Freedom and the injured subject

Over recent times, particularly since the plebiscite and Safe Schools debates within Australia, I have noticed a strong narrative of ‘suffering’ and ‘vulnerability’ within large parts of the queer community. Mainstream queer discourse has increasingly turned towards defining queer people as ‘vulnerable’, ones who have ‘suffered’ a great ‘injury’, and whose main quest is for those injuries to be fixed in some way. I have spoken about this issue in my podcast Queers with Benjamin Riley, and in Archer Magazine Fury wrote spectacularly about the same issue, stating that:

we queer folk have only been given the option to understand ourselves through the lens of pain. Because of this, it’s hardly a surprise how much we judge and police queerness by its proximity to suffering.

Fury continues, stating:

Oppression and its relevant experiences have become an important tool to define what makes us different to the mainstream and to each other. This, in its turn, has been important to ferry resources to the most in need. However, it is not without its downsides. It is easy to process the conversation around oppression like it, in itself, is a tangible metric instead of a shared context which yields statistical trends.

Given this recent turn I thought it would be interesting to have a quick look at one of the key texts I have discovered for my PhD over the past months, Wendy Brown’s “States of Injury”. Written in the 1990s, this book is a collection of essays , asking the provocative questions, how has injury become the basis for political identity in contemporary life, and how have law and other state institutions come to be seen as redressing such injuries rather than as perpetrating them? It would be possible to go through each and every essay with a blog post (maybe not a bad idea!). But for today I want to start by looking at the first chapter, which as an introduction presents Brown’s thesis as a whole.

In essence, Brown’s thesis is that through abandoning ideas of ‘freedom’ to be replaced primarily by ‘protection’ and ‘equality’, the left have reinforced the liberal power structures that create oppression of minority groups. Brown starts her argument by investigating the concept of freedom, arguing that that left has given up on any proper analysis of freedom as a broader goal for social change. This ‘disorientation’ she argues is largely a consequence of the conservative political culture that became ascendant in the U.S. during neoliberalism, in which freedom became imperialist, individualist and entrepreneurial. Brown argues that within this context freedom was replaced on the left with a discourse of equality, rights, and protection — three concepts that are important particularly in the identitarian-based new social movements. In framing things in this way, the left, Brown argues, has given up on a critique of capitalism. As she argues:

“Indeed, Western leftists have largely forsaken analyses of the liberal state and capitalism as sites of domination and have focused instead on their implication in political and economic inequalities. At the same time, progressives have implicitly assumed the relatively unproblematic instrumental value of the state and capitalism in redressing such inequalities.” Pg. 10

This changing positioning regarding capitalism is in part due to the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1980s, which made socialism seem like a failure, and a far-off possibility. But this change was also due to changing perspectives on the role of the state and on power. Brown in particular critiques Foucault’s perspective of power, in which he argued that power is decentralised amongst many institution within society. Foucault moves away from seeing the state as a source of central power, with neither the bureaucratic state nor the organisation of the social order by capital, being suitably criticsed by him, nor his disciples. Under this concept of power from Foucault Brown argues that the left began to see oppression being based more at a social and localised level, retreating from critiques of the state and the power structures of capitalism. In doing so the left moulded an increase faith in the state —  a defence of the state as being an which affords “individuals protection against the worst abuses of the market.” Oppression was born out of every day social injuries, instead of being seen as the result of systems of the bureaucratic state or of capital.

What were the perverse outcomes of this? Brown argues that this approach increased social vulnerability amongst minority communities and reinforced systems of minority status. She argues:

“This effort, which strives to establish racism, sexism, and homophobia as morally heinous in the law, and to prosecute its individual perpetrators there, has many of the attributes of what Nietzsche names the politics of ressentiment: Developing a righteous critique of power from the perspective of the injured it delimits a specific site of blame for suffering by constituting sovereign subjects and events as responsible for the “injury” of social subordination. It fixes the identities of the injured and the injuring as social positions, and codifies as well the meanings of their actions against all possibilities of indeterminacy, ambiguity, and struggle for resignification or repositioning. This effort also casts the law in particular and the state more generally as neutral arbiters of injury rather than as themselves invested with the power to injure. This, the effort to “outlaw” social injury powerfully legitimizes law and the state as appropriate protectors against injury and casts injured individuals as needing such protection by such protectors. Finally, in its economy of perpetrator and victim, this project seeks not power or emancipation for the injured or the subordinated, but the revenge of punishment, making the perpetrator hurt as the sufferer does.” (pg. 27)

Through distancing the state as a site of power the left has turned toward it as a ‘protector’, with identitarian claims in particular focusing on the state providing protection for particular groups from the bigoted masses. But in giving the state this power, Brown argues that minority groups actually reinforce their vulnerability, with groups becoming reliant on the state for their own protection. This reliance comes at a cost, primarily the reinforcement of the minority status of particular groups (a status that was originally defined by the state), a situation which narrows the potential of a radically democratic sense of freedom.

Returning back to the modern day and it seems like Brown’s analysis is more relevant than ever. Gay and lesbian politics for example has increasingly turned toward the state for recognition (marriage) or protection (Safe Schools, hate speech etc.). In doing so queers have been forced to frame themselves as a ‘vulnerable’ community, one that is entirely reliant on the state for our survival (if the state didn’t protect us we’d all have major mental health problems for example). But this reliance has also come with caveats, primarily that gays and lesbians stop breaking the rules of the liberal state. Marriage equality for example has required that queers stop talking about sex or engaging in promiscous behaviour — that we become good liberal capitalist citizens.

So it seems that Brown’s analysis is still very relevant, and for that reason she’s going to be very important to my own research in the future.

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