Breaking Silence as Strategic Complicity

On the day when I drove my family and my belongings out of the town where I’d been persistently ignored, marginalized, and shunned for several years, I lost my voice. The symbolism was glaring. I couldn’t even whoop and holler and damn the place to hell at the top of my lungs like I’d been dreaming of doing. All I could manage was a loud hiss through my teeth and a middle finger jammed violently against the driver’s window. It took a voice therapist and lots of vocal exercises at home to bring me back to speech nearly a month later.

I’ve been ignored plenty of times in my life, silenced through others’ refusal to believe me, to take me seriously, to think what I had to say (or write) was worth saying. But this was silencing on a whole new level. Each time I began to reach out about the emotional abuse, each time I named the domestic violence, each time I asked for help, nothing good came of it. People nodded sympathetically and then reinterpreted what I was going through, usually in ways that blamed or pathologized me. So I shut my mouth and opened my arms – the skin on them, that is. People could silence my voice, but they couldn’t erase the story I wrote on my arms. Although I still struggle with shame, I’m proud of those scars because they tell the story of my survival.

So when my former student Kyla Rapp wrote a super-smart response paper to the first volume of Foucault’s History of Sexuality that analyzed the public self-disclosures of rape survivors as a form of confession, she really made me think. Anyone who works with Foucault’s theories knows confession as a negative word – relocated from the realm of the religious to the realm of the medical during a massive shift in the modes of European power, confession elicits information from the person confessing and grants the confessor ultimate power to affirm, efface, interpret, or deny the truth/Truth of that information. Confessional forms of discourse make us manageable as bodies, minds, individuals, souls through the intertwined workings of state and scientific power – particularly, in History of Sexuality, as they relate to sex. It makes sense that the same ideas would apply to people who are open about being survivors of domestic violence and/or sexual assault. But then why is breaking the silence so crucial to so many of us?

Maybe these forms of power are so deeply woven through our beings that when we obey them we feel better. Maybe what Foucault called the “confessional imperative” is so strong and also so undetectable within us that those of us who are silenced by people around us feel oppressed by our inability to heed its call, and feel liberated when we manage to break those bonds of silence and confess at the top of our lungs. Maybe.

But. And.

If people had listened to me from the start, I could’ve gotten the help I needed to escape the violence long before it caused me the serious damage that feels on some days like it’s permanent. When I was in the midst of the abuse, it was the stories of other queer survivors that helped me to name what was going on, even though I couldn’t accept that naming at first. When I speak of my experiences in the classroom, I see some students freeze in recognition. So many of them over the years have teared up in my office when I showed them my arms or spoke openly of my experiences, normalizing them and proving that we can still survive and thrive.

I’m far from the only one to point out the importance of naming and sharing one’s experience, and attending to others’. Womanists, feminists, queer folks, communities of color, trans folks, veterans, survivors of all kinds of violence – so many people have been saying for so long that it makes a real difference in our lives and in our societies when we refuse to be shut up and shut down. But Foucault was on to something too. Can we reconcile these seemingly contradictory tales about silence and voice?

For one thing, I wonder whether there’s a difference between speaking when compelled by to do so by the form of power that Foucault named biopolitics, and speaking in the face of a power that compels silence – perhaps the form of power that theorists call necropolitics. Foucault was worried that the activists around him were intent on breaking a silence that he believed was nonexistent; he thought that in declaring themselves “Gay and Proud” they were playing into a system that inextricably linked same sex desire to a specific human type – a “species,” he called it. But what if you’re breaking a silence that insists you don’t exist at all? Then again, by claiming or even creating identity terms – survivor, HIV-positive, in recovery – we’re still buying into a system that wants to pin us down, to place us in boxes. We’re doing it a favor by jumping in those boxes all by ourselves.

I’ve been mulling over this problem for a while, and I’m thinking that maybe Gayatri Spivak’s idea of “strategic essentialism” is useful here. In response to worries about the political efficacy of very valid challenges to a monolithic idea of what “women” were, Spivak suggested that we should continue to use the term “women” in an essentialist way for political purposes, understanding that since the reality of sexism makes “women” appear to be an essentialist category, treating it as such for strategic purposes might make sense.

Maybe the connection between silencing, power, and the confessional imperative works similarly. Not everyone is equally subject to the confessional imperative – some people, usually those less important to the state, fall more often under an imperative of silence. But even in the face of such an imperative, choosing to confess simply lands one right within the central regime of biopower – kind of like escaping a prison cell only to realize you’ve gone into the guards’ mess hall. But in a Foucauldian understanding, there is no outside to the walls of power; one can only resist power by subverting it from the inside. Can anyone wholly resist the confessional imperative, the demand to “identify oneself,” in a culture driven by identity? Does it do any good to acquiesce to the cultural imperative not to talk about such “private,” “intimate” things as sexual and domestic violence? Or is there perhaps a kind of “strategic confession” through which we might cunningly give in to the confessional, identitarian imperative by speaking “Truths” and naming “identities” disobediently, saying the “wrong” thing at the “wrong” time?

Can we subvert power from within through strategic confession? Is that what breaking silence is, at its best? If so, how might we do it better?


Author: Melissa M. Wilcox

Melissa M. Wilcox (any pronouns) is Professor and Holstein Family and Community Chair of Religious Studies at the University of California, Riverside. Dr. Wilcox is the author or editor of several books and journal issues, and numerous articles, on gender, sexuality, and religion. Dr. Wilcox's books include Coming Out in Christianity: Religion, Identity, and Community; Sexuality and the World’s Religions; Queer Women and Religious Individualism; Religion in Today’s World: Global Issues, Sociological Perspectives; Queer Nuns: Religion, Activism, and Serious Parody; Queer Religiosities: An Introduction; and (with Nina Hoel and Liz Wilson) Religion, the Body, and Sexuality. Dr. Wilcox is currently working on a new research project on religion and spirituality in queer and trans leather and BDSM communities.

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