Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Promise of Happiness

G said I ought to take a look at the book The Promise of Happiness by Sarah Ahmed, an English academic, for a different point of view on happiness. And it is different, very different.

In essence, Ahmed argues that we ought to prefer political engagement and consciousness to happiness, and it is preferable to have an exciting life than to make yourself and others happy.

It is hard to leave happiness for life. There is always a gap between becoming conscious of what is lost by living according to an idea of happiness and being able to leave happiness for life, a gap where things happen, where lives are lived and lives are lost. (p78)

She notes that Betty Friedan implied "making women happy is not the point of feminism." For Friedan, she notes, "happiness is not the same as being fully used." 

Ahmed says happiness is often deceptive. 

Happiness provides as it were a cover, a way of covering over what resists or is resistant to a view of the world, or a worldview, as harmonious. It is not that an individual person suffers from false consciousness but that we inherit a certain false consciousness when we learn to see and not to see things in a certain way. (p84)

I have suggested that feminist consciousness involves consciousness of unhappiness that might even increase our unhappiness, or at least create this impression. Happiness can wok to cover over unhappiness, in part by covering over its causes, such that to refuse to take cover can allow unhappiness to emerge. (p87)

Much of her thinking seems to stem from an uneasy awareness that feminism is often associated with being a "killjoy" and causing unhappiness to others. This leads her to question the value of happiness itself.
Feminists might kill joy simply by not finding the objects that promise happiness to be quite so promising. The word feminism is thus saturated with unhappiness. Feminists by declaring themselves as feminists are already read as destroying something that is thought of by others not only as being good but the cause of happiness. The feminist killjoy "spoils" the happiness of others; she is a spoilsport because she refuses to convene, to assemble, or to meet up over happiness. (p65)

She also discusses  "unhappy queers" and "melancholy migrants", but most of the force of the book seems to come from her search for an answer to the accusation she was causing unhappiness around the dinner table as a child.
My skepticism comes from childhood experiences of being a feminist daughter in a relatively conventional family, always at odds with the performance of good feeling in the family, always assumed to be bringing others down, for example, by pointing out sexism in other people's talk. (p65)
She rejects the idea that happiness consists in just following particular accepted "life scripts", or that the happy is necessarily the good.

There is solidarity in recognizing our alienation from happiness, even if we do not unhabit the same place (as we do not). There can even be joy in killing joy. And kill joy, we must and we do. (p87)

Her case grows more strident. Happiness might even depend on social wrongs. In discussing the classic queer novel, The Well of Loneliness, Ahmed concludes:
Heterosexual happiness is narrated as a social wrong, as based on the unthinking exclusion of those whose difference is already narrated as deprivation. Happiness for some involves persecuton for others: it is not simply that this happiness produces a social wrong: it might even depend on it. The unhappiness of the deviant performs a claim for justice.

Happiness is used as a "technology of citizenship", she says.

To be bound to happiness is to be bound by what has already been established as good... the desire for just happiness appears to give the other a certain freedom and yet directs the other toward what is already agreed to be the cause of happiness (p133)

And the trouble is, following Schopenhauer, she says happiness does not live up to its promise. Human desire is a lack, an emptiness that cannot be filled. 

For Schopenhauer it is the human being  who is empty, which means the promise of happiness is empty... The promise of happiness is what does not keep its word..  As soon as one has the object that one anticipates will cause happiness, one is dissatisfied. Happiness for Schopenhauer necessarily does not exist in the present:"The enchantment of distance shows us paradises which vanish like optical illusions when we have allowed ourselves to be mocked by them." (p174)

So, she argues in effect, why bother with happiness as our main end. 

To recognize the causes of unhappiness is thus a part of our political cause. This is why any politics of justice will involve causing unhappiness even if that is not the point of our action. So much happiness is premised on, and promised by, the concealment of suffering, the freedom to look away from what compromises one's happiness. (p196)

The happy future is the future of the perhaps. (p198). 

It is clear that "happiness" creates deep problems for the left, and this book is one result. 
How should we judge political engagement or raised consciousness if it produces unhappiness? Is it still worth it? This is really her issue, and it is fundamental to the project of the left.
The ugly truth is the great left-wing projects do not necessarily produce happiness. In fact, they have produced vast misery on the whole. Stalinist Russia led to starvation, dekulakization and the gulag. Mao produced the greatest famine in recorded history and sent teachers to muck out pigs for the rest of their lives in the cultural revolution.
And now feminism and multiculturalism may not be conducive to happiness either, according to Ahmed herself.
The question is whether the left should care. She thinks not. It is better to be open to the "possibility", the "perhaps".
In order to stop the concealment of suffering, as they see it, she and others will cause suffering "even if that is not the point of our action."  
That raises obvious and difficult questions of means and ends. Revolutionaries like to think you cannot make an omelet without breaking eggs. But what if the omelet is inedible?
And she never justifies her alternate ends, except with concealed references to happiness. What is suffering, after all, but the inverse of happiness? She never explains why suffering is even a problem for those who prefer political engagement or justice or equality.
This difficulty of explaining why we should value other ends in the absence of happiness suffuses the book. She is consistently embarrassed by finding her favored political engagement often leads to unhappiness, and casts around for defenses - or at least distractions. Hence the blurry quality of much of the book. It is clear what she is against. It is not clear what she is for.
It would be intelligible if she argued that personal growth in capabilities could justify some unhappiness - in other words, perhaps argue life satisfaction as a whole is as valid as short-term emotional states. But she does not do this either. She never develops what "possibility" means.
At times she seems to be saying that by revealing hidden unhappiness (or rather, hidden political injustice), we will ultimately create more real happiness, although this is never quite explicit. 
At other times, she suggests, following Schopenhauer, that happiness may be a distant illusion in any case. So even if it was a useful end in theory, in practice it is illusory. 
She skirts towards the idea that we should "affirm" the unhappy life. But because this is difficult to argue persuasively, she meanders round the idea rather than pin it down. She takes delight in elaborate wordplay, as if to leach meanings out of the words.
She emphasizes the chanciness - the "hap"  - of happiness. She talks about happiness as a kind of orientation or alignment towards objects which are good, and how being unhappy is being out of alignment with those life scripts.  
She is in essence saying that desire or aspiration or engagement is better than happiness (although it is never wholly clear). She discusses a different view - Aristotle - in her first chapter, noting that for him self mastery and balance is essential, that pleasures should be "just right."
A happy life, a good life hence involves the regulation of desire. It is not simply that we desire happiness but that happiness is imagined what we get in return for desiring well. (p37)
What if her vague sense of "possibility" is just undisciplined and vague desire, or underlying inherent unease? What if her political engagement is also excessive or misdirected desire, a romantic miasma? There are long historical traditions, such as Buddhism, that argue precisely such excessive attachment and desire are the fundamental human problem.
At risk of violating Godwin's Law, there is a faint whiff of fascism about the book. Torchlight political parades are to be favored over common happiness. Romantic striving after abstract romantic goals must take precedence over daily pleasure. She wants "a gap where things happen, where lives are lived and lives are lost." The "lives lost" is telling. It is equivalent to an argument for glory, for aristocratic purity of warfare, for violent passion. 
It is no coincidence that the abstract political engagement of the French Revolution - liberty, equality, fraternity - soon turned into the Terror and within a decade had launched imperialist invasion and war across the whole continent. Ahmed's argument is an argument for the primacy of ideology in a world which has seen the consequence of leftist ideology in war and famine and death. 
If you do not take ordinary happiness as a relevant political yardstick, you are removing all the circuit breakers and safety barriers in our politics. 
Happiness is an obstacle to leftist dreams. It makes them unachievable or undesirable or unpersuasive. 
This unease with happiness also explains why the left can be very hostile to positive psychology. Recall our earlier discussion of how much Barbara Ehrenreich detested Martin Seligman's work.  If there are actual objective things rooted in human nature or human psychology that tend to promote happiness, that makes it a threatening metric for liberals and revoultionaries. It dissolves much of the false consciousness argument and makes distant socialist nirvanas more open to scrutiny. 
So utlimately it is a brave book, in a way, in suggesting that we should not affirm happiness as much as we do, but prefer political engagement. But it does not really explain why we ought to prefer political engagement. What is it ultimately for, and why should we want it if it produces unhappiness? And those underlying difficulties and questions never get answered. 
Instead of being a daring critique, as the author imagines, it is more of a gateway to misery. Some will read the book and get a suggestive thrill at seeing such a quotidian bourgeois consideration as happiness daringly overthrown. It is not daring. It is ultimately a book which is about squirming and discomfort and unease. Killing joy is not an attractive way to live, despite two hundred pages of attempted justification.

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