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M. Cho is an associate professor of sociology, anthropology, and women’s studies at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island, and author of Haunting the Korean Diaspora: Shame, Secrecy, and the Forgotten War (Minnesota, 2008). Blending fiction, fantasy, autoethnography, psychoanalysis, and historical research, Cho’s book excavates the trauma memories of the over 1 million Korean women who provided sexual labor for U.S. military personnel during the Korean War. Following the so-called “forgotten war,” more than 100,000 women married GIs and moved to the U.S., becoming the first major wave of the Korean-American diaspora—a direct result of U.S. neocolonialism and militarism.
In the wake of #MeToo, mainstream media attention around structural sexual power inequalities continues to center white female narratives and largely ignore the legacy of modern American imperialism and the sexual labor of colonized subjects. Tracing the repressed history of physical and psychic violence between the U.S. and Korea may enable a new way of understanding—and remembering—the impact of the Korean War, and the “chemistry” between Korean women and white men.
How problematic is the concept of racial sexual fetishes? How much of the concept of a racial sexual fetish, and the act of calling it a “fetish” in the first place, is the result of underexamined power dynamics and histories? Is the designation “fetish” racist in itself?
GRACE M. CHO.— First of all, “fetish” is an anthropological term that refers to an object that’s imbued with some kind of mystical quality. Karl Marx famously described the commodity as a fetish, whose power is to make the social relations embedded in it invisible. So we could think of the idea of “the Asian fetish”—the symbolic representation of the sexualized Asian woman / feminized man—as having the power to make the histories of colonization embedded within it disappear.
You could take, for example, the history of American soldiers having commercial access to women in South Korea and Japan, or American tourists having access to sexual services in Thailand, for example, and reduce it to a personal preference for Asian women. Most non-Asian men who think Asian women are hot probably aren’t conscious of these geopolitical power relations in their dating lives. Yes, attraction is something very subjective, but there are also always historical residues acting on one’s unconscious within the subjective experience. You also have to question the larger forces that went into creating the opportunities for sexual contact in the first place.
Even if you take a seemingly neutral power dynamic of say, two graduate students at Harvard, in which there’s a Korean-American woman and a white man, the history of American military empire allowed the two of them to meet, because so much of the Korean diaspora in the U.S. came here through military sex workers who married American servicemen. Yet most people don’t see that in the interracial relationship, especially if both parties have some form of privilege or power. In general, we’ve been conditioned to not see those historical traces.
It’s interesting that you asked if the term “fetish” is racist in itself because the word, in the anthropological sense, came about through the colonial encounter. It’s a thoroughly Eurocentric term that degraded the spiritual and cultural beliefs of black and brown people. Indigenous people’s use of “fetish objects” was considered primitive, whereas Europeans’ use of “religious icons” was totally normal.
The concept of a racial fetish seems predicated on the hegemony of whiteness, with anything deviating from “white” being seen, by many, as a fetish—a white man with a history of dating only white woman does not seem to stand out as extraordinary, for example, while a white man who dates only Asian women, or many Asian women, is often seen (by both white and Asian people) as having a “fetish”…
I’ve heard people talk about racial fetishes among people of color, too, but it does seem to only be used to connote difference. I think it was Freud who popularized the idea of the sexual fetish, and for him it was based on sexual difference. It was all about the boy’s castration anxiety. In response to the trauma of discovering that his mother doesn’t have a penis, he fetishizes an object that will stand in for the missing phallus. I wonder if the psychoanalytic idea that the sexual fetish arises from this scene of discovering that you’re different from your love object is why the word “fetish” is used to describe cross-racial desire. Or maybe, as you say, it’s rooted in white hegemony so that white-on-white desire is illegible as a fetish.
The selective use of “fetish,” though, implies that certain preferences are normal or socially sanctioned, while others are deemed inappropriate, distasteful, even. Foot fetish, Asian fetish—conflating a racial “fetish” with something more “shameful” like a foot fetish feels in itself racist.
Although American/white culture seems especially prone to reappropriating other cultures—tiki torches, “tribal” Halloween costumes, white people withdreadlocks, etc.—assimilation into white American culture isn’t seen as appropriative. Again, with the implication that whiteness is the standard, the norm to strive towards, with everything else a deviation.
I am thinking also of the women in your book, your mother, mine . . . Women of the Korean diaspora who migrated to the U.S., often becoming the only Koreans in small, predominantly white towns where rapid assimilation to American culture (which was equated with whiteness) was understood as essential for surviving social, as well as literal, death. Can we even talk about “Asian women” as a category, especially in the context of this conversation, when their histories, cultures, and relationships to the U.S. are so varied?
Clearly it is problematic to lump all “Asian women” together, but if a fetish is based in fantasy, the exact ethnicity or national origin of the fetishized person is almost irrelevant. The person becomes a projection screen for the fantasy. I’ve heard people talk about how they have specific preferences for romantic partners of a particular ethnicity, and it might come from having had some contact with the culture, it might be because of a previous relationship that they’re trying to recreate, or it might come from some internalized fantasy image that they’ve gotten from the media.
In terms of geographical scope and the terms and language used, how do you think this discussion is best framed? How different would these questions be if they were situated in Europe, or within Asia, or anywhere else?
Some of the things we’ve been talking about are specific to the U.S., but I think more broadly, we’re talking about cross-racial and colonial/neocolonial desires. We could think about it in terms of Mary Louise Pratt’s idea of the contact zone—spaces that were born out of asymmetrical and sometimes violent power relations, where people have intimate encounters.
You could think about that idea in any part of the world. How, for example, do we think about a relationship between a South Korean man and a Thai woman, keeping in mind that South Korean companies have invested in the Thai sex trade? Or a South Korean man and a Filipina migrant woman who may have gone to South Korea as a mail-order bride or as a sex worker at a U.S. military base, now that very few Korean women work around the bases.
In our multiculti society, we like to feel all celebratory about diversity, but it’s important to remember the historical and structural violence that made us multicultural in the first place.
As a Korean woman raised mostly in the U.S., observing the patriarchal, sexist elements of Korean culture from a distance made me wary of dating Korean men, no matter how unfair that is…
I’ve heard this from other Korean-American women. In particular, I remember having a conversation with a friend in grad school who said that she couldn’t date Korean men because of having witnessed her father’s abuse of her mother. My response was that having grown up with a white American father, I was wary about dating white men. Although the level of physical violence in my childhood home was not as severe or persistent as in hers, my father had institutional power that my mother didn’t have, and as I grew into adulthood, I came to understand the ways in which he was complicit with the structural violence my mother suffered from.
We also have to consider the agency of Asian/Korean women in contemporary WMAF couplings; to reduce it solely to the will of white men is unfair and incorrect. So how much of the WMAF coupling is also the desire of Korean/Asian women desiring white men? Or self-loathing on the part of Asians or Asian Americans, feeling “less than” a white counterpart?
Absolutely, it’s flawed and reductive to say that Asian women are victims of white men. We are also desiring agents, and yes, some Asian women do consciously or unconsciously prefer white men for a variety of reasons, including the ones you’ve mentioned—rejection of one’s parents’ patriarchal culture or a wish to whiten oneself. This is emblematic of a historical legacy in which the West has always positioned itself as superior—stronger, more sophisticated, more progressive—while the rest of the world is backwards, feminized, in need of rescue. It reminds me of the Gayatri Spivak quote: “white men saving brown women from brown men.” Asian women have also internalized the colonizer’s logic.
Going back to the example of military prostitution in Korea, I think a lot of the women who ended up marrying American soldiers were acting out of desire, not just desperation, but the desire wasn’t necessarily for the man—it could have been for the opportunities that marrying him and moving to the U.S. represented. Is this an act of agency? Yes, it is. Does that mean that these women weren’t victims of structural violence? No. The two things are not mutually exclusive. As Saba Mahmood says, agency is the “capacity for action that specific relations of subordination create and enable.”
I also want to caution anyone observing a WMAF coupling against assuming that it’s because of a fetish or even a pattern on the part of either of the parties. The focus shouldn’t be on the individual choices but on the structures, histories, and unconscious forces that created these particular choices in the first place. We have to remember the ways in which our society is segregated—it often brings whites and Asians together in social spaces such as schools and workplaces.
This raises other questions that we probably don’t have time to address now, but they’re worth mentioning. Why do we find Asians so often grouped with whites, but not blacks and whites or blacks and Asians? Where do Asian men fit into all of this? The very same colonial forces we’ve been talking about have asexualized Asian men while hypersexualizing Asian women.
Absolutely—the sexualization of Asian women feels inextricable from the desexualization of Asian men.
The colonized or occupied country was always feminized, a kind of symbolic “castration” of Asian men. In Korea, where so many of the women were sex workers for the U.S. military, and where the South Korean military was subordinated to the United States, this sense of one’s masculinity being threatened was even more pronounced. In my work I’ve argued that this was one of the reasons for South Korea’s national hatred towards Korean women who worked around U.S. military bases.
In his essay “Notes on the Phantom,” Nicolas Abraham writes that traumatic loss, aka “phantom,” is “produced not so much by the original trauma as by the fact of its being kept hidden,” a concept which you expand upon in your book. In Haunting, you use multiple forms to develop a kind of writing that registers the “unassimilable of trauma,” the “nonnarrativizable,” and what you call a “diasporic vision.” Like trauma, racial sexual desire seems to elude straightforward rationalization.
Desire is definitely something that’s irrational, and often delusional. In the quote above, Abraham talks about how trauma registers in the unconscious, in the body, in ways that trouble rationality. So if we think about a racial fetish as something that’s rooted in historical trauma, or that carries forth traces of historical trauma, then we’re talking about the merging of desire and trauma. It’s doubly elusive.
To try to investigate concepts that we lack the language for, or to try to investigate such subjects within the strictures of academia must be challenging; are the limits of an academic approach the reason why you also pursue an art practice?
Yes, for sure. Ironically, I first found a space to do creative work within academia, as a grad student in sociology. I studied trauma and the unconscious with my adviser, Patricia Clough, and she encouraged me to experiment with my writing and research forms. To me, the study of trauma really lent itself to performance and creative writing precisely because of what cannot be explained, but only sensed, so I ended up combining that with scholarly research. Art allows you to communicate with an audience in a way that academic writing fails to do on its own.
a young and, at times, unemployed woman in New York, I knew my strength in public relations was as necessary for finding a partner as it was for finding a job. I never opened an account with an online-dating service—except for the one time I downloaded Tinder while on lunch break in Midtown and closed it minutes later, my appetite lost. Still, when I was writing a cover letter, I couldn’t tell whether or not I was filling out an online-dating profile. It makes sense, then, that while I was applying for jobs, I started to develop an elaborate fantasy where singles would pay me to perfect their courting performances across the multiple immaterial labor economies of online dating. A good online-dating profile strategy, like a strong brand, turns a suspect into a prospect, and a prospect into a buyer. Platforms calibrate how daters reach their target audience: SeekingArrangement—a platform for “sugar daddy dating”—allows users to filter search results by annual income, while PlentyOfFish—a Canada-based free online-dating site—asks new users to take a “chemistry test” that no one can fail. Desirability and desire are reduced to a data set of “taste,” with all of its classist and racist trappings, and in this myopic echo chamber we often match with others whose tastes remind us of our own. On her profile, the single starts sounding like the job seeker, courting mutually beneficial relationships and setting up coffee dates like one would an interview. Except the single is both interviewee and interviewer, puffing her appeal while judging if her potential is a “good fit.” She is, after all, “on the market.”
In 2016 alone, Match Group, owner of Tinder, OkCupid, PlentyOfFish, and 45 other brands, reported $46.6 million in profit from their various online-dating ventures. “The new global corporations produce nothing,” Paul Preciado reminds us in Testo Junkie. “Their only goal is the accumulation and management of patents in order to control the reproduction of bodies and pleasure.” Or, put more bluntly: “Its purpose is to transform your ass and mine or rather your desire and mine into abstract profits.”
Singles might be the product and the consumer, but they are also on the clock. “Does Online Dating Feel Like An Exhausting, Time-Consuming Struggle?” If you answered yes, and have an extra thousand dollars a month to spend, you can outsource the work of online dating to “a professional.” Years ago, partly for research but mostly for a paycheck, I trained as a professional matchmaker for what I will call, thanks to an NDA, The Company.
Matchmaker is a misnomer for the work, meant to spritz a whiff of old-time luxury on the equivalent of hiring someone off TaskRabbit to swipe Tinder for you. I was more of a virtual assistant—that precariously murky job title for workers who are always available, and so never paid by the hour. In fact, I would be paid by the date, but I would benefit most if my clients fell in transactional love with me. Like a good drug, The Company sold a cycle of excitation and frustration. You never wanted the client to fall in love, just to fall in love with the service. I wrote in my training notes: “You are working for relationship that could last forever . . . the relationship with your client.”
I didn’t last more than a month after the training, and only had one client, a single mother and former military employee from Queens whose schedule I was never quite able to coordinate with her match, a divorcée who worked in finance. She soon dropped the service and went back to using PlentyOfFish. I quit—the second time I had done so in that year. The first time, I handed in my notice at the corporate book publisher where I had worked as an editorial assistant for over a year. I would come home from work to more work as if I had no choice, my hands tied by a combination of unspoken obligation to abstract expectations and the desire to please my boss. When I bitched about work to my best friend, as I often did, she gestured to the pile of manuscripts in front of me waiting to be read, symbols of my chosen trade, and asked: “Do you want this or does your cop want this?”
I took the question as a playful koan on consent. I understood the “cop” to be the cop to kill in your head—an internalized adherence to the logic of conformity and control, the legacy of indoctrination. My cop could be my laziness, my boredom, my pity, my default mode. His was the voice I acquiesced to when I couldn’t summon the willingness to say no to unwanted labor, either at work or in bed. Regardless, I would always “consent,” and my cop would be my witness.
can we summon the effort to assert the erotic when even our faculty for pleasure, our instinct for “what feels right” has been put to work? When the possibility of consent—of feeling together—is reduced to a contract drawn up by those who profit from us that we are forced to sign?
I continuously negotiate the possibility of encounter with my words and with my body, but consent treats this practice as if I were checking the box to accept another’s terms and conditions. The contractual implications of consent assume sex is a heterosocial transaction in which the man draws the terms and I, the woman, (re)sign. This legally binding agreement protects him from accusation, under the guise of protecting me from assault. And no amount of enthusiasm on my part can null the terms and conditions of my sexual subjugation, the very terms and conditions that allow for such a depressingly high incidence of assault. The contract of consent implies the pernicious fiction that all parties benefit equally under the law, when many people cannot and do not consent to the very basic conditions of their lives. Who can say they “consent to” the quality of the air that they breathe or the condition of the water that flows from their tap?
“God help us if the best we can say about the sex we have is that it was consensual,” Maya Dusenbery said in a piece for The Cut. We’d like to say it is pleasurable too, but patriarchal indoctrination only speaks of pleasure in terms of possession—of how one can seek it or chase it. Pleasure is never a condition for sex. At best it might be an outcome.
What if pleasure were the basis for a sexual and political education? That is what Audre Lorde recommends in her 1978 lecture “The Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power.” Lorde argues pleasure is what is always present and always possible within. The erotic—our faculty of perception for pleasure—serves as a guide, as a nonrational knowledge not of what we do but of “how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.”
The erotic is what you want, not what your cop wants. Or in Lorde’s terms: “what feels right.” This feeling runs deeper than the spiked and shallow excitation we are taught to seek. It is, rather, a form of intelligence, a judicious channel that can be tapped and heeded. “In touch with the erotic,” Lorde writes, “I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial.” We should begin with a new education, an unlearning.
Around the time I quit my job at the publishing house and trained in matchmaking, the friend who said the koan about the cop—Victoria Campbell—invited me to teach an alternative sexual-education course at Bruce High Quality Foundation University. We called it Sx-Ed. Rather than a class, we named it a “research group”; rather than teachers, we called ourselves “programmers.” We didn’t want to transfer content to our students. Instead, we hoped to foster a certain relational potentiality.
Once a week for two months, a group of 15 adults would meet in the East Village on the third floor of a commercial space reimagined as a free art school. Class didn’t begin or end at any set time. People would arrive around an allotted hour. There was always a writing prompt on the board, something to pull our attention into the room, into each other. After a few minutes, we would enter into an informal discussion about what we were reading, what we had been writing. At some point, we’d clear the space for play, toying with somatic exercises or relating through structured communication games. Eventually, play would dissolve into pockets of conversation; we’d dim the lights, gradually start cleaning up, huddle for a final smoke, and go off into the rest of our Saturday nights, sometimes alone and sometimes with each other.
Sx-Ed was as much an experiment in education as it was in community building. We asked, each other and ourselves: How can we study, and overcome, the ways in which capitalism, patriarchy, and political economies condition how we relate to one another? How can we undo not just the structures of domination aimed at our own bodies but those aimed at repressing the possibilities between bodies? How can we be more deliberate with one another? And more responsible for one another?
“Responsibility would mean to pay attention to response,” Victoria wrote in an interview panel I edited on consent. “To slow down and listen. And to learn, physiologically, how to read a body’s response.” An education that teaches pleasure as a physical response rather than sex as a contract might return us to consent’s action—the possibility of feeling, together.
“I ain’t a playa I just crush a lot” —Big Pun (clean version)
“it’s so boring not to have a crush on anyone” —Ayesha Siddiqi
a decade before she killed herself, Sylvia Plath told her love interest, “I like people too much or not at all. I’ve got to go down deep, to fall into people, to really know them.” Her crush replied, “Nobody knows me.” “So that was it; the end,” Plath wrote in her journal, crushed indeed by this magnetic man’s near militant disinterest in her wild moods, her extremist desire to free-fall.
I’m the same—all or nothing. I’m madly attracted to you or I fucking hate you. I like to wake up at 5:00 a.m. or sleep all day. I’m either fighting for my life or not fighting at all. This unbalanced attachment to extremes makes me not only unpredictable in everyday life but also the most unremitting crush-obsessive.
The contemporary meaning of crush—infatuation—has been sanitized. Crush is rendered cute, brief, and pathologically girlish instead of passionate, enraged, and at the very core of what, in the midst of vulnerability, keeps us going day after day. Part of this cultural purification is a result of the disastrous mistake that adults make by not taking adolescents seriously. The crush dominates contemporary American culture as a teenaged fantasy. We crush on “boys” and “girls,” even if they are grown. In the stories that belong to cities in the metropolitan West or the proliferating globalized cities of elite cosmopolitanism, the crush is featured as a defining breakthrough of emotional and psychic development, anointed a relic of childhood. (In reality, American teens are not categorically wild and free but, like adults, depressed, anxious, and hungry.) The crush, a symbol of becoming, is the last wasteful relationship before a child enters the severe productivity required by adulthood. In teen movies, the climax strikes when the crush ruins everything (the bus crash in Mean Girls, the accusation of theft in Titanic, or the lost friendship in Lady Bird) and the denouement (a resolved fight or a rekindled relationship) settles the unrest, allowing the protagonist to move on, grow up, and find stability, often in a dyadic romantic relationship where equality is assumed but never realized.
Because the language of crushing interrupts what it means to be an adult, teenagehood acts as the container where crushes are dramatized. We witness and consume teen drama, enabling a distance that, as a result, shores up the adult. The playing out of teen spectacle in public externalizes brief and wondrous affairs, relegating it to personal memory, as a way to get over the turmoil that crushing inevitably brings. We are left with a stable anterior feeling, a past that allows us to get over the tumultuous present.
As adults, the crush comes into view as a threat, that which one cannot not want. As adults, we’re not supposed to have puppy love, but the problem is that these silly little flings persist even as we try to name them differently. The teen crush transforms into an adulthood of endless crushes, the possibility of intense attachments to many people at once.
Since crushes tend to be trivialized and written off as distractions, we foreclose them. As singer and musician Moses Sumney tweeted at the end of last year, “Multiple partners? In this economy???” There is no time for fanatical intimacies. No time for obsessions other than capitalist productivity, disciplined subjectivity, and neoliberal self-improvement. On Tinder, everyone is simultaneously their own CEO and the latest Machu Picchu visitor. No time to fall deep and heavy—there are businesses to build, brands to consult, and world-citizenships to obtain. Thus, the advice columns and how-to websites that make up part of the self-help industry are thick with titles like “How to Stop Liking Your Crush: 14 Steps (with Pictures)” or “How to Avoid Falling in Love With Your Crush.” Google search suggestions are almost identical: how to stop thinking about your crush all the time, how to forget a crush and concentrate on studies, how to stop having a crush on someone you see everyday, how to stop having a crush on a friend. Quitting smoking seems easier.
Like your next cigarette, a crush is often unrequited. You want it because you don’t “have” it. If capitalist society operates by way of desire—of that next finer shimmering thing, unfulfilled but seemingly available—acceptance of the impossibility of ownership can feel a bit like giving up. Unlike coupled relationships, you can’t claim a crush, and you certainly can’t own her. A crush, when quiet and faint to everyone besides the one crushing, can exist without the direct consent of the object or objects to which it is directed, as long as you don’t condemn the other person for your feelings. In her 1998 album The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, Ms. Lauryn taught me the word “reciprocity,” a practice of mutual and fair exchange, and 20 years later I have come up with this shitty corollary: unreciprocity. For the wayward writer does not expect a reply to a love letter. The thrill of giving without compensation is deepened when one doesn’t expect a reply. Contingency is built into the structure of unreciprocated longing. Vulnerability, not knowing if you are liked back or how, has its pleasures, too.
Having a crush takes over the everyday. That’s what makes it euphoric and that’s what makes it tragic: Getting dressed becomes a chore, a trip to the grocery store like prom, a text message capable of pulverizing organs. The kind of work that crushing inspires underscores the way that having and building a life requires the complete gamut of resources—emotional and material—in order to maintain one’s self day after day. Having a crush, and not only a monogamous partner, means you can always have more affiliations. It is not the individual crush that provides its life-confirming force—it is the generality of crushing, its atmospheric quality, its circulation around many. To think of the crush—mini or huge, mutual or unrequited—as a general singularity is to admit that desire, however fleeting, can be attached to one person but is never only one person.
Crushing language is typecast and compartmentalized, often indexing something far away from world-crushing teen dramas. Consider the nerd crush: the ironized name for a supposedly nonsexual relation to an asexualized average-looking geek figure. Or the celebrity crush: the name for a love toward someone you will never know. Or the girl crush: the unnecessarily gendered and supposedly platonic name for a queer desire that one refuses to name. Twitter crush, childhood crush, hate crush, dad crush, man crush . . . the list proliferates.
However stale, these pluralized crush possibilities—one for every occasion!—in fact underscore the promise of crushing’s structure of feeling, its unfinished emergence. Crushing directly opposes a singularized partnering, a stable soul mate. Crushes offer a singular power to make concessions to the scary idea that things change, and that’s what makes the unrequitedness worth the rush. In the end, all I want is the practice of crushing itself.
agreed to write this essay on crushes when I was at the end of a five-year relationship. I did not know then that it was the end. So I ended up writing most of this newly single, in between three countries, sleeping in other people’s beds, and then again in what was once “our” bed but became “mine” since I was taking it with me to my new apartment. I filed my first draft a week before moving into a new apartment in a new borough. He said he did not want to read it before it was published.
At first, I thought that crushing tends to involve time and energy that sad people don’t have. I’m sad and sad people don’t crush, I thought. I know I am seriously struggling when I don’t feel like I have time for music or crushes: Everything is drudgery. My time is spent making lists of all the hours of the day and what needs to be done to fill it up. 8:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m.: Shower and eat. Check. 9:30 a.m.: Leave the house. Check. Things became better when I stopped making those depressing to-do lists and started texting my friends, omg I’m crushing on X, wow Y is so beautiful, I think I like Z? It meant I was open to potential, to twisting the bounds of the quotidian. It meant I was open to interruptions, to ignoring—excuse me if I sound cute—the draining productivity of late capital. A day is no longer task-driven but dream-driven. The fantasy of being a sovereign woman disintegrates. Suddenly I feel like the little girl, Moonee, in The Florida Project: This world is warped and vivid but it is also an everyday utopia because I played a part in building it as an alternative ordinary world.
I had crushes on others than my live-in lover all throughout our relationship, which itself was sometimes monogamous, sometimes open, sometimes none of those things. I hold an unruly aspiration for deep love with friends, the delicate rushes of a first glance, brief attachments with strangers, and decades-long relationships that break me down and build me up. The condition of living demands this absorptive intensity and persistent survival that might help us work through the rhythms of rapture and loss.
Privileging sexually or emotionally consummated relationships demotes infinite sensations to a grand messianic finale. Crushing, its insistent form toward the unrequited, does not necessarily permit a long-lasting, stable relation. Crushes are transient, unpredictable, often unnamed and unacknowledged, provisional, and random. To say “I have a crush” is to feel forced upon, a reminder of dispossession, yes, but also a small glimpse of possibility, that alchemical feeling of vitality so foolishly powerful that I live for it.
In other words, crushing season refuses to end as I refuse to die. I’ve had an on-off crush for six or so years. She lives in another city. I ask our mutual friends how she’s doing more than I ask her herself. I’ve written garbage poems about her, and I’ve even told her, “I’m very into you.” We’ve made out once or twice. It’s not that it’s unreciprocated; it’s that it feels almost impossible. Almost. I’ve spent some time with her but I hardly know her at all. She is a dream; I hope I never know her. And it is this longing to know her deeply—my untamed dreams and “wasted” energy spent thinking about her—that keeps me here, crushing and being crushed.
four years after the declaration of a crisis, Flint, Michigan, still does not have clean water.
In 2014, the state of Michigan switched Flint’s water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River, exposing its residents to lead contamination. The lethal switch was first christened as a cost-cutting initiative in a city that is black and poor. Call it what it is: the chemistry between racial capitalism and American governance. After all, it was Governor Rick Snyder who appointed the now former emergency manager Ed Kurtz, who said his job in Flint was “strictly finance” and “did not include ensuring safe drinking water.” If, in 2016, when President Barack Obama drank filtered water from Flint’s taps to prove its safety, the optics of moralist propaganda made you sick to your stomach, call that good chemistry.
For our Chemistry issue, our contributors explore the complex interactions between matter and life, how things change and how things stay the same.
Since everyday life is hard enough, in her essay “Crushed…,” Tiana Reid urges you to fall harder. She writes, “To say ‘I have a crush’ is to feel forced upon, a reminder of dispossession, yes, but also a small glimpse of possibility, that alchemical feeling of vitality so foolishly powerful that I live for it.”
When’s the last time you felt that way on a dating app? Romance is gamified, monetized, instant, but also potentially endless (as long as you keep paying for it), argues Ana Cecilia Alvarez in “Matchmaking.” The author, who trained as a professional matchmaker, learned that “you never wanted the client to fall in love, just to fall in love with the service.”
In an effort to destabilize white women’s contemporary narratives around sexual power, Hiji Nam interviewed Grace M. Cho, associate professor of sociology, anthropology, and women’s studies at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island. Cho deconstructs the term “fetish” as a narrative to describe the sexual labor of Korean women during the Korean War: “If we think about a racial fetish as something that’s rooted in historical trauma, or that carries forth traces of historical trauma, then we’re talking about the merging of desire and trauma.”
Responses to all kinds of trauma are not at all uniform. Niko Maragos writes, “Laziness, indolence, sloth are figured as the refusal to endure the pain required to escape poverty, according to this anti-working-class narrative.” Riffing on Elaine Scarry’s book The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World, the essay “The Body in Painlessness” puts the opioid crisis in a historical context and argues that collective attention to pain and embodiment can make us rebel.
If pain should have a renewed place in social movements, what room is there for pleasure? Adapting an excerpt from Joyful Militancy: Building Thriving Resistance in Toxic Times (AK Press, 2017), carla bergman and Nick Montgomery consider how rigidity kills creative transformation and radical change. So much pleasure and power is lost when everyone is trying to be the perfect political subject: “When politics circulates in a world dominated by hypervisibility and rigidity, there is a huge swath of things that do not count, and can never count: the incredible things that people do when nobody is looking, the ways that people support and care for each other quietly and without recognition, the hesitations and stammerings that come through the encounter with other ways of living and fighting, all the acts of resistance and sabotage that remain secret, the slow transformations that take years or decades, and all of the ineffable movements and struggles and projects that can never be fully captured in words or displayed publicly.”
In another critique of political appearances, Bobby London’s essay “Hurt People” explores the often too flimsy relation between political labels and political action. In the end, London states that “revolution is about tearing down not just the hierarchical systems that control us but those within ourselves.”
It’s a mode of self-critique that Stuart Hall knew well. Anthropology professor David Scott emphasizes how the late scholar modeled what it means to be a “listening self,” a mode that sits with critique but does not reduce itself to it, a mode that is generous, receptive, and attuned to the other.
It is worth imagining a world where we listen to the relation between nonhuman and human animals, in their differences, similarities, and plurality. In “Like a Dog,” Jacob Bacharach argues that even if Shakespeare hated dogs, they are Shakespearean, effortful, and unknowable. “A dog is her own character, self-created in each moment without any obvious intention, at once reflective of her audience and entirely self-contained, clearly the product in some fashion of a human hand, and yet so seemingly without an authorial inventor.”
You’ve heard it before—the watered down Audre Lorde—that skin care is self-care and self-care is an “act of political warfare.” This is not a metaphor. Exploring the popularity of Korean cosmetics, also known as K-beauty, in America, Sophia Cross links the U.S. imperial military presence in Korea and worldwide to skin-care regimes. Cross writes that “the endless war, in all its iterations around the globe, is a naked resource-management tool with increasingly flimsy justifications for the ultimate goal of ensuring U.S. market access to anything, anywhere, at any time; victory, then, means continuing to fight in perpetuity.”
In an intimate meditation on the long-term bonds between the military and industry, Kelsey Atherton tells the story of how nukes live among us. While museums and the entertainment industry suggest nuclear weapons are a far-off power controlled by terrorists, nuclear stewardship is in fact about reckoning with the “human cost of creating maintaining, and using” massive amounts of nuclear weapons.
An attention to chemistry requires an attention to complicity. Victor Frankenstein, the scientist who usurps women’s reproductive capacity, does not give his monster a name, but chemistry demands that we confront new combinations and structures. We must name the monsters within, and claim the monstrosities we have had a hand in creating.
too have sat facing a blinking cursor with everything and nothing more to say about sexual harassment. About assault. About rape. Me too, I thought, as I scrolled through my feed, but why did I recoil from this collective exercise in testimony? Was it the performativity of the hashtag? Was it the frame of personal narrative and of individualized circumstance, when rape’s endemic effects contradict the possessive exceptionality of writing about “my rape”? Did I want to write about rape that is not possessive but dispersed, in the air?
When the Harvey Weinstein story broke, my brother asked what I made of it, and I texted back “…not surprised.” A week later, when Artforum’s Knight Landesman joined the procession of firings, I signed a petition against sexual harassment in the art world titled “Not Surprised.” The slogan was derived from Jenny Holzer’s Truisms T-shirt series. A truism is a statement that offers nothing new because it restates the obvious. At a #MeToo rally outside a Trump hotel, writer Moira Donegan, reporting for the London Review of Books, noted a protestor’s sign, raised in defiance to our President: “DON’T NORMALISE ASSAULT.” “But,” Donegan writes, “#MeToo has shown that sexual assault is an entirely normal experience, an experience so common that the men who do it find it mundane.”
Because, or perhaps in spite, of this Donegan created a spreadsheet where women were invited to report, without qualification or duress, their experiences of assault in the media industry. That this opportunity is otherwise nonexistent partially explains the document’s virality. Within 12 hours, Donegan took the “Shitty Media Men” list offline. I never saw it, though I wish I had. The list’s existence triggered perennial rebuttals to women speaking for themselves and to each other about rape: that women might or should prefer to report assault through more “legitimate” channels despite the fact that what these channels often investigate are the possible faults of women’s accounts rather than their actual substance. Or that women do not or cannot differentiate accusations of physical assault from instances of insinuation and coercion. Or that false accusations are anywhere near as common as rape is. After Donegan was alerted that writer Katie Roiphe was planning to out her in an essay to be published in the March issue of Harper’s, she penned her own. Despite her suspicions of the efficacy of women’s testimony to change our current conditions, Donegan wrote that “the experience of making the spreadsheet [showed] that it is still explosive, radical, and productively dangerous for women to say what we mean.”
From here we are left with the questions: Who is asked to speak about rape? Who is listened to? And how do we speak of rape? What words do we have to accurately account for what continues unaccounted for? Many of these questions, and others, were generously wrangled in a written panel I moderated for Adult back in 2015 (and during, as Dayna Tortorici discerningly calls it, The Long 2016). The past few months of conversations have taken for granted that reporting assault is necessary, even morally obligatory. In this panel, Katie J. M. Baker, Victoria Campbell, Ragna Rök Jóns, Doreen St. Félix, Brenton Stokes, and Sarah Nicole Prickett carefully and kindly untangle this and other assumptions about, as I clumsily put it, “what we talk about when we talk about rape.”
“Certain forms of accusation are more media-friendly, more easily mythologized, more salacious, more influential,” Campbell writes in the panel. #MeToo’s association with celebrity and the ever blinding presence of white womanhood entrenches the notion that some rape is too known to be reported. As St. Félix writes, “reporters totally know about ‘lower-class rape,’ the rape that happens in prison or in the hood or in war zones, but normalize it as a casualty of an already criminal existence. An experience that fits the space they’ve been allotted.” St. Félix later writes that rape is as common as “currency,” which is a fitting metaphor when you consider how the enslavement and rape of black woman is the bedrock of this country’s wealth. Rape is about power and it is about sex, but it is also about wealth—the product of power’s abuse.
Sometimes silence is preferable. Sometimes choosing to remain silent is not a choice, or, as some would have us put it, it is a choice one consents to without enthusiasm. St. Félix, once more, reminds us “not all bodies are pedestaled on a myth the way white women’s fragility is, a myth of fragility sustained politically, legally, and socially at the expense of black and brown women and people.” And—it is worth noting even though it risks derailment—a myth upheld, in the past and even now, by the false accusations of white women against black and brown men.
Even as we note, with some relief, that yes we spoke and some men have been fired and others have not been reelected, we also need to remind ourselves that speaking—more specifically, that posting on social media—is not enough and is not our only option. A few men retreating into their wealth after a week of public shaming does not begin to address the conditions that made and kept these men wealthy. “Despite all the spotlighting of victims, there are other ways to act when—or before—it comes to rape,” Prickett writes. “Education is activism in another genre, and reporting is only one form of education. It’s the form of education I want to see least.”
Yet what we rarely see, even now, is sexual education that teaches pleasure and its communication. Some women would rather canonize Aziz Ansari than admit that bad sex, even when consented to, can still be unwarranted, unwanted, and up for scrutiny. “What we don’t access when we talk about sexual assault,” St. Félix writes, “is the transition to violence that occurs in what are most often—at the outset—consensual, or at least not emotionally or physically violent, relationships. We don’t access the fact that structural inequality runs so deep some populations cannot even consent to the quality of the air they breathe.”
There is much more in this panel that remains relevant, necessary. I would write that I look forward to the day when that is no longer the case, but I don’t believe that day will come. We will have to remain attentive to these words. And wait for our turn to tell other stories. I’ll close with one last sentiment, from Prickett: “So many women’s stories are only rape stories when rape is one of the very few discourses available (if we’re good-enough victims) in which to channel the many ways we’re fucked.”
original title for this panel was “What We Talk About When We Talk About Rape,” which was kiboshed for a couple of reasons. One of these was also a reason for doing the panel in the first place: We do not feel comfortable with using rape as an SEO term, even while knowing that overcoming this discomfort in naming rape is one of the more necessary steps in changing a culture that permits, among other pillagings of autonomy, the thing we call rape. Months ago, a number of controversial, reported pieces on rape in our communities (or communities to which we’re adjacent), from the “alt lit” ordeal to the Emma Sulkowicz saga at Columbia to the Rolling Stone cover story on “Jackie” at UVA, prompted me to think less about the act itself and more about how we speak it into existence. When is rape heard? Who speaks, and who gives permission?
In talking together and with friends, the Adult staff has long felt that there are things that we mean about rape, consent, and responsibility that we can’t say without seeming to take the wrong side. How do we criticize the notion of “rape culture” without denying that certain elements in masculine culture do permit, as Amy Schumer recently illustrated, “raping” as a competitive sport? If we talk about “dick culture” instead, why is it that while dicks are as readily metaphorized as guns are, the definition of a victim strictly adheres to the physical? Then again, rape is bad enough without being a metaphor, let alone what reads like a fantasy in the pages of Rolling Stone. We wish we weren’t using the word “fantasy.” We worry the reality has become almost profitable, even as the conditions don’t change. How do we express the fact that although we do not assume that anyone who says they were raped is lying, they may not be giving us gospel? How do we explain without derailing that there are worse things than rape, or that there are things that feel to us more like rape than rape as it’s defined by law? And, speaking of law, how do we speak of consequences for the crime without turning carceral or becoming the cops we claim to hate? What if we knew more about consent? Would we speak less of consequences then? Even here I’m unsure—who are “we”? Certainly, “we women” would not be a sufficient response, even if all of us were women.
One night, Victoria and I got into a long discussion about affirmative consent. We—and everyone on this panel—want passionately to get past the ways in which consent is discussed in public: as a legal qualifier, as a clinical assignation for one’s desire in a given moment, as a command and not a wish, as a demand handed to the person with less power in almost any given situation. Consent is too limited. Consent, too, is often not really about choice. If we animate it throughout our bodies, we renounce it every time we sign a contract not written in our language. We’re always consenting and not consenting to situations outside our control.
After 11 weeks of keeping this panel open for answers, new questions, doubts and deletions, revisions and revisitations, I read Katie’s story for BuzzFeed News about how law schools teach—or don’t teach—rape, in particular to female law students. According to one anonymous letter written by a second-year law student at a top school, “sexual assault [is] often harder to discuss in class than murder, or racial profiling.” It’s this paradox I can’t quite wrap my head around: how “awareness” around an issue, raised to protect and privilege victims, can lead to such silence and isolation. All openings are defined by their closures. The more we talk about rape as a culture, the less we are able to say.
Reporting rape seems today to be the individual’s main form of activism against sexual violence. But, what are some reasons to not report rape to police, to schools, to the media, even to friends?
VC: I don’t want any more laws on my body.
That said, the other night I was casually reporting my week to a lover and realized I’d been harassed at a friend’s apartment a few days before. The incident was annoying, and vaguely threatening: like someone had suddenly let their pit bull dog at me, like, “don’t worry he’s just a puppy,” but I look down and it’s a fucking pit bull. (Note: I actually characterize in my mind the man who confronted me as a dog and not a man because a man has been trained to understand the word “No,” whereas untrained dogs—and the owners that infantilize them—tend not to. Also, there’s something about this incident that was “cute,” or that I characterized or let become “cute.”)
I feel uncomfortable now in a way that I wasn’t then; I wasn’t going to “report” it, though I’m reporting it now. But what am I reporting? Not the incident, the violation, or even the event, but the “report” itself, the noun-form of the verb “report.” The report as both the act of carrying something and the thing that is carried, both the act of speaking and the thing that is being spoken, both an experience and its telling. My report, which is also my witness. Here, in my report of my report, I’m not particularly interested in the content of the event—i.e., what made it harassment, what made it sexual, what made it wrong—but in how the report changes the experience itself. (Another note: The person I’m talking about said that he had been “falsely accused of rape.” The rapist is always falsely accused if he declares himself to be innocent. A thief can say, “I didn’t steal it,” a murderer can say, “I didn’t kill them,” while still acknowledging the fact that something has been stolen and the bodies are there. But the rapist must either admit to the crime or totally negate the existence of the crime entirely.)
That a report is always mediated, by verbal and nonverbal communication and also potentially by the state, if one chooses, isn’t a reason not to do it. If reporting rape is the individual’s main form of activism against rape, then a space and practice of giving forth withholds should be the collective form of activism. Not just for the sake of reporting sexual violence, but to develop a practice based on putting attention on what hasn’t been said so that what has been experienced can find a form. Experience finds form within practices of mediation. Once something finds a form it can be collectively acknowledged, affirmed, and acted upon. Communities can take action by learning to govern and mediate and teach, while the State (school, media, et al.) mainly takes action by policing. So deciding whether or not and how to report something also involves deciding how you’d like to be listened to.
BS: I had a phantom onus to be loyal to the person who raped me because before he raped me he was one of my best friends. I don’t have any personal relationship with the police. I feared the police’s lack of response due to the fact that not only am I a black male, I’m also (considered, in this case) gay. The police don’t have an excellent track record with either black males or homosexuals, let alone both. I also felt more able to talk to the rapist face to face than to bring him before a judicial system. It wasn’t until my friend and fellow survivor told me of his incident with the same person and encouraged me to speak with my university’s administration that I even considered coming forward. I did it the next day, alongside him.
RRJ: It boils down to relations of power and privilege. Many survivors of sexual violence find themselves retraumatized when they try to reach out to the gatekeepers of justice, so why bother? To quote Laverne Cox, “There is no justice. Amen.” But, “there will be justice”—there must be changes made to a system and social order that continuously devalues the legitimacy of rape as violence, the voices of women and minorities, and the traumas endured by survivors. Moments of public spectacle will force survivors further into the closet of trauma, but we must nevertheless organize collectively and communally, in multiple though overlapping social formations, resisting rape cultures and their post-trauma oblivion.
SNP: “Why bother” is a pretty flippant thing to say about an endeavor that speaks to an individual’s catharsis, perhaps, but also to an individual’s care for others. I guess I “retraumatized” myself when I wrote “Your Friends and Rapists” last year, and maybe I “retraumatized” some who read it, but I also tried to write away from trauma, not just in the piece but in my correspondences afterward with readers. Roxane Gay “retraumatized” herself when she wrote “What We Hunger For” in 2012. Mary Gaitskill “retraumatized” but also untraumatized herself when she wrote “On Not Being a Victim” in 1994. Kathleen Hale “retraumatized” herself when she took the stand in a rape case, not because she wanted justice for herself but because she wanted it for a number of women that included her; she re-“retraumatized” herself again when she wrote “Prey” in 2014, and I don’t think anyone, after reading that essay, would want to know why it is she “bothered.”
There are all kinds of reasons not to speak. One is to avoid being (seen as) a victim, to not be the girl who cried about rape. Another reason is to avoid any dealings with authority figures who remind you of rapists, like policemen or doctors. Another reason is not wanting to act as an activist.
Of course, despite all the spotlighting of victims, there are other ways to act when—or before—it comes to rape. Education is activism in another genre, and reporting is only one form of education. It’s the form of education I want to see least. If adults took young women—young people, teens in general—seriously as sexual agents, and if adults taught sex education seriously from sixth grade on, we’d have less to report by the time we get to campuses in America.
The fear of facing blame is often cited as a reason one chooses to remain silent about rape, although blame often manifests as doubt. Should the promise of being believed be the only reason to speak? Is there, conversely, such a thing as being too believed?
VC: There is such an obsession with “fact”! It’s very limiting, this characterization of speaking as a means to an end, or as a means to literally produce “truth.”
What I’m sensing in this prompt is a conflation of “to speak” and “to accuse.” The promise of being believed is what’s at stake in an accusation. Certain forms of accusation are more media-friendly, more easily mythologized, more salacious, more influential.
Sure, there is “awareness” and “prevention.” The latter can be objectified in statistics and so I guess that means some kind of progress and the former is rarely a hand on the levers of power. I’m certain the labor involved in getting one’s speech recognized by state, media, and social apparatuses is easier for some than for others—just as some have more to gain in blame than they do in speech and vice versa. Better to focus on what’s at stake in speaking than in accusation—on who you’re speaking to, on what speech does, different kinds of speech, different characterizations of speech, and different ways to empower speakers and listeners. Some people get a book deal, some people get told it’s their fault, some people aren’t listened to, and there’s something at stake in how each individual’s accusation is handled.
KB: I think reporters fail when they hide from facts because the facts are complicated. In my reporting, I strive to legitimize, or at least accurately describe, “gray area” situations instead of dismissing them. As Kat Stoeffel wrote in her wonderful piece “It Doesn’t Have to Be Rape to Suck,” many of us want to talk about “situations that fall outside the conventional definition of rape but nonetheless reflect a gender power dynamic that leaves women [and others] sexually vulnerable.” All rape is presumably unwanted, but not all unwanted sex can be presumed to be rape, and we should be able to make these distinctions for ourselves without getting into what Kat calls the “Was It Rape” debate. How can we talk about this without delving into the messy, complicated details? The problem is that there’s little to no incentive for people to share these details publicly, or even among friends. I mean, we’re not even doing that here.
SNP: Accurate description is the gift of legitimizing experience, a gift that Rolling Stone did not afford Jackie. They made exceptions for her. They let her be special. I get why she wanted to be special, her case to be special: The facts can be complicated, but they can also be commonplace, and maybe she didn’t want to know that whatever happened to her could also have happened to someone else. Maybe she wanted to feel chosen. (Making their prey feel chosen is how many serial predators do their work.)
It’s hard to look at such dull, grey experiences as my two main experiences of un-asked-for intercourse have been and see why it actually hurts—the first time, anyway. The first time still feels bad. The second time was more like an attempted rape, and it felt like, are you serious? I was 26 or 27, and it felt like getting carded at the liquor store. Like, I was simultaneously insulted and flattered, as if being taken lying down were somehow tantamount to being mistaken for a younger, prettier, dumber / more innocent girl, and in the end I was more upset with two of our mutual friends for being like, “Yeah, that’s just Jack” than I was at Jack. We could call that the “Was It Jack” debate. On the other side, there is always the friend who, rather than listening to what you tell her, feels the need to tell you “You Were Raped.”
BS: One reason I chose to speak out about my experience in such detail (that, might I add, was not adequately communicated in the Huffington Post article) is that I wanted to fight against being profiled as another innocent, defenseless, gay boy who got singularly attacked by a default heterosexual and cisgendered male aggressor. As part of the black community, I feel the implicit pressure to not be characterized as “weak” or “passive” simply (but not exclusively) because of how pornography, among other things, has stereotyped our penises as relentless anacondas. But I also feel pressure from nonblack communities to not “come off too strong” because of the potential for others to be “uncomfortable” with my “threatening” presence. I am rejecting these pressures when I choose to speak.
DSF: To speak to whom? I take the implied audience to be those legal institutions that hold incarcerating power, or social spaces that hold exiling power. I must believe many people who have spoken out to power about their sexual assaults, especially those people whose speech isn’t often believed in any political context, know that they very well may not be believed, to the extent that belief would lead to consequences for the rapist. If they are looking for consequence.
If she were my friend and we were in an enclosed room 20 years ago, I would have urged Anita Hill to keep silent. I am not so convinced on speaking out. There’s this overbearing empowerment narrative, telling us that because patriarchy has silenced us for so long, speaking out is unilaterally subversive. You have to come out as a sexual-assault survivor, come out of this moralized darkness, as if the outside light can’t become the glare of surveillance. As if you won’t lose your job and be set out on the street if your boss is the one that harasses you, as if you won’t materially endanger yourself and your children if you go to the police against your husband. We ought to challenge this white feminist fetish for speaking out publicly, and the accompanying condemnation of people who choose silence.
Not all bodies are pedestaled on a myth the way white women’s fragility is, a myth of fragility sustained politically, legally, and socially at the expense of black and brown women and people. Silence has preserved my body and ensured my safety more times than I can count, and during the times that I had to speak out, either for the safety of other people within the predator’s range or for my sanity, I chose to speak to women, in quiet, closed places.
I know stories of women from Port-au-Prince to Brooklyn who don’t speak but instead give knowing glances when they pass each other on the corner. And I know men who were found in the morning but their balls were not.
Bethany Saltman, a former sexual-violence activist and Womyn of Antioch member, wrote recently about the disparities between the public reception of Emma Sulkowicz’s Mattress Performance (Carry That Weight)—a recent performance backed by a personal narrative, largely met with encouragement—and the Antioch College Sexual Offense Prevention Policy, an affirmative-consent campaign that, in its time, became a laughingstock. Saltman writes:
I think it has something to do with the way we, as a culture, have embraced the power of storytelling. We are so saturated with personal tales, so oriented toward individuals and their agonies and ecstasies. The Womyn of Antioch didn’t have a story to..
the liberal imagination, government surveillance threatens everyone: a watchful eye hovering over an undifferentiated public. Privacy, in turn, is that which safeguards our individuality, defining the spaces in which the citizen cannot be governed. “Privacy is the right to a self,” Edward Snowden said in 2016. “Privacy is what gives you the ability to share with the world who you are on your own terms.” For Snowden, privacy is the “fountainhead” of all rights. Without a “quiet space, a space within yourself” beyond the reach of the state, free and democratic engagement is impossible.
Virginia Eubanks, Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor. St. Martin’s Press, 2017. 265 pages.
There is utility in this discourse. It broadens the potential constituency for reform. But it also obscures the topography of power, eliding the sorts of privacy invasions that are regularly experienced by the poor, the brown, the marginal. For the underclasses, privacy—in the form of access to ungovernable spaces—has never been on offer.
Khiara M. Bridges, The Poverty of Privacy Rights. Stanford University Press, 2017. 296 pages.
This reality is transparent in the case of policing. The Fourth Amendment—which protects against unwarranted search and seizure—is spatially defined. Individuals have a “reasonable expectation of privacy” from the eyes and ears (and noses) of the state in places where they can reasonably expect not to be overheard or observed by others. You have the most privacy in your home, somewhat less in your car, and hardly any on a public street. Thus, those who can afford more private space will inevitably have more privacy. People who live in densely packed neighborhoods and thin-walled apartment complexes, who have little “curtilage” surrounding their homes, who live their private lives in public spaces, have considerably less. The homeless—who, by necessity, live in public space and have tenuous property claims to their makeshift dwellings—have barely any Fourth Amendment rights at all. Like many of liberalism’s guarantees, privacy is not a universal right but a class right: guaranteed to those who can buy it.
When a middle-class white person imagines a privacy violation, they tend to think of an embarrassing disclosure of personal information: their sexts posted online, their email address leaked in the Ashley Madison hack. Some may imagine the “creepy-crawly” feeling of being watched. Indiana University School of Law professor James P. Nehf has written, reflecting the perception of many scholars, “Privacy is seldom a matter of life and death.” But for the poor and marginal, invasions of privacy are often lethal matters. A stop-and-frisk can easily end in a police shooting. Data shared from a registry can lead to arrests or deportation. Scrutiny from a caseworker can tear a family apart.
In the past few years, a wave of new scholarship has emerged that underscores the inadequacy of universalist privacy discourse. In order to protect against the tangible harms of surveillance, these scholars say, civil libertarians must attend to the particular.
While many liberal privacy advocates warn that a dystopian society is around the corner—unless, say, proper limits are placed on law-enforcement access to cell-phone data or communications collected by the National Security Agency—these new scholars argue that a huge portion of the American public already lives in a privacy-free rights environment. Through their close attention to social history, a new picture of privacy emerges: less like a universal right than like a privilege of whiteness and wealth. The laws that protect some from the scrutiny of the state have never protected those whom the state seeks to confine and control. For the poor and marginal, the nightmare scenario is already here.
the plantation to the penitentiary, surveillance and punishment originated in America as projects of social control. The slave system was enabled by a trio of information technologies—the slave pass, the fugitive slave poster, and the slave patrol—which together enabled the planter class to exert dictatorial rule, projecting their power throughout the antebellum South.
Plantation ledger books served as proto-biometric databases, recording not only financial records but the physical characteristics of enslaved persons’ bodies, their labor and reproductive capacities. Plantation architecture facilitated intervisibility between the overseer and the slave, from the verandas of the big house to the slave quarters and fields. These interlocking systems—enabled by sight, terror, and violence—were designed to disrupt solidarity among enslaved peoples, prevent runaways, and, most of all, deter and quell rebellion.
In northern cities, regulation of vice fell not to the courts but to constables, night watchmen, and jailors, who were given wide latitude in their choice of punishment. They paid special attention to unruly working-class women—those, as Jen Manion documents in her excellent 2015 history Liberty’s Prisoners: Carceral Culture in Early America, who were “too poor, too loud, too sexual, too drunk, or too independent.” Anyone who posed a perceived threat to the white heterosexual family, or its gendered division of labor, attracted the attention of the authorities. By 1807, Manion writes, the poor were just as likely to be held for what they did not have, a job or a home, as for how they behaved. Poverty itself was the crime.
Virginia Eubanks’s new book, Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, which came out in January, extends this historical trajectory into the 21st century. Despite the successes of abolitionist, labor, civil rights, and feminist movements, America’s prisons are still warehouses for the poor, the police state is still mainly a means of regulating the lower orders, and the watchful eye of the modern-day constable is still trained primarily on the poor, the brown, the defiant, and the marginal. Eubanks, an associate professor of political science at the University at Albany, SUNY, has spent her career illuminating how our systems of provision and punishment collude to control and survey the poor, who are presumed to be dangerous social deviants.
Automating Inequality explores how the brick-and-mortar poorhouse of the 19th century has been replaced by the “digital poorhouse” of today. In the contemporary welfare system, poor people’s worthiness for benefits and their propensity for criminality are assessed by data-mining computer algorithms, which, contrary to the hopes of their proponents, tend to recreate and exacerbate inequality. Eubanks explores three experiments in which algorithms are replacing or augmenting human decision-making —Indiana’s automated Medicaid eligibility process, Los Angeles’s coordinated entry system for the homeless, and Alleghany County of Pennsylvania’s predictive algorithm for assessing childhood risk of abuse and neglect.
With the exception of the Indiana program—part of a statewide privatization effort led by Republican Governor Mitch Daniels, who would probably means-test trick-or-treaters if he could—the systems Eubanks encounters were at least devised with the welfare of the vulnerable in mind. LA’s registry, “touted as the Match.com of homeless services,” was supposed to distribute housing resources to the neediest with an efficiency and precision that a lurching municipal bureaucracy could never achieve. The Allegheny Family Screening Tool (AFST), launched in August 2016, was designed to eliminate the human bias that leads caseworkers to overreport nonwhite families as maltreatment risks—and overlook the signs of abuse elsewhere.
In practice, however, automated systems rely on the collection of ever more intimate details about the lives of welfare beneficiaries, cataloguing, classifying, and ranking “their traumas, coping mechanisms, feelings, and fears.” From the moment they apply, welfare applicants find themselves ensnared in a web of surveillance, subject to persistent scrutiny, a presumption of guilt, invasive interrogations, coercion of their reproductive choices, and violations of their bodily and decisional autonomy. In the supposed interest of preventing fraud, saving taxpayer dollars, and protecting children, the state forces poor families to bare themselves, interrogating every purchase, every parenting decision, every relationship.
Automation undermines due process and fails to address the underlying causes of poverty. These systems collect and produce data that justify the status quo and criminalize desperation. The Alleghany algorithm treats the use of public services itself as a risk to children. “A quarter of the predictive variables in the AFST,” Eubanks reports, “are direct measures of poverty: they track use of means-tested programs such as TANF, SSI, SNAP, and county medical assistance.” That means that poor families are at a higher risk of being investigated for neglect and abuse if they take advantage of the services available to care for their children.
The homeless in LA face a comparable devil’s choice. In order to access housing resources, homeless men and women in LA must fill out a “vulnerability index” entry survey. The survey solicits an array of personal information: social security number, full name, birth date, demographic information, veteran status, immigration and residency status, and where the respondent can be found at various times of day. It also asks intimate questions about the applicants’ experiences with domestic violence, sexual assault, self harm, drug abuse, sex work, and mental health. Admitting “risky, or even illegal, behavior” on the entry survey, Eubanks found, can “snag you a higher ranking on the priority list for permanent supportive housing.” But it also makes you more vulnerable to the police. The self-reported data in the LA registry is made available to the LAPD without a warrant, departmental oversight, or judicial review of any kind.
Most of all, Eubanks demonstrates, increased digital scrutiny and automation further isolate the poor from the affluent, undermining the intimate interactions that facilitate empathy—or, better yet, solidarity. “Like earlier technological innovations in poverty management,” Eubanks writes, “digital tracking and automated decision-making hide poverty from the middle-class public and give the nation the ethical distance it needs to make inhuman choices.” It’s easier, after all, for a caseworker to change a zero to a one than to face, in person, the parents of 6-year-old Sophie Stipes, a severely disabled child whose Medicaid benefits were cancelled by Indiana’s automated system. The digital poorhouse reframes questions of justice as questions of efficiency. Algorithms score individuals, deciding how to distribute scarce resources, but in so doing they reify scarcity. “Homelessness is not a systems engineering problem,” UCLA law professor Gary Blasi told Eubanks. “It’s a carpentry problem.” As with the county poorhouses of yore, Eubanks writes, automation is a means of managing the poor, “so that we do not have to eradicate poverty.”
book is a rejoinder to the bloodless numericalization of social problems that typifies the neoliberal approach to welfare. Automating Inequality is filled with tender, humane stories about people on both sides of public provision. Gary Boatwright, a 64-year-old homeless man affectionately known as “Commander Kush” by his neighbors, offers Eubanks his bottle of water—a precious commodity on Skid Row—when she comes to visit his tent. Patrick Grzyb and Angel Shepherd, disabled and unemployed, live with Angel’s 9-year-old daughter Harriette and Patrick’s six-year-old granddaughter Deseraye. When the girls bicker, Patrick has each of them don a sleeve of the “Get-Along-Shirt,” one of Patrick’s “roomy button-downs,” until they stop fighting. The mixed, intergenerational family has faced a series of neglect investigations by the Alleghany Office of Children, Youth, and Families (CYF). Pat Gordon, a CYF caseworker, Eubanks writes, “is the kind of woman who keeps pictures of other people’s children in her cubicle. . . . Her mischievous laugh quickly transitions to quiet seriousness” when she discusses the kids she serves.
Typically, Eubanks observes, stories about the poor only have two lessons, either “‘You should feel sorry for the poor’ or ‘You shouldn’t.’” With these complex, intimate portraits, Eubanks seeks to break the ideological injunction that our narratives of poverty orbit around worthiness. Paraphrasing the journalist Monica Potts, Eubanks observes, when it comes to depictions of the hard up, Americans tend only to tolerate “illustrations of suffering, litanies of misery, or morality plays of bad choices and their consequences.” But human beings aren’t object lessons for the middle class.
For Eubanks, defeating the moral mythology of poverty, which has persisted in America since the founding, is pivotal to rectifying the wrongs of the digital poorhouse. The notion that poverty is primarily a consequences of moral lack sooths the consciences of the middle class, underlies the assumption that poor people are bad parents, and justifies a system of permanent totalitarian surveillance in their lives.
is but one of a number of scholars who reject these mainstream premises about privacy and surveillance. Indeed, as she and others show, the legal regime of privacy was never intended to protect them in the first place.
In her 2016 book The Poverty of Privacy Rights, Boston University legal scholar Khiara Bridges documents how women on welfare are denied spatial, decisional, and informational privacy in nearly every aspect of their lives. They are subject to invasive, sometimes retraumatizing, questioning as a prerequisite for attaining benefits. Through restrictions on funding elective abortion and family-cap policies for mothers on welfare, the state intrudes upon the most intimate decisions of their lives: variously forcing women to give birth and to terminate pregnancies against their wills. Courts have consistently upheld warrantless searches of welfare recipients’ homes—supposedly the most sacred place in Fourth Amendment doctrine—to search for evidence of fraud. The courts reason that welfare applicants have an “uncoerced” choice to refuse a home visit, because there is no penalty for refusing to consent—other than the denial of benefits. But of course, it betrays a profound indifference to the lived experience of poor people to suggest that the threat of losing benefits is not coercion. As legal scholar Chris Slobogin has noted, those suspected of tax fraud—a crime whose cost to the American taxpayer is incomparably more severe—enjoy the full protection of the Fourth Amendment, while those suspected of welfare fraud receive none.
The government’s justification for its punitive and intrusive approach to welfare is its interest in protecting poor children and reducing fraud. But our government also declines to do the very thing we know would contribute most to poor children’s safety and health: make their families less poor. One in five American children lives in poverty; American children are ranked 26th among rich countries in terms of “overall well-being”; and we spend among the least on benefits and services to families. America’s stingy approach to public benefits contradicts our supposedly dogged commitment to safeguarding poor children. Instead, our punitive welfare state seeks to “correct” the bad behavior of poor mothers—whose moral flaws are presumed to account for their poverty—while declining to provide for their needy children.
The best way to eliminate the more punitive, suspicious, and stigmatizing aspects of the welfare system would be to abandon means-tested benefits altogether. In its place, we could have a universal basic income or system of universal child allowances. A universal benefit alleviates the need for persistent state scrutiny and intrusive data collection—because everyone gets it regardless of need. Universal benefits (like social security and Medicare) also help to diminish the stigmatizing and isolating aspects of means-testing. It’s harder to scapegoat and demonize poor black mothers—a persistent theme in anti-welfare rhetoric—when every American family is receiving cash benefits.
We would do well to abandon the popular understanding of the privacy-rights bearer as an affluent white man—unburdened by history, by power, by coercion. He bears almost no resemblance to those who endure the worst consequences of surveillance. The embrace of such a figure by civil-liberties groups routinely limits our ability to imagine the privacy harms experienced by nonwhite, nonmale, and nonrich people. The right “to be let alone,” as Brandeis and Warren explained in their 1890 articulation of legal privacy, is of little use to those whose economic circumstances necessitate a life of interdependence. The common law principle that a “home is man’s castle,” is worthless if you don’t have a home.
Those of us who believe in privacy as a fundamental right—a guarantee of human dignity, autonomy, and self-determination—should also advocate for policies to correct the massive inequalities in wealth and power that make the equitable enjoyment of privacy impossible.
They practice dispossession in collaboration, as withdrawal, and we’ve been fascinated for many years with the sociality of the music. Can you get that in a poem? Well, if it’s in a poem that’s just poetry in a tight chemise. A band makes music; the making of the band is poetry: anarchitectural, anatopological syntax in correspondence. How can you make the making of the music sound good? The social cultivation of “mere accompaniments” of the utterance. Their practice is their theme. Sometimes this takes the form of commentary, sometimes of inventory. Making ain’t reducible to its conditions but it ain’t detached from ‘em, either. We make cars, the league of black revolutionary workers might say; but really what we’re making is the league of black revolutionary workers—off and under and over the line. What Thom might say is: they thought I was making poems but really we were making poetry. We want to keep seeing what we come to in the making. It’s not that matters of skill or craft have been suspended. They just been socialized, deindividuated, shared. Thom is them. Thom’n’em, Them downstairs, in a tremendous submachine of milk’n’cookies. To say that them is a poet, or a good poet, is to narrow the scope of the shit in which they involved, a threshold poetry hands when its care and study gets so deep. Neither the poet nor the poem can contain such virtue: what it is to be able not so much to ask but to construct a question, to be allowed being also to be required to construct, construct implying some intention—fanned out all over the yard like some weighted canopies or a community sing of open corners or a conversion of the guards—to hit a poem or a poet in the throat or in the stomach. Man, it’s a shame how them fucked up all them damn poets and them damn poems’n’em.
And Malik’n’em’s problematic of making, in dislocation, withdrawn, a discourse curved in the outskirts of black performance, left as an empty sequence. “The name of this tune is ‘Mississippi Goddamn.’ And I mean every word of it.” The way she says “and” is neither a bending of a note nor a slurring of two. It’s an infinite n, endless, endlessly and unbendingly ribboned and turned’n’em, empathically folded in not in between, unintegered, disintegrated with gratitude. To think Nina Simone as actor, Gunther Kaufman—in Fassbinder’a concern with Brecht’s concern with gesture—as dancer: genre bent, or slurred, and neither. Is blackness a deeply energetic position from which to communicate or a deeply energetic apposition from which to announce communicability? Deep in these ongoing epilogomena to any future meta/physics, she had a wig on cocked to the side. And she hummed every word of it.
The experiment consists of this entangled state being shared between experimenters, each of whom has the ability to measure either with respect to the basis or . We see that if they each measure with respect to , then they never see the outcome . If one measures with respect to and the other , they never see the outcomes . However, sometimes they see the outcome when measuring with respect to , since
this leads us to the paradox: having the outcome we conclude that if one of the experimenters has measured with respect to the basis instead, the outcome must have been or , since and are impossible. But then, if they had all measured with respect to the basis, by locality the result must have been , which is also impossible,
and never even gone.
To emancipate oneself from oneself is the secret overpopulation of the mono-instrumental imperative. The composers guild throws seed, hill by hill, in minimal dispersion. This is liturgical ru(m)ination, jalalian glossolalia. Jalal al-Din is discourse, well, here you go again. You say you want your freedom, but all you wanna do is share, deforming life in the terraform—“always a collective differentiation” under firm tara. Somewhere I read you long to dispossess yourself of yourself. What’s the relation and/or the difference between emancipation and dispossession? “I’d like there to be space between us and then also a crushing, a pounding.” Eastman, alone, says, “let sonorities ring,” which is what King did when he said “let freedom ring” way past the meaning of what he said, being eastern man alone. Must we mean what we say? Mo. Meant to write no but mo mo’ better in the mo + less than fullness of its articulation. Mo mean no + yes, which is more + less than no, motherfucker. Eastman, unalone, can’t, won’t, yeah. Is hearing a feeling standing over you like Marx asking questions? Cavell gives sharing as an individual affair. Your sharing seems different—either dispossessive of that individuality or held in that all but already given dispossession, the given having given itself away to never was. We got to forgive you, never even gone? Are you ever gon’ go? Give it up, turn it loose.
Still a player?
We crush a lot. Pound plenty.
What is a group?
group (n.) 1690s, originally an art criticism term, “assemblage of figures or objects forming a harmonious whole in a painting or design,” from French groupe “cluster, group” (17c.), from Italian gruppo “group, knot,” which probably is, with Spanish grupo, from a Germanic source, from Proto-Germanic *kruppaz “round mass, lump,” part of the general group of Germanic kr- words with the sense “rounded mass” (such as crop (n.). Extended to “any assemblage, a number of individuals related in some way” by 1736. Meaning “pop music combo” is from 1958. Round ass lump or lumpen is from 1976. Lumpen from lumen, or inside lip, a unit of luminous flux in superfluid kisses, from an influenza of switches (such as crew (adv.). A way people be sharply butterflying.
I wanna do bad things to who, Gruppen, writing in a state of abandon. Is a dissertation defense a form of self-defense? Groups. A group of groups. Is there anything other than the group? Or, to be more precise, is there nothing other than a group? Is there a size limit on groups? When is a group too big to be a group? This is the problem of scale. Murray Jackson says Philip Levine’s work is work; is work always, and of necessity, group work? What if it’s not about putting shit together but about how shit falls apart? Communicability against the state. Another history of the group. Another history in this metaphysics. The art of the fugue, evil nigger. Difference got out of jail, and died in the street, saying this is grime. The art of the upper room. The art of the river rouge.
Doubleness of the beguine,
is there any beginning,
the beguine then wandering? Orewoet,
the desire that drives one mad, die minne to bear ghebruken?
Contrafactum, substitution of text
without changing the music, maintenance
of a melody when the text changes,
expands or contracts, requiring sustenance,
or melisma, or double time,
is it too far to think the counterfacticity of King Pleasure and Eddie Jefferson?
Or some kind of scattish
counterfactotem, the sacred utility man,
a one-man band emblematic of nothingness, scatman carousing, shining in the light that Brent resounds, Hadewijch set to music
hedwig made plain, Edwidge Dantichant,
a maronnage of beguining, running, begging, praying, singing, dancing?
But how’d the beguine begin, and who the hell got there from here, what redirection, what rhum, what rhumba, what ronald, what rose-antoinette, what Martinique, what jubilee? Come on, man, certain weird, black-ass white women, evidently, and some Burghardts bogarting for the people.
23.1 Improvisation is how we make no way out of a way. Improvisation is how we make nothing out of something. 23.1.1,
some ways, that thing, is it the same thing to think and to be? To think and to do? To think and to feel? Let’s say that already embedded in this Parmenidean series is the resistance to the very idea, as well as the very regime, of the epistemic even as it’s already scarred by it in being held in it, in its placement of thinking at the center of a relation that soon becomes a relational matrix. (And isn’t this brutalizing interplay of centrality and relationality, in its very surreptitiousness, part of what decoloniality wanted to be about the business of exposing and disavowing?) This idea that thinking, which is to say the thinker, comes first and everything (else in this expulsive grasp that links and constitutes thing and else in severalty) revolves around it, is a problem of settlement, of the settler who brings the center with them, as them, everywhere they go; and today the question is whether the idea→state→activity of “bewilderment” does anything to ameliorate it. The fact that we still here seems to indicate that we hope so. Cole Porter’s jubilee begins again,
one mo’gin. 1. What if the problem isn’t coloniality as an episteme? What if the problem is that coloniality is always already given in the very idea of the episteme? What if coloniality is the age, or the locale, or more precisely, the spacetime, of the episteme? 2. Is bewilderment an expression or a refusal of the epistemic? Is bewilderment in line with other notions—such as techne or doxa—that are said to deviate from the epistemic? Or is it something like the unconscious, or the aesthetic, that might be best characterized as deviant within the epistemic? Is coloniality, or modernity, the episteme of the episteme, where the constrained motion of from and within indicate a common terroir, the general field of scientificity, which is space time itself, produced and then discovered? This Foucauldian question is not meant to advance, against Foucault’s grain, an overarching anti-historicism: it is, rather, a question concerning the perhaps inconceivable, but certainly still unconceived, breadth of the very idea of the geographico-historical as such, unravelled in the beguine,
ne mo’ one mo’gin. 2. At stake is a general problematic of separation. In which case, are we talking, finally, about decoloniality and bewilderment as modalities of partition within a spatio-temporal order, a geographico-historical regime, that is given in and as partition? I don’t know. I’m bewitched. Bothered. I’m Rodgers and Hart and Ella. In this regard, ain’t nothing new. Either need to let all that shit go or just keep going all up in it without worrying about it, or trying to name our way either out of it or innovatively within it. These prolly amount to the same thing. Meanwhile, just since I woke up this morning, how many vicious thoughts have I thought about people with whom I agree on 99% of what they say and with whom I share 99% of their desires? I lost count. That’s bad, and I really want to work on that, but I can’t work it by myself, or in my head, or in the interpersonal diorama,
Diotima, Jadwiga, Hedwig, Edwidge,
Hadewijch, set edge, set to music.
Maybe the difference ain’t between
performance and practice. Maybe it’s
not between practice and playing.
Maybe the difference is all inseparably
inside out and unexternalizable, all and
more and none and gone, come on,
is early, and inside of an airplane sitting outside of the San Francisco Airport, a mother is asking a person two seats ahead of me to switch seats, so that she can have a window seat for her son, and he looks at the world outside of this metal container that is dragging us back to somewhere in the waiting Midwest. I have this fear of heights, but I do find the appeal in looking out of windows during flights. In Oakland, where I spent the past five days reading poems in hotel rooms with friends that I only get to see a couple times a year. Two nights ago, one of them ran up to the roof of the hotel at night and looked over, everything below was an impossible darkness. It’s that kind of height I find myself uncomfortable with. Some would tell me not to think of it as a fear of heights so much as a fear of falling. Planes work if you can manage to not think of the machinery. The way I walk into a store and buy what my body is demanding without thinking of the labor that carried the product to that moment. But, this mother wants her son to understand the world from this height and the person in the window seat she wants isn’t moving. So she is loud now, shouting in the name of her child, who also isn’t moving, and who seems preoccupied with the small screen in front of him, where two cartoon characters are wrestling each other over some treasure. I am thinking of what it must be like to not have a desire to get close to heaven at a time like this. A time when there is just a hint of morning coloring the sky as the waning darkness fights against it, making it so that everything above is the color of blood pushing its way across a dark surface This is the part of the flight I live for: being pulled into the impossible beauty above and feeling like I could touch it if I wanted to. I’m not particularly excited about going back home today, though I do miss it. The dying summer and covering the Midwest in a kind of heat that doesn’t afford anyone the mercy of Oakland’s proximity to water. It is one thing to love where you’re from and miss it, and another to fall in love somewhere else and then have to pull away. When the mother gives up on the person two seats ahead of me, she makes eye contact with me and my precious window seat. I pretend to not notice, nodding my head along to imagined music coming out of my detached headphones. But I’m a poor actor, and have no luck convincing her of my being oblivious to her suffering. Standing over me, she pleads, explaining that her son has never even been on a plane before, though has loved watching them from below. And she wants him to have a window seat so that he’ll be maybe be less afraid. And I know that I have been afraid and found comfort in seeing. In the turning of my head to that which I fear. And so I surrender my seat and I watch the eager mother carry her son in her arms, to that which she thinks will make him whole. I push myself into an aisle seat and prepare for the long flight home, considering that perhaps life is too short for fear. There is always going to be something outside, waiting to kill us all.
1. Although it’s sometimes considered more appropriate to say “people with disabilities,” to place people first, I’m going to use the phrase “disabled people” to support the Disability-rights movement that considers disability as a political identity in order to secure equal opportunities and equal rights for all people with disabilities.
2. Capital D is used to signify Deaf as an identity and community, and it’s important to note some Deaf people do not identify as disabled.
technologies that propose cures and solutions for disabled people1 often center the technology’s capacity to help people overcome their disability rather than centering their actual needs. Chancey Fleet, an accessibility educator, argues that this prioritization reinforces biases and operationalizes assumptions often made by the nondisabled designer, and foregrounds the technology’s supposedly inclusive features while reducing disabled people to a reductive idea about their bodies, their priorities, and their disability. For example, last year many members of the Deaf community2 expressed discomfort at the widely circulated news of the SignAloud, a glove with sensors that interpret American Sign Language hand gestures that correspond to words and phrases in English. Community members pointed out that the SignAloud is designed for hearing people to understand Deaf people but cannot capture the actual, manifold ways Deaf people communicate with hand signs in combination with facial expression and body movement. Though SignAloud was a misstep by student developers, its narrative resonates with efforts by major tech companies to make their products more accessible and inclusive for disabled people. Last year, Microsoft published comprehensive guidelines on inclusive design, and accessibility has become a keyword for Apple and Google product narratives. This shows a wider recognition that full inclusion depends on an inclusive design process: Disabled people are often invited to be subjects of user research. However, inclusion as subjects is not enough. The generalization of individuals into a user group, categorized by their medical diagnosis, constructs crude, homogenized user stories that can lead to false assumptions about how technology impacts disabled individuals.
In my interviews with a group of friends and colleagues about assumptions in technology design about their disability, the most common experience was of exhaustion. New technologies often require the hard work of people who use them and who have to adjust to continuous updates. Heather Vuchinich, who is a writer and astrologer, says that closed captions on television and movies “are often of poor quality, too small, or unavailable.” More important, she notes, is “the psychological effects of depending on technology for something ‘normal’ people take for granted.” Vuchinich sometimes jokes that she’s part “cyber” because of her dependence on hearing aids, but this sense of being cyber can also mean feeling subhuman.
Even tech supposedly designed to “help” disabled users can sometimes discriminate against disabled people. A web browser can easily detect when someone is using a screen reader and direct them to limited functionalities specifically designed for blind users, even if they haven’t consented to being channeled to a separate user experience or asked for or wanted such functions. Leona Godin, a writer who holds a PhD in 18th-century English literature, reports that when she accesses library websites they continually suggest she use a library for children and nonacademic readers who are blind. “To assume that a blind person is not also a scholar needing to access the full catalogue feels a little insulting.” There’s a pacifying work that the word ‘inclusion’ does, rendering users as a generalized body of people without regard for the proliferation of varying identities and needs under the banner of “disabled.”
This is because even inclusive technology is still often guided by the belief that disability must be cured. Cure is goal oriented, causal and finite. Cure assumes that when a user is in one state, typically illness or impairment, they can get to the other state, a complete negation of their previous one, through technological or medical means. This assumes the given state only exists as a problem to be solved, and that its negation is an obvious moral good. While the narrative of cure applies to people who are ill or temporarily impaired, disabled people need a different conceptual framework. Even with the most advanced technology, disability can not and—sometimes should not—disappear from people. There are disabled people whose relationship with their own bodily functions and psychological capabilities cannot be considered in a linear movement from causation to result, where narratives of technology as cure override the real varieties in people’s needs and conditions and falsely construct binary states—one or the other, abled or disabled—shadowing everything between or outside of those options.
Many members of the Deaf community take pride in their identity, and in advocating for their rights. The idea of cure can lead to the erasure of identity, giving a false promise that technology can solve a cultural problem of barriers that exclude disabled people. In the 2008 documentary Examined Life, artist and activist Sunaura Taylor explains the difference between impairment, which she describes as “our own unique embodiments,” and disability, which is “the social repression of disabled people.” Disability, in this light, is a condition of a society that disables people. As an ableist social construct of what a normal body is and does, technology framed as cure harms disabled people who are more vulnerable to breaches to and compromises of their privacy. Narratives of technology as a solution for people to overcome their disability thus reinforce oppressive ideas like what constitutes a socially acceptable body. Such narratives in turn take space away from the public imagination about what needs to be done to abolish ableist thinking.
Care, in contrast to cure, is a form of stewardship between people who support each other in communication, action, and social engagement. It is actualized by extending one’s mindfulness of another person’s dignity and feelings, while respecting their independence. Care is made possible when parties are mutually accountable for each other’s well-being. Caring differs from an explicit division of power and is not a transfer of the decision-making process, because it is based on a sense of interdependence, which is a free exchange that cannot be contracted or automated. If the narratives of technology-as-cure focus on the explicit, obvious, visible conditions of enhancement, technology-as-care focuses on more implicit, less visible conditions that are difficult to identify. Technology can be used for care when it buttresses our autonomy and does not assume our decisions in advance. While machines can learn, automate, and execute certain tasks faster than humans, human deliberation—a subtle murmuring or hesitation—is often a sign of deep thinking. This deliberation should not be seen as a matter of inefficiency but rather as a sign of care that cannot be automated. The slowness may be the integral element of human agency.
Artificial Intelligence, on the other hand, is often framed as the latest solution to complex problems, hyped and tossed around conveniently in all situations due to its ontological expansiveness. But systems of AI are already deeply embedded in our most mundane electrical communication, from what’s surfacing on your Facebook timeline, to search suggestions on Google and so on. AI can be broken down into several parts: broad data collection that is fed into learning algorithms, which power “intelligent” automated decisions. The final point of “intelligence” requires attention. As researchers M. C. Elish and Tim Hwang write in a 2016 book, An AI Pattern Language, AI is essentially “a computer that resembles intelligent behavior. Defining what constitutes intelligence is a central, though unresolved, dimension of this definition.” AI’s intelligence most often manifests in the seemingly autonomous organization of information and its applications, for example, Internet advertisements that suggest products based on a complex user profile. Most Internet corporations collect a wide range of data in order to extract behavior patterns and predict future interaction. The algorithms that continually evolve models for organizing information are the basis of machine learning, which, according to M. C. Elish and Tim Hwang, “enable a computer to ‘learn’ from a provided dataset and make appropriate predictions based on that data.” The scale in which the model learns and transforms, along with the growing amount of data from people’s interactions with computational systems, poses new points for consideration.
There are innovations for disabled people being made in the field of accessible design and medical technologies, such as AI detecting autism (again). However, in these narratives, technologies come first—as “helping people with disabilities”—and the people are framed in subordinate relation to them. Alarmingly, narratives around AI often present it as a covert release from social responsibility. The field of precision medicine attracts a techno-optimist vision of tailored, on-demand medical services based on genetic data that presents itself as the alternative to the current “baseline average” medical service. An imaginary scenario includes preemptive medical intervention prior to the appearance of symptoms, based on algorithmic analysis of data that is aggregated and managed free of the conventional medical regulations. These narratives flatten the spectrum between cure and care, illness and disability, medical intervention and inclusive adaptation.
The new normals of impersonal, “intelligent” services may come with unseen repercussions. Machines learn, oftentimes with mistakes. When no person can be held responsible for the medical decisions made by AI, who is accountable for a clinical mistake or instance of discrimination? AI will have a material impact on who gets considered worth saving, reifying existing social hierarchies by further alienating those who are already excluded. AI can render disabled people invisible from the database, if they have communication disabilities, or unique body features or psychological capacities. Alternately, it can make disabled people hypervisible by profiling their identity and render them more vulnerable to threat, surveillance, and exploitation. Either way, AI performs tasks according to existing formations in the social order, amplifying implicit biases, and ignoring disabled people or leaving them exposed.
What kind of technological advances do disabled people really want, then? To start, they seek necessary representation in the innovation and design process. Too often, sign-language recognition systems try to be all-inclusive and in the process lose usefulness. Instead, architect Jeffrey Mansfield says, “AI that limits recognition to daily commands one might use while driving, watching TV, or changing thermostats . . . can be much more robust in our daily lives. Self-learning sign-language recognition from both first-person and third-person POVs would be useful, as well as self-learning, real-time automatic transcription for multiple speakers.” These ideas are grounded in the intricate life experiences of a Deaf person. Furthermore, Mansfield points toward the need for updated cultural narratives around technology as inherently more advanced: “People have assumed that YouTube auto-captioning or dictation offers adequate accessibility that can replace other, more analog forms of accessibility such as sign language interpreting or accurate captioning.” Mainstream narratives of new technology often set aside the social and civil advances that are still necessary to truly address the needs of disabled communities for practical access and the ability to decide what they want. Leona Godin suggests “a functional eyeball—I could wear it on my head or as a necklace or sunglasses, but if it told me what was happening in front of my eyeballs, my brain could take care of the rest.” It’s important to note her insistence on retaining control of what she does with the added information. The kinds of prosthetics she wants would enhance her autonomy, not supplant it.
To empower disabled people through technology, Chancey Fleet, whose education practice focuses on accessibility, points to a need to help people become critical users, saying, “Emerging technology users may learn enough to succeed at immediately pressing tasks, but if they don’t progress to becoming critical users they are very unlikely to encounter the idea that their data and interaction with the system might be used in ways they don’t expect.” Fleet suggests that “if an application is looking at my browsing and purchase history and curating what it shows me in response, there should be a place where I explicitly allow or don’t allow that (like I grant microphone access, or don’t).” This is part of demystifying algorithms, one of the objectives in computer-programming workshops I’ve facilitated for people who are Deaf, Blind, or on the autism spectrum or who have a combination of disabilities. The end goal is, as dancer and choreographer Alice Sheppard proposes, “disability leading the design process as positive, generative artistic forces.” Artistic provocation, calls for political action, and technological research and development can come together as a conceptual framework. In respect of disabled people’s approach to technology, the scholar Meryl Alper, in her book Giving Voice: Mobile Communication, Disability, and Inequality, writes, “They are not passively given voices by able-bodied individuals; disabled individuals are actively taking and making them despite structural inequality.” Technology only becomes useful for people with disability through a combination of community support, societal acceptance of the varieties of disability, and appreciation of unique individual circumstances.
Given the power of technological narratives to influence our ideas of future societies, changing these narratives should lead to renewed social appreciation for disabled people. Change should occur first through the acknowledgement of disabled people as users, communities, and vital parts of the public. An appreciation of their full humanity would mean disabled people do not have to fight for what is available for nondisabled people by default. And there must be readily available opportunities for disabled people to design technology for themselves. Their everyday needs and imagination need to be at the forefront of design, not an afterthought in the name of benevolent inclusion that can render people unable to participate in the society. Shifting the narratives about technology-as-cure to technology-as-care can facilitate a dialogue about disability as a human condition for everyone to consider, not just the people with impairment. Technology-as-care is not considering disabled people as someone to be “cared by” others; rather, it is appreciation of disabled people’s tenacity and creativity to design technology that people can use to “care for” each other.
the postmortems on the 2016 U.S. election from across the liberal-left spectrum, it became relatively common to see oblique references to the TERF wars. Writers from Mark Lilla to Angela Nagle implied that precious liberals and oversensitive pronoun policing alienated the working class and supercharged the alt-right. The Clinton campaign’s cynical weaponization of wokeness hadn’t helped, oozing cultural snobbery as it switched between surface-level identitarian pandering and positions backing corporate welfare and militarism. One of the most dispiriting legacies of that disastrous election is the number of newly radicalized U.S. leftists who seem suspicious of any particularist claims on the grounds that they pose a threat to unifying calls for economic justice.
The buzzwords that dominated the TERF wars—free speech, call-out culture, no-platforming, identity politics—continue to circulate in round after round of think pieces and hashtags. Unfortunately the lion’s share of the conversation/meme war continues to be—to borrow Christian Parenti and James Davis’s frame—moralistic rather than strategic. Instead of assessing any given arrangement of forces and options for adequate responses, too often these interventions retreat to abstract and dogmatic proclamations. As Carwil Bjork-James noted about the slinging match over violence vs. nonviolence, we often forget to ask a central question: “What works?” The answer is always situationally contingent. But learning from specific situations remains crucial, if we are to avoid further farce and/or tragedy. It’s worth reexamining recent attempts to counter anti-trans toxicity with this in mind.
Nagle uses a common argument from leftist opponents of no-platforming: that engaging our opponents in civil debate is not only right but also effective. She claims that the left has become anemic by cowering in the shadows, trying to ban its enemies instead of debate them. Her focus on how we win is essential—we agree on the need to assess leftist interventions on the grounds of efficacy. But the conclusions she and her comrades draw are wrong. Far from being silenced, anti-trans feminists continue to roam free in spaces of sanctioned public discourse, often by invoking liberal norms of free speech. Their false claim to a position that is both anti-trans and leftist, and the concomitant “debates” they insist upon, have together drained our time, energy, and resources. The debates haven’t made us stronger but have instead weakened our ability to dismantle anti-trans bigotry where it’s most important—in our workplaces, families, and community spaces. Free-speech rhetoric has been used to legitimate dehumanizing calls for life-threatening violence—institutional and interpersonal—against trans women, men, and nonbinary people. None of this has brought any part of the left closer to winning—instead it has opened significant political space for a slew of toxic right-wing attacks at micro- and macropolitical levels.
A complete account of antagonism toward trans women within feminism is unnecessary here.1 Suffice to say that it wasn’t doctrine during the 1980s, when I was born to card-carrying second wavers, but a certain XX essentialism was common enough. By the 1990s, feminism had changed: My nuclear family played out a quotidian version of widespread intergenerational clashes, as I traded the easy-care haircuts and folk songs of my parents’ generation for bondage-lite aesthetics. Black and anti-colonial struggles, queer theory, and sex positivity had all mounted major challenges to the white feminist consensus, while dominant strains of liberal feminism seemed to be content stacking company boards and government bureaucracies with women and calling it empowerment. Meanwhile, organizing for trans liberation grew stronger, with some support from the feminist sisterhood.
Such language can be jarring—to some, “sisterhood” feels like an exaggerated rhetorical device, suited to megaphone harangues and comment sections, or a hangover from an outdated political lexicon. For many it is a sharp reminder of who and what has been centered in the deeply flawed history of feminist organizing: an in-group forged from exclusions, as critics as far back as Sojourner Truth have underscored. For our family, the concept of the sisterhood remained a touchstone, despite its serious defects and failings. When my birth mother fought through four years of ultimately terminal cancer, alongside the boundless support of our biological family, it was the care work from friends she’d made over 20 years of anti-patriarchal struggle that kept her afloat and alive. Her network painted murals in our backyard, traveled from other continents to take her to the beach, stocked our fridge, changed her sheets when they were drenched in painkiller sweat, talked her through dying with techniques derived from feminist co-counseling, and held me when I stumbled through the planning of her funeral. These wonderful women, these extra aunts and mothers who surround me still, took the enjoinder to make the personal political seriously, and left me with an understanding of the sisterhood that is very concrete indeed. And it was to the sisterhood I turned in the mid-2000s, when my surviving mother underwent the three years of bureaucratic and medical processes that took her from Robert to Raewyn.
She did not choose this path as a piece of political performance art, in order to dramatize the fluidity of gender or provoke debate online, though her transition has sometimes been treated that way. Indeed, the logics of choice and causation were inadequate: The descriptions and metaphors that cropped up instead were of waterfalls and avalanches, speaking to inevitability, heartache, and the great relief of coming home. My mother had academic tenure and owned our house—certainly a more generous cushion than the room of one’s own and 500 a year stipulated by Virginia Woolf. As a result, she was not subject to all of the risks that people face in gender transition. Important support came from the feminist sisterhood, but there were also crushing silences, and hostility in places where I had hoped for something different — not only because I expected feminists to grapple adroitly with gender complexity but because I had learned to expect solidarity. I had thought of our nuclear family as only one node in a larger communion of people struggling to extinguish the patriarchal order. But that kind of affinity, I discovered, became more tenuous the further away we got from a carefully vetted core.
So I learned to vet more carefully, even as I continued to hope that more cis feminists would get their shit together. I had some reason to be hopeful. By the middle of this decade, Laverne Cox and Janet Mock had become media icons, popularizing a complex feminism foregrounding racial and economic inequality, and inextricable from their trans-rights work. Transparent—before Jeffrey Tambor’s fall from grace—overflowed with trans-affirmative feminisms. Gloria Steinem saw the light, and the blight of the trans-exclusionary Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival disappeared for good. And most importantly, thanks to the unceasing work of trans organizers, public-policy shifts also began to happen: Gender-neutral bathrooms appeared in more institutions, the U.S. Department of Education released guidelines for protecting trans students, and the Department of Justice issued a memo extending anti-discrimination measures to trans employees. These incremental gains were far from an endgame, but they provided breathing room, and tools to be wielded by a movement we hoped was getting more powerful by the day. If there was a culture war, I thought, surely we were winning—both within feminism and without.
But a backlash was building, and not only from the far right. Anti-trans bile spewed by self-appointed feminist spokeswomen appeared regularly in progressive media outlets: the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Observer. These were frequently represented as explorations of legitimate controversy: When Michelle Goldberg wrote the characteristic “What Is a Woman?” she used the cover of journalistic musing (“I’m just asking!”) to clear space for anti-trans bigotry in the pages of a flagship liberal magazine. This wave has yet to recede. Only a month ago, my mother was caught in a Crossfire-style encounter on Australian national radio, where she had to sit across from an anti-trans feminist hurling terms like “genital mutilation” while the hosts (cis men, naturally) made jovial interjections like “this is fascinating.” They sounded as though they had invited a discussion on the merits of different brands of mustard, rather than social arrangements with life-and-death consequences.
Trans womanhood continues to be treated as a topic of playful debate for the chattering classes in places like Sydney, New York, and London. The stakes are high—Mike Pence is now a heartbeat away from the Oval Office, “bathroom bills” are cropping up across the U.S., and Trump appointees are busy rolling back any gains won under the Obama administration. We cannot lay primary responsibility for this state of affairs at the feet of anti-trans feminists—their influence is not so great. But the damage they do is real: Not only do they open space for liberals and leftists to opt out of trans solidarity, but they also provide rhetorical cover and ammunition for right-wing attacks.
The liberal impulse to grant anti-trans positions airtime as part of a “debate”—exacerbated by profit-seeking publishers operating in an economy of rage clicks and engineered controversy—is corrosive. Every time a prominent anti-trans feminist is taken seriously as an interlocutor in liberal or left spaces, arguing with them saps us of precious time and energy. That in turn weakens our ability to fight right-wing encroachments, putting people in serious danger: at work, at home, in jail, on the street, at swimming pools, at the doctor, and in public restrooms. This is to say nothing of the anti-trans feminists who explicitly work with groups like Focus on the Family to push for a poisonous policy agenda, continuing a long and ugly tradition of symbiosis with the religious Right.
Debate is not a useful mode of engagement with the people whose sense of self and/or clickbait-derived paycheck is dependent on their bigoted position. To reiterate: This is not a moral argument but a tactical one. We don’t need a detailed grasp of Gramsci, Foucault, or Overton to understand that profound political struggles play out on the terrain of what can or cannot be considered a reasonable topic of debate. Professional anti-trans feminists know this: For them, getting past the gatekeepers into sanctioned public discourse remains a goal. The new(ish) online vectors may have changed the game, but not to the point where Julie Bindel will turn down a Guardian column in favor of a Reddit AMA.
Blocking professional bigots when they try to use institutionally endorsed platforms is not equivalent to censorship, and need not involve calling on the state or administrative enforcers to do such work for us. Rejecting their presence in the few organizing spaces, publications, and other institutions where we have influence remains useful, in order to deprive them of the oxygen they might use to grow, the resources we might divert to their bank accounts, and the energy that we would spend on engaging with them. No fucking quarter.
But on its own, this is obviously far from enough. For feminists, ridding ourselves and the Cisterhood of trans-antagonistic baggage requires the kind of triage that liberation movements and their accomplices have always done: making calculations about who is simply an enemy and who we need to shift. On one hand, deep and legitimate rage about trans marginalization has sparked ferocious militancy, which finds more common ground with the Compton’s Cafeteria riot than with the Human Rights Campaign. On the other, a realpolitik has governed other modes of engagement—with the relatives at the holiday meal who support the gays but think all this trans stuff is going a bit far, with the girlfriend who’s never had occasion to think through the full implications of the U.S. healthcare rollback, with the union committee representatives who keep using the wrong pronouns. These interventions are not always designed to recruit cis people to the front lines, but attempt at least to neutralize cis bigotry.
The process of moving human obstacles often entails slow, frustrating, and exhausting work that happens largely offline, in recurring and cumulative conversations. It means grinding engagement with institutional reform, even when that work is deeply unsexy (long-term campaigning support for legislative reform, for instance). Sometimes it involves contradicting anti-trans bigots in public debates, when someone has been naive or incendiary enough to give them airtime (with the goal not of shifting the professional trolls but of inoculating their audience). I hope allocation of the more wearying parts of liberationist labor will change; as it stands, behind almost every cis person with a halfway decent position on trans politics is at least one very generous, very patient, and very tired trans or nonbinary educator. Taking on more of this work is not particularly fun—I don’t enjoy speaking with hostile or prurient people face to face, trying to painstakingly shift them away from implicit or explicit bigotry, searching for language that doesn’t rely on shorthand or shared assumptions. But my guess is that when I’ve done it, it was probably a more effective use of my time and energy than when I participated in outrage pile-ons on Twitter.
In the wake of 2016, calls for “left unity” have returned with a vengeance. Certainly it’s worth retiring the exhausting and exhausted opposition between caricatures: “identity politics” on one hand and a “class first, class only” left on the other. But are we doomed to repeat mistakes of lefts past, where specific liberation struggles were positioned as disposable in the search for mechanistic proletarian unity? Surely by now—after years of tireless work by Marxist feminists, among others—we are capable of class politics that is strengthened, not weakened, by confronting the various distinct modes of material marginalization in contemporary capitalism. Work for trans liberation, as Nat Raha recently pointed out, can and should go well beyond liberal ideas about social inclusion. Trans and nonbinary struggles for health justice are assets, not liabilities, to the broader fight for universal and equitable health care. The fight for safety for trans women, trans men, and nonbinary folks at work can build a militant labor movement, rather than weaken it. The campaign to free CeCe McDonald—a trans woman imprisoned after defending herself from a violent attack—showed us how work framed in terms of trans liberation can work with, rather than detract from, the broader movement for prison abolition.
As any organizer will remind us, building concrete coalitional politics across differentiated experience is messy. Budgets are limited, time is finite, and sometimes real, zero-sum trade-offs arise that cannot be resolved through elegantly worded manifestos. The basic principle, however, is straightforward: Our trans comrades deserve not only to survive but to live. The world is still full of professional anti-trans agitators who loudly proclaim otherwise. Without question, shrinking their audience requires work far beyond limiting their platforms. But we do not owe them our column inches, our speaking halls, or our patience. To cede these spaces, in the name of good-faith liberal debate, is to compound a massive strategic error, which no contemporary left can afford.
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