Binaries as balance vs hierarchy

Thinking about the sex binary and the existence, or possibility, of non-patriarchal forms of gender as cultural meaning given to the sex binary or to the existence of binary forms generally as a principle of social organization.

Women in modern capitalist patriarchy have a legacy to contend with that posits gender as complementarity, entangled with the hierarchy that is gender in patriarchy. Cynical glorification of women’s ‘place’ in the home, women as civilizers of men, ‘the angel in the house’ serves the purpose of flattery that works alongside threats to induce women to cooperate in their (our) own oppression (Max Dashú discussing the work of Collette Guillaumin). Feminists are rightly cynical about gender that maintains separate spheres of activity or enactment of archetypal cultural forms for women and men because of this entanglement and the subjugated relationship of women to its creation and maintenance.

We have been confronted with the need to articulate the difference between binary sex as a reality of our physical existence as a mammalian species, and the gender binary that socially constructs a hierarchy of sex-based oppression. We affirm the sex binary in itself as a neutral fact and contest the gender one. But we are left without a way to describe or imagine the possibility of social binaries other than as hierarchy, within western feminism.

Yet such binaries are all around and within us at the subsistence level that both underlies and resists capitalist patriarchy. Matricentric cultures treat social binaries as a form for balance and dynamic stability. This is fundamentally different from hierarchy.

My experience of balance in a relationship comes from loving another woman. She is my balance, something I feel as a counterweight connected to myself and inseparable in that sense. In a binary relationship as balance, each side exists in itself and in relation to the other. This felt experience of binary as balance allows me to move outward and appreciate the possibility of balance between the sexes in matricentric cultures and the potency of other binary forms such as clan arrangements that similarly differentiate and connect people in complex relationships of balance within a society.

In contrast to balance, hierarchy entails both dominance and a substitution of quantity for quality. Quantity in the sense of more than or less than, stronger or weaker, superior and inferior – comparison along a yardstick that is presumed to be uniform for both parts of the binary but is in fact (as we know from gender) based on the one that dominates. That is inevitable since the original form of binary as balance brings together two entirely different qualities, neither of which can measure or be measured by the other.

This shift, this imposition of a quantified relation based on dominance on a relation of balance between two entirely different qualities (which then also substitutes quantification and comparison for qualitative difference), would appear to be key to the original appropriation or dispossession of women as a sex class by men as a sex class. I started thinking about this from Max Dashú’s discussion of Collette Guillaumin’s insight that the exchange of women, which she considers fundamental to any form of patriarchy, assumes that women are already socially construed as objects capable of being exchanged. The ‘sexification’ of women – turning women into objects of sexual and reproductive use-value whose worth along the yardstick of the sex-class binary is qualitatively inferior to that of men and whose ‘worth’ can then be measured by men in terms of quantities of objects of exchange – is said to constitute that violent appropriation of women by men, for men’s use. Relating this to the substitution of quantity for quality links patriarchy – the original dispossession of women – with class society in which elite classes, primarily but not exclusively the men in those classes, use other human beings and both constitute themselves as the yardstick of measurement for social worth as human beings, and presume to measure the value of those they dominate as economic units serving the aim of the masters, in contrast to relation among differentiated social groups as qualitatively distinct cooperators in maintaining balance that each serve both the aims of society as a whole and their particular existence on its own terms.

This brings me back to the two previous posts on dispossession of women and the fact of life that everything matters, when we are facing dispossession as women continually do in capitalist patriarchy as it maintains itself over us. Every dispossession no matter how slight it may appear, no matter whether it comes in the form of confinement, force, law, custom or flattery, is a fundamental (and qualitative) shift from original balance (connection of qualitatively distinct existences) to hierarchy (domination and measurement of relative worth as a prerogative of the dominator). Balance is still possible at the subsistence level of life that capitalism cannot expropriate from us without killing us all, and as it is fundamentally about re-shifting the nature of relationships, including our relationships with nature, it cannot be done in isolation but only by means that put into practice the end, respecting the independence and connection of qualitatively distinct existences and rejecting any binary relations that entail quantification or dominance. (I have to thank Sally Tatnall for her presentation on hierarchy which planted a seed in my mind about the unity of forms of hierarchy that informs what I am struggling to express here.)

Revisiting the dispossession of women: prostitution

Thinking about prostitution and sex work debates.

I agree with the tenet of radical feminism that maintains selling sexual access to a woman’s body cannot be dignified as empowering work. It is a form of violence – sexed and sexual violence that appropriates women as the object of men’s sexual drive and social entitlements. Unionization and campaigns to ‘improve working conditions’ normalize sexual violence and rationalize its subjection to regulation without disturbing the central dispossession that defines the character of this particular way of earning a living.

If earning a living is how one defines work, however, selling sex is a way that women have earned money. When running away from sexual abuse at home, or as an alternative to becoming economically entirely dependent on one man in marriage, or giving in to the demands for sexual access made on women in work settings and any public or private space, prostitution can appear as the way to take control of violence that will be done to you one way or another. The sex trade encapsulates what capitalist patriarchy means for women as the bleakest and most cynical opportunity for direct participation in the market economy – equally available for contract exploitation, unequally sexed or ‘sexified’ (as Max Dashú translates Collette Guillaumin’s concept of ‘sexage’).

But abolishing prostitution through law and policy (e.g. the Nordic model designed to criminalize sex buyers and pimps but not sex sellers, and to support women to exit) will not change the conditions that bring it about. It will not free women from either sexual predation by men or economic marginalization as a part of the labor force easily reduced to contingency and precarity. (This marginalization is not new nor does it refer to the US 1950s campaign to install the middle-class housewife as prime consumer. Marx talks about it in Capital and housewives were considered by Chinese communist feminists to be an important group to mobilize politically, see Finding Women in the State, by Wang Zheng.) I support the Nordic model as an imperfect strategy to combat a particularly intense form of sexual exploitation but need to dig deeper and link the abolition of prostitution to the full inclusion of women currently or formerly selling sex in the defeat of capitalist patriarchy. To the extent any of us use strategies of survival or advancement that rely on acceptance of violence, exploitation or dispossession we need to be able to confront them and release them with all the grief they have caused us.

The subsistence perspective promoted by Veronica Bennholdt-Thomsen and Maria Mies, which relates closely to the land dyke movement discussed in my earlier post and to modern matriarchal studies and the movement for a maternal gift economy, offers a more holistic way to understand the exploitation, appropriation and dispossession by capitalism of women and others whose labor produces and reproduces the necessities of life. Importantly it offers a way to think about a way out of capitalist patriarchy through persistence and care for the necessities of life. As Jeanne Neath has said in discussing the subsistence perspective, capitalism can’t survive without subsistence underneath it, but subsistence can thrive without capitalism. (Or as Buffy Sainte-Marie sings in ‘Carry It On,’ ‘It ain’t money that makes the world go round, That’s just a temporary confusion.’) I’m still reading the Subsistence Perspective book, so stay tuned for further reflections and feel free to comment with your own knowledge and insights.

hold on

hold on, the space of this life
like a spider stepping out lightly into air and brilliant sun

no one has freed me
the dark leaves shadow a shiver of creation
where we dream what could be if the tragedies common to all of us
had not happened
if we had only the sun and not the shadow

we became love
and food with each other

our transformations where one goes away out of pain that cannot be withstood,
and then reminds herself
light and dark and pain
and hunger and cold and thirst and laughter
still rile us,

life with the skin sensitive as fire we
curl and protect 
then open
and close again

Dispossession of women

I was listening last night to David Harvey’s lecture on part 8 of Marx’s Capital, which feels like ‘this is the real dirt on capitalism’ that Marx set aside for the purpose of making his argument in the early chapters. Original accumulation or accumulation by dispossession, i.e. private property really is theft on a massive and systematic scale. The existence of capital and labor-power as the two essential components of the capitalist economic system cannot be brought about except by violently dispossessing people from the land and their homes, taking away from them the ability to work for themselves. This continues most obviously through colonialism but is also present as a feature of the continual evolution of capitalism in all its stages. Harvey cites Rosa Luxembourg for this and also gives the example of the subprime housing crisis as continuing expropriation within a developed capitalist economy.

What struck me beyond capitalism itself, is applying the accumulation by dispossession to male-female relations. The trans movement in its demand for gender identity to supersede sex is, from women’s point of view, nothing more or less than a reassertion of patriarchy by the aggressive and violent accumulation of social capital on behalf of the male sex at the expense of the female sex.

There is no need from a human rights and non-discrimination point of view to dispossess women from the spaces and institutions we have created for ourselves – chosen, created through hard work and advocacy, for love of ourselves and other women – in order to recognize the existence of gender diversity and of social groups that help to expand this diversity. It is true that we use the terms ‘women’ and ‘men’ to mean both sex classes and something more that has a range of cultural overtones varying by culture, (language!), and individual. That is why I use the terms transwoman and transman in order to acknowledge those individuals’ personal identities. They are outlier identities just as lesbian, dyke, butch are outlier identities. We exist in a similar space on the edges of our cultures’ mainstream gender norms and expectations.

My awakening to the problems with transgender advocacy came primarily from reconnecting with the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival after a hiatus of many years and finding how much the energy of the women who continued putting it on and attending was being sapped by vicious attacks on the livelihood of performers and the existence of this female-centered community in itself. Michigan was, I used to think, the premier cultural institution of lesbian feminism in the United States; everything that was being discussed or worked out in our community, whether theory or practiced, came through and the festival’s handling of it showed the rest of us one way (or more) it could be addressed. So it was with the Womyn of Color tent, DART (oh help me out with what it stands for – an area set aside for disabled women and a hub for access needs), areas for non-smoking and smoking, chem-free and chem-tolerant, quiet and noisy, Twilight zone where anything goes. So it was also with transgender attendees. Despite the known presence of transwomen at the festival including on the work crews which were its core community, transgender activists attacked the festival as transphobic for its stated intention that the festival be for ‘womyn-born-womyn’ only. In lesbian feminist culture, intention is important in shaping the spaces we create and the future we desire. It is an affirmation and projection of ourselves into material reality without violent insistence on our own way. Why did transgender activists attack this festival and count it as a victory when the festival’s entrepreneur Lisa Vogel decided to retire after the 40-year anniversary, if the aim was to create space for gender outliers rather than to dispossess women?

Many current debates among gender-critical feminists (my definition: women who are actual feminists, advocating the defeat of patriarchy/male dominance and who reject the contention that gender identity supersedes sex) center around the degree to which any of us are willing to acknowledge the social group of people who consider themselves to be transgender. Some women refuse to use the terms transwoman or transman or even transgender, as they consider these terms to give too much ground. They consider that ‘gender identity’ as a concept contains in itself the aggressive dispossession of women – the political and legal erasure of women as a recognizable social group ourselves. On the other end of the spectrum are those who would concede to transwomen some inclusion in the category of women for some purposes, but would protect female-only spaces particularly in situations of vulnerability such as spas and changing rooms, prisons, shelters, hospital and rehabilitation settings, and in sports. Some of us like myself want to recognize the social groups of gender outliers by the names and concepts they choose for themselves and believe this can be done without accepting that ‘gender identity’ is a universalizing concept by which everyone can be reliably classified so as to displace sex. I do not think it is warranted to allow any members of the male sex to be considered women for any purpose, given the impossibility of justifying this according to a materialist feminist analysis and the need to maintain and nurture women’s resistance to patriarchy, our ability to reliably create female-only space for ourselves, to protect and defend lesbians and lesbian cultures.

The question of separatism is re-raised for lesbian-feminists, and our separatist cultural and political forms are flourishing. Sarah Hoagland commented once that the anarchist/socialist debate was reflected in lesbian feminist community as separatism/radical feminism. I don’t yet know where to go with that thought, and hope to explore with Sarah how she sees it, but my inclination is some of both. There is always a material reality underneath the social forms that, if we can gain independent ground we can stand on to mount a resistance. (I have also recently read the account of Emma Goldman’s involvement with the Spanish anarchist movement – in Emma Goldman in Exile, by Alice Wexler.) Land is a source of independence; some women are creating a high degree of self-sufficiency for themselves through subsistence living, creating all-female land communities, and/or simply re-orienting ourselves to what it means to live in the world based in relationship to land rather than the socially overdetermined spaces of cities. For women this is a meaningful lifting of the male gaze and male intrusions; while we have to defend ourselves we have greater scope to defend and the time and space to think for ourselves and think through personal and collective strategies.

At the same time I am aware of how small a percentage of women, even of lesbian feminists, the land dykes represent, and the many obstacles to accessing land and living sustainably (for oneself) in rural areas of the United States – knowledge of country skills, economic resources and access to livelihood, race/ethnicity discrimination, misogyny and homophobia facing women buying home or land and arranging for work to be done that we can’t do ourselves, uncertainty and precarity of all kinds. The distances between our lands is great for the most part, though there are clusters in a few places. If we could create (or fan the flames of) a vibrant lesbian-feminist land culture and develop it politically to the point where it could pose a real alternative for women in general, we would face violence and other threats to our existence. It seems to me sometimes that women in this land culture may have mixed feelings (and send mixed messages) about openness and inclusivity (among females), aiming for spaces to be refuges for women and a land base for women’s freedom but also wanting to curate the women admitted into these communities and maintain them as personal rather than collective refuges for those who have made the community their home.

I am a lawyer by training and profession, practicing international human rights advocacy. That is about as far from land-dyke separatism as possible, but I do live in the country, on some land, with my wife. We are part of the larger far-flung land-dyke community and recent visits have reaffirmed this connection. I am not sure whether land-dyke separatism is a refuge that allows me to do my work – that nourishes me in so many indescribable ways – or whether my work involves the theorizing of projections into a future where this way of living will be one among other sustainable ones available to human beings if and when capitalism collapses in on itself with as few casualties as possible.

Power

I think we need a renewed excavation of power, among feminists and other movements.

Power has gotten a bad rap because for many women it is associated with men, with abuse, with violence. Anger has similarly gotten a bad rap. It seems the only time power and anger can be made safe for women (or anybody, but only women are paying attention) is through therapy. If a therapist, or your collective, affirms that you are in the right, that you are defending yourself, that your power has been taken away by an abuser who is definitively in the wrong – and of course that abuser is characterized as someone who is in love with power, who likes being powerful, who isn’t ashamed of their power – well, then go ahead. Do what you have to do, you have the stamp of approval.

But watch out – somebody else may be paying attention who didn’t go through that program with you. They might call you a Karen (see Glosswitch’s post) or crazy, they might lock you up or get you killed depending on who you are and who they are and your relative power and privilege on a social scale.

So what do we do if we genuinely don’t want to abuse anyone at the micro and macro levels, we want to be conscious of both internalized oppression and implicit bias (against ourselves or others) and the ways we inadvertently oppress others? How can we do this internal and external work to upend and destroy the hierarchies that construct power at the collective level, while understanding power simply and neutrally as the force we wield through our will and action and communication, apart from hierarchies and not in itself good or evil?

When I was learning Aikido, my male teacher – someone who I sensed did not think well of himself and who was a combat veteran and probably an abuse survivor – responded nervously and misogynistically to my delight at completing a technique successfully at an early stage of my training. I had done a wrist lock on a very nice large and gentle man, done it fast and just as I was shown, and it made him wince and brought him to his knees. Being able to subdue someone twice my size, doing a martial arts technique successfully, was not a power trip. But my teacher responded, ‘You like the power, huh’ as an implicit criticism. My technique never really recovered.

Three years or so later, my teacher eyed me quizzically with another implicit criticism, after I had taken a fall when another (male) student had actually failed to perform the technique successfully. I was somewhat intimidated by this student’s advanced standing and felt unsure of myself in calling attention to his failed execution, though we were all supposed to be each others’ teachers.

I can’t make a direct link between the two incidents, but both reflect a misogynistic environment that denied women the free use of our own power – in the one case our physical power and in the other, our authority as knowers of the art we practiced in common. (I use the plural but for most of my time there I was the only woman present on a regular basis.)

I liked the dojo and enjoyed casual friendships with some of the men I practiced with, hanging out after class. It was small, in my neighborhood, and I practiced nearly every day for much of that time.

It ended after an act of sexual abuse by a senior male student in the act of doing a technique, when we were attending a seminar given by the teacher of our teacher, at another dojo. My teacher gave me no support when I told him about this, and only years after I left and encountered him in the street he told me that I was right to consider it a problem of the dojo and he had eventually spoken to that student about his behavior. Too little, way too late.

I don’t think that women should have to create our own female-only spaces in order to experience our power safely and freely. I treasure female-only space and especially lesbian space. There is a richness to our connections, seeing each other, toughening up in our mutual abrasiveness and basking in our mutual tenderness, that nourishes me to my roots.

But if I am obligated to seek out that space for safety, I am not free and I am not strong. And it’s not only physical safety, safety from violence and aggression that we should be and are concerned about, it’s safety *to* be our full, big selves. We can and should share our knowledge and strategies for exercising our power out there against male aggression and its collective, corporate and institutional organized forms. But we have to understand that power is not something that needs sanitizing or processing through a feminist collective, or therapy, in order to be safe for women, in order to be satisfying, in order to be good.

The good or evil of power is our choices about how to use it. We have to own our power in order to make these choices – not power as privilege, which becomes an obligation to political correctness, but power as power, inherent in all human beings or any life. Power as the force behind one’s will, and will (as readers of this blog may know) is the human right to universal legal capacity.

We don’t need to point to some kind of intersectional identity – anything but the status of being female, which is once again being shoved into the mud, made animalistic, shameful, and irrelevant to human rights and non-discrimination discourse – in order to understand ourselves as having and using, wielding and exercising power. It does not have to be butch or femme, does not have to be Jewish or Black or Brown or Indigenous, though we need to know, analyze, feel and move with the ways these intersectional oppressions take power from us and complexity the barriers we face in exercising it (and the strategies we use in affirming and claiming power for ourselves).

We do not have to see power as all or nothing either, or shared as if it were a pie. My power is not the same as yours, I don’t have to divide mine for you to have some. ‘God(dess) bless the child that’s got her own.’

On Not Throwing Anyone Away


This workshop took place on April 24, 2021, presented by Tina Minkowitz.

Description:

“This workshop brings together concerns and interests of mine in the areas of disability human rights (abolition of forced psychiatry, guardianship and institutionalization), restorative justice, and how lesbians and feminists create community.

“I am interested in our politics towards the world outside our lesbian communities – which impacts us and in which we also play active roles as leaders, activists, workers, etc. – and in our internal community practices and relationships.

“I am committed to feminism that is relevant to all women (female human beings) as liberation from male domination and all other forms of oppression. I am also committed to the abolition of forced psychiatry and similar practices, and have shaped international human rights law to uphold this position.

“I have more questions than answers, regarding some big and little issues where disability, restorative justice and feminism intersect. Two of these are the question of women’s relationship to the state, and whether calls for inclusion – ‘everybody in, nobody out’ – end up exploiting women, or if we can envision and create practices that make this work. (By inclusion, I am not referring to males in female-only spaces, but such things as the right of all adults and children to live in the community and not be institutionalized.)”

Recording can be accessed here: https://soundcloud.com/user-855766643/on-not-throwing-anyone-away-1

page1image46293536

On not throwing anyone away 

Tina Minkowitz 

What does it mean? 

Societyʼs garbage cans – prisons, psychiatric institutions, other institutions – what else? 

ʻThrow it (them?) away where? The world is roundʼ People arenʼt fungible – relationships not commodities 

Challenges 

Freedom to separate and set boundaries Freedom to refuse care and attention Kinship-based societies vs market-based 

State as both oppressor enforcing hierarchies/exploitative relations, and guarantor of safety and basic needs 

What has been your experience? 

Have you ever experienced one or more of societyʼs garbage cans? Been threatened with one? 

How does that affect your relationship with the world? 

Do you have good experiences with caring and attending in times of crisis? 

How do we deal with each otherʼs needs, flaws and limitations, without being overwhelmed or making outcast? 

Large-scale and small 

On small scale, we can all develop personal resilience and collective resilience – I mean that in the sense of, over time, learning enough from ups and downs to not be harmed by them 

Separation for a period of time or forever, is always possible – there are no guarantees 

We give each other slack as imperfect people relating to imperfect people – enter into honesty to create structures, values, practices that reflect who we are separately and together 

… and large scale? 

On large scale itʼs harder, isnʼt it? 

State and the big wide world that is defined by racial capitalist patriarchy, but in which we all move and act nevertheless – in resistance and in ordinary creativity and agency 

Defund the police/ decarceration/ transformative justice/ community safety – how do these relate to women? 

Do police and prisons stop rapists/rape? Do they stop/prevent femicides? (Is there anything that does?) 

Caring isnʼt actually optional 

Letʼs pick apart the patriarchal overlay
Mothers and infants canʼt separate from each other without harm 

We often have ongoing relationships that are not entirely our own choice – not because anyone is forcing us but because they involve complex obligations, interrelationships, needs – we canʼt make everything to our liking 

On the larger scale, we have duties to one another – we are all connected – women originally have public role but how do we claim it now? 

Matriarchies, gift economy, the earth 

Do matriarchies allow for societal garbage cans? 

Can we guarantee universal caring/attending without corresponding control? 

Speech and gift – ʻhearing into speechʼ, incipient speech/communication, can everyone be ʻheardʼ? 

ʻSitting with discomfortʼ – prescription or description – (why/when) is it worth it to listen? 

ʻFractal binary of the giftʼ – circles connecting with circles 

Law, politics 

Dismantling the features of law that maintain hierarchy and oppression 

(including targeted paternalistic control such as guardianship, psychiatric commitment, juvenile PINS, economic policies that result in disability-related institutionalization) 

State as organizer of resources? 

Does community safety/ transformative justice work stop rape and femicide? Can it? What would it take for that work to deeply be accountable to women as women, along with all the other dimensions it needs to be accountable to (race, class, disability)? 

Jewish holidays as transformation and community building

Passover is just ending for this year, and I had been thinking, for no particular reason, about feeling a lack of connection with my ancestors; not having any descendants myself either. I was thinking that I didn’t have a way to talk about, approach, the historical trauma that affects me as a Jew.

We had had a really good seder on the first night, and I felt connected with both the ancient story and the modern freedom songs and the poetry (especially Irena Klepfisz’s Bashert) included in the Haggadah we use.

And it came to me that Passover itself is a ritual for the transformation of historical trauma. That this has been here in plain sight, and I was already participating in it. We have the container within our own culture, and we can make it more meaningful (I can make it more meaningful) by acknowledging that this is what it is.

That is my connection with the ancestors, and they gave it to me just as I was feeling the need for it.

Other Jewish holidays that commemorate liberation from oppression – Chanukah and Purim – are different kinds of transformation rituals. Now I’ve just been through Pesach, so am in the grip of this one which is the most intense and even grueling.

Then I think that Shavuot and Succot are nation-building or people-building rituals. And our high holy days, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, are community-building more than they are simply a matter of inward contemplation. We ask one another for forgiveness, we ask forgiveness in community. These are all part of the transformation of historical trauma as well. Building community is the nurturance we need, after we have been through hell and come out alive.

Even the story of the Akedah, which we retell on Rosh Hashanah, we tell in order to emphasize that the sacrifice did not take place.

There is something in this that nourishes me and leads me out into the place where I am born, where I am connected to the whole and enter into community that is mine.

Submission to UN SOGI Expert

‘This submission is to clarify that there is a stance taken by feminists who maintain that sex matters and needs to be acknowledged as separate from gender identity, and who reject any attempt by religious fundamentalists to use us as a wedge against ‘gender ideology’. ‘

Read full submission here.

Identities and who gets to have them

Identity is a paradox. We’re all human, and society – well let’s say patriarchal, capitalist, colonialist/racist society – constructs all kinds of ways to select some people to rule over others and exploit them. Those who are on the bottom don’t get much say in their identity, or anybody else’s. Those at the top get to hide behind a mask of neutrality and objectivity, they are the gods naming everybody else and can remain unnamed themselves.

There is a paradox in oppressed people finding their own voices, because we are embedded in culture that has defined us as the objects for others’ use, for their manipulation and management. Yet every oppression also entails the oppressors knowledge that oppressed people are human beings, subjects with will and creativity and the power to turn their gaze on the oppressor, unmask the oppressor, appropriate even the oppressor’s language to change the common fabric of culture. (It is only by being aware of the humanity – the personhood – of those you oppress, that you instrumentalize their capabilities and seek their compliance; punishment and reward, manipulation and deception all demonstrate this paradox. Oppressed people develop strategies of resistance and accommodation both within and against an oppressive system, and suffer moral injury from compliance; political consciousness is not a given and cultivating it can be both painful and prolonged.)

It seems that there is first a sense of not being able to speak (or naming the reality that one’s speech is made an impossibility), having no words and no context to name the reality of who we are that is crossed out, named to death against us. Listening to ourselves, using the inherent creativity of a conscious being, what Hannah Arendt calls natality, by paying attention in new ways, we find what it is we need to say. Post-colonial studies, women’s studies, pedagogy of the oppressed, ‘hearing each other into speech’, creating separatist spaces to encounter one another free from the exempted gaze and discourse of those who speak from outside this reality and put together the shards of what needs to be made whole; or talk about the brokenness and witness the whole emerge.

Identity and material reality

I’m going to talk about survivor identity here, and the concept of psychosocial disability, users and survivors of psychiatry, and also women as in women’s liberation. Who the ‘we’ is that gets to define who ‘we’ are – that gets to name ourselves, to take the reins of power from the oppressed, to define the oppressed. So starting with women, because the identity has now become convoluted – if anyone can define themselves as a woman, and the oppressor class is now those who would gatekeep and deny such definition…. we see the oppressed pushed back into silence, denied the power and even the linguistic possibility of naming ourselves. We are defined out of existence as an oppressed class, by virtue of a theory that can admit even that society constructs oppression based on sex – what gender theory cannot admit is the existence of oppressor and oppressed classes that are materially constituted not as biological essentialism but as power, so that female human beings can be understood as a class naming themselves. (We do not have to claim a universal female experience; nor do we have to claim any universal or monolithic experience of any other oppressed group – e.g. every oppressed group contains both male and female human beings who are differently situated, and that is intersectionality.)

OK, so material oppression can be analyzed, and posited as a fact underlying this politicization of identity, a fact or a ground on which people who are experiencing oppression can recognize themselves as oppressed, separate themselves from the oppressor, and begin to speak against the oppressor and construct a new consciousness that leads toward a deliberate strategy to end the oppression materially.

Psychiatric oppression and madness-related identities

How does that apply to psychiatric oppression? Or, what does it mean to combat psychiatric oppression as a survivor of it, and how does that relate to the other identities that it has been linked to? We say there is no ‘there’ there, that the material reality of psychiatric oppression is the selection by psychiatrists of their victims through the acts of diagnosis and hospitalization and treatment that may be formally voluntary or involuntary but in which the person has no real power to negate the material fact of this selection if the psychiatrist insists on it through involuntary commitment actually carried out or threatened in order to gain compliance. But what about people who present themselves to psychiatry seeking services, who may use psychiatric drugs and struggle to go off them but have never been involuntarily committed and lead full lives? What about people who go through a period of madness without being locked up? And really what about those of us who were locked up once, got out and never looked back? What is it that defines all of us as a collective? Is there a material reality to madness – again a kind of black-box, what does it mean? – we can reframe it as distress or unusual thoughts or perceptions, does that help? Is that actually an experience common to all people, and could we say something about this experience significantly impacting a person’s life either for a period of time or long-term? Including the long-term impact of the profound discrimination and violence entailed in the psychiatric selection and subjugation? (Maybe, maybe not; do we need to refer to madness and define it – if we refer to it I think it has to be defined so as to avoid romanticism and circular subjectivism; is it useful to define a material reality as a basis for our collective reference group, and is ‘madness’ the starting point for such definition that makes most sense?)

The reason this becomes important is that we cannot actually rely on people to come out about their experience in any uniform way; this is true about any identity that is not immediately visible, including (for some people) being gay or lesbian, and even about identities that are immediately visible such as people who have limited mobility – no one is required to claim any particular identity even if others might apply it to them. (Note that madness is imputed and therefore visible in some sense, and the markers for perceiving someone as mad say more about the social construct of madness than about any characteristic of a person; this can be said about other identities as well but madness imputes an internal state of being to the person that is impossible for anyone else to directly ascertain, even if it can be well defined.)

The madness-related identities, including simply being labeled and treated as a mad person by others – and perhaps madness amounts to this exact disconnection – but then what about those who simply use mental health services, who might identify as having a mental health condition, or might simply say, I see a therapist for trauma counseling, or I use a psychiatric drug to help me stay alert and focused – are they all on the same continuum? We might have converging interests for example in banning electroshock and banning or seriously challenging the prescribing of neuroleptic drugs (the equivocation about neuroleptics in contrast to the banning of electroshock reflects the state of negotiated consensus among the constituency; more people use neuroleptics satisfactorily by choice than have satisfactory experiences with electroshock, among activists in the human rights-focused – as opposed to medical model – movement of the collective); we might converge in caring about reform or abolition of psychiatry and mental health discourse, or psy disciplines (again the equivocation reflects ongoing debates about reform vs abolition of psychiatry etc and what this might mean; it is a separate question from abolition of involuntary commitment).

We might also converge on fighting for abolition of psychiatry’s power to select and subjugate, i.e. all the powers related to involuntary commitment, because anyone close to the mental health system can get sucked under in a moment if a drug wreaks havoc unexpectedly, perhaps from a new prescription or change in the dosage, or by confiding newly emerging deep and raw feelings to a therapist or psychiatrist who is unprepared and decides this makes you a danger to self or others.

Does it matter that we have different experiences? Does it matter that some of us experienced a crisis (also somewhat of a black box requiring explication) only once, and whether or not we were locked up and therefore claim a survivor identity? Does it matter if we still experience trauma from being locked up? Does it matter if the only discrimination we currently face is by identifying as a survivor, bearing witness and fighting for abolition, and thus confronting all the prejudice that reads ‘survivor of psychiatric violence’ as ‘mental patient’, ‘mentally ill person’? Who has the choice to identify in or out, and how much depends on political solidarity? If my identification as a survivor and indelibly part of ‘this collective’ is based on bearing witness, declaring ‘never again’ and understanding that no one in ‘this collective’ of identities related to madness is differently situated than me in that we all have been or are vulnerable to being exposed to psychiatric violence and related oppression – is it a personal identity? Does it say anything about me, other than that I refuse to exempt myself, refuse to escape a collective fate? (Well, I personally stay far away from psychiatry and there is no one left in my life who has an agenda of psychiatrizing me, so I don’t feel myself to be at risk except as a form of political retaliation that could mobilize my identity and acknowledged history, and this comes to the surface when I am called upon to take risks in any kind of activism for human rights. But beyond that, is there a survivor guilt or simply a political commitment and calling to do the work I do?)

Problematizing identities and the choice to not identify

I need to problematize these identities and the diversity within our collective, because the choice of whether to identify or not is political, especially when a person is doing work on ‘our issues’. That is to say, when a person is in a position of advocating ‘for the human rights of people with psychosocial disabilities’ or pronouncing on these rights in an official capacity, and has had relevant experiences but feels that they do not really qualify or prefers not to take on the identity in doing the work. Sometimes people in such roles openly acknowledge that they use mental health services, and may also consider that they are being treated for a ‘mental health condition’, but balk at the suggestion that this places them within the collective of ‘people with psychosocial disabilities’. (They should know, by the way, that the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities instructed Spain that it could not maintain a false distinction between people with mental health conditions and people with psychosocial disabilities; for purposes of the Convention all people with mental health conditions are to be treated as people with psychosocial disabilities. This came in the context of Spain having argued that the Committee’s recommendations to repeal legislation authorizing deprivation of liberty based on psychosocial disability had nothing to do with Spain, because their legislation only authorized involuntary hospitalization based on a mental health condition. Well, that was a non-starter for the CRPD Committee which emphatically told them otherwise. (This illustrates a material convergence of interests irrespective of whether or not an individual chooses to self-identify.))

The point is that playing word games about identity doesn’t get to the real issue. If you say you’re not a person with a disability, large numbers of people who identify as mental health service users or as survivors of psychiatry also don’t like the term disability and don’t identify with it personally; it’s a tool to claim our human rights and the concept of disability non-discrimination works well as applied to core issues of this constituency; our version of the social model of disability is that every person is fine just as they are and society needs to accommodate them and act in solidarity with them rather than trying to ‘fix’ the person – not the version that parses out impairment from social disablement and links them through the existence of barriers. If you say you’re not oppressed – well not all of us who identify have been either. Not all of us have been locked up, not all of us struggle to go off psychiatric drugs, not all of us experience long-term or intermittent distress or unusual thoughts or perceptions. Not all of us have been electroshocked, not all of us have been neurolepticized, not all of us have been put in restraints or institutionalized long-term, not all of us have been locked up. Not all of us live in poverty, not all of us experience racial oppression or oppression based on sexual orientation, gender identity, or sex. It is a heterogeneous identity or heterogeneous collective, in that it includes people whose experiences do not overlap with each other. (So what is it that leads some to identity and others not, and why does it matter?)

Sometimes people disclose experiences privately that inform their passionate advocacy for legal capacity or abolition of forced psychiatry or, perhaps more problematically, ‘human rights in mental health’. I don’t out people unless they are disclosing experiences of another person – e.g. if someone discloses that a family member is a person with psychosocial disability, I do inform my colleagues in the movement that this person is a family member because that’s an identity to watch out for especially when the person advocates the permissibility of any forced interventions. But I don’t disclose a person’s confidences about having used mental health services or having experienced madness. I think we have a right to our own privacy. (If someone has once put themselves forward as a member of a delegation of a representative organization of users and survivors of psychiatry, I may also clarify that I was under the impression that this person was a member of the collective, as we do not put forward others to speak for us. There are material interests at stake, in terms of reputation and credibility, and I do reject the simultaneous attempt to benefit from such elevation and denying a personal stake in the issue as to which expert status is claimed.)

Keeping these confidences puts me in an awkward and problematic position. I want to challenge those who confide in me, or who might think of doing so, to think about the self-exemption that they have chosen in contrast to my choice of solidarity. I would like them to understand that there is no inherent difference between us – and especially that appealing to the question of whether or not a person has been oppressed by virtue of madness-related experience is not read by society as the meaning of ‘psychosocial disability’. (If this applies to you, reader, you might consider the impact of occupying space by virtue of speaking on issues about which you disclaim any personal stake, which is a privileged position, and either come out about your own stake in the matter or give up your space to someone who possesses human rights expertise and is willing to claim their personal stake as well. It is not by claiming an identity, but by claiming expertise, that you occupy a space illegitimately. The world needs more of us who challenge society’s disconnect between madness and reason, not fewer; and you cannot escape your personal contradiction by doing the work while remaining closeted.)

The world reads self-identification as part of this collective, whether as a survivor of psychiatric violence, mad person, mental health service user, etc., as categorically meaning a person with mental illness who then must always speak as a patient, as a petitioner for others’ attention, and never as an authority – never as a legal innovator, except accidentally and exceptionally; never as an official of state. If we have these extra identities, they are superimposed on ‘mental patient’ rather than understood as who we are in the world, coming from a standpoint as survivors of psychiatric violence, etc. It’s important for those who use mental health services but don’t identify with the collective, to consider what you are keeping by remaining separate, and to reflect on and be open about your own relationship to mental health services or madness – yes, including ‘distress’ – when you are discussing mental health policy, abolition of forced psychiatry, legal capacity.

Nobody can make you identify in a way that you don’t, nobody can make you join a group that you don’t want to join or to speak in a representative capacity. But if you don’t identify your own particular stake in the work, if you speak in a voice that claims neutrality and objectivity, you are in effect privileging your own position by refusing to put it in dialogue with others in the heterogeneous collective. Everyone ought to put their own standpoint on the line publicly, including family members, friends, people who have no relationship to it whatsoever and might be curious – it can’t be that self-identified survivors, people with psychosocial disabilities, mental health users are ‘marked’ and those who choose not to self-identify, or who never had any connection on the receiving end of the drug or the needle or therapy, get to stay outside as ‘unmarked’ and their position privileged as having no axe to grind.

Anyone working on these issues needs to ask themselves, what is your connection to ‘mental health’, to madness and to forced psychiatry? Did you ever call the police on somebody to involuntarily commit them? Did you ever exclude somebody from your land group or political committee because they were too difficult and you decided they were bipolar or had borderline personality disorder? We’re all in this in our real lives, and nobody is exempt.

‘Occupying space’ as a mad person, as a woman, as a lesbian

There is the question of whether you are taking the place of someone who deserves it more than you, if you are only seeing a therapist and have never been locked up or taken psychiatric drugs, do you really count? But I would like to say, there are not a finite number of ‘spaces’ to occupy. Nor is it a particular space that one occupies in a figurative sense, by coming out about one’s personal relationship to an issue. The identities as such don’t matter – except when someone categorically sets themselves apart from this identity that they see others as falling within. Nobody – certainly not I – chooses to occupy space as a mad person, as the mythologized stigmatized other created by societies and augmented by psychiatry. I put myself forward to represent this collective as an affirmation that nobody deserves to be placed in that role – to erase the identity by claiming our rights in the context of the CRPD. It deserves to be a disappearing identity, is not one that I have any desire to hold onto or make meaningful. I suppose I differ in that regard from those who claim ‘mad’ as a positive identity meaning something like, resisting society’s normality. (I am revisiting here an issue I addressed in an earlier blog on madness and identity.) My work on CRPD is a bearing witness, an act of reparation and transformative justice, that calls for the opening out of those labeled as mad, into simple humanity, really a spectrum of intense and often painful experiences that are unintelligible until the way is found to articulate them.

Can gender work the same way? Well if it’s only gender in isolation sure, we can say gender as sex-linked roles and expectations (stereotypes, or constellations of meaning) is not necessary and can be abolished. And society’s construct of sex-based oppression, not just a conceptual but a material construct, can be dismantled, and we are all human beings finding our own ways to flourish. The sexed body is its own reality as our experiences of distress or unusual thoughts or perceptions are real, and as madness in the sense of radical disconnection and unintelligibility that can transform itself in an instant, is real. But we don’t get to that abolition by substituting mere subjective identification for a material analysis of the basis of oppression and how different people are situated in relationship to it; in this case based on sex as well as based on different kinds of conformity or non-conformity to sex stereotypes, including the impact of deceptive or assimilative self-presentation (passing) or apparent sex contrary to one’s actual embodiment, and the complications introduced by hormones and surgeries. Again, we need to look at the actual situated positions and their implications for a person’s standpoint on any given issue. We don’t disappear gender by waving a magic wand, only by everyone speaking especially those who are gendered as the class whose reproductive labor is appropriated by the other, unmarked gendered class. Nobody wants to be a ‘woman’ unless they are romanticizing oppression or unless they are remaking the meaning of solidarity and self-regard, coming to consciousness, of those of us with female bodies and experiences related to socialization as this subjugated gender – or unless they are members of societies that avoided gender oppression so that the meaning is a word of strength and centrality to human community rather than victim of predatory exploitation.

Lesbian, I have to add, is an irreducible identity. It may be a historically situated one, as everything we do is historically situated. But it is an identity that once found, I would not like to see disappear. It has meaning as a core of female sexuality and the autonomous mutual relation of female beings to one another, it has a spiritual dimension and a political one as well as being social and sexual. Lesbian cannot be merged into LGBTQI, and it has been contested, or has had to contest for space, in the context of ‘woman’; merging lesbians into LGBTQI further pushes us out of the context of ‘woman’ and pushes ‘women’ back into compulsory heterosexuality in which their reproductive labor for men cannot be refused. It doesn’t matter if ‘every woman can be a lesbian’ in a literal sense; heterosexual women’s sexuality is as authentically theirs as lesbians’ is ours; it is in a societal sense that lesbians relate to the existence of an autonomous women’s movement as part of a continuum that rejects the gendered compulsory linkage of woman with man while man is able to stand alone.

I’d like to bring these themes together, but I can’t. Lesbian is an irreducible identity to me, that I find joyful. Being a survivor of psychiatric violence is a fact stamped on my life by oppression, I take it as it comes and work with it, work through it, towards human liberation. (Being a woman is a stamp on my life as well, that leads me to solidarity and to separation of female embodiment, and the culture we create as female-embodied persons, from gender oppression that encompasses male subjugation of females and the ideology, including sex stereotyping, that rationalizes this subjugation.) They don’t intersect so much as coexist. And this complexity is fine, because we don’t need a complete theory of identities, we need theory that is useful for the purposes at hand.

Dislocations – political and personal

– This reflection piece was first written to an email group in a discussion I had started about marriage and disability (for many of us from a lesbian or queer perspective), that brought up issues of care/support in our old age, which is on my mind, as well as loneliness. –

I am thinking about how dislocations shaped my relationship to community, always a qualification or limitation, this but not really or fully this, that but not fully that, etc. again and again.  I am an American Jew, never a Jewish American (until perhaps now when facing antisemitism directly in the political sphere).  My people were never at home here, not just as settlers but as Jews; and our previous homes were also precarious and then wiped out; my only relatives overseas that weren’t wiped out are in Italy and there was some strangeness about the familial relations that we never got to know them.  My parents treated their background culture and language (Yiddish was still spoken in their homes alongside English) with a mixture of pride and shame; my mother in particular strove to assimilate both in terms of class and culture, and there was a lot about that process that was head-scratching for me, just confusing in ways I didn’t know how to understand or even begin to articulate.  Because of ups and downs in that attempted assimilation process I never made lasting friends in my childhood as we shifted from one school to another and one neighborhood to another (unrelated to the schools); then I internalized some of that and became a person who stood to one side.  

But also we were focused on the family, there was little real sense of community belonging aside of that; there was the sense of being a Jew but as a relationship to culture and not so much community.  The Yeshivas I went to, we were class outsiders and also outsiders by not being religiously observant; I tried once going to a neighborhood synagogue by myself (as my family didn’t go) but it’s not a kind of place a child can go alone unless maybe they are very gregarious.  And nothing about the wider social or political existence in terms of how it affected us as citizens; my mother told me later she supported the civil rights movement but she never talked about any such activity to us.  So adulthood seemed like it was ‘leaving home’ but also leaving culture and any kind of belonging at all, there was nothing in the wide world expected to welcome, just the market economy and how you might become part of it, or get the college degree and do something more fulfilling.  

Without a sense of responsibility and mutuality as belonging to something bigger than my family, though there was cultural Jewish political imperative of Tikkun olam – repairing the world – that I did internalize! – there is a way that my wanderings that ended up being locked up in psychiatry reflect the dislocation that became a break and that I could then grow up differently out of, though it took years and painstaking effort to do that.  I don’t mean grow up in a psychoanalytic developmental sense, rather like a tree growing up new out of a stump struck by lightning.  

I’ve been thinking about this because of the question of individualism and community that is on my mind – related to the pandemic and also to my big piece of writing on social model crisis support, which some of you have read and commented on and that I’m finalizing now with revisions.  It feels like this is the root of my need for community and inability to actually achieve it so far, and in a sense replicating the dislocations.  I think it’s important to excavate historical dislocations and traumas in a way that isn’t rote, that starts from our own lives and not (only) from some particular historical event or set of events; there are always the particularities (multiple) and how they come together in any person’s life and legacy.  

I’m realizing in the pandemic what it is I need in many different ways; and making some tentative feelers towards deepening friendships while being open to what might present itself, and staying close to what matters to me; it is important to not lose your center or unbalance yourself in order to try and fit in some community, to not leave part of yourself outside and hope for the best while accepting some lesser connections.  I tried that, thinking it was going to be just easy and casual (with a local recreational group) but that failed too, my personality and culture and politics had to emerge somehow and were too much for that group and their narrow ways of thinking.  

Does this resonate with anyone else?  The thing about individualism as a strategy for class and cultural assimilation that is actually counterproductive and backfires is what feels important to me politically and personally.  And it’s not about prescribing anything to counter it, but just to understand it and see what changes.