- The Promise of Happiness by Sara Ahmed
To share what deviates from happiness is to open up possibility, to be alive to possibility. . . . Political movements imagine what is possible when possibility seems to have been negated or lost before it can be recognized.—Sarah Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness
Sara Ahmed’s recent bookThe Promise of Happiness explores connections between affect, subjectivity, and citizenship. One of the central questions of the text is “What does it mean to be worthy of happiness?” Ahmed’s response and subsequent argument is to show how specific acts of deviation (intellectual, ideological, and physiological) get attached to particular identities that are seen to cause unhappiness. These identities, seen as unhappiness-causes, serve to threaten the harmonious stasis of the social order. Thus, the promise of happiness becomes much more than a psychological attribute; it becomes a moral imperative to provide individual and social correctives in order to “restore” [End Page 229] the natural goodness of normative family, community, state, or nation. As the opening quote illustrates, Ahmed argues for the space to be unhappy as a sign of political will and freedom, given that happiness is conditional to proper subjectivity and citizenship within heteronormative and multicultural societies.
In the introduction, Ahmed alerts the reader that she is neither interested in rehearsing an intellectual history of happiness nor in configuring a new and improved definition of happiness. For to do so, according to Ahmed, is to gloss over the regulatory power of “the promise of happiness” as it functions in various times, places, and spaces. Rather, Ahmed announces her interest in “following where happiness goes,” interrogating those objects that get attached to happiness. Whether happiness is narrated as a “duty” or “attribute,” a “cause” or an “effect,” Ahmed suggests that the happiness directive provides a direction of happiness. Operating as a technology of the individual (in Foucauldian terms), happiness is offered as a promise of the future, if only one can orient herself toward the proper object. Here, the orienting object can be a feeling, an identification, a history, a fantasy, etc.; what matters is that the “good subject” has a proper alignment between affect and (normative) object choice.
The Promise of Happiness makes an intervention within and among broad discourses including moral and political philosophy, psychoanalysis, feminist and queer theory, diasporic studies, and the ever so commercially successful “positive psychology.” Ahmed scaffolds theoretical tools from each of these fields (save positive psychology) to interrogate that which is produced as the detritus of the social order and its official archives—(black) feminist literature, the ruins of queer domestic spaces, and popular media representation of immigration, culture, and hybridity. More specifically, Ahmed outlines how unhappiness, misery, and suffering are located/projected onto particular bodies and identities: the feminist killjoy, the unhappy queer, and the melancholic migrant. While Ahmed presents a clear and persuasive critique of how abject subjects are marginalized and dislocated from particular social scripts of happiness, hope, and success, what is particularly impressive is her careful attention to the role of affect in subjectification. Describing what she calls “conversion points” (44–45), Ahmed illustrates how bad feelings can and must be converted into good feelings in order to maintain “the promise of happiness” even (or perhaps especially) for those affective economies to secure and obscure the veil of suffering in big and small ways.
In chapter 1, Ahmed argues that happiness involves affect, intentionality, and evaluation or judgment (21). She explores the limits of utilitarianism (a belief in the maximization of individual happiness for the larger public good) to show how such logics work to equate the promise of the happy life as a generative act of creation, repetition, and reproduction of “the happy family.” The “happy family” becomes both the cause and effect of proper habits, good feeling, and the good life. Here, Ahmed foreshadows her desire to reclaim [End Page 230] “disturbances” at the “family table” as a revolutionary act of alien affect (41). In the chapters that follow, Ahmed variously takes up the real and imaginary emotional labor involved in each...