On Audre Lorde’s Legacy and the “Self” of Self-Care, Part 2 of 3
[Image: from the Black Community Survival Conference, DeFremery (locally known as Lil’ Bobby Hutton) Park, Oakland, CA, March 29, 1972. I first encountered this image via Alondra Nelson’s brilliant book Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight Against Medical Discrimination.]
“If I were president, I would solve this so-called welfare crisis in a minute and go a long way toward liberating every woman. I’d just issue a proclamation that ‘women’s’ work is real work.”
- Johnnie Tillmon, “Welfare as a Women’s Issue.”
”The modern world hates to see black folks resting.”
- Lewis Gordon, “African American Philosophy, Race, and the Geography of Reason.”
This post is an experiment. It attempts to find a new route to the question of what it means to politicize Audre Lorde’s legacy. Its search is partly in response to what I described in part 1 as the tendency in some cases to deify Lorde by extracting her from the political context in which she lived, or by reducing her to a set of pithy (if brilliant) quotations, or by invoking her as an unqualified paragon of black women’s resilience. In attempting to route the conversation differently, my strategy is to try and glimpse Lorde through an archive that is not of her published writings but of a set of struggles and contexts that affirm dimensions of her humanity and her work that are too rarely emphasized—her struggles with health and wellness, her status as worker, her vulnerability to the very discourses that demand that she be seen as powerful. Doing this means following a route that may, to some, seem rather circuitous. I can only hope that by the end, those divergences will make some sense.
every episode of battlestar galactica is a way of backing away from the problem, moving around it, trapping it from a new angle. it’s gotten so i hardly know what the problem is anymore. the problem is five years old. the problem is because my thoughts were fuzzy then and are fuzzy now. the problem is i said it was only a dissertation chapter and i didn’t have to solve the problem. the problem is that in the next iteration i just deleted the problematic parts. five years ago i was also watching battlestar galactica to back away, move up, see it differently.
work on it more or chuck it and start again?
I must learn to like myself, Richard Lewer, 2006, acrylic on found school map, 1500mm x 1200mm.
“The ‘black armband’ view of our history reflects a belief that most Australian history since 1788 has been little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. I take a very different view. I believe that the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement and that we have achieved much more as a nation of which we can be proud than of which we should be ashamed.”
- John Howard, Prime Minister of Australia, 1996
“In Lewer’s artwork, the self-help industry’s banal dicta about body-image and self-esteem are rendered at once menacing and pathetic, scrawled in thick, black capital letters that bleed and drip across a classroom map of the wide brown land. Squeezed in around this massive geo-body, neighboring states crowd the horizons of the image, seeming both to mock and to confirm its worst suspicions.”
- Suvendrini Perera, Australia and the Insular Imagination
not at the mla
I’m here. I’m not at the MLA. In therapy I practice writing an email to my publisher asking for an extension. That was the great buried treasure of 2012, the failed experiment, to admit I wasn’t writing to people who matter. My therapist makes me do it over a few times, subtly reinforces bluntness — I didn’t make the deadline, here is when I can finish it — but not the guilt-addled excuses and padding, can I run the new title by you, I have some ideas for a better structure, IhavebeenworkingIhaveIhaveIpromise. But I have been working. Working on writing sexy notes, working on “having a life,” working on reproducing the terms of my continuing to work. Which takes a lot. The new President at the best-case scenario future hiring university is hiring a consulting group to write the university’s new strategic plan; they praise the University of Phoenix in their manifesto for higher education. Everything is shiny.
In 2012 I lost something: a delight in quoting things, in sharing what I was thinking, in reblogging favorite quotes I saw roll through my dashboard. If everyone else was discovering so-and-so, for example Federici, for example Fortunati, for example Bifo, it only reminded me that I had lost the compadres I discovered Federici with in times past and I was too weary to reconstitute that commons again. Those quotes felt like broken off pieces of myself inside other people that I didn’t recognize. I tried to find quotes to leave here. I marked pages in books like Cruel Optimism (which set the affective tone for my unhappy 2012, happily) but when I returned to them the words didn’t say what I remembered them saying.
I could, might, would try to reconstitute the commons. Not reconstitute: find elsewhere. Happen upon. Maybe the problem is academia itself, or my beef with academia. When I read love letters to grad school like this one I don’t feel interpellated. Pete Coviello makes extravagant claims about the experience of grad school: that at its best it’s collaborative, about “making a language together”:
you invent together a baroque terminology that carries within it your styles of apprehension, your delights and your disdains, the whole fabric of the scene that, by speaking this language back and forth over years and refining and reworking and reanimate it, you and those you love elaborate into being.
This is a vision of grad school as a commons. But graduate school isn’t a commons. My grad school experience was what I complained about in the commons of my other life, communists and ultra leftists reading the Grundrisse together, arguing about inclusion, recuperation, indigenous sovereignty, whether to go to anti-war marches or not, etc. Grad school was about professionalization. I found other exiles there, to be sure, and we bitched about grad school, bitched about professionalization. But we always knew that the institution didn’t intend for us to find each other. Graduate school for me was a means to an end, a way to get paid (poorly, but being already poor I didn’t know that) to write. 
Is it because I didn’t do coursework, just a dissertation a la the Australian system, so wasn’t as entrenched in a tight-knit cohort? No: reading groups — our independently initiated alternative to a cohort — were the most frustrating, the most explicitly to do with professionalization. One reading group was dominated by philosopher boykings who liked to school me for wanting to talk about borders or undocumented migrants in connection with Agamben: “What’s really interesting is the philosophical genealogy, what he draws from Heidegger.” (The philosopher boykings are now all highly successful academics, working on translations of what Agamben wrote on a napkin in a train station toilet in 1993.) I was pleased for them because they had missed the point: missed the point about the definition of the political, it was beyond them that our sitting in a well-lit room in a distinguished and genteel building debating the terms by which we could afford to think about some Italian dude was political, and it was not beyond me so I felt superior. They were practicing the professional skill of being jerks and so was I.
Since life is like high school as the poets said, and academia itself is just like grad school but more real, where are the boykings now? Everywhere. Close and closer. At conferences, in the ether. Tumblr itself functions like that august and distinguished room, Twitter too. And Facebook; but Facebook performances of intellect are deflated by the outspoken relatives and old school friends who comment at random on our carefully thought out short essays, witty repartee and destroy the “mood” or spark debates that are soon out of control — its populations are unpredictable and ecumenical. And there is a certain difference: that to “have politics”, to “have good politics” is also now (as it has always been) a form of capital, a coin to set into circulation and from which to reap returns. Our disciplines demand us to be activists as well, to be involved in social justice. Not too much, however, as the case of David Graeber at Yale is so instructive for remembering. Or not too much at the pre-tenure stage. Also there is an expectation that one will be getting one’s hands dirty in real time, about real things, somewhere. This new professional skill is about performance not imperceptibility, informal public intellectuality not Casaubon-like lonely hoarding and scraping and scratching, flexible distribution on every platform everywhere — and it helps if you are good at typing fast so you can tweet conference panels or tweetflirt with a panelist as an audience member, or something like that, something ineffable. Something involving digital humanities.
Marc Bousquet can call it all the things he does and we can quote him til we die, we can read the edu-factory anthology and send the pdf to each other for free forever. But we are still in it, still trying to keep reproducing our place at the table in (not the assembly line, not the factory) the laptop-ridden-gentrified-cafe of it. I always thought the key was to keep writing about or fighting for what you cared about and try not to engage with the rest, but that doesn’t get you anywhere. What to do? How to be? How to demolish its power?
 To be fair, the teachers and mentors I worked with in grad school taught me exactly that: to write, to structure ideas, to bring the reader along on the ride, and other professional skills such as to relax about missing deadlines a little but not too much.
 Some amazing work is happening in digital humanities and it’s exciting that at least some humanities field is experiencing an upswing. Yet soon DH will undergo critical mass — that is, it’s a commodity and a bandwagon and it will be upstaged eventually by something else new.
“Nearly all of the administrative responses to the degree holder can already be understood as responses to waste: flush it, ship it to the provinces, recycle it through another industry, keep it away from the fresh meat. Unorganized graduate employees and contingent faculty have a tendency to grasp their circumstance incompletely—that is, they feel ‘treated like shit’—without grasping the systemic reality that they are waste. Insofar as graduate employees feel treated like waste, they can maintain the fantasy that they really exist elsewhere, in some place other than the overwhelmingly excremental testimony of their experience. This fantasy becomes an alibi for inaction, because in this construction agency lies elsewhere, with the administrative touch on the flush-chain. The effect of people who feel treated like waste is an appeal to some other agent: please stop treating us this way—which is to say to that outside agent, ‘please recognize that we are not waste,’ even when that benevolent recognition is contrary to the testimony of our understanding. (And, of course, it is only good management to tell the exploited and superexploited, ‘Yes, I recognize your dignity. You are special.’) By contrast, the organized graduate student employee and contingent faculty share the grasp of the totality of the system that proceeds from the understanding that they are indeed the waste of the system. They know they are not merely treated like waste but, in fact, are the actual shit of the system—being churned inexorably toward the outside: not merely ‘disposable’ labor (Walzer) but labor that must be disposed of for the system to work. These are persons who can perform acts of blockage. Without dispelling the degree holder, the system could not be what it is. Imagine what would happen to ‘graduate programs preparing future faculty’ if they were held responsible for degree-granting by a requirement to continue the employment of every person to whom they granted a Ph.D. but who was unable to find academic employment elsewhere. In many locations, the pipeline would jam in the first year! The difference in consciousness between feeling treated like waste and knowing one’s excremental condition is the difference between experiencing casualization as ‘local disorder’ (that authority will soon rectify) and having the grasp of one’s potential for transforming the systemic realities of an actually existing new order. Where the degree-holding waste product understands its capacity for blockage and refuses to be expelled, the system organizing the inside must rapidly succumb.”
breaking silence to rant. i am coming around to a position which is entirely critical of american studies, the north american academy entirely, for its real and absolutely unapologetic ignorance of transnationality except as its relates to current or past U.S. colonies. i wish this was something i could see as my own projection (because i began to think it when i noticed that my work isn’t solicited for many conference panels/talks/books in a north american context, aside from the people who know me well). but it’s not. i had this relevatory conversation with a thai anthropologist on saturday night at whateverjeanne’s housewarming. “the US is a trap,” he said. “no-one is really interested in south east asia. they’re all just interested in themselves. we have to make sure we get out.” he’s so right, and it’s stupid. it explains how isolated i feel academically, constant fomo or anxiety about not working hard enough, networking hard enough. it’s been hard relocating here; it’s hard when i realize that almost all of my peers went to grad school together or were in act-up together in the mid 90s or went to x college together or something.
today i read lies journal on the train and thought about the heteronormativity of “against the couple form” and how feminist materialist communism is also a train of thought i am thinking, thinking up against, thinking alongside. and i missed the women and performance dinner because e. was sick and various other catastrophes, and have been so busy catching up with work that i didn’t un-rsvp. life: making me look like a flake since 1975.
Today I found out my cat has cancer. I don’t think much else is really going to happen in my brain for a while. Among the phrases used were “quality of life” and “your call” — he’s still eating but once he stops eating, that is apparently the time to make decisions. I feel unequipped to decide. Or even to engage in the whole capitalist biometrics of “quality”, like the sucker on the internet who assigned his cat’s life a number between one and eight each day, because “ten would be a cancer-free day”, and then when it fell to 3 or 2, kept putting off the call, because he “just wasn’t ready.”
Once upon a sophomore year, in 2008
I tend to have little respect for traditional unions — in a number of political actions I’ve been involved with, they’ve tended to be a conservative, protectionist, nationalist tendency. So I always feel somewhat ambivalent about Labor Day: MayDay is my favorite workers’ holiday. (And for once I am totally NOT WORKING this Labor Day, by choice.) Nevertheless, this post by suzy-x really nails why Labor Day is important, and why it’s important to expand the idea of what unionizing means, especially in the university industrial complex. Yes indeed, bosses need us more than we need them. We should always be able to negotiate the terms under which we work.
So today I’m thinking of the solidarity offered me by compadres in the academy between 1994 and now: people who gave me their notes when I was having emotional breakdowns and missed class in the first years of college; the student financial aid officer who helped me fake proof that my parents’ divorce had estranged them from me and left me with no financial support, in order to keep me on government student assistance until I finished my degree; friends who went after the creative writing professor who sexually harassed all of us and traded A’s for lays for real, and got him fired; fellow student activists who occupied our administration building to resist the destruction of student unionism in Australia; the queer students I was with in 2000 when we all got beat up by the cops at the World Economic Forum; grad students who helped me and each other through the weird unwritten rules of grad school; fellow candidates for academic jobs with whom it would be easy to be in competition yet who help each other; all kinds of networks of people who work against the industrialization of the academy and who try to maintain a space of refuge in the academy by stealing time and resources and solidarity back.
Today is also a good time to renew a vow I made some time ago — if I ever make it as a tenured professor, to actively fight the exploitation of students (especially grad students) and idiotic feudal graduate student hierarchy, and not to ever, ever personally exploit students.
My job and housing (as an RA) were threatened to be taken away, for being at the student occupation. I joined a caucus of low-income students who were trying to protect resources that we especially depended on— like our library, grants and scholarships that were being cut, etc. I argued that it was within my rights as a student, as both a worker and consumer, to dissent. I didn’t get fired, but my actions were closely monitored afterward.
At this point in time, my RA job guaranteed me housing and a $400 stipend twice a semester, but because of this, my financial aid was cut by a few thousand dollars. I was also a work-study student and I made only $80 a week. I was only allowed to work 10 hours a week at my work-study job, and my boss at the dorm told me this was the only job I was allowed to work besides being an RA. She lied. I ate cereal for breakfast, lunch and dinner; I had no insurance and chronic sinus infections (through which I had to work); I had no cell phone and often had to walk 40 minutes to school when I couldn’t afford public transit. Sometimes, my employers would sign my timesheets late and I wouldn’t get paid for a month— and they’d refuse to give me off-cycle payments. My residents were vandalizing the halls (and my door) with obscenities, and I had to spend many a night cleaning them myself. I decided to start talking to the security guards about starting a union. They’d done it— could student workers do it, too?
I moved dorms and got a new boss, who was equally as manipulative as the last. When she heard I was part of the occupation, and when she heard I had been asking around about unions, she brought me into her office and gave me the same talk the last boss did. “You have ‘free’ housing,” she said. “You don’t need to unionize.” “Actually,” I told her, “I work for this housing, and I work here because I can’t afford to live here otherwise. But I still need 2 other jobs to get by. My residents are drug addicts who don’t let me sleep. I keep getting sick and I have no insurance. My grades could be better if I worked less, or got more for the hours I worked.”
Two of the higher-ups in student housing subsequently sent me multiple friend requests on facebook, and not because they were my friends. They threatened to fire me after coming 15 minutes late to a meeting on my birthday. I’d report multiple cases of sexual harassment from residents on my floors, only to be ignored. I was interrogated again when I called out student housing for ignoring rape. My work environment was hostile; any other student worker that had publicly supported me was monitored too In one case, one was fired for coming home with wine breath after attending an off-campus art show. The cherry on top was when a fellow student worker won a cash prize for campus activism— after snitching on us for considering a union.
The university-industrial-complex cannot be sustained without the labor (and the money) of students. Not without the adjunct professors, exploited for their intellectual labor. Not the interns or the office mules, whose minimum-wage-or-less admin experience can no longer benefit them in their post-grad job searches. After my experience at New School, I decided that I would never give my time nor my money to a university again.
Labor Day is so important to me, because it reminds me that no matter what, we should always be able to negotiate the terms under which we work. You may have to sacrifice a lot to practice that right. But bosses need us more than we need them. Their dreams are realized on the backs of their workers. Never forget that.
strange trans guy patterns, names edition
- simon radish
- aiden jay
a dear friend hears those names — ayden, jay, simon, hunter, micah, etc etc etc etc — and is like, “they should take that one out of the hat.” “take that one of the hat” is now a shorthand of sorts for all kinds of other transmasculine predictability.
whiteness, whiteness, everywhere
Sara Ahmed nails it about whiteness, concepts of whiteness being everywhere, and the consequent anxiety of white anti-racists to be “nowhere”, as if that is possible. In the process she makes an aside about the way that being “critical” works in the academy and elsewhere as a masure of value (which is clearly open to recuperation).
I felt my desire to be critical as the site of anxiety when I was involved in writing a race equality policy for the university at which I work in the UK, where I tried to bring what I thought was a fairly critical language of anti-racism into a neo-liberal technique of governance, which we can inadequately describe as diversity management, or the ‘business case’ for diversity. All public organisations in the UK are now required by law to have and implement a race equality policy and action plan, as a result of the Race Relations Amendment Act (2000). My current research is tracking the significance of this policy, in terms of the relationship between the documentation it has generated and social action. Suffice to say here, my own experience of writing a race equality policy, taught me a good lesson, which of course means a hard lesson: the language we think of as critical can easily ‘lend itself’ to the very techniques of governance we critique. So we wrote the document, and the university, along with many others, was praised for its policy, and the Vice-Chancellor was able to congratulate the university on its performance: we did well. A document that documented the racism of the university became usable as a measure of good performance.
This story is not simply about assimilation or the risks of the critical being co-opted, which would be a way of framing the story that assumes ‘we’ were innocent and critical until we got misused (in other words, this would maintain the illusion of our own criticalness). Rather, it reminds us that the transformation of ‘the critical’ into a property, as something we have or do, allows ‘the critical’ to become a performance indicator, or a measure of value. The ‘critical’ in ‘critical whiteness studies’ cannot guarantee that it will have effects that are critical, in the sense of challenging relations of power that remain concealed as institutional norms or givens. Indeed, if the critical was used to describe the field, then we would become complicit with the transformation of education into an audit culture, into a culture that measures value through performance.
No Way Home: Immigration, Ideology and Agency in the film Which Way Home
The rest of the film, while not quite so heavy handed, never lets us forget that we are watching first and foremost children. They wrestle playfully, giggle, avoid difficult questions, or alternatively present an arrogant self-assurance. The camera’s unwavering gaze cuts through these pretensions, hollow as they are; and all-too-often their confident smiles rapidly evaporate into sudden distress. The result is such that, despite these children’s very real bravery, the viewer cannot help but see a kind of raw helplessness which begs for assistance—from shelters, the state, and most importantly, the audience. For it is we, the viewers, who are finally implicated when this deployment of liberal humanism folds in upon itself; our agency is the solution to the children’s vulnerability, and their agency is tacitly negated.
Underneath the film, we hear the familiar drone of praxis, informing us that the denial of agency to historically powerless groups is nothing new. One might even perceive it to be the ideological maneuverpar excellence: the preclusion of a group’s conception of its own active subjectivity, usually resulting in docility, resignation, apathy on the part of those denied, and a particular incitement to action and responsibility on that of the denier. To see this maneuver in practice we have to look no further than the “animal instincts” and “undeveloped faculties” attributed, still occasionally today, to waged workers, women, and people of color; the denial of a rationality which prevents their conscious participation in the course of history. Ideology thus critiques itself, achieving a false self-consciousness—a process complimentary to, and increasingly inseparable from, the material production of society.
The discovery of disempowered subjects is, tellingly, no longer particularly groundbreaking.
If I wanted to quote this in a published piece (because I’ve been writing about documentaries using a similar critique), how would I go about attributing authorship? Also, I want to quote you!