I haven’t updated in ages! I guess it seems quite daunting to me to write a more detailed critical review than a goodreads one & I want to do it well. I thought I should do one for this Sara Ahmed book before the craze of essay submissions begin.
This was truly a relish to read. A brilliant theoretical book & I think she is truly on another level as a theorist. This book is probably also beyond me lol, but I will try to relay what I understood from it.
In theorising a cultural politics of emotion, Sara Ahmed analyses the relationship between emotions (whether ‘hate’ or ‘love’ quite loosely understood as positive or negative affect), language (speech acts), and bodies (the recipients of speech-acts, emotions, and ‘impressions’).
I found it interesting how she theorises hate and love as basically impressions that are placed onto bodies repeatedly. To be turned against (perhaps due to your skin colour) out of fear by someone, to move towards your mother who is ‘safer’, to receive a racial slur — these are all acts of ‘impressions’ that communicate either hate or love. In this way, every act carries emotion, and every gesture carries affect. Through this marketplace of impressions there is eventually an understood agreement over which bodies are more agreeable & which are not. It communicates which bodies can be given more space and which bodies are given the injunction to shrink. So obviously, for example, a person of racial privilege feels more comfortable in their society because their impressions have been positive, whereas a racial minority might shrink themselves because they receive ‘impressions’ that communicate that they are disagreeable. In a way, this is how social norms are created & sustained.
Let me share a quote with you where she explains it quite well (& I’m afraid this is one of the easiest passages that I can find to explain it):
To be touched in a certain way, or to be moved in a certain way by an encounter with another, may involve a reading not only of the encounter, but of the other that is encountered as having certain characteristics. If we feel another hurts us, then that feeling may convert quickly into a reading of the other, such that it becomes hurtful, or is read as the impression of the negative. In other words, the ‘it hurts’ becomes, ‘you hurt me’, which might become, ‘you are hurtful’, or even ‘you are bad’. These affective responses are readings that not only create the borders between selves and others, but also ‘give’ others meaning and value in the very act of apparent separation, a giving that temporarily fixes an other, through the movement engendered by the affective response itself. Such responses are clearly mediated: materialisation takes place through the ‘mediation’ of affect, which may function in this way as readings of the bodies of others.
She thus provides us with a semiotic analysis on the politics of emotion, exemplified through current case studies. She does this mostly by studying the articulation and expression of emotions of love and hate in contemporary issues such as the response of Americans to September 11 attacks, the issue of Australians being asked to be ashamed of their history of violence towards Aboriginals, and how hate organisations such as white supremacist groups justify themselves through a rhetoric of ‘love’. This is the part that I found most interesting. How does the language of love itself become a tool to perpetuate something that is actually quite hateful? And how does a manipulation of emotion & its language make one invested in social norms? White supremacists do not define themselves as hate groups, but groups that are premised on the ‘love’ of the white race and the Aryan nation.
Rhetorics of love or hate, the way they are impressed upon bodies — these are all things that can and have been manipulated for sinister reasons. And this is not just on the individual scale of course, but also in terms of collective bodies/communities.
“I have offered a strong critique of how acting in the name of love can work to enforce a particular ideal onto others by requiring that they live up to an ideal to enter the community. The idea of a world where we all love each other, a world of lovers, is a humanist fantasy that informs much of the multicultural discourses of love, which I have formulated as the hope: If only we got closer we would be as one. The multicultural fantasy works as a form of conditional love, in which the conditions of love work to associate ‘others’ with the failure to return the national ideal.”
One of my favourite chapters was “The Affective Politics of Fear” where she explains the politics of fear especially when selectively applied to certain bodies (brown, Muslim, South Asian, etc). In order to feel fear against such bodies, those bodies must have first already been coded as ‘violent’ or ‘hateful’; as a body that one would feel fearful of. There is a discussion then of ‘stickiness’ how certain bodies accumulate signs, how certain negative values ‘stick’ to such bodies, a semiotic reading of racial prejudice.
‘Stickiness’ something that is linked to feelings of disgust (think of the theory of the ‘abject’ from this point on if you are familiar with it, it seems relevant). So when a body is more ‘sticky’ it can accumulate more affect and it is hard for certain affective values to ‘unstick’ themselves, or for other affective values in turn to ‘stick’ on to them. So for example, a person of color is more ‘sticky’ to affects of disgust, and that makes it hard for more positive affective feelings such as being coded as a ‘neutral’ or ‘safe’ person, to stick on to them. After 9-11, brown bodies were ‘sticky’ in the fact that they kept being read as potential terrorists.
Here’s a good quote:
“It is important to recognise that the figure of the international terrorist has been mobilised in close proximity to the figure of the asylum seeker. This is certainly clear in the British amendment to the Terrorism Act, which juxtaposes the question of asylum with the question of terrorism. The amendment merely suggests that the appellant is not entitled to protection when suspected of being an international terrorist. The implicit assumption that governs the juxtaposition in the first place is that of any body in the nation (subjects, citizens, migrants, even tourists) the asylum seeker is most likely to be in the international terrorist.”
The chapters “Queer Feelings” and the hopeful “Feminist Attachments” were some other favourites of mine which really explicated the operations of power that through repetition of acts give the impression of what is considered ‘natural’ and therefore ‘unnatural’, and how one thus respond as a person who has been considered ‘abject’ / non-heteronormative. I feel like she has provided the most insightful discussion on the debate of marriage & whether it is good politics to want to be a part of that ‘system’ /heteronormative order. I do know that the radical view (which I had tended to) was that marriage is not necessarily an institution that is worth wanting inclusion in for the reason that it is an oppressive institution, that it is a tool of the state in terms of distributing resources to pairings they find more ‘legitimate’, and the fact that this expensive union is not one of the primary concerns of so many working-class LGBTQ individuals. But for Sara Ahmed, this is something that you can change with more inclusion of queer marriages. It is not necessarily something set in stone (which is true), and change is possible.
I found so much of her writing to be illuminating and full of the ‘wonder’ that she describes in the 2nd last chapter; a wonder of realising that this is how the world works, and then asking, why does it work like that? I also really enjoyed her kind of feminist praxis and found it incredibly hopeful and erudite.