To Encourage Excellence
What is mediocrity? What is excellence? Reflections on Audre Lorde's "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power"
A note on today’s piece1
“To encourage excellence is to go beyond the encouraged mediocrity of our society…”
— Audre Lorde, “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power”
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
What is mediocrity?
Mediocrity is knowing your place. It’s performing your role. It’s accepting your lot in life.
Mediocrity is accepting the standardization of mass-produced life.
Mediocrity is self-protection in a society that prizes conformity and ignores what can't be construed as a market opportunity.
Mediocrity believes the hype.
Mediocrity is unquestioning. It's compliant. It’s anti-resistance.
When I talk about mediocrity, I am not talking about something bland and harmless. I’m talking about a cultural complacency with systems that are horrifically oppressive. — Ijeoma Oluo, Mediocre
Mediocrity is the belief that the future will go on being the same as the present.
What is excellence?
Excellence is risk. It is rage. It is making a place for yourself, even when space is tight.
Excellence is unmitigated. Unchecked. Relentlessly thorough.
Excellence is resistance.
Excellence is integrity in the face of tyrannical fragility.
I could also have said that it’s a critique, an embodied critique of the middle-class cult of personal safety. It’s a rejection of the belief that every vulnerability should be protected, and that the central project of our lives is to undo our own precarity. It’s a refusal of a way of life devoted to insurance. — Eula Biss, Having and Being Had
Excellence is hope.
Excellence isn’t achievement. It’s not a grade or a status. Excellence is a process, a pursuit, a method.
Excellence creates and maintains.
Now, I will simply do these maintenance everyday things, and flush them up to consciousness, exhibit them, as Art. — Mierle Laderman Ukeles, "Manifesto for Maintenance Art 1969!"
Excellence is available to everyone in theory. We are born into excellence. But in practice—in the practice of less-than-democratic late capitalism—our excellence is confronted by unyielding challenge.
Excellence is expensive. It requires time and space to pursue. And that means there are relatively few in our society that can afford to pursue excellence.
People who, from all outward appearances, from all intersections of subjugation, can’t afford excellence still find a way to encourage excellence in themselves and others.
They squeeze excellence into the calendar, into the budget—and enrich their lives. They carve excellence from the monolith, reclaim excellence from hegemony.
Excellence is power. Perhaps not institutional power (institutions, after all, tend toward mediocrity) but personal, interpersonal, erotic power:
This internal requirement toward excellence which we learn from the erotic must not be misconstrued as demanding the impossible from ourselves nor from others. Such a demand incapacitates everyone in the process. For the erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing. Once we know the extent to which we are capable of feeling that sense of satisfaction and completion, we can then observe which of our various life endeavors bring us closest to that fullness.
— Audre Lorde, "Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power"
Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches
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This piece started as my morning writing warm-up. I used the first Audre Lorde quote to start a meditation on the essence of mediocrity and of excellence. When I sat down to work, I came back to that messy reflection and expanded it, adding in other “nodes” of connection to my own thoughts. I decided to share it to experiment with less formal writing in the public space.