You know that feeling when you arrive into a room and you feel like you are imposing?

Say you end up with a group of people who know each other really well. Everyone is polite and attentive. And then the conversation might fall into the charm and ease of familiarity. A falling, a rolling: shared memories that come up because just a word can be enough to bring them up. The chuckle when she said that, a chuckle that can ripple through the group, accompanied by sideways glances of affection. You don’t mind this at all; you might be sitting back and enjoying that roll. But someone looks up and notices you are not being included in the conversation. There is a checking; a feeling of being checked. And someone else might turn to you and ask you a question. It is such a polite question; the atmosphere becomes more formal. And this tonal shift is a shift of attention toward you. However good natured and considerate this checking of intimacy, you feel like such an imposition. You become the cause of the loss of the ease of informality, at least in your own mind, whether or not you are perceived by others as the cause. You might wish you could disappear so things could flow again. You become tense; it becomes tense.

Such a scenario can take place in institutional contexts. My research into diversity leads me to conclude: this scenario is often institutionalised. The most difficult moments for diversity practitioners are often the moments before a meeting starts, or after a meeting ends, before there is a shift to a more formal register, or when there is a shift from a more formal register. The moments when rules are relaxed are often when those who do not share a background feel the most “out of place.” One practitioner mentioned this kind of checking of the ease of familiarity when she enters the room. She said that in the meetings she attends, the other people always seem to know each other and talk to each other in ways she finds alienating. She told me of one  difficult moment when she arrived to the diversity committee she was chairing and the two men who were already there were talking about the breakfasts they had at Oxbridge; “something to do with bananas,” she said.

You can feel alienated, you can feel like an affect alien, you can feel angry or annoyed, and still experience the situation as one in which you are the imposition. You might feel an imposition when your arrival requires that others withdraw from a shared intimacy. You might feel an imposition because your arrival prevents others from entering that intimacy. When an adjustment has to be made, because of your arrival, it is an uncomfortable feeling.

In order for some to be accommodated, adjustments have to be made. An accommodation is both a house or dwelling and a process of fitting or making fit. What I call simply “diversity work” is often about accommodation; things have to be adjusted before some can be housed. Thus far I have spoken of conversations. Adjustments matter insofar as they relate to the materiality of institutions. Think of how adjustments have to be made to spaces insofar as those spaces assume certain bodies; the pavement might have to be adjusted to support the passing through of those in wheelchairs; a podium might have to be adjusted to support those who are not the right height; a time-table might have to be adjusted to support those with child care responsibilities, and so on.  Bodies can be experienced in this way, as getting in the way, when spaces are not made “accessible” to those bodies. Access, as Tanya Titchkosky (2011) has observed, should not be understood simply as a bureaucratic procedure, but is about how spaces are experienced and lived as oriented toward bodies, with their differing capacities and incapacities. That we notice some modifications of spaces to make them more accessible reveals how spaces are already shaped around certain bodies. As Nirmal Puwar (2004) describes some bodies are perceived as “space invaders.” The modifications required for spaces to be opened to other bodies are often registered as willful impositions on those spaces.

We learn from this: the world has already adjusted to some bodies. When an adjustment is already, it is not experienced as adjustment. This is how some bodies come to be at home before they even take up space; they are already accommodated. When institutional and public spaces assume certain bodies, history has become concrete.

Gender could also be re-described in the concrete terms of accommodation. You might feel  at home in the pronouns in which you have been housed: “she” or “he” (oh the violence of this or, oh how few alternatives, oh we must rebel against the grammatical and gender law that says “they” cannot be given to a singular subject!). If you do not feel at home in a pronoun, it can become a site of struggle as well as estrangement. A pronoun can become uncomfortable: you might feel the pronoun as an imposition. Or to use one of my own favoured metaphors: the pronoun does not function like a comfortable chair; you do not sink into it. This uncomfortable sense of having something imposed upon you that you cannot inhabit is not necessarily registered by those with whom you interact. That’s too weak: an insistence on not being housed by a pronoun given by others can be registered as an imposition on others. In other words, it is heard as a requirement that others adjust to you, that others meet your requirements. You become an imposition when you experience a word, a norm, a category as an imposition.

Heard as a requirement: there is a history abbreviated here, of how modifications that aim to enable more equitable social relations are heard as making demands or imposing on others. This is how “political correctness” often gets used: a modification is judged as an imposition of a social norm that regulates behaviour that would otherwise be free (we can hear with this free an “easy”). As I pointed out in my post, “The Problem of Perception,” even noticing how social categories as worldly can be judged as imposing those categories on the world. For something to be judged as imposition, in this context, is how something becomes framed as foreign to a situation. An imposition: how something is understood as being pushed from the outside in.

We can feel like we are imposing, we can be judged as imposing. It is a situation. We need to follow the feelings, we need to hear the judgments; we need to make sense of the situation.

Another of putting this: those who are unhoused by being are those deemed to impose their being on those who are housed by being.  An unhousing can require we become insistent. In Willful Subjects, I describe insistence as a form of political labour; one that is unevenly distributed as a requirement. Some have to insist on belonging, or not belonging, to the categories that give residence to others. You might have to insist on being “he” or “she” or “not he” or “not she” when you are assigned the wrong pronoun; you might have to keep insisting. To be in a same sex relationship can also involve experiencing the pronoun as a struggle, one that is both personal as well as political: when you partner is assumed to be “he” or “she” you have to correct the assumption, and the very act of correction is heard as a willful imposition on others. It is exhausting, this labour, which is required because certain norms are still at work in how people are assumed to be and to gather; even if there are rights and recognition, the on going and everyday nature of these struggles with signs are signs of a struggle. A desire for a more normal life does not necessary mean identification with norms, but can be simply this: a desire to escape the exhaustion of having to insist just to exist.

Diversity work, I have suggested, is work that we do when we do not “quite” inhabit the norms of an institution, as well as the work we do when we aim to transform those norms. Diversity work is thus willful work. What do I mean by this? My project on “the sociality of will” very quickly became a project on social precedence; how the will of some “comes first” because they come first. Those who come after have to be willing to adjust or make willing adjustments; for those who come after, will becomes work.

I introduced this idea in my post on conditional will. I wrote there:

If certain people come first –such as hosts, but also parents or citizens, then their will comes first. This being first is not always obvious or explicit. Indeed the host might say that they will “will” only if the guest wills, thus appearing to give the guest a certain precedence “I will if you will, then I will.”  A promise to be willing can become a demand given this precedence: “you will, so that I can will.” If the other won’t will, then the one who wills the other to will so they can will also cannot will “if you won’t then I can’t.” The guest must will the same way for those who are already in place to receive what they will:  “you must be willing!”

The will becomes not only work but also duty (“you must be willing”) for those who come after. Perhaps this translates in the following way: if your being is an imposition, you must be willing to minimize the imposition of being (at all). You must be willing to minimize differences in order to be accommodated.

My thesis is relatively simple: diversity work becomes willful work when we refuse to be quite so accommodating.



Puwar, Nirmal (2004). Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. Oxford: Berg.

Titchkosky, Tanya (2011). The Question of Access: Disability, Space, Meaning. Toronto:

University of Toronto Press.


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Willful Subjects

Willful Subjects

We have a cover for the book! It will be out in August/October this year depending on where you are.

Willful subjects are restless. What an army.

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Dated Feminists

In a relatively short period of time I came across a number of references to my work as “dated” and I was twice described as a “1980s feminist.” Almost all of these references were in anonymous reader reports on written work that was eventually to become part of my book The Promise of Happiness (2010), in which I explore the figure of the feminist killjoy in depth. In fact, that was her first outing in my work.

I am not at all offended by such descriptions. I love 1980s feminism! But I do find them intriguing. And I do think I am invested in concepts and vocabularies that some would describe as “dated,” as belonging to a style of feminism that some assume is now over. Think of photographs you might have in dusty drawers of you and your friends from a decade earlier; you might take them out to have a laugh at the strange and yet familiar haircuts and fashions. It can be affectionate, that laughter: did I really; did we really?!  In the present time, some of us might have the function of an old photograph. We become a reminder of a time that others are no longer in; clothes that have been discarded; old fashioned, old fashions.

I suggest in my concluding paragraph in this post that even to use words like “sexism” is to be heard as dated, as drawing on terms that are not only not in use but have lost their utility. One wonders of course: do we lose the word to keep the thing? If feminist critiques of sexism are heard as “dated,” is it because the word is too sharp, rather than too loose, as cutting and abrasive because it keeps naming something?

Later when writing On Being Included (2012) I noticed again this reference to “old-fashioned” as a way of creating an impression of being over something. For example, in a BBC interview about the police and racism, Trevor Phillips suggests that most people in Britain are not racist as they “wouldn’t have a problem” having a person with a different ethnicity as their neighbour. Thus he suggests “the blanket accusation ‘institutional racism’ no longer quite helps us to understand what is going on.” For Phillips any racism within an institution is explained as not really “going on” even when it is on going: “In many of our institutions, there are still old-fashioned attitudes that don’t really catch up with where modern Britain is at and how British people today feel. That’s the next task that we’ve got to tackle” (On Being Included, 48). Racism becomes in this description about what is “old-fashioned” as if it lingers only insofar as institutions are not expressing what is in fashion. This account of racism as an old fashioned word might also help us to understand why diversity is so fashionable. It is a word that is in tune, in time, not abrasive because it is a shiny happy word.

My book On Being Included, funnily enough, was published out of sequence; it was a much delayed book. The reason this matters is that it was speaking to diversity practitioners and listening to how they account for the fashion of diversity that led me to want to write about happiness. In other words, On Being Included, published in 2012, led me on the trail to The Promise of Happiness, published in 2010.  What a queer sequence!

When doing the research on diversity work, I kept being reminded of feminist descriptions of the appeal of the figure of the happy housewife. In A Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan noted:

In 1960, the problem that has no name burst like a boil through the image of the happy American housewife. In the television commercials the pretty housewives still beamed over their foaming dishpans…But the actual unhappiness of the American housewife was suddenly being reported…, although almost everybody who talked about it found some superficial reason to dismiss it.

Now listen to this account of the appeal of diversity:

diversity is like a big shiny red apple right, and it all looks wonderful but if you actually cut into that apple there’s a rotten core in there and you know that it’s actually all rotting away and it’s not actually being addressed.  It all looks wonderful but the inequalities aren’t being addressed. 

A boil that bursts through a beaming smile; a shiny apple with a rotten core.

Diversity becomes here a technology of happiness: a way of creating a shiny surface is a way of not addressing and thus reproducing inequalities. You can see how some of this material led me to return to some earlier feminist concepts and terms. More specifically, it led me back to questions of consciousness. Consciousness is not understood here as  residing within individuals, or as what individuals have. Consciousness can involve individuals, but they are not the starting point. Rather, if we think of the creation of shiny surfaces, we are also thinking of how we learn ways of not being conscious, ways of not seeing what is happening right in front of us. Words like “racism” and “sexism” are heard as abrasive because they name what has receded from view. Then: it as if by “bringing them up” you are bringing them into existence.

Being a feminist killjoy can involve the refusal to find such images of happy convincing.  We are not convinced by the effort to be convinced. We keep bringing up what cannot be seen when diversity becomes a viewing point. No wonder feminist history is littered with killjoys: grumpy “humourless” women who refuse to find happiness convincing.

But this is a difficult history. It can be difficult to become conscious of unhappiness. Sometimes it seems it would be an easier path not to notice what gets in the way, not to be what gets in the way.

Feminism involves political consciousness of what women are asked to give up for happiness. There can be sadness simply in the realization of what one has given up. Let me share with you my reading of Mrs Dalloway from the chapter on feminist killjoys (this is an edited version).


Feminist archives are thus full of housewives becoming conscious of unhappiness as a mood that seems to surround them: think of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway. The feeling is certainly around, almost as a thickness in the air. We sense the unhappiness seeping through the tasks of the every day. There she is, about to get flowers, enjoying her walk in London. During that walk, she disappears: “But often now this body she wore (she stopped to look at a Dutch picture), this body, with all its capacities, seemed nothing – nothing at all. She had the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown; there being no more marrying, no more having children now, but only this astonishing and rather solemn progress with the rest of them, up Bond street, this being Mrs. Dalloway; not even Clarissa anymore; this being Mrs. Richard Dalloway” (1953: 14).

Becoming Mrs. Dalloway is itself a form of disappearance: to follow the paths of life (marriage, reproduction) is to feel that what is before you is a kind of solemn progress, as if you are living somebody else’s life, simply going the same way others are going. It is as if you have left the point of life behind you, as if your life is going through motions that were already in motion before you even arrived.  As I argued in Queer Phenomenology (2006), that for a life to count as a good life, then it must take on the direction promised as a social good, which means imagining one’s futurity in terms of reaching certain points along a life course. If happiness is what allows us to reach certain points, it is not necessarily how you feel when you get there. For Mrs Dalloway to reach these points is to disappear.  The point of reaching these points seems to be a certain disappearance, a loss of possibility, a certain failure to make use of the body’s capacities, to find out what it is that her body can do. To become conscious of possibility can involve mourning for its loss.

For Clarissa this rather uncanny sensation of becoming Mrs. Dalloway as a loss of possibility, as an unbecoming, or becoming “nothing at all,” does not enter her consciousness in the form of sadness about something. The sadness of the book – and it is a sad book – is not one expressed as a point of view. Instead, each sentence of the book takes thoughts and feelings as if they are objects in a shared world: the streets of London, the very oddness of the occasion of passing others by, a feeling of that oddness. The coincidence of how you coincide with others. As Clarissa goes out with her task in mind (she has to buy her flowers for her party), she walks into a world with others. Each might be in their own world (with their own tasks, their own recollections) and yet they share the world of the street, if only for a moment, a fleeting moment, a moment that fleets. Things appear as modes of attention: the plane above that writes letters in the sky, the plane that is seen by those who pass each other by. The question unfolds as a shared question: what letter is that? What word is that? “‘What are they looking at?’ asks Mrs. Dalloway” (42). It is as if the mere direction of a glance is enough to create a shared world. Although each brings to the street a certain kind of moodiness, a preoccupation with this or with that, the street itself can become moody, when an object grabs attention, like the plane that creates words in the sky above, although for each person who looks up, what they see might be quite different.

If unhappiness becomes a collective impression, then it too is made up of fragments that only loosely attach to points of view.  In particular, the proximity between Mrs. Dalloway and the character of Septimus is what allows unhappiness to be shared even if it is not passed between them; two characters who do not know each other, though they pass each other by, but whose worlds are connected by the very jolt of unhappiness. We have the imminence of the shock of how one person’s suffering can have an effect on the life world of another. Septimus suffers from shell shock; and we feel his feelings with him, the panic and sadness as the horror of war intrudes as memory. His suffering brings the past into the time of the present, the long time of war, its persistence on the skin as aftermath, its refusal of an after. To those who observe him from a distance, those who share the street on this day, he appears as a mad man, at the edge of respectable sociality, a spectacle. To encounter him on the street, you would not know the story behind his suffering. To be near to suffering does not necessarily bring suffering near.

Clarissa and Septimus, as characters who do not meet, thus achieve an odd intimacy: the not-just-private suffering of the housewife and the not-quite-public suffering of the returned soldier are interwoven. Importantly their sadness is proximate but not contagious. They do not catch sadness from each other; their sadness is what keeps alive histories that are not shared, that cannot be shared, as they pass by on the street.  And yet something is shared, perhaps those very things that cannot simply be revealed.  It is Clarissa thinking of her “odd infinities” with strangers “she had never spoken to,” as she sits on the bus, who wonders whether the “unseen part of us” might provide a point of attachment to others, and might even be how we survive through others, “perhaps, perhaps” (231-2).

Much of the book is about an event that will happen. For Mrs Dalloway is planning a party. To some feminist readers, it is the preoccupation with the party that makes the book disappointing. For Simone de Beauvoir, Mrs. Dalloway’s enjoyment of parties is read as a sign that she is trying to turn her “prison into glory”, as if as a hostess she can be “the bestower of happiness and gaiety” (1997: 554). For de Beauvoir the gift of the party turns quickly into duty; such that Mrs. Dalloway “who loved these triumphs, these semblances” still “felt their hollowness.” (554) For Kate Millett, Mrs. Dalloway is a rather disappointing figure; she exposes Woolf’s failure to turn her own unhappiness into a politics: “Virginia glorified two housewives, Mrs. Dalloway and Mrs. Ramsey, recorded the suicidal misery of Rhoda in The Waves without ever explaining its causes” (1970: 37).

If Mrs Dalloway is distracted from the causes of unhappiness by the party (and we can have some sympathy with the necessity of distractions), the party is also the event in which unhappiness comes to life. For Mrs Dalloway, her party is life; it is how she can make things happen; it a gift, a happening (185). What happens? That this question is a question is a preservation of the gift. And something does happen. For it is in the party that Septimus’s life “touches” Mrs Dalloway most directly. It touches her through death. Lady Bradshaw says to her: ““Just as we were starting, my husband was called up on the telephone, a very sad case. A young man (that is what Sir William is telling Mr Dalloway) had killed himself. He had been in the army.” Oh! Thought Clarissa, in the middle of my party, here’s death, she thought” (279). In the middle of the party, words accumulate as a narrative, telling the story of a death. A young man kills himself, and the death itself (and not just the narrating of the death) takes place in the middle of the party, in the middle of the life of the party.  The soul of the party is death. The reader has already read about this death; we have witnessed it. Now, we witness the ripples of this death, how it acquires a life of its own; how it takes place somewhere in the middle. For Mrs Dalloway, this death becomes something to imagine; to bring to life by thought:

What business had the Bradshaws to talk of death at her party? A young man had killed himself. And they talked of it at her party – the Bradshaws talked off death. He had killed himself– but how? Always her body went through it first, when she was told, suddenly, of an accident; her dress flamed, her body burnt. He had thrown himself from a window. Up had flashed the ground; through him, blundering, bruising, went the rusty spikes. There he lay with the thud, thud, thud in his brain, and then a suffocation of blackness. So she saw it. But why had he done it? And the Bradshaw’s talked of it at her party!” She had once thrown a shilling into the Serpentine, never anything more. But he had flung it away. They went on living (she would have to go back; the rooms were still crowded; people kept on coming). They (all day she has been thinking of Bourton, of Pete, of Sally), they would grow old. A thing there was that mattered; a thing, wreathed about with chatter, defaced, obscured in her own life, let drop everyday in corruptions, lies, chatter. This he had preserved. Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate, people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded; one was alone. There was an embrace in death. (280-81)

His death becomes a question that takes Mrs. Dalloway away from the party; she attends to his death, wonders about it; she becomes a retrospective witness even though she was not and could not have been there. The shudder: the sounds of it; the thud, thud, thud of it; the ground that flashes; the rusty spikes. His death becomes material; becomes fleshy through her thoughts.  His death announces not only that sadness can be unbearable but that we don’t have to bear it, that you can fling it away. And in this moment, when death intervenes in the life of the party, life becomes chatter, becomes what goes on, “they went on living,” what comes and goes, “people kept on coming.” Death comes to embody the suffering that persists when life becomes chatter.

What is striking about Mrs Dalloway is how suffering has to enter her consciousness from the edges, through the arrival of another, another who is an intruder, who has not been invited to the party. It is the suffering of an intruder that exposes the emptiness of life’s chatter. Suffering enters not as self-consciousness – as a consciousness of one’s own suffering – but as a heightening of consciousness, a world-consciousness in which the suffering of those who do not belong is allowed to disturb an atmosphere.  Even when unhappiness is a familiar feeling, it can arrive like a stranger, to disturb the familiar or to reveal what is disturbing in the familiar.

The arrival of suffering from the edges of social consciousness might teach us about the difficulty of becoming conscious of suffering, or teach us about our own resistances to recognising those seemingly “little” uneasy feelings of loss or dissatisfaction as unhappiness with one’s life. The party might expose the need to keep busy; to keep going in the face of one’s disappearance. So much sadness revealed in the very need to be busy. So much grief expressed in the need not to be overwhelmed by grief.  It is hard labour just to recognise sadness and disappointment, when you are living a life that is meant to be happy but just isn’t, which is meant to be full, but feels empty.  It is difficult to give up an idea of one’s life, when one’s lives a life according to that idea.

To recognise loss can mean to be willing to experience an intensification of the sadness that hopefulness postpones. We might say that feminism is an inheritance of the sadness of becoming conscious of gender as a restriction of possibility that was not necessary.


In reading this text, I wanted to show not only how consciousness of unhappiness is achieved but also how such consciousness puts us in touch with the world; allowing a world to pierce through the happiness seal.

Killjoys: breaking the seal.

In contemporary culture, so much inequality is preserved through the appeal of happiness, the appeal to happiness. It is as if the response to power and violence is or should be simply to adjust or modify how we feel; for instance, by transforming a social relation of exploitation into a personal feeling of empowerment.

And in feminist theory, too, there has been an injunction to “get over it” that some call an “affirmative turn.” There is an assumption that we must be for joy; that joy is about the capacity to act, that sadness is simply or only diminishing (1). For me what is diminishing is the assumption that that sadness is what we have to recover from, a recovery narrative that becomes too quickly a re-covering of the histories that are not behind us.

Of course I am not describing the complexity of some of this material that gathers as “the affirmative turn”.  But when I read that material I am unconvinced; more than that, I find such material to be part of the very shiny surface appeal that diversity practitioners as well as second wave feminists helped to diagnose for us.

It is not my task here to go through this material, though undoubtedly I should (but oh this should makes me weary). I am simply trying to account for how some styles of feminism are heard as dated.  And my response: we need to be dated feminists, because what we are describing is not a world that is no longer. I am not saying here that being dated is about being or feeling sad (none of my work calls for us to be sad, though I do think we should refuse the obligation to be happy). Rather: to be dated feminists might mean holding on to things (including words) that are deemed sad by others. When words like “racism” and “sexism” are heard as melancholic, it is assumed we are holding on to something that has gone. So yes: we have to hold on as these histories are not gone.

(1) I am well aware that some of these arguments “for joy” are drawing on Spinoza’s Ethics. Some readers might say, I am confusing terms here: that sadness and joy are not emotions or feelings, but refer to how bodies are affected, whether a body’s capacities for action are increased or decreased. However, I would argue that words “sadness” and “joy” retain their associations with negative and positive feeling even when used in this way, thus creating a connection between positive feeling and increased capacity, as well as negative feeling and decreased capacity. It these connections we need to challenge and that challenge (for me) requires drawing on intellectual resources that are often assumed as “dated.” Also note that for Spinoza, sadness and joy are affects precisely insofar as they are attached to ideas (and are thus confused). See my conclusion to The Promise of Happiness for further discussion; the afterword, “Emotions and Their Objects” to the second edition of The Cultural Politics of Emotion for a feminist critique of uses of the affect/emotion distinction, as well as my forthcoming book, Willful Subjects, for some questions around the distinction “increasing” and “decreasing” in contemporary uses of Spinoza.


Beauvoir, Simone de (1997). The Second Sex, trans. by H.M.Parshley. London: Vintage

Friedan, Betty (1965). The Feminine Mystique. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Millet, Kate (1970). Sexual Politics. Doubleday Publishers.

Woolf, Virginia (1953). Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Harvest Book.

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Being in Question

I am walking down a street in Cardiff. And I am stopped by someone; he is walking the other way. How interested he seems. In what, am I what? “Hey, where are you from?” The question is asked with a smiling curiosity. I shift around on my feet. It’s a familiar question but it is an uncomfortable familiar. I know what the question is asking of me. I resist giving the answer I am being asked to give. “Australia” I say. No, I mean originally. “I was born in Salford.” The questioner’s face creases with irritation. “Where are your parents from then?” He knows I know what he is asking. I give in, wanting to move on. “My father is from Pakistan.” That’s it. The conversation is over. I have given the right answer.  An explanation of where I am from, an account of not being from here, of how I ended up brown.

To be asked to account for yourself; to give an account of yourself; to feel you have to account for yourself. How do questions fall? On whom do they fall?

Moments like this, for many of us, are repeated over time. I am still asked these kinds of questions, though far less often than before, and rarely from those whom I encounter on the fast every day of the street.  More often now, it’s a question that gets asked when I say my surname, or by someone who I encounter more regularly, with the social cloak of anonymity that characterises so much ordinary exchange.

To be questioned, to be questionable, sometimes can feel like a residence: a question becomes something you reside in. To reside in a question can feel like not residing where you are at. Not from here, not? Or maybe to become not is to be wrapped up by an assertion.

I think of Ien Ang’s essay, “On Not Speaking Chinese,” which describes conversations that unfold from the question “where are you from,” often followed by “where are you really from,” questions she describes as “typical” for non-white people living in Europe (2001: 29). These questions only appear to be questions; they often work as assertions. They ask “where?” as a way of stating “not from here.” Or perhaps you become questionable, as someone who can be questioned, who should be willing to receive a question, when it assumed you are not from here. A body can become a question mark. And we learn from how questions can function as assertions: that some do not get stopped, some can move along, because how they appear is consistent with an expectation of what or who is here. A “here” can be held up as an assertion by who is held up.

You become questionable when you do not fulfil an expectation of who will turn up. I think also of Pierre W. Orrelus’s work on immigrants and transnationals of colour. He notes how as a professor of colour he is often met with surprise: “after I formally introduce myself in class, I have undergraduate students who ask me, in a surprised tone of voice, ‘Are you really the professor?’ I sometimes overhear them asking their peers, ‘Is he really the professor’” (2011: 31). Orrelus compares this mode of questioning, this sense of curiosity and astonishment, with the questions typically asked of immigrants about “funny accents.”  Really: really? When we are asked questions, we are being held up, we become questionable. In my book, Strange Encounters (2000) I drew on Mary Douglas’s understanding of dirt as “matter out of place,” to redescribe the stranger as “the body out of place.”  Being asked whether you are the professor is also a way of being made into a stranger: not being at home in a category that gives residence to others. [1]

Sometimes you might be asked questions because of who you turn up with. So many times, I have been asked when I enter a local shop with my girlfriend, “is she your sister?”  Who is she, is it a way of saying, who are you? Sister: a way of seeing or not seeing lesbian? Sister: a way of evoking an intimacy without naming it; sister as euphemism?

In Queer Phenomenology I shared an anecdote about being asked such a question, this time from a neighbour. Let me share this anecdote again:

I arrive home. I park my car, and walk towards the front door. A neighbour calls out to me. I look up, somewhat nervously. I have yet to establish “good relations” with the neighbours. I haven’t lived here very long and the semi-public of the street does not feel easy yet. She mumbles some words, which I cannot here, and then asks: “is that your sister, or your husband?” I don’t answer and rush into the house. It is one has to say, quite an extraordinary utterance. There are two women, living together, a couple of people alone in a house. So what do you see? The first question reads the two women as sisters, as placed alongside each other along a horizontal line. By seeing the relationship as one of siblings rather than as a sexual relation, the question constructs the women as alike, as being like sisters. In this way, the reading both avoids the possibility of lesbianism, and also stands in for it, insofar as it repeats, but in a different form, the construction of lesbian couples as siblings: lesbians are sometimes represented ‘as if’ they could sisters because of their “family resemblance.” The fantasy of the “likeness” of sisters (which is a fantasy in the sense that we search for likeness as a sign of a biological tie) takes the place of another fantasy, that of the lesbian couple as being alike, and so alike that they even threaten to merge into one body. I told this anecdote at a conference once, and another woman said: “but that is amazing, you’re a different race!” While I wouldn’t put it quite like that, the comment spoke to me. Seeing us as alike, meant over-looking signs of difference, even if such differences are not something that bodies simply have. But the move from the first question to the second question, without any pause or without waiting for an answer, is really quite extraordinary. If not sister, then husband. The second question rescues the speaker, by positing the partner not as female (which even in the form of the sibling risks exposure of what does not get named), but as male. The figure of “my husband” operates as a legitimate sexual other, “the other half,” a sexual partner with a public face. Of course, I could be making my own assumptions in offering this reading. The question could have been a more playful one, in which “husband” was not necessarily a reference to “male”: that is, “the husband” could refer to the butch lover. The butch lover would be visible in this address only insofar as she “took the place” of the husband. Either way, the utterance re-reads the oblique form of the lesbian couple, in the way that straightens that form such that it appears straight. Indeed, it is not even that the utterances move from a queer angle to a straight line. The sequence of the utterances offers two readings of the lesbian couple: both of which function as straightening devices: if not sisters, then husband and wife. The lesbian couple in effect disappears, and I of course make my exit (p.96).

It is a long time since that moment, since I wrote about that moment. But then we walk down the street, questions still follow us. “Are you a boy or a girl?” they ask her, this time, a question that drips with mockery and hostility. A question hovering around gender: not being housed by gender, being unhoused. Some of these questions dislodge you from a body that you yourself feel you reside in. Once you have been asked these questions, you might wait for them, waiting to be dislodged changes your relation to the lodge.

Questions can hover around, like a murmuring, an audible rising of volume that seems to accompany an arrival. Perhaps we come to expect that murmur, we too murmur; we become part of the chorus of questions, we come to question ourselves.

Do I belong here? Will I be caught out? Do I fit in here? “I am” becomes “am I?”

Perhaps any of us can feel the weight of questions that are taken on and in as one’s own. We can seek to ask these questions, whatever we are asked. Education aims to throw life back up as a question, after all; we find resources in these moments of suspension, before things are reassembled. And we can be thrown in so many ways: by what we encounter, by whom we encounter. But perhaps privilege offers some protection from being questioned or becoming questionable: a buffer zone as a zone without questions. And perhaps the modes of questioning I am describing here relate to how a body is identified in relation to a group whose residence is in question.

If we have a body that is expected to turn up, we might be less likely to be caught by what comes up.  Cultural Studies as a discipline begins with the lived experiences of not residing, of not being received “well” by where you end up, experiences of working class kids ending up in elite institutions, experiences of diasporic kids ending up in those same institutions. When you don’t fit, you fidget. How quickly the fidgeting body appears as not residing in the right place. Eyebrows are raised. Really; really? Previously I have described (following one of the examples used by William James) institutions as being like old garments: easier to wear for those who have the “right shape” where rightness is determined as much as an expectation that you will fit as it is by the contours of a body that fits. Privilege: that which is wearing.

What I have called simply “diversity work” might also involve transforming questions into a catalogue. A catalogue does not assume each question as the same question: but it is a way of hearing continuities and resonances. It is a way of thinking of how questions accumulate; how they have a cumulative effect on those who receive them. You can be worn down by the requirement to give answers, to explain yourself.  It is not a melancholic task; to catalogue these questions, even if some of the questions are experienced as traumatic, difficult, or exhausting. To account for experiences of not being given residence is not only a sad political lesson, a lesson of what we have had to give up in order to keep going. After all, think of how much we know about institutional life because of these failures of residence: of how the categories in which we are immersed become explicit when you do not quite inhabit them. When we do not recede into the background, when we stand out or stand apart, we can bring the background into the front: we can front up to how much depends on your background.[i]

When we are in question we question. This was after all how Frantz Fanon proceeded in his devastating critique of ontology, a critique that offers the work of redescription. He begins with an encounter between himself, a Black man and a white child, in Paris; he is “sealed into that crushing objecthood,” sealed by whiteness (109). White, Fanon showed, becomes the universal. To be not white: particular. To be particular can be to inherit a requirement to tell your particular story. They want to hear from you, about you.  If you speak, you are heard as speaking about yourself whatever you say. To be particular can be to be lodged in a body. We can speak back to the Universalist philosophers, if we begin with this requirement, if we seize hold of how we are held, willfully. Those lodged in the particular, those lodged as particular, can dislodge the general.

We have many histories, many points of arrival, those who somehow find themselves as “not,” as not universal, not human. But I still think, I do think, that being not, being in question for being the being you are, is the beginning of an affinity, a beginning that is behind us.

Fanon notes that the “being for others,” of which Hegel speaks, becomes what is not possible: “every ontology is made unattainable in a colonialized and civilised society” (109). What a history is abbreviated by that and! Civil history as colonial history; the civil world of polite hostility, that appears like an out stretched hand, ready to receive those who came after, who become temporary guests, likely to be cast out, unless we behave well.

For Fanon, ontology is impossible. Not being for others; not being for being.

Those whose being is in question are those who question being.



Ang, Ien (2001). On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asia and the West.

Douglas, Mary (1994). Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge.

Fanon, Frantz [1952] (1986). Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. C. L. Markmann. London: Pluto.

Orelus, Pierre (2011). Transnationals of Color: Counter Narratives Against Discrimination in Schools and Beyond. New York: Peter Lang.

[1]Of course in Douglas’s formulation is an implication: when something becomes dirty, it also becomes what must be removed; matter out of place is matter that must be moved to a different place. Gentrification could be understood in these terms: where recognising bodies as out of place is one step in a process of displacing bodies.

[i] In Queer Phenomenology I attempted to link the spatial sense of background to the temporality of background: what is behind an arrival can often be that which does not come into view.

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Queer Angles

In my last post, I suggested we can generate “sweaty concepts” through the labour of describing the situation in which we find ourselves. To describe our own bodily situation is to give an angle on something: description is angled. An angle here is not simply what is mine, or something I have, but is a way of thinking of the intimacy of bodies and the worlds they inhabit. Since writing that post, I have been wondering more angles; they have come up often in my writing, even when they are not the explicit object of my attention. In this post I want to pull out how the question of angles came up in Queer Phenomenology (2006) and The Promise of Happiness (2010).

Why angle? It is a word with a queer history.  The word “angle” derives from Old French angle “angle, corner,” and directly from Latin angulus “an angle, corner,” a diminutive form from PIE root *ang-/*ank- “to bend” (cf. Greek ankylos “bent, crooked,” Latin ang(u)ere “to compress in a bend, fold, strangle). An angle is a bend in a line.

In Queer Phenomenology, I explored angles, by thinking through the implications of a queer moment in Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception:

If we so contrive it that a subject sees the room in which he is, only through a mirror which reflects it at an angle at 45 degrees to the vertical, the subject at first sees the room “slantwise.” A man walking about in it seems to lean to one side as he goes. A piece of cardboard falling down the door-frame looks to be falling obliquely. The general effect is “queer.” (Merleau-Ponty 2002: 289)

A “queer effect” is when the world no longer appears “the right way up.” By discussing a number of spatial experiments that “contrive” a situation so that a subject does not see straight, Merleau-Ponty asks how the subject’s relation to space is re-orientated: “After a few minutes a sudden change occurs: the walls, the man walking around the room, and the line in which the cardboard falls become vertical.” (Merleau-Ponty 2002: 289) This re-orientation, which we can describe as the “becoming vertical” of perspective, means that the “queer effect” is overcome and objects in the world no longer appears as if they were “off-centre” or “slant-wise.”  In other words, Merleau-Ponty considers how subjects “straighten” any queer effects and asks what this tendency to “see straight” suggests about the relationship between bodies and space. He answers this question not with a model of space as determined by objective coordinates (such that “up” and “down” exist independently of one’s bodily orientation), but as being shaped by the purposefulness of the body; the body does things, and space hence takes shape as a field of action: “What counts for the orientation of my spectacle is not my body as it in fact is, as a thing in objective space, but as a system of possible actions, a virtual body with its phenomenal ‘place’ defined by its task and situation. My body is wherever there is something to be done.” (Merleau-Ponty 2002: 291) By implication, the queer moment, in which objects appear slantwise, and the vertical and horizontal axes appear “out of line,” must be overcome not because such moments contradict laws that govern objective space, but because they block bodily action: they inhibit the body, such that it ceases to extend into phenomenal space. So although Merleau-Ponty is tempted to say that the “vertical is the direction represented by the symmetry of the axis of the body” (2002: 291), his phenomenology instead embraces a model of bodily space, in which spatial lines “line up” only as effects of bodily actions on and in the world. In other words, the body “straightens” its view, in order to extend into space.

In light of Merleau-Ponty’s discussion of queer moments, we can re-consider the relation between the normative and the vertical axis. The normative dimension can be re-described in terms of the straight body, a body that appears “in line.”  Things seems “straight” (on the vertical axis), when they are “in line,” which means when they are aligned with other lines.  Rather than presuming the vertical line is simply given, we would see the vertical line as an effect of this process of alignment. Think of tracing paper. When the lines on the tracing paper are aligned with the lines of the paper that has been traced, then the lines of the tracing paper disappear: you can simply see one set of lines. If lines are traces of other lines, then this alignment depends on straightening devices, which keeps things in line, in part by “holding” things in place. Lines disappear through such processes of alignment, so that when even when one thing becomes “out of line” another thing, the “general effect” is “wonky,” or even “queer.”

The vertical axis is itself an effect of being “in line,” when the line taken by the body corresponds with other lines that are already given. The vertical is hence normative; it is shaped by the repetition of bodily and social actions over time. The body that is “in line,” is one that can extend into space, at the same time that such spaces are effects of re-tracing those lines, which is another way of describing “extension.” Things as well as bodies appear “the right way up” when they are “in line,” which makes any moment in which phenomenal space does “line up” seem rather “queer.” Importantly, when one thing is “out of line,” then it is not just that thing that appears oblique, but the world itself might appear on a slant, which disorientates the picture, and even unseats the body. If we consider how space appears along the lines of the “vertical axis,” then we can begin to see how orientations of the body shape not just what objects are reachable, but the angle on which they are reached. Things look right, when they approach us on the right angle.

By implication, then, some “angles on things,” do not appear as angles, as bends in the line, which is not to say they are not in some way already bent (you only have to straighten what is already bent). I observed in the conclusion to Queer Phenomenology, how we can become what disorientates the picture, a body out of line. In one footnote, Merleau-Ponty refers to Stratton’s Vision without Inversion, to provide both an analysis of the way in which orientation happens, and what happens when it fails to happen. As he puts it: “We remain physically upright not through the mechanism of the skeleton or even through the nervous regulation if muscular tone, but because we are caught up in a world. If this involvement is seriously weakened, the body collapses and becomes once more an object.” (2002: 296, emphasis added) The “upright” body is involved in the world. The weakening of this involvement is what causes the body to collapse, and to become an object alongside other objects. To put it simply, disorientation involves becoming an object. It is from this point, when the body becomes an object that Frantz Fanon’s (1986) phenomenology of the Black body unfolds. We learn that disorientation is unevenly distributed: some bodies more than others have their involvement in the world called into crisis. This shows us how the world itself is more “involved” in some bodies than others, as its takes such bodies as the contours of ordinary experience. It is not just that bodies get directed in specific ways, but that the world is shaped by the directions taken by some more than others.

From Frantz Fanon, we learn about the experience of disorientation, as the experience of being an object amongst other objects, of being shattered, off being cut into pieces by the hostility of the white gaze. Disorientation involves failed orientations: bodies inhabit spaces that do not extend their shape, or use objects that do not extend their reach. At this moment of failure, what is “here” becomes strange. Bodies that do not follow the line of whiteness, for instance, might be “stopped” in their tracks: this does not necessarily mean you are stopped from getting somewhere, but it does change your relation to what is “here.” The world does not recede, when you become the stranger, the one who stands out or stand apart. Things might even become oblique for you, even if the feeling of being a stranger has become a familiar feeling. Disorientation can thus move around; it involves not only bodies becoming objects, but also the disorientation in how objects are gathered to create a ground, or to clear a space on the ground. If your arrival can disturb the whole picture, it can be disturbing for the one who arrives.

This is how we generate a queer angle, when we offer a description of a body that is not lined up, or a body that is not at home in the world. We disturb a picture. When I call for more description (more “sweaty concepts”) I am calling, really, for a queering of the angle from which we do conceptual work.  A queer angle gives us a different handle on what is going on. This has been the case in my own work on affect and emotion. In The Promise of Happiness, for example, I raised some questions about the use of “atmosphere” as a shared feeling that is “out there” and then “taken in.” Consider the opening sentence of Teresa Brennan’s book, The Transmission of Affect: ‘Is there anyone who has not, at least once, walked into a room and “felt the atmosphere”’ (2004: 1). Brennan writes very beautifully about how the atmosphere “gets into the individual” using what I have called an “outside in” model, also very much part of the intellectual history of crowd psychology and also the sociology of emotion. However, later in the introduction she makes an observation, which for me also involves quite a different model. Brennan suggests that “if I feel anxiety when I enter the room, then that will influence what I perceive or receive by way of an “impression” (a word that means what it says)” (6).  I agree. Anxiety is sticky: rather like Velcro, it tends to pick up whatever comes near. Or we could say that anxiety gives us a certain kind of angle on what comes near. Anxiety is, of course, one feeling state amongst others. If bodies do not arrive in neutral, if we are always in some way or another moody, then what we will receive as an impression will depend on our affective situation. This second argument challenges for me Brennan’s first argument about the atmosphere being what is “out there” getting “in”: it suggests that how we arrive, how we enter this room or that room, will affect what impressions we receive. To receive is to act. To receive an impression is to make an impression.

So we may walk into the room and “feel the atmosphere,” but what we may feel depends on the angle of our arrival. Or we might say that the atmosphere is already angled; it is always felt from a specific point. The pedagogic encounter is full of angles. How many times have I read students as interested or bored, such that the atmosphere seemed one of interest or boredom (and even felt myself to be interesting or boring) only to find students recall the event quite differently. Having read the atmosphere in a certain way, one can become tense: which in turn affects what happens, how things move along. The moods we arrive with do affect what happens: which is not to say we always keep our moods. Sometimes I arrive heavy with anxiety, and everything that happens makes me feel more anxious, whilst at other times, things happen which ease the anxiety, making the space itself seem light and energetic. We do not know in advance what will happen given this contingency, given the hap of what happens; we do not know ‘exactly’ what makes things happen in this way and that. Situations are affective given the gap between the impressions we have of others and the impressions we make on others, all of which are lively.

Think too of experiences of alienation.  In The Promise of Happiness I suggested happiness is attributed to certain objects that circulate as social goods.  When we feel pleasure from such objects, we are aligned; we are facing the right way. We become alienated – out of line with an affective community – when we do not experience pleasure from proximity to objects that are attributed as being good.  The gap between the affective value of an object and how we experience an object can involve a range of affects, which are directed by the modes of explanation we offer to fill this gap.  If we are disappointed by something that we expected would make us happy, we generate explanations of why that thing is disappointing. Such explanations can involve an anxious narrative of self-doubt (why I am not made happy by this, what is wrong with me?) or a narrative of rage, where the object that is “supposed” to make us happy is attributed as the cause of disappointment. Your rage might be directed against it, or spill out toward those that promised us happiness through the elevation of an object as being good. We become strangers, or affect aliens, in such moments.

Going back to how I have used angles eventually gets me to the “affect alien.” Of course! And the feminist killjoy is not too far behind. She too is a queer angle, when we describe the world from her point of view (I am in this her: I am this her) we are offering a very different account of that world. To be more specific, we end up with a different model of the sociality of affect when we give killjoy more room by describing how she enters the room. We might stress not so much how affects pass smoothly between proximate bodies, but how they involve blockages, deviations  and perversions. We might recognise that feelings can be shared in a situation (it can be a tense situation) but also that feelings can be “in tension.” Indeed, things might become more tense, when feelings are in tension.

Thinking of the feminist killjoy as an angle reminds me that descriptions are difficult when it is difficulties we are describing. We might assume we can be “in the room” and describe what is going on. But we can be in the same room and feel like we are in quite different worlds. This feeling of difference can be about how you relate to what comes up: you might share an experience of something “coming up” even when you do not share what is brought up.  For example you might be in a meeting but you are new to a department. Someone will say something that triggers a reaction: there is a heightening of tension audible from an increase in sound, bodies tend to fidget when they become tense. You don’t know the histories at stake in what has been said but you can hear those histories. One time I was in a conference in Paris, and people were speaking in French (not surprising!) and I could tell when race was the topic of conversation: it was like someone turning up the volume of the television: “turning up” as “heating up.” I turned to my neighbour whenever this happened to ask if people were talking about race. They were.

What interests me here is how histories can become atmospheric. Angles are also about our relation to these histories. A woman of colour does not have to say anything to cause tension. She can just turn up and things tense up: a body can become a reminder of histories that are disturbing, which disturb an atmosphere. Listen to the following description from bell hooks: “a group of white feminist activists who do not know one another may be present at a meeting to discuss feminist theory. They may feel bonded on the basis of shared womanhood, but the atmosphere will noticeably change when a woman of color enters the room. The white women will become tense, no longer relaxed, no longer celebratory” (56). It is not just that feelings are “in tension,” but that the tension is located somewhere: in being felt by some bodies, it is attributed as caused by another body, who thus comes to be felt as apart from the group, as getting in the way of its organic enjoyment and solidarity. The body of color is attributed as the cause of becoming tense, which is also the loss of a shared atmosphere. We learn from this example how histories are condensed in the very intangibility of an atmosphere, or in the tangibility of the bodies that seem to get in the way.  Atmospheres can thus become techniques for making spaces available for some bodies, and keeping others out: how better to exclude people than by inviting them in but making them uncomfortable. Then if they leave it appears they do so in accordance with their own will. Comfort becomes a form of emotional work as well as diversity work: to stay you might have to work hard to make others comfortable with the mere fact of your existence.

A queer angle is generated when we describe the world as experienced by bodies that get in the way of an occupation. Disciplines too are occupied. One more thing:  if our disciplines are populated by bodies who are at home, who are in alignment, then this will shape the kinds of knowledge generated (as well as the knowledge not generated). To queer disciplines would require we populate them with bodies for which they are not intended. No wonder equality can register as “becoming tense.”


Brennan, Teresa. (2004). The Transmission of Affect. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Fanon, Frantz (1986). Black Skin, White Masks, London: Pluto Press.

hooks, bell (2000). Feminist Theory: from Margin to Centre. London: Pluto Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1962). The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin

Smith, London: Routledge Kegan and Paul.

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Sweaty Concepts

In an earlier post here, I said I wanted to develop the concept of “sweaty concepts” in Living a Feminist Life. What do I mean by this? I first used this expression during a lecture for my course Race, Empire and Nation that I teach at Goldsmiths. I was trying to describe what I thought was significant about Audre Lorde’s work. Every course I teach, I teach Audre Lorde’s work. She is my constant companion. I have described before how her work comes to me like a life-line, a way of pulling me out of a difficult situation by giving me words to redescribe that situation. Concepts are generated by or in the very detail of her description; of how it feels to inhabit a black body in a world that assumes whiteness, for example.

By using the idea of “sweaty concepts” for this kind of descriptive work I was trying to say at least two things. Firstly I was implying that too often conceptual work is understood as distinct from describing a situation: and I am thinking here of a situation as something that comes to demand a response, a situation is often announced as what we have (“we have a situation here”) as well as what we are in. Concepts in my view tend to be reified as what scholars somehow come up with (the concept as rather like an apple that hits you on the head, sparking revelation from a position of exteriority) as something we use to explain by bringing it in.[1] For me, concepts are ways of understanding worlds that are in the worlds we are in.

Secondly by using the idea of “sweaty concepts” I was also trying to show how descriptive work is conceptual work. A concept is worldly but it is also a reorientation to a world, a way of turning things around, a different slant on the same thing. More specifically a “sweaty concept” is one that comes out of a description of a body that is not at home in the world. By this I mean description as angle or point of view: a description of how it feels not to be at home in the world, or a description of the world from the point of view of not being at home in it.  As I have tried to show in my work on comfort and discomfort (see here), so much phenomenological writing was written from the point of view of a body that “can do,” a body that is at home in the world, a body that is received by a world. This is why in Queer Phenomenology I suggested that if we begin with a body that loses its chair, the world we describe will be quite different. When I use the concept of “sweaty concepts” I am also trying to say we can generate new understandings by describing the difficulty of inhabiting a body that is not at home in a world. Sweat is bodily; we might sweat more during more strenuous activity. A “sweaty concept” might be one that comes out of a bodily experience that is difficult, one that is “trying,” and where the aim is to keep exploring and exposing this difficulty, which means also aiming not to eliminate the effort or labour from the writing (I suspect not eliminating the effort or labour becomes an academic aim because we have been taught to tidy our texts, not to reveal the struggle we have in getting somewhere).

In Willful Subjects I tried to write of willfulness as a “sweaty concept” in this way. That meant thinking through and writing from my own experience of being charged with willfulness; after all, it was these experiences of being called willful that meant I picked up this word, that I came to hear it. I wrote the book as someone who had received this impression. I had heard the intonation of being called willful. This call is often a calling out to a child, to someone who can be addressed in this way. The figure of the willful child that I was following was thus also part of my own history: someone I might have been or someone I might have been thought to be, someone I became in face of having been thought to have been.  I became interested in this figure, a ghostly figure, perhaps, a trace or impression of a person, as someone, or as somewhere, I have been.

Words too can be treated as “sweaty concepts” in the sense that they have orientations or leanings, because of what they pick up over time, perhaps because of who they pick up. So, if we hear the definition of willfulness, cold and dusty from being lodged in a dictionary, as a call, as an address to someone, we show how words and concepts leak into worlds. This is a typical definition of willfulness: “asserting or disposed to assert one’s own will against persuasion, instruction, or command; governed by will without regard to reason; determined to take one’s own way; obstinately self-willed or perverse.” To be called obstinate or perverse because you are not persuaded by the reasoning of others? Is this familiar to you? Have you heard this before?  When willfulness is an attribution, a way of finding fault, then willfulness is also the experience of an attribution.  Willfulness can be deposited in our bodies. And when willfulness is deposited in our bodies, our bodies become part of the material we are assembling. To follow willfulness around thus requires moving out of the history of ideas and into everyday life-worlds.

If in Willful Subjects I try not to eliminate the signs of sweat, by following a concept in and out of a history of ideas, I do not stay with embodied description. I first developed this method of moving in and out of the history of ideas  in The Promise of Happiness (2010). I will use this method again in my project, Utility: the Uses of Use, because I enjoy working this way and it will be useful to work on use this way! I learn from working like this; I end up in such unexpected places. And then: when I return home to describe more everyday situations, I have acquired a different handle. I like that sense of to-ing and fro-ing: it is what I would call also a “hap method” a way of being redirected by what we encounter, by what we happen to find when we follow things wherever they go.

But in Living a Feminist Life, I want to write differently, by staying closer to the embodied descriptions that have not “not” been part of my writing but have not always been at the centre of my writing. I want to write from the examples up, without following the concepts  where they go. There are a number of reasons for this decision. Firstly, I have noticed that when I give talks about concepts like happiness or will, however much I draw on personal examples, and litter philosophy with anecdotes (a “non philosopher” is very committed to littering!), some audiences would just ask questions about how my reading relating to this or that (usually white male) philosopher. Often I had evoked this or that philosopher, I had brought him into the room, so I can hardly be annoyed if that is what is picked up! But I began to feel that these questions were a way of not addressing what I felt was the point of my arguments. So if following a concept of will meant, say, citing Nietzsche on will, or Kant on will, I was not sure I wanted the consequences of that citation, which was to be asked about the relationship about Nietzsche or Kant not because I can’t answer those questions, but because they do not really interest me, or not that much. And secondly, I felt that the audiences I was interested in speaking to were those who wanted to talk about questions of difference and how they matter. Some members of these audiences are at home in philosophy, some not. I will always in my writing engage explicitly with the history of ideas, because I am interested in mutation (I am interested for example, in how “happiness” loses its hap, or how “will” came to be defined by some against “want” even though they share the same root). But I have begin to realise that it might be important not to frame all of my work around this history because of this “some not.” Partly the decision to write from the examples up in Living a Feminist Life and not follow concepts/words is about trying to inhabit a different room with those who are not at home in the philosopher’s dwelling.

And, this gets me back to “sweaty concepts.” Because if we try and describe how sexism and racism work we end up with different kinds of descriptions, and thus generate new angles on the worlds we inhabit. Understanding sexism and racism is about working through how social forms are stabilised; it is working out how possibilities are eliminated before they are taken up, as I suggested here in my post “The Problem of Perception”, as well as in my book On Being Included.  If we start by describing these mechanisms for stabilisation we will be turning things around. For example Zygmunt Bauman has argued that: “One attribute that liquids possess but solids do not, an attribute that makes liquids an apt metaphor for our times, is the intrinsic inability of fluids to hold their shape for long on their own” (in Gane 2004: 19, emphasis added).  Doing this research for On Being Included taught me about solidity; about how what appears as mobile and changing, can still “hold their shape.”  To account for sexism and racism is to offer an account of how a “holding pattern” becomes intrinsic.  Accounting for a holding pattern begins with describing that pattern. And patterns are often the things that do not come into general view. We need “sweaty concepts” because we need more descriptions of the patterns that are obscured when bodies are received by spaces that have assumed their shape. We might have to insist on giving these descriptions.

In Willful Subjects I conceded the possibility that my own writing might be judged as willful: as too insistent, even pushy. One of my arguments in the book is that some bodies have to push harder than other bodies just to proceed; and this argument might be true for arguments as well as bodies! The OED describes the meaning of willfulness in the “positive sense” of strong willed as both obsolete and rare. The negative senses of willfulness (or even willfulness as a negative sense) have become so deeply entrenched that to open up a history of willfulness one might have to insist on other more positive senses. A “sweaty concept” is one that might too require insistence. Sometimes you might even have to “over-insist” to get through a wall of perception; it is a reflection of what we have to get over.


Gane, Nicholas (2004). The Future of Social Theory. Continuum: London.

[1] One of the risks of this tendency to reify concepts is that they tend to be attributed with agency. I notice this a lot in affect studies, when ‘affect’ is cleaned up as a concept by being separated from other things, it is then put in the position of a subject in a sentence: affect does x, is y, and so on. I also notice this problem in some critiques of intersectionality: when intersectionality is treated as a concept, it is often then given the status as doing something, on its own, as it were.

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Happy birthday, Audre Lorde

It has been so wonderful and moving today, to see pictures of you, Audre Lorde, notes about you, quotes from you, posted on twitter and Facebook. Just so moving, to have you so near.

You would have been 80 today! Happy birthday Audre. I feel your presence everywhere. I am posting this little piece I presented about you in 2012.

With solidarity, love and affection,

Sara xx


Introduction to Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years, April 14 2012

Hello and welcome. My name is Sara Ahmed and I am delighted and honoured to introduce this film, Audre Lorde: The Berlin Years directed by Dagmar Schultz, and premiering in the UK today as part of Fringe! London’s Gay Film Festival. Today is a very significant day. With this film, through this film, Audre Lorde enters the room. For some of you, this might be your first encounter with Audre; for others, her words will already be interwoven with your memories. Audre Lorde: who was born in 1934 and who died in 1992 at the age of 58: 20 years ago this year. Audre Lorde: born in New York City, the daughter of Caribbean immigrants from Granada. Audre Lorde: writer, activist, poet, scholar, mother, warrior, lesbian, black, woman, feminist. Audre Lorde: who always took the risk of naming herself, of asserting her right to exist in a world that made her existence difficult. In this film, Audre Lorde reaches out to each of us; we can hear her voice, follow her in her travels, as she walks down a street, laughs, talks, eats, dances, reads and even sings her poems. To have this footage of Audre Lorde in Berlin, a city she visited many times between 1984 and 1992, is an extraordinary gift.

If this film allows Audre to reach us, then it can allow us to extend her reach. I want to follow Audre Lorde’s example, and describe how her work came to matter to me personally: Audre asks us to be personal, to refuse the refuge of distance and abstraction. I think of Audre Lorde and I think of those moments when a life-line is thrown out to you; those moments when what is given to you is what gives you a chance, a breathing space.  A life-line can be anything or perhaps it is always something: the quiet words of an encouraging friend, an unexpected alliance with a stranger, the sounds of a familiar landscape, or of an unfamiliar one. A life-line can be the words sent out by a writer, gathered in the form of a book, words that you hang on to, that pull you out of an existence, that can, perhaps later, on another day, pull you into a more liveable world. That’s what it was for like for me, reading Audre Lorde’s words as a student of colour in the early 1990s, especially the essays collected in Sister Outsider, and her extraordinary memoir Zami (there is a great story about the back cover of Zami in the film, I say no more). Your words Audre were my teachers. You taught me to turn towards what was hard, what made me feel out of place, alone, or strange, to turn towards rather than away from what made life difficult. This film allows me to meet Audre in another way (I never met her in person, even if I was taught by her words). And for that, I am so grateful.

We can also reflect on why this film matters now, as a way of keeping the legacies of Audre Lorde alive: even if we know about her influence in the 1970s and 1980s, we need to become open to receiving her influence today. I think this film offers such an opening. The film is specifically about Audre’s Berlin Years and her influence and significance within Germany; how she was involved in creating a space in which Afro-German people could articulate a sense of their own histories, could find each other in the sea of whiteness, could create a sense of belonging. Through watching Audre’s Berlin years, through watching her at work, we can also reflect on the politics of black, feminist and queer activisms today.

I will put some ‘words’ as pathways or trails for reflection: transnational. We get a sense from the film of transnational as an actual lived space populated by real bodies, not a glossy word in a brochure but a word that requires work. We have to work to learn from others who do not share our language. We have to travel away from our comfort zones; to listen, to open our ears. We learn especially of the importance of a transnational black feminist politics: of what can happen when African-American and Afro-German women speak to each other, when women of colour across the diasporas speak to each other; between generations, across time as well as space. We learn from differences about differences. We learn also that the national is transnational: that Germanness or Britishness is shaped by histories of empire and colonialism, which affect the very grounds upon which we live; migrants who in staying leave bits and pieces of ourselves all over the place.

Collective: This is a film about an individual activist no doubt though one deeply immersed in a world with others.  We hear the sounds of collectivity in the sounds of many voices; voices that, in speaking together, become even more audible. The film shows how we learn from each other by working with each other; how we achieve solidarity by not assuming solidarity. We get a sense that an individual life does matter, that Audre is asking us to ask ourselves what our life is and can be. I think listening to Audre also teaches us that what people call (sometimes dismissively) ‘identity politics’ is a politics that we still need; how to claim an identity as women, as people of colour, as queers in a world that still tends to equate human with male, white and straight is to challenge that world. From Audre Lorde we can think of identity as a political art, as poetry, as a way of inventing ourselves.

Racism:  Audre Lorde calls for us to attend to racism – to how violence falls against some more than others; those deemed out of place, as not from here: violence against black people, immigrants, foreigners. She also asks us to think about how racism operates close to home: within our own political movements. Racism often works by the creation of the very impression that racism is over; that it is behind us. People of colour are often asked to get over racism. Audre teaches us that racism is not over. If it is not over, then it is not the time to get over it. She give us courage, and it takes courage, to use the word ‘racism’ even when to use that word, that difficult word, is to be judged as  creating the problem you describe.

Lesbian: I love how Audre describes her love for women as a woman. At this moment, it might seem that the happiness of the queer umbrella makes the declaration of a lesbian identity less relevant. Audre would teach us that ‘lesbian’ can be an open address; how women desiring women in a world still organised around men and their desires matters. We might need to insist on ‘being lesbian’ in order to persist as lesbians: even when we happily enter queer spaces. Just listen to Audre: very serious in her dyke desire, but also naughty and mischievous, always alive to queer possibilities.

Feminist: Audre showed us how feminism can be about new ways of being in the world, suggesting that if we do not use the master’s tools, if we build with our own hands, we can create new dwellings. I do think of her as a feminist killjoy, willing to name sexism, to call attention to violence against women wherever it happens. Audre Lorde also speaks out as an angry woman of colour; willful in her willingness to expose racism within feminism, committed to showing how this exposure is necessary if white women and black women are to work together. And we learn from this film that the life of a kill-joy can be a life full of joy, the joy of possibility, the joy of world creation.

Audre Lorde believed that poetry can be revolutionary because it can move us; it can make us feel, allow us to be vulnerable. She invites us to stay with the hard feelings; to refuse to be silenced by anger, to speak out of anger, to inhabit the despair of knowing the world you aim for will not be achieved in your life time; the hope of passing an aim onto others. This film is also full of the humour and warmth of the lives and friendships it reveals to us. There can be warmth in struggle; there can be kindness and patience in survival (Audre shows us that ‘survival’ is a radical project for those who are not meant to survive). Even Audre Lorde’s approach to cancer, to death, was to embrace life as a struggle. Perhaps the very struggle against injustice is what gives us the resources we need to build a more just world. These resources for survival might include a certain willingness to cause trouble, but also humour, love, a certain lightness of spirit, and wit: we lighten our loads as well as our moods when we create spaces to be with each other.

Perhaps we also need to find ways of introducing ourselves to each other. So I Sara Ahmed will introduce myself to you Audre Lorde: woman of colour, mixed heritage, lesbian, queer, feminist, anti-racist, academic, activist, writer. I ask each of you in seeing this film to introduce yourself to Audre. She is waiting to hear from you.

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The Problem of Perception

When you expose a problem you pose a problem.  I have been thinking more about the problem of how you become the problem because you notice a problem. When exposing a problem is to become a problem then the problem you expose is not revealed. For example, when you make an observation in public that all the speakers for an event are all white men, or all but one, or all the citations in an academic paper are to all white men, or all but a few, these observations are often treated as the problem with how you are perceiving things (you must be perceiving things!). A rebuttal often follows that does not take the form of contradiction but rather explanation or justification: these are the speakers or writers who just happen to be there; they happen to be white men, but to describe the speakers as white men is the problem as it would make this about that; it would be to assume that they are here because of that. And so: by describing a gathering as ‘white men,’ you are then assumed to be imposing certain categories onto bodies, reducing or failing to grasp the heterogeneity of an event; solidifying through our own description something that is fluid.

I pointed out recently on Facebook that all the speakers for a Gender Studies conference were white. Someone replied that my statement did not recognise the diversity of the speakers. When perceiving whiteness is a way of not perceiving diversity, then diversity becomes a way of not perceiving whiteness. Or once I pointed out that a reference list of a book included almost only male writers (and two of the references to women were references to women in relation to men) and the author responded that I had described the pattern right, as the pattern was ‘in the traditions’ that influenced him. Or when I had a conversation with someone on Facebook about the masculinist nature of a certain field of philosophy, they responded with a ‘well of course,’ as if it to say, well of course it is like that, it is the philosophy of technology.  I have begun calling these kinds of arguments disciplinary fatalism: the assumption that in following a line we can only reproduce that line. Disciplinary fatalism often rests on gender fatalism: ‘boys will be boys’ becoming ‘ boys studying toys’ will be ‘boys studying toys’. Or, as I have described here, once when I pointed out that a speaker list including only white men and I was described as doing ‘identity politics,’ as if pointing out structure is to rely on identity (or even, to put it more strongly, as if all you are doing is projecting your own identity onto the situation such that when you are describing who is missing you are simply concerned with being missing yourself).

In describing a stabilisation as worldly (a restriction in who gathers that is in the world and that involves giving up other possibilities in advance of their loss) we are treated as stabilising that thing. There is so much invested in not noticing how social and institutional gatherings are restricted. There is a ‘good will’ assumption that things have just fallen like that, the way a book might fall open at a page, and that it could just as easily fall another way, on another occasion. Of course the example of the book is instructive; a book will tend to fall open on pages that have been most read. Tendencies are acquired through repetition. Once a tendency has been acquired, no conscious effort would be necessary. Things fall ‘that way’ almost of their own accord.  No wonder there is so much investment in not recognised how restrictions are structured by decisions that have already been made. These restrictions are precisely what do not have to come into view. And no wonder diversity work is so trying: it takes a conscious willed effort not to reproduce how things tend to fall.

When you perceive a problem your perception becomes the problem.  What I learn as well from being a feminist killjoy is how noticing a pattern in how things tend to fall is understood as making your own life more difficult than it needs to be. I have heard this sentiment expressed as kindness: just stop noticing exclusions and your burden will be eased. It is implied that by not struggling against something you will be rewarded by an increasing proximity to that thing. You might be included if only you just stop talking about exclusions! This is why the feminist killjoy remains such a negative stereotype (we affirm her given this negation): as if feminists are speaking out because they are miserable; or if feminism is an obstacle to our own happiness, such that she is what is in the way (feminism: how women get in the way of ourselves). It is implied that you would become well-adjusted if you could just adjust yourself to this world. Smile! The task then becomes self-modification: you have to learn not to perceive a problem; you have to let things fall.

[Feminist killjoy bracket: Don’t adjust to injustices. Stay maladjusted!]

And then of course if you do insist on making the same points (say: noticing whiteness, noticing male privilege) those points are often rendered self-referential: as if you tend to describe a problem because that’s your own tendency. Eyes rolling as if to say: well, she would say that. When you are heard as only ever expressing yourself what you are expressing is not heard.

And this is very hard, this is even harder: if you perceive someone’s gestures or words as inappropriate, if you encounter their gestures or words as unwelcome, then that is understood as because you are being unwelcoming.  In fact when people give accounts of sexist and racist harassment they are often dismissed as having a wrong or faulty perception, as not receiving the intentions or actions of others fairly or properly.

Some perception becomes faulty. One person I interviewed for my diversity project spoke of how if she ever refers to race, people tend to respond ‘you see everything in terms of race.’ Here ‘seeing race’ becomes understood as a magnification of something: you make race ‘bigger’ as if that’s all you see when you see it.  You can just say this word ‘once’ and it becomes all that they can hear you say. So there is a magnification at stake here, precisely because a history comes up in what you bring up. Once you use that word it fills the room (sometimes you don’t even have to use the word, just to arrive as a not white body into a ‘sea of whiteness’ can bring this history up). You are then judged as filling the room with your perception; as taking up all the space. And racism becomes your paranoia. And the task becomes to stop being paranoid: which is to say to stop talking about racism as if when we stop talking about it, racism would disappear. Perception becomes our problem: adjusting to this world means given up certain words and concepts, which get in the way of just inhabiting or occupying space. The talk about racism rather than racism as such is understood as what ‘get in the way’ of just being with others.

Some perceptions become the solution. In my book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012) I began a reflection on whose perception becomes a problem and whose perception does not. I described the book as offering a phenomenology of social perception. What do I mean? Once something or somebody is perceived as having certain qualities, that perception is what can become tangible, real. Perceptions have a social life; they are communicated; they are sent out and about. Take that tricky matter of ‘reputation,’ how some individuals are given certain attributes, sometimes independently of what they do, sometimes not. The institutional life of an individual person is partly about the value of that attribution. These little perceptions do stick to bigger categories, or might be how those categories stick. A feminist colleague who attends her university’s promotions committee tells me how you can ‘hear’ how male and female staff are valued differently just by the kinds of adjectives used in the letters to describe their performances: how descriptive words for men are upward, energetic and thrusting, whilst for women they are quieter, more sedentary, closer to the ground.  Or I remember reading a reference when a young male academic was described as ‘the next Zygmunt Bauman.’ I have no doubt that such expectations can be experienced as pressure points. But think about the narrative of next-ness: there is a waiting for the next such-and-such, such that when a body arrives who ‘can’ inherit that position; they are given that position. And perception becomes direction: if you are perceived as the next such-and-such, you might be given more time to become him, time to develop your research; you might not be asked to do so much administration (what I call institutional housework). A division of labour can derive from a difference in perception. A way is cleared that enables or eases the progression of some bodies. And that way is cleared by requiring that others do the less valued work, the work that is required for the reproduction of an existence.

A lot of what I called simply ‘diversity work’ in On Being Included is dealing with the problem of perception.  One practitioner talked about how the diversity office had had an image problem. She said: ‘I’ve had people say to me, you know, they thought they were the feminazis in the equity office and so there was a significant amount of resistance and people just weren’t included, they weren’t seen to be anything other than peripheral.  Generally the office was not engaged with the university community in a really good way’ (On Being Included, 64). I was struck during this interview by this willingness to repeat stereotypes of what feminist and equality work actually involved (not only that: violent stereotypes of feminist and equality work as violence) in order to create a space for a different kind of work. There is no doubt an agreement in the repetition: an agreement with the judgement that certain kinds of feminist and equality work didn’t work because they were too extreme. Rather than challenging the perception, the strategy becomes to generate a different kind of image.  If that is what they are thought to be, then you have to modify the thought by creating a different image. The diversity officer can ‘take up the place at the table’ by not being the one who speaks in a problematic language or a language of problems.  

Contrast this account with another account offered in chapter 1 of what is called in the diversity world ‘perception research.’ In one interview I had with staff from a Human Resources department, we had a discussion a research project that was collecting perception data:

OK yes.  It was about uncovering perceptions um, about the xxx as an employer.  … xxx was considered to be an old boys’ network, as they called it and white male dominated and they didn’t have the right perceptions of the xxx in terms of what it offers and what it brings to the academia.  I think most of the external people had the wrong perceptions about the xxx.

And I mean, quotes, there were such funny quotes like librarians they were sitting there with their cardigans you know.  They were shocking reports to read really about how people, external people, perceive the xxx so we have to try to achieve. We have to try to make the xxx an attractive employer.

 There are issues of perception amongst certain communities, which are stopping them from reaching us. (On Being Included, 34).

Diversity work becomes about generating the ‘right image,’ and correcting the wrong one.  I was quite interested that they were shocked by this image, given what I knew of the staffing profile of this university. What organizes this shock is the presumption that the perception is problem: that the perception is wrong. According to this logic, people have the ‘wrong perception’ when they see the organization as white, elite, male, old-fashioned. In other words, what is behind the shock is a belief that that the organization does not have these qualities: that whiteness is ‘in the image’ rather than ‘in the organization’ as an effect of what it does. Note the phrase ‘issues of perception’ again suggests that perception is the issue. Diversity becomes about changing perceptions of whiteness rather than changing the whiteness of organizations.  I think the final comment ‘there are issues of perception amongst certain communities, which are stopping them from reaching us’ is particularly suggestive. The implication is thus that the institution does not reach such communities – that it does not include them – because they perceive the institution as excluding them. The problem of whiteness is implicitly described here not so much as an institutional problem but as a problem with those who are not included by it.

What we have here from my data are two contrasting accounts: in one, the perception is accepted as true and the demand is for self-modification; in the other, the perception is taken as false and the demand is for a new image. How can we account for this difference? We need to show how these perceptions have quite different social careers. That is a difference that matters. In both cases, whether or not it is the perception that becomes the problem is a way of distributing the problem. Whether or not a perception is of a problem, a perception is about making some and not others into the problem. I have learnt so much from how the language of inclusion and repair make those who are to be included into the problem. And once the ‘to be included’ or ‘not yet included’ are the problem, then those already given place by the institution, and even the institution itself, can maintain themselves not only as not the problem, but also as the solution to the problem.

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A Sinking Feeling

I have been thinking about how we tend to feel norms most acutely when we do not quite inhabit them. It is a feeling of discomfort, a fidgety feeling. Comfort can be a feeling that we might not even consciously feel. Things recede if we recede. I first wrote about comfort and discomfort in my chapter, “Queer Feelings,” from The Cultural Politics of Emotion (first edition 2004, second edition forthcoming 2014). I was interested in how social norms become affective in time. Here are some passages from that chapter:

It is important to consider how heterosexuality functions powerfully not simply as a series of norms and ideals, but also through emotions that shape bodies as well as worlds: hetero/norms are investments, which are ‘taken on’ and ‘taken in’ by subjects. It is no accident that compulsory heterosexuality works powerfully in the most casual modes of conversation: one asks, “do you have a boyfriend?”(to a girl), or one asks, “do you have a girlfriend” (to a boy). Queers know the tiredness of making corrections and departures, very well; the pressure of this insistence, this presumption, this demand that asks either for a “passing over’”(a moment of passing, which is not always available) or for direct or indirect forms of self-revelation (“but actually, he’s a she” or “she’s a he”  or just saying “she” instead of “he” or “he” instead of “she” at the “obvious” moment). No matter how ‘out’ you may be, how (un)comfortably queer you may feel, those moments of interpellation get repeated over time, and can be experienced as a bodily injury; moments which position queer subjects as failed in their failure to live up to the “hey you too” of heterosexual self-narration. The everydayness of compulsory heterosexuality is also its affectiveness, wrapped up as it is with moments of ceremony (birth, marriage, death) that bind families together, and with the ongoing investment in the sentimentality of friendship and romance. Of course, such a sentimentality is deeply embedded with public as well as private culture; stories of heterosexual romance proliferate as a matter of human interest. As Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner argue, “National heterosexuality is the mechanism by which a core national culture can be imagined as a sanitised space of sentimental feeling” (2000: 313).

We can consider the sanitised space as a comfort zone. Normativity is comfortable for those who can inhabit it. The word “comfort” suggests well-being and satisfaction, but it also suggests an ease and an easiness. To follow the rules of heterosexuality is to be at ease in a world that reflects back the couple form one inhabits as an ideal. Of course, one can be made to feel uneasy by one’s inhabitance of an ideal. One can be made uncomfortable by one’s own comforts. To see heterosexuality as an ideal that one might or might not follow – or to be uncomfortable by the privileges one is given by inhabiting a heterosexual world – is a less comforting form of comfort. But comfort it remains and comfort is very hard to notice when one experiences it. Think of how it feels to be comfortable: say you are sinking into a comfortable chair. Note I already have transferred how a body is affected to the object (“it is comfortable”). But comfort is about the fit between body and object: my comfortable chair maybe awkward for you, with your differently shaped body. Comfort is about an encounter between more than one body; the promise of a “sinking” feeling. To be comfortable is to be so at ease with one’s environment that it is hard to distinguish where one’s body ends and the world begins.

Heteronormativity function as a form of public comfort by allowing bodies to extend into spaces that have already taken their shape. Those spaces are lived as comfortable as they allow bodies to fit in; the surfaces of social space are already impressed upon by the shape of such bodies (like a chair that acquires its shape by the repetition of some bodies inhabiting it: we can almost see the shape of bodies as ‘impressions’ on the surface).  Spaces extend bodies and bodies extend spaces; the impressions acquired by surfaces function as traces of such extensions. As Gill Valentine has argued, the “heterosexualisation” of public spaces such as streets is naturalised by the repetition of different forms of heterosexual conduct (images on billboards, music played, displays of heterosexual intimacy etc.), a process which goes unnoticed by heterosexual subjects (1996: 49).  Streets record the repetition of acts, and the passing by of some bodies and not others.

Heteronormativity also becomes a form of comforting: one feels better by the warmth of being faced by a world one has already taken in. One does not notice this as a world when one has been shaped by that world, and even acquired its shape. Norms may not only have a way of disappearing from view, but may also be that which we do not consciously feel. Queer subjects, when faced by the comforts of heterosexuality may feel uncomfortable (the body does not “sink into” a space that has already taken its shape).  Furthermore, queer subjects may also be asked not to make heterosexuals feel uncomfortable, by not displaying any signs of queer intimacy. The availability of comfort for some bodies may depend on the labour of others, and the burden of concealment.  Comfort may operate as a form of ‘feeling fetishism’: some bodies can have comfort only as an effect of the work of others, where the work itself is concealed from view.

In The Promise of Happiness I refer very briefly to how comfort becomes a form of political labour:

Consider Ama Ata Aidoo’s wonderful prose poem, Our Sister Killjoy, where the narrator Sissie, as a black woman, has to work to sustain the comfort of others. On a plane, a white hostess invites her to sit at the back with “her friends”, two black people she does not know. She is about to say that she does not know them, and hesitates. ‘But to have refused to join them would have created an awkward situation, wouldn’t it? Considering too that apart from the air hostess’s obviously civilized upbringing, she had been trained to see the comfort of all her passengers” (1977: 10).

Power speaks here in this moment of hesitation. Do you go along with it? What does it mean not to go along with it? To create awkwardness is to be read as being awkward. Maintaining public comfort requires that certain bodies “go along with it”. To refuse to go along with it  would be to be seen as trouble, as causing discomfort for others.

In my most recent book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012) I discussed how whiteness can operate as a form of public comfort developing some of the arguments I made in the chapter, “The Orient and Other Others” from Queer Phenomenology (2004):

The word “comfort” suggests well-being and satisfaction, but it can also suggest an ease and easiness. Comfort is about an encounter between bodies and worlds, the promise of a “sinking” feeling. If white bodies are comfortable it is because they can sink into spaces that extend their shape.  To inhabit whiteness as a non-white body can be uncomfortable: you might even fail the comfort test. It can be the simple act of walking into the room that causes discomfort. Whiteness can be an expectation of who will turn up. A person of color describes: “When l enter the room there is shock on peoples’ faces because they are expecting a white person to come in. I pretend not to recognize it. But in the interview there is unease because they were not expecting someone like me to turn up. So it is hard and uncomfortable and l can tell that they are uneasy and restless because of the way they fiddle and twitch around with their pens and their looks. They are uncomfortable because they were not expecting me – perhaps they would not have invited me if they knew l was black and of course l am very uncomfortable. l am wondering whether they are entertaining any prejudice against me”. They are not expecting you. Discomfort involves this failure to fit. A restlessness and uneasiness, a fidgeting and twitching, is a bodily registering of an unexpected arrival.

The body that causes their discomfort (by not fulfilling an expectation of whiteness) is the one who must work hard to make others comfortable. You have to pass by passing your way through whiteness, by being seamless or minimizing the signs of difference. If whiteness is what the institution is orientated around, then even bodies that do not appear white still have to inhabit whiteness. One person of color describes how she minimizes signs of difference (by not wearing anything perceived as “ethnic”) because she does not want to be seen as “rocking the boat”. The invitation to become more alike as an invitation of whiteness is about becoming more comfortable or about inhabiting a comfort zone.

Bodies stick out when they are out of place.  Think of the expression “stick out like a sore thumb.” To stick out can mean to become a sore point, or even to experience oneself as being a sore point. To inhabit whiteness as a not-white body can mean trying not to appear at all: ‘I have to pretend that l am not here because l don’t want to stick out too much because everybody knows l am the only black person here. When you stick out, the gaze sticks to you. Sticking out from whiteness can thus re-confirm the whiteness of the space. Whiteness is an effect of what coheres rather than the origin of coherence. The effect of repetition is not then simply about a body count: it is not simply a matter of how many bodies are in. Rather what is repeated is a very style of embodiment, a way of inhabiting space, which claims space by the accumulation of gestures of “sinking” into that space.  If whiteness allows some bodies to move with comfort, to inhabit that space as home, then those bodies take up more space.

It might seem problematic to describe whiteness as something we “pass through.” Such an argument could make whiteness into something substantive, as if whiteness has an ontological force of its own, which compels us, and even “drives” action. It is important to remember that whiteness is not reducible to white skin, or even to something we can have or be, even if we pass through whiteness.  When we talk about a “sea of whiteness” or “white space” we are talking about the repetition of the passing by of some bodies and not others. Non-white bodies do inhabit white spaces; we know this. Such bodies are made invisible when spaces appear white, at the same time as they become hyper-visible when they do not pass, which means they “stand out” and “stand apart.” You learn to fade in the background, but sometimes you can’t or you don’t.

I have been thinking more about how diversity work (in both senses, see) involves comfort and discomfort.  You have to work to make others comfortable given you have already made them uncomfortable. No wonder diversity work is emotional work! Here is the full quote I refer to in passing above:

 I think with a person of colour there’s always a question of what’s this woman going to turn out like… they’re nervous about appointing people of colour into senior positions….Because if I went in my Sari and wanted prayer time off and started rocking the boat and being a bit different and asserting my kind of culture I’m sure they’d take it differently.

Some forms of difference are heard as assertive, as “rocking the boat.”   Some forms of difference become legible as willfulness and obstinacy, as if you are only different because you are insistent (on being different). The pressure not to “assert your culture” is lived as a demand to pass and to integrate by being more alike. Note how this pressure can be affective:  you experience the potential nervousness as a threat; you try and avoid the nervous glance by not fulfilling its expectation.

Racism often works by identifying the arrival of some bodies as the generalisation of discomfort.  We can identify these same mechanisms at a national level. Take for example Jack Straw’s comments about the burqa made when he was British Home Secretary back in 2006.   He suggested that the burqa made him feel uncomfortable, and that the failure of the covered woman to show her face was a refusal to communicate. When defending his comments to a Muslim woman he said, “If we bumped into each other in the street, you would be able to say hello to me. I would not be able to do the same. The obvious reason is that I cannot see your face. Chance conversations make society stronger.” The Muslim woman becomes the stranger; she prohibits the capacity to say hello, as a happily weak signifier of social solidarity. We might say that the Muslim woman is constituted as unfriendly, as refusing the very grounds of friendship. Her difference becomes the blockage point; the point where communication stops. Note also how discomfort becomes the basis of a political demand: for the white body to be comfortable, others must unveil.

More recently an article in The Guardian reports: Cameron will warn that immigrants unable to speak English or unwilling to integrate have created a ‘kind of discomfort and disjointedness’ that has disrupted communities across Britain.”[i] Those unwilling to integrate dislocate the national body, causing discomfort. To make others uncomfortable is to cause disruption. This is how the citizenship duty can become a comfort duty: you have to work to make others comfortable by minimizing the signs of difference.

Antiracist work could be described as a politics of discomfort. This is not to say that we aim to make others uncomfortable but that discomfort might be a consequence of what we aim for:  after all to challenge whiteness is to get in the way of an occupation of space. Sometimes, we might even use comfort as a technique. Some diversity practitioners described to me how they use words such as “diversity” because they are more comfortable words. To use more comfortable words can be a way of getting people to your table. Once people are seated, you can then use more confronting words such as “whiteness” and “racism.”

But of course, sometimes no matter what we say, no matter what we do, we already cause discomfort. The figure of angry woman of colour – as feminist killjoy and as killer of feminist joy – reminds us how discomfort involves explanations as well as expectations: discomfort is explained as caused by such-and-such body (in the context of feminist rooms, this such-and-such is often the brown or black feminist body) such that she is expected to cause discomfort before she even arrives.

One political strategy is to fulfil that expectation; to make what we cause part of our cause. bell hooks describes how one version of Sisterhood is that the “white ‘lady’ (bourgeois woman) should be protected from all that might upset and discomfort her and shielded from negative realities that might lead to confrontation” (2000: 46). Whatever strategies we use, as feminists of colour, we cannot avoid confrontation without also avoiding dealing with the realities of racism. We might have to risk becoming known as confrontational.

A risk is also a potential. Reflecting back on my own writing on comfort and discomfort, I have found one optimistic moment about discomfort. It is from Queer Phenomenology, when I am reflecting on having a mixed as well as queer genealogy.  I am going to end here with this “optimism of discomfort.”

I would say that the experience of having a mixed genealogy is a rather queer way of beginning, insofar as it provides a different “angle” on how whiteness itself gets reproduced.  Whiteness is proximate; it is a “part” of your background. And yet, you do not inherit what whiteness, you do not inherit what is behind you. You can feel the categories that you fail to inhabit: they are sources of discomfort. Comfort is a feeling that tends not to be consciously felt, as I suggested in the previous section. You sink. When you don’t sink, when you fidget and move around, then what is in the background becomes in front of you, as a world that is gathered in a specific way. Discomfort in other words, allows things to move. Every experience I have had of pleasure and excitement about a world opening up has begun with such ordinary feelings of discomfort, of not quite fitting in a chair, of becoming unseated, of being left holding onto the ground. So yes, if we start with the body that loses its chair, the world we describe will be quite different.



Aidoo, Ama Ata (1997). Our Sister Killjoy. Harlow: Longman.

Berlant, L. and Warner, M. (2000). ‘Sex in Public’ in Berlant, Lauren (ed), Intimacy,

University of Chicago Press.

hooks, b. (2000). Feminist Theory: From Margin to Centre. London: Pluto Press.

Valentine, G. (1996). ‘(Re)Negotiating the Heterosexual Street” in N. Duncan Body Space: Destabilising Geographies of Gender and Sexuality. London: Routledge.

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Conditional Will

Hello feminist killjoys

It is the start of term, so it is busy. I have begun working on a post on ‘sweaty concepts’ (which could be entitled ‘An Ode to Audre Lorde’) but it might be a few weeks before I can come back to it. This week at Goldsmiths I am looking forward to talking about/talking to feminist killjoys (and other willful subjects). Do come along if you fancy some killjoy company (! In the meantime, I am sharing some thoughts on the concept of ‘conditional will,’ which connects some of my arguments in Willful Subjects (forthcoming with Duke University Press, 2014) back to my earlier qualitative study of diversity work, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012).

In grumpy solidarity,

feminist killjoy


We could begin with an invitation.  Let’s make it an invitation of an ordinary sort.  Would you like to come along with us? This invitation is an invitation to take part and in taking part to become part, part of an ‘us,’ a part that in coming along is going somewhere.  You accept the invitation when you go along with this coming along. Such an ordinary invitation: one could accept it or not, become part, or not. But let’s think of the invitation as a relation of address.  The ‘you’ is the object of the address.  In being welcomed the ‘you’ is positioned as not part of the ‘us,’ or should we say not yet part. For ‘you’ partness is the promise of a future tense: a becoming. What does mean, what does it do, for the participation of some to be dependent on an invitation made by others?

Perhaps if participation depends on an invitation, then participation becomes a condition or comes with conditions. Jacques Derrida (2000) offered an astute analysis of ‘conditional hospitality,’ when a host welcomes the guest only on condition the guest behaves or ‘is’ a certain way, a restriction of hospitality that is not, Derrida suggests, very hospitable.  We can explore how conditional hospitality rests on what we can simply ‘conditional will.’Just think of the word ‘welcome.’ This word is often used as a friendly greeting, or to signify a friendly orientation. Welcome is also what we can call ‘a will word.’  The word ‘welcome’ derives from the Old English word ‘wilcoma‘ combining ‘will’ with guest. Welcome originally implied a guest ‘whose coming is in accord with another’s will.’

If a guest is the one whose coming is in accordance with another’s will, then guests might have to will in accordance. If a guest is not willing to will in accord, they become a willful guest, one that abuses the hospitality that has been given. In fact, the figure of the willful guest might be understood as spectre that haunts hospitality, the menace that threatens the loss of a good relation.

Perhaps we become willing to make our wills conditional on the wills of others as a way of avoiding being the menace. The speech act ‘I will if you will’ condenses the conditionality of will into a promise to will if the other wills. Note how this conditional will, even if it positions the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ alongside each other, as bound in a willing relation, cannot make them inhabit the same time: one comes before, one after, an ‘if.’ This temporal disjunction is a social disjunction.  If certain people come first –such as hosts, but also parents or citizens, then their will comes first. This being first is not always obvious or explicit. Indeed the host might say that they will ‘will’ only if the guest wills, thus appearing to give the guest a certain precedence ‘if you will, then I will.’  A promise to be willing can become a demand given this precedence: ‘you will, so that I can will.’ If the other won’t will, then the one who wills the other to will so they can will also cannot will ‘if you won’t then I can’t.’ The guest must will the same way for those who are already in place to receive what they will:  ‘you must be willing!’

When you are willing, this must loses the sound of force.  This is why some forms of force might not be experiencable as force, as they involve a sense, nay, a feeling of being willing.  Force can take the following form: the making unbearable of the consequences of not willing what someone wills you to will.  A condition of bearability can be to will ‘freely’ what you are willed to will.

Let’s think with examples. Who welcomes who? Say you welcome a stranger. To welcome the stranger is to recognize the one who arrives as a stranger.  In my book Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (2000) I explored the stranger not as someone we don’t recognise but as someone we recognise as a stranger. The stranger is thus familiar, as ‘the body out of place.’   To welcome the stranger, as the not yet part is to establish who is already part: a welcoming creates the host as the ‘who’ that welcomes. Who is this who? We could consider the racialisation of the very figure of the host, as the figure for the ‘in place’ or ‘already part.’ As Nirmal Puwar (2004) has argued white bodies are the somatic norms of institutions: who they are organized around; who they assume as what they are for. This is how diversity can be offered as an invitation to bodies of colour, an invitation to become part, to add our colour to the whiteness of the organizational body.  Diversity can take the form of a welcome.  In being welcomed, people of colour are treated as guests, as temporary residents in someone else’s home. The act of welcoming those already recognized as strangers, as not yet parts, establishes the very conditions of participation.   

What happens if we do not meet the conditions of our welcome? In On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012) I described the experience of doing a funded research project on diversity. In this book I noted how diversity can work as a branding exercise, a way of re-imaging the organization as ‘being diverse’ through the inclusion of those who embody diversity.  Our own inclusion as a diverse team researching diversity certainly became a happy sign of the overcoming of exclusion. When your arrival is taken up as a sign of diversity, then you can be incorporated as good practice.  Bodies of colour provide organizations with tools, ways of turning action points into outcomes. We become the tools in their kit. We are ticks in the boxes; we tick their boxes.

Our diversity team experienced the consequences of being a tick in the box. We embody diversity for the organization not only because our research project was on diversity but because we were legible as a sign of diversity (a team of many colours).  The ‘yes’ we embody became a demand for us to say ‘yes’ in return or as return. And: we were continually reminded that we were the recipients of generous funding. We were indebted. The gift economy is a powerful one: a means of some asserting the power of some to give to others, which is at once a power to expect or demand a return.  Diversity becomes debt.

We are at a meeting for the research projects. The director of the organization is present. We speak; we talk about our research, drawing on our interviews. They are all so interested. We are very committed to diversity, the director says. She talks about her personal commitment, over and over again. Sometimes the repetition of good sentiment feels oppressive. What are they trying to convince us of, I wonder? Enthusiasm can be oppressive, I learn. The occasion becomes about the enthusiasm of the white management. It becomes about their commitment to diversity. Commitment can even be a strictly monetary device: the amount they spend on us becomes a sign of their commitment; if they have funded us, we rely on their commitment.  Each expression of enthusiasm becomes a reminder of a debt. I know how we are supposed to respond. We are supposed to be grateful. We are good objects at this point, but you know it is precarious. You know it is conditional on returning their commitment in the right way. What do they want? Will we do what they want?

Their commitment comes with conditions, but the conditions are not made explicit. Our task is to make the conditions explicit.  We learn over time that the condition of their commitment is that we would in turn speak about their commitment in positive terms; which means we do not speak about anything that exposes the conditions of their commitment.

We speak about racism. We are not happily willing diversity. We write our report as a critique of good practice, as a critique of how the emphasis on ‘positivity’ (positive words, positive stories, and positive experiences) can makes it harder to speak about racism, as well as other experiences of the intractability of institutional inequality. It doesn’t take long for management enthusiasm to shift into hostility.  In an audit panel, the auditors do not even address the findings of the research. They focus on what the project has not offered. There are no numbers. There is too much theory. It will not be useful for practitioners. There is too much focus on racism (surely you are exaggerating, how can there be so much?).  Elaine Swan (2010) argues that these questions functioned as technologies of displacement: they block the message about racism from getting through.  The hostility of the questions of the official audit is replicated in informal communications, a general sense of disappointment in the diversity research, repeated as murmur. They do not publish our report, which now can circulate only unofficially.

We learn of the condition of commitment from failing to meet those conditions. Those conditions require that we use happy words and not use unhappy words.  Racism becomes an unhappy word, one that would get in the way of our capacity to fulfil our commitment. Note how prohibition can function under the veil of permission. The permission to speak about racism becomes evidence of anti-racism. The permission thus becomes prohibition:  racism becomes something that we should not speak about given that we have been given the freedom to speak of it. It is an apparent freedom: when freedom becomes gift it is often withdrawn. The act of being given the freedom to speak of racism is taken as evidence that there is no racism to speak of.

People of colour are welcomed on condition we are willing to embody diversity.  We are asked to smile in their brochures. We are welcomed, if we are willing not to speak about racism. Racism which becomes a willful word: getting in the way, going the wrong way. Not to be willing is to be assigned as willful, as a menace, as the ones who causes the loss a good relation. My work explores the dangers of this assignment. I have learnt over time to appreciate how being willing to embody diversity can be a way individuals avoid the consequences of not being willing. We have to work collectively if we are to expose the costs of this avoidance.


Derrida, Jacques (2000). Of Hospitality. Trans. Rachel Bowlby.  Stanford: Stanford

University Press.

Puar, Nirmal (2004). Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies Out of Place. Oxford: Berg.

Swan, Elaine (2010). ‘States of White Ignorance, and Audit Masculinity in English Higher Education,’ Social Politics 17, 4: 477-506.

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