Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

Willful Subjects

Academic journal article Wagadu: a Journal of Transnational Women's and Gender Studies

Willful Subjects

Article excerpt

Review of Willful Subjects by Sara Ahmed, Duke University Press, Durham and London paperback, 2014, 320 pp, $24.95

Sara Ahmed's recent monograph, Willful Subjects, is both a culmination of her previous works, as well as being a new examination of the intersections of concepts of will, time, the body, and society. Through an interdisciplinary investigation of a variety of sources- including those from Continental philosophy, Grimm's fairy tales, novels by George Eliot, and Critical Race Theory-Ahmed seeks to assemble a "willfulness archive" such that a "queer history" of will becomes possible.

The potential of such a project is readily observable: if will has historically been developed as a "straightening device," (and indeed, one of the aims of Willful Subjects is to demonstrate this development), then a queer history may reveal "what is already bent" (p. 7). That which is "already bent" is a concern because although Ahmed considers the arguments of her book to be philosophical in nature, she suggests that they do not "inhabit in any 'straightforward' way the house of philosophy" (p. 15). Instead, she practices "not philosophy" in an effort to state her relationship to traditional philosophy while simultaneously creating room within it "for others who are not philosophers." Moreover, her concern extends to those who are judged as being not more generally; those who are deemed willful and "as not meeting the criteria for being human." This "not" Ahmed notes, is "often to be attached to other nots...not being white, not being male, not being straight, not being able-bodied" (p. 15). Creating a willfulness archive, writing a queer history of will, and practicing not philosophy is done in order to reinhabit "the body of philosophy" and to "queer that body."

Ahmed begins the book with the Grimm brothers' story of "The Willful Child," a tale of disobedience, a willing of death, and disturbing persistence. This story is integral to the book not only because the willful child (and particularly her arm) becomes something of a mascot, but also because her story provides the starting point for Ahmed's argument that a certain "form of will seems to involve the rendering of other wills as willful," and further, that "one form of will assumes the right to eliminate the others" (2). This story also encapsulates the interweaving of the main themes which Ahmed seeks to develop in every subsequent chapter: will involves authority, it involves overlapping layers of time, it involves the body, and it is exercised socially. Lastly, although Ahmed never explicitly states it, "The Willful Child" also illuminates the context in which her exegesis on will operates; this analysis, while occasionally engaging with postcolonial perspectives, largely focuses on will and willfulness as they have been developed within western discourses of theology, philosophy, literature, etc.

As mentioned above, Ahmed's methodology is interdisciplinary insofar as she combines approaches drawn from Literary Theory, Phenomenology (following Edmund Husserl), Queer Theory, Critical Race Theory, philosophy, and feminist critique. Structurally, she divides the book into four chapters which, as they unfold, "thicken gradually [her] account of the sociality of will" (p. 19). Thus, although the first two chapters deal heavily with willfulness as it has been explored in dominant western discourses, and it is not until the second half of the book that we begin to see the queer potential of willfulness for resistance, Ahmed asserts that, "to wander away we must first recognize the path we are asked to follow" (p. 9).

In Chapter One, Ahmed examines willing as an everyday experience and as a fundamentally social activity. She investigates willing in how subjects aim to bring about certain results, and she seeks to "depersonalize" willfulness such that it can be attributed to whatever obstructs the will (be it object or subject). She begins with an account of will given by Augustine who characterizes will as a form of address. …

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