The Patriarchy is Dead; Long Live the Patriarchy (Legacy)

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I try to find authors who will challenge my view of the world, and my knowledge of it, in new and different ways. Science historian David Wooten did not disappoint. Wooten wrote the 2015 book entitled The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution. Wooten’s main premise really caught my attention: Before science could be invented, discovery had to be invented. Wooten puts forward the idea that prior to, say, Columbus, there was no concept “discovery.” Roll that one around in your head a few times. It never occurred to me that, say, ancient Romans or Greeks did not engage in discovery. Sure, they invented things, like roads and aqueducts, but they did not discover things. This is not unlike the development of the concept “zero.” As cognitive researchers Fauconnier and Turner put it in their 2008 book entitled The Way We Think, “[N]onthings [i.e., immaterial things] do indeed play a large role in everyday thinking.” Fauconnier and Turner point to the development of the concept “zero” as constituting one of the greatest immaterial tools that we use everyday without comment. Imaginary and negative numbers simply could not exist without zero (and, by extension, much of complex mathematics). In the same way complex mathematics could not exist without the invention of zero, science could not exist without the invention of discovery.

In my last post I mentioned a book by world history professor Yuval Noah Harari entitled Sapiens—A Brief History of Humankind. Interestingly, Harari makes the same point concerning discovery that Wooten makes. Harari goes into more detail. Harari tells us that Columbus operated within the “pre-discovery” paradigm. What this means is that Columbus believed that everything had already been discovered. The best one could hope for is to go out and experience firsthand that which is already known. Columbus believed in the idea that all that is knowable is contained in ancient texts like the Bible. When Columbus happened upon a land mass (which we now know to be North America), he “believed he had reached a small island off the East Asian coast” writes Harari. He continues, “[Columbus] called the people he found … ‘Indians’ because he thought he had landed in the Indies—what we now call the East Indies or the Indonesian archipelago.” Here’s Harari’s “take home” statement:

The idea that [Columbus] had discovered a completely unknown continent was inconceivable for him and for many of his generation. For thousands of years, not only the greatest thinkers and scholars but the infallible Scriptures had known only Europe, Africa and Asia. … In his refusal to admit ignorance, Columbus was still a [pre-discovery] medieval man. He was convinced he knew the whole world, and even his momentous discovery failed to convince him otherwise.

In the immortal word of Spock, “fascinating.”

In order for discovery to be invented, scholars and great thinkers had to believe in “abject ignorance” or what Harari calls “empty maps.” The world could not have a concept like discovery without a belief in the idea that we know nothing, that we are essentially ignorant of the world. Discovery then puts forward the mandate “go out and see what you can find.” Now, Harari quickly points out that belief in the discovery paradigm provided fuel for imperialism. Harari suggests that discovery, science, and imperialism go hand-in-hand. Harari mentions Eisenhower’s use of the phrase “military-industrial complex” back in 1961. “[Eisenhower] should have alerted his country to the military-industrial-scientific complex [my emphasis], because today’s wars are scientific productions,” Harari tells us. (I make a similar point in my book A Question of Attachment.)

OK, OK, I know what you’re thinking: “I thought this post was about patriarchy?” It is. Here’s the connection. Harari suggests that one way to define or “operationalize” (as researchers like to say) patriarchy is to say that it is a catchall phrase that in essence refers to the discovery-imperialism complex if you will. But there’s some good news here. Harari puts forward the idea that we are witnessing “the disintegration of patriarchy.” Were feminists successful in their bid to end patriarchy? No, not really.

Harari points to one central reason the patriarchy is disintegrating: The discovery-imperialism complex has done its job and has not only discovered the world but has also made that world “one” through all manner of standardization processes. Standardization processes would include such things as establishing standards of measurement, standards of time (e.g., Greenwich Mean Time), standards of scientific exploration, and even standards of moral, ethical, and legal conduct. (Standardizing currency is another big one, and still very contentious—see the book Currency Wars by James Rickard.) In essence, the patriarchy is burning itself out. Sure, there are a few hot spots left, but the wildfire that would be the discovery-imperialism complex is 90% contained. In essence, imperialism is now in a retirement home. “Since 1945 most empires have opted for peaceful early retirement,” writes Harari. He continues, “Their process of collapse became relatively swift, calm and orderly.” Of the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989, Harari observes, “Never before has such a mighty empire disappeared so swiftly and so quietly.”

The patriarchy is dead (or on its death bed). But the patriarchy legacy will live on. Really? Does it have to? Can’t the legacy die as well? According to Harari, the answer is no. Allow me to explain.

Now that patriarchy is on the ropes, understandably, various countries and peoples wish to return to a time before the discovery-imperialism complex standardized everything and made the world one. Harari reveals: “[M]ost of today’s cultures are based on imperial legacies.” He continues, “If empires are by definition bad, what does that say about us?” Recognition of patriarchal legacies has given rise to “schools of thought and political movements that seek to purge human culture of imperialism, leaving behind what they claim is a pure, authentic civilisation, untainted by sin.” Here’s Harari’s “bottom line”: “These ideologies are at best naïve; at worst they serve as disingenuous window-dressing for crude nationalism and bigotry. … All human cultures are at least in part the legacy of empires and imperial civilisations, and no academic or political surgery can cut out the imperial legacies without killing the patient” (my emphasis).

As I have pointed out in my writings, the postmodern ideology is centrally about getting us past modernity with its focus on science. And as I suggest above, there is a close relationship between science and imperialism. Postmodernism is then about getting us past the discovery-imperialism complex. But how much are postmodernists willing to give up to get back to a place of authentic civilization? Are there no postmodernists on suspension bridges or on operating room tables? “How many Indians today would want to call a vote to divest themselves of democracy, English, the railway network, the legal system, cricket and tea on the ground that they are imperial legacies?” provokingly asks Harari. I’ll give Harari the final word:

Nobody really knows how to solve this thorny question of cultural inheritance. Whatever path we take, the first step is to acknowledge the complexity of the dilemma and to accept that simplistically dividing the past into good guys and bad guys leads nowhere. Unless, of course, we are willing to admit that we usually follow the lead of the bad guys.

Afterword: If making the world “one” and engaging in processes of standardization are the hallmarks of the discovery-imperialism complex, what does that say about companies like Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Facebook? Many liberation ideologies view the digital world as the way out of the discovery-imperialism complex. But are we not just following the lead of a bunch of bad guys? In his follow-up book Homo Deus, Harari suggests that the current liberal embrace of technology should be viewed as a paradox: liberals are embracing the very thing that is undermining liberal values. Rather than providing liberation, technology is creating new forms of enslavement. “If scientific discoveries and technological developments split humankind into a mass of useless humans and a small elite of upgraded superhumans … then liberalism will collapse,” warns Harari. In my new book A Question of Attachment, I suggest that liberation ideologies (such as postmodernism and transhumanism) are short circuiting against cybernetics. This is the same process that Harari points to. Regardless of the frame used, it would appear that liberalism is fading away and in its place we find such things as deterministic algorithms (which are at the heart of cybernetics), widespread automation, and a “mass of useless humans.” Now, I’d be remiss if I did not point out that the behaviorism worldview (cognitive-behavioral therapy would be an example here) is characterized by a search for the deterministic algorithms that define and motivate humans. Behaviorism, then, is playing a large role in moving humans from organic or biological forms of intelligence over to mechanical or algorithm forms of intelligence. “The most important question in twenty-first-century economics may well be what to do with all the superfluous people,” writes Harari in Homo Deus. He continues, “What will conscious humans do [using old forms of organic intelligence], once we have highly intelligent non-conscious algorithms that can do almost everything better?” Good question. [1]


[1] Economist Jeremy Rifkin began looking at this question way back in 1995, which is when he released his now prophetic book The End of Work.