I’ve attended several virtual events this past year, and some have stuck with more more than others – those that have inspired me, or, alternatively, provoked me in uncomfortable ways that have continued to bother me or simply make me want to gag; as they say, if you see something, say something. So I am saying something. Here.

During the GSA I attended a number of panels, some I had time to scope out in advance, and some I relaxed enough to jump into on more of a spur without looking too closely at the details beyond paper titles and presenter names but because the subject matter interested me.

One of these latter experiences was a panel about Asian film, and I was sorry that I hadn’t avoided it. The first presenter, who by virtue of affiliation, which I noticed later, is one of the kind of injurious human missiles I try to avoid. The sort of people who had all been included and helped in situations where I was excluded or abandoned, who I knew had too much at stake professionally to make it worthwhile for them to stick by me. That presenter was discussing a lesbian film where he went into sickening detail over several very graphic sex scenes involving the protagonist with both men and women. It was more like a “how to feel empowered in the bedroom” talk. He made frequent use of the theories of Jessica Benjamin, who wrote a book called The Bonds of Love. After hearing more than I wanted, I had to leave the zoom room entirely though some of the later presentations had initially interested me. I just wanted to throw up too much.

The Bonds of Love is a book with which I’m well familiar, having read it in its entirely in college and then used for subsequent graduate school work. The book and its contents were something I would later identify as tools of seduction: seduction into a false reality and false sense of power, seduction into an illusory relationship of equality with someone who had very real power over my career, seduction into a false sense of self and false beliefs about my abilities, my qualities, my potential, my work, my concept of the world, my self-concept, my future.

This book was written by a practicing psychoanalyst to be used within the context of the psychoanalytic field, where ideas can be put into practice. In this context, the book seems to implicitly assume a frame of reference which includes mechanisms used in therapeutic settings: a therapeutic frame, boundaries, guidance, accountability, a therapeutic toolkit including both traditional and alternative approaches, oversight licensing organizations.

The idea of intersubjectivity within a power relationship allows the professional, who has an already established fiduciary relationship with the power-down person in the context of an institutional and societal framework, to ignore or step outside of the socially ascribed power and establish a dual reality with the other. If that seems unfair and that that the theory operates by directly acknowledging hierarchy and proposing something better, I would say instead that maybe it tries to hack the tyrannies of hierarchy and sit on top of it, but it actually unilaterally changes the nature of the initial contract already established between the two people at hand. Because the power down person can’t be expected to know the full risks to themselves of changing the social and professional contract in this way, they can’t really give meaningful consent to this change. So by necessity it must operate alongside the established contract, and also within it. But the nature of intersubjectivity is that it dismantles the hierarchical structure, and, with it, the frame that creates safety. So any newly established safety becomes a matter of interpersonally developed rather than socially ascribed trust. It becomes more private. The entire relationship becomes more personal than professional. Being treated as an “equal” and as someone who is granted cooperative power in managing the interpersonal boundary and power of the professional as the power is shared can give an enormous boost to the confidence and sense of personal power of any aspirant of what the professional offers. It is very, very, very heady. It’s on the one hand easy to get carried away (or to run away) with, and on the other allows the professional to disavow any responsibility or accountability for owning or using the socially ascribed power, and to avoid the discomfort and tension of occupying a place of professional responsibility. The tools associated with the institutional, hierarchical power are always, however, available to the person with more power; ignoring them or pretending that they can be overwritten with a more private and cooperatively established power dynamic doesn’t make those or the larger context of socially ascribed power go away. But it is all too easy, too attractive, too compelling to get carried away by – and even live in or foundationally base operations out of – the dual reality of shared power and to forget about the brass tacks of the hierarchical underpinnings.

Erasing the boundary also increases rather than decreases the vulnerability of the power-down person. The personal touch in the context of the duty of care makes the relationship instantly more evocative of parental relationships and in this way almost explicitly invites and welcomes meaningful transference or other meaningful emotional connection into the exchange. It opens the door wide for things to become personal. However, the responsibility for managing any resultant responses or feelings becomes shifted entirely onto the power-down person while transpiring within the external frame which establishes the power of the power up person, and with it, a false sense of safety because the power-up person has actually abandoned the frame though this may or may not be apparent. While the external structure is still there, the safety it offers becomes an illusion as it’s been tunneled through by the removal of the boundary. It’s impossible for the person in the power-down position to fully see and appreciate that while in the structure, until the effects of violative behavior emerge. Especially if the power-up person is neither interested nor willing nor equipped to manage the frame, the feelings, the possible transference, the power, the consequences. It becomes all too easy for any unwanted results of the invocation of what can be a very volatile space to frighten and cause the power up person to simply reach for the socially ascribed power, pull rank, and terminate, stranding the power-down person alone in a very confusing, harmful and dangerous situation.

At this point, it all comes down to integrity and trustworthiness, because by then there are so many bombs ticking away that it’s impossible to account for them all. In fact the person in the power-down position has effectively had a number of bombs strapped onto their body which can be set off at any time in other circumstances. They have been tricked into eating poison. The bombs need to be defused one by one.

If the power-up person is unable to manage or seek guidance for managing the frame, but is also unable to manage their own and the other’s natural responses, the power down person has a lot to lose, as they do in any power up/power down relationship. However, when that space becomes an intersubjective space, the losses can become very personal and much more extreme and devastating given the very high level of vulnerability and exposure. The very frame that was supposed to protect the power-down person becomes used as a weapon to harm, to chop off limbs, to annihilate, to grind under the boot as the realities of the hierarchy become the newly defining parameters of the relationship, in a whiplash of mental, psychological, institutional, and financial abuse as the dual reality becomes disavowed and discounted, the underling dismissed as inappropriate, crazy or too imaginative or disconnected from reality when abandoned alone in a space which effectively isolates him or her from the external frames of understanding. Trying to operate alone in a hierarchy as an offshoot of a grounding in intersubjective space doesn’t really work unless someone can catch you on your flying trapeze, acknowledge the space, and help ground you in a more integrated sense of being and of power; the chances of that actually working seem to me to be approximately one in 17 million. The odds for it ending in harm, frustration, and failure however, are much much higher as the person has been stranded is stuck in strange positions – inside out and upside down – and blamed for it while wiggling around attempting to grasp what the real reality is and to try to ground her or himself. Who in the world would willingly pay money for that experience, or consent to experimenting/being experimented on in intersubjective realms if they knew of those possible losses, possible harm with effects that last well into the future?

Also, because the injury is relational, it’s impossible for someone to address it alone, and the injured person is made responsible for dynamics that they couldn’t actually control as the mechanisms of hierarchy and power work against one, and there are other hidden elements.

One way that a different person, who had been the principal person who had blamed me for being inside out and upside down, tried to address it after I returned from studying abroad was by creating a second subtextual reality through parable that didn’t really address the first, but that isolated me apart from the rest of the class in the space of her prior violative comments, but never explicitly so. It then became unclear how I was supposed to respond: write my paper on the same grounds that the rest of the class was operating within, or write the paper that in some way responded to the second subtextual reality, which was a really scary prospect. How was I going to be graded if the only way I was allowed to be acknowledged and participate in the classroom was within the narrow band of the second dual reality she had created? I wasn’t ever included in the larger class discussion. It wasn’t an apology, it was a controlled, forced environment where the ways in which I could respond were severely limited as she controlled my grade. It also did more harm because it isolated me even further from the rest of the class when I wasn’t allowed to participate fully.

What I actually needed was acknowledgement and validation of the first dual reality, the intersubjective space by the other person involved. There was so much I couldn’t see and couldn’t know because it had been hidden from me. Hidden agendas. I needed those to be made clear. I needed to understand what was real and what was not. I didn’t understand what had happened. I didn’t understand what was going on. I didn’t understand what my options were. I didn’t understand what I had lost, or had ever really had. I felt so deceived, so played, so betrayed. I needed someone to work through it with me. What happened instead was that I was backstabbed and discarded. I was blamed and hated, simply for being. I didn’t understand what I had done wrong. My entire sense of reality was completely discounted again and again, and another, strange and harmful one was shoved down my throat as a condition of my employment, and I was sort of dismissed as some sort of head case, which in turn caused me to swallow my responses and prevented me from getting the sort of support I needed. Added to that, I felt that I had to work harder than everyone else and had no room whatsoever to mess up just to justify my existence.

So what about the use of psychoanalytic theory to discuss film?

I believe a failure of the book is that it fails to discuss the psychoanalytic context and frame and the safeguards for the responsible use of what is a very powerful tool. As always, when adopting tools from different disciplines, it’s really important to contextualize those, and also to be really conscious and wary about how they’re being deployed. So much of the work of thinking about literature and film is thinking, feeling, searching for shared experiences, experimentation. It’s so natural to want to play what what you’re learning in different ways. And it’s so natural to want to play with fire. However, without the tools for creating safety and evaluating appreciable risk also deployed in the same discussion, it’s all too easy for things to become just another gender reveal party gone wrong.

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