On Tone and Willful Subjects

1. In the last few weeks, and for a few different projects, I’ve been quite immersed in the idea of “tone” in writing. Poet Robert Frost once explained tone by saying that it is “what comes through a closed door when people are speaking out of earshot.” Dictionaries and glossaries vary in their capturing of the word: some think it to be the poetic voice’s expression toward a subject (loving, angry, or solemn, for examples); others think it to be an overall mood conveyed by a work as it influences a reader’s emotional responses to that work. What, I’ve been asking, does tone (in my own writing) mean to me? Is it an attitude that I bring to a piece? Is it a practice that I develop in order to sound a certain way?

2. In a recent academic seminar, the professor talked about how we might think about our own writing in relation to the work of other academic writers who we appreciate and admire – he suggested that frequently offered advice for graduate students would be to emulate such writers, to consider their style of writing and follow the pathway that they’ve forged. The discussion between graduate students that followed was that to do so would feel like “cheating” and that the writing produced by students in that mode of emulation would be unoriginal and come off as inauthentic. Yet, when I thought about it, I could not entirely agree with my fellow students. I believe that when we appreciate a writer’s style, especially in academic genres, we do so because we see in him/her something that is fundamentally familiar to us – a tone, if you will, that we understand because it speaks to our own conceptions of what we might say and sound like, under our individual best conditions. We are not inspired, I think, by goals that seem impossible for us; we are inspired by ones that are within our grasp. An adult standing at 5 feet, 3 inches, does not stretch in order to one day have the height of a professional model nearer to 6 feet tall, but does so in order to feel at her own optimal health and may look at the results of someone nearer her height, a stretching guru to look up to for style, tone, and mentorship.

Here then are the two central points I wish to converge into one idea: the matter of tone in Sara Ahmed’s Willful Subjects and how I find it inspiring when I think about what I’d like to do with my own writing. I was first introduced to Ahmed during my MA, and although I haven’t read everything she’s ever written, I think she is a favourite amongst long 18th century and Victorian scholars for the way she utilizes literary texts from this era – various readings from her often found their way onto syllabi of classes in which I’d enrolled. Willful Subjects, her latest full-length work, is not an exception. In it, she utilizes a little known Grimm fairy tale, the Willful Child, as a sort of guiding metaphor throughout the entirety of the book. It’s a brilliant and meaningful reification of the story in how Ahmed chooses to use it in doing what she calls “non-philosophy,” – a point which we discussed in our RAD bookclub meeting at the time, and which you might hear Mimi and I deliberate more on in the relevant READ SO GOOD podcast.

In thinking on what this decision means then to Ahmed’s tone in the book and how I would aspire, in my own writing, to do what she does with hers, I’ve been affected by an insight or two. One must read Willful Subjects to grasp how really radical Ahmed’s message is (in this book – and others), and how it, is, by her own admission – a killjoy (check out the tagline on her blog here: http://feministkilljoys.com/) mode. Ahmed isn’t content to be dictated a certain ideology, she isn’t afraid of the counterargument, even if it goes counter to those who believe they are already working against systems of oppression.

There is in this text a tone of anger and antagonism to a world that would so brutally beat down the wilfulness of a child, and by extension other vulnerable peoples or those who would dare to oppose the value structures and ways of being of the liberal state. But that anger seems also to come from a place of love – an appreciation of the beauty of the world and things that people in it create. There is a style here, a way to read the text of this book that performs an appreciation for the aesthetic – an attention to little known stories or overlooked literary passages that goes beyond a Foucauldian mode of seeking to articulate an argument through the interdisciplinary discourses that feed into it. As much as Ahmed’s arguments are compelling and utterly thought-provoking, they are also lyrical. This is not to demean or defer the “calls to arms” she seeks to encourage; rather it is a consideration of how taking the time to craft words in beautiful ways respects the reader and demonstrates a deep love for the ideas or art that might lead to his/her liberation of mind. In thinking about Ahmed’s tone in Willful Subjects, I was reminded of a footnote in Freire’s (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. In it he talks about how Che Guevara claimed that the revolutionary must be someone prompted by great love. I can totally see how Ahmed’s writing here is both revolutionary and loving too -- and inspiring, when I think about what I hope to do with mine.

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