A Call to Arms

‘A Call to Arms’, pp.173-204, in:

Ahmed, Sara., 2014. Willful subjects. Duke University Press, Durham.


[…] Gramsci (1975) is calling for us to be willing something actively and with intelligence or though, asking us to orientate ourselves toward the future we hope to bring about, to work with others toward an actualisation of a possibility, of concrete initiatives.

Wilfulness tends to imply a articular kind of subject, one that has intentions and knows her intentions.


[…] assembling a wilfulness archive has allowed me to show how some forms of political volition are understood as wilful because they pulsate with desire, a desire that is not directed in the right way; a wilful will would have failed to acquire the right form, failed to have coordinated and unified disparate impulses into a coherent intent.

[…] following wilfulness around is one way we can move toward a more impulsive, less intentional mode of subjectivity.

Even though wilfulness is evocative of intentionality, or is even a form of hyper-intentionality, wilfulness can bypass intentionality.

I have noted throughout this book how wilful subjects are not necessarily individual persons: anything can be attributed as willful if it gets in the way of the completion of an action that has been agreed; and when an agreement is shared, willfulness to becomes a shared assumption.


Here, I want to think of this coming apart of the wilful part as a “parting gift”; wilfulness can be a gift given, a gift relayed between parts, a gift that allows noncompliant or resistant action to be carried out without intent.


[…] I noted, following others, how one history of prosthetics is the history of the restoration of the functional capacity of the worker’s body, a means through which the disabled worker can remain a willing part. A whole body is a more useful part of the whole. Political rebellion might require becoming unwilling to be able, or perhaps becoming an “indifferent member”.


We should not assume willful parts are friendly or somehow on our side.


Women might need to change hands to liberate themselves from the scripts of gender. When hands change, women can stop being helpful hands: women can become wilful, parting company.


Given that bodily integrity is often “a moral as well as physical quality”, to accept a body with parts that are missing is to reorientate our relation to bodies.

A willful politics might involve a refusal to cover over what is missing, a refusal to aspire to be whole. A will duty often takes the form of an aspiration: even for bodies that are not able to be whole, they must be willing to aspire to be whole.

There can be nothing more willful than the refusal to be aspirational, or at least to aspire for the right things in the right way, a refusal to miss what you deemed to be missing.


[Ahmed discusses Spinoza’s ‘thinking stone’]

If a stone could think, Spinoza suggests, it would think of itself as a willing stone, as the origin of movement, as able to start and stop at will. Oh how wrong the stone would be! How wishful and willful but how wrong!

That is not, however, Spinoza’s point: to expose human error: if there is humiliation in the story it belongs to the humans not the stones.

Spinoza: “This, then, is that human freedom which all men boast of possessing, and which consist solely, in this, that men are conscious of desire and unaware of the causes by which they are determined.”

The thinking stone is certainly used to exemplify what I am calling willessness, but in order to create a new kinship: a kinship premised on the absence of will, in the common state of being determined from without. Freedom here requires consciousness of being determined, perhaps a kind of stony consciousness, a consciousness that movement comes from what we are not is how we acquire self-knowledge.


[On Schopenhauer’s take on Spinoza’s will]

Schopenhauer is not in suggesting the stone is right (rather than humans are wrong) positing a model of free will as self-originating movement. Rather the will becomes something everything has: another kind of kinship, a stony kinship.


We are showing how human bodies cannot be made exceptional without losing something: how we matter by being made of matter; flesh, bone, skin, stone, tangled up, tangled in.


The arm is a join; to arm is to join. A call to arms is most often articulated as a call to action; it is a call to take up one’s arms as tools of war.

Arms can be willful agents; they create by reaching.


It is important to remember the hand of the fist: a fist is typically defined as a hand closed tightly with the fingers bent against the palm. The fist is the unhandy hand; when the fingers clench, the hand cannot grasp, or hold, or be compelled to do something.

The radicalness of the fist is also expressed in how it is cut off, no longer willing to be part, no longer willing to accept the subordination of its will to the whole.

Feminist hands are not “helping hands” in the sense that they do not help women help. Feminist hands, though, might be helpful in another way: helping women to protest against being helpers.

Of course as soon as we say that we have to say this: any feminism that can live up to the promise of that name will not free some women from being helping hands by employing other women to take their place.

Feminism – as with other forms of dissenting politics – needs to refuse this division of labor, this “freeing up” of the time and energy of some by employing the limbs of others.

If willfulness is a politics that aims for no, then it is a politics that is not only about the refusal to be supporting limbs but the refusal of a social body that treats others as supporting limbs.


Revolutionary hands are willful; in not carrying out commands, they remake the bodies of which they are a part.


The arms of the slave belonged to the master, as did the slave, as the ones who were not supposed to have a will of their own. No wonder we must look to the arm, if we are to understand the history of those who rise up against oppression.


Those who resist being made into objects can recognize the resistance of objects. One might speculate here that subjects who have experienced being made into objects by virtue of their membership of a group are the ones who give objects the “best chance” of life because they are less likely to experience their own being as occupation.

A history of willfulness would thus include a history of objects that are not empty enough to be filled with human will, objects that refuse to provide containers.


[Ahmed reconsiders Hegelian master-slave dialectic]


[…] willfulness requires a collective struggle: becoming army. Effort is shared. Effort is unbecoming. What a history: becoming army as unbecoming the arms of the social body.


Disturbance can be creative: not as what we aim for, not as what grounds our action, but as the effect of action: disturbance as what is created by the very effort of reaching, of reaching up, of reaching out. of reaching for something that is not present, something that appears only as a shimmer, a horizon of possibility.

When the arms refuse to support and carry, they reach. We do not know what the arms can reach.