Willful Subjects

Willful Subjects

by Sara Ahmed


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822357674
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 08/25/2014
Pages: 320
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Sara Ahmed is Professor of Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is the author of On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life; The Promise of Happiness; and Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, all also published by Duke University Press; as well as The Cultural Politics of Emotion; Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality; and Differences That Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism.

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Willful Subjects

By Sara Ahmed

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7610-1



I knew that I had a will, as surely as I knew that there was life in me" (Augustine, Confessions, 7.3.136). In Augustine's Confessions the will becomes a property of a subject, something it has, as surely as it has a life. Before the cogito "I think therefore I am," before, that is, the certainty of a subject established in thought or as thought, there is condensed in Confessions a certainty of a subject established in will or as will. To speak of the will as certain might be how the will becomes a certainty. Simon Harrison (2006) has suggested that Augustine, in asking the philosophical question of how I know I have a will, does not assume the will in a straightforward way, even if his answer seems certain: the question provides a "way into" the will. Perhaps self-certainty is not how the will becomes what is given to a subject, but how a subject can become itself: "I have a will" understood not only as a sign of existence, "I will therefore I am" but as an impulse to existence: "I will then I am."

The subject of will in philosophy becomes difficult to separate from the will of the subject, what we might call the metaphysical will. This will finds its most perfect articulation in the German idealists including Hegel and Schelling. The latter describes the will in the following terms: "In the final and highest instance there is no other Being than Will. Will is the primordial Being, and all predicates apply to it alone—groundlessness, eternity, independence of time, self-affirmation! All philosophy strives only to find this highest expression" ([1809] 1936, 24, emphasis added). All predicates end up belonging to the will: if philosophy culminates in the will, then the will cancels out the other predicates, including predicates, one might speculate, that were not even assumed to belong to a subject; the world becomes will.

We have before us strong critiques of the metaphysical will including those offered not only in Nietzsche's work, but also in Heidegger's reading of Nietzsche. In the introduction to this book I suggested that an alternative way of telling the story of will, one in which willfulness is given priority, would be to allow the will to wander away from this subject. So why start with this subject? To wander away from a path does assume that this path provides at least a starting point for a journey. To leave something, we must first start with something. Perhaps the question is to find a way of starting on a path that can allow us to leave that path. When we wander away from the subject of will, we could then take the willing subject with us.

This chapter explores the willing subject not by assuming the will belongs to the subject, but following the "assumption" that it does so. It is tricky to follow an assumption without seeming to make it. But we regularly speak of the will as a way we speak of ourselves. Public culture is saturated by "will talk" not only in the specific genre of self-help but more widely in how subjects are addressed or address themselves as having wills. We do not need to universalize this assumption to follow the assumption. Given that we routinely describe certain experiences by exercising the language of will, the will comes into existence, whether or not something called "the will" exists independently of these modes of address. In this chapter, I reflect on the will as experiential not as something we already have, but as something we come to experience ourselves as having. An experience can mean to apprehend an object, thought, or emotion through the senses or mind, as well as an active participation in events or activities. An experience might also be an event or a series of events participated in or lived through, and, more systematically, the totality of such events in the past of an individual or group. Taking these related meanings together, I reflect on how we come to apprehend ourselves as having a will over and in time. I ask how it is that an apprehension of will allows subjects to experience themselves as participating in events, as "going through" them willingly, or even as experiencing events, or the totality of events, as if they are "brought about" by volition. When we use the word "will" or "willing" it implies then an experience a subject has of itself as bringing something about, whether or not the subject is bringing something about. It is possible then to experience oneself as willing something that one does not bring about.

From this opening description, it should be obvious that I am bracketing the question of whether or not something called "the will" exists as a faculty; or, again, in phenomenological terms, I am suspending my own belief in its existence. My descriptions in this chapter contribute to the development of a social phenomenology of will. It is worth asking how this phenomenological method can "sit" with the genealogical critique of the will offered by Nietzsche that I evoked affirmatively in my introduction. How can phenomenology and genealogy be seated at the same table? After all, the phenomenological method of the epoché, which requires we bracket our presuppositions of a given object, might also require we bracket our knowledge of the history of that object. In Queer Phenomenology, I combined phenomenological and genealogical approaches (in this case to tables, and yes, tables will return) by reflecting on the temporal as well as spatial aspects of "the behind." As Husserl showed in the first volume of Ideas, we cannot see the object from all sides; the object is viewed in profile. If I walk around the table, the "one and the self-same table," my perceptions change but the table does not ([1913] 1969, 130). As such, the table as a self-same object can only be intended by consciousness: an intentionality I redescribed in queer terms, as a conjuring of a behind (Ahmed 2006, 36). What is behind the object in a temporal sense also involves secrecy or withdrawal: it is not available from a viewing point. Just as it involves time and labor to see more than a profile (to reveal an object, however partial this process of revelation remains, since we never quite "catch" the whole thing at once); so too it involves time and labor to recover an object's historicity (to reveal what is behind an object, its conditions of arrival).

An object can be a material thing in the world. Or an object can be what we apprehend; what we turn toward, or what is created as an effect of turning. It follows that a subject can be the object we are apprehending. To relocate the will as an object of thought, as what we are apprehending, requires the use of phenomenological and genealogical methods. We need simultaneously to suspend our commitment to will as what is behind an action and to give a history of how the will comes to be understood as "behind." In other words, it is the very normative assumption of a faculty of will that creates the impression of a subject that is behind an action. When we give a history of this assumption, we are putting it out of action; we thus achieve an ability to describe willing as a mode of experience.

Nietzsche and Husserl allow in different but related ways a reorientation toward willing. As I have already noted, Nietzsche offers a critique of the faculty of the will as part of the general error of causality. This disbelief in "the will" allows him to offer a phenomenological redescription of willing. In Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil, willing becomes described in terms of bodily sensations as well as orientations: "Let us say that in all willing there is firstly a plurality of sensations, namely the sensation of the condition 'away from which we go,' the sensation of the condition 'towards which we go,' the sensation of this 'from' and 'towards' itself, and then besides, an accompanying muscular sensation, which, even without our putting into motion 'arms and legs,' commences its action by forces of habit, directly we 'will' anything" ([1886] 1997, 12–13, emphases in original). Willing is redescribed here as a process of being affected that involves orientations toward and away from things. Indeed, what is being sensed in willing is not the will as such but a "from" and "towards," that is, a body in action. Nietzsche's account of willing in terms of bodily orientations (that might not be noticed when we assume a will as behind an action) involves a reorientation not only toward the faculty of will, but also to the limbs of the body, which might be assumed to be lagging behind, obeying a command given by a will. In turn, Husserl teaches us how phenomenology offers not only a critique of empirical psychology but also a theoretical attitude to and thus "reorientation" of an already existing attitude ([1936–54] 1970, 280). Husserl also describes an existing attitude in terms of habits of the will: "Attitude, generally speaking, means a habitually fixed style of willing life comprising directions of the will or interests that are prescribed by this style, comprising the ultimate ends, the cultural accomplishments whose total style is thereby determined" (280). Phenomenology provides an important resource for thinking about willing as a purposeful activity, as a way of being directed toward certain ends or goals whose value is given within what Husserl describes here as a "historical situation" (61). Furthermore, phenomenology offers a set of critical and reflexive methods for investigating not only consciousness, but the relationship between the voluntary and involuntary aspects of experience. I draw on Husserl, among other phenomenologists, to consider willing as a way we experience inhabiting a world with others.

Calling upon Will

How does the will become a form of address? I want to reflect here on Augustine's Confessions as a style of self-writing or autobiographical writing that gives voice to will. Richard Freadman in Threads of Life: Autobiography and the Will treats Confessions as the locus classicus of reflective autobiography, showing the inseparability of the genre of autobiography from the emergence of the genre of the will (2001, 23). A line of inheritance can be drawn from Augustine to Husserl, who concludes his Cartesian Meditations with a quote from Augustine: "Do not wish to go out; go back into yourself. Truth dwells in the inner man" ([1931] 1999, 157). We can note the continuity between Husserl's phenomenological method and the method of self-investigation used by Augustine in Confessions. Husserl notes: "I must lose the world by epoché in order to regain it by a universal self-examination" (157). This "losing" of the world is temporary: going back is a way of returning to oneself, or turning into oneself in order to return to the world.

Augustine's Confessions could thus be read as a "phenomenology of the will" as Robert Bernasconi (1992) suggests. To read the book in this way is to make a methodological point, which is to say, to point to the method of the book as central to its depiction of will as a phenomena. The book is written as an address to God, such that "the will" takes the form of an address. It is in the context of such an address that Augustine speaks of his certainty about will: "One thing lifted me up into the light of your day. It was that I knew I had a will, as surely as I knew that there was life in me. When I chose to do something or not to do it, I was quite certain that it was my own self, and not some other person, who made this act of will, so that I was on the point of understanding that herein lay the cause of my sin" (7.3.136). Here the certainty of will is not simply about self-certainty but also about being the cause of one's actions, and in particular, being the cause of one's own sin. If will is narratable as freedom (to will freely is to be one's own cause) then freedom is affectively registered as guilt.

This sentence does more than assign guilt: it creates a subject who can receive the assignment. The "I" that is speaking is an "I" that is spoken. The split between the I that speaks and the I that is spoken is a split that has been much reflected upon within poststructuralist thought and is a key component of Lacanian psychoanalysis (as the split between the subject of enunciation and the subject of the énoncé), marking the advent of the subject into language. We might develop a different angle on this theme by considering how "willing" is involved in the scene of splitting: the split between the willer and the willed is a split within the subject. If in willing I am willing myself, then willing creates a distinction in self. The will appears on both sides of an address, on the side of a subject and the object: who is willing, what is willed.

Throughout Confessions, Augustine in calling upon this will creates a will that can be called upon. The will in being called upon is not given "a unity" even in name (Nietzsche [1886] 1997, 12). In addressing his own will, Augustine talks of having more than one will, and of an internal war as a war between wills:

I was held fast, not in fetters clamped upon me by another, but by my own will, which had the strength of iron chains. The enemy held my will in his power and from it he had made a chain and shackled me. For my will was perverse and lust had grown from it and when I gave in to lust habit was born, and when I did not resist the habit it became a necessity. These were the links which together formed what I have called my chain, and it held me fast in the duress of servitude. But the new will which had come to life in me and made me wish to serve you freely and enjoy you, my God, who are our only certain joy, was not yet strong enough to overcome the old, hardened as it was by the passage of time. (8.5.164)

A struggle between old and new wills is a struggle between good and evil, but where good and evil are represented as forces within oneself rather than forces simply coming from the outside. One can be self-shackled if one's will is in a state of imperfection. Note an imperfect will is associated for Augustine with desire and lust, which have become transformed from will into habit, from freedom to necessity. The passage gives an account of an internal war with oneself. Although an enemy can be identified as the one who has one's own will "held in his power," enmity cannot be eased by being projected onto a stranger. An enemy can be one's own will: a will that in being older is a trace of where a subject has been. To struggle with will is here a struggle against oneself and one's own history.

When one's wills are at war, one is at war with oneself. This internal war is represented as war not only between wills but between body and mind. Augustine contrasts willing the body, where "to will it was to do it" (in cases when what is willed is within one's bodily competence), with willing the mind, where one can will and "not do it" (8.8.171). Augustine introduces a command structure: to will is to order oneself to will. An order to will is a willing to do, and willing to do is a sign of not having done:

The mind orders itself to make an act of will, and it would not give this order unless it willed to do so; yet it does not carry out its own command. But it does not fully will to do this thing and therefore its orders are not fully given. It gives the order only in so far as it wills, and in so far as it does not will the order is not carried out. For the will commands that an act of will should be made, and it gives the command to itself, not to some other will. The reason, then, why the command is not obeyed is that it is not given with the full will. If the will were full, it would not command itself to be full, since it would be so already. (8.9.172)

Accounting for this rather extraordinary passage is one of my tasks in this book. If willing is to command to will, then willing by virtue of the command is not or not yet to carry out what is willed. A full will is that which does not need to will itself to be full. Willing is thus what a subject does—or even must do—when a command has not been obeyed. A command is when a subject wills itself to will. We can note Nietzsche's own redefinition of the will as the "emotion of the command" ([1886] 1997, 12). He suggests "we are at the same time the commander and the obeying parties" (13). Perhaps we cannot quite be both parties at once. In commanding, we have not carried out what is being commanded; in obeying, we are dependent on a command having already been given.

I will be returning to the question of the relationship between will, commandment, and obedience in the following chapters. Suffice to say here that willing as an activity rests precisely on a subject that is out of time with itself. The subjective time of willing could even be described as an experience of non-spontaneity; a willing subject is always behind or ahead of itself. As Hannah Arendt describes in her reading of Confessions: "the price paid for the Will's Omnipotence is very high; the worst that, from the viewpoint of the thinking ego, could happen to the two-in-one, namely, to be 'at variance with yourself,' has become part and parcel of the human condition" (1978, 83). Self-variance even if it is represented in Augustine as the agony of not willing what one wills oneself to will is also an opening: the experience of not obeying what has been given as a command. It is possible to give a different inflection to this warring scene: the price of Will's omnipotence—self-variation—could be retheorized as an escape valve, a way of not carrying out what has been given as command. A willfulness archive is an archive of will's incompletion.


Excerpted from Willful Subjects by Sara Ahmed. Copyright © 2014 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Introduction: A Willfulness Archive 1

1. Willing Subjects 23

2. The Good Will 59

3. The General Will 97

4. Willfulness as a Style of Politics 133

Conclusion: A Call to Arms 173

Notes 205

References 257

Index 277

What People are Saying About This

author of Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhe Gayle Salamon

"There is no one else writing in contemporary cultural theory who is able to take hold of a single concept with such a firm and sure grasp and follow it along an idiosyncratic path in such surprising and illuminating ways."

The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century - author of

"Willful Subjects is beautifully conceived and expertly conducted, sentence by sentence, suggestion by suggestion. Paradoxically, Sara Ahmed's willfulness promises happiness for her readers. Exquisite formulations engage our contemplation and render real intellectual enjoyment. Followers of Ahmed, of which there are many, will not be disappointed. This new instance of razor-sharp thinking powerfully builds upon The Promise of Happiness to look at something usefully slicing through contentment: the scissoring relations between the will and willfulness. More than cutting-edge, this is cutting thought."

Judith Butler

"Sara Ahmed's Willful Subjects explores the relationship between willfulness and dissent that challenges the notions of coherence and unity that characterize many accounts of the will. Focusing on a concept of 'the distributed will'—distinct from Rousseau's 'general will'—Ahmed proposes a consideration of the relationship between ethics and the will which refuses to assume at the outset that being out of sorts with the common good is a form of immorality. Considering the will internally fractious and insistent proves more than useful in understanding collective forms of willfulness, including political resistance. Like her other works known for their originality, sharpness, and reach, Ahmed offers here a vibrant, surprising, and philosophically rich analysis of cultural politics, drawing on feminist, queer and anti-racist uses of willing and willfulness to explain forms of sustained and adamant social disagreement as a constitutive part of any radical ethics and politics worth its name."

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