Thursday, July 19, 2012

Theory Review: Ahmed's The Promise of Happiness (2010)

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

In The Promise of Happiness Sara Ahmed examines the connection between our conception of happiness and what constitutes the “good life.” She argues that certain ideas and objects, for instance, marriage, family, and heterosexual intimacy, are perceived as “happy objects” that contain the promise of future happiness. These objects, Ahmed reveals, exist even in “the absence of happiness by filling a certain gap; we anticipate that the object will cause happiness, such that it becomes a prop that sustains the fantasy that happiness is what would follow if only we could have ‘it’” (32). For her, these happy objects embody the good life; they demarcate the kind of life we should strive for, such that happiness becomes tied to acquiring the right or proper objects and unhappiness to anything that deviates from this norm. Ahmed’s research deals precisely with those individuals and groups that are figured as deviant because they are already perceived as unhappy and/or attempt to seek happiness in unexpected objects; by concentrating her study around figures such as the “feminist killjoy, unhappy queer, and melancholic migrant,” she conveys the necessity of dissociating our conception of happiness from what is unquestionably “good” and examines the “‘unhappy archives’” each figure embodies as a way of illuminating alternative modes of living (17).

Text at a glimpse:
  • Main argument: Ahmed is skeptical of “happiness as a technique of living well” because it is often “associated with some life choices and not others” and “imagined as being what follows being a certain kind of being” (2). For her, happiness entails having the “right associations” or abiding by heteronormative standards of living, which also means that those who deviate from these norms are seen as unhappy or associated with unhappiness; Ahmed’s aim in this text is to interrogate the objects we deem happy or unhappy and, by extension, the promise of happiness itself.
  • Exigency: Ahmed’s work arises in response to “‘the happiness turn,’” which is evident in the proliferation of “‘the happiness industry,’” the mass production of guidebooks on how to achieve happiness, reports and statistics about the “happiest nation,” news articles and stories about happiness (3). She is, however, concerned with the fact that “the crisis in happiness has not put social ideals into question and if anything has reinvigorated their hold over both [our] psychic and political life”; in other words, rather than reevaluating the “social ideals” that animate our conceptions of the good life, we are fixated on how we have not lived up to these ideals, which, for Ahmed, is the heart of the problem we must address (7).
    • [Ahmed wants her book to “kill joy,” because for her killing joy “is to open a life, to make room for life, to make room for possibility, for chance,” for alternative ways of living” (20).]
  • Methodology: Ahmed’s methodology is to “track the word happiness, asking what histories are evoked by the mobility of this word” (14). She acknowledges the limitations of this method, since by concentrating on the word happiness, she neglects “exploring worlds that take shape under different horizons” (14).
    • Ahmed claims that while philosophy has explored happiness in great detail, it has often ignored the study of unhappiness; she attempts to remedy this lack by giving “a history to unhappiness” and thus “an alternative history of happiness,” one that explores precisely those figures characterized as “troublemakers, dissenters, killers of joy” (17). She claims that the “history of the word unhappy might teach us about the unhappiness of the history of happiness,” and offer a means of interrogating the promises we attach to happiness (17).
    • Ahmed mainly discourses with John Locke’s “empiricist account of the passions” (15).
    • Ahmed’s archive is structured through her encounters with objects; she reveals that she came upon her examples in conversations with colleagues, at formal events and informal get-togethers. Her archive is also heavily dependent on the “feminist, queer, and antiracist books” she consumes; Ahmed admits, “my archive is also my world, my life-world, my past as well as present, where the word happiness has echoed so powerfully” (19).
  • Key terms:
    • "Happiness”- Ahmed considers “happiness as a form of worldmaking,” which means examining how “happiness makes the world cohere around, as it were, the right people,” “mak[ing] certain forms of personhood [and ways of living more] valuable” than others (13, 11). She begins her research by “suspending the belief that happiness is a good thing” and wants to explore “not only what makes happiness good but how happiness participates in making things good” (13).
    • “The good life”- Ahmed begins her discussion of the good life from classical Greek philosophy, which was “based on an exclusive concept of life: only some had the life that enabled one to achieve a good life, a life that involved self-ownership, material security, and leisure time” (12-13). She reveals that the “good life relied on a political economy: some people have to work to give others the time to pursue the good life” and this “political economy is essential rather than incidental to the actualization of the possibility of living the virtuous life” (13).
    • “Happiness archive”- “a set of ideas, thoughts, narratives, images, impressions about what is happiness” (15). She connects this happiness archive to her conception of philosophy and philosophical histories in particular.
    • “Unhappiness”- unhappy first meant “‘causing misfortune or trouble” and “[o]nly later, did it come to mean miserable in lot or circumstances’ or ‘wretched in mind’” (17).
    • “Unhappy archives”- Ahmed argues that we should not perceive these archives as sites of unhappiness, as where unhappiness if found, but rather look to how these archives “take shape through the circulation of cultural objects that articulate unhappiness with the history of happiness” (18). She assets, “an unhappy archive is one assembled around the struggle against happiness,” i.e. the norms associated with happiness (18).


Chapters two to three of The Promise of Happiness “take the negativity of a political figure as their organizing trope: the feminist killjoy, unhappy queer, and melancholic migrant” (17). The fifth chapter of the text takes “‘the future’ as its opening question and examines the significance of “‘happiness dystopias’ for the imagining of alternative futures” (18).
  • “Happy Objects”
  • “Feminist Killjoys”
  • “Unhappy Queers”
  • “Melancholic Migrants”/li>
  • “Happy Futures”

  • How does Ahmed theorize “happiness”?
    • Ahmed’s text is focused on the “everyday habits of happiness and considers how such habits involve ways of thinking about the world that shape how the world coheres” (15). She is interested in what happiness “does”; consequently, it is not a static or fixed concept, but one that exerts material consequences; it is “spoken, lived, practiced” (15). For her, happiness is inextricably tied to our conception of the good life and by extension the virtuous and/or ethical life; her research asks us to question this linkage and its implications.
    • See book summary, main argument, methodology, and “happiness” under key terms.
  • Why does Ahmed route her study of happiness through unhappiness?
    • See book summary, methodology and “unhappiness” and “unhappy archives” under key terms.
  • Where does Ahmed situate her text in affect studies?
    • Ahmed situates her work in “the feminist cultural studies of emotion and affect” (13). In particular, she examines “how feelings are attributed to objects, such that some things and not others become happiness and unhappiness causes,” because for her “feelings do not reside within subjects and then move outward toward objects”; “[f]eelings are how objects create impressions in shared spaces of dwelling” (14).
  • How does Ahmed’s research on affect and the “good life” discourse with Lauren Berlant’s work in Cruel Optimism?
    • Although Berlant perceives her work in Cruel Optimism as more formalist than Ahmed’s research on happiness, their projects arise from similar concerns about the dissolution of the “good life” fantasy. Both are invested in demonstrating how deteriorating social, economic, and environmental conditions compel us to search for alternative modes of living. While Berlant chooses to route her work through the exploration of contemporary “impasses” and the search for new “genres” of living, Ahmed asks us to interrogate our attachments to the happy objects we associate with the good life and instead to look at the figures we have traditionally deemed “unhappy” to perceive possibilities for living otherwise.
  • What is the significance of the figures of the “feminist killjoy,” “unhappy queer,” and “melancholic migrant” (both individually and collectively) to Ahmed’s questions on (un)happiness?

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