Pity Party for One: Individuation and ‘Politics’ in the Neoliberal Social Order

Forward: I am so sorry that I hated this book so much… I will try to formulate a more articulate and well-backed opinion for class. Please do not feel beholden to indulging my hater-ship with one of your extremely thoughtful comments!

Hunger indulges itself in the outward projection of a deeply intimate interior journey to identity reconciliation. As Gay works to uncover and unite the fragments of herself scattered to the wind by her assault, she is able to come to a certain awareness of her position within society, empowering her to move about the world as a cohesive unit.

However, her writing betrays a resignation to her station[1], in which she wallows in her self-loathing with no intent to address the issues which plague her. Thus, the book carries a certain valence of narcissistic apathy with the expectation that her story should evoke some sort of validating sentiment from the reader. Gay herself says, “I realize it is impossible, as a woman and as a writer, to be anything BUT political. Anytime I write a story about a women’s experience I am committing a political act.” But what if I, the reader, were to contend that there is nothing inherently ‘political’ about her writing?

Hunger is not interested in mobilizing community or inspiring action—it is a memoir of self-discovery. To presume that one’s existence is inherently ‘political’ fails to grasp the concept of the term itself. Politics is the study and practice of organizations of people, not the litigation and objectification of the individual (though that may be the consequence). In subjectifying the self among an entire demographic, one dissociates the self and the larger community to which it belongs. Under the neoliberal social structure, this dissociation is encouraged, privileging an egocentric model of behavior which suggests that the individual is the epicenter of all political battles and societal plights, diverting attention from the fact that nearly all individuals living under a broken system suffer in equal measure.

While the impulse to seek community is understandable, the normalization of “sharing my story” threatens to (and, in my opinion, already has) commodify personal traumas, either providing perverse entertainment or being thrust into a victimhood competition. Who’s the most damaged? Like a train wreck, which story is so sickening that we can’t help but watch?

In the commodification of trauma, all individuals become isolated actors within a market. Not only does this necessarily foster a self-centered, competitiveness among actors in the market, it also implies that certain stories will carry more value than others. There is no community in a market, only atomized players wrestling toward an end goal.

Wendy Brown discusses the pitfalls of identity politics and the egocentric liberal feminism in her article “Wounded Attachments”:

“But in its attempt to displace its suffering, identity structured by ressentiment at the same time becomes invested in its own subjection. This investment lies not only in its discovery of a site of blame for its hurt will, not only in its acquisition of recognition through its history of subjection… Identity politics structured by ressentiment reverses without subverting this blaming structure: it does not subject to critique the sovereign subject of accountability that liberal individualism presupposes nor the economy of inclusion and exclusion that liberal universalism establishes.”

In isolating the individual as a composite of their own identities/traumas, the subject is unknowingly stripped of its power as a member of a collective. Systems of power remain unaffected as the individual is so overcome by the therapeutic treatment of their psychic ailments, ailments which exist due to a larger systemic injustice.

In closing, and somewhat unrelated, Hunger leaves several questions: what good comes of publicly disclosing the fine details of one’s personal traumas? Why can’t we just say #MeToo and leave it at that? Does the public acknowledgement of one’s own suffering act as a form of political solidarity?

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[1] I would like to clarify that I am NOT suggesting that she transcend the impossible position of being a black woman in America, but rather her constant self-effacing inner monologue (not a good girl, helplessly obese, etc.)

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