Blood Rites & the Rule of Mars
Interestingly, it is only recently that socially gendered coding and categorizations have been recognized, such that the biological condition of being male is not automatically conflated with the social production of masculinity. I believe the next book — white American feminist, award-winning columnist, independent scholar, and political activist Barbara Ehrenreich’s Blood Rites: Origins and History of the Passions of War — contains an excellent example of this fallacious assumption.
In 1998 Ehrenreich examines war, one of patriarchy’s most potent and destructive tools. Searching for the reasoning behind “the peculiar psychological grip war exerts on us” (Ehrenreich, 8), she theorizes that war has become a sacralized social construction which replicates itself independent of individual cultures and economics, but which is crucially supported by religiously symbolic imperatives. This biologically unique outcome, she claims, is “most likely rooted, after all, in the exigencies of defense against animal predators” (Ehrenreich, 224). Intense feelings of group identification arose from this dangerous prehistoric savannah existence, resulting in beneficial behavioral responses such as violent group “mobbing” of predators, or individual male self-sacrifice for the defense of the troop.
Continuing forward through time, Ehrenreich examines the many ancient rituals of bloodshed, explaining their significance as the symbolic sacrifice of group members in order to ensure the community’s survival through rituals designed to dampen any aggressively self-destructive energies (25). As she notes in conclusion, “we thrill to the prospect of joining [our fellows] in collective defense against the common enemy,” later adding, “twentieth-century socialism lost out to nationalism for the same reason the universalistic, post-axial religions did: It has no blood rite at its core, no thrilling spectacle of human sacrifice” (Ehrenreich, 224).
I find both the author’s research and her assertions problematic for a number of reasons, ranging from her unfamiliarity with military history — in her critique of Clausewitz, for example, she appears to have missed significant swathes of his (decidedly seminal) work On War — to her apparent total ignorance of the peaceful matrifocal societies. Perhaps most important, however — and despite listing Lerner’s book in her bibliography — Ehrenreich’s depiction of war remains peculiarly oblivious of patriarchy. Consequently she commits the curious and fundamental error of conflating culturally patriarchal presentations of masculinity with the species supposedly possessing a war-like nature based in collectively denying our status as prey.
As an example, it is true predators such as the eagle, lion, wolf, or bear are and have been prominent nationalistic as well as militaristic symbols (Ehrenreich, 203) — but we do not see similar treatment of the even more carnivorous vulture or snake. Further, the stag, bull, and boar are equally iconically powerful; it would appear the common thread is not the predatory nature of these animals so much as their maleness, and thus by figurative extension their power and dominance is shared with the human men who totemically reify them.
Also, while symbolic blood sacrifice is still pervasive within all the “major” modern religions, the reader should keep in mind that these are all highly androcentric faiths. It is no surprise, therefore, to discover sacralization of war within organized religions — the very ones which usually owe their social structural support to the violent oppression of previous religions and cultures. Finding supposedly integral elements of human nature in such a narrow range of cultural behavior thus becomes no more than a form of self-referential circular logic; it is easy to label humans as innately war-loving if the only social systems examined are those which encourage war’s violent hierarchies. Far more accurate for the species, I believe, would be a cross-cultural examination which included, for example, how matrifocal societies dealt with war, or archaeological examination of those geographical areas where inter-group violence first becomes prevalent.
This challenge is ably — and intriguingly –taken up in 2006, in feminist artist, scholar, and lecturer Cristina Biaggi’s fascinating Rule of Mars: Readings on the Origins, History and Impact of Patriarchy. The book brings together much of the most recent international research — both archaeological and sociological — regarding the origins and results of the often-violently androcentric social structures which are today so prevalent. As should be expected in a collection of essays, some are stronger than others; however while no overall answers are delivered, the end result is an excellent and welcome addition to the exploration and theorization of the historical mystery of patriarchy’s origins, as well as a heartening call for strong, healthy, post-patriarchal societies.
Several of these essays are of personal interest to me. These include Euro-American art historian and archaeologist Jeannine Davis-Kimball’s “Nomads and Patriarchy,” which critiques the warped perspective on history which arises in a field of study populated only by men. German feminist philosopher Heide Göttner-Abendroth is a professor and researcher of matriarchal societies. In her article “Notes on the Rise and Development of Patriarchy” she presents intriguing research into the possible natural and cultural causes that led to the birth and the historically abrupt growth of violent androcentric cultures.
By way of contrast, Mara Lynn Keller, professor of philosophy and religion, authors “Violence Against Women and Children in Religious Scriptures and in the Home.” This is one of those feminist articles which clearly illuminates one of those ugly truths that everyone knows but no one admits: that every “major” religion extant in the world today is built upon a dreadful hierarchical ground of gender-based oppression. Perhaps most extraordinarily hopeful, however, is Riane Tennenhaus Eisler’s article “Partnership: Beyond Patriarchy and Matriarchy.” Eisler is an Austrian-born, American social activist and academic who writes of the remarkable — and usually untapped — empirical benefits to society from the inculcation of women as peers with men in a new cultural path based upon egalitarian partnership and an ethos of caring — rather than gender-based domination and fear.
Interesting. That would certainly help explain the curiously abrupt, almost viral spread of patriarchy: remove the female networking community by killing the older female leaders, then raping and abusing the younger female generation. Reminds me a bit, in a sickeningly stomach-turning way, of my thoughts regarding male rape of women at the end of this review of Vagina: A New Biography.
I was talking more about what was in Rule of Mars. What I was finding was that in some cases, people engaged in developing (what they believe to be) counterinsurgency strategies are fully aware of the effectivenes of these node-based emergent network communities. The implications are kind of obvious (if a touch paranoid!) from there.
Sounds cool, Jonathan; I may have to look up 5GW at some point. I’m a bit confused, though: are you discussing this nodal/community-oriented perspective in relation to Blood Rites or Rule of Mars? To be perfectly honest, I did not find Blood Rites convincing.
Either way, thanks for commenting! :)
I think I brought up something similar to these observations while talking with you one day. I had been parallel-reading Grace Lee Boggs’s memoirs, and a book on ‘Fifth Generation Warfare.’ Essentially, 5GW focusses on emergent behaviors of groups — where there is no central enemy, no single fulcrum point. Basically, it is 4GW — asymmetric or ‘guerilla’ warfare — writ onto a culture. The goal is, like all Clausewitzian war, to impose one’s will upon the enemy. 5GW accomplishes this by weaponizing the culture. This is a severe oversimplification, and there are nuances there (and 5GW itself is still heatedly debated.)
However, it struck me that the two books I was reading were saying much the same thing, just with different perspectives and intentions. Grace Lee Boggs spoke of the need for a community to expand as a network, that the most critical — not ‘important’ but critical — people were not the leaders, not the followers, not the producers or the consumers but the people who became nodes in the community’s network. It was the people who brought all these people together who could make or break a community. With goals and the right people talking to the other right people, a community would develop its own emergent behavior in becoming whole, healthy, and sustainable. The most well-connected nodes in those networks thus became critical to the development of that network, albeit not the end-all of the network.
I don’t think I’m the first person to notice this. One of the goals of 5GW is to identify those network nodes and remove or suborn them.