“I was writing about what it means not to have a voice and making the case for the redistribution of that power.” – Rebecca Solnit Existence is undoubtedly one of the most important concepts in philosophy. Countless Greats have published their reflections on existence, on being, on knowing, and on being known. Essayist Rebecca Solnit’s newly published memoir Recollections of my Non-Existence explores how existence is not something afforded to each of us equally, but rather is something that is profoundly shaped by who we are, and how credible and worthy society considers our existence to be.
Although Solnit, who is most famous for popularising the term “mansplaining” in her essay collection Men Explains Things to Me, is not a philosopher in the traditional sense, much of her work is concerned with these core philosophical questions. Underpinning her life and her expansive body of work is a recognition that the power to tell stories and be heard is one that is not equally distributed. Recollections of my Non-Existence ties these themes more explicitly to her own experiences as a woman, writer and activist, and the ways the three are interlinked, although it is a memoir only insofar as Solnit uses her own life as a starting point to consider wider societal questions. Her own experiences emerge as a series of case studies to test her hypothesis that women’s existences are minimised in multiple domains, and to document some of the challenges that arise when they decide to take up space. Much of the power of Solnit’s writing lies in her ability to switch between the particulars of her own life and the more general conclusions we may draw from these, but this approach means that those hoping the memoir will be an intimate portrayal of her life may be disappointed. Solnit rejects the traditional narrative arc that often accompanies memoirs, noting that “[m]emoirs at their most conventional are stories of overcoming arcs of eventual triumph, personal problems to be taken care of by personal evolution”. She argues that the most significant challenges in her life – such as the pervasive threat of violence and an inability to speak and be listened to with any semblance of credibility – are not things that can be overcome by personal motivation; nor are they unique to a specific period of her life. Solnit recognises that age is only one lens through which we experience our lives, and other factors, such as race, gender or sexuality, are equally, if not more, important to how we tell our stories. ***
As the title suggests, the theme of non-existence is the one that Solnit most consistently explores. As a young woman moving to San Francisco and living alone, she experiences an ambiguous mixture of liberations and constraints. She values the freedom of living alone and being able to shape her own path, particularly given the violence she experienced within her childhood home at the hands of her father. But the threat of violence as a young woman was a near-constant source of anxiety. She regularly heard reports of women being attacked and murdered in her neighbourhood and she would frequently be accosted when out on one of her beloved urban walks. She had friends who had experienced violence at the hands of men in their lives and, having grown up in a household where this violence was normalised, Solnit began to see the world through a lens of fear. The narratives that accompany stories of violence against women often focus on specific events or individual tragedies. These traumatic instances are clearly essential in recognising the harm that is caused, but Solnit rightfully emphasizes that these stories are a consequence of a culture that has adapted to and normalised the threat of violence against women, such that it comes to be “treated as something as natural or inevitable as the weather”. As evidence for this reality, she highlights how, from a young age, women are taught strategies and principles to follow to avoid being harmed. Women are taught to modify what we wear, what we say, where we go, when we travel, who we speak to. This is, of course, even harder for women with intersecting marginalised identities who are forced to walk an even narrower tightrope. Solnit found that during this period of her life she would do all she could to minimise herself when in public, to not draw attention to herself because “to be was to be a target”. At the same time, she noted that minimal effort was invested in changing a culture that had grown to accept violence against women as an unfortunate but ultimately inescapable feature of its landscape.
In her chapters on physical appearance and women’s ontology, Solnit explores how women are pressured to be physically small and take up less space. When discussing the ways in which women are expected to respond to certain expectations of beauty, she writes that “a woman exists in a perpetual state of wrongness and the only way to triumph is to reject the terms by which this is so”. In an especially powerful line, Solnit articulates the impossible balance women are often expected to achieve by “being desirable to those we desired and being safe from those we did not”. When she would try to speak about these fears and the toll it was taking on her mental health, she found that her colleagues and even friends did not believe her or thought she was exaggerating, a response that many people without power experience when attempting to tell people about their experiences. Here we can discern clear links with the philosophical idea of “epistemic injustice”, first discussed by Black activists Sojourner Truth and Anna Julia Cooped and more recently theorised and made famous by the philosopher Miranda Fricker. Whether someone approaches your testimony with a default position of belief, rather than scepticism, is often a result of an uncontrollable feature of your identity rather than an objective assessment of the credibility of what you say. Solnit writes powerfully about the personal toll that comes from speaking out about experiences that are collectively dismissed. ***
The turning point for Solnit is when she decided seriously to pursue a career in writing. Through this experience, she came to learn that women were also non-existent in art. Not that there were no women, but that the existences of women were secondary and positioned in relation to men. They were “not the intended audience for so much art, including the stuff lauded as masterpieces and upheld as canonical”.
The power to tell stories became a way for Solnit to take up greater space and provide a platform for people whose stories were rarely heard. A frequent theme in her writing is that as a white woman she is afforded privileges that many do not receive. She writes about how her friendships with people in the queer community gave her a glimpse of the challenges they faced in protecting themselves from violence, whilst still navigating a natural desire to live an authentic existence. In her work with indigenous communities in Yosemite National Park, Solnit explored how some existences are completely erased from the historical narratives. She was fortunate to reach a position where she could use her skills as a writer to go some way to uncover and centre these stories. This critical self-reflection is necessary for Solnit’s analysis to be applicable beyond her own narrow experience as an educated white woman to show that non-existence manifests differently for all those who are not afforded the same power and space to live and speak freely.
Whilst readers not familiar with Solnit’s work may initially find her lyrical and poetic style challenging, her ability to interweave personal stories with pop culture, metaphor, literary references, facts and statistics is immensely satisfying and elucidates rather than obscures important ideas. Her writing can provide clarity to thoughts and ideas that are typically hard to capture. Her words can pinpoint a thought, feeling or experience with such accuracy that at times it triggers a sense of profound relief, as if a task you have been attempting for years has been successfully completed on your behalf. This makes her writing both beautiful and enraging because her effortlessness in describing injustices becomes hard to reconcile with the knowledge that many people still deny the reality she describes.
In the final chapter, Solnit critically reflects on one of her most famous quotes (from her essay “Men Explain Things to Me”): “credibility is a basic survival tool”. She now disagrees with the metaphor of credibility as a “tool” as this implies that a person has control over how it is used. Expanding on this, she concludes that “[t]here are three key things that matter in having a voice: audibility, credibility and consequence”, while noting that all three of these factors are in part determined by the response others have to you, which is rarely within the control of the speaker.
At this important historical moment in which white people are slowly beginning to recognise the injustice rooted in the systemic silencing and marginalisation of black voices, it is essential that those who do have power try harder to amplify voices and perspectives from people who have not historically been granted access to the same platforms. For philosophers, this will involve a critical engagement with our assumptions and theories, recognising that philosophy too has been shaped by the historical privileging of certain voices and perspectives.
Recollections of my Non-Existence is a book I intend to share with friends, and one I would recommend to people who want to understand how gender-based marginalisation affects a person’s life in intensely personal, political and philosophical ways. You will likely find it prompts some personal recollections of one’s own.
Lisa Whiting is a student at Birkbeck, University of London specialising in politics, policy and ethics. She is a government policy advisor on data ethics and is co-editing (with Rebecca Buxton) the highly anticipated collection The Philosopher Queens (published by Unbound in September). Twitter: @lisawhiting_