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Book Review: What's the Use?

Hi, Readers!

It's been a busy few months as I finish this year-long language fellowship and inch closer to my Ph.D. qualifying exams. I am excited to share my book review of Sara Ahmed's book, What's the Use? On the Uses of Use. The review was published in Continuum, an academic journal of media and cultural studies, which is an imprint of Taylor and Frances.

In case you don't have a subscription to the journal, I've put the body of the text below. If you're looking for a challenging and informative read, definitely check out Ahmed's What's the Use? It was an invigorating process reading it and writing about it and I came away from the book equipped with new knowledge and ready to use it.


To cite this article: Minhae Shim Roth (2021): What’s the use?: on the uses of use, by Sara Ahmed, North Carolina, Duke University Press, 2019, Continuum, DOI: 10.1080/10304312.2021.1882939

‘Use’ is a sturdy, indispensable, and yet underappreciated word. In What’s the Use?: On the Uses of Use, Sara Ahmed offers an optimistic reading of how use can be recuperated to reveal the voice of the other. The author celebrates the complexity of the language of use, writing that the little word is both ‘magical and mundane’ (2019, 6). Ahmed dusts off the banal word and reveals its potential for political intervention in our everyday lives. Acknowledging the breadth of her study, Ahmed describes the book as a ‘biography of use’ (49).

Ahmed has embarked on such studies of language in her previous works including The Promise of Happiness (2010) and Willful Subjects (2014), where she employs the same method of ‘following words around in and out of their intellectual histories’ (13). In the introduction to What’s the Use?, Ahmed reflects on how use has anchored her method across her trilogy: she has explored the uses of happiness, the uses of will, and finally, the uses of use (3). Her book Living a Feminist Life (2017) and activism practiced through her research on complaint and resignation from Goldsmith’s College, University of London in 2016 ground her stance on use in the late chapters, which serve as a vigorous call to action. What’s the Use? functions not only as a history and philosophy of use, but also as a useful manifesto.

What’s the Use? is comprised of four chapters that range in subject from vocabulary to biology, to educational techniques and the university. The topics seem disparate at first, with Ahmed admitting that the book ‘draws from diverse fields and follows a rather queer and idiosyncratic path’ (19). However, she mobilizes a narrative structure that collides and coalesces threads drawn out in previous sections in her climactic final chapter, ‘Use and the University’, and the conclusion on Queer Use. The author reveals her elegant argument at the end of a slow burn of history and theory: Use has been wielded by the powerful, but now it is time for others to reclaim it. Ahmed’s intent is to provide readers with a useful background in order for them to apply it practically; the book is arguably a theoretical handbook for queer, feminist, and disability activism.

Chapter 1, ‘Using Things’, introduces Ahmed’s method and language by examining the emergence of use in everyday things and actions. She defines what it means to be in use, out of use, used, unused, overused, used up, and usable/unusable. Examining the ‘use status’ of things, the author considers the temporal possibilities of use: ‘how something is being used, has been used, or can be used’ (22). For instance, Ahmed uses an example of a postbox that has become habituated by a nest of birds, making it no longer usable for its original use. The use status of the postbox has mutated. Ahmed argues throughout the book that use is malleable and can be moulded by those in power or those who seek to reclaim it for their own objectives. The repurposed postbox is an example of queer use, which is when something is being used not in the way it was intended. The chapter indicates Ahmed’s eagerness for capturing the completeness of use as she argues how things and worlds are constructed by use and the ramifications that may have for exclusion: ‘When we say something is being shaped by use, we are also talking about who can use what, when, and where’ (65). Access to use is a play of power.

Chapter 2, ‘The Biology of Use and Disuse’, moves from the broad to the specific. The premise of this chapter’s argument is the concept of ‘form follows function,’ borrowed from architecture, that suggests the way bodies and things are formed depends on how they are used. Ahmed looks at how use and biology are coevolved by comparing how Darwin and Lamarck’s explanations of the origin of species can be understood with respect to use, mobilizing Lamarck’s theory that environmental changes trigger behavioural changes that in turn motivate changes in form. The foremost example of this phenomenon is the giraffe’s long neck: Lamarck suggested that a giraffe’s neck becomes longer over time because of the sustained effort needed to reach higher foliage to eat. Ahmed argues that the form of the giraffe’s long neck is a result of the necessary use: ‘an effect of use that eases use’ (74). What is useful about this chapter is the binary of usefulness and uselessness, of strength and degeneracy. The more something is used, the stronger it becomes; that which is deemed useless then becomes disposable, leading to Ahmed’s conclusion on eugenics.

Chapter 3, ‘Use as Technique’, examines the use of methods to make bodies more useful and the consequences of being un-useful. Here, Ahmed questions the promise of education and offers an extension of Foucault’s analysis on discipline and punishment, arguing that use is not only an idea but a technique that aims to extract every ounce of an individual’s potential for a specific end. She asks: ‘if to be idle or useless is not to support what is being accomplished, then what is idle or useless is not to be supported’ (104). Drawing heavily on Bentham’s concept of utilitarianism, Ahmed argues that monitorial schools – academies where older students were responsible for supervising younger students – built a system where children were cogs in an institutional machine that functioned as a disciplinary apparatus in order to make children useful and not fall into degeneracy and idleness. She concludes the chapter with a discussion of the treatment of poor students and their families that carries the ethos of the remainder of her book: a look at the misunderstood, invisible, and disenfranchised. While Ahmed’s analysis of schooling is historical, current educators and students can relate to the machinery of contemporary education. In a society where privilege begets more privilege and others are stuck in inescapable economic and social despair, What’s the Use? offers a way to think about a solution that involves putting use into the hands of the people.

In the final chapter, ‘Use and the University’, Ahmed gets personal. The university is an institution with which she has a complicated relationship. She argues that diversity workers in universities and students are used up within the institutional mechanics. Ahmed draws on data like interviews and archival research from her previous projects, and reflects on her involvement in supporting a collective of students who lodged sexual harassment and misconduct accusations at Goldsmith’s, which motivated her resignation. She writes, ‘Being used up is a measure of how diversity workers are used by institutions: used up as being used’ (156). Starting with the assumption that Bentham’s utilitarianism is intertwined in the very tenets of higher education, Ahmed articulates the problematic nature of diversity in the university and the frustrations of diversity workers who are subject to roadblocks from carrying out their work. She describes how complaints are often thrown into a void or discouraged, and paints the institution as unyielding and protective of the abusive. Her intention becomes clear at the end of the chapter: ‘How do we counter what has become as hard as concrete? We need activism here. We need dismantling projects here’ (196).

Throughout the book, Ahmed makes brief mentions of queer use, which she describes as a way of reusing or making use strange (198). In the conclusion, Ahmed provides a guide on how to subvert use, to create queer use, often for purposes of activism. For instance, we can queer use by refusing use instructions. Birds can queer use by nesting in a postbox. Someone can queer use by parking in front of a sign that says ‘No Parking.’ We can also queer use by engaging in queer vandalism, which Ahmed defines as intentional damage caused by refusing to use something properly. The most lasting type of activism in this vein, says Ahmed, are creative words that critique, vandalize, and refuse use instructions. Those who are excluded from the privileges of use must create in order to survive, she writes, quoting Butler, hooks, and Lorde. She encourages her readers to stand their ground and keep going strong: ‘We are here, we are queer; get used to it,’ she writes. ‘To bring out the queerness of use requires more than an act of affirmation: it requires a world dismantling effort’ (229).

What’s the Use? is a rigorous book with power. In the conclusion, Ahmed quotes bell hooks who wrote that theory can be used as an ‘instrument of domination’ that enforces hierarchies, but it also has the potential to serve a ‘healing, liberatory’ function if it is wielded correctly (222). Ahmed’s book wields theory in the right way. She deconstructs use by offering the body, dissecting it, and then handing over the scalpel to her audience. I came away from What’s the Use? feeling equipped with new knowledge and ready to use it.

Minhae Shim Roth University of California, Berkeley

What’s the use?: on the uses of use, by Sara Ahmed, North Carolina, Duke University Press, 2019, xiii + 281 pp., US$26.95 (paperback), ISBN: 978-1-4780-0650-3

Minhae Shim Roth

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