Sara Ahmed’s Feminist Attachment to Anger

In the “Feminist Attachments” chapter of Cultural Politics of Emotion, Sara Ahmed addresses the silencing of feminist voices through an argument that re-conceptualizes feminist political theory as attachment to emotions. Feminist voices that challenge the taken for granted, naturalized, and thus invisible, norms of the neoliberal West – norms that create worlds based on the “truths” of some at the exclusion of others – have been consistently silenced as being too emotional. Such silencing implies the underlying assumptions that (1) emotion is inimical toward and incompatible with reason and (2) that reason is superior to emotion. Such a dualistic hierarchy “translates into a hierarchy between subjects” where reason is associated with the masculine and Western whereas emotion is associated with the feminine and racial others. This serves to silence those who fall on the emotional side of the duality by excluding them from rationality. Instead of arguing for the rationality of feminist discourse, which would fall back into the dualistic value hierarchy of reason vs. emotion, Ahmed argues feminist discourse needs to attach itself to the rationality (thought) of emotion and, mutually interpolated, the emotionality (embodiment) of reason – an interrelation that is concealed through the dualistic projection of reason and emotion onto embodied subjects.

Ahmed engages with Wendy Brown’s concept of “wounded attachments” in which Brown argues that feminism’s attachment to the harms inflicted upon women, i.e. the violence enacted upon women by the norms of the neoliberal West, conserves and codifies the very norms in the social-political-legal identity of women, giving women no way to ever let go of the wound. Moreover, such wounding is universalized when it is conserved and codified as a social-political-legal identity, as if all women are harmed similarly under patriarchy, which ignores the complex histories of differential woundings. While Brown argues feminism ought to let go of its attachments, Ahmed argues that feminism ought to attach to emotionality.

Ahmed states that feminism based on suffering, in which women’s pain becomes a fetish object – with the underlying assumption that women’s suffering could be represented and then that such representation could be used to identify legitimate and illegitimate feminism – could “work to delegitimate feminist attempts to understand the complexity of social and psychic life” (p. 173). However, despite there being good reasons for not basing feminism on women’s pain,

“our response to ‘wound fetishism’ should not be to forget the wounds that mark the place of historical injury. Such forgetting would simply repeat the forgetting that is already implicated in the fetishising of the wound. Rather, our task would be to learn to remember how embodied subjects come to be wounded in the first place, which requires that we learn to read that pain, as well as recognise how the pain is already read in the intensity of how it surfaces. The task would not only be to read and interpret pain as over-determined, but also to do the work of translation, whereby pain is moved into a public domain, and in moving, is transformed. In order to move away from attachments that are hurtful, we must act on them, an action which requires, at the same time, that we do not ontologise women’s pain as the automatic ground of politics.” (pp. 173-174)

Recall here Ahmed’s conception of the ethical-political as involving a remembrance of the historical conditions of suffering, and bearing witness to the presence of suffering in the here and now through an acknowledgment of the historicity of that suffering. Recall also Ahmed’s claim that there is no private suffering – that suffering marks its subjects in various ways, some ways that may be more visible than others, yet, nonetheless surfaces in various intensities. Here, Ahmed is tying these concepts together with an ethical-political imperative to act on hurtful attachments by reading, interpreting, and translating that pain in order to transform it. Feminism’s task, for Ahmed, is to respond “to the pain of others, as a pain that cannot be accessed directly, but is only ever approached” (p. 174). And, in order to respond to pain, feminism must open up a safe space for the disclosure of pain, for the “speaking about pain”. The disclosure of pain in speech acts, for Ahmed, is a condition that allows for a “we” unified in “different stories of pain that cannot be reduced to a ground, identity or sameness” (p. 174).

Ahmed further challenges Brown’s conception of “wounded attachments” by challenging Brown’s conception of feminist anger as ressentiment. While Brown conceives of feminist anger based on historical suffering as reactionary – and thus unable to let go of the power oppressing them as well as act authentically from their own values and principles – Ahmed argues Brown’s form of detachment is impossible because it assumes the embodied subject can be removed from the historical conditions impressed upon them. Ahmed states, “There is no pure or originary action, which is outside such a history of ‘reaction’, whereby bodies come to be ‘impressed upon’ by the surfaces of others” (p. 174). We are already caught in a web of impressions as interrelated histories and there is no subject position outside of such historical conditions. Ahmed argues what feminism is is deeply interconnected with what feminism is against; the impressions of historical violence against embodied subjects is both what feminism is and is against. Feminist anger as against-ness would be the response to the impossibility of a subject position outside such historical conditions.

Anger is an appropriate political and ethical feminist response to historical violence and suffering. Anger is a movement that interprets and transforms that historical violence and suffering; it is a way of moving from pain, to recognizing that such pain is wrong, to acting to transform the social and political conditions that gave rise to that pain. As such, anger is an attachment worth holding onto. Utilizing the work of black feminist Audre Lorde, and social psychologist Carol Tavris, Ahmed argues that anger, affectively and effectively, is world-making. She states, feminist anger “is not simply defined in relationship to a past, but as opening up the future” (p. 175). It is an against-ness that also entails a for-ness, and with this it at once recognizes the historicity of suffering while imagining a futurity of different possibilities.

Attachment to anger involves interpreting and delineating what one is against. Anger moves from recognizing against-ness to interpreting what one is against, “whereby associations or connections are made between the object of anger and broader patterns or structures” (p. 175). Anger here serves an epistemological function in that the object of anger then becomes delineated and a language is created in order to bring the object into the world and respond to it. The object is then not the foundation of feminism, as Brown seems to assume, but an effect of anger’s movement outward toward the world of historical suffering that also opens up possibilities for a different future. The epistemological work in feminism to name and respond to an object of anger has taken many forms dependent upon each individual subject’s experiences. Thus, in order for feminism to continually open up possibilities for the future, feminism must be open to losing its object of anger. It is the object of anger, and not the against-ness of anger, that is to be detached from. Anger in this sense is world-making in that it both brings into existence a different conceptual world than the world structured by naturalized norms, norms that may have been at one time feminist creations, and as such brings into possibility a new future world.

Instead of thinking of anger as opposed to reason, Ahmed suggests that we think about anger as a speech act. Ahmed acknowledges that the speaker’s anger may not work as a political act if the addressee returns the anger without receiving the message behind the anger. If the addressee simply receives anger, the addressee could respond simply with anger. Nonetheless, Ahmed asserts that “the performance of anger – as a claim of against-ness – may work; it may ‘get uptake,’ and be received by the addressee” (p. 177). Ahmed advocates for feminism to take “an engaged stance” that recognizes that feminist voices are embedded in historical conditions in which feminist anger may be received in such a way that sustains those very conditions, but to nonetheless persist in speaking. An engaged stance would also recognize when we, as individuals or as a collective under the name of feminism, could be silencing the anger of other feminists. Ahmed states:

“Learning to hear the anger of others, without blocking the anger through a defence of one’s own position is crucial. Such a project requires that one accepts that one’s own position might anger others and hence allows one’s position to be opened to critique by others (it does not then, like guilt or shame, turn the self back into itself by ‘taking’ that anger as one’s own). As Berenice Fisher argues: ‘The voices that make us most uncomfortable and the feelings that accompany them constitute a built-in critique of our ideals’ (Fisher 1984: 206). The fact of resistance within feminism to hearing the anger of some feminists is a ‘sign’ that what ‘we are against’ cannot be relegated to the outside. We need to take care not to install feminist ideals as ideals that others must embody if they are to pass into feminism. Such a reification of political ideals would position some feminists as ‘hosts’, who would decide which others would receive the hospitality of love and recognition, and would hence remain predicated on a differentiation between natives and strangers (see Ahmed 2000). To avoid such a politics, we may need to stay uncomfortable within feminism, even when we feel it provides us with a home. This discomfort, as I discussed in the previous chapter, means ‘not sinking’ into the spaces in which we live and work, and it means always questioning our own investments.” (p. 178)

Feminists need to learn to hear the anger of others who have experienced the historicity of suffering differently as an ongoing critique of naturalized norms. In the introduction, Ahmed stated:

“So not only do I have an impression of others, but they also leave me with an impression; they impress me, and impress upon me. […]Emotions are intentional in the sense that they are ‘about’ something: they involve a direction or orientation towards an object. […]Emotions are both about objects, which they hence shape, and are also shaped by contact with objects. […]The memory can be the object of my feeling in both senses: the feeling is shaped by contact with the memory, and also involves an orientation towards what is remembered. […]Emotions are relational: they involve (re) actions or relations of ‘towardness’ or ‘awayness’ in relation to such objects. […]If the object of feeling both shapes and is shaped by emotions, then the object of feeling is never simply before the subject. How the object impresses (upon) us may depend on histories that remain alive insofar as they have already left their impressions. The object may stand in for other objects, or may be proximate to other objects. Feelings may stick to some objects, and slide over others.” (pp. 6-8)

If we understand Ahmed as asserting that each of us exists in our own psychological world – phenomenologically we exist in a world we affectively experience as our own, with only our own direct access to but nonetheless is lived as intentional, directed outward toward others and objects; each world creating a multitude of worlds within the world at large; worlds that impress upon each other and thus are mutually constructing/constructed by each other; worlds interconnected through naturalized norms that have a historicity of impressions upon us as either the violated or the violating; norms that are either invisible or visible to us and that we either adopt or are opposed to – then what feminists need to do is to learn to hear and read the anger of others as an ongoing critique of the worlds we differentially inhabit. Ahmed advocates anger as a worthwhile feminist attachment because anger, anger that is not attached to an immutable object that serves to define whose experiences are legitimate, but anger as an ongoing critique of the worlds we inhabit, is a movement that opens up oneself to the shared world at large and the possibilities for creating new worlds. For this movement to happen, we may need to stay uncomfortable, to stay angry, to stay wounded, and to stay attached, in feminism.