Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 23.1 (2002) 168-188
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Textual Authority and the Embodied Self
Margaret Kissam Morris
Audre Lorde likes to refer to herself as black, lesbian, feminist, mother, poet, and warrior. Later in life, she also identifies herself as a survivor of cancer. She refuses absolutely to confine herself, even temporarily, to any one aspect of her heterogeneous identity, whether to support a political program or to make others feel comfortable. And each part of the self she constructs is based on a sense of corporeal materiality that she attempts to render in both her prose and poetry. Her writing calls to mind Rosi Braidotti's vision of the embodied self. In Patterns of Dissonance: A Study of Women in Contemporary Philosophy, Braidotti explains, "The body, far from being an essentialist notion, is situated at the intersection of the biological and the symbolic; as such it marks a metaphysical surface of integrated material and symbolic elements that defy separation." 1 When speaking of Lorde's use of embodiment to reverse the balance of power between the oppressed body and the written text, we must ask how the body relates to a text. On the one hand, there is no way to discuss the body as prior to sign without resorting to signification. On the other hand, in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of "Sex," Judith Butler reminds us of the materiality of the signifier itself, for materiality and signification are indissoluble. 2 As a writer, Lorde is acutely aware of this indissolubility. She perceives her body as a text and is conscious of her texts as emerging from her body.
Although embodying oneself and naming one's subject positions are not perfectly synonymous, they overlap in Lorde's writing because of her awareness of her presence in Western society as both experience and sign. Writing about The Cancer Journals, Jeanne Perrault applies the idea of the embodied self to Lorde's work, expressing her belief that Lorde creates "a writing of self that makes the female body a site and source of written subjectivity, yet inhabits that body with the ethics of a deeply and precisely historical, political, sexual, and racial consciousness." 3 In Lorde's writing, the conjunction of body, [End Page 168] political and spiritual convictions, and text brings interrelated topics to the foreground: race, gender, sexual identity, eroticism, and mortality.
When Lorde names herself by identifying her multiple subject positions, she customarily begins with race; thus, she privileges the term that has been the source of her earliest experiences with prejudice. Lorde's prose and poetry are informed by her awareness of the white world's devaluation of blackness. This awareness seems to be the source of her deepest rage. In "Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger," she speaks of her early experiences of negative white reactions to her black body. For example, when she was five, her mother put her onto a subway seat next to a white woman in a fur hat:
She [the woman] jerks her coat closer to her. I look. I do not see whatever terrible thing she is seeing on the seat between us—probably a roach. But she has communicated her horror to me. It must be something very bad from the way she's looking, so I pull my snowsuit closer to me, away from it, too. When I look up, the woman is still staring at me, her nose holes and eyes huge. And suddenly I realize there is nothing crawling up the seat between us; it is me she doesn't want her coat to touch. 4
In "Eye to Eye," Lorde tells this and a number of similar stories about herself to exemplify the feeling of having black skin in a world dominated by whites. Furthermore, she emphasizes the direct, causal relationship between racism and internalized racism. And she expresses her grief at what she considers to be one of the worst consequences of racism, black women's estrangement from each other. Appealing...