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Andrea Lobb

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About the author

Andrea Lobb is a PhD candidate in Gender, Sexuality and Diversity Studies at La Trobe University. An earlier version of this paper was given at the “Affecting Feminism: Feminist Theory and the Question of Feeling” conference at Newcastle University, U.K., December 2010.

Publication details

Volume 26, May 2012

Feminism and the Envious Imagination

Because she is a woman, the little girl knows that she is forbidden the sea and the polar regions, a thousand adventures, a thousand joys: she was born on the wrong side of the line.

Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex [1949]: 325).

When Simone de Beauvoir’s little girl in The Second Sex discovers that her access to certain expansive joys and vital experience is blocked because she was born female, she gleans this knowledge through making some gritty social comparisons. Here is a line: I am here, you are there; I am excluded from certain life prospects, you are not. Stirring in the nascent female subjectivity depicted in de Beauvoir’s groundbreaking book is an emotional state justifiably described as one of envy (see de Beauvoir: [1949]: 313-15). This paper explores the conditions under which envy might constitute a  ‘feminist’ emotion.

In her imagination the little girl de Beauvoir envisions is an agent of sorts –in her mind’s eye she ranges across sea and polar regions but in her life and in her body she stops, suspended between what she can imagine doing (via identification with those who can do such things) and what she can actually do. Between the radical promise of an active agency and the pain of its aborted realization we find the products of the envious imagination.

Sixty years on, for many of today’s women (of the global North) the ‘line’ inducing such comparisons no longer remains a solid bar dividing ‘dominant’ men from ‘oppressed’ women. The gender line demarcating the ‘haves’ from the ‘have-nots’ fractures, splinters, fades here, forks there, into the multiple criss-crossings of complex inequality with all its tangled traces of class, generation and race (see McNay: 2000: 1). So too the female envy that de Beauvoir intimates in response to exclusion proliferates: from a ‘simple’ female envy of men, to a complex plurality of envies traversing multiple lines of inequality, including those between women, and those internal to the feminist movement itself.   

As part of the ‘affective turn’ of the last two decades, feminists have turned their attention to emotions and their relevance to politics and social change:  melancholy, rage, shame, sentimentality, among others, have been revisited as productive areas for feminist thought. Yet, with a couple of important exceptions (see Steedman: 1986; Ngai: 2005) the reception of envy within feminism remains uneasy, and often mistakenly conflated, I argue below, with a feminist critique of the politics of ressentiment.

I do not intend to claim here that envy is a universal genetic source of feminist political struggle(s). Nor for that matter that feminist politics can be tied in any uncomplicated way to women’s feelings, emotions or affect. Firstly, it is clear that many feminist projects have nothing whatsoever to do with the green-eyed monster: think of activism to eliminate violence against women, to reclaim the street as safe places for women, to bring fair labour laws into practice, and so on. But I do claim that social exclusion and dispossession can activate envy, and that this is an important affective site for feminist investigations of inequality. Having said that, it is by no means obvious how to best grasp the relation between women’s affective responses - including  physiological/somatic expressions such as pounding hearts, raised cortisol levels, skin flushes and the like - and women’s political judgements and moral values, feminist or otherwise. We might call this the political version of the notorious mind-body question. Nor should we assume that emotional suffering is the best foundation upon which to construct either one’s identity (politics) or political claims for social justice (see Brown: 1995; Berlant 2000).

Yet neither is the affective register irrelevant to issues of moral and political judgement. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum constructs a powerful case for seeing the messiness of emotional life as an essential component, not a deficit, of moral reasoning. Emotions, in her terms, are “intelligent responses to the perception of value” (Nussbaum 2001: 1). Feminists drawing on the work of psychologist Silvan Tomkins have explored how affective intensities felt in the body orient us towards the processes of valuing and evaluation: affects are the investments of the embodied mind, illuminating what matters to us, what we truly care for (see Sedgwick: 2003; Probyn 2005). That emotions may constitute a political and politicizing form of caring and of knowing is central too to Alison Jaggar’s vision of a feminist epistemology grounded in emotional life, particularly in those “outlaw” emotions, “distinguished by their incompatibility with the dominant perceptions and values” (Jaggar: 1989: 166).

In this spirit, I define envy here as a feminist emotion where it functions as an intense, complex and morally ambivalent way of knowing and caring about inequality, on the part of a subject whose agency is constrained by it. In contrast to the ‘cultural politics of pain and suffering’ - object of staunch critique by anti-sentimentalist feminists Wendy Brown (1995) and Lauren Berlant (2000; 2008) - what sets apart the ‘politics of envy’, in my view, is how profoundly unsentimental is its variety of (female) complaint. The envious subject (at least one conscious of her own envy) would be hard pressed to view herself as ‘innocent’ victim - she is too close to her own currents of aggression and hostility for that. Nor is she likely to take herself to be courting “empathy as an ethical rule” (Berlant 2000: 41), nor to permit issues of power to drop from the purview of her concerns. Questions of power, relative status, social positioning are those to which her envy keeps her exquisitely, if painfully, attuned. If it is correct that “sentimentalists talk about the emotional costs of injustice, not the material ones” (Berlant 2008: 21), then the envious subject, by contrast, is one who sustains a concern with the material, through the emotional registration of those costs.

Born of the painful recognition that someone else has something good in life that we dearly want, but lack, envy can be like the proverbial toothache that narrows the whole world to its mean and ragged contours. Yet despite accounting for some of the less laudable throes of misanthropy between friends and ‘frenemies’, I believe a case can be made for reading envy, at least under some circumstances, as political and even politicizing. It is this variety of envy which deserves close feminist attention.

Envy and Egalitarianism

Envy appears as a common motif of anti-egalitarian political theory, most commonly as the (hidden) motive attributed to the “social levellers”; those proponents of strict distributive justice who want to “make everyone the same”, to remove (economic) incentives for those endowed with superior talents, and who (unjustly) envy any sign of distinction or greater merit (see Schoeck: 1973). In Rescuing Justice and Equality (2009), the philosopher G.A Cohen observes that modern liberal democratic societies display the peculiarity of being committed to two contradictory political impulses: an impulse towards the principle of meritocracy (which says that inequality is okay so long as it is ‘deserved’) and another towards egalitarianism (which says that inequality is not so okay, and that the notion of ‘deserve’ is deeply problematic if subjected to close analysis). In so far as we adhere to the first, we believe people should be rewarded in line with given talents, achievements, hard work, etc., and endorse as just any inequalities that result.  In so far as we adhere to the second, however, we think people should have equal access to the good things in life, on the grounds that each human life is of equal value to every other.

It may be suspected that this ideological conflict is also the breeding ground for a particularly ambivalent variety of envious affect. Traditionally stratified, hierarchical and radically unequal societies, are also least visited by cross-class, cross-gender, cross-racial envies. Envy begins to stir when expectations of (political, social and material) equality are both aroused and simultaneously refused. The more equal societies, those with an ethos of egalitarianism, are also more envy inducing. Does this mean that the modern principle of egalitarianism is bad insofar as it serves as a stimulant to envy? Or does it mean that we need to revise too automatic a condemnation of envy? If envy is what results from an increase in legitimate political expectations, this at very least complicates the traditional account of envy as apolitical sin.

We might, for example, view the struggle of egalitarian feminists at the turn of the early 20th century for rights of property, education and suffrage as arising from a legitimate female envy of male privilege. But can envy be legitimate and in the service of justice? Can it even be a moral emotion? Grappling with just this question in his Theory of Justice (1971) the political philosopher John Rawls answers in the negative. He makes a sharp conceptual distinction between the emotion of ‘envy’ and ‘resentment’. For Rawls resentment is about justice – it is a legitimate emotional reaction to finding oneself in unjust situations. But envy, in his view, is always unjust – a moral blip that results as a product of ‘special psychology’ or what we might call psychopathology – and consequently it has no viable claim of justice embedded within it (although it may pretend to one). I want to question the robustness of this distinction, and suggest that in its apparent firmness lies an effect of ideology.

To think through the problem, we might turn to the historical example of Ida Bauer (Freud’s patient ‘Dora’) in fin de siècle Vienna. From Freud’s case study (1905) we learn that for Ida her brother “ (her elder by a year and a half) had been the model which her ambitions had striven to follow” (Freud: [1905]: 51). But the envy- inducing ‘line’ that de Beauvoir describes in 1949 asserts itself even more powerfully here in the late 19th century. Ida’s ‘adventures’ cannot easily take the route into active politics followed by her brother Otto, who will go on to become the leader of the Austrian Social Democrats. They unfold instead (at least initially) as hysterical illness, as she is ‘left behind’ in the world of active achievements:

Her declaration that she had been able to keep abreast with her brother up to the time of her first illness, but that after that she had fallen behind him in her studies, was in a certain sense also a ‘screen memory’. It was as though she has been a boy up until that moment, and then had become girlish for the first time (Freud: 1905: 119).

If her brother could go to university, exit the complicated tangle of an overheated familial constellation, and engage in the public sphere, ‘Dora’ by contrast, at eighteen, employs herself “attending lectures for women and with carrying on more or less serious studies” (Freud: 53), otherwise inheriting the (hated) tasks of domesticity from the hands of her mother (along with her hysterical cough), and this despite the fact that as children brother and sister seemed equally gifted, forthright and inquisitive.

Is Dora/Ida’s emotional discontent better described as one of ‘envy’ or ‘resentment’? The problem is that the answer to this question is itself historically unstable and contingent. If we believe in a naturalized account of the difference between men and women we may well conclude the Dora is suffering (penis) ‘envy’ of natural (male) superior endowments. If we believe, on the other hand that this is a historically contingent difference between the sexes born of unfair power relations, then we may conclude that she what is feeling is more akin to a Rawlsian sense of resentment – in other words there is a legitimate claim to justice imbedded in her emotional discontent from the outset. I don’t mean to suggest that Rawls would have dismissed Dora’s as a case of envy, rather than resentment. Rather, I think there is something troubling about the attempt to draw so fast and firm a distinction between envy and resentment, once we recognize that this is itself subject to historical malleability, contestation and instability. As an alternative to seeking the more comfortable distinction between (unjustified) envy and a Rawlsian notion of (justified) resentment, we might preserve the status of envy as morally equivocal and ambivalent.

From a phenomenological point of view, it may be no simple task to distinguish the (legitimate) protest at unfair social exclusion, from an (unwarranted) envious attack on another’s superior good fortune. How do we tell whether there is any ‘justice’ to our pained response? Yet, I would suggest, it is only by allowing ourselves to feel envious, rather than reaching for the defense of distorting our real preferences, or repressing our envy into the unconscious, or projecting it elsewhere (as psychoanalysis shows we are inclined to do), that we find the necessary, if not sufficient, first step in the productive exercise of the envious imagination.

When do negative emotions do positive political work?

In his book The Struggle for Recognition (1995), the German critical theorist Axel Honneth grants negative emotions a fundamental role in the unfolding of progressive social and political movements. Emotional states such as rage, shame and indignation, in his view, carry not only affective intensity – they also carry (albeit at a pre-reflexive level) a powerful cognitive and normative potential. What such negative emotions can do is to present themselves as symptoms with which we can diagnose social pathologies (Honneth: 1995). They are warning signals for when things are going wrong, from a moral and ethical point of view, in the relation between ourselves and the social world. Honneth therefore claims a powerful nexus between normative values and emotional life: it is from our emotional responses that we retrospectively reconstruct what our norms and moral expectations actually are. It is when we feel ourselves disrespected, for example, (which registers as a painful dissonance between our need for recognition and its refusal), that we extrapolate from this negative emotional state what expectations for respect we hold. Our precognitive grasp of those normative expectations is formed in the emotional registering of their breach, in the pain of their violation (Honneth: 1995). These signals from the affective life teach us something about what we want, what we expect, before we thematize these at the semantic or conceptual level. Something hurts - we suffer - we have an intuitive sense of having been wronged – we begin to think about what we can rightfully expect by way of recognition from the world. This for Honneth is the beginning of all real moral knowledge, and (consequently) of striving for change.

From this perspective, what really motivates social struggle is not (merely) the struggle over economic goods: rather, it is an affectively charged struggle to be recognized as persons of value. This account makes negative emotions the stuff of history, key to processes of historical transformation. We only get half the story if we try to explain progressive social movements (such as feminism) by reference to theories of human beings driven to maximize economic utility. Economism alone can’t explain those peak moments when people hit the streets or the barricades in rebellion. The urge to challenge an unjust status quo, according to Honneth, derives its most powerful fuel, its real combustion, from the intensities of affective life.

Let us return now to envy as a possible affective response to a perception of social inequality. Although she makes no reference to the work of Rawls’ work on (irrational and subjective) envy versus (objectively legitimate) resentment, it is striking how Sianne Ngai highlights precisely the question of the subjective versus the objective status of envy as the key to its equivocal nature as a political emotion (Ngai 2005). Drawing on Spinoza’s definition of the affects as those forces which can either “diminish” or “enhance” the capacity to act, Ngai defines the Ugly Feelings of her title, including that of envy, as those emotions which are evidence of a subject locked in a strange state of in-between-ness (Ngai: 2005: 2). Exploring emotion becomes a way to register the “politically charged predicament of suspended agency from which all of these ugly feeling ensue” (p.12).  

The critical and political significance of envy, for Ngai, lies in the fact that it is “the only negative emotion defined specifically by the fact that it addresses forms of inequality” (Ngai: 2005: 21). At the same time, she draws attention to a peculiarity in the assessment we tend to make of envy; a kind of collapse of its objective determinations into exclusively subjective ones. In her words “While envy describes a subject’s polemical response to a perceived inequality in the external world, it has been reduced to signifying a static subjective trait: the “lack” or “deficiency” of the person who envies” (Ngai: 2005: 21). This effectively shoots it back to a subjective and individualized explanation, stripping it of much of its polemical and critical potential. Envy is seen to be caused by the subjective lack of the envier, rather than as the result of situational inequality, and it may be this attributional slide that explains why we are reluctant to identify (as feminists) with feelings of envy. To be envious, according to such an ideological reduction (to the subjective, or in Rawls’ terms to the status of ‘special psychology’), means that we aren’t genuinely concerned with matters of (the objective conditions of) justice, even though we may don the masquerade of a just cause. Caring about justice and feeling envious, under this reductio, are seen as mutually exclusive.

From a feminism of ‘ressentiment’ to a feminism of the envious imagination.

If Ngai is keen to sensitize her feminist readers to the critical potential of envy, the work of Wendy Brown offers a very different take on the relationship between envy and contemporary feminism. Her influential States of Injury (1995), published in the same year as Honneth’s Struggle for Recognition, but in the context of contemporary American feminism, is profoundly critical of  “the feminism of ressentiment” she detects among her countrywomen. By a ressentiment-infused feminism she means one that stakes its political claim in a form of an injury and a ‘wounded attachment’ to an identity forged around victimhood and a sense of having been psychologically wronged. For Brown, a “victim” feminism grounded in such negative emotions of perceived injury is perilous because it inscribes and renders constitutive of its identity the very state of injury that it should (and on one level seems to) protest. Brown applies a Nietzschian concept of ressentiment to analyze the traps of identity politics for feminists who become reactively fixated on a narrative of female oppression, setting up the dominant (male) other as reviled party, while remaining profoundly attached to the very structure of domination that is reviled. For Brown this entails not only an unconscious complicity with the relations of oppression, but a disconnection from what is actually wanted and desired in the first place. She asks “What if we were to rehabilitate the memory of desire within identificatory processes, the moment in desire – either “to have” or “to be” – prior to its wounding […] which reopens a desire for futurity where Nietzsche saw it foreclosed by the logics of rancor and ressentiment” (Brown 1995, 75).

If Honneth offers a defense of the negative emotions as essential drivers of the struggle for recognition, Brown is averse to the way  “politicized identity thus enunciates itself, makes claims for itself, only by entrenching, restating, dramatizing, and inscribing its pain in politics” (Brown: 1995: 74).  This is a complex issue, and while I have sympathy for Brown’s impatience with victim feminism, I think it is essential to distinguish the critical potential, and open-endedness, of the identificatory processes very much alive in the envious imagination, from ressentiment’s closure of both future and imagination (see also Bell (2000) for an useful discussion of suffering beyond ressentiment). 

What distinguishes envy from ressentiment is that while the latter inverts or conducts a perverse ‘revaluation of values’ the former does not (necessarily) do so. The victim who reviles her oppressor, in the process presenting herself as a virtuous and morally superior being, is certainly not the same as one who directly acknowledges, either to herself or others, that she is envious, and that she wants. The ressentiment-fuelled denial of envy is, I think, potentially quite different from an open and unapologetic envy of that from which one is excluded. Envy of this ‘openly desiring’ sort differs, in my view, from Nietzschean ressentiment because it makes a direct identificatory claim (with the envied other) on behalf of desire. It is informed by a refusal to either invert one’s real values or to adapt one’s preferences, or to cease to want avidly. For this reason, what I describe here as the envious imagination may be proximate in some respects to what Brown advocates as the “desire to have or to be – prior to its wounding” but with one important caveat: namely that it inscribes, alongside the persistence of desire, a critical awareness that a wounding has nevertheless occurred - not for the purpose of cementing a permanent identity around that recognition, so much as a way of registering the obstruction those desires have endured. Wants and desire, which are integral to the envious imagination, are registered openly alongside their frustration, alongside the reality of their historical wounding, rather than dissolving into pure affirmation of (unhindered) wanting as if there were no obstruction to contend with, or as if positive wanting, in and of itself, were enough to remove all those historical and social obstructions to its fulfillment.  

The point of cultivating one’s envious imagination, then, would not be to derive or ground a feminist identity in a permanent sense of wrong or injury, but rather to use the powerful, if hostile, affective registering of envy as a starting point from which to come to know and diagnose what desires are denied. We do not need to assume that such envious desire is nothing but a compromised and colonized aping of the values of the dominant by the dominated, nor that desire is only pure or authentic if it proves free of any mimetic ‘leanings’ on those around us whom we deem to be desirable. After all, desire often is mimetically acquired. Insofar as a valued subject position is envied, I argue, the envious imagination works to hold open (despite frustration) this mimetic desire as a future possibility for the self, and is a persistence of the potential agency that, as Ngai rightly describes, lies suspended within it.

To illustrate how a feminist deployment of envious affect might look, and to demonstrate the distinction between a Nietzschean-inspired spirit of ressentiment (which Brown says feminism should steer well clear of), and a more radical envious imagination (which I think feminism needs to keep on its agenda), I turn now to revisit what is perhaps one of the most celebrated literary portrayals of classed and gendered envy – Carolyn Steedman’s marvelous Landscape for a Good Woman (1986). Steedman provides the reader with a poignant description of the envious disposition of her working-class mother whose life was spent under the deprivations of poverty, first as a child in the English working class suburb of Burnley in the 1920s and then under the frustrations and material hardships of single motherhood in South London in the 1950s. This (auto)biography can be read as a sensitive detailing of the accrual of envious affect as one of the ‘hidden injuries of class’ (Sennett and Cobb 1972). Such injuries express themselves not only in distributions of material and economic goods, but also in the distributions of affect across the socio-political body. Steedman suggests that the traditional and psychoanalytic categories of envy fall hopelessly short in accounting for the causal determinants of this negative emotion. In her analysis,

Within Western religious and political thought, envy has long been called a sin, the improper covetousness of that to which one has no right. When Wilhelm Reich considered the formation of class-consciousness in children […] he dismissed envy as a usable motivational force, despite knowing that poverty, which naturally gave rise to envy is ‘never absolute, but always relative to those who have more’. Envy is thus seen as an enclosed and self-referencing system of feeling, incapable of becoming dynamic or a force from which change might spring.  Feelings of exile and exclusion, of material and political envy, are a feature of many lives […]. To deal with the felt injuries of a social system through the experience of women and girls suggests that beneath the voices of class-consciousness may perhaps lie another language, that might be heard to express the feelings of those outside the gate, the propertyless and the dispossessed. To enter the arena of subjectivity does not mean abandoning the political; indeed to explore my mother’s organization of feeling around a perception of vast personal and material inequality […] is probably the place to start (Steedman: 1986: 111-114).

The filial duty which Steedman as a writing daughter performs here is not only a witnessing or memorializing of the injustices of her mother’s life, but also a kind of critical ‘reverie’ upon that envious affect around which her mother had organized (or been induced to organize) her existence. While it may be true, as Laura Berlant observes, that “the mother cannot feel the ambivalence that drives her toward her satisfaction via the object” (Berlant: 2008: 238), there is no doubt about Steedman’s reflective awareness of that ambivalence as key to her textual transformation of envy from female to feminist emotion. Even in its rawer, unmetabolized form as part of the mother’s affective “landscape of the good woman”, her envy provides her with a prodigious source of resistance to the ideologies of virtuous femininity. I disagree with Berlant’s conclusion that “fantasy is where the mother really lives – she is a sentimentalist in the traditional sense, and she believes in the intelligence that brings her to longing’s objects” (Berlant 2008: 239), insofar as the stubborn persistence of her envy works to disrupt and dislodge the hold of the sentimental. A thoroughly sentimental and sentimentalized “good woman” would not be able to register such envious fury at the perception of how her fantasy (of the good life) has failed to be realized. Steedman’s feminist containment of the emotion of female envy is at once a textual work of mourning (for the life unrealized, for the agency suspended) as well as a ‘holding’ of the feelings of the dead mother in the living and compassionate socio-analysis of the daughter. This posthumous recording of the affective life of the (now lost and, in once sense, irreparable) mother, gives us an insight into the possible cultural reparation that a feminism attuned to envy might be able to perform.

As a final illustration of the equivocal nature of the work involved in ‘containing’ envious affect by the ‘values of feminism’, and how complex is the task of discerning its subjectively and objectively ascribed perceptions of inequality, we might turn to a recent depiction of contemporary female envy in a novel by British author Rachel Cusk. In the figure of Juliet, who appears in the first chapter of Cusk’s Arlington Park (2006), we find a masterful study of envious discontent. The moral ambiguity of what is “mere envy” at not getting what one wants from life, and what is a justified fury at structural sexual inequalities, produces the equivocal and ugly feelings that both Juliet and the reader must wrestle with. If we try to discern whether Juliet’s vitriolic (if largely suppressed) aggression towards the world around her  - neighbours, husband, children - has any “justice” in it, or whether it is, as “mere envy”, symptomatic of Juliet’s personal vice, lack or failing, the impossibility of quite managing to read it one way or the other is probably the most accurate approximation to the truth. The wavering between these two assessments provides the clue to the quandary that the perception of inequality attributable to the subjective register and that attributable to the objective conditions of gender injustice cannot be disentangled. It is not (quite) that Juliet is the innocent victim of a system of gender inequalities that constrains her, nor is it (quite) the case that she is a vicious woman who cannot accept being outshone by others (including her husband) even though it was her earlier self who once was singled out for recognition as rather ‘special’ in her promise and talents. Rather, the souring of the soul that accompanies her envy is real enough. Yet far from being proof that her protest at living a lesser and constrained existence is a reflection of her own (subjective) lack, it is equally clear that her sense of lack is just as much the product of the objective conditions of a painfully unfulfilled life. The difficulty of discerning one from the other – subjective from objective – is where the equivocal nature of her envy lies. The uneasy blurring of the distinction between registering an injustice and a “merely” envious spoiling are captured here in Juliet’s early morning musings on the neighbours she has dined with the night before:

She thought of their house, into whose kitchen alone the whole of the Randall’s shoddy establishment in Guthrie Road would comfortably have fitted. What had they done to deserve such a house? What was the justice in that? The lord of the manor had spoken harshly from     amidst his spoils, from his unjust throne, to Juliet his guest. […] It was as if he’d employed her as a guest and was giving her a caution. That was how a man like that made you feel: as if your right to exist derived from his authority. He looked at her, a woman of thirty-six with a job and a house and a husband and two children of her own, and he decided whether or not she should be allowed to exist (Cusk: 2006: 10-11).

Just as striking as Juliet’s envy in this scene is its accompaniment by her compulsive listing of “goods” - a job, a houses, a husband and two children - arraigned almost in self-defense against being ‘reduced’ to the status of an inferior by the interaction with her overbearing neighbour.

Juliet’s goods may function here as what Sara Ahmed, in her recent study The promise of happiness (2010) has called ‘happy objects’. These describe aspects, situations or things whose prospective attainment performs the ideological work of entraining their (would be) bearers into an alignment with certain patterns of being and wanting. While ‘close up’ the pursuit of the happy object may be performed with all the intensity of a greyhound flying behind the stuffed bunny on a racetrack, a wider critical panning of the lens over the  ‘happiness track’ shows us just how pre-ordained and predictable is the curvature of the path along which such desires are entrained.  

Ahmed’s work offers a critique not only of the new science of happiness, with all its tautologies and assumptions about human desire, but also of the subtle workings of power that adhere in the setting up of the track, so to speak, in accord with pre-given social norms. The traditional ‘happy objects’ of femininity are all too well known: the carefully monitored and cultivated image of (hetero-) sexual attractiveness; the making of the ‘good’ marriage (Ahmed quotes the happiness literature, endorsing this as a good statistical guarantor of happiness); and the achievement of motherhood. To this we might add the more recent (but already surprisingly worn) briefcase as ‘happy object’ of efficient performance in the workplace.

That these ‘happy objects’ are also the affective containers of irreconcilable structural conflicts is conveyed too by that other clichéd image of how contemporary woman positions herself in relation to them – namely that she juggles, as befits the perpetual instability of their possession. Female anxiety abounds in relation to negotiating the tensions between and within such happy objects - that one’s ownership may be only provisional, up in the air, at any moment the ‘bundle’ may be dropped. At the same time successfully juggled happy objects become a scene for the display of a new meta “happy object” that goes under the rubric of “having it all”, and towards which there is much female ambivalence, unsurprisingly given that this meta-‘happy object’ emerges for women as what is simultaneously most desirable and most impossible to attain. In her novel Cusk shows us a striking vignette of a woman’s initial seduction and then increasingly unhappy relation to the ‘happy objects’ towards which she has oriented herself and her desires. Envious discontent emerges as the key emotional timbre of a life of “suspended agency” (Ngai 2006) resulting as the consequence of this sequence of internalization and then rude disenchantment with the ‘happy objects’ that, once attained, threaten to swallow whole the female subjectivity which has too unreflectively swallowed them:

One day she had met Benedict and it had risen up before her startled eyes, a great vista of challenges like a mountain range: things she didn’t have, things she’d never even thought of! Really they were only the dreary lineaments of her mother’s life, a husband, a house, children – but to Juliet they seemed mysterious, full of foreign, ineluctable glamour. […] For a while she prized the idea of a house and a husband and children, as though these things were uncommon, as though they represented some new refinement of human experience. Then she got them, and the feeling of lead started to build up in her veins, a little more each day. The time she realized that if she didn’t go and buy food herself there would be none in the house; the time Benedict returned to work a week after Barnaby’s birth and she realised she would be looking after him alone; the countless times a domestic task had fallen to her, so that she became experienced and preferred to do it because it was easier than asking Benedict – it was all surprising to her, outrageous almost. With her sense of justice she expected that at some point the outrage would be detected and addressed but of course it was not. She made the mistake of complaining to her mother. Oh, the joy, the harsh, vitriolic joy in her mother’s face! She could almost hear her mother thinking, That’s showed you. That’s told you what’s what (Cusk: 2006: 37-8).

In the complicated intergenerational disillusionment depicted here, we find a mother’s Schadenfreude as the daughter comes to know from the inside the injustice the mother has known before her. Their shared plight is not experienced as solidarity or mutual compassion, but rather demonstrates the deep ambivalence of the work of envious emotion that can manifest as a bitter joy in the fact that the other younger woman will not escape the suffering that the older one has known. The realization that her daughter has, in once sense, had to join her in her fierce perception of (objective) injustice does not mitigate against the Schadenfreude felt towards the daughter who had imagined that she was special enough (as talented individual) to escape from the sexual inequalities that impact upon them both. 

If it is true that envy is an ugly feeling that reflects and arises from conditions of suspended agency (leaving its subject stuck half way between activity and passivity), so too it may reflect and arise from these moments of “suspended solidarity”, half way between a joining together in a recognition of being “in the same boat” and an impulse towards dis-identification and repudiation as each party catches in the other a mirroring of her own painful limitation and perception of inferiority. It is a moment of “suspended solidarity” in so far as the potential (for a feminist and intergenerational) solidarity is undone and derailed in the instant of its possible crystalisation, suspended even as it forms.

By giving space to analyzing the affects of those who come to dwell outside or in profoundly ambivalent relations to our culture’s dominant ‘happy objects’, Ahmed also enables a bold celebration of alternative genealogies and ways of being, reconstituted and preserved in what she calls the “unhappy archives” of feminism. Celebrating “unhappy archives” is not a celebration of unhappiness per se, but nor does it accept the stigmatization of subjectivities that either decide to exit, or are excluded from, the domain of the ‘happy object’. These negative emotions and affects, beautifully illustrated in Ahmed’s examples of the melancholic migrant, the feminist killjoy and the unhappy queer, are sites that collect the essential traces of those affective counter-histories: the emotional experiences of those excluded from mainstream culture and its promises. It is important to note here, however, that Ahmed herself chooses to exclude the emotion of envy from her archives. She speaks of envy only in a footnote devoted to a discussion that celebrates the refusal to be envious displayed by the character of Polly in Mike Leigh’s film Happy Go Lucky (Ahmed: 2010: 282). While I think we owe an enormous amount to Sara Ahmed’s groundbreaking excavations of affect in the “unhappy archives” of feminism, I disagree with her relegation of envy to a place outside them. In my view envy offers too vital a site at which to excavate the affective components of being dispossessed (not only of happy objects, but also by the logic of the happy object itself, as we can see in the case of Juliet) to leave it off the record.

Ahmed’s observation that “envy is a disposition that is attuned to the competitive logics of capitalism” (Ahmed: 2010: p. 281) - and hardly to be celebrated for that - is only part of envy’s complicated story for women in late modernity. As discussed above, envy is also a disposition attuned to the perception of social inequality, whose equivocal status derives from the way it hovers between a perception of that inequality as caused by a subjective lack or inferiority attributable to the individual, and one that ascribes that perception to an objective structural injustice.  This is why, even as we might want to reject the categorical distinction made by Rawls between envy and resentment, it is just as vital to draw a distinction between an envious imagination that subtends a feminist politics, and that variety of ressentiment which takes feminism hostage to an identity politics of ‘wounded attachments’ (Brown 1995). Envy, I have argued here, is not ressentiment. Nor is it subject to easy incorporation by the ‘business of sentimentality’ (Berlant 2008). In my view it stands in a more open relation to female desire, without either denying or making a fetish of the historical wounds that such active wanting and female agency can sustain in the face of structural inequality. Where feminism draws upon the envious imagination in this sense, it can testify to these painful states of suspension of female agency and solidarity. It might also be noted, in conclusion, that what stands as affective witness to such states is also evidence that what is painfully suspended is also not (yet) lost. It is evidence of what may yet be released. This suffices, I believe, to earn envy an honoured place in our “unhappy archives”.


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