18. Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others

by breavman99

queer phenomenology

After reading Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, I am convinced that my brief foray into embodied cognition was an error, and that phenomenology will give me a language I can use to talk about embodiment. “Error” is probably the wrong word: I know now that embodied cognition isn’t what I need to study, and it’s better to know that’s the case rather than wonder whether it might be useful. Phenomenology provides a conceptual framework that can be used to think about embodiment. I had a hunch that would be the case, but Ahmed’s book has confirmed it. My discussion of Ahmed’s book in this post is long, but her argument is both complex and important to my work, and so I want to attempt to explain it in detail, if only so that I come to understand it better. 

Ahmed begins Queer Phenomenology with the question of orientation: “how is it that we come to find our way in a world that acquires new shapes, depending on which way we turn[?]” (1). What does it mean, in other words, to have our bearings, to know how we get somewhere, to be turned toward objects that help us find our way, whether those objects are landmarks or other familiar signs which function as anchoring points? Such objects, Ahmed writes, “gather on the ground, and they create a ground upon which we can gather. And yet, objects gather quite differently, creating different grounds. What difference does it make ‘what’ we are orientated toward?” (1). Those sentences give a sense of Ahmed’s poetic prose, which (from my experience reading Heidegger) seems to be common in texts about phenomenology. She also uses the verb “orientate” throughout the book, rather than its synonym, “orient,” because (I think) she wants to keep “orient,” or “Orient,” as a generic name for the east (following Edward Said’s classic book, Orientalism). She also uses what I’ve been taught are “scare quotes” throughout as a way of (I think) questioning the language she uses, or perhaps the language that English provides for her to use; she also uses italics for emphasis. Reading Ahmed’s book means getting used to these quirks, and quickly getting accustomed to her somewhat idiosyncratic writing style, but that’s no different from reading other theorists or philosophers who use language in similarly unique ways: Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Heidegger, etc. But that style makes it difficult to summarize, paraphrase, or synthesize Ahmed’s thinking; that’s something to bear in mind if you’re reading this post. It’s also important to note that Ahmed’s book is deeply personal; her writing is autobiographical, or perhaps autotheoretical, and her references to her own experience are an important part of her argument.

In her introduction, Ahmed notes that her particular interest is in the orientation of sexual desire; for her, foregrounding the concept of orientation will give us the ability to retheorize the sexualization of space and the spatiality of sexual desire (1). Her primary research question (I think) is this: “What would it mean for queer studies if we were to pose the question of ‘the orientation’ of ‘sexual orientation’ as a phenomenological question?” (1). Ahmed returns to this a question in her second chapter, and in her conclusion. Phenomenology is important to queer studies, she writes, because it “makes ‘orientation’ central in the very argument that consciousness is always directed ‘toward’ an object, and given its emphasis on the lived experience of inhabiting a body” (2). Such orientations involve our emotions, which are “directed to what we come into contact with: they move us ‘toward’ and ‘away’ from such objects” (2). We are orientated towards others as well as objects (that is, people as well as things), and our orientations towards others, she continues, “shape the contours of space by affecting relations of proximity and distance between bodies” (3). Ahmed is very interested in what we perceive as being close to us, and what we perceive as being far away; what we move toward, and what we move away from. These questions, she suggests, are important questions in phenomenology, particularly the work of Maurice Merleau-Ponty.

Orientation, Ahmed argues, begins with disorientation (5). We notice orientation through its absence, and that leads to questions about orientation (6). Being oriented in space is about the way we inhabit space with our bodies, about the way we move through space by situating ourselves in relation to the objects in that space (6). For Ahmed, the concept of orientation allows us to rethink the phenomenality of space—“that is, how space is dependent on bodily inhabitance” (6). “Orientation involves aligning body and space: we only know which way to turn once we know which way we are facing,” she writes, and the concepts of alignment and direction are essential to her thinking. So, too, is the concept of familiarity: “[f]amiliarity is shaped by the ‘feel’ of space or by how spaces ‘impress’ upon bodies,” she writes (7). “The work of inhabiting space involves a dynamic renegotiation between what is familiar and unfamiliar, such that it is still possible for the world to create new impressions, depending on which way we turn, which affects are within reach,” she continues (7-8). Along with the way we inhabit space, Ahmed is interested in the way our bodies extend into space; when we extend ourselves into space, what is almost familiar, or almost within reach, is also extended. Being orientated, then, extends the reach of the body. “Orientations are about how we begin,” Ahmed writes: “how we proceed from ‘here,’ which affects how what is ‘there’ appears, how it presents itself” (8). But our central perspective is provided by our own bodies; we begin with our body, the point from which we begin and from which the world unfolds (8). All space, however, is not relative to the subject’s position; some spaces are defined socially (13): “[i]n this book,” Ahmed continues, “I hope to explore what it means for ‘things’ to be orientated, by showing how ‘orientations’ depend on taking points of view as given,” a givenness that is provided by our social horizon(s) (14).

Much of Ahmed’s introduction, then, is about introducing us to the key terms she uses in her book, and perhaps the central concept in her thinking is that of lines: “[t]he lines that allow us to find our way, those that are ‘in front’ of us, also make certain things, and not others, available” (14). Lines are the products of the direction we take, and they exclude possibilities as well as enable them. The lines that we follow also function as forms of alignment, of being in line with others: when we face the direction already faced by others, we are orientated along with them, and this orientation allows our bodies to extend into spaces that have already taken their shape (15). The claim that we face in certain directions and follow certain lines because of ideological interpellation (she cites French Marxist theorist Louis Althusser), Ahmed writes, is a key argument in her book:

the body gets directed in some ways more than others. We might be used to thinking of direction as simply which way we turn, or which way we are facing, at this or that moment in time. Direction then would be a rather casual matter. But what if direction, as the way we face as well as move, is organized rather than casual? We might then speak of collective direction: of ways in which nations and other imagined communities might be “going in a certain direction” or facing the same way, such that only some things “get our attention.” Becoming a member of such a community, then, might also mean following this direction, which could be described as the political requirement that we turn some ways and not others. We follow the line that is followed by others: the repetition of the act of following makes the line disappear from view as the point from which “we” emerge. (15)

Moreover, by turning in particular directions, or moving along particular lines, “the surfaces of bodies in turn acquire their shape. Bodies are ‘directed’ and they take the shape of this direction” (15-16). Those lines are both created by being followed, and followed by being created, Ahmed notes, and the lines that direct us, “as lines of thought as well as lines of motion, are in this way performative: they depend on the repetition of norms and conventions, of routes and paths taken, but they are also created as an effect of this repetition” (16). Following these lines, following the directions they indicate, takes work, but that work is often hidden from view. Nevertheless, the commitment and social investment involved means that the line we follow ends up hewing closely to the lines of our lives: 

We then come to “have a line” which might mean a specific “take” on the world, a set of views and viewing points, as well as a route through the contours of the world, which gives our world its own contours. So we follow the lines, and in following them we become committed to “what” they lead us to as well as “where” they take us. (17)

Because following lines is a form of social investment which promises a return, subjects reproduce the lines that they follow (17). Thinking of the politics of lines leads Ahmed to think about the notion of inheritance, “the lines that are given as our point of arrival into familial and social space,” and reproduction, “the demand that we return the gift by extending the line” (17). “It is not automatic that we reproduce what we inherit, or that we always convert our inheritance into possessions,” Ahmed writes. “We must pay attention to the pressure to make such conversions” (17). We might be hailed or interpellated by a particular line or direction, but we needn’t turn in that direction; we might inherit a particular line or direction, but we needn’t face in that direction or follow that line. Much of Ahmed’s book explores refusals to accept such inheritances.

Following a particular line involves uncertainty, and lines are not always linear: there are forks in the road and different paths to follow, moments of both hope that one is headed in the right direction, and doubt which leads one to want to turn back or give up or look for another path (19). Such moments are not always conscious, Ahmed argues: “At times, we don’t know that we have followed a path, or that the line we have taken is a line that clears our way only by marking out spaces that we don’t inhabit” (19). And yet, she continues, “accidental or chance encounters do happen, and they redirect us and open up new worlds” (19). For Ahmed, such an encounter was her decision to leave her husband and come out as a lesbian. “Such moments can be a gift,” she writes, “or they might be the site of trauma, anxiety, or stress about the loss of an imagined future” (19). They can be disorienting: “disorientation is a way of describing the feelings that gather when we lose our sense of who it is that we are” (20). But moments of disorientation are vital, according to Ahmed: “to live out a politics of disorientation might be to sustain wonder about the very forms of social gathering” (24), a point she returns to in her conclusion.

Ahmed’s second chapter is an exploration and critique of the phenomenological theory, particularly the work of Edmund Husserl, that will make her third and fourth chapters possible. Phenomenology’s radical claim, she writes, is that consciousness is directed toward something; therefore, it is intentional (27). “If consciousness is about how we receive the world ‘around’ us,” she continues, “then consciousness is also embodied, sensitive, and situated” (27). This thesis “can help show us how bodies are directed in some ways and not others, as a way of inhabiting or dwelling in the world” (27). Receiving the world involves perceiving the world, and to perceive something, you need to have taken an orientation toward it: “[t]he object is an effect of towardness; it is the thing toward which I am directed and which in being posited as a thing, as being something or another for me, takes me in some directions rather than others” (27). But perceiving objects also means taking a direction toward them, and that direction is affective: “I might like them, admire them, hate them, and so on. In perceiving them in this way or that, I also take a position upon them, which in turn gives me a position” (27-28). Taking a direction appears to be another way of speaking about orientation, and being oriented towards an object affects what we do and how we inhabit space (28). However, not everything is available to us as an object. Some objects—such as the domestic labour required to maintain Husserl’s example of the table at which he writes—are relegated to the background in order to sustain a particular direction: “in other words, in order to keep attention on what is faced. Perception involves such acts of relegation that are forgotten in the very preoccupation with what it is that is faced” (31). Not everyone can sustain an orientation towards the writing table; such attention involves a political economy, “an uneven distribution of attention time,” and that uneven distribution is part of that background (32). “The objects that we direct our attention toward reveal the direction we have taken in life,” Ahmed writes. “Other objects, and indeed spaces, are relegated to the background; they are only ever co-perceived”—that is, perceived along with other background objects. If phenomenology were to attend to this background, she continues, “it might do so by giving an account of the conditions of emergence for something, which would not necessarily be available in how that thing presents itself to consciousness” (38). Ahmed’s version of phenomenology, in other words, historicizes objects, by attending to how they arrived in the place where they can be perceived. 

That arrival requires at least two entities, a subject and an object, and these have to “co-incide”: the hyphen suggests the way that different things happen at the same moment, “a happening that brings things near to other things, whereby the nearness shapes the shape of each thing” (39). We are affected by objects, and objects are affected by us. But these simultaneous arrivals aren’t necessarily matters of chance: they are at least partially determined (by their histories, it seems), even though that determination doesn’t determine what will happen as a result of their nearness, how the object will be affected by the encounter, or how we will be affected (39). In addition, according to Ahmed, things only become themselves by being cut off from their own arrival—from their histories of arrival, histories that involve multiple forms of contact with others: “Objects appear by being cut off from such histories of arrival, as histories that involve multiple generations, and the ‘work’ of bodies, which is of course the work of some bodies more than others” (41-42). Objects are not neutral or ahistorical, in other words. They have been affected by actions performed on them in the past, actions which have shaped them; and those objects, in turn, shape what we do (43). But such histories are “spectral,” not available on the surface of the object, but rather behind it (44). 

One subset of objects are tools, which are object that allow us to extend our bodies (49). Such extensions allow us to work, but in order for that work to happen, we, along with our tools, need to be orientated, or facing the right way: “in other words,” Ahmed writes, “the objects around the body allow the body itself to be extended. When things are orientated, we are occupied and busy” (51). However, not all objects, or spaces, fit all kinds of bodies:

Objects, as well as spaces, are made for some kinds of bodies more than others. Objects are made to size as well as made to order: while they come in a range of sizes, the sizes also presume certain kinds of bodies as having “sizes” that will “match.” In this way, bodies and their objects tend toward each other; they are oriented toward each other, and are shaped by this orientation. When orientation “works,” we are occupied. The failure of something to work is a matter of a failed orientation: a tool is used by a body for which it was not intended, or a body uses a tool that does not extend its capacity for action. (51)

How we reside in space with objects determines our action, and that means that the relation between action and space is crucial: “spatial relations between subjects and others are produced through actions, which make some things available to be reached” (52). Moreover, our bodies themselves take shape by moving through spaces, and as we move through spaces, objects also move, in the sense that our orientation to them changes (53). “Phenomenology hence shows how objects and others have already left their impressions on the skin surface,” Ahmed writes, and by “skin surface” she means the surface of the skin of the subject who perceives:

The tactile object is what is near me, or what is within my reach. In being touched, the object does not “stand apart”; it is felt “by” the skin and even “on” the skin. In other words, we perceive the object as an object, as something that “has” integrity, and is “in” space, only by haunting that very space; that is, by co-inhabiting space such that the boundary between the co-inhabitants of space does not hold. The skin connects as well as contains. The nonopposition between the bodies that move around objects, and objects around which bodies move, shows us how orientation involve at least a two-way “approach,” or the “more than one” of an encounter. Orientations are tactile and they involve more than one skin surface: we, in approaching this or that table, are also approached by the table, which touches us when we touch it. (54)

What is near us, in other words, is shaped by what we do, and affects what our bodies can do (54). There is also a mutuality in Ahmed’s formulation of the relationship between bodies and objects: they touch each other, which is, I think, a way of reasserting that they affect each other

But bringing objects near to our bodies also involves acts of perception: decisions about what can be brought near to us (55). “Objects are objects insofar as they are within my horizon,” Ahmed contends; “it is in the act of reaching ‘toward them’ that makes them available as objects for me” (55). The bodily horizon, she continues, establishes a line beyond which bodies cannot reach, and that horizon determines what is reachable for us:

what “comes into” view, or what is within our horizon, is not a matter simply of what we find here or there, or even where we find ourselves as we move here or there. What is reachable is determined precisely by orientations that we have already taken. Some objects don’t even become objects of perception, as the body does not move toward them: they are “beyond the horizon” of the body, and thus out of reach. The surfaces of bodies are shaped by what is reachable. Indeed, the history of bodies can be rewritten as the history of the reachable. (55)

This point is central to much of Ahmed’s argument, particularly in relation to sexual orientation. “Orientations are about the direction we take that puts some things and not others in our reach,” she contends. “So the object, which is apprehending only by exceeding my gaze, can be apprehended only insofar as it has come to be available to me: its reachability is not simply a matter of its place or location . . . but instead is shaped by the orientations I have taken that mean I face some ways more than others” (56). 

In other words, our histories, the orientations we have taken, limit the objects we are capable of perceiving. History happens in the repetition of gestures, and such repetitions give bodies their tendencies, which gives them potential orientations:

It is important that we think not only about what is repeated, but also how the repetition of actions takes us in certain directions: we are also orientating ourselves towards some objects more than others, including not only physical objects . . . but also objects of thought, feeling, and judgment, as well as objects in the sense of aims, aspirations, and objectives. (56)

Repetition is not neutral: our bodies are shaped by repetition, and “it orients the body in some ways rather than others” (57). As a result, “we get stuck in certain alignments as an effect of this work” (56). Our bodies acquire orientations through the repetitions of some actions rather than others, and since actions have certain objects in view, the nearness of objects becomes a sign of orientations we have already taken towards the world (58). Action, moreover, also defines the field of inaction, “actions that are possible but that are not taken up, or even actions that are not possible because of what has been taken up”: 

Such histories of action or “take up” shape the bodily horizon of bodies. Spaces are not only inhabited by bodies that “do things,” but what bodies “do” leads them to inhabit some spaces more than others. If spaces extend bodies, then we could say that spaces also extend the shape of the bodies that “tend” to inhabit them. (58)

“The point is simple,” Ahmed writes: “what we ‘do do’ affects what we ‘can do’” (59). Gender is one example. Because gender shapes what we do, and because gender is a factor in how we inhabit some spaces rather than others, it also shapes what we can do. Gender, then, is a bodily orientation, “a way in which bodies get directed by their actions over time” (60). As Ahmed suggests in the following chapters, sexual and racial orientations also shape the way bodies are directed by their actions over time. Even so, other possibilities remain: “bodies can take up spaces that do not extend their shape, which can in turn work to ‘reorientate’ bodies and space” (61). 

This discussion of phenomenological theory informs Ahmed’s discussion of sexual orientation, which she begins with a reflection on what she calls “queer moments” in the work of Merleau-Ponty—moments where the subject has to work to overcome a perception that things are on a slant, rather than oriented according to the vertical axis (65). The relation between the normative and that vertical axis interests Ahmed. The normative, she writes, is “an effect of the repetition of bodily actions over time, which produces what we call a bodily horizon, a space for action, which puts some objects and not others in reach” (66). That notion can be redescribed, she continues, “in terms of the straight body, a body that appears ‘in line’” (66). A straight body is one that is aligned with other lines, and so instead of taking the vertical line as a given, we ought to see it as an effect of this process of alignment (66). “The vertical axis is itself an effect of being ‘in line,” Ahmed argues, “where the line taken by the body corresponds with other lines that are already given. The vertical is hence normative; it is shaped by the repetition of bodily and social actions over time” (66). This claim is important. Bodies that are aligned with the vertical axis (and perhaps also the horizontal one?) are bodies that can extend into space, bodies that appear the right way up, bodies that do not appear out of line. Queer bodies—and Ahmed exploits both senses of the word “queer” throughout her book—are bodies that are not aligned, and such bodies can have a powerful effect:

Importantly, 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 disorientates the picture and even unseats the body. If we consider how space appears along the lines of the vertical axis, then we can begin to see how orientations of the body shape not just what objects are reachable, but also the “angle” on which they are reached. Things look right when the approach us from the right angle. (67)

The problem with this argument, I think, is that the vertical and horizontal axes are not simply matters of perception: they can be determined through the use of a plumb bob or a level. However, the reference to vertical lines is in Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception, and since Ahmed begins with that reference, it’s no surprise that she ends up making this argument. The image of bodies being expected to align themselves with straight lines becomes central to her discussion of queer sexual orientations, which are, according to this model, oblique or slanted, not vertical, not mapped according to a grid of horizontal or vertical lines. As I read this chapter, I found myself wondering why the lines she describes are always straight, never curved, whatever their relationship to that grid—might that not have been a better visual image? Again, by starting with her particular reference to Merleau-Ponty, the image seems to have been predetermined, which is an interesting example of the very phenomena she is describing.

According to Ahmed, sexuality is crucial to the orientation of bodies, and therefore to the way we inhabit spaces; therefore, “the differences between how we are orientated sexually are not only a matter of ‘which’ objects we are orientated toward, but also how we extend through our bodies into the world” (67-68). In other words, it’s about “differences in one’s very relation to the world—that is, in how one ‘faces’ the world or is directed toward it” (68). Different ways of directing our desires, different orientations, mean “inhabiting different worlds” (68). In this chapter of the book, Ahmed states, she wants to rethink the spatiality of sexual orientation by formulating what she calls a “queer phenomenology” (68). That phenomenology, she continues, “might offer an approach to sexual orientation by rethinking how the bodily direction ‘toward’ objects shapes the surfaces of bodily and social space” (68). After all, that’s what phenomenology is about, as the earlier chapters of the book have demonstrated: how the directions we face shape us, and how we are shaped by them, within the context of social or historical space.

Cupid and his arrows are, for Ahmed, a metaphor of the directionality of sexual orientation: Cupid’s arrows travel in lines, lines of desire. “So sexual desire orientates the subject toward some others (and by implication not other others) by establishing a line or direction,” she writes. “Sexual orientation involves following different lines insofar as the others that desire is directed toward are already constructed as the ‘same sex,’ or the ‘other sex.’ It is not simply the object that determines the ‘direction’ of one’s desire; rather, the direction one takes makes some others available as objects to be desired” (69-70). Therefore, she continues, to be directed towards the same sex, or the other sex, “becomes seen as moving along different lines” (70). And, since heterosexuality is normalized and naturalized in our culture, same-sex desire “reaches objects that are not continuous with the line of normal sexual subjectivity (71). Ahmed cites Adrienne rich on compulsory heterosexuality, the institutional practices that require men and women to be heterosexual (84), through which “subjects are required to ‘tend toward’ some objects and not others as a condition of familial as well as social love” (85). Heterosexuality functions as a background, “as that which is behind actions that are repeated over time and with force, and that insofar as it is behind does not come into view” (87). 

In fact, heterosexuality appears to be a function of the prohibitions against same-sex desire in Ahmed’s formulation: “[t]he nearness of objects to each other comes to be lived as what is already given, as a matter of how the domestic is arranged. What puts objects near depends on histories, on how ‘things’ arrive, and on how they gather in their very ability as things to ‘do things’ with” (88). Objects and bodies might seem oblique or slanted, according to Ahmed, but that will be the case “only insofar as they do not follow the line of that which is already given, or that which has already extended in space by being directed in some ways rather than others” (92). For that reason, “[s]paces as well as bodies are the effects of such straightening devices” (92). The notion of straightening devices returns later, in Ahmed’s discussion of racialized bodies.

Homosexuality, for Ahmed, results in the queer subject’s rejection by his or her or their heterosexual family, because it cannot lead to reproducing the gift of heterosexuality. “It is not that the heterosexual subject has to turn away from queer objects in accepting heterosexuality as a parental gift,” Ahmed writes:

compulsory heterosexuality makes such a turning unnecessary (although becoming straight can be lived as a ‘turning away’). Queer objects, which do not allow the subject to approximate the form of the heterosexual couple, may not even get near enough to ‘come into view’ as possible objects to be directed toward. (91)

“The body acts upon what is nearby or at hand,” she continues, “and then gets shaped by its directions toward such objects, which keeps other objects beyond the bodily horizon of the straight subject” (91). I’m not sure I’m understanding Ahmed correctly here, but she seems to be suggesting that heterosexuals are only heterosexual because they have not been able to consider same-sex bodies as objects of desire. That interpretation is strengthened by her suggestion that heterosexuality is a repetitive strain injury that shapes what bodies can do:

Bodies take the shape of norms that are repeated over time and with force. Through repeating some gestures and not others, or through being orientated in some directions and not others, bodies become contorted: they get twisted into shapes that enable some action only insofar as they restrict the capacity for other kinds of action. Compulsory heterosexuality diminishes the very capacity of bodies to reach what is off the straight line. It shapes which bodies one “can” legitimately approach as would-be lovers and which one cannot. In shaping one’s approach to others, compulsory heterosexuality also shapes one’s own body as a congealed history of past approaches. Hence, the failure to orient oneself “toward” the ideal sexual object affects how we live in the world; such a failure is read as a refusal to reproduce and therefore as a threat to the social ordering of life itself. (91)

Perhaps heterosexuality is a repetitive strain injury for someone like Ahmed, who was married to a man before ending that relationship and coming out as a lesbian (a story she tells at the beginning of the book), and if she is describing the experience of others like herself, that’s one thing. If, however, she’s suggesting that heterosexuals are only heterosexual because of the repetition of norms that have established heterosexuality as compulsory, that’s something else. I’m not sure that calling into question the authenticity of heterosexual desire—if that’s what Ahmed is doing—is either useful or true, but I might be misreading her text. I suppose I would have to read Adrienne Rich on compulsory heterosexuality, and Judith Butler on heteronormativity, before I could really understand Ahmed’s argument here. And yet, Ahmed’s discussion of heterosexuality as a form of “contact sexuality” reinforces my reading. She contends that 

straight orientations are shaped by contact with others who are constructed as reachable as love objects by the lines of social and familial inheritance. . . . Indeed, I have suggested that compulsory heterosexuality functions as a background to social action by delimiting who is available to love or ‘who’ we come into contact with. (94-95)

At the same time, she acknowledges “that (luckily) compulsory heterosexuality doesn’t always work” (94), and that many who are hailed or interpellated by compulsory heterosexuality do not turn around to respond (107). I find myself wondering why she grants queer bodies such agency, but apparently denies it to straight bodies. Perhaps I am only asking that question because, as a straight male, I am not a member of Ahmed’s audience—the people whom she imagined while she was writing this chapter. I don’t know.

Both queer bodies and black bodies (Ahmed’s terms, not mine) have difficulty inhabiting spaces that are defined as straight or white: such spaces do not allow those bodies to be extended, because they do not allow those bodies to take their shape. Ahmed begins her chapter on phenomenology and racialized bodies with a quotation from Frantz Fanon about his physical response to meeting the eyes of a white man. “For Fanon,” she writes,

racism “stops” black bodies inhabiting space by extending through objects and others; the familiarity of “the white world,” as a world we know implicitly, “disorients” black bodies such that they cease to know where to find things—reduced as they are to things among things. Racism ensures that the black gaze returns to the black body, which is not a loving return but rather follows the line of the hostile white gaze. The disorientation affected by racism diminishes capacities for action. (111)

“If the world is made white,” she continues, “then the body at home is one that can inhabit whiteness”:

As Fanon’s work shows, after all, bodies are shaped by histories of colonialism, which makes [sic] the world “white” as a world that is inherited or already given. This is the familiar world, the world of whiteness, a world we know implicitly. Colonialism makes the world “white,” which is of course a world “ready” for certain kinds of bodies, as a world that puts certain objects within their reach. Bodies remember such histories, even when we forget them. Such histories, we might say, surface on the body, or even shape how bodies surface. . . . In a way, then, race does become a social as well as a bodily given, or what we receive from others as an inheritance of this history. (111)

In this chapter, Ahmed writes, she wants to reflect on processes of racialization and consider “racism as an ongoing and unfinished history, which orientates bodies in specific directions, affecting how they ‘take up’ space. Such forms of orientation are crucial to how bodies inhabit space, and to the racialization of bodily as well as social space” (111). 

Ahmed begins with an analysis of the spatial formations of Orientalism and the ways that geographic space is orientated such that near and far, or proximity and distance, are associated with specific bodies and places (112). Then she considers how we inherit “the proximities that allow white bodies to extend their reach,” while “such inheritances shape those who do not or cannot ‘possess’ such whiteness” (112). She then explores the effects of racism on bodies that are not white or not quite white, and the way that mixed orientations “might allow us to reinvestigate the ‘alignments’ between body, place, nation and world that allow racial lines to be given” (112). That question is personally important to Ahmed, as the daughter of a Pakistani father and a white English mother. “The ‘matter’ of race is very much about embodied reality,” she writes:

seeing oneself or being seen as white or black or mixed does affect what one “can do,” or even where one can go, which can be redescribed in terms of what is and is not within reach. If we begin to consider what is affective about the “unreachable,” we might even begin the task of making “race” a rather queer matter. (112)

Here, of course, Ahmed is using “queer” to mean “strange” or, as her etymology suggests, “twisted” (67). 

She begins by thinking about the relationship between the words “orientate” and “Orient,” and suggests, following Said, that the Orient is constructed as “not-Europe” (114). The “not-ness” of the Orient,” she writes, “seems to point to another way of being in the world—to a world of romance, sexuality, and sensuality,” as well as its “farness”, its distance from the West, which makes it exotic. The fact that the Orient is an object of desire for the West is complex: “[d]esire confirms that which we are not (the object of desire), while it pushes us toward that ‘not,’ which appears as an object on the horizon, at the edge of our gaze, getting closer even when it is not quite here” (114). This desire for the other can be described as a way to extend the body, according to Ahmed. “The body extends its reach by taking in that which it ‘not’ it, where the ‘not’ involves the acquisition of new capacities and directions—becoming, in other words, ‘not’ simply what I am ‘not’ but what I can ‘have’ and ‘do.’ The ‘not me’ is incorporated into the body, extending its reach” (115). This incorporation is certainly a feature in the history of the Orient, at least since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and the discovery of oil in the Middle East.

But Ahmed goes on to distinguish between being oriented toward something, in the sense of desiring it, and orientated around something, in the sense of making that thing central, at the centre of one’s being or action (116). “The Orient here would be the object toward which we are directed, as an object of desire,” she writes. “By being directed toward the Orient, we are orientated ‘around’ the Occident. Or, to be more precise, the Occident coheres as that which we are organized around through the very direction of our gaze toward the Orient” (116). The Orient is both far away and reachable, and it can therefore be brought home and domesticated, while still being defined by difference (116-17). “The object function of the Orient, then, is not simply a sign of the presence of the West—of where it ‘finds its way’—but also a measure of how the West has ‘directed’ its time, energy, and resources,” she continues (117). “We could even say that Orientalism involves a form of ‘world facing,’” Ahmed suggests, “that is, a way of gathering things around so they ‘face’ a certain direction” (118). In that way, Orientalism involves phenomenal space: “it is a matter of how bodies inhabit spaces through shared orientations” (118). The Orient as the desired other, then, is part of what helps the West define itself, by directing its citizens’ attention toward a shared object, creating a collective force, a collective that takes shape through the repetition of the act of facing, of putting one in line with others (119). 

How, Ahmed asks, does this help us retheorize the orientation of Orientalism? “To direct one’s gaze and attention toward the other, as an object of desire, is not indifferent, neutral, or casual: we can redescribe ‘towardness’ as energetic,” she answers:

In being directed toward others, one acts, or is committed to specific actions, which point toward the future. When bodies share an object of desire, one could say they have an “affinity” or they are going in “the same direction.” Furthermore, the affinity of such bodies involves identification: in being directed toward a shared object, as a direction that is repeated over time, they are also orientated around a shared object. So, for instance, in being directed toward the oriental object or other, they may be oriented around “the West,” as what the world coheres around. Orientalism, in other words, would involve not just making imaginary distinctions between the West and the Orient, but would also shape how bodies cohere, by facing in the same direction. Objects become objects only as an effect of the repetition of this tending “toward” them, which produces the subject as that which the world is “around.” The orient is then “orientated”; it is reachable as an object given how the world takes shape “around” certain bodies. (120)

As I read this passage, I wondered whether something similar might be said about First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people in Canada. To what extent are those nations objects of Canada’s desire? To what extent does Canada cohere—to the extent that it does cohere—around those nations as objects? Could we produce a phenomenology of Canadian orientations towards First Nations, Métis, and Inuit people that would generate a similar result to Ahmed’s phenomenology of Orientalism? I would love to read something that addresses those questions, with or without the phenomenological flavour. The paper David Garneau gave on the Indian Pavillion at Expo 67 at the University of Regina on Friday afternoon gestured in that direction, but that wasn’t his primary focus.

Next, Ahmed turns to the reproduction of whiteness. She writes, “spaces become racialized by how they are directed or orientated, as a direction that follows a specific line of desire” (120), and that racialization includes whiteness. “The alignment of race and space is crucial to how they materialize as givens, as if each ‘extends’ the other,” she continues:

In other words, while “the other side of the world” is associated with “racial otherness,” racial others become associated with the “other side of the world.” They come to embody distance. This embodiment of distance is what makes whiteness “proximate,” as the “starting point” for orientation. Whiteness becomes what is “here,” a line from which the world unfolds, which also makes what is “there” on “the other side.” (121)

Echoing her earlier comments regarding straightening devices, Ahmed suggests that whiteness is more than just a straight line against which nonwhite bodies are seen as oblique or askew. Rather, “whiteness is ‘attributed’ to bodies as if it were a property of bodies; one way of describing this process is to describe whiteness as a straightening device” (121). Whiteness gets reproduced, she continues, “through acts of alignment, which are forgotten when we receive its line,” especially through the white family—not in a biological sense, but through the cultural expectation that children resemble their parents, even if they look quite different (121-22). Whiteness is therefore a form of bodily inheritance, but one based on expectations of “shared attributes,” which are taken up, retrospectively, as evidence of family or even community linkages (122). Another way to think about the relationship between inheritance and likeness, Ahmed writes, is to consider that “we inherit proximities (and hence orientations) as our points of entry into a familial space, as ‘a part’ of a new generation. Such an inheritance in turn generates ‘likeness’” (123). The notion of likeness or resemblance between parents and children is therefore an effect of proximity (nearness) or contact, which is then taken up as a sign of biological inheritance, rather than likeness or resemblance being the cause of that proximity (123). Moreover, while proximity is inherited, that inheritance can be refused and does not determine any future course of action (123). “Rather than thinking about the question of inheritance in terms of nature versus nature, or biology versus culture, we should be thinking in terms of contingency or contact (touch),” Ahmed writes (124). “[T]hings are shaped by their proximity to other things, whereby this proximity itself is inherited in the sense that it is the condition of our arrival into the world” (124). 

This is a difficult argument to understand, because it resists our commonsense notions of family resemblances as having a biological basis, and I wonder if Ahmed doesn’t push it too far. I look very much like my father, for example, and I don’t think it is because of proximity or contact, but because I have inherited genetic characteristics from him. Perhaps Ahmed is merely talking about whiteness as an inheritance, though. “In the case of race, we would say that bodies come to be seen as ‘alike’—for instance, ‘sharing whiteness’ as a ‘characteristic,’ as an effect of such proximities, where certain ‘things’ are already ‘in place’” (124). Those things, perhaps, include the expectation that children will resemble their parents, in a racialized sense, and Ahmed’s argument seems to be that those expectations are constructed on the basis of proximity. At least, I think that’s the argument. I find it very hard to follow.

The question of inheritance and whiteness as a social phenomenon is clearer than Ahmed’s discussion of family resemblances. “To inherit whiteness is to become invested in the line of whiteness: it is both to participate in it and to transform the body into a ‘part’ of it, as if each body is another ‘point’ that accumulates to extend the line,” she writes. “Whiteness becomes a social inheritance: in receiving whiteness as a gift, white bodies—or those bodies that can be recognized as white bodies—come to ‘possess’ whiteness as if it were a shared attribute” (125). But for Ahmed, inheritance can be rethought in terms of orientations:

we inherit the reachability of some objects, those that are “given” to us or at least are made available to us within the family home. I am not suggesting here that “whiteness” is one such “reachable object” but rather that whiteness is an orientation that puts certain things within reach. By objects, we would include not just physical objects, but also styles, capacities, aspirations, techniques, even worlds. In putting certain things in reach, a world acquires it[s] shape; the white world is a world orientated “around” whiteness. This world, too, is “inherited” as a dwelling: it is a world shaped by colonial histories, which affect not simply how maps are drawn, but the kinds of orientations we have toward objects and others. Race becomes, in this model, a question of what is within reach, what is available to perceive and to do “things” with. (126)

This quotation reminds me of Peggy McIntosh’s essay on white privilege, in which she argues, “White privilege is like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks” ([10]). What is different about Ahmed’s version, though, is the notion that along with inheriting whiteness, white people inherit colonial histories that shape their orientations, the directions they face and the things they are able to perceive—and the things they cannot perceive, like whiteness itself, which forms part of the background of a white person’s life, even as it circulates in political and affective economies, generating rates of return for bodies that are considered to be white (129).

Ahmed argues that whiteness is a habit, not unlike her claim that heterosexuality is the product of repetition:

We might be used to thinking of bodies as “having” habits, usually bad ones. We could even describe whiteness as a bad habit: as a series of actions that are repeated, forgotten, and that allow some bodies to take up space by restricting the mobility of others. I want to explore here how public spaces take shape through the habitual actions of bodies, such that the contours of space could be described as habitual. I turn to the concept of habits to theorize not so much how bodies acquire their shape, but how spaces acquire the shape of the bodies that “inhabit” them. We could think about the “habit” in the “inhabit.” (129)

The habitual can be thought of as a bodily and spatial form of inheritance, because we acquire our tendencies—“the repetition of the tending toward is what identity ‘coheres’ around,” Ahmed writes—from what we inherit (129). “To describe whiteness as a habit, as second nature, is to suggest that whiteness is what bodies do, where the body takes the shape of the action,” she continues. “Such habits are not ‘exterior’ to bodies, as things that can be ‘put on’ or ‘taken off.’ If habits are about what bodies do, in ways that are repeated, then they might shape what bodies can do” (129-30). That shaping doesn’t only affect what such bodies can do, but it also restricts their possibilities for action as well (130).

Moreover, because habits are actions we perform without thinking about them, the body itself is habitual because when it performs actions repeatedly, “it does not command attention, apart from the ‘surface’ where it ‘encounters’ an external object” (130). “In other words,” Ahmed continues, “the body is habitual insofar as it ‘trails behind’ in the performing of an action, insofar as it does not pose ‘a problem’ or an obstacle to the action, or it is not ‘stressed’ by ‘what’ the action encounters” (130). In other words, the habitual body is behind the action, in the background (131), which suggests that whiteness itself is in the background, something that is a given that does not have our attention:

White bodies are habitual insofar as they “trail behind” actions: they do not get “stressed” in their encounters with objects or others, as their whiteness “goes unnoticed.” Whiteness lags behind such bodies. White bodies do not have to face their whiteness; they are not orientated “toward” it, and this “not” is what allows whiteness to cohere, as that which bodies are orientated around. By not having to encounter being white as an obstacle, given that whiteness is “in line” with what is already given, bodies that pass as white move easily, and this motility is extended by what they move toward. The white body in this way expands; objects, tools, instruments, and even “others” allow that body to inhabit space by extending that body and what it can reach. Whiteness becomes habitual in the sense that white bodies extend their reach by incorporating objects that are within reach. To make this point simply: what is “within reach” also “extends the reach” of such bodies. (132)

“Whiteness is only invisible for those who inhabit it, or for those who get so used to its inhabitance that they learn not to see it, even when they are not in it,” Ahmed writes (133). Spaces become shaped by and orientated around whiteness, particularly institutional spaces, like universities (132-33). “It is not just that there is a desire for whiteness that leads to white bodies getting in,” Ahmed writes; “rather, whiteness is what the institution is orientated ‘around,’ so that even bodies that might not appear white still have to inhabit ‘whiteness’ if they are to get ‘in’” (134).

Being orientated in this way, for white people, is to feel at home in the world. It is to feel a certain comfort, something we only notice when we lose it and become uncomfortable (134). “To be comfortable is to be so at ease with one’s environment that it is hard to distinguish where one’s body ends and the world begins,” Ahmed contends. “One fits, and in the act of fitting, the surfaces of bodies disappear from view. White bodies are comfortable as they inhabit spaces that extend their shape. The bodies and spaces ‘point’ toward each other, as a ‘point’ that is not seen as it is also ‘the point’ from which we see” (134-35). However, Ahmed is not arguing that whiteness has its own ontological force. It is not something with substance. Nor is it reducible to white skin or even to something we can have or be. After all, nonwhite bodies do inhabit white spaces, although as they do so, they either become invisible or hypervisible. “You learn to fade into the background,” she writes, “but sometimes you cannot. The moments when the body appears ‘out of place’ are moments of political and personal trouble” (135). However, even white bodies can be “out of line” with the institutions they inhabit, particularly if those bodies are queer, or deviate from the vertical axis in some other way (136-37). 

Because they are comfortable in the world, white bodies move with comfort through space, and to experience the world as if it were home (136). “Bodies that are not restricted by racism, or by other technologies used to ensure that space is given to some rather than others,” Ahmed writes, “are bodies that don’t have to come up against the limitations of this fantasy of motility. Such bodies are both shaped by motility, and they may even take the shape of that motility” (136). Whiteness is also a straightening device: “bodies disappear into the ‘sea of whiteness’ when they ‘line up’ with the vertical and horizontal lines of social reproduction, which allows bodies to extend their reach” (137). In fact, whiteness becomes the universal definition of what is human, and so not to be white is to inhabit the negative, the “not,” which for Ahmed is a way of describing “the social and existential realities of racism” (139). “If Merleau-Ponty’s model of the body in Phenomenology of Perception is about ‘motility,’ expressed in the hopefulness of the utterance, ‘I can,’” she continues, “Fanon’s phenomenology of the black body could be described in terms of the bodily and social experience of restriction, uncertainty, and blockage, or perhaps even in terms of the despair of the utterance ‘I cannot’” (139). For Merleau-Ponty, that is, the body is successful if it is able to extend itself through objects in order to act on and in the world, but Fanon reveals that this success is a bodily form of privilege, rather than competence (139). “To be black or not white in ‘the white world,’” Ahmed argues, “is to turn back toward oneself, to become an object, which means not only being extended by the contours of the world, but being diminished as an effect of the bodily extensions of others” (139). 

As I’ve suggested, Ahmed is a mixed-race person, and she suggests that there is “something queer” about that orientation, something that produces discomfort, which paradoxically “allows things to move” (154). Such discomfort is what a queer genealogy would produce: through the affective possibilities of coming into contact with objects that reside on different lines, such a genealogy would open up new kinds of connection. “As we know,” she writes,

things are kept apart by such lines: they make some proximities not impossible, but dangerous. And yet, mixing does happen, and lines to not always direct us. A queer genealogy would be full of such ordinary proximities. This would not be about the meeting point between two lines that would simply create new lines . . . but rather about the “crossing” of existing lines in the very failure to return to them. After all, the gap between what one receives and what one becomes is opened up as an effect of how things arrive and of the “mixtures” of any arrival. This is not to say that some bodies necessarily acquire such orientations as effects of their own arrival. Rather it is to say that the unsettling effect of such arrivals is what allows that which has been received to be noticeable. We don’t always know what might be unsettling; what might make the lines that that direct us more noticeable as lines in one moment or another. But once unsettled it might be impossible to return, which of course means that we turn somewhere else, as a turning that might open up different horizons. (154-55)

As a descendant of settlers, I find the word “unsettling” very thought-provoking. What can unsettle a settler? For me, discovering the history of the place where I grew up—the fact that the land on which I was raised was stolen from the Haudenosaunee—was unsettling. And I have found it impossible to return to what I was before that unsettling experience. I feel the same way about learning about the nature of Treaty Four, the agreement between the Cree and Saulteaux people, on the one hand, and the federal government, on the other. For the Cree and Saulteaux Chiefs who negotiated that treaty, it was supposed to establish kinship relations with the newcomers, and to constitute an agreement to share the land; for the government negotiators, it was a land surrender—even though there’s no evidence that they told the Indigenous negotiators that the treaty would mean surrendering their land. That is another unsettling experience. And those unsettling experiences have opened up new horizons and lines of inquiry for me. The question, though, is how to translate those unsettling experiences into decolonization, given what seems to be the overwhelming power of whiteness. How does one refuse the twin inheritances of whiteness and colonialism, while still being a white settler living on stolen land? Isn’t that what decolonizing, for settlers, would entail? Ahmed seems to suggest that such refusals are possible (155), but I wonder if she means that white bodies can refuse those inheritances. Such a refusal would, she writes, reorient “our” relation to whiteness (155)—but who is included within that plural pronoun? Who is Ahmed’s audience?

In her conclusion, Ahmed suggests that moments of disorientation are vital, even though they are unsettling. In phenomenology, disorientation is followed by reorientation or realignment (159). But what happens if the disorientation cannot be overcome by the force of the vertical (159)? From Fanon, we learn about the experience of disorientation, of being an object among objects, of being shattered, “of being cut into pieces by the hostility of the white gaze” (160). “Disorientation,” Ahmed writes,

can be a bodily feeling of losing one’s place, and an effect of the loss of a place: it can be a violent feeling, and a feeling that is affected by violence, or shaped by violence directed toward the body. Disorientation involves failed orientations: bodies that inhabit spaces that do not extend their shape, or use objects that do not extend their reach. At this moment of failure, such objects “point” somewhere else or they make what is “here” become strange. Bodies that do not follow the line of whiteness, for instance, might be “stopped” in their tracks, which does not simply stop one from getting somewhere, but changes one’s relation to what is “here.” Where such lines block rather than enable action they become points that accumulate stress, or stress points. Bodies can even take the shape of such stress, as points of social and physical pressure that can be experienced as a physical press on the surface of the skin. (160)

In those moments of disorientation, objects slip away or retreat and become strange, as they do for the narrator of Jean-Paul Sartre’s novel, Nausea (165-66). And yet, returning to the theme of sexual orientation, Ahmed suggests that disorientation can be a positive thing. It is possible, she argues, to 

face the objects that retreat, and become strange in the face of their retreat, with a sense of hope. In facing what retreats with hope, such a queer politics would also look back to the conditions of arrival. We look back, in other words, as a refusal to inherit, as a as a refusal that is a condition for the arrival of queer. To inherit the past in the world for queers would be to inherit one’s own disappearance. . . . The task is to trace the lines for a different genealogy, one that would embrace the failure to inherit the family line as a condition of possibility for another way of dwelling in the world. (178)

This queer response to disorientation is also a form of queer politics that would be defined by both joy and hope for the future (178). To be queer is not to follow a line, but rather to ask “what our orientation toward queer moments of deviation will be,” and a queer phenomenology “would involve an orientation toward queer, a way of inhabiting the world by giving ‘support’ to those whose lives and loves make them appear oblique, strange, and out of place” (179). It’s clear that Ahmed is using the word “queer” to refer to sexual orientation here, but I wonder if it would be possible to use that word in its more general sense. Would it be possible, by refusing (or trying to refuse) the inheritance of colonialism and whiteness, to attempt a different kind of queer politics? It’s hard to say.

Queer Phenomenology is an important book, an engaged critique, theorization, and application of phenomenological ideas that provides a way to think about issues related to the body (and therefore embodiment) and space. The next logical step, I know, would be to turn to Merleau-Ponty’s The Phenomenology of Perception, but that’s a big book—some 600 pages of text and footnotes—and it might be wiser to leave it for the spring, when I won’t be teaching or taking a language class. I recently saw a quotation from Phil Smith’s Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways recently, and it seems to use phenomenology to think about walking, but although I thought I had a copy, it turns out that I don’t. So I could turn to Tim Ingold’s book about lines, following Ahmed’s preoccupation with that image, while I’m waiting for Smith’s book to arrive. I’m not sure. I am sure, though, that I will return to this book in the future, both in an attempt to clarify the points where I was confused by Ahmed’s argument, and to answer the questions I still have about how her argument might be applied to my own research. 

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Duke UP, 2006.

McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” Peace and Freedom, July-August 1989, pp. 10-12. https://psychology.umbc.edu/files/2016/10/White-Privilege_McIntosh-1989.pdf.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The Phenomenology of Perception, translated by Donald A. Landes, Routledge, 2013.

Smith, Phil. Mythogeography: A Guide to Walking Sideways. Triarchy, 2014.