Sunday, 14 December 2008

The Anonymous Avenger Strikes Again...

My last post was a response to an anonymous commenter who posted an excerpt of an interview with Audre Lorde, who claimed that SM reproduces unjust social power dynamics.

The adorable thing struck again with a comment to that post, this time sticking to a rather famous -- and similarly to the Hanisch, usually ridiculously misquoted -- quote from Lorde: "The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house."

As I'm one who'd never disappoint trolls who don't seem to fully understand what they're quoting (I shall cuddle her and squeeze her and call her George!), here's my response to that one too.

First, as with the Hanisch, the "master's tools" quote is very often taken completely out of context, so... here's the real context, an essay about how women of color are excluded from feminist conferences.
It is a particular academic arrogance to assume any discussion of feminist theory without examining our many differences, and without a significant input from poor women, Black and Third World women, and lesbians. And yet, I stand here as a Black lesbian feminist, having been invited to comment within the only panel at this conference where the input of Black feminists and lesbians is represented. What this says about the vision of this conference is sad, in a country where racism, sexism, and homophobia are inseparable. To read this program is to assume that lesbian and Black women have nothing to say about existentialism, the erotic, women's culture and silence, developing feminist theory, or heterosexuality and power. And what does it mean in personal and political terms when even the two Black women who did present here were literally found at the last hour? What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow perimeters of change are possible and allowable.
The context, then, is not one of personal introspection, of looking into oneself and weeding out the influence of the patriarchy. While she does, in other places (such as the quote from Against Sadomasochism in the previous post), tell us that such introspection is important to her feminism, it's not what she's talking about here. She's talking about how social patterns are reproduced, yes, but she's talking about them being reproduced in the structure of feminist community, a community which claims to have a commitment to anti-racism, yet can only spare the most paltry tokenism for women of color.

To take the phrase so wildly out of context and make it a comment on women's personal lives, entirely removing the statement on race relations of which it is a part, is, more often than not, an example of the white-feminist arrogance it was written to combat. I do not know if cuddly little George is white or a person of color, but I do know that I have seen women of color lament the way this essay is reduced to one sentence and the context is lost, allowing people to use the sentence to judge any opponent for bad politics for any reason.

Now, here is the context in which the "master's tools" sentence occurs. (It's a long excerpt, but I feel it needed to give the true picture of Lorde's oft wildly misunderstood point.)
Advocating the mere tolerance of difference between women is the grossest reformism. It is a total denial of the creative function of difference in our lives. Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal, can the power to seek new ways of being in the world generate, as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.

...As women, we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretense that these differences do not exist.

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference -- those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older -- know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support.

Poor women and women of Color know there is a difference between the daily manifestations of marital slavery and prostitution because it is our daughters who line 42nd Street. If white American feminist theory need not deal with the differences between us, and the resulting difference in our oppressions, then how do you deal with the fact that the women who clean your houses and tend your children while you attend conferences on feminist theory are, for the most part, poor women and women of Color? What is the theory behind racist feminism?

In a world of possibility for us all, our personal visions help lay the groundwork for political action. The failure of academic feminists to recognize difference as a crucial strength is a failure to reach beyond the first patriarchal lesson. In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.
Again, it's not that she wasn't against SM; yesterday's quote shows that she in fact was. It's not even that she wouldn't have agreed that doing SM is copying the erotic style of "the masters"; she's clear that she does think so.

It's that, as she herself said in the interview George quoted the other day, the SM issue is a diversion. The erotic is not what she's talking about here. Yes, she does make it consistently clear, that she does not divide a woman's personal choices from her political stances. She believes that the things we focus on, give our attention or energy to, at home or in bed or with our families or friends, directly impacts all we do.

But to say that she's talking about, for lack of a better word, the aura of our bedroom practices when you're quoting an essay about the representation of voices of color in the larger feminist movement is to twist her words. It's to plaster them onto your issue as if her agreeing with you about sadomasochism and feminism is more important than race issues within feminism, when she herself said in what you quoted the other day that it emphatically is not.

If George is white, she's doing something I strongly suspect Lorde would vigorously protest: removing the essay from its racial context, deeming the race issues less important than correcting some other white girl (i.e., me) on her sex life.


Anonymous said...

I thought that would be the angle you would take, but you still disappoint.
I'm fully aware of the context of that quote but I also think it's wisdom can be applied eleswhere and certainly fits with her position on bdsm.
Petty - and misplaced - triumphalism does not become you. You write passionately and well (although I usually disagree with your stance on these issues) there is no need for it.

Trinity said...

Thanks for your compliments on my writing. And for decloaking, rather than responding to me with more quotes.

And yes, I will admit I am being slightly petty. I do have more patience than some, but I really don't have much with anonymous trolls. Simply quoting a tiny snippet of an interview or article from the 1980's is not discussion, and I don't feel obligated to deeply invest myself in responding to it.

Or to be kind to a person who does so for a reason I don't know. I have no idea whether such a person is getting a personal thrill from trolling or actually wanting people to think.

If you spraypaint slogans on the side of my house, you may be intending to spark deep thought in me and my neighbors... or you may simply be vandalizing my house.

If you'd like a discussion, please pick a pseudonym and continue using your own words.

Anonymous said...

The freaky thing is that this passage:

Difference must be not merely tolerated, but seen as a fund of necessary polarities between which our creativity can spark like a dialectic. Only then does the necessity for interdependency become unthreatening. Only within that interdependency of different strengths, acknowledged and equal

speaks to me so strongly of exactly what is so invigorating and enlivening about D/s. The "necessary polarities" of the two partners creating a sexual and emotional dialogue and "dialectic"; the way in which the emotional interdependency by virtue of this becomes unthreatening (as sub OR as Dom). And of course, the BDSM theory is precisely that the relationship is one of "different strengths, acknowledged and equal". And (at least in my experience) that is how it has been in practice, too.

Trinity said...


Yeah, that's something that I thought of when I read the "difference" paragraph as well. That and, well, I actually think that one of the good things that came out of the sex wars was that a lot of women "deviants", whether sadomasochists, women with fetishes, porn users, butches or femmes, heterosexual women who liked the sorts of things Jeffries saw as patriarchal, got fed up and started talking. I think that more people talking about what they want, rather than fearing to mention it for "politics", can only be a good thing. I think it's only when we're as fully honest as we can be that we really have the dialogue we need.

And that's why I admire Lorde, despite my feeling she's wrong about SM. It may be a silly pipe dream in my head, but I really do think that if she were alive today and someone really sat her down and talked to her about D/s, just said "Please, don't lecture, listen with your poet's ear" and just... talked about our lives and our intimacy, I think she'd understand.

I don't know that she'd have a profoundly different political view, but I think she'd start to see. She strikes me as one who's far less for the cold, dissecting antiseptic of theory and far more one for the feeling of skin under hands, earth under skin, sighs and cries in the ear.

And we have that and we are that, and there is no denying that.

This thing that "feminists" describe, this loving being crushed, this gushing fountain of vaginal juice for someone who promises to keep your wages low? Is not D/s. Is not D/s at all.

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