Queer: a word with a history. A word that has been flung like a stone; picked up and hurled at us, a word we can claim for us. Queer: odd, strange, unseemly, disturbed, disturbing. Queer: a feeling, a sick feeling; feeling queer as feeling nausea. When we think of what this word has gathered, we gather around the word. It is a fragile assembly. To create an assembly we would not begin with queers who are fragile although fragile queers might appear somewhere along the way. Queer fragility: to offer a meditation on fragility and how it can provide a queer connection, an odd, sometimes startling and always sensational connection, between what and who is deemed fragile.
In older uses of queer – queer to describe anything that is noticeable because it is odd – queer and fragility were often companions. A companion is a travelling companion. In one of George Eliot’s essays, “Three Months in Weimar” the narrator describes the sound of an old piano thus: “it’s tones now so queer and feeble like those of an invalided old woman whose voice could once make a heart beat with fond passion.” So: queer and feeble.
Feeble, frail, invalid, incapacitate, falter, weak, tearful, worn; tear; wear; queer too, queer is there, too.
These proximities tell a story. We might get in touch with things at the very point at which they, or we, are worn or worn down; those moments when we break or break down, when we shatter under the weight of history.
Crip, queer: shattering words. Carrie Sandahl teases out the “affinities and tensions” between crip and queer (1993: 26). Crip and queer: both these words have hurtful histories; they are 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 political sensation.
This affinity and tension might be carried by the words themselves. For Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick what makes queer a “politically potent term” is how it cleaves to “childhood scenes of shame” (1993: 4). The potency of queer is what it cannot not bring up. Alison Kafer explores how the word “crip” is charged word. Drawing on Nancy Mairs’ essay on wanting people to wince at the word, she suggests “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: willful words that work by insisting on what they bring up; a charged history, a shattering history; they are shattering words.
Feminism too: tends to break things when said.
Shattering words. The sound of breaking glass.
A shattering can be evocative: it can bring strong images, memories, feelings, to mind.
After all we began with an evocation: the sound of an old piano evoking the sound of an “invalided old woman.” Could this evocation vibrate with affection? Could a heart beat with passion for what is wavering and quavering? Could we hear in valid, truth coming from strength, the violence of a history that demands something from those who cannot embody something?
Ableism: hearing you sound out of tune, a body as abrasion.
So queer and feeble: attuned to the sound of that sound.
Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation offers a sustained attention to fragility as a consequence of a world that is wearing, of a world that does not accommodate a body; of a world that does not provide a body with a home. Writing about his experience of cerebral palsy, Clare describes climbing up and down a mountain: “my feet simply don’t know the necessary balance. I lurch one from one rock to the next, catching myself repeatedly as I start to fall” alongside his experience of writing “the faster I try to write, the more the pen slides out of my control, muscles spasm, then contract trying to stop the tremors, my shoulder and upper arm painfully tight” (7). Writing, climbing: they are activities, a body doing things, trying things.
In Willful Subjects (2014) I described clumsiness as a queer ethics. Clumsiness is a crip as well as queer ethics; we have to create room for bodies that do not obey commands; that do not move in straight lines; that lose their balance. A body that is less stable is less supported by a ground that is less stable. If a world is organised into straight lines, if there are narrow spaces available to move around in (along a corridor or between that table and that wall), if tools are made for hands that can keep a firm grasp on things, then activities are harder for some to complete than others. Activities can bring you up against walls.
A body that wiggles about: deviating from an accepted path.
Clumsiness: when a world is what you bump into.
And the wall appears in Clare’s text as a place from which you can view a world that is alien: “I watched from the other side of a stone wall, a wall that was part self-preservation, part bones and blood of aloneness, part the impossible assumptions I could not shape by body around” (144). A stone wall: made out of a body that cannot be shaped by an assumption, a body that is not accommodated by a pronoun, he or she, which is at once an expectation of what a body can do and be. That or: violence more.
Clare describes how in this harsh and heavy world his most “sustaining relations” were with stones: “I collected stones –red, green, grey, rust, white speckled with black, black streaked with silver –and kept them in my pockets, their hard surfaces warming slowly to my body heat” (144-145). And it is stones that Clare picks up, which give another sense of a body. From a shattering, a story can be told, one that finds in fragility the source of a connection.
Picking up the pieces of a life can be like picking up those stones; they are warmed by the heat of a body, finding life in a pocket; they; you, you too.
You too: when a word has been thrown at you, you do not expect to find a shelter there, to gather around. When you do, when you gather around an insult, you are not obeying an order. The word “obey” derives from the word “audience,” to give ear, to listen. You are disobeying by hearing an insult as an invitation to be somewhere. But of course sometimes a word does not provide shelter because of a history of being thrown, of how you are thrown. You do not stay; you hurry away.
In my book, Queer Phenomenology, I concluded with a discussion of disorientation (1), of queerness as an oblique or slant-wise relation to a straight world. I choose not to call for disorientation because for some being thrown might be what leads you away from a word that is thrown at you. A word can seem like a world when it is not accommodating.
I began my conclusion “Disorientation and Queer Objects” with a quote from Merleau-Ponty.
The instability of levels produces not only the intellectual experience of disorder, but the vital experience of giddiness and nausea, which is the awareness of our own contingency and the horror with which it fills us’ (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 296).
And then I noted:
Moments of disorientation are indeed vital. They are bodily experiences that throw the world up, by throwing the body off its line. Disorientation as a bodily feeling can be undoing, and can shatter one’s sense of confidence in the ground, one’s belief that the ground on which we reside can support the actions that make a life feel liveable. Such a feeling of shattering, or of being shattered, might persist and become a crisis. Or the feeling itself may pass, as the ground returns, or as we return to the ground. The body might get reoriented if the hand that reaches out finds something to steady an action. Or the hand might reach out and find nothing, and might grasp instead the indeterminacy of air. The body in losing its support might then be lost, undone, thrown.
Sometimes, disorientation is an ordinary feeling, or even a feeling that comes and goes as we move around during the day. I think we can learn from such ordinary moments. Say you are concentrating really hard. You focus, what is before you becomes the world. The edges of that world disappear as you zoom in. The object – say the paper, and the thoughts that gather around the paper by gathering as lines on the paper– becomes what is given by losing its contours. The paper becomes worldly, which would even mean you lose site of the table. Then, behind you, someone calls out, says your name. As if by force of habit, you look up, you even turn around to face what is behind you. But as your bodily gestures move up, as you move around, you move out of the world, without simply falling into a new one. Such moments when you “switch” dimensions can be deeply disorientating. One moment does not follow another, as a sequence of spatial givens, which unfold as moments of time. They are moments in which you lose one perspective, but the “loss” itself is not empty or waiting; it is an object, thick with presence. You might even see black lines in front of your eyes as lines that block what is in front of you when you turn around. You experience the moment as loss, as the making present of something that is now absent (the presence of an absence). You blink, but it takes time for the world to acquire a new shape. You might even feel angry from being dislodged from the world you had inhabited as a contour-less world. You might even return the address with the frustration of: what is it? What is “it” that makes me lose what is before me?
So yes, those moments of switching dimensions can be disorientating. What do such moments of disorientation tell us? What do they do, and what can we do with them?
We can consider how queer politics might involve disorientation, without legislating disorientation as a politics. It is not the disorientation is always radical. Bodies that experience disorientation can be defensive, as they reach out for support, or as they search for a place to reground and re-orientate their relation to the world. So too, a politics that proceeds from disorientation can be conservative, depending on the “aims” of its gestures, depending on how it seeks to (re)ground itself. And, for sure, bodies that experience being out of place might need to be orientated, to find a place they feel comfortable in the world. The point is not whether or not we experience disorientation (for we will, and we do) but how such experiences can impact on the orientation of bodies and spaces, which is after all about how the things are “directed,” how they are shaped by the lines they follow. The point is what we do with such moments of disorientation, as well as what such moments can do, whether they can offer us the hope of new directions, and whether new directions are reason enough for hope.
In Living a Feminist Life, I returned to the question of orientation as a question of fragility (2), queer fragility. Not to be accommodated is to become fragile: to be less supported by a world is to become more easily breakable. My aim was not to celebrate fragility but to register fragility as a consequence. I wanted to challenge how fragility can be used as a form of anticipatory causality, and thus as a defense mechanism (avoiding proximity to that which is anticipated to cause damage ).
I also wanted to show how fragility is also a way of telling a story about someone or something.
Fragility is generative: the quality assumed to belong to something is generated by the assumption.
So, for queers, it might be assumed you caused your own damage because you left the safety of a brightly lit path. For queers: we deviate from the path we are supposed to follow. For queers: when damages are returned to you as a consequence of deviation. And we know: if you stayed on that path you would have been damaged in another way. That would have been: not the story usually told.
The brightly lit: dangerous to those deemed dangerous.
For some fragility is understood as caused by your own actions, as what follows an act of deviation.
Just deserts. It hurts.
So: fragility was a thread I picked up from the deviant paths of Queer Phenomenology, although I am not sure I realised this until now. In the conclusion to that book I turned to Sartre’s novel Nausea. A rather queer novel, I would say; still. Nausea could be described as a phenomenological description of disorientation, of someone losing their grip on the world. What is striking about this novel is how much the loss of grip is directed towards objects that gather around: “I must say how I see this table, the street, people, my packet of tobacco, since these are the things which have changed” (9). Here, again, the table appears first in a queer story. It is the things that are gathered in the way that they are, which reveal the disorientation, like an exercising of a ghost.
These these. The story moves on:
Something has happened to me: I cant doubt that any more. It came as an illness does, not like an ordinary certainty, not like anything obvious. It installed itself cunningly, little by little; I felt a little strange, a little awkward, and that was all….There is something new, for example, about my hands, a certain way of picking up my pipe or my fork. Or else it is the fork which has a certain way of getting itself picked up, I don’t know. Just now, when I was on the point of coming into my room, I stopped short because I felt in my hand a cold object which attracted my attention by means of a sort of personality. I opened my hand and looked: I was simply holding a doorknob (13).
We begin with the “me” as the place where something happens, a little strangeness, awkwardness that emerges over time, as if with a life of its own. The becoming strange of the body does not stay with “me.” For if it is my hands that are strange, then it is my hands as they express themselves in a gesture. Such gestures are precisely where my hands meet with objects, where they cease to be apart, but pick things up. So is it my hand or is it the fork that is different? What is so compelling to me about this account of “becoming queer” is how the strangeness that seems to reside somewhere between the body and the objects it is near is also what brings those objects to life, and makes them dance. So the doorknob when it is being what it is there to do (allow the body to open the door) is that – is even “just that.” But when the door knob is felt as other than what is it supposed to do, then it comes to have a tangible, sensuous quality, as a “cold object” or even one with a “personality.”
Perhaps the doorknob, rather like the stone, is warmed by proximity. Attention: can be warming.
The objects that are gathered as gatherings of history -domesticated objects, such as doorknobs, pens, knives, and forks – are in a certain way overlooked. What makes them historical is how they are overlooked. Seeing such objects, as if for the first time involves wonder, it allows the object to breathe not through a forgetting of its history, but through allowing that history to come alive: how did you get here? How did I come to have you in my hand? How did we arrive at this place where such a handling is possible? To re-encounter objects as strange things is not to lose sight of the history, but to refuse to make them history by losing sight.
Queer objects might be a matter of how we attend to things, or what “things” can do, when they are in touch with other things. We might be talking in other words, of the queer effects of certain gatherings, which “things” appear to be oblique, to be “slipping away” insofar as they are losing their place, alongside other things, or where “things” seem out of place in their place alongside other things.
The object around which I have most gathered these thoughts has been the table. In a way, I have made the table a rather queer object by attending to it, by bringing an object that is often in the background to the front of my writing. To move the “behind” to the “front” can have a queer effect. We could ask, for instance, whether queer tables are the tables around which queer bodies gather. It is certainly the case that tables can support queer gatherings: the times that we might gather around, eating, talking, loving, living and creating the spaces and times for our attachments. Queers have their tables for sure. Stories of queer kinship are full of tables.
Tables: they are rather queer things.
In Living a Feminist Life, the fragility of things held my attention, the fragility of things, queer things. A broken jug: it spills. To spill: to cause something to fall from a container, often unintentionally. When we spill we reveal something. We spill the beans when we reveal something that is confidential; when we say something that we are not supposed to say. To spill derives from the word to spoil. The spiller is a spoil sport. This is why I described the feminist killjoy as a broken container. She flies off the handle. When she speaks, she spills. Perhaps it is the family table that she breaks. A queer table is where she ends up. Mopping up the spillage.
To spit is also to spill. Sometimes we encourage each other to spit it out because of the difficulty we have saying something. Words: they too can become queer things. We have to spill what is difficult to reveal.
Spit it out, spill it out.
Racism: when we spill, we spit.
We break open a container. We watch the words spill. They spill all over you.
It is a warming thought. And I think of Cherrie Moraga’s poem “The Welder.” Moraga speaks of heating being used to shape new elements, to create new shapes, “the intimacy of steel melting, the fire that makes sculpture of your lives, builds buildings” (1981: 219). We build our own buildings when the world does not accommodate our desires. When you are blocked, when your very existence is prohibited or viewed with general suspicion or even just raised eyebrows, you have to come up with your own systems for getting things through. You might even have to come up with your own system for getting yourself through. Snap to it.
Not from nothing
Something from something
A kitchen table becomes a publishing house
We assemble ourselves around our own tables, kitchen tables, doing the work of community as ordinary conversation. A broken history might be how we got here, but in getting here we are doing something. We create our own support systems.
When we have to shelter from the harshness of a world we build a shelter
The effort required for those shelters to be built, brick by brick; she has a hand in it.
What a shelter
The roots; back to routes. Skelter from skelt: “to hasten, scatter hurriedly.” Scattered; shattered; confusion. The helter?
Just there for the rhyme.
Poetry in motion.
To build from the ruin; our building might seem ruined, when we build, we ruin. How easily though without foundations, without a stable ground, the walls come down. We keep them up; we keep each other up. 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 the building we build. Queer fragility: a quality of what is built. A fragile shelter has looser walls, made out of lighter materials; see how they move; it is a movement.
A movement is what is built to survive what has been built. Queer fragility: how we loosen our hold on things. How we mess things up. How we survive what is messed up.
(1) For an excellent recent discussion of disorientation and its relevance for moral life that draws on feminist philosophy see Harbin (2016).
(2) I discuss the question of fragility throughout Living a Feminist Life though especially in chapters 7 “Fragile Connections” and chapter 8 “Feminist Snap.” My lecture “feminism and fragility” drawn from the book was posted earlier here.
Eliot, George (1884). Essays and Leaves from a Notebook. Edinburgh: Blackwood.
Harbin, Ami (2016). Disorientation and Moral Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kafer, Alison (2013). Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1962). The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith, London: Routledge Kegan and Paul.
Morago, Cherrie (1981). “The Welder,” in Cherrie Morago and Gloria Anzaldúa (eds). A Bridge Called by Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour. Watertown: Persephone Press.
Sandahl, Carrie (2002). “Considering Disability: Disability Phenomenology’s role in Revolutionizing Theatrical Space,” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism. 16(2): 17-32.
Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1963). Nausea, trans. Robert Baldick, London: Penguin Books.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (1993). “Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel.” GLQ: 1, 1: 1-14.