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  • Of Sensual Matters:On Audre Lorde's "Poetry Is Not a Luxury" and "Uses of the Erotic"
  • Roderick A. Ferguson (bio)

We are very familiar with the philosophical discussion about the relationship between the senses and the intellect. After all, writers such as Spinoza, Hume, Saussure, and Freud acquainted us with the idea that the intellect and the senses are in conversation with one another. Far from being a purely philosophical matter, though, the connections between the senses and the intellect were very much a part of the social movements of the late 1960s and afterward. Indeed, we can safely argue that those movements—in their own ways—represented a rehabilitation of the senses for the purposes of revolutionary change. One of the exemplars of this way of thinking was the writer, teacher, and artist Audre Lorde. As her classic essays "Poetry Is Not a Luxury" and "Uses of the Erotic" demonstrate, hers would be a progressive vision with certain affective and sensual mobilizations.

Poetry Is Not a Luxury: Senses, Self, and Affect in Social Transformation

"Poetry Is Not a Luxury" was first published in 1977 in Chrysalis: A Magazine of Female Culture. As Alexis De Veaux writes in her biography of Lorde, this feminist quarterly was important because it "provided a platform for an emerging body of feminist cultural theory" (2004, 177), publishing writers and theorists such as Michelle Cliff, Adrienne Rich, Mary Daly, and Lucy Lippard. Assuming the position of poetry editor in 1977, Lorde used that post to advance a theory of poetry that was personally and socially meaningful for women and to seed the very ideas that would culminate in her classic essay. [End Page 295]

Defining poetry as "illumination," she begins the essay by arguing, "The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives. It is within this light that we form those ideas by which we pursue our magic and make it realized" (Lorde 1984, 36). For Lorde, poetry was a way to enact an intimate scrutiny needed for personal and social transformation, a way to critically engage the self to set the stage for new interventions and articulations. In this way, poetry would be the linchpin between the personal and the social, "[giving] name to those ideas which are—until the poem—nameless and formless, about to be birthed but already felt" (36).

Lorde's theory about engaging the self as a way to initiate social transformations was part of a historical moment that placed new emphasis on connections between self- and collective transformations, emphases produced by a variety of social movements in the post-1960s moment. In her own reflections about the 1970s, for instance, Toni Cade Bambara observed this about the self as a catalyst for social change:

The energy of the seventies is very different from that of the previous decade. . . . The demystification of American-style "democracy," the bold analytical and passionate attention to our condition, status, and process—the whole experience of that era led to a particular spot in time, in the seventies. Some say it's been a period of retreat, of amnesia, of withdrawal into narcissism. I'm not so sure. I'd say the seventies is characterized by a refocusing on the self, which is, after all, the main instrument for self, group and social transformation."

(1983, 13)

Bambara in the passage sees the turn toward the revision of the self as a means of critically attending to structural revisions. As a figure that arose in the "demystification of American-style 'democracy,'" the "self" that Bambara posits is not at all the self of liberal individualism. Not willing to frame the revision of the self as part of the declension of revolutionary ideals or as a capitulation to liberal democratic ideology, Bambara—like Lorde—understands the attention to the self as an "aesthetics of existence" with personal and collective intentions, intentions that are appointed not for the continuation of liberal social formations but for their abolition.

In addition to the essay's emergence within an intellectual and political climate that was deliberating...


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