Queer Fatalism

Fatalism refers to a belief that events are inevitable or predetermined. By queer fatalism I am not referring to such a belief system but to the assumption that to be queer is to hurtle toward a miserable fate. Queer fatalism is how a queer demise is explained and made inevitable. Queer deaths are often framed as a consequence of queerness; queer fatalism = queer as fatal. And by queer here I mean more than lesbian and gay though queer includes those “sad old queens and long-suffering dykes who haunt the historical record,” as Heather Love describes in her important work on loss and queer history (2007: 32). Queer would refer to those who claim queerness; those who claim the very term that has been hurled as an insult; those who refused to be shamed by the shame they are supposed to have brought upon themselves; the shame they are supposed to have brought upon others.

Queer: not to be ashamed of you when others are ashamed of you.

Queer: how you can build a life from what you refuse not to be.

One thinks of how when queers die, those who are publicly known, about as well as out, we might think here of George Michael, how quickly their deaths are framed through queer fatalism. The pictures of their deaths, maybe of their last days, or the words used to describe their lives, words that are picked up from charges brought against them because of how they lived their lives, how they had sex, how they didn’t have sex, these pictures and words are the materials of queer fatalism; these words and images stick to queer bodies.

And queer fatalism as a frame is also about how or where happiness is found; how a more positive slant is created by placing queerness outside the picture; in the effort to find what is good about a life somewhere else, in acts of generosity, for instance, when really as queers we know, the immense generosity of those like George Michael is a queer generosity. A queer generosity: to affirm a sexuality that is labelled as perverse, to reject the rejection of queerness. With that generosity came other generosities, others ways of attending to struggle, to those who struggle.

And ghosts clamour: we remember how other deaths, Stephen Gately, for instance, were explained with reference to sexuality, to “dangerous life styles,” how quickly and how wrongly, queer is treated as a death sentence.

Others are allowed to die without having their deaths be explained as a consequence of being who they are, or as a consequence of who they refused not to be. Even death can become a privilege. An accident maybe, bad luck even, unfortunate; sad of course, terribly, terribly sad: but not fated, not fated, not hated.

Homophobia is often lurking in the background when a queer life seems to be working, when someone is successful, appears happy, though it is always close to the surface, in that potential for violence, a blow up, or in that tut-tut, that pointed sigh that expresses the wish that they could just tone it down, be less obvious. Because it is already there, homophobia comes up quickly when things stop working, in moments of loss, when a life is lost, in moments of breakage, of trauma. Homophobia comes up as an explanation for what is not working. 

Homophobia: it does have fatal consequences.

The fatality that follows homophobia becomes a cause. Homophobia: when it is assumed you caused that consequence.

What are we talking about?

We are talking about life and death.

We are also talking about happiness and unhappiness.

The sadness of a life can be a social investment; that to live a life in a certain way, a queer way, say, is to become the cause of your own unhappiness.   In my work I have explored the figure of the “unhappy queer” and how this figure circulates. You could say that the queer child is an unhappy object for many parents. In some parental responses to the child coming out, this unhappiness is not so much expressed as being unhappy about the child being queer, but as being unhappy about the child being unhappy.  In the classic book on lesbian and gay liberation, No Turning Back one of the typical parental responses to the child coming out is: “I just want you to be happy, dear, and it’s such an unhappy life” (1983: 17).  Queer fiction is full of such speech acts in which the parents express their fear that the queer child is destined to have an unhappy life.[i] I have learnt so much from the following exchange in the lesbian novel, Annie on My Mind (1982) by Nancy Garden:

“Lisa”, my father said, “I told you I’d support you and I will. And right now I can see we’re all too upset to discuss this very much more, so in a minute or two I’m going to take you and your mother and me out to lunch. But honey, I know its not fashionable to say this, but – well, maybe it’s just that I love your mother so much and you and Chad so  much that I have to say to you I’ve never thought gay people can be very happy – no children for one thing, no real family life. Honey, you are probably going to be a very good architect – but I want you to be happy in other ways, too, as your mother is, to have a husband and children. I know you can do both….” I am happy, I tried to tell him with my eyes. I’m happy with Annie; she and my work are all I’ll ever need; she’s happy too – we both were until this happened. (191)

This speech act functions powerfully. The parent makes an act of identification with an imagined future of necessary and inevitable unhappiness. Such identification through grief about what the child will lose, reminds us that the queer life is already constructed as an unhappy life, as a life without the “things” that make you happy, or as a life that is depressed as it lacks certain things: “a husband, children.” To love is here to want the child not to give up on such things; you want the child to have happiness by not giving up on these things.

For the daughter, it is only the eyes that can speak; and they try to tell an alternative story about happiness and unhappiness. In her response, she claims happiness, for sure. She is happy “with Annie,” which is to say, she is happy with this relationship and this life that it will commit her to. The power of the unspoken response is lodged in the use of the word “until”: we were happy “until” this happened, where the “until” marks the moment that the father speaks his disapproval. The unhappy queer is here the queer who is judged to be unhappy: the judgment of unhappiness creates unhappiness, in the very performance of the failure to recognize the social viability of queer relationships, in its failure to recognize queer love.  The father’s speech act creates the unhappiness that is assumed to be the inevitable consequence of the daughter’s decision.

When “this” happens, unhappiness does follow.

The social struggle within families often involves a struggle over the causes of unhappiness. The father is unhappy as he thinks the daughter will be unhappy if she is queer. The daughter is unhappy as the father is unhappy with her being queer. The father witnesses the daughter’s unhappiness as a sign of the truth of his position: that she will be unhappy because she is queer. Even the happy queer becomes unhappy at this point.  And clearly the family can only be maintained as a happy object, as being what is anticipated to cause happiness, by making the unhappiness of the queer child its point.

There are of course good reasons for telling stories about queer happiness, in response and as a response to the very presumption that a queer life is necessarily and inevitably an unhappy life. But think of how in encountering the social weight of queer fatalism, we encounter new pressures. Think of the work required to counter the perception of your life as being unhappy: the very pressure to be happy in order to show that you are not unhappy can create unhappiness. And you know that if there is a break up it can fulfill an expectation that queer relationships are less lasting, less secure; fragile. This is really what I mean by queer fatalism; queer not only as shattering but as self-shattering. And then if things do shatter (as things do tend to do) you have fulfilled an expectation that “this” is where being queer led you to. It is as if by leaving the safety of the brightly lit path, you caused your own demise.

Some are assumed to be inherently broken, as if their fate is to break, as if a break is what we were heading for right from the beginning.

And then: any happiness you found along the way is assumed to have been found despite of yourself. When you lose it, there is a nod, a confirmation.

See, it wouldn’t last; they won’t last.

It is hard to made things last when it is assumed that if things do not last that is because of who you are.

I think with the film Lost and Delirious. This is a moody, sad and awkward film that hurtles its way towards a seemingly inevitable tragic ending, which it seems no one or nothing can change; the linking of queer fates with “fatality” seems partly the point.  It is a film about two girls, Tori and Paulie who fall in love, but Tori cannot bear following that love because it would involve giving up on the possibility of being the cause of her family’s happiness; it would mean not living the life her mother wished for her. And the girl Tori loves, Paulie, cannot bear losing her love.  It is fatal, sometimes, what you cannot bear.

Some critics suggested that this film was dated. One critic describes the film as “time-warped.”  The implication of such a description is that queers can now come out, be accepted and be happy. Those of us committed to a queer life know that forms of recognition are either precariously conditional, you have to be the right kind of queer by depositing your hope for happiness in the right places (even with perverse desire you can have straight aspirations), or it is simply not given. Not only is recognition not given, but it is often not given in places that are not noticeable to those who do not need to be recognized, which helps sustain the illusion that it is given, which means if you say that it has not been given, you are read as paranoid.

We must stay unhappy with this world.

It’s a killjoy manifesto.

And how we grieve; each time we lose a warrior, how we grieve. Queer grief: when we grieve for the loss of our queers, our lovers, our warriors; we hold each other up because of what we did not give up. José Esteban Muñoz wrote so eloquently of this queer project, so truthfully, “we take our dead with us in the various battles we must wage in the names” (1999, 74). How we mourn your absence; how we keep you with us. Muñoz cites Douglas Crimp’s (1989) important work on mourning and militancy. That and is a promise. It could even become as: mourning as militancy. We don’t have to give up our grief in order to do battle. In fact we battle because we have not given up on who we have lost.

We organise because we agonize.

We grieve our loses as queer loses. Judith Butler (2004) has offered us a powerful vocabulary for thinking about how politics work through the creation between grievable and ungrievable lives. Queer losses are not mourned as public losses; so much queer activism has been about mourning the unmourned.

Is our task to become grievable? I do not think that is our task. To become grievable, to move from being ungrievable to grievable, queers might have to become less queer; signs of queerness might need to be removed before a loss can be publicly shared. When queerness has to disappear, out of politeness at this moment of grief, say in the midst of a family loss, we experience more queer grief. There is so much to say here about how we can counter the demand to clean ourselves up, to become more respectable, which is often presented as being about kindness, concern and care, but also how hard it can be to counter that demand at times when we are bereft. It is hard to be left stranded, not to be let in, when all you want to do is weep. We compromise, we make do; we try our best. We might even let signs of queerness go too, or try to, so we can stay.

Think of this too: how as queers we might be grieved for as if in living our lives the way we do, we are the ones who have lost something, happiness, meaning; a purpose, a point, a future. The injustice comes here not from not having a loss grieved, but from being grieved because it is assumed you are lost.

Queer grief: when we refuse to grieve for being queer.

Our grief is not the end of the story: it is part of a story. We are not unhappy because we are queer, we are unhappy with the world that assumes that being queer is unhappy.

Unhappiness can follow the assumption that unhappiness follows.

And we tell other stories, happier ones, even. It is true that some versions of queer happiness are rather bleak versions of what we might call happy homonormativity: where queers find happiness by an increasing proximity to norms that been the site of exclusion: by marrying, being reproductive, becoming good citizens; moving up, moving out.

Happy whiteness, happy straightness, a shiny bright family; see how they gather.

We do not gather; this happiness can be fatal.

Queer happiness as world making: we do not try to be faithful to what is fatal.  Queer happiness can be about what is opened up when we deviate from a straight path. We can build worlds by not giving up what we want; we show the costs of what a world wants us to give up. I think with a film like Stud Life directed by the ever inspiring Campbell X, of how queer happiness can be a kind of militancy, deviation as opening up room to be; a film that doesn’t whiten us, or straighten us out, but shows the mess, the muddle, the huddle of queer existence. Black queer and queer of color activism are predicated on shattering the myth not only of queer unhappiness, that we miss what we refuse, but the myth that queer happiness comes from increasing proximity to whiteness as well as to straight culture.

Shattering; it is what we do.

When we are assumed as shattered, we can shatter.

This blog is written out of love and affection for all our beautiful fragile queers.

This blog is dedicated to George Michael.

Thank you.

References

Butler, Judith (2004). Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence,  London: Verso.

Crimp, Douglas (1989). “Mourning and Militancy,” October, 51.

Garden, Nancy (1982). Annie on My Mind.  New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Goodman, Gerre, George Lakey, Judy Lashof and Erika Thorne (1983). No Turning Back: Lesbian and Gay Liberation for the “80s. Philadelphia:  New Society Publishers.

Love, Heather (2007). Feeling Backward: The Politics of Loss in Queer History. Cambridge:  Harvard University Press.

Muñoz, José Esteban  (1999). Disidentifications; Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics.  University of Minnesota Press.

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Wound Up

In my chapter “Feminist Killjoys” in The Promise of Happiness (2010), I described a scene that is painfully familiar (1). It is a table scene. Around a table, a family gathers. We are having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up. Someone says something you consider problematic. You respond, carefully, perhaps.  You might be speaking quietly; or you might be getting wound up, recognizing with frustration that you are being wound up by someone who is winding you up.  And then being wound up becomes audible as well as visible: a raised voice, a frown, sweaty surfaces, a thickening of an atmosphere. These tangible signs might become a conversion point: the moment a happy occasion ceases to be happy, the moment a dinner is ruined.

It is the significance of “recognizing with frustration that you are being wound up by somebody who is winding you up” that I want to pick up on here. To wind something is to twist and to turn it; to wind up can mean to tighten by twisting and turning. You might know that feeling: of becoming tense and tight because of what you encounter. To be wound up by someone who is winding you up: this is a familiar dynamic for those who have assigned feminist killjoys, or even simply those who identify as feminists, however you have been assigned. You are identifying as a certain kind of person, one who is easily provoked, or affected, someone who can be easily wound up because she cannot not be affected by certain things (sexism, injustice, inequality) whenever they are brought up.

It is like being a feminist is then having certain buttons: when they are pushed, she is pushed. There is a lot of difficulty lodged in this description. There is a judgement that precedes the provocation, that leads to the provocation, which is then confirmed when you are provoked. And then: when you are affected you are too easily affected; when you are sensitive you are oversensitive; when you react you overreact. Feminists are often judged as “too” well as “over,” as exceeded the range of reason, “too” or “over” and also as “un,” being unreasonable, unhelpful, even unkind. I have learnt from following the figure of the willful subject (feminists are often called willful, it is a feminist following), being a feminist is understood as being unfree, as not having a strong or mature enough will to avoid being swayed by your own impulses and inclinations. Implied in the figure of the feminist killjoy is an assessment that feminism is a reenactment of feminine passivity.

And you might experience certain situations in these terms. You can be more easily wound up if you care about certain things; you are allowing the world to get under your skin. You are upset by something because it is upsetting; an emotion is how you judge a situation. But it can also be frustrating when your frustration is dismissed as merely expressive of a tendency. We have all had times, I suspect, as feminists (how I love this as, how I wish to hold onto this as), when we have been aware that someone is “winding us up,” by turning a spoil sport into a sport: look how she reacts! Look, look! We can all be caught by such situations. We can be interpellated before our defences go up.

There can be a lock in a dynamic; a way a situation becomes stuck, a way you become stuck by a situation. The problem is not simply about the content of what she is saying. She is doing more than saying the wrong thing: she is getting in the way of something, the achievement or accomplishment of some we or another, which is often created by what is not said, or what is not said in response to what has been said by those who are given the right to be right, to say what they like. So much you are supposed not to say, to do, to be, in order to preserve a “we.” And yet, even if she is not supposed to react this way, her reaction is, at another level, willed. She is after all being wound up by someone who is winding her up. A “we” is performed by witnessing her being wound up, spinning around. Look, look at her spin! To make her the cause of a tension is another way of preserving the illusion that without her, the family would be civil.  I think those of us who have been killjoys around family tables probably know this; how useful we are as containers of incivility and discord.

I’ve written and talked a lot about these dynamics. I have gone over and over them.We need to go over what is not over.

In “Feminist Killjoys,” I wrote mainly about the family table, referring primarily to childhood experiences. I returned to these experiences much more closely in Living a Feminist life. We can go back in time. How often, say over the holidays, do you feel you are going back in time, reoccupying that figure of the feminist killjoy, the child.Once you have accepted the assignment of feminist killjoy, she seems to turn up before you do. The fact that the first ten years of my academic career were spent in Women’s Studies might explain how she popped up everywhere. I had so many conversations which began with curiosity that quickly spilled into hostility: “so what is thing called Women’s Studies? How could there be such a thing?” I have talked about this earlier, in a blog that became the basis for the first chapter of my new book, “Feminism is Sensational.” Women’s Studies causes so much bother: I was bothered by this bother. And more recently in trying to deal with the problem of sexual harassment in universities, I have again come up against this: the problem of becoming the problem because you are trying to address a problem that others do not wish to recognize as a problem.

I remember being tired of dealing with the consequences of saying I taught Women’s Studies. I was in a taxi once, on the way from Sydney airport after a long flight back to Australia. The taxi driver asked me what I did, I said I was a teacher, he asked me what I taught, and I hesitated. I did not feel like “going there.” So I said, I taught sociology. It turned out he had a real gripe with sociologists! That attempt to escape the consequence of being assigned a feminist led me back to the assignment. I have learnt that trying to escape consequences has its own consequences. One of the ways of I have lived with the consequences of being a feminist is to reflect on (and write about) what I described earlier “the lock of the dynamic.” How does a reaction to something become framed as the starting point for a conflict about something? The word I have been using for this reaction is snap.

Snap is quite a sensation. To snap can be to make a sharp sound. When I think of snap, I think of a twig. When a twig snaps, we hear the sound of it break. We can hear the suddenness of a break. We might think on the basis of what we can hear that the snap is a starting point. A snap seems the start of something, a transformation of something; it is how a twig might end up broken in two pieces. A snap might even seem like a violent moment; the unbecoming of something.  But a snap would only be the beginning insofar as we did not notice the pressure on the twig. When we think of being wound up, a snap would be the moment that appears as a breaking point. It is more dramatic, more sudden then what came before. We hear the snap, thinking back to the family table, but we might not hear what led her there, the violence of a provocation that is often inaudible to those who are not being provoked. We need to show how her snap is not the starting point; we need to talk about what precedes snap, the violence that often goes unnoticed.

The feminist killjoy might herself be a snappy figure; feminists might be perceived as “full of snap.” Maybe there is a relation between willful and snapful. Snappiness as a quality is often defined in terms of aptitude. To be snappy is to be “apt to speak sharply or irritably.” That certainly sounds like a feminist aptitude. Feminism: it has bite; she bites. We might even as feminists aim to develop this aptitude: by snapping, we might acquire more snap. We might aim to become snappier by snapping. This does not mean or make snappiness right or into a right. But perhaps snappiness might be required to right a wrong when a wrong requires we bear it; that we take it, or that we take more of it.

Snap: when she can’t take it anymore; when she just can’t take it anymore. Speaking sharply, speaking with irritation. Maybe we can hear her irritation; a voice that rises, a voice that sharpens. When her irritation speaks volumes, we might be distracted from what is irritating. Can we even distract ourselves?  To speak from irritation is to speak from being rubbed up against the world in a certain way. Sianne Ngai (2007) describes irritation as a “minor negative affect.” That is such a good description. 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 seem sudden but the suddenness is only apparent; a snap is one moment of a longer history of being affected by what you come up against.

Snap: a moment with a history.

If you are apt to be snappy, perhaps you are not happy. But perhaps this “aptness” is only a part of the story. Some get rubbed up the wrong way more than others; we know this. A feminist killjoy lives and works in a contact zone. She might acquire an aptitude for irritation because of just how much she has already had to put up with. What she has to put up with becomes part of who she is. That she appears as a figure at all (she is first received as an assignment by others) is often about a history of being rubbed up the wrong way. When you are wound up by someone who is winding you up, you are wound up by history.

We bring our histories to feminism. And you can also become a killjoy within feminism because of those histories. You can be a killjoy at feminist tables because of who you are, what you say, what you do; because of a history you might bring up just by entering a room. Audre Lorde (1984), bell hooks (2000), Sunera Thobani (2003) and Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2003) have all taught me to think about the figure of the angry black woman, the angry woman of color, as well as the angry indigenous woman, as another kind of feminist killjoy: a feminist killjoy who kills feminist joy. It can kill feminist joy to speak about racism. When you speak about racism you can be speaking quietly. You know the trouble it causes, so you are careful. But a word can become heard as a snap, a break with what preceded. There can be transference of snappiness (and other negative affects) to the word such that to use that word is to cause a rupture.

Being a feminist of color is data collection. We gather so many responses to the words we use, the bodies we have!

One time quite a while back in 1999 I was presenting a paper “Embodying Strangers,” in which I referred to Audre Lorde’s description, her quite extraordinary description, of racism on a New York subway.  One white woman spoke in the question time with anger about how I hadn’t considered the white woman’s feelings as if this was some sort of neutral situation and that to account for it we have to give an account from each point of view. Racism becomes the requirement to think of racism with sympathy, racism as just another view; the racist as the one with feelings, too.  That should have been a snap moment, a moment with a history. But I wasn’t ready; I was startled, not confident enough to say what came to mind.

I am more ready now; sometimes snapping is what we need to prepare for. Perhaps snapping is always ahead of us, even when it is behind us.

I have already noted how the scene of being wound up can be how “we” coheres. If you are heard as speaking in a way that gets in the way of other people’s occupation, however you speak, you will be heard as aggressive; you might be understood as the one doing the winding. And then: winding up becomes a defense because someone has shown they are not willing to stay in the same place. What follows can be understood a bind. So the response to talking about racism is not just an individual response but a binding together, a sense that talking about racism is being stingy and unkind to them. A wind up can be how a situation becomes tighter in response to an effort to create room to breathe.

Andrea Levy’s Fruit of the Lemon (1999) is a novel that gives a snap a history, black feminist snap as a response to a situation of being wound up. The novel tells the story of Faith Jackson, a Black British girl whose parents migrated to England from Jamaica. She is getting along with her life, doing her own thing. There is an event. She and her flat mate Simon witness a violent attack on another black woman. He runs after the attackers, and they are caught up. Events: what catch you out and catch you up. We witness the event through Faith’s eyes: “A black woman was standing in the doorway of a bookshop. She looked composed, although she had a started stare – like she’s just won the pools and couldn’t quite believe it. But sliding slowly down one side of her face were several strings of blood – thick, bright, red blood. I stood in front of her and asked, ‘Are you all right?’ and felt stupid when she collapsed onto the ground” (150). They return to tell the story of the event.

The story creates a certain kind of drama, in which Simon becomes not simply witness or participant, but also the saviour, the hero, and even the victim. They gather around him as if this has happened to him, as if what made the event an event was how it affected him: “Simon’s hands shook as he lifted his cigarette to his mouth – he couldn’t hold it steady. Marion put her hand over his hand to support it. ‘I think you’re in shock.’ Sweat tea is what you need,’ she said looking closely into Simon’s face. ‘Mick, put the kettle on’” (156). Faith watches the black woman disappear as they gather around him. She interrupts the gathering. “I interrupted the story twice. ‘She was a black woman’, I said. Simon had just called her the woman who worked there. Twice I had to tell them this woman was black like me. And both times Simon and Mick had looked at me and nodded.” (156). They keep going with their story, as if her blackness was just a detail that can be passed over. They fuss over him: giggling, full of the drama of an event. And then Faith can’t bear it anymore. She can’t bear the violence of the event as a violence that acquires is force by being directed against a black woman to be passed over. She snaps. “But then I tipped my cup of tea slowly over the table. “Will you all just shut up. Just fucking shut up. Its not funny! And there was complete silence as they stopped and stared at me. I left the house” (158).  To speak of racism, to name racism, to be conscious of racism, puts Faith in a different world, a world where blackness cannot be passed over. The black woman has to shout to be heard. And in shouting, the black woman is the one who becomes the origin of bad feeling, who pierces through the sound of their apparent care and concern. She must leave.

If you have to shout to be heard you are not heard. Think of how all her efforts to be heard came to nothing. The silence in response to what she says is a tightening. When words are used as a way of confronting a history, it does not mean that everyone will hear that confrontation. They will hear you as being confrontational. When we think of being wound up we need to think about worlds; how they organised to enable some to breathe, to give attention as to give affection; how they leave less room for others. A world can be a wind up. Whiteness is a world; a way of gathering around. That gathering seems neutral, kind even, warm, at least to some; but it depends on the erasure of violence.

A snap can be a way of leaving a situation.

This description from Levy has much to teach us about winds, binds, worlds. Because it teaches us how snap becomes a snap shot, a way of framing a situation. If you started with the snap, the moment when she says “just fucking shut up,” if you sliced the situation so the middle was the beginning, then you would not notice what got her there. And of course those to whom she directs her words do not notice what got her there, which is how she gets there.

When a snap becomes a snap shot, a frame that is frozen, which is cut in the middle of a dynamic and difficult history, a history that includes physical acts of violence as well as how that violence is passed over, so much is not visible or audible. What is erased is then reproduced.

What is erased is then reproduced. Transphobia and trans exclusion within feminism are reproduced by being passed over. Some feminists have made a case that the word TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) should not be used as it has become a slur. Words are shaped by usage – and we can find examples of the word TERF being used as a slur (and just as many examples of TERF being defined as a slur that should not be used) especially on social media. We might point to examples of that word being used alongside other negative words. We could find examples of the word TERF being used in a threatening way. So surely that’s the evidence we need? You could do exactly the same exercise with racism or the word racist (and sexist too for that matter). You could do a search on twitter and find racism and racist used alongside swear words to convey hostile sentiments, even threatening actions. Would you conclude that racist was a slur and that we should not use that word? Some do, of course; some hear racism as mean, an accusation, a way of trying to stop a conversation.  But those who come up against racism know that we are led to the word by the experience of racism, and that the negation of the word derives from the negation of the experience. It is a reaction to racism to use racism in that way.

To start with uses of TERF as a negative term, a term for what is rejected, is to freeze the frame, to perform the snap shot; it is to erase the very histories of violence, which include the histories of how that violence has been passed over, which have led to that word being used in that way. That word acquires its negativity in reaction to how some feminist work (not all, not all at all) has become a wall of harassment. A wind can be a wall. That wall is made up of jokes, asides, qualifications, rebuttals, ways of narrating trans as danger, stranger danger, more or less explicitly; a wall that disappears from view when each brick is read as just another critical viewpoint on gender, or when transphobic and trans exclusionary arguments are treated as “just another view” we should be allowed to express at the  feminist table. To discuss the words used for trans exclusion without discussing the phenomena of trans exclusion (as many have done in making the case that TERF is a slur) reproduces that exclusion.

When signs of being wound up are taken as a starting point, we miss a history. To miss a history is to repeat a history

In some cases, the history is missed because those who are doing the winding up do not tend to narrate their own actions in a way that casts doubt on their own narratives. In other cases, it is because the winding is not just not audible to those who are not being wound up, because they are not the ones toward whom that activity is directed. Just remember: it is hard to feel pressure that you are not under. For example when I first read the letter I referred to in this previous post, I remember thinking that one of the worst consequences of it would be the new legitimacy it would give to trans exclusionary feminism. I thought at first I was indeed witnessing an increase of such speech. But once I began to work through the networks that supported that letter, mostly on social media, I began to realize that what I first heard as a turning up of the volume was just more of the same thing that had been going on all along. For many trans people, especially trans women, that volume switch was already stuck on full blast. My cis privilege was, until then, not having had to notice that harassment or not having had to hear the sound of that blast.

Sometimes, we need to blast ourselves out of complacency.

We need to read the signs of being wound up as a history of being wound up.

Those signs: they are addressed to others.

A snap is not the starting point but a snap is the start of something.  To be wound up can sometimes feel frustrating, even pointless. It can be something we have to survive in order to live. But it can also be what we do with others, even for others. When you are wound up, you tend to be rather expressive. You tend to be inflamed. What if the point of this gesture is that it makes something tangible? Even if the tangibility of a provocation is right in front of us, snapping might bring something out that otherwise might be missed.

To bring something out can bring something about.

This is my first post for 2017.

I end with optimism, a killjoy optimism that derives hope from what seems locked as a dynamic.

Being wound up can lead us to others who are wound up.

References

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

Levy, Andrea (1999). Fruit of the Lemon. London: Headline Book Publishing.

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

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen (2003). “‘Tiddas talkin’ up to the White Woman’: When  Huggins et al. took on Bell” in Michele Grossman(ed), Black Lines: Contemporary Critical Writing by Indigenous Australians. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. 66-78.

Ngai, Sianne (2007). Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Thobani, Sunera (2003). “War Frenzy and Nation Building: A Lesson in the Politics of ‘Truth-Making’”, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16, 3: 399-314.

Endnote

[1] A shorter and revised version of this chapter is available here: http://sfonline.barnard.edu/polyphonic/print_ahmed.htm

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Fascism as Love

Today is one of those days when I am lost for words; well almost. White supremacy: in the white house. Racism: no longer in hiding or in the background, or veiled by politeness, but out and about, right in front of us; given legitimacy, given more places to go.

Many years ago I wrote on how fascism as a politics of hate is written in the language of love. I want to share some of these words now because to hear what is present is to hear echoes of the past. This material is dated. And yet, it is not.

In solidarity,

FK

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Where was Hatewatch during 170 million crimes committed against White Americans over the last 30 years? Hatewatch. What an absurd organisation. But aren’t they part of the huge parasitic Infestation which is always trying to destroy anyone who loves liberty and disagrees with the Monsters’ plan for the degradation and control, of the White Americans of this nation? They steal what they can and target us for governmental gansterism and drooling meatpuppet consumption… Lovewatch. The Wake Up or Die Love Watch is a listing of those who love this nation and our White Racial Family and the alternative to the lists of parasitic propagandists. (Storm Front Website)

How has politics become a struggle over who has the right to name themselves as acting out of love and in the name of love? What does it mean to stand for love by standing alongside some others and against other others? It has become common for hate groups to rename themselves as organisations of love. Such organisations claim they act out of love for their own kind, and for the nation as an inheritance of kind (‘Our White Racial Family’), rather than out of hatred for strangers or others. Indeed, a crucial part of the re-naming is the identification of hate as coming from elsewhere and as being directed towards the ‘hate group’; hate becomes an emotion that belongs to those who have identified hate groups as hate groups in this first place. Hence in the above quote, the hate watch web site, which lists racist groups on the internet, is juxtaposed with the Lovewatch site, which also lists these organisations, but names them as ‘love groups’.  Such groups are defined as ‘love groups’ through an active identification with the nation (‘those who love this nation’) as well as a core set of values (‘anyone who loves liberty’). Love is narrated as the emotion that energies the work of such groups; it is out of love that the group seeks to defend the nation against others, whose presence them becomes defined as the origin of hate. As another site puts it: ‘Ask yourself, what have they done to eliminate anything at all? They feed you with “Don’t worry, we are watching the hate groups” and things like this. You know what they do? They create the very hate they purport to erase!’ Here it is the very critique of racism as a form of hate, which becomes seen as the conditions of production for hate; the ‘true’ hated group is the white groups who are, out of love, seeking to defend the nation against others, who threaten to steal the nation away.

The renaming of hate groups as love groups, and hate watch as Love Watch, exercises a narrative of love as protection by identifying white subjects as already at risk from the very presence of others. These groups become defined as a positive in the sense of fighting for others, and in the name of others. The narrative suggests that it is this ‘forness’ that makes ‘against-ness’ necessary. Hence those who identify hate groups as hate groups are shown as failing to protect the bodies of those whose love for the nation becomes a condition of vulnerability and exposure. By being against those who are for the nation (anti-racists, anti-fascists etc.), such critics can only be against the nation; they can only be against love. The critics of hate groups become defined as those who hate; those who act out of a sense of ‘anti-ness’ or ‘against-ness’ and thus those who not only cannot protect the bodies of white Americans from crimes, but re-enact such crimes in the use of the language of hate. We might note then the slide from the crimes against white people committed by unnamed others (‘170 million crimes committed’) to the crimes committed by Hatewatch (‘they steal what they can’) in this narrative.

Let’s take another example:

The depths of Love are rooted and very deep in a real White Nationalist’s soul and spirit, no form of ‘hate’ could even begin to compare. At least not a hate motivated by ungrounded reasoning. It is not hate that makes the average White man look upon a mixed race couple with a scowl on his face and loathing in his heart. It is not hate that makes the White housewife throw down the daily jewspaper in repulsion and anger after reading of yet another child-molester or rapist sentenced by corrupt courts to a couple of short years in prison or parole. It is not hate that makes the White workingclass man curse about the latest boatland of aliens dumped on our shores to be given job preferences over the White citizen who built this land. It is not hate that brings rage into the heart of a White Christian farmer when he reads of billions loaned or given away as ‘aid’ to foreigners when he can’t get the smallest break from an unmerciful government to save his failing farm. No, it’s not hate, It is Love. (Aryan Nations Website)

In this narrative it is the imagined subject of both party and nation (the White nationalist, the average White man, the White housewife, the White working man, the White Citizen and the White Christian farmer) who is hated, and who is threatened and victimised by the Law and polity. The narrative works precisely as a narrative of hate not as the emotion that explains the story (it is not a question of hate being at its root), but as that which is affected by the story, and as that which enables the story to be affective.

Such narratives work by generating a subject that is under threat by imagined others whose proximity threatens not only to take something away from the subject (jobs, security, wealth and so on), but to take the place of the subject. In other words, the presence of this other is imagined as a threat to the object of love. This narrative involves a re-writing of history, in which the labour of others (slaves, migrants) is concealed in a fantasy that it is the white subject who ‘built this land.’ The white subjects claim the place of hosts (‘our shores’), at the same time as they claim the place of the victim, as those who are damaged by an ‘unmerciful government’.  The narrative hence suggests that it is love for the nation that makes the white Aryan’s hate others, who are taking away the nation, and hence their imagined place in its history, as well as their future.

We might note that this emotional reading of others as hateful works to align the imagined subject with rights and the imagined nation with ground. This alignment is affected by the representation of the rights of the subject and the grounds of the nation as under threat, as ‘failing’. It is the emotional reading of hate that works to stick or to bind the imagined subjects and the white nation together. The average white man feels ‘fear and loathing’; the White housewife, ‘repulsion and anger’; the White workingman ‘curses’; the White Christian farmer feels ‘rage’. The passion of these negative attachments to others is re-defined simultaneously as a positive attachment to the imagined subjects brought together through the capitalisation of the signifier, ‘White’. It is the love of White, or those that are recognisable as White, which supposedly explains this shared ‘communal’ visceral response of hate. Because we love, we hate and this hate is what makes us together.

This narrative, I would suggest, is far from extraordinary. Indeed, what it shows us is the production of the ordinary. The ordinary is here fantastic. The ordinary white subject is a fantasy that comes into being through the mobilisation of hate, as a passionate attachment closely tied to love. The emotion of hate works to animate the ordinary subject, to bring that fantasy to life, precisely by constituting the ordinary as in crisis, and the ordinary person as the real victim. The ordinary becomes that which is already under threat by the imagined others whose proximity becomes a crime against person as well as place. The ordinary subject is reproduced as the injured party: the one that is ‘hurt’ or even damaged by the ‘invasion’ of others. The bodies of others are hence transformed into ‘the hated’ through a discourse of pain. They are assumed to cause injury to the ordinary white subject, such that their proximity is read as the origin of bad feeling: indeed, the implication here is that the white subject’s good feelings (love) have being ‘taken’ away by the abuse of such feelings by others.

So who are the hated in such a narrative of injury? Clearly, hate is distributed across various figures (in this case, the mixed racial couple, the child-molester, the rapist, aliens and foreigners). These figures come to embody the threat of loss: lost jobs, lost money, loss land. They are signify the danger of impurity, or the mixing or taking of blood. They threaten to violate the pure bodies; such bodies can only be imagined as pure by the perpetual re-staging of this fantasy of violation. Note the work that is being done through this metonymic slide: mixed race couplings and immigration become readable as (like) forms of rape or molestation: an invasion of the body of the nation, evoked here as the vulnerable and damaged body of the white woman and child. The slide between figures constructs a relation of resemblance between the figures: what makes them alike, may be their ‘unlikeness’ from ‘us’. Within the narrative, hate cannot be found in one figure, but works to create the very outline of different figures or objects of hate, a creation that crucially aligns the figures together, and constitutes them as a ‘common’ threat.

Furthermore, love does not only enter such narratives as a sign of being for the nation, but also becomes linked with particular kinds of subjects who are constructed as ‘loving’. Love, that is, reproduces the collective as ideal,  through producing a particular kind of subject whose allegiance to the ideal makes it an ideal in the first place. Increasingly, the ‘hate group’ web sites, for example, are written by and for white women, and argue that white women have a particular role in the defence of the nation and the national ideal. One web site includes a post on Princess Diana. She is identified as a ‘traitor to our race’ because of her love relationships with men from other races: ‘I couldn’t understand how a woman of such racial beauty and purity, this “English rose”, could link herself with non-Aryan men with such frequency’. Importantly, then love relationships are here about ‘reproducing’ the race; the choice of love-object is a sign of the love for the nation. Such a narrative not only confirms heterosexual love as an obligation to the nation, but also constitutes mixed-race relationships as a sign of hate, as a sign of a willingness to contaminate the blood of the race. The violation of this love to the body of the individual here stands for the violation of the ideal that binds the nation together (the posting refers to the ‘rumours that she might even have been pregnant with Fayed’s child’ as a sign of the danger of this contamination to the purity of the white racial family). So the demand for love is not simply here expressed as a demand to love the nation as an abstract idea, but also to love a person whose body can stand in for the national idea, as a confirmation of its value.(1)

Within the politics of love, identifying yourself as a white woman and as a white Aryan would mean loving not just men, or even white men, but white men who can return the idealised image of whiteness back to myself. To love and to be loved is here about fulfilling one’s fantasy image of ‘who one would like to be’ through who one ‘has’.  Such a love is also about making future generations in the image I have of myself and the loved other, who together can approximate a ‘likeness’ that can be bestowed on future generations.  Indeed the bond the subject may have even for strangers can be predicated precisely on the fantasy of likeness: they may share the ideal I have, such that I could love them, as if they were me. Hence I can love other as if they were me precisely insofar as they ‘share’ the ideals that I have already taken as mine. Within public displays of grief this is crucial: if the subject can imagine that that person who was lost or has lost another ‘could have been me’, then the grief of another, even another whom I may not know, can also become my grief. This ‘could have been-ness’ is a judgement then on whether others approximate the ideals that I have taken to be mine and ‘ours’.

It is hence not surprising that the story of love is most powerfully narrated when the object is missing; then love ‘shows itself’ through lamenting the absence of the object, or through the display of grief and mourning. Such an argument suggests that love becomes a form of defence against the loss of the object; it enacts in its demand for presence, the injury that would follow if the object was given up (an enactment which is also a repetition). We can see this clearly in the accounts of love in the web sites; the nation as loved object has been taken away, and the ‘injury’ of the theft must be repeated as a way of confirming the love for the nation as an ideal object.

Indeed, I would argue that the impossibility that love can reach its object is also what makes love such a useful and powerful narrative. We can see how love then may work to stick others together in the absence of the loved object, even when that object is ‘the nation’. For example, love may be especially crucial in the event of the failure of the nation to deliver its promise for the good life. So the failure of the nation to ‘give back’ the love that the subject has for it can work to intensify the very demands made upon the nation as a love object. The subject ‘stays with’ the nation, despite the absence of return and the threat of violence, as leaving would mean recognising that the investment of national love over a life time has brought no value. One loves the nation, then, out of hope and with nostalgia for how it might have been. You keep loving rather than recognising that the love that one has given has not and will not be returned. To give up on such love may feel like to give up on one’s life, as one’s life has become so deeply interwoven with the love object. Hence, national love can be secure in the face of the failure of the object to love the loving subject in return; in fact, this can be grounds for the intensification of the attachment. Such love becomes nostalgia for the loss of an object, whose existence can only be a matter of past tense, as well as a form of utopia, that images the return of the object in the future (a return that depends on the ‘good will’ of the loving subject). So the subject ‘becomes’ the nation in the event of mourning its loss, which then gets projected as ‘have-able’ and ‘be-able’ in the future. A white subject identifies itself as a national subject through mourning the loss of the nation as an object and in the hope for its return in the future.

We could even think of national love as a form of waiting. To wait is to extend one’s investment and the longer one waits the more one is invested, that is, the more time, labour and energy has been expended. The failure of return extends one’s investment. If love functions as the promise of return of an ideal, then the extension of investment through the failure of return works to maintain the ideal through its deferral into the future. It is not then surprising that the return of the investment in the nation is imagined in the form of the future generation (‘the white Aryan child’), who will ‘acquire’ the features of the ideal white subject. National love places its hope in the next generation; the ideal is postponed, to sustain the fantasy that return is possible.

If the failure of return extends one’s investment, then national love also requires an explanation for this failure: otherwise, hope would convert into despair or a ‘giving up’ on the loved object. Such explanations work as defensive narratives: they defend the subject against the loss of the object by enacting the injury that would follow if the object was given up. We can see this clearly in the accounts of love in the quotes from web sites; the nation as loved object has been taken away, and the injury of the theft must be repeated as a way of confirming the love for the nation.  In this instance, the fantasy of love as return requires an obstacle: the racial others become the obstacle that allows the white subject to sustain a fantasy that without them, the good life would be attainable, or their love would be returned with reward and value. The failure of return is explained by the presence of others, which allows the investment to be sustained. We can even consider the reliance on the other as the origin of injury as an ongoing investment in the failure of return.

(1) I have also discussed how the figure of the mixed-race woman is idealized in narratives of multiculturalism, and how this idealization of the mixed-race woman (who is bronzed not brown) can function ideologically as a demand for proximity to whiteness. See in particular my chapter, “Melancholic Migrants,” from The Promise of Happiness (2010).

 

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These words were written a long time ago in the early 2000’s (they formed part of a chapter on love in my 2004 book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion). When we hear the words ‘take back our country,’ words we keep hearing, words that are sharp weapons, words that slice through land and flesh, words that can be used against people, people who are asked to ‘go home,’ we are hearing a long history. We are hearing white supremacy. It is the present.

 

 

 

 

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Bogus

The figure of the bogus asylum seeker is familiar. It is familiar because that figure is regularly exercised.  The suspicion toward those seeking asylum has become a form of national citizenship. You demonstrate allegiance to the nation by the very act of being suspicious toward those seeking asylum: that they are not who they claim to be; they are not children because they are not innocent (or even if they are children, they are not innocent, which means they are not really children). Those seeking asylum become not injured but injurious: as if they are injuring the nation, bruising its vulnerable white body by the very act of being at all.

Yes I say white: because if once race and nation appeared to be separated (and to appear to be separated is not to be separate), now they are more confidently articulated together, which is why brown and black people, including those born here, can be told to “go home” or even just be asked where they are from, as if they are not from here.

Brown and black: foreign.

Not from as endangering from.

Suspicion becomes a form of national citizenship. Citizenship now functions like Neighborhood Watch: to be a neighbour is to be a citizen, to look out for strangers, those who do not belong, those who are “bodies out of place,” as I described in one of my first books, Strange Encounters (2000).

The good citizen is invited to become “the eyes and the ears of the police.”

Suspicion: it falls on those deemed fallen, dark bodies, passing by at the edges of social experience.

The stranger is stopped by being questionable.

The suspicion of asylum seekers as not really being asylum seekers is thus part of a more general suspicion of those deemed strangers, as not really being from here, whose presence is framed as loitering with intent.

The stranger is dangerous. We instruct our children on the danger of strangers.

Not just anyone: someone.

Loitering.

Brown and Black: as foreign. Brown and black: as stealing something from us, as reducing the value of our neighbourhoods.

Bogus: unless proven otherwise.

A politics of respectability: having to prove you are not like them.

Being not bogus: as a practical identification with whiteness as well as bourgeois culture. Property owners, owning oneself, neighbour not stranger.

Moving up.

Smiling, even, not us, we are with you.

Melancholic universalism: when you identify with the universal that repudiates you.

Bogus: by virtue of the effort not to be bogus.

The word “bogus” derives from counterfeit money, a bogus was a “spurious coin” and the word is assumed to derive from slang for the counterfeit’s apparatus: that is, from the machine that makes such coins through creating impressions. Just to quote from one early usage of the bogus machine: “One bogus or machine impressing dies on the coin, with a number of dies, engraving tools, bank bill paper, spurious coin, &c. &c. making in all a large wagon load, was taken into possession by the attorney general of Lower Canada”. The word “spurious” implies sham, “not proceeding from the source intended,” and refers to the illegitimate child, as the one who has dubious origins because their arrival has not been rendered as legitimate by law, who is outside wedlock. A coin would be spurious and bogus when it does not originate legitimately; a person too. Note also that bogus can refer to a coin and to a machine for making coins.

A machinery, that’s familiar. The fraud is a machine.

The figure of the bogus asylum seeker thus is not a lonely spurious coin.  We are referring to how asylum as such become fraudulence: those who claim asylum are assumed to be bogus, to be passing their way into the nation through fraud, unless they demonstrate otherwise; every asylum seeker is understood as a singular impress created by a machinery that is intended to defraud the whole system. In these instances passing is understood as a deliberate willful act of fraud; a way of falsely receiving benefits. The welfare recipient and the asylum seeker are both bogus in this sense.  You have to demonstrate that you are not passing for what you are not (that you are what you claim to be) in order to take up residence within a nation or to receive any benefits.  The effort to establish that you are not a fraud has life consequences: a system becomes a hammer directed against those who are perpetually being rendered dubious because of their origins, because their bodies, their story, their papers, are not in the right place.

To be judged as bogus is to inherit a demand to establish one’s legitimacy to those who decide the criteria for legitimacy.

We sense what we know: this system is wearing; that it works by being wearing.

The figure of the bogus asylum seeker is thus generated by the system as a mechanism for legitimating itself: it is how legitimacy is legitimated; it is how persecutions becomes enacted as the pursuit of truth (as well as happiness).

And: the very act of survival is narrated as a way of falsely accruing benefits.

A life becomes a debt; you can inherit debt.

Poverty becomes fault.

Death becomes deserved.

This is not new. The moral distinction between the deserving and undeserving is not new.

The politics of suspicion is not new. Racism is not new. It is just that: racism as a politics of suspicion has been renewed by being given more places to go, legitimately, because it has been given legitimacy. Foreignness has become a ground for suspicion, something remarkable, a question you can ask anyone, even school children, are you foreign, declare yourself, reveal yourself to us.

Stop lurking in the background.

Background racism: the racism that is already there comes up as an explanation of what is not working. For those who have life experiences of being the object of suspicion, racism is not in the background. It does not recede; you do not recede when every bit of you is treated as a revelation. Racism is in the background for those who are not at the receiving end. Those who are not on the receiving end: when a viewpoint is shared it is not viewed. Background racism refers to the fact that racism is already there, structuring life chances and situations, by not being perceived. This is how racism is working when things are working. And this is how and why racism comes up very quickly when something is not working.

Racism is articulated as an explanation of what is not working.

 If it wasn’t for them.

The asylum seeker is a national killjoy. Immigrants too are national killjoys. And as figures, they have utility. A killjoy has to fight against her own utility.  It is not anyone who is a migrant (or even for that matter a refugee) who will be caught by this figure. It is those who are perceivable as not like us or not near us who are caught by the figures; to be caught by as to be caught up. A brown citizen more than a white migrant will be caught by the figure “immigrant.” So when people raise suspicion about immigrants we know who they are talking about and we know who they are not talking about by what they are not talking about (immigration is a useful narrative because it is about race by appearing not to be about race).

Which is why they say to us: you are making it about race.

Racism: hears racism as made up.

National killjoys.

And these figures have utility as killjoys because they allow a fantasy of happiness to be preserved, as if without them, we would be happy, as if without them, we would have what would cause our happiness (jobs, wealth, security and so on). The killjoy becomes a container of unhappiness and incivility, as an explanation of why “we” do not have what is assumed as our birth right.

So much wrong: when birth is deemed a right.

Them: too many. Too many of them: we could cease to be us.

Us.

For postcolonial and decolonial studies, history matters. This is not new. Racism was a central mechanism after all for justifying empire itself as a moral project.

Not just a set of ideas but of interests.

Empire: a happiness mission.

The white man’s burden.

To bring light to the dark corners of the earth.

This is not new.

Old scripts; figures that are familiar because they have been exercised.

In my book The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004, 2014) I explored how the politics of hatred is often narrated as a politics of love: out of love for the nation, we defend the nation against those deemed to endanger the nation. I explored then the currency of the figure of the bogus asylum seeker.

Old currency.

Old  money.

Go back, go over what is not over.

I took as an example, William Hague’s speeches on asylum seekers made between April and June 2000 when he was the leader of the Conservative Party. During this period, other speeches were in circulation that became stuck to the asylum seekers through the repetition of the same words. In the case of the asylum speeches, Hague’s narrative is somewhat predictable. Words used like “flood” and “swamped” work to create associations between asylum and the loss of control and hence work by mobilising fear, or the anxiety of being overwhelmed by the actual or potential proximity of others. These words were then repeated in 2003 by the David Blunkett, when he was Home Secretary, who used “swamped” to describe the effect that children of asylum seekers would have if they were taught by local schools. When criticised, he replaced the word “swamped” with “overwhelmed.” Change the word, keep the association. Overwhelmed: a sensation of being over taken or taken over by others. Words are affective: they create impressions of others as those who have invaded the space of the nation, threatening its existence.

In the earlier speech, Hague differentiates between those others who are welcome and those who are not by differentiating between genuine and bogus asylum seekers. Partly, this works to enable the national subject to imagine its generosity in welcoming some others. The nation is hospitable as it allows those genuine ones to stay. This fantasy of a hospitable nation is just that: a fantasy.  And yet at the same time, it constructs some others as already hateful (as bogus) in order to define the limits or the conditions of this hospitality. The construction of the bogus asylum seeker as a figure of hate also involves a narrative of uncertainty and crisis, but an uncertainty and crisis that makes that figure do more work. How can we tell the difference between a bogus and a genuine asylum seeker? It is always possible that we might not be able to tell, and that they may pass, in both senses of the term, their way into our community. Such a possibility commands us (our right, our will) to keep looking, and justifies our intrusion into the bodies of others.

Indeed, the possibility that we might not be able to tell the difference swiftly converts into the possibility that any of those incoming bodies may be bogus. In advance of their arrival, they are hence read as the cause of an injury to the national body. The figure of the bogus asylum seeker is detached from particular bodies: any incoming bodies could be bogus, such that their “endless” arrival is anticipated as the scene of ‘our injury’. The impossibility of reducing hate to a particular body allows hate to circulate in an economic sense, working to differentiate some others from other others, a differentiation that is never “over”  as it awaits for others who have not yet arrived. Such a discourse of “waiting for the bogus” justifies the repetition of violence against others.

Not just not over, never over.

Hague’s speeches also worked to produce certain affects and effects through its proximity to another speech about Tony Martin, a man sentenced to life in prison for murdering a 16 year old boy who had attempted, along with one other person, to burgle his house (a boy who is racialised as gypsy). Hague uses one sentence, which circulates powerfully. He stated (without reference to Martin or asylum seekers) that the law is “more interested in the rights of criminals than the rights of people who are burgled”. Such a sentence evokes a history that is not declared.  Histories are repeated when they do not have to be declared.  The sentence positions Martin as the victim and not as a criminal. The murdered is now the criminal: the crime that did not happen because of the murder (the burglary) takes the place of the murder, as the true crime, and as the real injustice. This reversal of the victim/criminal relationship becomes an implicit defence of the right to kill those who unlawfully enter one’s property.

Murder: as self-defence. Not as murder, then. Justified legal killing.

Racism: justifies killing as self-defence.

Familiar.

Deadly.

The coincidence of this sentence with the speech about asylum seekers is affective. The detachment of the sentence allows two cases to get stuck together: burglary and asylum, which both now become matters of the right to defence. The figure of the asylum seeker hence gets aligned with the figure of the burglar. The alignment does important work: it suggests that the asylum seeker is “stealing” something from the nation.  The “characteristics” of one figure get displaced or transferred onto the other. Or we could say that it is through the association between the figures that they acquire a life of their own as if they contained an affective quality.  The burglar becomes a foreigner, and the asylum seeker becomes a criminal. At the same time, the body of the murderer (who is renamed the victim) becomes the body of the nation; the one whose property and well-being is under threat by the proximity of the other, registered as intrusion.

Suspicion: they are stealing something.

Not just that: they are trying to kill us or, if they had their way, we would cease to be (who we are).

The asylum seeker has historically been identified as bogus by being identified as a potential or the “could-be terrorist.” Fear sticks to these bodies that “could be terrorist” (brown, of Middle-Eastern appearance, Muslim looking), where the “could be” opens up the power to detain as a form of self-defence. Although such fear sticks, it also slides across such bodies; it is the structural possibility that the terrorist may pass us by that justifies the expansion of forms of intelligence, surveillance and the rights of detention.

The could-be terrorist becomes the might-as-well-be terrorist.

This violent slide between the figure of the asylum seeker and the terrorist works to construct those who are “without home” as sources of “our fear,” and as reasons for new forms of border policing, whereby the future is what is deemed under threat posed by those who may pass their way into “our” communities.   The containment of the bodies of others affected by this economy of fear is most violently revealed in the literal deaths of those seeking asylum, deaths that remain unmourned by the very nations who embody the promise of a future for those seeking asylum.

Unmourned losses.

This is a chilling reminder of what is at stake.

Death as policy.

Being identified as bogus: deemed to have caused your own death.

Bogus: a death sentence.

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A Feminist Army

I have been taking some time out to reflect upon the last three years, to process what has happened because, of course, some experiences are difficult to process when they are happening. By some experiences I am referring primarily to the work we have been doing to try and expose the problem of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct within universities. That work is work we share with many others. After I made public the reasons for my resignation, I was overwhelmed by the feminist solidarity and support I received. Each message brought a message home to me, one I have been trying to write about: living a feminist life is about how we connect with and draw upon each other in our shared project of dismantling worlds.

It is slow and painstaking work but, chip by chip, we chip away. In my killjoy survival kit I discuss how feminist killjoys need breaks from killjoying (yes it can be a doing word because it is what we are doing). It can be exhausting doing this kind of work. I have written before about how you become a problem when you expose a problem. But even if you have written about this problem of becoming a problem it does not stop you from becoming a problem all over again.

And so sometimes: we take a break from the work in order to do the work.

Whilst I have been away from my blog, we have chosen a book cover for Living A Feminist Life! You can see the cover here.

The image used on the cover is by the feminist artist Carrie Moyer who is well known for her work in Dyke Action Machine! (DAM!), one of the first queer interventionist public art projects. The image is a contemporary reimagining of the classic feminist symbol of a clenched first bursting through the woman sign (well I like to think of it as bursting). I first discussed this feminist symbol in the conclusion of Willful Subjects (2014). I come back to it in Living a Feminist Life. I come back to the symbol because my book takes up the “call to arms,” with which I ended my earlier work. I wanted to hear the arms in this call, or to hear the arms as calling.

The arm came to matter to me as a figure because of how arms came up in the willfulness archive. I want to share that story of how arms came to matter as a way of exploring what it means to assemble a feminist army.(1)

Living a Feminist Life tells my own story of becoming a feminist. A story always begins before it can be told. To become feminist can often mean looking for company; looking for others who share that becoming. This search for feminist companionship began for me through books; I withdrew into my room with books. It was willful girls who caught my attention. In writing my book Willful Subjects I formalized my pursuit of willful girls into a research trajectory. Once I began to follow the figure of a willful girl, I found she turned up all over the place. It was by following this figure that I came to encounter new texts, ones that had a ghostly familiarity, even if I had not read them before. One of these texts was titled “the Willful Child.” It is a grim story, and a Grimm story. Let me share this story again, for those of you who have not read it before:

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. The willful child: she has a story to tell. This story can be treated as a teaching tool, as well as a way of teaching us about tools (the rods, the machinery of power). We learn how willfulness is used as an explanation of disobedience: a child disobeys because she is willful, when she is not willing to do what her mother wills her to do. We do not know in the story what it was that the child was not willing to do. Disobedience is not given content because disobedience as such becomes a fault: the child must do whatever her mother wishes. She is not willing, whatever.

What is striking about this story is how willfulness persists even after death: displaced onto an arm, from a body onto a body part. The arm inherits the willfulness of the child insofar as it will not be kept down, insofar as it keeps coming up, acquiring a life of its own, even after the death of the body of which it is a part. Note that the rod, as that which embodies the will of the parent, of the sovereign, is not deemed willful. The rod becomes the means to eliminate willfulness from the child. One will judges the other wills as willful wills. One will assumes the right to eliminate the others.

We might note here how the very judgment of willfulness is a crucial part of the disciplinary apparatus. It is this judgment that allows violence (even murder) to be understood as care as well as discipline. The rod becomes a technique for straightening out the willful child with her wayward arm.

This Grimm story forms part of a tradition of educational writing that Alice Miller (1987) in For Your Own Good calls “poisonous pedagogy,” a tradition that assumes the child as stained by original sin, and which insists on violence as moral correction, as being for the child. Just consider that in this story the only time that the child is at rest is when she is beneath the ground. By implication, when the child gives up or gives up her will, when she stops struggling against those she must obey (her mother, God) when she is willing to obey, she will be at ease.

Becoming willing to obey would avoid the costs of not being willing. A willing girl, who does not appear in this story, is willing to obey, which is to say, she is willing not to have a will of her own. The willing girl does not appear, but she is the one to whom the story is addressed: the story is a warning of the consequences of not being willing to obey.

Once I noticed this arm, how it came up, it stuck with me. I was struck; even stricken. The arm of the Grimm story is striking in the sense of attracting attention. It is striking because of how it appears. It comes up in a scene of violence. It comes alive after death. The arm is life after death. Before the grim ending, the arm is held up in a moment of suspension. Despite the morbid nature of this story, the arm becomes a signifier of hope; the arm in suspension is still rising.

Willfulness: persistence in the face of having been brought down. We have to reach the arm to carry that spark, to feel the pulse of its fragile life. We catch the arm in that moment of suspension.

So: even after the willful child has been brought down, something, some spark, some kind of energy, persists. The arm gives flesh to this persistence. The arm has to disturb the ground, to reach up, to reach out of the grave, that tomb, that burial.

We can twist the morbid ending into a feminist plot. The arm is at rest not because she has been beaten but in order that she return to her work; so that she can come up again.

A feminist plot: she is waiting when she appears willing. Behind the scenes: she is waiting.

We could thus rethink the Grimm story as an institutional story; institutions can be grim, after all. It is a story that circulates within institutions. It offers a warning, a threat: speak up and you will be beaten. The story is also an invitation to those who are at risk of identification with the wayward arm: an invitation to become the rod as a way of avoiding the consequences of being beaten. Become the rod: too much violence is abbreviated here. But we witness the endless invitations to identify with those who discipline as a way of not being beaten. No wonder: the willful child comes up whenever there is a questioning of institutional will. Whenever, say, she brings up sexism or racism, the willful child quickly comes after her: as if to say, speak up and her fate will be yours. There are many within institutions who cannot afford that fate; there are many who cannot raise their arms in protest even when the will of the institution is exposed as violence. We need to support those who are willing to expose the will of the institution as violence; we need to become our own support system, so that when she speaks up, when she is, as she is, quickly represented as the willful child who deserves her fate, who is beaten because her will is immature and impoverished, she will not be an arm coming up alone; she will not be an arm all on her own.

Perhaps the arm in the Grimm story is also a feminist point. To make a feminist point is to go out on a limb. No wonder the arm keeps coming up. She makes a sore point. She is a sore point. We keep saying it because they keep doing it: assembling the same old bodies, doing the same old things. She keeps coming up because there is so much history to bring up. But when she comes up, this history is what is not revealed. Her arm is spectacular; when she makes these points, she becomes the spectacle. Her soreness becomes the spectacle. And no wonder: what follows her aims to discipline her. And no wonder: what precedes her aims to warn her.

And yet: she persists.

We can think of feminism as a history of persistence. Feminist history is a history of becoming army. Perhaps then: it is not that the child is willful because she disobeys but rather that the child becomes willful in order to disobey. In order to persist with her disobedience, the child becomes her arm. It is not that the arm inherits willfulness from the child. The child inherits willfulness from her arm. Her arm: a willful becoming. She claims her arm as her own. No wonder the arm in the Grimm story appears all alone. This is how the story operates most powerfully as ideology: the implication that disobedience is lonely and unsupported. We can willfully hear the story as a plea: to join arms, to show the arms as joined.

We assemble a feminist army in response to this plea. A feminist army of arms would pulse with shared life and vitality. Feminist arms do not lend their hand to support the familial or the social order. We support those who do not support the reproduction of that order. The arm that keeps coming up might not be willing to do the housework, to maintain his house, to free his time for thought. When women refuse to be helping hands, when we refuse to clean for him, up after him, when we refuse to be his secretary, the keeper of his secrets, his right hand, we become willful subjects.

We can understand why, of all her limbs, the arm matters. An arm is what allows you to reach, to carry, to hold, to complete certain kinds of tasks. Arms are identified throughout history as the limbs of labor or even the limbs of the laborer. Arms are supposed to be willing to labor. But not all arms. Arlie Hochschild describes how “the factory boy’s arm functioned like a piece of machinery used to produce wallpaper. His employer regarded that arm as an instrument, claimed control over its speed and motions. In this situation, what was the relation between the boy’s arm and his mind? Was his arm in any meaningful sense his own?” ([1983] 2003, 7, emphasis in original). When the laborers’ arms become tools in the creation of wealth, the laborers lose their arms. When they become his arms, the employer’s own arms are freed.

We can hear another sense in which arms are striking. To go on strike is to clench your fist, to refuse to be handy. It is to refuse to work; you are striking against working conditions. When workers refuse to allow their arms to be the master’s tool, they strike. The clenched fist remains a revolutionary sign for labor movements, internationally. The arm in the grim story belongs to this history, too: the arm is a revolutionary limb; a promise of what is to come, of how history is still but not yet done.

A feminist does not lend her hand; she too curls her fist. The clenched fist is a protest against the sign woman (by being in the sign woman) as well as resignifying the hands of feminism as protesting hands. Feminist hands are not helping hands in the sense that they do not help women help. When a hand curls up as a feminist fist, it has a hand in a movement.

Arms remind us too that labor, who works for whom, is a feminist issue. Labor includes reproductive labor: the labor of reproducing life; the labor of reproducing the conditions that enable others to live. Black women and women of color; working-class women; migrant women; women who have worked in the factories, in the fields, at home; women who care for their own children as well as other children; such women have become the arms for other women whose time and energy has been freed. Any feminism that lives up to the promise of that name will not free some women from being arms by employing other women to take their place. Feminism needs to refuse this division of labor, this freeing up of time and energy for some by the employment of the limbs of others. If the freeing up of time and energy depends on other people’s labor, we are simply passing our exhaustion on to others. We can recall bell hooks’s critique of Betty Friedan’s solution to the unhappiness of the housewife, to the “problem that has no name.” hooks notes “she did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions” (2000, 1–2).

When being freed from labor requires others to labor, others are paying the price of your freedom. That is not freedom. A feminist army that gives life and vitality to some women’s arms by taking life and vitality from other women’s arms is reproducing inequality and injustice. That is not freedom. For feminism to become a call to arms, we have to refuse to allow the arms to become dead labor. We have to refuse to support the system that sucks the blood, vitality, and life from the limbs of workers.

We need to hear the arms in the call to arms. A call is also a lament, a passionate expression of grief and sorrow.Willfulness might not only be a protest against violence but a demand for return: a return of the child, a return of her arm. We can begin to understand what is being demanded: a demand for return is also a demand for recognition of the theft of life and vitality from bodies; from arms. It is a demand for reparation.

A call of arms is thus a recall. We can recall Sojourner Truth speaking to the suffragettes, having to insist on being a woman as a black woman and former slave: “Ain’t I a woman,” she says. “Look at me,” she says. “Look at my arm.” It is said that Sojourner Truth, during her insistent speech, “bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power” (cited in Zackodnick 2011, 99). In Women, Race and Class, Angela Davis notes how Truth in pointing to her arm is challenging the “weaker sex” arguments that were being used by those who opposed the suffragette cause. These were arguments that rested on flimsy evidence of flimsy bodies: “that it was ridiculous for women to desire the vote, since they could not even walk over a puddle or get into a carriage without the help of men” (Davis 1983, 61). Sojourner Truth in her speech as it has been recorded by others evokes her own laboring history: “I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns and no man could head me. . . . I have borne thirteen children and seen them most all sold off to slavery” (99). 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 plow, to plant, to bear the children who end up belonging to the master.

The arms of the slave belonged to the master, as did the slaves, as the ones who were not supposed to have a will of their own. Any will is a willful will if you are not supposed to have a will of your own. Of course we cannot simply treat the arm evoked here as Truth’s arm. The arm does not provide its own testimony. It was Frances Dana Barker Gage, a leading white feminist, reformer, and abolitionist, who gave us this well-known account of Truth’s speech as well as her “army testimony.” This account is itself a citation: our access to Sojourner Truth’s address is possible only through the testimony of others; to be more specific, through the testimony of white women.We learn from this to be cautious about our capacity to bear witness to the labor and speech of arms in history: we might be able to hear the call of arms only through the mediation of other limbs. This mediation does not mean we cannot hear truth. Patricia Hill Collins notes this lack of access as a “limitation” in her account of Truth’s speech: “Despite this limitation, in that speech Truth reportedly provides an incisive analysis of the definition of the term woman forwarded in the mid-1800s” (2000, 12). Collins thus treats Truth’s speech as an example of an intellectual at work: she shows how Truth deconstructs the category “woman” by exposing the gap between her own embodied experiences as an African American woman and the very category “woman” (12–13).

In different hands, arms can become deconstructive limbs, or intersectional points. Arms can embody how we fail to inhabit a category. Arms can be how we insist on inhabiting a category we are assumed to fail. Arms can throw a category into crisis. The arms go on strike when they refuse to work; when they refuse to participate in their own subordination.  No wonder we must look to the arm, if we are to understand the history of those who rise up against oppression.

Arms: they will keep coming up.

Willfulness: how some rise up by exercising the very limbs that have been shaped by their subordination.

And: it is those women who have to insist on being women, those who have to insist willfully on being part of the feminist movement, sometimes with a show of their arms, who offer the best hope for a feminist revolution.

The arms that built the house are the arms that will bring it down.

(1) The writing that follows is a revised version of parts of chapter 3, “Willfulness and Feminist Subjectivity,” from Living a Feminist Life.

References

Collins, Patricia Hill (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics  of Empowerment, 2nd edition. New York: Routledge.

Davis, Angela [1981] (1983). Women, Race and Class. New York: Vintage Books Edition.

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

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

Miller, Alice (1987). For Your Own Good: The Roots of Violence in Child-Rearing. London: Virago Press.

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

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Dedication

Feminist friends and feminist killjoys,

I am writing this post as a dedication. To you: to all of you who find in feminism an electric connection. To you: to all of you who have spoken out about institutional violence or who have supported those who have spoken out about institutional violence. This work can be difficult and painful. It is necessary work. It is costly work. So much of our work is about sharing the costs of doing the work.

I am about to start proof reading my book, Living a Feminist Life, which is the companion book for this blog. I have been writing this book in the last three years. That’s the same three years that I have been writing this blog. It happens to be the same three years that we have been building the Centre for Feminist Research, a Centre that created a home for Goldsmiths’ lively and longstanding community of feminists. This happens to be the same three years we have been working on the problem of sexual harassment as an institutional problem.

The same three years.

We needed a space like the Centre to make this institutional work possible. When feminist work is homework, when what you are trying to do is dismantle some of the structures where you are, here, not just there, then you need a feminist home. The university becomes: what you work on, and not just at. We have been chipping away at the walls; and we had a space to go to when the work was too much. I know the Centre will continue to be a lively home; my heart will stay there, even when I am not there. My feminist colleagues will remain my co-builders.

And the writing too: this book, this blog; I couldn’t have done the institutional work without having them as places to go. Words can be weapons, as Audre Lorde taught us. Writing about difficult experiences can give you a handle on those experiences; it can be how you survive them; how you make sense of what persists despite your efforts.

I have been lucky and privileged to work with many incredible feminists at Goldsmiths and beyond. I am dedicated to preserving these connections.

A feminist dedication.

In previous posts, I have been addressing the problem of silence in relation to violence.

I know: speaking out is not always possible.

I also know: there are lots of different reasons for silence.

It is important to understand how difficult it can be to expose a problem: and it is not just because you become the problem. One feminist colleague asked a concerned question: how would speaking out about sexual harassment effect recruitment onto our feminist teaching programmes? This question was not motivated by an assumption that if speaking out had a negative impact on recruitment then it was wrong to have spoken out. It was a question that came from a genuine care and concern: because these programmes are where we are doing our feminist work. I care for them too. I care for the students who come to Goldsmiths to find feminism and other tools for identifying and dismantling the buildings of power.

We can hear in the care of this concern another reason for silence. We know that sexual harassment and sexual misconduct are sector problems. We know they are social problems. And we know the nature of these problems means they are often not revealed as problems. So if someone in one organisation is speaking out about sexual harassment as an institutional problem, but others in other organisations are not, then it can indeed make it appear as if that organisation is the one with the problem: the very words can stick to that organisation and thus free other organisations from the requirement to do the work.

This is one of the reasons for silence: you might be silent because others are silent.

To get through the wall of silence we need to do this work wherever we are; those who can, must, so that silence is no longer a reason for silence. We need to speak, if we can, so others can.

This post is written out of dedication to all those who have been affected by harassment and bullying and who are working out, one way or another, how to get the message out.

I will be taking a break from this work so I can come back to it in the new year. I am looking forward to being on the advisory board of The 1752 Group and to joining in a wider feminist effort to deal with the problem of sexual harassment and misconduct with as wide a lens as possible. In the new year I also hope to start an empirical project on complaint; talking to those who make complaints about racism as well as bullying and sexual harassment within organisations in which they study or work. I think the process of making a complaint – and what follows once you have made one – has much to teach us about institutional life; about power; about how hard it is to expose what is ordinarily veiled by secrecy and silence.

Until then I will be writing my book What’s the Use, on “the uses of use.”

To say farewell: here is an extract from my killjoy manifesto. And here is my dedication.

I am dedicated to my dedication.

In fierce feminism,

Sara

ps I will also be taking a break from twitter for a period of time. I will be back for killjoy tweeting sometime in October.

 

————————————————————–Dedication

Principle 3: I am willing to support others who are willing to cause unhappiness.

A killjoy might first recognize herself in that feeling of loneliness: of being cut off from others, from how they assemble around happiness. She knows, because she has been there: to be unseated by the tables of happiness can be to find yourself in that shadowy place, to find yourself alone, on your own. It might be that many pass through the figure of the killjoy and quickly out again because they find her a hard place to be; not to be surrounded by the warmth of others, the quiet murmurs that accompany an agreement. The costs of killing joy are high; this figure is herself a cost (not to agree with someone as killing the joy of something).

How do you persist? As I suggested in my survival kit, we often persist by finding the company of other killjoys; we can take up this name when we recognize the dynamic she names; and we can recognize that dynamic when others articulate that dynamic for us. We recognize others too because they recognize that dynamic.

Those moments of recognition are precious; and they are precarious. With a moment comes a memory: we often persist by being supported by others. We might also experience the crisis of being unsupported; support matters all the more all the less we feel supported. To make a manifesto out of the killjoy means being willing to give to others the support you received or wish you received. Maybe you are in a conversation, at home or at work, and one person, one person out of many, is speaking out. Don’t let her speak on her own. Back her up; speak with her. Stand by her; stand with her. From these public moments of solidarity so much is brought into existence. We are creating a support system around the killjoy; we are finding ways to allow her to do what she does, to be who she is. We do not have to assume her permanence, to turn her figure into personhood, to know that when she comes up, she might need others to hold her up.

Audre Lorde once wrote, your silence will not protect you. But your silence could protect them. And by them I mean: those who are violent, or those who benefit in some way from silence about violence. The killjoy is testimony. She comes to exist as a figure, a way of containing damage, because she speaks about damage. Over time, the time of being a feminist, we might call this feminist time, I have come to understand, to know and to feel, the costs of speaking out. I have thus come to understand, to know and to feel, why many do not speak out. There is a lot to lose, a lot, a life even. So much injustice is reproduced by silence not because people do not recognize injustice, but because they do recognize it. They also recognize the consequences of identifying injustice, which might not be consequences they can live with. It might be fear of losing your job and knowing you need that job to support those you care for; it might be concern about losing connections that matter; concern that what you say will be taken the wrong way; concern that by saying something you would make something worse.

To suggest that the feminist killjoy is a manifesto is not to say that we have obligation to speak out. We are not all in the same position; we cannot all afford to speak out. Killing joy thus requires a communication system: we have to find other ways for the violence to become manifest. We might need to use guerrilla tactics, and we have a feminist history to draw on here; you can write down names of harassers on flyers; put graffiti on walls; red ink in the water. There are many ways to cause a feminist disturbance.

Even if speaking out is not possible it is necessary. Silence about violence is violence.  But feminist speech can take many forms. We become more inventive with forms the harder it is to get through. Speaking out and speaking with, sheltering those who speak; these acts of spreading the word are world making.

Killing joy is a world making project.

 

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Resignation is a Feminist Issue

To live a feminist life is to be a feminist at work. Until I resigned, my own working life had been based in universities: I was a student for around 10 years and I have been an academic for over 20 years. So much of what know is shaped by where I have been located. I carry the university with me; I value the work of the university because I value knowledge and education. I value what it can do: to learn and to engage with others who are learning.  Universities are also institutions that are structured by power relations all the way down. We create feminist programmes and centres because universities, however much they exercise the language of equality and diversity, often do not express those commitments other than in policy.  So yes: most of us with feminist commitments end up working for organisations that do not have these commitments, even when they might appear to have them.  After all we often acquire our commitments to do something because of what is not being done.  To work as a feminist means trying to transform the organisations that employ us – or house us. This rather obvious fact has some telling consequences.  When we try to shake the walls of the house, we are also shaking the foundations of our own existence.

But what if we do this work and the walls stay up? What if we do this work and the same things keep coming up? What if our own work of exposing a problem is used as evidence there is no problem? Then you have to ask yourself: can I keep working here? What if staying employed by an institution means you have to agree to remain silent about what might damage its reputation?

By saying resignation is a feminist issue I am not saying to resign is an inherently feminist act even when you resign in protest because of the failure to deal with the problem sexual harassment. I am saying: to be a feminist at work means holding in suspense the question of where to do our work. The work you do must be what you question. Sometimes, leaving can be staying, with feminism. Sometimes. And not for all feminists: other feminists in the same situation might stay because they cannot afford to leave, or because they have not lost the will to keep chipping away at those walls.

So it is time to tell the story. This is my story: of how I came to resign; how I came to the decision not just to leave my post, but the university system.

This is my story.

It is personal.

The personal is institutional.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, Speaking out, I first learned of the problem of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct in June of 2013 from a colleague who had been told by a student who had been harassed. I did not know what to do, so I asked a colleague who told me who to approach in senior management. I am interested, in hindsight, that I was unsure about what to do. It should be the norm that we know what to do. I then learnt from this manager that an enquiry was being conducted about sexual harassment. I was then invited by another academic to a meeting with students in response to the failure of this enquiry. That meeting took place in November 2013. Without any question, what I learnt about what had been going on changed my relation to my work environment for ever. The university would not be the same for me.

I would not have it any other way.

Sometimes you need to know what makes it hard to stay.

As a result of this meeting, which was followed by many other meetings, a new enquiry took place; followed by two more in relation to two other staff members. In two of these three cases, the members of staff left.

Why did what I learnt make the university a place I could no longer inhabit?  I knew sexual harassment was a real problem. There had been serious cases I knew about at both my former institutions in the UK – Cardiff and Lancaster. The reason this was different: I began to realise how the system was working. I began to realise that the system was working.

I began to realise too my own complicity with that system. I had previously known that the centre in which much of the harassment was happening was not a centre with which I could be connected: I found their whole ethos and culture to be incredibly sexist. So I had stopped going to their events, and had my own boycott policy in place: if I was asked to supervise any of their incoming students, or to be involved in a panel or a viva, I would say no, on principle. I thought my principle was a feminist protest. I was wrong. In fact it meant I had taken myself out from the situations where I might have witnessed the harassment and abuse firsthand. I had taken myself away from the students who could have turned to me for support. If it had not been for setting up our Centre for Feminist Research, and being asked to attend that meeting, I could have stayed knowing enough to know there was a problem but not knowing about the problem. I will return to this question of “exiting situations” in due course. We often need to ask ourselves how we didn’t know something once we come to know something.

What I came to realise was: this was not an issue of an individual person whose removal would remove the problem. Indeed the assumption that to remove a person is to remove a problem is often how the problem remains.  This was an issue of institutional culture, which had become built around (or to enable) abuse and harassment. When we talk about sexual harassment as institutional culture we can be referring to how female students are addressed in seminars and social spaces; the use of sexist language within teaching (one academic would keep using the example of woman’s bodies or referred such-and-such philosopher’s “ugly wife”); the use of sexist and racist jokes as a form of bonding especially within social spaces; as well as inappropriate touching. It can involve groping and sexual advances that are unwelcome: that is part of it but the not the start of it. It can involve a highly “intimate” and personal way of inhabiting spaces with students; it can involve the sexualising of college space (for example through the use of pornography in offices); and it can involve putting pressure on students to have sexual relationships (often through the use of drugs and alcohol).  For all of this to be going on at the same time, we are also talking about harrassment as recruitment:  there are penalties for noncooperation (withdrawal of supervision or time) as well as rewards for cooperation (the same people engaging in this behavior are in control of scholarships, for example).

We have evidence that this kind of conduct, conduct as culture, had been in place since the late 1990s. The head of the centre acknowledged to a colleague of mine they had a problem with sexual harassment in 2003. I would argue that knowing of the problem whilst the problem is ongoing is creating and participating in the problem. So this abuse and harassment was going on, whilst people knew about it, for at least a decade, probably longer. It was going on because academic staff had been given permission to conduct themselves in this way. It had been going on despite many students leaving. It had been going on because some of the mechanisms that might have stopped or brought it to the surface had been suspended by the staff themselves. Indeed, staff seemed to use their identity as political radicals to defy rules or conventions. The very regulations that might have helped to protect students were identified by academic staff with management who were then identified as against academic staff (because of their radicalism).

This is how: any complaint became identified in advance as a betrayal of a cause.

Sexual harassment became: part of a cause.

Trying to address this history, trying not to reproduce this history: another cause.

Over this last three years: it has been a lot of work not to get very far. And that is also part of the problem: something keeps happening because it is made so difficult to stop it from happening. This is not to say we didn’t anywhere. When I came to understand how the system worked, I began to work with students (and some staff) on how to reopen enquiries that would enable them to collect the evidence, which was there to collect but very difficult to provide (because very system that many students wanted to complain about was the same system that made it almost impossible to complain).

We got somewhere, although the last enquiry did not seem to be conducted with the same conviction and purpose, and I began to sense a withdrawal of institutional will. But it was what followed the enquiries that led me to giving up my own institutional will. Because despite how much the evidence showed that the problem was one of culture and  complicity, there was no public discussion held about what had been happening and what we could learn from it. There was no chance to reflect together as academics on how to develop professional norms that would better protect students from abuse and harassment and misconduct. There were changes made to policies and complaints procedures. But these policy changes were made without talking to academic staff: I only knew about them because of my own involvement.

You can change policies without changing anything. You can change policies in order not to change anything.

Policies do matter but not because changing policies automatically changes the situation. In fact, it was an issue of policy that was one of the most wearing of the issues we dealt with. In the Centre for Feminist Research’s submission to the UK taskforce set up to address violence against women within Higher Education we refer to a paragraph, which was in Goldsmiths’ conflict of interest policy. This paragraph is not unique to Goldsmiths (it is shared by a number of universities). I read this paragraph just after my first meeting with the students:

The College values good professional relationships between staff and students. These relationships are heavily reliant upon mutual trust and confidence, and can be jeopardised when a member of staff enters a sexual/romantic liaison with a student. At the extreme, these liaisons can jeopardise professional relationships and can result in an abuse of power. Problems can also occur when a consensual relationship later becomes non-consensual or a case of harassment. The College does not wish to prevent, or even necessarily be aware of, liaisons between staff and students and it relies upon the integrity of both parties to ensure that abuses of power do not occur.

The policy first offers what I would call fatalism as justification: relationships or “laisons” between staff and students will happen so we will let them happen. Note here how consensual relationships and harassment are separated clearly (and with confidence). We should all know that when there is a power relation, consent becomes an unstable category (those with more power can make not consenting more difficult). Note also the emphasis on personal ethics (confidence and trust), and the assumption of good faith (this is an institutional version of bad faith). The last sentence is the key one: the college does not want to prevent such relationships or even be aware of them. This is what I would call an institutional blind eye, the institution has declared it will look the other way. This blind eye, this act of turning away, is here given official sanction: and it is what gives permission for abuse and harassment to happen. With integrity: no less.

Not knowing: here it is not a matter of chance. If you decide not to know not knowing is willed and it is work.

One colleague said to me recently that he thinks that the reason there has been a reluctance to address this issue more publicly is because of the desire to maintain a distinction between “consensual relationships” between staff and students and abuses of power. Why? Because many academics are in relationships with former students.

We have no room for the past tense on this specific matter. We need to create and share norms of professional conduct now to protect students now. We need to stop romanticising “consensual relationships” between staff and students. To be a lecturer comes with responsibilities. This is one of them: to teach. Having relationships with students not only compromises students (and their learning experience) but the whole class: everyone is affected by it. It should not happen.

So it was very important to change that policy. That it was done, however, in silence replicated the problem that was in the policy: allowing us not to know what had gone on. Changing the policy that turned a blind eye involved turning a blind eye. And although the policy was changed it is worth noting that paragraph stayed online for over a year after we first complained about it (until after the SHHE conference at the end of 2015, to be precise, which I refer to below, when the diversity and equality officer took up the cause to take it down). We had so many communications with so many about getting the paragrah amended or removed: it was exhausting.

The effort over a paragraph embodies the wider effort: so much work not to get very far.

So much work not to get very far.

We did try to get conversations going. Even the conference organised by Anna Bull, Tiffany Page and Leila Whitley on Sexual Harassment in Higher Education (SHHE) that took place in December 2015 ended up feeling like we are talking amongst ourselves. This is not to say the conference was not important: it most certainly was. But you sensed that the people who were not in the room where the ones who needed to be there. The Centre for Feminist Research hosted a panel discussion of Sexism in March 2016: again it did rather feel like we talking to ourselves. Very few academic members of staff were in attendance. The discussion was still important to have. And of course, people are busy. But one member of staff told me they hadn’t come “because it would be too depressing.” And I thought about that: we are not having the conversations because they would get in the way of our happiness. If our happiness depends on turning away from violence, our happiness is violence.

The absence of any discussion of the problem was a reenactment of the problem: that we do not want to know about it is how it keeps being done. At our conference on Sexism, it became clear that this problem was being reproduced. It turned out that there had been more complaints that year from students who had no idea of this previous history (how could they; they had not been told about it; it had been erased). These were not the same  complaints as made before although some similar issues were coming up. But their complaints had been dismissed – or been responded to in a superficial manner – within the centre in which they were studying. And students then said they do not want to proceed with formal complaints  until after they had their final marks. So again: formal complaint procedures don’t get at this problem. The problem is that those with power over others (which is what teachers have – the power to mark, to assess, to value) end up not being questioned because of the power they have over others. This is actually a much bigger problem than sexual harassment or perhaps we should say: sexual harassment is part of a bigger problem. It is about: how academics exercise power often by concealing that power. One of the mantras that kept being used in relation to university students, “but they are adults,” as if being of age means they cannot be abused by those with power. What we seem to be lacking here: an understanding of how power works, which is of course how power works.

Watching histories be reproduced despite all our efforts was one of the hardest experiences of my academic career – well one of the hardest experiences of my life. I just found it shocking. And to complete the story: I originally asked for unpaid leave because doing this work can be demoralising as well as exhausting. But in the course of applying for unpaid leave (and the difficulty of making arrangements in my absence), I felt a snap: I call it feminist snap. My relationship with the institution was too broken. I needed a real break: I had reached the end of the line.

That snap might sound quite violent, dramatic even. Resigning in feminist protest – and making public that you are resigning in feminist protest – does get attention. It can be a sharp sound; it can sound like a sudden break.  In my case, that break was supported by many of my colleagues; but not by all. One colleague describes my action as “rash,” a word used to imply an action that is too quick as well as careless. Snapping is often a matter of timing. A snap can feel like a moment. But snap is a moment with a history: a history can be the accumulated effect of what you have come up against.  And just think: you have to do more, the more you do not get through. You have had hundreds of meetings, with students, with academics, with administrators. You have written blogs about the problem of sexual harassment and the silence that surrounds it. And still there is silence. To resign is a tipping point, a gesture that becomes necessary because of what the previous actions did not accomplish. The actions that did not accomplish anything are not noticed by those who are not involved in the effort. So the action that spills a history, so that it falls out, so there is a fall out, is deemed rash.

Well maybe then: I am willing to be rash.

But of course that my resignation has been supported by many of my colleagues is important. There are now many more people who know something more about what has been happening and who want to be part of a meaningful process of working through the legacy of this history, which is not over, and of changing practices as well as policies. The senior management is now back in dialogue with the students (some of whom are now early career academics) whose activism has been so crucial each difficult and painful step of the way. Maybe we can be cynical: maybe some of these developments only happened because reputation was at risk. I don’t think we can afford to be cynical. We need to find the resources to let us do what we need to do to make a difference; however they come about.

So:

Resigning worked; it broke a seal.

Maybe it is sad it took that. But I am glad I did that.

Of course in leaving I am leaving students that otherwise I would have taught. How is this different to what I did before, when I exited the spaces that would have led me to know sooner what I knew later?  I am leaving, this time, because of what I know. And I need to leave because of what and who stayed.

And I also know: there are many ways to be a feminist teacher. Being employed by a university is one way. I will be exploring others.

Resigning was speaking out. It was saying: this is serious enough that I have had enough.

Resigning was also a feminist hearing. What do I mean by this? Feminist ears prick up at this point. A feminist ear picks up on what is being said, sounds of no, the complaints about violence, the refusals to laugh at sexist jokes; the refusals to comply with unreasonable demands. To acquire a feminist ear is to hear those sounds as speech.  But it is not just that feminist ears can hear beyond the silence that functions as a wall. Once it is heard that you are willing to hear, more people will speak to you. While a snap might seem to make the tongue the organ of feminist rebellion, snap is all about ears. A feminist ear can provide a release of a pressure valve. A feminist ear can be how you hear what is not being heard.

Silence: when you can hear what has not been said.

Because: those who experience harassment often have nowhere to go. A complaints procedure does not help. And when they do speak they are heard as complaining. As I noted in an earlier post, the word complaint derives from plague, in a vulgar sense, to strike at the breast. A complaint: sick speech. Maybe she is heard as speaking from ill-will: not only as being ill, but as spreading infection, as making the whole body ill. If diversity is damage limitation, then damage limitation takes the form of controlling speech, of trying to stop those who speak about violence from speaking in places where they can be heard. To contain damage is to contain those who have been damaged. When she is heard as complaining she is not heard. So those who are willing to hear will end up hearing more and more; you are providing a place to go. Once I began working with students, more and more students got in touch with me. Some of these students did not testify in the enquiries: they just needed a hearing. And so I heard more and more stories of harassment and abuse. This is not a biography of my institution: I suspect at any university if you declare you are prepared to listen to students about their experiences of harassment, you will find more and more students come to find you. This fact: reflects how few places students have to go.

When I resigned, this process that had already happened within my own college, was extended. Resignation offers a feminist hearing because a public action has a wider reach. So many people got in touch with me after I spoke out about sexual harassment with their own stories of harassment and abuse in universities; with their own battles. Telling the story is part of the feminist battle. A feminist ear can be what we are for. The more wearing it is, the more we need to hear.

Our work has to be about giving students more places to go. Right now I feel I can be a better part of this effort from working outside the university system. Otherwise for me: working would be wearing down.

And we can witness that effort acquire momentum. Even a few months ago, when I resigned, I never expected that a story about sexual harassment in universities would be on the front pages of The Guardian, as it was today. That story: it became possible because of the efforts of many including students and former students who still cannot be named.  I thank all of you. I witness the formation of a new group, The 1752 Group that will act as a national task-force to target staff-to-student misconduct and harassment, with a sense of optimism.

We have to embody the changes we are aiming for.

Because there is work to do.

Feminist work.

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Evidence

No matter how much evidence you have of racism and sexism, no matter how many documents, communications, encounters, no matter how much research you can refer to, or words you can defer to, words that might carry a history as an insult, what you have is deemed as insufficient. The more you have to show the more eyes seem to roll.  My proposition is simple: that the evidence we have of racism and sexism is deemed insufficient because of racism and sexism. Indeed racism and sexism work by disregarding evidence or by rendering evidence unreliable or suspicious – often by rendering those who have direct experience of racism and sexism unreliable and suspicious. This disregarding – which is at once a form of regarding – has a central role in maintaining an order of things. Simply put: that evidence of something is deemed insufficient is a mechanism for reproducing something.

The removal of evidence of something is evidence of something.

And so: our evidence is often evidence of the removal of evidence.

The word “evidence” and “evident” share the same root (Latin: evidens). When we say something is evident, we imply that it is perceptible, clear, obvious or apparent. Something is evident when it can be seen or touched. The word “evidence” carries much stronger implications (and it is the relation between the stronger implications and the weaker ones that needs to capture our interest).  If evident is “to” then evidence tends to be “of.” When we have evidence of something, we have something that can support our claims. Evidence then is something from which inferences can be drawn. I might have some evidence that can support my argument: I might have statistics that indicate the trend that I am claiming is a trend is a trend. Evidence can have the status of exteriority to something (or at least alienability) even when it is indicative of something (for example the way crumbs might be evidence of a late night snack). Evidence: how we can be caught by leaving a trace of an action.  If you are doing something you should not be doing, you might need to be careful not to leave any evidence.

It is important to think of how evidence comes up in a legal sense, to evoke crime, guilt, and punishment. To give evidence (in a court of law) is to provide testimony. Evidence here might be first-hand: you can give evidence because you have direct experience of something. The one who provides evidence might be a witness to a crime. Evidence does carry the weaker implication: you can provide evidence of something because of what was made evident to you. In contrast other evidence might be hear-say: when someone can speak of something because they have been told by somebody else about that something. The implication here is that first-hand testimony is stronger or more direct. She has the evidence because of what she experienced herself. Of course, even first-hand testimony can be identified as weak. This might be doubts about whether someone is telling the truth, or doubts about someone’s capacity to represent accurately what went on. Even something self-evident (usually this phrase is intended to signal the lack of doubt about something) can be deemed not evidence if the self to whom something is self-evident is suspect. Doubts about evidence become doubts about persons who are providing evidence. If she is not credible, it is not credible.  And we say evidence is “just anecdotal” to imply a weakness in how a case is made: a series of first hand impressions might be distinguishable from the evidence generated by systematic research or provided by an expert who is called upon by virtue of their expertise (how expertise becomes a virtue is one way of telling the story of an institution).

Just this short and simple discussion of evidence introduces us to much complexity. In particular, it allows us to register how evidence is often understood as something that relates to objects (to have evidence is to have evidence of something) but also to subjects (someone has evidence of something). Evidence can also be a trace of where someone or something has been. However even a trace can be disputed, even crumbs can be debated: how did they get there? Who left them there? Even: are they crumbs? Evidence has to be spoken of: the crumbs do not speak for themselves. Evidence in this sense becomes a trace of a history that involves how different elements combine to create an event, as well as an interpretation of that combination. The confusion that follows these different registers matters.

I began thinking about evidence in part as a result of doing what I have been calling diversity work in the first sense: the work we do when we try and transform institutions. Working on diversity work as well as working as a diversity worker has helped me to think about how evidence matters. I am going to share one quote from a diversity practitioner that I have shared before (in On Being Included and on this blog), and that I discuss in detail in the middle part of Living a Feminist Life, which returns to, and further develops, the accounts I have offered of diversity work thus far. In this statement, a diversity worker is describing her attempt to change the policy on how many members of appointment panels need to have had diversity training:

When I was first here there was a policy that you had to have three people on every panel who had been 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.

This is a rather extraordinary description of the stalling mechanisms those of us who work in organisations are familiar with. We learn: you can adopt a new policy without changing anything. We learn: there are different ways you can stop something from happening. If one of these stalling mechanisms does not work, if something is not stalled, another stalling mechanism comes into operation. But what you also learn, which is what I want to explore here, is the status of evidence. Because what is striking is that the diversity practitioner is the one who has evidence; and that she has evidence is because she has, or seems to have, institutional backing. She has evidence the policy has been changed because the policy has been changed. We can hesitate here about the status of evidence in relation to policies. You change policy by providing evidence that you have changed policy. Evidence seems to come before something: minutes record a decision insofar as a decision has been made. And yet evidence is what is required after something. Indeed that is what we mean by a paper trail: we have to leave evidence behind us of a decision that has been made for the decision to have been made. The timing of evidence becomes more complicated than I have thus far implied: evidence is not here simply something past (having evidence of something that has already happened) but is generated in the present to enable a different future (the adoption of a new policy requires evidence before that policy becomes policy).

To have evidence of a policy is not sufficient for the policy to be enacted.  In this example the head of human resources removed the decision from the minutes: you can see here how the removal of evidence of something is an attempt to modify an arrangement. However what is being modified is the record of a modification. We learn how stasis can involve work: to keep an old arrangement you remove traces of the policy having been changed.  The decision was however put back in the minutes. This put back was a result of yet more diversity work: noticing the removal of evidence is evidence of labour. But then: when the practitioner tells her colleagues in meetings that the policy has changed, they look at her “like she is saying something really stupid.” She might as well not have any evidence because as far as they are concerned the policy has not been changed.

The story of a diversity policy that does not do anything is a tantalizingly tangible example of what goes on so often. But even if the story makes something tangible (and that it is so is a result of the labour and testimony of a diversity worker – think of how many tales like this are not told), it shows us how some things are reproduced by remaining intangible. This remaining is “stubborn,” a stubbornness that is not dependent upon an individual (although it can involve individuals) but an effect of how things combine. She has evidence; she can point to it; but it is as if she has nothing to show. Diversity work: you learn that intangibility is quite a phenomenon. Intangibility can be the product of institutional resistance. And that is a philosophical as well as political point because it teaches us that what is not evident to the senses is not simply about the status of an object. The object here is not missing or even withdrawn. The object is right there. And it is there because the right procedures have been followed to make it there. An object that has been brought into existence does not appear. Something is not perceived despite being available or near to hand: you can not notice what is right in front of you without having to make any effort to turn away.

Paper can disappear because the content of the decision that is recorded on that paper is not in agreement with what has “really” been decided, a decision that takes the form of a momentum; a direction that does not need to made into a directive because it is shared. That a policy can be agreed without being followed teaches us that a policy and a direction are not the same thing. Perhaps changing policies is a way of sustaining a direction, because those appointed to do equality and diversity (and appointments are often made to comply with the law) end up spending their time working on policies that do not do anything. As one practitioner I spoke to once said: “you end up doing the document rather than doing the doing.”

Doing the document.

Not doing the doing.

You can see why diversity workers often talk about walls when they talk about their work. Diversity work is a “banging your head against a brick wall job.” As I commented in an earlier post, what makes an institutional wall even harder is that it is not a concrete or actual wall. If there was a wall there, we could point to it. The wall might then provide evidence of itself: a wall as self-evident. Although, to qualify this (as optimism) we have also learnt something is not always perceived even when it is tangible. What makes an institutional wall harder is that unless you come up against it (because of who you are, or what you are trying to do), this wall does not appear. The walls that diversity workers speak about are assumed as phantom walls: in your head not in the world. Racism and sexism are walls in this sense: in the world but assumed as in our heads not in the world.

We have to live with that assumption.

In the world.

What is a phantom for some for others is real.

What is hardest for some does not appear to others.

And so: a policy disappears despite there being a paper trail, despite the evidence, or even because of the evidence.  People disappear too, because of what they make evident, of what they try to bring into view.  There are many ways in which you can end up disappearing. The story I have shared with you is one story of disappearance. And it is not just a policy that disappears in the story.  A diversity worker: she ends up exhausted because despite all her efforts the same thing is still happening. Sometimes you stop because it is too hard to get through. So she might leave, or turn her energy toward something else: a new policy, a new document, a new job.  And: this practitioner left her post soon after I interviewed her, for another post in another university.

What happens to a policy can happen to a person.

People disappear too: because of what they try to make evident, what they try to bring into view.

What is evident, I implied at the start, is often a weaker sense: something is evident to someone. What is evident: a matter of perception. We are now learning: perception matters. The removal of evidence is an institutional process that renders somethings not evident to those who inhabit that institution. It is as if: nothing is there.  No policy, no paper.  Maybe a person appears, but you look at her blankly. What is she waving around! What is she going on about!

The wall that you come up against, that blocks a progression (of a policy or a person), is not encountered by those who do not come up against it.

There; nothing there.

No wonder:

There becomes despair.

When we are talking about sexism and racism we are talking about what is there and not there, where “thereness” depends on how a body encounters a world. In an earlier post I talked about the importance of giving problems their names. I drew on Marilyn Frye’s work on sexism. Frye observes: “like most women coming to a feminist perception of themselves and the world, I was seeing sexism everywhere and trying to make it perceptible to others” (1983: 17). She suggests that making sexism “perceptible to others” becomes a project because many “would not see that what I declared to be sexist was sexist.”  When you describe something as sexist, you are often accused of projecting something (even projecting yourself) onto a situation. You might say, hey, that moment when the man standing next to me is assumed to the lecturer and I am not, that’s sexism. And someone else might say, “no it isn’t, take it easy, lighten up,” as if to say: it is just a coincidence; if you’d arrived at a different moment, things would have fallen differently. Sexism is often denied, because it is seen as a fault of perception; something is sexist because you perceive it that way: you perceive wrongly when you perceive a wrong. Making a feminist case thus requires we can show how sexism is a set of attitudes that are institutionalized, a pattern that is established through use, such that it can be reproduced almost independently of individual will (although hands often appear when things go astray).

And of course: sometimes even the words “sexism” and “racism” allow us to make something evident to ourselves. In Sister Outsider Audre Lorde describes the words racism and sexism as “grown up words” (1984: 152). This means that: we encounter racism and sexism before we have the words that allow us to make sense of what we encounter. Words can then allow us to get closer to our experiences; words can allow us to comprehend what we experience after the event. Sexism and racism: if they are problems we have given names, the names tend to lag behind the problems. Having names for problems can make a difference. Maybe before, you could not quite put your finger on it. With these words as tools, we revisit our own histories; we hammer away at the past.

Feminist and anti-racist consciousness involves not just finding the words, but through the words, how they point, realizing how violence is directed: violence is directed toward some bodies more than others.  To give a problem a name can change not only how we register an event but whether we register an event. Perhaps not having names is a way of turning away from a difficulty that persists whether or not we turn away. Not naming a problem in the hope that it will “go away,” often means the problem just remains unnamed.  At the same time, giving the problem a name does not make the problem go away. To give the problem a name can be experienced as magnifying the problem; allowing something to acquire a social and physical density by gathering up what otherwise remain scattered experiences into a tangible thing. Making sexism and racism tangible is also a way of making them appear outside of oneself something that can be spoken of and addressed by and with others. It can be a relief to have something to point to, or a word to allow us to point to something that otherwise can make you feel alone or lost.  We have different tactics for dealing with sexism and racism; and one problem is that some of these tactics can be in tension. When we give problems their names we can become a problem for those who do not want to register that there is a problem (but who might, at another level, sense there is a problem). You can cause a problem by not letting it go.

The inaugural conference for the Centre for Feminist Research was on sexism. The conference, which had the tagline “a problem with a name,” led to a special issue of New Formations. In that issue we made a collective effort to provide evidence of sexism in part by providing evidence of the difficulty of that effort. In my introduction to the special issue, I described our effort as creating “a sexism archive.” I noted: the sexism archive is full. Our archive is stuffed. Our archive includes not only the documents of sexism; the fragments that combine to record an upheaval. The archive makes the document into a verb: to document is to refuse to agree to something, to refuse to stay silent about something. Bodies are part of this archive; voices too. Our archive is an archive of rebellion. It testifies to a struggle. To struggle for an existence is to transform an existence.

We put all of the traces together, all of the encounters we have had; our wall stories, as I now call them; we are trying to bring something into existence. When I have had experiences of sexism or racism, I often say to myself: for the archive. One time I was invited to contribute to a special issue of the journal Feminist Theory on whiteness. Sunera Thobani (2007) also contributed an important piece critiquing the work of some white feminists. The editors invited those white feminists to respond to her piece.  And so in this same special issue we have a response from a white feminist which exercises violent and racist narratives (I am not going to name her, as I have no interest in a dialogue with those who articulate racism (1))  Some of these narratives: the woman of color isn’t a real scholar; she is motivated by ideology. The woman of color is angry. She occupies the moral high ground. The woman of color declares war by pointing to the complicity of white feminists in imperialism. The woman of color is racist (and we hurt too). The woman of color should be grateful, as she lives in our democracy; we have given her the right and the freedom to speak.

Following academic and social conventions, such as giving authors the rights to respond, or enabling a diversity of viewpoints, translates here into inviting racism onto the paper and into the room.  A woman of colour has to sit (on the page) here: the happy diversity table is the same table as the racism table. I remember thinking: add it to the archive.  By this archive I meant: the archive of racism within feminism. That archive is stuffed too!

Add it to the archive is an expression that allows us to think that an experience however difficult might have use value as evidence (we have somewhere to put it; we have a place for it to go). But of course when I say “add it to the archive” I say so with a degree of skepticism; if that archive is already stuffed, more evidence might be what we do not need.

But is that true? In the opening paper of the issue, Sarah Franklin enters a “bloody document” to our archive, one of her own essays submitted when she was a student that in being marked up by scrawled red ink is marked by sexism. The marker’s outrage in response to a feminist essay teaches us about how sexism is reproduced. This document is useful because of how it makes sexism tangible.  It makes explicit what is often left implicit: the horror with which feminist ideas are received. Franklin describes how to make a feminist critique of one of the male masters of a discipline is to be disciplined for unruly and inappropriate behavior. Her paper shows that attending to sexism means attending to the very mechanisms of reproduction; how some bodies as well as words, concepts or approaches become weeded out (of a discipline or a university), at the same time that others are encouraged and given “places to go.”

Evidence: what you accumulate when you are not given places to go.

This is why: we need somewhere to go with our evidence.

We need feminist deposit systems. Everyday Sexism and Strategic Misogyny are places we can go, virtual sites in which we can insert out stories, so they generate a collective.

Sarah Franklin’s paper was presented at our inaugural conference. The “bloody document” was put up on display. And what was striking was how cathartic it was for the audience to see that “bloody document.” You could hear the groans and exclamations of recognition. It was electric; there was a buzz each time more was revealed. So maybe in some cases: having more evidence is not about getting through (those who are unconvinced are usually very committed to being unconvinced). We are not showing our evidence of sexism to those who are sexist. We are sharing evidence with each other. Because of how slippery sexism and racism can be, even when they are solid (you can slip because you encounter something solid), because so often our experiences of sexism and racism can make us lose confidence, it can be helpful to have evidence presented in such tangible form. It can be helpful for this evidence to be delivered to a feminist collective. That “to” is the “to” that matters. Or maybe a feminist collective is generated by that delivery. Even if you know sexism and racism intimately, to have them displayed in front of you, independently of you and your own body, is to become a witness to how they work as machinery.

Clunk, clunk.

Click, click.

So we might need evidence of what we experience because of what we experience: because so often when you encounter sexism and racism you end up estranged from a world. You can feel that when something is pointed to you, repeatedly, then the problem is you. But having this evidence does not mean you can get through the walls. Evidence of walls does not bring the walls down. I was struck as editor by some reader responses to Franklin’s paper. One person suggested it wasn’t really about sexism; that these disciplinary techniques can be directed to anyone. The marker had himself highlighted and underlined gender pronouns: it was in the material how sex and gender mattered. But using words like “sexism” can still be understood as projection: you have made this about sexism, almost as a way of making this about your own particulars. And that is what happens: sexism and racism are understood as self-referential; how you make something about yourself (as if to say, it could happen to anyone, so that to say it refers to gender is to make gender your own agenda).

What is going on here? Sexism is reduced to something in particular or as being about your particulars. But the argument of the paper was to show how sexism is a technique for reproducing bodies and worlds.  So these responses reduce sexism to x in order then to state that the evidence exceeds x (so it is not about sexism).

Sexism can be reduced to an object that is counted (and thus discounted).

Feminist critiques show how sexism is not reducible to x but becomes part of a wider system that clears the way for some and not others.

So the response: exercises the reduction we challenge.

In some recent posts I have been reflecting on the problem of sexual harassment in universities. It is another problem with a name but a problem that often goes unnamed. I want to reflect on is how evidence – or the lack of evidence – plays such a crucial role in how the problem is reproduced.

There is a lot of evidence of harassment because there is a lot of harassment. In my own college (and this story would be tellable in other colleges) many people knew about the problem – maybe not the scale of it – but they knew enough to know there was a problem (2). That problem was often translated into advice or warnings to incoming female students to be careful of such-and-such professor. Knowing enough is not knowing enough. I called this “not knowing enough” in an earlier post “a partial sighting of walls.” It was partial, perhaps, because people did not want to know the scale of it; they did not want the full view. Or perhaps a fuller view is just hard to have.  In their important analysis of sexual harassment in universities, Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page note how harassment of students (such as groping) can take place in full view of others. As they describe: “The failure of bystanders to object to open displays of sexual harassment can also take a more active form. Specifically, sexual harassment can be normalised through a response to it that makes light of it. When this occurs, sexual harassment is not ignored, but laughed at” (2015: 42). Whitley and Page are giving us an account of the very mechanisms that allow the harassment that is evident not to become evident (even to those who witness it) as harassment, as wrong or a wrong, let alone to become evidence.

There are ways of apprehending things that can reduce the scale of harassment or minimize the damage. Perhaps: to arrive into an organization is to inherit a way of apprehending things. And, sometimes, something that has become increasingly evident is still not acknowledged because to acknowledge it would get in the way of something: your work, your happiness, your relationship to a person who can give you access to resources, your relationship to the institution. Maybe noticing something would demand too much time, too much attention. This is what I mean by the killjoy as testimony. She comes up because she reveals what others do not want to notice.

So I think we can learn: we can have evidence of something without something becoming evident to someone.

But there is more to say.

What happens to a policy can happen to a person.

Enquiries into sexual harassment can be held without finding evidence even when there is evidence. Sometimes evidence is not found because: there is an lack of an institutional will to find evidence. It can be easy not to find what you are not willing to find. Other times evidence is not found because: it is too hard to provide evidence.  Why is it hard to provide evidence? We need to answer this question to get at the problem. When sexual harassment becomes part of a culture, it works to recruit individuals, including those who are harassed (and when you become willing to go along with it, you experience yourself as no longer harassed, which can offer some relief from pressure). Harassment increases the costs of not going along with harassment (whether your own harassment or the harassment of others). Perhaps people around you are saying: this is OK; this is just how things are. So if you do not go along with it, you threaten how things are. Not saying something becomes a social and moral requirement for being part of something: to question or to challenge or to complain is framed as a form of disloyalty that would threaten everybody; everything. Maybe you are told it would damage your prospects to complain: to become a complainer as to lose velocity. Not coming forward might be necessary to moving on or moving up. The nature of sexual harassment makes it hard for anyone to provide evidence of sexual harassment. The more harassed you are, the harder it is to report the harassment. To be in a position to provide evidence requires that you have support.

This is another way that evidence is addressed to a feminist collective. We need to combine forces in order to give evidence of what makes it difficult to be. And we often have to work informally, to create our own support systems. In order to provide evidence of some things you have to bypass the very mechanisms that allow those things to be reproduced. Formal complaints procedures are often: methods for making evidence not appear.

Other times, evidence is provided but it is discounted. We are coming back to an old problem: you discredit the evidence by discrediting the provider of the evidence. We know this is how and why it remains so hard to get justice for victims of sexual assault: the law works to discredit the woman who is the victim by finding in her testimony, or character, or behavior, evidence of another kind, evidence of consent that would render her the criminal: the one who is falsely accusing the man, who would become the victim.  Her evidence is refuting by turning her speech into evidence of guilt, the kind of guilt that is assumed because of sexism: how women are historically understood as unreliable witnesses to their own lives; how women are heard as saying yes, whatever she says, or does; saying yes, when she says no.

Evidence of sexism is eliminated by sexism.

This is a shattering history.

Shattered lives.

How she is perceived as being as a violation of her being.

No wonder, perception matters. It is not simply that we have to show that what we perceive as sexism or racism is sexism or racism. It is not simply that we have to work on perception. Rather, sexism and racism works through perceptions: they are about how bodies are perceived in the first place; how words stick to bodies, a yes, a no; they are about whose way is cleared, who is cleared; whose way is impeded, who is impeded. And indeed: what is often not perceived teaches us how perception matters.

And this has been my own experience of racism. Right now in the UK, post Brexit; there is more attention to racism than we have been used to. We know that racism is not new. We know we are talking about the old when we are talking about racism. We have been here before; and there will be more. That attention is teaching us how much was not noticed before, the ordinary and everyday racism that allows brown and black bodies to be stopped in the streets, here, to be asked where they are from, to be told they are not from here. We have evidence of how racism was not evident to those to whom it was not directed. The evidence might not have amounted to much because of the nerve it touched: a social space can be created by turning away from what (and who) gets in the way.

Racism is reproduced by how racism is not noticed by those who are not at a receiving end.

But when you talk about racism, it is so often dismissed as in your head. Or something you are noticing because you are obsessed, because you have magnified something. So much of our work is working out how to live with the consequences that racism is imperceptible to others.

By others I am referring to: whiteness.

One time during a lecture I shared a quote from my study of diversity work. It was by a black woman talking about what happened when she entered a room for a job interview. She encounters what she usually encounters: a sea of whiteness. They did not expect her. The atmosphere becomes tense. They are fidgeting. Papers are shuffling. Papers: they can tell a story. She can tell they are not expecting her. And she knows when they see her, they see a black woman. Some come to embody what others do not wish to see. She can tell they were expecting a white person to come in. She tries to make them comfortable. Diversity work: when you have to make others comfortable with the fact of your arrival.

A white student comes up to me afterwards and says: how could she know? How could she know it was about race? It could have been something else. So often a question is an assertion in disguise. It is not about race. She made it about race.

When you say racism, they say: it could have been something else. Sometimes you just know when it is racism.  It is as tangible as hitting a wall, that the problem is you; that part of you that makes you the person they do not want or expect, the part of you than makes you stand out from the sea of whiteness. Sometimes you are not sure. And you begin to feel paranoid. That is what racism does: it makes you question everything, the whole world, the world to which you exist in relation. Heterosexism and sexism are like that too: are they looking at me like that because of that? Is that why they are passing us over, two women at the table? You are not sure.

That is what it does: you are not sure.

You are not allowed to be sure.

Sometimes you are sure.

You can be sure and not sure.

I am speaking to an interviewee – a woman of color – about racism. We are talking of those little encounters, and their very big effects. It is “off tape,” we are just talking, recognising each other, as you do, in how we recognise racism in those everyday encounters you have with people who can’t handle it, the idea of it. She says, “They always say to me that you reduce everything to racism.” A similar judgment has been implied to me, or said to me, many times. Why are you always bringing racism up? Is that all you can see? Are you obsessed? Racism becomes your paranoia. Of course, it’s a way of saying that racism doesn’t really exist in the way you say it does.  It is as if we had to invent racism to explain our own feeling of exclusion; it is as if racism was our way of not being responsible for the places we do not or cannot go. It is a form of racism to say that racism does not exist. I think we know this.

But I am thinking more about paranoia, and the good reasons for bad feelings. I guess the problem is that I do feel paranoid even if I know that this paranoia is reasonable. I do have a kind of paranoid anxiety about everything. I am not sure when x happens, whether x is about racism. I am not sure. And because I am not sure, then x is lived as always possibly about racism, as what explains how you inhabit the world you do. Racism creates paranoia; that’s what racism does. Racism is reproduced both by the fantasy of paranoia (it doesn’t “really” exist), and by the effect of the fantasy of paranoia, which is to make us paranoid.

When racism is understood as our creation, we become responsible for not bringing it into existence.

The world becomes evidence when: you are not accommodated. And the evidence you have of not being accommodated is dismissed by those who are accommodated. They like their house. They think it has room. That it is airy. You find it harder to breath.

Air can be occupied.

You have encounters like this: you can tell what is going on from the atmosphere. You recognise it. One time I was in Paris. The conversation was in French. I couldn’t understand what was being said. But I could tell when racism came up. The sound rose up. I glanced at my colleague, and she nodded. The volume switch: evidence of how the intangibility of atmosphere can become solid. An atmosphere can become a wall.

But we can have evidence of racism that exceeds this. We can have evidence of taunts. Graffiti on walls. We can have evidence of beatings.  We can have evidence of murder. We can have evidence of the police killing a black man. We can have video evidence. And still it remains possible for racism not to be seen. Because racism is how the world is seen. It is how blackness is identified as dangerous; it is how a wrong is made a right, it is how even a hand moving is made a fright. When racism is how a world is seen, racism is not seen. We can witness what is at stake here. It is a matter of life and death.

You can be stopped by a perception. You can be killed by a perception.

How you are perceived as being can be what stops you from being.

Evidence of violence can be removed. There is violence in the removal of evidence of violence.

Documents can disappear from an archive because of what they would reveal. In 2011, an archive became public: a collection of documents, 8,800 files to be exact, from 37 former British colonies. They are called the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Migrated Archives. These documents are held at the highly-secure government communications centre at Hanslope Park in Buckinghamshire. These documents form a necessarily incomplete archive. We can read that history of incompletion; we can read what has gone missing. Because included in this archive are documents that document destruction; that document how the destruction of documents is willed as policy. We have now access to papers that issued instructions for the systematic destruction of other papers, an instruction made in 1961 by the secretary of state for the colonies. The documents instructed that post-independence governments should not get any material that “might embarrass Her Majesty’s government,” that could “embarrass members of the police, military forces, public servants or others eg police informers,” that might compromise intelligence sources, or that might “be used unethically by ministers in the successor government.” We have a trace in an archive of papers that are missing from the archive, papers that are destroyed because they record the violence of colonial history, violence committed by actors, the state; the monarchy, who have had a hand in the violence, who administered that violence.

If a document can be made to disappear, then an archive is what is not assembled.(3) An archive becomes what we do not have. And then we are stuffed.

Not all evidence of violence needs to be destroyed. Evidence can be retained but the violence is still not seen. Violence is explained away or justified. I have written about the story, The Willful Child. It is a grim story as well as a Grimm story.

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

It is a fable.

It is fiction.

It is fact.

The facts of the matter.

The story is about violence; it is about the murder of a child. She becomes ill, at the will of the God. Her mother, her doctor: they also have something to do with it. A willful will does not obey the will of those who embody institutions (religion, the family, medicine). The fate of those deemed to suffer from ill-will is to become ill. Her arm comes up. The arm keeps coming up. The arm is beaten.  And then, only then, the child has rest beneath the ground. But the story is not told as a story about murder. The story is told from the rod’s point of view.  The child must die because she is willful. Perhaps to survive she must become willful. She must become what she is judged as being.

Her death is punishment for her crime. Disobedience is her crime. It does not matter what the instruction is. She does not do what she is told do.

Doing; being. Not doing; not being.

Being can be a crime. For some, being is a crime.

The story is a warning: do not become the willful child. Willfulness justifies her death as moral, as for her own good. Violence is often justified as a right as well as right. The police are not in the story because the police are the rods. We have the evidence right there. There she is. Her arm is speaking. Her arm is evidence. The arm testifies to a struggle for life, a struggle preceded and followed by violence. Her arm throbs with life, held up in a moment of suspension. The arm is evidence of a resistance that continues despite having been brought down; the arm is how she persisted in coming up.

The evidence disappears by how the story is framed, as she does.

The violence disappears. She disappears.

It is a call to arms.

Resistance: the fight to make violence appear. Resistance: the fight to make her disappearance matter.

The story implies to disobey a command is to go out on a limb. The story implies if you disobey you will be lonely and unsupported.

Evidence of resistance disappears.

We do not.

 

  1. This is also how transphobic viewpoints are justified: as just another viewpoint to be expressed at the happy diversity feminist table. I refuse that feminist table. For this reason one feminist has recently called my model of dialogue “authoritarian.” If not permitting hate speech on my table is authoritarian, I will be authoritarian. I will be challenging this liberal model of dialogue in a future post currently titled “Speak to Me!”. I will also be giving some suggestions for how you can tell the difference between transphobic  work and critical work on sex and gender (much of that work is by trans scholars and activists). Baby clue: the former tends to rely on “stranger danger” narratives (posing trans women as dangerous to feminism or to society in more or less extreme ways). Racist viewpoints also rest on stranger danger narratives. Those deemed dangerous are endangered by that viewpoint. Simpler: it is dangerous to be perceived as dangerous.
  2. I include myself in that many and in a future post, Resignation as a Feminist Issue, I will discuss how I ended up knowing enough and thus not knowing enough, for too long. Baby clue: I had a policy of boycotting the Centre in which much of the harassment took place (because I had been to a few of their events in which I witnessed the sexist and misogynist nature of the intellectual culture). This policy of withdrawal meant that I actively participated in the stranding of the students who were being harassed and also that I did not witness the harassment. This is how when I first learnt of what was actually going on, I was shocked. My partial sighting of a wall meant the wall did come into full view. I need to learn from this.
  3. Sexual harassment is another “missing archive.” Confidentiality can be used within institutions to make thing disappear, the truth even; so that the institution will not embarrassed by what is revealed, things that might damage the institution. That sexual harassment cases are so often wrapped up by confidentiality, means an archive is precisely what we do not have: we not even have evidence that evidence was presented; we do not have access to papers, materials, which would allow us to know what happened. There are so many missing cases, as I have been involved in this work I have heard of more and more of them.

 

References

Franklin, Sarah (2015). “Sexism as a Means of Reproduction,” New Formations, 86: 14-33.

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

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

Thobani, Sunera  (2007). “White Wars: Western Feminisms and the ‘War on Terror.’” Feminist Theory 8, 2: 169-185.

Whitley, Leila and Tiffany Page (2015). “Sexism at the Centre: Locating the Problem of Sexual Harrassment,” New Formations. 86: 34-53.

 

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Equality Credentials

I resigned from my post at Goldsmiths when I got to a point that I felt I could do more by leaving than by staying. I thought leaving as an action would speak louder than words, and I had been using a lot of words.  A diversity practitioner I once interviewed talked about how we have to use words more, the more we don’t get through. Words become tired; bodies too. She spoke of “equity fatigue.” The more you say the “equity,” the less the word can do. I keep sending out emails, talking to people about sexual harassment. I could sense tiredness around me, eyes rolling again.

As I noted in my previous post, for over three years I have been working with a dedicated team of students and staff on how to get the problem of sexual harassment taken more seriously. The more I worked on the problem, the more I realised how serious the problem was – in my college certainly – and also in the sector at large. Sexual harassment is a social problem. Sexual harassment is a structural problem. Too often the very seriousness of the problem produces a certain kind of institutional fatalism: as if is to say, well it is everywhere, so it is inevitable; or it is everywhere so there is no point challenging it here, as it will just go there.

When a problem becomes general is when we need to challenge that problem generally.  We need to challenge it where we are; wherever we are.

So I have been speaking of the problem from where I am, from here, at the college I have been working at this past 12 years, but this does not mean the problem starts here. It was doing the research project on racism and diversity that led to my book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life, published in 2012, which has given me a handle on what was going on. Through this project, I had already begun to understand some of the mechanisms that I watched in operation in the institutional responses to the problem of sexual harassment.  It is like machinery: clunk, clunk.

One of the key mechanisms I want to refer to here is the use of diversity and equality as a credential in a specific sense:  as that which entitles you to credit. I had referenced some of this material in my post on Progressive Racism, which was published on the same day as my post on Resignation. I referred to how activities that signal an attempt to diversify an organisation can be used by the organisation as evidence of diversity.

I have been a member of many race equality and diversity committees: not unusual for a woman of colour academic! So I have plenty of experience of how diversity work can end up being appropriated by the organisations we work on as well as for.  As diversity workers we might labour for something (a new policy, a new document) and these things can provide yet more techniques whereby organisations can appear to do something without doing anything. This is difficult: our own efforts to transform organisations can be used by organisations as evidence they have been transformed.

One of my first experiences of this mechanism: I was a member of a working group that was set up to write our university’s race equality policy in 2001.  Writing the policy happened to coincide with the arrival of a new vice-chancellor at the university. He set up some meetings with members of the university, which took the form of an official address.  I was surprising at one of these meetings, when the vice chancellor with a letter in his hand, referred to the race equality policy that we had written. With an extravagant smile, and waving the letter in front of us (somehow the physicality of this gesture mattered), he talked about the content of the letter, which took the form of a congratulation (or which he gave the form of a congratulation), informing the university that it had been given the “top rank” for its race equality policy. “We are good at race equality” he said pointing to the letter.  It was a feel good moment, but those of us who wrote the document did not feel so good.  A document that documents the inequality of the university became usable as a measure of good performance.

Indeed, as I conducted my research into diversity within universities I became aware of how diversity can be used by organisations as a form of public relations. As I have already noted, most of the interviews I conducted took place after the Amendment to the Race Relations Act (2000), which required all public sector organisations to write and disseminate race equality policies and action plans. This act was followed by many others, and then finally by the Equality Act (2010), which required all of these distinct policies to be brought together in a single document: the Single Equality Scheme (SEC). So over the period of a decade most of the work of diversity workers was about writing documents.  At various points, the Equality Challenge Unit which oversees equality in the higher education section, measured or ranked these documents, as I have discussed, moments of measuring that can be used be institutions that “did well” as a sign they are “doing well.”

But what is being measured by these documents being measured? I asked this question diversity practitioner, who answered: “we are good at writing documents.” I reply, without thinking, “well yes, one wonders,” and we both laugh.  We are wondering whether what is measured through these documents is the degree of competence in writing documents. Organisations are able to translate their writing competence into an equality competence. As this practitioner further describes:

I was very aware that it wasn’t very difficult me and some of the other people to write a wonderful aspirational I was very aware that it wasn’t very difficult me and some of the other people to write a wonderful aspirational document.  I think we all have great writing skills and we can just do that, because we are good at it, that’s what we are expert at.  And there comes with that awareness a real anxiety that the writing becomes an end in itself, the reality is being borne out by say for example, we were commended on our policies and when the ECU reviewed our Implementation Plans last year there were a number of quite serious criticisms about time slippages, about the fact that we weren’t reaching out into the mainstream and the issues hadn’t really permeated the institution and the money implement in certain specific areas.  And it wasn’t that there was hostility, it was much more of this kind of marshmallow feeling.

Being good at writing documents become a competency that is also an obstacle for diversity work, as it means that the university gets judged as good because of the document. It is this very judgment about the document that blocks action, producing a kind of “marsh mellow feeling,” a feeling that we are doing enough, or doing well enough, or even that there nothing left to do.  Marshmallow, a soft, white, gooey, sticky substance, seems a good substance to express how things stop happening by becoming too comfortable.

The orientation towards writing good documents can block action, insofar as the document then gets taken up as evidence that we have “done it.”  As another practitioner describes, “Well I think in terms of the policies, people’s views are ‘well we’ve got them now so that’s done, its finished’  I think actually, I’m not sure if that’s even worse than having nothing, that idea in people’s heads that we’ve done race, when we very clearly haven’t done race.” The idea that the document is doing something is what could allow the institution to block recognition of the work that there is to do.  The idea that the document “does race” means that people can think that race has been done when it has not. The idea that we are doing race is thus how we are not doing race.

So a problem can be reproduced by the appearance of having solved it. I mention this earlier work on diversity here and now for a reason. It helped me to make sense of a statement on Sexual Harassment published by the college on June 3rd in response to the attention given to the problem on social media (an attention that has something to do with an act of bringing to attention). This statement takes the exact form of an assertion of Goldsmiths’ equality credentials: “we take sexual harassment seriously;”  “inclusivity is a defining theme;” “we are the one of the leading providers of taught programmes focusing on gender, sexuality, race and ethnicity.”

The statement refers to various activities as evidence of its credentials. One activity is Athena Swan: which has become reduced to a branding exercise (which is not to say that is all that it is) by being evoked in this way on a statement on sexual harassment. Another activity they reference is the conference on Sexual Harassment in Higher Education (SHHE) that took place in December 2015. The conference was organised by Anna Bull, Tiffany Page and Leila Whitley. They as organisers have just published an important and powerful response to the college’s statement. As they note: “It was because no one was else was willing to organise an event on sexual harassment that we took it upon ourselves. This has been a recurring theme during our time at Goldsmiths: the reliance on the labour and energy of students, rather than a concerted effort by the institution.”An event that was claimed as evidence of what the college was doing came about because of what the college was not doing.

Feminist work in addressing institutional failure can be used as evidence of institutional success. The very labour of feminist critique can end up supporting what is being critiqued. The tools you introduce to address a problem can be used as indicators that a problem has been addressed. The work you do to expose what is not being done can be used as evidence of what has been done.

It is a problem when feminism becomes a performance indicator.

The Centre for Feminist Research was set up recently (three years ago) but draws on long histories of feminist work at the college. A history can fill rooms. That we need to have a centre for feminism is a critique of the structures of the university: we have feminist centres because we don’t have feminist universities (more women professors does not necessarily mean more feminist universities). We have feminist centres because sexism, gender inequality and sexual harassment remain structuring of university environments. In one meeting, the very existence of the Centre is referred to as evidence of the college’s own commitment to equality and feminist values. The Centre became an equality credential. A program developed in response to a problem is assumed to resolve a problem. When the problem is not resolved, the resolution becomes the problem.

The resolution becomes the problem.

The problem is not a rogue individual, nor two, nor a rogue unit nor a rogue institution. But institutions still need to recognise the problem of sexual harassment as an institutional problem. You cannot address a problem until you recognise there is a problem to be addressed.

Of course, my college is much more than these unfinished histories of sexual harassment. The college has many unfinished histories. Of course, there is incredible feminist work, work on race and diversity, and on social justice, that is going on; work that is about opening up the university to others who might otherwise not have been here.  It is this work that makes it hard to leave: I was part of something. But until this history of sexual harassment is brought out into the open, discussed, so that we can learn about how what happened did happen, over such a long and sustained period of time, affecting so many people, causing so much trauma, it must have the attention, the full attention, of the organisation.

It is not the time to be over what is not over.

As Anna Bull, Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page show when sexual harassment becomes invisible so too does the labour of trying to challenge sexual harassment. It is like: coming up against wall after wall. But what you come against is not visible to others.

And if your labour is to expose violence, because that violence is hidden, that labour can even be understood as causing violence, for example, as intending to damage the reputation of an organisation. You might become understand as a vandal, “a willful destroyer of the venerable and the beautiful.” To expose long histories of harassment that have been hidden, that are all the more structural because of how they are hidden, does mean sending out messages that can end up all over the place, because they can take the form of a revelation or scandal. The media can turn your careful accounts of structures into something sensational (I argue in Living a Feminist Life that structures are sensational but in a different sense). Some might not want you to speak out not because they are concerned simply with reputational damage, but because they care for an environment they work in, and they know that words sent out can come back in a different way.

It is a risk we have to take. Because damage limitation does not work. So we have to do the work.

To do this work, we have share the costs of this work. Attending to sexual harassment, listening to those who are affected by it, whose lives are shaped by it, is emotional and hard work. Even when you have understanding, knowledge, it can be undoing and unsettling to listen to those who have been targeted and bullied in the place you work. Sometimes we have an idea of place because of our own histories: a place seems inclusive, radical, open, because that place was open to us, because that’s how it seemed to us. But that is not how everyone experiences that place, which means a place is not the same place. For students who arrived with high hopes but who where harassed by their lecturers, the space was not open and friendly, but hostile and closed. Sometimes we have an idea of a place as happy and stimulating, maybe that is how we experience our feminist spaces, as happy and stimulating. But for students who arrived only to be harassed by lecturers, only to have to spend their time trying not to be caught in a room with them, having to fight for space to breath because of what is said to them, then the spaces they are not happy and stimulating. Listening to students’ experience of harassment did change my idea of the place I worked: how could it not? And this too explains something: the resistance we might have to hearing the stories, our resistance, mine too, might be because of how they challenge our most profound attachments. To hold onto an idea of a place as good might even require not listening to those who have a different idea.  But I think: to make our attachments – to education, to a college, to a project, to equality, to feminism– meaningful we have to listen to those who seem to get in the way. It is the only way.

The killjoy as testimony.

Another way to say this: to work toward an inclusive institution is to listen to those for whom the institution is not inclusive.

Equality is not a credential. Equality is a task. It is what we have to do, because we are not there yet.

 

 

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Speaking Out

Colleagues and killjoys,

I have received such overwhelming support and solidarity since I posted about my decision to resign from my post. I just want to thank all of you who have commented and sent me messages.

Resigning was a difficult decision. Sharing the reasons for the decision was important to me: to indicate that my resignation is both an act of feminist protest and an act of feminist self-care.

I am aware that my account was vague and short. I have been asked about the details (as have colleagues of mine): I have been asked to give the story; to tell people about what has happened. I need to say a few words in response to this request. I need to say a few words about why speaking out matters even when there are things we cannot say, even when there is much that we have to leave unsaid.

It was three years ago that I first heard from a colleague of mine about the problem of sexual harassment at the college at which I work. I remember the conversation like it was yesterday. I was shocked by the account she gave. At that time it was in relation to one individual who has since left the college after two enquiries. But that conversation led me to other conversations: with management as well as, most importantly, with students. It was the students who alerted us to the scale of the problem of sexual harassment. Since then there have been four enquiries. Before then there had been two enquiries. That is six enquiries relating to four members of staff: at least that I know of.

I mention numbers because they teach us something:  when I talk about the problem of sexual harassment I am not talking about one rogue individual; or two, nor even a rogue unit, nor even a rogue institution. We are talking about how sexual harassment becomes normalized and generalized – as part of academic culture.

We are talking about what we are not talking about.

So when I referred to the “failure to address the problem of sexual harassment” I did not mean nothing has been done. There have been enquiries, after all. But these enquiries have not led to a robust and meaningful investigation of the problem of sexual harassment as an institutional problem. Even when we had policy reviews, and policy changes, the review process was not opened up for a general discussion.

In the last there years many people both within my own college and at other universities have talked to me about their experience of sexual harassment. I began to realize something through these conversations: that there have been many cases of sexual harassment in universities, but there is no public record of these cases. They have vanished without a trace. No one knows about them expect for the people directly affected. How do these cases disappear without a trace? Almost always: because they are resolved with the use of confidentiality clauses. The clauses do something: they work to protect organisational reputation; no one gets to know about what happened. They most often protect the harassers: there is no blemish on their records; they can go on to other jobs. But they also leave those who experienced harassment even more isolated than they were before (harassment is already isolating). They leave silence. And silence can feel like another blow; a wall that is not experienced by those not directly affected (because silence is often not registered as silence unless you hear what is not being said).

And another consequence: we have no way of knowing the scale of the problem.

That we have no way of knowing the scale of the problem is indicative of the scale of the problem.

I will be saying a few words about confidentiality and archives at our conference Archives Matter tomorrow.  When sexual harassment cases are wrapped up by confidentiality, we do not have an archive; we do not have access to papers, materials, which would allow us to know what happened. There are so many missing cases, as I have been involved in this work I have learnt of more and more of them. If we are to create an archive, we have not to follow the directives of an institution. And if we do not follow the directives of an institution we become the cause of the damage we document. The response becomes: damage limitation. If diversity is damage limitation, as I have described in my work on racism, then damage limitation takes the form of controlling speech: trying to stop those who speak about violence from speaking in places where they can be heard.

To contain damage is to contain those who have been damaged.

She is heard as complaining. When she is heard as complaining she is not heard.

The absence of a hearing is reproductive. Silence enables the reproduction of the culture of harassment and abuse. When we don’t speak about violence we reproduce violence. Silence about violence is violence.

There were many students who left in silence. We still do not know not what they would have said if they could have stayed.

Missing documents; missing people. We don’t know how much we are missing.

Silence.

When there is no official word by an organisation, it is not just that no one knows what happened; no one has to know. You are giving individuals permission not to know. And then the talk becomes contained in pockets: feminist centres like the one we created. These spaces are important: they become shelters; life-lines: places to go.

But the following can also be true:

When we talk they do not have to listen.

And even:

We talk so they do not listen.

And in the last three years we have been working with silence, working around it; trying to break that seal; trying to find ways to get through; trying to get a more general or collective conversation going, a conversation about what happened.

Nothing. Silence. Still.

And from the point of view of those harassed, it is like that history of harassment has just disappeared. And the history of challenging harassment (which often means opening oneself to being harassed all over again) disappears with it. It is as if nothing happened. Those who had a vague idea something was amiss have a vague idea that it has been dealt with. But even if individuals leave, it has not been dealt with.  People remain (often those who had leadership positions); networks stay alive; structures or processes are not put under investigation.

And problems come up again. And complaints are ignored again.

Confidentiality agreements do not mean and should not mean we cannot talk about sexual harassment. They mean we must talk about sexual harassment. We need to participate in this conversation because it is difficult. We have a responsibility to each other; it is the same responsibility we have as educators to create an environment that enables students to flourish; to learn.

There is more. When you do speak out, you are seen as a problem, as if the problem is only there because you speak about it. It is as if the problem would go away if you stopped talking about it. I have described this difficulty before: how exposing a problem becomes posing a problem. And you will find that you accused of disloyalty – of damaging reputation, even of damaging feminism because of what you are trying to say, as if you are bringing everything and everybody into disrepute.

But we must still speak: the silence is what is damaging.

And I want to thank publicly the students I have been working with on the problem of sexual harassment over the last three years. Although there has yet to be a public acknowledgment of what has happened, although many things  have been left in place that should have been dismantled, you achieved so much, and I know many students to come will benefit from your painstaking labour even if some students are still coming up against some of the same things.

I was vague about some things; the same things. I am still being vague. I hope in time and with support we can acquire more precision. We need to leave traces. More traces. Traces of what has happened. We need to talk about what happened to learn how to stop it from happening.

I have added a paragraph on my resignation to my chapter, Feminist Snap, from my forthcoming book, Living a Feminist Life.

Let me share it by way of conclusion, and with thanks.

What I had been asked to bear became too much; the lack of support for the work we were doing; the walls we kept coming up against. That I could resign depended upon having material resources and security. But it still felt like I was going out on a limb: I did not just feel like I was just leaving a job, or an institution, but also a life, an academic life; a life I had loved; a life I was used to. And that act of leaving was a form of feminist snap: there was a moment when I couldn’t take it anymore, those walls of indifference that were stopping us from getting anywhere; that were stopping us from getting through. Once the bond had snapped, I realised that I had been trying to hold onto something that had already broken. Maybe my relationship to the institution was like Silas’s relationship to his pot: if I tried to put the shattered pieces back together I would be left with a memorial, a reminder of what could no longer be.

Resignation can sound passive, even fatalistic: resigning oneself to one’s fate. But resignation can be an act of feminist protest. By snapping you are saying: I will not work for an organisation that is not addressing the problem of sexual harassment. Not addressing the problem of sexual harassment is reproducing the problem of sexual harassment. By snapping you are saying: I will not reproduce a world I cannot bear, a world I do not think should be borne.

 

 

 

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