Reflections on Otep, Audre Lorde, Neil Postman, and Anger
Updated: Sep 16
Earlier this week I had the angriest day. In the evening, I kicked back, listened to Blood Pigs by Otep, and had a good cry. Do you know that feeling when you listen to a song and are transported back to middle school? I was, and revisited a time when I was filled with a rage that I could not begin to understand, let alone express to people or myself. And I felt a lot of shame about that rage. Like it was something that set me apart from other people and made me weird and impossible; I feared it made me an inadequate student and an irrational thinker; I wished I could usher it quickly into exile.
But then there is Otep. She is 110% filled with sharp and powerful rage. She is unapologetic about it, and the way she writes herself into songs is really connective. I felt/feel seen by her music, as I imagine a lot of people did/do. So I've been wondering what it means to be an academic that writes themselves into work with this kind of connective power; that creates spaces where people can recognize and feel recognized in ways that aren't so bounded. Audre Lorde said it first and better. In "Poetry is Not a Luxury," she describes a brand of powerful emotionality that eludes traditional writing:
These places of possibility within ourselves [...] have survived and grown strong through darkness. Within these deep places, each one of us holds an incredible reserve of creativity and power, of unexamined and unrecorded emotion and feeling (Lorde 1977).
Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. [...] As they become known and accepted to ourselves, our feelings, and the honest exploration of them, become sanctuaries and fortresses and spawning grounds for the most radical and daring of ideas, the house of difference so necessary to change and the conceptualization of any meaningful action (Lorde 1977).
What I interpret from Lorde is not just that it's important to name things, but that the medium of poetry allows for generative configurations of namings that traditional (i.e. white, capitalistic, heteropatriarchal) writing stifles: "The white fathers told us, I think therefore I am; and the black mothers in each of us - the poet-whisperers in our dreams," she writes, "I feel therefore I can be free. Poetry coins the language to express and charter this revolutionary awareness and demand, the implementation of that freedom"(ibid).
This causes me to reflect on the importance of emotionality to academics, in terms of not just content but medium too. How do the academic article, the book chapter, the book review, the journal, the white paper, the structure of the academy writ large, all lock us into thinking, writing, and framing in particular ways? How do they keep us obsessed with discovering, inventing, and bringing forth new forms of knowledge? What if we opened up a different kind of space with writing, one that's more focused on novel configuration than new discovery? Lorde writes, for instance, that "there are no new ideas still waiting in the wings," and that there are "only [...] new combinations, extrapolations and recognitions within ourselves" (ibid).
I think, here, of the oft-quoted phrase by McLuhan – or, as Neil Postman calls him, "the great Catholic prophet, Marshall McLuhan" (3; 1998) – "The medium is the message." How far can these traditional academic mediums really get us? Otep's mediums are poetry and song, which convey and know differently than the academic article or chapter or book or white paper (perhaps, here, a debate about essences lies in waiting). Songs and poems were the things that spoke to me when I was younger and I got lots of messaging that, for this reason, academic articles would not converse with me. Emotionality and rationality were somehow different sides of a coin; if you were one, you couldn't be the other (Megan Boler dissolves this mythology in her 1998 book Feeling Power). The power of that message was psychologically binding for a very long time: I felt as though I had to discipline myself into the form of the academic writer, as one might freeze water into a fancy ice cube – a temporary form it would not find itself in otherwise. It took me time to find comfort thinking with and through academic writing. And although I don't buy into this emotionality/rationality and parallel poem/article mythology anymore, I still think that songs and poems afford differently and more openly, at least in the way they do work in our world now. But they don't have to.
How can we play with the format of ~*the article*~ to accommodate the weight of what we need it to accommodate? How can we write things that allow people to feel recognized if our writings don't travel because of paywalls and jargon and sundry elitisms? Neil Postman felt, too, that technologies and the ecosystems they create have particular kinds of affordances (I think specifically, here, of Latour's discussion of speed bumps and affordance), and allow for particular kinds of messages that shape us in turn:
[...] every technology has a philosophy which is given expression in how the technology makes people use their minds, in what it makes us do with our bodies, in how it codifies the world, in which of our senses it amplifies, in which of our emotional and intellectual tendencies it disregards (3; 1998).
Interestingly, Postman holds that poems afford elitism primarily. "The printing press gave the Western world prose," he writes, "but it made poetry into an exotic and elitist form of communication" (1; ibid). Lorde has a fantastic amendment to this, believing there to be two kinds of poetry: "the revelation or distillation of experience," and "the sterile word play that, too often, the white fathers distorted the word poetry to mean – in order to cover their desperate wish for imagination without insight" (1977). I find myself wanting to create the kind of work Lorde calls poetry: not in the pursuit of success, but to help someone else feel recognized and put words to something they were struggling to hold within themselves.
Boler, M. (1999). Feeling power: Emotions and education. Psychology press.
Latour, B. (1999). Pandora's hope: essays on the reality of science studies. Harvard university press.
Lorde, A. (1977). Poetry is not a luxury.
McLuhan, M. (1964). The medium is the message.
Postman, N. (1998). Five things we need to know about technological change. Retrieved from: https://web.cs.ucdavis.edu/~rogaway/classes/188/materials/postman.pdf