Wiggle Room

I have been thinking of social categories as rooms, as giving residence to bodies. Some social categories might be experienced as roomier than others. When I think of roominess I think of wiggle room. Often, it is a most affectionate thought. I think of shoes that in being roomy, allow my toes to wiggle about. I think of less roomy shoes, and I think of my toes with sadness and sympathy: they would be cramped, less able to wiggle. Less wiggle room: less freedom to be; less being to free.

A gender assignment can be a room, and not all of us feel at home in the rooms we have been given. We might feel more or less at home at different times. Judith Butler (1993) taught us to think of “girling” as a social mechanism. A baby is born: we might say “it’s a girl!” And of course “girling” moments do not stop happening, even after we are pronounced girls. A “girling” moment can happen in moments when we asked to give up space, or not to take up space. Gender is a good example of how some categories are roomier than others, in the sense that some categories in being inhabited by bodies allow those bodies to take up more room. Iris Marion Young in her essay, “Throwing like a Girl” (2003) asks how girls come to be “like girls,” through how they come to inhabit their body. She explores how girls come to restrict themselves through restricting how they use their bodies. Think about this: girls come to take up less space by what they do, by what they do not do, with their bodies.

Gendering operates through how bodies take up space: thinking of the intense sociality of the tube or train, how some men typically lounge around, with their legs wide, taking up not only the space in front of their own seat, but the space in front of other seats. Women might end up not even having much space in front of their own seats; that space has been taken up. To become accommodating we learn to take up less space; the more accommodating we are, the less space we have to take up. Or we make ourselves smaller because we are given less space; and we are given less space because we are smaller. Politics: in between these “becauses.”

And when I think of how politics becomes personal, I think of experiences of tightening; of not feeling able to breath because of a restriction. Growing up was full of times like that. A family can be a room, a room that gives more room to some than others. When I think of family I do think of not having room to breathe. A family can be occupied by itself. How often when I am in this room, things seem so tight. I feel the weight of a past as an expectation of the future, a memory of myself as being thrown. I think of the intensity of presumed heterosexuality, the extraordinary investment in reproduction, in predicting the future of a child as another child, in seeing the child as an inheritance of the past. We create more wiggle room the more we open a gap between inheritance and reproduction. Sometimes being in family can feel like: closing the gap.

And after being in family, I often feel desperate for queer space. When I get there: it is like a toe being liberated from a cramped shoe. What a relief it can be to wiggle about. Queer space: what a relief it can be.

I think of whiteness too as a sense of being surrounding, of having no room to be. You feel cramped, even nervous. To feel whiteness as oppressive is to be shaped by what you keep coming into contact with in such a way that you are restricted. I am speaking, here, of non-white people who inhabit white spaces, spaces that have become white through who as well as how bodies gather. This is how a “not” can be so tight that it too feels like the loss of wiggle room (we might think a “not” is quite roomy, perhaps we can make it so, when we embrace this “not,” willingly and willfully). You might experience yourself becoming tighter in response to a world that does not accommodate you. You have less room. Sometimes a world can be so tight that it is hard to breath. Diversity work involves the effort to create spaces that can be experienced as breathing spaces.

Sometimes to create space we have to wiggle about. You know those moments when you try and fit in a space that is smaller than you are. You wiggle now with purpose; by wiggling you make more room for yourself. Maybe girls can take up more space by wriggling about; not just in the physical sense of creating room for oneself, say on the train, but wriggling about in the room that is “girl,” pushing at the edges, so that “girl” becomes more expansive; perhaps we even end up pushing ourselves right out of the room we have been given.

It is this sense of wiggle of room – of creating more room by wiggling – that interests me most. I think of wiggling as corporeal willfulness. If some have to be willful just to be, some have to wiggle to create room. When a world does not accommodate how you are, when you appear wrong in some way, feeling wrong in your body, being wrong in your body, loving the wrong body, mourning a wronged body, you have to be less accommodating if you are to persist in being who you are being.

There was one reference to wiggle room in Willful Subjects (2014). It came in the conclusion at a moment I expressed how, in writing the book, I had begun to feel a commitment to will (even understood as a category of thought). Let me share what I wrote:

In treating willfulness as a lesson, I am also making a commitment to will. The problem with will remains how it can allow us not to register how things are determined. But the will is also the name we give to possibility: the shared condition of not being fully determined from without, whatever that without; the will as wiggle room, as the room to deviate, a room kept open by will’s incompletion, a room most often in human history designated as ruin (2014: 192).

The will becomes “the room to deviate.” This use of wiggle room focuses on roominess as enabling a wiggle, a queer kind of movement. A wiggle is typically defined as moving back and forth with quick irregular motions. It might be that in becoming straight, in following the straights paths of happiness, say, we learn to eliminate a wiggle as much as we can from our bodies, just as we might learn to eliminate hap from happiness, or willfulness from will. Only some bodies can eliminate wiggle, only some bodies can follow a straight line (a straight line is never quite straight, of course, straightness is an impression achieved through the generalisation of the requirement to follow). A line can be wiggly; a queer line is a wiggly line. The wiggle becomes a potential precisely because it does not lead us somewhere that we already know we are going. We don’t know; yet we go.

And a body might wiggle and wriggle. These two words “wiggle” and “wriggle” both imply sudden movements, but they have a different affective quality; at least for me. Wiggle is often defined as quick irregular sideways movements. Wriggle can mean to turn and twist in quick writhing movements. Wriggle also has a more sinister sense: when you wriggle out of something, you get out of something by devious means. In “deviation” there is an implication of deviance. Bodies that wriggle might be crip bodies, as well as a queer bodies; bodies that do not straighten themselves out. The elimination of wriggle might be one form of what Robert McRuer (2006) calls “compulsory able-bodied-ness,” which is tied to compulsory straightness, to being able to follow as closely as you can the line you are supposed to follow. A wriggling body has the potential after all to dislodge things in the room that body has been given; a wriggling body can be more disruptive. Clumsiness can be a crip as well as queer ethics; an ethics that does not aim to smooth out a relation, an ethics that values how we bump into each other, how we bump into things, as a sign that there is room for different kinds of bodies in the same room. Wiggle room: room for other ways of being in our bodies. The bumpier the ride can be an expression of the degree to which one style of embodiment has not determined an ethical or social horizon.

A wriggling body might receive a command: stay still! In becoming still, a body has obeyed. Disobedience can be wriggling; it would not be stopping something. A disciplined body is “willing and able” to stop something: to control its movements; to stop wiggling and wriggling. Let’s return to the relation between wiggle room and will as well as willfulness. One of my tasks in Willful Subjects (2014) was to show how will itself has a queer history. I took as an example the work of Lucretius, the Roman poet and philosopher. In his descriptions of the physical universe, Lucretius offers an account of will in the form of swerving atoms: “when the atoms are travelling straight down through empty space by their own weight, at quite indeterminate times and places, they swerve ever so little from their course, just so much that you can call it a change of direction” (II: 66). To swerve is to deviate: it is not to be carried by the force of your own weight. What better way of learning about the potential to deviate than from the actuality of deviation. The swerve is just enough not to travel straightly; not to stay on course. Oh the potential of this not!

How queer is this will! As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has elaborated the word “queer” derives from the Indo-European word “twerk,” to turn or to twist, also related to the word “thwart” to transverse, perverse or to cross (1994: viii). That this word came to describe sexual subjects is no accident: those who do not follow the straight line, who to borrow Lucretius’ terms, “snap the bonds of fate,” are the perverts: swerving rather than straightening, deviating from the right course. To queer the will is to show how the will has already been given a queer potential. In Lucretius this potentiality is valorised: but for others, the same potentiality is narrated as a problem or threat; the problem or threat that subjects might not follow the right path. Willfulness might be a conversion point: how a potential is converted into a threat.

It is noteworthy that Jane Bennett in her reading of Lucretius uses the language of willfulness: “A certain willfulness or at least quirkiness and mobility – the ‘swerve’ – is located in the very heart of matter, and thus dispersed throughout the universe as an attribute of all things, human or otherwise. The swerve does not appear as a moral flaw or a sign of the sinful rebelliousness of humans” (2001: 81). There is a hesitation in Bennett’s use of the word “willfulness” she uses this word only to replace the word (“or at least quirkiness or mobility”). In my book I treated this hesitation as important; as pedagogy, as revealing something about the risk of using the language of willfulness. It is an understandable hesitation. Our tendency to associate willfulness with human flaws and sin is a symptom not merely of the desire to punish the perverts but to restrict perversion to the conduct of the few. Willfulness seems to provide a container for perversion, a human container that transforms the potential to deviate into the tragedy of the deviant. My aim in Willful Subjects (2014) was to spill that container.

When I spoke of the will as wiggle room in the conclusion of my book I noted that this room is the room “most often designated in human history as a ruin.” The capacity to deviate, to have room to move around in an irregular way, not to move forward to the future we are supposed to be reaching for (happiness, imagined as what follows living your life in the right way) has been deemed by many the beginning of demise. To embrace wiggle room is for me the beginning of another kind of embrace. It is to call for us to make more room, so that we can breath, so that even in being given assignments, we are not restricted, or less restricted, not expected to live in this way or that. In wiggling to create room we open up what it is to be.

Sometimes that is what we struggle for: wiggle room; to have spaces to breathe. With breath, comes imagination. With breath, comes possibility. We might in spilling out of the rooms we have been assigned, in our struggle with an assignment, mess things up.

What a spillage. Things, persons: flying out of hand.

And that: is hopeful.


Ahmed, Sara (2014). Willful Subjects. Durham: Duke University Press.

Bennett, Jane (2001). The Enchantment of Modern Life: Attachments,
Crossings and Ethics
. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Butler, Judith (1993). Bodies That Matter: On The Discursive Limits of ‘Sex’.
New York: Routledge.

McRuer, Robert (2006). Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability. New
York: New York University Press.

Young, Iris Marion (2005). On Female Body Experience. Oxford: Oxford University

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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7 Responses to Wiggle Room

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  5. Tempest says:

    I really like this text and the ideas behind hit. We also discussed it in a seminar I attended last semester and I had my presentation on it. It even was the theoretical framework for my seminar paper. Thank you!

  6. Tempest says:

    Reblogged this on Tempest.

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