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  • Emotional Orientations: Simone de Beauvoir and Sara Ahmed on Subjectivity and the Emotional Phenomenology of Gender
  • John McMahon


What is feminist emotionality? What emotions circulate in the emergence of subjects, Selves, and Others? How do concepts of emotion and orientation explain the formation of gendered subjects? Can emotions move us to freer and more reciprocal orientations to difference? To explore these queries, this essay (re-)reads Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex (hereafter SS) alongside Sara Ahmed’s theorization of emotion and phenomenological orientation in The Cultural Politics of Emotion (CPOE) and Queer Phenomenology (QP). I provide a reading of the theoretical work that emotions do in Beauvoir’s canonical text in order to think through the emotional valences of the questions she poses for philosophy, gender, and sociopolitical transformation as well as to initiate a connection between the feminist philosophy canon and contemporary theorizing on affect and emotion. This reading practice enables us to explore how one node of contemporary work on emotion can generate productive reimaginings of feminist philosophy lineages. It also permits us to think through the ways the feminist canon can inform our contemporary accounts of emotion. My central contention is that attending to embodied emotion in Beauvoir’s work enables us to trace her construction of a rich theory of subjectivity—and [End Page 215] especially the gendered subjectivity of men and women—through what I call emotional orientations; in so doing, a feminist project of disorientation emerges.

Beauvoir’s theorizations of the struggle for reciprocity between Self and Other and the gendered conditions of men and women are replete with incisive analyses of the circulation of emotion and the way emotions stick to certain symbols, signs, myths, and other gendered bodies. Reading her alongside Ahmed, we throw her engagement with emotions and orientations into relief. In engaging this task, I take up the Beauvoir “renaissance” (Kruks 2005) in feminist theory and philosophy but move that renaissance into underexplored dimensions of her work. A constellation of interpreters have insightfully focused on embodiment in Beauvoir’s work (Andrew 2003; Arp 1995; Bauer 2001, 50–76; Bergoffen 1997; Heinämaa 2003; Kruks 2010; Kruks 2012; Lundgren-Gothlin 1996; Moi 2008, chap. 6; Murphy 2011; Scarth 2004; Simons 2003; Ward 1995), yet not enough detail has been paid to the specifically emotional valence of her project in The Second Sex. Even when emphasizing embodiment, the Beauvoir renaissance has not directly engaged what precisely emotions are for Beauvoir, the specific embodied processes by which they are composed, or how exactly they work to shape subjects. Most importantly, it has thus far not sought to read Beauvoir’s account of emotion in relation to the increasingly prominent “affective turn” (Clough 2007) in critical and cultural theory.

The objective of this essay is thus to engage Beauvoirian emotion in detail through a sustained encounter between Beauvoir and Ahmed. I start by situating this project in terms of scholarship on Beauvoir and contemporary work on emotion and affect. From there, I analyze the imbrication of emotion and phenomenological orientation in Beauvoir’s account of Self and Other, as well as the spatial and emotional components of gendered subjectivity. These sections depict the emotional-phenomenological processes and situations that oppress and enclose. The rest of the paper turns to explore the potential work of emotions to contest this oppressive situation. I first take up the critical potential of the bodily, emotional state of wonder and then read a feminist project of an emotional, phenomenological politics of disorientation that emerges from an Ahmedian engagement with Beauvoir. Throughout, I illustrate this conceptual and textual work with reference to the problematic of “the woman in [heterosexual] love” (SS, 683–708), underscoring what bringing together Beauvoir and Ahmed can disclose about this situation. Ultimately, I make a theoretical intervention and build a reading practice that connects a canonical feminist past to a vital area of our feminist present. In the process, I work to tell a different textual, temporal, and affective story about feminist theory.1 [End Page 216]

Feminist Philosophy, Beauvoirian Emotion, and Affect Theory

Readings of Beauvoir regularly gesture at or briefly mention emotion but do...


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pp. 215-240
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