Symposium Introduction

For women, then, poetry is not a luxury.

—Audre Lorde (1985)

Sara Ahmed wrote Living a Feminist Life just after leaving the academy. She resigned from her position at Goldsmith’s to protest the university’s failure to redress sexual harassment and assault. On her website she explains, “Resignation is a feminist issue. . . . Wherever I am, I will be a feminist. I will be doing feminism. I will be living a feminist life.”1 Living a Feminist Life was born of a feminist politic that is willing to make sacrifices in the name of care.2 Ahmed suggests that feminist theory is not merely a skill or speculative indulgence; it is a political act that gives life where institutions attempt to choke it out. We might think of Audre Lorde’s work and say that feminism, and I would add womanism, makes way for life where there is violence and despair. Living a feminist life is for Ahmed’s survival as much as it is an act of political protest.

Ahmed’s book, then, is not only an invaluable contribution to feminist scholarship—it is a lifeline for all her readers to persevere in the face of injustice. For the scholar familiar with her corpus, Ahmed references rich theoretical concepts nuanced in her prior publications.3 For general audiences, she articulates the racist and sexist experiences so many of us suffer, and she offers practical tools for how to resist succumbing to them. It is a survival book for the budding feminist and the seasoned scholar.

In the first section of Ahmed’s book, “Becoming a Feminist,” she returns to her image of the dining room table, where the feminist embodies willfulness, killjoy, and snap. Next, she looks to the image of the brick wall that feminists come up against in “Diversity Work.” Last, Ahmed paints a sober image of what “Living the Consequences” entails, closing with A Killjoy Survival Kit and Manifesto.

In this series, we will first hear from “writing doula” Kimberly George, who outlines the three sections of Ahmed’s book before articulating its value for her teaching and scholarship:

As both a writing teacher and a feminist scholar myself, I celebrate in this text not only a feminist research methodology, but also a temporality, an affective resonance, and a writing process to emulate and teach. It’s a writing process that nourishes embodied feminist labor, and draws our attention to the kinds of knowledges feminists are already living. Importantly, it’s also a book that honors ways of knowing of earlier generations of women of color writers. I believe one possible next step is thinking together more about why and how institutional life alienates us from these kinds of writing practices, which are also our kinship practices.

Second, Ali Na explores how the arm of the willful child in Ahmed’s work is out of joint. Though uncomfortable with engaging the personal in her scholarship, Na describes the ways in which her racial identity is cast as not belonging—there is the misrecognition and demand to account for oneself. She finds in Ahmed’s work the language to articulate discrimination in academia.

Ahmed describes the impetus to become a feminist as an accumulation, in which the experiences of sexist subjugation function as a “gathering like things in a bag, but the bag is your body” (23). So through the experiences of my own life and those closest to me, I understand the influence of the personal in feminist theories. The hard thing for me is writing feminism through my personal life.

Next, Danai Mupotsa crafts her response in the form of five love letters themed: fragility, companions, feminism as pedagogy, manifestos, and a dedication. She describes her situation in the academy as a feminist killjoy:

I am tired of deadlines and journal articles and performance management—and colleagues that ask students if I am “fuckable” and the ways that I am made to feel that I am the problem when I bring that up. I am tired of administrative work, I am tired of drafting emails. I am tired of people thinking that I have a personal problem when I react/overreact to our beloved African/global misogynist scholars and all of the tomfoolery that supports and celebrates them. I am tired of institutional structures that are deliberate in their support for non-transformative relations and practices. I am tired of staff meetings where I play “spot the other black person” to pass the time. I am tired of feeling like I am the mean one.

Then, Gail Hamner describes Ahmed’s use of phenomenology, “affect economy,” and eye rolling, before addressing her experience of anti-maternal institutions and practices in academy. She values in Ahmed’s work that

feminists can assess what supports exclusion and dismissal without positing a utopia in which everyone is equally included. The walls are real, even if the task of justly or successfully eradicating them eludes us. Such restraint is crucial for trying to speak pregnancy in the increasingly neoliberal academy, and in a world saturated with misogyny. How much does it help to “extend the tenure clock” when tenure is vanishing? How much does it help to institute parental leave in a culture that still places the bulk of the labors of childcare on the formerly pregnant body?

Finally, theologians Marvin Wickware and Amy Barbour explore feminist killjoys according to their “liberationist view of the Christian evangelist.” As seminary students years ago, Wickware and Barbour felt, “We were killjoys who killed others’ theological joy, as well as each other’s. . . . We each experience the world as (theological) killjoys and are personally invested in contributing to the discussion of just what it is to be a killjoy.”

The panelists featured on this Syndicate symposium inhabit Ahmed’s feminist method. Unlike scholarship invested in performing mastery of knowledge, these contributors articulate the significance of Living a Feminist Life for their labor by taking her words into their bodies. Personal and professional lives intertwine with frightful candor. Readers might experience shock and wonder while reading, because we are trained to silence and erase ourselves in the production of scholarship. Shirking this convention, the contributors offer hope to the weary. Readers suffering discrimination and mistreatment in the academy, state, and home will find here a community of feminist scholars living a feminist life together. Their aims are not to dominate or shame one another. Instead, each comes alongside Ahmed in facing “the brick wall.” We find companions in the feminist classroom, in books like Living a Feminist Life, in discourses such as this, and on the streets protesting injustice. We are not alone. The struggle to survive is a collective, feminist effort.

Everyone should read this book.

—bell hooks (2017)

The Center for LGBTQ Studies (CLAGS) awarded Living a Feminist Life the 2017 Kessler Award, which is given to scholars who over the course of their careers have produced a substantive body of work that has made a significant impact on the field of LGBTQ studies. The National Women’s Studies Association gave Living a Feminist Life an honorable mention for their Gloria E. Anzaldúa book award.

 


  1. https://feministkilljoys.com/2016/05/30/resignation/.

  2. https://feministkilljoys.com/2016/06/02/speaking-out/.

  3. These include Willful Subjects, On Being Included, The Promise of Happiness, and Queer Phenomenology.

Kimberly B. George

Response

Commentary by Kimberly B. George

Sara Ahmed’s latest work, Living a Feminist Life, dismantles the false divide between academic theory and the embodied world in which our concepts come alive. It is the kind of book we need more and more of by feminist scholars. It is an intervention not only in academic feminism, but also an invitation to rethink (and, indeed, re-feel and re-sense) the writing and reading practices we are relying upon to translate the sensuality of life into the conceptual structures of language. This translation process is a particular feminist labor, and all three of the book’s sections—Becoming a Feminist, Diversity Work, and Living the Consequences—make visible and palpable the processes within that labor.

As her words always have done, Ahmed’s sentences resist swift consumption, instead offering a contemplative spaciousness. If you rush, you will miss the process—and this is a book foremost about staying in and working out a process. Her ideas unfurl through layering, pulling concepts through lived moments, women’s literature, film, and feminist theoretical concepts. Her words loop back and repeat, but always with a twist or a surprise or a new recognition. Such a feminist journey that functions through refrain and return is not simply about repetition, but rather about developing deep recognitions for how the body holds experiences and memory over time. It’s also about understanding how relations of power that perpetuate violent norms are being sensed and resisted, even before being theorized in our words.

These norms ever press on the body, providing “directionality,” she says in part 1: Becoming a Feminist. Simultaneously, though, “feminist willfulness” pushes back on the pressing oppression. Sometimes that willfulness is made manifest as a feminist killjoy—the willingness to be in touch with sadness, to allow one’s alien affects to help her make sense of a world that does not make sense. While the feminist hope of this book is to find connections with one another, so as to dismantle this world and build another that does make sense, Ahmed also gives important recognition to the realities of the binds we live within. As she explains, “The hardest work can be recognizing how one’s life is shaped by norms in ways that we did not realize, in ways that cannot simply be transcended” (43). That shaping is always intersectional. For instance, her reflection of hating girly norms as a child (“I remember many battles over dresses”), but then “self-girling” in college because of the exhaustion of already standing out in a sea of whiteness as a brown girl, shows the complexity of navigating norms that ever press down on bodies (53).

What is done so beautifully throughout the entire text, and is especially arresting in part 1, is Ahmed’s willingness to model the lived processes of recognition that move us between experience and the language to name our experience. The feminist method here is “memory work,” Ahmed writes (22). For example, the memories of how one becomes a feminist (for Ahmed, it was under the gentle guidance of Gulzar Bano, her Pakistani Muslim aunti); or survives sexual violence, homophobia, and white supremacy; or employs the courage of “feminist snap” (the will to forgo an investment or a bond) all become embodied texts to be reread for the knowledge they hold. It is in these rereading practices of memory work that Ahmed builds the book’s conceptual structures.

As her introduction frames of the text’s movements and methods (note: one of the most beautiful introductions to a book I’ve ever read!): “In retracing some of the steps of a journey, I am not making the same journey. I have found new things along the way because I have stayed closer to the everyday” (11). Staying closer to the everyday offers a distinct feminist temporality: instead of rushing on, retrace. Instead of consumption of more ideas, experience deeper recognition of what has been present in your body. Instead of revealing only the clean product of the intellectual question, show how the question was lived—for the sensational, embodied, and affective moments are a feminist archive.

For example, in part 2: Diversity Work, Ahmed argues that diversity work is feminist theory, and you learn the knowledge within the praxis. You also learn it in the experience of a space not being made for your body. She emphasizes in this section that trying to change an institution is political labor, but so is just trying to survive a space that was never made for you in the first place. Ahmed defines privilege as “an energy-saving device” (125), given to those who can inhabit the norms, who don’t do the labor of not belonging. But if you cannot belong, if you do not inherit the norm, if you were never supposed to be there in the first place, daily life in the institution involves the labor of hitting walls. At the same time, “the wall is a finding” (137); it is also an archive. The wall reveals the materiality of systems that have hardened through histories. The wall reveals whiteness and heteropatriarchy. As she writes, “I have learned about how power works by the difficulties I have experienced trying to challenge power” (90).

It is noteworthy that Ahmed asserts a form of knowing and labor that occurs in specific space, place, and bodies, an approach important to Black feminism and Katherine McKittrick’s work in particular. For example, Ahmed gives an account of teaching a course on race and having Black feminists and feminists of color tell her it was the first time they were taught materials that could relate to in their everyday experience (112). She turns the white hetero-patriarchal gaze of the university back on itself by asserting that “women of color are already ethnographers of universities” (91); they already observe how power is working.

To do feminist and anti-racist labor within institutions is to keep pointing out the material and affective structures that too many are invested in not recognizing (158). The wall feminists hit has a history, but it is also actively being reproduced, such as by silencing women who come forward naming sexual assault and harassment in academia. When Ahmed eventually left her post at Goldsmiths over this wall—when she reached her feminist snap, this breaking of bonds, and announced this moment on social media, it was a political act that sent reverberations across academia and in the communities in which I study. The snap mattered to us. We younger feminists were watching, looking up. For Sara Ahmed showed us that it’s possible to walk away from conditions that are diminishing us, too.

When Ahmed creates space for breaking ties in part 3: Living the Consequences, I am particularly struck by her description that resilience can be a “deeply conservative technique” (189). What happens if fragility and shattering are honored instead? How does willfully snapping and letting go of relationships that diminish us allow us to build the communities that we need to “handle the consequences of being feminist”? (162). Part 3 also has an extended meditation on disability studies and the ways in which bodies are expected to aspire to be whole, even if they are not able to be (186). This section speaks to an exhaustion many women feel within academia, but it also points to a potential release of creativity and clear feminist intention.

Her writing on lesbian feminism in particular shows the possibilities for when women withdraw attention from men and male culture, a break that allows energy to be reclaimed for women’s orientations toward supporting one another. That orientation is not described as an idealization, though. Her work in women’s studies departments has given her all too much experience with the harm of white feminism, and she is also concerned by the violence of anti-trans feminist discourse. Still, section 3 and what follows—A Killjoy Survival Kit, and a Killjoy Manifesto—are largely devoted to the possibilities of a Killjoy movement that provides social structures for the most precarious. Self-care is not a neoliberal idea in this text because the context is one of community. Survival is seen as a shared feminist project and one in which “we have to find a way of sharing the costs of this work” (236). And we survive through caring for the embodiment of ourselves and others; through recognizing that shattering can be an opening for creating alternative worlds; and through centering our energy in women’s kinship.

I didn’t want this book to end (though was aware of her profound writer-ly labor and the book needing to end!). When I finished it, I had to go back and linger in favorite sections. I wanted to stay longer in its contemplative spaces, which felt like a form of kinship with the writer and the texts that Ahmed cites and loves herself. The slower temporality of the narrative voice also allowed me as a reader to stay closer to my own embodiment, just as the text itself is theorizing a method of embodied knowing. I can feel my breath and heart rate when I read Ahmed’s sentences. I don’t want to rush turning the page in my hands. I desire to savor the resonances in the words she chooses and how she arranges her syntax; how she remembers her memories; how she feels into the “sweaty concepts” as she terms the theory that comes from embodiment; and how she refracts those concepts through “companion texts,” as she names her beloved feminist literatures.

Ahmed’s “companion texts”—like the companion plants in a garden that ward off predators and facilitate nourishment—are also the companion texts of my own feminist intellectual communities. Audre Lorde, Gloria Anzaldúa, Toni Morrison, these writers are the ones with whom my kinship circles have found sustenance in the deep kinds of ways that shape our living, being, knowing, and loving of one another. Like many women’s studies scholars, I became a feminist academic because of these intimate encounters with feminist books, passed around between feminist hands, books that create theory by staying connected to felt experiences of embodiment and community. And I specifically came to feminism because Cartesian thought hides the work that bodies do and hides both the knowledge and fragility that bodies hold. That hiding always felt like erasure and I have long resisted it.

When I first found Sara Ahmed’s work, almost ten years ago as a graduate student, I remember having all the feelings of hope up there in my tiny attic room in New Haven, Connecticut, that maybe I could be a scholar after all. Here was someone who wrote in ways where I felt multiple modes of rigor were being combined, simultaneously, in ways that mattered to me. Here was someone who showed how attunement to one’s embodiment—of understanding what different bodies experience within the materiality of relations of power—is central to feminist knowledge.

Her work was a lifeline for me, then and now.

When I first found the hope Ahmed’s writing held out for me, it was a season of life as a graduate student where I was being taught how to split my mind from my body, my theory from my senses. I was learning in history seminar “your own experience is not a text” as one of my professors informed me, questioning my reading practices in class, as gargoyles looked down on me in the Hall of Graduate Studies. I was being disciplined into acceptable ways to identify and encounter an archive, as well as how to speak in an authoritative manner. I needed this new socialization if I wanted to go on in academia, but I was being cut off from a great deal of my own ways of knowing and analyzing.

I was first trained as a therapist before entering academia, so it was disorienting to enter a world where we pretended around seminar tables that the text of our own experience wasn’t always in the theory we were making. Why not just acknowledge the embodied text exists, too, and treat it with care and more rigor, I wondered? Why not just be honest about the fact that emotions and sensations, feelings and affect, are always entwined, and not separate experiences from our theory?

Not knowing what to do with these questions as a young academic, before I found Ahmed’s brilliant The Cultural Politics of Emotion, I had found the body of theory called “affect studies.” Here, finally, were academics willing to acknowledge that we feel things and might not know what we are feeling or why, because our unconscious processes are made by larger cultural formations that impinge upon our deeper recognitions. At one level I was relieved, and Eve Sedgwick’s work in particular was superb. However, if you’ve read women of color feminist histories and then you read affect studies, at some point you will feel uncomfortable sensations that help you ask questions like: Have not women of color feminists been telling us for a long time that embodiment and the senses matter, that the felt “intensities” between people have cultural histories, and that the things we feel that are hard to recognize are also an archive? (For further reading here, see Grace Kyungwon Hong’s brilliant 2015 Death Beyond Disavowal, which makes the argument that affect was indeed theorized first by women of color feminisms before “affect studies” emerged in the mid-1990s.)

I give this example in order to close with meditating on what Ahmed herself foregrounds: citation practices are political acts. Part of the hardening of histories in white, heteropatriarchal institutions is that women of color feminist and queer knowledge is often not cited, but somehow the major interventions end up (years later) at the center of in vogue scholarly conversations. Living a Feminist Life counters this kind of epistemic violence and the erasure/exploitation of women of color ideas. I also see her citation policy as intimately tied to her stated feminist commitments to create social structures to support those not held up by the existing structures of violence and inequality. Feminism to Ahmed is a practice of making life together, and writing and reading are also ways we make life together.

Which makes it all the more a tragedy that too often our writing practices as scholars and academics are not liberatory, but rather part of the histories that harden within institutions, part of the oppression pressing down on our being. I see it as noteworthy that Ahmed’s “companion texts,” especially those of 1970s and 1980s Black feminism, are part of a larger body of work we would do well to retrace not only for their ideas but also for their very writing methods. Black feminist literary scholars such as Barbara Christian and Joyce A. Joyce explicitly theorized the importance of our theory being grounded in our communities, our bodies, and our sensual experiences. Christian, in “Race for Theory” (1987), even echoes Ahmed’s language of alienation. Christian’s Marxist claim is that when we move too far from the sensory in our theory-making, we are alienated from our own body, and the embodied histories that have survived oppression. Furthermore, we alienate our communities with language that is too far away.

Writing about one’s experience within unjust systems is hard. As Ahmed says herself: “It is difficult to describe what is difficult” (163). But, I am also struck by how women of color histories have methods for creating amidst that difficulty. Staying close to the everyday and the sensory has long been a method of survival, artistic expression, transformative knowledge-making, and community. All around me, though, I see young feminist scholars too often coerced into reenacting writing norms of white, heteropatriarchal, ableist institutions, instead of being allowed to claim these far more flourishing writing practices.

Furthermore, if we are going to notice what we are not supposed to notice—an idea Ahmed returns to throughout Living a Feminist Life—we will need reading and writing practices that allow processes of recognition and the translation between the sensory and the conceptual. Ahmed beautifully provides a model of a text that does just that, employing a narrative voice that compels a reader’s contemplative process alongside the exercise of analytic precision. As both a writing teacher and a feminist scholar myself, I celebrate in this text not only a feminist research methodology, but also a temporality, an affective resonance, and a writing process to emulate and teach. It’s a writing process that nourishes embodied feminist labor, and draws our attention to the kinds of knowledges feminists are already living. Importantly, it’s also a book that honors ways of knowing of earlier generations of women of color writers. I believe one possible next step is thinking together more about why and how institutional life alienates us from these kinds of writing practices, which are also our kinship practices.

I don’t know what the affective experience was for Ahmed to write the text in the way she did, and I imagine it was costly, indeed. But what I do know is that claiming a writing voice that stays close to the everyday catalyzes recognition and community, and in those manifold connections, we nourish our readers and we nourish ourselves as writers. That nourishment matters, for “when your being threatens life, you have to wrap life around being” (227). This evocative invitation—you have to wrap life around being—is yet another way feminism for Ahmed is found in the living, not in the abstract. We understand how abusive power functions through recognizing the data in our own embodied experiences; but we also understand how new feminist possibilities are created through leaning into life’s embodied presences with one another. Living a Feminist Life is an invitation into that community. It’s the kind of text that is the wrapping of life around each other. And I am so deeply grateful Sara Ahmed offered this life to us.

  • Sara Ahmed

    Sara Ahmed

    Reply

    Response to Kimberly George

    As black women and women of colour in the academy, we have many stories to tell. I was reminded of the importance of telling our stories by the recent publication of Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thriving in UK Academia (2017) as well as the earlier publication Presumed Innocent (2006). These edited collections are also collectives: they show how much we as black women and women of colour know because we are not accommodated by the academy. We know a lot because of what we have to deal with: the ordinary racism and ordinary sexism that comes up because of how we appear, how we arrive.

    Reading Kimberley George’s response to Living a Feminist Life reminded me of just how much the academy can require we negate ourselves. I was struck by the story George shared of being in a history seminar, being told “your own experience is not a text,” how being trained can be about writing yourself out of the text, cutting yourself from what you already know. I was reminded of my own experiences of being a history student, being told off for using “I” and being told I could not pursue combined honours in history and English because my proposal was not historical enough. Rather than try and make myself more historical, I left history. How many stories do we have like this: when we leave because staying would require giving up too much of ourselves? As George describes, “I was being disciplined into acceptable ways to identify and encounter an archive.” We learn also: how much of the work we do requires the failure to be disciplined.

    We have other histories behind us; and I very much appreciated the reminder from George that many of the key black feminist texts from the 1970s and 1980s gave us methods of writing that were precisely not about removing the sweaty traces of embodiment including work by Barbara Christian and Joyce A. Joyce. It is so important that the resources we need are often behind us, although they might not appear or be available in the present because they have been written out. As George also points out, following Grace Kyungwon Hung, recent academic turns (such as “affect studies”) involve writing out these black feminist and feminist of colour histories: “Have not women of color feminists been telling us for a long time that embodiment and the senses matter, that the felt ‘intensities’ between people have cultural histories, and that the things we feel that are hard to recognize are also an archive.” Have they not? Yes they have.

    I love that this sentence is emphasised. Black feminism and feminism of colour: how we share an emphasis.

    To write black feminism back into “affect studies” or into the academy as such, requires transformation; it requires stopping what usually happens from happening. Citation is a form of chipping away at the walls; we have to modify how academic worlds are built by citing in those who are cited out. We need to challenge the erasure by recovering the work, bringing that work up and into our conversations wherever we are: in classrooms and lectures, on social media, at kitchen tables. We need for it not to be costly to do academic work by staying close to the bodies of our knowledge; we need to make room for that work by doing that work and enabling others to do that work.

    References

    Gabriel, Deborah, and Shirley Tate, eds. Inside the Ivory Tower: Narratives of Women of Colour Surviving and Thriving in British Academia. Trentham, 2017.

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

Ali Na

Response

Living (Out of Joint) a Feminist Life

In Conversation with Sara Ahmed

In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed expands on and enriches the figure of the feminist killjoy.1 Through an accessible, grounded, and richly citational engagement, Ahmed’s figure takes seriously bell hooks’s definition of feminism as the struggle to end sexism as an intersectional imperative (Ahmed 2017, 5). The feminist killjoy “retools” negative imaginaries of the feminist in society (2). The feminist killjoy works collectively from feminist histories, texts, and experiences and is anti-racist, queer, lesbian, willful, and living. This last word, “living,” is crucial to Ahmed’s proposal of the everyday ongoing struggle, and yet gives me pause. The call of living a feminist life as personal is, for me, not easy—not because I don’t understand the personal as political. I do. My mother immigrated to the United States from poverty, she remains a precarious foreign national, and she does not have the affordances of higher education. In the face of these details, my mother is always a keen and productive interlocutor with anything from global feminisms to postcolonial mimicry. She understands and engages these theories of the elite academy because of the accumulative knowledge given to her through lived experience. Ahmed describes the impetus to become a feminist as an accumulation, in which the experiences of sexist subjugation function as a “gathering like things in a bag, but the bag is your body” (23). So through the experiences of my own life and those closest to me, I understand the influence of the personal in feminist theories. The hard thing for me is writing feminism through my personal life.

In other words, Ahmed’s call to live a feminist life gives me pause methodologically. I am unseasoned in the actual practice of the personal as political as theory. I am a feminist in my life. I write about feminist theory. I plan events around combining feminist activisms, histories, and theories. But, I don’t write using my life as theory. I don’t like sharing my life or confessing my traumas. I keep them locked up for myself.

I almost tried it once as a graduate student. I met with my professor, José Esteban Muñoz, asking for advice about how to write theory from the personal. Ultimately, he said I didn’t have to do it. So, I took this conversation as license: José said I didn’t have to make the personal my theoretical starting point, at least in writing.

Ahmed’s work is persuasively evocative in its resonances, the repeatability of the personal across bodies, across oceans. In appreciation of this, I am here, enveloped in my own discomfort, beginning to venture, yes—with great trepidation, into making the personal the foundation from which I write. And, in so doing, I focus on the problems that arise in the living of this call.

Ahmed turns to the Grimm Brothers’ “The Willful Child” as a primary text (66–67), describing the story of a willful child, disobedient to her mother and displeasing to God. Even in death, her unwanted will is manifest in her arm that reached up out of the grave and could not be covered by the earth. The child’s mother brings a rod to her grave and beats the child’s arm until it returns to the grave. This story provides a way of reclaiming the willful child as a feminist figure, a killjoy in the face of authoritarianism. It is also a consistent reminder mobilized to teach girls and feminists, if you speak up, if you reach your arm up in defiance, “you will be beaten” (158).

I want to suggest that this arm—the arm of the willful (feminist) child—is out of joint.

Out of Joint with Expectation

Feminism is already a form of being out of joint. Feminisms work to disrupt the norms that enable subjugation. Ahmed describes a question familiar to many who occupy a visual register outside the norm: “Where are you from?” (Ahmed 2017, 116). This is a demand to give an account of yourself, which must comply with the intended subtext of foreignness, if not, it will be met in turn with the clarification: “No, I mean originally” (116). These bodies are out of joint with belonging.

I recall the countless repetitions and variations of this question, including “What are you?” Each repetition serves as a reminder that I occupy an outsider position. My birth name, Alicia, is fairly normative in the American context. Routinely, my white male family and friends would ask me another question: “How do Chinese people name their children?” (I am not of Chinese descent). They did not wait for my reply. “They drop a handful of change. It goes, ping pong ching Alicia.” I never said it was racist, but I thought it, because as Ahmed articulates, “racism was on my mind because racism was in the room” (39). Recently, my brother, who is white, made this joke again. This time, I told him it was racist. He was hurt. As Ahmed points out, when you point out racism, when you are a feminist killjoy you might make a man “feel somewhat ashamed” (151). If I could go back, I would have been a killjoy as a child. I say this not as a form of ressentiment, but as a speculative imagining of a revisionist history. One of the children of the organizer of this symposium made a shirt that in childlike wonder reads: feminist killjoy. In my fantastical rewriting of a feminist killjoy of color’s childhood, I wear this shirt.

The cost of giving an account of your disjointed racial identity often occurs through misrecognition.

When Ahmed as a girl is asked, “Are you Aboriginal?” (33), it is a misrecognition that selects the “other of choice.”2 There is greater danger in being the other of choice. As a girl in Texas, I recall insults hurled at me from children on the bus. “Spic!” (I am not of Latinx descent). The words were spewed with far more vile intentions than other misrecognitions I have experienced. As a girl who did not pass for white, my body figured the limits of how I was misidentified as the other of choice. For a resonant but counter example, I remember my biological father telling me a similar story of misrecognition as the other of choice in 1980s California. He was pulled over by a white male police officer, who threw him up against the car and looking at his dark complexion and afro asked, “Are you a n—–, or what?” My biological father, let’s call him Jim, is often white-passing, and he does not have black African ancestry. Jim was able to say, “I’m white,” and in turn feel the press of the officer’s force lessen. But, if you can’t claim misrecognition, sometimes the stakes of being out of joint, as the willful child reminds us, are burial. Feminists must attend to the stakes of being out of joint.

Contrary to narratives of liberal inclusion, feminists of colors’ bodies do not find refuge in the university. We continue to be out of joint. Ahmed writes, “When women of color become professors” colleagues’ reactions serve to make them out of joint, to push them away from the academic body. In reference to a new hire who is a woman of color, Ahmed recounts hearing the comment, “They give professorships to anyone these days.” Writing from the perspective of a newly minted PhD and a lecturer, not a professor, I want to stress that moments of discrimination structure each day leading up to the hope of a tenure-track professorship. My graduate cohort began as a group of seven; two of us are people of color. We were told by other graduate students we were admitted because of affirmative action. This was conveyed to us casually, not aggressively. Because, being out of joint is painful only for the one out of alignment. Daniel and I went on to be the first to finish coursework, the first to pass exams, the first to defend our dissertations. We are now both lecturers. Daniel did so while doing fieldwork in Chiapas, Mexico, and traveling the world as a performance artist. I had a baby. (The list always goes on.) Our academic accomplishments are not seen as results of our dedication, hard work, or aptitude. Daniel, a trans feminist of color, was once told by a professor that Daniel should quit working with women and instead turn to someone like the professor, a white cis male. His rationale for this suggestion to Daniel was that only a white cis male would challenge Daniel. In other words, the professor was saying women were giving Daniel a pass because of his identity as a trans person of color. White cis males in this scenario become the ideal of rigor in the academy, of scholarly integrity. This serves to both undermine the professor’s women colleagues and Daniel’s successes. We, feminists of color, are seen as succeeding because everything is easier for us—we are admitted to fulfill racial quotas and we succeed by women’s ineptitudes or the good graces of the white guilt. This is a deeply toxic lie. It perpetuates liberal racism and the fantasy of white oppression. The feminist killjoy gives us a way to call it out, a way to utilize being out of joint, reaching outstretched arms to indicate the toxicity of the experiences we speak quietly to one another in private.

Disjunctive experiences—out of joint with gender, out of joint with white privilege, out of joint of the subordinated place demanded of you—are all integral to thinking about what it means to live a feminist life. I suggest that living a feminist life can also be about being out of joint with oneself.

Living Disjunctively

In living a feminist life, I find that practice and theory collide, rather than map neatly onto one another. I would like to say that I am a feminist killjoy. But, sometimes I’m not. Sometimes, I choose not to be. And, sometimes I am. What might we—who seek to engage with Ahmed—make of this living a feminist life disjunctively?

Ahmed understands that we feminists might “decide not to become a killjoy in certain moments, because the costs would be too high” (Ahmed 2017, 171). In these scenarios, embracing the willful arm as our own out of jointness with the world means more than political resistance. These are the moments that sometimes create a history of living with sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, and other forms of subjugation. Ahmed argues that these moments become “a history of how we shrug things off. To get on, you get along” (36). Is “getting along to get on” sometimes a protective measure to shrink from the call to be a feminist killjoy?

Presenting my research to a room filled with white men who might today or tomorrow hold my future in their hands, how should I have responded to the suggestion that perhaps it is me who is being “sexist against men?” I did not respond as my feminist killjoy self would have liked. I instead chose to measure my response to keep on working, keep on making it. Because, it felt like maybe my dreams, my livelihood, my family might be on the line. Ahmed writes that “leaving a well-trodden path can be so difficult” (46) but that “we can leave a life” (47). In the moments where I shrink, I know I chose not to leave a life, not because I couldn’t, but because I didn’t want to. When does getting along reach its breaking point? When is being out of joint with oneself unbearable?

Living out of joint as feminists sometimes means shifting your politics because of your context. As an undergraduate, I recall being a new student, a feminist student in the midst of an anti-identitarian college climate. A recent graduate told me, “If I could do it all over again, I would be a militant second-wave feminist.” As a then self-professed postmodern feminist, I found her statement constrictive and caught up in a world I was more interested in critiquing than embracing. As the experiences of sexism and sexual harassment accumulated in a place where I thought they would be absent, I understood what she meant. These were situations in which, as Ahmed writes, “Feminist and anti-racist critique are heard as old-fashioned” (155). Being tied to the past is a charge meant to dismiss, not historically locate. Many of the men with whom I spent time knew gender theory and used constructivism as a lever to shift the locus of sexist blame away from them and their actions and onto my “limited notions of gender.” So when theory is what you believe but in living out that theory you are met with cooptation and twisted practice, you may need to be out of joint with yourself. Over time, my theoretical leanings have reassembled, and while I did not convert into a militant second-wave feminist, I see these tactics as part of what works. I am not alone in this tactical shift. In living a feminist life, “recent feminist strategies have revived key aspects of second-wave feminism”; Ahmed indicates “we are in the time of revival because of what is not over” (30).

Sometimes, being out of joint with yourself goes further than picking up strategies. I find that living disjunctively might mean meeting sexism where I’m not at. Ahmed instructs that “feminism is homework” (7). Picking up this phrase in the context of the classroom, I sometimes live not as I believe but as is effective in context. In college, I took a class called “Liberalism and Its Discontents.” I was excited. A knowledge of foundational texts in Liberalism was required for the class, so I was eager to engross myself in critiques of Liberalism with my well-read peers. Unfortunately, for me, the class might have been better titled, “Liberalism and Also Some More Liberalism.” The class was filled with white men who loved Liberalism. They thoroughly enjoyed the class, until we read Martha Nussbaum. My well-read peers were incensed—“How dare she critique Rawls?!” On any other occasion, I would be ready to critique Nussbaum’s work as a radical departure from my own political and theoretical commitments. In what felt like an out of body experience, I spent the seminar earnestly defending Nussbaum because I thought it might be as feminist as the men in that room would ever get. My disjunctive practice came in the quandary of living a feminist life as someone whose feminist politics were largely shaped by reading books on feminist theory.

In the context of doing diversity work, Ahmed suggests, “When we have to think strategically, we also have to accept our complicity: we forgo any illusions of purity; we give up the safety of exteriority. If we are not exterior to the problem under investigation, we too are the problem under investigation” (94). I wonder to what extent this suggestion might be applicable to the continuity of one’s identity as a feminist killjoy. How might being a killjoy be a strategic choice? In what ways do we become complicit with the forms of feminism we critique? What are the scenarios in which we exercise feminisms with which we disagree? Are these examples of being out of joint with one’s own feminist self problematic? Perhaps. And, perhaps as we acknowledge our complicity in perpetuating them, we might also embrace them as strategic, forgoing any illusions of feminist political purity.


  1. https://feministkilljoys.com

  2. By “other of choice” I mean the other or others most deeply affected by the racism of any given region. In Ahmed’s illustration of Australia, Aboriginals are the other of choice. I use other of choice to signal that some racial minorities are at greater risk than racist jokes in being out of joint with the world. My thinking emerged from conversations with my doctoral advisor Della Pollock.

  • Sara Ahmed

    Sara Ahmed

    Reply

    Response to Ali Na

    I think it is important to pause methodologically; to consider for a moment or more than a moment, how we write, how we assemble our texts, how we cite. I like the idea of holding onto that pause for as long as we can: I imagine holding my breath under water. I like the idea of pondering before we proceed. Ali Nai’s response has allowed me to pause on the question of the personal. It is important as feminists of colour to reflect on writing personally as a problem; we cannot expect from each other that this is how we write or should write, without weighing each other down, even if we have such writing behind us. After all the very expectation that we should tell our stories, should be confessing ourselves ahead of ourselves, is part of how racism and sexism operate in the academy, the impersonal/personal becoming very quickly attacked to other binarisms: theory/experience, particular/universal, and so on. We know on which side of the diagonal line women of colour are expected to fall.

    I hesitated too in writing the book as personally as I did because of this problem: that being personal is what I am expected to be. This is my hope: in fulfilling an expectation we can challenge an expectation. If we fall on one side of the line, we can cross that line.

    When more and more personal stuff came out as I was writing the book (I wrote this book without my usual kind of plan: I was letting what came out come out) I felt a deep ambivalence: really, Sara, really do you want that out there?! So this sense of being “out of joint” or “out of time”—of not coinciding with oneself or even with one’s text—is something I can relate to. If I explore how the “personal is theoretical” I do so with a sense of how the personal brings with it uneasiness and discomfort, a sense of not quite fitting or residing somewhere, of not doing something properly. It is a rather queer feeling.

    It is interesting I think to reflect on our trajectories as writers. I can hear José Esteban Muñoz saying, you don’t have to be personal, how I miss hearing his voice; and I know how important it is to be given permission not to have to burden oneself with self-disclosure. Sometimes we need permission to follow a direction we know we need to take in order to get somewhere, be somewhere.

    The personal entered my writing quite early on: I relayed the story of how it entered, in the book, of writing a chapter and looking for an object, then remembering something that happened to me, being stopped by the police, asked if I was Aboriginal. The moment the personal entered my academic writing was the same moment I began to make sense of the racism I had experienced growing up, as a brown immigrant girl who was not Aboriginal and not white.

    But it was always bumpy. It was never uncomplicated. My most personal book before Living a Feminist Life was Queer Phenomenology, which was also possibly my most philosophical book, though queerly so. In that book, the personal first entered the writing because I caught sight of a philosopher’s table, and was led from his table (which appeared only to recede, I wanted to stop that recession) to my own family tables, the scene where the killjoy first popped up. Once the killjoy appeared in my writing, she became a connecting thread between domestic space and academic space. She allowed me to move between conference tables and family tables; to connect the experience of bringing up racism and sexism in the academy with bringing up racism and sexism at home; theory as home work. But The Promise of Happiness and Willful Subjects whilst full of killjoys (and tables) were decidedly less personal books; mostly my examples came from texts. Sometimes, we need not to appear.

    A killjoy biography is not linear. I have been reminded of this in listening to people talk about making complaints in my current research. Some have narrated how they started out not complaining because they felt too precarious, but began to complain more and more over time. Others have talked about how they started out complaining because they felt optimistic, but began to complain less and less over time. A complainer—the one deemed a complainer—is another kind of killjoy. She turns up, because something comes up; she has to decide whether to complain about something. Someone who is deemed a complainer does not always complain because she is unsure what will follow; someone who has been a killjoy is not always a killjoy. Sometimes, we cannot be a killjoy in the present, and we imagine what would happen if she was there. Sometimes, we cannot not be the killjoy in the present, and we imagine what would happen if she wasn’t there. Sometimes the killjoy appears as an alarming exteriority. Sometimes she is alarming because she is not exterior.

    I think a sense of alarm and of being out of joint—with oneself, with a world—might be related. It can be hard to work for institutions that are not built for us, that imagine our progression as being a result of being favoured when in fact we have a fight on our hands because we are not. We are in a meeting and a seminar room, and we are thrown because of what is said, or how we are addressed, like the time I was seated with four white feminists and one peered at me over the table and said, “Sara, I didn’t realise you were Oriental.”

    Diversity work can be the experience of having to work out what to do in such moments. Sometimes it is not always clear what to do or to say. And sometimes we do not have time to work it out. That time, I was lost for words. I was floored. We are out of time, out of joint, with ourselves as well as a world; that too, that’s true.

Danai Mupotsa

Response

Living a Feminist Life

a love letter in five parts

1. Fragile Connections

fragility as the quality of being too easily breakable. (164)

16.10.2017

I don’t know how to read this book like it isn’t a book that doesn’t break me.

I find myself at the end of another feminist conference. I haven’t been to London in nearly thirteen years. Back then, London was a place where I walked between my bed, or the beds of lovers conveniently located in zone 1, and the various stores my temp agency sent me to as a “beauty consultant.”

I am here on the invitation of a beloved friend. She asks me gently to bring a good version of myself to the table. She asks me this, because she’s felt out of tune. She needs for her friends to gather all of their fragile and all of their hot. Her “willfulness is homework”1 (83); it is homework collectively gathered between the work of going with the flow because we want to live, and going against it for the very same.

I am at this feminist conference and I try to bring my best most professional self.

The trouble is that I am weary.

I am so angry, I am fragile.

I am tired of deadlines and journal articles and performance management—and colleagues that ask students if I am “fuckable” and the ways that I am made to feel that I am the problem when I bring that up. I am tired of administrative work, I am tired of drafting emails. I am tired of people thinking that I have a personal problem when I react/overreact to our beloved African/global misogynist scholars and all of the tomfoolery that supports and celebrates them. I am tired of institutional structures that are deliberate in their support for non-transformative relations and practices. I am tired of staff meetings where I play “spot the other black person” to pass the time. I am tired of feeling like I am the mean one.

I am also really tired of having to get on planes to find time to think and write.

It is only the opening session and the woman at the center of the discussion tells us about women as a site or scene from which we can politically mobilize. She mentions intersectionality and then very swiftly refers to ethnicity as a personal relation and nothing that can help us with structural analysis.

Friend and I raise our hands at the very same time. You might believe we have practiced this move at home. We haven’t. She nods in my direction and asks the chair to take my comment. I try to say that perhaps it is prudent to remember that race is structural and constitutive—and that it might be a little bit violent to erase the work of black women feminist intellectuals and activists in such an easy breath and call yourself a feminist.

The words escape my mouth. There is nothing satisfying made here. I feel so easily broken.

Sitting in the tube, I open Living a Feminist Life once again. It is a book that demands that I read it from where I am sitting. I can’t help but to feel broken, because there’s a lump in my throat as I parse through the pages. It is hard to keep all of my cleverness. I can’t imagine that it was easy to write this book.

Sara Ahmed talks about fragility in the seventh chapter of the book. Fragility is a thing that threads, or connects us. Fragile connection is the thread “between those things deemed breakable” (164). Relationships are also breakable.

During the break, I find myself avoiding small talk. I have practiced this so well. Minimize eye contact. Smile only as much as is necessary. Sit close enough to others so that it doesn’t look like you are avoiding it, but saying just enough to establish good boundaries (e.g., what is the wifi password?) However, it often happens that my composure collapses once I really open my mouth. It is like there is something that happens in my mouth that doesn’t want the path of happiness to flourish.

Ahmed offers a name to this feeling, or moment, or movement—she calls is “snapful” (188). Snap is a feminist sickness (193). When you are feeling this way, “you might think, you might feel: I can’t afford to be her right now” (172).

An account of this is built across the book:

  1. that “when you expose a problem, you pose a problem” (37),
  2. that the path of happiness is “what we end up doing to avoid the consequences of being sad” (49),
  3. that “when we are willing to get in the way, we are willful, willing to get in the way” (66),
  4. that we continue to encounter brick walls, “a job description becomes a wall description” (96),
  5. that “a job description can be a wall description, a life description can be a wall description” (142),
  6. that “when we speak about what we come up against, we come up against what we speak about” (148),
  7. that “when we come up against walls, how easily things shatter. To be shattered can be to experience the costs of our own fragility, to break, a breaking point” (161).[/NL]

2. Companions

citation is feminist memory. (15)

4.3.2017

At another feminist conference.2 I ask another friend what she thinks about this book. She thinks and she laughs, and then she smiles and tells me that she feels a bit cross. (Only a bit, for the most part she feels affirmation/breaking). Why would Ahmed put us all through all of her other work, solidly shaped by paranoid writing and a genealogy of uncles, and then write this book? Why not this one first?

I have always found Ahmed’s work both challenging and affirming. I have valued each version of a set of ideas. I have been encouraged by the way that I see ideas revisited and the kind of openness to breathe intuitions into the world when and as they come. I have understood these breaths as solidly paranoid writing because of her then-companions, what she describes as involving “substantial reference to intellectual traditions” (10).

The opening chapter, “Bringing Feminist Theory Home,” presents the reader with new genealogies of feminist theory, or feminist homework: “feminist housework aims to transform the house, to rebuild the master’s residence” (7). Ahmed draws in black feminist scholars as feminist homework, alongside her revisiting of past ideas. These ideas she revisits with scenes from her life that bring feminist lessons.

There is something remarkably intimate for me as a reader, touching the same scenes again. The quality of this touch is specifically animated by the feeling that I know this place, I know this table where the family gathers. Across Ahmed’s work, I have felt like I was visiting the same places. In this account, she draws specific detail and attention to embodied experiences of power, and writing “animated by the everyday” (10). Ahmed also defines a sweaty concept as “another way of being pulled from a shattering experience” (12). Sweaty concepts help us to understand how descriptive work is also conceptual work (13); sweaty concepts are “generated by the practical experience of coming up against a world, or the practical experience of trying to transform a world” (13–14).

Ahmed borrows from Donna Haraway’s formulation “companion species”; which Haraway offers through a manifesto; “a personal document, a scholarly foray into too many half-known territories, a political act of hope in a world on the edge of global war, and a work permanently in progress, in principle.”3 For Ahmed, “a companion text [can] be thought of as a text whose company enable[s] you to proceed on a path less trodden,” “spark[s] 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” (16).

3. Feminism as Pedagogy

21.07.2017, “Six Mountains on Her Back,” African Feminisms Colloquium, University Currently Known as Rhodes (UCKAR), Rhini4

My first memories of the classroom are not great memories, at least not the ones most crisp in my mind. I was always afraid of getting into trouble or getting something wrong. I have almost always feared to speak up. I never spoke once in my English literature classes in high school. At home, I imagined I could, so I would anticipate the teacher’s questions and practice my answers in the mirror several times. The morning after the chance would come and it felt like my arm was the heaviest part of my body. I never raised my arm. The words sometimes slipped out in mumbled whispers and I would quickly gather them back into my throat.

We lived in Botswana for many years of my childhood. We moved back to Harare when I was in grade 6. After just a few weeks in the new school, Mrs. Dhudia asked to speak to me. She told me that she would promote me to her class which was the first stream because my English was “so good.” I thought it was an odd way to assess someone’s intellect, but was pleased nonetheless. So, I was promoted. I arrived at her class the next day where she asked me to sit at a desk next to this boy who she described as the most disruptive boy in class. She hoped that he would be influenced by my quiet and my calm. I sat next to this boy who tried to talk and joke and laugh with me throughout the rest of that year. I sat stiffly, hoping that he would not get me into trouble.

One morning after the school holidays, I reported to Mrs. Dhudia that I had forgotten my library book at home. My father was still living in Botswana that year. The book was there. I told her that he would bring it in two weeks when he visited. Her eyes were sharp with anger. I was standing at the front of the class speaking very softly into her ear which was terrifying enough. She asked me to speak up, tell the story to the others and she told them that I must be very spoiled. She then turned my body to face the class, lifted my dress and smacked me one single time in the middle of my thighs and the class half laughed, half hissed, “eish.” Punishments done with an audience demand an aurally sensational reception.

The smack in the middle of the thighs where the skin is so soft was surely painful enough. But the lesson was not simply painful correction of the spoiled forgetful child. I have never stopped forgetting to return my library books in time. I feel tremendous shame at forgetting to return my library books in time. I currently have books that I have forgotten to return to the library in time.

mourn that sweet girl
that lives inside me.
She sits under a tree
and fears her own shadow.
She ran away from me
one day
because she saw all of my ugly
and blamed herself.5

But it would still be the classroom where I learned new tongues to describe the things I had always sensed were wrong. Like books, and poems, it was also teachers who were my companions. These were teachers that affirmed my sense that there was something wrong with the classroom; these were teachers that also filled me with a sense of the classroom as an object/objective of defamiliarisation.

The various feminist classrooms I have sat in drew my attention to how a learned and practiced separation of body and mind was in the questions of whose ways of knowing we understood to carry authority and whose we learned were marginal. These classrooms were my companions in the ways they brought me to proximity with my accumulated experiences and my sense of justice.

I remain invested in questions of what it means to know something—to epistemological and methodological questions. When I had a chance to develop a postgraduate course it would rest on this set of investments. I proposed a course with the title “Sentiment, Sensation and Feeling,” at the end of 2015. This course was a love letter to smart girls—smart girls who found companions in theory—big and small—whose practices in criticism offered the language to try to explain the world and what was wrong—who recognized the tendencies of racist, patriarchal knowledges to separate to the object of knowledge from the subject of knowledge—who page through the works of this theory for tongues and mastery, tools to exit the status of the object. This was going to be a course into the quest of, of thinking/feeling, or “smartness that hurts.” Of thinking theory in fire and tongues.

The tongue is one of the first things that we learn to straighten out.6 Ahmed opens the chapter “Willfulness and Feminist Subjectivity” with the sentence, “A feminist history is affective: we pick up those feelings that are not supposed to be felt because they get in the way of an expectation of who we are and what life should be.”(65) Feminist subjectivity here is diagnosed as a failed subjectivity, assumed as a consequence of an immature will, “a will that has yet to be disciplined to be straightened out” (66).

For the final examination of the course, I asked students in the class to propose a project as response to an early chapter in Ahmed’s book, “Feminism Is Sensational.” In this chapter, Ahmed writes that feminism is sensational; when something is sensational it provokes excitement and interest:

Feminism often begins with intensity: you are aroused by what you come up against. You register the sharpness of an impression. Something can be sharp without it being clear what the point is. Over time with experience, you sense that something is wrong or you have a feeling of being wronged. You sense injustice. (22)

Students were asked to choose companion texts which could also be the experiences they have, that have gathered, accumulated over time. A student in the class’s response settled on what her body knew that her mind could not settle. The student was at UCKAR and was sexually assaulted, had a mediation with the perpetrator and then wanted to reopen a disciplinary case against the perpetrator after the protests now known as #RUReferenceList.7 The university’s response to her trying to reopen the case was that the matter was already settled. She writes:

in a similar way, the rule in the university disciplinary code smoothes over my [the student’s] grievance. In the university’s knowledge system, that I (the student) wants to make the violation re-appear, weighs less than a rule which states that access to a particular process of seeking justice dissolves my right to do so. The claim that “the matter is settled” means that there is no recorded injury. Such a claim is consistently contradicted/countered by my body.

In regards to other students I know, whose cases were not prosecuted, in taking the decision to not prosecute, the university’s proctors privileged the legal-based knowledge system over other forms of knowledge. In effect, this rendered evidence of these other co-complainants’ pain insufficient: not having sufficient evidence means that in the view of the university, no violation had occurred.

Broadly, in addition to situations where a lack of evidence renders experience invalid, there are instances wherein evidence exists but said evidence is used to delegitimize a victim’s experience.

4. Manifestos

Lesbian feminism gives us the tools to build a world in which we become each other’s building blocks. We love our co-builders; they are our lovers, which is not to say that we might not struggle at times to agree about what we are making. (232)

I read The Cultural Politics of Emotion in 2008 on the suggestion of one of my teachers. I had tried to start a PhD twice at this point. I was convinced that I wanted to write about something about what it was like to grow up as a girl. My research life has been preoccupied with this set of questions. What Ahmed will describe as “girling” in the book, “becoming a girl is here about how you experience your body in relation to space” (25), “girling is enacted not only through being explicitly addressed as a girl, but in the style or mode of address: because you are a girl, we can do this to you” (26). As soon as I could do research, it was my intention to sit with women and to ask questions about these directions.

“On Being Directed” is the chapter that deals with norms.8 Norms are how we become aware of how the social world is organized how “norms become striking: holdable as palpable things,” “a norm is a way of living, a way of connecting with others over or around something” (43).

Once I read Ahmed, I knew that I needed to work on the institution of marriage. I was getting married at the time. And all of my cleverness could never have prepared me for the set of directions that I experienced. So I applied all of my cleverness to the task of thinking it through. By the time I was awarded the degree in 2014 that marriage was over. I lost many friends. My closest childhood friend remarked that I left my husband because I wanted to be “cool and queer.”9 I was called selfish.

“Happiness: what we end up doing to avoid the consequences of being sad. Happiness is a way of being directed toward those things that would or should make you happy” (49).

Ahmed’s book ends with a survival kit, a manifesto as well as a set of principles. These are preceded with a chapter on lesbian feminism, one she describes as written out of a conviction, “in order to survive, in order to build worlds from the shattered pieces” (213). This conviction arrives from where she writes as a lesbian and as a feminist, “This as is an individual claim but also a claim [she] makes for others. To describe oneself is a way to reach out to others who hear themselves in this as” (214).

This book gathers me as in such a way.

5. A Dedication

smallgirl with moths in her mouth

speaks anger in glances           knows the dagger of words

smallgirl          big voice          moves in silence

knows how earthquakes begin10


  1. Companion 1: Awino Okech, “‘In Sisterhood and Solidarity’: Queering African Feminist Spaces,” in Queer African Reader, edited by Sokari Ekine and Hakima Abbas (Dakar: Pambazuka, 2013), 9–31.

  2. Companion 2: Zethu Matebeni, “Vela Bambhentsele: Intimacies and Complexities in Researching with Black Lesbian Groups in Johannesburg,” Feminist Africa 11 (2008) 89–96.

  3. Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People and Significant Others (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 3.

  4. Companion 3: Sharlene Khan, “I Make Art: Voicing Voice, Speaking Self and Doing Criticality,” Reconstruction: Studies in Contemporary Culture 15 (2015) 1.

  5. From Danai Mupotsa, feeling and ugly (forthcoming).

  6. Companion 4: Audre Lorde, The Marvelous Arithmetics of Distance: Poems 1987–1992 (New York: Norton, 1994).

  7. See Gorata Chengeta “Challenging the Culture of Rape at Rhodes,” Mail and Guardian, April 25, 2017 (https://mg.co.za/article/2017-04-25-00-challenging-the-culture-of-rape-at-rhodes).

  8. Companion 5: Patricia McFadden, “Cultural Practice as Gendered Exclusion,” Sida Studies 3, 58–72.

  9. To her credit, I am both cool and queer.

  10. From “smallgirl,” Vangile Gantsho, Red Cotton (forthcoming).

  • Sara Ahmed

    Sara Ahmed

    Reply

    Response to Danai S Mupotsa

    A reader can pick up on something that is in a text: a sense of fragility, of tiredness, of being weighed down by demands. We pick each other up in such encounters, sensing something that is shared. As a writer I am first a reader. I was thinking of the fragile connection between writers and readers as I was reading Mupotsa’s response to Living a Feminist Life; the connection created from recognising what is wearing, and tearing; what is hard about turning up and finding the same thing over and over again.

    I was reminded too of Audre Lorde and how she wrote about feminist conferences and did feminist theory, black feminist theory, by reflecting on those conferences, the ways in which whiteness was occupying; the ways in which she had to fight to ensure she wasn’t endlessly having conversation with white women who centred themselves in any conversation. Whiteness is what we need a break from. Sometimes it is hard to take a break. Mupotsa gives an account of a white woman who brushes over intersectionality (if a word is associated with a struggle, you can brush over a struggle in brushing over a word) and who describes ethnicity as personal not structural. It was my desire to respond to that kind of “brushing over” of racism and sexism that led me in the book to write about walls: how histories become concrete, hard as walls. Those who benefit from structures do not experience them; walls are assumed to be in our heads because some do not encounter those walls in the world.

    How important it is to have friends who can share in what is wearing; who can hear the problems in what is being said, and what is being said can be routine, what is said as what is always being said. It was striking: the image of your two arms coming up at the same time not because of a rehearsal but because you both heard what was being said. But when the words come out, when she says, “Perhaps it is prudent to remember that race is structural and constitutive—and that it might be a little bit violent to erase the work of black women feminist intellectuals and activists in such an easy breath and call yourself a feminist,” what happens? You have to keep saying because they keep doing it. Pointing something out does not change what it is out and about. And the necessity of having to keep making the same point can be shattering. How I recognise the exhaustion of this story!

    And yet those two arms coming up at the same time, that spark is igniting.

    Somehow it seems important to address you as you. I rather liked hearing about your friend who feels a bit cross by how long it took me to get to this book, writing books that were shaped by “paranoid writing and a genealogy of uncles.” I know I needed that paranoia and that genealogy to get to the point where I could release the feminist killjoy, release her from her assignment or to an assignment. It is hard, isn’t it, what you have to go through, wade through, the history that weighs you down? And yet I know she came up because of the weight, she came up because of what I needed to do to get through. And I am rather committed to the idea of the feminist killjoy as a philosopher: as having a vantage point on philosophy, because of what she refuses not to hear. A history of happiness from the point of view of the wretch might be paranoid but it might also be how we can reach something, make sense of something that would otherwise remain obscure.

    I love the idea of a feminist classroom as a companion. I think of all the classrooms I have been in and how they left traces in the book. And hearing about your students speak of their grievances and complaints, how they were smoothed out or ironed out by a procedure, how an experience of assault is something that cannot be smoothed out from our memories, how the trauma and pain can spill out, hearing of this, reminded me of the experiences I had writing the book of supporting students through a series of enquiries into sexual harassment and sexual misconduct. These were difficult experiences, and it was difficult to write about them, but I felt compelled to write about them and from them. I wrote what I did, how I did, because I heard how the students were not being heard, because I was hearing the silence, how silence can be a wall.

    Silence can be loud when you know what is not being said. I think that is what feminist work can be about: allowing a hearing, however shattering, however much we are left to pick up the pieces.

M. Gail Hamner

Response

Commentary By Gail Hamner

Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life (LFL) continues the excellent conceptual and critical work she presents in Queer Phenomenology, The Cultural Politics of Emotion, The Promise of Happiness, On Being Included, and Willful Subjects. This new text differs somewhat in its archive and even more in what we might call its use-value. Ahmed doesn’t want us to read and study this text so much as to read and use it. Here is an astute survival manual for being feminist in the twenty-first century, positioned as we are in neoliberal, state-driven, surveillance-laden and still white-cis-patriarchal institutions, too often including the institutions of our families and other intimate relations (“The personal is structural,” she writes. “You can be bruised by a structure.”1). LFL is the kind of book you slide into your back pack or side pocket of your car and soon find it worn and dog-eared, the binding broken, and the pages bearing not a few coffee stains. It is a necessary, effective toolkit and it is a galvanizing treatise of solidarity for the arduous task of feminist thriving.

The purchase and eloquence of Ahmed’s previous publications are newly redeployed in LFL. For me, four particular elements form the touchstones of her work, and these recombine in her work in seemingly infinite ways. My following summary of these elements necessitates my omitting many other aspects of LFL that I also find salient and extremely useful.

“To sustain a direction is to support a direction,” (46).

The first of these elements is Ahmed’s use of orientation, a term taken from classical phenomenology and given embodied, sensorial torque in her writings. In LFL, orientation shifts to direction(ality). An orientation or direction is not simply indicated by the point of a compass needle, that is, by the trajectory anticipating where one ends up (as in: if I head north I will end up in Canada. Or: I head north because I wish to end up in Canada). More importantly, orientation entails the arm and magnetic anchor of that needle, that is, all the ways in which my past provides ballast and lure (magnetism) to this trajectory.2 Orientation and direction refer as much to past habits, affects, knowledge, and relations that channel how I act in the present as to how I intend to act in the future. Orientation and direction do not reflect an easy relation of nature or nurture but indicate complex and layered relations of temporality, history, and sedimentation. I came into the world with certain genetic proclivities, but directionality demarcates how such proclivities were enacted, dismissed, nurtured, or derailed such as to carve out the material traces through and by which I live and respond. Direction(ality) also informs and explains collectives such as families, political parties, and social subgroups, as well as institutions such as universities, government agencies, churches, and businesses. Orientations and directions are reified in family routines and in university architecture, policies, and disavowed practices. Direction(ality) links closely to will(fullness) for Ahmed, since as she puts it, the motion of a crowd takes on inertial momentum akin to the willed action normally attributed to individuals.

“You are aroused by what you come up against,”(22).

The second of Ahmed’s elements is affect or (to use a phrase from her earlier work) “affective economy,” a concept-complex that tends to shift to notions of sensation and intensity in LFL. If we are directed by the sedimentations of our personal and social pasts, what flows through those angled channels is affect. To make this claim is tricky, because it is not my affect that flows through the channels that orient my life. Affect is not a psychological entity, something that delimits and bolsters a subject, but a bodily result of a set of relationships, an encounter between my body (and its past as carried presently in certain directions) and the world (and its past as carried presently in certain directions). Rage or contentment does not simply bubble up sui generis and flow through my body. Rage is one possible response or product of relations that establish or structure a certain encounter. The affective structure is relational and circulatory, but is lived as pinned only to certain bodies in certain ways: “when you expose a problem, you become a problem.”3

“Rolling eyes = feminist pedagogy,” (38).

Hence the important connections in Ahmed’s work between affect and norm(ativity), and between affect and naming, both of which establish her specific manner of evoking and doing “politics.” The third element that I find particularly helpful in Ahmed’s work is thus her lesson that politics entails naming, resisting, and counting the cost of historically constituted patterns (norms, directions) that are promulgated as natural. Politics is the name we give to procedures of reframing what establishes and structures our daily encounters. Politics is the “homework”4 of pointing out how the well-trodden paths of quotidian life are damaging to certain bodies, and how the willful disavowal of this damage to some ensures the ongoing comfort and privilege of others. Politics, in short, is always pedagogy, a way of leading a body exposed to the harms of the world to vocabulary and practices adequate to the rising intensities of resistance and complaint: when you feel the shock of injustice—and before you cave to the habit of suppressing it—see my eyes roll in solidarity. Hang in there, my eyes say; it’s not you, it’s the pattern (the norm, the habituated direction).

“I show how ‘white men’ is thus an institution: a body that has come into being over time,” (111).

The fourth element of Ahmed’s work is the intimate connection she theorizes between lived experience (“mine” or “yours”) and the fluid sociality and built institutional realities that form and sustain its orientations and affects. Bodies absorb, submit to, navigate, or/and willfully resist the channels that direct them, but so too do institutional habits, presumptions, and policies. Ahmed’s analyses clarify the willfulness and pressure of institutional life, and the “stickiness” of affect that creates the common sense (or shared sensual directionality) of social being.5 In LFL she arranges these thoughts around notions of walls and furniture. She notes how the blockages built and sustained by certain institutional norms and policies might be invisible, but are still tangible and impenetrable. The structure of a chair, for instance—a piece of furniture but also an institutional role—can comfortably receive some bodies, while it causes other bodies to wiggle and fidget in futile search for the same comfort.6 The shapes of buildings as much as the shapes of professional expectations arise out of historically formed and slowly accreted patterns of affect and judgment.

Nicely capturing for me the affective mess of my visceral disgust with “white men” that sits side by side with my love and admiration for certain individual white men, Ahmed writes:

So when I am saying that white men is an institution, I am referring not only to what has already been instituted or built but the mechanisms that ensure the persistence of that structure. A building is shaped by a series of regulative norms. White men refers also to conduct; it is not simply who is there, who is here, who is given a place at the table, but how bodies are occupied once they have arrived.7

The affective economy, or sensorial intensity that attaches to white men as an institution is implied here in Ahmed’s words; it is entitlement. The disgust I feel toward “white men” (particularly white men in business suits) arises in response to the unthought and unreflective character of their entitlement. To be entitled is to stride through the world oriented by your unconscious assumption that the world is there for you, for your possession and use. Though my disgust and resulting anger are often pinned on me, really these feelings are built up responses to feeling excluded and appropriated (oddly both at once) by the white patriarchal world around me.

Extending the line of argument

Ahmed’s work is eloquent, inspiring, and tremendously useful. I wish to turn now from academic summary to something more like an extension of her argument, in an attempt to talk about yet one more body type to which the academy remains unreceptive.

As I make this turn in my mind—as my body shifts to sift through my notes with that fluttering, unfocused activity that forms the early efforts of thought—I experience a familiar welter of unpleasant emotions and memories. I feel a dead weight in my heart and recognize this as another kind of wall. I sense, again, the difficulty of even attempting to dismantle an American (“Western”) attachment to ideologies of choice and individuality, and the struggle (my struggle) to grasp and convey the pain of academic institutional exclusion and dismissal of a kind of body that is simultaneously given ideological prominence in society (in that frustrating way in which ideology sings gloriously of promises it never ensures in the real, material conditions of existence). It is difficult, especially, because this exclusion and dismissal often and understandably come as much from feminist colleagues as from the more overtly patriarchal sites of the university.

I refer to the pregnant body. More generally, I refer to the institutional “wall” that I call the “antimaternality” of academic institutions. This wall is palpable but often invisible, even to feminists. After all, the normalcy of heterosexual reproduction is an important site of feminist critique, and culture’s pervasive heteronormativity makes this critical labor necessarily arduous and unending. Moreover, universities do not seem particularly draconian about pregnancy. It is standard practice to provide tenure-clock extensions, some sort of maternity leave, access to onsite childcare, summers “off,” and “flex time” with regard to one’s on-campus presence. And yet, I will argue that the directions of university habit, discourse, furniture and policy build the wall of antimaternality and render living a pregnant and post-pregnant life in the university a contradiction, a contagious toxin, and a threatening dependency.

I will draw these facets of antimaternality from my engagement with LFL through its solace, its extrapolated theoretical support, and its offer of a slogan I have found particularly powerful.

The solace stems from the beginning of Ahmed’s chapter, “Fragile Connections,” where she states simply, “It is difficult to describe what is difficult.”8 Indeed. Readers can sense the labor of her producing “sweaty concepts”9 in this book. Ahmed herself notes how, in writing LFL, some experiences demanded an “I” and others a “you,” and how at times her sentences simply fell apart. Processing memory is hard; processing memory in written words that churn phenomenological description and critique against the gears of social norms is tremendously difficult. Throughout LFL Ahmed sweats and calls us to sweat with her as she vocalizes and assesses the unspoken, unseen, and untheorized bodily/discursive habits and social/institutional habitus of exclusion and dismissal. I admire Ahmed’s restraint in staying in the path of this labor without investing in facile (liberal) fantasies of infinite inclusion. Feminists can assess what supports exclusion and dismissal without positing a utopia in which everyone is equally included. The walls are real, even if the task of justly or successfully eradicating them eludes us. Such restraint is crucial for trying to speak pregnancy in the increasingly neoliberal academy, and in a world saturated with misogyny. How much does it help to “extend the tenure clock” when tenure is vanishing? How much does it help to institute parental leave in a culture that still places the bulk of the labors of childcare on the formerly pregnant body?

Other available academic discourses refer to these synchronic but opposing configurations as social contradiction. The difficulties surrounding human reproduction are well known and they breed sets of work and non-work obligations that are mutually contradictory and apparently irresolvable.10 A feminist assessment of the global social need for a “next” generation will focus not only on particular kinds of bodies but also on the capitalist control of time. This is because one persistent difficulty attached to “women” entering the workforce is not so much the fact that “women” get pregnant, but that the presence of pregnancy at work signals the desperately disavowed fact that work is not life and barely makes room for life in its voracious, parasitic temporal dynamics. The difficulty lying before working men and women lies not with men and women but with the nonnegotiable dictates of capitalism. In the end, flextime and onsite childcare are merely band-aids; what we need is a deconstruction of the fundamental capitalist virtues of efficiency, productivity, and profit that stand in utter contradiction to the inefficiency, distraction, and costliness of (having) children.11

The support of LFL comes not only from Ahmed’s fabulous “killjoy survival kit” (and equally fabulous killjoy manifesto!), but even more from the section in “Fragile Connections” in which she relates the experience of breaking her pelvis and coming up against the phenomenology of disabled bodies. By being forced into disability through injury, she was forced to come to know differently how the world does not easily accommodate disabled bodies. Ahmed recalls her mother’s disability, both in its secrecy when Ahmed was young, and in its unveiling later in her life. She writes, “I learned about pain through becoming a witness to her pain” (181). After her broken pelvis, however, she confesses that her bearing witness was not yet a “grasping.” She writes:

I think my own experience of breaking allowed a break to become a connection, not even one discerned at the time: a retrospective realization of how a body is not given room to move by a world; how what for some are ordinary bumps for others are walls. I learned too something about myself not only as a researcher and a writer but as a person: I began to ask myself why, despite having written about the intimacies of bodies and worlds, I had not reflected upon disability.

The paragraph easily could be written about children, mothers, and pregnancy, all of which are kept out of sight and out of discussion in academia (which is ironic considering one of the primary obligations of academics is to attempt to educate the intellectual elite of civil society’s next generation). To see and say the difference of the pregnant body require admitting into shared academic discourse a bodily difference that cannot be sublimated to a political position or to something like the aspiration to “become who you are.” Pregnancy is not only prosaically, almost banally, status quo, it also is never the fulfillment of one’s “self” because it is, weirdly and really, the sustaining milieu that produces an other.

But more than this. To allow the closeness of the acknowledged pregnant body is to flirt dangerously with essentialism and heteronormativity. These days, it is difficult to refer to motherhood at all in the academy, much less its genetics and physiology, without evoking Freud’s old shibboleth that anatomy is destiny. It has often seemed to me that the call to make joint cause with pregnant bodies or to wish out loud to bear children oneself is akin to releasing a contagion into the building, one that reveals that the truth of all women is, indeed, in their wombs. It also has seemed to me that asking my colleagues to admit the mere fact that someone has to bear the next generation somehow threatens to foist the norm of heteronormativity on non-reproducing bodies. Most obliquely, but also most generally, the fact that some academics have wombs that bear babies seems subtly to call into question the status of those womb-bearing bodies as serious academics. Pregnancy is a contagion that threatens to tarnish the image and capacities of other (feminist) scholars as much as one’s own pregnant self.

LFL is bursting with sentences that I want to turn into billboards or imprint on departmental stationary. One of my favorites is the slogan-like phrase, “history enacted as judgment.”12 The phrase sums up with enviable conciseness numerous enfleshed paths and dynamics of the book: Ahmed writes to us of how she snaps, she flies off the handle, she wiggles, she kills the joy (again), she rolls her eyes. These feminist actions get accused of (judged as) instigating altercation or disrespect when actually they are responses, reactions, to long-established patterns that are activated over and again (history).

My pregnant and maternal body experienced this judgment in myriad ways. It is true that the physical facts of pregnancy and new motherhood create a body that is seen as not autonomous, as dependent, as asking for special accommodation, and as distracted from its true professional obligations. But really it is the history of the academy, a history of childless scholars pursuing ethereal and mind-directed research that smoothes the worn-down paths of patriarchal and patriarchal-like assumptions into something akin to the automatic authority of nature. To be a scholar is to be unencumbered, to be free of all but one’s thoughts and one’s pen (or is that a phallus?).

I remember how difficult it was to walk long distances to my classes in my last trimester of pregnancy (at that time junior faculty were not given classrooms close to our department offices). I remember how impossible it was to find time and place to pump milk after my son was born (my classes were often scheduled too close together, and the women’s bathroom was on the other side of the building from my department and far from any refrigerator). I remember late afternoon faculty meetings, the time of which “could not possibly change” until it did change, when a high-powered male colleague was hired and “needed” an earlier meeting time to fit his weekly flight schedule. My stated “need” to be home with my children from 3–6 p.m. was literally invisible and inadmissible. These may be the least infuriating examples in my memory, but they are the ones I can bring myself to relate.

When I would complain about the difficulties of having children on tenure track, colleagues and friends would gently insinuate that maybe I regretted the “decision” to have children, or even, astonishingly, that I didn’t like or love my children. After all, they would suggest, I chose to have them. Clearly, they assumed that I harmed myself (my bid for tenure, my academic potential) in my willful act of choosing to have children.13 The fact that I was complaining as a form of resistance to social expectations and institutional patterning was invisible and illegible to them. The fact that women do not always choose—or that “choice” about children is never clean or clear or straightforward or (obviously) autonomous was baffling to them. They reduced my frustration to an individual choice that is now, sadly, regretted. More, they actively resented, as individuals in their own right, being implicated in or having to bear the consequences of the dependencies generated by “my choice.”

I was a part of these conversations so many times that I have come to hate the word “choice.” I roll my eyes when that word is directed at mothers, and most particularly when it is directed at mothers in the academy. I have been known to fly off the handle. Ahmed notes that Audre Lorde taught her how “turning toward what is difficult, which can be a what with a who, is politically necessary, even if this turning can at times feel like we are making life more difficult for ourselves.” She notes that Lorde refers to sexism and racism as “grown up words,” meaning these are words we don’t have in our vocabulary until long after we have experienced them in our bodies and relationships.14 I would add antimaternality to this list. Whether we like it or not, we are all invested in the next generation. Even persons burdened with terminal illnesses or suicidal tendencies do not wish everyone they love bereft of the ongoingness of society. We are all invested, whether we admit it or not, in the production, education, nurture, and employment of the next generation, so that in fifty years we will still have restaurants and medical services, legal aid and political debates, convenience stores and garbage collection. To say this is not to advocate for having children. It is not to assume or expect all womb-bearing bodies to produce children. It is not to romanticize children or the family, and it is not asking to put children or mothers on any kind of a pedestal. It is simply to state the nonnegotiable facts that civil society requires children for its perpetuance, that children still (so far) require wombs, and that the wombs which bear children need structural and institutional support. This support needs to reach farther into academic culture than tenure-clock extensions and parental-leave policies. It needs to challenge the ideologies of choice, resist any simplistic judgment that pregnant bodies “did this to themselves,” and recognize and overcome the fear of dependency that arises, I think, most diffusely from the Enlightenment principles of reason and autonomy that still fuel university culture.

I have been carrying this rage for years. It is Ahmed’s book that has enabled me to begin to face it, and that has given me the courage to try to speak it. I am grateful for the opportunity.


  1. LFL, 30.

  2. LFL, 46: “On the one foot: we walk on the path as it is before us. On the other foot: it is before us as an effect of being walked upon.”

  3. LFL, 37.

  4. LFL, 7ff.

  5. For “sticky” affect, see Ahmed, “Affective Economies,” Social Text 22: 2_79, 117–39.

  6. For chairs, see especially LFL, 123. For walls, see chapter 6, passim.

  7. LFL, 153.

  8. LFL, 162.

  9. LFL, 12.

  10. For my critiques of the division “work-life” instead of “work-nonwork” and of the language of “balance,” see Hamner, “Work and Life in the Balance,” Religious Studies News, http://rsn.aarweb.org/columns/work-and-life-balance.

  11. Many books and studies support the fact that women academics pay a penalty for marriage (compared with their male or unmarried female colleagues) and pay another penalty for having children (compared with male colleagues with children). See, e.g., “Female Academics Pay a Heavy Baby Penalty,” Slate, June 17, 2013, http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/06/female_academics_pay_a_heavy_baby_penalty.html.

  12. LFL, 171.

  13. I am drawing on Ahmed’s discussions of willfulness and “feminist snap” in chapter 8 of LFL, especially 188–200.

  14. LFL, 32.

  • Sara Ahmed

    Sara Ahmed

    Reply

    Response to Gail Hamner

    Writing a feminist book can be a labour of love; an expression of the profound attachments you have to the many feminist books you have read over a lifetime. When I hold my book Living a Feminist Life in my hands, I feel like I am holding in my hands other books, the books that helped me to navigate a world; the books that helped me to become the feminist I am. Writing a book is also about letting the book go. What happens to the book, where does it go? Sometimes as an author you have to let your book go by letting that question go, the question of where the work ends up. So when I read this sentence, it allowed me to imagine my book in other people’s hands: “LFL is the kind of book you slide into your back pocket or side pocket of your car and soon find it worn and dog-eared, the binding broken and the pages bearing not a few coffee stains.” I am touched that my book might be that kind of book; that this might be the fate of my book, to become worn and stained; warmed by living in somebody else’s pocket. A stain can be a sign of feminist activity: reading books and living lives can happen in the same places.

    A worn book has had work to do; a worn, body, too. The more a world is wearing the more a body is worn. I introduced in my book the concept of “sweaty concepts” to describe how we can do conceptual work by describing the difficulty of inhabiting a body that is not accommodated by the world. Gail Hamner offers an important extension of this work—and to extend something is always to take something in a different direction—by speaking of inhabiting the world as a pregnant body. I was reminded of Imogen Tyler’s essay “Rethinking Pregnant Embodiment” as I read Gail’s response. Tyler wrote about walking into a philosopher seminar as a heavily pregnant woman, drawing on Iris Marion Young’s work. She wrote: “I arrived late, I had to pee several times before I went in to make sure I would last the course, now there is no sliding into the room unnoticed. I manipulate my body as if it’s the old me and not this mammoth becoming. It seems as though I bump into everyone, everything, as I waddle toward an empty seat at the back of the room” (2000, 289). I thought of Tyler’s words as I encountered Hamner’s wall of “anti-maternality” of academic institutions. The room that does not accommodate a pregnant body, the work she has to do to enter a room, to stay in a room; a discipline that writes a body out, her body out; a career trajectory as a timeline that does not account for the time taken to care for children; these can be part of the same system.

    We come to know how a system works when it does not work for us.

    The university can be the place that benefits the childless, if the child is understood as weight, or as part of a life that is “not work” as Hamner shows; a child as how you are left with less time to do the work that is counted as work. We might also say that the university supports those for whom having a child does not come at the expense of doing the work that is counted as work; the academic who can work because his time has been freed from doing all kinds of care work, pastoral care, housework, administrative work, as well as caring for children. I have described such academics as “white men,” with “white men” being understood as an institution; those who are freed from labour to think, who come to embody the figure of the father who is disseminating his ideas; his ideas as becoming seminal. I think it would be timely to consider how academic paternity works: fathering as a social form; fathering as the origination of ideas, even birthing an idea, fathering as about who can reproduce what is inherited; how he becomes him. I am thinking of how women who have children and women who do not have children might have to do the work that enables his becoming often at the expense of their own work. So many times as a woman academic without children I have been asked to teach classes at certain times or have been called in to cover for someone because it is assumed I can: that I am free from responsibilities. It can feel like without having a certain kind of life you have no life: that you are more available to the institution; that you can and should be more productive if you are not reproductive.

    As I read Hamner’s piece I thought about the work of caring for who follows, and who is allowed to be care-free (without being judged) and who is judged to be care-free (and thus not allowed to be). I thought of how so much pastoral care within the university is done by women and minoritised staff: I thought as well of how much diversity work is often pastoral work, the work we do to give support to those who are held back or slowed down because they are accommodated by the design of a room or a career structure. This work is work we want to do—mentoring a next generation is the grounds for optimism—but it can also be wearing and difficult, because it is about dealing with the consequences of what is wearing and difficult on those we care for.

    The work we have to do to be can be pedagogic. Those who do reproductive work, housework, care work, are not only building worlds, making futures possible, they are or should be our philosophers giving us insights into how tight a world can be when it is assumed to enter the room is to leave a body behind. And those who work to bring others into the world can teach us about difficult intimacy between work and life, how if work is “not life,” then we need to make room for a life that is not work.

     

    References

    Tyler, Imogen. “Reframing Pregnant Embodiment.” In Transformations: Thinking through Feminism. London: Routledge, 2000.

Amy Barbour and Marvin Wickware

Response

Commentary by Amy Barbour and Marvin Wickware

In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed weaves together threads from her previous and current work; some of which support entire books in their own right. The result is both a helpful entry point into her theoretical corpus and, more to the point of Living a Feminist Life, a demonstration of the way in which the everyday work of living is inextricable from theoretical work. Everyday life and feminist theory move and breathe together into the figure of the feminist killjoy, the figure that focuses Ahmed’s book. In what follows we focus on the contribution of considering the resemblance between Ahmed’s feminist killjoy and our liberationist view of the Christian evangelist.

As a way of beginning, we would like to provide some academic and personal reasons for why we are looking at Living a Feminist Life in relation to Christian theology. After all, Sara Ahmed’s project is not primarily rooted in the academic discipline of Christian theology or in any way explicitly theological. She makes no reference to divinity or appeal to any theology. Still, a variety of her sources, statements, and named hopes converge and intersect with our theological concerns and projects. As we consider her work within the context of life in the Western societies she critiques, Ahmed confronts ways of thinking, feeling, and being that have been shaped by centuries of (colonial) Christian theologies. For example, we can find theological significance in her claims that happiness is a matter of happenstance and not the proper end of life (196), that uncritical obedience to authority figures is not a virtue to be cultivated by women (or anyone; 77–78), or that there is value in rejecting the notion that there is a single straight path along which all lives should proceed (197). In addition, politics remain deeply tied to Christian theologies in the United States—both in how many people’s religious beliefs shape their political convictions and in how theological vision shapes the political field. As a result, those who critique the social structures grounding US political realities eventually find themselves coming up against the theological. As contextually grounded Christian theologians, we grapple with the (more) often savage but sometimes liberating role of Christian theologies in US American settler colonial histories. For these reasons, her claims are not only feminist but also theological for us.

In addition to our explicitly academic interest, it will be helpful for us to say just a little about why we come to Ahmed’s work, given our disciplinary location in Christian theology. We met while pursuing our master of divinity degrees at Union Theological Seminary in the city of New York. Although we were drawn to each other, we’d find ourselves struggling interpersonally and intellectually despite ostensibly sharing the same concerns. To feel like we had to struggle to be together even though our stances continually isolated us together was difficult. What ultimately helped us become intelligible, legible to each other was realizing we shared experiences as theological killjoys. We were killjoys who killed others’ theological joy, as well as each other’s; not that we had those words initially. In retrospect, by using Sara Ahmed’s work we can articulate that common experience of disrupting communal pretensions of justice, progressive identity, and innocence, while also helping us to understand and appreciate the friction that sometimes manifested between us. Ahmed’s work gives a common language to facilitate the homework we did to ground and elaborate our friendship. Even if our theological location makes a connection to Ahmed’s work appear like a stretch, our academic and personal commitments make it palpably proximate. We each experience the world as (theological) killjoys and are personally invested in contributing to the discussion of just what it is to be a killjoy.

It may make sense, then, that we read Living a Feminist Life not so much as a description of a feminism as an account of why self-identifying feminists are killjoys in the everyday course of living a feminist life. Ahmed states plainly that “it is not simply that we first become feminists and later become killjoys. Rather, to become feminist is to kill other people’s joy; to get in the way of other people’s investments” (65). Happiness is a project, which is mobilized, directed, and sustained under intense social pressure both to be happy and to desire to be made happy by the “right” things (49). Women’s work in this project includes the affective labor of “making others happy by appearing happy” (58). From girlhood, a cultural promise is held out to girls that they will become happy through this prioritization and performance (58). Because the happiness of all depends on this labor, women easily become identified as the source of others’ unhappiness if they notice, much less actively contest, the inequality of this unjust world (62). The affective labor of making others’ happiness the condition of one’s own happiness can pressure women, for example, to cheerfully embrace institutions that disproportionately restrict their own life possibilities, as well as those of other women; particularly women who are queer and/or nonwhite.

Given the pressures of compulsive happiness, to be/come feminist entails developing the ability to notice patterns and to hold onto experiences of being wronged (27–28). When you become wrong for noticing some things are wrong, you may no longer want to live in the world as it is (62). To change this world, feminists “might have to become willful to hold on when you are asked to let go; to let it go” (235). However this holding on requires a capacity to withstand what it feels like to be made wrong, to be made to feel like one’s arrival deflates others and immediately puts them on edge. To hold on can mean to be worn down, exhausted to the point of self-doubt and surrender.

Even aside from willful resistance, one can kill joy if not “properly attuned to the requirements of a social system” (56). Simply to “fail” to recognize the ways in which any given (in)action disrupts the social order safeguarding others’ happiness can make one a killjoy. The feminist’s refusal to “make the happiness of others her cause” invariably results in being located as the source of others’ unhappiness (74–75). As pressure and momentum are already directed toward women making the happiness of others their cause, to refuse to do so disrupts the flow of others’ lives.

Ahmed discusses flow in terms of bodies all moving in the same direction, building momentum and pressure to continue in that direction. To the extent that “those behind question those in front, [those behind] are assumed to put themselves in front, to care only about themselves” (208); to wit Ahmed shares how not shaving her legs in her youth affected those around her. When simply living one’s life without accepting the demands of others’ happiness makes one a cause of unhappiness, active attempts to dismantle the underpinnings of an unjust world will certainly be seen as intensely selfish and willful. Loneliness and isolation often follow as a consequence of willfully living a feminist life. Thus, Ahmed argues that feminist killjoys must band together to share the challenges and joys of living a feminist killjoy life every day (82–84): killjoys cannot and should not be forced to go it alone.

Ahmed describes feminism as “how we pick up the pieces” of what is broken—within ourselves, within others, and between ourselves and others. The everyday life of the feminist killjoy carries important implications for communal dimensions of feminism because building, participating, and sustaining community is a critical self-care practice (240). Killjoys know that damage is sometimes a matter of anger spilling over into situations where it does not belong (171–72). This spilling over of anger can result in damage to precious relationships and connections. Feminism is an archive built up from experiences of what has hurt or shattered us, it is also an archive of how we have hurt and broken others: “We can get it wrong; we can be too sharp; we can regret having said something because the consequences of saying something are regrettable” (172).

Killjoys are not immune to the difficulty of heeding and embracing those who would kill feminist joy, particularly when they are accustomed to opposition reflecting a defense of an unjust world (174–75). For example, killjoys develop coping skills to survive: one is the ability to withstand (sometimes violent) resistance. By necessity, a killjoy may develop a kind of affective armor or callus, which protects her from being ripped open each time. However, the killjoy can default to reading critique as opposition to her opposition; becoming inured to her own participation in the restriction of others’ life possibilities, even other feminists’. The struggle against injustice may regularly short hand into an us-versus-them logic, but it is equally and perhaps even more importantly a struggle for equality among the feminist us: “Staying close to other killjoys is thus not about being on the same side. It is how we can ask more of ourselves; it is how we can be and stay vigilant. Our crossness can and should be directed toward ourselves. We get things wrong. I did. I do” (245). Feminism is both killing joy and “what we need to handle the consequences of being feminist.”

Living a feminist life, then, requires the collective development of what Ahmed calls feminist snap, the ability to break ties that damage us (162). Feminist snap involves a moral and affective reevaluation of what is considered broken. A breaking involves not only a fissure or crack but also the creation of possibility (180); perhaps the possibility of an alternative (185). Ahmed argues persuasively that to live as a feminist is to live under the burden of killing joy, doing so in concert with others, and persisting in doing so despite the near-certainty that to live as a feminist killjoy will mean to endure breaking and being broken. However, the feminist killjoy does have hope. She lives in the hope that such a burden is precisely the burden of seeking a better world.

In this language of seeking a better world, we find a point of intersection between Ahmed’s work and ours; one that connects to Ahmed’s marking of the entanglement of racism (as white supremacy) and religion. She approaches this entanglement by observing that often when feminists of color speak of violence directed against women, that violence becomes racialized, racist. The mechanism for that entanglement is the figure of the outsider or the stranger. Violence is attributed to the other, and within a racist culture, that other is defined racially. The figure of the stranger does both cultural and theological work. Some violence becomes invisiblized as cultural and other violence remains exceptional: “the some of this distinction is racism” (72).

Ahmed offers, should we read her claims in relation to theological thought, a powerful critique of theologies that break down into a (colonial) dynamic of self and other. Such theologies invariably cast the figure of the other as the stranger, the unknown, the one to be feared, the one whose religion is demonic rather than divine, the one who must be made same or destroyed. The outsider is the one who is not one of us, however that boundary around an “us” is drawn; for example, in terms of soteriology (who is (not) saved/savable/salvageable), or theological anthropology (who is (not) human), or even creation (whether human persons are the exclusive object of salvation). Ahmed’s arguments also suggest a more explicit accusation, which we share: that some Christian theologies rationalize ongoing white supremacy—though they rarely use this term—as a matter of relative cultural fitness.

In this accusation, we draw a dramatic if unexpected resemblance between Ahmed’s figure of the feminist killjoy and the Christian figure of the evangelist. On the one hand, Ahmed’s feminist killjoy reveals the Christian evangelist of US settler colonialism, who affirms white supremacy in terms of theological anthropology, to be a corruption of Christian faith. This colonial figure is the bearer not of gospel (good news) but of terror and horror. This figure declares the brutal colonial violence of genocide of indigenous peoples and land theft as manifestations of God’s providence, chattel slavery as the slave’s path to salvation, and aggressive militarization as a vehicle for evangelizing where the lure of white supremacist culture falls short. The feminist killjoy kills the joy of this Christian evangelist—and rightly so.

Even as we see the need to critique and reimagine the evangelist in light of Ahmed’s critiques, we also want to press Ahmed to consider delving more deeply into the breadth and depth of theological thought for two reasons. This first reason relates to the fact that the colonial binary logic critiqued by Ahmed was, is, and remains contra to some Christian theologies. This some signals theologies that we might tentatively group together under the category of liberation theologies. These theologies emerged out of global movements toward decolonization in the mid-twentieth century, and see the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the revelation of God’s rejection of the very kinds of powers and structures that Ahmed’s work so incisively deconstructs. We do not seek, then, to neutralize the negative charge of the feminist killjoy’s accusation against the Christian evangelist who terrorizes through the mechanisms of colonial projects but to reclaim the evangelist at the very sites of violence Ahmed marks (84).

A liberationist Christian evangelist reveals the violence of imperial projects as antithetical to the good news (gospel) of the Christian faith. The good news brought by the Christian evangelist is bad news for some. Under colonial theological logics, this some is racist, inverting the gospel into bad news for all those strange people who cannot be saved (i.e., those who cannot properly perform happiness and thus disrupt the happiness of others). Alternatively, we draw on liberationist Christian understandings of salvation, which cannot be quietly co-opted to justify a neoliberal agenda because the focus is not the salvation of the individual, of the sinner, of the one who oppresses those deemed other. Salvation is to be found in the survival, reparation, and possible flourishing of those who have—as Ahmed points out—been historically targeted to receive dramatically disproportionate burdens of precarity and vulnerability, as defined by racial capitalism (238).

The heart of Christian theology is christology—who we say Christ is. As long as we describe our savior as the god who was an outsider among their own people, and who was tortured and executed by Roman crucifixion, Christian proclamations of good news—gospel—will be simultaneously bad news and judgment against some. Gospel snaps ties with systems and structures that categorize some as disposable. The gospel is a break for those who have been broken: it is the breakaway necessary for the potential of theological alternatives. Our alternative Christian archive, like the feminist archive, is a “fragile archive, a body assembled from shattering, from splattering, an archive whose fragility gives us responsibility: to take care” (17), and necessarily so. The terror of the empty tomb, the disappeared body, becomes the Christian’s promise of resurrection (an alternate future) for a creation that groans as it is consumed into imperial debris.

The liberationist Christian evangelist is a killjoy, willfully preaching that which condemns the unjust happiness of many. The Christian project is an unhappy one. Even as joy may be a dimension of the affective history of Christian tradition/ing as incarnated through social practices such as worship, killing joy is as well. It must be or Christian faith will offer nothing more than, in the ever-haunting words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, cheap grace. Insofar as we continue to claim the liberation, survival, and quality of life of those who find themselves classified as disposable by systems and structures, such as white supremacy, US militarism, and compulsory heterosexuality, as the project of living a Christian life, we will find ourselves to be theological killjoys, Christian killjoys. Christians’ faith can be measured in part by our willingness to be killjoys in precisely the ways outlined in Ahmed’s “Killjoy Manifesto.” And this brings us to our second reason for considering Ahmed’s feminist killjoy in relation to the evangelist.

The evangelist offers something to the feminist killjoy’s survival kit (235–49). The feminist killjoy’s news is bad news to some precisely insofar as it is good news to others. She is a bringer of the good news that there is an alternative to the generally accepted options of accepting injustice and being crushed in hopeless and isolated protest. With the evangelist, the feminist killjoy lives in the hope of a better world, in which the resistance of one killjoy reinforces the resources of resistance in another, and another, sustaining a feminist movement. Feminist killjoys can embrace not only the fact that “in being willing to receive that assignment [as negative] we are affirming something” (243), not only the possibility of humor in the midst of hard work (245), but also the vulnerable confidence (rejecting uncritical certainty) that the news that kills joy all around them is good on a deep, earthshaking level. Carrying a vulnerable sense that one’s commitments are righteous can nurture and reinforce the willfulness necessary to endure and persist in the killjoy’s struggle toward a better world.

In turn, much like feminist killjoys can find energy from having a vulnerable confidence in their vision of a better world, remaining open to receiving critique and correction from one another, Christian killjoys can find energy to keep going in their faith. The power of Christian god talk to energize and mobilize movements, to reorient and turn us toward hopes for a better world, to rewire our affective attachments should not be minimized. Rather, Christian killjoys need to reclaim them, and to reclaim them in the exact moments when theology explains away violence against some as natural or cultural.

  • Sara Ahmed

    Sara Ahmed

    Reply

    Response to Amy Barbour and Marvin Wickware

    In my killjoy manifesto I mention the proliferation of killjoys. Alongside the feminist killjoy, we have crip killjoys, transfeminist killjoys, ethnic killjoys, indigenous feminist killjoys. I suggested too that “there will be more of that we can be sure.” There will be more because a killjoy comes up when there is a difficult history to bring up. It is a killjoy joy to welcome theological killjoys into the fold! May you add to the clamour of the chorus, voices that shatter the illusions of happiness!

    It is true that the book does not engage with theology or religious studies—of all my work, my only explicit and self-conscious engagement with Christianity as a tradition was in Willful Subjects (2014), and that was because so many of the discussions of free will came out of that tradition; I was following the word “will” wherever it took me, so I ended up with quite a close engagement with Augustine.

    I can come out with it now: I am an atheist. I was brought up with a Muslim father and a Christian mother. It was confusing and bemusing. I didn’t choose between them; I didn’t feel between them. I took neither path.

    The paths available were not simply made available by my parents. I went to church during my primary school years because I went to a Church of England school. My sister went to that same school. I remember when she won a theology prize; she walked up to the stage proudly receiving a Bible as her award. And I remember adults behind me chuckling because a girl with a Muslim name, with the surname Ahmed, had won a prize for Christian theology.

    Chucking adults: they remind you of what does not quite add up, how we do not quite add up.

    Mostly my parents handled having different religions by not bringing religion up that much. But once they broke up it came up—my father brought up my mother having ham in the fridge as an explanation of his decision to leave. It wasn’t fair as an accusation, but I learn from it: I came to associate religion with something that matters more the more things break up. I shared in the book how after my parents’ marriage broke up a friend of the family said: “This is what happens when you marry a Muslim.” I think I came to sense before I came to know, that racism works by hovering in the background, coming up when things break up.

    I went to a “nondenominational senior school” but we sang Christmas carols in a cathedral and we said the Lord’s Prayer during assemblies. I learnt that the secular was tied to Christianity; our public holidays in Australia were Christian holidays, Easter, Christmas. Christianity was the calendar. Christianity was the grammar. And yet the official vocabulary of the nation was multicultural and secular.

    So Christianity became like the background; the default, against which the Muslim appears as a stranger, a body out of place. Religiosity often gets projected onto Islam or religions other than Christianity, especially in Australia. An atheist killjoy has to be careful, then, as faith in the neutrality of the secular can operate in a similar way to faith in universalism; concealing how the universal universalises from a particular, requiring some to give up their particulars. Maybe I should call myself a killjoy who happens to be an atheist. And such a killjoy can find a kinship with the theological killjoy described by Amy Barbour and Marvin Wickware; the theological killjoy who is willing to expose and condemn “the unjust happiness of many” from a deep commitment and faith.

    A killjoy kinship rests on being able to recognise in each other’s work, despite our differences, because of our differences, commitment, a commitment to the task of building a more just world.

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