Critical Questions: Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion
In Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion (see in particular Chapter 6 entitled “In The Name of Love”), she asks what it means to “stand for love by standing alongside some others and against other others?” (122). Racist hate group propaganda, such as on the Aryan Nations’ Website, often calls itself by another name, advocating love rather than hate, ironically smothering over its violent hate crimes with hate speech that presents itself as love for the unity of its people: “Love is narrated as the emotion that energises the work of such groups; it is out of love that the group seeks to defend the nation against others, whose presence then becomes defined as the origin of hate” (122-123). According to this backwards schema, critics of hate groups become those who hate; take, for instance, pro-choice supporters being defined as “baby killers,” as those who hate rather than those who protect the reproductive rights of women. A recent hate group performance my sister experienced on her college campus (to our shock and horror) takes the discursive violence of hate speech (which as Judith Butler argues in Excitable Speech too easily slides into material violence) to an entirely new level.
So, I begin with the question:
What are the politics at stake when graphic images of traumatic histories, and the profound emotions attached to them, are co-opted and exploited by disturbing ideological agendas?
“The Genocide Awareness Project” and the Politics of Hate Masquerading as Love
To reference the project here discussed, you may visit this site but please be aware that it contains highly graphic, disturbing images of holocaust and genocide, and moreover, these images are appropriated for the “pro-life” cause (and ironically but all too fittingly, woman’s body is entirely absent from the scene). I am warning you because this project disturbed me to the point of an emotional turned physical response (I was nauseous, sleepless), so I am not even sure I should be sharing it with others. Ultimately, though, I cannot remain silent on the issue:
According to its mission statement, “The Genocide Awareness Project (GAP) is a traveling photo-mural exhibit which compares the contemporary genocide of abortion to historically recognized forms of genocide.” As I mentioned, this exhibit recently visited my sister’s campus of Ohio State University, and we consequently discussed the shock she felt upon seeing these images, the shock others felt, as well as necessary action taken against this group (Planned Parenthood Action Network, for instance, took a powerful stand against the grotesque injustice of this so-called awareness project). The images she saw that day are profoundly disturbing:
One image, for example, juxtaposes starving children in Nazi death camps, the lynching of an African-American in the South, and an aborted fetus. And yet, GAP’s mission statement continues: “It is our policy to treat everyone who approaches the GAP display with respect [. . .] We know that the images we display are not pleasant. They represent an injustice of such magnitude that words alone fail us. Until injustice is recognized, however, it cannot be eradicated.” Ironically, the “injustice” to which they refer is not pertaining to the displayed atrocious acts of historical genocide, racism, and Nazism but rather—abortion. Their violent shock tactics, in attempting to draw historical parallels between abortion and genocide by arguing that unborn embryos and fetuses are being targeted for “systematic destruction,” are such an obscene Human Rights violation on so many levels it seems nearly impossible, or futile, to even begin to unpack the layers of destruction and trauma to individuals subjected against their own will to GAP’s brutal imagery. The discourse of Human Rights thus takes an affective turn: how can we understand such violations to be not just physical and political, but also emotional?
As a feminist, I feel deeply angered by these “pro-life” performances, but I cannot even begin to imagine how this would feel to a woman who has had to make an undoubtedly emotional and painful (to say the least) decision to have an abortion when that was ultimately the right (or necessary) choice for her. Further, what if this woman is Jewish? Or African-American? Not only is she visually assaulted with violent images from her own personal and cultural past, but the juxtaposition actually suggests she is the perpetrator, not victim, of historical atrocities? I am outraged at the endless layers of this violent imagery, how wholly disturbing not only for women, for pro-choice advocates, but particularly for those who have suffered actual genocides... summoning the specter of the Holocaust and America’s racist history of internal genocide through graphic spectacular violence. GAP conjures up all of this, in the name of the woman-bashing Right’s efforts to abstract the body of the child (the fetus) from the body of the invisible woman (in effect privileging paternity, as Peggy Phelan argues in Unmarked).
Both Sara Ahmed (in her article “Affective Economies”) and Judith Butler (in Precarious Life) discuss the ways in which former President Bush summoned the “feminist cause” in order to push his not so cleverly concealed belligerent war agenda in the guise of bringing so-called democracy, with its attendant liberation of all women, to the Global South. I emphasize “all” to point out the dangers of this universalizing gesture, which erases the other in order to project a mirror-image of the Western Subject. Denouncing the hijab worn by Muslim women, for example, merely veils the violence underlying the American “war on terror.” This manipulative wielding of feminist rhetoric abroad while ignoring a decidedly misogynist stance at home (with the threat to Roe v. Wade, for example) resonates with GAP’s recent “performance of waste,” or the spectacular display of violence, to use Joseph Roach’s term.
Butler asks, “What makes for a grievable life?” in order to explore the politics of invisibility, and the ways in which certain populations are exposed to violence, or its imminent threat—while importantly, that violence goes unaccounted for in the social realm (Precarious Life, emphasis original, 20). The myth of First World invincibility facilitates a pro-war stance in which impermeable national boundaries will safely keep war at a safe distance from the American subject. For Butler and for Ahmed, this kind of exploitation leads to a “hierarchy of grief” in which certain bodies are deemed ungrievable. Butler sees this power dynamic play out such that the hetero-patriarchal Anglo-American subject is sanctified while the first or third world other is excluded from public mourning altogether. In Chapter 7 of The Cultural Politics of Emotion, “Queer Feelings,” Ahmed also traces out the violence of excluding queer communities from the right to publically mourn, and consequently the political urgency for queer communities to declare their presence in social space rather than “pass” for heteronormative (although I speak from experience when I say that in a heteronormative society queers are often passed off as straight to our own dismay). For Ahmed, ultimately (summoning Rancière’s notion of politics as dissensus), “It is the non-transcendence of queer that allows queer to do its work” (Ahmed, emphasis original, 165). Ahmed makes a call for radical visibility in social space.
In Ahmed’s discussion of the exclusion of queer communities from mourning post-9/11, she traces out the ways in which the so-called war on terror evokes the family as “the origin of love, community, community and support” (The Cultural Politics of Emotion, 144). Precisely because this discourse yokes the family and global politics, the cultural script of heterosexual reproductive couplings easily slides into “racist narratives between the fear of strangers and immigrants (xenophobia), the fear of queers (homophobia), and the fear of miscegenation (as well as other illegitimate couplings)” (144-45). GAP attempts to erase this linkage through feigned identification (empathy) with those very groups its political bedmates have systematically oppressed, while at the same time violently assaulting another marginalized group: women.