Out of Sorts

Out of sorts: it is a common expression. As with all common expressions, it has much to teach us. I might say I am “out of sorts,” when I do not feel quite right, or I do not feel well. I can use this expression to describe someone else: when I say “she seems out of sorts,” I might be saying she does not seem herself; perhaps she seems a little grumpy. Not seeming herself can lodge as negative impression: it implies that to be “in sorts” is to be attuned to oneself or the world in a positive way. One suspects the killjoy might appear here. She will appear here: in her own time.

Sort like any word has a history. You can be one of a sort, in the sense that you might be part of a class or a kind. Sort comes from Old French sorte “class, kind,” from Latin sortem (nominative sors) “lot; fate, destiny; share, portion; rank, category; sex, class, oracular response, prophecy,” from PIE root *ser- (3) “to line up.”

To sort: to sort things out is to sort things into sorts. Sorting as a verb, an activity is necessary when something is not sorted. Once things are sorted, we have an assortment. When we say “that’s quite an assortment,” we might be referencing the diversity of sorts, difference as different sorts of sorts. To sort something is to arrange something according to their qualities. Decisions about sorts can also be how things acquire qualities; so when you put something there, that thing will be shaped by where it is put.

As always, it is ordinary life that teaches us to think; thought is in action. We think by doing. I think of those moments when things are in disarray. Maybe it is my closet. What a mess! It is not simply that things don’t look or seem right when they are not in the place they are usually assigned (for something to be sorted is to point back to a history: you are where you have been put). Things are given a place for a reason. My socks: they are in that drawer. All of my socks are there; I call it my sock drawer. They are in that drawer so I can find them when I need them. I need to sort my closet because I keep finding that I can’t find them. Where are they?!

Before I find my socks, before I sort things out by sorting out my closet, so much sorting has already taken place. My clothing is sorted into types: socks are sock-like because they are used to keep my feet warm and dry; they might be made of wool or cotton but they are shaped so they can receive the shape of my foot, which nestles into the room a sock provides. I pull on my sock, and it is filled by my foot. What intimacy! What a close fit! When I lose a sock, it might become an odd sock. When you have two feet, to lose a sock is to create two odd socks. It might seem sad, to be an odd sock. Maybe; maybe not. I have affection for them: waifs and strays.

Sorting is an activity of putting things into classes or kinds. Socks help us to think about the point of sorting: we sort things so we can more easily use things. Sorting can be about making things handy. Or in the case of socks: footy?

Geoffrey C. Bowker and Susan Leigh Star’s wonderful book, Sorting Things Out: Classification and its Consequences (1999) helps us to sort out what it means to be sorting things out. They attend to the complexity of classification systems. But as they stress in the introduction: “not all classifications take formal shape or are standardized and commercial products” (1999: 1). (Even my odd sock, loose and limp, is a standard sock, a commercial sock, something I bought from a shop that sells socks, amongst other things). Not all classifications: “We all spend large parts of our days doing classification work, often tactically and we make up and use a range of ad hoc classifications to do so. We sort dirty dishes from clean, white laundry from colour fast, important email to be answered from e-junk” (1-2). As Bower and Star show so vividly the activities of sorting that are part of daily life are often about usefulness: “the knowledge about which thing will be useful is at any given time is embodied in a flow of mundane tasks” (2). When we sorted, things are working: “When we need to put our hands on something, it is there” (2). When sorting is working, we might not notice what we are doing. The smoothening of an operation often means things recede into the background.

If it is not there, how out of sorts would we be? What is “out of sorts” is striking; something that has receded comes into view when it is missing. This in in itself should be striking: how things appear because they disappear. In the first chapter of Willful Subjects (2014) I explore how some things become willful things, as too full of their own will, not empty enough to be filled by human will. I might call my sock “willful” if my sock is not where I expect to find it. It is not simply that the sock appears when it is missing. Rather to call something “willful” is to make it responsible for its own disappearance. I might not really hold my sock responsible for being missing; I might know I should have sorted things out better. But sometimes when we do not find the thing we are looking for, how willful, almost gleeful that thing can seem to be. As I argued in my book, drawing on George Eliot’s descriptions of broken pots and jugs in Silas Marner and Adam Bede, willfulness is often a crisis in a system of property: willful things are not willing to provide residence for human will. I suggested: “It is not that we attribute objects with qualities as such (it is that objects have qualities that explain why we turn toward them for this rather than that). Rather we attribute to objects the qualities of a relation: if they resist our will; they are no longer quite so agreeable, no longer willingly helpful. When the pot breaks, it is no longer in use, of use, it can take up its place by becoming memorial; a holder of memories, not water” (2014: 45, i). When a thing is not where we expect it to be, given our sorting system, it too can be given an affective quality of negation: not to be willingly helpful as being “out of sorts.”

Willfulness: how we approach things; how we feel things are approaching. When I am copy-editing, I am trying to sort out my own writing: I am looking for mistakes, errors, things I am supposed to be eliminating; I need to get things right. And I am looking for an error, but there is nothing there, nothing there; and as soon as it is too late, as soon as the paper is sent out, there is the error; it appears so quickly, so striking, almost as if it is laughing at me. To err is to stray, remember. To err: when things seem willing to go the wrong way. How we explain things when we are out of sorts is another way of sorting things out. In other words, sorting is also dealing with an error message: it is also how we handle what goes astray.

It might seem innocent, even sweet, to be talking about stray socks. But of course sorting has sinister dimensions. Gender for instance is a sorting system one that is often enforced through violence: we line bodies up into one sort or another, boy or girl. To sort can be an orientation device or a way of “being directed” as I am describing it in Living a Feminist Life: in being this sort or that sort, it is not only that you are assumed to have these qualities, or those qualities, but that one kind of future, or another, is in front of you. To be sorted here is to be given a line or trajectory. Those who are odd or queer, strangers to a binary gender system, those who are trans, who do not identify as the sort assigned at birth, are out of sorts. You might not feel right, you might feel wrong, a sort of wrong, a wrong sort. To be out of sorts is how a body that does not reside properly within a system affects the system (becoming a distortion, a body in the wrong place, a willful thing). This is indeed why a history of willfulness needed to be written: a willful thing is deemed to make the whole thing “out of sorts.” If you don’t line up, things become wonky, as I explored in Queer Phenomenology (2006). This is why willfulness has political promise: we can, in willfully refusing to sort ourselves out, in being out of sorts or the wrong sorts, in going astray, or being a stray, challenge the system.

In their book, Bowker and Star do consider how human beings create systems for sorting human beings into systems. Racism is a violent sorting system: creating ways of putting humans into race is a way of putting humans into place. These places are organised hierarchically. To be sorted is here to be above or below according to the place you have been assigned. Bowker and Star consider strangers as those who “come and stay a while, long enough so that membership becomes a troublesome issue” (302). In Strange Encounters (2000) I considered a stranger as more of a sorting technique; to recognise someone as a stranger is to recognise them as not from here, as a “body out of place,” drawing on Mary Douglas’s formulation of dirt as “matter out of place.” Part of a sorting technique, then, is a technique that allows a body to be assigned as wrong, or in the wrong place. This is why: a history of sorting is a history of removal.

We need to be talking about sorting. I first decided to take up this question because of the use of definitions and distinctions as sorting techniques in some academic work I was encountering. Scholars would make clear distinctions between x and y. Arguments then seemed to become about those distinctions: sorted! Perhaps then sorting becomes not so much making things useful but about the reproduction of a system that assigns use and value. One example would be a blogger who spent a lot of time making a clear distinction between ontology and politics. Sorted! That distinction is clear if you define ontology in such and such a way and politics in such and such a way. The distinction was then used to say something like: racism belongs to one sort (politics) and not another sort (ontology). Such an argument has little to teach us about phenomena (something that happens in the world that we have given the name “racism”) because it simply exercises its own distinction. The argument even becomes about that distinction. I am tempted to describe this as a humanist operation because not only are you exercising what you have brought into being yourself, but you are treating this distinction as if it corresponds to something in the world (another way of talking about the reification of concepts, when concepts are treated as things, we lose things). I think that when we work in this way we are getting further away from a world not closer to it. And when I read this kind of work, I have an image of someone making piles, putting sand in this pile, that pile; moving things around, creating more and more piles. What you end up with is very neat piles. But is that what we want to end up with?

When experiences (human or otherwise) are messy there is little point in making distinctions that are clear. One problem with constantly refining our conceptual distinctions is that arguments end up being about those distinctions. I have never found intellectual conversations about distinctions between x and y or definitions of x (why x is x and not y) particularly inspiring in part as they often end up as self-referential, as being about the consistency or inconsistency of our own terms.

Another example would be the distinction between affect and emotion. I have challenged this distinction, more or less explicitly, throughout my work. In the afterword to the second edition of The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2014) the challenge became more explicit. I want to address this here at length, because I think this example shows us that “what” is being sorted by definition is often more than seems at first. In my afterword, I explored how the use of this distinction does more than sharpen the distinction: it was also a way of making a field cohere around some bodies; it was a way of making strangers, those bodies (and bodies of work) that do not belong here.

I noted how since The Cultural Politics of Emotion was published in 2004, there have been many publications that have announced “an affective turn,” a declaration that often takes the form of simultaneously participating in the creation of what is being declared. The description “affective turn” was already in use whilst I was writing this book: I first heard this expression from Anu Koivunen at a conference on “Affective Encounters” that took place at Turku, Finland in September 2001. In her preface to the book that came out of the conference mentioned above, Affective Encounters: Rethinking Embodiment in Feminist Media Studies, Anu Koivunen describes how “in many disciplines, scholars have introduced affects, emotions and embodied experience as timely research topics” (2001: 1). In particular she notes how “in feminist criticism, the interest in affect has in a sense a long history: the conceptual links between woman, body and emotion is a recurrent issue’ (1). More recently, Ann Cvetkovich in Depression: A Public Feeling also refers to this long history as a reason for her reluctance to use the expression “affective turn.” She explains: “I have to confess I am somewhat reluctant to use the term affective turn because it implies that there is something new about the study of affect when in fact….this work has been going on for some time” (2012: 4, emphasis in original). Later when Cvetkovich reflects on feminism as “an affective turn” she notes, again in a cautionary manner, that it “doesn’t seem particularly new to me” (8).

We could contrast these accounts of an affective turn as having a “long history” within feminism with Michael Hardt’s preface to Patricia Ticineto Clough’s edited collection, The Affective Turn, published six years after Koivunen’s preface in 2007. Hardt describes feminist approaches to the body and queer approaches to emotion as “the two primary precursors to the affective turn” (ix). For Hardt: “A focus on affect certainly does draw attention to the body and emotions, but it also introduces an important shift” (ix). Hardt suggests that the turn to affect requires a different “synthesis” than the study of the body and emotions because affects “refer equally to the body and mind” and because they “involve both reason and the passions’ (ix).

When the affective turn becomes a turn to affect, feminist and queer work are no longer positioned as part of that turn. Even if they are acknowledged as precursors a shift to affect signals a shift from this body of work. Affect is given a privileged status in commentaries such as Hardt’s, becoming almost like a missionary term that ushers in a new world, as a way of moving beyond an implied impasse, in which body and mind, and reason and passion, were treated as separate. I think we can both challenge this argument and to offer an alternative history. The implication of Hardt’s framing is that we had to turn to affect (defined primarily in Deleuze’s Spinozian terms) in order to show how mind is implicated in body; reason in passion. But feminist work on bodies and emotions challenged from the outset mind-body dualisms, as well as the distinction between reason and passion. Feminist theories of emotion opened up a critical space to rethink the relation between mind and body; and much work in feminist theory (some of which is also explicitly engaged with philosophical debates about minds and bodies) did precisely the kind of work that Hardt seems to assume that affect as a concept was required in order to do.

The affective turn has thus come to privilege affect over emotion as its object, and considerable effort has been directed toward making affect into an object of study with clear boundaries, such that it now makes sense to speak of “affect studies.” Scholars such as Brian Massumi (2002) have even described affects as having a “different logic” than that of emotion, as pertaining to a different order. These two terms are not only treated as distinct but have, at least by some, come to be defined against each other. For Massumi, if affects are pre-personal and non-intentional, emotions are personal and intentional; if affects are unmediated and escape signification; emotions are mediated and contained by signification. Feminist ears might prick up at this point. The contrast between a mobile impersonal affect and a contained personal emotion suggests that the affect/emotion distinction can operate as a gendered distinction. It might even be that the very use of this distinction performs the evacuation of certain styles of thought (we might think of these as “touchy feely” styles of thought, including feminist and queer thought) from affect studies.

A body can be evacuated by a sorting system. Which is to say: some bodies are removed by being judged as a different sort of body, as presiding over there, not here. An evacuation is also an erasure of a history, a way of accounting for the emergence of things that misses what it has sorted “out.” Yes, we need to mess things up. This is what a feminist politics of citation is about: messing things up by working out how our work is sorted out.

We do of course separate things out so we can do things. I am not saying we should not be sorting, because I would be making a should out of something impossible. Perhaps it would be useful to think of “separate” as a verb rather than noun (as I have already noted “sorting” too is an activity precisely when things are not sorted). We have to separate elements when they are not separate, even if they are separable. The activity of separating affect from emotion could be understood as rather like breaking an egg in order to separate the yolk from the white. We can separate different parts of a thing even if they are contiguous, even if they are, as it were, in a sticky relation. We might have different methods for performing the action of separation. But we have to separate the yolk from the white because they are not separate. And sometimes we “do do” what we “can do” because separating these elements, not only by treating them as separable but by modifying their existing relation, or how they exist in relation, allows us to do other things that we might not otherwise be able to do.

But if we do sort things, we need to remember: it is an activity that is modifying a world. It is what we are doing. And we often do not know what we are doing, when we are doing what we are doing. We might just think we are sorting out little things, not noticing how one sorting might lead to another, not noticing how putting this here might be to dislodge that there. The violence of the system of sorting might be noticed by what or who is out of sorts. Noticed: or revealed.

And you know: this makes being out of sorts, something rather promising. If a feminist killjoy is a sort, she is out of sorts. When she appears, in the wrong place, she is striking.

Smile: sorted!
Killjoy: snorted!

The killjoy is willing to be out of sorts. She is willing not to sort herself out. We are often perceived as not belonging where we are residing, an odd sock that has lost its utility by not staying attached to the right things. Our grumpiness about the worlds created by how bodies and things are sorted is not a withdrawal from but an engagement with a world.

(i) I also draw on Heidegger’s account of the hammer that is “too heavy” in this section, “The Will Sphere,” from the first chapter of Willful Subjects but think that Eliot, our most novel philosopher, gives us better descriptions (because, and this is just one of a number of reasons, she also accounts for appreciation and affection as ways of handling things). The philosophy of technology would become much more interesting if it took a turn through the body of Eliot’s work. The masculinism of this field (how it has become “boys studying toys will be boys studying toys“) depends on what it has sorted out; and that sorting has become a restriction of what comes into view.


Ahmed, Sara (2014). ‘Emotions and Their Objects,’ The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 2nd Edition. Edinburgh; Edinburgh University Press.

———– (2014). Willful Subjects. Durham: Duke University Press.

———— (2006). Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press.

———— (2000). Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-coloniality. London: Routledge.

Bowker, Geoffrey C. and Susan Leigh Star (1999). Sorting Things Out:
Classifications and its Consequences
Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Cvetkovich, A. (2012). Depression: A Public Feeling. Durham: Duke University Press.
Hardt, M. (2007). “Foreword: What Affects are Good For,” in P. Clough
(ed), The Affective Turn. Durham: Duke University Press.

Koivunen, A. (2001). “Preface: An Affective Turn?” in A. Koivunen and S. Passonen (eds), Affective Encounters: rethinking embodiment in feminist media studies, University of Turku, School of Art, Literature and Music, Media Studies, Series A.

Massumi, Brian (2002). Parables of the Virtual. Durham: Duke University Press.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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