An Open Conversation about Institutional Barriers: Impressions and Reflections from Sara Ahmed’s Visiting Seminar

By Clara Wilch

Near the end of a largely open-format and fascinating conversation between the distinguished thinker and author, Sara Ahmed, and a group of graduate students, Ahmed offered some simple directional advice for approaching academia: “retain the thing that drives you as an intellectual. I think our works get better when we are less directed by the norms and more by what interests us.” Of late, what has been most interesting to Ahmed are norms themselves: those objectionable norms of academic institutions that are designed to deter inspection, acting as walls of discriminatory and differential treatment that are invisible until you run up against them. Research on research institutions has the mind-bending feature of implicating those assembled for Ahmed’s visiting seminar and subsequent lecture, as well as Ahmed herself (self-implication being another suggestion she offered for how to identify a worthwhile intellectual pursuit).

As a student of theater and performance studies, I have had many conversations about praxis, considering how to manifest theories as creative practice (and vice versa), questions of infinitely adjustable scale. Sara Ahmed’s recent work strikes me as an exemplary and very wide-lens praxis that is well-summarized by the title of her 2017 book publication, Living a Feminist Life. Ahmed’s important work on intersectional feminism and affect has lately incorporated an ethnographic approach in which the questions she asks and the projects she undertakes are intellectual experiments that derive from lived experiences (her own, as well as those of institutional worker interviewees) and that propel real-world instantiations. Most notably, Ahmed left her former teaching position in protest of a failure to properly address sexual harassment complaints. While the temporal and causal relationship between theory and praxis may be complex, it seems to stand that she has long thought and written about living a feminist life in order to work to actually live one.

In the room with us, Ahmed was careful to acknowledge the particulars that have enabled her the economic and personal security to presently work as an independent scholar. Her experience was not posited as universal, and even in a circumstance of egregious institutional barriers, her praxis shouldn’t necessarily be prescriptive. She did not broadly condemn academia, which she described as “an incredible… environment where you’re able to talk to people and to learn and to read… I do still think of myself as a part of that.” A commitment to academia’s particular and crucial virtues, however, demands that we deeply consider how we might be effectively, actionably and constructively critical of the contexts in which so many lives of the mind are planted and grown.

Conversations concerning discrimination, harassment and hypocrisy can be difficult but they are necessary, and are increasingly part of public discourse. Through her catchy re-appropriation of stereotypes and re-invigoration of gender politics as a self-affirmed “feminist killjoy,” Ahmed acknowledges that many of her motivating interests can be discomforting. Although Ahmed is not at all shy about being personally opposed to certain practices or patterns of behavior and specific environments that normalize them, the seminar’s concern was not to delineate “good” from “bad” institutions, policies or practices. To my mind, this conversation had a more fundamental interest, namely that institutions of higher education are always consequential, high-stakes environments in which how knowledge is produced and who is most empowered or barred from producing or accessing that knowledge are never static nor neutral concerns.

Of course, issues of access, positionality, representation, hegemony and marginalization are major concerns of much academic thought, particularly in the humanities, and they have made their marks on institutional self-conceptualization. Multiple participants in this seminar, for instance, had been called upon in their professional lives, in and beyond academia, to function as “diversity workers,” paid to further institutional goals of achieving broader representation. Yet Ahmed’s research documents a recurring chasm between stated theoretical or bureaucratic goals and the ultimate state of things (which is often prone to reverting as much as possible to the pre-existing status quo). Ideals, principles or even stated policy can be at odds with what students, faculty, staff and administrative decision-makers are able to say or willing to hear, and most basically at odds with the authoritative institutional determination as to what is (un)acceptable, who is hired, who is supported, and who is retained. Or, as Ahmed eloquently encapsulated the phenomenon, “the gap between what is supposed to happen and what does happen is densely populated.”1 Ahmed has traced the movement of complaints through structures and suggests that what “does happen” may ultimately undercut the most noble, compelling, rational or otherwise meritorious conclusions of intellectual theorizing or administrative planning.

In her lecture, Ahmed brought to light a particularly knotted and troubling nexus of these issues in what she terms “non-performativity.” In contrast to J.L. Austin’s performative, wherein words enact or do something, she defined the non-performative as occurrences “when naming something does not bring something into effect, or (more often) when something is named in order not to bring something into effect.”2 Ahmed’s research demonstrates that diversity positions or complaint handling can have a distinctly non-performative function, enabling an institution to appear or feel as if it is complying with aspirations or requirements (of diverse representation or equal treatment) to a point— without taking a diversity worker’s or complainant’s concerns or suggestions seriously enough to absorb it structurally (or even redress immediate wrongdoing).

As a scholar, I believe in the importance and efficacy of intellectual labor, and that many academic institutions are deeply genuine in their stated pursuits of “equity and diversity.” However, in their incredible and important aptitude for intelligent and high-minded thought and speech, universities may be especially susceptible to the stultifying non-performative. In hearing the other students present for Ahmed’s visit discuss their research, ideas and lives, it was evident there is a commitment to maintaining those conversations and vocalizing those grievances that do enact change, often through clouds of difficulty and discomfort, on stubborn if invisible walls— and that such effort is consistently needed. This seminar acted as an expansive and deeply reflexive reminder of the necessity for responsive vigilance as to where our best laid plans are actually taking us, and what and whom they might risk leaving behind.

Clara Wilch is a PhD Student in Theater and Performance Studies at UCLA. On February 13, 2018, she participated in a CSW-hosted seminar with Dr. Sara Ahmed.

  1. Sara Ahmed, “Complaint as Diversity Work,” given February 14, 2018.
  2. Ibid.