Issue 11.1-11.2 | Fall 2012/Spring 2013 / Guest edited by Elizabeth Bernstein and Janet R. Jakobsen

Rethinking the Social and the Psyche

The questions raised by gender and neoliberal transformations, I want to suggest, require that we think again about the opposition of the psychic and the social and accompanying oppositions, such as the private and the public, the state and civil society. Surely, as feminists we have given a good deal of attention to the deconstruction of such oppositions, which often hide realities that do not fit them but actually are constitutive of them—for example, the classed, ethno-racial, sexual, and gendered realities. These work to produce and valorize the opposition of private and public, the psychic and the social, and, as such, have made these oppositions a normative measuring tool for distinguishing those who socially, culturally, and psychically fit the norm, or are normal, and those who do not, and are not. This working of normative distinctions and continued valorization of the norm is to be rethought—I am proposing—in order to bring a feminist analysis to neoliberalism. For me, conceptualizations such as neoliberal, institutional domains; activism; feminist politics; and articulations across locations remain relevant to the extent that what they assume about the opposition of the psyche and the social is relevant.

Recently, while working on a paper about intimacy, I drew both on Juliet Mitchell’s treatment of sibling or lateral relationships as relatively autonomous of vertical relations or relations of parent and child in the formation of the psyche, and on Ann Stoler’s work on intimacy as the marrow, rather than the microcosm of power.[1] Bringing these works together enabled me to explore the necessity of intimate relations for power to operate, and in its operation, to shape what intimacy is perceived to be and what it allows perception more broadly to become. Or, to put it as a question: what can we say about the psyche and the social in these times—times I would describe as biopolitical, while adding Stoler’s sensitivities to empire and colonialism to Foucault’s take on biopower.

Taking intimate relationships in North American colonialism and empire as examples, Stoler shifts the focus on intimacy beyond the domestic, and beyond the management of sex and gender, in order that the study of intimacy can critically engage sites such as schools, medical and therapeutic environments, religious institutions, and institutions of welfare. Although looking beyond the domestic, the domestic is not, however, excluded from analysis; rather, the domestic or the home often can be where intimacy is first attached to power. While it might seem appropriate, then, to see the power relationship between doctor and patient, priest and parishioner, teacher and student, or therapist and client to be based on the power relationship between parent and child, a broader perspective ought to allow for the peer or lateral relations that are often part of the scenes of power and intimacy, both in the family and beyond. Mitchell has argued for the importance of a psychoanalytic understanding of sibling or lateral relationships in order to rethink intimacy, gender, and sexuality.

In taking up lateral relationships between siblings and peers, Mitchell notes that these relationships have not been central to psychoanalytic theory or practice. This, she proposes, results in the way that sexuality and gender have generally been understood in psychoanalysis over the post-World-War-I and World-War-II years. As Mitchell sees it, psychoanalysis in those years was marked by a focus on the infant and mother, a shift from the earlier focus in psychoanalysis on the relationship of the father and child. With this shift, sexual difference became central to discussions of sexuality at the same time that it was aligned with sexual reproduction. Thus sexual difference would be understood as a matter of what is lost to each sex—masculine and feminine—or what the other has, that which is necessary to heterosexual union and reproduction. What Mitchell finds interesting about sibling or lateral relations is that they are about difference and sameness in a series, so that sibling sexuality is not linked to lack and desire against the horizon of reproduction. Instead, Mitchell suggests that sibling sexuality is linked to nonreproductive, nonheterosexual relations of violence: hatred and love, annihilation and survival. Sibling relationships, which are not about the resolution of sexual difference, point to the need for a resolution of violence: being able to accept instead of murdering the other who is like me, different from me, but in my place. For Mitchell, “the ecstasy of killing, the wish to kill or to get under the skin of the other, all seem nearer to echoes of sibling lateral states than to infant-parent ones.”[2]

To propose that laterality might now play a large part in intimate relations is to suggest that intimacy may be closer to the complexities of love and hate, survival and annihilation, closer, perhaps, than to the desires of vertical relationships. And in this sense, these relations are also closer to those relations where intimacy arises between relative strangers, that is, all the relationships with those who distribute resources for intimacy, health, safety, religious inspiration, and personal growth, where each of us must often operate or fail to operate entrepreneurially in the context of neoliberal privatization in biopolitical governance. To link intimacy and lateral relationships with neoliberal biopolitics is to put an historical and sociopolitical spin on Mitchell’s thinking about siblings beyond her own brief remarks about the history of psychoanalysis. It also is to ask: what is intimacy, and how does a definition of intimacy affect politics and critique?

In his discussion of the relationship of discipline and biopolitics, Foucault argued that the latter would increasingly come to dominate power relations when the family became only a segment of population, even if the family was the privileged instrument of governance, or the privileged resource for data concerning individual family members. What might once have been considered family matters of sexual and physical abuse, and, as such, matters of discipline, also become a matter of biopolitical control through statistical measures, made a normal matter, but where the boundary between the normal and abnormal is not so much at issue. Instead, there is an investment in comparisons of relative normalcies across various institutions such as the school, the church, the medical and therapeutic establishments, and institutions of welfare, just as these very institutions increasingly must bear up under the private, but now widely publicized failures of institutional figures of authority. The comparison of normalcies constitutes populations in series often marked by differences and similarities of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and class but increasingly less as a matter of identity than as a matter of risk management, with scales measuring the potential for well-being and the capacity for happiness, health, intelligence, and hope.

Thus, these populations, constituted in the management of risk, also cross through families, as well as races, ethnicities, sexes, classes, and genders—transforming, if not in some cases dismantling, the behaviors and identities these categories of population have implied. Race, class, and other categories do not determine the capacity for intimacy; rather, these are transformed as the capacity for intimacy is distributed in biopolitical governance. What is allowed by focusing on the intimate in terms of biopolitics, Stoler concludes, “is a call to question cherished assumptions: that the intimate is located primarily in the family, that the family is a ready model for, and microcosm of, the state, and that affective ties are inherently tender ones.” Here, questions of technology and its effects, like the mining of big data, ubiquitous surveillance, and socially mediated communication also emerge in relation to feminism and neoliberal transformations. Yet, familial relations still haunt. But perhaps it is the relations between siblings, lateral relations that are coming to haunt sociality the most. To focus on intimacy and laterality in relationship to biopolitical governance is to see the operation of power as haunted by what Stoler describes as “the strangely familiar that proximities and inequalities may produce.”[3]

In all this, there is much suggested and much to sort out about how gender, sexuality, race, and ethnicity are constituted, and how they work. There is much suggested and to sort out about the way we conceive of alliances in activism and across locations and institutions, given a focus on laterality and biopower. It is no wonder that concepts like assemblage are becoming more appealing than structure and individual; no wonder agency is being rethought as a capacity of the nonhuman as much as the human, stretching the concepts of materiality and embodiment. No wonder that issues of labor, exploitation, and commodification are discussed among theorists concerned with the labor of affective capacities across all scales of matter: the quantum, the human, the cosmic. No wonder there is a hyper-familialism as intimacy is dispersed beyond the confines of the family. Taken as the marrow of lateral relations of power, intimacy is leading us to revise conceptions of neoliberal institutional domains, activism, feminist politics, and articulations across locations.

Recently, I have been reading about the late-nineteenth-century mass migration from Sicily to, among other places, New York City, where Southern Italians became exploited and abused factory and home workers in the early decades of the twentieth century. One author, Jennifer Guglielmo, focuses especially on Southern Italian women to show how historians have failed to grasp the particular anarchistic style of politics and organizing among these women, compared to women’s styles of politics and activism in the trade-union movement.[4] Without looking closely at Italian language media, researchers often took up the disparaging descriptions of Southern Italians that circulated in Italy during its unification just before the mass migration, and which traveled with these women; thus, they were seen, even in the labor movement, as passive, subjugated to their husbands and fathers, lazy, and backward—if not troubled, insane, or possessed by some mix of Catholicism and paganism. The racialization of Southern Italians as dark; swarthy; white, but racially inferior transformed the way in which racial-ethnic relations were understood in the United States, and deeply infected immigration policy and politics. My grandmother was one of the Sicilian women migrating at the turn of the last century and my mother was a worker in a glove factory in the early decades of that century. After many years of psychoanalysis, where I often have focused on my nearly certifiably crazy and abusive mother, it has been stunning to read again about Sicilian women and to see the descriptions that I have drawn from deep in my psyche to characterize my mother to also be the descriptions of Southern Italian women in the late-nineteenth and the early-twentieth centuries. My point here is not that my mother wasn’t a difficult mother; at least for me, she often was a devastatingly difficult mother. My point is more about seeing this folding of the historical and geopolitical into the psychic—a fold in which one lives and suffers events that have lost any measure of clarity as they were, lost any measure with which to make them clearly what they were. We might say that having been characterized as such, Southern Italian women came to behave as such—my mother for one. Not only this, but I think the more important point is that there was some transformation, through this particular folding into the psyche, that violently allowed conceptions, many of which we have come to take for granted, but which also have been critically engaged in the tension between deconstructing the subject and the rise of identity politics. How this is happening right now—how the psyche and the social are being assembled in our conceptions—is an important question to address; I believe doing so gives politics and critique a futurity.

  1. Ann Laura Stoler, ed., Haunted By Empire, (Durham: Duke U P, 2006). [Return to text]
  2. Juliet Mitchell, Siblings, Sex and Violence, (Cambridge: Polity, 2003) 106. [Return to text]
  3. Stoler 2006: 14. [Return to text]
  4. Jennifer Guglielmo, Living the Revolution, Italian Women’s Resistance and Radicalism in New York City 1880-1945, (Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2010). [Return to text]