I have long been an admirer of Sara Ahmed‘s work and her commitment to her beliefs. It was with a huge amount of admiration and respect that I read her post about her recent resignation from Goldsmiths. I think most people would realise that this must have been a difficult decision – the decision to resign in protest against an institution. For her, and for many people who chose to resign, the cost of staying is too high.
Ahmed expands on her reasons in a following post and she makes some valuable points about institutional silencing. As she puts it: “Silence enables the reproduction of the culture.” She goes on, “when there is no official word by an organisation, it is not just that no one knows what happened; no one has to know. You are giving individuals permission not to know. And then the talk becomes contained in pockets.” Although she is speaking specifically here about sexual harassment, the notions she expresses are universal, across many institutions, not just universities. Wisely, she articulates the counter side to institutional silencing. “When we talk they do not have to listen. We talk so they do not listen.”
I’m sure there are lots of people, who have expressed an opposing opinion at work, that have encountered the situation Ahmed describes. As she perfectly puts it: “When you do speak out, you are seen as a problem, as if the problem is only there because you speak about it. It is as if the problem would go away if you stopped talking about it.”
Leaving a place of work, under almost every circumstance, feels as though you are leaving part of yourself behind. It feels like this because, invariably, a ‘part of you’ is removed from you. However, that part doesn’t then remain in the place you left. Somehow it simply disappears, it is no longer a part of you but nor is it a part of the place you are no longer in.
It seems as though a place is formed relationally. When we leave a place we have to find new relations, new connections to fill in the gap we have created in ourselves. Similarly, the places we left need other people to fill the void made by the departed, so they can become places again, albeit different places. Whatever happens to ourselves or to these places, there has to be hope that it will be for a better, more useful, purpose.
Which then leads me to thinking about Sara Ahmed’s book ‘the Promise of Happiness.’ In it she suggests that “happiness shapes what coheres as the world.” Happiness is an object of desire, a means to getting what we desire and a sign that we got what we desired. Ahmed concludes the history of happiness being, as described by Lacan, like the second hand clothes store – a place of different judgements of desire. There may well be a practical tone to Lacan’s observations. I believe it is never too late to reinvent and refashion ourselves. Never too late to change appearances, to renew ourselves. Therefore it’s wise to see resignations as beginnings as well as endings. They are the beginning of a new search, a quest for what may well appear to be an unknown location but is always a certain destination.
The understanding of how happiness may well be used to justify forms of oppression is central to Ahmed’s very readable book. There is undoubtably, within our culture, an imperative to be happy. In looking for happiness it may be inevitable that we need to begin by discarding the things that structure our unhappiness.