Monday, September 23, 2013

Vegan Feminist Killjoys (another willful subject)

Sara Ahmed has an important essay, "Feminist Killjoys and Other Willful Subjects", which is also part of her book, The Promise of Happiness.

The feminist killjoy is an "affect alien" who does feel happiness when it is socially enforced to feel happiness.[1]  "A killjoy: the one who gets in the way of other people's happiness. Or just the one who is in the way—you can be in the way of whatever, if you are already perceived as being in the way. Your very arrival into a room is a reminder of histories that  'get in the way' of the occupation of that room." The feminist killjoy cannot just take a joke, or is always going on again, as in, 'there she goes again, talking about sexism'. But this alienation from proper affect is also an insight, "To become alienated from a picture can allow you to see what that picture does not and will not reflect." And, as Ahmed goes on to explain, "The word "dissidence" for instance derives from the Latin dis—"apart" + sedere "to sit." The dissident is the one who sits apart. Or the dissident is the one would be unseated by taking up a place at the table: your seat is the site of disagreement." And Ahmed puts all of this in context of upsetting the dinner table. I think you already see where this is going, this being one of those blog posts that almost write themselves. The vegan (or indeed the vegetarian, or anyone whose diet seeks compassion or justice for other animals) is one of Ahmed's willful subjects, one of those whose very presence becomes a source of conflict and uncomfortableness.

As Ahmed points out:
To be involved in political activism is thus to be involved in a struggle against happiness. Even if we are struggling for different things, even if we have different worlds we want to create, we might share what we come up against. Our activist archives are thus unhappy archives. Just think of the labor of critique that is behind us: feminist critiques of the figure of "the happy housewife;" Black critiques of the myth of "the happy slave"; queer critiques of the sentimentalisation of heterosexuality as "domestic bliss." The struggle over happiness provides the horizon in which political claims are made.
We can add so easily in the vegan critique of the idyllic farm and happy meat. The vegan is expected to not make waves if some small parts of animal products end up their food, hell, the vegetarian is expected to be okay with chicken stock in their food. Not to eat food would be rude to the hosts. To not be rude is one of the major critiques against vegetarianism and veganism. As BR Myers points out:

One must never spoil a dinner party for mere religious or ethical reasons. Pollan says he sides with the French in regarding “any personal dietary prohibition as bad manners.” (The American foodie is forever projecting his own barbarism onto France.) Bourdain writes, “Taking your belief system on the road—or to other people’s houses—makes me angry.” The sight of vegetarian tourists waving away a Vietnamese pho vendor fills him with “spluttering indignation.” That’s right: guests have a greater obligation to please their host—and passersby to please a vendor—than vice versa. (here). 
It is, indeed, the vegan's refusal to just get along that is justified for so much hatred. However, as any vegetarian or vegan will tell you, it matters little how polite you are. Your very being there disturbs everyone. "An attribution of willfulness involves the attribution of negative affect to those bodies that get in the way, those bodes that 'go against the flow' in the way they are going. The attribution of willfulness is thus effectively a charge of killing joy." (As a side note, you can see how this concept from Ahmed is a pretty effective critique of grounding our politics in spinozian conatus). As someone who became a vegetarian as a teenager in south Georgia, let me tell you, no one wants you over for dinner. It doesn't matter how much you apologize, how much you stammer that it is about environment and personal aesthetics and whatever, and it certainly doesn't matter how much you don't bring it up--it will be brought up for you, you will be challenged, and most likely made fun of. Years of dealing with such abuse is what politicized me. After all, if it really was a small personal affectation and minor environmental move, it certainly wasn't worth putting up with this much shit, and if it wasn't, that meant I needed to be more serious about it politically.
My experience as a feminist daughter in a conventional family taught me a great deal about rolling eyes. You already know this. However you speak, the one who speaks up as a feminist is usually viewed as "causing the argument," as the one who is disturbing the fragility of peace. To be willful is to provide a point of tension. Willfulness is stickiness: it is an accusation that sticks. If to be attributed as willful is to be the cause of the problem, then we can claim that willfulness as a political cause.
Every feminist, every anti-racist, every queer theorist, every animal scholar, every person who has ever seriously engaged with the vicissitudes of identity and justice are all sick and tired of being that woman. Trust me, I know I am sick of being that guy. The one at the seminar or conference, after an anthropocentric and unsupportable point is made (we are humans because we play, or write sonnets, or whatever the idiocy is), and I sigh and raise my hand and they don't want me to be that guy, but trust me, I don't want to be that guy even more. It gets so bad that other people make me into that guy even when I am not being. I was at a recent conference, and I was asking a question not at all about animals or anthropocentrism, and the speaker decided my question was setting her up about animals and started answering a question totally different than the one I asked. Of course, is that persistence, that constantly being that person even though no one, especially you, wants to be that person that makes you willful.
We can make sense of how willfulness comes up, if we consider a typical definition of willfulness: "asserting or disposed to assert one's own will against persuasion, instruction, or command; governed by will without regard to reason; determined to take one's own way; obstinately self-willed or perverse" (OED). To be called obstinate or perverse because you are not persuaded by the reason of others? Is this familiar to you? Have you heard this before? When you are charged with willfulness it is as if your being is an insistence on being, a refusal to give way, to give up, to give up your way.
The vegan activist and the animal scholar are killjoys and affect aliens, ones who sit apart at tables. I have argued elsewhere that such sitting apart can allow us to build new communities and new commons. I still believe that. However, it is important to note that such communities often produce their own normalizations of affects that are suppose to make you happy. A feminist vegan, an anti-racist vegan, etc (and always most importantly the et cetera) can as easily disturb the normative happiness of the vegan community as they can other communities. Our willful subjects can be turned against others, to not hear for the thousandth time how our campaigns are sexist, racist, and exclusionary. We are affect aliens, and affect aliens walk among us. And our community, especially in its most public manifestations, are no better dealing with these affect aliens. I am sorry, really I am, to end on such a negative, killjoy note.