Conditional Will

Hello feminist killjoys

It is the start of term, so it is busy. I have begun working on a post on ‘sweaty concepts’ (which could be entitled ‘An Ode to Audre Lorde’) but it might be a few weeks before I can come back to it. This week at Goldsmiths I am looking forward to talking about/talking to feminist killjoys (and other willful subjects). Do come along if you fancy some killjoy company (! In the meantime, I am sharing some thoughts on the concept of ‘conditional will,’ which connects some of my arguments in Willful Subjects (forthcoming with Duke University Press, 2014) back to my earlier qualitative study of diversity work, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012).

In grumpy solidarity,

feminist killjoy


We could begin with an invitation.  Let’s make it an invitation of an ordinary sort.  Would you like to come along with us? This invitation is an invitation to take part and in taking part to become part, part of an ‘us,’ a part that in coming along is going somewhere.  You accept the invitation when you go along with this coming along. Such an ordinary invitation: one could accept it or not, become part, or not. But let’s think of the invitation as a relation of address.  The ‘you’ is the object of the address.  In being welcomed the ‘you’ is positioned as not part of the ‘us,’ or should we say not yet part. For ‘you’ partness is the promise of a future tense: a becoming. What does mean, what does it do, for the participation of some to be dependent on an invitation made by others?

Perhaps if participation depends on an invitation, then participation becomes a condition or comes with conditions. Jacques Derrida (2000) offered an astute analysis of ‘conditional hospitality,’ when a host welcomes the guest only on condition the guest behaves or ‘is’ a certain way, a restriction of hospitality that is not, Derrida suggests, very hospitable.  We can explore how conditional hospitality rests on what we can simply ‘conditional will.’Just think of the word ‘welcome.’ This word is often used as a friendly greeting, or to signify a friendly orientation. Welcome is also what we can call ‘a will word.’  The word ‘welcome’ derives from the Old English word ‘wilcoma‘ combining ‘will’ with guest. Welcome originally implied a guest ‘whose coming is in accord with another’s will.’

If a guest is the one whose coming is in accordance with another’s will, then guests might have to will in accordance. If a guest is not willing to will in accord, they become a willful guest, one that abuses the hospitality that has been given. In fact, the figure of the willful guest might be understood as spectre that haunts hospitality, the menace that threatens the loss of a good relation.

Perhaps we become willing to make our wills conditional on the wills of others as a way of avoiding being the menace. The speech act ‘I will if you will’ condenses the conditionality of will into a promise to will if the other wills. Note how this conditional will, even if it positions the ‘I’ and the ‘you’ alongside each other, as bound in a willing relation, cannot make them inhabit the same time: one comes before, one after, an ‘if.’ This temporal disjunction is a social disjunction.  If certain people come first –such as hosts, but also parents or citizens, then their will comes first. This being first is not always obvious or explicit. Indeed the host might say that they will ‘will’ only if the guest wills, thus appearing to give the guest a certain precedence ‘if you will, then I will.’  A promise to be willing can become a demand given this precedence: ‘you will, so that I can will.’ If the other won’t will, then the one who wills the other to will so they can will also cannot will ‘if you won’t then I can’t.’ The guest must will the same way for those who are already in place to receive what they will:  ‘you must be willing!’

When you are willing, this must loses the sound of force.  This is why some forms of force might not be experiencable as force, as they involve a sense, nay, a feeling of being willing.  Force can take the following form: the making unbearable of the consequences of not willing what someone wills you to will.  A condition of bearability can be to will ‘freely’ what you are willed to will.

Let’s think with examples. Who welcomes who? Say you welcome a stranger. To welcome the stranger is to recognize the one who arrives as a stranger.  In my book Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (2000) I explored the stranger not as someone we don’t recognise but as someone we recognise as a stranger. The stranger is thus familiar, as ‘the body out of place.’   To welcome the stranger, as the not yet part is to establish who is already part: a welcoming creates the host as the ‘who’ that welcomes. Who is this who? We could consider the racialisation of the very figure of the host, as the figure for the ‘in place’ or ‘already part.’ As Nirmal Puwar (2004) has argued white bodies are the somatic norms of institutions: who they are organized around; who they assume as what they are for. This is how diversity can be offered as an invitation to bodies of colour, an invitation to become part, to add our colour to the whiteness of the organizational body.  Diversity can take the form of a welcome.  In being welcomed, people of colour are treated as guests, as temporary residents in someone else’s home. The act of welcoming those already recognized as strangers, as not yet parts, establishes the very conditions of participation.   

What happens if we do not meet the conditions of our welcome? In On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012) I described the experience of doing a funded research project on diversity. In this book I noted how diversity can work as a branding exercise, a way of re-imaging the organization as ‘being diverse’ through the inclusion of those who embody diversity.  Our own inclusion as a diverse team researching diversity certainly became a happy sign of the overcoming of exclusion. When your arrival is taken up as a sign of diversity, then you can be incorporated as good practice.  Bodies of colour provide organizations with tools, ways of turning action points into outcomes. We become the tools in their kit. We are ticks in the boxes; we tick their boxes.

Our diversity team experienced the consequences of being a tick in the box. We embody diversity for the organization not only because our research project was on diversity but because we were legible as a sign of diversity (a team of many colours).  The ‘yes’ we embody became a demand for us to say ‘yes’ in return or as return. And: we were continually reminded that we were the recipients of generous funding. We were indebted. The gift economy is a powerful one: a means of some asserting the power of some to give to others, which is at once a power to expect or demand a return.  Diversity becomes debt.

We are at a meeting for the research projects. The director of the organization is present. We speak; we talk about our research, drawing on our interviews. They are all so interested. We are very committed to diversity, the director says. She talks about her personal commitment, over and over again. Sometimes the repetition of good sentiment feels oppressive. What are they trying to convince us of, I wonder? Enthusiasm can be oppressive, I learn. The occasion becomes about the enthusiasm of the white management. It becomes about their commitment to diversity. Commitment can even be a strictly monetary device: the amount they spend on us becomes a sign of their commitment; if they have funded us, we rely on their commitment.  Each expression of enthusiasm becomes a reminder of a debt. I know how we are supposed to respond. We are supposed to be grateful. We are good objects at this point, but you know it is precarious. You know it is conditional on returning their commitment in the right way. What do they want? Will we do what they want?

Their commitment comes with conditions, but the conditions are not made explicit. Our task is to make the conditions explicit.  We learn over time that the condition of their commitment is that we would in turn speak about their commitment in positive terms; which means we do not speak about anything that exposes the conditions of their commitment.

We speak about racism. We are not happily willing diversity. We write our report as a critique of good practice, as a critique of how the emphasis on ‘positivity’ (positive words, positive stories, and positive experiences) can makes it harder to speak about racism, as well as other experiences of the intractability of institutional inequality. It doesn’t take long for management enthusiasm to shift into hostility.  In an audit panel, the auditors do not even address the findings of the research. They focus on what the project has not offered. There are no numbers. There is too much theory. It will not be useful for practitioners. There is too much focus on racism (surely you are exaggerating, how can there be so much?).  Elaine Swan (2010) argues that these questions functioned as technologies of displacement: they block the message about racism from getting through.  The hostility of the questions of the official audit is replicated in informal communications, a general sense of disappointment in the diversity research, repeated as murmur. They do not publish our report, which now can circulate only unofficially.

We learn of the condition of commitment from failing to meet those conditions. Those conditions require that we use happy words and not use unhappy words.  Racism becomes an unhappy word, one that would get in the way of our capacity to fulfil our commitment. Note how prohibition can function under the veil of permission. The permission to speak about racism becomes evidence of anti-racism. The permission thus becomes prohibition:  racism becomes something that we should not speak about given that we have been given the freedom to speak of it. It is an apparent freedom: when freedom becomes gift it is often withdrawn. The act of being given the freedom to speak of racism is taken as evidence that there is no racism to speak of.

People of colour are welcomed on condition we are willing to embody diversity.  We are asked to smile in their brochures. We are welcomed, if we are willing not to speak about racism. Racism which becomes a willful word: getting in the way, going the wrong way. Not to be willing is to be assigned as willful, as a menace, as the ones who causes the loss a good relation. My work explores the dangers of this assignment. I have learnt over time to appreciate how being willing to embody diversity can be a way individuals avoid the consequences of not being willing. We have to work collectively if we are to expose the costs of this avoidance.


Derrida, Jacques (2000). Of Hospitality. Trans. Rachel Bowlby.  Stanford: Stanford

University Press.

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

Swan, Elaine (2010). ‘States of White Ignorance, and Audit Masculinity in English Higher Education,’ Social Politics 17, 4: 477-506.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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