Queer Fragility

Queer: a word with a history. A word that has been flung like a stone; picked up and hurled at us, a word we can claim for us. Queer: odd, strange, unseemly, disturbed, disturbing. Queer: a feeling, a sick feeling; feeling queer as feeling nausea. When we think of what this word has gathered, we gather around the word.  It is a fragile assembly. To create an assembly we would not begin with queers who are fragile although fragile queers might appear somewhere along the way. Queer fragility: to offer a meditation on fragility and how it can provide a queer connection, an odd, sometimes startling and always sensational connection, between what and who is deemed fragile.

In older uses of queer – queer to describe anything that is noticeable because it is odd – queer and fragility were often companions. A companion is a travelling companion. In one of George Eliot’s essays, “Three Months in Weimar” the narrator describes the sound of an old piano thus: “it’s tones now so queer and feeble like those of an invalided old woman whose voice could once make a heart beat with fond passion.” So: queer and feeble.

Feeble, frail, invalid, incapacitate, falter, weak, tearful, worn; tear; wear; queer too, queer is there, too.

These proximities tell a story. We might get in touch with things at the very point at which they, or we, are worn or worn down; those moments when we break or break down, when we shatter under the weight of history.

Crip, queer: shattering words. Carrie Sandahl teases out the “affinities and tensions” between crip and queer (1993: 26). Crip and queer: both these words have hurtful histories; they are words that drip with insult. They are words that are claimed, becoming pointed; becoming ways of pointing to something, because they keep alive that history: negation as political sensation.

This affinity and tension might be carried by the words themselves. For Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick what makes queer a “politically potent term” is how it cleaves to “childhood scenes of shame” (1993: 4). The potency of queer is what it cannot not bring up. Alison Kafer explores how the word “crip” is charged word. Drawing on Nancy Mairs’ essay on wanting people to wince at the word, she suggests “this desire to make people wince suggests an urge to shake things up, to jolt people out of their everyday understandings of bodies and minds, of normalcy and deviance” (2013: 15). Queer and crip: willful words that work by insisting on what they bring up; a charged history, a shattering history; they are shattering words.

Feminism too: tends to break things when said.

Shattering words. The sound of breaking glass.

A shattering can be evocative: it can bring strong images, memories, feelings, to mind.

After all we began with an evocation: the sound of an old piano evoking the sound of an “invalided old woman.” Could this evocation vibrate with affection? Could a heart beat with passion for what is wavering and quavering? Could we hear in valid, truth coming from strength, the violence of a history that demands something from those who cannot embody something?

Ableism: hearing you sound out of tune, a body as abrasion.

So queer and feeble: attuned to the sound of that sound.

Eli Clare’s Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation offers a sustained attention to fragility as a consequence of a world that is wearing, of a world that does not accommodate a body; of a world that does not provide a body with a home. Writing about his experience of cerebral palsy, Clare describes climbing up and down a mountain: “my feet simply don’t know the necessary balance. I lurch one from one rock to the next, catching myself repeatedly as I start to fall” alongside his experience of writing “the faster I try to write, the more the pen slides out of my control, muscles spasm, then contract trying to stop the tremors, my shoulder and upper arm painfully tight” (7). Writing, climbing: they are activities, a body doing things, trying things.

In Willful Subjects (2014) I described clumsiness as a queer ethics. Clumsiness is a crip as well as queer ethics; we have to create room for bodies that do not obey commands; that do not move in straight lines; that lose their balance. A body that is less stable is less supported by a ground that is less stable. If a world is organised into straight lines, if there are narrow spaces available to move around in (along a corridor or between that table and that wall), if tools are made for hands that can keep a firm grasp on things, then activities are harder for some to complete than others. Activities can bring you up against walls.

A body that wiggles about: deviating from an accepted path.

Clumsiness: when a world is what you bump into.

And the wall appears in Clare’s text as a place from which you can view a world that is alien: “I watched from the other side of a stone wall, a wall that was part self-preservation, part bones and blood of aloneness, part the impossible assumptions I could not shape by body around” (144). A stone wall: made out of a body that cannot be shaped by an assumption, a body that is not accommodated by a pronoun, he or she, which is at once an expectation of what a body can do and be. That or: violence more.

Clare describes how in this harsh and heavy world his most “sustaining relations” were with stones: “I collected stones –red, green, grey, rust, white speckled with black, black streaked with silver –and kept them in my pockets, their hard surfaces warming slowly to my body heat” (144-145).  And it is stones that Clare picks up, which give another sense of a body. From a shattering, a story can be told, one that finds in fragility the source of a connection.

Picking up the pieces of a life can be like picking up those stones; they are warmed by the heat of a body, finding life in a pocket; they; you, you too.

You too: when a word has been thrown at you, you do not expect to find a shelter there, to gather around. When you do, when you gather around an insult, you are not obeying an order. The word “obey” derives from the word “audience,” to give ear, to listen. You are disobeying by hearing an insult as an invitation to be somewhere. But of course sometimes a word does not provide shelter because of a history of being thrown, of how you are thrown. You do not stay; you hurry away.

In my book, Queer Phenomenology, I concluded  with a discussion of disorientation (1), of queerness as an oblique or slant-wise relation to a straight world. I choose not to call for disorientation because for some being thrown might be what leads you away from a word that is thrown at you. A word can seem like a world when it is not accommodating.

I began my conclusion “Disorientation and Queer Objects” with a quote from Merleau-Ponty.

The instability of levels produces not only the intellectual experience of disorder, but the vital experience of giddiness and nausea, which is the awareness of our own contingency and the horror with which it fills us’ (Merleau-Ponty 1962: 296).

And then I noted:

Moments of disorientation are indeed vital. They are bodily experiences that throw the world up, by throwing the body off its line. Disorientation as a bodily feeling can be undoing, and can shatter one’s sense of confidence in the ground, one’s belief that the ground on which we reside can support  the actions that make a life feel liveable. Such a feeling of shattering, or of being shattered, might persist and become a crisis. Or the feeling itself may pass, as the ground returns, or as we return to the ground. The body might get reoriented if the hand that reaches out finds something to steady an action. Or the hand might reach out and find nothing, and might grasp instead the indeterminacy of air. The body in losing its support might then be lost, undone, thrown.

Sometimes, disorientation is an ordinary feeling, or even a feeling that comes and goes as we move around during the day. I think we can learn from such ordinary moments. Say you are concentrating really hard. You focus, what is before you becomes the world. The edges of that world disappear as you zoom in.  The object – say the paper, and the thoughts that gather around the paper by gathering as lines on the paper– becomes what is given by losing its contours. The paper becomes worldly, which would even mean you lose site of the table. Then, behind you, someone calls out, says your name. As if by force of habit, you look up, you even turn around to face what is behind you. But as your bodily gestures move up, as you move around, you move out of the world, without simply falling into a new one. Such moments when you “switch” dimensions can be deeply disorientating. One moment does not follow another, as a sequence of spatial givens, which unfold as moments of time. They are moments in which you lose one perspective, but the  “loss” itself is not empty or waiting; it is an object, thick with presence.  You might even see black lines in front of your eyes as lines that block what is in front of you when you turn around. You experience the moment as loss, as the making present of something that is now absent (the presence of an absence). You blink, but it takes time for the world to acquire a new shape. You might even feel angry from being dislodged from the world you had inhabited as a contour-less world. You might even return the address with the frustration of: what is it? What is “it” that makes me lose what is before me?

So yes, those moments of switching dimensions can be disorientating. What do such moments of disorientation tell us? What do they do, and what can we do with them?

We can consider how queer politics might involve disorientation, without legislating disorientation as a politics. It is not the disorientation is always radical. Bodies that experience disorientation can be defensive, as they reach out for support, or as they search for a place to reground and re-orientate their relation to the world. So too, a politics that proceeds from disorientation can be conservative, depending on the “aims” of its gestures, depending on how it seeks to (re)ground itself. And, for sure, bodies that experience being out of place might need to be orientated, to find a place they feel comfortable in the world. The point is not whether or not we experience disorientation (for we will, and we do) but how such experiences can impact on the orientation of bodies and spaces, which is after all about how the things are “directed,” how they are shaped by the lines they follow. The point is what we do with such moments of disorientation, as well as what such moments can do, whether they can offer us the hope of new directions, and whether new directions are reason enough for hope.

In Living a Feminist Life, I returned to the question of orientation as a question of fragility (2),  queer fragility. Not to be accommodated is to become fragile: to be less supported by a world is to become more easily breakable. My aim was not to celebrate fragility but to register fragility as a consequence. I wanted to challenge how fragility can be used as a form of anticipatory causality, and thus as a defense mechanism (avoiding proximity to that which is anticipated to cause damage ).

I also wanted to show how fragility is also a way of telling a story about someone or something.

Fragility is generative: the quality assumed to belong to something is generated by the assumption.

So, for queers, it might be assumed you caused your own damage because you left the safety of a brightly lit path. For queers: we deviate from the path we  are supposed to follow. For queers: when damages are returned to you as a consequence of deviation. And we know: if you stayed on that path you would have been damaged in another way. That would have been: not the story usually told.

The brightly lit: dangerous to those deemed dangerous.

For some fragility is understood as caused by your own actions, as what follows an act of deviation.

Just deserts. It hurts.

So: fragility was a thread I picked up from the deviant paths of Queer Phenomenology, although I am not sure I realised this until now. In the conclusion to that book I turned to Sartre’s novel Nausea. A rather queer novel, I would say; still. Nausea could be described as a phenomenological description of disorientation, of someone losing their grip on the world. What is striking about this novel is how much the loss of grip is directed towards objects that gather around: “I must say how I see this table, the street, people, my packet of tobacco, since these are the things which have changed” (9). Here, again, the table appears first in a queer story. It is the things that are gathered in the way that they are, which reveal the disorientation, like an exercising of a ghost.

These these. The story moves on:

Something has happened to me: I cant doubt that any more. It came as an illness does, not like an ordinary certainty, not like anything obvious. It installed itself cunningly, little by little; I felt a little strange, a little awkward, and that was all….There is something new, for example, about my hands, a certain way of picking up my pipe or my fork. Or else it is the fork which has a certain way of getting itself picked up, I don’t know. Just now, when I was on the point of coming into my room, I stopped short because I felt in my hand a cold object which attracted my attention by means of a sort of personality. I opened my hand and looked: I was simply holding a doorknob (13).

We begin with the “me” as the place where something happens, a little strangeness, awkwardness that emerges over time, as if with a life of its own. The becoming strange of the body does not stay with “me.” For if it is my hands that are strange, then it is my hands as they express themselves in a gesture. Such gestures are precisely where my hands meet with objects, where they cease to be apart, but pick things up. So is it my hand or is it the fork that is different? What is so compelling to me about this account of “becoming queer” is how the strangeness that seems to reside somewhere between the body and the objects it is near is also what brings those objects to life, and makes them dance. So the doorknob when it is being what it is there to do (allow the body to open the door) is that – is even “just that.” But when the door knob is felt as other than what is it supposed to do, then it comes to have a tangible, sensuous quality, as a “cold object” or even one with a “personality.”

Perhaps the doorknob, rather like the stone, is warmed by proximity. Attention: can be warming.

The  objects that are gathered as gatherings of history -domesticated objects, such as doorknobs, pens, knives, and forks – are in a certain way overlooked. What makes them historical is how they are overlooked. Seeing such objects, as if for the first time involves wonder, it allows the object to breathe not through a forgetting of its history, but through allowing that history to come alive: how did you get here? How did I come to have you in my hand? How did we arrive at this place where such a handling is possible? To re-encounter objects as strange things is not to lose sight of the history, but to refuse to make them history by losing sight.

Queer objects might be a matter of how we attend to things, or what “things” can do, when they are in touch with other things. We might be talking in other words, of the queer effects of certain gatherings, which “things” appear to be oblique, to be “slipping away” insofar as they are losing their place, alongside other things, or where “things” seem out of place in their place alongside other things.

The object around which I have most gathered these thoughts has been the table. In a way, I have made the table a rather queer object by attending to it, by bringing an object that is often in the background to the front of my writing.  To move the “behind” to the “front” can have a queer effect. We could ask, for instance, whether queer tables are the tables around which queer bodies gather. It is certainly the case that tables can support queer gatherings: the times that we might gather around, eating, talking, loving, living and creating the spaces and times for our attachments. Queers have their tables for sure. Stories of queer kinship are full of tables.

Tables: they are rather queer things.

In Living a Feminist Life, the fragility of things held my attention, the fragility of things, queer things.  A broken jug: it spills. To spill: to cause something to fall from a container, often unintentionally. When we spill we reveal something. We spill the beans when we reveal something that is confidential; when we say something that we are not supposed to say. To spill derives from the word to spoil. The spiller is a spoil sport. This is why I described the feminist killjoy as a broken container. She flies off the handle. When she speaks, she spills. Perhaps it is the family table that she breaks. A queer table is where she ends up. Mopping up the spillage.

To spit is also to spill. Sometimes we encourage each other to spit it out because of the difficulty we have saying something. Words: they too can become queer things. We have to spill what is difficult to reveal.

Spit it out, spill it out.

Racism: when we spill, we spit.

We break open a container. We watch the words spill. They spill all over you.

It is a warming thought. And I think of Cherrie Moraga’s poem “The Welder.” Moraga speaks of heating being used to shape new elements, to create new shapes, “the intimacy of steel melting, the fire that makes sculpture of your lives, builds buildings” (1981: 219).  We build our own buildings when the world does not accommodate our desires. When you are blocked, when your very existence is prohibited or viewed with general suspicion or even just raised eyebrows, you have to come up with your own systems for getting things through. You might even have to come up with your own system for getting yourself through. Snap to it.

How inventive

Quite something

Not from nothing

Something from something

A kitchen table becomes a publishing house

We assemble ourselves around our own tables, kitchen tables, doing the work of community as ordinary conversation. A broken history might be how we got here, but in getting here we are doing something. We create our own support systems.

When we have to shelter from the harshness of a world we build a shelter

The effort required for those shelters to be built, brick by brick; she has a hand in it.


What a shelter

The roots; back to routes. Skelter from skelt: “to hasten, scatter hurriedly.” Scattered; shattered; confusion. The helter?

Just there for the rhyme.

Poetry in motion.

To build from the ruin; our building might seem ruined, when we build, we ruin. How easily though without foundations, without a stable ground, the walls come down. We keep them up; we keep each other up. We might then think of fragility not so much as the potential to lose something, fragility as loss, but as a quality of relations we acquire, or a quality of the building we build. Queer fragility: a quality of what is built. A fragile shelter has looser walls, made out of lighter materials; see how they move; it is a movement.

A movement is what is built to survive what has been built. Queer fragility: how we loosen our hold on things. How we mess things up. How we survive what is messed up.

(1) For an excellent recent discussion of disorientation and its relevance for moral life that draws on feminist philosophy see Harbin (2016).

(2) I discuss the question of fragility throughout Living a Feminist Life though especially in chapters 7 “Fragile Connections” and chapter 8 “Feminist Snap.” My lecture “feminism and fragility” drawn from the book was posted earlier here.


Eliot, George (1884). Essays and Leaves from a Notebook. Edinburgh: Blackwood.

Harbin, Ami (2016). Disorientation and Moral Life. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Kafer, Alison (2013). Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice (1962). The Phenomenology of Perception, trans. Colin Smith, London: Routledge Kegan and Paul.

Morago, Cherrie (1981). “The Welder,” in Cherrie Morago and Gloria Anzaldúa (eds). A Bridge Called by Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour. Watertown: Persephone Press.

Sandahl, Carrie (2002). “Considering Disability: Disability Phenomenology’s role in Revolutionizing Theatrical Space,” Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism. 16(2): 17-32.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. (1963). Nausea, trans. Robert Baldick, London: Penguin Books.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (1993). “Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel.” GLQ: 1, 1: 1-14.



Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Losing Confidence

Losing confidence: it can be a feeling of something gradually going away from you, being eroded. You sense the erosion. You might stumble, hesitate, falter; things might gradually unravel so you end up holding onto the barest of threads. It might be an experience in the present that throws things up, throws you off balance; or a memory of how you lost your way once before that comes back in a flash and catches you unaware. When you lose confidence it can feel like you are losing yourself: like you have gone into hiding from yourself.

Sometimes losing confidence is slow; other times losing confidence is sudden. In the conclusion to Queer Phenomenology I wrote of how disorientation “can shatter your sense of confidence in the ground” (2006: 157). Confidence can indeed shatter like glass. And when your confidence shatters, you are the one who ends up in pieces. In Living a Feminist Life I began picking up some of these pieces. I was writing about how you end up trying to put yourself back together again; how you can feel like a fragment of your former self. When your confidence is shattered it is not just you that feels different: the world appears different, those edges sharper, the wall harder, that ceiling higher; obstacles, those things that are in the way, appear larger, magnified.

Or when you have lost confidence in something or in someone, in a relationship, everything can come into focus; everything becomes significant; when she frowns, or turns away, or does not smile the way you expect her to: is that because she doesn’t want you anymore, is she telling you something? Questions, a wavering, a hesitation: when something gets wrapped up in doubt you can end up wrapped up in yourself. And then perhaps when you are all wrapped up, your anxiety that she is turning away means she turns away: you have left her nowhere else to turn.

Are you then creating a problem by sensing a problem?

The question itself can make you lose confidence.

Sometimes: we learn about something from losing something.

Confidence can be the quality of something that is in the world: a gesture can be more or less confident; we sense the difference from how the arm moves in the air. If to lose confidence is a faltering gesture that gesture has ripple effects. A loss can be passed around, losing confidence in each other, in a situation; a “we” comes to be at the moment we falter.

In an earlier post I reflected on how an experience of violence too can have effects on one’s confidence; you might feel smaller because of what has happened to you; you might try and take up less space. You learn to inhabit your body differently through this expectation that what lies ahead might be shattering. When you sense the world “out there” as a danger it is your relation to your own body that changes: you become more cautious, timid, you might withdraw in anticipation that what happened before might happen again.  It might be your own experiences that lead you here, to caution as withdrawal, but it might also what you have learnt from others. You are taught or told to be careful: to be full of care as to become anxious about the potential to be broken. You begin to learn that being careful, not having things like that happen to you, is a way of avoiding becoming damaged.  And you sense the consequence: if something happens you have failed to prevent it.  Losing confidence might be about the work we have to do to be; a loss of confidence that registers not only as bodily fragility but also in how the world registers as intrusion, as not providing a shelter or home.

Confidence might also involve passing: some have to pass as confident in order to pass through a space; along a street or a corridor. Passing as confident means: appearing as if you are sure you have a right to be there, being upright or firm. You might be putting on confidence like armor, as if you can be defended by appearing to be what you do not feel at all.

Not all of us have to pass as confident to pass through; not all of us have to pass to pass through. We might say, for instance, all women are passing as women: we pass into or through the category “women” by being assigned her or assigning ourselves as her. But if you do not constantly have your legitimacy thrown into question, if you are not asked whether you are a woman, constantly, repeatedly, if you do not have the door shut in your face when you try and enter that room, then you do not have to pass as women in the same way.  Passing is what you have to do because or when your legitimacy is in question. Trans women may have to pass in a way that some cis women do not: because of this constant questioning of legitimacy. To pass would not necessarily mean here to pass as women, as if trans women are not women: although the perception of trans women as not women has material life consequences. Juliet Jacques (2014) drawing on Julia Serano (2007) explores precisely this problem: how the passing narrative casts trans women as deceivers or as fraudulent.  But sometimes, as Jacques herself notes, passing might be what you have to do to avoid being harassed. To pass as cis is to pass through without being detected: or to try to. Passing might then require a certain kind of confidence: the creation of an impression of having a right to be where you are; who you are. You experience a requirement to justify your existence in the manner of your existence.

Confidence: a manner of existence. It is not surprising that confidence leads us to the question of manners. Confidence derives from the Latin confidentia “firmly trusting, bold” (com plus fidere). The word confidence rests on faith or trust. To be confident can thus mean to have trust in an expectation.

Confidence could thus be understood as an orientation toward the future even if it is experienced in the present: to be confident in something is to be confident of something: that what you wish to bring about can be brought about. When I am confident in myself I am confident that I can bring something about. Confidence might then be registered as a bodily boldness that carries something forward; it can be the strength of a conviction or the appearance of that strength. To lose confidence can then be to lose strength not because you become physically weaker but because your estimation of what you can do has weakened; you are not sure you can carry that thing; it is too heavy, your arm hurts, you waver; it falls, you fall. Or if you are passing as confident, to lose confidence would be that moment that passing is revealed; to come out as faltering.

We can hear from these simple descriptions how confidence matters. So much feminist work has been concerned with gender as a mechanism for distributing confidence; how girls are less confident in their own capacities than boys. And yet even from this sentence we can see see the problem of “zooming in” on confidence as an explanation of gender and power. It can imply that girls are their own obstacles, in the way of themselves; that if girls were just more confident a problem would be resolved (or even: a hierarchy dissolved). This confidence in confidence could be another way that women are made responsible for what happens to them; as if our task in challenging gender relations is to modify ourselves. We could be confident in what we can do but still not be able to do it; the world can throw something up that renders doing something impossible: possibility is not dependent on confidence alone, even if losing confidence can make something impossible that might otherwise have been possible.

We need to give confidence another kind of embodied history; we need to show that bodies have histories that “go all the way down,” and that histories shape bodies and how they matter (Butler 1993).(i)  Feminist phenomenology teaches how a lessening of confidence happens somewhere between body and world.  Iris Marion Young in her classic essay “Throwing Like a Girl,” describes how women often “lack confidence in their capacity to do what needs to be done” (2005: 34). As she goes on to note: “we decide beforehand – usually mistakenly – that the task is beyond us and thus give it less than our full effort” (34). Confidence even as a mistaken estimation of one’s abilities shapes an outcome; how a body reaches for something determines what can be reached. Because women are less confident, women might go for something with less conviction. When we fail, we have confirmed the estimation, however mistaken.

Gender becomes here a question of estimation, how some end up underestimating what they can do. Perhaps also: how some end up overestimating what they can do.

Under/over: gender as measurement.

We tend to work out how the sex/gender system works from those who register as an error message. Because of course, throwing like a girl is also an expectation: that we can tell girls are girls; that we can tell what girls are like, from how they throw. If a girl throws too strongly, too fast, too far, she is throwing like a boy. Then she becomes a crisis: her confidence would be unfeminine; her confidence would be over-confidence. Women who are confident are often judged as over-confident. In other words lacking confidence becomes an expectation; a lack can be how you are accomplishing something. Girls by throwing badly are performing gender well. Girl is being accomplished because of how she falters (although not all girls become girl). In other words throwing like a girl might be deemed a result of what she lacks, but she is supposed to be lacking; she is supposed to throw the way she does.

Sexism: a system for deciding whose confidence is warranted; whose not.

Sexism: a confidence system.

Sometimes we lose confidence because others do not have confidence in us in the first place. We can lose confidence before we acquire confidence, as if confidence was never ours to have.  This loss of confidence can be mistaken in the sense that: we might be able to do what we are not confident we can do.  Or maybe there is a past tense here: maybe we could have done what we assumed we could not do. Maybe now, given that assumption, given we have lived by it, through it, we cannot do it. A history of underestimation can shape what bodies “do do” and thus what they “can do.” A body can acquire the shape of a loss of confidence; a loss can be reproduced by being inherited.

Because it was assumed I could not, I did not. Because I did not, I cannot.

Feminism: we give a mistake a history. We talk about how it was.

We talk about how an assumption becomes a wall.

A wall: what stops you from doing something; what stops you from being something. A wall can feel internal, like a voice inside your own head that says don’t go there; you can’t do that. Even when a wall feels internal it does not begin there. You might have been told: you can’t do that. You won’t be able to do that. This lack of confidence might be attached to you being a girl, or you just being the being you are; not good enough, not smart enough, or just not, not enough; or too much, it is too much for you, you are too much; that too.  You might be defiant in the face of this lack of confidence. I can do that. I will be able to do that. But if those words are repeated, you can’t do that, you won’t be able to do that; they can become a wavering of your own will, a doubt; an uncertainty. A conviction I can transformed into a question: can I? When she is in question she begins to question herself. And maybe as you begin to question yourself, you don’t put yourself behind yourself to protect yourself from the possibility of not being able to do what you had thought you could do. In other words that mistake might be to protect yourself from the consequences of having faith in yourself. And then you don’t. And then you think I can’t. Your effort acquires the quality of the fragility that is put into the world by an expectation. You waver, you fall. And you confirm the expectation. A confirmation can be the hardening of an idea: it becomes a thing. When you encounter that thing, you become that thing.[i]

I understand how expectations can be encountered as solid things: I have been there. We need to share our stories of being there. I didn’t do as well at school as my sisters. And I would hear my father’s voice echoing across his time: his lack of confidence in my own abilities. One time he said to my sister when she got an A-, it could be worse you could get B’s like Sara. It could be worse: you could be worse; a B student. It is not even the letter, the grade, that matters; but the tone, the disappointment; the disparagement. When someone has a lack of confidence in you, someone who has authority, whose view you are supposed to respect, you can feel crushed. You meet their expectations in the lowering of your own glance; lower, less. Sometimes, we revolt against an expectation. Even then: how you are perceived as being shapes what you come to be: to revolt against something is to be shaped by what you are against.

And: that voice, that voice that speaks with confidence about not having confidence in this person or that person can be taken on by an institution. A voice that says she cannot do this; that lowers a general expectation of the capacities of some; that increases a general expectation of the capacities of others. Gender then becomes a system for distributing confidence in others. This is different from my earlier point: because I am suggesting that estimations of capacities are upheld by others before they are taken on or taken in. An institution too can be a series of gestures: someone can be carried forth by a conviction; an expectation, we sometimes call this reputation; others might be stopped by doubts in their capacities, a faltering that she might inherit, as she questions herself or as she has to work even harder to prove herself.

A perception can become a wall.

A wall can be what you perceive.

In another post I reflected on how sexual harassment works as a wall. You perceive that wall as a thing, but also as a series of actions that are confident; the words uttered in the seminar about her body, they are not even muttered because he is sure of himself; the touching of her body, often in the cold light of day, boldly, as if that touch is right; as if he has a right to touch. But those around you don’t see it. Or they do not appear to see it. You are sure it is wrong, but others do not notice, or they dismiss it, or shrug it off. Maybe you too begin to feel that the wall is inside your own head. It is happening all around you; and yet people seem to getting on with it, you can end up doubting yourself, estranged from yourself.  Note here: institutional confidence is what allows some gestures to become routine. And to lose confidence is to accept those gestures as routine.

Maybe you try not to have a problem. It is because we perceive this wall that we end up having to modify our perception.

This is another way that confidence is distributed. The more a worldview is supported, the less confidence you need to uphold it. There is confidence in the system. If you are trying to challenge that system you might need even more confidence than you would otherwise have needed. You face resistance and ridicule. The walls you come up against don’t even appear to others. The wall you speak of becomes a phantom wall. You have to hold on harder, be firmer in your conviction, because your conviction brings you up against a world. You then need to find others to share your confidence. This sense of confidence refers to trust, to secrets; those things we share that we do not (sometimes cannot) disclose.

Those who I have called affect aliens – those who are alienated by virtue of how they are affected – might need more confidence just to proceed. When you are less supported you have to push harder.

Less supported: we can think here of how actions require grounds. I referred above to a sentence from my book Queer Phenomenology about how disorientation “can shatter your sense of confidence in the ground” (2006: 157). When you cannot be confident that the ground is stable, your step falters. As I tried to describe in this book, this book that started me on some rather wandering trails of thought, by ground we can think not only of a surface upon which we tread but a support mechanism. Whiteness for example could be understood as a ground that supports those who can pass through it or into it. For those who do not pass into whiteness, you falter; your body is not supported. You might be stopped even by a question: where do you come from, as if to say, you are not from here. We learn from how questions fall. The loss of confidence in the ground is unevenly distributed because grounds are uneven: some bodies more than others have their involvement in the world called into crisis. This shows us how the world is more involved in some bodies than others as it takes such bodies as the contours of ordinary experience.

When your being is supported, when you go with the flow, you might not even notice the support system. I am rethinking here a support system as that which enables some to proceed with confidence. A flow is an effect of bodies going the same way. To go is to gather. A flow can be an effect of gatherings of all kinds: gatherings of tables, for instance, as kinship objects that support human gatherings. How many times have you been left waiting at a table whilst others are attended to right away? You don’t know why, but it keeps happening. Maybe it is just what happens, but questions hover like clouds: is it because I am a woman, because we are two women together; because we are lesbians; is it because I am brown? You have been passed over so often you lose confidence that you even know what is going on; but it keeps going on. It is work: having to keep working things out. And you have to become insistent to be the recipient of a social action, you might have to announce your presence, wave your arm, saying: “Here I am!” Arms tire out; bodies too.

You have to get your whole body behind an action.

We can pause here and return to Iris Marion Young’s description of “throwing like a girl.” She suggests that girls do not get their whole bodies behind the action: that is why girls throw less well. But one aspect of her account we could reflect upon is the extent to which it accepts that a girl when throwing like a girl throws in a way that is less good than a boy (in other words the extent to which it accepts the association of femininity and failure[ii]). It might seem obvious that the girl’s way of throwing is deficient: that the boy throws faster and further than the girl. But if we think of how the girl has to put so much energy into accomplishing things, because of the obstacles she encounters, could we not rethink her way of throwing as wisdom: she is saving her energy for more important things? Perhaps then what appears as a lack of confidence is just a sensible redistribution of energy: her action is more faltering, her attention wavering, because she is investing her time elsewhere.

Sometimes a girl throws like a girl because she lacks confidence in her abilities: though, as I noted earlier, this lack also becomes a style of feminine accomplishment. But it is possible that a girl throws like a girl because she deposits her desires, her whims, her wishes, her will, even, elsewhere?

Feminism: where else?

Although of course throwing like a feminist might mean something else entirely. This is a clue to what I mean by this something else: those who identify themselves as feminists are more likely to be perceived as overconfident. We can refuse the underestimation of our collective capacities. But we are not confident about that refusal because we know too well how collective capacities can become objects of institutional desire.

We need to throw our confidence in confidence into crisis. Maybe what confidence is doing depends upon what values we are upholding.

Feminism: it can be about losing confidence (in a world say).

Feminism: it can be about gaining confidence (in a world say).

You lose confidence in the world that rewards you for compliance.  But you also need to acquire confidence in order not to comply with that very world: you have to have confidence that you can survive the experience of challenging the system. And you are learning stuff along the way, about how the system works. And you can become bolder because of how you come to understand the situation. Consciousness can magnify problems, for sure, but consciousness might enable you to have confidence in a judgment: that this is wrong, that this wall is hard.  Feminism can allow you to reinhabit not only your own past and your own body but the world as such. You might over time in becoming aware of how you have lessened your own space give yourself permission to take up more space; to expand your own reach. It is not necessarily the case that we take up this permission simply by giving ourselves permission. It does take time, to reinhabit the body, to become less wary, to acquire that confidence.

Confidence can be needed to hold onto a view that puts you at odds with those around you. But what about the confidence that allows us to hold onto a view that is shared? Sometimes in order to become a feminist we need to lose confidence in a view that we have been encouraged to hold dear: we might need to acquire confidence that we can go on without that view. Sometimes we need to lose confidence or even our trust in a world that  diminishing what it is we can be. Sometimes a new thought, a starting again, requires losing confidence.

 I once put it like this: to lose confidence is the gift of a new thought.

Feminist confidence: the process through which we validate and support each other in our project of dismantling a world. We have to have a certain confidence to do this kind of work: to use words like “sexism” and “racism” for example.  A feminist movement thus requires that we acquire feminist tendencies, a willingness to keep going despite or even because of what we come up against. We could think of this process as acquiring feminist confidence: to be feminist and do feminism is a bold gesture.  If we tend toward the world in a feminist way, if we repeat that tending, again and again, we acquire feminist confidence. We still have to lose confidence to acquire that confidence.

The acquisition of feminist confidence, to become that sort of girl or woman, the wrong sort, or bad sort, the one who speaks her mind, who writes her name, who raises her arm in protest, is necessary for a feminist movement. But of course being the wrong sort does not make us right. Much injustice can be and has been committed by those who think of themselves as the wrong sort: whether the wrong sort of women or the wrong sort of feminists. There is no guarantee that in struggling for justice we ourselves will be just. We have to hesitate, to tamper the strength of our tendencies with doubt; to waver when we are sure, or even because we are sure. A feminist movement that proceeds with too much confidence has cost us too much already.

We falter with feminist conviction. As we must.


Ahmed, Sara (1996). Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke University Press.

Butler, Judith (1993). Bodies that Matter: On the Discursive Limits of “Sex.” London: Routledge.

Dahl, Ulrika (2015). “Sexism: A Femme-inist Perspective,” New Formations, 86: 54-73.

Gatens, Moira (1983). “The Critique of the Sex/Gender Distinction” in Judith Allen And Paul Patton (ed), Beyond Marxism: Interventions After Marx. Sydney Interventions. pp.143-160.

Serano, Julia (2007). Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman in Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Berkeley, CA; Seal Press.

Young, Iris Marion (2005). Female Body Experience. Oxford University Press.

[i] In Living a Feminist Life I stress that we need to think of sex and gender in these terms: as embodied histories (recent attempts to bracket biological sex from history by some trans exclusionary feminists needs to be challenged by feminists). Judith Butler (1993) taught us to think of “girling” as a social mechanism. A baby is born: we might say “it’s a girl!” or “it’s a boy!” Even before birth: we might watch on a screen to see whether it’s a girl or boy, where it is a girl and boy is decided by virtue of the absence or presence of a penis. The attachment to gender rests from the very beginning on phallocentrism: on the penis as the decider of the future, two sexes as two paths; the sexual binary as fate, as fated, as fatalism. Even when we critique the sex-gender distinction, even when we learn from feminist critiques of this distinction (Gatens 1983; Butler 1990), we know that that distinction works often as a form of sequencing: as if from sex, gender follows. We could call this sequencing “gender fatalism,” as implied by the assumption that “boys will be boys.” Sex is thus given as an assignment; homework. No wonder mere description (it’s a girl, it’s a boy!) provides the basis of a task (being boy! being girl!), as well as a command (you will be boy! you will be girl!). To receive an assignment is to be a given a sign: boy or girl. This “or” too is doing something, registering as opposition; one or the other. A sign: what means or denotes something. Right from the very beginning matter and meaning are deeply entangled; it is not matter (sex), then meaning (gender). You are in being assigned x or y also being assigned to a group; an assignment is what you receive from others that will determinate how you are positioned in relation to others. We are more than these assignments right from the beginning. This is after all feminist hope: we do not have to live by other people’s assignments.

[ii] Of course losing confidence does not always refer us back to ourselves. We might lose confidence that we can do something because we don’t have confidence in something or even someone. I remember when I had an old car that would struggle to start on a cold winter morning. I had little confidence it would start. I have no doubt that lack of confidence registered in my desperate effort to get the car to start; that losing confidence might have had something to do with how it would not start. When we lose confidence, our estimation of things can be confirmed. A loss can be a loop.

[iii] See also Ulrika Dahl (2015) for an important queer femme critique of how feminists associate femininity with failure.


Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

You Are Oppressing Me!

Student activists are increasingly being identified as threats, whether to universities as institutions of knowledge, democracy or freedom of speech. Stories in the media circulate about students liberally using illiberal tactics such as no platforming. As I pointed out in a previous post You are Oppressing Us (this post is really part 2 of that one: an us becomes a me) many of the reported instances of “no platforming” are not in fact instances of “no platforming.” Students are using multiple tactics to challenge who speaks and what is being said. They are exercising their freedom of expression to protest against how others are expressing themselves: by not turning up at events, organizing alternative events at the same time; by turning up and walking out; by not sharing platforms with those whose views or conduct they find objectionable. I would say that the figure of the no-platforming student works to conceal what is worthy of our optimism: that students care about how worlds are being reproduced by institutions such as universities; that they are not passively accepting the terms or conditions of debate but are willing to stand up, to speak out; to fight to change those terms.

The figure of the no-platforming or censoring student,which operates alongside other figures such as the over-sensitive student as I discuss here, circulates not only because of who it demonizes but who it protects. Those who are protected are often those who are represented as censored. Because: when a critique is heard as censorship a critique is not heard. In fact the allegation of censorship is often what is censoring; what stops a critique from staying in circulation.

So we have yet another round of media reports this time about the “no platforming” of the “veteran gay activist” Peter Tatchell by Fran Cowling who is the LGBT officer for the NUS. Tatchell in his own tweets about these media reports uses words like “McCarthyism,” and “witch hunting” (as well as “sectarianism”). He has since written an article in The Telegraph where he uses these terms and in which he describes himself as a “victim.” McCarthyism of course not only refers to the use of unfair allegations to stifle dissent but derives from a specific moment in time: it was about how the State used allegations of communism to stifle dissenting voices by removing persons from their office. This use of words implies: that students are now in the position of the State wielding their power against radicals and dissenters whose own livelihood and personhood is under threat.

Students as the State: Really? Yes, really.

This is yet another instance of what is reported in the press as an example of “no platforming” is in fact not “no platforming” all. The person concerned refused to share a platform with Peter Tatchell. They did not even make a public statement giving a rationale for their decision in which they used the offending words “racism” or “transphobia.”

Now: refusing to share a platform is not “no platforming.” In fact to refuse to share a platform is to give up that platform yourself.

Many of those who say they are no platformed are the same those who have many platforms available to them. In fact we are learning from how many stories are now in circulation about this episode that claims that individuals are no platformed (whether made by the individuals themselves or by others on their behalf) can be how individuals acquires even more platforms.

No platform (as a claim) = more platforms.

So how and why did this story even become a story? The practice of not sharing platforms is commonplace. I have refused to share many platforms with different speakers myself. This is not because I do not or cannot deal with those with viewpoints different from my own. I am a full-time academic, I would not have anywhere to go if that was my reason! It is because sharing a platform requires being alongside before you can position yourself for or against.  It can be a legitimating of a viewpoint as worthy of being debated. Racism is often presented in these terms: as just another viewpoint that can be expressed at the happy table of diversity. I refuse that table. I always send explanations of my decision to event organisers; I always take the time to explain why I do not wish to share a platform with such and such a speaker. I am willing to use the word “racism” in my explanation of my decision when racism is the explanation of my decision. I consider these emails confidential: I  do not want to be in a dialogue with someone about why I do not want to be in a dialogue with someone! Perhaps if some of these emails were shared with that someone, or leaked to a third party, I could end up in trouble; although I am not sure I would because, I suspect, my position (as a professor) gives me some protection; in my experience, at least, words tend to cause more trouble for those who are more precarious.

So this story became a story because emails that were not intended for public circulation were disclosed to the media. There were at least two key moments when a correspondence is turned into a story: when the event organisers shared the emails with Peter Tatchell and his team, and when Peter Tatchell and his team either shared emails or disclosed their content to a media source. My own personal view is that both moments involved parties making decisions that are breaches of the usual ethics that surround the organization of events.

We can tell from the kind of stories that have circulated about how the story came to be a story. The media reports typically frame Peter Tatchell not only as the victim but also as the savior/hero (a “national treasure” in the Guardian article linked above, no less). The various media articles uniformly ask us – the readers, the public – to be grateful to Tatchell for his long years of dedication and sacrifice for human rights. Student activists then appear as spoiled and ungrateful children; willful children, perhaps, whose concerns about, say, transphobia and racism, are interpreted as a screen through which they mask their own will and desires.

It is quite clear that this story is being told from a certain point of view.  We are given the story as a way of being given that view.

The stories read like a PR campaign. Perhaps they read like a PR campaign, because they are a PR campaign.

We are watching the machinery; clunk, clunk.

Tatchell tweets the same tweet to many parties about how the student activist concerned refuses to provide evidence of his “transphobia” and “racism” because there is no evidence to provide.  I want to focus on the question of racism “or the use of racist language” because this is what I work on.  Just as an aside here: that the Guardian article linked above uses the expression “racism or the use of racist language” implies to me that the emails refer to “the use of racist language” (why else this or?). If that is the case, then to represent the story as Tatchell being accused of racism is already misleading or we just say it is leading (it is leading us to hear racism in a certain way). As I will try to show to hear racism as accusatory – as a claim that can be or should be treated as libelous – is to participate in a silencing mechanism.

I want to say before I proceed that I do not consider myself outside the problem I will be describing in the following sections. We can all become the problem. There is no bigger problem than those who think of themselves as a solution. And I know what it is like to be the object of critique. It can be hurtful and it is easy to become defensive. Recently for example a student used the word “transmisogyny,” to describe problems with a panel I was organizing. I immediately felt defensive. I wanted to announce my commitments! As a teacher my first principle is: treat your first reactions as pedagogy.  I learnt from my own defensiveness about how I was participating in something that I did not want to reproduce. Not wanting to reproduce something is no guarantee that you are not participating in something and can even allow you to participate in something (good intentions, in other words, can function as a safety net). Having realized this, I could have approached this student and asked her to enter into a dialogue. I could have asked to learn from her. But transmisogyny can be reproduced by the very expectation that I as a cis woman should be taught by a trans woman about it; that she spend her time on me as well as with me. I have had this happen to me with racism: white people expecting me to teach them.  Diversity work is the work of having to teach others about themselves: it is exhausting and it is what we might call a reproductive mechanism (it reproduces the relation being critiqued in the requirement to critique the relation).

It is still risky to present this example in this way because it can sound triumphant: look at me, see what I have learnt! We cannot make ourselves heroes in our melodrama without losing something, including insight. There is too much difficult work to be done; too much left to do. We can all get things wrong; we need to attend to how we get things wrong when we do.

To write from a position of self-defense in relation to transphobia (as a cis person) and racism (as a white person) is not adequate, if I can be allowed this underdescription of the problem of who becomes the solution.

Now to the purpose of this post: we have been here before.

In the past Tatchell has sent out a challenge to provide evidence of racism or his use of racist language. In the past I have taken up that challenge. I want to share in the remainder of this blog what I have written elsewhere about racism in relation to Tatchell’s work – since 2008 when I posted a comment on a website that was then shared on Alana Lentin’s blog. That comment was then reworked as a section of chapter 5 “Speaking about Racism,” from my book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012) and in an article published in a special issue of Feminist Legal Studies (2011). I then wrote again about the issue of racism in relation to Tatchell’s work in chapter 4 of Willful Subjects. I am going to share parts of this written work here so that it is more accessible to others (I have made some cuts and a few new additions). We need other stories to circulate, ones that counter the story that has been circulating within the press.

My point is not to make this singular instance be what the story of racism in the LGBT movement is about. That is never the point. It is the bigger picture that matters. From instances we learn about worlds.

Whatever you think, I want you to note that there is a long history of challenges made against Peter Tatchell on the grounds of racism: from many activists and scholars including from queers and trans people of color in Europe (some of which I will be citing in this post) and African human rights LGBTI defenders. This history is relevant because it demonstrates a constancy of critical reflection on the kind of work being done.

I would add one final note: in my view the most serious problem derives from the manner of the responses to challenges and critiques and to those who have made them.

Racism and Censorship[i]

 In 2008 I was pleased to write an endorsement of the collection Out of Place: Interrogating Silences in Queerness/Raciality, edited by Adi Kuntsman and Esperanza Miyake. In my endorsement I described Out of Place as “a bold collection of essays that teaches us to think about what happens and can happen at the points where queerness and raciality meet. These meeting points can be startling, powerful, violent, oppressive and enabling. From reflections on forms of violence, terror and security, to considerations of how whiteness coheres in space, from accounts of the life worlds of queers and trans of colour, to critical engagement with debates about methodology, experience and activism, this book brings together some powerful new voices. The landscape of queer and critical race studies might look quite different if we listen well.”  As a queer academic of color based in the UK, it was indeed exciting to have this collection in my hands: to sense the emergence of a new scholarship premised on a will to think sexuality and race together, and to ask hard questions about the complicity of some forms of queer activism with a not-so-new world order based on Euro-American hegemony. My view (then and now) was that this would be a key publication for queer studies and critical race studies in the UK and beyond.

I was thus disappointed in 2009 to hear from the editors that the book was not going to be reissued and that it was now officially out of print. I was concerned to hear that the publishers had received complaints about the chapter by Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem, entitled “Gay Imperialism: Gender and Sexuality Discourse in the War on Terror,” from Peter Tatchell and his legal team. The chapter offers a critique of the work Tatchell and OutRage! as an instance of a wider phenomenon they name  “gay imperialism.” The chapter has been described by Tatchell as “false and libelous.”  We can pause here and consider what the term “libelous” is doing in an act of description. To describe something as “libelous” is to evoke the spectre of the law. A libelous text would not stand up to the weight of the law. Even to describe a book as libelous can be to threaten it with the law.[ii]

Before a proper discussion about these complaints with the editors or authors, the publisher issued a formal apology to Tatchell, based on a set of counter-assertions about Tatchell and OutRage!. These counter-assertions included: that he has never “claimed the role of liberator and expert of Gay Muslims”; “that he is not Islamaphobic”; “that neither he nor Outrage are racist” and “that they have not engaged in racial politics,” and so on. As “counter-assertions” these assertions counter what are assumed to be the “assertions” of the chapter. The apology effectively aligned the publisher with Tatchell, in such a way that the publisher simultaneously aligned themselves against the authors of the chapter of the book they have published. The decision not to reprint the book is now impossible to separate from the decision to apologise to Tatchell.  As Aren Aizura (2009), Johanna Rothe (2009) and Umut Erel and Christian Klesse (2009) have pointed out the book has in effect been censored from existence. Further, the censorship of the book has been directed towards the critique of gay imperialism in particular. Note that censorship as a practice does not necessarily involve an individual actor who is doing the censoring (though it can do). To censor is to delete what is objectionable. The objection to this paper has enabled the deletion of a book.

I had been wondering about how I could respond to these events, when I read the critical accounts of censorship offered by Aizura, Rothe and Erel and Klesse. I was extremely grateful to them and to others for writing about the politics of the apology and for making explicit how racism comes up as a mode of response to critiques of racism. There are huge risks in writing or speaking about racism. Even to exercise the critical vocabulary of racism can generate a set of defenses, such that an exchange ends up being about those defenses rather than about racism (which is how such defenses are successful).  I should also admit I experienced a sense of tiredness – we might call this political fatigue – as I witnessed the events I am describing unfold. The apology as a script seemed familiar: too familiar to be rehearsed; yet so familiar it sounded like a rehearsal. We can learn from how responses to critiques of racism sound like rehearsals. It is as if there is a script that is written in advance; it is as if the very point of the script is to block the critique of racism from getting through.

When I read Tatchell’s own response to the critics, entitled “Academics Smear Peter Tatchell,”[iii] it became very clear that even the critiques of his response to the critique of racism were being blocked from getting through. Tatchell claims that many of his “detractors” were “spreading further smears.” We probably think we know what it means to “spread smears.” “To smear” originally meant to spread or daub with a sticky, greasy, or dirty substance, but has now come to mean “to stain or attempt to destroy a reputation.” So these criticisms of the censorship of Gay Imperialism are read as attempts to destroy Tatchell’s reputation, as a kind of “covering over” with dirt. In fact the critiques that Tatchell is referring to are hard to describe as smears.[iv] Not only that: they actually anticipate the defence made by Tatchell, as they explore the problem of how the critique of racism offered in the original paper had been displaced by being heard as accusatory, as being about individual reputation.  We can note here that Tatchell’s response employed the exact discursive tactics challenged by the critiques by describing the critiques as accusations of censorship: “For defending myself against untrue accusations, I am now accused of ‘censorship.’“[v] In fact the critiques of the censorship of Gay Imperialism did not accuse Tatchell himself of censorship: in different, but related ways, they argue that the book has been censored in part because of the decision by the publishers, which as a decision can be located with the problematic terrain examined by the original article.

Responses to critiques of racism can take the form of counter-assertion (“how can you accuse me of racism,” “some of my best friends are Black”, “I did good work for them,” etc.). These counter-assertions might also offer an assertion of a given person’s credentials. Counter-assertions are often stronger than countering the original assertion in the form of a negative claim (“I am not racist”); they often make additional assertions in the form of a positive claim (“I am anti-racist”). These responses fail to respond to the actual critique of racism as they take the form of self-recognition (“I don’t recognize myself in the critique of racism”; “I recognize myself as an anti-racist”).  To respond to a critique requires not referring what is said or written back to one self but engaging more closely with what is being asserted.  When self-reference happens too quickly (when someone responds by defending themselves against a critique by hearing that critique as an attack on their credentials), the opportunity for an engagement is immediately lost. We could describe the censorship of the critique of gay imperialism as the loss of an opportunity.

[I want to add something here. Note that the assumption that we have to engage with views we oppose misses how engagement does not happen because of how some views are asserted. I have no doubt that engaging with people who cannot respond to critiques of their work is not an engagement but yet another opportunity for them to assert their views. This is why I often refuse some engagements. I regularly talk to people I disagree with if I am confident than an engagement is possible.]

One difficulty here is that responses to racism tend to exercise the figure of “the racist” as the one who can be charged and brought before the law.  The very appearance of this figure is what allows a reduction of racism to an individual person who suffers from a false set of beliefs.  The figure can do a great deal of work: it is relatively easy for someone to respond to a critique of racism by insisting or even showing they are not that figure (unless they are say, a member of the BNP, and even then the new vocabularies of the BNP might allow someone to say something like: “I am not racist, I just love this country”). The reduction of racism to the figure of “the racist” allows structural or institutional forms of racism to recede from view, by projecting racism onto a figure that is easily discarded (not only as someone who is “not me,” but also as someone who is “not us,” who does not represent a cultural or institutional norm).  Critiques of racism are heard as personal attacks on reputation (repeat: “how can you call me that?”), such that one of the biggest accusations you can make is the very accusation that you are accusing someone of racism. As Fiona Nicoll suggests “the very idea of suggesting that someone might be racist has been elevated into a crime to rival (if not displace) racism itself” (2004: 20).  The reduction of racism to an accusation is part of the displacement and thus reproduction of racism. Indeed, one of the best ways you can deflect attention from racism is to hear racism as an accusation. When racism is heard as accusation, public relations becomes the exercise: the response takes the form of a defense of individual or institutional reputation.

Evidence of Racism[vi]

As I noted earlier in the article “Academics smear Peter Tatchell,” we are invited to find evidence of “Islamaphobia, racism or support for imperialist wars or the ‘war on terror’” in the articles that can be downloaded from Tatchell’s website. I decided that the best way I could respond would be to take up Tatchell’s invitation. Reading through these articles, I appreciated just how important a critical response to the material remains in circulation. Many of the articles including: “Their Multiculturalism and Ours”, “Why has the left gone soft on human rights?”; “The New Dark Ages” and “Islamic Fundamentalism in Britain” show serious problems in terms of their liberal employment of racialised vocabularies.  Before I refer to examples from these pieces, however, I want to pause and reflect more on what it means to talk about racism: and in particular what it means to think about how racism operates in language. I will use the occasion of responding to this material as an opportunity to reflect on some of the complex (and not so complex) ways in which racism operates. In doing so, I will be making my own rehearsals: going over or repeating arguments that might seem familiar about how racism works particularly through its re-attribution as a problem of culture. If critiques of racism are not working, are not getting through, then it is indeed time for repetition.

So what about racism in speech? What do we even mean by racist speech? I want to stress here that racism in speech – or even racist speech – does not simply take the form of explicit articulation of ideas of racial superiority (though it can take this form). Indeed, racism in speech often works precisely because such associations do not need to be made explicit.  An example of this can be found in discourses around the “war on terror.”  Politicians can make an explicit argument that “this is not a war against Islam,” as they often do. However in the same speech they might use the term “Islamic terrorists,” indeed that term will be repeated, often in a very casual way. The term can work to associate Islam with terror through the mere proximity of the words. The repetition of the proximity makes the association “essential.”  A repetition of a proximity is an affective mechanism: the word “Islam” become sticky; it comes to carry the value of the words that it is placed near. Saying just the word “Islam” can then be enough to generate terror.  In other words, the stickiness of proximities congeals as attribute, without an explicit act of attribution having to be made (for a discussion of “sticky signs” see Ahmed 2004). Even if an argument is explicitly made that Islam does not equal terrorism, an implicit association between Islam and terror is sustained.

The process of attribution in turn is bound up with the justification of action.  Attributions can be negative (x = cause of terror, oppression) but also positive (x = cause of freedom, modernity). The language of freedom can thus be exercised in justifications of war, as if freedom itself is a cultural attribute: what “we have,” and as what can be given or forced upon others.[vii] This is how a war on terror can be justified as freedom from oppression/violence. Freedom might refer here not only to freedom from oppressive regimes, or freedom understood in terms of its assumed kinship to democratic forms of government, but also the freedom of women and sexual minorities. One of the important contributions of the original chapter by Jin Haritaworn, Tamsila Tauqir and Esra Erdem (2008) was to show how the very language of gender equality and sexual freedom can become a technology for distinguishing “the West” from its others, in particular from the Islamic other. Words such as “freedom” become a mode of subject constitution. As Judith Butler also describes “a certain version and deployment about the notion of ‘freedom’ can be used as an instrument of bigotry and coercion. This happens most frightfully when women’s sexual freedom or the freedom of expression and association for lesbian and gay people is involved instrumentally to wage a cultural assault on Islam” (2009: 209).

It is indeed frightening when the terms that have been central to social movements to which we are attached are the same terms used to wage war. We do not need to withdraw our commitment to these terms; nor do we need to assume they are inherently problematic. But we do need to think through the significance of their utility.  Jasbir Puar (2007) has astutely described the forms of lesbian and gay politics that exercise (and even seek to benefit from) an opposition between sexual freedom and Islam as “homonationalism.” We must indeed be critical of any complicity between a minority project and a state project. Queer politics needs to make explicit how the languages of freedom, including sexual freedom, can be mobilized in the war on terror, and can be used to justify the extension of state racism.  Not only does sexual freedom become a cultural attribute of the West, but sexual unfreedom and sexual backwardness becomes an attribute of Islam. If liberation becomes liberation from an attribute, and that attribute is made cultural, then liberation becomes liberation from culture. For queer Muslims or queers from Muslim backgrounds this is familiar: it is assumed in becoming queer you have to be freed (by white queer communities) from your family/culture/tradition.

When governments justify war on the grounds of freedom from oppressive regimes, it helps to recognize that these justifications have a history, to refuse to hear them as “new.” As Gayatri Spivak taught us, the British empire itself was justified in these terms. Her description remains extraordinary for its precision: “white men saving brown women from brown men” (1988: 297). Homophobia too can be exercised as what “the others” need liberating from: we can reformulate her description as “white queers saving brown queers from brown straights.”  The politics of attribution is thus a central mechanism for establishing the moral ground for war. When homophobia is attributed to Islam, it becomes a cultural attribute. Homophobia would then be viewed as intrinsic to Islam, as a cultural attribute, but homophobia in the West would be viewed as extrinsic, as an individual attribute.

When freedom is used as a justification for war and empire, it too can become a cultural attribute: what we have; what we give them; what they must have.  We can learn from how racism can be exercised by or even as the language of freedom. When we are dealing with language and power we are dealing with how power often does not reveal itself: power becomes the capacity not simply to regulate speech but to generate ideas through proximity: freedom would be put near other terms, giving them both value and force.  For example, freedom of speech has recently come to be translated into “the freedom to be offensive.”  These freedoms become qualities attached to some rather than others. My own work on Islamaphobia has examined how “being hurt or offended” by racism becomes seen as the “problem” of Muslims who don’t integrate, such that Islam becomes what offends “our freedom,” what challenges our freedom (Ahmed 2010: 142-148).  None of these associations have to be articulated as a viewpoints, nothing has to be explicitly said.

It might be helpful to point out that homophobic speech can also work like this by a withdrawal from the necessity to articulate a viewpoint: for example, someone does not have to be anti-gay by saying “all gays are pedophiles” or “all gays endanger the well-being of our children,” all they need to do is put the category of pedophilia near to the category of homosexual to create this effect. Or note how if a lesbian or gay person is involved in child abuse, the category of lesbian or gay will often be made explicit in media reporting, which becomes an implicit invitation to make being lesbian and gay part of the problem: but when a heterosexual person is involved in child abuse (much more commonly) their heterosexuality is less likely to be brought up in the description, which allows heterosexuality to disappear from the problem. The way in which problems are presented makes some people and not others into problems. A critical and complex understanding of language and power is needed to get at this mechanism. We must take the time we need to get at this.

I would argue that Peter Tatchell’s writings on Islam and multiculturalism repeat and reproduce many “problematic proximities” between Islam and violence, and thus participate in the culture of Islamaphobia. Haritaworn, Tauqir and Erdem in their chapter show this: they point out how, for example, in one of his articles Tatchell makes six comparisons between the Muslim Council and the BNP, suggesting that the language of these two groups is “barely distinguishable” (2008: 80-81). We learn from the inability to distinguish between these groups: the terms “Muslim” and “fascism” become barely distinguishable in this reading of their terms as “barely distinguishable.”  Even if there is no explicit claim that Muslims are fascists, the repetition of the proximity generates its own claim. The social diagnostics of homophobia translates swiftly into a racial diagnostics. The terms we use can make the translation for us.

Consider Tatchell’s article, “Far Left Collusion with Islamo-Fascism.” The term “Islamo-Fascism” makes exactly this translation. I would describe this term (without hesitation) as a racist term, where the availability of this term as a singular term is a condensation of a history. The proximity between the two words “Islamo” and “Fascism” is signaled in the abbreviation of the dash. It is just a small line that gets us from one to the other. The term “Islamo-Fascism” unsurprisingly was exercised a great deal in official justifications of the war on terror, performing a similar function to the term “Islamic terrorists” that I discussed earlier. The nearness of the words does the work of argument without having to make an argument: Islamo – fascism as Islamo = fascism.

One of Tatchell’s primary motifs about the politics of the left – that they are “going soft” – needs to be challenged. The rhetoric of “going soft” is of course often exercised within mainstream politics (both Tory and Labour): going soft on immigration would be a case in point. For Tatchell the left is going soft on human rights. What can this mean? One has to note that many in the left (activists as well as scholars) have historically been critical of the language of human rights given that human rights often assume the “abstract individual” as the primary subject of politics (an individual who is abstracted from the qualities of some more than others); and given that rights discourse has been used to justify acts of violence. We need as well to remind ourselves of the reasons why anti-racist activists and scholars have been critical of the languages of universalism (see my post on what I call “melancholic universalism” for a discussion of some of these reasons). Note, I am not saying that this is the only way that rights discourse has been used but I am suggesting we need to understand the utility of rights discourse to imperialism. My own view is that rights discourse can be useful for pragmatic reasons: it is a question of how it is used, by whom, and for what purpose. But the idea that the left is going soft on human rights is simply a failure to recognize any of these histories of internal critique.

The construction of “the left” and its failures within Tatchell’s writing does its own work. Another example: the article “Why has the Left Gone Soft on Human rights” suggests that the left’s “perverse interpretation of multiculturalism” has “resulted in race and religion ruling the roost in a tainted hierarchy of oppression.” The implication here is that “political correctness” (which would be a fair translation of this perversity) about “race and religion” have prevented those in the left from challenging sexism and homophobia in minority cultures. What is so odd about the timing of this utterance is that multiculturalism is increasingly and officially being articulated as a problem (what Tatchell is describing is hardly a dominant view). Multiculturalism is officially described as a problem because of how it is assumed to encourage segregation. The so-called failure of integration is easily and often narrated as the failure of ethnic minorities to integrate (not the failure of , say, the white upper classes to integrate).  The failure of multiculturalism in Tatchell’s article is identified with the failure to be critical of minority cultures (for their homophobia, sexism etc.). The problem with multiculturalism becomes not only a problem with minorities, but also because it prevents us from speaking of them as a problem.  In other words, multiculturalism becomes a problem because it prevents “us” from being critical of minorities. We might note a performative contradiction at work here: a viewpoint that we cannot be critical of minority cultures is offered as a way of being critical of minority cultures.

By implication the new minority position becomes the position which critiques minority cultures: the new minority becomes those who are “being hard” on minority cultures rather than “being soft” on them.  Crucial to what I would call “the inflationary nature” of this logic is the argument that racism is taken more seriously than homophobia (“ruling the roost”). I believe homophobia should be taken seriously, but the idea that racism is being taken seriously “over” homophobia needs to be challenged: not only is racism often protected under the banner of freedom of speech; but racism as a set of practices can be concealed by the very discourses of equality that are supposedly signs of racism being taken seriously (for discussion  see Ahmed 2012). And that is just the polite forms of racism.

Furthermore, as Haritaworn, Tauqir and Erdem showed in their chapter, the very narrative that “race and religion” is privileged over sexuality as an axis of oppression becomes a means of suggesting that ethnic minorities are privileged over sexual minorities (2008: 81). Such a narrative immediately constitutes these groups as being in opposition: as if there is no overlap, as if there are no sexual minorities who are also ethnic minorities. Queers of colour can disorder this political order by entering the debate as subjects with our own voices. The idea that race is taken “more seriously” only makes sense from the point of view of those who can inhabit whiteness, where inhabitance is also about the exercise of privilege (a sign of privilege is not noticing one’s privilege).  The experience of racism teaches you the myriad and complex ways in which racism is not visible to those who do not experience it. Much of this experience I would describe as the everyday experience of not being white in a world that assumes whiteness as a norm. To inhabit whiteness as a white person can mean not coming up against race in how you encounter others in everyday and institutional spaces. Put simply (and clearly it is still the time to make this simple point): white queer subjects might be very aware of heteronormativity because of being queer (queerness as estrangement from social and sexual norms) but not be aware of whiteness because of being white (whiteness as an alignment with social and racial norms). Taking racism seriously is what we must aim for, and part of this seriousness needs to be the recognition of what we might call “institutional whiteness.”

In another article entitled “Their Multiculturalism and Ours,” Tatchell suggests that the left has “gone soft” on its commitment to human rights because they are “paralysed by fear of being branded racist.” He then suggests that “allegations of ‘Islamaphobia’ and racism are increasingly manufactured.” Racism becomes here a fabrication, a system of rule, an invention that serves a purpose (by preventing a critique of minority culture). The very idea of racism is identified as a form of cultural paralysis.

Let me step away from Tatchell’s specific article at this point. I would suggest that one of the crudest ways that racism is reproduced is through the denial that racism exists. It then appears as if the ones who bring it up are bringing it into existence. Furthermore, the idea that racism does not “really” exist (in the way they say it does) can become a justification for racism (as if racism is what stops us from being allowed to be racist, for example, by representing such and such a minority as the cause of our problems). Racism is then often enacted in the same speech acts in which it is denied. One of our tasks must be to account for these forms of denial.

Returning to Tatchell’s article, one of his examples is the veil. He refers to the defense of “the veiling of girl children in many Islamic societies” and the attempt to “import this sexist oppression into Britain.” Later in the same article he suggests that “even in the West” people are now saying that “we must accept and respect this cultural difference.” One notes here that there is no engagement with any voices of Islamic feminists in this article.  The assumption that the veil can only signify oppression thus enables Tatchell to take up the position as the one speaking for “the minority in the minority.”  The assumption that Islamic girls concerned are “young and powerless” translates into a moral authority to speak on their behalf. There is no engagement at all with how much speaking for the minority of the minority has been a position of majority privilege historically.  We can return to Spivak’s precision: “white men saving brown women from brown men” (1988: 297). When the other is spoken for, the other does not speak (or as she famously describes”the subaltern does not speak”, which is to say, the conditions are not in place for her voice to be heard).

Now the consequence of my own critique would not be that we cannot attend to the violations of the rights of women or girls in Islamic cultures. As a feminist I think we need to attend to violence against women and girls, wherever it happens. But we also want to ask critical questions about the politics of attention. We might note that the problem of sexism, sexual harassment and sexual violence in “the West” does not come up in the same way, because if it does come up, sexism, sexual harassment and sexual violence are typically identified as about problem individuals not a cultural problem.  The problem of violence against girls and women in so-called Western countries is rarely denoted as a problem of culture.So if a white man attacks a woman, and if he is put on trial, his whiteness would be inessential or incidental, an irrelevant detail. If a brown man – he might be an immigrant, he might be a Muslim -attacks a woman, his brownness becomes essential: perhaps the violence is identified as originating with immigrants or Muslims. Summary: some forms of violence are represented as intrinsic to some forms of culture (as as cultural problem or a problem with culture); other forms of violence get represented as extrinsic to others (as an individual problem or a problem with individuals).

Racism increasingly operates through the idea of “culture” as being what minorities “have.”[viii] Culture here becomes something fixed but only for some cultures (culture becomes their nature). Making violence into a problem of culture is thus a way of racializing violence. Much racism today operates as or through the racialisation of violence.  And as Sara Farris has recently noted “when sexism is racialised and depicted as the exclusive domain of the non-western or non-Christian Other, all women end up losing.”

In “The New Dark Ages: Peter Tatchell Documents The Global Threat of Islamic fundamentalism” the racialisation of violence becomes explicit. You don’t need to read Frantz Fanon to discuss the problem with the use of the very term “the new dark ages” though Fanon, as always would help. The term “the dark ages” derived from Latin was first recorded in 1602 to indicate the decline of the Roman empires. The term however borrowed from long-standing metaphors of light and darkness, signifying truth and falsity, as well as proximity and distance from God. These metaphors participates in a racial history: “dark” has come to signify, as Frantz Fanon (1986) pointed out, the other side of man, the lower side, what is emotional, primitive, behind, beneath, evil. Dark becomes death, illness, decay, loss, incivility, absence. Darkness might seem to acquire these meanings by being detached from the literal referent of dark bodies. But actually in gathering these meanings, darkness becomes all the more sticky: not only sticking to those bodies that can be recognized as dark, but assigning those bodies with negative value. Black bodies become legible not only as not white, but as not being, or as being not.

Let me repeat: we do not need to read Frantz Fanon to discuss the problem with the use of the very term “the new dark ages,” though Fanon as always would help.

What is new about the new dark ages? Tatchell suggests that the “New Dark Ages are already with us: “For hundreds of millions of people in parts of the Middle-East, Africa and South-East Asia, the ascendancy of Islamic fundamentalism has ushered in an era of religious obscurantism and intolerance.” The expression “the New Dark Ages” names the ascendancy of “Islamic fundamentalism” and thus names Islam (we have already noted the problem of proximity: Islam becomes fundamentalism through the repetition of the proximity between the terms).  The rise of Islam becomes identified with the return to the Middle Ages; the collapse of the Roman Empire; and the disintegration of Europe. The  article talks of “the zealotry of the original dark ages in medieval Europe, when Christian fundamentalists excommunicated and scientists as heretics, tortured non-believers, drowned women as witches, and burned sodomites at the stake.” Note here that Christian violence is made into the past, a “making past” that renders Christian violence something that is no longer. The threat of Islam is made dramatic in its presence. Islam becomes associated not only with the threat of an individual death, but with the potential death of civilization. The threat of Islam is thus posed as a future threat by associating Islam with a past that we have left behind.[ix] When a threat is made present, then fighting becomes about a matter of survival.[x]

In another later article, “The Global Struggle for Queer Freedom” Tatchell uses the term “the homophobic dark ages.”  Homophobia itself becomes a sign and symptom of the primitive, of the racial other, of a racial time that “we” have overcome. There is probably no clearer example of how the very use of the language of homophobia can reproduce racism.  We could mention here that more than half the countries that criminalize homosexuality have laws that originated with British colonialism.[xi] We do need to talk about the problem of homophobia – just as we need to talk about sexism and transphobia – but to find this problem elsewhere (introduced by the one deemed foreign) can be a way of not addressing the problem here. Indeed, the appearance of having solved it or achieved it can then be used as evidence of cultural superiority. We give this becoming a word: racism. 

Feel Like An Arm, Act Like A Rod[xii] 

This is already a very long post. If you have got this far, thank you! But I want to share one more set of comments about how Tatchell make use of racist language, from my most recent book, Willful Subjects (2014). In this section I am trying to complicate my own arguments about willfulness. If my book begins with a wayward willful arm that is beaten by a willing rod (that grim Grimm story), I point out in this section how a rod can appear as an arm; how it can be involved in beating the others by creating the impression of being the one beaten.

The example: in 2011 a demonstration against the English Defence League, a far right group with an anti-immigrant and anti-Islam stance, took place in Tower Hamlets, East London. Prior to the march, Peter Tatchell announced his willingness to demonstrate as a gesture of solidarity with Muslims. He wrote the following invitation or request to the queer community: “I urge everyone to support the Saturday’s protest against the far right English Defence League (EDL), as it attempts to threaten and intimidate the Muslim community.” He also indicates his own will to be present under, we might say, the queer sign: “I will be there with a placard reading: Gays and Muslims UNITE! Stop the EDL.”[xiii]

The sign might seem to promise solidarity between willful parts: Gays and Muslims, those whose particular will is not given expressed by the national will (although we can note this “and” assumes the parts as apart: the Gay Muslim disappears in this “and”). In a follow up article, Tatchell refers again to his placard. This time he makes clear that the sign has two sides.[xiv] On the other side is the following: “Stop EDL and far-right Islamists. No to ALL hate.” Let’s think about the two sides of the sign: one says “yes” to solidarity between Gays and Muslims, the other says no to “the EDL” and “far-right Islamists.” On the other side of the sign, the other side of “yes” saying to Muslims is “no” that creates what we can call a problematic proximity between the EDL and Islamism. On the other side “Islam” appears only as “far-right Islamism.”

We realise the significance of these different sides of the placard if we read the narrative. Tatchell uses the occasion of recalling the experience of the march against the EDL (an organization that has an anti-Islam but “gay friendly” stance) to speak out not against the EDL, which recedes or becomes background, but against what he calls Islamic fundamentalism. In fact Tatchell uses the occasion to argue that Islamist goals are “much more dangerous” than that of the EDL. One has to note that Tatchell is adopting here the very language of the EDL.[xv] It is easy to identify the problems with this identification of Islamism as the “bigger threat” in the context of a protest against those who perceive Islam as the “bigger threat.”

But how does one read the insistence on the right to be visible as a gay man in a protest, to carry a queer sign? One could say surely he is right; surely queers have a right to gather whenever and wherever? But travelling under the queer sign can become part of the management of the racial space of the nation. As Jin Haritaworn (2010) has noted in a sharp critique of gay imperialism, the use of kiss-ins near Mosques by mainstream LGBT groups in Berlin shows how what appears as an assertion of a sexual minority can function as the assertion of a racial majority. Travelling under the queer sign becomes a way of occupying political space and of claiming territory as one’s own residence or home. This is how the content of this sign does come to matter: the queer sign is not empty in the sense that it cannot be filled by anybody. The queer sign becomes aligned with the state apparatus, a happy sign, depending on the unhappiness of the Muslim other; it can achieve its status as voluntary stigma by willing the very signs of an involuntary Islamic homophobia. The Muslim others becomes unwilling citizens: unwilling to integrate, unwilling to love the love that is willingly (although conditionally) endorsed by the nation.

We learn that if insistence is a political grammar, it is not always legible.  It might appear that organizing under the queer sign requires willfulness. And yes, sometimes, maybe even often, it does. But sometimes it does not: you might feel like an arm but act like a rod. This is a complicating point: one that I want to complicate my own argument thus far in this chapter. The very assumption of willfulness can protect some from realizing how their goals are already accomplished by the general will. It can be whiteness that allows some queers to accomplish their goals; it can be the unseeing of whiteness that also allows some queers not to see how they appear to others when, for instance, they carry a sign that makes Islam proximate to the EDL; it can be unseeing whiteness that allow some queers not to see how that very proximity can be a threat. What is assumed as a willful queerness can be a willing whiteness. Jasbir Puar’s (2007) important critique of homonationalism could be read as an account of how wayward queers can and do become the straightening parts. This kind of queer politics aims to become part of the nation where partness is achieved by or through the very projection of willfulness onto others.

It is important to describe the racism of this projection. But to describe the projection of willfulness as racism is to be heard as willful. When queers of color talk about racism in queer politics, we become killjoys, killers of queer joy; the ones who are getting in the way of queer happiness. It is then as if: we are preventing ourselves from taking up our seats at the table.

Sometimes, the only possible politics we have available to us is to refuse that seat. I write this post in solidarity with those who have refused that seat.


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

———- (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

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

———- (2004). The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh:  Edinburgh University Press.

Aizura, Aren (2009). “Racism and the Censorship of Gay Imperialism,” http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2009/aizura231009.html

Butler, Judith(2004). Undoing  Gender.  New York: Routledge.

Erel, Umut and Christian Klesse (2009). “Out of Place: Silencing Voices on Queerness/Raciality”. http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2009/ek241009.html

Fanon, Frantz (1986). Black Skin, White Masks. London: Pluto.

Haritaworn, Jin (2010). “Queer Injuries: The Racial Politics of ‘Homophobic Hate Crime,’” Social Justice. 37 (1): 69-89.

Haritaworn, Jin, Esra  Erdem and Tamsila Tauqir(2008) “Gay Imperialism: The Role of Gender and Sexuality Discourses in the “War on Terror,”” with Esra  Erdem and Tamsila Tauqir, in Esperanza Miyake and  Adi Kuntsman (eds.), Out of  Place: Silences in Queerness/Raciality, York: Raw Nerve Books, pp. 9-33.

Nicoll, Fiona (2004). ‘“Are you calling me a racist?”: Teaching Critical Whiteness Theory in Indigenous Sovereignty’, borderlands, 3.2. http://www.borderlands.net.au/vol3no2_2004/nicoll_teaching.htm

Puar, Jasbir (2007). Terrorist Assemblages: Homonationalism in Queer Times.  Durham:Duke University Press.

Razak, Shareen N. (2007). Casting Out: The Eviction of Muslims from Western Law and Politics. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Rothe, Johanna (2009). “Out of Place, Out of Print: On the Censorship of the First  Queerness/Raciality  Collection in Britain.” http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2009/rothe151009.html.


[i] This section is drawn from On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012).

[ii]  I am suggesting here that whether or not Peter Tatchell and his team threatened the publisher with the law, their use of the language of libel to describe the article constituted a threat.  Tatchell says they did not threaten litigation: my point would be that they did not need to, whether or not they did.

[iii] All of Peter Tatchell’s writings referred to in this piece can be downloaded from his website: www.petertatchell.net. Last accessed August 18 2010.

[iv]  Tatchell in this supplementary response refers directly only to Erel and Klesse: however the article also uses terms like “my detractors” and “my critics” suggesting the object of the response is more generalized, as well as I would suggest anticipatory as a mode of defense (“my critics “easily becomes “anyone” who would agree with the criticisms made in the original chapter).

[v] My argument here does not rest on a semantic distinction between “accusation” and “critique” but a sense that the word “accusation” is heard in a particular way (or is a way of hearing). Indeed the two words “racism” and “accusation” when stuck together tend to conjure up a scene, of an individual subject who is under attack: a sense we might say of injury, of being hurt and damaged.  This distinction between critique and accusation is subtle but affective.

[vi] This section is derived from my 2011 paper “Problematic Proximities: or Why Critiques of Gay Imperialism Matter,” from Feminist Legal Studies. I include a download link to the whole special issue – which contains some important critiques of gay imperialism: http://link.springer.com/journal/10691/19/2/page/1

[vii] In the article in The Telegraph linked above, Tatchell refers to “enlightenment values” and John Stuart Mills’ On Liberty in particular. I should add here that the period of the Enlightenment coincided with the expansion of European imperialism and the Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Many Enlightenment thinkers were deeply racist (think Hegel, think Kant), identifying history and reason with white people; others found ways to reconcile slavery with liberalism (think Locke). We are not rejecting ideas by pointing this out; we are complicating the history of ideas; we are opening those ideas up by considering  histories of  their usage. Even ideas we agree with can be used to support systems we oppose. Also note John Stuart Mill was a utilitarian philosopher. He was also employed by the East India Company, the company which when it was dissolved, became the British Raj (his father James Mills another utilitarian philosopher who wrote the volume A History of British India – one of the most racist and Orientalist body of work you could find – also had a role in this company). This is no mere coincidence: empire was routinely justified using utilitarian logics (maximizing happiness). Also note today this history of European imperialism is routinely recalled as happy history of “giving” modernity (and with it law, liberty, equality) to others rather than a violent history of conquest, invasion and destruction. It is this happy version of the British Empire that is presented in the book, Life in the UK, upon which citizenship tests are based. It is the dominance of this way of telling the imperial story that explains why so many people in the UK can still be “proud” of empire. How we tell these histories really does matter. Recognizing that liberty can be used to justify war and oppression does makes a difference. For further discussion see the chapter “Melancholic Migrants” from my book The Promise of Happiness (2010).

[viii]  Th mechanisms whereby “culture” becomes racialized  are complex; and we have before us a long history of critical work that attends to these complexities. Feminist postcolonial scholars have focused on how “culture” becomes associated with minorities and in particular with Muslim women: see for example the work of Shareen Razack (2007).

[ix] In other words, temporality is crucial to the work of this narrative: Christian/Western/European violence becomes “in the past” as a way of Muslim violence into the present. I would argue that racism in the contemporary context is itself associated with the past, as what we have overcome or left behind. For example, Trevor Phillips during an interview he gave on the BBC to mark the 10th anniversary of the Macpherson report on January 19 2009 says the following: “the Stephen Lawrence Inquiry was a great shock to the system. It shook people out of their complacency and meant that we had new laws and a new attitude and that meant for example that the police have changed their behaviour quite dramatically. Nothing’s perfect, there is still a lot of work to do, but we are in a different place than we were before.” We can notice in this description that the introduction of the language of institutional racism becomes a form of shock therapy that is understood to be the origin of new attitudes and new behavior.  Not only are institutions given psychological attributes in this account, but we have a clear narrative sequence of before and after, in which what comes after the recognition of institutional racism is marked by its difference to what came before.  In other words, the institution in being shocked into recognizing its racism is no longer racist. For Phillips “the we” of the police slides immediately into “the we” of the nation: “we are in a new situation. Britain is a modern diverse country. Britain is the best place to live in Europe if you’re not white.”The “shock” of recognizing institutional racism is what allows recovery from racism and even the emergence of racial equality. For Phillips any racism within an institution is explained as not really “going on” even when it is ongoing: “In many of our institutions, there are still old-fashioned attitudes that don’t really catch up with where modern Britain is at and how British people today feel. That’s the next task that we’ve got to tackle.” Racism becomes in this description about what is ‘old-fashioned’ as if it lingers only insofar as institutions are not expressing what is in fashion. Racism enters contemporary discourses of race equality as an anachronism.

[x] In this respect, the argument made here shares some features with fascist accounts which also position minority cultures as threatening the survival of the nation (see Ahmed 2004). Rather the survival being a matter of kinship and blood, it becomes a matter of the transmission of the right values (including rights, diversity and equality). This is very close to existing government rhetoric about “British values,” which constructs intolerance as other than British values. Othering works now by perceiving the other not as intolerable but as intolerant. With reference to note [ix] , even empire can be used as evidence of British tolerance. Trevor Phillips describes empire as demonstrating the British are “not by nature bigots.” As he puts it: “we mixed and mingled with people very different from those of these islands. Yes: conquest, violence, slavery, settlement, occupation re-described as a party. There is a politics to who is perceived as tolerant and intolerant. When values become attributes of bodies, then values become mechanisms for inclusion and exclusion.

[xi] See: https://www.hrw.org/report/2008/12/17/alien-legacy/origins-sodomy-laws-british-colonialism

[xii] This section is from chapter 4, “Willfulness as a Style of Politics,” of Willful Subjects (2014).

[xiii] See: http://www.petertatchell.net/politics/protest-against-the-edl-defend-the-muslim-community.htm.

[xiv] See: http://www.petertatchell.net/politics/tatchell-gets-muslim-hostility-&-support-at-anti-edl-demo.htm

[xv] More recently Peter Tatchell suggested that the problem with UKIP is their lack of support for Gay Pride (otherwise it should be included in Gay Pride). This reveals exactly the problem with “happy diversity” as a politics. UKIP rests on anti-immigration stance even if its racism is more hidden than BNP (though it is not really that hidden!). The inclusion of UKIP would mean that many of us – queer and trans people of colour -would not be included in a Gay Pride event. When racism becomes just another body that can be included in queer space, queer space is made white.

Posted in Uncategorized | 6 Comments

Feminist Aunties

Where did you find feminism? From whom did you find feminism? My project in Living a Feminist Life was to tell my feminist story: the story of how I became a feminist;  what I have learned from being a feminist. To tell a story can be to find things out; what comes up along the way can teach us about that way.

A story starts before it can be told. When did feminism become a word that spoke not just to you, but spoke you, spoke of your existence, spoke you into existence? When did the sound of the word feminism become your sound? What did it mean, what does it mean, to hold onto feminism, to fight under its name; to feel in its ups and downs, in its coming and goings, your ups and downs, your comings and goings? When I think of my feminist life in this book I ask “from where?” but also “from whom?”

From whom did I find feminism?

I will always remember a conversation I had as a young woman in the late 1980s. It was a conversation with my auntie Gulzar Bano. I think of her as my one of first feminist teachers. I had given her some of my poems. In one of them I had used “he.” Why do you use “he” she asked me gently, when you could have used “she.” The question posed with such warmth and kindness prompted much heartache, much sadness in the realisation that the words as well as worlds I had thought of as open to me were not open at all. “He” does not include “she.” The lesson becomes an instruction. To make an impression I had to dislodge that “he.” To become “she” is to become part of a feminist movement. A feminist becomes “she” even if she has already been assigned “she,” when she hears in that word a refusal of “he,” a refusal that “he” would promise her inclusion. She takes up that word and makes it her own.

I began to realise what I already knew: that patriarchal reasoning goes all the way down; to the letter; to the bone. I had to find ways not to reproduce its grammar in what I said, in what I wrote; in what I did, in who I was. It is important that I learnt this feminist lesson from my Auntie in Lahore, Pakistan, a Muslim woman, a Muslim feminist, a brown feminist. It might be assumed that feminism travels from the West to East. It might be assumed that feminism is what the West gives to the East. That assumption is a travelling assumption, one that tells a feminist story in a certain way, a story that is much repeated; a history of how feminism acquired utility as an imperial gift. That is not my story. We need to tell other feminist stories. Feminism travelled to me, growing up in the West, from the East. My Pakistani Aunties taught me that my mind is my own (which is to say: that my mind is not owned); they taught me to speak up for myself; to speak out against violence and injustice.

My first book, Differences that Matter (1998) was dedicated to my aunt, Gulzar. She told me she was touched by that dedication and that warms me. And in Queer Phenomenology (2006) I wrote about her in to the body of the text. She appeared first very briefly in a description of growing up in a mixed home, a home shaped by more than one heritage; a home that is meeting space between cultures that might ordinarily be kept apart:

The contours of mixed-race spaces are not so smooth in the face of how things arrive. Already there are arrivals that are unexpected, creating rough edges in the contours of this world. Its like you can see the creases, which then means that the cover fails to cover, fails in the act of providing a covering. So objects and bodies disturb this picture, creating disorientation in how things are arranged. Comments made about “our complexion;” letters that described unknown cousins whose names became familiar; visits to Pakistan that open up new worlds, new tastes, and sounds and sensations on the skin; the excitement of the arrival of my Aunt from Islamabad, who they said I was so “alike;” all these experiences of being at home and away were lived, at least sometimes, as wrinkles in the whiteness of the objects that gathered. They gathered, but did not always gather us around. It is not that the disturbances meant that things no longer had their place; it is just that the objects did not stay still, as they came into contact with other objects, whose “color” created different impressions. Color wasn’t just something added, like a tan adorning a white skin, as it redirected my attention to the skin, to how the surfaces of bodies as well as objects are shaped by histories of contact.

In this description is an indicator of something: kinship as a promise of likeness between myself and my Auntie. We might think of this kinship as feminist kinship. Later (as I will come to later) I have thought of this kinship as feminist snap.

I spoke more in this text about my Aunt:

Mixed orientations might cross the line not so much by virtue of what we receive (the proximate objects that are given to us as if they were different sides of our inheritance), but in how we receive the histories that are behind our arrival. It is no accident that when I left home, I felt that this other side of my history became more available to me. I reinhabited the world by going to Pakistan, after I left home. This time in Pakistan reoriented me, allowing me to embrace Pakistan as part of my own genealogy, giving me a feeling of having more than one side to draw from, or even more than one family history behind me. In my own story, this connection to my Pakistani side was mediated through my connection with my eldest Aunt, who did not marry, and who was deeply involved in women’s activism. When we get redirected, we often have people behind us, those who offer us life lines, without expectation of return, helping to pull us into another world.

A feminist auntie as a life line.

Writing my feminist story has allowed me to register how much it mattered to me to have feminist aunties. In Living a Feminist Life, I have brought my Auntie into the story because she was already there. I write in my chapter,”Feminist Snap,” echoing my words from before:

Snap can be a genealogy, unfolding as an alternative family line, or a feminist inheritance. I often think of snap as what I have inherited from my Pakistani aunties. My sister talks of her daughter as having Ahmed genes, and I know exactly what she means; she means she is another point on a line of snappy women. She means: like me, like you, like our Auntie’s, this girl has snap. This girl has snap: maybe she too is a survival story. I think of my own family and the work that had to be done to keep things together, the work that women often did, to hold on when things are breaking up. We might, reflecting back to my discussion in the previous chapter, be haunting by those breaks, even those that we did not live through ourselves. In my family’s case, I think of Partition, how a country was broken up in the after-life of colonialism; how borders became open wounds; how an infection can spread. Family stories were passed down about the trauma of Partition; a Muslim family leaving their home, fleeing to Lahore, a long hard train journey, arriving, creating a new home from what had been left behind by those who, too, had fled.

We might inherit a break because it was survived. A survival can be how we are haunted by a break. When I think of this history of breaking, I think especially of my relationship to my eldest auntie Gulzar Bano. I mentioned in the introduction to this book how my own feminism was shaped by our many conversations. My auntie – who was most definitely snappy – did not marry. The family explanation is that this not marrying was because of Partition. A national break can be interwoven with a life story. Gulzar was deeply involved in women’s activism as well as campaigns for women’s literacy and education in Pakistan. She was a poet, too. Her words were sharp like weapons. When our lives don’t follow the lines provides by convention, we still have people behind us, those who offer us life lines, without expectation of return. Becoming close to my Aunt, with her passion for feminism and for what she calls in our family biography “WOMAN POWER” helped me to find a different political orientation, a different way of thinking about my place in the world. In a conventional genealogy, the woman who does not have a child of her own would be an end point.

Snap, snap: the end of the line.

In a feminist genealogy, life unfolds from such points.

Snap, snap: begin again.

Begin again: it is a promise, a hope.

I hope that I too can be a feminist auntie: at home, or an academic auntie at work.

To be a feminist auntie or an academic auntie is to offer alternatives by how you live and in what you do. To be a feminist auntie or an academic auntie is to work to enable others to speak out and speak against the violence; those that are enacted by individuals, those that are reproduced by institutions that are hostile to those who challenge that violence.

Feminist aunties can be an alternative support system. We need to create our own support systems. The costs of fighting against institutional violence are high.

Last year my Auntie Gulzar died. I feel her presence in her absence; I feel her energy in my hands as they touch the key board. I wrote a poem. I am not a poet. I wrote her a poem when she died because she is a poet.

A poem can be a hand. A poem can weep, too. A poem can be for you.


 “The Words of an Aunt”

A poem for Gulzar Bano

By her loving niece Sara Ahmed


The words of an aunt

Can breathe life

Rummaging away

In the uncertain thoughts

The confused picture

A mind trying to grasp

That which retreats

Until you see things again

Clear and crisp


You asked me once

I don’t know if you remember

You had read one of my poems

The poems of a young girl

Casting words out too quickly

Because she had been taught

What not to attend to

“Sara” you asked me

“Why do you use he?”

“When you could use she?”


And I heard in your gentle question

The word anew

The world anew

He is not she

Nor we

She is she

We too


And I learnt

How to use words again

To register my presence

To sharpen with precision

As a girl, as a woman

To announce

Here I am, here she is

Here we are

Through a word

A world

Through a word


You were my first feminist teacher

Who taught me words could be weapons

How we could crafts worlds

Through words

How we could register violence

In what we send out

In what we do not send out


Your warmth, your wisdom

Was like a promise made

A life that could be lived

By what we refuse

What we seize

You taught me that feminism is a spark

We can be lit up by it

How we claim our minds

As our own

How we reach each other

So that even if we stray

We are not alone


Even though you have left

You are guiding me

The words of an aunt

Shimmering with life

Are a path

A way of following

Without being led

Challenging, finding, holding

A memory preserved

Can be a leaky container

Spilling all over you

The words of an Aunt

How I pick myself up again

How I make my way through







Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Willful Stones

One thing I have learnt from having a blog is how to pick up some of the threads in my own writing. I think that is because with a blog it feels like you have more of a”follow through” than with a book: each post is an invitation to pick things up again. I realized for instance just how much I pick up stones in Living a Feminist Life not only in my discussion of how histories become concrete (how stones piled together form walls) but also in stories of queer kinship with stones.

I think especially of Eli Clare’s book, Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation, which I draw on in chapter 7 “Fragile Connections.” A stone wall appears in Clare’s text as a place from which you can view a world that is alien: “I watched from the other side of a stone wall, a wall that was part self-preservation, part bones and blood of aloneness, part the impossible assumptions I could not shape my body around” (2015 [1999]:144). A stone wall: made out of a body that cannot be shaped by what is assumed; a body that has been stolen and has to be reclaimed before it can become a home (13). Clare describes how his most “sustaining relations” were with stones: “I collected stones –red, green, grey, rust, white speckled with black, black streaked with silver –and kept them in my pockets, their hard surfaces warming slowly to my body heat” (144-145).

And it is stones that Clare picks up and puts in his pocket, which give another sense of a body. From a shattering, a story can be told. Picking up the pieces of a shattering story is like picking up those stones; stones that are warmed by the heat of a body.

I have been thinking of this warmth, how we find kinship in unexpected places. If it is the expected places that are the places that make it hard to survive, then we find kinship in unexpected places.

We will, we do.

And then: we can be warmed by stories, too.

Stones were also picked up in Willful Subjects (2014). And I am expecting stones to be picked up in my next project on “the uses of use.” I will be interested to know how stones will be useful! One of my starting points is that a relation of use can be one of warmth and affection – think of Silas’s affection for his brown earthenware pot; a pot that was his constant companion before it broke into pieces.

I am not going to be returning to my “useful archives” until later on this year. I began researching utility in 2013 – then stopped to write Living a Feminist Life, because it demanded to be written!

So in the meantime, let me share a section on stones from the conclusion of Willful Subjects.

Stony connections matter.

What about other matters?[i] I want to return now to the example of stones, mentioned in my discussion of Augustine’s account of will in the introduction to this book. Can stones be willful objects? I choose stones for a reason. The history of will is full of stones. Even if the stones appear quite differently when they appear, the constancy of their appearance does create quite an impression: a stony impression.

If we follow the stones, we can travel differently along the path of will. Take Augustine. For Augustine the stone matters insofar as it does not have a will of its own: the “movement of the will” is similar to “the downward movement of the stone” but “the stone has no power to check its downward movement, but the soul is not moved to abandon higher things and love inferior things unless it wills to do so” (3, 1: 72). The stones here are the other of will; they become not-will insofar as they have no checking power. Will is the power not to be compelled by an external force, or by gravity. Will is the power to stop. A stone if flung will fall, and cannot, according to Augustine, stop itself from falling; this incapacity to check a downward movement shows that the stone has no will of its own.

Why stone? Why stones and not another kind of object? Perhaps the stone already figures within human culture: to be stone-like is to be hard and immovable as Jeffrey Jerome Cohen in his moving “Stories of Stone” (2010). Or perhaps stones become the objects asked to do this work because our landscape is littered with stones: stones are available; they are around; they surround. Stones are assumed to be stationary, such that if they move, it is assumed they are moved by something other than themselves. I might pick you up and throw you. If you fall there, it is because of how you are thrown. Stones are hapless or maybe they are hapfull: things happen to them; but they don’t make things happen. We might imagine it would sad to be a stone: always thrown, never throwing. Stones, we might assume, are shaped by forces of nature, and even take the shape of those forces. A stone on the beach, perhaps even a pebble (Ahmed 2006: 187), glistens from the water. It receives the waves that pound against it, creating and recreating a surface. You can feel its smoothness as a trace of where it has been.

Perhaps stones come to embody what is passive; what is capable of receiving an impression. To receive an impression can be to make an impression. The stones leave an impression upon our hands when we touch them.  Perhaps touching is assumed too quickly as our gift. Perhaps we forget how our hands can be shaped by stones. Perhaps stones become useful characters in the play of human will because it is assumed they require human hands to become more significant than being just stones, requiring hands to become tools, to be given a purposeful shape, as the shape of human intention. We should remember, for instance, that the word “hammer” derives from stone. It is as if stones are just there, waiting for humans, to be given an end or purpose, to be given an assignment, something to do. In imagining this waiting around, we might be thinking of ourselves as purposeful, as given something to the stones: an occupation, no less. Stones are, in the house of philosophy, the philosopher’s hammer. Acquiring the meaning of matter, they become “not will,” what requires the will of another for completion. It is not that stones are these things. They are after all moving around quite a lot in being assumed to be stationary. They contradict the assignment in fulfilling the assignment. They are certainly hard at work in Augustine; giving him the shape of what we are not. If the not holds its place, it does so by moving around.

Stones too often become the strangers, whose task is to reveal not only what we are not but what we are not like. They become examples of willessness (a word we almost have to invent to signify the absence of will). But the place holder is not held in quite the same place. Take Spinoza: a philosopher who contrasts with Augustine as one who does not argue for free will. A contrasting set of beliefs: but the stone still appears. Spinoza’s stone is a rather queer stone. For in thinking of the stone, Spinoza gives us a story of a thinking stone. “Now this stone since it is conscious only of its endeavour [conatus] and is not at all indifferent, will surely think that it is completely free, and that it continues in motion for no other reason than it so wishes” (cited in Sharpe 2011: 65).[ii] Say the stone is falling. If a stone could think, Spinoza suggests, it would think of itself as a willing stone, as the origin of its movement, as able to stop and start at will. Oh how the wrong the stone would be! How wishful and willful but how wrong! That is not, however, Spinoza’s point: to expose the error of a thinking stone. He intends this stone to expose human error: if there is humiliation in the story it belongs to the humans not the stones. Spinoza’s aims in throwing a stone into a letter to expose the error of human will (an error that Nietzsche would later tie to the general error of causality). Spinoza: “This, then, is that human freedom which all men boast of possessing, and which consist solely in this, that men are conscious of their desire and unaware of the causes by which they are determined” (cited in Sharpe 2011: 65). The thinking stone is certainly used to exemplify what I am calling willessness, but in order to create a new kinship: a kinship premised on the absence of will, on the common state of being determined from without. Freedom here requires consciousness of being determined: perhaps a kind of stony consciousness; a consciousness that movement comes from what we are not is how we acquire self-knowledge.

If we can think the queerness of a thinking stone, we might not need to travel far to reach the queerness of a willing stone. Willing would matter not as the causing of an action but as the feeling of being the cause, or even the feeling that accompanies what Spinoza called conatus, perseverance in being. This is exactly Schopenhauer’s angle on Spinoza’s thinking stone. He writes: “Spinoza says that if a stone projected through the air had consciousness, it would imagine it was flying of its own free will. I add merely that the stone would be right” ([1819] 1966: 126). Schopenhauer is not in suggesting the stone is right (rather than humans are wrong) positing a model of the free will as self-originating movement. Rather the will becomes something everything has: another kind of kinship, a stony kinship. Schopenhauer explains: “the will proclaims itself just as directly in the fall of a stone as in the action of a man. The difference is only that in its particular manifestation is brought about in the one case by a motive, in the other by a mechanically acting cause” ([1819] 1966b: 299). Schopenhauer’s will is far removed from what we would recognize as will in an everyday sense. As Deleuze describes Schopenhauer, in making the will into the very “essence of things” (2006: 77), perverts the course of will by taking an old philosophy to a new extreme (though of course there are other older philosophies of will such as offered by Lucretius discussed in my introduction that anticipate Schopenhauer’s perversion of will).

So why does Schopenhauer describe the fall of the stone as will if it is brought about not by motive but by a “mechanically acting cause”? He is suggesting that motivation can be thought of as determination. Will is a sphere of internal determination. Schopenhauer relates this distinction between motivation and mechanical causation to gradations of being: humans and stones are not different in being but are “higher” and “lower” grades of being ([1819] 1966: 149). But he is also implying that mechanical causation is more complex than simple determination from without (recall that writers such as Ribot discussed in chapter 2, relate will to irritability, understood as reaction, as the capacity to be affected from without). For Schopenhauer even a stone has impulses: an “impulse for it” is what “the motive is for me” (126). An impulse is what “in the case of the stone appears as cohesion, gravitation, rigidity” (126). For Schopenhauer the stone has something to do with what happens to the stone: the “quality” of a stone is what we would call “character” in a person (126). The stones, in other words, have tendencies. How they fall is determined as much by their tendencies than by the arm that throws them. We might pick up stones to do certain things because of what stones are like: they have qualities of their own, on their own (ownness here registers what makes something be the thing that it is in this or that moment of a trajectory), such that we turn to them for this but not for that. I might not sleep on you because you are too hard, I might throw you because you are not too soft. The “too-ness” of course refers to the qualities of something only in relation to actions that I might or might not perform. But we learn that actions involve judgments about the qualities of things in the world. Actions are successful if we judge rightly, a judgment that reaches things, touches things; shows how we are touched by things. To act requires being in touch with the world.

Stones might be willing; or not. At one level, stones appear as willful, insofar as willfulness is often related to being obstinate and unyielding. But of course its hardness, its tendencies, allows us to do certain things. We might assume the stone as a willing participant if we use the stone as a hammer: our hammering might depend on the stone; our will might be distributed across a field of action that includes the stone. But we should not find agency only in agreement. That is an-all-too human tendency that I have been grappling with throughout this book: to assume “yes” as a sign of being willing, a sign that is taken up as the giving of permission to proceed. This is one way we tend to go wrong. It is not that from the point of view of the hammer, everything is nail, but that the hammer is already a human point of view. The hammer is stone given the form of human intention. Perhaps stones are willing inasmuch as what they do not let us do; in how they resist our intentions. They can be checking powers; reminders that the world is not waiting to receive our shape. Perhaps then, they grab our attention. We might need to lose the hammer to find the stone.[iii]

And we too can become stone. Think of the “stone butch” in lesbian queer history: a history of those who become unyielding as a way of surviving, a history of those who might have to protect themselves by becoming stone. Here the stone becomes a willful gift, a quality we can assume.  And if we think of ourselves as stony we are not simply bringing the stones back to ourselves. We are showing how human bodies cannot be made exceptional without losing something: how we matter by being made of matter; flesh, bone, skin, stone, tangled up, tangled in. The entanglement of stone and skin matters: skin too, skin like stone, is capable of receiving impressions.

Damage can be understood as a form of reception. Audre Lorde once wrote: “In order to withstand the weather, we had to become stone, and now we bruise ourselves upon the other who is closest” (1984: 160). It would be hard to overestimate the power of Lorde’s description. Social forms of oppression, racism, the hatred that creates some bodies as strangers, can be experienced as weather. They press and pound against the surface of a body; a body can surface or survive by hardening.  For some bodies to stand is to withstand. Or, as I described in chapter 4, sometimes you can only stand up by standing firm. Willfulness helps us to describe the unequal distribution of material as well as social standing. But a stone too can be more and less hard. Hardening does not eliminate what made hardening seem necessary: that sense of being too soft, too receptive; too willing to receive an impression. Hardness is a relative condition even when we try and relate differently to a condition. What we become to withstand can become something that hardens us from others, those who might be closest, who might too have to survive the weather. We can damage each other in how we survive being damaged.

Stone and skin: softer and harder histories, material histories of bodies and worlds. Is a stone a willful inheritance? I began this book with a story of a willful child. We could relate her story to the story of willful stones. This story is a Christian parable, equally grim as our Grimm story. In the parable the stones, really, are us. But I am going to de-humanize the story, and let the stones be stones. The story:

The kingdom of God is like a house which a certain man began to build. He had very good blueprints of an excellent plan. He poured a foundation and started placing choice stones on the foundation where his plan called for them to be. As the house started to take shape, some of the stones became dissatisfied with the positions in which the master builder had placed them. They began to shift themselves into new positions, according to their own ideas of how the house should be built. Many of them dragged other stones with them into their new positions. Soon, instead of one perfect house, there were many smaller, unevenly spaced houses which more closely resembled mere piles of rocks. Some of the new piles were not even on the foundation at all; instead they called to the others to be more open minded about their positioning. The other piles adamantly insisted that each of them was more closely aligned with the master builder’s original plan, and that all who were not joined with them were not part of the same building. When the man saw these stones had aligned themselves differently, he took hold of them and pulled on them to move them back in line with his blueprints. Each stone he touched steadfastly refused to be moved. Though he pushed and pulled and worked very hard, those stones were convinced that they had come up with a much better design. At last, he grasped a rod of iron which he kept nearby and smashed the recalcitrant stones into powder. The powder was then cleared away and mixed with the cement which was to fill in the cracks between the newer stones which the builder brought to replace them.[iv]

Willful stones do not stay in the right place, the place assumed as divine or in my reading human intent. They move around. That their movement begins with dissatisfaction tells us something. The point of stones we might assume is to be satisfied by the place we have assigned them. They participate in creating a dwelling for us. We might even say; they are willing. If we build a house, we might assume we have their agreement. But when the stones do not stay in place, they bring our walls down. Willful stones would be those that bring the walls down. They get in the way of our purpose; they get in the way of our capacity to create the conditions we assume necessary for survival or flourishing. Their unhappiness with their lot causes our loss of the warmth of shelter. Oh how selfish are they not to play their part! Houses become piles of rocks, wrong bundles. The human appears with a rod: he punishes the willful stones, turning them into dust, as if to lessen the particle is to lessen the capacity to resist. The human rod straightens things out, forcing the wandering stones back into their place. The rod as a technology of will assumes might as right; it might punish the wayward stones for the stones themselves, to give them a chance of a more meaningful life.

There is a moral to the story: we as humans must be satisfied with the place we have been given within the divine order. But we can willfully transform the human moral into a stone pedagogy. We would as dwellers assume the qualities of willfulness. We would relate differently to the capacity of all things to deviate from the places given as assignments. Dissatisfaction can be an opening up of things, a gift from things. We would imagine crooked houses, wonky bundles, assembled from unwilling parts, assembled out of the agency of things that have not agreed with our own design or purpose. We would be for those who might refuse our own desire to be with, our desire for company, who might as parts come apart. A stone pedagogy is another way of describing what willfulness has taught me. In treating willfulness as a lesson, I am also making a commitment to will. The problem with will remains how it can allow us not to register how things are determined. But the will is also the name we give to possibility: the shared condition of not being fully determined from without, whatever that without; the will as wiggle room, as the room to deviate, a room kept open by will’s incompletion, a room most often in human history designated as ruin. To inhabit this ruin is to inhabit the room of willfulness. We might in the work of this willful inhabitance create a stony kinship, a kinship of strangers, to return to my reading of George Eliot’s Silas Marner. Such a kinship would be between those who have willfully refused to be straightened out, to become points on the straight line of inheritance. Such a kinship not only embraces the swerve, as described by Lucretius, and those who follow him most queerly, but takes up these points of deviation as points of attachment.  Willful stones might even offer us a new beginning, one without blueprint, one in which the capacity not to be compelled by others is made into the promise of a queer thing.

The promise of a queer thing: is this not an earthly promise, a way of accepting a shared inhabitancy of an earth? Is there a willful ecology being implied here? I think so; I hope so. We could relate a willful ecology to the Gaia hypothesis of the earth as a single organism. Let’s think back to Pascal’s mischievous foot. One way of telling the story of the willful foot might be as a story of the humans who have selfishly forgotten they are part of the earth, and who in this forgetting have compromised the health of the whole body. If we affirmed the willful foot, we might also give permission for humans to be selfish. Whatever my argument is, it is not about giving any such permission (though I have questioned how selfishness or self-will can be used as a technique to differentiate the moral worth of humans). I would translate Pascal’s account of the mischievous foot into an ecological fable quite differently. It is not that humans are the foot but that they have treated the earth as the foot, as the part that must be willing to submit. To make the earth into a foot is not only to assume that it will become part of the human body, as an extension or limb, but that the earth must be productive, must support or carry the whole social body, the body of the occupier. A more ethical ecological relation would recognize instead the willfulness of natureAfter all, we know from assembling a willfulness archive, that willfulness is an attribution that humans tend to make to whatever gets in the way of an intent. Nature as the mischievous foot gets in the way: she does not agree to the human demand for submission; she does not even cope with this demand. Such an argument is implicit to Isabelle Stengers’ redescription of Gaia not as a healthy organism but “as one who intrudes.” Indeed Stengers suggests she choose the name Gaia as she “wanted a name for who we may associate with the notion of intrusion” (2008: 7).[v]

Intrusion: a willful description for what comes back to the body.

An ecological concern would be an invitation to think not only of humans as parts of a shared world but what follows this thought. The invitation might be one we can address to parts. Some partnerships are not a matter of will: they come before a willing subject, as a question of how we arrive into a world. Partness could be linked to what Hannah Arendt describes as “natality” the shared condition of being “newcomers who are born into the world as strangers” (1958: 9), a condition which for Arendt is also the promise of a new beginning, of creativity. If to be born is to become part of a world that has already taken shape, then being born is also a parting of company: the newborn emerges not only to a world but from a woman’s body. Partness is here an interval or travelling between bodies that matter, bodies that are not simply one or singular wholes. If dwelling within is temporary, then a body, this maternal body, includes parts that will cease to be part, parts for whom unbecoming member is birth not death. In being cut off from a body, in becoming part of a world with others, we do not just leave what we leave behind us: bodies too carry traces of where they have been. To become part of a world can be to restore the promise of this behind as a maternal as well as material promise. And of course, not only all things emerge in the same way: a mammalian beginning is one kind of beginning. But if to emerge is to emerge from, then it is by going back to from, that we can offer a new way of beginning: perhaps even a new way to begin the thought of beginning.

To begin again: we would need to tell different origin stories of the human. Perhaps we would not begin with Eve coming from a part of Adam, but with the wayward parts themselves. Take the story told by the pre-Socratic philosopher Empedocles: “Here sprang up many faces without necks, arms wandered without shoulders, unattached, and eyes strayed alone, in need of foreheads” (cited in Kirk, Raven and Schofield [1957] 1983: 303). We do not need to re-attach the strays by assuming parts as needy. Strays can lead us astray. Wandering parts can wander toward other parts, creating new fantastic combinations; affinities of matter that matter. Queer parts are parts of many; parts that in wandering away create something. We could throw stones too into this most queer mix, or stones could throw themselves, or we could by thrown by the stones.

If we are to queer the mix, humans would not be assumed as the mediating part: the part to which all other parts must relate.  A willful ecology would be one that does require we follow the path of the will to the same place, one in which hap as well as snap can create room, room for things to be the things they are with or without other things.  A queer relation offers the freedom of not having a relation, the freedom not to participate, not to be connected or stay connected.[vi] If this is a queer story of inter-connections, we would find in the dash an alternative line, a way out as well as a way in. To create room means we still have to fight for preservation, we have to fight for life; we might have to become willful to keep going, we have to keep coming up, to get in the way of an-all-too-human occupation. And we have to be willing to hear the intrusion of Gaia, which means being willing to attend to the costs of the generalization of human will. Perhaps we can listen to the sound of nature’s feet when we do not ask nature to be handy.

[i] It would be possible to read this section as part of a “new materialism” or a new “material feminism.” However I would argue that there is nothing new about the materialism I am offering here: I consider my own work as indebted to decades of feminist scholarship on how bodies and worlds materialize. I wholeheartedly reject the argument that “matter” did not matter to earlier work in feminist studies. Perhaps matter mattered right from the beginning, given how matter was intertwined with woman and the maternal. Who could forget Adrienne Rich’s instruction to “begin with the material,” from her “Notes Toward a Politics of Location” first published in 1984: “Begin, we said, with the material, with matter, mma, madre, mutter, moeder, modder” (1986: 213). For further discussion and explanation of what I consider to be the problematic genealogy implied by claiming a “new materialism” see Ahmed (2008).

[ii] Hasana Sharpe is careful to note that the analogy bequeaths wisdom to humans rather than implying they are “dumb as rocks” (2011: 67). A she points out: “all beings include a power of thinking that corresponds exactly to the power of their bodies to be disposed in different ways” (66). There is thus “a power of thinking that belongs to the stone” (67). Schopenhauer and Spinoza are closer than it might seem from a first reading of Schopenhauer on Spinoza.

[iii]  We could go even further: we might even have to lose the stone to make room for other findings. It might be important to recognise that even designating something as a stone is an all too human designation. Tim Ingold describes:  “Suppose that I find a stone, and wonder whether I might use it as a missile, for hammering, or perhaps as a pendulum bob or paperweight. For none of these purposes need the stone be modified. But the tiny insect hiding behind the stone never perceived its ‘stoniness’: it simply perceived concealment, and responded accordingly” (1986: 3).  In this book, Ingold remains relatively committed to the difference between humans and other animals as a difference of consciousness and intentionality. But what I find so evocative about this description is both the reminder that “objectness” is an orientation towards what we encounter rather than what we encounter, as well as the implication that activities are also perceptions for subjects of all kinds: we might perceive something as a dwelling insofar as we are aiming to dwell; a concealing insofar as we aim to conceal, and so on. Whatever we think of and call a stone might have its own projects or leanings. A less human occupation might be one that takes occupation more seriously as a life activity or praxis. I use “less” and “more” advisedly: the most human occupations in my view are often the ones that proceed from the thought that humans can escape human occupation, that we can make ourselves (including our locations, our dwellings, our orientations) disappear from our own thought by thought.

[iv] The story can be found here: http://heartsonfire33.wordpress.com/2012/04/25/the-parable-of-the-willful-stones/


Ahmed, Sara  (2008). “Imaginary Prohibitions: Some Preliminary Remarks on the Founding Gestures of the New Materialism,” European Journal of Women’s Studies.15, 1: 23-39.

————- (2006). Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham:  Duke University Press.

Augustine.  (1991). On Free Choice of the Will. Trans. Thomas Williams. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Clare, Eli (2015) [1999]. Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness and Liberation. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome (2010). “Stories of Stone.” Postmedieval: A Journal of Medieval Cultural Studies. 1: 56-63.

Deleuze, Gilles (2006). Nietzsche and Philosophy.Trans. Hugh Tomlinson. London: Continuum.

Ingold, Tim (1986). The Appropriation of Nature: Essays on Human Ecology and Social Relations. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Kirk, G.S., R.E.Raven and M.Schofield (1988). [1957]. The Pre-Socratic Philosophers: A  Critical History with a Selection of Texts. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lorde, Audre (1984). Zami: A New Spelling of my Name. London: Sheba Feminist Publishers.

Rich, Adrienne (1986). “Notes Toward a Politics of Location” in Blood, Bread, and Poetry Selected Prose 1979-1985.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company.

Schopenhauer, Arthur  (2005). [1839] Essay on the Freedom of the Will. Trans. Konstantin Kolenda. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications.


——— (1966). [1819] The World as Will and Representation, Volume 1. Trans  E.F.J. Payne. Mineola, NY: Dover.

——— (1966b). [1818] The World as Will and Representation, Volume 2.

Sharpe, Hasana (2011). Spinoza and the Politics of Re-Naturalization. Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

Stengers, Isabelle (2010). Cosmopolitics 1. Trans. Robert Bononno. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.



Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Feminism and Fragility

This is my first blog for 2016! Wishing you all a kick ass feminist year! I sent off my manuscript, Living a Feminist Life, at the end of last week. It was quite hard to let it go. But it is not gone, of course. The book is now officially in production and it will be coming out with Duke University Press in early 2017.

On January 20th I gave a lecture from the book, “Feminism and Fragility,” for the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths. It was yet another time in which it felt as if I was embodying my own arguments: I had a cold and my voice was very fragile. I had to speak quietly to hold onto my voice as if it was yet another fragile thread. Luckily it lasted!

I am sharing the text of this lecture, “Feminism and Fragility,” the version I gave at the NWSA last year. The lecture brings together strands from previous blogs posts, as well as different strands of the argument made in the book (across a range of chapters); although in the book each strand is followed through with much more detail, so I am able to pick up on things that I do not have the time to pick up here.

All best




Feminism and Fragility, Keynote presented at the National Women’s Studies Association conference, November 13 2015.

 The histories that bring us to feminism are often the histories that leave us fragile. It might be an experience of violence. It might be the gradual realisation that gender requires giving up possibilities you did not know you had; it might be a sense of being wronged or of something being wrong.  We often have a sense of things before we can make sense of things. And then perhaps you begin to put things together, different pieces, broken pieces, which reveal a social pattern. There can be joy in this process: those clicking moments, when something that had previously seemed obscure, or bizarre, begins to make sense. Feminism: how we make sense of things. But there can be sadness in these moments, too; you might feel all the more shattered, all the more fragile, the more you realise just how much there is to come up against.

Audre Lorde once described racism and sexism as “grown up words” (1984: 152). We acquire words afterwards, words that would have made sense of what we experience. Once we have the words, you are putting a sponge to the past: mopping things up, all that spillage. And in acquiring those words, we magnify the experiences that are difficult; we turn towards the very things that leave us fragile. No wonder feminist work is often about timing: sometimes we are too fragile to do this work; it can be too risky to risk being shattered when we are not ready to put ourselves back together again.

So in my lecture today I want to explore feminism and fragility.  The lecture is drawn from the book I am writing Living a Feminist Life in which I rethink “feminist theory” as “home work,” as what we are doing when we bump into the world, as what we are doing when we navigate restrictions that are in the world. I am going to be working with “fragility” rather than our conference key word “precarity” because I want to start with everyday scenes of breakage, though I will relate these related terms at a few key moments.[i] In my work I have followed words that have a certain kind of resonance in everyday life because of how they point or are pointed – often toward some bodies more than others. Examples include happiness and the will and when I was working with these words I was really working with unhappiness and willfulness. Fragility also has a certain kind of resonance because it tends to be used to indicate a quality: of a feeling (feeling fragile) or of an object or person (being fragile).  So today I explore how fragility itself is a thread, a connection, a fragile connection, between those things deemed breakable. I will be sharing some shattering stories.  In a shattering story there is often a too, a too that falls on what falls: fragility as the quality of being too easily breakable. I will start with some literary examples of objects breaking, ordinary breakages, ordinary things, as a way of opening up a reflection on histories that have become hard, histories that leave some things, some relationships, some bodies, more fragile than others.

Fragile Things

I want to begin with descriptions of objects breaking from two novels by George Eliot, Silas Marner and Adam Bede. I drew on these passages in the first chapter of my book, Willful Subjects (2014). I was working on Eliot as a novelist of the will, or as I call her, a novel philosopher of the will. Through rereading the corpus of Eliot’s work, I began to realise how often willfulness comes up in scenes of breakage. And it was objects as much as subjects that I found striking in her work; things that matter, broken things. A breakage is often accompanied by a story, a story of what breaks when something breaks, or an explanation of what is behind a breakage.  This first passage is from Silas Marner:

It was one of [Silas’s] daily tasks to fetch his water from a well a couple of fields off, and for this purpose, he had had a brown earthen ware pot, ever since he came to Raveloe, which he held as his most precious utensil, among the very few conveniences he had granted himself. It has been his companion for twelve years, always standing on the same spot, always lending its handle to him in the early morning, so that its form had an expression for him of willing helpfulness, and the impress of its handle on his palm gave a satisfaction mingled with that of having fresh clear water. One day as he was returning from the well, he stumbled against the step of the stile, and his brown pot, falling with force against the stones that overarched the ditch below him, was broken in three pieces. Silas picked up the pieces and carried them home with grief in his heart. The brown pot could never be of use to him anymore, but he stuck the pieces together and propped the ruin in its old place for a memorial ([1861] 1994: 17)

Silas is touched by his pot. The pot is his companion; reliable; always in the same spot, always lending its handle. When the pot lends Silas its handle, his palm receives the warmth of an impression; a warmth that has direction.  The pot is mingled with other things that share this direction, the fresh clear water the pot helps to carry; the body carrying the pot, the path taken in the carrying of the pot from the well to the house. A relation of use is one of affection, the wear and tear of a handle and a hand a trace of a shared history. If the pot lends Silas its handle, in order that Silas can do something, or get something, the pot and Silas are in agreement, a willing agreement.  When the pot is filled with the content of its agreement, its expression becomes that of willing helpfulness.  It is not that we attribute objects with qualities as such: the pot is useful because it is brown earthenware, made from a material that allows it to hold and carry water.  Rather, we attribute to objects the qualities of a relation: when something cannot carry out what we will; it is no longer quite so agreeable, no longer willingly helpful.  When the pot breaks, it is no longer in use, of use, it can take up its place by becoming memorial; a holder of memories, not water.

I will come back to this idea of “becoming memorial” in due course. In this case of the broken pot, it is Silas who in stumbling breaks the pot. But he does not stumble on his own; just as he does not carry the water on his own. He stumbles against something; the step of the stile. And if when he stumbles the pot falls, it breaks into pieces because of the force with which it meets something else, those hard stones in the ditch below. So much is, so many are, involved in a breakage.

I want to take another example of an object breaking, from Adam Bede. This time, we are at home with a family. A child Molly is drawing some ale for her mother Mrs. Poyser, but she is taking her time . “What a time that gell is drawing th’ ale” says Mrs. Poyser ([1895] 1961: 220). Molly we could say is “too slow,” she is lagging behind an expectation. Molly then appears, “carrying a large jug, two small mugs, and four drinking-cans, all full of ale or small beer – an interesting example of the prehensile power of the human hand” (221). Perhaps a handy hand is like a willingly helpful pot: filled with the content of an agreement. But then Molly has a “vague alarmed sense” (there is a storm, her mother is impatient). When she “hastened her step a little towards the table” she catches “her foot in her apron” and “fell with a crash and a smash into a pool of beer” (221). Whatever makes Molly fall, by falling she breaks the jug; leaving her “dolefully” to “pick up the fragments of pottery” (221).

We can deviate on this sadly clumsy note.  Could clumsiness could provide the basis for a queer ethics? Think of experiences of moving along a street with another.  If you are out of time with each other, the other person might appear as awkward or clumsy. Or we might turn toward each other in frustration, as we bump into each other yet again. Or you might experience yourself as being clumsy, as the one who is too slow, or too fast, as the one who is left picking up the pieces of a shattered intimacy.  Bumping into each other is a sign that we have not resolved our differences. The resolution of difference is a scene of much injustice.  Things might be smoother because some have had to adjust to keep up with others. Corporeal diversity, how we come to inhabit different kinds of bodies, with differing capacities and incapacities, rhythms and tendencies, could be understood as a call to open up a world that has assumed a certain kind of body as a norm.  The bumpier the ride could be an expression of the degree to which one style of embodiment has not determined an ethical or social horizon.  Rather than equality being about smoothing a relation perhaps equality is a bumpy ride.

Back to the jug: once the jug has broken, and some bumps lead to breakages, what happens?  Mrs Poyser remarks : “It’s all your own willfulness, as I tell you, for there’s no call to break anything.” Mrs. Poyser suggests Molly’s willfulness is what causes Molly to be wrong footed.  Willfulness is here a stopping device: it is how a chain of causality is stopped at a certain point (for the child to become the cause of the breakage we would not ask what caused the child to fall). And yet, willfulness seems to be catchy : “‘Mrs. Poyser had turned around from the cupboard with the brown-and-white jug in her hand, when she caught sight of something at the other end of the kitchen; perhaps it was because she was already trembling and nervous that the apparition had so strong an effect on her; perhaps jug-breaking, like other crimes, has a contagious influence. However it was, she stared and started like a ghost-seer, and the precious brown-and-white jug fell to the ground, parting for ever with its spout and handle.” Mrs. Poyser, we might say, catches Molly’s alarm; alarm is a chain reaction.

When Mrs. Poyser breaks this jug, she does not blame herself. She first offers a certain kind of fatalism: she says   “what is to be broke will be broke” (220, emphasis in original), a way of using will as a simple future auxiliary verb, but one that has a certain predictive force (what happen will happen, whatever will be will be). Gender often operates as a form of willing fatalism (what is to be boy will be boy, or more simply, and more usually, boys will be boys); gender as a sentencing to death, a bond of fate; a fatal bond. Even if the break seems like fate, Mrs. Poyser does eventually blames something, not herself but the jug: “The jugs are bewitched, I think….there’s times when the crockery seems alive an’ flies out o’ your hand like a bird” (222).  When the jug appears willful (in a precise sense as too full of its own will, as not empty enough to be filled by human will), it not only causes its own breakage but breaks the thread of a connection. Note the beginning of another connection, between a girl and a jug, a connection between those assumed to cause breakage. To pick up this connection is to pick up some of the fragile pieces.

We might note as well the link between deviation and breakage: to deviate from a path is to lose the potential to carry out will.  When we talk of a path in this context we are talking of the unfolding of an action in time; a path is what we have to take to reach something. To be on a path is to be in a moment of suspension: the hand has left its resting place, it is carrying something toward something, but the task has yet to be completed. The hand has not yet reached its destination.  A break is not only a break of something (a pot, a jug) it is the shattering of a possibility, the possibility of completing an action or of reaching a destination.   Happiness is often understood as a destination, as what we are reaching for when we reach for something.  A killjoy thus emerges from a scene of breakage: in preventing an action from being completed she stops happiness from becoming actual.

Walls and the Hardening of History

A break can be how a body comes up against an expectation; how a body can fall, trip, stumble, how a pot can shatter against a hard stone. I want to think here of how what we come up against can also have a history, a history that has become concrete; a history can become hard as stone; when stones are piled together they form walls. I first began thinking of histories as walls when completing a project on diversity work that I wrote about in my book, On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life (2012). Diversity work is the work we do when we aim to transform an institution often by trying to open them up to those who have been previously excluded. Many diversity workers are appointed by the very institutions they aim to transform. And yet many diversity workers I spoke to talked of how the institutions that appointed them would be what block their efforts.  Diversity work was described by one practitioner as “a banging your head against a brick wall job.”  A job description becomes a wall description.

I want to return to one of the examples from chapter 4 of On Being Included. It is from an interview with a diversity practitioner who is talking about her effort to get a new policy about appointment panels agreed. It is a good example of an encounter with an institutional wall. This example might seem far away from the scenes of objects breaking that I began with. But similar things eventually come up. This is the 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 be made. If they do not, it has not. A decision made in present about the future, a decision that is willed, that operates under the promissory sign “we will” is overridden by the momentum of the past. Note: 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. 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 the wall to be apparent. The practical effort let us be clear here is somebody’s effort: the labour of a diversity worker, her blood, sweat and tears. If this is a shattering story, it is she that is shattered (as she says “sometimes you just give up”). To be shattered can also mean to be exhausted. A story of walls is a story of being worn down, of coming up against the same thing.  To those who do not come against it, the wall does not appear: the institution is experienced as “yes” as open, committed and diverse, as happy as its mission statement, as willing as its equality statement.

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 prevents something from moving through the system. This is why I call diversity workers “institutional plumbers.” In this 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 those within the institution acted as if the policy has not been made. Agreeing to something can be one of the best ways of stopping something from happening.

The wall is a finding.  What stops movement moves.  If you witness only the movement (and contemporary social theory has an obsession with movement) you are not witnessing what (or who) is being stopped; you are not noticing the cement; that things hold together; how things hold together. Diversity work is hard in the sense of difficult: it is requires more effort to come up against that which keeps its place by not coming into view. But the brick wall is hard in other senses too.  In physics, hardness refers to the resistance of materials to change under force.  A wall, and I am thinking of an actual wall here, is made out of hard material. Say you throw something against the wall: a little object. You can witness the hardness of the wall by what happens to what is thrown: a wall might be scratched at the surface by encountering such an object. The object might splinter and break by the force of what it comes up against.

This is what diversity work sometimes feels like: scratching at the surface; scratching the surface. Hardness as a quality of things is revealed as an encounter between things. Diversity work involves an encounter: our bodies can be those little objects hurled against walls, those sedimented histories. The materiality of resistance to transformation: diversity workers know this materiality very well.  You encounter the materiality of resistance to transformation if you are trying to transform what has become material.

I think we can push this expression “it’s like banking your head against a brick wall” even further. It is important to recognise that the brick wall is a metaphor. It is not that there “really” is a wall; it is not an actual wall. That the wall is not an actual wall makes the wall even harder. The wall is a wall that might as well be there, because the effects of what is there are just like the effects of a wall. And yet not: if an actual wall was there, we would all be able to see the wall, or to touch it. The wall would provide evidence. Coming up against an institutional wall is to come up against what others do not notice; and (this is even harder) you come up against what others are often invested in not noticing.

The story of what happens to a diversity policy that doesn’t do anything is a tantalising tangible example of what goes on so much and so often. What happens to a diversity policy happens to diversity workers. When you complain about sexism or racism: a wall comes up. You might be dissuaded from complaining (it would damage your career or your prospects, a prediction that often works as a threat). Or if you do complain the allegations are not made public as a way of protecting the organisation from damage.  When you name sexism as well as racism you are often judged as causing damage.  If naming sexism and racism is judged as causing damage, we need to cause damage. And: the institutional response takes the form of damage limitation.  This is often how diversity takes institutional form: damage limitation.

 So: a policy disappears despite there being a paper trail, despite the evidence, or even because of the evidence.  People disappear too, because of what they try to make evident, of what they try to bring into view. You might disappear or you might just stop trying.  We learn: something might not come about not because we have been prevented from doing something but when the effort to bring something about is too much to sustain.

A wall is how a wall is not revealed.  Diversity workers might be treated as wall makers, as if to speak of walls is to bring something into existence that would otherwise not be there. Just recall the words of the diversity practitioner: “they just look at me as if I am saying something really stupid.” We can imagine the eyes rolling when she points out the policy.  The diversity worker is as 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.  It is interesting to me, on reflection, that it can be others who put into words something you have yourself have experienced. A killjoy: so often she borrows her words from others. So yes, we both recognised that each other recognised that scene.

It was from listening to diversity practitioners that I first began to develop an equation: rolling eyes equals feminist pedagogy.   The diversity worker in becoming an institutional killjoy is not heard; when she speaks of walls, walls come up.   A wall comes up in this reframing of walls as immaterial, as phantoms, as how we stop ourselves from being something. What we encounter in the world is thus dismissed as “in our heads.” We are familiar with this dismissal.  This means that: what is real, what is in concrete terms the hardest is not always available as an object that can be perceived or touched.   What is the hardest for some does not even exist for others.  If we are the little objects, and we shatter from throwing ourselves against a wall, but the wall does not appear to others, it might appear as if we are shattering ourselves. Perhaps, rather like Molly, it might be assumed that we are the ones who are wrong-footed, that we have willfully tripped ourselves up.

Fragile Relationships

And yes, it can be tiring, encountering the same thing over and over again. Diversity work is also the work we do when we not quite inhabit the norms of an institution.  Diversity work in this sense also involves coming up against walls, or what blocks a progression. When we fail to inhabit a norm (when we are questioned or question ourselves whether we are “it,” or pass as or into “it”), then it becomes more apparent, like the institutional wall: what does not allow you to pass through.  A life description can also be a wall description.

As we know diversity is often offered as a welcome. It appears as an invitation, an open door, translated into a tagline: Come in, come in! To be welcomed is to be positioned as not yet part, a guest or stranger, the one who is dependent on being welcomed (the word welcome, a “friendly greeting,” derives from will, “one whose coming suits another’s will”). Indeed a welcome leads us into a precarious situation. The word precarious derives from pray and means to be held through the favour of another, or dependent on the will of another, which is how precarious acquires the sense of risky, dangerous and uncertain. No wonder: an arrival can be precarious. If you are dependent on a door being opened, how quickly that door can be shut in your face.

After all, just because they invite you it doesn’t mean they expect you to turn up. What happens when people of colour turn up? How noticeable we can be in the sea of whiteness: “When I enter the room there is shock on peoples’ faces because they are expecting a white person to come in. I pretend not to recognize it. But in the interview there is unease because they were not expecting someone like me to turn up. So it is hard and uncomfortable and l can tell that they are uneasy and restless because of the way they fiddle and twitch around with their pens and their looks. They are uncomfortable because they were not expecting me – perhaps they would not have invited me if they knew l was black and of course l am very uncomfortable. l am wondering whether they are entertaining any prejudice against me.” They are not expecting you. A restlessness and uneasiness, a fidgeting and twitching, is a bodily registering of an unexpected arrival.  I pretend not to recognise it: diversity work can be the effort not to notice the bother caused by your own arrival.  There is pretence involved; this is not about pretending to be something you are not but pretending not to notice that you are not what they expect.

A wall can be an atmosphere. A wall can be a gesture. A queer experience: you are seated with your girlfriend, two women at a table; waiting. A straight couple walks into the room and is attended to right away; sir, madam, over here, sir, madam. Sometimes if you do not appear as you are expected to appear you do not appear. There are many who do not appear under this sir, madam. The gaze slides over you; as if you are not there. Note this is more about been seen to than being seen: when sir, madam becomes a question (is that sir, or madam?) or an apology (sir, oh sorry, madam) you are being seen; in becoming a question, a body is turned into a spectacle.

For some, you have to become insistent to be the recipient of a social action, you might have to announce your presence, wave your arm, saying: “Here I am!” For others, it is enough just to turn up because you have already been given a place at the table before you take up that place.  This is why I think of privilege as an energy saving device: less effort is required to be or to do.

A history can become concrete through the repetition of small encounters, encounters that require you to put the whole of your body, as well as your arms, behind an action. Maybe these actions seem small. Maybe they are small. Actions that are small can also become wall.  They can feel like a hammering, a chip, chip, chip, against your being, so that eventually you begin to feel smaller, hammering as hammered down. Chip, chip, chip. Things splinter.  Maybe we can turn that chip, chip, chip into a hammer: we might chip away at the old block. Who knows eventually it might come right off. A break can be what we are aiming for.

Relationships can break too, we know this. Have you ever been with someone, someone who you are trying to love, trying not to give up on, and they say something that you find unbearable? You can hear glass shatter; that point when you realise what you had is something that cannot be reassembled.  If you put the pieces back together, you would be left rather like Silas, with a memorial, a holder of memories.

When my own parents broke up, a friend of the family came around to talk to my mother, who was the one who had been left. He says “This is what happens when you marry a Muslim.” The words were uttered pointedly, cutting the atmosphere like a knife. Relationships and families breaking up: it happens. Shit happens. But in a mixed relationship a break becomes what we were heading for, right from the beginning. For a white woman, an English Christian woman, to marry out, to marry a brown man, a Pakistani Muslim, leads her only to this point, this ending, a relationship that “could only end in tears,” becoming retrospectively, always tearful.

When things were going smoothly, this friend said nothing. When things break, race comes up. We learn making from breaking. Racism hovers in the background when things are working, which is how race can come up so quickly, when things stop working.

A wall: reassembled at the point of shattering.

For queers to make relationships work can also be a pressure as well as a project. You know that if there is a break up it can fulfil an expectation that such relationships are less lasting, less secure; fragile. There is a kind of queer fatalism at stake here: that to be on a queer path is to hurtle toward a miserable fate, queer as a death sentence; queer as self-shattering. And then if things do shatter (as things do tend to do) you have fulfilled an expectation that “this” is where being queer led you to.

From the example of mixed and queer relationships we learn how some are assumed to be inherently broken, as if their fate is to break. And that is a difficult assumption to live with. Think of how if you are already known as the clumsy one, you might become even more afraid of breakage, because you know that if there is a breakage, you will be judged as the one who is behind it. The harder you try the more you seem to slip up.  Fragility is generative: the quality assumed to belong to something is generated by that very assumption.   A consequence is then a recruited as a cause. It might be assumed you caused your own damage because you left the safety of a brightly lit path.  Gender norms too can work like this: when femininity is registered as fragility, when that fragility is used to explain what happens to her, or what she can or cannot do, a consequence of power is recruited as cause.  She is treated with caution and care because she is fragile; because she is treated with caution and care, she is fragile.  Politics is what happens in between these “becauses.”

Or think of how leaving the accepted social paths can be to leave behind support systems; those institutional ways of holding, protecting, nurturing.   To leave a support system can mean to become more fragile, less protected from the bumps of ordinary life. Racial capitalism is a support system: the uneven distribution of bodily precarity is the uneven distribution of support. When we say something is precarious we often mean it is in a precarious position: that vase at the edge of the mantelpiece, if it was pushed, just a little bit, just a little bit, it would topple right over. This position is what has become generalised when we speak of precarious populations. Living on the edge: a life lived as a fragile thread, when life becomes the effort to hold onto what keeps unravelling.  To be black, of colour, poor is to have less to fall back on when you fall.

Compulsory heterosexuality is another elaborate support system – the path is kept clear to ease a progression, loves cherished, losses mourned.  No wonder: so much feminist and queer invention comes from creating our own support systems.  We need to handle what we come up against. But what if the handle is what breaks?  Fragility: losing the handle. When the jug loses it handle it becomes useless.  We sense the terror of its fate: the fragments swept up and away. To lose the handle can feel like losing yourself.  The figure of the feminist killjoy recalls that of the broken jug: she too “flies of the handle” an expression used to indicate the suddenness of anger.  I am going to repeat almost word for word from two sentences I used in my reading of broken pots and jugs from George Eliot novels; I want us to hear the resonance.

When she is filled with the content of her agreement, her expression becomes that of willing helpfulness.

 She not only causes her own breakage she breaks the thread of a connection.

Feminism as self-breakage; history enacted as judgment.  Or feminism as a tear in the social fabric; history enacted as loss; a tear; a tear.  To give a cause to breakage is to create a figure, one that can contain the damage by explaining the damage. The feminist killjoy is such a figure.  To be a container of damage is to be a damaged container. The feminist killjoy: a leaky container.

She is right there; there she is, all teary, what a mess. Say you are seated at the family table. Someone is winding you up. It is frustrating when you end up wound up by someone who is winding you up.  The one who speaks as a feminist is heard as the one who ruins the atmosphere. Another dinner ruined! If she does speak in temper, and let’s face it sometimes we do, if she snaps, what is not witnessed is what she has had to put up with, that history of provocation, of being wound up, the slower time of bearing. It is like when you put a twig under pressure, and eventually it snaps. The snap only seems like the starting point because it is harder to notice the pressure on the twig. A snap: a moment with a history. And then: when she snaps it as if she is the one who is starting something, creating conflict, disagreeing because she is being disagreeable.  Feminism: a history of disagreeable women!

If we hear this sentence as an exclamation it can sound empowering. But let’s not rush too quickly: we might stumble again; we might fall. Because after all you might be with those whom you love, you might want to preserve a relationship; you might not want things to break. Say my close friends are laughing at a joke. I might start laughing too; before I even hear the joke. But when I hear the joke, and when I register what has been said, I might find that I do not it funny, or even that I find it offensive. Then the words become clear, distinct, and sharp. If I stop laughing, I withdraw from a bodily intimacy. Sometimes we might keep laughing out of fear of causing a breakage.

Sometimes we stop laughing. Things fall apart. Feminism might be how we pick up the pieces. This is why the first of my conclusions to Living a Feminist Life is a killjoy survival kit. The second is a killjoy manifesto. Before we get to the manifesto we must survive. Feminism needs feminists to survive; feminists need feminism to survive.  A killjoy survival might be about meeting other killjoys: you recognise the other person knows what it is like to be assumed to be as the one always breaking things. However it is not that our experience of being killjoys together means that we simply can come together, to build a shelter that is warm (although the idea of a killjoy shelter is very appealing!). If we have to fight to exist we can also experience each other too as sharp and brittle.  This is why the feminist killjoy does not disappear when we are building feminist shelters. In fact, she appears very quickly.  A feminist killjoy can kill feminist joy: indigenous feminists; black feminists; feminists of colour; disabled feminists; lesbian feminists; trans feminists; working-class feminists; all of these figures embody a history that is difficult. It is a history of becoming a sore point within feminism because of who you are, what you say, what you do, because of the history you bring up just by entering the room. No matter how difficult some of our experiences of being a feminist killjoy, they do not prepare you for what it is like to be in feminist spaces and still be the problem.  

Walls come up in the places we go to feel less depleted by walls.

You can become a problem just be turning up. You can become a problem because of what you bring up. One time I am speaking of racism in a seminar. A white woman comes up to me afterwards and puts her arm next to mine. We are almost the same colour, she says. No difference, no difference. You wouldn’t really know you were any different to me, she says. The very talk about racism becomes a fantasy that invents difference. She smiles, as if the proximity of our arms was evidence that the racism of which I was speaking was an invention, as if our arms told another story. She smiles, as if our arms are in sympathy. I say nothing. Perhaps my arm speaks by withdrawing.

The withdrawal of an arm can be enough to create tension, as if by withdrawing your arm you are refusing a gesture of love and solidarity. Reconciliation is often presented as a gesture of good will, a handy gesture, where the hand outstretched is the hand of the settler or occupier. If the outstretched hand is not shaken, something has been broken, the promise of reconciliation; the promise that we can get on; the promise that we can move on.  You can break a promise without making a promise.

If you refuse the gesture of sympathy you become mean. In my own experience of pointing out racism, it is assumed not only that you cause other people hurt, but that you “intended” that hurt.  Robin DiAngelo has called “white fragility” the “inability to handle the stress of conversations about race and racism” (2011: np).  I noted earlier that a consequence can be recruited as a cause.  A cause can also be recruited as a defence: as if to say, we won’t hear what we can’t handle. Just as an aside here, this is what I mean by theory as home work: I think we are learning more about causality, how it can function as a social habit, by drawing on examples from everyday life than we would if we proceeded hypothetically (that old billiard ball). White fragility is this: a way of stopping the chain of causality, such that whiteness is defended against that which or those who would trip it up. We are learning here about the very mechanisms that lead us to a familiar place: when you speak about racism you become the one who causes damage.  Racism: damage to whiteness. Remember diversity: damage limitation.

An emphasis on fragility as the potential to break can stop words like racism from being sent out, as if those words are pointed, as if the point of those words is to break the ones to whom it is assumed they are directed.  Mrs. Poyser, remember her, when she breaks her jug, that sad parting, says : “It’s them nasty glazed handles – they slip o’er the finger like a snail” ([1895] 1961: 220).  When objects are not means to our ends, they are mean. To be mean is not only to be stingy and unkind it is to stop what is desired or intended from becoming actual.  To be judged as mean is to get in the way of community: as shattering a possibility that we can be whole, that we can be one.

Fragile Bodies

In this concluding section I want to think of fragility as a corporeal experience. If we keep coming up against walls, it feels like we can shatter into a million pieces. Tiny little pieces.

 Bodies break. That too. That is not all that bodies do.

 Bones break. That too. Though that is not all that bones do.

I have a story. Let me give you the bare bones of it. One time, I was in New York at the gym and I was joking with somebody. I said: I have never broken a bone; I said, I don’t think my bones are breakable. It was a joke, but a silly thing to say. And then not more than a week later I fell and broke something. I am not saying that saying this led to that; but that break did feel like fate!

I fell on the hard stone floor of the bathroom.  I fractured my pelvis. For two months or so I used crutches; and in some circumstances, I used a wheel chair. I understood this disability to be temporary, as something I would pass through, which I have no doubt framed the situation.  But despite the sense of passing through a disabled body, I learnt how disability is worldly because I came up against the world; the different ways you are treated, the opening of doors, concerned faces, the closing of doors, rigid indifference. But most of all, I came to feel the little bumps on the street, little bumps I had even noticed before. It felt like I kept bumping into the street, bumps became walls that took a huge amount of energy just to get over or around.

Slow; heavy; down.

The little bumps I had not noticed before.   What for some, are little bumps, for others, are walls. So many walls we do not encounter because of the body we have. I began to think more about my able-bodied privilege, which is not to say, I have thought about it enough: I have not. It is easy for me to forget to think about it, which is what makes a privilege a privilege: the experiences you are protected from having; the thoughts you do not have to think.

When bodies break, they intrude into consciousness, you can experience yourself as clumsy thing, as getting in the way of yourself. Gloria Anzaldúa once wrote: “I’m a broken arm” (1983: 204). She too was writing about fragility, about being brittle and bone, she was writing about being a queer woman of colour. Slow, heavy, down; brown. I am a broken arm: we repeat history at the moment we fracture; or we become a fracture of a body.  The broken arm is a queer kin to the willful arm discussed in my book, Willful Subjects (2014). A grim story: the arm is striking because it keeps coming up, despite the death of the body of which it is part. An arm goes on strike when it does not work, when it refuses to be usefully employed. There are many ways to be striking. Something becomes all the more striking when it fractures; it becomes all the more striking when it does not enable you to move on or to get on with things. A body goes on strike when it gets in the way of what you want to accomplish. Mia Mingus describes : “We can swing on a vine all day long yelling ‘socially-constructed’ but eventually I think we would hit a brick wall and I think that brick wall is our bodies” (2013: np). Bodies become walls. Any social justice project has to have disabilities in mind, has to think from an experiences of having, say, chronic fatigue syndrome, has to think of a body for whom getting up or staying up is hitting a brick wall.

A wall can be what you wake up to. Audre Lorde in The Cancer Journals describes with acute detail how it feels to wake up after a mastectomy, to wake up to the gradual realization through the fog of tranquilizers that her “right breast is gone,” and of the increasing pain in her chest wall: “My breast which was no longer there would hurt as if it were being squeezed in a vise. That was perhaps the worst pain of all, because it would come with a full complement that I was to be forever reminded of my loss by suffering in a part of me which was no longer there” ([1980] 1997: 37-8 The Cancer Journals also offers an account of the willfulness required not to wear a prosthesis in the place of a missing breast. Once when she goes to the surgery the nurse comments  “You’re not wearing a prosthesis,” to which Lorde replies, “It really doesn’t feel right.” The nurse responds: “You will feel so much better with it on,” and then, “It’s bad for the morale of the office” (60). Here the broken body intrudes into social consciousness, becoming a reminder of illness and fragility that is unwanted.  A broken body can be a killjoy: she gets in the way of happiness by the way she appears. Yes equality is a bumpy ride. Smoothing things over often means: eliminating the signs of injury to create a fantasy of a whole.  Smoothing things over often means: eliminating those who are reminders of an injury.

 Perhaps those who are bad for morale can join forces. Audre Lorde’s response to this demand is not only anger but a call for action : “What would happen if an army of one-breasted women descended on Congress and demanded that the use of carcinogenic, fat-stored hormones in beef-feed be outlawed?” she asks (14-5). An army of one-breasted women: what would happen? What could happen?  A queer crip army would be assembled; an army made out of bodies without parts, or even parts without bodies.

An army: assembled from bodies that are always tripping up. Clumsiness can be a crip as well as queer ethics. Crip and queer: both these words have hurtful histories; words that drip with insult. They are words that are claimed, becoming pointed; becoming ways of pointing to something, because they keep alive that history: negation as a political sensation For Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick what makes queer a “politically potent term” is how it cleaves to “childhood scenes of shame” (1993: 4). For Alison Kafer the word “crip” is a word to use when you want a wince: “this desire to make people wince suggests an urge to shake things up, to jolt people out of their everyday understandings of bodies and minds, of normalcy and deviance” (2013: 15). Queer and crip are words that work by what they insist on bringing up; a charged history, a sharp history, a fragile history, shattering words.

A shattering can be an affinity.  A queer crip politics might allow the body deemed not whole, a broken body, to be revealed, a revelation that might be registered as a willful obtrusion into social consciousness (“bad for morale”). A queer crip politics might involve a refusal to cover over what is missing, a refusal to aspire to be whole.  There can be nothing more willful than the refusal to be aspirational.

We can refuse to miss what we are deemed to be missing.

We can share a refusal.

Perhaps from fragility can think of other ways of building feminist shelters.  We might then think of fragility not so much as the potential to lose something, fragility as loss, but as a quality of relations we acquire, or a quality of what is we build. A fragile shelter has looser walls, made out of lighter materials; see how they move. A movement is what is built to survive what has been built.  When we loosen the requirements to be in a world, we create room for others to be.

Can we give ourselves a break? Is there a way of relating to breaking that does not aim for restoration? Can the fragments reassemble in or from being shattered? Wear and tear: traces of time on the surface of a body, the warmth of affection, comings and goings, the sharpness of an edge, things we endure; a raised voice, sharp, brittle. A fragment: what snaps off is on the way to becoming something else.  Feminism: on the way to becoming something else.  Shattering: scattering.  What is shattered so often is scattered, strewn all over the place. A history that is down, heavy, is also messy, strewn.  The fragments: an assembly. In pieces.  Becoming army.



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

————— (2012). On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Durham: Duke University Press.

Anzaldúa, Gloria (1983). “La Prieta” in Cherrie Morago and Gloria Anzaldúa (eds). The Bridge Called my Back: Writings by Radical Women of Colour. Watertown: Persephone Press.198-209.

Eliot, George (1994). [1861] Silas Marner. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics.

——————-  (1961). [1895] Adam Bede. New York: Signet Classics.

DiAngelo, Robin (2011). “White Fragility,” The International Journal of  CriticalPedagogy, vol 3: http://libjournal.uncg.edu/ijcp/article/view/249

Kafer, Alison (2013). Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Lorde, Audre (1997). The Cancer Journals. Aunt Lute Books: San Francisco.

——————- (1988). A Burst of Light, Essays. Ithaca, New York: Firebrand Books.

——————–(1984). Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Trumansburg: The Crossing Press.

Mingus, Mia (2013). Interview. http://www.theicarusproject.net/disability/video-interview-wmia-mingus-on-disability-justice. Last accessed February 15 2015.

Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky (1993). “Queer Performativity: Henry James’s The Art of the Novel.” GLQ: 1, 1: 1-14.

[i] In the introduction to the version of the talk I gave at the Centre for Feminist Research on January 20 2016, I acknowledged the recent special issue of Feminist Review edited by Sadie Wearing, Yasmin Gunaratnam and Irene Gedalof on the theme of frailty and debility. In her reflections on this special issue in a subsequent blog, Yasmin Gunaratnam notes how most of the contributions reflected on debility rather than frailty. She asks: “what might be happening in the apparent feminist reluctance, or at least ambivalence, in engaging with frailty and its associations with bodily weakness, susceptibility and a wearing away?” I have been working with the word “fragility,” from which the word frailty derives; fragility is from fragilis, which means “brittle, easily broken,” from the root of frangere “to break” in the sense of a fraction: to break as to break into pieces. One of the reasons I am using the word “fragility” is because fragility points to things as well as bodies: we might speak of feeling or being fragile, yes, but we might also place a sticker “fragile: handle with care” on a package because it contains that delicate porcelain pot we do not want to break. Fragility might thus give us a different kind of handle on the weak and the wearing.

Posted in Uncategorized | 15 Comments

Feminist Shelters

As the year 2015 draws to an end, I am having some quiet days working on my book, Living a Feminist Life. I think I am doing what you might call the finishing touches. So that means: a bit of polishing, tidying things up (but leaving enough mess to show signs of labor!); moving things around. Moving text around a manuscript is rather like moving furniture around a room: just a little move, here or there, of this or that, and everything can feel different. The book is almost ready to go into production. At least: I think it is! I will miss working on it: I have learnt so much from writing it, from presenting from it, and from this blog which has been a companion text I have been feeding with thoughts alongside it. Even when the book has gone off to the next stage of its life (there are still quite a few more stages before it is out and about) I will keep writing this blog. A feminist killjoy: her work is never over!

Writing the book has been like: trying to build a feminist shelter. I often think of books as houses. They are built out of stuff. They create room for us to dwell. And I think of citations as bricks. When citations become habits, bricks form walls. I mentioned in one of my earlier posts that I have adopted a very strict citation policy in Living a Feminist Life. I do not cite any white men. And by “white men” I am describing an institution, as well as the mechanisms for reproducing an institution. White men: a citational relational. This is I know a very blunt citation policy. How imprecise! We could have a long conversation about whether such-and-such author is or is not part of the institution we can call “white men.”  I did not have time or space for these conversations: at least not here, not now. Sometimes we need to be blunt to change a habit. I am willing to be blunt.

This book is a deliberate departure from my other work:  I wanted to re-orientate my writing by what or who I was not citing. I have always been conscious of the politics of citation. I have always been aware of how worlds are built around citational habits; of how a body of work acquires consistency by which bodies are left out from that body. This was from an endnote in Queer Phenomenology (2006):

This is especially true for disciplinary lines or the lines that accumulate to produce formations of knowledge. Sometimes I get amazed when people say they are not aware of the work done by feminist, black and postcolonial scholars on questions relevant to general debates within cultural studies or philosophy. How can you not know, I want to ask. How can they not be cited, I protest. What I have learnt is that “non knowing” about certain things is an effect of the lines people have already taken, which means they “attend” to some things only by giving up proximity to others, which is at the same time giving up on certain futures. Such a “giving up” is not conscious or even a loss that can be made present. We do not know what follows from the lines that we have not followed as an effect of the decisions we have taken.  Given that some lines more than others are lines of privilege (following such lines is “returned” by reward, status and recognition), then the loss of certain futures becomes a political loss and a necessary site of political struggle.  So point to such exclusions we must!

I always hope to do more than point to exclusions. I also want to acknowledge my debts through citation. Citation is feminist memory. It is how we leave a trail of where we have been and who helped us along the way. But this time, in this book,  I have a citation policy. And that has made quite a difference.

I don’t think I was in a position to have this policy for other projects. I needed certain materials to make certain arguments. In The Promise of Happiness (2010) I needed to place the figure of the feminist killjoy in relation to the history of happiness, to make sense of how she appears; in Willful Subjects (2014), I needed to place the figure of the willful subject in relation to the history of the will for her too to make sense. But once these figures came up, they gave me a different handle. They acquired their own life. Or should I say: my writing was able to pick up figures because of the life they already had. These figures have quickly became a source of new forms of connection. They are, after all, how I have been organizing this blog (one more than the other, but one comes with the other).  And since I have begun this blog, I have received communications from many students including not only undergraduates and postgraduates but also high school students about their own experience of being feminist killjoys and willful subjects. I have learnt so much from these communications. In a genuine sense, the book comes out of them. I will be addressing this book to feminist students. It is intended for you.

Whilst writing the book I have been thinking more about what it means to be a feminist in the academy and of how we enact feminism in how we relate to the academy. I mentioned in my contribution to an event that took place at Goldsmiths in 2013 on Judith Butler’s work, how, when I was doing my PhD, I was told I had to give my love to this or that male theorist, to follow them. This would not necessarily take the form of an explicit command but often through a nudge, an apparently gentle but increasingly insistent questioning: are you a Derridean; no, so are you a Lacanian, no, oh, ok are you a Deleuzian, no, then what? If not, then what? Maybe my answer should have been: if not, then not!  I was never willing to agree to this restriction. How willful!

Willfulness is a shared feminist resource. Not to agree with this restriction required the help of other feminists. If we can create our paths by not following, we still need others before us. By not citing white men in this book I gave myself more room to attend to this “before.” So: I cite the many women who have contributed to the intellectual genealogy of feminism, including work that has been too quickly (in my view) cast aside or left behind; work that lays out other paths, paths we can call desire lines, created by not following the official paths laid out by disciplines. These paths might have become fainter from not being traveled upon; so we might work harder to find them; we might to be willful just to keep them going by not going the way we have been directed. In Living a Feminist Life I aim to cite as many feminists of color as I can (though I could always cite more!) who have contributed to the project of naming and dismantling the institutions of patriarchal whiteness.  I consider the book primarily as a contribution to feminist of color scholarship and activism; this body of work is where I feel most at home; it is where I find energy as well as resources.

Citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from which, we create our dwellings. My citation policy has affected the kind of house I have built. I realized this not simply from writing the book, from what I found about what came up in how the words piled up, but also from giving presentations.

Let me explain: in some of my previous work, as I note above, I have built a philosophical edifice by my engagement with the history of ideas (not only that – I follow words out of the history of ideas and into everyday lifeworlds – but including that). We cannot conflate the history of ideas with “white men” though if doing one leads to the other that teaches us something about where ideas are assumed to originate.

 Seminal: how ideas are assumed to originate from male bodies.

I now think of that philosophical edifice as like a timber frame around which a house is being built. In this book I have not built a house by using that frame. And I have felt much more exposed. Perhaps citations are feminist straw: lighter materials that, when put together still create a shelter but a shelter that leaves you more exposed. That is how it felt writing this work and speaking from it: exposed. It is like being in the wind; being blown about, more or less, depending on what I encounter. The words I sent out danced around me; I began to pick up on things I had not noticed before; I began to hear resonances. I began to wonder how much I had in the past built an edifice to create distance.

Sometimes we need distance to follow a thought. I know that. Sometimes we need to give up distance to follow that thought. I am realizing that.

Here is a link to the last lecture I gave this year “Self-Care as Warfare: Fragility, Militancy and Audre Lorde’s Legacies” (1). You can hear the exposure, I think, in the sound of it. I am stumbling when talking about stumbling. It is not surprising that we come to feel what we are speaking about when we are speaking about it. I still have much to learn from this. I am glad of the opportunity to learn from this.

A few sentences from the lecture:

Perhaps from fragility we can think of other ways of building feminist shelters. We might think of fragility not so much as the potential to lose something, fragility as loss, but as a quality of relations we acquire, or a quality of what is we build. A fragile shelter has looser walls, made out of lighter materials; see how they move. A movement is what is built to survive what has been built.  When we loosen the requirements to be in a world, we create room for others to be.

Wishing all feminist killjoys all the best for 2016! May you keep shattering things! May you keep chipping away at those brick walls! May you make room for yourself and others to be!

[1] This lecture took given at Kent University on December 10th 2015. I am always grateful for the opportunity to speak about, with, and to Audre Lorde, so my sincere thanks to Stella Bolaki and Sabine Broeck for the invitation. The event was to launch their wonderful edited collection, Audre Lorde’s Transnational Legacies published this year. I  highly recommend it!


Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments

Melancholic Universalism


What do I mean by “melancholic universalism”? Melancholic universalism is the requirement to identify with the universal that repudiates you. I can imagine this statement might not make immediate sense: surely, the universal does not repudiate anyone; surely, for the universal to be “universal” it includes everyone.

Not so sure.

I would say: the universal is a structure not an event. It is how those who are assembled are assembled. It is how an assembly becomes a universe.

The universal is the promise of inclusion that has become heavy or weighed down by the way the promise has been send out and about: to promise is to send out as I explored in my book The Promise of Happiness (2010). The promise of the universal is what conceals the very failure of the universal to be universal. In contemporary theory this paradox of the promise that conceals its own failure (any failure becomes failure to live up to the promise) has led to the reinvention of universalism as formalism: the universal as pure or empty form, as abstraction from something or anything in particular.

But remember: abstraction is an activity. To abstract is to drag away. The very effort to drag the universal away from the particular is what makes the promise of the universal a particular promise; a promise that seems empty enough to be filled by anyone is how a promise evokes someone.

It is the emptiness of the promise that is the form of the universal; it is how the universal takes form around some bodies that do not have to transform themselves to enter the room kept open by the universal.

The universal: what a drag. The universal is drag; in drag.

Formalist universalism: how universalism stays up. I talked about universalism as a theoretical brick wall in my book, Willful Subjects (2014). That is to say: universalism is a wall that exists in the world of “theory.” In the fourth chapter I described how those lodged as particular can dislodge the general. Assembling a willfulness archive gives us another way to challenge the formalist universalism of philosophers such as Alain Badiou and Slavoj Žižek, which rests on more and less muted critiques of “particularism” and “identity politics.” The latter for example argues in relation to St. Paul thathis universe is no longer that of the multitude of groups that want to ‘find their voice,’ and assert their particular identity, their ‘way of life,’ but that of a fighting collective grounded in the reference to an unconditional universalism” (2003: 10). Žižek is not necessarily making an argument in his own terms here; but the use of quote marks works to create a caricature of identity politics that is familiar both from his own writing and more general consensus. We need to challenge this consensus. Perhaps some have “ways of life” because others have lives: some have to find voices because others are given voices; some have to assert their particulars because others have their particulars given general expression.

I was using the language of the general will rather than universalism here. General: to generalise. Universal: to universalise.

And: no matter how convincing feminist and anti-racist critiques of universalism (of how the white man becomes the universal subject) universalism seems to come back up, right up, straight and upright, very quickly. I have also called this mechanism a “spring back mechanism.” An order is quickly e-established because the effort to transform that order becomes too exhausting. Universalism: when you push against it, you become pushy.

Back to the same thing.

Same old, same old.

The following two descriptions are from two endnotes of Willful Subjects (2014):


As Judith Butler describes with characteristic precision: “Hegel is clearly exposing what happens when a faction sets itself up as the universal and claims to represent the general will, where the general will supersedes the individual wills of which it is composed and, in fact, exists at their expense. The ‘will’ that is officially represented by the government is thus haunted by a ‘will’ that is excluded from the representative function. Thus the government is established on the basis of a paranoid economy in which it must repeatedly establish its one claim to universality by erasing all remnants of those wills it excludes from the domain of representation” (2000: 22). The universal is haunted by the will whose exclusion it both demands and conceals. Perhaps Willful Subjects has given this ghost a history.


I would extend this critique to Badiou’s formal universalism resting on set theory. If this book was read as a willful subject who was returning Badiou’s address, the book might say: hey I am not part of your set! We can use our particulars to challenge the very form of universality, which is only empty insofar as it extends from some particulars and not others whilst “emptying” the set from the very signs of this extension (the universal is an emptiness that cannot receive other particulars – just like the emptiness of the French secular nation based on laicité cannot accommodate the particularity of the veil). My argument extends over a century of feminist challenges to universalism. We have to keep up the challenge as the critiques of universalism do not seem to get through: I would describe universalism as a theoretical brick wall, which is to say a wall that exists in the actual world of theory. I realised what is at stake in Badiou and Zizek’s work for those of us who want to dislodge the universal, which I have primarily addressed in terms of the general will, when I read John D. Caputo’s introduction to an edited collection on St. Paul and the philosophers in which he lavishes praise on both. Caputo writes: “Each segment of identity politics creates a new market of specialty magazines, books, bars, websites, DVDS, radio stations, a lecture circuit for its most marketable propaganderizes, and so on” (2009: 6). He then states “cultural identity” fits “hand in glove with the ever-proliferating system of global culture” (6). We must challenge these kinds of caricatures of identity politics which not only assume identity as in the hand of the market (almost as if identity is created to express the will of the market) but also for its gross under-description of what is stake in challenging the universal. We might note the irony that Zizek and Badiou might not need to create a so-called “segment of identity politics” to guarantee their own lecture tours (indeed the critique of identity politics is probably more profitable and more inductive to the logic of capital; their critiques have mobility as they participate in “giving hand” of the right of some to occupy space).  I would also suggest that the willingness to attribute agency to capital is part of rather than a critique of capitalist agency. I would also remind readers that markets do have their own hands (the myth of the invisible hand is the capitalist myth) and the markets are supplemented by hands. If the markets don’t want what is otherwise socially and politically valued, then ideology becomes a retainer: the use of ideological reasoning over the market was evident in the cutting of courses with high student numbers in universities in the UK. The hands of management will become visible only at some points; but they are always at work. The Universalist philosophers are handy: they grab the universal with two hands.

We can begin to see in these descriptions why I now want to describe universalism as melancholic. Not all universalism is melancholic. That is precisely my point: that the universal is distributed. Some embody its promise; others embody the failure to live up to the promise.

Universalism becomes melancholic when you are required to identify with the very promise that you fail to embody.

You can break a promise without making a promise.

This history: broken promises.

But then: universalism is how some of us can enter the room. It is how that entry is narrated as magical; as progress.  It is how universalism becomes the requirement to be grateful for what you have to give up.

Feminist uses of universalism are usually melancholic: you identify with the universal even though it has been predicated on the universalising of a subject whom you cannot be.

No wonder: I find feminist universalism depressing! It is depressing.

We have been here before: male universal, female relative; women understood as female relatives. Sexism is predicated on universalism; racism too.

Universalism: how some are understood as being in relation.

In his exceptional book Melancholia and Moralism Douglas Crimp offers an analysis of gay conservatism as melancholic that I am drawing upon here (2004: 13). Conservative gays identify with the family even though the family repudiates them and their desires. Note the question of identification is not simply at the level of sharing an ideal: it is also a form of work (and emotional labour). You try to be as close to the thing (that is the source of your rejection) as you can be. You try and demonstrate that you are normal even when your desires take you away from the normal. The normal is certainly formal. You assume that this approximation might be rewarded with recognition: oh, you too, you are just like us; after all, you are just like us. You mime in the hope that those you mimic become approving of you; that they might register your becoming with approval. This approximation is often vain or in vain. You are repudiated, still. You fail to be what you aspire to be.

You are putting yourself close to the very scene of your own rejection.

And: scenes of rejection follow.

To be rejected by the universal whose promise is not extended to you: melancholic universalism.

Rejection; dejection.

Melancholic universalism is also an activity: but I want to use it to describe something other than a conscious effort to be like or proximate to the thing that rejects you. I want to describe it as a requirement or a compulsion: you must identify with the very thing that rejects you in order to be in the world at all. The all registers here as necessary for being. Of course we don’t always do what we must do. But the effort not to identify with the universal comes with great cost: you are identified as doing “identity politics,” too attached to your own particulars.  Your very existence is then explained as an over-attachment to existence; as coming at the cost of the universal, to those whose entry into the room is not barred by the how of their appearance.

In one of the notes above, I refer to the example of the veiled Muslim woman, as the one who cannot be accommodated by the universal. She must transform herself in order to enter the room. The white man can stay wearing what he is wearing: a suit say, a tie, say. The white woman too can wear what she was wearing. Her clothes; they are particular, yes, preferences, choices, but she does not have to give them up.

Some differences become idiosyncratic. Welcome; come in, come in.

An aside: whiteness is often performed as idiosyncrasy. Differences: individuated, quirky, not expressive of anything other than yourself. This is how: when white people are violent they are usually described as loners. Their deviation from the promise is exceptional.

Whiteness: universal. To leave this universal for those who have already entered it: to become a loner.

Those who don’t enter it: to become relative, or a relative.


Brown: relative. Brown: you can enter the universal if you give up your relative.

And so: only some differences become attachments that must be given up. Other differences are welcomed by the very requirement that some differences are given up. For those who have to give up something to enter something: your entry is melancholic.  You are giving up the very thing that renders the room not open to you even when the room is understood as open to you.

I first offered reflections on this theme in my book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion published over 10 years ago in 2004. It was in the chapter on love. I referred specifically to the work of Julia Kristeva.  Let me share what I wrote then:

Kristeva responds to the “problem” posed by immigration in the following way:

First there is the interior impact of immigration, which often makes it feel as though it had to give up traditional values, including the values of freedom and culture that were obtained at the cost of long and painful struggles (why accept [that daughters of Maghrebin immigrants wear] the Muslim scarf [to school]) (1993: 36).

The bracketed sentence evokes the figure of the “veiled/ Muslim woman” who comes into play as a figure that challenges the values that have become felt as crucial to the nation (including the values of freedom and culture). These values are what the nation as love object can give. She becomes a symbol of what the nation must give up to “be itself”, a discourse that would require her unveiling in order to fulfil the promise of freedom for all. It is not surprising that Kristeva poses the following question, which is clearly a rhetorical question: “Is it possible that the ‘abstract’ advantages of French universalism may prove to be superior to the “concrete” benefits of the Muslim scarf” (1993: 47). Kristeva implies that the right to wear the scarf (with its multiple meanings) may give the Muslim women less than the rights afforded by entry into the abstraction of the idea of the nation. Modernity is understood as an empty form of universalism, one that does not take the shape of particular bodies, and as such can allow others into the community of strangers as long as they give up the visible signs of their “concrete difference.”

The argument moves from the national idea to a “national ideal” via an analogy with the ego ideal. The “Muslim scarf” is not only “not” the idea of freedom “won” as the freedom of the nation, but it also challenges the image the nation has of itself: “The involves a breach of the national image and it corresponds, on the individual level, to the good image of itself that the child makes up with the help of the ego ideal and the parental superego” (1993: 37). The trauma of the Muslim scarf for the French nation is here like the trauma of “failing” to live up to the ego ideal, an ideal that depends on love and identification with the parent. Hence the nation becomes depressed when it is faced with the scarf and this shame and depression is what is used by the right wing discourse of anti-immigration: “Le Pen’s nationalism takes advantage of such depression” (1993: 37). The implications is that the task of the radical might not be to celebrate the right to the scarf as this would sustain the psychic conditions that enable anti-immigration and nationalism to flourish as a politics. However, Kristeva does not make this argument explicitly. Instead, she suggests that “we must not be ashamed of European and particularly French culture” (1993: 38). First, the presence of the veiled other causes the depression and shame of not living up to the national ideal. Second, the imperative is not to feel shame about French culture. In other words, the juxtaposition of these two arguments implies that the “the Muslim wish to join the French community” [i](1993: 37) might also depend on the elimination of the source of national shame: the concrete difference made visible by the veil itself. The argument suggests that by eliminating the veil, which stands in for concrete difference, the abstract national idea can be returned to an ideal that is enlarged by the appearance of others. Under such conditions, national pride or love, rather than shame and depression, would be possible, and it would not depend on aggression or hostility towards others.

However, the argument that the national idea is abstract (and the difference of the Muslim woman is concrete) breaks down. The intimacy of the national idea with an ideal image suggests the national idea takes the shape of a particular kind of body, which is assumed in its “freedom” to be unmarked. The ideal is an approximation of an image of “Frenchness,” as an ideal that is deferred, but which nevertheless depends on being inhabitable by some bodies rather than others. The Muslim woman must give up her concrete difference in the interests of the national ideal, in which freedom takes the form of a particular kind of body (a particularity that is given value precisely insofar as it is represented as abstract-able or detach-able from particular bodies). Such an ideal is not positively embodied by any person: it is not a positive value in that sense. Rather, it accrues value through its exchange, an exchange that is determined precisely by the capacity of some bodies to inhabit the national body, to be recognisable as living up to the national ideal and as passing through the ideal. But other bodies, those that cannot be recognised in the abstraction of the unmarked, cannot accrue value, and become blockages in the economy; they cannot pass as French, or pass their way into the community. The veil in blocking the economy of the national ideal is represented as a betrayal not only of the nation, but of freedom and culture itself  -as the freedom to move and acquire value. Hence the veil cannot be integrated into the national ideal – as part of the story of the nation as a love object – and stands for an unassimilable difference. She becomes the unlovable object that cannot be incorporated or “had” and whose loss cannot be grieved by the nation.

Love for the nation is hence bound up with how bodies inhabit the nation in relation to an ideal. I would follow Kristeva by arguing that the nation is hence an effect of how bodies move towards it, as an object of love that is shared. Or more precisely “the it” of “the nation” as an ideal or loved object  is produced as an effect of the movement of bodies and the direction of that movement (the loved object is hence an effect of “towardness”). As a result, the promise of the nation is not an empty or abstract one that can then be simply filled and transformed by others. Rather, the nation is a concrete effect of how some bodies have moved towards and away from other bodies, a movement that works to create the very affect and effect of boundaries and borders, as well as allows the “approximation” of what can now call the character of the nation (“likeness”). In Kristeva’s text, moving towards the abstract promise of the nation requires moving away from the veiled woman, as a sign of a difference that cannot be inhabited by those who already inhabit the national ideal. This “limitation” shows how the ideal is not empty, but is already an effect of the privilege for some bodies to inhabit spaces as hosts (bodies-at-home), and hence to decide who gets let into the body of the nation, either through intentional acts of legislation or policy formation, or more everyday and inter-corporeal forms of encounter.

End of quote.

I think melancholic universalism is one way of describing what I was accounting for in this book.

And of course: universalism is so often written in the language of love.

Melancholic universalism: describes not just or only the affective state of those who are required to identify with what repudiates them but those who insist on the universal that repudiates others.

The insistence is the promise.

Melancholic universalism is another way of describing the promise of happiness; how depression is associated with concrete difference, and how some differences become concrete and not others. That wall again: it is hard again. It comes up for those who are not accommodated. For those who are accommodated there is no wall at all.

Enter; easy, look, easy, just do it.

The universal as a slogan.

This is from a note in The Promise of Happiness:

The nation as it were becomes the universal through being imagined as the bearer of the promise of happiness. It is no accident that V. S. Naipaul’s (1990) identification with universal culture proceeds through asserting the ideality of happiness: “It is an elastic idea; it fits all men. It implies a certain kind of society, a certain kind of awakened spirit. I don”t imagine my father”s Hindu parents would have been able to understand the idea. So much is contained in it: the idea of the individual, responsibility, choice, the life of the intellect, the idea of vocation and perfectibility and achievement. It is an immense human idea. It cannot be reduced to a fixed system. It cannot generate fanaticism. But it is known to exist, and because of that, other more rigid systems in the end blow away.” (np) The universality of happiness is one that is shaped around particular bodies: it cannot admit fanatics who appear outside the horizon of the human. I would describe Naipaul’s identification with universality as melancholic; it cannot grieve for the loss the grandfather who can appear only as the one who does not understand happiness, who suffers from what we might call “happiness illiteracy.” Nor can it cover over his inability to inhabit this universal given the family has already left its trace.

I think I would now give an account on slightly different terms: I would describe Naipaul’s description as an expression of what is required: to enter the room, to enter the universe you have to “give up” the parts of you that cannot be accommodated.

Remember: brown becomes universal if you give up your relatives.

You announce your departure from the parents of your parents: from Hinduism, from fanaticism, from culture as custom.

That announcement is how you enter the room

of the universal:

by giving up part of your own history retold as fanaticism or “identity politics.”

How fitting; the universal is fitting.

An elastic band can snap; this is a stretch.

A stretch: how you try and avoid  a snap.

There is grief in this position: of that there is no question.


Butler, Judith (2000). “Restaging the Universal” in Judith Butler, Ernesto Laclau and

Slavoj Žižek, Contingency, Hegemony, Universality: Contemporary Dialogues on the Left. London: Verso. 11-43.

Caputo, John D. (2009) “Introduction: Postcards from Paul: Subtraction Versus Grafting” in John D. Caputo and Linda Martín Alcoff (eds). St Paul among the Philosophers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 1-26.

Crimp, Douglas (2004). Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Kristeva, Julia (1993). Nations without Nationalism, trans. L.S.Roudiez, New York: Columbia University Press.

Naipaul, V.S. (1990). “Our Universal Civilization,” New York Times.

[i] We might note how this narrative constructs the French as “not Muslim” and the Muslims as “not French”, at the same time as it transforms migration into a wish to inhabit “the nation”. Hospitality and love are here constructed as opening the nation to others only insofar as they give up “being not us”, so “becoming us” whilst “not being us”.

Posted in Uncategorized | 5 Comments

Sexual Harassment

Today we held an event on Sexual Harassment in Higher Education at Goldsmiths. I was pleased to offer the following comments, which I have decided to preserve in the form in which they were spoken:

We need to talk about sexual harassment.  We need to talk about sexual harassment here. And by here I mean here: at Goldsmiths, in universities, in the UK. Not there: over there; but here. Too often: sexual harassment is understood as somebody else’s problem. Or if it is recognised as a problem that problem is located in the body of a harasser, a rogue, whose removal is assumed to remove the problem. The problem remains.  And then those who talk about how the problem remains become the problem because they become reminders of that problem. To remind is to show how sexual harassment is enabled by an institution. It is to show how sexual harassment is reproduced by an institution. It is to show how sexual harassment becomes a culture; how it works as a network, a web of influences; a set of practices that  we are supposed to accept as how things are because that is the way they were.

But if we talk in this way, if we speak of sexual harassment as organisational culture, we threaten the organisation’s reputation. Those who are damaged become the ones who cause damage.  And the institutional response can take the form of: damage limitation. There are so many ways those who speak about harassment, whether their own harassment or the harassment of others, are silenced: you don’t even need to sign a confidentiality agreement to be warned of the consequence of your actions. And then, too often, the ones who are harassed end up being removed or removing themselves: if the choices are “get used to it,” or “get out of it” some quite understandably “get out of it.”

The problem goes on as if it is been deal with, when it hasn’t been dealt with.  We need to make sense of how a problem is not dealt with by the appearance of being dealt with; and how the struggle to expose sexual harassment often leads us to a stalling situation. To make sense of this I want to return to some of the data I collected in a study of diversity and equality in universities that I undertook in the early 2000’s. In this study I interviewed diversity practitioners, those appointed by organisation to diversify them, which often means in practice, those appointed to write the documents and policies that would give expression to an organisation’s commitment to equality and diversity. Practitioners become aware of how much commitments are not followed through. One practitioner described her job thus: “a banging your head on the brick wall job.”

A job description becomes a wall description.

I want to give you one example of an encounter with an institutional wall. I am going to read it out, because you can hear in the story what we are up against .

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 (On Being Included, 124-125).

We learn so much from this example. We learn: you can change policy without changing practice; changing policy can even be a way of not changing practice. We learn too: the director of human resources did not need to take the decision out of the minutes for that decision not to bring something into effect. I have called this dynamic “non-performativity,” when naming something does not bring something about or even when something can be named in order not to bring something about.  Taking the decision out of the minutes could have been what stopped something from happening. But because it didn’t stop it, something else did.  

The wall is a finding: what stops movement moves.

This example of the diversity policy that does not do anything is a tantalisingly 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 labour of a diversity worker, of her blood, sweat and tears. It is a story of how the diversity worker becomes an institutional killjoy; we can imagine the eyes rolling when she points out the policy. To be a killjoy one does not have to speak in a certain way; she can be quite reasonable; she might even have backing. They hear you as killjoy because they do not want to hear what you have to say.  No wonder this story is a story of her exhaustion, of being worn down by coming up against the same thing; the story of how she gives up is a story of how the wall keeps standing.   

But to those who do not come up against it, the wall does not appear: the institution might seem as happy as its mission statement, as willing as its equality statement.

This example has stayed with me as I have been involved in an effort to challenge the problem of sexual harassment in universities. That has been an experience of coming up against wall after wall. A wall can come up to prevent students from making complaints in the first place. Students are actively discouraged from making complaints: if you complain you will damage your career (this can work as threat, you will lose the very connections that enable you to progress); or if you complain you will damage the professor; or if you complain you will ruin a centre or collective (often aligned with something critical and progressive). Another wall comes up once complaints have been made. Complaints are heard as an injury to the professor’s reputation as what stops him from receiving the benefits to which he is assumed to be entitled. Complaints about sexual harassment are not made public as a way of protecting the organisation from damage.  We are back to this: damage limitation.

Notice here: so many complex things are going on at the same time, which combine to stop sexual harassment from, as it were, coming out. It is not that this activity is coordinated by one person or even necessarily a group of people who are meeting in secret, although secret meetings probably do happen. All of these activities, however complex, sustain a direction; they have a point. A direction does not require something to originate from a single point: in fact a direction is achieved through the alignment between points that do not have to meet. Different elements combine to achieve something that is solid and tangible. If one element does not hold, or become binding, another element holds or binds. The process is rather like the cement used to make walls: something is set before it hardens. Perhaps when people notice the complexity, the movement, the inefficiency, the disorganisation, they do not notice the cement; how things hold together; that things hold together. Then when you say there is a pattern you are heard as paranoid as if you are imagining that all this complexity derives from a singular point.

 To try and bring someone to account is to come up against not just an individual but histories, histories that have hardened, that stop those who are trying to stop what is happening from happening. The weight of that history can be thrown at you; you can be hit by it. The word harass remember derives from the French harasser “tire out, vex”.  When you speak of harassment you can end up being harassed all over again. Harassment is a network that stops information from getting out by making it harder to get through. It is how someone is stopped by being worn down.  A policy disappears despite there being a paper trail, despite the evidence. A complaint disappears because it is evidence. And: people disappear too, because of what they make evident, of what they try to bring into view.

So: when we talk about sexual harassment we are talking about those who do not appear. We are talking about missing women. And we are talking about missing critiques, missing conversations; you are not even allowed to talk about it. We are having a conversation now about what and who is missing.

Of course when we talk about sexual harassment as a wall it is assumed as a problem of perception: “you were willing”; “he didn’t anything by it”; “don’t be so upright”; “we’re all adults here”.  A wall comes up in this reframing of walls as immaterial, as if there is nothing getting in your way other than you, as if it is you just getting in the way of your own progression.

A wall comes up when you talk about walls.

Sexual harassment works – as does bullying more generally – by increasing the costs of fighting against something, making it easier to accept something than to struggle against something, even if that acceptance is itself how you end up being diminished; how you end up taking up less and less space.

And: it is because we perceive this wall that you might end up having to modify your perception (this is what it means to get “used to it”). You might feel you cannot afford to become alienated from those around you; you might lose access not only to material resources (references, scholarships, courses to teach), but you might lose friends; connections that matter. You risk losing warmth. And as you feel colder, maybe you begin to feel that the wall is inside your own head.  It is happening all around you; and yet people seem to be getting on with it; you can end up doubting yourself; estranged from yourself. Maybe then you try not to have a problem. But you are left with a sickening feeling. A feminist gut knows something is amiss.

Because all around you there is a partial sighting of walls, a partial sighting that is at once a justification; “oh he’s a bit of a womanizer”; “oh yeh I was warned about him”; “oh yeh that was the booze talking”; there might even be a smiling, a joking, there might even be a certain kind of affection. This affection is structured as an appeal to students whose concern is bordering on disclosure: let it go; let him off. A culture is built around this affection which is to say: harassers are enabled by being forgiven, as if their vice is our virtue. And those who know it is wrong even when they try to persuade themselves otherwise, even when they try to minimize a mountain of abuse, can feel all the more wrong, can feel the full force of it, when the wall finally does come into view: she is not ok, I am not ok, this is not ok: “how could I let this happen?” Guilt; shame; they can leak out, getting everywhere. We have to go through these difficult painful feelings Heidi Mirza describes so well. Perhaps sometimes we just can’t do this; it means being prepared to be undone, and we just don’t know if we are ready to put ourselves back together again.

Or sometimes we don’t confront sexual harassment because of our interests. Maybe someone else is being harassed; and you can see it: you might turn away; look away, because you are benefiting from an alliance with someone; you want to keep that alliance.  You might then be angry with those who are harassed because they threaten your alliances by revealing the harassment. You cannot be angry with the harasser because he is who you wish to be in alliance with. Alliances are crucial to the mechanics of sexual harassment; sexual harassment is an alliance. In addition the organization too might try not to see things; maybe they think we have to retain him because of his reputation; maybe we need him for the REF. There is a collective or institutional will not to notice what is assumed to get in the way of our interests.

I need to say a little more. I began by saying that we need to talk about sexual harassment here and that by here I meant at educational institutions especially those that identify as progressive and critical.  I have used the terms “critical sexism” and “critical racism” to describe this: the sexism and racism reproduced by those who think of themselves as too critical to be sexist or racist. There is more to it. Many academics who identify as progressive or radicals, position themselves as working against the institution, against the requirements, say, of audit culture, and managerialism.  Then how quickly: equality as such becomes identified as the requirements of a managerial system, that is, as a way of managing unruly bodies and desires. Noncompliance with equality even becomes articulated as political rebellion.  For example one academic describes the “strictures on sexual harassment” as an “old Victorian moral panic.” Feminism becomes translated as moralism; those who challenge sexual harassment are understood as imposing moral norms and social restrictions on otherwise “free radicals.” So much harassment is reproduced by the framing of the language of harassment as what is imposed on a situation (as if to use this word is to be mean, to deprive a body of its pleasures).

I think moralism is useful as a charge because it carries another implication: that feminism masks its own will to power. Whenever we challenge what is being assembled, who is being assembled, we are assumed as wanting power: as wanting their courses, their centres; even their students, for ourselves.  This can circulate as rumour and innuendo, implying that the feminists only object because they want what they object to. Sexual harassment is fundamentally dependent on anti-feminism especially when sexual harassment begins to be challenged, when a “no,” is repeated, when a “no” acquires more force.

There is more to say here. Think of all those rules, those procedures we have for safeguarding the interests of parties including students, a population that is precarious by virtue of its position (dependent on passing through the gates of academy; you have to pass examinations to pass through). I am referring of course to record keeping: record keeping can be suspended by being identified as yet more bureaucracy: as if to say, “fuck you.”  The suspension of regulations: methods for ensuring there is no record, no public memory, ways of stopping us from knowing what is going on; how things keep going on.

We are up against history; walls. This tendency to suspend the regulations actually informs so much academic culture. It is business as usual.   I would say that in describing how sexual harassment becomes part of a culture we are remarkably close to describing academic culture. So we might have advertised the job but we know who are going to employ, his mate, his friend, his contacts. Academic networks, boy’s clubs; men’s rooms: they exist at this moment of suspension, those informalities that allow the same bodies to keep getting through. Equal opportunities becomes a loop, a hoop, something you almost do, or you appear to do; but really when you hire someone you are looking for “kind of person you can take to the pub,” to quote from someone on an interview panel, someone who is relatable, like me, who can participate in this, with me. Sexual harassment as a system cannot be separated from the ongoing problem of how a privileged few reproduce a world around their bodies. The sexism in academic citation – the removal of any texts or traces of female authors from books, from courses, from histories – is part of the same system. I still remember a white male professor give a lecture on power, something a lot of feminists have written about, when the only time he referred to any women was when he mentioned fancying Kate Winslet. Sexism in citation and sexual harassment – how women are made objects not subjects– is part of the same system. The trouble with this system: it works.

We need to recognise sexual harassment as an institutional problem as well as a means through which the academy itself becomes available only to some. Sexual harassment is an access issue; it is a social justice issue. We also need to survive this system because of how it is working. And as we know: testifying to a traumatic experience is a traumatic experience. Sexual harassment is traumatic, for those who are on the receiving end, for those who testify, for those who listen; who bear witness. We need to give the pain somewhere to go.   Which means: we need to create support systems so that we can share the costs of bringing the problem to attention. Feminism is itself such a support system, and I would include here feminist knowledge; coming to an understanding of how a system works is one way we survive that system. And: we need to share accounts of what we come up against so we don’t feel like we are doing this work on our own. Which also means: we need to create shelters, refuges, pockets in institutions in which we can breathe.  

My comments today are dedicated to all the students who, at considerable risk, have testified to sexual harassment here.  You have helped to create these pockets. Our task is now to expand them. Thank you.

Posted in Uncategorized | 29 Comments

Women of Colour as Diversity Workers

In my book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional life I offered for the first time an analysis that was based on qualitative research: including semi-structured interviews with staff appointed as diversity and equality officers as well ethnographic material derived from my own experience from working in what we could call simply ‘the diversity world.’ I was a text-based researcher by training so talking to people ‘for research purposes’ was new to me. Doing this study was a life changing as well as career changing experience: as all study should be.

When I looked back on this project (as well as the book), I had thought of it as distinct phase of my career as well as research trajectory, or even as a departure or deviation from the work I usually do.  But whilst writing Living a Feminist Life I realised that this was not the right way of seeing things. Although the project was the first time I officially conducted interviews, although the book was the first in which examples were quotes from data I had gathered myself, I realised that I have been collecting stories of diversity and equality within universities since my arrival in universities. And I would claim that women of colour are already ethnographers of universities; we are participating, yes, but we are also observing, often because we are assumed not to belong or reside in the places we end up. So much of our collective humour comes from sharing observations about “the natives” within universities – the rather peculiar habits of white heteropatriarchy.

One thing I learnt from returning to the data I collected during this study, was how much my thinking, my theorising, has been shaped by that experience, by listening and learning from those appointing to transform universities. And this in a sense what the study taught me: we learn about worlds from the difficulties we have transforming them. Diversity workers know so much. They know what organisations do not want revealed. They know the gap between what organisations say and what they do.

Diversity work: mind the gap.

After all universities often describe their missions by drawing on the languages of diversity as well as equality. But using the language does not translate into creating diverse or equal environments. This “not translation” is something we experience: it is a gap between a symbolic commitment and a lived reality. Commitments might even be made because they do not bring something about. I have used the term “non-performativity” to describe this: how a commitment can be made to something as a way of not bringing something about.

Equality and diversity can be used as masks to create the appearance of being transformed. We need to challenge this appearance. In making this challenge I draw on my experiences as a woman of colour academic. My inspirations include Chandra Talpade Mohanty (2003) and M. Jacqui Alexander (2005) and Heidi Mirza (2015) who offer powerful critiques of uses of diversity within the academy as a way of building feminist of colour and black feminist counter-institutional knowledge. I am also inspired by the monumental collection, Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class for Women in Academia (2012), which by offerings reflections by women of colour students and faculty on their experiences within the academy gives us tremendous new insights into how the academy works. We need to share our stories of arrival and progression; how we enter, exit, move forward; get stuck.

We need to share our stories of arrival and progression. One time after giving a talk on whiteness, a white man in the audience said, “but you’re a professor?” You can hear the implication of this but: but look at you Professor Ahmed, look how far you have gone! How easily we can become poster children for diversity, how easily we can be “held up” as proof that women of colour are not “held up.”  Being a diversity poster child: it can make the world you come up against recede as if you bring it to an end; as if our arrival and progression makes whiteness disappear. If only we had the power invested in us! If only, if only! When women of colour become professors this is not the only kind of reaction we receive. When a colleague of mine, another brown woman, became a professor someone said to her: “they give professorships to anyone these days.” In one case you fulfil the fantasy of meritocracy, a singular brown body becoming shiny happy evidence of inclusion. In the other, when a brown body arrives, her body is not elevated as value. She comes to embody the loss of value: when she can be a professor, anybody can. In one: she becomes a wall breaker: assumed to bring an end to things by virtue of her own arrival. In the other: she becomes a wall maker as if accounting for how her arrival is devalued is to project her own values onto things.

Women of colour as diversity workers:  we come up against brick walls. These walls teach us about the materiality of power.  I describe brick walls as “the hardenings of history.” Walls: how history becomes concrete. But a wall does not appear to those who do not come up against it. The hardest stuff is what is often not experienced by those whose bodies are aligned with the institutional line: then the world is fluid, mobile. There; nothing there. Flight light, white. There; nothing there. Heavy; brown; down.

One of my aims in writing Living a Feminist Life was to show how diversity work is feminist theory: we learn about the techniques of power from our efforts to transform institutional norms or from our efforts to be in a world that does not accommodate our being.

It was not only that I collected data on diversity work. Rather diversity work is data collection. Walls speak. Sharing our stories is letting the walls speak.




Alexander, M. Jacqui (2006). Pedagogies of Crossing: Meditations on Feminism, Sexual  Politics, Memory, and the Sacred, Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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.

Muhs, Gabriella Gutiérrez y, Yolanda Flores Niemann, Camren G. González and Angela P. Harris (2006) (eds). Presumed Incompetent: The Intersections of Race and Class For Women in Academia, Boulder, Colorado: University Press of Colorado.





Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments