Academic journal article Columbia Journal of Gender and Law

She's Having an Episode: Patricia Williams and the Writing of Damaged Life

Academic journal article Columbia Journal of Gender and Law

She's Having an Episode: Patricia Williams and the Writing of Damaged Life

Article excerpt

I. Anecdotal (1)

I heard a story once about two friends who were trading tales about the ways that white, male supremacy extends itself formally and informally into sexual reproduction: through structure and stricture; statements and gestures; anecdotes and atmospheres; law and families, and not just white families. The conversation produced so much pain and awkwardness that the friends "grew embarrassed, somehow"; and so, spontaneously, as though it would save the day, they resorted to the language of political theory, of "laissezfaire economics and governmental interventionism," to get at the situation. But theorizing for life's sake didn't work out too well--that time. The abstractions made "a clear line, a railroad upon which all other ideas and events were tied down and sacrificed." (2)

A little later I heard a similar story about a godmother and goddaughter who exchanged tales that might also have referred to legacies of sexualized racial violence--that is, might have, if the godmother had not insisted on euphemizing how that violence was embodied in her life and why their family, a family harmed by it, would still so identify with and indeed long for access to the white supremacist world. In this case too, the conversation moved away from "the truth" to allegory-spinning, from veracity to "voracity"--for displacement, not escape; but this time the interlocutors moved not toward a professional register. Abjuring the rhetoric of law and the idiom of history, the women spun out fictions of animals with appetites, talking about polar bears until their "plates were full of emptiness and [the goddaughter] became large in the space which described [the godmother's] emptiness and [the goddaughter] gave in to the emptiness of words." (3)

Even now, years later, this second anecdote about the godmother and goddaughter seems more tender and positive than the first one between the collegial theorists, because the generosity and intimacy of the fairytale is still less harsh than the brutal technicality of a professional jargon whose searing criticality scores its users as well as its objects. Yet both responses to pervasive sexualized racial violence involve intimacy, exchange, optimism, criticality, aversion, disappointment, aggression, and distance--all of it. Each response-style expresses a desperation that seeks at once contact, displacement, transmission, and defense against the prodigious weight of violence and possibility. Each sacrifices the potential for mutually facing an overwhelming scene (the same one, yet varied) to the abstraction of a speech register that insists on the solidity of representation despite all the evidence that the speakers have failed to achieve even an adequate description of outrageous social relations. So this material, derived from the ordinary of subordination, not only extends the violence it restages, and not only exemplifies what so often goes wrong when we recount power's story with a reparative intention, but, even more disconcertingly, discovers the reproduction of structural violence in intimate conversation, the kind in which people conscript each other to desire a common idiom so as not to feel alone and defeated by life. Here, the preservation of fidelity, the drive to stay in sync with another, beats out the pursuit to extend justice. Each aim takes its own kind of courage.

In an episodic aesthetic, we focus attention on converting a disturbance into a case, a singularity into an exemplum, or an incident into an event, in the hope that this remodeling will transform what there is to see, to engage, and, when it is relevant, what there is to fight in the world. (4) But, paradoxically, each episode demonstrates an insufficiency of the case as well, as it requires proximity to other scenes and cases for the force of its change to be assessed. This analytic attention to the process of generalization is the only way to change what an object is, how it is to be encountered, contextualized, figured, narrated, and shifted within its own resonating field. …

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