+1(978)310-4246 credencewriters@gmail.com
  

This 1250-word/ 5-page assignment draws upon the assigned podcast by Alok Vaid-Manon and three assigned readings by Sara Ahmed. Students are to develop a four-page feminist killjoy survival kit that reflects what they need in it and why, and design their own one-page feminist manifesto. Be sure to cite all sources for both components of the assignment in a Works Cited.

Feminist Killjoy Survival Kit

This four-page formal essay is to be typewritten using 12-point Times New Roman font in full sentences and paragraphs that are double spaced, with 1-inch margins. In your own words, write an introduction with a thesis statement (feminist killjoy survival kit); a body that describes the main items of your survival kit and explains why they are important; and a conclusion that demonstrates why a feminist killjoy survival kit is important. Use an active voice, use literal and concrete language, be concise, avoid abbreviations, contractions and repetition, and use the present tense. Be sure to use MLA, including proper citations, referencing, and works cited.

Feminist Killjoy Manifesto

This one-page manifesto is to showcase your core beliefs, goals and wisdom. Refer to Sarah Ahmed’s chapter “A Killjoy Manifesto” (251-268) to assist you in this creative project. While this is not a reflection essay, be sure to cite all concepts, quotations and images in works cited.

The process of creating your own manifesto may include:

1) Looking at samples/models available online for inspiration. What have others

created? What do these look like? What messages/values/beliefs/wisdom do they

contain?

Duke University Press
Chapter Title: INTRODUCTION Bringing Feminist Theory Home
Book Title: Living a Feminist Life
Book Author(s): SARA AHMED
Published by: Duke University Press. (2017)
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv11g9836.4
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Living a Feminist Life
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INTRODUCTION Bringing Feminist Theory Home
What do you hear when you hear the word feminism? It is a word that fills me
with hope, with energy. It brings to mind loud acts of refusal and rebellion as
well as the quiet ways we might have of not holding on to things that diminish
us. It brings to mind women who have stood up, spoken back, risked lives,
homes, relationships in the struggle for more bearable worlds. It brings to
mind books written, tattered and worn, books that gave words to something,
a feeling, a sense of an injustice, books that, in giving us words, gave us the
strength to go on. Feminism: how we pick each other up. So much history in
a word; so much it too has picked up.
I write this book as a way of holding on to the promise of that word, to
think what it means to live your life by claiming that word as your own: being a feminist, becoming a feminist, speaking as a feminist. Living a feminist
life does not mean adopting a set of ideals or norms of conduct, although it
might mean asking ethical questions about how to live better in an unjust and
unequal world (in a not-feminist and antifeminist world); how to create relationships with others that are more equal; how to find ways to support those
who are not supported or are less supported by social systems; how to keep
coming up against histories that have become concrete, histories that have
become as solid as walls.
It is worth noticing from the outset that the idea that feminism is about
how to live, about a way of thinking how to live, has often been understood as
part of feminist history, as dated, associated with the moralizing or even polic-
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ing stance of what might be called or might have been called, usually dismissively, cultural feminism. I will return to the politics of this dismissal in chapter 9. I am not suggesting here that this version of feminism as moral police,
the kind of feminism that might proceed by declaring this or that practice
(and thus this or that person) as being unfeminist or not feminist, is simply a
fabrication. I have heard that judgment; it has fallen on my own shoulders.1
But the figure of the policing feminist is promiscuous for a reason. Feminism can be more easily dismissed when feminism is heard as about dismissal; as being about making people feel bad for their desires and investments. The figure of the feminist policer is exercised because she is useful;
hearing feminists as police is a way of not hearing feminism. Many feminist
figures are antifeminist tools, although we can always retool these figures
for our own purposes. A retooling might take this form: if naming sexism is
understood as policing behavior, then we will be feminist police. Note that
retooling antifeminist figures does not agree with the judgment (that to question sexism is to police) but rather disagrees with the premise by converting
it into a promise (if you think questioning sexism is policing, we are feminist
police).
In making feminism a life question, we will be judged as judgmental. In this
book I refuse to relegate the question of how to live a feminist life to history.
To live a feminist life is to make everything into something that is questionable. The question of how to live a feminist life is alive as a question as well as
being a life question.
If we become feminists because of the inequality and injustice in the world,
because of what the world is not, then what kind of world are we building?
To build feminist dwellings, we need to dismantle what has already been assembled; we need to ask what it is we are against, what it is we are for, knowing
full well that this we is not a foundation but what we are working toward. By
working out what we are for, we are working out that we, that hopeful signifier
of a feminist collectivity. Where there is hope, there is difficulty. Feminist histories are histories of the difficulty of that we, a history of those who have had
to fight to be part of a feminist collective, or even had to fight against a feminist
collective in order to take up a feminist cause. Hope is not at the expense of
struggle but animates a struggle; hope gives us a sense that there is a point to
working things out, working things through. Hope does not only or always
point toward the future, but carries us through when the terrain is difficult,
when the path we follow makes it harder to proceed.2 Hope is behind us when
we have to work for something to be possible.
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A FEMINIST MOVEMENT
Feminism is a movement in many senses. We are moved to become feminists.
Perhaps we are moved by something: a sense of injustice, that something is
wrong, as I explore in chapter 1. A feminist movement is a collective political
movement. Many feminisms means many movements. A collective is what
does not stand still but creates and is created by movement. I think of feminist
action as like ripples in water, a small wave, possibly created by agitation from
weather; here, there, each movement making another possible, another ripple,
outward, reaching. Feminism: the dynamism of making connections. And yet
a movement has to be built. To be part of a movement requires we find places
to gather, meeting places. A movement is also a shelter. We convene; we have
a convention. A movement comes into existence to transform what is in existence. A movement needs to take place somewhere. A movement is not just or
only a movement; there is something that needs to be kept still, given a place,
if we are moved to transform what is.
We might say a movement is strong when we can witness a momentum:
more people gathering on the streets, more people signing their names to protest against something, more people using a name to identify themselves. I
think we have in recent years witnessed the buildup of a momentum around
feminism, in global protests against violence against women; in the increasing number of popular books on feminism; in the high visibility of feminist
activism on social media; in how the word feminism can set the stage on fire
for women artists and celebrities such as Beyoncé. And as a teacher, I have
witnessed this buildup firsthand: increasing numbers of students who want
to identify themselves as feminists, who are demanding that we teach more
courses on feminism; and the almost breathtaking popularity of events we organize on feminism, especially queer feminism and trans feminism. Feminism
is bringing people into the room.
Not all feminist movement is so easily detected. A feminist movement is
not always registered in public. A feminist movement might be happening the
moment a woman snaps, that moment when she does not take it anymore (see
chapter 8), the violence that saturates her world, a world. A feminist movement might happen in the growing connections between those who recognize
something—power relations, gender violence, gender as violence—as being
what they are up against, even if they have different words for what that what
is. If we think of the second-wave feminist motto “the personal is political,” we
can think of feminism as happening in the very places that have historically
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3
been bracketed as not political: in domestic arrangements, at home, every
room of the house can become a feminist room, in who does what where, as
well as on the street, in parliament, at the university. Feminism is wherever
feminism needs to be. Feminism needs to be everywhere.
Feminism needs to be everywhere because feminism is not everywhere.
Where is feminism? It is a good question. We can ask ourselves: where did
we find feminism, or where did feminism find us? I pose this question as a life
question in the first part of this book. A story always starts before it can be
told. When did feminism become a word that not only spoke to you, but spoke
you, spoke of your existence, spoke you into existence? When did the sound
of the word feminism become your sound? What did it mean, what does it do,
to hold on to feminism, to fight under its name; to feel in its ups and downs, in
its coming and goings, your ups and downs, your comings and goings?
When I think of my feminist life in this book, I ask “from where?” but also
“from whom?” From whom did I find feminism? I will always remember a
conversation I had as a young woman in the late 1980s. It was a conversation
with my auntie Gulzar Bano. I think of her as one of my first feminist teachers.
I had given her some of my poems. In one poem I had used he. “Why do you
use he,” she asked me gently, “when you could have used she?” The question,
posed with such warmth and kindness, prompted much heartache, much sadness in the realization that the words as well as worlds I had thought of as
open to me were not open at all. He does not include she. The lesson becomes
an instruction. To make an impression, I had to dislodge that he. To become
she is to become part of a feminist movement. A feminist becomes she even
if she has already been assigned she, when she hears in that word a refusal of
he, a refusal that he would promise her inclusion. She takes up that word she
and makes it her own.
I began to realize what I already knew: that patriarchal reasoning goes all
the way down, to the letter, to the bone. I had to find ways not to reproduce its
grammar in what I said, in what I wrote; in what I did, in who I was. It is important that I learned this feminist lesson from my auntie in Lahore, Pakistan,
a Muslim woman, a Muslim feminist, a brown feminist. It might be assumed
that feminism travels from West to East. It might be assumed that feminism
is what the West gives to the East. That assumption is a traveling assumption,
one that tells a feminist story in a certain way, a story that is much repeated;
a history of how feminism acquired utility as an imperial gift. That is not my
story. We need to tell other feminist stories. Feminism traveled to me, growing
up in the West, from the East. My Pakistani aunties taught me that my mind is
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my own (which is to say that my mind is not owned); they taught me to speak
up for myself; to speak out against violence and injustice.
Where we find feminism matters; from whom we find feminism matters.
Feminism as a collective movement is made out of how we are moved
to become feminists in dialogue with others. A movement requires us to be
moved. I explore this requirement by revisiting the question of feminist consciousness in part I of this book. Let’s think of why feminist movements are
still necessary. I want to take here bell hooks’s definition of feminism as “the
movement to end sexism, sexual exploitation and sexual oppression” (2000,
33). From this definition, we learn so much. Feminism is necessary because
of what has not ended: sexism, sexual exploitation, and sexual oppression.
And for hooks, “sexism, sexual exploitation and sexual oppression” cannot be
separated from racism, from how the present is shaped by colonial histories
including slavery, as central to the exploitation of labor under capitalism. Intersectionality is a starting point, the point from which we must proceed if we
are to offer an account of how power works. Feminism will be intersectional
“or it will be bullshit,” to borrow from the eloquence of Flavia Dzodan.3 This is
the kind of feminism I am referring to throughout this book (unless I indicate
otherwise by referring specifically to white feminism).
A significant step for a feminist movement is to recognize what has not
ended. And this step is a very hard step. It is a slow and painstaking step. We
might think we have made that step only to realize we have to make it again. It
might be you are up against a fantasy of equality: that women can now do it,
even have it, or that they would have it if they just tried hard enough; that individual women can bring sexism and other barriers (we might describe these
barriers as the glass ceiling or the brick wall) to an end through sheer effort
or persistence or will. So much ends up being invested in our own bodies. We
could call this a postfeminist fantasy: that an individual woman can bring what
blocks her movement to an end; or that feminism has brought “sexism, sexual
exploitation or sexual oppression” to an end as if feminism has been so successful that it has eliminated its own necessity (Gill 2007; McRobbie 2009);
or that such phenomena are themselves a feminist fantasy, an attachment to
something that was never or is no longer. We could also think of postrace as
a fantasy through which racism operates: as if racism is behind us because we
no longer believe in race, or as if racism would be behind us if we no longer believed in race. Those of us who come to embody diversity for organizations are
assumed to bring whiteness to an end by virtue of our arrival (see chapter 6).
When you become a feminist, you find out very quickly: what you aim
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5
to bring to an end some do not recognize as existing. This book follows this
finding. So much feminist and antiracist work is the work of trying to convince
others that sexism and racism have not ended; that sexism and racism are
fundamental to the injustices of late capitalism; that they matter. Just to talk
about sexism and racism here and now is to refuse displacement; it is to refuse
to wrap your speech around postfeminism or postrace, which would require
you to use the past tense (back then) or an elsewhere (over there).4
Even to describe something as sexist and racist here and now can get you
into trouble. You point to structures; they say it is in your head. What you
describe as material is dismissed as mental. I think we learn about materiality
from such dismissals, as I will try to show in part II, on diversity work. And
think also of what is required: the political labor necessary of having to insist
that what we are describing is not just what we are feeling or thinking. A feminist movement depends on our ability to keep insisting on something: the
ongoing existence of the very things we wish to bring to an end. The labor of
that insistence is what I describe in this book. We learn from being feminists.
A feminist movement thus requires that we acquire feminist tendencies, a
willingness to keep going despite or even because of what we come up against.
We could think of this process as practicing feminism. If we tend toward the
world in a feminist way, if we repeat that tending, again and again, we acquire
feminist tendencies. Feminist hope is the failure to eliminate the potential for
acquisition. And yet once you have become a feminist, it can feel that you were
always a feminist. Is it possible to have always been that way? Is it possible
to have been a feminist right from the beginning? Perhaps you feel you were
always that way inclined. Maybe you tended that way, a feminist way, because
you already tended to be a rebellious or even willful girl (see chapter 3), who
would not accept the place she had been given. Or maybe feminism is a way
of beginning again: so your story did in a certain way begin with feminism.
A feminist movement is built from many moments of beginning again. And
this is one of my central concerns: how the acquisition of a feminist tendency
to become that sort of girl or woman, the wrong sort, or bad sort, the one
who speaks her mind, who writes her name, who raises her arm in protest, is
necessary for a feminist movement. Individual struggle does matter; a collective movement depends upon it. But of course being the wrong sort does not
make us right. Much injustice can be and has been committed by those who
think of themselves as the wrong sort—whether the wrong sort of women or
the wrong sort of feminists. There is no guarantee that in struggling for justice
we ourselves will be just. We have to hesitate, to temper the strength of our
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tendencies with doubt; to waver when we are sure, or even because we are
sure. A feminist movement that proceeds with too much confidence has cost
us too much already. I explore the necessity of wavering with our convictions
in part III. If a feminist tendency is what we work for, that tendency does not
give us a stable ground.
HOMEWORK
Feminism is homework. When I use the word homework, I think first of being
at school; I think of being given an assignment by a teacher to take home. I
think of sitting down at the kitchen table and doing that work, before I am
allowed to play. Homework is quite simply work you are asked to do when you
are at home, usually assigned by those with authority outside the home. When
feminism is understood as homework, it is not an assignment you have been
given by a teacher, even though you have feminist teachers. If feminism is an
assignment, it is a self-assignment. We give ourselves this task. By homework,
I am not suggesting we all feel at home in feminism in the sense of feeling safe
or secure. Some of us might find a home here; some of us might not. Rather,
I am suggesting feminism is homework because we have much to work out
from not being at home in a world. In other words, homework is work on as
well as at our homes. We do housework. Feminist housework does not simply
clean and maintain a house. Feminist housework aims to transform the house,
to rebuild the master’s residence.
In this book I want to think of feminist theory too as homework, as a way of
rethinking how feminist theory originates and where it ends up. What is this
thing called feminist theory? We might at first assume that feminist theory is
what feminists working within the academy generate. I want to suggest that
feminist theory is something we do at home. In the first part of this book, I
explore how in becoming feminists we are doing intellectual as well as emotional work; we begin to experience gender as a restriction of possibility, and
we learn about worlds as we navigate these restrictions. The experiences of
being a feminist, say at the family table, or at a meeting table, gave me life
lessons, which were also philosophical lessons. To learn from being a feminist
is to learn about the world.
Feminist theory can be what we do together in the classroom; in the conference; reading each other’s work. But I think too often we bracket feminist
theory as something that marks out a specific kind, or even a higher kind,
of feminist work. We have to bring feminist theory home because feminist
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theory has been too quickly understood as something that we do when we
are away from home (as if feminist theory is what you learn when you go to
school). When we are away, we can and do learn new words, new concepts,
new angles. We encounter new authors who spark moments of revelation. But
feminist theory does not start there. Feminist theory might even be what gets
you there.
Within the academy, the word theory has a lot of capital. I have always been
interested in how the word theory itself is distributed; how some materials are
understood as theory and not others. This interest can partly be explained by
my own trajectory: I went from a PhD in critical theory to being a lecturer in
women’s studies. As a student of theory, I learned that theory is used to refer
to a rather narrow body of work. Some work becomes theory because it refers
to other work that is known as theory. A citational chain is created around theory: you become a theorist by citing other theorists that cite other theorists.
Some of this work did interest me; but I kept finding that I wanted to challenge
the selection of materials as well as how they were read.
I remember one theorist being taught as having two sides, a story of desire
and a story of the phallus. We were told, basically, to bracket the second story
in order to engage with and be engaged by the first. I began to wonder whether
doing theory was about engaging with a body of work by putting questions
like phallocentrism or sexism into brackets. In effect, we were being asked to
bracket our concerns with the sexism at stake in what was read as theory as
well as what we read in theory. I still remember submitting a critical reading
of a theory text in which woman was a figure as one of my essays, a reading
that was later to form part of the chapter “Woman” in my first book, Differences
That Matter (Ahmed 1998). I was concerned with how statements made by the
teacher, like “This is not about women,” were used to bypass any questions
about how the figure of woman is exercised within a male intellectual tradition. When the essay was returned to me, the grader had scrawled in very large
letters, “This is not theory! This is politics!”
I thought then: if theory is not politics, I am glad I am not doing theory!
And it was a relief to leave that space in which theory and politics were organized as different trajectories. When I arrived in women’s studies, I noticed
how I would sometimes be recruited by the term feminist theory, as a different
kind of feminist than other kinds of feminists, those assumed, say, to be more
empirical, which seemed to be conflated with less theoretical, or less philosophical. I have always experienced this recruitment as a form of violence. I
hope always to experience this recruitment as a form of violence. Even though
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I am relatively comfortable in critical theory, I do not deposit my hope there,
nor do I think this is a particularly difficult place to be: if anything, I think it
is easier to do more abstract and general theoretical work. I remember listening to a feminist philosopher who apologized every time she mentioned
such-and-such male philosopher because he was so difficult. It made me feel
very rebellious. I think that the more difficult questions, the harder questions,
are posed by those feminists concerned with explaining violence, inequality,
injustice. The empirical work, the world that exists, is for me where the difficulties and thus the challenges reside. Critical theory is like any language; you
can learn it, and when you learn it, you begin to move around in it. Of course
it can be difficult, when you do not have the orientation tools to navigate
your way around a new landscape. But explaining phenomena like racism and
sexism—how they are reproduced, how they keep being reproduced—is not
something we can do simply by learning a new language. It is not a difficulty
that can be resolved by familiarity or repetition; in fact, familiarity and repetition are the source of difficulty; they are what need to be explained. In the
face of such phenomena, we are constantly brought home by the inadequacy
of our understanding. It is here we encounter and reencounter the limits of
thinking. It is here we might feel those limits. We come up against something
that we cannot resolve. We can be brought home by the inadequacy of what
we know. And we can bring what we know back home.
As I show in part II, my own experience of bringing up racism and sexism
within the academy (of refusing to bracket these questions in a more loving digestion of the philosophical canon) replicated some of my earlier experiences
of bringing up racism and sexism at the family table. This replication is another
form of pedagogy: we learn from how the same things keep coming up. You
are assumed to be interrupting a happy occasion with the sensation of your
own negation. You are assumed to be doing identity politics as if you speak
about racism because you are a person of color or as if you speak about sexism
because you are a woman. Nirmal Puwar (2004) has shown how some become “space invaders” when they enter spaces that are not intended for them.
We can be space invaders in the academy; we can be space invaders in theory
too, just by referring to the wrong texts or by asking the wrong questions.
A question can be out of place: words too.
One response might be to aim to reside as well as we can in the spaces that are
not intended for us. We might even identify with the universal of the university by agreeing to put our particulars to one side.5 There is disruption, even
invention, in that, of that I have no doubt. But think of this: those of us who
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arrive in an academy that was not shaped by or for us bring knowledges, as
well as worlds, that otherwise would not be here. Think of this: how we learn
about worlds when they do not accommodate us. Think of the kinds of experiences you have when you are not expected to be here. These experiences are
a resource to generate knowledge. To bring feminist theory home is to make
feminism work in the places we live, the places we work. When we think of
feminist theory as homework, the university too becomes something we work
on as well as at. We use our particulars to challenge the universal.
BUILDING FEMINIST WORLDS
I will come out with it: I enjoy and appreciate much of the work that is taught
and read as critical theory. There were reasons I went there first, and I explain
how this happened in chapter 1. But I still remember in the second year of my
PhD reading texts by black feminists and feminists of color including Audre
Lorde, bell hooks, and Gloria Anzaldúa. I had not read their work before. This
work shook me up. Here was writing in which an embodied experience of
power provides the basis of knowledge. Here was writing animated by the
everyday: the detail of an encounter, an incident, a happening, flashing like insight. Reading black feminist and feminist of color scholarship was life changing; I began to appreciate that theory can do more the closer it gets to the skin.
I decided then: theoretical work that is in touch with a world is the kind
of theoretical work I wanted to do. Even when I have written texts organized
around the history of ideas, I have tried to write from my own experiences: the
everyday as animation. In writing this book, I wanted to stay even closer to the
everyday than I had before. This book is personal. The personal is theoretical.
Theory itself is often assumed to be abstract: something is more theoretical
the more abstract it is, the more it is abstracted from everyday life. To abstract
is to drag away, detach, pull away, or divert. We might then have to drag theory
back, to bring theory back to life.
Even though my earlier works did include examples from everyday life,
they also involved substantial reference to intellectual traditions. I have no
doubt I needed those traditions to make some of the steps in my arguments:
in The Promise of Happiness (Ahmed 2010), I needed to place the figure of
the feminist killjoy in relation to the history of happiness, to make sense of
how she appears; in Willful Subjects (Ahmed 2014), I needed to place the figure of the willful subject in relation to the history of the will for her too to
make sense. But once these figures came up, they gave me a different handle.
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They acquired their own life. Or should I say: my writing was able to pick
up these figures because of the life they had. These figures quickly became
the source of new forms of connection. I began a new blog organized around
them (feministkilljoys.com), which I have been writing as I have been working
on this book. Since I began that blog, I have received communications from
many students including not only undergraduates and postgraduates but also
high school students about their own experience of being feminist killjoys
and willful subjects. I have learned so much from these communications. In
a genuine sense, the book comes out of them. I address this book to feminist
students. It is intended for you.
To become a feminist is to stay a student. This is why: the figures of the
feminist killjoy and willful subject are studious. It is not surprising that they
allowed me to communicate with those who sensed in these figures an explanation of something (a difficulty, a situation, a task). I am still trying to
make sense of something (a difficulty, a situation, a task), and this book is the
product of that labor. One of my aims in Living a Feminist Life is to free these
figures from the histories in which they are housed. I am trying to work out
and work through what they are saying to us. In a way, then, I am retracing my
own intellectual journey in this book. In going through the conditions of their
arrival, how they come up for me, how they became preoccupying, I am going
back over some old ground. An intellectual journey is like any journey. One
step enables the next step. In this book I retake some of these steps.
I hope by retaking the steps to make some of my arguments in a more accessible manner: in staying closer to the everyday, feminist theory becomes
more accessible. When I first began working on this book, I thought I was
writing a more mainstream feminist text, or even a trade book. I realized the
book I was writing was not that kind of book. I wanted to make a slow argument, to go over old ground, and to take my time. And I still wanted to make
an intervention within academic feminism. I have been an academic for over
twenty years, and I am relatively at home in the academic language of feminist
theory. I am aware that not all feminists are at home in the academy, and that
the academic language of feminist theory can be alienating. In this book, I do
use academic language. I am working at home, so academic language is one
of my tools. But I also aim to keep my words as close to the world as I can, by
trying to show how feminist theory is what we do when we live our lives in a
feminist way.
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
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11
everyday. I should add here that staying close to the everyday still involves
attending to words, and thus concepts, like happiness, like will. I am still listening for resonance. I think of feminism as poetry; we hear histories in words;
we reassemble histories by putting them into words. This book still follows
words around just as I have done before, turning a word this way and that,
like an object that catches a different light every time it is turned; attending
to the same words across different contexts, allowing them to create ripples
or new patterns like texture on a ground. I make arguments by listening for
resonances; the book thus involves repeating words, sometimes over and over
again; words like shatter, words like snap. The repetition is the scene of a feminist instruction.
A feminist instruction: if we start with our experiences of becoming feminists not only might we have another way of generating feminist ideas, but we
might generate new ideas about feminism. Feminist ideas are what we come
up with to make sense of what persists. We have to persist in or by coming up
with feminist ideas. Already in this idea is a different idea about ideas. Ideas
would not be something generating through distance, a way of abstracting
something from something, but from our involvement in a world that often
leaves us, frankly, bewildered. Ideas might be how we work with as well as on
our hunches, those senses that something is amiss, not quite right, which are
part of ordinary living and a starting point for so much critical work.
By trying to describe something that is difficult, that resists being fully
comprehended in the present, we generate what I call “sweaty concepts.” I
first used this expression when I was trying to describe to students the kind of
intellectual labor evident in Audre Lorde’s work. I want to acknowledge my
debt here. I cannot put into words how much I am indebted to Audre Lorde
for the extraordinary archive she left for us. When I first read Audre Lorde’s
work, I felt like a lifeline was being thrown to me. The words, coming out of
her description of her own experience, as a black woman, mother, lesbian,
poet, warrior, found me where I was; a different place from her, yet her words
found me. Her words gave me the courage to make my own experience into
a resource, my experiences as a brown woman, lesbian, daughter; as a writer,
to build theory from description of where I was in the world, to build theory
from description of not being accommodated by a world. A lifeline: it can
be a fragile rope, worn and tattered from the harshness of weather, but it is
enough, just enough, to bear your weight, to pull you out, to help you survive
a shattering experience.
A sweaty concept: another way of being pulled out from a shattering ex12
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perience. By using sweaty concepts for descriptive work, I am trying to say
at least two things. First, I was suggesting that too often conceptual work is
understood as distinct from describing a situation: and I am thinking here of
a situation as something that comes to demand a response. A situation can
refer to a combination of circumstances of a given moment but also to a critical, problematic, or striking set of circumstances. Lauren Berlant describes a
situation thus: “A state of things in which something that will perhaps matter
is unfolding amidst the usual activity of life” (2008, 5). If a situation is how
we are thrown by things, then how we make sense of things also unfolds from
“the usual activity of life.” Concepts tend to be identified as what scholars
somehow come up with, often through contemplation and withdrawal, rather
like an apple that hits you on the head, sparking revelation from a position of
exteriority.
I became more aware of this academic tendency to identify concepts as
what they bring to the world when doing an empirical project on diversity,
which I discuss in part II. I had this tendency myself, so I could recognize
it. In the project I interviewed those employed by the university as diversity
officers. It brought home to me how, in working to transform institutions, we
generate knowledge about them. Concepts are at work in how we work, whatever it is that we do. We need to work out, sometimes, what these concepts are
(what we are thinking when we are doing, or what doing is thinking) because
concepts can be murky as background assumptions. But that working out is
precisely not bringing a concept in from the outside (or from above): concepts are in the worlds we are in.
By using the idea of sweaty concepts, I am also trying to show how descriptive work is conceptual work. A concept is worldly, but it is also a reorientation
to a world, a way of turning things around, a different slant on the same thing.
More specifically, a sweaty concept is one that comes out of a description of a
body that is not at home in the world. By this I mean description as angle or
point of view: a description of how it feels not to be at home in the world, or
a description of the world from the point of view of not being at home in it.
Sweat is bodily; we might sweat more during more strenuous and muscular
activity. A sweaty concept might come out of a bodily experience that is trying. The task is to stay with the difficulty, to keep exploring and exposing this
difficulty. We might need not to eliminate the effort or labor from the writing.
Not eliminating the effort or labor becomes an academic aim because we have
been taught to tidy our texts, not to reveal the struggle we have in getting
somewhere. Sweaty concepts are also generated by the practical experience of
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13
coming up against a world, or the practical experience of trying to transform
a world.6
Even as I have labored in this way, I have noticed (partly because readers
have noticed) signs of not quite being able to admit a difficulty: for instance,
when I discuss some of my own experiences of sexual violence and harassment, I keep using you and not me, allowing the second person pronoun to
give me some distance. I tried putting in me after it was written, but that me
felt too strained, and I let the you stay but with qualification. Feminism: it can
be a strain. This strain is evident as tension in this text, sometimes revealed as
a confusion of pronouns and persons; a tension between telling my own story
of becoming feminist, being a diversity worker, handling what you come up
against, and making more general reflections about worlds. I have tried not to
eliminate that tension.
Feminism is at stake in how we generate knowledge; in how we write, in
who we cite. I think of feminism as a building project: if our texts are worlds,
they need to be made out of feminist materials. Feminist theory is world making. This is why we need to resist positioning feminist theory as simply or only
a tool, in the sense of something that can be used in theory, only then to be put
down or put away. It should not be possible to do feminist theory without being
a feminist, which requires an active and ongoing commitment to live one’s life
in a feminist way. I encountered this problem of how feminist theory can be
feminism in theory as a student in critical theory. I met academics who wrote
essays on feminist theory but who did not seem to act in feminist ways; who
seemed routinely to give more support to male students than female students,
or who worked by dividing female students into more and less loyal students.
To be a feminist at work is or should be about how we challenge ordinary and
everyday sexism, including academic sexism. This is not optional: it is what
makes feminism feminist. A feminist project is to find ways in which women
can exist in relation to women; how women can be in relation to each other. It
is a project because we are not there yet.
We should be asking ourselves the same sorts of questions when we write
our texts, when we put things together, as we do in living our lives. How to
dismantle the world that is built to accommodate only some bodies? Sexism
is one such accommodating system. Feminism requires supporting women in
a struggle to exist in this world. What do I mean by women here? I am referring
to all those who travel under the sign women. No feminism worthy of its name
would use the sexist idea “women born women” to create the edges of feminist
community, to render trans women into “not women,” or “not born women,”
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or into men.7 No one is born a woman; it as an assignment (not just a sign, but
also a task or an imperative, as I discuss in part I) that can shape us; make us;
and break us. Many women who were assigned female at birth, let us remind
ourselves, are deemed not women in the right way, or not women at all, perhaps because of how they do or do not express themselves (they are too good
at sports, not feminine enough because of their bodily shape, comportment,
or conduct, not heterosexual, not mothers, and so on). Part of the difficulty
of the category of women is what follows residing in that category, as well as
what follows not residing in that category because of the body you acquire, the
desires you have, the paths you follow or do not follow. There can be violence
at stake in being recognizable as women; there can be violence at stake in not
being recognizable as women.
In a world in which human is still defined as man, we have to fight for
women and as women. And to do that we also need to challenge the instrumentalization of feminism. Even though feminism can be used as a tool that
can help us make sense of the world by sharpening the edges of our critique,
it is not something we can put down. Feminism goes wherever we go. If not,
we are not.
We thus enact feminism in how we relate to the academy. When I was doing my PhD, I was told I had to give my love to this or that male theorist, to
follow him, not necessarily as an explicit command but through an apparently
gentle but increasingly insistent questioning: Are you a Derridean; no, so are
you a Lacanian; no, oh, okay, are you a Deleuzian; no, then what? If not, then
what? Maybe my answer should have been: if not, then not! I was never willing to agree to this restriction. But not to agree with this restriction required
the help of other feminists who came before me. If we can create our paths
by not following, we still need others before us. In this book, I adopt a strict
citation policy: I do not cite any white men.8 By white men I am referring to an
institution, as I explain in chapter 6. Instead, I cite those who have contributed
to the intellectual genealogy of feminism and antiracism, including work that
has been too quickly (in my view) cast aside or left behind, work that lays out
other paths, paths we can call desire lines, created by not following the official
paths laid out by disciplines.9 These paths might have become fainter from
not being traveled upon; so we might work harder to find them; we might be
willful just to keep them going by not going the way we have been directed.
My citation policy has given me more room to attend to those feminists
who came before me. Citation is feminist memory. Citation is how we acknowledge our debt to those who came before; those who helped us find our
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15
way when the way was obscured because we deviated from the paths we were
told to follow. In this book, I cite feminists of color who have contributed to the
project of naming and dismantling the institutions of patriarchal whiteness. I
consider this book primarily as a contribution to feminist of color scholarship
and activism; this body of work is where I feel most at home, where I find
energy as well as resources.
Citations can be feminist bricks: they are the materials through which, from
which, we create our dwellings. My citation policy has affected the kind of
house I have built. I realized this not simply through writing the book, through
what I found about what came up, but also through giving presentations. As
I have already noted, in previous work I have built a philosophical edifice by
my engagement with the history of ideas. We cannot conflate the history of
ideas with white men, though if doing one leads to the other then we are being
taught where ideas are assumed to originate. Seminal: how ideas are assumed
to originate from male bodies. I now think of that philosophical edifice as a
timber frame around which a house is being built. In this book I have not built
a house by using that frame. And I have felt much more exposed. Perhaps citations are feminist straw: lighter materials that, when put together, still create a
shelter but a shelter that leaves you more vulnerable. That is how it felt writing
this work as well as speaking from it: being in the wind; being blown about,
more or less, depending on what I encountered. The words I sent out danced
around me; I began to pick up on things I had not noticed before. I began to
wonder how much I had in the past built an edifice to create a distance. Sometimes we need distance to follow a thought. Sometimes we need to give up
distance to follow that thought.
In the chapters that follow, I refer to different kinds of feminist materials
that have been my companions as a feminist and diversity worker, from feminist philosophy to feminist literature and film. A companion text could be
thought of as a companion species, to borrow from Donna Haraway’s (2003)
suggestive formulation. A companion text is a text whose company enabled
you to proceed on a path less trodden. Such texts might spark a moment of
revelation in the midst of an overwhelming proximity; they might share a feeling or give you resources to make sense of something that had been beyond
your grasp; companion texts can prompt you to hesitate or to question the
direction in which you are going, or they might give you a sense that in going
the way you are going, you are not alone. Some of the texts that appear with
me in this book have been with me before: Virginia Woolf ’s Mrs. Dalloway,
George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss, Rita Mae Brown’s Rubyfruit Jungle, and Toni
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Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. I could not have proceeded along the path I took
without these texts. To live a feminist life is to live in very good company. I
have placed these companion texts in my killjoy survival kit. I encourage you
as a feminist reader to assemble your own kit. What would you include?
The materials we include in our kits could also be called feminist classics.
By feminist classics, I mean feminist books that have been in circulation; that
have become worn from being passed around. I do not mean classics in the
sense of canonical texts. Of course, some texts become canonical, and we need
to question how these histories happen, how selections are made; we need
to ask who or what does not survive these selections. But the texts that reach
us, that make a connection, are not necessarily the ones that are taught in the
academy, or that make it to the official classics edition. Many of the texts that
connect with me are the ones assumed to be dated, to belong to a time that
we are in no longer.
The idea of feminist classics for me is a way of thinking about how books
make communities. I was part of a feminist classics reading group held in
women’s studies at Lancaster University. This reading group was one of my
favorite experiences of feminist intellectual life thus far. I loved the labor of
going over materials that might now tend to be passed over, of finding in them
some abundant resources, concepts, and words. To attend to feminist classics
is to give time: to say that what is behind us is worth going over, worth putting
in front of us. It is a way of pausing, not rushing ahead, not being seduced by
the buzz of the new, a buzz that can end up being what you hear, blocking the
possibility of opening our ears to what came before. What I also really enjoyed
too in the reading group was the attention to the books themselves as material
objects. Each of us had different copies, some of them tattered and well read,
worn, and, as it were, lived in. You can, I think, live in books: some feminists
might even begin their feminist lives living in books. Participating in the group
with books made me aware of how feminist community is shaped by passing
books around; the sociality of their lives is part of the sociality of ours. There
are so many ways that feminist books change hands; in passing between us,
they change each of us.
There are many ways of describing the materials I bring together in this
book: companion texts and feminist classics are just two possible ways. The
materials are books, yes, but they are also spaces of encounter; how we are
touched by things; how we touch things. I think of feminism as a fragile archive, a body assembled from shattering, from splattering, an archive whose
fragility gives us responsibility: to take care.
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17
Living a Feminist Life is structured in three parts. In part I, “Becoming Feminist,” I discuss the process of becoming a feminist, and how consciousness of
gender is a world consciousness that allows you to revisit the places you have
been, to become estranged from gender and heteronorms as to become estranged from the shape of your life. I start with experiences I had growing up,
exploring how these individual experiences are ways of (affectively, willfully)
being inserted into a collective feminist history. In part II, “Diversity Work,”
I focus on doing feminist work as a form of diversity work within universities, as the places where I have worked, as well as in everyday life. I show how
questions of consciousness and subjectivity raised in the first part of this book,
the work required to become conscious of that which tends to recede, can
be understood in terms of materiality: walls are the material means by which
worlds are not encountered, let alone registered. I explore experiences of being a stranger, of not feeling at home in a world that gives residence to others.
In part III, “Living the Consequences,” I explore the costs and potential of
what we come up against, how we can be shattered by histories that are hard,
but also how we become inventive, how we create other ways of being when
we have to struggle to be. The history of creativity, of bonds made and forged,
of what we move toward as well as away from, is a history that we need to keep
in front of us; a feminist history.
It is the practical experience of coming up against a world that allows us
to come up with new ideas, ideas that are not dependent on a mind that has
withdrawn (because a world has enabled that withdrawal) but a body that has
to wiggle about just to create room. And if we put ourselves in the same room,
how much knowledge we would have! No wonder feminism causes fear; together, we are dangerous.
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Duke University Press
Chapter Title: CONCLUSION 1 A Killjoy Survival Kit
Book Title: Living a Feminist Life
Book Author(s): SARA AHMED
Published by: Duke University Press. (2017)
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv11g9836.17
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Living a Feminist Life
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CONCLUSION 1 A Killjoy Survival Kit
Becoming a killjoy can feel, sometimes, like making your life harder than it
needs to be. I have heard this sentiment expressed as kindness: as if to say, just
stop noticing exclusions and your burden will be eased. It is implied that by
not struggling against something you will be rewarded by an increasing proximity to that thing. You might be included if only you just stop talking about
exclusions. Sometimes the judgment is expressed less kindly: disapproval can
be expressed in sideways glances, the sighs, the eyes rolling; stop struggling,
adjust, accept. And you can also feel this yourself: that by noticing certain
things you are making it harder for yourself.
But the experiences we have are not just of being worn down; these experiences also give us resources. What we learn from these experiences might
be how we survive these experiences. Toward the end of chapter 9 I raised the
question of survival. Here survival is how I begin; it is the start of something.
Survival here refers not only to living on, but to keeping going in the more
profound sense of keeping going with one’s commitments. As Alexis Pauline
Gumbs suggests, we need a “robust and transformative redefinition of survival” (2010, 17). Survival can also be about keeping one’s hopes alive; holding
on to the projects that are projects insofar as they have yet to be realized. You
might have to become willful to hold on when you are asked to let go; to let
it go. Survival can thus be what we do for others, with others. We need each
other to survive; we need to be part of each other’s survival.
To be committed to a feminist life means we cannot not do this work; we
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cannot not fight for this cause, whatever it causes, so we have to find a way
of sharing the costs of that work. Survival thus becomes a shared feminist
project. So this tool kit contains my personal stuff, what I have accumulated
over time; things I know I need to do and to have around me to keep on going
on. We will accumulate different things, have our own stuff; we can peer into
each other’s kits and find in there someone else’s feminist story. But I think
the point of the kit is not just what we put in it; it is the kit itself, having somewhere to deposit those things that are necessary for your survival. Feminism
is a killjoy survival kit.
We could think of this feminist survival kit as a form of feminist self-care.
However, to think of a killjoy survival kit as self-care might seem to be a neoliberal agenda, a way of making feminism about the resilience of individuals.1 I
discussed the problem of resilience in chapter 7, the way in which we are asked
to become resilient so we can take more (more oppression, more pressure,
more work). But this is our problem: feminism needs feminists to survive. We
might still need to be able to take it, the pressure we are put under when we
refuse to take more, when we refuse to put up with a world.
Feminism needs feminists to survive: my killjoy survival kit is assembled
around this sentence. It is a feminist sentence. And the reverse too is very
true: feminists need feminism to survive. Feminism needs those of us who
live lives as feminists to survive; our life becomes a feminist survival. But
feminism needs to survive; our life becomes a feminist survival in this other
sense. Feminism needs us; feminism needs us not only to survive but to dedicate our lives to the survival of feminism. This book has been my expression of my willingness to make this dedication. Feminists need feminism
to survive.
Audre Lorde, in her extraordinary poem “A Litany of Survival,” addresses
those who were “never meant to survive,” those for whom survival requires
creativity and work; those for whom survival is politically ambitious. Let me
share a few lines from this poem:
For those of us who live at the shoreline
standing upon the constant edges of decision
crucial and alone
for those of us who cannot indulge
the passing dreams of choice
who love in doorways coming and going
in the hours between dawns (1978, 31)
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Here through the art of light description Lorde evokes for us a “those of us,” a
those of us who live and love on the edges of social experiences, in doorways,
shadows, those of us who fall like shadows fall, the fallen, those for whom
coming into full view would be dangerous, those for whom survival might
require not coming out in the full light of day.
Survival can be protest.
And then: how we care for ourselves becomes an expression of feminist care.
Audre Lorde, as one might expect, helps us to differentiate survival from other
styles of self-orientated politics. Lorde writes, “Caring for myself is not selfindulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare” (1988,
131). This is a revolutionary, extraordinary sentence. It is a much-loved, muchcited sentence. It is an arrow, which acquires its sharpness from its own direction. It is from the epilogue to Lorde’s A Burst of Light, a piece of writing so profound, so moving, that it never fails to teach me, often by leaving me undone,
beside myself (that’s why, as you will read, this book is in my survival kit). This
writing is made up of fragments of notes put together as Audre Lorde learns
that she has liver cancer, that her death can only be delayed, as she comes to
feel that diagnosis in her bones. The expression “a burst of light” is used when
she comes to feel the fragility of her body’s situation: “that inescapable knowledge, in the bone, of my own physical limitation” (Lorde 1988, 121).
A Burst of Light is an account of how the struggle for survival is a life struggle
and a political struggle. A death sentence is not only about what Jasbir Puar
(2009) has called “prognosis time”: it is not (or not only) about experiencing
your death as imminent. When you are not supposed to live, as you are, where
you are, with whom you are with, then survival is a radical action; a refusal
not to exist until the very end; a refusal not to exist until you do not exist. We
have to work out how to survive in a system that decides life for some requires
the death or removal of others. Sometimes: to survive in a system is to survive
a system. Some of us have to be inventive, Audre Lorde suggests, to survive.
Others: not so much.
When a whole world is organized to promote your survival, from health to
education, to the walls designed to keep your residence safe, to the paths that
ease your travel, you do not have become so inventive to survive. You do not
have to be seen as the recipient of welfare because the world has promoted
your welfare. The benefits you receive are given as entitlements, perhaps even
as birthrights. This is why I describe privilege as a buffer zone; it is how much
you have to fall back on when you lose something. Privilege does not mean we
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are invulnerable: things happen; shit happens. Privilege can however reduce
the costs of vulnerability; you are more likely to be looked after.
Racial capitalism is a health system: a drastically unequal distribution of bodily vulnerabilities. Ruth Wilson Gilmore describes racism thus:
“the state-sanctioned or extra-legal production and exploitation of groupdifferentiated vulnerability to premature death” (2007, 28). Being poor, being
black, being of color puts your life at risk. Your health is compromised when
you do not have the external resources to support a life in all of its contingencies. And then of course, you are deemed responsible for your own ill health,
for your own failure to look after yourself better. When you refer to structures,
to systems, to power relations, to walls, you are assumed to be making others
responsible for the situation you have failed to get yourself out of. “You should
have tried harder.” Oh, the violence and the smugness of this sentence, this
sentencing.
A health system is also a support system. The more precarious you are, the
more support you need. The more precarious you are, the less support you
have. When we say something is precarious, we usually mean it is in a precarious position: if the vase on the mantelpiece were pushed, just a little bit, a little
bit, it would topple right over.2 That position—of living on the edge—is what
is generalized when we speak of precarious populations (see Butler 2015). Living on the edge: a life lived as a fragile thread that keeps unraveling; when life
becomes an effort to hold on to what keeps unraveling.
When I think of this, I think of how fragility as an effort to hold on can
become more revolting; how fragility can be militancy. Throughout A Burst of
Light Audre Lorde compares her experience of battling with cancer (and she is
willing to use this militaristic language; she is willing to describe this situation
as war) to her experience of battling against antiblack racism. The comparison
is effective, showing us how racism can be an attack on the cells of the body,
her body, her black body, an attack on the body’s immune system; the way in
which your own body experiences what is outside itself as inside itself; death
from the outside in. A world that is against you can be experienced as your
body turning against you. This is why for Lorde caring for oneself is not selfindulgence but self-preservation. It is rebellious to fight for life when you have
been given such a deadly assignment.
In this statement that caring for oneself is not self-indulgence we can thus
hear a defense. Audre Lorde is defending self-care. What from? From whom?
From, one might suspect, those who dismiss caring for oneself as an indul-
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gence. Self-indulgence tends to mean being soft on one’s self, but also can
mean yielding to one’s inclinations. Recently I have heard much feminist
work being dismissed on these terms. Feminism: too soft, too safe, too focused on identity politics or individual suffering. Feminist student activism
in particular has been dismissed like this: safe spaces, trigger warnings, selfcare, all taken up as evidence of being coddled and weak. One thing I know
from working in universities: student movements might be teaching us how
attending to fragility, the histories that render some more fragile than others,
can be a source of militancy.
And yet Audre Lorde could be read as a critic of self-care. After all, she gave
us a strong critique of how structural inequalities are deflected by being made
the responsibility of individuals (who in being given the capacity to overcome
structures are assumed to fail when they do not overcome them). Her work
explores how caring for oneself can become a technique of governance: the
duty to care for one’s self is often written as a duty to care for one’s own happiness. In The Cancer Journals she shows how making our own happiness our
first responsibility can be how we turn away from injustice. Lorde asks, “Was
I really fighting the spread of radiation, racism, woman-slaughter, chemical
invasion of our food, pollution of our environment, and the abuse and psychic
destruction of our young, merely to avoid dealing with my first and greatest
responsibility to be happy?” (1997, 76). Audre Lorde has given us the answer
to her question.
We have something to work out here. Audre Lorde writes persuasively
about how caring for oneself can lead you away from engaging in certain kinds
of political struggle. And yet, in A Burst of Light (1988), she defends caring
for oneself as not about self-indulgence but self-preservation. She is making
for us a distinction. She is sharpening a tool. This kind of caring for oneself is
not about caring for one’s own happiness. It is about finding ways to exist in
a world that makes it difficult to exist. This is why, this is how: those who do
not have to struggle for their own survival can very easily and rather quickly
dismiss those who attend to their own survival as being self-indulgent. They
do not need to attend to themselves; the world does it for them.
For those who have to insist they matter to matter, self-care is warfare. We
could think here of #blacklivesmatter, a movement with a hashtag; a hashtag
can be snap; a movement begun by black feminist and queer activists Alicia
Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi to protest against how black lives do
not matter, how black deaths are not mourned, how injustices against black
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people are not recognized. Mattering for some requires and involves collective
agency: “Black Lives Matter affirms the lives of black queer and trans folks,
disabled folks, black undocumented folks, folks with records, women and all
black lives along the gender spectrum.”3 You have to affirm that some lives
matter when a world is invested in saying they do not.
Protest can be a form of self-care as well as care for others: a refusal not
to matter. Self-care can also be those ordinary ways we look out for each
other because the costs of protesting are made so high, just as the costs that
lead to protest remain so high. In directing our care toward ourselves, we are
redirecting care away from its proper objects; we are not caring for those we
are supposed to care for; we are not caring for the bodies deemed worth caring about. And that is why in queer, feminist, and antiracist work, self-care is
about the creation of community, fragile communities as I explored in part III,
assembled out of the experiences of being shattered. We reassemble ourselves
through the ordinary, everyday, and often painstaking work of looking after
ourselves; looking after each other.
We need a handle when we lose it. A killjoy survival kit is about finding a
handle at the very moment one seems to lose it, when things seem to fly out
of hand; a way of holding on when the possibility you were reaching for seems
to be slipping away. Feminist killjoys: even when things fly out of hand, even
when we fly out of hand, we need a handle on things.
ITEM 1: BOOKS
You need your favorite feminist books close to hand; your feminist books
need to be handy. You need to take them with you; make them with you.
Words can pick you up when you are down. And note: it is often books that
name the problem that help us handle the problem. Kick-ass feminist books
have a special agency, all of their own. I feel propelled by their kick.
Books in my tool kit include Sister Outsider, A Burst of Light, Zami, and
The Cancer Journals by Audre Lorde; Feminist Theory and Talking Back by bell
hooks; The Politics of Reality by Marilyn Frye; Gender Trouble, Bodies That
Matter, and Precarious Lives by Judith Butler; Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf;
The Mill on the Floss by George Eliot; Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown. Yes I
know this list includes a lot of books by Audre Lorde and Judith Butler. Their
words reach me. Their words teach me.
Wherever I go, they go.
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ITEM 2: THINGS
A feminist life too is surrounding by things. Living a feminist life creates feminist things. We all have tendencies; we might be a feminist hoarder, keep every
little poster, button, scrap of paper from a meeting; or we might not. But think
of how a convention is a thing maker (the wedding photographs, the signs
of a reproductive life that can gather like weights on walls). We need to have
things too; things that gather around, reminders of a feminist life, happy objects even, reminders of connections, shared struggles, shared lives. We might
have more or fewer things, but a feminist needs her things.
Surround yourself with feminism. In a conversation with Gloria Steinem,
bell hooks describes how she surrounded herself with her precious objects,
feminist objects, so that they are the first things she sees when she wakes up.4
Think of that: you create a feminist horizon around you, the warmth of memories; feminism as memory making. Feminism too leaves things behind. Things
can also be how you handle what you come up against: you are reminded why
you are doing what you are doing. Things are reminders.
Our feminist politics makes things as well as breaks things.
ITEM 3: TOOLS
A survival kit is also a feminist toolbox. What are your feminist tools? Mine
include a pen and a keyboard, a table; the things around me that allow me to
keep writing, to send my words out. Maybe a survival kit is also a toolbox. We
need to have things to do things with; a killjoy needs more tools, the more she
is up against. Maybe she uses her computer to write a blog. A tool: a means
to a killjoy end. The blog itself becomes a tool; it is how she can extend her
reach; how she can find a community of killjoys. A feminist end is often a new
means. We need more means available the harder it is to achieve our ends. We
need to diversify our tools, expand our range; we need to become more and
more inventive, because so often when we do one thing, we find ourselves
blocked. She has to keep going when she is blocked; she can pick herself up
again by picking something else up, maybe something she finds nearby. Of
course, then, a feminist killjoy approaches things as potentially useful things,
as means to her own ends. She has a use for things. She might not be using
things the way she is supposed to. She might queer use or find a queer use for
things. Her killjoy survival kit, to fulfill the purpose for which it is intended,
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will itself become another useful thing. But hand that survival kit to another,
and it might not be quite so useful. In fact: a killjoy survival kit might even
be deemed as compromising the health and safety of others. In fact: a killjoy
survival kit might be deemed useless by others.
A feminist tool is sharp; we need to keep sharpening our tools. When we
speak, we are often heard as sharp. Hear her: shrill, strident, the killjoy voice.
A voice can be a tool. And yet somehow sharp can become blunt. One person
once turned this bluntness into an insult, describing me “as not the sharpest
tool in the house [of being].” I turn the insult into a willful aspiration: to make
feminist points requires being willing to be blunt. My own citation policy in
this book is a case in point.
In my previous chapter I described lesbian feminism as willful carpentry.
So yes we need feminist carpenters, feminist builders; we need to make feminist buildings by not using the master’s tools, as Audre Lorde notes, most willfully, by proclaiming unflinchingly that the master’s tools will never dismantle
the master’s house. We might need feminist tools to make feminist tools. We
can become tools; we can become bricks, feminist bricks.
Of course, sometimes a feminist has to go on strike. To strike is to put your
tools down, to refuse to work by working with them. A feminist sometimes
refuses to work, when the conditions of working are unjust. A tool can be what
she puts down when she is striking.
ITEM 4: TIME
Did your heart quicken when you read that e-mail? Did your fingers quicken
when you typed that response, as if driven by the force of your own rage? Do
you have a sense that this is happening to you, and that you are caught by
hap, and shudder because of what happens? Whatever you decide, whether
to send something, or not, say something, or not, pause, breathe; take some
time. Slow down. Frown. You might still send it, but you will be glad you have
given yourself room to decide; you will be glad.
Time also means having time out. Even when you have willingly accepted
the killjoy assignment, you are more than this assignment. Take breaks; do
other things, with things. Time out might be required for time in.
Time out from being a killjoy is necessary for a killjoy if she is to persist
in being a killjoy. Being a killjoy is not all that you are, and if you are too consumed by her, she can drain too much energy and will. Come back to her; she
will come back to you: you will, she will.
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ITEM 5: LIFE
There is so much in life, as we know, things that are ordinary or just there, beautiful things, to love; those things that come and go; things that are all the more
valuable because they are fragile. Being a killjoy is too occupying, if it takes you
away from the worlds you are in; the rise and fall of the sun, the way the trees
are angled like that, the smile of a friend when you share a joke, the cold fresh
water; the feel of the sea as immersion; the familiar smells of spices cooking.
Twice in my life an animal has come into my life and made life feel more
possible, made life vibrate with possibility: when I was twelve, it was Mulka,
a horse who was with me for almost thirty years (I mentioned him in chapter 2), always there even when we were living on separate continents. Mulka
saved my life, of that I am sure, helped me to find another path when I was
hurtling toward a miserable fate. He brought with him a world, a world of
horsey people, in the Adelaide hills, a world apart from school and family. He
brought with him Yvonne and Meredith Johnson, who in caring for him when
I was away, cared for me. And then there was Poppy, our puppy, who came
into my life while I was writing this book. It is the first time I have shared a life
with a dog. She makes everything better. She brought with her so much, so
intent on the task of being herself; a bounding presence who keeps me in the
present. She wiggled her way into my affections. She also wiggled her way into
this survival kit. She will wiggle right out again. Of that too, I am sure.
To survive as to be: to be with Mulka; to be with Poppy; to be in a present;
to be out in the world; to be alive with a world.
Life matters; we are killjoys because life matters; and life can be what killjoys are fighting for; life requires we give time to living, to being alive, to being
thrown into a world with others. We need to be thrown by how others are
thrown. We need to be unsettled by what is unsettling. We need to let life in, in
all of its contingencies. I think of this as being open to hap. And, as I suggested
in chapter 8, to affirm hap is a kind of snap; we snap a bond that decides for us
the kind of shape a life should have to count as a good life. But that does not
mean breaking our bond to life. To snap a bond is for life. We believe in life all
the more when we have to struggle for life, whether we have to snap, because
we have to struggle to exist or struggle to transform an existence.
Being involved in a life project is affirmative. That is what those of us assigned killjoys know too well; yes we are assigned negative, but in being willing to receive that assignment we are affirming something. We might have
different words, names, for this something.
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ITEM 6: PERMISSION NOTES
There is only so much you can do. I have in my killjoy survival kit some permission notes to step back when it is too much. I noted in chapter 7 that you can
learn to choose your battles wisely, but battles can also choose you. You don’t
always know when you can or will use your permission notes even when you
have given them to yourself. But the mere fact of having them there, as a way
you give yourself permission to exit a situation, can make the situation more
bearable. You can leave; you can grieve.
I have already described how I left my academic post. I resigned because I
gave myself permission to resign. That’s not the only reason. But you need to be
able to leave a situation, whether or not you do leave that situation. Being able to
leave requires material resources, but it also requires an act of will, of not being
willing to do something when it compromises your ability to be something.
I also have in my kit some sick notes. Do you anticipate that an event or
meeting will be compromising? Do you feel you will be upset without being
able to do anything? Well, put some sick notes in your kit. Use them sparingly,
but given that we can be sick from the anticipation of being sick, the notes
express a political as well as personal truth. Of course that is not to say that
what we anticipate will happen will happen; of course not. But sometimes,
just sometimes, we are not willing to take that risk. Be willful in your not willingness. Always.
ITEM 7: OTHER KILLJOYS
I think other killjoys are an essential part of my killjoy survival kit. I know it
might sound odd to put other people in a place you have designated as your
space (in a bag, I keep thinking of bags; how can we breathe in bags?). But I
cannot think of being a killjoy without the company of other killjoys. This is
not about identity; it is not about assuming a community of killjoys (I have
discussed the problem with making this assumption). Rather, it is about the
experience of having others who recognize the dynamics because they too
have been there, in that place, that difficult place. This is not to say we cannot
become killjoys to killjoys. We can and we do. And that is just one more reason
that other killjoys need to be part of our survival kit. It helps us to recognize
how we too can be the problem; we too can be involved in erasing the contributions or chances of others.
I learned this lesson recently when my own participation in a conversation
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on black British feminism was challenged by black women who saw me as participating in their erasure from public spaces and discussions. I responded too
quickly and became defensive, hearing their voices as part of the same chorus of what I would call more questionable critiques that positioned brown
women as gaining position by taking up places that did not belong to them,
which used the familiar narrative that women of color use diversity as a career
advancement. I heard as a killjoy. And that stopped me from hearing killjoys,
those who were getting in the way of what I thought of as a lifeline: black British feminism as my intellectual community. 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. And I do.
ITEM 8: HUMOR
A close kin of the figure of the feminist killjoy is the figure of the humorless
feminist: the one who cannot or will not get the joke; the one who is miserable. Oh the proximity of kinship! Of course, we refuse to laugh at sexist jokes.
We refuse to laugh when jokes are not funny. I consider this point to be so vital
that it forms the fourth of the ten principles of my killjoy manifesto. But we
do laugh; and feminist laughter can lighten our loads. In fact we laugh often in
recognition of the shared absurdity of this world; or just in recognition of this
world. Sometimes we make jokes out of the points left severed, the bleeding
arteries of our institutional knowledge. Sometimes we laugh with each other
because we recognize that we recognize the same power relations.
What I am implying here: lightening our loads becomes part of a killjoy
survival strategy. When we are dealing with heavy histories, lightening becomes a shared activity. When we are dealing with norms that tighten the
more we fail to inhabit them, making it difficult to breathe, loosening becomes
a shared activity. Part of the work of lightening and loosening is sharing: because diversity work is costly, we have to share the costs of doing that work.
My interviews with diversity practitioners that I drew on in part II were
thus full of laughter. Like the time a diversity practitioner talked about how she
just had to open her mouth in meetings to witness eyes rolling as if to say, “Oh
here she goes.” How we laughed as killjoys recognizing that killjoy moment.
Or like the time a diversity practitioner told me of how a friend asked, “Are
they related?” about a photo of her (all white male) management team. How
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we laughed, at that moment, at that exposure of how institutions work as kinship structures. When we catch with words a logic that is often reproduced by
not being put into words, it can be such a relief. We recognized that each other
recognized the logic. Laughter, peals of it; our bodies catching that logic, too.
We don’t always laugh, of course. Sometimes we have to let the full weight
of a history bear down on us. Sometimes we need to let ourselves be down.
But sometimes this sense of being down can convert into energy, because we
can laugh at it; because what we come up against gives us the resources to
bear witness, to expose things, to bring things to the surface, so they can be
laughed at.
To laugh at something can be to make something more real, to magnify it,
and to reduce something’s power or hold over you, simultaneously.
ITEM 9: FEELINGS
Our emotions can be a resource; we draw on them. To be a killjoy is often
to be assigned as being emotional, too emotional; letting your feelings get in
the way of your judgment; letting your feelings get in the way. Your feelings
can be the site of a rebellion. A feminist heart beats the wrong way; feminism
is hearty.
One male professor where I work kept telling me, telling others, that he
did not get the feminist killjoy; that she made no sense to him. He kept saying
it repeatedly. Explain it to me. Really he was saying: explain yourself. And
he kept saying things like, she doesn’t make sense because we have women
who are senior managers. In other words, he thought the right feminist feeling
would be joy, gratitude even, for the good fortune of our arrival and progression. We have to be willing to be experienced as ungrateful, to use this refusal
of joy as an exposure of what we have been commanded not to express. There
was an implication in his refusal to get the feminist killjoy that my organizing
of my own intellectual and political project through her was an institutional
disloyalty; one that would potentially damage the institution.
I think of Adrienne Rich’s (1979) killjoy invitation to be “disloyal to civilization.” Our emotions are opened up when we refuse the commandment
to be loyal and joyful. We don’t always know how we feel even when we feel
something intensely. Put all those feelings into your kit. See what they do.
Watch the mess they stir up. A survival kit is all about stirring things up and
living in the stew.
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ITEM 10: BODIES
It is true, it is wearing. We can be worn down as well as becoming down. Bodies need to be looked after. Bodies need to be nourished and fed. Feminism
too can be thought of as a diet; a feminist diet is how we are nourished by
feminism. In my killjoy survival kit I would have a bag of fresh chilies; I tend
to add chilies to most things. I am not saying chilies are little feminists. But you
would have in your kit whatever you tend to add to things; however you adapt
dishes to your own requirements. If we have a diversity of bodies, we have a
diversity of requirements.
And this item is related to all the others. Bodies are the mediating relation.
When we do not survive, we become body; a body is what is left. A body is behind. A body is vulnerable; we are vulnerable. A body tells us the time; bodies
carry traces of where we have been. Perhaps we are these traces. A killjoy has
a body before she can receive her assignment.
Bodies speak to us. Your body might tell you it is not coping with what
you are asking; and you need to listen. You need to listen to your body. If it
screams, stop. If it moans, slow down. Listen. Feminist ears: they too are in
my survival kit.
So much energy is involved in the struggle not to be compromised by an
existence. But as I have noted throughout this book, claiming the figure of the
killjoy, saying in this situation or that “I am her” can be energizing; there is
something about her, a sense of vitality, perhaps, a sense of rebelliousness and
mischief, perhaps, naughtiness, even, which might be why and how killjoys
keep circulating, keep proliferating; she seems to be popping up everywhere.
As I said in an earlier chapter, if we pick her up, she picks up.
And that too is why bodies must be in our survival kit. Bodies that prance;
bodies that dance; “bodies that matter,” to borrow Judith Butler’s (1993)
terms; bodies that have to wiggle about to create space.
Wiggling is in my survival kit.
Dancing, too.
Bodies that dance: how often feminists have claimed dance as essential to their
liberation. One might think of Emma Goldman’s famous statement, “I won’t
join your revolution if I cannot dance.” Or I think of the film about the survival of Audre Lorde, The Berlin Years, and its final sequences that show Audre
dancing, sequences that seem to capture so well the generosity of her black
feminist spirit. I think of the dancing at Lesbian Lives conferences that I have
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enjoyed over the years (the talking too, but the dancing is what I recall most
quickly). A dancing feminist body, a dancing lesbian body, dancing black and
brown bodies; the affirming of how we inhabit bodies through how we are
with others. We are here, still. Anyone can dance with anyone to form a collective. I am not saying killjoys have a specific genre or style of dancing. I am
not saying that that there is a killjoy dance. (Though maybe, just maybe, there
is a killjoy dance.) Perhaps in her stance is a certain kind of prance; perhaps in
the energy that saturates her figure, she becomes an assembly.
Look at her move: what a movement.
And, in putting dance in my killjoy survival kit, I am saying something affirmative. Is there a contradiction here? When I am joyful, have I ceased to be a
killjoy? Dance can be how we embrace the fragility of being thrown. And joy
too is part of killjoy survival, without any question. We need joy to survive
killing joy; we can even take joy from killing joy. And so too is the erotic part
of my kit, the kind of erotic that Audre Lorde spoke of with such eloquence; a
feminist killjoy in being charged up is warmed up; she is an erotic figure. She
might come to be as or in negation, but that negation trembles with desire; a
desire for more to life, more desire; a desire for more. Feminist killjoys tend to
spill all over the place. What a spillage.
Feminist killjoys: a leaky container.
And so:
Be careful, we leak.
We can recall again Shulamith Firestone’s (1970, 90) call for a “smile embargo”
in her revolutionary manifesto, Dialectic of Sex. She wants us to stop smiling
as a force of habit; something that has become involuntary; to stop smiling
until we have something to smile about. A smile boycott would be a collective
action; it would only work if we all stopped smiling. Not smiling becomes a
feminist strike. I will return to this striking feminism in my killjoy manifesto.
But note too how Firestone’s call is also a call to open up the erotic, to release the erotic from the habit of happiness that directs life down a “narrow,
difficult-to-find alleyway of human experience” (1970, 155).
I explored in my chapter “Feminism Is Sensational” how feminism can be
a coming alive to a world that had been closed off by the requirement to live
your life in a certain way. Things come to life when they are not overlooked.
So it is important to say this: we need to allow ourselves to be sad and angry; when joy and happiness become ideals, sadness becomes too quickly an
obstacle, a failure to achieve or approximate the right feelings. Sadness can
require a permission note (item 6). But at the same time, joy can be part of
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a killjoy survival kit. I personally don’t need a permission note for joy; in my
own experience, joy is culturally mandated even if it can be the site of rebellion
(the collective joy of dissent); but if you do need to give yourself permission
to be joyful, write yourself one. I think joy can only be part of a killjoy survival
kit when we refuse to give joy the status of an aspiration. When joy becomes
aspiration, then joy becomes what a killjoy has to kill. But even if survival for
killjoys requires refusing to make joy (or its heavier friend happiness) into an
aspiration, it does not mean we have an obligation to be sad or unhappy either.
A killjoy is not joyless.
To return to Emma Goldman, to her book Living My Life, she affirms the
freedom to dance when she is told not to dance; she dances and is told that
it is not the right time to dance, because of the “death of a dear comrade”
([1931] 2008, 56). As she relays the story, she says a young boy with a solemn
face whispered to her, “It did not behoove an agitator to dance.” Goldman
affirms at this moment dance as an affective rebellion against the requirement
to be mournful; against the requirement not to live in her body through joyful
abandon. This is what I call an affect alien moment. A killjoy survival kit is also
about allowing your body to be the site of a rebellion, including a rebellion
against the demand to give your body over to a cause or to make your body
a cause. Maybe not dancing, too, can be what a body does; refusing to dance
when dancing becomes a requirement, standing back, to one side, stopping.
AND FINALLY: A KILLJOY SURVIVAL KIT
Putting together a killjoy survival kit can also be a survival strategy. My killjoy
survival kit is in my killjoy survival kit. Writing a feminist manifesto too might
be a survival strategy. My manifesto, up next, is in my kit. In writing a feminist
manifesto, you must first read other feminist manifestos. What a joy! Manifestos are “companion species,” to borrow a description from one of Donna
Haraway’s (2003) manifestos. Reading manifestos is also in my killjoy survival
kit. A kit can be a container for activities that are ongoing; projects that are
projects insofar as they have yet to be realized.
A killjoy: a project that comes from a critique of what is.
Speaking of projects:
We are our own survival kits.
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Duke University Press
Chapter Title: CONCLUSION 2 A Killjoy Manifesto
Book Title: Living a Feminist Life
Book Author(s): SARA AHMED
Published by: Duke University Press. (2017)
Stable URL: https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctv11g9836.18
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Living a Feminist Life
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CONCLUSION 2 A Killjoy Manifesto
A manifesto: a statement of principle, a mission statement. Manifesto: a declaration of the intent of an individual or organization or group. How can one
write a manifesto around a figure, the killjoy, or an activity, killing joy?
A manifesto: to make manifest. Moynan King in her discussion of Valerie Solanas’s scum Manifesto addresses this sense of a manifesto as making
manifest. She writes, “As a manifesto, scum’s intention is to make manifest,
to render perceptible, a new order of ideas” (King 2013, n.p.). To render a new
order of ideas perceptible is simultaneously a disordering of ideas; manifestos
often enact what they call for in surprising and shocking ways given how they
expose the violence of an order. A feminist manifesto exposes the violence of
a patriarchal order, the violence of what I called in chapter 2 “the machinery
of gender.”
A manifesto not only causes a disturbance, it aims to cause this disturbance.
To make something manifest can be enough to cause a disturbance. This intimacy between manifestation and disturbance has implications for how we
write a killjoy manifesto. A killjoy manifesto must be grounded in an account
of what exists. Why is this important? It is about what we come up against.
Some of the worst abuses of power I have encountered in the academy have
been when individuals make use of an equality principle, as if to say, boundaries and rules are about hierarchy, so we are “free to do what we want,” whereby
“free to do what we want” really still means “you doing what I want you to do,”
given that the we is made up of an I who has power and a you that is subordi-
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nate by virtue of their positions within an organization. Note that “doing what
we want” not only can be assumed to express an equality principle but can
be articulated as a rebellion against institutional norms and authority (they
would prevent us from having relationships because they assume boundaries
and divisions that we have given up because we are free radicals). A killjoy
manifesto cannot be about the freeing of radicals to pursue their own agendas.
A killjoy manifesto thus begins by recognizing inequalities as existing.
This recognition is enacted by the figure of the killjoy herself: she kills joy
because of what she claims exists. She has to keep making the same claim because she keeps countering the claim that what she says exists does not exist.
The killjoy is often assumed to be inventive, to bring about what she claims;
or, to use my terms from chapter 6, she is often assumed to be a wall maker.
If a killjoy manifesto shows how the denial of inequality under the assumption of equality is a technique of power, then the principles articulated in that
manifesto cannot be abstracted from statements about what exists. A killjoy
manifesto is thus about making manifest what exists. In the labor of making
manifest we make a manifesto.
To struggle for freedom is to struggle against oppression. Angela Davis
in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism showed how the articulation of unfulfilled longings for freedom can also represent freedom “in more immediate
and accessible terms” ([1989] 1998, 7). It is from oppression that freedom is
given expression. A manifesto is required when a struggle is necessary to give
expression to something. This is why the manifesto can be understood as a
killjoy genre; we have to say it because of what is not being done. A manifesto
makes an appeal by not being appealing: a manifesto is not an attractive piece
of writing by existing norms or standards. It cannot be: it has to strain to be
said. And yet a manifesto is appealing to those who read it; a manifesto appeals
for something by appealing to someone. A killjoy manifesto appeals to killjoys.
Manifestos are often disagreeable because they show the violence necessary to sustain an agreement. It is not just that the feminist killjoy has a manifesto. The feminist killjoy is a manifesto. She is assembled around violence;
how she comes to matter, to mean, is how she exposes violence. Just remember the kill in killjoy. This figure reminds us how feminism is often understood as a form of murder; calling for the end of the system that makes “men”
is often understood as killing men. We could indeed compare the figure of
the murderous feminist to that of the feminist killjoy. What Valerie Solanas
([1967] 2013) does in her manifesto, very controversially, is to literalize that
fantasy of the murderous feminist through imagining a feminist collective, or
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Conclusion 2
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a mind-set, that is scum (Society for Cutting Up Men). It should not surprise
us, because one of her points was to be a cutoff point that the scum Manifesto
was read literally; it was dismissed as literal or dismissed through literalism as
intending the elimination of men. The manifesto works because it enacts the
literalism that would enable its own dismissal. I have noticed this use of literalism as dismissal when working on my feminist killjoy blog. For example, when
I tweeted a link to a blog post “white men,” which was retweeted by a white
man, another white man called it “genosuicide.”1 Genosuicide: the self-willed
killing of a people. Or another time a student at Goldsmiths, Bahar Mustafa,
allegedly used the hashtag #killallwhitemen.2 Valerie Solanas is brought back
to life on social media. Snap. But of course if this hashtag literalizes a fantasy,
you literally encounter the fantasy. The hashtag is turned back into a command; heard as the planning of genocide.
The figure of the murderous feminist is useful: it allows the survival of men
to be predicated o…
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