Bring back the sapphic!

View from the Precinct

Dear Editors,

I used to be a cop in Manhattan. By the close of 2011, I had spent countless hours policing Occupy Wall Street, traversing lower Manhattan alongside people shouting the same five or six things, day after day, accompanied by drums and sometimes brass instruments. In the beginning, there was a nervous anticipation among my fellow officers; we sensed that the protesters had tapped into a zeitgeist. If they could get even a few percent of the people of the metro area to come out on a single day to march, the crowd would be too large to regulate. They would have seized on ideas powerful enough to get the police themselves to join their ranks, and they would be on the path to a revolution. Instead, at least from our view, Zuccotti Park settled into the moribund rhythm of a long-standing funhouse. A lot of people came to look, but after a point the number of repeat visitors dwindled.

We walked Zuccotti’s perimeter and took in its cardboard messages, and I talked to other cops about postmodernism. We remarked how unassertive and equivocal the protesters were whenever they started to circle the question of what exactly to do besides march and sloganeer, especially given how much momentum and apparent promise the movement had out of the gate. Time was wasted and the nights grew cold while people went on talking about things like how to fold the plight of urban wildlife into the revolution or told stories about their personal path to activism. The Egyptians everyone was holding up as role models would never have tolerated any of this. They wanted Mubarak deposed, they wanted elections, and they relentlessly convulsed toward these ends, sweeping distractions and narcissism aside.

We talked about what “othering” someone meant, and about the alienation and domination that derive from supposedly arbitrary differences in worldviews. In the Continental tradition, I explained, “othering” is an indictment as serious as the proverbial ratting out your partner. There, before our very cop eyes, was the murkiness of postmodernism struggling mightily to manifest itself in action. The problem was that this fear of “othering”and of assertiveness generallyhad mired OWS in a kind of self-imposed and intractable mind-body dualism. It turned out an ungoverned tent city was a poor extension of revolutionary ideals into the world.

Of course, there are always exceptions. One of them is that everybody gets to other the police. Take Mark Greif’s “Seeing Through Police.” The only way Greif could have written it is if he had never performed police work himself and assumed no police officer would ever read it. “Living traffic cones,” he calls us. We are “part of the street like a stop sign.” We ride around wearing nurse shoes, caffeinated, bored all the time, and badly deluded about our role as crime fighters. When we stand, we appear to droop under the weight of our equipment. By making sure people don’t pack guns on the street or drive drunk, we unfairly distribute crime and enforce a regime of racial terror. Our touch is a special kind of touch, friendly, sinister, or sexual in a different way than other people’s. Even our beloved donuts are essentially contestable.

On one level, it’s pointless to refute any of this. People always take risks when they assert knowledge, especially knowledge they haven’t gained organically, and so sometimes they fail or get big things wrong. This is one of the dangers of anthropology, and there were times reading Greif when I felt like I was watching one of those old public television shows about indigenous peoples, the kind with the patronizing British narrator.

On another level, Greif is just wrong. His description of the long periods of boredom in policing are rehashed from those of fighter pilots and firefighters, but nobody deprives these actors of their identities because they perform their core missions infrequently. Now is an especially poignant time to give James Salter’s The Hunters a read in this regard. I’ve only saved a few lives in my career, and only arrested a handful of rapists and attempted murderers, but I don’t see why this doesn’t make me a crime fighter or make the work I do indispensable. Greif also fails to imagine how satisfying it can be to ride around for hours with your best friend in a car at night, the city laid out before you, knowing at some point something very interesting will happen and you will respond and handle it for the sake of others. Does he intend to tell most professors they’re not scholars because hardly anybody reads the papers they publish?

All this bad anthropology and strained metaphor is a shame, because when he turns to the problem of the police and the state, he is remarkably insightful. “In a democracy of equal citizens,” he writes, “people will inevitably come into conflict, even through no fault or crime of one party or the other.” This is exactly where the police come in, brokering the terms of social cooperation that allow democratic pluralism to flourish. They have the experience and expertise to make judgments about physical situations that citizens cannot. If they do it well, they allow people to thrive under conditions of pluralism without feeling as if certain life plans will be perpetually foreclosed to them.

There is a way for philosophers to puzzle through the relationship between the police and the state: it is to stop being intellectually lazy and emotionally insecure. Samuel Johnson said that “Were Socrates and Charles the Twelfth of Sweden both present in any company, and Socrates to say, ‘Follow me, and hear a lecture on philosophy;’ and Charles, laying his hand on his sword, to say, ‘Follow me, and dethrone the Czar;’ a man would be ashamed to follow Socrates.” Physically bending a little piece of the world around to a conception of justice is uniquely fulfilling, so much so that it is what children practice doing when they’re left unattended. It is, however, a type of work that scholars don’t generally have access to. I’ve always felt some have been a little mean to themselves for this reason, and then to us in turn. Cops, for their part, feel intimidated by very well-educated men and women because they don’t pose their concerns physically, in the language of police work. We all need to grow up.

Physically bending a little piece of the world around to a conception of justice is uniquely fulfilling.


As far as laziness goes, I’ll give an example from Greif. He quotes Egon Bittner, saying that “the assessment whether the service police are uniquely competent to provide is on balance desirable or not, in terms of, let us say, the aspirations of a democratic polity, is beyond the scope of the argument.” Greif takes this as a dry acknowledgment of the lack of philosophical import of police work and finds it surprising that police agencies embrace Bittner anyway. But this is nothing more than Bittner limiting the scope of his project to his field of inquiry, like any good sociologist. After defining the role of the police, he stays out of the business of the relationship between the police and the state, because he expects a philosopher to take it up. Instead, Greif cites Bittner in order to shirk the philosopher’s task that he has set for himself.

In my view, the police should deliver three kinds of justice: rescuing innocent third parties from dangers of all kinds (some at the hands of other people and others environmental), brokering and enforcing the terms of social cooperation in public spaces, and acting as an adjunct to the judicial process. Two of these three are very practical and have little to do with the law, per se, as Greif astutely observes. What makes a democracy distinctive is that the distribution of these forms of justice to and across citizens should be bound by uncompromising principles of fairness and equality that might not obtain in other forms of government. Reasons for distribution that do not recognize the core equality of citizens should be unavailable to the police. If police grasp this intuitively but stumble during its execution, it is partly because they have been underserved by political philosophy.

Modern municipal policing rose out of the messy, pluralist stew of cities during the Industrial Revolution. They were places that were growing almost beyond control with immigrants and rural migrants. The sheer compression of people into small spaces and narrow streets generated near-constant conflict. It should be no surprise that policing was very oppressive then, because we weren’t as serious about many types of equality then as we are now. But this much hasn’t changed: cops, in all their practicality, will continue physically bending situations around to the way they think the world ought to be. That philosophers have failed to harness this and incorporate it into a comprehensive account of modern democracy shows, to me, a lack of imagination. The democratic life is lived citizen by citizen, in public and private spaces, at the same level as the police transaction. Philosophers can learn a lot by imagining what good can come of touching people like cops do.

Alexander Massi

Mark Greif replies:

It’s true I’ve never done police work. I’m not sure, though, why a reader would think that I wouldn’t have written “Seeing Through Police” if I’d imagined policemen reading it. I’m grateful that Massi, at least, read the article and took it seriously. I don’t think the claims are as easily refutable as he proposes.

My sense is that the underlying difference in our attitudes has to do with a difference in emphasis or orientation. Where Massi thinks we agree, and my writing becomes useful, is where we draw close to his way of thinking. Police become experts, judges, soldiers, and so forth, who bend reality physically toward a conception of their own. But my central concern, and the reason I argued as I did, is to keep police within democracy: within it not above it, as citizens doing an ordinary citizen job (like “firefighters,” doctors, and, yes, teachers and professors), not as emissaries of the State (like “fighter pilots,” and in many but not all contexts, members of the judicial system).

The descriptions of policeof their place in the urban landscape, and their roles in protecting and serving the citizenry by both watching ordinary life and making it visiblewere partly meant teasingly, to counter the more macho self-justifications of police PR (“I guess we should leave you to the murderers and rapists, huh?”). But they were also accurate, in large measure affectionate, and, I think, normatively useful. The accuracy comes from decades of behavior studies of police work; the affection, from the fact that citizens like “stop signs,” “nurses,” and “donuts,” as well as nonviolent blue-shirted cops working neighborhood beats. The normativity is an effort to redirect attention to what’s lastingly desirable in the police role but often played down because it’s not self-justifying. Police do spend most of their time waiting, watching, visiting, and talking; that is the core mission. That is also what a democracy should want them to do. The more it is generally accepted and valued as a core mission, the more helpful and less dangerous police are to citizens.

The feeling of hurt pride in the early part of the letter thus seems unnecessary, and makes me remorseful. It’s true that university teachers are often extremely self-critical and long-winded on the institutional and personal contradictions, deceptions, and inadequacies of their work. I think that’s because the skills (and luxuries) of the job leave its practitioners to question and dismantle many illusory sources of their own pride, and give them the time and the tools to do so. Police, I tried to show, must work hard to maintain a display of certainty, consistency, and “front” necessary to their institutional situation and task. But just as with teachers, the degree to which police are able to attain lucidity about the defects, illusions, and contradictions within their jobs without becoming cynical or losing faith in their service makes them better at what they do.

The indispensability of the work of police lies in the daily value to civil peace.


One thing I imagine it’s hard for any person of goodwill to reconcile himself to in joining a police force is the fact that American police, historically, treat African American citizens worse than any other group of citizens, and arrest and murder them disproportionately. These, I think, really are numerical facts, attested by social science (in accord with general knowledge), and not opinions or slanders. Certainly any African American who enters the force knows this, as memoirs of black policemen testify. What seems to motivate many black police officers is a wish to reform police, and to become nonracist figures in the neighborhoods in which they grew up.

A most poignant sentence in the letter, and one to stop on, is this: “I’ve only saved a few lives in my career, and only arrested a handful of rapists and attempted murderers, but I don’t see why this doesn’t make me a crime fighter or make the work I do indispensable.” I agree; the hope of police reform is not meant to undermine emergency response. But the indispensability of the work of police lies in the daily value to civil peace, not primarily in the violent or heroic extremes. Thinking too much of violent extremes perverts the daily need. I think the analogy would be to an airline pilot thinking his career was the few times he made crash landings or achieved a take-off with one engine blown out. Mostly a pilot transports people from place to place so they can do their jobs and see their familiesand that’s great! Or suppose we made the mistake of thinking of all doctors on the model of surgeons or battlefield medics, rather than general practitioners or family doctors. This would be seriously misguided as to facts, and it would distort the whole normative picture of medicine. That, I think, is something of the risk to police in a false self-conception.

I don’t know the context of the quotation from Samuel Johnson that Massi has chosen. But for a citizen of a democracy, the choice between Socrates and Charles XII seems obviousbetween, that is, Socrates, who talked to his fellow citizens in Athens peacefully in order to ask them if they couldn’t be better citizens, and Charles XII, another despotic king, raising armies to go fight external enemies. For that matter, Socrates did not lecture; he talked and kibitzed with people, leaving them changed, balked, sometimes annoyed, but physically unmolested. Surely that could be a model for the best policing.

The police’s access to violence as a tool is fairly unique, and it colors a lot of their self-perception as well as their “othering” by citizens. But it’s not that unique, insofar as many other positions of authority call for modes of nonphysical or “soft” violence. (“As through this world I’ve wandered, I’ve seen lots of funny men / Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen.”) The police’s claim to physical violence leads to another dangerous misrepresentation, in which they erroneously liken themselves to armies or militaries. The last thing a democracy can afford is to have its internal “rescuers” and “brokers” (to draw on Massi’s terms, with which I agree) want to import the dimensions of these other, very different State representatives whose essence is the use of physical violence against exterior threats. The essential challenge is to get police not to think of themselves as noncitizens, or above citizens, or beyond citizens. And though they may become better at sizing up and evaluating situations of violence between citizens (as working psychiatrists get good at understanding and defusing thoughts and moods, and marriage counselors get good at identifying causes of marital discord), when “cops,” in Massi’s eloquent formulation, “in all their practicality... continue physically bending situations around to the way they think the world ought to be,” the source of that “ought” needs to be the values that citizen-police and plain citizens share.

The Sapphic Continuum

Dear Editors,

I happen to be reading Susan S. Lanser’s The Sexuality of History: Modernity and the Sapphic, 1565–1830 these days, which looks at the steep increase in textual representations of female same-sex relationsin fiction, proto-anthropology, poetry, drama, travelogues, political theory, court trial records, medical treatisesat the beginning of the 17th century. The sapphic is the term she chooses, alongside the woman + woman, rather than the more modern lesbian or queer or homosocial. While some of the relationships she looks at have a clear sexual component, others may not, and others resemble something more like an intense friendship. It doesn’t matter, Lanser argues: it’s the potential of the woman + woman that matters. Whether or not sex or desire figures into it, the woman + woman contains a paradigm-shifting power within the patriarchy. To use the old Second Wave terminology, the woman + woman may be politically or philosophically lesbian even when not sexually lesbian.

Lanser’s book came to mind at a couple of surprising points in Dayna Tortorici’s otherwise gorgeous essay on Elena Ferrante (“Those Like Us”). While describing the (older) woman + (younger) woman relationship in The Lost Daughter, Tortorici writes that the setup luckily does not lead to “a boring lesbian Oedipal plot.” Hang on a minute, I thought. There aren’t that many intergenerational lesbian plots in our culture to make them obvious, expected, a default, therefore boring. Perhaps the two of us have been reading different books? The All About Eve setup and its variants have chiefly been heterosexual. The English-language literature of lesbian desire doesn’t often depict the intergenerational power/love struggle, the lesbian Oedipal if you willa strained, problematic term, but let’s go with it. Jeanette Winterson, Ali Smith, and Sarah Waters don’t use the intergenerational lesbian trope, and as far as I can tell nor does Sarah Schulman on this side of the Atlantic. Kathryn Davis’s The Girl Who Trod on a Loaf might have qualified, but its theoretically lesbian protagonist is at a remove from her sexualityshe gives up on her desire before it ever articulates itself. Perhaps Eleanor Catton’s beautifully inventive The Rehearsal comes close to the plot that Tortorici suggests, the older woman + younger woman relationship of political mothering getting unsettled by lesbian desire. But this instance of it in The Rehearsal is anything but boring.

Further in the essay on Ferrante, Tortorici praises Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend tetralogy as strongly female and strongly heterosexual and in this achievement apparently rare and praiseworthy. But English-language literatures have been fixing the lack of straight women friendships for some decades now. Margaret Drabble’s The Seven Sisters and The Radiant Way (and its two sequels) and Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook all have female (heterosexual) friendship at the center. Margaret Atwood is particularly excellent on the nadirs of woman + woman straight friendships (say, Cat’s Eye). Lillian Hellman’s Julia, Miss Brodie with her pupils, Sheila with Margaux in How Should a Person Be?, the two women of Donald Margulies’s Collected Storiesall straight, and all excellent on the highs and lows of the female friendship. Even the passionately attached women in the films of Margarethe von Trotta, she herself explained to me in an interview, are not lesbian. “It was the spirit of the times. Back then, just like my characters, we women lived together, we kissed, we may have even made love to each other, but none of that made us lesbian,” was the gist of her adorable protestation.

So, who should really be complaining about the homosocial plots turning tediously into the homosexual ones, the affidamento into amore e sesso? Perhaps neither of us. Perhaps it really doesn’t matterperhaps we are talking of the same thing. Perhaps we are both talking about what Lanser called the sapphic, the relationship of great game-changing potential that sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t have a sexual component. Is it all not the same quiddity, appearing in different forms, intensities, power negotiations? Tortorici herself quotes Irigaray and de Lauretis, two feminist writers who philosophize specifically out of and through lesbian desire, in order to expound Ferrante, the writer who doesn’t, and that is just fine and how it should be.

One thing I thought but didn’t dare say to von Trotta after she offered her line on heterosexuality unpolluted by actual sexual practices was: Fine, but aren’t we all somewhere on the sapphic continuum?

I will say it now, however: Aren’t we?

Let’s see the possibilities in this, instead of dividing our toys and playing in disparate corners of the playground.

Lydia Perović

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