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Tender Theory

By Anne Boyer


Los Angeles had been a place for an emergence of thinking about the relationship of illness to capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy, so it was a good thing that I was there. Johanna Hedva had given a talk about something called Sick Woman Theory not too long before I came to LA. In an October, 2015, interview, Hedva described Sick Woman Theory as:

a project trying to redefine “sickness” and its perceived binary opposite “wellness.” Our concept of being sick comes from capitalism: A sick body is one that cannot work, cannot participate in society in terms of the capitalist notions of labor, value, and product. To “get better” is to be able to go back to work—but what if that condition is never true? What if working is what is making us sick? In SWT, I start from Judith Butler’s new premise that the definition of a body is its vulnerability and reliance on infrastructures of support. In other words, to require care, to be sick, to be vulnerable, is not an aberration, but the norm. To be “well” is the oddity.”

My Body Is a Prison of Pain so I Want to Leave It Like a Mystic But I Also Love It & Want it to Matter Politically from WCCW on Vimeo.

There was this feeling that a collective project of important thinking was coming together—by that force that feels like beneficial accident but is actually always the force of history—about the sick, pained, feminized body in current conditions—that body (our bodies) so often made sick by those current conditions. Amy Berkowitz had been writing about illness, too, in her fascinating 2015 poetry book, Tender Points, which weaves together the relationship of chronic pain to sexual trauma, instigating a poetry against the available framework of understanding about the body that doesn’t work. Dodie Bellamy’s essay collection, When the Sick Rule the World had come out on Semiotext. The poet Beth Murray, who died of breast cancer in October of 2014 wrote a book through her treatment called Cancer Angel, which came out from the feminist press Belladonna in 2015:

vile a container holding precious $15,000 signature

chemo is an industry in which

the burning in your blood

makes the nurses basic pay

makes doctors who sign the order

a new car with each treatment

I’d been writing about illness and politics, also, and sometimes (so often) failing to write about it the way I wanted to because of the challenges of catastrophic illness and recovery. The very illness that provided the experiential education toward the tools we need so often precludes its development. Chemotherapy caused significant cognitive losses, destroying memory centers, word recall, the capacity to read and speak and after all that treatment, I was tired. I’d never needed words so much as during this time I’ve been deprived of them, and my feeling of inadequacy at the task I felt before me was so often overwhelming.

Hedva’s Sick Woman Theory (which will be in a collection of her work called This Earth, Our Hospital, due out in 2016), Murray’s Cancer Angel, and Berkowitz’s Tender Points reminded me of what I would always try to remind others when they were feeling low: emancipatory writing and thinking is a collective project. Those of us who work toward the same end and who do some of this by thinking, do our best, think our hardest, write how we can, with what resources we have been given, but as individuals, we also will so often fail. Audre Lorde, in her Cancer Journals, wrote about what living through illness did for her work:

I am learning to speak my pieces, to inject into the living world my convictions about what is necessary and what I think is important without concerns (of the enervating kind) for whether or not it is understood, tolerated, correct or heard before. Although of course being incorrect is the always the hardest, but even that is becoming less important. The world will not stop if I make a mistake.

The experience of illness can help us gain in courage even if we fail in capacity. We will sometimes fail to produce what we should, or to write or speak articulately enough, to be “right,” to be thoughtful or expansive enough, to consider the whole range of historical circumstance, to be responsible at our work’s distribution—but our failure is part of the collective project. We brave our errors in thought for the possibility that to see that their demonstration will allow others to get toward rightness. We brave the humility to learn from fair criticism, and also learn that usefully distanced shrug at the inevitable appearance of the jealous or maligning kind. We brave clumsy writing or speaking, that even in a crude form, a necessary idea will emerge as material for others to refine. When we are silent, we learn it makes room for others to speak.

It’s not just our errors we become brave about, but our projects’—and our own—incompleteness. You can stop fearing death, too, if you begin to think of the collective project of being alive in the common world, that one’s own end and the end to one’s work and one’s love is not the end of what is right or good. What needs to go on will.

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Posted in Featured Blogger on Thursday, January 28th, 2016 by Anne Boyer.