I came across an interesting new book, “Knowing Victims: Feminism, agency and victim politics in neoliberal times” by Rebecca Stringer of University of Otago (Dunedin, New Zealand), which seems to have just come out last month. I was surprised to find that the book cites and quotes from my blog post, “Reclaiming ‘Victim’: Exploring alternatives to the heteronormative ‘victim to survivor’ discourse” in its concluding chapter. Here’s what she wrote:
In a powerful example of this kind of victim talk, feminist blogger Emi Koyama has recently framed contra- or post- neoliberal feminism as beginning with an anti-ascetic gesture of reclaiming the notion of ‘victim’.
Instead of moving to avoid victim identity and erase disadvantage and adversity,
Koyama’s piece ‘Reclaiming”Victim”and”Victimhood'” (2011) provides a robust critique of the neoliberal expectation that she should participate in such avoidance and erasure. Koyama critiques what she sees as neoliberal capitalism’s ‘trauma recovery industry’, which – in a familiar resignification of feminist conceptions of survivorship – is dominantly characterized not by compassion for victims, but by the withdrawal of compassion for victims who do not make the prescribed progression from ‘victimhood’ to ‘survivorship’ , framed as a celebration of human resilience. In its resignifications of ‘victimhood’ and ‘survivorship’, neoliberalism has situated victimbood as ‘something to be overcome’. In the neoliberal capitalist climate of ‘forced optimism’ and ‘mandatory healing’, those suffering the effects of social subordination are urged to ‘quickly transition out of victimhood into survivorship, so that we can return to our previous positions in the heteronormative and capitalist social and economic arrangements’. Rather than invalidate the knowledge and perspectives that arise from experiences of victimization, and in order to mark resistance to the imposition of ‘compulsory hopefulness and optimism in the service of neoliberal capitalist production’, Koyama argues that feminists need to reclaim the language of victimhood, which she frames as a gesture of embracing vulnerability as a source of strength, instead of ‘blaming and invalidating victims’. She writes:
I argue that feminist anti-violence movements and communities must embrace unproductive whining and complaining as legitimate means of survival in a world that cannot be made just by simply changing our individual mentalities. We must acknowledge that weakness, vulnerability, and passivity are every bit as creative and resilient as strength and activeness.
More than being a legitimate means of survival, I interpret complaint such as Koyama’s as marking a significant disaffiliation from neoliberal victim theory. Koyama refuses to refuse ‘victimhood’, and this activity of ‘reclaiming’ victimhood is not a mere reversal. It is ‘minor’, or combining elements of contamination and political rebellion: Koyama speaks the ‘major’ language of victimhood (for example, opposing weakness and strength) but reiterates it rebelliously, critiquing the erasure of structural oppression in the reduction of ‘victimhood’ to individual mentality, and affirming the legitimacy of complaint. Koyama argues that a robust feminist critique of neoliberal capitalism ‘begins’ with the gesture of reclaiming victimhood, suggesting that this gesture is an opening rather than a resolution – an opening onto new avenues of politicization rather than an end in itself. In other words, the gesture of reclaiming victimhood is necessary but not sufficient.