This essay is an experiment in what happens when you read Kathleen's Stewart's ideas about affect and agency together with Sara Ahmed's consideration of queer orientations and the willful subject as they are played out in stories of adoption, motherhood, choices, and desire.

[Agency is] caught up in things. Circuits, bodies, moves, connections. It takes unpredictable and counterintuitive forms. It's lived through a series of dilemmas: that action is always a reaction; that the potential to act always includes the potential to be acted on, or to submit; that the move to gather a self to act is also a move to lose the self; that one choice precludes others; that actions can have unintended and disastrous consequences; and that all agency is frustrated and unstable and attracted to the potential in things. It's not really about willpower but rather something much more complicated and much more rooted in things.

kathleen stewart, ordinary affects1 

This story… is a finding. I found it because I was following the figure of the willful subject: trying to go where she goes, trying to be where she has been… . The willful subject led me to where she came to appear.

sara ahmed, willful subjects2 

Ordinary affect is a surging, a rubbing, a connection of some kind that has an impact. It's transpersonal or prepersonal—not about one person's feelings becoming another's but about bodies literally affecting one another and generating intensities: human bodies, discursive bodies, bodies of thought, bodies of water.

kathleen stewart, ordinary affects3 

Human Bodies

You are hungry, starving. For the third day this week, you have come to campus without your lunch/scheduled meetings so there is no time to eat the lunch you brought/skipped lunch altogether/stuffed handfuls of trail mix into your mouth in between events. In the morning, after getting your daughter up and to school, prepping a class, finishing a writing project, making doctor's appointments, exercising, walking the dog, and showering, you are hungry, starving. But you are late and must leave now if you have any chance of getting to campus on time.

After the meetings, after teaching, after attending teacher–parent conferences, after picking up your daughter in the dark at this or that friend's house because you can't get her right after school, you return home. It's late. It's nearly bedtime. Your daughter's had dinner at her friend's house, but you? You need to eat and you are too exhausted to cook. So it's cheese and crackers. Or cereal. A cup of tea. Or a glass of wine. You get into bed with a book or an inbox full of email and 10 minutes in, you're nodding off. You turn out the light and vow to get yourself together and go grocery shopping and make a meal. Just one meal. The next day, you do it all again, repeating the rhythms of too much and not enough.

Discursive Bodies

When you come into the room, my back is turned. I hear you introduce yourself to my friend and make academic small talk, trading stories about the work you do and the people you know in common. I am trading the same sort of stories with someone else. You take a seat in the circle at the front of the room and it's time to begin. My friend reads first and I angle my body toward him, nervous about the words I have assembled to share, heart quickening in time with the short burst of sentences at the end of his narrative. My turn.

I face you and begin to read, an old story about queerness and adoption, about grief and longing. The words come fast, picking up texture and density as they move through my body and the space of the room. My body buzzes with the possibility (likely or not) of a lived composition that might now be proliferating with every breaking and waning paragraph.4 The room hums with the weight of what is unspoken yet felt, indeterminate yet gathering.5 

I don't look up until I have finished.

The group assembled in the conference room (we are not alone, but in this story, the others are muted voices coming from nowhere in particular) debates the queerness of my friend's story against my own. Whose story is queer? In this debate, I am understood as a woman, a writer, and sometime poet, someone who is awash with loss; however, the direction my story takes—the sometimes straight, often narrow, path of my life—is not obviously or willfully queer.6 Not to anyone in the conference room but you.

The conversation shifts and the group shares their own stories—the queer stories they were invited to bring to the gathering. Your turn. You face me and begin to read, an old story about queerness and adoption and grief and longing. A story that begins with you talking to your brother at opposite ends of a string telephone—about being adopted, about your birth families, about what your names were, about what your mothers looked like—and that ends with finding your birth grandmother and learning to make pierogies using the family recipe.7 

When you have finished, you look up and our eyes meet and something happens—a world just taking form, a surge coming into view.

Bodies of Thought

You dream she is struggling in the water, arms flailing, body sinking, breath fading. You swim out to save her, chest and legs heavy with the effort. You reach her in the violent ocean and pull her up, over you. Her thrashing pushes you below the surface; her panic swamps you. Who is she to you? Who are you, to her? You try to tell her the story of an us composed in fragments and repetitions, patterns you see in in the water.8 You say you have not yet written how your tangle might tear the world, as it is, apart.9 You hold tight to her. You hold her as she becomes an unbearable weight, your willfulness an act of persistence and disobedience10 in the face of a body and a life being brought down. Drowned.

Bodies of Water

You don't like baths. Well, you didn't used to anyway. You don't like baths because you don't like being cold in the water. When you were a kid, your father used to fill the bathtub a quarter of the way, no bubbles, no toys. No risk of drowning. Get in and get out, he said.

The water was always warm at first, and if your sister wasn't in the tub, you could lie down and submerge yourself. But the water always turned cold so quickly—too quickly—and you had to wait for your father to come in to see if you were clean. You had to wait for him to tell you that you could get out of the water.

You'd call out, your voice echoing against the tub.

No reply.

You'd call out again. And again.

After several turns at this call and no response, your father would push away from the game of cribbage he was playing at the kitchen table with your mother and walk down the hallway to the bathroom. When he got to you, you were always shivering. Not drowning, but sinking.

Human Bodies

We are in a bar, post-conference conversation buzzing around us. We are seated across from each other at a high wooden table strewn with sweaty drink glasses. You stand up and move around behind me to greet a new arrival and my body hums in tune with the conversation; it is my body—and not the newcomer's—that feels strange, out of place. Not yet here, with you, but no longer there, where I was, only a moment ago.11 

The conversation winds down and I hear you say goodbye. I feel you moving toward the table, returning to your seat. Except you don't. Instead, you hesitate, turn your attention to me from behind,12 slide your arms around my belly. I put my hands on yours and lean back, the touch a shock of the whole affective world shifting.13 Our bodies vibrate with the intensity of a sensation that the tongue cannot name, that the mind does not yet recognize.14 

Skin faster than word.15 

Discursive Bodies

The students begin the presentation on “Feminism and Motherhood” with an online poll. You are instructed to take out your cell phone and send a text to join the conversation.

Questions begin to appear on the big screen at the front of the room.

What makes a good mother?

Are women mothers?

You type your answers and press send.

Then the questions shift, become more pointed, more personal. They become you.

Would you adopt even if you could have children of your own?

You wince. You wrote that essay on adoption and your daughter and your life together so that someday she might read your words and understand—what? That you love her not because you couldn't have children of your own, but because she is not yours, because children are never someone's to own.16 

What would you do if your partner told you he/she was gay?

You sit there, breathing and letting the momentum of your pulse quiet the fear and rage that rises up in your throat. You remember saying you've fallen for her. You remember saying you're sorry, again and again. You remember saying you don't know what that falling means, about you or him or love. You remember standing in the shower, letting the water flow over you until it runs cold. You remember hearing something—a leaf, a twig snapping, one door slamming shut and another opening—a faint click that signals your chance.17 The faraway sound startles you, and you look up.

The poll answers begin to come in.

“How could you?” “I trusted you.” “I love you.” “I want a divorce.”

The answers tell a story, one that is yours, but not yours. The answers presume that the telling and the responding are choices. Decisions and not things—a tangle of x-rays, labor pains, relinquishments, fingerprints and heartbeats, overnight flights, stolen glances and hours, the long-awaited embrace.

The answers forget that the move to gather a self to act is also a move to lose the self.18 That telling a story asks you to stand still, your history behind you, hunched and turned away like the small backs of words, and the horizonless future stretched out in front of you, just an ordinary day.19 

The answers leave out your hunger for the potential in things, the pull of the too much against push of the not enough.

You don't reply.

Bodies of Thought

We begin with sheer intensity, then try to find routes into a “we” that is not yet here, but maybe could be.20 Though where is here? California? Australia? In the airport departure and arrival terminals and baggage check lines and immigration clearances and shuttle buses we push our bodies through on our way to each other?

When we are not together, we dream a possible life by making words, lines scored on rafts of paper that we send across the ocean of an incommensurate geography.21 We stay up half the night, sending messages into distant time zones, disturbing our sleep, disturbing the order of things:22 How did I find you, after all of these years? How did I spend all of those years in therapy to have it come to this, again? Who might I be for you? How can I say no to you? How will I survive seeing you? Am I your risk? The page opens like flesh, but you are gone.

We write bodies of thought, giving an account of what might be on the other side or behind, and the pleasures to be found in moving sideways, going astray, and getting lost.23 

Bodies of Water

When your mother was a teenager, she drove to the reservoir with her girlfriends, slathered herself with baby oil, and slowly, slowly eased herself out into the water on a blue plastic raft. She held on to a rope bound to the dock, not wanting to follow her friends to the swimming deck several yards away from shore because she did not know how to swim. But the hot sun and the motion of the water lulled her to sleep and when she awoke she was in the middle of the lake, far away from the dock or her friends or the safety of the shore. She panicked, capsizing the raft and plunging into the murky water. She batted and clawed and chased the raft for what seemed like a lifetime before she was able steady herself along its length and pull her body back to the shore, one handful of water at a time.

When you were a child, your mother told you this story as a cautionary tale, a warning. She told you this story as a commandment that you learn how to swim. That you learn how to hold yourself in the water. But it was Peggy—not your mother, but mother to the three boys who lived next door—who taught you how to swim.

Peggy and her husband Bob built a swimming pool in their backyard the summer you turned five. Every evening, Peggy called over the backyard fence, inviting you and your sister to come swim. Excited but anxious, you hovered in the shallow end of the pool all summer long. You hovered there, waiting, until the day Peggy eased her body into the pool and persuaded you to wrap your arms around her neck. Until she waded into the deep water and swam with you on her belly. Until you were confident enough to let go and lie back, your hands on hers, your face to the setting sun. Once you understood that you could float, you turned over in the water and kicked your feet, pulling away from her and into yourself.

Human Bodies

You lie back on the couch and close your eyes. Your friend, a Reiki healer, begins to move her hands. You feel yourself falling back in time. You hear the ocean. You train your breath to hers, waiting for something to happen. Not so much a transfer of energy, but instead an attachment to attending to what might be happening.24 

Her hand hovers above your belly, above the third chakra, the place of power, the place of will, the place of choice. The air stills. You swallow the sob stuck in your throat. You breathe in and out, in and out, in rhythm with the push of moving—on, out, forward—and the pull of turning—around, away, back.

Your friend keeps her hand there, wavering, waiting. The push–pull of choosing: What do you want? One choice precludes others, which actions have unintended or disastrous consequences.25 Her hand moves upward, toward your fourth chakra, toward your heart.

You feel the ocean turn.

Discursive Bodies

Children must wait. They must wait and listen and bend to the authority of their fathers. Of their mothers. Mothers do not need to explain. Whatever the mother wishes, the child must be willing to do.26 In this story, children must wait until they acquire a life—and a will—of their own.27 

Though in another story—or perhaps another version of the same story—it is the mother who must wait. She must wait to give her attention to the scenes and objects of her desire, turning her back on writing, poetry, ideas, love; surrendering to the pull of the child.28 She must wait unless she is willing to be named, called out, judged as a willful mother; a mother who refuses to let the will of her child undermine the right to a life of her own.

In yet another telling of this story, both mother and child are orphans, material and discursive bodies who by virtue of their freedom from the fairy tale of traditional family—a sinking line of descent—might float away into something to be embraced. Into something gloriously and wonderfully and willfully queer.29 In this telling, the women make the story do what they want.30 

Bodies of Thought

On the train from Los Angeles to San Diego, you watch your daughter sleep, her head thrown back, her jaw agape, sunlight glinting off her braces. Her face is slack, peaceful. You imagine her expression when she hears the news that you want to move yourself—to move her—to Australia to live and work with your lover, thousands of miles from California, thousands of miles from home. Thousands of miles out into and across that great, great ocean.

You remember teaching her how to swim; how she would cling to you, her fingers digging into your flesh. How she only learned to trust herself in the water once you let her go, once she was floating on her back unaware that you weren't holding her anymore. And how, when she realized what was happening, she panicked and began to sink. Though that floating, that bodily sensation of being carried away and held, was somehow enough. Enough for her to remember the next time she got into the water.

Enough to push her away from you and into her own swimmer's strokes, kicking the water and keeping herself afloat.

You wonder if that lesson in the water, that knowledge of herself and of keeping afloat, will be enough for her when she loses you.

Bodies of Water

The Lake Hollywood Reservoir was created by the Mulholland Dam, built in 1924, and is part of the City of Los Angeles's water supply and storage system. It can hold 2.5 billion gallons, though it is never that full due to concerns that it might collapse under the weight of all of that water. Lake Hollywood Park wraps around the reservoir, offering tourists in search of a view of the Hollywood sign and lovers in search of a stroll a gravel path around that blue, blue body of water.

I follow you along that path, tracing the perimeter of the water, trying to step where you step, to take up the space where you have been. The sun is hot on my skin. We circle each other with stories, walking up and up and up until we are parched and panting, sweaty with the labor of bodies willfully creating a connection.31 

We stop, stare into each other for a few breathless moments, and decide to turn around. We undo our efforts one step at a time, though the path we take back is different, unmarked. That turning back—that insistence on taking our own way—is an old story. It is a story about queerness and longing, yes, and also a story about the willful intensity of trying to find passage into a possible we.32 We wander down, low and close to the water, creating desire lines,33 traces of where we might find ourselves—insistently, joyfully—together.


Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007), 86.
Sara Ahmed, Willful Subjects (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 2, 13.
Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 128.
Kathleen Stewart, “Atmospheric Attunements,” Rubric 1 (2010): 1–14. This paragraph is adapted from Stewart's description of her approach to experimenting with “forms of writing that are responsive to the moving objects they trying to trace, highlight, escape, or whatever” (14). She writes: “So I am trying to describe what might be happening in little moments, scenes, a series of short cases set up to explore the intensity and plasticity of lived compositions that might now be proliferating with every breaking and waning situation” (Ibid.).
See Ben Anderson, “Affective Atmospheres,” Emotion, Space and Society 2 (2009): 77–81. He writes: “If atmospheres proceed from and are created by bodies, they are not, however, reducible to them. The singular affective qualities of atmospheres—homely, serene, erotic, and so on—exceed that from which they emanate. They are quasi-autonomous. Atmospheres are a kind of indeterminate affective ‘excess’ through which intensive space-times can be created… . As such, to attend to affective atmospheres is to learn to be affected by the ambiguities of affect/emotion, by that which is determinate and indeterminate, present and absent, singular and vague” (80).
Sara Ahmed, “Orientations: Toward a Queer Phenomenology,” GLQ: Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 12, no. 6 (2006): 543–74. My writing calls up Ahmed's discussion of the work of queer phenomenology, in which she suggests turning our attention not only to objects, but more importantly to what is behind or in the background of those objects. She notes: “A queer phenomenology, I wonder, might be one that faces the back, which looks ‘behind’ phenomenology, which hesitates at the sight of the philosopher's back” (546). She opens this discussion with a meditation on Edmund Husserl's writing table as the place of an encounter between the writer (phenomenologist, philosopher) and the unfolding of the (familiar) world. Ahmed contrasts Husserl's consideration of the writing table with Adrienne Rich's account of the place and process of her writing, which was, not surprisingly, constrained by the other objects, beings, and tasks that demanded her attention. Ahmed writes: “We can see from the point of view of the mother, who is also a writer, a poet, and a philosopher, that giving attention to the objects of writing, facing those objects, becomes impossible: the children, even if they are behind you, literally pull you away” (547). I am also referencing Ahmed's idea that a queer orientation to the unfolding of the world (and to writing and being) involves “risking departure” from the “straight and narrow” (554).
For a full telling of this story, see Anne Harris, “A Kind of Hush: Adoptee Diasporas and the Impossibility of Home,” in Stories of Home: Place, Identity, Exile, ed. Devika Chawla and Stacy Holman Jones (Lanham, MD: Lexington Press, 2015), 161–74.
Lydia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water: A Memoir (Portland, OR: Hawthorne Books, 2010). This line is drawn from the following section of Yuknavitch's memoir: “Your life doesn't happen in any kind of order. Events don't have cause and effect relationships the way you wish they did. It's all a series of fragments and repetitions and pattern formations. Language and water have this in common” (28).
Ahmed writes of “subjects and objects as parts of worlds in which we are entangled; these ‘tangles’ make worlds too messy to start with things assumed as apart from other things (though the tangle of willfulness shows how things can come apart)” (Willful Subjects, 211).
Ibid., 1.
Ahmed considers the stranger “the one who comes after” (along with the migrant and the guest) (Ibid., 123). She writes that “rather than strangers being those we do not recognize, some bodies are already recognized as strangers, as ‘bodies out of place.’… . Strangers are the ones who have yet to arrive, but this ‘yet,’ even if it opens up a future, is a trace of a past, where someone has been, but is no longer. We are not yet here because we are no longer there” (124–25). She likens this notion of the stranger to the child, “the not-yet-subject, as well as the subject-to-come” (123).
Here I am again referencing Ahmed's discussion of the queer potential in attending to what is “behind,” which requires that we “go to another side, perhaps even to what is behind, to reach points that do not accumulate as a straight line” (“Orientations,” 564), as well as the possibilities she finds in looking back. She writes: “We look back, we go behind; we conjure what is missing from the face. This backward glance also means an openness to the future, as the imperfect translation of what is behind us” (570).
Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002). He writes that affect “is the whole world: from the precise angle of its differential emergence” (43).
In exploring the idea of affect, Massumi discusses intensity in terms of viscerality, which is a “rupture in the stimulus-response paths” that “jolts the flesh” into “a space outside action–reaction circuits” and produces an “inability to act or reflect.” In this way, affect precedes/exceeds our ability to identify or name or narrate a sensation (where “an emotion or feeling is a recognized affect, an identified intensity”) (Ibid., 61 original emphasis).
“An emotional qualification breaks narrative continuity for a moment to register a state—actually to re-register an already felt state, for the skin is faster than the word” (Ibid., 25).
Stacy Holman Jones, “Lost and Found,” Text and Performance Quarterly 31, no. 4 (2011): 322–41. This paragraph is adapted from a portion of my essay on adoption, relationships, performativity, and storytelling, which reads: “And you write. You write so that someday he might read your words and understand—what? That you didn't know? That you thought that love might make loss bearable? That you love him not because you couldn't have children of your own, but because he is not yours, because children are never someone's to own” (335).
This paragraph is adapted from the following: “Your husband looks at you and his silent questions pierce your skin. You breathe in sharply and push out the words, ‘I need to tell you something.’ He clenches his jaw. He nods. You lose your nerve. ‘Let me take a shower and then we'll talk.’ He turns and leaves the bedroom. You undress and step into the scalding water. You stand there, breathing and willing yourself to stop, to put your arms out and break the fall, to be still. You let the water flow over you until it runs cold. You dry yourself, get dressed, and meet him on the sidewalk. You walk several blocks without speaking… . You let the momentum of your movement still your pulse and quiet the fear rising in your throat. You say that you have fallen for her… . He asks you what this means. You say you don't know. He asks you if you still love him. You say you don't know. He asks you if you want to stay in the relationship. You say you don't know. He asks you if this means you're a lesbian. You say you don't know… . You hear something—a faint clicking sound—and turn your head. It could have been anything—a leaf falling, a twig snapping./One door slamming/shut and another opening… . You see your chance, your choice” (Ibid., 328).
Stewart notes that agency is “lived through a series of dilemmas,” one of which is “that the move to gather a self to act is also a move to lose the self” (Ordinary Affects, 86).
Yuknavitch writes: “She will put her arm in yours and gaze out. At your backs will be history. In front of you, just the ordinary day, which is of course, your entire life. Like language. The small backs of words. Stretching out horizonless” (The Chronology of Water, 178).
Stewart writes of the “subject of extreme vulnerability,” for whom “an unattainable hope can become the tunnel vision one needs to believe in a world that could include one… . This kind of thing happens all the time. It's an experiment that starts with sheer intensity and then tries to find routes into a ‘we’ that is not yet there but maybe could be” (Ordinary Affects, 116).
The “queer world is a space of entrances, exits, unsystematized lines of acquaintance, projecting horizons, typifying examples, alternate routes, blockages, incommensurate geographies.” Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, “Sex in Public,” in Publics and Counterpublics, by Michael Warner (New York: Zone Books, 2005), 198.
“To make things queer is certainly to disturb the order of things. The effects of such disturbance are uneven, given that the world is already organized around certain forms of living—times, spaces, and directions” (Ahmed, “Orientations,” 565).
This line is drawn from Ahmed's assertion that “lesbian desires move us sideways: one object might put another in reach, as we come into contact with different bodies and worlds” (“Orientations,” 564) and hope that departing from the straight and narrow makes new futures possible; futures that “might involve going astray, getting lost, or even becoming queer” (554).
“Everything depends on the dense entanglement of affection, attention, the senses, and matter. This is not exactly intended or unintended, not the kind of pure agency we imagine marching forward… and not couch potato passive either, but a balling up and unraveling of states of attending to what might be happening” (Stewart, “Atmospheric Attachments,” 6).
Again on agency as a series of dilemmas, another of which is that “one choice precludes others; that actions can have unintended and disastrous consequences” (Stewart, Ordinary Affects, 86).
Ahmed writes that myths and stories of the willful child (such as the Brothers Grimm story of the same title) view the “child's will as that which must be broken.” She notes: “Whatever the mother wishes, the child must be willing to do… . The story takes the form of a command: The child must do what her mother wishes; willfulness must be eliminated from the child” (Willful Subjects, 63).
Ahmed describes the figure of the child as “the not-yet subject, as well as the subject-to-come” (Ibid., 123).
Ahmed, “Orientations,” 547.
Ahmed considers literary representations of the willfulness of orphans, noting that, in many depictions, “orphans receive a negative charge in wandering away from a line of descent, which is often but not always sympathetically rendered as the sadness, loneliness, and misery of desertion” (Willful Subjects, 232). She suggests that “given the sadness the figure of the orphan is charged with, the attribution of willfulness might work differently: willfulness can convert what is ordinarily deemed a negative into a positive state (making wandering away into something to be embraced)” (Ibid.). She goes on to consider the tale of Pippi Longstocking, which presents us with a story of queer family-making that offers us “an alternative set of values in which curiosity, play, and caring for the diversity of living forms can and do matter” (Ibid., 233).
Yuknavitch: “I don't know why women can't make the story do what they want. I don't” (The Chronology of Water, 145). Perhaps the willfulness of the orphan, or the queer woman, offers one way of making the story do and create what we—women—want. Perhaps.
I am referencing Ahmed's call to return ideas to bodies and her notion of “sweaty concepts,” which she says contain “a trace of the laboring of bodies.” She goes on to note: “Willfulness becomes a sweaty concept if we can reveal the labor of its creation” (Willful Subjects, 18).
Here I am reading Ahmed's notion of sweaty concepts—like willfulness—as both a bodily experience and, with Stewart in “Atmospheric Attunements,” an atmosphere. These lines recall Stewart's “habit of watching things arrive in the company of others” and her idea that “namable clarities like family or friendship or love or collapse or laughing or telling stories or violence or place are all atmospherics. All forms of attending to what's happening, sensing out, accreting attachments and detachments, differences and indifferences, losses and proliferating possibilities” (4).
Here I am referring to Ahmed's writing about “desire lines,” which she describes as “not a straight but a wayward line.” She writes: “the willful subject is often depicted as a wanderer. When you stray from the official paths, you create desire lines, faint marks on the earth, as traces of where you or others have been” (Willful Subjects, 21).