The Importance of Collective Care as a Feminist (Prefigurative) Political Act

The Importance of Collective Care as a Feminist (Prefigurative) Political Act

For the Armenian translation of the article, please, click here.

Bodyland – Creator: Arpi Adamyan, Queering Yerevan Collective. All rights reserved.

What does feminist political labor look like in Armenia? A feminist environmental activist and another fellow citizen send public letters refusing the services of the national security service and the police of Armenia, demanding that the ministry of finance redirect the relevant portion of her taxes to education (Shahnazaryan 2016, Hovsepyan 2017). An art collective creates an alternative language, performances, and exhibitions to question our habitual ways of thinking and living (read resignation with and support for what is) ordered and consumed by the dominant discourses of an imminent threat of potential nonlife. Brian Massumi calls this threat from the future “an unconsummated surplus of danger,” that what comes next is going to be worse than what we are living now (Massumi 2010).[1]

A group of feminist folks works on communal storytelling and experience-sharing, creating alternative spaces where knowledge can be generated collectively without individual authorship. This opens more spaces to imagine different ways of living and relating to each other through alternate forms of knowledge: creative and imaginative forms that as humans we already possess but under the regimes of imminent threat are taught not to trust.[2]

Some folks historicize our feminist inheritance through creating more space on the bookshelves of our consciousness for Zabel Yesayan, Shushanik Kurghinyan, Sibil, Srbuhi Dussap, and others.[3] People translate feminist texts. People write about the cooptation of feminism in the pages of this website and elsewhere.[4] People dare speak about corruption in the military, demanding accountability for the lives of soldiers lost during conditions of relative ceasefire. Scientists, researchers, and environmentalists working with the Armenian Environmental Front (AEF) conduct an alternative public expert evaluation of the damaging environmental impact of a gold mine in Amulsar (Amulsar 2017). This assessment points to alternate spaces for and forms of informed decision-making that citizens of Armenia collectively practice when the government does not act “in best public interest” (Shahnazrayan, personal correspondence, December 15, 2017).

The Coalition to Stop Violence against Women (the Coalition hereafter) demands changes in legislation titled “Preventing violence in families, protecting the individuals experiencing violence in families, and restoring harmony in families,” the previous iteration of which was titled “Preventing domestic violence and protecting individuals experiencing domestic violence.” The Coalition points out that the discursive shift from “domestic violence” to “violence in the family” is in dissonance with the international agreements on domestic violence of which Armenia is a signatory (The Coalition 2017).

The Coalition (2017) also points out the problematic focus on “harmony” and reconciliation, a framing that suggests that the party inflicting violence and the party suffering it are equal, making the power asymmetry invisible. In mid-November of 2017, the Coalition demands that the term “domestic violence” be restored and demands the removal of phrases such as “strengthening traditional values and restoring harmony in the family,” the word “real” from the definition of “psychological violence,” and all measures regarding “harmony” and “reconciliation” from the then bill (The Coalition 2017). People dare speak about life and peace. Life in peace. This is only a partial reference to the range of the political work feminists in Armenia focus on, rather than capturing the totality of the work in the times we live now.

The times we live in, when corporations from elsewhere and local oligarchs perpetrate eco-colonization by exploiting and extracting Armenia’s natural resources (AEF 2017). The times we live in, when at a business meeting focusing on agriculture in Armenia, the US embassy in Armenia presents Monsanto, a corporation, perhaps, most famous for its genetically engineered seeds and herbicides—which damage crops across different locales—also known for patenting seeds that constrain small-scale local farmers’ autonomy to grow their own seeds, costing people their livelihood (Khachatourian 2017). The times we live in, when the National Assembly of Armenia passes a law on “Preventing violence in families, protecting the individuals experiencing violence in families, and restoring harmony in families” rather than a law against “domestic violence.” The times we live in, when every citizen, irrespective of income, is by law obligated to contribute financially to the military on a monthly basis. The times we live in, when in Armenia speaking about peace becomes a reason to question your humanity, or should I say nationalist-ality?

It is within these conditions at this moment that feminist political work is of particular importance in Armenia, as this work often gestures toward a kind of freedom that, in a US-based anthropologist Elizabeth Povinelli’s (2015) terms offers “a practice of being otherwise” through which people not only resist power but produce alternative subjectivities and seek autonomy from power (Hardt and Negri 2009, 57). I am particularly interested in the practices of being otherwise that prefigure a life in which no injustice is minor or secondary, whether this feminist labor takes the form of communal story-telling, writing and translating feminist texts, performance, or engaging in direct and indirect action regarding domestic violence, environmental degradation, and resource extraction.[5]  The practices of being otherwise I am interested in here move the “restoring harmony” from abusive familial relations and place it in the environment, as these practices understand life otherwise.
 

What kinds of effects, then, do these practices of otherwise create? In some of her more recent work, Povinelli (2015) discusses “a new formation of power under way,” which, rather than governing life, differentiates between life and nonlife. To make sense of the difference between life and nonlife, Povinelli (2015) suggests three figures:

THE DESERT and its dominant image of CARBON BASED LIFE, THE ANIMIST and its dominant image of THE INDIGENOUS, and THE TERRORIST and its dominant image of THE VIRUS… Whereas the desert emphasizes that which is denuded of life or could be made into (the fuel) of life, the animist insists that there is no absence of life because everything has a vital force; there is no nonlife because all is life. THE TERRORIST is the figure of the desert and the animist from the perspective of current forms of … biosecurity. [Povinelli 2015, 170]

To bring these three figures together, Povinelli (2015) turns to Tjipel, a creek in Anson Bay, Northern Territory, of Australia, since for Tjipel, “the figure of the desert [is] her future, the animist [is] her salvation, and the terrorist [is] her potential inner toxic offspring” (185). Povinelli (2015) is quick to note that Tjipel does not represent “a people,” rather it is outside of biopower, or power over life (Hardt and Negri 2009). For Harutyunyan (2017) in her God Has Passed Through Here, on the other hand, Noem, a young woman who has a phosphorous glow at night, whom her parents coerce into being inspected by (he-)visitors from various places, to eventually be cut up and sold after her death – for the sake of her sick father and her family – in many ways represents Armenia, “a people,” more accurately generation(s) born and struggling, and unborn due to the widespread gynocide in Armenia and elsewhere (Avagyan, personal correspondence, November 30, 2017).

[W]hen the Europeans came to see [Noem],they were… still naïve . . . And when they saw, after reaching the top of the incline, that there was yet another unimaginable, rocky incline … with rocks blacker and sharper than Satan's nails between which one could see the glimmering, coiling vein of the gold mine, one of them cursed and wept…” [Harutyunyan 2017, 282, translated by Shushan Avagyan]

Why am I bringing Tjipel and Noem together at this moment of my writing in December of 2017, despite their differences: one a creek in Australia, the other a fictional character in Armenia? Noem, like Tjipel pulls all these figures together.

Noem is in the law to “restore traditional Armenian family values.” Noem is the gold mine in Amulsar. Noem too is the elusive animist and terrorist, because if you happen to be a politically active woman in Armenia, your struggle does not get a break. You are reminded (at home, on the street, in workplace, on social media) of what it means to be a woman, an Armenian woman, that for your own safety you want to stay home, that for a woman your age (from what age on?) you should be thinking about settling down, getting married, having a kid – for nation-army, or to make up for all those who are dying, or not being born, or emigrating, or just because – because that is your function, not roaming the streets, or meddling in incomprehensible initiatives and events, to produce humans for the next cycle of violence where no one can speak about peace, unless it is about reconciliation in a family into which you (hetero-)married and experienced domestic violence, because we now have a law that aims at “strengthening the traditional family values” (are they saying violence is traditional?).

What is at risk then, if we rethink home (summoning the figure of the terrorist?), like scholars interested in queer diasporas invite us to, moving from “communities based … on origin, filiation, and genetics” to communities based on “destination, affiliation” that share “social practices and political commitments” (Eng, Halberstam, Muñoz 2009, 7)? What becomes visible? What becomes possible? If we listen carefully, feminist political work allows us to see vital force in places that were foreclosed as deserts before and makes it possible for us to ask questions that are inappropriate and unaskable in conditions of an “unconsummated surplus of danger.”

 

Why, then, is collective care important for the survival of feminist political work and a vision for future? American Black feminist writer Audre Lorde (1978) reminds us of the joy that comes from sharing that connects the sharers, creating openings to understand what had not been shared or known and “lessen[ing] the threat of their differences” (56). Political anthropologist Deborah Thomas invites us to reflect on the importance of the politics of interiority and affectability of care when she suggests that “the most revolutionary transformations arise from the interior recognition and shifts in consciousness that radiate from one to another in unexpected and necessarily non-linear ways” (Thomas 2015).

It is of this affectability of care that Ani – a feminist engaged in political work in Armenia – spoke, when she told me about her insistence on doing all political work with friends. It is through working together, disagreements, frustrations, and joys that one grows and transforms in concert with others, Ani suggested. Thomas (2015) also echoes one of my interlocutors, Arax, a feminist environmentalist, who suggests that “communal care creates a bigger sense of trust,” which is generative and “in working together it … allows folks to be more caring toward each other.” My politically active interlocutors often spoke to the joy that came from sociality, from working together in horizontally organized affinity groups, sharing experiences, generating knowledge, and creating meaning together. Collectively generating and sharing knowledge, experiences, dances, food, water, and laughter – attuned to each other’s voices and imagination – constitute collective care that counters the depletion and exhaustion that can come with political work.

Politically active folks, particularly women, in Armenia often speak of experiences of burnout and its physical manifestations in the form of health complications. Not everyone finds the term burnout meaningful, however. For Ani, for example, burnout evokes the figure of a machine that burnt out, whereas humans are not machines. Instead she offers, What’s called burnout is your lived experience, the sufferings through which you go. But whether or not folks share a similar perspective on burnout, many speak of the need and importance for collective work, sociality, and care, since the affectability of care, like the figure of animist, has a life-nourishing potential that is itself generative. I know my voice comes papuk teghits (from a soft, read comfortable, read privileged, place). It does, because I am writing this text nourished by (and nourishing) my connections to Tjipels and Noems. So I fly on my broom and inflect this noun khaghaghutyun (peace) in Armenian: khaghaghutyun, khaghaghutyan, khaghaghutyane, khaghaghutyun, khaghaghutyunits, khaghaghutyunov, khaghaghutyan mej (peace, of peace, to peace, peace, from peace, with peace, in peace).

 

Notes:

[1] Browse the many creative queering projects of Queering Yerevan Collective here.

[2] Throughout the text I draw on material gathered from various media, as well as from my research with politically active folks on what calls them to action in Armenia, which I conducted with my colleague feminist environmentalist Anna Shahnazaryan in 2016-2017. This research was made possible by a research grant from Marlboro College in Vermont as well as the University of Southern California Institute of Armenian Studies, supported in part by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation.

[3] In this text I am gesturing toward Armenian feminist inheritance in particular, not to claim it as totalizing and the only feminist inheritance, but rather to make space for feminist inheritance that has been historically erased.

[4] See Anna Nikoghosyan’s “Co-optation of feminism: Gender, Militarism and the UNSC Resolution 1325” here.

[5] I use Carl Boggs’s definition of “prefigurative,” by which he refers to the participants’ embodied forms of “social relations, decision-making, culture, and human experience that are the ultimate goal” (1977, 100).

 

References

Ahmed, Sara. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

“Amulsar: Alternative Public Expertise.” Armenian Environmental Front. December 12. http://www.armecofront.net/en/press-releases/amulsar-alternative-public-expertise-on-december-12/

Armenian Environmental Front. http://www.armecofront.net/about-us/

Boggs, Carl,  1977. “Marxism, prefigurative communism and the problem of workers' control.” In Radical America 6:99–122.

Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women. 2017. “Observations and Recommendations.” Coalition to Stop Violence Against Women. November 16, 2017. http://coalitionagainstviolence.org/hy/օրինագծում-տեղ-գտած-փոփոխություններ/

Eng, David, Judith Halberstam, José Esteban Muñoz. 2005. “Introduction: What’s Queer About Queer Studies?” Social Text 84-85, 23 (3-4): 1-17.

Hardt, Michael and Antonio Negri. 2009. Commonwealth. Cambridge. Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Harutyunyan, Susanna. 2017. “God Has Passed Through Here.” In Best European Fiction 2018, edited by Alex Andriesse, 281-289. Victoria, TX: Dalkey Archive Press.

Hovsepyan, Lusine. “Yes hrazharvum em AATz yev vostikanutyan tzarayutiunnerits. Im vcharatz harkere ughghel krtakan hamakargin” [“I am declining the services of National Security Service and the Police. Redirect my taxes to education,”] Lakmoes.am, January 17, 2017, accessed December 15, 2017, http://lakmoes.am/iravunq/1719-2017-01-17-14-23-13?fb_comment_id=1385424511501881_1389609454416720#f353c96bd

Khachatourian, Ara. 2017. “Why Monsanto in Armenia Should Raise Red Flags for Its Farmers.” In Asbarez.com. November 2, 2017. http://asbarez.com/168485/why-monsanto-in-armenia-should-raise-red-flags-for-its-farmers/

Lorde, Audre. 1978. Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power. In Sister Outsider (53-59).

Freedom, California: The Crossing Press.

Massumi, Brian. 2010. “The Future Birth of Affective Fact: The Political Ontology of Threat.” In Affect Theory Reader, edited by Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, 52-70. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2015. “Transgender Creeks and the Three Figures of Power in Late Liberalism,” differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 26(1): 168-187.

Shahnazaryan, Anna. “Yes hrazharvum em AATz yev vostikanutyan tzarayutiunnerits. Im vcharatz harkere ughghel krtakan hamakargin” [“I am declining the services of National Security Service and the Police. Redirect my taxes to education,”]  Lragir.am, July 29, 2016, accessed July 30, 2016, http://www.lragir.am/index/arm/0/right/view/136822

Thomas, Deborah. “On the Poetics and Politics of Redress.” Presentation at a Symposium What are the Contemporary Debates around Restitution, Redress, and Reclaiming Heritage, Research Center for Material Culture, Leiden, Netherlands, November 2015.

 

 

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