Masters and Tools: Thoughts Inspired by Audre Lourde

I’m revisiting Lourde’s Sister Outsider so dug up this bit I wrote back in 2002.

Time collapses between the lips of strangers
my days collapse into a hollow tube
soon implodes against now like an iron wall
—Audre Lourde, “Never to dream of spiders”

Thanks to Black History Month!

It’s strange, though perhaps somewhat predictable, that I’ve read little of Audre Lourde’s poetry. I was introduced to her book of essays, Sister Outsider, in a graduate seminar on Feminist Ethics/Theory and used chapters from it in my own undergraduate teaching. I did get hold of Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, which is absolutely wonderful. I knew I wanted to write about “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” again (especially given Appiah’s use of the term), but I was a little surprised by how strongly I’m reacting to it. Damn, but Lourde is really good, and I’ve now set myself the goal of reading through her corpus. Black History Month strikes again.

(While doing a little web research for this article, I found a page that has three of her poems. I especially like “Never to Dream of Spiders”. Now I’m miffed that I didn’t look up her stuff earlier.)

Very much in a good spirit for Black History Month, Lourde writes:

In academic feminist circles, the answer to [why woman of Color are excluded as participants or subjects of conferences] is often, “We did not know who to ask.” But that is the same evasion of responsibility, the same cop-out, that keeps Black woman’s art out of women’s exhibitions, Black women’s work out of most feminist publications … and Black women’s text off your reading lists.” (Sister/Outsider, p. 113)

While (I hope) things have gotten better, it’s a worthy reminder that White people need to put forth a serious effort to get educated. Many ignorances not only are not excuses, but are the very locus of culpability.

On Reading Lourde Philosophically and Academically

As a philosopher — by inclination and too much training — I tend to read stuff with a eye to what philosophical value I can extract. That’s not to say that I don’t deploy other eyes differently. (Indeed, I could as well write, “As a novelist — by inclination and not enough training — I tend to read stuff (e.g., philosophical works) with a narrative eye.”) Furthermore, that too-much-training reveals that I am, in large part, an academic. That makes reading and writing about Lourde’s essays tricky, since although her work is cherished in several academic circles, and she herself moved through the Academy, she was very conscious of not being of the Academy in a number of ways. The essay I’m writing about now — “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House” — is, at one level, a powerful screed against her own academic sisters (for whom she is outsider by their own blindness and her own bravery). In context (and in subsequent appropriations of the phrase) the “master’s tools” seem naturally to stand for the mechanisms of academia (ranging from conference organizing to “reason itself”) and the “master’s house” being the power institutions (including and especially the Academy) of this oppressing society.

This essay is sometimes invoked as a move in the academic game — typically as an endorsement of some degree of postmodernism to be wielded or refuted (or, more generally, to push for a transcendence of the old frameworks). More in the spirit of Lourde’s original intention, it is invoked to produce the kind of reflection that produces appropriate humilities.

Those of us who stand outside the circle of this society’s definition of acceptable women; those of us who have been forged in the crucibles of difference — those of us who are poor, who are lesbians, who are Black, who are older — know that survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. (Sister/Outsider, p. 112)

(The teacher who introduced me to Lourde had trouble surviving academically in my department, in part, I believe, because she failed to be an “acceptable academic” woman. She’s still enormously privileged, of course, but the structure of exclusion and (relative) destruction remain surprisingly similar up and down the class scale.)

Many of my tools are academic tools, and the danger is that they are not conducive to the survival of non-acceptable people. They might well help me to survive, but at best at the price of collaboration. Master’s tools are usually for mastering (that is, the maintenance of masters) or, at least, involve mastering. At the very least, they are apt for maintaining the master’s house

Masters, Tools, and Houses: An Academicesque Analysis

A first response to “The master’s tools will not tear down the master’s house” is to ask why tearing down the master’s house is a good idea. Master’s houses tend to be very nice — large and luxurious.

And, indeed, that is part of the problem. Not the large and luxurious per se, but the fact that a house built around the needs and wants of a master tends to require servants and slaves. One thing people can do with masters’ tools is displace and replace the masters. This, of course, doesn’t solve the fundamental problem. Indeed, if, as proper, one sides with whomever is oppressed, then the switching of roles isn’t going to be a valuable thing. “Yay, we’ve vanquished the oppressive Taliban by installing the oppressive Northern Alliance” is not, contrary to what some “leftists” believe, a heartening cheer. (Which is, of course, why we tend to hear the abridged version.)

So master’s tools may be liberatory (of some people), but by making the master’s house strong, better, more suited to a dominance/subordination situation. To make masters into slaves and slaves into masters is to betray the goals of justice and liberty.

Angela Davis highlights a persistent (and dangerous) misuse of Master’s tools:

The U.S. colonial state’s racist, sexist, and homophobic brutality in dealing with Native Americans once again shows the futility of relying upon the juridical or legislative processes of the state to resolve these problems.

How then can one expect the state to solve the problem of violence against women, when it constantly recapitulates its own history of colonialism, racism, and war? How can we ask the state to intervene when, in fact, its armed forces have always practiced rape and battery against “enemy” women? In fact, sexual and intimate violence against women has been a central military tactic of war and domination.

Yet the approach of the neoliberal state is to incorporate women into these agencies of violence—to integrate the armed forces and the police.

How do we deal with the police killing of Amadou Diallo, whose wallet was putatively misapprehended as a gun—or Tanya Haggerty in Chicago, whose cell phone was the potential weapon that allowed police to justify her killing? By hiring more women as police officers? Does the argument that women are victimized by violence render them inefficient agents of violence? Does giving women greater access to official violence help to minimize informal violence? Even if this were the case, would we want to embrace this as a solution? Are women essentially immune from the forms of adaptation to violence that are so foundational to police and military culture?

It’s interesting to reflect on the similarity of this argument to a claim of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s, to wit, violence is self defeating:

One of them is to rise up against their oppressors with physical violence and corroding hatred. But oh this isn’t the way. For the danger and the weakness of this method is its futility. Violence creates many more social problems than it solves. And I’ve said, in so many instances, that as the Negro, in particular, and colored peoples all over the world struggle for freedom, if they succumb to the temptation of using violence in their struggle, unborn generations will be the recipients of a long and desolate night of bitterness, and our chief legacy to the future will be an endless reign of meaningless chaos. Violence isn’t the way.

Does Davis mean that legislation is useless? Is voting or legal battles against unjust laws futile? I don’t think so. Ridding ourselves of evil laws seems to be a very good thing, worth struggling for. But over-reliance on law and the coercive power of the state (especially against individual people, real people; regulation of corporations is a different matter) is troublesome, especially when one tries to fit in with the extant apparatus, which, itself, is likely highly tainted. Hate crime laws seem tending in this direction, and the ease with which they are perverted is telling. Affirmative action shares a bit of this too, though it seems to have been more generally effective (perhaps because it is primarily civil rather than criminal).

So not all tools that belong to the master are, or, perhaps, need be “of” the master, at least not entirely. Many tools may be mastery not by intrinsic design, but by long use and habituation. Of course, the realities of habit and tradition are often more powerful than intent, hope, or design: part of being a masterful oppressor is being able to co-opt whatever comes to hand.

So I take Lourde’s dictum as a call to deep skepticism and constant (but not crippling) reflection. I should not be so in love with my tools that I forget the proper ends, and while the ends do not justify every means, it’s only in respect to furthering justice that the tools gain proper value. It’s all too easy to become attached to power, privileges, and even the certainties of the status quo; to value them in themselves; to treasure what we have instead of what we might gain. Even many slaves can imagine worse situations; indeed, they often see worse situations dangling before them.

Such fear is, in the end, a important tool of the masters; one that makes tools of most of us.