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  • Getting It Twisted
  • Zachary Lamm, doctoral candidate in English
Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others Sara Ahmed Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006. 223 pp.

What would it mean to get phenomenology "twisted"? Phenomenology is, after all, the study of direction and positionality, of the relation of bodies and objects in terms of space, consciousness, and familiarity. Spatial metaphors and geometric figurations permeate phenomenological discourse, asking us to understand the world, the body, and the mind as interconnected not only in the act of perception but in the very experience of coming into being. Lines, surfaces, backgrounds: the formalist language of phenomenology takes shape around a notion that the world exists in limits and horizons, that even the anxious experience of disorientation is only a breath away from the next experience of reorientation, of "straightening" (92). But in that moment of disorientation, in the instant that the world gets twisted, we might recall that the etymological origins of queerness are in the spatial concept of twisted-ness: that queers "get it twisted" all the time (161).

What work then can queerness and phenomenology do together, if their very essences seem largely antithetical?

In answer to that question, Sara Ahmed begins her new book with what seems to be a modest project—to take seriously the idea of "orientation" in "sexual orientation"—and proceeds with the resolution that bringing queer studies and phenomenology together is the best way to get at such a project; Queer Phenomenology is the result (1).1 The fit between the two fields of inquiry is perhaps not "perfect" or "natural" (of course, these are two terms that have often proven to be dangerous to queers, even when used in seemingly innocuous ways); yet, Ahmed suggests, "phenomenology can offer a resource for queer studies insofar as it 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 habituated actions in shaping bodies and worlds" (2). Understanding how queers orient the world, and how the act of orienting is itself a "queer" [End Page 589] undertaking, leads Ahmed through three radically different but intimately interconnected chapters, and in each, she gathers her ideas around tables—both literal and metaphorical—to examine how phenomenology "queers" objects, how objects enable queerness, and what it means for queers to have "a place at the table" (1–2). The first chapter attempts to understand the status of "the object" in phenomenology, taking Edmund Husserl's table as its ur-object. The table serves as the center of Husserl's worldly orientation, as a central object in the life of any writer. The table enables Husserl's attention to writing, but rarely is it the center of attention in his writing, instead providing a space and surface for writing; and when the table does emerge in Husserl's oeuvre, it does so as the interstitial example, mediating the space between background and foreground, calling attention to itself only when the writer is forced to reemerge into the physical world from the space of writerly production—or when Husserl decides to take it as his object of inquiry. The writing table and its accoutrements (pen, paper, inkwell) exist as "queer" objects, endlessly twisting in the never-ending shifting of our locus of attention. For Ahmed, phenomenology demonstrates itself to be a queer field of study in its disorienting, defamiliarizing perception of objects.

Things get really interesting (and twisted) in Ahmed's second chapter, where she attempts a phenomenological understanding of "sexual orientation" through the specificity of "orientations" (65). Not taking orientation as given, instead positing it as a process of "arrival," she presents sexual orientation as a series of social and behavioral lines, with which we are either "in-line" or "out-of-line" (66). Here, heterosexuality is not an emergence of "the natural" but a process of "becoming." Queerness proves to be a deviating orientation, as queers fall out of line with systems of acceptability and inheritance and open up opportunities for forming new lines of desire and producing alternative worldly orientations. While there is no attempt to explain the derivation of desire, the geometric metaphor for sexual...


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