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Ungovernable, Illegible, ...Empowered?
Your responses to "Barbarous Women" and James C. Scott
Asking for help for a woman fleeing abuse: Before going on to the usual Other Feminisms, I want to ask your help. A group of friends and I have been helping a woman and her toddler flee her abusive partner. She is in a safe, secret location, but he has zeroed out their shared accounts to try to pressure her to leave her safety.
We’ve been pooling funds to help her with food, diapers, etc. and if you’re up to contribute, we’re pooling the money by paypalling ElectricForks2023@gmail.com. The money is being collected and forwarded by my friend Grace, to keep the woman’s name private.
I can’t share more details, but I vouch absolutely for her and Grace. There are just under 3500 readers of Other Feminisms, and any amount you can chip in would make a big difference for her safety.
I’ve been looking forward to this reader roundup for some while. I shared a review fromof James C. Scott’s The Art of Not Being Goverened, where talked about how much life you can hide in the nooks and crannies of what isn’t officially accounted for.
I think women definitely experience what James C. Scott calls “illegibility.” We are harder to account for in a world that takes male patterns as the norm, and, the more policy is shaped through Big Data, the easier it is to be rounded down to invisibility if you don’t fit the expected data ranges.
Mrs. Psmith is interested in the lightness and flexibility that being deliberately unenumerated can give you. Your under-the-table work isn’t taxed (or counted for social security earnings). The more you know that the official categories don’t carve reality at the joints, the easier it is to not mistake their approximations for ontology, the easier to keep your identity small.
I wrote in response to Mrs. Psmith that, “Much of women’s work/caregiving work is illegible and uncounted without it feeling exactly like the hidden surplus accrues to us.” And I asked you:
Do you recognize patterns of your own life in Psmith’s description of barbarism?
Where (if anywhere) do you feel you’ve reaped some of the benefits of the insulation of illegibility?
Apropos of the request for [name redacted] I made at the top of this post, I want to start with this critique of Mr. Psmith. Karen was skeptical about Mr. Psmiths’s praise of barbarism:
I think ‘illegibility’ is always harmful for women. The only one who benefits in a relationship between a man and an ‘illegible’ women is a wife-beater, who can assault his punching bad with complete impunity. The only reason anyone wants to hide from the government is to hide from the consequences of breaking the law.
I’d agree that there’s danger in a relationship where there’s a big asymmetry in how legible men and women are, particularly when that illegibility is unchosen.
But I also think we all spend a good part of our lives in the less legible/more casual register, and we tend to value those parts more than the most formal/law-shaped parts. The legal structures meant to protect my friend are working, but very slowly, and at the level of generality that means they are only so tailored to her, personally. It’s our off the books help that meets her immediate need.
Julia and Vikki had a discussion about attempts to force everything into uniformity and legibility in totalitarian systems. Vikki linked out to this story about Lithuania in Soviet times:
I stayed with a friend in Lithuania a few years back. She’s born in the early 1970’s and has lived in the same Soviet flat all of her life. The apartment struck me as spacious; 3 bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen and large living room. The kitchen however, was tiny in a way that seemed odd, given the size of the other rooms. I asked her about this, and she explained to me that the state wanted to discourage the family unit to spend too much time together. Shared meals are central to family time.
The idea was that mom and dad took off to work in the morning, young kids were brought to nurseries, older kids to school and each would have their breakfast and hot lunch there. In the evenings, the family would only eat some bread.
It strikes me as ironic that the very thing the Communist Party tried to achieve totally failed, all while that exact same thing happened in the free West. People had big and shiny kitchens from the 1960’s onwards, but used these kitchens less and less. Sharing a daily meal together is not the norm for families anymore, let alone growing, harvesting and preserving food together. Mom and dad take off to work in the morning, the young kids go to nurseries, the older kids to school. Even in the weekends there are sports events, dates, other outings… to go to separately.
Perhaps freedom isn’t just about being able to do and have everything you want.
Illegible traditions like family meals are a stretch goal for disruption by totalitarian systems. If they can't co-opt it, they will try to engineer its destruction. This is true even when they are communal women's traditions getting disrupted by ostensibly communal and feminist systems like the Soviet one.
I think homeschooling might be one of he most illegible things I do. It's not only about removing education from the public governmental sphere, it's about spending time together as a family. The cornerstone of our homeschool day is when we gather together and I read aloud.
I love [Martha’s phrasing]: "The hidden surplus of a bumper crop of untaxed tubers isn't a bunch of tubers. It's the freedom to spend time with your family without worrying about your next meal. It's less time working a field and more time to enjoy your life and the lives around you." I do not have a green thumb nor am I ever going to be a great gardener growing much of my own food, much less a self-sufficient homesteader type. But I see the value in hoarding my time to spend with my family enjoying the good and the beautiful and the true. And I value being able to let my special needs kids learn at their own pace and not have to jump through hoops to access programs that were never designed for them and are a poor fit for encouraging their human flourishing.
Of course it can be lonely, and it can be boring, especially when you only have one baby.4 But I have been reliably informed that every field of human endeavor is occasionally lonely and/or boring. Certainly every job I've ever had was! And anyway, it’s nice to do these things for yourself. Being home is, as Mendelson puts it, “among the most thoroughly pleasant, significant, and least alienated forms of work that many of us will encounter even if we are blessed with work outside the home that we like.” Hard work is always more rewarding when you know you’ll capture every drop of the value you create.
Elsewhere at Scope of Work, they were discussing legibility and standardization and Scott:
I got into it in the sections where I quote Seeing Like a State, which is another favorite. Standardization tends to be implemented from a top-down level and therefore has to radiate out from these institutions of control. In the UK, for example, there is a personal dimension to the units we use that are non-metric. It is pints in the pub and pints of milk. It is your weight and your height – we talk about feet and inches and pounds, ounces and stones.
It's funny, they weigh babies in the UK in metric, and they always tell the parents in Imperial. So there are two units used: one is for the official government log, and the other is for: "This is how you relate to your baby and understand its size." It has to be translated. And I just think that's such a lovely encapsulation of that translation, and as you said, that sense of distance from the state.
If we measure the 'hidden surplus' along economic or capitalist lines, that runs counter to the nature of the benefits we are really seeking in community and with each other (the good life, the beautiful world).
"So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing."
Trying to find ways to make women more legible to our current systems *actively* runs counter to building new systems that are humane. Which isn't to say some of that work isn't very important in the short or medium term, just that small wins within a broken system can actively make long term goals and bigger shifts harder to win. It's a tradeoff that we should be aware of.
I’d love to know more about the tradeoffs you’ve found. And, one more time, if you’re able to, please help my friend stay in safety by paypalling ElectricForks2023@gmail.com.