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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Snap the Bond

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

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

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

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

A snap can be what happens when you are unwilling to meet the conditions for being with others. If a bond has such conditions, a bond as how to be, we are also learning that a bond can be to an idea of how a life is to be lived to count as a good life.   Queer as snap: the moment you realize what you do not have to be. Not following a family line can be understood as breaking a line: snap, snap, as if you are cutting up the family with a pair of scissors just by arranging your life in a different way.  Not following something as destroying something: no wonder they find us to be destructive. So much is reproduced by the requirement to follow. Within the academy you might be asked to follow the well-trodden paths of citation; to cite properly as to cite those deemed to have the most influence. Not following something as destroying something: you can become a vandal by rearranging a text in a different way.  A vandal is defined as a “willful destroyer of the venerable and beautiful.”  Even to speak of whiteness in the academy or of colonialism as the context in which Enlightenment philosophy happened is to bring up the scandal of the vandal.  Decolonizing the curriculum as a project has been framed as an act of vandalism, a willful destruction of our universals; knocking off the heads of statues, snapping at the thrones of the philosopher kings.

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

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

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

Snap as Feminist Work

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

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

When I was first here there was a policy that you had to have three people on every panel who had been diversity trained. But then there was a decision early on when I was here, that it should be everybody, all panel members, at least internal people. They took that decision at the equality and diversity committee which several members of SMT were present at. But then the director of Human Resources found out about it and decided we didn’t have the resources to support it, and it went to council with that taken out and council were told that they were happy to have just three members, only a person on council who was an external member of the diversity committee went ballistic – and I am not kidding went ballistic – and said the minutes didn’t reflect what  had happened in the meeting because the minutes said the decision was different to what actually happened (and I didn’t take the minutes by the way). And so they had to take it through and reverse it. And the Council decision was that all people should be trained. And despite that I have then sat in meetings where they have just continued saying that it has to be just 3 people on the panel. And I said but no Council changed their view and I can give you the minutes and they just look at me as if I am saying something really stupid, this went on for ages, even though the Council minutes definitely said all panel members should be trained. And to be honest sometimes you just give up.

It seems as if there is an institutional decision. Individuals within the institution must act as if the decision has been made for it to have been made. If they do not, it has not. A decision made in present about the future is overridden by the momentum of the past.  In this case, the head of personnel did not need to take the decision out of the minutes for the decision not to bring something into effect.  I have called this dynamic “non-performativity” when naming something does not bring something into effect, or when something is named in order not to bring something into effect. So perhaps an institution can say “yes” when there is not enough behind that “yes” for something to be brought about.  An institutional wall is when a will, “a yes,” does not bring something about, “a yes” that conceals this “not bringing” under the appearance of “having brought.”

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

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

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

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

A wall comes up, in the form of a concerted effort to stop students from making a complaint. Students are warned that complaining would cause damage; it would damage their careers, reputations, relationships. This warning often works as a threat: you will lose the connections you need to progress. One student describes: “I was repeatedly told that ‘rocking the boat’ or ‘making waves’ would affect my career in the future and that I would ruin the department for everyone else. I was told if I did put in a complaint I would never be able to work in the university and that is was likely I wouldn’t get a job elsewhere.” Here complaining becomes a form of self-damage as well as damage to others, ruining a department no less. This student goes onto to describe how the pressure not to complain is exerted: “In just one day I was subjected to eight hours of gruelling meetings and questioning almost designed to break me and stop me from taking the complaint any further.”  A wall can be what comes up, or a wall can be what comes down, like a ton of bricks. Harassment is how someone is stopped or almost stopped by being worn down.  This is how power often works: you don’t have to stop people from doing something, just make it harder for them to do something.   We can understand why and how snap requires a feminist support system: you need a shelter, a place to go, to keep going.

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

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

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

After Snap

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

Earlier I described diversity workers as institutional plumbers. We might from this description assume that diversity workers are appointed to unblock the system. But a blockage can be how the system is working. The system is working by stopping those are trying to transform the system.  This means that to transform a system we have to stop the system from working.  As Sarah Franklin (2005) describes we might need to throw a wrench in the works, or become “wenches in the works,” to stop the system from working.  We might have to become leaky pipes; drip, drip. Of course, the institution will try to mop up the spillage; happy shiny policies will be put in place, holes left by departures will be filled without reference to what went on before, a blot becomes something to be wiped up, wiped away.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Snappy Movements

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

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

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


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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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The Effort to Transform: Intellectual Legacies of Stuart Hall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We learn from what we come up against.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My killjoy blog has been a little quiet!

Still, I have been a killjoy at work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poppy Killjoy

Poppy: she puts the joy in killjoy.

A killjoy has many joys.

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

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

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

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

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

It is a promise: a killjoy always has issues.

Until later,

FK x


Introduction to Killjoys@Work Panel, March 14, Cambridge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feminism: how pick each other up.

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

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

Yes we are willing to be that blunt.

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

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

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

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

Thank you.



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Out and About

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

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

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

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

Feminism: a way with words.

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It can cause unhappiness to be the cause of unhappiness.

No wonder something other than happiness becomes a feminist cause.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other diversity workers refuse to smile or even to use smiley words. One practitioner said that for her “Diversity obscures the issues…  It can, diversity is like a big shiny red apple right, and it all looks wonderful but if you actually cut into that apple there’s a rotten core in there and you know that it’s actually all rotting away and it’s not actually being addressed.  It all looks wonderful but the inequalities aren’t being addressed.” When I listened to this practitioner I was reminded of Betty Friedan’s critique of the image of the happy housewife whose beaming smile hides an infection. We can think of the labor of creating shiny surfaces. When something is shiny, so much is not reflected. The creation of a shiny surface is how an organisation can reflect back a good image to itself.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Queer Fatalism

Fatalism refers to a belief that events are inevitable or predetermined. By queer fatalism I am not referring to such a belief system but to the assumption that to be queer is to hurtle toward a miserable fate. Queer fatalism is how a queer demise is explained and made inevitable. Queer deaths are often framed as a consequence of queerness; queer fatalism = queer as fatal. And by queer here I mean more than lesbian and gay though queer includes those “sad old queens and long-suffering dykes who haunt the historical record,” as Heather Love describes in her important work on loss and queer history (2007: 32). Queer would refer to those who claim queerness; those who claim the very term that has been hurled as an insult; those who refused to be shamed by the shame they are supposed to have brought upon themselves; the shame they are supposed to have brought upon others.

Queer: not to be ashamed of you when others are ashamed of you.

Queer: how you can build a life from what you refuse not to be.

One thinks of how when queers die, those who are publicly known, about as well as out, we might think here of George Michael, how quickly their deaths are framed through queer fatalism. The pictures of their deaths, maybe of their last days, or the words used to describe their lives, words that are picked up from charges brought against them because of how they lived their lives, how they had sex, how they didn’t have sex, these pictures and words are the materials of queer fatalism; these words and images stick to queer bodies.

And queer fatalism as a frame is also about how or where happiness is found; how a more positive slant is created by placing queerness outside the picture; in the effort to find what is good about a life somewhere else, in acts of generosity, for instance, when really as queers we know, the immense generosity of those like George Michael is a queer generosity. A queer generosity: to affirm a sexuality that is labelled as perverse, to reject the rejection of queerness. With that generosity came other generosities, others ways of attending to struggle, to those who struggle.

And ghosts clamour: we remember how other deaths, Stephen Gately, for instance, were explained with reference to sexuality, to “dangerous life styles,” how quickly and how wrongly, queer is treated as a death sentence.

Others are allowed to die without having their deaths be explained as a consequence of being who they are, or as a consequence of who they refused not to be. Even death can become a privilege. An accident maybe, bad luck even, unfortunate; sad of course, terribly, terribly sad: but not fated, not fated, not hated.

Homophobia is often lurking in the background when a queer life seems to be working, when someone is successful, appears happy, though it is always close to the surface, in that potential for violence, a blow up, or in that tut-tut, that pointed sigh that expresses the wish that they could just tone it down, be less obvious. Because it is already there, homophobia comes up quickly when things stop working, in moments of loss, when a life is lost, in moments of breakage, of trauma. Homophobia comes up as an explanation for what is not working. 

Homophobia: it does have fatal consequences.

The fatality that follows homophobia becomes a cause. Homophobia: when it is assumed you caused that consequence.

What are we talking about?

We are talking about life and death.

We are also talking about happiness and unhappiness.

The sadness of a life can be a social investment; that to live a life in a certain way, a queer way, say, is to become the cause of your own unhappiness.   In my work I have explored the figure of the “unhappy queer” and how this figure circulates. You could say that the queer child is an unhappy object for many parents. In some parental responses to the child coming out, this unhappiness is not so much expressed as being unhappy about the child being queer, but as being unhappy about the child being unhappy.  In the classic book on lesbian and gay liberation, No Turning Back one of the typical parental responses to the child coming out is: “I just want you to be happy, dear, and it’s such an unhappy life” (1983: 17).  Queer fiction is full of such speech acts in which the parents express their fear that the queer child is destined to have an unhappy life.[i] I have learnt so much from the following exchange in the lesbian novel, Annie on My Mind (1982) by Nancy Garden:

“Lisa”, my father said, “I told you I’d support you and I will. And right now I can see we’re all too upset to discuss this very much more, so in a minute or two I’m going to take you and your mother and me out to lunch. But honey, I know its not fashionable to say this, but – well, maybe it’s just that I love your mother so much and you and Chad so  much that I have to say to you I’ve never thought gay people can be very happy – no children for one thing, no real family life. Honey, you are probably going to be a very good architect – but I want you to be happy in other ways, too, as your mother is, to have a husband and children. I know you can do both….” I am happy, I tried to tell him with my eyes. I’m happy with Annie; she and my work are all I’ll ever need; she’s happy too – we both were until this happened. (191)

This speech act functions powerfully. The parent makes an act of identification with an imagined future of necessary and inevitable unhappiness. Such identification through grief about what the child will lose, reminds us that the queer life is already constructed as an unhappy life, as a life without the “things” that make you happy, or as a life that is depressed as it lacks certain things: “a husband, children.” To love is here to want the child not to give up on such things; you want the child to have happiness by not giving up on these things.

For the daughter, it is only the eyes that can speak; and they try to tell an alternative story about happiness and unhappiness. In her response, she claims happiness, for sure. She is happy “with Annie,” which is to say, she is happy with this relationship and this life that it will commit her to. The power of the unspoken response is lodged in the use of the word “until”: we were happy “until” this happened, where the “until” marks the moment that the father speaks his disapproval. The unhappy queer is here the queer who is judged to be unhappy: the judgment of unhappiness creates unhappiness, in the very performance of the failure to recognize the social viability of queer relationships, in its failure to recognize queer love.  The father’s speech act creates the unhappiness that is assumed to be the inevitable consequence of the daughter’s decision.

When “this” happens, unhappiness does follow.

The social struggle within families often involves a struggle over the causes of unhappiness. The father is unhappy as he thinks the daughter will be unhappy if she is queer. The daughter is unhappy as the father is unhappy with her being queer. The father witnesses the daughter’s unhappiness as a sign of the truth of his position: that she will be unhappy because she is queer. Even the happy queer becomes unhappy at this point.  And clearly the family can only be maintained as a happy object, as being what is anticipated to cause happiness, by making the unhappiness of the queer child its point.

There are of course good reasons for telling stories about queer happiness, in response and as a response to the very presumption that a queer life is necessarily and inevitably an unhappy life. But think of how in encountering the social weight of queer fatalism, we encounter new pressures. Think of the work required to counter the perception of your life as being unhappy: the very pressure to be happy in order to show that you are not unhappy can create unhappiness. And you know that if there is a break up it can fulfill an expectation that queer relationships are less lasting, less secure; fragile. This is really what I mean by queer fatalism; queer not only as shattering but 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. It is as if by leaving the safety of the brightly lit path, you caused your own demise.

Some are assumed to be inherently broken, as if their fate is to break, as if a break is what we were heading for right from the beginning.

And then: any happiness you found along the way is assumed to have been found despite of yourself. When you lose it, there is a nod, a confirmation.

See, it wouldn’t last; they won’t last.

It is hard to made things last when it is assumed that if things do not last that is because of who you are.

I think with the film Lost and Delirious. This is a moody, sad and awkward film that hurtles its way towards a seemingly inevitable tragic ending, which it seems no one or nothing can change; the linking of queer fates with “fatality” seems partly the point.  It is a film about two girls, Tori and Paulie who fall in love, but Tori cannot bear following that love because it would involve giving up on the possibility of being the cause of her family’s happiness; it would mean not living the life her mother wished for her. And the girl Tori loves, Paulie, cannot bear losing her love.  It is fatal, sometimes, what you cannot bear.

Some critics suggested that this film was dated. One critic describes the film as “time-warped.”  The implication of such a description is that queers can now come out, be accepted and be happy. Those of us committed to a queer life know that forms of recognition are either precariously conditional, you have to be the right kind of queer by depositing your hope for happiness in the right places (even with perverse desire you can have straight aspirations), or it is simply not given. Not only is recognition not given, but it is often not given in places that are not noticeable to those who do not need to be recognized, which helps sustain the illusion that it is given, which means if you say that it has not been given, you are read as paranoid.

We must stay unhappy with this world.

It’s a killjoy manifesto.

And how we grieve; each time we lose a warrior, how we grieve. Queer grief: when we grieve for the loss of our queers, our lovers, our warriors; we hold each other up because of what we did not give up. José Esteban Muñoz wrote so eloquently of this queer project, so truthfully, “we take our dead with us in the various battles we must wage in the names” (1999, 74). How we mourn your absence; how we keep you with us. Muñoz cites Douglas Crimp’s (1989) important work on mourning and militancy. That and is a promise. It could even become as: mourning as militancy. We don’t have to give up our grief in order to do battle. In fact we battle because we have not given up on who we have lost.

We organise because we agonize.

We grieve our loses as queer loses. Judith Butler (2004) has offered us a powerful vocabulary for thinking about how politics work through the creation between grievable and ungrievable lives. Queer losses are not mourned as public losses; so much queer activism has been about mourning the unmourned.

Is our task to become grievable? I do not think that is our task. To become grievable, to move from being ungrievable to grievable, queers might have to become less queer; signs of queerness might need to be removed before a loss can be publicly shared. When queerness has to disappear, out of politeness at this moment of grief, say in the midst of a family loss, we experience more queer grief. There is so much to say here about how we can counter the demand to clean ourselves up, to become more respectable, which is often presented as being about kindness, concern and care, but also how hard it can be to counter that demand at times when we are bereft. It is hard to be left stranded, not to be let in, when all you want to do is weep. We compromise, we make do; we try our best. We might even let signs of queerness go too, or try to, so we can stay.

Think of this too: how as queers we might be grieved for as if in living our lives the way we do, we are the ones who have lost something, happiness, meaning; a purpose, a point, a future. The injustice comes here not from not having a loss grieved, but from being grieved because it is assumed you are lost.

Queer grief: when we refuse to grieve for being queer.

Our grief is not the end of the story: it is part of a story. We are not unhappy because we are queer, we are unhappy with the world that assumes that being queer is unhappy.

Unhappiness can follow the assumption that unhappiness follows.

And we tell other stories, happier ones, even. It is true that some versions of queer happiness are rather bleak versions of what we might call happy homonormativity: where queers find happiness by an increasing proximity to norms that been the site of exclusion: by marrying, being reproductive, becoming good citizens; moving up, moving out.

Happy whiteness, happy straightness, a shiny bright family; see how they gather.

We do not gather; this happiness can be fatal.

Queer happiness as world making: we do not try to be faithful to what is fatal.  Queer happiness can be about what is opened up when we deviate from a straight path. We can build worlds by not giving up what we want; we show the costs of what a world wants us to give up. I think with a film like Stud Life directed by the ever inspiring Campbell X, of how queer happiness can be a kind of militancy, deviation as opening up room to be; a film that doesn’t whiten us, or straighten us out, but shows the mess, the muddle, the huddle of queer existence. Black queer and queer of color activism are predicated on shattering the myth not only of queer unhappiness, that we miss what we refuse, but the myth that queer happiness comes from increasing proximity to whiteness as well as to straight culture.

Shattering; it is what we do.

When we are assumed as shattered, we can shatter.

This blog is written out of love and affection for all our beautiful fragile queers.

This blog is dedicated to George Michael.

Thank you.


Butler, Judith (2004). Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence,  London: Verso.

Crimp, Douglas (1989). “Mourning and Militancy,” October, 51.

Garden, Nancy (1982). Annie on My Mind.  New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Goodman, Gerre, George Lakey, Judy Lashof and Erika Thorne (1983). No Turning Back: Lesbian and Gay Liberation for the “80s. Philadelphia:  New Society Publishers.

Love, Heather (2007). Feeling Backward: The Politics of Loss in Queer History. Cambridge:  Harvard University Press.

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

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Wound Up

In my chapter “Feminist Killjoys” in The Promise of Happiness (2010), I described a scene that is painfully familiar (1). It is a table scene. Around a table, a family gathers. We are having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up. Someone says something you consider problematic. You respond, carefully, perhaps.  You might be speaking quietly; or you might be getting wound up, recognizing with frustration that you are being wound up by someone who is winding you up.  And then being wound up becomes audible as well as visible: a raised voice, a frown, sweaty surfaces, a thickening of an atmosphere. These tangible signs might become a conversion point: the moment a happy occasion ceases to be happy, the moment a dinner is ruined.

It is the significance of “recognizing with frustration that you are being wound up by somebody who is winding you up” that I want to pick up on here. To wind something is to twist and to turn it; to wind up can mean to tighten by twisting and turning. You might know that feeling: of becoming tense and tight because of what you encounter. To be wound up by someone who is winding you up: this is a familiar dynamic for those who have assigned feminist killjoys, or even simply those who identify as feminists, however you have been assigned. You are identifying as a certain kind of person, one who is easily provoked, or affected, someone who can be easily wound up because she cannot not be affected by certain things (sexism, injustice, inequality) whenever they are brought up.

It is like being a feminist is then having certain buttons: when they are pushed, she is pushed. There is a lot of difficulty lodged in this description. There is a judgement that precedes the provocation, that leads to the provocation, which is then confirmed when you are provoked. And then: when you are affected you are too easily affected; when you are sensitive you are oversensitive; when you react you overreact. Feminists are often judged as “too” well as “over,” as exceeded the range of reason, “too” or “over” and also as “un,” being unreasonable, unhelpful, even unkind. I have learnt from following the figure of the willful subject (feminists are often called willful, it is a feminist following), being a feminist is understood as being unfree, as not having a strong or mature enough will to avoid being swayed by your own impulses and inclinations. Implied in the figure of the feminist killjoy is an assessment that feminism is a reenactment of feminine passivity.

And you might experience certain situations in these terms. You can be more easily wound up if you care about certain things; you are allowing the world to get under your skin. You are upset by something because it is upsetting; an emotion is how you judge a situation. But it can also be frustrating when your frustration is dismissed as merely expressive of a tendency. We have all had times, I suspect, as feminists (how I love this as, how I wish to hold onto this as), when we have been aware that someone is “winding us up,” by turning a spoil sport into a sport: look how she reacts! Look, look! We can all be caught by such situations. We can be interpellated before our defences go up.

There can be a lock in a dynamic; a way a situation becomes stuck, a way you become stuck by a situation. The problem is not simply about the content of what she is saying. She is doing more than saying the wrong thing: she is getting in the way of something, the achievement or accomplishment of some we or another, which is often created by what is not said, or what is not said in response to what has been said by those who are given the right to be right, to say what they like. So much you are supposed not to say, to do, to be, in order to preserve a “we.” And yet, even if she is not supposed to react this way, her reaction is, at another level, willed. She is after all being wound up by someone who is winding her up. A “we” is performed by witnessing her being wound up, spinning around. Look, look at her spin! To make her the cause of a tension is another way of preserving the illusion that without her, the family would be civil.  I think those of us who have been killjoys around family tables probably know this; how useful we are as containers of incivility and discord.

I’ve written and talked a lot about these dynamics. I have gone over and over them.We need to go over what is not over.

In “Feminist Killjoys,” I wrote mainly about the family table, referring primarily to childhood experiences. I returned to these experiences much more closely in Living a Feminist life. We can go back in time. How often, say over the holidays, do you feel you are going back in time, reoccupying that figure of the feminist killjoy, the child.Once you have accepted the assignment of feminist killjoy, she seems to turn up before you do. The fact that the first ten years of my academic career were spent in Women’s Studies might explain how she popped up everywhere. I had so many conversations which began with curiosity that quickly spilled into hostility: “so what is thing called Women’s Studies? How could there be such a thing?” I have talked about this earlier, in a blog that became the basis for the first chapter of my new book, “Feminism is Sensational.” Women’s Studies causes so much bother: I was bothered by this bother. And more recently in trying to deal with the problem of sexual harassment in universities, I have again come up against this: the problem of becoming the problem because you are trying to address a problem that others do not wish to recognize as a problem.

I remember being tired of dealing with the consequences of saying I taught Women’s Studies. I was in a taxi once, on the way from Sydney airport after a long flight back to Australia. The taxi driver asked me what I did, I said I was a teacher, he asked me what I taught, and I hesitated. I did not feel like “going there.” So I said, I taught sociology. It turned out he had a real gripe with sociologists! That attempt to escape the consequence of being assigned a feminist led me back to the assignment. I have learnt that trying to escape consequences has its own consequences. One of the ways of I have lived with the consequences of being a feminist is to reflect on (and write about) what I described earlier “the lock of the dynamic.” How does a reaction to something become framed as the starting point for a conflict about something? The word I have been using for this reaction is snap.

Snap is quite a sensation. To snap can be to make a sharp sound. When I think of snap, I think of a twig. When a twig snaps, we hear the sound of it break. We can hear the suddenness of a break. We might think on the basis of what we can hear that the snap is a starting point. A snap seems the start of something, a transformation of something; it is how a twig might end up broken in two pieces. A snap might even seem like a violent moment; the unbecoming of something.  But a snap would only be the beginning insofar as we did not notice the pressure on the twig. When we think of being wound up, a snap would be the moment that appears as a breaking point. It is more dramatic, more sudden then what came before. We hear the snap, thinking back to the family table, but we might not hear what led her there, the violence of a provocation that is often inaudible to those who are not being provoked. We need to show how her snap is not the starting point; we need to talk about what precedes snap, the violence that often goes unnoticed.

The feminist killjoy might herself be a snappy figure; feminists might be perceived as “full of snap.” Maybe there is a relation between willful and snapful. Snappiness as a quality is often defined in terms of aptitude. To be snappy is to be “apt to speak sharply or irritably.” That certainly sounds like a feminist aptitude. Feminism: it has bite; she bites. We might even as feminists aim to develop this aptitude: by snapping, we might acquire more snap. We might aim to become snappier by snapping. This does not mean or make snappiness right or into a right. But perhaps snappiness might be required to right a wrong when a wrong requires we bear it; that we take it, or that we take more of it.

Snap: when she can’t take it anymore; when she just can’t take it anymore. Speaking sharply, speaking with irritation. Maybe we can hear her irritation; a voice that rises, a voice that sharpens. When her irritation speaks volumes, we might be distracted from what is irritating. Can we even distract ourselves?  To speak from irritation is to speak from being rubbed up against the world in a certain way. Sianne Ngai (2007) describes irritation as a “minor negative affect.” That is such a good description. We all know that life is full of mild irritations. Perhaps irritation is a little like infection; things eventually come to a head. There is a point when it all comes out, a tipping point. There are a certain number of times you can be rubbed up the wrong way, before you end up snapping. A snap might seem sudden but the suddenness is only apparent; a snap is one moment of a longer history of being affected by what you come up against.

Snap: a moment with a history.

If you are apt to be snappy, perhaps you are not happy. But perhaps this “aptness” is only a part of the story. Some get rubbed up the wrong way more than others; we know this. A feminist killjoy lives and works in a contact zone. She might acquire an aptitude for irritation because of just how much she has already had to put up with. What she has to put up with becomes part of who she is. That she appears as a figure at all (she is first received as an assignment by others) is often about a history of being rubbed up the wrong way. When you are wound up by someone who is winding you up, you are wound up by history.

We bring our histories to feminism. And you can also become a killjoy within feminism because of those histories. You can be a killjoy at feminist tables because of who you are, what you say, what you do; because of a history you might bring up just by entering a room. Audre Lorde (1984), bell hooks (2000), Sunera Thobani (2003) and Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2003) have all taught me to think about the figure of the angry black woman, the angry woman of color, as well as the angry indigenous woman, as another kind of feminist killjoy: a feminist killjoy who kills feminist joy. It can kill feminist joy to speak about racism. When you speak about racism you can be speaking quietly. You know the trouble it causes, so you are careful. But a word can become heard as a snap, a break with what preceded. There can be transference of snappiness (and other negative affects) to the word such that to use that word is to cause a rupture.

Being a feminist of color is data collection. We gather so many responses to the words we use, the bodies we have!

One time quite a while back in 1999 I was presenting a paper “Embodying Strangers,” in which I referred to Audre Lorde’s description, her quite extraordinary description, of racism on a New York subway.  One white woman spoke in the question time with anger about how I hadn’t considered the white woman’s feelings as if this was some sort of neutral situation and that to account for it we have to give an account from each point of view. Racism becomes the requirement to think of racism with sympathy, racism as just another view; the racist as the one with feelings, too.  That should have been a snap moment, a moment with a history. But I wasn’t ready; I was startled, not confident enough to say what came to mind.

I am more ready now; sometimes snapping is what we need to prepare for. Perhaps snapping is always ahead of us, even when it is behind us.

I have already noted how the scene of being wound up can be how “we” coheres. If you are heard as speaking in a way that gets in the way of other people’s occupation, however you speak, you will be heard as aggressive; you might be understood as the one doing the winding. And then: winding up becomes a defense because someone has shown they are not willing to stay in the same place. What follows can be understood a bind. So the response to talking about racism is not just an individual response but a binding together, a sense that talking about racism is being stingy and unkind to them. A wind up can be how a situation becomes tighter in response to an effort to create room to breathe.

Andrea Levy’s Fruit of the Lemon (1999) is a novel that gives a snap a history, black feminist snap as a response to a situation of being wound up. The novel tells the story of Faith Jackson, a Black British girl whose parents migrated to England from Jamaica. She is getting along with her life, doing her own thing. There is an event. She and her flat mate Simon witness a violent attack on another black woman. He runs after the attackers, and they are caught up. Events: what catch you out and catch you up. We witness the event through Faith’s eyes: “A black woman was standing in the doorway of a bookshop. She looked composed, although she had a started stare – like she’s just won the pools and couldn’t quite believe it. But sliding slowly down one side of her face were several strings of blood – thick, bright, red blood. I stood in front of her and asked, ‘Are you all right?’ and felt stupid when she collapsed onto the ground” (150). They return to tell the story of the event.

The story creates a certain kind of drama, in which Simon becomes not simply witness or participant, but also the saviour, the hero, and even the victim. They gather around him as if this has happened to him, as if what made the event an event was how it affected him: “Simon’s hands shook as he lifted his cigarette to his mouth – he couldn’t hold it steady. Marion put her hand over his hand to support it. ‘I think you’re in shock.’ Sweat tea is what you need,’ she said looking closely into Simon’s face. ‘Mick, put the kettle on’” (156). Faith watches the black woman disappear as they gather around him. She interrupts the gathering. “I interrupted the story twice. ‘She was a black woman’, I said. Simon had just called her the woman who worked there. Twice I had to tell them this woman was black like me. And both times Simon and Mick had looked at me and nodded.” (156). They keep going with their story, as if her blackness was just a detail that can be passed over. They fuss over him: giggling, full of the drama of an event. And then Faith can’t bear it anymore. She can’t bear the violence of the event as a violence that acquires is force by being directed against a black woman to be passed over. She snaps. “But then I tipped my cup of tea slowly over the table. “Will you all just shut up. Just fucking shut up. Its not funny! And there was complete silence as they stopped and stared at me. I left the house” (158).  To speak of racism, to name racism, to be conscious of racism, puts Faith in a different world, a world where blackness cannot be passed over. The black woman has to shout to be heard. And in shouting, the black woman is the one who becomes the origin of bad feeling, who pierces through the sound of their apparent care and concern. She must leave.

If you have to shout to be heard you are not heard. Think of how all her efforts to be heard came to nothing. The silence in response to what she says is a tightening. When words are used as a way of confronting a history, it does not mean that everyone will hear that confrontation. They will hear you as being confrontational. When we think of being wound up we need to think about worlds; how they organised to enable some to breathe, to give attention as to give affection; how they leave less room for others. A world can be a wind up. Whiteness is a world; a way of gathering around. That gathering seems neutral, kind even, warm, at least to some; but it depends on the erasure of violence.

A snap can be a way of leaving a situation.

This description from Levy has much to teach us about winds, binds, worlds. Because it teaches us how snap becomes a snap shot, a way of framing a situation. If you started with the snap, the moment when she says “just fucking shut up,” if you sliced the situation so the middle was the beginning, then you would not notice what got her there. And of course those to whom she directs her words do not notice what got her there, which is how she gets there.

When a snap becomes a snap shot, a frame that is frozen, which is cut in the middle of a dynamic and difficult history, a history that includes physical acts of violence as well as how that violence is passed over, so much is not visible or audible. What is erased is then reproduced.

What is erased is then reproduced. Transphobia and trans exclusion within feminism are reproduced by being passed over. Some feminists have made a case that the word TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) should not be used as it has become a slur. Words are shaped by usage – and we can find examples of the word TERF being used as a slur (and just as many examples of TERF being defined as a slur that should not be used) especially on social media. We might point to examples of that word being used alongside other negative words. We could find examples of the word TERF being used in a threatening way. So surely that’s the evidence we need? You could do exactly the same exercise with racism or the word racist (and sexist too for that matter). You could do a search on twitter and find racism and racist used alongside swear words to convey hostile sentiments, even threatening actions. Would you conclude that racist was a slur and that we should not use that word? Some do, of course; some hear racism as mean, an accusation, a way of trying to stop a conversation.  But those who come up against racism know that we are led to the word by the experience of racism, and that the negation of the word derives from the negation of the experience. It is a reaction to racism to use racism in that way.

To start with uses of TERF as a negative term, a term for what is rejected, is to freeze the frame, to perform the snap shot; it is to erase the very histories of violence, which include the histories of how that violence has been passed over, which have led to that word being used in that way. That word acquires its negativity in reaction to how some feminist work (not all, not all at all) has become a wall of harassment. A wind can be a wall. That wall is made up of jokes, asides, qualifications, rebuttals, ways of narrating trans as danger, stranger danger, more or less explicitly; a wall that disappears from view when each brick is read as just another critical viewpoint on gender, or when transphobic and trans exclusionary arguments are treated as “just another view” we should be allowed to express at the  feminist table. To discuss the words used for trans exclusion without discussing the phenomena of trans exclusion (as many have done in making the case that TERF is a slur) reproduces that exclusion.

When signs of being wound up are taken as a starting point, we miss a history. To miss a history is to repeat a history

In some cases, the history is missed because those who are doing the winding up do not tend to narrate their own actions in a way that casts doubt on their own narratives. In other cases, it is because the winding is not just not audible to those who are not being wound up, because they are not the ones toward whom that activity is directed. Just remember: it is hard to feel pressure that you are not under. For example when I first read the letter I referred to in this previous post, I remember thinking that one of the worst consequences of it would be the new legitimacy it would give to trans exclusionary feminism. I thought at first I was indeed witnessing an increase of such speech. But once I began to work through the networks that supported that letter, mostly on social media, I began to realize that what I first heard as a turning up of the volume was just more of the same thing that had been going on all along. For many trans people, especially trans women, that volume switch was already stuck on full blast. My cis privilege was, until then, not having had to notice that harassment or not having had to hear the sound of that blast.

Sometimes, we need to blast ourselves out of complacency.

We need to read the signs of being wound up as a history of being wound up.

Those signs: they are addressed to others.

A snap is not the starting point but a snap is the start of something.  To be wound up can sometimes feel frustrating, even pointless. It can be something we have to survive in order to live. But it can also be what we do with others, even for others. When you are wound up, you tend to be rather expressive. You tend to be inflamed. What if the point of this gesture is that it makes something tangible? Even if the tangibility of a provocation is right in front of us, snapping might bring something out that otherwise might be missed.

To bring something out can bring something about.

This is my first post for 2017.

I end with optimism, a killjoy optimism that derives hope from what seems locked as a dynamic.

Being wound up can lead us to others who are wound up.


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

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

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

Moreton-Robinson, Aileen (2003). “‘Tiddas talkin’ up to the White Woman’: When  Huggins et al. took on Bell” in Michele Grossman(ed), Black Lines: Contemporary Critical Writing by Indigenous Australians. Melbourne: Melbourne University Press. 66-78.

Ngai, Sianne (2007). Ugly Feelings. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Thobani, Sunera (2003). “War Frenzy and Nation Building: A Lesson in the Politics of ‘Truth-Making’”, International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education, 16, 3: 399-314.


[1] A shorter and revised version of this chapter is available here:

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Fascism as Love

Today is one of those days when I am lost for words; well almost. White supremacy: in the white house. Racism: no longer in hiding or in the background, or veiled by politeness, but out and about, right in front of us; given legitimacy, given more places to go.

Many years ago I wrote on how fascism as a politics of hate is written in the language of love. I want to share some of these words now because to hear what is present is to hear echoes of the past. This material is dated. And yet, it is not.

In solidarity,



Where was Hatewatch during 170 million crimes committed against White Americans over the last 30 years? Hatewatch. What an absurd organisation. But aren’t they part of the huge parasitic Infestation which is always trying to destroy anyone who loves liberty and disagrees with the Monsters’ plan for the degradation and control, of the White Americans of this nation? They steal what they can and target us for governmental gansterism and drooling meatpuppet consumption… Lovewatch. The Wake Up or Die Love Watch is a listing of those who love this nation and our White Racial Family and the alternative to the lists of parasitic propagandists. (Storm Front Website)

How has politics become a struggle over who has the right to name themselves as acting out of love and in the name of love? What does it mean to stand for love by standing alongside some others and against other others? It has become common for hate groups to rename themselves as organisations of love. Such organisations claim they act out of love for their own kind, and for the nation as an inheritance of kind (‘Our White Racial Family’), rather than out of hatred for strangers or others. Indeed, a crucial part of the re-naming is the identification of hate as coming from elsewhere and as being directed towards the ‘hate group’; hate becomes an emotion that belongs to those who have identified hate groups as hate groups in this first place. Hence in the above quote, the hate watch web site, which lists racist groups on the internet, is juxtaposed with the Lovewatch site, which also lists these organisations, but names them as ‘love groups’.  Such groups are defined as ‘love groups’ through an active identification with the nation (‘those who love this nation’) as well as a core set of values (‘anyone who loves liberty’). Love is narrated as the emotion that energies the work of such groups; it is out of love that the group seeks to defend the nation against others, whose presence them becomes defined as the origin of hate. As another site puts it: ‘Ask yourself, what have they done to eliminate anything at all? They feed you with “Don’t worry, we are watching the hate groups” and things like this. You know what they do? They create the very hate they purport to erase!’ Here it is the very critique of racism as a form of hate, which becomes seen as the conditions of production for hate; the ‘true’ hated group is the white groups who are, out of love, seeking to defend the nation against others, who threaten to steal the nation away.

The renaming of hate groups as love groups, and hate watch as Love Watch, exercises a narrative of love as protection by identifying white subjects as already at risk from the very presence of others. These groups become defined as a positive in the sense of fighting for others, and in the name of others. The narrative suggests that it is this ‘forness’ that makes ‘against-ness’ necessary. Hence those who identify hate groups as hate groups are shown as failing to protect the bodies of those whose love for the nation becomes a condition of vulnerability and exposure. By being against those who are for the nation (anti-racists, anti-fascists etc.), such critics can only be against the nation; they can only be against love. The critics of hate groups become defined as those who hate; those who act out of a sense of ‘anti-ness’ or ‘against-ness’ and thus those who not only cannot protect the bodies of white Americans from crimes, but re-enact such crimes in the use of the language of hate. We might note then the slide from the crimes against white people committed by unnamed others (‘170 million crimes committed’) to the crimes committed by Hatewatch (‘they steal what they can’) in this narrative.

Let’s take another example:

The depths of Love are rooted and very deep in a real White Nationalist’s soul and spirit, no form of ‘hate’ could even begin to compare. At least not a hate motivated by ungrounded reasoning. It is not hate that makes the average White man look upon a mixed race couple with a scowl on his face and loathing in his heart. It is not hate that makes the White housewife throw down the daily jewspaper in repulsion and anger after reading of yet another child-molester or rapist sentenced by corrupt courts to a couple of short years in prison or parole. It is not hate that makes the White workingclass man curse about the latest boatland of aliens dumped on our shores to be given job preferences over the White citizen who built this land. It is not hate that brings rage into the heart of a White Christian farmer when he reads of billions loaned or given away as ‘aid’ to foreigners when he can’t get the smallest break from an unmerciful government to save his failing farm. No, it’s not hate, It is Love. (Aryan Nations Website)

In this narrative it is the imagined subject of both party and nation (the White nationalist, the average White man, the White housewife, the White working man, the White Citizen and the White Christian farmer) who is hated, and who is threatened and victimised by the Law and polity. The narrative works precisely as a narrative of hate not as the emotion that explains the story (it is not a question of hate being at its root), but as that which is affected by the story, and as that which enables the story to be affective.

Such narratives work by generating a subject that is under threat by imagined others whose proximity threatens not only to take something away from the subject (jobs, security, wealth and so on), but to take the place of the subject. In other words, the presence of this other is imagined as a threat to the object of love. This narrative involves a re-writing of history, in which the labour of others (slaves, migrants) is concealed in a fantasy that it is the white subject who ‘built this land.’ The white subjects claim the place of hosts (‘our shores’), at the same time as they claim the place of the victim, as those who are damaged by an ‘unmerciful government’.  The narrative hence suggests that it is love for the nation that makes the white Aryan’s hate others, who are taking away the nation, and hence their imagined place in its history, as well as their future.

We might note that this emotional reading of others as hateful works to align the imagined subject with rights and the imagined nation with ground. This alignment is affected by the representation of the rights of the subject and the grounds of the nation as under threat, as ‘failing’. It is the emotional reading of hate that works to stick or to bind the imagined subjects and the white nation together. The average white man feels ‘fear and loathing’; the White housewife, ‘repulsion and anger’; the White workingman ‘curses’; the White Christian farmer feels ‘rage’. The passion of these negative attachments to others is re-defined simultaneously as a positive attachment to the imagined subjects brought together through the capitalisation of the signifier, ‘White’. It is the love of White, or those that are recognisable as White, which supposedly explains this shared ‘communal’ visceral response of hate. Because we love, we hate and this hate is what makes us together.

This narrative, I would suggest, is far from extraordinary. Indeed, what it shows us is the production of the ordinary. The ordinary is here fantastic. The ordinary white subject is a fantasy that comes into being through the mobilisation of hate, as a passionate attachment closely tied to love. The emotion of hate works to animate the ordinary subject, to bring that fantasy to life, precisely by constituting the ordinary as in crisis, and the ordinary person as the real victim. The ordinary becomes that which is already under threat by the imagined others whose proximity becomes a crime against person as well as place. The ordinary subject is reproduced as the injured party: the one that is ‘hurt’ or even damaged by the ‘invasion’ of others. The bodies of others are hence transformed into ‘the hated’ through a discourse of pain. They are assumed to cause injury to the ordinary white subject, such that their proximity is read as the origin of bad feeling: indeed, the implication here is that the white subject’s good feelings (love) have being ‘taken’ away by the abuse of such feelings by others.

So who are the hated in such a narrative of injury? Clearly, hate is distributed across various figures (in this case, the mixed racial couple, the child-molester, the rapist, aliens and foreigners). These figures come to embody the threat of loss: lost jobs, lost money, loss land. They are signify the danger of impurity, or the mixing or taking of blood. They threaten to violate the pure bodies; such bodies can only be imagined as pure by the perpetual re-staging of this fantasy of violation. Note the work that is being done through this metonymic slide: mixed race couplings and immigration become readable as (like) forms of rape or molestation: an invasion of the body of the nation, evoked here as the vulnerable and damaged body of the white woman and child. The slide between figures constructs a relation of resemblance between the figures: what makes them alike, may be their ‘unlikeness’ from ‘us’. Within the narrative, hate cannot be found in one figure, but works to create the very outline of different figures or objects of hate, a creation that crucially aligns the figures together, and constitutes them as a ‘common’ threat.

Furthermore, love does not only enter such narratives as a sign of being for the nation, but also becomes linked with particular kinds of subjects who are constructed as ‘loving’. Love, that is, reproduces the collective as ideal,  through producing a particular kind of subject whose allegiance to the ideal makes it an ideal in the first place. Increasingly, the ‘hate group’ web sites, for example, are written by and for white women, and argue that white women have a particular role in the defence of the nation and the national ideal. One web site includes a post on Princess Diana. She is identified as a ‘traitor to our race’ because of her love relationships with men from other races: ‘I couldn’t understand how a woman of such racial beauty and purity, this “English rose”, could link herself with non-Aryan men with such frequency’. Importantly, then love relationships are here about ‘reproducing’ the race; the choice of love-object is a sign of the love for the nation. Such a narrative not only confirms heterosexual love as an obligation to the nation, but also constitutes mixed-race relationships as a sign of hate, as a sign of a willingness to contaminate the blood of the race. The violation of this love to the body of the individual here stands for the violation of the ideal that binds the nation together (the posting refers to the ‘rumours that she might even have been pregnant with Fayed’s child’ as a sign of the danger of this contamination to the purity of the white racial family). So the demand for love is not simply here expressed as a demand to love the nation as an abstract idea, but also to love a person whose body can stand in for the national idea, as a confirmation of its value.(1)

Within the politics of love, identifying yourself as a white woman and as a white Aryan would mean loving not just men, or even white men, but white men who can return the idealised image of whiteness back to myself. To love and to be loved is here about fulfilling one’s fantasy image of ‘who one would like to be’ through who one ‘has’.  Such a love is also about making future generations in the image I have of myself and the loved other, who together can approximate a ‘likeness’ that can be bestowed on future generations.  Indeed the bond the subject may have even for strangers can be predicated precisely on the fantasy of likeness: they may share the ideal I have, such that I could love them, as if they were me. Hence I can love other as if they were me precisely insofar as they ‘share’ the ideals that I have already taken as mine. Within public displays of grief this is crucial: if the subject can imagine that that person who was lost or has lost another ‘could have been me’, then the grief of another, even another whom I may not know, can also become my grief. This ‘could have been-ness’ is a judgement then on whether others approximate the ideals that I have taken to be mine and ‘ours’.

It is hence not surprising that the story of love is most powerfully narrated when the object is missing; then love ‘shows itself’ through lamenting the absence of the object, or through the display of grief and mourning. Such an argument suggests that love becomes a form of defence against the loss of the object; it enacts in its demand for presence, the injury that would follow if the object was given up (an enactment which is also a repetition). We can see this clearly in the accounts of love in the web sites; the nation as loved object has been taken away, and the ‘injury’ of the theft must be repeated as a way of confirming the love for the nation as an ideal object.

Indeed, I would argue that the impossibility that love can reach its object is also what makes love such a useful and powerful narrative. We can see how love then may work to stick others together in the absence of the loved object, even when that object is ‘the nation’. For example, love may be especially crucial in the event of the failure of the nation to deliver its promise for the good life. So the failure of the nation to ‘give back’ the love that the subject has for it can work to intensify the very demands made upon the nation as a love object. The subject ‘stays with’ the nation, despite the absence of return and the threat of violence, as leaving would mean recognising that the investment of national love over a life time has brought no value. One loves the nation, then, out of hope and with nostalgia for how it might have been. You keep loving rather than recognising that the love that one has given has not and will not be returned. To give up on such love may feel like to give up on one’s life, as one’s life has become so deeply interwoven with the love object. Hence, national love can be secure in the face of the failure of the object to love the loving subject in return; in fact, this can be grounds for the intensification of the attachment. Such love becomes nostalgia for the loss of an object, whose existence can only be a matter of past tense, as well as a form of utopia, that images the return of the object in the future (a return that depends on the ‘good will’ of the loving subject). So the subject ‘becomes’ the nation in the event of mourning its loss, which then gets projected as ‘have-able’ and ‘be-able’ in the future. A white subject identifies itself as a national subject through mourning the loss of the nation as an object and in the hope for its return in the future.

We could even think of national love as a form of waiting. To wait is to extend one’s investment and the longer one waits the more one is invested, that is, the more time, labour and energy has been expended. The failure of return extends one’s investment. If love functions as the promise of return of an ideal, then the extension of investment through the failure of return works to maintain the ideal through its deferral into the future. It is not then surprising that the return of the investment in the nation is imagined in the form of the future generation (‘the white Aryan child’), who will ‘acquire’ the features of the ideal white subject. National love places its hope in the next generation; the ideal is postponed, to sustain the fantasy that return is possible.

If the failure of return extends one’s investment, then national love also requires an explanation for this failure: otherwise, hope would convert into despair or a ‘giving up’ on the loved object. Such explanations work as defensive narratives: they defend the subject against the loss of the object by enacting the injury that would follow if the object was given up. We can see this clearly in the accounts of love in the quotes from web sites; the nation as loved object has been taken away, and the injury of the theft must be repeated as a way of confirming the love for the nation.  In this instance, the fantasy of love as return requires an obstacle: the racial others become the obstacle that allows the white subject to sustain a fantasy that without them, the good life would be attainable, or their love would be returned with reward and value. The failure of return is explained by the presence of others, which allows the investment to be sustained. We can even consider the reliance on the other as the origin of injury as an ongoing investment in the failure of return.

(1) I have also discussed how the figure of the mixed-race woman is idealized in narratives of multiculturalism, and how this idealization of the mixed-race woman (who is bronzed not brown) can function ideologically as a demand for proximity to whiteness. See in particular my chapter, “Melancholic Migrants,” from The Promise of Happiness (2010).




These words were written a long time ago in the early 2000’s (they formed part of a chapter on love in my 2004 book, The Cultural Politics of Emotion). When we hear the words ‘take back our country,’ words we keep hearing, words that are sharp weapons, words that slice through land and flesh, words that can be used against people, people who are asked to ‘go home,’ we are hearing a long history. We are hearing white supremacy. It is the present.





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The figure of the bogus asylum seeker is familiar. It is familiar because that figure is regularly exercised.  The suspicion toward those seeking asylum has become a form of national citizenship. You demonstrate allegiance to the nation by the very act of being suspicious toward those seeking asylum: that they are not who they claim to be; they are not children because they are not innocent (or even if they are children, they are not innocent, which means they are not really children). Those seeking asylum become not injured but injurious: as if they are injuring the nation, bruising its vulnerable white body by the very act of being at all.

Yes I say white: because if once race and nation appeared to be separated (and to appear to be separated is not to be separate), now they are more confidently articulated together, which is why brown and black people, including those born here, can be told to “go home” or even just be asked where they are from, as if they are not from here.

Brown and black: foreign.

Not from as endangering from.

Suspicion becomes a form of national citizenship. Citizenship now functions like Neighborhood Watch: to be a neighbour is to be a citizen, to look out for strangers, those who do not belong, those who are “bodies out of place,” as I described in one of my first books, Strange Encounters (2000).

The good citizen is invited to become “the eyes and the ears of the police.”

Suspicion: it falls on those deemed fallen, dark bodies, passing by at the edges of social experience.

The stranger is stopped by being questionable.

The suspicion of asylum seekers as not really being asylum seekers is thus part of a more general suspicion of those deemed strangers, as not really being from here, whose presence is framed as loitering with intent.

The stranger is dangerous. We instruct our children on the danger of strangers.

Not just anyone: someone.


Brown and Black: as foreign. Brown and black: as stealing something from us, as reducing the value of our neighbourhoods.

Bogus: unless proven otherwise.

A politics of respectability: having to prove you are not like them.

Being not bogus: as a practical identification with whiteness as well as bourgeois culture. Property owners, owning oneself, neighbour not stranger.

Moving up.

Smiling, even, not us, we are with you.

Melancholic universalism: when you identify with the universal that repudiates you.

Bogus: by virtue of the effort not to be bogus.

The word “bogus” 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”. 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, who is outside wedlock. A coin would be spurious and bogus when it does not originate legitimately; a person too. Note also that bogus can refer to a coin and to a machine for making coins.

A machinery, that’s familiar. The fraud is a machine.

The figure of the bogus asylum seeker thus is not a lonely spurious coin.  We are referring to 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 bogus in this sense.  You have to demonstrate that you are not passing for what you are not (that you are what you claim to be) 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 bogus 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; that it works by being wearing.

The figure of the bogus asylum seeker is thus generated by the system as a mechanism for legitimating itself: it is how legitimacy is legitimated; it is how persecutions becomes enacted as the pursuit of truth (as well as happiness).

And: the very act of survival is narrated as a way of falsely accruing benefits.

A life becomes a debt; you can inherit debt.

Poverty becomes fault.

Death becomes deserved.

This is not new. The moral distinction between the deserving and undeserving is not new.

The politics of suspicion is not new. Racism is not new. It is just that: racism as a politics of suspicion has been renewed by being given more places to go, legitimately, because it has been given legitimacy. Foreignness has become a ground for suspicion, something remarkable, a question you can ask anyone, even school children, are you foreign, declare yourself, reveal yourself to us.

Stop lurking in the background.

Background racism: the racism that is already there comes up as an explanation of what is not working. For those who have life experiences of being the object of suspicion, racism is not in the background. It does not recede; you do not recede when every bit of you is treated as a revelation. Racism is in the background for those who are not at the receiving end. Those who are not on the receiving end: when a viewpoint is shared it is not viewed. Background racism refers to the fact that racism is already there, structuring life chances and situations, by not being perceived. This is how racism is working when things are working. And this is how and why racism comes up very quickly when something is not working.

Racism is articulated as an explanation of what is not working.

 If it wasn’t for them.

The asylum seeker is a national killjoy. Immigrants too are national killjoys. And as figures, they have utility. A killjoy has to fight against her own utility.  It is not anyone who is a migrant (or even for that matter a refugee) who will be caught by this figure. It is those who are perceivable as not like us or not near us who are caught by the figures; to be caught by as to be caught up. A brown citizen more than a white migrant will be caught by the figure “immigrant.” So when people raise suspicion about immigrants we know who they are talking about and we know who they are not talking about by what they are not talking about (immigration is a useful narrative because it is about race by appearing not to be about race).

Which is why they say to us: you are making it about race.

Racism: hears racism as made up.

National killjoys.

And these figures have utility as killjoys because they allow a fantasy of happiness to be preserved, as if without them, we would be happy, as if without them, we would have what would cause our happiness (jobs, wealth, security and so on). The killjoy becomes a container of unhappiness and incivility, as an explanation of why “we” do not have what is assumed as our birth right.

So much wrong: when birth is deemed a right.

Them: too many. Too many of them: we could cease to be us.


For postcolonial and decolonial studies, history matters. This is not new. Racism was a central mechanism after all for justifying empire itself as a moral project.

Not just a set of ideas but of interests.

Empire: a happiness mission.

The white man’s burden.

To bring light to the dark corners of the earth.

This is not new.

Old scripts; figures that are familiar because they have been exercised.

In my book The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004, 2014) I explored how the politics of hatred is often narrated as a politics of love: out of love for the nation, we defend the nation against those deemed to endanger the nation. I explored then the currency of the figure of the bogus asylum seeker.

Old currency.

Old  money.

Go back, go over what is not over.

I took as an example, William Hague’s speeches on asylum seekers made between April and June 2000 when he was the leader of the Conservative Party. During this period, other speeches were in circulation that became stuck to the asylum seekers through the repetition of the same words. In the case of the asylum speeches, Hague’s narrative is somewhat predictable. Words used like “flood” and “swamped” work to create associations between asylum and the loss of control and hence work by mobilising fear, or the anxiety of being overwhelmed by the actual or potential proximity of others. These words were then repeated in 2003 by the David Blunkett, when he was Home Secretary, who used “swamped” to describe the effect that children of asylum seekers would have if they were taught by local schools. When criticised, he replaced the word “swamped” with “overwhelmed.” Change the word, keep the association. Overwhelmed: a sensation of being over taken or taken over by others. Words are affective: they create impressions of others as those who have invaded the space of the nation, threatening its existence.

In the earlier speech, Hague differentiates between those others who are welcome and those who are not by differentiating between genuine and bogus asylum seekers. Partly, this works to enable the national subject to imagine its generosity in welcoming some others. The nation is hospitable as it allows those genuine ones to stay. This fantasy of a hospitable nation is just that: a fantasy.  And yet at the same time, it constructs some others as already hateful (as bogus) in order to define the limits or the conditions of this hospitality. The construction of the bogus asylum seeker as a figure of hate also involves a narrative of uncertainty and crisis, but an uncertainty and crisis that makes that figure do more work. How can we tell the difference between a bogus and a genuine asylum seeker? It is always possible that we might not be able to tell, and that they may pass, in both senses of the term, their way into our community. Such a possibility commands us (our right, our will) to keep looking, and justifies our intrusion into the bodies of others.

Indeed, the possibility that we might not be able to tell the difference swiftly converts into the possibility that any of those incoming bodies may be bogus. In advance of their arrival, they are hence read as the cause of an injury to the national body. The figure of the bogus asylum seeker is detached from particular bodies: any incoming bodies could be bogus, such that their “endless” arrival is anticipated as the scene of ‘our injury’. The impossibility of reducing hate to a particular body allows hate to circulate in an economic sense, working to differentiate some others from other others, a differentiation that is never “over”  as it awaits for others who have not yet arrived. Such a discourse of “waiting for the bogus” justifies the repetition of violence against others.

Not just not over, never over.

Hague’s speeches also worked to produce certain affects and effects through its proximity to another speech about Tony Martin, a man sentenced to life in prison for murdering a 16 year old boy who had attempted, along with one other person, to burgle his house (a boy who is racialised as gypsy). Hague uses one sentence, which circulates powerfully. He stated (without reference to Martin or asylum seekers) that the law is “more interested in the rights of criminals than the rights of people who are burgled”. Such a sentence evokes a history that is not declared.  Histories are repeated when they do not have to be declared.  The sentence positions Martin as the victim and not as a criminal. The murdered is now the criminal: the crime that did not happen because of the murder (the burglary) takes the place of the murder, as the true crime, and as the real injustice. This reversal of the victim/criminal relationship becomes an implicit defence of the right to kill those who unlawfully enter one’s property.

Murder: as self-defence. Not as murder, then. Justified legal killing.

Racism: justifies killing as self-defence.



The coincidence of this sentence with the speech about asylum seekers is affective. The detachment of the sentence allows two cases to get stuck together: burglary and asylum, which both now become matters of the right to defence. The figure of the asylum seeker hence gets aligned with the figure of the burglar. The alignment does important work: it suggests that the asylum seeker is “stealing” something from the nation.  The “characteristics” of one figure get displaced or transferred onto the other. Or we could say that it is through the association between the figures that they acquire a life of their own as if they contained an affective quality.  The burglar becomes a foreigner, and the asylum seeker becomes a criminal. At the same time, the body of the murderer (who is renamed the victim) becomes the body of the nation; the one whose property and well-being is under threat by the proximity of the other, registered as intrusion.

Suspicion: they are stealing something.

Not just that: they are trying to kill us or, if they had their way, we would cease to be (who we are).

The asylum seeker has historically been identified as bogus by being identified as a potential or the “could-be terrorist.” Fear sticks to these bodies that “could be terrorist” (brown, of Middle-Eastern appearance, Muslim looking), where the “could be” opens up the power to detain as a form of self-defence. Although such fear sticks, it also slides across such bodies; it is the structural possibility that the terrorist may pass us by that justifies the expansion of forms of intelligence, surveillance and the rights of detention.

The could-be terrorist becomes the might-as-well-be terrorist.

This violent slide between the figure of the asylum seeker and the terrorist works to construct those who are “without home” as sources of “our fear,” and as reasons for new forms of border policing, whereby the future is what is deemed under threat posed by those who may pass their way into “our” communities.   The containment of the bodies of others affected by this economy of fear is most violently revealed in the literal deaths of those seeking asylum, deaths that remain unmourned by the very nations who embody the promise of a future for those seeking asylum.

Unmourned losses.

This is a chilling reminder of what is at stake.

Death as policy.

Being identified as bogus: deemed to have caused your own death.

Bogus: a death sentence.

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A Feminist Army

I have been taking some time out to reflect upon the last three years, to process what has happened because, of course, some experiences are difficult to process when they are happening. By some experiences I am referring primarily to the work we have been doing to try and expose the problem of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct within universities. That work is work we share with many others. After I made public the reasons for my resignation, I was overwhelmed by the feminist solidarity and support I received. Each message brought a message home to me, one I have been trying to write about: living a feminist life is about how we connect with and draw upon each other in our shared project of dismantling worlds.

It is slow and painstaking work but, chip by chip, we chip away. In my killjoy survival kit I discuss how feminist killjoys need breaks from killjoying (yes it can be a doing word because it is what we are doing). It can be exhausting doing this kind of work. I have written before about how you become a problem when you expose a problem. But even if you have written about this problem of becoming a problem it does not stop you from becoming a problem all over again.

And so sometimes: we take a break from the work in order to do the work.

Whilst I have been away from my blog, we have chosen a book cover for Living A Feminist Life! You can see the cover here.

The image used on the cover is by the feminist artist Carrie Moyer who is well known for her work in Dyke Action Machine! (DAM!), one of the first queer interventionist public art projects. The image is a contemporary reimagining of the classic feminist symbol of a clenched first bursting through the woman sign (well I like to think of it as bursting). I first discussed this feminist symbol in the conclusion of Willful Subjects (2014). I come back to it in Living a Feminist Life. I come back to the symbol because my book takes up the “call to arms,” with which I ended my earlier work. I wanted to hear the arms in this call, or to hear the arms as calling.

The arm came to matter to me as a figure because of how arms came up in the willfulness archive. I want to share that story of how arms came to matter as a way of exploring what it means to assemble a feminist army.(1)

Living a Feminist Life tells my own story of becoming a feminist. A story always begins before it can be told. To become feminist can often mean looking for company; looking for others who share that becoming. This search for feminist companionship began for me through books; I withdrew into my room with books. It was willful girls who caught my attention. In writing my book Willful Subjects I formalized my pursuit of willful girls into a research trajectory. Once I began to follow the figure of a willful girl, I found she turned up all over the place. It was by following this figure that I came to encounter new texts, ones that had a ghostly familiarity, even if I had not read them before. One of these texts was titled “the Willful Child.” It is a grim story, and a Grimm story. Let me share this story again, for those of you who have not read it before:

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. This story can be treated as a teaching tool, as well as a way of teaching us about tools (the rods, the machinery of power). We learn how willfulness is used as an explanation of disobedience: a child disobeys because she is willful, when she is not willing to do what her mother wills her to do. We do not know in the story what it was that the child was not willing to do. Disobedience is not given content because disobedience as such becomes a fault: the child must do whatever her mother wishes. She is not willing, whatever.

What is striking about this story is how willfulness persists even after death: displaced onto an arm, from a body onto a body part. The arm inherits the willfulness of the child insofar as it will not be kept down, insofar as it keeps coming up, acquiring a life of its own, even after the death of the body of which it is a part. Note that the rod, as that which embodies the will of the parent, of the sovereign, is not deemed willful. The rod becomes the means to eliminate willfulness from the child. One will judges the other wills as willful wills. One will assumes the right to eliminate the others.

We might note here how the very judgment of willfulness is a crucial part of the disciplinary apparatus. It is this judgment that allows violence (even murder) to be understood as care as well as discipline. The rod becomes a technique for straightening out the willful child with her wayward arm.

This Grimm story forms part of a tradition of educational writing that Alice Miller (1987) in For Your Own Good calls “poisonous pedagogy,” a tradition that assumes the child as stained by original sin, and which insists on violence as moral correction, as being for the child. Just consider that in this story the only time that the child is at rest is when she is beneath the ground. By implication, when the child gives up or gives up her will, when she stops struggling against those she must obey (her mother, God) when she is willing to obey, she will be at ease.

Becoming willing to obey would avoid the costs of not being willing. A willing girl, who does not appear in this story, is willing to obey, which is to say, she is willing not to have a will of her own. The willing girl does not appear, but she is the one to whom the story is addressed: the story is a warning of the consequences of not being willing to obey.

Once I noticed this arm, how it came up, it stuck with me. I was struck; even stricken. The arm of the Grimm story is striking in the sense of attracting attention. It is striking because of how it appears. It comes up in a scene of violence. It comes alive after death. The arm is life after death. Before the grim ending, the arm is held up in a moment of suspension. Despite the morbid nature of this story, the arm becomes a signifier of hope; the arm in suspension is still rising.

Willfulness: persistence in the face of having been brought down. We have to reach the arm to carry that spark, to feel the pulse of its fragile life. We catch the arm in that moment of suspension.

So: even after the willful child has been brought down, something, some spark, some kind of energy, persists. The arm gives flesh to this persistence. The arm has to disturb the ground, to reach up, to reach out of the grave, that tomb, that burial.

We can twist the morbid ending into a feminist plot. The arm is at rest not because she has been beaten but in order that she return to her work; so that she can come up again.

A feminist plot: she is waiting when she appears willing. Behind the scenes: she is waiting.

We could thus rethink the Grimm story as an institutional story; institutions can be grim, after all. 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 are at risk of identification with the wayward arm: an invitation to become the rod as a way of avoiding the consequences of being beaten. Become the rod: too much violence is abbreviated here. But we witness the endless invitations to identify with those who discipline as a way of not being beaten. No wonder: the willful child comes up whenever there is a questioning of institutional will. Whenever, say, she brings up sexism or racism, the willful child quickly comes after her: as if to say, speak up and her fate will be yours. There are many within institutions who cannot afford that fate; there are many who cannot raise their arms in protest even when the will of the institution is exposed as violence. We need to support 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.

Perhaps the arm in the Grimm story is also a feminist point. To make a feminist point is to go out on a limb. No wonder the arm keeps coming up. She makes a sore point. She is a sore point. We keep saying it because they keep doing it: assembling the same old bodies, doing the same old things. She keeps coming up because there is so much history to bring up. But when she comes up, this history is what is not revealed. Her arm is spectacular; when she makes these points, she becomes the spectacle. Her soreness becomes the spectacle. And no wonder: what follows her aims to discipline her. And no wonder: what precedes her aims to warn her.

And yet: she persists.

We can think of feminism as a history of persistence. Feminist history is a history of becoming army. Perhaps then: it is not that the child is willful because she disobeys but rather that the child becomes willful in order to disobey. In order to persist with her disobedience, the child becomes her arm. It is not that the arm inherits willfulness from the child. The child inherits willfulness from her arm. Her arm: a willful becoming. She claims her arm as her own. No wonder the arm in the Grimm story appears all alone. This is how the story operates most powerfully as ideology: the implication that disobedience is lonely and unsupported. We can willfully hear the story as a plea: to join arms, to show the arms as joined.

We assemble a feminist army in response to this plea. A feminist army of arms would pulse with shared life and vitality. Feminist arms do not lend their hand to support the familial or the social order. We support those who do not support the reproduction of that order. The arm that keeps coming up might not be willing to do the housework, to maintain his house, to free his time for thought. When women refuse to be helping hands, when we refuse to clean for him, up after him, when we refuse to be his secretary, the keeper of his secrets, his right hand, we become willful subjects.

We can understand why, of all her limbs, the arm matters. An arm is what allows you to reach, to carry, to hold, to complete certain kinds of tasks. Arms are identified throughout history as the limbs of labor or even the limbs of the laborer. Arms are supposed to be willing to labor. But not all arms. Arlie Hochschild describes how “the factory boy’s arm functioned like a piece of machinery used to produce wallpaper. His employer regarded that arm as an instrument, claimed control over its speed and motions. In this situation, what was the relation between the boy’s arm and his mind? Was his arm in any meaningful sense his own?” ([1983] 2003, 7, emphasis in original). When the laborers’ arms become tools in the creation of wealth, the laborers lose their arms. When they become his arms, the employer’s own arms are freed.

We can hear another sense in which arms are striking. To go on strike is to clench your fist, to refuse to be handy. It is to refuse to work; you are striking against working conditions. When workers refuse to allow their arms to be the master’s tool, they strike. The clenched fist remains a revolutionary sign for labor movements, internationally. The arm in the grim story belongs to this history, too: the arm is a revolutionary limb; a promise of what is to come, of how history is still but not yet done.

A feminist does not lend her hand; she too curls her fist. The clenched fist is a protest against the sign woman (by being in the sign woman) as well as resignifying the hands of feminism as protesting hands. Feminist hands are not helping hands in the sense that they do not help women help. When a hand curls up as a feminist fist, it has a hand in a movement.

Arms remind us too that labor, who works for whom, is a feminist issue. Labor includes reproductive labor: the labor of reproducing life; the labor of reproducing the conditions that enable others to live. Black women and women of color; working-class women; migrant women; women who have worked in the factories, in the fields, at home; women who care for their own children as well as other children; such women have become the arms for other women whose time and energy has been freed. Any feminism that lives up to the promise of that name will not free some women from being arms by employing other women to take their place. Feminism needs to refuse this division of labor, this freeing up of time and energy for some by the employment of the limbs of others. If the freeing up of time and energy depends on other people’s labor, we are simply passing our exhaustion on to others. We can recall bell hooks’s critique of Betty Friedan’s solution to the unhappiness of the housewife, to the “problem that has no name.” hooks notes “she did not discuss who would be called in to take care of the children and maintain the home if more women like herself were freed from their house labor and given equal access with white men to the professions” (2000, 1–2).

When being freed from labor requires others to labor, others are paying the price of your freedom. That is not freedom. A feminist army that gives life and vitality to some women’s arms by taking life and vitality from other women’s arms is reproducing inequality and injustice. That is not freedom. For feminism to become a call to arms, we have to refuse to allow the arms to become dead labor. We have to refuse to support the system that sucks the blood, vitality, and life from the limbs of workers.

We need to hear the arms in the call to arms. A call is also a lament, a passionate expression of grief and sorrow.Willfulness might not only be a protest against violence but a demand for return: a return of the child, a return of her arm. We can begin to understand what is being demanded: a demand for return is also a demand for recognition of the theft of life and vitality from bodies; from arms. It is a demand for reparation.

A call of arms is thus a recall. We can recall Sojourner Truth speaking to the suffragettes, having to insist on being a woman as a black woman and former slave: “Ain’t I a woman,” she says. “Look at me,” she says. “Look at my arm.” It is said that Sojourner Truth, during her insistent speech, “bared her right arm to the shoulder, showing her tremendous muscular power” (cited in Zackodnick 2011, 99). In Women, Race and Class, Angela Davis notes how Truth in pointing to her arm is challenging the “weaker sex” arguments that were being used by those who opposed the suffragette cause. These were arguments that rested on flimsy evidence of flimsy bodies: “that it was ridiculous for women to desire the vote, since they could not even walk over a puddle or get into a carriage without the help of men” (Davis 1983, 61). Sojourner Truth in her speech as it has been recorded by others evokes her own laboring history: “I have ploughed and planted and gathered into barns and no man could head me. . . . I have borne thirteen children and seen them most all sold off to slavery” (99). The muscularity of her arm is an inheritance of history; the history of slavery shown in the strength of the arm, the arm required to plow, to plant, to bear the children who end up belonging to the master.

The arms of the slave belonged to the master, as did the slaves, as the ones who were not supposed to have a will of their own. Any will is a willful will if you are not supposed to have a will of your own. Of course we cannot simply treat the arm evoked here as Truth’s arm. The arm does not provide its own testimony. It was Frances Dana Barker Gage, a leading white feminist, reformer, and abolitionist, who gave us this well-known account of Truth’s speech as well as her “army testimony.” This account is itself a citation: our access to Sojourner Truth’s address is possible only through the testimony of others; to be more specific, through the testimony of white women.We learn from this to be cautious about our capacity to bear witness to the labor and speech of arms in history: we might be able to hear the call of arms only through the mediation of other limbs. This mediation does not mean we cannot hear truth. Patricia Hill Collins notes this lack of access as a “limitation” in her account of Truth’s speech: “Despite this limitation, in that speech Truth reportedly provides an incisive analysis of the definition of the term woman forwarded in the mid-1800s” (2000, 12). Collins thus treats Truth’s speech as an example of an intellectual at work: she shows how Truth deconstructs the category “woman” by exposing the gap between her own embodied experiences as an African American woman and the very category “woman” (12–13).

In different hands, arms can become deconstructive limbs, or intersectional points. Arms can embody how we fail to inhabit a category. Arms can be how we insist on inhabiting a category we are assumed to fail. Arms can throw a category into crisis. The arms go on strike when they refuse to work; when they refuse to participate in their own subordination.  No wonder we must look to the arm, if we are to understand the history of those who rise up against oppression.

Arms: they will keep coming up.

Willfulness: how some rise up by exercising the very limbs that have been shaped by their subordination.

And: it is those women who have to insist on being women, those who have to insist willfully on being part of the feminist movement, sometimes with a show of their arms, who offer the best hope for a feminist revolution.

The arms that built the house are the arms that will bring it down.

(1) The writing that follows is a revised version of parts of chapter 3, “Willfulness and Feminist Subjectivity,” from Living a Feminist Life.


Collins, Patricia Hill (2000). Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness and the Politics  of Empowerment, 2nd edition. New York: Routledge.

Davis, Angela [1981] (1983). Women, Race and Class. New York: Vintage Books Edition.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. (2003) [1983]. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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

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

Zackodnik, Teresa (2011). Press, Platform, Pulpit: Black Feminist Publics in the Era of  Reform. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.

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