“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
This is a revolutionary, extraordinary sentence. It is a much loved, much cited sentence. It is an arrow, which acquires its sharpness from its own direction. It is from the epilogue to Audre Lorde’s A Burst of Light, a piece of writing so profound, so moving, that it never fails to teach me, often by leaving me undone, beside myself. This writing is made up of fragments or notes put together as Audre Lorde learns that she has liver cancer, that her death could only be arrested; as she comes to feel that diagnosis in her bones. The expression “a burst of light” is used for when she came to feel the fragility of her body’s situation: “that inescapable knowledge, in the bone, of my own physical limitation.”
A Burst of Light is an account of how the struggle for survival is a life struggle and a political struggle. Some of us, Audre Lorde notes were never meant to survive. To have some body, to be a member of some group, to be some, can be a death sentence. When you are not supposed to live, as you are, where you are, with whom you are with, then survival is a radical action; a refusal not to exist until the very end; a refusal not to exist until you do not exist. We have to work out how to survive in a system that decides life for some requires the death or removal of others. Sometimes: to survive in a system is to survive a system. We can be inventive, we have to be inventive, Audre Lorde suggests, to survive.
Some of us.
Others: not so much.
When a whole world is organised to promote your survival, from health to education, from the walls designed to keep your residence safe, from the paths that ease your travel, you do not have become so inventive to survive. You do not have to be seen as the recipient of welfare because the world has promoted your welfare. The benefits you receive are given as entitlements, perhaps even as birth rights. Racial capitalism is a health system: a drastically unequal distribution of bodily vulnerabilities. Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes racism thus: “the state-sanctioned or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” (2007: 28) Being poor, being black, puts your life at risk. Your heath is compromised when you do not have the external resources to support a life in all of its contingencies. And then of course, you are deemed responsible for your own ill-heath, for your own failure to look after yourself better. When you refer to structures, to systems, to power relations, to walls, you are assumed to be making others responsible for the situation you have failed to get yourself out of. “You should have tried harder.” Oh, the violence and the smugness of this sentence, this sentencing.
We are used to these logics; we are so used to them that we have names for them (neo-liberalism, post-racialism among others) and we have to keep hearing them.
Throughout A Burst of Light Audre Lorde compares her experience of battling with cancer (and she is willing to use this militaristic language, she is willing to describe this situation as war) to her experience of battling against anti-black racism. The comparison is effective, showing us how racism can be an attack on the cells of the body, an attack on the body’s immune system; the way in which your own body experiences itself as killing itself, death from the outside in. A world against you can be experienced as your body turning against you. You might be worn down, worn out, by what you are required to take in.
To care for oneself: how to live for, to be for, one’s body when you are under attack.
Let’s return to our quote. Lorde says self-care is not self-indulgence but self-preservation. Some have to look after themselves because their are not looked after: their being is not cared for, supported, protected. I have in my own work been thinking of social privilege as a support system: compulsory heterosexuality, for instance, is an elaborate support system. It is how some relationships are nurtured and valued, becoming a means of organising not just one’s own time, but a way of sharing time and significance: how a we has something; how a we loses something. How you lose as well as what you lose can even become a confirmation of the worth of what you had.
I think of one of the saddest scenes I have seen is from the first of the three films that make up If these Walls Could Talk 2. We start with the quiet intimacy of two women, Abbie and Edith, lovers, lesbians, life-long partners. Abbie falls. Things happen; shit happens. And then we are in the hospital waiting room. Edith is waiting. Another woman arrives, upset, and says: “they just took my husband in, he had a heart attack.” Edith comforts her. The comfort is not returned: when Edith explains why she is there – “my friend fell off a tree, we think she had a stroke” – the woman asks “is your husband still alive?” When Edith replies, “I never had a husband”, the woman says, “That’s lucky, because you won’t have the heart break of losing one.” This is how heterosexuality can work as a support system, how some broken hearts matter; how some do not. When a relationship is not recognised you are left alone with your grief. No wonder so many of our histories are broken, fragile histories.
Privilege is a buffer zone, how much you have to fall back on when you lose something. Privilege does not mean we are invulnerable: things happen, shit happens. Privilege can however reduce the costs of vulnerability, so if things break down, if you break down, you are more likely to be looked after. When support is a question of access you have a support system.
I think in this statement that self-care is not self-indulgence we can hear a defence; Audre Lorde is defending self-care. What from? From who? From, one might suspect, the dismissal of self-care as an indulgence. Self-indulgence tends to mean: being soft on one’s self, but also can mean “”yielding to one’s inclinations.”
Now recently I have heard much feminist work be dismissed (this is my feminist killjoy blog, and I have no intention or wish to cite these dismissals, you will just have to take my words for it) on these sort of terms. Feminism: being too soft, too safe, too focused on individual suffering. I have heard feminism be dismissed as a form of self-indulgence.
I want to suggest something before I am ready to firm up a strong argument. This is a hunch, if you like: some critiques of neoliberalism have allowed a dismissal of feminism in these kind of terms.
Of course, feminists have offered some of the sharpest and strongest critiques of neoliberal rationalities. And we have also had some very important feminist critiques of feminist neoliberalism. For example, Catherine Rottenburg persuasively shows how some feminist subjects (the one we might see in a book like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in) is “simultaneously neoliberal, not only because she disavows the social, cultural and economic forces producing this inequality, but also because she accepts full responsibility for her own well-being and self-care, which is increasingly predicated on crafting a felicitous work–family balance based on a cost-benefit calculus” (2013: 1). Neoliberal feminists do identify as feminists (Sandberg’s first chapter is entitled “internalising the revolution”) but in such a way that feminism is repackaged as being about upward mobility for some women, those who accept responsibilities for their “own well-being and self-care,” a way some women thus distance themselves from others. I have no doubt that we need to engage in critiques of such forms of neoliberalism and accept that feminism can become co-opted as a white woman’s upward mobility fantasy.
Feminism in neoliberal hands becomes just another form of career progression: a way of moving “up,” not by not recognising ceilings (and walls) but by assuming these ceilings (and walls) can disappear through individual persistence. And race equality also has neoliberal modes: say in the film Bend it like Beckham
, when Jess moves “up” by putting the experience of racism behind her, as if you will not be affected by racism when you are good enough (for further discussion see here
And note: this rhetoric is similar to that used by anti-feminists and racists: those who say we talk about sexism and racism as a way of not being responsible for the places we do not go; those who say our investment in these very terms is how we excluded ourselves by insisting on being excluded; those who say we should just “get on with it” rather than “going on about it.”
When race and gender equality become neoliberal techniques they can become techniques for concealing inequalities.
Audre Lorde, who is with us today through the words she left for us, gave us a strong critique of neo-liberalism, even if she did not use that term. Her work is full of insight into how structural inequalities are deflected by being made the responsibility of individuals (who in being given the capacity to overcome structures are assumed to fail when they do not overcome them). Her work explores how self-care can become a technique of governance: the duty to care for one’s self often written as a duty to care for one’s own happiness, flourishing, well-being.
Indeed, in The Cancer Journals, Audre Lorde offers a powerful critique of how happiness becomes a narrative of self-care. Faced with medical discourse that attributes cancer to unhappiness and survival or coping to being happy or optimistic she suggests: “looking on the bright side of things is a euphemism used for obscuring certain realities of life, the open consideration of which might prove threatening to the status quo” (1997: 76). To obscure or to take cover by looking on the bright side is to avoid what might threaten the world as it is. Lorde moves from this observation to a wider critique of happiness as an obscurant: “Let us seek ‘joy’ rather than real food and clean air and a saner future on a liveable earth! As if happiness alone can protect is from the results of profit-madness” (76). Lorde suggests that the very idea that our first responsibility is for our own happiness must be resisted by political struggle, which means resisting the idea that our own resistance is a failure to be responsible for happiness: “Was I really fighting the spread of radiation, racism, woman-slaughter, chemical invasion and our food, pollution of our environment, and the abuse and psychic destruction of your young, merely to avoid dealing with my first and greatest responsibility to be happy?” (76). I think Audre Lorde has given us the answer to her question. And she offers us another answer in her question: to assume your primary responsible is to your own happiness might be how you end up not fighting against injustice.
We have something to work out here.
Audre Lorde writes persuasively about how self-care can become an obscurant, how caring for oneself can lead you away from engaging in certain kinds of political struggle. And yet, in A Burst of Light, she defends self-care as not about self-indulgence, but self-preservation. Self-care becomes warfare. This kind of self-care is not about one’s own happiness. It is about finding ways to exist in a world that is diminishing.
Already: we have been given some tools to sharpen our understanding of how neo-liberalism can be used as a tool. There are differences that matter, differences that matter relating to differences of power.
Neoliberalism sweeps up too much when all forms of self-care become symptoms of neo-liberalism. When feminist, queer and anti-racist work that involves sharing our feelings, our hurt and grief, recognising that power gets right to the bone, is called neo-liberalism, we have to hear what is not being heard. When feminism involves recognising the suffering of say, an individual woman of colour at the hands of a sexist, heterosexist, and racist system that is indifferent to the suffering it causes and that is called neoliberalism, you would be repeating rather than challenging this structural indifference. And you also negate other “other histories” that are at stake in her struggle for her suffering to matter. Those who do not have to struggle for their own survival can very easily and rather quickly dismiss those who have to struggle for survival as “indulging themselves.” As feminism teaches us: talking about personal feelings is not necessarily about deflecting attention from structures. If anything, I would argue the opposite: not addressing certain histories that hurt, histories that get to the bone, how we are affected by what we come up against, is one way of deflecting attention from structures (as if our concern with our own pain or suffering is what stops certain things from just “going away”). Not the only way, but one way.
If you have got a model that says an individual woman who is trying to survive an experience of rape by focusing on her own wellbeing and safety, by trying to work out ways she can keep on going or ways she can participate in something without having to experience more trauma (by asking for trigger warnings in a classroom, for instance) is participating in the same politics as a woman who is concerned with getting up “the ladder” in a company then I think there is something wrong with your model.
Sometimes, “coping with” or “getting by” or “making do” might appear as a way of not attending to structural inequalities, as benefiting from a system by adapting to it, even if you are not privileged by that system, even if you are damaged by that system. Perhaps we need to ask: who has enough resources not to have to become resourceful? When you have less resources you might have to become more resourceful. Of course: the requirement to become more resourceful is part of the the injustice of a system that distributes resources unequally. Of course: becoming resourceful is not system changing even if it can be life changing (although maybe, just maybe, a collective refusal not to not exist can be system changing). But to assume people’s ordinary ways of coping with injustices implies some sort of failure on their part – or even an identification with the system – is another injustice they have to cope with. The more resources you have the easier it is to make such a critique of those whose response to injustice is to become more resourceful. You might not be trying to move up, to project yourself forward; you might simply be trying not to be brought down. Heavy, heavy histories. Wearing, worn down.
Even if it’s system change we need, that we fight for, when the system does not change, when the walls come up, those hardenings of history into physical barriers in the present, you have to manage; to cope. Your choices are compromised when a world is compromised.
It is not surprising: some recent anti-feminist, anti-queer and anti-intersectionality (intersectionality as code for people of colour) statements from the “white male left” rest on charging us with being individualistic, as indulging ourselves, as being concerned with ourselves and our own damaged “identities.” I wonder if Audre Lorde might have had to insist that self-care was not self-indulgence because she had heard this charge. I wonder.
I have read recently some critiques of feminists for calling out individuals for sexism and racism because those critiques neglect (we neglect) structures. Really? Or is that when we talk about sexism and racism you hear us as talking about individuals? Are you suddenly concerned with structures because you do not want to hear how you as an individual might be implicated in the power relations we critique? I noted in my book, On Being Included (2012) how there can be a certain safety in terms like “institutional racism” in a context where individuals have disidentified from institutions they can see themselves as not “in it” at all.
And how interesting: the individual disappears at the very moment he is called to account. He will probably reappear as the saviour of the left. You can hear, no doubt, my tiredness and cynicism. I do not apologise for it. I am tired of it.
Some of the glib dismissals of “call out culture” make my blood boil. I say glib because they imply it is easy to call people out, or even that it has become a new social norm. I know, for instance, how hard it is to get sexual harassment taken seriously. Individuals get away with it all the time. They get away with it because of the system. It is normalised and understood as the way things are. Individual women have to speak out, and testify over and over again; and still there is a system in place, a system that is working, that stops women from being heard. In a case when a woman is harassed by an individual man, she has to work hard to call him out. She often has to keep saying it because he keeps doing it. Calling out an individual matters, even when the system is also what is bruising: the violence directed against you by somebody is a violence that leaves a trace upon you whether that trace is visible or not. And: there is a system which creates him, supports him, and gives him a sense that he has a right to do what he does. To challenge him is to challenge a system.
I read one anti-feminist article that implied feminists are being individualistic, when they call out individual men, because that calling out is what stops us working more collectively for radical transformation. Collectivity: can work for some individuals as a means for disguising their own interest as collective interest. When collectivity requires you to bracket your experience of oppression it is not a collectivity worth fighting for. And I have watched this happen with feminist despair: when women speak out about sexual harassment and sexual violence they are heard as compromising the whole thing: a project, a centre, a revolution. And the individuals they speak of are then presented as the ones who have to suffer the consequences of feminist complaint, the one’s whose damage is generalised (if “he” is damaged “we” are damaged). When her testimony is heard as damaging the possibility of revolting against a system, a system is reproduced.
I will say it again: the individual seems to disappear at the moment he is called to account. We are the ones who then appear as individuals, who are assumed to be acting as individuals or even as being individualistic, while he disappears into a collective.
From my study of will and willfulness, I learnt how those who challenge power are often judged as promoting themselves, as putting themselves first, as self-promotional. And maybe: the judgment does find us somewhere. We might have to promote ourselves when we are not promoted by virtue of our membership of a group. We might have to become assertive just to appear. For others, you appear and you are attended to right away. A world is waiting for you to appear. The one who can quickly disappear when called to account can then quickly re-appear when on the receiving end of an action that is welcomed or desired.
I think of these differences as how we become assembled over and by tables. Two women seated together at a table, let’s say. Sometimes you might have to wave your arm, your willful arm, just to be noticed. Without a man at the table you tend not to appear. For others, to be seated is not only to be seen, but to be seen to. You can take up a place at the table when you have already been given a place.
You do not have to become self-willed if your will is accomplished by the general will. This is why the general dismissal of feminism as identity politics (and there is a history to how identity politics becomes a dismissal) needs to be treated as a form of conservatism: it is an attempt to conserve power by assuming those who challenge power are just concerned with or about themselves.
An individual is one who is not dividable into parts. In Willful Subjects (2014), I tied the history of the individual as the one who does not have to divide himself to a patriarchal, colonial and capitalist history. He can be an individual, not divided into parts, because others become his parts: they become his arms, his feet, his hands, limbs that are intended to give support to his body. When a secretary becomes his right hand, his right hand is freed. Your labour as support for his freedom. This is how the question of support returns us to bodies, to how bodies are supported. Willful parts are those who are unwilling to provide this support. So how quickly those who resist their subordination are judged as being individualistic as well as willful. In refusing to support him, by becoming his parts, we have become self-willed; in refusing to care for him, we are judged as caring for ourselves, where this “for” is assumed as only and lonely.
Self-care: that can be an act of political warfare. In directing our care towards ourselves we are redirecting care away from its proper objects, we are not caring for those we are supposed to care for; we are not caring for the bodies deemed worth caring about. And that is why in queer, feminist and anti-racist work self-care is about the creation of community, fragile communities
, assembled out of the experiences of being shattered. We reassemble ourselves through the ordinary, everyday and often painstaking work of looking after ourselves; looking after each other. This is why when we have to insist, I matter, we matter, we are transforming what matters. Women’s lives matter; black lives matter; queer lives matter; disabled lives matter; trans lives matter; the poor; the elderly; the incarcerated, matter.
For those who have to insist they matter to matter:
selfcare is warfare.
Thank you Audre Lorde for your survival.
Lorde, Audre (1988). A Burst of Light, Essays. London; Sheba Feminist Publishers.
—————– (1997). The Cancer Journals. Aunt Lute Books: San Francisco.
Gilmore, Ruth Wilson (2007). Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. University of California Press.