Getting in the Way of Happiness (english)

Interview mit: 
Sara Ahmed

Feminist theorist Sara Ahmed talks about the racialised figure of the stranger, the empowering potential of the killjoy and the accusation of being "old-school".

Since the mid-1990s there has been a growing interest in emotions and affects within the humanities and social sciences. Emotions have moved from being regarded as a largely private matter to a sphere understood as interdependent with social, political and economic factors. But the so-called "affective turn" tends to forget an important legacy - the writing of queer, feminist, postcolonial, and Black theorists and activists.
Sara Ahmed has been working towards filling this gap, while at the same time making an important contribution through her own research, which is driven by philosophical inquiries and based on the analyses of texts and experiences. She currently teaches at Goldsmith University in England and is Director of their Centre for Feminist Research.

Veronika Siegl had the opportunity to meet Ahmed during her visit to Vienna in November 2013, where she held a lecture in the framework of the workshop "Emotions as Technique of Governmentality" and the "Gender Talks"series at the university.

You're well known for your work on exploring the political dimensions of emotions. What made you interested in that topic?

Sara Ahmed: I became interested in the figure of the stranger - the body out of place - partly to make sense of my own experiences, growing up as a person of colour in a very white neighbourhood in Australia. That led me to thinking how emotions work in social encounters and what role they play in creating ideas of space, of neighbourhoods, of a "we"; a "we" that is bound by understanding certain bodies as the source of danger or the cause of bad feeling.
So my work reflects on how emotions get directed towards certain objects. In investigating race and racism, I have been particularly interested in the relationship between the figure of the asylum seeker and the could-be terrorist, and the way those figures can get stuck together.

You use the term "affective economies" to describe these relationships and the way they circulate within communities.

Yes. The economic vocabulary helps to understand these movements. Emotions have always been a crucial technology for governing people. You can see how different emotions become employable or are employed. In the Australian context the emotion “shame” is quite interesting when you look at how shame about the past, about the history of indigenous people, creates a new national "we". Emotion is performed to imply that that history is behind us. It is a way of covering over an injury that has an on-going historical presence.

Since August 2013 you've been running a blog called "Feminist Killjoys - Killing joy as a world making project". What made you choose this title?

When I began writing my book on happiness - it was one of the emotions I hadn't written about earlier in "The Cultural Politics of Emotion" - I realized how much happiness was imagined as being a good thing. But if you look to feminist histories - to Simone de Beauvoir, Shulamith Firestone, Audre Lorde - you find really strong critiques of that idea. I called these the "unhappy archives of feminism" and I understood the figure of the feminist killjoy as part of that.

In a way I've been carrying her around all my life. A lot of my relationship to family was of sitting at the table and always being the one to point out problematic comments. And then being the one who is the problem by saying I thought there was a problem. That was exhausting. I realized this whole situation was about how certain people seem to be getting in the way of - in this case - how the family imagines itself as being happy. And to be assigned that category of the killjoy is to be dismissed. So it's often quite an alienating and painful experience. But people were drawn to this figure; so many people have responded to my talks to have a killjoy-story. That really taught me how a figure that can condense a history of injury can become the site of possibility and potential.

You speak of a general turn to happiness in society - therapies and the self-help discourse have been on a rise, the "feel-good industry" is proliferating. However, you stand in for a right to be unhappy. What do you mean with this provocative claim?

I'm following a long feminist tradition. I think my favourite feminist critique of happiness is Audre Lorde's autobiographical "The Cancer Journals", a very powerful book. She's critiquing the emphasis on positive thinking, which implies that it's your duty as cancer-sufferer to look on the bright side. She sees this as a technique of blanketing inequalities because it makes people responsible for their own circumstances. This is a very moralising discourse that defines certain kinds of social norms as necessary for a good life.

One of the speech acts that I was always very interested, was: "I just want you to be happy". I heard this a lot when I was growing up, usually when I was doing something my parents didn't like. And you find the idea of being led away from the path that would make you happy everywhere in queer fiction, which is why the figure of the unhappy queer became very important to me. So when I speak of the freedom to be unhappy I mean the freedom not to follow the usual paths.

Despite all these warnings, you went down the queer-feminist road. From an emotional point of view, what moved you into feminism?

What moved me was definitely a sense of injustice and the feeling of anger, but an anger that had a place to go. Because if anger does not have a place to go, it can easily become of frustration and that can be very disempowering. I learned this from Audre Lorde's work; she is my biggest inspiration. But there was also wonder, curiosity, hope and an understanding that there are alternatives.
A lot of my feminist energy came from the Pakistani side of my family. My aunties, who grew up during partition, really shaped my idea of what feminism meant - the refusal to be owned and the desire to find one's own way. There are a lot of positive feelings attached to that.

As you mentioned before, the unhappy queer plays an important role in your work. Can you explain this figure?

In my book "Queer Phenomenology" I engaged with the question of what it means to have a queer life and linked this to the question of comfort. I used the metaphor of the comfortable chair that has almost received the shape of your body because you have been sitting in it over and over again. And thinking about social and sexual norms not as rules but in more affective terms - being able to receive the bodies for whom the world is assumed to be for. For me a lot of queer experience was about discomfort, either the queer person making straight people feel uncomfortable or the struggle to make a chair fit that is not used to your body.

Your understanding of queer is quite broad - what role does sexuality play in being queer?

Queer does have to do with sexuality and gender because the gender regimes are so explicitly regimes about heterosexuality. You can have troubles with gender without referencing to sexuality but too much activist history disappears from the frame if you don't see the connection. I do have a lot of students who identify as heterosexual and think of themselves as queer - I understand that as long as that's not just a style or an aesthetics. But I also don't like the "queer is anti-normative"-model. That can be a really privileged discourse because a lot of people can't afford a life of being anti-normative. While at same time, lot of people don't have the choice of not being anti-normative as well. So one has to be very careful. We don't all fit in this room in the same way. I think it's important to think about the different histories that we arrive to these words with - with different bodies, different sexualities and different sets of desires.

You pick up on Eve Sedgwick's work to claim that "sensitivity to stigma" is a queer methodology, "a way of attending to what or who is passed over".

Sedgwick tries to account in her work how she - as a straight woman - was moved into queer by different scenarios in which the stigma becomes the basis of political organizing, like the picket line. She relates it to her experience to growing up Jewish and she implies that if you've had the experience of feeling flawed, feeling wrong, in the relationship to one category, then that can allow you to be moved by stigmatization that is not in your own experimental horizon. I was exploring in her writing how you could possibly imagine racial and sexual stigma through that concept of being affected by what is near. But it's still an undeveloped thought.

In your recent publication "On Being Included" you come up with the term "overing" to describe a society's or a group's claim to already be over a particular topic, e.g. identity politics - as opposed to emotionally driven feminist killjoys and angry Black women that are seen as outdated because they can't let go and stand in the way of moving on.

A lot of my colleagues think of racism or sexism as something that the uncritical or uneducated people "over there" suffer from. It's a very classed narrative. They think of themselves as dissidents, and radicals, and communists but teach an entirely white male European intellectual tradition as being, for instance, Philosophy. That is not how to generate a shift! It's interesting how certain structures are reproduced by the assumption of criticality. I am identified as a pain in the ass in my own college because every time there is another event of all white men speaking about all white men, living or dead, I intervene. And I have been described so often as outdated and a 1980s feminist. It's like you're not supposed to notice these things anymore. But I refuse that in every possible way. And I will refuse that for the rest of my life.

You have a few monographs coming up next year. What issues have you been dealing with recently?

Each book is like a stepping stone, one leads to the other. So "Willful Subjects", which is about the attribution of willfulness to certain bodies, came out of "The Promise of Happiness". I was very interested in how femininity got scripted as giving up will. And the implication of willfulness as a problem, as the cause of unhappiness, includes the idea of having to be useful. This led me to a project on the history of the idea of use, on what it means when use becomes a requirement. Particularly in British history, citizenship emerged as a discourse about utility (the citizen must have worthy employment).
But I will also rewrite a more popular book, "Living a Feminist Life", on topics such as sexism, lesbian feminism, killjoys, and also willfulness. It will be based primarily on ordinary situations and experiences. Because as much as I love philosophy, I acknowledge that not everyone feels at home in philosophy. So there are a few projects, which I'm working on, but writing is like a companion - it energizes and gives me the strength.

Interview by Veronika Siegl

Read the (shortened) German translation of the interview here.

This interview has been published in "Frauensolidarität", issue 127, 1/2014. The german-translated version has been published in "Progress - Magazin der österreichischen HochschülerInnenschaft", issue 06/13.

Further Reading

Sara Ahmed: The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP 2004.

Sara Ahmed: Feminist Killjoys (And Other Willful Subjects). In: The Scholar and Feminist Online 8(3), 2010. Online: