Queer Vandalism

I am pleased to share that What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use has arrived into the warehouse! You can purchase copies direct from Duke University Press (use access code E19AHMED for a 30 percent discount) or Combined Academic Publishers (use access code CSP019USE for a 30 percent discount). I want to thank again everyone at DUP and CAP for helping to bring my books into the world. It is always such a collective effort.

I have just returned from a short snappy lecture tour in Canada. I learnt so much from  sharing new work on complaint (some of that work is included in the fourth chapter of What’s the Use, but there is much work left to do, much I have yet to say). I was touched to meet so many feminist killjoys and to sign books including some rather tattered copies of Living a Feminist Life! I hope I never take for granted the immense privilege of having someone pick up and read my work. To meet readers with my books in their hands, books they have made second-hand is such a joy, a killjoy joy!

Thank you if you do pick up and read What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use. The book  is full of images of second-hand, old and worn things. I have so much affection for used things, and for the stories they help us tell. To mark the publication of the book, I am sharing a part of the section “Queer Vandalism” from my conclusion “Queer Use” (minus notes and images).

With love,

f-k xx


Queer Vandalism

When we recover a potential from materials, when we refuse to use things properly, we are often understood not only as causing damage but as intending what we cause. Queer use could thus also be interpreted as vandalism: “the willful destruction of the venerable and beautiful.”

Sometimes the nuclear family is held up as the source of the venerable and beautiful. In The Promise of Happiness (2010) I explored how the image of family is maintained by polishing its reflection; a labour of keeping up appearances, smiling as way of covering over what does not correspond to happiness. We can think of this polishing as straightening; the removal of damage, the stains, the scratches, can be the removal of traces of a queer existence. When queer desires are deemed damaging, it can be assumed we desire to cause damage as if we trying to ruin a picture or as if we are demeaning something by not elevating it. Not following a family line is understood as breaking that line: queer as snap, snap, as if you are cutting up the family with a pair of scissors by arranging your life in a different way. Not following something as destroying something: no wonder they find us to be destructive. We can turn a finding into a will; if our desires cause damage, we might be willing to cause damage, willing even to destroy the nuclear family and marriage if that’s what it takes to live our lives in queer ways.

For some, extending marriage to gays and lesbians would be enough to destroy marriage; gay marriage would be the effort to destroy a sacred institution; gay marriage as queer vandalism.  I think this position is far too optimistic: queers need to do more than marry each other to destroy the institution of marriage. In aiming for more, queer politics might recover the militancy of second wave feminist approaches to the nuclear family as an institution we should aim to destroy. One thinks especially here of Shulamith Firestone’s Dialectics of Sex (1970), which it’s organizing assumption that institutions such as the family that promise happiness by narrowing down what counts as a good life should be dismantled. Given how the family is occupied we might need to become squatters; to squat the family, to enter the building and do something else, to loiter, to linger, to go astray.

We might use the word family to describe our queer gatherings; queer use as reuse. I think of Susan Stryker’s description of what was opened up for the “queer family we were building,” when her partner gave birth to their child. She describes: “We joke about pioneering on a reverse frontier: venturing into the heart of civilization itself to reclaim biological reproduction from heterosexism and free it for our own uses.” She adds: “We’re fierce; in a world of ‘traditional family values,’ we need to be” (1994, 247). When things are used by those for whom they were not intended, the effect can be queer. We can laugh at the effect. Joking about queer effects is not unrelated to rage against the machinery of the family, which as Stryker shows renders some offspring into deviants and monsters. And that rage itself can be transformative: “through the operation of rage, the stigma itself becomes the source of transformative power” (1994, 249). It takes work to reclaim biological reproduction “for our own uses” just as it takes work to reoccupy the family, to make the familiar strange. And it takes work to rearrange our bodies, to rearrange ourselves. Stryker offers her own rearrangement by refiguring transgender embodiment as an affinity to monsters, to those who have been deemed monstrous, speaking back to Frankenstein in words sharpened by rage.  Queer use: when we aim to shatter what has provided a container.

To open institutions up that have functioned as containers you have to throw usage into a crisis; you have to stop what usually happens from happening; and a “what” can be a “who,” to stop “who” from happening. We might have to occupy the family by rearranging our bodies. Or we might occupy a building or a street with the intent to disrupt ordinary usage, to get in the way of how that space is usually used (for what and by whom). Political protest often requires becoming an inconvenience. We might have to park our bodies in front of that door. In protesting, we are willing to cause an obstruction. Of course sometimes you can cause an obstruction by virtue of existing or by questioning the virtue of an existence. But we learn from how much of our political work requires disrupting usage. Usage can be how something recedes, an injustice; violence. To make violence noticeable sometimes you have to make a scene; to stop business as usual; to stop the flow of traffic; to make it impossible to open or close that door, to stop people from passing through or passing by.

Sometimes we need to disrupt usage to bring attention to a cause. At other times, that you disrupt usage teaches us about a cause. When you make use of an unoccupied building, for instance, you become a squatter. You might not necessarily aim to cause disruption: you might squat because you need to have access to shelter. But in doing what is necessary you are refusing an instruction, a use instruction, which tells you not to enter unless you have legitimate access. To enter an empty house without permission is to make an assertion: that that ownership of a house does not justify the house being vacant. Ownership is not only the right to use something but the right not to use it. The future is owner occupied. It causes disruption not to render vacancy right or a right.

A squat can be part of a political protest. You might enter a building that is unoccupied in order to bring attention to a cause. In 2017 the feminist direct action group Sisters Uncut occupied Holloway Prison “to demand that the empty space be used to support local domestic violence survivors.” You have to occupy a building to demand that a building is used to support those who are not supported. We learn from how survival and protest can be part of the same project.  If you have to occupy a building in order to survive, in order to have somewhere to go to escape from violence that usually happens in house, domestic violence, that occupation is a political project; you counter the violence of a system by revealing the violence of a system.

Occupying empty buildings can also be about trying to fill those vacant spaces in a different way: it can how space is thrown into relief by not being occupied by, say, a white bourgeois family this is what the bedroom is for, this is what the kitchen is for, each room to be used for bodies doing things in the right combination with other bodies. To squat, to make use of a space without owning a space, is to throw open the question of what space is for, to be released from the obligation to fill all the rooms in a certain way. Maybe queers become squatters of the family; we might not have a key to the door, but we can force it open by how we combine our forces. Queer use: in reusing old words for how we assemble we widen their range of uses.  As Erica Doucette and Marty Huber note, “the range of uses for squatted buildings is often much wider than simply providing a place to live. These projects link ideals with material realities and utopias, as a crucial point for many queer-feminist living projects is finding ways to combine affordable and politically responsible forms of living/housing” (2008).  A widening of use is necessary given the restriction of use. Experimentation with living and housing is a project of queering use, changing how we occupy spaces; a “who” change as a “what” change.

Queer use offers us another way of talking about diversity work: the work you have to do to open institutions to those for whom they were not intended. Even to try and open a container can be deemed damaging, ruining the value of something, given how often the value of things tends to depend upon their restriction. I think of how when more of us become professors we are used as evidence of the lessening of the worth of being professors. And opening up institutions is not a task that can be achieved by a singular action precisely given how institutions are closed – and often remain closed through the very appearance of being open. What’s the Use has provided an explanation of how it is through small acts of use that possibilities become restricted; how histories becomes concrete, hard as walls. My task has thus been to keep thickening my account of use, more and more, heavier and harder; to show how histories can occupy buildings, can stop spaces from being usable even after they have declared vacant or open for business.

We know about closures from trying to open things. When you become a diversity worker you learn how those who try to stop something from happening are themselves stopped. This is why I describe diversity workers as institutional plumbers; you have to work out how things are blocked because they are blocked. We might from this description assume that diversity workers are appointed to unblock the system. But blockages 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 it from working. When you stop the machine from working you have damaged the machine.  Plumbers might need to become vandals, or we might have to pass as plumbers (fixing the leaks) to become vandals (making leaks bigger). 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, doing the same old things. The “wench in the works” has a queer kinship with the feminist killjoy, a kinship of figures can be a kinship of persons, as non-reproductive agents, as those who are trying to stop what usually happens from happening. A non-reproductive agent aims not to reproduce a line, not to follow in the footsteps of those who have gone before.

So much is reproduced by the requirement to follow. In chapter 4 I described how you are required to follow the well-trodden paths of citation; to cite properly as to cite those deemed to have already the most influence. In order to craft new knowledge we might have to cite differently; citation as how we can refuse to be erased. We can consider the work of indigenous and black feminist scholars such as Zoe Todd (2016) and Alexis Pauline Gumbs (2016) who have showed how we can craft different knowledges by not following old citational paths. In Living a Feminist Life (2017) I had a rather blunt citation policy, which was not to cite any white men.  In this book I have not been able to have such a policy: following use has meant engaging with the history of utilitarianism, which is a history of books written mainly by dead white men. Even if I have been critical of this history, use as reuse, I have kept it alive. A reuse is still a use damn it! If I have used their names, I am not writing to them, or for them. I write to, for, those who are missing, whose names are not known; whose names cannot be used; those who are faint, becoming faint, fainter still.

An occupation can be secured as a requirement to follow a line, to use the well-trodden path. 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.  In chapter 4 I referred to one way that eugenics is given an institutional home by the naming of buildings, lecture theatres and professorships after eugenicists such as Francis Galton at the UCL. I noted how the use of Galton’s name was justified at a panel, Why Isn’t My Professor Black, as an inheritance. There has since been a wider and meaningful discussion of the role of Galton’s legacy at UCL. This questioning of a legacy was represented to the wider public as the Galton Must Fall Campaign. Whilst we might support such a campaign if it did indeed exist there was no such campaign; it was in fact invented to discredit the questioning of a legacy as “cultural vandalism.” When it was pointed out that such a campaign did not exist, the newspaper made some small amendments clarifying that such a campaign “has yet to materialise.” What is clarifying is how discrediting works. To discredit the questioning of a legacy is to discredit the questioner.  Even posing a question or making a history questionable is framed as vandalism.

A judgement can be turned into a project. If questioning what is received as inheritance is understood as damaging institutions, we might need to damage institutions. A complaint too is often treated as (potential) damage to the organisation.  In chapter 4, I introduced some data from my study of complaint. This study of complaint was inspired by my own experiences of working on multiple enquires into sexual harassment and sexual misconduct, which is to say my project was inspired by students. After three years of trying to get through, of coming up against wall after wall, I eventually resigned. I resigned because I had had enough, and because I did not want to stay silent about what had been going on. Resignation is another way of saying no to system; you withdraw your labour, your body, yourself. The word resignation can seem to suggest giving up, reconciling yourself to your fate, to resign yourself to something. I hear the word resignation and I hear a long drawn out sigh rather like saying, perhaps, what’s the use. But resignation can also be how you refuse to resign yourself to a situation. Perhaps you are giving up on something, a belief that you can do the work here, but you are holding onto something, a belief in doing the work. What appears to be giving up can be a refusal to give in.

I resigned in part because of the silence about what was going on. To get information out sometimes you need to get out. There is no point in being silent about resigning if you are resigning to protest silence. When I shared my reasons for resigning I became the cause of damage.  To speak out is to become a leaky pipe: drip, drip.

Organisations will try and contain that damage; public relations works as a form of damage limitation, repairing an injury to the organization’s reputation. Indeed this is how diversity often takes institutional form: damage limitation. Happy shiny policies will be put in place; holes filled without reference to what went on before. Paper as papering over: organisations often use paper to paper over the cracks; the leaks. Or they send paper out to create a trail, paper that can be used as evidence of what has been done. Creating evidence of doing something is not the same thing as doing something.

But there is hope here; they cannot mop up all of our mess. One spillage can lead to more coming out; can lead, does lead. Just loosen the screw a little bit, a tiny little bit, and you might have an explosion. We need more explosions.  Queer use might describe this potential for an explosion, how small deviations, a loosening of a requirement, the creation of an exit point, opening a door to allow something to escape, can lead to more and more coming out.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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2 Responses to Queer Vandalism

  1. Pingback: “On the Edge of Greatness”: First Ones’ Tech and the Non-Binary Politics of She-Ra and the Princesses of Power | The Middle Spaces

  2. Ramsha Siddiqui says:

    It’s always such a pleasure to read your work!

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