Denying the Agency of the Subordinate Class

I’ve thought about the abortion issue in terms of social control, the morality-punishment link, and symbolic conflation. It’s been on my mind for much of my adult life. The culture wars began just as I started high school, as my thinking about the larger world began to develop. Abortion was always the most potent of the culture war issues.

Corey Robin brings in another perspective—What Donald Trump Can Learn From Frederick Douglass:

If the goal is simply to constrain the agency of the subordinate class, the simplest thing to do is to punish the disobedient so that she doesn’t act disobediently again. But in doing so, you implicitly recognize her agency, particularly if your punishment is tied to a set of laws and rules you expect her to learn. […]

If the goal is not simply to constrain the agency of the subordinate class, but to deny it altogether, the far better move is not to hold the disobedient accountable all but instead to blame her disobedience on some external force: Satan, the serpent, the doctor. She then becomes a vessel, the implement of another’s will (preferably a man’s will), which is precisely what so many in the conservative movement want women to be.

(Also, see his article at Jacobin: Agency and Abortion.)

I’m not sure what to think of that theory. It’s interesting. I wonder if that in any way fits into some of my own prior thoughts on the matter. I sense some possible connections.

Symbolic conflation is about shutting down awareness and narrowing thought, and as such agency is central to it. The main insight I had early on was that the obsession with abortion never had anything directly to do with abortion itself. I’ve struggled ever since in trying to understand what it actually is about.

* * *

The following is a comment left at Corey Robin’s post—Chris G wrote:

That is the perfect rejoinder to this interview with a pro-lifer on NPR this morning –

An excerpt: “Well, because the pro-life movement has never, for a very good reason, promoted the idea that we punish women. In fact, we believe that women are being punished before the abortion ever occurs. In other words, the early feminists believed this was the ultimate exploitation of women.”

20 thoughts on “Denying the Agency of the Subordinate Class

      • yeah, you know, the rightwing idiots I battle on a fun site ( do tend to repeat endlessly that us liberals believe everything Obama or Rachel Maddow or someone tells us. (Personally, I don’t spend a lot of time LISTENING to anybody.) They love to frame things as if we’re not speaking for ourselves. Shit – and we do to them too – Fox News, right?

        • There are some points to be made. Most Americans don’t think or speak for themselves. That is because most Americans get their info and talking points from the MSM, although this is changing with the younger generation.

          Another thing is that there is a difference on the left and right. It is true that if you watch any news at all no matter the source you will be more informed than the average American, but that is no major accomplishment. The difference with Fox News is that its viewers are simultaneously more informed and more disinformed than the average American, which is to say they know more than most people while much of what they know isn’t true.

          That isn’t the case with the political left. It’s not that the average liberal is extremely well informed. They don’t necessarily have any more basic knowledge than conservative news viewers (such as being able to name politicians, bills, agencies, and branches of government), but at least most liberals don’t have the problem of being more disinformed to the degree they are more informed.

          This is seen with many things. It relates to the smart idiot effect, which is much more common on the right than the left. Actually, it is also a class thing. Poor conservatives aren’t particularly misinformed and don’t tend to deny such things as scientific consensus any more than liberals do. It is the wealthier and more well educated conservatives who fall into the smart idiot trap. There is something about being more well informed on the political right that is directly related to being more misinformed/disinformed.

  1. Abortion? You’re pretty much there, aren’t you? It’s more of the same, punishment cult stuff, declare a law and a crime and then use it to beat down the subordinate group that’s trying to rise up – meaning women trying to stay in school or at work. Same as this Erlichman revelation just lately, about how the war on drugs was for just that, to silence and marginalize blacks and hippies. They love it though, moral high ground, “killing babies” sounds powerful and lets their stupid assumption pass un-noticed – that breeding is “moral,” a moral imperative.

    • The social control angle is obvious. But I’ve always been fascinated by what this means in terms of human nature and the human mind. I came up with my own theory, symbolic conflation, to get at the role that imagination plays in all of this.

      Abortion was the original issue that forced me to dig more deeply into what was going on. It is social control, but not of the brute variety. It is so subtle that few can see how it operates or even recognize that there is anything there to be seen. This goes to the heart of what people can and cannot perceive, their very sense of identity and reality.

      • I think I love your theory. I’d like to see a case like this, abortion, broken down with your idea, all spelled out for me, at least as far as can be.

        For me, there’s the blood libel, baby killers, it’s a gut reaction, a taboo. My new idea has me looking at that a bit – the difference between killed children and beaten but live ones (I’m afraid that’s as far as I want to go down that train of thought online.) The first layer of the onion is what I mentioned already – if our apparent assumption is so bad – killing babies is good – then their assumption is never questioned – no amount of babies is too many, and breeding ourselves to war or starvation is all right and proper. But I know you’ve peeled a few more layers off, right?

        • One of the links in the post explains my theory about symbolic conflation. A significant part of it is about abortion, maybe my most extensive discussion of abortion in terms of symbolic conflation. Here is the linked post:

          I’ve written a number of posts about symbolic conflation. It’s a bit hard to explain, as the very purpose of symbolic conflation is to obfuscate awareness and defy rational analysis. It sucker punches the psyche and then grabs the imagination by the gonads.

          The overt issue, such as abortion, is in some ways irrelevant. It’s a mere distraction, but the distraction is centrally important for there is no symbolic conflation without it.

          Not just anything can have the kind of power to so fully capture the mind, twisting it up in a knot of emotional confusion. It has to be something visceral, bodily, and of course emotional. It’s in the liminal space between social norms and the taboo, marking a boundary zone. This usually involves either sex or death, abortion being perfect in touching upon both.

          I could try to say more, but I’ve already written about it in great detail in several other posts. If you have any specific questions, I could try to give an answer. For further context in terms of abortion, here is the relevant part from the above link:

          I’m speaking of symbolic conflation. I came to that insight entirely on my own. In fact, I coined the phrasing of ‘symbolic conflation’, as I hadn’t seen it described by anyone else. Lewis Hyde comes close in his use of metonymy, but that doesn’t fully capture my meaning.

          The insight slowly emerged from years upon years of discussions with my parents. So much of my political understanding goes back to my family relationships. The original inspiration was a single observation.

          A highly emotional and divisive issue of politics is abortion. It has in some ways been the most central theme of the culture wars, connecting together so many other threads in a way that is hard to disentangle.

          I presented my parents with the data that countries that ban abortions don’t decrease and, in some cases, increase the rate of abortions. This is to say that on average banning abortions does increase the abortion rate.

          This undermines the entire rationalization of the socially conservative position. But my parents were unfazed by this challenge to the heart of their ideological system. I experienced similar refusal to confront these basic facts from other conservatives as well.

          By their own logic, social conservatives shouldn’t support banning abortions. Doing so, according to their way of thinking, increases the killing of babies. The only way to protect life is by not making it an issue of shame and fear, by giving women many choices and resources. All of this prevents unwanted pregnancies in the first place and hence prevents most women from even needing to consider abortion.

          This is common sense. Yet I’ve never met a conservative who is able and willing to morally and rationally confront this challenge. It hits too close to a nerve. Pull on that thread and the whole thing might unravel.

          This is how I came to my original thoughts on symbolic conflation.

          Now, having read Lewis Hyde, I realize that it was no accident that I first came to this understanding because of an issue like abortion. It is a highly emotional issue that take the body as an ideological battlefield. An ideology, as some see it, isn’t just about political opinions, but an entire worldview. When ideology is grounded in bodily experience, this creates the possibility of what I observed and what Hyde describes.

          Lakoff sees the family as a fundamental metaphor for politics. That seems to be the case, but maybe that is because family relations are so personal and visceral. A mother gives birth to and breastfeeds the child. Parents hold, caress, and at times punish the child. Families live in and share the same physical space.

          Hyde points in this direction with some of his examples, such as a mother telling her daughter a story of shame when her first menstruation came. As Hyde explains, this is about creating and enforcing social boundaries. The first boundary ever created is the bond with the mother.

        • As I think further about symbolic conflation, I realize how relevant it is to so much.

          For example, I see connections to how mental health (depression, drug addiction, etc) become symbolic expressions of our society’s attitude toward the social and individual. As some have argued, the addict is the ultimate individual. Symbolic conflation isn’t just how a social order is defended but reveals how it is created.

          The symbolism cuts deeply across all aspects of our lives. This includes politics, of course. I’ve been puzzled about how most Americans hold so many liberal positions on specific issues while identifying as ‘conservatives’.

          There is a confusion at the heart of this. We are trapped in a reality tunnel, and there is no vantage point to get an outside perspective. We can’t see clearly or think straight.

      • of course that anti-abortion reasoning comes from our traditional, aboriginal situation, where we are constantly in conflict with the tribe next door and there is high mortality for a lot of other reasons besides. If the neighbors out-breed us, they win the eternal war and our group ceases to exist. This is the same aboriginal function that underlies everyone’s dreams of world domination, what was once perhaps only domination of our valley or our island, inter-group contrast effects: we prioritize our lives and the other groups’ demise. It’s that the modern world we’ve built has put all these normal, group animal functions so far out of context.

        • That is true. One thing that interests me is how do groups get defined. Every society has its stories that define identity and determine its boundaries. That relates back to symbolic conflation. There has to be something that holds a society together, makes it cohere as a collective reality tunnel. The symbolic conflation is the lynch pin.

    • OMG, you work? And produce these things daily? And all the reading you clearly do?

      I love your mind, and I think we’re on parallel and overlapping trains of thought. The very problems I’m wrestling with right now in my theorizing sound like symbolic conflation stuff, and I’d like to get into it, just maybe not here in public, while I’m still dreaming of selling this idea. Here’s my email, if you’re not opposed to having a more private talk :

      • I’d rather not work a ‘real’ job. But I have to pay the bills. My readings and writings are what give meaning to my life and what helps me deal with depression, that and my kitties… well, I suppose having family and friends around helps. I’ll email you and we can discuss important stuff.

Please read Comment Policy before commenting.

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s