Willful Subjects

Willful Subjects

Book Pages: 320 Illustrations: Published: August 2014

Author: Sara Ahmed

Cultural Studies, Gender and Sexuality > Feminism and Women’s Studies, Theory and Philosophy > Feminist Theory

In Willful Subjects Sara Ahmed explores willfulness as a charge often made by some against others. One history of will is a history of attempts to eliminate willfulness from the will. Delving into philosophical and literary texts, Ahmed examines the relation between will and willfulness, ill will and good will, and the particular will and general will. Her reflections shed light on how will is embedded in a political and cultural landscape, how it is embodied, and how will and willfulness are socially mediated. Attentive to the wayward, the wandering, and the deviant, Ahmed considers how willfulness is taken up by those who have received its charge. Grounded in feminist, queer, and antiracist politics, her sui generis analysis of the willful subject, the figure who wills wrongly or wills too much, suggests that willfulness might be required to recover from the attempt at its elimination.


"Willful Subjects is a rich, complex, wondrous archive of willfulness. The array of texts, voices, problems and approaches is both painstaking and playful, validating and challenging."  — Heather Rakes, xcphilosophy blog

“In Willful Subjects, cultural theorist Sara Ahmed provides a history of willfulness. Her study reveals some significant and fascinating aspects of this history, and points to areas of future scholarly enquiry. . . . The book offers a comprehensive and intellectually rigorous treatise on a topic that is more complex than it may initially appear. This text also provides further evidence of Ahmed’s scholarly nous. “ — Jay Daniel Thompson, M/C Reviews

“Ahmed has produced an erudite archive of willfulness, tracing the ideas of the will and willfulness through Western thought since Augustine.  Admonitory fairy tales and George Eliot’s novels serve as articulations of philosophy.  Ahmed engages in a queer reading of willfulness, a reading that does not presume that willfulness is negative. . . . Recommended. Graduate students, researchers, faculty.” — J. L. Croissant, Choice

“The book’s language is sharp and clear; its arguments are creative and original, as well as thoroughly researched with copious footnotes. Ahmed’s prose is virtuoso. An extended theoretical essay on the concept of the eponymous willful subject, this book is a mix of philosophy, political theory, and literary criticism. Ahmed’s unique combination of theoretical questioning, politics, and poetics is both the work’s subject matter and its writing style. Willful Subjects is a beautifully crafted book.”  — Michelle Hartman, Society for Contemporary Thought and the Islamicate World Review

“Ahmed effectively imitates the twisting together of thought, affect, memory, and insight, drawing connections between things that may appear disparate, and noticing disjunctions in what was previously knit together. … [B]y drawing widely and richly on works of philosophy, literature, film, and everydayness, Ahmed shows how in social life, one affect or action may be judged to be quite another. This allows us to attend not only to behaviors and orientations, but to how those are read by others, to why and in what ways certain actions and affects are felt and interpreted as problematic, as willful.” — Anna Mudde, Hypatia

“Ahmed’s insights, as always, are both intellectually fertile and provocative; Willful Subjects will not disappoint.” — Margrit Shildrick, Signs

“[Ahmed’s] appeal to the reader to not let things go for the sake of social ease and the general happiness is compelling. It might be easier to smile politely when you are being patronized, or let racist, sexist, homophobic or transphobic remarks go unchallenged. But Ahmed’s book reminds us how much the ‘small’ things matter when you are excluded from the ‘we,’ or when the joke is on you. As a kind of inversion of Kant’s universalism of the will, her ‘willfulness maxim’ – ‘don’t get over it, if you are not over it!’ – serves as an important affirmation of the courage and ‘daily grind’ entailed in micropolitical labour and the ‘refusal to adjust to an unjust world.’” — Victoria Browne, Radical Philosophy

Willful Subjects is essential reading for those working in feminism, disability studies, queer theory, critical race studies, and/or phenomenology who reject the notion that a new world or a better one is simply tied to asserting the will to make it so. This is a book for those willing to slow down to queer the will and contemplate what we have been up to, willingly or not.” — Tanya Titchkosky, Contemporary Women's Writing

“Without being too idealistic, this book should be in the collection of every activist and organiser working to create a different world. The last chapter in particular offers much that can reinforce and reinvigorate the willful when feeling isolated and downbeat. Followers of Sara Ahmed’s work will not be disappointed with her latest offering.” — Lizzy Willmington, Feminist Legal Studies

“Ahmed’s book has powerful potential for scholars invested in challenging the white, androcentric, heteronormative boundaries historically constructed around western philosophy specifically, and around 'the subject,' more generally. Willful Subjects also provides fruitful new avenues for exploring contemporary feminist debates about women’s agency, particularly with respect to the ‘gatekeeping’tendencies observable in much mainstream, western liberal feminist discourse. I would argue that scholars interested in rethinking the relationship between philosophy and literature would also benefit from Ahmed’s work, as would those whose research focuses on the history of emotions.” — Samantha A. Langsdale, Wagadu

“Ahmed’s writing is well-weaved and always compelling, but her determination to maintain the complexity of the issue creates a state of suspended incompletion that demonstrates Ahmed’s own willfulness (the will to leave the topic unresolved), as well as an expectation that there can and must be future applications for this willfulness archive. Ahmed’s arm--the willful entity that is her subject--is one that reaches instead of carries; it signifies instead of embodies. Read Willful Subjects, then, not to see what the arm has accomplished in reaching out of the dirt but to see the very disturbances in the dirt itself and to imagine where--toward what futures--the many willful arms on the book’s final page also reach.” — Krista Quesenberry, Critical Policy Studies

"This rousing text remains a valuable assessment of historical and contemporary ideas of will and willfulness and a far-reaching exploration of potential new perspectives on our identification and evaluation of the willful subject." — Hannah Simpson, College Literature

"... this work may be particularly helpful to scholarship on historical violence and emotion. Ultimately, Willful Subjects is massive, thick with both potential and delight, answering not only what assignments of willfulness 'do do,' but who may be considered willful." — Joshua Falek, Journal of North Carolina Association of Historians

"Sara Ahmed's Willful Subjects explores the relationship between willfulness and dissent that challenges the notions of coherence and unity that characterize many accounts of the will. Focusing on a concept of 'the distributed will'—distinct from Rousseau's 'general will'—Ahmed proposes a consideration of the relationship between ethics and the will which refuses to assume at the outset that being out of sorts with the common good is a form of immorality. Considering the will internally fractious and insistent proves more than useful in understanding collective forms of willfulness, including political resistance. Like her other works known for their originality, sharpness, and reach, Ahmed offers here a vibrant, surprising, and philosophically rich analysis of cultural politics, drawing on feminist, queer and anti-racist uses of willing and willfulness to explain forms of sustained and adamant social disagreement as a constitutive part of any radical ethics and politics worth its name." — Judith Butler, Maxine Elliot Professor of Comparative Literature, University of California, Berkeley

"Willful Subjects is beautifully conceived and expertly conducted, sentence by sentence, suggestion by suggestion. Paradoxically, Sara Ahmed's willfulness promises happiness for her readers. Exquisite formulations engage our contemplation and render real intellectual enjoyment. Followers of Ahmed, of which there are many, will not be disappointed. This new instance of razor-sharp thinking powerfully builds upon The Promise of Happiness to look at something usefully slicing through contentment: the scissoring relations between the will and willfulness. More than cutting-edge, this is cutting thought." — author of The Queer Child, or Growing Sideways in the Twentieth Century

"There is no one else writing in contemporary cultural theory who is able to take hold of a single concept with such a firm and sure grasp and follow it along an idiosyncratic path in such surprising and illuminating ways." — Gayle Salamon, author of Assuming a Body: Transgender and Rhetorics of Materiality


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Sara Ahmed is Professor of Race and Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She is the author of On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life; The Promise of Happiness; and Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others, all also published by Duke University Press; as well as The Cultural Politics of Emotion; Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality; and Differences That Matter: Feminist Theory and Postmodernism.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments vii

Introduction: A Willfulness Archive 1

1. Willing Subjects 23

2. The Good Will 59

3. The General Will 97

4. Willfulness as a Style of Politics 133

Conclusion: A Call to Arms 173

Notes 205

References 257

Index 277
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing

Sara Ahmed is the recipient of the 2017 Kessler Award, presented by CLAGS

Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-5783-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-5767-4
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