My, Your, Our #MeToo Moment Human Megaphones and Their Bodies
Jenny Holzer’s truism “Abuse of power comes as no surprise” was very much à propos last October, when a wave of revelations hit the art world, exposing widespread abuse and sexual harassment. Curators, publishers, gallery owners, and artists whose misconduct had been tacitly condoned as par for the course in the creative industries found themselves publicly condemned. Some were forced to relinquish their positions of power.
The Viennese scholar Katharina Hausladen examines the structures of misogynistic behavior as well as hashtag-based protest. How effective are #MeToo and #NotSurprised as tools to strengthen networks of solidarity, in the highly competitive art world and elsewhere?
Anyone who has followed the countless debates over rape culture, sexism, and misogyny that have taken place since the viral dissemination of the #MeToo hashtag1 has since become witness to a curious mechanism: freedom and equality are often most vehemently asserted where they are most aggressively disregarded or threatened. Whether in talk shows, on Twitter, or in newspapers – however high the wave of consternation over the millions upon millions of posts by women affected by sexual violence rises, what is also confirmed are the particular channels through which those prominent female workers in art and culture most frequently voice their experiences with invasive or abusive men. Ultimately, it is above all privileged white women in the public eye who stand at the focus of #MeToo and who accordingly receive support, and not, for example, sex workers or female refugees. And thus, too, it is most often “film sets, parliaments, and open-plan offices that are spoken of as crime scenes,” and not, as Hannah Schultes and Bahar Sheikh have pointed out in the periodical analyse & kritik , “hotel rooms, massage salons, bars, and illegal care in private households,” that is to say, “[t]he many workplaces in the low-wage sector, which are often associated with a high risk of becoming the victim of sexual violence.”2
These workplaces are particularly at risk in part because it is largely women who find themselves in the precarious working conditions of the low-wage sector. Additionally, these workplaces are often connected with services which occur in semi-public spaces, and which thus sometimes require an intimate or at least not publicly visible relation between the worker, the customer, and/or the boss. The danger that male employers or clients will utilize the economic dependency of the women with whom they are in a working relationship in order to sexually pressure or rape them is thus clearly increased under these preconditions. But the possibility of reporting a violent experience in the workplace, that is, of taking the legal path, also frequently does not appear as an option for many women if such an action would mean being fired from a job that they require for their survival.
Structures of Violence
To criticize #MeToo for having kept less privileged women just as invisible as before, while the voices of women whom #MeToo has already recognized continue to determine public discourse, certainly does not mean prioritizing the violent experiences of underrepresented women over those of white women in leadership positions. Such a judgment also cannot under any circumstances undermine the immense courage demanded of privileged women, as well, in making public their own experiences with violence. To take the risk of outing oneself indeed does not just mean raising one’s voice against patriarchal authority, thereby unmasking its powers. Above all, it also implies exposing oneself as having been oppressed by this power, so as to be able, finally, to break with it as such. In this respect, it is more than welcome that, as a result of #MeToo, violence against women has once again become a theme that is more intensively discussed in the mainstream media – all the more so if, as has happened in certain cases, this effectuates the resignations of powerful, violent men. Moreover, that in America “feminism” was voted the word of the year in 2017 can be chalked up to a definitive symbolic political victory in the face of an openly sexist president. Nonetheless, those media reports that describe the violent experiences undergone by only prominent individuals, or that portray the inconceivable number of affected persons as an abstract mass, conceal the fact that sexual violence has to do with a socially anchored, structurally determined, and thus general form of discrimination – even more so when various types of social disadvantage, for example misogyny and precarious working conditions, overlay and reinforce each other.
Yet it is not only the structural dimension of sexual oppression that remains unthematized in many of the discussions that have been unleashed by #MeToo. The incidents grouped under #MeToo describe such diverse experiences of violence (ranging from suggestive comments and intrusive looks, to child abuse, to gang rape) that the undifferentiated attribution of all of these incidents to one and the same “Me” threatens to vitiate the specific violence of each of these experiences. Tarana Burke, who founded the nonprofit organization “me too” in 2007, comments on this problematic as follows: “[I]f you are a survivor and you’re out here saying #metoo for the first time, then what? There’s no container, there’s nothing that exists that tells you what to do outside of the hashtag alone.”3
Social media thus do not replace resources that can help support affected women in processing their experiences with sexual violence, nor do hashtags such as #IHave or #ItWasMe, with which abusive or sexually violent men are able to speak up, eliminate the structural problem of misogyny and patriarchy. For assuredly the act of passing over the threshold into humiliation and violence is not a simple defect of form that only requires a little more “himpathy”4 in order to be forgiven, as Kate Manne terms the notorious form of empathy that men demand from women in order to demonstrate and stabilize their social supremacy – as, for example, when women are expected to willingly take responsibility for the danger of being humiliated or raped by any man with whom they become involved. But according to Manne, a fundamental loyalty to everything that men say, know, or do is also an expression of a sexual upbringing which accepts and reproduces the male gaze as the dominant perspective – not unlike the phenomenon of “mansplaining.”
Fine Distinctions: Sexism and Misogyny
If we refer here to the structural aspect of sexualized violence, it is necessary to distinguish between sexist and misogynistic violence. Whereas sexism is the ideology which justifies the social order of patriarchy inasmuch as it ascribes certain attributes to women on the basis of their biological sex, for which it then discriminates against them, misogyny or the hatred of women designates the material practices of this discrimination – for example the gender pay gap or, indeed: sexual violence. In contrast to misogyny, sexism is also not necessarily limited to women. It is rather the very notion that something like a coherent female and/or male gender exists, a normatively sexist notion that a determinate existence as “woman” and/or “man” can be taken for granted, and which is thus posited as binding with respect to our behavior. In this wider sense of an idea of a coherent and supposedly biologically attestable gender identity, sexism relates to misogyny as the general to the specific. Conversely, however, sexism can also be viewed as a specific form of misogyny, namely as the gender-based justification for the oppression of women. In other words, where misogyny is sexist, it oppresses women insofar as it legitimates this oppression. Where sexism is misogynistic, it exclusively oppresses women.
This distinction is important because, on the one hand, it makes clear that sexual violence always follows directly from gendered inequalities, and on the other hand, that gender-based oppression, as for example that of women, always has both conscious and unconscious elements: it can be expressed just as much in habitual modes of behavior as in the conscious use of violence; it can be found in derogatory terms for women, in the financial dependency of women, and in victim blaming, but also in the idealizing valuation of supposed roles for women, for example the role of the mother or of the demonic seductress. Depending on how well-rehearsed these practices are, which is to say, depending on the extent to which juridical, communicative, and biopolitical infrastructures confirm and perpetuate these practices (and thus either are or are not sexist), the social perception of the implicitness and apparent immutability of misogynistic and/or homo-/transphobic, racist, or labor-exploitative violence can also vary; and precisely because these forms of violence describe economic-political-cultural constellations, they are often so difficult to break through.
It is quite striking that collective resistance to the apparent implicitness of sexualized violence, in particular, has now reached the art world too. For indeed even a cursory glance at the #MeToo-related hashtag #NotSurprised, whose name comes from Jenny Holzer’s work “Abuse of Power Comes As No Surprise,” from the “Truisms” series, suggests that the sexualized abuse of power in the realm of art may well be especially pronounced. Is it not the case that the name of the hashtag is itself already a symptom of this rule, as if one were expected to acquiesce to the apparent implicitness of this abuse of power? Let us therefore attempt an analysis of the possible reasons for this impression.
The Lawlessness of Art vs. Artistic Self-Legislation
One hoped to have misheard the German writer and TV host Thea Dorn, when at the initial peak of the #MeToo hype in Germany, she admitted that during her first opera residency at the age of 19 she found it “insanely flattering that these famous older directors were evidently interested in me erotically as well” – without failing to add that art is not, after all, a “finishing school,” but rather that the “(male) artist” (sic!), according to Dorn, must be granted the “unfathomable,” namely the “desire to really let it all hang out.”5 To trivialize male power as a question of interpretation and of women’s “power of resistance” (Dorn), and thus also to grant this power its rock star-like drive towards excess insofar as it results in the production of art, is such a deeply anti-feminist move that women can only hope to be privileged enough to actually be heard when patriarchal violence happens to them.
Dorn’s statement also expresses something else, however: that remarkably persistent understanding of art that raises rule-breaking to the level of a law according to which the artist, as an always-already avant-gardist subject, is obligated to transcend the normative framework of society. According to this understanding, the theatricality of art is connected to the supposedly unconventional activities and experiences of artists. Yet whereas art as the outside of society itself knows no outside, the social roles within which artists also must act are located within a game that appears to be untouched by the lawfulness of the society that the game seeks to overcome.
However, this conception of art as a lawless realm cannot be collapsed into art’s demand for autonomy, given that autonomy – at least in Adorno’s sense – remains aware of the social circumscription of art, even if art continuously attempts to overcome it. The originator of this autonomy is moreover quite precisely not an artistic subject who is interchangeable with his or her work, but rather is only capable of producing relative autonomy in a singular art object. However, this also wrests away the subject’s insight that he or she is not a holistic totality, but rather makes a practical claim to generality (for certain norms and rules that are considered correct) and therefore must present grounds for this generalization. The solipsistic belief in the lawlessness of art is thus by no means to be confused with the demand for artistic self-legislation – not even when this lawful lawlessness serves the legitimation of sexual coercion and violence. Specifically, wherever the breaking of rules is an expected, normative instance of a social practice – here, that of the field of art – the degradation and rape of women threatens to become justified, and to that extent socially accepted as a consequence of the liberty of uncontrollable artists and rock- star curators. Sexual violence would then not only come as no surprise. It would rather be the currency of a game of “the misinterpretation of freedom as freedom from the social altogether,”6 whose actors claim to produce themselves beyond every social determination and to be able to translate the lawlessness of art, in the name of which they justify the legitimacy of sexism and misogyny, to the whole of society.
It is thus impossible to overestimate the urgency of the #NotSurprised petition, which literally acknowledges the belatedness of a public conversation over sexualized violence in the art world, and which in contrast to #MeToo explicitly extends to the violent experiences of LGBTIQ individuals. In order to make this conversation adequate to the social development and implementation of intersectional demands, however – and this goes at least as much for #MeToo as well – a social movement that goes beyond the indexing of the testimony of solitary subjects must spring into motion.
If hashtagging is the myocardium of social media, in the year 2017 #MeToo was undoubtedly the aorta of (not only) net-based communication. The fact that Alyssa Milano’s post was able to fire up the media’s circulatory system is certainly due in large part to the explosive nature of the issue of sexual violence, especially when it involves the lives of stars. Without the commodity character of hashtagging, typical for social media, which gives everything a name that is supposed to circulate, the debate might never have gone viral. This is due not only to the vast and rapid dissemination of media content via the internet; but above all with the specific manner in which social networks invite acts of voting. Or to put it differently: because these networks invite voting above all, the connection to matters of content is secondary. Thus, underrepresented voices sometimes have their say, but less in the sense of flagged or channeled voices than as a few socially indeterminate voices among many.
#MeToo also carries the danger of letting the connective and mobilizing aspect that emerges when survivors of sexual violence speak up only to fall silent again in the act of only speaking up. This is all the more so when the social We of resistance against sexual violence can avail itself of no other laboring body than that of the megaphone. For the Right has a megaphone, too, and ultimately it is the Right as well who, as a supposedly unified social corpus, is assured in the belief that they can rely on themselves (and only on themselves). If, in virtually rising up, all those whose bodies have either experienced sexual violence, or who wish to be in solidarity with those who have, intend to enter into a community for the strengthening of the rights of women and individuals (and not least of all the underprivileged among them), it is also necessary to develop a political approach that goes beyond subjective communication.
Certainly not by all and not by all equally, given that the act of opening up to others is often very difficult in the wake of traumatic experiences of violence. In addition, there must still be a space for the survivors of sexualized violence to share their personal experiences – an offer of assistance by means of which a conversation on sexism and misogyny can be established as a social conversation in the first place. It is indeed the “Too” in the individual’s experience that structurally (and often not only structurally) binds the individual to those who have experienced something similar. Conversely, subjective participation in society appears first of all in an individual’s self-determined expression. #MeToo also bears witness to this curious tension between subject and social practice. Admittedly, in the case of #MeToo, individual voices are overemphasized at the cost of their disconnectedness, and thus it is precisely the political nature of the social relation between sex and power that goes unthematized here.
Meanwhile, social institutions and organizations that support women in their experiences with sexual violence are sites for politicization in the struggle against misogyny and sexism. For it is here – as in other queer feminist cooperatives and initiatives – that a transition occurs from “Me” to “You” and/or to “We,” which in contrast to the echo chamber of social networks does not exclusively mean the addition of various versions of Me to a #Me, even if conflicts on the internet can have real effects on the social lives of its users. It is precisely because the others on social media always remain external to me, and because my political subjectivity is here restricted to the transmission (or non-transmission) of status updates, that the orientation of all action moves from the interior to the exterior, or more precisely: from me to the not-me, or to the potential-me.
Although confirmation through others in the shared exchange of experiences of violence is important, it is just as important that this exchange: 1) is not only verbal (but rather corporeal and spatial as well), 2) is not only reactive (and thus is in fact an exchange and not simply an act of re-tweeting or sharing), but above all 3) is an exchange in which I may be confronted with positions and behaviors that I did not previously know of, or which I do not share and thus cannot reduce to myself and my own experiences. This means that I also must learn that I am external to others, in order to connect with them at all or to recognize the substantial differences between us, just as I too must explain my judgments. In order to do so, however, we must expose ourselves to each other precisely in such a way that makes the comfortable anonymity of social networks impossible: we can only enter into solidarity with each other insofar as we make ourselves tangible through what we demand.
Last but not least, it is this third condition of non-net-based communication which has a distinct advantage over social media, and by means of which it is not only possible to realize the anti-sexist struggle through the solidarity of a content-oriented coalition of differences (in style, income, gender, and so forth), but also by means of which such a coalition might be connected to movements that fight against racism or for social equality. For indeed debates over sexualized violence are not necessarily feminist (this has not only been the case since #MeToo, and #MeToo has done nothing to change this, either). It would also be disastrous to separate the critique of racism and classism from the critique of sexism and misogyny, much less to play these against each other. On the contrary, the fact that, as Judith Butler has put it, racial relations and reproductive relations are often “articulated through one another,”7 it would be entirely incorrect to conclude that male immigrants from the working class have a greater propensity towards sexual violence than do German businessmen. Instead, the spotlight of #MeToo and #NotSurprised must ultimately shine on all of those women whose bodies only appear to matter insofar as they can demonstrate their worth in capitalist competition and the struggle for survival. The long-term goal would of course be to render these arenas of struggle inoperative.
Translation: Daniel Spaulding
Title image: Dorota Gaweda and Egle Kulbokaite, „Young Girl Reading Group 144“, 2017, video still
|||After an article in the New York Times at the beginning of October 2017 revealed a decades-long history of sexual assault by the American film producer Harvey Weinstein, an increasing number of women accused Weinstein of having sexually coerced or raped them. As a reaction to these disclosures, on October 15, 2017, the American actress Alyssa Milano called for the use of the hashtag “MeToo” in order to publicly acknowledge one’s own experiences of sexual violence.|
|||Hannah Schultes and Bahar Sheikh, “Absolution statt Revolution,” https://www.akweb.de/ak_s/ak632/41.htm.|
|||Tarana Burke in conversation with Nikki Ogunnaike, in the American edition of the fashion magazine Elle , http://www.elle.com/culture/a13046829/tarana-burke-me-too-movement-10-years-ago/.|
|||Kate Manne, Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny, Oxford 2017.|
|||Thea Dorn, “Das ist ein neuer Totalitarismus,” in conversation with Stephan Karkowsky, Deutschlandfunk, http://www.deutschlandfunkkultur.de/thea-dorn-zur-sexismus-debatte-das-ist-ein-neuer.1008.de/html?dram:article_id=400306.|
|||Juliane Rebentisch, Die Kunst der Freiheit, Berlin 2012, p. 20.|
|||Judith Butler, Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limites of “Sex,”, London /New York 1993, p. 135.|