Feminist Complaint

I have offered a feminist equation

Rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy.

I want to make sense of this equation, or to show how this equation makes sense.

I first came up with this equation – not necessarily in these exact terms – as a sense of something. I realised how much I had learnt from how eyes roll when I open my mouth, when I was listening to a diversity practitioner. It was an interview. My ear was open; my mouth was shut. She was telling me of her experience of meetings at the university. These are her words, delivered to me with force as well as wit.

She said:

“You know you go through that in these sorts of jobs where you go to say something and you can just see people going ‘oh here she goes.’”

How we both laughed when she said this; we both recognised that each other recognised that situation.

We had both been there.

Oh here she goes.

An assignment.

The diversity worker is appointed by an institution to transform the institution. That is her sort of job, a sort of job that makes her, one speculates, “out of sorts” as she is trying to sort things out. She is given this job: sorting.

Not sorted.

How is she heard? We learn from hearing. We learn from how we are heard. Which is to say: we learn from how we are not heard. That is the basis of my feminist equation.

Others within the institution who are also appointed by that institution, who are seated around the table, experience her as wearisome. They hear her as just “going on.” She can hear people hear her this way before she says anything.

She has to keep saying it when they keep doing it. One repetition is striking, the other recedes because it is familiar.

It was a transformative moment, having my own experiences so perfectly encapsulated by someone else’s words. This interview took place in 2003. It was whilst I was writing Queer Phenomenology (2006) before I had even begun the research that led me to write my feminist critique of happiness; before I had even picked up the figure of the feminist killjoy and put her to work. I began thinking of those experiences, both at work and at home, in the meeting table, in the family table, when I was met with rolling eyes.

I learnt this too: how a feminist killjoy can recognise herself in what she receives from others.

You are heard as making a complaint; you are heard as being complaining. You are heard as expressing annoyance about something. Grumbling; grumble; grump; grumpy.

You might be offering a careful critique. You might be taking care. It doesn’t matter how much care you take; how much time you take in assembling a case.

It is a quick judgment. You are judged before you say anything. The judgment has priority.

Feminist grump; feminist grumps; what a lump.

You are heard as being annoyed. You might not be annoyed. Being annoyed might under-describe the relation you have to the world that is made the subject of a complaint. How annoying! How annoying to be heard as annoyed!

How you are heard: you are formed not found. You still find yourself there.

So emotional; so moved by being heard as emotional. You are used to this. Eyes rolling. You are used to this. Feminists are heard as being emotional whatever they say, which is to say, again, independently of what they say. Being called “emotional” is a form of dismissal. How emotional. Just look at you.

A container, a leaky container.

Be careful: we leak.

And feminists of colour, well. She does go on, rather.

She will go on.

Rather she goes on.

A complaint: a matter of life and death.  A complaint: to strike at the breast. The word “complain” derives from plague. We hear this: a matter of life and death. A complaint: sick speech. Maybe she is heard as speaking from ill-will: not only as being ill herself, but as being willing to make the whole body ill.

Ill-will, willful.

They listen: damage control.

Not listening.

She makes an announcement. She is an announcement. She strikes her breast.

The word “complaint” is striking. Willfulness too is striking. Willfulness comes up, like the arm in the Grimm story with which I opened my book. That arm that pulses with life became the key figure in my willful history of willfulness. This arm will not be a supportive limb. The arm has been shaped by a history of lending its hand to the master. But having lent this way, the arm can dissent. The arm the built the house is the arm that will bring it down.

No wonder the arm comes up; it keeps coming up. The arm is a complaint. The arm is complaint made flesh.

She comes up; she keeps coming up. She has not been beaten. She persists. Mere persistence can be an act of disobedience.

She strikes her breast. The arm is striking.

A complaint is disobedience. She does not obey; she is willing herself that way.

To be heard as complaint: to be beaten.

We are not beaten: we make a complaint.

We notice what comes up. We don’t notice the ground being dislodged. What a striking figure. She stands out because what she complains about is not revealed.

The complainer: a revelation.

What a revelation.

You are heard as complaining. And maybe you are making a complaint. Or maybe you are making a critique which is heard as a complaint. But to be heard as complaining is also to be heard as speaking in a certain way: as expressing yourself. Heard thus: you complain because you are being complaining. This is what the figure of the feminist killjoy taught us. You are making that point (pointing of sexism, pointing out racism) because that is your tendency. That is what you are like.  How like you! When you are heard as only ever expressing yourself, then you are not heard. Eyes roll as if to say: well she would make a complaint; she is so complaining. And what we learn from those eyes rolling is that they roll before you say anything. You could say anything, you could be talking about anything, and still they roll. To hear you as complaining is not to hear you at all.

An anything: quite something.

Complaining, moaning, whinging.

Anti-feminism is a structure of hearing, a way feminists are eliminated from a conversation; a way certain forms of critique are dismissed in advanced of being made.

And we learn: anti-feminism is an extension of sexism. Women are already heard in this way, as complaining, moaning, whinging. If women do not accept the place they have been assigned, they are heard as complaining, moaning, and whinging. These are willful assignments; given to those who are not willing to accept how they are assigned.

Feminists: willful women.

I have heard this judgment expressed as action; in action. Students who testify about their experience of sexual harassment, students who have to testify again and again, are heard as complaining. What have they got to complain about? Yes, he is like that; it is like that. Like that. In the assumption is an injunction. Accept it, don’t make such a fuss. Stop talking about it.


Starts again.

That they have to testify to violence repeats that violence. And they have to testify, again. How they are heard when they testify to violence reproduces that violence.

Complaint: a history of violence.

And we know this too: men have used this way of hearing women as justifications of violence, even murder; she was nagging, moaning, whinging, whining.

She was being.

Nag: she was being.

Courts of law have heard these hearings as right which is to say, they heave heard complaining as justifying violence.

This is serious stuff.


A distribution of life and death can be a distributions of words.

So many of our histories are histories of willful words. Let’s think about the word “assertive.” How often minority subjects are called assertive! In being called assertive we have to become assertive to meet the challenge of this call. We might have to assert our existence in order to exist.

Others: not so much.

We are surrounded by words that register that some in being are being above themselves. Think of the word “uppity.” The word “uppity” is probably the most explicitly racialized of willful words, particularly in U.S. politics. Adia Harvey Wingfield and Joe Feagin note: “the word ‘uppity’ has long been used by racist whites to describe African Americans who ‘don’t know their place’” ([2010] 2013: 88). The word “uppity” has a very specific political genealogy, but can be related to other willful words that imply a racial and social hierarchy: being is judged as being above oneself, such that to know one’s place requires adjustment and submission. Such judgments are expressed in action. A judgment is how an idea is in action.

What have you got to complain about? Oh the necessity of complaining about this about.

We must complain. There is a lot to complain about.

Justifications of death as right; of killing as a right.

When how you are perceived is wrong, is a wrong, but is made right.



If they hadn’t complained some of us wouldn’t be here.

If we don’t complain some of us won’t be here.


Harvey Wingfield, Adia and Joe Feagin (2013) [2010].  Yes We Can: White Racial Framing and the Obama Presidency. New York: Routledge.

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Pushy Feminists

When I talk about “pushy feminists” I might be assumed to be referring to a particular kind of feminist: those who keep pushing their points. The figure of the pushy feminist is in close company with that of the feminist killjoy: those feminists who refuse to let it go; those feminists who insist on being feminists wherever they go; those feminists who are heard as insistent. There is no doubt there are different ways of being feminists and doing feminism and that some feminist styles might be experienced as pushier than others. But I want to think here about “pushy feminists” beyond the restricted notion of feminist kinds.

To persist in being a feminist, often in the face of hostility and violence, is to risk being judged as pushy. We can be shaped by a judgement, even as we react to that judgment by announcing its exteriority. And we are shaped by what we do. When you have to keep pushing, when pushing is what you are doing, perhaps then you do, in a certain way, become pushy. The figure of the “pushy feminist” might be teaching us something about what is involved or what is required in doing feminist work. You might be judged as being pushy. And you might have to become pushy. If you have to push to be a feminist, doing feminist work is often pushy work; you have to push against something that has solidified or hardened over time.

Another way of saying this: you have to push harder when you come up against walls. Feminist work is diversity work in the first sense of how I use this term: the work we have to do when we aim to transform an institution. To work as a feminist at a university requires we work on the university. We have feminist centres and feminist programmes because we do not have feminist universities: that is to say, because sexism, gender inequality and sexual harassment remain structuring of university environments. We have feminist centres and programmes because we need to push hard to get through what has become institutionalised or given. Sexism becomes concrete. A feminist job is thus “a banging your head against a brick wall job.” Our job description is a wall description.

As I have noted in previous blogs posts, institutional walls are generally not perceived unless you come up against them. We are pushing against what does not come into view. This is how: to bring something into view can be understood as pushing a view. You are perceived as being pushy when what you are pushing against is not perceived. I have been noticing recently a kind of incredulity that follows being a feminist at work. There is a murmuring sense of: why is she pushing when there is nothing there? The very perception of feminists as being pushy is what allows the maintenance of walls, those walls of perception that enable some not to register the walls.

When pushing is unevenly distributed as a requirement, pushing becomes a form of political work. I want to turn to an example from my study of diversity. One of the practitioners I interviewed was not called the equality or diversity officer at her university. She was a human resources manager and she had diversity and equality amongst her many duties. The person who had been in this post previously had been called the equity officer. Why the new job title? She explained to me the reason for this decision: “our general manager did not want me to be seen as the equity person.” In On Being Included (2012) I explored the problems of becoming “the equity person,” how it can mean that equity stops and starts with a person. When one person becomes the equity person, other people do not have to become equity people. The logic being used here was that of mainstreaming; equality and diversity were now treated by the university as what all those employed by the university should be doing. There was no longer going to be an officer or an office for equality and diversity; what they were “trying to do was share it across the board.”

Mainstreaming did not work. This practitioner gave no more detail than necessary to convey why it did not work: “we haven’t been able to give as much attention as we would have liked to it.” Unless equality and diversity are made what you attend to, they tend not to be attended to. Many practitioners I spoke to were sceptical of how mainstreaming is used as a cost cutting exercise; a way of not giving resources to support equality and diversity.  As another practitioner described, mainstreaming is used by managers to imply “it doesn’t need people who are experts like us and everything’s ok.  That’s not the case; we know that, particularly on race that’s not the case.” Diversity and equality are not mainstream and that to treat them as if they are mainstream simply means the message will not get through. Without an institutional push, without pushers, nothing happens. Diversity and equality tend to fall of the agenda unless someone forces them onto the agenda, where that someone is usually the diversity or equality practitioner. Of course, as soon as something is “forced” on the agenda, then it is not mainstream. You do not have to force what is mainstreamed.  Mainstreaming thus fails to describe the kind of work that diversity work involves: having to push for, or drive forward, agendas that organizations often say they are for, but are not behind.

Diversity and equality requires offices and officers who keep “pushing,” otherwise things do not happen. We you have to push harder to overcome what has become harder. In my work I have used the example of going the wrong way in a crowd to describe this uneven distribution of effort. We can think with this experience; through this experience. Everyone seems to be going the opposite way than the way you are going. No one person has to push or shove for you to feel the collective momentum of the crowd as pushing and shoving. For you to keep going you have to push harder than any of those who are going the right way. When you are going the wrong way you have to push harder just to proceed.

To push is thus to push against a direction. This is why pushing has a unique kind of temporality as well as affective quality (I would think of pushing as a straining temporality).  When you push you are often pushing for something; a possibility can be what we are pushing for. If you don’t push, it seems, at least sometimes, a possibility is what recedes. For some possibles to become actuals would require more of a push than others. The necessity of pushing is a consequence of what has become hard: the materiality of resistance to transformation under conditions of force. How we have to push (towards a future we might glimpse in front of us) thus depend on histories, on what has become concrete. Pushing (rather like willing) is between tenses.

In my previous post, I described white men as an institution. Brick by brick: a wall is formed. Maybe a brick is a chip off the old block.  Reproduction and paternity are understood by this expression “a chip off the old block” in terms of likeness: like from like. And if a chip comes from a block, a chip might also become a block from which there will come another chip: like to like.

Diversity workers have to chip at that block, or chip off the block.

Chip, chip.

Things splinter.


Institutions can be built out of or through citations. This is one way of thinking about Edward Said’s argument in Orientalism (1970): as a theory of institutionality as citationality, of how Orientalists became experts on the Orient, that place imagined as being over there, through citing each other, creating a network of citations, a loop, one leading to another. When reference becomes chain, a body of work becomes wall.

A wall: what we come up against. I have recently been looking at curricula in cultural studies and have been struck by how many courses are organized around or even as a white male European genealogy. So it seems once the pressure to modify the shape of disciplines is withdrawn it seems they “spring back” very quickly into that old shape. Diversity workers have to keep pushing otherwise things will be quickly reversed to how they were before. Pushing might be necessary to stop a reversal. Even when a new policy is adopted, or new books are put on the syllabus, we know we have to keep pushing for them; an arrival can be precarious. If we don’t keep pushing for some things, even after they have been agreed, they might be dropped quite quickly. In order for some things that have appeared not to disappear we have to keep up the pressure; we have to become pressure points.

This was my experience of Women’s Studies: we had to keep pushing for things to stay up. Women’s Studies as a project is not over until universities cease to be Men’s Studies. But no wonder Women’s Studies has unstable foundations. To build Women’s Studies is to build in an environment that needs to be transformed by Women’s Studies; the point of Women’s Studies is to transform the very ground on which Women’s Studies is built. We have to shake the foundations. But when we shake the foundations, it is harder to stay up.

We have to keep pushing: to keep up, to keep things up. Perhaps we are willing to do this. Or perhaps we become exhausted and we decide to do something else instead. The history of the “spring back” mechanism is impossible to separate from the history of our collective exhaustion. Which is also to say: the very necessity of having to push for some things to be possible can be what makes them (eventually) impossible. If we cannot sustain the labour required for some things to be, they cannot be. Something might not come about or stay about not because we have been prevented from doing it (we might have even been officially encouraged to do it) but when the effort to make that thing come about or stay about is too much to sustain.

Diversity work in the second sense I use it (the work we do when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution) also requires pushing. You have to push to be when your being is not accommodated. How is being accommodated? When an arrangement is made to ensure the motility and progression of some, an environment has been built. History has become concrete. In order for others to enter, who as beings have a different set of requirements, they would have to push for a modification of the environment. Some have to push to be accommodated. Given how able-bodied privilege comes to structure a world (both a physical and social world) then people will disabilities have to push to have their own requirements be met. Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s work on “misfitting” is very helpful in exploring the consequences of how worlds are built around some bodies.  As she writes: “A misfit occurs when the environment does not sustain the shape and function of the body that enters it. The dynamism between body and world that produces fits or misfits comes at the spatial and temporal points of encounter between dynamic but relatively stable bodies and environments. The built and arranged space through which we navigate our lives tends to offer fits to majority bodies and create misfits with minority forms of embodiment, such as people with disabilities” (2014, np). We have a misfit when there is an incongruous relation of body to thing, or body to world. If you do not fit, you have to pusher harder, and even then, you might not be able to proceed.

And you have to keep pushing after your needs have apparently been accommodated. For example even when universities have access policies, it is often still left to students with disabilities to find out about those policies; to ask each and every time there is an event about access arrangements, as this important post on the PhDisabled blog points out.  The very effort required to find out about access can end up making events more inaccessible. Access can become inaccessible. When you might have to push harder just to turn up, turning up might be what you are too exhausted to do.

Or sometimes, turning up can be understood as pushing in.  Think of how you can be understood as “pushing your way into a conversation.” Who is judged as pushy depends here on a prior judgement: who is judged as belonging, who is understood as residing somewhere. No wonder: a foreigner is often deemed pushy. Or to be made foreign is to be registered as pushing. You are pushing for something, when you are understood as not having a legitimate claim on something.  Within feminism too, some might be registered as “pushing their way into a conversation.” bell hooks describes in Feminist Theory how “the atmosphere might noticeably change when a woman of color walks into the room” (2010: 56). Perhaps an atmospheric wall is what is created when an arrival is registered as  pushy. And words too become pushy: racism is heard as a pushy word, as foreign to a situation, as what is being forced from the outside in.

You push it; you say it.


It can be situational: in some situations turning up or speaking up is understood or heard as pushing in. And to manage the situation would require you to push against how you are understood or heard. Even within feminism we can end up in this situation.

And once your arrival is registered as pushing, then what? So little room; so little room you might have to be in the room. Even to push against what you are judged as being, would be to fulfil that judgement of being pushy. This is one of the life paradoxes I was concerned with in Willful Subjects (2014): you have to become what you are judged as being. More than that: you have to become what you are judged as being to survive that judgment. So you might have to push against the judgment of being pushy; you might have to do the thing they say you are in response to what they say you are. Thus even if the judgment eventually catches you, even if that is so, even when it is so, it misses so much. It misses you, the history of you becoming you: and it also misses its own sharp edges; its own role in forming what it finds.

And of course, too, so much being is not understood as being pushed. When a chip becomes a block, this becoming is not registered as pushing, even if we know, that some end up where they end up because there has been a push somewhere along the way. Let’s return to the citational apparatus: think of how once we have a body of work, a body can work: how a citational apparatus can allows the easing or smoothing of a travel from one to another; body to body, an easing of a progression.

Cite, white, light, flight.

A system is a pushing as well as pulling mechanism: some are not required to push because the system is doing it on their behalf. There will be no obvious signs of individual strain when an individual does not have to strain. You do not have to promote yourself if you are promoted by virtue of your membership in a social group. A “system push” could be another way of understanding momentum. The more momentum is gathered the more a momentum gathers. You are propelled along if you are going that way; you are propelled along if your body is an agreement with that direction. Once there is a momentum, a direction becomes directive. And then: it is the others who push, those who are going in a different direction, the wrong direction; or those who in aiming to change direction, become obstruction.

Let’s return to our pushy feminists. Of course pushiness becomes a feminist quality! How could it not be so? She is pushy because what she pushes against is not registered as existing; it because the history of being pushed that allows that what to take shape is not registered as having happened (a way of life, a social order; an institutional arrangement). The walls of which I have been writing are precisely about how what is pushed, what hardens in time, over time, is not encountered by those who are going in that direction. You might not encounter those walls because of who you are, or because of what you are not trying to do. Just trying to modify an existent arrangement is to become pushy.

For some to persist in being would require modifying a world: becoming pushy.

A killjoy: willing this becoming.

And of course: we can live, love and learn from pushing.  We can know more about what we are against, when we come up against it.

And my little secret.

I tend to love most those who tend to be most pushy.

And my little hope.

Together we can create a pushy riot.


Ahmed, Sara (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke University Press.

————-(2014). Willful Subjects. Duke University Press.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie (2014). “The Story of My Work: How I Became Disabled,” Disability Studies Quarterly, 34, 2.

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

Said, Edward (1970). Orientalism. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.


Thanks to all those who participated in a twitter discussion on being pushy and pushing and to Sarah Franklin for the expression “pushy riot.”

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White Men

It was one of the funnier moments in my diversity research. I was interviewing a practitioner. She shared with me a story. She had been looking at the new webpage of the senior management team at her university. They had just put up photographs of each member of the team. Her friend looked over her shoulder and asked: “are they related?” When she relayed the story, we both burst into laughter. When we catch with words a logic that is often reproduced by not being put into words it can be such a relief.

We recognised that each other recognized the logic. Laughter, peals of it; our bodies catching that logic, too.

Are they related? Well perhaps they are not related in the sense of how we might usually use the word “related.” They are not kin. Or are they? Is each member of the team one of the same kind? Does the homogeneity of an appearance registered by or in this question point to another sense of being related: being in a relation; being as relation? They were, as it happens, you might not be surprised by this, “white men.” To use this expression is not to summarise a relation; the relation is itself a summary (how the institution can be built around a short series of points). The photograph give us a summary of a summary: this is who is the organisation is; this is who the organisation is for. Of course an image can change without changing a thing (this is why diversity is so often a poster, you can re-image the organisation as being colourful and happy as a way of holding onto whiteness: diversity as image management).

When we talk of “white men” we are describing an institution. “White men” is an institution. By saying this, what I am saying? An institution typically refers to a persistent structure or mechanism of social order governing the behaviour of a set of individuals within a given community. So when I am saying that “white men” is an institution I am  referring not only to what has already been instituted or built but the mechanisms that ensure the persistence of that structure. A building is shaped by a series of regulative norms. “White men” refers also to conduct; it is not simply who is there, who is here, who is given a place at the table, but how bodies are occupied once they have arrived; behaviour as bond.

But when you talk about “white men” you are heard as making an accusation against him. Maybe the title of this post seems provocative: why make this all about him?

Well maybe I am talking about him: a pronoun is an institution. Him: for some to become him is to pass into them.

“White men,” then, refers to what as well as who has already been assembled: a collective body. This is not to say that white men are not constantly being reassembled; you can meet up in the present, you can have a future meeting, because of how the past splinters into resources. “White men” is between tenses: it is how an inheritance is reproduced. When a body lines up, or is in line, you might only see one set of lines, or maybe you don’t see any; when things appear as they should, the right way up, they recede. When a body does not line up, things appear queer or wonky.


Nirmal Puwar’s book Space Invaders: Race, Gender and “Bodies out of Place” (2004) describes these processes very well: some bodies are “somatic norms,” they become rightful occupants of spaces.

Others not.


One diversity practitioner I interviewed called it “social cloning,” how organisations tend to recruit in their own image.  In a diversity training session I attended someone talked about how members of her department would ask as a question about potential job candidates: would this person be “the kind of person you can take down the pub”? To become relatable is to restrict a relation; someone you can relate to because they are at home not only in meeting rooms or the seminar rooms, but in social spaces, spaces that have their own histories. Norms might become more regulative the more casual the spaces. This is why: when rules are relaxed, we encounter the rules.


How then is “white men” built or even a building? Think about it. One practitioner relayed to me how they named buildings in her institution. All dead white men she said. We don’t need the names to know how spaces come to be organised so they can receive certain bodies. We don’t need the naming to know how or who buildings can be for.

Behaviour as bond: you might walk into a room with a white male professor. You might notice how the collective gaze falls on him. You walk in together but you aren’t seen as together. Maybe they assume you are an assistant. They see him as they expect a professor to appear this way. He might have a beard; grey hair. Of course there is more to him that that; no doubt there are things they do not see. Quite right; that’s the point. When he is seen as professor there is a way he too is not seen. They are seeing what they expect to see; they are seeing one person and not another as professor because “white men” have already been assembled. Here come the professors, here is the professor; hello professor.

When you fulfil an expectation of how they appear you do not have to work to appear. Being seen is about being seen to; receiving attention. The quietness that might follow the words that are sent out; it is a solemn occasion. Sometimes I giggle. Because this has happened so often, you know what is happening when it is happening. Sometimes, of course, what we might be seeing what we are expecting. But every now and then something happens that makes the flickering impression created by the turning of heads turn into something more tangible.

In one course I taught, each year I taught it, there would be some students assigned to my seminars who did not turn up. Instead, they turned up in the class of the white male professor; taking his class even though they were assigned mine. I was so intrigued by what would be the explanation that I asked one of these students when she came to my office hour why she went to his class. “He’s such a rock star,” she sighed wistfully. And then, as if to give substance to her admiration, as if to explain this admiration in more educational, or at least strategic terms, she added: “I want to go to America to do a PhD.” She did not need to say more. Her ambition was offered as an explanation of a decision. I knew what she was telling me; in her estimation (rightly or wrongly) a reference from “white men” (when you hear this plural think: institution not person) would have more value; that she would be picked up; that she too would move up, through association, through proximity, to him. She estimated that if you had a reference signed by “white men,” you would increase your own chances of moving up or moving forward in academic life. She has already digested an institutional diet, which is at once a social diet; higher = him. Note an estimation of a value that will be added is enough to add value.

White men: the origins of speculative philosophy, one might speculate.

Speculate, accumulate.

Another time, a telling time, two academics, a brown woman and a white man are presenting a shared research project. They are equal collaborators on the project; but he is a senior man, very distinguished, well-known, perhaps he too is an “academic rock star.” He jokingly refers to her as “his wife” at the end of the presentation. Hear that joke, killjoys. He is describing how he sees their relation by joking about their relation: the husband, the author, the originator of ideas; the wife, the one who stands behind him. Maybe she provides helping hands; maybe she makes the tea. She doesn’t of course; she provides ideas; she has ideas of her own. Her intellectual labour is hidden by a joke; how it is hidden is performed or enacted by a joke.

When it is not funny, we do not laugh.

If we catalogued incidents like this we would end up with a very long list. What a list. We need a catalogue. Becoming wife: unbecoming professor, academic, intellectual, human being. As I pointed out in my conclusion to On Being Included (2012), to catalogue these incidents is not a melancholic task. To account for experiences of not being given residence (to be dislodged from a category is to be dislodged from a world) is not yet another sad political lesson, a lesson of what we have had to give up in order to keep going. We learn from being dislodged about lodges. We come to know so much about institutional life because of these failures of residence: the categories in which we are immersed as forms of life become explicit when you do not quite inhabit them.

A norm can be exercised as a way of seeing things: the quickness of how we register somebody as being somebody; how we notice an arrival. A quickening of a register; an unthinking of a thought. Ways of perceiving somebody as having certain kinds of qualities become objects in the world, tangible things. This process can be about a perception of an individual, that tricky matter of “reputation,” how some individuals are given certain attributes, sometimes independently of what they do, sometimes not, and how 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. That gender becomes wordy should not surprise. We can do gender through words, although this is not, of course, the only way we do gender.

Citationality is another form of academic relationality. White men is reproduced as a citational relational. White men cite other white men: it is what they have always done; it is what they will do; what they teach each other to do when they teach each other. They cite; how bright he is; what a big theory he has. He’s the next such-and-such male philosopher: don’t you think; see him think. The relation is often paternal: the father brings up the son who will eventually take his place. Patriarchy: it’s quite a system. It works.

Whiteness too: it works; it is a system that works, what I called in another post a catering system, a way of staying or being well acquainted. I have read “critical” work on race that primarily cites white men. I see it when they do it, very quickly. I see whiteness spilled all over the pages. Whiteness is invisible to those who inhabit it. For those who don’t inhabit it, whiteness appears as a solid: a body with mass.

And then: colour appears as difference; as deviation; as intrusion. Maybe you are welcomed; I have talked of diversity as welcome, an invitation to those who are not yet part to become part. I read it again and again: a Call for Papers (cfp) lists feminist and postcolonial/critical race contributions as welcome. But they still cite only white men. Still cite, cite still. White men: we can be called to assemble around this body (registered precisely as individual citations, as proper names) even when other bodies are called for. I once read a cfp for feminist approaches in a specific area of thought, which included as a potential topic the masculinist nature of that area of thought, that began with references to all white men! Three quotes, singled out; white men as singling out. They can be doing it (white men is here an it, a habit of thought) in the very claim to be reflecting on (or being open to reflections on) what they are doing when they are doing it.



Feminist fingers: pointed.

You come against a system when you point out a system. When there is a system those who benefit from the system do not want to recognise that system. You might be heard as dismissive as if you are explaining away their personal achievements. They might not recognise the walls, because to recognise the walls would also expose how an upward trajectory is not simply a matter of volition but is dependent on being supported and enabled; dependent on the uneven distribution of support.

White men = a support system.

No wonder: walls come up when we talk about walls.

A wall can be a defence mechanism.

Once on twitter I pointed out that an author had mainly cited other white men. He agreed with my description of the pattern but said that the pattern “was in the traditions that had influenced him.” To be influenced by a tradition is to be citing white men. Citing; reciting;  an endless retrospective. White men as a well-trodden path; the more we tread that way the more we go that way. To move forward you follow the traces left behind of those who came before. But in following these traces, in participating in their becoming brighter, becoming lighter, other traces fade out, becoming shadows, places unlit; eventually they disappear. Women too, people of colour too, might cite white men: to be you have to be in relation to white men (to twist a Fanonian point). Not to cite white men is not to exist; or at least not to exist within this or that field. When you exercise these logics, you might come to exist, by writing out another history, another way of explaining your existence. If to cite is to wipe out your history, what then?

For some students this prospect would be terrifying; that citing yourself into an academic existence might require citing yourself out.

Of course I am overstating the case; we do feminist and anti-racist work by re-assembling spaces around different bodies. But it is not easy; and the assembling has to be collaborative to work; we have to meet up by creating different meeting points. And it does not always work. I have known feminist examiners of feminist dissertations ask for more white men to be added to reference lists; righted = more white men be cited. And we know the reasons for this: simply put, if academic fields remain organised around white men, then to be respectful of history, to cite right, to cite well, can in practice translate into a requirement to cite more white men.

We have been here before; so there will always be more. Because in this citational requirement is erasure; the willed forgetting of others that already passed through. Even feminist fields (formed, say, around the study of emotions, bodies, and intimacies) can end up being reorganised around white men. Decisions are made about concepts or values, definitions or distinctions, that do not appear to be gendering and racialized decisions (I talked about how this works in affect studies here).  Individuals do not have not to cite not white men deliberately: they inherit decisions that make these exclusions for them, without them, decisions that marks edges, marking out where they do not have to go. Citations are academic bricks; and bricks become walls.

In the book I am writing Living a Feminist Life I thus have a strict and explicit citation policy. I will not and do not cite white men. And you know what: it has been really easy! You should try it! We can rebuild our houses with feminist tools; with de-colonial precision we can bring the house of whiteness down. Their body is not the world. A world can be opened up when it is not organised around their bodies.

I am not always going to have this policy: it is a writing experiment; a social experiment. I will cite white men again, just as I have cited them before. Sometimes, I cite white men, such as Hegel and Kant in Willful Subjects (2014), because I want to bring the house down, brick by brick. Other times, I cite white men because I too have been influenced by what I receive. For example I cite Husserl and Merleau-Ponty in Queer Phenomenology (2006) and I have a fondness for their work, without question (especially Husserl, although I am not sure if my fondness is because through him, I found tables, which makes my fond a rather queer kind of fond). As feminists we have issues. A feminist issue is not only about who you cite but how you cite. I do not cite because I hope to become another point in the unfolding line of phenomenology. I hope I do not cite in this way! I have no wish to be a phenomenologist who inherits and reproduces this tradition. My aim is to queer the  line that leads from one body to another. I want to be wonky; to get things wrong, even.

Error: to err is to stray. It is not to go the right way.

So I might ask what is behind Husserl’s back. I might attend to his table; I might ask about the domestic work that keeps the table clear so he as philosopher can do his work; so he as a philosopher can keep the table in front of him, even when the table does not have his attention. I think of where he does not go, of how his models might assume a body (“I can”) that I am not (“I cannot”). My aim in offering a queer phenomenology was thus to queer phenomenology; I end up, with tables as my love (err research) object, and with Frantz Fanon, and Iris Marion Young as my travelling companions; those who drew on phenomenology to explore how being in relation might depend on your relation to being (another way of accounting for: the unbearable whiteness and maleness of being).

Is there a way of not being in relation to white men? One time someone tweets to me about Badiou. She says Badiou could help feminism by giving feminism x. I didn’t get to x; I stopped with the verb help. I had noticed this as a feminist student; how when some feminist philosophers spoke of male philosophers, they often addressed them as being helpful to feminism. I wrote about this use of “help” in my first book, based on my PhD, Differences that Matter (1998: 70). I think now what I thought then. I don’t think feminism needs help sorting things out, as if thought comes from some place other than the places in which we are thrown. But philosophy might need feminist help; although I have no desire myself to be a feminist helper or to become the philosopher’s helping hands (I much prefer to curl my hands into feminist fists). And philosophy needs feminist help because: as generations of feminist scholars taught us, exposing sexism in philosophy explodes the structure of philosophy.

We need more feminist explosions.

That would help.


To explode something, to blow it apart, we have to show that there is something. This is why it is crucial to give problems their names; this is why I give this post the name “white men.” But when you talk about white men as a feminist you are dating yourself; you will be heard as a dated feminist as I described in an earlier blog. I have been called a 1980s feminist a number of times. When you ask questions like, “why are only white men speaking?” or even something more specific that relates to an ordering, “why are white men the opening speakers for a conference on race?” you tend to be heard as not being very helpful.

It has become old-fashioned to mention that only white men are speaking at an event but not old-fashioned to have only white men speaking at an event.

We are supposed not to notice a restriction in who gathers; and then this who gathers, and gathers again. And: when you make points like this you are told that you are doing “identity politics.” You point out structure; they hear you as talking about identity. They think you are just concerned with being missing yourself; that you are making this about yourself.

You say: the event has a structure. They say: this is an event not a structure. And then: you are judged as imposing a structure on the event.

This is why it is important to say that “white men” is an institution. It is not that we are stabilising something; that stability is in the world. This is why any contemporary theory needs to explain institutions and other worldly stabilisations; to explain these mechanisms, to explain how things do not move, is to generate new ideas, new ideas of ideas.

There is still much work to do. And this is why: the language of flows will not only “not do” but is part of what is making this system work. I have said this before but I will say it some more: things are fluid if you are going the way things are flowing. That’s not how we experience the world when we are not “white men.” We need to write from our experience of the world. We: not white men. To make a “we” from a not requires being willing to be that “we.” So I call upon “not white men” to be rebels, not to keep citing white men, or not to cite just them or not to enlist their help to become them or not to aim to become as like them as you can be given the body you have. And I call upon white men not to keep reproducing white men; not to accept history as a good enough reason for your own reproduction.

It takes conscious willed and willful effort not to reproduce an inheritance.

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Heavy Histories

So many heavy words, we feel the weight of them; we feel the weight each time, every time, all the time.

Black, brown, race, racism: words that come up; words you bring up.

Heavy; down.

Slow, frown.

It is not that we only feel the weight through words. The load does not lighten when light remains white. Whiteness is a lightening of a load.

Not white: loaded.

When you bring up racism it is like you introduce something that would not have otherwise existed. It is racism that makes “racism” a foreign word, a foreigner word, what you impose on others, what gets in the way of happiness, reconciliation.

Smile: things will get better!

Smile: they won’t.

No wonder words matter. Words are materials. We build worlds with words. We make words from worlds.

This is why: so much of contemporary politics, we might call this so much “happy multiculturalism” or “happy diversity” does not want or will the word “race” let along “racism.” It is as if by not talking about racism, racism would just go away.

Polite racism: how some are racist by seeming to prevent or to put off racism through an act of good will. That is the racism I usually encounter. What an encounter.


As if racism would just go away: as if we would go away, or as if when we stay we would agree to remove ourselves from this history, we would agree at least to wash, to be committed to being less stained by the colour of our being.

Less stained: being less.

It is as if: to remove the word “racism” from the constitution, from discourse, is to remove the thing.

It is not: lose the word keep the thing.

We need the word because we are describing something.

Words are hard. There is no doubt; words are hard. We know the troubling history of race. We know how race came into being as way of making a hierarchy out of being.

The words are reminders of this history. Some of us don’t need reminders. The words can be directed. They are directed.

When they remove the word “race” perhaps they are really expressing a desire to remove the bodies associated with that word: race as what we bring; those who are not white, not human, not universal.

As if we would go away when “race” is what they do not say.

A smile: I don’t see your colour. A smile: I don’t see you.

Back to the universe.

Gender too: even when we know the violence of the machinery of gender, we know the bodies that gender can spit out we also know: that the desire to eliminate the word “gender” masks a desire to eliminate the bodies associated with the word “gender.”

Trans people: there is no gender! If it disappears, you disappear.

It does not; you will not.

Will not; not willing; willful. No wonder: for some just to be is to be willful.

Oh this some can we change the sum? (1)

The desire to eliminate those who are “not” to preserve those who are: if you have heard it before, you have been here before.

I still think that no one has diagnosed whiteness as well as Frantz Fanon. His words echo as wisdom:

In Europe the Black man is the symbol of evil…The torturer is the Black man, Satan is black, one talks of shadows, when one is dirty one is black. It would be astonishing, if the trouble were taken to bring them all together, to see the vast number of expressions that make the black man the equivalent of sin. In Europe, whether concretely or symbolically, the Black man stands for the bad side of the character. As long as one cannot understand this problem one is doomed for ever to talk in circles about “the Black problem.” Blackness, darkness, shadow, shades, night, the labyrinths of the earth, abysmal depths, blacken someone’s reputation: and on the other side, the bright look of innocence, the white dove of peace, magical heavenly light (1967: 188-189).

It would be astonishing. Dark and light, black and white: ways of creating different classes of being. Shadows; how darkness falls; the dark ones as fallen.

Blink; brighten things up again. You clean up well: look, the ethnic one, she is doing so well.  Clink.

Whitening: a requirement to be civil in return for the good fortune of a place at the table; at their table.

No wonder I wanted to queer tables.

A wall: when a world is what you come up against. That experience: when you walk into a room and it’s like a “sea of whiteness.” A sea: a wall of water. It can feel like something that hits you. When you are not white, whiteness is solid, a body with mass. You tighten up; you experience a restriction; no room, no room to be. For those who inhabit whiteness, perhaps the room feels airy. Whiteness can be like a crowd: many as momentum.

I have said this before: things are fluid if you are going the way things are flowing. If you are not going that way, a flow acquires the density of a thing; solid. What one body experiences as solid, another might experience as air.

A wall, no wall. There; nothing there.

Flight, bright, light, white.

There; nothing there. No wonder “there” can become despair.

Heavy, slow, down, brown.

This is not to say we cannot or do not move up; though ups can lead to downs. One time after giving a talk on whiteness, a white man in the audience said, “but you’re a professor?” You can hear the implication of this but: but look at you Professor Ahmed, look how far you have gone! Look, look! How easily we can become poster children for diversity, how easily we can be “held up” as proof that women of colour are not “held up.” Being a diversity poster child: it can make the world you come up against recede as if you bring it to an end; as if our arrival and progression makes whiteness disappear. If only we had the power invested in us! If only, if only!

When women of colour become professors this is not the only kind of reaction we receive. When a colleague of mine, a Black feminist, became a professor someone said to her: “they give professorships to anyone these days.” In one case you fulfil the fantasy of meritocracy, a singular brown body becoming shiny happy evidence of inclusion. In the other, when a brown body arrives, her body is not elevated as value. She comes to embody the loss of value: when she can be a professor, anybody can.

Anybody: the loss or erosion of the value of somebody.

Anybody: the wrong body.

When black feminists or feminists of colour write books, when we introduce terms and concepts, how quickly our work is separated from our bodies. We are willing that separation; of course we are; we borrow everything from others; we want to give back what we have been given. We have been given so much, because she was here before; she was my before. So many she’s;  a collective before.

But then the words, concepts become neutralised and appropriated; re-worded into other people’s stories, domesticated, funded, and you feel angry and sad: all over again. And I have seen this happen: again and again.

Whiteness: what good fortune, in the best hands, surely?

It is like the British Museum: we can just look after your bones better. They are fragile, people! We can let your bodies be preserved. As relics; reduced to bare matter; to remind us of where we have been; of how we took form.

In preservation is elimination.

We know this.

Heavy, slow, down, brown.

What a downer, Sara, just cheer up!

I am writing whilst down; heavy in heart, slowed down; the weight of things.

You can probably tell.

I am writing because I am not willing to let things go.

In the past year words have been sent out like missiles, thrown at me; and I have not been able to get out of the way. I know what this does when it happens to me, someone well protected by position, by an institution (or maybe not, institutions will not protect you if they are protecting themselves) so I can understand what this happening would mean for others, those who are less protected. I stretch my hand out to you; I give you my arm.

I have been called “braindead” and “incredibly stupid,” a “killjoy cheerleader who resorts to bullying as a strategy.” In fact, bullying as a term keeps coming up. When you talk about sexism and racism here (not over there but here) it will happen very quickly: you will be called a bully. When you point out power you are judged as exercising power. You are labelled as aggressive; mean. It could almost be funny if it wasn’t so sad.

There can be nothing more threatening than challenging how space is occupied. People occupy that space by hearing you as threat.

Maybe: we become what they hear. Maybe: we need to threaten the world that perceives us a threat. Maybe: that’s a threat.

We don’t get over it. It is not over. Getting over it does not make it over. It makes it not over, all over again.

Heavy histories: our bodies; willful reminders. We need to be more than reminders. We are more. We don’t need reminding.

We come up again. It will come up again.

(1) This is a question I repeat twice in the conclusion of Willful Subjects (2014). I will keep repeating it, no doubt.


Fanon, Frantz (1967). Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.

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Out of Sorts

Out of sorts: it is a common expression. As with all common expressions, it has much to teach us. I might say I am “out of sorts,” when I do not feel quite right, or I do not feel well. I can use this expression to describe someone else: when I say “she seems out of sorts,” I might be saying she does not seem herself; perhaps she seems a little grumpy. Not seeming herself can lodge as negative impression: it implies that to be “in sorts” is to be attuned to oneself or the world in a positive way. One suspects the killjoy might appear here. She will appear here: in her own time.

Sort like any word has a history. You can be one of a sort, in the sense that you might be part of a class or a kind. Sort comes from Old French sorte “class, kind,” from Latin sortem (nominative sors) “lot; fate, destiny; share, portion; rank, category; sex, class, oracular response, prophecy,” from PIE root *ser- (3) “to line up.”

To sort: to sort things out is to sort things into sorts. Sorting as a verb, an activity is necessary when something is not sorted. Once things are sorted, we have an assortment. When we say “that’s quite an assortment,” we might be referencing the diversity of sorts, difference as different sorts of sorts. To sort something is to arrange something according to their qualities. Decisions about sorts can also be how things acquire qualities; so when you put something there, that thing will be shaped by where it is put.

As always, it is ordinary life that teaches us to think; thought is in action. We think by doing. I think of those moments when things are in disarray. Maybe it is my closet. What a mess! It is not simply that things don’t look or seem right when they are not in the place they are usually assigned (for something to be sorted is to point back to a history: you are where you have been put). Things are given a place for a reason. My socks: they are in that drawer. All of my socks are there; I call it my sock drawer. They are in that drawer so I can find them when I need them. I need to sort my closet because I keep finding that I can’t find them. Where are they?!

Before I find my socks, before I sort things out by sorting out my closet, so much sorting has already taken place. My clothing is sorted into types: socks are sock-like because they are used to keep my feet warm and dry; they might be made of wool or cotton but they are shaped so they can receive the shape of my foot, which nestles into the room a sock provides. I pull on my sock, and it is filled by my foot. What intimacy! What a close fit! When I lose a sock, it might become an odd sock. When you have two feet, to lose a sock is to create two odd socks. It might seem sad, to be an odd sock. Maybe; maybe not. I have affection for them: waifs and strays.

Sorting is an activity of putting things into classes or kinds. Socks help us to think about the point of sorting: we sort things so we can more easily use things. Sorting can be about making things handy. Or in the case of socks: footy?

Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star’s wonderful book, Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences (1999) helps us to sort out what it means to be sorting things out. They attend to the complexity of classification systems. But as they stress in the introduction: “not all classifications take formal shape or are standardized and commercial products” (1999: 1). (Even my odd sock, loose and limp, is a standard sock, a commercial sock, something I bought from a shop that sells socks, amongst other things). Not all classifications: “We all spend large parts of our days doing classification work, often tactically and we make up and use a range of ad hoc classifications to do so. We sort dirty dishes from clean, white laundry from colour fast, important email to be answered from e-junk” (1-2). As Bower and Star show so vividly the activities of sorting that are part of daily life are often about usefulness: “the knowledge about which thing will be useful is at any given time is embodied in a flow of mundane tasks” (2). When we sorted, things are working: “When we need to put our hands on something, it is there” (2). When sorting is working, we might not notice what we are doing. The smoothening of an operation often means things recede into the background.

If it is not there, how out of sorts would we be? What is “out of sorts” is striking; something that has receded comes into view when it is missing. This in in itself should be striking: how things appear because they disappear. In the first chapter of Willful Subjects (2014) I explore how some things become willful things, as too full of their own will, not empty enough to be filled by human will. I might call my sock “willful” if my sock is not where I expect to find it. It is not simply that the sock appears when it is missing. Rather to call something “willful” is to make it responsible for its own disappearance. I might not really hold my sock responsible for being missing; I might know I should have sorted things out better. But sometimes when we do not find the thing we are looking for, how willful, almost gleeful that thing can seem to be. As I argued in my book, drawing on George Eliot’s descriptions of broken pots and jugs in Silas Marner and Adam Bede, willfulness is often a crisis in a system of property: willful things are not willing to provide residence for human will. I suggested: “It is not that we attribute objects with qualities as such (it is that objects have qualities that explain why we turn toward them for this rather than that). Rather we attribute to objects the qualities of a relation: if they resist our will; they are no longer quite so agreeable, no longer willingly helpful. When the pot breaks, it is no longer in use, of use, it can take up its place by becoming memorial; a holder of memories, not water” (2014: 45, i). When a thing is not where we expect it to be, given our sorting system, it too can be given an affective quality of negation: not to be willingly helpful as being “out of sorts.”

Willfulness: how we approach things; how we feel things are approaching. When I am copy-editing, I am trying to sort out my own writing: I am looking for mistakes, errors, things I am supposed to be eliminating; I need to get things right. And I am looking for an error, but there is nothing there, nothing there; and as soon as it is too late, as soon as the paper is sent out, there is the error; it appears so quickly, so striking, almost as if it is laughing at me. To err is to stray, remember. To err: when things seem willing to go the wrong way. How we explain things when we are out of sorts is another way of sorting things out. In other words, sorting is also dealing with an error message: it is also how we handle what goes astray.

It might seem innocent, even sweet, to be talking about stray socks. But of course sorting has sinister dimensions. Gender for instance is a sorting system one that is often enforced through violence: we line bodies up into one sort or another, boy or girl. To sort can be an orientation device or a way of “being directed” as I am describing it in Living a Feminist Life: in being this sort or that sort, it is not only that you are assumed to have these qualities, or those qualities, but that one kind of future, or another, is in front of you. To be sorted here is to be given a line or trajectory. Those who are odd or queer, strangers to a binary gender system, those who are trans, who do not identify as the sort assigned at birth, are out of sorts. You might not feel right, you might feel wrong, a sort of wrong, a wrong sort. To be out of sorts is how a body that does not reside properly within a system affects the system (becoming a distortion, a body in the wrong place, a willful thing). This is indeed why a history of willfulness needed to be written: a willful thing is deemed to make the whole thing “out of sorts.” If you don’t line up, things become wonky, as I explored in Queer Phenomenology (2006). This is why willfulness has political promise: we can, in willfully refusing to sort ourselves out, in being out of sorts or the wrong sorts, in going astray, or being a stray, challenge the system.

In their book, Bowker and Star do consider how human beings create systems for sorting human beings into systems. Racism is a violent sorting system: creating ways of putting humans into race is a way of putting humans into place. These places are organised hierarchically. To be sorted is here to be above or below according to the place you have been assigned. Bowker and Star consider strangers as those who “come and stay a while, long enough so that membership becomes a troublesome issue” (302). In Strange Encounters (2000) I considered a stranger as more of a sorting technique; to recognise someone as a stranger is to recognise them as not from here, as a “body out of place,” drawing on Mary Douglas’s formulation of dirt as “matter out of place.” Part of a sorting technique, then, is a technique that allows a body to be assigned as wrong, or in the wrong place. This is why: a history of sorting is a history of removal.

We need to be talking about sorting. I first decided to take up this question because of the use of definitions and distinctions as sorting techniques in some academic work I was encountering. Scholars would make clear distinctions between x and y. Arguments then seemed to become about those distinctions: sorted! Perhaps then sorting becomes not so much making things useful but about the reproduction of a system that assigns use and value. One example would be a blogger who spent a lot of time making a clear distinction between ontology and politics. Sorted! That distinction is clear if you define ontology in such and such a way and politics in such and such a way. The distinction was then used to say something like: racism belongs to one sort (politics) and not another sort (ontology). Such an argument has little to teach us about phenomena (something that happens in the world that we have given the name “racism”) because it simply exercises its own distinction. The argument even becomes about that distinction. I am tempted to describe this as a humanist operation because not only are you exercising what you have brought into being yourself, but you are treating this distinction as if it corresponds to something in the world (another way of talking about the reification of concepts, when concepts are treated as things, we lose things). I think that when we work in this way we are getting further away from a world not closer to it. And when I read this kind of work, I have an image of someone making piles, putting sand in this pile, that pile; moving things around, creating more and more piles. What you end up with is very neat piles. But is that what we want to end up with?

When experiences (human or otherwise) are messy there is little point in making distinctions that are clear. One problem with constantly refining our conceptual distinctions is that arguments end up being about those distinctions. I have never found intellectual conversations about distinctions between x and y or definitions of x (why x is x and not y) particularly inspiring in part as they often end up as self-referential, as being about the consistency or inconsistency of our own terms.

Another example would be the distinction between affect and emotion. I have challenged this distinction, more or less explicitly, throughout my work. In the afterword to the second edition of The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2014) the challenge became more explicit. I want to address this here at length, because I think this example shows us that “what” is being sorted by definition is often more than seems at first. In my afterword, I explored how the use of this distinction does more than sharpen the distinction: it was also a way of making a field cohere around some bodies; it was a way of making strangers, those bodies (and bodies of work) that do not belong here.

I noted how since The Cultural Politics of Emotion was published in 2004, there have been many publications that have announced “an affective turn,” a declaration that often takes the form of simultaneously participating in the creation of what is being declared. The description “affective turn” was already in use whilst I was writing this book: I first heard this expression from Anu Koivunen at a conference on “Affective Encounters” that took place at Turku, Finland in September 2001. In her preface to the book that came out of the conference mentioned above, Affective Encounters: Rethinking Embodiment in Feminist Media Studies, Anu Koivunen describes how “in many disciplines, scholars have introduced affects, emotions and embodied experience as timely research topics” (2001: 1). In particular she notes how “in feminist criticism, the interest in affect has in a sense a long history: the conceptual links between woman, body and emotion is a recurrent issue’ (1). More recently, Ann Cvetkovich in Depression: A Public Feeling also refers to this long history as a reason for her reluctance to use the expression “affective turn.” She explains: “I have to confess I am somewhat reluctant to use the term affective turn because it implies that there is something new about the study of affect when in fact….this work has been going on for some time” (2012: 4, emphasis in original). Later when Cvetkovich reflects on feminism as “an affective turn” she notes, again in a cautionary manner, that it “doesn’t seem particularly new to me” (8).

We could contrast these accounts of an affective turn as having a “long history” within feminism with Michael Hardt’s preface to Patricia Ticineto Clough’s edited collection, The Affective Turn, published six years after Koivunen’s preface in 2007. Hardt describes feminist approaches to the body and queer approaches to emotion as “the two primary precursors to the affective turn” (ix). For Hardt: “A focus on affect certainly does draw attention to the body and emotions, but it also introduces an important shift” (ix). Hardt suggests that the turn to affect requires a different “synthesis” than the study of the body and emotions because affects “refer equally to the body and mind” and because they “involve both reason and the passions’ (ix).

When the affective turn becomes a turn to affect, feminist and queer work are no longer positioned as part of that turn. Even if they are acknowledged as precursors a shift to affect signals a shift from this body of work. Affect is given a privileged status in commentaries such as Hardt’s, becoming almost like a missionary term that ushers in a new world, as a way of moving beyond an implied impasse, in which body and mind, and reason and passion, were treated as separate. I think we can both challenge this argument and to offer an alternative history. The implication of Hardt’s framing is that we had to turn to affect (defined primarily in Deleuze’s Spinozian terms) in order to show how mind is implicated in body; reason in passion. But feminist work on bodies and emotions challenged from the outset mind-body dualisms, as well as the distinction between reason and passion. Feminist theories of emotion opened up a critical space to rethink the relation between mind and body; and much work in feminist theory (some of which is also explicitly engaged with philosophical debates about minds and bodies) did precisely the kind of work that Hardt seems to assume that affect as a concept was required in order to do.

The affective turn has thus come to privilege affect over emotion as its object, and considerable effort has been directed toward making affect into an object of study with clear boundaries, such that it now makes sense to speak of “affect studies.” Scholars such as Brian Massumi (2002) have even described affects as having a “different logic” than that of emotion, as pertaining to a different order. These two terms are not only treated as distinct but have, at least by some, come to be defined against each other. For Massumi, if affects are pre-personal and non-intentional, emotions are personal and intentional; if affects are unmediated and escape signification; emotions are mediated and contained by signification. Feminist ears might prick up at this point. The contrast between a mobile impersonal affect and a contained personal emotion suggests that the affect/emotion distinction can operate as a gendered distinction. It might even be that the very use of this distinction performs the evacuation of certain styles of thought (we might think of these as “touchy feely” styles of thought, including feminist and queer thought) from affect studies.

A body can be evacuated by a sorting system. Which is to say: some bodies are removed by being judged as a different sort of body, as presiding over there, not here. An evacuation is also an erasure of a history, a way of accounting for the emergence of things that misses what it has sorted “out.” Yes, we need to mess things up. This is what a feminist politics of citation is about: messing things up by working out how our work is sorted out.

We do of course separate things out so we can do things. I am not saying we should not be sorting, because I would be making a should out of something impossible. Perhaps it would be useful to think of “separate” as a verb rather than noun (as I have already noted “sorting” too is an activity precisely when things are not sorted). We have to separate elements when they are not separate, even if they are separable. The activity of separating affect from emotion could be understood as rather like breaking an egg in order to separate the yolk from the white. We can separate different parts of a thing even if they are contiguous, even if they are, as it were, in a sticky relation. We might have different methods for performing the action of separation. But we have to separate the yolk from the white because they are not separate. And sometimes we “do do” what we “can do” because separating these elements, not only by treating them as separable but by modifying their existing relation, or how they exist in relation, allows us to do other things that we might not otherwise be able to do.

But if we do sort things, we need to remember: it is an activity that is modifying a world. It is what we are doing. And we often do not know what we are doing, when we are doing what we are doing. We might just think we are sorting out little things, not noticing how one sorting might lead to another, not noticing how putting this here might be to dislodge that there. The violence of the system of sorting might be noticed by what or who is out of sorts. Noticed: or revealed.

And you know: this makes being out of sorts, something rather promising. If a feminist killjoy is a sort, she is out of sorts. When she appears, in the wrong place, she is striking.

Smile: sorted!
Killjoy: snorted!

The killjoy is willing to be out of sorts. She is willing not to sort herself out. We are often perceived as not belonging where we are residing, an odd sock that has lost its utility by not staying attached to the right things. Our grumpiness about the worlds created by how bodies and things are sorted is not a withdrawal from but an engagement with a world.

(i) I also draw on Heidegger’s account of the hammer that is “too heavy” in this section, “The Will Sphere,” from the first chapter of Willful Subjects but think that Eliot, our most novel philosopher, gives us better descriptions (because, and this is just one of a number of reasons, she also accounts for appreciation and affection as ways of handling things). The philosophy of technology would become much more interesting if it took a turn through the body of Eliot’s work. The masculinism of this field (how it has become “boys studying toys will be boys studying toys“) depends on what it has sorted out; and that sorting has become a restriction of what comes into view.


Ahmed, Sara (2014). ‘Emotions and Their Objects,’ The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2nd Edition. Edinburgh; Edinburgh University Press.

———– (2014). Willful Subjects. Durham: Duke University Press.

———— (2006). Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press.

———— (2000). Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-coloniality. London: Routledge.

Bowker, Geoffrey C. and Susan Leigh Star (1999). Sorting Things Out:
Classifications and its Consequences
Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Cvetkovich, A. (2012). Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham: Duke University Press.
Hardt, M. (2007). “Foreword: What Affects are Good For,” in P. Clough
(ed), The Affective Turn. Durham: Duke University Press.

Koivunen, A. (2001). “Preface: An Affective Turn?” in A. Koivunen and S. Passonen (eds), Affective Encounters: rethinking embodiment in feminist media studies, University of Turku, School of Art, Literature and Music, Media Studies, Series A.

Massumi, Brian (2002). Parables of the Virtual. Durham: Duke University Press.

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Willful Sheep

Last Tuesday on September 30th we had a book party for Willful Subjects at Gay’s the Word. It was very moving to launch the book in this space. I had just seen the film Pride (2014), in which the bookshop figured so prominently. I think many queer tears have been spilled over this film! It was good to be reminded of what we probably already know: that spaces like this matter; they are not only where but also how we organise; how we meet up, how we persist as a community with all the fragilities that come from having to struggle just to be. I was reminded too how struggle can be creative: when we have to struggle to be, it can change what it means to be.

I said a few words at the launch myself, as did my good friend Jonathan Keane and my partner Sarah Franklin, who performed as Puff Dolly. The launch felt as much about the personal connections that sustain us, that allow us to send the words out, as it was about the words themselves, gathered in the form of a book. This is: as it should be!

Puff Dolly, a willful sheep, talked about willful sheep. Why sheep? I do have one endnote in my book that talks about how willfulness and stubbornness comes up in relation to animals: ‘The word “willful” and the word “stubborn” can often refer to similar kinds of behaviour (when someone is too attached to their own will such that their will stops them from being willing to do something for another). However as words they do have different affective as well as temporal qualities. We can explore the differences between through animal associations. Willful is often by conveyed by a goat: not only an animal that is imagined by humans as individualistic (I pointed out in chapter 2 that the word “capricious” derives from goat) but also one who moves fast, is mischievous, who gets everywhere. Stubborn is typically conveyed a mule: as an animal that won’t budge; that sticks its hooves into the ground when a human attempts to pull it forward. Willful wills might have that impulsive and light temporality, and stubborn wills a slow and heavy temporality. But both wills are wills that won’t be compelled by others’ (2014: 242).

I did not mention sheep, which are often assumed as animals that do not have a will of their own. But, as I point out in the book, any will becomes a willful will when you are not supposed to have a will of your own. So no wonder sheep are amongst the most willful and queer of animals! Anyone who doubts this, should read Sarah Franklin’s book, Dolly Mixtures: The Remaking of Genealogy, which follows sheep around. As she notes in her introduction, to follow sheep around is to ‘end up everywhere’ (2007: 9). Sheep are willful wanderers! They create some queer trails!

It is my pleasure to share Puff Dolly’s poem with you all.


This poem is from the willful sheep army of Ovine Obstinates, also known as double O Heaven.

As we know, the humble sheep
Is oft reduced to shallow bleats,
But in their hearts all shepherds know
That sheep are willful subjects on the go.

You may not think them very clever,
And only good for eating heather,
But in fact it’s no surprise
That sheep also philosophise.

It’s not by chance that rumination
Is a form of contemplation
And as they wander as a flock
Sheep often have quite complex thoughts!

Take for example some local ewes,
Who have agreed upon their views
Of Professor Ahmed’s recent theories
On willful subjects and their queries.

It turns out, they note, that just like sheep,
The will is agile on its feet,
Wending ever to and fro,
Not quite sure where it will go….

The farmer’s rod he may raise high,
And with his dog attempt to drive.
But sheepish paths are hard to straighten,
Their flock is an unruly nation.

Their will has none of Kant’s ambition,
Tis not to virtue that sheep listen.
Instead they take Lucretian swerves,
To find the pastures they prefer.

So when we think of sheep as ‘willing’,
And imagine them fulfilling
Flockish instincts to obey,
Remember that — they run away!

Remember that they don’t have arms —
But they’re an army on the farms.
A whole made up of many parts, combined,
United by a turn of mind.

This turn, this swerve, this sheepish trait,
That causes them to ruminate
On paths not taken, here and there,
Is why the sheep is so aware

Of Ahmed’s revolutionary words,
And why sheep want them to be heard,
And why sheep everywhere have voted
That Sara Ahmed should be quoted

About willfulness and stormy weather,
And stones and hands and arms together
About Pascal and his naughty foot
And Hegel’s really silly book.

The sheep say Sara’s hunch is right,
That queering will is apposite,
And that, with woolly springs in all our strides,
All our arms will rise and rise!!

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Wiggle Room

I have been thinking of social categories as rooms, as giving residence to bodies. Some social categories might be experienced as roomier than others. When I think of roominess I think of wiggle room. Often, it is a most affectionate thought. I think of shoes that in being roomy, allow my toes to wiggle about. I think of less roomy shoes, and I think of my toes with sadness and sympathy: they would be cramped, less able to wiggle. Less wiggle room: less freedom to be; less being to free.

A gender assignment can be a room, and not all of us feel at home in the rooms we have been given. We might feel more or less at home at different times. Judith Butler (1993) taught us to think of “girling” as a social mechanism. A baby is born: we might say “it’s a girl!” And of course “girling” moments do not stop happening, even after we are pronounced girls. A “girling” moment can happen in moments when we asked to give up space, or not to take up space. Gender is a good example of how some categories are roomier than others, in the sense that some categories in being inhabited by bodies allow those bodies to take up more room. Iris Marion Young in her essay, “Throwing like a Girl” (2003) asks how girls come to be “like girls,” through how they come to inhabit their body. She explores how girls come to restrict themselves through restricting how they use their bodies. Think about this: girls come to take up less space by what they do, by what they do not do, with their bodies.

Gendering operates through how bodies take up space: thinking of the intense sociality of the tube or train, how some men typically lounge around, with their legs wide, taking up not only the space in front of their own seat, but the space in front of other seats. Women might end up not even having much space in front of their own seats; that space has been taken up. To become accommodating we learn to take up less space; the more accommodating we are, the less space we have to take up. Or we make ourselves smaller because we are given less space; and we are given less space because we are smaller. Politics: in between these “becauses.”

And when I think of how politics becomes personal, I think of experiences of tightening; of not feeling able to breath because of a restriction. Growing up was full of times like that. A family can be a room, a room that gives more room to some than others. When I think of family I do think of not having room to breathe. A family can be occupied by itself. How often when I am in this room, things seem so tight. I feel the weight of a past as an expectation of the future, a memory of myself as being thrown. I think of the intensity of presumed heterosexuality, the extraordinary investment in reproduction, in predicting the future of a child as another child, in seeing the child as an inheritance of the past. We create more wiggle room the more we open a gap between inheritance and reproduction. Sometimes being in family can feel like: closing the gap.

And after being in family, I often feel desperate for queer space. When I get there: it is like a toe being liberated from a cramped shoe. What a relief it can be to wiggle about. Queer space: what a relief it can be.

I think of whiteness too as a sense of being surrounding, of having no room to be. You feel cramped, even nervous. To feel whiteness as oppressive is to be shaped by what you keep coming into contact with in such a way that you are restricted. I am speaking, here, of non-white people who inhabit white spaces, spaces that have become white through who as well as how bodies gather. This is how a “not” can be so tight that it too feels like the loss of wiggle room (we might think a “not” is quite roomy, perhaps we can make it so, when we embrace this “not,” willingly and willfully). You might experience yourself becoming tighter in response to a world that does not accommodate you. You have less room. Sometimes a world can be so tight that it is hard to breath. Diversity work involves the effort to create spaces that can be experienced as breathing spaces.

Sometimes to create space we have to wiggle about. You know those moments when you try and fit in a space that is smaller than you are. You wiggle now with purpose; by wiggling you make more room for yourself. Maybe girls can take up more space by wriggling about; not just in the physical sense of creating room for oneself, say on the train, but wriggling about in the room that is “girl,” pushing at the edges, so that “girl” becomes more expansive; perhaps we even end up pushing ourselves right out of the room we have been given.

It is this sense of wiggle of room – of creating more room by wiggling – that interests me most. I think of wiggling as corporeal willfulness. If some have to be willful just to be, some have to wiggle to create room. When a world does not accommodate how you are, when you appear wrong in some way, feeling wrong in your body, being wrong in your body, loving the wrong body, mourning a wronged body, you have to be less accommodating if you are to persist in being who you are being.

There was one reference to wiggle room in Willful Subjects (2014). It came in the conclusion at a moment I expressed how, in writing the book, I had begun to feel a commitment to will (even understood as a category of thought). Let me share what I wrote:

In treating willfulness as a lesson, I am also making a commitment to will. The problem with will remains how it can allow us not to register how things are determined. But the will is also the name we give to possibility: the shared condition of not being fully determined from without, whatever that without; the will as wiggle room, as the room to deviate, a room kept open by will’s incompletion, a room most often in human history designated as ruin (2014: 192).

The will becomes “the room to deviate.” This use of wiggle room focuses on roominess as enabling a wiggle, a queer kind of movement. A wiggle is typically defined as moving back and forth with quick irregular motions. It might be that in becoming straight, in following the straights paths of happiness, say, we learn to eliminate a wiggle as much as we can from our bodies, just as we might learn to eliminate hap from happiness, or willfulness from will. Only some bodies can eliminate wiggle, only some bodies can follow a straight line (a straight line is never quite straight, of course, straightness is an impression achieved through the generalisation of the requirement to follow). A line can be wiggly; a queer line is a wiggly line. The wiggle becomes a potential precisely because it does not lead us somewhere that we already know we are going. We don’t know; yet we go.

And a body might wiggle and wriggle. These two words “wiggle” and “wriggle” both imply sudden movements, but they have a different affective quality; at least for me. Wiggle is often defined as quick irregular sideways movements. Wriggle can mean to turn and twist in quick writhing movements. Wriggle also has a more sinister sense: when you wriggle out of something, you get out of something by devious means. In “deviation” there is an implication of deviance. Bodies that wriggle might be crip bodies, as well as a queer bodies; bodies that do not straighten themselves out. The elimination of wriggle might be one form of what Robert McRuer (2006) calls “compulsory able-bodied-ness,” which is tied to compulsory straightness, to being able to follow as closely as you can the line you are supposed to follow. A wriggling body has the potential after all to dislodge things in the room that body has been given; a wriggling body can be more disruptive. Clumsiness can be a crip as well as queer ethics; an ethics that does not aim to smooth out a relation, an ethics that values how we bump into each other, how we bump into things, as a sign that there is room for different kinds of bodies in the same room. Wiggle room: room for other ways of being in our bodies. The bumpier the ride can be an expression of the degree to which one style of embodiment has not determined an ethical or social horizon.

A wriggling body might receive a command: stay still! In becoming still, a body has obeyed. Disobedience can be wriggling; it would not be stopping something. A disciplined body is “willing and able” to stop something: to control its movements; to stop wiggling and wriggling. Let’s return to the relation between wiggle room and will as well as willfulness. One of my tasks in Willful Subjects (2014) was to show how will itself has a queer history. I took as an example the work of Lucretius, the Roman poet and philosopher. In his descriptions of the physical universe, Lucretius offers an account of will in the form of swerving atoms: “when the atoms are travelling straight down through empty space by their own weight, at quite indeterminate times and places, they swerve ever so little from their course, just so much that you can call it a change of direction” (II: 66). To swerve is to deviate: it is not to be carried by the force of your own weight. What better way of learning about the potential to deviate than from the actuality of deviation. The swerve is just enough not to travel straightly; not to stay on course. Oh the potential of this not!

How queer is this will! As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has elaborated the word “queer” derives from the Indo-European word “twerk,” to turn or to twist, also related to the word “thwart” to transverse, perverse or to cross (1994: viii). That this word came to describe sexual subjects is no accident: those who do not follow the straight line, who to borrow Lucretius’ terms, “snap the bonds of fate,” are the perverts: swerving rather than straightening, deviating from the right course. To queer the will is to show how the will has already been given a queer potential. In Lucretius this potentiality is valorised: but for others, the same potentiality is narrated as a problem or threat; the problem or threat that subjects might not follow the right path. Willfulness might be a conversion point: how a potential is converted into a threat.

It is noteworthy that Jane Bennett in her reading of Lucretius uses the language of willfulness: “A certain willfulness or at least quirkiness and mobility – the ‘swerve’ – is located in the very heart of matter, and thus dispersed throughout the universe as an attribute of all things, human or otherwise. The swerve does not appear as a moral flaw or a sign of the sinful rebelliousness of humans” (2001: 81). There is a hesitation in Bennett’s use of the word “willfulness” she uses this word only to replace the word (“or at least quirkiness or mobility”). In my book I treated this hesitation as important; as pedagogy, as revealing something about the risk of using the language of willfulness. It is an understandable hesitation. Our tendency to associate willfulness with human flaws and sin is a symptom not merely of the desire to punish the perverts but to restrict perversion to the conduct of the few. Willfulness seems to provide a container for perversion, a human container that transforms the potential to deviate into the tragedy of the deviant. My aim in Willful Subjects (2014) was to spill that container.

When I spoke of the will as wiggle room in the conclusion of my book I noted that this room is the room “most often designated in human history as a ruin.” The capacity to deviate, to have room to move around in an irregular way, not to move forward to the future we are supposed to be reaching for (happiness, imagined as what follows living your life in the right way) has been deemed by many the beginning of demise. To embrace wiggle room is for me the beginning of another kind of embrace. It is to call for us to make more room, so that we can breath, so that even in being given assignments, we are not restricted, or less restricted, not expected to live in this way or that. In wiggling to create room we open up what it is to be.

Sometimes that is what we struggle for: wiggle room; to have spaces to breathe. With breath, comes imagination. With breath, comes possibility. We might in spilling out of the rooms we have been assigned, in our struggle with an assignment, mess things up.

What a spillage. Things, persons: flying out of hand.

And that: is hopeful.


Ahmed, Sara (2014). Willful Subjects. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bennett, Jane (2001). The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments,
Crossings and Ethics
. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Butler, Judith (1993). Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’.
New York: Routledge.

McRuer, Robert (2006). Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New
York: New York University Press.

Young, Iris Marion (2005). On Female Body Experience. Oxford: Oxford University

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Atmospheric Walls

There was quite an atmosphere. It might be electric; it might be tense. It might be heavy, light. Maybe an atmosphere is most striking as a zone of transition: an upping, a downing. The laughter that fills the room: more and more. An occasion is being shared; the sounds of glasses clinking; the gradual rise of merriment; we can hear things get louder. Or a sombre situation: quiet words, softly spoken; bodies tense with the effort of holding themselves together by keeping themselves apart. The sound of a hush or a hush that follows a sound, one that might interrupt the solemnity, piercing through it, turning heads.


We might describe an atmosphere as a feeling of what is around, and which might be all the more affective in its murkiness or fuzziness: a surrounding influence that does not quite generate its own form. When an atmosphere is tense, those who arrive into the room can “pick up” tension, in becoming tense, a way of being influenced, a way of receiving an impression, whether or not they are conscious of being tense. When feelings become atmospheric, we can catch the feeling simply by walking into a room. In describing an atmosphere, or in becoming conscious of an atmosphere, we give this influence some form.

Do we always pick up feelings in quite this way? 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 involves 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 suggests the atmosphere is not simply “out there” before it gets “in”: 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 experienced 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 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.

Even when atmospheres as shared, they are angled. In my own work I have been very conscious of this, troubled by this: how when atmospheres seem thick and palpable, like something that can fall and settle, almost like pollen in the air, that people can still experience that atmosphere very differently. My experience of social experience seemed a little at odds with some of the models of the sociality of emotion which stressed how feelings are transmitted, rather smoothly, between bodies. I wanted to write from this “at odds.” I wanted a model of emotion that did not assume social = shared or same. There are political as well as intellectual reasons for this: otherwise those who do not share a feeling, or who are assumed as the cause of the loss of shared feeling, would register as anti-social. In politics and everyday life, this registration happens; we know this. The feminist killjoy herself comes up as an anti-social figure. We can challenge what we know. I want a way of thinking the social that includes this anti, or that even ups this anti; the anti is part of how we relate to each other, not the absence or end of a relation to another.

There was one time, which I still remember very well, because it was so tense. It makes me feel tense just to remember this time; to remember a feeling can be to experience that feeling. It was a dinner with people who did not know each other very well. I picked up that tension through the sharpening of voices, the fidgeting of bodies, the loaded nature of comments. Everything seemed pointed! It was excruciating. When I came home, the person I was with said she did not notice any tension at all. It is like we were in a different event. An atmosphere can be how we inhabit the same room but be in a different world. Some might be more attuned to some things, some bodies, some sounds. Attunement helps us to explain not only what we pick up but what we do not pick up. It is important to add here: the distinctions between subject and object or between right and wrong perception do not work here. I do not think it is the case that one of us perceived things rightly; another of us wrongly; that one of us projected her feelings onto a situation, another of us did not. Situations are orientated; bodies are orientated. When we lean a certain way, an event too appears a certain way. An event has a tilt. Perhaps in being anxious before an event, about an event, you are going to hear what you anticipate; and not hear what you do not. Perhaps certain sounds become more audible; others less so. If you are relaxed, you might hear different sounds. What you hear is in what happens, which is not to say (it is not to say) that we hear everything that happens. We cannot exhaust an event, or grasp it fully; this is partly how we can understand the intensity of tension, an experience of an event can itself be in tension.

Attunement does not simple happen; there is a history at stake, or a timing, often experienced as a having been here before, even in the mode of anticipation (anticipation is often an attention to a before, a before can be an affective lodge) in how we become responsive to some things and not others; how we learn to be affected and not affected by what and who we encounter. A stranger is created, I have suggested, as the body to whom we are not attuned. When a body to whom we are not attuned arrives, it can create a disturbance.

This is how: an atmosphere can surround a body, in the how of an arrival. An atmosphere can be achieved over time; an atmospheres can become a technique, a way of making spaces available for some more than others. I noted in Willful Subjects (2014) as well as On Being Included (2012) how diversity is offered as a welcome, a way of saying to others, those who embody diversity, often bodies of colour, come in. Welcome derives from wilcoma and is what I call a “will word,” combining “will” with “guest.” It implies: a guest whose arrival is in accordance with will. To have your arrival be in accordance with will is a particular form of arrival. Whether you are coming (or going) is made dependent on someone else’s will. If you come in, you are acquiring a debt (a willing debt). Diversity is often experienced as the willing acquisition of debt.

But to be welcomed does not necessarily mean you are expected to turn up. What happens when a person of color turns up? We are noticeable, and the effects of this are as tangible as an atmosphere: “When I 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” (Ahmed 2012: 40-41) 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, not by becoming white, but by minimizing the signs of difference. I have called this labor “institutional passing.” As a woman of colour describes: “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” (Ahmed 2012: 158). Some forms of difference are heard as assertive, as “rocking the boat.” Some forms of difference become legible as trouble, as if you are only different in order to cause trouble. The pressure not to “assert your culture” is lived as a demand to pass and to integrate not necessarily by becoming white, but 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. Diversity work is thus often atmospheric work: you have to try and eliminate the tension caused by your own arrival.

But think about this: how when you are arrive into a room, and there is a sense of discomfort. Maybe it is shared; maybe it is not. Maybe you feel a discomfort because of what you sense. I think whiteness is often experienced as an atmosphere. You walk into a room and you encounter it like a wall that is at once palpable and tangible but also hard to grasp or to reach. It is something, it is quite something, but it is difficult to put your finger on it. When you walk into the room, it can be like a door slams in your face. The tightening of bodies: the sealing of space. The discomfort when you encounter something that does not receive you.


Feminist of colour scholarship and activisms have long attended to rooms as moody containers; as saturated by histories that surface in the atmospheres that surround some bodies, hovering, a thickening of air. I have drawn often on this quote from bell hooks, as it has so much to teach us. Let me share it again: “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” (2000: 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, who 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 (or we could say sharing the experience of loss is how the atmosphere is shared). As a feminist of color you do not even have to say anything to cause tension. The mere proximity of some bodies involves an affective conversion. To get along you have to go along with things which might mean for some not even being able to enter the room.

Feminist killjoys too: how often we ruin an atmosphere. To become assigned a killjoy is to be the cause of the loss of shared merriment. When we willingly receive this assignment, we are willing to be this cause, which is not the same thing as making this cause our cause. We learn 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. Perhaps atmospheres are shared if there is an agreement in where we locate the points of tension.

Racism can be experienced as a storm, a “violent disturbance of an atmosphere.” Just recall Audre Lorde’s description of racism as weather. She notes: “In order to withstand the weather, we had to become stone” (1984: 160). We come up against it. We are shaped by what we come up against. Think also, with Marilyn Frye, of the press in oppression: “The press of the crowd; pressed into military service; to press a pair of pants; printing press; press the button. Presses are used to mold things or flatten them or reduce them in bulk, sometimes to reduce them by squeezing out the gases or liquids in them. Something pressed is something caught between or among forces and barriers which are so related to each other that jointly they restrain, restrict or prevent the thing’s motion or mobility. Mold. Immobilize. Reduce” (1983: 54). A body pressed by what she comes up against; a pressing and pounding against the surface of a body; a body can surface or survive by hardening. For some bodies to stand is to withstand. We can be exhausted by the labour of withstanding. This is why I describe social privilege as an energy saving device, less effort is required to maintain a standing.

Racism is a storm in the sense that brown and black bodies appear to cause the violent disturbance of an atmosphere. Perhaps there is nothing more disturbing than being the cause of a general disturbance.

It can cause a disturbance just to turn up. It can cause a disturbance to bring certain things up. I have become aware over the past years how atmospheres surround certain words, hovering, a thickening of air. Racism: a word with an atmosphere. When you bring it up you are heard as stirring things up. I have had numerous examples over the past years when I have been talking about racism and I have been heard as making an accusation; as charging someone with something. And that’s how we receive yet another charge (it is rather electric): we are charged with charging someone with racism. As Fiona Nicoll has argued, “the very idea of suggesting that someone might be racist has been elevated into a crime to rival (if not displace) racism itself” (2004, np).

If we have to live with the consequences of what we bring up, no wonder sometimes we decide not to bring things up. As I discussed in my previous post, “A Killjoy in Crisis,” sometimes we do want to become the cause of the loss of a connection because we experience that connection as warmth. Sometimes, of course, we become this cause, whatever we say or do.

We also learn: an atmosphere can be how a body is stopped, how some are barred from entry or stopped from staying. Atmospheres can be an institutional wall, a way in which some are stopped without being formally stopped; a way in which some are stopped even when they appear to be welcomed. In The Holy Family, Marx and Engels acknowledge how social exclusion often works through atmospheres, as a polite way of excluding or eliminating some bodies. They write: “Society behaves just as exclusively as the state, only in a more polite form: it does not throw you out, but it makes it so uncomfortable for you that you go out of your own will” ([1845] 1956: 129). I used this quote in the first chapter of Willful Subjects (2014) as it has much to teach us about the intimacy of force and will: how you can force someone to leave by making things unbearable for them to stay. Discomfort becomes a polite strategy or technique of power (the capacity to carry out will without resistance, or with the will of others). Take the example of employment: the relation of employer to employee. Power can work through incentives: you might be given an incentive to leave your job (in the form of voluntary redundancy) which basically amounts to a choice between leaving with an incentive and leaving without one. You might leave “voluntarily” or “willingly” as it would be worse to lose the incentive. When willing is a way of avoiding the consequences of being forced, willing is a consequence of force. Willing might be a way of “coming off less badly” given that force.

Atmospheres: how you can be made to leave as if “out of your own will.”

We need to describe these mechanisms.

An atmospheric wall: can involve conscious decisions and collective will. People can “in effect” turn their backs to form an atmospheric wall, a way of preventing some from staying. Or an atmospheric wall can be the effect of a habituation: someone who arrives would stand out, would not pass in or pass through, and the difference becomes uncomfortable by virtue of being a difference at all.

Indeed in my discussions of institutional walls in earlier posts (see here and here) I stressed that what makes these walls so hard is that they only appear to some, and not to others. It might appear that you can enter; there might even be a tagline that supports this appearance. Minorities welcome! A wall is a technique: a way of stopping something from happening or stopping someone from progressing without appearing to stop this or stop them, even by appearing to start something or even by appearing to allow them to progress. But you arrive, and it becomes uncomfortable. It is so uncomfortable, that you are not willing to stay. The discomfort can be tangible to you, like a thing, a wall, which you know is right there because you have just knocked into it. When you leave you do so willingly; it appears that you have left in accordance with your own will. Even if they made it hard for you, even if a they appears as a hard, they do not encounter that hard.

Light, airy, bright, white.

An atmosphere that is light for some might be heavy for others. When you are not accommodated by an institution, you feel it as weight.

Heavy, down, dark, brown.

And what is even harder here: how we can be brought down when we bring things down. Frantz Fanon taught us, how the light brightness of whiteness is experienced by those who are not white, whose being is a being in relation to what they are not. He taught us how racism becomes an atmosphere around the black body that can be experienced as a relation to one’s own body, as dislocation. Fanon describes: “And then the occasion arose when I had to meet the white man’s eyes. An unfamiliar weight burdened me. The real world challenged my claims. In the white world the man of color encounters difficulties in the development of his bodily schema. Consciousness of the body is solely a negating activity. It is a third-person consciousness. The body is surrounded by an atmosphere of certain uncertainty. (Fanon 1986: 110-11). A third-person consciousness: a consciousness of being an object, being it, thing; not being to the one who is being. This consciousness of being an intruder to being, of being dissected by the white gaze, manifests as an “atmosphere of certain uncertainty.”

When whiteness becomes a surrounding, as a mood or influence, you feel surrounded. You can feel surrounded by what you are not. A “not” can become a moody container. Your body can even become the cause of your discomfort because it causes other people’s discomfort. You wish for your own disappearance, a wish to pass can be a wish to wish yourself away. Your relation to the world becomes a crisis. You are thrown. The atmosphere is no longer “out there” or “in here,” it confounds the very relation between “here” and “there.”

And: diversity work becomes willful work when we are willing to be the cause of disturbance. Perhaps we can only do this work, this work of agreeing to stand out and stand apart, this disturbing work, when we work with others.

Together: what a storm.

Ahmed, Sara (2014). Willful Subjects. Durham: Duke University Press.

———— (2012). On being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham:
Duke University Press.

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

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

Frye, Marilyn (1983). The Politics of Reality: Essays in Feminist Theory. Trumansburg,
New York: The Crossing Press.

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

Lorde, Audre (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: The Crossing Press.

Marx, Karl and Friedrich Engels (1956). [1845] The Holy Family Or Critique of Critical Criticism . Foreign Languages Publishing House: Moscow.

Nicoll, Fiona (2004). “‘Are you calling me a racist?': Teaching Critical Whiteness Theory in Indigenous Sovereigity,” borderlands, 3, 2.

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A killjoy in crisis

Sometimes when I write about feminist killjoys, it might sound as if I am calling for her. It might sound as if for me her arrival is always a moment of political hope. That’s not always how it feels, even if, for me, her failure to disappear is hopeful. Sometimes, when she appears on the horizon of our consciousness, it can be a moment of despair. You don’t always want her to appear even when you see yourself in her appearance. You might say to her: not here, not now! When she arrives it can be a crisis: a situation that demands a decision. Do you let her speak? Do you bring to the surface a disagreement? Are you willing the consequences of that disagreement?

A killjoy can be a crisis even for the one who has willingly accepted this assignment. Just because you have claimed her, it does not mean you are always ready or willing for her to appear.

You might not want to hear something as problematic because you do want to hear someone as being problematic.

You might be feeling warm. It is a warm situation. You might be laughing, gathering through laughter.

You are with, and you can feel that with. A with can be the warmest thing.

A crisis can be experienced as the potential loss of with. The potential for things to shatter can be shattering.

Say: you might laugh at a joke, laugh even before you hear it. Then you hear it, and the words in becoming clear register as obtrusive. Sharp. Your effort not to be offended is how you are offended.

And: you might feel annoyed at yourself. Don’t have a problem, you might say to yourself. Even though you “know” the problem of how exposing a problem is posing a problem, you would still experience exposing a problem as posing a problem for yourself.

You might think, you might feel: I can’t afford to be her right now. You might think, you might feel: she would cost me too much right now. I would lose this with.

Even though you think of costs as a future, you have already gone cold. A cold can get right to the bone.

When you have been a feminist killjoy, when she has been part of your embodied history, she can still appear willful to you, insisting on coming up, whenever something comes up. She can be tiring! You might experience her apparent exteriority as the alarming potentiality of interiority; of becoming her, of her becoming you.

A feminist politics of fragility might be based not only on how to survive what we come against but how to enable relationships to endure that can easily be threatened by what we come up against.

I have shared this quote from Audre Lorde before: “in order to withstand the weather we had to become stone.” Becoming stone: it is a requirement to harden in order to survive the weather, the relentless pounding on the surface of the body. But she was also saying here something even more challenging. That by becoming stone, by making ourselves into harder matter, matter that will less easily shatter, we might harden ourselves from each other; we might in becoming less soft, be less able to receive each other’s impression. We have to struggle not to let ourselves become too hard; we have to struggle to stay open enough to receive the warmth of an impression. I think this is how kindness, finding ways to be kind to each other, a kindness that is not premised on being one of a kind, a premise which would function as a restriction of kindness, becomes part of a feminist life.

But we also know from what we come against: that the one who is offended is often judged as the one who is unkind.



One of the hardest things about coming up against walls is that it can threaten some of our most fragile and precious, our best, our warmest, connections. As I write this I just feel so sad, so very very sad. 

And this too is one of the risks of anger. There is so much to be against, we know this. But how easily anger can spill, can spill at those who happen to be nearby, who are the closest to us. How easily in being against something we can risk those who are with us, who are for us, who we are with and for; we can risk them because they are before us. Our anger when generalised against the injustice of the world, can become directed toward those who happen to be nearest, which is often those who are dearest. The costs of struggling against injustices can be personal, indeed they are often personal: we can lose those who matter. We can get it wrong; we can be too sharp, we can regret having said something because of the consequences of saying something were regrettable. Of course sometimes not: sometimes even when the consequences of saying something are regrettable we cannot regret saying something, because not saying something would have been even more regrettable. There is time in these “sometimes.” Perhaps being a feminist killjoy is all about timing.

I have always resisted the idea that feminist killjoys mature, grow by growing up, and that maturity is about becoming less volatile. Maturity is without question the wrong term for my attempt to think through timing. The idea that maturing is to mature out of being a feminist killjoy assumes or hopes that feminism itself, or at least being that kind of feminist, the wrong kind, the one who always insists on making feminist points, the one who is angry, confrontational is just a phase you are going through.

If a feminist killjoy is a phase, I willingly aspire to be a phase.

The idea that you mature out of being a feminist killjoy, that in growing up you unbecome her, also implies a linear development and progression: as if being unaffected or less bothered is the point you should reach; what you should aim to reach. It associates maturity with giving up not necessarily conviction as such, but the willingness to speak from that conviction.

But a feminist life is not always so linear. After all, some become angrier and more volatile in time. We don’t always become feminist killjoys early on; she can catch up with you at any time. Yes: this is hopeful.

Once you are a feminist killjoy, however, I think the only option is to become more of a feminist killjoy. Becoming more of a killjoy is not about being more or less willing to speak your opposition. If anything in having more experiences of “killjoying,” you have more of a sense of how wearing it can be; and you learn from this experience of not getting through. Because you are becoming more of a feminist killjoy you might become warier of the consequences of being oppositional, a consequence, after all, can be what we share with others. You become wary of being worn. You know the energy it involves: you know that some battles are not worth your energy, because you just keep coming up against the same thing. At the same time, or maybe at another time, you also know that you can’t always choose your battles; battles can choose you. Sometimes the things you come to know seem to feel like another wall, another way of signalling that you have few places to go.

Saying something, not saying something. Your mouth an open question.

From my own experience of being a feminist killjoy over time, you do come to have more of a sense of time: when someone says something, you might be less quick to react. You give yourself time. Sometimes, now, you don’t get wound up, even when someone is winding you up. There are still some things if said, would get through any of my defences. There are some things I always want to react to too quickly as I don’t need time to react. A reaction can even be what is not quick enough. Sometimes. Other times, slowing down is what allows you to preserve your energy. You might still say something. Or you might not. You sense sometimes that there would be a better way of directing your time and your energy. So I am not saying that taking time means that your response is better. It is just to say that sometimes, just sometimes, you have more room for a response; you have learnt to give yourself more room.

In my work I reflected on how willfulness can be actively claimed as part of a feminist inheritance. But thinking through our own feminist fragility, how we can become fragile through feminism because of what we do not overlook helps us to complicate that claiming: not to negate it, just to complicate it. There can be risks to becoming oppositional; to having a sense of oneself as always struggling against something. If you are used to having to struggle to exist, if you become used to having others oppose your existence, if you are used even to being thought of as oppositional, those experiences are directive. You can enact an expectation even in the struggle not to fulfil it. You can even become somewhat oddly invested in the continuation of what you are up against. This is not to say you “really” want what opposes you (although there is wanting at stake here: you want to oppose what you don’t want). It is to say that if you spend time and energy in opposing something, an opposition can become part of you. 

I have experienced myself a sense of how possibilities can be closed down if I assume in advance an oppositional stance. You can get so used to struggling against something, that you expect anything that comes up will be something to be against. It can be tiring being against whatever comes up, even if hearing a wrong ends up being right. And it is possible, of course, in expecting to hear wrongs not to hear them, because if you do hear them, they fulfil an expectation, becoming a confirmation of what you already know. We can stop hearing, when we think we know. I suspect we all do this: hear with expectation, listen for confirmation, whether or not we think of ourselves as feminist killjoys or willful subjects; this is ordinary stuff.

And yet, we might in assuming our own oppositionality be protecting ourselves. We might not notice our own agreements, if they are histories that are still. This is why the figure of the killjoy is not a figure we can assume we always somehow are: even if we recognise ourselves in that figure, even when she is so compelling, even when we are energized by her. We might in assuming we are the killjoys, not notice how others become killjoys to us, getting in the way of our own happiness, becoming obstacles to a future we are reaching for. So for example some feminists have made use of what I call the “willfulness charge” to create an impression, that of being lonely radical feminist voices struggling against the tide of social opinion. They have used this impression of “having to struggle against” to articulate a position against transsexual people, who have to struggle to exist, an everyday life struggle that is also a political struggle, often articulated so vehemently that their speech could only be described as hate speech. When you assume your own oppositionality too quickly, you can inflate a minority into a majority, hear an injury as a lobby, interpret a fight for survival as the formation of an industry.

I will not even begin to articulate what I feel about this perversion of feminist hopes. But I am reading transfeminists, including the fantastic blogs by Aoife Emily Hart and Lisa Millbank, and hoping to learn how to assemble some feelings into thoughts.

A “with” can be worth fighting for. A “with” we fight for might be more fragile, and all the more precious for that very reason: a fragile with, a “with” we recognise as breakable, is also a “with” that is more open to others, those who might be shattered. A “with” might be how we survive being shattered. When we recognise a “with” as before, we can change what it means to be for.

And because we need to learn from feminist histories:

Activism might need us to lose confidence in ourselves, letting ourselves recognise how we too can be the problem. And that is hard if we have a lifetime of being the problem.

Perhaps we need to keep our attachment to the killjoy, yes we can hold onto her, we need to hold on even harder when we are asked to give her up, but we can also allow her to be, and to stay, in crisis.

There can be kindness in that, just in that.

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Selfcare as Warfare

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

This is a revolutionary, extraordinary sentence. It is a much loved, much cited sentence. It is an arrow, which acquires its sharpness from its own direction. It is from the epilogue to Audre Lorde’s A Burst of Light, a piece of writing so profound, so moving, that it never fails to teach me, often by leaving me undone, beside myself. This writing is made up of fragments or notes put together as Audre Lorde learns that she has liver cancer, that her death could only be arrested; as she comes to feel that diagnosis in her bones. The expression “a burst of light” is used for when she came to feel the fragility of her body’s situation: “that inescapable knowledge, in the bone, of my own physical limitation.”

A Burst of Light is an account of how the struggle for survival is a life struggle and a political struggle. Some of us, Audre Lorde notes were never meant to survive. To have some body, to be a member of some group, to be some, can be a death sentence. When you are not supposed to live, as you are, where you are, with whom you are with, then survival is a radical action; a refusal not to exist until the very end; a refusal not to exist until you do not exist. We have to work out how to survive in a system that decides life for some requires the death or removal of others. Sometimes: to survive in a system is to survive a system. We can be inventive, we have to be inventive, Audre Lorde suggests, to survive.

Some of us.

Others: not so much.

When a whole world is organised to promote your survival, from health to education, from the walls designed to keep your residence safe, from the paths that ease your travel, you do not have become so inventive to survive. You do not have to be seen as the recipient of welfare because the world has promoted your welfare. The benefits you receive are given as entitlements, perhaps even as birth rights. Racial capitalism is a health system: a drastically unequal distribution of bodily vulnerabilities. Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes racism thus: “the state-sanctioned or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” (2007: 28) Being poor, being black, puts your life at risk. Your heath is compromised when you do not have the external resources to support a life in all of its contingencies. And then of course, you are deemed responsible for your own ill-heath, for your own failure to look after yourself better. When you refer to structures, to systems, to power relations, to walls, you are assumed to be making others responsible for the situation you have failed to get yourself out of. “You should have tried harder.” Oh, the violence and the smugness of this sentence, this sentencing.

We are used to these logics; we are so used to them that we have names for them (neo-liberalism, post-racialism among others) and we have to keep hearing them.

Throughout A Burst of Light Audre Lorde compares her experience of battling with cancer (and she is willing to use this militaristic language, she is willing to describe this situation as war) to her experience of battling against anti-black racism. The comparison is effective, showing us how racism can be an attack on the cells of the body, an attack on the body’s immune system; the way in which your own body experiences itself as killing itself, death from the outside in. A world against you can be experienced as your body turning against you. You might be worn down, worn out, by what you are required to take in.

To care for oneself: how to live for, to be for, one’s body when you are under attack.

Let’s return to our quote. Lorde  says self-care is not self-indulgence but self-preservation. Some have to look after themselves because their are not looked after: their being is not cared for, supported, protected. I have in my own work been thinking of social privilege as a support system: compulsory heterosexuality, for instance, is an elaborate support system. It is how some relationships are nurtured and valued, becoming a means of organising not just one’s own time, but a way of sharing time and significance: how a we has something; how a we loses something.  How you lose as well as what you lose can even become a confirmation of the worth of what you had.

I think of one of the saddest scenes I have seen is from the first of the three films that make up If these Walls Could Talk 2. We start with the quiet intimacy of two women, Abbie and Edith, lovers, lesbians, life-long partners. Abbie falls. Things happen; shit happens. And then we are in the hospital waiting room. Edith is waiting. Another woman arrives, upset, and says: “they just took my husband in, he had a heart attack.” Edith comforts her. The comfort is not returned: when Edith explains why she is there – “my friend fell off a tree, we think she had a stroke” – the woman asks “is your husband still alive?” When Edith replies, “I never had a husband”, the woman says, “That’s lucky, because you won’t have the heart break of losing one.” This is how heterosexuality can work as a support system, how some broken hearts matter; how some do not. When a relationship is not recognised you are left alone with your grief. No wonder so many of our histories are broken, fragile histories.

Privilege is a buffer zone, how much you have to fall back on when you lose something. Privilege does not mean we are invulnerable: things happen, shit happens. Privilege can however reduce the costs of vulnerability, so if things break down, if you break down, you are more likely to be looked after. When support is a question of access you have a support system.

I think in this statement that self-care is not self-indulgence we can hear a defence; Audre Lorde is defending self-care. What from? From who? From, one might suspect, the dismissal of self-care as an indulgence. Self-indulgence tends to mean: being soft on one’s self, but also can mean “”yielding to one’s inclinations.”

Now recently I have heard much feminist work be dismissed (this is my feminist killjoy blog, and I have no intention or wish to cite these dismissals, you will just have to take my words for it) on these sort of terms. Feminism: being too soft, too safe,  too focused on individual suffering. I have heard feminism be dismissed as a form of self-indulgence.

I want to suggest something before I am ready to firm up a strong argument. This is a hunch, if you like: some critiques of neoliberalism have allowed a dismissal of feminism in these kind of terms.

Of course, feminists have offered some of the sharpest and strongest critiques of neoliberal rationalities. And we have also had some very important feminist critiques of feminist neoliberalism. For example, Catherine Rottenburg persuasively shows how some feminist subjects (the one we might see in a book like Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean in) is “simultaneously neoliberal, not only because she disavows the social, cultural and economic forces producing this inequality, but also because she accepts full responsibility for her own well-being and self-care, which is increasingly predicated on crafting a felicitous work–family balance based on a cost-benefit calculus” (2013: 1). Neoliberal feminists do identify as feminists (Sandberg’s first chapter is entitled “internalising the revolution”) but in such a way that feminism is repackaged as being about upward mobility for some women, those who accept responsibilities for their “own well-being and self-care,” a way some women thus distance themselves from others. I have no doubt that we need to engage in critiques of such forms of neoliberalism and accept that feminism can become co-opted as a white woman’s upward mobility fantasy.

Feminism in neoliberal hands becomes just another form of career progression: a way of moving “up,” not by not recognising ceilings (and walls) but by assuming these ceilings (and walls) can disappear through individual persistence. And race equality also has neoliberal modes: say in the film Bend it like Beckham, when Jess moves “up” by putting the experience of racism behind her, as if you will not be affected by racism when you are good enough (for further discussion see here).
And note: this rhetoric is similar to that used by anti-feminists and racists: those who say we talk about sexism and racism as a way of not being responsible for the places we do not go; those who say our investment in these very terms is how we excluded ourselves by insisting on being excluded; those who say we should just “get on with it” rather than “going on about it.”
When race and gender equality become neoliberal techniques they can become techniques for concealing inequalities.

Audre Lorde, who is with us today through the words she left for us, gave us a strong critique of neo-liberalism, even if she did not use that term. Her work is full of insight into how structural inequalities are deflected by being made the responsibility of individuals (who in being given the capacity to overcome structures are assumed to fail when they do not overcome them). Her work explores how self-care can become a technique of governance: the duty to care for one’s self often written as a duty to care for one’s own happiness, flourishing, well-being.

Indeed, in The Cancer Journals, Audre Lorde offers a powerful critique of how happiness becomes a narrative of self-care. Faced with medical discourse that attributes cancer to unhappiness and survival or coping to being happy or optimistic she suggests: “looking on the bright side of things is a euphemism used for obscuring certain realities of life, the open consideration of which might prove threatening to the status quo” (1997: 76). To obscure or to take cover by looking on the bright side is to avoid what might threaten the world as it is. Lorde moves from this observation to a wider critique of happiness as an obscurant: “Let us seek ‘joy’ rather than real food and clean air and a saner future on a liveable earth! As if happiness alone can protect is from the results of profit-madness” (76). Lorde suggests that the very idea that our first responsibility is for our own happiness must be resisted by political struggle, which means resisting the idea that our own resistance is a failure to be responsible for happiness: “Was I really fighting the spread of radiation, racism, woman-slaughter, chemical invasion and our food, pollution of our environment, and the abuse and psychic destruction of your young, merely to avoid dealing with my first and greatest responsibility to be happy?” (76). I think Audre Lorde has given us the answer to her question. And she offers us another answer in her question: to assume your primary responsible is to your own happiness might be how you end up not fighting against injustice.

We have something to work out here.

Audre Lorde writes persuasively about how self-care can become an obscurant, how caring for oneself can lead you away from engaging in certain kinds of political struggle. And yet, in A Burst of Light, she defends self-care as not about self-indulgence, but self-preservation. Self-care becomes warfare. This kind of self-care is not about one’s own happiness. It is about finding ways to exist in a world that is diminishing.

Already: we have been given some tools to sharpen our understanding of how neo-liberalism can be used as a tool. There are differences that matter, differences that matter relating to differences of power.

Neoliberalism sweeps up too much when all forms of self-care become symptoms of neo-liberalism. When feminist, queer and anti-racist work that involves sharing our feelings, our hurt and grief, recognising that power gets right to the bone, is called neo-liberalism, we have to hear what is not being heard. When feminism involves recognising the suffering of say, an individual woman of colour at the hands of a sexist, heterosexist, and racist system that is indifferent to the suffering it causes and that is called neoliberalism, you would be repeating rather than challenging this structural indifference. And you also negate other “other histories” that are at stake in her struggle for her suffering to matter. Those who do not have to struggle for their own survival can very easily and rather quickly dismiss those who have to struggle for survival as “indulging themselves.” As feminism teaches us: talking about personal feelings is not necessarily about deflecting attention from structures. If anything, I would argue the opposite: not addressing certain histories that hurt, histories that get to the bone, how we are affected by what we come up against, is one way of deflecting attention from structures (as if our concern with our own pain or suffering is what stops certain things from just “going away”). Not the only way, but one way.

If you have got a model that says an individual woman who is trying to survive an experience of rape by focusing on her own wellbeing and safety, by trying to work out ways she can keep on going or ways she can participate in something without having to experience more trauma (by asking for trigger warnings in a classroom, for instance) is participating in the same politics as a woman who is concerned with getting up “the ladder” in a company then I think there is something wrong with your model.
Sometimes, “coping with” or “getting by” or “making do” might appear as a way of not attending to structural inequalities, as benefiting from a system by adapting to it, even if you are not privileged by that system, even if you are damaged by that system. Perhaps we need to ask: who has enough resources not to have to become resourceful? When you have less resources you might have to become more resourceful. Of course: the requirement to become more resourceful is part of the the injustice of a system that distributes resources unequally. Of course: becoming resourceful is not system changing even if it can be life changing (although maybe, just maybe, a collective refusal not to not exist can be system changing). But to assume people’s ordinary ways of coping with injustices implies some sort of failure on their part – or even an identification with the system – is another injustice they have to cope with. The more resources you have the easier it is to make such a critique of those whose response to injustice is to become more resourceful. You might not be trying to move up, to project yourself forward; you might simply be trying not to be brought down. Heavy, heavy histories. Wearing, worn down.
Even if it’s system change we need, that we fight for, when the system does not change, when the walls come up, those hardenings of history into physical barriers in the present, you have to manage; to cope. Your choices are compromised when a world is compromised.
It is not surprising: some recent anti-feminist, anti-queer and anti-intersectionality (intersectionality as code for people of colour) statements from the “white male left” rest on charging us with being individualistic, as indulging ourselves, as being concerned with ourselves and our own damaged “identities.” I wonder if Audre Lorde might have had to insist that self-care was not self-indulgence because she had heard this charge. I wonder.
I have read recently some critiques of feminists for calling out individuals for sexism and racism because those critiques neglect (we neglect) structures. Really? Or is that when we talk about sexism and racism you hear us as talking about individuals? Are you suddenly concerned with structures because you do not want to hear how you as an individual might be implicated in the power relations we critique? I noted in my book, On Being Included (2012) how there can be a certain safety in terms like “institutional racism” in a context where individuals have disidentified from institutions they can see themselves as not “in it” at all.
And how interesting: the individual disappears at the very moment he is called to account. He will probably reappear as the saviour of the left. You can hear, no doubt, my tiredness and cynicism. I do not apologise for it. I am tired of it.
Some of the glib dismissals of “call out culture” make my blood boil. I say glib because they imply it is easy to call people out, or even that it has become a new social norm. I know, for instance, how hard it is to get sexual harassment taken seriously. Individuals get away with it all the time. They get away with it because of the system. It is normalised and understood as the way things are. Individual women have to speak out, and testify over and over again; and still there is a system in place, a system that is working, that stops women from being heard. In a case when a woman is harassed by an individual man, she has to work hard to call him out.  She often has to keep saying it because he keeps doing it. Calling out an individual matters, even when the system is also what is bruising: the violence directed against you by somebody is a violence that leaves a trace upon you whether that trace is visible or not. And: there is a system which creates him, supports him, and gives him a sense that he has a right to do what he does. To challenge him is to challenge a system.
I read one anti-feminist article that implied feminists are being individualistic, when they call out individual men, because that calling out is what stops us working more collectively for radical transformation. Collectivity: can work for some individuals as a means for disguising their own interest as collective interest. When collectivity requires you to bracket your experience of oppression it is not a collectivity worth fighting for. And I have watched this happen with feminist despair: when women speak out about sexual harassment and sexual violence they are heard as compromising the whole thing: a project, a centre, a revolution. And the individuals they speak of are then presented as the ones who have to suffer the consequences of feminist complaint, the one’s whose damage is generalised (if “he” is damaged “we” are damaged). When her testimony is heard as damaging the possibility of revolting against a system, a system is reproduced.
I will say it again: the individual seems to disappear at the moment he is called to account. We are the ones who then appear as individuals, who are assumed to be acting as individuals or even as being individualistic, while he disappears into a collective.
From my study of will and willfulness, I learnt how those who challenge power are often judged as promoting themselves, as putting themselves first, as self-promotional. And maybe: the judgment does find us somewhere. We might have to promote ourselves when we are not promoted by virtue of our membership of a group. We might have to become assertive just to appear. For others, you appear and you are attended to right away. A world is waiting for you to appear. The one who can quickly disappear when called to account can then quickly re-appear when on the receiving end of an action that is welcomed or desired.
I think of these differences as how we become assembled over and by tables. Two women seated together at a table, let’s say. Sometimes you might have to wave your arm, your willful arm, just to be noticed. Without a man at the table you tend not to appear. For others, to be seated is not only to be seen, but to be seen to. You can take up a place at the table when you have already been given a place.
You do not have to become self-willed if your will is accomplished by the general will. This is why the general dismissal of feminism as identity politics (and there is a history to how identity politics becomes a dismissal) needs to be treated as a form of conservatism: it is an attempt to conserve power by assuming those who challenge power are just concerned with or about themselves.
An individual is one who is not dividable into parts. In Willful Subjects (2014), I tied the history of the individual as the one who does not have to divide himself to a patriarchal, colonial and capitalist history. He can be an individual, not divided into parts, because others become his parts: they become his arms, his feet, his hands, limbs that are intended to give support to his body. When a secretary becomes his right hand, his right hand is freed. Your labour as support for his freedom. This is how the question of support returns us to bodies, to how bodies are supported. Willful parts are those who are unwilling to provide this support. So how quickly those who resist their subordination are judged as being individualistic as well as willful. In refusing to support him, by becoming his parts, we have become self-willed; in refusing to care for him, we are judged as caring for ourselves, where this “for” is assumed as only and lonely.
Self-care: that can be an act of political warfare. In directing our care towards ourselves we are redirecting care away from its proper objects, we are not caring for those we are supposed to care for; we are not caring for the bodies deemed worth caring about. And that is why in queer, feminist and anti-racist work self-care is about the creation of community, fragile communities, assembled out of the experiences of being shattered. We reassemble ourselves through the ordinary, everyday and often painstaking work of looking after ourselves; looking after each other. This is why when we have to insist, I matter, we matter, we are transforming what matters. Women’s lives matter; black lives matter; queer lives matter; disabled lives matter; trans lives matter; the poor; the elderly; the incarcerated, matter.
For those who have to insist they matter to matter:
selfcare is warfare.
Thank you Audre Lorde for your survival.
Lorde, Audre (1988). A Burst of Light, Essays. London; Sheba Feminist Publishers.
—————– (1997). The Cancer Journals. Aunt Lute Books: San Francisco.
Gilmore, Ruth Wilson (2007). Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. University of California Press.
Rottenburg, Catherine (2013). “The Rise of Neoliberal Feminism,” Cultural Studies. http://www.bgu.ac.il/~rottenbe/The%20rise%20of%20neoliberal%20feminism.pdf
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