Audre Lorde's the Cancer Journals: Autopathography as Resistance

By Major, William | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2002 | Go to article overview

Audre Lorde's the Cancer Journals: Autopathography as Resistance


Major, William, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


This essay examines Audre Lorde's illness narrative, The Cancer Journals, through the lens of postmodern theories of identity. By raising the ethical question of whether contemporary theory forecloses on the autonomy so important to people suffering from serious illness, this essay contributes to ongoing debates over identity, subjectivity, and agency.

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Few projects on life writing can deal with the nature of the self without tackling the question of humanist identity, now known as the problem of the subject. In a certain sense, critics and students of autobiography often find themselves caught between a common-sense belief in the quotidian entity that we call the self, and the knowledge that what seems so much a given is in many ways a social or linguistic construction. Even with the critiques of autonomy, humanism, and transcendence that have formed the better part of literary scholarship over the last thirty years or so, we find the ongoing popularity of a literary genre that often indicates this belief in autonomous selfhood. "Despite the present poststructuralist moment in history," Suzette Henke writes, "most contemporary autobiographies are engaged in fashioning coherent narratives of their own lives, even though they recognize that the concept of a stable identity allied with the myth of a universal subject has proven to be a fantasmatic cultural con struct" (xv). Some current literary criticism seems to regard the "I" of autobiographical writings as an illusion synonymous with a critical naivete, as if, with a little theoretical sophistication, we can blithely theorize the self out of existence. But, as Paul John Eakin notes, it is difficult to find a more useful term when dealing with life writing: "Whereas some critics today seek to avoid self as variously compromised by bourgeois, transcendental, or androcentric assumptions and associations, I believe it to be indispensable to any treatment of autobiography" (10, emph. Eakin's). Despite the inherent conflicts over this issue, we might agree that the scepticism over the epistemological and ontological status of the self has allowed us to understand that autobiographical subjectivity may not be representative, reflecting a universal and at times transcendent experience particularized within the unique consciousness of the author. The question arises, then, over the potential consequences of a radical disengagement from the idea of autonomous selfhood, especially for those writers whose subjectivity is already suspect from a social point of view.

For the autopathographer, the total deflation or dispersal of the self--even the self as an imaginary, utopian ideal--is often unacceptable from an ethical, political, and ontological point of view. Indeed, until recently, the ethical issues raised by the deconstruction of the stable referent in autobiographical writings have not been adequately addressed. For instance, one need not believe in otherwise outmoded assumptions about autonomous subjectivity to argue that recourse to the self as a theoretical, if utopian, fiction can be redeeming for people whose sense of identity has been damaged. Susan J. Brison, for instance, situates the need for stable subjectivity within the context of surviving a trauma: "Although the survivor recognizes, at some level, that these regained assumptions are illusory, she learns that they are necessary illusions--as unshakable, ultimately, as cognitively impenetrable perceptual illusions" (21). The human experience of what it means to have an identity, damaged as it can be by bodily affliction or trauma, exceeds our theoretical foreclosure of stable subjectivity, and it is here that a nuanced understanding of postmodern subjectivity, feminist autobiography theory, and the body can help us undo the conceptual gridlock between romantic individualism and identity understood as the mere effect of powerful discourses. …

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