Disorientation and Queer Objects

Sara Ahmed, ‘Conclusion: Disorientation and Queer Objects’, pp.157-179, in:
Ahmed, S., 2006. Queer phenomenology: orientations, objects, others. Duke University Press, Durham.


Moments of disorientation are vital. They are bodily experiences that throw the world up, or throw the body from its ground.

The body might be reoriented if the hand that reaches out finds something to steady an action. Or the hand might reach out and find nothing, and might grasp in­stead the indeterminacy of air. The body in losing its support might then be lost, undone, thrown.


I want us to think about how queer politics might involve disorientation, without legislating disorientation as a politics. It is not that disorientation is always radical. Bodies that experience disorientation can be defensive, as they reach out for support or as they search for a place to reground and reorientate their relation to the world.


I have noted that phenomenology is full of moments of disorientation. And yet, such moments are often moments that “point” toward becoming orien­tated.

The straight body is not simply in a “neutral” position: or if it is the neutral position, then this alignment is only an effect of the repetition of past gestures, which give the body its contours and the “impression” of its skin. In a way, the utterance ”I can” points to the future only insofar as it inherits the past, as the accumulation of what the body has already done, as well as what is “behind” the body, the conditions of its arrival The body emerges from this history of doing, which is also a history of not doing, of paths not taken, which also involves the loss, impossible to know or to even register, of what might have followed from such paths.

[Ref Merleau-Ponty]

The “upright” body is involved in the world and acts on the world, or even “can act” insofar as it is already involved. The weakening of this involvement is what causes the body to collapse, and to become an object alongside other objects. In simple terms, disorientation involves becoming an object.

It is from this point, the point at which the body becomes an object, that Fanon’s phenomenology of the black body begins. By implication, we learn that disorientation is unevenly distributed: some bodies more than others have their involvement in the world called into crisis. This shows us how the world itself is more “involved” in some bodies than in others, as it takes such bodies as the contours of ordinary experience. It is not just that bodies are directed in specific ways, but that the world is shaped by the directions taken by some bodies more than others.


If the sexual involves the contingency of bodies coming into contact with other bodies, then sexual disorientation slides quickly into social disorientation, as a disorientation in how things are arranged.

[Ref Sartre’s Nausea]

If objects are the extensions of bodies,just as bodies are the incorporations of objects, how can we locate the queer moment in one or the other?


The becoming strange of the body does not stay with “me.” For if it is my hands that are strange, then it is my hands as they express themselves in a gesture. Such gestures are the “point” where my hands meet with objects: where they cease to be apart; where they pick things up. So is it my hand or is it the fork that is different? What is so compelling to me about this account of “becoming queer” is how the strangeness that seems to reside somewhere between the body and its objects is also what brings these objects to life and makes them dance.


To re-encounter objects as strange things is hence not to lose sight of their history but to refuse to make them history by losing sight. Such wonder directed at the objects that we face, as well as those that are behind us, does not involve bracketing out the familiar but rather allows the familiar to dance again with life.

The dancing table would be for sure a rather queer object: a queer­ ness that does not reside “within” the table but registers how the table can im­ press upon us, and what we too can borrow from the contingency of its life.


[Ref Sartre’s pebble]

This way of coming into contact with objects involves disorientation: the touch of the thing that transmits some thing. The pebble becomes queer in such an encounter. What the story implies is that orientation is achieved through the loss of such physical proximity: things are kept in their place, which might be near me, but it is a nearness that does not threaten to get inside of me, or spill what is inside out.

This is how phenomenology offers a queer angle – by bringing objects to life in their “loss” of place, in the failure of gathering to keep things in their place . It is not surprising to me that it is the “hands” that emerge as crucial sites in stories of disorientation, and indeed as crucial to phenomenology in gen­eral. Hands hold things. They touch things. They let things go.


I haw been struck by how movability is a condition of meaning for furniture . You can move the table, here, there, into the corner of the room; in a sense the purpose of the table relies on your capacity to mow it around. I suggest in my introduction to this book that I have followed the table around; yet I think that is a misrecognition. Instead, the table follows you around.The table is an effect of what it is that you do.


So, if furniture is conventional and indeed directs the bodies that use it, then furniture often disappears from view; indeed, what makes furniture “furniture” is this tendency to disappear from view. A queer furnishing might be about making what is in the background, what is behind us, more available as “things” to “do” things with.


I suggest above that disorientation happens when the ground no longer supports an action. We lose ground, we lose our sense of how we stand; we might even lose our standing. It is not only that queer surfaces support action, but also that the action they support involves shifting grounds, or even clearing a new ground, which allow us to tread a different path.

In refocusing our attention on proximity, on arms that are crossed with other arms, we are reminded of how queer engenders moments of contact; how we come into contact with other bodies to support the action of following paths that have not been cleared. We still have to follow others in making such paths. The queer body is not alone; queer does not reside in a body or an object, and is dependent on the mutuality of support.


Queer gatherings are lines that gather-on the face, or as bodies around the table-to form new patterns and new ways of making sense. The question then becomes not so much what is a queer orientation, but how we are orientated towards queer moments when objects slip.


A queer phenome­nology might involve an orientation toward what slips, which also what slips to pass through, in the unknowable length of its duration. In other words, a queer phenomenology would function as a disorientation device; it would not overcome the “disalignment” of the horizontal and vertical axes, allowing the oblique to open up another angle on the world.

I would insist that queer de­ scribes a sexual as well as political orientation, and that to lose sight of the sexual specificity of queer would also be to “overlook” how compulsory het­erosexuality shapes what coheres as given, and the effects of this coherence on those who refuse to be compelled.

And yet, the suggestion that one can have a “nonhetero” sexual orientation and be straight “in other respects” speaks a certain truth. It is possible to live on an oblique angle, and follow straight lines. After all, conservative homosexuals have called for lesbians and gays to support the straight line by pledging allegiance to the very form of the family, even when they cannot inhabit that form without a queer effect.


We could think of this in terms of assimilation, as a politics of following the straight line even as a deviant body. Homonormativity would straighten up queer effects by following the lines that are given as the accumulation of “points” (where you “get points” for arriving at different points on the line: marriage, children, and so on).


At the same time, to conserve and to deviate are not simply available as political choices. It is important, for instance, that we avoid assuming that “deviation” is always on “the side” of the progressive.


Indeed, if the compulsion to deviate from the straight line was to become “a line” in queer politics, then this itself could haw a straightening effect.


We could consider “the closet” itself as an orientation device, a way of inhabiting the world or of being at home in the world. The closet returns us to the question of queer furnishings, and how they too are orientation devices. The closet provides a way of staying in.


Indeed, I am suggesting here that for some queers, at least, homes are already rather queer spaces, and they are full of the potential to experience the joy of deviant desires. As Gayatri Gopinath suggests, in the postcolonial home, sex might happen “in the house,” locating “female same-sex desire and pleasure firmly within the confines of the home and ‘the domestic’ rather than a safe elsewhere” (2005, 153) .

To queer homes is also to expose how “homes,” as spaces of apparent intimacy and desire, are full of rather mixed and oblique objects. It is also to suggest that the intimacy of the home is what connects the home to other, more public, spaces.


In calling for a politics that involves disorientation, which registers that disorientation shatters our involvement in a world, it is important not to make disorientation an obligation or a responsibility for those who identify as queer. This position demands too much (for some, a life-long commitment to devia­tion is not psychically or materially possible or sustainable, even if their desires are rather oblique), but it also “forgives” too much by letting those who are straight stay on their line. It is not up to queers to disorientate straights, just as it is not up to bodies of color to do the work of antiracism, although of course disorientation might still happen and we do “do” this work. Disorientation, then, would not be a politics of the will but an effect of how we do politics, which in turn is shaped by the prior matter of simply how we live.

A queer politics does involve a commitment to a certain way of inhab­iting the world, even if it is not “grounded” in a commitment to devia­tion. Queer lives would not follow the scripts of convention. Or as Judith Halberstam notes, queer might begin with “the potentiality of a life un­ scripted by the conventions of family, inheritance, and child rearing” (2005: 65).

The “conventions” take the white heterosexual couple as their social ideal. If we see the failure to sink into the chairs of convention as a political gift, then other things might happen.


What kind of commitment would a queer commitment be? If anything, I would see queer as a commitment to an opening up of what counts as a life worth living, or what Judith Butler might call a “liveable life” (2004: xv). It would be a commitment not to presume that lives have to follow certain lines in order to count as lives, rather than being a commitment to a line of devia­tion.

If orientations point us to the future, to what we are moving toward, then they also keep open the possibility of changing directions and of finding other paths, perhaps those that do not clear a common ground, where we can respond with joy to what goes astray. So, in looking back we also look a different way; looking back still involves facing – it even involves an open face. Looking back is what keeps open the possibility of going astray.


Instead, a queer politics would have hope, not even by having hope in the future (under the sentimental sign of the “not yet”), but because the lines that accumulate through the repetition of gestures, the lines that gather on skin, already take surprising forms.


p.181 n.1

[…] orientation for me is about how the bodily, the spatial, and the social are entangled.