Review: Carol Queon Sara Ahmed

What’s the Use: On the Uses of Use

Sara Ahmed starts her book by reflecting on its naming:

The title of this book is a use expression, one that seems to point to the pointlessness of doing something […] We might ask “what’s the use?” when we have reached a conclusion that there is no use.

Re-reading this through the cycles of a pandemic, it’s a hard relate. Just a few months ago fire storms devastated Indigenous lands – but once the smoke particles dissipated from our urban atmospheres and we couldn’t smell it anymore, things went back to business as usual.

Here we are living in another rupture within the perpetual state of settler colonial crisis, and it is here we must ask, what’s the use if things go back to ‘normal’? The language around mutual aid has become widely used, localised community support infrastructures have been set up, rent strikes and expressions of solidarity with migrant workers and undocumented folks are being organised – and yet in the mainstream media, the emphasis rests on stories of individual good deeds. Mutual aid has long been an anarchistic cornerstone of many First Nations, Black, Brown, and Asian communities – it is only possible between people already in mutual recognition.

The COVID-19 pandemic has produced widespread despair; it has exacerbated conditions of systemic violence, precarity and homelessness that Indigenous communities, refugees, asylum seekers, eX-detainees, people in prison, disabled folks, undocumented people, public housing tenants, migrant workers, and international students long have been struggling through. We can barely process the day-to-day updates of the colonial government’s panic, failure, and moral turpitude: racist travel bans, untargeted health and safety protocols, increased police powers, and encouragement of Crime Stoppers-style snitching on your neighbours. All the while people continue valiantly their work in hospitals, grocery stores, post offices, cleaning services, public transport, and so on. Many of these jobs, which are low paid, labour-intensive, and insecure have now been refreshed as useful, as ‘essential services’.

‘What’s the use?’ is an irresistible refrain when living under the illegitimate jurisdiction of so-called Australia. It is difficult to break the patterns of non-consent, policing, and harm when the poor and marginalised have to constantly fight for their survival, and prove their utility-value to the state. Sara Ahmed’s book takes the unassuming word ‘use’ and reveals it as an inherited project of transgenerational weaving, of intellectual genealogies that cut across lands, oceans, and temporal worlds. Writing this essay has been surprisingly cathartic during self-isolation. It has given me space to play with the word use too; I find Ahmed’s writing encouraging in its use of wordplay, and so you may hear echoes of her writing in mine. Perhaps I will call it a proud inheritance of her use of uses, of soft intention to produce useful thinking. Ahmed takes the book through four registers: the everyday and the material, genealogies and inheritances, institutional ethnographic work, positionality and positioning.

Affection and instrumentality can be different threads woven together in the same story about use.

A broken pot, a scruffy bag, a used-up toothpaste, a post box-turned-birds nest, a toilet with an out-of-use sign on it. These are a few examples included in Chapter One – ‘Using Things’ – of how material comes to matter. In line with her ongoing commitment to thinking through concepts in grounded ways, Ahmed takes her cues from objects she comes into contact with – and extrapolates. She mentions that it was an object that had brought her to this project on use, but it is left uncertain as to which object. The cover of the book implies that it might be the post-box; although it may also be an administrative letter. Ahmed describes in length the archival digging that she had gone through to find this letter – a document catalogued in the British national archives – with the word use double-underlined for emphasis. In Ahmed’s description of her everyday research work, questions emerge around the uses of governance and the things that get chosen for preservation (future use) – decisions made in closed spaces like boardrooms and cabinet meetings. The introductory chapter speaks to her intuitive observational method, of careful looking and attention to the archive, despite unintuitive processes of accessing and using them.

Utility is a key word in this book. We are urged to think expansively of use, for ‘the magic and mundane can belong in the same horizon; use can be plodding and capacious at the same time.’ Utility is not always associated with the charmless and unadorned though; it also makes me think of its popular aesthetic in ‘militant’ fashion – cargo pants, combat boots, belts and straps – people who are dressed at once riots and for queer clubs. Sartorially, utility takes on function and comfort but also treads the thin line of appropriating working class, military, wartime migrant, and refugee clothing. In aesthetics there are always stakes involved with the functional and the fatal; ‘the lower you are in a class hierarchy, the more you are supposed to be determined by function – function as fate’.

In her second chapter, ‘The Biology of Use and Disuse’, Ahmed elaborates on, and reckons with, biology as archival, somatic history that can be metaphorically thought of as a constant process of shedding skin. Here she conjures use’s history of ideas and languaging within the fact of embodiment, to offer a way of understanding the assignment of usefulness and the fatality of uselessness. ‘Function as fate’ sets the premise for the book’s genealogical exploration of utilitarianism.

You know that irritating game played by people who like to be ‘devil’s advocate’? They often pose the trolley question, of people tied up on train tracks and whether you’d sacrifice one person to save many others – as if anyone can come up with a logical answer to this. Utilitarianism then, is posed as moral thinking that focuses on the end over the means. In telling us to maximise impartially the aggregate well-being of everyone, harm is justified if doing so is needed to achieve the vague, overarching moral principle of ‘greatest happiness’. We can see how the same utilitarian rhetoric is being wheeled out in response to COVID-19, in the depraved death cult logic that certain deaths are ‘acceptable’ in order to ‘save the national economy’.

Ahmed elaborates by tracking utilitarian thinking from its roots in the eighteenth century, first by comparing Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Charles Darwin. This is a purposeful historical and philosophical unravelling of the work of two cis white men who were proponents of biological evolution’s relation with ‘natural laws’. Lamarck was the first to use biology in a scientific sense, developing his theory of animal evolution through studying the disused organs of animals in relation to time and environment. The idea is that disused organs can remain physically and are not always lost to an evolutionary process, even if they no longer serve a ‘useful’ function. He notes that living things make habits even in dynamic habitats, so the use of body parts is contingent and can also change with the environment.

Lamarck’s thinking had an effect on Darwin’s conceptualisation of use and disuse, that is reflected in The Origin of Species, where he evokes domestication as a matter of accumulation of things useful to man (which man?). Ahmed notes Darwin’s excuse for instrumentalising others can be understood as a technique of redirection – indeed, Darwin becomes the foundational architect of the economy of use that we know today, even as he calls it ‘natural selection’. His projection of ‘natural law’ as accidental and happenstance in turn lead to the development of eugenicist ideas, murderous thoughts that require thinking of natural selection as utilitarian.

This is of course the history of colonialism, where utilitarianism is used to justify past and ongoing colonialism as ‘increasing overall happiness’. Ahmed connects Darwin with John Locke’s influence on how land is cultivated, by defining use through the labour theory of property. She locates the way in which utilitarian thought was paramount to justifying colonial and imperial genocidal violence. Palestine as terra nullius is the example presented by Ahmed: if the function of the empty land is its fate, then its disuse becomes degeneracy. This structure of determination makes fatal the fate of those who live on, and in relation to, the land.

A history of the requirement to be useful is also a history of exhaustion.

To be in service is something that I’ve always known – it is a love language in my family and our culture, but it is also socialised as a virtue growing up Chinese in both Singapore and so-called Australia (albeit with different privileges and modalities). COVID-19’s arrival in the settler colony has made it abundantly clear that even if you’re a ‘useful’ migrant contributing to their economy, they will turn against you.

Ahmed’s book has made me think a lot about useful bodies and disease, as it relates to my own. Border shutdowns are a largely ineffective response to epidemics, yet we have seen the white supremacy of this policy in the uneven distribution of how the border shutdown has been policed. Here, travel bans first targeted Chinese people and other Asian people, holding them in the notorious Christmas Island detention centre that has also imprisoned the Biloela Tamil family for over two years to date. Certain travellers were allowed to quarantine in hotels, cruise ship passengers were allowed to disembark – while refugees and asylum seekers transferred onland under the now disassembled medevac laws have been detained, four people in a room, at the Mantra Hotel in Preston since December 2019. It is no surprise that the useful/useless bodily dichotomy has been for a long time, racialised and ranked.

When we see the emergence of COVID-19 in China as a disease fanned by intense practices of industrialisation and deforestation fed by capitalist, neo-imperialist hunger and global demand, we understand that epidemics are created, not discovered. I also noted very little empathy for Wuhan and other regions in China when rising death tolls became visibilised. Instead, western media and political discourse worked to reconstruct the age-old Orientalist trope of Chinese people as diseased. Observing virality within the representative terrain, my impression is that anti-Asian and anti-Chinese racism spreads faster than actual viruses. In the first week of announced social isolation measures, my friend Tasnim made an astute observation on a Facebook status about how those who don’t consider themselves infectious have been too busy for decades racialising disease – hence their eugenicist claims of ‘herd immunity’ whilst summoning yellow peril. As we worked on this essay, my editor, Andrew Brooks, also connected the fact that when whiteness is ontologically attached to notions of property and therefore inherently valuable (as Goenpul and Quandamooka professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson explores in The White Possessive), that whiteness audaciously finds itself a form of immunity.

It is distressing then (though unsurprising), to observe migrant community organisations clamouring to distance themselves from the ‘more diseased Asian foreigner’. Here, the will to be useful makes one more assimilable, but it also makes one disappearable. Ahmed talks about how ‘to be unused can mean to unbecome’. Reading this line makes my heart ache. I am thinking of all the Asian women, gender non-conforming, and trans folks who disappear when their ‘use value’ changes – in conditions of domestic violence, trans violence, trafficking and exploitative work overseas, wartime sex slavery and servitude. Sometimes they re-emerge in life or image or memory, but the order of being disappearable and depletable is particular to Asian femininities. Anne Anlin Cheng in Ornamentalism talks about the yellow woman’s nonexistence, as someone too aestheticised to suffer injury but so aestheticised that she invites injury. Never forget that Donna Haraway in The Cyborg Manifesto talks about the ‘Oriental’ women labourers as the original cyborgs, the future of human-technology amalgamations, with their nimble fingers making chips in factories in Asia – this racialised conflation is still in use.

This cyborgian fantasy echoes Ahmed’s reading of Lamarck’s blacksmith’s arm, which is a story told to explain the inheritance of acquired characteristics as a measure of social progress. The argument goes: as blacksmiths habitually exercised their arm muscles through their craft, their children will also inherit similar muscular development. My previous example of Haraway gives image to Lamarck’s thinking, around the ways certain bodies become valued if they acquire characteristics of efficiency to produce a perfect standard of labour within industrial colonial capitalism. When ‘nimble fingers’ expertly make chips, the proximity of Asian women to technology becomes biologised as an extension of their labouring bodies. Then, utility is presented with redemptive power for the project of Empire because of quantifiable, profitable use. Ahmed quotes Cedric Robinson on the condition that exists for all colonised peoples: ‘a history of being used up is the history of racial capitalism’.

Industry as virtue is how many migrants are racialised; Iyko Day in Alien Capital discusses how this is especially particular for Asian and Jewish people, who are often thought of as ‘good at making money’. Day argues that what seems like a harmless, ‘positive’ association glosses over the fetish in associating people with abstract and alien dimensions of capitalist social relations – she suggests that the historical examples of Nazi Germany and US concentration camps clearly show brutal consequences of such ‘positive discrimination.’ In turn, this logic can be internalised as ableism – when we assume our own bodies to have ‘positive’ economic capabilities we make ourselves indisposable. If industry becomes virtue, idleness becomes vice – so we cannot stop working, we cannot stop moving.

I know this to be true in my family. While the ableism that I’ve learnt from my parents does in part stem from our own cultural context and their struggles, colonial capitalism also imposes and reinforces bodily values. Yet what we recognise to be inherited is not an excuse to not be accountable, at least in my desire to develop a meaningful politics of solidarity. It is important to draw from Ahmed’s analysis on usable and unusable doors, where she cites critical Disability Studies scholars such as Aimi Hamraie on the architecture of inaccessibility. Hamraie describes in Building Access: ‘Examine any doorway, window, toilet, chair or desk…and you will find the outline of the body meant to use it.’ Here, doorways stand for material infrastructures that are built for normative shapes, bodies that are known to be able to pass through and found to be passable. But doorways are also figurative constructions – they can teach us who the space is for, how progression is imagined, and who ultimately bears the burden of complaint when they are not afforded the possibility of progression. Yellow Borders states the facts upfront on their Instagram; that living in a pandemic has shown that systems of access and care designed by disabled and immunocompromised communities and activists are ignored until it benefits the rest of us. The imperative here ‘post-isolation’ is more than just an accommodation; it is a total refiguration of ‘universal’ principles and whose needs we centre in the making of liveable worlds.

How do we continue to be a part of a system that blocks Other bodies from accessing infrastructure needed to live? Ahmed continues her explanation of how subordination and service become virtues in the context of nineteenth-century upper-class British anxieties towards social upheaval. She identifies the insidious diffusion of ‘useful knowledge’ via monitorial school systems designed by Joseph Lancaster and later Andrew Bell. Also known as the Bell-Lancaster method, abler pupils served as ‘aids’ to teachers in monitorial schools, and passed on instruction to other pupils. The purpose of these systems effectively installs in young people the passed-on labour of monitoring others as they are monitored themselves. The practice spread across Europe, North America, Latin America, Australia, India, and China to bolster colonial structures. While the monitorial system never fully developed in Australia, it left the legacy of the idea that popular mass education could be bought ‘on the cheap’, and as ‘crime prevention’. This form of colonial (re)education was offered for poor and working-class areas of England too, and appeared to imitate factory methods in the mass production of literate children.

While it is implied that the idea of the monitor comes from local Indian educational practices, Ahmed notes that Bell’s unnerving appropriation of this history functions to immobilise others. This is, of course, a civilising and policing mission that enmeshes with utility and happiness discourse – the monitor’s task to prevent crime or deviation is a positive one that maximises the subject’s happiness by directing them to the ‘right ends’. Jeremy Bentham can be credited with further developing this line of thought through his work on the Panopticon prison system – his writings on utilitarianism and education drew heavily on Bell and Lancaster. Here Ahmed pinpoints the way utility becomes policy, how monitorial schools embody a meeting point between colonial policy and domestic policy, and the way that the monitor becomes a method: it is by policing others that you police yourself. Perhaps the imperative here is to kill the cop in your head.

There is so much work, painful work, surrounding complaints. And so much of that work is the work of clearing.

Biopolitical thinking may as well be back in both this book and the current crisis, but the theological matrices of docility-utility are ever-present. We see this in Ahmed’s subtle description of Locke’s notion of wasteland that originated in the colonial project of India. Cultivating the land for use was extended to people, in the way that Eurasian children were fated to be ‘raw materials’, ready for polishing, transformation, and separation from their Hindu or Muslim mothers. Ahmed’s third chapter is heart-wrenching but firm in its conclusion: stolen lives and lands, deemed usable and unusable in different ways. As scholars and writers, the duty of glimpsing stories that survive and of survival at the edges of the archive remains, as well as clearing the path for their emergence. While Ahmed’s philosophical excavation draws out an argument on the architecture of disciplinary education regimes in order to explain the deep intricacies of forced assimilation, in Chapter Four, ‘Use and the University’, she tacitly asks: are universities and prisons different sides of the same coin?

In ‘Use and the University’ Ahmed examines the foundational history of University College London (UCL), drawing a connection between the College and eugenics via Francis Galton, a British scientist, statistician and eugenicist (who coined the term himself, endowed UCL with his personal collection and archive, along with a bequest which funded the country’s first professorial Chair of Eugenics). UCL was established as a comparatively more secular and inclusive institution than Oxford and Cambridge and today its ‘multiculturalism and diversity’ is central to its branding (a common neoliberal phenomenon across Australian universities too). Against this image, students and staff at UCL have run a campaign called Galton Must Fall since 2016, following the powerful resistance movement Rhodes Must Fall vis-a-vis the University of Cape Town, that spread as a global call to decolonise education. This campaign was successful in pressuring UCL administration into launching an inquiry into its historical links with eugenics.

The question for many of us in the western academy has been: ‘What IS the use in trying to reform the university when it is designed to extract use value from students and educators, be it fees or cultural work?’ Ahmed presents her own ethnographic work as a diversity worker, her conversations with students and staff who have filed complaints. She notes that ‘diversity’ is weighed down by its overuse and its happy image, its framing as reputation damage. We can perhaps understand diversity as institutional virtue-signalling, its only utility being through the (non)performance of policy.

It is clear that utilitarianism is not only a body of thought but is brought to life through diversity policy or, to use the institutional language, it is also ‘implemented’ as a set of practices or techniques for selection – who gets hired and promoted, who gets filed into the archive, or who gets left out altogther. In this chapter Ahmed shares several important and haunting stories of institutional abuse and gaslighting that many of us are familiar with. Through a story shared with her by an anonymous Indigenous academic, Ahmed gently reminds us that closing the door to refuse the institution is a survival strategy, that it is okay if one chooses to do so, it is good to choose who to let through our own metaphorical and physical doors. This is especially so because filing a complaint takes one through a prolonged process of sabotage that exhausts and depletes (what Ahmed calls a ‘strategic inefficiency with discriminatory effects’).

But if exhaustion and rebellion can come from the same place, we are proud to follow and inherit the path of bodies that refuse to get used to it, like Audra Simpson’s prolific work on Indigenous refusal, or Audre Lorde’s forever insight: ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’, rinsed but ever perceptive. Complaint as diversity work certainly is a necessary part of survival in the academy, of making do and making sure that there will be more space available for future generations to come. Ahmed offers us the agential metaphor of being an institutional mechanic, getting complaints through the system for them to have the possibility of surfacing. Complaints are inherited too, they have a ‘backward temporality’ – Ahmed tells us that you can trace who made a complaint before you, and you become part of a network that comes alive… ‘complaints come back to haunt institutions’.

…it takes work to reoccupy the family, to make the familiar strange. And it takes work to rearrange our bodies, to rearrange ourselves.

In her conclusion ‘Queer Use’, Ahmed asks: ‘Could a queer heart beat with passion for what is wavering and quavering?’ Here she is not only reflecting upon what sustains her writing, but also connecting the ungovernability of queer bodies with their capacity to be tender towards the fragile, the deviant, the diseased (for they are all of the above when gender expression and sexuality is still characterised as sickness). Queerness, for Ahmed, seems to be a way of living and being; this is also something my chosen dad, Jasmin, has said to me. For Ahmed, to be a feminist killjoy is tactical on an individual level, but it is part of the collective and strategic work of queer use. I laugh out loud when she says: ‘A social justice project might require throwing meetings into crisis.’ And also when we says: ‘Given how the family is occupied, we might need to become squatters: to squat the family.’ This reminds me that sometimes family is the hardest work of all, going back to family is a way of getting back to the materiality of our very being and how we think of use; but also for me, continuing to centre the fundamental values that I have learned from family.

We are asked to consider use as not always according to its intended function, it can be loosened according to our varying dispositions, it can be queered according to our agencies. Queering use is to queer expectation of use, Ahmed says. It is a matter of reorienting, for our bodies and spirits. This is not at all to say that deviation is easy! But things do get easier when there are inheritances of refusal (queer or not) that remind us of the importance of refusing use-instructions, even if it means to live in proximity to violence. Ahmed takes the question of academic abolitionism seriously, in her demand to vandalise legacies: ‘to transform a system we have to damage it, to stop it from working’. She urges a queer disposition in our learning to be an institutional mechanic – those who know how to plumb may also very well need to know how to vandalise and sabotage. While this may seem harder in these days of online teaching and Zoom sessions, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney in The Undercommons remind us that when we enter a classroom and we refuse to call it to order, we are allowing study to continue, dissonant study perhaps, disorgan-ised study, but study that precedes our call and will continue after we have left the (chat)room.

Footnotes are a conduit for subversion, and not only as places of deeper explanation and formal reference. Ahmed uses them as safe spaces for snark, quips, for relegating too-often-quoted white male philosophers, to hold exclamation marks of joy and excitement, to place self-reflection, to give thanks to friends and colleagues, to make stronger connections to other works of respect and learning, to dwell in poetry and questions of use forever and ongoing. I read one of the footnotes explaining her citational politics. In it Ahmed discusses how there is no way around explaining utilitarianism without acknowledging the hypervisible, embedded western philosophers who conceived it. While this departs from her previous commitments to not cite any white cis men, this development is cool in that it acknowledges the imperfection of debt: ‘A reuse is still a use, damn it!’. My friend Sumaiya recently said to me that there is a difference between situating yourself within a white lineage and acknowledging its influence on the world – Ahmed does the latter with not only rigour and thoughtfulness, but also queer critical use and generosity. She repurposes use in order to sustain different but generative ways of relating, toward a being in relation that is not just one-to-one.

There is deep descriptive intimacy in this book, from the way that use is immersed in our day-to-day environment, to how our porous bodies are affected by the piercing projections of insecure institutions and illegitimate states. Indeed the fact that this text emerges as part of a trilogy with The Promise of Happiness (2010) and Willful Subjects (2014) suggests that Ahmed’s intellectual project is durational. She is situated and wilfully situates herself within currents of feminist, queer, immigrant, disabled, anti-colonial, and anti-capitalist scholars, activists, and movements. This is important, subterranean work of not self-erasing, which is also an essential survival strategy in the making of useful knowledge for deviant, transformative purposes. This means that we cultivate rather than instrumentalise our desires to sustain one another, learning to repair through Other philosophies and genealogies, even if repair is never a linear matter of becoming ‘whole’ again.

Ahmed’s book, and writing this essay has helped me think through life as it is today. For that, I am grateful.

Thanks to Lu Lin, Thomas Ragnar, Tasnim Mahmoud Sammak, Sumaiya Muyeen, Andrew Brooks, and Catriona Menzies-Pike for helping me develop this, in writing, thought, and spirit <3