Tuesday, 14 November 2017

'Dishonored', The Void, and Existential Nothingness



My interest in this entry is to articulate an existentialist reading of the Dishonored video game series, with particular reference to the philosophical work of Jean-Paul Sartre’s Being and Nothingness.


This entry will likely include heavy spoilers for this series.



Dishonored is a video game series developed by Arkane Studios and currently consists of three main instalments (Dishonored,[i] Dishonored 2,[ii] and Dishonored: Death of the Outsider),[iii] the first of which has two DLC components (The Knife of Dunwall and The Brigmore Witches). 

The narrative unfolds within the empire of Gristol, a setting largely based on 19th century Britain. As we experience it, Gristol is a city of decadence and corruption, with swarms of lethal rats haunting the streets, weepers spreading a deadly disease and with most of the citizenry living in abject poverty whilst the wealthy nobility grow fat in their palace.[iv] Within the gamespace, the player takes up the role of an assassin[v] whose mission is to amend or avenge a wrong that has been dealt to them. The first instalment has us become Corvo Attano, the Royal Protector of Empress Jessamine Kaldwin who is killed mere minutes into the game. Wrongly accused of her murder, Corvo then joins with a loyalist conspiracy to avenge the death of his Empress (and lover) – rescuing their daughter Emily along the way. The second game follows much the same format – though this time one can either continue playing as Corvo or instead take up the role of Emily, now an adult – with the role of the villain being none other than Delilah,[vi] the Empress’s estranged sister, who has returned to claim her throne, at Emily’s expense.

The Outsider
I imagine that the Void looks very different seen through the Outsider’s eyes.
A portrayal of the Outsider by Tumblr User wroniec

The narratives of the series’ various instalments are all influenced by the ephemeral figure of the Outsider. Towards the beginning of each story, the protagonist will find themselves awakening only to immediately be beset by the feeling that something is not quite as it should be. Upon venturing from their room, they will find themselves in an infinite expanse of darkness, littered with motes of earth suspended in the black. Then, the black-eyed Outsider will appear from nothing, welcoming them to the Void. Through the course of this meeting, the protagonist will receive the Outsider’s mark, a symbol on the back of their left hand, which allows them to channel the power of the void into the world. This unlocks a host of supernatural powers[vii] that the player can then use the navigate the game world, circumvent enemies, or which can simply serve as tools of destruction.

Each game then proceeds as a series of missions, wherein each mission tends to follow the same general formula. You must navigate an area that is largely filled with guardsmen (or other enemies that are out to get you) in order to locate and either ‘kill’ or ‘neutralise’ a single ‘target’. No level can be completed if the target is not dealt with but ultimately the game takes a ‘play your way’ strategy. You are given the tools but ultimately you must decide how to use them. Players can choose to simply charge in, cutting down the guards and wielding their magical abilities to wreak mayhem or they could opt for a quieter approach. Indeed, the game rewards the player with an achievement/trophy (depending on your console) if they can complete the entire game without killing anyone, and an additional trophy if they can complete the game without being seen. The game operates on a high/low chaos system, whereby the more death and confusion the player causes, the worse of a state the world will be in by the conclusion of the story.

It is my contention that Dishonored creates a game space which is attending to questions of choice, meaning and individuality as raised within existential philosophy. In particular, I see this in how the series treats the concept of nothingness.

The cosmology of the Dishonored universe is built upon the Void. The Void underlies the world and serves as a foundation to all existence. The Heart (an artefact capable of whispering secrets to the protagonist throughout the game) says of the Void that it "is the end of all things. And the beginning". Human beings are thought to arise from the Void and to return to it upon death. Though there is no clear eschatology, the peaceful dead are spoken of as fading away into the oblivion of the Void, whereas the tumultuous souls seem to remain very much themselves within the infinite expanse of nothingness.

Within the narrative, the Void is attributed many qualities, but in particular is thought to be in some sense conscious. Indeed, the Outsider himself serves the role of being the mythological ambassador or avatar of the Void, fundamentally a part of its structure. As we see in missions such as ‘A Crack in the Slab’, the Void is usually separate from the world, though anomalies may occur wherein the Void slips in, overcoming the strict boundaries of time and place.

The philosophy of French existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre uses nothingness as a central concept within his framework. For Sartre the individual subject is fundamentally negative because this subject is conscious and consciousness for Sartre is nothing.[viii] A consciousness is not an entity or a substance, nor is it an object, but is instead nothingness. Of course, consciousness can have content – but this does not mean that the consciousness itself is a positive being in any meaningful way. The only content possessed by consciousness are its experiences, which are understood as intentional – here meaning that they pertain to things or entities that are outside of the consciousness itself. For Sartre, consciousness is a hole in the world[ix] – much like a void that slips into the world in order to overcome or transcend it in some way – which is to say, to negate the world.

Sartre 1967 crop.jpg
The French Existentialist Philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre

For Sartre, the nothingness of consciousness is its fundamental structure, as well as the foundation of individual human freedom. For Sartre, freedom is absolute. We are always free, absolutely and completely free, in every circumstance. This is to say that our behaviour cannot be meaningfully said to be determined, for the individual consciousness is not an object but an absence[x] and as such cannot be part of traditional causal picture. The only limit upon this freedom is an internal one, wherein we are condemned to be free such that we are unable to get beyond our own freedom.

Importantly, freedom for Sartre is not to be confused with instrumental power.[xi] In this sense, to be free is not to be able to do anything that one wants,[xii] but is instead an existential freedom concerned with the kinds of projects one can commit oneself to. One is always able to devote oneself to whatever project with whatever ends/outcomes one may wish, and though this does not guarantee one’s success, the ability to achieve one’s projects does not impact that these projects are necessarily free. To this end, the projects that one pursues are always freely chosen and there is not necessity for one to pursue anything in particular. This would amount to attempting to abdicate from one’s own freedom, to live in bad faith[xiii] – which for Sartre can never succeed. As such, Corvo is free to devote himself to a project of revenge or to a project of reconciliation – to become a deadly assassin and thus to leave the streets of Dunwall running red with blood or to instead stay his hand and take not a single life.[xiv]

For Sartre, projects are fundamentally to be understood through the structure of action – which is (perhaps unsurprisingly, given the theme of this piece) to be understood as a form of nothingness.[xv] This is not to say that actions are themselves nothing, or that actions cannot produce positive results, but that actions are fundamentally attending to negativities (négatités). When one acts, one is responding to a lack within the world – to something that the world is not yet that the individual wishes it to be. By recognising that what they want is a negativity in so far as it does not exist[xvi] and by then recognising that the state of the world is also a negativity in so far as it can be transcended or overcome[xvii] in such a way as to amend this lack, the individual is able to commit an action to this effect. Even action that is fundamentally concerned with creating something new is, at least according to Sartre, concerned with overcoming the state of the world as one that lacks the object that is to be created.  

Dishonored seems to play upon this distinction between one’s absolute freedom and the instrumental power to bring about the ends of one’s chosen projects through the figure of the Outsider. Though the dominant religion within the Empire, The Abbey of the Everyman,[xviii] preach that the Outsider is a devilish figure, the Outsider does not exist to torment or to tempt individuals into committing sinful/evil acts. Though he is portrayed as a Luciferian character, the Outsider could be better compared to the Norse trickster God Loki.[xix] But even this comparison implies a malicious intent or even a connotation as simple as deception. The Outsider is neither of these, he never misdirects and seems to only ever speak the truth, though appears to want to reveal uncomfortable truths more readily than others. Central to the games’ narratives is that the Outsider bestows you with supernatural powers and abilities, many of which are fundamentally violent in nature, but he never forces your hand to use them.[xx]

Thus we can see that when, in Death of the Outsider, Daud attempts to blame the Outsider for all the horrors plaguing Gristol,[xxi] he is fundamentally trying to ignore not only his own responsibility as a user of the mark, but also the foundational freedom of every individual who possesses such power. Through so ignoring the free agency of all involved, Daud is living in a state of bad faith, attempting to posit the Outsider as a determining cause for all the terrible things that happen across the course of the series. But the truth is that the Outsider cannot solely be to blame. All he provides it greater power which is to say nothing, and he does not do so at the expense of anyone’s existential freedom as this is absolute, regardless of the situation in which the agent finds themselves.  

An edit of the assassin Daud by Tumblr user Winterswake

We can clearly see how the mark of the Outsider (and the powers that it grants) play into this structure of action as negativity when we consider the fundamental cosmology of Dishonored’s universe. When the protagonist uses the power of the mark, their powers are manifestations of the Void within the world. The power of the Void, which is nothing, is thus to be summarised as negativity. As such, the supernatural powers granted by the Outsider’s mark constitute novel ways in which its user is able to negate the world around them. Powers such as ‘blink’ negate space, allowing the protagonist to partially overcome it, just as ‘Bend Time’ reorients the character’s relationship with temporality.[xxii] This increases their individual power to fulfil or realise their projects, through an increased ability to transcend or negate the state in which they find the world. Importantly, this does not increase their freedom – as on a Sartre’s view freedom is always absolute and cannot be increased or diminished. This is the case even when the protagonist uses powers such as ‘possession’, which allows them to control their foes for a brief period of time. Though it greatly reduces the power of the target, and possibly interrupts their consciousness, it cannot be said to limit their freedom.  

File:Emily'sMark (1).gif
The Mark of the Outsider as it appears on Emily's hand.

Though Dishonored’s game space is limited in terms of what can be realised within it (though one might ask if the same could not be said of life itself), its gameplay and narrative proceed in a manner that can clearly speak to Sartrian notions of consciousness and action – in so far as these are linked through the concept of nothingness. Dishonored presents us with a fundamentally existentialist narrative not only in so far as the player/protagonist alone must bear the burden of their own freedom, but also in so far as every single ‘target’ they are called on to either assassinate or spare must bear theirs. In most cases, the assassination targets have committed or been complicit within terrible acts – such as murdering the empress and overthrowing her daughter (in the case of most of the targets in the first instalment) – and sure enough they may have their reasons. But fundamentally – they have chosen to be who they are. Whether they know it or not, whether they want to face it or not, each of them has committed themselves to a fundamental project of becoming who they are.

But the question then becomes – what fate does the protagonist think they deserve and, following whatever course of action they take, what kind of person has the player chosen to be?

I’ll leave you with the words of Billie Lurk, who inadvertently summarises the existential choice when she says:
“Then you’re alone, living with your choices.”[xxiii]



Also, this image is simply too good not to include. Posted by Tumblr user boyokiddo


Works Cited

Colantonio, Raphael, and Harvey Smith, Dishonored (Arkane Studios, 2012)

Sartre, Jean-Paul, Being and Nothingness, trans. by Hazel E. Barnes (UK: Routledge, 2003)

Smith, Harvey, Dishonored 2 (Arkane Studios, 2016)

———, Dishonored: Death of the Outsider (Arkane Studios, 2017)




[i] Raphael Colantonio and Harvey Smith, Dishonored (Arkane Studios, 2012).
[ii] Harvey Smith, Dishonored 2 (Arkane Studios, 2016).
[iii] Harvey Smith, Dishonored: Death of the Outsider (Arkane Studios, 2017).
[iv] I am further interest in how Dishonored constitutes (or fails to constitute) a reading of historical imperialism, but this is not my concern within this entry.
[v] Though for reasons we shall see, this is perhaps too violent a term.
[vi] Originally, Delilah’s character was introduced in The Knife of Dunwall DLC, and she serves as the main antagonist of The Brigmore Witches. In neither case is the story directly concerned with the experiences of Corvo or Emily, with the assassin Daud taking up the protagonistic position.
[vii] These are show-cased in this video.
[viii] Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, trans. by Hazel E. Barnes (UK: Routledge, 2003), chap. The Origin of Negation.
[ix] “The For-itself, in fact, is nothing but the pure nihilation of the In-itself; it is like a hole of being at the heart of Being” see: Sartre, chap. Conclusion.
[x] Sartre, p. 434.
[xi] Sartre, pp. 469–88.
[xii] Sartre, p. 453.
[xiii] See: Sartre, chap. Bad Faith.
[xiv] Indeed, existentially speaking Corvo is free to devote himself to whatever project he wishes. The game space is limited in that ultimately only one of two projects (or a combination of these two projects) can be realised. Though this point does not weaken the game as an example of existentialism so much as it highlights that there are limits upon one’s ability to fulfil one’s projects.
[xv] Sartre, pp. 433–34.
[xvi] Sartre, p. 435.
[xvii] Sartre, p. 435.
[xviii] There is a sense in which, if we take the Outsider as in some sense an agent of the existential project, that the Abbey and its Overseers serve as representatives of bad faith within the narrative. Their religion is centred around strictures and limits, which are often exalted as being beyond our ability to choose against – thus their beliefs actively appear to endorse a bad faith avoidance of existential choice. This is further supported by the idea that the Overseers are enemies of the Void, which on this reading is the structure of existential being.
[xix] A comparison made in this video.
[xx] The Outsider does occasionally nudge and play games with his marked, such as when he encourages Daud to seek out Delilah, but his interventions in no way undermine another’s agency.
[xxi] Smith, Dishonored: Death of the Outsider.
[xxii] In Death of the Outsider, Billie Lurk’s ‘Foresight’ ability enables her to negate both time and space at once.
[xxiii] Introductory cinematic, Smith, Dishonored: Death of the Outsider.

Friday, 17 March 2017

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Speaking For Another

“…my feeling is that trans* women are trans* women. I think if you’ve lived in a world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then…change, switch gender it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are. I don’t think it’s a good thing to conflate everything into one, I don’t think it’s a good thing to talk about women’s issues being exactly the same as the issues of trans* women. What I’m saying is that gender is not biology, gender is sociology.”[i]

These words, spoken by Nigerian writer and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in a short interview with Channel 4 News have been the source of much contention and fallout over the past few days.[ii] Since its posting earlier this week, the video has faced outpourings of backlash from LGBT+ activists, whether they themselves are trans* or advocating on behalf of trans* people.
The charge is one of trans* exclusion. As one may expect, this has led to claims that Chimamanda is a trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF), a claim which not only fixes her within a particular feminist tradition (rightly or wrongly) and which further employs the acronym as a pejorative. The attack is a simple one. It is an accusation that she is wrong (or perhaps incorrect, if this distinction is to figure anywhere here). This has been accompanied with a plethora of comments which (in same breath as declaring her a TERF) deny her the status of feminist and denounce her ‘ignorance’. According to commenters, she’s woefully misguided, denying ‘facts’,[iii] ignoring the basic reality of trans* people and is, at once, just plainly unaware of the ‘established discourse’. It is unclear as to what discourse this could be.[iv] Perhaps more interesting are those who accuse her of ‘speaking for’ trans* people, where this ‘speaking for’ seems to be an act of ventriloquism, of wrongly inhabiting their space and experiences.
I am not concerned with Adichie’s status as a feminist – in as far as it is an identity label – nor am I particularly concerned with whether or not her views mesh with whatever is perceived as the established discourse. Indeed, this would prompt further questions as to whose discourse this is, where it is enacted (and by whom), and to what end it is employed. Furthermore, it endorses the term ‘feminist’ as an identity status, transforming it from an adjective, a descriptor, to a noun in the form of “I am a feminist”.[v] Instead, my interest is, firstly, the question of trans* exclusion. Does Adichie exclude trans* women from the category of woman? If so upon what grounds? Secondly, I consider the other side of this situation, in which the accusation is one of accusing trans* women of possessing “male privilege”. What exactly this means to say is a question of socialisation, of attitudes towards individuals in terms of how they are recognised in relation to others. It is of central importance to the feminist project as a whole (however one might seek to formulate it) that these concepts are elucidated. For without them, the grounds upon which one wishes to discuss the oppression of both women and female-bodied persons (both in as far as these coincide and split apart), is torn away and the very notion of patriarchy goes with it.
Reading the words Adichie used, it is clear to see why they have been read in this way. Trans* women are spoken of in conjunction and, given the context, opposition with “women”. The structure here is othering, pitting one against the other. One should not rush to condemn those who find issue with this phrasing, there is clearly a tension within the words used. But does this amount to trans* exclusion? Well, as Adichie explained in a clarificatory Facebook post three days after the interview:
“Perhaps I should have said trans women are trans women and cis women are cis women and all are women. Except that 'cis' is not an organic part of my vocabulary. And would probably not be understood by a majority of people. Because saying ‘trans’ and ‘cis’ acknowledges that there is a distinction between women born female and women who transition, without elevating one or the other, which was my point.”[vi]
Within this clarification, Adichie seeks to right misinterpretations of both her meaning and her intentions. At other points within this post, she further establishes not only her personal discomfort with being seen to hold this view, but also with the view itself.[vii] We must of course remember the context of her original comments. They are given to us in a recorded interview (under six minutes in total length), and are not formulated within words which can be edited and revised. Furthermore, the interviewing body is that of Channel 4 News, a national channel. Whether for the sake of inclusivity or not, Adichie makes clear that in this context, the term cis – a term which, by means of its introduction, I think beautifully clears up the charge of trans* exclusion – is likely not to have been understood. The very term cis is part of one particular gender vocabulary which, whilst popular, is far from universally understood – particularly by the general public, with all its subdivisions.
If then, to paraphrase, Adichie is saying that trans* women are trans* women, cis* women are cis* women and both trans* women and cis* women are women, as I think she does, the charge of trans* exclusion becomes more difficult to maintain. All she seems to be maintaining is, as she makes quite clear in her original comments, that we should not be so quick to conflate the two identities, to reduce them into an artificial unity. To be sure, it is strange to me that anyone would wish to challenge this, especially if one wishes to maintain the accusation of her wrongly ‘speaking for’ trans* people. For if trans* women and cis* women are the same, reduced to one, then Adichie, as a cis* woman, is as much a part of the category of trans* woman as a trans* woman is part of category: cis* women.
This would appear to posit a messy state of affairs and one which would only serve to silence issues facing one group, or even both.
So much for trans* exclusion. Yet another issue remains. Adichie makes it clear that, according to her, one of the motivations for separating cis* and trans* women lies in their differing experiences and within the privileges that trans* women face as male-bodied people, presumably before coming out, stating their gender identity or changing their gender performativity.[viii] It is the claim that trans* women have at one time possessed ‘male privilege’ that has been seemingly most picked up to support this claim of ‘speaking for.’
Yet is Adichie inhabiting the voice of a trans* person? Is she speaking on their behalf or disclosing the kinds of experience they may face? Perhaps in part, but it seems that she is more concerned with speaking about trans* people, as someone who is not trans* herself. The line between speaking about someone and ventriloquising them, occupying their voice (perhaps falsely), is a murky one.
As a staple concept within feminism (beginning of course within the ‘second wave’ and radical school of feminism) male privilege from its inception has been articulated by female-bodied people, those often regarded (rightly or wrongly) as women. Male privilege speaks of reception and of experience, and is therefore at least in part speaking on behalf of another. The concept enables us to speak of its lack, it’s converse: formulated originally as female oppression. It is from then that we are able to make any kind of articulation of oppression on the grounds of one’s sex, perceived sex, and – through the developments of queer feminist theory – one’s gender. If it through speaking on behalf of another that such concepts of privilege can be articulated, then it does not seem to be that such ventriloquism is to be solely frowned upon. On the contrary, they are an essential to the very trans-inclusive feminist project.
Of course, this is not to ignore the differences between men and trans* women (including the obvious difference of men being men and trans* women being women), particularly in terms of power and position.[ix] All I wish to note is that speaking of or about (and perhaps even in some sense for) another should not be regarded as some kind of violation or overstepping one’s ‘right’. Feminism as a discipline has – as I think I can state somewhat uncontroversially – been primarily driven and maintained by women (and here I do explicitly include both cis* and trans* women).[x] It has made commentary about both the social position of men – and indeed their experiences – from without, as the nature of the claims do not concern solely the subjective experiences of men, but their socio-political position. Feminism has also commented on the position of women, despite many women claiming (both rightly and wrongly, depending on the case) that feminism misrepresents them. I am thinking here in particular of those women who regard feminism as an elaborate form of ‘whining’, and who are often unaware of those nebulous social forces which shape their experiences. Speaking about and for another, whether one shares with them or is divided from them by some category of identity or another, should not be dismissed de facto.
It should be noted that privilege is not so much about identity in as far as an individual self-identifies, but instead concerns identity in the mode that the individual is seen. Were it so simply the case that self-identification afforded an individual all the privileges of the category with which they identified, then there would be no great disparity between the treatment of trans* and non-binary people compared to the treatment of cis* individuals. This is not the case. We could think of this in terms of simply regarding oneself as human. Historically, those in oppressed categories (whether based on gender, sex, sexuality, race etc.) have been scornfully regarded, in various ways, as sub-human and thus not afforded basic human rights and dignity. This persists even today in spite of the strong sense in which those so oppressed regard themselves as human. This is to say that the possession of such privilege is not so much the ‘fault’ or responsibility of the individual who has the privilege, for the privilege is given (or not given) often in ways that are outside of the direct control of the individual. Thus, to say that someone possesses such a privilege should not be conflated with a moral judgement of the one with the privilege. Of course, I do not mean to ignore the history of using notions such as male privilege to exclude trans* women from the category of woman, but I do contend that no such exclusion is occurring here. But the point stands that one does not need to speak for, or steal the voice of another person, in order to speak about male privilege. It is something which is articulated from without.
If we are to speak of male privilege and speaking about or for others, we must speak of socialisation.
From a young age, socialisation takes root. Whilst I uphold the sex/gender distinction as much as I am able, one must recognise that this conceptual division does not reflect the ‘common sense’ reality. For many people outside feminist discourse, sex and gender are interchangeable and this is reflected in the treatment of children. This is what we could refer to as the ‘common sense’ attitude. As soon as a child is coded as male or female, which most commonly occurs shortly after birth, the child inherits a whole array of gendered meanings. Treatment by others shapes their social position and certain privileges are afforded to those who are – or at least who are regarded as – male-bodied. This and this alone is what is entailed within the claim that trans* women (or at least those who were/are male-bodied) possess/possessed male privilege. Of course, the situation is in some sense changing, resulting in a perhaps more accepting world; but we cannot – in our want to change the world and challenge those elements we find not to sit well with us – ignore the predominant view, the ‘common sense’ approach. In order to challenge this approach, we must first understand it and be able to communicate with those who purport it. Such would be to deny the world to which one wishes to object, to deny the very problem feminism could be said to arise in opposition to.
Laurie Richards’ objections to this point (in her ThinkProgress article) have been objectionably phrased in terms not only of “political dishonesty” (whatever one considers this to mean in this context) but also as ignorance of “decades of scientific research”.[xi] The central claim here appears to be that Adichie is simplifying, erasing a huge amount of emotional turmoil and difficulty (both internal and external) which trans* women experience, that she is using the basis of their once having had male privilege to deny their oppression. Not only is this reading of Adichie’s words somewhat mitigated within her clarification,[xii] but I, as well as at least two prominent gender theorists,[xiii] take further issue with the ‘born this way’ narrative with which she presents trans* experiences (which ironically seems equally if not guiltier of simplistically collapsing trans* narratives than anything Adichie may have said).[xiv] This is reminiscent of the very biological essentialism trans* people so often have to fight against. Furthermore, I consider her understanding of ‘male privilege’ to be quite narrow. We must remember, male privilege is not so much about subjective experience, but about one’s treatment by others. And part of this is to recognise that one may possess privileges, but that these do not mitigate or invalidate any oppressions which one may face.
But conversely, such oppression furthermore does not erase one’s privileges, as Richards seems to claim. To think such would be as reductive as it is claimed Adichie’s comments are. I am thinking here in particular of the response by trans* icon Laverne Cox, whose essential claim is that her being perceived as a feminine boy (whether before or after coming out) erased any male privilege she may have had.[xv] On Cox’s own terms, it is the way in which one is perceived that shapes one’s privilege, but even being regarded as a feminine boy is to be regarded as a boy, as one who is assumed (in this case wrongly) as male. Cox further criticises Adichie – wrongly, I think – on the grounds of presenting a singularising narrative for both trans* and cis* identities.[xvi] Nothing in Adichie’s comments speak to this charge. Instead, she is clear that we should instead be mindful not to conflate and reduce things to simple unities. This stands for cis* and trans* identities as much as it does the overall category of woman.
My main concern here is that to view male privilege so reductively, is to undermine a central aspect of patriarchy. I’ve spoken somewhat lengthily here about Richards’ article on ThinkProgress. As a website, ThinkProgress shares important stories, highlighting key feminist issues. It rightly speaks about the oppression of female-bodied people and women (again, both is as far as these two cohere and divide), drawing attention to issues of oppression which are far more than isolated occurrence, but are caused by the underlying, patriarchal structure of western cultures. In order to speak of these structures, to speak of the system as a whole, we must step outside of ourselves. This is not to say that we leave behind our subjectivity – not that this would be possible anyway – or that we ignore individual voices, but it does necessitate a willingness to speak about and for others. If this is forbidden and viewed exclusively as a transgression, we have reached a dangerous position, one in which we are robbed of the vocabulary with which systemic oppression can be articulated.
One cannot help but feel that this controversy passes comment on the nature of liberal feminist discourse. Whilst overly fixating on the language Adichie uses to express herself – a language which, it must be noted, she explicitly declares as not her own[xvii] – commentators are using an altogether too static notion of discourse. In so doing, they appear to regard feminism and its questions not as a lively field of discussion and engagement, the natural fallout of which is disagreement, but as a foregone conclusion. This is mirrored in those who wish to, on the basis of perceived trans* exclusion, exclude Adichie from feminism itself. The basic formulation is that one must believe this or one may not speak of it at all. It is a dangerous state, one which collapses the richness of diverse discourse. To be clear, this is not a simplistic call for any kind of freedom of speech, and I am certainly not saying that all contributions (I have in mind here hate speech) are to be welcomed equally. Instead, I think it misunderstands the very dynamism at the core of feminism, indeed at the core of anything we might speak of as political speech.[xviii]
To close my thoughts, I would like to end as I began, with Adichie’s own words:
“To acknowledge different experiences is to start to move towards more fluid – and therefore more honest and true to the real world – conceptions of gender.”[xix]



[i]Channel 4 News, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie On Feminism, 2017 <https://www.channel4.com/news/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-on-feminism> [accessed 15 March 2017].
[ii] I include here only two examples, for the sake of brevity. See: Noah Michaelson, ‘Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Under Fire For Comments About Trans Women’, Huffington Post, 11 March 2017 <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-transgender-women-feminism_us_58c40324e4b0d1078ca7180b> [accessed 15 March 2017]. and Laurie Richards, ‘No, Trans Women Do Not Grow up with Male Privilege’, ThinkProgress, 15 March 2017 <https://thinkprogress.org/trans-women-do-not-grow-up-with-male-privilege-e51eba1eb42c#.ctt1q0lhw> [accessed 15 March 2017].
[iii] Which is of course to beg the questions of whose facts these are, in what context they are situated, whence comes their factual status.
[iv] To speak of this in terms of ‘the feminist discourse’ would not answer this question, but supplant it with another: which feminist discourse?
[v] There is a sense in which this totalises the status of feminism, collapses its discursive elements into a doctrine
[vi] Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, ‘CLARIFYING’, 2017 <https://www.facebook.com/chimamandaadichie/photos/a.469824145943.278768.40389960943/10154893542340944/?type=3&theater> [accessed 15 March 2017].
[vii] Adichie.
[viii] Speaking of course as in Butler’s sense, see: Judith Butler, Gender Trouble (New York: Routledge, 1990).
[ix] Power is, however, complex and the disparities and similarities across identities and their enactedness and reception is more dense a topic than I can elucidate here fully.
[x] This is obviously not to ignore the many male/masculine contributors to such theory, notably (at least for radical feminism) a reasonably well-known figure: Karl Marx.
[xi] Both quotations are taken from the subtitle in: Richards.      
[xii] “A trans woman is a person born male and a person who, before transitioning, was treated as male by the world. Which means that they experienced the privileges that the world accords men. This does not dismiss the pain of gender confusion or the difficult complexities of how they felt living in bodies not their own.” - Adichie.
[xiii] I think in particularly here of Judith Butler’s work on sex and gender within: Butler. particularly the chapter ‘Foucault, Herculine, and the politics of sexual discontinuity.’ and Michel Foucault’s work within: Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, trans. by Robert Hurley, 5 vols (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), i.
[xiv] Richards
[xv] Laverne Cox, ‘Laverne Cox - Twitter’ <https://twitter.com/Lavernecox?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor> [accessed 15 March 2017].
[xvi] Ibid.
[xvii] Adichie,
[xviii] My thoughts here are informed by Hannah Arendt’s notion of novelty as intrinsic to any true political discourse, see: Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, 1st edn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).
[xix] Adichie.


Works Cited

Adichie, Chimamanda Ngozi, ‘CLARIFYING’, 2017 <https://www.facebook.com/chimamandaadichie/photos/a.469824145943.278768.40389960943/10154893542340944/?type=3&theater> [accessed 15 March 2017]
Arendt, Hannah, The Human Condition, 2nd edn (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999)
Butler, Judith, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York: Taylor & Francis, 2006)
Channel 4 News, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie On Feminism, 2017 <https://www.channel4.com/news/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-on-feminism> [accessed 15 March 2017]
Cox, Laverne, ‘Laverne Cox - Twitter’ <https://twitter.com/Lavernecox?ref_src=twsrc%5Egoogle%7Ctwcamp%5Eserp%7Ctwgr%5Eauthor> [accessed 15 March 2017]
Foucault, Michel, The History of Sexuality, trans. by Robert Hurley, 5 vols (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), i
Michaelson, Noah, ‘Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Under Fire For Comments About Trans Women’, Huffington Post, 11 March 2017 <http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/chimamanda-ngozi-adichie-transgender-women-feminism_us_58c40324e4b0d1078ca7180b> [accessed 15 March 2017]
Richards, Laurie, ‘No, Trans Women Do Not Grow up with Male Privilege’, ThinkProgress, 15 March 2017 <https://thinkprogress.org/trans-women-do-not-grow-up-with-male-privilege-e51eba1eb42c#.ctt1q0lhw> [accessed 15 March 2017]

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de Beauvoir, Simone, The Second Sex, trans. by Constance Borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier (London: Jonathan Cape, 2009)
Butler, Judith, Bodies That Matter on the Discursive Limits Of ‘sex’ (Routledge, 2011)
Butler, Judith, Subjects of Desire: Hegelian Reflections in Twentieth-Century France (United States: Columbia University Press, 2012)
Irigaray, Luce, To Speak Is Never Neutral (New York: Routledge, 1997)
Witt, Charlotte, ‘Anti-Essentialism in Feminist Theory’, Philosophical Topics, 23 (1995), 321–44