“The sounds of no, the complaints about violence, the refusals to laugh at sexist jokes; the refusals to comply with unreasonable demands,” Sara Ahmed writes, “to acquire a feminist ear [is to] hear those sounds as speech.” What does it mean to live with a feminist ear – what does feminist listening entail, as a practice of everyday life? “[T]o begin to hear with a feminist ear,” as Ahmed suggests, “is to become out of tune with a world.” Rather suddenly, when we listen, we find ourselves in a different world entirely.
This is Cassandra’s world, cursed by Apollo. She has been raped, assaulted, and fated to a life of unheard prophecy. Hers is a truth against reason. It is a truth that both questions the difference between believing and knowing, requiring attunement, care, and listening. Cassandra’s truth is after all not merely hers but all of Troy’s. Cassandra’s curse is a truth against reason. She is the hysteric prophet of our times. Over and over again, she asks to be heard. In Virgil, Aeneas eventually realizes that “Cassandra alone sang of such events,” asking “But who would believe that the Trojans would come to the / shores of Hesperia? / Or whom them could Cassandra, the visionary, convince?” To be heard, in this sense, means to inhabit the boundaries of what can be known and what can be believed — to convince. Inhabiting these boundaries makes “feminism a life question,” in Ahmed’s terms: “To live a feminist life is to make everything into something that is questionable. The question of how to live a feminist life is alive as a question as well as being a life question.”
However, to become out of tune with a world is not to become out of tune with history. The life question of feminism takes up feminism as an everyday practice – as an everyday that is historical, that makes contact with history through experience. We know, through experience, the erasure of experience, and irretrievability of experience. Through these points of direct contact, we come to understand, and believe in, histories that exist without records, but that have material conditions, precisely in our survival. Feminist history requires a different attunement to this survival.
“What are the words you do not yet have?” Audre Lorde asks. “What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?” While counter-posed, the complaint and the apology each exist in this silence of words not yet had.
These theses emerge from a sequence of life questions about the politics of language. Inquiring, specifically, into the complaint and the apology, I ask what it means to have a feminist ear, but also to push that further – toward the possibility to collectively practice feminist listening. Yet to encounter these questions means to think through their conditions of possibility under carceral capitalism.
Carcerality, as Jackie Wang argues, is not “an effect of capitalism” but a continuum we must engage as “alongside and in conjunction with the dynamics of late capitalism.” Carceral capitalism troubles the imagination of feminism – putting a variety of feminisms into conflict. What does it take to perceive and enact a feminism not outside but against the logic of carceralism? Here I frame this question in relation to the complaint and the apology, as sites of experimentation and struggle, as part of a broader attempt to develop an epistemology of anti-carceral feminism.
1. The complaint is defined by power.
The complaint is what cannot or will not be heard by that which goes unseen. Describing complaint as an aesthetic of “witnessing” injury, Lauren Berlant understands complaint as an articulation of power. “For it is not the woman who first calls her self-articulation a complaint, a whine, a plea: rather, the patriarchal social context in which she makes her utterance hystericizes it for her, even before she speaks.” The complaint is defined by the invisibility of power – what will not be seen sets the conditions of possibility for what can be heard and how.
Likewise, the complaint can describe a way of hearing – of sense-making, or reasoning. The complaint is not neutral, but hystericized, precisely through the systematic unseeing of what is in sight. It is hearing in the sense of rendering, listening to the extent of silencing.
Etymologically, the complaint’s secondary meaning is medicalized. The complaint is an illness or condition. Yet as we see in all meanings of complaint, the speaker is pathologized in some way. To complain is to make noticeable a set of symptoms, while it is also to be mistaken as symptom. What is often foreclosed from the imagination is the complaint’s status as reaction: that a complaint precedes something, that it does not come out of nowhere. To complain is to enter into this pathology. Pathologization is not a matter of consent but of consequence.
2. The complaint is a carceral trap that can be escaped.
The complaint aims to break silence – to make speakable what has been left unspoken. Yet perhaps unavoidably, complaints will be interpreted through a carceral logic. What drives the complaint, according to this logic, is a drive for punishment. Whether to be fired, “canceled,” sent off to some desert, the consequences of complaint are, once again, indistinguishable from the act of articulation.
As Michel Foucault suggests, the most significant impact of the carceral system “and of its extension well beyond legal imprisonment is that it succeeds in making the power to punish natural and legitimate.” For carceral feminism, Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattachary, and Nancy Fraser describe this as the mistaken assumption that “laws, police, and courts maintain sufficient autonomy from the capitalist power structure to counter its deep-seated tendency to generate gender violence.” Through the logic of the state, carceral feminism articulates justice as a mode of capitalist self-regulation. Carceral feminism begins from the assertion that the social conditions of a capitalist life can be controlled, and ultimately, reasoned with, through the state. Part of the task of anti-carceral feminism is to invert this assertion – to assert, instead, that capitalist control extends to all social conditions of our lives, including the state.
Anti-carceral feminism needs to critically negate carceral feminism, but also preventatively anticipate carceral anti-feminism. The complaint is key to all of these distinctions. A complaint is, in its carceral understanding, both accusative and evidentiary. When you make a complaint you will be put on trial. And at the same time as being put on trial, you will be told you are putting someone else on trial. This is precisely what enables sexual abusers, for instance, to claim they are being witch-hunted, while mobilizing a witch-hunt themselves. Complaints will be met with counter-accusations: falsification, exaggeration, or misinterpretation. Complaints will be questioned, verified, or aggressively disproved.
Much of the time carceral anti-feminism works by naming all feminism carceral. More accurately, carceralism is a way of trapping feminism. To articulate a complaint is to work within these pre-existing constraints. Yet to hear a complaint can mean to cut a hole in the trap – to find a way out. Finding and sharing these exits is part of what it means to tune out a world.
3. The apology and the complaint reflect a shared set of conditions.
The apology is the complaint’s mirror and counterpart: while, ostensibly, a response to complaint, the apology is compelled by the same carceral logic that traps the meanings produced by complaint. More than a response to complaint, the apology forms in anticipation of complaint – precisely as punishment. An apology is a polemic. From the Ancient Greeks and early Christians, the ‘apology’ is conceptualized as a form of reasoned defense. To apologize, as we find in Socrates, is to engage in self-justification – to act above the law, but within reason.
It is in this sense that, as Jacqueline Rose suggests, we might read Freud’s case study in hysteria as an apology. Writing of Dora, Freud’s first hysterical subject, Rose argues that Freud conducted “an apology for Dora (and himself)” – what she describes as “a justification of the discussion of sexual matters with a young girl” which is then an “insistence on the perverse and undifferentiated nature of infantile sexuality so that Dora’s envisaging of a scene of oral gratification – for that is what it is – might be less of a scandal.” The apology, in Rose’s reading, is not an act of closure but an act of perpetuation – a perpetuation of violence, which re-articulates itself through different forms of abuse. To apologize is not to acknowledge but to deny. And more precisely, it is to deny through making reasonable.
While Dora, the young woman of whom we only know glimpses, through her pseudonym and pathologization, ended her treatment in December 1900, Freud held back the publication of his manuscript until 1905. Nearly each sentence of Freud’s prefatory remarks begins with “I” – this prototypical case study, as Rose observes so keenly, tells us far more about its speaker, its apologist. “[I have] postponed publication till hearing that a change has taken place in the patient’s life of such a character as allows me to suppose that her own interest in the occurrences and psychological events,” he rationalizes in the remarks, “may now have grown faint.” Besides Dora’s anonymity, Freud fixates on the issue of her consent. “I naturally cannot prevent the patient herself from being pained if her own case history should accidentally fall into her hands,” he elaborates, “But she will learn nothing from it that she does not already know; and she may ask herself who besides her could discover from it that she is the subject of this paper.” Forewarning his readers, likewise, of the sexual questions discussed in the case study, Freud explains that he has “not hesitated to converse upon such subjects in such language even with a young woman.” “Am I, then, to defend myself?” he asks.
To reconceive of “An Analysis of a Case of Hysteria” as a case study in the apology – or, more closely, as a case study in the hysteria of apology – is to uncover a feminist critique of apology. This critique emerges from a practice of feminist reading: a listening for Dora that is, moreover, a struggle against the carceral logic of her pathologization. It is not only to understand Dora as the unknowable and unhearable ‘hysteric,’ but to insist on the apology as the narrative unconscious of Freud’s account.
The conditions of the apology are still distinguishable from the complaint, though defining qualities are shared. For while the rhetorical maneuvers, ideological suppositions, and genre conventions may have in common a carceral logic, the political purpose differs quite clearly. To apologize is to defend that which cannot be spoken – to maintain its unspeakability, to disarticulate the antagonists of silence. The apology is in this sense the anti-complaint, foreclosing what the complaint brings with it, which is the drive for social transformation.
4. Anti-carceralism must be staunchly anti-moralistic.
Morality and carceralism both operate at the level of individuals, while rendering impossible the imaginability of collective struggle. There is no history, there is only judgment. What would it mean to complain, or to apologize, outside the logic of carceralism, and without the implication of morality? This is a political question. It is urgent.
Anti-carceralism demands not only a set of thinkable alternatives but modes of unthinking carceralism and its logics of discipline and individuation. It is to insist that nothing, in fact, can be fully isolated within the behaviors of the individual – that all behaviors and the impacts of behaviors must be understood in relation to one another. The fantasy at work in both the complaint and the apology, precisely as carceral formations, in this sense, is that of the individual actor. Individual actors can be good or bad, but the idea of the individual actor blocks the political imagination from finding perceptible collective experience. To reduce behaviors to individual acts – whether as crimes, or whatever else – is to leave unacknowledged, but also unchangeable, what made such behaviors possible in the first place.
At work in this set of problems is the dialectic of ‘redemption’ put forth by Walter Benjamin: as he writes, “redemption depends on the tiny fissure in the continuous catastrophe.” Here, morality is absorbed and re-imagined as a political problem. Insisting upon the collective and de-individuated character of redemption’s political capacity, Benjamin understands redemption through these conditions of catastrophe. “That things are ‘status quo’ is the catastrophe,” he elaborates, “It is not an ever-present possibility but what in each case is given.” The apology, in this sense, functions as a reassertion of the status quo where the complaint makes possible this recognition of the status quo as catastrophe. A Benjaminian poetics of apology moves from this distinction toward a real state of emergency. “The tradition of the oppressed teaches us that the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule,” he writes, tasking us to “attain to a conception of history that accords with this insight.”
4. Anti-carceralism requires collective care.
Abuse has social conditions. Abuse happens because it can. Abuse happens because it involves collectivities. Every act of abuse that takes place between individuals is made possible by families, communities, institutions, and other assemblages of power. Because abuse is power, it can never be addressed by power. Nor can it be redeemed by power. It must be addressed, instead, through practices of collective care.
Through collective care, the apology and complaint can be de-individuated – and such practices take an orientation toward care, not punishment. When a complaint is spoken, a feminist practice entails listening for how to care. Yet all too often complaints are met without any care – their implications, immediately, become enwrapped in a carceral logic.
Collective care, however, may not look like “transformative justice.” Perhaps justice cannot be. Nothing can be undone. Instead of justice, and instead of punishment, the problem is, as in the case of redemption, that of revolutionary possibility. Much is discussed of the necessity — or non-necessity — of violence in revolution. This is a different question, though not unrelated. There is not a binary opposition between violence and care. Yet care is the very basis of revolution: revolutionary possibilities emerge in contexts of collectivity, mutuality, and care. These are contexts of shared experience, shared struggle, and shared survival.
6. Through practices of care, collectivities must distinguish between consequences and punishment.
Without being posed as either punishment or justice, collectivities must find ways to make conditions of revolutionary possibility and care. This may entail, in many cases, forms of mediation, and ostracization in others. Abusive persons can be asked to leave collectivities – not for the purpose of punishment, but for the purpose of care. This does not mean “cancelling” or ruining the abuser’s life. Nor does it mean, as many have claimed, social death.
Critiques of ostracization – rarely framed as explicit apologism, but performing an apology for abuse nevertheless – fail to understand that collectivities are not the state. To ask abusers to leave may mean consequences, including forms of communication outside the collectivity.
All this is possible while practicing a politics of care which insists, in M.E. O’Brien’s words, that “no one is disposable.” In “junkie communism,” she describes an ethical and practical orientation toward political struggle that involves “engaging the painful, traumatized, and self-destructive parts of people with care, taking seriously the possibility of transformation and healing, without a narrow, preset judgment.”
While all punishment is consequential, not all consequentiality is punishment. It is important for there to be consequences. There will always be consequences, whether they punish the abuser, or perpetuate the abuser’s harm. To avoid consequentiality is to be haunted by repercussions. Care is a way to hear for harm – and to imagine the different shapes of collective healing.
7. The task of revolutionary feminism is to seize the complaint and apology from carceral logics.
“Many people have been fighting so hard and for so long to have sexual assaults recognized as crimes and not just high spirits,” as Mithu Sanyal writes, “that questioning the political convictions that have achieved so much carries the risk of playing into the hands of those who wish to relativize sexual violence.” It is precisely for this reason that the desires and impulses of carceral feminism cannot be eradicated from a revolutionary feminist project. Instead revolutionary feminism must become legible as a set of everyday practices. The alternative to carceral feminism cannot be anti-feminism, in other words, but a project grounded in daily experience.
Complaints and apologies point to a way of pursuing feminist care as a collective practice – not at the margins of struggle, but as the very premise of struggle. Care is not apolitical, or depoliticizing; it must be understood as intrinsically political, and that which generates political possibilities.
Care is “tending to what has already been lost and what might be lost,” as Jennifer C. Nash unpacks, “a political tool for the maintenance of self and collective, that is always oppositional to the logic of the state.” However it must be distinguished from the euphemisms of “state care,” as Christina Sharpe warns, which mark recuperations of care. “I want to find a way to hold onto something like care,” writes Sharpe, “as a way to feel and to feel for and with, a way to tend to the living and the dying.” In this sense care is always oppositional, but also always vulnerable to the logic of the state. “Care” that operates only in the name of abuse of power must be thoroughly antagonized – and can only be effectively challenged through collective force.
8. Revolutionary feminism must be unapologetic.
A revolutionary feminist practice should not require justification. It should be unapologetic: both feminist and revolutionary, without apology. It is a way to encounter the world which renders our political dreams unreasonable.
The purpose of such a practice is to make speakable what is unspeakable, for this unspeakability is the very condition of revolutionary dreaming.
Like ‘abuse,’ revolution is not the impossible or the unthinkable but the unspeakable: the dream which, like harm, exists everywhere in sight yet somehow unknown.
Sara Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life, Duke Press, 2016.
Cinzia Arruzza, Tithi Bhattachary, and Nancy Fraser, Feminism for the 99%, Verso, 2019.
Walter Benjamin, “Central Park” and “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, 1938-1940, Volume 4.
Lauren Berlant, “The Female Complaint,” Social Text, No 19/20, Autumn 1988, 237-259.
Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan. Second Edition. New York: Vintage Books, Random House, 1995.
Sigmund Freud, “Fragment of an Analysis of a Case of Hysteria (“Dora”)”, The Freud Reader, ed. Peter Gray, W.W. Norton, 1995, 172-239.
Sophie Lewis, Full Surrogacy Now: Feminism Against the Family, Verso, 2019.
Audre Lorde, “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” (1977) Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, 2007.
Jennifer C. Nash, Black Feminism Reimagined: After Intersectionality, Duke Press, 2018.
M.E. O’Brien, “Junkie Communism,” Commune Magazine, Issue 3.
Jacqueline Rose, Sexuality in the Field of Vision, Verso, 2005.
Mithu Sanyal, Rape: From Lucretia to #MeToo, Verso, 2016.
Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Duke Press, 2016.
Jackie Wang, Carceral Capitalism, MIT Press, 2018.