On June 10th, we sat down together to co-create the foundations of the family of the future. A tall order for a Sunday afternoon, but an urgent one nonetheless. Speak to anyone and they will have an experience with family, whether the one they grew up in or the home and support network they have built as adults. Families pervade our lives and experiences. Families structure our economic realities and give us emotional support. Families, too, are still frequently lauded as a thing to preserve by conservative politicians, as if what happens behind the closed doors of picket fence homes were something historically stable, apolitical, and inherently wonderful. The aim of this workshop was to explore what we can create, in our collective imagination and our lives, if we embrace the instability (or destabilizing power?) of families, welcome politics into our homes and establish our own terms for loving and radical coexistence.
What do we mean when we say family?
We set out with a theoretical introduction. What is the family (in our interpretation) and why talk about it in the context of future societies? Here, we outlined how the concept of family is simultaneously historically contingent and not at all the safe bubble outside of politics that it is so often supposed to be. Not only has the nuclear family, the currently prevalent form of two (heterosexual) parents and children, evolved from a legacy of economic decisions structuring family life, but its cornerstone, monogamous romantic love, can’t be exempted from this either. Historically, families were built on the backs of capital, states, and labor, and this remains true today. The family mediates class, gender, and racial differences, transmits capital, and secures production and reproduction. Love is the rose-tinted glasses that prevent us from baulking at these machinations.
The outlook is not all bleak, however. Families can be warm hearths of care, support, and non-instrumental. To critically evaluate the family, then, requires separating the currently dominant family form that serves the capitalist patriarchy from the wonderful things an ideal family is capable of giving us. As much as the family can give us many desirable things, it is also a dominant form that eclipses many forms of living that fail to stick to the heteronormative model of breadwinner and child-rearer. The rest of the workshop is premised on this idea: what are we capable of (imagining) if we free the needs and desires that the family satisfies from the patriarchal, capitalist constraints under which we currently operate?
For more reading on this, have a look at Judith Butler’s essay on “kinship practices”. She approaches the family through the lens of what it can do (through practices) instead of the limited cookie cutter shapes it currently frequently assumes, to the detriment of all who seek familial fulfilment differently.
To jumpstart our thinking on a radical reconceptualization of our needs and how the family meets them, participants read excerpts from three pieces of feminist speculative fiction. Find the full excerpts here. Keep reading for a brief introduction to the texts and what we discussed around them. Each story raised issues across the board, from emotional to structural, and elicited both support and disapproval, sometimes on the same issues. In the following, a short synopsis is followed by the main discussion points it raised around a text.
Fledgling – Octavia Butler
Tells the story of Shori, a vampire (called Ina) who has lost her memory after a horrific hate crime is perpetrated against her and parts of her family. Having suffered grave injury and memory loss, we follow her as she rediscovers her family and her kind. She learns her family was attacked out of hatred for their attempt to build resistance to sunlight in their kind, which causes Shori to have dark skin. Through her eyes, we also see how the Ina live. Male and female Ina live separately in groups of siblings together with their human symbionts, humans who receive prolonged life and health in exchange for providing blood to the Ina they are physically bound to. It explores issues of racism and alternative ways of building a family.
How consensual can any situation be in which one party (the humans) is physically bound to another (the Ina). Where does the desirability of this close bond end and the exploitative nature of this relationship begin? Next, the Ina communities seem loving and supportive, however they also reinforce strict gender divisions. Finally, while the Ina seem to live in fairly isolated communities, they remain dependent on a capitalist economy, as Ina and humans alike seem to invest, buy property and participate in the job market.
Woman on the edge of time – Marge Piercy
Piercy’s protagonist, Connie, finds herself hospitalized for a mental illness that is undisclosed until the closing pages of the novel. As she stews in what is essentially prison, she is visited by a time traveler who takes her along into an alternative world of equality and plenty. In it, gender is relic of the past, reproduction is completely severed from our bodies and people live self-sufficient lives in beautiful landscapes in communal villages surrounded by their loved ones (an array of romantic and platonic friends of all ages). People live on their own but come together for communal meals and celebration, while children and the elderly live together almost symbiotically. As Connie navigates between her (our) world and this future realm, she begins to question some of the assumptions on which we base our lives today.
What is the position of the body and nature in building families? Is it as emancipatory as the fictional future people claim to sever birth from our bodies or should we return to considering womb-based reproduction a holy act? And what good can come from attempting to solve social inequalities by creating an artificially blended society? Is it possible and desirable to cultivate difference without discrimination or is the cultivation of humans already a step too far? What is the ideal way to build a home and care for our young? Can we live comfortably in a family-like way with an entire village?
The female man – Joanna Russ
Janet, the eponymous “female man”, arrives on Earth from outer space, where she has lived all her life on a planet inhabited solely by women. It is this that has allowed her to develop a personality unencumbered by patriarchy and oppression, allowing her to act far more outspoken and brazen than women are expected to be in our world. The women on Janet’s planet work hard after an illness wiped out the entire male population. They live in families of up to 30 people made up, if they wish, of friends, and mother-child bonding is virtually non-existent. Their civilization is carried by strict discipline and there is little room for both personal freedom or for the charade that makes up our familiar patriarchal gender dynamics.
Would a good society have gender at all and to what extent would it mean rejecting contemporary femininity? Can feminist emancipation only happen in the absence of men? What is a worthy price to pay for eradicating oppressive gender norms? What is the role of a loving family bond in upholding the oppressive institutions we currently live with?
After discussing the books, we went into more depths: what do we want our future families to look like and what do we want to avoid? In the following, you’ll find a summary of the positive and negative points to look out for in a future family, as well as some core principles. This is partial and only based on what we discussed. Think for yourself: Do you agree with these or is there something to add?
What we want
Things to avoid
Love (related to community)
Children & reproduction
Nature & Resources
Children & reproduction
Coercion & exploitation
At the end of the workshop, we established 5 common principles that we would like to see realized in a future family. These are merely a starting point of course and not a finished blueprint. Have a look at them: are these things you envision in your future family or is a key element missing?
Belief in human value
Diversity/ flexibility / choice to allow for different and changing lifestyles
Economic model guaranteeing access to resources (including money and time)
Sense of (emotional) belonging
Ideas to put principles into practice
Provide education on values
Adequate and equitable housing
Find ways to quickly and fairly integrate newcomers into your community
Give agency to children and see them as capable of making (some of) their own decisions
Equitable economic model
Healthy & supportive relationships
A ritual to celebrate human rights
What else can you think of? This workshop was merely the beginning. Think about what your future family would look like. What kind of needs does family currently fulfil in your life? How are these needs and the way you meet them embroiled with capitalism? If you think beyond capitalism, what new ways of living in the family open up to you?
The workshop was led by Elly Dreyfus and Sophie Silverstein and this blog post was written by Sophie Silverstein.