“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.
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.