In following willfulness around I became struck by how often willfulness comes up in scenes of breakage: broken things; broken bodies; broken relationships. When I began to put these scenes of breakage together, I came to appreciate how willfulness is itself a fragile thread that can be stretched only if it is not broken. Perhaps at some points in this work, I over-stretched: I broke the thread.


In so many research projects: you end up enacting what you are accounting for.

A fragile thread woven out of fragility. Easily broken.

Fragility: the quality of being easily breakable. Is anything not fragile? What does it mean, what does it do, to break, or to be broken?

A broken jug: one that loses it handle; one that might fly off the handle. A broken jug might be deemed a willful object; when it breaks it can no longer be filled with will. It is not a container of will, a willing container.

Things break; they shatter.

Oops. Add the “s,” quite a mess.(1)

Relationships can break, we know this. Have you ever been with someone, someone who you are trying to love, trying not to give up on, and they say something that you find unbearable? You can hear glass shatter; that point when you realise what you had is something that cannot be reassembled. If you put the pieces back together, you might be left with a memorial, a holder of memories.

When my own parents broke up, a friend of the family came around to talk to my mother, who was the one who had been left. He says “This is what happens when you marry a Muslim.” The words were uttered pointedly, cutting the atmosphere like a knife. Break ups: it happens. Shit happens. But in a mixed relationship, a break becomes what we were heading for, right from the beginning. This is what happens when: as if the “when” leads only to this. For a white woman, an English Christian woman, to marry out, to marry a brown man, a Pakistani Muslim, leads her only to this point, this ending, a relationship that “could only end in tears,” becoming retrospectively, always tearful.  When things are going smoothly, this friend said nothing. When things break, race comes up. We learn making from breaking.

For queers to make things work can be pressure as well as a project. You know that if there is a break up it can fulfil an expectation that such relationships are less lasting, less secure; fragile. There is a kind of queer fatalism at stake here: that to be on a queer path is to hurtle toward a miserable fate; queer as self-shattering. And then if things do shatter (as they do tend to do) you have fulfilled an expectation that “this” is where being queer led you to.

We can note from these examples of queer or mixed intimacies how some relationships are assumed to be inherently broken, as if their fate is to break. And this is difficult: the assumption of fragility can make something fragile; just think of how you can become clumsier when you are trying to be careful not to break what easily breaks. Or think of how if you are already known as the clumsy one, you might become even more afraid of breakage, because you know that if there is a breakage, you will be judged as the one who is behind it. The harder you try the more you seem to slip up. Or think of how leaving the accepted social paths can be to leave behind support systems, those institutional ways of holding, protecting, nurturing. To leave a support system can mean to become more fragile, less protected from the bumps of ordinary life. And though fragility might be a consequence it can be recruited as cause: as if you willfully caused your own damage by leaving the safety of a brightly lit path. No wonder so much queer and feminist invention comes from creating our own support systems.

Becoming the cause of your own damage: we are back to the figure of the feminist killjoy. To give a cause to damage is to contain a mess, to mop up a spillage. The figure of the feminist killjoy is rather like that of the broken jug: she too flies off the handle, an expression used to indicate the suddenness of anger.

Maybe she snaps. She is snappy.

Think of when a twig snaps. We might hear that snap as an origin of a movement, as the beginning of violence, because we don’t notice the pressure on the twig. A feminist understanding of power attends to what I called in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004), “a history of reaction,” a history that tends to be erased, of bodies that are pressed, contorted, reduced, by what they come up against.

A snap is not a starting point.

She snaps; it shatters.

We can be shattered by what we come up against; we can shatter into a million pieces when we hurl ourselves against those walls, those hardenings of history.

Tiny little pieces.

Bodies break. That too. That is not all that bodies do.

A broken body, not whole. A part of a whole must be whole.

Bones break. That too. Though that is not all that bones do.

Stories of breaking; broken stories.

A story.

Ann Oakley’s Fractured: Adventures of a Broken Body (2007). Oakley in reflecting on her experience of breaking her arm emphasises how it feels not to be able to feel through her limbs. So while the doctors focus on the “the bent fingers, the crooked arm, and the state of [her] scar,” what it important to her is that “a significant part of my right hand remains almost completely without sensation” (2007: 20). She has to learn to treat the arm “like a dependent child” (20). To fracture a body is to become more conscious of the body in a different way or as a different way. Ann Oakley’s memoir reads not only as a personal story of how it feels to inhabit a body that is broken but as an ode to hands. In the chapter, “The Right Hand,” she notes: “Hands perform around a thousand different functions everyday. It is with arms and hands that we feel, dress, perform skills, explore our body, and contact persons and things about us” (46). She shows us how an appreciation of a limb’s capacities when those capacities are lost does not necessarily aim to restore what has been lost. Even if Oakley admits that she still minds the loss of the hand she “had before,” her writing enacts a process of coming to terms with a different body. To recognise what a body is missing can be to adjust the image you have of your own body and thus your perception of the bodies of others: “not many people get to middle-age without various bits missing,” she notes (25). Given bodily integrity is often “a moral as well as physical quality” (25) to accept a body with parts that are missing is to re-orientate our relation to bodies.

Another story.

Audre Lorde’s The Cancer Journals ([1980]2007). Lorde describes with acute detail how it feels to wake up after a mastectomy, to wake up to the gradual realization through the fog of tranquilizers that her “right breast is gone,” and of the increasing pain in her chest wall: “My breast which was no longer there would hurt as if it were being squeezed in a vise. That was perhaps the worst pain of all, because it would come with a full compliment that I was to be forever reminded of my loss by suffering in a part of me which was no longer there” ([1980] 1997: 37-8).  It is not only that we can suffer an absence but what is absent can suffer. The Cancer Journals also offers an account of the willfulness required not to wear a prosthesis in the place of a missing breast.[2] Once when she goes to the surgery the nurse comments, “You’re not wearing a prosthesis,” to which Lorde replies, “It really doesn’t feel right.” The nurse responds: “You will feel so much better with it on,” and then, “It’s bad for the morale of the office.”(60) Not to wear a prosthesis, not to cover over an absence, is deemed to compromise the happiness of others. Audre Lorde’s response to this demand is not only anger but a call for action: “What would happen if an army of one-breasted women descended on Congress and demanded that the use of carcinogenic, fat-stored hormones in beef-feed be outlawed?” she asks (14-5).

What would happen? What could happen? A queer crip army would be assembled, made out of bodies without parts, perhaps even parts without bodies. Carrie Sandahl, drawing on the work of Robert McRuer, among others, teases out the “affinities and tensions” between crip and queer (1993: 26). Perhaps a queer crip affinity might be possible when you share what you are not missing. A queer crip politics might allow the body deemed not whole to be revealed, a revelation that might be registered as a willful obtrusion into social consciousness (“bad for morale”). A queer crip politics might involve a refusal to cover over what is missing, a refusal to aspire to be whole. What I call the will duty often takes the form of an aspiration: even for bodies that are not able to be whole, they must be willing to aspire to be whole.

There can be nothing more willful than the refusal to be aspirational.

We can refuse to miss what we are deemed to be missing.

We can share a refusal.

Does this mean: we can give ourselves a break? Does this mean: there is a way of relating to breaking that does not aim for restoration? Can the fragments reassemble in or from being shattered?

Shattering: scattering.

What is shattered so often is scattered, strewn all over the place.

A history that is down, heavy, is also messy, strewn.

The fragments: an assembly. In pieces. Becoming army.


Ahmed, Sara (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press.

Lorde, Audre [1980] (2007). The Cancer Journals. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.

Oakley, Ann (2007). Fractured: Adventures of a Broken Body. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.

Sandahl, Carrie (1993). “Queering the Crip or Cripping the Queer: Intersection of Queer and Crip Identities in Solo Autobiographical Performance.,” GLQ, 9(1–2): 25–56.


[1] This rather cryptic statement is a reference to Object Oriented Philosophy, which I have renamed here OOPS.

[2] Although Audre Lorde is strongly critical of what she calls the “tyranny of prosthesis” she remains sympathetic to the women who chose to wear them, recognizing that “each of us struggles daily with the pressures of conformity and the loneliness of difference from those choices seem to offer escape” ([1980] 2007: 8).

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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17 Responses to Fragility

  1. Michael says:

    I really like this. Things break, often. I’m thinking about this in relation to something i read just before this about suicide. How often we focus on the “breaking” of a human being as opposed to the process, the hours and hours on end of pain. Breaking not as a point but as a process.

    Thank you for sharing this

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  4. Reblogged this on A Hybrid Biomythography and commented:
    From one of the most inspiring feminist academics..

  5. I love this. As queer women, every relationship is “doomed” to failure- thank you Sara for articulating.

  6. emmapretzel says:

    I love the idea that “[t]here can be nothing more willful than the refusal to be aspirational.” As an autistic queer female-person-thing-whatever, the applicability of this “army” of fragments, even the process of fragmentation and breaking, to cognitive and intellectual disability. The idea of a “psychotic break” or dissociation, mood swings and meltdowns all take part in a similar rhetoric of fragility-meets-instability. In those cases, however, most will explicitly reference a kind of socio-emotional homeostasis which a mind/brain is supposed to maintain–even if one’s mind “breaks,” the goal is always to return to said homeostatic state.
    One of the coolest parts of thinking about this, for me, is how it can play into ideas of stable and unstable thermodynamic states (I prefer talking about thermodynamics to referencing like, “chaos theory” because 1. It’s not 1990, and 2. I’m not quite that pretentious, I hope). In which case, there are a potentially unlimited number of acceptably stable homeostatic states that one could return to after “breaking”–the final stable state is not necessarily always the same as the original stable state. Not only that, but these new states are often only discovered after a change in the conditions of state formation (like the addition or subtraction of one “piece” or “fragment” of something). It’s more like building blocks or random assorted Legos than like a jigsaw puzzle or model plane kit; the latter includes a specific number of pieces, all of which are required in order to complete a single larger thing, whereas the former can make any number of things, depending on which pieces, and how many pieces, are available for you to use.
    Especially when it comes to autistic people and others with developmental disabilities, there’s a way in which the fragility or breakability of our mental states, our focus or understanding, is actually a kind of heightened reactivity to our world, a reflection of our inability to ignore things that others don’t. It reminds me very much of the feminist killjoy in many ways; is it our breaking that is causing divisiveness, or rather that our breaking serves to bring attention to sounds, touches, ideas, sights, that the current social fabric was predicated on ignoring? In that way, our breakability includes our ability to make and remake a body, a person, a mind, even without the “pieces” or specific type of coherence people are “supposed” to have, and becomes a form of conscious work–if you don’t remake yourself into a new whole from pieces, how will you know when you break again?
    Pardon the lengthy comment–I’m a huge fan (this feels like an odd word to use, but it fits) of your work, and this was just too interesting an idea to pass by without saying something.

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  8. Sara says:

    Emma sorry it took me so long to respond to your incredibly helpful comments. I hope to think and write about ableness and the loss of sensitivity so your words really reach out to me!

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