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Willful Subjects

Sara Ahmed
sara ahmed

Willful Subjects

duke university press

Durham and London

© 2014 Duke University Press
All rights reserved
Printed in the United States
of America on acid-free paper ∞
Typeset in Chaparral Pro by
Westchester Book Group

Library of Congress Cataloging-

in-Publication Data
Ahmed, Sara, 1969–
Willful subjects / Sara Ahmed.
pages cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
isbn 978-0-8223-5767-4 (cloth : alk. paper)
isbn 978-0-8223-5783-4 (pbk. : alk. paper)
1. Will. 2. Will—Philosophy.
3. Will—Social aspects. I. Title.
bf611.a294 2014
153.8—dc23 2014007340

Cover art: Fred Tomaselli, Bouquet, 2002.

Mixed media, resin on wood. 28 × 22 in.
© Fred Tomaselli. Courtesy James Cohan Gallery,
New York / Shanghai.
On page 293: Rhiannon Williams, Wall of Arms, 2014.

Ac know ledg ments vii

Introduction: A Willfulness Archive 1

One: Willing Subjects 23

Two: The Good Will 59

Three: The General Will 97

Four: Willfulness as a Style of Politics 133

Conclusion: A Call to Arms 173

Notes 205

References 257

Index 277
Ac know ledg ments

I have written this book with many women behind me, including my
aunties, mother, and sisters. My heartfelt appreciation to my partner
Sarah Franklin, who traveled with me on this willful journey, and in-
spired me to pick up many of the trails. I am grateful for feminist friend-
ships and queer collegiality: thanks especially to Lauren Berlant, Sienna
Bilge, Lisa Blackman, Ulrika Dahl, Natalie Fenton, Yasmin Gunaratnam,
Jonathan Keane, Sarah Kember, Elena Loizidou, Angela McRobbie, Heidi
Mirza, Nirmal Puwar, Sarah Schulman, Beverley Skeggs, Elaine Swan,
Isabel Waidner, and Joanna Zylinska. Thanks to Judith Butler and Audre
Lorde for your words and wisdoms. My appreciation to my department,
Media and Communications at Goldsmiths, for providing a home for
waifs and strays, and to Women and Gender Studies at Rutgers, and Gen-
der Studies at Cambridge for proving me with alternative intellectual
homes while I started this project in 2009 and completed it in 2013.
Thanks to my publisher Duke University Press, especially Ken Wissoker,
for supporting this willful work, whichever way it went. I also want to
acknowledge members of audiences for my talks on will and willfulness,
who helped me in the project of causing trouble by sharing anecdotes
and stories of willful subjects of various kinds. It is the best kind of help!
This book is dedicated to the many willful women fighting to keep
feminist hopes alive.


There is a story called “The Willful Child.”

nce upon a time there was a child who was willful, and would
not do as her mother wished. For this reason God had no plea-
sure in her, and let her become ill, and no doctor could do her
any good, and in a short time she lay on her death-bed. When she had
been lowered into her grave, and the earth was spread over her, all at
once her arm came out again, and stretched upwards, and when they
had put it in and spread fresh earth over it, it was all to no purpose, for
the arm always came out again. Then the mother herself was obliged
to go to the grave, and strike the arm with a rod, and when she had
done that, it was drawn in, and then at last the child had rest beneath
the ground. (Grimm and Grimm 1884, 125)1

What a story. The willful child: she has a story to tell. In this Grimm story,
which is certainly a grim story, the willful child is the one who is disobedi-
ent, who will not do as her mother wishes. If authority assumes the right
to turn a wish into a command, then willfulness is a diagnosis of the
failure to comply with those whose authority is given. The costs of such
a diagnosis are high: through a chain of command (the mother, God, the
doctors) the child’s fate is sealed. It is ill will that responds to willfulness;
the child is allowed to become ill in such a way that no one can “do her
any good.” Willfulness is thus compromising; it compromises the capac-
ity of a subject to survive, let alone flourish. The punishment for willful-
ness is a passive willing of death, an allowing of death. Note that willful-
ness is also that which persists even after death: displaced onto an arm,
from a body onto a body part. The arm inherits the willfulness of the
child insofar as it will not be kept down, insofar as it keeps coming up,
acquiring a life of its own, even after the death of the body of which it is a
part. Willfulness involves persistence in the face of having been brought
down, where simply to “keep going” or to “keep coming up” is to be stub-
born and obstinate. Mere persistence can be an act of disobedience.
In the story, it seems that will and willfulness are externalized; they
acquire life by not being or at least staying within subjects. They are not
proper to subjects insofar as they become property, what can be alienated
into a part or thing.2 The different acts of willing are reduced to a battle
between an arm and a rod. If the arm inherits the child’s willfulness,
then what can we say about the rod? The rod is an externalization of the
mother’s wish, but also of God’s command, which transforms a wish into
fiat, a “let it be done,” thus determining what happens to the child. The
rod could be thought of as an embodiment of will, of will given the form
of a command. And yet, the rod does not appear under the sign of willful-
ness; it becomes instead an instrument for its elimination. One form of
will seems to involve the rendering of other wills as willful; one form of
will assumes the right to eliminate the others.
How can we account for the violence of this story? How is this vio-
lence at once an account of willfulness? The story belongs to a tradition
of educational discourse that Alice Miller in For Your Own Good (1983)
describes as a “poisonous pedagogy,” a tradition that assumes the child
as stained by original sin and that insists on violence as moral correc-
tion, as being for the child (see chapter 2). This violence is a visible
violence, one that it would be very hard not to notice. In this book I aim
to show how the Grimm story is pedagogic in another sense: it teaches
us to read the distinction between will and willfulness as a grammar,
as a way of ordering human experience, as a way of distributing moral
This story, “The Willful Child,” is a finding. I found it because I was fol-
lowing the figure of the willful subject: trying to go where she goes, trying
to be where she has been. It was another figure, related, or perhaps even
a relation, a kind of kin, that of the feminist killjoy, who first sparked
my interest in this pursuit. Feminist killjoys: those who refuse to laugh
at the right points; those who are unwilling to be seated at the table of
happiness (see Ahmed 2010). Feminist killjoys: willful women, unwilling to
get along, unwilling to preserve an idea of happiness. I became interested
in how those who get in the way of happiness, and we call these those
killjoys, are also and often attributed as willful. In witnessing the unruly
trouble making of feminist killjoys I caught a glimpse of how willfulness

2 Introduction
can fall, like a shadow on the fallen. This book is an attempt to give my
glimpse of a willful subject a fuller form.
George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss gave me an initial glimpse. I offered
a reading of this novel in The Promise of Happiness (2010) as part of a genre
of female trouble-making fiction. In reflecting on trouble in Eliot’s text,
I wrote a footnote on willfulness: “Writing this book on happiness has
sparked my interest in theorizing the sociality of the will and the ways
in which someone becomes described as willful insofar as they will too
much, or too little, or in ‘the wrong way’ ” (2010, 245). It was the charac-
ter Maggie Tulliver, a willful heroine, who inspired this note and thus
this subsequent book Willful Subjects. Maggie Tulliver has been the object
of considerable feminist desire and identification over time. We might
share affection for Maggie as feminist readers, as we might share affec-
tion for the many willful girls that haunt literature. Simone de Beauvoir
identified with Maggie so strongly that she was reported to have “cried
for hours” upon her death (Moi 2008, 265). Lyndie Brimstone in her per-
sonal reflections on literature and women’s studies similarly relates her
own experience to Maggie’s: “Maggie with her willful hair” who “made
one dash for passion then went back to rue it for the rest of her truncated
life” (2001, 73). Maggie’s willful hair comes to express her willful charac-
ter: her refusal to be straightened out by the fashions of femininity. The
assumption of Maggie’s willfulness seems to explain the unhappiness of
Maggie’s situation. My hunch (how often do we start on a trail with a
hunch; if we tend to write these hunches out as we acquire confidence
in our arguments, we can write them back in) in moving from the figure
of the feminist killjoy to that of the willful subject was that willfulness
and unhappiness share a historical itinerary. We learn from our traveling
To be identified as willful is to become a problem. If to be willful is to
become a problem, then willfulness can be understood as a problem of
will. And it is the will that points us back in the direction of happiness,
which has been consistently understood as the object of the will. The
seventeenth-century French philosopher Blaise Pascal argued: “All men
seek happiness. This is without exception. Whatever different means
they employ, they all tend to this end. The cause of some going to war, and
of others avoiding it, is the same desire in both, attended with different
views. The will never takes the least step but to this object. This is the motive of
every action of every man, even of those who hang themselves” ([1669]
2003, 113, emphases added). Even suicide is an expression of the will to

A Willfulness Archive 3
happiness. The implication of this rather extraordinary description is
that happiness should be thought of not as content but form: if in tend-
ing toward something, we tend toward happiness, then happiness pro-
vides a container for tendency. Happiness must be emptied of content
if it can be filled by “whatever” it is that we are tending toward.
One of our tasks might be to ask what happiness does as a container
of the will, however empty. Does happiness lead us “willingly” in a certain
direction? For Augustine, the fourth-century theologian often credited as
the starting point in the history of the will, that is, as the scholar who first
gives the will the status of an independent power (see chapter 1), happi-
ness is not simply what motivates will, but is what follows for those who
will in the right way: “Those who are happy, who must also be good, are not
happy simply because they will to be happy—even the wicked will that—
but because they will it in the right way, whereas the wicked do not” (On
Free Choice of the Will, 1.14.23).3 Happiness follows for those who will right.
Those who will wrong still will happiness. To quote again from Augustine:
“To the extent that someone strays from the path that leads to happiness—
all the while insisting that his only goal is to be happy—to that extent he is
in error, for ‘error’ simply means following something that doesn’t take us
where we want to go” (2.9.47–48). The unhappy ones are the strays, those
who in leaving the path of happiness are going the wrong way. Unhappi-
ness is thus understood as an error of will; to err is to will wrong, to err is
to go astray. An error message is the message of unhappiness.
Willfulness too has been understood as an error of will. Let’s take a
typical definition of willfulness: “asserting or disposed to assert one’s
own will against persuasion, instruction, or command; governed by will
without regard to reason; determined to take one’s own way; obstinately
self-willed or perverse.”4 Willfulness is used to explain errors of will—
unreasonable or perverted will—as faults of character. Willfulness can
thus be understood, in the first instance, as an attribution to a subject
of will’s error. Willfulness and unhappiness seem to meet at this point, a
stray point. This intimacy of willfulness and unhappiness remains to be
thought. And to think that intimacy is to queer the will.

A History of the Will

I turned toward the category of “the will” because the figure of the willful
subject took me there. The timing of this sequence matters. Following
the figure of the willful subject, making her my priority, is another way of

4 Introduction
proceeding, another way of writing a history of the will.5 If the problem
of willfulness cannot be separated from the problem of will, then willful-
ness returns us to the will.6 We will need to ask: what does it mean to
write a history of will? For some philosophers, to write such a history
would be to write a history of a ghost; after all Gilbert Ryle ([1949] 2009)
famously calls the will “a ghost in a machine.”7 There are those who doubt
the existence of such a thing called “the will” understood as a faculty of
a subject, as something you or I might have. Even if the debate over free
will and determinism continues to be rehearsed as, or in response to, the
development of new sciences of the mind,8 the vocabulary of “the will” is
not exercised with much regularity in either of its historically privileged
domains: philosophy and psychology. But of course even ghosts have
histories, even objects that are understood as illusions or fancies have
a story to tell, a story that is not independent of the story of those for
whom such illusions and fancies are tantalizingly real. A ghostly history
may be no more or less real than any other.
In writing a history of the will, are we writing the history of an idea?
Peter E. Gordon observes that a historian of ideas “will tend to organize
the historical narrative around one major idea and will then follow the
development or metamorphosis of that idea as it manifests itself in dif-
ferent contexts and times” (2012, 2). Can we approach the will through
its metamorphosis as an idea? But as Brad Inwood notes, “there are few
words in the philosophical lexicon so slippery as ‘will’ ” (2000, 44). The
will might be too slippery to be treated as a single idea with different
manifestations. The will has indeed moved around: associated by some
with activity, others with passivity, some with mind, and others with
body. If the will comes up most often in a restricted debate about human
nature and action (usually with the adjective “free” and with its sparring
partner “determinism”), the will has also been understood as what con-
nects humans to all other things, from atoms to amoebas and stones.
The will could even be described as one of philosophy’s most promiscu-
ous terms.
It is thus not surprising that there are few attempts to offer a his-
tory of the will. Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind is singular in its
explicit aim to offer such a history.9 It is noteworthy that Arendt defines
her own task in terms of writing a history of the will that is not the his-
tory of an idea. For Arendt the task of writing the history of will as an
idea (which she translates very quickly, possibly too quickly, into a his-
tory of the idea of freedom) would be “rather easy” because it would be

A Willfulness Archive 5
premised on a false separation of ideas as “mental artefacts” from the
history of the human subject as “the artificer” (1978, 5). She argues that
she “must accept what Ryle rejects, namely, that this faculty was indeed
discovered and can be dated. In brief, I shall analyze will in terms of its
histories, and thus of its difficulties” (5).10 To discover something implies
that thing already existed. But I think the more important implication
is that once discovered, the will acquires a certain hold. For Arendt, given
that the will is an idea of a subject, the history of will is also the history
of the transformation of the subject who has that idea.
Arendt’s history of the will can thus be related to Michel Foucault’s
genealogy of the subject. Foucault describes a genealogy as a history of
what is usually felt as without history, including a history of the felt.
A genealogy, Foucault suggests, “must record the singularity of events
outside of any monstrous finality: it must seek them in the most un-
promising places, in what we tend to feel is without history: in senti-
ments, love, conscious, instincts” (1977, 139). For Foucault the will might
have been too unpromising to have been made an explicit object of in-
quiry. He notes in an interview, “What Is Critique?,” how the thematic of
power should have led him to the question of will. Foucault admits: “One
cannot confront this problem, sticking closely to the theme of power
without, of course, at some point, getting to the question of human will.
It is obvious that I could have realised it earlier. However, since this prob-
lem of will is a problem that Western philosophy has always treated with
infinite precaution and difficulties, let us say that I have tried to avoid
it as much as possible” (1977, 74–75).11 Perhaps it is the difficulties that
Arendt mentions (“I shall analyze will in terms of its histories, and thus
of its difficulties”) that makes Foucault bypass the question of will, even
though his genealogical method was indebted to Nietzsche’s The Geneal-
ogy of Morals ([1887] 2003) which could, and indeed has, been understood
as a “genealogy of the will.”12
And it is Nietzsche who offers us not only an account of how the will
becomes an idea of the subject, but how this idea does things. In Twilight
of the Idols Nietzsche suggests that the error of will is part of the general
error of causality. As he describes: “We believed ourselves to be causal
agents in the act of willing; we at least thought we were there, catching
causality in the act” ([1889] 1990, 60, emphasis in original; see also Nietz-
sche [1887] 2001, 204). Perhaps we catch nothing but the sight of our-
selves catching. Nietzsche offers more than a critique of the error of will.
He suggests that the error of will has a purpose: the “free will” is “the

6 Introduction
most infamous of all the arts of the theologian for making mankind
‘accountable’ in his sense of the word” (64). An account of will is an ac-
count of becoming accountable, of becoming guilty: “the doctrine of will
has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is, of
finding guilty” (64). Not only does the will allow actions to be referred
back to a subject, but it is through the will that the subject is unified as
an entity. In Beyond Good and Evil Nietzsche notes that although “phi-
losophers are accustomed to speak of the will as though it were the best-
known thing in the world,” the unity of will, “is a unity only in name”
([1886] 1997, 12).13
In following the will as a unity, we are following a name, one given to
a subject. It is not simply that we need to account for this subject but
that, after Nietzsche, we might need to track how this subject is held
to account by being given a will. It is this model of the will that allows
a philosophical idea to be translated into a social or cultural diagnos-
tics. The will is transformed in contemporary culture into “willpower,”
into something that a responsible and moral subject must develop or
strengthen. When the will becomes will power, then the fate of the sub-
ject becomes “in its power.” And when social problems are narrated as
problems of will, they become a consequence of the failure of individu-
als to will themselves out of situations in which they find themselves.
Lauren Berlant notes: “In the new good life imagined by the contracting
state, the capitalist requirement that there be a population of poorly re-
munerated laborers-in-waiting or those who cobble together temporary
work is not deemed part of a structural problem but rather a problem
of will and ingenuity” (2004, 4, emphasis in original). When a structural
problem becomes diagnosed in terms of the will, then individuals be-
come the problem: individuals become the cause of problems deemed
their own.

A Queer History of Will

What would it mean to offer a queer history of will? Given that the will
becomes a technique, a way of holding a subject to account, it could be
understood as a straightening device. If we have this understanding of
will, we would not be surprised by its queer potential: after all, you only
straighten what is already bent. Even when error is treated as what must
be corrected, error might be the ground covered by a queer history of will.
Recall the etymology of error: from err, meaning to stray. The landscape

A Willfulness Archive 7
of will might appear differently, might appear queerly, if we notice how it
is littered with waifs and strays.
Rather than tracking the history of the will as an idea, which would
assume that idea as having a consistency that it may or may not have, I
offer a history of willing associations. A queer history of will might fore-
ground the association between will and error and explore its myriad
forms.14 We have already noted how Augustine makes this association;
and others have followed. René Descartes, for example, contrasts the
object of the will to the object of perception. The latter appears before a
subject: “The perception of the intellect extends only to the few objects
presented to it and is always externally limited.” The horizon of the will
is not limited by this before: “The will, on the other hand, can in a certain
sense be called infinite, since we observe without exception that its scope
extends to anything that can possibly be an object of any other will—
even the immeasurable will of God. So it is easy for us to extend our will
beyond what we clearly perceive; and when we do this it is no wonder that
we may happen to go wrong” ([1644] 1988, 171, emphasis added). Accord-
ing to Descartes, it is given this contrast between the finite faculty of the
intellectual and infinite faculty of the will that subjects tend to err. As
Stephen Menn explains, “The juxtaposition of these faculties does not of
itself produce error, but it gives me occasion to err, since the will extends
beyond the bounds of my understanding” (1998, 316). For Descartes, if to
will is to will what is beyond the reach of the subject, then willing easily
amounts to going wrong. Perhaps in this “easily amounts” is a firmer ar-
gument: the will is errant.
We might note the spatial and temporal aspects of the argument: we
tend to will what is not present, in the sense of here as well as now. It
is the futurity and distance of will that seems to render will faulty. We
go wrong when we try and gather what is not within reach. Descartes’s
account of will and error could usefully be compared to John Locke’s
empirical psychology. For Locke it is will that can carry the subject away
from what it wants. Even if we know what we want—happiness—we
don’t always aim wisely: “though all men desire happiness, yet their wills
carry them so contrarily” ([1690] 1997, 246, emphasis added). The contrari-
ness of the will, for Locke, is that it can carry us away from a desired
future. To be carried contrarily by will is to be carried away from happi-
ness. We can again hear the echo of Augustine: to leave the path of happi-
ness is to be willing wrong, or going the wrong way. Willing is how we
end up deviating from the right path, as well as the means for directing

8 Introduction
ourselves along that path. Perhaps if we follow the will we might in turn
leave this path, we might even wander away from the path of the willing
subject. A queer history of the will might allow the will to wander away
from such a subject.
To wander away we must first recognize the path we are asked to fol-
low. Arendt addresses Augustine as “the first philosopher of the will.”15
She is not assuming that concepts such as deliberation or preference
began with Augustine (after all, these are key ethical themes in classical
Greek philosophy), but rather suggesting that until Augustine, and the
development of “a Christian ethics of interiority” (Ferrarin 1991, 339),
the will was not understood as an independent human faculty. One might
pause here and note how a queer history of sexuality might cover some of
the same ground as the history of the faculty of the will. Augustine has
figured prominently in queer histories, for example, in Jonathan Dol-
limore’s Sexual Dissidence: Augustine to Wilde, Freud to Foucault (1991).
Augustine calls upon the will in his confessions of desire, allowing us
to reflect on will and desire as sharing a historical itinerary. Indeed,
Dollimore shows how in Augustine there is an intimate relationship
between free will and the privation and perversion of desire. A queer
history of will might proceed by investing the entangled emergence of
will and desire.
I have no doubt of the queer potential of Augustine’s work, and he
remains a key figure in my own willful history of will. But if we are not
assuming the subject of will as the only way that will becomes a subject,
we might begin elsewhere. We might start with Lucretius, the Roman
poet and philosopher, whose poem The Nature of the Universe we can
inherit because of the queer thread of history, as Stephen Greenblatt
has shown in his book The Swerve (2011). The Nature of the Universe is
a queer poem, no doubt, queer not only for its content but queer in the
very matter of its survival. A poem assumed lost for centuries only to be
found again because of the dedicated wandering of a medieval humanist,
a poem that survived on parchment, a material made out of the skin of
sheep and goats because parchment is matter that can survive the “teeth
of time” (2011, 84);16 a poem hidden in a monastery, concealed under the
mark of another’s signature.17 Greenblatt notes how the “reappearance
of his poem was such a swerve, an unforeseen deviation from the direct
trajectory—in this case, toward oblivion—on which that poem and its
philosophy seemed to be travelling” (7). For the poem to exist for us, it
must have persisted. Remember our Grimm story: mere persistence can

A Willfulness Archive 9
be an act of disobedience. Perhaps there is nothing “mere” about persis-
tence. Persistence can be a deviation from a trajectory, what stops the
hurtling forward of fate, what prevents a fatality.
The swerve of history helps us to find the swerve in history. We can
ask: how does making Lucretius a turning point in the history of will turn
that history? Jane Bennett writes of Lucretius in Vibrant Matter (2009)
and although this book has a section on the willing subject, Lucretius is
not addressed as a philosopher of the will. If we address Lucretius in this
way, we can bring to the foreground the perversity of will. In The Nature
of the Universe Lucretius offers an account of the will precisely not as a
faculty of a human subject separated from the world, one whose work
is to work upon the world. The will for Lucretius is understood as the
swerve, also described as the clinamen (this word is invented by Lucre-
tius but derives from the Latin clīnāre, to incline) in order to mount a
philosophical defense of Epicurean atomism. The will makes human be-
ings continuous with atoms, made from the same stuff; stuff understood
neither as shaped by a preordained purpose and design, nor as lifeless
and inert, but as motion and deviation. In his descriptions of the physi-
cal universe, Lucretius offers an account of will in the form of swerving
atoms: “when the atoms are travelling straight down through empty space
by their own weight, at quite indeterminate times and places, they swerve
ever so little from their course, just so much that you can call it a change of
direction” (2.66, emphasis in original). To swerve is to deviate: it is not to
be carried by the force of your own weight. What better way of learning
about the potential to deviate than from the actuality of deviation. The
swerve is just enough not to travel straightly; not to stay on course. Oh
the potential of this not!
The beauty of Lucretius’s account of the universe is that swerving
atoms are a point of continuity with all living creatures, which makes con-
tinuity into discontinuity: “If the atoms never swerve so as to originate
new movement that will snap the bonds of fate, the everlasting sequence
of cause and effect—what is the source of the free will possessed by living
things throughout the earth?” (2.67). To swerve or to deviate can snap the
bonds of fate, understood as the forward trajectory of a straight line. It is
will that allows humans too not to be pushed in a certain direction, not
to travel straight by their own weight. The will is understood here as the
capacity or potential to enact a “no,” the potential not to be determined
from without, by an external force. The “no” is what makes humans on a

10 Introduction
deviant line with atoms: “There is within the human heart something that
can fight against this force and resists it,” he suggests and “in the atoms
you must recognise the same possibility” (2.68). Teresa Brennan’s descrip-
tion of free will as “the ability not to go with the flow” (2004, 56) recalls
the poetry of Lucretius’s swerving atoms.
Some have challenged the way Lucretius has been interpreted as an
account of the will of a conscious human subject, for example, by Karl
Marx in his early Hegelian work on ancient materialism. Jane Bennett
describes Marx’s “too-quick translation of atoms into human beings”
(2001, 121). We need to slow down if we are to be enchanted by matter.
To find only the human in Lucretius would certainly be to miss the point.
The point is not at the same time to expel the human from the possibility
named by the will. The human subject becomes part of the will story: just
a part, not the start. And indeed we learn from the continuity of humans
with atoms that there is another way of thinking of will: “the will” is a
name given by or in history to the possibility of deviation.
How queer is this will! As Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick has elaborated, the
word “queer” derives from the Indo-European word “twerk,” to turn or to
twist, also related to the word “thwart” to transverse, perverse, or cross
(1994, viii). That this word came to describe sexual subjects is no acci-
dent: those who do not follow the straight line, who to borrow Lucre-
tius’s terms, “snap the bonds of fate,” are the perverts: swerving rather
than straightening, deviating from the right course. To queer the will is
to show how the will has already been given a queer potential. Without
doubt for Lucretius this potentiality is valorized: but for others, the same
potentiality is narrated as a problem or threat, the problem or threat that
subjects might not follow the right path. Willfulness might be a conver-
sion point: how a potential is converted into a threat.
If we reread Augustine through the lens of Lucretius, we discover how
for Augustine too willing is what keeps open the possibility of deviation.
Augustine in On Free Choice of the Will suggests that even if “the movement
of the will” is similar to “the downward movement of the stone,” the stone
“has no power to check its downward movement” (3.1.72). Of course for
Lucretius the stone would have its own inclinations: the stone would not
be understood as without power, even a checking power, as the power not
to be moved straight down in a vertical line. But we can put the matter of
the stone to one side, at least for now,18 and note how the will matters as
an idea for Augustine. He seeks to explain how evil can exist in the world

A Willfulness Archive 11
despite the goodness and sovereignty of divine will. He does not describe
will simply as the potential to do evil: rather he describes will as the poten-
tial to do good. If humans did not willingly follow God, goodness would
not refer to humans but to God. Humans must be free not to be good in
order to have the possibility of being good; humans must be free to “turn
away” from the right path if that path is to become their own. This means
for Augustine it is better to leave the right path than to stay on that path
because you have no will: “A runaway horse is better than a stone that
stays in the right place only because it has no movement or perception
of its own” (On Free Choice of the Will, 3.5.81).19 In some translations this
runaway horse is a “wandering horse.” The will signifies that it is better to
leave the right place than to stay in the right place because you are unable
to move on your own. The will might even describe the relative value of
not staying in the right place. It is not simply that Augustine suggests that
to will wrongly is to deviate from the path of happiness. If the will names
the possibility of deviation, then that possibility becomes intrinsic to will.
The will is thus called upon to resolve the problem of the will: not
being fully determined from without becomes the requirement to deter-
mine from within. The will might even be willful before it becomes the
will; before it can fulfill its own requirement. It is worth noting here that
Jane Bennett’s own appreciative reading of Lucretius uses the language
of willfulness: “A certain willfulness or at least quirkiness and mobility—
the ‘swerve’—is located in the very heart of matter, and thus dispersed
throughout the universe as an attribute of all things, human or other-
wise. The swerve does not appear as a moral flaw or a sign of the sinful rebel-
liousness of humans” (2001, 81). There is a clear hesitation in Bennett’s use
of the word “willfulness,” a hesitation that takes the form of simultane-
ously using and replacing the word (“at least quirkiness or mobility”). My
arguments in Willful Subjects explain this hesitation. What happens if we
assume that the word “willfulness” is the right word? If Lucretius teaches
us that the will does not belong to the subject (if will names a potential
that matters to all matter) then willfulness too might not reside within
a subject. Willfulness is the word used to describe the perverse potential
of will and to contain that perversity in a figure. Our tendency to associ-
ate willfulness with human flaws and sin would become a symptom not
only of the desire to punish the perverts but to restrict perversion to the
conduct of the few. If willfulness provides a container for perversion, my
aim is to spill this container.

12 Introduction
A Willful Method
In following the figure of a willful subject, I assemble a willfulness
archive. This assembling is my method: a willful method. What do I mean
by a willfulness archive? We could hear in the oddness of this expres-
sion a stretching of the meaning of archive, or even an evacuation of the
archive. There is no building in which the documents of willfulness are
deposited. Or is there? Perhaps a document is a building, one that houses
or gives shelter. A willfulness archive would refer to documents that are
passed down in which willfulness comes up, as a trait, as a character
trait. Even if the documents are not contained in one place, they could be
described as containers. We could draw here on Jacques Derrida’s reflec-
tions on archives as domiciliations, where the documents are guarded, are
put under “house arrest” (1996, 2). If documents can be buildings, they
can be where an arresting happens. Perhaps it is the willful subject who is
under arrest. To arrest can mean not only to “cause to stop” but can also
be used figuratively in the sense of to catch or to hold. The willful subject
is under arrest in coming to appear to a watchful eye, to the eye of the
law, as the one who has certain qualities and attributes.
To be arrested is not to be stationary. She moves around; she turns up
by turning up in all the wrong places. The willful subject led me to where
she came to appear. In following this figure, I thus came across materials
I had not previously encountered. The Grimm fable, “The Willful Child,”
is one such example. Even as the figure of the willful child became fa-
miliar, I was still surprised by the “how” of her appearance. Research in-
volves being open to being transformed by what we encounter. This fable
redirected my thinking and became a pivot, or a table, that supported
my travels. It was thinking through this fable that led me to reconsider
how the the part/whole distinction relates to the will/willfulness distinc-
tion. I had already begun drawing on descriptions of the general will in
Pascal’s Pensées, discussed in chapter 3, in which the image of a body and
its parts (the foot as well as the hands) is so powerful. Once I found the
Grimm story, this image from Pascal made a much stronger impression.
The arm that keeps coming up began to haunt me. I began to notice other
wayward body parts. This book is full of them and the promise as well as
terror of their agency.
The Grimm story has allowed me to attend to the part of other parts. I
situate the Grimm story within a wider body of work that can be described

A Willfulness Archive 13
as “education of the will” in which the will becomes the object as well
as method for teaching a child. It is in this body of work that the figure
of the willful child appears most frequently and is called upon with the
greatest urgency. In the history of education of will, the willful child
has been hard at work.20 The function of the will as a pedagogic tool
is hard to separate from its function as a moral organ (see chapter 2).
All texts in which the figure of the willful child is “at work” could be
described as part of the history of the education of the will, which in-
cludes literary as well as philosophical materials concerned with moral
I have already noted the significance of George Eliot’s The Mill on the
Floss to the development of this project, a novel that could be described
as bildungsroman, focusing on the moral and psychological development
of a protagonist. In going back to my starting point, I ended up working
through all of Eliot’s novels, which eventually came to form a key part
of my willfulness archive, even though this book is not itself a book on
Eliot.21 I decided to work with George Eliot’s novels not only because they
were crucial to how I embarked on the willfulness trail but also because
Eliot can be thought of as a novelist of the will: she exercises the lan-
guage of will in her description of character. As Michael Davis has noted
in George Eliot and Nineteenth Century Psychology, Eliot was engaged in
the intellectual debates of the time which “dismissed the notion of the
will as free or spontaneous” (2006, 120; see also Bonaparte 1975). Within
her novels, the will appears not simply as something characters have but
as part of a moral and affective landscape. Davis concludes that Eliot
“maintains a sense of the will as a psychologically and ethically signifi-
cant category” such that “her awareness of the problems attached to the
concept of will” provides “the basis of a subtle and complex redefinition
of that concept” (2006, 120). Working closely with Eliot’s texts has helped
give more coherence to my own. Perhaps, in returning to the same body
of work, I have found a respite from wandering.
Eliot’s texts have also helped me to think of how will works as an idea
that converts into narrative, creating a world in which will as well as will-
fulness become assignments that pertain not only to persons but also
to things. As Moira Gatens notes, George Eliot can be thought of as a phi-
losopher as well as a novelist, or we could approach her novels as a “new
form of philosophical writing” (2009, 74). Eliot’s works could be described
as a novel form of philosophy. My choice of Eliot as a willful companion
reflects my own interest in reimagining the relationship of philosophy to

14 Introduction
literature. In reading Eliot as a philosopher, I also read philosophy as liter-
ature. In this book I engage with a wide range of “philosophies of the will”
and treat these philosophical works as strands of a willfulness archive. In
other words, I read philosophies of the will not simply for the content of
arguments about will, but with a reflection on how the will (sometimes
but not always in relation to willfulness) takes form and is given form
within the works themselves.
I do think of the arguments of this book as philosophical arguments
even if the book does not inhabit in any “straightforward” way the house
of philosophy. The philosophical project of the book could even be de-
scribed as not philosophy. What do I mean by this? To be doing not philoso-
phy is a way of framing one’s relation to philosophy albeit in apparently
negative terms. Not philosophy is practiced by those who are not philoso-
phers and aims to create room within philosophy for others who are not
philosophers. Not being a philosopher working with philosophy can be
understood as generative: the incapacity to return texts to their proper
histories allows us to read sideways or across, thus creating a different
angle on what is being reproduced. Not philosophy aims not to reproduce
the body of philosophy by a willful citational practice: if philosophers are
cited (and in this book many philosophers are cited) they are not only
cited alongside those who are not philosophers but are not given any
priority over those who are not. This is how I come to offer as my final
hand a rereading of Hegel’s master/slave dialectic as a companion fable
to the Grimm fable.
By not philosophy I am not, however, only referring to the philosophy
produced by those who are not philosophers. Not philosophy also attends
to “the not,” making “the not” an object of thought. Not philosophy is also
a philosophy of the not. In this book I argue that the will can be rearticu-
lated in terms of the not: whether understood as possibility or capacity,
as the possibility of not being compelled by an external force (I have dis-
cussed this understanding of will in Lucretius), or as the capacity to say
or enact a “no” to what has been given as instruction. Indeed, willfulness
as a judgment tends to fall on those who are not compelled by the rea-
soning of others. Willfulness might be what we do when we are judged as
being not, as not meeting the criteria for being human, for instance. Not
to meet the criteria for human is often to be attached to other nots, not
human as not being: not being white, not being male, not being straight,
not being able-bodied. Not being in coming up against being can trans-
form being. This statement can be heard as aspiration: not philosophy, in

A Willfulness Archive 15
reinhabiting the body of philosophy, queers that body. Willfulness: phi-
losophy astray, a stray’s philosophy.
A queer body can be a queer body of thought. Thinking through the
relationship between will and willfulness has allowed me to reorientate
my relation to the will as a philosophical idea. The arguments offered
in this book could be read alongside the work of scholars such as John
Smith (2000) and Peter Hallward (2009) who have both argued that the
critique of the volitional subject within poststructuralist thought does
not mean volition as a concept no longer has its uses. Smith argues that
some readers of “contemporary theory” might assume that “the will is an
outmoded concept” (2000, 12). He suggests that for feminist readers the
will might be understood as a “masculinist concept,” as belonging to the
subject that has been the subject of feminist critique (12).22 Smith also
notes how the will has become difficult to disentangle from Nazism, with
its triumphant “triumph of the will.”23 Hallward in turn reflects on the
tendency within poststructuralist theory to “dismiss the notion of will
as a matter of delusion or deviation” (2009, 20).
Against these dismissals of will, Smith and Hallward argue for a revised
and dialectical concept of will as a praxis or activity. I agree that the con-
cept of the will is not exhausted. I am not interested, however, in rescuing
volition from the established critiques (not all of which I would describe,
as Hallward does, as dismissals)24 even though in chapter 4 I reflect on the
importance of political will, and even if by the end of the research I began
to feel a certain commitment to the possibilities left open by will. But I am
not arguing for the will, even if I draw on its utility. One of my aims in
Willful Subjects is to deepen the critiques of voluntarism by reflecting
on the intimacy between freedom and force. I respond to Eve Kosofsky
Sedgwick’s call for us “to resist simply re-propelling the propaganda of a
receding Free Will” by drawing on willfulness to rethink the relationship
between “voluntarity and compulsion” (1994, 138). Power relations can
be secured “willingly.” When willing is secured, a will project is a security
project. Once secured, the will is not easy to apprehend as will. Phenom-
enology has been an important resource in developing this argument by
helping me to reflect on how willfulness “comes up” given how what has
been “already willed” (chapter 1) or “generally willed” (chapter 3) tends
to recede or become background. The willful subject might be striking
in her appearance not only because she disagrees with what has been
willed by others, but because she disagrees with what has disappeared
from view.

16 Introduction
To bring materials together as a willfulness archive might create an
even stronger impression of the willful subject. There are risks in strength-
ening an impression. We might presume she is the impression she leaves.
We might think we have found her there like that. It is important that we
do not assume that willfulness simply describes a disposition: although
as a description (of disposition) willfulness might have certain effects
(on disposition). We are following a depositing rather than finding what
is deposited. This book thus asks not, what is willfulness, but rather what
is willfulness doing? To ask what willfulness is doing is also to ask what
we are doing when we are being willful: this is how the question of doing
does not pass over the question of being. With these questions come oth-
ers. Where do we tend to find willfulness? When does willfulness come
up? Who is attributed as willful? A key aspect of the argument is that
willfulness is not only deposited in certain places but that through this
depositing the will is unevenly distributed in the social field. The reverse
mechanism is the same mechanism: the uneven distribution of the will is
how a figure can appear as willful (some wills appear as too full of will, a
fullness that is also narrated as an emptying or theft of will from others).
No wonder that the figure of the willful subject—often but not always a
child, often but not always female, often but not always an individual—
has become so familiar. It is the depositing of willfulness in certain places
that allows the willful subject to appear as a figure, as someone we recog-
nize, in an instant. It is this figure that explains why we might hesitate in
using the language of willfulness to describe the potential of the swerve.
She is a powerful container.
I aim to make this familiar figure of the willful subject strange by re-
flecting on the familiarity of her form. And it is thinking of the status
of the willful subject as a figure that allows us to open up the concept of
the archive. Donna Haraway (1997) has shown how figures are semiotic
and material. If figures mean; they matter. If figures matter; they mean.
A willfulness archive assembled around a figure does not only include
documents or texts. Or we could say that when we assemble an archive
(and to assemble is an action, a gathering of materials that would other-
wise remain dispersed or scattered) we do not need to approach those
materials only as texts. When figures are exercised, they move; and we
are moved by them. Just think of the Grimm story; a written text cer-
tainly, although one that no longer appears in official editions of Grimm
stories (perhaps the violence of this story is too visible though of course
the violence of the Grimm stories is never far from the surface); a written

A Willfulness Archive 17
text that might and can be read as just one translation of the oral stories
gathered by the Grimm brothers; stories in which the child’s arm or hand
coming out of the grave was a common motif.25 But I am not just think-
ing of the histories that are at stake in the arrival and passing around of
a given text. How else can we describe “The Willful Child” other than as
a text? We get further with our descriptions if we include the affective
realm. How do these words affect the reader? If the story is intended for a
child, how would it reach that child? Does it touch her because it is touch-
ing? The figure of the willful child is saturated with affect. The word “will-
ful” is an inheritance in how it is affective, which makes willfulness effec-
tive or efficient in its result. Words can smother us, enrage us; they can
leave us full or empty. When they touch us, they create an impression.
I write this book as someone who has received a willfulness impres-
sion. It is perhaps because I too was called a willful child that this figure
caught my attention. I have heard the intonation of this call, how it
can fall harshly, as accusation. This call is often a calling out to a child,
to someone who can be addressed in this way, who, at least at this time
or in my time, was assumed not to have the right to return the address.
The willful child can be part of our own history, embodied as memory:
someone we might have been or someone we might have been thought
to be, someone we became in the face of having been thought to have
been. I became interested in this figure, a ghostly figure, perhaps, a trace
or impression of a person, as someone, or as somewhere, I have been. In
including myself within this text I am, as it were, laying my cards on the
table. I am giving you my hand. I have no doubt that some would con-
clude that my hands cannot be impartial. They are not; and I fully intend
this not. I write this book with partial hands.26 Impartial hands would
leave too much untouched.
In assembling a willfulness archive, I am also working with concepts,
and I hope to return concepts to bodies. Concepts can be sweaty: a trace
of the laboring of bodies. Willfulness becomes a sweaty concept if we can
reveal the labor of its creation.27 If we hear the definition of willfulness,
cold and dusty from being lodged in a dictionary, as a call, as an address
to someone, we can think of how words and concepts leak into worlds. To
recall: “asserting or disposed to assert one’s own will against persuasion,
instruction, or command; governed by will without regard to reason;
determined to take one’s own way; obstinately self-willed or perverse.”
To be called obstinate or perverse because you are not persuaded by the
reasoning of others? Is this familiar to you? Have you heard this before?

18 Introduction
When willfulness is an attribution, a way of finding fault, then willful-
ness is also the experience of an attribution. Willfulness can be deposited
in our bodies. And when willfulness is deposited in our bodies, our bodies
become part of a willfulness archive.28
To follow willfulness around thus requires moving out of the history
of ideas and into everyday life worlds. If we inherit this history, it leaves
an impression on the skin. I could not have worked with these impres-
sions on my own, even if the experience of being called willful can feel
like being cast out. I needed the hands of others, virtual and fleshy
others, to support my own effort to make willfulness the sustained ob-
ject of theoretical reflection.
The book is organized as threads of argument that are woven together
and tied up somewhat loosely. I have used echoes and repetitions across
the chapters (the same things come up in different places). I have relied
on the sound of connection to build up a case from a series of impres-
sions and have thus imagined the writing as poetic as well as academic.
This is not to say there is no reason in the rhyme. In structuring this
book, my aim has been to thicken gradually my account of the sociality
of will. After all, the judgment of willfulness derives from a social scene:
how some have their will judged as a problem by others. The first chapter
draws on examples of individuals who are “willing together” in actual-
izing a possibility; the second reflects on how the project of eliminat-
ing willfulness from will becomes a moral imperative that is binding; the
third reflects on how some wills are generalized in a social or institu-
tional body; and the fourth considers how willfulness is required when
you come up against what has been generalized as will. One of my key
aims is to explore how the will becomes a question of time by thinking
through how will relates to the past as well as the future, and how the
will is thus never quite present or in the time we are in: the subjective
time of will is thus described as non-spontaneity and the social time of
will as non-synchronicity. The question of will becomes a question of
precedence, and in the book I explore specific figures including the guest
(chapter 1), the child (chapter 2), and the stranger (chapter 3), who can be
thought of as sharing a condition: that of coming after.
In chapter 1, “Willing Subjects,” I consider willing as an everyday experi-
ence and social activity. I explore willing as a project form, as how subjects
aim to bring certain things about. I begin in this way to depersonalize
willfulness (which as a judgment can often feel too personal, as if it is
about a person) by showing how willfulness can be attributed to whatever

A Willfulness Archive 19
gets in the way of an intention, including objects as well as subjects. In
chapter 2, “The Good Will,” I return to the figure of the willful child and
consider how she becomes a tool in the history of the education of will.
The chapter also explores how the will itself becomes a project, as what
a subject must work upon, and offers a critique of the universality of the
good will by reflecting on the gendering of the will as well as willfulness.
In chapter 3, “The General Will,” I analyze the distinction between will
and willfulness as it relates to the distinction between the general and
particular will. I explore how parts that are not willing the preservation
of the whole are charged with willfulness, including nonproductive and
nonreproductive parts. The book then offers a recharge of the charged
term of willfulness by thinking through how we are in this charge. In
chapter 4, “Willfulness as a Style of Politics,” I reflect on how willfulness
has been actively claimed. If willfulness involves a conversion point (how
a potential is converted into a threat), this chapter explores another con-
version point, what we might call a counter-conversion (how a threat can
be converted into potential). However, the mood of this chapter is not
simply or only celebratory. I reflect on experiences that are difficult and
do not wish to resolve that difficulty (to resolve difficulty would be to
lose proximity to what is difficult). In the conclusion if I do celebrate, at
least in part, willful parts (perhaps in the original sense of “celebrate” as
to frequent in numbers or to crowd), I also acknowledge that willfulness
does not provide our action with a moral ground. Being less supported
might also mean being willing to travel on unstable grounds even if (or
perhaps because) our aim is to find support.
In writing about willfulness, I concede the possibility that my own
writing will be judged as willful: as too assertive, even pushy. One of my
arguments is that some bodies have to push harder than other bodies just
to proceed; this argument might be true for arguments as well as bodies.
The Oxford English Dictionary (oed) describes the meaning of willful as
strong willed “in the positive sense” as both obsolete and rare. The nega-
tive senses of willfulness (or even willfulness as a negative sense) have
become so deeply entrenched that to open up a history of willfulness one
might have to insist on other more positive senses. I might have become
rather insistent about the potential of being insistent. Sometimes you
might even have to “over-insist” to get through a wall of perception; it is
a reflection of what we have to get over. At the same time, I am conscious
that a book on willfulness needs willing readers; by which I mean those
who are willing to keep reading, to stay with the text, whether or not they

20 Introduction
agree with it. I have thus taken as much care as I can in how and when I
have introduced willful subjects. And I have taken my time; indeed, it is
not until the last chapter of this book that I describe the world from their
point of view, from the point of view of those who receive and are shaped
by this judgment. I use the third person plural here even though I include
myself within a willfulness archive. I often address this book in this way,
thinking of it in terms of what they are doing. When I came to rewrite it,
I wondered whether they would agree.
Over time I began to reimagine the project of the book as lending my
ear to willful subjects. Although some of the stories of willfulness are
individual, the project of the book is collective: it is not only about bring-
ing individual stories together, but hearing each as a thread of a shared
history. Strays, when heard together, are noisy. Perhaps the book itself
has become plural in being filled with willful subjects. It might even have
become like what it has been filled with; willful subjects who insist on
their separation, who refuse to be subjected to my own will. Has Willful
Subjects become a willful subject? I will answer this question with a firm
yes. It is an affirmation that leads me on another willfulness trail. Femi-
nist, queer, and antiracist histories are full of rather willful books. Gloria
Anzaldúa describes Borderlands, La Frontera: The New Mestiza as follows:
“The whole thing has had a mind of its own, escaping me and insisting
on putting together the pieces of its own puzzle with minimal direction
from my will. It is a rebellious, willful entity, a precocious girl-child forced
to grow up too quickly” ([1987] 1999, 88).29 The book as a “whole thing”
can become a willful girl-child, the one who insists on getting her own
way, who comes to you with her own explanations of what it is that she
is doing. In making this connection between the willful subjects in the
book and the book itself, I was becoming a point on the genealogical line
of feminist and queer of color scholarship. This line is not a straight but
a wayward line, as it must be if we are to find each other in the puzzle of
what unfolds. In wandering away we might even reach the same places.
As I explore throughout this book, 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.30 A willfulness archive is premised on hope: the hope that those
who wander away from the paths they are supposed to follow leave their
footprints behind.

A Willfulness Archive 21

Introduction. A Willfulness Archive

1. This translation uses the English spelling “wilful.” I have in this book used the
American spelling as it allows us to see the “will” in “willful.” I should note also that in the
German story the child is not given a gender. In this English translation of the German
story, the child is “she” but in some other translations the child is “he.” I will address the
willful child in this book as “she” because I would argue willfulness tends to be registered
as a feminine attribute. However, I hope to show how the gendering of will as well as
willfulness is complicated (see chapter 2). Boys and men can be called willful, although
that call might sound differently and have different effects.
2. I explore the relation between property and the will in the final section of chapter
1 with specific reference to Hegel and Marx.
3. Classical and early modern texts cited are referred to using book number, chapter
number (where relevant) and page number.
4. From Oxford English Dictionary Online (2008). All dictionary definitions used in
this book are from this edition.
5. Probably the only text I have come across that foregrounds “willfulness” in offer-
ing a history of the will is Richard E. Flathman’s Willful Liberalism. However his book
does not involve a discussion of willfulness as an attribution: it is rather a defense of
a style of liberalism, a refashioned liberalism that is in the “free spirit” of Nietzsche,
focusing on the creativity and self-making of individuals (1992, 208). Flathman does
offer some important readings of voluntarism, including theological voluntarism, and
this book provides a useful contrast to Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind (1978). His
approach to the “semiotic of the will” could also be related to my emphasis on will and
willfulness as a grammar (1992, 158), although he uses this method primarily to avoid
thinking of the will as a “single entity and force” (159), while my interest is in developing
a model of how the will is socially, affectively, and unevenly distributed between per-
sons and things. My argument also attempts to disentangle willfulness from individu-
alism. For a useful edited collection debating Flathman’s willful liberalism, see Honig
6. In this section and the book that follows, my argument rests on teasing out the
relationship between two words/concepts “will” and “willfulness.” I should note that
in other languages the words that are roughly equivalent to willfulness are not “will
words.” I would suggest that this does not mean the argument can only be made in En-
glish, although it can certainly be made more easily and more neatly. Take for example
the German word eigensinnig, which is the word used in the Grimm story. This word
means “own-self” (or a sense of one’s self) rather than self-will. However, it is this sense
of “own-ness” that is conveyed by the word “willful” (see chapter 4). The German edu-
cational literatures on breaking the will of the child (see chapter 2) thus refer to the
problem of eigensinnig as that which must be eliminated from the child. In Germany
there has been some interesting work on eigensinnig that offers a reclaiming of that term
in a way I am suggesting we can reclaim willfulness. For example, see the book edited
by the German social historian Alf Lüdtke, The History of Everyday Life, which includes
the following on eigensinnig in the glossary of terms: “Key term in Lüdtke’s analysis
of workers’ everyday life, denoting willfulness, spontaneous self-will, a kind of self-
affirmation, an act of reappropriating alienated social relations on and off the shop
floor by self-assertive prankishness, demarcating a space of one’s own. There is a dis-
junction between formalized politics and the prankish, stylised, misanthropic distanc-
ing from all constraints or incentive present in the everyday politics of Eigen-Sinn. In
standard parlance, the word has pejorative overtones, referring to ‘obstreperous, obsti-
nate’ behaviour, usually of children. The ‘discompounding’ of writing it as Eigen-Sinn
stresses its root signification of ‘one’s own sense, own meaning’ ” ([1989] 1995, 314).
The reclaiming of terms for “problem subjects” will depend on linguistic and cultural
histories (that can be treated as resources). Note also in the German case, a word that is
a more direct translation for willfulness would be eigenwillig (self-will). There is a fairy
tale in English by Francis Edward Paget about a spoiled child called Prince Eigenwillig:
a boy who inherits the German name for willfulness, in whom we can meet this name
in person. And oh: what a sorry tale! In the end Prince Eigenwillig says to his mother, “I
won’t do anything you tell me. If you had not spoilt me I shouldn’t be in all this trouble
now” (1846, 117). His fate is typical for willful children: punishment by death. He is
turned into a ball by the fairy’s wand. My point in referring to this story is to suggest
that fairy tales and folklore may provide an interesting site of cultural translation and
could be explored as a transcultural willfulness archive.
7. Ryle’s aim is to refuse the concept of “a faculty” of “the will.” He writes: “I hope
to refute the doctrine that there exists a Faculty, immaterial Organ, or Ministry, cor-
responding to the theory’s description of the ‘Will’ and, accordingly, that there occur
processes, or operations, corresponding to what it describes as volitions” ([1949] 2009,
50). As I will point out, however, there is a long history of reflection on the will that does
not treat will as a faculty of the subject.
8. For example, many recent publications on the will address the question of
whether the neurosciences can accommodate a concept of free will, or whether they
demonstrate the truth of determinism, or become another occasion for supporting com-
patibilism. Some typical and telling titles include The Volitional Brain (Libet, Freeman,
and Sutherland 1999); Who’s in Charge? Free Will and the Science of the Brain (Gazzaniga
2012); Did My Neurons Make Me Do It? (Murphy and Brown 2009); My Brain Made Me Do
It (Sternberg 2010). See Rose (2007) for a discussion of these literatures from a Foucauld-
ian perspective. Because my primary interest is not whether or not something called free
will exists, but how the will comes into existence as an idea in relation to willfulness, I will

206 Notes for Introduction

not be engaging with these literatures on the free-will-versus-determinism controversy
directly. However, I do engage with the histories abbreviated in the shorthand “free will”
(the histories, in others words, that mean freedom and will have tended to be thought
together), while also recognizing that there have been other ways that will and freedom
can be thought (given that some approaches to the will explicitly reject the concept of
freedom, while some approaches to freedom attempt to detach freedom from the will).
9. Another example would be Vernon J. Bourke’s (1964) Will in Western Thought: An
Historic-Critical Survey. Although this offers a “long view” of the will in philosophy, it
does not really offer a history of will as an idea, but rather groups together different
approaches to the will (the will as rational appetite, will and intellectual preference, and
so on). It is a useful reference point but not comparable to Hannah Arendt’s offering,
which raises the question of what it means to think “the will” historically. More recently,
Giorgio Agamben has offered in spoken lectures an “archaeology of will,” proposing that
modernity is the transformation from “I can” (the Greek focus on potentiality) to “I
will” (understood as a modular verb) engaging with early works in Christianity (such
as Augustine and St. Paul) and the relation of will and commandant. He challenges
the usual reading that the Greeks could not think the concept of will by relating the
emergence of will to the resolution of the problem of potentiality (and impotentiality).
While I think this argument is thought provoking, my own approach will suggest that
the will has a more complicated career than can be expressed by a simple transition. See
also chapter 1, note 16, for further reflection on the relation of “I will” to “I can.” And
finally also relevant here would be Regenia Gagnier’s cultural history of individualism
focusing on the late nineteenth century. Gagnier offers an “anatomy of the will” (2010,
1) and is one of the few writers I have come across to consider the biological, social, and
individual will (see especially 87–115).
10. For Arendt a history of the will is a history of the faculty of will. She argues, as
do many others, that the faculty of the will was not known in Greek antiquity, though
she does include Aristotle in her account insofar as his “notion of proairesis” is a “kind
of forerunner of the Will” and “can serve as a paradigmatic example of how certain
problems of the soul were raised and answered before the discovery of the Will” (1978,
6). I would include those who have approached the will in terms other than as a faculty
of the subject within my understanding of the history of the will (such as Lucretius,
Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche in his later work).
11. It is surprising that Foucault does not focus on the will given the centrality of the
confessional mode to History of Sexuality, volume 1. An obvious reference point would
have been Augustine’s Confessions. J. G. Merquior has also noted how Foucault might
have made the will into an explicit aspect of his argument about the rise of the “con-
fessional subject” (1985, 139). Foucault does reflect on Augustine’s City of God in his
contribution to “Sexuality and Solitude,” focusing on the image of the erection and the
association of sexuality and disobedience in Augustine (Foucault and Sennett 1981). I
will be taking up the question of sexuality and the will in relation to this same passage
from Augustine in chapter 3.
12. Nietzsche’s “genealogy of man” is described as a “genealogy of the will” by
Werner Hamacher. He notes: “The central problem, with which the genealogy confronts
its historiographers, consists in constructing the passage of the will from its eccentric
position, where it is not yet will, into the centre of itself” (1990, 33).

Notes for Introduction 207

13. Nietzsche singles out Schopenhauer at this point as the philosopher who “has
given us to understand that the will alone is really known to us” ([1886] 1997, 12).
Indeed, Schopenhauer develops the argument that the Kantian thing-in-itself should
be understood as the will. This argument could be understood as so extreme that “the
will” becomes far from straightforward. As Gilles Deleuze argues, Schopenhauer “in
drawing out the extreme consequences of the old philosophy” is “not content with an
essence of the will” but makes “the will the essence of things” (2006, 77–78). Arguably
then Schopenhauer in making the will the one and only thing we can and do know
also makes the will into the strangest thing. For further discussion of the strangeness
of Schopenhauer’s will, see the section “Stones Matter” in my conclusion to this book.
14. The project of following the queer associations between will and error can be
connected to J. Jack Halberstam’s (2011) important reflections on “the queer art of
failure.” There is a queer potential in not reaching the right points.
15. This is actually the title of her section on Augustine: “Augustine, the First Phi-
losopher of the Will.”
16. This wonderful description “teeth of time” is how Robert Hooke in Micrographia
(1655) describes bookworms (cited in Greenblatt 2011, 83). The material significance of
parchment to the history and other histories should not be underestimated. That so
much depended upon the capacity of parchment to survive the “teeth of time” becomes
another way of offering an account of the intermingling of sheep, goats, and humans
in history (as well as worms, since the “teeth of time” do destroy some parchment), as
elegantly and sheepishly explored by Sarah Franklin in Dolly Mixtures: The Remaking of
Genealogy (2007).
17. There has been a turn to Lucretius in the humanities: in addition to Stephen
Greenblatt’s account of the history of the book, a history in which the human hand
plays a part (a hand that in reaching out finds something assumed to have been lost), we
also have Michel Serres’s The Birth of Physics ([1977] 2000) influenced by Gilles Deleuze’s
The Logic of Sense ([1969] 2001), which offers a philosophical interpretation of the prior-
ity of ancient materialism. Both of these texts make the history of thought “swerve” by
acknowledging the matter of the swerve. In the area of scholarship often named as “the
new materialism” Lucretius has been given a place as a writer who shows us how matter
is the site of agentic potential as we can witness in Jane Bennett’s The Enchantment of
Modern Life (2001) as well as Vibrant Matter (2009). And in queer theory too, for example,
in Jonathan Goldberg’s The Seeds of Things (2009), we can find Lucretius, written about
in this case through the lens of Serres and Bennett, as a way of rereading the matter of
sexuality and gender in Renaissance texts.
18. I will return to the matter of stones (and why stones matter in the history of will)
in the conclusion of the book.
19. Augustine makes this comparison in relation to human sin: better to sin freely
then not to sin unfreely.
20. For educational treatises, I would include both core texts in educational philoso-
phy (in chapter 2, I discuss the work of John Locke, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Immanuel
Kant, and James Mill) as well as more popular educational manuals written for parents
as well as children. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, many of these
manuals focused on the problem of willful children: examples include Alice Price, A
Willful Young Woman ([1887] 2009); Helen Sherman Griffith’s Her Willful Way: A Story

208 Notes for Introduction

for Girls ([1902] 2009), and Henry Marcus Cottinger’s Rosa, The Educating Mother ([1887]
2009). All of these books are now available to contemporary readers as they can be ac-
cessed via Google Books and have been reprinted using optical character recognition
software. They have been valuable in giving me a sense of how far the figure of the
willful child (in particular the willful girl) traveled. I have not been able to decipher the
extent to which the texts were distributed and read during this period and have thus
not developed my argument through readings of them. It is important to my argu-
ment about how willfulness came to matter to engage with materials that reached wide
21. Observant readers might note that I do not work with George Eliot’s most cel-
ebrated novel, Middlemarch, even though it tells the story of another willful heroine,
Dorothea Brooke, who ends up (pun probably intended) marrying a character Will.
With thanks to one of my anonymous reviewers for being such an observant reader! I
have worked with the texts that captured my interest; and Daniel Deronda’s willful hero-
ine, Gwendolyn Harleth, I found much more compelling as a character, and one who
seemed to have more to say to Maggie Tulliver in my imaginary conversation between
willful girls.
22. I would agree with John Smith that the relative absence of the will as a theme
within feminism can be related to the kind of subject “the will” has been assumed to
belong to. At the same time, feminists in reflecting on the gendering of will have offered
another way of conceiving of willing as a social activity. See chapter 2 for discussions of
the gendering of will. I am indebted to John Smith’s detailed historical work on sexual-
ity and the will in chapter 3 of this book.
23. Theodor Adorno was thus able to associate the triumphalism of Nazism directly
to the concept of the will: “A will, detached from reason and proclaimed as an end-in-
itself, like the will whose triumph the Nazis certified in the official title of the party’s
congresses, such a will, like all ideals, that rebel against reason, stands ready for every
misdeed” ([1966] 1973, 272). No one who has seen the Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of
the Will (1935, directed by Leni Riefenstahl) could fail to note the sharpness of Adorno’s
critique. A well-known and astute reading of Riefenstahl’s “fascinating fascism” is of-
fered by Susan Sontag (1974).
24. It is noteworthy that some of the strongest critics of the will (as metaphysics
of the subject in the case of Nietzsche, or as the reduction of freedom to sovereignty
in the case of Arendt) have ended up retaining rather than giving up a concept of will. In
Arendt’s case, this can be seen in her commitment to will as a discovery; in Nietzsche’s
case, through how he employs the will to understand the motors of history: the will to
25. For other stories that used this motif see “The Hand from the Grave,” a collection
compiled by D. L. Ashliman (1999/2000)
Accessed January 29, 2014.
26. With thanks to Izzy Isgate whose response to a Facebook post on poisonous
pedagogy helped me come up with this sentence.
27. The concept of “sweaty concepts” is inspired by the work of Audre Lorde. In the
corpus of her work, Lorde creates concepts in or through a description of how it feels
to inhabit this body, in this world, to “withstand” that world (see my conclusion for a
discussion of “withstanding” in relation to skin and stone). I have been so energized

Notes for Introduction 209

by her example, and in following Audre Lorde, I also want concepts to show the bodily
work of their creation: concepts can be made to sweat when we bring them back to the
bodies. Indeed, when a concept comes back to the body it might transform how we
inhabit bodies. Sweaty concepts might also be understood as concepts that are difficult,
that demand we work hard to work with them.
28. With thanks to Flavia Dzodan for her question after I gave a lecture on willful-
ness in Amsterdam on January 20, 2012, which led to this formulation.
29. My appreciation to AnaLouise Keating who posted this quote in response to
a Facebook status update, and whose encouragement to reread Borderlands led me
further along a willfulness trail, just as I was beginning to feel the trail had become
30. I first worked with this idea of “desire lines” in Queer Phenomenology (2006, 19).
My own writing has been a desire line, a wandering away from the official paths laid
out by disciplines. Not inhabiting a discipline can be an invitation: it can give us the
freedom to roam.

Chapter One. Willing Subjects

1. I should note that another passage from Augustine is more typically compared
to Descartes’s method insofar as it is offered as a refutation of skepticism: “They think
that by not acknowledging they are alive they avoid error, when even their very error
proves they are alive, since one who is not alive cannot err” (The Enchiridion on Faith,
Hope, and Love, 20.27). If the will becomes certain, it is perhaps because doubting will
becomes evidence of having a will to doubt. And perhaps becoming certain of will is also
about becoming alive to error.
2. Heidegger’s critique of will as metaphysics is in fact a critique of Nietzsche’s
concept of “the will to power” and offers the most explicit reading of the history of
metaphysics as a history of will. As Bret W. Davis describes, for Heidegger, “the history
of metaphysics not only completes itself in the modern metaphysics of will, from the
beginning the project of metaphysics was in this sense a project of will” (2007, 13).
The use of the will in Nazism provides the historical context for Heidegger’s critique of
the will. In Heidegger’s “Conversation on the Country Path about Thinking,” the Scholar
says to the Teacher he wants “non-willing,” which means being “willing to renounce
willing” ([1959] 1969, 59). Heidegger offers more than a critique of the metaphysics of
will: he tries to get beyond the very bind of will. Although Jacques Derrida did not tend
to write explicitly on the will, his deconstruction of the metaphysics of presence in Of
Grammatology ([1967] 1997) could be read in these terms. Derrida also offers a way of
rereading Nietzsche as not participating in the metaphysics of the will, as Ernst Behler
(1991) has suggested. Doing the research for this book has also made me aware that
many of the writers working in the mid- to late nineteenth century who contributed to
what we might call “a psychology of the will,” some of whom I consider in the following
chapter, also offered strong critiques of the metaphysical will. Henry Maudsley begins
Body and Will by arguing against the model of will as “essentially a self-procreating, self-
sustaining spiritual entity, which owns no natural cause, obeys no law, and has no sort
of infinity with matter” (1884, 1). He then adds: “What the metaphysician has done is
plain enough.” He “has converted into an entity the general term which embraces the

210 Notes for Introduction