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.


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!


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 ( 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):


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.


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


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.”


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.


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.


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


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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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.


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.


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 the 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. 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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Practical Phenomenology

In the conclusion to On Being Included, I offered a way of thinking about diversity work as a phenomenological practice. It is an idea I will come back to in Living a Feminist Life (though I will probably use different terms, because I do not want my terms to point so quickly back to a philosophical tradition). In talking about phenomenological practice, I was indebted to the many feminists who have used phenomenology as a resource to make sense of the lived bodily experiences of those who are not at home, especially Iris Marion Young (2005).

What do I mean by phenomenological practice? Edmund Husserl in his “The Vienna lecture” presented in 1935, and published in the appendix of The Crisis of European Sciences and Transcendental Phenomenology offers an important redescription of the phenomenological method. In this lecture Husserl suggests that phenomenology has its roots in classical Greek philosophy as theōria or theoretical attitude. A theoretical attitude is a reorientation of a previous attitude, defined as “a habitually fixed style of willing life comprising directions of will or interests that are prescribed by this style” (1970: 280).  An attitude is thus not simply a reflection on the world, but is worldly: an attitude could even be thought of as institutionality, in which a norm is also prescribed as a style of life. A norm is how we are immersed in a life. For Husserl phenomenology is defined as reorientation: “the theoretical attitude, in its newness, refers back to a previous attitude, one which was earlier the norm: [with reference to this] it is characterized as a reorientation” (280, emphasis mine). The phenomenological attitude in reflecting upon the previous attitudes is thus a new style, a theoretical attitude is new in relation to what already exists because in reflecting on what exists, it withdraws from an immersion, such that an existence is transformed. In this new attitude the world becomes thematic, as what consciousness is directed toward. Husserl argues very explicitly that such a new attitude is a theoretical one:  it must, at least in the first instance, be “totally unpractical” (282).[i]

Talking about a practical phenomenology is thus (again in the first instance) a reorientation of Husserl’s reorientation. I have been thinking back to when I stumbled on this idea of phenomenological practice. In 2010, I attended a phenomenology conference that I really enjoyed (if it is not obvious, I love phenomenology, especially Husserl’s work). In our conversations, something became very apparent to me.  It was not something I had encountered in the other intellectual worlds I inhabit: Women’s and Gender Studies, Sexuality Studies, and Race and Ethnicity Studies. That “something” was a political as well as intellectual confidence in philosophy, which became translated into an idea of what we should become.  There was a sense that: the moral and political imperative should be for us to become philosophical (as an attitude and not as an institution), and that to “become philosophical” would be a sign of an overcoming of the problems that exist because of our failure to be conscious of them. The becoming philosophical of the world, in other words, becomes a political vision.

It is not that I reject this confidence in becoming reflective or reflexive. I found it and still find it very compelling and engaging, and I learn from it. But I just don’t feel confident! It is a bit like not being confident about being confident: I just keep hesitating.

One reason for this hesitation might be how such confidence in reflexivity is deployed in critical whiteness studies. Critical whiteness studies seems to rest on a confidence in reflection: by marking the unmarked, whiteness, it brings to the foreground what would otherwise remain in the background. But I think that social norms that tend to shape social forms and to disappear for those who have the right shape, cannot be simply brought into view by thinking about them or by reflecting upon them. To put this more strongly: when reflexivity becomes an ego ideal, it can bring certain kind of subjects to the foreground who catch themselves in their reflection on a  world as much as a world. Reflective whiteness might thus be no less occupying than unreflective whiteness.

Talking about diversity work as a practical phenomenology was a way of moving from this model of theoretical reflection. Before I move on let me explain that I am using diversity work in two senses. Firstly, diversity work can refer to work that has the explicit aim of transforming an institution; and secondly, diversity work can be what is required, or what we do, when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution. These two senses often meet in a body: those who do not quite inhabit the norms of the institution are often those given the task of transforming those norms.

Let me start with the first sense. By talking about diversity work as a practical phenomenology,  I wanted to show how diversity work does not simply generate knowledge about institutions (in which the institution becomes a thematic), but generates knowledge of institutions in the very process of attempting to transform them. We could also think of diversity as a form of praxis in a way that draws on a Marxist understanding of the point of intellectual labour: as Marx argued in Thesis on Feuerbach “philosophers have only interpreted the world differently but the point is to change it” ([1845] 2009: 97, my emphasis). Indeed, drawing on this radical tradition, Paul Freire defines praxis as “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it” ([1970] 2000: 51, my emphasis).[ii] I But rather than suggesting knowledge leads (or should lead) to transformation, I offered a reversal that in my view preserves the point or aim of the argument: transformation, as a form of practical labour, leads to knowledge.

The very labour of transforming institutions, or at least aiming for transformation, is how we learn about institutions as formations.  It is not simply that diversity workers are philosophers- in the sense of being reflexive- in their attitude toward institutions (though they can be). It is not simply that they become conscious of what recedes from view. Rather diversity workers acquire a critical orientation to institutions in the very process of coming up against them. They become conscious of “the brick wall,” as that which keeps its place even when an official commitment to diversity has been given. It is only the practical labour of “coming up against” the institution that allows this wall to become apparent.

Diversity workers thus generate knowledge not only of what institutions are like, but how they can reproduce themselves, how they become like, and keep becoming alike. We come up against the force and weight of something when we attempt to alter the conditions of an existence. But we can also “come up against” something in our experience of an existence. Doing diversity work is institutional work, in the sense that it is an experience of encountering resistance and countering that resistance. Each new strategy or tactic for getting through the wall generates knowledge of what does or does not get across. Perhaps diversity workers aim to transform the wall into a table, turning the tangible object of institutional resistance into a tangible platform for institutional action.  Thinking of diversity work in this way allows us to understand how speaking in the happier languages of diversity does not necessarily mean an identification with the institution, but can be understood as a form of practical knowledge of the difficulty of getting through.

I want to share one of the examples from chapter 4 of On Being Included. It is a good example of an encounter with an institutional wall.

When I was first here there was a policy that you had to have three people on every panel who had been diversity trained. But then there was a decision early on when I was here, that it should be everybody, all panel members, at least internal people. They took that decision at the equality and diversity committee which several members of SMT were present at. But then the director of Human Resources found out about it and decided we didn’t have the resources to support it, and it went to council with that taken out and council were told that they were happy to have just three members, only a person on council who was an external member of the diversity committee went ballistic – and I am not kidding went ballistic – and said the minutes didn’t reflect what  had happened in the meeting because the minutes said the decision was different to what actually happened (and I didn’t take the minutes by the way). And so they had to take it through and reverse it. And the Council decision was that all people should be trained. And despite that I have then sat in meetings where they have just continued saying that it has to be just 3 people on the panel. And I said but no Council changed their view and I can give you the minutes and they just look at me as if I am saying something really stupid, this went on for ages, even though the Council minutes definitely said all panel members should be trained. And to be honest sometimes you just give up. (Ahmed 2002: 124-125).

It seems as if there is an institutional decision. Individuals within the institution must act as if the decision has been made for it to be made. If they do not, it has not. A decision made in present about the future (under the promissory sign “we will”) can be overridden by the momentum of the past.  A decision does not need to be made for the action to be completed and a decision cannot easily intervene in its completion. In this case, the head of personnel did not need to take the decision out of the minutes for the decision not to bring something into effect. Perhaps an institution can say “yes” when there is not enough behind that “yes” for something to be brought about.  An institutional wall is when a will, “a yes,” does not bring something about, “a yes” that conceals this “not bringing” under the sign of “having brought.”  Again it is the practical effort to bring about a change, that allows the wall to be apparent. To those who do not come against it, the wall does not appear: the institution is experienced as “yes” as open, committed and diverse.

To understand what is going on here, we might need a different model of the relationship between habit and will. So: we might assume an institutional will is necessary to bring something about.  When used in this way, an institutional will would be required to break an institutional habit.  I want to suggest an institutional habit could be understood as a continuation of will. Hegel suggests that human beings “stand upright” is an act of will that has been converted into habit: “a human being stands upright has become a habit through his own will” (2007: 156-157). A habit is thus a “continuation” of willing: “it is a continuous will that I stand but I no longer need to will standing as such.” (157). A habit is a continuation of willing what no longer needs to be willed.  This is an important way of reframing what we denote by habit as well as by will: a habit is not empty of intent or purpose; a will does not require an individual act of volition. An institutional will is what is continued precisely because it does not need to be willed. The wall is an institutional “no” that does not need to become the subject of an utterance; indeed you come up against the wall when a “yes” does not bring something about. Using Hegel’s terms, a wall could be described as an “institutional standing.” There is “a continuous will that [it] stand but [it] no longer need[s] to will standing” as such.

The wall: that which keeps standing. By talking to diversity workers I began to appreciate how the institution is a plumbing system: you have to work out where the blockage is, what prevents something from moving through the system. In this example, what stopped something from happening could have been the removal of the policy from the minutes; it could have been the failure to notice this removal; but it wasn’t. It was the way in which those within the institution acted as if this policy had not passed. We need to understand these social mechanisms; a practical phenomenology makes the impasse or the blockage the occasion for more thought. So for instance, we learn that the passing of something, the appearance of an agreement, can be how something is stopped.

And of course if we think of diversity work in the second sense (not quite inhabiting the norms of the institution), we can note the significance of “practical phenomenology,” as a kind of life-work. I have described social norms as rather like institutional brick walls:  you do not tend to notice them, unless you come up against them. Coming up against here can mean: being stopped, being held up, being made to feel you don’t belong or are stupid, being asked questions, or “being in question,” as I discussed in this earlier post.

Those who don’t come up against walls, might experience those who talk about walls as wall makers. And: we are back to the feminist killjoy. It is never long before she makes an appearance! The wall maker is someone who in exposing a problem creates a problem. Just recall the words of the diversity practitioner: “they just look at me as if I am saying something really stupid.” We can imagine the eyes rolling when she points out the policy, when she tries to say, to show, she has institutional support. How many times walls come up, we might call these walls “the walls of perception,” when we talk about walls! If anything, you become identified as the one who is blocked. A wall comes up in this reframing of walls as immaterial, as phantoms, as how we stop ourselves from being included.

I can hear voices saying: but isn’t the brick wall a metaphor? It is not that there “really” is a wall; it is not an actual wall. In some senses, this is right. The wall is a wall that might as well be there, because the effects of what is there are just like the effects of a wall. And yet not: if an actual wall was there, we would all be able to apprehend it. And it is this that makes the institutional brick wall so hard. You come up against what others do not see and (even harder) you come up against what others are often invested in not seeing.

To think about materiality through institutional brick walls is to offer a different way of thinking the connection between bodies and worlds. Materiality is about the real; it is something real that blocks movement, or that stops a progression. But this something is not always something that can be apprehended. It might be an arrangement of things, a social as well as physical arrangement, that stops something from happening or a body passing through. It might be the force of momentum that carries something forward, that picks up more and more things, so that more and more weight is acquired, so that things tend “that way,” bodies lean “that way,” almost independently of individual will. [You might the proximity between this description and how I account for sexism in citational practice: another institutional brick wall!]

This means that: what is real, what is in concrete terms the hardest, is not always available as an object that can be perceived (from some viewing points), or an object that can touched (even by those who are seated at the same table).

What is most material to some might not even exist for others.[iii] 

How quickly: history becomes concrete. When we think of concrete we might think of the cement used to build walls. But concrete has an older sense: deriving from Latin concretus “condensed, hardened, thick, hard, stiff, curdled, congealed, clotted,” figuratively “thick; dim,” literally “grown together.”  In Willful Subjects I describe the wall as will in concrete form to suggest that what has been willed can become hard or condensed; becoming part of the materiality of an institution. But this hardness is not perceived when an individual is in alignment with the institution (a willing alignment, an alignment of wills). What is experienced instead is something lighter; a flow. We can summarise this point as: things are fluid if you are going the way things are flowing.

Many of the recent arguments against intersectionality, identity politics etc. (this is not my etc, this is not my “sticking together” of words as a way of sticking together certain bodies, but one I have encountered in some recent writings by some Marxist writers, and by some I mean some) as being somehow less material than class are thus an enactment of privilege, the alignment of body to world. Race might seem immaterial or less material, if you are white; gender might seem immaterial or less material if you are a man, sexuality might seem immaterial or less material if you are straight; (dis)ability might seem immaterial or less material if you are able-bodied, and so on. Class too can be understood in these terms: class might seem to be immaterial or less material if you have benefited from class privilege, those networks, buffer zones; those ways a body is already “somehow” attuned to a bourgeois set of requirements.

The experience of things being lighter is a social as well as affective relation to things.  Perhaps things seem lighter when you are higher or above. The sense of being above can be related to what I have called “overing,” the argument that we should stop using social categories because they refer to histories that would otherwise be over. Social categories might be understood as reifications from the point of view of those who do not have to notice how blockages are distributed because they are not themselves blocked by that distribution.  Coming up against walls (say, you are brown, stop!) teaches us that social categories that pre-exist an encounter, that decide how a body appears, are where things get real (that this is not the only where, does not mean this is not where). And so: the emphasis on local encounters, molecular becomings, things that happen to happen (I love hap but to affirm the hap we have to understand the mechanisms of its elimination!), and indeed on fluidity and flows, might be an emphasis that makes sense from a body attuned to a world. To describe the world from the point of the body that is not attuned is to offer a different account of the world. [iiii]

We tend to notice what blocks movement, we often do not notice what eases our progression. We are too busy progressing. We are going because we are flowing. We can of course learn over time to notice what eases a progression. I think a better way of doing this noticing is not to become more philosophical, which I don’t think tends to bring some things into view. It is instead to become involved in diversity work in the first sense: to become involved in the practical work of transforming the world so it can accommodate different bodies. Perhaps then walls can be tables, what enables solidarity with difference, across difference. But how we do this work, does matter: to come to the diversity table, might require a willingness to be unseated.

[i]I indicate “in the first instance” as Husserl argues for an eventual synthesis between theoretical and practical, such that the former can be called upon “to serve….mankind in a new way, mankind which, in its concrete existence, lives first and always in the natural sphere” (1970: 283).

[ii]Freire draws on Husserl in developing his model of praxis: “That which had existed objectively had not been perceived in its deeper implications (if indeed it was perceived at all) begins to ‘stand out,’ assuming the character of a problem.” (2000: 83). Freire’s pedagogy could thus be described as a “practical phenomenology.”

[iii] Recently on facebook a philosopher said of my own work that it is “not materialist” because it is “just about lived experiences of the body.” This is a familiar to women of colour: when we give accounts, we are often assumed to be talking just about ourselves, always lodged in our own particulars. My account here of institutional brick walls also gives us the resources to challenge this kind of position.

[iiii]Some of the most important work doing this work of re-description is happening in critical disability studies. Take, for example, Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s work on “misfitting.” As she writes: “A misfit occurs when the environment does not sustain the shape and function of the body that enters it. The dynamism between body and world that produces fits or misfits comes at the spatial and temporal points of encounter between dynamic but relatively stable bodies and environments. The built and arranged space through which we navigate our lives tends to offer fits to majority bodies and create misfits with minority forms of embodiment, such as people with disabilities” (2014, np). It is the experience of miss fitting that might allow us to re-think how spaces are built to accommodate some bodies as well as to re-build those spaces to accommodate others.


Freire, Paulo [1970]  (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed trans. Myra Bergman Ramos. Continuum Publishing: New York.

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

Hegel, G.W.F. (1861).[1837]  Lectures on the Philosophy of History. Trans. J. Sibree.  London: Henry G. Bohn.

Husserl, Edmund  [1936/54] (1970). The Crisis of the European Sciences and Transcendental   Phenomenology: An  Introduction to Phenomenological Philosophy, trans. David  Carr, Evanston: Northwestern University Press.

Marx, Karl [1845] (2009). Theses on Feuerbach, trans. Austin Lewis. Ellicott City, MD: Mondial Press.

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


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Between Parts

My project on willfulness ended up being a project about parts. I didn’t start with them: they just kept coming up! Willful Subjects is full of them and the promise as well as terror of their agency.

How did this happen? I became interested in how the general will is imagined as a whole body, and the particular will, a body part. We now tend to associate the idea of the general will with the work of Rousseau. But as Patrick Riley (1988) has shown the general will has a long history, and is transformed over time from a religious to a secular idea. I draw on the work of the seventeenth century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal. In Pensées, Pascal associates the particular will with self-will. The will is a kind of tendency to tend toward oneself. As he puts it: “all tends to itself. This is contrary to all order” ([1669] 2003: 132). Pascal argues that the will should tend toward the general, that is, it should acquire a general tendency, which is not the natural tendency of will. Let’s consider the “part” in the particular. A particular will is the will of a part. Pascal attributes danger to the willing part in the following way:

Let us imagine a body full of thinking members…. If the foot and the hands had a will of their own, they could only be in their order in submitting their particular will to the primary will which governs the whole body. Apart from that, they are in disorder and mischief; but in willing only the good of the body, they accomplish their own good ([1669] 2003: 132,).

If a part is to have a will of its own, then it must will what the whole of the body wills. The body part that does not submit is the willful part. It is no good; it is up to no good.

The willful part is that which threatens the reproduction of an order. As Pascal further describes: “If the foot had always been ignorant that it belonged to the body, and that there was a body on which it depended, if it had only the knowledge and the love of self, what regret, what shame for its past life, for having been useless to the body that inspired its life…! What prayers for its preservation in it! For every member must be worthy to perish for the body, for which alone the whole is” (132). To be a thinking member of a body thus requires you remember you are part of a body. Willfulness thus refers to the part that in willing has forgotten it is just a part. The consequences of such forgetting are shame; the part that is ignorant of its status as part compromises the preservation of the whole.

Implicit in the drama of Pascal’s description is how the will binds memory and utility: the part in willing only the goal of the whole body must remember that body by becoming useful to that body (you can see how my research on will and willfulness led me to a project on “the uses of use”!). Explicit to his model is the intimacy of general will and what we can call general happiness. Pascal notes: “To make the members happy, they must have one will, and submit it to the body” (133). If having one shared will is deemed necessary for the happiness of each member, then failure to submit to this will compromises the happiness of the whole body. Unhappiness and willfulness embody here the same sort of threat to the “whole body.” Or to be more precise: willfulness becomes the cause of the unhappiness caused.

One could learn so much from Pascal’s mischievous foot. We might even say: his feet become rebels when they are not willing to walk or to work. The rebel is the one who compromises the whole, that is, the body of which she is a part. When we think of this “whole body” we might tend to think of “the organic body,” but we also think of how the social is imagined as like a body, as a sum of its parts. The idea of the social body has a long history. As Mary Poovey notes in her book, Making a Social Body, this idea is “historically related” to the classical metaphor of the body politic (1995: 7). She suggests that “the social body” acquired significance as a more inclusive metaphor than that of the body politic, as it gave a part to the labouring poor who had previously been excluded, who were deemed “not part” because they would compromise the health of the body. Poovey concludes: “the phrase social body therefore promised full membership in a whole (and held out the image of that whole) to a part identified as needing both discipline and care” (8, emphases in original). To be a part is to be the one who receives a promise: the promise of membership.

If to be a part is to be the recipient of a promise, then to become part is to acquire a duty, what I call in the book “a will duty.”  A willing part would be for what it is assumed as for. To become part is to inherit this prescription; it is to acquire a function. The feet must be willing to walk. The arms must be willing to carry.

Willfulness as a diagnosis could be a historical record of moments in which some parts fail their duty to carry and support to the whole body.  Arguably all parts of the whole would be diagnosed as willful if they are not willing to provide this support. But we learn that some parts who are willing “the good” of the whole body escape the diagnosis.  Remember Pascal: “they accomplish their own good.” This is how some parts in accomplishing their own good might be diagnosed as not only willful but also selfish (as willing away from others); whilst others who are also accomplishing their own good might be diagnosed not only as not willful or selfish, but even as will-less or self-less (as willing for others). The point of this difference is how the general in expressing the will of some parts allows the will of those parts to appear as general rather than particular.

If the will of some parts is accomplished by the general will, then those parts acquire a freedom not to be supportive. This is how the distinction between willing and willful parts – between those whose will is accomplished by the general and those whose will is not – functions as a moral as well as discursive frame.

Let’s take two contrasting examples. In the current landscape of cuts to public spending or austerity a much repeated speech act is that we must all “tighten our belts.” Of course the ones who make the command are probably not themselves tightening their belts. But those who resist the command, who call into question the right of or in the command, are deemed as self-willed, or even as selfish, as putting themselves (or perhaps even their own stomachs) over and above the general interest, as compromising the very capacity of the nation to survive, or flourish.  We might assume that in the current financial climate, the bankers would be judged as willful, as putting themselves (and their own stomachs) before the general interest.  But even if this judgment is made (by some, certainly not by all) that judgment is rarely expressed in action: after all, the bankers have kept their bonuses. Why can ask why even if we know why. Capitalism is understood as “the whole body,” as what parts must be willing to reproduce. And capital is identified as the life-blood of this body: as what must be kept in circulation no matter what (or who), as if without capital or blood being pumped through, the whole body would not flourish. The function of the banks as willing parts (as accomplishing in their “own good” the good of the whole body) is what stops any judgment of willfulness from being followed through. Perhaps the judgment is the follow through.

The part/whole distinction thus becomes a willing distinction: not simply a distinction between the part and whole, but between parts, between those who are willing and those who are not. This is why we cannot have a general logic of the part.

Understanding the part/whole distinction allows us to recognise not only how the will becomes duty, but how the duty becomes a particular as well as general duty. Given the social is imagined as a body with parts, some bodies more than others will be thought of as the limbs of the social body.  To become a limb of the social body is to acquire a duty to provide it with support.

Henri Bergson in “Frenzy, Mechanism and Mysticism” reflects on the relationship between bodily organs and technology: “If our organs are natural instruments, our instruments must be artificial organs: the workman’s tool is a continuation of his arm, the tool-equipment of humanity is therefore a continuation of its body” ([1932] 2002: 339, emphasis added). If the arm is continued by a tool, the arm is also a working tool. If the tool continues the arm, the tool is also a living arm. The worker can diminished by this continuation, which might how the specific story of the workman does not simply fold back into a general story of the human. Or the story of the workman’s arm might be another way of telling the story of the human. Arlie Hochschild describes how: “The factory boy’s arm functioned like a piece of machinery used to produce wallpaper. His employer, regarded that arm as an instrument, claimed control over its speed and motions. In this situation, what was the relation between the boy’s arm and his mind? Was his arm in any meaningful sense his own?” ([1983] 2003: 7, emphasis in original). We need to tell these (unfinished) histories of lost arms, of how workers lose their arms, as the loss of a relation of ownness, when arms become tools in the creation of wealth. The loss of the worker’s arms in becoming tool is also the acquisition of arms by others.

When some bodies provide the “whole social body” with arms, other bodies are freed from the necessity of this becoming.  The freedom not to be supportive is the freedom not to become the arms: by employing others to be the arms. We can consider how a wide range of power relations can be understood in terms of some becoming the limbs to support others. We can simplify this formulation: some bodies become supporting limbs. The “servant class” could be one way of thinking how some individuals become the “hands” that exist only to support others. The female servant is a handmaid. Bruce Robbins shows how servants as represented as and through hands in nineteenth century British fiction as “parts without a whole” (1993: ix-x).  Perhaps the hand is cut off from the worker’s body in order to be given to the body of the aristocrat. Robbins cites William Hazlitt’s essay, “Footman” from 1830, written from the point of view of the gentleman with the aim of satirizing that viewpoint: “what would be the good of having a will of our own, if we had not others about us who are deprived of a will of their own, and wear a badge to say ‘I serve’” (17). The aristocratic class rule through the will: an exercising of will that take the form of the deprivation of others of a will of their own, treating others as servers, in the case of handmaids, as hands, in the case of footmen, as feet. An unwilling servant would be “impertinent,” a word that now implies “rudely bold” but derives from the Latin for “unconnected” or “unrelated.” An unwilling servant would but a part that is not related to a whole, as the one who is unwilling to subordinate her or his will to the will of the whole.

It is an impertinent history, this history of willfulness. A willful part might be the part that has stopped working. No wonder: willfulness is striking.

So many histories are at stake in this differentiation between willing and unwilling or willful parts!

We could think also of citizenship in these precise terms: citizenship as becoming part. Of course in multicultural liberal secularism, a diversity of individual parts is permitted. A diversity of individual parts might even be encouraged but on condition that each part is willing to participate in national culture, where participation requires an agreement with a common end or purpose (see here for a reflection on conditional will). We learn the requirements of participation from those whose particulars fail to meet them. Think of how “the veil” has acquired a willfulness charge. The veil becomes a willful part, a part that refuses to take part in national culture; a stubborn attachment to an inassimilable difference.

The creation of a distinction between willing and willful parts is thus a crucial mechanism for reproducing the national body. My account here develops the argument I first offered in Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (2000). I suggested that the key differentiation is not between us and them, but between them, between those that differences that can be assimilated into the national body and those that cannot.  Some become what I called in this book “stranger strangers.” Another way of saying this: some differences become indigestible, what the nation cannot stomach.

Anti-immigration discourse thus exercises the figure of the unwilling migrant, or more specifically the migrant who is “unwilling to integrate.” To be unwilling to integrate is to be “too willing” to retain an allegiance to another body. Citizenship comes to presented what must be forced upon an unwilling and thus willful migrant. A much repeated mantra in the UK is for example that “migrants must learn to speak English. This mantra needs to be heard as such: in fact many of the English language courses are over-subscribed (with long waiting lists). The figure of the unwilling migrant participates in the transformation of citizenship into a requirement, such that the nation is “forced to force” the migrant to become willing.

So many histories at stake in the differentiation between parts! The requirement to become part is a requirement to be willing, to counter the willfulness charge.

A willful part can also be a queer part: a part that is too full of will, a part whose impulses and desires lead it astray. Perhaps willful parts queer the whole body. Decadence has been understood in terms of the pulsation of willful parts. One definition of decadence offered by the French writer Bourget and drawn on by Havelock Ellis is as follows: “If the energy of cells becomes independent, the lesser organism will likewise cease to subordinate their energy to the total energy and the anarchy which is established constitutes the decadence of the whole” (cited in Ellis 1932: 52). As Havelock Ellis elaborates a decadent style would be when “everything is sacrificed to the development of individual parts” (1932: 52). A social body becomes queer, becomes decadent, when the parts have “too much will,” compromising everything: the reproduction of the whole.

Do we notice this “too much” because of what we do not notice? Parts appear as full of will when they don’t support the reproduction of a whole. They are too expressive because of what they do not express. No wonder that the self-regard of heterosexuality can be concealed under the sign of the general will, because this particular will has already been given expression in the general will.  Giving up a will that does not have a general expression is what allows you to inhabit the familiar, or to recede into the background. When willing “agrees” with what is generally willed, a part becomes part of a background. When willing does not agree, the will of the part is too full: willful. Willfulness might “come up” when an act of willing does not agree with what has receded. A queer phenomenology teaches us what or who recedes in the generalization of will.

And I have no doubt that: willful parts will keep coming up.


Bergson, Henri (2002). [1932] “Frenzy, Mechanism and Mysticism” in John Mullarkey (ed).  Bergson’s Key Writings.  Continuum: London. 295-344.

Ellis, Havelock (1932). Views and Reviews. London: Desmond Harmsworth.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. (2003) [1983]. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pascal, Blaise. (2003) [1669] Pensées. Trans. W.F.Trotter. New York Dover Publications.

Poovey, Mary (1995). Making a social body: British cultural formation, 1830- 1864. University of Chicago Press.

Riley, Patrick (1988). The General Will Before Rousseau: The Transformation of the Divine into the Civic. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Robbins, Bruce (1993). The Servant’s Hand: English Fiction from Below. Durham: Duke University Press.

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