May 23, 2018

On Noise & Networks

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Still from Anita, 2013

And you will disappear into your own rage
into your own insanity
into your own poverty
into a word a phrase a slogan a cartoon
and then ashes

 — Jayne Cortez, Coagulations: New & Selected Poems (1984)

It took the first ten years of my life to understand the motivations behind the leers and advances I encountered wherever I went unsupervised. Whether at school or on my way to the corner shop for my teen magazines (free berry-flavored lip gloss included), these incursions would soon grow to be both tediously predictable and routine. Before that, Mama often tells the story of once leaving me to play outside only for an older man to break his stride and grab my hand. He attempted to take me with him. When he heard my mother’s screams (registered her presence), he let go of me and rushed off. I was five years old.

Quantitative data isn’t very useful in determining who is left behind in the counting, or rather, by the algorithms. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the potential and limitations of networked feminisms. The #MeToo movement continues to expose rampant exploitation in the most public industries, leveraging social media and seamlessly integrating women’s age-old whisper networks with water-cooler conversations and public outrage. Reactions to testimonies can be quantified through the currency of page hits, retweets and subsequent advertising revenue. Twitter confirmed that, by the end of 2017 alone, over 1.7 million tweets across eighty-five countries utilized the #MeToo hashtag. Facebook identified twelve million related posts and comments over the course of a single twenty-four hours. While this may be a pivotal moment in networked feminism’s history, it is simply a continuation of a longer roll call of hashtags. Before #MeToo, there was #EverydaySexism, #WhyIStayed, #YesAllWomen, #WhyWomenDontReport, and #YouOkSis. Researchers from George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management’s PEORIA project tracked more than ninety-six million tweets across seven years (2010–2017) related to the global sexual harassment “conversation.”

Hashtags act as circulated intermediaries enabling strangers to recognize and therefore validate experiences of sexual harassment, sometimes even before those closest to us do. Accountability can then become understood as the mere expulsion of individual abusers or the ethical boycott of their work or brand. Networked feminisms have proven to be particularly effective at collectivizing injury using everything from promoted content and web teach-ins on bystander intervention to disseminated lists of abusers and zines like those produced by the Philly Survivor Support Collective.

This very collectivization can lead to an ideological impasse that prioritizes a politics of resilience and recognition. #MeToo invokes the kind of radical mimesis that unearths as much as it leaves unspoken. The pain circulates without any real analysis of its constitutive elements, or rather the foundations it rests upon. Resilience, and its pathos, can be a vital tool for those whose perspectives are denied the gravitas of logos. It is one way for us to make meaning out of the meaninglessness of suffering. Incoherence, uncertainty, and unfocused anger are discouraged reactions. Yet, these supposedly “unproductive” responses may prove more regenerative for survivors who wish to heal without reinforcing resilience and its oppressive infrastructures.

In Resilience & Melancholy: Pop Music, Feminism, Neoliberalism, the theorist and philosopher Robin James defines resilience as a performance of “overcoming feminized damage.” James grounds her analysis of power in the sounds of popular music. Noisemaking, according to her, is a “means of musical, cultural and social production.” Defining “noise” as “whatever extraneous sounds interfere with the clear transmission of the primary sound, the signal,” James notes how it is mined for legibility and transformative meaning. We hear this noise everywhere from soaring Calvin Harris EDM anthems to Lady Gaga’s hits and the death sounds of Atari Teenage Riot. To James, noisemaking isn’t inherently radical. It isn’t always a proverbial speaking of truth to power, or even an idealized feminist answer to Derrida’s mistranslated Babylonian confusion of tongues. Some voices, or registers of grievance, are heard and recognized more than others. These are the voices which best signify an overcoming and recycling of damage that is then broadcast in the promise of reward or redress.

This is a useful analogy for the celebrated resilience of survivors who achieve recognition only through sharing and recycling their pain. Resilience, like all performances, requires a participatory audience. James reminds us that the energy, or “surplus value,” spent in performing resilience is not reinvested back into human capital. Framed another way, what happens after we expose our wounds to the very institutions which injure us in the first place?

Resilience is often sold to us as a prescriptive tool. We assume it is the only way to be heard. A viral tweet or Facebook post replicates and regenerates itself. Retelling a traumatic event publicly through these means can provoke the kind of immediate reaction and solidarity that is at odds with the quotidian nature of sexual violence. This is a good but troubling thing. Such patterns can leave us wondering why strangers can often be more willing to believe us than the people we know and love offline. In any case, patriarchal domination reasserts itself by deciding upon the terms of engagement. Like all performances, resilience is measured against a hierarchical scale. This is how the mythology of the “perfect” harassment victim is created. The savvy and resourceful victim who most definitely wasn’t asking for it. Points are detracted every time a victim’s story doesn’t add up or follow this prearranged trajectory. Recognition isn’t meritocratic, to say the least. We see this in conversations around sexual harassment dominated by those in possession of the most human and financial capital.

Against this scale, the long-term effects of resilience are hardly considered. There is no consideration for how trauma often transcends the language into the embodied, the unutterable. Being caught in the crosshairs of patriarchy feels a lot like a kind of rigor mortis that doesn’t lend itself easily to performance. Victims who freeze up, who remain silent, who don’t tell anyone, who don’t perform resilience; they are the ones who are cross-examined only to be ultimately denied recognition. The politics of recognition is a politics that wants to see us kicking, flailing, screaming, overcoming, and finally witnessing. Failure to perform an over-determined resilience will cost you. You are the tour guide to your own sites of trauma. Act accordingly.

Our descriptive energies can be taken up in the baring of the wound and not in its healing. Time and time again, we see resilience called upon in the service of reform. Black women, perhaps more than anyone else, know the disposability underpinning resilience and just how easily it can be used against you. We have lived long enough under the unloving trope of the Strong Black Woman. We know how the noise we make can serve to benefit everyone but ourselves. We understand resilience as an exoskeleton we are forced to develop. A kind of cybernetic adaptation. It shouldn’t be that way. Resilience myths make symbols out of survivors instead of analyzing the political realities behind what they have had to survive. Behind what they shouldn’t have to survive.

Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony against Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas typifies this enforced resilience. The descriptions of the harassment suffered by Hill coincided with the explosion in tabloid-style coverage, feeding the kind of clickbait voyeurism we are familiar with today. The sordid details of the case, as well the intimate details of Hill’s life, were the subject of feverish discussion. Hill had to essentially perform for an audience beyond the court she stood before. She had to be resilient. The nation would then decide if she was, indeed, a perfect victim. In the aftermath of the controversy, sexual harassment cases filed in the United States more than doubled, with the amount awarded to victims under federal laws quadrupling to almost $27.8 million. Here we go again with the numbers. Recognition, at its most superficial, reaps its own rewards. Or at least as close to redistribution as victims can get. In “Can I Get a Witness?” June Jordan recognized this unforgiving bind for what it was and still is. “Is there no way to interdict and terminate the traditional, abusive loneliness of black women in this savage country?” Her question remains unanswered. It also presents us with another one:

What is the difference between being listened to and being heard?

As a teenager, I didn’t compare my own experiences of harassment with those of my peers. It wasn’t something we talked about much. We were all agonizingly conscious of our changing bodies and our ambivalent relationships to those changes. We were also increasingly aware of how our personal relationships with the boys and men around us were informed by subordination to and super-identification with the power they represented. It was so normalized, we didn’t think it worthy of any real analysis. Or maybe we already knew we wouldn’t be recognized. As an adult, harassment has become a repetitive fly-swatting exercise I have adapted to. The only thing that has changed is that I am less interested in centring the terribleness of individuals and more committed to understanding the systems that give them terrible power.

Recently, I played around with these contradictions through a little experiment of my own. I was being followed by a man after a long day at work. I knew I didn’t have my rape alarm on me. I was also tired and have a habit of confronting my fears with black ­­— in every sense of the word — humor instead of a fight-or-flight response. So I started a live Instagram story and shared it with my followers. Speaking directly into the camera, I cracked jokes and pouted away. You know when you’re being followed by a potential murderer but these bills and deadlines got you wanting to die anyway. Terror recycled into URL relatability. Peak #ThatFeelingWhen. Mid-way through recording, the man stopped following me altogether. Later, I thought about what it meant to have an audience for my fear. To pull together my friends as witnesses and defenders, without their permission. Networked feminism was, in a way, the only resource I had at that moment. In that instant, I needed recognition more than anything.

Recognition won’t save the women who raised me or the woman I was raised to be. It won’t save the surplus populations of women of color, the workers that comprise the homework economy and the women who dominate the global export-processing sector. It won’t save the Indonesian women who painstakingly make the lashes I wear on nights out for $0.04 per pair. We know the entanglement of work and sexual harassment doesn’t simply begin when we step outside the threshold of the home. There is no easily quantifiable hashtag for gendered violence experienced at the hands of fathers, uncles, brothers, and family friends. The oikos, in many ways, prepares us for the sexual exploitation of the workplace. Our mainstream conversations don’t hold space for incarcerated or immigrant women, let alone the masses of Black men and boys routinely sexually harassed by the police. Though we are all held captive in trauma’s integrated circuit, there are degrees of vulnerability. It’s hard to tell where it starts and with whom, which is exactly why we must begin everywhere.

Recognition for pink-collar workers translates into UN recommendations and domestic policies that identify sexual harassment as a problem of productivity. In 2015, sexual harassment was reported to cost the Cambodian economy 0.5% of the country’s GDP. Now that it was undercutting profit, industry leaders recognized it as a destructive phenomenon. When we talk of how much our culture at large suffers when talented women are harassed out of the workplace, we overlook how sexual coercion is intrinsic to the wage relation. Work humanizes us, as does talent and beauty and other circumstantial markers. Combating harassment then becomes one way of keeping the machinery of exploitation well-oiled by reforming institutions into more humane forms of capitalistic organization and extraction. Rinse and repeat. Our resilience is recognized only to be micromanaged into narratives of a progress achieved through the goodwill of bosses and gatekeepers rebranding as “allies.” Trauma reboots the network.

This is our challenge. We must allow grief to saturate but not overtake us. It is only human to desire recognition, but an uncritical prioritization of recognition as a means to an end will never benefit the most vulnerable. Resilience is rarely a choice. It’s no surprise then that its celebration can feel disempowering. Many of the women I know have confessed that in the wake of #MeToo, they feel more dejected than ever and have been forced to relive their own assaults. If this Sisyphean cycle of recognition, subsumption within the curtailed parameters of what liberal discourse allows, and inevitable backlash is all there is to offer, victims can’t be blamed for disengaging. In this moment of collective noisemaking, let us think as we count. Even as we grieve.

Comments (3)

  • What a beautiful essay. Forever pertinent. Thank you 💛

  • Anne Lesley Selcer says:

    Thank you for this dimensional, elegant and important analysis.

  • Martha Paterson-Cohen says:

    This is excellent. Resilience as a way of characterizing a response to a problem, individually and collectively, has been used in recent years in many spheres to stifle real progress and as you say, understanding of the underlying structural causes of the problem.
    (environmental issues, and gerontology (my field) are other examples.) It is so refreshing to see someone take on this deception.

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