What's the Use?: On the Uses of Use

What's the Use?: On the Uses of Use

by Sara Ahmed

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In What’s the Use? Sara Ahmed continues the work she began in The Promise of Happiness and Willful Subjects by taking up a single word—in this case, use—and following it around. She shows how use became associated with life and strength in nineteenth-century biological and social thought and considers how utilitarianism offered a set of educational techniques for shaping individuals by directing them toward useful ends. Ahmed also explores how spaces become restricted to some uses and users, with specific reference to universities. She notes, however, the potential for queer use: how things can be used in ways that were not intended or by those for whom they were not intended. Ahmed posits queer use as a way of reanimating the project of diversity work as the ordinary and painstaking task of opening up institutions to those who have historically been excluded.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781478007210
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 10/25/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
File size: 16 MB
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About the Author

Sara Ahmed is an independent scholar and author of Living a Feminist Life and several other books also published by Duke University Press.

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Using Things

Use can be a way of being in touch with things. We make use of a knife when we need to cut something. Which knife we use might tell us something about the task at hand: a sharper knife might make a thicker piece of cardboard easier to cut. We learn from past experiences about what to use for what; we might know this knife is sharper, this knife is blunter. Use gives us a sense of things: how they are; what they are like.

It is noteworthy that use is often framed within philosophy as losing sight of things: "Matter can be used in such a way that it vanishes into its uses" (Wall 1999, 68–69, emphasis mine). Martin Heidegger's discussion of the broken hammer suggests that when the hammer is working, it disappears from view. When something stops working or cannot be used, it intrudes into consciousness. We might call what cannot be used broken. A break can be how something is revealed: for Heidegger a break is how we are "given any access to properties or the like" ([1927] 1962, 200). My discussion of using things in this chapter will include scenes of breakage: objects that are "out of use" or that have become "unused" and "unusable."

When we are absorbed in a task at hand and things are working, we can indeed stop noticing things. But use can also be revealing of things; use can even involve heightening our awareness of things. This is what I find so evocative about Silas Marner's relationship to his pot, referred to in the introduction. George Eliot catches something in how she describes their relation. The pot is a useful thing; it is described as a "precious utensil" ([1861] 1994, 17). Silas's affection for the pot is filled with purpose just as the pot can be filled with water: "The impress of its handle on his palm gave a satisfaction mingled with that of having fresh clear water" (17). The impression of the pot is an impression on his hand. An impression can be a memory. An impression can be a reminder of what the pot is for: the cold water it allows him to carry from the well to the house. Sherry Turkle suggests thinking of the evocative object might take us away from our usual way of relating to things "as useful or aesthetic, as necessities or vain indulgences" (2007, 5). We can bring Turkle's insights together with Eliot's description by considering how usefulness can be evocative: use as how we handle things; use as how we mingle with things.

A mingling can be a transforming. When we are using something, it is being transformed. The transformation is not simply what we are aiming for, what we are trying to achieve. It is not just the cardboard that is affected when we use the knife to cut the cardboard, although how it is affected might be more noticeable because it is more dramatic — one piece becoming two pieces — and more obvious, given it was the point of the action. Using a knife affects the knife; it can make the knife less sharp, or blunter. To keep using the knife, you might need to sharpen it; and then you need to make use of something else, a sharpener or something that can be used as a sharpener. In a relation of use, there is a kind of transfer: as the knife becomes sharper from contact with the sharpener, the sharpener becomes blunter.

When something becomes blunt from being used, it is being shaped by use. Use offers a way of telling stories about things. We can ask about objects by following them about. My examination of using things in this chapter is indebted to Igor Kopytoff's work on the biography of things. To offer a biography of things is to follow them "as they move through different hands, contexts and uses" (Appadurai 1986, 34). I also follow things as they change hands. But rather than taking one object and exploring how it moves "through different hands, contexts and uses," I explore a number of objects and try to catch them at different moments of use, thus considering how use moves through things.

Use can be treated as a record of a life: use as a recorder. I proceed in this chapter by considering the use status of things. We learn about something by considering how it is being used, has been used, or can be used. But what seems to point to the future (can be used) can just as easily refer back to the past (has been used). And what has been used in the past can just as easily point us toward the future; if use records where we have been, use can also direct us along certain paths. In this chapter, I tease out the strange temporalities of use.


The word use is a busy word. To start with use is to start small and to start simply. Use when used as a verb can mean to employ for some purpose, to expend or consume, to treat or behave toward, to take unfair advantage of or exploit, to habituate or accustom. Use is a relation as well as an activity that often points beyond something even when use is about something: to use something points to what something is for. Some objects are made in order to be used. We might describe these objects as designed. A cup is made in order that I have something to drink from; it is shaped this way, with a hole as its heart, empty, so that it can be filled by liquid. In the case of designed objects, what they are for seems to bring them into existence.

Drinking fluids is in the realm of necessity, something we need to do to be. Because we need to drink, it is useful to have vessels for holding liquids. We do not only drink from things that have been designed as drinking vessels. I think here of Lucretius's philosophical poem on the nature of things. Lucretius writes there was thirst "before there were cups to drink from" (4, 156). Indeed, Lucretius suggests the fact that "these inventions were devised for usefulness's sake" can give us a mistaken belief that nature too is designed. In contrast, he suggests, in life, "nothing is born so that we can use it. That which is born creates its own use" (4, 834–35). In another translation of Lucretius's words, use is made hap or happy: "What happens to exist is the cause of its use" (cited in Capra and Luisi 2014, 209). I might drink from a cup or I might cup my hands to drink water from a stream. My dog, Poppy, might drink from a bowl, which I have placed by the door for this purpose. Or she might drink from a puddle, a small pool of water that can settle because of the concave surface of the land. Elements combine to make a puddle possible — enough rain has to fall, and the land has to be shaped in such a way that the water can be held, a shaping that might be affected by how and by whom the land has been used — that tractor, say, that created a furrow on its journey from the field to the shed.

The puddle does not exist in order that Poppy can drink from it. But once a puddle exists, it can come into use. Use can come after. A biography of use might explore the different moments in which use happens in the life course of one thing or another. When something is made in order to be used ("devised for usefulness's sake"), use seems to have temporal priority. We might summarize the implied relation: for is before. In the case of drinking from a puddle, for comes after: when we make use of something because it exists, existence has temporal priority.

However, even if something is shaped around what it is for, that is not the end of the story. If for some things for is before, what happens to those things is not fully decided by what they are for. Howard Risatti notes in A Theory of Craft:

Use need not correspond to intended function. Most if not all objects can have a use, or, more accurately be made usable by being put to use. A sledgehammer can pound or it can be used as a paperweight or lever. A handsaw can cut a board and be used as straight-edge or to make music. A chair can be sat in and used to prop open a door. These uses make them "useful objects" but since they are unrelated to the intended purpose and function for which these objects were made, knowing these uses doesn't necessarily reveal much about these objects. (2007, 26)

Use does not necessarily correspond to an intended function. This not is an opening. I am not so sure if uses are quite as unrevealing about things as Risatti implies ("knowing these uses doesn't necessarily reveal much about these objects"). I am being told something about the qualities of a sledgehammer that it can also be used as a paperweight. That a sledgehammer can be used as a paperweight tells me about the heaviness of the sledgehammer. This heaviness still references for; it is heavy enough for me to use it to hold down the paper.

When use can be separated from function, use seems to come after. But starting with use might require going back even further, before something became functional, before a cup came to be a cup, a utensil, a thing from which we can drink. When would a story of use begin? Perhaps the starting point for use is always arbitrary; use takes us back to how such-and-such thing came to be recognizable as such-and-such thing. We could think of paper as the material we use for writing, though paper has many other uses that are indicated often through naming: wrapping paper, toilet paper, wastepaper.

That paper gets around might have something to tell us about the usefulness of paper. That a paperweight becomes necessary teaches us about not only the heaviness of a paperweight but also the lightness of paper. We can learn about objects from the objects they are near, from their traveling companions. Objects can be in time with each other, traveling in time. Objects also travel through time. Paper came into existence partly because the heaviness of bamboo made it inconvenient to handle. The lightness of paper meant it was more suitable than bamboo for wrapping things that needed to be transported. Henry Petroski in The Evolution of Useful Things replaces the usual expression "form follows function" with "form follows failure." He explains, "The form of made things is always subject to change in response to their real or perceived shortcomings, their failure to function properly" (1994, 20). Inventiveness comes from the fact — or the perception — that things are not functioning as well as they could be. In one chapter, Petroski asks how the fork got its tines. He gives us an answer: "Frustrations with knives, especially their shortcomings in holding meat steady for cutting, led to the development of the fork" (7–8). Petroski cites the work of the architect Christopher Alexander on misfitting: "Misfit provides an incentive to change; good fit provides none" (30). The failure of things to work creates an incentive to make new things.

Experiments with design are made because objects that are available to use do not allow us to do something as well as they could. Use thus brings things into existence through gradual modifications of form; to form is to transform. Things are transformed by being useful. In Capital, Marx notes, "It is absolutely clear that by his activity, man changes the forms of the materials of nature in such a way as to make them useful to him. The form of wood, for instance, is altered if a table is made out of it. Nevertheless the table continues to be wood, an ordinary, sensuous thing" ([1867] 1990, 163, emphasis mine). We need to look at things with a view to this history. As Marx explains further, "Every useful thing, for example, iron, paper, etc., may be looked at from the two points of view of quality and quantity. Every useful thing is a whole composed of many qualities; it can therefore be useful in various ways. The discovery of these ways and hence of the manifold uses of things is the work of history" (125). What is important here is that discovering the "manifold uses of things" requires work. Historical materialism places a strong emphasis on use because of how use requires attending to material conditions: "The usefulness of a thing makes it a use-value. But this usefulness does not dangle in mid-air. It is conditioned by the physical properties of the commodity, and has no existence apart from the latter" (126). If the usefulness of a thing gives it a use value, the value does not originate simply in that thing. For Marx, something acquires use value through labor: use values are understood as combinations of materials and labor (133). Some things have utility without use value; that is, they are furnished by nature without being "mediated by labour" (131).

If labor shapes how some things take shape, things are shaped in order to be used. Staying with something is about grasping what it allows us to do. We can return to paper. Once paper has materialized — that is, been mediated by labor — paper can be used for different things. Use teaches how we pick things up because of their material or physical qualities, which is to say, given what they allow us to do. Even if intentions do not exhaust possibilities, even if there is something queer about use, something cannot be used for anything. Use is a restriction of possibility that is material. Even when we use something in ways that were not intended — a cup as a paperweight, for instance — we do so given the qualities of a thing. Perhaps when we use something in ways that were not intended, we are allowing those qualities to acquire freer expression. The keys that are used to unlock a door can be used as a toy, perhaps because they are shiny and silver, perhaps because they jangle. Queer uses, when things are used for purposes other than the ones for which they were intended, still reference the qualities of things; queer uses may linger on those qualities, rendering them all the more lively.

In Use

An object has been shaped by the requirements of use. A surrounding too can be shaped by use by how objects are gathered around. If I am a writer, I may have certain objects around me — a computer, a keyboard — that are placed on my writing table, which itself is placed in the corner of my study, the room I use for writing. These objects are near enough; they are ready to be used. A phenomenology of usefulness would attend to how use involves a way of arranging worlds as well as ourselves. We are in this sense already "in use" before we pick up objects; to inhabit a world is to be inhabited by use. In Queer Phenomenology (2006), I described proximity as oriented; that which is placed near enough to a body can show its leanings, and the things that are placed so they are convenient to use tell us how you are usually occupied. Proximities are not only revealing of our own occupations. Objects too exist in relations of proximity: an object might be near another object as they are used together; use is how things come to share a location.

Attending to use allows us to explore the oriented nature of spaces, including public spaces. Objects that surround us, which become familiar features of a landscape, might be there because of what they are for. We can be surrounded by for. I think of postboxes, which are sometimes described as "street furniture," as well as aesthetic objects that liven up the landscape. One article explains, "For many communities, they are a reassuring presence — a cheerful, red splash that has stood out on British streets for a [sic] more than a century and a half." Another article claims, "Our post boxes are true landmarks and their history is imprinted on them." Postboxes are, of course, not just decorative features of a landscape; they are objects with a history. They matter because they are "regularly used by most as it had been for generations." Indeed, we know what they are because we know what they are for. An object can be how you encounter a system. Postboxes are in use because they are part of an existing arrangement that requires them to work. They are part of a communication system, which is also a transportation system. When we post our letter into a postbox, the postbox is in use. We can do so with confidence, without thinking; we assume that letter will not just be sitting in a box but be picked up and sent on its way. A letter can reach its destination because of what is in use.

To say something is in use does not only mean that it is currently being used. In fact, when I say the postbox is in use, I could be referring to the fact that I am currently using it, or that I could be using it. A coin that is in use is circulating but it could still be in my pocket. It can come out and come into use, current as currency, because its circulation was only temporally suspended.


Excerpted from "What's the Use?"
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  xiii
Introduction. A Useful Archive  1
1. Using Things  21
2. The Biology of Use and Disuse  68
3. Use as Technique  103
4. Use and the University  141
Conclusion. Queer Use  197
Notes  231
References  257
Index  271

What People are Saying About This

Gloria Wekker

“How lucky we are that feminist killjoy Sara Ahmed takes us on her learned, witty, and insightful journey. With her evocative exasperation at the state of affairs with regard to the (im)possibilities of diversity work and complaint, she dismantles the sexist and racist structures of the modern university. Now as a courageous, independent scholar, Ahmed continues to shine her characteristic phenomenological lights on walls and doors and more. She is still here; she refused to get used to it!”

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson

“In this close reading of use, Sara Ahmed leads the reader from object to object at a pace that moves with the deliberateness of a philosopher and the grace of a literary scholar. With this and other books, Ahmed has established herself as one of the most important feminist thinkers in the world.”

Jack Halberstam

“With characteristic verve and force, Sara Ahmed explores the uses of use. More than a history of an idea and much more than a philosophical investigation of use and value, Ahmed’s book teaches us how to locate use, usefulness, used-upness, used objects, and useful and useless knowledge in relation to time, space, queerness, and more. Read this book; you need it, and more importantly, you will use it. It is useful and useless in equal proportion and compelling precisely because of its mixed-use value. Before you know it, you will get used to use and you will carry it with you always.”

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