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Too Big to Fail? Falling for, in, and out of the Defect of Happiness

Organization: Post-Scriptum journal
Categories: Postcolonial, American, Hispanic & Latino, Comparative, French, British, German, Popular Culture, Gender & Sexuality, World Literatures, African-American, Colonial, Revolution & Early National, Transcendentalists, 1865-1914, 20th & 21st Century, Medieval, Early Modern & Renaissance, Long 18th Century, Romantics, Victorian, 20th & 21st Century, Narratology, Aesthetics, Classical Studies, Cultural Studies, Film, TV, & Media, Food Studies, History, Philosophy, African & African Diasporas, Asian & Asian Diasporas, Australian Literature, Canadian Literature, Caribbean & Caribbean Diasporas, Indian Subcontinent, Eastern European, Mediterranean, Middle East, Native American, Scandinavian, Pacific Literature
Event Date: 2022-10-31 Abstract Due: 2022-01-15

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Call for papers, Post-Scriptum no. 33, Fall 2022, edited by Flora Roussel


Too Big to Fail? Falling for, in, and out of the Defect of Happiness

Because I’m happy / Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth / Because I’m happy / Clap along if you know what happiness is to you (Williams 2013, online)

Pharrell Williams’ most famous song “Happy” reached the top charts in numerous countries, spreading good vibes of ‘dancing on air’. The song would indicate that happiness is the fact of being satisfied with what we have, and the act of thinking positively, a smile on our face. If Williams here addresses less the pursuit of happiness than happiness as a state of mind, he does musically render a long tradition of considering happiness as the life goal.

Happiness as a concept, or even as a practice, has been the bonfire around which philosophies, religions, cultures, customs, rituals have been developed. Aristotle’s notion of eudaimonia in his Nicomachean Ethics (2014 [4th century BC], 1095a15-25), Al-Ghaz?l?’s reflection on sa’?da in The Alchemy of Happiness (1964 [12th century], e.g., chapters I and VIII), and some areas of the diverse utilitarian ethics, notably with Hume’s Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), are three examples among a long list of thinkers who analyze and define what happiness is and prescribe what it should be. Studies also focus on representations and expressions of happiness in media as eclectic as possible, such as novels and movies. For Piyush Gotise and Bal Krishna Upadhyay, the ancient Indian novel Hitopade?a develops a six-stage model in the pursuit of sukha (2018, 867-873). One could also see in Agnès Varda’s movie Le bonheur [Happiness] (1965) a feminist critique of marriage and of family life as the keys to women’s happiness. The movie illustrates how, in patriarchal societies, only the male happiness prevails, as Émilie, François’s mistress, explains to him: “You are my happiness. You and your life” (Varda 2007 [1965], 01:13:47; our translation).

The idea of happiness thus largely differs according to the perspective from which it is seen. However, three important trends stand out. The first trend posits happiness as an overarching affect which blinds—and in so doing, erases—any nuance of feeling, such as joy or peacefulness. This process of erasure resonates with the strategy of homogenizing affects. As for the second trend, Edgar Cabanas and Eva Illouz argue that happiness is now a source of marketing and of capital, as shown through the increasing number of books or therapies on “well-being” (2018, 21-22). That talks us into buying a supposedly accessible happiness. Finally, being happy would also mean being responsible for one’s well-being (Ibid., 17). This third trend combines individual well-being with individual success. These three points reveal the influence of neoliberal capitalism in shaping happiness—a crowned affect ruling over our society, which has then become “happycra[tic]” (Ibid., 23-24; our translation).

It would yet be too easy to condemn happiness within this narrow view, as numerous voices have revealed. One could think of Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness in which the author develops the notion of “happiness dystopias”—dystopias that make any affective alternative impossible (2010, 163). This impossibility is highly political. In addressing the alienation of racialized bodies, Ahmed indeed explains that the exclusion of “the unhappiness of colonial histories” has fostered the imposition of “integration […] [waved as] a national ideal, a way of imagining national happiness” (2010, 158). In The Queer Art of Failure, Jack Halberstam compellingly criticizes the capitalist heteronormativity of success and proposes, alternatively, to consider failure as queer art, that is, an art which focuses on negation, forgetfulness, stupidity (2011, 25) and “turns to the impossible, the improbable, the unlikely, and the unremarkable” (2011, 88).

In literature, music, and other forms of art, critics also flourish. More and more artists disrupt normative plots and twists about a utopian, illusory happy end, thereby revealing how happiness has been—and still is—defined as heterosexual, cisgendered, ableist, white and male. Critical utopias (Moylan 2014) and critical feminist dystopias (Dillon 2020) point to the failure of the happy system in being inclusive as well as to the relationality of dystopic forms of happiness. Further, beyond common understandings of speculative fiction, afrofuturism enables “original narratives of identity, technology, and the future” that “reflect African diasporic experience” (Nelson 2002, 9). Multimodal, afrofuturism counters racist and sexist visions of happiness that the singer, actress, producer Janelle Monáe explores notably in her conceptual album Dirty Computer which is accompanied by an “emotion picture”, a short film (2018, online).

It is in furthering such critiques that this issue of Post-Scriptum wants to address the defect of happiness. “Defect” is here to be understood as the very strategy of our capitalist, neoliberal, patriarchal and imperialist society that turns people into mere nuts and bolts which help to keep that system working while being part of this same system. “Defect” sheds light on the paradox inherent to happiness that Lauren Berlant brilliantly acknowledged in Cruel Optimism. The notion of cruel optimism exposes how subjects are attached to objects of desire even though these objects threaten their happiness, yet this attachment displays the fantasy of the ‘good life’ (2011, 24). “Defect” symbolizes this paradox: happiness itself is defective for it is as much of an ideal as of an illusion. The term “system” also reveals the role of power in considering affects, dreams, resistances. One could think here of Judith Butler’s critique of the conceptualization of the “good life”, which is socially constructed and does not leave space for living one’s life “in a deliberate or reflective way”, as, for Butler, the “good life” remains a question of political constraints related to one’s status in the society (2012, online). Happiness can become a site of violence on which encounters—negative, positive, ambivalent ones—can happen.

In light of such elements of thought, this issue of Post-Scriptum wishes to engage with happiness as, for instance, a power system, a site of violence, a form of resistance. Proposals can focus on (but are not limited to) the following topics:

?       Happiness and storytelling:

Who can tell the story, who cannot? How does this work for a specific kind of imaginary about happiness? What are the privileges or the non-privileges of arts in representing happiness? Does utopia still have a future with regard to such narrow views of happiness?

?       Happiness and hope:

In what ways happiness and hope can work together or disrupt each other? How can the hope of reconciliation, especially from the perspective of Indigenous people, become the happiness of reconciliation or turn into the illusion of a happy reconciliation?

?       Happiness and other affects:

How are other kinds of emotions (e.g., joy, peacefulness) confused with happiness? Can this be considered as erasure and if so, what does this erasure reveal? What power relations exist between happiness and other affects? How to resist this confusion/erasure?

?       Happiness and violence:

What forms of happiness have been imposed on non-normative bodies, such as queer people, people of color, women? How does this relate to the fantasy of the “family”? Which paths can these people take to overcome the violence of a normative happiness, of the happy system?

We welcome proposals from research and creative research, and by undergraduate, graduate, and postgraduate students, Ph.D. candidates as well as post-docs and professors. We accept proposals in French or English.

Those interested in submitting an article for this issue of Post-Scriptum are asked to send two documents: an anonymous article proposal (300 words) and a short biobibliographic notice (200 words) which contains the title of the article proposal. These documents must be sent to: redaction@post-scriptum.org by January 15, 2022.

No publication fees will be charged.



Ahmed, Sara. The Promise of Happiness. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2010.

Al-Ghaz?l?. The Alchemy of Happiness. Translated by Claud Field. Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1964 [12th century].

Aristotle. Nicomachean Ethics. Translated and edited by Roger Crisp. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014 [4th century BC], 2nd edition, eCollection.

Berlant, Lauren. Cruel Optimism. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Butler, Judith. “Can One Lead a Good Life in a Bad Life?”. Radical Philosophy 176 (November/December 2012): https://www.radicalphilosophy.com/article/can-one-lead-a-good-life-in-a-bad-life (accessed: 01 September 2021).

Cabanas, Edgar, Illouz, Eva. Happycratie. Translated by Frédéric Joly. Paris: Premier Parallèle, 2018.

Dillon, Sarah. “Who Rules the World? Reimagining the Contemporary Feminist Dystopia”. In The New Feminist Literary Studies, edited by Jennifer Cooke, 169-181. Cambridge (UK), New York: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Halberstam, [Jack]. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals. Project Gutenberg e-Book, 1912 reprint of the 1777 edition [first publication in 1751].

Monáe, Janelle (song writer, producer and performer). Dirty Computer. Atlanta, New York: Wondaland, Bad Boy, Atlantic, 2018. Retrieved from the official “emotion picture”, 48:37: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jdH2Sy-BlNE (accessed: 16 August 2021).

Moylan, Tom. Demand the impossible: science fiction and the Utopian imagination. Bern: Peter Lang, International Academic Publishers, 2014.

Nelson, Alondra (ed.). “Introduction: Future Texts”. Social Text 71 20, no. 2 (Summer 2002): 1-15.

Varda, Agnès (director). Le bonheur. 87 Productions, 1965; Agnès Varda et enfants, 1992; The Criterion Collection, 2007. 80 minutes (DVD).

Williams, Pharrell (song writer, producer and performer). “Happy”. Girl and Despicable Me 2: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack. New York: Back Lot Music, i AM Other, Columbia, 2013. Retrieved from the official music video, 04:00: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZbZSe6N_BXs (accessed: 13 August 2021).



Flora Roussel