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







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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.



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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.

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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!


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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”.

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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.

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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.





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Feminist Consciousness

Well, I didn’t plan to stay away from my blog for such a long time! But when I was rewriting Living a Feminist Life over the summer, I did leave my blog behind. I seemed to find it hard switching between blog and book: it seems to be one or the other.

Other reasons: I have had the best hap ever. In July a little puppy came into my life. She has changed my life as I knew she would, as I knew she should! Her name is Poppy and she has as much attention as I can give her. I am quite sure she will end up in my “Killjoy Survival Kit.” She’s wriggle her way right out of it. Wriggling is in there, too.

So, just to get back to my blog, I am sharing part of a new section I wrote in the first chapter of my book ‘Feminism is Sensational,’ which develops an earlier post of the same name, as well as the post ‘Feminist Hurt/Feminism Hurts’. In the chapter this section is followed by another called ‘Problems with Names,’ which develops an earlier post of the same name.

The blog: a step on a feminist trail.

The section is called ‘feminist consciousness’.

When did you begin to put the pieces together? Perhaps when you put the pieces back together you are putting yourself back together. We assemble something. Feminism is DIY: a form of self-assembly. No wonder feminist work is often about timing: sometimes we are too fragile to do this work; we cannot risk being shattered if we are not ready to put ourselves back together again. To get ready often means being prepared to be undone.

In time, with work, things begin to make more sense. You begin to recognise how violence is directed: that being recognized as a girl means being subjected to this pressure, this relentless assault on the senses; a body that comes to fear the touch of a world. Maybe you learn from that, from what that repetition does; you realize retrospectively how you came to take up less space. You might express feminist rage at how women are made responsible for the violence that is directed against them.  Feminism helps you to make sense that something is wrong; to recognise a wrong is to realise that you are not in the wrong.

Becoming feminist: how we redescribe the world we are in. We begin to identify how what happens to me, happens to others. We begin to identify patterns and regularities. Begin to identify: this sounds too smooth. It is not an easy or straightforward process because we have to stay with the wrongs. And think about feeling: to direct your attention to the experience of being wronged can mean feeling wronged all over again.

We need to attend to the bumps; it is bumpy. You had already sensed something amiss. Maybe it was an uneasy feeling at first. As Alison Jaggar describes “Only when we reflect on our initially puzzling irritability, revulsion, anger, or fear, maybe we bring to consciousness our ‘gut-level’ awareness that we are in a situation of coercion; cruelty; injustice or danger” (1996: 181). A gut has its own intelligence. A feminist gut might sense something is amiss. You have to get closer to the feeling; but once you try to think about a feeling, how quickly it can recede. Maybe it begins as a background anxiety, like a humming noise that gradually gets louder over time so that it begins to fill your ear, cancelling out other sounds. And then suddenly it seems (though it is not sudden) what you tried not to notice is all you can hear. A sensation that begins at the back of your mind, an uneasy sense of something amiss, gradually comes forward, as things come up; then receding, as you try and get on with things; as you try and get on despite things. Maybe you do not even want to feel this way, feeling wrong is what brings a wrong home. Attending to the feeling, might be too demanding: it might require you to give up on what otherwise seems to give you something; relationships, dreams; an idea of who it is that you are; an idea of who it is that you can be. You might even will yourself not to notice certain things because noticing them would change your relation to the world; it would change the world to which you exist in relation. We have to stay with the feelings that we might wish would go away; that become reminders of these things that happened that made you wary of being at all.

Perhaps there is just only so much you can take in. Perhaps you take in some things as a way of not taking in other things. As I have been putting a sponge to my own feminist past, I remembered another conversation. It was with a teacher of mine at university, Rosemary Moore who taught the first feminist classes I took: Nineteenth Century Women’s Writing in 1988; Twentieth Century Women’s Writing in 1989. I hadn’t thought about this conversation for a long time; though it is probably not true to say that I had forgotten it. I asked her whether my essay for the course had to refer to women or gender. Her answer was that it didn’t but that it would be surprising if it didn’t. Why did I ask her this question? I had come to University hoping to study philosophy. I was especially interested in what I called “scepticism,” philosophies that proceeded by doubting what is, as a way of questioning what’s what. Sadly, philosophy at Adelaide University was pretty much straight analytical philosophy and scepticism was dismissed as self-refuting in the first lecture of Philosophy 101. To study the kind of work I was interested in I ended up in the English Literature department because there they taught what was referred to as “theory.” And I choose the women’s writing courses not because I was interested in “feminist theory” (even though I was passionate about feminism) but because I was interested in “critical theory.” I was interested in how we know things, in questions of truth, in perspective and perception, in experience and subjectivity. I wanted to ask how I know what I see as green is what you see as green; those sort of questions were my sort of questions.

Yes: I chose Women’s Writing because I wanted to do Critical Theory! Our teacher was engaged with and by psychoanalysis. If we began there (Lacan’s “The Mirror Phase,” was one of our first assigned readings), that wasn’t what kept my attention. It was 1980s feminist literary theory and from there, feminist philosophy of science and feminist epistemology. I ended up writing my first feminist essay for that course.[i] So why did it happen this way around: from critical theory to feminist theory given I thought of myself as a feminist and had been such an outspoken feminist growing up? I think there was only so much feminism I could take in. I had thought to be philosophical or to ask questions about the nature of reality, was not to do feminism: that feminism was about something particular not general, relative not universal, that feminism was about questioning and challenging sexual violence, inequality and injustice and not the nature of reality as such. I did not understand that feminism was a way of challenging the universal. I did not appreciate how questioning sexism is one of the most profound ways of disrupting what we take to be given and thus learning about how the given is given. Feminist theory taught me that the universal is what needs to be exploded. Feminist theory taught me that reality is usually just someone else’s tired explanation. So if in my introduction to this book I suggested that feminist theory is what gets you there, to the classroom, we might note how feminist theory can be what gets you out of there. By this I mean: I thought I wanted to be in the theory class, feminist theory taught me that “that” was not the class for me. Feminism is my theory class.

We learn also: how recognising sexism or racism here can be a way of not recognising it there. A location can be a reduction. Becoming feminist involves a process of recognising that what you are up against cannot be located or reduced to an object or thing (which could then be discarded so we could start up again). The process of recognising sexism was thus not smooth or automatic. Even though I find it hard to remember not being a feminist, it is important to remember that I had multiple false starts. There was so much I resisted: I could take feminism in only bit by bit. Maybe there was only so much I could take in because it meant recognising that I had been taken in. You can feel stupid for not having seen things more clearly before. You have to give up on a version of yourself as well as a version of events. And maybe we need to remember: how hard it is to acknowledge that a world is not accommodating you because of the body you have. I didn’t want feminism to be everywhere, as I didn’t want to encounter these limits; I wanted there to be places to go where I could just leave my body behind.

If becoming feminist is not a smooth process, if we resist what we encounter because it is too much to take in, this is not to say when we do let go it is just difficult. When you begin to put the pieces together, it can feel magical: the wonder of the clicking moment, when things that had previously been obscured begin to make sense, when things fit into place. You blink and the world reappears: clarity can feel magical. Reading feminist theory was like a series of continuous clicks. And later, teaching Women’s Studies was such a delight as you participate in other people’s clicking moments: what a sound it makes; how important it is that this sound is audible to others.

Finding feminism can be empowering as it is a way of reinhabiting the past. It is personal. There is no question: it is personal. The personal is structural. I learnt that you can be hit by a structure; you can be bruised by a structure. An individual man who violates you is given permission: that is structure. His violence is justified as natural and inevitable: that is structure. A girl is made responsible for his violence: that is structure. A policeman who turns away because it is a domestic: that is structure. A judge who talks about what she was wearing: that is structure. A structure is an arrangement, an order, a building; an assembly.

We need structure to give evidence of structure. To catalogue instances of violence is to create a feminist catalogue. I think one of the reasons I find the project Everyday Sexism so important and compelling is how it shows that the cataloguing of instances of sexism is necessarily a collective project.[ii] The project involves the creation of a virtual space in which we can insert our own individual experiences of sexism, sexual violence or sexual harassment so that we show what we know: that this or that incident is not isolated but part of a series of events: a series as a structure. These recent feminist strategies have revived key aspects of second wave feminism; we are in the time of revival because of what is not over. Consciousness-raising was also about this: reaching a feminist account, as an account for oneself with and through others, connecting my experience with the experience of others. We need a deposit system to show the scale of sexism. When there is a place to go with these experiences – and feminism is about giving women places to go – the accounts tend to come out: a “drip, drip” that becomes a flood. It is like a tap has been loosened, allowing what has been held back to flow. Feminism: the releasing of a pressure valve.

Feminism can allow you to reinhabit not only your own past but also your own body. 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 confidence. Feminism involves a process of finding another way to live in your body. We might learn to let ourselves bump into things; not to withdraw in anticipation of violence. Of course I am describing a difficulty; I am describing how ways of resolving problems can enact the problems we are trying to resolve. We know we are not responsible for resolving the problem of violence; changing how we relate to the world does not change the world. And yet in refusing to withdraw, in refusing to lessen how much space we take up, in insisting on taking up space, we are not receiving the message that has been sent out. In order to put the pieces together you cannot but get the message wrong, the message that makes a wrong a right. No wonder then, as I explore later, to become a feminist is to be perceived as “in the wrong.”

As we begin this process of putting ourselves back together we find much more than ourselves. Feminism in giving you somewhere to go allows you to revisit where you have been. We can become even more conscious of the world in this process of becoming conscious of injustices because we had been taught to overlook so much. A world can flood once we have let it in, once we have unlocked the door of our own resistance. Feminism too can become a flooding experience: one book read that leads to another, a trail that leads you to find feminism, more and more feminism, new words, concepts, arguments, models: patriarchy, phallocentrism, rape culture, the sex-gender system, intersectionality. In finding feminism you are finding out about the many ways that feminists have tried to make sense, already, of the experiences you had, before you had them, experiences that left you feeling all alone are the experiences that lead you to others. I will always remember that feeling; a sense that there are others like you “out there,” that you are not on your own, that you were not on your own. Your own difficult history is written out in words that are sent out. I often thinking of reading feminist books as like making friends, realizing that others have been here before.

Even if you still feel pain, frustration and rage, even if you feel these feelings more as if you have given them more attention, they are directed in a different way. Knowledge is this achievement of direction. Your feelings are directed neither at some anonymous stranger who happened upon you (or not only), nor toward you for allowing something to happen (or not just), but toward a world that reproduces that violence by explaining it away.

[i] Though one funny detail: I spelt patriarchy wrong throughout! Patriarchy became patriachy. Maybe that was a willful desire not to get patriarchy right!

[ii] See the website: http://everydaysexism.com/.


Jaggar, A. (1996). “Love and Knowledge: Emotion in Feminist Epistemology” in A. Garry and M. Pearsall (eds), Women, Knowledge and Reality: Explorations in Feminist Philosophy, New York: Routledge.

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Against Students

I want to begin by explaining the title of this post. What do I mean by “against students”? By using this expression I am trying to describe a series of speech acts, which consistently position students, or at least specific kinds of students, as a threat to education, to free speech, to civilisation: we might even say, to life itself.  In speaking against students, these speech acts also speak for more or less explicitly articulated sets of values: freedom, reason, education, democracy. These values are identified as requiring the reproduction of norms of conduct that students are themselves failing to reproduce.  Even if that failure is explained as a result of ideological shifts that students are not held responsible for – whether it be neoliberalism, managerialism or a new sexual puritanism – it is in the bodies of students that the failure is located. Students are not transmitting the right message or are evidence that we have failed to transmit the right message. Students have become an error message, a beep, beep, that is announcing the failure of a whole system.

In describing the problem of how students have become the problem, I will be analysing some recent writings that seem to be concerned with distinct issues even if they all address the demise of higher education and involve a kind of nostalgia for something that has been, or is being, lost. I have made the decision to quote from these texts without citing the authors by name: I wish to treat each text as an instance in a wider intertextual web and thus to depersonalise the material. Some of these texts do cite each other. And they all by evoking the figure of the problem student (who travels through this terrain with an accumulating pace and velocity) participate in the making of a shared world.

By “problem student” I am in fact referring to a number of related figures: the consuming student, the censoring student, the over-sensitive student and the complaining student. By considering how these figures are related we can explore connections that are being made through them: connections between, for example, neoliberalism in higher education, a concern with safe spaces, and the struggle against sexual harassment. These connections are being made without being explicitly articulated.  We need to make these connections explicit in order to challenge them. This is what “against students” is really about.

One of my concerns in Willful Subjects (2014) was with the politics of dismissal: I was interested in how various points of view can be dismissed by being swept away or swept up by the charge of willfulness. So: what protestors are protesting about can be ignored when protestors are assumed to be suffering from too much will; they are assumed to be opposing something because they are being oppositional. The figures of the consuming student; censoring student, over-sensitive student and complaining student are also doing something; they are up to something. These figures circulate in order to sweep something up.  Different student protests can be dismissed as products of weaknesses of moral character (generated by a thing called “student culture” or “campus politics”) and as the cause of a more general demise of values and standards.

Let’s begin with critiques of neoliberalism and higher education. These are critiques I would share: I too would be critical of how universities are managed as businesses; I too would be critical of the transformation of education into a commodity; of how students are treated as consumers. I too am aware of the burdens of bureaucracy and how we can end up pushing paper around just to leave a trail.

I want to think about here is how critiques of neoliberalism can also involve a vigorous sweeping: whatever is placed near the object of critique becomes the object of critique. For example, my empirical research into the new equality regime taught me how equality can be dismissed as a symptom of neo-liberalism, as “just another” mechanism for ensuring academic compliance (see Ahmed 2012).  Theresa May justified a withdrawal from some of the stated commitments in the Equality Act (2010) by arguing the law “would have been just another bureaucratic box to be ticked. It would have meant more time filling in forms and less time focusing on policies that will make a real difference to people’s life chances.” Practitioners talked of how academics would use similar arguments: that these forms and procedures are just another “box to be ticked,” in order to dismiss the more general relevance of equality to their work (“a real difference”). They can then enact non-compliance with equality as a form of resistance to bureaucracy. Equality becomes something imposed by management, as what would, if taken seriously, constrain life and labour. Whilst we might want to critique how equality is bureaucratised, we need to challenge how that very critique can be used to dismiss equality.

We sense the vigour of the sweep.

How convenient.

Let’s look at a specific instance. In a recent article, one professor laments the demise of the university. He conjures an ideal image of academic life: and not necessarily one that is a past although it lingers or seems that way. He evokes Oxbridge: a time and a place where professors and dons are the ones who get to decide what they are doing and how they spend or allocate their time and resources. He writes: “It is the dons who decide how to invest the college’s money, what flowers to plant in their gardens, whose portraits to hang in the senior common room, and how best to explain to their students why they spend more on the wine cellar than on the college library. All important decisions are made by the fellows of the college in full session, and everything from financial and academic affairs to routine administration is conducted by elected committees of academics responsible to the body of fellows as a whole.”[1]

It is interesting that the specific decisions referred to are how to justify the amount of wine being consumed (not whether the wine being consumed can be justified), gardens being planted, and portraits being hung, rather than the content of courses being taught. This ideal world of “don democracy” is then contrasted to the bureaucracy of corporate academia:  “Instead of government by academics there is rule by hierarchy, a good deal of Byzantine bureaucracy, junior professors who are little but dogsbodies and vice chancellors who behave as though they are running General Motors.” One has to comment here on the problematic assumption that “don democracy” or the elite system of Oxbridge is not itself “rule by hierarchy.”

The critique progresses: “In any case, the vast increase in bureaucracy in British higher education, occasioned by the flourishing of a managerial ideology and the relentless demands of the state assessment exercise, means that academics have had little enough time to prepare their teaching even if it seemed worth doing, which for the past several years it has not.” Academics no longer have the time the old dons had. We might want to point out that the time evoked as having been lost is a time that most academics would not have had; that there was always an economy of time (some academics might have had more time because others had less time). In this bleak world: “All professors are transformed into managers, so students are converted into consumers.” Here the students arrive as those who are converted into consumers, having previously come up as those to whom the dons had to explain why they spent more money on wine than books.

The following sentence brings up our first figure, the consuming student, as a problem: “One result of this hot pursuit of the student purse is the growth of courses tailored to whatever is currently in fashion among 20-year-olds. In my own discipline of English, that means vampires rather than Victorians, sexuality rather than Shelley, fanzines rather than Foucault, the contemporary world rather than the medieval one. It is thus that deep-seated political and economic forces come to shape syllabuses. Any English department that focused its energies on Anglo-Saxon literature or the 18th century would be cutting its own throat.” Even if the “hot pursuit” of the “student purse” is behind the demise of a discipline, it is the students who want the wrong things who determine what is being and not taught, who have caused the loss of the right things (vampires, sexuality, fanzines; the contemporary world rather than Victorians, Shelley, Foucault, the medieval world). Indeed, the repeated use of “rather than” implies that bad objects put in place because of what is “in fashion” with “2o year olds” have toppled the good objects put in place by old dons or departments. And it is implied that not following “whatever students want” would amount to the death of a discipline (“cutting its own throat”).

What a sweep!

Even my own relatively limited knowledge of what is taught in departments of English Literature would lead me to question much in this narrative. But what interests me here is: how so much is brought up so quickly in order to be dismissed so quickly as a product of neoliberalism, of the transformation of universities into markets.

Note the placement of the word “sexuality” in this list. We can guess what this word is doing on the wrong side of the “rather than” (even though Foucault, a historian of sexuality, is on the right side[2]). The emergence of sexuality (and its studies) can be treated as a product of the marketization of higher education. In other words sexuality becomes yet another bad object brought about because of what students want.

We need to challenge this assumption that some subjects only come into existence because universities are “in hot pursuit” of the “student purse.” We know the strong critiques of curriculum  made by those working within departments that led to the diversification of the curriculum. We know of the work of “chipping away” at the walls that are sometimes called canons. We know of the long histories of feminist and queer activisms that led to sexuality as well as gender being taken up as legitimate subjects within the academy.

If we don’t know, we should know.

These histories of labour and activism are “swept away” by the assumption that such subjects only come into existence because of the “student purse.” It is this activism that enabled a challenge to some of the decisions made by departments as well as dons about what is of value; decisions that solidify as canons. These decisions are often protected by assumptions of universality, which is a way of making a decision “indefensible” (the usual sense of indefensible is unjustifiable – I want to make this mean “that which does not need justifying”). The various subjects made possible through the labour of political critique and activism are dismissed in the flourish of a “rather than,” as simple expressions of the wanton nature of the market (that monstrous body).

The figure of the consuming subject, who wants the wrong things, a student who is found wanting, is hard at work. She is how: an idea of universal knowledge or universal culture can be so thinly disguised as a critique of neoliberalism and managerialism. She is how: an academic world can be idealised in being mourned as a lost object; a world where dons get to decide things; a world imagined as democracy, as untroubled by the whims and wishes of generations to come.[3]

We have an understanding of how: when students are being critical of what we are doing, when they contest what is being taught, they can be treated and dismissed as acting like consumers. In other words it is when students are not satisfied that they are understood as treating our delivery as a product. Critique as such can be “swept away” by the charge of consumerism. Students become the problem when what they want is not in accordance with what academics want or what academics want them to want: students become willful when what they will is not what academics will or not what academics will them to will.  What seems to be in place here is what Paulo Freire (1970) called the “bank model” of education in which teachers deposit knowledge into the bodies of students like money into a machine. Rather ironically, students are more likely to be judged as acting like consumers when they refuse to be banks.

Luckily I would say: don’t bank on it.

The figure of the consuming student has something to say to other figures such as the censoring student. I now want to return to an earlier post “You are Oppressing Us.” I referred to one letter that mobilised the figure of the censoring student (this letter has since been supplemented by yet more letters – one of which even equates alleged “no platforming” in the UK with various acts of extremism around the world). This letter speaks of how some have been stopped from speaking on campuses because they articulate viewpoints that are out of line with the views held by students (who are treated as remarkably consistent, as body or thing, and I am partly tracking what is achieved by this consistency). The figure of the censoring student exists in close relation to that of the consuming student: both work to create an impression that students have all the power to decide what is being taught as well as what is not being taught, what is being spoken about as well as what is not being spoken about; and that this power is at the expense not only of dons and departments, but also politicians, journalists and other public figures.

Students: they keep coming up as having all the power.


Yes, really.

I noted in my previous post how the letter relies on flimsy evidence because it is assembled around a desire for evidence. Indeed the instances of apparent censorship (translate: student protests) seemed to generate more discourse and discussion rather than preventing discourse or discussion. When students who protest against such-and-such speaker become censors, those who wrote and signed the letter become the ones who are silenced, whose freedoms are under threat. So much speech and writing is generated by those who claim they are silenced!

But we can still ask: what is the figure of the censoring student doing. By hearing student critique as censorship the content of that critique is pushed aside. When you hear a challenge as an attempt at censorship you do not have to engage with the challenge. You do not even have to say anything of substance because you assume the challenge as  without substance.

In the first instance, critique and contestation (“they want the wrong courses!”) is dismissed as consumerism; in the second instance, protest (“they don’t want the right people!”) is dismissed as censorship.

Sweep, sweep.

Beep, beep.

Error message.

Another figure comes up, rather quickly, at this point: she is often lurking behind the censoring student. This is the over-sensitive student: the one who responds to events or potential events with hurt feelings. She also comes up as someone who stops things from happening.  We can refer here to a number of recent pieces that I would read as a moral panic about moral panics. Many of these pieces refer to US college campuses specifically and are concerned with the introduction of safe spaces, and trigger warnings.

The figure of the over-sensitive student is invested with power. The story goes: because students have become too sensitive, we cannot even talk about difficult issues in the classroom; because of their feelings we (critical academics) cannot address questions of power and violence, and so on. A typical example of this kind of rhetoric: “No one can rebut feelings, and so the only thing left to do is shut down the things that cause distress — no argument, no discussion, just hit the mute button and pretend eliminating discomfort is the same as effecting actual change.” Or another: “while keeping college-level discussions ‘safe’ may feel good to the hypersensitive, it’s bad for them and for everyone else. People ought to go to college to sharpen their wits and broaden their field of vision.” Here safety is about feeling good, or not feeling bad. We sense what is being feared: students will become warm with dull edges, not sharp enough in wit or wisdom.

The moral panic around trigger warnings is a very good pedagogic tool: we learn from it. Trigger warnings are assumed as being about being safe or warm or cuddled. I would describe trigger warnings as a partial and necessarily inadequate measure to enable some people to stay in the room so that “difficult issues” can be discussed. The assumption that trigger warnings are themselves about safe spaces is a working assumption (by this I mean: it is achieving something). Indeed what I have said is  rather misleading because the assumption that safe spaces are themselves about deflecting attention from difficult issues is another working assumption. Safe spaces are another technique for dealing with the consequences of histories that are not over (a response to a history that is not over is necessarily inadequate because that history is not over). The aim is to enable conversations about difficult issues to happen: so often those conversations do not happen because the difficulties people wish to talk about end up being re-enacted within spaces, which is how they are not talked about. For example conversations about racism are very hard to have when white people become defensive about racism: those conversations end up being about those defences rather than about racism. We have safe spaces so we can talk about racism not so we can avoid talking about racism!

The very techniques introduced to enable the opening up of conversations can be used as evidence of the closing down of conversations. Anyone with a background in Women’s Studies will be familiar with this: how we come up against stereotypes of feminists spaces as soft, cosy, easy, which are the exact same sexist stereotypes that make Women’s Studies necessary as a feminist space. The very perception of some spaces as being too soft might even be related to the harshness of the worlds we are organising to challenge.

The idea that students have become a problem because they are too sensitive relates to a wider public discourse that renders offendability as such a form of moral weakness (and as being what restricts “our” freedom of speech). Much contemporary racism works by positioning the others as too easily offendable, which is how some come to assert their right to occupy space by being offensive. And yes: so much gets “swept away,” by the charge of being too sensitive. A recent example would be how protests against the Human Zoo in the Barbican, about how racism is disguised as art or education, are swept up as a symptom of being “over-sensitive. According to this discourse, anti-racists end up censoring even themselves because they are “thin skinned.”

So much violence is justified and repeated by how those who refuse to participate in violence are judged. We need to make a translation. The idea that being over-sensitive is what stops us from addressing difficult issues can be translated as: we can’t be racist because you are too sensitive to racism.

Well then: we need to be too sensitive if we are to challenge what is not being addressed.

We might still need to ask: what is meant by addressing difficult issues? It is worth me noting  that I have been met with considerable resistance from critical academics when trying to discuss issues of racism, power and sexism on campus. Some academics seem comfortable talking about these issues when they are safely designated as residing over there. Is this “there” what allows “difficult issues” not to be addressed here? In fact, it seems to me that it is often students who are leading discussions of “difficult issues” on campus. But when students lead these discussions they are then dismissed as behaving as consumers or as being censoring. How quickly another figure comes up, when one figure is exposed as fantasy. If not over-sensitive, then censoring; if not censoring, then consuming. And so on, and so forth.

My own sense: our feminist political hopes rest with over-sensitive students.

Over-sensitive can be translated as: sensitive to that which is not over.

All of these ways of making students into the problem work to create a picture of professors or academics as the ones who are “really” oppressed by students. This is what it means to articulate a position or a view “against students.” One US professor speaks of being “frightened” by his liberal students. He blames so much on “identity politics.” And indeed so much is blamed on identity politics: that term is used whenever we challenge how spaces are occupied. It has become another easy dismissal. We are learning here about professors (their investments, emotions and strategies of dismissal) more than we are learning about students.

And this is where it gets hard, and this is where I write with a sense of political urgency. There is another body of work that is “against students”: work on sexual harassment. This body of work intersects with the work on trigger warnings and safe spaces: they imply that a concern with safety and survival is creating the vulnerabilities that are then used to justify the regulation of the behaviour of academics or faculty. Indeed these literatures generate the figure of the professor as potential or would be victim: the one who is endangered by the very construction of students as vulnerable. One article states: “I was writing about an academic culture that misunderstands power, inflates vulnerability, and infantilizes students.” I have read other articles that suggest that when students talk of harassment it is assumed that professors must be guilty of coercion: “an enunciation of an accusation is all it should ever take to secure a guilty verdict.” The implication here is that it is easy for students to complain about professors who harass them (“enunciation” – as if an accusation is a word that can be thrown carelessly into a world); and that complaints are automatically registered as guilt, as if an offense is only committed because a student is offended. The figure of the over-sensitive student slides into the figure of the complaining student whose “hurt feelings” are treated as sufficient grounds for complaint.

Let’s pause here. I want to state what many feminists know too well: it is very difficult to address the issue of sexual harassment. And: it is very difficult to address sexual harassment within universities (particularly the harassment of female students by male academics).[4] The difficulty of addressing something is often a consequence of something. Since I have been engaged in diversity work on campus I been contacted by staff as well as students from a number of different universities about their experiences of sexual harassment. And I have learnt just how pervasive sexual harassment is – as well as just how much harassment is normalised in or even as academic culture. I have heard how academics justify their behaviour as their right: a female professor told me about one academic in her former institution who had multiple sexual relationships with his female students. When a complaint was eventually filed, he justified his conduct as a “perk of the job.” I have heard sexist excusing of sexist behaviour: “ah yeh he’s a bit of a womaniser,” “a yeh he’s one for ladies.” I have heard how much sexism (as well as racism) is defended as “just banter.” And I have learnt of the countless ways in which female students are told that to enter the university requires accepting and expecting this kind of conduct. And yet despite sexual harassment being widespread (this “despite” is probably misplaced) it is rarely publicly discussed, sometimes because of confidentiality clauses attached to the resolutions of specific cases; and sometimes because, I suspect, a frank discussion of the problem would require challenging entitlements that some do not wish to challenge.

We are so far away from the picture created by the figure of the complaining student (who wields her power over academics) that it is or should be striking. I have been in touch with students from many different universities who have made complaints – or tried to make complaints – about sexual harassment as well as other forms of bullying. I have learnt of the myriad ways in which students are silenced. Some students are dissuaded from proceeding to formal complaints. They are told that to complain would damage their own reputation, or undermine their chances of progression; or that to complain would damage the reputation of the member of staff concerned (and if they do proceed with complaints they are often publicly criticised as damaging the reputation of the member of staff); or that it would damage the reputation of departments in which they are based (with a general implication being: to complain is to be ungrateful). Students have reported how their complaints are “sat on,” how they have testify again and again; or how they are doubted and ridiculed by those they go to for advice and support.

And: because students who complain about harassment are silenced the problem of sexual harassment within universities is constantly and grossly under-acknowledged (as much violence against women is under-acknowledged). The picture of the complaining student whose accusation becomes truth is so far from the truth that there should be a public feminist outcry. We need a public feminist outcry.

I want to pause on one piece of writing (addressing the US context). It is written in the same kind of jokey tone that characterises the first article I engaged with, and has a similar nostalgia for a time past; a mourning for a freedom that has been or is being lost. Here it is not neoliberalism that signals the beginning of the end (of dons and their delightful democracy), but what the author calls “the prohibition,” a moment in time when freedom from restriction becomes the restriction of freedom [5]. The introduction of new laws around “consensual” sexual relations between staff and students is described as the rise of a feminist moralism and puritanism, based on a misunderstanding of the fluid or dispersed nature of power (the author cites Foucault; yes, he comes up again, indexed weakly, again). It is worth noting that the words “moralism” and “puritanism” are constantly being mobilised in anti-feminist writings. These words are useful because they allow a critique of power to be reframed (and dismissed) as an imposition of moral norms. We could consult for example Ray Filar’s smart challenge to an anti-feminist diatribe in which the word “moralism” is used 9 times. It is an exhausting repetition! And these are often the words used by harassers themselves, as if to refuse an advance is to be moralising about an advance (she says “no” because she is a prude, say). If you refuse an advance, or if you dare to call repeated and unwanted advances “harassment,” you are being moralistic.

Surely, not, you might say.

On academic describes “strictures on sexual harassment”  as well as “political correctness” as “the old Victorian moral panic.” In this piece of writing, sexual harassment is referred to twice and both times as a kind of moralism that restricts freedoms that would otherwise be enjoyed (sexual harassment as  intending that restriction). The use of “political correctness” implies that new norms and rules about appropriate behaviour in the workplace are simply a mechanism of policing the flow of play and desire. The feminist killjoy appears here: as if the problem of sexual harassment only comes up because she brings it up; as if feminists only object because they want to prevent the enjoyment of others.

We have looped back to one of my starting points: how equality is dismissed by being identified with managerialism, with the imposition of moral norms from the top down (feminism is then aligned with management, as a technique for managing unruly bodies, just as feminism can be aligned with the market, as a consequence of unruly bodies). Not surprisingly: the techniques for dismissing feminism are the same techniques for justifying male power. In an earlier blog, I commented on how challenging sexual harassment is understood as imposing restrictions on those who would otherwise be “free radicals.” Of course what has to be remain unsaid here is this: the freedom of some rests on the restriction of the freedom of others. So much harassment is justified and reproduced by framing the very language of harassment as an imposition on freedom. And so much violence (such as domestic violence) is not called violence because it is understood as a right and a freedom: “it is not violence, it is not force, I have a right (to your body).”

We are up against history; walls.

And let’s be clear here: when sexual harassment becomes embedded in or as academic culture, then we are talking about how some women do not have access to universities even after they have applied and been admitted. Sexual harassment is an access issue. Sexual harassment is an equality issue. Sexual harassment is a social justice issue. We are talking about women who have to exit the institution to survive the institution.

We are talking about missing women.

I have become more and more aware of what we are talking about.

Of who we are talking about.

We could and should refer to the important blog, Strategic Misogyny, which collects stories of harassment within universities. We need to hear these stories; to listen to their collective wisdom. Different posts describe in detail what harassment can feel like, and what it can do. And we learn: how power might function by not being dispersed. We are reminded when we read these posts of the immense power that academics have over students: they grade student essays and exams; they have discussions about students in meetings that are closed; they sit on committees that decide funding; they have access to confidential files that hold personal information. It is very important to recognise “power over” as a modality of power. We should not neutralise a situation by assuming its neutrality.

And it is in this context that we must question the constant exercising of the language of consent (and its companion “will”): if the person who is asking for your consent holds power over you (in effect a power to decide a future, whether a door is open or not) what does it mean to give or withhold consent? I am not saying here that that all consent is coercion, but that consent in the context of asymmetrical relations of power is not a stable ground for establishing whether or not an abuse of power has occurred. It is because some have power over others, to open or close that door, that we need boundaries, rules and norms.  So much abuse of power within universities is justified by the illiberal use of the liberal language of will and consent. As I argued in Willful Subjects (2014) some might become willing when the costs of not being willing are made too high. Being unwilling might mean being expelled from a group that would allow you to access the resources necessary for your survival let alone progression. Being unwilling might mean being called frigid or (worst still) a feminist. These names have costs. Becoming willing might be a way of avoiding these costs.

We have a sense here of what is going on here. Challenges to sexual harassment within universities can be swept up and swept away, as if the challenges are themselves the products of managerialism or neoliberalism: as just another way that academic freedoms have been restricted; as just another way academic dissent is punished.

The power embedded in a historic situation is reversed.

We have a sense of what is at stake here. Critiques of neoliberalism and managerialism have become useful tools for those who abuse the power they have by virtue of the positions they are in. Those who are accused of harassment can argue, or at least imply, that students who challenge their practices are acting like consumers, being censoring, over-sensitive, or just complaining. They can position themselves as victims of managerialism as well as marketization. A critique of neoliberalism can be used to imply that those accused of harassment are the ones who are paying its costs.

This is how: harassment can be justified as an expression of academic freedom.

That is where we have got to; this is what we are up against.

We need to support, stand with, and stand by, those students who are fighting to survive hostile institutions.

It is our job.


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

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

Coward, Rosalind (1985). Female Desires: How They Are Bought, Sold and Packaged. Grove Weidenfield.

Freire, Paulo [1970]  (2000). Pedagogy of the Oppressed Continuum Publishing: New York.

[1] I shuddered when I read this. One of the hardest experiences of my academic career was attending a wine evening at a college in Cambridge. I remember sitting there as expensive bottles of wine were opened, one after the other, thinking “austerity,” realising in the pit of my stomach, what “tightening our belts” allowed some not to give up. Note also how critiques of neoliberalism might be masking elitism: a hatred of “the masses,” and a perception that standards are lowering because of the widening of participation.

[2] I think the “fanzines and not Foucault” operates as a cultural contrast: Foucault is a serious and heavy scholar, fanzines are silly and light. This distinction is gendered.

[3] Interestingly one white male academic when asked about “decolonizing the university” during an Occupy event was reported to have something like “this is education not democracy: we get to decide what we teach.” He helpfully reveals to us how the democracy often defended is an illusion: what is being defended as democracy is often despotism.

[4] There is a growing and important literature on the problem of laddism within universities in the UK. See for example this very helpful workshop provided by Alison Phipps: https://genderate.wordpress.com/ladculture/.

[5] This period of “freedom from restriction” is described as a boozy and fun period when students and staff could have sex with each other without worrying about the consequences.  I found myself wanting to reach for Rosalind Coward’s classic Female Desires (1985) – an early debunking feminist critique of the myth of sexual freedom.

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Some Striking Feature: Whiteness and Institutional Passing

I was very pleased to participate in a conference Disrupting Visibility: The Politics of Passing co-hosted by the Centre for Feminist Research on Friday. It was a wonderful event – I learnt so much from the papers I listened to. I also gave a lecture, which I am sharing here. I have just added some notes and references – otherwise, this lecture is pretty much as I presented it, which please note means that it is not a polished piece!


“Some Striking Feature: Whiteness and Institutional Passing,” presented at Disrupting Visibility: The Politics of Passing, Friday June 12th 2015, Goldsmiths.

With thanks to Morganne Conti and Linnete Manriques for their work in organising this event on passing and for the opportunity for me to speak as part of it. I really enjoyed returning to the question of passing. I say “returning” because one of the very first academics events I spoke at back in 1995, 20 years ago, in Women’s Studies at Lancaster University was a Day School on Passing. I prepared a paper subtitled “Passing through Hybridity” (1). Since then the theme of passing has often come up in my work; in fact, I had not realised until I began working on this paper how often passing has come up. Just to be brief : passing as white as a way of passing into a community in Strange Encounters (2000);  the figure of the bogus asylum seeker as the one who “passes by” in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004); passing over what is given as familiar in Queer Phenomenology (2006), passing as happy in The Promise of Happiness (2010); institutional passing in On Being Included (2012); and most recently, passing as willing as a way of being willful in Willful Subjects (2014). But even if passing keeps coming up, albeit in different ways (I will try and show how some of these ways are related), I have not foregrounded passing as a thematic nor returned to some of the classic literatures on racial passing since that conference. It can be a curious experience: going back to a once-familiar place you haven’t been to for a while; you find things you didn’t notice before. Becoming a stranger is how a landscape can become alive with detail.

What I will be sharing today then are some rather scattered thoughts on passing rather than a formal lecture. I will firstly return to some of the classic literature on racial passing, before offering a more phenomenological account of passing as lived experience, and then will turn to the question of institutional passing. And in conclusion I will relate my passing thoughts to a politics of willfulness.

Passing Figures

And I want to begin in a rather odd place, well odd for me because it is not where I would ordinarily begin. It is a quote from Freud’s essay on the Unconscious, first published in 1911, which is where I get the title of this lecture:

Their origin is what decides their fate. We may compare them with individuals of mixed-race who taken all round resemble whites, but who betray their coloured descent by some striking feature or other, and on that account are excluded from society and enjoy none of the privileges of white people ([1911]2013: 53).

The “them” in this quote refers to instincts, and Freud is describing how instincts have a hybrid origin, how they are part of the preconscious and unconscious systems in his typography of the psyche. Freud is making use of the figure of the mixed race individual who does not and cannot pass because that figure is handy.  Just as a side note, we could think more of how racism comes up so often in European thought as an aside, a way of supporting an argument, a set of background assumptions that can be mobilised quickly because they are already in operation. This quote from Freud might be familiar to those of you working on postcolonial or critical race studies: Homi Bhabha (1994) draws on it in his account of mimicry as colonial governance; Sander Gilman (1995) in his discussion of Jewishness and assimilation.

This statement seems to be offered as a statement of confidence that those of dubious origins cannot pass; that they will betray or reveal themselves.  But perhaps this belief that difference will be revealed by “some striking feature” rests on an anxiety that the others could pass their way into whiteness without being detected. In other words, a belief system can operate as a defence system: as if the belief that another cannot pass is sufficient to stop another from passing. And note what is being defended here: society as the distribution of privileges or benefits; whiteness as means of distributing privilege or benefits.

We can understand how Freud’s statement helped Bhabha formulate his model of the colonial mimicry: the other must resemble the colonizer but is never the same as the colonizer: “almost the same but not quite” as “almost the same but not white.” his “almost” is defensive: it must be assumed that we can tell the difference because otherwise the other could pass for us and even take our place. Bhabha draws on a quote from Macaulay’s Minute on Education (1835) about the purpose of colonial education which would be to create an elite Indian population who would transmit colonial values for the colonizer. Such a population would be: “Indian in blood and colour but English in tastes, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect” (cited in Bhabha 1994: 124). Macaulay is precisely not talking about the creation of a racially mixed population, although as I am sure many of you will know this was the policy in other colonial contexts including Australia (the guiding Eugenic assumption being that racial mixing would eliminate traces of Aboriginality from the population). Rather Macaulay assumed that Indianness could and should be eliminated culturally because it would always leave a trace biologically. To borrow Bhabha’s terms the Indian elite would become Anglicized not English; resembling not being.

In situations of proximity between those historically understood as “different races,” and let’s give that proximity its name, colonialism, difference becomes a defence: an assumption that we can always “tell the difference,” that race as such is a tellable difference.  The figure of the passing mixed-race individual thus became a site of anxiety, particularly in the United States in the early twentieth century. One of the famous texts to tell the story of what became known as the tragic mulatto whose passing as white prefigures her passing into death is Nella Larsen’s novella Passing, first published in 1929. In one scene, two light skinned African American women Irene and Clare are observing each other. They are seated at a table in a restaurant reserved for whites; they are both passing successfully, which means not only that neither of them realises that the other is passing but that they also do not realise they know each other; passing provides a cloak of anonymity.

Irene observes and I imagine her speaking back to Freud: “White people were so stupid about such things for all that they usually asserted that they were able to tell; and by the most ridiculous means, finger-nails, palms of hands, shapes of ears, teeth, and other equally silly rot. They always took her for an Italian, a Spaniard, a Mexican, or a gipsy. Never, when she was alone, had they even remotely seemed to suspect that she was a Negro. No, the woman sitting there staring at her couldn’t possibly know” (7-8). The account is pedagogic : the desire to tell the difference is what organises the science of raciology, which is itself a detection system: a search for evidence that treats the bodies of racialised others as testimony. Every bit of the body becomes a revelation.  A system based on such “silly rot” still has to be survived. What we learn as well from this novella is that “the striking feature” becomes what is feared or anticipated by the passing subject herself: to experience oneself as passing is to fear being detected or caught out for not being as one appears. And this novel reminds us how that “striking feature” can also be delayed, a threat of what is to come, of who is to come: the fear that one’s own darkness will be revealed on a future child, a child who might inherit the darkness, a child who would become the striking feature that betrays the passing individual’s dubious origins to return to Freud’s own mythic confidence (“their origin decides their fate”). This fear of betrayal –that we will betray ourselves or be betrayed by others – is central to the experience of passing. We do not have to assume we are not what we appear to be, to fear the consequences of being found not to be as we appear.

What I am suggesting here is passing is a matter of who is already found to be suspicious. Passing reopens a history that has not been closed. We can learn here from Harryette Mullen’s brilliant paper, “Optic White: Blackness and the Production of Whiteness,” first published in 1994, which considers the African American literatures on passing. Mullen reflects on what she calls “the usual mechanism of passing,” which involves the active denial and erasure of African ancestry by individuals and the gradual but violent process of assimilation (72). When passing succeeds, a population can disappear without  a trace. But she also considers how “the logic of passing” is intrinsic to “the logic of slavery” because of the construction of Blackness as a “facsimile or counterfeit of white” (73). Mullen refers to the passing subject as like “a counterfeit bill that is passed into circulation but that may be withdrawn at any point it is discovered to be bogus. The inherited whiteness is a kind of capital which may yield the dividend of freedom” (76). Light skinned African Americans who pass thus acquire the value of whiteness, they may even temporarily possess this value (and note how freedom is explicitly tied to capital), but this possession is insecure; they may be dispossessed at any moment.

This idea of the passing subject as like counterfeit money is extremely suggestive: it shows how passing is not only an act of fraud (counterfeit money passes itself off as real money) but is an attempt to defraud a system that itself depends on abstraction and exchange. Or to make use of Judith Butler’s (1990) account of drag in a different content: we can show how money is itself a drag. The counterfeit bill fraudulently reveals that the origin in being copyable is a copy. Fraud is here another way of thinking about the act of dispossession: somebody without authority puts something in circulation that passes for what those with authority (here the State) assume as their role and right to put into circulation.

Note the word “bogus” in this quote. I was struck myself that the word “bogus” actually derives from counterfeit money, a bogus was a “spurious coin” and the word is assumed to derive from slang for the counterfeit’s apparatus: that is, from the machine that makes such coins through creating impressions. Just to quote from one early usage of the bogus machine: “One bogus or machine impressing dies on the coin, with a number of dies, engraving tools, bank bill paper, spurious coin, &c. &c. making in all a large wagon load, was taken into possession by the attorney general of Lower Canada” (Online Etymology Dictionary). So much material is required to make counterfeit money!  And just to add to our queer etymological wanderings, it is always delight to wander with words, the word “spurious” implies sham, “not proceeding from the source intended,” and refers to the illegitimate child, as the one who has dubious origins because their arrival has not been rendered as legitimate by law (outside wedlock). A coin would be spurious and bogus when it does not originate legitimately; a person too. Words are allowing us to make connections. Note also that bogus can refer to a coin and to a machine for making coins: passing machines, passing as machinery.

Think of the figure of the bogus asylum seeker.  We can begin to understand how asylum as such become fraudulence: those who claim asylum are assumed to be bogus, to be passing their way into the nation through fraud, unless they demonstrate otherwise; every asylum seeker is understood as a singular impress created by a machinery that is intended to defraud the whole system.

In these instances passing is understood as a deliberate willful act of fraud; a way of falsely receiving benefits. The welfare recipient and the asylum seeker are both passing figures in this sense.  You have to demonstrate that you are not passing for what you are not (that you are what you claim you are) in order to take up residence within a nation or to receive any benefits.  The effort to establish that you are not a fraud has life consequences: a system becomes a hammer directed against those who are perpetually being rendered dubious because of their origins, because their bodies, their story, their papers, are not in the right place. To be judged as passing is to inherit a demand to establish one’s legitimacy to those who decide the criteria for legitimacy. We sense what we know: this system is wearing; it works by being wearing.

The figure of the passer is thus generated by a system as a mechanism for legitimating itself; it is how legitimacy is legitimated. Those who pass (by going undetected) both trouble the system and are how a system is justified as necessary. Some might have to pass to survive and that very survival is narrated as a way of falsely accruing benefits. Sometimes passing is really about dealing with the consequences of being perceived as passing, that is, having an act of survival interpreted by others as an act of fraud.

Within communities that are rendered illegitimate, we might call these communities “passing communities,” those individuals who successfully pass might also acquire the status of being shadowy and untrustworthy, because by passing they might access resources that are not available to those who do not or cannot pass, including whiteness as such, whiteness as resource. This shadowy circulation is difficult and our task should not be to resolve but to explain that difficulty.

A Phenomenology of Passing

I have suggested that passing comes up for those whose bodies, whose papers, are not in the right place. I now want to shift gears slightly, and try and think of passing through the lens of phenomenology: that is by thinking of passing as a field of perception. Freud’s own description of the mixed race person who cannot pass is precisely about how difference is assumed as perceptible; difference from whiteness as what is striking, difference as what creates a strong impression.  To offer a phenomenology of passing would be to give an account of how something becomes striking. When something is striking it becomes an object of consciousness; it acquires clarity, edges that are crisp, are more or less crisp, against a background that is blurry.  To pass is to pass into a background.

When things are where they are supposed to be they are in a certain way overlooked. You know that vase that appears on the mantelpiece. You might notice it when it is missing. It becomes striking in its absence; in not being in the right place, you can be struck by its being. What happened to the vase? Where is the vase? It is the beginning of a story.  Or maybe another vase has been put there in the place of the vase that is missing. You don’t notice it at first, you are busy occupied, but then you notice something is “not quite right,” strange, different. The thing out of place: it registers as intrusion; a sensory intrusion. That is not my vase, what happened to my vase? It is the beginning of another story: a story perhaps of a broken vase; of something being covered over, a story of guilt, even.

What is registered by consciousness is what disagrees with an expectation of how things should appear. A body can be what is disagreeable in this sense: a body appears all the more striking, when a body is not expected to appear, or when a body does not appear as a body is expected to appear. In my book Strange Encounters (2000) I drew on Mary Douglas’s definition of dirt as “matter out of place” to think of strangers, as “bodies out of place.”  Some bodies stand out: they do not recede into the background. To become a stranger is not to pass through. When passing fails something is revealed. Freud misunderstood this something. It is the beginning of a story: who are you; where are you from; what are you doing here?

Passing can thus refer not only to passing as or for but also passing into or to pass through. When we speak of passing as white we might mean to pass into a community or to pass through a neighbourhood. When whiteness becomes background to pass is not to appear, that is, not to appear “not white.” When you do not pass as white, you might be stopped. Not to pass as white is when a body registers as sensory intrusion.

I have written of experiences I had growing up not white in a white neighbourhood in Australia.  There was one time a police car pulled up beside me as I was walking down a street just near where I lived. One policeman asked me “are you Aboriginal?” It turned out there had been some burglaries in the area recently. To be seen as Aboriginal is not only to be seen as out of place but as a threat to those who are “in place:” proximity as crime against person and property. I answered the question with a no. If I had not given that answer, the question would, I have no doubt, led to further interrogation. But I was allowed to pass through. In other words being able to pass was a form of racial privilege: if I was brown, I was a brown settler. Being a brown settler is still being a settler.

Race is a complicated address. The second policeman then asked, and the question had the intonation of a quip, “or is it just a sun tan?” Here colour becomes it (is it, it is all about it). Colour becomes something that has to be explained or explained away. A tan explains colour as domesticated colour; bronzed not brown. A tanned woman would be a woman who acquires colour in the way other Australians do: her colour might even be an expression of national character, of what we do in our leisure time.

I remember so many comments when I was growing up about being sun-tanned, often superficially admiring or positive comments: oh how lucky you are to brown so easily, how lucky you are; how I wish, look at me, with my burnt pink red white skin.

How I wish, wish, wish


When admiration is given as compensation it is not admiration. The effort not to be sorry can be a way of being sorry.

Oh dear

But lucky you, dear

Such comments should be grouped together as polite racism, a genre that works to deflect attention from race as if race as such is an embarrassment, something that could not or should not be brought up in polite society. Such speech acts could thus be translated: your colour is not a stain on your being; we will give you the benefit of the doubt by assuming you are white underneath or at least we will pretend you white underneath because it would be harder, hard, not to pretend.

Whiteness: when colour is something that is acquired

Becoming brown not being brown

Becoming not being (2)

Polite racism works to create “presumed whiteness.”  In other words, it is more polite to presume you are white. In order not to disappear you have to make your brownness or blackness into an assertion. You might have to be assertive just to be. Or: you might have to become willingly, wilfully, some striking feature.

More is at stake in how I was able to pass by or pass through in this encounter. I also think by speaking in the voice I have, with the voice I had, I identified myself as being middle-class, as being someone who belongs in this neighbourhood, as someone they were policing for, not against. This is what intersectionality can mean in practice: being stopped because of how you can be seen in relation to some categories (not white, Aboriginal), being able to start up because of how you are seen in relation to others (white, middle-class).  No wonder: intersectionality is messy and embodied.

In a wonderful dialogical paper, Ruth Frankenberg and Lata Mani reflect on postcoloniality as a politics of location; on how individual trajectories are shaped by histories of colonialism. In her riff, Lata Mani (writing as a feminist from India who was then working in the United States) addresses two moments of arriving at her university after hours. In the first, a white male professor opens the door, and refuses her entry : “he cannot let anyone in off the street, god knows what you might do” (1993: 296). In the second, a Filipina woman at work cleaning the corridor opens the door: “she looks up at me, smiles and without a word opens the door for me” (296).

Anyone: riff-raff.

Someone: smile, come in.

Intersectionality: stopping, starting, anybody, in, somebody, out.

Intersectionality: stopping and starting.

In one moment you are not allowed in because of how you are seen (you are a stranger, you are brown, you could be anybody). In another moment you are allowed in because of how you are seen (you are a professor, you are brown but you are someone). Depending on who encounters who, a door is closed or opened. And of course it is the Professor who holds, as it were the door, to the institution; who decides who can reside there, who can be legitimately employed there, not the cleaner.

Depending on who encounters who; passing comes up when you do not pass through. Of course some professors are assumed to be passing as professors. When some of us are professors, we are treated like temporary residents; we have to be allowed in because we are not from. Pierre W. Orelus’s reflects on how as a professor of colour he is often met with surprise. He writes: “after I formally introduce myself in class, I have undergraduate students who ask me, in a surprised tone of voice, ‘Are you really the professor?’ I sometimes overhear them asking their peers ‘Is he really the professor’” (2011: 31). Really: really? Are you sure? Orelus compares this mode of questioning, this sense of curiosity and astonishment, with the questions typically asked of immigrants about “funny accents.” Being asked whether you are the professor is another way of being made into a stranger, a body out of place. Being asked “where are you from?” or “where are you really from?” is a way of saying you are not from here.

Brown, black: not from here, not here, not.

When we are talking about passing we are talking about doors. For some to pass through the door, to enter a room, requires being given permission by those who are holding that door. A door is not just a physical thing that swings on hinges, but a mechanism that enables an opening and a closing. Some have to pass when this mechanism is working.

Some: not all. This is why it does not work to say “we are all passing,” even if we are all in some ways passing because we are all, in a profound sense, temporary residents. A category too can be a dwelling: as that which gives residence.  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.

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 fraudulent women has material life consequences (and passing we have already learnt is a matter of consequence). Juliet Jacques in one of her excellent pieces published in The Guardian, drawing on Julia Serano, explores precisely this problem: how the passing narrative casts trans women as deceivers. But sometimes, as Jacques herself notes, passing  might be a way of avoiding being harassed, and it might require a certain kind of confidence: the creation of an impression of having a right to be where you reside. Another way of saying: some have to assertive just to be.

Passing can be the experience of the requirement to justify your existence in the very manner of your existence.  Sometimes whether or not you are asked a question you feel questionable. Maybe you have been questioned too many times; you come to expect it, you become to live your life as a question. You become a question mark.  I am walking with my girlfriend. “Are you a boy or a girl?” they ask her, a question that drips with mockery and hostility. A question hovering around gender: not being housed by gender, being unhoused by gender. Once you have been asked these questions, you might wait for them, waiting to be dislodged changes your relation to the lodge. Other times I have been asked when we enter a local shop “is she your sister?”  Who is she, is it a way of saying, what is your relationship? A relationship can be questionable. Sister: a way of seeing or not seeing lesbian? Sister: a way of evoking an intimacy without naming it; sister as euphemism? Recently a lesbian couple were asked by their newly arrived neighbours: “what are you?” A relationship becomes “some striking feature.”

Heterosexuality too: can be quite a blur.  When things are aligned, we have a straight line. An alignment is often what you do not see. Think of tracing paper: when the paper is lined up you see one set of lines. It is all clear. Move one piece of paper, just a bit, a tiny, tiny bit: the whole picture is thrown into disarray. Blink. You turn up at a hotel with your girlfriend and you say you have booked a room. A hesitation can speak volumes. This reservation says your booking is for a double bed, is that right madam? Eyebrows are raised; a glance slides over the two of you, catching enough detail. This time you both appear as women. But something else is not right, then; something else, brings the picture into disarray. Are you, sure madam? Yes that’s right; a double bed. You have to say it, again; you have to say it, again, firmly. Some have to insist on what is given to others. In previous work I have offered a formula:

Rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy

When you are known as a feminist, you do not even have to say anything before eyes roll. You can hear them sigh “oh hear she goes.” I now have another formula.

Raised eyebrows = lesbian feminist pedagogy

The raising of eyebrows: lodged as a question: Really, are you sure?  This happens again and again; you almost come to expect it, the necessity of being firm just to receive what you have requested. One time after a querying, are you sure madam, are you sure, madam, you enter the room; twin beds. Do you go down; do you try again? It can be trying. Sometimes it is too much, and you find other ways of huddling. Questions follow you, wherever you go. Perhaps a following can be a promise. Those whose being is in question are those who can question being.

Institutional Passing

A social arrangement might be what does not appear. We learn then that a background is also an action: whiteness for instance is being accomplished by not being revealed. To disagree with an expectation of what should appear is to get in the way of an accomplishment.

Institutions can be built around bodies, for bodies, as Nirmal Puwar shows in her wonderful book Space Invaders (2004). For some to arrive is to fit.  We learn this too from the literatures on class and passing, for example from the work of Annette Kuhn (1995) and Valerie Walkerdine (1997). The bourgeois body is attuned to a set of requirements: a way of speaking, holding the body; what you refer to, who you defer to.  Attunement seems like magic when it works. You are expected to go there, Oxbridge say, so you have already been taught how to be there before you get there.  An institution is like an old garment: if it has acquired the shape of those who tend to wear it, then it becomes easier to wear if you have that shape.  You do not have to pass because you do not have to think about it, you just pull it on; you just move on. Easier to wear: this is why I think of privilege as an energy saving device. Less effort is required to be or to do. But if you arrive into these institutions with dubious origins, you are not expected to be there, so in getting there you have already disagreed with an expectation of who you are and what you can do, then an institution is the wrong shape; the jumper does not fit. You fidget to try and make it fit, but fidgeting shows all the more that it does not fit. Kuhn describes how as a working-class girl in a grammar school she feels “conspicuously out of place” (111). And indeed, she describes this sense of being out of place by giving us a biography of her school uniform; how by the time her ill-fitting uniform came to fit, it had become “shabby” and “scruffy.”

When there is a not a fit, you become a misfit, to use Rosemarie Garland-Thomson’s (2011) important terms. You might feel like a fraud; it is all left hanging. It is probably the frauds who are our best hopes for transformations: we can only loosen the requirements to be in institutions by failing to meet them. But it is hard, painful, to fail to meet them. Garland Thomson explores how disabled subjects become misfits because or when they are not accommodated by institutions. Not to be accommodated is not to be able to pass through or by. For some to pass would require making adjustments; the pavement might have to be adjusted to support the passing through of those in wheelchairs; a podium might have to be adjusted to support those who are not the right height; a time-table might have to be adjusted to support those with child care responsibilities, and so on.  To pass through can become difficult given how spaces are organized; a space can be what “gets in the way” of a forward progression.

By progression I am not speaking of upward mobility, but just the very capacity to get through or to move along or to reside or take part or to do some ordinary thing (go the toilet, get a cup of coffee and so on). We might note that diversity is often understood and dismissed as being about career advancement. Diversity becomes another way of falsely receiving benefits. As we know: some do not have to advance themselves to advance; they are advanced by virtue of their membership of a social group. An institution can be what eases a progression. This is why, this is how: the judgment of being motivated by a desire for upward mobility tends to falls on those whose progression is not eased by an institution. Tends to fall, we call it a tendency.

Institutions: how history becomes concrete. What then do I mean by institutional passing? Institutional passing might include the effort not to stand out or stand apart (although the effort not to stand out can be what makes you stand out). When you are perceived as demanding (a space has to be modified to accommodate you) you might end up trying not to make too many demands. Institutional passing might be what end up doing when or even because you cannot pass for what you are not because of the body you have, your history, or for whatever reason. Perhaps you pass by not speaking about yourself as a minority: as if by passing over being not, you would be less intrusive to those who are; or as if by passing over “not” being white, able bodied, male, straight, cis, you would “not” be “not” in quite the same way.

I know so many “not’s;” too many “not’s.” No wonder we get lost.

Passing here would be about trying to be less noticeable (although you only have to try to be less noticeable because you are noticeable). To think about the work of institutional passing, I want to draw on some of the data on diversity work I discussed in my book, On Being Included (2012). As we know diversity is often offered as an invitation, it might be a tagline, minorities welcome. Come in, come in. We are back to that door, that mechanism that enables some to decide who is let in, who is not. But just because they invite you it does not mean they expect you to turn up. What happens when a person of colour turns up? Oh how noticeable we are 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. Discomfort involves this failure to fit. A restlessness and uneasiness, a fidgeting and twitching, is a bodily registering of an unexpected arrival.

I pretend not to recognise it. Passing is work; it is 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 you are not what they expect. The body that causes their discomfort (by not fulfilling an expectation of whiteness) is the one who must work hard to make others comfortable. You have to pass by passing your way through whiteness, not by becoming white, but by minimizing the signs of difference.  As another woman of colour describes: “I think with a person of colour there’s always a question of what’s this woman going to turn out like… they’re nervous about appointing people of colour into senior positions….Because if I went in my Sari and wanted prayer time off and started rocking the boat and being a bit different and asserting my kind of culture I’m sure they’d take it differently.” Some forms of difference are heard as assertive, as “rocking the boat.”  Some forms of difference become legible as willfulness and obstinacy, as if you are only different because you are insistent (on being different). The pressure not to “assert your culture” is lived as a demand to pass or to integrate. Note how this pressure can be affective: you experience the potential nervousness as a threat; you try and avoid the nervous glance by not fulfilling its expectation.

Indeed, the consequences of racism are in part managed as a question of self-presentation: of trying not to fulfil a stereotype, an idea of who you are, an expectation of how you will be:

Don’t give white people nasty looks straight in their eyes; don’t show them aggressive body positions. I mean, for example I am going to go and buy a pair of glasses because I know the glasses soften my face and I keep my hair short because I’m going bald, so I need something to soften my face. But actually what I am doing, I am countering a stereotype, I’m countering the black male sexual stereotype and yes, I spend all my time, I counter that stereotype, I couch my language behaviour and tone in as English a tone as I can. I am very careful, just very careful.

Passing would here be about “toning it down.” Being careful is about softening the very form of your appearance so that you do not appear “aggressive” because you are already assumed to be aggressive before you appear. The demand not to be aggressive might be lived as a form of body-politics, or as a speech politics: you have to be careful what you say, how you appear, in order to maximize the distance between you and their idea of you. The experience of being a stranger in the institutions of whiteness is an experience of being on perpetual guard: of having to defend yourself against those who perceive you as somebody to be defended against.

Institutional passing can also require working on one’s own body in an effort to be accommodating. You try to make others comfortable with the fact of your own existence. The effort to rearrange your own body becomes an effort to rearrange the past. This past is not only difficult to budge; it is often what those, to whom you appear, do not recognise as present. Institutional passing can involving minimising signs of difference from institutional norms. Or institutional passing can involve maximising signs of difference from a set of expectations about what those who are different from norms are like.  Institutional passing would then include the work you do to pass through by passing out of an expectation: you try not to be the angry person of colour, the trouble maker.  You have to demonstrate not so much that you are not a fraud, but that you are not that kind of minority. The killjoy too appears here as the one that we must give up; institutional passing as appearing to fulfil the happiness duty, softening our appearance, smiling. Of course when we pass as happy, we are not happy. And sometimes we refuse to give up the killjoy; we claim her, stake a claim to her; we might even profess to be her!

To pass might require passing over the words that register that histories of injustice are not over. Not to pass over words such as racism is to encounter the wall of racism. I am speaking of racism in a seminar. Someone 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.  I turn to this willful arm by way of conclusion.

Conclusion: Willful Passing

You will remember I began with Freud and his use of the figure of the mixed race person as the one who will not pass as white because of “some striking feature or other.” Perhaps we can think of willfulness in these terms: a striking feature, a strong impression, a failure to recede or to become background. In my book on willfulness I began with a story about a willful child. It is without question a rather striking story. It is a Grimm story. Let me share it with you:

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

What a story. The willful child: she has a story to tell. My book opens with this story, with this figure of the willful child, the one who disobeys; the one who is punished, who is beaten into the ground. It is a story of a child but also of an arm: the child’s willfulness is inherited by an arm, an arm that keeps coming up, until it too is beaten down.  It is a story of an arm but also of a rod, as that which gives expression to the will of a sovereign, a will that is not deemed a willful will, a will that is deemed necessary to eliminate the willfulness of others.

The willfulness of others. Willfulness is typically defined as: “asserting or disposed to assert one’s own will against persuasion, instruction, or command; governed by will without regard to reason; determined to take one’s own way; obstinately self-willed or perverse.” To be called obstinate or perverse because you are not persuaded by reason? Is this familiar to you? Have you heard this before? The rod is how the will of some is implemented as reason. The rod equals reason. We can hear why, we can hear how, willfulness is understood as a character fault or flaw, a way of dismissing disobedience as brute impulse and perversion; we can hear why, we can hear how, willfulness provides the basis of a feminist, queer and anti-racist revolt.  You might have to become what you are judged as being to survive that judgment; to become obstinate, to keep coming up; to keep speaking up, when there is a concerted and indeed collective effort to bring you down.

I am bringing this story up again because this story is also an institutional story. It is a story that circulates within institutions. It offers a warning, a threat: speak up, and you will be beaten. The story is also an invitation to those who might be at risk of identification with the wayward arm: become the rod as a way of avoiding the consequences of being beaten. Become the rod: too much violence is being abbreviated here.  And: the willful child comes up whenever there is a questioning of institutional reason: whenever, say, sexism or racism are shown to be institutional not personal, she comes up, as if to say, speak up and her fate will be yours. There are many within institutions who cannot afford that fate; there who many who cannot raise their arms in protest even when the will of the institution is exposed as violence, even when that violence is directed against this many.  A politics of willfulness is about giving support to those who are willing to expose the will of the institution as violence, we need to become our own support system, so that when she speaks up, when she is, as she is, quickly represented as the willful child who deserves her fate, who is beaten because her will is immature and impoverished, she will not be an arm coming up alone, she will not be an arm all on her own.

We know the consequences of becoming willful, becoming that striking feature; we are reminded of these consequences constantly. We live these consequences. This is why refusing to pass or not passing cannot become a political requirement without imposing another set of unjust demands. We have to support too those who cannot come up, speak up, not demand they come up; speak up. And we should not assume silence implies an agreement. And after all passing can be how we dislodge an impression. I call this: passing as willing in order to be willful. You might smile, say yes, you might appear to agree, trying not to cause trouble because then, only then, you get closer to those who you wish to dislodge. Just think of this: an arm can be passing. Just think of this: how when a teacher asks a room full of pupils, how the arms come up then, right up, as if to say yes, we have the answer, I have the answer. An arm can be raised when the arm says “yes.” The willful arm too can pass as a willing arm; an arm can appear to be in agreement without being in agreement.

Passing helps us to get through undetected. Sometimes, we have to get through as we have work to do. We have to be fraudulent to expose the system itself as fraudulent: the counterfeit money that is no different from legal tender but for the fact that it is sent out by the wrong machine (3). When the arms are raised in agreement; the arms can strike.  Something is striking not only when it creates a strong impression, but when it causes something to stop or be arrested.  When an arm goes on strike it stops working; it aims to stop the whole body from working.

We have a system when things are working. There are many ways to do the work of stopping things from working. Sometimes we pass by refusing proximity to willful subjects. We appear to lend our hand to the masters, to hear their wish as our command, but things are not always as they appear. Sometimes we refuse to pass and we become willful subjects. We act in agreement with the strength of her impression. Our hands curl into fists. Audre Lorde once said “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (1984). In that unflinching “will never,” is a call to arms, do not become the master’s tool! Whichever way we do the work of dismantling, of bringing that house down, brick by brick, it is the arms that labour away. When the arms become “some striking feature,” we become an army.  We become an army, with so many striking features, bits and pieces of bodies, all over the place, in the wrong place. The arms, the arms: they strike; the arms, the arms; they rise up; the arms, the arms; they do not give up.



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Walkerdine, Valerie (1997). Daddy’s Girl: Young Girls and Popular Culture. Harvard University Press.

1. Parts of this spoken paper were published in the sixth chapter “Going Strange, Going Native” of my book Strange Encounters (2000). This chapter included sections on “consuming strangers” (drawing on bell hooks’ discussion of “eating the other”), “becoming strangers” (drawing on a reading of the film, Dances with Wolves), and “passing for strangers” (which begins with a reading of John Griffin’s Black Like Me). I mention this here as in the third section I consider “passing for black” as well as “passing for white.Despite the fact that our conference happened after the case of Rachel Dolezal had already begun to be discussed as a case of “passing for black” this case did not come up in any of the panel discussions I attended and I did not bring it up myself. I think there was too much to process. I do hope to read more of the work of Black feminists on the complexity of the situation (the lecture was written before the story broke but I have been following it as much as I can). So these are some of my reflections on “passing for black” published 15 years ago in case they are relevant or helpful: “passing for black has become an increasingly powerful individual and national fantasy. Passing for black is  enabled by ‘adopting’ elements of black culture, a process of adoption which then fixes or freezes those elements as indicators of what it means to be black. In Sunderland’s sympathetic account of white women who pass as black, she emphasises how these women imagine and project what it means to ‘be black’. To quote from one of her interviewees, ‘And I find that very much about black people. You know, I think, um. I just find warmth there.’ While Sunderland clearly supports this representation of the white self through claiming affiliation with black culture – for her this indicates a shift towards a recognition of mixed identities – we can be more cautious. Not only is there a fetishising and exoticising of blackness at stake, but we also have the recreation of the white subject as the one knows the difference, even if that difference is no longer seen as external to the white self or community….Passing for Black is a technique of knowledge insofar as it remains tied to the narrativisation of the white female subject’s knowledge of herself through her sympathetic incorporation of others….One can consider how such individuated acts of passing legitimate the national fantasy of multiculturalism, in which one passes for strangers by adopting or assuming their style” (2000: 132-133). For those interested the Sunderland piece I was referred to is this one: “You may not know it, but I am Black; White Women’s Self-Identification as Black,” Ethnos, 1-2: 32-58

2. In Strange Encounters (2000) I offered an analysis of how the becoming/being distinction is a racialised distinction (as a way into a critique of philosophies of becoming). Whiteness is becoming (movement, light, flight) insofar as blackness is posited as being (stasis, dark, weight). Some have to be so others become.

3. It is worth noting here that security systems, or anti-counterfeiting measures, also require the invention of means for “telling the difference” by making difference of origin more legible or material (holigrams, multi-colored bills, embedded devices such as strips, microprinting, watermarks and inks whose colors changed depending on the angle of light). Differences are generated by the very system that requires them. The implications for theories of authorship (and or as machinery) seem obvious.

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