Páll Haukur Björnsson

The Patriarchy in All of Us


I want to begin to tell you where I’m at, where I am situated, where you can find me. I want to describe a place—a space of liminality—un-locatable by any apps or electronics. I am talking about those uncanny crossroads where meaning gets assigned to our journeys, our decisions; the fork in the road where we go to bury our stillborn ideas in hope they will transcend to a significant traveler and take on a life of their own. It is where we find ourselves between the signified and its symbolic yet arbitrary counterpart. It is a place of fluctuating uncertainty.

I also want to tell you how I feel. During my travels I detected that showing the slightest sign of doubt or vulnerability, the faintest sympathy toward the complexity of truth or the emotional position of meaning—how it tends to be located in the acoustics of our fears—is considered a weakness. I consider that an unfortunate impasse in the creative process that results in a rather neurotic experience where the only thing signified is death; only the abject is banished—a stale and miserable paradox. The crossroads, made of indecisive dirt and bodies, located between language and its consequences, tempts you to embrace the complexity of truth in total disregard of righteousness.


‘Nothing can mean anything,’ a tall politician explained. I can’t remember the conditions of his statement, but I like it, out of context. It’s complicated and impermanent. But don’t get me wrong, meaning is important, it’s an important construct of how we experience and understand the world. We might say that, as far as nothing goes, it is everything instead of anything, which makes it all that more urgent for us to understand how it comes to be; how it forms a symbiotic relationship with our emotional experience. That is what I want to talk about, the things that influences how we experience.

Meaning is not a solid and objective kind of everything—like a giant heap of joint particles or a rhizomatic complex of interconnected dots—but an environment, a weather system of deathless (in)difference. Some sort of a metaphor anyway. For a minute though, let’s imagine a stormy island with its vehemence and flurries, the substance hailstorms are made of, some cool breeze et cetera. It’s an environment within where meaning is a manifestation of a force that moves all else around and through our perception. Then, let’s imagine this force to be the perpetual tendency to experience things in one particular way instead of another depending on which kind of a god-like turtle we claim to know the world to be resting on. Actually, come to think about it, don’t imagine anything.

Meaning is not really a tangible thing in the world, the mechanisms of meaning production very much are. The god-like turtle nestling in your brain and chewing on your nerves is very real, very taxing. It is on the production levels of meaning, in the guts of the god turtle, that criticality should make its inquiry instead of banging its head against the ideological architecture of the institution. In this text, I want to propose that the underlying understanding of both a radical difference and a patriarchal rule can, and often is, generated by the same system of general understanding: a system of representation.

A question I want to ask is: how is our experience constituted through a system of representation? It seems to come to us as the meaningful construct of language and symbols, sometimes as art objects or other emotions. This is not to be understood as saying that symbols or things actually hold any meaning. Rather, they are components that operate within a mechanism diligently punching meaningful holes into to the topological fabric of our experience. To lend them meaning, we have to filter them through whatever lenses we have in place to constitute our experience; the language of the god-like turtle, streaming meaning from the divine, needs knowledgeable translation.

A system of representation is one of those turtles, one of those lenses or filters, that constitutes experience and meaning. It sets the rules through which we apprehend the world. In a very sneaky way, it lays down the tracks of our tendencies so peculiarly that we tend to understand it to be discovering or explaining some sort of reality. A system of representation is a system of knowledge, rationality, and power. It is an old-school amalgamation of ontology and dirty politics where every experience is weighted down by the philosopher’s stone.


Instead of asking of a thing (or event, person, place, time etc.) ‘what does this mean?’ one should ask, ‘how does this come to mean anything in the first place?’ The shift of critical focus proposed is that from the objective institution to the subjective one, away from the turtle in front of you, to the one rotting in the musky cellars of social subconsciousness. In that sense, the patriarchy as an institution is not to be understood as a form in opposition to a radical difference, but as a system actually capable of creating the illusion of that difference. I am not saying there is no difference—on the level of the singular, that is all there is—but where do we recognize and locate difference, and through what language? The urgency is not to contest one form against the other, since both are products of the same purpose embedded within our understanding of the world. As such, they are very likely to be two different manifestations of the same cultural tendency. In a perverse sense, it suggests that a patriarchal form and a radical one are but fractals of the same disposition as far as they are both generated through the same modality of experience.

I propose that the patriarchy is to be seen as a function of understanding; a mechanism of meaning production embedded in the syntax of our emotional comprehension of the world or, in so many words, as an cultural producing idea; a notion telling us that our signs and languages are systems of representation actively describing a truth.

A representational language is the language of the platonic patriarchy. It conveys its messages through knowledge of a transcendental truth deeply rooted in the bases of our metonyms and cultural myths. It builds and refers to political constants, wielding exclusion and fear, feeding off our anxiety and distress. It all rests on our ability and frantic need to conform to a political punchline and righteously laugh the normalized laughter.

This punchline of reality creates a critical impasse: it leads us into a meaningless wasteland dictated by an arbitrary know-how. With representation, we try to avoid impermanence and chance through solid significance and stable knowledge; we give into our fears of entropy and death, becoming incapable of the humility proposed by an evanescent now. Funny enough, the only thing a successful system of representation offers is exactly that: death; things permanently fixed.


A somewhat popular dichotomy is to create a paradigm between meaning and function, suggesting that instead of asking for the meaning of a thing, one should look into what it does to discover significance. As a conscious attempt to shake free from representation, a conceived step toward a better way of perceiving and understanding the world, it is related to what I am talking about. Unfortunately, it falls short of the criticality I’m hoping to evoke. It fails to realize the devices behind its own ability to make meaning. That is to say, meaning is still located within a preconceived index of being. The language that provides us with specific methods of categorizing is not being questioned.

To look for how things behave or act does not bring attention to the problem of how they become to mean one thing or another. In other words, the thing itself (inherently meaningless) will either conform to the onlookers preconceived ability of understanding or not. It is just a question on which side of a political margin it will land. Our inherited (dis)ability to make meaning out of things clinches to us and constantly goes where we go, which makes this an intimate, meditative, and personal project.

We need to move further than just beyond definitions; we need to go beyond the production of definition. We need to move beyond the analogous relationship our behavior holds with certain (arbitrary) ideologies. A relationship that can only be described as notions of righteousness, metaphorically performed to assert one or the other; the action or the idea. We need to move beyond the representation and unfix things, starting by re-aiming the critical focus into the institution of cultural understanding—you know, the turtle—which fundamentally is located within our systems of being.

Concepts, ideas, feelings, and notions constantly morph and leap from one to the other, each one expanding on its predecessor but running short of being complete in sense itself. Think of it as a chain of infinite footnotes where one thing is understood as being like something else (a chain of metaphors if you will). When we decide to end that constant flux of significance, when we decide to have it represent a particular, the patriarchy begins.

Imagine an endless stack of god-like turtles, one on top of the other. Each inherently meaningless but significant in relationship to any one of the other. An illusion, based of need for permanence and stable meaning, is that on top of one of those turtles rests a world, and below the feet of one of them, some sort of a foundation, a archetypical reality. An actuality that through knowledge and power can be consolidated with experience, can stabilize it. One is to conform to the (arbitrary) syntax of the other. The ultimate illusion, manifested through violence and exclusion, is that there is but one god-like turtle on which the empirical rests. Imagine a turtle sandwich served between a world and a reality, and she who holds knowledge on the nature of this tower of turtles rules actuality and holds jurisdiction over meaning.

This is the dichotomy that powers the patriarchy. Meaning is dislocated from the immanent and imbedded in an idiosyncratic epistemology of the transcendental, rhetorically made famous as the good. The randomness of this knowledge emphasizes the political intentions behind the choices made while synthesizing the world into the ideological reality. Think about how the concept woman got amalgamated and mythicized through political intentions rationalized through the representational know-how. Many hundreds of years after the initial inception of gender-based politics, the concept still evokes feelings of weakness, of something hierarchically lower and less powerful then the male concept—this is the representation at play.

As such, the patriarchy is a metaphor stating that experience is like a reference to a reality, hidden to our senses, accessible through knowledge. Unfortunately, a lot of radical modalities are, even though different in form and appearance, the products of the same metaphor.


Addressing a group of youngsters at an all children’s film festival, former Icelandic president, Ms. Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, while reminiscing on her former position, was met with a gawking ‘but she is just a girl.’ As a woman, she represents the impossibility to govern. Within a patriarchal system of representation, she is only a sign leading to a political truth, only a part referring to a bigger picture of static intentions. It is a critical tendency to try and break up those connections, attempt to hollow out the metonyms and myths and refill them with new histories and new connections, to correct the misdistribution of power by cutting the cake differently. A very beautiful enthusiasm to be noted, but one that ultimately means we are still eating that same cake.

That kind of a redistribution of authoritarian agenda will ever only be successful in rerouting the representational connection—adding another god-like turtle to the pile. It still avoids looking into the abyss of the kind of whimsical meaning making that robs us of our sensitivity. It still steers clear of the kind of exposure that would make it vulnerable to a lack of control. A lack of control that comes with the endlessly multiple positions generated by meaning being a sensible experience; a singular form of understanding that can only proliferate through the compromising exercise of misunderstanding and compassion.

In this sense a project of equality would be to confuse and obliterate the representational power of gender and race—the representational power over meaning—instead of claiming it. And that goes for any radical critical movement: to try and disrupt a politically infused understanding of reality in the name of non-hierarchal equality and non-profit ecology, creating sympathy toward the complexity of truth and the emotional position of meaning.

The problem does not solely (and maybe not at all) belong to the empirical exhibition of the institution, but in the language that dictates it into being. The platonic hegemony is empowered through a displacement of meaning, moving it beyond immanent reach and sensibility, sinking it into a swamp of metaphysics, making it a matter of history & knowledge.

The dichotomy is that between body and soul, immanence and transcendence, sensuality and meaning. The former being us—people, living, feeling, and breathing; the latter being the subject of arbitrary and violent knowledge, of authority and establish-able order—a clumsy reference to obedience.


When it comes to agronomy of movement and growth—wild agriculture—the language of representation is a model unfit to dictate our experience. The will to become, the proliferation called ethics, cannot be determined by knowledge of preconceived nature (even if motivated by established language, it must simultaneously reject and disrupt that same establishment). The capricious relationship, violently consolidated, between representation and meaning, between address and the addressed, lends an awkward power to its wielder. Making cultivated sensibility inferior to a platonic reality, inferior to something remote and essential, means death to movement and growth.

An art object, poetry, the act of looking at something—any kind of an address on being, you name it—cannot obey a protocol of politically narrated language and still keep its potency and still allow us to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is (a) good: it is humility in the face of endless change, it resonates compassion and the ability to love.

Those addresses, those means of looking at being, should be understood to disturb known language as the organized description of reality, resolving meaning into truth’s infinite multiplicity of subjective instances. It’s neither here nor there, it’s permanently dislocated, but when it moves, it does so as meaning.

As soon as you ask the question ‘what does this mean?’ you are asking ‘what does this represent?’ and that is essentially the patriarchy in function. You stop moving and changing, you start complying and tracing the cords back to its politically charged outlet; you plug in.

It’s like a difference between telling jokes or being funny—in the sense that the joke is a product of the patriarchal function (it’s a representational system), while being funny disrupts and compromises the way we are meant to understand things. To understand a joke, we must conform to certain politics—the politics of the representational function of the joke. You are either a Democrat or a Republican, get it?

Think about Laurie Anderson wrestling Andy Kaufman. That was pretty odd and out of the everyday; hard to tell what kind of a turtle it was resting on. It was a disruptive instance of understanding where gender roles, physicality, entertainment, and countless other forms of normalized conceptions fell beyond their representational functionality. Some would critically say it was a spectacle, but then again, describing something as a spectacle is interrogating (often violently) that something through an aestheticized truth; a representational truth of the concept spectacle. To move things out of a norm to keep experience static—that’s what it is all about actually. It’s a spectacle as far as a spectacle is an operation that falls through an exact form or representational model of meaning making.

Within the arresting poetics of his Society of the Spectacle, Guy Debord establishes said dichotomy almost right of the bat. His remorseless criticism on culture still holds up an understanding of reality that is the subject of a representational knowledge. Reality is hidden from view, covered by the spectacle, but accessible through determined knowledge of criticism. This awkward bit of metaphysics, linguistics, and meaning, that keeps eluding radicals that renounced anything meta about this world a long time ago, enslaves all to its hegemonic rule. It is an unfading failure within cultural criticism to emphasize an epistemological relationship with a transcendental accuracy on the expense of sensible and immanent possibilities of understanding.

It’s this rupture between language (or any other expression) and reality as the punchline that lends a patriarchal-like power to a joke. You are meant to view and understand the narrative structure through predetermined and biased political forms of understanding. To get it you must be able to conform to those ideas, to connect with the god-like turtle which on top the punchline rests. As such western culture is a bit of a joke.


In 1905, Albert Einstein described the equivalence between energy and mass as, E=mc2. Telling us, through a mechanical understanding of the world, that small things have a lot of power. In 2011, author Bryndís Björgvinsdóttir wrote a children’s book called The Fly that Stopped the War. A power still resides in small things, but it has been removed from the mechanical and rational, to be relocated within the unpredictable and sensitive. I understand her to be suggesting that singular forms of experience can think and act in very profound way, even if small and vulnerable.

A patriarchy is not a gender or a race, a religion, or any one particular political opinion; it does not resemble any particular object or a thing. It is a modality for meaning-making that goes about conforming its subjects to historically and politically loaded (and essentially whimsical) truths. As long as we keep processing our experience of difference and each (the) other—our understanding of the world—through the systems of representation, we are giving in to the patriarchy in all of us.

Non Sensical, 2015
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