3. ‘The Background’ and Other Definitions

[5] I turn to the Wickedary(n3) for Daly’s compilation of terms.  There she presents the language of the foreground/Background in alphabetical order organized into three word-webs each signifying a different relationship to the foreground or Background.  The term ‘webs’ continues the spinning metaphor and signifies the open-endedness of this work. (Daly 1987, xviii-xix)  Words in the Wickedary are a bit detached from the original context, but they are cross-referenced to related concepts from other works.

[6] Modeled on, but also satirizing standard dictionaries of the English language, Daly (in cahoots with Jane Caputi) developed a detailed system to convey “standard” and re-claimed etymologies and meta-etymologies of words in the Wickedary. I have preserved their spelling, punctuation, choices regarding capitalization, notations, cross-references (‘word webs,’ abbreviated w-w 1, 2 or 3), and symbols.   The phases of the moon (new, crescent, half, full) symbolize the works by Mary Daly in which the words first appear:  ˜= The Church and the Second Sex (1968); ‚= Beyond God the Father (1973); »= Gyn/Ecology:  The Metaethics of Radical Feminism (1978); ™= Pure Lust:  Elemental Feminist Philosophy (1984).   Words invented by other women are indicated by their names at the beginning of the entry.  The absence of a symbol indicates the word first appears in the Wickedary. (59-60) I turn to this source ( pages 92, 76, 63, 73 respectively) for definitions of key concepts.

reversal ‚ n: fundamental mechanism employed in the world-construction and world-maintenance of patriarchy; basic method employed in the making of patriarchal myths, ideologies, institutions, policies, and strategies; mad, master-minded maneuver characteristic of mirrordom: inversion—turning everything  inside out and upside down.  Examples a: the absurd story of Eve’s birth from Adam b: the belief that man is superior to animals c: the worship of male divinity d: the belief that the Radical Feminist world view is “narrow” and/or “dated”

Daly is not afraid to name the absurd.  She has thoroughly studied western mythology, including christian myth to the point where she identifies the pattern (the reversal) and names it ridiculous.  Furthermore, she names the misogyny that underlies the reversal.

[7] In Gyn/Ecology Daly not only points out the reversal in Greek mythology of Athena springing from the head of Zeus, she retells the full story, namely, that Zeus swallowed her mother, Metis, when pregnant with Athena (Daly 1978, 13).  Daly names the pattern (men giving “birth” to women) then connects the examples to the history of men controlling women’s bodies, minds and stories.  Naming reversals is one of the single most important tools I have acquired from Daly.  It is a crucial tool in doing the work of speaking the truth. 

foreground » adj : (Denise D. Connors) n: male-centered and monodimensional arena where fabrication, objectification, and alienation take place; zone of fixed feelings, perceptions, behaviors; the elementary world; flatland. See elementaries (w-w 1); fix (w-w 3). Compare Background (w-w 1)

The foreground is where much of my life necessarily takes place.  It is the world of dominator/dominated, a world which does not admit the existence of any other possible worlds of sense.  Anything outside of the foreground is deemed nonsense.  Those of us working for liberatory change must reject this message outright, even as we must also function, at least to some degree, in the foreground.

Background »(Denise D. Connors) n: The Realm of Wild Reality; the Homeland of women’s Selves and of all other Others; the Time/Space where auras of plants, planets, stars, animals and all Other animate beings connect.  Compare foreground (w-w 1)

[8] The Background is the place where we can imagine ourselves as we could be outside of the confines of hierarchical, power-over relationships.  Some understandings of the  Background may be mostly imaginary, other understandings of the Background may actually exist in a geographical space.  I will consider María Lugones’s accounts of these possibilities below.

[9] These three concepts (reversals, foreground, Background) help me remember to resist being mesmerized by the mainstream and to continually seek out alternative actions/realities.

[10] The next concept, related to ‘foreground,’ is one less familiar to those readers less conversant with Daly’s later work:

elementaries ™ n: simulations of and planned replacements for the Elemental, the Wild; fabrications which distort the experience of the Elements and which are largely invisible by reason of being all-pervasive; incarnations of phallic myth that constitute the foreground; man-made phenomena lacking depth, radiance, resonance, harmonious interconnectedness with living be-ing.19 Examples a: the poisonous fumes and radioactive emissions of phallotechnology b: the transmissions of popular media and the erudition of specialized fields c: traditional assumptions, spoken and unspoken d: shopping malls e: plastics

This concept is difficult to understand without a sense of the history of the word, to be found in Pure Lust. Daly (via the work of Mathilda Joslyn Gage) takes the concept of elementaries from a 16th century alchemist, physician and philosopher by the name of Paracelsus, who, on his own admission, learned what he knew from the Witches of his time. (Gage c. 1893 reprint 1980, 104)  ‘Elementals,’ according to Paracelsus and the Witches, are the spirits of the elements or the ‘administrators of the processes of the elements’ (Pure Lust, 7).   In contrast, ‘elementaries’ are artificial:

. . . the elementary is an artificial being, created in the invisible worlds by man himself. . . .  Most elementaries seem to be of an evil or destructive nature.  They are generated from the excesses of human thought and emotion, the corruption of character or the degeneration of faculties and powers which should be used in other, more constructive ways. (Hall 1964, 54)

Daly has delved deeply into hidden history, reclaimed the knowledge of a group of wise women as preserved by a thoughtful man, carried it back to us with the aid of scholars like Mathilda Joslyn Gage, and connected the past erasure of women’s knowledge with the present foreground erasure of women.  This is deep Background work.  The depth of her scholarship requires that you enter her world, at least for a time, a world peopled by imaginary beings, Witches, and 16th century scholars.  It helps to have some knowledge of English, Latin, and Greek, at least.  She can appear to be outright mad, but if she is, it is the madness of looking unflinchingly at the woman-hating, the gynocide, which forms the foundation of Western culture.  Upon entering, her world, you will find she will disturb your received notions of scholarship and scholarly authority.  She will make you rethink your syllabus.  She causes trouble and intends to do so.     Sometimes that trouble is constructive, and sometimes it reflects the fact that her method, like any, has limitations.

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  1. Hmmm. WordPress ate the formatting for the Wickedary entries. What you don’t see are the little moon phase symbols to indicate the first use Daly makes of the term. For example, ‘reversals’ were introduced in _Beyond God the Father_, something I hadn’t known before doing this research. I had thought that was a concept introduced in _Gyn/Ecology_. I appreciate the historical development this notation gives us.

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