2018 School of English Empson Lecture: Professor Sara Ahmed, ‘Building Works: On The Uses of Use’

To read Sara Ahmed’s work is to enjoy and admire the ability to capture the exact essence of the words, social encounters, and institutional processes that we experience every day. It is, as a person of colour, to have your instinctive feelings and half-formed ideas about marginalisation reflected back at you, refined and rigorously explained, in a way that both enlightens and comforts at the same time. It is, on an aesthetic level, to lose yourself in beautifully spun words, metaphors and theories that remain with you long after the process of reading has come to an end.

Considering the depth and variety of books, chapters, essays and blog posts she has published over her career, containing Ahmed’s work within a neat and concise summary is no easy task. In her own words, Ahmed 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’. Indeed, by examining the distinct affective, or emotional, experiences that differently socialised people have when encountering normative bodies or spaces (on an individual, institutional, and societal level), Ahmed repeatedly exposes the invisible yet potent processes that perpetually privilege some and marginalise others.

The way in which Ahmed approaches this work is particularly compelling, as she defies academic convention by weaving critical theory (from feminist, queer and race studies) and personal experience together, often through the comprehensive extrapolation of a single word, concept, or metaphor, such as: ‘happiness’ (The Promise of Happiness), ‘the stranger’ (Strange Encounters), and ‘the institutional brick wall’ (On Being Included). An emblematic example of this approach can be found in The Cultural Politics of Emotion, where Ahmed expounds the privilege of heteronormativity through an examination of what it means to be ‘comfortable’:
The word ‘comfort’ suggests well-being and satisfaction, but it also suggests an ease and easiness. To follow the rules of heterosexuality is to be at ease in a world that reflects back the couple form one inhabits as an ideal…To be comfortable is to be so at ease with one’s environment that it is hard to distinguish where one’s body ends and the world begins. One fits, and by fitting, the surfaces of the body disappear from view. The disappearance of the surface is instructive: in feelings of comfort, bodies extend into spaces, and spaces extend into bodies…heteronormativity functions as a form of public comfort by allowing bodies to extend into spaces that have already taken their shape’.
(…)
Discomfort is a feeling of disorientation: one’s body feels out of place, awkward, unsettled. I know that feeling too well, the sense of out-of-placeness and enstrangement involves an acute awareness of the surface of one’s body, which appears as surface, when one cannot inhabit the social skin, which is shaped by some bodies, and not others.
Whilst this take on ‘comfort’ is focused on heteronormativity, I have found it, as a person of colour, to be an extremely apt description of my own affective experience at systematically ‘white’ higher education institutions. And it is this real-life relatability and application of Ahmed’s work that, in my view, makes it so important. For this reason, and many more besides, I eagerly await Ahmed’s visit to the University of Sheffield. It promises to be a truly memorable and enlightening event.

– Sara Ahmed is currently an independent scholar, having left her role as a Professor of Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London, after the institution’s ‘failure to deal with the problem of sexual harassment’. As well as continuing to publish books, with Living A Feminist Life (2017) her latest release, Ahmed regularly updates her blog and tweets at: @SaraNAhmed.

– The School of English is delighted to announce that its biennial lecture in honour of Sir William Empson will be given this year by Professor Sara Ahmed.

The details of the lecture are as follows:

Title: ‘Building Works: On the Uses of Use’
Day: Thursday 10th May 2018
Time: 5.30pm
Venue: The Diamond, Lecture Theatre 1

You can register for the lecture here.

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