Earlier in the semester, we read an essay by Karma Chávez. She's speaking next Monday:
How can we read this NPR news report on health and aging beside Ahmed's happiness?
Sara's Sara Ahmed Mash-up: After the jump I do a mash-up of different bits of blog posts from my trouble blog and my course blogs for queering desire and feminist/queer/troublemaking on Sara Ahmed and happiness.
1. Bearable and Unbearable lives
On page 97 of The Promise of Happiness, in her chapter on "Unhappy Queers," Sara Ahmed writes:
I am struck by the slippage that I see in J Butler's work between the unbearable, bearable, livable and good life. I briefly wrote about it in my essay on Living and Grieving Beside Judith. Here's the fragment:
Butler contrasts her notion of the livable/bearable life with the good life and argues that the good life is only available to people whose lives are already possible and recognizable and who don't have to devote most of their energy to figuring out ways to survive and persist (Undoing Gender, 31-32). For her, the question of the livable life must necessarily precede the question of the good life, because to strive for a good life, one must first be recognized as having a life (Undoing Gender, 205).
My mom started falling down a lot. It wasn't safe for her to be alone. The decision was made to begin hospice care. She was no longer living with cancer; she was dying from it. She had entered the final stage. Any thoughts about a cure or remission--that hope for a good life to be achieved again in the future--was replaced by practical discussions of how to ensure that she continued to have a comfortable life that was free of pain. The good or even livable life were no longer possible for her. The best she could hope for was the bearable life. And what she could expect (and eventually did reach) was something that seemed even less than the bare minimum requirements of life. Yet, even as I witnessed her decline and the resultant shift from good to livable to bearable to unbearable life, I can't really make sense of her experiences of those last four years (or even the last six months) as just surviving until the inevitable. Up until those last days, years after she was supposed to die, she lived and, in moments, however fleeting, flourished. She enjoyed life, she laughed, and she loved her daughters, her grandchildren and my dad.
What makes for the livable life? How do we distinguish that life from ones that are merely bearable or others that flourish? Who gets to make this distinction and how do they do it? My mother's living and dying with pancreatic cancer pushed at the limits of my understandings of life and how and when it is possible.
I want to continue thinking about the differences/connections in these various forms of "life." How do we distinguish unbearable from bearable from livable from good?
BEING HAPPY IN THE RIGHT WAY:
Key claim: "the very hope for happiness means we get directed in specific ways, as happiness is assumed to follow from some life choices and not others" (54). What life choices are supposed to lead to happiness and which are not? Who gets to decide what leads to happiness and how are those decisions made?
The face of happiness, at least in this description, looks rather like the face of privilege. Rather than assuming happiness is simply found in "happy persons," we can consider how claims to happiness make certain forms of personhood valuable (11).
Promoting happiness promotes certain ways of living (over others) and certain types of families (11).
"Ideas of happiness involve social as well as moral distinctions insofar as they rest on ideas of who is worthy as well as capable of being happy 'in the right way'" (13).
SOME GOALS FOR AHMED:
- Suspending belief that happiness is a good thing. "This book proceeds by suspending belief that happiness is a good thing [note: not by rejecting but suspending belief]. In this mode of suspension, we can consider not only what makes happiness good but how happiness participates in making things good....My task is to think about how feelings make some things and not others good" (13).
- Tracking the word happiness: "In order to consider how happiness makes things good, I track the word happiness, asking what histories are evoked by the mobility of this word. I follow the word happiness around" (14).
- Exploring the happiness archive: "a set of ideas, thoughts, narratives, images, impressions about what is happiness" (15).
- Asking questions about happiness and its history/histories: "what does it mean to think of happiness as having a history? How or why should we write such a history? Who or what would belong in this history" (16)?
- Rewriting history from the point of view of the wretch: "I thus offer an alternative history of happiness not simply by offering different readings of its intellectual history but by considering those who are banished from it, or who enter this history only as troublemakers, dissenters, killers of joy" (17).
- Giving the killjoy a voice: "This book is an attempt to give the killjoy back [their] voice and to speak from recognition of how it feels to inhabit that place" (20).
- Not spreading unhappiness but making room for other ways of living/imaging life: "I know that I risk overemphasizing the problems with happiness by presenting happiness as a problem. It is a risk that I am willing to take. If this book kills joy, then it does what it says we should do. To kill joy...is to open a life, to make room for life, to make room for possibility, for chance. My aim in this book is to make room" (20).
CHAPTER 3: Unhappy Queers
...we must consider how unhappiness circulates within and around this [queer] archive, and what it allows us to do (89). What does unhappiness allow us to do? How does it circulate within and around the queer archive?
- feelings that reside within individual characters
- moods that linger without direction, aim or purpose
- feelings that get directed in a certain way/give narrative its direction
There is no doubt that it is hard to separate images of the good life from the historic privileging of heterosexual conduct, as expressed in romantic love and coupledom, as well as in the idealization of domestic privacy (90).
comfort warmth domestic bliss
Heterosexual love becomes about the possibility of a happy ending; about what life is aimed toward, as being what gives live direction or purpose, or as what drives a story. It is difficult to separate out narrative as such from the reproduction of happy heterosexuality (90).
happiness scripts as straightening devices (91).
Queer and feminist histories are the histories of those who are willing to risk the consequences of deviation (91).
To arrive into the world is to inherit the world that you arrive into (95).
Heterosexual happiness is narrated as a social wrong, as based on the unthinking exclusion of those whose difference is already narrated as deprivation. Happiness for some involves persecution: it is not simply that this happiness produces a social wrong; it might even depend upon it. The unhappiness of the deviant performs a claim for justice (96).
We can see too the importance of embracing the unhappy queer, rather than simply placing our hopes in an alternative figure of the happy queer. The unhappy queer is unhappy with the world that reads queers as unhappy. The risk of promoting the happy queer is that the unhappiness of this world could disappear from view. We must stay unhappy with this world (105).
The recognition of queers can be narrated as the hope or promise of becoming acceptable, where in being acceptable you much become acceptable to a world that has already decided what is acceptable (106).
To narrate unhappiness can be affirmative; it can gesture toward another world, even if we are not given a vision of the world as it might exist after the walls of misery are brought down (107).
Does happiness for queers involve a revolution in the organization of sexuality, desire, and the body, or does it simply make queers part of the same work, the world of "happy folk," even if we have to work to get there (107)?
progress hope future optimism happiness
undone = unhoused: The desire for a bearable life is a desire for a life where suffering does not mean that you lose you bearings, where you become unhoused (111). from the unbearable to bearable to good life (112)
One could also ask whether queer happiness involves an increasing proximity to social forms that are already attributed as happiness-causes (the family, marriage, class mobility, whiteness), which of course suggests that promoting queer happiness might involve promoting social forms in which other queers will not be able to participate (112).
Our question becomes: can we sustain the struggle for recognition, the struggle to make the world bearable for queers, without approximating the very forms of happy heterosexuality (114)?
To be happily queer can also recognize that unhappiness; indeed to be happily queer can be to recognize the unhappiness that is concealed by the promotion of happy normativity (117).
To be happily queer is to explore the unhappiness of what gets counted as normal (117).
We need to think more about the relationship between the queer struggle for a bearable life and aspirational hopes for a good life....I think the struggle for a bearable life is the struggle for queers to have space to breathe. If queer politics is about freedom, it might simply mean the freedom to breathe (120).
THE HAP: Ahmed wants to disentangle happiness from the future (futures promises/events, like a wedding) or from any end goal (Aristotle's teleology). She wants us to envision happiness as possibility (the hap/happens). For her, happiness is not a promise or an inevitable outcome of certain, very constrained and often heteronormative, activities. It is a sense of possibility that is kept open by the refusal to be happy or a willingness to stay not (or un) happy. Ahmed suggests that this type of not/un-happiness is not all wretched, miserable or joyless. Instead, she writes:
There can be joy in killing joy. And kill joy we must, and we do.
What does/could this joy look like? See the history of the hap (207).