Being a feminist killjoy

About a month ago I heard Lola Olufemi, women’s officer for Cambridge student’s union, being interviewed on BBC radio 4, about her anger at being singled out by a right-wing newspaper from an active group of students working to broaden the literature curriculum , and misrepresented as trying to get rid of ‘white authors’.  She identified herself a feminist killjoy and referred to Sara Ahmed’s arguments for this.  Her proud use of this label prompted me  to revisit Ahmed’s work on happiness as a social norm, especially as the media interview

BOURgeois NY Times

Louise Bourgeois

did not give any space for her to explain this work.  Going back to Ahmed’s arguments about the unequal, conditional ‘promise’ of happiness made me realise how relevant they are right now, when the injustices of workplace sexual harassment and violence are at last being brought into public view. 

Ahmed’s argument about happiness as a kind of social norm is philosophically precise, and that makes it a challenge to summarise here.  You can find some references at the end of this post for you to read in full.  She asks us to look at which social groups get to define what happiness is – what kind of lives and objects are pushed as desirable, to be wished for.  What do we do when what is supposed to make us happy is not what we are experiencing?


Renoir’s the boating party from

Ahmed argues that happiness gets attached to what she calls ‘happy objects’.  These can be things we do as well as things we have.  These objects are pointers towards an end point of happiness.  They point  to the path that will lead to happiness if you follow it.  Think of the wedding day, or the exciting new job or role, of balancing career and children in your perfect home.  Such paths have become social goods; they are what we all should desire.  If you experience unhappiness while following them, if there is a gap between what you actually feel and what you think you should feel – then voicing that unhappiness is seen as a threat; as spoiling the happiness of others.  You become the source of tension, the breaker of solidarity, the troublemaker.  And you feel like a stranger.  We can see the reality of this in the experiences of those who are at last coming forward in significant numbers to talk about being treated primarily as sexual objects by those who have power over them in the workplace, what ever their gender.  The happiness of these men with a little bit, or a lot of power, is finally being challenged.

This kind of trouble making is the inevitable role of the feminist says Ahmed.  If you protest against sexual harassment or even assault, or against unequal pay, or work practices that don’t take a man’s responsibilities as a parent into account, then the defense is that you are the problem.  Don’t rock the boat!

Your complaint is turned back on you.  mona-lisaDon’t complain about that powerful man if you want to be successful in your job – find your own ways to deal with it and smile!  This was the message received by many of those who did voice their unhappiness, their hurt and anger, at the way they were being treated.

Ahmed says that instead of the promise of happiness being laid down for us in advance, we can think about the idea of happiness as a sense of possibility,  a sense of opening up new ways of being, rather than following paths that restrict the possibilities of so many of us.

The more of us that do this, the more change we can make, and we can see this now, in the strength of the numbers of people coming forward now, to make public the unhappiness, distress and anger that has been a hidden part of our workplaces.

LIPS Choir


Sara Ahmed

article – ‘Killing Joy: Feminism and the History of Happiness’, Signs, Vol. 35, No. 3 (Spring 2010), pp. 571-594

book – ‘The Promise of Happiness’ Duke University Press

blog –




Facing my fears for 2017 with the help of Goya’s painting of ‘the dog’.

I’ve recently been thinking of Goya’s painting of ‘the dog’, the simplest of what are called his black paintings, which he painted on the walls of his house in his last years.


Goya’s ‘The Dog’, from the Prado Museum website

All his dark paintings were taken from these walls after his death, and placed in the Prado Museum, Madrid, even though Goya did not necessarily intend them for public view.

It was Laurie Anderson talking about this painting in her personal film essay ‘the heart of a dog’, that made me look it again, as we were nearing the end of 2016.  Like Laurie Anderson, I find that I learn a lot from living alongside dogs, and I have a great love and respect for them.  Perhaps that is why this image of a small dog’s head, submerged in amorphous matter,  makes an emotional impact on me.  In addition, I have been looking at it whilst full of fear for what 2017 will bring – to the UK, the USA, all countries they are connected to; and fear for this lovely planet they are part of.  This small grey dog speaks my fears back to me.

I read its eyes as full of fear, and that this is reinforced through the rest of the painting.  Goya has painted the dog as alone, its body sunk in murky matter.  He has positioned it near the bottom of the wall, just off-centre, facing a rising level of this brown stuff, as if it is about to be enveloped within it.  Trying to describe this painting, to transform it into words, is not straightforward.  No wonder John Berger pointed out

Seeing comes before words

in his seminal TV series and book ‘Ways of Seeing’, way back in the last century (the book I am using was published by the BBC in 1972).

I want to bring in Berger’s work here because it is still highly relevant, but also to mark his recent death at the age of ninety.  He lived his life to the full and used his vision and gift for words to make this human world a kinder, more thoughtful one.

goyas-dog-croppedBerger urged us to consider the context of any painting, as part of its meaning, especially when viewing a reproduction of it, rather than the original, where the work of the painter – the brushstrokes, and colours, close the time gap between the painter and the viewer, and make the communication much more immediate.  That is why I said above that this painting, and all the paintings he did on the walls of this house on the edge of Madrid, were painted for himself, and we have no information about whether he wanted others to look at them, especially in a museum, where they were changed from murals to pictures hung on walls as ‘works of art’.  What we do know is that he had recently recovered from a serious illness before painting them; had gone deaf; that he had experienced the horrors of war in his lifetime, and that the political situation in Spain was very unstable.  A Liberal government that was in power when he he was painting his walls with many disturbing scenes was, in fact, overturned shortly after he moved away.  There are some parallels here between his world and ours, don’t you think? These experiences fed into his painting of the little grey dog.

But the meanings of any image are not fixed by the creator, of course.  The viewer brings to this dialogue their own knowledge and their personal emotional state.  For example, Jonathon Jones, writing about this picture in the Guardian (‘Goya in hell’, 4/10/15), describes the dog thus

Its grey head pokes defiantly out of the brown sludge.


 Jones sees defiance where I see fear.  What do you see?

What none of us see, at this moment of reading, is the original mural, or even the painting it was trasformed into.  We are looking at a digital copy – a type of reproduction Berger knew nothing about when discussing the proliferation of reproductions of paintings back then.  He was arguing that the ready availibility of these reproductions needed to be accompanied by a similar spread of knowledge about what the artists were trying to achieve, and how, and the political and art history they are situated in, and communicating about.  He wanted to take this knowledge out of the hands of an elite few, so that:

we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experiences of our relation to the past: that is to saythe experience of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.

Now we have the internet, and wikipedia, and museum websites we have instant access to a huge amount of the world’s art, and also to that previously elite knowledge.  I can use this, as I am now, to get to know a painting in which I recognise an experience of anxiety that reaches across time, and death, to connect us.  Goya was trying to deal with old age and illness when he painted this, which I have tet to face, but we share the turbulence of political instabilty caused by the strong drives we humans have to split ourselves into distinct groups of ‘us and them’, so we project our own fears onto others.

The first digital copy of this painting I looked at showed an area at the top of the wall, to the right, as painted a lighter, creamy brown than the rest, almost as if there was a distant sun struggling to penetrate the murk surrounding the small dog – a suggestion of light which the dog’s gaze could reach.  This prompted me to read the possibility of hope as part of the meaning of this work of Goya’s.  But looking at a range of digital copies, and learning more about the painting, and the painter, has led me to dismiss this reading as due to the vagaries of the software rather than as part of Goya’s own work at that time of his life.  I wish I could confirm this with a trip to Madrid, but that will have to wait.

goyas-dog-croppedThere does not seem to be much historical data about this series of murals, which ‘the dog’ is part of, and some even dispute that Goya painted them.  Goya left behind no words of commentary or explanation, or, at least, none have been discovered yet.  He has, though, left us this memorable image of a small grey dog alone in an uninviting space, and this expresses some of my emotional state at the beginning of 2017, as well as his own two hundred years ago.  Getting to know this painting has helped me situate my own fears and consider my own finiteness.  It has also helped me through the absences, through what is not included in the painting.  Dogs and humans work very well together,they build reciprocal relationships, but the human companion, who could encourage the dog to get out of the murk, is absent.  What is missing from this painting is any reference to all the amazing endeavour that is helping us understand how interconnected we all are, and how we must keep facing difficult issues together.  Goya was expressing a despair we can all recognise.  Understanding our feelings is important, but so is what we do next.


Women working together at Greenham Common

‘Words are things’: Mary Kelly’s Multi-Story house


IMG_20150226_133142 mary kelly

Mary Kelly: Multi-Story House

Last month I went to the refurbished Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester.  I enjoyed the space and light that has been opened up in the development of this old red brick building, and the way it now blurs the boundaries between the park and gardens outside and the wide, white spaces inside.  I was especially struck by the way they have put together specific portraits from their permanent collection – where studies from the eighteenth century are hung next to contemporary paintings, sketches by unknown artists alongside the powerful works of Freud and Bacon.  Here is the link to this exhibition on their website: Whitworth Gallery: Portraits

The majority of the works are drawings and paintings that hang on walls, but they have also included less conventional ‘portraits’ such as the mix of feminist voices in the stories that are central to Mary Kelly’s ‘Multi-Story House’ (2007).  This small, warmly lit ‘glass house’ (the size of a garden shed) is what I want to focus on here.

In contrast with the images of all types of people on the surrounding walls, this bright object creates its portraits through words.  Instead of responding to a representation of a specific body, reading these ‘stories’ summons up a hubbub of different voices.  The words are all carved into acrylic panels in the same cursive style, all are in (or translated into) English, and all address the theme of feminism.  But the words in each extract conjure up a myriad of mouths, because each speaker draws on a differing choice of words and set of contexts.


The narratives are taken from conversations with women of different generations about being a feminist, and to read them you have to move around all the sides of the house, look up at the sloping roof, go inside to read those that present their back to you from the outside.  So it is a physical experience as well as a mental and emotional one, and one I felt I could ‘control’ by choosing which stories to read, by walking away to think about them, and returning later.  However, the artist directs your experience of  the relations between past and present by presenting all the younger women’s narratives on the outside, and the older generation of women (the same generation as the artist herself) on the inside.

Kelly said of this arrangement of time ‘you can’t be in both places‘ in a conversation with Paula McCloskey at the Whitworth in 2011.  She also said that through this ‘dialogue’ between generations of women she is addressing the question of ‘what (-) you feel that you’re obliged to carry on in terms of the legacy.

Questions are fundamental to her work as an artist, she stated in this interview: ‘I recognised that if an artist has a brief, it’s to ask the question – so that’s where I began in my work. It’s not about the answers,’

I like that approach – it makes sense to me – and perhaps helps me work through why I find some art works so stimulating, so thought-provoking.  They fill my mind with questions, they make me look again, physically or mentally.

Words are things

This is the title to a catalogue of an exhibition of her work in Warsaw in 2008.  I don’t know if Kelly chose this title or not, but it caught my eye as it is so central to her work, especially in Multi-Story House, where we are in the collective presence of other feminists through their words.  Words that you can see through, into the interior of the house, carved material symbols that take us on a journey into ourselves and into other selves.

In her conversation with McCloskey, Mary Kelly talked about the re-staging of a street theatre event, originally enacted in 1971, and she referred to the pleasure she remembered of being in the company of women acting together as feminists, a pleasure that re-occurred between the women involved in the re-staging in this century – the pleasure of a ‘collective presence‘.  This kind of pleasure describes well how I felt as I read the stories, and walked round and peered into her Multi-Story House.  I identified with the dialogue on the panels, and a felt a sense of belonging with these speakers from around the world, all actively embracing and re-affirming an identity that means so much to me too.

56_MaryKelly_Mea Culpa_Detail_Johannesburg_2

Mary Kelly: Mea Culpa 1997 from


Paula McCloskey, in conversation with Mary Kelly, Studies in the Maternal, 4(1), 2012,

Frack off! So demonstrating is not dead?

photographed by Mary Hamilton

Anti-fracking demonstration, Preston 23/6/15

On Tuesday 23 June I found myself back on the streets, holding a placard and shouting anti-fracking slogans to the passing cars.  All this in Preston, UK, as Lancashire County Council deliberated over proposals from Cuadrilla to start fracking in two sites in the county.  Voicing my opinion in public, in the company of like-minded others, has been, for me, a normal activity, having gone to university in 1968, one of the key years of rebellion and sit-ins that flowed across the channel from Paris.  Collective demonstrations and marches were part of what it meant to be a university student for many of us – protesting against the apartheid system, nuclear weapons, wars.

These recent anti-fracking demonstrations have contributed to positive results so far, thankfully.   In Preston the County Council finally rejected both proposals for fracking licenses.  (This will not be the end of the fight though as the current government is threatening to overirde these crucial, local decisions).  I’m sure all the petitions and expert submissions to the consultation were the main cause of this happy outcome in Lancashire, but a street presence was important too, with

Anti-fracking demonstration, Preston 23/6/15

Mr Frackhead, a huge puppet bellowing out his greed for the fossil fuels under the ground, hot polar bears and Lancashire ladies in rollers tucked under headscarves, brandishing their feather dusters.

Anti-fracking demonstration, Preston 23/6/15

The demonstration was noisy but humorous and considerate to other users of the street and I felt instantly at home when I joined in.  There were not, though, the few thousands of people I had hoped to be there for a national demonstration.  Has demonstrating become a minority activity in England these days?  Where were all the students?

I wonder if the long-term lack of success of big street demonstrations has reduced the numbers joining in these collective actions here in the England?

My own view on the value of demonstrating had certainly become less positive by the end of the last century.  So much so that I was very reluctant to join in the series of anti-Iraq invasion marches when Blair was prime minister.   ‘What was the point?’ I asked myself.  However, when the farce about Iraq having weapons of mass destruction grew more and more ridiculous I, like millions of others around the world, got up at the crack of the UK dawn on February 15th 2003,and sat on a coach as it headed down the M6 to the capital.  I remember the rising excitement as we spotted coach after coach on the motorway, all heading the same way, with banners and placards at the windows.  There was certainly no disappointment about numbers that day as we joined the huge snaking tail of the march, and danced behind the bands and chatted with fellow marchers, my cynical coat tossed into the gutter.

Anti-Iraq War march, 15/2/03 by Simon Rutherford -

Anti-Iraq War march, 15/2/03
by Simon Rutherford –

I felt privileged to be part of the huge diversity of the protestors, reflecting the larger population – people of all ages and colours ; people proclaiming their differing faiths, families with young children, local communities and organsiations.  Here is a short extract from my journal that I wrote the next day:

Near Picadilly a man and a woman stood at the side of the road with handwritten placards- one of which said, “I am Iraqi and I give thanks on behalf of my people.”  We saluted them – a moving moment – the two of them were brave and proud and humble all at the same time.

There was a feeling of coming together, across different identities, lives and beliefs – a very tenuous and fragile union of different peoples – but present none the less.

I was so glad I had shrugged off my layer of cynicism and became a part of that very special day.  It showed me, once again, that my passions and values were also the passions and values of a large and diverse section of the country I am a citizen of.  Yet Blair, like Thatcher before him (I’m thinking of the miners’ strikes), refused to be swayed from his rigid perspective by these millions of people marching in his own city, and across the world.  As Patrick Barkham wrote in the Guardian on the tenth anniversary of this march, this failure led to mass disillusion about British democracy ( .  It could, I think, be argued that the continuing decline in voting numbers for general elections, and the increasing distrust of politicians has been fuelled by Blair’s refusal to take account of this huge anti-war protest.  Its immediate failure certainly cemented my own disillusionment about the power of the mass demonstration.  We still have nuclear weapons in the UK and we are still trying to safeguard the planet.

Like many other women I had also been part of two of the larger rallies at Greenham Common, demonstrating against the presence of American Cruise missiles in this country.  On those days I experienced the power of solidarity with other women, and the courage born from it.

Now that was a successful collective action, eventually, thanks to the dedicated team of women who gave up their daily lives, and sometimes their freedom, for the time it took to free England from these weapons of mass destruction.  This success only came out of dedication, perseverance and committment though.  It required much more from those who achieved it than the odd day of getting up early and joining together with a mass of others sharing the same values.  More recent collective actions such as Occupy have learnt this need for committment to a more enduring identity of protest.

Is there a future for the shorter, mass gathering on the streets (or in threatened green spaces) with other citizens in this country?  Our TV and computer screens show that this is a form of action very much alive in other countries where goverment decisions are seen to have a more immediate impact on their lives.

Barkham argues that the huge anti-Iraq war led to disillusion, but that it also shaped the future lives of many of those who took part in the protest and led to new forms of protest.  He interviewed some of the younger people who joined that march, including a volunteer steward, Shamiul Joarder.  He quotes Joarder as saying, “You can’t go to one protest and think that things are going to change for ever. You can’t email your MP once. We have to engage in a long-term process,”.  Greenham Common showed this too. To create change takes more than a day on the streets with a placard.

Street protests may not bring about immediate change but I think they still have a place within the array of political and

Anti-fracking demonstration, Preston 23/6/15

social activities.  My recent short stint on the streets of Preston has helped me to trample on my heavy coat of cynicism.  These gatherings are important to build solidarity with likeminded others, to renew our energies and proclaim those values that are so important to us.  I shall be back!

Photographs of the Preston demonstration were taken by Mary Hamilton.

Post election reflections: shedding the ego

Dama by Antonio Saura 1958

Dama by Antonio Saura 1958

Since the election results in the UK those of us in England who are passionate about caring for all the species on our planet, have been full of despair. Those of us in England who are trying to build an egalitarian society, where all can flourish, have been full of despair. During the election the atmosphere throughout this long island has been suffused with fear and anxiety and negative campaigning.  That’s why I have started this post with one of Antonio Saura’s powerful works. They show, in a way I can’t with words, my current feelings of alienation – through his strong thick brush strokes, his sober palette of colours, his sharp edges.  The white strokes caught up, overwhelmed, in this jangle signify, for me, the glimmer of hope shared by many of us as we went to vote.

Time, I thought, to turn back to Roy Bhaskar. Could he help free me from these negative feelings? Help me struggle out of the mires of defeat and find ways to carry forward our vision without acrimony?

He reminds me that to be is to be related.

He reminds me that I cannot myself be free or fulfilled until all beings are also free and fulfilled.

He reminds me of the role of the ‘ego’ that is so self-evident in the voting patterns at the outcome of this election.  Here is his description of this, from ‘Reflections on Meta-Reality’, page 137:

It is that sense we have of ourselves as separate and cut off from the rest of creation, that sense of my separate identity against yours. That sense that in some way I can exist independently of you and that you are not a part of me and that in some way my well being does not depend on your well being. That is the ego. Western philosophy and our contemporary society is structured around the idea of the individual self which possesses. And this individual possessive self stands in possessive, instrumental relation to an object world which is outside of himself. (……….) That is the ego, that is the sense of separateness that we have, and that is an illusion and, to be free, we have to get rid of it.

He reminds me that we all have to be continually working to be aware of our own negative emotions that come from our egos, and continually clearing them in order to become ‘like a translucent vessel with no dust to disturb its translucent irradiating qualities.’  In that way we each can act to transform rather than reproduce the current social structures we are working in.

He reminds me that

the only way you can act, ever act, is through yourself. You can only act through or in virtue of your embodied personality. (..) I can only act through myself and then I cannot free you. I can unlock the door but you have to walk out. Emancipation or freedom is not something that can be imposed from without. Every embodied personality has to free themselves.(p. 147)

I can only act myself but I can always try to act to maximise the self-realisation of all beings everywhere.

He argues that capitalism is fed by the negative emotions of the ego – desires, greed, pride but also reminds us that it is also sustained by the virtues of creativity and love of those enmeshed within its asymmetrical networks.

Creative human beings could survive without oppressive or dysfunctional systems of economic or political or for that matter religious management and control. But those systems could not survive without the creativity of human agents. (pp. 316-7, meta-Reality: Creativity, Love and Freedom)

He reminds me that I need to continually be aware of my own illusory, but powerful ego; that I need to continually clear it so that my acts can be transformative.  ‘Anything you do intentionally will be mediated by your emotions’.

I will finish this post with the essential quality of love, which for Bhaskar is the powerful, healing force at the ground-state of us all:

I prefer to think in terms of five radiating circles of love. When you are in one circle this will almost inevitably take you into other circles. These circles are the circle of love for yourself; for another human being; for the totality of other human beings; for the totality of other beings in creation; and for the source or sustaining power in creation itself (p.181, meta-Reality: Creativity, Love and Freedom).

Drum sound rises in the air,               

its throb, my heart.September 2011 Essex and Suffolk 003

A voice inside the beat

says ‘I know you’re tired,

but come. ‘This is the way’.

Jellaludin Rumi, quoted by Bhaskar in meta-Reality: Creativity, Love and Freedom)