Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion
Judith Butler, The Future of Sexual Difference
I am trying to understand – I have been trying to understand – how, having steeped ourselves in a similar tradition, we could come to such different conclusions.
It is claimed that certain women should not say certain things. That a woman who finds healing from male violence in the company of other women should be silent about the power of that healing. That she should not try to protect that space (or even raise questions about protecting that space). That she is wrong to be concerned that it will no longer be there for the women who come after her. Because that healing comes at the expense of others. Because that healing, therefore, is violence.
I understand something of the logic. I have spent my life thinking the resistance to sovereign violence, unpicking the way the impossible conceit of safety is used to appropriate and exclude. We see it everywhere. Indeed, it is everywhere. But when I first read the demand of unconditional hospitality, and felt the ethical power of openness resonate, I also thought, a moment later, and what of a woman’s need to say no?
Unconditional hospitality is impossible. We know this. Without a home, without some degree of safety, there is no place from which to be hospitable. And more than that, people – women – in the grip of a profound trauma created and perpetuated by a system of power invested in the annihilation of their needs, are the very last people from whom it is appropriate to demand unconditional openness. They are the very last people who are capable – or should be capable – of answering this demand.
The system of power attributed to women is not theirs. Women are not guilty of exercising an excess of sovereign power. Sovereignty, in its fundamental denial of dependency and relation, in its incessant imperial expansion, is a structure of the patriarchal-colonial imaginary. Women suffer not from its excess, but from its deficiency. We are raised to say yes to the needs of more important others, are we not? And our political practice has been, and remains to be, about lending each other an affirmation, the affirmation of the necessity, and justice, of our need to say no.
You are arguing for the pre-eminent violence of women’s no. You do understand that. That in a society in which the emotional and physical and sexual and reproductive labour of women is appropriated day in day out, with more or less explicit violence, the violence you are most compelled to resist is that of a woman saying no. The people whose needs you prioritize are those who show not a single shred of empathy for why, in this world, a woman might need to say no. And what saddens you most, when a woman recounts how female space helped her recover from violence, is the abuse of the language of feminism to support this no.
But what is feminism without this no? What is a feminism that is concerned, above all, with the sovereign violence of women’s no, and with exerting pressure on women to surrender their no? What is a feminism which functions, therefore, by denying the reality of women’s lives in order to attribute to them a sovereignty which they do not possess? There is no way to read women’s no as an exercise in sovereign violence – analogous, as is so often claimed, to the exclusions performed by whiteness – without denying that the entire system of power bearing down on women is predicated on granting them no sovereignty at all. It makes sense only as a denial of the oppression of women as women, or as the denial of the existence of women at all. It makes sense, therefore, only as a form of anti-feminism.
This is what we are fighting about. We are fighting about who is the sovereign, and who is the appropriated. (And here we should note, if oppression is motivated by appropriation, then not all forms of exclusion are evidence of oppression). We are fighting against the (ab)use of the critique of metaphysics to erase the political category of woman (while being told, with slings and outrage, that to object to that erasure is an act of hatred, on par with, and indeed, responsible for, the patriarchal violence of men). We are fighting against the deployment of the discourse of intersectionality to deny that the oppression of women as women affects all women, and that all women exist under conditions of appropriation which render their no a resistance to, rather than a performance of, sovereign violence. We are arguing about whether the fact that other oppressions intersect with, amplify and modify certain women’s oppression, should be widely used in practice (often, we note, by left-wing men) to suggest that actually, women (if they exist) are not really that oppressed as women at all (convenient that).
We are fighting against a feminist discourse which positions women as the oppressor, and repeats the foundational patriarchal gesture of denying us the affirmation of our needs, and an explanation of why we are wounded by this world. Feminism – the practice of love and understanding, passed between women – has saved many of us from lives blighted by the violence drilled into our bodies and souls by the needs of men. And so, above all, we are fighting to ensure that this healing is not denied to the women that come after us. That when their youthful confidence in (neo)liberal empowerfulment and the shock of the new – their absurdly Platonic belief in the possibility of neatly dismantling an age-old structure of material appropriation with pronouns – runs headlong into the implacable violence of domination, we, the dried-up hate-spewing bigots they have been schooled to despise, will still be there for them. And for them, we will not give up.