Writing the Self, Writing as Care

by Lucy Thomas

Like many others, I am sitting at a table that, a few months ago, was our kitchen table, but that I now understand as my desk. Clearing away others’ books, cups of water, bike locks and assorted personal effects, I settle into the chronically uncomfortable white plastic Ikea chair, trying to concentrate while housemates enjoy a long Bank Holiday weekend. I write from lockdown during the COVID-19 crisis, a time that has warped and exploded our understandings of ethics, community, solidarity, and care.

In the face of so much death, struggle, and grief, there are many things to write on. Writing about writing might not be the first thing that comes to mind; nor might the connection between writing and care. But I want to use this space to think through how writing differently and writing otherwise can be an act of care within wider contexts of violence.

Much academic writing is eerily impersonal: individuality is exorcised in pursuit of the fiction of objectivity. Scholarship in the academy is so often divorced from the researchers’ personal circumstances; presented as a smoothed-out, clean academic production with a highly sanitised sense of the ways in which one’s thinking, knowing and being develops over years of intensive study. Stripping academic scholarship of a sense of self can be seen as an act of purification, mimicking the natural sciences’ predilection for a controlled and decontaminated workplace, unpolluted by external disorder.

We can understand this impulse for purification in academic writing as deeply implicated in coloniality. By coloniality, I refer to a matrix of power, one intimately connected to the political realities of formal and direct systems of colonialism, but exceeding them. Coloniality operates as a cosmology; a dynamic that structures our understandings of the what, the why, and the how of the universe. It is an analytic of power that exists in the present—we do not talk of a ‘legacy’ of coloniality, but rather, of coloniality of power in the present. Coloniality has many expressions: a field of knowledge, economic expansion and exploitation, cultural subjugation and elimination, the imposition of raciality, and so on.

One such expression of coloniality is a commitment to scientific ways of knowing. The European Renaissance, blossoming in fourteenth-century Italy within a context of crisis for the Roman Catholic Church, saw intelligentsia and philosophers of the day emphasise reason and humanism. The so-called Age of Reason, a time of ‘Enlightenment’ and unshackling from the supposedly old, pre-modern, barbaric, and backward ways, and of triumph for science, empiricism, and rationalism, characterised Europe from the seventeenth century onward. At the same time, Western European conquistadores set sail for the ostensible ‘New World,’ conquering, colonising, terrorising, and murdering swathes of Indigenous and Native peoples. Anthropology was established as the tool for extracting and making articulable knowledges and lands of these ‘new’ people for reporting back to the metropole. Between ten and twelve million African people were brutally captured, bought, sold, and disposed of as commodities in the Transatlantic slave trade.

The intellectual transformation in Europe and its colonialism of Africa, America, and Asia, are fused together. Far from simply occurring at the same time, one configured the other. The belief that one can ostensibly stand outside of politics, dispassionately and unethically observing, measuring, studying, is predicated upon acts of epistemological, physical, and ecological extractivism. In other words, scientific ways of knowing flow from European coloniser, self-defined as the standard-bearer of humanity, as they encounter the Other; a knowable object, existing independently of the knowing subject. This knowable object—be it people or land—can be mined for knowledge, labour, and resources, then disposed of: an encounter based on what can be extracted. This expression of coloniality continues, fairly undisturbed, for over five hundred years, into today’s established standards of academic writing. We are compelled to write as if we can step outside of our own skins, and into the subjectivity of a ‘researcher,’ encountering and extracting data from the world around us objectively and impersonally.

What if we began by acknowledging the falsity of our encounter with the Other and the world? By recovering ourselves in the act and the process of writing? By experimenting with academic writing as acutely personal? As an act of resistance, of liberation, of solidarity, of care?

Narrative works are presentations of the imbrication between the writer and how they move through the world: collisions between and blends of intellectual challenges and experiences of selfhood. They emphasise the unstructured, imaginative and fantastical ways that we encounter and experience the world; inviting us to know ourselves and the universe in a distinctly anti-scientific and a distinctly authentic way. Embracing these ways of being, knowing, and writing the world can teach us so much more about the human—and political—experience than sterilised scientificity. These alternative ways of knowing and writing acknowledge the simple fact that we exist in symbiosis with the political, colonial, modern, violent world: one in which we cannot stand outside of and observe dispassionately, unethically or neutrally.

Ways of writing that move away from the scientific, then, are anti-colonial. They resist the colonial violence of objectivity and extractivism; instead foregrounding our embeddedness in the world around us. In recovering the self, one who cannot escape coloniality, through writing respects and acknowledges the deeply relational nature of reality: we exist in, and in relation to, this world, not outside of it. It privileges the authentic, unsanitised experience of being subjects of and in colonialism, modernity, politics, and violence.

Many Black, Black feminist/female, and Indigenous scholars and scholars of colour have written on the ways in which this colonial world privileges whiteness, and, in doing so, destroys Blackness. As Ruha Benjamin puts it, “Vampirically, white vitality feeds on black demise … [for example] the extraction of (re)productive slave labor to build the nation’s wealth […] in these ways and many more, white life and black death are inextricable.” For those peoples dehumanised and placed in constant proximity to death in the context of this colonial world, recovering the self is an act of care.

Writing in Feminist Review, Azeezat Johnson begins her response to the COVID-19 pandemic in October 2017, upon learning that her cancer had returned. Fear of illness, cancer and COVID-19, meant “finding a way to love my body and life whilst still fearing (and in some ways, mourning) a death that always feels right around the next corner.” Johnson writes that “our bodies are objectified by the state as a problem worth a quantifiable amount of care.” Such care privileges whiteness: one need only think of enslaved Africans “thrown, jumped, dumped overboard in Middle Passage,” condemned to the depths of the Atlantic (Sharpe 2016, 19), or that per capita COVID-19 deaths among Black Caribbean Britons are three times that of white people, to grasp what is at stake when we speak of an ethics and a politics of care.

In entreating us to craft “an ethics of care that centres those who are continuously forgotten once disaster strikes,” Johnson reflects on the process of personal writing as care. “Staying silent, staying immobile” on her struggle means “erasing the experiences of those that are further marginalised [which] does nothing but divide us from one another.” The crucial connection is the one between the personal and the planetary: caring for/writing the self in the context of fighting for justice and for liberation for oppressed peoples. Audre Lorde, the Black feminist poet, wrote that “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” In our colonial world, where the marginalised “were never meant to survive,” caring for oneself and one another where the state refuses to, or where state care is violent, is an act of resistance.

Writing otherwise, then, is liberatory; it stands in resistance and in solidarity; it cares. Christina Sharpe, in her stunning opening chapter of In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, introduces her project with a gut-wrenching account of some of her family members’ deaths. Reflecting on the deaths at the hands of police, at the hands of another young man, at the hands of cancer, Sharpe “includes the personal here ‘to tell a story capable of engaging and countering the violence of abstraction.’” In confronting the deeply personal nature of colonial violence and slavery, and its afterlives, Sharpe calls on us to think of care “as a problem for thinking of and for Black non/being in the world,” and in doing so, think of care “laterally … in a different relation than that of the violence of the state.”

In recovering the self through writing, Sharpe and Johnson perform an act of care; they “tend to the living and the dying.” For those forced on the edge of being in this colonial world, writing for and of oneself and writing for and of one another’s lives, struggles, and deaths, is a form of liberation and resistance; an “act of political warfare.”

 

Lucy Thomas is a PhD candidate in the Department of War Studies, King’s College London as part of the ESRC-funded LISS Doctoral Training Partnership. She holds an MA in International Conflict Studies from King’s College London, and an MSc in International Relations from the London School of Economics, both with Distinction. She is currently a Research Associate with the Policy Institute at King’s.

This blog post excerpts ideas and phrases from an unpublished doctoral thesis; please do not reproduce or cite without the author’s permission.

 

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