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Slow Scholarship through Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals

When Audre Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978, her doctors were quick to suggest cutting her open to examine the cancer. Lorde wanted more time: she wanted to “feel this thing out, see what’s going on inside myself,” she wrote in A Burst of Light (1988). None of her doctors heard her or respected her desire for time to think and feel.

She wrote this down in The Cancer Journals (1980) and A Burst of Light, prose works composed of journal entries from her battle with cancer. Lorde, who described herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,” was attentive to the intersections of oppression faced by black women and the resistant power of language. This year, a HATCH Lab in Critical Pedagogy took up Lorde’s Cancer Journals as a chance to think about the politics of slowness in a world that commodifies speed, and to practice doing work in spaces where disabled bodies can coexist.

In a summary presentation of their year-long lab, “Asking for a Pause: Slow Reading Audre Lorde’s Cancer Journals” on May 21, UC Davis graduate students Arielle Estrada Sol, Julian Gatto, and Jessica S. Stokes gave an overview of the workshops they conducted. The conversation was organic, as they posed their guiding questions to attendees and, practicing slowness, took time to mull over participants’ ideas and experiences.

The inspiration for the project came from the way academia treated Lorde after her diagnosis, said Stokes. Lorde’s journals reveal that no one made accommodations for her as she battled cancer; no space was made for her ill body; and the structures of academia did not allow her to experiment with ways of living as an academic with cancer. The impetus for the project, Stokes said, was to “learn what experimentation was through Lorde without experimenting on Lorde,” avoiding replicating the ways that academic power structures marginalized Lorde’s body by turning her into an object to be managed and observed.

The Slow Reading Lab drew their methodology from the critical disability scholar Jina B. Kim’s “Toward a Crip-of-Color Critique,” which discusses Lorde’s journals and examines the ways that racism, ableism, homophobia, and sexism are used to enact violence on marginalized bodies. Kim focuses on the possibilities for resistance and education in the intersection of “women-of-color/queer-of-color feminist and disability theorizing,” working towards a vision of the world that decenters ability as a marker of a person’s worth. Following Kim, the Slow Reading lab wanted to practice disability as a method and hoped to experiment with “ways of doing that embody disabled embodiment and history,” said Stokes.

Their workshops over the past year have included a screening of Dagmar Schultz’s “Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years” and a community discussion of Lorde’s book; a cut-up poetry workshop, “Control V: Slow Reading the Cancer Journals through Cut-up Poetry,” and an event on Earth Day, “Making Time/Time Making,” that gave participants the chance to experience time apart from the confines of a clock.

Each workshop discussed different facets of Lorde’s work and of slow scholarship. The cut-up poetry workshop, for example, gave participants an opportunity to engage with the limits of language, a recurring theme in Lorde’s Journals. By cutting up medical journal articles, participants asked how they could use words already present to make visible what–or which bodies–are invisible in the journal articles.

Lorde often wrote about how language simultaneously enabled and limited her ability to write about her experience. When she looked for ways to express how cancer felt and how her body responded, for example, medical books provided her a language to describe her experience while also making it distant and disembodied.

Even in the planning stages, noted Stokes and Gatto, the Slow Reading lab organizers wanted to practice “slow planning”–not procrastination, but a form of work that made space for lived experiences of disability, family emergencies, and exhaustion. In doing so, Stokes and Gabi Kirk, a grad student in geography, noted the tension between the strictures of the academy and the lab’s political project. How does one practice “slow work” on a university grant, within a hectic quarter structure? Within this framework, what are the limits of slow practice? How

The slow workers noticed, for example, that UC Davis’s Sleep class and hammocks on the Quad are regularly touted as markers of the university’s care for the wellbeing of their students–in an effort to make them more productive students and generates revenue and social capital for the university. Workshop participants also noted the rise of mindfulness practices to underpin systemic practices, such as police departments that incorporate mindfulness into their policing or companies that provide sleep pods for their employees to nap at work (and thus work longer hours).

This type of slowness is a capitalist slowness, Stokes argues. When we note which bodies are deemed “lazy” or “inconvenient” and which bodies are allowed to “take a break,” we see that even the experience of time is dictated by able-bodied, productive bodies.

Instead, the Slow Reading lab tried to theorize an idea of slowness that attempts to make spaces where the temporalities of many different bodies can coexist. Slow reading, slow planning, and slow scholarship resist the violence of the system and include diverse bodies in intellectual work. These practices are not procrastination, the Slow Reading lab realized. They are disability-as-method, they are a way of staying with intellectual work over time, and they are a political response to the culture of the academy.

–Samantha Snively, DHI Humanities Correspondent and PhD candidate in English literature


This page was last updated: May 29, 2018



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