Wednesday, January 31, 2007

A Piece of Paper as the Regulation of Desire

A piece of paper can no more bring peace of mind than being able to choose which bus seat one sits in can solve the intractability of racism. But it's amazing how many molecules are agitated when attention is brought to bear on these relatively inconsequential matters - demanding a document in a file, taking the "wrong" seat on a city bus.

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, that is to say over ten years ago, some adoptees began to communicate with each other on the internet. They found that the internet provided an unmediated space in which to create discourse, and this communication became a "site" (not a website), a location in which they could articulate notions of adoptee identity outside the restrictive framework imposed by their socio-culture (and that framework included the main streams of adoption culture at that point).

These adoptees, freed (at least temporarily, at least in this corner of cyberspace) from the restrictions of positioning in triads, dyads and such, began to articulate a nascent sense of adopted/bastard identity that was autonomous and integrated. I don't mean to imply that these adoptee/bastards were "whole" uncomplicated people, freed from conflicted family dramas and attendant quotidian neuroses, no, they were, as a group, crazy as hell. But they were onto something; the possibility of an adopted identity, differentiated from non-adopted identity.

One signal quality of this newly considered bastard identity was what was articulated as the "need to know". My readings of late lead me to believe that this was a misstatement, what was being formed was a notion of a "desire to know". Why "desire" and not "need"? Because "need" is quantifiable, "needs" can be "met" (or "unmet"). You "need" to breath, you inhale, for the moment your need to breath is fulfilled. You "need" food, you eat, you are satiated. "Desire", however, is open-ended, insatiable (this is not to say that "desire" is immutable. "Desire" or "desires" can be transient and evolving, or disappear altogether). What these Ur-Bastards were doing, in embracing historical models of bastards as renegades, fabulous creatures, "children of nature", Clark Kent/Superman, Moses, etc., was building a model of adopted identity that wasn't predicated on deficiency, but on desire.

Out of this fertile swamp of emails and posts to alt.adoption evolved Bastard Nation, which was designed as a political organ. As an actor in the arena of politics, Bastard Nation articulated the "desire to know" as a "right to know". BN didn't differentiate between an adoptee who was desperately searching, one who never felt the urge to search, or one who had already found their first families. BN didn't care if adoptees wanted to use their copies of their OBCs to find their mothers or as wallpaper in their downstairs bathrooms. They were all presumed to possess a "right to (the desire) to know." The "desire" was unarticulated, but it informs the bastard discourse throughout. It was not, ever, a needs-based assertion.

BN focused on access to OBCs because the restriction of access is a primary means by which the state regulates bastard desire, and through which it denies the possibility of an "adopted identity." We are allotted one "family" to identify with, it wouldn't do to have two (or more!). The act of demanding this small piece of paper, of asserting a right to the desire to know, is like inserting a laser-beam thin wedge into the edifice of the power that regulates non-adopted and adopted identities alike. As I said, it agitates the molecules. It exposes the dreads, fears, hatreds and paranoia that those in power hold about bastard/adopted identities.

So, that's why those little pieces of paper are important. Not because they promise to fulfill a need, but because in the act of acquiring them we illuminate our desire to know.

[This piece has been gestating for a while, and owes much to the essay "The Immaculate Deception: Adoption in Albee's Plays," by Garry Leonard, and his theory of "adopteestentialism." What really pushed me over the edge, though, was Kimberly Leighton's essay "Being Adopted and Being a Philosopher," a gem of discipline and brilliance.
It is also a Happy 10th Birthday card to Bastard Nation. And as such, I must acknowledge Marley Greiner, Shea Grimm, Damsel Plum, Debra Schwartz, Denise Castellucci and many others who were there at the Birth of a Bastard Nation. And of course, the incomparable B. J., without whose Moments no one could have conceived Bastardy in the first place.]

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Discourse of Disempowerment

If you are involved in adoption on an experiential level, that is if you are an adoptee, a first parent or an adoptive parent, you are subject to an oppressive discourse designed to disempower you. This disempowerment is engrained in cultural mores, societal restrictions and state regulation. If you live in adoption, you are suspect. If you are a first parent you are assumed to be angelic and saintly, only so long as you remain invisible. Once a first parent becomes visible, they are demonized and pathologized. If you are an adopter, you are also projected as a suspect angel, because who but a saint, or someone with a severe reproductive deficiency, will voluntarily raise another's child? Adoptees are alternately little angels, damaged goods, superior performers compared with the unadopted, inferior performers compared with the unadopted, "blank slates" waiting for acceptable parental imprint, and, if they advocate for themselves, selfish and ungrateful. Nobody in adoption escapes this discourse of disempowerment.

There is no greater example of how profoundly this discourse shapes the topology of life-in-adoption than to look at how adoption's critics characterize each other. I'll quote from Mirah Riben's critique (from the AdopTalk blog) of Bastard Nation's Mission:

And then, it finally hit me! Suddenly the answer was perfectly clear. And I presented it: They don’t mess with the falsification of their birth ccertificates because they want to have their cake and eat it to. They love having been adopted into a higher socio-economic strata. And they don't dare rock the boat or bite the hand that feeds them and has educated many of them very well indeed!And, more importantly, IT IS ALL ABOUT C-O-N-T-R-O-L!They prefer to live their lives, pretending to be born to their adoptive parents, and have the control to choose where, when and what they do with their true information once they are adults. Maybe stalk us and see if we are “worthy” of them. See exactly what kind of blue collar trash we are before deciding. Maybe contact us once, get some medical information, and then toss us away.

Note how Riben, a forceful advocate for first mothers and critic of adoption, appropriates the same themes, even the same terms, as the institution she criticizes. Empowered adoptees are selfish, they want control. Adoptees who define their own existential reality of adoption are deluded, "pretending". Adoptees "stalk" first mothers. How is this different from NFCA boilerplate?

This would be dismaying as an individual incident, but this style of rhetoric and its underlying assumptions are the norm rather than the exception in adoption critique. There is a very good reason for this, it is because those who have lived in adoption have deeply internalized the oppressive discourse that has defined their existence. They have no other frame of reference, no other language or lexicon to measure their experience or the experience of their fellow citizens in Adoption World. Having been pathologized by the system, they mistake the pathologization of others as a signifier of empowerment; "to be powerful I must usurp someone else's power, I must oppress them, if not in deed [because none of the critics of adoption wield power of the sort necessary to actualize their critiques] then in discourse."

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