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Issue: 8.3: Summer 2010
Guest Edited by Mandy Van Deven and Julie Kubala
Polyphonic Feminisms: Acting in Concert

Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects)

Sara Ahmed

A note on this article.[1]

It can be hard to remember becoming a feminist if only because it is hard to remember a time that you did not feel that way. Is it possible to have always been that way? Is it possible to have been a feminist right from the beginning? A feminist story can be a beginning. Perhaps we can make sense of the complexity of feminism as an activist space if we can give an account of how feminism becomes an object of feeling, as something we invest in, as a way of relating to the world, a way of making sense of how we relate to the world. When did "feminism" become a word that spoke not just to you, but spoke you, that spoke of your existence or even spoke you into existence? The sound of it, your sound? How do we gather by gathering around this word, sticking to each other by sticking to it? What did it mean, what does it mean, to hold onto "feminism," to fight under its name; to feel in its ups and downs, in its coming and goings, one's own ups and downs, one's own comings and goings?

What is my story? Like you, I have many. One way of telling my feminist story would be to begin with a table. Around the table, a family gathers. Always we are seated in the same place: my father one end, myself the other, my two sisters to one side, my mother to the other. Always we are seated this way, as if we are trying to secure more than our place. A childhood memory, yes. But it is also memory of an everyday experience in that quite literal sense of an experience that happened every day. An intense everyday: my father asking questions, my sisters and me answering them, my mother mostly silent. When does intensity become tension?

We begin with a table. Around this table, the family gathers, having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up. Someone says something you consider problematic. You are becoming tense; it is becoming tense. How hard to tell the difference between what is you and what is it! You respond, carefully, perhaps. You say why you think what they have said is problematic. You might be speaking quietly, but you are beginning to feel "wound up," recognising with frustration that you are being wound up by someone who is winding you up. In speaking up or speaking out, you upset the situation. That you have described what was said by another as a problem means you have created a problem. You become the problem you create.

To be the object of shared disapproval, those glances that can cut you up, cut you out. An experience of alienation can shatter a world. The family gathers around the table; these are supposed to be happy occasions. How hard we work to keep the occasion happy, to keep the surface of the table polished so that it can reflect back a good image of the family. So much you are not supposed to say, to do, to be, in order to preserve that image. If you say, or do, or be anything that does not reflect the image of the happy family back to itself, the world becomes distorted. You become the cause of a distortion. You are the distortion you cause. Another dinner, ruined. To become alienated from a picture can allow you to see what that picture does not and will not reflect.

Becoming a feminist can be an alienation from happiness (though not just that, not only that: oh the joy of being able to leave the place you were given!). When we feel happiness in proximity to the right objects, we are aligned; we are facing the right way. You become alienated—out of line with an affective community—when you do not experience happiness from the right things. The gap between the affective value of an object and how we experience an object can involve a range of affects, which are directed by the modes of explanation we offer to fill this gap.

If we are disappointed by something that is supposed to make us happy, we generate explanations of why that thing is disappointing. We can be disappointed without ever being happy. Think of the wedding day, imagined as "the happiest day of your life" before it even happens! What happens when the day happens, if happiness does not happen? In her classic The Managed Heart, Arlie Russell Hochschild explores how if the bride is not happy on the wedding day, and feels "depressed and upset," then she is experiencing an "inappropriate affect," or is being affected inappropriately. You have to save the day by feeling right: "sensing a gap between the ideal feeling and the actual feeling she tolerated, the bride prompts herself to be happy".[2] The capacity to "save the day" depends on the bride being able to make herself be affected in the right way, or at least being able to persuade others that she is being affected in the right way. To correct our feelings is to become disaffected from a former affection: the bride makes herself happy by stopping herself from being miserable. We learn from this example that it is possible not to inhabit fully one's own happiness, or even to be alienated from one's happiness, if the former affection remains lively, persisting as more than just memory, or if one is made uneasy by the very necessity of having to make oneself feel a certain way.

You cannot always close the gap between how you do feel and how you should feel. Behind the sharpness of this "cannot" is a world of possibility. Does activism act out of this gap, opening it up, loosening it up? Not to close the gap between what you do feel and what you should feel might begin as or with a sense of disappointment. Disappointment can involve an anxious narrative of self-doubt (why I am not made happy by this; what is wrong with me?), or a narrative of rage, where the object that is "supposed" to make us happy is attributed as the cause of disappointment. Your rage might be directed against it, or spill out toward those that promised you happiness through the elevation of such objects as good. We become strangers, or affect aliens, in such moments.

Affect aliens are those who experience alien affects. You are unseated by the table of happiness. If you lose your seat what happens? Activism is often a matter of seats. The word "dissidence" for instance derives from the Latin dis—"apart" + sedere "to sit." The dissident is the one who sits apart. Or the dissident is the one would be unseated by taking up a place at the table: your seat is the site of disagreement. In Queer Phenomenology I was too obsessed with tables to notice the queerness of the chair. But I did suggest then that if we begin with the body that loses its chair, the world we describe might be quite different.[3]

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