Wednesday, April 15, 2009

In the Grip of a Patriarchal Picture

Bear with me for a minute, cause I'm gonna get all philosophical on ya. I promise it won't hurt.

In philosophy, those of us who've been bit by the Witgenstein bug like to use the phrase "in the grip of a picture" to describe the way human thought and interpretation tends to mold itself to the currently dominant paradigm. The way this works is that, in trying to conceptualize something, you come up with various models or "pictures" that help you manipulate and explore the topic. But after using one particular model for awhile, you become committed to it. It shapes your thinking and your perceptions. You're less likely to notice or take into account data that doesn't fit into your picture (anomalies), and the things you observe that do fit into your picture take on more significance for you. Thus you're "in the grip of a picture." Occasionally the anomolies build up and become so significant that you're sort of forced to abandon your model for a new one that involves less conflict. This is known as a paradigm shift. Some famous examples of paradigm shifts are the Copernican Revolution, the move from a Newtonian view to Relativity in physics, and the Keynesian Revolution in economics. But your worldview has probably undergone a number of paradigm shifts over the course of your life. Do you remember the day when it occurred to you that your parents weren't perfect? Did you experience an "aha" moment that "converted" you to feminism, or a particular political stance, or a particular view of human nature? These are all examples of personal paradigm shifts.

But generally speaking, human cognition seems to follow a conservative pattern- we'll go to great lengths to preserve our paradigm and shore it up rather than undergoing a shift. This is why the phrase "in the grip of a picture" is so compelling. It seems as if the model we're currently committed to has really sort of grasped us and it takes a lot of work to tear ourselves away from it and see things from a different angle. And when there's something at stake socially, we're even less inclined to abandon our picture or acknowledge the anomalies that challenge it. So for the purposes of this post, I'm going to refer to this as "cognitive conservatism."

In a similar vein, humans have a tendency to project. We look at non-human objects and creatures and interpret them in human terms. We personify and anthropomorphize everything from song birds to tornadoes to supernatural beings. One of the "pre-socratic philosophers," Xenophanes, captured this tendency when it comes to the way we conceptualize God/the gods perfectly in this fragment:

the Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and dark, Thracians, that theirs are grey-eyed and red-haired.

So here we have two human patterns: the tendency to anthropomorphize non-human things and cognitive conservatism. These two human tendencies come together in a tragic-comic way when it comes to the ways we impose hierarchical and patriarchal structures on the animal world. The inimitable Twisty Faster posted on one instance of this today in the tongue-in-cheek All-girl ant species sends shockwaves through ant community. Among other things she points out that, contrary to reporting in the MSM, these ants aren't the only known species to reproduce asexually, and that it's strange that we automatically label the ants as "female" since they cannot mate due to genital degeneration. Why does the MSM report so selectively on asexual reproduction? Because they're in the grip of a picture. It's called patriarchy. The tendency to essentialize and "naturalize" hierarchical relations in our culture by interpreting all kinds of animal behavior in anthropomorphized and hierarchical terms is indicative of both cognitive conservatism and projection.

Other examples of this abound in the study of animal behavior. One of my favorites involves the depiction of primate sexual behavior. For one thing, it's only in recent years that scientists have been openly acknowledging the abundance of "homosexual" mating and pair-bonding behavior in a number of species, including primates. If these animals have been behaving this way all along, why weren't we seeing it and including it in our accounts of them? And my favorite example of selective observation/skewed interpretation involves the sexual behavior of female primates. Most people still believe that primates tend to form social groups comprised of one "alpha male" and his "harem," who all mate with him exclusively and whom he dominates completely through physical force, right? That's the picture you were taught in 8th grade biology class. The thing is, this picture turns out to be completely inaccurate for almost all primates. Even in primates who do form social groups like this, the females are generally very promiscuous. They sneak off and mate with whatever males are lurking around all the time. In fact, recent DNA tests have shown that it's often less likely that an infant in the group will be the offspring of the alpha male than of a peripheral male. This is explained as an evolutionary strategy in which the female can increase the chances that a new male who manages to successfully challenge the "alpha" male will accept her child as his. If she's slept with all of them, then they're more likely to believe that the child is theirs.

So why did it take so many years for scientists to become aware of this whole range of female primate behavior? A couple of things. Science has been a male-dominated field for a long time. And the men who were observing primates were in the grip of a picture in which females were passive objects that the active and dominant males acted on. So whole swaths of female primate behavior were practically invisible to them. Thus the common pop mythology that men have a "biological imperative" to spread their seed as far and wide as possible, while women just want to stay at home and nurture their young and be faithful to one man. Riiight. So as science has changed, and more women have entered the field, more of the female behavior has become visible. Of course, female scientists have also been socialized in a patriarchal culture, so much of their observation and interpretation of animal behavior will conform to the patriarchal picture as well. But as feminism and other ideologies which challenge hierarchical social structures become more influential, it begins to occur to people that our human social structures may not be the immutable "natural" things they've always been portrayed as. So the paradigm gradually shifts and becomes more flexible, and as it does, new phenomena become visible to us and new interpretations of our observations occur to us. Of course this is a very slow process, and not at all the kind of paradigm shift that the Copernican Revolution was. But it is a shift, even if it seems to be agonizingly gradual.

Addendum: in comments, Michael pointed out to me that I didn't explain the duckrabbit illustration I used (the first pic in this post) so here it is. The duckrabbit is often used to demonstrate the way simple paradigm shifts happen. If you look at the picture thinking it's a duck, then you don't even notice it can also look like a rabbit, and vice versa. Because you're "in the grip of the picture" that you're looking at a duck. But once the idea occurs to you that it could be a rabbit, that's how you perceive it, and there seems to be no trace of duck left in it. And you can make it switch back and forth, thus experiencing a simple paradigm shift in your head in real time.


  1. Because they're in the grip of a picture. It's called patriarchy. Is it possible to be stuck in the picture of feminism?

  2. Anonymous4/15/2009

    This is a fascinating post! Your illustration of how we (I mean, humans) interpret animal behavior different ways based on our own customs is really effective. Now I'm worried about what pictures I am in the grip of, heh.

  3. @ Steven


    I think the cautionary idea from Wittgenstein and other philosophers who have similar ideas is that you want to try to be aware of the picture that you're currently in the grip of, because having this awareness will allow you to acheive some degree of critical distance from it. How much distance you can acheive is somewhat controversial.

    However, given the fact that patriarchy is the dominant paradigm in our culture, and we've all been socialized with these ideas, even feminists often revert to the patrarchal model, and often explanations that rely on the patriarchal picture will seem to make a lot of sense to us, or we'll accept them uncritically simply because we're so accustomed to it. I think this is often the reason why people don't question the patriarchal interpretations of animal behavior that you so often see on Discovery and Animal Planet shows.

  4. Michael4/16/2009

    That's one of the best illustrations of the duckrabbit I've ever seen, but you didn't explain it.

    And I don't think that Wittgenstein thought we could be aware of the picture we're in the grip of and acheive any critical distance from it. I think a lot of secondary sources on Wittgenstein think that, but I doubt he did.

  5. @ Michael

    You're right, I'll add an addendum to the post explaining the duckrabbit.

    And I hesitated to attribute that claim to Wittgenstein, but I do think that to a limited degree Wittgenstein did think we could become aware of the picture we're in the grip of and be critical of it. Hence all the discussion of philosophical language and the things that are assumed or implied by the questions philosophers ask. I mean, if you use the fly stuck in the bottle analogy, isn't part of the point that he's critiquing philosophers for insisting on approaching certain issues in such a way that it creates the problem to begin with (gets them stuck in the fly bottle) and then they're not willing to adjust their perspective and be flexible enough to realize that they're wrestling with a problem of their own making? That seems to me like encouraging us to be aware of the picture that we're in the grip of in order to change our outlook and ask more fruitful questions.

  6. Gynormica4/16/2009

    I love that you're talking about Wittgenstein in your blog. I often think it would be good for philosophy as a discipline if more people who had studied it would apply it to current events and pop culture in a really interesting way like this in mediums such as blogs.

  7. Rachel,

    I see humans as naturally disposed to socialize, and at the same time, to engage in conflict. Of course, that does not mean those dispositions cannot be overcome

    Does not matter if you are male or female, or any other demographic.

    Women can conflict with one another by slut-shaming, or making body-image remarks at one another...

    So, when I look at all of the things that feminist attribute 'patriarchy' I also see a shifting of the blame for female-female conflict, which I think is going to happen no matter what.

    And I think it is stuck in a feminist paradigm to say something to the effect that 'patriarchy shapes female-female conflict' which is a further removal of responsibility from those engaged in the conflict, and it assumes that non-patriarchal conflict would be less vicious, or somehow... mo' better.

  8. @ Stephen

    But attributing something to patriarchy simply means claiming that it's a product of our current social structure. It doesn't amount to blaming it on men. Women are often just as active in maintaining patriarchy as men (see GFM, for an extreme example), and both women and men internalize patriarchal norms and values and are socialized to behave according to patriarchal gender contructs.

    So it's not that the socializing and the conflict themselves are a product of patriarchy, but that the form they take, and the hierarchical structure they always seem to default to in our culture is shaped and informed by patriarchy.

  9. And many historians question the picture of changes like the Copernican Revolution, for example, as being immediate and sweeping, and portray them as being less of an overnight revolution and more like the gradual shift you're describing.

  10. Rachel,

    I thought the whole power structure as whole was represented by the term kyriarchy and so the claim that women are mantaining patriatchy is a little off; they are maintaining their position in kyriarchy.

    (Disclaimer I have only learned about kyriarchy from blog posts and not a real academic setting....)

    Further that, just as their are over 31 flavors of feminism, there are many approaches to conceptualizing patriarchy that make yours seem so... vanilla when compared to Rocky Road when it comes time to assign 'blame' for the way society is structured.

    But a (somewhat off topic) question remains, how is conflict going to be expressed in a non-patriarchal society? There will still be winners and losers, and you cant just assume away the problem (human nature) as a solution.

    Is GFM suppose to be FGM (female genital mutilation)?

  11. Steven,

    (Sorry for misspelling your name earlier...) Yes, that is supposed to be FGM.

    In my experience the view that patriarchy is our current social structure (can be called kyriarchy) and is upheld and reproduced by both men and women is very common. One example of this is the depressingly high percentage of women who said they wouldn't vote for Hillary because they were afraid of what would happen if there was a national security situation while she was PMSing. Because all women are controlled by their hormones and no men are influenced by hormones at all... And look at the many, many women who point out that "boys will be boys" while shaming little girls for acting too boyish. The list goes on and on. And I'm not sure it's about maintaining their position so much as it is mindlessly replicating the status quo. But generally speaking, attributing something to patriarchy does not equate to blaming it on the men. And this is true in most feminisms.

    I'm not sure how to answer your last question except to say that I think human conflict takes many forms. But we're socialized to express it and interpret it in particular ways in our culture. And we're taught deeply gendered ways to replicate it and use it to establish social position. But when these patterns that we've internalized are then used to explain animal behavior, it's really strange. And it results in a lot of things being overlooked or misinterpreted. For example, in many primate groups the females will band together to protect a vulnerable member of the group or run off a particularly aggressive male. And they do this very successfully. But this is another thing you never hear of in the males-are-so-powerful-and-females-are-so-helpless picture of social interaction. Because the people who observe, report, and interpret this stuff are in the grip of a picture...

  12. Lyndsay4/16/2009

    Today I thought of the paradigm of academic disciplines being separate. How much knowledge are we missing out on because people become experts in one area and work from one perspective? For example, nature and nurture, or biology/genetics and sociology/psychology. It seems we are just starting to know more about how the environment can influence our genes and hormones. If certain genes get turned on or off because of an abusive childhood for example and a person is less capable of handling stress, that could affect how they act to the people around them and thus how people act towards them and who knows what might happen next. It's also fairly recent that we've looking at how culture affects a person's psychology. Some psychology studies give the opposite results in eastern cultures. Anyway, thought I'd bring that up.

  13. "Is it possible to be stuck in the picture of feminism?"

    I've actually been really frustrated lately with people who I guess you'd say are "stuck in the picture of feminism." I really like this post because it helps me explain it. And I'm coming at this as someone who usually calls herself a feminist.

    I think feminism (most feminisms anyways) as a paradigm is incredibly limiting. This is because feminism really focuses on the concept of patriarchy and not on the concept of kyriarchy. Often, feminists see everything as just reinforcing their understanding of the patriarchy, i.e., that our societal structure, on average, benefits men as a group and disadvantages women as a group. If people are exclusively focusing on the patriarchy, then they will be blind to other forms of discrimination.

    Take, for example, the recent post on Feministing about transwomen and bathrooms. If people are coming from a paradigm which is simply 'women are disadvantaged, men are privileged,' then they will be blind to discrimination against transwomen. To them, a transwoman wanting to come into their "women-only spaces" (as one commenter put it) is more evidence of the patriarchy: it is a male wanting an advantage to their disadvantage.

    I like what you said Rachel, that "you want to try to be aware of the picture that you're currently in the grip of, because having this awareness will allow you to achieve some degree of critical distance from it." I think it's a common problem with people newer to feminism, that they are so immersed in the paradigm, they have no critical distance.

  14. This is because feminism really focuses on the concept of patriarchy and not on the concept of kyriarchy.I personally see a lot of social determinism and existentialism in feminism... which are two philosophies I don't personally persibe to the same degree that many feminist appear to.

    Take the transgenderism (I guess that is a word) and the social construct of gender... If you don't really buy into social constructs generally then one would find it as impossible for a person that is born with XX sex chromosomes to be a man or masculine than it is for them to be a dog or cat.

    Of course, then the use of bathrooms comes into play. Are Mens bathrooms form XY carriers, or are they for gendered constructed masculine use?

    In that instance, paradigm conflict is not between interpretations of reality (such as Copernican versus Ptolemaic cosmology) but a fundamental incongruence of basic philosophic beliefs.

    And it is not necessarily a problem of people 'new' to a (feminist) philosophy that fall into the paradigm trap. Remember, you can see the data collected for another paradigm, you just choose to reject it, or attack the believers with ad hominem attacks.

    Generally speaking, the longer you have been attached to a Kuhnian paradigm, the harder it is to change your stripes.

    Final Note: Kuhn reserved paradigm shifts for the physical sciences, not the social sciences.

  15. Kuhn reserved paradigm shifts for the physical sciences, not the social sciences
    This is true, but many since Kuhn have discussed the way this pattern applies to the way humans tend to conceptualize the world in general. So Wittgenstein's "in the grip of a picture" is particularly relevant, since it refers to a person's worldview (or pieces of their worldview) in general and not just to the sciences.

    And believing that gender is not a social contruction but something that somehow issues from biology requires a lot of explaining as to why gender changes so much from one historical and cultural context to another and why so much of the gender script has to be taught to children as they grow up and reinforced through myriad shaming and rewarding mechanisms. And then there's the fact that it seems that more people don't fit neatly into the gender roles and expectations to which they're assigned at birth than do. These seems like insurmountable anomalies for the gender-is-a-natural-fact view to me. But maybe that's just me.

  16. It's not just you, as you probably already know.


  17. If you follow a more biological determinism approach to human behavior then social interactions are based on underlying biological realities.

    And just because the term 'biological' is often used does not mean that factors just inside the human body are taken into affect; but the whole natural world comes under the scope of evaluation.

    So no cultural definition of gender exist separate of the natural world.

    As a somewhat off-topic example, advances in science lead to the creation of effective birth control, which contributed to the separation of the pleasure and reproductive functions of sex.

    Arguments about the degree of separation and the effects in the social world are based in the developments of the natural/biological world.

    So back on topic... human males and females have generally occurring characteristic that lead to the development of different gender roles. No gender role for time and place is going to be exactly the same, but patterns occur.

    Rachel, remember the discussion a while back we had regarding gender ratio's and their affect on human behavior? That also comes into play.

    Further... being in opposition to an idea, philosophy or construct is to be trapped by that construct.

    So if I look into the mirror and my gender does not match my biological sex and I rebel against the social construct of my gender, I am still trapped by it.

    Which is why many people that experience conflicts with their biological sex choose the opposite sex as their gender as opposed to androgyny. Not male is female, and not female is male.

    It would not be until I transcend gender that the social construct, which is based in biology, has been overcome.

    And the number of people that can transcend gender are an extremely rare anomaly and do not have to be incorporated into the biological paradigm.

  18. Steven,

    I guess I'm not sure what you mean by this:

    So no cultural definition of gender exist separate of the natural world.

    A social construction picture does not entail that gender exists in a vacuum. As far as I'm concerned, the assumption is that all social facts occur within the context of the natural world and interact with it. But the influences of events in the natural world on our social constructions does not mean they're not social constructions.

    Look at race, for example. Race did not exist as a concept or a social category at all until it was needed to justify slavery. Then "race" suddenly appeared in the literature, and the concept was built up around skin color, and all kinds of things were attributed to those of "inferior" races that had never been thought of before. Issues of character, innate ability, "natural" propensities, and temperament were suddenly tied to skin color. However, biologically speaking, race doesn't exist as a discrete category, so all these things that were thought to be determined by biology are now dismissed as a historical way to justify hierarchy. Of course, many of the ideas and prejudices still remain.

    Similarly, "homosexual" and "heterosexual" did not exist as categories until it was historically convenient. In ancient times, people were not thought to be separable or distinguishable based on the biological sex of the persons to whom they were attracted. In some contexts, homosexual behavior was condemned, but the person him/herself was not supposed to have a whole different character and set of propensities and so forth based on his/her sexual behavior. Sexual preference just wasn't thought to be tied to anything other than sexual behavior. But once it became expedient to separate people based on sexual preference, these concepts came into being, and now we believe that all kinds of characteristics, abilities, tendencies, etc follow from being gay or straight. In other words, the construction has become essentialized.

    So if you "trace a genealogy" of these constructs, you'll find that they only come into play when it's expedient for the purposes of hierarchy and oppression. Once this has happened, we "naturalize" the category and imagine that it was always this way and that it's determined by nature. So why wouldn't gender also be a construct like this, given the similarities between sexual preference, race, and gender? It's a tool of oppression, it's thought to be "natural" but requires a great deal of socialization, there's a specific script that goes with it that has to be learned, etc. And it's totally contingent on the historical and cultural context.

    Beyond that, I think your contrast of cisgendered people with trans people is oversimplified. I've never met a single cis person who completely and totally fits into the gender they were assigned at birth. No man has all "masculine" characteristics and no "feminine" characteristics. And no woman has all "feminine" traits and no "masculine" ones. It simply never happens that way, except in fiction. And yet we insist that there's this clearly delimited binary. In fact, gender occurs on a continuum, and we all have a blend of masculine and feminine traits. Of course some of us are better at following the script than others. And some choose the opposite script, and some actually do reject both. It's called genderqueer. And the fact that most people try to fit into one category or the other simply reflects our cultural belief that you must be one or the other. So I don't see why the fact that very few people don't fit into one or the other means that it's "natural" to have this binary. There are very, very strong social forces pushing you into a category, and to defy this often involves putting your life and safety at serious risk.

    I actually think it would benefit everyone if we would stop thinking of gender as this all-important thing and allow it to become more fluid and flexible. For one thing, trans people would have a much easier time of it, raising kids would be easier, since you wouldn't have to constantly be policing their gender expression or explaining to them why other people do, "genderqueer" wouldn't be a necessary category, and people would be free to express the traits and characteristics that they prefer or that come naturally to them.

    This solution seems so easy, but it strikes fear into the hearts of many people. And I think it really does come down to heteronormativity. If everyone was free to negotiate their own identity outside of the gender binary, then how would you know just by looking at people who you could fuck? You might end up feeling attracted to someone who doesn't have "the right" genitalia for you. And as we've seen again and again in hate crimes against transfolk, this is a scenario that fills many people with unspeakable horror and murderous anger. So little girls will continue to be forced to wear pink from head to toe and taught that they're just not that good at math, little boys will be taught not to cry or express empathy, and many men and women will continue to uncomfortably inhabit roles and identities that aren't well-suited for them in the interest of everyone knowing who's a candidate for sexual relations. Seems like a remarkably inefficient system to me.

  19. Doesn't Judith Butler argue for this idea that heteronormativity is behind the essentialization and policing of gender? I'm thinking I read something by her that defends this claim.

  20. "So if I look into the mirror and my gender does not match my biological sex and I rebel against the social construct of my gender, I am still trapped by it.

    Which is why many people that experience conflicts with their biological sex choose the opposite sex as their gender as opposed to androgyny. Not male is female, and not female is male."

    I'm uncomfortable with this comment. It's sounds like the person you are picturing in this hypothetical is an adult who completely understands the meaning of gender and sex, and is in a way choosing to rebel against the gender they were assigned. How does this account for an elementary school male child who just knows she is a girl, even when everyone around her is trying, through words and violence, to tell her otherwise (see as an example). I don't see her as 'choosing' to be a girl b/c what is "not male is female."

    I don't have a larger point with this comment, just wanted to say the previous comment didn't sit well with me.

  21. This commentary is as needed as ever.

    You have correctly, usefully reiterated what many social anthropologists have for years: that all humans, in all places in the world, at all times, have been so deeply enmeshed in their particular cradle-to-grave social frameworks (part of what Bourdieu termed "habitus"), that the latter fully become reality. What did not exist in a material reality sense is brought into existence, and given meaning--and tremendous power, including the power to harm--by our very minds. At least, by many minds in concert with one another i.e. society.

    And because we are socialized into our particular frameworks since the moment of birth (and in some societies, while still in utero), it is a social framework that seems as natural and essential and biological to us as the universal human need for food or water. The world looks the way we expect it to, and we expect it to because our expectation was modeled that way for us.

    As you may know from my posts elsewhere, Rachel, I do not travel solely in anthropological, other academic, and/or humanist circles. In fact, I am in frequent contact with entire communities (oh, yes, in the U.S., too) who have developed whole religious interpretory systems based on their fidelity to essentialized gender, blanket-race, and other social properties frequently passed off as "innate" and "universal" (and "Bibilical"/"Quranic, which is just a synonym for biological, innate, and universal).

    Frequently, all that is needed to put a dent in the "natural" pillar of their framework is the pointing out that a few thousand miles away, people in another part of the world are equally convinced that their, opposite paradigm is what is "natural" and "universal." So, as you point out, WIDELY pan-cultural analysis would appear to serve as a corrective to our own limited conceptual frameworks. Yet, even in the era of Internet and satellite, so often it is not.

    And so often, people invest deeply in their social frameworks--often times at great personal and familial cost--without having ever undertaken a sober look at the ethnographic material that reveals otherwise.

    I am thinking especially of the women and men in the contemporary Religious Patriarchy movements (usually Abrahamic religions). These are people who have made far-reaching life choices and sacrifices--the decision to forego birth control even when it is readily available and to assemble a "full Quiver;" the reification through scriptural proof-texting of essentialized gender, such that men are eternally burdened with singlehanded financial support of a massive family and adult partner; such that women are trained that their very purpose for existence is to serve as helpmeet to a man's vision. And these philosophies have taken a tremendous toll on the people involved: on the young gay boys who forced themselves to take women as wives, and on women who have suffered intense emotional and physical abuse and in doing so, believed themselves to be merely fulfilling their biological destiny to "submit." And there has been a toll on men who were socialized to be abusers and to take on roles in life they would not have chosen if their social framework did not demand it of them on the basis of their genitals.

    But we don't even need ethnography to show that gender and race and beauty are categories built up sky-high around the tiny initial kernels of sex organs, ethnic group, and phenotype variation. Within each society itself are many documented examples of humans raised not by wolves (though that would be a deeply instructive--if deeply unethical-- example), but largely by themselves through the severe neglect of parents and caretakers.

    Survivors of childhood neglect do not perceive or perform gender the way routinely socialized members of their larger society do. They do not perceive or perform blanket Race (heck, even ethnicity, which DOES exist in a material sense). They do not "instinctively know" what faces and bodies are supposed to be "inherently" beautiful and sexually attractive. They are fully human--biologically so--with the same mental and emotional capacities as anyone else. Any yet, to socialized members of society (i.e. the majority of people everywhere), they often *appear* less-than-human. It is the social they are missing, and the social which composes the greater part of human experience.

    In short, they are the worst nightmare of both the Quiverfull couple and the evolutionary biologists splashed across the welcoming pages of the New York Times and other world media. They remind us that what is Human is very often not a function of the human body or ancestral line, but of these distinct collectives of minds known as "societies."