(Editor’s Note: this is the fourth in a series of weekly guest posts by Kurt Newman — Ben Alpers)
The Blue Smock of Happiness
Like most viewers (I imagine) of Richard Press’s 2010 documentary Bill Cunningham New York, I left the movie theater filled with envy for its subject, the New York Times’ charming roving fashion photographer.
In a Cunninghamian mode, I have chosen, in this installment of my series on critical theory for historians, to train my focus on signs of new intellectual passions—passions that I think will soon begin to concern historians. These are not, properly speaking, “new”—but they are new to us, which is what matters.
My analytic object is Sara Ahmed’s remarkable essay “Happy Objects.” I was going to call it a “beautiful” essay—it is a “beautiful” essay––but I recently re-read Chester Himes’s autobiography, The Quality of Hurt, and one of its most poignant passages concerns his antipathy for the strange tendency of white readers to call novels about African American traumas “beautiful.”
Ahmed’s is the most elegant and alluring theoretical prose currently being written in English, but it may be wise to avoid my impulse to call it “beautiful,” for the same reasons that Himes’s interlocutors might have questioned their own impulses to give voice to an aesthetic appreciation of representations of Black suffering. Ahmed is also writing about pathologies of power, and the pain it visits on the non-compliant. To aestheticize it may be to blunt its edge.
Ahmed is a British/Australian scholar, born in 1969. Ahmed situates herself—I think––within the political milieus of women of color and queer of color feminism. She teaches at Goldsmiths College, University of London. Her best-known work is Queer Phenomenology (2006), a remarkable engagement with Husserl that takes the stupid first question asked by the phenomenologist (“what is this the table?”) and weaves a complex meditation on the meanings of “orientation.”
Ahmed reminds us that the table, that mute object that triggers the initial ratiocination, might also be a dinner table—say, a dinner table at a holiday meal at which the adult gay or lesbian child sits and absorbs the hostility and aggression of the extended family. “Orientation” may not be a matter of spatial locating and proprioception, but also a complex set of metaphors that ratifies a given understanding of what it is to incline lovingly, but “wrongly,“ towards the improper person.
Affects and Objects
In “Happy Objects” Ahmed builds upon these themes, and extends them in ways that trigger our inner Bill Cunninghams to begin snapping photos. Ahmed’s essay provides a series of clues to developments in the world of Theory to which we might want to attend.
First: the title. What does “happy” mean? Why are “objects” the subjects of the essay, and how can “objects” be “happy,” anyway? “Happy” is a feeling, one supposes. But it is more than a feeling—it is something like a social force. We sometimes remember moments of private happiness, but more commonly, we recall being happy in groups, even “catching” happiness by coming into contact with a happy creature—a giggling infant, a panting Lhasa Apso. The name for this kind of feeling that is more than a feeling, that seems to have something to do with social circulation, is “affect.”
Among other things, then, Ahmed’s essay tells us that “affect” is something that is being talked about. This is true. While likely a phenomenon with multiple sources, the rise of “affect” talk is a product of growing attention to the final writings of the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and in particular her renovation of the work of the renegade psychologist Silvan Tompkins.
Enthusiasm for this project has overlapped with a revival of interest in Spinoza, who based his entire Ethics on a theory of active and passive affects, distinguishing the good from the bad on the basis of their capacity to make us happy. In the US, it was the work of Deleuze translator and scholar Brian Massumi that first articulated the neo-Spinozan/Deleuzian frame to a new theorization of “affect” as a guide to the political realities of the post-9/11 national security state. Writing in an affective key, this project continues to be elaborated by Steven Shaviro, John Protevi, Claire Colebrook, and Patricia Clough (Jodi Dean and Lauren Berlant might be thought of as the authors working on related projects regarding the affective core of contemporary politics).
In any event, “affect” is in the air. Ahmed writes: “My essay contributes to what has been described by Patricia Clough (2007) as ‘the affective turn.’” This seems to provide evidence that there has been an “affective turn.” I am not aware, however, of many historians caught within this pivot, with the notable exception of Grace Hale. Who else might qualify, I wonder?
If there is a lag in historiographical engagement with affect theories, this probably reflects the usual glacial pace of historical absorption of theoretical novelties.
Another possibility, however, is that affect has not yet been properly theorized as a tool to be deployed as something with explanatory power. If this is true, my sense is that Ahmed’s essay might guide us towards historical engagements with affect theory.
Come On Get Happy
Ahmed is not talking about just any affect—she is talking about “happiness” as an affect, or as a consequence of affective processes. She wishes to pose to the question: “how we can theorize positive affect and the politics of good feeling?” This is a playful and critical response to the recurrent suggestion by some participants in feminist political theoretical circles that theory should not be such a downer. “If it is true to say that much recent work in cultural studies has investigated bad feelings (shame, disgust, hate, fear, and so on),” Ahmed writes, “it might be useful to take good feeling as our starting point, without presuming that the distinction between good and bad will always hold.”
(In related news, the theme of the next American Studies Association, so the rumors go, is “fun”). Ahmed identifies positively, instead, with the political potentials of “anti-fun” and with the figure of the “feminist killjoy”: http://feministkilljoys.com/
A broader context for Ahmed’s negotiation with “happiness” might be found in Alenka Zupancic’s writing on contemporary ideological demands for “mandatory happiness.”
Zupancic emphasizes that “humor, a ‘positive attitude,’ and a distance towards all ideologies” have become core features of the principal mode of the dominant ideology.
“In the contemporary ideological climate,” Zupancic writes, “it has become imperative that we perceive all the terrible things that happen to us as ultimately something positive—say, as a precious experience that will bear fruit in our future life.” In this atmosphere, “negativity, lack, dissatisfaction, unhappiness” are perceived as moral faults.
“There is a spectacular rise of what we might call a bio-morality (as well as morality of feelings and emotions),” Zupancic insists, “which promotes the following fundamental axiom: a person who feels good (and is happy) is a good person; a person who feels bad is a bad person.” It is this short circuit between immediate feelings/sensations and the mechanisms of moral evaluation that “gives the specific color to the contemporary ideological rhetoric of happiness”:
This is very efficient, for who dares to raise her voice and say that, as a matter of fact, she is not happy, and that she can’t manage to—or, worse, doesn’t even care to—transform all the disappointments of her life into a positive experience to be invested in the future? (…) Bio-morality, (in contrast to the traditional conception of success and failure in entrepreneurial moralism)—is replacing the classical notion of responsibility with the notion of a damaged, corrupt being: the unhappy and unsuccessful are somehow corrupt already on the level of their bare life, and all their erroneous actions or non-actions follow from there with an inexorable necessity.
Thus, “success” is becoming almost a biological notion, begetting a “genuine racism of successfulness.”
The title “Happy Objects” also tells us that people—well, at least one person––are talking about “objects.” Tracking trends, I think it is fair to say that “objects” are “hot” these days. Whereas a great deal of “post-humanist” energy, over the last decade, seemed to invest the question of humans and animals—an inquiry that should be sustained, and in particular, taken up with greater vigor by historians*––today the heat seems to have migrated to “objects.”
The most obvious manifestation of the new craze for “object” talk is the simultaneous emergence of two philosophical schools—Speculative Realism and Object-Oriented Ontology—both of which take a somewhat sci-fi-flavored approach to an absolute indifference between humans, animals, things. The conventional story of the rise of SR and OOO looks to 2002 (which saw the publication of Graham Harman’s Tool-Being) as year zero. Since then, a variety of thinkers have circled within and around the SR and OOO camps (though Harman and the French thinker Quentin Meillassoux seem to remain the best-known); several conferences have been held, and a series of Internet debates have drawn widespread attention: http://larvalsubjects.wordpress.com/2012/05/29/worries-about-ooo-and-politics/ http://stunlaw.blogspot.com/2012/05/uses-of-object-oriented-ontology.html and http://itself.wordpress.com/2012/06/03/a-response-to-graham-harmans-marginalia-on-radical-thinking/
This more or less completes the thumbnail story although two details probably ought to be mentioned. First, while initially apparently masterless, some OOO partisans have become invested in the coronation of the French social scientist and theorist Bruno Latour as the major experimental philosopher of our time.
Second, while for decades affect theory and debates about objects/objectification have been substantially grounded in feminist interdisciplines, SR and OOO seem, at least to the casual observer, to be overwhelmingly and aggressively male-dominated (Jane Bennett, a political theorist at Johns Hopkins, appears to be the only prominent woman in the SR/OOO orbit).
Besides my incredulity at Latour-as-“Prince of Networks” (as Harman calls him) and my distaste for boys’ clubs, I am inclined to keep an open mind about the potential fruits of SR and OOO for historians. I have a vague sense that something interesting will come of all this (and a slight hunch that it will end in disaster). I like things that are psychedelic, and many of the authors associated with SR/OOO are talented lysergic word painters. But like Chuck in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, reading OOO texts often leaves me feeling like I want to shout: “We’ve been here for over three hours, and I’m not sure if any of us can see what all this is supposed to mean!”
Kind Pessimism: Sara Ahmed’s “Happy Objects”
Turning to Ahmed’s “Happy Objects,” then, we note that both “happy” and “object” are, for Ahmed, unstable terms. Their instability derives, to a large extent, from their mutual interdependence.
“Even if happiness is imagined as a feeling state, or a form of consciousness that evaluates a life situation achieved over time,” Ahmed writes, “happiness also turns us toward objects.” Other things “make us happy”—it is hard to “make oneself happy,” and we often, in fact, regard people with too powerful an internal reservoir of happiness as troubling.
“Happiness” happens, Ahmed tells us—it is connected semantically to its etymological ancestor (“hap,” chance)––and as a “happening” it is always a coordination of humans and objects. “Happiness” is the name for a chance encounter with an object that we evaluate as good. Repetition over time, though, tends to invest certain objects with promises of happiness. Ahmed’s point here is not to pursue a critique of reification or fetishism––she does not gainsay the veracity of the “happiness” that objects promise. Her agenda is articulated instead to the ways in which these objects coalesce in social forms, shaped by power relations, available to some and not others, and always under certain conditions.
“Affect” then, is not just about an immaterial substance that hovers or migrates, and not just about the prickly business of quickening heartbeats and galvanic skin response. Objects become bearers of affective value “as they are passed around” (I think we might be permitted to say that, at least in our fantasies, objects become receptacles of or keys to affects themselves). For Ahmed this objectal character of affect and affective character of objects is a source of cohesion for the symbolic order. This might prove the first point of entry for historians looking to “use” affect—with this model in mind, historical change might be characterized as a process wherein a certain cohesion between objects and affects loosens or hardens, becomes indeterminate or too demanding to sustain. Those are historical processes.
Ahmed focuses, in particular, on the ways in which the family sustains its place as a “happy object” by “identifying those who do not reproduce its line as the cause of unhappiness.” This strikes me as the second point of entry for historians—in particular, for social historians who have long struggled—to give a common example–– to properly think simultaneously with Marxism, feminism, and critical race theory about the internal antagonisms underlying the history of the “working-class family” in a given time and place.
Ahmed seeks to highlight the political work performed by those who disturb the “happy family” and related formations: “affect aliens,” “feminist kill-joys,” “unhappy queers,” and “melancholic migrants.”
Like the OOO theorists, Ahmed’s language is dominated by metaphors of “inclination” and “withdrawal”—things move towards other things or retreat away from them. What matters most in this plastic universe is the question of the new: familiar people and familiar objects develop habits and relationships, but the new person or new object poses the option of rejection or incorporation.
“Incorporation,” Ahmed writes, “may be conditional on liking what we encounter”:
Those things we do not like we move away from. Awayness might help establish the edges of our horizon; in rejecting the proximity of certain objects, we define the places that we know we do not wish to go, the things we do not wish to have, touch, taste, hear, feel, see, those things we do not want to keep within reach.
The event of incorporation or reception functions as a crucible of new affective relations:
What is around an object can become happy: for instance, if you receive something delightful in a certain place, then the place itself is invested with happiness, as being “what” good feeling is directed toward. Or if you are given something by somebody whom you love, then the object itself acquires more affective value: just seeing something can make you think of another who gave you that something. If something is close to a happy object then it can become happy by association.
This, I think provides a third point of entry for historians—a way of complicating and eroticizing the study of space (to which historians have certainly been attentive of late).
This seems like a particularly productive site of convergence, because Ahmed’s model provides a set of tools for analyzing some dimensions of spatial politics that are difficult to map:
So we may walk into the room and “feel the atmosphere;” but what we may feel depends on the angle of our arrival. Or we might say that the atmosphere is already angled; it is always felt from a specific point (…) Having read the atmosphere, one can become tense, which in turn affects what happens, how things move along. The moods we arrive with do affect what happens: which is not to say we always keep our moods (…) Situations are affective given the gap between the impressions we have of others, and the impressions we make on others, all of which are lively…
The historical applications of such notations, it seems to me, are virtually endless.
To continue with our example of the complexities of the social history of the family, consider this passage:
To be orientated toward the family does not mean inhabiting the same place. After all, as we know from Locke, pleasures can be idiosyncratic. Families may give one a sense of having “a place at the table” through the conversion of idiosyncratic difference into a happy object: loving “happily” means knowing the peculiarity of a loved other’s likes and dislikes. Love becomes an intimacy with what the other likes and is given on condition that such likes do not take us outside a shared horizon.
To think with affect and objects is to begin to consider historical situations in which a social actor is accused of being the source of “bad feelings”—of radiating “unhappy affect”—when they have in actual fact been affectively cool or neutral (an extraordinarily common situation for single “others” in groups that understand themselves as homogeneous).
Thus, we would do well to think with Ahmed’s fragment from Audre Lord: “When Women of Color speak out of the anger that laces so many of our contacts with white women, we are often told that we are ‘creating a mood of helplessness,’ ‘preventing white women from getting past guilt,’ or ‘standing in the way of trusting communication and action.’”
“The exposure of violence,” Ahmed writes, “becomes the origin of violence.” Such insights might well provide the key for advances in our understanding, in particular, of the history of race and racism.
Ahmed’s essay suggests a variety of historiographical elaborations, applications, and supplements. It would be useful to prepare a list of works that might constitute a syllabus of works that prefigure such projects. The ones that come immediately to mind are Asa Briggs’s Victorian Things, the essay on The Black Book in Toni Morrison’s What Moves at the Margins, and Jonathan Crary’s Suspensions of Perception.
What other texts might belong on this list?
 Sara Ahmed, “Happy Objects” in Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth. The Affect Theory Reader. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.
 See Alenka Zupancic The Odd One In On Comedy. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2008 (emphasis added). Zupancic is a Slovenian philosopher, Lacanian, and social theorist.