Patriarchy & The Ineptitude of Fathers

The physicist Wolfgang Pauli famously derided those with whom he disagreed using the insult, “you’re not even wrong.” This stinging reprimand was meant to imply that a proposed idea was so illogical that it didn’t even enter into the spectrum of falsehood. An idea that is “not even wrong” does not qualify as information, simply noise. We live in a very noisy time.

In the wake of the 2016 election and subsequent moment of ‘reflection’, there has been much scrambling to parse information from noise. Twenty-first century information circulation has manifested a porous Rorschach reality (Adam Curtis’ latest BBC documentary presciently spells this out in conspiratorial grandeur). Rather than another attempt to tourniquet the hemorrhaging of reality, perhaps the fluidity of this moment affords an opportunity to reassess prevailing narratives about rationality, reason, and logic. Rather than paragons of knowledge, perhaps these traditions of thought have merely served to suture over the enduring ignorance of patriarchy.

It’s an awkward time to be a father. These vessels for the perpetuation of the social order are having difficulty making out the character of the social order they’re expected to uphold. It is the social role of ‘father’ within patriarchal society that is my concern. Of course, there are men who have children that refuse to perform patriarchal fatherhood, there are women who have children that choose to perform this social role, and there are people who don’t have any children that choose to perform fatherhood. Further, performance of fatherhood is meant quite apart from performance of masculinity, which Katie Horowitz’s work has shown is a rather dynamic role – there are numerous venues through which to perform masculinity (athlete, mechanic, hunter, rockstar, orator, even archaeologist).

Not all fathers are bad, some are harmless, and I’ve even heard stories of fathers who are actually positive influences on the lives of their children, if not the larger world. But without exception, they are all inept. Inept simply suggests clumsiness or lack of skill, it doesn’t preclude affection or empathy – you can still be a fine father despite your ineptitude. By its very construction, though, the social role of ‘father’ within patriarchal populations (at least the one I live in) is built upon incoherent prerogatives. It is a role of mandated ignorance, wherein the performer of fatherhood must enforce the completeness of the patriarchal system by ignoring or suppressing the validity of alterity.

The constrictive social function of fathers within a patriarchy is to deny that social organization could be otherwise; that there is any validity to reality outside of the patriarchy. “…exteriority, or the place of the other, functions either as a reserve for the disposal of thought or else is articulated in negative terms as an empty and mute space (Plonowska Ziarek).” In short, the function of the patriarchal father is to systematically naturalize domination as the only (or at least most viable) paradigm of social organization.

But dominance is not natural (if that even means anything). More relevantly, dominance is uncomfortable – both for the dominated and the dominating. One can certainly perform dominance in certain situations, just as one can perform submissiveness or empathy at times. An adept (as opposed to inept) individual is precisely someone that is capable of performing multiple social roles as contexts unfold. But to exist in an expectation of static dominance can only give rise to mutinously deficient half-people (aka, fathers).

And now we have the utmost epitome of an inept father, the most mutinously deficient half-person, for a president. Like all inepts, he is incredibly awkward, incredibly pathetic, and incredibly embarrassing (“If Ivanka weren’t my daughter, I’d be dating her”). He is the embodiment of patriarchy – willful ignorance via the disavowal of the validity of alterity.

Patriarchies do not acknowledge the possibility that there could be any reality outside of their own. This is how they perpetuate. Patriarchy is by its very design suppressive (of at least 50% of the population). This form of social organization is not sustained through the merits of its own ideology or the merits of the knowledge it produces. It is sustained through the suppression of the possibility of alterity; through the suppression of exterior knowledges or exterior realities. Patriarchal domination is not facilitated through its own validity, but through the invalidation of all that is outside of it. While it is anthropology’s principle concern to highlight other ways of being and knowing, for the first half of the discipline’s existence it was complicit in the patriarchal dismissal of the validity of the alternative ontologies it exposed – explaining away cultural ‘eccentricities’ in the rational-functional terms of the patriarchy.

Unfortunately, this is not something that has just been inaugurated by the new administration. This practice of casting shade upon reality has been formulated in various forms for centuries under the Skeptical tradition. Ewa Plonowska Ziarek’s The Rhetoric of Failure traces this tradition through its collision with Derrida’s deconstruction. The Skeptical perspective simply casts doubt on our ability to know anything for certain, not a particularly groundbreaking idea, but followed to its conclusions results in something like  postmodern nihilism, which, rather than acknowledging the reality of alterity (that alterity could share in reality), chose to tear down all of reality (like a spoiled kid that says, “if I can’t have reality, no one can!”).

Plonowska Ziarek’s conclusion, though, is that the likes of Derrida, Levinas, and even Samuel Beckett offer (or attempted to offer), an alternative to this unproductive conclusion, not through the disavowal of reality, but rather through questioning Rationality as the arbiter of reality. Plonowska Ziarek writes of rationality’s “allergic response to alterity,” and the “internal relation between rationality and domination.” Of course our patriarchy valorized Rationalism – it always reassures us we’re right! “Whereas Skepticism remains an immanent questioning of knowledge, Derrida’s critique, in its search for the other of reason, surpasses the bounds of rationality… Derrida’s work is oriented toward what has been excluded from the horizon of reason.”

Plonowska Ziarek contrasts the Skeptical disavowal of knowledge with Derrida’s appeal to responsibility toward the outside of reason:

“Although Skepticism [and eventually postmodernism] registers a lack of continuity between the inside and the outside (the subject and the other)… it concerns itself only with the possibility or impossibility of knowledge and not with an ethical response to alterity. To treat alterity as merely an obstacle to knowledge is still to avoid the encounter with the other… the relation to the other reveals the inescapable limits of the subject. Yet, because this figuration of alterity is so entirely negative, subjects search for the means of escaping from this ‘unfortunate’ predicament, the miraculous cure absolving them from the obligation of a response.”

This “unfortunate predicament” engenders the clumsiness of patriarchal fathers, thus their egregious awkwardness. For many fathers this “miraculous cure absolving them of a response” has been rationality. While rationality may be built upon internally consistent logic, it breaks down in the face of alter-hegemonic forms of knowing that anthropology brings to light. Patriarchal fathers are thus put in the embarrassing position of ignoring their own incompleteness.

Anthropologists’ work is that of validating (or at least acknowledging) alterity. Anthropology gives legitimacy to worlds otherwise. Anthropology illuminates the contradictory competing realities that patriarchal societies sweep under the rug. As numerous ethnographic accounts attest, kinship structure and social organization can take many forms. The social role of ‘father’ as it exists within patriarchies is by no means a universal concept.

There’s no “filling in” of the imperfect knowledge and unknowability of patriarchal epistemology. Any system of knowledge production is bound to have gaps. The question is how these gaps are reconciled. What distinguishes patriarchy is that gaps in knowledge are seen as imperfections and threats to the dominance of the prevailing social order. A void is not an imperfection though, it is a signal that some bits of reality are exterior to your society of knowledge makers. To this end, Plonowska Ziarek’s work hints at a sort of ‘cultural realism’, as opposed to Boasian ‘cultural relativism’. Viveiros de Castro’s multinaturalism closely approximates this sentiment.

The tradition since Descartes focused on rationalizing unknowability – that is, employing reason and logic to buttress the imperfect knowledge under which patriarchy operates. This wasn’t the best idea. Rationality has been used to legitimize untold violence and oppression.

Within EuroAmerican patriarchy, as reason and logic crumbled throughout the 20th century they have been replaced by rhetoric and individuation as the ameliorators of unknowability. Was the 2016 election the revenge of inept fathers, tired of defending the inconsistency of rationality? That is to say, quite literally, patriarchy can no longer be rationally defended. It can only be rhetorically defended. The rational reality patriarchy once promoted has been replaced by a rhetorical, individuated reality. Sure, evidence can be provided that directly refutes many of the president’s assertions, but as rhetoric has replaced reason as the preferred patriarchal method of covering up its own ignorance, Trump can proudly embrace Pauli’s insult that he is “not even wrong.”

Further Reading:

Cole, Simon A. 1995. Do androids pulverize tiger bones to use as aphrodisiacs? Social Text(42): 173-93.

Haraway, Donna. 1991. Simians, cyborgs, and women: The reinvention of nature. New York: Routledge.

Horowitz, Katie R. 2013. The trouble with “Queerness”: Drag and the making of two cultures. Signs 38 (2): 303-26.

Viveiros de Castro, Eduardo. 2014. Cannibal metaphysics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Ziarek, Ewa Plonowska. 1996. The rhetoric of failure: Deconstructon of skepticism, reinvention of modernism. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Scott is a Ph.D. candidate in Archaeology at the City University of New York Graduate Center. His work centers on the material culture of knowledge production, specifically the instruments and devices employed by capitalized populations to facilitate the belief in and practice of perpetual, accelerating, asymmetrical growth.

4 thoughts on “Patriarchy & The Ineptitude of Fathers

  1. Don’t want to seem dim and this is all interesting but I don’t see the connection here with anthropology…

  2. Not all fathers are bad, some are harmless … but without exception they are all inept. Their constrictive role is that of denying that social organization could be otherwise.
    These comments provoke, as I’m sure they are meant to do. But they are also offered without evidence or explanation. Why should we believe these assertions? Given that this essay argues that “rhetoric has replaced reason” as patriarchy’s method of covering up its own ignorance, perhaps we as anthropologists should consider adopting a form of writing that favors grounded argument over rhetorical flourishes to make our voices heard and understood (and to upend patriarchy along the way)?

  3. Masculine roles and identities are a topic much studied, not only by anthropologists but also by scholars from other disciplines. The question is whether anthropologists have something specific to anthropology to say about the topic. I remain uncertain. That Donald Trump embodies a particular type of masculinity, inarticulate, anger-prone, and anti-intellectual is an interesting observation. But we need a thicker description of the space of possibilities and material circumstances in which it appears. Where does the Orange One belong in a space that includes, for example, God the Father Almighty, Dagwood Bumstead, and Darth Vader?

  4. Hi Scott, deeply provoking and exciting writing. I do wonder where the mothers and others are left in all this – and I also think of Iris Marion Young’s idea of four modes of communication – if argument (rationality) is dead, rhetoric reigns supreme, what of greeting (recognising the other) and narrative (hearing what they have to say)? Do the latter two have any capacity to unwind the former? Just thoughts! Thanks for the stimulus.

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