When I hear people say “the bad feeling” is coming from “this person” or “that person” I am never convinced. I am sure a lot of my skepticism is shaped by childhood experiences of being the feminist daughter in a conventional family home. Say, we are seated at the dinner table. Around this table, the family gathers, having polite conversations, where only certain things can be brought up. Someone says something you find problematic. You respond carefully, perhaps. You might be speaking quietly, but you are beginning to feel “wound up,” recognizing with frustration that you are being wound up by someone who is winding you up. Let us take seriously the figure of the feminist killjoy. Does the feminist kill other people’s joy by pointing out moments of sexism? Or does she expose the bad feelings that get hidden, displaced or negated under public signs of joy? The feminist is an affect alien; not only is she not made happy by the objects that are supposed to cause happiness, but her failure to be happy is read as sabotaging the happiness of others.

We can place the figure of the feminist kill joy alongside the angry black woman, explored by black feminist writers such as Audre Lorde and bell hooks. The angry black woman could also be described as a kill-joy; she may even kill feminist joy, for example, by pointing out forms of racism within feminist politics. bell hooks describes for us how the arrival of a woman of color disturbs a shared atmosphere: “a group of white feminist activists who do not know one another may be present at a meeting to discuss feminist theory. They may feel bonded on the basis of shared womanhood, but the atmosphere will noticeably change when a woman of color enters the room. The white women will become tense, no longer relaxed, no longer celebratory.”

It is not just that feelings are “in tension,” but that the tension is located somewhere: in being felt by some bodies, it is attributed as caused by another body, who thus comes to be felt as apart from the group, as getting in the way of its presumed organic enjoyment and solidarity. The body of color is attributed as the cause of becoming tense, which is also the loss of a shared atmosphere. hooks shows how as a feminist of color you do not even have to say anything to cause tension. The mere proximity of some bodies involves an affective conversion. To get along you have to go along with things that might mean for some not even being able to enter the room. We learn from this example how histories are condensed in the very intangibility of an atmosphere, or in the tangibility of the bodies that seem always to “get in the way” of the happiness of others.

In calling for the freedom to be unhappy, I am thus not saying queers must be unhappy in the sense of feeling sad or wretched, or that queer politics demands our unhappiness. I am not saying that unhappiness becomes necessary. I would say that unhappiness is always possible, which makes the necessity of happiness an exclusion not just of unhappiness but of possibility. The history of happiness is not simply about the description of unhappiness as the failure to be happy in the right way; it is also about the exclusion of the hap from happiness, as the exclusion of possibility and chance. I now think of queer movements as hap movements rather than happiness movements. It is not about the unhappy ones becoming the happy ones. Revolutionary forms of political consciousness involve heightening our awareness of just how much there is to be unhappy about. Yet this does not mean unhappiness becomes our political cause. In refusing to be constrained by happiness, we can open up other ways of being, of being perhaps.

“Happiness and Queer Politics”
Sara Ahmed