Non-monogamy is for commies

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After a short conversation at the bar last night, I started to reformulate, and shorten, something I’ve already said.

It seems that monogamist logic leads to ethical aporia. It goes something like:

“I want this (monogamy).”
Don’t you require another individual with whom to form a couple?
“Yes, I want this (monogamy) with a person (who can complete the wished for relationship).”
Shouldn’t you decide on the nature and form of the relationship together?
“If the person doesn’t want what I want, then they are not worth having a relationship with.”

So the relationship is for yourself, regardless of the needs and wants of the other?

“I want this (monogamy) with another person in so far as their needs and wants match my own (and their wants and needs should match my own since I want this [monogamy]).”

The person has value and worth when their views match yours only (or are forced to match yours)?

“No, but… I want…”

Non-monogamist logic is aware of this idea of One perspective (on a world that should otherwise be understood and experienced as containing multiple and oftentimes conflicting perspectives). This logic can be understood as:

“I don’t know what you want (and you don’t know what I want), and neither of us knows what we want from each other), so the structure of the romance should parallel these changing modes of desires and needs.”

There is something more ethical in this logic; it recognizes and attempts to negotiate the ambiguity of existence.

I would claim that monogamy is logically impossible if we hold the latter as an ethical principle. A claim to a static form of wants and needs makes an effort to predict, and perhaps negate (although not always – how dramatic and exciting are the affairs!), future encounters. The shape of an encounter, logically, cannot be stated in advance; or, if it can, it cannot logically (fully) consider the other participant in the encounter because they have not yet been encountered and therefore, the formulations about ourselves and the other person are unnecessary and incorrect abstractions.

In different words, even if two participants agree upon monogamy in perfect harmony, this is something of a false consciousness: you can’t agree on a future encounter, i.e., the same monogamist logic will play itself out when new intellectual, emotional, romantic, and sexual encounters take place. This is why serial monogamy is the dominant practice today. What is implied, therefore, is the flux of desires and needs. Non-monogamist logic thus works alongside this ambiguity as a principle based on ethically encountering other individuals, not the solipsist logic of personal happiness at any cost. (Is it surprising that monogamy and the capitalist ethos follow a similar logic? Both suggest that what matters first and foremost is the individual prior to encounter with the other: e.g., I want monogamy and will do whatever I can to achieve it; I will be successful in the marketplace and will do whatever I can to achieve it.)

Non-monogamy is communist love, and I think this is something Alain Badiou wanted to say in In Praise of Love, but he lacked the courage to name it. I agree with the monogamists’ uncritical dismissal of non-monogamy then: it is a good theory and difficult to implement in practice. (Monogamy, on the other hand, is an unethical theory and the repercussions have been extremely violent.) Being a good person is hard work. We should try to oust ourselves, and our partners, from the false consciousness of monogamy. It is not enough to say that we can be ethical within a poorly structured arrangement. As Duane Rousselle frequently writes, although with reference to capitalism and via Badiou, we need a radical change and should not be satisfied with incremental change. Non-monogamy is for communists; if we agree with leftist principles, why do we our radical politics stop before love?

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Badiou contra Contemporary Romance

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There is nothing controversial about the chain, Promiscuity > Dating > Monogamy > Serial Monogamy (or serial coupling).[1] In our committed relationships, however, we stress the differences between our monthly or yearly partners and those that receive only a few hours or days of our life. But both poles function in similar ways, what Badiou calls the One: a refusal to find Truth in difference, to commit to love, and to accede to love’s potential failures.

Now Badiou does not address the structural – or cultural – forms of contemporary romance. His is a philosophy without concrete examples (except for literature). In fact, if we take him at his word, employing the concept of ‘the scene of Two,’ then we may not see Badiou’s distance from the exemplary monogamist in Søren Kierkegaard’s Stages on Life’s Way. But where Kierkegaard’s married man and woman fold their lives into a One, an amorous fusion of lives – something Badiou wants us to eradicate -, Badiou claims love is an encounter between (or amongst as I’ll suggest) an immanent Two.

Let’s consider two ways of having love. Beauvoir describes inauthentic love as fusion: partners identifying with each other, or as each other. There is both a mysticism and a masochism at work here. On the one hand, an amorous ecstasy where Two become One in flesh and spirit. On the other, to annihilate oneself is also a masochistic desire in the sense of blending with the loved one at the expense of selfhood. Beauvoir sees this in the ‘woman in love,’ a woman so fueled by ecstatic union that she reduces herself to the man’s values and truths alone. There is nothing reciprocal between partners when Beauvoir writes:

The woman in love tries to see with his eyes; she reads the books he reads, prefers the pictures and the music he prefers; she is interested only in the landscapes she sees with him, in the ideas that come from him; she adopts his friendships, his enmities, his opinions; when she questions herself, it is his reply she tries to hear; she wants to have in her lungs the air he has already breathed; the fruits and flowers that do not come from his hands have no taste and no fragrance…. ‘I am Heathcliffe,’ says Catherine in Wuthering Heights; that is the cry of every woman in love; she is another incarnation of her loved one, his reflection, his double: she is he. (The Second Sex)

Although this union is described from the situation of the woman in love, its resonances cut across genders.

So there is the Two as One. There is also the One as seen or included as part of the Three. Kierkegaard’s married couple shed their individualities for the divine; Two become One under the banner of God. This is the ethical stage for Kierkegaard (and similarly applicable today with marriage substituted for ‘serious relationship’): in marriage, religiosity is the guarantor of two bodies uniting, a union of two which can then posit and hold one perspective on being-in-the-world. ‘[T]ogether they stand more firm than either of them alone.’ For Kierkegaard and his ethical marriage, woman is still subsumed under the divine guidance of man, but today we might suggest that the financial situation or child-rearing situation solicits of fusion of Two into One regardless of gender/sex.

The marriage certificate operates as One seen by Three as does the Facebook archive: husband and wife, in a relationship with, are both pronouncements by a mediator. In these ways of performing love, one body is amorously linked with a second, mediated by a third, and quickly returned to One, i.e., one perspective on the world. Where does promiscuity fit into this and what is its relationship to serial monogamy? Promiscuity is the One extended across a number of sexual encounters. Non-amorous sex posits and re-posits one ego contra the valuation and recognition of the other(s). In serial monogamy, similarly, one ego initially fused with another, breaks its bond to find itself a newer/better romantic relationship which best suits its narcissism (cf. Beauvoir on narcissism).

Badiou speaks to the lack of duration in love these days; we have lost the sense of surviving ‘catastrophic existence’ in our partnerships (In Praise of Love). Commitment to love is absent. He speaks at length about the absence of risk – love is always an adventure and a risk: a declaration of love may fail. Yet with Promiscuity > Serial Monogamy, both collapse love into a casual indulgence; for relationships in this chain, duration is not a matter of time, but the degree of fusion. With the former it is easy to pull oneself from the sexual encounter because fusion has not yet occurred; when turning from one monogamous relationship to the next, two individuals fused into one perspective cannot so easily wrest themselves apart. This is why, Beauvoir writes of the woman in love, ‘the absence of her lover is always torture’ (The Second Sex). A break-up is therefore extremely dangerous: half of the world goes missing, thus a substitute is immediately found. It is this kind of epistemological framework which has generated various neuroses today, such as the woman who cannot prepare a meal without her/a partner, and caused Hannah Black to frighteningly share herself with readers, ‘Pared back to the mode of survival, I realised I had become a couple better than I thought: I had become a couple so successfully that I had forgotten how to be a person.’This man had a similar experience after his divorce.

When the fusion of One is broken, the substitute partner in serial monogamy fills in the hole left by the absent partner. Thus, similar to promiscuity, no risk or commitment to love is present because the next partnership merely stands in for what has been lost – the process of fostering love, and its adventures, is foreclosed. This gap in existence is due, in part, to the myth of ‘true love,’ i.e., a ‘true’ feeling/attachment/whatever we believe ourselves capable of expressing prior to the process in which we may begin to express it. Put differently, the process is already standardized before another person is met. Indeed, this neglect of founding love together operates according to a fascist logic: love is ‘like this’ regardless of the other person’s desires, etc. This myth, which we all hold to varying degrees, pre-exists an individual with whom we may love (‘The Scene of Two’; IPL). Yet Badiou has said, ‘Just after the encounter you are seduced and you can not [sic] repeat the encounter. The initial encounter is lost. If you repeat the encounter, it is very artificial. Generally speaking, alas, it is impossible to repeat the encounter. If you do not do what was necessary from the encounter then you can not [sic] repeat the scene’ (The Subject of Change). Ultimately, serial monogamy shares promiscuity’s difficulties in founding an enduring love.

My contentious claim is that for Badiou’s philosophy of love promiscuity and serial monogamy are the same. Promiscuity is defined not merely as casual sex, but also as a lack of discrimination – this is what I’ve called the serial monogamist who fills in the gap left over by his/her departed lover with the first person to come along. I wrote about this at length in a review of Disney Frozen (2013). Thus an individual does not need to be promiscuous (in the participatory sense of casual sex) prior to dating, monogamy, and serial monogamy. The logic of promiscuity, as a lack of commitment, functions akin at the end of the chain. One partner is displaced and replaced. This is why our contemporary romances are of the off-and-on again variety; essentially one can be promiscuous in the sense of breaking up and getting back together indefinitely. We might go as far and say that promiscuity and serial monogamy are closely linked forms because two sexed bodies engage in non-amorous masturbation (‘What is Love?’). The failure of the chain, as I’ve outlined, is a failure to establish the scene of Two.

Two find love in a chance encounter; a declaration of love is performed to found a commitment, a fidelity to draw that encounter away from its randomness (IPL). Love does not pre-exist its process, Badiou argues (WL); it establishes the Truth of difference, the truth of Two unique subjectivities coming together to add another perspective to their being-in-the-world. For this reason, Badiou argues, love is a humanism and an ethics: ‘all love that accepts the challenge, commits to enduring, and embraces this experience of the world from the perspective of difference produces in its way a new truth about difference’ (IPL). The key term here is endure, and I saw exemplary instances of love enduring in the cinema of Tsai Ming-liang and in Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012). [2]

Many love stories in contemporary film try to replicate the promiscuity of serial monogamy: a tragic event (cheating or whatever), followed by a tragic break, then a new but less fulfilling love affair, and finally ending with the ‘healthy’ reunion of the initial pair. But if we take the tragic event not as a destruction of the One, but as a claim to the Truth of difference between the two persons involved, with this partnership founded by a commitment to stay with an in love through catastrophic existence, love will endure and perhaps be stronger for gaining an additional experience to integrate into the Two scene.

On the Truth of difference, consider the raw materials of heterosexual romance, i.e., two sexed bodies marked by their differences. The coming together of two sexed bodies necessarily posits difference (ST). The Two cannot be One at the most basic level. We can expand this example of difference to ontology, epistemology, and politics. The universal, for Badiou, is the Truth of this difference whereby we experience the world from two perspectives and not that of One (or, the paradox of this sort of philosophy, the universal Truth is that there are many truths): ‘The truth of the situation insofar as there exists two disjunct positions’ (WL). Love grants us such access through its intimacy, contagion, contact, affects, and longevity.

Given Badiou’s arguments and remarks, it seems that Two is numerically two simply for theoretical discussion. To escape the chain of Promiscuity > Serial Monogamy, and push Badiou’s thought to its social, cultural, ethical, and political goal, love should look more like: Love of One Individual > Love of Two Individuals > Love of Three Individuals > n ‘One, Two, infinity’ (WL). This new chain does not foreclose the possibility of a one-partnered romantic relationship (although I suspect partners would not want monogamy if they adopted this philosophy of love); what is often foreclosed in contemporary monogamy is an openness to love as such.

Contemporary romance proceeds according to a serialization and substitution of loved individuals, thereby foreclosing love as Truth (and ethics). Indeed, Badiou has said that he still loves all those he had romances with (IPL). My argument is therefore not in opposition to monogamy but its recent incarnation that more closely resembles our practices of casual sex. For Badiou, against subjective and historical time and in favor of destiny (IPL), what matters is the commitment to love and Truth. This conclusion resonates with Deleuze’s philosophy of love in Anti-Oedipus much more than Badiou would perhaps be willing to grant (cf. The Clamor of Being), but I nevertheless believe it is the inevitable result of the philosopher’s hypotheses. In this new chain, what pre-exists the process of love is a commitment made to the Two scene and to ethics, then extended by lovers to a more firmly entrenched fidelity, and finally, to include Three, Four, and so on. What pre-exists love is not the will to true love or whatever, the anonymous person who fills the confabulated hole in existence. Love is a commitment to the Truth of difference, of disjunction and separation, of a multiplicity of vantage points.

[1] I’ll use the following definitions: ‘Monogamy was defined as reporting one sex partner over the course of the previous 12 months. Serial monogamy was defined as more than one sex partner over the past 12 months but with no overlap of first/ last sex dates of any other partners’ (Nield, Ph.D. dissertation, 2013). Although, what are called concurrent sexual relationships may also apply. The issue may be whether I’ve simply invented serial monogamy as the standard practice. Research suggests otherwise. It is the ‘normative pattern for sexual relationships among young people in Canada (Fisher & Boroditsky, 2000; Maticka-Tyndale, 1997)’ (Peterman, 2008).

[2] While clearly indebted to Badiou here, these arguments and claims had their initial developments after viewing three unrelated films: Derek Cianfrance’s Blue Valentine (2010), Disney’s Frozen (2014), and Joe Swanberg’s Kissing on the Mouth (2005).

An Ethics of Atonement

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A few years ago I presented a paper entitled “An Ethics of Revenge” (perhaps I’ll publish parts of it on the blog someday soon). In this paper I looked closely at Simone de Beauvoir’s essay “An Eye for an Eye,” published shortly after the Second World War. Beauvoir observed that victims of WWII atrocities felt little satisfaction from the judicial process of convicting war criminals. The punishment was so far removed from the crime, and at such a distance from those directly affected, that Beauvoir sought to develop an ethics that would fully do justice to/for the victims. Such a theoretical system would involve a more direct involvement on the part of the harmed, if not directly participating in, the sentencing and punishment.

At its limits this is an anarchic system whereby individuals are responsible for their own retribution. No fool however, Beauvoir leads us to aporia, stating that this would likely result in an indefinite cycle of violence. Yet, this violence would be the risk of persons involved, and most do not have the courage or fortitude to enact or endure harms anyway, says Beauvoir. I contend that if the parties involved mutually recognize the crimes and pains, and grant the victim his or her own means of punishment, the cycle would close itself after the first crime is reconciled. For the rape victim who punishes her rapist, the possibility of revenge from friends or family seems to close itself due to the historically, physically, and mentally harmful act of rape. In other words, would we really want to take our revenge on a victim who took her revenge on her rapist? While more pacifist or judicially-minded individuals would like to continue the cycle of violence, punishing the rape victim for her own crime without taking into account what brought it about, I am inclined to see the dormant possibilities in retributive violence (a controversial statement to be sure, a statement which needs further development and clarification).

Beauvoir’s point: this firsthand distribution of justice would satisfy one’s thirst for vengeance, although, she notes, no punishment will resurrect the dead, and so full satisfaction seems impossible. With this ethics of revenge nevertheless, the victim at least feels they have done everything in their power to make right, on their own terms, and in their own way.

One of the many difficulties inherent in an ethics of revenge would be the timeframe in which a vengeful act would be allowed or prohibited. Many films play with this idea of time and history, as the most interesting in the revenge genre depict characters who were harmed years or decades prior, and then develop a complicated plan to take their vengeance. These extreme cases aside, prior to an ethics of revenge, given the time between crime and its punishment – in judicial or personal forms – an ethics of atonement warrants some consideration. A chance for atonement precedes vengeance.

From the Middle English at-onen, to become reconciled (“at one” with someone), atonement is a bringing into accord or harmony relations between individuals. Harmony can be restored in two ways. The first is via what I have called revenge. A victim asks, or forces, their victimizer to make amends. But in this version of atonement we see a definite lack of authenticity that would perhaps grant the victim their satisfaction. The victimizer maintains his sovereignty because his hand was forced, so to speak, to make right. This individual did not see the harms caused, did not recognize the person(s) as harmed, and did not use his own will power to atone.

The second, and perhaps more personally satisfying for the victim, is an atonement that appears spontaneously, from the mind and will and body of the victimizer. In this fashion the victimizer destroys part of his sovereignty, sacrificing himself for the crimes committed (and we should see the Biblical Atonement here). The victimizer need not unwillingly put himself into the hands of his victim but does so for their satisfaction in order to become reconciled.

I would suggest that the first is the more often employed – as Georges Bataille has shown us with countless examples, to lose a part of our ego, even for a moment, leads to great anguish. It is frequently the case, and the easier one to be sure, to simply and unwillingly do lip service to our victim, thereby retaining our personally justified harmful actions.

The authentic sense of atonement, on the other hand, dispenses with our own sense of whether we were justified in harming another. In this account the harms done are on the side of the victim, regardless of victimizer’s intention or victim’s possible misreading of an intention. A spontaneous atonement (hopefully) reconciles. But the bigger question might be how to interpret whether a harm has been done. I believe the “I didn’t know” excuse to be conniving rather than genuine however. The emotional affect on the victim’s face, in gestures, in postures, in language, can be pre-cognitively interpreted many have argued (“Just as we may extend the circle of touched and touching hands (in shaking or holding hands with another), so our body can ‘annex’ or ‘incorporate’ the emotional body of another” [Sue Cataldi, Emotion, Depth, and Flesh]) – whether we choose to answer the other’s call is the important issue for an ethics of atonement.

An ethics of revenge is practiced more than an ethics of atonement. The latter is the more difficult, so we resort to the former; or, the former would be unfortunately descriptive while the latter prescriptive. I claimed our sovereignty is at stake in atonement in a way it is not in waiting for revenge to happen to us – this could also be called fear. Sara Ahmed writes, “fear responds to what is approaching rather than already here. It is the futurity of fear which makes it possible that the object of fear, rather than arriving, might pass us by” (The Cultural Politics of Emotion). Thus an act of revenge may happen to/against us in the future, but it also might pass us by. We do not answer to the harms we’ve done immediately because there is no fear in the present; we will not answer the call of our victims, out of our own volition, because it would deny our sovereignty, and because we impatiently await them to confront us about it instead (a further injury certainly). Fear has already prepared us to fight their claims of wrong-doing or to flee the scene before such a confrontation occurs.

We have never been ethical: Reflections on Freud, Bataille, and the New Monogamy

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The commandment, “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” is the strongest defense against human aggressiveness and an excellent example of the unpsychological proceedings of the cultural super-ego. The commandment is impossible to fulfil. … What a potent obstacle to civilization aggressiveness must be, if the defense against it [the unshakable super-ego] can cause as much unhappiness as aggressiveness itself! … [S]o long as virtue is not rewarded here on earth, ethics will, I fancy, preach in vain. I too think it quite certain that a real change in the relations of human beings to possessions would be of more help in this direction than any ethical commands; but the recognition of this fact among socialists has been obscured and made useless for practical purposes by a fresh idealistic conception of human nature [namely, that the abolition of private property will eliminate difference that causes aggressiveness].

– Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents, quoted in Stanley Cavell, “The World as Things”

 

I keep returning to Bataille’s work, less for its description or account of ontology, but for its status as a work of ethics. In a way Bataille engages in a dialogue with Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents. Bataille’s ethics is not prescriptive and it barely qualifies as descriptive – he mostly describes situations in which he does not know firsthand, e.g., Aztec sacrifices, potlatches, asceticism (not including eroticism, which he knew much about in practice). The (human) problem he is unraveling is the near impossibility of being ethical because, for him, to be ethical is to be a “madman [sic].” To be ethical is to sacrifice some part of a self, otherwise whole and impenetrable, for an other.

An impossibility because we are all a little bit conservative, solipsistic, neurotic (as a blockage to getting outside habits, safety, yourself – an anxiety about taking action in the world). Bataille, alongside Sade, asserts that there is no transgression of law or norm without recognition of that law or norm. One claims the existence of God to then destroy the claim, for instance. Ethics and transgression go hand in hand if we rigorously, and positively, consider Bataille’s philosophy. For Sade transgression was the surpassing of law for individual pleasure. What Bataille and Beauvoir discover, in her essay on the Marquis, is that within Sade’s own writing there is a definite lack of pleasure in sovereign transgression – pleasure is always better when shared.

Bataille has a strong sense of community, or what I prefer to call it, interpersonal relations. The ethical moment, however brief, is between individuals, one opposed or against an other (the scary kind of other), and then the coming together of these two (or more) individuals to create something new. If law or norm is to retain or secure an individual’s status as whole, sovereign, independent, the law is the above: conservative, solipsistic, neurotic (and all three are linked I would argue). Dissolving my self, in belief or body, for the other is radical (abnormal), interpersonal (transgressive), intimate (ethical).

The degree to which we let ourselves divest from tradition, solipsism, neuroses is the ethical moment; before this moment, in order to transgress what is normal and habitual, our recourse to traditional ontological, social, and cultural modes must be firmly situated and assessed (and we should see Bataille’s affinity with Nietzsche’s thought here).

More concretely: Staking a future in a slightly left of center political party is in fact conservative, for it plays within the confines of the dominant political and economic system; a lucrative career, even in the arts, suggests the same. The dreaded statement, subtly a criticism of abnormal romantic and sexual situations, “That’s fine for them by I could never do that,” is fundamentally solipsistic and neurotic because it entrenches the individual in his/her beliefs over and against individuals who stand outside them, forces them not to act or change the conservative position.

But rather than berate such acts and statements as the above, Bataille suggests instead that ethical behaviour is a matter of degree. Depending on the individual, reading detective novels for the thrill of Thanatos is the same as a transgressive sexual encounter. The degrees to which we can stray from traditional behaviour and ideas, always briefly – we must return from the summit to work, regain our strength, etc., says Bataille (a ring of the inauthentic/authentic of Heidegger similarly applies) –, we can call ethics. A traditional and normative tendency acts as the ground for the ethical encounter. In a sense, then, we have never been ethical – the moment has passed and must be attempted anew each time.

 

I have been asked why I retained the coinage ‘non-monogamy’ to describe alternative practices to monogamy; these practices should stand on their own or something to that effect, the criticism suggests. But as I outlined in a previous entry, that opposition is not shrinking nor is the dismissiveness of alternative practices by popular media aiding the cause (Rolling Stone‘s “Millenials and Sex”). Despite the historical truth of romantic and sexual relationships, that we have never been monogamous[1] (and if we would like to think we have been then a new definition of love would then be necessary), I want to hold on to that radical and oppositional coinage precisely because of its inherency to confront. On the other hand I suggested that non-monogamy, as a term, signifies a range of differing practices which allow for a strong sense of the term polyamory (many or multiple loves), which is of course the more challenging task.

I’m growing more comfortable with the phrase the New Monogamy to describe contemporary romance in general. We like our long-term single partner relationships but we are more inclined to negotiate the terms of that relationship/contract rather than adhere to some common sense definition. New Monogamy: not better, not all that strange, just a little different. This would imply that we have much work left to do, i.e., in our attempts, valiant and lackluster, to not entirely adopt the normalcy of a two-partner relationship and the contemporary gender, social, and cultural ethos that comes along with it. (This ethos, I’d argue, is a concern for political equality – the fight to allow individuals to appear as individuals in public – while neglecting ethical equality – forgetting goodness and love as personal expressions for one or more persons at a time. We protest Avril Lavigne’s racism but don’t seem to care about our neighbours or that our partners treat us terribly [or vice versa]).

Non-monogamy, given what I’ve quickly noted about Bataille’s philosophy, retains the normalcy that we unfortunately live in and with while simultaneously overcoming it. In this way our traditional tendencies are acknowledged; acknowledgment would be the first step towards ethical behaviour.[2] Where we go from there is up to the individuals involved.

 

[1] Monogamy would be something like Aristotle’s good life. Monogamy is achieved when both individuals reach their deaths, but even then, since chance plays a large part in the concept of the good life, both partners would have to be entirely secure and confident in their encounters with others, which would more or less suggest that no other person takes a sexual or romantic interest in either partner. The good life, like monogamy, is painfully distant and perhaps impossible.

[2] I prefer to discuss and model a theory of ethics on observable behaviour or action rather than ideas or Western complacency (relativism or ‘meaning-well’). Action implies an engagement with others, a necessary component of ethical theory.

Anti-Choice Imagery

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This is a response to a display of anti-choice materials at Trent University’s Otonabee College some months ago (as well as the long ago debate about the denial of club status to an anti-choice group, Trent Lifeline). It’s conclusions, I think, can be mobilized to address similar situations in other institutions.

I returned to Frances Ferguson’s Pornography, The Theory (2004) and found the book’s central argument compelling. It does not oppose itself to ideology – we’re stuck in some version of libertarianism for now – but takes up its terms, uses the language of the Master so to speak, to discuss literary pornography in the bulk of its chapters, but first works out a theory of pornography that can be applied to images. Her work is without a political pole, or better, is not oppositional to a particular pole (unless one was to naively think that any insistence upon women’s equality is a radical and leftist feminism).

Ferguson’s project is to analyze pornography from the majoritarian politico-ethical foundation: Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarianism. Bentham, through Ferguson, held fast to a framework of equality. His Panoptic model, when applied to social structures such as the workplace and school, was an effort to ensure that any individual, regardless of class, race, and/or gender, could be equally evaluated according to his or her abilities and performance in a common activity, and individuals want to participate in this ranking because it is life-enriching – in part because it is inclusion in a group. In different words, an individual is ensured his or her right to visibility since this model compared and ranked individuals according to their observable behaviour. For example, a young girl in a school structured on this evaluative model could be observed as being equal to or better than the boys in terms of her performance – there is no question, then, as to her abilities, and at least in the classroom, equality is attained. In Bentham’s model individual identity and individual beliefs are effectively replaced by the fostering of observable participation in an artificial environment, thus resulting in a heightened inclusion into a group which one does not already belong (the school is a social construction; gender identity is suppressed for evaluative and ranking purposes; a girl then becomes a member of the group of students who are ranked according to their individual abilities). Bentham’s model should sound, and look, quite familiar, both theoretically and when we consider the ways contemporary institutions operate. From here we move on to pornographic images.

Ferguson argues that Catharine A. MacKinnon’s only tenable claim against pornography is from the standpoint of sexual harassment. An image should be restricted not because of its content, but because of its use by one individual (or group) to deny an individual’s (or group’s) access to evaluative and life-affirming social structures (for ease of discussion, Ferguson names the workplace and school). Ferguson is worth quoting at length here:

Like a variation on irony, with its rehearsal of the same words with a different meaning from that which they have previously carried, the harassing image is harassing not so much because of its content, what it says, but rather because it uses an image as conspicuous expression of the difference between the parties who view it. A pornographic image need not be offensive in itself, need not even be sexually explicit, to be used in harassment. It need only be used as an ostensive definition of an individual’s difference from the other members of a group.

Pornography may be used for masturbatory purposes, may serve as fodder for the beliefs of sexist men and in some instances serve as material which promotes or instigates violence and rape, and it may require coerced performances from its actresses (MacKinnon’s arguments against pornography), but each claim is untenable given the complex and unsound premises necessary for their justification. Therefore pornography, given these impossible to complete arguments, does not warrant censorship – it is difficult to believe, either generally or rhetorically, that these claims are true without exception.

Ferguson is more interested in how pornography is used in a particular context and truly becomes actionable. Consider, within the context of a social structure, one individual forcing another individual to view pornographic images in an effort to assert difference (in the simplest case, a male employee showing a female employee an image which, in words or in gesture, suggests the woman is or should act “like this”), thereby bringing individual identity (gender) into a social structure which had previously guaranteed equal access to it (by objectively ranking and evaluating individuals who participated according to their legal right). When an image is used in this way, in Ferguson’s adopted terms set out by majoritarian politics, it is harassment and should be restricted in its use. That is, the image itself does not demand or command censorship, only its use by a particular individual or group to assert difference – we may want to call such a use, in MacKinnon’s language, subordination.

Given the recent controversy over the campaigning and distribution of anti-choice materials in schools and other public-access institutions (information and materials intended to persuade women, and men, to bring fetuses to term rather than abort – effectively an attempt to question the legitimacy of women’s and men’s past, present, and future decision-making regarding their personal reproductive rights, and further, limit the extent to which women can exert their free will and free choice over matters concerning their bodies), Ferguson’s analysis finds a useful application.

The materials and groups that have promoted and continue to promote “Glad you were born” masquerade as anti-choice activism. The materials with the text and imagery on the theme of “Glad you were born” will, for the person acquainted with anti-choice activism, be synonymous with texts and imagery on sexual freedom, fetuses, and reproductive rights. These materials serve, in Ferguson’s argument, to reflect a difference between the individuals who compose the anti-choice group and the respective targets of their activism (mostly women, but certainly if a man is persuaded by anti-choice materials he too can question, if not be an authority, on a woman’s free choice to bring a fetus to term – certainly anti-choice activists would not target any institution on directly economic issues, individual’s and couple’s financial status of course being the neglected factor in anti-choice campaigns).

My contentious claim: Anti-choice materials are pornographic under a utilitarian politico-ethical structure when they are brought into an institution where differences of belief have been suspended for the purposes of evaluating and ranking individuals in an effort to establish equality through individuals’ respective abilities. By allowing the anti-choice activists access to a school space in which they can uncover and identify (interpellate?) individuals who disagree with the anti-choice position, individuals who have had an abortion, or individuals who want to leave the question of abortion open, Otonabee College has allowed one group to display and assert differences between individuals based on their beliefs and/or their prior exertion of their free will and free choice (to bring a fetus to term or not) and, in no small way, via the images and texts on display, visibly or invisibly harass them about their respective political views and/or prior behaviours.

I am claiming an equivalence between “Glad you were born” materials with anti-choice materials. When either type of material is forced upon an individual within the institution of the school, it attains the status of a harassing image, for certain rights to evaluation without presupposing one’s identity, gender, beliefs, etc., had been guaranteed. If an individual is barred access to the institution by other individuals confronting him or her with such an image, in the utilitarian view, it requires restriction. Consider the person whom is incapable of attending class lest their prior decision to abort be questioned by the anti-choice activists campaigning out front their classroom. In this instance, the school has therefore violated the rights that they had previously established, unanimously and univocally (all individuals have access to the school, access to an evaluative and ranking system whereby their religion, beliefs, gender, etc., do not reflect the evaluation and ranking they are able to receive based on their individual capacities).

Text and imagery are actionable, are part of speech. It is not up to the individual to secure his or her own rights and freedoms at an institution; that institution had promised an access free of prejudice and Otonabee has violated this access to a building free from an assertion of difference through the allowance, and worse, the promotion of harassing text and images.

I have hopefully hinted at how a politically right-wing problem (anti-choice activism) necessitates its own restriction based on right-wing terms (the institutional agreement to a utilitarian foundation).[1] I have also shown the complications involved when individuals resort to the position of free speech to remain politically neutral or indifferent to the harassing image (until it harasses them). Together, these three issues – anti-choice activism, Benthamite utilitarianism, and free speech – reveal inherent contradictions when they are simultaneously produced, promoted, and accepted without critical thinking. Indeed, the latter political issue (free speech) is frequently restricted at universities for the very reasons presented above. Why the anti-choice campaign was allowed, despite the utilitarian principles Trent University operates upon, needs to be addressed by the administration.

 

 

[1] Of course we may not agree that all politically right-wing foundations are anti-choice. I generalize here.

New Lacanian Symptoms in Contemporary Radical Philosophy (Part One)

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The New Hysterical Question

Lacanian psychoanalysts necessarily express an interest in at least one of three clinical structures: neuroses, perversions, or psychoses. Typically, analysands come to analysis with a problem which relates to one of the two key neuroses – either hysterical or obsessional. Within this rubric, hysterically neurotic analysands are far more likely to seek out an analyst than obsessional neurotics. This is due primarily to the fact that hysterical analysands have as a part of their symptom a demand for knowledge about themselves. This is a demand made toward the symbolic Other incarnated as the analyst. The strangeness of the hysterical symptom occurs as a consequence of the analysand’s paradoxical refusal of the analyst’s offerings: the analysand demands knowledge from the analyst while simultaneously rejecting all of the knowledge that the analyst might offer. It is for this reason that hysterical analysts are typically motivated toward profound discoveries…

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