On Feelings, the Body, and Queer Grief: Sara Ahmed’s “The Cultural Politics of Emotion”

Front Cover of Sara Ahmed's The Cultural Politics of Emotion

Front Cover of Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion

I will begin by stating that Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion is a book that I was really looking forward to, mostly because it uses a multidisciplinary approach to comprehend how emotions are tied to notions such as culture and power. Even more so, the book explores how emotions, despite their apparent abstractness, are physically bound to the body and create a dichotomous split between the inside and outside world. What I thoroughly enjoyed about this read is that it really gave me a new way to think about emotions as physical manifestations that create or intensify boundaries (or the lack thereof). Ahmed truly has a gift for materializing abstract concepts in surprising ways, providing definitions for pain, hate, and love that are based purely on physical/concrete terms. The issue I had with this book, however, is that I felt that the discussion was at times scattered and too broad, ultimately making it difficult for me to establish strong connections and links across the chapters of the book. There were other times in which the discussion felt merely like a show and tell (here is an emotion, and here are some interesting things about this emotion). But all in all, this was a very thought-provoking read, and it is a book that I would like to revisit in order to better grasp its subtleties and nuances.

Ahmed’s book uses an approach that she calls ‘the sociology of emotion,’ a model that claims that emotions not only create boundaries between the inside and the outside, but that they also create a distinction between the individual and the social. Emotions tend to be categorized as very internal and individualistic processes, to the point in which what “I feel” is virtually impossible to accurately convey to others who surround me. Interestingly, Ahmed’s book is partially focused on the physical properties of emotions, including how they are tied to the body, how emotions develop and thrive thanks to their “stickiness” (their ability to unite bodies with particular signs), and the ties that exist between languages and emotions. By triangulating emotions, the body, and language, Ahmed tries to create a model that not only approaches emotions through a physical/bodily approach, but in tandem, she tries to explain how particular emotions (such as pain, shame, fear, love, and hate) affect larger phenomena such as culture, politics, and the self.

My favorite chapter within the book was the one titled “Queer Feelings,” which discusses why queer individuals are sometimes not recognized as subjects. This chapter also alludes to theories devised by Freud and Judith Butler in order to discussed what subjects can or can’t be mourned after death, and how melancholia can be converted into a powerful tool that helps ‘the queer’ to fulfill its mission to challenge the status quo. I want to briefly discuss this chapter, but before doing so, I want to share some quotes of Ahmed’s book that I found insightful and interesting. These quotes either provide insightful definitions that I would like to return to later on during my own research, or they discuss emotions in a way that hasn’t crossed my mind before.

  • “The intensity of feelings like pain recalls us to our body surfaces: pain seizes me back to my body” (26). “Pain involves the violation or transgression of the border between inside and outside, and it is through this transgression that I feel the border in the first place” (27).
  • “Hate may respond to the particular, but it tends to do so by aligning the particular with the general; ‘I hate you because you are this or that’, where the ‘this’ or ‘that’ evokes a group that the individual comes to stand for or stand in for. Hatred may also work as a form of investment; it endows a particular other with meaning or power by locating them as a member of a group, which is then imagined as a form of positive residence (that is, as residing positively in the body of the individual)” (49).
  • “The fact that the hate crime involves a perception of a group in the body of the individual does not make the violence any less real or ‘directed’; this perception has material effects insofar as it is enacted through violence. That is, hate crime works a a form of violence against groups through violence against the bodies of individuals. Violence against other may be one way in which the other’s identity is fixed or sealed; the other is forced to embody a particular identity by and for the perpetrator of the crime, and that force involves harm or injury” (55).
  • On the difference between fear and anxiety: “Anxiety becomes an approach to objects rather than, as with fear, being produced by an object’s approach. This slide between fear and anxiety is affected by the passing by of the object” (66).
  • On fear and space: “fear works to align the bodily and social space: it works to enable some bodies to inhabit and move in public space through restricting the mobility of other bodies to spaces that are enclosed or contained. Spaces extend the mobility of some bodies; their freedom to move shapes the surface of spaces, whilst spaces surface as spaces through the uneven distribution of fear which allows spaces to become territories, claimed as rights by some bodies and not others” (70).
  • On disgust: “disgust is shaped by the relation between objects. Objects come to matter within disgust reactions not simply insofar as they oppose ‘the I’, but through their contact with other objects. […] Disgust hence operates as a contact zone; it is about how things come into contact with other things” (87).
  • “Disgust, therefore, as an imperative not only to expel, but to make that very expulsion stick to some things and not others, does not always work simply to conserve that which is legitimated as a form of collective existence” (99).
  • “Shame in exposing that which has been covered demands us to re-cover, such a re-covering would be a recovery from shame. Shame consumes the subject and burns on the surface of bodies that are presented to others, a burning that exposes the exposure, and which may be visible in the form of a blush, depending on the skin of the subject, which might or might not show shame through this ‘colouring'” (104).
  • On the reciprocity of love: “love survives the absence of reciprocity in the sense that pain of not being loved in return–if the emotion ‘stays with’ the object to which it has been directed–confirms the negation that would follow from the loss of the object. Even though love is a demand for reciprocity, it is also an emotion that lives with the failure of that demand often through an intensification of its affect (so, if you do not love me back, I may love you more as the pain of that non-loving is a sign of what it means not to have this love)” (130).

Since I am interested in queer theory and LGBTQ literature, I think it comes as no surprise that my favorite chapter of this book was the one on “Queer Feelings,”  in which Ahmed focuses her discussion on a bodily approach to heteronormativity, queerness, and grief. She approaches all of these by centering them on the notions of comfort and discomfort. According to Ahmed, comfort can either be approached as the complete integration of the self with an external object, or the seamless integration of a body with an exterior space. Ahmed thus approaches heteronormativity as a public comfort because it allows certain (heterosexual) bodies to extend into a space that has already assumed their shape, thus, they do not feel discomfort or a lack of belonging:

one feels better by the warmth of being faced by a world one has already taken in. One does not notice this as a world when one has been shaped by that world, and even acquired its shape. […] Queer subjects, when faced by the ‘comforts’ of heterosexuality may feel uncomfortable (the body does not ‘sink into’ a space that has already taken its shape). (148)

In addition to a discussion of (dis)comfort, I particularly enjoyed Ahmed’s discussion of queer grief, which centers its attention on how loss, mourning, melancholia, and comfort are attached to queer subjects, who by nature, must be recognized as real subjects in order to be grieved. Ahmed provides clarification in terms of the nature of a queer loss. While she admits queer grief does not imply that queer lives are existences that cannot be grieved, she focuses her attention on the fact that these grievances cannot be admitted or confessed in any way: “one has to recognise oneself as losing something before one can recognise oneself as losing something” (156).

In their analysis of grief as pertaining to unreal humans/subjects (subjects who come from “inferior” cultures that are dehumanized), both Butler and Ahmed allude to the Freudian differentiation between mourning and melancholia in order to illuminate their views. According to Freud, mourning entails a healthy process of grieving in which the living subject is able to let go of the memory of the dead subject. Melancholia, on the other hand, entails a “irrational” process in which the subject in morning and the “object” being mourned become one—in other words, the subject is unable to let go of the memory of the deceased. Whereas Freud views melancholia as pathological, Ahmed views it as a positive and productive trait when applied to unreal lives. This is because melancholia, unlike mourning, forces the subject to integrate the memory, or better said, the impression of the deceased into their own consciousness—giving the unreal a real existence that lives on through the melancholic. Furthermore, whereas mourning and the eventual rejection of the memory of the deceased implies a discomfort, melancholia entails absolute comfort with the memory of the departed. Ahmed thus proceeds to view grief as productive when it expresses itself through melancholia:

to lose another is not to lose one’s impressions, not all which are even conscious. To preserve an attachment is not to make an external other internal, but to keep one’s impressions alive, as aspects of one’s self that are both oneself and more than oneself, as a sign of one’s debt to others. One can let go of another as an outsider, but maintain one’s attachments, by keeping alive one’s impressions of the lost other. […] To grieve for others is to keep their impressions alive in the midst of their death. (160)

By keeping these impressions alive, the non-transcendence of queerness is kept alive as well, along with its inherent resistances to normativity. In Ahmed’s point of view, the melancholic integration of an unreal person permits a transcendence of queerness “that allows queer to do its work” in the first place (165). Part about what I love about this chapter is that it provides a model that can help counteract the view of the queer being associated with a lack of futurity, particularly since Ahmed’s view of queer grief through the melancholic subject allows the perpetuation of the queer body and the queer memory through the stickiness of signs. It is through this integration or queer impressions that queerness is given a shot at futurity, although it should be reiterated that queerness is not always given a chance to be integrated if it is not recognized.

Have you read Ahmed’s book? What are you impressions towards her physical/bodily approach towards emotions? What do you think of her chapter on queer feelings, especially when concerning her use of Freudian psychoanalysis?

Work Cited

Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

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