I never thought I’d like Laurie Penny’s writing quite as much as I do. Actually, I’m rather a latecomer to her work. I only discovered her after Phil Sandifer complained about a snarky comment she made about Clara’s storyline in Last Christmas.
A while after that, I found some older articles of hers, and eventually decided to order her book Unspeakable Things because I had read some glowing reviews of it, I felt like reading a good modern political polemic that had some heft to it, and it was only $13. What was truly the dealbreaker that made it inevitable that I would read it is that it contained her personal, and very powerful anorexia narrative.
Some women who have been very important to me have struggled with eating disorders, and when I remember the most severe and intense moments that I’ve shared, I still wish I could have been more than a mute awkward witness unable to think of anything to do other than shudder or run away.
Yeah, it’ll be one of those blog entries. It might turn into a long series too.
I don’t want to discuss the details of how Penny’s first chapter affected me, its philosophical analysis of the identity and self-conception of the anorexic, where the central case study was herself. That will always be a little too personal, though her words did open some old scars on my soul.
No, what impressed me most as a philosopher about Penny is that she has so easily expressed the fundamental principles of the only possible virtuous response to systemic cruelty into her action, her writing.
A few days ago, I discussed how the struggles of the contemporary era are not shaped by the intentional planning of a set of influential people in the leadership of institutions like states. States themselves are subject to impersonal forces of a global economic machine – enormous and incredibly fast flows of material, energy, information, currency, and concepts.
We are caught in forces that determine more of what we think and do than our intentions do because those fluxes constrain what we can even conceive of. The constraining concept that Penny attacks with philosophical analysis is what’s usually called patriarchy.
This is patriarchy as a concept, a framework of thinking that shapes what a person believes is possible for one to be. Such frameworks perpetuate themselves because a community with a shared framework of possibilities for life will socialize successive generations into that structure of thinking.
|It is pretty clear that a message from this sequence of
Last Christmas is that an older female companion is
not suited for the TARDIS. But I wouldn't call this an
intentional message, any more than I'd say the same
about the nigh-indefensible abortion theme in Kill
the Moon. But as you'll see tomorrow, anger and
blame is not the proper response to non-intentional
It is a living philosophical concept.* Patriarchy is not the only such concept that exists or could exist. It’s just one framework concept, one theme that a personality could live out. Most of us have many such themes, but most of us share the patriarchy theme.
* Richard Dawkins would call it a meme, but that idea gives no sense of the genuine material power of thoughts. Dawkins always has been a bit small-minded for my liking.
Patriarchy isn’t a set of beliefs that people hold and act on, which cruelly treats women as inferior creatures to be controlled in some way. No one prefaces every comment that maybe you should grow your hair out like a proper girl with the thought “Now I will take control of you, enslave you, put you in chains to my desires!” And not everyone who says such a comment is a man. Sexism – sexist attitudes and behaviour expressed intentionally – is blameworthy, is worth punishing. Patriarchy is not.
And if people act like everyone who perpetuates patriarchy in human society is worth punishing for it, they just don’t understand what patriarchy is. They don’t understand systematic causation, and think the only kind of causation is the direct and indirect. In the human context, direct causation would be intentional, planned activity. Likewise, indirect causation would be accidents, bad luck, plans going awry.
Patriarchy is neither. It, like all philosophical concepts when people start living them out, is a presumption of the range of possibilities in a feedback loop with whatever particular morality and life expresses and perpetuates it. Patriarchy may be perpetuated in human behaviour, but only because the concept itself structures your actions. It’s a philosophical concept – a thought with the power to think you.
Laurie Penny understands systemic causation. I know it because she describes exactly, and expresses through her daily public conversations that we can all read, how to fight a concept.
That’s why I categorized this post as Research Time, even though I never picked up Unspeakable Things as a possible Utopias source. Now that we have the public knowledge to understand the systematic dynamisms of material, informational, and conceptual flows, and how those flows determine human intentions as the possibility ranges of our self-conceptions, we can use our power to think of new ways to live to actually overcome framework concepts.
Free your mind, and your ass will follow. Conceive, as comprehensively as possible, an alternative way to live, and you will start to live it. Expressing that new philosophical concept in your daily life will make you a role model to others. I conclude Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity with an explanation of just such a model of activism. Penny’s approach is just such a model of ethics. To be Continued . . .