Those who tend to cause trouble

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Affective outcomes of the politics of differences, otherness, and strangeness and how these shape bodies over time are some of the main concerns in Sara Ahmed’s writings. As a professor in Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmith University of London, she touches upon various theories concerning notions of ‘otherness’ such as postcolonialism, queer theory, and transnational studies. Central to most of her work is the view of how emotions register the proximity of others, how these emotions are attributed to objects and their valuation. visAvis has asked her to elaborate on specific aspects of her work in order to use it in relation to asylum and queer activism. We begin with the figure of the feminist killjoy, with whom Ahmed addresses the potentials in disturbing the good atmosphere.

By Sara Ahmed and Liv Nimand Duvå • From #8, 2013

One of the key concepts in your work on affect is the figure of the feminist killjoy. I find this concept useful as a way of approaching and understanding activism. Could you introduce the feminist killjoy as a tool to understand the feelings surrounding activism?

I have certainly found this figure of the feminist killjoy full of potential! And that is in itself interesting because some of my own early experiences of being the feminist killjoy were difficult, even painful. You are assumed to be saying this or that, being against this or that, because you are a feminist, intent on ruining the enjoyment of others. You don’t even have to say anything; once you are identified as a feminist, they expect you to be difficult! And it can be difficult to be expected to be difficult! I think that to find an experience of difficulty the site of potential is how the figure of the feminist killjoy can become a political tool. If it gets in the way of happiness to point out racism, or xenophobia, then we need to get in the way; we need to do exactly what they “accuse” us of doing. Think of how often immigrants and asylum seekers are seen as getting in the way of national happiness, as stealing the nation that belongs to “us,” as taking “our” jobs, benefits, or making “us” feel estranged from “our” culture and history. If strangers and migrants are viewed as causing unhappiness, no wonder that unhappiness can become a political cause. The feminist killjoy is the one who is willing to get in the way of happiness if that happiness is unjust, if that happiness is given to some at the expense of others.

You have described activism as a matter of seats, of being unseated by the table of happiness. Could you elaborate on the perception of the seats in relation to our work on asylum and migration?

I guess to answer that question I have to go back one more step: why tables, why seats? My early experiences of being a killjoy are really about the family table. My family was quite conservative politically. I don’t know how it happened but since I can remember I was conscious of injustice, whether it was about differences between what girls and boys could do, or whether it was about how poverty and disadvantage were judged as the fault of the poor and disadvantaged (one of my early memories of politicization was the constant use in the Australian media of the figure of the “dole bludger”, as if those who claim employment benefits were just lazy and undeserving), or of racism (the insults I would be called at school for my “funny name” and so on, the graffiti at the local bus stop that said “Asians Out”). Being conscious of injustice, and speaking about it, can be an unseating. Because actually to be seated at the family table (and the family is often assumed as happy) means not to bring these things up. Oh, how many dinners I have been accused of ruining because I objected if a member of my family said something sexist, or racist, or homophobic! To object to violence is to be judged as the one who brings violence into the room. As activists, we of course have our own tables: our meetings and events. We take up seats in an actual, as well as symbolic, sense. It might be consciousness of injustice and violence that brings us to these tables. But even then, we don’t all agree; we know this, this is the case even with our closest allies. There are some very recent cases in socialist parties, when women have been treated as killjoys, as getting in the way of the solidarity of the party, because they have brought up sexual violence occurring within the party. And the party defends itself by making these women into the problem. And people of colour often become killjoys in feminist and queer tables when we bring up the question of racism. I think activism is a very particular kind of setting: people can have an idea of themselves as radical or progressive, so if you challenge that idea, you get a very defensive reaction. And what follows a defensive reaction can often be an unseating: you lose your place at the table so they can keep theirs.

In any activist setting there are going to be certain issues that are not allowed on the table, not necessarily officially, but affectively (so that when so and so mentions such and such, eyes roll even if nothing is said). When we assemble our own tables we need not only to think about process and procedure (the rules we might collectively come up with to enable us to converse as well as we can, arrive at decisions as well as we can), but also become attuned to how atmospheres can create their own inclusions and exclusions. If a cozy warm feeling is disrupted when someone mentions the word “racism”, then the person who mentions that word becomes the one who has caused the loss of a cozy warm feeling! We need to think about how we too can treat others as killjoys, if we assume that what they say gets in the way of what we do. Being on the side of those struggling for legitimacy within the nation does not mean that we are right.

The personal stories of people who have migrated and are situated in camps are often expressed by sadness, anger, and hopelessness. If we understand acts of solidarity as the willingness to share these feelings, it becomes important to look at what kind of changes the feelings undergo when they wander between subjects that are differently positioned. What is your perception of the mutation of feelings in a solidarity perspective?

Solidarity is what we achieve, not what we assume: this I learnt from Audre Lorde, who taught me so much. Solidarity is probably not best understood as a feeling (which is not what you are asking but it is still worth saying). You can feel solidarity with someone and act in ways that fall short of solidarity (indeed the tendency in activism to “speak for others” often relates to the problem to “feel for others”). If anything, I would say that feeling versions of solidarity can be part of the problem. In the Australian case, I have often felt this: that empathy or compassion towards indigenous Australians or refugees can just be another way those with privilege can feel good about themselves. And it is really important to establish that we do not have to share in the suffering of others to recognize this suffering has something to do with us (otherwise I could say, “if I do not feel your pain, your situation has nothing to do with mine”). We also have to be careful not to reduce others to their suffering, or to expect others to testify to their suffering (the requirement to testify is what makes claiming asylum so traumatic and difficult, to testify to an injury can be a repetition of the injury). We know that the law does not tend to listen; it can hear only what is already admitted as evidence, such that to claim asylum often means having to translate one’s own traumatic experience into something admissible to the law; whilst having in this process one’s own testimony constantly doubted and disputed. Supporting people through the trauma of this process is and will remain hugely important. Given this, to be willing to listen otherwise is an important starting point for asylum activism. This means being willing to be affected by others, however you will be affected (feelings, if they travel, rarely travel smoothly). For many, being able to share a traumatic story with others, for that experience to be recognized and validated, for that experience to affect and move others, will be important. For others, not having to put feelings into words can be a relief, not having to share the experience. We don’t always know how people find the resources to survive. But being willing to listen if speaking is what works means being prepared to be undone by what is said. You have to work to have an open ear, as so much of our life training has taught us to close our ears to whatever gets in the way of our own right to occupy space.

In your research into how emotions work by sticking figures together, you are concerned with figures such as the asylum seeker and the international terrorist. How are these figures sticking together in a narrative structure of feelings?

I have used the idea of stickiness to get at how racism operates. The figure of the “bogus asylum seeker,” circulates in the press as well as politics to create a narrative: that many of those who seek asylum are illegitimate, that they are using the claim to asylum to gain entry into the nation and receive its benefits. So the word “asylum seeker” can convey “bogus.” You don’t even need that word to convey the sense; it has become stuck. And figures can get stuck together; so having a ”soft touch” about asylum and migration in general is often treated as making the nation more vulnerable to terrorism, such that asylum seekers become treated as if they are terrorists. Or think of the use of the expression “Islamic terrorists” which when repeated can stick those two words together, such that “Islamic” evokes terror on its own. Danger and terror is projected onto the bodies of those seen as outsiders, as “not us”, and this “not” sticks to some bodies. There is nothing more dangerous than being perceived as a danger to the nation!

How does the killjoy respond to such narratives?

I am not sure it is about responding as a killjoy, because I am not sure we can be sure if we are always the killjoys! If we assumed that, it might give us too much safety. We too can be part of the problem; those working as activists in these fields are not necessarily unaffected by the racism that structures so much of national discourse. In terms of the narratives themselves, I think we need to work out what is going on. It might seem simple and obvious. And sometimes it is. But actually, I think describing the mechanisms remains an important part of political work because often these mechanisms are reproduced by not coming into view. I also think it is important to note that racism is not something we find over “there”. It is all around us, and can take much more polite and subtle forms than the forms I have described.

Should we be cautious about transferring the theory of the feminist killjoy into the field of asylum and migration?

I think we should be cautious about not assuming the feminist killjoy is a theory or a position that we can occupy. What we learn from the feminist killjoy is that those who expose violence often become the origin of that violence. When we do this kind of work, work that challenges who gets to belong within the nation and who does not, we come up against the very structures we are working against. For example, if you are working against racism, you come up against racism; racism can become directed towards those who expose racism. That is why political work can be so exhausting and so necessary at the same time. I think if I find in this figure some instruction, it would simply be this: if this fight is exhausting, we can be energized by sharing that exhaustion with others. Those who tend to cause trouble often find those who share this tendency!