Contents Disappointed Utopia 2. Left Patriarchy

The reflexivity of patriarchy

Left patriarchy was a problem that the Philosophy Department had not solved by the time of my research. Early on in France, I sensed the masculine norm that dominated my fieldsite, but I felt I did not know how to talk about it. It seemed omnipresent and impervious to analysis: in a word, naturalized. This force of naturalization, I realized belatedly, also affected many of the subjects within the Department. “The philosophical relationship is essentially masculine,” wrote a male professor. “There’s a masculine norm here,” I said once to a female professor; “in philosophy departments, that’s normal,” she responded matter-of-factly. Neither of these professors were entirely uncritical of this norm. Indeed, they had a degree of ironic reflexivity about it. This paradox gives us a point of departure: how can patriarchy be at once naturalized and a space for a certain self-consciousness? I propose in this chapter to explore this paradox in comparative terms, comparing men’s and women’s discourses, perceptions, and forms of belonging.[1]

The version of left patriarchy I found in the Philosophy Department was not a static or singular norm. It was an ongoing, but unstable coalition of historical processes. I do not see it as a direct reflection of “French culture” or of Western philosophy in general, even though both of these have longue durée masculinist histories. Rather, left patriarchy at Paris 8 was refracted through new institutions that had been created in response to May 1968. Patriarchal structures had been reinscribed at the inception of the University of Paris 8, where “power came from the end of the phallus.” Forty years later, they were still reproduced. In the Philosophy Department, the multiplicity of left patriarchy made it flexible and durable, as it worked on several fronts simultaneously.

Intellectually, left patriarchy in the Philosophy Department organized the range of standard references, the parameters of the local philosophical canon, the topics of courses, the authors on the reading lists, and the masculine ego ideals that permeated the resulting pantheons. Politically, left patriarchy organized an arena of internal conflict within the Department, in which men fought with each other over the terms of institutional reproduction. Interpersonally, left patriarchy organized the whole structure of local social relationships, creating a series of male friend circles and gendered habits of recognition. Affectively, left patriarchy filled the milieu with gendered moods, rhythms of interaction, and regimes of mocking laughter. And corporeally, left patriarchy organized the relationships between bodies and the symbolic processes of sexualization, objectification, and exclusion that kept many women on the institutional margins, where they were vulnerable to gendered violence.

Naturalization emerged from the confluence of these different kinds of masculine processes. Collectively, they saturated local realities to the point where they constituted a more general norm, a default situation, a standard cultural repertoire. Left patriarchy thus acquired a more general, systemic quality, coming to organize local relations to history and to the future, providing vocabularies and repertoires for social action, and steering the political imagination. This chapter explores the experiences and histories that reproduced left patriarchy as a long-lasting social formation.

  1. I did not encounter anyone in my fieldsite who recognizably fell outside the conventional gender binary.  ↩

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