Feminism and Fragility

This is my first blog for 2016! Wishing you all a kick ass feminist year! I sent off my manuscript, Living a Feminist Life, at the end of last week. It was quite hard to let it go. But it is not gone, of course. The book is now officially in production and it will be coming out with Duke University Press in early 2017.

On January 20th I gave a lecture from the book, “Feminism and Fragility,” for the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths. It was yet another time in which it felt as if I was embodying my own arguments: I had a cold and my voice was very fragile. I had to speak quietly to hold onto my voice as if it was yet another fragile thread. Luckily it lasted!

I am sharing the text of this lecture, “Feminism and Fragility,” the version I gave at the NWSA last year. The lecture brings together strands from previous blogs posts, as well as different strands of the argument made in the book (across a range of chapters); although in the book each strand is followed through with much more detail, so I am able to pick up on things that I do not have the time to pick up here.

All best




Feminism and Fragility, Keynote presented at the National Women’s Studies Association conference, November 13 2015.

 The histories that bring us to feminism are often the histories that leave us fragile. It might be an experience of violence. It might be the gradual realisation that gender requires giving up possibilities you did not know you had; it might be a sense of being wronged or of something being wrong.  We often have a sense of things before we can make sense of things. And then perhaps you begin to put things together, different pieces, broken pieces, which reveal a social pattern. There can be joy in this process: those clicking moments, when something that had previously seemed obscure, or bizarre, begins to make sense. Feminism: how we make sense of things. But there can be sadness in these moments, too; you might feel all the more shattered, all the more fragile, the more you realise just how much there is to come up against.

Audre Lorde once described racism and sexism as “grown up words” (1984: 152). We acquire words afterwards, words that would have made sense of what we experience. Once we have the words, you are putting a sponge to the past: mopping things up, all that spillage. And in acquiring those words, we magnify the experiences that are difficult; we turn towards the very things that leave us fragile. No wonder feminist work is often about timing: sometimes we are too fragile to do this work; it can be too risky to risk being shattered when we are not ready to put ourselves back together again.

So in my lecture today I want to explore feminism and fragility.  The lecture is drawn from the book I am writing Living a Feminist Life in which I rethink “feminist theory” as “home work,” as what we are doing when we bump into the world, as what we are doing when we navigate restrictions that are in the world. I am going to be working with “fragility” rather than our conference key word “precarity” because I want to start with everyday scenes of breakage, though I will relate these related terms at a few key moments.[i] In my work I have followed words that have a certain kind of resonance in everyday life because of how they point or are pointed – often toward some bodies more than others. Examples include happiness and the will and when I was working with these words I was really working with unhappiness and willfulness. Fragility also has a certain kind of resonance because it tends to be used to indicate a quality: of a feeling (feeling fragile) or of an object or person (being fragile).  So today I explore how fragility itself is a thread, a connection, a fragile connection, between those things deemed breakable. I will be sharing some shattering stories.  In a shattering story there is often a too, a too that falls on what falls: fragility as the quality of being too easily breakable. I will start with some literary examples of objects breaking, ordinary breakages, ordinary things, as a way of opening up a reflection on histories that have become hard, histories that leave some things, some relationships, some bodies, more fragile than others.

Fragile Things

I want to begin with descriptions of objects breaking from two novels by George Eliot, Silas Marner and Adam Bede. I drew on these passages in the first chapter of my book, Willful Subjects (2014). I was working on Eliot as a novelist of the will, or as I call her, a novel philosopher of the will. Through rereading the corpus of Eliot’s work, I began to realise how often willfulness comes up in scenes of breakage. And it was objects as much as subjects that I found striking in her work; things that matter, broken things. A breakage is often accompanied by a story, a story of what breaks when something breaks, or an explanation of what is behind a breakage.  This first passage is from Silas Marner:

It was one of [Silas’s] daily tasks to fetch his water from a well a couple of fields off, and for this purpose, he had had a brown earthen ware pot, ever since he came to Raveloe, which he held as his most precious utensil, among the very few conveniences he had granted himself. It has been his companion for twelve years, always standing on the same spot, always lending its handle to him in the early morning, so that its form had an expression for him of willing helpfulness, and the impress of its handle on his palm gave a satisfaction mingled with that of having fresh clear water. One day as he was returning from the well, he stumbled against the step of the stile, and his brown pot, falling with force against the stones that overarched the ditch below him, was broken in three pieces. Silas picked up the pieces and carried them home with grief in his heart. The brown pot could never be of use to him anymore, but he stuck the pieces together and propped the ruin in its old place for a memorial ([1861] 1994: 17)

Silas is touched by his pot. The pot is his companion; reliable; always in the same spot, always lending its handle. When the pot lends Silas its handle, his palm receives the warmth of an impression; a warmth that has direction.  The pot is mingled with other things that share this direction, the fresh clear water the pot helps to carry; the body carrying the pot, the path taken in the carrying of the pot from the well to the house. A relation of use is one of affection, the wear and tear of a handle and a hand a trace of a shared history. If the pot lends Silas its handle, in order that Silas can do something, or get something, the pot and Silas are in agreement, a willing agreement.  When the pot is filled with the content of its agreement, its expression becomes that of willing helpfulness.  It is not that we attribute objects with qualities as such: the pot is useful because it is brown earthenware, made from a material that allows it to hold and carry water.  Rather, we attribute to objects the qualities of a relation: when something cannot carry out what we will; it is 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.

I will come back to this idea of “becoming memorial” in due course. In this case of the broken pot, it is Silas who in stumbling breaks the pot. But he does not stumble on his own; just as he does not carry the water on his own. He stumbles against something; the step of the stile. And if when he stumbles the pot falls, it breaks into pieces because of the force with which it meets something else, those hard stones in the ditch below. So much is, so many are, involved in a breakage.

I want to take another example of an object breaking, from Adam Bede. This time, we are at home with a family. A child Molly is drawing some ale for her mother Mrs. Poyser, but she is taking her time . “What a time that gell is drawing th’ ale” says Mrs. Poyser ([1895] 1961: 220). Molly we could say is “too slow,” she is lagging behind an expectation. Molly then appears, “carrying a large jug, two small mugs, and four drinking-cans, all full of ale or small beer – an interesting example of the prehensile power of the human hand” (221). Perhaps a handy hand is like a willingly helpful pot: filled with the content of an agreement. But then Molly has a “vague alarmed sense” (there is a storm, her mother is impatient). When she “hastened her step a little towards the table” she catches “her foot in her apron” and “fell with a crash and a smash into a pool of beer” (221). Whatever makes Molly fall, by falling she breaks the jug; leaving her “dolefully” to “pick up the fragments of pottery” (221).

We can deviate on this sadly clumsy note.  Could clumsiness could provide the basis for a queer ethics? Think of experiences of moving along a street with another.  If you are out of time with each other, the other person might appear as awkward or clumsy. Or we might turn toward each other in frustration, as we bump into each other yet again. Or you might experience yourself as being clumsy, as the one who is too slow, or too fast, as the one who is left picking up the pieces of a shattered intimacy.  Bumping into each other is a sign that we have not resolved our differences. The resolution of difference is a scene of much injustice.  Things might be smoother because some have had to adjust to keep up with others. Corporeal diversity, how we come to inhabit different kinds of bodies, with differing capacities and incapacities, rhythms and tendencies, could be understood as a call to open up a world that has assumed a certain kind of body as a norm.  The bumpier the ride could be an expression of the degree to which one style of embodiment has not determined an ethical or social horizon.  Rather than equality being about smoothing a relation perhaps equality is a bumpy ride.

Back to the jug: once the jug has broken, and some bumps lead to breakages, what happens?  Mrs Poyser remarks : “It’s all your own willfulness, as I tell you, for there’s no call to break anything.” Mrs. Poyser suggests Molly’s willfulness is what causes Molly to be wrong footed.  Willfulness is here a stopping device: it is how a chain of causality is stopped at a certain point (for the child to become the cause of the breakage we would not ask what caused the child to fall). And yet, willfulness seems to be catchy : “‘Mrs. Poyser had turned around from the cupboard with the brown-and-white jug in her hand, when she caught sight of something at the other end of the kitchen; perhaps it was because she was already trembling and nervous that the apparition had so strong an effect on her; perhaps jug-breaking, like other crimes, has a contagious influence. However it was, she stared and started like a ghost-seer, and the precious brown-and-white jug fell to the ground, parting for ever with its spout and handle.” Mrs. Poyser, we might say, catches Molly’s alarm; alarm is a chain reaction.

When Mrs. Poyser breaks this jug, she does not blame herself. She first offers a certain kind of fatalism: she says   “what is to be broke will be broke” (220, emphasis in original), a way of using will as a simple future auxiliary verb, but one that has a certain predictive force (what happen will happen, whatever will be will be). Gender often operates as a form of willing fatalism (what is to be boy will be boy, or more simply, and more usually, boys will be boys); gender as a sentencing to death, a bond of fate; a fatal bond. Even if the break seems like fate, Mrs. Poyser does eventually blames something, not herself but the jug: “The jugs are bewitched, I think….there’s times when the crockery seems alive an’ flies out o’ your hand like a bird” (222).  When the jug appears willful (in a precise sense as too full of its own will, as not empty enough to be filled by human will), it not only causes its own breakage but breaks the thread of a connection. Note the beginning of another connection, between a girl and a jug, a connection between those assumed to cause breakage. To pick up this connection is to pick up some of the fragile pieces.

We might note as well the link between deviation and breakage: to deviate from a path is to lose the potential to carry out will.  When we talk of a path in this context we are talking of the unfolding of an action in time; a path is what we have to take to reach something. To be on a path is to be in a moment of suspension: the hand has left its resting place, it is carrying something toward something, but the task has yet to be completed. The hand has not yet reached its destination.  A break is not only a break of something (a pot, a jug) it is the shattering of a possibility, the possibility of completing an action or of reaching a destination.   Happiness is often understood as a destination, as what we are reaching for when we reach for something.  A killjoy thus emerges from a scene of breakage: in preventing an action from being completed she stops happiness from becoming actual.

Walls and the Hardening of History

A break can be how a body comes up against an expectation; how a body can fall, trip, stumble, how a pot can shatter against a hard stone. I want to think here of how what we come up against can also have a history, a history that has become concrete; a history can become hard as stone; when stones are piled together they form walls. I first began thinking of histories as walls when completing a project on diversity work that I wrote about in my book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012). Diversity work is the work we do when we aim to transform an institution often by trying to open them up to those who have been previously excluded. Many diversity workers are appointed by the very institutions they aim to transform. And yet many diversity workers I spoke to talked of how the institutions that appointed them would be what block their efforts.  Diversity work was described by one practitioner as “a banging your head against a brick wall job.”  A job description becomes a wall description.

I want to return to one of the examples from chapter 4 of On Being Included. It is from an interview with a diversity practitioner who is talking about her effort to get a new policy about appointment panels agreed. It is a good example of an encounter with an institutional wall. This example might seem far away from the scenes of objects breaking that I began with. But similar things eventually come up. This is the story:

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.

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, a decision that is willed, that operates under the promissory sign “we will” is overridden by the momentum of the past. Note: the head of personnel did not need to take the decision out of the minutes for the decision not to bring something into effect.   I have called this dynamic “non-performativity”: when naming something does not bring something into effect, or when something is named in order not to bring something into effect. An institution can say “yes” when there is not enough behind that “yes” for something to be brought about.  An institutional wall is when a will, “a yes,” does not bring something about, “a yes” that conceals this “not bringing” under the appearance of “having brought.”

 It is only the practical effort to bring about transformation that allows the wall to be apparent. The practical effort let us be clear here is somebody’s effort: the labour of a diversity worker, her blood, sweat and tears. If this is a shattering story, it is she that is shattered (as she says “sometimes you just give up”). To be shattered can also mean to be exhausted. A story of walls is a story of being worn down, of coming up against the same thing.  To those who do not come against it, the wall does not appear: the institution is experienced as “yes” as open, committed and diverse, as happy as its mission statement, as willing as its equality statement.

By talking to diversity workers I began to appreciate how the institution is a plumbing system: you have to work out where the blockage is, what prevents something from moving through the system. This is why I call diversity workers “institutional plumbers.” In this example, what stopped something from happening could have been the removal of the policy from the minutes; it could have been the failure to notice this removal; but it wasn’t. It was the way those within the institution acted as if the policy has not been made. Agreeing to something can be one of the best ways of stopping something from happening.

The wall is a finding.  What stops movement moves.  If you witness only the movement (and contemporary social theory has an obsession with movement) you are not witnessing what (or who) is being stopped; you are not noticing the cement; that things hold together; how things hold together. Diversity work is hard in the sense of difficult: it is requires more effort to come up against that which keeps its place by not coming into view. But the brick wall is hard in other senses too.  In physics, hardness refers to the resistance of materials to change under force.  A wall, and I am thinking of an actual wall here, is made out of hard material. Say you throw something against the wall: a little object. You can witness the hardness of the wall by what happens to what is thrown: a wall might be scratched at the surface by encountering such an object. The object might splinter and break by the force of what it comes up against.

This is what diversity work sometimes feels like: scratching at the surface; scratching the surface. Hardness as a quality of things is revealed as an encounter between things. Diversity work involves an encounter: our bodies can be those little objects hurled against walls, those sedimented histories. The materiality of resistance to transformation: diversity workers know this materiality very well.  You encounter the materiality of resistance to transformation if you are trying to transform what has become material.

I think we can push this expression “it’s like banking your head against a brick wall” even further. It is important to recognise that the brick wall is a metaphor. It is not that there “really” is a wall; it is not an actual wall. That the wall is not an actual wall makes the wall even harder. The wall is a wall that might as well be there, because the effects of what is there are just like the effects of a wall. And yet not: if an actual wall was there, we would all be able to see the wall, or to touch it. The wall would provide evidence. Coming up against an institutional wall is to come up against what others do not notice; and (this is even harder) you come up against what others are often invested in not noticing.

The story of what happens to a diversity policy that doesn’t do anything is a tantalising tangible example of what goes on so much and so often. What happens to a diversity policy happens to diversity workers. When you complain about sexism or racism: a wall comes up. You might be dissuaded from complaining (it would damage your career or your prospects, a prediction that often works as a threat). Or if you do complain the allegations are not made public as a way of protecting the organisation from damage.  When you name sexism as well as racism you are often judged as causing damage.  If naming sexism and racism is judged as causing damage, we need to cause damage. And: the institutional response takes the form of damage limitation.  This is often how diversity takes institutional form: damage limitation.

 So: a policy disappears despite there being a paper trail, despite the evidence, or even because of the evidence.  People disappear too, because of what they try to make evident, of what they try to bring into view. You might disappear or you might just stop trying.  We learn: something might not come about not because we have been prevented from doing something but when the effort to bring something about is too much to sustain.

A wall is how a wall is not revealed.  Diversity workers might be treated as wall makers, as if to speak of walls is to bring something into existence that would otherwise not be there. Just recall the words of the diversity practitioner: “they just look at me as if I am saying something really stupid.” We can imagine the eyes rolling when she points out the policy.  The diversity worker is as institutional killjoy.  I became interested in this figure of the killjoy, I began to pick her up and put her to work, after listening to another diversity practitioner. She said : “you know you go through that in these sorts of jobs where you go to say something and you can just see people going ‘oh here she goes.’”  We both laughed, recognising that each other recognised that scene.  It is interesting to me, on reflection, that it can be others who put into words something you have yourself have experienced. A killjoy: so often she borrows her words from others. So yes, we both recognised that each other recognised that scene.

It was from listening to diversity practitioners that I first began to develop an equation: rolling eyes equals feminist pedagogy.   The diversity worker in becoming an institutional killjoy is not heard; when she speaks of walls, walls come up.   A wall comes up in this reframing of walls as immaterial, as phantoms, as how we stop ourselves from being something. What we encounter in the world is thus dismissed as “in our heads.” We are familiar with this dismissal.  This means that: what is real, what is in concrete terms the hardest is not always available as an object that can be perceived or touched.   What is the hardest for some does not even exist for others.  If we are the little objects, and we shatter from throwing ourselves against a wall, but the wall does not appear to others, it might appear as if we are shattering ourselves. Perhaps, rather like Molly, it might be assumed that we are the ones who are wrong-footed, that we have willfully tripped ourselves up.

Fragile Relationships

And yes, it can be tiring, encountering the same thing over and over again. Diversity work is also the work we do when we not quite inhabit the norms of an institution.  Diversity work in this sense also involves coming up against walls, or what blocks a progression. When we fail to inhabit a norm (when we are questioned or question ourselves whether we are “it,” or pass as or into “it”), then it becomes more apparent, like the institutional wall: what does not allow you to pass through.  A life description can also be a wall description.

As we know diversity is often offered as a welcome. It appears as an invitation, an open door, translated into a tagline: Come in, come in! To be welcomed is to be positioned as not yet part, a guest or stranger, the one who is dependent on being welcomed (the word welcome, a “friendly greeting,” derives from will, “one whose coming suits another’s will”). Indeed a welcome leads us into a precarious situation. The word precarious derives from pray and means to be held through the favour of another, or dependent on the will of another, which is how precarious acquires the sense of risky, dangerous and uncertain. No wonder: an arrival can be precarious. If you are dependent on a door being opened, how quickly that door can be shut in your face.

After all, just because they invite you it doesn’t mean they expect you to turn up. What happens when people of colour turn up? How noticeable we can be in the sea of whiteness: “When I 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.” They are not expecting you. A restlessness and uneasiness, a fidgeting and twitching, is a bodily registering of an unexpected arrival.  I pretend not to recognise it: diversity work can be the effort not to notice the bother caused by your own arrival.  There is pretence involved; this is not about pretending to be something you are not but pretending not to notice that you are not what they expect.

A wall can be an atmosphere. A wall can be a gesture. A queer experience: you are seated with your girlfriend, two women at a table; waiting. A straight couple walks into the room and is attended to right away; sir, madam, over here, sir, madam. Sometimes if you do not appear as you are expected to appear you do not appear. There are many who do not appear under this sir, madam. The gaze slides over you; as if you are not there. Note this is more about been seen to than being seen: when sir, madam becomes a question (is that sir, or madam?) or an apology (sir, oh sorry, madam) you are being seen; in becoming a question, a body is turned into a spectacle.

For some, you have to become insistent to be the recipient of a social action, you might have to announce your presence, wave your arm, saying: “Here I am!” For others, it is enough just to turn up because you have already been given a place at the table before you take up that place.  This is why I think of privilege as an energy saving device: less effort is required to be or to do.

A history can become concrete through the repetition of small encounters, encounters that require you to put the whole of your body, as well as your arms, behind an action. Maybe these actions seem small. Maybe they are small. Actions that are small can also become wall.  They can feel like a hammering, a chip, chip, chip, against your being, so that eventually you begin to feel smaller, hammering as hammered down. Chip, chip, chip. Things splinter.  Maybe we can turn that chip, chip, chip into a hammer: we might chip away at the old block. Who knows eventually it might come right off. A break can be what we are aiming for.

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

When my own parents broke up, a friend of the family came around to talk to my mother, who was the one who had been left. He says “This is what happens when you marry a Muslim.” The words were uttered pointedly, cutting the atmosphere like a knife. Relationships and families breaking up: it happens. Shit happens. But in a mixed relationship a break becomes what we were heading for, right from the beginning. For a white woman, an English Christian woman, to marry out, to marry a brown man, a Pakistani Muslim, leads her only to this point, this ending, a relationship that “could only end in tears,” becoming retrospectively, always tearful.

When things were going smoothly, this friend said nothing. When things break, race comes up. We learn making from breaking. Racism hovers in the background when things are working, which is how race can come up so quickly, when things stop working.

A wall: reassembled at the point of shattering.

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

From the example of mixed and queer relationships we learn how some are assumed to be inherently broken, as if their fate is to break. And that is a difficult assumption to live with. Think of how if you are already known as the clumsy one, you might become even more afraid of breakage, because you know that if there is a breakage, you will be judged as the one who is behind it. The harder you try the more you seem to slip up.  Fragility is generative: the quality assumed to belong to something is generated by that very assumption.   A consequence is then a recruited as a cause. It might be assumed you caused your own damage because you left the safety of a brightly lit path.  Gender norms too can work like this: when femininity is registered as fragility, when that fragility is used to explain what happens to her, or what she can or cannot do, a consequence of power is recruited as cause.  She is treated with caution and care because she is fragile; because she is treated with caution and care, she is fragile.  Politics is what happens in between these “becauses.”

Or think of how leaving the accepted social paths can be to leave behind support systems; those institutional ways of holding, protecting, nurturing.   To leave a support system can mean to become more fragile, less protected from the bumps of ordinary life. Racial capitalism is a support system: the uneven distribution of bodily precarity is the uneven distribution of support. When we say something is precarious we often mean it is in a precarious position: that vase at the edge of the mantelpiece, if it was pushed, just a little bit, just a little bit, it would topple right over. This position is what has become generalised when we speak of precarious populations. Living on the edge: a life lived as a fragile thread, when life becomes the effort to hold onto what keeps unravelling.  To be black, of colour, poor is to have less to fall back on when you fall.

Compulsory heterosexuality is another elaborate support system – the path is kept clear to ease a progression, loves cherished, losses mourned.  No wonder: so much feminist and queer invention comes from creating our own support systems.  We need to handle what we come up against. But what if the handle is what breaks?  Fragility: losing the handle. When the jug loses it handle it becomes useless.  We sense the terror of its fate: the fragments swept up and away. To lose the handle can feel like losing yourself.  The figure of the feminist killjoy recalls that of the broken jug: she too “flies of the handle” an expression used to indicate the suddenness of anger.  I am going to repeat almost word for word from two sentences I used in my reading of broken pots and jugs from George Eliot novels; I want us to hear the resonance.

When she is filled with the content of her agreement, her expression becomes that of willing helpfulness.

 She not only causes her own breakage she breaks the thread of a connection.

Feminism as self-breakage; history enacted as judgment.  Or feminism as a tear in the social fabric; history enacted as loss; a tear; a tear.  To give a cause to breakage is to create a figure, one that can contain the damage by explaining the damage. The feminist killjoy is such a figure.  To be a container of damage is to be a damaged container. The feminist killjoy: a leaky container.

She is right there; there she is, all teary, what a mess. Say you are seated at the family table. Someone is winding you up. It is frustrating when you end up wound up by someone who is winding you up.  The one who speaks as a feminist is heard as the one who ruins the atmosphere. Another dinner ruined! If she does speak in temper, and let’s face it sometimes we do, if she snaps, what is not witnessed is what she has had to put up with, that history of provocation, of being wound up, the slower time of bearing. It is like when you put a twig under pressure, and eventually it snaps. The snap only seems like the starting point because it is harder to notice the pressure on the twig. A snap: a moment with a history. And then: when she snaps it as if she is the one who is starting something, creating conflict, disagreeing because she is being disagreeable.  Feminism: a history of disagreeable women!

If we hear this sentence as an exclamation it can sound empowering. But let’s not rush too quickly: we might stumble again; we might fall. Because after all you might be with those whom you love, you might want to preserve a relationship; you might not want things to break. Say my close friends are laughing at a joke. I might start laughing too; before I even hear the joke. But when I hear the joke, and when I register what has been said, I might find that I do not it funny, or even that I find it offensive. Then the words become clear, distinct, and sharp. If I stop laughing, I withdraw from a bodily intimacy. Sometimes we might keep laughing out of fear of causing a breakage.

Sometimes we stop laughing. Things fall apart. Feminism might be how we pick up the pieces. This is why the first of my conclusions to Living a Feminist Life is a killjoy survival kit. The second is a killjoy manifesto. Before we get to the manifesto we must survive. Feminism needs feminists to survive; feminists need feminism to survive.  A killjoy survival might be about meeting other killjoys: you recognise the other person knows what it is like to be assumed to be as the one always breaking things. However it is not that our experience of being killjoys together means that we simply can come together, to build a shelter that is warm (although the idea of a killjoy shelter is very appealing!). If we have to fight to exist we can also experience each other too as sharp and brittle.  This is why the feminist killjoy does not disappear when we are building feminist shelters. In fact, she appears very quickly.  A feminist killjoy can kill feminist joy: indigenous feminists; black feminists; feminists of colour; disabled feminists; lesbian feminists; trans feminists; working-class feminists; all of these figures embody a history that is difficult. It is a history of becoming a sore point within feminism because of who you are, what you say, what you do, because of the history you bring up just by entering the room. No matter how difficult some of our experiences of being a feminist killjoy, they do not prepare you for what it is like to be in feminist spaces and still be the problem.  

Walls come up in the places we go to feel less depleted by walls.

You can become a problem just be turning up. You can become a problem because of what you bring up. One time I am speaking of racism in a seminar. A white woman comes up to me afterwards and puts her arm next to mine. We are almost the same colour, she says. No difference, no difference. You wouldn’t really know you were any different to me, she says. The very talk about racism becomes a fantasy that invents difference. She smiles, as if the proximity of our arms was evidence that the racism of which I was speaking was an invention, as if our arms told another story. She smiles, as if our arms are in sympathy. I say nothing. Perhaps my arm speaks by withdrawing.

The withdrawal of an arm can be enough to create tension, as if by withdrawing your arm you are refusing a gesture of love and solidarity. Reconciliation is often presented as a gesture of good will, a handy gesture, where the hand outstretched is the hand of the settler or occupier. If the outstretched hand is not shaken, something has been broken, the promise of reconciliation; the promise that we can get on; the promise that we can move on.  You can break a promise without making a promise.

If you refuse the gesture of sympathy you become mean. In my own experience of pointing out racism, it is assumed not only that you cause other people hurt, but that you “intended” that hurt.  Robin DiAngelo has called “white fragility” the “inability to handle the stress of conversations about race and racism” (2011: np).  I noted earlier that a consequence can be recruited as a cause.  A cause can also be recruited as a defence: as if to say, we won’t hear what we can’t handle. Just as an aside here, this is what I mean by theory as home work: I think we are learning more about causality, how it can function as a social habit, by drawing on examples from everyday life than we would if we proceeded hypothetically (that old billiard ball). White fragility is this: a way of stopping the chain of causality, such that whiteness is defended against that which or those who would trip it up. We are learning here about the very mechanisms that lead us to a familiar place: when you speak about racism you become the one who causes damage.  Racism: damage to whiteness. Remember diversity: damage limitation.

An emphasis on fragility as the potential to break can stop words like racism from being sent out, as if those words are pointed, as if the point of those words is to break the ones to whom it is assumed they are directed.  Mrs. Poyser, remember her, when she breaks her jug, that sad parting, says : “It’s them nasty glazed handles – they slip o’er the finger like a snail” ([1895] 1961: 220).  When objects are not means to our ends, they are mean. To be mean is not only to be stingy and unkind it is to stop what is desired or intended from becoming actual.  To be judged as mean is to get in the way of community: as shattering a possibility that we can be whole, that we can be one.

Fragile Bodies

In this concluding section I want to think of fragility as a corporeal experience. If we keep coming up against walls, it feels like we can shatter into a million pieces. Tiny little pieces.

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

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

I have a story. Let me give you the bare bones of it. One time, I was in New York at the gym and I was joking with somebody. I said: I have never broken a bone; I said, I don’t think my bones are breakable. It was a joke, but a silly thing to say. And then not more than a week later I fell and broke something. I am not saying that saying this led to that; but that break did feel like fate!

I fell on the hard stone floor of the bathroom.  I fractured my pelvis. For two months or so I used crutches; and in some circumstances, I used a wheel chair. I understood this disability to be temporary, as something I would pass through, which I have no doubt framed the situation.  But despite the sense of passing through a disabled body, I learnt how disability is worldly because I came up against the world; the different ways you are treated, the opening of doors, concerned faces, the closing of doors, rigid indifference. But most of all, I came to feel the little bumps on the street, little bumps I had even noticed before. It felt like I kept bumping into the street, bumps became walls that took a huge amount of energy just to get over or around.

Slow; heavy; down.

The little bumps I had not noticed before.   What for some, are little bumps, for others, are walls. So many walls we do not encounter because of the body we have. I began to think more about my able-bodied privilege, which is not to say, I have thought about it enough: I have not. It is easy for me to forget to think about it, which is what makes a privilege a privilege: the experiences you are protected from having; the thoughts you do not have to think.

When bodies break, they intrude into consciousness, you can experience yourself as clumsy thing, as getting in the way of yourself. Gloria Anzaldúa once wrote: “I’m a broken arm” (1983: 204). She too was writing about fragility, about being brittle and bone, she was writing about being a queer woman of colour. Slow, heavy, down; brown. I am a broken arm: we repeat history at the moment we fracture; or we become a fracture of a body.  The broken arm is a queer kin to the willful arm discussed in my book, Willful Subjects (2014). A grim story: the arm is striking because it keeps coming up, despite the death of the body of which it is part. An arm goes on strike when it does not work, when it refuses to be usefully employed. There are many ways to be striking. Something becomes all the more striking when it fractures; it becomes all the more striking when it does not enable you to move on or to get on with things. A body goes on strike when it gets in the way of what you want to accomplish. Mia Mingus describes : “We can swing on a vine all day long yelling ‘socially-constructed’ but eventually I think we would hit a brick wall and I think that brick wall is our bodies” (2013: np). Bodies become walls. Any social justice project has to have disabilities in mind, has to think from an experiences of having, say, chronic fatigue syndrome, has to think of a body for whom getting up or staying up is hitting a brick wall.

A wall can be what you wake up to. Audre Lorde in The Cancer Journals describes with acute detail how it feels to wake up after a mastectomy, to wake up to the gradual realization through the fog of tranquilizers that her “right breast is gone,” and of the increasing pain in her chest wall: “My breast which was no longer there would hurt as if it were being squeezed in a vise. That was perhaps the worst pain of all, because it would come with a full complement that I was to be forever reminded of my loss by suffering in a part of me which was no longer there” ([1980] 1997: 37-8 The Cancer Journals also offers an account of the willfulness required not to wear a prosthesis in the place of a missing breast. Once when she goes to the surgery the nurse comments  “You’re not wearing a prosthesis,” to which Lorde replies, “It really doesn’t feel right.” The nurse responds: “You will feel so much better with it on,” and then, “It’s bad for the morale of the office” (60). Here the broken body intrudes into social consciousness, becoming a reminder of illness and fragility that is unwanted.  A broken body can be a killjoy: she gets in the way of happiness by the way she appears. Yes equality is a bumpy ride. Smoothing things over often means: eliminating the signs of injury to create a fantasy of a whole.  Smoothing things over often means: eliminating those who are reminders of an injury.

 Perhaps those who are bad for morale can join forces. Audre Lorde’s response to this demand is not only anger but a call for action : “What would happen if an army of one-breasted women descended on Congress and demanded that the use of carcinogenic, fat-stored hormones in beef-feed be outlawed?” she asks (14-5). An army of one-breasted women: what would happen? What could happen?  A queer crip army would be assembled; an army made out of bodies without parts, or even parts without bodies.

An army: assembled from bodies that are always tripping up. Clumsiness can be a crip as well as queer ethics. Crip and queer: both these words have hurtful histories; words that drip with insult. They are words that are claimed, becoming pointed; becoming ways of pointing to something, because they keep alive that history: negation as a political sensation For Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick what makes queer a “politically potent term” is how it cleaves to “childhood scenes of shame” (1993: 4). For Alison Kafer the word “crip” is a word to use when you want a wince: “this desire to make people wince suggests an urge to shake things up, to jolt people out of their everyday understandings of bodies and minds, of normalcy and deviance” (2013: 15). Queer and crip are words that work by what they insist on bringing up; a charged history, a sharp history, a fragile history, shattering words.

A shattering can be an affinity.  A queer crip politics might allow the body deemed not whole, a broken body, to be revealed, a revelation that might be registered as a willful obtrusion into social consciousness (“bad for morale”). A queer crip politics might involve a refusal to cover over what is missing, a refusal to aspire to be whole.  There can be nothing more willful than the refusal to be aspirational.

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

We can share a refusal.

Perhaps from fragility can think of other ways of building feminist shelters.  We might then 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.

Can we give ourselves a break? Is there a way of relating to breaking that does not aim for restoration? Can the fragments reassemble in or from being shattered? Wear and tear: traces of time on the surface of a body, the warmth of affection, comings and goings, the sharpness of an edge, things we endure; a raised voice, sharp, brittle. A fragment: what snaps off is on the way to becoming something else.  Feminism: on the way to becoming something else.  Shattering: scattering.  What is shattered so often is scattered, strewn all over the place. A history that is down, heavy, is also messy, strewn.  The fragments: an assembly. In pieces.  Becoming army.



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

————— (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Anzaldúa, Gloria (1983). “La Prieta” in Cherrie Morago and Gloria Anzaldúa (eds). The Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour. Watertown: Persephone Press.198-209.

Eliot, George (1994). [1861] Silas Marner. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics.

——————-  (1961). [1895] Adam Bede. New York: Signet Classics.

DiAngelo, Robin (2011). “White Fragility,” The International Journal of  CriticalPedagogy, vol 3: http://libjournal.uncg.edu/ijcp/article/view/249

Kafer, Alison (2013). Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lorde, Audre (1997). The Cancer Journals. Aunt Lute Books: San Francisco.

——————- (1988). A Burst of Light, Essays. Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Books.

——————–(1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: The Crossing Press.

Mingus, Mia (2013). Interview. http://www.theicarusproject.net/disability/video-interview-wmia-mingus-on-disability-justice. Last accessed February 15 2015.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (1993). “Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel.” GLQ: 1, 1: 1-14.

[i] In the introduction to the version of the talk I gave at the Centre for Feminist Research on January 20 2016, I acknowledged the recent special issue of Feminist Review edited by Sadie Wearing, Yasmin Gunaratnam and Irene Gedalof on the theme of frailty and debility. In her reflections on this special issue in a subsequent blog, Yasmin Gunaratnam notes how most of the contributions reflected on debility rather than frailty. She asks: “what might be happening in the apparent feminist reluctance, or at least ambivalence, in engaging with frailty and its associations with bodily weakness, susceptibility and a wearing away?” I have been working with the word “fragility,” from which the word frailty derives; fragility is from fragilis, which means “brittle, easily broken,” from the root of frangere “to break” in the sense of a fraction: to break as to break into pieces. One of the reasons I am using the word “fragility” is because fragility points to things as well as bodies: we might speak of feeling or being fragile, yes, but we might also place a sticker “fragile: handle with care” on a package because it contains that delicate porcelain pot we do not want to break. Fragility might thus give us a different kind of handle on the weak and the wearing.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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