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In Event: Science, Technology, and Medicine Caucus: The Therapeutic Self, Gender, Race, and Well-Being
The flexible subject of late capitalism, who must “perform wholeness through each recurring crisis,” must also perform a particular version of psychic wellness – one belonging to the neoliberal subject that is always already white, heterosexual, able-bodied, and male.1 This paper explores how feminist comedy resists this ideology of mental health that characterizes therapeutic culture, particularly in terms of self-care.
Audre Lorde famously wrote that “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”; she published this in 1988, when the radical feminist notion of self-care had already been appropriated by therapeutic discourses of self-help and individual uplift. 2 How and why does care function as both an antiracist feminist act and an exercise of privilege, the latter of which solidifies one’s success as a neoliberal subject? To address this question, I turn to a genealogy of feminist comedians and comic writers who mock the stigmatization of psychic pain, while still refusing to resort to humor as therapeutic catharsis– that is to say, to refuse the trajectory of confession, healing, and the recovery of personal autonomy as a form of social capital. In this presentation, I focus on Tig Notaro’s Live (2015), which plays with the formalism of the joke to subvert gendered narratives of trauma, and Kate Berlant’s “Exploring the Now” (2013), which spoofs the whiteness and narcissism of neoliberal self-help industries. In these comic performances, the set-up of the joke veers off-course, and its failure to be a joke reveals what else is going off the rails – namely, our assumptions about what constitutes subjectivity within therapeutic culture. What does this self-reflexive comedy reveal about the necessity and impossibility of self-care under the conditions of racial capitalism?
1 McRuer, Robert. “As Good As It Gets: Queer Theory and Critical Disability.” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies, vol. 9, no. 1-2, 2003, 79-105.
2 Lorde, Audre. A Burst of Light: Essays. Ithaca: Firebrand Books, 1988.