Updated: Jan 8, 2022
The basic philosophical starting point for all of my work is the priority of relationship as a basis for being, knowledge and action. From the perspective adopted in WhiteSpaces this means that relationship is a matter of whiteness. That whiteness has a particular relationality. As I explain in what follows here, this relationality is liberal individual (colonial) rationalism.
This focus on relationship is deceptively simple, but devilishly complex in practice. This is because relationship is not only an intersubjective matter between individuals it is a matter of social and cultural difference and power. It is neither individual nor structural, relationship draws our attention to the dynamics of institutionalisation.
Following the lessons of a range of critical cultural theorists, feminists, Black Feminists and psychoanalytically informed thinkers about relationships I have been helped to understand three key things.
1. Relationships are the way we come to be as people through processes of subjectification. This process of becoming a subject in and through our relationships is what connects us to broader social formations, the social categories of gender, race, class, sexuality and age. We live the world through our multiple relationships and we are located in a social order through those relationships, as parents and child, teacher and student. These relationships are already understood through socially ordered categories. For example mother is gendered feminine and father as masculine.
2. It is intersecting relationships which keep power and inequality in place, but it is also these intersecting relationships which mean that power can be shifted. Relationships are the space of power, but they are also the space of resistance, repair and reckoning. The patterning of these relationships can be endlessly reconfigured, or endlessly repeated. Almost always this patterning is a bit of both.
3. Power and subjugation are intersectional matters. Systems come to operate through the intersectional patterning of multiple relations together in a culturally recognisable configuration - a social formation. Power does not have a single origin or endpoint. This means that no one person or entity is power's absolute. So no-one or no-thing has ultimate power or control over any other entity or thing.
I became sure that the nature of relationship holds the key to self and worldly understanding when I was introduced to the work of a range of feminists who were grappling with the idea of social and cultural difference and how it related to their own involvement in racist imperial social formation and therefore to their own relationship to power as a form of domination.
For these feminists subjugation is a systemic institutionalised matter because social difference is devalued in modern culture. This ideological devaluing of social difference means that the essence and complexity of human relationship is therefore devalued. Difference is understood as deficiency, as problematic as in some way wrong and bad. This ideological devaluing of difference seeps into our psyches from the earliest stages of life where social norms like the social ideal of motherhood, to continue the same example, are mistakenly understood as naturally related to gender and are (supposedly) inadvertently valued, or devalued in the relation to this link to the natural. This example translates into a maxim like women are naturally inclined to care and nurture and good women do caring and nurturing well. Women who do not care well are different and therefore devalued. We are taught to fear difference.
This way of thinking about difference is fundamental to Audre Lorde's thinking in her essay on Age, Race, Class and Sex: Women Redefining Difference in Sister Outsider:
Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such an economy, we have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals. As a result, those differences have been misnamed and misused in the service of separation and confusion.
This devaluing of social difference is fundamental to coloniality which is a power relation rooted in the rationalist de-contextualisation of experience, location and culture and the related split between thinking and feeling where the control of feeling is understood as fundamental to proper thinking. For Anne Mclintock these splits were fundamental to the colonial enterprise through construction of the idea of the domestic sphere which supported the construction of the colonial public sphere.
Domesticity denotes both a space (a geographic and architectural alignment) and a social relation to power. The cult of domesticity – far from being a universal fact of “nature” – has an historical genealogy. The idea of “the domestic” cannot be applied willy-nilly to any house or dwelling as a universal or natural fact. So often vaunted as involving a naturally occurring, universal space – ensconced within the innermost interiors of society, yet lying theoretically beyond the domain of political analysis – the cult of domesticity involved processes of social metamorphosis and political subjection of which gender is the abiding but not the only dimension.
Etymologically, the verb to domesticate is akin to dominate, which derives from dominus, lord of the domun, the home. Until 1964, however, the verb to domesticate also carried as one of its meanings the action “to civilize.” In the colonies … the mission station became a threshold institution for transforming domesticity rooted in European gender and class roles into domesticity as controlling a colonized people. Through the rituals of domesticity, increasingly global and more often than not violent, animals, women and colonized peoples were wrested from their putatively “natural” yet, ironically “unreasonable” state of “savagery” and inducted through the domestic progress narrative into a hierarchical relation to white men. …
The cult of domesticity …became central to the British imperial identity, contradictory and conflictual as that was, and an intricate dialectic emerged. Imperialism suffuse the Victorian cult of domesticity and the historic separation of the private and the public, which took shape around colonialism and the idea of race. At the same time, colonisation took shape around the Victorian invention of domesticity and the idea of the home.
In the colonial contexts explored by McLintock this cult of domesticity was crucial to the construction of the white supremacist idea of the heteropatriarchal ‘family of man’ where the English middle class man was placed at the pinnacle of evolutionary hierarchy a symbol of civilistional control and enterprise in the public domain of institutions and the state. He was constructed in relation to the white middle class woman as decorous, meek and mild angel in the home.
The ideal of white womanhood - the Victorian ‘angel in the house’ as depicted in Julia Margaret Cameron's photograph of the same name (in the slide I am talking to above) was rooted in the intersecting ideals of gender, race class and sexuality which position white middle class women as the civilisers in the domestic sphere supporting white middle class men as the civilisers in the public colonial project.
The point I am making here is that difference is systemically and interdependently - relationally - constituted in relation to other ideas of social difference patterned together to create recognisable social forms. It is the relational patterning that produces social and cultural legibility.
Relationality: thinking governance intersectionally
The following excerpt from Power Politics and the Emotions explains how this idea of relationality provides a tool for thinking about global North Western governance, politics and institutions differently from mainstream political analysis. Thinking about governance as psychosocial patterned through relationships and power. Institutions are public spaces made recognisible through our everyday intimacies patterned through historical relations of power in global coloniality like those relations explored in McLintock's work.
This notion of the relational can be applied more broadly to shift our analytic focus in governance. This is a shift away from identifying sets of coherent figures and practices and categories driving change and stability to tracing the intersections; the dynamic constitutive connections, the relations of interdependence between entities in governance networks including the links, ruptures and disjunctures between actual and imagined practices and individual or collective subjects. It also places the experiential dimension as core to the interactive distribution and allocation of social power in governance. But this relational perspective extends the experiential in two ways: first, in explicitly dynamic terms, as a form of intersectional and interactive, co-produced doing. Experience is a multiple interactive achievement, not an a priori state. Second, it goes ‘beyond’ the view that either mutual recognition or functional efficiency is the means to connect governance networks. Instead, a relational perspective suggests that experience constitutes a ‘normative cognitive framework’ that empowers actors and gives direction to their joint and separate actions. Following my claims about relationality, this normative cognitive framework is as much about less well articulated feeling as it is about knowledge, it is not static, but built up over time and through the close relations by which we learn about ‘proper’ ‘appropriate’ ways to engage with one another as practitioners, users, friends, etc. Thus, it is rooted in unconscious practice as much as considered action .
It is through its connection between feeling and judgments that object relations is suggestive of the broader psychosocial connections between politics and the emotions; how fantasy fuels politics and politics fuels fantasy. Feelings and, especially, our anxieties about who we are frame our judgments of value and our investments in ideas such as equality, or a social category such as race or a set of ideas and practices, such as an institution like the National Health Service (NHS). Thus, this ‘feeling work’ is relational, the means by which the individual and the social are connected and culture is enacted.
In my writing on white shame I trace how this feeling work constitutes a 'relational economy of shame'structuring the english National Health Service (NHS) where the intersecting dynamics between the figures of 'the white worried man' and 'the white woman saviour' work together to legitimise and sanitise whiteness as a benevolent institutional ideal. These expressions of shame work to sanction and suppress overt expressions of racism whilst sustaining the fundamentally unequal nature of institutional space. The way that this happens is through professional white women's policing of professional white men's problematic behaviours. It is produced through the dynamic intersections between race, gender and class configured (or choreographed) into particular patterns through feeling and in the case of my research into the health services, through expressions of shame.
The point for me about relationality is that it forces conversations about power through a consideration of difference as the essence of relationship. Difference as the essence of creativity rather than something to be feared. It is the mode of connection not of division. a paragraph.This is not difference as a social category, but difference as relation. Turning final again to Audre Lorde, this time in another famous essay from Sister Outsider: The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House.
Within the interdependence of mutual (non dominant) differences lies that security which enables us to descent into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future, along with the concomitant power to effect those changes which can bring the future into being. Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged. '