Institutional Habits

Hello fellow killjoys

In the past few months I have been finishing my book Living a Feminist Life . For some reason I have found it difficult to move from that writing project to working on my blog. I have to say, though, that writing my blog has really helped me to write the  book!

I will come back to my blog, later. In the meantime I am sharing a paper I wrote entitled “Institutional Habits”. I wrote this paper when I was a visiting scholar at Cambridge University in 2013. The paper was written for a book on Merleau-Ponty and politics that did not end up coming to fruition. It covers some material that I have covered before (from On Being Included as well as Willful Subjects) but it puts the argument together slightly differently.

All best,

Feminist Killjoy


Institutional Habits

Sara Ahmed, Goldsmiths, March, 2013

In this chapter I explore how Merleau-Ponty’s model of the habitual body can help us to understand how institutions are brought into existence over time. Merleau-Ponty suggests that time is “the very model of institution” (2010: 7). An institution, he suggests, should be understood in a double sense: it refers us both to a beginning and an end; a realization and destruction. If to institute is to open something, then an institution is also that which has begun; it is both the order already given to things, and something that disturbs an order of things; a re-ordering is a new ordering. As Rosalyn Diprose eloquently describes, for Merleau-Ponty, “meaning is both instituted (dependent upon being ‘exposed to’ an already meaningful world) and instituting (involves ‘initiation’ of the new, the opening of ‘a future’)” (2010: np, emphasis in original).  Merleau-Ponty’s concern with doubleness – with how change and creativity become possible only as or in relation to what has already been assembled or begun –  characterises his work in general, and makes his work especially well suited to understanding the particular phenomena of the institution.  Across a range of social science disciplines including economics and political science, as well as sociology, we have witnessed the emergence of  “the new institutionalism,” concerned precisely with how we can understand institutions as processes or even as effects of processes. Indeed, Victor Nee argues that the new institutionalism “seeks to explain institutions rather than simply assume their existence” (1988: 1). To explain institutions is to give an account of how they emerge or take form. Such explanations require a thick form of description a way of describing not simply the activities that take place within institutions (which would allow the institution into the frame of analysis only as a container, as what contains what is described rather than being part of a description), but how those activities shape the sense of an institution, or even institutional sense.

Returning to Merleau-Ponty’s approach to the habitual body would constitute an important contribution to the project of making sense of institutions. Indeed I explore how Merleau-Ponty’s reflections on habit can be developed to account for “institutional bodies,” by which I mean not only how bodies come to inhabit institutional spaces, but the mechanisms whereby certain bodies comes to be assumed as the right bodies by an institution. If the development of this argument is to offer a rethinking of habituation as  an institutional process, then as a development it is attuned to Merleau-Ponty’s own double sense: as both continuing and changing the terms I have inherited from him.

More specifically, in this chapter I want to think through how institutions become habits by drawing upon research I completed on diversity work within educational institutions.[1]  I mean diversity work in two senses: firstly, I consider diversity work as the work done those who are appointment to institutionalize commitments to diversity. In this sense, diversity workers could be described as “habit changers.” Secondly diversity work is the work we might do when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution. Some might be diversity workers in both senses: those who do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution who are often given the task of transforming those norms. For example, people of colour tend to be diversity workers in both senses: because we tend to embody diversity for institutions of whiteness, we are often given the task of doing diversity.

The Habitual Body

We can call institutional norms “somatic norms” (Puwar 2004). Merleau-Ponty’s work on the habitual body can help us to reflect on how bodies incorporate the worlds they inhabit. In Phenomenology of Perception, Merleau-Ponty offers powerful descriptions of the intelligence of bodies, of how we learn through our body. In dance, he suggests, “You don’t learn the formula intellectually first: for instance in dancing “it is the body which ‘catches’ (kapiert) and ‘comprehends’ movement” (2002: 165). To carry out an action is to catch its significance: “The acquisition of habit is indeed the grasping of significance but it is the motor grasping of motor significance” (165). I think it is important that we do not rely here on a distinction between mental and motor. Even tasks often deemed mental (such as the labour of thought) involve motor movement. To think might require we write our thoughts, moving our hands and arms as we lean on the desk; and in the activity of writing, in the motor of the movement, we might even “catch” the thought.

If we have a tendency to divide the mental activities from motor ones, as well as to elevate the former over the latter, than Merleau-Ponty teaches us to be attuned to the motor of the mental. He shows how bodies are engaged in the world practically. It is through the tasks that are on the way to being completed, that a body reveals a stance or attitude. As he describes:

my body appears to me as an attitude directed towards a certain existing or possible task. And indeed its spatiality is not, like that of external objects or like that of “spatial sensations”, a spatiality of position, but a spatiality of situation. If I stand in front of my desk and lean on it with both hands, only my hands are stressed and the whole of the body trails behind them like the tail of a comet. It is not that I am unaware of the whereabouts of my shoulder or back, but these are simply swallowed up in the position of my hands, and my whole posture can be read so to speak in the pressure they exert on the table. (115)

Here, the directedness of the body towards an action, which is a leaning of a body towards some things, such as a desk (that has its own leanings), is how the body “appears.”[2]  The body is “habitual” not only in the sense that it performs actions repeatedly, but in the sense that when it performs such actions, it does not command attention, apart from at the “surface” where it “encounters” an external object (such as the hands that lean on the desk or table, which feel the “stress” of the action). In other words, the body is habitual insofar as it “trails behind” in the performing of action, insofar as it does not pose “a problem” or an obstacle to the action, or it not “stressed” by “what” the action encounters. The postural body for Merleau-Ponty is the habitual body: the body that “does not get in the way of an action” is behind an action.

We can explore the relation between what is behind social action and the promise of social mobility. Merleau-Ponty uses as his example objects that enable bodies to extend their motility, such as “the blind man’s stick.”  A habit is when something has been incorporated into the body, becoming part of the body: “The blind man’s stick has ceased to be an object for him, and is no longer perceived for itself” (165). We must note here that the extension of motility through objects means that the object is no longer perceived as something apart from the body. The object, as with the rest of the body, trails behind the action, even when it is literally “in front” of the body. When I am writing I might not then notice the pen, even if it is before me, as it has to be, for me to write. When something becomes part of the habitual, it ceases to be an object of perception: it is simply put to work. Such objects in being incorporated into the body also extend its horizon, or what is within reach: “The position of things is immediately given through the extent to the reach which carries him to it, which comprises besides the arm’s own reach the stick’s range of action. If I want to get used to a stick, I try it by touching a few things with it, and eventually I have it ‘well in hand,’ I can see what things are within reach or out of reach of my stick” (166).  Habits involve not only the repetition of actions that tend toward things, but also involve the incorporation of that which is “tended towards” into the body. Reachability is hence an effect of the habitual; what is reachable depends on what bodies “take in” as objects that extend their bodily motility, becoming like second skin.

Objects that we “tend towards” become habitual insofar as they are taken into the body, re-shaping its surface.  Merleau-Ponty describes “Habit expresses our power of dilating our being-in-the-world, or changing our existence by appropriating fresh instruments” (166). The process of incorporation is certainly about what is familiar, but it is also a relationship to the familiar. The familiar is that which is “at home,” but also how the body feels-at-home in the world: “Once the stick has become a familiar instrument, the world of feelable things recedes and now begins, not at the outer skin of the hand, but at the end of the stick” (176). When bodies are orientated towards objects, those objects may cease to be apprehended as objects, becoming extensions of bodily skin. As Merleau-Ponty further suggests:

We grasp external spaces through our bodily situation. A “corporeal” or postural schema gives us a global, practical and implicit notion of the relation between our body and things, and our hold on them. A system of possible movements, or “motor projects” radiates from us to the environment. Our body is not in space like things; it inhabits or haunts space. It implies itself to space like a hand to an instrument and when we wish to move about we do not move the body as we move an object. (1964: 5)

The language implies here that bodies provide us with a tool, as that through which we “hold” or “grasp” onto things, although elsewhere Merleau-Ponty suggests that the body is not itself an instrument, but a form of expression, a making visible of our intentions. (5) What makes bodies different is how they inhabit space: space is not a container for the body; it does not contain the body, as if the body was “in it.” Rather bodies are submerged, such that they become the space they inhabit; in taking up space, bodies move through space, and are affected by the “where” of that movement. It is through this movement that the surface of spaces as well as bodies takes shape.  Bodies as well as objects take shape through being orientated towards each other, as an orientation that maybe experienced as the co-habitation or sharing of space.

How does this model of the habitual body help us to think through institutions? At one level we could think of institutions as dwelling spaces; they are thus inhabited or even haunted by bodies. Bodies are extended through the work of inhabitance. We can certainly think through these mechanisms in involve incorporation: as bodies become attuned to an organisation, they acquire practical skills and know-how. The very idea of “institutionalisation” (of becoming institutional) might even denote those tendencies or habitual forms of action that are not named or made explicit.  We can thus think of institutions in terms of how some kinds of action become automatic at a collective level; institutional nature might also be “second nature.” When an action is incorporated by an institution it becomes natural to it. Second nature is “accumulated and sedimented history,” as “frozen history that surfaces as nature” (Jacoby 1975: 31). We might describe institutionalisation as “becoming background,” when being “in” the institution is to “agree” with what becomes background. It is this becoming background that creates a sense of ease and familiarity, an ease that can also take the form of incredulity at the naivety or ignorance of the newly arrived or of the outsiders. The familiarity of the institution is a way of inhabiting the familiar. Institutions become familiar, and certain instruments come to extend the capacities of bodies, as an extension of the domain of the reachable. Institutions are designed to enable certain kinds of tasks to be completed. To design a space for work is also to create a space for the working body. Merleau-Ponty describes: “What counts for the orientation of my spectacle is not my body as it in fact is, as a thing in objective space, but as a system of possible actions, a virtual body with its phenomenal ‘place’ defined by its task and situation. My body is wherever there is something to be done” (2002: 291).

If the body is where something is to be done, then the body that is performing its tasks also requires things to be handy. Think not only of the tools that becoming part of an institution might require you to use (the communication technologies, for instance, that allow you to communicate or “sign” with others, creating lines or pathways in their trail) but also of the incorporation of the institution as an idea: you might come to think of yourself as being from such and such an organisation, such that the edges between you and it ceases to be experienced as such: it becomes part of you, part of the bodily horizon. When good things happen to it, you might feel inflated; for example, when bad things happen, you might feel deflated.

But who is this “you”? Can anyone over and in time experience this kind of ease of passage? Let’s return to the question of habit. Following Gail Weiss (2008) I would suggest that William James’s approach to habit as the gradual loss of plasticity could be usefully brought into conversation with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology. A loss of plasticity is not simply a loss: it is how certain kinds of movements become easier or less trouble through repetition. James cites the work of a M. Léon Dumont on habit:

Everyone knows how a garment having been worn a certain time clings better to the shape of the body than when it was new. A lock works better after being used some time; at the outset a certain force was required to overcome certain roughness in the mechanism. The overcoming of their resistance is a phenomenon of habituation. It costs less trouble to fold a paper after it has been folded already. This saving of trouble is due to the essential nature of habit, which brings it about that, to reproduce the effect, a less amount of the outward cause is required (1950: 105).

The description of habituation can be understood in terms of attunement. A garment becomes attuned to the body that wears it. It is not just things happen to fall this way or that: through repetition, things acquire certain tendencies. Things cling better or become clingy in time. If a shape is acquired through the repetition of an encounter, then repetition becomes direction. Although William James considers habits as socially conservative (he famously describes habit as “the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative agent” (121)) he also suggests that habits enable the conservation of energy. When more actions become habitual, subjects are free to attend to other matters, including those matters that might matter in a morally significant way. For James, even if habits are socially conservative, they make a dynamic psychic life possible.

Maybe an institution is like an old garment: if it has acquired the shape of those who tend to wear it, then it becomes easier to wear if you have that shape. The ease of movement, the lack of a stress might describe not only the habits of a body that has incorporated things, but also how an institution takes shape around a body. If a body is oriented toward things, an institution might be orientated around that body. We might be thinking of this bodily inhabitance as “fit.” Take the example of the reduction over time of the force required to work a locking mechanism. The more you use a mechanism, the less effort is required; repetition if you like smooths the passage of the key.  James describes this reduction of force or effort as essential to the phenomena of habituation. “Fitting” could also be thought in these terms:  as an energy saving device. If less effort is required to unlock the door for the key that fits the lock, so too less effort is required to pass through an institution for bodies that already fit. The lessening of effort might be essential to the phenomena of fitting.  After all, institutions come to have their own tendencies: they tend toward the bodies that tend to inhabit them.  Once a certain body is assumed, then a body that fulfil this assumption can more easily take up a space even if the space is imagined as open to anybody. Writing these words as I am in Cambridge University, an institution of privilege which does seem to sweat from the very architecture of its space, from the pores of its skin, I am reminded how much inhabiting an institution involves garments: how class can be comfort of wearing the right jumper with the right body, a “fit” acquired over and in time: in the comportment and postures that bodies remember without having to think.

We can repose the question of whiteness in terms of the institutional body.[3] What does it mean to talk about whiteness as institutional problem or as a problem of institutions? When we describe institutions as being white, we are pointing to how institutional spaces are shaped by the proximity of some bodies and not others: white bodies gather, and create the impression of coherence.  Think of the “convene” in convention. A convention is a meeting point, a point around which bodies gather. Whiteness is a name we give to how some gatherings become conventions. Institutional norms can refer to the explicit rules or norms of conduct enforced by an institution (through a system of awards and sanctions). If we think of institutional norms as somatic, then we can show how institutions by assuming a body can generate an idea of appropriate conduct without making this idea explicit. The institute “institutes” the body that is instituting, without that body coming into view. If institutional whiteness describes an institutional habit, then whiteness recedes into the background, just like Merleau-Ponty’s comet that trails behind, not feeling the stress of an encounter.

Whiteness then can become something that we encounter, almost as if it is a tangible thing in the world. When I walk into university meetings that is just what I encounter. Sometimes I get used to it. At one conference we organize, four Black feminists arrive. They all happen to walk into the room at the same time. Yes, we do notice such arrivals. The fact that we notice such arrivals tells us more about what is already in place than it does about “who” arrives. Someone says: “it is like walking into a sea of whiteness.” This phrase comes up, and it hangs in the air. The speech act becomes an object, which gathers us around.  When an arrival is noticeable, we notice what is around. I look around, and re-encounter the sea of whiteness. I had become so used to this whiteness that I had stopped noticing it. As many have argued, whiteness is invisible and unmarked, as the absent centre against which others appear as points of deviation (Dyer 1997; Frankenberg 1993). Whiteness could be described as a habit insofar as it tends to go unnoticed (Sullivan 2006: 1).[4] Or perhaps whiteness is only invisible to those who inhabit it, or those get so used to its inhabitance that they learn not to see it, even when they are not it.

The word “comfort” suggests well-being and satisfaction, but it can also suggest an ease and easiness. Comfort is about an encounter between bodies and worlds, the promise of a “sinking” feeling. If white bodies are comfortable it is because they can sink into spaces that extend their shape. Whiteness becomes in other words not only phenomena of habituation (how an individual body repeats actions and catches their significance) but also a means of creating an institutional space in which some bodies more than others can “fit.”  Whiteness is more than a body count, even when bodies being counted are those for whom whiteness has become a habit. Rather what is repeated is a very style of embodiment, a way of inhabiting space, which claims space by the accumulation of gestures of “sinking” into that space.

Diversity Work and Habit Change

In this section I want to explore diversity work in the first sense: as the work that is done by those appointed to institutionalize a commitment to diversity. I have already described such workers as “habit changers.” We can immediately identify the paradox in this work: if you are employed to change the habits of the organization, then you are employed to change the employer.  The means by which you are given the task might thus restrict your capacity to complete the task. If to institutionalize diversity is a goal for diversity workers it does not necessarily mean that it is the institution’s goal.  I think this “not necessarily” describes a paradoxical situation that is a life situation for many diversity practitioners.  Having an institutional goal to make diversity a goal can even be a sign that diversity is not an institutional goal.

The institutional nature of diversity work is often described in terms of the language of integrating or embedding diversity into the ordinary work or the daily routines of an organization. As one practitioner explains “my role is about embedding equity and diversity practice in the daily practice of this university.  I mean, ideally I would do myself out of a job but I suspect that’s not going to happen in the short term, so I didn’t want to do that and I haven’t got the staff or money to do it anyway.” The diversity worker has a job because diversity and equality are not already given: this obvious fact has some less obvious consequences. When your task is to remove the necessity of your existence, then your existence is necessary for the task.

Practitioners partly work them at the level of an engagement with explicit institutional goals, that is, of adding diversity to the terms in which institutions set their agendas; what we might think of as an institutional purpose or end. An institution will give form to its aims in a mission statement. If diversity work is institutional work, then it can mean working on mission statements, getting the term “diversity” included in the statements. This is not to say that a mission statement simply reflects the aims of the university: as Marilyn Strathern has shown, mission statements are “utterances of a specific kind” which mobilise the “international language of governance” (2006: 194-5).  Giving form to institutional goals involves following a set of conventions.  This is not to say that mission statements are any less significant for being conventional; the aim of a convention is still directive. When I participated in an equality and diversity committee, some of our discussions were based on how to get “equality” and “diversity” into the University’s mission statement and the other policy statements that were supposed to derive from it.  We aimed not only to get the terms in, but also to get them up: to get the terms “equality” and “diversity” cited as high up the statement as possible.  I recall the feeling of doing this work: in retrospect or in abstract what we achieved might seem trivial (I remember one rather long discussion about a semi-colon in a tag line!) but the task was still saturated with significance. The significance might be thought of as a distraction (you work on something you can achieve as a way of not focusing on – and thus being depressed by – what you cannot achieve), but also could point to how institutional politics can involve the matter of detail; perhaps, diversity provides a form of punctuation.

However, institutionalisation was not simply defined by practitioners in terms of the formal or explicit goals, values or priorities of an institution. In contrast many spoke about institutionalisation in terms of what institutions “tend to do” whatever it is they say they are doing or should be doing.  They address the institutional body as a “habitual body” in Merleau-Ponty’s terms. Institutionalisation “comes up” for practitioners partly in their description of their own labour: diversity work is hard work as it is can involve within institutions what would not be otherwise done by them. As one interview describes “you need persistence and I think that’s what you need to do because not everyone has an interest in equity and diversity issues so I think it needs to be up there in people’s faces, well not right in their faced, but certainly up there with equal billing with other considerations, so that it’s always present, so that they eventually think of it automatically and that it becomes part of their considerations.”  The aim is to make thought about equality and diversity issues “automatic.” Diversity workers must be persistent precisely because this kind of thought is not automatic; it is not the kind of thought that is normally included in “how institutions think,” to borrow an expression from the anthropologist Mary Douglas (1986). Or as Ole Elgström describes in a different but related context such thoughts have to “fight their way into institutional thinking” (2000: 458).  The struggle for diversity to become an institutional thought requires certain people to “fight their way.” Not only this: the persistence required exists in necessary relation to the resistance encountered. The more you persist, the more the signs of this resistance. The more resistance, the more persistence required.

The institution can be experienced by practitioners as resistance. One expression that came up in a number of my interviews was “banging your head against a brick wall.” Indeed, this experience of the brick wall was often described as an intrinsic part of diversity work. As one practitioner describes “so much of the time it is a banging your head on the brick wall job.” How interesting that a job description can be a wall description! The feeling of doing diversity work is the feeling of coming up against something that does not move; something solid and tangible.[5] The institution becomes that which you come up against. If we recall that most diversity practitioners are employed by institutions to do diversity (though not all, some practitioners end up having equality and diversity added to their job descriptions) then we can understand the significance of this description. The official desire to institutionalize diversity does not mean that the institution is opened up; indeed, the wall might become all the more apparent, all the more a sign of immobility, the more the institution presents itself as being opened up. The wall gives physical form to what a number of practitioners describe as “institutional inertia,” the lack of an institutional will to change.

Perhaps the habits of the institutions are not revealed unless you come up against them.  I want to take as example an encounter with the institution as a brick wall.  In the UK, new legislation on equality has brought about what I have called a new equality regime, in which equality has become redefined as a positive duty. The law seems to embody a will to bring about a new kind of body. But does it? The following is a quote is from a diversity offer based in a British university, who is describing how her institution made a decision to commit to a new equality policy:

When I was first here there was a policy that you had to have three people on every panel who had been diversity trained. But then there was a decision early on when I was here, that it should be everybody, all panel members, at least internal people. They took that decision at the equality and diversity committee which several members of SMT were present at. But then the director of Human Resources found out about it and decided we didn’t have the resources to support it, and it went to council with that taken out and council were told that they were happy to have just three members, only a person on council who was an external member of the diversity committee went ballistic – and I am not kidding went ballistic – and said the minutes didn’t reflect what  had happened in the meeting because the minutes said the decision was different to what actually happened (and I didn’t take the minutes by the way). And so they had to take it through and reverse it. And the Council decision was that all people should be trained. And despite that I have then sat in meetings where they have just continued saying that it has to be just 3 people on the panel. And I said but no Council changed their view and I can give you the minutes and they just look at me as if I am saying something really stupid, this went on for ages, even though the Council minutes definitely said all panel members should be trained. And to be honest sometimes you just give up. (Ahmed 2002: 124-125).

It seems as if there is an institutional decision. Individuals within the institution must act as if the decision has been made for it to be made. If they do not, it has not. A decision made in present about the future (under the promissory sign “we will”) can be overridden by the momentum of the past.  The past becomes momentum that directs action without being given as a command or even in a way that resists a command. Note that the head of personnel did not need to take the decision out of the minutes for the decision not to bring something into effect. Perhaps an institution can say “yes” when there is not enough behind that “yes” for something to be brought about. It is simply that a “yes” does not bring something about, but that the “yes” conceals this not bringing under the sign of having brought.

A will can become a wall: what blocks an action. A wall can be an expression of what the institution is not willing to bring about.  The will is made out of sediment: what has settled and accumulated over time. Let’s return to Merleau-Ponty’s own description of the habitual body. It is a body that is leaning a certain way. When an action is being competed the body can be what trails behind. Perhaps we can think of this “behind” not only in terms of what does not come into view, but also as a form of momentum. An action is being completed because it is has energy and momentum behind it. A decision does not need to be made for the action to be completed; indeed a decision cannot easily intervene in its completion. You have to become pushy if you are to push against what has acquired momentum. As another practitioner describes “You can put all policies in place and put all the training in place and assume it will all happen and it has not happened” (Ahmed 2012: 126). Even with effort, you do not get through.  No wonder diversity work feels like banging your head against a wall. If the wall keeps its place, it is you that gets sore.

One way of thinking of diversity work would be as a practical phenomenology. It is not simply that diversity workers are philosophers- in the sense of being reflexive and critical – in their attitude toward institutions (though they are). It is not simply that they become conscious of what ordinarily recedes from view. Rather diversity workers acquire a critical orientation to institutions in the very process of coming up against them. They become conscious of “the brick wall,” as that which keeps its place even when an official commitment to diversity has been given. It is only the practical labor of “coming up against” the institution that allows this wall to become apparent. To those who do not come against it, the wall does not appear: the institution is lived and experienced as being open, committed and diverse; as happy as its mission statement, as diverse as its equality statement.

Breaking the Feather

Diversity work is also the work we do when we do not quite inhabit the “norms” of an organization. When you don’t quite inhabit norms, or you aim to transform them, you notice them, as you come up against them. We can return once more to Merleau-Ponty’s description of the habitual body, one form whom “I can,” expresses not only a practical orientation, but also competence or capacity. Merleau-Ponty notes: Consciousness is in the first place not a matter of ‘I think’ but of ‘I can’” (159). Both Iris Marion Young and Frantz Fanon supplement this focus on “I can,” with a view of the “I cannot,” a viewpoint of the body that does not extend into space: a female body, a black body: a black female body.

Let’s think more with Merleau-Ponty’s own examples. His primary example is the blind man’s stick. The blind man’s stick is a prosthesis that becomes handy: enabling the blind man to get about by feeling the world. The extension of mobility is for a body whose mobility is already compromised (the compromise is not necessarily “in” the body but as a relation of a body to a world that assumes the capacity for sight). The stick is a walking stick: incorporated into the body horizon; it becomes a means that enables the disable body to reach an end: to become more mobile in a world that tends to assume an able body in the design of public and social space. Vivian Sobchack describes in Carnal Thoughts “the prosthetic becomes an object only when there is a mechanical or social problem that pushes it obtrusively into the foreground of one’s consciousness” (2004: 211). The “point” of the prosthesis is to recede, to allow a body to inhabit a world that does not assume that body as a norm.

Merleau-Ponty also offers two other examples: that of a driver and his car; and a woman with a feather in her cap. In the case of the driver of the car, the object is a self-evident extension of the motility and range of the human body. The driver is competent when the steering wheel is not perceived as something being held, but becomes part of the body of the driver, allowing him to think whilst driving of things other than driving. What of the woman with a feather in her cap? The feather has no function; it does not enable her to move around in the world. The woman however, the example suggests, feels the feather: she “knows” where the feather ends; she is able to walk without breaking the feather: “A woman may, without any calculation, keep a safe distance between the feather in her hat and things which might break it off. She feels where the feather is just as we feel where our hand is” (165). The feather has been incorporated into a body horizon.

It might be here that we can understand the mechanisms of incorporation as not simply about the extension of bodily capacity. The incorporation of the feather seems bound up in some way not only with the achievement of femininity, but of how some bodies become what appears; or how appearance matters to the negotiation of social as well as bodily space. It might be that “appearing right” can become the aim; a body that can do is one that appears to others as doing what it can to appear in the right way. One might acknowledge here, as well, how this idea of the feminine body as attuned to her feather might itself be an expectation that gives her a direction. In other words, this idea might be a masculine idea, one that has “worlding” effects. One imagines then, too, how a woman who breaks her feather also breaks more than her feather: she might register as failing to be attuned to the requirements of femininity. [6]

I have suggested that phenomenology can help us explore bodies that are not at home in the world. When a category allows us to pass into the world we might not notice that we inhabit that category. When we are stopped, or held up, by how we inhabit what we inhabit, then the terms of habitation are revealed to us. We need to rewrite the world from the experience of not being able to pass into the world. I called in Queer Phenomenology for a phenomenology of “being stopped,” a description of the world from the point of view of those who do not flow into it (2006: 140). I suggested that if we begin with the body that loses its chair, the world we describe will be quite different (139). Or perhaps we might begin with a body that breaks the feather; that has not “felt” the things that are supposed to be part of its horizon.

In the first section of this chapter I explored an experience of fitting as comfort drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s description of the habitual body as the one that trails behind an encounter. How does it feel when you inhabit a space that does not extend your shape? To inhabit whiteness as a non-white body can be uncomfortable: you might even fail the comfort test. You won’t trail behind: you feel the stress of an encounter; you come up against a world by not being received into that world. It can be the simple act of walking into the room that causes discomfort. Whiteness can be an expectation of who will turn up. A person of color describes: “When l enter the room there is shock on peoples’ faces because they are expecting a white person to come in. I pretend not to recognize it. But in the interview there is unease because they were not expecting someone like me to turn up. So it is hard and uncomfortable and l can tell that they are uneasy and restless because of the way they fiddle and twitch around with their pens and their looks. They are uncomfortable because they were not expecting me – perhaps they would not have invited me if they knew l was black and of course l am very uncomfortable. l am wondering whether they are entertaining any prejudice against me” (Ahmed 20012: 40-41).  They are not expecting you. Discomfort involves this failure to fit. A restlessness and uneasiness, a fidgeting and twitching, is a bodily registering of an expected arrival.

The body that causes their discomfort (by not fulfilling an expectation of whiteness) is the one who must work hard to make others comfortable. You have to pass by passing your way through whiteness, by being seamless or minimizing the signs of difference. If whiteness is what the institution is orientated around, then even bodies that do not appear white still have to inhabit whiteness. One person of color describes how she minimizes signs of difference (by not wearing anything perceived as “ethnic”) because she does not want to be seen as “rocking the boat” (Ahmed 2012: 158). The invitation to become more alike as an invitation of whiteness is about becoming more comfortable or about inhabiting a comfort zone.

Bodies stick out when they are out of place.  Think of the expression “stick out like a sore thumb.” To stick out can mean to become a sore point, or even to experience oneself as being a sore point. To inhabit whiteness as a not-white body can mean trying not to appear at all: ‘I have to pretend that l am not here because l don’t want to stick out too much because everybody knows l am the only black person here” (Ahmed 2012: 41). When you stick out, the gaze sticks to you. Sticking out from whiteness can thus re-confirm the whiteness of the space. Whiteness becomes obtrusive, what gets in the way of an occupation of space.  When we fail to inhabit a category (when we are questioned or question ourselves whether we are “it,” or pass as or into “it”) then that category becomes more apparent, rather like the institutional wall: a sign of immobility or what does not move.[7]

Diversity work thus can take the form of description: it can be to describe the effects of inhabiting institutional spaces that do not give you residence. An example: we are at a departmental meeting with students to introduce our courses. We come up, one after the other, to the podium. A colleague is chairing, introducing each of us in turn. She says: this is Professor So-and-so; this is Professor Such-and-such. On this particular occasion, I happen to be the only female professor in the room..  And I am the only professor introduced without using the title. She says: “This is Sara.” And in taking up the space that has been given to me, I feel like a girl, and I giggle. It is a “girling” moment to use Judith Butler’s evocative term (1993: 7). “Girling” moments do not stop happening, even after we have been pronounced girls. We can feel this assignment as atmosphere.  When you look like what they expect a professor to be, you are treated like a professor.  A sombre and serious mood follows those who have the right kind of body, the body that allows them to pass seamlessly into the category, when the category has a certain affective value, as sombre and serious.

I could add here that I was the only professor of color in the room (as the only professor of color in the department, this detail was not so surprising).  Other critics have documented what it means to occupy the place and position of a professor of color. Pierre Orelus, for example, offers a moving account of how being a professor of color causes trouble, as if being one thing, makes it difficult to be seen as the other: “after I formally introduce myself in class, I have undergraduate students who ask me, in a surprised tone of voice, ‘Are you really the professor?” I sometimes overhear them asking their peers, ‘Is he really the professor’” (2011: 31). Orelus compares this mode of questioning, this sense of curiosity and astonishment, with the questions typically asked of immigrants about “funny accents.” Or we could think of the questions asked of strangers, “where are you from?” as if to say, or more accurately, which is to say, you are not from here. When we are asked questions, we are being held up, we become questionable. Being asked whether you are the professor is also a way of being made into a stranger, of not being at home in a category that gives residence to others.

Diversity work can involve an experience of hesitation, of not knowing what to do in these situations. There is a labour in having to respond to a situation that others are protected from, a situation that does not come up for those whose residence is assumed. Do you point it out? Do you say anything? Will you cause a problem by describing a problem? Past experience tells you that to make such a point is to become a sore point. Sometimes you let the moment pass, because the consequences of not letting it pass are too difficult.

Some have to “insist” on belonging to the categories that give residence to others.  If you point out the failure to be given the proper name, or if you ask to be referred to by the proper name, then you have to insist on what is simply given to others. Not only that: you are heard as insistent, or even for that matter as self-promotional, as insisting on your dues. If you have to become insistent in order to receive what is automatically given to others, then your insistence confirms the improper nature of your residence.  We don’t tend to notice the assistance given to those whose residence is assumed.

Conclusion: Diversity work and Disorientation

To catalogue these incidents is not a melancholic task. I realise how much we come to know about institutional life because of these failures of residence: how much the categories in which we are immersed as styles of life become explicit when you do not quite inhabit them.   Diversity work can be disorientating; a way of making the familiar strange. Bodies that don’t fit, bodies that are tripped up, caught out, are bodies to who the institution is revealed. If we are disoriented by this work, what about the institutions?

If our arrival can cause discomfort, and even if it is uncomfortable to cause discomfort, it can be how things can happen. You learn to fade in the background, but sometimes you can’t or you don’t.  As Nirmal Puwar shows when bodies arrive who seem “out of place” in institutional worlds there is a process of disorientation: “People are ‘thrown’ because a whole world view is jolted” (Puwar 2004: 43). Or, as Roderick A. Ferguson suggests, the presence of minorities and racialized others has an “eccentric” effect, given they such bodies are placed outside the logic of normative whiteness (2004: 26, see also Muñoz 2000: 68).

When bodies “arrive” that don’t extend the lines already extended by spaces, those spaces might even appear “slant-wise” or oblique.  It is worth noting here that Merleau-Ponty himself considers moments of disorientation. He notes: “If we so contrive it that a subject sees the room in which he is, only through a mirror which reflects it at an angle at 45 degrees to the vertical, the subject at first sees the room “slantwise.” A man walking about in it seems to lean to one side as he goes. A piece of cardboard falling down the door-frame looks to be falling obliquely. The general effect is ‘queer’” (Merleau-Ponty 2002: 289). By discussing a number of spatial experiments that “contrive” a situation so that a subject does not see straight, Merleau-Ponty asks how the subject’s relation to space is re-orientated: “After a few minutes a sudden change occurs: the walls, the man walking around the room, and the line in which the cardboard falls become vertical.” (Merleau-Ponty 2002: 289) This re-orientation, which we can describe as the “becoming vertical” of perspective, means that the “queer effect” is overcome and objects in the world no longer appears as if they were “off-centre” or “slant-wise.” The queer moment, in which objects appear slantwise, and the vertical and horizontal axes appear “out of line,” must be overcome not because such moments contradict laws that govern objective space, but because they block bodily action: they inhibit the body, such that it ceases to extend into phenomenal space. So although Merleau-Ponty is tempted to say that the “vertical is the direction represented by the symmetry of the axis of the body” (2002: 291), his phenomenology instead embraces a model of bodily space, in which spatial lines “line up” only as effects of bodily actions on and in the world. In other words, the body “straightens” its view, in order to extend into space.

In one footnote, Merleau-Ponty refers to Stratton’s Vision without Inversion, to provide both an analysis of the way in which orientation happens, and what happens when it fails to happen. As he puts it: “We remain physically upright not through the mechanism of the skeleton or even through the nervous regulation of muscular tone, but because we are caught up in a world. If this involvement is seriously weakened, the body collapses and becomes once more an object” (2002: 296, emphasis added). The “upright” body is involved in the world, and acts on the world or even “can act” insofar as it is already involved. The weakening of this involvement is what causes the body to collapse, and to become an object alongside other objects. We can learn from this: we can  learn that disorientation is unevenly distributed; that some bodies more than others have their involvement in the world called into crisis. This shows us how the world itself is more “involved” in some bodies than others, as its takes such bodies as the contours of ordinary experience.

Perhaps to be involved with institutions as diversity workers is an attempt to call them into crisis, to render institutions into the objects, that appear slant-wise, or as objects that appear insofar as they register as obtrusive. Our aim is to bring what we are not into view to those who are not this “not.”  It might be that institutions are not transformed by our work; that they defend themselves from the process of being revealed.  Institutions might even recover from our involvement. We might in this recovery become the objects, yet again; those who are obtrusive or willful. But the very effort to transform institutions, the effort not to reproduce what we inherit, cannot leave us untransformed. And perhaps in being transformed by diversity work as diversity workers, we start again. We might start with what is old, but in being startled by the old, we start again.


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[1]  For further details about this research project please see Ahmed (2012). For any quotes that I use in this chapter I will provide page numbers from this text.

[2] It is worth noting here that the word “habit” comes from the Latin for condition, appearance and dress.

[3] In drawing on Merleau-Ponty’s work to develop a phenomenology of institutional whiteness, my work is indebted to the work of scholars who have offered a phenomenology of race, in particular the work of Linda Martín Alcoff (2006).

[4] There are a number of recent studies on whiteness as a habit: in addition to Sullivan (2006), see also MacMullan (2009).

[5] It is interesting to consider the brick wall in relation to the glass ceiling: both are metaphors for institutional limits that derive their sense with analogy not only to physical objects, but also to the means by which internal spaces are delineated and contained. The glass ceiling refers to the institutional processes that stop certain categories of people from moving up (vertical mobility) whist the brick wall refers to the institutional processes that stop certain values from moving across (horizontal mobility). Both metaphors also point to the significance of visibility and invisibility: the point of the ceiling being made of glass is that you can’t see it. The transparency of glass means, however, that you can see through it; you see above to the places you cannot reach. With the brick wall, you cannot see it, unless you come up against it. The metaphor of the brick wall points to how what is tangible and visible to some subjects, something so thick and solid that you cannot see through it, does not even appear to others. What some cannot see through, others cannot see.

[6] In my forthcoming book  Willful Subjects I explore breakages as a point of queer affinity between bodies and things.

[7] I am acknowledging here that it is possible not to inhabit fully a category of privilege even if one is privileged by a category. For example if men do not inhabit the category of masculinity properly or fully, then the category appears as an institutional wall, as a physical barrier that is revealed in coming up against it. I should also note that it is possible not to inhabit fully a category without becoming conscious of the restriction of that category: the psychic work of accommodating to a world that does not take your body as norm can involve precisely not even registering those norms as a way of protecting oneself from them.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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