Access copy of “Complexity & Complicity” for the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics

“Responding Ethically to Complicity and Complexity”

Association for Practical and Professional Ethics – February 20, 2020

Slides for this talk are available here

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”
― Frederick Douglass (died February 20, 1895)

As I write this, the Canadian state has deployed military force against Indigenous people for practicing relationship with the land they care for, and police have moved against locked-out union members who voted to strike to defend their pensions. Of course, I could be writing those words about Canada at many different points in history, since Canada has done precisely these things many times in the past. One gets the sense, following journalist Jon Milton’s tweet,

Right now, the RCMP are simultaneously:

➡️Launching a militarized invasion of Wet’suwet’en territory to clear land for a pipeline

➡️ Repressing Coop oil workers who are fighting to keep their pensions

The entire Canadian state is just three oil company CEOs in a trenchcoat.

Canada’s relationship with oil is not complex, except in the sense that it is multiply connected and overdetermined; as a state, Canada relies on extractive industries and the colonial land-theft that sustains them. Canada seems to be committed to doing anything and violating anything in order to continue current practices around oil (not to mention trees, uranium, nickel, and many other substances rendered as extractible resources for profit). My relationship with oil, as an immigrant to Canada, is complex. I believe Canada should respect the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and thus Wet’suwet’en law, live up to our commitments to address global warming and thus not build new oil pipelines, fulfill the explicit and implicit treaty agreements that founded the nation, end military interventions in other nations (including within our borders), and much more. As a Canadian, I pay into an unregulated pension plan that invests heavily in oil futures, as well as tobacco advertising, and migrant detention facilities on the US-Mexico border; I cannot change this investment. My taxes pay for military interventions and fund the politicians who ignore treaty relationships. I drive a car, turn on heat and lights, and fly to conferences. I’m complicit in Canada’s protection of resource extraction from pretty much any angle I think of, simply in virtue of the complex web of relations through which I live and breathe. I benefit differentially as a white immigrant mortgage-owner from histories of and present social relations of land theft and colonial oppression. In complex situations like, let’s be honest, just being alive, we make all sorts of compromises and become complicit in all sorts of things we would like to wash our hands of. I’m complicit.

When people, scholars and non-scholars alike, charge someone with complicity frequently the result of that charge is a particular kind of immobility; when we, scholars and non-scholars alike, are charged with complicity we might tend to turn inwards with shame, or an overwhelmed feeling of how impossible it would be to extract ourselves from currently ubiquitous relations of extraction. Often feeling complicit means that we give up on action. Indeed, as I’ll investigate below, frequently the charge of complicity is meant precisely to claim that if you are complicit in something you do not have standing to oppose that thing. This is worth investigating, because if calling out complicity is meant to prompt effective ethical or political action but instead it derails precisely that action, the charge of complicity may itself produce further complicity – or at least not help precisely with furthering the goal of reducing the relevant harm or wrong. I am interested in whether identifying complicity can produce collective solidarity, the kind of struggle that causes power to hear demands, instead of individual immobilization.

I’ll begin with a short section on why complexity and complicity so often evoke moral immobilization, which I think comes down to some problems with individualism. I’ll lay out my sense of when it is coherent to say we are complicit, and when we should reject the language of complicity. In section two, I’ll offer Elizabeth Minnich’s distinction between intensive and extensive evil, putting it in conversation with Elizabeth Spelman’s account of repair as a creative form of destroying brokenness. In section three, I’ll outline practices of relationality that offer moral traction for choosing which side we’re on, recognizing that we are frequently complicit without our own will or intent, but resolving to act anyhow.

  1. Complicity & Complexity

I observe two things about responses that mark what I am calling the “usual view” of complicity as foreclosing opposition. First, a common response to charges of complicity is epistemic; people often say that they didn’t know about the relation that has been pointed out to them, and they respond by trying to know more and to educate others. Perhaps because often those of us who benefit from social relations of oppression learn about its harms in spaces dominated by epistemophilia – notably universities – this response makes intuitive sense. If we experience ourselves as well-intentioned, not meaning to cause harm, and feel that the main problem was that we did not know ourselves to be in a complicit role, responding epistemically is quite understandable. We can learn more, follow better Twitter organic intellectuals, host teach-ins, educate others about how they too are implicated in terrible things. Consciousness raising is still, I believe, a politically important project and I do not mean to disparage it here. However, if we take an entirely epistemically-focused approach to social relations of oppression and benefit, we commit to epistemic action and political inaction. Call this the know-it-all reaction.

Complicity awareness can also take the form of identifying the complexity and interrelatedness of our world, highlighting the inescapable embeddedness of our being in the world. This can freeze us in two ways – dispersing responsibility or giving up responsibility. The complex and big nature of the problems confronting moral agents today can make it seem that no one in particular is responsible for taking them on. As Eva Haifa Giraud argues in her book What Comes After Entanglement?,

Though it might be important to recognize the nuances of a given situation, this can also make it difficult to determine where culpability for particular situations really lie, let alone offer a sense of how to meet any ethical responsibilities emerging from this situation. Irreducible complexity, in other words, can prove paralyzing and disperse responsibilities in ways that undermine scope for political action (Giraud 2).

When there are actions we can take to oppose systemic racism, or use less plastic, or support libraries and education workers, or reduce our carbon footprint, and so on, many of us succumb to a kind of moral fatigue – there are so many things we know we would like to do or stop doing, so many ways we are connected to the suffering of the world, that we just get tired. I think this tendency is what leads to a kind of counterphobic reaction to, for example, thinking about global warming, rising seas, climate catastrophe, and the extinctions of so many nonhuman beings: Since I cannot solve all of these things, I may as well fly as much as I like, eat as many single-serving high-fat yogurts as I want, or and so on. Call this the fuck-it reaction.

Conservatives and liberals alike, particularly the subspecies whose main political work is trolling people on the internet, are fond of a complicity line of critique. It can take the form of calling hypocrisy on people who now are saying something when they did not raise a protest in the past. It also takes the form of pointing out inconsistencies, as when trolls tweeted to a friend that she could not both oppose human-fueled global warming and drive her car. Or it could be arguing that if someone benefits from something they cannot protest it (as when people say that it is impossible to criticize the US military and enjoy the supposed peace that it is supposedly protecting). Each of these criticisms deploys what we can call “purity politics”: because the person expressing the desire for another world is complicit or compromised, they are supposed to give up. Conservatives and liberals alike use purity politics to try to close down critique and action, or, to put it another way, to motivate particular kinds of actions and inactions.

Bridging prioritizing knowing it all and deciding to give up on it all, then, purity politics picks out the salient problem with how we normally engage complicity. Only an individual can aspire to be pure, to know everything that it might be important to know. Or perhaps better to say: Only the conceit of a delimited individual, sovereign in his skin, independent and unreliant on others, sufficiently potent to be able to make any needful changes in the world around him, capable of knowing in advance what the correct course of action might be and not deviating from it, capable of knowing everything relevant to any given situation, someone who does not make mistakes – only such an individual would be invulnerable to charges of complicity. No such individual exists. All of us are open to one another, afford one another subjectivities based in part on mutual regard and recognition, are interdependent and needy, relatively helpless to change things we care about, quite limited in our knowledge and understanding but educatable, changeable in light of new circumstances, and routinely err. Beyond that, of course, the scale and scope of problems we collectively face are laughably far beyond any individual’s capacities to solve.

At this point, I am hoping that you and I share two views. First, that the situation of the world in 2020 is complex in such a way that simply existing as a person who eats food, turns on heat or air conditioning, relies on infrastructure, pays taxes, and other very basic things implicates us in harms that we would prefer were not happening, such as global warming, the extinction crisis, or the indefinite detention of migrants in profoundly unjust conditions. Second, that the sense of complicity emerging from this sort of complexity is morally interesting – although, unfortunately it is also currently configured in such a way that it forecloses action.

My central proposition is that complicity can produce solidarities oriented towards collective action. Let me underline that although we may not be able to individually solve something, we may still be considered morally responsible to try solve it as best we can – which, often, is going to mean making collective, social, or systemic change. Another way to put this: Our implication in material complexity implies moral complicities unsolvable by individual will or action. We need a relational ethical approach to work with this situation, an approach that holds relations as our smallest unit of analysis. This kind of ethics is always political, in the sense that moral decisions in conditions of complicity depend on factors beyond the scope of the individual. Political decisions refer outside the individual to receive their normative weight. Such decisions and, I would argue, complicity ethics generally, do not depend on innocence for their decision-making. Rather, they depend on the understanding that we confront hard problems, problems that always leave what Bernard Williams thought of as a moral remainder, which can produce agent regret. As Lisa Tessman elucidates in her important work on burdened virtues and the “ordinary vices of domination”:

These forms of moral trouble are common under oppression, arising as they do when adverse conditions make even the very best possibility a morally problematic one or when bad luck leads one to engage in morally problematic ways or even to develop a morally problematic character (Tessman 5).

Perhaps we can begin to truly confront moral trouble only once we give up on the idea of innocence and purity, only once we begin from complexity and complicity, only once we regard collective ethical decisions as inherently political.

I believe we can meaningfully be held responsible for a number of complicities that are beyond our personal control: Wrongs that we benefit from but cannot personally right; wrongs that we identify and could do something about but do not take action because it is difficult or inconvenient; deaths and sufferings that did not need to happen or did not need to be so awful but that are produced by the social organization of oppression and benefit in our society; and, most generally, how Ruth Wilson Gilmour articulates racism as the social organization of “group differentiated vulnerability to premature death.”

However, not every horrible thing that happens in the world is a site of complicity. Perhaps we should be understood as complicit only in horrible things that could be prevented and to which we are in some way connected. When someone dies in a landslide or avalanche I may be sad for the people grieving their loss, but barring unusual responsibilities for avalanches I am likely not to be complicit. When a miner dies at work in a cave-in beneath my city which the mining company could have prevented with more investment in safety infrastructure, which they chose not to build because they calculated that the cost of life insurance for one miner’s death per year was cheaper than the infrastructure, and when my government provides that company with substantial tax-write-offs to keep them in the country, I likely am complicit in that death. Of course, I am less implicated than the person in the company who made the decision based on a profit-loss ledger that weighs people’s lives against insurance claims. Complicity is very much a matter of degree of connection, capacity to change the circumstances, and the distribution of power. Taking connection, complexity, complicity as a starting point for action rather than a reason to give up opens possibilities for transformation – for ethical decision-making.

  1. Evil and the creativity of repair

In this section I turn to an Arendtian approach to the question of the relation between individuals and systems in assessing moral agency in relation to social complicity, supplementing this with an account of forward-looking commitments to repair as a moral virtue. Elizabeth Minnich was a student of Hannah Arendt’s and worked with her as a teaching assistant after the publication of Eichmann in Jerusalem. Minnich’s article “The Evil of Banality: Arendt Revisited” distinguishes between intensive and extensive evils. She writes:

Intensive evils are horrific, episodic rather than sustained acts, performed by individuals or small groups. The acts may stretch through time, but they do not infect many people: typically, they are carried out in secret, in isolation, because they are precisely not normalized for a whole society or polity. … Most people remain outside of, unimplicated in, acts of intensive evil. (Minnich, 172)

Extensive evils, in contrast, “can become so woven into the fabric of lives that individuals enact them with a sense that they are simply serving or protecting a good and necessary way of life” (170). Extensive evil is woven into the fabric of our “ordinary normal lives.” These are, as Minnich puts it, “massively violative harms kept up over time that—simply, factually—could not be done by one or a few monstrous people.” Such harms are accomplished by ordinary workers and enablers, who cannot be understood simply as monsters enacting crimes of passion or prejudice. She argues, “There are still differing kinds and levels of complicity and guilt among the many doers and enablers of extensive evil, of course, but from enabling by-stander to front-line agent of horrific harm, there is a web of mutual implication. Extensive evils require them all to continue to show up and keep doing their work” (173). It is not only a question of the numbers of people involved in, as she puts it, “genocides, slavery, colonialism, radically exploitative labor practices, and other horrific harms” that calls  on us to consider the moral weight of massively distributed wrongs; it is also a question of how evils like these become banal, ordinary, accepted.

I continue to rely on Claudia Card’s expansive definition of evil: “[R]easonably foreseeable intolerable harm, produced by inexcusable wrongs” (Card 2010). While Minnich does not give an explicit definition of evil, her examples give us a sense that extensive evil as a web of mutual implication produces ordinary complicities. Taking this sort of orientation, complex harms such as climate catastrophe, widespread human-caused extinctions, imprisoning refugees in camps or causing them to drown in the Mediterranean, and violating Indigenous land relationships to run dirty pipelines through vulnerable ecosystems would count as evils. Again, none of these problems can be solved by a single person’s actions, no matter how little plastic they use or how rarely they fly. Individuals retain moral responsibility for our actions, of course, but we are also placed in relation to societal practices that contribute to the meaning we make of those actions. And yet, as Minnich underlines, “While it does not work to focus only on individuals as if we live, love, and have our being all on our own, it also does not work to give all agency over to systems, whether conceptual, moral, political, and/or economic. We need to think through experiences as we find them in reality” (Minnich 161). Reflecting on our experiences as we find them in reality may allow us to perceive how our personal agency is bound up with, enabled by, or constrained by, the agentic effects of the systems within which we exercise it. Sociologists think of this as exercising our “sociological imagination,” perceiving how our personal biography is simultaneously a social matter.[1]

I am understanding extensive evils such as colonialism, the extinction crisis, unjust treatment of migrants, ecological devastation, and so on, as sites of complicity with profound harm that invite repair, moral and practical. Elizabeth Spelman’s book Repair: The impulse to restore in a fragile world offers resources for this response to damage. She writes:

To repair is to acknowledge and respond to the fracturability of the world in which we live in a very particular way – not by simply throwing our hands up in despair at the damage, or otherwise accepting without question that there is no possibility of or point in trying to put the pieces back together, but by employing skills of mind, hand, and heart to recapture an earlier moment in the history of an object or a relationship in order to allow it to keep existing (Spelman 5-6).

In a moment I will jettison, for reasons I believe are fully consonant with Spelman’s own account, the restriction of repair to putting pieces back together or recapturing an earlier moment in the history of an object of repair. I find her approach generative in part for its understanding of repair as an action manifesting a response to damage and the despair it can engender. Repair enacts a commitment to not giving up.

Spelman elaborates approaches to repair that include restoration – returning something to a previous state in such a way that one could not tell that it had undergone repair – but I am most interested in bricolage, the using what is ready-to-hand, as an approach to repair. It is through this approach that Spelman articulates a conception of creativity as central to repair. She begins with contrasting repair with destruction:

Perhaps repair is more distinct from destruction than it is from creation. After all, what intentional or unintentional destruction accomplishes is the end of something, its demise, its irreparability. If repair is about trying to preserve some kind of continuity with the past, keeping some aspect of it alive, destruction is about producing discontinuity with the past, trying to make sure the past is past, that it’s over and done with (Spelman 13).

Again, I am not convinced that we need the backward-looking part of this conception of repair. Or, perhaps it would be better to say that in some cases destroying relations of the past will be necessary embark on a project of repair. The continuity with injustices of the past that continue to structure social relations of oppression will likely involve resisting what Gary Kinsman calls the social organization of forgetting – it will involve a continuity of memory – but it will require important forms of discontinuity with the past. Consider only one among many of the inheritances of chattel slavery; it is vital to the project of destroying the current racial organization of imprisonment in the United States that we hold in view the continuities of slavery’s translation into the prison system.

Spelman turns to movements for restorative justice to think about how repair can grapple with political inheritances of complex harms, and it is here that I believe she should agree with my rejection of the idea of returning to a past state. Valuing flexible, situationally-responsive approaches to damage, she argues that we can think about repair as itself as a form of destruction. As she puts it: “Repair is the creative destruction of brokenness” (134). If we can understand extensive evils of the sort in which we are implicated as a pervasive state of brokenness, we might aim to destroy the state of brokenness (132) we perceive. In this sense, Spelman argues that offering an apology can be a form of attempting to destroy a state of rupture between people (134). Thinking about repair as a way of becoming more engaged or connected with a state of brokenness may open space for creative, collaborative approaches to complicity. And we can destroy brokenness even if there is no state of wholeness to which we can return. Indeed, the creative destruction of brokenness may be a better way to think about our response to extensive evil; such evils affect so many people in so many ways, producing moral damage and weakening our sense of moral agency, that the capacity to respond may well require practices of creation we cannot yet predict. In the final section of this paper, I turn to sketching modes of the creative destruction of brokenness that I think may help us in the project of crafting non-teleologically-bounded futures.

  1. Being brave enough to be in relation

One reason for rejecting a conception of repair that depends on previous states is, as I’ve discussed, to retain the possibility that we could repair relations that have never been not broken, relations that need to be destroyed before any other ethical engagement can begin. I also worry about arguments based on a return to prior states because they may commit us to a kind of purity politics – the idea that only if we are innocent in relevant ways can we take action. Again, very few people are innocent in the complex moral terrain we currently navigate. Recognizing our involvement in and complicity with things we think are wrong, fully understanding the weight of wrongdoing in the history we inherit, or understanding the harms that have come from our failure to act can feel quite awful. The right uses purity politics against the left because we’re the ones who respond to being implicated in doing harm. They’re correct that we are involved in the very things that we want to stop, but they’re wrong to think that being compromised means we should stop protesting. If we stop working against them, terrible things simply continue. If we are to be effective, we who want to have a world in which many beings and ecosystems can flourish, we should reject purity for purely tactical reasons – it demobilizes us

But we should resist purity politics for deeper reasons, too. Purity has long been the domain of the racist, nativist, and eugenicist right. It has been the technology through which laws about miscegenation were formulated, and it’s still the emotional hinge on which today’s alt-right argues that the white race is dying. Purity of the nation has been the rallying cry for tightening borders against the free movement of people; it is the engine that drives vigilante border patrols and murderous refugee policies. Purity of the species has been the scalpel that forcibly sterilizes disabled people, and that continues to support policy based on the idea that disabled lives are not worth living.

Alongside all these problems with purity politics – if we needed any further convincing! – allow me to lay the problems of individualism. Purity discourse depends entirely on a lie: The idea that there is any way to be alive without being connected. Charges of complicity can be read as simple statements about being relationally shaped – frequently, of course, relationally shaped in connection with social relations and effects that we reject or abjure. When we begin from relationality, understanding our complicities is not a ground for despair or shutting down. Complicities instead are anchors, points of attachment and connection that give us traction for movement. It is not because I am innocent of racism that I have standing to oppose racism; it can be precisely because I am implicated in racism that I oppose it. For surely if innocence and purity are requirements for political action, none of us are qualified to do anything.

We do better to aim for an ethics and politics of imperfection. If we do not fit the mold of perfection – if we’re disabled, sick, young, old, not working, not productive – we are definitely beings who offer care, help, solidarity, and presence to the world. If we’ve failed to help in the past, if things we do are implicated in harm, if we benefit from something that harms others, or if we accord only some people access to a podium, we can still be of benefit to this world. Even people who have harmed others or the world, whose ancestors owned slaves, whose current government is actively pursuing genocidal colonial policies, who regularly make mistakes — even we can be useful.

But how to unfurl a practice that holds our imperfections? Ethically, I believe a model of the creative repair of brokenness can take us a long ways. Insofar as that ethics demands a politics, I suggest taking up a “politics of responsibility,” a concept from social movement scholar Gary Kinsman (http://radicalnoise.ca/). He defines this as involving “those of us in oppressing positions recognizing our own implication within and responsibility to actively challenge relations of oppression.” (http://uppingtheanti.org/journal/article/01-the-politics-of-revolution/) A politics of responsibility recognizes our relative, shifting, and contingent position in social relations of harm and benefit; it enjoins us to look at how we are shaped by our place in history. We can take responsibility for creating futures that radically diverge from that history, seriously engaging that work based on where we are located, listening well to the people, beings, and ecosystems most vulnerable to devastation.

The question then is not, How will we be innocent of implication in complex and distributed harms? The question becomes, What forms of implication will we take up as points of connection for anchoring our activities? With whom will we become complicit? Whose side are we on?

Asking which side we are on raises the prospect of binary, purist thinking about politics, as though it was easy to delimit sides and as though complicity would make it impossible for us to be on the side of justice. It’s probably clear by now that I believe we’re complicit no matter what we do, that we cannot excuse ourselves from implication, that we’re always connected. It is precisely these political features of ethical decision making in complex and relational contexts that makes this ethically interesting terrain. The good news when there are not easy answers is that we have the capacities to elaborate the stakes and reasons for our decisions; we have the capacities to make strategic decisions and to know when we are effectively fighting evil and pursuing repair.

I’ve learned the most about how to approach this in trainings in activist strategy, notably in the model of a “spectrum of allies.” As I’ve understood this idea, it names a common tendency in activism: To direct our attention and work towards the people we most oppose, the people most directly responsible for the harm we have identified as the problem at hand. In the case of Canada’s invasion of Wet’suwet’en land, if I am standing with the Wet’suwet’en people, I might address my moral and political work to the provincial government, the chief of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, or the Prime Minister of Canada. It’s true that these people have decision-making power. But the spectrum of allies approach is interested in what causes the people with decision-making power to make different decisions about the things in which we are mutually implicated. A key shift in the spectrum of allies is to stop addressing oneself to people who directly or ideologically oppose one with the idea that they will reverse their position solely through moral suasion. Taking a spectrum approach, one aims to move people from where they are one or two positions over – to move people who are passive allies to become active allies, or people who are passive opponents to be “oblivious neutrals.”

Crucially, the spectrum of allies approach assumes that we are all connected, that no one is essentially or fundamentally pure or evil, and that anyone can change their minds through changing their activities. Grounded in nonviolent communication, it also presupposes prioritizing listening to opponents, especially to the people directly across from us on an issue. Listening to people different than us, and especially listening to people we consider complicit in evil, is perhaps unpopular in our moment. I think it is an ethically and politically interesting proposition. The kind of listening we’re interested in here remains political, however, in the sense that it is committed to certain worlds and not others. Again, as we are complicit, we can act in solidarity and stand with some people and not others. As Katrina Shields put it in the book In the Tiger’s Mouth:

Although listening to the opposition’s point of view is important it is equally important to put your position and be heard – both by the opposition and by the public. This can be quite an anxiety-provoking experience when you are not used to doing it. Something I have found useful is imagining those I represent standing behind me – whether they be environments, creatures, or humans, including those of the future. They require me not to betray them by giving up my power in these situations. This has been a source of strength enabling me to speak up and not compromise (Shields 58-59).

I think of this approach as a kind of brave relation, of building the capacity to stand in relation even to situations and evils with which we would like to cut off relation.

Listening well, taking responsibility, practicing mutual aid, and acting even though we recognize that we can’t be pure is going to be much harder than disengaging would be. Two poems have helped me think about this. Johnetta Elzie co-founded an organization (https://www.joincampaignzero.org/) working to end police violence. Her poem “Where were you” (http://www.teenvogue.com/story/a-poem-by-johnetta-elzie) addresses itself to people – largely white women – who participated in the enormous protests march the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. It asks a lot of questions, and on the surface many of those questions sound like an immobilizing, complicity-charging troll – the last line of the poem ends “We’ve been marching for years — where the hell have all of you been?” But Elzie’s questions are the opposite of trolling. She is calling her listeners in to responsibility for not having been there, asking us to reflect on how we are placed in history, and then inviting us to step up now. She asks,“What happens tomorrow? Will you march with us when we need you most?” Danny Bryck’s poem [“If You Could Go Back”](http://jocsm.org/if-you-could-go-back/) likewise calls us in to a politics of responsibility. Drawing on the fact that many of us in the present believe, looking back, that we would resist fascism, racism, and oppression with every fiber of our being, it points to things that are happening now:

“That’s King. And this is Selma. And Berlin. And Jerusalem. And now

is when they need you to be brave.”

 

Let us be imperfect, for we are, but let us be brave too.[2]

[1]We may want to extend this sort of imagination to developing a capacity to perceive how ecosystems and the changing interconnected, living, world exercises agency.

[2] I thank Jessica Cadwallader for offering this formulation, in her generous engagement with this thinking as part of a facebook thread in the spring of 2016.

A schedule is a net for catching December

How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living. — Annie Dillard

It was the last writing class of term today, and my students and I did a planning exercise. As usual, the exercise was a useful to me as it (I hope) was for them, and so I’m sharing it here in case it is useful to others, too.

The first thing is to reflect on the social space that we enter into as academics and writers in December. There are some things specific for grad students about talking with friends and family over the winter break that I think faculty don’t experience so much, though in general people who aren’t in the academy can’t be expected to ask questions that don’t trigger extreme responses in academics. Still, the meme that goes “Over the holidays don’t ask grad students bad questions like, How is the thesis going? Ask them better questions like, Would you like this free money?” has a lot of wisdom. So, it may be worthwhile to do some active preparation for talking with non-academics about education and research work in social and family settings. A few options:

1. Prepping a small card that you can simply hand to inquirers that says something like “Because it is difficult to explain my thesis topic, I have prepared this short illustration of what I am working on with key words defined” or “I have worked out a policy with my thesis supervisor/ therapist forbidding me from speaking about my thesis; please accept this small sketch of a cat in lieu of conversation about what I am working on or how much longer it will take me” or “Thank you for your interest in my thesis topic; I take it as an expression of love! Sadly, I am not able to speak about it for secret reasons.”
2. Prepping some version of the above but without the card. This can be aided by taking the attitude that while there are some people we encounter who are actively trying to be mean about our research (either that we are doing it at all or because of the specific topic we’re concerning ourselves with) many people are asking questions like “Wow it’s taking you a long time to finish your book” that sound aggressive or make us feel bad when what they mean to be saying is more like “I care about you and I don’t understand this weird thing you’re working on but I assume that it’s important to you and so I am trying to ask you about it.” So our response might be to try to speak to that impulse rather than to the content of their question.
3. Planning to give a useful evasion such as “my supervisor and committee seem happy with the stage I’m at!” or just an outright lie “It’s going so great! I’ve never been happier.”

The basic structure of the university schedule lends itself to a host of very predictable writing difficulties, most of which we actively disavow in our thinking and feeling about writing. Indeed, as Nick Mitchell has gorgeously discussed, the idea of being “off” – for the summer or winter breaks – can produce a poisonous kind of disavowal that structures much of the affective and material conditions of universities. My current obsessions with bad faith have hailed me to think about what it would mean to foreground what I actually know about what’s going to happen and to behave accordingly – and, more, to talk explicitly with students about these things.
One thing we academics in general might think about the winter break is that it will be a time when we can do a tremendous quantity of writing work, magically transforming everything that didn’t happen over the fall term into abundance, redeeming any laziness we think we manifested, validating our existence as productive scholars, etc. Of course on some level we might know that this approach is both unrealistic and self-cruel, but it still offers itself. There are at least two problems with the view that we have nothing but time ahead of us and therefore we’ll do an enormous quantity of high quality writing:

1. We probably don’t have as much time ahead of us as we think we do – on the wage-work side the end of fall term involves a lot of clean up, marking, talking about marking with students, managing inputs from other people, finishing prepping syllabi for winter term, and so on. On the personal side, December is often a month where we encounter all of the baggage that trails along behind the entwinement of capitalism with christianity with the monogamous couple form of reproductive futurity – it is a lucky person who doesn’t have some form of difficult feeling around taking up or resisting “The Holidays” in terms of family, friends, lonesomeness, meaning-making, meaninglessness, and more. I didn’t grow up in a Christian family, have really sweet relations with my family of origin (and no expectation to exchange presents with them), look forward to wonderful time with chosen family this month, and I still feel the intense pressure of December’s imperative to spend money and have a good time in order to recover from the fall and start the new year right. The practical side of this pressure is that there are often just a lot of days that are a write-off from the point of view of writing for any number of reasons – travel/family time/being felled by grief at the first holiday after someone’s death/anxiety attacks.
2. Even if we do have expansive meadows of uninterrupted time in which we can at last, at last, sit down and get some writing done, we skirt the dangers of a) procrastinating on actually starting because there is just so much time there’s no reason to start yet; b) binge-writing such that we fall into a slough of despond the next day after completely emptying ourselves out; c) reinforcing the ultimately both wrong and cruel practice of only writing if we have big uninterrupted chunks of time. These emotional patterns of relating with our writing don’t actually help us, and it’s better to take an approach to writing that is kinder and more sustaining. At the same time, of course, sometimes there really is time to dig in to writing in December, and it would be nice to enjoy that!

So, I’m a fan of making a very stern schedule for what each day will hold in the month of December. In my class, we do this in this order:

*Identify three days in a row that will be purely devoted to wallowing in activities that are non-work, that are pleasures, that rejuvenate, that set us up for ease when we come out of them. These days can’t include coordinating or attending stressful family dinners, or New Year’s Eve parties, or work events. They might involve napping, baths, reading that has nothing to do with research, screen time that is just for pleasure, games, time outside, dates with friends or lovers, cooking and eating, and other activities that feel just really good. These days off are important for re-setting our attention, allowing our constant vigilance to relax, and tuning our parasympathetic nervous system a bit.
*Block out time that will be required for attending holiday activities, or for grieving holiday activities that you won’t be participating in, for pre-event anxiety and for post-event processing. Recognize that it is not reasonable to expect to do work on the same day as any “holiday” activity, though sometimes work does happen.
*Identify two longer chunks, of approximately three 45-minute writing units each, that can be carved out of work weeks, and three smaller units that can be distributed on various days. If there is a longer writing day, such as a six-unit day, it’s important to always assign a one-unit day directly following to avoid post-intensive-writing-despair. The general idea is to have a thread of continuity for the writing work with even one short writing session happening every few days.
*Check to see that in each work week retains at least one day off of writing or work and redistribute work scheduling if needed.

If you’re like me or my students, it will be a bit shocking to see how little time there is actually left in the month for writing. But this realization can be a source of softness and kindness for ourselves, instead of worry: it is better and more generous to accurately plan our writing time than to imagine that we have unlimited time and that we’ll produce unbelievable amounts of gorgeous prose. As always, it’s better to plug along, showing up for the time we’ve planned, allowing our schedule to scaffold our attention so that we can work on things with both hands. And then, when we’re not scheduled to write, to thoroughly enjoy our life.

Ethical polyamory, responsibility, and significant otherness

Some kind comrades have made a printable zine version of a chapter I wrote about from a textbook on the philosophy of sex & love. Below also is the text of this chapter.

“A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow up for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.”

—Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

“Ethical Polyamory, Responsibility, and Significant Otherness”

From Desire, Love, and IdentityPhilosophy of Sex and Love, ed. Gary Foster. Oxford University Press, 2017

Chances are good that, if you’ve been in a sexual or romantic relationship, you have had the experience of holding implicit or explicit trust, where you and the people you’re involved with respect certain boundaries. Chances are also quite good that you’ve been in the position of betraying that trust or having your trust betrayed. Usually we call that “cheating,” and this paper assumes that fooling around on people is unethical and possibly evil, in the sense that it is almost certain to produce harm. Even though monogamy is a norm in our society, it is also certainly a failing norm, at least in the sense that it is enormously common for people to fail to respect it. The fact that monogamy seems to so often not work, in one way or another, is one reason that many people think about alternatives.

If you were interested in having ethical, consensual, multiple, sexual, emotional, or romantic relationships, you would find available to you (at least on the internet) a number of self-identified polyamants, swingers, non-monogamists, support groups, close to forty books on nonmonogamy, weekend workshops, and more. Depending on where you lived, the people you ran in to might not gape in horror if they discovered that you were both involved with someone and available to become involved with them. You might even be able to keep your job, your kids, and your apartment without conforming to monogamous models of romantic relationships. So many ifs. But the most important question, would be: “If I want to have the possibility of multiple relationships, is there a non-evil way to do them?”

This short essay will answer this question: Yes.

I examine the philosophical stakes behind core narratives of current polyamory. I begin with some provisional and contested (but common) definitions, and go on to situate these definitions in relation to accounts of how to meaningfully make and keep promises and to respect interpersonal boundaries. I supplement these approaches by drawing on Sue Campbell’s account of relational self-formation and Donna Haraway’s call for an ethics of alterity and “significant otherness”; both Campbell and Haraway offer us useful frameworks for understanding responsibility as a way of being in poly-relation.

 

Defining our terms

There’s a t-shirt that says:

POLYAMORY IS WRONG!
It is either Multiamory
or Polyphilia
but mixing Greek and
Latin Roots? WRONG!

Some people love the term “polyamory,” because it names the idea of having multiple loves, while others prefer “nonmonogamy,” because it says what it’s against. I understand both of these terms, which are the most common, to name the practice of consensually and with mutual interest negotiating desire for more than one relationship. Sometimes, polyamory names the fact of having multiple simultaneous relationships, but not always. This nuance is important: I don’t think people stop being polyamorous just because they are not themselves involved at the moment in more than one relationship – or any relationship, for that matter. An important bit here is the “consensual” part of that definition, about which I will say only that consent is going to be complex and negotiated in the context of overlapping power relations. A poly relationship that people are in just because they’re afraid their partner will leave them isn’t going to count as consensual and with mutual interest.

You might, if you got into nonmonogamy explicitly, eventually need to decide how to characterize your poly relationship(s), and you would need a little more negotiation, consent, and perhaps definition. The labels on offer include: “primary relationship,” “secondary relationships,” “polyfidelitous,” “closed group married,” “triad,” “quad,” “puppy pile poly,” and many, many more. These terms, and the clusters of concepts out of which they precipitate, are simultaneously ways to navigate the charges of irresponsible relationality attending non-monogamous practice and efforts to concretize in language heterodox relational practices. Extended, they map presumed practices for responsible polyamory and by extension give an account of the responsibilities involved in intimate relationships altogether.

The relationships these terms describe conform to and at the same time exceed their own bounds. This involves questions of power – who has it, who’s experiencing it, and what it’s doing. These terms are relevant not only to people who identify as polyamorous or non-monogamous. Intimate relationships matter to all of us: too often, it is through our most closely interwoven connections with others, at our moments of deepest vulnerability, that the racist, sexist, beauty-normative, ablest patriarchy hits us hardest. When we are naked and vulnerable with someone who says we are too hairy or too fat, or not hairy enough, or too skinny, precisely because we are naked and vulnerable we might feel that judgement more harshly than in everyday life. Even people who move through straight monogamous relationships with relative ease are shaped by the standards that cause friction to others. Feminist philosophical accounts of the importance of relationality to self-formation calls for fuller accounts of the everyday language of polyamory. The terms matter for what and how we imagine the world of intimate relationships, of intimacy, connection, and care in our lives.

 

What is monogamy, then?

On the way toward my main argument here, let me start with what I think is an uncontentious claim: Monogamy is a form of polyamory. It is “boilerplate,” or like a pre-printed lease agreement, and it seems ubiquitous. We usually think of monogamy as sexual fidelity to one romantic partner, often codified in legal recognition by the state and socially sanctioned, and most people assume that people who identify as married or stably dating someone are this thing called monogamous. But scratch at that assumption a little, and most monogamous relations are themselves built on a set of tacit and explicit agreements that express a more-or-less consensual navigation of possible or actual desire for multiple relationships. Does what happen in Vegas stay in Vegas? Can you gaze with delight on a non-partner’s luscious lips? Is watching porn and masturbating cheating? If you’re thinking about a friend who is not your sexual partner during sex, is that cheating? What if you’re thinking of a popular actor? An anime character? A dog? What about looking up a highschool flame and re-starting an exciting correspondence? Can you go to a strip club and feel turned on? Is it possible to be monogamously attracted to many people at the same time, so long as you never act on that attraction? Some people in monogamous relationships will answer “yes” to at least one of these questions, others would answer “no” to all of them. Sometimes people in monogamous couples talk about these things explicitly, but most don’t – and different expectations about what “counts” as cheating often produce friction.

Monogamous people frequently experience quite profound jealousy, betrayal, neglect, anger, pain, and other difficult feelings when they feel that their partners have not respected their implicit or explicit agreements around these kinds of questions. Sometimes jealousy is sparked not even by one’s partner having desire for others, but simply for being desired or desirable. Sometimes people feel jealous of their partner’s regard and attention toward close friends, pets, work, golf, and many other things. And it’s significant that monogamy arises out of quite troubling histories of the assumed need to control women’s bodies for the purposes of patrilineal (descent through the male line) property relations; the history of monogamy is a history of ownership, and so it shouldn’t surprise us that so many discussions of relational boundaries return to practices of property and control. Marriage and monogamy as we currently know them are not as ancient as many people think, and they’re certainly not as necessary as they’re made out to be.

A key thing to understand, here, is that monogamous and poly relationships alike meet the challenges that accompany being interested in people. People in all sorts of relationships work with the implications of making commitments to one another despite the potential for wanting something more or other than the commitment implies. All sorts of intimate relationships grapple with the question of how to respect loved others, and, in romantic or sexual relationships, how to be responsible in the face of a crush. Poly relationships frequently grapple more explicitly and with a less boilerplate approach, and because of that potentially more expansive mode they have something to teach us about responsibility and respect in relationships more generally.

 

Three common poly frameworks

There are three very common ways that poly people talk about and practice ethical nonmonogamy: 1) dyadic polyamory, 2) clear multiple roles, and 3) unbounded openness. Right off, it is important to stress this typification flattens the lived experience of poly negotiation; people’s practices overlap and exceed how I typify these styles of poly practice. However, all of us – poly and non – could fruitfully use a fourth, alternative ethical frame in understanding how to have multiple relationships, which I am calling “relational significant otherness.”

Dyadic poly practices often use a language of hierarchy and centrality: There are primary partners, who act more or less like monogamous partners on monogamy steroids – the primary relationship is so steady, so flexible, so strong, that it can accommodate each partner having relationships with people beyond the dyad. But that dyad is, well, primary. It comes first, it’s most important, it trumps all other connections. Then there are secondary relationships, which might open up spaces the primary partnership doesn’t treat. In strong versions of this style, even the spaces opened by the secondary lovers are encompassed and claimed by the primary dyad, because it is the main reference point in terms of which the secondary relationship takes place. Hapless others who enter the matrix of the primary dyad take warning: you are secondary. Your desires are subordinate to the needs and desires of the authentic pair – even if that pair is something less than exactly a “normal” couple.

Non-dyadic practices that maintain clear roles and boundaries use language of practical accommodation to the realities of carving out a new practice of relationality in the context of a hostile, heteronormative imperative to monogamy: everyone has people who, for contingent/natural reasons, are closer and more central to their lives. They are long term partners, co-parents, people living together and otherwise in intentional close proximity. It is responsible and necessary to name these relationships what they are, however that naming is negotiated. Clear boundaries and ethically adhered to agreements are only practical. People new to a given poly configuration must both understand and respect the boundaries and agreements necessary to healthy multiple relationships operating among sometimes many different webs of relationship. When new loves and lovers enter the picture of already existing relationships, they can enter with maximal autonomy when the terms and habits are obvious. By extension, people in ongoing relationships must take responsibility for communicating the terms and conditions on which they might become involved with others – it is deceptive, too utopian, and disingenuous to act as though the power involved in committed relationships, however defined, is not in play. Trying to resist naming something a primary relationship, for example, is politically and ethically irresponsible and sets everyone up – particularly potential new lovers – for painful disillusion.

A final important – though contested – discourse in today’s polyamorous circles unfurls in a language of limitless possibility, opening a radical space for respectful and ethical relationship, unbound by the strictures of orthodox relationships. On this account, in their very being, poly relationships undermine the oppressive framework of normative monogamy. This means that even when poly people appear to function in relationships legible to the straight norm – passing as monogamous – the facts of how they live and love destabilizes utterly that norm. It is more than possible to have responsible multiple relationships without rendering them in terms of rigid hierarchies. People who advocate this kind of understanding of poly relationships might argue that to call these relationships “primary” or “secondary” or many other labels based on rigid agreements degrades and disrespects them. Just as we have multiple friendships, they say, we can have multiple loving or sexual relationships – without labels, fluid, flexible, moving like a flock of birds or a school of dolphins. Axes of responsibility fall organically along lines delineated by contingent circumstance. The main thing standing in our way is habits of naming that recreate hierarchies.

Each of these ways of talking about poly relationships, of contesting or accepting the language of bounded agreements (“primary”, etc) attempts to settle the messy, thick, tangled weave of the actual practice of being in relationship with others. Monogamous couples smooth out this weave by deciding not to act on whatever desires they might have for people outside their relationship, by sublimating sexual energy into heightened friend-crushes, or by cheating on their partner (in which case they’re non-monogamous, but profoundly unethical, and so I think we should be profoundly uninterested in them). Polyamorous people do different versions of these things, but I would suggest that in many cases they are still constrained by a troubling relational continuum.

On one end of this continuum are boundaries so constraining that the agreements made in the context of primary or central relationships take priority over other connections to the extent that secondary or other lovers are categorically shut out – their desires and needs have no weight in decision making, and people within a relationship might have power to end their partner’s or lover’s relationship with someone else. On the other end, any and all desires and relationships are on the table, and no one in a given configuration has ethical standing to make demands or set limits on the timing or type of relationships their lovers take up.

Consider the end of the continuum we might think of as monogamy on steroids. It seems to me that to call something nonmonogamous, or polyamorous, while agreeing to end other relationships at a partner’s whim is to pretend to the throne of liberatory relationality while retaining the forms of monogamy in holographic colour. Granted, there are whims and then there are reasons, and the latter can be ethical. But it is crucial for many poly relationships that take the label “primary” that the central pair has ethical priority in any relational matrix. When something is threatening the dyad, especially if it’s a newer relationship, the primary partnership gets priority. Often this manifests in already set agreements, to which any third or fourth person has to accede. There is also the question of labeling: the primary partnership comes first – usually temporally, but ostensibly also in one’s consideration. The objects of secondary relationships – sometimes happy to evade the responsibility implied by primary-ness – are expected to accept their lot, to not demand too much, to understand when they can’t sleep over, or shower with their lover, or be called a particular endearment, if those things are off limits within the primary relationship. Other considerations are, well, secondary. As are the people who might hold them. And even when the person in question is happy with that status, it troubles me to relate with people as something less than full constituents, with ethical rights, in decisions that involve them.

In contrast to the highly bounded and negotiated agreements that delimit some poly relationships, there are models that reject boundaries and agreements because they are seen to endorse ownership models of relationality. Many proponents of these approaches imply or take it that proper polyamory admits of no boundaries at all, that negotiated agreements are concessions to an oppressive and hierarchical model that poly relationships ought to categorically reject. Practitioners of polyamory on this end of the continuum might or might not tell their lovers about new partners, and might have agreements about safer sex, for example, but current connections are given no first pass priority over new relationships. While it might resist certain forms of oppression associated with ownership models of relationships, particularly as such models are predicated on men’s sexual access and dominion over women’s bodies, labour, and affective availability, this form of poly relationship – call it “no holds barred” – is troubling for different reasons than the “all holds negotiated” form above. Its refusal to consider ethical claims arising from relationality puts commitments to treat others with dignity and respect on the butcher’s block of self-righteous political purity.

As I mentioned above, and as many feminist/anarchist theorists have pointed out (think of Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre, or Simone de Beauvoir) the Western system of coupledom and marriage is rooted in patriarchal ownership models, in which women moved from one man’s house (her father’s) to another’s (her husband’s), holding the status of property. In North America, female monogamy also references purity of parentage – knowing who the father of children is – and since race is always involved in parentage monogamy has also been intertwined with a racist imperative to keep the white race pure. Perhaps surprisingly, anxieties about polyamory are not only racialized: they also relate to keeping structures of capitalism stable. This is because current economic arrangements are based on a model of a two-parent family; taxes, health insurance, mortgage and rental agreements, and much more assume a monogamous couple as their base unit. These things combine to make many poly people feel that simply not being monogamous is enough to make a person a revolutionary. However, if polyamory ends up replicating other unethical tendencies along the continuum I outlined above (ranging from too much control to too little respect), it cannot be genuinely interesting as a relational practice. I aspire for a revolutionary, loving practice of relationships that is: about rebellion against bad norms and also accountability to others; about violating boundaries that support a racist capitalist patriarchy and also being kind to others and respecting their boundaries; about challenging our deepest fears and also keeping ourselves and others safe enough to flourish.

 

Relational selves and significant otherness

And so I turn to Donna Haraway’s conception of significant otherness and Sue Campbell’s conception of relational co-constitution. Together, I think of these theorists as offering us the idea of relational significant otherness. Haraway might herself resist the torquing back toward the human I am about to do. She is attempting to think seriously about contingent, non-reductive, co-constitutive relations between humans and other species. She riffs on the term “significant other,: writing: “Except in a party invitation or a philosophical discussion, ‘significant other’ won’t do for human sexual partners; and the term performs little better to house the daily meanings of cobbled together kin relations in dogland.”[i] In contrast, she suggests the idea of “significant otherness” as a way to talk about valuing difference. This term points us beyond one single significant other, into an envisioning of what an “ethics and politics committed to the flourishing of significant otherness might look like.”[ii] Polyamory might, very imperfectly, be one move toward this kind of flourishing.

“Significant otherness” points toward partial connections, in which the players involved are relationally constituted but do not entirely constitute each other. This is “vulnerable, on-the-ground work that cobbles together non-harmonious agencies and ways of living that are accountable both to their disparate inherited histories and to their barely possible but absolutely necessary joint futures.”[iii] The significant otherness I imagine as a guiding aspiration for responsible polyamory is both a dilution and an ardent affirmation of this statement. Clearly, the success or failure of people cobbling together non-harmonious agencies and ways of living – something we do with everyone we are committed to working with – is not productive of absolutely necessary futures between those two or more folks. There are forms of significant otherness, which might involve seeing the disparate histories we bring and the futures we might cobble together with them. When we perceive the on-the-ground work involved in attempting polyamory, it frequently looks like this revolution is too messy, tiring, grinding, and boring to be worth it. Disparate inherited histories are individual – our stories written deep in us, the relationships we come along with – but they are also much broader. There is indubitably something wrong with a politics tied to heteronormative monogamy. And there seems to be something also wrong with a polyamory tied to rigid classifications of “primary” and “secondary” relationships; in the context of thinking significant otherness, these classificatory schemas show up as ways to tame non-harmonious agencies into something smaller.

Sue Campbell’s understanding of relational self-construction is useful here. Campbell argues that it is profoundly inaccurate to imagine that we as selves are separable, stably-bounded individuals. Rather, she attends to the many ways we are formed in and through mattering relations with others – from the earliest childhood throughout our lives. I am interested here in her account of how our practices of being responsive to others shapes the kinds of selves we are. For Campbell, being relationally shaped means that we are dynamic and contingent beings shaped in part by what commitments or responsibilities we take up. Campbell writes: “Taking responsibility is part of the expressive behavior that constitutes our emotional attachments to others …One does not form emotional attachments with others and then find oneself assigned responsibility on this basis. Taking responsibility brings us into relation with others.”[iv] I am thinking of “taking responsibility” in this sense as connected in lively ways to Haraway’s claim that “entities with fully secured boundaries called possessive individuals (imagined as human or otherwise) are the wrong units for considering what is going on. That means not that a particular animal does not matter but that mattering is always inside connections that demand and enable response, not bare calculation or ranking. Response, of course, grows with the capacity to respond, that is, responsibility.”[v] Campbell’s conception of responsibility also refused any idea of a bounded self, which she argues “obscures the generative role of taking responsibility in commitments and relationships.”[vi] The generative role Campbell envisages here, one I endorse, is the idea that through practices of open-ended being-in-response, holding response-ability, we become different kinds of beings. Understanding this in the context of work on memory and relationality, she writes, “requires a shift in focus from a self-sovereign individual who is secure in her or his identity to a self who lives with the tensions, instabilities, and possibilities of time consciousness and a concomitant uncertainty about boundaries and responsibilities.”[vii] Perhaps one reason that people aim for monogamy, or –equally – take up any of the pre-set forms of nonmonogamy on offer, is to try to manage the felt threat of their lovers being in relation to others. Perhaps it is most frightening to us to think of ourselves as constituted in unbounded and uncertain relations of significant otherness toward which we have relations of responsibility-in-the-making.

Starting from a view that we are selves shaped in relations of responsibility toward non-reductive otherness, I want something far more nuanced and far more risky than the labels “primary” and “secondary” touch. I want everyone – monogamous and polyamorous and other – to understand relationality itself as a deep, life-changing risk. What poly relationships have revealed to me is the utter contingency of relationships altogether. The fact that we will all lose people we love is really, really obvious and really, really hard to hold in our mind. We are going to die, or they are, or they’ll split up with us, or we’ll split up with them. In the everyday course of life, when our lovers fall for other people we suddenly see the ways they are strange to us: they have whole realms of experience we cannot access, and ways of flourishing we can’t encompass. Understanding every relationship in terms of significant otherness brings these facts into nervous light. In addition to refusing the shorthand of “primaryness”, we might explode the categories of monogamy and polyamory themselves. Beyond the dichotomy of “being poly” only when you’re actually having multiple simultaneous sexual relationships, we could begin to see relationality altogether as a commitment to the flourishing of significant others and significant otherness.

Significant otherness, always relational, in ardent affirmative mode, signals the possibility of joint futures that extend beyond the framework of the two or three or several relationships any one of us can reasonably maintain. This significant otherness yearns to flourish, it delights when others toward whom we are in relations of response-ability flourish, and it may recognize that humans are not the most significant actors in that flourishing. The kind of absolutely necessary futures I find here relate to liberatory politics broadly construed, in which human and nonhuman actors might seriously and playfully act with respect toward mutual flourishing. Power is here, of course, but it’s complicated. There are, then, bonsai versions of relational significant otherness that we manage to carve out of serious flourishing – sites of respect for our lovers and partners where we can take seriously their disparate histories, our partial connections, the ways that overlapping networks of relationality tug at us and free us, alternately and simultaneously. These small, halting, often-failing attempts might prefigure a pattern we hope will ripple out, roots and branches untrimmed and tangled.

 

Bibliography

 

Campbell, Sue, Our Faithfulness to the Past: The Ethics and Politics of Memory (Oxford University Press, 2014)

Haraway, Donna J., The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (Chicago, Ill.: Prickly Paradigm, 2003)

—-. When Species Meet (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008)

[i] Haraway, 2003, 96.

[ii] Haraway, 2003, 3.

[iii] Haraway, 2003, 7.

[iv] Campbell, 2014, 123.

[v] Haraway, 2008, 70–71.

[vi] Campbell, 2014, 125.

[vii] Campbell, 2014, 126.

How do we move from product to process as academic writers?

I’m teaching a thesis writing class this year. This time around, I’ve been documenting the warm up exercises and tools that I use in the class a bit better than I did last year and for some reason I thought it would be worth sharing this one. Just like today’s annoying cooking blogs, there is a preamble, which you can skip if you just want the recipe.

It’s a truism in the study of teaching writing that focusing on the product of writing does not help students become better writers – Donald Murray’s 1972 piece “Teach Writing as a Process, Not a Product” is (depressingly) still a good read. And there are a surprising number of productivity blog posts re-packaging “process not product” advice as though it’s brand new. Often the explanation for how to see writing as a process follows Murray’s lead, identifying “process” as including pre-writing as well as revision. Thus, we begin to see a much bigger field of activity beyond sitting down with cursor or pen as part of writing – reading, taking notes, reflecting, sharing work, talking about what we’re writing about, going back in and polishing it, and much more. This is really useful, but it’s insufficient especially for academic writers working on any longer sort of project like a thesis or dissertation. If we had some success making it through undergraduate paper writing, or even the sort of writing we do in grad classes, chances are good that we got habituated towards writing with a timeframe amenable to producing written chunks in the area of 25-30 pages, where we’d build for a term towards a final paper. Sometimes there’re “process” bits, like draft-writing or the option to revise short work into the longer final product. But it’s usually still possible to write and revise in intensive bursts, pushing through procrastination with a mix of adrenaline, guilt, terror, boredom, and fear to produce something that can be turned in.

For longer work, including the kind of work practice that can sustain us as writers over a lifetime, this approach isn’t good. In fact, it’s terrible and one of the reasons writing is an occasion for so much unnecessary suffering. This approach to writing is politically important, too, as it’s embedded in a metric-organized neoliberal system of measurable and rewardable production of content; perhaps it’s not explicitly meant to shut down odd, creative, twisty, unpredictable writing, but it does. And it does this disproportionally, so that the writers that we don’t ever get to read are racialized, working-class, and otherwise outside the academic mainstream.

The product-oriented writing approach is ripe for and maybe even produces perfectionism-procrastination and magical thinking; when we have something due at a particular time and we haven’t worked on it at all, we can slide into the pattern of thinking that somehow it’ll all just come together. Writing is often non-linear and moves at enormous speed, unpredictably, but I’ve observed that often grad students in particular take incompletes in classes in order to finish term papers, and then become hopelessly stuck.

And so the advice often is to pick a process, but I haven’t seen much explanation of how actually you do that. So here’re two “how” suggestions.

The recipe: Writing process two ways

1. Attend to yourself when you are writing – even when you’re writing in a product-oriented way, since that’s probably the main way you’re writing. Notice what you feel like, what feels good and what feels hard. Notice what music you like, who you’re with, whether you’re writing by hand or on the computer. Notice where you are, what you did to get there, what your entry sequence was. Notice your body, your breath, how you feel. Pick three of the things that, simply, feel like they’re working with some ease and try to do those things again this week. So, if you feel good in a cafe, with noise-cancelling headphones, using a website-blocking software that helps you not randomly scroll through the internet for a fixed amount of time, do that again. If you feel good in a library with silence and a particular friend, see if they will come to the library with you again. If you like writing in a bar in a paper notebook with eight books stacked around you and a particular hat on, try to do that again. See how that feels. If it feels good, do it again. In the second week, try to do that thing two or three times. For most of us, in our real worlds, two or three times of doing writing a week is going to be fabulous, amazing. Some of us have writing processes that allow us to touch in to writing daily or many times a week – also wonderful.

This approach is to set up times and places where you write and to trust that if you show up there and do some writing, you’ll have done some writing and eventually a product will emerge, particulate from a solution. This approach starts from the smallest and least outcome oriented approach you can find, and looks at what happens if you build on it. It’s iterative and completely content-free, and for that reason might sound good but not stick at all. So there’s also idea #2.

2. Think of a product you know you want to produce, and the date by which you need it. Then start inquiring further:
◆ How many words does this thing need to be?
◆ What are the different parts it will have? How many words are those parts, typically (in your own past writing, in the genre you’re writing in, in examples of papers or dissertations that have been successful)?
◆ How many writing sessions are realistically possible between now and the date the thing is due? How many units of writing will make up a session? (Where the most common units are pomdoros or 45-minute increments)
⁃ This should itself be a separate recipe. To determine a writing session, you need to also have a work week, which basically means having a day or two off which you take as entitlement not reward – a weekend. Then you have the work you need to do to sustain your life, like groceries exercise showers seeing friends. Then you perhaps have wage work. All of these things take reasonably fixed amounts of time, and the “writing sessions” that are possible are also units of time. I’ve observed that no academic writer I know can sustainably write more than three 45-minute units in any given work day, and usually we do much less – in my life being able to do between three and ten units a week is quite luxurious.
◆ How much do you write, un-edited, in a unit? How many of them will you need to make it to the product you have? Or conversely,
◆ How much will you need to write in each unit in order to make it to your product?
◆ How many other products are you supposed to produce in this time frame? Is it actually possible to do them? If it’s not, how are you going to manage that?
◆ Assign a number of sessions or units to any given week, and plug away through the words until you have a draft.

I’ve found it useful to think about the ways that products and processes are different. Notably, a process is a human experience, an activity, a thing we are doing. It has duration, material reality, an affect or a mood. It is something, by definition, that it is possible to do because it is fundamentally nothing other than a doing. A process is not a crisis, or an exception. A process is amenable to habit. We can make a process small enough that it doesn’t terrify us, small enough that we’re not able to fail at it. And this means we can make processes that allow us to write, and that is worth doing.

Misogynist trans-hating: Neither radical nor feminist.

Some people want us to stop using the term “TERF” (“Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist”). I think there are indeed good options for replacing “TERF.” I suggest perhaps we should go with “Misogynist Trans-Hating Person” which we could shorten to “MTraHP” if we need to say it out loud. This solves a core problem in “TERF,” which is the idea that trans-hating is either radical or feminist.

I’ve been arguing with people who hate and distrust trans women for longer than the term “TERF” has existed. Many of those arguments were during the decade in which I was heavily involved with community radio, because I programmed women’s music shows and was part of a feminist radio collective that did interviews and news. That decade happened to coincide with some of the conflicts around whether the Michigan Women’s Music Festival should exclude trans women. If you cared about music, culture, and gender oppression, there was not a way to be present in those scenes and not participating in those conversations.

I came into feminism through radical feminism as it was articulated by Andrea Dworkin and Catharine MacKinnon, and there are still so many things I value about my foremothers’ insights. First, I value the understanding that people experience harm because we are socially organized into groups, or classes, in ways that have real material consequences; women are oppressed as a class, and men as a class benefit from gender oppression. Second, the insight that there is no such thing as an innate gender remains really vital to me – women are not more nurturing, delicate, kind, or whatever because of some internal or biological command. Third, I will always love and find inspiration in the insight that we can fundamentally transform social relations, that the world does not have to be this way.

I moved away from the kind of feminism espoused by MacKinnon beginning from learning more about her role in the anti-pornography case R. v. Butler, and its effects on lesbian and queer erotica. I spent a lot of time thinking about the definition there of pornography and its results, and then reflecting more deeply on the question of how sex and sexuality play out if we define masculinity as violating women and eroticizing it and femininity as being violable. The debates about excluding trans women from women’s spaces were clarifying, and I began to worry about the ways that people calling themselves feminists allied themselves with conservatives and the religious right. Directly allying with people who wanted to control women’s bodies and movement seemed to contradict the political force of what I understood as radical feminism. Now I have criticisms of the ways that those early feminist texts were extremely racist, and the ways that the politics have aligned to materially harm sex workers. Those are longer and more complex stories, though they’re connected.

The current manifestation of trans-hating billing itself as “radically feminist” is both evil and internally incoherent. It is internally incoherent because it simultaneously argues that there is no inherent femininity or masculinity and that the roots of male supremacy lay in biological sex. It argues that gender is imposed on us as a social relation with material realities and that biology determines our place in those social relations in ways that we can never transform. It argues that gender relations can and must change and that no one ever assigned “male” can be part of liberation. It is evil because hurts people as a necessary outgrowth of its view.

And this is how current manifestations of trans-hating are neither radical nor feminist. The notion of “radical” names the possibility that we can fundamentally transform the deepest structures and the most ordinary manifestations of oppression – we can go to the root. It’s not radical to drivel away about patriarchy, dominant ideologies, and systemic class oppression and then to pivot to examining my genitalia as a way to determine my reproductive capacity. That’s exactly what sexist conservative patriarchs do! And it’s not feminist to say that gender oppression is immutable and comes down to what genitals we have and how the people around us when we were little kids treated us. Indeed, that’s one beautiful thing about feminism. Feminism allows us to understand that no matter what people who hate us told us we could be, we can be so much more than they can ever imagine.

So, yeah. I’m totally happy to take back the “radical” and the “feminist” from people who ally themselves with conservative bathroom bill writers who were happy to prevent lesbian fiction crossing the Canadian border in the 90s. Maybe we can just call them what they are – misogynist trans-hating people. So much less confusing.

***I have edited this post to connect only Catharine MacKinnon to the Butler decision, after hearing a clarification about that from Andrea Dworkin’s life partner, John Stoltenberg. He also shared with me three articles which I found illuminating, in part because they show that anti-trans currents cannot legitimately claim that radical feminism implies being against trans women. I’m sharing them here.

These are a memoir-style reflection, “Andrea Was Not Transphobic,” and an essay opposing biological essentialism: “Biological Essentialism: Radical Feminism’s Most Diversionary and Counterrevolutionary Idea.”

And this is an interview with MacKinnon in which she clearly supports trans people. (This interview is, per MacKinnon’s view, strongly negative about sex work, so heads up on that content included in it.)

Advice for grad students writing SSHRC and OGS grant applications

Here are the notes and links to the recordings of an informal workshop on doing the initial writing for the SSHRC or OGS programs of study. It is specific to the Canadian context but may have something useful for folks elsewhere. Other caveat: This recording was made from Zoom for the participants beaming in remotely, so it’s a weird camera angle etc.

Audio versions are available through this link

Video versions:
1/3: https://youtu.be/RvxZJ9NtAA4
2/3: https://youtu.be/QqNllpaZLnE
3/3: https://youtu.be/hSXEXn7RNQU

Credit to Karen Kelsky, whose “Foolproof Grant Template” has been very useful to my thinking. I diverge from her in recommending that people do not think about things in terms of “a gap in the literature,” instead framing their work in terms of what we lose if this research is not done, what we gain if it can be accomplished. As I mention in the workshop, I had a dreadful experience working with Dr. Kelsky on one of my grant applications and thus never recommend her one-on-one, but heartily recommend her writing in many areas.

The anatomy of a SSHRC or OGS Program of Study

 Title:

 Context, Objectives, and Research Question:

  1. Statement that positions the reader with you, perceiving the widest possible relevance of the issue/problem you’re attending to.
  2. At least two and no more than three academic spaces in which this topic has been addressed.
  3. However, there has not been sufficient attention to/no one has yet examined/studied/etc … [what happens when we bring these together, attend to a specific area of the big context, etc]
  4. Why does is matter that this has not been addressed, or addressed in the way that you will do it? What bad thing happens? What good thing happens when we do address it? “Without x, we are left with inadequate Y to make important policy decisions…”
  5. I am applying for this grant to address this problem/contribute to the conversation in this way.
  6. “In my graduate work, I will examine X in order to …” “My dissertation asks, …”
  7. Specifics: more about what you will do, ask, investigate
  8. Disciplinary context – what is the conversation you’re participating in?

 Methodology:

  1. “In order to investigate [the question] I will…”; what do you need to do an how do you need to do it to answer your questions?
  2. Data analysis and processing
  3. How is this an excellent approach for your research?
  4. How is it reasonable and possible?
  5. How you’ll address any ethical concerns

 (your) Academic Background and present context: (How awesome are you! why is Carleton such a great place for you to do this work?)

Project Timeline:

Contributions/summing up:

 

Advice on planning to finish your dissertation this year

Here are the recordings, and below are the notes, from a workshop on planning to finish a dissertation in the next year. There are many things specific to Carleton, and I’m making these available especially for the folks who were not able to attend in person, but perhaps they will be useful. Other caveat: This recording was made from Zoom for the participants beaming in remotely, so it’s a weird camera angle etc.

The audio recordings of this workshop are available through this link.

And the video versions are here:
1/4: https://youtu.be/wLkH9kISiEE
2/4: https://youtu.be/SgOULmeZKiQ
3/4: https://youtu.be/RCw_xjbGbCg
4/4: https://youtu.be/baUXYSPCDgE

  1. Orienting yourself, your close ones, your supervisor and committee
    1. Yourself: what do you know about how you actually work? How are you doing? When are things reasonably possible, when are they very hard? Making the internal shift definitively.
    2. Close ones: recognize that “I will be a good parent/partner/friend/lover/etc after I’m done with this dissertation” is not a workable plan. What do the people supporting you need for basic care? How can giving them that also support your process?
    3. Supervisors and committee: how do yours actually work? What do you need to do to convince them that you’re finishing this year and they should sit up and take notice? Assessing how much they believe you about what you’re doing.
  2. Where are you at?
    1. Back-outlining what the dissertation is
    2. The title question
    3. Formatting
    4. Mapping the continuum from the “aspirational dissertation” to the “hang-my head dissertation”

 

  1. Getting a real view of the timelines

DD -6 months: Confirm with your supervisor and committee that you are planning to finish the dissertation within six months, and get a clear sense of what they think will be required to meet that plan

DD -3 months: Submit full draft of dissertation to committee (they may take as much as a month to return comments)

DD -10-12 weeks: Discuss with supervisor who to invite as the External and Internal External (they will approach these people to invite them to serve in these roles)

DD -8 weeks: Submit Submission of PhD Thesis for Defense form

DD -6 weeks: Upload final defense copy to Carleton Central (no further revisions possible)

Defense date

  1. The doing part: Planning activity rather than outcome, but checking on outcomes. Determine your metrics (words? Time? Anything other than “tired must stop”). Scheduling writing. Assuming that the worst happens, and the good-enough dissertation. If-then loops. Limiting work. Committing to breaks and play.
  2. At the end: “managing-up” the administrative apparatus gatekeeping finishing