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There are many kinds of power, used and unused, acknowledged or otherwise. The erotic is a resource within each of us that lies in a deeply female and spiritual plane, firmly rooted in the power of our unexpressed or unrecognized feeling. In order to perpetuate itself, every oppression must corrupt or distort those various sources of power within the culture of the oppressed that can provide energy for change. –Audre Lorde, from “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”
In this, the age of late capital and neoliberalism, distantness (a type of masculinist model of being/expression) is desired and the erotic is feared. Audre Lorde aptly deemed this the “fear of feeling” in her now classic essay, “Uses of The Erotic: The Erotic as Power,” which Lorde originally delivered as a speech at the Fourth Berkshire Conference on the History of Women at Mount Holyoke College in 1978.
In “Uses of the Erotic,” Lorde speaks of a future in which even the “good” is commodified—a future organized around “male models of power” where the doing of “the good” is trivialized and emptied of deep feeling, sensation, connection to our innermost senses of power, communal experiences of shared emotion, and the senses of higher purpose that often catalyze the doing of the good. Lorde cautions, “The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need—the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value.” The “system,” in Lorde’s estimation, is guilty of having perpetuated a type of spiritual embezzlement that robs us (and, by extension, our “work”) of affect, spirit, freedom, and the erotic. And why would there be a need to extinguish affect, spirit, and the erotic except the need to disrupt those movements that move us toward each other?
Black lesbian poet scholar, Cheryl Clarke, noted in her well-cited essay, “Lesbianism as an Act of Resistance,” which was published three years after “Uses of the Erotic,” that lesbianism is shunned because of “the potential of mutuality” present within woman-woman relationships.[i] Similarly, Michel Foucault, in his classic text, “Friendship as a Way of Life,” which was published in a Gai Pied in 1981, considers the notion of companionship and alliance among homosexual men in an age that demonstrates its antagonism towards concord and friendship.[ii] Both Clarke and Foucalt, like Lorde, offered their critical insights on an impending moment when the (queer) erotic and friendship would be evinced as antithetical forces in a male-dominated, heteronormative, and patriarchal system that desires conformity as opposed to radical ways of being, competition and not relationship-building. Lorde, Foucault, and Clarke—all queers—imagined the radical potential inherent within non-heterosexual relationships under a system of capitalism that relies on the heteropatriarchal familial structure for the purposes of increased production. All were writing within the West in the late 70’s and early 80’s at the rise of the Reagan and Thatcher era—at the rise of what some date as the beginning proliferation of neoliberal political economic thought and policies.[iii]
Scholar Robert McChesney defines neoliberalism as “the defining political economic paradigm of our time – it refers to the policies and processes whereby a relative handful of private interests are permitted to control as much as possible of social life in order to maximize their personal profit.” Though the definitions of neoliberalism are as varied as the ways one might name its manifestations, I want to illuminate a type of neoliberal ideology that organizes not only political and economic life, but social life. In this regard, McChesney notes the following:
…democracy requires that people feel a connection to their fellow citizens, and that this connection manifests itself though a variety of nonmarket organizations and institutions. A vibrant political culture needs community groups, libraries, public schools, neighborhood organizations, cooperatives, public meeting places, voluntary associations, and trade unions to provide ways for citizens to meet, communicate, and interact with their fellow citizens. Neoliberal democracy, with its notion of the market uber alles, takes dead aim at this sector. Instead of citizens, it produces consumers. Instead of communities, it produces shopping malls. The net result is an atomized society of disengaged individuals who feel demoralized and socially powerless.[iv]
Neoliberalism is a theater of disengagement and we, citizens in this neoliberal age, might easily be rendered its disillusioned performers. This might very well be the case among those of us who fancy ourselves “social justice workers;” those of us who seek to do the work of human rights; those of us who desire to transform our communities; those of us who might too easily forget the deep reservoir of feeling located within ourselves: that which connects us to others…that which moves us toward the good…that which moves us toward the doing of the good.
For example, it is estimated that nearly 3000-4000 bodies were in attendance at SlutWalkNYC. At the onset of the Occupy Wall Street resistance it was reported that 5,000 bodies were on hand to commence the “occupation.” There was a global outcry in the name of justice after Trayvon Martin was shot dead. I can vividly recall the hordes of people who stopped traffic at an Amnesty International sponsored vigil for justice on behalf of Troy Davis held at Union Square around the same time. But, in the midst of our protests, the doing of the good, how many stopped to discuss the particularities of another’s life or the similarities and dissimilarities that make us diverse persons even while we might all experience ourselves as the marginalized? How might we develop relationships beyond the safety of avatars that tend to invisibilize our differences? Where is the space for relationality, affective connection, and the erotic in our “work” and movements at present?
When we engage others, we are forced to do the type of self-engagement that dislodges the prejudices, ignorances, and violations that many of us are embattled by—even among comrades. When we engage others, community and soul-building transpires, but such erotic, spiritual, work requires us to “see” the other not just as an object in the struggle for justice, but as beings with subjectivities. When we engage the other, we resist neoliberalism’s resistance to our human and spiritual connection. For it is deep within the interstices of intimate and affective connection where our power lies. And when we remember to tap into that erotic power—the place where love, empathy, and pleasure reside—we not only animate our human/spiritual beingness but we also resist the commodification of our bodies, our relationships, our struggles and our labor.
Lorde’s words, which were as prophetic and timely now as they were in 1978, beckons us to consider the uses of the erotic in these times: temporal moments when intimate connection between friend and stranger is seemingly obstructed by a type of capitalist individualism that refuses community. So, we must ask: what are the uses of the erotic as well as love, empathy, and pleasure in the lives and work of those who seek to advance human rights and social justice in age when even “rights” and “justice” are co-opted and commodified terms/ideas? More importantly how can we do our “work” in such a way that it might make a positive impact in times that seemingly conjure hostility, disconnection, and apathy, and not love, empathy, pleasure? How can we harness the erotic such that we move toward Lorde’s notion of “deep participation,” free from the “abuse of feeling,” with one another—especially as it relates to connecting to those who are differently raced, gendered, classed, and abled in a world organized around hierarchies and power differentials? How might we do our “work” without destroying each other, ourselves, and our shared world in the process?
We cannot resist the “yes” that exists deep within ourselves: the yes to connection and relationship; the yes to safety and reciprocity; the yes to justice and accountability. When we say no to connection, to eros, we might easily miss THE movement, that is, the movement that moves us toward each other. In addition, the lack of empathy, a sign of care, certainly, fortifies the ego and frustrates our ability to regard the other. And, that is why the erotic is necessary in the lives and work of those who seek to transform our world. It is a posture of joining in a market-driven time that seeks to re-route our affective energies towards everything but the other, unless, of course, various capitals are to be gained by doing so. And if we are to remake a world and re-create systems, then we must engage transformative work free from the energies of misdirected rage, melancholy, and disdain that tend to characterize our present moment. If we are to remake ourselves, than we will necessarily need to see the self as essential part of a more expansive set of parts, a self that exists in community.
Author’s note: This essay was originally presented as part of a talk given at The Kennedy School, Harvard University as part of the Audre Lorde Human Rights Lecture Series on November 7, 2012. A few sections of this essay were then published as part of an essay titled, “On Love, Empathy, and Pleasure in the Age of Neoliberalism,” on The Feminist Wire on July 9, 2013.
[i] Cheryl Clarke, “Lesbianism: An Act of Resistance” in The Days of Good Looks: The Prose and Poetry of Cheryl Clarke, 1980 to 2005.
[ii] Michel Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life,” appeared in Gai Pied in 1981.
[iii] Robert McChesney in Monthly Review Volume 50, Number 11 (April 1999)
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