Living a Feminist Life

I am just heading off to Australia – to do an event at University of New South Wales on Happiness, Ecology and Life in Glass, as well as a talk at Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at Sydney University on Feminism and Fragility.  I might be away from blog for some time. And: today I sent off the manuscript of Living a Feminist Life to the publishers! It is just a baby step, as I wrote the book without a contract and no one has read the whole thing as yet, and I am expecting to come back to it with some writing tools in hand this summer.

I have learnt so much from writing this book and this blog: they are interwoven, as many of the chapters “take off” from blog posts, and the blog  definitely shaped the style and sound of the book.

It could have been called Everyday Feminism. It could have been called Feminist Killjoys.

But it’s called Living a Feminist Life!

Here’s a few paragraphs from the introduction.


What do you hear when you hear the word “feminism”? It is a word that fills me with hope, with energy. It brings to mind, loud acts of refusal and rebellion as well as the quiet ways we might have of not holding onto things that diminish us. It brings to mind, women who have stood up, spoken back, risked lives, homes, relationships in the struggle for more bearable worlds. It brings to mind, books written, tattered and worn, books that gave words to something, a feeling, a sense of an injustice, books that, in giving us words, also gave us the strength to keep going on. Feminism: how we pick each other up. So much history in a word; so much it too has picked up.

I write this book as a way of holding on to the promise of that word, to think what it means to live your life by claiming that word as your own: being a feminist, becoming a feminist, speaking as a feminist. Living a feminist life does not mean adopting a set of ideals or norms of conduct although it might mean asking ethical questions about how to live better in an unjust and unequal world (in a not feminist and anti-feminist world); how to create relationships with others that are more equal; how to find ways to support those who are not supported or less supported by social systems; how to keep coming up against histories that have become concrete, histories that have become as solid as walls.

It is worth noticing from the outset the idea that feminism is about how to live, about a way of thinking how to life, has often been understood as part of feminist history, as dated, associated with moralising or even policing stance of what might be called or might have been called, usually dismissively, as “cultural feminism.” I will return to the politics of this dismissal in my chapter on lesbian feminism. I am not suggested here that this version of feminism as moral police, the kind of feminism that might proceed by declaring this or that practice (and thus this or that person) as being “unfeminist” or “not feminist,” is simply a fabrication. I have heard that judgment; it has fallen on my own shoulders.[i] But the figure of the policing feminist is promiscuous for a reason. Feminism can be more easily dismissed when feminism is heard as being about dismissal; as being about, say, making people feel bad for their desires and investments, or about rejecting anything that is inconsistent with a set of ideas.  The figure of the feminist police is exercised because she is useful. Many feminist figures are anti-feminist tools; although we can always retool these figures for our own purposes.

In this book I refuse the relegation of the question of how to live a feminist life to history by suggesting that this question makes everything into something that is questionable. That question is one we can keep present, make present.  After all if our aim is to build feminist dwellings, we need to dismantle what has already been assembled; we need to ask what it is we are against, what it is we are for, knowing full well that this “we” is not a foundation but what we are working toward.

[i] Literally: one time when I was a PhD student a feminist member of staff pulled my off the shoulder top over my shoulders saying something like, “you are supposed to be a feminist.”

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Under the Skin

When something gets under your skin, you feel it. The expression registers not only the intensity of a feeling but a sense of a feeling as being lodged all the more firmly because it is below a surface.

I often think of histories as “under the skin.” And by this I refer to how your body can remember something even what you might have forgotten something. A body can remind you. That history might be biographical, dependent on your own comings and goings: like the time you walked down a street, and your skin prickles before you even recall that frightening thing that happened there before. Or a history that gets under the skin might register something more collective: that sense when you walk into a room and things become uncomfortable, and you just “know” what it is about, because you have been there before, too. You bring a history with you, a history that surfaces through you: a brown body can bring things up just by turning up; a history of racism, a reminder of whiteness as occupying, a history that thickens the atmosphere.

So much politics, so much of the stuff that is hard, is felt by the skin, that porous border, that border that feels: where we are touched by a world; where we touch a world.

Perhaps your skin is irritated. When I think of irritation, I think of contact dermatitis. What you come into contact with can irritate your skin. Irritation registers contact as intrusion; the foreign as flame. The surface of your skin might become rougher as well as itchy. You might scratch your skin because it is itchy; and there is a moment of relief, but then it becomes even itchier. You know this will happen, but you can’t help doing it: because those moments of relief are too precious. The quality of an experience is an experience of rubbing against something other than yourself, but once you are rubbed up the wrong way, it can become a relation you have to your own body. To be irritable is to be easily irritated. Maybe this can be a self-perception: we might feel ourselves to be irritable. Everything rubs us up the wrong way. Or you might by judged as others as irritating. It can be irritating to be judged as irritating! How you are affected by a judgment can be how you fulfill a judgement.

To speak from irritation is to speak from being rubbed up against the world in a certain way. We all know that life is full of mild irritations. Perhaps irritation is a little like infection; things eventually come to a head. There is a point when it all comes out, a tipping point. There are a certain number of times you can be rubbed up the wrong way, before you end up snapping. A snap might only appear to be sudden; a snap is one moment of a longer history of being affected by what you come up against.

Snap: a moment with a history.

I will come back to snap. But I have been thinking in a different way about skin by thinking differently about contact dermatitis. I have been thinking how privilege itself can be like contact dermatitis.  You are irritated because you have come into contact with something; you have been rubbed up the wrong way by something. If you know what is that you came into contact with, you can avoid contact. But perhaps you might have eczema. Part of your situation is that there is not something outside yourself that you can eliminate to remedy the situation. You are a situation. Your body is a situation. You cannot leave yourself behind. Where ever you go your irritation goes with you. Even though you are not the cause of it, you are constantly inflamed, so you feel like your body is the source of that inflammation.

I know this from living with racism from an early age. Growing up brown in a white world was like this: being constantly inflamed. I had eczema as a child, and living with racism and living with eczema always felt like the same kind of inflammation!

I have been thinking about contact dermatitis in relation to my own cis privilege as I have come into contact with transphobia and trans exclusionary “feminisms,” as my contact has intensified over the past month. In the past I have thought of privilege as an “energy saving device” or in terms of experiences you do not have to have; or thoughts you do not have to think. We can also think of privilege in more affective terms: as a matter of what gets under your skin. Privilege might be like this: being able to avoid contact with the cause of an inflammation. I had thought that one of the worst aspects of this recent letter to the Guardian that I discussed in this earlier post, which created a drama over hyped up allegations of censorship, would be the new legitimacy it would give to anti-trans and trans-exclusionary feminism. And then I thought I was witnessing an increase; another kind of inflammation; a rise of volume, a turning up. But I quickly realised that what I heard as an increase was just the same thing that had been going on: that volume switch was already stuck on full blast. My cis privilege was not having to notice it; not having to be affected by it; not having to hear the sound of that blast.

What I write below is written from my point of view as a cis woman trying to hear something that has not being directed toward me. I am sure I will get things wrong, but we have to risk a wrong to right a wrong. Bear with me.

I think privilege might explain how some do not realise what is going on: the constant nature of harassment and provocation that trans people have to endure every day. I thought I had a sense of it: but no. I am part of this some.

Elsewhere I have called everyday harassment hammering primarily in relation to experiences of racism, sexism and homophobia. I think of hammering as a “chip, chip, chip” away at being; a “chip, chip, chip” that can be constant and relentless.  I suspect many non-trans feminists who have rushed to sympathise with anti trans feminists have not been in contact with the relentless nature of this harassment. You might see the reaction by this or that person as the origin of violence because you do not bear witness to what people are reacting to: a constant everyday hammering.  In reflecting on this harassment, I do not want to cite individual authors; I have no interest in engaging directly with anyone who participates in this “chip, chip, chip,” this hammering away that constantly renders a trans person a being in question, or a questionable being.

Some of the harassment I have witnessed might seem on the surface quite mild. A joke here: a joke there. One recent small example: “I’ve been drunkenly trying to explain transgender politics to a friend. She thinks I’m insane.” Mild you might say (though I think not – the insanity which is the judgment of a friend is the judgment of the tweet). Maybe she didn’t mean anything by it; lighten up. A feminist killjoy knows from experience: when people keep making light of things, something heavy is going on.

Think of this: what it does to keep coming up against jibes about you, jokes, laughter; see they are pointing, at you, you, you. What does it do? What does it do to you?


I always think with the examples that come to mind. And when I think of snap, I think of a twig. When a twig snaps, we hear the sound of that snap. We can hear the suddenness of a break. It might seem loud. A snap seems the start of something, how a twig ends up broken in two pieces. A snap might even seem like a violent moment, or the beginning of violence. But it would be a beginning insofar as we do notice or we cannot hear the pressure on the twig. The snap is an effect of a pressure that tends not to be registered unless you feel that pressure. Can we describe the world from the twig’s point of view? When you don’t take it, when you can’t take any more of it, what happens? The moment of not taking it is so often understood as losing it. When a snap is registered as the origin of violence, the one who snaps is deemed violent.  Violence originates here only if you miss a history of violence. You can see how a feminist politics might insist on renaming actions as reactions, pointing to histories that show how a snap is not a starting point, even if a snap is the start of something. A feminist project would be or should be to bear witness to the pressure, the violence, which is not always audible from the outside, to those who are not under that pressure.

I hear this often: how can we initiate a dialogue, say between radical feminists and trans feminists? Can’t we just be seated at the same time, to talk this out, to talk this through? Can’t we just be reasonable: there are two sides, let’s hear them both?

The only starting point is this: no one at a table has the right to decide in advance who counts as “women.” It is not up to us to decide who is and is not “women” in advance of a conversation.[1] When people use criteria to decide who counts, that criteria has already become a technique for exclusion because it is not a criteria that will be shared by others. This is why the criteria being used to exclude trans women from “women” keep changing: when content (a woman is x) is being used as an end (you are not x), ideas have already become weapons.

Any way of saying you do not belong here, in this category, but also in this room, this shelter, in this group, any way of saying, if you arrive my safety will be compromised, any way of saying seems to be what ends up being said.

You might think: but what if there is truth in the criteria? You might point to the biological facts. Well biology is contingent, mutable and variable. There are some who hold onto rigid ideas of biological sex, but feminists historically have not been among them! In some cases, I have heard people refer to “biology 101” or scientific basis of female and male sex difference to claim trans women are not “biologically women.” I want to rebuke: biology 101? Well patriarchy wrote that textbook and pass them a copy of Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body (2000) or Andrea Dworkin’s Woman Hating, a radical feminist text that supports transsexuals having access to surgery and hormones and challenges what she calls “the traditional biology of sexual difference” based on “two discrete biological sexes” (1972: 181, 186). There is no point in being gender critical if you are going to leave this traditional biology intact as biology is already invested in meaning and value, as feminists have shown us for generations; it is invested in value because the desire to see two sexes (“it’s a girl, “it’s a boy”) not only creates a system of alignment (“if not one, then the other”) but does not see the immense heterogeneity and variability of biological existence.  To be gender critical whilst assuming two discrete biological sexes is to tighten rather than loosen a gender system. Radical feminists have been among those who have shown us this!

What is going on in this anti-trans work is the desire to exclude and police the boundaries of “women” on whatever basis can be found (hence the target is a moving target). This policing has a point; it is pointed. It surfaces as questions as well as assertions: you are not who you are say you are; we know better than you who you are. In our collective feminist histories the policing of who are “women” has been about how a specific group of women have secured their right to determine who belongs within feminism (whiteness has been a key mechanism for policing feminism). The policing of the boundaries of “women” has always been disastrous for feminism.

And just remember this too, feminism is possible because of a premise that is a promise: we do not have to live by other people’s assignments.

So even if we were prepared to take the arguments on, one by one, we know the target will move. The arguments are more rebuttals than arguments.  A rebuttal is “a form of evidence that is presented to contradict or nullify other evidence that has been presented by an adverse party.” A rebuttal is directed against an existence by the very requirement to provide evidence of existence.

A rebuttal can thus be directed not only against evidence but against an existence.

A rebuttal derives from “butt,” often used in the sense of a target or aim (as in the “butt” of a joke). These literatures work by rendering trans people the butt: a way of rebutting an existence, which is why, I also think, jokey comments and exchanges have become such a significant part of the harassment. And it is very important to consider how the “milder” apparently more polite or cautious arguments (though I would not use these words), arguments that might even seem like an invitation to begin a dialogue, are participating in the exact same logics as the more extreme rebuttals of trans existence. The participation often takes the form of qualification in which another kind of “but” is used to create a softer impression: I am not saying trans women are not women, but. What follows this qualifying “but” is often a rebuttal of what precedes this “but.”



When rebuttal becomes the point we have a rebuttal system.

I have called these mechanisms “problematic proximities” or “sticky signs” in my work on racist speech acts. So someone might say “I do not think all Muslims are terrorists,” they might even appeal to their own anti-racist credentials. But then they might use terms like “Islamic terrorists,” often repeatedly, thus preserving the association between Islam and terror.  You can preserve an association by the very appearance of arguing against it.

So an extreme version of an anti-trans argument might be: trans women are rapists (I have seen the argument on flyers distributed at a feminist marches as well as tweets). Or another version might be: trans women are not rapists and trans women are women who might themselves have been raped but their presence in a shelter might make some cis women who have been raped feel less safe. Between the two statements, one extreme, the other milder and more qualified, complex, is a layer of activity.

Who is the lost in that layer? Who is lost?

Where will you draw the line with trans women. One hears that. She might have a penis. One hears that. Penises commit rape. One hears that. Trans women bring penises into the room. One hears that.  Women’s spaces are invaded by maleness. One hears that.  Women’s spaces are invaded by the organs than render women unsafe. One hears that. Trans women are rapists. One hears that.

One hears that.

Follow the lead: from one statement to another, where do you go, where do you end up.[2]

And you might ask: who would say that?! Some of these sentences don’t make sense: they certainly don’t make feminist sense.

Each sentence has a history. Penises commit rape: that’s a sentence with a history.

Penises commit rape: this is not a feminist sentence. I should not need to say why, but it seems one needs to explain even this.  Commit is a verb. It is attached to a subject. When the subject of the sentence is penis, it is precisely not a statement about male responsibility for rape (or a statement that could address what feminists have called rape culture). It gives agency to penises, as if penises rape on their own, thus rehearsing that long standing assumption that is central to how rape is justified as an inevitable biological event: men can’t help it; they are led by their penises.

How could feminists send out such statements?  Penises keep coming up for a reason. The statements are part of a series; they are part of rebuttal system, which is to say they have target, a butt. Trans women have become that butt. That becoming involves a huge amount of violence and harassment.

When this system is working, some basic feminist ideas are lost along the way.

It should be a crisis; if it is not a crisis, we need to make it a crisis.

What I have come into contact with has inflamed me. And I hope to use my privilege as well as I can: not to let myself not be affected by this. I hope to stay irritated by avoiding avoidance. I have no interest in conversing with those who are articulating these kinds of statements. That is not a table I would join. My task is always to describe the mechanisms, diversity work is descriptive as well as mechanical work; as well as to build networks and connections with those for whom survival is a project that requires being open to others.

Maybe I have one little hope: I do hope some of you who have rushed to judgment, who have signed letters or been enraged by bullying or unkindness directed against anti-trans feminists will do just one thing: put yourself in contact with this material, put yourself near enough so you can hear that “chip, chip, chip,” that hammering, and listen to your skin.


Ahmed, Sara (2000). Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. London: Routledge.

Dworkin, Andrea (1972). Woman Hating. New York: E.P.Dutton.

Fausto-Sterling, Anne (2000). Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of

Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.

[1] I read one suggestion that organising as “women born women” or women who are women “at birth” or “since birth” is just a way of organising as a specific group of women (like women of colour organising). I would have so much to say about this ordinarily (and about the use of this analogy by a white feminist). Let me just say this: “born” and “birth” become terms as part of what I have called a rebuttal system: they arrive with the arrival of trans women. I doubt very much feminists would use such terms otherwise: in fact much feminist effort has been to expose how one is not born but becomes a woman, to evoke Simone de Beauvoir, which is also to say that  “woman” is an embodied as well as historical situation. Secondly, women of colour organise our own groups because white feminists have dominated and occupied feminism (trans women have hardly done so, in fact they have had to fight to be allowed into feminist spaces at all). Thirdly, one of the primary grounds for anti-racist organising is identification: women of colour groups are open to those who identify as women of colour (because we cannot always “tell the difference”). Identification is the basis of any such organising.

[2] I think one way of accounting for this lead would be through “stranger danger.” In my book, Strange Encounters (2000) I drew on Mary Douglas’s understanding of dirt as “matter out of place,” to suggest that strangers become “bodies out of place.” The body out of place is the body that endangers those who are in place (the stranger is not only loitering, residing improperly, but is assumed to be loitering with intent). In the book I explored Neighbourhood Watch Schemes as techniques for recognising strangers, for differentiating between those who have a right to belong (often defined in terms of property ownership) and those who do not often (often defined in terms of criminality). The stranger is often a racialised as well as classed figure: if the stranger could be anyone, some bodies more than others are recognised as strangers. I think that trans women have become recognised as strangers in this way: as matter out of place, as not belonging within feminist spaces, as residing improperly, as having a malicious intent, as endangering those who are already there. This approach would allow us to rethink anti-trans feminism as a Neighbourhood Watch Scheme (the Gender Identity Website would be one way of demonstrating the nature and effects of the policing involved). One more thing: those who are recognised as strangers are often those who are the most vulnerable and endangered. There can be nothing more dangerous than the social agreement that “that” person is dangerous. I think we know this.

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Living a Lesbian Life

Last week I enjoyed attending the Lesbian Lives conference in Brighton (my fifth!). I gave a lecture drawn from material in my chapter on “Lesbian Feminism” which is the final chapter of the book I am working on. It was a one-off presentation, put together especially for the event, so I am sharing it with you now.


“Living a Lesbian Life,” Sara Ahmed, Lesbian Lives conference, February 20, 2015, University of Brighton

I speak today from a conviction: in order to survive what we come up against, in order to build worlds from the shattered pieces, we need a revival of lesbian feminism. This lecture is an explanation of my conviction.

Right now might seem an odd time to ask for such a revival. It might seem we are offered more by the happiness of the queer umbrella. I think the erasure of lesbians as well as lesbian feminism (often via the assumption that lesbian feminism is a naïve form of “identity politics”) would deprive us of some of the resources we need because of what is not over, what is not behind us. In some recent queer writing, lesbian feminism appears as a miserable scene that we had to get through, or pass through, before we could embrace the happier possibility of becoming queer. For instance, Paul Preciado (2012) in a lecture on queer bulldogs refers to lesbians as ugly with specific reference to styles, fashions and haircuts. The lesbian appears here as elsewhere as an abject figure we were all surely glad to have left behind. I suspect this referencing to the ugliness of lesbians is intended as ironic, even playful. But of course much contemporary sexism and homophobia is ironic and playful. I don’t find it particularly amusing.

We need to refuse this passing by holding onto the figure of the lesbian feminist as a source of political potential. Lesbian feminism can bring feminism back to life. Many of the critiques of lesbian feminism, often as a form of “cultural feminism,” were precisely because of how lesbian feminists posed feminism as a life question, as a question of how to live. Alice Echols in her book Daring to be Bad, which gives a history of radical feminism in the United States, describes: “With the rise of lesbian-feminism, the conflation of the personal with the political, long in the making was complete and unassailable. More than ever, how one lived one’s life, not commitment to political struggle, became the salient factor” (1989: 240) Note this not: the question of how we live our lives is separated from a commitment to political struggle; more than that, it is implied that focusing on living our lives would be a withdrawal of energy from political struggle. We can hear a similar implication in Juliet Mitchell and Rosalind Delmar’s argument: “the effects of liberation do not become the manifestations of liberation by changing values or for the matter by changing oneself, but only by challenging the social structure that gives rise to the values in the first place” (cited in Echols 1989: 244). The suggestion is not only that life change is not structural change but that focusing on how one lives one’s life might be how structures are not transformed.

I want to offer an alternative argument. When a life is what we have to struggle for, we struggle against structures. It is not necessarily the case that these struggles always lead to transformation. But to struggle against something is to chip away at something. Many of these structures are not visible unless you come up against them and this makes doing the work of chipping away, I call this work diversity work, a particular kind of work. The energy required to keep going when you keep coming up against these structures is how we build things, sometimes, often, from the shattered pieces.


I am currently writing a book, Living a Feminist Life, which concludes with a chapter on lesbian feminism. One of the aims of the book is to bring feminist theory “home” by generating feminist theory out of ordinary experiences of being a feminist. The book could have been called “everyday feminism.”  Feminist theory is or can be what we might call following Marilyn Frye “lived theory,” an approach that “does not separate politics from living” (1991: 13).  Living a lesbian life is data collection; we collect information about the institutions that govern the reproduction of life: it is almost too much data; we don’t have time to interpret all the material we collect.  If living a lesbian life generates data, then lesbian feminism provides the tools to help us interpret that data.

And by data I am referring to walls. I first began thinking about walls when completing a research project on racism and diversity within institutions. Diversity practitioners would talk of how the very institutions that appointed them would block their efforts. Diversity work was described by one practitioner as “a banging your head against a brick wall job.” A job description becomes a wall description. And what I learnt from doing this research was that unless you came up against the walls, they did not appear: the university would seem as happy as its mission statement, as willing as its equality statement.

In one interview I conducted quite late in the research process, a practitioner described one of her experiences of a brick wall. It was a click moment: you know that kind of moment, when something is revealed to you that you realise retrospectively you had been trying to work out or to work through. She described to me what happened within her university when they tried to change a policy around appointment procedures: she had got the change agreed at the diversity committee, but the agreement went missing from the minutes; when the minutes were sent to council someone noticed because she had chaired the diversity committee; the minutes were rewritten and resubmitted and the policy was approved by council; but then people acted within the institution acted as if the change had not been agreed. The diversity officer said that when she pointed out there has been a change of policy “they looked at me as if was saying something really stupid.” I learnt so much from her account: I learnt how the mechanisms for blocking structural transformation are mobile; things can be stationary because what stops things from moving moves. I learnt how an effective way of stopping something from happening is by agreeing to something. A “yes” can be said when or even because there is not enough behind that “yes” to bring something about.

It is the process of trying to transform a situation that allows this wall to become apparent. And I realised that this was the difficulty I had been trying to describe throughout my work: how you come up against things that are not revealed to others. Indeed what is hardest for some (I mean literally, ouch) does not even exist for others. I now use diversity work to refer not only to the work that aims to transform institutions, but the work we do when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution. When we fail to inhabit a norm (when we are questioned or question ourselves whether we are “it,” or pass as or into “it”) then it becomes more apparent, rather like that brick wall: what does not allow you to pass through. A life description can be a wall description.

Things are fluid if you are going the way things are flowing. Think of a crowd: if you are going the right way, you are being propelled forward; a momentum means you need to make less effort to keep going. If you are not going that way, a flow is something solid, a wall; an obstruction. Lesbians know a lot about obstruction. And it might seem now for lesbians that we are going with the flow. Hey, we can go; hey, we can get married. And if you talked about what you come up against now, those around you may blink with disbelief: hey what’s up, stop complaining dear, smile. I am not willing to smile on command. I am willing to go on a smile embargo, if I can recall Shilamith Firestone’s “dream action” for the women’s movement (1970: 90). Talking about walls matters all the more when the mechanisms by which we are blocked are less visible.

The everyday is our data.

A lesbian experience: you are seated with your girlfriend, two women at a table; waiting. A straight couple walks into the room and is attended to right away. This might also be a female experience: without a man present at the table, you do not appear. I have experienced my female solidarity around these sorts of experiences: say, you are pressed up against a busy bar; two women who do not know each other, and over and over again, the men are served first. You look at each other both with frustration but sometimes affection, as you recognise that each other recognises that situation, as one in which we are perpetually thrown: she too, me too, “we” from this too. For some, you have to become insistent to be the recipient of a social action, you might have to announce your presence, wave your arm, saying: “Here I am!” For others, it is enough just to turn up because you have already been given a place at the table before you take up that place.

Of course more than gender is at stake in the distribution of attention. But gender is at stake in the distribution of attention.  Every now and then you encounter something that reveals that distribution: that allows the feminist groan of recognition. One time I was at the London feminist film festival. They were showing A Question of Silence.  It is a table scene, of course: there is one woman seated at a table of men; she is the secretary. And she makes a suggestion. No-one hears her: the question of silence is in this moment not a question of not speaking but of not being heard. A man then makes the exact same suggestion she has already made: and the other men turn to him, congratulating him for being constructive. She says nothing. It is at that moment she sits there in silence, a silence which is filled or saturated with memories of being silenced: her memories, ours, having to overlook how you are looked over. Sexism: a worn thread of connection. And yes: there was a collective groan.

Feminist philosophers has taught us for over a century how men becomes universal; women particular. Or perhaps we might say women become relatives, female relatives, existing by existing in relation to men. To become woman is to become relative.  Women encounter the universal as a wall when we refuse to become relative. Note how we come to know these distinctions (such as universal and relative) not as abstractions, but in everyday social life, which is to say, in being in a world with others.

I want to add here that the requirement to become a female relative is not simply about the privileging of heterosexuality.  Working in the academy I have noticed this expectation that to progress you must progress through male networks: you have to declare your love for one dead white male philosopher or another (if not Derrida, then Lacan, if not Lacan, then Deleuze, if not Deleuze, then, who Sara, who are you following?). You have to cite men and give more time and attention to their work; you have to have references by men in order to validate your own work. Of course, we do not “have to do” what we “have to do.”  But if it is easier to refuse that requirement from a position of relative security then we learn how that requirement is enforced through insecurity, the sense that, to reach somewhere, you have to go in this direction, or you might not get anywhere at all.

For her to appear, she might have to fight. If this is true for women, it is even truer for lesbians. Women with women at a table are hard to see (and by table here I am referring to the mechanisms of social gathering, a table is what we are assembled around).  For a gathering to be complete a man is the head.  A table of women: a body without a head. Male privilege is not simply about being seen but being seen to, having your needs attended to. This is why I describe privilege as an energy saving device: less effort is required when a world has been assembled to meet your needs. You don’t need to raise your arm to have a standing. I will return to willful lesbian arms in my conclusion.

Data as wall.

You turn up at a hotel with your girlfriend and you say you have booked a room. A hesitation can speak volumes. This reservation says your booking is for a double bed, is that right madam? Eyebrows are raised; a glance slides over the two of you, catching enough detail. Are you, sure madam? Yes that’s right; a double bed. You have to say it, again; you have to say it, again, firmly. Some have to insist on what is given to others. In previous work I have offered a formula:

Rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy

When you are known as a feminist, you do not even have to say anything before eyes roll. You can hear them sigh “oh hear she goes.” I now have another formula.

Raised eyebrows = lesbian feminist pedagogy

The raising of eyebrows: lodged as a question: Really, are you sure?  This happens again and again; you almost come to expect it, the necessity of being firm just to receive what you have requested. One time after a querying, are you sure madam, are you sure, madam, you enter the room; twin beds. Do you go down; do you try again? It can be trying. Sometimes it is too much, and you pull your two little beds together; you find other ways of huddling.

Questions follow you, wherever you go. For some to be is to be in question. Is that your sister or your husband? Are you sisters? What are you? Who are you? As a brown woman I am used to be asking “where are you from” as a way of being told I am not from here. There are many ways of being made into strangers, bodies out of place. “Are you a boy or a girl?” they ask her, this time, a question that drips with mockery and hostility. Some of these questions dislodge you from a body that you yourself feel you reside in. Once you have been asked these questions, you might wait for them. Waiting to be dislodged changes your relation to the lodge.

It can be exhausting this constant demand to explain yourself. A desire for a more normal life does not necessary mean identification with norms, but can be simply this: a desire to escape the exhaustion of having to insist just to exist. A history can become concrete through the repetition of such encounters, encounters that require you to put the whole of your body, as well as your arms, behind an action. Maybe these actions seem small. Maybe they are small. But they accumulate over time. They feel like a hammering, a chip, chip, chip, against your being, so that eventually you begin to feel smaller, hammering as hammered down.  Actions that seem small can also become wall.

An ordinary battle

An ordinary is what we might be missing when we feel that chip, chip. An ordinary can be what we need to survive that chip, chip. Susan Griffin remembers a scene for us, a scene that has yet to happen :

I remember a scene … This from a film I want to see. It is a film made by a woman about two women who live together. This is a scene from their daily lives. It is a film about the small daily transformations which women experience, allow, tend to, and which have been invisible in this male culture. In this film, two women touch. In all ways possible they show knowledge of. What they have lived through and what they will yet do, and one sees in their movements how they have survived. I am certain that one day this film will exist ((cited by Becker, Citron, Lesage and Rich 1981).

Lesbian feminism: to remember a scene that has yet to happen, a scene of the ordinary; of the movements, little movements, which tell the story of our survival. It is a touching scene. Sometimes you have to battle for an ordinary.   When you have to battle for an ordinary, when battling becomes ordinary, the ordinary can be what you lose.

But you have a glimpse of it even when you lose it.

Think of this: how for many women, life has been understood as a sphere of immanence, as dwelling in not rising above; she is there, there she is; not transcending things by creating things. A masculinist model of creativity is premised on withdrawal. She is there, there she is: engaged in the endless repetitive cycle of housework. We can follow Adrienne Rich who makes this starting point into an instruction: “begin with the material,” she says, with “matter, mma, madre, mutter, moeder, modder” (1986: 213). Lesbian feminism is materialist right from the beginning. If women are expected to be here, in matter, in materiality, in work, at work, this is where lesbian feminism begins.   We begin in the lodge where we are lodged.  We begin with the lodge when we are dislodged.

A poignant lesbian scene of ordinary life is provided by the first of the three films that make up, If These Walls Could Talk 2. We begin with that ordinary: we begin with its warmth. Edith and Abby: they have been together a long time. The quietness of intimacy: of going to see a film together, of coming home together.  Yes maybe there are comments made by some kids on the street, but they are used to it: they have each other, a place to return to; home as shelter, a place to withdraw to. If the walls could talk, they would tell their story, photographs cover the walls, photographs not only of each other, of their friends, but of lesbian and gay marches, demonstrations. A wall can be how we display a lesbian feminist history.

Everything shatters, when Abby slips and falls.

Everything shatters. A life can shatter.

We are in the hospital waiting room. Edith is waiting to hear how Abby is. Another woman arrives. She says: “they just took my husband in, he had a heart attack.” When this woman asks about Edith’s husband, Edith replies, “I never had a husband.” And the woman says, “That’s lucky, because you won’t have the heart break of losing one.”  The history of heterosexuality becomes a history of broken hearts, or even just the history of hearts. To be recognised as having a heart is to be recognised as the one who is broken. With such recognition, comes care, comfort, support. Without recognition, even one’s grief cannot be supported or held by the kindness of another.

We know this history; it is a history of what we know.

And so Edith waits. When she asks the hospital staff to see Abby they say “only family are allowed.” The recognition of family ties, as the only ties that are binding, means Abby dies alone; it means Edith waits all night, alone. When lesbian grief is not recognised, because lesbian relationships are not recognised, you become “non-relatives.” You become unrelated, you become not. You are left alone in your grief.

Heterosexuality could be described as an elaborate support system. Support is how much you have to fall back on when you fall. To leave heterosexuality can be to leave those institutional forms of protecting, cherishing, holding. You have less to fall back on when you fall. When things break a whole life can unravel.

When family is not there to prop you up, when you disappear from family life, you had to find other ways of being supported. When you disappear from family life: does this happen to you? You go home, you go back home and it feels like you are watching yourself disappear: watching your own life unravel, thread by thread. No one has willed or intended your disappearance. Just slowly, just slowly, as talk of family, of heterosexuality as the future, of lives that you do not live, just slowly, just slowly, you disappear. They welcome you, they are kind, you are the lesbian aunties from London, say, but it is harder and harder to breath. And then when you leave you might go and find a lesbian bar or queer space; it can be such a relief. You feel like a toe, liberated from a cramped shoe. And we need to think about that: how the restriction of life when heterosexuality remains a presumption can be countered by creating spaces that are looser, freer not only because you are not surrounded by what you are not because you are reminding there are so many ways to be.

So much invention comes from the necessity of creating our own support systems. Note here the significance of fragility to this history: how we too can be shattered, how we need each other to put our lives back together again. And: if we are recognised as fragile, breakable, broken, we are often assumed to have caused our own damage. We after all have willingly left the apparently safer paths, the more brightly lit paths of heterosexuality. What did you expect, dear: what did you expect? Feminists are often assumed to cause their own damage, as if she, rather like a broken pot, flies out of hand. When we say she “flies out of hand” we usually means she speak out of anger, caught up by a destructive impulse, and that in breaking ties, she breaks herself.

Shattering; it is shattering; she is shattered.

There are many ways of telling the story of the struggle for recognition because there are many stories to tell. The struggle for recognition can be about having access to a good life. It can be about wanting inclusion in the structures that have been oppressive, wanting inclusion in the very structures that remain predicated on this dispossession of others.  But that’s not the only story. The struggle for recognition can also come from the experience of what is unbearable, what cannot be endured, when you lose your bearings, becoming unhoused. The struggle for recognition can be a struggle for an ordinary life, an ordinary that is more far more precious than property; indeed an ordinary as what is negated when things become property, when things become alienable things. We learn this from If these Walls Could Talk 2: when Abby’s family ask what things are hers so her things can become theirs, Abby’s things, her loved worn things, her memories, can become family possessions. A family possession is a dispossession. Perhaps a lesbian feminist struggle for recognition comes out of rage against the injustice of how some dwell by the dispossession of others. We want the walls to come down. Or, if they stay up, we want the walls to talk, to tell this story. A story too can shatter: a tiny thousand little pieces, strewn, all over the place.

Lesbian feminism: in making an ordinary from the shattered pieces of a dwelling we dwell.   We dwell, we tell. How telling.

A Willfulness Archive

In this first part of this lecture I noted how actions that are small can also become wall. Lesbian feminism might also involve small actions.  Maybe the chip, chip, chip of hammering can be transformed into a hammer: if he is a chip off the old block, we chip, chip, chip away at that block. Chip, chip, chip, who knows, eventually it might come right off. To persist in chipping at the blocks of hetero-patriarchy, we have to become willful.  I want to think of lesbian feminism as a willfulness archive, a living and a lively archive made up and made out our own experiences of struggling against what we come up against.

Why willfulness? Let me share with you a typical definition of willfulness : “asserting or disposed to assert one’s own will against persuasion, instruction, or command; governed by will without regard to reason; determined to take one’s own way; obstinately self-willed or perverse.” To be called obstinate or perverse because you are not persuaded by the reasoning of others? Is this familiar to you? Have you heard this before?

Lesbian, feminist and anti-racist histories can be thought of as histories of those who are willing to be willful, who are willing to turn a diagnosis into an act of self-description.  Let’s go back: let’s listen to what and to who is behind us.  Julia Penelope describes lesbianism as willfulness: “The lesbian stands against the world created by the male imagination. What willfulness we posses when we claim our lives!” (1992: 42, emphasis in original). Marilyn Frye’s radical feminism uses the adjective willful: “The willful creation of new meaning, new loci of meaning, and new ways of being, together, in the world, seems to me in these mortally dangerous times the best hope we have” (1992: 9). Alice Walker describes a “womanist” in the following way:A black feminist or feminist of color… Usually referring to outrageous, audacious, courageous or willful behavior. Wanting to know more and in greater depth than is considered ‘good’ for one… Responsible. In charge. Serious.” (2005: xi, emphases in original).  Together these statements can be heard as claims to willfulness: willfulness as audacity; willfulness as standing against; willfulness as creativity.

Willfulness is usually a charge made by someone against someone.  Willfulness becomes a charge in Alice Walker’s sense, to be “in charge.” If we are charged with willfulness, we can accept and mobilize this charge. To accept a charge is not simply to agree with it. Acceptance can mean being willing to receive. A charge can also be thought of as electricity. The language can be our lead: willfulness can be an electric current, passing through each of us, switching us on. Willfulness can be a spark. We can be lit up by it. It is an electric thought.

We can distinguish here between willfulness assumed as behind an action, and willfulness required to complete an action. Sometimes to stand up you have to stand firm. Sometimes to hold on you must become stubborn. Remember my example of going the wrong way in the crowd? For some bodies mere persistence, “to continue steadfastly,” requires great effort, an effort that might appear to others as stubbornness or obstinacy, as an insistence on going against the flow. You have to become insistent to go against the flow and you are judged to be going against the flow because you are insistent. I think of this as a life paradox: you have to become what you are judged as being. You might have to become what you are judged as being to survive what you are judged as being.

We are often judged as willful when we are not willing; not willing to go with the flow, not willing to go.  To become lesbian might require not being willing women; lesbians as willful women. Monique Wittig’s (1992) audacious statement “lesbians are not women” could thus be read through the lens of willfulness. She argues that lesbians are not women because to be “women” is to be is being in relation to men: “women” for Wittig is heterosexual term or a heterosexual injunction. Remember woman becomes from the conjunction of wif and man: wif as wife, as female servant. To be a woman with a woman or a woman with women (we do not need to assume a couple form) is to become what she Wittig calls an “escapee” or a stray. To be a lesbian is to stray away from the path you are supposed to follow if you are to reach the right destination. To stray is to deviate from the path of happiness.  So if lesbians are women, if we wrestle woman away from this history of women as being for men, we are willful women.

Willful women: how striking. Willfulness as a style of politics might involve not only being willing not to go with the flow, but being willing to cause its obstruction. Political histories of striking are indeed histories of those willing to put their bodies in the way, to turn their bodies into blockage points that stop the flow of human traffic, as well as the wider flow of an economy.

Willfulness might seem here to be about an individual, the one who has to become willful just to keep going, although we see how a strike only works when it becomes collective, when others too are lit up by that spark.  We might think of characters like Molly Bolt from Ruby Fruit Jungle (1973) as part of our willfulness archive: girls who want girls are often those girls whose wills are deemed wanting. As a lesbian feminist reader it is was characters like Molly Bolt with a spring in their step that picked me up; feisty characters whose vitality is not at the expense of their lesbian desire, but is how their desire rooms across the pages.

If we think of lesbian feminism as a willfulness archive we are not simply directing our attention to characters such as Molly Bolt, however appealing. A willfulness archive would derive as much from our struggle to write ourselves into existence, as from who appears in what we write. This intimacy of audacity, standing against and creativity can take the form of a book.

A willful girl in a book

A willful girl as a book

I am rather taken by you

Gloria Anzaldúa describes her book Borderlands as follows: “The whole thing has had a mind of its own, escaping me and insisting on putting together the pieces of its own puzzle with minimal direction from my will. It is a rebellious, willful entity, a precocious girl-child forced to grow up too quickly” ([1987]1999: 88). A book, a survival strategy, comes alive, acquires a life of its own, a will of its own, a willful will; history by the bone, own but not alone. Words are sent out: willful words; they pile up, they make something. Words can pulse with life; words as flesh, leaking; words as heart, beating.

Lesbian feminism of colour: the struggle to put ourselves back together because within lesbian shelters too our being was not always accommodated. Where does she take me?  Not white, lesbian out of not; here she comes. I think of a brown history, a mixed-history as a lesbian history, another way in which we can tell a history of women being in relation to women.  I think of my own history, as a mixed lesbian, with so many sides, all over the place. I think of all that lesbian potential, as coming from somewhere. Brownness has a lesbian history; because there are brown lesbians in history, whether or not you could see us, whether or not you knew where to find us. As Camel Gupta (2014) has noted it is sometimes assumed as brown queers and trans folk that we are rescued from our unhappy brown families by happy white queer communities; but not, what if not, what if not; what if brownness is what rescues us from the white line, the line takes us in a direction that asks us to give up part of ourselves?

I will not give you up

A willful will; not willing as willing not

Lesbian feminism of colour is a lifeline made up out of willful books that insist on their own creation. Books are themselves are material, paper, pen, ink, blood, the sweat of the labour to bring something into existence. Words come out of us.

A poem weeps

Audre Lorde spoke of herself as a writer when she was dying. For Lorde, writing and speaking and living as a Black lesbian (Lorde never refused the demands of this “as” nor assumed it can abbreviate an experience), survival is militancy; words are her weapons. She says : “I am going to write fire until it comes out of my ears, my eyes, my nose holes–everywhere. Until it’s every breath I breathe. I’m going to go out like a fucking meteor!” (1988: 76-77).

And so she did

And so she did

She goes out, she makes something. She calls this capacity to make things through heat “the erotic.”  Lorde notes: “There is a difference between painting a black fence and writing a poem, but only one of quantity. And there is, for me, no difference between writing a good poem and moving into sunlight against the body of a woman I love” (1984: 58).

A love poem

A lover as poem

I warmed by the thought. I am warmed by Cherrie Moraga’s poem, “The Welder.” Moraga speaks of heating being used to shape new elements, to create new shapes, “the intimacy of steel melting, the fire that makes sculpture of your lives, builds buildings” (1981: 219).

We build our own buildings when the world does not accommodate our desires. When you are blocked, when your very existence is prohibited or viewed with general suspicion or even just raised eyebrows (yes they are pedagogy), you have to come up with your own systems for getting things through. You might even have to come up with your own system for getting yourself through.

How inventive

Quite something

Not from nothing

Something from something

A kitchen table becomes a publishing house.

To stand against what is we have to make room for what is not. Lesbian feminist world-making is nothing extraordinary; it is quite ordinary. We might think of the work of making room as wiggling, a corporeal willfulness. Remember that toe, liberated from its cramped shoe. She does not toe the line. Lesbians (as lesbians well know) have quite a wiggle; you have to wiggle to make room in a cramped space. We can be warmed by the work required to be together even if sometimes we wish it was less work. To recall the vitality of lesbian feminism as a resource of the present is to remember that effort required for our shelters to be built. When we have to shelter from the harshness of a world we build a shelter.

I think of lesbian feminism as willful carpentry: she builds with her own hands; she is handy. What we build to survive what we come against, the very materials, are how values materialise or are given expression. How easily though without foundations, without a stable ground, the walls can come down. We keep them up by keeping up with each other. A fragile shelter, a looser shelter: walls made from lighter materials, blowing haphazardly in the wind. It is a movement. We might recognise this fragility not so much as what we might lose, or will lose, but as a quality of what we have: values that do not derive or depend on making things safer, more secure or more permanent. There are other ways to survive.  Lesbian feminism is another way to survive.

Conclusion: A Lesbian Feminist Army

I want to share a “lesbian lives” story with you. I gave my very first lecture from my research project on will and willfulness in Dublin at the 17th Lesbian Lives conference in 2010. I shared a story I found because I was on a trail, I was following willful girls, going wherever they went. Yes I did end up all over the place. Because I was on this trail, I found this story: a Grimm story, about a willful child.  This is not a lesbian story. But perhaps there is a lesbian in this story. Let me share it again.

Once upon a time there was a child who was willful, and would not do as her mother wished. For this reason God had no pleasure in her, and let her become ill, and no doctor could do her any good, and in a short time she lay on her death-bed. When she had been lowered into her grave, and the earth was spread over her, all at once her arm came out again, and stretched upwards, and when they had put it in and spread fresh earth over it, it was all to no purpose, for the arm always came out again. Then the mother herself was obliged to go to the grave, and strike the arm with a rod, and when she had done that, it was drawn in, and then at last the child had rest beneath the ground.

What a story. It is quite a story. My book opens with this story, with this figure of the willful child, the one who disobeys; as the one who is punished, who is beaten into the ground. It is the story of a child but also of an arm: the child’s willfulness is inherited by an arm, an arm that keeps coming up, until it too is beaten down. Is the willful child a lesbian feminist? Or is the wayward arm a lesbian feminist?

We could tell a few lesbian stories about arms. One story: a butch lesbian enters the female toilets. The attendant become flustered and says “you are not supposed to be here.” The butch lesbian is used to this: how many of her stories are toilet stories; to pass as male becomes a question mark of your right to pass into female space. “I am a woman,” she says. We might have to assign ourselves with gender if we trouble the existing assignments. With a re-assignment, she can go to the toilet. When she comes out, the attendant is embarrassed; the attendant points to her arm, saying “so strong.” The butch lesbian allows the moment to pass by joking, giving the attendant a “show of her arms.”

With arms we come out, with arm we come in. These moments do not always pass so easily. Many of these histories of passing or of not passing are traumatic. Arms can be beaten; they can be straightened. Jack Halberstam in Female Masculinity notes with some surprise how Havelock Ellis uses the arm as a gender test in the case of Miss M : “Miss M. he thinks, tries to cover over her masculinity but gives herself away to Ellis when he uses a rather idiosyncratic test of gender identification: ‘with arms, palmed up, extended in front of her with inner sides touching, she cannot bring the inner sides of the forearms together as nearly every woman can, showing that the feminine angle of the arm is lost’” (1998: 80). If the muscular female arm is measured by a straightening rod, the arm is not straightened. An arm becomes a wayward gift.

So maybe I am thinking too of your arms, your strong butch arms and what they can do, who they can hold. I think of being held by your arms.  Yes, I do.

Judith Butler includes the arm in a list of limbs that can symbolise the phallus. Although I always have had sympathy for Judith Butler’s “The Lesbian Phallus” (1993: 88), and by this I mean her argument, I wonder if we make arms into phallic symbols, that we might miss lesbian arms in all their fleshy potential.

Let me share another “lesbian lives” story. When I gave that first paper on willfulness at Lesbian Lives in 2010, Kath Browne said to me afterwards, I am not sure if she remembers this, that my lecture concluded with a real “call to arms.” I think you were referring to my call for us to be willful, to be killjoys, to be willing to cause the unhappiness we are assumed to cause. It took me a long time before I heard the arms in that expression “call to arms,” even though I had already been struck by the wayward arm from the Grimm story.  Once I heard the arms, the call sounded differently:  the call to arms as the call of arms.  A call can mean a lament, an accusation; a naming, as well as a visitation (in the sense of a calling upon). Can we put the “arms” back into the “miserable army” of the inverted described in Radcliffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness? Can we hear in the sorrow of their lament a call?

A wayward arm is a call of arms. A call of arms can be a recall. Just recall Sojourner Truth speaking to the suffragettes, having to insist on being a woman activist as a black woman and former slave, having to insist that abolitionism and suffrage can and should be spoken by the same tongue : “Ain’t I a woman,” she says. “Look at me,” she says, “look at my arm.” And in brackets, in the brackets of history, it is said that Sojourner Truth at this moment: “bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power” (cited in Zackodnik 2011: 99).[1] The muscularity of her arm is an inheritance of history; the history of slavery shown in the strength of the arm, the arm required to plough, to sow the field. The arms of the slave belonged to the master, as did the slave, as the ones who were not supposed to have a will of their own.  No wonder we must look to the arm, if we are to understand the history of those who rise up against oppression.

Those who have to insist on being women are willful women, and the arm becomes your resource, something that can lend its hand in a battle to be. Trans women are willful women; women who have to insist on being women, who have to keep insisting, again and again, often in the face of violent and repeated acts of misgendering. Any feminists who do not stand up, who do not wave their arms to protest against this misgendering, have become straightening rods. When I ask for a revival of the militancy of the figure of the lesbian feminist I am imagining lesbian feminism as in a fundamental and necessary alliance with transfeminism. Transfeminism has also brought feminism back to life. And can I add here that an anti-trans stance is an anti-feminist stance; it is against the feminist project of creating worlds to support those for whom gender fatalism (boys will be boys, girls will be girls) is fatal; a sentencing to death. We have to hear that fatalism as punishment and instruction: it is the story of the rod, of how those who have wayward wills or who will waywardly (boys who will not be boys, girls who will not be girls) are beaten. We will not be beaten. We need to drown these anti-trans voices out by raising the sound of our own. Our voices need to become our arms; rise up; rise up.

There are many arms, they keep coming up, arms that are muscular, strong, labouring arms, arms that refuse to be employed, striking arms, arms that break, Gloria Anzaldua said once, “I’m a broken arm” (1983: 204);  arms that are lost in service to the industrial machine. Willful arms not only have a history; they are shaped by history. Arms are history made flesh.  Arms that exceed an idea of the arm (an idea, say, of how a woman’s arm should appear) have something to say to us. It is the arms that can help us make the connection between histories that otherwise do not seem to meet. Intersectionality is army. If histories meet in arms, then histories meet in the very limbs of our rebellion. The arms that build the master’s residence are the arms that will bring the walls down. Audre Lorde entitled an essay with a proclamation : “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (1984: 110-113). In that unflinching “will never” is a call to arms, do not become the master’s tool!

Chip, chip, chip, when our arms become tools, we hammer away at the house of his being. We make our own houses, lighter, looser; see how the walls move; it is a movement.Chip, chip, chip, a lesbian feminist army is being assembled.

Here we are; here we come; here we arm.

Thank you.


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

Anzaldúa, Gloria (1999) [1987]. Borderlands, La Fontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco:   Aunt Lute Books.

———————- (1983). “La Prieta” in Cherrie Morago and Gloria Anzaldua (eds). The  Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour. Watertown:  Persephone  Press. pp.198-209.

Brown, Rita Mae (1973). Rubyfruit Jungle. New York: Bantam Books.

Butler, Judith  (2003). Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” London:

Echols, Alice (1989). Daring to be Bad: Radical Feminism in America,1967-1985.  University of Minnesota Press.

Firestone, Shulamith (1970). The Dialectic of Sex: The Case for Feminist Revolution. New York: Bantam Books.

Frye, Marilyn (1991). “Introduction”, Are Your Girls Travelling Alone? by Marilyn Murphy, Los Angeles: Clothes Spin Fever Press. pp.11-16.

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

Gupta, Camel (2014). Presentation in Black British Feminism panel, Centre for Feminist Research, Goldsmiths. December 11.

Halberstam, Jack (1998). Female Masculinity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hall, Radclyffe (1982) [1928]. The Well of Loneliness. London: Virago Press.

Lorde, Audre  (1988). A Burst of Light, Essays. Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Books.

——————–(1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: Crossing Press.

Morago, Cherrie (1981). “The Welder,” in Cherrie Morago and Gloria Anzaldúa (eds). A Bridge Called by Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour. Watertown: Persephone Press. P.219.

Penelope, Julia (1992). Call Me Lesbian: Lesbian Lives, Lesbian Theory. New York: Crossing Press.

Preciado, Paul (2012). “Queer Bulldogs” Documenta 13.

Rich, Adrienne  (1986). “Notes Toward a Politics of Location” in Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose 1979-1985.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Walker, Alice (2005).  In Search of Our Mothers Gardens. Phoenix, New Edition.

Zackodnik, Teresa (2011). Press, Platform, Pulpit: Black Feminist Publics in the Era of Reform. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.


[1] Zackodnick is citing here from Frances Dana Gage’s Reminiscences in which Gave, a leading feminist, reformer and abolitionist, gives us this account of Truth’s speech as well as “bodily testimony” that has been crucial to how it has been remembered. It is important to note the status of this description as citation: our access to Sojourner Truth’s address is through the testimony of others, in particular, the testimony of white women. Maria Zackodnick notes that other accounts of this event did not include references to Truth baring her arm (2011: 99). We learn from this to be cautious about our capacity to bear witness to arms in history: we might only be able to read (of) arms through the mediation of other limbs.

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You are oppressing us!

Those who are oppressed – who have to struggle to exist often by virtue of being a member of a group – are often judged as the oppressors. We only have to turn the pages of feminist history to know this. When lesbians demanded entry into feminist spaces, we were called a “lavender menace.” We got in the way of the project of making feminism more acceptable. To be rendered unacceptable is often to be treated as the ones with the power (the power to take something away). I recently heard a heterosexual feminist speak of lesbians in feminism in exactly these terms: as wielding all the power. When black women and women of colour spoke of racism in feminism we were heard, we are heard, as angry, mean and spiteful, as hurting white women’s feelings. The angry woman of colour is not only a feminist killjoy she is often a killer of feminist joy. She gets in the way of how white women occupy feminism.

This is a difficult history.

History happens; it happens again.

Yesterday a letter was published in The Guardian that basically suggests that feminists are being silenced within universities.  This might sound like a letter I would support. I am a feminist, and I willfully refuse to be silenced, although nor do I assume I have some sort of right or automatic entitlement to speak.

However this letter works to create false impressions implying that critical feminists are being silenced and oppressed by some (relatively) unspecified others. We need to specify who these others are. The politics of the letter is about the politics of this who.

Specific cases are mentioned in the letter as evidence of the silencing of feminists. The first case mentioned is that of Kate Smurthwaite whose comedy show was cancelled by the Student’s Union at Goldsmiths. This cancellation is then described as part of “a worrying pattern of intimidation and silencing of individuals whose views are deemed ‘transphobic’ or ‘whorephobic.'” The accusations are strong: these cases are collectively identified as “attempts at intimidation” and as “bullying.” The basic claim is that no platforming is being used to silence critical feminist voices. So rather than no platforming being used as a response to fascism “today it is being used to prevent the expression of feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists.”

The letter contains much false information. I want to understand why this is the case; I want to understand how such a letter could be signed and published. Of the three cases mentioned only one was actually about “no platforming” (Julie Bindel) and even then the no platform policy is falsely attributed to the National Union of Students.

Just take the first case. Kate Smurthwaite was not censored from speaking at Goldsmiths because of her views on sex work. She was certainly not “no platformed” by Goldsmiths Feminist Society, which did hold a vote about whether to co-host this event with the Goldsmiths Comedy Society (the vote was not even about moving or cancelling the event). The eventual cancelling of the event seems to be as much a result of the performer perceiving that protests and pickets were likely – rather than protests or threat of pickets (only one tweet has been found which mentioned pickets, and that was not from a student at Goldsmiths). The organiser of this event gives us a full account of the messiness of this cancellation here.

So what is going on then? What is noticeable of course is how quickly the story of the feminist comedian being censored for her critical views gets picked up and circulated by the media, and even ends up as a “truth statement” within this letter. What do we learn from this quick circulation? Quite a lot I would say. There is an investment here: I would call this a narrative investment.  There is a desire for evidence “that feminist arguments critical of the sex industry and of some demands made by trans activists are being censored.”  As such the explanation of the cancellation seems to be in the end what the cancellation was about: the desire for more evidence of the stifling of debate and the censoring of some critical feminist views. These views then get expressed again as if they are being stifled.  They get repeated by being presented as prohibited.

Whenever people keep being given a platform to say they have no platform, or whenever people speak endlessly about being silenced, you not only have a performative contradiction; you are witnessing a mechanism of power. I often describe diversity work as mechanical work. We know a lot about the mechanisms of power when we try to transform the norms embedded in a situation. The power of some to determine the discourse is often upheld by being concealed or denied. We need as feminists to offer some counter explanations of what is going on than the explanations offered by this letter. The narrative of “being silenced” has become a mechanism for enabling and distributing some forms of expression. Indeed I would even argue that the narrative of being silenced from speaking has become an incitement to speak: it incites the very thing it claims is being stopped.

If there is a desire to accumulate evidence of one’s own views being prohibited or not heard, what would the desire be doing? One might think of Cathy Newman’s recent tweets about not being allowed into a mosque because she was a woman. Turns out she was in the wrong place. Why did she tell this version of events? A version can be told quickly when that version is to hand or handy.  What happened could be treated as evidence that she was excluded as a woman becomes that viewpoint is perpetually recited and is thus in circulation: that Islam is sexist; that Islam is bad for women; that Muslim women need to be saved by non-Muslim women.  I would call this viewpoint racism. I am always willing to give problems their names! Here the desire is not only for evidence of exclusion (for who one is, what one says) but for evidence that can support an explanation: they are sexists. Look!

This look is really: Look at me!

Look, look!

Note how the understandably strong reactions to Cathy Newman’s racist rant are then described by another non-Muslim feminist Louise Mensch as “trolling.” She now reappears as a white woman victim (that the white woman can go so quickly from saviour to victim is often how she keeps her place).  When narratives are firmly in place, and things happen, these happenings can be used to confirm that narrative (often regardless of what happened).

Look, look!

Sometimes a desire for evidence to confirm a belief that is already held can lead to forms of provocation and intimidation in order to generate that evidence.  More and more offensive speech acts will be articulated because there is desire for the offence to be caused; a desire for evidence that the other’s offendability has restricted “our freedom.” I explored how, for example, much Islamaphobia rests on the circulation of the figure of the “easily offendable Muslim” in my 2010 book, The Promise of Happiness. That figure is doing so much work; that figure allows racist speech to be articulated not only as free speech but as rebellious and minority speech that has to be defended in order to be articulated. This is why the myth of the “political correct majority” remains so generative: those who object to such-and-such view (a view that is often about the socially dominant exercising their dominance through verbal assaults) are treated as a silencing majority, wielding power with pens.

Back to the letter.

This is why the letter rests on flimsy material. The letter lacks evidence because it is assembled around a desire for evidence that is lacking. This letter gives evidence to this desire rather than giving us evidence. The example of Germaine Greer would be another case in point: she was not stopped from speaking at all. She spoke, as so did trans feminists activists at another event organised by  LGBT+ Society and the Women’s Society with transfeminist speakers including  Roz Kaveney and Sarah Brown (please see this important contribution by Sarah Brown which reflects on this case and offers a powerful critique of the letter). If anything what we have evidence of here is student protests leading to the proliferation rather than prevention of discourse. The very material used as evidence in the letter of a stifling of critical feminist views suggests instead a lively critical dissenting feminist student population. Lively dissenting feminist student voices are certainly what I hear when I listen to the students at Goldsmiths. I am so encouraged by their voices!

I think there is more going on. The letter is noticeably vague about the views it represents as being silenced or censored. I want to concentrate on the implications that feminists who are critical of “some demands made by trans activists” are being silenced. Note that the letter has already used the expression “transphobia” in a way that implies this accusation of “transphobia” is a means by which feminist views are being stifled. Put the sentences together and you have the picture: feminists who are critical of some of the demands of trans activists (which demands? One wonders) are accused of transphobia, which is how they are silenced.

I have since read a feminist defence of this letter which states that the accusation of transphobia is being used unfairly to dismiss the work of the feminists named in the letter (and is itself evidence that those who make the accusation have not read their work). I find this accusation that this accusation is false quite startling in relation to one person in particular. I stopped reading the comments made on social media by this person some time ago after she made repeated remarks about “trannies.” I did not want to keep encountering this language; I experienced it as “hammering.”  If I as a cis woman experienced her words as hammering, I can only imagine how trans people who read these words must feel. This is the same person who described a transwoman as a “man in a dress.”

Now you might think: free speech is freedom to be offensive. You might think: speech should be protected unless it is an incitement to violence.  What or who are we protecting? Again, one wonders.

I would argue that anti-trans stances and statements of some so-called “critical feminists” including some of those named in the letter should not be understood as feminism. I consider this work deeply anti-feminist as well as anti-trans. I have read some of this material as I am working on Living a Feminist Life, and despite what I knew already, I have been quite shocked by what I have encountered (I am not going to cite this work in my book, nor here, because I refuse to legitimate that work).

For me, being a feminist at work is also about what or who we do not cite, recite or incite.

No citation can be a feminist policy!

When I put on twitter that I consider some of this feminist material as “an incitement to violence” I was sent screenshots of tweets, which were being sent to me as evidence that trans activists are violent or incite violence against TERFS (trans exclusionary radical feminists). When I blocked some of these senders, it was taken as evidence that I was “not a feminist.” Now, politics is rarely about one good and one bad side; nor about innocence on one side and guilt on the other. But politics is also messy because power is asymmetrical. Challenging TERFS is about challenging a position not an identity. TERF describes a position. The term is not a slur: it is a pretty fair and mild description of some feminists who aim to exclude trans people from feminism. There are many radical feminists, both now and in the past, who would understand trans inclusion as a radical and necessary feminist practice. Any TERF can thus unbecome one. This unbecoming would be a feminist becoming! Please I extend this to you as an invitation! I do think we might as feminists be aiming to eliminate the positions that aim to eliminate people. Challenging TERFS is not the same kind of speech act as misgendering a transwoman by addressing her as him, an act I would describe as an intentional act of elimination.

I am not saying there have not been problematic ways of addressing the problem of exclusion by trans activists and their allies. But the desire for evidence itself, as I have already noted, can have a role in generating evidence. And I know (speaking from my own experience as a lesbian feminist of colour) that to address the problem of exclusion within feminism often means becoming the problem. Becoming the problem unsurprisingly, I would say, can lead to the use of some problematic language (it can be very frustrating, to put it mildly, too mildly, to have your very existence challenged in the spaces you seek out because in the wider world your very existence is challenged!).

Let’s get back to my point: when the letter says that critical feminists are being silenced, it is implied “being critical” of the demands of trans activists should be a legitimate feminist speech. I think what is under-described or miss-described here is the nature of some of that speech. At a feminist march a pamphlet was distributed by trans exclusionary radical feminists that I would described as a vile form of hate speech: it basically accused transwomen of being murderers and rapists. When I spoke of my own outrage about these pamphlets, one of the people named in the letter said something like, “so are you saying that it is as bad as the Holocaust.” It would take me a long time to unpack what it is wrong with this statement. But just note the implication; that violence against trans people is “relatively” minor, a footnote in a horrifying history of racial hatred.

How often: some forms of violence are understood as trivial or not even as violence at all. How often: violence is reproduced by not being seen as violence. So much violence directed against groups (that is directed against individuals as perceived members of a group) often works by locating that violence within those groups. Thus minorities are often deemed as being violent, or as causing violence, or even as causing the violence directed against them. To give an account of trans people as causing violence is to cause violence against trans people.  We are most certainly talking about lives and deaths here; and we are most certainly talking about incitement to violence.

Let’s go back to this letter.  This letter implies that some feminist statements that should be expressed freely, that what need to enable debate and dialogue as the sign of a healthy lively democracy. But transphobia and anti-trans statements should not be treated as just another viewpoint that we should be free to express at a happy diversity table. There cannot be a dialogue when some at the table are in effect or intent arguing for the elimination of others at the table. When you have “dialogue or debate” with those who wish to eliminate you from the conversation (because they do not recognise what is necessary for your survival or because they don’t even think your existence is possible), then “dialogue and debate” becomes another technique of elimination. A refusal to have some dialogues and some debates can thus be a key tactic for survival.

The presentation of trans activists as a lobby and as bullies rather than as minorities who are constantly being called upon to defend their right to exist is a mechanism of power. Sadly, this letter is evidence that the mechanism is working. These dynamics are familiar to me from my work on racist speech acts (racism is so often defended as freedom of speech). Racists present themselves as injured/ under attack/a minority fighting against a powerful anti-racist lobby that is “busy” suppressing their voices. We can hear resonance without assuming analogy. We need to hear the constant stream of anti-trans statements as a “chip, chip, chip” that has violent wearing effects.  Any feminism that participates in this chipping away is not a feminism worthy of that name.

Of course people protested against this letter. I protested too: I felt deeply enraged by it. But this will happen quickly (remember narratives “pick up” on things that happen by explaining that happening in terms that are already in placed before things happen): those who protest against the letter will be understood as the harassers. Mark my words! The protests against the letter can then even be used to confirm the truth stated by the letter; this is what is generative about it; that is how it is working.

Look, look!

And note too: protesting about the misuse of the discourse of free speech will not be judged as evidence of free speech! When people express anger and rage, that anger and rage will be heard as a political weapon. I expect people will hear that anger not as an invitation to reflect on what is wrong with what they have signed up to but as a yet another confirmation that they are wronged.

When some people exercise their freedom of speech by protesting against some speech that freedom of speech is understood as oppressive.

Free speech has thus become a political technology that is used to redefine freedom around the right of some to occupy time and space. It is “the others” who become the oppressors; those who in speaking of a wrong are judged as speaking wrong.

We need to say it: this is wrong.

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Institutional Habits

Hello fellow killjoys

In the past few months I have been finishing my book Living a Feminist Life . For some reason I have found it difficult to move from that writing project to working on my blog. I have to say, though, that writing my blog has really helped me to write the  book!

I will come back to my blog, later. In the meantime I am sharing a paper I wrote entitled “Institutional Habits”. I wrote this paper when I was a visiting scholar at Cambridge University in 2013. The paper was written for a book on Merleau-Ponty and politics that did not end up coming to fruition. It covers some material that I have covered before (from On Being Included as well as Willful Subjects) but it puts the argument together slightly differently.

All best,

Feminist Killjoy


Institutional Habits

Sara Ahmed, Goldsmiths, March, 2013

In this chapter I explore how Merleau-Ponty’s model of the habitual body can help us to understand how institutions are brought into existence over time. Merleau-Ponty suggests that time is “the very model of institution” (2010: 7). An institution, he suggests, should be understood in a double sense: it refers us both to a beginning and an end; a realization and destruction. If to institute is to open something, then an institution is also that which has begun; it is both the order already given to things, and something that disturbs an order of things; a re-ordering is a new ordering. As Rosalyn Diprose eloquently describes, for Merleau-Ponty, “meaning is both instituted (dependent upon being ‘exposed to’ an already meaningful world) and instituting (involves ‘initiation’ of the new, the opening of ‘a future’)” (2010: np, emphasis in original).  Merleau-Ponty’s concern with doubleness – with how change and creativity become possible only as or in relation to what has already been assembled or begun –  characterises his work in general, and makes his work especially well suited to understanding the particular phenomena of the institution.  Across a range of social science disciplines including economics and political science, as well as sociology, we have witnessed the emergence of  “the new institutionalism,” concerned precisely with how we can understand institutions as processes or even as effects of processes. Indeed, Victor Nee argues that the new institutionalism “seeks to explain institutions rather than simply assume their existence” (1988: 1). To explain institutions is to give an account of how they emerge or take form. Such explanations require a thick form of description a way of describing not simply the activities that take place within institutions (which would allow the institution into the frame of analysis only as a container, as what contains what is described rather than being part of a description), but how those activities shape the sense of an institution, or even institutional sense.

Returning to Merleau-Ponty’s approach to the habitual body would constitute an important contribution to the project of making sense of institutions. Indeed I explore how Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on habit can be developed to account for “institutional bodies,” by which I mean not only how bodies come to inhabit institutional spaces, but the mechanisms whereby certain bodies comes to be assumed as the right bodies by an institution. If the development of this argument is to offer a rethinking of habituation as  an institutional process, then as a development it is attuned to Merleau-Ponty’s own double sense: as both continuing and changing the terms I have inherited from him.

More specifically, in this chapter I want to think through how institutions become habits by drawing upon research I completed on diversity work within educational institutions.[1]  I mean diversity work in two senses: firstly, I consider diversity work as the work done those who are appointment to institutionalize commitments to diversity. In this sense, diversity workers could be described as “habit changers.” Secondly diversity work is the work we might do when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution. Some might be diversity workers in both senses: those who do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution who are often given the task of transforming those norms. For example, people of colour tend to be diversity workers in both senses: because we tend to embody diversity for institutions of whiteness, we are often given the task of doing diversity.

The Habitual Body

We can call institutional norms “somatic norms” (Puwar 2004). Merleau-Ponty’s work on the habitual body can help us to reflect on how bodies incorporate the worlds they inhabit. In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty offers powerful descriptions of the intelligence of bodies, of how we learn through our body. In dance, he suggests, “You don’t learn the formula intellectually first: for instance in dancing “it is the body which ‘catches’ (kapiert) and ‘comprehends’ movement” (2002: 165). To carry out an action is to catch its significance: “The acquisition of habit is indeed the grasping of significance but it is the motor grasping of motor significance” (165). I think it is important that we do not rely here on a distinction between mental and motor. Even tasks often deemed mental (such as the labour of thought) involve motor movement. To think might require we write our thoughts, moving our hands and arms as we lean on the desk; and in the activity of writing, in the motor of the movement, we might even “catch” the thought.

If we have a tendency to divide the mental activities from motor ones, as well as to elevate the former over the latter, than Merleau-Ponty teaches us to be attuned to the motor of the mental. He shows how bodies are engaged in the world practically. It is through the tasks that are on the way to being completed, that a body reveals a stance or attitude. As he describes:

my body appears to me as an attitude directed towards a certain existing or possible task. And indeed its spatiality is not, like that of external objects or like that of “spatial sensations”, a spatiality of position, but a spatiality of situation. If I stand in front of my desk and lean on it with both hands, only my hands are stressed and the whole of the body trails behind them like the tail of a comet. It is not that I am unaware of the whereabouts of my shoulder or back, but these are simply swallowed up in the position of my hands, and my whole posture can be read so to speak in the pressure they exert on the table. (115)

Here, the directedness of the body towards an action, which is a leaning of a body towards some things, such as a desk (that has its own leanings), is how the body “appears.”[2]  The body is “habitual” not only in the sense that it performs actions repeatedly, but in the sense that when it performs such actions, it does not command attention, apart from at the “surface” where it “encounters” an external object (such as the hands that lean on the desk or table, which feel the “stress” of the action). In other words, the body is habitual insofar as it “trails behind” in the performing of action, insofar as it does not pose “a problem” or an obstacle to the action, or it not “stressed” by “what” the action encounters. The postural body for Merleau-Ponty is the habitual body: the body that “does not get in the way of an action” is behind an action.

We can explore the relation between what is behind social action and the promise of social mobility. Merleau-Ponty uses as his example objects that enable bodies to extend their motility, such as “the blind man’s stick.”  A habit is when something has been incorporated into the body, becoming part of the body: “The blind man’s stick has ceased to be an object for him, and is no longer perceived for itself” (165). We must note here that the extension of motility through objects means that the object is no longer perceived as something apart from the body. The object, as with the rest of the body, trails behind the action, even when it is literally “in front” of the body. When I am writing I might not then notice the pen, even if it is before me, as it has to be, for me to write. When something becomes part of the habitual, it ceases to be an object of perception: it is simply put to work. Such objects in being incorporated into the body also extend its horizon, or what is within reach: “The position of things is immediately given through the extent to the reach which carries him to it, which comprises besides the arm’s own reach the stick’s range of action. If I want to get used to a stick, I try it by touching a few things with it, and eventually I have it ‘well in hand,’ I can see what things are within reach or out of reach of my stick” (166).  Habits involve not only the repetition of actions that tend toward things, but also involve the incorporation of that which is “tended towards” into the body. Reachability is hence an effect of the habitual; what is reachable depends on what bodies “take in” as objects that extend their bodily motility, becoming like second skin.

Objects that we “tend towards” become habitual insofar as they are taken into the body, re-shaping its surface.  Merleau-Ponty describes “Habit expresses our power of dilating our being-in-the-world, or changing our existence by appropriating fresh instruments” (166). The process of incorporation is certainly about what is familiar, but it is also a relationship to the familiar. The familiar is that which is “at home,” but also how the body feels-at-home in the world: “Once the stick has become a familiar instrument, the world of feelable things recedes and now begins, not at the outer skin of the hand, but at the end of the stick” (176). When bodies are orientated towards objects, those objects may cease to be apprehended as objects, becoming extensions of bodily skin. As Merleau-Ponty further suggests:

We grasp external spaces through our bodily situation. A “corporeal” or postural schema gives us a global, practical and implicit notion of the relation between our body and things, and our hold on them. A system of possible movements, or “motor projects” radiates from us to the environment. Our body is not in space like things; it inhabits or haunts space. It implies itself to space like a hand to an instrument and when we wish to move about we do not move the body as we move an object. (1964: 5)

The language implies here that bodies provide us with a tool, as that through which we “hold” or “grasp” onto things, although elsewhere Merleau-Ponty suggests that the body is not itself an instrument, but a form of expression, a making visible of our intentions. (5) What makes bodies different is how they inhabit space: space is not a container for the body; it does not contain the body, as if the body was “in it.” Rather bodies are submerged, such that they become the space they inhabit; in taking up space, bodies move through space, and are affected by the “where” of that movement. It is through this movement that the surface of spaces as well as bodies takes shape.  Bodies as well as objects take shape through being orientated towards each other, as an orientation that maybe experienced as the co-habitation or sharing of space.

How does this model of the habitual body help us to think through institutions? At one level we could think of institutions as dwelling spaces; they are thus inhabited or even haunted by bodies. Bodies are extended through the work of inhabitance. We can certainly think through these mechanisms in involve incorporation: as bodies become attuned to an organisation, they acquire practical skills and know-how. The very idea of “institutionalisation” (of becoming institutional) might even denote those tendencies or habitual forms of action that are not named or made explicit.  We can thus think of institutions in terms of how some kinds of action become automatic at a collective level; institutional nature might also be “second nature.” When an action is incorporated by an institution it becomes natural to it. Second nature is “accumulated and sedimented history,” as “frozen history that surfaces as nature” (Jacoby 1975: 31). We might describe institutionalisation as “becoming background,” when being “in” the institution is to “agree” with what becomes background. It is this becoming background that creates a sense of ease and familiarity, an ease that can also take the form of incredulity at the naivety or ignorance of the newly arrived or of the outsiders. The familiarity of the institution is a way of inhabiting the familiar. Institutions become familiar, and certain instruments come to extend the capacities of bodies, as an extension of the domain of the reachable. Institutions are designed to enable certain kinds of tasks to be completed. To design a space for work is also to create a space for the working body. Merleau-Ponty describes: “What counts for the orientation of my spectacle is not my body as it in fact is, as a thing in objective space, but as a system of possible actions, a virtual body with its phenomenal ‘place’ defined by its task and situation. My body is wherever there is something to be done” (2002: 291).

If the body is where something is to be done, then the body that is performing its tasks also requires things to be handy. Think not only of the tools that becoming part of an institution might require you to use (the communication technologies, for instance, that allow you to communicate or “sign” with others, creating lines or pathways in their trail) but also of the incorporation of the institution as an idea: you might come to think of yourself as being from such and such an organisation, such that the edges between you and it ceases to be experienced as such: it becomes part of you, part of the bodily horizon. When good things happen to it, you might feel inflated; for example, when bad things happen, you might feel deflated.

But who is this “you”? Can anyone over and in time experience this kind of ease of passage? Let’s return to the question of habit. Following Gail Weiss (2008) I would suggest that William James’s approach to habit as the gradual loss of plasticity could be usefully brought into conversation with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. A loss of plasticity is not simply a loss: it is how certain kinds of movements become easier or less trouble through repetition. James cites the work of a M. Léon Dumont on habit:

Everyone knows how a garment having been worn a certain time clings better to the shape of the body than when it was new. A lock works better after being used some time; at the outset a certain force was required to overcome certain roughness in the mechanism. The overcoming of their resistance is a phenomenon of habituation. It costs less trouble to fold a paper after it has been folded already. This saving of trouble is due to the essential nature of habit, which brings it about that, to reproduce the effect, a less amount of the outward cause is required (1950: 105).

The description of habituation can be understood in terms of attunement. A garment becomes attuned to the body that wears it. It is not just things happen to fall this way or that: through repetition, things acquire certain tendencies. Things cling better or become clingy in time. If a shape is acquired through the repetition of an encounter, then repetition becomes direction. Although William James considers habits as socially conservative (he famously describes habit as “the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent” (121)) he also suggests that habits enable the conservation of energy. When more actions become habitual, subjects are free to attend to other matters, including those matters that might matter in a morally significant way. For James, even if habits are socially conservative, they make a dynamic psychic life possible.

Maybe an institution is like an old garment: if it has acquired the shape of those who tend to wear it, then it becomes easier to wear if you have that shape. The ease of movement, the lack of a stress might describe not only the habits of a body that has incorporated things, but also how an institution takes shape around a body. If a body is oriented toward things, an institution might be orientated around that body. We might be thinking of this bodily inhabitance as “fit.” Take the example of the reduction over time of the force required to work a locking mechanism. The more you use a mechanism, the less effort is required; repetition if you like smooths the passage of the key.  James describes this reduction of force or effort as essential to the phenomena of habituation. “Fitting” could also be thought in these terms:  as an energy saving device. If less effort is required to unlock the door for the key that fits the lock, so too less effort is required to pass through an institution for bodies that already fit. The lessening of effort might be essential to the phenomena of fitting.  After all, institutions come to have their own tendencies: they tend toward the bodies that tend to inhabit them.  Once a certain body is assumed, then a body that fulfil this assumption can more easily take up a space even if the space is imagined as open to anybody. Writing these words as I am in Cambridge University, an institution of privilege which does seem to sweat from the very architecture of its space, from the pores of its skin, I am reminded how much inhabiting an institution involves garments: how class can be comfort of wearing the right jumper with the right body, a “fit” acquired over and in time: in the comportment and postures that bodies remember without having to think.

We can repose the question of whiteness in terms of the institutional body.[3] What does it mean to talk about whiteness as institutional problem or as a problem of institutions? When we describe institutions as being white, we are pointing to how institutional spaces are shaped by the proximity of some bodies and not others: white bodies gather, and create the impression of coherence.  Think of the “convene” in convention. A convention is a meeting point, a point around which bodies gather. Whiteness is a name we give to how some gatherings become conventions. Institutional norms can refer to the explicit rules or norms of conduct enforced by an institution (through a system of awards and sanctions). If we think of institutional norms as somatic, then we can show how institutions by assuming a body can generate an idea of appropriate conduct without making this idea explicit. The institute “institutes” the body that is instituting, without that body coming into view. If institutional whiteness describes an institutional habit, then whiteness recedes into the background, just like Merleau-Ponty’s comet that trails behind, not feeling the stress of an encounter.

Whiteness then can become something that we encounter, almost as if it is a tangible thing in the world. When I walk into university meetings that is just what I encounter. Sometimes I get used to it. At one conference we organize, four Black feminists arrive. They all happen to walk into the room at the same time. Yes, we do notice such arrivals. The fact that we notice such arrivals tells us more about what is already in place than it does about “who” arrives. Someone says: “it is like walking into a sea of whiteness.” This phrase comes up, and it hangs in the air. The speech act becomes an object, which gathers us around.  When an arrival is noticeable, we notice what is around. I look around, and re-encounter the sea of whiteness. I had become so used to this whiteness that I had stopped noticing it. As many have argued, whiteness is invisible and unmarked, as the absent centre against which others appear as points of deviation (Dyer 1997; Frankenberg 1993). Whiteness could be described as a habit insofar as it tends to go unnoticed (Sullivan 2006: 1).[4] Or perhaps whiteness is only invisible to those who inhabit it, or those get so used to its inhabitance that they learn not to see it, even when they are not it.

The word “comfort” suggests well-being and satisfaction, but it can also suggest an ease and easiness. Comfort is about an encounter between bodies and worlds, the promise of a “sinking” feeling. If white bodies are comfortable it is because they can sink into spaces that extend their shape. Whiteness becomes in other words not only phenomena of habituation (how an individual body repeats actions and catches their significance) but also a means of creating an institutional space in which some bodies more than others can “fit.”  Whiteness is more than a body count, even when bodies being counted are those for whom whiteness has become a habit. Rather what is repeated is a very style of embodiment, a way of inhabiting space, which claims space by the accumulation of gestures of “sinking” into that space.

Diversity Work and Habit Change

In this section I want to explore diversity work in the first sense: as the work that is done by those appointed to institutionalize a commitment to diversity. I have already described such workers as “habit changers.” We can immediately identify the paradox in this work: if you are employed to change the habits of the organization, then you are employed to change the employer.  The means by which you are given the task might thus restrict your capacity to complete the task. If to institutionalize diversity is a goal for diversity workers it does not necessarily mean that it is the institution’s goal.  I think this “not necessarily” describes a paradoxical situation that is a life situation for many diversity practitioners.  Having an institutional goal to make diversity a goal can even be a sign that diversity is not an institutional goal.

The institutional nature of diversity work is often described in terms of the language of integrating or embedding diversity into the ordinary work or the daily routines of an organization. As one practitioner explains “my role is about embedding equity and diversity practice in the daily practice of this university.  I mean, ideally I would do myself out of a job but I suspect that’s not going to happen in the short term, so I didn’t want to do that and I haven’t got the staff or money to do it anyway.” The diversity worker has a job because diversity and equality are not already given: this obvious fact has some less obvious consequences. When your task is to remove the necessity of your existence, then your existence is necessary for the task.

Practitioners partly work them at the level of an engagement with explicit institutional goals, that is, of adding diversity to the terms in which institutions set their agendas; what we might think of as an institutional purpose or end. An institution will give form to its aims in a mission statement. If diversity work is institutional work, then it can mean working on mission statements, getting the term “diversity” included in the statements. This is not to say that a mission statement simply reflects the aims of the university: as Marilyn Strathern has shown, mission statements are “utterances of a specific kind” which mobilise the “international language of governance” (2006: 194-5).  Giving form to institutional goals involves following a set of conventions.  This is not to say that mission statements are any less significant for being conventional; the aim of a convention is still directive. When I participated in an equality and diversity committee, some of our discussions were based on how to get “equality” and “diversity” into the University’s mission statement and the other policy statements that were supposed to derive from it.  We aimed not only to get the terms in, but also to get them up: to get the terms “equality” and “diversity” cited as high up the statement as possible.  I recall the feeling of doing this work: in retrospect or in abstract what we achieved might seem trivial (I remember one rather long discussion about a semi-colon in a tag line!) but the task was still saturated with significance. The significance might be thought of as a distraction (you work on something you can achieve as a way of not focusing on – and thus being depressed by – what you cannot achieve), but also could point to how institutional politics can involve the matter of detail; perhaps, diversity provides a form of punctuation.

However, institutionalisation was not simply defined by practitioners in terms of the formal or explicit goals, values or priorities of an institution. In contrast many spoke about institutionalisation in terms of what institutions “tend to do” whatever it is they say they are doing or should be doing.  They address the institutional body as a “habitual body” in Merleau-Ponty’s terms. Institutionalisation “comes up” for practitioners partly in their description of their own labour: diversity work is hard work as it is can involve within institutions what would not be otherwise done by them. As one interview describes “you need persistence and I think that’s what you need to do because not everyone has an interest in equity and diversity issues so I think it needs to be up there in people’s faces, well not right in their faced, but certainly up there with equal billing with other considerations, so that it’s always present, so that they eventually think of it automatically and that it becomes part of their considerations.”  The aim is to make thought about equality and diversity issues “automatic.” Diversity workers must be persistent precisely because this kind of thought is not automatic; it is not the kind of thought that is normally included in “how institutions think,” to borrow an expression from the anthropologist Mary Douglas (1986). Or as Ole Elgström describes in a different but related context such thoughts have to “fight their way into institutional thinking” (2000: 458).  The struggle for diversity to become an institutional thought requires certain people to “fight their way.” Not only this: the persistence required exists in necessary relation to the resistance encountered. The more you persist, the more the signs of this resistance. The more resistance, the more persistence required.

The institution can be experienced by practitioners as resistance. One expression that came up in a number of my interviews was “banging your head against a brick wall.” Indeed, this experience of the brick wall was often described as an intrinsic part of diversity work. As one practitioner describes “so much of the time it is a banging your head on the brick wall job.” How interesting that a job description can be a wall description! The feeling of doing diversity work is the feeling of coming up against something that does not move; something solid and tangible.[5] The institution becomes that which you come up against. If we recall that most diversity practitioners are employed by institutions to do diversity (though not all, some practitioners end up having equality and diversity added to their job descriptions) then we can understand the significance of this description. The official desire to institutionalize diversity does not mean that the institution is opened up; indeed, the wall might become all the more apparent, all the more a sign of immobility, the more the institution presents itself as being opened up. The wall gives physical form to what a number of practitioners describe as “institutional inertia,” the lack of an institutional will to change.

Perhaps the habits of the institutions are not revealed unless you come up against them.  I want to take as example an encounter with the institution as a brick wall.  In the UK, new legislation on equality has brought about what I have called a new equality regime, in which equality has become redefined as a positive duty. The law seems to embody a will to bring about a new kind of body. But does it? The following is a quote is from a diversity offer based in a British university, who is describing how her institution made a decision to commit to a new equality policy:

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

It seems as if there is an institutional decision. Individuals within the institution must act as if the decision has been made for it to be made. If they do not, it has not. A decision made in present about the future (under the promissory sign “we will”) can be overridden by the momentum of the past.  The past becomes momentum that directs action without being given as a command or even in a way that resists a command. Note that the head of personnel did not need to take the decision out of the minutes for the decision not to bring something into effect. Perhaps an institution can say “yes” when there is not enough behind that “yes” for something to be brought about. It is simply that a “yes” does not bring something about, but that the “yes” conceals this not bringing under the sign of having brought.

A will can become a wall: what blocks an action. A wall can be an expression of what the institution is not willing to bring about.  The will is made out of sediment: what has settled and accumulated over time. Let’s return to Merleau-Ponty’s own description of the habitual body. It is a body that is leaning a certain way. When an action is being competed the body can be what trails behind. Perhaps we can think of this “behind” not only in terms of what does not come into view, but also as a form of momentum. An action is being completed because it is has energy and momentum behind it. A decision does not need to be made for the action to be completed; indeed a decision cannot easily intervene in its completion. You have to become pushy if you are to push against what has acquired momentum. As another practitioner describes “You can put all policies in place and put all the training in place and assume it will all happen and it has not happened” (Ahmed 2012: 126). Even with effort, you do not get through.  No wonder diversity work feels like banging your head against a wall. If the wall keeps its place, it is you that gets sore.

One way of thinking of diversity work would be as a practical phenomenology. It is not simply that diversity workers are philosophers- in the sense of being reflexive and critical – in their attitude toward institutions (though they are). It is not simply that they become conscious of what ordinarily recedes from view. Rather diversity workers acquire a critical orientation to institutions in the very process of coming up against them. They become conscious of “the brick wall,” as that which keeps its place even when an official commitment to diversity has been given. It is only the practical labor of “coming up against” the institution that allows this wall to become apparent. To those who do not come against it, the wall does not appear: the institution is lived and experienced as being open, committed and diverse; as happy as its mission statement, as diverse as its equality statement.

Breaking the Feather

Diversity work is also the work we do when we do not quite inhabit the “norms” of an organization. When you don’t quite inhabit norms, or you aim to transform them, you notice them, as you come up against them. We can return once more to Merleau-Ponty’s description of the habitual body, one form whom “I can,” expresses not only a practical orientation, but also competence or capacity. Merleau-Ponty notes: Consciousness is in the first place not a matter of ‘I think’ but of ‘I can’” (159). Both Iris Marion Young and Frantz Fanon supplement this focus on “I can,” with a view of the “I cannot,” a viewpoint of the body that does not extend into space: a female body, a black body: a black female body.

Let’s think more with Merleau-Ponty’s own examples. His primary example is the blind man’s stick. The blind man’s stick is a prosthesis that becomes handy: enabling the blind man to get about by feeling the world. The extension of mobility is for a body whose mobility is already compromised (the compromise is not necessarily “in” the body but as a relation of a body to a world that assumes the capacity for sight). The stick is a walking stick: incorporated into the body horizon; it becomes a means that enables the disable body to reach an end: to become more mobile in a world that tends to assume an able body in the design of public and social space. Vivian Sobchack describes in Carnal Thoughts “the prosthetic becomes an object only when there is a mechanical or social problem that pushes it obtrusively into the foreground of one’s consciousness” (2004: 211). The “point” of the prosthesis is to recede, to allow a body to inhabit a world that does not assume that body as a norm.

Merleau-Ponty also offers two other examples: that of a driver and his car; and a woman with a feather in her cap. In the case of the driver of the car, the object is a self-evident extension of the motility and range of the human body. The driver is competent when the steering wheel is not perceived as something being held, but becomes part of the body of the driver, allowing him to think whilst driving of things other than driving. What of the woman with a feather in her cap? The feather has no function; it does not enable her to move around in the world. The woman however, the example suggests, feels the feather: she “knows” where the feather ends; she is able to walk without breaking the feather: “A woman may, without any calculation, keep a safe distance between the feather in her hat and things which might break it off. She feels where the feather is just as we feel where our hand is” (165). The feather has been incorporated into a body horizon.

It might be here that we can understand the mechanisms of incorporation as not simply about the extension of bodily capacity. The incorporation of the feather seems bound up in some way not only with the achievement of femininity, but of how some bodies become what appears; or how appearance matters to the negotiation of social as well as bodily space. It might be that “appearing right” can become the aim; a body that can do is one that appears to others as doing what it can to appear in the right way. One might acknowledge here, as well, how this idea of the feminine body as attuned to her feather might itself be an expectation that gives her a direction. In other words, this idea might be a masculine idea, one that has “worlding” effects. One imagines then, too, how a woman who breaks her feather also breaks more than her feather: she might register as failing to be attuned to the requirements of femininity. [6]

I have suggested that phenomenology can help us explore bodies that are not at home in the world. When a category allows us to pass into the world we might not notice that we inhabit that category. When we are stopped, or held up, by how we inhabit what we inhabit, then the terms of habitation are revealed to us. We need to rewrite the world from the experience of not being able to pass into the world. I called in Queer Phenomenology for a phenomenology of “being stopped,” a description of the world from the point of view of those who do not flow into it (2006: 140). I suggested that if we begin with the body that loses its chair, the world we describe will be quite different (139). Or perhaps we might begin with a body that breaks the feather; that has not “felt” the things that are supposed to be part of its horizon.

In the first section of this chapter I explored an experience of fitting as comfort drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s description of the habitual body as the one that trails behind an encounter. How does it feel when you inhabit a space that does not extend your shape? To inhabit whiteness as a non-white body can be uncomfortable: you might even fail the comfort test. You won’t trail behind: you feel the stress of an encounter; you come up against a world by not being received into that world. It can be the simple act of walking into the room that causes discomfort. Whiteness can be an expectation of who will turn up. A person of color describes: “When l 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 20012: 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 expected 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, by being seamless or minimizing the signs of difference. If whiteness is what the institution is orientated around, then even bodies that do not appear white still have to inhabit whiteness. One person of color describes how she minimizes signs of difference (by not wearing anything perceived as “ethnic”) because she does not want to be seen as “rocking the boat” (Ahmed 2012: 158). The invitation to become more alike as an invitation of whiteness is about becoming more comfortable or about inhabiting a comfort zone.

Bodies stick out when they are out of place.  Think of the expression “stick out like a sore thumb.” To stick out can mean to become a sore point, or even to experience oneself as being a sore point. To inhabit whiteness as a not-white body can mean trying not to appear at all: ‘I have to pretend that l am not here because l don’t want to stick out too much because everybody knows l am the only black person here” (Ahmed 2012: 41). When you stick out, the gaze sticks to you. Sticking out from whiteness can thus re-confirm the whiteness of the space. Whiteness becomes obtrusive, what gets in the way of an occupation of space.  When we fail to inhabit a category (when we are questioned or question ourselves whether we are “it,” or pass as or into “it”) then that category becomes more apparent, rather like the institutional wall: a sign of immobility or what does not move.[7]

Diversity work thus can take the form of description: it can be to describe the effects of inhabiting institutional spaces that do not give you residence. An example: we are at a departmental meeting with students to introduce our courses. We come up, one after the other, to the podium. A colleague is chairing, introducing each of us in turn. She says: this is Professor So-and-so; this is Professor Such-and-such. On this particular occasion, I happen to be the only female professor in the room..  And I am the only professor introduced without using the title. She says: “This is Sara.” And in taking up the space that has been given to me, I feel like a girl, and I giggle. It is a “girling” moment to use Judith Butler’s evocative term (1993: 7). “Girling” moments do not stop happening, even after we have been pronounced girls. We can feel this assignment as atmosphere.  When you look like what they expect a professor to be, you are treated like a professor.  A sombre and serious mood follows those who have the right kind of body, the body that allows them to pass seamlessly into the category, when the category has a certain affective value, as sombre and serious.

I could add here that I was the only professor of color in the room (as the only professor of color in the department, this detail was not so surprising).  Other critics have documented what it means to occupy the place and position of a professor of color. Pierre Orelus, for example, offers a moving account of how being a professor of color causes trouble, as if being one thing, makes it difficult to be seen as the other: “after I formally introduce myself in class, I have undergraduate students who ask me, in a surprised tone of voice, ‘Are you really the professor?” I sometimes overhear them asking their peers, ‘Is he really the professor’” (2011: 31). Orelus compares this mode of questioning, this sense of curiosity and astonishment, with the questions typically asked of immigrants about “funny accents.” Or we could think of the questions asked of strangers, “where are you from?” as if to say, or more accurately, which is to say, you are not from here. When we are asked questions, we are being held up, we become questionable. Being asked whether you are the professor is also a way of being made into a stranger, of not being at home in a category that gives residence to others.

Diversity work can involve an experience of hesitation, of not knowing what to do in these situations. There is a labour in having to respond to a situation that others are protected from, a situation that does not come up for those whose residence is assumed. Do you point it out? Do you say anything? Will you cause a problem by describing a problem? Past experience tells you that to make such a point is to become a sore point. Sometimes you let the moment pass, because the consequences of not letting it pass are too difficult.

Some have to “insist” on belonging to the categories that give residence to others.  If you point out the failure to be given the proper name, or if you ask to be referred to by the proper name, then you have to insist on what is simply given to others. Not only that: you are heard as insistent, or even for that matter as self-promotional, as insisting on your dues. If you have to become insistent in order to receive what is automatically given to others, then your insistence confirms the improper nature of your residence.  We don’t tend to notice the assistance given to those whose residence is assumed.

Conclusion: Diversity work and Disorientation

To catalogue these incidents is not a melancholic task. I realise how much we come to know about institutional life because of these failures of residence: how much the categories in which we are immersed as styles of life become explicit when you do not quite inhabit them.   Diversity work can be disorientating; a way of making the familiar strange. Bodies that don’t fit, bodies that are tripped up, caught out, are bodies to who the institution is revealed. If we are disoriented by this work, what about the institutions?

If our arrival can cause discomfort, and even if it is uncomfortable to cause discomfort, it can be how things can happen. You learn to fade in the background, but sometimes you can’t or you don’t.  As Nirmal Puwar shows when bodies arrive who seem “out of place” in institutional worlds there is a process of disorientation: “People are ‘thrown’ because a whole world view is jolted” (Puwar 2004: 43). Or, as Roderick A. Ferguson suggests, the presence of minorities and racialized others has an “eccentric” effect, given they such bodies are placed outside the logic of normative whiteness (2004: 26, see also Muñoz 2000: 68).

When bodies “arrive” that don’t extend the lines already extended by spaces, those spaces might even appear “slant-wise” or oblique.  It is worth noting here that Merleau-Ponty himself considers moments of disorientation. He notes: “If we so contrive it that a subject sees the room in which he is, only through a mirror which reflects it at an angle at 45 degrees to the vertical, the subject at first sees the room “slantwise.” A man walking about in it seems to lean to one side as he goes. A piece of cardboard falling down the door-frame looks to be falling obliquely. The general effect is ‘queer’” (Merleau-Ponty 2002: 289). By discussing a number of spatial experiments that “contrive” a situation so that a subject does not see straight, Merleau-Ponty asks how the subject’s relation to space is re-orientated: “After a few minutes a sudden change occurs: the walls, the man walking around the room, and the line in which the cardboard falls become vertical.” (Merleau-Ponty 2002: 289) This re-orientation, which we can describe as the “becoming vertical” of perspective, means that the “queer effect” is overcome and objects in the world no longer appears as if they were “off-centre” or “slant-wise.” The queer moment, in which objects appear slantwise, and the vertical and horizontal axes appear “out of line,” must be overcome not because such moments contradict laws that govern objective space, but because they block bodily action: they inhibit the body, such that it ceases to extend into phenomenal space. So although Merleau-Ponty is tempted to say that the “vertical is the direction represented by the symmetry of the axis of the body” (2002: 291), his phenomenology instead embraces a model of bodily space, in which spatial lines “line up” only as effects of bodily actions on and in the world. In other words, the body “straightens” its view, in order to extend into space.

In one footnote, Merleau-Ponty refers to Stratton’s Vision without Inversion, to provide both an analysis of the way in which orientation happens, and what happens when it fails to happen. As he puts it: “We remain physically upright not through the mechanism of the skeleton or even through the nervous regulation of muscular tone, but because we are caught up in a world. If this involvement is seriously weakened, the body collapses and becomes once more an object” (2002: 296, emphasis added). The “upright” body is involved in the world, and acts on the world or even “can act” insofar as it is already involved. The weakening of this involvement is what causes the body to collapse, and to become an object alongside other objects. We can learn from this: we can  learn that disorientation is unevenly distributed; that some bodies more than others have their involvement in the world called into crisis. This shows us how the world itself is more “involved” in some bodies than others, as its takes such bodies as the contours of ordinary experience.

Perhaps to be involved with institutions as diversity workers is an attempt to call them into crisis, to render institutions into the objects, that appear slant-wise, or as objects that appear insofar as they register as obtrusive. Our aim is to bring what we are not into view to those who are not this “not.”  It might be that institutions are not transformed by our work; that they defend themselves from the process of being revealed.  Institutions might even recover from our involvement. We might in this recovery become the objects, yet again; those who are obtrusive or willful. But the very effort to transform institutions, the effort not to reproduce what we inherit, cannot leave us untransformed. And perhaps in being transformed by diversity work as diversity workers, we start again. We might start with what is old, but in being startled by the old, we start again.


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

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

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European Public Policy. 7, 3: 457 – 476.

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France 1954-1955.  Trans. Leonard Lawlor and Heath Massey. Evanston, Illinois.

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Victor Nee (eds), The New Institutionalism in Sociology Stanford University

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[1]  For further details about this research project please see Ahmed (2012). For any quotes that I use in this chapter I will provide page numbers from this text.

[2] It is worth noting here that the word “habit” comes from the Latin for condition, appearance and dress.

[3] In drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s work to develop a phenomenology of institutional whiteness, my work is indebted to the work of scholars who have offered a phenomenology of race, in particular the work of Linda Martín Alcoff (2006).

[4] There are a number of recent studies on whiteness as a habit: in addition to Sullivan (2006), see also MacMullan (2009).

[5] It is interesting to consider the brick wall in relation to the glass ceiling: both are metaphors for institutional limits that derive their sense with analogy not only to physical objects, but also to the means by which internal spaces are delineated and contained. The glass ceiling refers to the institutional processes that stop certain categories of people from moving up (vertical mobility) whist the brick wall refers to the institutional processes that stop certain values from moving across (horizontal mobility). Both metaphors also point to the significance of visibility and invisibility: the point of the ceiling being made of glass is that you can’t see it. The transparency of glass means, however, that you can see through it; you see above to the places you cannot reach. With the brick wall, you cannot see it, unless you come up against it. The metaphor of the brick wall points to how what is tangible and visible to some subjects, something so thick and solid that you cannot see through it, does not even appear to others. What some cannot see through, others cannot see.

[6] In my forthcoming book  Willful Subjects I explore breakages as a point of queer affinity between bodies and things.

[7] I am acknowledging here that it is possible not to inhabit fully a category of privilege even if one is privileged by a category. For example if men do not inhabit the category of masculinity properly or fully, then the category appears as an institutional wall, as a physical barrier that is revealed in coming up against it. I should also note that it is possible not to inhabit fully a category without becoming conscious of the restriction of that category: the psychic work of accommodating to a world that does not take your body as norm can involve precisely not even registering those norms as a way of protecting oneself from them.

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Feminist Complaint

I have offered a feminist equation

Rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy.

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

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

She said:

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

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

We had both been there.

Oh here she goes.

An assignment.

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

Not sorted.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feminist grump; feminist grumps; what a lump.

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

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

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

A container, a leaky container.

Be careful: we leak.

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

She will go on.

Rather she goes on.

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

Ill-will, willful.

They listen: damage control.

Not listening.

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

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

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

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

She strikes her breast. The arm is striking.

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

To be heard as complaint: to be beaten.

We are not beaten: we make a complaint.

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

The complainer: a revelation.

What a revelation.

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

An anything: quite something.

Complaining, moaning, whinging.

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

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

Feminists: willful women.

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


Starts again.

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

Complaint: a history of violence.

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

She was being.

Nag: she was being.

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

This is serious stuff.


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

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

Others: not so much.

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

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

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

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

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



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

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


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

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Pushy Feminists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chip, chip.

Things splinter.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You push it; you say it.


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

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

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

Cite, white, light, flight.

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

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

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

A killjoy: willing this becoming.

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

And my little secret.

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

And my little hope.

Together we can create a pushy riot.


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

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

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

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

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


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

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White Men

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Others not.


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


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

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

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

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

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

Speculate, accumulate.

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

When it is not funny, we do not laugh.

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

A norm can be exercised as a way of seeing things: the quickness of how we register somebody as being somebody; how we notice an arrival. A quickening of a register; an unthinking of a thought. Ways of perceiving somebody as having certain kinds of qualities become objects in the world, tangible things. This process can be about a perception of an individual, that tricky matter of “reputation,” how some individuals are given certain attributes, sometimes independently of what they do, sometimes not, and how the institutional life of an individual person is partly about the value of that attribution. These little perceptions do stick to bigger categories, or might be how those categories stick. A feminist colleague who attends her university’s promotions committee tells me how you can hear how male and female staff are valued differently just by the kinds of adjectives used in the letters to describe their performances: how descriptive words for men are upward, energetic and thrusting, whilst for women they are quieter, more sedentary, closer to the ground. That gender becomes wordy should not surprise. We can do gender through words, although this is not, of course, the only way we do gender.

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

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

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



Feminist fingers: pointed.

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

White men = a support system.

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

A wall can be a defence mechanism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We need more feminist explosions.

That would help.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Heavy Histories

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

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

Heavy; down.

Slow, frown.

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

Not white: loaded.

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

Smile: things will get better!

Smile: they won’t.

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

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

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


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

Less stained: being less.

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

It is not: lose the word keep the thing.

We need the word because we are describing something.

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

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

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

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

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

Back to the universe.

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

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

It does not; you will not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No wonder I wanted to queer tables.

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

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

A wall, no wall. There; nothing there.

Flight, bright, light, white.

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

Heavy, slow, down, brown.

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

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

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

Anybody: the wrong body.

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

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

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

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

In preservation is elimination.

We know this.

Heavy, slow, down, brown.

What a downer, Sara, just cheer up!

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

You can probably tell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We come up again. It will come up again.

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


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

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Out of Sorts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Smile: sorted!
Killjoy: snorted!

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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