Creating feminist paths

In this blog, I will post some of the spoken presentations I have given over the past few years, but which I do not expect to publish because they were shaped by and for the occasion in which they were given. The one below was from an event at Goldsmiths, Judith Butler in Conversation that took place earlier this year. The introduction to this presentation refers to the question of intellectual genealogy, which I hope to write more about in Living a Feminist Life: the importance of feminists not being slotted into a male intellectual genealogy (feminist work is often positioned as derivative even in areas of scholarship that feminists have established) but also the difficulty of refusing those slots. To refuse “to be slotted” requires a certain style or stance I am calling willfulness, but I am sure we will all have our own words for it!

Note as well that this question of sexism (yes, let’s use the word!) in intellectual genealogy should not be bracketed from other kinds of sexism: it is how sexism operates not only to imply women only exist in relation to men (or even that we are ‘about’ this relation), but that women are behind men; that we come after, that our contributions are secondary and derivative.

Contribution to Judith Butler in Conversation, Goldsmiths College, May 17 2013

Sara Ahmed

One of Vikki Bell’s suggestions to us as participants in the event of this conversation was to pick a favourite Judith Butler quote and to take off from there. I love that idea even though I am not exactly following the suggestion. So let me share as an opener two of my favourite Butler quotes: the former is part of a sentence from the essay, “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” the latter two short sentences from Precarious Life:

 “I was off to Yale to be a lesbian”

 “We’re undone by each other. And if we’re not, we’re missing something.”

The first time I read the first quote was probably the only time I ever had my interest sparked in going to Yale. They should put that one in their prospectus! Or turn it into an impact statement! I appreciate how this sentence is so exact: how we can become “in another way” what we already are in taking up an invitation to speak. If we can make light of the occasion, it is because it so weighty. In writing about gender, race and sexuality as a queer woman of colour, I have become attuned to the requirements of accepting invitations in which your body is somehow implicated in where you end up. You can become for an event what you speak of in the event. And sometimes we speak of, by “speaking as.” We are of course more than this “as.” In my view it is in “speaking as” that we find this more. Audre Lorde (1984) also taught me this: to speak as is not to reduce the biographical but to inhabit its complexity. If we refuse to bracket ourselves in or from our sentences, things get messier. We might even get messier: becoming beside ourselves.

The second quote I find moving. And I find Judith Butler’s work moving in how it conveys the wear and tear of human relations, how we are with others, as well as not with others. If anything, Judith Butler’s work has encouraged me to think what follows if we do not assume “withness.” After all these sentences imply that there are techniques we might have not to be undone by others, not to witness their grief, not to take care, what I think of as hap care, not to care what happens to this person or that, here or there. We miss each other when we are not undone by each other. How true.

In preparing for our conversations today I have been reflecting on how my own work has been shaped by my encounters with Judith Butler’s work. I have been influenced by specific arguments, concepts, and words, no doubt, but I think what had the biggest impact on me was as much a certain stance or style I recognized as disobedience, as not giving one’s ear to the law, and as preparedness “to make trouble” to use a phrase from the preface of Gender Trouble. When I was doing my PhD (in critical and cultural theory), I was told I had to give my love to this or that male theorist, to follow them, not necessarily as an explicit command but through an apparently gentle but increasingly insistent questioning: are you a Derridean; no, so are you a Lacanian, no, oh, ok are you a Deleuzian, no, then what? If not, then what? Maybe my answer should have been: if not, then not!  I was never willing to agree to this restriction of possibility. No wonder I ended up writing a book on willfulness! It was the work of queer feminist philosophers such as Judith Butler; it was the trouble of and in that work, that taught me how to refuse the demand to follow the official paths laid out by disciplines such as philosophy. If we can create our paths by not following, we still need others before us, those who, even if they began on the right philosophical tracks ended up being “derailed,” if I can borrow Judith Butler’s word for describing her own intellectual trajectory. I want to thank you for your derailment. In travelling on less stable grounds, queer feminist philosophy thinks with as well as on its feet. This was what reading Judith Butler’s work did for me: it put a spring in my step.

I will now discuss how I used Judith Butler’s arguments about performativity from Bodies That Matter (1993) in developing a research project on diversity (for further discussion, see my recent book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012)). To save time please note I am going to be conflating what I would ordinarily be careful to distinguish: words, documents, commitments, and policies.  I have always been interested in what words do, and my tendency is to follow them around. I am intrigued especially by “institutional speech acts,” how institutions use words to being a certain body into existence. Diversity is an institutional word. How often institutions are often saying it, even saying they are it! As Nirmal Puwar describes in Space Invaders “the language of diversity is today embraced as a holy mantra across different sites. We are told that diversity is good for us” (2004: 1).

My research included interviewing those appointed as diversity practitioners. A key question was simply “what is diversity doing?” Diversity workers are often communication workers: they are the ones who send words out that express institutional commitments to diversity. I began to think of such words as “non-performatives,” with the “non” signalling a relation to performativity. A performative utterance for Austin refers (at least provisionally) to a particular class of speech. An utterance is performative when it does what it says : “the issuing of the utterance is the performing of an action” (1975: 6). Conditions have to be in place to allow such words to act, or in Austin’s terms, to allow performatives to be “happy.” The action of the performative is not in the words, or if it is “in” the words, it is “in” them only in so far as the words are uttered by the right person, to the right people and in a way that takes the right form.  Given this, as Judith Butler argues  “performativity must be understood not as a singular or deliberate ‘act,’ but, rather, as the reiterative and citational practice by which discourse produces the effects that it names” (1993: 2, emphasis added).

This quote has become for me a tool, allowing me to develop a thesis. So: non-performatives describes the “reiterative and citational practice by which discourse” does not produce the effects that it names.” In the world of the non-performative, to name is not to bring into effect. Non-performatives are taken up as if they are performatives (as if they have brought about the effects that they name), such that the names comes to stand in for the effects.  Diversity might be repeated, becoming reiterative and citational, because it does not bring something into effect.

The language of diversity appears in official statements (from mission statements, to equality policy statements, in brochures, as taglines); and as a repertoire of images (collages of smiling faces of different colours). We might conclude that there has been an institutional will to diversity. And yet, a common expression that came up in a number of my interviews was of the institution as a wall.  As one practitioner describes “so much of the time it is a banging your head on the brick wall job.” How interesting that a job description is a wall description! The feeling of doing diversity work is the feeling of coming up against something that does not move; something solid and tangible; what blocks a forward progression.

We can ask: how does will become wall? Let me take an example from the research :

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 three 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.

It seems as if there is an institutional decision. Individuals within the institution must act as if the decision has been made for it to be made. If they do not, it has not. A decision made in present about the future (under the promissory sign “we will”) can be overridden by the momentum of the past. Note that the head of personnel did not need to take the decision out of the minutes for the decision not to bring something into effect. Perhaps an institution can say “yes” when there is not enough behind that “yes” for something to be brought about. It is not then that a will becomes a wall.  Rather the wall is will insofar as it embodies what an institution is not willing to bring about.  The wall is an institutional “no” that does not need to become the subject of an utterance; you come up against the wall when a “yes” does not bring something about.  It is the practical labour of “coming up against” the institution that allows this wall to become apparent.  To those who do not come against it, the wall does not appear: the institution seems as happy as its mission statement, as willing as its equality statement.

The assumption of performativity (that something has been brought into effect) is how things can stay in place. A wall is what keeps its place. This is why I have described anti-racism as such as “non-performative“. The investment in saying as if saying is doing can extend rather than challenge racism by creating the impression that we have, to quote from one diversity practitioner, “done race.” However I am not saying that non-performatives do not have uses. Another practitioner describes: “the fact of having the document there, it’s useful in the sense that you are meeting leader obligations and it’s useful in tricky situations. You can use it to explicate the principles that the university is meant to be acting upon, so it’s not unuseful.” The potential utility of the statement is in tricky situations, those when the university is probably not acting on what it is “meant to be acting upon.”  If organizations are saying what they doing, then you can show they are not doing what they are saying.  Diversity workers often work in the gap between words and deeds, this gap is where things happen. Diversity work: mind the gap.

Words that are sent out come back. Judith Butler’s work has helped me think of what words do and do not do in relation to bodies. When Judith writes in Undoing Genderevery time I try to write about the body the writing ends up being about language” (2004: 198) I would respond: when I read you on language I keep thinking of bodies! Perhaps words and bodies take me on the same path: the path of the path. In Queer Phenomenology, I described the “paradox of the footprint” (2006: 16) how paths are created by being followed and followed by being created. The more a path is travelled upon, the easier it can be to travel upon that path. You can see how I came to think heterosexuality in these terms: we can be directed along a path by being supported in a direction. This is why leaving a well-trodden path can be so difficult: it can mean leaving a support system. I am tempted to describe heterosexuality in these terms: as an elaborate support system.

I would suggest that words too can become paths: they leave traces behind of where they have been; trails or tails that can be followed. Indeed some practitioners argue that this is what diversity has become: a paper trail.

Perhaps words like diversity become mobile because they are lighter; over time they become less weighed down by associations (they can be used more because they do less, moving around can become what they do, even all that they do). Other words become heavier or “stickier.” I first developed the concept of “stickiness” in my book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004)  building on some of Judith Butler’s arguments about language and repetition from Excitable Speech (1997): once a word has become sticky, rather like a sticky object, or say Velcro, more things stick to it.  If you use those words, you might slow down or get stuck. Words can be stuck to bodies. And bodies can be weighed down by association. Even if you travel on the right path, you can be slowed down, stopped, if you have the wrong body.

Racism is a sticky word. Oh the trouble it can cause!  In my current research on willfulness I am thinking of the affectivity of words in terms of their charge, a kind of electric connection. When you use the word “racism” or “race” as a person of colour it is as if you acquire a negative charge: you become negation, accusation, againstness.

An example: I respond on a facebook wall to a blog that argues for the separation of ontology from politics. The blog included the following statement: “A great white shark eating a seal is simply an event that takes place in the world. It is simply something that happens. A person shooting another person is also, at the ontological level, simply an event that takes place.” I write on a third party’s wall: “Give more detail, show how things tend to fall: a white police officer shooting a black man and your ontological event is no mere happenstance. I gave some different details (a great white shark becomes a white police officer: I wanted the person to person encounter to echo the shark to seal encounter) to show how events can be “purely ontological” only if they are hypothetical, only if we strip subjects and objects from any attributes.

What follows? Much tangled discussion! My own use of the example of race is read as an accusation against the blogger by the blogger: “You rhetorically chose the example for a particular reason to try and position me as somehow indifferent to or supportive of racism.” More responses:  “we’ve become so accustomed to performing a shallow search for the most obvious or appealing or fashionable hook for explanations.” And more : “the very clear position she took in responding to xxx, namely that he was wicked for observing that shootings exist without immediately making appeals to identity politics.” And more: “xxx argued that the thing called ‘a shooting’ exists. That’s not saying little, apparently, since it’s so controversial. That was Ahmed’s reaction, actually: no, you can’t say that things exist; you have to choose my favourite political lens with which to talk about them.” And more: “people like Sarah [sic] will tend to ignore other, perhaps more telling objects and trajectories because they have already found their necessary and sufficient cause through their over-determined political lens. Nothing really learned; we expected Sarah [sic] to come to that conclusion.” One might comment here on flaming and the rather monstrous nature of any virtual conversations across blogs and walls. The use of racism as an example becomes: an accusation made against someone; a fashionable hook that stops us from searching for more complex causes; a political lens that distorts what we can see; a confirmation of what is already known. Racism becomes a foreign as well as foreigner word: what gets in the way of description; what is imposed upon what would otherwise be a neutral or even happy situation.

I want to comment here on the use of the term “identity politics.” How is it that bringing up the question of race becomes describable as identity politics? Pointing out structures (how things fall; how the world is organised around some bodies and not others) is treated as relying on identity. Perhaps we are witnessing the effacement of structure under identity not by those who are involved in what is called “identity politics” but by those who use “identity politics” to describe the scene of an involvement.

There is more going on. Another time I commented on how a conference involved only white male speakers. I should add that this conference took place at Goldsmiths and these kinds of “only white male” or “only but one” events happen regularly here, I suspect because of the kinds of bodies that tend to be organised under the rubric of “critical theory.” Someone replies that they thought I sounded “very 1980s,” and that they thought we had “got over” identity politics. Not only might we want to challenge the use of identity politics here as a form of political caricature, but we might want to think of this “over.” What does it mean to assume we have “got over” something? This claim participates in a genre of argumentation I call “overing.” In assuming we are over certain kinds of critique, they create the impression we are over what is being critiqued. Feminist and anti-racist critique are heard as old-fashioned, as based on identity categories that we are assumed to be over.   

Some words are heard as dated; and those who use these words become those who lag behind.  Words like “racism” and “sexism” are heard as melancholic: as if we are holding onto something assumed to have gone.  With Judith Butler behind me I can think through what it means for melancholia to have become our assignment. We have to hold on as these histories are not gone.


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

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

—————— (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Austin, John L. (1975). How to do Things with Words, Oxford: Oxford  University Press.

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

——————— (2004b) Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge.

——————– (1997). Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative.

—————— (1993). Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” New York: Routledge.

——————– (1991). “Imitation and Gender Insubordination,” in Diana Fuss (ed.) Inside/Out: Lesbian Theories, Gay Theories. London: Routledge.

——————- (1990). Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

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

Puwar, Nirmal (2004). Space Invaders: Race, Gender and Bodies out of Place. Oxford: Berg.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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