“Happy/Unhappy” or: Thinking Through Happiness

by Maggie McCarthy and Maria Stehle

In The Promise of Happiness (2010), Sara Ahmed understands happiness as the promise of “happy objects,” as well as a form of affect that “sticks,” i.e. “sustains or preserves the connection between ideas, values and objects” that are also social goods (34). Yet because happiness sticks to different kinds of bodies in varied ways, she argues that “feminist, anti-racist, and queer politics” have more things to say about happiness, aside from pointing to the unhappy effects of what for many are in fact false promises (50). Though she does not say much about what this “more” might be, she insists that the exposure of unhappy effects is “affirmative” and gives “us alternative sets of imaginings of what might count as a good or better life” (50). Exposing unhappiness becomes the work of the “feminist killjoy,” and she insists that such moments of exposure are not an endpoint but “might get us somewhere” (50).

Thinking about and through happiness, for us, starts with Ahmed for a few reasons. First, her thinking messes with the very “sticky” assumption that happiness is something we all strive for, a notion she works with and takes to a new political and analytic place. At the same time, she cultivates an optimistic, energetic tone and appears to speak to a collective “we,” an audience imagined as unified, despite her acknowledgement that some feminists cause unhappiness for other feminists where their aims diverge (“A Killjoy Manifesto” 258). Ahmed’s writing, in parts, reads like a therapeutic manifesto that almost creates a sense of joy in the reader, a feeling of solidarity in unearthing the unhappy in order to feel “happy.” We take Ahmed’s work on happiness as a starting point for thinking about feminist and scholarly activism, as well as affect in the academy. But rather than trying to make sense of what does not and should not make any sense—such as the various ways in which happiness and unhappiness stick to gendered and racialized bodies in our institutional contexts—we aim for something different. The altered feminist politics we imagine suggests different ways of conceptualizing happiness at a political and historical moment when this affective state seems particularly remote.

As two white, female, and cis-gendered academics in stable employment situations, we first found it striking how often we feel that, especially in our academic workspaces, the performance of happiness serves to subdue our expectations so we can play the “good girl.” Now retired, Sara Lennox reflects on her career as a feminist-activist academic:

Forty years of affective labor at UMass and elsewhere demanded enormous amounts of hypocrisy, guile, and feminine wiles: friendly and easy-going with difficult people, cheerful and enthusiastic around my colleagues, charming and even a little flirtatious towards men, respectful of and deferential to authority, enthusiastic about common projects at best ill-conceived, boring, and stupid, at worst outright evil, engaged and self-motivated when I did not at all feel like it, good-humoredly cooperative with entitled jerks that I loathed, energetic to a fault.

What became clearer to us as we talked about these kinds of charades was that the concept of performance does not seem to really describe moments in which we act and interact “happily” or “energetic to a fault.” Instead Ahmed’s notion of sticky emotions makes happiness less something we perform and more something we “wear,” a distinction that implies both ease and diminished agency. The happy colleague is not just a role we play; happiness sticks to our bodies like a piece of clothing that is hard to take off. Happiness becomes part of our professional wardrobe. We wear this happiness on our bodies because it deems us harmless, easy to work with, and thus desirable for service tasks. When we wear happiness, we protect ourselves against being deemed the angry, snapping woman who makes people uncomfortable and, who, depending on her rank, either intimidates her colleagues or risks her job by being “difficult.” In order to be taken seriously, though, we also have to wear the mantle of the overworked academic, a layer of dress that also sticks well and often too comfortably to our bodies. It meets expectations. Equally important, for all of us, happiness is a moving target. Meeting expectations is not enough; we are told to exceed these expectations and to advance to the next level, which promises (more) happiness.

We wear happiness even though our circumstances are often far more complex than any perception of it would suggest. Frequently, we are simultaneously gratified and grumpy by a particular constellation of circumstances. We might be happy, for instance, that the particular time a committee meets works well with childcare but simultaneously less wild about the nature of the committee work to be attended to. Along similar lines, it’s a thrill to be asked to perform services that reflect one’s own rising professional profile, like evaluating manuscripts and reading tenure portfolios. But this thrill always comes with the sober realization that one has taken on more tasks, more labor, some of which will go unnoticed. Yet there is the expectation that we take on these tasks because in and of themselves they presumably make us happy. Who wouldn’t be happy to have published a book, won a teaching award, chaired a committee that actually had positive effects on campus life and structures? Thus our happy-mantle follows regulations even as we are critically suspicious of these very expectations and regulations. One “social good,” to invoke Ahmed again, our happiness remains embedded in is the neoliberal, gendered and racialized expectations of the university system.

As we note above, Ahmed describes how happiness sticks to various kinds of bodies differently. The clothing of happiness we describe here also does not suit everyone because people and their bodies are judged and assessed according to broad-ranging markers of identity. Some bodies are simply too unruly to fit into or wear well the clothing of happiness, which appears to suit more privileged colleagues better. Ahmed recognizes such differences without explicitly spelling them out. Strikingly, though, in a “A Killjoy Survival Kit” she takes inspiration largely from women of color, like Audre Lorde, bell hooks, and Rita Mae Brown, or queer women, like Judith Butler or Virginia Woolf. Citing Audre Lorde she observes “some of us have to be inventive … to survive. Others: not so much” (237). In observing the ways that feminism has been critiqued in recent times, Ahmed writes of it being viewed as “too soft, too safe, too focused on identity politics or individual suffering,” if not on “safe spaces, trigger warnings, [and] self-care” (239). Most importantly, she observes that “those who do not have to struggle for their own survival can very easily and rather quickly dismiss those who attend to their own survival as being self-indulgent” (239). Ahmed also writes of a feminist colleague who chastised her for speaking out against sexual harassment at her college, which undermined “‘the happy and stimulating’ environment that ‘long-standing feminists’ had worked to create” (258).

What seems implicit in Ahmed’s anecdote is that for those of us not marked by racial or sexual difference, happiness has far more sticking power. Yet Ahmed mostly forgoes critiquing  white, heteronormative feminists for not sufficiently attending to the needs and difficulties of their more marginalized colleagues. That’s a generous stance, particularly coming from a queer woman of color who, as she elaborates in her own work, experienced her share of oppression, including from well-meaning colleagues. But it raises the question of how attempts by feminists to “keep the peace” resonate for queer and women of color. Despite the various and inventive ways they try to survive, affect comes into play in what gets projected onto them—anger, aloofness, lack of collegiality, etc.  It thus becomes crucial that we be aware of the ways our happy modes of being resonate for them. Do we perceive ourselves as empathetic presences, alternately cheerful in the face of or moved by their difficulties, but ultimately only partly invested in dismantling institutional structures that hurt them more than us? To be the cheerful, selfless ball of energy is to send the message that their feminism is indeed “too soft” and invested in individual suffering. To understand this effect one need only imagine a male colleague who upholds and performs an optimistic selflessness towards his students, which potentially shuts down female colleagues stretched even further by the demands of mentoring, political activism, if not family and personal relationships. These demands expand even further, of course, for those called upon to mentor non-mainstream students and participate in their political activism. They also include the expectation that these same colleagues will continually educate the majority about oppression, discrimination, and injustice. Just as we should be wary about how happiness is complexly entwined with neoliberal expectations we should also cultivate a critical awareness of who it occludes.

In fact, such critical awareness should contain its share of ambivalence, a form of affect that Hester Baer invokes to reframe discussions about contradiction. She observes: “I believe that ambivalence is important to address … because it is endemic among my friends, colleagues, and students engaged in feminist, queer, and anti-racist inquiry and activism.” Such affect also resonates if we approach the happy/unhappy coupling as a binary in need of dismantling since it contains simultaneously contrary emotions that pull in different directions, that in a sense stop the flow of time and demand reflection. This circumstance alone undermines the temporality that fuels neoliberal promises of happiness on some distant horizon that guides our day to day labor. The trick, of course, is not to let ambivalence lead us to become detached, immobile or to respond in a manner that amounts to suffering in silence. It should also be pointed out that this state differs from but remains as unproductive as what Bradley Boovy described in our seminar discussions (GSA 2017, “Feminist Scholarship, Activism, and the Politics of Affect”), i.e. fragile males who respond to being called out with a passive aggressive stoicism that sucks all the oxygen out of the room. The feeling of ambivalence about happiness and unhappiness should be a point of departure but not a position we can remain in or not a garment we can wear for long. Beyond potentially undermining a false narrative of progression, the affect of ambivalence, however, potentially opens up new avenues of activism.

At the same time we don’t want to suggest ways of progressing beyond the state of ambivalence. Such a trajectory would imply yet another promise of happiness along pre-paved routes or mitigating the unhappiness of being stuck within the horrible gender politics of our historical moment. Instead we want to conclude by proposing an alternative. Hester Baer has suggested ways of productively drawing on ambivalence for political activism:

Rather than becoming immobilized or retreating in the face of … paradoxes and contradictions, we might draw on ambivalence as a tactical move in order to … develop strategies that draw out as productive the tensions that inhere in them. Indeed, channeling ambivalence as a political tactic or analytic lens can help to make visible the way that conventional categories (of identity, aesthetics, society, politics) are being dismantled and reassembled today, while these conventions simultaneously continue to operate in ways that are fraught. In this context, ambivalence might encompass the complicated, messy, and awkward, might entail the occupation of indeterminacy and non-binary thought, might forge a path for modes of refusal not legible within conventional ways of doing politics.

By way of example, Baer cites Judith Butler’s reflections on the ambivalent, contradictory qualities of Slut Walk demonstrations during which performative politics “enacts what it seeks to show, and to resist” (107). By stopping and dwelling on shared ambivalence, including the very different forms that stick to us in various ways at this political moment, we imagine a related politics of visibility as alternate to procuring happy or curing unhappy states. Instead we might find something sustaining in these shared moments where we manifest the contradictions underpinning the lives of (female) academics across the racial and gendered spectrum. The newly developed mentoring matrix at the University of Tennessee, designed for female faculty, offers such a space, albeit one that is highly organized. Groups of four to five women meet at least twice a semester to mentor each other in informal settings over breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The topics for discussion are open but often revolve around gendered expectations, discrimination, and the difficulty of juggling life and work demands. Rather than just being a support network that helps with faculty retention and cures unhappiness, as the administration clearly intends, these matrixes are also spaces for recognizing shared struggles and for exposing contradictory demands. We share our ambivalence and organize possible ways to push back against the sexism and racism we experience or observe. Ideally, there is collective joy in such exposure, as in a raucous Slut Walk demonstrations. And there should be joy in the opposite impulse, i.e. killing the kinds of happiness that masks inequities and sustains a neoliberal institution’s ability to co-opt affect in the name of perpetuating itself.

What could such a demonstration of collective killjoy-joy energies look like in an academic context that offers space for dissent but also locks it into place in contained, controlled settings? How can we channel the affective bond that emerges, for instance, when we mentor our students, despite the manner in which our institutions use and display such bonds for marketing purposes? How can we expose happiness as variously, if not insufficiently “sticky” in a manner as self-evident as how we dress and display our bodies each day? To even begin to imagine how to visualize ambivalence requires recognition of the power of individual, idiosyncratic approaches. By this we mean how those who snap out of place or refuse a mold typically do so in unexpected moments not necessarily dictated by a grand plan. We imagine a similar form of spontaneity underpinning collective displays of killjoy energies, something less along the lines of a Slut Walk parade than a flash mob approach that happens unexpectedly. And since “collectivities,” particularly in recent popfeminist platforms in Germany, can come about and operate powerfully in digital form, we imagine a flash mob that connects us across our computer screens. A recent essay by Francis McDonald and Whitney Trettien in the Los Angeles Review of Books suggests not only a similar form of spontaneity but also echoes the language that Ahmed uses to describe affect.

In “A Threshold is an Opening,” they draw on the avant garde notion of the fragment as pleasurable alternative to complete sentences or fully formed works and reimagine it as a “digital scrap.” Detached from its material form, it becomes “dexterous, sticky, promiscuous … hurtl[ing] itself toward other fragments, combining and recombining to create new relations between and across texts.” What results is a “collective digital archive written in real time,” an “unbounded performance,” and an “endlessly generative text.” Significantly for the notion of a digital flash mob, this model not only provides the means for a creative “dispersion of self,” but also a venue for “communal entanglement” and for “mak[ing] contact with one another as so many sticky fragments.” Thus if we insert ourselves, i.e. the complex, messy affect we experience on a daily basis, into this framework, we challenge the unifying narrative of happy productivity with something more layered and ambivalent. We also assume that by inserting our fragments into a larger collective, we might begin to see connections that set the stage for similarly complex but also generative entanglements with our colleagues’ digital scraps of self. Thus such a platform would be more than an archive, more than a venue for responding in real time to arising circumstances; it would also allow us to view, compare, and build on our colleagues’ dispatches. Ideally, as McDonald and Trettien argue, such a space would allow us us “practice holding ourselves open to the possibility of difference.” This final ideal, of course, resonates in relation to “killjoy” imperatives. As much as we envision entanglements that empower us collectively, we also need to continually reimagine them when individual fragments reflect different forms of identity. In this sense, we need to be exemplars of the killjoy spirit that aims to improve both our professional and political circumstances and our core selfhood.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. “Happy Objects” from Affect Reader, eds. Melissa Gregg and Gregory J. Seigworth, Duke UP.

Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Duke UP, 2010.

Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke UP, 2017.

Baer, Hester. “Mixed Feelings and Contradictory Ideas: Ambivalence as a Feminist Affect.” GSA Seminar 2017.

Butler, Judith. “Bodily Vulnerability, Coalitions, and Street Politics.” Critical Studies. 2014, Vol. 37, pp. 99-119.

Lennox, Sara. “Feminist Scholarship, Activism, and the Politics of Affect.” GSA Seminar 2017.

McDonald, Francis and Whitney Trettien. “A Threshold is an Opening.” Los Angeles Review of Books, Nov 27, 2017.