Cutting Yourself Off

Talking to those who have made complaints about abuses of power within universities has already taught me so much.(1) Complaint is feminist pedagogy. Listening to those who have been through a complaint process – not all of whom have been able to complete that process – has taught me what might seem obvious (and the obvious is often obscured by being obvious): the reasons making a complaint is difficult are the same reasons that making a complaint is necessary. A complaint brings you up against the culture of an institution; and a complaint is often necessary because of the culture of the institution.

In my first post on complaint, I offered the framework of a “complaint biography” as a way of addressing the life of a complaint in relation to the life of a person or group of persons. A complaint biography is not simply what happens to a complaint; a story of how a complaint comes about, where it goes, what it does, how things end up, that is, it is not simply about the institutional life (and death) of a complaint. The idea of a “complaint biography” is a recognition of how a complaint in being lodged somewhere, starts somewhere else; a complaint comes from someone, who is living a life that is compromised in some way by or in the institution in which they are doing their work; a complaint might be the start of something, things follow because a complaint has been lodged, but it is never the starting point. How would you give your own complaint biography? So many incidents, so many encounters, are often recalled, times you said something; times you did not say something. Those who lodge a complaint might have made complaints or might not have made complaints before; the decision to make a complaint is a difficult one, and sometimes people decide not to make a complaint or to make a complaint because of their past experience of having made a complaint or not having made a complaint. I am learning how complaints are often about timing.

In my first post I drew on a small fragment of a complaint biography; the experience of a woman who as a postgraduate student become the target of sexism and sexual harassment by male postgraduate students. And I tried to show how her complaint biography did not begin at the moment she decided (with a group of other women postgraduate students) to make an official complaint; it began much earlier, before she said anything, in her experience of not going along with what was being said and done. When the male students began to articulate sexist statements, calling female staff and students “milking bitches,” there was an expectation that everyone would laugh. She does not find it funny. She does not have to say anything to show something. She describes: “it felt like my reaction to it was out of kilter with everyone else. It felt really disconnected, the way I felt about the way they were behaving and the way everybody else was laughing.” By not laughing, by not going along with it, she is targeted. You become an object of harassment when you experience behaviour as harassment: “you start to stand out in that way; you are just not playing along. I got a sense then, the only way I can explain it is he decided to come after me a little bit.”

The experience of a situation as something to be complained about is an experience of coming apart from a group. I want to think of the violence of this situation. The violence of such utterances is what you are required not to notice in order to participate in the group. You have to laugh – and laugh convincingly – in order not to stand out. You can stand out by just experiencing violence as violence. And then the violence you fail not to experience as violence is redirected towards you; the violence that was already in the room is channeled in your direction. This is probably why some laugh; to avoid the channeling. Laughing could thus be considered a form of institutional passing; a way of avoiding standing out, of trying to slide by undetected. The problem of passing is that if someone fails to pass, those who have passed are still participating in what has left someone stranded.

Being stranded is part of the experience of complaint; a sense that you have been cut off from a group that you had formerly understood yourself as part of; you come apart; things fall apart. Cutting yourself off can also be a judgement made about the complainer: as if you have caused your own alienation by not going along with something. This is how a complaint teaches us about culture; we learn what is required to participate in something. A complaint teaches us about we; how a bond becomes a bind. Those who complain are often judged as causing the problem they identify by failing to be part of a we.

This is why complaint is pedagogy; we are learning about the conditions of social membership. Take two related instances. Take the case of a queer child. A queer child might be cut off from the family, either by an act of being disowned (yes this still happens) or by just not being able to participate in the family in the same way when family life renders heterosexuality a shared routine. When the queer child is disowned – or tolerated – the child might be understood not as being cut off, but as having cut herself off: as having willingly gone in the wrong direction. This is what I would call queer snap, as if you have cut yourself off by not following the straight line. Note here that act of willing misdirection is often judged as a kind of willful destruction: snap, snap, as if you are cutting up the family by living your life in a different way. We might indeed have to cut ourselves off from a group that decides our desires are cutting ourselves off from a group.

Or consider what happens when a woman of colour talks about racism within a feminist community. She understands herself as part of that community; though she might also have a sense of not being part in the same way as white women. Some of the issues that matter to her are not treated as feminist issues. But when she speaks of racism within feminism, or even just talks about why racism is a feminist issue, she is heard as being divisive. She is deemed to cause a division by naming a division. This means that: those who are not part of something (because of racism) are supposed to pass over what makes them not part of something (because of racism). And then: if you bring racism up you are understood to bring racism into existence. Even to name a problem is to become disloyal: as evidence that you were not really part of something; that you did not have your heart in something (2).

A complaint can indeed be treated as a form of disloyalty; a disloyalty not only to a department or institution but to some we or another. Individuals within a group then experience the requirement to justify their behavior as an imposition from someone who is judged to have made themselves an outsider by virtue of creating such a requirement. Being targeted because you are identified as the source of a complaint (sometimes wrongly) is common. That targeting can come from official sources (in other words, those who communicate with the complainer during a complaint procedure can target or bully the complainer to try and stop a complaint from going further) and also unofficially, from peers who understand themselves to be loyal to a we and threatened by the complaint insofar as they have an allegiance to that we.

My opening example was about sexist conduct. I am thus suggesting that accepting sexism might be a requirement in becoming part of a department or cohort. Even if a sexist utterance is made by an individual, it has a life or a career, somewhere to go, because of how it is picked up by others. When there is a pick up, the utterances are held, often by the institutions in which they are made. We might call this institutional sexism.

Institutional sexism and institutional racism exist even after institutions are committed to gender and race equality. We learn from this too: universities have official commitments to equality that ought to stop the use of sexist and racist language. A policy can be about what ought not to exist. I noted in my lecture, Institutional as Usual, that something can come into existence without coming into use. The idea that something should not exist, or even that something does not exist because it should not exist, might be how something remains in use. What is used more is often framed as prohibited (what is not supposed to exist), which is how racist and sexist utterances can be made as if they are rebellious. The “norm as rebel” is how the “norm is norm.”

An official response to what is not supposed to happen but is a norm often takes the form of denial.

The student describes what followed her experience:

I think the staff member knew I was deeply upset by it. I pretty much left the table.  And he (the staff member) followed me out and started a conversation, and this is when probably in hindsight it started to get difficult, in that staff member started to lean on me; immediately he said to me, oh you know what he’s like, he’s got a really strange sense of humour, he didn’t mean anything by it, and the implication was I was being a bit over-sensitive and that I couldn’t take a joke, and that I need to sort of forget about it and move on.

A complaint: leaving the table. As I noted in my earlier post, that there is an effort to stop the student from complaining about the situation in the situation. She is told not to say anything; not to be over-sensitive, not to do anything, not to cause trouble. This is how banter is used; to justify use as if words can be stripped from a history, such that to hear a wrong is to hear wrongly, to impose something on somebody. A use is sustained by a fantasy that a use can be suspended. The staff member in warning her not to complain, by leaning in this way, positions himself with the harasser, treating the verbal onslaught as joke, something she should take. Indeed, when she refused the instruction not to say anything by making a complaint, the complaint sent out an alert; when the students who had conducted themselves in this way found out from the head of department that a complaint had been made, they initiated a violent campaign (including threats of physical harm) to those they thought had initiated the complaint.

Cutting yourself off is a judgement. It can also be a punishment.

In another case, a student talked of how she had participated along with a number of other students in a complaint about harassment from a member of staff. These students were accused by other students not only of cutting themselves off from the cohort but of depriving other students of what they needed for their education:

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. In other words, what follows the action is what gives confirmation to the judgement. Note that the other students are not disputing that the harassment happened. The implication is that to be loyal to your peer group is to accept the harassment as part of the deal.

The deal: you have to get used to it, or get out of it. Those who complain refuse that deal.

This implication is not only that a complaint is a standing apart but those who complain do so out of self-interest as opposed to group interest. (3) It is this implication that we need to interrogate further: how group interests are assumed to coincide with the acceptance of abuses of power.

In cases when a member of staff is recognised as having abused power (and in all the cases I know of such recognition only happens after a long and painful battle for recognition, most often led by students) another version of cutting off occurs. The member of staff is quickly re-positioned as a stranger, even as a foreigner, as not expressing the values of the organization; rather than as being enabled by what the organisation enabled.

We need to think about what organisations enable; who they enable. One academic told me about 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.” A racist comment is made: “I’m from London and London is just ripe for ethnic cleansing.” She described how people laughed, how the laughter filled the room; again, laughter as holding. As she puts it, “Those were the sorts of things being aired.” These are the sorts of things; a sentence as a sentencing; violence thrown out can be how you are thrown out.

She decided to make a complaint because she “wanted it recorded” and because “this culture was being reproduced for new PhD students.”  She gathered statements from around twenty people in her department who shared her objections to how the space had become occupied. A complaint can be a feminist collective. Even then she was described by the head of human resources as “having a chip on her shoulder.” She adds: “they treated the submission as an act of arrogance on my part.” A feminist we can be heard as me; as how she is getting ahead of herself. A complaint is treated as self-promotional. Even when we combine our forces, it is hard to get through (4).

Many of those I have spoken to thus far have talked of how a complaint is treated not only as potential damage but as actual damage: as damaging the reputation of a university, damaging the reputation and life chances of an individual person if an individual person is the object of complaint, and also as damaging projects, “ruining the department” or “spoiling the student experience.” If a complaint is treated as damage, those who complain end up having to pay high costs. This is another way cutting yourself off works: a warning about costs. I will return to warnings in future posts. A warning works by trying to dissuade the would-be complainer by declaring in advance what the costs of the action will be: when cutting yourself off is a warning, you are being told that you will not receive the benefits you would otherwise receive (such as references, funding). If you proceed with a complaint, it is then as if you are damaging yourself or depriving yourself of the connections you would need to progress (5). And: if you proceed with a complaint and it is damaging, it is then understood that you brought that damage upon yourself.

A warning is a projection of a future. It is a future that no-one wants: institutional death (6); the end of the line. A warning is thus also a threat: do this and that will follow.

A complaint also involves an interpretation of the past. One student who participated in a complaint with other students about misogyny in her peer group describes how “cutting yourself off” is used to explain their complaint. She gives an account of a meeting with the head of department: “She said even before you put in this complaint, and now you’ve put in this complaint, you’ve really separated yourself from this department. She said even by having a knitting club (and men and women were in the knitting club) that was already a sign of separating yourselves from the department. She said what do you want, do you want your own women’s space, trying to make it was some kind of militant feminism. Obviously it was a feminist project but what we asking for was equality and safety and people to feel welcome in that space.”

Past activities are swept up as symptoms of some having “separated themselves”: as if some complain because they are not better integrated into a department. Even a mixed knitting club can become a sign of a subversion-to-come. I think we need to hear what is at stake in how complainers are identified as militant. One way a complaint can be dismissed is by magnifying the demand; a demand for “equality and safety” is treated as wanting to bring an end to what or who already exists, or as separatism, as not wanting to share a space or a culture. This is how a complaint is treated as vandalism; “a willful destruction of what is venerable and beautiful.” (7)

A complaint is thus framed as a failure of integration: as not being willing to put aside your differences, as a failure to love, a professor say, or a department, or a university. Integration can mean in practice the expectation that you should put up with forms of behaviour that negate your existence.

Integration, that heavy word, is often used, overused, to describe a national project. It is the migrant or the would-be-citizen who has to integrate; those who are deemed to “come after.” Coming after means having to accept what is understood as national culture or even just culture. In other words, culture becomes priority; it is how some are given priority. As we know national culture in the UK is often articulated through the language of diversity and equality. We are getting to the heart of the matter here. Diversity and equality are not just ideals the nation has or is supposed to have; they are ideas we have of the nation. What is in existence is not always in use. In fact, integration can really mean: not being able to identify how a we has already failed those ideals. To speak of racism or sexism, to name the harassment committed by those who have been given priority, becomes a failure of integration. And racism, sexism, harassment: they are directed more toward those who identify them more. You just have to say words like racism and sexism and you will be heard as making a complaint. We know what follows such a hearing.

Inequality masked as equality: complaints reveal a mask and threaten to show an image of we that a we is not willing to consider. In the accounts I have been collecting, the mask has been slipping. Complaint as feminist pedagogy.



(1) I am aware that I am using “abuses of power” as a shorthand here and will be explaining rather than assuming what I mean by this expression in the study. Thus far I have heard about complaints relating to sexism, cissexism, heterosexism, racism, classism, ableism and ageism as well as sexual abuse, sexual misconduct, sexual harassment and bullying. I have also heard stories in which an abuse of power occurred because of a dispute that did not seem, in the first instance, to do with an abuse of power. My project is framed around the university, as a body I know, to show how complaints are embedded within the institutions in which they are lodged. In my work I have understood the institutional as a form of directed human traffic (we can call this social traffic, the way we are directed toward the more used paths). If a complaint is “in” an institution we also need to recognise that complaints about abuses of power might still tend to go in the direction of social traffic: this mean that a complaint might be more likely to be successful, or get uptake, if a person has more power (if a complaint requires being convincing there’s a politics to whose more convincing). This also means that those with more power can use complaint as a technique of power. This is complicating and I will address the complications, but we need to be very careful. A related example: recognising that equality can be used as a technique of audit culture (ticking boxes) does not mean dismissing equality; however people (including governments) can use that use as a dismissal. The misuse of complaint could also be used to dismiss those who have to complain if they are to have any chance of inhabiting a space or progressing within an organisation. Given that responses to complaints tend to amplify the power of the complaint and of the complainer (these responses are defences) these uses of the misuse of complaint can constitute another misuse of complaint. Yes: it is complicated! We need to take much feminist care in handling this.

(2) In The Promise of Happiness (2010) I explored how investment in racism (rather than racism itself) is narrated as the primary obstacle to inclusion. I am now realising how my earlier argument could be understood in terms of complaint (as what you must give up in order to participate in the national game). I wrote then: “The figure of the melancholic migrant is a familiar one in contemporary British race politics. The melancholic migrant holds onto the unhappy objects of differences, such as the turban, or at least the memory of being teased about the turban, which ties it to a history of racism.  Such differences become sore points or blockage points, where the smooth passage of communication stops. The melancholic migrant is the one who is not only stubbornly attached to difference, but who insists on speaking about racism, where such speech is heard as labouring over sore points. The duty of the migrant is to let go of the pain of racism by letting go of racism as a way of understanding that pain.” Complaint could also be understood as labouring over sore points.

(3) In my work on happiness and the will, I have noted how those who challenge social norms are often judged as putting themselves first, as acting like individuals in opposition to a collective good. There is much to learn from this. I am still trying to learn from this.

(4) A number of the complaints I have learned about are collective complaints; when a group works together to put a complaint forward. I will return to collectivity and complaint in future posts.

(5) Note the shift here from complaint as self-promotional to complaint as self-damage. In both cases, complaint is made self-referential. I am developing the argument I made in the chapter, “Feminist Snap,” from Living a Feminist Life (2017), where snapping is understood as self-harm, as depriving yourself of what you would need for a good life.

(6) If this seems somewhat dramatic, one of the common ways of describing complaint is as a form of career suicide. I will return to this description in later posts. Please note being threatened with institutional death does not inevitably lead to institutional death. But it does mean that feminists need to participate in the institutional life of those who have been threatened with institutional death (by supporting those who are cut off from official networks). However my research thus far has taught me that there is no guarantee that feminists will do this work. Some students and staff who have made complaints have relayed to me their shock at not being supported by other feminists within the organisation. I will come back to this issue, but I have some thoughts derived in part from my own experience of this problem:  If we want to transform institutions we have an institutional project, which might also be a diversity project, a feminist project. We use the more used path. Even if we proceed on a path in order to disrupt it we can end up not disrupting it in order to proceed. This paradox is often presented as a utilitarian choice, a fantasy choice, join or die, which is another version of get used to it or get out of it. Join is a nice word; to join as to be part of something. Being seen as choosing not to die, choosing not to have your projects cease to be (the double negative), choosing your projects (turned into a positive), can mean you sign up to so much when you join up. When you sign up it becomes harder to speak up; or speak out about the violence of the institution, without compromising your own projects. The imperative to join can have deadly consequences: you might not speak out about the abuse of power within your own institution because to speak out would drain resources from your projects; it would be to lose it, not use it. This is my view: if we are silent about abuses of power within institutions where we do our feminist work, to enable us to do that work, feminism is not working. We need activism here. We need dismantling projects here.

(7) I will discuss how decolonizing the curriculum is treated as vandalism in a future post.

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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.



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A Complaint Biography

I have just begun research for a new project on complaint. I realised I wanted to work on complaint whilst supporting students who were testifying in multiple enquiries into sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. A complaint is usually required to initiate an enquiry. Once a complaint is lodged, a procedure is followed, supposedly automatically. What is supposed to happen does not always happen.  A process can be quite different to a procedure even when a procedure is followed. In the project I will be asking those who have made complaints to reflect on their experience of the process.

I learnt a lot about complaint from what happened during and after these enquiries. I learnt how difficult it can be to make a complaint – and to keep making a complaint as a complaint is not completed by one action alone. As I noted in my lecture, “Snap,” students are often warned about making complaints; they are told that making a complaint would damage their reputations, relationships, career prospects, lives.[1] If a complaint is made, it tends to be treated as potential damage, as that which could damage the reputation of an individual or an organisation. There is often a concerted effort to stop a complaint from going through the system or to stop a complaint from getting out.  I will be drawing on some of my experiences of these stopping and stalling mechanisms. But I know enough to know there is much I do not know. The project is a qualitative empirical study[2]; the first such study I have conducted since my research into diversity work within universities, the results of which I presented in On Being Included (2012) and which I returned to in the middle section of Living a Feminist Life (2017). In this project I will be listening to other people’s experiences of making and not making complaints. I will be gathering written as well as oral testimonies over the next year; learning and listening.

I am at the very early stages of the research and I have already learnt so much [3]. I am learning that you can make a formal complaint and it not be treated as a complaint due to one technicality or another, a quite unexpected finding that I will discuss more in subsequent posts.

It is also the case that statements that are not intended as complaints can be received as complaints. Just using words such as racism or sexism can mean being heard as making a complaint. If we think of the word complaint we might think of a formal statement; a complaint as something you officially lodge. But if we think of the word “complaining” it brings up something else; it brings up somebody else. The word complaining has a negative quality: the word belongs with the killjoy in the same family of words; complaining, killjoy, whinging, moaning, buzzkill, party-pooper; stick-in-the-mud. In an earlier post, I described how being heard as complaining is not being heard. You are heard as expressing yourself; as if you are complaining because that is who you are or what you are like. If you are heard as complaining then what you say is dismissible, as if you are complaining because that is your personal tendency. When you are heard as complaining you lose the about: what you are speaking about is not heard when they make it about you.

What I have already learnt from my complaint research is that being heard as complaining can mean being slowed down. You might have to complain because you are not promoted, and you might not be promoted because you complain. A complaint: how you can be stuck. Avoiding making a complaint (to avoid a complaint – not go in that direction – you might first need to consider making one) does not necessarily mean escaping these consequences. The situation you avoid complaining about is often what you cannot avoid.

I should also add here that diversity work in the first sense I have referred to it – trying to open institutions to make them more accessible to populations that have historically been excluded – is often framed as complaint. 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 complaint, not only as being negative, but as an imposition of your will upon others; as depriving others of their first preference, and even as restricting their freedom.

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 an appropriation: as if you are taking (up) their room and their time.

Even a request that is about meeting compliance with existing equality legislation can be treated as complaint.

What is treated as complaint seems to warrant making a complaint.

Also: for some to enter the room, to make a time, not just to proceed but to be there at all, you have to do something or say something that is heard as complaint. If a complaint is what you have to lodge, complaint can become a lodge; where you end up residing because residing requires changing how things are being done.

My task in asking about what complaint is doing, what we are doing with complaint, is not to specify what makes a complaint a complaint. Definitions can be used as political tools: an organization can say a complaint is x in order to render a submission not x as a way of not doing something about x. Nevertheless, I need to account for how complaint becomes a distinct genre, how a complaint becomes tight, this becoming generic is part of the process. In order to make a complaint you usually have to fill in a form that is determined in advance by an organization – and the forms are often shared even copied from other forms. I want to track the implications of how complaint is framed; how complaints and channeled by how they must take form, whilst also exploring the murky and messy world of perception: who is heard as complaining; what is heard as complaint.

How can we talk about how complaint is narrowed without narrowing complaint?

How can we give room to the one who is heard as complaining before she makes a complaint?

Let us assume in the first instance that a complaint is what somebody intends to make. It would then be useful to think of complaints as having institutional lives or biographies: a letter might be written that meets the criteria for a complaint, which decides what happens to the letter; where it does and does not go.  I do not think whether something is received or not as a complaint is the only factor in determining how something circulates. From my informal conversations over the past three years, I have learnt of many complaints that are acknowledged as such only then to be filed away– and that’s how things stay. A complaint can just sit there, even though a complaint procedure if followed should have meant that the complaint would have gone somewhere.

As ever: the gap between what should happen and what does happen is densely populated.

Diversity work: mind the gap.

A complaint biography is not simply a story of what happens to a complaint. Individuals too might have their own complaint biographies: histories of saying something or doing something that are understood either at the time or retrospectively as complaint.

A complaint often becomes present in the experience of a need to make a decision. That experience can often be one of a crisis: you have to decide whether or not to complain (either formally or informally) about a situation. We should remind ourselves (this is obvious but it matters) that a complaint comes up because of what has already come up: you are considering whether to complain about something, which often involves an experience of something as wrong or of being wronged. It is might be you are uncertain about whether what happened “merits” a complaint. That uncertainty is part of the story if it is what stops you from proceeding.

This recently published report on sexual harassment and sexual assault at Australian universities, concluded that the vast majority of students who experience sexual harassment and assault at universities do not make formal complaints. It suggests: “Common reasons for this were that students who were sexually assaulted or sexually harassed did not believe their experience was serious enough to warrant making a report or that they did not know how or where to make a report” (4). Both of these reasons need investigating. The inaccessibility of complaint policies has already come up as a serious issue in my research. Let me also say here: the sense that harassment is not serious enough to warrant a complaint is often part of the experience of harassment, or an effect of being harassed; it not that you lose confidence it is that your confidence is stolen from you. You might also be told by others to reduce the significance of what happened, not magnifying something as being mature about something; as if something is big or significant only because you have let it be so.

How a complaint is treated is also about how those who abuse power are not made responsible for abuses of power; how a complaint is treated is how abuse itself is minimized or reduced and made the responsibility of the abused, as if abuse would just disappear if those who are abused do not let it appear.

A complaint biography would include those times we decide not to make complaints – not to say something or not to do something – despite an experience or even because of an experience. A complaint can mean being prepared to talk about difficult and painful experiences over and over again, often to those with whom you have not built up a relationship of trust and those who represent an organisation that is implicated in some way in what you are complaining about.  You might decide not to complain because of your attachments; to a person, a group, a department, an institution: you might take seriously the warnings that a complaint would be damaging; you might worry about causing damage. And you might make a decision not to complain because you cannot risk the consequences of complaint. A decision not to complain can be influenced by past experiences; you might not be confident your complaint would be taken seriously because you have not been taken seriously. The reasons you don’t make a complaint are often the same reasons you need to make a complaint. The decision whether to complain is also often made in light of advice, suggestions and guidance given by others, whether welcomed or not.

A complaint biography includes the experiences that lead to a complaint but also the experience of a complaint if that is indeed the course of action taken. In these cases, a biography of a complaint and that of a person are part of the same story; what happens to a complaint also happens to a person. In some cases, it takes a group to form in order to proceed with a complaint, or a complaint involves gathering testimonies from a number of people. What happens to a complaint also happens to a group of people. And given that a complaint can take many years to go through a system, the story of a complaint is often a story of exhaustion.

A complaint can take over lives.

A life can become a complaint.

Or a life can feel like a complaint.

I am also learning: when you make a complaint within an organisation so much is revealed about an organisation.

A complaint biography might not even begin with something that has been explicitly said. A complaint biography might not even begin with the word no, or no might not only be expressed through words. To give a complaint biography we need to slow down; to get a sense of how a complaint is embedded within the intensity and thickness of a situation.

A situation: how you encounter a structure. A situation: how you are thrown.

Complaint can be the experience of the absence of exteriority to what you are complaining about.

You are there; you are right there; there you are.

I want to take an example from one of my first interviews. This is an account provided by a woman of a situation in which she found herself when she was a postgraduate student. There is much that follows the situation she is describing here that I will leave for later. She offers a powerful description of how harassment works by creating the figure of a complainer who appears before she says anything at all:

They were making jokes, jokes that were horrific, they were doing it in a very small space in front of staff, and nobody was saying anything. And it felt like my reaction to it was out of kilter with everyone else. It felt really disconnected, the way I felt about the way they were behaving and the way everybody else was laughing. They were talking about “milking bitches.” I still can’t quite get to the bottom of where the jokes were coming from. Nobody was saying anything about it: people were just laughing along.

What do you do when sexist jokes become part of a culture? Can you complain about a culture? To whom would you make that complaint?

The sexist expression “milking bitches” seemed to have a history; a number of men in the cohort would regularly refer to women in this way. It is interesting how for her, the expressions and jokes seem somewhat mysterious, she “can’t quite get to the bottom of where they are coming from.” That they keep coming does not mean you know where they are coming from. Each time the expression is used, that history is thrown out like a line, a line you have to follow. As she shows, to feel alienated from the jokes is to experience your own reactions as out of kilter with others; there is a gap between what she hears when she hears those jokes and what she hears other people hear.

It might appear that sexist jokes bind everyone together; it can sound like everyone is laughing. If you are not laughing it can be hard to hear others who are not laughing; laughter can sound even louder, louder still, when it does not have your agreement. Whether or not everyone is laughing, it is important that that is what it sounds like. If you experience jokes as offensive, you are alienated not only from the jokes but by the laughter that surrounds them, propping them up, giving them somewhere to go.

We can hear in this description how sexist jokes are recruiting; not to laugh is to become out of line, not part, alienated from a we that announces itself with glee.

Sexism makes it harder not to be recruited by sexism.

Alienation from a we can be costly.

Power is maintained by increasing the costs of challenging power.

We can sense too how a killjoy would be a source of solace and connection in such a situation: if you could just catch someone else’s glance, someone else for whom the jokes were not funny, for whom they were violent, what a difference it would make: finding others who are alienated by the jokes is one way of feeling less stranded, less alone.

Killjoys: sharing our points of alienation.

Sometimes not participating in something is heard as complaining about something.  If you are alienated by virtue of how you affected, it can be picked up. And you can then be picked on.  As she further describes:

I was actually finding it was quite aggressive the way they were dealing with people as well. I got a sense that he realised that I was really not very happy with what was going on, maybe it was just everything about my person was just this is not acceptable, there it should not be like this, I was just not condoning the way they were behaving, I was not finding it funny. You start to stand out in that way; you are just not playing along. I got a sense then, the only way I can explain it is he decided to come after me a little bit.

Just by not laughing, not going along with something, she comes to “stand out.”

Note how perception matters; you become an object of perception by not going along with something. If you laughed too, you would become part of a we and also part of the background. We learn how a we is asserted or becomes assertive by not having to appear. One suspects that some might laugh in order to recede, in order not to stand out; laughter as a form of passing. Because she does not find the jokes funny, because she is not condoning the behavior, because she is not happy with what is going on, he comes after her.

Not laughing becomes audible as complaint because this “not” is registered as a different direction. You can be caught out; your own reactions becoming testimony. The violence that is diffused throughout the room (this is  violence that is still directed, that makes women the butt of the joke, whether or not they hear themselves as the butt, and getting used to it is often about learning not to hear something), is directed or redirected toward anyone who does not go along with it.

And more follows:

 So he was doing things I think to try and provoke me to react to him. I think he was doing it under the guise of humour. But he specifically went for me, verbally at a table where everyone was eating lunch. It was a large table with numerous amounts of people around it including staff….I was having quite a personal conversation with someone….and he literally leaned across the table or physically came forward, he was slightly ajar to me, he was really close, and he said “oh my god I can see you ovulating.” It was really lurid; it was really unpleasant. You can imagine the conversation stopped, right; I didn’t laugh. I didn’t find it remotely funny and from the expression on my face, I was horrified that he thought that was appropriate. I was really aware that I had a member of staff next to me, and they didn’t say anything. The overwhelming sense of humiliation that came off it was really uncomfortable. And it was so silencing. I had never been put in my place like that; I had never been brought down so acutely.

Description can be insightful. There are so many insights in this description of harassment about how harassment works. Any acts of non-compliance or disagreement are picked up on; in this case non-compliance involves not just not laughing but getting on with it, talking to someone else, about something else. This rebellion of not directing her attention to the one who is trying to trying to provoke her is punished; her personal space invaded, words flung out, flung at; she is reduced to body, brought down, pulled back, woman as ovaries; she is not allowed her to do her own thing, to converse with others, to be a student with others.

Harassment is an access issue; if you are harassed when you are occupied with being a student, when you are harassed you are not allowed to be a student.

Those who share the table, including staff as well as students, do not say anything; they do not do anything.

I need to add a still: still do not say anything, still do not do anything.

Silence still.

Silence can be occupied.

Silence: I have learnt from working on sexual harassment that nothing is louder than silence; you can hear the failure to do anything, to say anything; you can hear the turning away, the sounds of distraction; busy; preoccupied. Even when people don’t agree, by turning away, their actions are as loud as the words they do not say.

And still there is silence.

You can be harassed because you experience other people’s behavior as harassment or because you identify an experience as harassment. This means that: the more you experience harassment the more you are harassed. Violence is increased because you experience something as violence; violence is amped up.

There is more:

I think the staff member knew I was deeply upset by it. I pretty much left the table.  And he (the staff member) followed me out and started a conversation, and this is when probably in hindsight it started to get difficult, in that staff member started to lean on me; immediately he said to me, oh you know what he’s like, he’s got a really strange sense of humour, he didn’t mean anything by it, and the implication was I was being a bit over-sensitive and that I couldn’t take a joke, and that I need to sort of forget about it and move on. It really affected me, that the person who I think should have done something, did that. And he didn’t do it once. He did it again. He did it on the way home. I ended up in a car with him, so he started telling me in the car, you know, if something was said, all I think is that it would cause a lot of trouble, I don’t think it’s worth it – and I had not actually brought it back up so I could tell he knew that it was really not right; he had to come back to it as an issue. I think that’s probably because my demeanor wasn’t right, I was quiet, I had felt really affected, emotionally affected, that sense of being quite close to tears.

 Nowhere to go.

She has nowhere to go.

She leaves the table; she leaves.

A complaint biography begins from what is thrown up by a situation; how words are used to occupy spaces, how spaces are occupied by bodies. Warnings about complaint – instructions not to complain -are often made within the situations; they do not just happen after. A complaint is in the situation a complaint is about. She is told to make light of the situation when she is in it; because she is in it. She is encouraged not to say anything; not to be over-sensitive, not to do anything, not to cause trouble. It was just a joke, he didn’t mean anything by it, he didn’t mean anything: the excuses given give permission to those who conduct themselves in this way to conduct themselves in this way. The staff member in advising her, nay, warning her not to complain, by leaning in this way, positions himself with the harasser, treating the verbal onslaught as joke, something she should take; something she should be willing to take. The harasser physically came forward; the staff member leans on her. She implies again that it is by virtue of how she is affected (being quiet, being “close to tears”) that makes him bring it up again.

This is why I think using the word harassment is important: to experience an advance as unwelcome, as harassment, is to be reharassed, often by those who embody institutional will.

The response to harassment is harassment. The more you resist pressure the more pressure is exerted. Institutional harassment can be what follows making a complaint about harassment.  As I pointed out in my post on no, what follows a complaint can give you more to complain about. The more you complain the more you have to complain about.

You are punished for not going along with it. If complaining is how you are heard because you do not go along with it, you are punished for complaining. And if you complain about the punishment you are punished even more.

This woman’s powerful description of a situation is one fragment of her complaint biography. We learn from the detail, from the sharpness; how hard it is to keep going, how little room you have, how not being affected in the right way by violence, by not laughing at it or laughing it off, by the act of perceiving the address as violence, can lead to more violence being directed your way.

Perception can be action; you can disobey an instruction by perceiving a wrong as if your perception is what’s wrong.

A feminist fight is for the one who has to complain to stay in a situation to be given a hearing.

If you would have to complain in order to stay in a situation you often have to leave the situation.

We have to fight so complaints can be heard.

We have to fight so she can stay.

[1] I will be writing a post/chapter on warnings in due course.

[2] Many institutions deal with complaint as a potential risk to their reputation. All the data collected will thus be carefully anonymised with no individuals or institutions being being named.

[3] I have decided to share the research as I go along. I am aware that we often wait to present our findings until after we have finished the research. I understand the reasons for this. I do not expect to finish the research just as I never really finished my research on diversity work. And what I have already found is that the findings are in the accounts. Note: I will be asking all interviewees for permission to share specific quotes drawn from interviews on any posts published here.

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I am sharing my contribution to an event that took place at SOAS, University of London, “Conceptual Itineraries: The Roots and Routes of the Political,” on June 10th. I have preserved it in the form it was given, but as I have not published anything as yet from my work on use (I will be submitting the manuscript to my publishers at the end of the summer) I have added some explanatory notes as well as references. Please note this work is work in progress!


I have picked useful as my concept. I had originally said my concept would be use – I am working on a project on the uses of use.  Indeed when we think of our task today we might make use of use; travelling concepts as travelling by being used or travelling through use.  I tend to think of my own research activity as following words more than concepts, following words like happiness, like will, like use, in and out of their intellectual histories. To follow a word is to ask where it goes, in whom, in what, it is found. Maybe a concept is implicated in a finding. A previous speaker in this series took concept as their concept and created a sharp distinction between a term and a concept in part by making use of use; terms are in use; concepts are what we come up when we take terms out of use. I think to make a clear distinction before we proceed can make our procession about that distinction; we might end up with a more refined argument but the argument can end up being, perhaps somewhat ironically, about our own terms. Of course, when you follow a term, or using my word, a word, you are still singling it out, however much you show how words acquires baggage; carrying their histories with them: words as itinerant, words as heavy. A concept can imply abstraction, a way of dragging or pulling something away. When I think of a concept I think ouch. We might want to think of the verb form – to conceive – to give us more of a sense of how we are involved in an activity when we identify something as a concept. Involvement is not origination; a concept becomes something you pick up as well as pick out.

However we understand concepts, I changed mine from use to useful. This is partly because use is a small word with so much work to do; Rita Felski describes use as “workmanlike” (2003, 5). But of course the word useful includes the word use: we might even say useful is full of use. In my project on the uses of use, I am in the first instance approaching use biographically, a way of telling a story of something. For a path to be usable, it needs to be used, which means use can keep something alive, whilst disuse can mean disappearance and decay. If by being used, a path becomes clearer over time then the more a path is used the more a path is used. And if by being used less a path becomes more difficult to use, overgrown, prickly; the less a path is used the less a path is used; until you cannot even see the sign for the trees. To use a mantra from personal training, which can also become a philosophy of life, use it or lose it.

We can hear how use can be both a description of an activity and a moral duty, necessary for the preservation of something, necessary even for life. This doubling of description with prescription might be teaching us something about the work use is doing. Useful is more useful for a short presentation because it tends to operate in a more restricted way, at least discursively: useful is mostly used as an adjective, that which denotes the qualities of something or somebody. Useful can mean to be able to be used for a number of practical purposes as well as to be able or competent.  Useful is an adjective with a job description. As an adjective, useful tends to have a companion, a noun; what or who being described.

So let me start my exploration by using a pairing that acquired considerable importance in the early decades of the nineteenth century, “useful knowledge.” To travel in this instance is to travel back. Useful knowledge was a mission, a plan of action; and we might recall another meaning of a concept is a plan. The Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK) which was established in 1823 by Lord Henry Brougham made useful knowledge a platform and a plan. Its core mission was to make knowledge more accessible by producing a series of pamphlets (such as the Penny magazine) intended for middle-class and working-class readers. The materials they produced formed a “library of useful knowledge.”

We can follow usefulness right back into the archives left behind by this organization. As Carolyn Steedman describes in Dust archives come alive by being used. She describes “it [stuff] just sits there until it is read, and used and narrativised” (2001, 68).[1] A box is opened, a document lifted out. A letter can be a lift. In a letter sent to the SDUK by William Adamson in 1830, the word use is singled out, double underlined, to make a point: that useful knowledge must involve use an activity.[2] I picked up the letter because of how it picked up on use. An archive might be what we create when we share an emphasis.[3] I have learnt from the sheer volume of what was left behind by this organization, how usefulness can be stuffy, can generate stuff: useful knowledge was not simply an idea that was in circulation, but it involved organising, administrating; meetings, minutes. When considering how concepts travel we are thinking of concepts as coming out of work; what is picked up is put into papers that are passed around.

Concepts can be busy or even buzzy. A few years before the SDUK was set up in 1817, Jeremy Bentham published his plan for a school based on the principles of useful knowledge Chrestomathia. Rather like his plan for a prison, Bentham’s planned school did not come about. The plan for the school, again rather like his plan for a prison, made use of panoptical principle as a design principle. It is thus curious for those interested in the history of ideas that Foucault does not refer to Bentham’s plan for a school in any of his published writings given how central Bentham’s Panoptican was to Foucault’s elaboration of power.[4] However Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punish does have much to teach us about how usefulness became an educational as well as moral requirement. Foucault describes: “In the correct use of the body, which makes possible a correct use of time, nothing must remain idle or useless: everything must be called upon to form the support of the act required” (1977, 152). The correct use of the body is when all parts of the body are contributing to an action. Nothing must remain idle or useless: we can hear from the “must” the status of this speech act as command. At one point Foucault refers to mutual improvement schools and what he calls the Lancaster method:

From the seventeenth century to the introduction, at the beginning of the nineteenth, of the Lancaster method, the complex clockwork of the mutual improvement school was built up cog by cog: first the oldest pupils were entrusted with tasks involving simple supervision, then of checking work, then of teaching; in the end, all the time of all the pupils was occupied either with teaching or with being taught. The school became a machine for learning, in which each pupil, each level and each moment, if correctly combined, were permanently utilized in the general process of teaching (165).

We learn here that a class can become the body from which uselessness must be eliminated. A class becomes what we might call, following Mary Poovey (1995), a social body: from discipline and punish to discipline and care, or even discipline as care; a cog in a machine as part of a body, a living member that must be cared for if it is to remain in service. To become part is to be improved by taking part.[5]

It is here that we can begin to take a history of usefulness in another direction, travelling in a way that Foucault did not. Mutual improvement schools were also known as monitorial schools; they relied on the method of students becoming the teachers of other students. Monitorial schools were a significant part of the history of education in Britain and in the colonies. The educationalists understood to have invented the method are Andrew Bell and Joseph Lancaster. Bentham’s Chrestomathia could be described as a systematization of their combined work. Bell was appointed by the East India Company as Director of the Madras School for Eurasian Orphans of Soldiers in 1787.[6] Lancaster’s schools were primarily in working class areas of London; he opened his first school on Borough Road in 1798. We can learn from this historical coincidence. It matters. Alan Richardson notes “the discipline of England’s colonial subject and the internal colonization of its unruly ‘industrial classes’ – these twin problems inspired a single method or approach” (1994, 97).

Twin problems: a history of usefulness as a requirement is also a history of uselessness as a designation, a history of the problem of who became the problem. The singularity of a method teaches us how uselessness became a form of racial as well as class stigma. In England during this period there were many treatises published about the dangers of idleness for the labouring poor. As Sarah Jordan shows in her discussion of idleness in eighteenth century British literature and culture, idleness was not understand as universally compromising; for the rich, idleness was even narrated as a burden, a sacrifice of the happiness that would come from employment (2003, 49). Arguments for useful knowledge often took the form of arguments about class redemption: that education could save the labouring poor by rescuing them from idleness and vice. When work is transformed into duty, industry becomes virtue. Joseph Lancaster argued that “the rich having ample means of educating their offspring, it must be apparent that the laboring poor, a class of citizens so evidently useful, have a superior claim to public support” (1807, xi). Here an adjective becomes mobile, transferring a quality from one thing to another: the useful in useful knowledge is transferred to a class, the labouring class becoming self-evidently the useful class. It is more useful for more to be useful.

The requirement for more to be useful can be understood as a history of a restriction. Prior to Andrew Bell’s school there had been a debate in the East India Company about whether to educate the Eurasian children of dead soldiers. One address to colonial administrators in 1778 called for “methods by which this vagrant Race may be formed into an active, bold and useful body of people, strengthening the hands of dominion with a colony of subjects attached to the British Nation” (cited in Love 1913, 179). To become useful is to be rescued from vagrancy as well as idleness; becoming usefully employed as being contained in one place. Usefulness becomes here about an attachment to colonial culture; “this vagrant Race” was required to become what Homi Bhabha (1994) was to call, in relation to Thomas Babington Macaulay’s discussion of education in India over 50 years later, “mimic men.” It is important to add here that the Madras school was set up after policies were passed by the East India Company that restricted the social as well as physical mobility of Eurasian children.[7] In this way the spread of useful knowledge is profoundly linked to racial and classed geography. The mobility of a method translates into the immobility of a class or race of persons.

One thinks here of bodies that travel; of Andrew Bell’s own travels from Scotland to India (and back again). Of course Orientalism did not require a travelling body to travel as a body of ideas. James Mills (one of a number of utilitarian philosophers with an administrative role in the East India Company) argued that his History of British India was more objective because he had never been to India, never been swayed by his first hand impressions (Ahmed 2010, 123).  An idea can travel all the more by being cut off from a body. Bell however did travel to India and taught there. In An Experiment in Education first published in 1797 Bell observes:  “I had, at first sight of a Malabar school, adopted the idea of teaching the letters in sand spread over a board or bench before the scholars, as on the ground in the schools of the natives of this country” (1797, 11). Bell suggests here that the idea for the monitor derives from his imitation of a local practice; the colonizer as mimic. In his Futurism of Young Asia Benoy Kumar Sarkar used Bell’s account as an example of how ideas travel back from India to England: “England’s debt to India has been fitly acknowledged in the tablet to Westminster Abbey, which describes Andrew Bell as the ‘eminent founder of the Madras system of education, which has been adopted within the British empire as the national system of education for the children of the poor’” (cited in Tschurenev 2014, 105). But if Bell did not erase these signs of travel in describing how he came up with this method he does, in having a dispute with Lancaster about who first conceived of this method, appropriate it as his own; appropriation is another kind of travel.

A method becomes mobile when it is a method of controlling movement. The monitorial method was indeed precisely about control. I visited the British School Museum in Hitchin earlier this year; the last remaining monitorial school room in the world. The tour guide kept using the word “control” throughout as he pretended to be a master; the guided, his students. Control matters in part because of the large number of bodies in a small space. If you have hundreds of children in one room, where there are no partitions, you have to eliminate all unnecessary noise and activity.

A lesson requires lessoning what is not necessary for something to be useful; lessen, less. The monitor is a labour saving device: less teaching more. Bell described: “it is the division of labour, which leaves to the master the simple and easy charge of directing, regulating, and controlling his intellectual and moral machine” (1807, 3). The master is freed to master by students becoming teachers; a delegation of work as a distribution of power. Bell notes: “By these means, no class is ever retarded in its progress by idle or dull boys; and every boy in every class is fully and profitably employed; and, by thus finding his own level, his improvement is most effectually promoted, and rendered a maximum” (20). Critical disability studies offer us tools to analyse the techniques being described here. Licia Carlson for example describes how custodial departments “developed routines, punishments and physical tasks to prevent idleness” (2010, 44). In the monitorial school the reduction of idleness is also central to the machinery: a way of stopping some students from slowing the others down.

Bell summarises the method as “conducting a school through the medium of the scholars themselves.” This description does return us to Foucault’s arguments in Discipline and Punish (1977). I think however Foucault missed the significance of the figure of the monitor. Lancaster writes: “Active youths, when treated as cyphers, will generally show their consequence by exercising themselves in mischief. I am convinced, by experience, that it is practicable for teachers to acquire a proper dominion over the minds of the youth under their care, by directing those active spirits to good purposes. This liveliness should never be repressed, but directed to useful ends; and I have ever found, the surest way to cure a mischievous boy was to make him a monitor” (1807, 32). The implication here is that liveliness can be directed towards useful ends not only or simply by the students monitoring themselves (like the prisoner who takes on the gaze of the prison guard) but by how some students become monitors of other students. The monitor as method can be summarised thus: it is by policing others that you police yourself. Neighborhood Watch, which has become a form of national citizenship, rests on the monitor as method: a neighbor is invited to become the eyes and ears of the police by looking out for strangers, bodies out of place, where “out of place” is registered as a perceptual field, resting on darkness, on shadows, those who are passing by at the edge of social experience; passing by as being unemployed, loitering, queer, then, queer is here, then; not here on legitimate business.[8]

To become a monitor is also to be taught by teaching; you straighten yourself out. The monitor by teaching the other students has the lesson more firmly impressed in their own mind: “The repetition of one word by the monitor, serves to rivet it firmly on the minds of each one of the class, and also on his own memory; thus he cannot possibly teach the class without improving himself at the same time” (Lancaster 1807, 47). It is this aspect of Lancaster’s method that Bentham picks up. Bentham wrote: “By teaching others the scholar is, at the same time, teaching himself: imprinting, more and more deeply, into his own mind, whatsoever ideas he has received into it in the character of learner: taking of them, at the same time, a somewhat new and more commanding view, tinged, as they are, with enlivening colour by the associated ideas of reputation, and of that power, which has been the fruit of it” (1841, 9). Ideas become firmer the more they are associated with an increase in a sense of what a subject can do. The key to the monitor-as-method is how capacity is enhanced by positive affect. The aim is to create happy as well as useful children: “Before the effect of novelty is worn off, new habits are formed; and the happy children who are trained under the mild and generous influence of the British system of education, learn obedience with pleasure, and practice it with delight, without the influence of the rod or cane to bring them to order” (41).  The monitor becomes the rod, eliminating willfulness from the child without the need for punishment.[9] Power works here through incentive and reward. The word reward comes from warden, to guard or look over. The history of education as a utilitarian project is a history of rewarding that which is deemed most useful for governing a population.

If the history of the usefulness is the history of a requirement of some to be useful, a history of usefulness is also a history of how others are freed from that requirement. Bentham offers in Chrestomathia a plan for a school for the children of the middle-classes: “The more things he is more or less acquainted with, the more things he is fit for, and the better chance he has acquired of meeting with some occupation, according to his condition, and which shall be at once within his power, and suited to his taste” (1841, 16). We can contrast this account of the diversity of paths that enables occupation to become choice with Bentham’s writing on education in the work houses: “In the choice of subject-matters of instruction, utility—not usage—should be the guide. The utility in view ought to bear reference—in the first place to the situation of the individual during the apprenticeship; in the next place, to his situation in the world at large, after the expiration of it” (1843, np).[10]  This distinction between usage and utility becomes a social distinction. It is not simply that the concept of usefulness travels. It is not even that the requirement to be useful is distributed unevenly across a population. It is that for some use is tied tightly to a referential system; you must be useful for; or useful to, whilst for others, use is loosened, made freer, more creative.

If everything must in use for something to be useful, not everybody is required to be useful. Being designated as useless can have deadly consequences for those who are supposed to be useful. Bentham tells the story of a once industrious Mr Beardmore who sold his business for a good profit and then suffered a rapid decline until his early death, drawing on Mr Beardmore’s obituary from 1814.  Bentham makes use of a dead body to warn of the danger of falling out of use, of losing a sense of dignity and purpose. To fall out of use is to fall out of life. To cease to use one’s faculties is to cease to be.  Of course the implication is that without employment of a particular kind – a legitimate business – there would be no activity worthy of life.[11]

It might seem that Bentham followed his own words by submitting his dead body to an archive; he wanted his dead body to be of use. Bentham’s own body was dissected, under his strict instructions, 3 days after his death in 1834 by Southwood Smith, a medical doctor and friend of Bentham’s (who also wrote the introduction of Chrestomathia). And Bentham’s body, which is still on display at the UCL, minus a head or with a wax head, is seated in accordance with Bentham’s precise instructions; to create the impression of a thinking body.

Bentham’s useful death was and remains a visible death, a celebrated death. Southwood Smith had in fact in 1828 published a pamphlet: “Use of the Dead to the Living.” His lobbying led directly to the 1832 Anatomy Act, which aimed to end the practice of “grave robbing,” to secure a legal access to dead bodies for the purpose of scientific research. The first principle of Smith’s plan was as follows: “That the bodies of those persons who die in all infirmaries and hospitals throughout the kingdom, unclaimed by immediate relatives, be appropriated to the purpose of anatomy” (1828, 49).  It was the bodies of the poor, the detained, paupers, wretches that were to be appropriated for science. Smith adds: “No one can object to such a disposal of the bodies of those who die in prisons; no one can reasonably object to such a disposal of the bodies of those who die in poorhouses. These persons are pensioners upon the public bounty: they owe the public a debt: they have been supported by the public during life” (1828, 52). If Bentham’s dead body was a gift, the dead bodies of the poor and incarcerated became what they owed. Some bodies become disposable when utility can be extracted from death.  We can begin to understand how what seems to be a general or even universal requirement to be useful falls on some bodies and not others; utility whilst presented as a universal value, or at least one that alludes in some way to the greatest good for greatest number, becomes a system for extracting value from death. [12]

A history of usefulness is a matter of life and death. Becoming useful as being used up, the bodies of the enslaved, the colonized, the subaltern, the poor, the incarcerated; use as worn down, worn out, use as a record of life but use as a record of how a life is extinguished.

I want to end with a paradox. In speaking today I have used the names of many dead white men. You might have noticed; I hope you noticed. If the more a path is used the more a path is used, the more he is cited the more he is cited. Yes I am trying to counter the violence of a history often presented as moral history; utilitarianism as a history of morals and manners. But I have made still use of their names. A reuse is still a use damn it: a way of keeping a legacy alive. I recently wrote a book on living a feminist life without using the names of any white men.  And when I write of them in this project I do so because what I am following leads to who, to who has been deemed to come up with something. I do not write to them. I also write of those who are missing, who have been dismembered, whose names are not known; whose names cannot be used; those who are faint, becoming faint, fainter still. I write to you. We can mourn who we not know.[13] We can mourn the missing. If we do not mourn, we miss.

Saidiya Hartman in reflecting on the history of slavery asks: “what use is an itinerary of terror?” (2002, 772). And she suggests: “Tears and disappointment create an opening for a counter-history, a story written against the narrative of progress.” Mourning, she suggests is a public expression of one’s grief that “insists that the past is not yet over; the compulsion to grieve also indicates that liberal remedy has yet to be a solution to racist domination and inequality” (772).

Of what use is an itinerary of terror? I have tried to show how use can have a terrifying itinerary, although there other stories of use to share. We must counter this history by showing how liberal remedies have been the scene of collective dismemberment.

Wear and tear can be in the words we share; wear, tear, tears, too. Thank you.


Ahmed, Sara (2014). Willful Subjects. Durham: Duke University Press.

———————- (2010). The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke University Press.

———————- (2000). Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. London: Routledge.

Anderson, Valerie (2011). The Eurasian problem in nineteenth century India. PhD Thesis, SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies)

Bell, Andrew (1808). The Madras School. London: John Murray.

——————– (1797). An Experiment in Education Made at the Male Asylum in Madras.  London: Cadwell and Davies.

Bentham, Jeremy (1843). “Tracks on Poor Laws and Pauper Management,”

————————— (1841). The Works of Jeremy Bentham, Volume 8. Edited by John Bowring. Edinburgh: William Tate.

Bhabha, Homi (1994). The Location of Culture. London: Routledge.

Brunon-Ernst, Anne (2012). “Deconstructing the Panoptican into Plural Panopticans,” in Beyond Foucault: New Perspectives on Bentham’s Panoptican. New York: Routledge. 17-42.

—————————– (2012b). Utilitarian Biopolitics: Bentham, Foucault and Modern Power. London: Routledge.

Carlson, Licia (2010). The Face of Intellectual Disability: Philosophical Reflections. Indiana University Press.

Felski, Rita (2013) “Introduction,” New Literary History, Special Issue on Use, 44, 4: v-x11.

Foucault, Michel (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Vintage Books.

Hartman, Saidiya (2002). “The Time of Slavery,” South Atlantic Quarterly, 101-4, 757-777.

Jordan, Sarah (2003). The Anxieties of Idleness: Idleness in Eighteenth Century British Literature. Bucknell University Press: Lewisburg.

Lancaster, Joseph  (1812). British System of Education. Georgetown: Joseph Milligan.

—————————–  (1807). Improvements in Education. 3rd edition.: New York: Collins and Perkins.

Love, Henry Davison (1913). Vestiges of the Old Madras, 1640-1800. London: John Murray.

Mbembe, Achille (2003). “Necropolitics,” Public Culture, 15, 1: 11-40.

Richardson, Alan (1994). Literature, Education and Romanticism: Reading and Social  Practice 1780-1830. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Southey, Charles Cuthburt (1843). The Life of the Reverend Andrew Bell, Vol 3. London: John Murray.

Tschurenev, Jana (2014) “A Colonial Experiment in Education: Madras 1789-1796” in Barnita Bagchi, Eckhardt Fuchs, Kate Rousmaniere 9eds). Connecting Histories of Education. Berghahn.

[1] I had already decided to use this sentence from Steedman in my introduction before I bought my own copy of Dust. It was a used copy – in the project I am deliberately making use of used books. And a previous reader had underlined that very sentence! Use as a thread of connection.

[2] For the first time  I visited archives and museums as part of my research including the archives of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK), which are currently held at the National Archives; the British and Foreign School Society (BFSS), held at Brunel University; the records of early correspondence that led to the formation of London University, held at the UCL, as well as the British School Museum at Hitchin.

[3] In my introduction I discuss my archive in terms of “shared emphasis,” and how this relates to my previous way of describing my method as following a word/concept.  We can add here: the word use jumped out not simply because it was used. It is hard to write a letter without using use; use is a rather ordinary kind of verb and is often hard at work, a sweaty word. The word use jumped out because the author had given emphasis to the word. In chapter 2, I will discuss a marginalia in a published text that also stood out to me because of the emphasis given to use (Darwin’s comments on his copy of Lamarck’s Historie Naturale). I think this question of emphasis is interesting. Perhaps we have a bond when we share an emphasis. An emphasis can mean intensity of expression. In time, it came to mean the extra stress given to a word or phrase. Indeed I will explore in chapter 1 with reference to exclamation points, how emphasis requires a restriction of use to function as emphasis.

[4] In the project I explore how Foucault’s critique of disciplinary power, as well as his later work on biopolitics and neoliberalism can be understood in relation to the wider corpus of Bentham’s utilitarian project. Anne Brunon-Ernst (2012a) offers a useful discussion of the relationship between Foucault and Bentham with specific reference to Foucault’s use of the Panoptican. She points out that the Foucault develops his theory of power with reference only to one of Bentham’s many uses of the Panoptican (including in Chrestomathia) thus producing a very narrow account of Bentham’s work.  In her monograph, Utilitarian Biopolitics, Brunon-Ernst notes: “Foucault has been criticised for having portrayed Bentham as the inventor of disciplines, overshadowing Bentham’s achievements in other fields of thought: he has been considered a persona non grata in the world of Bentham studies” (2012b: 2). I will be drawing on Brunon-Ernst’s important work in my discussion of Bentham and Foucault.

[5] This book picks up the argument from my third chapter, “The General Will,” in Willful Subjects (2014), which draws on Mary Poovey’s model to consider how becoming part of a body is to acquire a “will duty.” I drew in this chapter on Blaise Pascal’s description of a foot that had forgotten it was part of a body, and was thus not useful to that body. This description from Pascal was one of my starting points for writing about the uses of use. In the book I pick up on the implied intimacy between will, use and memory.

[6] Many of the children taught by Bell were not actually orphans. The significance of being described as orphans is clear from Bell’s own description of the children: “But the great object for which the Military Male Orphan Asylum had been founded, was to rescue the children of the soldiers from the degradation and depravity of that class to which their mothers mostly belonged” (cited in Southey 1844, 170). I have become fascinated by this history, and will be drawing on the important scholarship that has shown how race and class were deeply entangled in the management of the Eurasian population by the East India Company in the nineteenth century.

[7] For a useful history of the changing policies of the East India Company in relation to Eurasian population see Anderson (2011).

[8] My argument in Strange Encounters (2000) rested in a way on the principle of the monitor-as-method: you become a neighbour/citizen not by policing yourself but by policing others – by detecting strangers, or “bodies out of place.” Here we are also considering how becoming a neighbour/citizen thus enabled an enhancement of capacity (reward for detection).

[9] The chapter from which this presentation is drawn involves a much fuller discussion of monitorial schools (as well as Bentham’s plans), and has allowed me to develop my arguments on education, will and willfulness from Willful Subjects (2014). The diffusion of the monitor-as-method has allowed me to track how positive affect was central to technologies of control.

[10] A key premise for Bentham in his writing on the poor laws was that relief maintained idleness, and thus encouraged pauperism, which was against the happiness principle (the greatest happiness of the greatest number). If general happiness depends on the unemployed not being maintained in idleness, then relief must be made to cause unhappiness. He thus calls for the stigmatising of relief. We can hear how this recommendation that relief should be stigmatising is preserved as a core assumption of contemporary capitalist society with its reliance on the stigmatisation of welfare and of those who receive welfare to create a moral distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor.

[11] Writing about the uses of use has allowed me to track how happiness became associated with employment as well as the morbidity of this association. It has made me aware that my earlier critique of happiness was if anything understated.

[12] In the project I thus explore the intimacy of what Achille Mbembe (2003) called “necropolitics” and utilitarianism.

[13] In the project I am trying to write about who is named in my story of use as well as whose deaths are marked (I have noted already how Bentham’s and Bells’ deaths are marked). For example I consider how some of the monitors are named in letters that have survived because of who they were sent to, or because of their own contributions to education or society. Becoming a monitor also meant: leaving a trace in the archive. This is another way that becoming a monitor became a commitment to memory.

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No a short word; a snap, perhaps.

No as negative speech; a complaint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Together no becomes a scramble and a scream.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Double negative: no to not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But yes, we do know this about no:

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

For feminism: no is political labour.

No means no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You enter the room, and sexism fills the room.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With no, we leap.

Make a leap.

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

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

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

We need to listen to survivors.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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I am sharing my lecture, “Snap! Feminist Moments, Feminist Movements,” that I gave in Stockholm on May 11 2017 as part of the launch of the Swedish edition of Living a Feminist Life. You can hear an audio of the lecture here, which is followed by a conversation with Anna Adeniji and Ulrika Dahl. With thanks to all those who helped make my visit possible including Tryck, Interfem, Centre for Gender Research and Centre for Multidisciplinary Research on Racism at Uppsala University and Tankekraft Förlag.

I have preserved the lecture in the form it was given – with just a few acknowledgments added as notes. I gave a slightly different version of the Snap! lecture for the first time at the PhiloSOPHIA conference at the end of March/early April at Florida Atlantic University. Can I think the organizers of that conference, Lauren Guilmette and Robert Leib for your work and for the opportunity to try snap out, as well as to everyone who attended for discussion and feedback.

The lecture draws from the chapter, “Feminist Snap,” from Living a Feminist Life, as well as offering some new reflections on snap in relation to bonds, institutions and movements. I will be returning to snap on my project on “the uses of use” as well as in my project on complaint. I only realised that snap was going to travel with me after giving my first two lectures from my use project in the last few weeks. I realised from what I heard in what I was saying (sometimes we have to say words out loud to others before we can hear what we are saying) how much the language of Living a Feminist Life came from my project on “the uses of use” (which I had started earlier but put aside) in particular the attention to wear and tear.

Snap and sap: I hope to write more of these connections, worn, weary, torn, and teary.


Snap! Feminist Moments, Feminist Movements, lecture by Sara Ahmed, Stockholm, May 11, 2017.

I want to begin with a scene from Andrea Levy’s Fruit of the Lemon (1999). The novel tells the story of Faith Jackson, a Black British girl whose parents migrated to England from Jamaica. She is getting along with her life, doing her own thing.  She does not think of herself as any different to those around her; her white friends are just her friends; she shares a house; she shares a life. Then there is an event. Events can catch you out. She and her flat mate Simon witness a violent attack on a black woman. We witness the event through Faith’s eyes : “A black woman was standing in the doorway of a bookshop. She looked composed, although she had a started stare – like she’s just won the pools and couldn’t quite believe it. But sliding slowly down one side of her face were several strings of blood – thick, bright, red blood. I stood in front of her and asked, ‘Are you all right?’ and felt stupid when she collapsed onto the ground” (150).

They return home to tell the story of the event. The telling creates a certain kind of drama, in which Simon becomes the centre of attention. They gather around him as if what happened, happened to him, as if what made the event an event was how it affected him : “Simon’s hands shook as he lifted his cigarette to his mouth – he couldn’t hold it steady. Marion put her hand over his hand to support it. ‘I think you’re in shock.’ Sweat tea is what you need,’ she said looking closely into Simon’s face. ‘Mick, put the kettle on’” (156).  Faith watches the black woman disappear as they gather kindly around him; concerned. She interrupts the gathering . “I interrupted the story twice. ‘She was a black woman’, I said. Simon had just called her the woman who worked there. Twice I had to tell them this woman was black like me. And both times Simon and Mick had looked at me and nodded.” The word “interrupt” comes from rupture, or break. But they don’t stop; they keep going, nodding as keeping going; as if her blackness is just a detail that can be passed over. They fuss over him: giggling even, full of the drama of an event. And then Faith can’t bear it anymore. She can’t bear the violence of the event, a violence that was directed against a black woman, to be passed over. She snaps.  “But then I tipped my cup of tea slowly over the table. “Will you all just shut up. Just fucking shut up. It’s not funny! And there was complete silence as they stopped and stared at me. I left the house” (158).  A raised voice, a spilt cup of tea: it might seem like the start of something. For Faith she is right in the middle of something: she brings to the surface a violence that is already there, that has travelled with them into the room; the violence directed toward a black woman, the violence of how that violence goes unnamed; the violence of attention, to how whiteness becomes the centre of attention; the concern, the drama; all about him.

Sometimes you have to watch someone else disappear before you become aware of your own disappearance. Sometimes you have to witness violence directed toward another before you can witness the violence directed toward yourself. As a black woman speaking of a black woman, Faith has to shout to be heard. If you have to shout to be heard you are heard as shouting.  If you have to shout to be heard you are not heard.  Think of how all her efforts to be heard, to get through that wall of silence, that wall of indifference, that wall of whiteness, come to nothing. Think of how all the frustration, that rage, can become a tipping point. It is only when you seem to lose it, when you shout, swear, spill, that you have their attention. And then you become a spectacle. And what you brought out means you have to get out.  When we think of such moments of snap, those moments when you can’t take it anymore, when you just can’t take it anymore, we are thinking about worlds; how worlds are organised to enable some to breathe, how they leave less room for others. You have to leave because there is nothing left; when there is nothing left.

Feminism can be what happens in these moments, and by feminism here I am referring to black feminism and feminism of colour, when amidst the hustle and bustle of ordinary life, something is revealed to you about a world you had assumed as accommodating. By starting here, with how we are not accommodated, we generate concepts, concepts that I call in thinking about Audre Lorde’s work, in thinking with Audre Lorde’s work, sweaty concepts; concepts that come out of an effort to be in a world; concepts that come out of the hard labour of description. A world, a wall: a world can be a wall, what you come up against, a wall that can be built out of other people’s affections, a wall that comes up because of the body you have; because what comes with you when you enter a room.  Today I want to reflect on snap as a moment with a feminist history.  Moments become movements; moments can accumulate; worn threads of connection.

Snap the Bond

 Snap is often used to indicate a sudden break or a quick movement. Snap can be used to refer to a sharp sound.  Say you hear the sound of a twig snapping. You might not have noticed the twig before; you might have not noticed the pressure on the twig, how it was bent, but when it snaps, it catches your attention.  You might hear the snap as the start of something.  A snap is only the start of something because of what you did not notice, the pressure on the twig. You might hear someone when she shouts, because she shouts; at that moment a voice can break through over the sound of everything else. It does not mean she starts off by shouting.

A snap is not the starting point.  Thinking from snap, from the sound of breaking, has allowed me to reflect more on what is at stake in the figures that have been by travelling companions: the feminist killjoy and the angry woman of colour. If you recognize yourself in her, the feminist killjoy or the angry woman of colour, she is where you have been.   When you are estranged from happiness – and happiness can be what you shatter just by turning up or speaking up – so much else is revealed. And so we might be there, listening to the happy hum of family life; you might be having conversations where only certain things are brought up. Someone says something problematic. If you find something problematic, you have a problem. If you find something problematic, you become a problem. So, you respond quietly, perhaps. You might be speaking quietly, or you might be getting wound up, recognizing with frustration that you are being wound up by someone who is winding you up. Being wound up: you become tighter, and tighter, the more you are provoked. Tighter, tighter, tighter still, gasp, there is no air left: until, snap. Provocation can be performed quietly or maybe provocation is not heard as provocation because what has been said is consistent with an expectation. But you can hear the snap in her voice. Sharp, brittle, loud; perhaps it is like the volume has suddenly been turned up, as if for no reason; the quietness that surrounds her ceases when she speaks, her voice cutting the atmosphere like a knife, registering as the loss of something; a nicer atmosphere, a gentler mood.

A killjoy: registers as the loss of what others wish to retain.  A killjoy can register as the loss of “we,” but of course a “we,” can be performed by witnessing her snap: look at her, look, look see how she spins! It is important to note that you can be heard as snapping, as causing a loss of what we wish to retain, such that “we” becomes a retainer, without even raising your voice. So for instance if a woman of colour talks about racism within feminist spaces, you can be heard as snapping, however you speak.  A word can be snap: the word racism is heard as breaking something, a bond of whiteness, say, that fragile bond that somehow, we know how, has to be protected even by those who are not part of it. For bodies of colour, turning up can be enough to bring racism up.  This means that: a body can be snap, you arrive and there is a sharp break with what came before.

A bond can be what you are asked to preserve; an invitation can become a requirement. And a bond can be to a person, to friends, to family, as well as to some we or another. Snapping a bond can be something you do as a consequence of something else you are doing. If pointing out sexism or racism means being judged as snapping a bond, as cutting yourself off from a family, say, it does not mean that your aim was to snap the bond. But your experience of being judged as snapping teaches you about that bond; how it comes with conditions. We often learn conditions by failing to meet them. You realize that sustaining a bond might mean not saying certain things, not doing certain things.  So even if you did not aim to snap a bond, when a bond snaps as a consequence of what you say or do, snap can become what you are willing to cause. Think of Faith, she has to leave not just because she snapped at her friends but because of how her bond with her friends was broken; she realizing that bond required overlooking violence, overlooking racism, overlooking, even, herself.

A snap can be what happens when you are unwilling to meet the conditions for being with others. If a bond has such conditions, a bond as how to be, we are also learning that a bond can be to an idea of how a life is to be lived to count as a good life.   Queer as snap: the moment you realize what you do not have to be. Not following a family line can be understood as breaking a line: snap, snap, as if you are cutting up the family with a pair of scissors just by arranging your life in a different way.  Not following something as destroying something: no wonder they find us to be destructive. 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 the most influence. Not following something as destroying something: you can become a vandal by rearranging a text in a different way.  A vandal is defined as a “willful destroyer of the venerable and beautiful.”  Even 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.

A line becomes what you have a duty to follow. A line becomes a bond, a line as direction and directive; a line that leads you to where you must go, who you must become.  A bond of fate, a fatal bond. Gender can be a fatal bond.  For many, what we can call gender fatalism – boys will be boys, girls will be girls – would be fatal, a sentencing to death.  Girls who will not be girls, boys who will not be boys, that is to say, those who refuse to be bound to their original assignments, might have to snap that bond to be.  Snapping can be necessary for being, which means for some, to be requires snapping, snapping not as a singular event, but as what you have to keep doing to keep being.

Snapping might matter because a bond gets in the way of living a life, perhaps living a feminist life, a queer life, a gender queer life, a trans life.  It is important for me to note here that not all bonds are destructive; to sustain a life we need to sustain the bonds that sustain us.  A familial bond can become a source of vitality and strength, even shelter, from the harshness of a world. Knowing the difference between bonds that are sustaining and those that are not is a challenge; it is a life challenge. Sometimes we have a crisis because a bond we had thought of as being sustaining ends up not being as sustaining as we had thought.  Sustaining a bond can require overlooking violence. That was Faith’s killjoy lesson. A bond can also be violent.  What can make living with violence hard is how hard it is to imagine the possibility of its overcoming; you might be isolated; you might be materially dependent; you might be down, made to think and feel you are beneath that person, or have your life so bound up with a person that you feel as if you left there would be nothing of you left. But in spite of all of that, there can be a point, a breaking point, when it is too much and what did not seem possible becomes necessary. She fights back; she speaks out. She has places to go because other women have been there. No wonder that leaving a situation of violence can feel like snap: a bond of fate has indeed been broken.  Perhaps the slow time of endurance can only be ended by a sudden movement.  Or perhaps the movement seems sudden only because we cannot see the slower times of bearing.

To hear snap, one must thus slow down; we also listen for the slower times of wearing and tearing, of making do; we listen for the sounds of the costs of becoming attuned to the requirements of an existing system. To hear snap, to give that moment a history, we might have to learn to hear the sound of not snapping. Perhaps we are learning to hear exhaustion, the gradual sapping of energy when you have to struggle to exist in a world that negates your existence. Eventually something gives. This is why snapping is not always planned. Indeed snapping can get in the way of the best-laid plan. Snapping can be about the intensity of a situation; when you can no longer do something you have done before. In the end, it can be something little that ends up being too much. A snap can be a story of how you get to the point when it is too much. When you snap you are snapping not only at what is in front of you, but what is behind you; that history of what you have put up with. A snap can be experienced as a delayed snap, once it happens, you can wonder with frustration what took you so long.  A snap can tell us when it is too much, after it is too much, which is how snap can becomes a scene of our feminist instruction.

Snap as Feminist Work

To live a feminist life is to be a feminist at work. In this section I want to explore feminist snap within the context of working within institutions such as universities. I have described diversity work as the work of trying to transform institutions by opening them up to those for whom they were not intended. I was lucky to have the opportunity to interview diversity practitioners about their work – I drew on these interviews in On Being Included and then more recently in the middle section of Living a Feminist Life. I learnt so much about institutions by listening to those who were trying to transform them.  One practitioner describes:   “So much of the time it is a banging your head on the brick wall job.” Banging your head against a brick wall, the sore point of repetition, that sense that you keep coming against the same thing, over and over again. This diversity practitioner was appointed by an institution to transform that institution. And yet she experiences that institution as a wall, as the very thing that blocks her efforts.  Perhaps her efforts are blocked not just despite but through being given an appointment.  This is how: a job description becomes a wall description.

I want to share with you an example from the research. This is not a snap story the way say Faith’s story was a snap story. It is what I call a wall story. But I want to suggest we need to understand these stories together.  .

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.  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. So perhaps an institution can say “yes” when there is not enough behind that “yes” for something to be brought about.  An institutional wall is when a will, “a yes,” does not bring something about, “a yes” that conceals this “not bringing” under the appearance of “having brought.”

It is only the practical effort to bring about transformation that allows this wall to become apparent. To those who do not come against it, the wall does not appear: the institution might be experienced as open and diverse, as happy as its mission statement, as willing as its equality statement. Walls only come up because of what diversity practitioners are trying to do. To say something obvious and the obvious is what needs to be said, if there is not attempt to change something, there is no need to block something. By talking to diversity workers I began to appreciate how the institution is a plumbing system: you have to work out where the blockage is, what stops something from moving through the system.  This is why I call diversity workers “institutional plumbers.” Stopping is a mechanism or a series of mechanisms. 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. We learn agreeing to something is another way of stopping something from happening. The wall is a finding. Let me summarise the finding:  what stops movement moves.  If what stops movement moves, then noticing movement can be how you do not notice what stopped.

This example of the diversity policy that does not do anything is a tantalizingly tangible example of what goes on so much and so often. But that it is tangible, that I can share the story with you here today, is a consequence of diversity work and of the labor of a diversity worker, of her blood, sweat and tears.  The story of how the wall keeps standing is the same story as the story of how the diversity worker becomes shattered; how she might end up giving up, as she says “sometimes you just give up.” This interview was the last formal interview I conducted, and although it was full of frustration, her frustration, which I have no doubt picked up mine, perhaps we amplified each other’s, was also one of the most animated and energetic I conducted. It is not hard to understand why. When we are working within institutions, working for them, employed by them, we become containers of institutional will: we have to keep a lid on it.  We have to contain ourselves because of the work we have to do. When we speak to each other, we might speak from frustration, and from can be about; frustration about what we have not been able to do, frustration about not getting through.  Frustration can be understood as a feminist record, a way of recording what we do not get over, what is not over.  Telling a story can thus be snap; it can be a way of saying “no,” of giving your frustration somewhere to go. This snap was articulated by a diversity worker, to me, another diversity worker, who in receiving a snap can share it with you today. Snap here is expressive; it allows something to be shared. The word express comes from press. It implies something that is squeezed out. To say snap is expressive is to say what is shared is what is no longer contained.

My interviews with diversity workers were full of moments when we could not contain ourselves; laughter, tears, words thrown around, sharp words, shattering words. Another time we say the word snap is when we say the same thing at the same time.  A snap can be about getting it as much as saying it.  Maybe we snap because 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.  Killjoy recognition often takes the form of the recognition of feminist work.  The diversity worker could be described as an institutional killjoy.  I became interested in this figure of the killjoy, I began to pick her up and put her to work, after listening to another diversity practitioner. She said: “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, recognising that each other recognised that scene. We imagine the eyes rolling as if to say: well she would say that. It is from experiences like this that I developed my equation:  rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy.  It is interesting to me that we often need others to put into words something we experience. A killjoy experience: it can be the click, click, of things falling into place, becoming clear, as well as the snap, snap, of letting go of something, faith in an organization, say, as that which could deliver feminist hopes.

Snap can be experienced as a moment of clarity, but snap can also be the painful process of recognising something that gets in the way of your own happiness. Snapping can be work. I learnt a great deal about how snap require a collective feminist effort by working on the problem of sexual harassment. I am going to be drawing here on some data I have begun collecting for a new project on complaint, as well as my own experiences of trying to support students through a process of testifying against sexual harassment.  As Leila Whitley and Tiffany Page (2015) have noted in their important article “Sexism in the Centre” there is a problem locating the problem of sexual harassment. And this means that: those who talk about the problem of sexual harassment become the location of the problem.

A wall comes up, in the form of a concerted effort to stop students from making a complaint. Students are warned that complaining would cause damage; it would damage their careers, reputations, relationships. This warning often works as a threat: 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 gruelling 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. Harassment is how someone is stopped or almost stopped by being worn down.  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.   We can understand why and how snap requires a feminist support system: you need a shelter, a place to go, to keep going.

And to keep going you have to take even more pressure. Pressure is maintained or even increased as long as someone proceeds with a complaint; if you stop it is like a hand is lifted.  This means that a snap, especially when we are working within institutions, is not just one action, a snap has to be sustained: a snap has to be a series of snaps.  Maybe you keep going, you are more likely to proceed if you are working with others, but maybe you slow down, until you stop, until you stop something that you yourself started. Even when you snap because you can’t take it anymore, the difficulty of having to keep it up can mean, does mean, has meant, you might still end up giving up.  One of the reasons that harassment can go on so long, in partial or even full view, is that it is so hard to sustain opposition to it.

What do we do when our opposition becomes too hard to sustain?  As some of you will know, eventually I resigned from my post. Resignation can sound passive, even fatalistic: resigning oneself to one’s fate.  But resignation can be an act of feminist protest. By snapping you are saying: I will not work for an organisation that is not addressing the problem of sexual harassment. By snapping you are saying: I will not reproduce what you do not address.  If a resignation is to become a protest it needs to be made public. My feminist killjoy blog has given me a place to snap.  And it was my statement that was heard as snap. From my point of view the statement was not my snap moment; it was something I wrote much later, quite calmly, without any sense that making a statement would do very much at all. My snap moment was earlier. You know what it is like when someone who you are desperately trying not to give up on; trying to love, says something that you find deeply offensive. You can hear glass shatter; that moment when you realise what you had cannot be put back together. I had the moment of realising that my relationship with the institution was broken. Earlier I implied that you can hear snap often because of what else you do not hear I am now suggesting that a snap, however loud, can be inaudible to others.  Another snap might be required to make a snap audible to others. The second snap is heard as the first snap. Sometimes a snap and an expression coincide. Sometimes they do not, which means that snap can involve opacity; even what seems so revealing can be withdrawn.

No wonder then: things get messy. When we snap we put something out, whatever comes out or whatever comes about. My act of making public the reasons for my resignation was supported by many of my colleagues. One colleague describes my action as “rash.” She was referring not to my resignation, which I suspect was understood as sad rather than as snap, but to my public statement. Rash is a word used to imply an action that is too quick as well as careless. If a snap is a moment with a history, that history is the accumulated effect of what you have come up against.  And just think: the more you do not get through, the more you have to do. You have more and more meetings, with students, with academics, with administrators. You write blogs about the problem of sexual harassment and the silence that surrounds it. And still there is silence.  To resign is a tipping point, a gesture that becomes necessary because of what the previous actions did not accomplish. The actions that did not accomplish anything are not noticed by those who are not involved in the effort.  The action that spills a history, so that it falls out, so there is a fall out, is deemed rash.   It is not just pressure you cannot detect when a snap sounds sudden; it is also a history of not being willing to put up with something, of trying but failing to get through.

After Snap

When a snap is what is noticed so much is not noticed: exhaustion, pressure, harassment, work, not being willing; refusal; resistance. What happens after snap? Sometimes we ask this question before we snap: what will happen if I come out with it? Sometimes we do not come out with it in fear of the consequences. Unless snap is accidental, something that happens without you realising what is happening, snapping can feel like a leap into the unknown. I have learnt from that leap. After I shared my reasons for my resignation, many people shared with me their own stories, their own institutional battles; feminist snap as data collection. By snapping we become feminist ears; we become willing to receive.  A feminist ear can provide a release of a pressure valve. Just loosening the screw a little bit, a tiny little bit, and you have an explosion.  We need more feminist explosions.  Of course that is why professional norms of conduct are about keeping a lid on it; institutional loyalty as silence in case of institutional damage.  Sexual harassment is treated (even by some professional feminists) as dirty laundry: what should not be aired in public.  Racism too: racism is so often privatized, a problem you have with an organization as a problem with you.

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 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 the system from working.  As Sarah Franklin (2005) describes we might need to throw a wrench in the works, or become “wenches in the works,” to stop the system from working.  We might have to become leaky pipes; drip, drip. Of course, the institution will try to mop up the spillage; 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.

But there is hope here: they cannot mop up all of the mess. One spillage can lead to more coming out. Can lead, does lead. A leak can be a feminist lead.   We could think of feminist history as a history of snappy women, a history of women who have leaked all over the place. What comes out of our own mouths might come out of a history; we have, as it were, other snaps behind us. I think of Gloria Anzaldúa’s chapter, “How to Tame a Wild Tongue.”  A dentist who is cleaning her roots says to her with “anger rising in his voice” that “we’re going to have to do something with your tongue” and that he’d “never seen anything as strong and stubborn” (1999 [1987], 75). Her tongue keeps pushing out the “wads of cotton, the drills, the long thing needles;” all the materials the dentist,  concerned  with health and hygiene, puts in her mouth, are pushed right out again, as if her tongue is refusing to be cleaned, as if her tongue is spreading infection.  The word complaint shares a root with plague: sick speech, striking at the breast. A complaint threatens to spread through the whole body.   What follows is an attempt to contain that infection, to stop her from spreading.  Let me share with you a Grimm story. It offers a method of containing infection.

Once upon a time there was a child who was willful, and would not do as her mother wished. For this reason God had no pleasure in her, and let her become ill, and no doctor could do her any good, and in a short time she lay on her death-bed. When she had been lowered into her grave, and the earth was spread over her, all at once her arm came out again, and stretched upwards, and when they had put it in and spread fresh earth over it, it was all to no purpose, for the arm always came out again. Then the mother herself was obliged to go to the grave, and strike the arm with a rod, and when she had done that, it was drawn in, and then at last the child had rest beneath the ground.

What a story. The willful child: she has a story to tell. In this Grimm story, which is certainly a grim story, the willful child is the one who is disobedient, who will not do as her mother wishes. If authority assumes the right to turn a wish into a command, then willfulness is a diagnosis of the failure to comply with those whose authority is given. The story is thus about how authority is given. It is part of a tradition Alice Miller (1989) called “poisonous pedagogy,” a tradition of educational writing that assumes the child as soiled and spoiled by sin; and which insists on violence as moral correction, as being for the child. The Grimm story is a story of child but also of an arm: the child’s willfulness is inherited by an arm, an arm that keeps coming up, until it too is beaten down. It is a story of an arm but also of a rod: the rod becomes a technique for the elimination of willfulness from others. It is a story of willfulness as self-infection; disobedience as becoming ill.

When the arm is coming up, there is a spark of life, of strife, of life as strife. The arm is snappy. A complaint could be thought of as an arm that is still rising. We have to find a way to keep it up. This grim story is not that story, the story of feminist complaint. The story is told from the rod’s point of view. It offers a warning; be willing or you will be beaten. It offers an invitation: identify with the rod and you will be spared. So much violence is abbreviated here: so much silence about violence is explained here, as if by not bringing up violence up, not noticing it, not mentioning it, you might be spared. No wonder: whenever someone violence up, the willful child quickly comes after her. She is a way of coming after her: as if to say, speak up and her fate will be yours. The figure of the willful child is a container; a way of containing snap; making her refusal appear lonely and unsupported: her protest becoming babble; her voice scrambled, a stray, faint, so faint, becoming fainter, until she disappears.

We will not let you disappear. We will put our ear to the ground. Snap comes up from below the ground. To come after snap is to receive snap from others, to pass on what we receive.  I think of the film Born in Flames (dir. Lizzie Borden, 1983). It is set in a future time after a socialist revolution has happened (a “war of liberation”), but the future looks rather like the present, or even the past; what is to come is already behind us. We are introduced to many of the characters by snapshots attached to stories gathered by a surveillance team; the voice-over introducing each character as a suspect, as if to the police; different individuals who make up the Women’s Army, who are protesting against this new regime. The film is dystopic: many of the promises of that socialist revolution are shown to have been empty; there is sexism; there is sexual harassment; there are cuts to services for women who are victims of rape; there is unemployment and poverty that disproportionately affects brown and black communities; there is disaffection; there is despair; there is depression; there is oppression. The film shows how any revolutionary struggle that dismisses sexism and racism as immaterial will lead us to the same place; it will allow the same bodies to be reassembled, same old, same old; white men saving us from white men. In one scene the president is speaking of the commitments of the party to equality and justice; we hear his address by watching him on television with others who are watching him on television. We are watching: the Women’s Army. Zella Wylie, a senior black woman activist, played by Florence Flo Kennedy, rolls her eyes as he is speaking. I mentioned earlier my equation rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy. This is a different version of that feminist equation. Feminists: we are rolling our eyes.  Our rolling eyes signal a collective recognition of the gap between what is being said and what is done; saying what you are doing as not doing what you are saying.

The Women’s Army are also described as counterrevolutionary because they are impatient. Impatient: that’s a word with a snappy history. Patience refers to the willingness to bear suffering without irritation or the capacity to accept or tolerate delay. You are asked to be patient, as if what is wrong will not go on, as if with patience, things will only get better. Your impatience might even be deemed the cause of your failure to reach the happiness promised, as if by becoming impatient you have deprived yourself of what would have come your way, as if you have stolen your own future perfect. Impatience: when you are not willing to bear.  Born in Flames teaches us how impatience can be a feminist virtue.

Feminist snap in this film is distributed through a series of actions and thus across a series of actors. A woman is harassed on the street or the subway: and women on bicycles with whistles come to her defense. Feminist snap is not always planned but it can be planned.  That action is called dangerous by a commentator in the film because of its “vigilante sentiment.” And perhaps that is feminist snap as political action: vigilantism as taking the law into your own hands; whistles and bicycles become feminist tools for trying to make audible a violence that has already taken place. The escalation of violence that leads to the ending of the film is the death of Adelaide, the police killing of an unarmed black woman, a death the police explain as her taking her own life; suicide in a cell. The film: it feels like it is on a fast forward to the present, to how many are making movements out of the exposure of police brutality against unarmed black men and black women.

The snap displayed in the film is the political work of getting that story out, that story of police brutality; the story of repression by the state is the story that is repressed by the state. The story of repression has to be pushed harder to get anywhere because it has to counter the story told by the state, a story that travels easily and quickly as the lines of communication are kept open for it. The state’s story is hauntingly familiar to us. We know the story; it is the story of the willful child. The Grimm story is the state’s story: that those who die cause their own death. The rod that beats her to death is made a right, her existence turned into a crime, her persistence into rebellion. She does exist. She does persist. The story does not just depict her death; it sentences her to death. It is not just the content of the story of the willful child that matters; it is the speed with which it can travel; saturating the world by cancelling out the sounds of her scream; her no, heard as noise, as saying nothing, as just another sign of willful disobedience.

We hear you. We will not let you go; let it go. Feminist snap is required to counter the story by raising the sound of protest, making audible what is being done to her; a singular her, many hers. We have to gather to tell another story of what happened to her; to give an account of her death as murder; to count her death as murder.  Feminist vigilantism translates into a feminist vigil.  A vigil: to stay awake with a person who is dying; to mark or to mourn, to make a protest, to pray; to count our losses, to count her as loss, or, to borrow the name of a recent campaign in response to police violence against black women, can I acknowledge here the important work of Kimberlé Crenshaw and Andrea Ritchie, to say her name.

So much violence does not become visible or knowable or tangible. We have to fight to bring that violence to attention. Feminist snap might be how we tell a counter-story, the story that we must tell still; a story that if it is to be told requires sharp and sudden movements to get through or to get out because of what is still; how willfulness is still used by the state to justify death. Feminist snap can be rethought not only as an action but as a method for distributing information. It might involve what the film depicts: taking over media channels and interrupting an official broadcast (remember, interrupt comes from rupture: to break) or using pirate channels. Snap is a method for getting information out because sometimes what we have to get out would compromise a source if traced to a source. We might have to cut a message off from a body. When speaking out is too risky, we have to find other ways for the violence to become manifest. We might need to use guerrilla tactics, and we have a feminist and queer history to draw upon; you can write names of harassers on books; graffiti on walls, turn bodies into art (1). Or to evoke a recent action by feminist direction group Sisters Uncut, we can put red ink in the water so that the center of a city seems flooded by blood. They cut, we bleed. It is a snappy slogan.

The riskier it is to snap, the more inventive we might have to become.

Conclusion: Snappy Movements

Snap can be what we inherit from those who came before us. And by saying this I am not just referring to those snaps that have been publicly remembered as acts of civil disobedience and protest, those snaps that break through, or that led to a break through.  One might think of Rosa Parks on that day, December 1 1955, when she refused to give up her seat on the bus. She had not planned to protest on that specific day: she says later that “she had been pushed as far as she could” (cited in Theoharis 2009: 123).  She had had enough, snapping as pushing back. There were many other acts of pushing back that have not been recorded, many other black women and black men who refused to budge who are not remembered; who we do not know about, who make the civil rights movement possible.   And as Jeanne Theoharis notes, if Rosa Parks’ stance that day was “an independent and personal choice” what “made it the catalyst for a movement was certainly not a singular act but years of organizing by Parks and others in Montgomery that made people ready for collective action” (2009: 123). Sometimes a snap becomes a spark, igniting something, because that spark can be received, where this “can be” depends not only on activism, which is a long haul, a slog, but on who is judged as best able to hold the story, to give snap a narrative shape and form.

Or think of the Stonewall riots. An interview with Sylvia Rivera that took place in 1989 has been recently released in which she discusses what happened on that day. Sylvia Rivera as a trans woman of colour tends not to be remembered in how those events are remembered. (2) In her account, snap comes up.  It was a day like other days for those who gathered at the bar, gays, dykes, drag queens; a racially diverse army of the willingly perverse; an army that is used to living with police violence; an army for whom violence is usual. Rivera says: “This is what we learned to live with at that time. We had to live with it.” But something happens on that day. “We had to live with it until that day.  And then, I don’t know if it was the customers or it was the police. It just [snaps fingers], everything clicked.”  The snapping of fingers, that sound, snap, snap (3), allows Rivera to convey the sensation of things falling into place, when suddenly, or it seems sudden but it took a long time, a collective comes out with a “no,” a collective that is fragile, fabulous, full, furious: “Everybody just like, Why the fuck are we doin’ all this for?  Oh, it was so exciting. It was like, Wow, we’re doing it. We’re doing it. We’re fucking their nerves.” A snap can be catchy, igniting a crowd, all those years of frustration, pain, all that is wearing, coming out, getting out, claiming the freedom to be what they have tried to stop you from being. It is electric, snap, snap; sizzle, so much comes out when you tip something over. To make snap a part of how we tell the story of political movements is to show how exhaustion and rebellion can lead to the same place; how those who are exhausted by the violence of a system come to revolt against that violence, how even when snap comes from sap, from being tired out, from being depleted, snap can reboot; snap can boost.

Snapping, that moment when the pressure has built up and tipped over, can be the basis of a revolt, a revolt against what we are asked to put up with. Snap here is not only about individual action, those moments when she does not take it anymore, when she reacts to what she has previously endured, though it includes those moments.  It is not just that movements are built from moments. A movement is necessary so a moment can happen, a moment when the violence comes out; spills out. A movement is necessary. What is necessary has to become possible. Snap is about making what is necessary possible. Thank you.


(1) I would like to acknowledge and thank here the many students who have had to resort to such methods to get messages out about sexual harassment and sexual misconduct because using official procedures, and lines of communication, is how they have been blocked.

(2) With thanks to Sylvia Rivera for your wisdom and inspiration as well as to Eric Marcus, for the release of this important interview.

(3) We could write a history of finger snapping and its significance for racialized as well as sexual minorities. I would like to acknowledge here the importance of finger snapping as an expression within African American culture. Marlon Riggs describes finger snapping for African American gay men as “emotionally and politically charged as a clenched fist” (1999: 308). For a good discussion of the many layers of snapping as a complex and contested signifier for African American women and African American gay men see Patrick E. Johnson (2009).



Anzaldúa, Gloria (1999) [1987]. Borderlands, La Fontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco:  Aunt Lute Books.

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

Levy, Andrea (1999). Fruit of the Lemon. London: Headline Book Publishing.

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

Johnson, Patrick E. (2009). “Snap! Culture: A Different Kind of ‘Reading,’” Text and Performance Quarterly, 15, 2: 122-142.

Miller, Alice (1987). For Your Own Good: The Roots of Violence in Child-Rearing. London: Virago Press.

Riggs, Marlon T. (1990). “Black Macho Revisited: Reflections of a Snap! Queen,” in Devon W. Carbado (ed), Black Men on Race, Gender and Sexuality: A Critical Reader, New York: New York University Press.306-311.

Theoharis, Jeanne (2009). “A Life Time of Being Rebellious: The Radicalism of Rosa Parks” in Jeanne Theoharis and Komozi Woodard (eds). Want to Start a Revolution: Radicalism in the Black Freedom Struggle.  New York: New York University Press. 115-137.

Whitley, Leila and Tiffany Page (2015). “Sexism at the Centre: Locating the Problem of Sexual Harassment,” New Formations. 86: 34-53.



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The Effort to Transform: Intellectual Legacies of Stuart Hall

I was given the task of introducing Angela Davis at a conference to celebrate Stuart Hall’s legacies that took place in 2014. [1] The task was for me very serious. Two scholars, two activists who had profoundly shaped the space within the academy in which I worked; two scholars, two activists whose energy, wisdom and wit was evident in every word they sent out. I was addressing them both: one who was there to honor the other who was no longer with us. It was a profoundly moving if rather intimidating occasion.

An occasion can be a starting point for a journey. This occasion became a chance to think more about how black feminism and cultural studies explore intellectual labor as political labor.

In one of his best known essays Stuart Hall defends the intellectual project of Cultural Studies as ‘deadly serious’.[2] He had been reflecting on the AIDS crisis. Hall notes that it might seem that Cultural Studies is rather pointless when people are dying. Rather than dismissing this feeling that Cultural Studies does not matter, that it is ‘ephemeral,’ he suggests we allow ourselves to be hit by that feeling. He asks us to know that what we are doing might not transform the world we are in, the world that sentences some to premature death. We might need to be touched by the inadequacy of what we are doing, because what we are doing is inadequate. From the humility acquired from a sense of what we cannot do, we make do. We use the tools we have; we sharpen them by analyzing what is thrown up by an emergency. It is times when there seems no point to Cultural Studies that we need it the most; to engage with how something is being told, a crisis, an emergency, how something comes about, what something is about. We need to work out what is going on where we are, when we are. It is a task and an effort.

Both Angela Davis and Stuart Hall allow us to think of intellectual labor as beyond the confines of the academy, as what we do when are no longer confined; how we make our way into the world by asking questions about how things come to be the way they are. They both give us a sense of what an intellectual can do, when being intellectual is released from a restricted understanding of academic labor, when being an intellectual is not predicated on having time away to reflect, to remove oneself from a situation, but time in that situation. The situation is what requires we give our time; our attention. Stuart Hall’s work was shaped by the painstaking labor of giving worlds the fullness of his attention.

How did I first read come to read Hall? I came to the UK in 1991 to do a PhD in the Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory at Cardiff University. I was reading mainly poststructuralism and psychoanalysis: Derrida, Foucault, Freud, Lacan. It was interesting, of course. I had not read Stuart Hall before then, which is somewhat surprising since we had been taught postcolonial theory in my English degree at Adelaide University. I still remember reading The Empire Writes Back, in which ‘the postcolonial’ seemed to be about how white Australia reflects anxiously on its own whiteness as displacement from ‘the mother country’ and not about Indigenous Australia or the experiences of migrants who were not white. I think my relation to postcolonial theory might have been read different if we had read The Empire Strikes Back rather than The Empire Writes Back! Sometimes it takes a while to realize what we have been taught and what not; who we have been taught by and who not. I was tutored by whiteness: in fact I have never been taught by anyone who was not white. I was tutored; surrounded.

But then in the second year of my PhD I read a series of texts by black feminists and feminists of colour (including Angela Davis, Audre Lorde and Gloria Anzaldúa) as well as Stuart Hall’s ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora.’ These words changed everything. These texts were to become my life long companions.

Before then I was reading so many texts, as you do. I enjoyed them; I talked with and through them; I had arguments over coffee with my fellow students about them. They were like things I picked up, in order to put them down, so I could move on to the next, ready to repeat the process again. But ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’ made a connection that has stayed with me, wherever I go, as an academic but also as a person. And it mattered because the ideas presented came home. Stuart Hall’s description of identity as a site of struggle, culture as something alive and dynamic, made sense not only as an argument about something but because they connected to a world I was in; where I found myself.

Hall notes in this essay: ‘I was born into and spent my childhood and adolescence in a lower middle-class family in Jamaica. I have lived all my adult life in England, in the shadow of the black diaspora – ‘in the belly of the beast’, I write against the background of a lifetime’s work in cultural studies. If the paper seems preoccupied with the diaspora experience and its narratives of displacement, it is worth remembering that all discourse is “placed,” and the heart has its reasons’.[3]

‘The belly of the beat’ and the ‘heart has its reasons’: perhaps here, in a turn of phrase, Hall explains a preoccupation, diaspora, where you are, as what matters, how you are touched or reached.  The heart, the belly: the very organs that allow blood to be pumped or food to be digested through the body, for the body. Hall is probably not often addressed as a theorist of emotion (the way say Raymond Williams was with his attention to ‘structures of feeling’) but emotion registers everywhere in his work as a way a body is met by a world. He said once: ‘the task of socialism today is to meet people where they are, where they are touched, moved, bitten, frustated.’[4] The task for socialism is to move us, to touch in the places that hurt, that express a rage with what is, a longing for what could be.

Where they are touched: a meeting can a profoundly unfriendly even hostile greeting; a Black body in a white neighborhood, a brown body in that same neighborhood  How we are met by the world: how we arrive, how we get on, how we move on: all of these life questions are what cultural studies in Stuart Hall’s hands throws up into the air. So many histories are at stake in the minute detail of an encounter; in the diaspora an encounter with another is an encounter with many.

A text becomes a companion when it allows you to meet yourself in a different way. Stuart Hall’s work allowed me to think of how my own experience as a daughter of a Pakistani migrant, who was brought up in a mixed family in a very white part of Australia. It taught me to think from that experience about identity; it taught me to appreciate how some of my own experiences gave me the ground to do intellectual work. Companion texts are homing devices, ways of re-orientating our relation to our homes, ways of returning home, ways of moving home.

Both Angela Davis and Stuart Hall made me aware of what it means to take race seriously as an object of thought. Claire Alexander offers an illuminating account of Stuart Hall’s work on race, placing it within a trajectory of his lifetime’s labor. She notes how Hall’s writings ‘reflect and define’ transitions in his ‘personal identity’, as well as the unfolding and multiple contexts in which he is writing. She cites Hall via Grossberg: ‘I have never worked on race and ethnicity as a kind of subcategory; I have always worked on the whole social formation which is racialised’ [5]. This is so important: to work on race as to show how race is precisely not something particular but general; how race is not just here or there but everywhere, at stake in the shaping of the social as such. Often those of us of colour are assumed to embody race, what Hall called, as have other, that burden of representation. Then, race comes and goes when we do; race becomes the responsibility of those who are not white; what needs dismantling is what stays in place. Hall teaches us how foregrounding race is to offer a different account of the ground, of modernity and its relation to slavery and empire, of our understanding of histories and futures that are never simply behind or in front of us. We disturb the ground. We work from the ground.

I take seriously Stuart Hall’s suggestion that we need to work where we are—but where we are, as he shows, is a complicated matter. If you arrive and you are not expected to be here, are not from here, or are deemed not from here, then the world itself can appear rather oblique. Over time, with more courage, more conviction, I began to think of how cultural studies provides the tools to interrogate the university as a place to work on as well as work at.

Of course, Stuart Hall was here before. In an early paper, ‘Deviancy, Politics and the Media’, Hall interrogates how the media reported two incidents of student radicalism at universities—one from 1969 at the London School of Economics and the other at Birmingham University in 1968 [5]. He shows with remarkable patience how both incidents are framed through the use of the minority/majority distinction, a framing that allows the student protesters to be identified as a selfish group, as the source of danger and the disruption. Indeed, when reading this paper, I realised how some of my own arguments about the uses of willfulness as a frame directly relate to Hall’s 1971 paper. In Willful Subjects, I explore how student protest becomes dismissible as a symptom of a particular, immature and destructive will, a will defined against the general will.8 The particular will/general will distinction operates in a similar way to the minority/majority distinction interrogated so much earlier by Hall. And in my current project on complaint, I am again exploring how danger and disruption are located. Students who complain about sexual harassment and sexual misconduct by members of staff are often positioned as the ones who ‘disrupt’ the educational experience; complaint as disruption.

A label can be what you receive because of what you expose. Techniques for labeling students, as Hall shows, do something. Through framing the students as a selfish minority imposing their will on others and depriving others of an education, education becomes aligned with a majority, those whose interests cohere or become coherent. Hall thus shows how the structure of social relations works to ‘establish, maintain and preserve certain meaning systems in being, generating around them a certain stable, taken for granted world’ [6]. Phenomenology helps us to reflect on the ‘taken for granted world’ as a world that does not come into view. In this essay, Hall does engage with phenomenology (through the work of sociologists of knowledge who drew on phenomenology such as Berger and Luckmann) in order to attend to the ‘question of meaning’. In some of my own work, I have adopted a framework I call practical phenomenology, which, though not directly inspired by an engagement with Hall’s work, nonetheless inherits from it in important ways. Hall’s insistent refusal to separate the subjective from the structural would be a starting point for a practical phenomenology.

Why practical phenomenology? The practical effort to transform a world allows us to know that world in a different way. This is what I learnt from doing ethnographic research on diversity within universities. Diversity practitioners know a lot about how universities operate because of the difficulties they encounter.  One practitioner described her work ‘it’s a banging your head against the brick wall job’. A job description becomes a wall description. When we try to challenge histories that have sedimented, we encounter those histories: they become hard as walls.

And if you arrive here, without being from here, walls come up too, ways in which residence is questioned. Diversity work can be the attempt to open up universities to populations that have historically been excluded from them. As I explore in Living a Feminist Life, diversity work can also be the work we do when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an institution. A life description can be a wall description. Questions can hover around, a murmuring, an audible rising of volume that seems to accompany an arrival of a brown or black body. Are you the professor? Really, are you sure? Cultural Studies as a discipline begins with the lived experiences of not residing, of not being received ‘well’ by where you end up, experiences of working class kids ending up in elite institutions, experiences of diasporic kids ending up in those same institutions. When you don’t fit, you fidget. How quickly the fidgeting body appears as not residing in the right place. Eyebrows are raised. Really; really? Are you sure?

What I am calling diversity work involves transforming questions into a catalogue. A catalogue does not assume each question as the same question: but it is a way of hearing continuities and resonances. It is a way of thinking of how questions accumulate; how they have a cumulative effect on those who receive them. You can be worn down by the requirement to give answers, to explain yourself. It is not a melancholic task; to catalogue these questions, even if some of the questions are experienced as traumatic, difficult, or exhausting. To account for experiences of not being given residence is not only a sad political lesson, a lesson of what we have had to give up in order to keep going but it is we come to know stuff. Think of how much we know about institutional life because of these failures of residence: of how the categories in which we are immersed become explicit when you do not quite inhabit them. When we do not recede into the background, when we stand out or stand apart, we can bring the background into the front: and we can front up to how much depends on your background.

The corpus of Hall’s work transformed into pedagogy: how a world can be made to reappear from the effort to be in a world that does not accommodate you, or from the effort to transform a world that does not accommodate you.

We learn from what we come up against.

Maybe I wasn’t tutored only by whiteness after all.

Stuart Hall was not my teacher. I only ever once spoke to him once and that was to thank him for his work.

Stuart Hall is my teacher. His words spoke to me. His words teach me.

[1] I was invited to write a response to Hall for an edited book on Hall’s legacies. For complicated reasons, it was not possible to proceed to publication so I am sharing the response here instead. With thanks to colleagues for the invitation to think about an inspiration.

[2] Hall, Stuart (1992). ‘Cultural Studies: Theoretical Legacies,’ in Lawrence Grossberg, Cary Nelson, Paula Riechler (eds). Cultural Studies. New York: Routledge, p.286.

[3] Stuart Hall (1990) ‘Cultural Identity and Diaspora’, in Jonathan Rutherford (ed.) Identity: Community, Culture, Difference. London: Lawrence and Wishart, p.223.

[4] Cited in James Proctor (2004). Stuart Hall, London: Routledge. p. 19.

[5] Claire Alexander (2011) ‘Introduction’ to Claire Alexander (ed). Stuart Hall and Race. London: Routledge. p.13.

[6] Stuart Hall (1971). ‘Deviancy, Politics and the Media,’ Stencilled Occasional Papers,

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My killjoy blog has been a little quiet!

Still, I have been a killjoy at work.

On March 14, we launched my book Living a Feminist Life at Cambridge University. It was an intense day for so many reasons; feminism is always a reason. I gave a lecture for the Department of Sociology at Cambridge that same day, “Brick Walls: Racism and Other Hard Histories.” You can listen to the lecture here. This was the first lecture I have given since I resigned from my post as Professor of Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths. The last lecture I had given was at Birkbeck on May 18 2016. That lecture was also on walls.

I wanted to talk about walls again: they keep coming up.

My lecture was followed by a panel on Killjoys@Work, which I co-organised with Mahvish Ahmad who runs the Critical Theory and Practice Seminar Series at Cambridge as well as Professor Sarah Franklin, who directs ReproSoc (Reproductive Sociology Research Group) at Cambridge. I share my introduction to the panel below.

We had nine feminists speaking, representing three different political affiliations/ groups: Dr Leila Whitley, Heidi Hasbrouck, Dr Chryssa Sdrolia and Dr Tiffany Page talked about their work challenging sexual harassment and sexual misconduct at universities; Jennifer Edmunds, Nadine Forde and Savannah Whaley discussed some of the strategies and tactics used by the direct action group Sisters Uncut; and Audrey Sebatindira and Lola Olufemi spoke about decolonizing the curriculum at Cambridge. It was so inspiring to hear about all of their work; the care and attention they gave to crafting a feminist anti-racist intersectional politics.

After the panel we had the official launch of the book. My colleague and collaborator Professor Heidi Mirza said a few words. Heidi was introduced by my partner in feminist crime Sarah Franklin, who suggested Heidi Mirza is not a noun but a verb. To Heidi Mirza would definitely be a good thing!

Heidi and I have shared many feminist shelters, and have been throwing each other life-lines for more than two decades. How apt that launching a book on living a feminist life was really about the relationships we have to each other as feminists of colour. We share what we come up against, but we also share so many commitments; so many fors.

I was able to thank my publishers Duke University Press who were represented by Combined Academic Press (a special thanks to Rachel Shand for being there). Many years ago Duke offered to publish a rather queer rather odd little book: it ended up being called, Queer Phenomenology, though it started out with a different name. No other publisher I had approached had been interested; the book was a bit too odd, I suspect: a book about tables, a book about orientation; a philosophical book that was also messy and personal: a book that was hard to place. That rather odd book led to us publishing more books together – and I know that working with Duke, and with Ken Wissoker in particular, has been essential to how I have been able to wander around, creating my own queer trail.

Another of the highlights of our launch day was having Poppy, our much loved companion, be part of the day. She was obligingly a killjoy.

Poppy Killjoy

Poppy: she puts the joy in killjoy.

A killjoy has many joys.

I have loved seeing photos of Living a Feminist Life on twitter since it was published last month. Thanks to all of you who shared them! It is always such a privilege, one that I will never take for granted, to witness your own words out and about; to find your books in other people’s hands.

Since the launch I have been out and about a bit more myself: my new website has now gone live, and here you can find information about my books,  articles, descriptions of some of my current projects, details of any forthcoming events (my fall 2017 events will be listed soon) as well as a contact form if you need to get in touch with me. Thanks to Chandra Frank for designing my new website!

I also did a short interview about Living a Feminist Life on a radio show, Rising up with Sonali. You can hear the longer audio here, and see the shorter video here.

I hope to be back to my blog in earnest next month. I will be writing my blog alongside a new research project I am starting on complaint.

I will also write on other issues that come up as and when they come up.

It is a promise: a killjoy always has issues.

Until later,

FK x


Introduction to Killjoys@Work Panel, March 14, Cambridge

I want to welcome you all today to our panel Killjoys@Work. Thank you so much for coming, and thanks to the panellists for agreeing to be part of a conversation. Thanks to Mavish Ahmad and Sarah Franklin as well as the ReproSoc team for all your work in pulling the pieces together.

I feel like I could give this introduction as one long thank you. I won’t or maybe in some way I will. Today’s panel was set up as part of the launch of my new book, Living a Feminist Life.  My book is in its own way a feminist thank you note: it comes out of and is inspired by many feminist struggles for more bearable worlds. I wanted to launch the book not by having a panel on the book itself but rather having a space to talk about feminist activisms. The book is full of the sweat maybe even the tears of feminist struggle; it is full of the frustration of how hard we have to fight sometimes, it seems, not to get very far. The book is also animated by hope, because that hope was a message I was receiving from others. All around us we can bear witness to an uptake of militant feminisms, the kinds of feminism that are willing to give problems their names, which often means using old names, because the problems are the same old problems, same old, same old; the kinds of feminism that are willing to be pushy, to push for recognition of the problems that do not go away by not being named.

To be a feminist is to be a feminist at work. And to live a feminist life is to participate in that work, that work of chipping away at the walls of whiteness, of hetero-patriarchy. But however hard that feminist work is it, and it is hard because we come up against so much resistance, so much anti-feminism, it is from doing that work that we work so much other stuff out. In the book I felt I was reaching back to an earlier feminism, when feminism was a life question, posed as a question of how to live with others as well as question of how to transform the structures that make life so tenuous for so many. That reaching back is shared; we reach back because of what is around us, histories that are still; what is not over: what we do not get over. Being a feminist involves having some of the same conversations we have had before: about how to organize; how not to reproduce hierarchies in who speaks and who does not speak in meetings; how to build relationships out of the web of our own fragility. After all the histories that bring us to feminism are often the same histories that leave us fragile. Even our shelters, our precious feminist shelters that we build so we have a place to go, to retreat, are fragile because we often have to build them upon the same foundations we are trying to shatter.

A shattering can be a starting point. Some of the terms that are used by feminist activists today, terms that are dismissed too often by too many – like safe spaces and trigger warnings – matter because they are about working out how to stay in a world, a world can be condensed in a room, when histories of trauma makes it hard to be in that world. If the structures we are trying to transform are the same structures we have to survive, the feminist activism is about life, about how to keep going, no matter what we come up against: because of what we come up against. Feminist work is also about sharing the costs of feminist work.

We have made the figure of the feminist killjoy a thread across the three groups who will be speaking to you about their feminist work today. She may come up because she is brought up, or she may pop up unexpectedly.

Why the killjoy? She tends to come up whenever feminists speak up. To name sexual harassment, to account for the whiteness of the curriculum, to talk of domestic violence, to say they cut, we bleed, is to get in the way of happiness of others. So much happiness depends upon turning away from what compromises unhappiness. When violence disappears from view, and violence is often reproduced by not coming into view; then to speak of violence is to make violence appear. And then you do appear violent, as if you are forcing something unpleasant onto others, even being mean to others.

I think of the killjoy as a kind of feminist memory. It is not just that we remember being her, those times at family tables, those dinners ruined, when we are wound up by someone who is winding up; though she is for many of us that. It is not just that we become her when as women of colour we bring up racism at the feminist table, or the atmosphere noticeable changes when we enter the room, turning up can bring racism up; though she is for many of us that too. As a figure she acquired her potency from a feminist history, a history not only of those who have been charged with unhappiness but those who have been willing to receive that charge. When we receive that charge, we don’t necessarily become unhappy or unhappier. I still remember when I first began giving talks about feminist killjoys how the atmosphere would become electric. I could almost hear a sizzle, snap, snap. Even though she brings up a difficult history, a painful history, she seems to pick us up.

Feminism: how pick each other up.

I have two conclusions in the book, a killjoy survival kit, followed by a killjoy manifesto. The sequence does matter: we must first survive. Audre Lorde once said that there were some of us who were not meant to survive. For Lorde, for some of us, survival is politically ambitious; you have to be inventive to survive. A manifesto might be how feminism survives. It is not that the feminist killjoy has a manifesto. The feminist killjoy is a manifesto. She makes violence manifest; she brings violence that is already in the room to surface because of what she says, because of what she does. To suggest that the feminist killjoy is a manifesto is not to say that we have obligation to speak out. We are not all in the same position; we cannot all afford to speak out. Killing joy thus requires a communication system: we have to find other ways for the violence to become manifest. We might need to use guerrilla tactics, and we have a feminist history to draw upon here; you can write names of harassers on books; graffiti on walls; turn bodies into art; put red ink in the water.

We might even stop citing “white men” when we write our books.

Yes we are willing to be that blunt.

Sexism makes it hard to speak about sexism. Racism makes it hard to speak about racism. The harder it is, the more creative we have to become. We wiggle about, we create room.  A kitchen table becomes a feminist of colour press.

Some of you might have heard Angela Davis speaking in London on Saturday. She made yet another important contribution to our collective feminist survival. I really liked how she stressed that it is from activism that we generate new feminist ideas. She also stressed how much we receive from the work that has already been done; we receive rights yes, access to worlds, yes, at least for some; possibilities, yes, possibilities of living together, of being together. We also receive, I think, energy that passes through each of us like a jolt, switching us on. It is from difficult experiences, of being bruised by structures that are not even revealed to others, that we acquire the energy to go on.

The more we expose the weight of history, the heavier it becomes. We snap. Feminist snap: those moments we do not take it anymore; the work we have to do so that we do not take it anymore.

The work we have to do. The work there is to be done.  So today, we are going to open up a conversation about feminist work, about being feminists at work, killjoys@work.

Thank you.



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Out and About

Today is the official publication day for my book Living a Feminist Life

This is a sweaty book, full of the struggle that is a necessary part of living a feminist life. I mentioned in a dedication post that I wrote the book in the same three years we had been working on the problem of sexual harassment as an institutional problem. This was the same three years we had built a Centre for Feminist Research. We need feminist shelters, places to go when the violence that surrounds us is too much. I think of writing too as a feminist shelter; a place to go when the violence that surrounds us is too much. Writing is companionship: the words that fall out create something, which then acquires its own life; writing is full of surprises, twists and turns. This is especially true for writing that stays close to the skin. Through words, you travel; you revisit places; you make sense of what first seemed all jumbled up. I called the method of this book: putting a sponge to the past. You do not know what will be mopped up.

A feminist book comes out of living a feminist life. A feminist book is what you send out. It goes out and about. You do not know where your words will end up. Words too can shatter. Can splatter. We can pick up the pieces with words.

I know words have pulled me up. Sometimes words have turned me inside out.

Feminism: a way with words.

Thank you so much to all my feminist companions. And to my wonderful publishers Duke University Press: thank you for giving my work a home. And thanks to Sarah and Poppy for being home.

The following is a short extract from my introduction. I am thinking with fondness of our collective feminist task: caring for the fragility of feminist archives.


A companion text is a text whose company enabled you to proceed on a path less trodden. Such texts might spark a moment of revelation in the midst of an overwhelming proximity; they might share a feeling or give you resources to make sense of something that had been beyond your grasp; companion texts can prompt you to hesitate or to question the direction in which you are going, or they might give you a sense that in going the way you are going you are not alone.  Some of the texts that appear with me in this book have been with me before: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, and Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I could not have proceeded along the path I took without these texts. To live a feminist life is to live in very good company. I have placed these companion texts in my killjoy survival kit. I encourage you as a feminist reader to assemble your own kit. What would you include?

The materials we include in our kits could also be called “feminist classics.” By feminist classics I mean feminist books that have been in circulation; that have become worn from being passed around.  I do not mean classics in the sense of “canonical texts.” Of course, some texts become canonical, and we need to question how these histories happen, how selections are made; we need to ask who or what does not survive these selections. But the texts that reach us, that make a connection, are not necessarily the ones that are taught in the academy, or that make it to the official classics editions. Many of the texts that connect with me are often the ones assumed as “dated,” as belonging to a time that we are in no longer.

The idea of “feminist classics” for me is a way of thinking about how books make communities. I was part of a Feminist Classics reading group held in Women’s Studies at Lancaster University. This reading group was one of my favorite experiences of feminist intellectual life thus far. I loved the labor of going over materials that might now tend to be passed over, of finding in them some abundant resources, concepts, and words. To attend to feminist classics is to give time: to say that what is behind us is worth going over, worth putting in front of us. It is a way of pausing, not rushing ahead, not being seduced by the buzz of the new, a buzz that can end up being what you hear, blocking the possibility of opening our ears to what came before.  What I also really enjoyed too in the reading group was the attention to the books themselves as material objects. Each of us had different copies, some of them tattered and well-read, worn and as it were lived in. You can, I think, live in books: some feminists might even begin their feminist lives living in books. Participating in the group with books made me very aware of how feminist community is shaped by passing books around; the sociality of their lives part of the sociality of ours. There are so many ways that feminist books change hands; in passing between us, they change each of us.

There are many ways of describing the materials I bring together in this book: companions texts; feminist classics are just two possible ways. The materials are books, yes, but they are also spaces of encounter; how we are touched by things; how we touch things. I think of feminism as a fragile archive, a body assembled from shattering, from splattering, an archive whose fragility gives us responsibility: to take care.


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Being positive is often presented as a good way to be. Maybe times are difficult; maybe they are disastrous. In such times, being positive might be a way of countering the negatives. You need to buckle up, keep your chin up. It might be assumed that if you don’t stay positive, you would end up doing nothing; you might stay at home rather than go on a march, brimming with a sense of your own injury, licking your wounds, giving up hope, retreating from rather than advancing a cause. To be part of a cause is assumed to require getting over your misery: getting over it;  getting over yourself.

But why be so positive about being positive? What is left out from such a view? The expression don’t agonize organize has been much repeated, becoming mantra. The expression was coined by African American activist Florynce (Flo) Kennedy.  A focus in her revolutionary work was on the necessity of doing the work, in other words, on the need to organize. But “don’t agonize, organize” is often used to imply that we have to stop agonizing in order to start organizing. Feminist philosopher Rosi Braidotti, for example, entitled a piece, “Don’t agonize, organize,” although she does not refer to Kennedy’s work. She argues that “Violence, pain and resentment are conducive to paralysis, not to change.” She cites Hilary Clinton on anger: “anger is not a project, as Hilary Clinton so lucidly puts it”.

It is interesting that the word agonize derives from struggle. Organizing against state violence is indeed a struggle. The worlds we are fighting against making fighting against worlds costly. In organizing we also need to share the costs of organizing. A recent article by Mira Curzer contains many principles that I agree with, principles that I share in my own killjoy survival kit (1) that derive from the need to sustain ourselves as activists. There is one argument in the post that I think we need to examine closely in the spirit of questioning ourselves as well as others: that if you are not enjoying yourself when you are protesting “you’re doing it wrong.” I think there is something wrong with the idea that there is a right way to feel when we are protesting.

Protesting is messy, and there are times when we arrive and leave with grief in our hearts. In my previous post I tried to suggest how our grief can be active, a way of bringing “our dead with us,” to use José Esteban Muñoz’s words. We might also be motivated and moved by an anger that, as Audre Lorde described, “is loaded with information and energy” (1984, 127). Audre Lorde’s work on anger has been powerfully evoked by Kirsten West Savali in a discussion of Black women’s “radical uses of anger”. She notes how white feminism occupied the recent women’s march. Anger at racism can be what brings you to the march; anger at racism can be an experience of the march. The anger is dismissed. As Savali writes “Dismissing the anger and betrayal that some black women are experiencing is violent.” Dismissing anger at racism is racism.

Black women’s anger is treated as divisive: as getting away of feminist enjoyment and solidarity. What is divisive is the assumption that divisions are caused by pointing out divisions, which is of course means there are at least two divisions at stake here: racism as a division that exists and racism as the division of not recognizing racism as a division. Audre Lorde also wrote:“When women of Color speak out of the anger that laces so many of our contacts with white women, we are often told that we are ‘creating a mood of helplessness,’ ‘preventing white women from getting past guilt,’ or ‘standing in the way of trusting communication and action’” (1984, 131).  Note how the exposure of violence becomes the origin of violence. The woman of color must let go of her anger for the white woman to move on. Letting go: another way we experience the requirement to be positive as if racism only  goes on because we keep going on about it.

No wonder: black feminisms and feminisms of color are archives of anger.

I am not saying, however that all those feelings that have been assumed to be bad feelings, or negative feelings, destructive, lead us to act. Sometimes we are slowed down, even stopped by the heaviness of our affections; it is too much. We can be in too much pain to go out and join in a struggle with others. We can be numb. I respect the need to withdraw in grief. I also know that many reactions that we do not notice because of a withdrawal can still be contributing something, even when we feel they are not. We can at times not be able to do something that is tangible to others but that does not mean we are not doing anything; for some staying alive is work. But happiness too can involve withdrawal. You can turn away from what compromises your happiness to preserve your happiness; you can assume that their pain of strangers has nothing to do with you, the pain of strangers can appear, as strangers appear, at the edges of social consciousness; as intrusions.

Happiness can be a bubble. Sometimes we need the bubble to burst.

It is true that sometimes we need to act quickly; we have no time to attend to how we feel. We can act quickly with whatever feelings we have in our hearts. And we might also need to recognize that not everyone has the same speed. We might also remember that a response, what can I do?, can be used as a way of rushing over something including the sticky matter of one’s own implication in what has been rushed over. It is messy; complicated; sticky, too.

We need to challenge this tendency to think that being positive is being active. It is a tendency that is evident in the affirmative turn within feminism and beyond. The equation is made more or less explicitly: not only that being positive is being active, but that being negative is being passive or reactive.

It might be implied we have a duty to be positive if we are to oppose something because what we oppose is based on negativity. For example some have suggested that fascism is about negative feeling (hatred, resentment). Fascism can just as easily be articulated as a politics of love: a love for a “we” that is fragile and in need of protection, a love that declares we first as an emergency. I have read suggestions that we should challenge fascism by being more loving towards other. The idea that we can love our way out of fascism is deeply problematic.  No feeling is going to get out of this, and the idea that we can feel our way out might be how we stay in.

Partly what we need to challenge is the heroic model of an active subject. All actions are reactions. Joy is no less a reaction to something than sadness. An action is a reaction that has forgotten the “re.” All actions are reactions to something. We are shaped by something. Reaction is pedagogy, one that is not simply premised on self-revelation. We learn from our reactions to the world about the world.

A feminist killjoy experiences the requirement to be positive as a form of negation.  What is at stake here is not so much which feelings bring us to action but how to respond to the injunction to feel in a certain way. Smiles are often been assumed to be performatives: that by smiling you would become happy, that you would even catch the feeling from an expression (rather than expressing a feeling you would feel the expression). I called this in The Promise of Happiness a “hopeful performativity,” the kind of performativity that is often used in positive psychology: that if repeated enough, if repeated well, you can make yourself be more positive, you can as it were talk yourself into happiness.  And the assumption is that being positive will generate further returns: that as a positive person you will get a better job, be healthier, have a better chance of finding a partner, and so on. It is the promise of “smile and the world will smile with you,” the promise not only that you will make yourself happy but that you will make others happy too.

But this also means: if you fail to make yourself happy you make others unhappy.

It can cause unhappiness to be the cause of unhappiness.

No wonder something other than happiness becomes a feminist cause.

Audre Lorde and Barbara Ehrenreich offered strong critiques of the violence that follows the assumption that being positive is about generating different and better outcomes. Ehrenreich’s book title, Smile or Die says it all: ill-health and even death can be understood as a consequence of not smiling enough. Not smiling becomes morbid. She should have cited Audre Lorde who made the same argument much earlier. Lorde suggests: “looking on the bright side of things is a euphemism used for obscuring certain realities of life, the open consideration of which might prove threatening to the status quo” (1997: 76). To obscure or to take cover by looking on the bright side is to avoid what might threaten the world as it is. Lorde suggests that the very idea that our first responsibility is for our own happiness must be resisted by political struggle, which means resisting the idea that our own resistance is a failure to be responsible for happiness: “Was I really fighting the spread of radiation, racism, woman-slaughter, chemical invasion and our food, pollution of our environment, and the abuse and psychic destruction of your young, merely to avoid dealing with my first and greatest responsibility to be happy?” (76).  Audre Lorde gave us an answer in the form of a question.

We have behind us many feminist attempts to critique the positivity of positivity. Betty Friedan for example exposed a rotten infection underneath the smile of the housewife. Friedan discusses “pretty housewives” who beamed over their “foaming dishpans” (1965, 19).   That the housewife appears smiling as she cleans the dishes matters. Her smile becomes evidence that she is happy to do this work: the work of caring for the family which shows that she cares for the family. Think of the Disney song, “Whistle while you work,” and you get a sense of what is at stake in the appeal of this figure (the whiteness of what is at stake, the bourgeois morality, as well as the cheerful nature of femininity as a performance). Betty Friedan’s solution to the problem with no name, which she named, was for housewives to put down their foaming dish pans and to enter the paid workforce. As bell hooks (2000) notes, this meant that black and working-class women often had to do the domestic labor that allowed white middle-class woman to escape from it. Or if she went to work happily, but did not employ other women to do that work, then she would have to pick up those pans happily on her return.

Smiles can be employed as a defence of extreme forms of exploitation. Smiling peasants, smiling natives, smiling servants: these are all figures employed to do certain kinds of work. The history of the use of the figure of the smiling slave is not behind us. Consider the children’s book A Cake for George Washington published in 2006, which was full of images of smiling slaves; happy as they work. Mikki Kendall describes this book very well: “A candy coated depiction of a multi generational crime against humanity.”Smiling becomes a way of covering over violence and trauma; repainting brutality as joy. We are familiar with candy-coating strategies in the UK. For example, Trevor Phillips said in a speech to the Conservative Party in 2005, “we created something called the empire where we mixed and mingled with people very different from those of these islands.” Yes: even empire can be described as a party, as mixing and mingling, evidence that “British people are not by nature bigots.”

A history of conquest and violence can be covered over by a smile. And we can be asked to smile about this history.

A smile is employed. And you can be employed to smile. Arlie Hochschild’s The Managed Heart explores how workers becomes alienated from smiles when smiling is what workers have to do as part of your job. Her study was focused in particular on flight attendants. Smiling is part of the service. Hochschild suggests that it is harder to smile when you do not feel like smiling. It takes emotional labor to get yourself behind the smile. When the work is successful, a smile works; the smile might even appear natural or effortless. There is often a lot of effort in what appears effortless.

Even if don’t have much hope in hopeful performatives, we can think about emotional labor as the effort to bring about happiness. Hochschild uses the example of the bride who does feel happy on the wedding day. If the bride feels “depressed and upset” then she is experiencing an “inappropriate affect” (2003, 59), or is being affected inappropriately.  She has to save the day by feeling right: “sensing a gap between the ideal feeling and the actual feeling she tolerated, the bride prompts herself to be happy” (61). The capacity to “save the day” depends on the bride being able to be affected in the right way or at least able to persuade others that she is being affected in the right way. Maybe it works, and the happiness of the day is preserved. We learn from this example that it is possible not to inhabit fully one’s own happiness, or even to be alienated from one’s happiness, if the former affection remains lively, or if one is made uneasy by the labor of making yourself feel a certain way. Uneasiness might persist in the very feeling of being happy, as a feeling of unease with the happiness you are in.

We do not always close the gap between how we do feel and how we should feel.  Disappointment can also involve an anxious narrative of self-doubt (why I am not made happy by this, what is wrong with me?), or a narrative of rage against the world that elevated somethings as good. Anger can fill the gap between the promise of a feeling and the feeling of a feeling. We become strangers, or affect aliens, in such moments.

If you don’t appear happy, you can be stopped and asked questions. I am sure many girls and women have heard comments like, “Smile, love, it could be worse,” when they walk out and about without cheerfulness planted on their faces.If you react, it can provoke comments that are much worse. Smiling becomes a feminine achievement. But smiling can also be what you have to do to compensate when you are perceived as not feminine enough. You might have to soften your appearance because (or when) you are perceived as too hard.  A black woman or woman of color might have to smile all the more because she is perceived as angry or too assertive: smiling then becomes what you have to do in order to dislodge an expectation. Expectations can be confirmed by our effort to dislodge them. Even a smile can be too assertive if you are judged as being too assertive.

Sometimes smiling becomes a requirement because of the resistance we are encountering to the work we are doing. Diversity work in the first sense that I use it (the effort to transform institutions by opening them up to those who have not been included) often involves smiling work. I have noted how diversity workers are often institutional killjoys, as getting in the way of the happiness of an organisation. When you are a killjoy, you are less likely to be heard. You know that old: eyes rolling. Some diversity workers thus try to maximize their distance from the figure of the institutional killjoy. Two members of an equality unit I spoke to informally talked very explicitly about how they smiled as a strategy. The director of the unit said “as soon as we got here we started smiling. And we just kept smiling.” I referred earlier to Arlie Hochschild’s work on how smiling becomes a form of emotional labor within the service sector. For the diversity worker, smiles might not have exchange value in quite this way: she is not required to smile in order to make customers happy. Rather smiling becomes a strategy because the worker is alienated from the organisation by virtue of the kind of work she is doing. She smiles in order to manage how diversity is perceived. She may certainly be alienated by this requirement to smile, but she senses that smiling is necessary in order to counter the perception of diversity workers as hostile or unfriendly.

Other diversity workers refuse to smile or even to use smiley words. One practitioner said that for her “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.” When I listened to this practitioner I was reminded of Betty Friedan’s critique of the image of the happy housewife whose beaming smile hides an infection. We can think of the labor of creating shiny surfaces. When something is shiny, so much is not reflected. The creation of a shiny surface is how an organisation can reflect back a good image to itself.

Diversity work in the second sense that I have used it – the work we do when we do not quite inhabit the norms of an organisation – also involves smiling. Sometimes we are required to smile in their brochures, almost as if we have to smile in response to the gift of having been included. Smiles become gratitude. We provide smiley colorful faces.

Diversity: a glossy brochure. Diversity: how racism is glossed over.

Smiling here might not involve just planting smiles on our faces in order to create the appearance of happy diversity. We might have to turn our bodies into smiles.

A black diversity trainer describes his work as a series of instructions that he gives to himself “Don’t give white people nasty looks straight in their eyes; don’t show them aggressive body positions. I mean, for example I am going to go and buy a pair of glasses because I know the glasses soften my face and I keep my hair short because I’m going bald, so I need something to soften my face. But actually what I am doing, I am countering a stereotype, I’m countering the black male sexual stereotype and yes, I spend all my time, I counter that stereotype, I couch my language behavior and tone in as English a tone as I can. I am very careful, just very careful.” I have called this kind of work he describes so powerfully here, the work of being “very careful,” as institutional passing: it is what you have to do to pass into an organisation by passing out of (or trying to pass out of) a stereotype. Passing is about “softening” your appearance so that you do not appear “aggressive” because you are already assumed to be aggressive before you appear. The demand not to be aggressive might be lived as a form of body-politics, or as a speech politics: you have to be careful of what you say, how you appear, in order to maximize the distance between yourself and their idea of you. The experience of being a stranger in the institutions of whiteness is an experience of being on perpetual guard: of having to defend yourself against those who perceive you as somebody to be defended against.

Institutional passing includes the work you do to pass through by passing out of an expectation: you try not to be the angry person of color, the troublemaker, that difficult person. You have to demonstrate that you are willing to ease the burden of your own difference. The killjoy too appears here as the one that we must give up; institutional passing as appearing to fulfill the happiness duty, softening our appearance, smiling because or when we are perceived as too harsh. We smile as compensation, almost as if we are apologizing for existing at all.

Luckily things are not always as they appear. I might smile and be plotting, passing as happy, appearing to be working in agreement in order to work against an agreement. Or I might hold into the very figures (angry person of color, troublemaker, feminist killjoy) and let them spill their containers.

Let me end with a plea: sensitive snowflakes, we need you! We can build a movement out of those who seem too weak to bear much weight. Our tears can become a mountain, our anger a weapon; when we shatter, we matter.To react is to draw upon what is behind us. So often we are assumed to be overreacting when we react to these histories that have hardened as walls. Overreaction: when you react to what is not over.

We know from feminist histories how much political work is required to refuse the injunction to be positive. Shulamith Firestone is Dialectic of Sex describes her “dream action” for the women’s liberation movement as a smile boycott (Firestone 1970, 90).  She wants us to stop smiling until we have something to smile about. Perhaps we could call this action, following Lisa Millbank, a smile strike, to emphasize its collective nature.

Collectively we would strike by not smiling. Not smiling is an action when smiling is a requirement. You refuse to smile in order to meet an expectation that you should smile.

A smile strike is necessary to announce our disagreement, our unhappiness, with a system. It is time for a smile strike.

  1. My killjoy survival kit develops some of the arguments from this post, Self-Care as Warfare. I do not argue that we need to feel bad. I suggest that we need a different relation to bad feeling. The killjoy survival kit is the first conclusion to Living a Feminist Life (2017).


Ehrenreich, Barbara (2009). Smile or Die: How Positive Thinking Fooled America. Granta.

Friedan, Betty (1965). The Feminine Mystique. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

hooks, bell (2000). Feminist Theory: from Margin to Centre. London: Pluto Press.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell (2003). The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Second Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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

———-(1997). The Cancer Journals. Aunt Lute Books: San Francisco.

Muñoz, José Esteban  (1999). Disidentifications; Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics.  University of Minnesota Press.

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