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  • Orientations:Toward a Queer Phenomenology
  • Sara Ahmed (bio)

What does it mean to be oriented? How is it that we come to find our way in a world that acquires new shapes, depending on which way we turn? If we know where we are, when we turn this way or that, then we are oriented. We have our bearings. We know what to do to get to this place or to that. To be oriented is also to be oriented toward certain objects, those that help us find our way. These are the objects we recognize, such that when we face them, we know which way we are facing. They gather on the ground and also create a ground on which we can gather. Yet objects gather quite differently, creating different grounds. What difference does it make what we are oriented toward?

My interest in this broad question of orientation is motivated by an interest in the specific question of sexual orientation. What does it mean for sexuality to be lived as oriented? What difference does it make what or who we are oriented toward in the very direction of our desire? If orientation is a matter of how we reside in space, then sexual orientation might also be a matter of residence, of how we inhabit spaces, and who or what we inhabit spaces with. After all, queer geographers have shown us how spaces are sexualized. 1 If we foreground the concept of "orientation," then we can retheorize this sexualization of space as well as the spatiality of sexual desire. What would it mean for queer studies if we were to pose the question of the orientation of sexual orientation as a phenomenological question?

This article takes up the concept of orientation to put queer studies into a closer dialogue with phenomenology. I offer an approach to how bodies take shape through tending toward objects that are reachable, which are available within the bodily horizon. Such an approach is informed by my engagement with phenomenology, though it is not properly phenomenological; one suspects that a queer phenomenology might enjoy this failure to be proper. Still, you might ask, as others [End Page 543] have, why start with such an engagement? I start here in part because phenomenology makes orientation central in the very argument that consciousness is always directed toward objects and hence is always worldly, situated, and embodied. Given this, phenomenology emphasizes the lived experience of inhabiting a body, or what Edmund Husserl calls "the living body" (Leib). 2 Phenomenology can offer a resource for queer studies insofar as phenomenology emphasizes the importance of lived experience, the intentionality of consciousness, the significance of nearness or what is ready to hand, and the role of repeated and habitual actions in shaping bodies and worlds.

A queer phenomenology might turn to phenomenology by asking not only about the concept of orientation in phenomenology, but also about the orientation of phenomenology. This article hence considers the significance of the objects that appear in phenomenological writing, as orientation devices. At the same time, to queer phenomenology is also to offer a queer phenomenology. In other words, queer does not have a relation of exteriority to that with which it comes into contact. A queer phenomenology might find what is queer within phenomenology and use that queerness to make some rather different points. Phenomenology, after all, is full of queer moments, moments of disorientation, which involve not only "the intellectual experience of disorder, but the vital experience of giddiness and nausea, which is the awareness of our own contingency and the horror with which it fills us." 3 Maurice Merleau-Ponty gives an account of how these moments are overcome, as bodies are reoriented in the "becoming vertical" of perspective. 4 A queer phenomenology might involve a different orientation toward such moments. It might even find joy and excitement in the horror.

In offering a queer phenomenology, I am indebted to the work of feminist scholars who have engaged creatively and critically with the phenomenological tradition. This includes feminist philosophers of the body such as Sandra Bartky, Judith Butler, Rosalyn Diprose, Elizabeth Grosz, Iris Marion Young, and Gail Weiss. 5 Through the corpus...