Feminist friends and feminist killjoys,
I am writing this post as a dedication. To you: to all of you who find in feminism an electric connection. To you: to all of you who have spoken out about institutional violence or who have supported those who have spoken out about institutional violence. This work can be difficult and painful. It is necessary work. It is costly work. So much of our work is about sharing the costs of doing the work.
I am about to start proof reading my book, Living a Feminist Life, which is the companion book for this blog. I have been writing this book in the last three years. That’s the same three years that I have been writing this blog. It happens to be the same three years that we have been building the Centre for Feminist Research, a Centre that created a home for Goldsmiths’ lively and longstanding community of feminists. This happens to be the same three years we have been working on the problem of sexual harassment as an institutional problem.
The same three years.
We needed a space like the Centre to make this institutional work possible. When feminist work is homework, when what you are trying to do is dismantle some of the structures where you are, here, not just there, then you need a feminist home. The university becomes: what you work on, and not just at. We have been chipping away at the walls; and we had a space to go to when the work was too much. I know the Centre will continue to be a lively home; my heart will stay there, even when I am not there. My feminist colleagues will remain my co-builders.
And the writing too: this book, this blog; I couldn’t have done the institutional work without having them as places to go. Words can be weapons, as Audre Lorde taught us. Writing about difficult experiences can give you a handle on those experiences; it can be how you survive them; how you make sense of what persists despite your efforts.
I have been lucky and privileged to work with many incredible feminists at Goldsmiths and beyond. I am dedicated to preserving these connections.
A feminist dedication.
In previous posts, I have been addressing the problem of silence in relation to violence.
I know: speaking out is not always possible.
I also know: there are lots of different reasons for silence.
It is important to understand how difficult it can be to expose a problem: and it is not just because you become the problem. One feminist colleague asked a concerned question: how would speaking out about sexual harassment effect recruitment onto our feminist teaching programmes? This question was not motivated by an assumption that if speaking out had a negative impact on recruitment then it was wrong to have spoken out. It was a question that came from a genuine care and concern: because these programmes are where we are doing our feminist work. I care for them too. I care for the students who come to Goldsmiths to find feminism and other tools for identifying and dismantling the buildings of power.
We can hear in the care of this concern another reason for silence. We know that sexual harassment and sexual misconduct are sector problems. We know they are social problems. And we know the nature of these problems means they are often not revealed as problems. So if someone in one organisation is speaking out about sexual harassment as an institutional problem, but others in other organisations are not, then it can indeed make it appear as if that organisation is the one with the problem: the very words can stick to that organisation and thus free other organisations from the requirement to do the work.
This is one of the reasons for silence: you might be silent because others are silent.
To get through the wall of silence we need to do this work wherever we are; those who can, must, so that silence is no longer a reason for silence. We need to speak, if we can, so others can.
This post is written out of dedication to all those who have been affected by harassment and bullying and who are working out, one way or another, how to get the message out.
I will be taking a break from this work so I can come back to it in the new year. I am looking forward to being on the advisory board of The 1752 Group and to joining in a wider feminist effort to deal with the problem of sexual harassment and misconduct with as wide a lens as possible. In the new year I also hope to start an empirical project on complaint; talking to those who make complaints about racism as well as bullying and sexual harassment within organisations in which they study or work. I think the process of making a complaint – and what follows once you have made one – has much to teach us about institutional life; about power; about how hard it is to expose what is ordinarily veiled by secrecy and silence.
Until then I will be writing my book What’s the Use, on “the uses of use.”
To say farewell: here is an extract from my killjoy manifesto. And here is my dedication.
I am dedicated to my dedication.
In fierce feminism,
ps I will also be taking a break from twitter for a period of time. I will be back for killjoy tweeting sometime in October.
Principle 3: I am willing to support others who are willing to cause unhappiness.
A killjoy might first recognize herself in that feeling of loneliness: of being cut off from others, from how they assemble around happiness. She knows, because she has been there: to be unseated by the tables of happiness can be to find yourself in that shadowy place, to find yourself alone, on your own. It might be that many pass through the figure of the killjoy and quickly out again because they find her a hard place to be; not to be surrounded by the warmth of others, the quiet murmurs that accompany an agreement. The costs of killing joy are high; this figure is herself a cost (not to agree with someone as killing the joy of something).
How do you persist? As I suggested in my survival kit, we often persist by finding the company of other killjoys; we can take up this name when we recognize the dynamic she names; and we can recognize that dynamic when others articulate that dynamic for us. We recognize others too because they recognize that dynamic.
Those moments of recognition are precious; and they are precarious. With a moment comes a memory: we often persist by being supported by others. We might also experience the crisis of being unsupported; support matters all the more all the less we feel supported. To make a manifesto out of the killjoy means being willing to give to others the support you received or wish you received. Maybe you are in a conversation, at home or at work, and one person, one person out of many, is speaking out. Don’t let her speak on her own. Back her up; speak with her. Stand by her; stand with her. From these public moments of solidarity so much is brought into existence. We are creating a support system around the killjoy; we are finding ways to allow her to do what she does, to be who she is. We do not have to assume her permanence, to turn her figure into personhood, to know that when she comes up, she might need others to hold her up.
Audre Lorde once wrote, your silence will not protect you. But your silence could protect them. And by them I mean: those who are violent, or those who benefit in some way from silence about violence. The killjoy is testimony. She comes to exist as a figure, a way of containing damage, because she speaks about damage. Over time, the time of being a feminist, we might call this feminist time, I have come to understand, to know and to feel, the costs of speaking out. I have thus come to understand, to know and to feel, why many do not speak out. There is a lot to lose, a lot, a life even. So much injustice is reproduced by silence not because people do not recognize injustice, but because they do recognize it. They also recognize the consequences of identifying injustice, which might not be consequences they can live with. It might be fear of losing your job and knowing you need that job to support those you care for; it might be concern about losing connections that matter; concern that what you say will be taken the wrong way; concern that by saying something you would make something worse.
To suggest that the feminist killjoy is a manifesto is not to say that we have obligation to speak out. We are not all in the same position; we cannot all afford to speak out. Killing joy thus requires a communication system: we have to find other ways for the violence to become manifest. We might need to use guerrilla tactics, and we have a feminist history to draw on here; you can write down names of harassers on flyers; put graffiti on walls; red ink in the water. There are many ways to cause a feminist disturbance.
Even if speaking out is not possible it is necessary. Silence about violence is violence. But feminist speech can take many forms. We become more inventive with forms the harder it is to get through. Speaking out and speaking with, sheltering those who speak; these acts of spreading the word are world making.
Killing joy is a world making project.