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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Knowledge without borders

Baroness Bakewell, President of Birkbeck, addresses the College’s newest graduates as she congratulates them on their achievements during Graduation Week.

In her speech, she emphasises that the upheavals of a changing world and the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union should not be allowed to stand in the way of knowledge-sharing and education, and how our new graduates can help to break down borders.

It is always a great pleasure to be with you here and offer my congratulations to you on your success. This is a day you will always remember; a watershed in your lives, your careers, that will have a lasting influence on how you live your future life – where you go, what you do and. most importantly, what satisfaction it brings you.

When I look out across a sea of faces and listen to your names, I am impressed by the range and diversity of our graduates. As for your names – you may notice that I try to catch the first name of each of you as I meet you as you cross the platform. That’s because each of you matters individually to Birkbeck. It’s not always easy; I can’t always get it right. There are some names that are not familiar to my own background in the north of England. But even as I hesitate in my wish to get it right, I take pleasure in knowing what a global reach Birkbeck has. I am always delighted to speak with those of you from places across the world. Birkbeck embraces you within its academic fold. And that goes too for my fellow Europeans.

Indeed, I want to say something more about this sense of belonging and the barriers that inhibit it. These are troubled times, when matters of identity – who you are and where you came from – are increasingly used to define and, indeed, restrict what you can do, where you can work and where you can make your home. The whole of Europe – and indeed the larger world – has a long history of men who drew lines on maps and made laws giving power to those lines. We are the inheritors of those maps, and we both thrive and suffer because of them. Not just in Europe but across the Middle East, Africa, the Indian subcontinent, the Americas  – tribes of mankind have settled and developed, have lived within those lines and traded across them. They are the nation states we have today.

I, the people on this platform and all of you enjoy crossing those lines.  As a young student long ago I remember being woken in the night on the train south by a man in uniform demanding my passport and shouting:  “We are now crossing into Switzerland.” I was thrilled. At the first station I got out to buy fresh Swiss coffee and cakes. It was all so new. I had grown up in a country at war so, of course, only the servicemen of our armed forces got to travel abroad. France, Belgium, Holland and beyond were all occupied by the Germans. I got my first taste of crossing a frontier when I went to France at the age of 16.

I offer these personal reminiscences to show just how much times have changed. And then something important happened: the foundations of what we today call the European Union were created. And something happened in our family, too. Something I had never seen before: my father wept. He wept with joy that never, never again would there be war on the continent of Europe such as he had seen twice in his lifetime: the First World War with its death toll of 17 million. And the Second World War, including the war in the Pacific, with over 50 million dead.

He cried for himself and for his children: they would inherit a safer, more coherent Europe. And so it came about.

But wars did happen, and barriers took on a new significance. In the Middle East, and across Africa, people fled their homelands, crossed legal lines between countries to seek refuge from conflict or to seek a better life for themselves. They crossed frontiers in their millions and, in so doing, changed not only their own lives but the lives of those from whom they sought asylum. One of the outcomes of these shifts has created the world we have today: a world at odds with itself, finding it hard to formulate new rules by which to live – and, incidentally, defying the precepts of many of the world’s great religions which is always to “welcome the stranger”; make him welcome within your gates. People have increasingly become dogmatic, hostile, uneasy about their lives and their homelands.

But there is another – and, I believe, more powerful – impulse at work in the world: and we here today can be part of it. Knowledge is universal. The discoveries of science, medicine, social welfare, anthropology, literature, cultural studies are shared by scholars and institutes of learning around the world. It is crossing lines. It knows no boundaries.   The wisdom of study, the richness of shared understanding, the value of scholarship is something we are taking part in, simply by being here today.

Your remit extends around the world and your future careers will reach into many countries and communities. What we have in common is stronger than what divides us; stronger than the lines on the map; and we are here today to celebrate that shared outlook. Congratulations again to you all.

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Orientation 2017: Welcome to Birkbeck

New and returning students joined this year’s Orientation events.

A new year at Birkbeck kicked off with Orientation, a range of events to enable students to familiarise themselves with the campus, get to know fellow students and refresh academic skills to boost their confidence.

It was an action-packed and busy day with nearly 2000 new and returning students signed up to browse the Fresher’s Fayre in the marquee outside the main campus, in order to find out about college sports and societies, ask current students questions about life at Birkbeck, and pick up some freebies.

There were also a range of talks throughout the afternoon on key topics to help students get their years’ off to a great start, on topics from looking after mental health, time management, to preparing for dissertation writing, and campus tours throughout the day.

Thank you to all who attended.

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Religion on trial

Dr Anton Schütz, senior lecturer at the School of Law reflects on the school’s annual ‘Law on Trial’ week, which this year focused on the theme of religion.lawontrial850x450From Monday 12 June to Friday 16 June, the School of Law, Birkbeck hosted the 2017 edition of its annual Law on Trial event.

The School of Law has staged a Law on Trial event each year since 2011, when it was introduced, on the basis of an original idea of Marinos Diamantides, by former Executive Dean Patricia Tuitt, who also contributed the formulation of the title. The theme for 2017 was ‘Religion on Trial’. Religion is generally understood as a human sphere with an existence and a concern very much of its own, though with a number of points of intersection with matters legal. Especially during the past two or three decades, matters of religion have provided an inexhaustible source for legal problems.

The first event of the week was taken by our key-note speaker, philosopher Akeel Bilgrami (Columbia University). Akeel led the audience through the problems that the political and legal philosophy of liberalism encounters in dealing with religion, and increasingly so since the beginning of the 21st century. Referring historically to a choice among the main topics of his own widely known writing (see his Secularism, Identity and Enchantment), foregrounding Gandhi’s example-based, rather than program-based political action, Salman Rushdie’s exemplification of the divide of artistic and religious imperatives in dealing with identity but also the author of the most celebrated political doctrine of liberal justice during the late 20th century, John Rawls, and his difficulty related to identity politics and deep religious commitments.

The programme of our second evening was placed under the sign of Rastafari religion, music, and forms of life, and was based on an idea from Patricia Tuitt. Author and poet Kwame Dawes was speaking and indeed — in his quotes from Bob Marley — also, if only for short moments, also singing, in a fabulous feat of bringing to life what Rastafari poetry calls the ‘Babylon system’ (‘vampire system, sucking the blood of the sufferah’), relating spiritual, political, geographical, iconographical, prophetic and cosmological features to spot issues of diaspora, oppression and liberation in a relation that is at once timeless and highly contemporary. Kwame Dawes‘study on Bob Marley, Bob Marley: Lyrical Genius, is celebrated all over the English-speaking world. The session was chaired by Oscar Guardiola-Rivera.

The session on Rastafarianism was followed by two sessions on topics related to current issues relating to Islam. The first, on Wednesday 14 June, convened by Birkbeck scholar Qudsia Mirza, staged the long-awaited and hotly disputed topic of Islamic Law and Gender Justice. Interpretations of the Qur’an and the Hadith literature within the classical Islamic tradition have famously given rise, based upon theological, legal and ethical principles, to a normative gender hierarchy. The teachings of Sharia are not a secret and neither are the challenges to them by reformist and progressive scholars. Islamic feminism in general, and the participants of our session in particular, have taken measure of the distance still to be bridged with respect to current notions of gender equality. How do reformists/feminists conceptualise notions of gender or equality? How, on the other hand, do issues of gender, widely discussed today, relate to the notion of an Islamic ‘purity of origin’ and to a discourse of authenticity? The panel contemplated the wide spectre of Western and non-Western religious and not-so-religious positions.

Rather different in its outlook was the second Islam-related session, Thursday 15 June , convened by a BBK PhD student Daniele D’Alvia (who also works in a Max-Planck-Institute in Germany) and chaired by Maria Aristodemou, dealt with the topic ‘Islamic Finance: the Middle East, Malaysia, and the West’. Once again, a highly qualified and bespoke-tailored international panel offered a fascinating debate dealing with conceptions of gharar and riba, in contrast to current Western conceptualisations of risk and interest. Doing so, it showed the presence of two different, almost opposing views on the relationship between current Western financial habits and the relevant Sharia rules. Some speakers highlighted the Sharia framework as a possible alternative to the current habits of the global financial markets (with their widely felt instability), something of a global therapy for the latter’s increasing, world-wide exposure to structural, self-engendered crises Other panel members saw the primary problem in the obstacles that Islamic populations are facing, when they are precluded from being clients of Western style global financial institutions, ascribing highest importance to the search of viable strategies of circumvention of Islamic rules of finance.

The fifth and last day of the series, on Friday 16 June , saw the launch event of a study, co-authored by Marinos Diamantides and Anton Schütz, two School of Law academics, that had been released that same week — Political Theology : Demystifying the Universal. Differing from the two preceding sessions, this focussed not on one particular religion opposed to other religions, but on the apparently non-religious question of the secular. With Stewart Motha (chair), Diamantides and Schütz tried to explain how the very stakes of Western-Christian religion have worked as conditions, rather than obstacles, to a society defining itself as secular (liberal, social) and its world-wide success and imitation. They commonly stressed that the secular religion of the West consists in an ongoing effort of managing continuing procedures. The return of explicit religious references under such circumstances was the subject of one ‘case-study’ (Diamantides), while Schütz, focussing on the theologoumenon of the Trinity and its geopolitical fate, explored the politico-legal relationship of Father and Son within the Christian Trinity in its Western evolution. The doctrine known as the ‘filioque’ has, through more than a millennium, transformed the Trinitarian God by endowing Father and Son, by assigning identical ‘rights’ to both, thereby implanting an unresolvable tension, a principle of intranquillity, at the very heart of the Western Christian divinity, altering it from a principle of being into its contrary, a principle of action.

Through the five days of Religion on Trial the public has been guided through: (1) a portrayal, by one of its international top representatives, of the divide between religion and politics in contemporary scholarly interpretation; (2) an in-depth depiction of the vital link of art and religion in Bob Marley’s poetry and its indispensable relationship to the unique and uniquely complex and attractive religious tradition of Rastafarianism, provided by the top international specialist on the matter; (3,4) two matters of extreme actuality in relation of contemporary Islam, the issue of the normative gender dissymmetry and that of contemporary modes of Islamic finance, both presented by highly qualified specialist panels; all rounded up in (5) a series of suggestions concerning the specifically Christian input within the Western model, in its religious as well as secular dimensions.

I would like to thank all of our guest speakers and panellists who helped to make the event such a success and greatly look forward to next year’s events.

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