- Alien Connections:Recovering Contingency in Social Forms
A modern centripetal force exerts something of a stranglehold on our ideas about the world or, more precisely, on what makes a world. With expansive and demanding hospitality—one born in a history of colonialism, empire, religious mission, and the snaking lines of networked communication technologies—Western moderns imagine forms of the world in which infinite connections offer a salvific unity. This is the myth of the Internet network as a herald of empowered voices everywhere. This is the myth of the spiritual fulfillment we will find in our interconnection with everything. However, these forms of the world have never escaped the persistent question of difference. The ubiquitous other—that personification of difference's possibilities—always again rises as other and repetitively refuses assimilation. Encounters with difference call forth worlds that do not acquiesce to the demand for smooth agreement, ready similarity, and easy unity. In the face of contemporary globalization, we are in desperate need for ways to think and create forms for worlds that do not demand a center to which we are all impelled.
Sara Ahmed's The Promise of Happiness and Richard Doyle's Darwin's Pharmacy: Sex, Plants, and the Evolution of the Noösphere offer ways to think of such worlds but from radically different perspectives and with radically different effects. Both offer novel considerations of the possibilities of community and rich accounts of how communities and other social forms come into being and are sustained. Both texts offer arguments on the sources and limits of social forms. Both offer unique insights into the pleasures and desires that animate our relationships within such forms, whether as a migrant citizen-to-be set on a path to happy state membership [End Page 334] or a "psychonaut" reading trip reports that promise the joyous realization of one's membership in dynamic ecological oneness. The question of social form can highlight some of the rich gifts these texts bring to broader conversations, taking hold of scholarship in a variety of fields about how our worlds are born and what sustains them. The question of social form can also hold a bright light to the ethical questions of how our figurations of the world make grave demands on their would-be inhabitants and discipline the kinds of people, relationships, and actions that can be contained within them.
The Promise of Happiness is an extraordinary text that should become a mainstay of affect studies and that serves as a strikingly powerful model of astute cultural critique. Ahmed offers an insightful study of our preoccupation with and desire for happiness. From self-help books to pharmaceutical magic, we are infinitely equipped with tools that promise happiness. From political systems to social orders, we are regularly encouraged to find and maintain that happiness for the sake of family and the broader good. Happiness, Ahmed rightfully cautions, is pedagogic. Happiness teaches us what to want, how to want, and that we must share that orientation to those happy objects with others. That is, it directs us to a constellation of objects deemed to be happy—or, in the social elision between what causes happiness and what is good, deemed to be beneficial for us or our societies—and interpolates us into its demand. In this way, happiness is a form of world-making. However, because the objects and aims of happiness are figured before encounter with them, this world is made without any sense of contingency. Even happiness itself is prefigured; the causes, forms, and sensations of happiness are determined before we feel them. Happiness has lost its root in chance. Or, as Ahmed pithily puts it, happiness has lost its hap.
The promise of happiness without this essential grounding in contingency is a highly disciplining lure, as those who express unhappiness discover. Ahmed's exploration of the demands of and demand for happiness centers around three unhappy figures: feminist killjoys, unhappy queers, and melancholic migrants. If happiness...