Monthly Archives: December 2016

Why We Fight: Domination and Subjectivity

So many things rolling around in my head.  The US election throws many things into sharp relief, or is it overdramatizing.  In trying to formulate what to say about it, I think: the fight between a managerial notionally liberal-democratic ruling elite, and an insurgent patriarchal-nationalistic authoritarian tendency.  All plutocratic but the authoritarian version more nakedly so.  And, the fight against either and both of these, by a sort of body politic newly alert, and the manipulations of this fight by the ruling elite, and so on.

And I feel like the tsunami of all this roars over my own struggles that aren’t part of the dramatized situation in the media.  If we fight and no one pays attention do we exist?  Well that’s silly, many other struggles succeed outside the spotlight, they work patiently until they win.  Media isn’t what matters.

But it is a challenge to understand why all these things matter to me.

The concepts of domination and subjectivity or subjecthood are a focal point in particular for radical feminism and lesbian feminism, and for eradicating psychiatry and its collusion with all forms of abuse and hierarchy.

Domination came up in papers I was reading to comment on for publication.  I will not address the concept of domination as presented there, or my response to it, but will stress my own understanding of domination and why it persists in my mind.  Subjectivity came up in my reading of Judith Butler (see previous blog post).  It is perhaps the opposing force to domination, as described in anti-colonial and other liberatory philosophies.  Once an oppressed person understands themselves to be separate from the oppressor, to disagree, to condemn the oppressor and affirm a separate moral point of view, even if one has no power to act on it, or fears that defeat is inevitable, or when one is prepared to confront the actuality of opposing force as existing outside oneself and in opposition to one’s separate existence, a step has been taken towards liberation that may be tentative but that constitutes a basis for consolidation of power and the possibility of overthrowing an oppressive regime.

Domination on the other hand happens when an oppressed person, or people, give way in their subjectivity to the oppressor’s worldview, which is inimical to themselves not because of a cultural clash but because that worldview insists that the oppressor is superior and the oppressed person/people is/are inferior.  That worldview insists that the right way of the world is for the oppressed to serve the oppressor, to give way and conform to the oppressor’s prescriptions and comply with the oppressor’s rules.  And it insists that this is the meaning of peace and harmony, that pleasant cooperation and ability to get along and live together entails an agreement to be complicit in one’s own subordination.  Carole Pateman described this well in relation to patriarchal-capitalist marriage as the only contract permitted to women, in The Sexual Contract.  A similar structure exists in any relation of exploitation that is maintained as an institution of society or as a relationship that claims loyalty and pretends to be other than force, deception, and manipulation.  Given the embeddedness of all our relations in structures of exploitation, in patriarchal-capitalist-colonialist societies, it is inevitable that we may not always know for certain our own motivations or those of others.  Seeking connection is fraught with the possibility of exploitation and domination, yet avoiding connection can also lead to situations of exploitation and domination in any relations that emerge, including those we have with the natural world and with ourselves.

Subjectivity came up for me in reading Judith Butler because she accepts patriarchal accounts of the emergence of human consciousness, language and sexuality, as arising from men’s relations with other men regarding the sexual domination of women as a socio-economic practice, and as infantile sexual urges (yes, Freud’s Oedipus complex).  I recoiled from this as supremely nihilistic and a howling cry of pain from a woman trapped in patriarchal domination.  All you have to do is breathe, to become aware of independent consciousness.  Our awareness is not enclosed in an impenetrable structure, time and body and being continually evolve, I open my eyes and see the stars or stand still and feel the air and its dampness.  Patriarchy did not create this.  Its arrogance is to try to convince us that we can not only not escape its domination but that we do not exist outside it.  Our laughter says that we do.  Sarah’s laugh in Genesis, though presented as a foolish woman mocking the messenger of the patriarchal god, is this escape.  It is her power to conceive and the strong desire for a child to pass on her legacy that I hear in her laughter, a power that the patriarchal god pretends is his command.  That is a tactic of dominators, to pretend that they hold your own power and so if you use it you are confirming their almighty superiority.  They make it so you can’t win, so long as you are interacting with them and attempting to find common ground.

Female autonomy – yes we exist! Triumphantly, some of us are lesbians, some heterosexual women are stone clear about their separate existence from the men in their lives.  It has to do with boundaries that we negotiate from within.  When we do not let others tell us who we are or what our limitations are, but create our own space, set our own terms, not to rebel against authority, which recenters them in our thoughts and moves us further away from ourselves, but to build and nurture what nurtures us.  Pain doesn’t automatically mean oppression or abuse, we have to learn to sit with ourselves through pain and understand where we are moving and why, what limits we set and what that leaves us to do and work through and with.  Relations among women are not the same as those between women and men, but if we have experienced abuse and domination from other women we have more work to do on figuring out how we understand subjectivity, what is love and what is violence, why and how we can afford to trust.  This is not about fixing ourselves but about understanding a structural issue that is transversal in intimate relations and in social institutions.

Forced psychiatry tells us to take up the mantle of subordination that we fought against, to accept an oppressor’s definition of ourselves and our world, our limitations and our reality.  It tells us “Resistance is futile.”  More than that, it tell us all the lies the abusers told us, have real power.  They will be socially, legally, politically, and medically enforced on our bodies and minds.  We will be obliterated.  Except that we don’t die.  We are the undead, the creature that rises from the hell it was cast into and not supposed to survive, the shit-covered being that everybody can turn up their noses at.  The uninvited guest, Lilith, the thirteenth witch, she who comes in and turns everything to stone.

That’s a power and a subjectivity.  When we remember our own flesh and blood inspired/ enspirited selves, when we be the human beings we are and not their fear of us, and we are not afraid of their fear of us, we grow beyond anyone’s imagining.  Speech is power but who are we speaking to?  We need to exercise our abilities which needs to interact with the structures we’re embedded in and we need to extricate ourselves from the domination, sometimes it is as simple as saying no and other times we have to sit with pain as our entanglements or captivity keep us from moving in the direction we might want to.

The state, and capitalism.  Everybody needs freedom from domination and the means to a dignified life, food and water and bodily comfort and feeling and being secure in a place called home.  Money or other ways to get the things, and have things done, you need to survive and live well.  Relatedness, loving kind-heartedness and ok-ness, being enough without a rat-race.  Ethics, sacrificing when necessary to preserve the whole of what you love.  Standing Rock exemplifies these values for all of us and challenges us to be there for our own lives and the future of coming generations and the planet.

And me, in my corner of the world, I may remain disconnected from where the calls to action are coming from to resist fascism and neoliberalism, maybe it is those struggles that will have to catch up with me.  I fear in many ways that not only the US situation but forces at play in the world and in the international human rights movement are threatening a tsunami that will obliterate my hopes for eradicating forced psychiatry and state domination in the form of legal capacity restrictions.

If legal capacity is a fiction of the state, the problem is not that it inherently means domination so that we have to move to a system of interdependence to avoid domination.*  Or rather, it is not that the underlying value of mutual respect for personal autonomy means domination.  Legal capacity as independence is domination because it abstracts some human beings from their matrix of dependent exploitation of others and constitutes them as superior and as the originators or source of spirit, mind and consciousness, while those they exploit are constituted as material and split from their own consciousness, or strongly lobbied and gaslighted and threatened to adhere to the hierarchical worldview that places them as subordinates and dissociate from themselves.  Dependence is then an attitude of subordination, a role of appeasement in a game of keep-away where those who control the means of subsistence demand loyalty and self-abnegation as the price for giving up any part of what they have, which they do in order to maintain control.  It is not necessary that depending on others for basic needs creates this kind of relationship; mutuality is always possible and is interdependent with respect for boundaries determined from within; active attention to the seeking by the other is key to establishing such respect and this in turn needs to be supported by social structures and values that do not allow those who care for others to be isolated and exploited as managerial servants but instead promote and activate their autonomy and serve them in turn.

However the state and its laws and legal systems evolve, and however our economic systems evolve, we need to understand and promote ways of relating to one another that are fundamentally egalitarian and based in respect for mutual autonomy.  This cannot be a formality to invoke on the way to mental health law reform, procedural safeguards for paternalistic interventions, reinstitution of the neoliberal pseudodemocratic order that is based on the lie of mutual relinquishment of power to the state as holder of monopoly on legitimate violence.  That lie called the “social contract,” which is at the base of the idea of democratic legitimacy of states, is based on a male historical paradigm and the idea that authoritarianism is the answer to war (a form of male violence; individual women war-mongers in patriarchy and female war-leaders, women who defend their people, etc., and the difference between elites and foot soldiers, don’t negate that war as we know it is a practice that men do).  The Iroquois had a different answer, in which women were key peacemakers; instead of authoritarianism that created the state as holder of absolute power they created the “Great Law of Peace” that supposedly was the model for the US constitution.  If peace is superimposed on hierarchy, it is a false peace that requires continual appeasement, denial, exploitation, and creation of authoritarian narratives that keep subordinates believing that their subordination is natural, that they are inferior, that keep them ashamed of themselves.  But once we allow the chickens to come home to roost and don’t turn them away, we have at least the possibility of anchoring ourselves in wisdom and starting to magnetize ourselves in the direction of mutual respect and respect for ourselves.

I need a disclaimer, I am not supporting the dismantling of state programs for regulation of industry or wealth redistribution, or for anything else that is useful to human beings.  Rather if we believe, as many are saying that “we are seeing the ending of a 400-year-old economic system” (a meme circulating on Facebook), we ought to be thinking about and preparing for the future want for coming generations.




*1) The state itself is the real fiction; legal capacity is the necessary vehicle for asserting a right to respect for autonomy, or the concept that allows us to demand respect for autonomy, within a state legal system.

2) Interdependence if invoked as lip-service to justify the support paradigm with the understanding that some of us are more “interdependent” than others reinscribes domination by making it impossible to name different experiences in relation to power.  In a material sense we are all interdependent, we are all born from a mother and the human species still reproduces sexually.  We eat food and are eaten in turn when we die.  But the problem with the concept of interdependence as a solution to the opposition of independence and dependence is that it fails to distinguish consciousness and self-awareness, independence as organism seeking its own sustenance, survival, and comfort, from self-sufficiency and quasi-divine self-creation, which we may also participate in or aspire to, but which does not distinguish one person from another or constitute a basis for hierarchy, rather relating more to ego and pride.