Unhappy Queers

I was very pleased (even happy!) to present my paper, ‘Unhappy Queers’ to CLAGS on February 6 2009. This paper was drawn from my forthcoming book, The Promise of Happiness, which will be published by Duke next year. In the past I have written on the cultural politics of emotion and I have focused more on the politics of (what we can call provisionally) bad feelings—anger, rage, fear, hatred and so on—and how they get attached or stuck to certain bodies. “At last”, my mother said to me, “you’re writing about something positive for a change!” I was sad to disappoint her. In writing about happiness my aim was to give the killjoy back her voice and to think from how it feels to inhabit a body that is viewed as “getting in the way” of the happiness of others.
Every writer is first a reader and what we read matters. For this book, I have read a lot of philosophy—and as a non-philosopher this immersing yourself in a world that always feels unfamiliar, however familiar it becomes, in such a way that it can feel like you are the body of the unfamiliar. It can be a good to inhabit the unfamiliar, of course, or to be the unfamiliar in the familiar. What was so striking to me as a reader of philosophers on happiness is that most philosophers, however they define happiness, seem to agree on one thing: happiness is what we want, whatever it is. Happiness, whatever it is, has been described as what we will, what we want and what we wish. In The Second Sex Simone de Beauvoir describes so well how happiness translates its wish into a politics, a wishful politics, a politics that might demand that others live according to our wish: as she suggests, “it is always easy to describe as happy a situation in which one wishes to place others” (1997: 28). If philosophy offers a happiness archive, then my aim was to reread this philosophical archive alongside what we can call “unhappy archives”: feminist, queer and anti-racist texts that offer us alternative—and decidedly less happy —histories of happiness.
The history of the word “unhappy” might
itself be pedagogic. In its earliest uses, unhappy meant “causing misfortune or trouble.” Only later, did it come to mean
“miserable in lot or circumstances” or “wretched in mind.” We can learn from the swiftness of the translation between causing unhappiness and being described as unhappy. We must learn. The word “wretched” also has a suggestive genealogy, coming from wretch, referring to a stranger, exile, or banished person, as well as a state of misery. I began from the premise that if we listen to those who are cast as wretched, perhaps their wretchedness would no longer belong to them. The sorrow of the stranger might give us a different angle on happiness not because it teaches us what it is like or must be like to be a stranger, but because it might estrange us from the very happiness of the familiar.
Thinking of our queer archives, we have certainly inherited a lot of sad books, even books that seem full of wretchedness.
The sadness of our books can make us
uncomfortable: as Heather Love has explored in her Feeling Backward it is as if sadness could stick to us, perhaps even
causing our own misery. I wanted to rethink this affective quality of sadness in relation to the history of happiness.
In a way, my starting point is that queer unhappiness is not the starting point. One of the common responses to coming out is: “I just want you to be happy.” It appears in numerous novels: a very good example is in Nancy Garden’s Annie on My Mind. It might seem that wanting the child’s happiness means wanting them to do whatever makes them happy. But this “whatever” creates a false impression of freedom. The speech act usually translates to: “I just want you to be happy, and if you are queer you won’t be happy, so be happy (and don’t be that!)”. The very judgment that a queer life will and must be an unhappy life creates the very happiness it names. I call this a perverse performative: the speech act brings into existence what it cannot declare that it wants (the unhappiness
that confirms that you should do what we want).
Happiness is tricky, we might say sticky, because happiness is often expressed as not just what we want (whether or not we do want this want is another matter) but what we want for others, especially those we love. For many queers, coming out and being out means causing unhappiness to family and friends. It can cause unhappiness to be a cause of others’ unhappiness! When we return to classic lesbian novels such as
Radclyffe Hall’s The Well of Loneliness just how much the sadness of these books is living with the after-life of causing unhappiness to those who share your place of residence. And when Stephen gives up her love Mary it is because she does not think she can cause her happiness in a world that will not accept their love. The book uses revolutionary language in the ending—the walls that contain misery are brought down —and suggests that the promise for queers might not be happiness but unhappiness: a refusal to be housed by this world.
Of course queer archives are full of queer loves that are not given up. There are
happier stories for sure like Rubyfruit Jungle where Molly Bolt declares that she is happy because she is not normal (as she puts it, everyone knows its not normal to be happy), or the more recent Babyji where the narrator Anamika Sharma seems to get everything she wants (that is, all the girls she wants!). But both of these novels about being happily queer (or being happy to be queer) also show that you still have to live with the consequences of being a cause of unhappiness for others. When Anamika in Babyji says to her father that we are all made happy by different things (and includes marriage as something that might or might not make you happy) her father responds “what do you mean you don’t want to get married?” Queer desire is turned into a question that interrupts the flow of the conversation, even one that admits to the idiosyncratic nature of our likes, getting in the way of the happiness of others.
In thinking about “unhappy queers” (which might include queers who are happy in the wrong way) I suggest that queer politics might affirm “the freedom to be unhappy.” I do not mean by this that we must all feel unhappiness as part of our commitment to queer politics (that would not be freedom!), but that in a world that makes happiness into a moral necessity, in a world where happiness is promised as being what follows being a certain kind of being, then we must claim the freedom to unhappy. The freedom to be unhappy would be the freedom to deviate from the paths of happiness, to go where ever our desires take us. Maybe we don’t even need to make a claim: we give ourselves permission to cause unhappiness (whether or not we do) when we follow our desires out of the horizon of the familiar (otherwise known as the “happy family”).
Happiness is a very busy word. How often we use it! I have always loved words and this project has allowed me to follow the word “happiness” around, thinking about what it gets up to, who or what it gets attached to, who or what it is near. I also became interested in different kinds of happiness speech acts: not only “I just want you to be happy” but others such as “I am happy if you are happy” which allowed me to think about what I call conditional happiness: what happens when one person’s happiness is made conditional on another person’s
(I suggest that the terms of conditionality are unequal, such that if some people “come first” then their happiness “comes first”). We do things with happiness, when we put happiness into words.
The etymology of happiness which is from the Middle English word “hap”, suggesting chance, might give us the basis for another kind of history of happiness. I am tempted to say (perhaps rather audaciously) that the history of happiness is the history of the
removal of the hap from happiness. So if queer politics involves the freedom to be unhappy, to deviate and to create new pathways on the ground, then queers might the ones who put the hap back into happiness.
Brown, Rita Mae (1973). Rubyfruit Jungle. New York: Bantam Books | Dawesar, Abha (2005). Babyji. New York: Anchor Books. | De Beauvoir, Simone (1997). The Second Sex, trans. by H.M.Parshley. London: Vintage Books. | Garden, Nancy (1982). Annie on My Mind. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux. | Hall,
Radclyffe (1982). The Well of Loneliness. London:
Virago Press | Love, Heather (2007). Feeling Backward: The Politics of Loss in Queer History. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Sara Ahmed is Professor of Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London and Visiting Chair in Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University.