By Nikita Lamba*
In Critique 13/13 we have been investigating how we can use critical theory in our current moment. When we posed the question as a collective last year, we were thinking of a present colored by political upheaval, by unfixed and unverified truths, by systemic inequalities, and by increased surveillance, among other dark and deepening fractures. What few, if any, of us were prepared for was our current lens: pandemic.
The virus known as COVID-19 came on in waves across the globe, and few corners seem to have gone untouched by its strange and devastating impact, whether physical, psychic, or economic. Emergencies have a way of electrifying the collective sense of priority– attention thus turned to the immediate concerns of shelter, food, and medical resources. Suddenly the question of critical theory becomes more difficult and seemingly more disconnected. After all, people have lost and are going to lose lives, jobs, and stability. The question seems no longer to be what to do with critical theory, but why, in our present crisis, to devote our attention to it at all?
Audre Lorde’s writings cut to the heart of the question in almost disarming clarity. Her work, which is steeped inextricably in history, in presentism, and in the body, directly addresses a world concerned with how to process a crisis in the form of a bodily threat, and the necessity for careful and complex thinking and writing, like critical theory. She writes of poetry:
Poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence… Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought…
We can train ourselves to respect our feelings and to transpose them into a language so they can be shared. And where that language does not yet exist, it is our poetry which helps to fashion it… it lays the foundations for a future of change, a bridge across our fears of what has never been before.
The same could be said of critical theory. We use critical theory to find the roots of our present, to make sense of the swirling fog of reality, and to find order, to name, and to build, so that we can share a language and a common project going forward.
Lorde’s texts are very much in conversation. The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House is a series of essays, originally presented at conferences between 1978 and 1982, and Zami: A New Spelling of My Name is Lorde’s “biomythography,” published in 1982. Though Lorde’s essays are lucid and sharp sans further context, Zami, which chronicles her childhood, work, and relationships, paints the atmosphere from which her most pressing and vital ideas spring. The context serves not only to enrich the ideas presented in her essays, but also to provide an example for her readers: in “Uses of the Erotic,” Lorde writes of the power that “rises from our deepest and non-rational knowledge,” and we can trace many of Lorde’s most powerful, articulate ideas to her most deeply felt experiences.
Zami is an account of the author’s life, but also an acknowledgment of those to whom Lorde owes “the power behind [her] voice” and strength: the women she grew up with and around, and those with whom she formed relationships later in life.
The text begins with the account of how her mother and father immigrated to the United States from Grenada and Barbados, respectively. Stories of an idealized homeland informed Lorde’s sense of alienation, setting her apart from her peers and neighbors, but also provided her with a framework for a kind of utopia: one premised on belonging.
Lorde spends much of the discussion of her childhood focused on her relationship with her mother, a woman who could be hard at times, but also “knew how to make virtues out of necessities.” Her mother was an early instructor in the art of interpreting reality through a lens in order to shape it, and Lorde credits her with teaching the maxim “If you can’t change reality, change your perception of it.”
The story of Lorde’s childhood winds through her difficulty being near-blind as a child, navigating school and community in Harlem and Washington Heights, and growing up with her two sisters. She details the difficulties of being the first black child at her school and the racism she faced and began to learn to name, especially in two powerful early experiences of losing a school election and being refused service at an ice cream counter on a trip to Washington D.C. Translating the psychic harm that racism inflicts into physical manifestation, she writes about how “the white stone monuments of my first Washington summer made me sick to my stomach for the whole rest of that trip.”
Along with developing consciousness of her race, Lorde describes the experiences that were formative in her understanding of herself as a woman. In one incident, she tells of a comic book clerk holding her body to his, and the sense of revulsion she feels despite being unable to place her finger on the harm. She describes the confusing and painful experience of being raped by a male peer, and the terror that follows because of her lack of information about sex and pregnancy.
But, as importantly, she also recounts the joys in her experiences of being black and a woman, including the wonder of her mother’s cooking, and the complex bodily experience and sense of feminine connection she feels from her first menstrual period.
“Sisterhood” becomes a defining theme, and through the repeated advice she receives to “Remember to be sisters in the presence of strangers,” Lorde becomes aware of the complex web of sisterhoods she is a part of at home, at school, and in the world, as well as the ways these webs provide refuge and can be weaponized.
Though she finds a close-knit group of artistic and rebellious friends as she begins at Hunter High School, she remains one of the few black women in her class, and this isolation robs her of the ability to name the racial difference that sets her apart from her white peers. Lorde recalls that “Sometimes I was close to crazy with believing that there was some secret thing wrong with me, personally, that formed an invisible barrier between me and the rest of my friends, who were white… I had no words for racism.”
In high school, Lorde meets the first of her most significant romantic relationships in Gennie, a fellow black student. Gennie suffers abuse and eventually takes her own life, with her death leaving an irreparable scar on Lorde– one that leads Lorde to forming deep connections with other women who also lost their first loves to violence.
Once she moves out of her home, Lorde begins to navigate different communities of women, and develops the consciousness and language for her intersectional identity. She finds work in New York, and then at a factory in Stamford, and then spends a period in Mexico. Lorde recalls “how being young and Black and gay and lonely felt… there were no mothers, no sisters, no heroes. We had to do it alone…” As Lorde shifts contexts and continues to develop relationships with women, white and black, she becomes aware of how few other Black, gay women she finds in her environment, and the painful toll this takes.
One of the most poignant aspects of Lorde’s relationships is the excitement and confusion that accompanies each–she writes of feeling that she and her live-in partner were “reinventing the world together,” but also notes that this was not due solely to feelings of love, but because “none of us knew quite enough about ourselves; we had no patterns to follow.” 
Her longest relationship in the narrative is with Muriel, a white gay woman, and, despite their deep love, Lorde recalls their inability to speak frankly about her race. During this period, Lorde writes of the ache she feels for community, and her frequenting of gay bars in order to seek “the atmosphere of other lesbians” because “in 1954, gay bars were the only meeting places we knew.” 
But the community of mostly white, gay women is not enough, and Lorde writes of longing “for other Black women without the need ever taking shape upon [her] lips,” as well as the acknowledgement that “every Black woman I ever met in the Village in those years had some part in my survival, large or small, if only as a figure in the head-count at [a club] on a Friday night.”
After her relationship with Muriel deteriorates, Lorde’s complex need for belonging and recognition as a Black gay woman manifests in her final relationship detailed in the narrative. Afrekete, a fellow Black gay woman from Harlem, validates not only Lorde’s identity, but also provides her with the final vision of the narrative: one where the idealized imagined homeland, full of belonging and recognition, is not some faraway place, like her mother’s island of Carriacou, but her own home environment by 113th street.
The word “zami,” which is “a Carriacou name for women who work together as friends and lovers,” becomes not merely a word belonging to another place and way of being, but one brought over by Lorde’s mother, gifted to Lorde, and repurposed to create a sense of belonging and understanding in her current context.
In her essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” Lorde writes about the power of giving name to ideas, and Zami illustrates the power that Lorde feels in repurposing this word–and it is specifically feeling that Zami highlights the importance of, because “living within structure defined by profit, by linear power, by institutional dehumanization, our feelings were not meant to survive.”
In “Uses of the Erotic,” Lorde explains how the erotic is “a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings,”  and how, once acknowledged, humans intrinsically feel the desire to live in a way that cultivates the full depth of their feeling. The flashes of recognition that Lorde felt through her life, in different communities and relationships, led to her pursuit of a theory of liberation–one which would allow her and those like her to share in the fullness of feeling all the time.
And so we return to the question of critical theory and its uses in our present moment: In the midst of a global pandemic, when many of us are confined to our respective living spaces, alongside partners and children and families, forced to reckon with precarity of food, of work, of health, of shelter, Lorde’s ideas encourage us not to discount the importance of the physical experience of the body in this time, to pay careful attention to our emotional needs, and to recognize the ways in which unarticulated feeling can be a critical resource.
Lorde significantly deviates from some classical thinkers in writing that “there is, for [her], no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love.” She characterizes the difference between these pleasures as merely one of quantity, rather than quality, in stark contrast to thinkers like Mill who posited a hierarchy of the pleasures that prioritized those that employ the “higher faculties.”
Zami is the account of all that mattered to Lorde, all that helped her understand what was worth fighting for and protecting, and the account is richly detailed with vivid descriptions of rooms, of faces, of clothes, of meals, of the smells of a lover’s skin– in short, all the things that make up the core of a life. Or as she puts it succinctly in “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House”: “survival is not an academic skill.” The distinction between the pleasures that rely on the “higher faculties” and those that do not is not, for Lorde, a meaningful one–this merely points to a systemic discounting of the erotic, and the lack of language available to describe those pleasures most vital to survival.
The power, for Lorde, in recognizing these “erotic” feelings (which is to say, feelings that are full, powerful, and rooted in the body) is that “recognizing the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama.” In short, we have the opportunity to reframe our experiences and harness their energy to create change, rather than to merely discount our current isolation and grief as unfocused and inarticulable, and therefore useless.
And change is, undoubtedly, necessary. There is a sense of heartbreak in reading Lorde’s words four decades later and realizing how little has changed. Black communities are still marginalized and disproportionately affected by societal conditions. Those who are most at risk are still treated as disposable by those with power.
Lorde’s narrative provides an example of a person who, faced with a lack of example by which to live, created the world she wanted to live in within her relationships. We can extrapolate that lesson: there is no roadmap through the pandemic, nor the future that lies on the other side, but perhaps by naming, understanding, and utilizing the creative force of our unarticulated feelings and desires, we can generate “the power to seek new ways of being in the world… as well as the courage and sustenance to act where there are no charters.”
Why does critical theory matter right now? Because “the necessary ingredient needed to make the past work for the future is our energy in the present, metabolizing one into the other. Continuity does not happen automatically, nor is it a passive process,”  and “to refuse to participate in the shaping of our future is to give it up.”
* J.D. Candidate | Columbia Law School, B.A. Critical Studies | USC School of Cinematic Arts
 Audre Lorde, “Poetry is Not A Luxury,” in The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle The Master’s House, 3.
 Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic,” in The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, 6.
 Audre Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, 3.
 Id. at 11.
 Id. at 18.
 Id. at 71.
 Id. at 49.
 Id. at 75.
 Id. at 77.
 Id. at 81.
 Id. at 176.
 Id. at 209.
 Id. at 211.
 The cause for this feeling of “invention” is not as often named directly, as it is in Lorde’s narrative. In Celine Sciamma’s recent film, Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019), a woman asks her first female romantic partner whether “all lovers feel that they’re inventing something?” She “finds virtue in necessity,” as Lorde’s mother taught, by romanticizing the feeling of discovery rather than acknowledging that the feeling stems in part from a homophobic culture that has forced queer people to hide their relationships, robbing the queer community of examples to follow and aspire to.
 Id. at 187.
 The dance club still functions as a refuge for queer communities––many have written about the symbolic devastation of the Pulse nightclub shooting, in addition to the horrifying physical attack. Ann Powers, “I Was Born On The Dance Floor: A Playlist For Pulse,” NPR, 18 June 2016. <https://www.npr.org/sections/therecord/2016/06/18/482517579/i-was-born-on-the-dance-floor-a-playlist-for-pulse>
 Lorde, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, 224.
 Id. at 225.
 Id. at 255.
 Lorde, “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” 5.
 Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic,” 7.
 Id. at 13.
 John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism, Chapter 2.
 Audre Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” in The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, 18.
 Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic,” 15.
 As Lorde says, even anger is “loaded with information and energy.” Audre Lorde, “Uses of Anger,” in The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, 27.
 “The coronavirus is infecting and killing black people in the United States at disproportionately high rates.” John Eligon, et al. “Black Americans Face Alarming Rates of Coronavirus Infection in Some States,” The New York Times, 7 April 2020. < https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/07/us/coronavirus-race.html >
 Matt Steib, “Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick: ‘Lots of Grandparents’ Willing to Die to Save Economy for Grandchildren,” New York Magazine, 23 March 2020. < https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2020/03/dan-patrick-seniors-are-willing-to-die-to-save-economy.html >
 Lorde, “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House,” 18.
 Audre Lorde, “Learning from the 1960s,” in The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House, 39.
 Id. at 46.