Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Bastille Day

1. At the Porte Saint-Antoine, 14 July 1789

Independence Day celebrates a revolution--however important its future would prove--that was inaugurated to protect the rights of the entitled. I prefer Bastille Day, the start of the French Revolution, the first struggle to try to break the shackles of the Agricultural Revolution, to radically reshape the human destiny. It is the French, not the American, Revolution that haunts the Western consciousness, a bloody ghost shrieking of ways not taken and tyrannies unfought.

The starving and enraged sans-coulottes who gathered near the Porte St. Antoine that hot July afternoon knew nothing of the finer points of either revolution or democracy. They knew not whether they were Rousseau's ennobled primitives or Hobbes' mindless mob. Nor did they care. They gave not a sou for the National Assembly's parliamentary debate on the proper techniques to constitutionally cage a monarch: they knew only that they were oppressed, and sick of it, and incapable of letting it stand any longer.

Behind the walls of the ancient fortress were only seven prisoners--but they were the symbols of an entire regime. Never extensively used as a prison, the Bastille remained nonetheless the notorious symbol of absolute monarchy, the place those who dared speak against the Crown were warehoused. It was against this symbol, more than anything else, that the mob struck; but they had a more immediate goal. The Bastille was also a gigantic gunpowder depot.

By 5:30 in the afternoon, after four hours of fighting, it was all over. The commander of the garrison--mostly disabled veterans and a small contingent of Swiss mercenaries--had surrendered, and then intentionally provoked his own lynching, apparently unable to live with the dishonor. The powder was seized, muskets were charged, and the Royal Army abandoned Paris to the sans-coulottes. In time, those muskets would carry the Revolution (and more, the Revolutionary spirit) across the Rhine and into the rest of Europe. Nor would the vintage laid down that day ever completely fail, even after the force of revolution was channeled into a new tyranny and the blood of patriots was wastefully spent in defence of Empire. As much as Bonaparte and his successors might try, the power unleashed that July afternoon could never fully serve autocrats.

I wonder, though: what did the garrison see that day, as the mob burst into the outer courtyard of the fort, as the air grew opaque with gunpowder smoke--what flashed accross the sky for them that day? Portents of the ceaseless wars France would plunge into? Of the civil unrest and the great Terror to come? Or a presentiment that the world would never again be the same, that from now on the voice of the oppressed would never be stilled, try as they might to suppress it?

Today I choose to make my witness.

2. The Patriarchy Is Not Enough

For feminists, for people who struggle against sexist oppression, that set of privileges and oppressions we call patriarchy looms like the Bastille over the landscape of our lives. The comparison is apt: because patriarchy is both more and less than it seems.

Patriarchy is claimed as the father of all oppressions, the most common prejudice, the heaviest burden, the source of all tyrannies. Patriarchy must be nearly transhistorical--it certainly must go back as least as far as the Agricultural Revolution--and like a dark star, it bends all other forms of oppression towards it, warping them into its own mold. But like the Bastille, its symbolic presence is greater than its actual oppression, vast as that may be.

This is not to minimize the pervasive and insidious force it exerts: nothing I say could alter that, because it is an inescapable fact of every society extant on the earth. But. Patriarchy is only one of the oppressions. Others exist, and still would exist even without it.

Imagine, if you will, that we could wake up tomorrow in a world where sexism had finally been eliminated and true equality of the sexes reigned. Certainly many other oppressions would be greatly mitigated, because in eradicating sexism, fundamental inequalities of privilege and access would have to be extirpated.

But would the world change all that much? Would not the great mass of people on the planet still be mired in poverty, disease, starvation, and near-slavery? Is it really patriarchy that keeps women and children bent over the clothing mills of Indonesia and Vietnam to satiate the developed world's lust for cheap clothing? Or is it not still the case that colonialism, racism, imperialism, classism, militarism and a host of other oppressions would stalk the earth even without sexism, their staunchest ally?

I think that they would.

This is not to diminish the importance of the struggle against sexism; as bell hooks says:
Sexist oppression is of primary importance not because it is the basis of all other oppression, but because it is the practice of domination most people experience, whether their role be that of the discriminator or discriminated against, exploiter or exploited. It is the practice of domination most people are socialized to accept before they even know that other forms of group oppression exist. This does not mean that eradicating sexist oppression would eliminate other forms of oppression. Since all forms of oppression are linked in our society because they are all supported by similar institutional and social structures, one system cannot be eradicated while the others remain intact. Challenging sexist oppression is a crucial step in the struggle to eliminate all forms of oppression. (Feminist Theory, pp. 36-7)
The struggle against patriarchy will necessarily be a struggle against other forms of oppression. But that does not mean that it is sufficient in of itself to struggle only against patriarchy, or that all forms of oppression can be reduced to questions of sexism. Oppression is not something that has a simple binary, top-down nature; oppression takes many forms and has many axes of attack. To force all analysis of privilege to that of patriarchy is to engage in a privileged behavior: the privilege to ignore the effects of other oppressions. It is not accidental that much work in this vein has been done by people who are white, Western, and middle-classed, for that very reason.

The struggle against sexism is a vital step in liberating the human race; but it is not the only one or even always the most important one. The patriarchy is not enough.

3. A Wrinkle In Privilege

I use the term kyriarchy somewhat differently than most people.

Kyriarchy--"a neologism coined by Elisabeth Schussler Fiorenza and derived from the Greek words for "lord" or "master" (kyrios) and "to rule or dominate" (archein)"--is usually defined like this, (courtesy of Sudy at A Woman's Ecdysis ):

When people talk about patriarchy and then it divulges into a complex conversation about the shifting circles of privilege, power, and domination -- they're talking about kyriarchy. When you talk about power assertion of a White woman over a Brown man, that's kyriarchy. When you talk about a Black man dominating a Brown womyn, that's kyriarchy. It's about the human tendency for everyone trying to take the role of lord/master within a pyramid. At it best heights, studying kyriarchy displays that it's more than just rich, white Christian men at the tip top and, personally, they're not the ones I find most dangerous. There's a helluva lot more people a few levels down the pyramid who are more interested in keeping their place in the structure than to turning the pyramid upside down.

Most people tend to visualize this as intersecting pyramids of power, which certainly follows the meaning of the word. But I tend to think of a different geometric form: the tesseract or hypercube, a four-dimensional cube.

Take a line in space; that's one dimension. Draw a square; now you have two dimensions. Now make it a cube; that's three dimensions. Add another dimension, and you have a tesseract:

Even though it is a difficult image to grasp, I like to use it--not the least because it is a difficult image, and our privileges often are just a difficult to analyze. I like it too because it exists, like we do, in four-dimensional space--and forgetting about our fourth dimension, time, often leads to mistakes in analyses of privilege. And maybe most of all, I like it because it is impossible to accurately visualize in three-dimensional space--and I think the same about privilege.

That is, it is possible to draw a tesseract or even make a three-dimensional model of it--but that will only be one way of looking at it. Likewise, we can analyze a person's relative oppression in terms of all sorts of axes: racism, sexism, religous bigotry, etc. But that will only be one way of looking at it, one way of rotating the tesseract; for another person, in another time, it will look completely different. All forms of oppression are linked.

And that is the essence of kyriarchy: we are all emeshed in it, all trapped not only by our oppressions but our privileges as well. If oppression is the negative force, pushing us down, privilege is the positive force, raising us up; both of them keep us tied to the system itself. The only escape is to break free of it all: to fight oppression and to abjure privilege. To break the fierce equilibrium and experiment for the first time in radical freedom.

Some feel that the way to do this is homogeneity: to end sexism by abolishing gender, to end religious bigotry by abolishing religion, etc. I disagree. I think that diversity is an essential element not only in the biological success of all species, but an important component of human creativity. I think the world is heightened by distinctions--as Hopkins says:
All things counter, original spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim...
What I want is a world where those differences are as about important as the music you prefer to listen to: something you might get passionate about, something that might inspire you or help you find other like-minded people to form a community with, but never something that you would kill or die for, or use to oppress other people.

I'm not sure that a human society truly free of hierarchy is possible or even desirable (even I think there is a place for some kind of privilege, just not unearned privilege.) But my fervent hope for the human species is a radical restructuring of how we organize ourselves, and soon too: because we've gone so far to destroy ourselves and now our planet with us.

4. Bastille Day

Two hundred twenty years ago, after the spasm of violence, order improbably returned. The National Assembly resumed its deliberations, and wisely stood by while the people of Paris dismantled the fallen prison, stone by stone and brick by brick, until nothing remained except a few foundation stones that lay buried for more than a hundred years.

Reached at Versailles a few days later, the King reacted to the news with a start. "Is it a revolt?" he asked.

"No, Sire," was the response. "It is a revolution."


  1. It's like jell-o wrestling with David McCullough, bell hooks, and Stephen Hawking, and then looking up and seeing Carrie Bradshaw streak by . . .

    My head just exploded.

  2. I just loved this post. The tesseract image is wonderful - as is your vision of differences inspiring passion and spirited interchanges but not enmity or contempt or oppression.

  3. Thanks much, SG!

    And E, jello-wrestling wasn't quite where I wanted to end up... ;)