Sometimes when I write about feminist killjoys, it might sound as if I am calling for her. It might sound as if for me her arrival is always a moment of political hope. That’s not always how it feels, even if, for me, her failure to disappear is hopeful. Sometimes, when she appears on the horizon of our consciousness, it can be a moment of despair. You don’t always want her to appear even when you see yourself in her appearance. You might say to her: not here, not now! When she arrives it can be a crisis: a situation that demands a decision. Do you let her speak? Do you bring to the surface a disagreement? Are you willing the consequences of that disagreement?
A killjoy can be a crisis even for the one who has willingly accepted this assignment. Just because you have claimed her, it does not mean you are always ready or willing for her to appear.
You might not want to hear something as problematic because you do want to hear someone as being problematic.
You might be feeling warm. It is a warm situation. You might be laughing, gathering through laughter.
You are with, and you can feel that with. A with can be the warmest thing.
A crisis can be experienced as the potential loss of with. The potential for things to shatter can be shattering.
Say: you might laugh at a joke, laugh even before you hear it. Then you hear it, and the words in becoming clear register as obtrusive. Sharp. Your effort not to be offended is how you are offended.
And: you might feel annoyed at yourself. Don’t have a problem, you might say to yourself. Even though you “know” the problem of how exposing a problem is posing a problem, you would still experience exposing a problem as posing a problem for yourself.
You might think, you might feel: I can’t afford to be her right now. You might think, you might feel: she would cost me too much right now. I would lose this with.
Even though you think of costs as a future, you have already gone cold. A cold can get right to the bone.
When you have been a feminist killjoy, when she has been part of your embodied history, she can still appear willful to you, insisting on coming up, whenever something comes up. She can be tiring! You might experience her apparent exteriority as the alarming potentiality of interiority; of becoming her, of her becoming you.
A feminist politics of fragility might be based not only on how to survive what we come against but how to enable relationships to endure that can easily be threatened by what we come up against.
I have shared this quote from Audre Lorde before: “in order to withstand the weather we had to become stone.” Becoming stone: it is a requirement to harden in order to survive the weather, the relentless pounding on the surface of the body. But she was also saying here something even more challenging. That by becoming stone, by making ourselves into harder matter, matter that will less easily shatter, we might harden ourselves from each other; we might in becoming less soft, be less able to receive each other’s impression. We have to struggle not to let ourselves become too hard; we have to struggle to stay open enough to receive the warmth of an impression. I think this is how kindness, finding ways to be kind to each other, a kindness that is not premised on being one of a kind, a premise which would function as a restriction of kindness, becomes part of a feminist life.
But we also know from what we come against: that the one who is offended is often judged as the one who is unkind.
One of the hardest things about coming up against walls is that it can threaten some of our most fragile and precious, our best, our warmest, connections. As I write this I just feel so sad, so very very sad.
And this too is one of the risks of anger. There is so much to be against, we know this. But how easily anger can spill, can spill at those who happen to be nearby, who are the closest to us. How easily in being against something we can risk those who are with us, who are for us, who we are with and for; we can risk them because they are before us. Our anger when generalised against the injustice of the world, can become directed toward those who happen to be nearest, which is often those who are dearest. The costs of struggling against injustices can be personal, indeed they are often personal: we can lose those who matter. We can get it wrong; we can be too sharp, we can regret having said something because of the consequences of saying something were regrettable. Of course sometimes not: sometimes even when the consequences of saying something are regrettable we cannot regret saying something, because not saying something would have been even more regrettable. There is time in these “sometimes.” Perhaps being a feminist killjoy is all about timing.
I have always resisted the idea that feminist killjoys mature, grow by growing up, and that maturity is about becoming less volatile. Maturity is without question the wrong term for my attempt to think through timing. The idea that maturing is to mature out of being a feminist killjoy assumes or hopes that feminism itself, or at least being that kind of feminist, the wrong kind, the one who always insists on making feminist points, the one who is angry, confrontational is just a phase you are going through.
If a feminist killjoy is a phase, I willingly aspire to be a phase.
The idea that you mature out of being a feminist killjoy, that in growing up you unbecome her, also implies a linear development and progression: as if being unaffected or less bothered is the point you should reach; what you should aim to reach. It associates maturity with giving up not necessarily conviction as such, but the willingness to speak from that conviction.
But a feminist life is not always so linear. After all, some become angrier and more volatile in time. We don’t always become feminist killjoys early on; she can catch up with you at any time. Yes: this is hopeful.
Once you are a feminist killjoy, however, I think the only option is to become more of a feminist killjoy. Becoming more of a killjoy is not about being more or less willing to speak your opposition. If anything in having more experiences of “killjoying,” you have more of a sense of how wearing it can be; and you learn from this experience of not getting through. Because you are becoming more of a feminist killjoy you might become warier of the consequences of being oppositional, a consequence, after all, can be what we share with others. You become wary of being worn. You know the energy it involves: you know that some battles are not worth your energy, because you just keep coming up against the same thing. At the same time, or maybe at another time, you also know that you can’t always choose your battles; battles can choose you. Sometimes the things you come to know seem to feel like another wall, another way of signalling that you have few places to go.
Saying something, not saying something. Your mouth an open question.
From my own experience of being a feminist killjoy over time, you do come to have more of a sense of time: when someone says something, you might be less quick to react. You give yourself time. Sometimes, now, you don’t get wound up, even when someone is winding you up. There are still some things if said, would get through any of my defences. There are some things I always want to react to too quickly as I don’t need time to react. A reaction can even be what is not quick enough. Sometimes. Other times, slowing down is what allows you to preserve your energy. You might still say something. Or you might not. You sense sometimes that there would be a better way of directing your time and your energy. So I am not saying that taking time means that your response is better. It is just to say that sometimes, just sometimes, you have more room for a response; you have learnt to give yourself more room.
In my work I reflected on how willfulness can be actively claimed as part of a feminist inheritance. But thinking through our own feminist fragility, how we can become fragile through feminism because of what we do not overlook helps us to complicate that claiming: not to negate it, just to complicate it. There can be risks to becoming oppositional; to having a sense of oneself as always struggling against something. If you are used to having to struggle to exist, if you become used to having others oppose your existence, if you are used even to being thought of as oppositional, those experiences are directive. You can enact an expectation even in the struggle not to fulfil it. You can even become somewhat oddly invested in the continuation of what you are up against. This is not to say you “really” want what opposes you (although there is wanting at stake here: you want to oppose what you don’t want). It is to say that if you spend time and energy in opposing something, an opposition can become part of you.
I have experienced myself a sense of how possibilities can be closed down if I assume in advance an oppositional stance. You can get so used to struggling against something, that you expect anything that comes up will be something to be against. It can be tiring being against whatever comes up, even if hearing a wrong ends up being right. And it is possible, of course, in expecting to hear wrongs not to hear them, because if you do hear them, they fulfil an expectation, becoming a confirmation of what you already know. We can stop hearing, when we think we know. I suspect we all do this: hear with expectation, listen for confirmation, whether or not we think of ourselves as feminist killjoys or willful subjects; this is ordinary stuff.
And yet, we might in assuming our own oppositionality be protecting ourselves. We might not notice our own agreements, if they are histories that are still. This is why the figure of the killjoy is not a figure we can assume we always somehow are: even if we recognise ourselves in that figure, even when she is so compelling, even when we are energized by her. We might in assuming we are the killjoys, not notice how others become killjoys to us, getting in the way of our own happiness, becoming obstacles to a future we are reaching for. So for example some feminists have made use of what I call the “willfulness charge” to create an impression, that of being lonely radical feminist voices struggling against the tide of social opinion. They have used this impression of “having to struggle against” to articulate a position against transsexual people, who have to struggle to exist, an everyday life struggle that is also a political struggle, often articulated so vehemently that their speech could only be described as hate speech. When you assume your own oppositionality too quickly, you can inflate a minority into a majority, hear an injury as a lobby, interpret a fight for survival as the formation of an industry.
I will not even begin to articulate what I feel about this perversion of feminist hopes. But I am reading transfeminists, including the fantastic blogs by Aoife Emily Hart and Lisa Millbank, and hoping to learn how to assemble some feelings into thoughts.
A “with” can be worth fighting for. A “with” we fight for might be more fragile, and all the more precious for that very reason: a fragile with, a “with” we recognise as breakable, is also a “with” that is more open to others, those who might be shattered. A “with” might be how we survive being shattered. When we recognise a “with” as before, we can change what it means to be for.
And because we need to learn from feminist histories:
Activism might need us to lose confidence in ourselves, letting ourselves recognise how we too can be the problem. And that is hard if we have a lifetime of being the problem.
Perhaps we need to keep our attachment to the killjoy, yes we can hold onto her, we need to hold on even harder when we are asked to give her up, but we can also allow her to be, and to stay, in crisis.
There can be kindness in that, just in that.