Binaries as balance vs hierarchy

Thinking about the sex binary and the existence, or possibility, of non-patriarchal forms of gender as cultural meaning given to the sex binary or to the existence of binary forms generally as a principle of social organization.

Women in modern capitalist patriarchy have a legacy to contend with that posits gender as complementarity, entangled with the hierarchy that is gender in patriarchy. Cynical glorification of women’s ‘place’ in the home, women as civilizers of men, ‘the angel in the house’ serves the purpose of flattery that works alongside threats to induce women to cooperate in their (our) own oppression (Max Dashú discussing the work of Collette Guillaumin). Feminists are rightly cynical about gender that maintains separate spheres of activity or enactment of archetypal cultural forms for women and men because of this entanglement and the subjugated relationship of women to its creation and maintenance.

We have been confronted with the need to articulate the difference between binary sex as a reality of our physical existence as a mammalian species, and the gender binary that socially constructs a hierarchy of sex-based oppression. We affirm the sex binary in itself as a neutral fact and contest the gender one. But we are left without a way to describe or imagine the possibility of social binaries other than as hierarchy, within western feminism.

Yet such binaries are all around and within us at the subsistence level that both underlies and resists capitalist patriarchy. Matricentric cultures treat social binaries as a form for balance and dynamic stability. This is fundamentally different from hierarchy.

My experience of balance in a relationship comes from loving another woman. She is my balance, something I feel as a counterweight connected to myself and inseparable in that sense. In a binary relationship as balance, each side exists in itself and in relation to the other. This felt experience of binary as balance allows me to move outward and appreciate the possibility of balance between the sexes in matricentric cultures and the potency of other binary forms such as clan arrangements that similarly differentiate and connect people in complex relationships of balance within a society.

In contrast to balance, hierarchy entails both dominance and a substitution of quantity for quality. Quantity in the sense of more than or less than, stronger or weaker, superior and inferior – comparison along a yardstick that is presumed to be uniform for both parts of the binary but is in fact (as we know from gender) based on the one that dominates. That is inevitable since the original form of binary as balance brings together two entirely different qualities, neither of which can measure or be measured by the other.

This shift, this imposition of a quantified relation based on dominance on a relation of balance between two entirely different qualities (which then also substitutes quantification and comparison for qualitative difference), would appear to be key to the original appropriation or dispossession of women as a sex class by men as a sex class. I started thinking about this from Max Dashú’s discussion of Collette Guillaumin’s insight that the exchange of women, which she considers fundamental to any form of patriarchy, assumes that women are already socially construed as objects capable of being exchanged. The ‘sexification’ of women – turning women into objects of sexual and reproductive use-value whose worth along the yardstick of the sex-class binary is qualitatively inferior to that of men and whose ‘worth’ can then be measured by men in terms of quantities of objects of exchange – is said to constitute that violent appropriation of women by men, for men’s use. Relating this to the substitution of quantity for quality links patriarchy – the original dispossession of women – with class society in which elite classes, primarily but not exclusively the men in those classes, use other human beings and both constitute themselves as the yardstick of measurement for social worth as human beings, and presume to measure the value of those they dominate as economic units serving the aim of the masters, in contrast to relation among differentiated social groups as qualitatively distinct cooperators in maintaining balance that each serve both the aims of society as a whole and their particular existence on its own terms.

This brings me back to the two previous posts on dispossession of women and the fact of life that everything matters, when we are facing dispossession as women continually do in capitalist patriarchy as it maintains itself over us. Every dispossession no matter how slight it may appear, no matter whether it comes in the form of confinement, force, law, custom or flattery, is a fundamental (and qualitative) shift from original balance (connection of qualitatively distinct existences) to hierarchy (domination and measurement of relative worth as a prerogative of the dominator). Balance is still possible at the subsistence level of life that capitalism cannot expropriate from us without killing us all, and as it is fundamentally about re-shifting the nature of relationships, including our relationships with nature, it cannot be done in isolation but only by means that put into practice the end, respecting the independence and connection of qualitatively distinct existences and rejecting any binary relations that entail quantification or dominance. (I have to thank Sally Tatnall for her presentation on hierarchy which planted a seed in my mind about the unity of forms of hierarchy that informs what I am struggling to express here.)

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