Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Under the Skin by Sara Ahmed

Reposted from  


Under the Skin

When something gets under your skin, you feel it. The expression registers not only the intensity of a feeling but a sense of a feeling as being lodged all the more firmly because it is below a surface.
I often think of histories as “under the skin.” And by this I refer to how your body can remember something even what you might have forgotten something. A body can remind you. That history might be biographical, dependent on your own comings and goings: like the time you walked down a street, and your skin prickles before you even recall that frightening thing that happened there before. Or a history that gets under the skin might register something more collective: that sense when you walk into a room and things become uncomfortable, and you just “know” what it is about, because you have been there before, too. You bring a history with you, a history that surfaces through you: a brown body can bring things up just by turning up; a history of racism, a reminder of whiteness as occupying, a history that thickens the atmosphere.
So much politics, so much of the stuff that is hard, is felt by the skin, that porous border, that border that feels: where we are touched by a world; where we touch a world.
Perhaps your skin is irritated. When I think of irritation, I think of contact dermatitis. What you come into contact with can irritate your skin. Irritation registers contact as intrusion; the foreign as flame. The surface of your skin might become rougher as well as itchy. You might scratch your skin because it is itchy; and there is a moment of relief, but then it becomes even itchier. You know this will happen, but you can’t help doing it: because those moments of relief are too precious. The quality of an experience is an experience of rubbing against something other than yourself, but once you are rubbed up the wrong way, it can become a relation you have to your own body. To be irritable is to be easily irritated. Maybe this can be a self-perception: we might feel ourselves to be irritable. Everything rubs us up the wrong way. Or you might by judged as others as irritating. It can be irritating to be judged as irritating! How you are affected by a judgment can be how you fulfill a judgement.
To speak from irritation is to speak from being rubbed up against the world in a certain way. We all know that life is full of mild irritations. Perhaps irritation is a little like infection; things eventually come to a head. There is a point when it all comes out, a tipping point. There are a certain number of times you can be rubbed up the wrong way, before you end up snapping. A snap might only appear to be sudden; a snap is one moment of a longer history of being affected by what you come up against.
Snap: a moment with a history.
I will come back to snap. But I have been thinking in a different way about skin by thinking differently about contact dermatitis. I have been thinking how privilege itself can be like contact dermatitis.  You are irritated because you have come into contact with something; you have been rubbed up the wrong way by something. If you know what is that you came into contact with, you can avoid contact. But perhaps you might have eczema. Part of your situation is that there is not something outside yourself that you can eliminate to remedy the situation. You are a situation. Your body is a situation. You cannot leave yourself behind. Where ever you go your irritation goes with you. Even though you are not the cause of it, you are constantly inflamed, so you feel like your body is the source of that inflammation.
I know this from living with racism from an early age. Growing up brown in a white world was like this: being constantly inflamed. I had eczema as a child, and living with racism and living with eczema always felt like the same kind of inflammation!
I have been thinking about contact dermatitis in relation to my own cis privilege as I have come into contact with transphobia and trans exclusionary “feminisms,” as my contact has intensified over the past month. In the past I have thought of privilege as an “energy saving device” or in terms of experiences you do not have to have; or thoughts you do not have to think. We can also think of privilege in more affective terms: as a matter of what gets under your skin. Privilege might be like this: being able to avoid contact with the cause of an inflammation. I had thought that one of the worst aspects of this recent letter to the Guardian that I discussed in this earlier post, which created a drama over hyped up allegations of censorship, would be the new legitimacy it would give to anti-trans and trans-exclusionary feminism. And then I thought I was witnessing an increase; another kind of inflammation; a rise of volume, a turning up. But I quickly realised that what I heard as an increase was just the same thing that had been going on: that volume switch was already stuck on full blast. My cis privilege was not having to notice it; not having to be affected by it; not having to hear the sound of that blast.
What I write below is written from my point of view as a cis woman trying to hear something that has not being directed toward me. I am sure I will get things wrong, but we have to risk a wrong to right a wrong. Bear with me.
I think privilege might explain how some do not realise what is going on: the constant nature of harassment and provocation that trans people have to endure every day. I thought I had a sense of it: but no. I am part of this some.
Elsewhere I have called this everyday harassment a hammering (in relation to racism, sexism and homophobia). I think of it as a “chip, chip, chip” away at being; a “chip, chip, chip” that can be constant and relentless.  I suspect many non-trans feminists who have rushed to sympathise with anti trans feminists have not been in contact with the relentless nature of this harassment. You might see the reaction by this or that person as the origin of violence because if you do not bear witness to what people are reacting to: a constant everyday volume of harassment.  In reflecting on this harassment, I do not want to cite individual authors; I have no interest in engaging directly with anyone who participates in this “chip, chip, chip,” this hammering away that constantly renders a trans person a being in question, or a questionable being.
Some of the harassment I have witnessed might seem on the surface quite mild. A joke here: a joke there. One recent small example: “I’ve been drunkenly trying to explain transgender politics to a friend. She thinks I’m insane.” Mild you might say (though I think not – the insanity which is the judgment of a friend is the judgment of the tweet). Maybe she didn’t mean anything by it; lighten up. A feminist killjoy knows from experience: when people  keep making light of things, something heavy is going on.
Think of this: what it does to keep coming up against jibes about you, jokes, laughter; see they are pointing. What does it do?
I always think with the examples that come to mind. And when I think of snap, I think of a twig. When a twig snaps, we hear the sound of that snap. We can hear the suddenness of a break. It might seem loud. A snap seems the start of something, how a twig ends up broken in two pieces. A snap might even seem like a violent moment, or the beginning of violence. But it would be a beginning insofar as we do notice or we cannot hear the pressure on the twig. The snap is an effect of a pressure that tends not to be registered unless you feel that pressure. Can we describe the world from the twig’s point of view? When you don’t take it, when you can’t take any more of it, what happens? The moment of not taking it is so often understood as losing it. When a snap is registered as the origin of violence, the one who snaps is deemed violent.  Violence originates here only if you miss a history of violence. You can see how a feminist politics might insist on renaming actions as reactions, pointing to histories that show how a snap is not a starting point, even if it’s the start of something. A feminist project would be or should be to bear witness to the pressure, the violence, which is not always audible from the outside, to those who are not under that pressure.
I hear this often: how can we initiate a dialogue, say between radical feminists and trans feminists? Can’t we just be seated at the same time, to talk this out, to talk this through? Can’t we just be reasonable: there are two sides, let’s hear them both?
The only starting point is this: no one at a table has the right to decide in advance who counts as “women.” It is not up to us to decide who is and is not “women” in advance of a conversation.[1] When people use criteria to decide who counts, that criteria has already become a technique for exclusion because it is not criteria that will be shared by others. This is why the criteria being used to exclude trans women from “women” keep changing: when content (a woman is x) is being used as an end (you are not x), ideas have already become weapons.
Any way of saying you do not belong here, in this category, but also in this room, this shelter, in this group, any way of saying, if you arrive my safety will be compromised, any way of saying seems to be what ends up being said.
You might think: but what if there is truth in the criteria? You might point to the biological facts. Well biology is contingent, mutable and variable. There are some who hold onto rigid ideas of biological sex, but feminists historically have not been among them! In some cases, I have heard people refer to “biology 101” or scientific basis of female and male sex difference to claim trans women are not “biologically women.” I want to rebuke: biology 101? Well patriarchy wrote that textbook and pass them a copy of Anne Fausto-Sterling’s Sexing the Body (2000) or Andrea Dworkin’s Woman Hating, a radical feminist text that supports transsexuals having access to surgery and hormones and challenges what she calls “the traditional biology of sexual difference” based on “two discrete biological sexes” (1972: 181, 186). There is no point in being gender critical if you are going to leave this traditional biology intact as biology is already invested in meaning and value, as feminists have shown us for generations; it is invested in value because the desire to see two sexes (“it’s a girl, “it’s a boy”) not only creates a system of alignment (“if not one, then the other”) but does not see the immense heterogeneity and variability of biological existence.  To be gender critical whilst assuming two discrete biological sexes is to tighten rather than loosen a gender system. Radical feminists have been among those who have shown us this!
What is going on in this anti-trans work is the desire to exclude and police the boundaries of “women” on whatever basis can be found (hence the target is a moving target). In our collective feminist histories this policing of who are “women” has been about how a specific group of women have secured their right to determine who belongs within feminism (whiteness has been a key mechanism for policing feminism). Policing the boundaries of “women” has always been disastrous for feminism.  And just remember this too, feminism is possible because of a premise that is a promise: we do not have to live by other people’s assignments.
So even if we were prepared to take the arguments on, one by one, we know the target will move. The arguments are more rebuttals than arguments.  A rebuttal is “a form of evidence that is presented to contradict or nullify other evidence that has been presented by an adverse party.” A rebuttal is directed against an existence by the very requirement to provide evidence of existence.
A rebuttal can thus be directed not only against evidence but against an existence.
A rebuttal derives from “butt,” often used in the sense of a target or aim (as in the “butt” of a joke). These literatures work by rendering trans people the butt: a way of rebutting an existence, which is why, I also think, jokey comments and exchanges have become such a significant part of the harassment. And it is very important to consider how the “milder” apparently more polite or cautious arguments (though I would not use these words) are participating in the exact same logics as the more extreme rebuttals of trans existence; a participation that often takes the form of qualification, in which another kind of “but” is used to create a softer impression: I am not saying trans women are not women, but. What follows this qualifying “but” is often a rebuttal of what precedes this “but.”
When rebuttal becomes the point we have a rebuttal system.
I have called these mechanisms “problematic proximities” or “sticky signs” in my work on racist speech acts. So someone might say “I do not think all Muslims are terrorists,” they might even appeal to their own anti-racist credentials. But then they might use terms like “Islamic terrorists,” often repeatedly, thus preserving the association between Islam and terror.  You can preserve an association by the very appearance of arguing against it.
So an extreme version of an anti-trans argument might be: trans women are rapists (I have seen the argument on flyers distributed at a feminist marches as well as tweets). Or another version might be: trans women are not rapists and trans women are women who might themselves have been raped but their presence in a shelter might make some cis women who have been raped feel less safe. Between the two statements, one extreme, the other milder and more qualified, complex, is a layer of activity.
Who is the lost in that layer? Who is lost?
Where will you draw the line with trans women. One hears that. She might have a penis. One hears that. Penises commit rape. One hears that. Trans women bring penises into the room. One hears that.  Women’s spaces are invaded by maleness. One hears that.  Women’s spaces are invaded by the organs than render women unsafe. One hears that. Trans women are rapists. One hears that.
One hears that.
Follow the lead: from one statement to another, where do you go, where do you end up.[2]
And you might ask: who would say that! Some of these sentences don’t make sense: they certainly don’t make feminist sense.
Each sentence has a history. Penises commit rape: that’s a sentence with a history.
Penises commit rape: this is not a feminist sentence. I should not need to say why, but it seems one needs to explain even this.  Commit is a verb. It is attached to a subject. When the subject of the sentence is penis, it is precisely not a statement about male responsibility for rape (or a statement that could address what feminists have called rape culture). It gives agency to penises, as if penises rape on their own, thus rehearsing that long standing assumption that is central to how rape is justified as an inevitable biological event: men can’t help it; they are led by their penises.
How could feminists send out such statements?  Penises keep coming up for a reason. The statements are part of a series; they are part of rebuttal system, which is to say they have target, a butt. Trans women have become that butt. That becoming involves a huge amount of violence and harassment. When this system is working, some basic feminist ideas are lost along the way.
It should be a crisis; if it is not a crisis, we need to make it a crisis.
What I have come into contact with has inflamed me. And I hope to use my privilege as well as I can: not to let myself not be affected by this. I hope to stay irritated by avoiding avoidance. I have no interest in conversing with those who are articulating these kinds of statements. That is not a table I would join. My task is always to describe the mechanisms, diversity work is descriptive as well as mechanical work; as well as to build networks and connections with those for whom survival is a project that requires being open to others.
Maybe I have one little hope: I do hope some of you who have rushed to judgment, who have signed letters or been enraged by bullying or unkindness directed against anti-trans feminists will do just one thing: put yourself in contact with this material, put yourself near enough so you can hear that “chip, chip, chip,” that hammering, and listen to your skin.
Ahmed, Sara (2000). Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality. London: Routledge.
Dworkin, Andrea (1972). Woman Hating. New York: E.P.Dutton.
Fausto-Sterling, Anne (2000). Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of 
Sexuality. New York: Basic Books.
[1] I read one suggestion that organising as “women born women” or women who are women “at birth” or “since birth” is just a way of organising as a specific group of women (like women of colour organising). I would have so much to say about this ordinarily (and about the use of this analogy by a white feminist). Let me just say this: “born” and “birth” become terms as part of what I have called a rebuttal system: they arrive with the arrival of trans women. I doubt very much feminists would use such terms otherwise (in fact much feminist effort has been to expose how one is not born but becomes a woman, to evoke Simone de Beauvoir, which is also to say: “woman” is an embodied as well as historical situation. Secondly, women of colour organise our own groups because white feminists have dominated and occupied feminism (trans women have hardly done so, in fact they have had to fight to be allowed into feminist spaces at all). Thirdly, one of the primary grounds for anti-racist organising is identification: women of colour groups are open to those who identify as women of colour (because we cannot always “tell the difference”). Identification is the basis of any such organising.
[2] I think one way of accounting for this lead would be through “stranger danger.” In my book, Strange Encounters (2000) I drew on Mary Douglas’s understanding of dirt as “matter out of place,” to suggest that strangers become “bodies out of place.” The body out of place is the body that endangers those who are in place (the stranger is not only loitering, residing improperly, but is assumed to be loitering with intent). In the book I explored Neighbourhood Watch Schemes as techniques for recognising strangers, for differentiating between those who have a right to belong (often defined in terms of property ownership) and those who do not often (often defined in terms of criminality). The stranger is often a racialised as well as classed figure: if the stranger could be anyone, some bodies more than others are recognised as strangers. I think that trans women have become recognised as strangers in this way: as matter out of place, as not belonging within feminist spaces, as residing improperly, as having a malicious intent, as endangering those who are already there. This approach would allow us to rethink anti-trans feminism as a Neighbourhood Watch Scheme (the Gender Identity Website would be one way of demonstrating the nature and effects of the policing involved). One more thing: those who are recognised as strangers are often those who are the most vulnerable and endangered. There can be nothing more dangerous than the social agreement that “that” person is dangerous. I think we know this.


  1. Hello, thank you for sharing this post. I wanted to be sure and cite this from S.Ahmed's page but am unable to find this specific post in her feministkilljoys blog. Would you happen to have a link for the original post?

    Thanks for your work!

    1. hi Alejandra, did you receive follow up about this? I am currently in the same spot.