Team Pick: Sara Ahmed’s “Feminist Killjoys” Blog

Fikri’s Team Pick:

As a baby academiqueer, put the words “research” and “blog” together and I’ll instinctively follow it up with “nope.” The £15,000 that’s deposited into the British academic-industrial complex every year on my behalf already puts enough strain on my soul without doing readings for fun, y’know?

Sara Ahmed is an exception to this rule, though, because Sara Ahmed, a Professor in Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths University, is an exception to all the rules. Her research blog Feminist Killjoys, named after her essay “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects)”, was launched last week and has brought to all of us thoughtful, fascinating works such as her contribution to “Judith Butler in Conversation” to reflections on “happy, smiling multiculturalism” prompted by cult hit Bend It Like Beckham.

Sara Ahmed (via Crossroads 2012)

Sara Ahmed (via Crossroads 2012)

It is very, very rare that I come across academic writing that resonates with me personally, and this is what I find in Ahmed’s work. In “Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects)”, she begins with a simple scenario that I expect most of us can relate to:

One way of telling my feminist story would be to begin with a table. Around the table, a family gathers. Always we are seated in the same place: my father one end, myself the other, my two sisters to one side, my mother to the other. Always we are seated this way, as if we are trying to secure more than our place. A childhood memory, yes. But it is also memory of an everyday experience in that quite literal sense of an experience that happened every day. An intense everyday: my father asking questions, my sisters and me answering them, my mother mostly silent. When does intensity become tension?

We begin with a table. Around this table, the family gathers, having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up. Someone says something you consider problematic. You are becoming tense; it is becoming tense. How hard to tell the difference between what is you and what is it! You respond, carefully, perhaps. You say why you think what they have said is problematic. You might be speaking quietly, but you are beginning to feel “wound up,” recognising with frustration that you are being wound up by someone who is winding you up. In speaking up or speaking out, you upset the situation. That you have described what was said by another as a problem means you have created a problem. You become the problem you create.

This leads into a refreshing, critical discourse of killjoys, feminist tables and “getting in the way.” This essay articulated plenty of thoughts I’d had at the back of my mind for years but couldn’t put words to and then much, much more than that — what I find most valuable is that her feminist, anti-racist and queer politics (all of them!) run strongly through all of her works. Her upcoming book, Living A Feminist Life, promises to engage with “sexism, whiteness, identity politics, privilege, lesbian feminism, feminist classics, feminist killjoys, willfulness, intersectionality, racism, and more.”

Take the example of racism. It can be willful even to name racism: as if the talk about divisions is what is divisive. Given that racism recedes from social consciousness, it appears as if the ones who “bring it up” are bringing it into existence. We learned that the very talk of racism is experienced as an intrusion from the figure of the angry black woman: as if it is her anger about racism that causes feminist estrangement. To recede is to go back or withdraw. To concede is to give way, to yield. People of color are often asked to concede to the recession of racism: we are asked to “give way” by letting it “go back.” Not only that: more than that. We are often asked to embody a commitment to diversity. We are asked to smile in their brochures. The smile of diversity is a way of not allowing racism to surface; it is a form of political recession.

Done with all of Feminist Killjoys? Have something to add? Ahmed is looking for contributions!

YOU might be interested in this blog if YOU:

  • Are told you are angry no matter what you say
  • Witness people’s eyes rolling as soon as you open your mouth as if to say: ‘oh here she goes!’
  • Are angry because that’s a sensible response to what is wrong
  • Are often accused of getting in the way of the happiness of others (or just getting in the way)
  • Have ruined the atmosphere by turning up or speaking up
  • Have a body that reminds people of histories they find disturbing
  • Are willing to make disturbance a political cause
  • Are willing to cause unhappiness to follow your desire
  • Will not laugh at jokes designed to cause offense
  • Will take offense when it is there to be taken
  • Will point out when men cite men about men as a learned social habit that is diminishing (ie. most or usual citational practice)
  • Will notice and name whiteness. Will keep noticing and naming whiteness.
  • Will use words like ‘sexism’ and ‘racism’ even if that means being heard as the cause of bad feeling (and are willing to cause bad feeling)
  • Will refuse to look away from what compromises happiness
  • Are willing to be silly and display other inappropriate positive affects
  • Are willing to listen and learn from the work of feminists over time and refuse the caricatures of feminism and feminists that enables a disengagement from feminism
  • Are prepared to be other peoples’ worst feminist nightmare
  • Are prepared to be called a killjoy
  • Are willing to kill joy

Now go forth and get to killing joy, y’all.

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Politiqueer, student and future cubicle drone-person fond of trees, bicycles, and strawberry sponge cake. Abuses en-dashes. Undecided about the Oxford comma. Follow her on Twitter or her occasionally updated blog.

Fikri has written 54 articles for us.

12 Comments

  1. Thumb up 0

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    I’m almost 19 for 19 at being feminist killjoy but I am a little confused by this statement:

    “Will point out when men cite men about men as a learned social habit that is diminishing (ie. most or usual citational practice)”

    Is this in reference to the “boys will be boys” rationalization, the “well, sexism isn’t nearly as bad as it used to be” brush-off or is it “men these days are losing their ‘manliness’ because they are more apt to share their feelings and blah, blah, blah” complaint? Or am I completely off base?

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      I think it’s referring specifically to academic writing? As in male academics/critics writing about things other men have done and citing only other men to back up their claims. And that this becomes a sort of learned behaviour when writing – they may not necessarily be consciously doing it because it’s just the way that academic writing happens at the moment. I think it applies to women as well though, they learn that behaviour too. I’m currenty writing my honours thesis and am struck my how many female students there are in my discipline and how many female professors there are in my department and yet how few women get cited frequently in what I read. I’ve had to make a conscious effort to find women to cite in my writing, because other writers don’t seem to cite them as often.

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    I was recently directed to Sara Ahmed’s blog during the course of a rather intense Facebook discussion/argument about racial appropriation in the queer community in the context of Macklemore and “Same Love”. Now, I’m a feminist, and at my family dinner table, I’m the one who speaks up and names racism, or sexism, or heterosexism. And my friend who was arguing with me directed me to this blog not as a way saying “hey, check this out, I think you’ll really like it” but more as a way of shutting me up, a way of saying to me “hey, I’m a better feminist than you because I’m out here killing everyone’s joy about this song while you are arguing with me about it.” I wasn’t calling her angry, I wasn’t trying to defend Macklemore, I was merely voicing a differing opinion than hers, and by sending me this link, she virtually shut me down.

    I think its GREAT to speak up when someone says something problematic. I think it is GREAT to problematize the things we like and why we like them. But I want to reiterate Anita Sarkeesian’s point (which I find myself doing over and over these days). She said “it is both good and even necessary to simultaneously enjoy media while being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects.” So I DO take issue with the concept of a “killjoy”. Because I believe that even if things are problematic (as Macklemore and Same Love definitely are) you CAN still enjoy them. Shakespeare was a sexist, racist, anti-Semite. Doesn’t mean I’m ever going to stop loving his work. So was Tolkien. I suppose its easier that those men are dead and I don’t have to monetarily support them. But I really do feel that as long as you recognize, problematize, and discuss issues in specific media, you can enjoy those things none the less.

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      if your friend refused to continue a conversation with you after sending you the link to this blog, THEY shut you down. this has nothing to do with the blog, besides the fact that it probably contains information your friend thinks you would benefit from hearing. and im not trying to hear yr disingenuous half-summary of what went down and what you assumed their intentions were.

      and…what? you’re mad that people don’t like some of the shit that you like because the artists are racist? why? if you’re so secure in your identity as a disruptive anti-racist feminist there should be plenty of space for political critiques of shit you like. critiques don’t negate enjoyment or pleasure by analyzing the source of it. i dont think being a killjoy doesn’t mean telling people not to like the stuff that they like, i think it refers to challenging the dominant narratives (the myth of untainted, visceral joy or pleasure being one of them).

      tl, dr. if you like racist shit, thats fine, but you should be willing to ask WHY and to look for the answer without getting whiny and defensive about it. no one is stomping on your copy of merchant of venice, they’re just trying to talk about how it’s messed up. stop derailing.

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        “i dont think being a killjoy doesn’t mean telling people not to like the stuff that they like, i think it refers to challenging the dominant narratives (the myth of untainted, visceral joy or pleasure being one of them)”

        I took what Allison was saying to mean this: she’s all for challenging, questioning and placing in a wider context things she enjoys and definitely thinks that an analysis of something shouldn’t mean telling people not to like it. She just admitted that she agrees Shakespeare’s work has some troubling racist stuff in it that complicates her enjoyment of it. You guys are arguing the same argument!

        Her friend was the one who told her not to like the stuff she liked, not an abstract concept of a killjoy. Though I do agree with you that if she felt shut down, that totally isn’t the website’s fault but her friend’s.

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    “Given that racism recedes from social consciousness, it appears as if the ones who “bring it up” are bringing it into existence. We learned that the very talk of racism is experienced as an intrusion from the figure of the angry black woman: as if it is her anger about racism that causes feminist estrangement. To recede is to go back or withdraw. To concede is to give way, to yield. People of color are often asked to concede to the recession of racism: we are asked to “give way” by letting it “go back.” Not only that: more than that. We are often asked to embody a commitment to diversity. We are asked to smile in their brochures. The smile of diversity is a way of not allowing racism to surface; it is a form of political recession.”

    YES!! A-Fucking-Men to all of this!

  4. Thumb up 1

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    Thanks for sharing this! Um… might want to correct the link that’s supposed to go to her blog — right now it seems to go to her essay (which is also linked right afterwards.)

    Interesting and thought-provoking so far, definitely going to keep reading!

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    Well, I’m going to be a bit of a killjoy and say that Sara Ahmed’s blog feels like something her publisher forced her to do and the fact that it doesn’t really have a blog feel / format shows the big gap between “academic feminists” and us mortals.

    Because, not only are feminist blogs extremely popular, but academic blogs are very popular as well – so if you’re at all in touch with what kind of feminism people, including academics, do on the internet, you know they don’t just repost talks they’ve given elsewhere. Almost all academics / research blogs post original content, usually tailored for a general audience – so shorter pieces, less jargonful, often relevant to current events etc. Most of the academic blogs I follow are history related, but to give an example of a typical blog – Nursing Clio (http://nursingclio.org/) combines medical history with feminism and discusses both interesting historical facts related to women / women’s health and current events from a historical perspective. I know very little about medical history, but I can still read and understand everything they post because they make sure to explain terms / facts etc that aren’t general knowledge.

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    ‘Witness people’s eyes rolling as soon as you open your mouth as if to say: ‘oh here she goes!”

    YEP. I refuse to say nothing when I hear things that are discriminatory but people HATE that.

    Her book sounds interesting and it’s been added to my to-read list.

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