difference

I have writing due, writing late, writing delayed, writing suspended, writing-in-waiting, writing-to-be-imagined, but I have been stuck because of this thing I am now writing that won’t allow me to write anything else first. It started as a distraction and then became an impediment: the sentences I needed elsewhere kept coming up against  these sentences, these ones unfolding, and the feeling that subtends them kept overwhelming the other kinds of feelings I had, and so sentences ran away, refused to come, played hide and seek, kept tripping over each other—sentences are always running away from any and every home-ing—and I could not continue without pausing at this byside, wayside. Distraction is always trying to teach me something.

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Many years ago, Sandra Soto introduced me to the “footnote” position women of color occupied within what was then known as “high theory.” If you’ve read “high theory,” you will recognize the footnote that lists “minority scholars” or “women of color” or “black women” as those offering “alternative views.” One footnote. Duty done. Because engaging the work of minority scholars or women of color or black women would “take away” from the work that needs to be done. Or, “that is not my area of expertise.”

Here, for instance, is one of those infamous footnotes:

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Audre Lorde, as always:

And where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives. That we not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own. For instance, “I can’t possible teach Black women’s writing — their experience is so different from mine.” Yet how many years have you spent teaching Plato and Shakespeare and Proust? (“Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”)

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A few years ago, I was re-reading Eve Sedgwick’s Epistemology of the Closet, and this time I was struck by the clarity and importance of her first axiom: “People are different from each other.”

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I have been thinking about what it means to take seriously the different attachments we have to each other, to different objects, to different experiences, to different histories, and to consider what it might mean to think that others experience the same intensities and non-intensities of attachment that we have to our own attachments. I learned to think this way from Toni Morrison. In Playing in the Dark, Morrison notes that Willa Cather fails to consider that a black mother would have the same attachment to her daughter as a white mother would to her daughter. In Cather’s (white supremacist) universe, an enslaved black woman would be more attached to her enslaving white family than she would be to her own child. Morrison teaches me that this failure is ideological and aesthetic.

(Yes, I take Hortense Spillers’s important point about the effect of enslavement on affective bonds: a range of affective bonds developed between kinfolk under enslavement, ranging from indifference and disgust to love-as-infanticide to love-as-nurture to love-as-marronage to love-as-escape to promiscuity-as-escape to promiscuity-as-marronage to promiscuity-as-survival)

Perhaps two kinds of attachment are at stake here: my attachment to Lorde and my reading of difference through and as attachment, not “people are,” but “people have,” though it might be “people are because people have.” Perhaps this is word play. I don’t have the brainspace to pursue this right now. Distraction is at work.

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People are different from each other: to co-pursue freedom, to co-practice freedom, requires constant attention to different forms of attachment.

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People are different from each other.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, Audre Lorde was the foremost thinker on difference.

Lorde appears nowhere in Sedgwick’s thinking about difference. Instead, Sedgwick writes, “It is astonishing how few respectable conceptual tools we have for thinking about this self-evident fact” (22, my emphasis). And continues, “every single theoretically or politically interesting project of postwar thought has finally had the effect of delegitimizing our space for asking or thinking in detail about the multiple, unstable ways in which people may be like or different from each other” (23).

A collective is imagined and gathered in these comments, a “we” and “our,” who use, and perhaps need, respectable conceptual tools, a “we” and “our” looking for theoretically or politically interesting projects. A “we” and “our” uninterested in, perhaps dismayed by, the ratchet—opposite of respectable—conceptual tools. Sedgwick does not use the term “ratchet.” She writes, “A tiny number of inconceivable coarse categorizations have been painstakingly inscribed in current critical and political thoughts: gender, race, class, nationality, sexual orientation are  pretty much the available distinctions” (22). “Coarse” signals in many ways: first, Sedgwick writes elegantly. She is one of the finest stylists, not only in queer studies, but in all critical theory. Second, I never experience her work as “sterile word play.” I am continually impressed by the curious mind, the intuitive leaps, the humor, the genuine sense of pleasure. And I continue to learn from it.

Yet. Audre Lorde again:

So the question arises in my mind, Mary, do you ever really read the works of Black women? . . . This is not a rhetorical question. . . . Have you read my work, and the work of other Black women, for what it could give you? (“An Open Letter to Mary Daly”)

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Readers were so sure they knew the story [Nella] Larsen was telling they misread the story she actually told.

—Barbara Christian

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A note to consider: Sister Outsider starts with “Notes from a Trip to Russia” and ends with “Grenada Revisited: An Interim Report.” A self-proclaimed socialist, Lorde’s thinking works across multiple geo-historical scales. Difference is an opening to the geo-historical and the intimate, how life is lived and experienced within the cross-cutting intimacies of the geo-historical.

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I worry that even those of us who study Lorde too often think that we know the story she is telling, so we misread and under-read her. We assume, for instance, that her prose writing is less opaque than her poetry, and that biography—Lorde as mother, lesbian, Black, woman, warrior, socialist, teacher, librarian—can take the place of close, sustained study.

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I have been using sexology-taxonomy to name, crudely, the idea and practice that human difference can be named and enumerated: Linnaeus meets Krafft-Ebing. I marvel at how these figures and their ways of mapping human difference continue to dominate our current practices.

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A question I was not supposed to see: “How is African queerness distinct from Euro-American queerness?” Geo-historical specificity working through sexology-taxonomy. This (un)thinking tires me.

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Distraction is always trying to teach me something.

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quick notes on difference in Lorde

  1. Lorde identifies difference as a “dynamic human force, one which is  enriching rather than threatening to the defined self” (“Scratching the Surface”). This difference is “necessary” for change (“Poetry is Not a Luxury”). She names “differences” “a creative force toward change” (“An Open Letter to Mary Daly”). To explore difference, as Lorde urges, is to explore the “creative force” necessary for “change.”
  2. Lorde urges that differences be examined (“Eye to Eye”; “Uses of Anger”) so that difference is not mistaken for “distortion” (“Age, Race, Class, Sex”). Distortion generates difference as threat and pathology, producing disgust and guilt and hatred and genocidal fantasies and actions (“the distortion of relationship which says ‘I disagree with you so I must destroy you’” [“Scratching the Surface”]).
  3. Critical theory has given us the language of “othering”—I was recently struck by the presumption of theoretical sophistication that accompanies the terms “other” and “othering” and their variants. I was also recently irritated by reading an African scholar located in an African institution in Africa using the language of “othering” to describe Africans. Why start by negating yourself to participate in something termed a “theoretical conversation”? Difference is not “othering.” Othering is about distortion. Difference is expansive, which does not mean “inclusive.” It works outside of the logics of inclusion/exclusion, precisely because it is a dynamic force. The logic of difference is not to generate more and more categories of distinction—that’s the taxonomic-sexological logic and practice.
  4. Difference can be threatening (“Uses of the Erotic”; “Man Child”; “An Interview”; “The Master’s Tools”). She writes, “Institutionalized rejection of difference is an absolute necessity in a profit economy which needs outsiders as surplus people. As members of such an economy, we have all been programmed to respond to the human differences between us with fear and and loathing and to handle that difference in one of three ways: ignore it, and if that is not possible, copy it if we think it is dominant, or destroy it if we think it is subordinate. But we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals. As a result, those differences have been misnamed and misused in the service of separation and confusion” (“Age, Race, Class, Sex”). Difference can be threatening because we have no patterns for relating across our human differences as equals.
  5. The “sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between the sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference” (“Uses of the Erotic”).
  6. Contemporary strategies of “tolerating” or “celebrating” difference refuse to examine difference. Equally pernicious is the strategy of ignoring difference, often in the service of pursuing a broader collectivity—“we are all Kenyan,” or “my tribe is Kenyan,” for instance. This refusal makes it easy for oppressive and repressive forces to distort difference, to weaponize it, to deepen it, to exploit it.
  7. This last adapted from my best friend: Lorde’s thinking on difference is largely incomprehensible when mapped alongside longstanding and ongoing academic conversations (universal v. particular; local v. global; essentialism v. constructionism; identitarian v. anti-identitarian; universalizing v. minoritarian). We do not know how to read or think about the difference she theorizes. We simply have not put in the time and resources. We may worship the Lorde, but we study Sedgwick. Study builds disciplines, fields, pedagogies, activists, communities.

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Based on the index, Audre Lorde appears once in Epistemology of the Closet, in the footnote above. Black women writing to—I’m not sure if its ever from within—Queer studies have continued to note how the field unreads Black women. A partial bibliography would include Evelynn Hammonds, “Black (W)holes and the Geometry of Black Female Sexuality,” Differences (1994); Cathy Cohen, “Punks, Bulldaggers, and Welfare Queens: The Radical Potential of Queer Politics,” GLQ (1997); Sharon Holland, Erotic Life of Racism (Duke, 2013); Zakiyyah Iman Jackson, “Outer Worlds: The Persistence of Race in Movement “Beyond the Human,” GLQ (2015).

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A Black feminist presence has evolved most obviously in connection with the second wave of the American women’s movement beginning in the late 1960s. Black, other Third World, and working women have been involved in the feminist movement from its start, but both outside reactionary forces and elitism and racism within the movement itself have served to obscure our participation.

—Combahee River Collective

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Here’s one (improper) way to phrase the question: what if Lorde’s difference—there are other keywords, including distortion, survival, erotic, poetry, blood, and power—were given the same attention as Butler’s performativity or Foucault’s power or Freud’s unconscious or Fanon’s sociogeny? Lorde was part of the U.S. academy. She taught, presented at leading disciplinary conferences (MLA, Berks), and published in scholarly journals (The Black Scholar). It is not difficult to conclude that “elitism and racism within the [academy] itself” have withheld from her the status of major theorist.

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I note, but leave unexamined, my desire for Lorde to be recognized as a major theorist.

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Difference, Lorde writes, is “enriching rather than threatening . . . when there are shared goals” (“Scratching the Surface”).

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