Feminist Shelters

As the year 2015 draws to an end, I am having some quiet days working on my book, Living a Feminist Life. I think I am doing what you might call the finishing touches. So that means: a bit of polishing, tidying things up (but leaving enough mess to show signs of labor!); moving things around. Moving text around a manuscript is rather like moving furniture around a room: just a little move, here or there, of this or that, and everything can feel different. The book is almost ready to go into production. At least: I think it is! I will miss working on it: I have learnt so much from writing it, from presenting from it, and from this blog which has been a companion text I have been feeding with thoughts alongside it. Even when the book has gone off to the next stage of its life (there are still quite a few more stages before it is out and about) I will keep writing this blog. A feminist killjoy: her work is never over!

Writing the book has been like: trying to build a feminist shelter. I often think of books as houses. They are built out of stuff. They create room for us to dwell. And I think of citations as bricks. When citations become habits, bricks form walls. I mentioned in one of my earlier posts that I have adopted a very strict citation policy in Living a Feminist Life. I do not cite any white men. And by “white men” I am describing an institution, as well as the mechanisms for reproducing an institution. White men: a citational relational. This is I know a very blunt citation policy. How imprecise! We could have a long conversation about whether such-and-such author is or is not part of the institution we can call “white men.”  I did not have time or space for these conversations: at least not here, not now. Sometimes we need to be blunt to change a habit. I am willing to be blunt.

This book is a deliberate departure from my other work:  I wanted to re-orientate my writing by what or who I was not citing. I have always been conscious of the politics of citation. I have always been aware of how worlds are built around citational habits; of how a body of work acquires consistency by which bodies are left out from that body. This was from an endnote in Queer Phenomenology (2006):

This is especially true for disciplinary lines or the lines that accumulate to produce formations of knowledge. Sometimes I get amazed when people say they are not aware of the work done by feminist, black and postcolonial scholars on questions relevant to general debates within cultural studies or philosophy. How can you not know, I want to ask. How can they not be cited, I protest. What I have learnt is that “non knowing” about certain things is an effect of the lines people have already taken, which means they “attend” to some things only by giving up proximity to others, which is at the same time giving up on certain futures. Such a “giving up” is not conscious or even a loss that can be made present. We do not know what follows from the lines that we have not followed as an effect of the decisions we have taken.  Given that some lines more than others are lines of privilege (following such lines is “returned” by reward, status and recognition), then the loss of certain futures becomes a political loss and a necessary site of political struggle.  So point to such exclusions we must!

I always hope to do more than point to exclusions. I also want to acknowledge my debts through citation. Citation is feminist memory. It is how we leave a trail of where we have been and who helped us along the way. But this time, in this book,  I have a citation policy. And that has made quite a difference.

I don’t think I was in a position to have this policy for other projects. I needed certain materials to make certain arguments. In The Promise of Happiness (2010) I needed to place the figure of the feminist killjoy in relation to the history of happiness, to make sense of how she appears; in Willful Subjects (2014), I needed to place the figure of the willful subject in relation to the history of the will for her too to make sense. But once these figures came up, they gave me a different handle. They acquired their own life. Or should I say: my writing was able to pick up figures because of the life they already had. These figures have quickly became a source of new forms of connection. They are, after all, how I have been organizing this blog (one more than the other, but one comes with the other).  And since I have begun this blog, I have received communications from many students including not only undergraduates and postgraduates but also high school students about their own experience of being feminist killjoys and willful subjects. I have learnt so much from these communications. In a genuine sense, the book comes out of them. I will be addressing this book to feminist students. It is intended for you.

Whilst writing the book I have been thinking more about what it means to be a feminist in the academy and of how we enact feminism in how we relate to the academy. I mentioned in my contribution to an event that took place at Goldsmiths in 2013 on Judith Butler’s work, how, when I was doing my PhD, I was told I had to give my love to this or that male theorist, to follow them. This would not necessarily take the form of an explicit command but often through a nudge, an apparently gentle but increasingly insistent questioning: are you a Derridean; no, so are you a Lacanian, no, oh, ok are you a Deleuzian, no, then what? If not, then what? Maybe my answer should have been: if not, then not!  I was never willing to agree to this restriction. How willful!

Willfulness is a shared feminist resource. Not to agree with this restriction required the help of other feminists. If we can create our paths by not following, we still need others before us. By not citing white men in this book I gave myself more room to attend to this “before.” So: I cite the many women who have contributed to the intellectual genealogy of feminism, including work that has been too quickly (in my view) cast aside or left behind; work that lays out other paths, paths we can call desire lines, created by not following the official paths laid out by disciplines. These paths might have become fainter from not being traveled upon; so we might work harder to find them; we might to be willful just to keep them going by not going the way we have been directed. In Living a Feminist Life I aim to cite as many feminists of color as I can (though I could always cite more!) who have contributed to the project of naming and dismantling the institutions of patriarchal whiteness.  I consider the book primarily as a contribution to feminist of color scholarship and activism; this body of work is where I feel most at home; it is where I find energy as well as resources.

Citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings. My citation policy has affected the kind of house I have built. I realized this not simply from writing the book, from what I found about what came up in how the words piled up, but also from giving presentations.

Let me explain: in some of my previous work, as I note above, I have built a philosophical edifice by my engagement with the history of ideas (not only that – I follow words out of the history of ideas and into everyday lifeworlds – but including that). We cannot conflate the history of ideas with “white men” though if doing one leads to the other that teaches us something about where ideas are assumed to originate.

 Seminal: how ideas are assumed to originate from male bodies.

I now think of that philosophical edifice as like a timber frame around which a house is being built. In this book I have not built a house by using that frame. And I have felt much more exposed. Perhaps citations are feminist straw: lighter materials that, when put together still create a shelter but a shelter that leaves you more exposed. That is how it felt writing this work and speaking from it: exposed. It is like being in the wind; being blown about, more or less, depending on what I encounter. The words I sent out danced around me; I began to pick up on things I had not noticed before; I began to hear resonances. I began to wonder how much I had in the past built an edifice to create distance.

Sometimes we need distance to follow a thought. I know that. Sometimes we need to give up distance to follow that thought. I am realizing that.

Here is a link to the last lecture I gave this year “Self-Care as Warfare: Fragility, Militancy and Audre Lorde’s Legacies” (1). You can hear the exposure, I think, in the sound of it. I am stumbling when talking about stumbling. It is not surprising that we come to feel what we are speaking about when we are speaking about it. I still have much to learn from this. I am glad of the opportunity to learn from this.

A few sentences from the lecture:

Perhaps from fragility we can think of other ways of building feminist shelters. We might think of fragility not so much as the potential to lose something, fragility as loss, but as a quality of relations we acquire, or a quality of what is we build. A fragile shelter has looser walls, made out of lighter materials; see how they move. A movement is what is built to survive what has been built.  When we loosen the requirements to be in a world, we create room for others to be.

Wishing all feminist killjoys all the best for 2016! May you keep shattering things! May you keep chipping away at those brick walls! May you make room for yourself and others to be!

[1] This lecture took given at Kent University on December 10th 2015. I am always grateful for the opportunity to speak about, with, and to Audre Lorde, so my sincere thanks to Stella Bolaki and Sabine Broeck for the invitation. The event was to launch their wonderful edited collection, Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies published this year. I  highly recommend it!


About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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6 Responses to Feminist Shelters

  1. Rajni Shah says:

    This is exactly the new year wish that I needed to hear. Thank you for your words on this blog. Every time I read them, they allow me to come closer to doing the work I need to do and have not yet been brave enough to do. May we all continue with this delicate & willful & important work in 2016 and beyond!

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