‘Willful Subjects’ by Sara Ahmed
Author: Marcie Bianco
August 25, 2014
Goldsmiths College professor and highly regarded race and cultural studies scholar Sara Ahmed offers an expanded study of the “feminist killjoy” in her new book, Willful Subjects.
In her 2010 book The Promise of Happiness Ahmed crafted the identity of the “feminist killjoy,” or critic of extant heteronormative strictures of happiness. Feminist killjoys are “those who refuse to laugh at the right points; those who are unwilling to be seated at the table of happiness”; they are “willful women, unwilling to get along, unwilling to preserve an idea of happiness” in order to fit or or remain complicit with what the world gives them.
Willful Subjects takes this identity as a starting point for a larger examination of the willful subject in a broader historical and cultural context. To be willful is to be striking, to annoy, arrest or disrupt the flow of things. “[T]o be judged willful,” Ahmed explains, “is to become a killjoy of the future: the one who steals the possibility of happiness,…the one who gets in the way of a happiness assumed as on the way.”
In order to construct this historical and cultural genealogy of the willful subject, Ahmed begins by unraveling the genealogy of “the will,” which is a slippery, oftentimes ambiguous, philosophical concept in Chapter 1, primarily as it manifests in 19th and 20th century continental philosophy. The lack of clarity about the concept proves slightly problematic in the later chapters when Ahmed tries to harness it in order to understand the act of willfulness both in ethics and in politics. Chapters 2 through 4 delve into these discourses through her examination of the relation between the will and willfulness, ill will and good will, and the particular will and general will. Chapter 4, “Willfulness as a Style of Politics,” suggests an examination of the aesthetic nature of such willfulness — “I am to reflect [how] willfulness has been, and actively can be…claimed” (emphasis added) — but the ideas fail to coalesce, as Ahmed segues into a discussion of sovereignty in her point about willfulness as an act of disobedience.
Ahmed’s intellectual trajectory is based in continental philosophy, feminist theory and critical race studies; her previous publications, like Willful Subjects, blends philosophy with cultural and literary history. All of these discourses combined showcase Ahmed’s brilliance and breadth of knowledge, but at the same time prove unwieldy and arguably impossible to control. A part of this seems to be Ahmed’s stylistic endeavor, to remain ungrounded, unyielding, and to resist assimilation in the form of intellectual coherence.
What is produced, however, in the reader’s eyes is a hodgepodge of ideas, tethered together through association. There is, like many critical studies in the humanities commonly related as threads of New Historicism, an accumulation of surface without any depth. It is methodologically messy in the capacity that it’s not clear why she broaches or moves to certain ideas or texts other than the fact that they seem to pop into her head via association. This lack of methodological commitment is apparent even in the conditional language Ahmed uses to move from one thought to the next. For example, this flow of ideas occurs in one single paragraph: “It is worth [considering] here Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s description of queer politics as ‘voluntary stigma’…. Her argument [could be] related to that of Dan Brouwer who explores the use of tattoos in HIV/AIDS activism…” (emphasis added).
Why are these texts being connected? Why is it important? What is the connection? These questions are never answered. The connection is never made explicit to the reader, and one must wonder, when Ahmed follows the paragraph with the elusive sentence “There is something deeply evocative about Sedgwick’s own account…” that she herself is quite sure what that “something” is.
The selection of literary texts, too, is baffling. From Grimm’s fairy tales to Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, from Augustine’s Confessions to the anthology Sisterhood is Powerful, the collection of texts is completely random other than the fact that they all exhibit willful subjects.
This text, therefore, is very difficult to grasp as a whole, as Ahmed herself seems torn between writing a literary history of willful subjects, a philosophical genealogy of the concept of the will, and a political examination of willfulness in society.
The most promise, it seems, is in the literary history of willful subjects through a kind of feminist discourse, which is an interest that Ahmed has explored and written about variously, especially on her spectacular blog, feministkilljoys.com.
By Sara Ahmed
Duke University Press
Paperback, 9780822357834, 320 pp.