Victim of Prejudice: Promises of Happiness and Gender Failure

Two General Questions:

  1. If this is a novel of education, what does it attempt to teach? Whom does it try to teach?
  2. Do we continue discussing Victim and Woman on Monday, postponing Pompey for a day?

Two Marys:

  • Consider Mary’s story and that of her mother (also a Mary, See: Vol 1, Ch 12).
  • To what extent does the main Mary repeat her mother’s past? Does she escape it? What does the pairing of their stories do for the novel’s discourses on gender, virtue, and sensibility?
  • To what extent do any of our course’s heroines ‘escape’ their parents’ ‘fates’?

Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. Print.

Happy Objects:

The very expectation of happiness gives us a specific image of the future. This is why happiness provides the emotional setting for disappointment, even if happiness is not given: we just have to expect happiness from “this or that” for “this and that” to be experienceable as objects of disappointment. . . . We could say that happiness is promised through proximity to certain objects. Objects would refer not only to physical or material things but also to anything that we imagine might lead us to happiness, including objects in the sense of values, practice, styles, as well as aspirations. Doing x as well as having x might be what promises us happiness. The promise of happiness takes this form: if you have this or have that, or if you do this or do that, then happiness is what follows. (40)

  • What ‘happy objects’ are offered to Mary? In what ideas, people, things, etc does she locate the means to her being happy?
  • In the ideological world of this book, what social changes need to happen for her to become happy?

Pursuits of Happiness:

The obstacle to desire hence performs a psychic function in preserving the fantasy that getting what you want would make you happy. . . . Indeed, the very promise of happiness may acquire its force by not being given by the objects that are attributed as happiness-causes.The happy object circulates even in the absence of happiness by filling a certain gap; we anticipate that the happy object will cause happiness, such that it becomes a prop that sustains the fantasy that happiness is what would follow if only we could have “it.” . . .Happiness becomes a question of following rather than finding. If the pursuit of happiness is augmented as a constitutional right, then happiness becomes “whatever” is pursued and hence achieves its affectivity by not being given or found. The promise of happiness is the promise that the lines we follow will get us there, where the “there” acquires its value by not being “here.” This is why happiness is crucial to the energy or “forward direction” of narrative. (43)

  • What is Mary pursuing in this novel?
  • Is it happiness or something else?
  • Virtue, nature, love, etc are praised by many of the characters, do they lead to happiness?

Social Measures of Happiness [Ahmed is critiquing this]:

Happiness research is primarily based on self-reporting: studies measure how happy people say they are, presuming that if people say they are happy, they are happy. . . . One of the primary happiness indicators is marriage. Marriage would be defined as “the best of all possible worlds” as it maximizes happiness. The argument is simple: if you are married, then we can predict that you are more likely to be happier than if you are not married. The finding is also a recommendation: get married and you will be happier! This intimacy of measurement and prediction is powerful. The science of happiness could be described as performative: by finding happiness in certain places, it generates those places as being good, as being what should be promoted as goods. (16-17)

  • What is the status of marriage in this text? Is it a good in itself? Is it something artificial, constructed by society?
  • Aside from her birth and her rape (Vol. 2, Ch. IV), what stands in her way of gaining marriage? Is marriage held out as a means to happiness in this narrative (or our other novels)?

Halberstam, Judith. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011. Print

Rewards of Failure:

What kinds of reward can failure offer us? Perhaps most obviously, failure allows us to escape the punishing norms that discipline behavior and manage human development with the goal of delivering us from unruly childhoods to orderly and predictable adulthoods. Failure preserves some of the wondrous anarchy of childhood and disturbs the supposedly clean boundaries between adults and children, winners and losers. And while failure certainly comes accompanied by a host of negative affects, such as disappointment, disillusionment, and despair, it also provides the opportunity to use these negative affects to poke holes in the toxic positivity of contemporary life. (3)

  • Consider the endings of Pamela, Anti-Pamela, The Woman of Colour, and Victim of Prejudice. What happens to the heroine at the end?
  • How is that ending tied to notions of punishment or reward?
  • What would you consider to be a “happy ending” (in the sense of narrative – stay focused)? Is such an ending possible for Mary?

Gender Failure:

From the perspective of feminism, failure has often been a better bet than success. Where feminine success is always measure by male standards, and gender failure often means being relieved of the pressure to measure up to patriarchal ideals, not succeeding at womanhood can offer unexpected pleasures. In many ways this has been the message of many renegade feminists in the past. Monique Wittig (1992) argued that if womanhood depends upon a heterosexual framework, then lesbians are not ‘women,’ and if lesbians are not ‘women,’ then they fall outside of patriarchal norms and can re-create some of the meaning of their genders. Also in the 1970s Valerie Solanas suggested that if ‘woman’ takes on meaning only in relation to ‘man,’ then we need to ‘cut up men’ (2004: 72). Perhaps that is a little drastic, but at any rate these kinds of feminisms, what I call shadow feminism in chapter 5 have long haunted the more acceptable forms of feminism that are orientated to positivity, reform, and accommodation rather than negativity, rejection, and transformation. Shadow feminism take the form not of becoming, being, and doing but of shady, murky modes of undoing, unbecoming, and violating. (4)

  • Could this idea of “gender failure” opening up new possibilities for the characters (or the readers) be applied to our novels in this course?
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