On Willful Subjects

Sara Ahmed’s new book Willful Subjects is a rich, complex, wondrous archive of willfulness. The array of texts, voices, problems and approaches is both painstaking and playful, validating and challenging. As a long time reader of Ahmed’s work, I found myself surprised–again–at how new and also consistent this book is. Ideas that she has offered before are there throughout, sometimes revisited in new ways and sometimes as reminders of who we as her readers are becoming, rather than who we already are.

It is here, in this becoming, that I want to focus what follows. For me, the culmination of Willful Subjects in the last body chapter and Conclusion is truly rewarding; the archive that is built is becoming in its own ways and asks us as readers to approach rather than assume, to reach rather than be or presume to be.

Ahmed’s use of the words assume and assumption resonate with both the sense of concluding or presumption without really knowing, as well as taking on or taking up, as in taking up the mantle of willfulness. In two passages in particular, the warnings are powerful, as to who can assume what and the dangers of thinking ourselves willful. Among so many other things, what this willfulness archive shows is that willfulness is assigned, as a designation for those who “are in the way of what is on the way” (170), refusing—by a failure of not enough will or too much—to go along with the general will. Thus it can seem like those of us who have been charged with willfulness, or as (humorless) feminist killjoys, can or even should re/claim–assume in both senses–willfulness for/as ourselves.

And yet there’s something structural, or at least tendentious, about willfulness that attention to its archive illustrates—it seems that someone else always becomes troublesome to us when we claim ourselves as the troublemakers, the willful subjects. Whatever we are on the way to when we deem ourselves willful, someone always ends up being in the way of it. We mistake the willingness of our privileged selves, a willingness to agree to a sense of entitlement, for the willfulness of our marginalized selves: “what is assumed as a willful queerness can be a willing whiteness” (167), for example. In chapter 4, “Willfulness as a Style of Politics,” Ahmed herself seems to be drawn to willfulness as something to claim, but warns away those of us also drawn to such an assumption from reproducing the structure of assignments of willfulness:

We might not notice our own agreements, if they are histories that are still. This is why the figure of the killjoy is not a figure we can assume we always somehow are: even if we recognize ourselves in the figure, even when she [sie?] is so compelling, even when we are energized by her [hir?].[1] We might, in assuming we are the killjoys, not notice how others become killjoys to us, getting in the way of our own happiness, becoming obstacles to a future we are reaching for. Activism might need us to lose confidence in ourselves, letting ourselves recognize how we too can be the problem. And that is hard if we have a lifetime of being the problem. (170)

The Manarchist’s Cookbook: Just add yourself first
The above passage can put into perspective many political phenomena, but the one I’m most interested in is manarchism. A term I’ve mostly encountered on blogs and interpersonally, it gets at a particular left-leaning and patriarchally masculinist, ableist, cisnormative, heteronormative and white mode of radicality. It may not be all of these “ists” at one time; it may not always be loud and overbearing; it can take more academic forms of masculinity like speaking softly with the utmost mansplainy confidence and self-assuredness. It might even nervously flip long hair out of eyes and wear skinny jeans (ok, actually it almost always wears skinny jeans).

I don’t know if Ahmed is thinking about manarchism in the latter part of the book, but I was—consistently, and for perhaps my own reasons. With a sense of wanting to quiet the little manarchist in me, and the not-so-little manarchist tendencies of certain trends of queer theory. With a feeling of being called in to a more careful reaching for solidarity rather than any kind of self-assured “ally” status. For a becoming rather than being, or assuming being. While Ahmed expresses something like an appreciation for certain forms of anarchism (see 165), she is also quite critical of modes of “liberation” that lack accountability to others, that repeat the “same old, same old” of who is in leadership roles within social movements, protests, and so forth. She highlights vanguardism in leftist Leninism (and I would add Saul Alinsky-esq ideas about what counts as real activism: “What radicalized you?”). Ahmed looks to the etymology of the word: “‘vanguard’ derives from ‘avant’ meaning ‘front’ but also ‘before.’ The vanguard is an avant-garde: a front party, a part that fronts…If those who are in front ‘front’ our political movements, what happens?” (170).

In her “Conclusion: A Call to Arms,” Ahmed reads Richard Wright’s poem “I Have Seen Black Hands,” in which a hope for “’black hands/ Raised in fists of revolt, side by side with the white fists of white workers’” (qtd in Ahmed 196) is understood as a raising together that isn’t “assuming solidarity” but rather “reaching for” solidarity” (197). Perhaps it is “currently reaching for solidarity with” that some of us should be currently and continuously reaching for. Even the status of “currently reaching for solidarity with” always remains to be assessed by those one is working with or reaching for solidarity with: it can never be assumed.

Not all of us have a manarchist inside. And some of us haven’t “had a lifetime of being the problem,” or we’ve had it in different ways from each other. But for anyone who thinks sie might have a little manarchist inside, let’s do the work of telling him to “sit down, shut up, and try to learn something”.

1. I went back and forth about inserting/replacing Ahmed’s uses of her and she in this quote about the feminist killjoy figure. Inasmuch as sie is a figure, I want to highlight the fact that many nondominant masculinities and people who don’t use personal pronouns at all or use gender neutral or inclusive pronouns (poc, disabled, trans, genderqueer, nonChristian practicing, and Global Southern) may inhabit or can be assigned this figuration based on their feminist politics. I didn’t want to unquestioningly insert a replacement here, but I also think that Ahmed would be on board with at least the question and even insistence on thinking the feminist killjoy in more gender expansive ways.

One thought on “On Willful Subjects

  1. Megahertz

    hey, i LOVE this on so many levels. one thing it think your read really highlights is the difference between “willfulness” and “mastery”. the distinction you draw between “assuming” and “reaching for” also echoes that difference. it seems like willfulness & killjoying, when assumed as vanguard practices, are also the assumption of mastery (over the technique, over others). but then when they’re (to use some of Beauvoir’s language from EA) “positively assumed”, they are not instruments or effects of mastery, but instruments and effects of reorientation, a kind of “reaching for” some other arrangement of things?

    (and, on a totally geeky point, the tension btw killjoying as mastery and as being-in-the-way is echoed, i think, in the tension btw the beginning of Ministry’s “Everyday Is Halloween” (“I dress this way just to keep them at bay”) and the chorus (“why can’t I live a life for me?/why should I take the abuse that’s served?”))

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