Between Parts

My project on willfulness ended up being a project about parts. I didn’t start with them: they just kept coming up! Willful Subjects is full of them and the promise as well as terror of their agency.

How did this happen? I became interested in how the general will is imagined as a whole body, and the particular will, a body part. We now tend to associate the idea of the general will with the work of Rousseau. But as Patrick Riley (1988) has shown the general will has a long history, and is transformed over time from a religious to a secular idea. I draw on the work of the seventeenth century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal. In Pensées, Pascal associates the particular will with self-will. The will is a kind of tendency to tend toward oneself. As he puts it: “all tends to itself. This is contrary to all order” ([1669] 2003: 132). Pascal argues that the will should tend toward the general, that is, it should acquire a general tendency, which is not the natural tendency of will. Let’s consider the “part” in the particular. A particular will is the will of a part. Pascal attributes danger to the willing part in the following way:

Let us imagine a body full of thinking members…. If the foot and the hands had a will of their own, they could only be in their order in submitting their particular will to the primary will which governs the whole body. Apart from that, they are in disorder and mischief; but in willing only the good of the body, they accomplish their own good ([1669] 2003: 132,).

If a part is to have a will of its own, then it must will what the whole of the body wills. The body part that does not submit is the willful part. It is no good; it is up to no good.

The willful part is that which threatens the reproduction of an order. As Pascal further describes: “If the foot had always been ignorant that it belonged to the body, and that there was a body on which it depended, if it had only the knowledge and the love of self, what regret, what shame for its past life, for having been useless to the body that inspired its life…! What prayers for its preservation in it! For every member must be worthy to perish for the body, for which alone the whole is” (132). To be a thinking member of a body thus requires you remember you are part of a body. Willfulness thus refers to the part that in willing has forgotten it is just a part. The consequences of such forgetting are shame; the part that is ignorant of its status as part compromises the preservation of the whole.

Implicit in the drama of Pascal’s description is how the will binds memory and utility: the part in willing only the goal of the whole body must remember that body by becoming useful to that body (you can see how my research on will and willfulness led me to a project on “the uses of use”!). Explicit to his model is the intimacy of general will and what we can call general happiness. Pascal notes: “To make the members happy, they must have one will, and submit it to the body” (133). If having one shared will is deemed necessary for the happiness of each member, then failure to submit to this will compromises the happiness of the whole body. Unhappiness and willfulness embody here the same sort of threat to the “whole body.” Or to be more precise: willfulness becomes the cause of the unhappiness caused.

One could learn so much from Pascal’s mischievous foot. We might even say: his feet become rebels when they are not willing to walk or to work. The rebel is the one who compromises the whole, that is, the body of which she is a part. When we think of this “whole body” we might tend to think of “the organic body,” but we also think of how the social is imagined as like a body, as a sum of its parts. The idea of the social body has a long history. As Mary Poovey notes in her book, Making a Social Body, this idea is “historically related” to the classical metaphor of the body politic (1995: 7). She suggests that “the social body” acquired significance as a more inclusive metaphor than that of the body politic, as it gave a part to the labouring poor who had previously been excluded, who were deemed “not part” because they would compromise the health of the body. Poovey concludes: “the phrase social body therefore promised full membership in a whole (and held out the image of that whole) to a part identified as needing both discipline and care” (8, emphases in original). To be a part is to be the one who receives a promise: the promise of membership.

If to be a part is to be the recipient of a promise, then to become part is to acquire a duty, what I call in the book “a will duty.”  A willing part would be for what it is assumed as for. To become part is to inherit this prescription; it is to acquire a function. The feet must be willing to walk. The arms must be willing to carry.

Willfulness as a diagnosis could be a historical record of moments in which some parts fail their duty to carry and support to the whole body.  Arguably all parts of the whole would be diagnosed as willful if they are not willing to provide this support. But we learn that some parts who are willing “the good” of the whole body escape the diagnosis.  Remember Pascal: “they accomplish their own good.” This is how some parts in accomplishing their own good might be diagnosed as not only willful but also selfish (as willing away from others); whilst others who are also accomplishing their own good might be diagnosed not only as not willful or selfish, but even as will-less or self-less (as willing for others). The point of this difference is how the general in expressing the will of some parts allows the will of those parts to appear as general rather than particular.

If the will of some parts is accomplished by the general will, then those parts acquire a freedom not to be supportive. This is how the distinction between willing and willful parts – between those whose will is accomplished by the general and those whose will is not – functions as a moral as well as discursive frame.

Let’s take two contrasting examples. In the current landscape of cuts to public spending or austerity a much repeated speech act is that we must all “tighten our belts.” Of course the ones who make the command are probably not themselves tightening their belts. But those who resist the command, who call into question the right of or in the command, are deemed as self-willed, or even as selfish, as putting themselves (or perhaps even their own stomachs) over and above the general interest, as compromising the very capacity of the nation to survive, or flourish.  We might assume that in the current financial climate, the bankers would be judged as willful, as putting themselves (and their own stomachs) before the general interest.  But even if this judgment is made (by some, certainly not by all) that judgment is rarely expressed in action: after all, the bankers have kept their bonuses. Why can ask why even if we know why. Capitalism is understood as “the whole body,” as what parts must be willing to reproduce. And capital is identified as the life-blood of this body: as what must be kept in circulation no matter what (or who), as if without capital or blood being pumped through, the whole body would not flourish. The function of the banks as willing parts (as accomplishing in their “own good” the good of the whole body) is what stops any judgment of willfulness from being followed through. Perhaps the judgment is the follow through.

The part/whole distinction thus becomes a willing distinction: not simply a distinction between the part and whole, but between parts, between those who are willing and those who are not. This is why we cannot have a general logic of the part.

Understanding the part/whole distinction allows us to recognise not only how the will becomes duty, but how the duty becomes a particular as well as general duty. Given the social is imagined as a body with parts, some bodies more than others will be thought of as the limbs of the social body.  To become a limb of the social body is to acquire a duty to provide it with support.

Henri Bergson in “Frenzy, Mechanism and Mysticism” reflects on the relationship between bodily organs and technology: “If our organs are natural instruments, our instruments must be artificial organs: the workman’s tool is a continuation of his arm, the tool-equipment of humanity is therefore a continuation of its body” ([1932] 2002: 339, emphasis added). If the arm is continued by a tool, the arm is also a working tool. If the tool continues the arm, the tool is also a living arm. The worker can diminished by this continuation, which might how the specific story of the workman does not simply fold back into a general story of the human. Or the story of the workman’s arm might be another way of telling the story of the human. Arlie Hochschild describes how: “The factory boy’s arm functioned like a piece of machinery used to produce wallpaper. His employer, regarded that arm as an instrument, claimed control over its speed and motions. In this situation, what was the relation between the boy’s arm and his mind? Was his arm in any meaningful sense his own?” ([1983] 2003: 7, emphasis in original). We need to tell these (unfinished) histories of lost arms, of how workers lose their arms, as the loss of a relation of ownness, when arms become tools in the creation of wealth. The loss of the worker’s arms in becoming tool is also the acquisition of arms by others.

When some bodies provide the “whole social body” with arms, other bodies are freed from the necessity of this becoming.  The freedom not to be supportive is the freedom not to become the arms: by employing others to be the arms. We can consider how a wide range of power relations can be understood in terms of some becoming the limbs to support others. We can simplify this formulation: some bodies become supporting limbs. The “servant class” could be one way of thinking how some individuals become the “hands” that exist only to support others. The female servant is a handmaid. Bruce Robbins shows how servants as represented as and through hands in nineteenth century British fiction as “parts without a whole” (1993: ix-x).  Perhaps the hand is cut off from the worker’s body in order to be given to the body of the aristocrat. Robbins cites William Hazlitt’s essay, “Footman” from 1830, written from the point of view of the gentleman with the aim of satirizing that viewpoint: “what would be the good of having a will of our own, if we had not others about us who are deprived of a will of their own, and wear a badge to say ‘I serve’” (17). The aristocratic class rule through the will: an exercising of will that take the form of the deprivation of others of a will of their own, treating others as servers, in the case of handmaids, as hands, in the case of footmen, as feet. An unwilling servant would be “impertinent,” a word that now implies “rudely bold” but derives from the Latin for “unconnected” or “unrelated.” An unwilling servant would but a part that is not related to a whole, as the one who is unwilling to subordinate her or his will to the will of the whole.

It is an impertinent history, this history of willfulness. A willful part might be the part that has stopped working. No wonder: willfulness is striking.

So many histories are at stake in this differentiation between willing and unwilling or willful parts!

We could think also of citizenship in these precise terms: citizenship as becoming part. Of course in multicultural liberal secularism, a diversity of individual parts is permitted. A diversity of individual parts might even be encouraged but on condition that each part is willing to participate in national culture, where participation requires an agreement with a common end or purpose (see here for a reflection on conditional will). We learn the requirements of participation from those whose particulars fail to meet them. Think of how “the veil” has acquired a willfulness charge. The veil becomes a willful part, a part that refuses to take part in national culture; a stubborn attachment to an inassimilable difference.

The creation of a distinction between willing and willful parts is thus a crucial mechanism for reproducing the national body. My account here develops the argument I first offered in Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (2000). I suggested that the key differentiation is not between us and them, but between them, between those that differences that can be assimilated into the national body and those that cannot.  Some become what I called in this book “stranger strangers.” Another way of saying this: some differences become indigestible, what the nation cannot stomach.

Anti-immigration discourse thus exercises the figure of the unwilling migrant, or more specifically the migrant who is “unwilling to integrate.” To be unwilling to integrate is to be “too willing” to retain an allegiance to another body. Citizenship comes to presented what must be forced upon an unwilling and thus willful migrant. A much repeated mantra in the UK is for example that “migrants must learn to speak English. This mantra needs to be heard as such: in fact many of the English language courses are over-subscribed (with long waiting lists). The figure of the unwilling migrant participates in the transformation of citizenship into a requirement, such that the nation is “forced to force” the migrant to become willing.

So many histories at stake in the differentiation between parts! The requirement to become part is a requirement to be willing, to counter the willfulness charge.

A willful part can also be a queer part: a part that is too full of will, a part whose impulses and desires lead it astray. Perhaps willful parts queer the whole body. Decadence has been understood in terms of the pulsation of willful parts. One definition of decadence offered by the French writer Bourget and drawn on by Havelock Ellis is as follows: “If the energy of cells becomes independent, the lesser organism will likewise cease to subordinate their energy to the total energy and the anarchy which is established constitutes the decadence of the whole” (cited in Ellis 1932: 52). As Havelock Ellis elaborates a decadent style would be when “everything is sacrificed to the development of individual parts” (1932: 52). A social body becomes queer, becomes decadent, when the parts have “too much will,” compromising everything: the reproduction of the whole.

Do we notice this “too much” because of what we do not notice? Parts appear as full of will when they don’t support the reproduction of a whole. They are too expressive because of what they do not express. No wonder that the self-regard of heterosexuality can be concealed under the sign of the general will, because this particular will has already been given expression in the general will.  Giving up a will that does not have a general expression is what allows you to inhabit the familiar, or to recede into the background. When willing “agrees” with what is generally willed, a part becomes part of a background. When willing does not agree, the will of the part is too full: willful. Willfulness might “come up” when an act of willing does not agree with what has receded. A queer phenomenology teaches us what or who recedes in the generalization of will.

And I have no doubt that: willful parts will keep coming up.


Bergson, Henri (2002). [1932] “Frenzy, Mechanism and Mysticism” in John Mullarkey (ed).  Bergson’s Key Writings.  Continuum: London. 295-344.

Ellis, Havelock (1932). Views and Reviews. London: Desmond Harmsworth.

Hochschild, Arlie Russell. (2003) [1983]. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of Human Feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Pascal, Blaise. (2003) [1669] Pensées. Trans. W.F.Trotter. New York Dover Publications.

Poovey, Mary (1995). Making a social body: British cultural formation, 1830- 1864. University of Chicago Press.

Riley, Patrick (1988). The General Will Before Rousseau: The Transformation of the Divine into the Civic. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press.

Robbins, Bruce (1993). The Servant’s Hand: English Fiction from Below. Durham: Duke University Press.

About feministkilljoys

feminist killjoy, affect alien, angry queer woman of colour
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