Monday, March 28, 2016

Sweaty Concepts & Solidarity

All last week I walked around in a clammy, sweaty fog. I was getting over a cold, yes, but there was more to it than that. My jaw ached from clenching. My stomach jumped. I was distracted and tired and short-tempered. And I was that terrible kind of hot/cold all the time.

As I sat at my kitchen table on Thursday morning, trying to hit my word count before the baby woke up from her nap, before I had to get ready to go to campus and teach, before all of that, I could feel beads of sweat rolling down my back. Drip drip drip. I sat there, tense and typing. My jaw ached. That muscle between my thumb and forefinger was tight and sore. My hips hurt from tapping my feet while I worked. My eyes were having trouble focussing.

As I sat there, writing and sweating, I listened to the radio. CBC Radio 2, to be precise. I had been up since about seven that morning, so I had heard three rounds of the hourly news by this point. My ears pricked up each time the bom-bom-bom! sounded on the hour. I noticed right away, at seven, that instead of  the usual male voice saying "it is seven o'clock, and this is CBC News," that today it was a woman making the announcements. Interesting, I thought. Savvy choice, I thought.

It was a woman, who, at eight o'clock, announce that "some women's groups were upset by the Jian Ghomeshi trial proceedings." Some women's groups? Fuck you, CBC, I thought. Do better, I thought.

It was a woman's voice who, at ten o'clock, announced that the judge would be reading the proceedings beginning at eleven.

And then, at noon, while I sat at my kitchen table, it was a man announcing the news. A man telling me that the verdict was "not guilty on all counts." It was a man. Someone, somewhere at CBC thought to make that shift--women preparing listeners for a verdict, a man to give it. Huh, I thought. Sinister choice, I thought. No small thing, these micro-aggressions.

After I listened to those five words--not guilty on all counts--my ears started ringing. I tried to split my attention between my daughter, who was awake and clamouring for a bottle, and the sound bytes from the judge who decided it was a good idea, a fine plan, to verbally attack the three women who came forward as witnesses in this trial. This judge, this man, took it upon himself to try and tear down all the work these women had done. It was them, their bodies, their words that he disrespected.

As I stood in the kitchen feeling like the floor was getting further and further away my phone started to buzz. Friends and acquaintances were reaching out to each other, trying to make sense of the vertigo and nausea we were all feeling.

It was me, you, my daughter who got called into question with the judge's monologue. That's what I was thinking as I stood in my kitchen, shaking. Don't talk to me about the law right now, I thought, I get it. I am another reasonably intelligent woman. Talk to me instead about how you hold up someone's story and say no, this doesn't count. Your experience is wrong, questionable, doesn't matter. And then talk to me about metonymy, because this judge wasn't just talking about the three women in that courtroom. No. He was saying "don't trust any survivor."

Listening to him filled me with an electric and incandescent rage. I had to sit down. I was so angry and shocked I could hardly see. Another example of words being weaponized. That's what this judge gave us.

These women, oh, how I have thought of them in the past year and the past month. Their bodies had to carry their words and their stories into that courtroom. What would that feel like? When I am nervous and have to speak in front of people my voice shakes. I get tunnel vision. I break into a cold sweat. This happens a lot, because I am a lecturer. But the difference between my physical reactions to public speaking is that I, ostensibly, am the one in power in the classroom. Not these women. No, despite their bravery, and despite all we know about how we don't fully know what trauma does to memory, despite all of this they were not the ones given power and agency in that room.

Sarah Ahmed’s notion of “sweaty concepts” is my guide here, as I try to think about embodiment and survival. As I try to think about embodiment and survival and solidarity. For Ahmed, the phrase “sweaty concepts” is a way of demonstrating how the work of description and exploration is labour. 

Here she is:

A concept is worldly but it is also a reorientation to a world, a way of turning things around, a different slant on the same thing. More specifically a “sweaty concept” is one that comes out of a description of a body that is not at home in the world. By this I mean description as angle or point of view: a description of how it feels not to be at home in the world, or a description of the world from the point of view of not being at home in it…. 

When I use the concept of “sweaty concepts” I am also trying to say we can generate new understandings by describing the difficulty of inhabiting a body that is not at home in a world. 

Sweat is bodily; we might sweat more during more strenuous activity. A “sweaty concept” might be one that comes out of a bodily experience that is difficult, one that is “trying,” and where the aim is to keep exploring and exposing this difficulty, which means also aiming not to eliminate the effort or labour from the writing...[1]

Trying to write about living in rape culture is exhausting. It makes me sweat and shake. Trying to write as a way of witnessing is, as Ahmed articulates, difficult. For every brilliant piece of writing about rape culture I read, I wonder what it cost the person who wrote it. How much sweat? How much shaking. 

And yet, they keep coming. The stories keep coming. The narratives are intersecting, and points of connection--between sexual assault, rape culture, transphobia, racism, and the failures of the carceral system--are becoming more and more clear. 

The cost of writing, and of speaking, seems to be far smaller than the cost of holding it in. Not everyone can talk about their experiences, I know that. I believe survivors who don't report (I didn't), who can't speak up (I couldn't). What I mean is this: things are shifting. Survivors, supporters, and allies are doing the hard, sweaty labour of thinking and writing their stories in public. We are writing through the sweatiness and shaking

It is difficult, this trying, but we are doing it. 

Need some inspiration and fuel for your resolve? Give yourself the gift of reading all the links in the GUTS Sunday round-up for this week

And know you're not alone. 





[1] Ahmed, “Sweaty Concepts.” http://feministkilljoys.com/2014/02/22/sweaty-concepts/



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