Breaking Points

What I have loved about having my feminist killjoys blog is how it seems to have changed my relation to my own scholarly work: I am going back over the trails that led me here, to this moment, this point, in time. That sense of going back might also be something to do with finishing a book: that open space of the not quite after, that pause. It is not a general pause: it is not even a slowing down; it is the end of term; it is busy. But my foot hasn’t quite landed on the next stone, even though I have begun research for new projects, even though I sense that stone. There is a moment of dangling that I rather like, even though I am ready to jump!

I keep realising how things keep coming up, in different ways over the course of my thinking, writing, doing. One of these “things” is “breaking points.” I considered “breaking points” most explicitly in Queer Phenomenology, but they came up before that in The Cultural Politics of Emotion, even though I didn’t name them as such. In that book, published 10 years ago (almost!), I was thinking about investments in a rather ordinary way. I was thinking of how to wait for something is to become invested in that thing not necessarily because you estimate that thing as a good thing (what I was to call later “happy objects,” those things that you are directed toward because they are anticipated to cause happiness) but just because of the time taken in waiting for that thing.

It is ordinary life that helps here.  Think of the times when you are on a phone; you are waiting for someone to answer the call. The longer you wait the harder it is to give up, because you have invested more and more time by waiting (and thus more and more of yourself: to give time is to give yourself). My conclusion was as ordinary as the example: the failure of return extends the investment. And from ordinary life (so much of my own work is working from the ordinary, with the ordinary) we learn about how social norms too might become investments: it is not that they give you a return that is binding, but the failure of return. Norms become affective; they are ways of waiting for returns that are assumed to follow those ways. I was later to call this dynamic “the promise of happiness.”

But then there is a moment if you are still waiting when you give up. Giving up is so complicated; you don’t know whether you give up because something is lost; or whether you are giving up in case something is lost; or that giving up makes something lost. You worry, perhaps, that this “because” has got in the way; you worry about giving up because of this because. That’s a bit cryptic: you worry you will lose something because you thought you had lost something.

But eventually you do give up. Something breaks. You reach a breaking point. It was this “reaching” that I tried to explore in Queer Phenomenology. In the introduction, I rewrote the example from The Cultural Politics of Emotion, through thinking about paths (paths have stayed with me ever since, as an object that supports thought, that is, as a table, another object that supports thought). This is what I wrote:

For it is important to remember that life is not always linear, or that the lines we follow do not always lead us to the same place. It is not incidental that the drama of life, those moments of crisis that demand we make a decision, are represented by the following scene: the subject faces a fork in the road, and has to decide which path to take. This way or that one, one must decide. And then you go one way. You go that way by following the path. But perhaps you are not so sure. The longer you proceed on this path the harder it is to go back even in the face of this uncertainty. You make an investment in going and the going extends the investment. One keeps going out of hope that you are getting somewhere. Hope is an investment that the lines we follow will get us somewhere.  When we don’t give up, when we persist, when we are under pressure to arrive, to get somewhere, we give ourselves over to the line. Turning back risks the wasting of time, a time that has already been expended or given up. If we give up on the line that we have given our time to, then we give up more than a line; we give up a certain life we have lived, which can feel like giving up on ourselves.


And so you go on. Your journey might still be full of doubt. When doubt gets in the way of hope, which can often happen in a moment, as abruptly as turning a switch, then you go back, you give up. You even hurry back, as the time expended without hope is time taken away from the pursuit of another path.  So yes, sometimes you do go back. Sometimes you get there. Sometimes you just don’t know. Such moments do not always present themselves as life choices available to consciousness. At times, we don’t know we have followed a path, or that the line we have taken is a line that clears our way only by marking out spaces that we don’t inhabit. Our investments in specific routes can be hidden from view, as they are the point from which we view the world that surrounds us. We can get directed, by losing our sense of this direction. The line becomes then simply a way of life, or even an expression of who we are.


So at one level we do not encounter that which is “off course,” that which is off the line we have taken. And yet, accidental or chance encounters do happen, which re-direct us, and open up new worlds. Sometimes, such encounters might come as the gift of a lifeline, and sometimes they might not; they can be lived purely as loss. Such side-ways moments might generate new possibilities, or they might not. After all, it is often loss that generates a new direction; when we lose a loved one, for instance, or when a relationship with a loved one ends, it is hard to simply stay on course, as love is also what gives us a certain direction. What happens when we are “knocked off course” depends on the psychic and social resources behind us. Such moments can be a gift, or they might be the site of trauma, anxiety or stress about the loss of an imagined future. It is usually with the benefit of “hindsight” that we reflect on such moments, where a fork in the road before us opens up, and we have to decide what to do, even if the moment does not present itself as a demand for a decision. The “hind” does not always give us a different point of view, yet it does allow those moments to be revisited, to be reinhabited, as moments where we change course.


I think one of the reasons that I became interested in the very question of “direction” was because, in the “middle” of my life, I experienced a dramatic re-direction: I left a certain kind of life, and embraced a new one. I left the “world” of heterosexuality, and became a lesbian, even though this means staying in a heterosexual world. For me, this line was a lifeline, and yet it also meant leaving the well trodden paths. It is interesting to note that in landscape architecture they use the term “desire lines” to describe unofficial paths, those marks left on the ground that show everyday comings and goings. Such lines are traces of desire; where people have taken their own routes to get to this point or that. It is certainly desire that helps generate a lesbian landscape, as a ground that is shaped by the paths that we follow. And yet, becoming a lesbian still remains a difficult line to follow. The lesbian body does not extend the shape of this world, as a world organized around the form of the heterosexual couple. Inhabiting a body that is not extended by the skin of the social, means the world acquires a new shape and makes new impressions. Becoming a lesbian taught me, I guess, about the very point of how life gets directed, and how that point is often hidden from view. Becoming re-orientated, which involves the disorientation of encountering the world differently, made me wonder about orientation, and how much “feeling at home,” or knowing which way we are facing, is about the making of worlds.

I then return to this question of breaking points, in the second chapter, “Sexual Orientation.” Here I wrote:


In the conventional family home what appears requires following a certain line, the family line that directs our gaze. The heterosexual couple becomes a “point” along this line, which is given to the child as its inheritance or background. The background then is not simply behind the child: it is what the child is asked to aspire towards. The background, given in this way, can orientate us towards the future: it is where the child is asked to direct its desire by accepting the family line as its own inheritance. There is pressure to inherit this line, a pressure that can speak the language of love, happiness and care, which pushes you along specific paths.  We do not know what we could become without these points of pressure, which insist that happiness will follow if we do this or we do that. And yet, these places where we are under pressure don’t always mean we stay on line; at certain points, we can refuse the inheritance, points that are often lived as “breaking points.” We do not always know what breaks at these points.

I think that last sentence is hovering over me today: you do not always know what breaks at these points.

You can hear how I was already on the trail that led me to The Promise of Happiness. And here, in this book, the question of breaking points is reposed as a question of bearability. I wrote in the chapter, “Unhappy Queers,” the following:

Every sad book has its moments, moments where it is all “too much,” when a body, a life, a world becomes unbearable. Thinking about bearable and unbearable lives might offer a different angle on Judith Butler’s (2004) concept of livable and unlivable lives. A bearable life is a life that can hold up, which can keep its shape or direction, in the face of what it is asked to endure. To bear can also then be a capacity; a bearable life is a life that we can bear. A bearable life suggests that the conditions of liveability involve a relationship to suffering, to “what” a life must endure. A bearable life is a life where what must be endured does not threaten that life, in either the bare facts of its existence, or in the sense of its aim, direction, or purpose. A bearable life is a life that in being endured can keep its bearings. The unbearable life is a life which cannot be tolerated or endured, help up, held onto. The unbearable life “breaks” or “shatters” under the “too much” of what is being borne. You might note here that the conditions of bearability relate not only to the object (what someone is asked to bear, though it includes this what), and nor would it relate only to the subject (who is doing the bearing, though it includes this who). What makes for an unbearable life takes place somewhere between the subject and the world that throws “things” up; sometimes, something becomes “too much” to bear, where the “too much” is experienced as the breaking of a long history of involvement or the endurance that sustains suffering insofar as it is beared. When it is too much, things break, you reach a breaking point.


And then in Willful Subjects this question of breaking points, as moments when life is too much comes up again, this time as a question of snap. Let me share a short piece with you from chapter 4 of this book. They are not my final words on breaking points. It is question I will come back to again, because it is a life question: a question of how to live when what is required to keep going in the face of what you come against is too much.

Feminism: a history of disagreeable women!  If we hear this sentence as an exclamation it can sound empowering. And yet, to be given the content of disagreement is how others do not hear the content of your disagreement.  There is a “not hearing” at stake in the figure of the feminist killjoy, without question.  And there is no doubt that some of these experiences are wearing, even when we convert that figure into a source of energy and potential. And there is no wonder in the repetition of what we come up against, we might snap.  To snap might be to “snap the bond of fate” to draw again on Lucretius’s formulation. A bond of fate can be fatal.


Think of a situation in which a bond has become violent. What can make living with violence hard is how hard it is even to imagine or think the possibility of its overcoming; you might be isolated; you might be materially dependent; you might be down, made to think and feel you are beneath that person; you might be attached to that person, or believe that person when they say they will change; you might have become part of that person, have your life so interwoven with that person that it is hard to imagine what would be left of you if you left. But in spite of all of that, there can be a point, a breaking point, when it is “too much” and what did not seem possible becomes necessary. She fights back; she speaks out. She has places to go because other women have been there. No wonder that leaving a situation of violence can feel like snap: a bond of fate has indeed been broken. Perhaps the slow time of endurance can only be ended by a sudden movement. Or perhaps the movement might only seem sudden because we cannot “see” the slower times of bearing, what Lauren Berlant (2007) has called compellingly “slow death.” 


I think one of the reasons the feminist film, A Question of Silence (1982, dir. Marlene Gorris) remains so powerful is how it shows what we can call feminist snap. The film follows three different women: each of them has her own story, but they share what they are asked to endure: patriarchal culture. The film works by juxtaposing scenes of being worn down, worn out; sexism becomes a worn thread of connection. I saw this film most recently at the London Feminist Film Festival in 2012. One scene in particular had the audience of (mostly) women groaning in recognition. It is another table scene: there is one woman seated at a table of men; she is the secretary. And she makes a suggestion. No-one hears her: the question of silence is in this moment not a question of not speaking but of not being heard. A man then makes the exact same suggestion she has already made: and the other men turn to him, congratulating him for being constructive. She says nothing. It is at that moment she sits there in silence, a silence which is filled or saturated with memories of being silenced: her memories, ours. Femininity can be lived as the accumulation of experiences of being silenced; of having to over look how you are looked over. Sometimes we become accommodating because our views are not accommodated, a not that happens, over and over again.


If in the film, the women are shown as worn down; it does not just depict this wearing. There is an event. Three women happen upon each other because they happen to be in the same dress boutique at the same time. It might be a coincidence they arrive the same time, but that they are here is no surprise; they are doing what many women do, shopping for clothes as part of the ordinary routines of femininity. But whilst doing ordinary things they commit what appears to be an extraordinary act. One of the women is stopped by a male shop keeper as she attempts to steal an item of clothing; to take what she has not bought, what is not rightfully hers. Maybe she is stealing as an enactment of what has been taken from her. Maybe she experiences this event of being stopped as the injustice of not having recognized what has been taken from her. She is used to this injustice, she has come to expect it; but this time she snaps. They snap. These three women each have a hand in murdering the man with the tools that usually extend the female body; shopping trolleys, coat hangers, the high heel of a shoe. If it an act of rage and revenge, it is directed not only against this man, but this world. It is a seemingly random act of violence, a confirmation of female madness to the eyes of the law, but the film is told from the women’s point of view: and patriarchy becomes the reason.


When they are on trail, in the courtroom the women start laughing at the patriarchal reasoning of the Law. The laughter might be heard as hysterical, when you have a worldview that prevents you recognizing this reason. Maybe women are heard as reactive, as rash, as unreasonable, because the world we respond to, the injustices that keep coming up, again and again, do not come into view.  I have already noted how feminists might become mouthy; you might even shout in frustration at the difficulty of getting through; shout because you are already heard as shouting, realising an expectation in response to an expectation. We learn from this film how laughter can be another kind of willful and rebellious noise. When one woman begins laughing at the law, her laughter spreads. More and more women are caught up by it. To laugh compulsively, even violently, at the reasoning of Law, to gender as reason, is to expose its violence. It is also to risk being heard as the origin of the violence exposed. However the women’s laughter is heard, it becomes contagious for those who women in the courtroom who “get it.” Their laughter becomes a feminist lead. They leave the courtroom. Even if they are asked to leave, they walk out willingly, laughing with and to each other.


Feminist snap: to break the bond of femininity can be to make room for life by leaving the room.

Here breaking points (as snapping the bond) are re-described as opening by exiting.  Of course it can be hard to leave the room. This is possibly the most hopeful thing I have written because I do not attend to the hardness of leaving but the impossibility of staying. But we still have to work hard to reach this point.  It is an impossibility we can aim for.

Even feminist killjoys have their hopeful moments.


Berlant, Lauren (2007). “Slow Death: Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency,” Critical Inquiry, 33: 754-780.

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


About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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3 Responses to Breaking Points

  1. Rowena says:

    “life is not always linear” –
    So when life is not linear, what is it? Exponential or power law? Sinusoidal or quasiperiodic? With respect to what? Time, presumably. So life is some function of time, L(t). Now, L = 0 at t = 0, the time of birth, and L = 0 at t = t_d, the time of death. L is at a maximum when you are healthiest/ happiest/ most fulfilled/ achieved your potential/ have given most to your sister human beings. L is single-valued (you cannot have more than one life at the same time) and continuous (you cannot die and come back to life, and reincarnation is forbidden. L is smooth (has continuous derivatives to all orders). Aha! Life must be a polynomial! Of what degree, n? Well, n must be a multiple of 2. If n is, say, 4, then your life will have 2 high points, not necessarily equal, and one low point. What are the values of the coefficients? What do they correspond to physically? This could be fun…

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