Use is a Life Question

I am pleased to share the comments I prepared for the launch of my new book What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use earlier this year. I titled my comments “Use is a Life Question” so that’s the title of this post. That title takes me to a different place now because we are in such a different time now. I think of what it means to get used to changed circumstances, radically changed circumstances, how change can be a point of commonality; what connects us can be that our circumstances have changed even if our circumstances are different.  We can share a change in circumstances without sharing circumstances.

Words can come back to you as circumstances change. As I have been finishing Complaint! I have been thinking again about the histories of use, of utilitarianism, and upon whom the injunction to be useful falls (and on whom it does not, who is freed by that same injunction). So often, a complainer becomes a stranger. A complaint that you do not belong can be used as evidence that you do not belong. The more you are treated as a stranger, not from here, not really from here, the harder it is to complain. And the harder it is to complain the more vulnerable you become. Right now, in the middle of the pandemic, this loop between vulnerability and complaint has become a lesson; a hard, cruel lesson. As Zubaida Haque, deputy director of the Runnymede Trust describes, “We know that BME NHS staff can’t complain as much because they’re worried about the recriminations of complaining….They’re much likely to be harassed and face discrimination compared to their white counterparts. There is the question of, did they have the appropriate PPE equipment? If they didn’t, did they feel they could complain or were they worried about the recriminations from complaining?”[1]  Exploitation works by making it harder to complain. And you might not complain because you are told, again and again, that you are a stranger, not from here, if you are brown or black you are treated as not from here even if you were born here; that you should be grateful just to be here.

This expectation of gratitude is performed most violently as the demand for sacrifice.

I think of the title of the powerful poem “You Clap For Me Now,” a “coronavirus poem on racism and immigration in Britain.” [2]

You clap for us now. That clap can be the same sound as the door being slammed.

“You cheer when I toil.”

A cheer can mask a hostile environment. A cheer can be a hostile environment.

You might be cheered when you are useful only to be told to go home when you are not.

To recover what I call queer use, to recover what has been stolen, to recover from what has been stolen, is to protest this violence.

In killjoy solidarity with those protesting this violence,

Sara xx

Use is a Life Question, Comments for Launch of What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use, Cambridge University, February 13, 2020

Thank you for being here today to help us launch What’s the Use? On the Uses of Use. It is a killjoy joy to be launching this book at Cambridge with the Centre for Gender Studies and LGBTQ+ Cam as our joint hosts. I began the research for this book at Cambridge when I was visiting Professor in the Centre for Gender Studies in the spring term of 2013. And 5 years later in 2018, I gave a lecture on queer use for LGBTQ+Cam, which was the last time I presented material from the book in this form. By queer use I refer to how objects or spaces can be used by those for whom they were not intended or in ways that were not intended.  We are queering use when we create spaces like Gender Studies and LGBTQ+, spaces that help us to do our work in institutions that were not built for us, as well as our work on institutions to make them more accommodating. And if we need these kinds of feminist and queer spaces, to keep our work going, it takes work to keep these spaces going. I would like to thank in particular Joanna Bush, Jude Brown, Heather Stallard and Sarah Franklin for their work.

It is quite a loop, from 2013 to 2018, here, there, back again. When I returned to Goldsmiths from Cambridge in the summer term of 2013, I became involved in a series of enquiries into sexual harassment and sexual misconducted prompted by a college complaint lodged by students. I learnt so much from the work they had to do to keep that complaint going. During this period, I stopped working on the uses of use; I can remember the moment it became obvious that is what I needed to do. I put away my old red note book. We fill books in writing books; our notes, scribbles, records of where we have been. Instead I wrote another book, Living a Feminist Life, and yes, this book gave me somewhere to deposit my feminist rage more directly, as well as frustration, frustration can be a feminist record, and also knowledge, the knowledge you acquire from being a feminist at work.

There is no doubt that that experience was shattering: I left my job, yes, a job I had loved, although in some ways it felt more like the job left me.  I had a “snap,” the moment when you can hear a bond break; a snap that moment with a history. But I left more than a job, I left a life, a structure, what I was used to, an identity, who I had understood myself to be, a way of organising my time, of giving order to things; I left what was familiar. I returned to my use project, picking up my scruffy red notebook was like catching up with an old friend, in that period after leaving my post, when I was working through, working out, what happened, as well as working out what I wanted to do.

What’s the Use helped me pick up the pieces. Writing about use whilst I was trying to get used to new circumstances made it clear to me how use was another way of posing the question of what it means to live a feminist and queer life, in other words, how use is a life question. The question, “what’s the use” can sound like it comes from a feeling of exasperation, and it can without doubt be said in exasperation. But the question “what’s the use” can also come out of a sense of curiosity, of interest, what’s the use, what is use, which is why I begin the book with Virginia Woolf who kept asking “what’s the use?” as a way of questioning pretty much everything. Perhaps we question use, or turn use into a question, use as a life question, the more we are not used to something, or because we refused to get used to something or because of our experiences of inhabiting worlds that are not used to us; how we appear; how we assemble. And although I offer a strong critique of how use can become about restriction, a restriction of who can do what, who can use what, how things and spaces when used in some ways become harder to use in other ways, I do insist that there are different uses of use and that these differences matter.

I think of this insistence as a feminist inheritance: I already mentioned Virginia Woolf, I also think of Audre Lorde who wrote often about the importance of being useful as a way of facing outwards to others (I offer in my conclusion some thoughts on Audre Lorde’s words on useful death), and I also think of Marilyn Strathern who in her paper, “Useful Knowledge,” notes the importance of critiquing the requirement that knowledge be useful in accordance with criteria decided in advance by considering other uses of use; for instance, use as a way of cultivating faculties.

I describe What’s the Use? as the third in a trilogy of books that use the method of following words around, in and out, of their intellectual histories.  The “out” part really matters: although my training was in the history of ideas, I didn’t do, I am probably quite incapable of doing, a conventional history. [A side note: in 1990 I applied to do a joint honours degree in History and Literature, hoping to write my honours thesis on ideas of history in literature, but my proposal was rejected by the History Department as not being historical enough!]  I could follow Natasha Tanna in thinking of my method as queer genealogy; to borrow from a description of her recent book, a way of “bringing together disparate fragments.” In each of the three books, I take quite ordinary speech acts as an impetus for thought. In The Promise of Happiness the speech act that had my attention was “I just want you to be happy,” which was often said to me in a tone of exasperation; and in Willful Subjects “I will if you will.” In this book, it is “use it or lose it,” a phrase familiar to us from personal training and self-help books. As a phrase it teaches how use can be an injunction or even a moral duty, you must use something to keep it alive.  And in that quite ordinary speech act is another history, of how use became a technique, for example, you can direct people along a path by making that path easier to use; how you can discourage a course of action by making it harder to follow.

To follow words is to go where they go.  But, of course, use is too used as a word to follow use everywhere. In this book I worked with materials that made use of use that most captured my interest. If I had located the book in an academic discipline that made use central as a category of thought, I would probably have located the book in design studies. But what captured my interest was, in fact, the use of use in biology, and more specifically, Lamarck’s law of use and disuse, which refers to how organs are strengthened by use, or weakened by disuse, and his law of inheritance, which suggests that, if certain conditions are met, the effects of use are inherited as modification of form. The idea that use shapes bodies in this way, which was sometimes called “the law of exercise,” was also widely articulated in nineteenth century social thought, including utilitarianism. In the book I approach utilitarianism primarily as an educational project rather than as moral philosophy with specific reference to Jeremy Bentham’s text, Chrestomathia, where he creates a plan for a school for middle-class children based on useful knowledge.[3]  Bentham was influenced by the monitorial school movement; monitorial schools were introduced into poor and working-class areas of Britain as well as in many British colonies. I learnt so much from reading about the techniques used in these schools. For example, Joseph Lancaster, who opened his first school in Borough Road in 1778, used only a small number of books in his classes, with the premise that fewer books would be read more. The idea was simple: you would direct the child to what he called “useful ends” by narrowing the paths available.  Andrew Bell who was appointed by the East India Company as Director of the Madras School for Eurasian Orphans of Soldiers in 1787 articulated his aim as “to rescue the children of the soldiers from the degradation and depravity of that class to which their mothers mostly belonged.” Making these children useful was about taking them from their Indian mothers, a theft narrated as redemption, utility as redemption; children were treating as orphans, as deserted or abandoned, rather like how land was treated as desert,  as unused; children became raw materials that could be shaped in accordance of the needs of the company.

What was articulated as a natural law became the basis of an educational technique. And because I am a rather queer scholar, wandering willfully around rather varied terrains, I should add here that I partly became intrigued by Lamarck law of use and disuse because of the use of example of the blacksmith’s strong arm to illustrate that law (the idea being that if the blacksmith makes use of his arm, his sons will be born with stronger arms, a story of paternity turned into profession). I noticed how the blacksmith’s strong arm was used as an example of Lamarck’s law of use and disuse without that example being used by Lamarck (the other typical Lamarckian example, the giraffe’s long neck, Lamarck only uses once). I think the arm became what one commentator called “the standing illustration” for the law of use and disuse because the arm provided a way of telling the story of modernity as a story of improvement, of how workers become more attuned to what was deemed their social function. I thus draw on historical materialism understood as a useful archive in the book, which retells that same story, of workers becoming as it were the “arms of industry,” as a story of exploitation; use not as strengthening of capacity to perform a function, but use as exhaustion, use as depletion; use as used up.

I probably only noticed this arm was missing from Lamarck, a phantom limb, because of how arms had come up in Willful Subjects.  And arms came to matter in that project because following willfulness, led to the Grimm story, “The Willful Child.” And in that story, an arm keeps coming up, an arm that inherits the willfulness of a child; that arm was striking. That arm became my lead. To wander is not to be without a route or a reason; it is to be redirected by what we encounter. To do cultural studies, to be an interdisciplinary scholar, for me, means being willing to go beyond the edges of fields, including those that have been shaped by our own training. And in What’s the Use, however much the arm was my lead, it was things that kept my attention; used things, old things; perhaps the arm had a hand in leading me there, worn out from being used as an example of the effects of use. In the first chapter, these are my main companions: a second-hand book, a well-used path, an unused path, a used up tooth paste, over-used exclamation marks, an occupied toilet, a broken cup; an old bag; a usable/ unusable door; an out of use post-box.

Here is a collection of some of my companion objects in writing the book as well as my old red note-book mentioned earlier. I call this collection, companions (see note 4 for why I included two copies of the book itself in the photo with its companions).

Use is a Life Question

We write, always, in companionship.  We present, too, in companionship.

It was from giving presentations from the work and in particular using power-point that allowed these things, which I first describe in terms of their use status, to acquire a different status in my own argument. I should note as an aside here that even if we use technologies like power-point for specified ends, using them can still mean we end up somewhere unexpected. I began to develop my argument with these used things as well as through them. I think this way of using things created moments in my text that were jarring, disconcerting, even, well I certainly experienced them that way, a feeling can be a question: can I really be discussing a used up tube of toothpaste in the same chapter that I reference Edward Said’s critique of Zionism for how it rendered Palestine unused and uncared for land?  I know I can because I did, and I remain committed to telling bigger stories through smaller things, to changing scales, but it is, I admit, jarring.

Although I was using things in a different way to how I had them before, used things had appeared in my work before. In The Cultural Politics of Emotion I likened heteronormativity to a comfortable chair, a world is more comfortable if it takes your shape; in Queer Phenomenology, I used, I am sure some would say overused, the example of the table, considering how the writing table appears in philosophy because it is in front of the philosopher only to disappear again because of what (and who) he can put behind him. Tables reappear in The Promise of Happiness, this time as the family table, along with the feminist killjoys, who get in the way of how the family is occupied. In Willful Subjects, I likened an institution to an old garment, how institutions take the shape of those who tend to wear them, so they are easier to wear if you have that shape.

On reflection, it is obvious that these objects mattered in part as they were also ways of talking about the effects of use, the sociality of use, how worlds are built for and around some bodies, how worlds are shaped by whom uses what to do what.

In this work I reuse the same images with different captions. The most used image in the book is in fact the well-used path.

Used Path 2

The image reappears six times with the following captions:

The more a path is used, the more a path is used

A longer neck

A stronger arm

An old policy

The more he is cited, the more he is cited

Heterosexuality: a path that is kept clear

If a used path is made smoother by use, from the tread of past journeys, that smoothness makes the path easier to use; the more a path is used, the more a path is used; there is more to more. I think of this “more to more” as the strange temporalities of use, how use, in pointing back, to where we have been, the tread of past journeys, points forward. I had in fact already used the well-used path in Queer Phenomenology, to talk about heterosexuality as a support system. But including an image of a well-used path alongside these captions helped me to make the argument, or perhaps to show it, about how use can be a building block for habit, how use can not only ease a route but become an invitation or perhaps an instruction: go that way! People often laughed when I showed the image “the more he is cited, the more he is cited” because I think it captures a problem we are familiar with; how we taught to cite the sources that have already had the most influence; how a citational path is created, a furrow deepened, how we end up reproducing what we inherit.

How we end up reproducing what we inherit: citation is one way of thinking about how universities are occupied. Whilst I was writing What’s the Use, I also began interviews for a project on complaint. In the project I am listening to people who have made, or tried to make, formal complaints about abuses of power within universities. This project has taught me a great deal about how universities remain occupied by learning more about what happens to those who try and challenge that occupation. I have been calling this institutional mechanics: you learn about how institutions work from how complaints are stopped from getting through.

Working on complaint and use at the same time has shaped both projects. Doors are the most tangible connection. It was because I was writing about use as building works, as scaffolding, that I noticed the doors in my complaint data; solid doors, glass doors, revolving doors; complaints as happening behind closed doors. Doors were not amongst the examples of used things in the first version of What’s the Use that I submitted to Duke. I included them when I rewrote chapter 1, because of how doors came up in accounts of complaint. Complaint changed the form of use. And it is not surprising doors kept coming up in my project on complaint: we tend to notice doors when they are shut in our face, which is to say, we tend to notice what stops our progression.

We learn about institutions from our efforts to transform them. Or to evoke Audre Lorde, we learn how the master’s house is built when we try and dismantle that house. What’s the Use is also about doing this kind of institutional work, the work of decolonizing the university, the work of challenging how racial and sexual harassment get built in, showing how universities are occupied all the way down. To open spaces up requires more than opening a door or turning up; sometimes you have to throw wrenches in the works, to stop things from working or become “wenches in the work” to borrow Sarah Franklin’s evocative terms. And it is a fight: we have a fight on our hands. It can be a fight for room, room to be, room to do; room to do your work without being questioned or being put under surveillance. A fight can be how we acquire wisdom: we know so much from trying to transform the worlds that do not accommodate us. But that fight can also be just damn hard. We have feminist and queer programmes and events not just because they are nice things to have, though they are that, what a relief, but because we need to survive the institutions we are trying to transform.

In doing this work, we need each other; we need to become each other’s resources.

Publishers also matter to how we become each other’s resources. I would like to acknowledge Duke University Press; it has been so important they provided me with a nest for my words. Duke became my publisher for Queer Phenomenology, all other publishers found this book too odd for their markets. My editor Ken Wissoker never used the word “market” when I approached him about this book (or any of the others) which is how I suspect I ended having so much room to roam. I also want to thank Combined Academic Publishers, representing Duke in UK/Europe, for their support in bringing the books to readers here.

Family: that’s another word we can reuse for our queer gatherings. I dedicated What’s the Use to my queer family, Sarah and Poppy. Being a feminist at work is also about living a feminist life; I am so glad to be sharing my life with Sarah. So many of the words and ideas in What’s the Use I worked through with you. I could replace “words and ideas” with “obsessions,” I don’t know how many times you listened to me talk about Lamarck’s non-use of the blacksmiths arm but it was a lot!  I also want to thank Poppy, who is here with us today.[4] Poppy, I am not sure you would be that impressed that I only mention you by name in reference to water bowls and puddles, though the word poodle does come from puddle. But Poppy: your paw prints are everywhere. You taught me to feel what I came to know, that to queer use is not to call for the cessation of use but its animation. You taught me how you can turn an old discarded shoe into a toy, a source of endless amusement, how a stone on a beach, seemingly lifeless, can become a friend, if you pull it behind you with your paws quickly enough it will dance. You taught me how a change in perspective, being closer to the ground, say, using your nose rather than your eyes, say, can be how you find new paths.

New paths, old paths, companions, friends, those who help us pick up the pieces when we fly off the handle, when we lose it rather than use it. In the book, I use this image as my primary example of queer use: a post-box that has become a nest.

Birds Nesting

Of course, the post box could only become a nest if it stops being used as a post-box otherwise the birds would be dislodged by the letters; hence the sign “please don’t use” addressed to would-be posters of letters.  Being dislodged by the letters in the box is a good way of describing how spaces become restricted by use; of accounting for the materiality of that restriction; how some have no room, no room to breathe, to nest, to be, because of how spaces are already being used.

In my conclusion I return to the image for the last time with the caption “a queer teacher.” The image teaches us that it is possible for those deemed strangers to take up residence in spaces that have been assumed as belonging to others. The post-box could have remained in use; the nest destroyed before it was completed; the birds displaced. A history of use is a history of such displacements, many violent, displacements that are often unrecognised because of how things remain occupied.

I am aware this is a rather happy, hopeful image; not a typical image, perhaps, for a killjoy. Queer use is rarely about just turning up and being able to turn a box into a nest or a room into a shelter: to queer use, to enable some to take up residence in spaces not built for them, often requires a world-dismantling effort.

My task is to keep describing that effort. I think of the birds rather affectionately as our queer kin; they turned an opening intended for letters into a door, a queer door, perhaps, a way of getting into and out of a box. I mentioned earlier that the arms travelled with me from my willfulness project into my use project. I am now writing a book on complaint. And the birds are coming with me. One person described her experience of complaint thus: “it was like a little bird scratching away at something.” It was like: note this it. A complaint as something that you are doing can acquire exteriority, becoming a thing in the world; scratching away; a little bird, all your energy going into an activity that matters so much to what you can do, who you can be, but barely seems to leave a trace.

Perhaps those scratches are a trace, what we leave behind, how we leave ourselves behind, traces for others to follow.  Queer use, scratching away at something, making room, making nests, from what has been left scattered.

[1] Cited in Aina Khan (2020), “Why are ethnic minorities more vulnerable to coronavirus?”

[2] The full performance is available here.

[3] The schools provided me with a way of considering how utilitarianism travelled throughout empire not only as a body of ideas or as a way of justifying colonialism as increasing happiness, as I explored in The Promise of Happiness (2010), but also as a set of practices aimed at creating “a useful class.” See also my 2017 post, Useful, which explains how I made use of Bentham and includes some of my key sources. In the second chapter of the book, I also consider the connection between utilitarianism and eugenics. These histories meet in the formation of London University.

[4] Since I gave this presentation, our queer family has expanded! Early on during lock-down we decided to bring forward a plan to bring a puppy into our home. Her name is Bluebell. Here she is:


Caring for her, at this time, a fragile buoyant being, has been a precious task. A new being in a household is work as well as joy: there have been challenges, especially for Poppy, who will have a paw in shaping her companion. A shaping can be painful. Bluebell adores Poppy but tends to express her adoration by doing things like jumping on Poppy’s head. Poppy has been a wise and patient teacher for Bluebell (with the occasional understandable snap).  Bluebell like Poppy is teaching me so much about queer use. She has found her own use for some copies of my book What’s the Use. You can see evidence of her usage if you look carefully at the photo shared in this blog. What’s the Use became a chew toy. I can’t think of anything more fitting. I am letting her chew right through.


About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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2 Responses to Use is a Life Question

  1. nirnoy says:

    thank you so much for writing this. your philosophy, politics, work has been so important for so many of us in qt feminist spaces in the global south(s). i’m going through a strange time as a teacher with my life-students-institution. thank you for making space with this. i teared up reading this. its a strange feeling. i am so grateful. since this is a public comment, i will leave this much here. so much love and power, nirnoy

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