Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others.
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Subject:||Books (Book reviews)|
|Publication:||Name: Resources for Feminist Research Publisher: O.I.S.E. Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2010 O.I.S.E. ISSN: 0707-8412|
|Issue:||Date: Fall-Winter, 2010 Source Volume: 33 Source Issue: 3-4|
|Topic:||NamedWork: Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Nonfiction work)|
|Persons:||Reviewee: Ahmed, Sarah|
QUEER PHENOMENOLOGY: Orientations, Objects, Others
Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2006:240 pp.
For Sarah Ahmed in Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, how we inhabit space involves what she calls "orienting devices" or "lines" that extend the body into spaces to make them livable. What we know about the attributes and capabilities of our own bodies, what we notice about others (objects, bodies), what is deemed livable space and what can be accommodated is given to us through these "lines." As Ahmed compellingly argues, they are "what brings us in line with others." Borrowing Althusser's notion of interpellation, where we are called into our subjectivity by turning in the direction of what beckons us, Ahmed notes that the direction we are called to follow, or these "lines of direction," both shape our bodies because we follow them repeatedly and because we re-create them as we follow them. The "lines" are performative--that is, the normativity, their convention comes into being by being repeated again and again without consciously being thought about. For Ahmed, these "lines" are also temporal because they imply a future orientation and a regeneration of what has preceded in the past.
What traditional phenomenology assumes to be universalist lines of direction or thought, lines that permit bodies to extend outward in the project of self-realization, Ahmed explores as a fantasy that is sustained by "bracketing" the effects of social difference in shaping the space of movement and the ability to move. In other words, what Ahmed brings into focus is what is systematically occluded from sight in these texts but nevertheless haunts the very freedoms that are propounded the labour of women, workers, racialized peoples--upon which the ability and freedom to write is premised although simultaneously denied. Ahmed also points to the differential orientations that are ascribed to women's bodies, raced bodies, and queer desiring bodies that render these bodies out of place in spaces inscribed by universality and privilege of movement.
Ahmed's chapter, "Sexual Orientation," begins with a focus on queer moments in phenomenological texts or those moments where the world fails to "appear the right way up" (p. 65). She also focuses on how in Western economies of desire queer is understood as sexuality, or sexual orientation becomes "reoriented" or straightened. Through a playful reading of Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of Perception, she points out that it is the "purposefulness" of the body that allows for a reorientation of "queer effects." Put simply, a body that is off kilter fails to extend into space whereas the body that appears "in line" or that can straightened out is one that can extend outwards to inhabit comfortably a space that has been shaped to accommodate it. Ahmed also notes that "when one thing is 'out of line' then it is not just that thing that appears oblique but the world itself might appear on a slant, which disorients the picture and even unseats the body" (p. 67). Ahmed then suggests that orientations--and being sexual is part of phenomenology's sensing body--are in excess of the objects to which they are pointed, they are a "way of inhabiting and coexisting in the world" (p. 67). By drawing attention to the spacialization and directionality of sexuality and the importance of desire's movements in shaping space and bodily interaction, Ahmed proceeds to question the grounding of heteronormative economies of desire. She suggests, for instance, that Western ontology has mapped the directionality of sexual desire onto identity. To be "in line" with heterosexual desire is to follow that line towards the proper and "opposite sexed" body. But to be "in line" with desire for the "opposite sex" is also to be aligned with the project of reproduction of familial lineage--a line of continuity, descent, and, within a capitalist economy, wealth regeneration and node of social regulation. The incitement to heterosexuality involves the personalizing of prohibitions against certain movements, the repetition of certain social norms and sexual renunciations, and the spatial positioning of cultural artifacts (like wedding gifts, love songs and family photos) that serve as constant visual and auditory reminders of the correct positioning of desire. As Ahmed demonstrates, deviation from this line of desire and reasoning not only threatens the presumed naturalness of orientation towards "oppositely sexed" object choice but also threatens to destabilize the basis for familial reproduction. "Straightening" as the mechanism to realign queer desire becomes imperative to maintaining the up-rightness of a heteronormative world. What is required for those of us who desire queerly is not only resistance to this gravitational repositioning but the crafting of a new set of bodily dispositions that have their social and sexual sightlines on directions occluded by heterosexual genealogies.
In her chapter "The Orient and the Others," Ahmed makes connections between the hetero-normalizing of bodily movement as well as social space and the orientation of whiteness and the racialization of bodily and spatial orientations. For Ahmed, a phenomenological reading allows her to trace the ways in which the orientation of whiteness/racism calls race into being as an essentialized expression of the body, and shapes what is reachable according to differently coloured lines. She utilizes Edward Said's concept of "orientalism" as a spatialized system that positions the Orient (a world of"sensuality, sexuality and exoticness") as constitutive outside of Europe. For Ahmed, the functioning of this orientalist economy of desire turns objects into resources of nation-making and therefore must have the Orient/Other within its sightline. Looking at "it" (the Orient) from the position of the Occidental (and it is always this positionality that matters) implies reachability. According to Ahmed, it is this reaching out to grasp on to its alterity--an act continuously repeated in the history of colonialism--that effects a sense of what Merleau-Ponty referred to as "bodily coherence" for both the body of the nation state and the body that gets positioned at the point of the Occidental.
If the Orient serves as a marker for a shared sense of orientation for the Occidental so too does racialized otherness serve as the marker of distance and the unfamiliar from those who inherit the position of whiteness. Following Frantz Fanon, Ahmed argues that racism is an ongoing restless project--in contrast to the orientation of whiteness that allows for expansion and inhabitation, an orientation of racialized otherness ensures that the black gaze which positions the body for movement, is returned back to the black body via a line set by the hostility of the white gaze. The effect, Ahmed argues, is to interrupt the racialized/black body's extension as well as its ability to inhabit a "lactified" or whitened space. For Ahmed, just as the normativizing of heterosexuality tends to the "straightening" of desire, whiteness offers the fantasy of being able to position themselves/ourselves around and within the space of whiteness. The ability to pass in white spaces, according to Ahmed, is contingent upon an anything but fixed assessment of proper class disposition and genealogical background; the very fantasy of being white is a "melancholic impulse" that seeks to murder all or part of what "it" has inherited and a demobilizing identification with the orientation that repudiates it (p. 146).
In her final chapter, "Disorientation and Queer Objects," Ahmed calls on a coming together of those, "whose lives and loves makes them appear oblique, strange and out of place," (p. 179) to express their, "collective anger about the orientation of the world around whiteness" and a heterosexual orientation that in part sustains it (p. 155). For Ahmed, the departure of a queer phenomenology takes the effect of contact between unlikely lines--whether they are sexually or racially inscribed and uses it as a starting point to pursue new connections. Contact can signal both a refusal of a desire to inhabit whiteness or be positioned in a relationship to whiteness as well as a refusal to return to the line of heteronormativity. Ahmed, however, refuses to dictate what this point of connection should be for, as she argues, a politics of prescription--whether it is based on an orientation of disorientation or an orientation of pride or shame--runs the risk of becoming that which it disavows. She opts instead for a strategy of asking questions, questions like what would the implications be of orientations that fail to extend our reach? What would this imply for what we know and what directions we might take in response? Is support available for those who feel "oblique"? And finally, if the face of the object "becomes inverted, if it looks odd, strange or out of place, what will we do?" (p. 179). Ahmed's approach is therefore a phenomenology that questions in collectivity rather than declaring in singularity the conditions of possibility for a more livable way of inhabiting the world.
Reviewed by Rory Crath
Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work
University of Toronto
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