Happy Birthday Feminist Legal Studies! “We can share the joy of killing joy!”

PhD candidate Alexandra Koenig reports on the recent 25th anniversary of journal Feminist Legal Studies, which was celebrated with a lecture from Professor Sara Ahmed on The Institutional as Usual: Sexism, Racism and the Politics of Complaint.

If Audre Lorde once wrote “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”, Sara Ahmed’s talk took this on board and offered the refreshing journey of a critical engineer of thought, who tours around the neatly cemented brick walls of the university. Equipped with a theoretically sophisticated and highly creative toolbox, and a flashlight that literally cuts through the building’s substance, she did not want to leave anything as it stands. As her poignant analysis advances, the flashlight moves around, in a circular fashion and she exposes what first appears as neat surfaces, in which each stone so happily seems to fit, just to dig beyond and ask “what’s the use?”

Sitting at my desk, it feels pleasantly impossible to give an appropriate summary of Sara Ahmed’s recent talk delivered on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the journal Feminist Legal Studies and hosted by the Centre for Research on Race and Law. What will therefore follow is a subjective journey through what made strong impressions on me. I will offer selective glimpses on a rich talk that contributed much to queer-feminist, critical legal scholarship and de-colonial thought, but that also devised important tools for activist interventions in grappling with the violence of the “institutional as usual”.

Rather than celebrating the university as a safe haven for critical thought, the concept of “use”, as developed by Ahmed, does the job of dismantling what seems tidy and sacrosanct. The university is a built environment, brick by brick – but put to use for what and for whom? A lot of decisions went into its institutional design to satisfy dominant ideas of “good use” for the “right kind of people”. However, the picture is more complex, as uses can be appropriated for something else, the institution occupied by those for whom the use was not intended. It is along this line of tension that Sara Ahmed developed her thoughts on the “institutional as usual” and the “politics of complaint” throughout her paper. The talk was based on her forthcoming book project, in which she traces the uses of use.

Let me pause shortly and set out some of the analytic insights Ahmed offered about the uses of use in her talk: use, as a verb signifies something to be employed, consumed. It is connected to the idea of relation and activity, how we get hold of or a grip on something. Use designates what an object is for. However, slides happen, as objects are put in and out of use. Something may be out of use because it is occupied. The occupation may be rooted in an activity that has no relation to the previous beaten track of use. It may be occupied for a short period – like a kitchen turning into the buzzing heart of a party, or it may be occupied for longer, for instance when a body makes itself at home in a space that was designed to accommodate for the needs of completely different bodies. A university built for white, old, able-bodied male professors of upper-class background, for instance, will not fit as easily around different bodies. For many bodies, the university is not a friendly, welcoming environment. A university is not just a building, but also an institution, and with this the idea of what and who it is for. However, as much as there may be a designated use, it cannot determine its actual use(s). This is the hopeful horizon – the queer potential when working on and in institutions, such as the university. This is how the “institutional as usual” can be challenged.

Use, Ahmed reminds us, is necessary to preserve something, a space, a path, the beaten track. Preservation, it seems, works like cement: it solidifies the walls and maintains the paths that some-bodies can so easily and comfortably tread upon without even noticing how little effort it demands, as if those spaces belonged to them. According to Ahmed, this is privilege, this is the normativity of the beaten track.  When effort becomes normal, a form has been acquired, you are not, but you become, the stone that happily fits the wall of institution.

Connecting the idea of complaint to the “institutional as usual”, Sara Ahmed engages with the complaint as a biography, a genre, and the politics of complaint. This way we can cut through to power relations in which complaints are going somewhere, but very often nowhere, except into the archival box, to gather dust. It is not a coincidence that a large proportion of complaints at universities is about how the complaint has (not) been dealt with; in other words, they are complaints about the (lack of) institutional response. Like talking to walls. There were also discussions throughout the evening about the role of policies of non-disclosure and how these wall in the complaint, contain it, keep it from being taken beyond and speaking back more effectively to the university from elsewhere. Tracing a biography of complaint also means looking into how often complaints are not made and why. The figure of the complainant is racialised and gendered. When you inhabit a space that is not made for you, it can be very uncomfortable. Your body is made to feel out of place. This is the institution at work. As the world has been assembled around other bodies, you have to make a lot of effort to work on your shape, not to appear too much, or to push too much. As Ahmed reminds us, “sometimes no amount of pushing will get you in”.

According to Ahmed, the existence of a complaint policy can be the blockage, the brick that allegedly posits, yet hinders the performativity of complaint. Complaint policies can be watered down to lip-service. A box-ticking exercise of the neo-liberal management culture at universities, here to show that “something” has happened for the statistics. Complaints and diversity work can, and are, getting co-opted into this culture, performing damage control rather than contesting the usual path of use. To make a complaint, Ahmed argues, activates a process which locates the problem as you. Hardly surprising that you may end up being perceived as the one who cut herself off from the collective, the institution, “because you get used to it, or get out of it!”, Ahmed underlined so that the “institutional as usual” can go on, must go on, and on.

“Lifting the lid” is for Sara Ahmed a call for creative engagements with complaint, for the art of feminist killjoy – against the grain of the foreseeable institutional paths. It means to think of other trails, multiple fora which might be more fertile for the performativity of the complaint. It could translate as resisting the institutional containment as much as you can. It is the hard labour of spillage, and spilling over, a call to puncture pipes, the need for more explosions, trafficking wires and acts of vandalism. Professional modes of conduct are trying to keep the lid on, trying to stop things from changing to preserve the “institutional as usual”. If we are to displace the university’s usual use, it means taking the university apart, brick by brick. It means scratching the surface and leaving marks proclaiming “We are here and did not get used to it!”, it means writing the “I” into the structures, for “I” am not you, and these paths are not mine. If we are privileged enough to get more comfortable, to occupy an institution or alternative spaces, then we hold a responsibility to make hostile environments more habitable, to consider how we take up and hold the space and how to accommodate others. We need to keep asking and responding to the question “whose use and what use”? We need to help build feminist shelters inside and outside of inhospitable environments because complaints come at a high cost and personal loss. Complaint calls for solidarity. The biography of complaint is also ours, for if many of us are here, we are here because others complained.




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