Ahmed, Sara. Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others. Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.
In this project, Ahmed is asking what it would mean to consider orientation as a phenomenological question. This project hinges on the idea of orientation not as a preference for particular bodies or an identity, as we typically think of it, but as literal orientation (having our lives organized around) particular objects. To consider orientation as a phenomenological question then means thinking about how the objects we are oriented towards (or conversely, those that we have at our back) actively shape our bodies while likewise being shaped by our bodies. Ahmed introduces the idea of queer phenomenology both as something that queers phenomenology as a philosophical movement (that is, challenges the normative assumptions built into phenomenology) and as that which is focused on what’s at the back of the philosopher—looking towards those objects which slant the usual orientation, which take us off the straight and narrow.
In the introduction, Ahmed introduces the idea of thinking about orientation literally and that being oriented towards certain objects sets forth certain paths that we can take in life—the objects we organize our attention around shape our lives. She also introduces the idea that this happens on a systemic level where being oriented towards straight objects is meant to put us on “the straight and narrow” path towards heterosexuality. In the first chapter, “Orientations Towards Objects,” takes up foundational texts in phenomenology to highlight the white, heterosexist, masculinist assumptions built into phenomenology’s discussion of orientations towards particular objects (for instance, Husserl’s writing table). Ahmed also discusses the way that objects and bodies are shaped by the particular spaces that they occupy or take for granted (like the familial home) and the invisible labor that goes into making certain spaces and objects available for particular uses. In the second chapter, “Sexual Orientations,” Ahmed argues that we become straight by inheriting orientations towards particular objects through the family which are meant to put us on the path to repay our inheritance through building a heterosexual life, which means that queer life is not just a matter of trading one kind of body for another but of totally reorienting ourselves in the world and finding new ways to redirect our attention. The third chapter, “The Orient and Others,” argues that this orientation towards objects also becomes racialized, so that whiteness is continually reproduced through an orientation towards the Orient which takes whiteness (and the West) for granted. (This chapter was a bit more confusing than the others.)
Taking up “orientation” literally makes a lot of sense, especially in the idea that certain orientations point us towards particular life paths and encourage us to take for granted other lives that make those paths possible (they become invisible because we have our backs to them). I also appreciate that in this discussion, objects do not have inherent meaning or value, but rather that there is a dynamic movement of influence, objects shaping our lives and our bodies shaping the objects we come into contact with—we become, in a sense, coextensive. Ahmed’s concluding thought about disorientation as the moment in which bodies are turned into objects—a moment that happens to certain bodies more than others—works nicely to express what is at stake in thinking about orientations. The thing I struggle with is that Ahmed’s discussion of heterosexuality as a social inheritance seems to suggest that the reason that queer life is frowned upon is primarily because it’s not reproductive. To me, this seems like it has to be an oversimplification of Ahmed’s work, but there is no point at which she directly suggests otherwise.
“Depending on which way one turns, different worlds might even come into view. If such turns are repeated over time, then bodies acquire the very shape of such direction. It is not, then, that bodies simply have a direction, or that they follow directions, in moving this way or that. Rather, in moving this way, rather than that, and moving in this way again and again, the surfaces of bodies in turn acquire their shape. Bodies are ‘directed’ and they take the shape of this direction.” (15-16)
“The promise of interdisciplinary scholarship is that the failure to return texts to their histories will do something.” (22)
“We can think, in other words, of the background not simply in terms of what is around what we face, as the ‘dimly perceived,’ but as produced by acts of relegation: some things are relegated to the background in order to sustain a certain direction; in other words, in order to keep attention on what is faced.” (31)
“What makes bodies different is how they inhabit space: space is not a container for the body; it does not contain the body as if the body were ‘in it.’ Rather bodies are submerged, such that they become the space they inhabit; in taking up space, bodies move through space and are affected by the ‘where’ of that movement. It is through this movement that the surface of spaces as well as bodies takes shape.” (53)
“[W]hiteness may function as a form of public comfort by allowing bodies to extend into spaces that have already taken their shape. Those spaces are lived as being comfortable as they allow bodies to fit in; the surfaces of social space are already impressed upon by the shape of such bodies.” (135)
“If whiteness allows bodies to move with comfort through space, and to inhabit the world as if it were home, then those bodies take up more space. Such physical motility becomes social mobility.” (136)