Wiggle Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that: is hopeful.


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

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

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

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

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

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Atmospheric Walls

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


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

Do we always pick up feelings in quite this way? Consider the opening sentence of Teresa Brennan’s book, The Transmission of Affect: “Is there anyone who has not, at least once, walked into a room and ‘felt the atmosphere’” (2004: 1). Brennan writes very beautifully about how the atmosphere “gets into the individual” using what I have called an “outside in” model, also very much part of the intellectual history of crowd psychology and also the sociology of emotion. However, later in the introduction she makes an observation, which involves a different model. Brennan suggests that “if I feel anxiety when I enter the room, then that will influence what I perceive or receive by way of an “impression” (a word that means what it says).” (6) I agree. Anxiety is sticky: rather like Velcro, it tends to pick up whatever comes near. Or we could say that anxiety gives us a certain kind of angle on what comes near. Anxiety is, of course, one feeling state amongst others. If bodies do not arrive in neutral, if we are always in some way or another moody, then what we will receive as an impression will depend on our affective situation. This second argument suggests the atmosphere is not simply “out there” before it gets “in”: how we arrive, how we enter this room or that room, will affect what impressions we receive. To receive is to act. To receive an impression is to make an impression.

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

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

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

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

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

But to be welcomed does not necessarily mean you are expected to turn up. What happens when a person of color turns up? We are noticeable, and the effects of this are as tangible as an atmosphere: “When I enter the room there is shock on peoples’ faces because they are expecting a white person to come in. I pretend not to recognize it. But in the interview there is unease because they were not expecting someone like me to turn up. So it is hard and uncomfortable and l can tell that they are uneasy and restless because of the way they fiddle and twitch around with their pens and their looks. They are uncomfortable because they were not expecting me – perhaps they would not have invited me if they knew l was black and of course l am very uncomfortable. l am wondering whether they are entertaining any prejudice against me” (Ahmed 2012: 40-41) They are not expecting you. Discomfort involves this failure to fit. A restlessness and uneasiness, a fidgeting and twitching, is a bodily registering of an unexpected arrival.

The body that causes their discomfort (by not fulfilling an expectation of whiteness) is the one who must work hard to make others comfortable. You have to pass by passing your way through whiteness, not by becoming white, but by minimizing the signs of difference. I have called this labor “institutional passing.” As a woman of colour describes: “I think with a person of colour there’s always a question of what’s this woman going to turn out like… they’re nervous about appointing people of colour into senior positions….Because if I went in my Sari and wanted prayer time off and started rocking the boat and being a bit different and asserting my kind of culture I’m sure they’d take it differently” (Ahmed 2012: 158). Some forms of difference are heard as assertive, as “rocking the boat.” Some forms of difference become legible as trouble, as if you are only different in order to cause trouble. The pressure not to “assert your culture” is lived as a demand to pass and to integrate not necessarily by becoming white, but by being more alike. Note how this pressure can be affective: you experience the potential nervousness as a threat; you try and avoid the nervous glance by not fulfilling its expectation. Diversity work is thus often atmospheric work: you have to try and eliminate the tension caused by your own arrival.

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


Feminist of colour scholarship and activisms have long attended to rooms as moody containers; as saturated by histories that surface in the atmospheres that surround some bodies, hovering, a thickening of air. I have drawn often on this quote from bell hooks, as it has so much to teach us. Let me share it again: “a group of white feminist activists who do not know one another may be present at a meeting to discuss feminist theory. They may feel bonded on the basis of shared womanhood, but the atmosphere will noticeably change when a woman of color enters the room. The white women will become tense, no longer relaxed, no longer celebratory” (2000: 56).

It is not just that feelings are “in tension,” but that the tension is located somewhere: in being felt by some bodies, it is attributed as caused by another, who comes to be felt as apart from the group, as getting in the way of its organic enjoyment and solidarity. The body of color is attributed as the cause of becoming tense, which is also the loss of a shared atmosphere (or we could say sharing the experience of loss is how the atmosphere is shared). As a feminist of color you do not even have to say anything to cause tension. The mere proximity of some bodies involves an affective conversion. To get along you have to go along with things which might mean for some not even being able to enter the room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need to describe these mechanisms.

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

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

Light, airy, bright, white.

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

Heavy, down, dark, brown.

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

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

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

Together: what a storm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A killjoy in crisis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And because we need to learn from feminist histories:

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

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

There can be kindness in that, just in that.

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Selfcare as Warfare

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

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

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

Some of us.

Others: not so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We have something to work out here.

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

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

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

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

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Feminist Wonder

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

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

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


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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