I have been away from my blog for such a long time! Over the summer I revised my manuscript What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use, which I sent back to my publishers at the end of August. I have been working on the uses of use since 2013. The project has been with me through thick and thin. I put my use folder away whilst I working on Living a Feminist Life and engaged in the institutional battles that so informed the tone and timbre of that text. I picked up my use project again in 2016, and it did feel like I was picking up some rather shattered pieces. I have picked up so much by following use around. All being well, the book should be out in late 2019, with Duke University Press, my publisher-companion. Together we are creating a killjoy library!
Since then I have been transcribing interviews for my complaint research. I have been listening and learning. That is my task. I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility as a care-taker for the stories I have collected. I had been expecting to be sharing new posts on complaint by now but I realised I needed more time to process all I am hearing. I need to sit with and to be with the stories. So I am giving myself more time. I hope to post new work on complaint on this blog in December of this year. My first post will be on warnings.
This term I will be giving two lectures on Queer Use and three lectures from my research into complaint. Details are here.
In the meantime, I am sharing a few words drawn from my introduction and conclusion about the question that is the title of my book.
What’s the Use?
The title of this book is a use expression, one that seems to point to the pointlessness of doing something. This expression often has an intonation of exasperation. What’s the use, what’s the point? Said in this way, “what’s the use” operates as a rhetorical question, what we ask when we have reached a conclusion; there is no use. I imagine hands flung in the air expressing the withdrawal of a commitment to some difficult task. I hear a drawn out sigh; the sound of giving up on something that had previously been pursued. We might be more likely to say “what’s the use” when the uselessness of something had not been apparent right from the beginning; when we have given up on something that we had expected to be useful such that to become exasperated can point not only to what, that which is now deemed pointless, but also to who, those who had assumed something had a point. It seems appropriate to ask about use, what it means to use something or to find a use for something, with such a moment of exasperation; a moment when we lose it, rather than use it.
“What’s the use, what’s the point of saying that?” This is the question asked by a character Peggy in the last segment of Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Years, first published in 1937. Peggy is having what we might call a feminist killjoy moment; she is interrupting a family gathering with this question, posed sharply, pointedly. Her Aunt Eleanor has already suggested to Peggy the she should enjoy herself: “‘But we’re enjoying ourselves’ said Eleanor, ‘Come and enjoy yourself too’” (2012, 264). Peggy does not obey her command. She seems alienated from happiness by making happiness into a question: “What does she mean by ‘happiness,’ by ‘freedom’” Peggy asked herself, lapsing against the wall again” (265). Happiness for Peggy seems unjust: “How can one be ‘happy,’ she asked herself. In a world bursting with misery” (266). She is listening to scraps of conversation, to laughter bubbling away at the surface. Perhaps she can hear what is being said because she does find happiness convincing. It is then that she asks the question, “What’s the use, what’s the point of saying that?” Once she asks this question which she addresses to her brother (the discussion is about him), she is overwhelmed by bad feeling: “She looked at her brother. A feeling of animosity possessed her. He was still smiling but his smile smoothed itself out as she looked at him. ‘What’s the use, she said facing him. You’ll marry. You’ll have children. What’ll you do then? Write little books to make money” (268). Peggy flounders; describing her own words as “personal” when “she had meant to say something impersonal” (268). The question of use becomes a personal question; a question about how a person lives their life. Once Peggy has started on this path, she has to keep going: “‘You’ll write one book, then another little book,’ she said viciously, ‘instead of living differently, differently’” (268).
Her utterance is too sharp; she regrets it. This wrinkle in the smile of the occasion is passed over; the conversation is smoothed out again, which means Peggy’s question is passed over, just as she is. This question “what’s the use” is often articulated by Woolf’s characters at the moment they seem to be losing it. It is a question posed by sisters, such as Peggy, who are interrupting the flow of a conversation about the lives of men. Or it is a question posed by wives, such as when Mrs Flushing asks Wilfrid in The Voyage Out “What’s the use of talking? What’s the use —?” Once talking is replaced by a dash, we might think of the dash as anything, “She ceased.” She ceased implies not only that she stops talking but that she stops being. The wife becomes the one who ceases; for whom the questioning of use is a questioning of being. One thinks here also of Mrs Dalloway, who also watches herself disappear in becoming wife, becoming mother (Woolf  1996). Mrs Thornbury follows Mrs Flushing by also asking a question to Wilfrid not to his wife, “because it was useless to speak to his wife.” To become useless: not to be addressed. Perhaps to be defined in relation to men, as sisters, as wives, is to be deemed useful to them, but not to others.
When you question the point of something the point seems to be how quickly you can be removed from the conversation. Maybe, she removes herself. The question “what’s the use?” allows Woolf to throw life up as a question, to ask about the point of anything by asking about the point of something. It is question Woolf poses to herself, a question she poses about her own writing. In a letter to Margaret Llewellyn Davies, Woolf writes: “My dear Margaret what’s the use of my writing novels” (cited in Bell 1972, 29). The question of use matters to a woman writer as a question of confidence, a question of whether the books she sends out can enable a way of “living differently” to borrow Peggy’s terms. It implies that that some things we do, things we are used to or are told to get used to, are in the way of a feminist project of living differently. The woman writer is trying to craft an existence, to write, to make something, in a world in which she is usually cast as sister or wife. It is not surprising that when the world is not used to you, when you appear as unusual, use becomes what you question.
We might challenge how functionalism becomes fatalism; how (for some) for is treated as before, how some are given an end before they even begin. But in challenging how the requirement to be useful can be imposed upon us, we open up a conversation about usefulness and how it might matter. I think again of Audre Lorde who especially in her later work spoke often of her desire to be useful to others. She speaks too of her desire for her own death to be a useful death (1988, 53). She writes of how she thought about death, about how to die (as well how to live): “rather than just fall into death any old way, by default, according to someone else’s rules” (53). Not falling into death, not going the same way others are going, as things have gone before, requires asking questions. Usefulness here is about asking questions about how to do something; how to be something. She notes that you have no choice; mortality is the condition of having to die. But mortality acquires a different meaning for those whose existence is not supported: “We have all to die at least once. Making that death useful would be winning for me. I wasn’t supposed to exist anyway, not in any meaningful way in this fucked-up whiteboy’s world” (53).
Usefulness might matter more for those who are not “supposed to exist.” Usefulness becomes then a political address; a way of facing outwards, toward others. Audre Lorde teaches us that we need to keep the question of use alive not because use does not matter but because it does. What’s the use? I noted in my introduction how this question can sound like exasperation, giving up on the point of something. I considered how for Virginia Woolf that question, what’s the use? however difficult, throws everything into question. To make use a question is to inherit a feminist and queer project of living differently. Asking the point of use might be an address to. To be useful can be a way of addressing a world; a multiple plural to, to that faces many directions; to that can animate a life, too.
Animation: queer use as the work you have to do to be. The more you are blocked the more you have to try to find a way through. The less support you have the more support you need. We might become each other’s resources, we prop each other up, because we understand how diminishing it can be to have fight for an existence, to have to fight, even, to enter a room. Perhaps the harder it is to be, the more use you have for use.
Bell, Quentin (1972). Virginia Woolf: A Biography. Hogarth Press.
Lorde, Audre (1988). A Burst of Light, Essays. Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Books.
Woolf, Virginia  (2012)  The Years and Between the Acts. Wordsworth Classics.
————————  (1996). Mrs Dalloway. Wordsworth Editions.
Dear Sara Ahmed, Thank you for this and everything else you do!
I look forward to reading more of your words on use. I appreciate very much your articulation of usefulness to battles, or feminist fights for existence. I often reflect on how ordinary patriarchy causes c-ptsd to some many people, especially women & non-binary folx. When one is crippled with bouts of anxiety the question of use can to often throw us in bleak places. While you acknowledge this you also manage, along with Audrey Lorde, to inject political stamina into the question of usefulness, from the perspective of those whose existence is not supported.
Use has been a notion i’ve carried with me for a long time, but in my cases it is use (Fr: usage) as a relation to space, as it opposes property. i.e. using space/land/things/matter/territory as opposed to owning them: use as a mode of inhabiting the world.
It seems that both meaning/interrogation of use – the function and the relation (actually they both are function and relation) – have this common feminist, queer, anti-colonial and anti-capitalist inherited project of living differently. Thank you for activating what you activate.