Dr. Adrianna Zabrzewska, Institute of Philosophy and Sociology, Polish Academy of Sciences
Two tiny shoes lay discarded on the forest floor. There’s no point in wearing them now. They’re too wet to offer any warmth.
The little girl’s feet are freezing cold. The journalist can feel it as she cradles the child’s feet. She thinks of her son. He and the girl are approximately the same age.
The journalist shows the girl a cartoon on her phone. She wants to distract the child. Perhaps for a while the familiar sounds of Arabic will make the girl feel at home in this unwelcoming place.
“I could feel the icy coldness of little Julie’s feet for several weeks,” recalls Katarzyna Lazzeri in a short material that aired on TVN24 in late December 2021. Lazzeri was one of the reporters covering the migrant crisis on the border between Poland and Belarus.
“I compulsively washed my hands with hot water, trying to warm them, but it didn’t help. These things stay in your mind – but, in a sense, they also stay in your body.”
If there is a single story about the human body that can be distilled from the vast and diverse field of feminist philosophy, it would go like this:
The vulnerable body is born into this world through another body and it is born defenseless, fragile, and entirely dependent on others. It relies on various degrees and forms of care throughout its lifetime and it longs to care for others. Through finitude and dependence, the body reveals the relational, interconnected nature of human subjectivity.
As finite, fragile, and flawed bodies that are susceptible to death, illness, physical and psychological damage, we all share embodied precariousness. However, our levels of socially induced precarity are different. Some people are deprived of their right to live a livable life.
In an ideal world, coming to terms with one’s own vulnerability would presuppose respecting vulnerability in others – which would include the resolve to not take advantage out of weakness. More than that, it would entail the drive to help, protect, and heal others – even if they are different from you. Especially if they are different from you.
And yet, what’s common knowledge for a feminist philosopher is completely unattainable for the right-wing Polish government.
It’s fairly easy to empathize with little Julie. She’s an epitome of vulnerability – a reminder of inherent human precariousness that makes us all susceptible to harm. Her precarity is clearly visible – a migrant female child stranded on an Eastern European border because of the decisions that adults had made for her.
That’s why the Polish government will never mention the little Julies. Instead, they will talk about men from Islamic cultures, breeding fear and contempt for one of the West’s deepest images of the Other.
The Polish state turns non-white, non-European migrants into objects that do not deserve compassion or grief because they are not recognized as fully human. Keeping them at a distance, both physical and symbolic, is the easiest way to do that. What is truly seen and touched cannot be dehumanized that easily.
Under the right-wing government, the Polish state is more than capable of dehumanizing its own citizens. When it curbs reproductive rights. When it berates LGBTQ+ persons. Every time the message is clear:
Your otherness is deplorable. Your embodied existence does not matter. Your right to live a livable life is of no concern to us.
You are disposable.
A poem by Denise Levertov comes to mind.
Born in Britain to a Welsh mother and a Russian Hasidic father turned Anglican priest, Levertov, herself Catholic, wrote poems that were an amalgam of her spirituality, her commitment to leftist politics, and her involvement in the 1960s and 1970s anti-war and environmental movements in the United States.
During the Eichmann trial was her first political poem. It ends like this:
“He stands / isolate in a bulletproof / witness-stand of glass, / a cage, where we may view / ourselves, an apparition / telling us something he / does not know: we are members / one of another.”
I think of it often.
For a long time, Western philosophy was obsessed with the idea of a self-referential, independent subject. Fueled by mind and reason, this vision of subjectivity renounced bodily matters and everything related to the mundane reality of everyday life, including the body’s need for tenderness and care. In a pursuit of objective knowledge, people engaging with this paradigm made false claims to impartiality. These claims absolved them from examining their own situatedness. They pursued similarity and sameness while relegating otherness to an inferior position.
Without plurality of perspectives, the mainstream will never critically examine itself. Without external pressure, the canon will never make itself accountable for its mistakes, omissions, and violations. Unprompted by the margin, the center will never ask itself: Whose perspective am I missing? Whose embodied experience have I neglected? And finally, “With whose blood were my eyes crafted?”
Feminist philosophy asks those questions repeatedly. It tries to keep pace with feminist activism that is becoming increasingly intersectional. The Polish case shows this exceptionally well, with feminists across the country being a powerful force behind the bottom-up push for LGBTQ+ rights and the rights of migrants and refugees, among other causes.
All struggles for human rights and social justice are intertwined.
I don’t know what you think of feminism.
Perhaps you never thought of it long enough to form an opinion. Maybe you thought it’s reserved for cisgender women as it used to be at the time of its inception. Maybe you were exposed to it in the academia but it didn’t resonate with you because, due to the limitations of the ivory tower, it was too white, too straight, or too elitist. Perhaps you’ve run into an activist that you deemed too radical – or one that you just didn’t like as a person. Maybe you were discouraged by those who defend women by berating men, thus reversing the power play but never actually changing anything. Or maybe the feminism that you encountered couldn’t offer you guidance on how to perform your own gender, heterosexual desire, or interests and sensitivities that align with conventional gender roles.
There are many “maybes” because problems are aplenty. Feminism is not an infallible theory nor a universal panacea for all hurt. It cannot be infallible or universal.
But if you could see it through my eyes, you would witness an ongoing lesson in empathy, an exercise in that kind of critical thinking that does not exclude and vilify but tries to figure out how to arrive at a better world – through care, thoughtful embodied presence, and intimacy that does not demand immediate proximity or similarity of experience.
If you could see it through my eyes, you would know that thanks to its drive to empower the disempowered and its willingness to face uncomfortable questions, feminist theory and activism can help us seek tangible solutions to the most pressing crises of our time, in Poland and elsewhere.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog post are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Graduate School for Social Research (GSSR). The publication of content on this blog does not imply endorsement or approval of the expressed views by GSSR.
The terminology used in the essay (disposable body, precariousness/precarity, livable life) is inspired by the works of Judith Butler.
“With whose blood were my eyes crafted?” is a quote from Donna Haraway’s “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective,” Feminist Studies 14, no. 3 (Autumn 1988).
The intersectionality of contemporary Polish feminism, complete with its challenges, is addressed in the Feminist Fund’s 2022 report Where There is Oppression, There is Resistance edited by Magdalena Grabowska, Marta Rawłuszko, Małgorzata Leszko, and Justyna Frydrych. The full report in Polish is available here. For an English summary, follow this link.