The Formal Ethics of Metony#metoo
Poetics, Power, Primal Scene
Last year the journal Studies in Gender and Sexuality published a panel called “The ontology of the rape joke,” organized around a performance by Vanessa Place of her piece, “Rape joke.” The panel included responses from Jamieson Webster, Jeff Dolven, Gayle Salamon, Kyoo Lee, Katie Gentile, and Virginia Goldner, and ended with a reprint of Patricia Lockwood’s arresting poem, “Rape Joke.” The panel sought to examine the roles rape jokes play for the cultural body. This issue went to press just as the allegations against Harvey Weinstein hit the headlines. As the powerful white men tumbled and #MeToo ramped up, the panelists decided they wanted to expand their analyses and rethink these forms of sexual violence. Katie Gentile’s “Give a woman an inch, she’ll take a penis” was published here in January, followed by Virginia Goldner’s “Sexual harassment: Seeking the pleasures of ‘consent’ under duress.”
Now we are pleased to feature a work co-authored by psychoanalyst Jamieson Webster and philosopher Kyoo Lee. Their essay will join the others in a future issue of the journal Studies in Gender and Sexuality.
Sub-speech Acts & Impacts.mp4
“#MeToo” is an atomic linguistic nod virally retooled into a powerful social NO: stop it, it says. An explosive expression of the will not to remain silent or silenced any longer, this collectivized speech activates the hitherto suppressed voices of the sexually violated. Every “#metoo” sequentially strengthening its own platform by splitting open the very syntactic form of a story to be told, is a compressed articulation, a micro-mega-sub-hyper-speech act “in a word,” “#MeToo.” This word or hashtag is a de facto counter-summary pointing to the pressure points in language, a layered set of sounds surrounding “sum” signs, some story of some-one, an act of summoning rather than summation per se. As one starts speaking through this microphone of “#me,” an-other, too, could hear a private cry and a public outcry. The rhetorical economy of this phrasal slogan is such that “#meTOO” would say it all without telling it at all; what “it” is, we think we know without knowing exactly, the details, what happened, including what could not or should have happened. Yet, that’s the point, we’ve always known. #MeToo signals an open(ing)-secret risking a second wound(ing), and in this opening #metoo wants to unfold infinitely and never be stopped (again).
We feel rather anxious about this scene that is still unfolding or even yet to unfold. It feels risky, almost reckless, to write about #MeToo. It even seems dangerous to try to follow these contours without at least one other there — wetwos — to take in the intensity and evolving immensity of this movement and its volatile shifting surface. What concerns us isn’t exactly this volatility itself; we are in awe of it and its transformative power including its potentials, social, existential, political, ethical … all sorts. Still, we would like to ask how #MeToo as a pivotally inclusive, progressively integrated social movement could avoid some of the pitfalls of abstract proliferation and categorical self-depletion such as the structural trap of social-mediatized, passive auto-reproduction. We fear this might unwittingly re-enable the phallogocentric abuse of power (see Katie Gentile’s Give A Woman an Inch and She’ll Take a Penis). In the face of the unbridled churning of discourses, article after article, positions and counter-positions, attacks and counter-attacks, how could one keep up with all that? And indeed, how should one? And then add to it? Some are trying to stop the spread of #MeToo by simply misappealing to some higher justice or reason, and some others are doing so by simply bargaining or bullying their way out of the problems.
What’s not simple here? So we are asking how and why anyone should pay close attention to such blunt, blatant counter-silencing, yet again. What would the momentum of this movement end up doing or undoing? Where are we, collectively and individually, in those countless, and often powerful stories that are coming out through ever-nimbled hashtags, and where are we headed? Which side are we on when trying to vocalize some formative aspects and formal dimensions of #MeToo? We are not asking for what needs to be protected, defended, destroyed, or even deferred. This is not posed as some phallic or counter-phallic, meta-phallic concern — as if to interrogate with an all-powerful ‘I’ how the #MeToo movement holds together. Nevertheless, a question of the phallus and its powerful and at times toxic emptiness, its immunized sovereign-fallaciousness (including phallaciousness), certainly haunts #MeToo dramatically, of which we are soberingly aware.
Rather, our modest thought today pauses at the duration and durability of this movement in the moment, the collected drive that is igniting all corners of the exchange. How do we attend and contribute to the movement of a metonymic outcry that breeds cross-linking, this address to no-one and everyone, without stuffing this opening with words, words, words that might end up numbing us, at times turning some of us into reactionary cynics or restless neurotics? We want to speak from within this movement that we are calling metony#metoo, and we want to grasp its formalized power. If we give in too much to the attempt at understanding, we fear such a move will contribute to putting this fire out or at least bringing it under management, making it part of discourse, not the fiery sub-speech act that it is.
Me-tonymy by the Masses
Metony#metoo gone wild, worldwidewild, switches me on otherwise, newly awakening me to the same story played by different characters in different languages, cultures and contexts. The same “me” merges with an “altered/after (meta)” name (onoma, no-men, no no men) against the backdrop of the indeterminate #me. This way, we do seem to get it, the sort of ur-text in any given context, almost in a flash! What (it) is, is immediately recognized and relayed as this fragment indexicalizes the generalized, almost universalized, structure of power imbalance that not only enables but perpetuates such interpersonal injustice, intimate or impersonal, ranging from the seemingly debatable to the simply shocking. And this sort of question about the form and force of this extraordinary social movement that generates anguish as well as energy can, of course, only do partial justice to “it”, including the metonymic seriality of “#MeToo,” that can fold countless narratives of sexual injustice and violence. Isn’t this little metonymic fragment incredible? And wasn’t this always the power of metonymy: the race of a trace, barreling down the linguistic chain, usurping the logic of contiguity in order to move part by part by part, laying waste to any over-arching structure or static will?
What is beautifully potent about #MeToo as a multimodal mobile social amplifier is this subtle, structural disarticulation of will, handing oneself over to the multitude and the heterogeneous — yes, these stories are not all the same, they are not all rape, and yet … In that regard too, the most elementary link between the “two” feels so necessary to the movement. Perhaps this is a return in-itself to something primary or primal: what it means for two to relate to each other — arguably one of the most pressing, at times depressing, fundamental questions of human or any sort of humane relationship. The question of two is starkly, darkly, disclosed and challenged by “#MeToo” that cuts and undercuts the figure of two. This subtextual incision, this basic linking between one (me) and (another) one, serially molded and sexually mélanged into an inter-subject-and-object, supplementing a vocal position, happens through the smallest definable moment of affirmation, #metoo; moi aussi is an affirmation by participatory association rather than associative identification … Je ne suis pas Charlie? The syntactical difference between the vocal position of ‘I am’ and that of ‘me too’ seems to explain in part the relative efficacy and elasticity of the ‘second’ (self so-positioned), the genius of its activism. #MeToo has the ability to not just say I, and I, and I, again, with each of us on our islands of identification, but to evoke the me, me, me, and me, en masse, all the while asking a question about ‘me’s’ and ‘I’s’ and what they have to do with one another.
If the performative power of testimonial “#MeToo” lies in its narrative inclusivity along with its SMS-mediated openness to reassociative self-awakening, where is the “I” that responds? At issue, what to do with (the) “one” therein, is the good old question about implicit subjectivity and intersubjectivity, its (gendered) ethics, politics, aesthetics, and it seems a task for (any [gendered]) one to face, whether on the screen or in the street, or indeed the space in between the two spheres where most of us seem to be living out nowadays. Again, how should one as an “I” connect with another “I” as not just another one at/de/tachable as such? How does one — I, you, we — stay with #MeToo? Is the ‘me’ the attempt to exhaust the ‘I’? Do we stay with the metonymic logic and its attempt to out-run every stopping point, its force of exhaustion by the exhausted me-masses? We think we do. But then also, more specifically: which “me” or “you” do we or you respond or connect to in the performative proliferation of its signatures, ready to be media-theatricalized? Further in that vein, the issue of the duplicated minoritization of “#MeToo” and the re-silencing of practically nameless voices remains so structural, so immediate, that we also wonder about, with, a(nother) majority of the sexually violated that still has to remain silent … shut up or down, active or passive or both. We have yet to pay much closer attention to such “darker” sides of another “me.”
The “Real” in the Age of “Access Hollywood”
If Freud is right that the search for origins lands the child square in the middle of a sexual research that will always come to grief — for what answers can any of us give to the question of what makes for sexual difference, what a sexual relationship is, what do two people do with one another behind closed doors — this grief is laden with more grief when it comes to the fact of sexual violation. This was the problem with the seduction theory. Freud needed to show the phantasmatic outlines of any attempt to embody sex that make every sexual violation rock us at the very core of an always desperate need to know about ‘sex’ and to not receive this answer; to be given the space to give an answer of our own, in our own time, in the theater of our lives, where we play with wishes and encounter desire. Something about this originary scene, this premature encounter, too, haunts the theater of #MeToo.
Is it shocking that the cultural theater that we have turned to — these powerful figures of our mediat(iz)ed imagination that replace and displace our parents, the actors and actresses, the movie-makers, comedians, news-anchors, radio hosts, and journalists — has become the new battleground over the question of sexual violation, the primal scene par excellence? The injury is again double in our psychic economy when this is the very theater where we gained our first glimpses of the body, of sexual passion, and read the tales spun about what it means to be a man or a woman. This theater becoming too-alive, so to speak, put before everyone’s eyes in a mediatized hype, forces the response, #MeToo, to something we had already joined ourselves to, unwittingly, a long time ago. Who can escape any more the vicissitudes of the culture industry? Take this a little further and we are almost in a moment that parodies the turns of a call and response game initiated by the Sphinx’s riddle — please let me find a place in all this that is so far from me, am I not to be a man or woman too?
It’s now all kinda TV-real, y’all (with our reality TV president and other first families telling us what sex is and who we are). Get this, this powerful, painful irony that those we have subjected to the greatest scrutiny and unveiling, whom we believe we deserve full access to with the crush and harassment of our paparazzi or the curse of tabloids and their taste for invasive rumor, gossip and scandal — is she pregnant? Is he cheating? Are they getting divorced? Are they or aren’t they like us? — are the ones to send this painful reality back to us. Note that this dose of the ironic real is from the mouths of (mostly) actresses whose job is to deceive us, to toy with our emotions; note that we, as a society, lend, for the first time, to women’s voices a note of seriousness and consequence without requiring justification or cross-examination. Perhaps at a moment the revenge of the culture industry or the revenge culture of the industry plays a critical theoretical function, as the “critical theory” that circumscribed its place in a lineage stretching from myth to the enlightenment, from the French Revolution to the Holocaust, is seemingly vanishing, almost going (or gone?) bankrupt, we ourselves are acting like the critical theory of the day. Who else can settle the score or the account? We are just like you, in more ways than you want to know, the actresses (and actors) bellowed back — this was always the open secret. We are a me — no one gets out alive. This would be just one factor at the root of the powerful volatility of #MeToo, but a significant one at that, rather visceral: this answer that isn’t an answer, this answer about the failure of answers… that made Hollywood Hollywood.
Psychoanalysis always harps on the place where knowledge of the sexual fails, indeed where the sexual-as-such fails in life, necessitating a world of fantasy that can act as a supplement or prop. The pervasiveness of this failure brought to light by the #MeToo as a psychic failure (as well as an ethical and political one), is part of its power and certainly at the root of the anxiety that fuels the backlash that imagines this will be the ruin of men or relationships; the recent suicides of some of the socially prominent men (of, let’s say, HeToo) in Korea tragically literalizes the former and the reactionary social trend now towards gender segregation signifies the latter. Alarming? So, a revolution at what cost? If “men” are already in ruins, that is where we begin, we not as a me & metoo minus them but as a newly communalized ”us” of critical inclusivity, of constructive climate change.
Isn’t this also why we would frankly all just be a lot more comfortable if #MeToo was simply, more categorically, about rape (including gray or date rape)? It isn’t. It’s about the whole of the difficulties surrounding sex and sexual difference(s). It is about the problems of power and power differentials when it comes to any relationship. It is about the economic dimension of life that invades sexuality and psyche and how it deforms and damages them beyond recognition. It is also about the most primal links that can be formed and cultivated between bodies, between voices, between people at differing levels of power and economy along with numerous other categories of social identities and social inequities. At this place, to put it crudely, the primal scene that is the culture industry finally becomes itself, a primal scene to the second power, the return of the repressed that was always indicated by its phantasmagoria; and never have we been so rocked. It is a site of unbecoming, in all senses, and the only answer — the formal beauty and force and truth of which is staggering — would always have been, #MeToo.
To “get back at” someone or not, at this point, is perhaps not quite the question we should dwell on; a question that seems to bypass what #MeToo is formally up to, this momentum and sheer movement which doesn’t seem (to us) to want to stop at the courts of justice and a settling of the score. #MeToo isn’t even keeping track as it charges along. A retributive justice or trauma drama is not exactly what we are after although its psychical economy is something we cannot and should not simply disregard or discount either. We remind ourselves, of course, that gendered social death as an ultimate payment for gendered social silence could perpetuate the cycle of gendered social violence as well as discrimination, requiring something beyond the unsparing immediacy of the movement. For now, the generative ingenuity is our point of interest and seems to reside in the formal and formative power of #MeToo.
Instead, let us now reimagine quotidian intersectional sociality in the wake of #MeToo, on both micro- and macro-levels. We want to see how we, however volatile we are at this point, can return to the “scene” and go forward, so to speak. Need to vent? Try and invent, intervene inventively. Allow #MeToo to proliferate, but also invent new social forms that circumvent the discourse that is trying to drive us in the direction of more silence and continue this proliferation of speech from me to me. Turn this extraordinary movement into a transformative momentum for a social vision for ‘ordinary’ progress as the capacity to link one voice with another, one body with another: such is the lesson and challenge we find ourselves extracting from metony#metoo.
Jamieson Webster is a psychoanalyst in New York. She has written for Artforum, Apology, Cabinet, The Guardian, Playboy, and The New York Times. She is the author of The Life and Death of Psychoanalysis (Karnac, 2011) and Stay, Illusion!, with Simon Critchley (Pantheon, 2013). She is currently working on The Cambridge Introduction to Jacques Lacan, with Marcus Coelen, and a new book, Conversion Disorder (Columbia, 2018).
Kyoo Lee, a Professor of Philosophy, Gender Studies and Women’s Studies at John Jay College and the Graduate Center, CUNY, works widely in the interwoven fields of the Arts and Humanities. The author of Reading Descartes Otherwise: Blind, Mad, Dreamy, and Bad (2013) and Writing Entanglish: Come in Englysshing with Gertrude Stein, Zhuangzi … (2015). she serves as the coeditor of philoSOPHIA: A Journal of Continental Feminism and is on the editorial boards of Derrida Today, Open Humanities Press, Simone de Beauvoir Studies and Women’s Studies Quarterly. Currently, she leads a Mellon Public Seminar on mp3: Merging Poetry, Philosophy, Performativity at the CUNY Graduate Center.