I am sharing my lecture, “Snap! Feminist Moments, Feminist Movements,” that I gave in Stockholm on May 11 2017 as part of the launch of the Swedish edition of Living a Feminist Life. You can hear an audio of the lecture here, which is followed by a conversation with Anna Adeniji and Ulrika Dahl. With thanks to all those who helped make my visit possible including Tryck, Interfem, Centre for Gender Research and Centre for Multidisciplinary Research on Racism at Uppsala University and Tankekraft Förlag.
I have preserved the lecture in the form it was given – with just a few acknowledgments added as notes. I gave a slightly different version of the Snap! lecture for the first time at the PhiloSOPHIA conference at the end of March/early April at Florida Atlantic University. Can I think the organizers of that conference, Lauren Guilmette and Robert Leib for your work and for the opportunity to try snap out, as well as to everyone who attended for discussion and feedback.
The lecture draws from the chapter, “Feminist Snap,” from Living a Feminist Life, as well as offering some new reflections on snap in relation to bonds, institutions and movements. I will be returning to snap on my project on “the uses of use” as well as in my project on complaint. I only realised that snap was going to travel with me after giving my first two lectures from my use project in the last few weeks. I realised from what I heard in what I was saying (sometimes we have to say words out loud to others before we can hear what we are saying) how much the language of Living a Feminist Life came from my project on “the uses of use” (which I had started earlier but put aside) in particular the attention to wear and tear.
Snap and sap: I hope to write more of these connections, worn, weary, torn, and teary.
Snap! Feminist Moments, Feminist Movements, lecture by Sara Ahmed, Stockholm, May 11, 2017.
I want to begin with a scene from Andrea Levy’s Fruit of the Lemon (1999). 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. She does not think of herself as any different to those around her; her white friends are just her friends; she shares a house; she shares a life. Then there is an event. Events can catch you out. She and her flat mate Simon witness a violent attack on a black woman. 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 home to tell the story of the event. The telling creates a certain kind of drama, in which Simon becomes the centre of attention. They gather around him as if what happened, 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 kindly around him; concerned. 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.” The word “interrupt” comes from rupture, or break. But they don’t stop; they keep going, nodding as keeping going; as if her blackness is just a detail that can be passed over. They fuss over him: giggling even, full of the drama of an event. And then Faith can’t bear it anymore. She can’t bear the violence of the event, a violence that was 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. It’s not funny! And there was complete silence as they stopped and stared at me. I left the house” (158). A raised voice, a spilt cup of tea: it might seem like the start of something. For Faith she is right in the middle of something: she brings to the surface a violence that is already there, that has travelled with them into the room; the violence directed toward a black woman, the violence of how that violence goes unnamed; the violence of attention, to how whiteness becomes the centre of attention; the concern, the drama; all about him.
Sometimes you have to watch someone else disappear before you become aware of your own disappearance. Sometimes you have to witness violence directed toward another before you can witness the violence directed toward yourself. As a black woman speaking of a black woman, Faith has to shout to be heard. If you have to shout to be heard you are heard as shouting. If you have to shout to be heard you are not heard. Think of how all her efforts to be heard, to get through that wall of silence, that wall of indifference, that wall of whiteness, come to nothing. Think of how all the frustration, that rage, can become a tipping point. It is only when you seem to lose it, when you shout, swear, spill, that you have their attention. And then you become a spectacle. And what you brought out means you have to get out. When we think of such moments of snap, those moments when you can’t take it anymore, when you just can’t take it anymore, we are thinking about worlds; how worlds are organised to enable some to breathe, how they leave less room for others. You have to leave because there is nothing left; when there is nothing left.
Feminism can be what happens in these moments, and by feminism here I am referring to black feminism and feminism of colour, when amidst the hustle and bustle of ordinary life, something is revealed to you about a world you had assumed as accommodating. By starting here, with how we are not accommodated, we generate concepts, concepts that I call in thinking about Audre Lorde’s work, in thinking with Audre Lorde’s work, sweaty concepts; concepts that come out of an effort to be in a world; concepts that come out of the hard labour of description. A world, a wall: a world can be a wall, what you come up against, a wall that can be built out of other people’s affections, a wall that comes up because of the body you have; because what comes with you when you enter a room. Today I want to reflect on snap as a moment with a feminist history. Moments become movements; moments can accumulate; worn threads of connection.
Snap the Bond
Snap is often used to indicate a sudden break or a quick movement. Snap can be used to refer to a sharp sound. Say you hear the sound of a twig snapping. You might not have noticed the twig before; you might have not noticed the pressure on the twig, how it was bent, but when it snaps, it catches your attention. You might hear the snap as the start of something. A snap is only the start of something because of what you did not notice, the pressure on the twig. You might hear someone when she shouts, because she shouts; at that moment a voice can break through over the sound of everything else. It does not mean she starts off by shouting.
A snap is not the starting point. Thinking from snap, from the sound of breaking, has allowed me to reflect more on what is at stake in the figures that have been by travelling companions: the feminist killjoy and the angry woman of colour. If you recognize yourself in her, the feminist killjoy or the angry woman of colour, she is where you have been. When you are estranged from happiness – and happiness can be what you shatter just by turning up or speaking up – so much else is revealed. And so we might be there, listening to the happy hum of family life; you might be having conversations where only certain things are brought up. Someone says something problematic. If you find something problematic, you have a problem. If you find something problematic, you become a problem. So, you respond quietly, 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. Being wound up: you become tighter, and tighter, the more you are provoked. Tighter, tighter, tighter still, gasp, there is no air left: until, snap. Provocation can be performed quietly or maybe provocation is not heard as provocation because what has been said is consistent with an expectation. But you can hear the snap in her voice. Sharp, brittle, loud; perhaps it is like the volume has suddenly been turned up, as if for no reason; the quietness that surrounds her ceases when she speaks, her voice cutting the atmosphere like a knife, registering as the loss of something; a nicer atmosphere, a gentler mood.
A killjoy: registers as the loss of what others wish to retain. A killjoy can register as the loss of “we,” but of course a “we,” can be performed by witnessing her snap: look at her, look, look see how she spins! It is important to note that you can be heard as snapping, as causing a loss of what we wish to retain, such that “we” becomes a retainer, without even raising your voice. So for instance if a woman of colour talks about racism within feminist spaces, you can be heard as snapping, however you speak. A word can be snap: the word racism is heard as breaking something, a bond of whiteness, say, that fragile bond that somehow, we know how, has to be protected even by those who are not part of it. For bodies of colour, turning up can be enough to bring racism up. This means that: a body can be snap, you arrive and there is a sharp break with what came before.
A bond can be what you are asked to preserve; an invitation can become a requirement. And a bond can be to a person, to friends, to family, as well as to some we or another. Snapping a bond can be something you do as a consequence of something else you are doing. If pointing out sexism or racism means being judged as snapping a bond, as cutting yourself off from a family, say, it does not mean that your aim was to snap the bond. But your experience of being judged as snapping teaches you about that bond; how it comes with conditions. We often learn conditions by failing to meet them. You realize that sustaining a bond might mean not saying certain things, not doing certain things. So even if you did not aim to snap a bond, when a bond snaps as a consequence of what you say or do, snap can become what you are willing to cause. Think of Faith, she has to leave not just because she snapped at her friends but because of how her bond with her friends was broken; she realizing that bond required overlooking violence, overlooking racism, overlooking, even, herself.
A snap can be what happens when you are unwilling to meet the conditions for being with others. If a bond has such conditions, a bond as how to be, we are also learning that a bond can be to an idea of how a life is to be lived to count as a good life. Queer as snap: the moment you realize what you do not have to be. Not following a family line can be understood as breaking a line: snap, snap, as if you are cutting up the family with a pair of scissors just by arranging your life in a different way. Not following something as destroying something: no wonder they find us to be destructive. So much is reproduced by the requirement to follow. Within the academy you might be asked to follow the well-trodden paths of citation; to cite properly as to cite those deemed to have the most influence. Not following something as destroying something: you can become a vandal by rearranging a text in a different way. A vandal is defined as a “willful destroyer of the venerable and beautiful.” Even to speak of whiteness in the academy or of colonialism as the context in which Enlightenment philosophy happened is to bring up the scandal of the vandal. Decolonizing the curriculum as a project has been framed as an act of vandalism, a willful destruction of our universals; knocking off the heads of statues, snapping at the thrones of the philosopher kings.
A line becomes what you have a duty to follow. A line becomes a bond, a line as direction and directive; a line that leads you to where you must go, who you must become. A bond of fate, a fatal bond. Gender can be a fatal bond. For many, what we can call gender fatalism – boys will be boys, girls will be girls – would be fatal, a sentencing to death. Girls who will not be girls, boys who will not be boys, that is to say, those who refuse to be bound to their original assignments, might have to snap that bond to be. Snapping can be necessary for being, which means for some, to be requires snapping, snapping not as a singular event, but as what you have to keep doing to keep being.
Snapping might matter because a bond gets in the way of living a life, perhaps living a feminist life, a queer life, a gender queer life, a trans life. It is important for me to note here that not all bonds are destructive; to sustain a life we need to sustain the bonds that sustain us. A familial bond can become a source of vitality and strength, even shelter, from the harshness of a world. Knowing the difference between bonds that are sustaining and those that are not is a challenge; it is a life challenge. Sometimes we have a crisis because a bond we had thought of as being sustaining ends up not being as sustaining as we had thought. Sustaining a bond can require overlooking violence. That was Faith’s killjoy lesson. A bond can also be violent. What can make living with violence hard is how hard it is to imagine the possibility of its overcoming; you might be isolated; you might be materially dependent; you might be down, made to think and feel you are beneath that person, or have your life so bound up with a person that you feel as if you left there would be nothing of you left. But in spite of all of that, there can be a point, a breaking point, when it is too much and what did not seem possible becomes necessary. She fights back; she speaks out. She has places to go because other women have been there. No wonder that leaving a situation of violence can feel like snap: a bond of fate has indeed been broken. Perhaps the slow time of endurance can only be ended by a sudden movement. Or perhaps the movement seems sudden only because we cannot see the slower times of bearing.
To hear snap, one must thus slow down; we also listen for the slower times of wearing and tearing, of making do; we listen for the sounds of the costs of becoming attuned to the requirements of an existing system. To hear snap, to give that moment a history, we might have to learn to hear the sound of not snapping. Perhaps we are learning to hear exhaustion, the gradual sapping of energy when you have to struggle to exist in a world that negates your existence. Eventually something gives. This is why snapping is not always planned. Indeed snapping can get in the way of the best-laid plan. Snapping can be about the intensity of a situation; when you can no longer do something you have done before. In the end, it can be something little that ends up being too much. A snap can be a story of how you get to the point when it is too much. When you snap you are snapping not only at what is in front of you, but what is behind you; that history of what you have put up with. A snap can be experienced as a delayed snap, once it happens, you can wonder with frustration what took you so long. A snap can tell us when it is too much, after it is too much, which is how snap can becomes a scene of our feminist instruction.
Snap as Feminist Work
To live a feminist life is to be a feminist at work. In this section I want to explore feminist snap within the context of working within institutions such as universities. I have described diversity work as the work of trying to transform institutions by opening them up to those for whom they were not intended. I was lucky to have the opportunity to interview diversity practitioners about their work – I drew on these interviews in On Being Included and then more recently in the middle section of Living a Feminist Life. I learnt so much about institutions by listening to those who were trying to transform them. One practitioner describes: “So much of the time it is a banging your head on the brick wall job.” Banging your head against a brick wall, the sore point of repetition, that sense that you keep coming against the same thing, over and over again. This diversity practitioner was appointed by an institution to transform that institution. And yet she experiences that institution as a wall, as the very thing that blocks her efforts. Perhaps her efforts are blocked not just despite but through being given an appointment. This is how: a job description becomes a wall description.
I want to share with you an example from the research. This is not a snap story the way say Faith’s story was a snap story. It is what I call a wall story. But I want to suggest we need to understand these stories together. .
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 have been made. If they do not, it has not. A decision made in present about the future is overridden by the momentum of the past. In this case, 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. So perhaps 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 this wall to become apparent. To those who do not come against it, the wall does not appear: the institution might be experienced as open and diverse, as happy as its mission statement, as willing as its equality statement. Walls only come up because of what diversity practitioners are trying to do. To say something obvious and the obvious is what needs to be said, if there is not attempt to change something, there is no need to block something. 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 stops something from moving through the system. This is why I call diversity workers “institutional plumbers.” Stopping is a mechanism or a series of mechanisms. In our 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 in which those within the institution acted after the policy had been agreed. We learn agreeing to something is another way of stopping something from happening. The wall is a finding. Let me summarise the finding: what stops movement moves. If what stops movement moves, then noticing movement can be how you do not notice what stopped.
This example of the diversity policy that does not do anything is a tantalizingly tangible example of what goes on so much and so often. But that it is tangible, that I can share the story with you here today, is a consequence of diversity work and of the labor of a diversity worker, of her blood, sweat and tears. The story of how the wall keeps standing is the same story as the story of how the diversity worker becomes shattered; how she might end up giving up, as she says “sometimes you just give up.” This interview was the last formal interview I conducted, and although it was full of frustration, her frustration, which I have no doubt picked up mine, perhaps we amplified each other’s, was also one of the most animated and energetic I conducted. It is not hard to understand why. When we are working within institutions, working for them, employed by them, we become containers of institutional will: we have to keep a lid on it. We have to contain ourselves because of the work we have to do. When we speak to each other, we might speak from frustration, and from can be about; frustration about what we have not been able to do, frustration about not getting through. Frustration can be understood as a feminist record, a way of recording what we do not get over, what is not over. Telling a story can thus be snap; it can be a way of saying “no,” of giving your frustration somewhere to go. This snap was articulated by a diversity worker, to me, another diversity worker, who in receiving a snap can share it with you today. Snap here is expressive; it allows something to be shared. The word express comes from press. It implies something that is squeezed out. To say snap is expressive is to say what is shared is what is no longer contained.
My interviews with diversity workers were full of moments when we could not contain ourselves; laughter, tears, words thrown around, sharp words, shattering words. Another time we say the word snap is when we say the same thing at the same time. A snap can be about getting it as much as saying it. Maybe we snap because we hear each other in the wear and the tear of the words we share; we hear what it is like to come up against the same thing over and over again. Killjoy recognition often takes the form of the recognition of feminist work. The diversity worker could be described as an 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. We imagine the eyes rolling as if to say: well she would say that. It is from experiences like this that I developed my equation: rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy. It is interesting to me that we often need others to put into words something we experience. A killjoy experience: it can be the click, click, of things falling into place, becoming clear, as well as the snap, snap, of letting go of something, faith in an organization, say, as that which could deliver feminist hopes.
Snap can be experienced as a moment of clarity, but snap can also be the painful process of recognising something that gets in the way of your own happiness. Snapping can be work. I learnt a great deal about how snap require a collective feminist effort by working on the problem of sexual harassment. I am going to be drawing here on some data I have begun collecting for a new project on complaint, as well as my own experiences of trying to support students through a process of testifying against sexual harassment. As Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page (2015) have noted in their important article “Sexism in the Centre” there is a problem locating the problem of sexual harassment. And this means that: those who talk about the problem of sexual harassment become the location of the problem.
A wall comes up, in the form of a concerted effort to stop students from making a complaint. Students are warned that complaining would cause damage; it would damage their careers, reputations, relationships. This warning often works as a threat: you will lose the connections you need to progress. One student describes: “I was repeatedly told that ‘rocking the boat’ or ‘making waves’ would affect my career in the future and that I would ruin the department for everyone else. I was told if I did put in a complaint I would never be able to work in the university and that is was likely I wouldn’t get a job elsewhere.” Here complaining becomes a form of self-damage as well as damage to others, ruining a department no less. This student goes onto to describe how the pressure not to complain is exerted: “In just one day I was subjected to eight hours of gruelling meetings and questioning almost designed to break me and stop me from taking the complaint any further.” A wall can be what comes up, or a wall can be what comes down, like a ton of bricks. Harassment is how someone is stopped or almost stopped by being worn down. This is how power often works: you don’t have to stop people from doing something, just make it harder for them to do something. We can understand why and how snap requires a feminist support system: you need a shelter, a place to go, to keep going.
And to keep going you have to take even more pressure. Pressure is maintained or even increased as long as someone proceeds with a complaint; if you stop it is like a hand is lifted. This means that a snap, especially when we are working within institutions, is not just one action, a snap has to be sustained: a snap has to be a series of snaps. Maybe you keep going, you are more likely to proceed if you are working with others, but maybe you slow down, until you stop, until you stop something that you yourself started. Even when you snap because you can’t take it anymore, the difficulty of having to keep it up can mean, does mean, has meant, you might still end up giving up. One of the reasons that harassment can go on so long, in partial or even full view, is that it is so hard to sustain opposition to it.
What do we do when our opposition becomes too hard to sustain? As some of you will know, eventually I resigned from my post. Resignation can sound passive, even fatalistic: resigning oneself to one’s fate. But resignation can be an act of feminist protest. By snapping you are saying: I will not work for an organisation that is not addressing the problem of sexual harassment. By snapping you are saying: I will not reproduce what you do not address. If a resignation is to become a protest it needs to be made public. My feminist killjoy blog has given me a place to snap. And it was my statement that was heard as snap. From my point of view the statement was not my snap moment; it was something I wrote much later, quite calmly, without any sense that making a statement would do very much at all. My snap moment was earlier. You know what it is like when someone who you are desperately trying not to give up on; trying to love, says something that you find deeply offensive. You can hear glass shatter; that moment when you realise what you had cannot be put back together. I had the moment of realising that my relationship with the institution was broken. Earlier I implied that you can hear snap often because of what else you do not hear I am now suggesting that a snap, however loud, can be inaudible to others. Another snap might be required to make a snap audible to others. The second snap is heard as the first snap. Sometimes a snap and an expression coincide. Sometimes they do not, which means that snap can involve opacity; even what seems so revealing can be withdrawn.
No wonder then: things get messy. When we snap we put something out, whatever comes out or whatever comes about. My act of making public the reasons for my resignation was supported by many of my colleagues. One colleague describes my action as “rash.” She was referring not to my resignation, which I suspect was understood as sad rather than as snap, but to my public statement. Rash is a word used to imply an action that is too quick as well as careless. If a snap is a moment with a history, that history is the accumulated effect of what you have come up against. And just think: the more you do not get through, the more you have to do. You have more and more meetings, with students, with academics, with administrators. You write blogs about the problem of sexual harassment and the silence that surrounds it. And still there is silence. To resign is a tipping point, a gesture that becomes necessary because of what the previous actions did not accomplish. The actions that did not accomplish anything are not noticed by those who are not involved in the effort. The action that spills a history, so that it falls out, so there is a fall out, is deemed rash. It is not just pressure you cannot detect when a snap sounds sudden; it is also a history of not being willing to put up with something, of trying but failing to get through.
When a snap is what is noticed so much is not noticed: exhaustion, pressure, harassment, work, not being willing; refusal; resistance. What happens after snap? Sometimes we ask this question before we snap: what will happen if I come out with it? Sometimes we do not come out with it in fear of the consequences. Unless snap is accidental, something that happens without you realising what is happening, snapping can feel like a leap into the unknown. I have learnt from that leap. After I shared my reasons for my resignation, many people shared with me their own stories, their own institutional battles; feminist snap as data collection. By snapping we become feminist ears; we become willing to receive. A feminist ear can provide a release of a pressure valve. Just loosening the screw a little bit, a tiny little bit, and you have an explosion. We need more feminist explosions. Of course that is why professional norms of conduct are about keeping a lid on it; institutional loyalty as silence in case of institutional damage. Sexual harassment is treated (even by some professional feminists) as dirty laundry: what should not be aired in public. Racism too: racism is so often privatized, a problem you have with an organization as a problem with you.
Earlier I described diversity workers as institutional plumbers. We might from this description assume that diversity workers are appointed to unblock the system. But a blockage can be how the system is working. The system is working by stopping those are trying to transform the system. This means that to transform a system we have to stop the system from working. As Sarah Franklin (2005) describes we might need to throw a wrench in the works, or become “wenches in the works,” to stop the system from working. We might have to become leaky pipes; drip, drip. Of course, the institution will try to mop up the spillage; happy shiny policies will be put in place, holes left by departures will be filled without reference to what went on before, a blot becomes something to be wiped up, wiped away.
But there is hope here: they cannot mop up all of the mess. One spillage can lead to more coming out. Can lead, does lead. A leak can be a feminist lead. We could think of feminist history as a history of snappy women, a history of women who have leaked all over the place. What comes out of our own mouths might come out of a history; we have, as it were, other snaps behind us. I think of Gloria Anzaldúa’s chapter, “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.” A dentist who is cleaning her roots says to her with “anger rising in his voice” that “we’re going to have to do something with your tongue” and that he’d “never seen anything as strong and stubborn” (1999 , 75). Her tongue keeps pushing out the “wads of cotton, the drills, the long thing needles;” all the materials the dentist, concerned with health and hygiene, puts in her mouth, are pushed right out again, as if her tongue is refusing to be cleaned, as if her tongue is spreading infection. The word complaint shares a root with plague: sick speech, striking at the breast. A complaint threatens to spread through the whole body. What follows is an attempt to contain that infection, to stop her from spreading. Let me share with you a Grimm story. It offers a method of containing infection.
Once upon a time there was a child who was willful, and would not do as her mother wished. For this reason God had no pleasure in her, and let her become ill, and no doctor could do her any good, and in a short time she lay on her death-bed. When she had been lowered into her grave, and the earth was spread over her, all at once her arm came out again, and stretched upwards, and when they had put it in and spread fresh earth over it, it was all to no purpose, for the arm always came out again. Then the mother herself was obliged to go to the grave, and strike the arm with a rod, and when she had done that, it was drawn in, and then at last the child had rest beneath the ground.
What a story. The willful child: she has a story to tell. In this Grimm story, which is certainly a grim story, the willful child is the one who is disobedient, who will not do as her mother wishes. If authority assumes the right to turn a wish into a command, then willfulness is a diagnosis of the failure to comply with those whose authority is given. The story is thus about how authority is given. It is part of a tradition Alice Miller (1989) called “poisonous pedagogy,” a tradition of educational writing that assumes the child as soiled and spoiled by sin; and which insists on violence as moral correction, as being for the child. The Grimm story is a story of child but also of an arm: the child’s willfulness is inherited by an arm, an arm that keeps coming up, until it too is beaten down. It is a story of an arm but also of a rod: the rod becomes a technique for the elimination of willfulness from others. It is a story of willfulness as self-infection; disobedience as becoming ill.
When the arm is coming up, there is a spark of life, of strife, of life as strife. The arm is snappy. A complaint could be thought of as an arm that is still rising. We have to find a way to keep it up. This grim story is not that story, the story of feminist complaint. The story is told from the rod’s point of view. It offers a warning; be willing or you will be beaten. It offers an invitation: identify with the rod and you will be spared. So much violence is abbreviated here: so much silence about violence is explained here, as if by not bringing up violence up, not noticing it, not mentioning it, you might be spared. No wonder: whenever someone violence up, the willful child quickly comes after her. She is a way of coming after her: as if to say, speak up and her fate will be yours. The figure of the willful child is a container; a way of containing snap; making her refusal appear lonely and unsupported: her protest becoming babble; her voice scrambled, a stray, faint, so faint, becoming fainter, until she disappears.
We will not let you disappear. We will put our ear to the ground. Snap comes up from below the ground. To come after snap is to receive snap from others, to pass on what we receive. I think of the film Born in Flames (dir. Lizzie Borden, 1983). It is set in a future time after a socialist revolution has happened (a “war of liberation”), but the future looks rather like the present, or even the past; what is to come is already behind us. We are introduced to many of the characters by snapshots attached to stories gathered by a surveillance team; the voice-over introducing each character as a suspect, as if to the police; different individuals who make up the Women’s Army, who are protesting against this new regime. The film is dystopic: many of the promises of that socialist revolution are shown to have been empty; there is sexism; there is sexual harassment; there are cuts to services for women who are victims of rape; there is unemployment and poverty that disproportionately affects brown and black communities; there is disaffection; there is despair; there is depression; there is oppression. The film shows how any revolutionary struggle that dismisses sexism and racism as immaterial will lead us to the same place; it will allow the same bodies to be reassembled, same old, same old; white men saving us from white men. In one scene the president is speaking of the commitments of the party to equality and justice; we hear his address by watching him on television with others who are watching him on television. We are watching: the Women’s Army. Zella Wylie, a senior black woman activist, played by Florence Flo Kennedy, rolls her eyes as he is speaking. I mentioned earlier my equation rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy. This is a different version of that feminist equation. Feminists: we are rolling our eyes. Our rolling eyes signal a collective recognition of the gap between what is being said and what is done; saying what you are doing as not doing what you are saying.
The Women’s Army are also described as counterrevolutionary because they are impatient. Impatient: that’s a word with a snappy history. Patience refers to the willingness to bear suffering without irritation or the capacity to accept or tolerate delay. You are asked to be patient, as if what is wrong will not go on, as if with patience, things will only get better. Your impatience might even be deemed the cause of your failure to reach the happiness promised, as if by becoming impatient you have deprived yourself of what would have come your way, as if you have stolen your own future perfect. Impatience: when you are not willing to bear. Born in Flames teaches us how impatience can be a feminist virtue.
Feminist snap in this film is distributed through a series of actions and thus across a series of actors. A woman is harassed on the street or the subway: and women on bicycles with whistles come to her defense. Feminist snap is not always planned but it can be planned. That action is called dangerous by a commentator in the film because of its “vigilante sentiment.” And perhaps that is feminist snap as political action: vigilantism as taking the law into your own hands; whistles and bicycles become feminist tools for trying to make audible a violence that has already taken place. The escalation of violence that leads to the ending of the film is the death of Adelaide, the police killing of an unarmed black woman, a death the police explain as her taking her own life; suicide in a cell. The film: it feels like it is on a fast forward to the present, to how many are making movements out of the exposure of police brutality against unarmed black men and black women.
The snap displayed in the film is the political work of getting that story out, that story of police brutality; the story of repression by the state is the story that is repressed by the state. The story of repression has to be pushed harder to get anywhere because it has to counter the story told by the state, a story that travels easily and quickly as the lines of communication are kept open for it. The state’s story is hauntingly familiar to us. We know the story; it is the story of the willful child. The Grimm story is the state’s story: that those who die cause their own death. The rod that beats her to death is made a right, her existence turned into a crime, her persistence into rebellion. She does exist. She does persist. The story does not just depict her death; it sentences her to death. It is not just the content of the story of the willful child that matters; it is the speed with which it can travel; saturating the world by cancelling out the sounds of her scream; her no, heard as noise, as saying nothing, as just another sign of willful disobedience.
We hear you. We will not let you go; let it go. Feminist snap is required to counter the story by raising the sound of protest, making audible what is being done to her; a singular her, many hers. We have to gather to tell another story of what happened to her; to give an account of her death as murder; to count her death as murder. Feminist vigilantism translates into a feminist vigil. A vigil: to stay awake with a person who is dying; to mark or to mourn, to make a protest, to pray; to count our losses, to count her as loss, or, to borrow the name of a recent campaign in response to police violence against black women, can I acknowledge here the important work of Kimberlé Crenshaw and Andrea Ritchie, to say her name.
So much violence does not become visible or knowable or tangible. We have to fight to bring that violence to attention. Feminist snap might be how we tell a counter-story, the story that we must tell still; a story that if it is to be told requires sharp and sudden movements to get through or to get out because of what is still; how willfulness is still used by the state to justify death. Feminist snap can be rethought not only as an action but as a method for distributing information. It might involve what the film depicts: taking over media channels and interrupting an official broadcast (remember, interrupt comes from rupture: to break) or using pirate channels. Snap is a method for getting information out because sometimes what we have to get out would compromise a source if traced to a source. We might have to cut a message off from a body. When speaking out is too risky, we have to find other ways for the violence to become manifest. We might need to use guerrilla tactics, and we have a feminist and queer history to draw upon; you can write names of harassers on books; graffiti on walls, turn bodies into art (1). Or to evoke a recent action by feminist direction group Sisters Uncut, we can put red ink in the water so that the center of a city seems flooded by blood. They cut, we bleed. It is a snappy slogan.
The riskier it is to snap, the more inventive we might have to become.
Conclusion: Snappy Movements
Snap can be what we inherit from those who came before us. And by saying this I am not just referring to those snaps that have been publicly remembered as acts of civil disobedience and protest, those snaps that break through, or that led to a break through. One might think of Rosa Parks on that day, December 1 1955, when she refused to give up her seat on the bus. She had not planned to protest on that specific day: she says later that “she had been pushed as far as she could” (cited in Theoharis 2009: 123). She had had enough, snapping as pushing back. There were many other acts of pushing back that have not been recorded, many other black women and black men who refused to budge who are not remembered; who we do not know about, who make the civil rights movement possible. And as Jeanne Theoharis notes, if Rosa Parks’ stance that day was “an independent and personal choice” what “made it the catalyst for a movement was certainly not a singular act but years of organizing by Parks and others in Montgomery that made people ready for collective action” (2009: 123). Sometimes a snap becomes a spark, igniting something, because that spark can be received, where this “can be” depends not only on activism, which is a long haul, a slog, but on who is judged as best able to hold the story, to give snap a narrative shape and form.
Or think of the Stonewall riots. An interview with Sylvia Rivera that took place in 1989 has been recently released in which she discusses what happened on that day. Sylvia Rivera as a trans woman of colour tends not to be remembered in how those events are remembered. (2) In her account, snap comes up. It was a day like other days for those who gathered at the bar, gays, dykes, drag queens; a racially diverse army of the willingly perverse; an army that is used to living with police violence; an army for whom violence is usual. Rivera says: “This is what we learned to live with at that time. We had to live with it.” But something happens on that day. “We had to live with it until that day. And then, I don’t know if it was the customers or it was the police. It just [snaps fingers], everything clicked.” The snapping of fingers, that sound, snap, snap (3), allows Rivera to convey the sensation of things falling into place, when suddenly, or it seems sudden but it took a long time, a collective comes out with a “no,” a collective that is fragile, fabulous, full, furious: “Everybody just like, Why the fuck are we doin’ all this for? Oh, it was so exciting. It was like, Wow, we’re doing it. We’re doing it. We’re fucking their nerves.” A snap can be catchy, igniting a crowd, all those years of frustration, pain, all that is wearing, coming out, getting out, claiming the freedom to be what they have tried to stop you from being. It is electric, snap, snap; sizzle, so much comes out when you tip something over. To make snap a part of how we tell the story of political movements is to show how exhaustion and rebellion can lead to the same place; how those who are exhausted by the violence of a system come to revolt against that violence, how even when snap comes from sap, from being tired out, from being depleted, snap can reboot; snap can boost.
Snapping, that moment when the pressure has built up and tipped over, can be the basis of a revolt, a revolt against what we are asked to put up with. Snap here is not only about individual action, those moments when she does not take it anymore, when she reacts to what she has previously endured, though it includes those moments. It is not just that movements are built from moments. A movement is necessary so a moment can happen, a moment when the violence comes out; spills out. A movement is necessary. What is necessary has to become possible. Snap is about making what is necessary possible. Thank you.
(1) I would like to acknowledge and thank here the many students who have had to resort to such methods to get messages out about sexual harassment and sexual misconduct because using official procedures, and lines of communication, is how they have been blocked.
(2) With thanks to Sylvia Rivera for your wisdom and inspiration as well as to Eric Marcus, for the release of this important interview.
(3) We could write a history of finger snapping and its significance for racialized as well as sexual minorities. I would like to acknowledge here the importance of finger snapping as an expression within African American culture. Marlon Riggs describes finger snapping for African American gay men as “emotionally and politically charged as a clenched fist” (1999: 308). For a good discussion of the many layers of snapping as a complex and contested signifier for African American women and African American gay men see Patrick E. Johnson (2009).
Anzaldúa, Gloria (1999) . Borderlands, La Fontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books.
Franklin, Sarah (2015). “Sexism as a Means of Reproduction,” New Formations, 86: 14-33.
Levy, Andrea (1999). Fruit of the Lemon. London: Headline Book Publishing.
Lorde, Audre (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: The Crossing Press.
Johnson, Patrick E. (2009). “Snap! Culture: A Different Kind of ‘Reading,’” Text and Performance Quarterly, 15, 2: 122-142.
Miller, Alice (1987). For Your Own Good: The Roots of Violence in Child-Rearing. London: Virago Press.
Riggs, Marlon T. (1990). “Black Macho Revisited: Reflections of a Snap! Queen,” in Devon W. Carbado (ed), Black Men on Race, Gender and Sexuality: A Critical Reader, New York: New York University Press.306-311.
Theoharis, Jeanne (2009). “A Life Time of Being Rebellious: The Radicalism of Rosa Parks” in Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard (eds). Want to Start a Revolution: Radicalism in the Black Freedom Struggle. New York: New York University Press. 115-137.
Whitley, Leila and Tiffany Page (2015). “Sexism at the Centre: Locating the Problem of Sexual Harassment,” New Formations. 86: 34-53.
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How about this delightful snap! This woman snapped, walked out and unseated the sexist.
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