#MeToo and the Feminist Politics of Memory

It is just over a month since the digital campaign #MeToo brought and made questions of erasure, denial and traumatic memory into public consciousness and spurred much discussion about the effectiveness of social media activism. This moment has been widely interpreted as one of revelation: the sheer scale of sexual abuse suddenly made visible. To understand how the current call for social change might be sustained, hashtag activism needs to be located in a longer history of feminist re-membering.

The assembling of collective memory has long been central to feminist scholarship and activism. In the 80’s, Frigga Haug developed memory work as a means of investigating how bodies and feelings are historically constructed and how ‘women, as subjects within culture, are “made”’. For Haug, memory is always contested: ‘it contains hope and giving up; above all, memory is constantly written anew and always runs the risk of reflecting dominant perspectives’. In this climate of mass re-membering,  Haug’s insistence that memory is vulnerable to being rewritten in line with the dominant ideological order is sobering. How is testimony re-appropriated and silenced and what acts of self-erasure might such recuperation involve? These are key questions for feminist digital politics since, as Grace Cho describes, ‘the act of disavowal often proliferates the very trauma that is being denied’.

A key task for feminism is therefore to identify and resist patriarchy’s attempts to recuperate and make sense of survivor accounts. Sometimes they are overt: survivors are portrayed as hysterical, over-sensitive, unable to ‘get over it’: to quote Sara Ahmed, “oversensitive can be translated as: Sensitive to that which is not over’. Woody Allen speaks of ‘a witch-hunt, a Salem atmosphere’, a dizzying inversion of gendered relations of power in the present as well as historical oppression. As Silvia Federici shows us, witch-hunts are not simply a barbaric practice located in the past: along with the institutionalism of rape, they are central to the emergence of a capitalist order in which the collective becomes commodified and privatised.  It is unsurprising that the image of the witch trials, whose erasure constitutes a primary act of forgetting for heteropatriarchal capitalism, should erupt at this moment of instability.

But the potential power of #MeToo is managed and contained in less overt ways: as Linda Alcoff argues, survivor accounts are exploited for the entertainment of ‘the anesthetized market of overly stimulated media consumers’. The imperative to ‘talk about it’ as an end in itself becomes an alibi for the erosion of actual support services as well as for the violence of the judicial system. Elsewhere, valid concerns about the triggering potential of #MeToo are mobilised to demonise and silence survivors. CNN devotes a webpage to the strawman question of whether #MeToo is ‘empowering’ or ‘triggering’, splitting survivors into two oppositional camps, as though it were impossible to experience both. Here, the figures of the empowered survivor and the triggered survivor operate equally to produce trauma as individual, a private matter, even in the face of overwhelming evidence of its social pervasiveness. It is significant that ‘empowerment’ - that meaningless abstraction beloved of neoliberal capitalism and postfeminism - is imagined as the best possible outcome, while for the ‘triggered’ survivor, the primary goal is recovery. Social change is presented as too difficult, too demanding, for the exhausted, traumatised subject: the answer is not revolution but mindfulness, meditation and medicine. This is not to suggest that self-care doesn’t matter or that such practices cannot be helpful: still, this individualising discourse does nothing to trouble the underlying structures that produce trauma. A better question is how we might care for ourselves and one another in the struggle for social justice. Expressions of distress in the present resonate with much longer histories of oppression as well as with potential futures: only through sustained collective action can we realise the radical potential of telling our stories.  


Thank you so much for this important piece! It made me remember the many conversations of late where people have taken to task the idea of resilience alone, which can be used to disempower in the same ways that self-care is often wielded as an individualizing discourse that separates us from each other and from working collectively towards justice. This piece captures and presents this call for resistance, of our collective response to care for one another by telling our stories. Thank you for an excellent piece!

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