by EILEEN JOY
[this post has been composed-in-time to synchronize with our ongoing discussions about medieval disability studies and what I would call bodies-in-time, here, here, and here; and don't miss JJC's notice of Nadia Altschul's recent essay on postcolonialism and the Middle Ages here]
What Rough Lolcat, Its Hour Come Round at Last, Slouches Toward Sara Ahmed to be Born?
I have the stardom glow.—Jennifer Lopez, or, J-Lo
Although some of us [well, okay, just me and Michael O’Rourke] involved in the recent intensive seminar devoted to Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology at University College Dublin [21-22 May; organized by Michael and Noreen Giffney as part of their brilliant The(e)ories: Advanced Seminars for Queer Research] were hoping for major theorist diva-tude from Sara Ahmed, we were sorely disappointed. What we wanted was for Sara to arrive with at least fifteen pieces of pink faux-crocodile Vuitton luggage and endless demands for Fiji water, Krug champagne, boiled salamander eggs, Polynesian serving girls, and a hotel room temperature that never went above or below 71.5 degrees fahrenheit. What we got was a lovely, warm, funny, and down-to-earth person who also happens to be so smart it’s almost frightening, and yet would rather talk about Dolly Parton and American Idol and The L Word than critical race theory and Husserl [although, in point of fact, she talked about all of these things].
But we still held out some hope. When we noticed that on the first day of the seminar Sara was wearing what could only be described as an uber-cool jacket [don’t ask me to describe it; suffice to say it was shiny and multi-colored and matched her mini-backpack purse, although she swore the “matching” was unintentional], Michael suggested that she might want to demand an extra hotel room just for the jacket, and I agreed: the jacket needed its own room, its own plasma screen television, its own remote, its own bottled water, its own serving girls. Sara didn’t seem to understand our meaning, and the crushing blow came when she told us the jacket had been purchased in a store in Lawrence, Kansas. Good god no, we shuddered. Anything but that.
But the real low point for me, personally, was when we were riding the bus Thursday evening to dinner at Eden restaurant, and after I indicated my horror at people who like to display pictures of their cats online, and to look at these pictures, Sara immediately chimed in with, “but I like to look at pictures of cats. I really do.” Before I even knew what was happening, everyone was whipping out their cell phones [Michael, Noreen, Sara, and I] to show each other photos of our cats/dogs/girlfriends. Any shred of coolness that I may have had up to that point was instantly stripped away from me, and sadly, it may never return. To add insult to injury, Steven Ambrose [delightful graduate student in women’s/gender studies at Trinity College] told Sara about lolcats and “I Can Has Cheeseburger,” and since I’ve returned home I find myself waking up in the middle of the night in a cold sweat imagining Sara Ahmed, somewhere in the world, staying up late at night browsing the cat pictures on “I Can Has Cheeseburger” instead of finishing her brilliant new book. Speaking of which,
On(Against) Happiness and (For)Killjoys
Touch . . . involves an economy: a differentiation between those who can and cannot be reached. Touch then opens bodies to some bodies and not others. Queer orientations are those that put within reach bodies that have been unreachable by the lines of conventional genealogy.—Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology
Although the primary purpose of the intensive seminar at UC Dublin was to have an extended, interdisciplinary conversation with Ahmed about her recent book Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, on the first day, Ahmed shared with us a portion of her current project, On Being Directed: Promises, Happiness, Deviations, which is, in some ways, a natural extension [or outgrowth] of the “lines” of her thought in Queer Phenomenology, where she writes,
“For a life to count as a good life, then it must return the debt of its life by taking on the direction promised as a social good, which means imagining one’s futurity in terms of reaching certain points along a life course. A queer life might be one that fails to make such gestures of return.” [Queer Phenomenology, p. 21]
Further, and also in Queer Phenomenology, Ahmed takes on what might be called the spatio-temporality [and spatio-temporal “orientations”] of straight and queer and racialized lives [in ways, I might add, with powerful implications for those of us working in what I now want to call QueerMedievalFutures—you know the roster: Dinshaw, Lochrie, Schultz, Kruger, Cohen, Biddick, Burger, Howie, Klosowska, etc.], and calls attention, thereby, to “the intimacy of bodies and their dwelling places” [p. 8]. Most importantly [and here, I am hoping for some convergence with our current ongoing discussions on medieval disability studies]:
“The ‘here’ of bodily dwelling is . . . what takes the body outside of itself, as it is affected and shaped by its surroundings: the skin that seems to contain the body is also where the atmosphere creates an impression . . . . Bodies may become orientated in this responsiveness to the world around them, given this capacity to be affected. In turn, given the history of such responses, which accumulate as impressions on the skin, bodies do not dwell in spaces that are exterior but rather are shaped by their dwellings and take shape by dwelling.” [p. 9]
“The work of inhabitance involves orientation devices; ways of extending bodies into spaces that create new folds, or new contours of what we could call livable or inhabitable space. If orientation is about making the strange familiar through the extension of bodies into space, then disorientation occurs when that extension fails. Or we could say that some spaces extend certain bodies and simply do not leave room for others. . . . In such moments, when bodies do not extend into space, they might feel ‘out of place’ where they have been given ‘a place.’ Such feelings in turn point to other places, even ones that have yet to be inhabited.” [p. 12]
Certain “lines” [such as “straight” or “white” or “married,” etc.] that we follow in our lives are such “orientation” devices, and while they help us “find our way,” they also “make certain things, and not others, available” [p. 14]. Moreover, we don’t have to “consciously exclude those things that are not ‘on line’,” because the “direction we take excludes things for us, before we even get there” [p. 15]. We are “orientated,” then, “when we are in line. We are ‘in line’ when we face the direction that is already faced by others. . . . We might speak then of collective direction: of ways in which nations and other imagined communities might be ‘going in a certain direction,’ or facing the same way, such that only some things ‘get our attention.’ . . . We follow the line that is followed by others: the repetition of the act of following makes the line disappear from view as the point from which ‘we’ emerge” [p. 15].
In relation to sexuality, heterosexuality, in Ahmed’s view, is a “compulsory orientation” and the heterosexual couple “is ‘instituted’ as the form of sociality through force” [p. 84]. In this scenario, heterosexuality functions “as the most intimate and deadly of parental gifts” [p. 85—think also Judith Halberstam’s “time of inheritance”]. We don’t have to think of the “normative” or “straight” couple in just heterosexual terms, however [in my mind], for, still following Ahmed’s thought, the “affinity of the couple form is socially binding: premised as it is on resemblance and on the ‘naturalness’ of the direction of desire, which produces the couple as an entity, as a ‘social one’ (from two)” [p. 84]. Ultimately, when we “see” couples in a particular field of vision that is heterosexually structured, the form is so familiar that the labor of becoming that couple disappears from our sight, and to “see the couple form in its ‘sensuous certainty’ (Marx and Engels) as an ‘object’ that can be perceived, would be not to see how this form arrives as an effect of intergenerational work” [p. 84—I must add that, for me, all couples, queer and straight—perform this object-function and are essentially oppressive in certain ways, but that's a discussion for another day, and full disclaimer: I've been part of a couple for 16 years now]. Lesbian sexuality also involves “work,” or labor, because one has to “shift” one’s orientation in a certain direction, which also involves following certain lines, and it is not that certain “objects” [other women?] cause desire, “but that in desiring certain objects other things follow, given how the familial and social are already arranged,” and “the object in sexual object choice is sticky: other things ‘stick’ when we orientate ourselves toward objects, especially if such orientations do not follow the family or social line” [p. 101].
Ultimately, for Ahmed, “lesbian desire puts women into closer ‘contact’ with women” and “lesbian contact slides back and forth between forms of social and sexual proximity” [p. 103]. But we should not [and here is where Ahmed’s thought really takes off for me, personally] “think of this ‘contact zone’ of lesbian desire . . . as a fantasy of likeness (of finding others who are ‘like me’), but as opening up lines of connection between bodies that are drawn to each other in the repetition of [the] tendency to deviate from the straight line. . . . Lesbian desires move us sideways: one object might put another in reach, as we come into contact with different bodies and worlds” [p. 105]. And this brings to mind, too, as Ahmed points out, Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner’s idea that the “queer world is a space of entrances and exits, unsystematized lines of acquaintance, projecting horizons, typifying examples, alternate routes, blockages, incommensurate geographies” [“Sex in Public”]. Therefore, in Ahmed’s view, it “is important that we do not idealize queer worlds or simply locate them in an alternative space,” for it is “given that the straight world is already in place and that queer moments, where things come out of line, are fleeting. Our response need not be to search for permanence . . . but to listen to the sound of ‘the what’ that flees” [p. 106].
Now, I see this listening for “the sound of ‘the what’ that flees” to also be intimately bound up with Ahmed’s new project on promises, happiness, and deviations [On Being Directed], in which she helps us to see the ways in which the world and particular objects in the world arrive to us with certain affectivities already built in, as it were, before we encounter them. Objects are “happy” for us when we are “directed” [by our families, for example], to believe they will bring, or “promise,” us happiness. The “promise” of happiness, in something like marriage (or virginity! or the suburbs! or children!), for instance, “grounds” our expectations and provides a supposed assurance that we will be happy, if only we follow (or allow ourselves to be directed) along certain (familial and social) lines. As opposed to John Locke’s idea that “happiness is a direction we take in relation to objects that come close to us” [which gives to happiness a certain intentionality], Ahmed posits the brilliant “twist” [a term I invoke intentionally since it is one of the meanings of “queer”] that we are oriented [directed to be oriented] toward happy objects even before they arrive. And you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure out the crushing disappointment that often ensues when the supposedly happy object does finally arrive. Just read Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, or Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady, or D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love, and I could go on and on.
In relation to love, we can see the ways in which certain notions of happiness, as Ahmed brilliantly illustrated to us, can be ultimately deforming and destructively oppressive, including the speech acts: “I am happy if you are,” “I will only be happy if you are happy,” “If you are unhappy I will be unhappy,” “You must be happy for me,” and so on, and to love another is to ultimately want their happiness [ouch]. When others have a certain dependence on your happiness being directed in a certain way [toward, perhaps, a certain common good], then many lives [perhaps all, I would argue] are ultimately lived in the gap between directed promises and the possibilities of different lives that have to be lost and mourned in advance. For Ahmed, a queer politics would allow us the freedom to be unhappy [especially when others, including our families, want us to be the “happy queer”—think of the mother who tells you, “it’s okay that you’re gay, as long as you’re happy”], to cause unhappiness by acts of deviation away from communal [straight or gay] happy objects, and to literally “kill joy” by being the killjoy. By holding onto their unhappiness, their discomfort, their anomie and angst and distress, the melancholic migrant, the angry black woman, the unhappy queer, the feminist killjoy--and might I add, in light of our recent discussion here, the pissed-off crip [all “alien affects” within certain communities] function as important “blockage points” to others’ “promissory happiness” and thereby make the future [different futures] possible.
Wow. What can I say? I will just quote Austin Powers: “yeah, baby, yeah.”
Of course, it has to be admitted that I, myself, am a pretty happy person and I told Ahmed that her writing and thought “made me happy” [just teasing, somewhat]. But I would also like to rethink what I think happiness is through Ahmed’s thought while still reserving a place for the idea that one can be happy and even be surrounded by sticky happy objects [all entendres intended] and still depart/deviate from whatever lines, while always leaving the future open. For me [and I am still trying to flesh this out more fully], happiness has something to do with always leaving everything open as a possibility, with not expecting or demanding certain promises to be fulfilled [while at the same time believing in the promise of what has not been promised but wished for], with existing within [or “making happen”] various “fields” within which everything is always about “to-come.” Nothing is “gotten” but everything is always coming, and coming undone, at various “points” of arrival. Also, happiness is allowing and undertaking the labor of clearing room for all bodies to arrive in this field, all of whom surprise me by their arrival, and are [hopefully] surprised in turn. I am happy just laboring in this field, or clearing ground within it.
Stuck in the Middle with You, Stuck in the Middle with You: Embrace Your Arrested Development
We have hope because what is behind us is also what allows other ways of gathering in time and space, of making lines that do not reproduce what we follow but instead create wrinkles in the earth.—Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology
He wants to be hungry all the time: he chooses to be starved, to be longing, rather than belonging.—Lauren Berlant, “Starved,” in After Sex: On Writing Since Queer Theory (special issue of SAQ)
By way of conclusion, I want to share what I am thinking of as a strange moment in my reading of Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology. It occurred in Chapter 2, “Sexual Orientation,” where Ahmed undertakes a queer excavation of Freud’s “The Psychogenesis of a Case of Homosexuality in a Woman,” in order to delineate the ways in which family love is “elevated as an ideal that can only be ‘returned’ by heterosexual love” [p. 73], and also how Freud’s attempt—albeit a “fumbling” attempt—to construct the “straight” lines of normative sexuality “is what shapes the very tendency to go astray” [p. 79]. While reading Ahmed’s description of Freud’s definition of “deviation” or “perversion” as what happens when “there is an extension in an anatomical sense beyond the regions of the body that are displayed for sexual union” or “there is a lingering over intermediate relations to the sexual object,” which “should normally travel rapidly on the path toward the final sexual aim” [qtd. on p. 78], I found myself wanting to stay with this moment of “perversion” as a “lingering over intermediate relations.” Since so much of Ahmed’s thought in this book is structured along the idea of lines and points along lines and deviations from lines and also about “facing” [and this is the ethico-political imperative, in a sense] those who “flee” or retreat from us along different lines, making themselves “strange” or “oblique” as they depart from us, then what might it mean to also grasp as a site of utopian political [and also ethico-sexual] possibility the lingering over a particular intermediate point [which might also be a certain body] along a line that is not only not followed but also never abandoned, never departed from, never completed, in that lingering? What infinitude of horizons might open up in this lingering, this staying, this pausing over a particular point, a particular body, that never exhausts itself in its intermediacy, its inter-between-ity?* What is the tempo-spatiality of such a point, its constellation of affects and movements, its cartography, and how many lifetimes might I need to chart its territories? Is it possible that choosing to be perverted by not traveling along nor deviating from any line toward anything in order to dwell in a state of suspension at a certain point, with a certain body, or bodies, who are willing to risk with me, in the words of Lauren Berlant, “the collaborative risk of a shared disorganization,” might be the most utopian stance we can take?
And this, too, is a love letter: for Michael and Noreen.
*"Inter-between-ity" cadged from Michael O'Rourke.