Self-Care, Subjectivity, Silence

In the attrition of everyday life, self-care has become foundational for social activism. Rallying around Audre Lorde’s declaration of “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare,” contemporary activists have sought to reclaim self-care by positing it as the necessary precondition for organized action instead of a debased form of vacuous consumerist indulgence.

But what precisely is self-care? It can be meditation, yoga, writing, going for a walk, engaging in rituals or traditions, working out, spending time with animals, and a number of ever-expanding things. The actual activity of self-care is intended to not only promote physical health, but also to promote one’s mental and emotional health by reducing stress or getting in touch with one’s self. In a society where the anger, alienation, and bitter desperation of minorities are pathologized as aberrational character flaws of individuals rather than discursively produced, the recognition of and coming to terms with such feelings is itself a resistance of hegemony’s wielding of biopower, which casts political problems as inherent problems of certain bodies.

Self-care is unfortunately always a losing endeavor. Its status as preconditional to social activism is only true in the most basic sense– one has to be alive to speak. Similar to the insufferable romantic maxim “You have to love yourself before you can love others,” we often articulate self-care as an internal state that must be achieved before it can be turned outwards in a prosocial manner.

I do not think that definition holds true. Self-care is a palliative composed of interstitial moments of blocking and dodging in the face of unrelenting social antagonism. I do not mean to diminish the importance of self-care as it is still absolutely crucial to negotiating survival, but I think it cannot continue to be seen as the precursor to communal action. Otherwise, we will always be waiting for a certain threshold of self-care that will never arrive (how does one “know” what the self needs, and how can the self ever satisfy itself?) and recapitulate the mytheme of individualism.

When it’s not deployed as a desire to simply stay alive or as a palliative as I have delineated, self-care revolves around a notion of individuality that presupposes the centrality of knowing yourself and your own desires. To be effective social activists, minorities need to know their own emotions, dreams, and goals. While there are some who articulate this project of knowing the self with a creepy similarity to selling yourself to companies (here are my hopes, dreams, and temperaments which are all in line with the goals of this community…), more sophisticated takes instead advocate an alterity to normative modes of knowing. In this sense, self-care is about an individual striving to assemble an alternate knowledge about the self that cannot be indexed by normative modalities of feeling, thinking, and otherwise moving through the world.

In other words, self-care is oriented towards an individual forming other kinds of attachments and desires that elude or exceed what is imposed upon them. This is possible through a self-reflexive apprehension of the self made possible through self-care.

I am deeply suspicious of self-care’s claim to knowledge of the self. The subject is split and opaque; there is always an unknowability of the subject that has to be negotiated around rather than triumphed over. Some definitions of self-care are oriented towards a self-determined articulation of subjectivity that enjoys a frictionless, stable, and fully formed existence.

In this context, self-care reproduces a particular fantasy of minority discourse: that progress inaugurates more stable social relations. Brought to its logical conclusion, this horizon of possibility can only produce more identities with an authoritative claim to a totalizing/totalized self. Insofar as whiteness is a dead identity (in Lauren Berlant’s sense of the term, where dead here signifies similarly to dead metaphor), minorities are to join the hoary realm of assured mastery where one’s particular identity is simply what is.

The point is instead that there is an instability and ambiguity to identity and subjectivity as such, and we should therefore be organizing more porous societies and communities that don’t circle around sacrosanct identities and attachments. Far from a revolutionary thought, this is still often covered over in discussions of self-care and its relation to communal action. Self-care does not instate a fully formed and known/knowing individual who then engages in social activism; it is an improvisational strategy of negotiating survival in a conflicted world by conflicted subjects.

An example of what I am talking about is a situation faced by so many every day– being confronted by endless situations of bigotry. On the one hand, there is the desire to speak out, not just to play teacher but to reaffirm ourselves as speaking subjects. On the other hand, we run into so many situations like this in our everyday lives that it would be impossible to do so. I should emphatically point out that the responsibility is not on individual minorities to do the intellectual and emotional labor of spelling out everything for everyone. Minorities should not be treated as experts on invisible forms of oppression and ways of living, who then have an obligation to enlighten everyone else on what is going on.

This situation is often articulated as an impasse: if minorities don’t speak up about these issues, then how can they expect us to know what is going on? The refusal of minorities to be treated as nodes of data to be accessed by an insular public then justifies the active violence and oppression perpetrated against them. Here once again the problem of knowing resurfaces: an individual should not be presupposed as containing a knowledge that simply must be externalized, and this desire to be fed knowledge is similarly troubling. Interacting with others in general is never a matter of getting to “know” them, but to recognize their unknowability and to forge relations that take this into account. It is not a matter of circumscribing someone as being/knowing¬†x, but to acknowledge the singularity of their own particular personhood and experiences and their complex relations to the world, self, and others.

To return back to self-care, people in the situation of choosing whether to speak out in one particular moment or not are often aware that avoidance or silence is a necessary path to take. When this particular silence is registered as self-care, the primacy of the person’s well-being overrides an obligation to speak up. The lapse in “fighting the good fight” is seen as a recuperative moment, or at least an avoidance of harm, that allows one to resume the fight later. I think if we are to embrace the radical dimension of self-care, we have to look at such a silence as not a strategic retreat but as a kind of political act unto itself. In the (much needed) focus on speaking up, falling silent has been reduced to a debased form of self-effacement and the absence of subjectivity.

Silences are multivalent and are themselves intercalated within different conversations and interactions. What kinds of silences are ennobling, or empowering, or restorative? What kind of language needs to be developed to speak to silences? Is there a silence divested of the finality of death? What does it mean to fall silent?– as imposed, as that which cannot be said, as that which doesn’t have to be said, as that which gestures to a something else…