A phenomenology of the vanguard

I was hoping to write a new post today but circumstances did not permit. So I am sharing instead a small part of the conclusion of the fourth chapter of Willful Subjects, a book which is forthcoming with Duke University Press next year.

I chose this part for a reason. It seemed timely: after yet another post has circulated in which feminist/queers/antiracists are dismissed under the sign of “identity politics.” This post also describes “sour face identitarians.” I am adding that to the feminist killjoy vocabulary with a willfully gleeful joy!

In solidarity,

From a sour faced feminist killjoy


Perhaps this is what it means to transform willfulness into pedagogy: you have to work out how to travel on unstable grounds.  The history of sexism and racism within left activist spaces teaches us about these grounds. We have to enact the world we are aiming for: nothing less will do. Behind us are long histories of failed enactments, histories in which the critiques of how power is exercised within social movements have been dismissed under the sign of willfulness: heard as distractions from the shared project of transformation, as causing the divisions they reveal, as being in the way of what is on the way.  Part of the difficulty is not only who is judged as the obstacle, but who takes charge, who defines what is to be done, who leads the way. Can seeing ahead be how some appoint themselves as heads?

Just think of the Leninist idea of the “vanguard party.” My account of the sociality of will, of precedence as another history of being in time, could be read as a phenomenology of the vanguard. The word “vanguard” derives from “avant” meaning “front” but also “before.” The vanguard is an avant-garde: a front party, a part that fronts. This idea might have legs as it makes others into legs: those who are behind are assumed to need those in front to front. If those who are in front “front” our political movements, what happens? If those who come first are “first” in our political movements, what happens? To challenge precedence by exercising precedence is to negate the challenge. And what do we find when we work this way? Some become the arms that carry, the helping hands, the ones that make tea, who do the leg work: to free up the time for the heads. If the will of those who come first determines the political horizon, then nothing much different happens. Same old, same old: the exhaustion of reproduction as well as repetition, when working against reproduces the world we are working against. Given this political horizon it is not surprising that “identity politics” has acquired a negative willful charge: to rally around our particulars is to refuse to be led by those whose will has already been given general expression.[i]

Can we work differently? Can those who come after work differently, working as willful strangers, by not putting the will of those who come first “first”? Perhaps we need to work back to front.[ii] We have to work from behind to challenge the front. We have to work the behind.  We can hear the queerness of this hind sight.  We can also hear decolonial connotations. Those deemed behind, as lagging behind in the history of becoming modern, can rewrite that history from this view. Ramón Grosfoguel’s critique of the universalisms of Western modernity offers such a view, a rear view. It is not simply that we can generate an oblique angle on history from behind. We can aim to transform the angle into a different style of politics, rear-guard not avant-garde. Grosfoguel refers to the Zapatistas in Southern Mexico. He notes: “the Zapatistas set out from ‘walking while asking questions,’ and from there propose a ‘rear-guard movement’ which contributes to linking together a broad movement on the basis of the ‘wretched of the earth’ of all Mexico” (2012: 12). [iii]Such a style of walking is contrasted with the avant-garde: “walking while preaching” (12). We have to walk differently: it is not that those behind come to the front, but that staying back gives you the time to question, to ask rather than tell. A politics of the rear is still a movement. When the wretched are walking, the feet are talking. To keep walking, to keep going, to keep coming up, is a certain kind of talking, talking to not talking at; talking without a message that can be passed simply from one to another, like a baton that we aim to get to the front so we can be in front. Sometimes to keep questioning requires a willful behind. There are behinds to the behind: to talk with your feet does not mean you walk at the same pace. But you might hesitate, look back; not hurry ahead to head.

When those in front assume willfulness, willfulness becomes a front. Left activist spaces are populated by subjects who think of themselves as willful, as disobedient, as opposing norms, as giving up conventions that hold others in place. But the self-perception of freedom from norms can quickly translate into the freedom to exploit others, to engage in behaviours that are almost exact approximations of the norms that subjects think of themselves as opposing. The thought of willful opposition can enable a willing approximation in action.

The film Ginger and Rosa (2012, dir. Sally Potter) explores the psychic structure of avant-gardism very well. Ginger’s father, who we learn from the diagesis of the film, wrote a book entitled The Idea of Freedom; Ginger’s father who speaks of “autonomous thought,” who opposes marriage and convention, who thinks love should be free, ends up sexually exploiting young women, his students and Ginger’s own best friend, Rosa. He fulfills a sexual and social norm under or as the guise of transgression. In the end, when his behavior is exposed as harming others, including his daughter and his wife, he retains his willful self-identification. He recalls his own history of disobedience; how he went to prison as a conscientious objector. Someone has to say “no” he says. He says this “no” as if in the present tense, as if that “no” can explain, even condone, his behavior. We learn how “no” can be a way of participating in norms and conventions whilst benefiting from the feeling of being free from them: a “no” can be how a “yes” is enacted without being said. To think of oneself as a willful subject, as being the “no” that is said, can be how a will stays in agreement.

I am sure many feminists would recognize the portrait of left male chauvinism offered in Ginger and Rosa. We often work from this recognition.

[i] For further discussion of how identity politics has become a negative charge my book, On Being Included (2012) in particular the conclusion. There are many ways we can account for the charge. I have had many experiences of this charge in my participation in discussions on facebook from which I have learnt a great deal. To bring up the question of racism or sexism -even just to put words like that on the table – is often described as a form of identity politics. This is interesting: pointing to structure is treated as relying on identity. Perhaps we are witnessing the effacement of structure under identity not so much 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.

[ii] With thanks to Jonathan Keane for this formulation. For a unique approach to the “recalcitrant” and “rearguard” as queer temporalities see Freeman (2010: xvi).

[iii] With thanks to Sirma Bilge both for this reference and for her many thoughtful suggestions.


Freeman, Elizabeth (2010). Time binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham:  Duke University Press.

Grosfoguel, Ramón (2012). “De-Colonizing Western Universalisms,” Trans-Modernity:Journal of Peripheral Cultural Production in the Luso-Hispanic World. 1, 3: 1-17.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A phenomenology of the vanguard

  1. Pingback: Mapping the Limits of Social Movement Organizing: Comité 21 Maart | Processed Life

  2. Pingback: Ahmed's Phenomenology of the vanguard: thoughts for environmental politics? - GeoCritique

  3. Pingback: Problems with Names | feministkilljoys

Leave a Reply