Freedom to Roam

Today I sent my book, Willful Subjects, off to the press. Away they go!

Why do I refer to the book as “they”. It feels like “they.”

Over the course of researching and writing for my willfulness project (I began in March 2009), it felt like the book acquired a life of its own.  The book began to feel as if was made up, made from, the willful subjects I had been writing about, subjects for whom willfulness was not only an attribution (often made or given by others) but an experience of that attribution. There was something in the process of writing the book that was mirroring the argument. They began to appear with a will of their own, often quite defiant and loud!

Feminist, queer and anti-racist histories are full of rather willful books. Gloria Anzaldúa describes Borderlands: La Frontera: The New Mestiza as follows: “The whole thing has had a mind of its own, escaping me and insisting on putting together the pieces of its own puzzle with minimal direction from my will. It is a rebellious, willful entity, a precocious girl-child forced to grow up too quickly” ([1987]1999: 88).[i] The book as a “whole thing” can become a willful girl-child, the one who insists on getting her own way, who comes to you with her own explanations of what it is that she is doing.  Oh, I am so grateful for the reach of willful books!

Over the course of the writing, especially in the last year, I felt more and more reached by these books. They became hands, arms! And I was transformed as a writer. I began myself to feel more energised and rebellious. I partly experienced this energy as a reorientation of my relation to philosophy. My work has always been philosophically inclined, and I have roomed and wandered over philosophical ground; a willful wanderer, to use one of the figures from my book. I have wandered away from the official paths laid out by disciplines. Not inhabiting a discipline can be an invitation: it can give us the freedom to roam.

But probably like many interdisciplinary scholars, my wandering was somewhat anxious, tinged with a sense of being inadequate to the texts I was reading; although it was never an anxiety that stopped me from reading or writing! In Queer Phenomenology I wrote the following:

“I write this book very much as someone who does not reside within philosophy, who feels out of line even at the point from which she starts. It is a risk to read philosophy as a non-philosopher. We know this. We risk getting things wrong, when we don’t have the resource to read the texts we read, by returning them to the fullness of the intellectual histories from which they emerge. And yet, we read. The promise of interdisciplinary scholarship is that the failure to return texts to their histories will do something. Of course, not all failures are creative. If we don’t take care with the texts we read, if we don’t pay attention, then the failure to read them ‘properly’ won’t do very much at all. Taking care involves work, and it is work that we must do, if we are to create something other than another point on a line. We must remember that to ‘not return” still requires the act of following, we have to go with something if we are to depart from that thing. The following takes us in a different direction, as we keep noticing other points.”

I know what I am trying to say here, and probably what I would say now is not that different. But I can hear in my own writerly voice, despite the attention to failure as creative, a hesitation, a concern about what it means to write without residence.  Over the course of writing Willful Subjects, my feelings about how I related to philosophy (including a not relatedness) changed. I began I guess to grow in confidence. I also noticed a shift in how I answered questions. I remember one time during the research for The Promise of Happiness, a philosopher basically said to me, ‘you can’t do that with Aristotle.’ I wasn’t floored but I was defensive (I was later to relay this story to a feminist philosopher who said with some amusement: ‘you can, as you have’). This time round when people ask me questions about this or that philosophical master (usually Kant) I pounce rather gleefully on the questions. Yes, I can take that on! Yippee!

It is the project that has helped me find this confidence. It is almost as if I have channelling the collective energy of willful subjects. It is like I can feel them behind me! Willfulness is, as I explore in the book, often a charge made by someone against someone. In being charged, we can acquire charge. Maybe you can acquire a sense of being in charge of what you are charged with. And the charge itself can be a connection: a way of relating to others similarly charged. Perhaps the language can be our lead: perhaps willfulness can be an electric current, passing through each of us, switching us on. Willfulness can be a spark. We can be lit up by it. It is an electric thought.

Feminism is for me about that spark. When I think of feminism as a philosophical project, I want that spark. I don’t turn to philosophy for answers, or models, or solutions. I want philosophy be treated as a world; with its own systems of reproducing some kinds of thought, some kinds of bodies. I am tired of this affirmative style of feminism. I want rebellious, disagreeable readings that don’t ignore what cannot be affirmed.  I want explanations for what does not change. I want strong critiques of the revival of universalism. There is lots of wanting in willfulness!

Below are two short paragraphs from the introduction about how I thought of the relation of the project to philosophy.

And now: this willful subject is off to be energized by Angela Davis.


Yes, feminist killjoys smile when assembling as bodies.


I do think of the arguments of this book as philosophical arguments even if the book does not inhabit in any “straight forward” way the house of philosophy.  The philosophical project of the book could even be described as not philosophy. What do I mean by this? To being doing not philosophy is a way of framing one’s relation to philosophy albeit in apparently negative terms. Not philosophy is practiced by those who are not philosophers, and aims to create room within philosophy for others who are not philosophers. Not being a philosopher working with philosophy can be understood as generative: the incapacity to return texts to their proper histories allows us to read sideways or across, thus creating a different angle on what is being reproduced. Not philosophy aims not to reproduce the body of philosophy by a willful citational practice: if philosophers are cited (and in this book many philosophers are cited) they are not only cited alongside those who are not philosophers but are not given any priority over those who are not. This is how I come to offer as my final hand a rereading of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic as a companion fable to the Grimm fable.

By not philosophy I am not, however, only referring to the philosophy produced by those who are not philosophers. Not philosophy also attends to “the not,” making “the not” an object of thought. Not philosophy is also a philosophy of the not.  In this book I argue that the will can be re-articulated in terms of the not: whether understood as possibility or capacity, as the possibility of not being compelled by an external force (I have discussed this understanding of will in Lucretius), or as the capacity to say or enact a “no” to what has been given as instruction. Indeed I will make claim that if willfulness is a judgment, then it typically falls on those who are not compelled by the reasoning of others. Willfulness might be what we do when we are judged as being not, as not meeting the criteria for being human, for instance.  Not to meet the criteria for human is often to be attached to other nots, not human as not being: not being white, not being male, not being straight. Not being in coming up against being can transform being. This statement can be heard as aspiration: not philosophy in reinhabiting the body of philosophy, queers that body.  Willfulness: philosophy astray, a stray’s philosophy.

[i] My appreciation to AnaLouise Keating who posted this quote in response to a facebook status update, and whose encouragement to reread Borderlands led me further along a willfulness trail, just as I was beginning to feel the trail had become exhausted

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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