Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Review: Light in the Dark

[Gloria E. Anzaldúa. (Edited by AnaLouise Keating.) Light in the Dark/Luz en lo Oscuro: Rewriting Identity, Spirituality, Reality. Durham NC and London UK: Duke University Press, 2015.]

I feel uneasy writing this review.

I feel uneasy because I'm not sure quite what to make of my relationship to this book, and to this author's work more generally.

That is not, I hasten to add, about a lack of enthusiasm or regard. I think Anzaldúa is a brilliant thinker and an amazing writer. A particular piece of her writing, which I first read 15ish years ago in a collection and which is also used as the concluding chapter of this book, had a profound impact on me when I was going through a difficult time. One of the very first posts I ever made on this blog, way back in 2004, was noting and mourning Anzaldúa's passing. And other things that I have read since then by both Anzaldúa herself and by the editor of this book, AnaLouise Keating (who draws very explicitly on Anzaldúa's body of work) have made major impressions on me. I don't claim that I've taken up their ideas in ways that these writers would recognize or approve of, but they have affected me. And, frankly, though we are situated very, very differently, I think Anzaldúa's experience as someone who did radical thinking mostly outside of the academy and who was also very committed to the craft of writing is an inspiration to me, as someone who aspires to my own version of those two commitments -- not that I delude myself into thinking I have even a fraction of the capacity for those things that she had, but still she inspires me.

At the same time, I feel very keenly aware that there are other elements of her writing that don't speak to me in the same way -- that either don't move me in the same way or that are addressed to kinds of experiences that I just don't have. In a situation like that, I know that it is very easy to read such that I end up extracting what I like, forgetting what feels less personally relevant, and thereby internalizing a simplified, whitewashed, and ultimately very disrespectful version of her ideas. In terms of this book specifically, there were elements of it that I thought were powerful and profound and that resonated in a visceral way, while there were other elements that...well, that I respect, but that I cannot take up in the way that she means them (for various reasons that I'll get into below) and that I must therefore respect from a distance.

I think this is far preferable to refusing to engage with her work at all, or to not being fully honest about the contours of my relationship to it, but it all makes me uneasy, because while it seems better than any alternative I can think of, I'm sure this approach to encountering her work has implications that I am not able to fully grasp.

With that proviso in mind, let me talk more about the book. Gloria Anzaldúa was a well known and influential radical thinker and activist. She was involved in the women's movement in the US context, in Chicano/Chicana liberation struggles, in queer organizing, and more, and she initially became widely known for her role in co-editing the foundational women of colour feminist text This Bridge Called My Back, which was published in 1983.

Light in the Dark is her final book. She was not, in fact, done it when she died. She had a rigorous, intense, lengthy writing process, and when she passed away from her long-term serious health isssues, she had taken this book most of the way through that process, but not quite all the way. AnaLouise Keating is a scholar and activist who had worked with Anzaldúa for years, including as a collaborator but also relating to Anzaldúa as a mentor, and she has carefully and thoughtfully taken the manuscript to a stage where it, she hopes, would meet Anzaldúa's exacting standards for both analysis and craft. Keating includes, where she has determined that it is relevant, an account of the trajectory of the work that ended up in this book, as well as other fragments and versions that were part of the writing process.

It's hard to summarize the work done by this book because it covers a broad and diverse range of issues, and not in a way that fits neatly into conventional categories of Western thought. One way to think of it might be as a sweeping exploration of world-making, knowing, self-making, and creating. A hallmark of Anzaldúa's work is how she would take up imagery and figures from the Indigenous side of her mestiza heritage as ways to organize powerful ideas and the writing through which she presents them. So, for instance, she talks about a process of coming undone and re-forming yourself in a different configuration (I think particularly with reference to experiences of trauma as a colonized/racialized person, but also more broadly) through the figure of Coyolxauhqui, a goddess who is dismembered yet returns to wholeness. One of the most important concepts in her work is that of nepantla, or the border areas between various sorts of difference, and nepantleras, those who exist in those areas and take on a deliberate kind of political and spiritual work made possible by being thus situated. Along with presenting these and other important ideas best understood through consideration of the book as a whole, particular chapters analyze things like imagination, various forms of artistic making as political practice, her own writing process, a sophisticated and powerful take on identity formation, and a sort of synthesis of all of these that is about how the world exists, how we intervene in it, and how we are shaped as people.

The element of this that I feel most keenly like I must respect from a distance is how it sketches out a very distinct ontology -- that is, a way of thinking about how the world exists. I don't even know that I would have read it as being about ontology if that hadn't been pointed out so emphatically by Keating's introduction, because it is written in such a way that those of us inclined to understand these figures and ideas primarily as metaphor for phenomena in the social world and as imagery can certainly do so and still feel like we're reading something important and powerful. But as Keating points out, this was not actually what Anzaldúa was doing. She really was invoking a world in which these spiritual realms, these realities beyond the dead matter of most Western materialism, this Indigenous-informed but not Indigenous worldview, were very practically real. Not, I hasten to add, in the kind of fluffy appropriative escapism of so much white North American New Age-ism, but as part of a spiritually-infused and materially-grounded call to see the world as it is and act to make it better.

I respect that understanding of the world, but I'd be dishonest if I tried to take it on as my own.

What that leaves me with is the question of what I can take up from this work, and how. I'm not sure I can give a final answer to that, and I know I can't give a satisfying one, but I have a few thoughts. The most obvious piece that feels directly relevant to my own life is one chapter's powerful auto-ethnographic account of her writing process. It's pretty different from mine, but it feels like something I can learn from and be inspired by. One very immediate lesson is in her slow intense rigour, and its contrast to the pressure those of us immersed in the world of social media feel to publish quickly, frequently, and as a result often shallowly, but there are many more insights than that to be gained from her deep exploration of her process. I will definitely re-read this chapter in the future, in moments when I'm going through one of my periodic re-thinkings of how I do my work.

And even if I can't take on all of her ontology, even if my inability to do so is disrespectful -- I hope not, but I'm open to hearing that it might be -- her ideas on subject formation, identity formation, and how we exist as selves in the social world can be taken up in ways that can integrate with my sense of how the world works. I think her theorizing that responds to the necessity but limits of reified approaches to identity politics (particularly when read along with Keating's work, my review of which I link above) is so much richer, so much more sophisticated, so much more a possible grounds for creating the 'we' that might accomplish collective liberation than the reinvigorated smooth-tongued class reductionism of a growing (mostly-white) section of the anarchist and socialist left. As well, in a bit of a different vein, the fact that the final chapter managed to have such an impact on me years ago despite my inability to fully take up (or even, at that time, fully recognize) its ontology is, I think, fodder for future reflection about...well, about what it means to learn about the world through encounters across significant difference.

There's a lot more I could say about this book and about the various lines of reflection it has inspired in me, but I think I'll restrict myself to just one more: It has really made me think about the boundaries we put around who we listen to, who we read, and what work we take seriously. (This line of thought is also inspired by things I've seen online from feminist philosopher Sara Ahmed about citation practices and how we construct our intellectual/political lineages.) The most acute end of this for me is a recognition that there are people whose thinking and political work I really respect -- and I'm thinking most directly of certain mostly-white marxist and anarchist men, but not only them -- who would be very unlikely to read this book, who would be (privately) scornful of it if they did read it, or who would give it a tokenistic nod of respect but never really take it seriously in their own writing or political practice if they didn't just dismiss it. Now, though this reflection was sparked by this book, obviously it isn't really about one book or one person's work. Just as obviously, there are without a doubt ways that I too enact a similar kind of refusal-to-learn, so I'm not trying to be smug here. I also know that we all have limited hours in our days, and we all need to make practical decisions about how to move forward, whether that is in writing work or in organizing on the ground...but even so, I think that the kind of swift dismissal of differences in radical practice that is so endemic to how graduate school trains people to relate to radical ideas, and how correct-line political formations (be they marxist or anarchist) train people to relate to ideas and to practices, will ultimately be unhelpful in building the "we" that we need to make progress towards collective liberation -- in going from "nos/otros" to "nosotros," to borrow language from Anzaldúa. But even so, I don't claim to have any good answers about how to act differently...just a sense that pushing ourselves to have a more complex and generous sort of response to the radical ideas and practices of others that don't mesh easily with our own -- a sort of response based in respectful engagement even in the face of complexity and disagreement and unease -- has to be part of that.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.

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