felicity. Integration of the self, which means using the full range of one's gifts, increases one's sense of well-being: if integration of one's entire life is not always possible because of the nature of the public world, it is a desirable goal. Patriarchy, which in all its forms requires some kind of self-sacrifice, denial, or repression in the name of some higher good which is rarely (if ever) achieved on earth, stresses nobility, superiority, and victory, the satisfaction of a final triumph. Feminism requires the entire self in the name of present well-being, and stresses integrity, community, and the jouissance of present experience.

(French 1985, pp. 444-5)


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