Subjectivity and Suffering

 Since Sunday night, I’ve been returning to and thinking about Johanna Bos’s address “In a Just Nation.”  [An address to the Kentucky Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice, at the dinner to celebrate the 35th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade decision.]  It was an address with staying power – ideas, images, implications that return and remain, and perhaps even provoke to practical action.

I woke up this morning thinking about the scene depicted in Sherry Tepper’s novel The Gates to Women’s Country that Johanna quoted – and about what it meant.  That there are places where women marry, or feel duty-bound to engage in sexual relationships, much too young.  That there are men, and women, who have sex with one another in ways that have nothing at all to do with encountering each other as unique and precious individuals, but instead are about the exercise of privilege and disprivilege, performances of power or of joyless obligation, that are pre-scripted, pre-scribed, almost like bureaucracy in the bedroom.  That there are lots of ways to ignore obvious human suffering, to fail to let expressions of human suffering change anything.

The question of whether realizing that people are suffering will impel people to change anything seems to be at stake in the invocation of female genital cutting, too.  Here is a practice, a widespread one (Johanna cited a statistic that estimates 130-140 million women in the world today have been affected, some 60,000 of them in the US) that hurts everyone involved in it, in various ways, but that continues in spite of that hurt.  Why?  Because the felt imperative to control overwhelms, subjugates whatever impulse to acknowledge, to respond with compassion to, human suffering?  (But what?? is being controlled?  Can we name that?  Can we begin to understand that?)

So I thought:  the ethics of the situation are not really complicated.  The ethical position is the one that is in solidarity with the person who, right now, is screaming in pain.  [I think Theodor Adorno would agree, by the way – I cite Negative Dialectics, p. 365]  What that means for practical action, how to make the world change, can be complicated and not entirely clear, I agree.  But the ethical position isn’t. 

This is to come at Johanna’s point from a slightly different angle.  Johanna’s point, that is, that “women are subjects, and recognizing women’s subjectivity is necessary in a just nation – and a just world.”  She made that point by noticing, along with Susan Bordo, that the discourse around reproductive choice, reproductive rights, and, in the contemporary US, abortion, increasingly erases the subjectivity of the pregnant woman.  Our public conversations about abortion, and the laws that flow out of them, more and more make of the pregnant woman a physical thing, a body or a container for the real subject, the fetus.  Johanna spoke of regression, a collective backing away from securing women’s rights to choose reproductivity freely, to make decisions for ourselves about sexual behavior, motherhood, and the relationships in which those occur, a regression that represents a continuing reluctance to recognize women’s subjectivity.

But it’s no coincidence, it seems to me, that Johanna’s examples all had the thread of suffering running through them.  Because one of the first casualties of recognizing someone else’s subjectivity is the ability to respond to, care about, try to relieve their suffering.  Someone could see, hear, register the plain signs of suffering, and not acknowledge it as [real] suffering, because suffering takes a subject.  For suffering, hardship, the experience of injustice to provoke people to end it, it has to be someone’s suffering. 

So we need to keep saying, reminding, insisting:  women are someones.  [I think the Bible would agree, by the way – I cite Genesis 1:27]

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