Affective Interpellation and Autobiography; Or, Comings-Out Around the Seminar Table

When I say “this book really moves me,” what does the “moving” refer to?  Sara Ahmed’s Queer Phenomenology is particularly apt in any discussion about being-moved; her interfacing of a classical stream of philosophy with queer studies is a reflexive and beautifully woven meditation on how subjects and objects arrive in the world, how we orientate ourselves toward and around spaces that serve to extend or block the capacity of our bodies to reach.

In the context of a graduate seminar meeting earlier today, however, Queer Phenomenology prompted a fascinating string of comings-out: comings-out as queer (or, specifically, both lesbian and gay) and comings-out as “mixed-race”/”bi-racial”/”multi-racial” (all three formulations were offered in the first person).  I find myself generally uncomfortable in such moments.  In this case, that feeling was probably particularly justifiable: as the student in charge of moderating the seminar discussion for the day, I had already come in the course of an hour to take on the role of speaking for Ahmed’s text and queer studies, and in so doing put myself in a predictable, yet awkward position.  My avowedly partial and gentle critiques of the book’s investment in (queer) genealogy (I’m not going to spend time detailing them here; you’ll just have to trust my framing of the situation!) prompted a flurry of colleague comings-out as lesbian or gay in order to then interpellate me as the truly (intellectually) perverse queer– jokingly, I would say that I came, much to my chagrin, to occupy the negative, the low-stakes, graduate school version of Lee Edelman’s “sinthomosexual.”

In any case, I don’t particularly find that interpellation to be very distressing a year into graduate school, and I should add that this class is decidedly tame and generally patient with my near constant post-humanist, post-subject complaining about poststructural theory and the project of genealogy (it’s boring!).

When we arrived at Ahmed’s third chapter, “The Orient and Other Others,” however, an admittedly unexpected second round of comings-out clustered around the table: three students came out as mixed-race/bi-racial/multi-racial.  The soundbite of the relevant section of Ahmed’s chapter would run as follows: having reconsidered how to describe, in phenomenological terms, how whiteness comes to define certain spaces, and how racialization functions phenomenologically in a reading of Fanon’s famous interpellative scene (“Look, a Negroe!”), Ahmed turns to the autobiographical and narrates her own childhood experience as a child of a white mother and Pakistani father.

In any case, it isn’t necessary to even cite Ahmed’s original text: the point is that it is a very particular recollection of a single individual’s life.  Enter here the comings-out: it seems that the students of mixed-race backgrounds all took issue with her singularity because of their own contrasting experiences.  Enter here my feelings of discomfort.  Thankfully, the professor used this unprecedented second round of comings-out as an opportunity to launch a very fascinating, critical discussion.  She asked us about Ahmed’s writing and how we felt moved by it (my having suggested at the outset of class that the book possessed a powerful affectivity, mostly regarding negative feelings).

Wanting to offer, with some astonishment still sticking to me, a rejoinder to this now apparently queer of color seminar, I initially hesitated about how to frame my intervention.  It’s true, Queer Phenomenology “spoke” to me on an emotional register, and Ahmed’s autobiographical digressions pulled at me rather forcefully.  However, I felt incredibly uncomfortable about predicating my remarks with my own coming-out as having one South Asian and one white parent (I could intuitively caricature the response of students in my mind: “Why, that’s just like Ahmed!”).  No, doing that would only severely undercut the line I had been following all class, which was that I was not even interested in adjudicating questions of subjectivity (my fetish for anti-genealogy).

But then I began to reflect on the “pull” of the chapter and tried to fit Ahmed’s writing into a larger genealogy of what might be termed “women of colour feminism.”  If part of my uncomfortability with the legacy of this work is that it had to rely on subject-position and self-naming in its originary years (i.e., it was politically and intellectually forceful for a woman of colour scholar to name herself as such in the 1980s and 1990s in a different way than it would be now), then Ahmed’s autobiographical passages were enacting an affective interpellation, hailing me as a would-be-wounded-subject.  Thus coming-out would be my way of claiming my wound.  I’m not interested in whether or not that was a conscious goal of Ahmed’s, but it seems to be an undeniable effect of reading given that I felt moved to come-out as “mixed-race” to the classroom, to return the Maussian “gift” of self-naming.  So I did.  I came out.  The professor replied that she “wouldn’t have known” if I hadn’t articulated it explicitly (how 1990s!), and so, despite myself, I had suddenly just become non-white to the classroom.

Much to my happiness, though, I was able to articulate the concept of the weight of the affective interpellation in Ahmed’s writing to eventually displace the effect of my coming-out.  Or, at least that’s the narrative I am telling myself now.  What followed was an incredibly thoughtful and generative class discussion on how to avoid the pitfalls of an overly identity-politics orientation in our work while still remaining cognizant of the stakes for women/of colour/queer scholars taking up the task of writing.  It was fascinating, stimulating, and emotionally intense.  In fact, the alignment of those three things is so rare in my graduate experience, that I felt it merited a blog post.  So, here it is, except I am not offering this post as a gift– for unlike in Mauss, no reciprocation is required.

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