Sweaty Concepts

In an earlier post here, I said I wanted to develop the concept of “sweaty concepts” in Living a Feminist Life. What do I mean by this? I first used this expression during a lecture for my course Race, Empire and Nation that I teach at Goldsmiths. I was trying to describe what I thought was significant about Audre Lorde’s work. Every course I teach, I teach Audre Lorde’s work. She is my constant companion. I have described before how her work comes to me like a life-line, a way of pulling me out of a difficult situation by giving me words to redescribe that situation. Concepts are generated by or in the very detail of her description; of how it feels to inhabit a black body in a world that assumes whiteness, for example.

By using the idea of “sweaty concepts” for this kind of descriptive work I was trying to say at least two things. Firstly I was implying that too often conceptual work is understood as distinct from describing a situation: and I am thinking here of a situation as something that comes to demand a response, a situation is often announced as what we have (“we have a situation here”) as well as what we are in. Concepts in my view tend to be reified as what scholars somehow come up with (the concept as rather like an apple that hits you on the head, sparking revelation from a position of exteriority) as something we use to explain by bringing it in.[1] For me, concepts are ways of understanding worlds that are in the worlds we are in.

Secondly by using the idea of “sweaty concepts” I was also trying to show how descriptive work is conceptual work. A concept is worldly but it is also a reorientation to a world, a way of turning things around, a different slant on the same thing. More specifically a “sweaty concept” is one that comes out of a description of a body that is not at home in the world. By this I mean description as angle or point of view: a description of how it feels not to be at home in the world, or a description of the world from the point of view of not being at home in it.  As I have tried to show in my work on comfort and discomfort (see here), so much phenomenological writing was written from the point of view of a body that “can do,” a body that is at home in the world, a body that is received by a world. This is why in Queer Phenomenology I suggested that if we begin with a body that loses its chair, the world we describe will be quite different. When I use the concept of “sweaty concepts” I am also trying to say we can generate new understandings by describing the difficulty of inhabiting a body that is not at home in a world. Sweat is bodily; we might sweat more during more strenuous activity. A “sweaty concept” might be one that comes out of a bodily experience that is difficult, one that is “trying,” and where the aim is to keep exploring and exposing this difficulty, which means also aiming not to eliminate the effort or labour from the writing (I suspect not eliminating the effort or labour becomes an academic aim because we have been taught to tidy our texts, not to reveal the struggle we have in getting somewhere).

In Willful Subjects I tried to write of willfulness as a “sweaty concept” in this way. That meant thinking through and writing from my own experience of being charged with willfulness; after all, it was these experiences of being called willful that meant I picked up this word, that I came to hear it. I wrote the book as someone who had received this impression. I had heard the intonation of being called willful. This call is often a calling out to a child, to someone who can be addressed in this way. The figure of the willful child that I was following was thus also part of my own history: someone I might have been or someone I might have been thought to be, someone I became in face of having been thought to have been.  I became interested in this figure, a ghostly figure, perhaps, a trace or impression of a person, as someone, or as somewhere, I have been.

Words too can be treated as “sweaty concepts” in the sense that they have orientations or leanings, because of what they pick up over time, perhaps because of who they pick up. So, if we hear the definition of willfulness, cold and dusty from being lodged in a dictionary, as a call, as an address to someone, we show how words and concepts leak into worlds. This is a typical definition of willfulness: “asserting or disposed to assert one’s own will against persuasion, instruction, or command; governed by will without regard to reason; determined to take one’s own way; obstinately self-willed or perverse.” To be called obstinate or perverse because you are not persuaded by the reasoning of others? Is this familiar to you? Have you heard this before?  When willfulness is an attribution, a way of finding fault, then willfulness is also the experience of an attribution.  Willfulness can be deposited in our bodies. And when willfulness is deposited in our bodies, our bodies become part of the material we are assembling. To follow willfulness around thus requires moving out of the history of ideas and into everyday life-worlds.

If in Willful Subjects I try not to eliminate the signs of sweat, by following a concept in and out of a history of ideas, I do not stay with embodied description. I first developed this method of moving in and out of the history of ideas  in The Promise of Happiness (2010). I will use this method again in my project, Utility: the Uses of Use, because I enjoy working this way and it will be useful to work on use this way! I learn from working like this; I end up in such unexpected places. And then: when I return home to describe more everyday situations, I have acquired a different handle. I like that sense of to-ing and fro-ing: it is what I would call also a “hap method” a way of being redirected by what we encounter, by what we happen to find when we follow things wherever they go.

But in Living a Feminist Life, I want to write differently, by staying closer to the embodied descriptions that have not “not” been part of my writing but have not always been at the centre of my writing. I want to write from the examples up, without following the concepts  where they go. There are a number of reasons for this decision. Firstly, I have noticed that when I give talks about concepts like happiness or will, however much I draw on personal examples, and litter philosophy with anecdotes (a “non philosopher” is very committed to littering!), some audiences would just ask questions about how my reading relating to this or that (usually white male) philosopher. Often I had evoked this or that philosopher, I had brought him into the room, so I can hardly be annoyed if that is what is picked up! But I began to feel that these questions were a way of not addressing what I felt was the point of my arguments. So if following a concept of will meant, say, citing Nietzsche on will, or Kant on will, I was not sure I wanted the consequences of that citation, which was to be asked about the relationship about Nietzsche or Kant not because I can’t answer those questions, but because they do not really interest me, or not that much. And secondly, I felt that the audiences I was interested in speaking to were those who wanted to talk about questions of difference and how they matter. Some members of these audiences are at home in philosophy, some not. I will always in my writing engage explicitly with the history of ideas, because I am interested in mutation (I am interested for example, in how “happiness” loses its hap, or how “will” came to be defined by some against “want” even though they share the same root). But I have begin to realise that it might be important not to frame all of my work around this history because of this “some not.” Partly the decision to write from the examples up in Living a Feminist Life and not follow concepts/words is about trying to inhabit a different room with those who are not at home in the philosopher’s dwelling.

And, this gets me back to “sweaty concepts.” Because if we try and describe how sexism and racism work we end up with different kinds of descriptions, and thus generate new angles on the worlds we inhabit. Understanding sexism and racism is about working through how social forms are stabilised; it is working out how possibilities are eliminated before they are taken up, as I suggested here in my post “The Problem of Perception”, as well as in my book On Being Included.  If we start by describing these mechanisms for stabilisation we will be turning things around. For example Zygmunt Bauman has argued that: “One attribute that liquids possess but solids do not, an attribute that makes liquids an apt metaphor for our times, is the intrinsic inability of fluids to hold their shape for long on their own” (in Gane 2004: 19, emphasis added).  Doing this research for On Being Included taught me about solidity; about how what appears as mobile and changing, can still “hold their shape.”  To account for sexism and racism is to offer an account of how a “holding pattern” becomes intrinsic.  Accounting for a holding pattern begins with describing that pattern. And patterns are often the things that do not come into general view. We need “sweaty concepts” because we need more descriptions of the patterns that are obscured when bodies are received by spaces that have assumed their shape. We might have to insist on giving these descriptions.

In Willful Subjects I conceded the possibility that my own writing might be judged as willful: as too insistent, even pushy. One of my arguments in the book is that some bodies have to push harder than other bodies just to proceed; and this argument might be true for arguments as well as bodies! The OED describes the meaning of willfulness in the “positive sense” of strong willed as both obsolete and rare. The negative senses of willfulness (or even willfulness as a negative sense) have become so deeply entrenched that to open up a history of willfulness one might have to insist on other more positive senses. A “sweaty concept” is one that might too require insistence. Sometimes you might even have to “over-insist” to get through a wall of perception; it is a reflection of what we have to get over.


Gane, Nicholas (2004). The Future of Social Theory. Continuum: London.

[1] One of the risks of this tendency to reify concepts is that they tend to be attributed with agency. I notice this a lot in affect studies, when ‘affect’ is cleaned up as a concept by being separated from other things, it is then put in the position of a subject in a sentence: affect does x, is y, and so on. I also notice this problem in some critiques of intersectionality: when intersectionality is treated as a concept, it is often then given the status as doing something, on its own, as it were.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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