Musings on Reification by Sara Frykenberg

Sara FrykenbergThe following is a bit of a messy and meandering blog: a kind of a ‘brain train,’ that starts with a question of reification and eating disorders, and moves into a sense of the literal ‘consuming’ nature of oppression.   So I will start with a ‘thank you’ to readers who will meander with me and with gratitude to the teachers whose thoughts I am wandering with along the way.

Reification is the process by which those created ideas that we externalize into institutions, concrete objects, or social principles then become so real to us that we tend to think of them as a separate reality or a thing/ life in and of itself.[1] I teach this concept in my ethics classes when we discuss the way in which actions and choices are connected to what we often consider to be external forces like “the government,” or “the economy,” when in fact, we are in relationship to and often, actively play a role in maintaining these realities (even when only playing a small role). Reification can subversively undermine our understanding of response-ability because it is a way of making the structures that form our society “other” than ourselves.

My students definitely struggle with this concept and often express the fear that they are too small as individuals to see any real change happen. (I too, often struggle with this fear when thinking about the reified ‘monsters’ of oppression and hate.) Dealing with this discouragement in class, I (and we) switch gears by emphasizing praxis and recognizing its successes. I ask my students to consider what can be done and what choices/changes I, they, or we are capable of making while re-membering changes already being made. As Gustavo Guiterrez says: “Pessimism comes from reality because reality is tragic, while optimism comes from action because action can change reality.”[2]

Reading a 1994 piece[3] by Carter Heyward and Beverly Harrison earlier this week, however, I found myself returning to questions of reification and wondering when a reified idea becomes a concrete “other.” When does the reified ‘monster’ become a threat to those who create it, or, significantly, to those who once benefited from its power? But let me be clear here. I do not mean to ask: ‘When does the oppressor or oppressive institution create ‘others’ or ‘monsters?’ This happens all the time and is a favorite oppressive strategy. If one makes monsters out of those one wishes to oppress, then one easily finds excuses to control, exterminate or fear those ‘others.’ What I am asking is when does the reified-institutional-monster become so big and so terrible that it indiscriminately (or perhaps, with a totalizing discrimination) swallows everyone? Or as Catherine Keller might put it: when does habit of apocalypse finally destroy us all?[4]

In the process of reification, many of us are not the ‘Creators’ of the ‘monsters.’ Oppressors coercively force those who suffer from oppression and multiple forms of oppression to deal with their reified structures of their power. However, oppressors, the oppressed and those of us who are both oppressor and oppressed often maintain these structures in some way. As many feminists, womanists and critical race theorists suggest, internalized oppression is one form of maintenance: we may believe that we are what ‘the monster’ says we are. As a white, heterosexual woman, I might, for instance, internalize (though not exclusively) the idea that:

  1. My only sexual options are sexual temptress/ whore or virgin (and I better be a virgin).
  2. My voice is subversive, so I must be silent—and in a classist and racist way, that my particular ‘silence’ is more ‘womanly.’ And…
  3. Insidiously, as it both oppresses me and creates a kind of power for me in a racist society, that I am the ‘ideal victim,’ just like every other Disney princess I grew up with (who, with the exception of Jasmine from Alladdin, was white too when I was a child).[5]

Discussing what they identified as a kind of internalized sadomasochism encouraged by Christian theology, Heyward and Harrison explain how eating disorders are both, “a source of pain,” as well as a drama of pain and short lived pleasure that “signals a woman’s resistance to the role imposed upon her body/ herself by her religion or culture.”[6] While I find the correlation of sexual sadomasochism and eating disorders in this article very problematic, I do agree that many Christian teachings have tended to glorify suffering and the negation of bodily pleasure, even asking us to derive pleasure from this negation. Given the age of this article, I also found myself wondering how the authors would interpret the ever-growing population of men with eating disorders… and at this moment, the thought “patriarchy is eating men too,” flashed into my head.

I know this may be obvious to many who study feminist theory and theology. Indeed, I understand that privilege complicates one’s role in maintaining the reified reality of oppressive institutions and social structure: those with privilege make, benefit from and are “eaten” by the reified monster. But something about this literal image of food and the resistance to food changed the message for me.

The first time I ever encountered the idea that “the oppressor is also oppressed” was when reading Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed. The oppressor dehumanizes his or herself when dehumanizing others. When discussing this idea with my ethics students, I take great care to emphasize difference of experience, oppression that hinders survival, oppression as alienating and the importance of giving what Miguel de la Torre calls “epistemological privilege” to the marginalized when creating justice.[7] Considering the analysis in Heywards and Harrison’s article, I find myself thinking a great deal about the way that oppression can compound in generations like a ever expanding abusive cycle.

Reification is tricky, tricky, tricky. A reified monster that once served a master will eat its master if it gets big enough. Keller reminds us that monsters are really supposed to ‘show’ us something, or reveal something about ourselves to ourselves.[8] But sadly, to protect the power that oppressive privilege gives, one who has privilege will too often make that monster ‘other’ than his or herself. Reified, the oppressor is too afraid to look into his or her own angry and frightened face.

Gayatri Spivak, bell hooks and other authors assert that oppression eats the “other,” the marginalized and the subaltern. It took me some time to start to understand this metaphor for oppression and I am still working on taking in its rich meaning; but something about Heyward and Harrison’s short discussion of eating disorders brought me a clarity I did not have before. (Maybe because I had to think critically about my own complicated relationship to food, privilege and oppression.) Eating is basic part of human existence and the desire to eat is instinctual. But the notion that we eat someone else when oppressing (or are eaten by oppression) is a powerful image: broadly descriptive and far-reaching.

Watching Star Trek: The Next Generation as a child, I learned very early the idea that torture is “ultimately self-defeating,” manipulating and negating the reality of experience in deference to control. (Thank you Captain Picard.) Oppression, too, is self-defeating. Oppressive hunger is eventually turned upon the oppressor-self. So, fewer and fewer males, whites, Westerners (and US Citizens), temporarily-able-bodied people and heterosexuals can access the ever self-annihilating power at the top.[9] This illuminates the erosion of the middle class that those of us living in the United States are living through today.

To be consumed by an andro-kyriarchal system that requires ever more fuel… such is a power of non-relational reification; and so, I am reminded again to check my response-ability.

Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the women studies in religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence.  In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.

[1] Conners, Russell B. and Patrick T. McCormick. Character, Choices and Community: The Three Faces of Christian Ethics. Paulist Press: Mahwah, New Jersey, 1998.

[2]Gustavo Gutierrez in De la Torre, Miguel. Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins. Orbis Books: New York, 2004 (p. 55).

[3] Harrison, Beverly Wildung and Carter Heyward, “Pain and Pleasure: Avoiding the Confusions of Christian Tradition in Feminist Theory,” in Sexuality and the Sacred, first edition, James B. Nelson and Sandra P. Longfellow, eds.. John Knox Press: Louisville, Kentucky, 1994.

[4] She discusses this in her 1996 book, Apocalypse Now and Then: A Feminist Guide to the End of the World.

[5] Nicole Pietsch’s article, “I’m not that kind of Girl,” indicates these attributes of white femininity, discussing the way in which race plays a role in the legal and social constructions of rape victims and their corresponding ‘believability.’ The article is: Pietsch, Nicole. “‘I’m Not That Kind of Girl’: White Femininity, the Other, and the Legal/ Social Sanctioning of Sexual Violence Against Racialized Women.”  Canadian Woman Studies; Fall 2009/Winter 2010; 28, 1; GenderWatch.

[6] “Pain and Pleasure,” p. 139

[7] Doing Christian Ethics from the Margins, p. 62.

[8] Keller, Catherine. From a Broken Web. Beacon Press: Boston, 1986, p. 50.

[9] Catherine Keller also connects the idea of self-annihilation to apocalyptic habit. She suggests that deifying an ‘original’ creation ex nihilo, we continue to create nothingness (or will continue to create our own destruction). She discusses these concepts largely in two books: The Face of the Deep and God and Power.

Categories: Abuse of Power, Christianity, Ethics, Patriarchy, Racism, Theology, White Privilege

Tags: , , ,

7 replies

  1. I’m reading a mystery novel set in 1936 in Moscow. The protagonist is a detective whose first case is a murdered foreign nun. The detective meets Isaac Babel, who in 1939 was arrested, tortured, forced to give a false confession that he was a Trotskyite, and shot through the head. All this about Babel (a famous Russian Jewish author) is historical fact. Are Stalin and his operatives and the 1930s show trials examples of reification and the oppression of the oppressed? We could be starting an interesting discussion here.


  2. Hi Barbara,
    The torture, mock trials and tyranny under Stalin, I agree, was certainly “oppression of the oppressed.”– is that what you meant to ask? I also think, yes, this is perhaps, one way that the reified-monster came to eat someone who was a part of the oppressive class. “Purges” within the hierarchy/ ruling class are one way to solidify oppressive power for a smaller group. I think this happens a great deal.


  3. You never mentioned zombies! – the next stop on your brain train.


  4. Sara —

    Your definition of reification (“Verdinglichung” in German) confused me when I started to read your post. I looked it up on the web and discovered that its original meaning (at least within Marxist thought, where I first encountered it) implies both that subjects (e.g. people) are viewed as objects and that objects (usually abstractions as you state) are viewed as subjects. In my work I’ve usually looked at the first of these two, since women are often reified/objectified as sexual objects, etc. within patriarchy.

    I followed your argument until the end of this piece, and then I lost it, especially when you generalized to the middle class and stated, “This illuminates the erosion of the middle class that those of us living in the United States are living through today.” That seemed like a huge leap for me, since I believe the erosion of the middle class has everything to do with the economics of our day and not very much to do with eating disorders. Help please!


    • Hi Nancy,
      Yes– I understand your confusion. My apologies. I think I put a bit of a disclaimer here in the beginning that this was a kind of “brain train,” …. which for me looks like, start with one idea, travel to the next and weirdly, end up somewhere different.
      I agree that the erosion of the middle class is due to economics. What I am not totally explaining is the idea behind this: economic institutions that were set up to secure privilege for some at the expense of others are also “reified monsters,” even deified monsters— kind of like the kyriarchal beauty standards that encourage eating disorders (though very different).

      The middle class in economically good times has benefited from these institutions; but since oppressive power is (as Keller suggests) self-annihilating, such power/privilege is harder and harder to access… In other words, when power is conceived of as “I can only have power when you do not,” and this principle is reified in economic principles, then eventually the monster will eat more and more of us.

      I hope this helps… again, meandering brain train here. ;)


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