the trouble with happiness

For a few years now, I’ve been thinking about (and writing and teaching about) happiness and it’s limits…as a concept, goal and demand placed on most of us to smile (or die). Much of this work is connected to my interest in queer ethics and my extreme dislike of self-help literature. One of these days, I will do a larger project that engages critically and creatively with the limits of happiness and its connections to the U.S. self-help industry. Soon, I hope. For now, I wanted to bring it up again because I recently started watching a documentary on instant Netflix: The Happy Movie.

I haven’t watched much of this film yet (maybe 10 minutes?), but I’m already troubled by the filmmaker’s failure to provide a substantial definition of happiness. The film opens with a series of people on the street claiming that they “just want to be happy.” But, what does that mean? Whose definitions of happiness get counted? And whose don’t? How is happiness directed towards particular (and limited) goals, like making lots of money or having a successful career (or, like one person interviewed on the street suggests, achieving “the American Dream”). I’m not against happiness (I like feeling happy), but I’m extremely skeptical of happiness studies and how scientists’ efforts to measure happiness are generating a whole industry of products and experts that can help you “turn happiness into money” through seven easy steps (FYI: Marci Shimoff, a leading happiness expert, did the voice-over for this documentary).

Before writing more about this documentary, I want to watch it. And, when I do, I want to think about it beside a few critical engagements with happiness that I’ve encountered in the past few years:

Sara Ahmed: The Promise of Happiness
Barbara Ehrenreich: Bright Sided
Jeanette Winterson: Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal?

In addition to these critical assessments of being happy and the happiness industry, I’m also thinking about a song that my son recently sang with his fourth grade class: Happiness. It’s from “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.” I remember singing it in fourth grade too (when I lived in Salem, Virginia). I had forgotten about this song until I found out that FWA would be singing it. “Happiness is…2 kinds of ice cream….”

Sara Ahmed and The Promise of Happiness

For the past several weeks, my queering desire class has been reading Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness. Here are my class summaries for our discussions of Ch. 2 on the feminist killjoy and Ch. 3 on unhappy queers. In reading through the chapters, I have come across several passages/ideas that I would like to use/critically reflect/incorporate/put beside my own work on troublemaking. I want to use this blog entry as a space for beginning a few different engagements with the material.

Engagement 1: Bearable and Unbearable lives

On page 97 of The Promise of Happiness, in her chapter on “Unhappy Queers,” Sara Ahmed writes:

I don’t have much else to write about this right now. I must admit that I skipped ahead to engagement 2 and have spent too long thinking about it. Now I am out of time. I am struck by the slippage that I see in J Butler’s work between the unbearable, bearable, livable and good life. I briefly wrote about it in my essay on Living and Grieving Beside Judith. Here’s the fragment:

Butler contrasts her notion of the livable/bearable life with the good life and argues that the good life is only available to people whose lives are already possible and recognizable and who don’t have to devote most of their energy to figuring out ways to survive and persist (Undoing Gender, 31-32). For her, the question of the livable life must necessarily precede the question of the good life, because to strive for a good life, one must first be recognized as having a life (Undoing Gender, 205).

My mom started falling down a lot. It wasn’t safe for her to be alone. The decision was made to begin hospice care. She was no longer living with cancer; she was dying from it. She had entered the final stage. Any thoughts about a cure or remission—that hope for a good life to be achieved again in the future—was replaced by practical discussions of how to ensure that she continued to have a comfortable life that was free of pain. The good or even livable life were no longer possible for her. The best she could hope for was the bearable life. And what she could expect (and eventually did reach) was something that seemed even less than the bare minimum requirements of life. Yet, even as I witnessed her decline and the resultant shift from good to livable to bearable to unbearable life, I can’t really make sense of her experiences of those last four years (or even the last six months) as just surviving until the inevitable. Up until those last days, years after she was supposed to die, she lived and, in moments, however fleeting, flourished. She enjoyed life, she laughed, and she loved her daughters, her grandchildren and my dad.

What makes for the livable life? How do we distinguish that life from ones that are merely bearable or others that flourish? Who gets to make this distinction and how do they do it? My mother’s living and dying with pancreatic cancer pushed at the limits of my understandings of life and how and when it is possible.

I want to continue thinking about the differences/connections in these various forms of “life.” How do we distinguish unbearable from bearable from livable from good?

Engagement 2: Because/Happiness as Stopping Points

In her conclusion, Ahmed offers up the following description of happiness as a stopping point for discussion, much like how “because” functions in stopping childrens’ relentless posing of questions:

Happiness becomes a stopping point; happiness allows us to stop at a certain point, rather like the word because. The child asks you questions, or I ask questions in a way that people might say is “childlike.” Why this? If this, then why that? What that, then why…? Anything can take the place of the dots; the empty place that always marks the possibility of another question, the endless deferral that reminds us that all answers beg questions and that to give an answer is to create the condition of possibility for another question. Eventually, you stop. You must stop. You have to stop to put a stop to the questions because there are other things to do with your time. So you say, “because.” Why because? Because “because.” When because becomes an answer to a question the conversation can stop. Happiness provides such a because, a “because because.” We desire things, because of happiness. Because of happiness, we desire things. Happiness is how we can end the conversation about why it is that we desire what we desire. Happiness provides us with a full stop, a way of stopping an answer from being a question (203).

There are so many different ways in which this passage resonates for me and my thinking about the value of asking questions and the limits that are (sometimes necessarily) placed on that perpetual questioning of everything. What are the limits of questions? Should we ever stop? I don’t think these are the right questions to ask; they might even encourage us to stop asking questions even before we begin (which is connected to Ahmed’s point that happiness/because shut down a lot of possibilities for imagining of/living in worlds). Much like that annoying utterance, because. This reminds me of one of my recent tweets:

For more on Freire and the pedagogy of the question, check my discussion here and here. Is there a way to take a break from questions without stopping them? Can we answer questions in ways that signal our willingness to continue the conversation later? I strongly dislike answering any question with “because.” I have done it–my 4 year old asks a lot of questions. She reserves the most random and weighty ones for right after she has been tucked into bed, when I am least prepared to engage with them. I really try not to answer with “because,” or the even worse, “because…I said so!,” but what do we do when we are so tired from the day or uncertain about how to answer some very deep and highly politicized questions (about the meaning of existence, gender roles, why we die, G/god, and more)? Here’s one response by Freire in his “talking book” with Antonio Faundez, Learning to Question:

While I admire (and sometimes aspire to) this goal, I disagree with it as an unquestioned guiding principle. There should be limits to our questions (maybe not the amount that we have, but when and how we ask them). In my own thinking about curiosity and asking questions, I want to think about the different forms that curiosity can take and the different motivations we might have for asking questions. Curiosity about the world is often motivated by an agonistic desire to know (as in, to conquer, classify and contain). Sometimes it comes at the expense of other considerations (like respect for others and their desire to not be the objects of our scrutiny). It can encourage us to pay too much attention, to stare and to make spectacles of others whom we find strange. So, curiosity and the “right to ask questions” should not be uncritically promoted. Instead it needs to be encouraged in tandem with the development of a critical awareness of how and when to ask questions (not just a relentless “why?” but a “at whose expense?” and maybe, “what effects/affects do my questions have on others?”). On another, perhaps more personal note, even as I want my kids to ask lots of questions (and never lose that curiosity and wonder about the world), I do not want to encourage them to interrupt me (and others) at any moment with their questions. Even as I write these last few sentences, I am uncertain about my conclusions. In thinking about the how/why, I am not interested in establishing “proper” rules for questioning. Instead, I want to encourage myself/others/my kids to always consider the consequences of their questions and to pay critical attention to the world that is happening in their midst of their curiosity. How is this encouragement/paying attention possible? Hmm…makes me think of my interest in curiosity as care

Partly because I don’t like to have blog entries are the strictly prose, I wanted to add in two youtube videos that I found through my search of “curiosity asking questions.” The first one is entitled “A Study of Insistent Curiosity” and is part of 1shylah’s Channel or The Cybernetic Baby.

Some fascinating stuff. A little kid is exploring while someone (her dad?) films them. The kid repeatedly reaches for things that they are not supposed to, especially the lighter fluid. The person taking the video keeps saying “no” and “put it back” over and over again, but the kid keeps going back. They wonder why they can’t properly discipline the kid. At one point, towards the end of the video (starting at 7 mins in), the person taking the video exclaims, “Why don’t you learn? How did you get like this? Is it human nature? Where does your rebelliousness come from? Is it genetic? It must be genetic.” In some of their final remarks, the person taking the video promises to have a solution for how they disciplined the kid. I haven’t found that video yet. I don’t want to offer up an analysis of this clip. Instead I just want to pose it as a question about the nature/limits of curiosity and how we should encourage/discourage it in others, especially kids?

Okay, one more clip. I love youtube and how it allows me to find all sorts of examples/ideas with which to engage. This second clip was also found through my youtube search on “asking questions curiosity.” It’s part of the expertvillage youtube channel. Unfortunately you have to watch a brief commercial (not sure if it the same one every time. The one that I just watched was rather bothersome in its heteronormativity). This video is entitled, “Promoting curiosity in children.”

In this video, a women (presumably a/the mother) encourages parents to provide more opportunities for exploring that curiosity. After starting out with a brief discussion of using a telescope to watch a lunar eclipse, she suggests a few more ways to spark curiosity through exposing kids to new things, like: take kids to restaurants that have “different” types of food that they have never tried before (1:05) or to cultural events like a Native American “pow wow” (1:20). I can’t help but think about this in the context of my brief reference above to curiosity and conquering. Is it enough to encourage kids to try “new” things, like “different” (read as strange, “ethnic”) foods without considering the imperialist implications of this curiosity? I know I should/need to say more about what I mean with that last question, but I don’t want to right now. Instead, I want to leave it as an unfinished thought (an unanswered question) to take up again later (hopefully soon).

Once more with feeling: Aristotle remix (blog mash-up 2, part 2)

For some reason, I am drawn to musical references. First, mash-ups and now remixes. Why? Not sure.

Last week I finally got my copy of Sara Ahmed’s latest book, The Promise of Happiness. I’m very excited to read it (and hopefully teach it) in the fall. You may recall that I have written about and taught parts of the book already. With all of my other writing to wrap up, I haven’t had a chance to do a close reading (or even much of a skim) yet. I anticipate that this book will be extremely helpful as I continue to think through troublemaking and its political and ethical value; I see lots of connections between Ahmed’s feminist killjoy and unhappy queer and my troublemaker.

Today I took a quick peek at the book. Since I am thinking a lot about virtue with my current mash-up, I decided to check her index for Aristotle. I found him. On pages 37-38, she discusses habit, happiness and Aristotle’s (mis) treatment of feelings. While Aristotle claims that being good and happy (and having a good life) are not the same as feeling good and feeling happy, Ahmed argues that he continues, through his emphasis on the regulation and balancing of feelings (between excess and deficiency), to link the two in ways that make one seem to naturally follow from the other: “we assume something feels good because it is good. We are good if it feels good” (Ahmed 37).

Check out what she has to say about feeling good and being good and their connection to the regulation of desire:

A happy life, a good life, hence involves the regulation of desire. It is not simply that we desire happiness but that happiness is imagined as what you get in return for desiring well. Good subjects will not experience pleasure from the wrong objects (they will be hurt by them or indifferent to them) and will only experience a certain amount of pleasure from the right object. We learn to experience some things as pleasure–as being good–where the experience itself becomes the truth of the object (“it is good”) as well as the subject (“we are good”). It is not only that the association between objects and affects is preserved through habit; we also acquire good tastes through habit. When history [of repeated habits?] becomes second nature, the affect seems obvious or even literal, as if it follows directly from what has already been given. We assume that we experience delight because “it” is delightful (Ahmed 37).

So, being good and feeling good are inextricably linked; when we feel good it is because we did something good and when we do something good our reward is that we feel good. One naturally follows from the other and we are able to neatly balance/regulate/guide our feelings in the “proper” direction. Ahmed sees this as a problem because the connection is not natural; it is produced through repeated habits that reinforce the connection between what feels good and what is good. Moreover, what is “proper” gets narrowly defined and is guided (almost exclusively) by a particular vision of the future–in other chapters (and previous excerpts that I have read), she discusses the heteronormative future, where the end goal/the happy ending is heterosexual marriage. Feelings get regulated through this narrow vision, making anything that doesn’t fall in line with it (say, anything that falls outside of Rubin’s charmed circle or that doesn’t reinforce heteronormative desires) as producing bad feelings or bad (as in unhappy, non-flourishing) lives.

Ahmed wants us to pay attention to feelings and how our responses to certain objects get regulated/shaped/determined in ways that dictate what sorts of actions and objects of our pleasure are deemed proper (and good) and which are not. And she wants us to challenge (make trouble for, perhaps?) the ways in which Happiness, as an end goal, so often only directs us towards certain paths (at the expense of others).

In what I have read so far by Ahmed on Aristotle (pages 36-37 and earlier versions of “The Unhappy Queer” and “Feminist Killjoys”), I don’t think that she wants to reconsider Aristotle. Aristotelean virtue ethics seems to be too mired in a limited and regulating view of happiness, one that overemphasizes naturalizing our habits and our emotions and directing them towards one universal vision of the Good. In thinking about these last two sentences some more, I happened across this passage by Ahmed which reinforces my own assessment. She writes:

I will not respond to the new science of happiness by simply appealing for a return to classical ideas of happiness as eudaimonia, as living a good, meaningful, or virtuous life….Critiques of the happiness industry that call for a return to classical concepts of virtue not only sustain the association between happiness and the good but also suggest that some forms of happiness are better than others (12).

So Ahmed is not interested in thinking (too much) about Aristotle in relation to her analysis of happiness and unhappiness (this is clearly evident in her index; out of 233 pages of text, Aristotle is only referenced briefly). But I am. How much attention do I want to give to Aristotle? At this point, I’m not sure. I do know that I want to take up Judith Butler’s challenge–the one that I mention here, here, and here–to rehabilitate Aristotle. While Butler suggests that we rehabilitate Aristotle through Foucault, I want to add a few more thinkers into the mix with him: Butler and Sara Ahmed. Hence, the title of this entry. My revisiting (remix) of Aristotle is one that involves an emphasis on and serious critical attention to feeling (both good and bad feelings) and how they circulate within our experiences of and discourses on goodness, flourishing and virtue ethics. I’m not sure if this makes sense yet….

Because I was curious, I looked up the phrase, “once more with feeling.” I was pleasantly surprised to find that it is the title of the Buffy Musical Extravaganza from season 6. Cool.

The troublemaker as a feminist killjoy (or an unhappy queer)?

I came across this cartoon in a recent New Yorker today:

Picture 1

Here is one reason (among many others) that I love this cartoon: As someone who persistently challenges the status quo and asks a lot (and I mean a lot!) of questions to myself and others, I am sometimes criticized for “taking the fun out of everything.” Uh oh. Here comes that troublemaker again. Why does she have to ask so many questions? Does she ever stop thinking? Can’t she ever just relax and have fun?

In some of her most recent work, (here and this upcoming book here), Sara Ahmed writes about these ideas in relation to (un)happiness and the feminist killjoy. Here is what she says about the feminist killjoy in her essay, “Happiness and Queer Politics“:

Say, we are seated at the dinner table. Around this table, the family gathers, having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up. Someone says something you find problematic. You respond carefully, perhaps. You might be speaking quietly, but you are beginning to feel “wound up,”recognizing with frustration that you are being wound up by someone who is winding you up. Let us take seriously the figure of the feminist killjoy. Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced or negated under public signs of joy?

In her larger argument, Ahmed is interested in how happiness–read here as good feelings of contentment and pleasure–gets directed toward specific futures (like marriage and the wedding day as the happiest day of your life). For her, happiness comes at a cost. It is tenuous, restrictive and it conceals the unhappiness that it produces. The feminist killjoy kills others’ joy (takes the fun out of everything) for a reason: to remind them that unhappiness is a necessary result of certain imposed visions of happiness. Ahmed suggests that feminist killjoys (and also queers who resist hetero-happiness) are important because they stay not happy (they stay in trouble, perhaps?) by refusing to be happy on the terms that are dictated by a straight world.

Ahmed sees happiness as dangerous:

  • “The risk of promoting happy queers is that the unhappiness of the world could disappear from view” (9).
  • “The good faith in queer progression [towards happiness, acceptance, contentment] can be a form of bad faith. Those of us committed to queer life know that forms of recognition are either precariously conditional–you have to be the right kind of queer by depositing your hope for happiness in the right places–or it is simply not given” (9).
  • “…it conceals the ongoing realities of discrimination, non-recognition and violence, and requires that we approximate the straight signs of civility” (9).

She concludes that: “We must stay unhappy with this world” (9). This unhappiness does not mean being sad or miserable. Ahmed believes that resisting happiness (in the form of unhappiness) “opens up other ways of being” that are not constrained by preconceived visions of happiness and the good life. These other ways of being could allow for an increase in possibilities of what could/does/should happen. In this way, queers–and feminist killjoys too?–could put the hap (as in what happens and of being perhaps) back into happiness (16).

In this essay, which I am still working through, Ahmed only briefly mentions the feminist killjoy. How is she linking this figure with the unhappy queer? I can’t wait to read her upcoming essay in Signs about the feminist killjoy (Spring 2010). In my class on feminist and queer explorations in troublemaking I am really interested in how making trouble functions in different feminist and queer contexts. It will be helpful to see how/where Ahmed places feminism within her own queer project.

I really like what Ahmed is doing in this essay. I see many connections between unhappiness/the feminist killjoy and troublemaking. Ahmed does too; at one point in the essay, she describes unhappiness as “causing misfortune or trouble” (10) and then links it with being miserable and wretched.  While it would be easy to read the connection between unhappiness, trouble and wretchedness as an argument for the impossibility of happiness (and the fundamental disconnection between happiness and trouble), this is not what Ahmed is doing. She wants to rethink what happiness could be (to put the hap back in happiness), by “rewriting it from the point of the view of the wretch” and by exploring how to “estrange us from the happiness of the familiar” (11). Happiness becomes less about contentment or following the right path (towards hetero-happiness and the good life), and more about opening up new and uncertain possibilities (more happenings, the perhaps?). This happiness relies on making trouble (unsettling, refusing visions of happiness that constrain) for others’  happiness.

I want to return to my own experiences as a feminist killjoy and as someone who has been charged with “taking the fun out of everything.” What sort of fun is being taken away when I ask lots of questions? And who said making trouble by asking lots of questions wasn’t fun? In my own experiences being labeled/dismissed as a feminist killjoy (although admittedly I don’t think I have ever been called a killjoy, maybe a buzzkill or a debbie downer), the assumption is this: having fun means not worrying which means not thinking. For many, the fear is that thinking leads to worrying (which is another word for trouble, right?) which is never any fun. But is their direct link between worrying and thinking/troubling? This past summer I wrote an entry about trouble, worry, and not thinking and how it is linked in a Travelers Insurance Commercial:

Trouble, represented as worry, is something bad that we don’t want and that we suffer through. In this commercial, the uncertainty of the world and our inevitable exposure to others–and the danger that that exposure leads to–are implicitly linked to financial insecurity and the current economic crisis. The solution is not to learn how to deal with our vulnerability (and the inevitability of uncertainty and lack of control which is part of being human) or to develop skills/strategies for staying in trouble in productive ways. Instead, the solution is to buy more insurance, thereby shoring up the illusion that we can have complete and total control over what happens to us. This enables us to stop worrying (and stop thinking) about those things we care about and start enjoying life (because, of course, thinking and enjoying are diametrically opposed). The message in this commercial is: You want to stop being troubled by your tenuous financial situation? Don’t worry. Stop losing sleep over it. Buy more insurance and then you don’t have to think about it anymore. Or, put more simply: Don’t think. It makes you worry too much. Leave the thinking to someone else, like Travelers Insurance.

But what sort of joy and enjoyment is possible when we think and when we make others think? Is it possible to imagine the dinner table differently, where asking questions leads to intense conversations or radical shifts in world views? Could it be a place of joy, imagined as something like Audre Lorde’s notion of erotic as feeling (as opposed to the traditional definition of joy/pleasure/happiness as contentment, comfort or safety)? Now, my discussion of the feminist killjoy and happiness is a departure (I think) from Ahmed and her interest in happiness. I will write a follow-up post in 2010 once I have read her specific analysis of the killjoy within feminism. I can’t wait.

As a conclusion, I just want to add: Does anyone else immediately think of Kilroy when they hear killjoy? I can’t seem to get “Mr. Roboto” by Styx out of my head. In case you weren’t thinking about that, here it is. You’re welcome.