Sara Ahmed’s Work on Institutions

My workshop will be an introduction to the work of Sara Ahmed, an independent scholar whose work has much to teach about how institutions function. While she used to direct the Centre for Feminist Research at Goldsmiths University in London, she resigned from this position as a protest for the university’s mishandling of sexual harrassment complaints. On her website, characterizes her work in the following way: “I work at the intersection of feminist, queer, and race studies. My research is concerned with how bodies and worlds take shape; and how power is secured and challenged in everyday life worlds as well as institutional cultures.” I would describe Ahmed as one of the most prolific and important philosophers of our time. 

Particularly relevant to this class, I think, is Ahmed’s work about ways of navigating institutional spaces, like the university, that are traditionally the domain of white, abeled, men. In her most recent book What’s the Use, Ahmed writes: “We have to find ways of not getting used to it without getting out of it, even if sometimes, for our own survival, our feminist survival, we need to get out of it” (196). One trend I have noticed is that many texts that fall within the umbrella of Critical University Studies will (rightly) critique adjunctification and corporatization, only to fall back on some flat notion of “faculty governance” as the best past forward, either explicitly or inadvertently evoking some notion of “better” days before these trends. These accounts do not take account for the ways the academy has always been racist, sexist, ableist, etc. Ahmed’s work is brilliant in identifying and describing the interpersonal manifestations of structural violence, and, in turn, how these pervasive yet evasive instances of interpersonal violence reinforce structures. 

I have chosen three texts for discussion: 

1. Lecture – “On Complaint” (2018)

In this lecture, Ahmed discusses what the process of complaining about institutions teaches us about how institutions function. After resigning from Goldsmiths in 2016, Ahmed solicited accounts of others who have complained within institutions. These accounts will feature heavily in her forthcoming book Complaint! You can read the description of this project here: I do recommend watching the whole lecture if you have time. In most of Ahmed’s work, she layers the repetition of images and concepts over different examples or iterations of her core concepts. When she speaks one can hear this layering in a way that is really lovely. 

2. Lecture  – “Queer Use” 

You can read this here:

I haven’t been able to find the best quality video of this lecture, but videos exist. 

This lecture summarizes many of Ahmed’s points from her most recent book, What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use (2019), one of several of Ahmed’s work where she traces the ways words work (she considers this as part of a trilogy with The Promise of Happiness (2010) and Willful Subjects (2014)). In this lecture, Ahmed talks both about the ways institutions signal that they are not for everyone’s use, as she puts forth some principles of what “queer use” of institutional spaces might look like. 

3. Article – “Against Students” (2015)

This article is perhaps more related to a niche interest of mine. At around the time this article was written, many (often, but by no means only, ostensibly left) faculty were writing articles about “overly sensitive” students who desired content warnings and safer spaces. Many of these faculty claimed that students were attempting to restrict the freedom of speech of faculty members. This article is Sara Ahmed’s response. I’ll also say that even at this time, I personally believed that the “moral panic” (as Ahmed describes this train of thought) about trigger warnings was a way to warn students against complaining about sexual harassment, almost as if to say: “If you speak out against abuse within this institution, we will characterize you as a whiny, moralistic baby.” Additionally, a lot of the language re: “snowflakes,” language that soon became popular insults hurled by Trump supporters toward those who care for justice, is language that I personally first heard used by academics who consider themselves somehow countercultural.

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