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Reviewed by:
  • Willful Subjects by Sara Ahmed
  • Hannah Simpson
Ahmed, Sara. 2014. Willful Subjects. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. $24.95 sc. 320pp.

Willful Subjects begins with Sara Ahmed’s acknowledgments to her “aunties, mother, and sisters,” her “feminist friendships and queer collegiality” and “the many willful women fighting to keep feminist hopes alive.” Although Willful Subjects is not explicitly predicated on “willfulness” as a solely feminist tool, Ahmed’s acknowledgments provide a telling setting for a text that will valorize the resistant, willful—and frequently female—subject as a beleaguered but precious entity.

Ahmed begins by defining her understanding of “willful” in the book’s introduction: “willfulness is a diagnosis of the failure to comply with those whose authority is given. . . . Willfulness involves persistence in the face of having been brought down” (1–2). Ahmed bemoans the predominantly negative modern interpretation of willfulness, particularly as it is applied to women, for whom “to be identified as willful is to become a problem” (3). She reasserts the value of being willful: “If willfulness provides a container for perversion, my aim is to spill this container” (12). Ahmed will trouble our ideas of will and willfulness, asking how, where and why we identify the will and the willful—and how, where and why we do not.

To accomplish these aims, Ahmed explores the idea of will through a combination of the philosophical genealogy of the concept of will, a [End Page 749] literary analysis of willful subjects (with particular focus on George Eliot’s work), a political analysis of willfulness in society, and a confession of personal engagement with the idea of being a willful subject. If Ahmed’s range of discourse strikes the reader as a potentially bewildering medley, this is an issue she herself addresses and indeed claims as her own: “The book is organized as threads of argument that are woven together and tied up somewhat loosely” (19), she notes in the introduction, and offers the risk that her “own writing will be judged as willful: too assertive, even pushy” (20). The book itself is a “willful subject” and requires “willing readers”: “those who are willing to keep reading, to stay with the text, whether or not they agree with it” (20–21). Ahmed does not clarify whether she intends this model to contradict or develop Judith Fetterley’s resistant reader, who, although not cited, nevertheless haunts this portion of the text. A closer engagement with Fetterley’s model of reading might have cleared up the paradox that Ahmed’s willing reader raises. For Ahmed to predicate the reader as willing rather than willful, in a text that seeks to revalue the resistant, willful subject, is a bizarrely contradictory turn in an otherwise compelling and cogently argued text.

The closest Ahmed comes to claiming a definitive method is her description of herself as a practitioner of “not philosophy” (15). She describes this as the style of philosophy practiced by “those who are not philosophers” (Ahmed cites no specific influences, although Judith Butler and Harold Bloom seem possible forerunners of this methodology) and who draw on philosophy and other discourses without giving priority to any one individual practice. It is also, Ahmed claims, the philosophy that “attends to ‘the not’—making ‘the not’ an object of thought” (15), laying the groundwork for the prioritization of refusal and resistance that will structure, and sometimes limit, her ideas of will and willfulness throughout the book.

Having celebrated her own refusal to shape and confine herself to existing structures of thought, Ahmed reveals how the apparently secure boundaries of such structures are often themselves deceptively fragile. She begins her first chapter with a linguistic genealogy of the word will that highlights the historically slippery use of the term. This is a whistle-stop tour from Saint Augustine to Hannah Arendt by way of Jacques Lacan, Friedrich Nietzsche, Arthur Schopenhauer, Martin Heidegger, Paul Ricoeur, and Edmund Husserl, designed to elucidate the idea of the “social will,” which she defines as “the social experience of willing or not willing with others” (56), and to set the [End Page 750] stage for Ahmed’s emphasis on the ways in which antagonism and resistance might be...


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