Telling What We Don’t Know: Confession, Varité, #MeToo
Men must learn to be silent. It must be very painful for them, to silence in themselves the voice of theory, the practice of theoretical interpretation. They have just got to get treatment. We’ve hardly had the time to finish living through an event as huge as May ’68 before men are already talking about it, holding forth with their theories and breaking the silence. [. . .] Without stopping, men have silenced women, and the insane, and slotted back into using yesterday’s language, and gone touting for yesterday’s theories to put into words and into narrative this wholly new event: May ’68, and explain it all away. [. . .] No, men had to ruin everything and stop the flow of silence. I become very despondent when I think of this crime. Because that’s what it was, a crime committed by men. It was men who made me sick at the idea of political activism after ’68. It was no accident that the women’s movement came straight after ‘68.
#MeToo—since it started trending in October 2017—has been labeled an event potentially as impactful as the student revolution of 1968. Whether this prognosis applies to the hashtag itself or the “MeToo movement”—understood as a social movement in the classical sense, stretching from social media to the courts and including mass demonstrations—may not be clear. For a “MeToo movement” was identified quickly, giving the social media phenomenon something of a prophetic edge. The hashtag has come to act both as the instigator of an open-ended process as well as a caesura: there is a before and there is an after #MeToo. As an event of alleged historical dimension, it also quickly required that one position oneself in relation to the hashtag, to account for its role, explain one’s participation or non-participation. Predictably, such a demand ultimately produced a quite unforgiving polarization. Either one was witnessing the beginning of the end of the ancient regime of the sexes—“time’s up!”—or the end of the human race. As the movement’s enemies never tired of declaring: Heterosexuality as such, and along with it, reproduction were under threat.
This extreme polarization might suggest that the hashtag itself carried a potential event-fulness. As a formula of utmost terseness that, at the same time, promised the broadest reach, the hashtag #MeToo encloses the universal as well as the singular. At its heart, it confronts us with the problem Duras so poignantly and polemically posed: the question what is too much, or what is not enough, saying too much versus not saying anything at all, and the fact that somehow this very dilemma has its own inherent connection to sex and sexual difference.
#MeToo facilitated an eruption of voices that managed, via the signal of the hashtag, to exceed the merely personal in favor of an aggregate, a collective strength. The continuously growing number the hashtag evokes or produces corresponds to a logic of the infinitesimal with respect to the content it subsumes, tending to the small, the insignificant, the non-litigable, the non-actionable, to the gray areas of micro-aggressions, poisoned atmospheres, and passive-aggressive neglect. There is no minimum standard, no obvious threshold to an experience of sexism that would have it qualify for the hashtag. Conversely, the hashtag gives license to speak about things that otherwise, that is, left untagged, might seem small, insignificant, or petty. At the same time, it is this ambivalence that fueled and continues to fuel the criticism of #MeToo. In every aspect, it appears, #MeToo raises questions about scale and scope: how many women? how many complaints? how much damage? how much pain?
The function of a hashtag is always twofold. As media theorist Andreas Bernard explains: it is a signal visible in the individual post but invisible in its actual function of crosslinking; in combination with a keyword it is charged with affect while at the same time serving the instrumental technological function of cumulation. And the hashtag’s spheres of biggest impact are quite widely divergent: political activism on the one hand, viral marketing on the other—both sharing or fighting over the same economy of attention.
While keeping these dichotomies in mind, I would like to try and think about #MeToo not primarily as a media phenomenon that would be solely comprehensible according to an inherent logic of the new social media, but rather, in the spirit of Duras’s cautioning against any hasty understanding of the event, I set out to approach #MeToo from different perspectives. By placing #MeToo amidst a system of coordinates I hope to avoid a reduction down to the level of sense—as psychoanalysis should avoid to do—by allowing for a way of speaking and, maybe most importantly of all, listening which might put us in a position to account for #MeToo apart from prophesy and polarization.
The inherent promise of psychoanalysis is, after all, that speech will transform us. This promise should be considered in conjunction with Michel Foucault’s thoughts on a centuries-old tradition of speaking about the self. Foucault’s starting-point was a sketch of the role “confession” played in the history of this speaking. He presented it as part of the extensive project on the history of sexuality he set out to write in the aftermath and, arguably, as a response to the so-called sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s. Yet these references to the contemporary moment continue to remain frustratingly elusive in Foucault’s writing. I will attempt to establish a historical link by looking at a specific moment in the revolutionary praxis of those years by bringing “consciousness raising,” arguably radical feminism’s form of parrhesia, into the discussion.
Foucault: Confession and Pastoral Power
In the Introduction to The History of Sexuality, published in 1976, Foucault establishes a specific notion of confession as firstly “a ritual of discourse where the subject who speaks corresponds with the subject of the statement.” We speak about ourselves, thereby putting ourselves in a “relation to power, since one doesn’t confess without the presence, at the virtual presence, of a partner who is not simply an interlocutor but the agency that requires the confession, imposes it, weighs it, and intervenes to judge, punish, pardon, console, reconcile.” Secondly, for Foucault the confession is to be understood as “a ritual in which the truth is corroborated by the obstacles and resistances it has had to surmount in order to be formulated.” Thirdly, and finally, it is “a ritual in which the expression alone, independently of its external consequences, produces intrinsic modifications in the person who articulates it.” It is important to note that for Foucault, the subject of confession does not necessarily have to admit to having committed a wrong. All that is required is that she speak about herself in front of a real or virtual other during a process of hesitation, careful assessment, and shame in an act that will eventually prove transformational for the speaking subject.
This understanding of confession is, as Foucault’s genealogy reveals, a specifically Christian technology—a crucial component of what Foucault reconstructs as “pastoral power.” While truth-telling practices certainly existed in antiquity, they were hardly structured around shame. Foucault detects the roots of modern confessional practices in the Christian tradition of exagoreusis—that is, a constant verbalization of the results of self-analysis. And the contents of this verbalization are not arbitrary. Medieval penitence was specifically concerned with the truth of sex, which must be laid bare in all its aspects: “a shadow in a daydream, an image too slowly dispelled, a badly exorcised complicity between the body’s mechanics and the mind’s complacency: everything had to be told.” While in the Middle Ages these confessions of the flesh served as markers of proof as to where exactly the devil had snuck into the poor soul (or rather, the body), by the 19th century sexuality was regarded as the inherent locus of truth of the subject itself. Foucault reconstructs this compulsion to confess and its assumption of an intrinsic connection between knowledge and power and, in the process, discovers that it also needs to be understood, paradoxically, to have brought about a new kind of pleasure: “pleasure in the truth of pleasure, a pleasure of knowing that truth.”
The fact that the confession promises to transform the self has to be thought in a radical manner: speaking about the self thus is made into an act of subjectivation—in both senses of the word assujettissement, that is, also implying a subjection. This process is facilitated as a compulsion—which implies that at this stage in his theory, Foucault imagines power still as an intrusive, normative force. Confession does not uncover a truth but rather produces this truth in the first place. Foucault challenges the notion of a self that would introspectively recognize itself first and only then would give testimony of this. Rather, he insists, it is the confession that constitutes this self in the first place.
Psychoanalysis is made out, by Foucault, to be only the most refined, the most subtle form of a coercion of confessions and the method most evidently based on the assumption that the subject’s truth lies in her sexuality. I cannot set out to depict Foucault’s long relationship with psychoanalysis here—suffice it to say, it is a complex one. There are moments of utter and complete dismissal as well as interspersed remarks of appreciation throughout his writings. The most forceful dismissal is certainly to be found in the Will to Knowledge, the first volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality project and the last of his books published during his lifetime that deal in any way with modernity. A very principled difficulty for determining Foucault’s stance towards psychoanalysis lies in the often unclear distinction between psychoanalysis, psychology, and psychiatry. I will restrict myself here to the notion of confession in the definition Foucault gave this term and to the question whether psychoanalysis can be said to perpetuate this technology of pastoral power via “the mandatory production of confessions.”
Freud: Talking Cure and Testimony
Indeed, in Freud’s early Studies on Hysteria, co-authored with Josef Breuer, Freud seems to abide by the method of catharsis in which affects can be “discharged” and “abreacted” via the process of speech. He originally assumes a cathartic moment in which the analysand will finally lay bare the crucial truth about herself, at which point the symptoms would simply vanish. This assumption famously had Josef Breuer play out a series of sessions with his patient Anna O. in which she would confess something, feel better, but eventually deteriorate and appear with a new symptom. As is well known, this circle did not lead to a cure—and it prompted Freud to develop the tools of working through, transference, and the interpretation of resistance to achieve better results.
In one of his own case studies published in Studies on Hysteria, Freud describes the encounter with a young woman he names “Katharina” who approaches him during his vacation in the Alps about recurring headaches and respiratory problems, which Freud quickly identifies as symptoms of anxiety attacks. This is a short and improvised treatment introduced by the patient’s remark: “You can say anything to a doctor, I suppose.” Whether that is really what “Katharina” said, we will never know. “You can say anything to a doctor” might very well be what Freud wanted to hear—isn’t this the ideal opening to any analytic encounter?
Freud asks when her symptoms first occurred, and Katharina tells him about a situation in which she caught her uncle with her cousin in a compromising situation. She then continues to tell Freud about two earlier memories from her childhood in which said uncle tried to molest her. “At the end of these two sets of memories she came to a stop. She was like someone transformed. The sulky, unhappy face had grown lively, her eyes were bright, she was lightened and exalted.” After this instant cathartic effect, Freud questions her further. He then continues to give a summary of her recounting of these events and his respective interpretations, in accordance with his affect-trauma-model. In Katharina’s—quite exemplary—case this meant the 18-year-old’s physical symptoms were conversions of affects which accompanied an early experience that the child Katharina could not understand at the time. Now, in a phase of sexual maturity, these affects present themselves as somatic symptoms triggered by a recent event with the power to evoke the earlier one. Freud determines the original traumatic event as the moment in her childhood when Katharina “felt her uncle’s body” against hers one night.
So when she had finished her confession I said to her: ‘I know now what it was you thought when you looked into the room. You thought: “Now he’s doing with her what he wanted to do with me that night and those other times.” That was what you were disgusted at, because you remembered the feeling when you woke up in the night and felt his body.’
‘It may well be,’ she replied, ‘that that was what I was disgusted at and that that was what I thought.’
‘Tell me just one thing more. You’re a grown-up girl now and know all sorts of things . . .’
‘Yes, now I am.’
‘Tell me just one thing. What part of his body was it that you felt that night?“
But she gave me no more definite answer. She smiled in an embarrassed way, as though she had been found out, like someone who is obliged to admit that a fundamental position has been reached where there is not much more to be said. I could imagine what the tactile sensation was which she had later learnt to interpret. Her facial expression seemed to me to be saying that she supposed that I was right in my conjecture. But I could not penetrate further, and in any case I owed her a debt of gratitude for having made it so much easier for me to talk to her than to the prudish ladies of my city practice, who regard whatever is natural as shameful.
A few things are striking about this exchange: first of all, it is the staging of the scene as a dramaturgical, theatrical dialogue. What this scenic arrangement resembles most closely though is an interrogation. Freud appears as an investigator—and he has been linked to Sherlock Holmes in the past, by Steven Marcus and by Carlo Ginzburg. Katharina’s speech is framed as a confession—the German Beichte is unambiguous in its reference to a specifically Christian penance. Instead of an impassive listener, Freud appears as someone who probes her, “penetrates” her—the German in sie dringen is no less ambiguous. It is particularly the description of Katharina’s shame that is startling here—she smiles, she is embarrassed, she won’t say anything further on the matter. She acts “as if she had been found out”—found out by Freud? A generous reading of this passage suggests that Freud acknowledges the paradoxical affect sexual abuse produces in its victims. They blame themselves, take on the burden of guilt. Freud’s decision to stop probing at this moment seems to respect a boundary. On the other hand, we might wonder how necessary the detail Freud is hinting at was in the first place for “solving the case.” Because at this stage of his theory, Freud was convinced that adult neuroses are a result of early childhood sexual abuse and this hypothesis caused him to actively search for memories of these incidents in his patients. His description of this non-verbal moment with Katharina in which “her facial expression seemed to me to be saying that she supposed that I was right in my conjecture” expresses a rather self-satisfied excitement on Freud’s part to find exactly what he was looking for. But let me add that this moment of pondering on the part of Freud might also point towards a thorny issue one is confronted with in the clinical situation: that the analyst should not assume, even when it seems safe to do so. While he refrains from intruding upon her further than he deems necessary, he at the same time allows a space of non-verbal complacency to open up between them; a deadly move to make in analysis. Were he to probe further now, wouldn’t Freud avoid placing himself in the position of the one who knows? A position too readily and hungrily assumed by the police and the courts.
Freud explicitly discussed these similarities between the psychoanalytical and the criminological methods in his 1906 lecture “Psychoanalysis and the Establishment of the Facts in Legal Proceedings.” Here, Freud, following an invitation by a professor of jurisprudence, weighs in on a tested method of the interrogation of criminals, the so-called “association experiments.” Confronted with the general fact of the “untrustworthiness of statements made by witnesses,” the accused criminal himself is to reply to keywords in a manner of free association, thereby leading him “into an objective self-betrayal.” Freud then continues to discuss the similarities and differences between this method and the psychoanalytic one.
To combat your surprise, I must draw an analogy between the criminal and the hysteric. In both we are concerned with a secret, with something hidden. But in order not to be paradoxical I must at once point out the difference. In the case of the criminal it is a secret which he knows and hides from you, whereas in the case of the hysteric it is a secret which he himself does not know either, which is hidden even from himself. […] The task of the therapist, however, is the same as that of the examining magistrate. We have to uncover the hidden psychical material; and in order to do this we have invented a number of detective devices, some of which it seems that you gentlemen of the law are now about to copy from us.
The ”truly guilty” would not incriminate himself though—that would go against his Ego. Rather, the innocent may confess “in a desire for punishment”—a paradoxical occasion for the police/the prosecutor but a perfectly acceptable one for someone familiar with the workings of neurosis. Freud thus ultimately establishes a discordance between the disciplines—a break possibly connected to his surrendering of the seduction theory. While, strictly speaking, Freud had never been focused on the facts of the traumatic event and the question of consent as much as on the memories it produced—often tainted by shame and guilt—, he had by now radicalized this approach by establishing the importance of fantasies for the child’s psychosexual development.
Much later, in his 1926 “The Question of Lay Analysis” Freud stages a fictional dialogue between himself and “an impartial person” who questions him about the workings of the cure. He lets this impartial person confront him with a criticism not unlike the one Foucault would phrase half a century later:
“You assume that every neurotic has something oppressing him, some secret. And by getting him to tell you about it you relieve his oppression and do him good. That, of course, is the principle of Confession, which the Catholic Church has used from time immemorial in order to make secure its dominance over people’s minds.” We must reply: “Yes and no!” Confession no doubt plays a part in analysis—as an introduction to it, we might say. But it is very far from constituting the essence of analysis or from explaining its effects. In Confession the sinner tells what he knows; in analysis the neurotic has to tell more.
How does this work: telling more than one knows? This is where Jacques Lacan can help understand how if, as Foucault stipulated, the subject who speaks corresponds to the subject of the statement—what happens to the subject of the unconscious? And this will also help make sense of Lacan’s claim that truth can only ever be half-told.
Lacan: The Varité of Speech
It is the quest for truth which constitutes the subject—this was Lacan’s stance in the 1950s. Following Freud, he assumed that the truth of the subject was something to be unveiled via addressing the traumatic kernel of the subject. Lacan famously called this process the “birth of truth in speech.” Unlike Foucault, Lacan thinks this process in terms of linguistic production. Crucial for him is speaking as an act of enunciation: as opposed to a statement (which is analyzed as a matter of abstract grammatical units), the enunciation is formed by particularities—a particular speaker, a particular time and space, and, this is the most crucial for Lacan, an addressee. For him, the contents of the speech are even secondary, what is imperative is that the enunciation is an appeal to the other. Borrowing and claiming another term from linguistics, Lacan sees the “I” that speaks as a shifter—not just in the sense that it needs context but in the sense that this “I” is manifested as a conscious entity—that “I” am the master of my speech is an illusion.
“Now all speech calls for a response,” Lacan reminds us. However, the analyst is asked not to respond to “empty speech,” to the patient’s “own constructions in the imaginary […] for in the work he does to construct it for another, he encounters anew the fundamental alienation that made him construct it like another, and that has always destined it to be taken away from him by another.” This empty speech may very well carry meaning, even intellectual meaning, but it is always meaning taken from an other—“empty” speech is not “my” speech. The subject clings to her identity by staying within a pre-fabricated narrative. For in such speech “the subject seems to speak in vain about someone who—even if he were such a dead ringer for him that you might confuse them—will never join the assumption of one’s desire” which is after all, for Lacan, the aim of psychoanalysis: to bring about the subject of desire. When I say “bring about”, I am stressing the amount of work this process entails— work in the sense of creating, not of simply unveiling. This is not a “question of recognizing something which would be entirely given, ready to be coapted. In naming it, the subject creates, brings forth, a new presence in the world.”
Full speech, or true speech, parole vraie, on the other hand brings about sense rather than meaning. In it, the hysteric
forces the event into the word [le verbe], or, more precisely, into the epos by which she relates in the present the origins of her person. And she does this in a language that allows her discourse to be understood by her contemporaries and that also presupposes their present discourse.
True speech needs a witness—one that, in order to hear its sense, needs to be listening with evenly-suspended attention (gleichschwebende Aufmerksamkeit). Accordingly, the fundamental rule does not demand that everything be told but that everything happening in the session be told—this is how it addresses truth as opposed to reality—the material reality of empirical events.
The reason for the ambiguity of hysterical revelation of the past is not so much the vacillation of its content between the imaginary and the real, for it is situated in both. Nor is it the fact that is it made up of lies. It is that it presents us with the birth of truth in speech, and thereby brings us up against the reality of what is neither true nor false. At least, that is the most disturbing aspect of the problem. For it is present speech that bears witness to the truth of this revelation in current reality and grounds it in the name of this reality. Now only speech bears witness in this reality to that portion of the powers of the past that has been thrust aside at each crossroads where an event has chosen.
This is to be read as an elaboration of Freud’s famous phrase: “I no longer believe in my neurotica”—which wasn’t meant to imply that he stopped believing his neurotic patients. Rather, he had stopped believing himself, believing his own system of detection. The analyst must then be able and willing to hear that which he does not expect—which might very well be silence. Such truth must not be confused, let alone, confronted with a juridical call for truth as Lacan warns in Seminar 20:
[…] every term for truth [is] of juridical origin. Even in our times, a witness is asked to tell the truth, nothing but the truth, and, what’s more, the whole truth, if he can – but how, alas, could he? We demand of him the whole truth about what he knows. But, in fact, what is sought — especially in legal testimony — is that on the basis of which one can judge his jouissance. The goal is that jouissance be avowed, precisely insofar as it may be unavowable. The truth sought is the one that is unavowable with respect to the law that regulates jouissance.
This then is the impossible demand testimony makes: the subject is to speak about that which undoes her, the Other’s jouissance and its non-symbolic dimension, the primacy of the body. This dimension, which Lacan compares to “the textual work that comes out of a spider’s belly, its web,” this “truly miraculous function [emerging] on the very surface from an opaque point of strange being,” is the real that cannot be symbolized. What is at stake here is “not the truth that claims to be whole, but that of the half-telling (mi-dire), the truth that is borne out by guarding against going as far as avowal, which would be the worst, the truth that becomes guarded starting right with the cause of desire.” The English translation here uses “avowal” for the French “aveu,” which, of course, means “confession.” So it is safe to assume, I would argue, that Lacan, in this passage, wants to warn specifically against “going as far as confession” which would open the floodgates to judging another’s jouissance—and that, truly, would be the worst.
Lacan takes up the notions of empty and true speech again at a later date, in Seminar 24 of 1976-77, only to postulate that there is a truth of the discourse which is not to be confused with the truth of the real — and finally that there can be no knowledge of the unconscious. “There is no truth that, in passing through awareness, does not lie. But one runs after it all the same.” However, he develops a neologism in this seminar, that of varité, combining verité and varieté—truth and variety—to underscore what Freud already knew—whom he generally criticizes quite harshly at that point in time—: no two analyses are the same. There is not a single truth to any symptom even if that symptom is a very common one. In any case, one should not be tempted by common sense when confronting the unconscious.
Where do we go from here if we want to leave the purely singular, if we want to bring this insight beyond the consulting room?
Speaking Up from Where? Parrhesia, Consciousness Raising, #MeToo
#MeToo, as a mass phenomenon if not a social movement, was almost immediately confronted with fundamental doubts, criticism, and demands mainly concerning two of its aspects: (1) The, in many cases, considerable temporal delay between the event reported and the tagged speech act, which provoked many commentators to ask: why talk about it only now? Implying: “why didn’t she react, resist at the time?” and (2) The question of the gravity of the event. This was, for many, the real scandal of #MeToo: the abundant use of the hashtag summarized and seemed to equate rape, molestation, sexual harassment in all its forms—but also insinuations, microaggressions, throw-away remarks, incidents of mansplaining, or instances of being ignored.
These objections can be addressed in two fashions. One of them indeed summarizes all of these incidents either as rape or as symptoms of a pervasive “rape culture.” In addressing this dimension of structural, patriarchal violence, #MeToo revives the radical feminist anti-rape movement of the 1970s. While “rape” has been the label given to this nexus of patriarchal violence in radical feminism, this book by performance artist Suzanne Lacy, Rape Is, published in 1972, not only shows the many experiences that may be subsumed under the label “rape,” but demonstrates that radical feminism constituted itself as a radical rethinking of sexual violence directed against women:
It is crucial to note that the rape-awareness that was established as key concern of second wave feminism evolved from the practice of “Consciousness Raising.” The first consciousness raising group was founded in New York in the spring of 1968 when radical feminist Anne Forer declared women an oppressed group that needed “to raise their consciousness.” This implied raising awareness—first and foremost amongst themselves. In weekly meetings groups of women gathered to discuss all aspects of their lived experience. The Consciousness-Raising Guidelines as they were published in 1974 formulate this demand.
It is also very important to speak personally. Theorizing, abstracting, and generalizing discourage the intimacy of the group. In addition to speaking personally, everyone should try to be as specific and subjective as they can for that increases the experience and growth of the group as a whole.
By telling each other stories about their lives in these consciousness raising groups, women began to realize just how common sexual violence was. This led to the famous politicization of the personal as these private circles then became speak-outs and rallies. In this shift of spheres accumulated individual confessions could be forged into a political parrhesia.
In his 1982 lectures on the Hermeneutics of the Subject, Foucault, in complicating any conclusions one could have drawn concerning his supposed disapproval of psychoanalysis, names Jacques Lacan as the “only one who has sought to refocus the question of psychoanalysis on precisely this question of the relations between the subject and truth.” According to Foucault, Lacan asks a “specifically spiritual question,” namely, “that of the price the subject must pay for saying the truth, and of the effect on the subject of the fact that he has said, that he can and has said the truth about himself.” This truth-telling, or parrhesia, Foucault famously reconstructs as a technology of the self, more specifically, as a technology of self-care. Foucault devotes this lecture series to this technology, its capacity to form and transform the self, which, in addition, he suggests can serve as a counter model to confession. Parrhesia denotes a practice to be found in stoicism, epicureanism, cynicism which includes but is not limited to the Delphic “know thyself.” In parrhesia, the subject follows the demands of an ethics to help herself as well as others by speaking the truth. In order to have this effect, parrhesia can only be performed from “below,” for in speaking this truth (“speaking up”), the subject must take a risk, potentially have a “price to pay”—one’s life might well be at stake, “you risk death to tell the truth instead of reposing in the security of a life where the truth goes unspoken.” Parrhesia, thus, is not to be confused with modern conceptions of a freedom of speech, which allows everyone to say just about anything.
What is at stake when speaking about sexual violence?
It is just one facet of this ugly reality—one more thing to contend with—that while attention to violence against women may be sparked by anger and a desire for redress, it might also be feeding vicariously off the forms of perversion that fuel the violence in the first place.
Jacqueline Rose’s suspicions voiced in the immediate aftermath of the first #MeToo eruptions follow the very logic of the notion of a “second rape” coined by Lee Madigan and Nancy Gamble, which denotes the police’s and the court’s often relentless and tendentious interrogation of rape victims as well as the general voyeurism of the media. In any case, these iterations remind us that every accusation is at the same time a confession. And discipline can appear in the guise of silencing as well as a coercion to speak. We are confronted here with two modes of power and two possible means of resistance: When power aims to silence, specifically marginalized groups, “speaking out/up” is thought of as inherently freeing. But maybe we should at the same time be aware of the paradoxical function of power as Foucault develops it in his notion of governmentality—the power that still informs current neoliberal regimes. This would be a productive power that encourages us to speak, a power that always addresses the subject in her freedom—and which may very well reward the “silence breakers.” And indeed, there have emerged, from the #MeToo moment a number of what Leigh Gilmore calls “neoliberal life narratives” that frame the confessional as a solely personal story of survival and, indeed, survivor-dom, as well as a general proliferation of “empty speech” on social media.
While consciousness-raising explicitly did not want to be a therapeutic practice, this quote from 1969 by Kathie Sarachild, member of the New York Radical Feminists, tells us something about its affective power:
We assume that our feelings are telling us something from which we can learn… that our feelings mean something worth analyzing… that our feelings are saying something political, something reflecting fear that something bad will happen to us or hope, desire, knowledge that something good will happen to us. … In our groups, let’s share our feelings and pool them. Let’s let ourselves go and see where our feelings lead us. Our feelings will lead us to ideas and then to actions.
This insistence on “feelings” underlines the importance of the specific setting which allowed for more than just a sharing of speech and eventually for a radical re-definition of what deserves to be considered political. Witnesses are required for this operation—“sharing” aims to convey the message that these assaults are in no way singular events—the message being, again, foreshadowing today’s virtual version, “you are not alone.” The shift from the personal to the political, as it was forged in the consciousness raising groups, can be detected in #MeToo as well: the linking of singular confessions may have made for an act of collective parrhesia, but at the same time something new emerges in the speech collected by the hashtag #MeToo. There is no affective dimension besides language, preceding language, searching to be articulated, longing for speech—affect has to be produced, elicited by the 280 characters; the witnesses to the online speech act remain invisible, the community virtual. While social media posts are often introduced by statements like “I debated for a long time whether to share this…,” this may very well be the mingling of shame and pleasure Foucault attributed to the confessional act, but it could also be a reminder of what is at stake in parrhesia, especially when we consider that the hashtag in a sense records and catalogues the enunciation.
As soon as this speech, therefore, makes itself heard in public, it is confronted with an insurmountable paradox as Lauren Berlant defines it in the context of what she calls the “ineloquence of trauma:” “Dissident knowledge by women (and subjects conventionally overidentified with the body) always bears the burden of its apparent failure to be impersonal enough. For what end is the story being told?” Is it worth it?
This leads me to a possible psychoanalytical response to the criticism against #MeToo: the gravity lies not in the particular event as such but rather in the way in which the psyche processes it. Therein lies the varité. Many of the #MeToo-moments do not appear as non-symbolizable, rupturing events but rather as incidents in which a structural truth suddenly becomes palpable: this is my place in the oedipal (patriarchal) order—this is how it was set out to be and how it is going to be from now on. This is closer to the truth of psychoanalysis, and close to that which makes it distinctly not a juridical truth. However, and somewhat paradoxically, it makes also for a truth of the interchangeable, the impersonal. This failure of a minoritarian speech Berlant alluded to is not supposed to question or deny the rhetoric of trauma. What this tells us, rather, is that we are dealing with exactly this: a rhetoric, not a cathartic truth-telling. In its intertextual nature, the hashtag aims at de-individualization, thus confronting us explicitly with the questions of the universal as opposed to the particular and the content over the form. “Any concept that is considered a universal must take on the form of its emptiness, this indeterminate and proliferative abstraction, while appearing to assume a formal continuity that surpasses any particular content.” #MeToo, in its ultimate terseness, then might do just that: balance the line of resistant speech and resistant silence while all the same leaving the confines of an “obsessional intrasubjectivity” in favor of what one could call, with Lacan, “hysterical intersubjectivity”—the only place from which change can emerge.