Sara Ahmed and The Cultural Politics of Emotion

by John McMahon, Visiting Assistant Professor, Department of Political Science

In the introduction to The Cultural Politics of Emotion (2004), Sara Ahmed, a writer and independent scholar working at the intersection of feminist, queer, and race studies, argues that the important question to ask about the politics of emotions is not what emotions are, but rather what effects do they produce, how they shape bodies, language, and objects, how they secure or dislodge social hierarchies, and so on. Taking a cue from Ahmed herself, we might pause to consider how her scholarship and positionality shape the ways we imagine, think, and feel language, concepts, ideas, and theories; we might also ask how her work has contributed to dislodging social hierarchies.        

Ahmed’s scholarship breaks ground in and makes connections between fields across academia. Ahmed has broken down walls in feminist theory, antiracist theory, critical theory, queer studies, postcolonialism, cultural studies, philosophy, and other fields, where one understands “walls” as the “means by which words are not encountered, let alone registered (2017, 18). In both Queer Phenomenology (2006) and Living a Feminist Life (2017), Ahmed emphasizes the necessity of “disorientation,” a challenge to normative ways of seeing, thinking, being, and feeling in the world that destabilizes commonsensical assumptions and in so doing enables the world to be moved in a different direction (2006, 157-162). Her scholarship has disoriented, in the most crucial way, the above academic fields as well as the lives and thought of those of who traffic in them.

john mcmahon
John McMahon. photo credit: Therese Lyndon)

Personally, my entire intellectual trajectory was disoriented upon encountering The Cultural Politics of Emotion in 2012, which I first read thanks to my friend and mentor Rosalind Petchesky. Without being disoriented by Ahmed’s work, I would be inclined to think about politics, bodies, gender, race, and emotion in less thoughtful and critical ways, and would do so in a much less interdisciplinary way. Moreover, I quite literally would not have engaged in some of the research I have done without her work; I am one of a multitude transformed by the academic scholarship of Sara Ahmed.

And yet, only conveying the academic impact of this research would be insufficient to express the vitality of Ahmed’s work as a public intellectual. Discussing the way reading black feminist and feminist of color scholarship in graduate school impressed upon her, she writes:

I decided then: theoretical work that is in touch with a world is the kind of theoretical work I wanted to do. Even when I have written texts organized around the history of ideas, I have tried to write from my own experiences: the everyday as animation. In writing this book, I wanted to stay even closer to the everyday than I had before. This book is personal. The personal is theoretical. Theory itself is often assumed to be abstract: something is more theoretical the more abstract it is, the more it is abstracted from everyday life. To abstract is to drag away, detach, pull away, or divert. We might then have to drag theory back, to bring theory back to life (2017, 10).

Ahmed’s theoretical work in her academic scholarship does indeed bring theory to life. So too does her more public writing on her blog FeministKilljoys, where she posts essays, early drafts of what later becomes chapters in her books, and text and/or audio of her public lectures. In a recent interview on Living a Feminist Life, Ahmed explains how she “think[s] of feminism as a life question; a question of how we live our lives given that the structures we wish to transform are structures that persist.” On her blog, Ahmed explores struggles to transform a variety of structures.

I’d like to use the rest of this post to highlight examples public writing by Ahmed that should disorient us whose lives unfold in a college community that marks as one its aspirations to become an anti-racist institution; her work should especially disorient we who benefit from forms of privilege and dominant power relations.

She writes about resigning from her position at Goldsmiths, University of London, “in protest against the failure to address the problem of sexual harassment” at the university. Because “[t]o live a feminist life is to be a feminist at work,” Ahmed argues that resignation can be a feminist issue, in response to “an issue of institutional culture, which had become built around (or to enable) abuse and harassment,” and as a “snap” against silence that “enables the reproduction of the culture of harassment and abuse” and thus “reproduce[s] violence.”

She analyzes the way that institutions — including and sometimes particularly institutions of higher education — can re-entrench modes of racism and sexism even while promoting diversity, drawing on research from her 2012 book On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Often, she writes, organizations can “use equality and diversity as credentials: as if to say, how can we be racist when we are committed to equality and diversity? … diversity as a form of good practice is used as evidence that there is not a problem with a lack of diversity.” Doing so frequently involves an “appropriation” of the “diversity work” of individuals (usually people of marginalized groups) that turns their “efforts to transform organisations” into an institutional “equality credential” that may obscure those transformative efforts.    

She critiques public discourses that construct college students as “problem students” obsessed with so-called “political correctness” when they, for example, demand changes in curriculum, contest the sexual harassment of students, or challenge racism on campus. For Ahmed, these discourses have the effect of creating “resistance … when trying to discuss issues of racism, power and sexism on campus” by “positioning the others as too easily offendable,” such that “so much gets ‘swept away’ by the charge of being” too offendable, too sensitive, too oppositional.  

In these instances — and many others — Ahmed puts into practice her charge to bring theory to life, in this case bringing feminist and antiracist theory to the life of institutions of higher education and of those who inhabit them. If the question “we should be asking ourselves” is “how to dismantle the world that is built to accommodate only some bodies” (2017, 14), then Ahmed — whether it be in books in blog posts — disorients the reader, compelling us to ask this questions of ourselves, our work, our institutions, and ultimately our lives.   

Thanks to M. Shadee Malaklou and Jesse Carr for feedback on an early draft of this post.