I have been trying to think magnanimously about Rachel Dolezal’s self declared blackness, a venture that many who write critically about embodiment and society ought to attempt, if for no other reason than to interpret the difference between an emotional reaction to a cultural circumstance and a nuanced reading of the current moment. I can’t help but recall Jacques Lacan’s observation that to live in a body is to experience fragmentation, moreover, according to the principle of corps morcele, every man and woman lives out his or her imaginary anatomy. The self-consciousness of embodiment is one form of hysteria and it’s fair to say that in a culture where eating disorders, gender dysphoria, and the abjections that accompany physical flaws are legion, Rachel Dolezal’s story isn’t unique. The 24-7 news cycle insists we think so, demanding indignation because her black identification is merely a ruse. This is fair enough. It’s also fair to argue, as many have, that her “act” was possible only by virtue of white privilege. Others say that by pretending to be a woman of color she stole public positions that ought, rightfully, to have gone to an authentic black person. Yes, the story is a mess. Add the long history of miscegenation and “one drop” jurisprudence and Dolezal’s act appears cynical and perhaps even cruel.
I’m a blind person. For many years I tried to prove I could see because my parents said appearing sighed was crucial for me. My story isn’t unique. Many people with disabilities struggle to accept their bodies. Beyond acceptance one learns about the body politic—the values assigned to bodies are often the products of sinister histories. But I digress. I know a little something about pretending to be someone else, and I know a good deal about not liking the corps morcele. Did I do damage to people back in the days when I pretended I could see? I think so. I made other people hostages to my circumstance—I needed people to accompany me even as I feigned capacities of self-determination I didn’t possess. Deceit isn’t good for the deceiver and it pollutes his surroundings.
And so, back to my earlier point—Lacan’s really—that all of us live in our imaginary anatomies. These visions can be strictly compensatory, like thinking you’re athletic when you’re not. Or telling yourself you can see when in fact you can’t. Or they can be artfully constructed and exceed simple escapist desires. Who would not say Ru Paul isn’t authentically alive and dazzling?
Let us all play act at being one another. There is more health in constructive imaginations of embodiment than there is in culturally enforced denial. We need new public narratives for Lacan’s fragmented anatomies.
What if we applauded people for telling us how they really feel on the inside?
In his famous essay “To Have Done with the Massacre of the Body” the French philosopher Felix Guattari wrote:
No matter how much it proclaims its pseudo-tolerance, the capitalist system in all its forms (family, school, factories, army, codes, discourse…) continues to subjugate all desires, sexuality, and affects to the dictatorship of its totalitarian organization, founded on exploitation, property, male power, profit, productivity…Tirelessly it continues its dirty work of castrating, suppressing, torturing, and dividing up our bodies in order to inscribe its laws on our flesh, in order to rivet to our subconscious its mechanisms for reproducing this system of enslavement.
With its throttling, its stasis, its lesions, its neuroses, the capitalist state imposes its norms, establishes its models, imprints its features, assigns its roles, propagates its program… Using every available access route into our organisms, it insinuates into the depths of our insides its roots of death. It usurps our organs, disrupts our vital functions, mutilates our pleasure, subjugates all lived experience to the control of its condemning judgments. It makes of each individual a cripple, cut off from his or her body, a stranger to his or her own desires.
What I saw this week in moist and spasmodic reaction to the Dolezal affair was affirming of Guattari—which is to say, the outrage may have a great deal to do with repression, the condemning judgments may be designedly disruptive, assuring we will not talk about the provisional anatomies we’re forced to live under the flag of “norms”.