Relational, transactional and instrumental

In the movie Tår, the lead character’s wife says to her in a critical moment, ‘all your relationships have always been transactional, except for one, and it’s sleeping in the next room’ – referring to their young daughter. It seems clear that this causes pain and alienation and yet as a woman seeking and achieving success in what remains a man’s world of public achievement and renown, part of that comes with the territory.

I am wondering about the relationship between relational, transactional and instrumental ways of doing things. I’ve been connecting with some deeper ways of accessing peace in myself and relating to others from that space, projecting peace and peacefulness into the world. That allows me to get by potential hostility, to recognize and assert the boundaries that are there, to act directly and forthrightly when I have something to defend, without adding any hostility or aggression of my own.

On a recent trip this proved to have amazing potential in connecting with strangers in brief moments in ways that were relational, despite the formally transactional character – being a passenger on a plane, a client in a restaurant or hotel, and other such passing interactions. It reminded me of the chapters on Juchitán in Heide Göttner-Abendroth’s book Matriarchal Societies and her edited volume Societies of Peace. In that culture, women go to market and they engage in complex relational transactions, where cost of an item in any interaction depends on relational factors rather than setting an externalized value of the item as commodity.

I think that a relational approach to transactions can also help those of us who aren’t farmers, don’t have many or any practical skills to share or aren’t confident enough in the ones we do have to offer them in a general way to the community (as exchange or as generally available gift to those who need), to move towards a subsistence-based economy and culture. Relating to a server as the overworked, highly skilled person she is, this is not about engaging in chitchat but the tone of the transaction (a person is overworked, and another person who is tired from a long day, probably don’t want to have chitchat). Respect and seeing the human being, looking for what you need and being open to what they can offer, and vice versa. Rather than ideas of expectation and entitlement and holding people to account (call the manager!) if you don’t get what you are expecting. (There might be times when it’s relationally appropriate to call the manager, but it’s an attitude that I’m talking about, to come in peace. Though it doesn’t directly relate, the stories of the Peacemaker and origins of the condolence ceremony in the Haudenosaunee Great Law of Peace have been in the background of my thinking these past years.)

There are gendered dimensions to all this for sure. In my law school contracts class, the misogynist professor (who could not and would not refrain from using heterosexual coupling as the metaphor for contract, which I argued unsuccessfully created a hostile environment for myself as a lesbian) had some interesting ideas about relationality in contract law. The case law example in the textbook he taught from, was about large corporations that had complex business dealings with each other, and the judge valued the preservation of their business relationship above the formal application of the terms for violating the contract. Guess who was the poster child for strict application of the formal ‘expectation interest’ in an earlier chapter? Shirley MacLaine, when she sued I think for a movie that the producers finally didn’t make. That was the only, *only* case of a female protagonist anywhere in the textbook except for cases on ‘reliance interest’ where a woman sued a man who reneged on his promises either of marriage or of financial support as a relative, when she had changed her position extensively in reliance on his promise (giving up her home, moving to his town etc.).

Was Shirley MacLaine wrong, greedy, for asking for the contract to be upheld? Sure she was wealthy and didn’t need it. But who is asking whether anybody else who is not female in contract law cases needs the money they’re suing for? Were the corporations greedy, were they exploiting their workers and making shoddy products? No one asks, we are only urged to admire the ultimate preservation of relationship – and even to valorize it as a lifting up of the feminine, even as we trash actual women.

So I want to urge us to take a really, deeply nuanced approach if we talk about subsistence values – to not make this any kind of moralistic or essentializing judgment about ourselves, about individual women. We all come from the class, ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, disability or non-disability that we come from. We don’t need to punish ourselves or take a mathematical approach to fairness – adding up the pluses and minuses of advantage and disadvantage. We need to relate from our actual sense of relationship, seeing the human beings we are and asking ourselves, what do we really need here? What do we see, coming in peace?

I think that the work some of us are doing to theorize justice and think about community-based alternatives to the justice system and whether/how the state’s justice systems themselves can be transformed, needs to take all this into account. I don’t have answers to whether the state can be made more relational and less transactional in value. I don’t know what this would mean. I don’t think that making laws requiring a prioritizing of relationality would do anything, the law itself and its meaning and purpose and function have to change, how law operates and who owns it have to change.

Instrumentality is similar to transactional but/and I think it has some value in thinking about purposeful action. In sitting down to write, I was thinking about another blog post I want to write to address what I think are persistent misunderstandings in the disability human rights field about psychosocial disability. I thought, ok, it makes me weary but I’ll overcome it to write because it has a purpose. Yet I came to this website rather than my other blog space and wrote the more relational piece I’d been also thinking of. I’m not sure if I will write the instrumental one. It may be that I’ll continue to set that aside and leave it to a context where it comes up more organically (relationally).

The instrumentality of my to-do list won’t go away. As my teacher said in Shamanic Reiki, quoting a book by someone else, ‘after ecstasy, the laundry’. That’s another nuance, and deciding what’s on the to-do list, what has to be there and what comes first, all that, what matters is that we put it there and we are going to do what needs doing, but can choose how.


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