A Thing Of A Thing That Is Just A Thing: Self-Care With Hannah Black

by Sara Black McCulloch

hannah black

In Hannah Black’s video My Bodies, Black has assembled instances of the word “body” in pop music. As different close-ups of white men appear, a stream of “my body” in pop songs plays. We zoom in on the skin of these men, counting every pore as Ciara sings “Your body/is my party.” You can hear Beyonce, Rihanna, Whitney, Ciara, along with many others, utter “My body.” Black’s editing draws you into the video and the way the sounds and images and text are layered and spliced together, you’re hypnotized by the rhythm of so many bodies on top of bodies.

For weeks, Hannah and I had been going back and forth within a Google Doc about self-care: how to define it for ourselves and for others. Over the course of a few days, Hannah would edit and re-edit responses, refining every idea. Hannah asked me to really mean what I said, or asked me to either specify context or situations that influenced the very limited ways I defined and conceived of self-care.

We chucked that original draft and, instead, turned to Gchat to air confusions about self-care: how it can potentially be problematic, what it means in a larger context, but also how self-editing could be a form of self-care too.

Sara Black McCulloch: Hey!

Hannah Black: Hello hello. I’m cooking but we can talk while I cook. It’s sort of on-theme.

SBM: Does cooking or food factor into self-care for you? Is it important to you?

HB: I really like to cook, but not in a complicated way, because that feels embarrassing. I hate how cooking has become this public macho fame thing with complex tech and whatever. It’s so gross. I also don’t like the idea of the dinner party. I like the idea that if people come to your home you feed them, but it’s not like this reification of eating together.

I think in general the trouble I have with self-care is that I can’t quite work out the exact connection between things like self-care and cooking. Maybe it would be better to put that as the relation between self-care and necessity. I’m not sure what the relationship between self-care and necessity is.

SBM: What to you is a necessity?

HB: Besides enough to eat and a place to live and time with friends, what’s necessary to me is what I desire. Not that the desire has to be fulfilled, but it’s necessary for me to have desires and know them and be able to work them through, think about them, spend time on them.

Is it annoying how I’m problematizing the concept of self-care so much? I could also stop doing that. In general I get it. It’s taking care of yourself. Don’t you think that is like, pure capitalist reification though, in the sense of like, making a thing of a thing that is just a thing?

SBM: It’s what I find particularly interesting because I’m so terrible at it and most of the people I talk to still don’t know what it means to them yet. I think there’s definitely a danger that it will become some sort of hashtag.

HB: Yeah, I’m concerned that it becomes another way to self-flagellate or part of a disgusting idea of work ethic, like, “you’re so lazy, you’re not taking care of yourself!!” Like how drug addiction treatment is moralistic and fucked up and therefore not effective at all because it assumes addiction is purely a question of willpower and having the right kinds of thoughts.

SBM: There’s a behavior or attitude that needs correcting.

HB: Yeah. I was thinking about this when I was in the supermarket just now and I was looking vacantly at the chocolate Easter bunnies and all the doubts I’d had about self-care since you asked me to do this interview crystallized as: “but we should all be able to take care of each other.” That’s sort of a melancholic position though, because the whole role of the capitalist state is to break that possibility, and that’s the reality we live in.

SBM: Do you find that a lot of people don’t? A lot of people burn out or overwork and overtire themselves because they can’t stop and reflect on how the body is feeling or responding; they can’t afford to?

HB: It’s true. Also in the midst of my height of self-care critique a friend of mine who does a very taxing menial job and doesn’t have any money* read me a list of advice on how to improve your life that he’d found online and he said, very seriously, “I have to read this because my life is bad,” and I felt like maybe my criticisms were all just over-intellectualizing bullshit.

*edit: doesn’t have MUCH money.

Wow, self-editing. Is self-editing a form of self-care?

SBM: That’s a great question. So many times I’ve been made to feel as though self-editing was a kind of self-hate or lack of self-confidence because I use to do this a lot in conversations, and I think it made it hard for someone to follow.

HB: Oh, in that case I think it was just trying to make my sentences more perfect, so it was a way of showing that I believe myself capable of perfection. Or maybe not perfection but inching up a scale towards perfection. Perfection itself belongs to God, obviously. Not that I’m religious but I like that idea.

SBM: In some ways you were self-editing your definition of self-care before.

HB: That’s true. I think it provoked a baby response, like, “I don’t WANT to look after myself, I want someone else to look after me.”

SBM: Right. I’ve always had that same impulse, in a way: that someone else needs to tell me what my limits are or aren’t. Like I can’t figure that out for myself until it’s too late: I’ve burned out, haven’t slept enough, etc.

HB: Yeah, it’s part of the fantasy of getting into a couple relationship, even though I can see from observing couples around me that the actual practice of being in a couple is sort of similar to being in a family (i.e., a bit stressful and full of obligation), or being in a friendship (i.e., just part of the fabric of your life in a way that doesn’t necessarily transform or rescue you). I think any idea of self-care, like any idea of anything, has to start from the place of thinking about how brutal the history of capitalism is and how that’s the history we are living in, this long apocalypse. I’m going through one of those phases where that is pressing on me more than usual because I’ m reading this book about the history of Australia and it’s just horrible.

SBM: Which book?

HB: It’s called Blood on the Wattle and it’s by Bruce Elder. My friend Sarah Harrison lent it to me and I happened to have read a few chapters just before our conversation. We all know or we all should know by now the enormity of the ruin inflicted on the world by capitalism, which also includes white supremacy as one of its founding principles, but I happened to read that book on a flight followed by the Economist and the in-flight magazine, and sometimes the world is like an alien invasion movie where you fast-forward 100 years and the aliens are all going around with smug faces telling themselves how beautiful and smart they are. This isn’t an adequate description. All capitalist states, i.e. all states, i.e. all the agents of those states, are deeply dishonorable and have deeply dishonored the world. Look at them shedding crocodile tears over violence! They practically invented violence and still reproduce its dominance. There was violence and bad shit before capitalism, of course, but this generalized and non-specific violence, this everywhere threat: that’s its great invention. No wonder we are anxious and fearful of our lives.

Maybe that is only tangentially relevant but I’m trying to make it condition my thoughts about self-care. What has happened between us that self-care has become such a question, that we are often not only barred from caring for each other but also for ourselves? It’s crazy.

SBM: I noticed that you weren’t trying to define self-care for yourself, but you were looking at a bigger picture. You were factoring in how your actions affected others. I’m reluctant to practice self-care at times; I’m afraid I’ll lose touch with others because I’ll be so preoccupied with myself. Do you think, though, that having some better sense of self can help you better relate to others? Forge better relationships? I think that’s why this concept of self-editing is important too — I think we’re all constantly refining the ways we articulate everything to ourselves and to others.

HB: Yes and really I don’t mean to criticize self-care as narcissistic. I support narcissism in most people, with the obvious exceptions (straight white men).

SBM: Why do you support narcissism?

HB: I think I spent most of my life, up until my late twenties, just in this fog of self-loathing, and it was really pointless and I regret it. There must be more interesting things to do. I can still disappear back into the fog sometimes, but then you think about a bunch of English men turning up, well, everywhere, and trying to kill everyone, and then setting up a system where they constantly reward themselves for that, and how even now that category of person doesn’t seem to know how to hate themselves, and then its like, “why do *I* hate myself?? all I’ve done is send a bad text message or say something stupid at a party.”

Like I’ve had at least two conversations with rich white men directly descended from the people who ruined the world or tried to (that’s why they’re rich) where they are basically asking me how to feel less guilty and I’m like, “You want to feel LESS GUILTY???” Should they not feel MORE guilty? Are they in fact feeling bad enough? I’m really not sure.

SBM: Is that self-care for…them?

HB: Yes. It’s hilarious that certain types of white men swap around young white women like trophies and then they are astonished when the young white women perceive themselves as valuable. As a woman of colour I also don’t always love it when I see young conventionally attractive cis white women tell me how pretty they are on the internet because I’m like, yes, I know, I grew up terrorised by your beauty and I think I have some kind of measure of how much that beauty is achieved by making other people ugly, but I don’t get upset by it in this way of like, “How dare you understand your social value!!!”

I think it’s a nice thing that black feminists online celebrate other beautiful black women and I don’t see white women doing that as much and I wonder why. I guess there’s less solidarity among more valuable bodies.

SBM: There’s this idea that you can only value yourself and take care of yourself if you yourself have some kind of value that needs preserving, and it trickles down into so many different parts of everyday life.

HB: Yeahhhhhhh.

SBM: But then it’s also in place to make you feel like shit.

HB: It’s like “Girl, you are so pretty and smart, you should love yourself!”

SBM: Right! It’s an externalized source of value. How do we even get to the point of valuing ourselves on our own terms (if that’s even possible)? When I read your New Inquiry piece on love it really resonated with me because that’s also been my impulse in a relationship: that “Why me? Who, me?” feeling/thought process.

HB: That sort of leads to this point about self-hatred. Like, for a long time I was like, “Self-love is a dumb concept, I want someone else to love me.”

SBM: Do you still feel that way?

HB: Recently I was like, “Oh wait, self-hatred must be a dumb concept too.” It’s not the easiest thing for me and it’s sort of underneath my intellectualizations. Like I often experience people’s love or desire as totally panic-inducing. I don’t know what to do with it, and I’m often drawn to people and situations that aren’t very good for me. I read a book by the Dalai Lama once where he was like (to paraphrase) “I was astonished when I first came across the Western concept of self-hatred, I had no idea what it meant!” which is cute. It is a weird concept. Why hate yourself? It’s a weird practice. Why do we do it? Do I even really mean it, or do I use words like self-loathing to refer to something else? I think they might be partly an accurate response to the situation we find ourselves in: the situation of general ruin.

This just feels so obvious to me that how you get to self-love is through receiving love and giving love. I don’t even really know what self-love is. I know that’s a reactionary position in some ways, and I try to temper it with a self-critique, which is: self-hate and self-love must be equally dumb or equally useful concepts. For all my railing against self-love, I have at times been capable of self-hatred.

When I receive love from others I find it easier to generate love, to give it. But on the other hand, it goes both ways: when I find it easier to have loving feelings, it’s also easier to receive it. The big embarrassing question is what love is anyway. Like value, I think it’s probably not a fixed inherent thing but a relation. When I’m totally single and not seeing anyone, or barely seeing someone, I can long for a relationship like it’s going to fix me, and then when a real actual person turns up in my life then I’m like “oh wow, how could I ever have tried to reduce or flatten you and this process between us into being just about me, just about resolving some problem inside me?”

When there’s a real person with me and I’m trying to love them then I understand that it’s something way more process-based and fluctuating and rich than just healing a wound in me. A relationship shouldn’t be a hospital, but sometimes you can also get healed there, or you can get hurt, in the process of trying to do something else. I’m trying to be less utopian about romantic love, but it’s tough because that involves some really intense encounters with the wound I thought I could get healed there. There might be feelings of loss that you will never be compensated for; you might have to learn to wear those feelings, rather than try to solve or hide them. And by you, I mean I, of course.

SBM: What about self-loathing in interpersonal relationships? How does that feeling of ruin seep in? Like is this the language we now use (however inaccurate) to describe how we feel in our surroundings? With each other?

HB: Frank Wilderson has this beautiful thing about how the whole world is anti-black, but as a political organizer he’s not allowed to say that he wants the world to end. Writing is a place where he can do that. Maybe self-hatred or failures of self-care are ways to just express our anger.

When I was in NYC, I had studio space in Chinatown, and opposite there was this street corner, and there were these drunks who would just hang out there all day, mostly older black men. They would get crazy drunk and cry and sing and argue and lie down on the sidewalk and then another one would come and be like, “Get up, get up” and then the one lying down would get up and they would all celebrate his getting up and an hour or two later someone else would be fighting or lying down as if to die. I felt that they were the most important people I had encountered in New York even though I didn’t find the courage to talk to them ever. I probably would not have enjoyed talking to them, because you also know how as a woman you are always just carrying that around as a big weird barrier in between you and men. Like, it’s hard to talk to men ever — I mean strangers. Anyway, I just thought they were really remarkable because they were so sunk into their own lives, and why should they not be? They weren’t really taking care of themselves though.

Don’t you think a very powerful thing to say is “I don’t care?” That’s also part of it. Maybe “I care” is the reformist position and “I don’t care” is the revolutionary position in the sense that both are fucked but there might be some weird dialectical relationship between them or something.

With relationships — I think you want me to say something about romantic relationships, and I also want to. I spent the past few days talking a lot with a new friend, a sort of romantic new friendship, about the difference between being intimate with men and with women and how women are scary because they really try to see you. This is totally generalizing, of course.

SBM: What do you mean by caring and not caring? As in, you don’t care what other people think?

HB: If I’m dating a man or into a man and he says, “You’re mean” or whatever I’m rolling my eyes like, “Wow jeez obviously you think that because I am a powerful witch and you are a man.” Whereas if a woman I care about says I’m being mean to her I’m like “Oh god, I’m a disaster, how can I go on.” Because I think women actually think about people so you have to care about what they think of you. I’m totally generalizing. I am a woman who is sometimes careless and unkind with other people, but I suffer from that more than I would if I were a man, I think. I also suffer from my unkindnesses. I think that’s kind of femme.

SBM: So how, then, do you have that core part of you that doesn’t allow other people’s opinions to affect you? To define you?

HB: If I think about it pragmatically in my case: I quit a job I didn’t like and went back to school. Then my life felt more and more like a life I could actually live. And then the other side of that is that I had some quite painful experiences that made me angry enough to want to protect myself. I know not everyone can quit their job but maybe it’s possible to find pockets of resistance within yourself. Maybe I can’t really give advice. I feel like I lost myself from around the age of 8 or 9 until that point in my 20s when I was like “Wait, stop, I hate my life,” and then I changed it. It wasn’t my worst job. My worst job was working in a factory for a week when I was 19. That was very instructive in terms of like, “Ok, work is a disgusting historical accident.”

I still do things I hate, but less of the time. Also it was sort of a miracle that I was so bad at my job that I could not continue. I feel so lucky about that because if I had been just a bit better at it maybe I would have had to go on doing it.

SBM: I get torn with this question I’m about to ask you because of how I feel with giving advice and who gets to give advice, but have you ever gotten great advice?

HB: I just asked my friend who just arrived and he said “You are a smart person, why do you need advice?” My advice is that if you are asking me for advice, it’s that you want to find out what you already know, and I want to help you with that.

SBM: But what if some people don’t already know? What if they’re genuinely confused?

HB: I could be really pop-psychoanalytic and be like, confusion is when you know what you want but you don’t want to know, or you don’t want to want, but yeah, I sometimes also don’t know what I want. What kind of situation are you thinking of?

SBM: I just think that in some ways, yes, it’s good to help and think about others as much as you can, but sometimes it can be a form of avoiding yourself too. I’m painting strokes very broadly here, but there are always some moments in life when you have to make the best decision for yourself, but you don’t know how to. It’s just that can self-care be about surviving in a way? And can it lead to a truth like, “Sometimes you overextend yourself because you only value yourself if others value you.”

HB: Yeah, maybe I’ve been unclear. When I’m talking about caring for each other I mean also caring for yourself. I mean “each other” as against some vague idea of a ruling class that is against us, a kind of pedagogical or political or aesthetic stance, because maybe not everyone who reads this or reads my work has that position — of being against those in a position of power and dominance — but I would like us to all at least grasp the enormity of that situation. So YES, of course you should also care for yourself and what survives in you. I think self-care is about survival, and that survival is both this agency-free necessity, like, also your boss wants you to take of yourself — that’s the deal of wage labour or whatever, but I also am willing to go out on a limb and say that it’s important that individuals survive and that identities survive. And if I’m valorizing loving others that’s not in opposition to loving yourself. I sometimes feel like, when people say, “if you don’t love yourself no one else will love you” that it’s punitive, and my response is like “oh shit, no one will love me??”

Some people have loved me when I didn’t love myself all that much, or I didn’t have the feeling of loving myself, and I am grateful to them and they changed me, and I loved myself more in the image of their love for me, and I hope I did the same for them, or continue to do so. I should use the present tense, it’s an ongoing thing. But it’s the same as we were saying about self-hate, “self-love” is just a vague name for some capacity to live or something. To get up in the morning, to remember to breathe and eat, to feel ok, etc.

SBM: As a way to confront the ruin?

HB: Yes! And to recognise that we are living in ruin and that means maybe we are also living in hope — in hope of improvement rather than anticipation of a totally new disaster, because the disaster is already here.

SBM: You mentioned doing things for an idea of another person/wanting to be another person sometimes and caring for other people. Can you expand on that?

HB: Did I? Wow. I don’t know what I meant by that. I don’t think self/other distinctions can be as clear as we want them to be. That’s the Aries/Libra or 1st house/7th house axis in astrology and the two are always collapsing and unifying and polarizing again. I feel like when I write to you I’m also writing to my idea of you, and trying to uphold or challenge my idea of your idea of me. That’s why writing can’t just be purely autobiographical or memoir or whatever, because it’s a negotiation with the world, with language, with imagined and real readers.

Practically, if you just meant in terms of caring for others, I like to feed people for example, because I like the feeling of being someone who can feed another person. I like the act of giving and I can take something from it for myself. My fantasy version of myself in a fantasy society, like if I’d been born somewhere food and shelter was abundant and free and we could actually focus on the real shit i.e. each other, I’d just be someone who talked and cooked and ate and experimented with different ways of being with people. Those are the full extent of my interests really. I tend to prioritize relating at the cost of many things, including financial stability and even sanity sometimes. But now I’m thinking about people who I’ve disappointed in because I couldn’t relate to them in the way they wanted… I can paint a picture of myself as always in these processes of relationship but I check out of possible relationships all the time and sometimes I do it really cruelly. I can’t make up for it but I can say that I always experience those moments of retreat as deep failures, like, moments where I’m in the most barren parts of myself.

SBM: How do you deal with uncertainty, especially in the face of ruin?

HB:I have a really hard time dealing with uncertainty so I would say the way I usually deal with it is despairing and then forgetting and then hoping. I’ve been saying “inshallah” and “god willing” a lot recently, like “I’ll be in New York next week, God willing.” I’m not religious but it helps to remember that certainty belongs to God.

Previously: Saving While You’re Spending

Sara Black McCulloch is a writer living in Toronto. Mute her on the Internet here.