Affective Orientations: Critical Perspectives on the Promise of Happiness

Corine Lajoie

Phenomenological literature abounds with references to the coupling of the lived body and its environment. Both Edmund Husserl and Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s accounts of embodied perception lay claim to the various ways in which our bodies naturally find their bearings in space and move through the world with seemingly pre-rehearsed familiarity. As Maria Talero writes, it most often appears that “[ours bodies] and the world are [enactively] wedded to one another.” (Talero, 2008: 454) To this end, phenomenology regularly refers to an ‘average’ body which forms with its surroundings a pre-reflexive practical system and which, most often, seamlessly fits with its environment, orients itself in space and “[saturates] the space with body matter.” (Ahmed, 2006: 9) However, in systematically discussing the nature of embodiment through an implicit account of the able-bodied white male, phenomenology’s interest in the textures of lived experience shuns addressing the countless other ways in which bodies inhabit the world. The shortcomings of such accounts call for a fuller inquiry into the experiences of bodies that fall short of these “inconspicuous, unobtrusive and nonobstinate” (Diedrich, 2011: 212) forms of embodiment.

As Sara Ahmed argues in Queer Phenomenology (2006) and in The Promise of Happiness (2010), this portrait of an “intimate co-dwelling of bodies and [worlds]” (Ahmed, 2006: 52) is often conflated with the promise of a happy life. When bodies are harmoniously attuned to the requirements and sollicitations of their environment, they are anchored and fitting. In such cases, bodily orientations register our proximity to the right objects and create positive alignements. As I will argue in this paper, these kinds of orientations generate harmonious encounters with happy objects, others and spaces. Unhappy bodies, on the other hand, are seen as lacking the proper confidence and well-being most often associated with inconspicuous forms of embodiment. As Ahmed further argues, idiosyncratic figures like the feminist killjoy, the angry Black/Brown, the unhappy queer or the melancholic migrant might create tensions, uneasiness and discomfort when they are not oriented towards the r ight thi ngs in the right way. The reason they don’t succeed to reproduce these alignements could be explained by the fact that these things are out of their reach, or it could be explained by their desire to deliberately turn away from them. These experiences of disorientation hover like dark clouds over the promise of happiness, over and against the bright prospect of “philosophical accounts of [realities] of clarity of thought, strength of will, happiness and well-being” (Harbin, 2016: 3).

The questions I raise in this paper are informed by a rich tradition of thought in feminist, queer and critical race theory (cf. Judith Butler, Gail Weiss, Sara Ahmed, J. Halberstam). For the purpose of this paper, I will be working with a rather loosely defined concept of happiness. Happiness, I take it, is meant to refer to a broadly construed family of ‘happy’ experiences which involve a specific type of bodily orientation towards the world, objects and others. My interest in the role of orientation in embodied experience draws on these perspectives in an attempt to describe the promise of happiness as a fundamentally deceptive affective orientation.

Section 1 of this paper presents a phenomenological perspective on orientation, through an overview of Husserl and Merleau-Ponty’s analysis of embodiment. This section serves to clearly define orientation as a fundamentally embodied experience and opens up onto Sara Ahmed’s discussion of orientation in Queer Phenomenology. Section 2 draws on Ahmed’s later work and further defines the ‘promise of happiness’ involved in orientation. It introduces a reading of happiness as an affective orientation divided between happy and unhappy bodies. Finally, section 3 briefly engages with what I call the ‘economy of happiness’ and suggests a reevaluation of the burden of unhappiness and bodily disorientation.


Ahmed, Sara. 2010. The Promise of Happiness

Ahmed, Sara. 2006. Queer Orientations

Husserl, Edmund. 1950. Ideas Pertaining to a Pure Phenomenology and to a Phenomenological Philosophy

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. 1945. Phénoménologie de la perception