This paper was originally presented at the Lancaster University conference on 'Nature Religion Today' , in April 1996.
The 20th Century has brought us World War, global environmental destruction, social breakdown & increasing psychological distress. Every culture has had its moments of crisis, but I doubt if any has faced one so widespread in its forms. Our cultural body is clearly sick, but what disease hides behind the symptoms? I believe the answer lies in a Patriarchal dualism at the heart of what we take to be common sense, & the beginning of a cure is to be found in the relationship between sex, ecology & the sacred. This paper provides a brief overview of my continuing research into this relationship & falls into four sections:
I begin by outlining two philosophical worldviews that I call Goddess Consciousness & Patriarchal Dualism. Secondly I introduce some key aspects of ecofeminist theory, focusing particularly on the work of Delores La Chapelle. Then, after a brief look at French Feminist Theory, I finish with an attempt at synthesis.
The idea that our current crisis originates in Western dualistic Patriarchal cosmology is a familiar one. It has influenced Pagan theology & alternative culture. But familiarity is no guarantee of clarity, so a brief recap will not go amiss. The theory proposes that at some point in the history of human development we adopted a dualistic philosophy that orders the world into antagonistic opposites. There are several theories about where the dualistic split emerged. For Morris Berman it began with the Neolithic Agricultural Revolution. For others it came with the rise of Patriarchy in the early centuries of the Christian Era. Though they may differ on origins, thinkers as diverse as Frijof Capra & Helene Cixous agree that a dualistic cosmology lies hidden within our notions of common sense. Dualism is a very simple, yet powerful strategy for making sense of a complex reality. Instead of a confusing & disturbing Universe of infinite shades, we simplify everything into black & white. Reality is divided into Good & Evil, Us & Them, Masculine & Feminine, Culture & Nature. The psychologist Melanie Klein believes such dualities emerge from the self/other split – Our psychological division is projected onto the world. In every case one half of the pair is mapped to the self, & treated as superior, while the other half is just that the 'other', & therefore inferior, unknown & suspect. When we split the world into Nature & Culture, Body & Mind, Intuition & Reason, it is the natural, physical & intuitive world that is downgraded, rejected as other, as 'not me'. What does this deep-seated belief system tell us about our world? It underpins the monoculture that preaches one Truth, one God, & one 'True Way'. It teaches us that the sacred is elsewhere in a life beyond the illusionary & evil physicality of this world. This framework needs very little modification to fit secular patriarchal ideologies. Freudian psychoanalysis & Marxism both exhibit the same themes as the patriarchal religions. The 'truth' is given to Humankind in a revelatory text via the agency of a 'great man'. Salvation is only achieved by following the teachings of the 'master', which can only be fully understood by his disciples.
Most people who recognise the existence of Patriarchal Dualism agree that it is a pernicious philosophy, but strategies to overcome it differ. Some feminists have adopted a strategy of reversal. The dualism remains, but their hierarchical positions are reversed. 'Woman' becomes the measure of true humanity, Nature is elevated above culture, & intuition replaces reason as the source of truth. Structurally the system remains the same. It is still hierarchical, & it is still unbalanced.
The liberal alternative attempts to unify the opposing terms, to somehow balance the unequal scales. Suppose we give equal status to man & woman, culture & Nature, reason & intuition? What appears at first to be an ideal compromise conceals a structural bias to the original model. Woman, Nature & intuition are still defined in terms of Man, culture & reason, & the whole schema remains within the original framework. To move forward we must step sideways into a philosophy which is entirely other, a worldview I tentatively call 'Goddess Consciousness'.
Our language is a workhorse, a common currency not intended to express the exceptional or the profound. It is also rooted deeply in the philosophy of Patriarchal Dualism that Goddess Consciousness undermines. But despite these difficulties I shall attempt to sketch some outlines of this mode of thought.
Goddess Consciousness speaks the language of myth. Legend, myth & folklore are not linear; their meaning does not follow the classical literary style of 'a then b then c.' For in myth everything is overdetermined & tied to everything else. The notion that a myth has a single meaning is an error of interpretation. The symbols of myth refuse to be anchored to single monocultural meanings. They slip & slide, multiplying their significance in entirely unpredictable ways. Goddess Consciousness involves a loosening of fixed subjectivity. Rather than a strict boundary of self & other, there is a shifting awareness across a kaleidoscope of being. Goddess
Consciousness is known through ecstatic ritual & magical /esoteric practices some of which include sex in a central role. Goddess Consciousness emerges from the process of building a relationship with the ecstatic mystical experience, & integrating that into everyday life. Such experiences may be mediated by some specialized guide to ecstatic mystical space, be they witch, shaman or priest, or undertaken on a personal basis.
To what extent my formulation of Goddess Consciousness relates to existing or historical Goddess cultures is a matter for debate. I offer it as an alternative philosophical position rather than as Social or historical fact. However, I think it's plausible that Goddess Cultures can be characterised by their integration of the ecstatic mystical.
Ecofeminism explores the cultural connections between women & nature to show how female oppression is ideologically linked to environmental destruction. Just as women are idealised as mother/virgin or denigrated as whore, so the natural world is either idealised as ever-fruitful Earth Mother, classified as unconquered virgin lands, or denigrated as dangerous wilderness. Thus the earth is either over-farmed or controlled by cultural forces; enclosed or buried under tarmac. The ecofeminist analysis has three principle elements: First, it seeks to re-establish an organic metaphor for understanding nature instead of the current mechanistic model. Second they propose that both women’s oppression & environmental destruction are the result of Patriarchy. Thirdly, they believe that women are in some way closer to nature, & therefore in the vanguard of environmental awareness.
Much of this sounds familiar to a Pagan audience. Paganism offers a powerful organic metaphor for nature, & most would agree with the essence of the second principle, although we may not use the word 'Patriarchy'. The third principle is perhaps more complex & problematic, not least for many Feminists. Early Feminists like Mary Wollstoncraft, rejected any suggestion that women & nature are allied, arguing that such an association was a key element of the patriarchal denigration of her sex. Simone De Beauvior recognised that patriarchy classifies both women & nature as 'other', but denied any relationship. Her feminism sought to free women from nature rather than celebrating connection. Within Ecofeminism itself the women & nature relationship is interpreted in various ways. Closest to most Pagan beliefs is the notion that nature & women have an intrinsic affinity. As Charlene Spretnak puts it:
'The experiences inherent in women’s sexuality are expressions of the essential, holistic nature of life on earth; they are 'body parables' of the profound oneness & interconnectedness of all matter/energy.'
'Towards an Ecofeminist Spirituality.' p.129
Other Ecofeminists have adopted a less essentialist position, arguing that women & nature are socially related. They would emphasise the links between gender structures & the domination of nature, rather than focusing on women’s biological connections to the natural world. Both positions have their problems. The radical Ecofeminist theory that women have a superior affinity to nature which men cannot share reproduces the hierarchical, confrontational & dualistic model that we seek to replace. The Social Ecofeminist alternative is stronger, but in over-emphasising the socio-political overlooks the spiritual dimension. A third position, which I feel is closest to my own experience, is to step outside the oppositional model of 'either/or'. Women have an intrinsic affinity with nature because they are human. Most men have lost touch with their own cycles because patriarchal conditioning has cut off our relationship to nature. This shift in perspective is crucial, & brings me to the work of Delores La Chapell. Her book 'Sacred Land/Sacred Sex' focuses on how sexuality influences the relationship between the human community & nature. Like Berman, La Chapelle identifies the crisis point in human history where agriculture replaced hunter-gatherer societies. According to La Chapell, human population growth led to over hunting & mass species extinction. In response, early humans adopted two alternative survival strategies. One group, the 'biosphere cultures' turned to agriculture. Unfortunately this requires more work than hunting & gathering, and so encouraged larger families. This led in turn to more intensive agriculture, & started an accelerating spiral of scarcity, hard work & social destruction. Eventually this brought war & slavery as arable land & cheap labour became essential to tribal survival. These biocentric cultures no longer saw nature as 'the abundant Mother'. The time of plenty was gone, replaced by hard work & hunger. Such a profound shift in the human relationship to the natural world meant major changes in religious belief, & patriarchal religion began to evolve.
While the majority turned to 'biocentric' agricultural strategies, others developed an 'ecosystem culture'. They moved to marginal areas like mountains, deserts or deep jungle, & they learnt to pay close attention to their world. Because they lived in a clearly defined natural region & developed a heightened level of awareness, these tribes quickly noticed if a particular plant or animal was becoming harder to find. Such species became taboo until numbers had recovered. Because 'ecosystem' cultures understood the importance of limiting human population, sex became integrated into this sacred pattern. Birth was no longer left to individual parents but regulated by ritual, contraception or abortion. Conversely, the agricultural life of 'biocentric' culture focused on the family unit, & notions of property, ownership & hierarchy developed out of social circumstances. The question of whose offspring a child was became increasingly important & the reign of the patriarchs began.
But within 'ecocentric' culture the tribe & ecosystem became all but indistinguishable. Walking in balance with the earth began as a survival strategy but became a way of life. With the tribe as social unit rather than the family, patriarchy did not develop. Nor did the perverse attitudes to sex which still pervade the West. In ecocentric cultures relationships within the tribe & with the ecosystem became paramount, & they understood the value of sex for tribal bonding. Some groups developed sophisticated techniques for channelling sexual energy within & between both humans & nature. For La Chappelle 20th. Century Western culture is the culmination point of biocentric agriculturalism. Elements of ecocentric culture remain in isolated tribes & in aspects of Taoist philosophy which pre-date biocentric influences. Taoism developed very sophisticated techniques for raising, channelling & controlling sexual energy, which focus on the sacrum or 'hara'. Tai Chi teaches that this is the point where the flow of 'chi' energy moves between the human body & the cosmos. Here too are muscles that control ejaculation & thereby extend sexual orgasm. Tai Chi can train the hara to sense emotion in other people & register currents of earth energy, while recent research suggests that western dowsers also work from the sacrum.
A psychological perspective emerges from new French Feminism. A central insight of the 20th. Century thought is the importance of language in the way we make sense of reality. Language, which I take to be largely founded on the patriarchal binary framework discussed earlier, is often theorised as a masculine phenomenon that represses the feminine. This led the new French Feminists to explore examples of female experience uncensored by patriarchal discourse. They looked to those women historically most maligned suppressed, the witches, who epitomise the celebration of the repressed feminine through sexuality, song dance & ecstatic ritual.
The work of Helen Cixous, (who has been mentioned elsewhere at this conference), explores a consciousness beyond the 'either/or' duality of Aristotelian logic. She argues for a polyvalent sexuality that is both masculine & feminine, multiplying the potential expressions of desire. Because this excessive sexual desire threatens to exceed the boundaries of the patriarchal binary framework, Cixous believes that it is a feminine energy. This excessive disruptive sexual force is sometimes called 'jouissance'. Significantly untranslatable from the French, jouissance defies strict definition. It describes the loss of self in sexual ecstasy, & yet is also a disruptive power threatening to subvert patriarchal discourse. Jouissance is ecstatic pleasure that is beyond control, overwhelming, intense & ego threatening. It is, ambivalently, both what we desire & fear.
According to Julia Kristeva this subversive energy originates in that phase of human development between birth & the acquisition of language. Before this entry into the patriarchal order of speech, the child has a different way of making sense of its' reality, which Kristeva calls the 'semiotic'. This 'language of otherness' is invisible to patriarchal binary thought, but constantly subverts it. It manifests in rhythm, glossolalia, puns in the literary works of some avant guard writers, for example Artaud & James Joyce. But the semiotic is most apparent in what Kristeva calls the triad of subversive forces; madness, holiness & poetry.
Here we are close to the heart of the mystery, & Irigary takes us one step closer with her analysis of mysticism. Women have always been oppressed by patriarchal religion, yet despite that many of the greatest mystics have been women. Why? The ecstatic experience of the mystic shifts outside the limiting frame of rational thought & escapes the patriarchal binary order. Ecstasy, whether mystical or sexual, transports us beyond ourselves, beyond the limits of the self & ego, bringing us in touch with another way of being, the ecstatic/mystical of Goddess Consciousness.
Because the ecstatic/mystical is outside the patriarchal binary order it is profoundly feared, & those who access it, be they Priest, mystic, Shaman or witch, are considered as outsiders or taboo. Monoculture has been unable to cut us off from experiencing the ecstatic/mystical, so has tried to control access to it with hierarchical male dominated religions. Any attempt to bypass this control is attacked or ridiculed. The historical destruction of tribal nature spirituality is a good example of the process at work. The fear of the ecstatic/mystical is a fear of loss; loss of control, loss of self. Our culture is obsessed with such things. We strive to control nature, others & ourselves, & our deepest fear is of the loss of individual existence at death. It is no accident that sexual orgasm is sometimes called 'la petit mort', 'the little death', for it too brings loss of self. This is not to be feared, but celebrated & revered, for it is in loss of self, the collapse of the ego, that we come to Goddess Consciousness, the ecstatic knowledge of the unity of all things.
Western sexuality mirrors Western culture. It is blinkered by genital obsession, goal orientated & excessively masculine. Freud tells us that infants are 'polymorphously perverse' because their sexuality is spread across a wide variety of sensory experiences rather than being genitally focussed. His tunnel vision could not see beyond sex as reproduction, & he was far from the glorious truth about human sexuality.
Cultures ignorant of the so-called 'natural' connection between sex & reproduction understand its' role in expanding consciousness. Once we stop perceiving sexual energy as something to be released as quickly as possible, it can be deliberately generated, stored & channelled to shift consciousness & perhaps reconnect our essential energy with that of the wider environment.
There is much more to be said, & I have had to simplify some very complex ideas for the sake of brevity. However I hope I have been able to show the outlines of a pattern linking sex, ecology & the sacred. This is very much work in progress, & I'd appreciate any input to my continuing research.
To conclude, I believe that the practice & theology of Paganism have a vital role in this project. Ultimately Paganism may help to re-code our culture & enable us to renew the relationship to the ecstatic/ mystical that brings Goddess Consciousness.
the green fuse - bringing philosophy to life