Jackie Wang | Trauma Monsters and Feminist Forms of Life

By Jackie Wang

[Trigger warning for sexual violence]

I write this from a place of exhaustion. I am exhausted by rape culture, by the spectacle of politics, by the recuperation of every rupture. Fatigue forecloses presence to ourselves, makes us insensate. A widely circulated Instagram Story reads: “love to those of us who can’t participate or give a hot take … whose ways of coping are messy and necessary and unseen.” Who or what has absconded with my voice? Commentaries on our involuntary silence or an incitement to discourse, how violation reverberates across time to touch what is often bracketed. A proximity we didn’t ask for, from which there is no escape.

What is the distance between action and discourse,—between embodied gesture and dead symbol—when snatches of the real break through and are transmitted by the quavering voice? It’s in her voice—it’s in her voice that we break.

At the moment the lid was blown off, I had nothing to say. I was walking across a bridge over the Charles River at night while watching Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony on my phone, ensconced in my symbolic bubble, hovering above the river at the moment she was asked to conjure a vivid detail about that night. She spoke of the laughter of the boys, the laughter that ricochets across the decades and becomes the refrain of a life. It was on the bridge that I was pierced—but by what? At some point I had had enough. From a distance I observed people’s manner of inhabiting the affective rupture. Some shared stories of trauma. Others became trenchant, issued warnings to leftist bros: we’re coming to get you next. Some posted memes of Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction spliced with Kavanaugh’s evasive responses. Others changed their Facebook avatar to include the caption “I BELIEVE SURVIVORS.”

What happens when what people do to each other behind closed doors becomes known, when the unsayable enters the public sphere? Is what emerged in its wake something akin to the “situation” the Invisible Committee write about in Now, or has the eruption of rage toward male domination already been neutralized and contained by the solutions we have been handed: a limited FBI investigation and electoral politics? Does placing hope in the state to adjudicate and deliver justice placate those filled with rage and lead to the deferral of collective action? As the Invisible Committee write, “To call for Justice in the face of this world is to ask a monster to babysit your children. Anyone who knows the underside of power immediately ceases to respect it” (38). How do we maintain a connection to the unruly feelings that have been unleashed?

Contact with the real is sometimes unexpected. Did we experience it as a collective destabilization? What becomes possible in the space of the fissure?

I wanted to say nothing, but what I banished from my memory kept appearing on the periphery of my vision. I recalled a recent psychoanalysis session, when Dr. C spoke of my brother’s resentencing hearing, how we barely discussed what was revealed there (but not revealed; alluded to diagonally).

“What a way to find out,” she said, “what happened to your mother.”

In the courtroom, in the sterile temple of the Law, a psychologist was about to offer testimony about my mother’s trauma, a gang rape, I later discovered, but before she could testify, the prosecutor stood up to offer my brother a deal to commute his juvenile life without parole sentence to 40 years. It was as though he too could not tolerate what was about to be said about my mother.

My analyst’s reference to the courtroom discovery was a shock. I had written it out of my conscious awareness. I had erased it from the official account. It appears nowhere in my book.

What is the self-sealing mechanism of the body when it is put through too much?

The psychogenic fugue state is a spectrum.

The story is in the silences.


Here, I have deviated from the prompt, but the prompt calls for a meditation on Now; it only makes sense to speak from the moment I presently inhabit, while attending to the situation at hand. If the present is the privileged temporal position because it is the time of decision (the past has been decided, tomorrow will never arrive)—then what remains unexamined is the temporal wormhole called trauma, which can fix subjects to a moment in the past. To dwell in such a space is to inhabit the past as though it were the present. It is the meaning of being haunted. What kind of decisionism is possible here? There is an air of contempt toward so-called “victim” discourse in Now when they write: “Here, criticism doesn’t work, any more than satire does. Neither one has any impact. To limit oneself to denouncing discriminations, oppressions, and injustices, and expect to harvest the fruits of that is to get one’s epochs wrong. Leftists who think they can make something happen by lifting the lever of bad conscience are sadly mistaken. They can go and scratch their scabs in public and air their grievances hoping to arouse sympathy as much as they like; they’ll only give rise to contempt and the desire to destroy them. ‘Victim’ has become an insult in every part of the world” (9).

There is an excess of critique, yes, but this moment reveals the continuity between speech and gesture. And yet I have often resented this compulsion to discourse in the genre of the female complaint, resent that I must table all the other political questions I could theorize, the topics usually left to the men, such as the relationship between technological development and the expansion of the sphere of valorization, which is the topic I initially came here to discuss. I wanted to write about the police, about how the imperative to become ungovernable sometimes slyly masks the governmentality of the masculine. What would it mean for women, trans and gender non-conforming people to become ungovernable? The motivation underlying attempts to dismiss a kind of politics crudely labeled “identity politics” is often fear: fear of feminist revolt.

I wanted to write that in a world where measurement and valorization aims to capture life itself, why is it that what women do counts for nothing, whether it’s caring for aging family members or the untallied acts of emotional labor which together constitute the world. Everything is under the regime of measurement except that which is coded feminine. And yet, what does this neglect, this failure to register certain gestures, afford us? Opacity can shelter certain forms of domination that occur on the terrain of the intimate, but it can also foster forms of intimacy that  resist capture and work against domination. In the latter case, defense of the feminine is preservation of the incalculable.

This leads me to my last point, to the question of forms of life. When the Invisible Committee write about the experience of continuity, which they place at the center of their immanent conception of communism, they continually highlight two experiences: love and riots. They write: “In the riot there is an incandescent presence to oneself and to others, a lucid fraternity which the Republic is quite incapable of generating. The organized riot is capable of producing what this society cannot create: lively and irreversible bonds. Those who dwell on images of violence miss everything that’s involved in the fact of taking the risk together of breaking, of tagging, of confronting the cops. One never comes out of one’s first riot unchanged. It’s this positivity of the riot that the spectators prefer not to see and that frightens them more deeply than the damage, the charges and counter-charges. In the riot there is a production and affirmation of friendships, a focused configuration of the world, clear possibilities of action, means close at hand” (14).

If this were true the history of anarchist revolt would not include a litany of betrayals and severed ties. Rioters know that co-conspirators can easily become snitches. But under what conditions do we remain friends? Bonds are not formed automatically in the now, but in the duration, in the creation of new rhythms of being rooted in the reproduction of everyday life. What forms of life support the building of bonds across time? I think of the feminist sleepovers that spontaneously emerged out of a reading group in Baltimore, or the feminist commune I once imagined in an interview:

At the feminist commune we feast and talk all night. Fast. Irreverent. Real. Smart. We do nail art divination and theorize and watch music videos on youtube and critique Lana Del Rey. A debate might break out about whether or not Lana should be allowed to come to our commune. The conversation moves with ease from the everyday to the “global.” Politics is always imagined according to a range of scales: cellular, psychological, social, economic, earthly, cosmic—even the “invisible” must be thought (what is imperceptible or not-yet-thought). Everything that is said comes from a place. Here are women who are intellectually sincere: genuinely curious and concerned with figuring shit out and not trying to prove anything. Not trying to master knowledge for the sake of mastery.

At the feminist commune there are a lot of beds and rooms for people to work in. There are books everywhere, gardens outside, herbs in the windowsills, fruit trees in the yard. The back wall is all glass so as to let sun in. There is a river behind the main house, and we are always swimming in it. If you walk north on the path that runs alongside the river there is a waterfall, on top of which sits a bent tree. There are caves nearby where some of the residents go to light candles and meditate.

Everyone is very different! The nerd of the commune is never without a book, and she has a very rich and imaginative inner life. One woman is always making herbal tinctures or recommending remedies for the residents’ respective ailments. Another is always gardening. Another is busy on her computer counter-hacking the NSA, doorway lined with powerful magnets in preparation for that fateful day when the FBI kicks in her door and seizes her hardware. Though sleep schedules sometimes diverge, the women converge around the sharing of food. Conflicts get intense. Some leave. Some return. Some try to form alliances based on the exclusion of so-and-so—not everything can be worked through. Some residents have been to college, and this affects how they communicate. Some have not been to college. Some have been with cismen and still have ties to them. Others don’t. Some can’t stand not being the best all the time though they feel bad about it. Others feel too timid to talk and get quiet around the residents who are voluble and loquacious. Their weird or witty side might come out when they are talking to someone one-on-one, or a gregarious mood strikes in the form of a mysterious confidence.

We have been made by this fucked up world. And so, are flawed. But we interact in good faith. It’s hard to know why we do what we do but we are smart enough to admit when we are wrong.

There’s a lot more that could be said about the feminist commune but I will leave it at that, half-mapped. Thank you.

One Comment

  1. Those in the legal/ law sector need to understand this so when they report and defend these people that they themselves do not inadvertently add to the trauma. Being confused about the incident is not a sign of lying but often a sign of fragmentation of our the narrative of the incident.

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