Gestures of Refusal

Edited by Sarah Bernstein and Yanbing Er

Gestures of Refusal: Introduction

Sarah Bernstein and Yanbing Er

Ambivalence as Misfeeling, Ambivalence as Refusal

Akwugo Emejulu

Watertongue: A Lyric Essay

Snigdha Koirala

On Not Translating: Don Mee Choi’s Anti-neocolonial Poetics

Claire Gullander-Drolet

Breathing Lessons

Patricia Malone

Grammars of Refusal

Bonnie Honig

We Should All Be Sisters

Jerrine Tan

Pod45 Episode 8: Gestures of Refusal

Post45 Contemporaries Editorial Team


"Better the errant path than the known world."

Saidiya Hartman1

In a time marked by the worsening social, political, and environmental crises of late capitalism, gestures of refusal have emerged as key to envisioning new ways of being in the world refusal as the premise of imagination and possibility. The essays in this cluster outline the histories and futures of refusal and explore its radical manifestation in diverse forms of contemporary culture. The cluster traces refusal as a strategy that not only disrupts the organizing logics of violence exemplified by our current moment, but also generates the speculative existence of other, more ethical lifeworlds. To this end, we perceive the modality of refusal as expansiveness, rather than scarcity; as the poet Mira Mattar puts it, "Every no a yes to not-this."2 What alternative ways of thinking, living, and being are paradoxically held open in the wake of an apparent closure? This cluster takes up political and aesthetic expressions of refusal as critical practices alongside thinkers such as Saidiya Hartman, Fred Moten, Anne Boyer, Sianne Ngai, Legacy Russell, and Sara Ahmed. From literary, visual, and cinematic genres, to performance art, activism, and other media technologies, the essays we collect here are interested in how refusal is written by the always in-process realization of what it describes.

In Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya Hartman explores "the utopian longing and the promise of a future that resided in waywardness and the refusal to be governed."3 The women and girls in her speculative history refuse "the terms of visibility imposed on them," and in so doing "elude the frame" the frame of reference that has for so long ensured the seamless perpetuation of white supremacy.4 What Hartman reveals are those other stories that unravel against and beyond dominant modes of knowing and knowledge-making, stories that simply cannot be captured by technologies of enclosure. The refusal that she centers has a long history, as it lives in the everyday and in its fugitive gestures. It takes the form of waywardness, which is "the practice of the social otherwise," a way of being in the world that imagines new possibilities and writes new kinds of narratives literary as well as social.5 Along these lines, many of the essays in this cluster focus on the power of art to defamiliarize, to break us out of our usual ways of perceiving, speaking, and being. The critical imperative of art, whether located in film, poetry, or fiction, calls on us to think and know differently. Art this way interrupts and recalibrates the grammar of a seemingly inescapable reality.

For the curator and writer Legacy Russell, refusal is also a cornerstone of artistic production, and of what she more specifically calls glitch feminism. "To glitch," she writes, "is to embrace malfunction, and to embrace malfunction is in and of itself an expression that starts with 'no.'"6 What might it mean for us to reject the uninterrupted function of technology, for us to instead welcome its failure and willful nonperformance as exit signs in the infrastructure of our existence? How might the glitch throw a wrench in the ruthless machinery that compels the present? Alongside a reading of the artist and musician E. Jane's NOPE (a manifesto), Russell gestures toward an imaginative dimension in which the fullness of Black and queer bodies and selves might not be reduced by the violence of the colonial gaze. In this sense, the search for other times and spaces is above all an act of survival, as it entails the carving out of a viable future from a world that has for too long been predicated on the exclusion and eradication of such identities. Russell suggests, then, that the "glitch becomes a catalyst, opening up new pathways, allowing us to seize on new directions."7

Refusal can thus be embedded in the departure to an elsewhere, in the scene of another, provisional terrain. In describing what they term the undercommons, Fred Moten and Stefano Harney suggest that inhabiting and enacting its possibilities means engaging in something akin to refusal. "To enter this space," they write, "is to inhabit the ruptural and enraptured disclosure of the commons that fugitive enlightenment enacts ... where the commons give refuge, where the refuge gives commons."8 If we can define the commons, following Raymond Williams, as what is ordinary and what is shared resources, spaces, knowledges then the undercommons is what is shared undercover, against and in spite of, in but not of systems that seek simultaneously to interpellate and to deny its ways of thinking and being. The undercommons begins with "the right to refuse what has been refused to you," as Jack Halberstam explains in the introduction to the volume.9 This is to say that the primary orientation of the undercommons is refusal: it refuses "the logic that stages refusal as inactivity, as the absence of a plan, and as a mode of stalling real politics."10 Indeed, the space of the undercommons is about "not finishing oneself, not passing, not completing."11 It is where we sit in the interruption of the logic of sequence, no longer in one location moving forward to another but already there: in the world.

The refusal that characterizes the undercommons is a disorientation, a moving away from the logic of "for or against,"12 a theory that Akwugo Emejulu develops in her essay "Ambivalence as Misfeeling, Ambivalence as Refusal." Emejulu demonstrates how, for women of color activists in Europe, "ambivalence can operate as oppositional emotion work," a form of "misfeeling" or turning "away from emotional social conventions" that can "lead to different kinds of becoming and new forms of solidarity." Like the undercommons, the space of ambivalence is a threshold space, often considered a problem that must be resolved. What Emejulu suggests is that we understand ambivalence instead as a necessary "moment of contemplation, of recuperation, a state of critical self-reflection ... before meaningful action can take place." This is an affective state that must be dwelt in, rather than dealt with. Resonant with Sianne Ngai's ugly feelings and Xine Yao's "disaffected unfeeling," ambivalence can be creative and political insofar as it is underlined by refusal: a refusal to perform affect in specific ways, which is also a refusal to stick to the script. Emejulu's ambivalence as misfeeling asks us to sit with states of unease, awkwardness, embarrassment, anger, discomfort, and to learn to use these states as points of departure or, in another sense, fugitive flights refusal as the basic condition of possibility.

In an essay simply titled "No" from her collection A Handbook of Disappointed Fate, the poet and essayist Anne Boyer calls such feelings dramatizations of "just not": "History," she writes, "is full of people who just didn't. They said no, thank you, turned away, escaped to the desert, lived in barrels, burned down their own houses, killed their rapists, pushed away dinner, meditated into the light."13 No is a turning away from the social contract, a way of being at odds with what Boyer calls the "merciless and circulatory conditions of all the capitalist yes".14 This is a refusal to accede to the demands of capitalist enclosure, a refusal to reinforce the brutality of the already given. And this act of saying no, for Boyer, is precisely what can make possible a different kind of "yes." Boyer pursues a thread of radical resistance that runs through this mode of refusal. And she further locates such a resistance in the aesthetic imperative of poetry, writing that "there is a lot of room for meaning inside a 'no' spoken in the tremendous logic of a refused order of the world. Poetry's no can protect a potential yes or more precisely, poetry's no is the one that can protect the hell yeah, or every hell yeah's variations. In this way, every poem against the police is also and always a guardian of love for the world."15

In thinking about what might constitute a "refusalist" poetry, Boyer identifies a number of "formal strategies of refusal," including "transposition," or changing the sequence or position of words, disrupting the grammar of a line.16 Snigdha Koirala's lyric essay "Watertongue" employs such formal strategies of refusal in tracing the history of the lyric "I" "that marks me as speaker," through "a Maoist movement, a civil war, a migration, a loss ... a wide gash of time." Koirala is interested in questions and strategies of not-translating, of "refusing transcription," of not making oneself legible. "Watertongue" insists on the integrity of the other's unknowability, the gaps in knowledge retained as blank spaces on the page. In this Koirala echoes the Martinican poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant's call for the right to opacity against "the requirement for transparency" that is the basis of "the process of 'understanding' people and ideas from the perspective of Western thought."17 What opacity offers is the possibility of existence beyond the grasp of dominant frames of living. For Glissant, then, acknowledging the other's right to opacity "would be the real foundation of Relation, in freedoms," since the opaque is what cannot be reduced, but which "can coexist and converge, weaving fabrics" of interrelation.18

Claire Gullander-Drolet's essay "On Not Translating: Don Mee Choi's Anti-Neocolonial Poetics" is likewise invested in questions of the integrity of illegibility. Her essay explores how the poet and translator Choi's collection Hardly War highlights the unacknowledged power politics of translation through her various "refusal[s] to translate" language, history, and experience. While the ethics and politics that enfold a translator's fidelity to the source text have long been discussed, what happens when they altogether refuse to translate? What other accounts of history distinct both in their meaning and form might unravel from such a deliberate act of confrontation? In such refusals, Gullander-Drolet suggests, Choi's work decenters official narratives of the Korean War, thereby calling "attention to the uneven terrain of history itself: the gulf between who gets to narrate histories, the subjects described (or not described), the subjects given or denied voice." It is through this radically resistant mode of translation that Choi is able to enact a reflexive critique of the writing and representation of dominant histories.

The act of translation is inflected by a distinctively corporeal perspective in Patricia Malone's "Breathing Lessons." In part inspired by the linguistic phenomenon known as lenition the softening of consonants often characterized by aspiration that runs through the Irish language, Malone enacts a practice of speaking-otherwise in a reading of Anna Burns's Milkman that also offers an elegy for her father, Robert Malone. She follows up on her 2019 article on the same novel and focuses here on storytelling's capacity to extend horizons of possibility and solidarity, constituting what Walter J. Ong calls a "participatory poetics" (qtd. in Malone). Malone looks at the unit of breath in the spoken voice, especially as it can be inferred in the language of Burns's text, suggesting that the novel's ending gives "full and capacious room" to "the brea(d)th of language," "despite the litany of encroachment the narrator recalls throughout." Breath not only constitutes a literal condition of living and being, then, it also forms a strategy that might be employed against the structural oppressions that have since choked our flourishing. "We find room to breathe," writes Malone, "where the world might otherwise suffocate."

By continuing to uphold refusal as a central bearing of existence, how might we still risk grappling with the politics of such a world? As an extension, how exactly might refusal be harnessed in the project of building the politics of a different kind of world? Refusal here takes on another dimension of meaning: that of first staying with, and dwelling in, the current arrangements of the world such that they might then be transformed. In A Feminist Theory of Refusal, the feminist political theorist Bonnie Honig conceptualizes an arc of refusal as precisely one that finds its insurgent possibility from within existing orders of politics. This is an understanding of refusal that is not at all an acquiescence to the world as it stands, but rather one that engages the world in a critical and indeed, revolutionary praxis of care. For only if we still cared for this world, as this line of argument goes, would we find the determination to refuse its failings for the sake of another, better way of living and relating. To this end, Honig writes that "even when refusal seems to reject the world, it betrays a deep attachment to it, if not to the world as it is, then surely to a more just world that is not yet."19

Honig's own essay in this cluster, "The Grammars of Refusal," details an aberrancy that is key to inventing new forms of grammar for more radical ways of living and being. Improvisation lies at the crux of this endeavor to go on in the face of the already given, to go against and beyond its violent frames of reference. In this vein, Honig reads Wittgenstein's figure of the "aberrant pupil" alongside alternative forms of kinship that Hortense Spillers suggests might materialize in the wake of slavery as a resistance to, and rejection of, the bounds of the human that has governed such ongoing brutality. If Wittgenstein presents to us a grammar of refusal that innovates but yet still operates within the limits of humanity, then Spillers confronts the monstrousness of humanity itself and therefore, as Honig argues, "the possibility and necessity of its refusal."

In so many ways, then, refusal must be conceived as a necessary practice of the everyday, made up of actions that shape our reality against and in spite of the exigencies of the world as it is. Jerrine Tan's closing essay "We Should All Be Sisters" finds in Hirozaku Koreeda's film Our Little Sister (2015) a form of what she terms "yellow feminism," where feminist solidarity is modeled through refusal. Tan's conception of "yellow feminism" is in fact an extrapolation of Honig's emphasis on sisterhood as crucial to the political movement of feminism itself, on the potential for sisterhood to enact a powerful mode of feminist resistance. In her essay, Tan shows how refusal takes the form of acts of "quotidian kindness," through which the sisters of Koreeda's film refuse to accede to the patriarchal capitalism's logics of competition and scarcity. What she more specifically refigures and recuperates is the phenomenon of Asian women's domesticity, so often stereotyped as "weak, parochial and submissive." Tan suggests instead that "such figures of Asian sisterly care" press back against the demands of the world as it is, while also presenting "a model of a sororal public sphere."

The essays in this cluster underscore the connection between text and world, between theory and practice, between the body and the mind. Emejulu draws on her own experiences working with activists and as an activist herself; Malone's essay commemorates her father, while Tan's honors her sisters. These essays evince a critical practice that refuses to divest the work of the intellect, the work of politics, from the work of feeling, which constitutes a broader refusal to accede to the instrumental logic of the contemporary academy and what Nell Osborne calls the "banal perversions of language & knowledge that it enforces."20 As she asks in the introduction to the zine Academics Against Networking: "What are the costs of narrating oneself with these depleted words?"21 The essays here, many of which have been written by early-career, precariously employed academics and academics who have been forced out of the sector, work against the impoverished modes of thought, against the debased sense of subjectivity, demanded by the process of academic institutionalization. Above all, then, they work toward the possibility of another intellectual life. For as Moten and Harney declare: "I believe in the world and want to be in it. I want to be in it all the way to the end of it because I believe in another world in the world and I want to be in that."22

Sarah Bernstein is a lecturer of Scottish Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Strathcyde. In addition to essays in Modern Fiction Studies and Literary Representations of Precarious Work, 1840 to the Present, Sarah is the author of the novel The Coming Bad Days (Daunt Books, 2021) and the poetry collection Now Comes the Lightning (Pedlar Press, 2015).

Yanbing Er (@eryanbing) teaches in the Department of English, Linguistics, and Theater Studies at the National University of Singapore. She recently completed a book on feminism and enchantment.


  1. Saidiya Hartman, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments (London: Serpent's Tail, 2021), 61.[]
  2. Mira Mattar, Yes, I Am a Destroyer (London: Ma Bibliothèque, 2020), 103.[]
  3. Hartman, Wayward Lives, xvii.[]
  4. Hartman, Wayward Lives, 18.[]
  5. Hartman, Wayward Lives, 227.[]
  6. Legacy Russell, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (London: Verso, 2020), 17.[]
  7. Russell, Glitch Feminism, 30.[]
  8. Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), 28.[]
  9. Jack Halberstam, "The Wild Beyond: With and For the Undercommons," in The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (New York: Minor Compositions, 2013), 8.[]
  10. Halberstam, "The Wild," 9.[]
  11. Moten and Harney, The Undercommons, 28.[]
  12. Halberstam, "The Wild," 9.[]
  13. Anne Boyer, "No," in A Handbook of Disappointed Fate. (New York: Ugly Duckling Presse, 2018), 9.[]
  14. Boyer, "No," 11.[]
  15. Boyer, "No," 16.[]
  16. Boyer, "No," 13.[]
  17. Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, trans. Betsy Wing (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997), 189-190.[]
  18. Glissant, Poetics, 190.[]
  19. Bonnie Honig, A Feminist Theory of Refusal (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2021), 3.[]
  20. Nell Osborne, "Introduction," in Academics Against Networking #1, 3.[]
  21. Osborne, "Introduction," 3.[]
  22. Moten and Harney, The Undercommons, 117.[]

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