No

No a short word; a snap, perhaps.

No as negative speech; a complaint.

No what you say when you do not want to proceed; when you do not agree to something.

No as an address; delivered to a person or made against a system or given in a situation.

No what you announce by what you do or do not do with your body; as gesture, as withdrawal.

No as a story of how someone comes to refuse what had previously been endured.

No as political action; how a collective is formed by saying enough is too much; we from a will from a wont.

No as costly; what you are willing to say or do despite the consequences, whatever the consequences.

No as achievement: what we say for each other; what we pick up from each other.

No as what is behind you when you start over; when you try something out, when you go another way.

I have started with a series of 10:  10 no’s

NoNoNoNoNoNoNoNoNoNo

Together no becomes a scramble and a scream.

There will be more no‘s. Politics is the accumulation of no’s.

We can return to the start, to the shortness of the word no, a small word with a big job to do; a word we use because of what we have to do to create a world in which we can be.

We have many no’s behind us: we have rights because of how many said no; no to how they were judged, not human, less than human, no to how they were excluded or sometimes included, no to how a world was built to enable the safety, happiness and mobility of a few.

The experience of being subordinate – deemed lower or of a lower rank – could be understood as being deprived of no. To be deprived of no is to be determined by another’s will. To be determined is to become part of a whole: the classic metaphor of the servant (as well as the laborer) is the hands; you become the hands of the one you serve; you must be handy. You must do what you are asked to do; when obedience is a necessary part of fulfilling a function, no is not an option, although in some ways neither is yes, because what happens does not require your agreement; perhaps you are yes whether or not you say yes, yes sir, yes sir; which means that yes when said is not willed.

When you must be willing to agree, willing is not the absence of force. Michel Foucault in an oft-cited sentence wrote “if there was no resistance, there would be no power relations.” A less cited but equally important sentence follows: “Because it would be just a matter of obedience” (1997: 167). Judith Butler in an interview described how “when someone says ‘no’ to power, they are saying ‘no’ to a particular way of being formed by power. They are saying: I am not going to be subjected in this way or by these means through which the state establishes its legitimacy.  The critical position implies a certain ‘no’, a saying ‘no’ as an ‘I’, and this, then, is a step in the formation of this ‘I’” (2009, np). No saying becomes formative; a subject comes from (rather than causing) a will to disobey. Disobedience is when you say no without being given a right to say no.

The scandal: you come to be from refusing not to be or to be not.

Double negative: no to not.

If you did say no without being a subject with rights to determine your existence your no might be inaudible; babble. When your no becomes audible it would be a sign of  impertinence, a word that now implies “rudely bold” but derives from the Latin for “unconnected” or “unrelated.” A no if uttered becomes a sign of being unwilling to be part; unwilling to subordinate your will; a no as straying; no as becoming stray. No is insubordination not only given the content of speech (this is not about what you are saying no to) but because saying no is wrong when you have no right to no. A struggle against power is a struggle for a right to no, a right not to agree with what you are asked to do or to be.

In a democracy a no seems guaranteed as a freedom as much as a right; freedom of expression as freedom to say no, freedom of assembly as the freedom to gather around no.  But a no can still be dismissed as impertinent in the sense of rudely bold or boldly rude and can be judged as an act of political vandalism. So many refusals are dismissed in these terms; you might be free to say no but your no is heard as destructive; hearings have consequences (becoming a killjoy is a consequence). One thinks of decolonizing the curriculum, so often framed as the willful destruction of our universals, as saying no to culture, to life, to happiness (we can’t teach Kant, one headline laments). And then no becomes judged not only as how you stop others from doing something, but how you stop yourself from being something.

They might not stop you from saying no but they make it costly for you to say no.

No can be heard as inciting violence. The police coming down upon protesters with heavy hands, with weapons, do so, they so often say, in the case of violence. But they so often come down on protesters in case of violence, creating the violence they use retrospectively as a justification for violence. This judgement “in case of” exercises histories however it is made in the fast time of a present. When a crowd is a blur of brown and black, a crowd is treated in case of violence very quickly, as if brown and black people by the mere act of assembling are a case of violence.

Whether no is heard as provocation depends on who is saying no.

Or no can be expressed but be inaudible or no might even be expressible because it is inaudible. Perhaps you can say no because they do not hear what you say; do not, will not. No could even be a non-performative: what you can say when saying something would not do anything. I suggested in Living a Feminist Life (2017) that agreeing to something can be one of the best ways of stopping something from happening. My example was a diversity policy that was agreed after a long process of being stalled, but that, once agreed, never came into use.[1] A yes can be a path to a no or a not; how something does not happen. An organization might say yes when there is not enough behind that yes to bring something about. Perhaps no becomes what we are given freedom to say when there is not enough behind that no to bring something about. Or perhaps we are given permission to say no, or given somewhere to go with no, as a way of being contained; you can say no in a consultation exercise or a feedback session without that no being taken up or even in order that that no does not get taken up.

Then: when you get no out of your system no is out of the system.

This does not mean there is no point to saying no. If your no is contained, you can still hope the container leaks;  that no might spill out, getting everywhere. If we hope for a leak, we might still have to become attuned to how no can participate in the reproduction of what is being refused (the way in which, say, articulating anti-racist statements can participate in the creation of the appearance that anti-racism is permitted, or even that racism is not permitted).  We say no to racism, however much we can become implicated in the longevity of what we refuse; we say no because who knows eventually we can catch something from a word; no as catchy, as having the potential to cause more trouble along the way.

But yes, we do know this about no:

You need more than a right to say no for no to be effective.

For feminism: no is political labour.

No means no.

A no becomes blunt to make a point. It might seem that no means no is an unnecessary speech act; truth as virtue; something as true by virtue of the meaning of the word. We learn that the meaning of no can be erased by history; no can be stripped of life and vitality; no can even be turned and twisted into its opposite; no as yes. We have to say no means no because no has not been heard as no, because even when women said no they have been heard as saying yes. There is a patriarchal history: how men are given permission to hear no as yes, to assume women are willing, whatever women say, despite what they say, a history that is central to the injustice of the law, which has historically read consent off women’s own bodies or conduct, as if by dressing this way, or by doing something that way, she is enacting yes, even when she herself says no.

We need to hear the violence that converts no into yes.

We might also need to hear the cases in which yes involves force but is not experienced as force, when for instance she says yes to something as the consequences of saying no would be too much (loss of access to children, to resources or benefits, to a place of residence).

You might not say no because you have been warned about the consequences of saying no. A warning is so often a threat: if you say no, then. If you cannot do then, you cannot say no.

If your position is precarious you might not be able to afford no. You might say yes if you cannot afford to say no, which means you can say yes whilst disagreeing with something. This is why the less precarious might have a political obligation to say no on behalf of or alongside those who are more precarious.[2]

My project on complaint is teaching me more about how no operates as a form of political expression.[3] I am learning how making a complaint might be the moment a no is formally articulated; and how a complaint comes from a series of no’s, not all of which are articulated or put into words.

The culture of a department is shaped around misogyny. Sexist jokes are used as a form of social bonding; sexist modes of address have become a routine.

You enter the room, and sexism fills the room.

You are supposed to laugh. You do not laugh. Just by not laughing at a joke you are heard as saying no, as making a statement. You do not have to say anything; not laughing becomes audible as political speech because this “not” registers as a different direction.[4] A no can be expressed in how you do not go along with something; how you do not participate in something. When you do not laugh, you become a negative, you embody that negative. Once you are known as a woman who does not laugh at sexist jokes, who will not laugh at sexist jokes, once you are known as a feminist, violence is channeled in your direction. When was diffused throughout the room was still directed (sexist and racist jokes: the point is the direction), but it is sharpened by being narrowed.

Violence is redirected toward those who do not participate in violence, or those who try to challenge violence. Each time you say no, you have to be prepared for an increase in the intensity of the violence. And then: if you make a formal complaint about sexism or sexual harassment, if you transform no into testimony, that violence is amped up even more. A complaint is treated as damaging the reputation of individuals as well as organizations. When you become the cause of damage, they cause you damage.

To say no to something can lead to the intensification of something.

You have to keep saying no when there is an effort to stop you saying no.

This is why we need to assemble a feminist support system to enable us to proceed; saying no requires having places to go. And this is what we mean when we ask for safe spaces: spaces in which the violence we are trying to redress is not directed right back at us.  It is because it is not safe for many to say no that we need safe spaces.

If each time you say no, you encounter more and more pressure not to say no, then the more you say no, the more you have to say no. You have to say no to what follows saying no. Another way of putting this: the more you complain the more you have to complain about. And this is why when we say no we address a system. A system is reproduced by how those who say no to a system are stopped. Those who complain about a system, those who intervene by saying no at some point, and saying no can sometimes be a matter of not saying yes, of not going along with something, encounter the full force of that system. A system: can be what comes down on you; a ton of bricks.

And so: no requires political work; you have to find a way to keep going; you have to find ways of working with others to keep no going.  Sometimes I have used willfulness to describe that political work. The effort to acquire a will to disobey is the effort not only to say no but to say it publicly, to say it loudly, or to perform it through one’s own bodily action or inaction.

With no, we leap.

Make a leap.

Right now; we need a many to say no, no to austerity, no to the dismantling of the welfare state, no to the destruction of public services; no to the world that renders some disposable, that makes poverty into crime; death into policy.

These no’s might begin as a no to an injustice, a violence that allows a system to reveal itself, political violence, such as the violence of the Grenfell Tower fire, a violence that showed racial capitalism for what it is: a system that renders poor people, many of whom are also brown and black people, vulnerable to death. We might recall here Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s powerful description of racism as “the state-sanctioned or extra-legal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death” (2007, 28). Racial capitalism: how many are sentenced to death. To mourn the deaths of those who lost their lives in Grenfell Tower, whose lives were taken, the deaths that have yet to be counted; a failure to count that seems to show who counts more, who counts less, is to commit to no. We say no to this sentencing, we ask for a counting.

In the face of the brutality, the horror of this most political of disasters, in the face of the sadness of so many lives taken, so many ordinaries devastated, I have found it hard to find words. And I have been grateful for those who have been able to pick themselves up and articulate no in the midst of shattering. I think of the words sent out by Labour MP David Lammy [5], Aditya Chakrabortty, Youssef El-GingihyDivya Ghelani amongst many others. Amplification: we need to become each other’s microphones, raising the sounds of no, a chain of resistance.

We need to listen to survivors.

No preceded this disaster. It was not an accident that the complaints of the Grenfell Action Group about fire risks to their building (amongst other forms of negligence and neglect affecting the lives and well-being of residents of Lancaster West Estate) were not heard. It is important to recall how their no was rendered inaudible; how they were heard as trouble-makers, as noise; how they were threatened with the law; how complaint is not heard by being heard as defaming, as spoiling the reputation of a company or person. Spoiling: spoiling a landscape, cladding as covering; not counting as covering up; spoil sports, spoiling, sullying; tarnishing an image. Not hearing a complaint about a system is built into the system; a system reproduces itself by how no is not heard as anything other than as yet more evidence of not being deserving (of a hearing, of housing, of safety). Even the bare minimum of care becomes too much to ask for. When you have been made disposable your no is disposed.

We say no; no to this disposal of no. We raise our voices in saying no to this violence and injustice. No can become a form of critical refusal, as Angela Davis might suggest; no that involves commitment, no that requires time and work as we grapple to understand the system from which an injustice gapes like a hole; no as part of a project of counter-knowledge, to counter with knowledge; no as a struggle not to reproduce injustices that exist.

When we live with what we say no to, we live with no.

We hear no. You clamor; no as political speech.

We need no now; we need no to become many and momentum.

References

Foucault, Michel (1997). The Politics of Truth. Ed. Slyvere Lotringer and Lysa Hochroth. New York: Semiotexte.

Gilmore, Ruth Wilson (2007). Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. University of California Press.

[1] I have written about this example across a number of books. But it has more to teach us. In my project on use I am returning again to the example by considering the implications of the difference between coming into existence and coming into use; something can come into existence as a way of not coming into use.

[2] There is more to say about precarity and no. Not feeling or being able to say no because you are precarious is part of how precarity works: precarity stops those who are precarious from being able to transform the conditions that make them precarious. However, I think it is also the case that some do not say no because they have institutional security though they might experience their security as conditional and thus precarious (as what could topple if they said the wrong thing). This was my experience on working on multiple enquiries into sexual harassment. I was struck by how the more institutionally precarious were often those who were more not less willing to risk no. If anything it was some of the institutionally less precarious who seemed more reluctant to say no or to be heard as saying no.  I will return to this observation in later posts.

[3] Thanks to those who have shared their accounts with me thus far. What follows is deeply indebted to your description. I will be drawly closely on the data in following posts on complaint from this summer onwards.

[4] I made a similar point in a different context in my work on happiness. A yes tends to be less noticeable as it agrees with a direction already taken; a no becomes more noticeable because it does not. The following is from my chapter, “Happy Objects,” in The Promise of Happiness: “We can hear that ‘no’ in part as it asks us to stop doing something. It might be harder to hear the ‘yes words’ – the ‘yes,’ or the ‘yes that’s good,’ or the ‘yes that’s a good way to be’ – because the words seem to ‘go along’ with or affirm what we are already doing” (2010, 48).

[5] I have found David Lammy’s interviews and tweets in particular to be a life-line. A life-line can be assembled from the no of a sustained protest. With thanks.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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7 Responses to No

  1. Jeremy says:

    Reblogged this on Open Geography and commented:
    Sara Ahmed: “no”

  2. Pingback: Mädchenmannschaft » Blog Archive » Sexistische Anfeindungen bei G20-Protesten, Ehe gegen alle und das Wort „Nein“ – kurz verlinkt

  3. Pingback: Tuesday Night Links! | Gerry Canavan

  4. Pingback: Presence, Absence, and the Labor of Being – Wilderness Voices: Speaking Truth to Power about Higher Ed and Society

  5. Pingback: A Complaint Biography | feministkilljoys

  6. Pingback: Voices at Work: Listening to and for Elsewhere at Public Gatherings in Toronto, Canada (at So-called 150) | Sounding Out!

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