Solidarity in our Pessimism: Acting Against the Tide
20 September 2022
The overturning of Roe vs. Wade just weeks after the birth of a child inspires reflection on an uncommon choice to pursue motherhood alongside an academic career. Absent any guarantees of an historically progressive expansion of reproductive rights, the post-Dobbs political scene invites radical action and solidarity building in the ruins.
The day that Roe v. Wade was overturned, I was meeting with a new colleague over Zoom: Mary, a political theorist, shares my interests in critical theory, queer theory, and affect theory. Over the course of our conversation, Mary and I discovered that we are both especially interested in thinking about the potential of Adornian “critical pessimism” (1) in relation to contemporary politics, and bringing queer theorists into conversation with the Frankfurt School. That is, we discovered this insofar as we were able to have a “conversation” at all. My infant son was not quite six weeks old that day; his constant need to be fed, held, and tended to kept me on my toes as I endeavored to hang onto the thread of our dialogue. Mary showed real patience as I fumbled with my chest, my son’s tiny body, various configurations of pillows, and several beverages throughout our call. This felt like solidarity in the making; though I have to admit that, when she brought up the court ruling, I didn’t immediately spring into tackling the whole big mess of it all.
Being a mother has gone hand-in-hand with my pursuit of an academic career. I had my first son before starting my six-year dual-title PhD program. I had this child by choice; I wanted to do this before buckling down with the PhD. I had already taken quite some time to figure out “what to do with my life,” and I didn’t want to wait until I was in the throes of graduate school to try to introduce a baby into our lives. (In retrospect, I must say that there was a kind of good sense to all of this… and, perhaps a touch of my characteristic original thinking taken to an extreme, considering the average doctoral student’s salary!)
Things get a bit murkier with the second child, but I will say that I always wanted another one (at least one more!), and that the time just wasn’t right until – as it happens – I had finished my PhD. Many people might find it risky, brave, and/or dangerous to have another child when I did. Many may very well have made a different choice, upon finding out that they were pregnant less than a month before moving to a new country to start a new, temporary job. Philosophers with children will surely understand that this has introduced a whole new level of both practical and existential complexity to my life, as I devote myself every day to my research projects, teaching, and job seeking efforts… and my children.
Many may very well have made a different choice, upon finding out that they were pregnant less than a month before moving to a new country to start a new, temporary job.
Having kids, for me, was never an expression of an investment in heteronormative reproductive futurity, though I should clarify that I don’t think the future is just “kid stuff.” (2) I wanted kids to help repair my own damaged internalized models of relationality. Like Mari Ruti, I learned early the value and necessity of detaching from relationships that harmed me, (3) insofar as that is possible; but perhaps I got too good at it. For a time, I took care of other people’s kids to try to let go of some of my own baggage; and I made family out of close friends, teachers, and mentors in an effort to reimagine kinship anew. But still, I wanted my own kids. I wanted to thrive in life, personally and professionally, and for me, that meant creating a kind of stability in love at home which involved having beings beyond my partner and my dog to care for, and to love me back.
But this is just my story – indeed, only a part of my story – and it took me a while to get to that place in my life where I was in a position, relationally, mentally and emotionally (not to mention career-wise, that at least I was on track!), to have a child. The overturning of Roe v. Wade is an outrage because it means that many people who are not in a position to welcome children into their lives with adequate attention, care, and resources – and for whom this may be a disastrous life event – will be forced to do so anyway, or, alternatively, to risk injury or death by seeking to terminate their pregnancy illegally. Merriam-Webster’s dictionary defines an outrage as “an act of violence or brutality,” an “injury, insult,” or “an act that violates accepted standards of behavior or taste.” (4) It seems to me that all of these definitions apply in this case. American girls grow up in a culture that encourages them to sexualize themselves from an early age, since their social worth is largely determined by their looks – specifically, their sex appeal. It is considered normal behavior in America to engage in sexual acts when you are a teenager, and certainly well before marriage (when you are still only hypothetically ready to have kids). Girls are also taught that they can be anything and achieve anything that boys can. So, it is inconsistent to deny them reproductive rights, including the right to an abortion. What American girl will make it through middle and high school without feeling great pressure to wear makeup, and hook up (5) with boys? What form of contraception can guarantee with 100% certainty that it will prevent pregnancy? (This is to not even get into cases involving sexual assault.) It is an act of violence to require people to carry their unwanted pregnancies to term, regardless of the circumstances. And it is certainly an insult to take away the right to an abortion after almost fifty years in America of granting women at least this one basic liberty.
Just think of all of the women’s studies textbooks whose celebration of the fundamental achievements of the “second wave” (6) of the U.S. feminist movement will have to be edited and revised to reflect this horrible moment! This period of mainstream feminist activism in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s had secured some key gains against remaining formal gender-based inequalities – for example, in the realms of reproductive freedom and sexuality. And this may have seemed to be a natural historical progression from the establishment of voting rights for American women in the “first wave,” beginning in the mid-nineteenth century. Alas, here again, the wave metaphor appears to meet further limits to its utility, since waves don’t tend to move in reverse.
Don’t get me wrong – it’s not as if I had thought that the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice, nor am I committed to the Western liberal myth of historical progress. Within the Frankfurt School tradition, I tend to diverge from those who take some kind of historical teleology, or another, to be inevitable for critical theory – like Axel Honneth, who, in his 2011 book Freedom’s Right, envisions freedom as continually expanding its reach to more and more groups of previously marginalized individuals, as recognition is incrementally extended to the dispossessed. For Honneth, freedom (understood as autonomy) “represents the outcome of a centuries-long learning process.” (7) In the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I never fooled myself into thinking that just because America had elected a Black president the last time around, things would keep going in the direction of (at least symbolic) inclusion, and a female president would have to be next (especially considering who she was up against!). Though that is also not to say that I wasn’t in shock, and deeply mortified, when Trump was elected; I remember walking around in a total daze the next morning, in genuine fear of the open acts of violence and insult that I predicted would become the new normal for those targeted by xenophobia, racism, sexism, ableism, and heterosexism. This was a practical worry that seemed more pressing than my broader concern for what it meant for American “democracy” to have elected (however you understand the status of that election) such an anti-democratic leader.
We need to join forces and engage in the messy, conflictual process of working together to protect reproductive rights – on the institutional level, but also by way of seemingly microcosmic creative acts of resistance.
On some level, I wish that I could have summoned my outrage that day in June, when Mary brought up the Dobbs ruling on our Zoom call. Maybe it hadn’t fully registered yet – since there has been a phantasmatic quality to much of what has happened, politically, in the U.S. in the last few years, and especially because I feel far away, in another country, right now. Perhaps I was too tired; I really hadn’t slept in six weeks. But I also just wasn’t surprised; and call me a pessimist for not expecting some sea change in the immediate future. Regardless of what happens with present efforts to codify Roe, however, it is clear that we need to take action – radical action – now. It’s encouraging that so many people have registered to vote in recent weeks, though voting will not be enough. It’s great that so many have showed up on the streets to protest; that won’t be enough either. In the wake of Roe, we need to form new feminist solidarity groups, out of “necessity, in the wreckage” (8) of our American demos. We need to join forces and engage in the messy, conflictual process of working together to protect reproductive rights – on the institutional level, but also by way of seemingly microcosmic creative acts of resistance. If there is one thing I’ve learned from my own queer engagement with Adorno, it’s that solidarity can be built among the most no-saying, critical-theorizing social outsiders. Mary and I, for example, both happen to be avid outdoorspeople currently living in places with access to camping. And we are both open to the hard work of making new friends…
1. Mary E. Witlacil, “The Critical Pessimism of Theodor Adorno.” New Political Science, 2022. DOI: 10.1080/07393148.2022.2076509
2. Lee Edelman titles the first chapter of his antisocial queer ethic, No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2004), “the future is kid stuff.” For a trenchant critique of Edelman’s take on futurity, see Mari Ruti, The Ethics of Opting Out: Queer Theory’s Defiant Subjects (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), Chapter Three, “Why There is Always a Future in the Future.”3. Siraganian, Modernism and the Meaning of Corporate Persons, p.197.
3. “… my psychic survival has always been predicated on my ability to walk away from what is debilitatingly painful,” Ruti avers. Ruti, The Ethics of Opting Out, 95.
5. Colloquially, in the U.S. context, “hooking up” means having a sexual encounter with a person with whom you are not in a relationship.
6. The wave metaphor has been criticized for presenting a misleading picture of U.S. feminist activism as having historically been unified around certain ideas and goals, when, in fact, U.S. feminist movement, as bell hooks calls it, has been quite heteronomous. Linda Nicholson, “Feminism in “Waves”: Useful Metaphor or Not?” New Politics, Vol. XII, No. 4 (Whole Number 48), Winter 2010. bell hooks, Feminism is for Everybody: Passionate Politics (New York: Routledge, 2015).
7. Axel Honneth, Freedom’s Right: The Social Foundations of Democratic Life, Trans. Joseph Ganahl (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014), 17. Indeed, most of the book consists in a reconstruction of the realization and institutionalization of freedom in modern European society.
8. Nathan DuFord, Solidarity in Conflict: A Democratic Theory (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2022), 27. (Published under Rochelle DuFord.)