In my chapter “Feminist Killjoys” in The Promise of Happiness (2010), I described a scene that is painfully familiar (1). It is a table scene. Around a table, a family gathers. We are having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up. Someone says something you consider problematic. You respond, carefully, perhaps. You might be speaking quietly; or you might be getting wound up, recognizing with frustration that you are being wound up by someone who is winding you up. And then being wound up becomes audible as well as visible: a raised voice, a frown, sweaty surfaces, a thickening of an atmosphere. These tangible signs might become a conversion point: the moment a happy occasion ceases to be happy, the moment a dinner is ruined.
It is the significance of “recognizing with frustration that you are being wound up by somebody who is winding you up” that I want to pick up on here. To wind something is to twist and to turn it; to wind up can mean to tighten by twisting and turning. You might know that feeling: of becoming tense and tight because of what you encounter. To be wound up by someone who is winding you up: this is a familiar dynamic for those who have assigned feminist killjoys, or even simply those who identify as feminists, however you have been assigned. You are identifying as a certain kind of person, one who is easily provoked, or affected, someone who can be easily wound up because she cannot not be affected by certain things (sexism, injustice, inequality) whenever they are brought up.
It is like being a feminist is then having certain buttons: when they are pushed, she is pushed. There is a lot of difficulty lodged in this description. There is a judgement that precedes the provocation, that leads to the provocation, which is then confirmed when you are provoked. And then: when you are affected you are too easily affected; when you are sensitive you are oversensitive; when you react you overreact. Feminists are often judged as “too” well as “over,” as exceeded the range of reason, “too” or “over” and also as “un,” being unreasonable, unhelpful, even unkind. I have learnt from following the figure of the willful subject (feminists are often called willful, it is a feminist following), being a feminist is understood as being unfree, as not having a strong or mature enough will to avoid being swayed by your own impulses and inclinations. Implied in the figure of the feminist killjoy is an assessment that feminism is a reenactment of feminine passivity.
And you might experience certain situations in these terms. You can be more easily wound up if you care about certain things; you are allowing the world to get under your skin. You are upset by something because it is upsetting; an emotion is how you judge a situation. But it can also be frustrating when your frustration is dismissed as merely expressive of a tendency. We have all had times, I suspect, as feminists (how I love this as, how I wish to hold onto this as), when we have been aware that someone is “winding us up,” by turning a spoil sport into a sport: look how she reacts! Look, look! We can all be caught by such situations. We can be interpellated before our defences go up.
There can be a lock in a dynamic; a way a situation becomes stuck, a way you become stuck by a situation. The problem is not simply about the content of what she is saying. She is doing more than saying the wrong thing: she is getting in the way of something, the achievement or accomplishment of some we or another, which is often created by what is not said, or what is not said in response to what has been said by those who are given the right to be right, to say what they like. So much you are supposed not to say, to do, to be, in order to preserve a “we.” And yet, even if she is not supposed to react this way, her reaction is, at another level, willed. She is after all being wound up by someone who is winding her up. A “we” is performed by witnessing her being wound up, spinning around. Look, look at her spin! To make her the cause of a tension is another way of preserving the illusion that without her, the family would be civil. I think those of us who have been killjoys around family tables probably know this; how useful we are as containers of incivility and discord.
I’ve written and talked a lot about these dynamics. I have gone over and over them.We need to go over what is not over.
In “Feminist Killjoys,” I wrote mainly about the family table, referring primarily to childhood experiences. I returned to these experiences much more closely in Living a Feminist life. We can go back in time. How often, say over the holidays, do you feel you are going back in time, reoccupying that figure of the feminist killjoy, the child.Once you have accepted the assignment of feminist killjoy, she seems to turn up before you do. The fact that the first ten years of my academic career were spent in Women’s Studies might explain how she popped up everywhere. I had so many conversations which began with curiosity that quickly spilled into hostility: “so what is thing called Women’s Studies? How could there be such a thing?” I have talked about this earlier, in a blog that became the basis for the first chapter of my new book, “Feminism is Sensational.” Women’s Studies causes so much bother: I was bothered by this bother. And more recently in trying to deal with the problem of sexual harassment in universities, I have again come up against this: the problem of becoming the problem because you are trying to address a problem that others do not wish to recognize as a problem.
I remember being tired of dealing with the consequences of saying I taught Women’s Studies. I was in a taxi once, on the way from Sydney airport after a long flight back to Australia. The taxi driver asked me what I did, I said I was a teacher, he asked me what I taught, and I hesitated. I did not feel like “going there.” So I said, I taught sociology. It turned out he had a real gripe with sociologists! That attempt to escape the consequence of being assigned a feminist led me back to the assignment. I have learnt that trying to escape consequences has its own consequences. One of the ways of I have lived with the consequences of being a feminist is to reflect on (and write about) what I described earlier “the lock of the dynamic.” How does a reaction to something become framed as the starting point for a conflict about something? The word I have been using for this reaction is snap.
Snap is quite a sensation. To snap can be to make a sharp sound. When I think of snap, I think of a twig. When a twig snaps, we hear the sound of it break. We can hear the suddenness of a break. We might think on the basis of what we can hear that the snap is a starting point. A snap seems the start of something, a transformation of something; it is how a twig might end up broken in two pieces. A snap might even seem like a violent moment; the unbecoming of something. But a snap would only be the beginning insofar as we did not notice the pressure on the twig. When we think of being wound up, a snap would be the moment that appears as a breaking point. It is more dramatic, more sudden then what came before. We hear the snap, thinking back to the family table, but we might not hear what led her there, the violence of a provocation that is often inaudible to those who are not being provoked. We need to show how her snap is not the starting point; we need to talk about what precedes snap, the violence that often goes unnoticed.
The feminist killjoy might herself be a snappy figure; feminists might be perceived as “full of snap.” Maybe there is a relation between willful and snapful. Snappiness as a quality is often defined in terms of aptitude. To be snappy is to be “apt to speak sharply or irritably.” That certainly sounds like a feminist aptitude. Feminism: it has bite; she bites. We might even as feminists aim to develop this aptitude: by snapping, we might acquire more snap. We might aim to become snappier by snapping. This does not mean or make snappiness right or into a right. But perhaps snappiness might be required to right a wrong when a wrong requires we bear it; that we take it, or that we take more of it.
Snap: when she can’t take it anymore; when she just can’t take it anymore. Speaking sharply, speaking with irritation. Maybe we can hear her irritation; a voice that rises, a voice that sharpens. When her irritation speaks volumes, we might be distracted from what is irritating. Can we even distract ourselves? To speak from irritation is to speak from being rubbed up against the world in a certain way. Sianne Ngai (2007) describes irritation as a “minor negative affect.” That is such a good description. We all know that life is full of mild irritations. Perhaps irritation is a little like infection; things eventually come to a head. There is a point when it all comes out, a tipping point. There are a certain number of times you can be rubbed up the wrong way, before you end up snapping. A snap might seem sudden but the suddenness is only apparent; a snap is one moment of a longer history of being affected by what you come up against.
Snap: a moment with a history.
If you are apt to be snappy, perhaps you are not happy. But perhaps this “aptness” is only a part of the story. Some get rubbed up the wrong way more than others; we know this. A feminist killjoy lives and works in a contact zone. She might acquire an aptitude for irritation because of just how much she has already had to put up with. What she has to put up with becomes part of who she is. That she appears as a figure at all (she is first received as an assignment by others) is often about a history of being rubbed up the wrong way. When you are wound up by someone who is winding you up, you are wound up by history.
We bring our histories to feminism. And you can also become a killjoy within feminism because of those histories. You can be a killjoy at feminist tables because of who you are, what you say, what you do; because of a history you might bring up just by entering a room. Audre Lorde (1984), bell hooks (2000), Sunera Thobani (2003) and Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2003) have all taught me to think about the figure of the angry black woman, the angry woman of color, as well as the angry indigenous woman, as another kind of feminist killjoy: a feminist killjoy who kills feminist joy. It can kill feminist joy to speak about racism. When you speak about racism you can be speaking quietly. You know the trouble it causes, so you are careful. But a word can become heard as a snap, a break with what preceded. There can be transference of snappiness (and other negative affects) to the word such that to use that word is to cause a rupture.
Being a feminist of color is data collection. We gather so many responses to the words we use, the bodies we have!
One time quite a while back in 1999 I was presenting a paper “Embodying Strangers,” in which I referred to Audre Lorde’s description, her quite extraordinary description, of racism on a New York subway. One white woman spoke in the question time with anger about how I hadn’t considered the white woman’s feelings as if this was some sort of neutral situation and that to account for it we have to give an account from each point of view. Racism becomes the requirement to think of racism with sympathy, racism as just another view; the racist as the one with feelings, too. That should have been a snap moment, a moment with a history. But I wasn’t ready; I was startled, not confident enough to say what came to mind.
I am more ready now; sometimes snapping is what we need to prepare for. Perhaps snapping is always ahead of us, even when it is behind us.
I have already noted how the scene of being wound up can be how “we” coheres. If you are heard as speaking in a way that gets in the way of other people’s occupation, however you speak, you will be heard as aggressive; you might be understood as the one doing the winding. And then: winding up becomes a defense because someone has shown they are not willing to stay in the same place. What follows can be understood a bind. So the response to talking about racism is not just an individual response but a binding together, a sense that talking about racism is being stingy and unkind to them. A wind up can be how a situation becomes tighter in response to an effort to create room to breathe.
Andrea Levy’s Fruit of the Lemon (1999) is a novel that gives a snap a history, black feminist snap as a response to a situation of being wound up. The novel tells the story of Faith Jackson, a Black British girl whose parents migrated to England from Jamaica. She is getting along with her life, doing her own thing. There is an event. She and her flat mate Simon witness a violent attack on another black woman. He runs after the attackers, and they are caught up. Events: what catch you out and catch you up. We witness the event through Faith’s eyes: “A black woman was standing in the doorway of a bookshop. She looked composed, although she had a started stare – like she’s just won the pools and couldn’t quite believe it. But sliding slowly down one side of her face were several strings of blood – thick, bright, red blood. I stood in front of her and asked, ‘Are you all right?’ and felt stupid when she collapsed onto the ground” (150). They return to tell the story of the event.
The story creates a certain kind of drama, in which Simon becomes not simply witness or participant, but also the saviour, the hero, and even the victim. They gather around him as if this has happened to him, as if what made the event an event was how it affected him: “Simon’s hands shook as he lifted his cigarette to his mouth – he couldn’t hold it steady. Marion put her hand over his hand to support it. ‘I think you’re in shock.’ Sweat tea is what you need,’ she said looking closely into Simon’s face. ‘Mick, put the kettle on’” (156). Faith watches the black woman disappear as they gather around him. She interrupts the gathering. “I interrupted the story twice. ‘She was a black woman’, I said. Simon had just called her the woman who worked there. Twice I had to tell them this woman was black like me. And both times Simon and Mick had looked at me and nodded.” (156). They keep going with their story, as if her blackness was just a detail that can be passed over. They fuss over him: giggling, full of the drama of an event. And then Faith can’t bear it anymore. She can’t bear the violence of the event as a violence that acquires is force by being directed against a black woman to be passed over. She snaps. “But then I tipped my cup of tea slowly over the table. “Will you all just shut up. Just fucking shut up. Its not funny! And there was complete silence as they stopped and stared at me. I left the house” (158). To speak of racism, to name racism, to be conscious of racism, puts Faith in a different world, a world where blackness cannot be passed over. The black woman has to shout to be heard. And in shouting, the black woman is the one who becomes the origin of bad feeling, who pierces through the sound of their apparent care and concern. She must leave.
If you have to shout to be heard you are not heard. Think of how all her efforts to be heard came to nothing. The silence in response to what she says is a tightening. When words are used as a way of confronting a history, it does not mean that everyone will hear that confrontation. They will hear you as being confrontational. When we think of being wound up we need to think about worlds; how they organised to enable some to breathe, to give attention as to give affection; how they leave less room for others. A world can be a wind up. Whiteness is a world; a way of gathering around. That gathering seems neutral, kind even, warm, at least to some; but it depends on the erasure of violence.
A snap can be a way of leaving a situation.
This description from Levy has much to teach us about winds, binds, worlds. Because it teaches us how snap becomes a snap shot, a way of framing a situation. If you started with the snap, the moment when she says “just fucking shut up,” if you sliced the situation so the middle was the beginning, then you would not notice what got her there. And of course those to whom she directs her words do not notice what got her there, which is how she gets there.
When a snap becomes a snap shot, a frame that is frozen, which is cut in the middle of a dynamic and difficult history, a history that includes physical acts of violence as well as how that violence is passed over, so much is not visible or audible. What is erased is then reproduced.
What is erased is then reproduced. Transphobia and trans exclusion within feminism are reproduced by being passed over. Some feminists have made a case that the word TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) should not be used as it has become a slur. Words are shaped by usage – and we can find examples of the word TERF being used as a slur (and just as many examples of TERF being defined as a slur that should not be used) especially on social media. We might point to examples of that word being used alongside other negative words. We could find examples of the word TERF being used in a threatening way. So surely that’s the evidence we need? You could do exactly the same exercise with racism or the word racist (and sexist too for that matter). You could do a search on twitter and find racism and racist used alongside swear words to convey hostile sentiments, even threatening actions. Would you conclude that racist was a slur and that we should not use that word? Some do, of course; some hear racism as mean, an accusation, a way of trying to stop a conversation. But those who come up against racism know that we are led to the word by the experience of racism, and that the negation of the word derives from the negation of the experience. It is a reaction to racism to use racism in that way.
To start with uses of TERF as a negative term, a term for what is rejected, is to freeze the frame, to perform the snap shot; it is to erase the very histories of violence, which include the histories of how that violence has been passed over, which have led to that word being used in that way. That word acquires its negativity in reaction to how some feminist work (not all, not all at all) has become a wall of harassment. A wind can be a wall. That wall is made up of jokes, asides, qualifications, rebuttals, ways of narrating trans as danger, stranger danger, more or less explicitly; a wall that disappears from view when each brick is read as just another critical viewpoint on gender, or when transphobic and trans exclusionary arguments are treated as “just another view” we should be allowed to express at the feminist table. To discuss the words used for trans exclusion without discussing the phenomena of trans exclusion (as many have done in making the case that TERF is a slur) reproduces that exclusion.
When signs of being wound up are taken as a starting point, we miss a history. To miss a history is to repeat a history
In some cases, the history is missed because those who are doing the winding up do not tend to narrate their own actions in a way that casts doubt on their own narratives. In other cases, it is because the winding is not just not audible to those who are not being wound up, because they are not the ones toward whom that activity is directed. Just remember: it is hard to feel pressure that you are not under. For example when I first read the letter I referred to in this previous post, I remember thinking that one of the worst consequences of it would be the new legitimacy it would give to trans exclusionary feminism. I thought at first I was indeed witnessing an increase of such speech. But once I began to work through the networks that supported that letter, mostly on social media, I began to realize that what I first heard as a turning up of the volume was just more of the same thing that had been going on all along. For many trans people, especially trans women, that volume switch was already stuck on full blast. My cis privilege was, until then, not having had to notice that harassment or not having had to hear the sound of that blast.
Sometimes, we need to blast ourselves out of complacency.
We need to read the signs of being wound up as a history of being wound up.
Those signs: they are addressed to others.
A snap is not the starting point but a snap is the start of something. To be wound up can sometimes feel frustrating, even pointless. It can be something we have to survive in order to live. But it can also be what we do with others, even for others. When you are wound up, you tend to be rather expressive. You tend to be inflamed. What if the point of this gesture is that it makes something tangible? Even if the tangibility of a provocation is right in front of us, snapping might bring something out that otherwise might be missed.
To bring something out can bring something about.
This is my first post for 2017.
I end with optimism, a killjoy optimism that derives hope from what seems locked as a dynamic.
Being wound up can lead us to others who are wound up.
hooks, bell (2000). Feminist Theory: from Margin to Centre. London: Pluto Press.
Levy, Andrea (1999). Fruit of the Lemon. London: Headline Book Publishing.
Lorde, Audre (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: The Crossing Press.
Moreton-Robinson, Aileen (2003). “‘Tiddas talkin’ up to the White Woman’: When Huggins et al. took on Bell” in Michele Grossman(ed), Black Lines: Contemporary Critical Writing by Indigenous Australians. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. 66-78.
Ngai, Sianne (2007). Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Thobani, Sunera (2003). “War Frenzy and Nation Building: A Lesson in the Politics of ‘Truth-Making’”, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16, 3: 399-314.
 A shorter and revised version of this chapter is available here: http://sfonline.barnard.edu/polyphonic/print_ahmed.htm