Institutional As Usual

I have been away from my blog for some time! Over the summer, I completed the second draft of my book, What’s the Use: On The Uses of Use, which I have now sent to my publishers. There will be a long process of review and revision but it is a step closer to coming out into the world. Since then I have been giving some lectures in the UK and the US. I have been trying to bring together my research into diversity, complaint and use by addressing the institutional as usual. Thank you so much to those who have come along to my lectures! I have learnt so  much from the conversations that followed.

I am sharing the version of the lecture I gave at Barnard College and Princeton University. I have preserved it in the form it was given with some minor corrections and additions and explanatory notes.

The Institutional As Usual: Diversity Work as Data Collection, lecture given by Sara Ahmed at Barnard College on October 16 2017, and Princeton University on October 17 2017.

I want to start with a description of the institutional as usual.  Diversity work, the work of trying to transform institutions by opening them up to populations for which they were not intended, generates data on institutions, snap shots of institutional life taken from the point of view of those trying not to reproduce that life.

A snap shot: I am having an informal meeting with a diversity practitioner. She is talking to me about how she felt about her job; how she felt about the university that employed her. She spoke of how most of her time was spent preparing for committees, which usually meant writing documents: writing the agenda for the next committee, minutes of the last, new policies for consideration, often prompted by changes in legislation. There is a lot of paper work – a lot of stuff – in diversity work. Diversity work is stuffy. How institutions do committees varies. Once you have been somewhere for a certain length of time, as long as it takes not to be surprised by your surroundings, you have become used to it; it is business as usual.  You know what usually happens; the usual is a field of expectation that derives its contours from past experience. Some of this routine is about formal process: the motions you go through, how often committees feel like going through the motions; reviewing the minutes from that past meeting; chairs and secretaries with their specific tasks; any other business, always last.

Committees are also spaces: we are occupied when we are in a committee: there are ways of talking, ways of being seated; ways of doing the work. When a room is properly assembled, a meeting can progress. In our conversation the diversity practitioner spoke of one time when she turned up for the equality and diversity committee for which she was the secretary. This committee is chaired by a senior member of the university, a white male professor.  At the time all members of the senior management were white male professors: he is how the professor usually appears. However he appears, the professor is there because he is the chair.  When the diversity worker turns up, she finds the room is already occupied. The chair was already there, as was another member of the committee, also a white male professor. They were lounging around, confident, taking up the time. They were talking about the breakfasts they used to have when they were students at Cambridge University; laughing, a shared memory of consuming. A memory can be consuming. A memory can occupy space. A casual conversation about a past experience of an elite institution can fill the space, the space becomes elite, for a select few, how a few are selected; a sense of ownership spills out and over, our space, our diversity, our university, ours. She said they did not stop talking to each other when she entered the room, the person who had sent them the papers that were on the table; they just keep talking to each other as if she was not there. Perhaps for them she was not there.  This practitioner said to me about her experience of turning up at a diversity committee, only to find it already occupied, and her words have stayed with me because they got through to me:  “I realised how far away they were from my world.”

I realised how far away they were from my world.”  We learn: a committee set up to transform a world can be how a world is reassembled.   We also learn: those of us who arrive in institutions that were not intended for us bring with us worlds that would not otherwise be here.  In the descriptions I have offered thus far, by way of an introduction, I have deliberately made use of the vocabularies of use, including the words used, usual and usually. My task in today’s lecture is to think about diversity and universities by starting with use, a small word that has a lot of work to do, a small word with a big history; use has had and does have many uses. My arguments build on the important critiques of how diversity operates within universities offered by Chandra Talpade Mohanty (2003), Gloria Wekker (2016) and Heidi Mirza (2015). I will be drawing on some of the data I collected from an empirical project on diversity work in universities, which I first discussed in my book, On Being Included, as well as from my current project on complaint.

I will also be introducing today some arguments from a book I have recently completed entitled, What’s the Use. In the book I follow use around, the way I followed happiness in The Promise of Happiness (2010) and the will in Willful Subjects (2014). And I have followed use right back into the university. We can explore for instance how London University (now UCL) was established through the mobilization of arguments about useful knowledge. Many of those involved in the setting up of London University, such as James Mill and Lord Henry Brougham were also involved in The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge, which were both established in 1826. I will not be addressing the history of the idea of useful knowledge today. But I wanted to note that if following use takes us back to the university, use allows us to show how universities are assembled, as it were, brick by brick. When I visiting the archives of the UCL, I was able to witness the history of decisions about how the university was to be built. On May 6 1827, stones were brought to the Building Committee, Portland and Edinburgh Stones, in order to help make a decision about which stones to use. I think of stones there, on the table; part of the proceedings. The stones have a story to tell. The stones can be how we tell the story of a university. If bricks become walls, stones become steps. Jay Dolmage describes how steep steps are material but also create an idea of the university: “that access to the university is a movement upwards—only the truly ‘fit’ survive this climb” (2017, 44). Following use has allowed me to reflect on how worlds take form around bodies and to connect bodies of work that are usually kept distinct – such as literatures in design and biology that make use of use to explain the acquisition of form.

Uses of Use

In this section I want to offer a meditation on use as biography; as a way of telling a story of things.  Use when used as a verb can mean: to employ for some purpose, to expend or consume; to treat or behave toward; to take unfair advantage of or exploit; to habituate or accustom. Use is a relation as well as an activity that often points beyond something even when use is about something: to use something points to what something is “for.” Some objects are made in order to be used. We might call these objects designed objects. What they are for brings them into existence. A cup is made in order that I have something to drink from; it is shaped this way, with a hole as its heart, empty, so that it can be filled by liquid.  We might summarise the implied relation as “for is before.” However even if something is shaped around what it is for, that is not the end of the story. If for is before, at least for some things, what happens to those things is not fully determined by what they are for. As Howard Risatti notes in A Theory of Craft:

Use need not correspond to intended function. Most if not all objects can have a use, or, more accurately be made useable by being put to use. A sledgehammer can pound or it can be used as a paperweight or lever. A handsaw can cut a board and be used as straight-edge or to make music. A chair can be sat in and used to prop open a door. These uses make them “useful objects” but since they are unrelated to the intended purpose and function for which these objects were made, knowing these uses doesn’t necessarily reveal much about these objects (2007, 26).

Use can correspond to intended function, but use does not necessarily correspond to an intended function. This not is an opening. I am not so sure if uses are quite as unrevealing about things as Risatti implies (“knowing these uses doesn’t necessarily reveal much about these objects”). I am being told something about the qualities of a sledgehammer that it can used to be a paperweight. That a sledgehammer can be used as a paperweight tells me about the heaviness of the sledgehammer. Something cannot be used for anything. Use is a restriction of possibility that is material. Nevertheless there is something queer about use; intentions do not exhaust possibilities. The keys that are used to unlock a door can be used as a toy, perhaps because they are shiny and sliver; perhaps because they jangle.

Note also the implication that use makes something usable. This strange temporality matters: what makes something possible comes after; we are perhaps more used to thinking of possibility as precedence. Use also makes something used. When we think of something as being used, we might also think of buying something second-hand. Like this book, a book on hands that was handy, which I bought as a used book.


Image 1: A book on hands that was handy.

A used book is usually cheaper than a new book. The more signs of usage = less value, unless the user is esteemed, when the value of a person can rub off on the value of a thing. Wear and tear usually means a depreciation of value. Marx discusses wear and tear in relation to machines: “The material wear and tear of a machine is of two kinds. The one arises from use, as coins wear away by circulating, the other from non-use, as a sword rusts when left in its scabbard” ([1867] 1990, 528). Marx showed how machinery intensifies rather than saves labour: you have to get the most of the machine before it wears out, a wearing that is passed on to workers, wearing as passing on and passing out; used as used up.

Wear and tear in this economy is the loss of value determined by the extraction of value. To value use might require a change of values. To value use would not be to romanticize what is preserved as a historical record: signs of life can be signs of exhaustion, which is to say, signs of life can be signs of how a life has been extinguished. Perhaps we can think of use as a record of the fragility of a life. In writing about use, I have deliberately made use of “used books. With this book in my hands I can tell others have been here before. I think of the reader who circled the word grief. I cannot trace you but you left a trace. Use leaves traces in places.

Something might be in use or out of use. When something breaks, it might be taken out of use rather like this cup, which has lost its handle. It is a rather sad parting.


Image 2: Lost its Handle

When we think of something in use, we might think of a sign on a door:  occupied.

Occupied toilet

Image 3: A sign on a door

This sign tells us that the toilet is in use. It tells us that we cannot use the toilet until whoever is using the toilet is finished. Use often comes with instructions that are about maintaining bodily and social boundaries. Or take this image of a post box.


Image 4: The post-box is out of use because it is occupied

There is a sign that politely asks the would-be poster not to use the post box by posting a letter into the box. In the previous image the toilet was occupied because it was in use. In this case the post box is out of use because it is occupied. Although of course from another point of view, it is in use. The post box has provided a home for nesting birds. Intended functionality can mean who something is for, not just what something is for. This means that: something can be used by those for which it was not intended. That a post box can become a nest still tells us something about the nature of object; we learn about form when a change of function does not require a change of form. But that change does require a sign, “please do not use,” a sign is in use, to stop what would be usual: posting a letter through the box.  The sign, we assume, is temporary. That box will come back into use as a post box when it ceases to be a nest.

Back into use: use can involve comings and goings.  Take the example of the well-trodden path.

Used Path 2

Image 5: The more a path is used the more a path is used

The path exists in part because people have used it. Use involves contact and friction, the tread of feet smooths the surface; the path is becoming smoother, easier to follow. The more a path is used the more a path is used. How strange that this sentence makes sense. Without use a path can disappear, becoming overgrown, bumpy; unusable.   Like this path, we know it is a path because of a sign but you can hardly see the sign for the trees.

Unused Path

Image 6: You can hardly see the sign for the trees

Use can be necessary for preservation. Use it, or lose it: this is not only a mantra in personal training; it can become a philosophy of life. Not using; not being.

A path can appear like a line on a landscape. But a path can also be a route through life. Collectivity can be acquired as direction; the more a path is traveled upon the clearer it becomes. A path can be kept clear, maintained; you can be supported by how a route is cleared; heterosexuality for instance can become a path, a route through life, a path that is kept clear, maintained not only be the frequency of use, a frequency can be an invitation, but by an elaborate support system. When it is harder to proceed, when a path is harder to follow, you might be discouraged; you might try and find another route. A consciousness of the need to make more of an effort can be a disincentive. Just think of how we can be dissuaded by perpetual reminders of how hard something would be. Deviation is hard. Deviation is made hard.

Thoughts, feelings; they too have paths. Within empirical psychology, the path is in use as a way of thinking about thought.  John Locke, for example, once suggested  that thoughts “once set agoing, continue in the same shape they are used to, which, by often treading, are worn into a smooth path, and the motion in it becomes easy and as it were natural” ([1690] 1997, 531). Used to: that which is wearing. A history of use is a history of becoming natural. William James in his psychology cites the work of Dumont on habit:

Everyone knows how a garment having been worn a certain time clings better to the shape of the body than when it was new. A lock works better after being used some time; at the outset a certain force was required to overcome certain roughness in the mechanism. The overcoming of their resistance is a phenomenon of habituation. ([1819] 1950: 105, emphasis mine).

A garment becomes more attuned to the body the more the garment is worn. I will return to the well-used garment in due course.  The example of the lock and the key suggests that it is through use that things become easier to use. Less force might be required to get a key through a lock. This is how acts of use are the building blocks of habit: if we take habit as our unit, we would miss these smaller steps, which accumulate to take us somewhere.   If use takes time, use saves time; use makes something easier to use, less effort is required to complete an action.

The idea that use keeps something alive, or that using something makes something easier to use, is supplemented by another idea central to the emergence of modern biology: that use in making something stronger, and disuse, in making something weaker, shapes the very form of life. For example, Lamarck the French naturalist who first used the word biology in its modern sense, offered a law of use and disuse: “a more frequent and continuous use of any organ gradually strengthens, develops and enlarges that organ, and gives it a power proportional to the length of time it has been so used; while the permanent disuse of any organ imperceptibly weakens and deteriorates it, and progressively diminishes its functional capacity, until it finally disappears” ([1809]1914, 113).  These acquired modifications for Lamarck can be inherited, what he called use inheritance. What is used or disused is dependent on an environment. Use is how an organism receives a message from the environment.

Lamarck’s famous example is the giraffe’s neck, although he only uses this example once (1). For Lamarck the giraffe’s neck grows longer not through conscious volition but as an effect of repeated efforts that become directional over time. He describes: “efforts in a particular direction, when they are sustained or habitually made by certain parts of a living body, for the satisfaction of needs established by nature or environment, cause an enlargement of the parts and the acquisition of a size and shape that they would not have obtained if these efforts had not become the normal activities of the animal exerting them” (123, emphasis mine). When an effort becomes normal, a form has been acquired.  When such form has been acquired, less effort is needed; the giraffe does not have to reach so high to reach the foliage.  Use inheritance translates as: the lessening of the effort required to survive within an environment.

At certain points Lamarck does seem to imply that a use for something would bring it into existence. This was one of the reasons Charles Darwin was rather disparaging about Lamarck’s work: the implication he heard  that modifications can be brought about by conscious effort or will (2).  We can find evidence of his disparagement in another used book, Darwin’s personal copy of Lamarck’s Historie Naturale. I would have liked to reproduce Darwin’s marginalia, but he wrote them in pencil; the inscription would have been too faint to reproduce even if I had permission to reproduce it. But the comments are available by virtue of  digital reproduction. Darwin wrote on the margins: “because use improves an organ – wishing for it, or its use, produces it!!! Oh.” (3).

Despite how Darwin and Lamarck appear to deviate at least from Darwin’s point of view on this question of use, Darwin himself often represents natural selection and the law of use and disuse as working together: “natural selection would probably have been greatly aided by the inherited effects of the increased or diminished use of different parts of the body” ([1871] 1992, 39).  And it is interesting to note that Darwin offers a reuse of the architect metaphor in describing the mechanism of natural selection despite how this metaphor risks the implication of design:

Let an architect be compelled to build an edifice with uncut stones, fallen from a precipice. The shape of each fragment may be called accidental; yet the shape of each has been determined by the force of gravity, the nature of the rock, and the slope of the precipice,—events and circumstances, all of which depend on natural laws; but there is no relation between these laws and the purpose for which each fragment is used by the builder. The shape of the fragments of stone at the base of our precipice may be called accidental, but this is not strictly correct; for the shape of each depends on a long sequence of events, all obeying natural laws; on the nature of the rock, on the lines of deposition or cleavage, on the form of the mountain which depends on its upheaval and subsequent denudation, and lastly on the storm or earthquake which threw down the fragments. But in regard to the use to which the fragments may be put, their shape may be strictly said to be accidental (1868, 248-249, emphasis added).

An architect can be a builder who makes use of stones without cutting them in order to fit a design. The stones are thrown up, or available, according to natural laws. These stones were not made in order to be used. They become useful to the architect once he has begun building. If the shape of a stone is determined by a long sequence of events, it is still an accident that the shape of this stone fits the shape of that hole in the building of this wall.  You are more likely to use a stone that happens to fit that space; use as happening, hap, even happyI will return to Darwin’s happy use of the architect metaphor in due course.

Institutional Habits

Through reflecting on institutional use we thicken our account of use.  When we are habituated or attuned to the environment, we know what usually happens. Diversity workers are trying to transform what has become a habit, not to follow the well-used paths; not to go the way things flow. We learn about the institutional (as usual) from those trying to transform institutions.  Diversity work often requires become conscious of use; confronting or bringing to the front what is often reproduced by receding into the background.

 And yet at another level it seems that diversity at least as a word is the way things are going. How do practitioners explain their use of diversity? One practitioner observes: “I would say that the term diversity is just used now because it’s more popular.  You know it’s in the press so why would we have equal opportunities when we can just say its diversity.”  We can “just say its diversity” if diversity is “just used now.” Use becomes a reason for use, the circularity of a logic transformed into a tool. Many practitioners suggested that diversity is “just used now,” because of its affective qualities as a lighter, happy or positive term. Another practitioner describes: “Diversity obscures the issues…  It can, diversity is like a big shiny red apple right, and it all looks wonderful but if you actually cut into that apple there’s a rotten core in there and you know that it’s actually all rotting away and it’s not actually being addressed.  It all looks wonderful but the inequalities aren’t being addressed.” Diversity might be used because of what it allows organizations not to address. Intended functionality can be used to refer not only to the intended function of an object but to what is stated as the intended function of an action. There is gap between what is being stated or given expression as an intention, and what is being done.

Sometimes you have to use words more because of what is not being done. One practitioner noted: “I think it [equity] became a tired term because it was thrown around a lot and I think…well I don’t know…because our title is equity and social justice, somebody the other day was saying to me “oh there’s equity fatigue, people are sick of the word equity” ….oh well OK we’ve gone through equal opportunity, affirmative action – they are sick of equity – now what do we call ourselves?!  They are sick of it because we have to keep saying it because they are not doing it.” We use a word more because we are not getting through; we keep saying what they do not do. Words seem almost the opposite of muscles. The more you use words, the floppier they become; they become looser, less tight, less precise; less sharp. This argument contradicts what has been called “the law of exercise,” where to use is strengthen. This contradiction needs to matter to a theory of use that is robust enough to explain different uses of use.

So: diversity does less because it is used more. Or diversity is used more because it does less. This or is and.

Even if diversity workers are appointed by institutions to transform them, it does not mean institutions are willing to be transformed. One practitioner described her work thus : “it is a banging your head against a brick wall job. A job description becomes a wall description.  If you keep banging your head against the brick wall, but the wall keeps its place, it is you that gets sore. And what happens to the wall?  All you seemed to have done is scratched the surface. This is what diversity work often feels like: scratching the surface, scratching at the surface.

Scratched wall 3

Image 7: Scratching the surface

But even if you have only scratched the surface, you can still be liable for damages. Doing diversity work often means you collect wall stories; the wall is data.

Let me share a wall story:

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 ; the past becomes that well-worn path, what usually happens, still happens. 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.

The wall: that which keeps standing.  The wall is a finding. Let me summarize the finding: what stops movement moves.  In other words, the mechanisms for stopping something are mobile, which means when we witness the movement we can miss the mechanism. This is quite important because organisations tend to create evidence of movement; of just how much they are doing.  Creating evidence of doing something is not the same as doing something. This is why I have called diversity workers institutional plumbers: they have to work out not only where something is blocked but how it is blocked. 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.   Agreeing to something can be another way of stopping something from happening.  A diversity policy can come into existence without coming into use.  I noted earlier how a sign is often used to make a transition from something being in and out of use, such as in this case of the post-box. Institutions are also postal systems.


Image 8: another function

Maybe the diversity worker deposits the policy in the post-box because she assumes the box is in use.  It is a reasonable assumption: she is following the procedure. The post-box that is not in use without a sign saying it is not in use might have another function: to stop a policy from going through the whole system. The policy becomes dusty, rather like Marx’s rusty sword; from rusty to dusty.

A policy can become unusable by not being used.

Consider too all the energy this practitioner expended on developing a policy that did not do anything. The story of how the wall keeps standing is the same story as the story of how a diversity worker becomes shattered; as she says “sometimes you just give up.” Maybe you end up feeling used up, limp, spent rather like this tube of toothpaste.


Image 9: You might end up feeling used up

Or you might fly off the handle, to recall that broken cup. To fly off the handle can mean to snap or to lose your temper.


Image 10: To lose a handle on things

To lose a handle on things can mean to lose yourself; you become the one who cannot handle it. You don’t have to say anything to be heard as breaking something. Another practitioner describes: “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, recognizing that each other recognized that scene. The feminist killjoy, that leaky container, comes up here; she comes up in what we hear. 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.  We imagine the eyes rolling as if to say: well she would say that.  It was from experiences like this that I developed my equation: rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy.

I think it is important to note that the policy that was stopped by not being used was a policy about how academic appointments are made.  A university is shaped by a history of appointments. When I attended the UCL archives, I got a sense of the shape of that history. The secretary wrote letters in response to those who expressed interest in teaching at the new university. Once you had read one of these letters, it seemed you had read them all: they were standardized; each letter might as well as have been a copy of another letter. A standard is what you create when you use the same form. But then one letter jumped out. It was a letter sent in response to Professor Johann Freidrich Meckel in 1827 who was a star professor in his time (4). What is striking about the letter sent to Meckel is how the standards were suspended for the star professor; the letter is long and gushing, detailed and personal. This suspension of a standard can become standard. It can be usual to bypass what is usual. I know of many recent cases where the usual procedures are bypassed to enable the recruitment of such-and-such star professor, even though this bypassing is a bypassing of equal opportunities procedures that are supposed to be compulsory.

We can begin to appreciate a difficulty here: diversity workers often try to develop new procedures to stop the reproduction of the same thing, but procedures are suspended to enable that very reproduction. Appointment panels thus become places to go, if you want to learn more about how institutions are reproduced; how decisions are made about who is “appointable” (a much used, over-used term). A person in a diversity training session I attended shared that people in her department used an unofficial criteria for appointability of whether someone was “the kind of person you can take down to the pub”. They wanted someone who can inhabit those spaces with them, being with as being like; someone they can relate to, drink with.  I remember one time a woman of color was being considered for a job, she worked on race and sexuality, and someone said in a departmental meeting with concern, “but we already have Sara,” is if having one of us was more than enough. There was a murmured consensus that she replicated me, even though our work was different. There was no such concern about other areas. Concern; no concern; how things stay the same by seeing others as the same.

I want to go back to my discussion of uses of use. An institution is an environment. Environments are dynamic; it is because environments change that uses change. An institution, however, works as a container technology.  You reproduce something by stabilizing the requirements for what you need to survive or thrive in environment.  Once these requirements have been stabilized, they do not have to be made explicit. Use becomes instead a question of fit. Remember Darwin’s use of the architect metaphor? The builder uses the stone that happens to fit. An institution is built. It appears as if the moment of use is hap: that this person just happens to fit the requirements, that this stone just happens to the same shape and size as this hole in that wall.  Once a building has been built, once it has taken form, more or less, some more than others will fit the requirements.  Indeed “hap” can then be used ideologically: as if they are here because they just happened to fit, rather than they fit because of how the structure was built.  A structure is the gradual removal of hap from use in the determination of a requirement. In Lamarck’s model, use becomes inheritance, in shaping form it lessens of effort required to do something within an environment. When you fit, and fitting here is formal, a question of form, you inherit the lessening of effort. So a path, say in the sense of a career path or even a life trajectory, is not simply made more usable by being used.  Some have more paths laid out more clearly in front of them because they already fit a requirement. In other words, it is not just constancy of use that eases a passage. Use is eased for those who inherit the right form, whereby rightness means the degree of a fit with an expectation.  For as before acquires a new resonance here: when a world is built for some, they come before others.


People do come to inhabit organizations that are not intended for them; you can make the cut without fitting.  If you arrive into an organization that is not built for you, you experience this for as tight or as a tightening. If you are the one for whom an institution is intended for is loose; you might experience the institution as open because it is open to you. If use is a restriction of possibility that is material, as I suggested earlier, some encounter that restriction more than others.  This is why I think of an institution as an old garment:  it has acquired the shape of those who tend to wear it such that it becomes easier to wear if you have that shape.   And this is why I think of privilege as an energy saving device; less effort is required to pass through when a world has been assembled around you. If you arrive with dubious origins, you are not expected to be there, so in getting there you have already disagreed with an expectation of who you are and what you can do, then an institution is the wrong shape.  Annette Kuhn describes how as a working-class girl in a grammar school she feels “conspicuously out of place” (1995, 111). She describes this sense of being out of place by giving us a biography of her school uniform; how by the time her ill-fitting uniform came to fit, it had become “shabby” and “scruffy.”  The word “wear” originally derives from the Germanic word for clothing. It then acquires a secondary sense of “use up, gradually damage” from the effect of continued use on clothes. It is not just that when something is used more it fits better. If you are the wrong shape you have to make more of an effort: use then does not smooth a passage, or enable a better fit, but can lead to corrosion and damage. This difference – between use that enables a smoothing of a passage and use that leads to corrosion and damage – is a distributed difference.

Not fitting can be about the body you have; not fitting can be about your own requirements.  When you don’t meet the requirements you become to borrow Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s  important term, a misfit. As she describes: “The built and arranged space through which we navigate our lives tends to offer fits to majority bodies and create misfits with minority forms of embodiment, such as people with disabilities” (2014, np). Fitting becomes work for those who do not fit; people with disabilities in ablest institutions have to push, push, push; and sometimes no amount of pushing will get you in. You can also become a misfit given what has become routine. An organisation that organizes long meetings without any breaks assumes a body that can be seated without breaks. If someone arrives who cannot maintain this position, they do not meet the requirements.  If you lay down during the meeting you would throw the meeting into crisis. A social justice project might require throwing meetings into crisis.

The misfit exists in close proximity to the killjoy. If a meeting has been planned in a room that is not accessible to those with mobility restrictions, or at a time that is not possible for those with caring responsibilities, and a request is made for the room to be changed, or the time changed, that request is heard as being difficult, or negative, and being demanding, as imposing your will upon others; as depriving others of their first preference. You should not have to ask for a room change or a time change in order to be accommodated. But if you have to ask for a room change or a time change, a request becomes theft: as if you are stealing their room and their time.

If a space has to be modified to enable you to participate, it is not just that is harder for you to participate; your participation is deemed disruptive. You stop how things usually flow. You have to try to fit in when or because you do not fit in. A woman of colour describes this work: “I think with a person of colour there’s always a question of what’s this woman going to turn out like… they’re nervous about appointing people of colour into senior positions….Because if I went in my Sari and wanted prayer time off and started rocking the boat and being a bit different and asserting my kind of culture I’m sure they’d take it differently.” Some forms of difference are heard as “rocking the boat,” as if you are only different because you are insistent (on being different). Trying not to cause  disruption might require discarding parts of yourself, parts of your history, such as garments, a sari say, or rituals, a prayer, words, what you cannot say.

I suggested earlier that the word diversity might be used more because less, as well as do less because it is used more. Think of the word “racism.”   Audre Lorde (1984) described so well how racism is heard as getting in the way of “smooth communication.” Any use of the word racism is heard as overuse. When words evoke histories that create friction, they catch attention, they sound louder.  Words can evoke histories, bodies too. Sometimes turning up is enough to bring a history up, a history that gets in the way of an occupation of space.

A social category is a dwelling: that which gives residence.  We can recall the sign occupied.

Occupied toilet

Image 11: That which gives residence

You can enter if the toilet is vacant. Even spaces that seem available for anyone to enter can be closed.  Before you get to one door, you might have to get through another. You can be stopped from using the women’s toilet because you are seen as not woman: you become not only a body out of place but a body that threatens those who are in place. You might have to become insistent to pee, and given that peeing is necessary for being, insistent to pee really means insistent to be.

Some have to insist on belonging to the categories that give residence to others.

The university too is occupied. This occupation leaves traces in places, on walls; portraits of dead white men as reminders of who the university is for. One thinks of UCL, where you can encounter Bentham’s dead body, well minus a head or with a wax head, or enter a lecture room named after  Francis Galton, who coined the word eugenics and who donated funds to enable the setting up a Laboratory in National Eugenics as well as a Professor of Eugenics. UCL has removed the word “Eugenics” from the programme and Professorship and replaced it with “genetics,” perhaps because Eugenics is too revealing, too contaminated by a history (5). Lose the word, keep the thing; not using as reproducing. They have kept Galton’s name, however.

Galton bequest

Image 12: “I inherited him”

When asked to justify the continued use of Galton’s name by a member of the audience at a panel, Why Isn’t My Professor Black that took place in 2014, the Provost of UCL said, “my only defence is that I inherited him.” Use inheritance becomes use as inheritance.

Histories come in with who comes in.  You can be stopped from using a space by how others are using that space. A woman of colour academic describes to me how she set up a reading group and a writing group in her department. Those groups quickly became occupied by senior men: “What I found in each of the meetings were senior men who were bullying everyone in the room.” Those who have power can influence and direct discussions often by undermining the confidence of others: “The first session someone was being just really abusive, about someone’s PhD saying it was rubbish.” She described how a racist comment was made during one session:  “I’m from London and London is just ripe for ethnic cleansing.” She described how everyone laughed. When laughter fills the room, like water in a cup, laughter as holding something; it can feel like there is no room left. As she puts it: “Those were the sorts of things being aired.” These were the sorts of things; a sentence as a sentencing; violence thrown out can be how you are thrown out.  

Aired: even the air can be occupied.

I spoke to this academic as part a new research project on complaint – I am talking to those who have or have considered making formal complaints about abuses of power within universities. She decided to complain because “she wanted it recorded” and because “This culture was being reproduced for new PhD students.”  She complained because she wanted to record what was happening and to stop what was happening from happening. Her complaint didn’t get anywhere; and even though the complaint was collective (she gathered testimonies from around 20 staff) she was described by the head of human resources as “having a chip on her shoulder.” The killjoy pops up here, it is not long before she turns up, as an explanation of critique as well as complaint: as if we say what we say and do what we do, because we suffer from a personal grudge or grievance. We learn about power from how challenges to power are dismissed (6).

I want to return to the statement, “I inherited him,” to justify the continued use of Galton’s name. Use inheritance might refer here to the mere fact that upon arrival some things are already in use. What if inheritance can be understood as kinship; inheritance as not simply what is received but what can be received by whom, those who are the right kind, whiteness as kind, the white man as one of a kind; inheritance as how what is received is reproduced.(7) To try to intervene in the reproduction of an inheritance often means making a complaint. This is why making a complaint often involves becoming a diversity worker. You are brought up against the organisation, especially if a complaint is a chip at the old block. Chip at, chip off: the expression chip off the old block evokes paternity, the son who is like the father who will eventually take his place. If you chip away at the old block no wonder they find that chip on your shoulder.

I am in the early stages of my research but I am learning so much about the institutional as usual.  A complaint can teach us about the continuity of abuses of power with the use patterns of an institution. By use pattern I am precisely not referring to official policies. I am referring instead to how universities are occupied; how a network can come alive to stop a complaint from getting through rather like how electricity travels through wire: hiring as wiring.

Hiring as Wiring

Image 13: Hiring as Wiring

Lines of communication are well-worn paths through an organization. The more a path is used the more a path is used. The more he is connected the more he is connected. When you follow a complaint procedure you are usually asked to go through official networks, first talk to the person concerned if a person is concerned, then your personal tutor or a colleague, then your head of department, and so on.  A complaint can function like a switch, an alarm or alert that triggers a reaction: when a network comes alive it is in order to protect those who are the most networked, which is to say, a network is how a complaint is stopped.


Image 14: A complaint can function like a switch, an alarm or alert

By listening to those who have made complaints I have been learning about the different methods through which complaints are stopped. Those who indicate they might make a complaint are often warned that by complaining they would damage themselves; they would damage their careers, reputations, and relationships. Warnings can work as threats: that 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 grueling 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. 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.

Remember: deviation is hard. Deviation is made hard.

Another student described what followed making a complaint: “We were accused of having caused the disruption in their studies. They valued their desire to have him as a professor over those who were suffering psychologically because of his harassment. I was told I should have consulted the whole class before going ahead with a complaint. We needed to be in ‘solidarity’ with those whose education was now being disrupted, not the other way around.”  To complain about harassment is to be judged as cutting yourself off from a collective. And then you are cut off from that collective. To complain can mean having nowhere to go; it can mean not having a path through the organisation.  This is why creating feminist support systems remains so important: we need to give those who complain somewhere to go, to provide a shelter.

Sometimes it can seem that we have two options: to get used to it or get out of it. For those who cannot afford to get out of it, getting used to it becomes a survival strategy, an effort to try and minimize damage; a partial and failed resolution to a crisis. However, this is not to say these are the only options. Complaints that do not get anywhere tend to disappear, becoming like unused paths, hidden by new growth.

Unused Path

Image 15: Hidden by new growth

What appears as “getting used to it,” might not be what it appears to be. We do not know how many said no. This is why talking to each other matters; why naming the problem matters. We have to learn about what she is on about so that we can remember. Feminist memory becomes a counter-institutional project: we have to find ways of creating paths for others to follow, to leave traces in places.

Conclusion: Lifting the Lid

Diversity work is the work of trying to dismantle the structures that do not accommodate us. I used to think that I was collecting data on diversity work. But I have come to realise that diversity work is data collection. We know so much from what comes up because of what we bring up. We learn from the consequences of the work we do; we learn even from the damage we cause or from how our cause is understood as damage.

When I shared my reasons for resigning from my post – in protest at the failure of the institution to address sexual harassment as an institutional problem – I quickly became the cause of damage.  I became a leaky pipe, drip, drip.

Leaky Pipe

Image 16: A leak can be a lead

Organisations will try and contain that damage. The response in other words is damage limitation. This is how diversity often takes institutional form: damage limitation. 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; mopping up a mess.

There is hope here; they cannot mop up all of our mess.  A leak can be a lead (8). A leak can be a feminist lead. When I shared my reasons for my resignation, many people shared with me their own stories, their own institutional battles; when you lift a lid, more and more comes out. Just loosen the screw a little bit, a tiny little bit, and you might have an explosion. We need more explosions. This is another way of thinking about diversity work as data collection: it is explosive what comes out.  And this is why professional norms of conduct are about keeping a lid on it; institutional loyalty as silence in case of institutional damage.

We might collect more data the less professional we are.

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 is how the system is working.  The system is working by stopping those are trying to transform the system.  To transform a system we have to stop the system from working.  We might need to pass as plumbers (fixing the leak) in order to become vandals (making a leak).  Vandalism is described as the “willful destruction of what is venerable and beautiful.”  We might have to throw a wrench in the works or become, to use Sarah Franklin’s (2015) terms “wenches in the works,” to throw our bodies into the system, to try and stop the same old bodies from being assembled, doing the same old things.

Same old, same old: 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 already the most influence. The more a path is used the more a path is used. The more he is cited the more he is cited.  A syllabus is occupied. And occupation depends upon erasure; such and such white man becomes an originator of a concept, an idea as becoming seminal, by removing traces of those who were there before. Not following something as destroying something: you can become a vandal by rearranging a text in a different way, by not citing any white men for instance (8). 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. The question raised about the use of Galton’s name during the Why Isn’t My Professor Black panel, which led to a wider and meaningful discussion of the role of Galton’s legacy, was represented by the media as a Galton Must Fall Campaign. Whilst we might support such a campaign if it did exist, it was in fact invented by the media to discredit the questioning of a legacy as censorship.

To be vandal is to damage what you are supposed to revere, to bring to an end what you are supposed to reproduce.  If talking about sexism and racism damages institutions, we need to damage institutions. We have to stop what usually happens from happening; because we know, that however much spaces have been occupied, they can be freed up when they are inhabited by those for whom they were not intended. In a protest we often aim to cause disruption of usage; when you occupy a building, you are stopping it from being used as it is ordinarily used; business as usual. No wonder protest is often framed as vandalism; as damage to property.  Vandalism is a useful tactic when we have to cut a message off from a body, when a message if traced to a source would compromise the source or when you have to bypass official procedures to avoid sending out an alert. We might need to use guerrilla tactics; you can write names of harassers on books; turn bodies into art; write graffiti on toilet doors or on walls.

Yes those scratches: we are back to those scratches. Feminism becomes a message we send out, writing on the wall; we were here, we did not get used it.

Scratched wall 3

Image 17: Writing on the Wall


(1) The other typical Lamarckian example is the blacksmith’s strong arm, which Lamarck does not use at all. In chapter 2 of What’s the Use, I explore how the blacksmith’s arm is a phantom limb and also consider examples as having their own biographies of use.

(2)  Many scholars have pointed out how Lamarck has been dismissed on problematic grounds as assuming conscious volition. It is noteworthy that Lamarck does use the language of will, but describes will not as a form of inner causality but as a physiological process. In the book I explore the relation of Darwin and Lamarck in more detail as as interesting case-study on the “uses of use.”

(3) In chapter 1 What’s the Use, I discuss overuse by reflecting on exclamation points.

(4) Meckel’s name survives, as far as I can tell, because of the use of his name to name things: his name was given to a condition (Meckel’s diverticulum), a syndrome (the Meckel syndrome), bone structure (Meckel’s cartilage) as well as a protein (Mecklin). One thinks here of naming as another way some are preserved in the archive; how some are committed to memory.

(5) The Galton Laboratory of National Eugenics became The Galton Laboratory of the Department of Human Genetics & Biometry and the Galton Chair in Eugenics became the Galton Chair in Genetics.

(6). A complaint can be a feminist collective. But a feminist we can still be heard as me, in other words, complaints tend to be heard as self-promotional.

(7). See the third chapter of Queer Phenomenology (2016) for a discussion of whiteness as an inheritance. I work with the two meanings of inheritance: to receive and possess.

(8). I discussed how a leak can be a feminist lead in Living a Feminist Life (2017), and I will be developing this argument in my project on complaint. The campaign #metoo shows how a leak can be a lead, how much can spill  out when something comes out. We can think of this too, as an address to. With thanks to all those who have risked coming out with it. And can I acknowledge the work of Tarana Burke as the black feminist creator of the #metoo campaign 10 years ago.

(9) This was my rather blunt citational policy in Living a Feminist Life. See the conclusion to my earlier post Useful for why I was not able to use this policy in What’s the Use.


Darwin, Charles  [1871] (1992). The Works of Charles Darwin, Volume 21: The Descent of Man and the Selection of Sex. London: Routledge.

———————— (1868). The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication, Vol 1.  London: John Murray.

Dolmage, Jay (2017). Academic Ableism. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Franklin, Sarah (2015). “Sexism as a Means of Reproduction,” New Formations, 86: 14-33.

Garland-Thomson, Rosemarie (2014). “The Story of My Work: How I became Disabled,” Disability Studies Quarterly, 34(2). np.

Kuhn, Annette [1995] (2002). Family Secrets: Acts of Memory and Imagination. London: Verso.

Lamarck, Jean Baptiste [1809] (1914). Zoological Philosophy. Trans Hugh Samuel Roger Elliot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lorde, Audre (1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: The Crossing Press.

Marx, Karl (1990). [1867] Capital: Volume 1 Trans. Ben Fowkes. London: Penguin Classics.

Mirza, Heidi (2015). “Decolonizing Higher Education: Black Feminism and the Intersectionality of Race and Gender,” Journal of Feminist Scholarship, 7-8: 1-12].

Mohanty, Chandra Talpade (2003). Feminism Without Borders: Decolonizing Theory, Practicing Solidarity. Durham: Duke University Press.

Risatti, Howard (2007). A Theory of Craft: Function and Aesthetic Expression. University of North Carolina Press.

Wekker, Gloria (2016). White Innocence. Durham: Duke University Press.



About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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