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.

Mean.

Shatter.

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.
 
Always.
 
References
 
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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Broken Bones

In my chapter “Fragile Connections” in the book I am writing, Living a Feminist Life, I have been trying to think through the implications of how the histories that leave us fragile are often the histories that bring us to feminism.

Fragility: the quality of being easily breakable. We are all fragile; some of us are more fragile than others.

Can we value what is deemed broken? Can we appreciate those bodies, those things, which are deemed to have bits and pieces missing?

A history of breaking can be a history of making.

Things can happen; accidents can happen. Hap happens. We can be thrown by what we come up against.

In my earlier post on fragility I shared Ann Oakley’s story of breaking her hand in her wise book, Fractured: Adventures of a Broken Body (2007).

I have a story. Let me give you the bones of it.

One time, I was in New York at the gym and I was joking with somebody. I said: “I have never broken a bone.” I said: “I don’t think my bones are breakable.” I was joking around, being silly; it was a silly thing to say. And then not more than a week later I fell down and broke something. I am not saying that saying this led to that; but it was an uncanny feeling of having in some way brought something about. That break did feel like fate! However it happened, the world intruded: you can be forced by circumstances to realise what you already know. I was breakable. We all are.

However it happened, this is what happened: I fell on the hard stone floor of the bathroom. An encounter with stones can break your bones. Words too can hurt you.

I managed to get myself up and into bed but woke up later night unable to move. I had arrived in New York fairly recently and I had no one with me, but luckily my mobile phone was by my side. I was able to ring for help. They had to break the door down to get me out and down four flights of stairs.

I had fractured my pelvis. The doctor who first treated me was a bit disdainful, saying it shouldn’t be too painful. It was painful. And it also meant for two months or so using crutches; and some of the time when I travelled or when I was in a supermarket, I used a wheel chair.

Becoming conscious of being breakable by breaking something: in experiencing your body differently, or in having a different body to experience, you experience the world differently. I understood this disability to be temporary, as something I would pass through, which I have no doubt framed the situation. But despite the sense of passing through a disabled body, I learnt how disability is worldly because I came up against the world; the different ways you are treated, the opening of doors, concerned faces, the closing of doors, rigid indifference.

I began to feel the little bumps on the street, little bumps I had even noticed before. It felt like I kept bumping into the street. Bumps became walls in the sense they took a huge amount of energy to get over or to get around.

Slow; heavy; down.

The little bumps I had not noticed before.

My mother is disabled; she became ill with transverse myelitis just after I was born. She has become progressively less mobile over time; and now, she can barely walk.

When I was growing up my mother’s condition was kept a secret. We were not told about it. We knew she couldn’t do certain things, or we even thought even she wouldn’t do certain things, but we were never told why: there was secrecy; there was silence. It is a shame that there was such shame. But shame is part of this history. I experienced her difficulties as impediments to my own existence as much as hers: say of not having a mother come to a sporting event when other mothers turned up.

So often: a history of breaking is also a history of secrets, of what is not revealed, including what is behind something, what could have helped to explain something: some difference, some deviation.

When I fractured my pelvis, it did change how I related to my mother’s situation. It is not that before I had no empathy with her pain: I wrote about how I learnt about pain through becoming a witness to her pain in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004). Rather a breaking became a connection, a retrospective realization of how a body is not given room by a world, how for some, what are ordinary bumps, for others, are walls.

I learnt too something about myself as a researcher, a writer, a person. I began to ask myself why, despite having written on intimacies of bodies and worlds, I had hardly reflected upon disability at all. I began to think more about my able-bodied privilege, which is not to say, I have thought about it enough: I have not. It is easy for me to forget to think about it, which is what makes a privilege a privilege: the experiences you are protected from having; the thoughts you do not have to think. You do not need to notice what allows you to progress, or what eases a progression. Disability was behind me, at the back of my consciousness, and it is still behind me, because being able-bodied allows me not to bring it to the front.

This staying behind was despite having a disabled mother; or perhaps there might even be a “because” here as there is pain there.

We can share our stories, our stories of breaking, of being broken, as stories that are bound up with our most intimate connections with others.

This post is dedicated to all those who participated in our twitter discussion of Feminist Hurt, Feminism Hurts (storified here). Thank you. I hope to keep learning from you.

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Making Strangers

Strangers are made; strangers are unmade. Right from the beginning, I have been writing in the company of strangers. The figure of the stranger is familiar; the stranger is thus someone we recognise (as a stranger) rather than someone we do not recognise. Neighbourhood Watch provides a set of disciplinary techniques for recognising strangers; those who “out of place,” who are loitering, who are “here” without a legitimate purpose. For those recognised as strangers, proximity is a crime.

In the afterword to the second edition of The Cultural Politics of Emotion, published in 2014, I made explicit how my arguments about strangers led me to think about and through emotion. In Strange Encounters (2000) I explored how the stranger as a figure appears through the very acquisition of a charge.To recognise somebody as a stranger is an affective judgement. I was interested in how some bodies are “in an instant” judged as suspicious, or as dangerous, as objects to be feared, a judgment that can have lethal consequences. There can be nothing more dangerous to a body than the social agreement that that body is dangerous.

There are so many cases, too many cases. Just take one: Trayvon Martin, a young black man fatally shot by George Zimmerman on February 26th 2012. Zimmerman was centrally involved in his Neighborhood Watch programme. He was doing his civic neighbourly duty: looking out for what is suspicious. As George Yancy has noted in his important piece, “Walking While Black,” we learn from Zimmerman’s call to the dispatcher, how Trayvon Martin appeared to him. Zimmerman says:

“There’s a real suspicious guy.” He also said “This guy looks like he’s up to no good or he’s on drugs or something.” When asked by the dispatcher, he said, within seconds, that, “He looks black.” Asked what he is wearing, Zimmerman says, ‘A dark hoodie, like a gray hoodie.” Later, Zimmerman said that “now he’s coming toward me. He’s got his hands in his waist band.” And then, “And he’s a black male.” (Yancy 2013: np).

Note the sticky slide: suspicious, “up to no good,” coming at me, looking black, a dark hoodie, wearing black, being black. The last statement makes explicit who Zimmerman was seeing right from the very beginning. That he was seeing a Black man was already implied in the first description “a real suspicious guy.” Let me repeat: there can be nothing more dangerous to a body than the social agreement that that body is dangerous. And later, when Zimmerman is not convicted, there is a retrospective agreement with that agreement: that Zimmerman was right to feel fear, that his murder of this young man was self-defence because Trayvon was dangerous, because he was, as Yancy describes so powerfully “walking while black,” already judged, sentenced to death, by the how of how he appeared as a Black man to the white gaze.

The stranger is a dark shadowy figure. I use the word “darkness” deliberately here: it is a word that cannot be untangled from a racialised history. To use this word as if it can be disentangled from that history is to be entangled by that history. The racialisation of the stranger is not immediately apparent—it is disguised, we might say, by the strict anonymity of the stranger, the one who after all, we are told from childhood, could be anyone. We witness from this example how this “could be anyone” is pointed: the stranger as a figure points to some bodies more than others. This “could be anyone” thus only appears as an open possibility, stretching out into a horizon, in which the stranger reappears as the one who is always lurking in the shadows. Frantz Fanon (1986) taught us to watch out for what lurks, seeing himself in and as the shadow, the dark body, always passing by, at the edge of social experience.

To explore how bodies are perceived as dangerous in advance of their arrival requires not beginning with an encounter (a body affected by another body) but asking how encounters come to happen in this way or that. The immediacy of bodily reactions is mediated by histories that come before subjects, and which are at stake in how the very arrival of some bodies is noticeable in the first place. The most immediate of our bodily reactions can thus be treated as pedagogy: we learn about ideas by learning how they become quick and unthinking. Somewhat ironically, perhaps, there is nothing more mediated than immediacy.

Rather than focusing on feeling as circulating between bodies, I have in my work tended to attend to objects: objects which circulate accumulate affective value. They become sticky. An object of fear (the stranger’s body as a phobic object of instance) becomes shared over time, such that the object, in moving around, can generate fear in the bodies of those who apprehend it. Fear does then “in effect” move around through being directed toward objects. It remains possible that bodies are not affected in this way; for example, someone might not be suspicious of a body that has over time been agreed to be suspicious (there is nothing more affective than an agreement because what is in agreement often does not tend to be registered).

Note also that the perception of others is also an impression of others: to made into a stranger is to be blurred. I have since described racism as a blunt instrument, which is another way of making the same argument (Ahmed 2012: 181). Stop and search, for example, is a technology that makes this bluntness into a point: Stop! You are brown! You could be Muslim! You could be a terrorist! The blurrier the figure of the stranger the more bodies can be caught by it.

Here I am speaking primarily of how strangers become objects not only of feeling but also of governance: strangers are bodies that are managed. Or perhaps we should say: the governing of bodies creates strangers as bodies that require being governed. Gentrification for instance is an explicit policy for managing strangers: ways of removing those who would be eye sores; those who would reduce the value of a neighbourhood; those whose proximity would be registered as price. We learn from this. There are technologies in place that stop us from being affected by certain bodies; those that might get in the way of how we occupy space.

Institutions too make strangers. I investigated how institutions make strangers in my book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012), an empirical study into the “world of diversity.” The charged figure of the stranger is one we encounter in the room. And when things are sticky, they are fast: this is how the figure of stranger can end up “in the room” before a body enters that room. When you are caught up in its appearance, emotions become work: you have to manage your own body by not fulfilling an expectation. Let me share with you two quotes from the study. The first is from a Black male diversity trainer:

The other point as well about being a black trainer is that I’ve got to rapport build. Do I do that by being a member of the black and white minstrel show or do I do that by trying to earn respect with my knowledge? Do I do it by being friendly or do I do it by being cold, aloof and detached? And what does all this mean to the people now? From my point of view, it probably has nothing to do with the set of people that are in that room because actually the stereotype they’ve got in their heads is well and truly fixed’ (Ahmed 2012: 160).

Building rapport becomes a requirement because of a stereotype, as that which is fixed, no matter who you encounter. The demand to build rapport takes the form of a perpetual self-questioning; the emotional labour of asking yourself what to do when there is an idea of you that persists, no matter what you do. Indeed, the consequences of racism are in part managed as a question of self-presentation: of trying not to fulfil a stereotype:

Don’t give white people nasty looks straight in their eyes; don’t show them aggressive body positions. I mean, for example I am going to go and buy a pair of glasses because I know the glasses soften my face and I keep my hair short because I’m going bald, so I need something to soften my face. But actually what I am doing, I am countering a stereotype, I’m countering the black male sexual stereotype and yes, I spend all my time, I counter that stereotype, I couch my language behaviour and tone in as English a tone as I can. I am very careful, just very careful (Ahmed 2012: 160).

Being careful is about softening the very form of your appearance so that you do not appear “aggressive” because you are already assumed to be aggressive before you appear. The demand not to be aggressive might be lived as a form of body-politics, or as a speech politics: you have to be careful what you say, how you appear, in order to maximise the distance between you and their idea of you, which is at once how you are the cause of fear (“the black male sexual stereotype”). The encounter with racism is experienced as the intimate labour of countering their idea of you. The experience of being a stranger in the institutions of whiteness is an experience of being on perpetual guard: of having to defend yourself against those who perceive you as somebody to be defended against. Once a figure is charged, it appears not only outside but before the body it is assigned to. This is how, for some, to arrive is to receive a charge.

Diversity work is not only the work we do when we aim to transform the norms of the institution, but the work we do when we not quite inhabit those norms. This work can require working on one’s own body in an effort to be accommodating. The effort to rearrange your own body becomes an effort to rearrange the past. This past is not only difficult to budge, it is often what those, to whom you appear, do not recognise as present.

If I have focused thus far on how strangers become phobic objects, I have more recently been thinking about how strangers can be created by not coming into view. A stranger might be the one to whom we are not attuned. (For a short discussion of attunement, see here).

Let’s say we enter into the mood of a situation. Moods are often understand as more general or worldly orientations rather than being orientated toward specific objects. However, when we think of mood as a social phenomenon it is clear that the situation matters. When you enter into the mood of a situation (for example by being picked up by the good cheer of others) the situation can become the shared object. Perhaps an object might become crisper in a moment of crisis. It might stand out: a willful thing that gets in the way. For example, I might enter a situation that is cheerful, and be picked up that good cheer, only to realise that this is not a situation I find cheerful. Say people are laughing at a joke I do not find funny, or even a joke that I find offensive; I start laughing too before I hear the joke. When I hear it, and I find it offensive not only would I lose my good cheer, but I would become affectively “out of tune” with others. My whole body might experience the loss of attunement as rage or shame, a feeling that can become directed towards myself (how did I let myself get caught up in this?).

Partly what this analysis suggests is the need to reflect on the career of moods as not unrelated to objects despite or even given that these objects are vague and indistinct. After all, sharing a mood can still involve as an affective valuation (what causes good cheer as being good) and thus a way of orientating the body. To be attuned to each other is not only to share in moods (good or bad, lively or unlively) but also a certain rhythm. When we “pick up” a feeling we can pick each other up. We are laughing together, we might face each other; our bodies shaking; we are shaken together, mirroring each other. When I stop laughing, I withdraw from this bodily intimacy. I can even break that intimacy; an intimacy can shatter like a broken jug. I might be left having to pick up the pieces. Sometimes we might keep laughing in fear that otherwise we would cause a breakage.

What I am suggesting is that attunement is not exhaustive: one might enter the room with certain leanings. To be attuned to some might simultaneously mean not to be attuned to others, those who do not share one’s leanings. We can close off our bodies as well as ears to what is not in tune. An experience of non-attunement might then refer to how we can be in a world with others where we are not in a responsive relation, where we do not tend to “pick up” on how they feel. This sense of not being in harmony might not even register to consciousness. We might even have screened out from our awareness that which is not consistent with our own mood, which might include a screening out of the bodies that lean another way. When this screening is not successful, then those bodies (and the moods that might accompany them) become registered as what or who causes the loss of attunement. No wonder the stranger becomes a moody figure (and indeed a killjoy!): they often come to the front, or are confronted, at the moment of losing a collective good cheer. And: we might think more here about the techniques for screening out the suffering of strangers: we might think here of the use of shields, or even the transformation of bodies into shields. Political hope might rest on the failure of these techniques.

Attunement might create the figure of the stranger not necessarily or only by making the stranger into an object of feeling (the stranger as the one we recognise as not being with), but as the effect of not leaning that way. Strangers thus re-appear at the edges of a room, dimly perceived, or not quite perceived, lurking in the shadows.

No wonder a stranger can be a rather vague impression.

References

Ahmed, Sara (2014). “Emotions and their Objects.” Afterword to the second edition, The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press.

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

———– (2000). Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. Rourledge.

Fanon, Frantz (2008). [1967] Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles Lam Markmann. London: Pluto Press.

Yancy, G. (2013). “Walking While Black,” New York Times. September 1st.

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Call for Contributions – Special Issue on Sexism

I am editing a special issue of New Formations on Sexism. Please see the calls for papers below!

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This special issue of New Formations will explore sexism: a problem with a name.

Sexism is a term that feminists have used to explain how social inequalities between men and women are reinforced or upheld through norms, values and attitudes. To use the term ‘sexism’ is, however, always to be involved in a political struggle or contestation. Marilyn Frye begins her important essay ‘Sexism’ with the following observation: ‘like most women coming to a feminist perception of themselves and the world, I was seeing sexism everywhere and trying to make it perceptible to others’ (1984: 17). Frye suggests that making sexism ‘perceptible to others’ becomes a project because many ‘would not see that what I declared to be sexist was sexist.’ In this special issue we hope to explore why making sexism ‘perceptible to others’ remains an important and difficult feminist project. How does sexism get reproduced? How are sexist attitudes or values institutionalised? To what extent are we witnessing new forms of sexism, for example, ‘retro-sexism’ (Judith Williamson), ‘hipster or ironic sexism’ (Alissa Quart), ‘enlightened sexism’ (Susan J. Douglas), or ‘critical sexism’ (Sara Ahmed)? What role does the media have in reinforcing or challenging sexism? In asking these questions, we hope for contributions that explore how sexism intersects with racism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, ableism as well as class inequalities. We anticipate consideration of how feminists can intervene in the reproduction of sexism with bell hooks’ affirmation of feminism as ‘the movement to end sexism, sexist exploitation and oppression’ (2000: viii, emphasis added), kept firmly in mind.

Why sexism, why now? On the one hand, we have witnessed an increasing attention to the problem of sexism from feminist activists and journalists as we can witness, for example, in the Everyday Sexism project. On the other hand, although critiques of sexism as structural to disciplines were central to early feminist work in the academy, the concern with sexism, or the use of the vocabulary of sexism seems to have, if anything, receded within feminist theories. In this special issue we invite and enact a redirection of feminist theory towards the question of sexism. We also welcome contributions that question as well as show the utility of sexism as a name or framework; that ask how sexism might relate to other terms that feminists have used to explain gender inequalities (such as patriarchy, masculinism or phallocentrism); and that explore how sexism manifests in relation to heterosexism as well as cissexism.

The special issue is premised on the claim that thinking about sexism is a way of generating new feminist knowledge and understanding.

Contributions could cover the following issues:

Institutional Sexism
Sexism and Language
Academic Sexism
Sexism and Science
Sexism and Intersectionality
Phenomenologies of Sexism
Everyday Sexism
Sexism and the Media (including Social Media)
Sexism as/and Technology
Reproducing Sexism

Deadline for papers (maximum 8000 words) March 16 2015.

Please email your paper as a word document to Sara Ahmed (s.ahmed@gold.ac.uk) who is the editor of this special issue and on the editorial board for New Formations. You are welcome to get in touch with Sara before the deadline to discuss your contribution.

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Feminist Wonder

In the last week I have been working on a chapter, “Feminism is Sensational,” the opening chapter of Living a Feminist Life. It is an extension, elaboration of a blog post that shared the same title. And I have been thinking more about feminist hurt: how the histories that leave us fragile are often the histories that bring us to feminism.

As I have been working on this chapter, though, I have realised: whilst feminism can hurt, whilst feminism can make us even more aware of what hurts, this does not account for, or fully account for, how I feel about feminism. When I think about feminism, I also feel hopeful, often despite the enormity of what we come up against, those walls, those hardenings of history. My chapter, “Feminism is Sensational,” has thus become something more like an existential account of becoming a feminist. I am interested in how consciousness of gender (say, as a way of directing human traffic) can be a world consciousness that can leave us shattered. But shattering is also what enables us to become alive to possibility. Becoming feminist can inject life into a world by allowing you to recognise not only that things acquire shape over time, but that this shape is not necessary or inevitable; that possibilities are not always lost, even when we have given them up.

And it was rather odd, because I realised I have written about this, like this, before. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004) I wrote about wonder as a key feminist emotion (alongside hope and anger). Let me share a few paragraphs from that text (from pp. 180-183):

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My relationship to feminism has never felt like one of negation: it has never been reducible to the feelings of pain, anger or rage, which have nevertheless, at times, given my politics a sense of urgency. It has felt like something more creative, something that responds to the world with joy and care, as well as with an attention to details that are surprising. Descartes’ Passions of the Soul describes “wonder” as the first and primary emotion, as it is about being surprised by that which is before us (Descartes 1985: 350). As he elaborates:

When our first encounter with some object surprises us and we find it novel, or very different from what we formerly knew or from what we supposed it ought to be, this causes us to wonder and to be astonished at it. Since all this may happen before we know whether or not the object is beneficial to us, I regard wonder as the first of all the passions.(Descartes 1985: 350).

Wonder here seems premised on “firstness”: the object that appears before the subject is encountered for the first time, or as if for the first time. It is hence a departure from ordinary experience; or, by implication, the ordinary is not experienced or felt at all. We can relate this non-feeling of ordinariness to the feeling of comfort, as a feeling that one does not feel oneself feel. What is ordinary, familiar or usual often resists being perceived by consciousness. It becomes taken for granted, as the background that we do not even notice, and which allows objects to stand out or stand apart. Wonder is an encounter with an object that one does not recognise; or wonder works to transform the ordinary, which is already recognised, into the extraordinary. As such, wonder expands our field of vision and touch. Wonder is the pre-condition of the exposure of the subject to the world: we wonder when we are moved by that which we face.

So wonder, as an affective relation to the world, is about seeing the world that one faces and is faced with “as if” for the first time. What is the status of the “as if”? Does such an impulse to wonder require an erasure of history, by forgetting that one has seen the world before, or even that the world pre-cedes the impulse to wonder? It could be assumed that the “as if” functions as a radical form of subjectivism, in which the subject forgets all that has taken place before a given moment of contemplation. But I would suggest that wonder allows us to see the surfaces of the world as made, and as such wonder opens up rather than suspends historicity. Historicity is what is concealed by the transformation of the world into “the ordinary,” into something that is already familiar, or recognisable. The ordinariness of the world is an effect of reification, as Marx has shown us. I would describe Marxism as a philosophy of wonder: what appear before consciousness, as objects of perception, are not simply given, but are effects of history: “Even the objects of the simplest ‘sensuous certainty’ are only given him through social development, industry and commercial intercourse” (Marx and Engels 1965: 57).

The surprise of wonder is crucial to how it moves bodies. Luce Irigaray emphasises this relation between wonder and movement: ‘Wonder is the motivating force behind mobility in all its dimensions’ (Irigaray 1993: 73). Sometimes how we feel and what we think is contained within the reproduction of the ordinary. Nothing noticeable happens, and repetition, while it creates desire, sometimes just goes on and on. But then something happens, which is out of the ordinary – and hence a relation to the ordinary – and that something surprises us. The philosophical literature on wonder has not focused on wonder as a corporeal experience, largely because it has been associated with the sublime and the sacred, as an affect that we might imagine leaves the materiality of the body behind. But for me the expansion of wonder is bodily (see Midgley 1989). The body opens as the world opens up before it; the body unfolds into the unfolding of a world that becomes approached as another body. This opening is not without its risks: wonder can be closed down if what we approach is unwelcome, or undoes the promise of that opening up. But wonder is a passion that motivates the desire to keep looking; it keeps alive the possibility of freshness, and vitality of a living that can live as if for the first time. This first-time-ness of wonder is not the radical present – a moment that is liveable only insofar as it is cut off from prior acts of perception. Rather, wonder involves the radicalisation of our relation to the past, which is transformed into that which lives and breathes in the present.

Wonder is what brought me to feminism; what gave me the capacity to name myself as a feminist. Certainly, when I first came into contact with feminism, and began to read my own life and the lives of others differently, everything became surprising. At the time, this felt like moving out of false consciousness, though now I see that I was not moving into the truth as such, but just towards a way of understanding that explained things better. I felt like I was seeing the world for the first time, and that all that I took for granted as given – as a question of the way things are – had come to be over time, and was contingent. It is through wonder that pain and anger come to life, as wonder allows us to realise that what hurts, and what causes pain, and what we feel is wrong, is not necessary, and can be unmade as well as made. Wonder energises the hope of transformation, and the will for politics.

No wonder, wonder is key to feminist pedagogy. In the Women’s Studies classroom, students might respond firstly with a sense of assurance (“This is the way the world is”), then with disbelief (“How can the world be like this?”) and towards a sense of wonder (“How did the world come to take this shape?”). The critical wonder that feminism involves is about the troubling effect of certain questions: questions like “How has the world taken the shape that it has?”, but also “Why is it that power relations are so difficult to transform?”, “What does it mean to be invested in the conditions of subordination as well as dominance?” and so on.

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Moving forward, Queer Phenomenology (2006) ended its discussion of disorientation and queer objects with a discussion of wonder (from pp 162-164):

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Think of Sartre’s novel Nausea (1963). A rather queer novel, I would say, in the sense that it is a novel about “things” becoming oblique. Nausea could be described as a phenomenological description of disorientation, of a man losing his grip on the world. What is striking about this novel is how much the loss of grip is directed towards objects that gather around the narrator, a writer, as objects that come to “disturb” rather than extend human action. The narrator begins with the desire to describe such objects, and how they are given and arranged, as a way of describing queer effects: “I must say how I see this table, the street, people, my packet of tobacco, since these are the things which have changed” (Sartre 1963: 9). Here again, the table appears, it even comes first, as a sign of the orientation of writing. To write a story of disorientation begins with the table becoming queer. It is the things around him, gathered in the way that they are (as a horizon around the body, and the objects that are near enough, including the table), which reveal the disorientation in the order of things.

Disorientation could be described here as the “becoming oblique” of the world, a becoming which is at once interior and exterior, as that which is given, or as that which gives what is given its new angle. Whether the strangeness is in the object or in the body that is near the object remains a crucial question. It seems first that it is “him” that is disorientated, that “things” have “slipped away” because he is slipping away, or “losing his mind.” If objects are extensions of bodies, just as bodies are incorporations of objects, how we can locate the queer moment in one or the other? Later in the novel, the “inside” and “outside” do not stay in place: “The Nausea isn’t inside me: I can feel it over there on the wall, on the braces, everywhere around me. It is one with the café, it is I who am inside it.” (Sartre 1963: 35) Things become queer precisely given how bodies are touched by objects, or by “something” that happens, where what is “over there” is also “in here,” or even what I am in. The story moves on:

Something has happened to me: I can’t doubt that any more. It came as an illness does, not like an ordinary certainty, not like anything obvious. It installed itself cunningly, little by little; I felt a little strange, a little awkward, and that was all….There is something new, for example, about my hands, a certain way of picking up my pipe or my fork. Or else it is the fork which has a certain way of getting itself picked up, I don’t know. Just now, when I was on the point of coming into my room, I stopped short because I felt in my hand a cold object which attracted my attention by means of a sort of personality. I opened my hand and looked: I was simply holding a doorknob (Sartre 1963: 13).

We begin with the “me” as the place where something happens, a little strangeness, awkwardness that emerges over time, as if with a life of its own. The becoming strange of the body does not stay with “me.” For if it is my hands that are strange, then it is my hands as they express themselves in a gesture. Such gestures are the “point” where my hands meet with objects: where they cease to be apart; where they pick things up. So is it my hand or is it the fork that is different? What is so compelling to me about this account of “becoming queer” is how the strangeness that seems to reside somewhere between the body and the objects that it is near is also what brings those objects to life, and makes them dance. So “the doorknob” when it is being what it is there to do (allowing us to open the door) is that – is even “just that.” But when the door knob is felt as something other than what is it supposed to do, then it comes to have a tangible, sensuous quality, as a “cold object,” even one with a “personality.”

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I have been thinking more about feminist consciousness in relation to how objects come to life. Some objects that are gathered are gatherings of history (domesticated objects, such as doorknobs, pens, knives, and forks, but also tables, no wonder, no wonder I love tables) are in a certain way overlooked. Seeing such objects as if for the first time allows objects to breathe not through a forgetting of their history, but by allowing this history to come alive. Put another way: to re-encounter objects as strange things is not to lose sight of the history, but to refuse to make them history by losing sight. Such wonder directed at the objects that we face, as well as those that are behind us, does not involve bracketing out the familiar, but allows the familiar to dance with life.

Maybe in this chapter, I can write about feminism as a form of astonishment: a way of being struck or of finding the world striking.

We would not only be reflecting on the affinity that feminists might have with objects (we learn this from how women can be treated “like furniture” that is, by how women can be put into the background, or become things to be polished, shiny) though we might reflect on this. And we would not only be talking about astonishment in terms of positive feeling, or as the grasping of possibilities in advance of their loss, though we might talk of this. We would also be thinking of affinities between a body and things when a life is not working. When a body is not attuned to a world, things come into view that might otherwise be hidden. Usually affinity is thought in terms of attunement. But when we are not attuned, when things are not running smoothly, things can come alive. We can be struck by things. I am suggesting here a feminist affinity is possible in this moment of being struck or of striking; a quality can thus be shared at the very moment a body and a thing are not attuned. I need to do more work to explain what I mean here. I know what I mean here; but I need to do more work to explain!

In The Promise of Happiness (2010) I reflected on how domestic objects seem to acquire a life of their own, becoming menacing. (from pp.76-78)

—————————-

Take the film The Hours, based on Michael’s Cunningham’s novel, The Hours (1999, dir. Stephen Daldry), which takes its name from Virginia Woolf’s original name for Mrs. Dalloway (for a discussion of this novel see here). The Hours places three generations of women alongside each other, and follows their life on a single day: we have a fictionalized account of a day in the life of Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), of Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) an unhappy housewife living in the 1950s as she bakes a cake and reads Mrs. Dalloway, and of Clarissa Vaughan (Meryl Streep) who is organizing a party like Mrs. Dalloway, this time for her ex-lover and friend Richard (Ed Harris), who is dieing of Aids.

I want to focus in particular on Laura Brown our unhappy housewife in the 1950s. It is a day, one day. It is her husband’s birthday; but Laura wants to stay in bed with the book; we imagine that she wants to be in bed with Virginia. Later, when her husband has gone, her friend Kitty arrives and asks her about the book. Laura talks of Mrs. Dalloway, as if she was co-present; as if she shared the same space, the same world. She says of Mrs Dalloway, “because she is confident everyone thinks she is fine. But she isn’t.” The story of Mrs. Dalloway becomes Laura’s description of her own present, what surrounds her, her life world. She identifies with Mrs. Dalloway through suffering, by sharing her grief, as a grief that is not revealed, as if to say: like you, I am not fine, like you, my life is about maintaining the appearance of being fine, an appearance which is also a disappearance.

What happens when domestic bliss does not create bliss? Laura tries to bake a cake. She cracks an egg. The cracking of the egg becomes a common gesture throughout the film, connecting the domestic labour of women over time. To bake a cake ought to be a happy object, a labour of love. Instead, the film reveals a sense of oppression that lingers in the very act of breaking the eggs. Not only do such objects not cause your happiness, but they may remind you of your failure to be made happy; they embody a feeling of disappointment. The bowl in which you crack the eggs waits for you. You can feel the pressure of its wait. The empty bowl feels like an accusation. Feminist archives are full of scenes of domesticity, in which domestic objects, become menacing.

In one very poignant scene in The Hours, when Laura’s family gathers around the table, having their own party with the cake she has finally baked, the promise of happiness is evoked. Her husband is telling their child the story of how they met. He says: “I used to think about bringing her to this house. To a life, pretty much like this. And it was the thought of the happiness, the thought of this woman, the thought of this life, that’s what kept me going. I had an idea about our happiness.”

As he speaks, tears well in Laura’s face. Her sadness is with his idea of happiness, with what keeps him going, and the world it creates for her. Laura explains at the end of the film how she came to leave her husband and child: “It would be wonderful to say that you regretted it; it would be easy. But what does it mean. What does it mean to regret when you had no choice. It is what you can bear. There it is. No one is going to forgive me. It was death. I choose life.” A life premised on “an idea about our happiness,” for Laura, would be unbearable. Such happiness would be death. She does not leave this life for happiness. She leaves this happiness for life.

———————

The empty bowl that feels like an accusation can be the beginning of a feminist life. A feminist life can be how we get in touch with things. How astonishing.

References

Ahmed, Sara (2004, 2014). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press.

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

———— (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Duke University Press.

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A Willfulness Archive

The Introduction to Willful Subjects can now be read online.

The link is here.

Willful Subjects are getting out there!

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Feminist Hurt/Feminism Hurts

In my last post, I explored the question of fragility. Behind my exploration was a reposing of the question of response and responsibility: how can we respond to the histories that leave some bodies, some relationships, more fragile than others? How can we face up to those histories of losing face?

We can be shattered by what we come up against.

And then we come up against it again.

We can be exhausted by what we come up against.

And then we come up against it again.

The question of survival is a political as well as life question. Perhaps survival seems too modest a political ambition. Not for some. Not at all. Survival becomes a political craft for those who, as Audre Lorde describes, “were never meant to survive” (1978: 32).

And: the histories that leave us fragile are often those that bring us to a feminist room. This is what I want to reflect on here. What are the implications for feminism that our points of entry are often sore points? How many of us became feminists because of experiences of violence? I cannot separate my feminist history from my experiences of violence. What a tangle. Messy.

Feminist work is often memory work. We work to remember what sometimes we wish would or could just recede. As I have been working on Living A Feminist Life, I have been remembering. It is not that memory work is necessarily about recalling what has been forgotten: rather we gather memories like things, so they become more than half-glimpsed. We bring things into view. Feminist work is often about timing: sometimes we were too fragile to do this work; we would risk being shattered.

There is one time I remember, very acutely, still. I was out jogging, just near my home. A man whirled passed on a bike, and put his hand up the back of my skirt. He did not stop; he just carried on cycling as if nothing had happened; as if he had not done anything. I stopped; shaking. I felt so sick; invaded, confused, upset, angry. I was the only witness to this event; my body its memory.

What do we do when these kind of things happen? Who do we become? I kept on going. I began jogging again, but I was transformed. I became much more nervous. Every time someone came up behind me, I was ready, tense, waiting. Self-modification: how in anticipation of violence we inhabit our bodies, worlds, differently.

So many of us have so many experiences like this: they seem to accumulate over time; they carry more and more weight. Sexism: being weighed down as well as worn down. You seem to receive the same message again and again: the flasher at school who keeps returning; the time you walk past a group of boys and girls on the way home when one of them shouts out to you to come back because you are “fuckable,” and they all laugh; that time you come across a man masturbating under a tree in the city parklands who tells you to come and take a look and comes after you when you hurry away; the time when you are walking down a street with your sister and a man jumps out of the door exposing himself; the time you waiting at a bus stop and a group of men in a car stop and ask you to get in, and you run as fast as you can to get away as they shout and jeer; the time when you fall asleep on a long flight under a blanket and you wake up with a man’s fingers all over you. I remember each of these experiences, and others, as if they happened yesterday: the sound of the voices, of the car as it slowed down, the bike that rushed past, the door that opened, the sound of the footsteps; the kind of day it was; the quite hum of a plane as I woke up. It is like my senses were magnified, during or after the events; a memory can preserve a feeling, you can feel it again. These experiences: what effects do they have? What do they do?

It feels wrong. You feel wrong. In feeling wrong something is wrong. In my paper, “Black Feminism as Life-Line,” I asked how we acquire the words for this something. In that paper, I also recalled another experience, I had when I was walking close to home. Two policemen in a car pulled up next to me: one asked “Are you Aboriginal?” the other one quipped, “or is it just a sun tan.” It was an extremely hostile address, and it was an unsettling experience at the time. It was an experience of being made into a stranger, the one who is recognised as “out of place,” as the one who does not belong, whose proximity is registered as crime or threat. The racialization of the stranger is not immediately apparent, disguised we might say, by the strict anonymity of the stranger who after all, we are told from childhood, could be anyone. My stranger memory taught me that the “could be anyone” points to some bodies more than others.

We learn how violence is directed; how the “could be anyone” is someone. I think of feminist and anti-racist consciousness in terms of acquiring knowledge of directedness.

Let me share an example from Audre Lorde’s autobiography, Zami:

Tensions on the street were high, as they always are in racially mixed zones of transition. As a very little girl, I remember shrinking from a particular sound, a hoarsely sharp, guttural rasp, because it often meant a nasty glob of grey spittle upon my coat or shoe an instant later. My mother wiped it off with the little pieces of newspaper she always carried in her purse. Sometimes she fussed about low-class people who had no better sense nor manners than to spit into the wind no matter where they went, impressing upon me that this humiliation was totally random. It never occurred to me to doubt her. It was not until years later once in conversation I said to her: “Have you noticed people don’t spit into the wind so much the way they used to?” And the look on my mother’s face told me that I had blundered into one of those secret places of pain that must never be spoken of again. But it was so typical of my mother when I was young that if she couldn’t stop white people spitting on her children because they were Black, she would insist it was something else (1984: 17-18).

An event happens. And it happens again. The violence is directed from the white body to the black child, who receives that violence by shrinking, shrinking away from its sound. But the mother cannot bear to speak of racism, and creates an impression that the violence is random. Racism is a pain that is hard to bear. Consciousness of racism becomes retrospective, and the question of its timing does matter. You learn not to see racism as a way of bearing the pain. To see racism, you have to unsee the world as you learnt to see it, the world that covers unhappiness, by covering over its cause. You have to be willing to venture into secret places of pain.

Some forms of “taking cover” from pain –from not naming the causes of pain in the hope that it will go away – are to protect those we love from being hurt, or even to protect ourselves from hurt, or are at least meant as a form of protection. But to conceal the causes of hurt can make others the cause of their hurt. Audre Lorde shows throughout her work that we should not be protected from what hurts. We have to work and struggle not so much to feel hurt, but to notice what causes hurt, which means unlearning what we have learnt not to notice. We have to do this work if we are to produce critical understandings of how violence, as a relation of force and harm, is directed toward some bodies and not others. In The Promise of Happiness (2010), in reflecting on Lorde’s example, I suggested that we could follow Raymond Williams (1977) to explore “structures of feeling,” but also consider “feelings of structure”; feelings might be how structures get under our skin (i).

Structures are thus not independent of bodies; structures are about how violence gets directed towards some bodies and not others. As my example of the institutional brick wall from previous posts showed (see here and here), what some of us come up against, others do not experience. Structures can bruise some bodies whilst not appearing to affect others.

It matters how we think about feeling. Feelings are how structures become affective; how we are “impressed upon” in our encounters with others; how we are impressed differently, affected differently, by what we come up against. And if the violences that leave us fragile are those that bring us to feminism, no wonder a feminist bond is itself fragile: an easily broken thread of connection. Perhaps we need an account of some of these breaking points by not assuming we know what breaks at these points.

Perhaps it is in teaching rooms or seminar rooms that we can thank more of this fragility as a space that can occupied. I have been reading some of critiques of trigger warnings in the past 6 months relating primarily to the migration of this term from the feminist blogosphere into US classrooms. And there have been many critiques: my sense is that the rush to critique almost warrants the term “moral panic.” I think this term “moral panic” is warranted because of some of the inflationary logics in use. These critiques tend to inflate what is intended by trigger warnings (from a specific technique for dealing with PTSD to a more generalised culture of warnings about any or all potential harms) and they also take form as narratives of crisis: trigger warnings have been identified as causing the demise of academic freedom, as being anti-intellectual, as a symptom of neo-liberalism, as evidence of narcissism – almost as a sign of the “end of education” itself.

I will not engage with these critiques directly; nor will I address the question of trigger warnings in a full and systematic manner (trigger warnings are rather remote from the pedagogic scene in which I have been taught to teach).(ii) What has interested me is how these critiques have created a general impression: positing a hurt, traumatised or hyper-sensitive student against the rigorous demands of intellectual culture.

The figure of the too-easily-hurt student is familiar to anyone coming out of Women’s Studies: indeed many of the charges against Women’s Studies as anti-intellectual often rested on claims that in Women’s Studies all we do is talk about hurt feelings. And I suspect there is a longer history at stake here, whereby feminism itself is understood as politically impoverished (and damaging to the left) because of its concern with individual consciousness and suffering. As Imogen Tyler explores in her important paper, “The Selfish Feminist,” much anti-feminist rhetoric in the 1970s and 1980s mobilised a diagnosis of narcissism: “One of the central arguments made by these accounts of cultural narcissism is that politics, mainstream and/or counter-cultural politics had degenerated into individual quests for self-awareness and self-realisation” (2007: 180) (iii). Whilst consciousness raising was about exploring how the personal is political, these anti-feminist critiques worked to re-frame feeling as only and just personal. Feminism becomes a symptom of “the me decade”.

This widely circulating figure of the too-easily-hurt student thus has a longer history, one that might also relate back to the figure of the feminist killjoy: the hurt of some gets in the way of the happiness of others.

Can we think about the politics of hurt differently? I have always taught courses on racism and colonialism, ever since I have taught. I thus bring difficult histories in the room, often difficulties that manifest as stuff (an image, a written document, a thing). I think asking ourselves how we do this is something we must always do. These histories are alive; they are not over. Racism and colonialism are the present we are in. So how we bring these histories into the room does matter. I remember one time, it was a rather difficult time, and I was about to show a film that was dealing very explicitly with histories of violence against black women. I was going to be talking about histories that persist. I stopped. I did not show it. Something about the occasion stopped me. Other times I have shown the film.

Stopping and starting; we hesitate; things splatter. I do not assume that I know what I am doing in what I am bringing or not bringing into the room. I hope to be willing to listen. If students find what I bring to the room makes it hard for them to be in the room, I want to find another way to bring things in, or at least to ask myself about different ways of bringing things in. This is a hope of course: I get things wrong, we all get things wrong. Things do shatter. The fragility of the pedagogic encounter is something I take for granted because the histories I bring up are or can be shattering for those in the room, for some more than others, for some in different ways than for others. And I too, am in the room. I too can be shattered by what I bring with me. Can be, have been.

There were a couple of experiences I had early on that made me aware of what it means to bring histories that leave us fragile into the room. One time a student doing an undergraduate degree in English Literature and Women’s Studies came to my room in tears. She said that a lecturer had shown a film that involved a graphic depiction of rape. When she had being upset by this, he had basically said to her that she was “taking it literally” and that the rape was a metaphor. His assumption of the aestheticisation of rape allowed him to show, and to keep showing a film, with a structural indifference to the effects it might have for some students. Hurt was dismissed as literalism. The same year an MA student in Women’s Studies came to my room also visibly upset. A tutor on a feminist theory course had shown some images from nineteenth century science depicting women’s genitals. Apparently she had left these images in the middle of the table throughout the session, mostly uncommented upon. When a student complained about this at the end of the session, the tutor laughed. I did not hear more about this laughter but I learnt from the fact that it was possible to laugh.

The insistence on one’s right to use certain kinds of materials can become a scathing indifference to how these materials affect others. Neither of these students was asking for the removal of these materials from the classroom. But perhaps their expression of hurt is already heard as censoring. And that’s what is at stake here: how hurt is heard as wrong (you are wrong to be hurt) and as an imposition. An imposition here is what is treated as alien (out of place) and, in the academic context, it is something that would get in the way of our freedom, of our freedom to show what we do, to do what we show. No wonder those who ask us to change how we introduce certain materials (as potentially causing harm) have become killjoys: those who get in the way. Hurt itself becomes framed as censoring: as requiring the removal of some offending thing (iiii). But actually the killjoy here is asking for more not less: asking for us to complicate the materials; to situate the materials; to consider how materials can create ripples in how they move us: matter as motion, as deviation. Of course we cannot always anticipate how things affect somebody, but that does not mean we cannot learn about how things are affective by how others are affected. I might be thrown by how you are thrown.

Of course some public expressions of hurt can close spaces down. So too, of course, can public expressions of what some might call reason. It is collective work to keep spaces open especially when we are talking about histories that hurt. No wonder feminist spaces are tense, intense.(iiiii)

Feminist hurt. We might say if hurt brings us to feminism, feminism can also hurt (from feminist hurt to feminism hurts). We might let ourselves be hurt all over again. When I teach, I teach about things that still hurt. I am willing this still. When I write, I stay close to the histories of violence. Sometimes I write with tears, in tears. I read the work that reminds me of this hurt: I read about racism, sexism, injury, injustice. These words become life-lines too, allowing me to live on by going on.

Hurt: still. We are moved because it hurts still.

We are not over it; it is not over.

The desire to get over suffering is of course an understandable desire, one that might express a longing to do more than describe social relations of force and harm. Rosi Braidotti suggests in her work on affirmative ethics that “repugnant and unbearable events do happen” but then concludes that “ethics consists however in reworking those events into positive relations” (13). She argues that “paradoxically, it is those who have already cracked up a bit, those who have suffered pain and injury, who are better placed to take the lead in the process of ethical transformation” (14). Perhaps the relationship between leadership and suffering is only paradoxical if we assume that suffering is stifling. We learn from what Braidotti rightly points out: those who have been undone by suffering can be the agents of political transformation.

We might need to attend to bad feelings not in order to overcome them, but to learn by how we are affected by what comes near, which means achieving a different relationship to all our wanted and unwanted feelings as a political as well as life resource.

I think what can be underestimated even within some feminist work is the difficulty of giving our attention to – and sustaining our attention on – certain forms of suffering. The desire to move beyond suffering in reconciliation, the very will to “get over it” by asking others to “get over it” means those who persist in being hurt become causes of general unhappiness. Their suffering becomes transformed into disappointment that we cannot simply put such histories behind us.

My exploration of the figure of the melancholic migrant in The Promise of Happiness (2010) was also about how some forms of hurt become understood as what stops us from just “getting along.” The melancholic migrant is the one who is too attached to their own injury; who won’t let go. And from the mobility of this figure, we can hear an injunction: let go! Just let go!

The scripts often imply more; they attach the problem of bad feeling to how those who are the problem understand that feeling. The melancholic migrant is the one who won’t let go of the pain of racism by letting go of racism as a way of understanding that pain. It as if the insistence on being hurt by racism is what stops racism from just “going away.”

This is why I think the refusal to let go of an injury might require a certain willfulness. We might have to become stubborn just to hold on.

And I keep wanting to say: slow down. Listen.

Bad feelings are creative responses to histories that are unfinished. They are not the only responses. And we are not finished.

(i) Some recent anti-feminist writings (think vampire’s castle, think “the politics of denunciation”) have implied feminism is problematic when it/we “call out” individuals (because we need to focus on structures rather than individuals). My arguments here are a refutation of these modes of analysis. Structures when imagined as “without” individuals can be very easy places to be! You can do anything, and say: the structure did it! This is why “institutional racism” can also be limited as a frame: if individuals tend to dis-identify from structures (especially structures of governance) then they do not see themselves as implicated in racism. The most extreme version of this argument I have read implies that women who are survivors of rape or assault, should not name those who assaulted them because to name would be to individualise violence and to disrupt the possibility of working collectively. This example shows us what is at stake. The individual disappears at the moment he is called to account. Perhaps he then reappears as the one who can save the left from the moral demise caused by feminists amongst others. I will be returning to how individualism has historically been used as a charge against those who question existing social norms (such as the family) in future posts.

(ii) I do recognize that when a call, or even a demand, is transformed into a mandate, things change. But let’s be clear: anything can become a technique to manage difference. In On Being Included (2012), I explored how equality becomes part of audit culture: as something that can be measured. It was tricky to make this critique. Equality becomes a political idea and ideal because of inequalities. Feminists amongst others have struggled against the institutionalization of inequalities. And yet equality has become part of the bureaucracy, without question. It is important that we do not make equality into a symptom of bureaucracy. This would precisely negate or obscure our political work in challenging inequalities. And indeed, this negation and obscuration is evident in how some can dismiss equality as “just another part of audit culture.” My research explored the consequences of the ease of this dismissal. Equality is treated as something imposed by management that radical academics (who tend to dis-identify from institutions) can thus ignore. As I explored in an earlier post, feminism itself can be identified with the management/state, as those who are imposing social norms on otherwise free radicals. You can see here how important it is that critiques of how equality can become part of audit culture do not reduce equality to audit culture. I would suggest we need the same level of nuance in response to trigger warnings: if they can become a management technique we should not reduce them to a management technique. The reduction would be a failure to respond to, and be responsible for, other histories of struggle that are at stake in the very arrival of these terms, including struggles around disability.

(iii) One question I hope to explore is whether neoliberalism is now functioning in a similar way to narcissism: as a diagnostics (and dismissal) of the political struggles of feminists, anti-racists and queers as being “just about” identity (rather then structure), as being “all about me,” and as thus causing the demise of the family, community, the left, and so on. I will return to this question in future posts.

(iiii). In The Promise of Happiness (2010), I explored the figure of the easily offended Muslim. The Muslim who is offended is the one who would restrict our freedom of expression. This is how freedom of expression then becomes the freedom to be offensive. These political figures by being charged with bad feeling are doing something: they are enabling some freedoms to become re-assertions of the right to occupy space.

(iiiii). See the section “feminist tables” of this paper for further discussion.

References

Ahmed, Sara (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.

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

Braidotti, Rosi (2006). Transpositions: On Nomadic Ethics. Cambridge: Polity.

Lorde, Audre (1978). Black Unicorn. New Rork: W.W.Norton.

————–(1984) Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. London: Sheba Feminist

Publishers.

Tyler, Imogen (2007). “The Selfish Feminist,” Australian Feminist Studies, 22, 53: 173-190.

Williams, Raymond (1977). Marxism and Literature. Oxford: Oxford Paperbacks.

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Fragility

In following willfulness around I became struck by how often willfulness comes up in scenes of breakage: broken things; broken bodies; broken relationships. When I began to put these scenes of breakage together, I came to appreciate how willfulness is itself a fragile thread that can be stretched only if it is not broken. Perhaps at some points in this work, I over-stretched: I broke the thread.

Snap.

In so many research projects: you end up enacting what you are accounting for.

A fragile thread woven out of fragility. Easily broken.

Fragility: the quality of being easily breakable. Is anything not fragile? What does it mean, what does it do, to break, or to be broken?

A broken jug: one that loses it handle; one that might fly off the handle. A broken jug might be deemed a willful object; when it breaks it can no longer be filled with will. It is not a container of will, a willing container.

Things break; they shatter.

Oops. Add the “s,” quite a mess.

Relationships can break, we know this. Have you ever been with someone, someone who you are trying to love, trying not to give up on, and they say something that you find unbearable? You can hear glass shatter; that point when you realise what you had is something that cannot be reassembled. If you put the pieces back together, you might be left with a memorial, a holder of memories.

When my own parents broke up, a friend of the family came around to talk to my mother, who was the one who had been left. He says “This is what happens when you marry a Muslim.” The words were uttered pointedly, cutting the atmosphere like a knife. Break ups: it happens. Shit happens. But in a mixed relationship, a break becomes what we were heading for, right from the beginning. This is what happens when: as if the “when” leads only to this. For a white woman, an English Christian woman, to marry out, to marry a brown man, a Pakistani Muslim, leads her only to this point, this ending, a relationship that “could only end in tears,” becoming retrospectively, always tearful.  When things are going smoothly, this friend said nothing. When things break, race comes up. We learn making from breaking.

For queers to make things work can be pressure as well as a project. You know that if there is a break up it can fulfil an expectation that such relationships are less lasting, less secure; fragile. There is a kind of queer fatalism at stake here: that to be on a queer path is to hurtle toward a miserable fate; queer as self-shattering. And then if things do shatter (as they do tend to do) you have fulfilled an expectation that “this” is where being queer led you to.

We can note from these examples of queer or mixed intimacies how some relationships are assumed to be inherently broken, as if their fate is to break. And this is difficult: the assumption of fragility can make something fragile; just think of how you can become clumsier when you are trying to be careful not to break what easily breaks. Or think of how if you are already known as the clumsy one, you might become even more afraid of breakage, because you know that if there is a breakage, you will be judged as the one who is behind it. The harder you try the more you seem to slip up. Or think of how leaving the accepted social paths can be to leave behind support systems, those institutional ways of holding, protecting, nurturing. To leave a support system can mean to become more fragile, less protected from the bumps of ordinary life. And though fragility might be a consequence it can be recruited as cause: as if you willfully caused your own damage by leaving the safety of a brightly lit path. No wonder so much queer and feminist invention comes from creating our own support systems.

Becoming the cause of your own damage: we are back to the figure of the feminist killjoy. To give a cause to damage is to contain a mess, to mop up a spillage. The figure of the feminist killjoy is rather like that of the broken jug: she too flies off the handle, an expression used to indicate the suddenness of anger.

Maybe she snaps. She is snappy.

Think of when a twig snaps. We might hear that snap as an origin of a movement, as the beginning of violence, because we don’t notice the pressure on the twig. A feminist understanding of power attends to what I called in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004), “a history of reaction,” a history that tends to be erased, of bodies that are pressed, contorted, reduced, by what they come up against.

 A snap is not a starting point.

She snaps; it shatters.

We can be shattered by what we come up against; we can shatter into a million pieces when we hurl ourselves against those walls, those hardenings of history.

Tiny little pieces.

Bodies break. That too. That is not all that bodies do.

A broken body, not whole. A part of a whole must be whole.

Bones break. That too. Though that is not all that bones do.

Stories of breaking; broken stories.

A story.

Ann Oakley’s Fractured: Adventures of a Broken Body (2007). Oakley in reflecting on her experience of breaking her arm emphasises how it feels not to be able to feel through her limbs. So while the doctors focus on the “the bent fingers, the crooked arm, and the state of [her] scar,” what it important to her is that “a significant part of my right hand remains almost completely without sensation” (2007: 20). She has to learn to treat the arm “like a dependent child” (20). To fracture a body is to become more conscious of the body in a different way or as a different way. Ann Oakley’s memoir reads not only as a personal story of how it feels to inhabit a body that is broken but as an ode to hands. In the chapter, “The Right Hand,” she notes: “Hands perform around a thousand different functions everyday. It is with arms and hands that we feel, dress, perform skills, explore our body, and contact persons and things about us” (46). She shows us how an appreciation of a limb’s capacities when those capacities are lost does not necessarily aim to restore what has been lost. Even if Oakley admits that she still minds the loss of the hand she “had before,” her writing enacts a process of coming to terms with a different body. To recognise what a body is missing can be to adjust the image you have of your own body and thus your perception of the bodies of others: “not many people get to middle-age without various bits missing,” she notes (25). Given bodily integrity is often “a moral as well as physical quality” (25) to accept a body with parts that are missing is to re-orientate our relation to bodies.

Another story.

Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals ([1980]2007). Lorde describes with acute detail how it feels to wake up after a mastectomy, to wake up to the gradual realization through the fog of tranquilizers that her “right breast is gone,” and of the increasing pain in her chest wall: “My breast which was no longer there would hurt as if it were being squeezed in a vise. That was perhaps the worst pain of all, because it would come with a full compliment that I was to be forever reminded of my loss by suffering in a part of me which was no longer there” ([1980] 1997: 37-8).  It is not only that we can suffer an absence but what is absent can suffer. The Cancer Journals also offers an account of the willfulness required not to wear a prosthesis in the place of a missing breast.[i] Once when she goes to the surgery the nurse comments, “You’re not wearing a prosthesis,” to which Lorde replies, “It really doesn’t feel right.” The nurse responds: “You will feel so much better with it on,” and then, “It’s bad for the morale of the office.”(60) Not to wear a prosthesis, not to cover over an absence, is deemed to compromise the happiness of others. Audre Lorde’s response to this demand is not only anger but a call for action: “What would happen if an army of one-breasted women descended on Congress and demanded that the use of carcinogenic, fat-stored hormones in beef-feed be outlawed?” she asks (14-5).

What would happen? What could happen? A queer crip army would be assembled, made out of bodies without parts, perhaps even parts without bodies. Carrie Sandahl, drawing on the work of Robert McRuer, among others, teases out the “affinities and tensions” between crip and queer (1993: 26). Perhaps a queer crip affinity might be possible when you share what you are not missing. A queer crip politics might allow the body deemed not whole to be revealed, a revelation that might be registered as a willful obtrusion into social consciousness (“bad for morale”). A queer crip politics might involve a refusal to cover over what is missing, a refusal to aspire to be whole. What I call the will duty often takes the form of an aspiration: even for bodies that are not able to be whole, they must be willing to aspire to be whole.

There can be nothing more willful than the refusal to be aspirational.

We can refuse to miss what we are deemed to be missing.

We can share a refusal.

Does this mean: we can give ourselves a break? Does this mean: there is a way of relating to breaking that does not aim for restoration? Can the fragments reassemble in or from being shattered?

Shattering: scattering.

What is shattered so often is scattered, strewn all over the place.

A history that is down, heavy, is also messy, strewn.

The fragments: an assembly. In pieces. Becoming army.

References

Ahmed, Sara (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press.

Lorde, Audre [1980] (2007). The Cancer Journals. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Oakley, Ann (2007). Fractured: Adventures of a Broken Body. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Sandahl, Carrie (1993). “Queering the Crip or Cripping the Queer: Intersection of Queer and Crip Identities in Solo Autobiographical Performance.,” GLQ, 9(1–2): 25–56.

[i] Although Audre Lorde is strongly critical of what she calls the “tyranny of prosthesis” she remains sympathetic to the women who chose to wear them, recognizing that “each of us struggles daily with the pressures of conformity and the loneliness of difference from those choices seem to offer escape” ([1980] 2007: 8).

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Hard

Hard. Just one word. It seems to say it. It seems to convey what I have been describing in describing diversity work. In my previous post, “Practical Phenomenology,” I returned to (what might be called) the metaphor of “the brick wall” that I explored at length in my book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. I explored walls at length because the walls were in the data. Diversity workers talked to me about walls. I learnt from diversity workers: from them, with them, as them.

The brick wall is what you come against when you are involved in the practical project of opening worlds to bodies that have historically been excluded from those worlds. An organisation can be a world; a neighbourhood; a street; a home; a nation.

Diversity workers often say: “it is like banging your head against a brick wall.” I believe it is important to describe what this work feels likes. Audre Lorde taught me this: to describe how it feels to come up against a world.  I think from describing what this work feels like, we learn not only about diversity workers but about the worlds we are working to transform. I don’t need the terms “practical phenomenology” to make this argument but that was the argument in the terms.

Diversity work is hard work. This sentence has so many meanings, too many meanings.

Hardness can be a quality of things. In physics, hardness refers to the resistance of materials to change under force.  That’s such a good description of an institutional brick wall: we have to force, become forceful, apply more force, because it is hard.

A wall is hard; it is made of hard matter. The wall is made like this for a reason: it has to keep standing to keep things standing.  Walls are useful borders: they stand up, they keep out; they keep in. A wall is hard: it might be scratched at the surface by encountering an object, say a small hard object, but the object loses from the encounter. The object might splinter and break by the force of what it comes up against. The object might even lose itself. Objection.

Diversity work: scratching at the surface.

An institutional brick wall, I have suggested, is a metaphor. But what does this metaphor mean? For example when I wrote On Being Included, the copy editor suggested I take “tangible” out of my description of walls because the walls I were referring to were metaphorical not literal or actual. The wall is a metaphor she implied (feels like) and was thus not real in the sense of a tangible thing, a thing that is perceptible through touch. But a metaphor (something is like something) of the wall matters precisely to convey how these institutional processes become something that can be touched. A wall is what you come up against. It is a physical contact, a visceral encounter. When I write this, I might not at first be talking of literal walls. A wall is an effect of coming up against. The likeness is the effect. Now we are talking.

And so: what is hard to some does not exist for others.

Some hardness is not then simply a quality of something even when it is experienced as quality, even when we are bruised by an encounter. Hardness is a coming up against things. Maybe it happens: time and time again. Banging your head: we sense that point of this phrase as the sore point of repetition. Hardness has a history. Or hardness is history: history becomes concrete. I come up against a wall if I try and change something that has becoming harder or hardened over time. Literally I mean: a wall as material resistance to being changed by force. The materiality of resistance to transformation: diversity workers know this materiality very well. We live this materiality.

Diversity work puts us in different relation to a world. It is a worldly relation. This is why I think diversity workers are well placed to philosophize about the world, about things, about relations, even if the world does not simply become a thematic, but a problem, a limit. It is a philosophizing that comes out of what we come up against.

The wall: something tangible to some, that can be perceived by touch, by contact, is  not even there for others.  What one body experiences as solid, for another might simply be air. There; nothing there.

How so? How is this so?

The quality of a thing is the quality of a relation.

This is too simple as a formulation, I know, to describe everything, but it describes something.

Think of the East: not just somebody’s east; not just what is east of the prime meridian (a line drawn there by those who were here) but the East. If we were to assume East-ness as a quality of a thing, we would confuse a thing for a relation. That would not elevate a thing but elevate the subjects for whom the thing has these qualities because of their relation to that thing.

The quality of a relation becomes a quality of a thing.

And: this is a killjoy formulation. I learnt this from being a killjoy: so much of what I learn begins with this experience. So: there is a disagreement. Say two parties disagree; they do not affect each other well. They argue, perhaps. And: she becomes disagreeable. That this becomes her quality teaches us how we can receive qualities by those with whom we are in relation. Yes, rather like things. Qualities can stick; they become sticky. Once a quality is sticky, she is stuck with it. She becomes “known” as disagreeable. When she is stuck with it, she is stuck. Once she is stuck, and there is a disagreement, stickiness becomes quickness. She is quickly assumed as the one behind it.

Another way I have put this: there is a social agreement around who is the cause of disagreement. When things are in agreement, they tend to recede from view. To become a cause of disagreement is to block what is assumed as the flow of communication. There she is: the feminist killjoy. In the way, getting in the way. She stands out; she stands apart.

And so: she has a quality of being disagreeable, a quality that becomes hers. She acquires the quality of a relation when the relation is negation. She too becomes hard, we might say. She becomes no, not.  To avoid being the quality of a bad relation (in order not to be a bad relation) she might have to become more agreeable. She might have to soften her character. She might have to become more pliable. I have called this duty “to become agreeable” the happiness duty.

Diversity work is hard. And diversity workers are judged as hard: if we break from the force of what we come against, if we shatter, we have broken ourselves.

Feminism as self-breakage: history enacted as judgement.

If only she had been more yielding! If only, if only!

Feminism: women who are unyielding.

Diversity work is hard work in other senses. To find something hard can be to find something difficult to do. When something is hard, it requires greater effort. Remember my definition of privilege: an energy saving device. Less effort is required for some bodies to stand up. Less effort is required for some bodies to get through. This lessening of effort: a way has been cleared. A way has been cleared to enable a progression. When a way is cleared, you don’t come up against walls. There is not something that gets in the way.

Forward; up. Fast; light.

So they say: they are not there. So they say: you make up walls by bringing up walls. It is not simply a difference of view; it is not simply a different claim to truth. When you bring up walls you are challenging what lightens their load; you are questioning how space is occupied as being for some. You become a threat to the ease of a progression. The walls come up: the materiality of resistance to transformation. So no wonder: they can even turn you into an example of the untruth of what you say. How can there be racism? How can there be sexism? Look at you: look look!

A diversity poster. I am supposed to smile.

I don’t smile.

The walls of perception: how you are assumed to perceive things wrong when you perceive a wrong. We keep bringing it up even when we are accused of making it up.

We have been there before. There is always more.

You keep coming up against it.

Slowed; stopped. Heavy; down.

More effort is required the harder it is. It is a story of depletion. When the wall keeps its place, it is you that gets sore. You keep trying but it is trying.

It is a shattering history; I am shattered by this history. We have to risk being shattered. When it is hard, there is no other way. So we have to find ways to keep going.

Diversity work requires world making; finding spaces to withdraw into, places that are less hard to inhabit. Fragments, those pieces that have shattered: we find each other. We find those who have been shattered; who recognise what we are up against. What and even who. This is hard, but who too.

We become inventive: to survive what we have come to know. And we have come to know.

We know from what we come up against even if we have only scratched the surface.

 

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