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Reader-Response to Racism: Audre Lorde and Seneca on Anger

Ellen Cole Lee

Connecticut College

"Racism. The belief in the inherent superiority of one race over all others and thereby the right to dominance, manifest and implied. Women respond to racism. My response to racism is anger." So Audre Lorde begins her essay "The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism." For Lorde, anger is not simply the flame igniting her passion for justice but the whetstone which sharpens her resistance. Her anger emerges as a direct challenge to the constant impositions of a white patriarchal society and as a productive source of knowledge shared by the community of the oppressed.

A Stoic counterpoint, Seneca's De Ira insists that anger, even in the face of grave injustice, is a moral failure. The Stoic wise man must shut down the natural progression of anger, controlling his intellectual response to any stimulus that elicits anger's involuntary bodily response. Anger's potential to spur the spirit is outweighed by its inevitable descent into uncontrollable vice. The wise man would never cease to be angry if he allowed himself to become so because of injustice; so unjust is the world, his anger would overwhelm his life.

While Lorde does not directly address Stoic philosophy, her essay responds to the tradition of 'Western' (white, male, elite) thinkers valuing reason over emotion in discourses of political power, creating gendered and racialized hierarchies. In reading Seneca alongside Lorde, we can clearly outline their fundamental differences: to Seneca, anger is unproductive and uncontrollable; to Lorde, anger is carefully directed, diverting emotion into energy that can be used to produce change. Social change is the goal of Lorde's philosophy, fundamentally distinguishing her from the Roman Stoic, who must give up worldly concerns and focus only on what he can control alone. Seneca and Lorde also give us different models for performing reception. While Seneca's model of 'response' is limited to the individual response to a particular stimulus, a hierarchical model of target and source, Lorde’s response requires a community of respondents who share in the insight that anger provides. Like Deleuze and Guattari's individual within rhizomatic assemblages, Lorde's anger responds both to systems of racism and to the community of the oppressed. A rhizomatic theory of reception must entail a response within the context of a community, an "active network of connections" (Hardwick 43).

Although neither directly alludes to the other, both Seneca and Lorde are connected as part of an assemblage, both products of received responses to anger.

Session/Panel Title

Theorizing Africana Receptions

Session/Paper Number

17.2

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