When Things Stop

Having a research blog has helped me to appreciate how each project is like a stepping stone. A stepping stone is often a stone we step on in order to step onto another stone. But we don’t have to assume this “in order to” structure.  We can stop where we step. A stepping stone can also be a resting stone. I do think of books as resting stones, even if they don’t always make us feel restful when being written or after being written! But in a book we allow our ideas to settle and take their shape. Writing a blog has thus also affirmed my belief in the importance of not removing the traces of these steps from our writing; these paths we follow to get to a certain point in an argument (including false starts, wrong turns, going backs, these are all part of the work of getting somewhere). When I was teaching this year  I kept talking about snails. It was with such affection! It was the little silvery lines on the ground I was thinking of: the traces that snails leave behind of where they have been.

Of course, we do not always know where we are going, or even where we have been. Sometimes we don’t even notice the things that keep coming up. It can be quite an strange feeling: when you realize your life has acquired a certain shape after that shape has been acquired. A shape can feel like a past tense, the surprise of an order to what you might experience as the flux of an existence. Maybe we work out where we are going from working out where we have been; working out how things led to a life taking this shape.

Books have their own lives when we live with books. Some concepts come to the front of our writing, because we have fronted up to them in the working through of an argument. In other words we tend to put things in the front of our writing that we have already put in the front of our minds.  But in fronting up to something, other things come along. I often learn most from those things.

The concept of causality is one such “behind” concept in my work (a concept which is also about what is behind), I realize now, only after that work has acquired its shape. In particular my work on affect and emotion exercised the language of causality. In The Promise of Happiness (2010) for example, I considered how we might assume that the relationship between an object and feeling involves causality: as if an object causes the feeling. So a happy object would be one that causes our happiness. In The Will to Power, Nietzsche suggests that the attribution of causality is retrospective (1968: 294-295). We might assume then, that the experience of pain is caused by the nail near our foot. But we only notice the nail given we experience an affect.  The object of feeling lags behind the feeling. The lag is not simply temporal, but involves active forms of mediation.  We search for the object: or as Nietzsche describes “a reason is sought in persons, experiences, etc. for why one feels this way or that” (354). The very tendency to attribute an affect to an object depends upon “closeness of association” where such forms of closeness are already given. We apprehend an object as the cause of an affect (the nail becomes known as a pain-cause, which is not the only way we might apprehend the nail). The proximity of an encounter might be what survives an encounter. In other words, the proximity between an affect and object is preserved through habit.

The object is not simply what causes the feeling, even if we attribute the object as its cause. The object is understood retrospectively as the cause of the feeling.  Having been understood in this way, I can just apprehend the nail and I will experience a pain affect, given the association between the object and the affect has been given.  The object becomes a feeling-cause. Once an object is a feeling-cause, it can cause feeling, so that when we feel the feeling we expect to feel, we are affirmed.  The retrospective causality of affect that Nietzsche describes quickly converts into what we could call an anticipatory causality.  We can even anticipate an affect without being retrospective insofar as objects might acquire the value of proximities that are not derived from our own experience.  For example, with fear-causes, a child might be told not to go near an object in advance of its arrival. Some things more than others are encountered as “to-be-feared” in the event of proximity, which is exactly how we can understood the anticipatory logic of the discourse of stranger danger, as I first explored in my book, Strange Encounters (2000).

We can also anticipate that an object will cause happiness in advance of its arrival.  Objects can become “happiness-causes,” before we even encounter them.  We are directed toward objects that are already anticipated to cause happiness. In other words, the judgment that some things are good can precede our encounter with things, and by preceding our encounters, can direct us toward those things.  Certain objects are attributed as the cause of happiness, which means they already circulate as social goods before we “happen” upon them, which is why we might happen upon them in the first place. This is how the wedding day can be imagined as the “happiest day of your life,” before it happens, which might be how it happens! This is not to say that happiness-causes always cause happiness. As Arlie Russell Hochschild explores in her classic book The Managed Heart, if the bride is not happy on the wedding day and even feels “depressed and upset” then she is experiencing an “inappropriate affect” (2003: 59), or is being affected inappropriately. She has to save the day by feeling right: “sensing a gap between the ideal feeling and the actual feeling she tolerated, the bride prompts herself to be happy” (61). Of course we learn from this example that it is possible not to inhabit fully one’s own happiness, or even to be alienated from one’s happiness, if the former affection remains lively, or if one is made uneasy by the labour of making your self feel a certain way. Uneasiness might persist in the very feeling of being happy, as a feeling of unease with the happiness you are in. To be what I have called an “affect alien” is an uneasy feeling. An affect alien might even experience a happiness-cause as the cause of her unhappiness.

Feelings can become stuck in social situations by being “given” a cause. Feminist killjoys, for example, are often assumed to cause unhappiness because we have made unhappiness our cause (we kill joy because we are joyless). To become an unhappiness cause is to become the cause of your own unhappiness as well as the unhappiness of others. Remember: a cause is not simple. It is not simply about how somebody is affected in the present time. For something to become a cause of unhappiness, an association between that thing and unhappiness is preserved (and as I suggested above an association can be how we arrive at something, and can thus precede an encounter with something). This association is directive; feelings are given direction when they are given a cause.  Associations can be made in the thickness or heat of a situation. A woman of colour speaks of racism and she “brings the atmosphere down.” She becomes the cause of the loss of a shared feeling of enjoyment. When she becomes a cause, a history is enacted, often through not being consciously registered. Causality is exercised as an affective logic: an explanation is given of who stops something from being given. A stopping point is here experienced as an affective or tonal shift.

To share happiness can involve an agreement about who has caused or would cause the loss of that happiness. Causality becomes not only something that relates to how objects in the world relate (say a billiard ball that is caused to move by being hit by another billiard ball) but how we relate to the world, including a world of objects. Causality can even be understood as a mode of self-identification.

What do I mean by this? This example is from an endnote in The Promise of Happiness: my sister and I always argued about the causes of road accidents. She would say that slower drivers caused accidents, because they caused fast drivers to feel impatient. I would say that fast drivers caused road accidents because they were impatient. Where we attribute the cause related to our own self-identification as fast drivers (my sister) or slow drivers (myself), which in turn allows us to establish ourselves as occupying the sphere of normality or neutrality. I thought she went “too fast” and she thought I went “too slow.” Note also that attributions of causality are stopping devices: you go back “so far” to establish causality, and you go as far as you need to go back to protect yourself from becoming attributed as the cause of something that is evaluated as negative. So for my sister her impatience was caused (by drivers who wanted to go slow like me), and for me, her impatience was the cause (because she wanted to go faster than she should).

More recently, in Willful Subjects, I also wrote about causality as a stopping device, without consciously remembering, funnily enough, that it had come up before. In the first chapter, Willing Subjects, I explore scenes from two George Eliot novels, Silas Marner and Adam Bede, in which things break (a willfulness archive is full of broken things). In the latter, a child Molly breaks a jug when completing a task for her mother Mrs. Poyser. Molly is drawing the ale, but she is taking her time.  “What a time that gell is drawing th’ ale” says Mrs. Poyser (1961: 220). Molly here we could say is too slow, she is lagging behind an expectation. Molly then appears, “carrying a large jug, two small mugs, and four drinking-cans, all full of ale or small beer – an interesting example of the prehensile power possessed by the human hand” (221). But then Molly has a “vague alarmed sense” (there is a storm, her mother is impatient). When she “hastened her step a little towards the far deal table” she catches “her foot in her apron” and “fell with a crash and a smash into a pool of beer” (221). Whatever makes Molly fall, by falling she breaks the jug; leaving her “dolefully” to “pick up the fragments of pottery” (221). Molly’s clumsiness gets in the way of her completion of an action. This connection between clumsiness and willfulness is one I explore in the book: it is a way of picking up the shattered pieces of a broken jug.

In this narrative, willfulness comes up as an explanation: it is what is assumed to cause Molly to be wrong footed. Willfulness is here a stopping device: it is how a chain of causality is stopped at a certain point. For the child to become the cause of the breakage we would not ask what caused the child to fall. And note: when causality is assumed, an assumption can become a cause. A willful child might break things because it assumed she is more likely to break things: the very assumption of her willfulness can make her anxious and uneasy. She can be wrong footed because she knows that when things go wrong she is assumed to be in the wrong.

We might also note here a link here between deviation and breakage: to deviate from the right path is to lose the potential to carry out another’s will.  When we talk of right path in this context we are talking of the unfolding of an action in time; a path is what we have to take to reach something. If we think of a hand holding a jug that holds the ale, then we learn that willing involves a moment of suspension: the hand has left its resting place, it is carrying something toward something, but the task has yet to be completed. The hand has not yet reached its destination. Willfulness might strike in a moment of suspension: what gets in the way of what is on the way. Willfulness: that which is striking. If we follow some philosophers and assumed that happiness is what “the will” aims for (I observed in The Promise of Happiness the remarkable consistency of this assumption) then to be judged willful is to become a killjoy of the future: the one who steals the possibility of happiness, the one who stops happiness from becoming actual, the one who gets in the way of a happiness assumed as on the way.

Some bodies become stopping points, the point when things stop: communication, life, energy, vitality, happiness.  Some bodies become the cause of the loss of those things that are agreed in advance to be good things before the advance of those things. Anticipatory causality thus often rests on anticipatory loss: happiness is anticipated by being anticipated as lost.  Anti-immigration politics often function as anticipatory loss: it is anticipated that migrants would cause the loss of national happiness. And when some bodies are assumed to be stopping points, they might be stopped: stopped from entering, from passing through, because it is assumed that if they are not stopped, everything else would stop: communication, life, energy, vitality, happiness.

Maybe we have to be willing to cause things to stop: to stop events being organised around certain bodies; to the stop the world that causes some bodies to stop. You can see how a judgment can be turned into a project. If pointing out sexism or racism causes unhappiness then we are willing to cause unhappiness, even if this willingness does not make unhappiness our cause. Perhaps being willing to cause unhappiness makes willfulness into a cause.  We might be willing not only not to go with the flow, but willing to cause an obstruction. This is another sense in which willfulness is striking.


Eliot, George (1961). Adam Bede. New York: Signet Classics.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell (2003). The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Second Edition. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Nietzsche, Friedrich (1968). The Will to Power. Trans. Walter Kaufman and R.J.Hollingdale. New York: Vintage Books.


About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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