Sara Ahmed on patriarchy in theory

Who is the subject of critical theory in 2020? And how does this subject grapple with the legacy of patriarchy, whiteness, and coloniality that have haunted critical theory since 1968 and earlier? Too much of a question for a blog post. But I would venture briefly that one way to rethink the legacy of critical theory is to see how others have already escaped it.

I want here to explore feminist theorist Sara Ahmed’s professional encounter with critical theory in Britain. I draw here on her published reflections on her education, set largely in the late 1980s and early 1990s. For Ahmed, theory’s reified masculinism was a point of departure in her process of coming to consciousness as a feminist. Ahmed, who resigned her professorial position at Goldsmiths to protest widespread sexual harassment, initially encountered “theory” as an undergraduate in the literature department at the University of Adelaide. When she moved to Cardiff University’s then-new Centre for Critical and Cultural Theory for her doctoral work, she learned a major lesson: that theory in the abstract was predominantly theory in the masculine.

What I glean from Ahmed’s writing is that her coming-to-consciousness-against-theory took place in four key moments.

1. In the first moment, in Adelaide in the late 1980s, Ahmed traversed the theory boy-style superiority complex. She quickly rejected the philosophy department only to discover the power of theoretical capital.[1] “I remember, when I was an undergraduate student, thinking that the people who took the ‘theory’ courses in my literature department were cleverer!” (2000:98). This perception of cleverness was, I think, a moment where Ahmed felt a structure of ideology flicker over her, a norm trying to establish itself. One way that critical theory has intimidated, and in this has also protected its patriarchal heritage, is by presenting itself as a task of the clever Other who was only potentially the self.

2. In a second moment, pursuing her doctorate in Cardiff, Ahmed faced pressures to reshape her own identity in keeping with French Theory’s fetishized patrilineages:

When I was doing my PhD, I was told I had to give my love to this or that male theorist, to follow him, not necessarily as an explicit command but through an apparently gentle but increasingly insistent questioning: Are you a Derridean; no, so are you a Lacanian; no, oh, okay, are you a Deleuzian; no, then what? If not, then what? Maybe my answer should have been: if not, then not! [2017:15, my emphasis]

In this impoverished theory space — “theory is used to refer to a rather narrow body of work,” she reports (2017:8) — the key social imperative revolved around the question: What are you? This demand for an identity in theory needs to be read alongside Ahmed’s eloquent description of racial hailing on the street in Britain:

I am walking down a street in Cardiff. And I am stopped by someone; he is walking the other way. How interested he seems. In what, am I what? ‘Hey, where are you from?’ […] I know what the question is asking of me. I resist giving the answer I am being asked to give. ‘Australia,’ I say. No, I mean originally. […] He knows I know what he is asking. I give in, wanting to move on. ‘My father is from Pakistan.’ That’s it. The conversation is over. I have given the right answer, the answer he was waiting for, even hoping for. [Ahmed 2017:116]

Sometimes identity demands are a progressive force, but here are they are a reactionary one, a moment of colonial and racial discipline. Such a sense of discipline was mirrored in the theory case: “Are you a Derridean?” and so on. Such questions are also an ideological hail, teaching you who you are by telling you to pause for authority. They are also a moment of essentializing taxonomy, where intellectual space is given a set of propertarian names and divided up after the fashion of a Great Enclosure. Manifestly, the three patrilineages in Cardiff — Derrideans, Lacanians, Deleuzians — were all French. Yet these three French men and their lineages were also almost not-national, taken out of historical context and reframed as abstract nodes in an intellectual space which cast itself as the only one that mattered. Interestingly, there was a certain affective surplus in this process of interpellation. Just why was Ahmed called not just to affiliate with French Theory, but also to give it her love?

I suspect that love became mandatory because theory-fetishism had become an obligatory mode of academic reproduction, and reproduction always demands a mandatory affective excess. To love theory is not a form of sexual romance but a form precisely of fetishism: a love of a reified thing, an object that also functions as an academic brand. That does not mean that fetishism is pathological. Indeed, it is enabling, but what it enables is an institutional system premised on misrecognizing “theory” as a thing. In emphasizing the forms of branding and reification that organize theory, Ahmed helps us see that ”theory itself” is premised on fantasy structures of hierarchical recognition, aspiration, elite-building and commodification.

3. For all their supposed radicality, these structures can also become remarkably antipolitical. That is apparent from the third moment of Ahmed’s encounter with theory, where theory’s masculinity emerged as a moment of harsh boundary maintenance on the part of her teachers.

I still remember submitting a critical reading of a theory text in which woman was a figure as one of my essays… I was concerned with how statements made by the teacher, like “this is not about women,” were used to bypass any questions about how the figure of woman is exercised within a male intellectual tradition. When the essay was returned to me, the grader had scrawled in very large letters, “This is not theory! This is politics! [2017:8]

To police the boundaries of theory, for this teacher, was an act of anger or at least of energetic venting. It was to scrawl, rather than discuss; to assert, rather than think. As with Theory Boy, the adulation of theory goes along with a wish to pin it down within heavily policed boundaries. And this wish for a fixed image of theory went along with a brutal rejection of questions about women and gender, a rejection sometimes policed, Ahmed adds, by women instructors. This introduced stark contradictions between theory and academic practice. “I met academics who wrote essays on feminist theory but who did not seem to act in feminist ways,” she recalled (2017:14).[2] This sounds like an impossible trap.

4. Yet in a fourth, feminist moment, Ahmed found a way out of the fundamentally melodramatic drama of theoretical inclusion. Rather than writing a critique of theory that would implicitly center it in her work, she ultimately chose instead, in Living a Feminist Life, to deflate, dedramatize, relativize, and partially normalize it.

Even though I am relatively comfortable in critical theory, I do not deposit my hope there, nor do I think this is a particularly difficult place to be: if anything, I think it is easier to do more abstract and general theoretical work… I think that the more difficult questions, the harder questions, are posed by those feminists concerned with explaining violence, inequality, injustice. The empirical work, the world that exists, is for me where the difficulties and thus the challenges reside. Critical theory is like any language; you can learn it, and when you learn it, you begin to move around in it. Of course it can be difficult, when you do not have the orientation tools to navigate your way around a new landscape. [2017:8-9]

Ahmed thus closed her narrative about critical theory by deconstructing precisely the sense of superiority, singularity, and openness that had organized its aura in her undergraduate days. Reframing empirical work as harder than theory, she reversed the original dogma that theory was where the cleverer people went. And insisting that critical theory is “like any language,” she reduced it from a master discourse to merely one discourse among others. Her conclusion became one of mandatory ambivalence, verging even on ironic appreciation. “I will come out with it,” she declared: “I enjoy and appreciate much of the work that is taught and read as critical theory” (2017:10). Her very enjoyment worked to deprive theory of the abject energy that a more extended critique of its masculinism might have conferred upon it.

But Ahmed’s act of dedramatization in turn calls attention to the two dramatizations that were at play here: theory’s self-dramatizations, which Ahmed sought to undo, and the dramatization of the subject who is critical of theory, on the other. Here, as love-of-theory became ambivalence-about-theory, Ahmed enacted a particular gesture of negativity. In declaring “If not, then not!” she negates the very grid of legibility that was supposed to organize her academic world.

Yet for Ahmed this moment of negation, period, was coupled to a dissociative, structural optimism. “I do not deposit my hope there” was coupled to “I enjoy and appreciate much of the work.” The critique of patriarchal discipline ends in ambivalence: I would suggest that this ambivalence is a already powerful feminist gesture. Curiously, a contradictory and even violent academic environment can become a good place for a subject to develop ambivalence. The very badness of an environment can finally become functional, liberating one to look elsewhere for one’s optimism.

Needless to say, this unexpected use of a bad structure does not justify its existing in the first place.

[1] Ahmed’s education began with an early rejection of the Adelaide philosophy department, a department which only taught “sadly… pretty much straight analytical philosophy,” and failed to address her intellectual interests “in how we know things, in questions of truth, in perspective and perception, in experience and subjectivity” (2017:28).

[2] She added that these academics “seemed routinely to give more support to male students than female students, or who worked by dividing female students into more and less loyal students” (2017:14). Elsewhere, she recalls that “One tutor got so cross with me in an argument about Derrida’s use of the figure of ‘woman,’ that she threw her cup of coffee down on a table and stormed out of the room. The coffee spilled all over me. I was startled, often, by the trouble I seemed to cause” (2015:181).


Ahmed, Sara. 2017. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press.
—. 2015. “Being in Trouble: In the Company of Judith Butler.” Lambda Nordica no. 2-3:179-192.
—. 2000. “Whose Counting?” Feminist Theory no. 1 (1):97-103.