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.

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Heterosexuality, the opiate of the people

Yesterday was the big day of student elections at Paris-8, just as there were elections in Aix that I covered a few weeks ago. But in the thick of the afternoon I was delighted to see that not all the groups were handing out election fliers, for right at the campus entrance was a new feminist collective. Such groups seem somewhat less common in France than in the US, where gender-based activism, while far from mainstream, is quite usual. And their flier, when I sat down later to look at it, turned out to be a good one:

Questionnaire on Sexuality

  • Where do you think your heterosexuality comes from?
  • When and under what circumstances did you decide to be heterosexual?
  • Could it be that your heterosexuality is only a difficult and troubling phase that you’re passing through?
  • Could it be that you are heterosexual because you are afraid of people of the same sex?
  • If you’ve never slept with a partner of the same sex, how do you know you wouldn’t prefer one? Could it be that you’re just missing out on a good homosexual experience?
  • Have you come out as heterosexual? How did they react?
  • Heterosexuality doesn’t cause problems as long as you don’t advertise these feelings. Why do you always talk about heterosexuality? Why center everything around it? Why do the heterosexuals always make a spectacle of their sexuality? Why can’t they live without exhibiting themselves in public?
  • The vast majority of sexual violence against children is due to heterosexuals. Do you believe that your child is safe in the presence of a heterosexual? In a class with a heterosexual teacher in particular?
  • More than half of heterosexual couples who are getting married this year will get divorced within three years. Why are heterosexual relationships so often bound for failure?
  • In the face of the unhappy lives that heterosexuals lead, can you wish for your child to be heterosexual? Have you considered sending your child to a psychologist if he or she has turned out to have heterosexual tendencies? Would you be ready to have a doctor intervene? Would you send your child to in-patient therapy to get him or her to change?

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