Sunday, January 13, 2013

Review: The Promise of Happiness

[Sara Ahmed. The Promise of Happiness. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.]

One way that some of my longstanding interests have recently become configured is in a desire to think more about how, in concrete and practical terms, our lives are knit into the social world, how to write that reality effectively, and how to use our understanding of it to inform acting in the world in everyday and also more deliberately collective (movement-ish) ways. One element of doing this work is, as I wrote last month, thinking about how what we feel in our bodies is a product of the social world -- we don't just feel, we feel the world.

In The Promise of Happiness, philosopher Sara Ahmed thinks critically about happiness in ways that I think will be very useful to me in this project. Her mission is "following the word happiness" (14, emphasis in original) through different uses and contexts, examining how happiness is distributed, and figuring out what work it does in different situations. She begins by bracketing an assumption that is pervasive not only in popular wisdom but in much Western philosophy and other focused areas of scholarship (like the relatively recent field of "happiness studies"): that happiness is only and always a good thing. And she commits herself to examining happiness through the standpoints of various figures that tend to get painted as irretrievably and essentially unhappy: the feminist killjoy, the unhappy queer, and the melancholy migrant.

Her understanding of happiness as social begins from a recognition that it can be understood as a certain kind of affect pointed towards objects (where "objects" is meant broadly as any kind of something that one might have an affective orientation towards -- that includes material somethings, but also more abstracted somethings like the nuclear family, which she uses as an interesting and important example). Though in some cases there is plenty of social space for diverse attitudes towards a given object, in many cases there is a dominant affective orientation towards said object that is socially organized, such that the objects themselves seem to become imbued with affective significance and become the nodes around which affect is organized. Thus certain objects, through socially organized repetition and enforcement, become understood as happy objects, as sources of happiness, while others are similarly saturated with unhappiness.

One of the ways that this plays out is that it shapes what we experience and how we know the world, in that (to the extent that we have the power to do this) we constitute our local environment -- what we feel, what we encounter, what we have a chance to know -- out of happy objects and work to distance ourselves form unhappy objects. That means that the social organization of happiness is in part a social organization of the everyday experience that is our only basis for knowing the world. The social organization of happiness thus has epistemological implications.

Another way it all plays out is as a material, everyday way in which community is constituted -- through the shared affective relation to particular objects. Not belonging, of course, has costs and consequences, and such socially organized affective communities are inevitably normalizing, regulatory, and productive of the subjectivities of those within their bounds. Being born into a social context in which the sharing of certain affects is expected and enforced helps produce who we are and is a way in which those of us who deviate are punished. Even in the most intimate of contexts, a relationship in which it is clear that person X's happiness depends on the happiness of person Y can in fact be a powerful regulator of person Y, because they know they must behave in certain ways in order to keep person X, whom they love, happy. And it is the dominant understanding of happiness as an absolute social good, perhaps the absolute social good, that lends so much force to all of this normalization and regulation. There is also an inevitable blurring between taste/preference and morality such that objects which are widely imbued with a sense of promising happiness become "good" in the dominant understanding, and therefore prone to being imposed even on those who do not wish it. Disinterest in or dislike of or unhappiness directed towards such "good" objects and their promised happiness can mark subjects as not-belonging and as not-good. As well, happiness is an affect that is pointed towards the future, and the promise of future happiness can also be powerfully regulatory even in the face of constant failure to realize that happiness.

I very much liked the chapters focused on the three unhappy figures -- three objects that have become imbued with unhappiness and are widely seen as causes of unhappiness in others. Take the one about the feminist killjoy: There is a reactionary narrative that women today are unhappy because of feminism. Ahmed argues that part of the basis for this narrative is related to the ways in which the dominant socially organized version of happiness organizes affective communities around objects that constrict, constrain and oppress women, so when feminists point that out -- when they bring consciousness about the costs of meeting the requirements of happiness -- they become seen as causing unhappiness. The killjoy speaks up in ways that spoils the shared orientation to particular objects that composes harmonious community such that its oppressive basis can be ignored until the killjoy goes and spoils the fun by naming that basis. This can be challenging sexist comments over Thanksgiving dinner. It can be illustrating by example the satisfaction of a not-traditionally-feminine life course. In various ways, it is about making it harder not to know the price of happiness in terms of constraint to self or violence done to others. And while white feminists are seen as killjoys because of positions embraced and practices enacted, feminists of colour have often (even in feminist spaces) experienced being seen as sources of unhappiness without saying a word but simply for their physical presence.

In the chapter on unhappy queers, Ahmed points out how the relationships to objects that promise us happiness and the scripts they compose are intensely heteronormative. One specific way this plays out is that the desire of parents that their children be happy can easily lead to a desire that their children not take on the tragedy that is the supposed lot of the queer -- the tragedy that, until relatively recently, was the inevitable ending of any queer character in any mass media narrative. Indeed, being queer in a heterosexist and homophobic society can mean facing particular kinds of hardships, but the parental wish can easily elide "be happy" with "don't be queer." In turn, a desire not to become a cause of unhappiness for their parents can be one pressure among many for queer kids to attempt to stifle who they are. Ahmed also hypothesizes that queer political trajectories that might be called "assimilationist" are about gaining access to the socially sanctioned trappings of happiness through proving that other than sexual object choice, they in fact share the affective orientation towards the objects that constitute the dominant version of the good life and so privileged gays and lesbians should not be denied them. However, she provides a useful caution against an excessively polarizing and polemical account of this through recognizing the roots of many aspects of such orientations in the baseline queer struggle for space to live more bearable lives. Still, she insists that mainstream visions of queer happiness are similar to other forms of happiness in that they depend on the denial of their material grounding in the ongoing unhappiness of oppressed others. Given that, she says, "We must stay unhappy with this world" (105). However, in contrast with the assimmilatory impact of queer happiness, a deliberately embraced different orientation towards the socially organized linkage of queerness and unhappiness -- a certain contentment or even relish at transgression, at being the one that doesn't fit, the one who causes ripples on the smooth social surface of happiness -- means that "it is possible to give an account of being happily queer that does not conceal signs of struggle" (118).

The chapter on the melancholy migrant depends on the psychoanalytic distinction between mourning, as a necessary phase of transitional sadness after the loss of an important person or thing, with melancholy, a sadness in response to loss that continues indefinitely and refuses to affectively release the object. In the case of migrants, the dominant understanding is that continuing to name racism -- to identify it as a social ill, as a history of suffering, as a present day reality -- is a form of melancholy, an unhealthily and unnecessarily prolonged affective attachment to negativity that people of colour just need to get over already. In this dominant understanding it is naming racism that is the problem, not racism itself, and in this way people of colour are seen as sources of unhappiness. Ahmed ties this racist construction to colonial histories, in which utilitarian defences of empire took maximizing other people's happiness as their basis, understood "the natives" as by definition trapped in unhappiness, and engaged in a sort of secular imperial evangelism to spread the ways of living that would, in the colonizer's understanding of things, lead "the natives" to happiness. Both historical and contemporary liberal modes of concern with allowing colonial/postcolonial subject's their freedom on individual levels seem like they are about creating choice, but have always been strongly directive towards objects that the colonizer's social relations have imbued with happiness for the colonizer -- that is, pushing towards proximity to whiteness.

The final chapter is about happiness and futurity. I won't try to rehearse the entire argument, as it seems the least cohesive chapter in the book and I'm not sure I could do it in a reasonable space, but there is some interesting material on rethinking the old and dubious marxist concept of "false consciousness" through the lens of the social organization of knowledge, in a way that seems quite compatible with the epistemologies of Himani Bannerji and Dorothy Smith. She also has some interesting things to say about revolutionary consciousness. She ties all of this to a vision for relating to the future that is not the kind of closed futurity of aspiring only and always to happiness -- the very basis for the oppressive normalizing impact of happiness that is critiqued throughout the book -- but a sort of futurity based on refusal to deny the ongoing relevance of unhappiness in an oppressive world and as a reaching not towards particular outcomes but to an ever-enriching sphere of possibility that might bring with it happiness or unhappiness. (It seems not totally unlike John Holloway's call to open cracks in the present-that-is-capitalism as spaces of possibility that we refuse to foreclose by predetermining their content, though it seems to me that Ahmed has a more nuanced and less absolute role for negativity in her analysis.)

There are a number of things that are useful here. The fine-grained attention to how affect constitutes and circulates through our social world at the scale in which we live, through encounters among people and between people and objects, is tremendously important for enriching our understanding of how the social world is put together. Her critique of happiness, and on ways of seeing the world that leave unquestioned happiness as only and always a social good and as the core desirable goal of human activity, is also very important -- one part of our work in movements inevitably has to be puncturing the happiness of privilege that is based on refusal to know about dependence on the oppression of others, so at least some of the time and in certain ways we have to be able to justify doing things that many people will regard as causing unhappiness. And it is tremendously useful to think about the affective dynamics surrounding resistance to oppression and exploitation, something that some of us at least don't think about enough. Whether it is the refusal to smile the enforced smile of the oppressed, whether it is speaking up to challenge oppressive speech and bearing the affective burden of being the one who punctured the happiness of the occasion, whether it is bearing long-term the label of source-of-unhappiness because of a refusal to maintain the silence and the obedience to oppressive norms on which dominant forms of socially organized happiness depend, we are going to do unhappy things.

I also found it all quite personally useful. Reluctance to be seen as a source of unhappiness is a good way to think about some of my own ongoing reluctance to exhibit more openly certain counter-normative practices and ways of moving through the world, and also my reluctance to speak up as often and as forcefully as I should in certain kinds of situations that really do demand it. In terms of my work, I'm sure I will return to this work as I move forward in my own thinking and reading -- I have lots of reading to do -- and writing about selves-in-the-social, and that it will end up being quite influential in what I come to do.

My reservations about the book are relatively minor. I think, as I said, the chapter on futurity felt like it wasn't put together quite as effectively as the rest of the book. I have some questions about her choice to organize theory around figures, given that it in the one other book that I have read by her (Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality) she seemed very much against doing that. I think it works, but I'd be interested to know if I am correct in perceiving a shift and to understand the basis for her shift. Also, while I appreciate the mix of reading material situations with reading cultural artefacts that tends to be a feature of her work, I think I would have preferred if this book had made a little less use of novels and films and a little more use of lived situations. There are also moments (admittedly more often in the end notes but at times in the main text as well) where she ties her work into work by famous philosophers of centuries past in a way that might make good disciplinary sense but that doesn't always add much from where I'm reading the book. And while she is quite a good writer, there are also points where she falls into displays of self-consciously clever wordplay that in general in scholarly works I sometimes like but sometimes find annoying.

Despite those reservations, I liked this book a lot and suspect it will stick with me. There are at least two other books by her written between Strange Encounters and The Promise of Happiness that touch on related themes and I suspect, sooner or later, I'll be reading them too.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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