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  • "Uses of the Erotic" for Teaching Queer Studies
  • Nikki Young (bio)

In her classic essay, "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power," Audre Lorde challenged the Western masculinist characterization of the erotic as an element of human debasement, as well as its use as a tool of oppression. She argued that this framing of the erotic had ghettoized women's sensuality—a means by which we know and orient ourselves to the world—thereby erasing a significant form of our liberating power. To confront this erasure, Lorde offered a view of the erotic as an episteme, a critical mode through which we may attain excellence. While viewed in some feminist circles as overly reductionist and even anachronistic, Lorde's erotic innovation has established itself as a political, social, and academic tool of deconstruction, subversion, and imagination.

As a scholar-teacher, I view my queer studies course—any course, really—as a space built on possibilities, grounded by collective potentialities, and filled with bodies that are materializing sensibilities. One of the most important processes in engaging students on the subject of queerness, then, is developing their willingness to critically frame the self as a sensual entity. This kind of framing calls for at least three things: (1) a willingness to testify to a truth about the self—even when that truth (or our assessment of that self) is nonnormative; (2) a commitment to challenge the policing of self-perceptions; and (3) the employment of counterhegemonic epistemological frameworks to dismantle oppression. By resurrecting the power of the erotic, Lorde affirms our simultaneity as selves who exist in individual potentiality and selves whose connectivity is based on the freedoms of our sensuality. For this reason, "Uses of the Erotic" is always welcome in my classroom. [End Page 301]

Students in my courses often understand power in dichotomous terms. It is either a forceful means of having self-control or control over others. Situated in a Western framework of individuality and independence, power represents the means by which one can differentiate from community and, perhaps, even gain authority. What is missing from their notions of power is the possibility of self-actualization as something linked with community. That is, students are often missing the idea that power can be a liberating source—one that connects people to themselves and to one another in a way that enhances, rather than destroys, relationships. Derived from internal recognition and creativity (rather than from external acquisition and conformity), the erotic is one form of power that both illuminates oppressive forces and puts them in danger (Lorde 2007, 55). Power understood within this dichotomous frame is impoverished. We have much to gain by instead understanding power as a bridge between the self and the liberating relational possibilities.

Although the liberating power of the erotic lies in its point of origin—the self—Lorde suggests that we have been taught to question the self as a source, "to suspect what is deepest in ourselves" (Lorde and Rich, 1981, 730). I begin my queer studies course with a lecture and exercise about how this internalized suspicion is a form of oppression. I explain that oppression is a cyclical process that systematically suppresses various forms of power, and I point to Lorde's essay as a response to this suppression. As we read portions of the text aloud, I invite students to pay attention to her assertion that the relationship between oppression and power is often marked by corruption and distortion: "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" (Lorde 2007, 53). An example of such distortion is the way the erotic itself has been misrepresented as pornography, a way of experiencing sensation—acquiring knowledge—without feeling. This distortion of the erotic's power reinforces docility, obedience, and external definition—all of which contribute to the cycle of oppression through the process of dehumanization (58). As we learn about how oppression seeks to destroy the erotic through misnaming, nay, signifying, the students and I begin to understand just how dehumanizing this kind of systematic and socially sanctioned separation from self can...


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