Thursday, August 31, 2017

Review: Living a Feminist Life

[Sara Ahmed. Living a Feminist Life. Durham NC and London UK: Duke University Press, 2017.]

Living a Feminist Life is the latest book from UK-based feminist philosopher Sara Ahmed. I’ve read a number of her other books and find her ideas to be really useful, and I was keen to read this one. Happily, it was as thoughtful, clever, well-written, and politically challenging as I’d hoped.

Ahmed’s approach to understanding the world starts from a very fine-grained sort of attention to lived experience. In some of her writing, she explicitly connects this to phenomenology, a school of philosophy originally developed in the early 20th century that is known for such close attention. One of the things she does in the first part of this book, though, is to re-ground some of the key ideas and figures from her earlier work in ways that disembed them somewhat from academic citational lineages. Ostensibly, such citation is a kind of intellectual accountability, but she talks about the pressures to enact it in certain ways that reinforce established (patriarchal, white) intellectual authority, even in a lot of otherwise feminist scholarship. The first section of the book deals in various ways with the process of becoming feminist, hers and in general, and she shows how some of the key ideas and figures in her work derive most directly not from dusty books but from thinking through those experiences of politicization, taking them up, and putting them to work (often while functioning in relation to a rather different set of books). She doesn’t quite put it this way, but it seems to me to be enacting a different sort of citational accountability – these ideas and figures in her work have power precisely because they speak to the realities of women’s lives, and to feminist struggles across a range of scales that seek to change those lives and the world, and it is a more politically meaningful sort of accountability to refuse to cloak these origins with undue attention to whatever similarities they might have to the ideas of some dead white guys. It’s not a sign of unwillingness to learn from or be in dialogue with other thinkers – far from it – but a commitment to theory that prioritizes lives, struggle, and liberation.

The book is written in Ahmed’s very distinctive style. As I said, it begins from close attention to experience, and it involves thinking through how those experiences are shaped. It tries to capture the dense thick complexity of how that works in all of our lives through the approach to writing – attention not just to straightforward causality, but to resonances, echoes, and lateral connections through shared meanings and the multiple derivations and impacts that are always at play. It is often playful, and occasionally comes across as trying a bit too hard, though in a clear majority of the time it’s an approach to writing that works for me both aesthetically and in terms of the features of the world that it is meant to capture. In this book, there was really only one significant place where it consistently felt forced – the discussion, especially when it was initially presented but also to an extent when it was revisited a few times later in the book, of “feminist arms.” Not that I have any quibble with the analysis she raises through that figure, but the writing felt like a bit of a stretch, like it was working a lot harder to convey that analysis than the smooth, clever word-dance of most of the rest of the book.

The second section of this book focuses on drawing lessons from the author’s work on engaging in institutional change work in university contexts, which she originally wrote about in an earlier book that I have not read. While it is based in one particular kind of experience in one particular kind of institution, it can be read as a generalizeable instance of pushing to make change in the institutional relations that immediately surround you – what it involves, what it feels like, what it costs you. In Ahmed’s case, this was work that has its origins in histories of challenging racism and sexism within universities, though the official naming of such work today is often much more euphemistic. Though I am someone who largely benefits from the uneven landscape within institutions rather than being targeted by it, I did in earlier years have a few experiences of participation in that kind of work, albeit in a different sort of context, and a lot of what the book says felt very familiar. The book’s close attention to the experience of institutional change work and then its theorizing based on that attention to experience provides both important content about how institutions work to maintain injustice and a powerful example of how to notice and learn and act while stuck in the middle of it.

The third secion of the book is about the consequences of living a feminist life. It talks about harms, about loss (including loss of self and loss of relationships), and it talks about breaking points, but it talks about that which can be gained as well. It also offers an articulation of a specifically lesbian feminist politics that refuses to reject in toto an earlier era’s version of such a thing while at the same time refusing to be bound by that version’s political limitations. And finally the book ends with both a toolkit and a manifesto for feminist killjoys.

Part of what I value so highly about Ahmed’s work is the way that it is consistent with the sense I already had of how, materially, the world works – how we exist in relation with one another, how the injustices and resistances often talked about in somewhat abstracted ways play out materially at the experiential level – but it pushes that sense to become much richer and more grounded. Even though our experiences are so very different, my own lived experience of being constrained and shaped and regulated by my immediate environment, especially the people around me, fits very well with how she describes the world. Though her approach stays very close to the level of experience, I think it offers plenty of hooks to bring it into relation with forms of analysis that operate at other scales, and I think it offers tools to think about social relations of power and resistance that are quite embodied, felt, and physical, in contrast with more common approaches that are either wholly abstracted or understood primarily through both actual practices and metaphors of the visual.

I haven’t read any other reviews of this book, though I know there are many out there, and I wonder how it is being taken up – especially how it is being taken up by younger feminists who are not scholars and whose framework for understanding the world is basically liberal in form. I wonder this because my guess is that this book is not what its title might lead some to believe: It is not memoir, though it is definitely writing from experience in a broader sense. And it is not precisely a guidebook for the living of a feminist life, either – at least, not in the straightforward sense of, say, an Everyday Feminism listicle, though you could make a case that it is precisely that in a politically sophisticated and queered sense.

I guess one way to understand how it might confound expectations for a book with this name is related to its refusal of a liberal understanding of the social world. It doesn’t pretend that we are isolated individuals in a formless social sea, so the two most common ways of offering life guidance that are premised on such an understanding – the content-less affirmation of “discover yourself, then you do you” or the puritanical direction of “feminists do X, feminists don’t do Y” – would not make any sense. It offers a different way of thinking about what a self is and how selves move through the world, and most importantly how selves move through the world with a particular politics. It recognizes the social world as having a shape, a form, a direction, and feminism as being a way to name a particular range of experiences of and orientations towards that shape. It offers ways to figure out that landscape, to name it, and it suggests shapes that you may encounter and have to theorize based on what she has enountered – not assuming identity between the two but also recognizing that there will be some relation between them. It is a sharing of what the author has done and learned from the doing, but that is as much about the modelling of the learning as it is a telling of what was learned.

As someone who is not gender-oppressed, I don’t sit in that landscape in the same way, I haven’t had a comparable cross-section of experiences of injustice to prompt me to turn towards justice, and the consequences I face for speaking and acting (or not) are rather different. Yet this book’s lessons for how to pay attention to the world and how to turn what is taken in through that attention into politically incisive knowledge is no less useful to me. Plus, the way it is written refuses to allow intellectualizing of other people’s pain to become a way for readers situated like me to dance away from our hard but obvious basic political obligations. That is, its commitment to keeping theory grounded in lived experience and everyday struggle means that the imperatives to show up, speak up, shut up, or whatever else a given moment might require are never far from the surface.

[Check out the somewhat out-of-date but still extensive list of book reviews on this site.]

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