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  • Feeling Well
  • Michael D. Snediker (bio)
Review of: Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness. Durham: Duke UP, 2010.

It strikes me as both salubrious and unsurprising that after several decades of theorizing negative affect, melancholy, and trauma, the academy has turned its attention to the likes of positive affect, happiness, and optimism. As I've argued elsewhere, happiness and optimism are neither equivalent nor coextensive, but at very least metonymically equivocate around each other's edges. Recent inquiries into happiness have engaged the latter's capacity for fungibility and surprise. Often, theorists attached to a rictus model of happiness's intractability argue for the latter's ideological perniciousness. For instance, Heather Love has recently intimated that happiness arises as an ontologically risky threshold, the crossing of which threatens the integrity (or more precisely, the weathered lack thereof) of queer persons for whom disappointment and grief had hitherto been constitutive.

That arguments for or against happiness arise most provocatively in the field of queer theory suggests that queer persons bear an acutely salient relation to happiness as that from which they've been excluded, but furthermore, that they bear an exemplary relation to a happiness always requiring sacrifice and compromise, a shady bittersweetness from which no persons are exempt. As Lauren Berlant has noted, "at a certain degree of abstraction both from trauma and optimism the sensual experience of self-dissolution, radically reshaped consciousness, new sensoria, and narrative rupture can look similar" (46). The trauma of happiness resonates all the more acutely in Heather Love's supposition that "sometimes it seems that the only way for queers to start being happy is to stop being queers" (62). For Love (and implicitly, for Berlant), happiness's brutality resides in its truculent, incessant demand against being what one otherwise was, even as one flutters, mothlike, to happiness' ideologically incinerating flame. Love suggests that happiness is non-malleable, that it will be what it always has been; and this perdurability adumbrates the implication that queer persons are far more malleable than the affective desires and constraints by which they are held, seduced, betrayed. Happiness' danger, then, would depend on happiness existing in advance as a repertoire of what we from outset ought have been wary.

By contrast, theorists who consider happiness in terms of contingency rather than unrevisable dictum have suggested that one may well enjoy happiness, and even survive happiness, if one is willing to entertain the possibility of a happiness not already imbued with the penal inexorability of ideology. Nietzsche is a case in point: "To finally take all this in one soul and compress it into one feeling—this would surely have to produce a happiness unknown to humanity so far" (190). Or a few pages later in The Gay Science: "Are we perhaps still not too influenced by the most immediate consequences of this event—and these immediate consequences, the consequences for ourselves, are the opposite of what one might expect—not at all sad and gloomy, but much more like a new and barely describable type of light, happiness, relief, amusement, encouragement, dawn . . . " (199). Following Nietzsche, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's A Dialogue on Love insists that when "the truth comes to you, / you recognize it because / it makes you happy" (207). Sedgwick's formulation differs starkly from Love's, to the extent that happiness might (like queerness) only be known in the discovery of it, versus the moribund sense that happiness, as a sort of Lacanian Symbolic, inexorably awaits one's falling into it. Sara Ahmed's most recent work argues that one need not choose, in relation to one's self, either an inexorable happiness or a capricious, contingent one. Rather, Ahmed importantly resituates affective phenomenology as the tension between the inexorable and the capricious, allowing both phenomena to coincide, but nevertheless insisting, even in the severe spider-web of affective ideology, that there are modes of navigation, molecules of surviving happiness, that don't require one's queerness, one's prior ontological commitments, be left at normativity's (sometimes) perversely alluring altar.

Ahmed's pellucid new book pivots on the ubiquitous and overdetermined formulation, "I just want you to be happy." The familiarity of the utterance only...