For Sara Ahmed, everything is political. The feminist-queer-race-affect theorist’s research, activism, and decision to resign from her academic appointment embody her commitment to justice. Now an independent scholar, Ahmed is “concerned with how bodies and worlds take shape; and how power is secured and challenged in everyday life worlds as well as institutional cultures.” The prolific Ahmed has authored ten books, which take well-worn topics in philosophy, sociology, and cultural studies—like happiness, the will, and even feminism—and unpack them in novel, provocative ways. Ahmed’s work is tenaciously interdisciplinary, deftly moving from literary analysis, to phenomenology, to in-depth interviews with survivors of abuse, and more. Self-identifying in Living a Feminist Life as a lesbian, a feminist, and as “a brown woman,” Ahmed’s project is not to reify categories, but rather to live into an intersectional vision of “a different world” (12, 40).
In this brief introduction, I offer three influential and generative ideas from Ahmed’s work and propose their vital potential for political theology. First, Ahmed’s work on “affect economies” and affect as “sticky” describes affect and complex models of subjectivity are key to mapping the contemporary political-religious landscape in the US. After the 2016 election, pundits and scholars scrambled to explain the coalition of thrice-divorced Donald Trump and socially conservative white evangelical Christians. Trump’s coalition cannot be fully explained with reference to explicit values, norms, or policies. Instead, it is necessary to parse the complex resonances of fear, hate, and even pleasure that emerge in the shared mission to “Make America Great Again.” Next, I turn to “feminist killjoy” and the “willful subject,” which are forms of subjectivity able to account for the systems of oppression that limit the ability of some (read non-white male, cisgender, heterosexual, able) subjects to act in the world. At the same time, these subjects are resistant, able to move against established affect economies, offering the possibility of countering, for example, the religious-political fervor of the Capital Riot. At the conclusion, I draw on Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life to remind political theology that creating a different world takes work—both thinking and acting. Scholars and activists cannot rely on fact-checking or dry reason in this political climate. We have to feel our way toward change.
Ahmed is a key scholar in the recent “turn to affect” in critical theory. Her 2004 book, now in its second printing, The Cultural Politics of Emotions argues that feelings are “sticky” and circulate as part of an “affect economy.” According to Ahmed, contemporary knowledge production depends on a hierarchy of input sources, where the conceptual register—mediated through reason—is considered superior to the emotional register. The emotional is denigrated because of its supposed link to the deep animal past of human beings; or to our “primitive” past (3). The association of the primitive with feeling therefore depends on racist, colonial logic—a logic that continues into the present. Emotions, Ahmed writes, “are bound up with the securing of social hierarchy” (4).
For example, Ahmed explains that the fear of a Black man expressed by a white child, as “I am frightened,” and manifest as the child trembling, does not end with the child’s expression and manifestation. Fear works “through and on the bodies of those who are transformed into its subjects as well as its objects” (62). The child trembles and the Black man trembles in response, because he is fearful of the child’s fear. What passes between the child and man is a misunderstanding—the child reads the Black man’s trembling as a sign of rage, and therefore creates the object of his own fear. Fear (re)establishes distance, the spacing between bodies, and serves to solidify the existing social hierarchy, white people over Black people.
A specific moment of fear moving between two people, white child and Black man, is part of the larger movement, the “rippling effect of emotions” within society (45). Feelings move, circulate, as part of “affect economies.” Emotions, explains Ahmed, move “sideways,” manifesting as “sticky associations between signs, figures, and objects” (45). Certain feelings stick to certain kinds of bodies, like white fear sticks to Black bodies. Ahmed explains, for example, that the economy of hate in the US is largely unconscious (though explicit hate is breaking through more forcefully in 2021). Hate suppresses its history—we see this literally happening as groups like Moms for Liberty lobby to stop schools from teaching the history of slavery and racism in the US. Ahmed argues the economy of hate rests on a shared love of country—albeit an idealized, white version of America. Hate, therefore, emerges as a response to objects—people—who threaten this idealized version of white America. Various moments of negative emotion—a white child’s fear, a white woman’s anger at a BBQ—are linked, “sticking” together through the shared love of a white nation.
Ahmed’s description of the “sideways” movement of feelings and unconscious affect economies challenges the modern liberal subject. Much of the political in political theology is concerned with subjects—individuals with the ability to act, to choose to act within a political body. Democracy depends, at least in theory, on the participation of the people. The modern liberal subject presumes that people are all equally free to act within society, which, of course, is not the case.
Political theology is familiar with a critique of the modern liberal subject, for example in J. Kameron Carter’s work on race and the salvation economy in the West, which argues that salvation, rendered as citizenship in the Western state, is mediated by a white savior. Individuals who do not fit the idealized mold have their citizenship limited. Ahmed’s work expands political theology’s tools for describing the complex, structural limits to subjectivity in our societies. An engagement with Ahmed benefits both scholars starting with traditional theological anthropologies and thinkers working with a relational model of subjectivity, because her framework can account for both the collective coming-into-being of a community and the diverse array of experiences lived and felt by people within a community. Simply recognizing the intersubjectivity of humanity will not overcome injustice. However, coming into subjectivity with differences named more accurately shows us the complexity of our social structures, rife with injustice.
Ahmed’s later work explores resistance to oppressive affect economies. The Promise of Happiness (2010) considers the pursuit of happiness as a world-building endeavor where happiness “is used to redescribe social norms as social goods”—creating the “happy housewife,” “the happy slave,” and heterosexuality as “domestic bliss” (1). It’s in The Promise of Happiness that we first meet “the Feminist Killjoy,” perhaps the most well-known figure of Ahmed’s work. Ahmed contends that happiness is conditional and depend on reciprocal relations, which makes happiness a social object. Society is therefore created, in part, through the pursuit of the same (white, hetero, cisgender, able) happiness. Because happiness is conditional, it depends on pleasing others and people feel compelled to participate. Nonetheless, some people refuse the pursuit of happiness. But society refuses to recognize these people as rejecting, for example, compulsive heterosexuality; instead, these people are killjoys, ruining the happy reproduction of social norms and disrupting an established affect economy.
Willful Subjects, published in 2014, further explores the possibility of resistant forms of subjectivity. Ahmed writes, “If authority assumes the right to turn a wish into a command, then willfulness is a diagnosis of the failure to comply with those whose authority is given” (1). Being identified as willful—the willful subject—is to become “trouble” (3). Again, happiness, has long been assumed as a universal object of desire or end for the will, and so to be willful is to disrupt or pervert the pursuit of happiness. Ahmed’s “queer history of the will” argues that “[w]illfulness is the word used to describe the perverse potential of will and to contain that perversity in a figure” (9, 12). In other words, willfulness names the possibility of acting outside the established scripts of Western life—and willfulness is used to contain perversity within certain bodies, those who are queer, trans, disabled, or otherwise non-conforming. Here again, Ahmed offers language for articulating the possibility of political action straining the limits on subjects.
Theory and Practice
Sara Ahmed’s work is more than theoretical. Her 2017 book, Living a Feminist Life, is aimed beyond the academic world, seeking to serve an organizing tool for feminists in this moment—akin to the work done by bell hooks’s Feminism is for Everybody. Feminism as an organizing identity is fraught, especially given the recent rise of so-called “gender critical” feminists, who seek to police, even erase, trans people. For Ahmed, feminism is the refusal of set answers. She writes, “To live a feminist life is to make everything into something that is questionable” (2).Part Two of this book depends on Ahmed’s work as a diversity practitioner and her work interviewing people who implement diversity and inclusion policies within universities. Diversity work has two senses for Ahmed: it is the effort to open elite spaces to new people, and it is the work that people of color, queer people, non-conforming people put into existing in oppressive spaces. Ahmed offers political theology a fresh reminder that the political cannot be divorced from the lives of people, especially the lives of people whose personhood is questioned by our society. For Ahmed, the personal is political; even more, “the personal is theoretical.” It is a site of questioning the world (10).
Ahmed’s most recent work, Complaint, continues in this vein. Ahmed recently resigned her position as professor and director of the Centre for Feminist Research at the University of London because she believes the university will not adequately respond to complaints of sexual harassment. Complaint again explores the work of the feminist killjoy and the willful subject through the oral history of students and faculty who have made complaints within universities.
Sara Ahmed’s work offers political theology the opportunity to question itself. What assumptions about subjects do we still hold onto? What is the role of feeling in political discourse? Even more, what is the role of feeling in theology? Ahmed’s influence can be felt in recent works around political theology including Karen Bray’s Grave Attending, S.Jonathon O’Donnell’s Passing Orders, and Ashon Crawley’s Blackpentecostal Breath. Further from political theology, the influence of Ahmed’s work can be found, for example, in Rhiannon Graybill’s work on sexual violence in the Hebrew Bible in Texts After Terror, or in Biblical Porn, Jessica Johnson’s ethnographic account of the Mars Hill Church(es). Thinking with Sara Ahmed offers political theology critical tools for the analysis of race, class, gender, sexuality, and more as they inform, often in perverse, unexpected ways, the possibility of subjectivity in the US. At the same time Ahmed invites political theology to engage in the work of living as a feminist. Political theology must question its everyday living: from the tendency of political theology to be white and male to the role of theology in shoring up social hierarchies within religious communities. Ahmed reminds political theology that “doing the work” not only means thinking, it also means acting in response to the world around us.
Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotions. 2nd edition.Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014.
In this text, Ahmed introduces “affect economies” which spread feelings, often unconsciously, and at the same time function to create communities. Part of affect economies are “sticky” feelings which accrue to particular types of bodies.
Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010.
This book traces the contemporary happiness economy, exploring the ways it is used to shore up white, cisgendered, heterosexual, able, capitalist norms. Feminist killjoys and unhappy queers are resistant subjects whose existence disrupts the happiness economy.
Ahmed, Sara. Willful Subjects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014.
Ahmed’s work in Willful Subjects expands her exploration of resistant subjectivities, laying out a queer history of the will. Willful subjects simultaneously present the possibility of acting outside the established scripts of Western life—and contain perversity within certain bodies, those who are queer, trans, disabled, or otherwise non-conforming
Ahmed , Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017.
This book reclaims feminism as an organizing strategy for people who seek to question the oppressive norms of contemporary society and maps examples of creative feminist community and survival.