Tomorrow belongs to those of us who conceive of it as belonging to everyone, who lend the best of ourselves to it, and with joy.—Audré Lorde, “A Burst of Light: Living with Cancer”
An Introduction, with Good Feelings
The word joy is increasingly present in popular culture. For example, in April 2021 British Vogue featured a cover exhorting readers to “Find Your Joy!” in celebration of the aesthetics of Black hairstyling. The New York Times Magazine edition of July 11, 2021, shows pop rapper Lil NasX with a strap line that promises an analysis of the “subversive joy” of his stardom (Hughes 2021). Ingrid Fetell Lee's book, TED Talk, and blog, all titled Aesthetics of Joy, encourage ordinary people to find the joy in ordinary moments of life “everyday, everywhere you go” through the practice of #joyspotting. The hashtag #joy is included in more than 32 million Instagram posts—many of them motivational or religious quotes. These few randomly selected examples suggest that the notion of joy is upswelling in popular culture, and consequently the time is right for a deeper critical analysis thereof. This special issue offers this, with a focus on the links between “joy” and gendered subjectivity.
In a critically acclaimed and sold-out solo exhibition at the Stevenson Gallery in Johannesburg, South Africa, during February and March 2020 (notably just before COVID-19 entered the country followed by brutal lockdowns), thirty-year-old artist Dada Khanyisa (pronouns: they, them, their) presented a series of stunning mixed-media portraits. Lovingly carved out of wood and then vibrantly painted in their charismatic style, Khanyisa offered portraits of people having a good time. Titled Good Feelings, the show was a smash hit with those who saw it in person and on social media. It portrayed people at parties on the dance floor, hooking up or fun-arguing, in bed mid-threesome, dressed up and taking selfies, out with friends gossiping over drinks: ordinary scenes of social pleasures in the city (ironically, soon to be cruelly taken away by the pandemic). In particular, the piece titled “Nox” (reproduced as the cover of this special issue) captured a special sensibility that gave much aesthetic and political pleasure to viewers. “Nox” portrays a stunning feminine person (Nox herself) in a glamorous red dress with a deep cleavage cut and ballooning sleeves, long hair pulled back into a voluminous ponytail and thick gold hoop earrings, speaking animatedly into a smartphone that she balances on elegantly poised fingertips while gesticulating with the other hand. In the background, a gold- dotted relief of an ocean sunset; in the foreground, a half-consumed glass of red wine. As well as its formal originality—it is magnificently carved from hardwood, with the different components arranged sculpturally such that the entire work leaps out of two-dimensional space and the viewer experiences different vectors as they move around the work—the piece pulsates with personality. Nox is luminescent, poised, and confident, and she doesn't seem to care one jot that everyone who looks at her is transfixed. As Khanyisa (2020: 99) explains in their studio notes, reproduced in the show catalog, they met Nox at an art fair, she was a friend of a friend, and Khanyisa reached out to her in a “classic DM slide” and “told her, straightforwardly that I want you to be a muse.” In the preparatory drawings before starting the carving, Khanyisa explains, they wanted to capture her “great performative presence, like she was on the phone and the attitude was right” (99). This “right attitude,” I would like to argue, is one of joy, which is at once personal and political. Nox seems to capture the sentiment of Audré Lorde (2009: 122), reproduced in the epigraph, that not only does every person alive have a right to be joyful, but when everyone is free to be their best self joyfully, tomorrow (indeed today) will be better.
In dialogue with art critic and cultural theorist Julie Nxadi, Khanyisa (2020: 51) articulates that their art making is obsessed with seeking to capture feelings and emotions, the zeitgeist of their generation: “Not just that these people are beautiful” but that they are “in action,” which creates “intimate connections that thread a community.” Nxadi points out to Khanyisa the significance: “The lens is very close and it's very intimate because you are a Black person and you are chatting with Black people” (51). Khanyisa is making art because it makes them feel good, and because they are explicitly choosing to not fall into “an entrapment of trauma. . . . Joy is something to be taken seriously . . . and feeling good is as important as combing through some very difficult and uncomfortable things” (53). Those uncomfortable and difficult things are, of course, the political and economic legacy of colonialism and apartheid, and the scars that every Black person carries across space and time. But as Khanyisa masterfully states, in art and explication, “Our lives are not just characterised by our traumatic experiences” (53), and Black cultural practitioners should not have to “carry the load of fixing the social wrongs” (54). From a critical race perspective, joyful Black pride has a key place in the anti- racism project and dismantling racial inequality, and expressions of joy and self-care by Black subjects are acts of resistance (Lu and Steele 2019). As Khanyisa and Nxadi teach, pleasure experienced by Black bodies is inherently radical (Crawley 2020; Solomon and Rankin 2019), as indeed are feminine and queer expressions of pride and pleasure (Porter 2018). When access to joy is limited by structures of power, accessing and expressing it become highly politicized acts.
This special issue takes seriously Khanyisa's celebratory provocation in Good Feelings: that even amid the trauma and pain experienced by individuals and communities of pervasive inequity built over hundreds of years of racist, sexist, ableist, trans-phobic, or fat-phobic mistreatment, there is joy in the small moments of ordinary life as well as grand gestures of resistance. And that joy requires complex theoretical and empirical attention.
Joy is an understudied aspect of human agency and popular culture and has been—until now—perhaps persistently underrated by critical theorists. Used here as a shorthand for various forms of pleasure, delight, play, and personal happiness, including the desire for such, and developing from key cultural theory to do with affect and emotion (Ahmed 2013; Gregg and Seigworth 2010; Illouz 2013) as well as psychoanalysis and emotional well-being (Johnston and Malabou 2013; Wilson 2009), this special issue takes as a starting point the notion that joy deserves attention as a key driving force in the formation of subjectivity. Because subjectivity is forged in the context of neoliberal culture, in which individualism, acquisition, and market-style exchange define so many aspects of lived experience and opportunity, paying attention to joy also means paying attention to the ways in which capitalism operates on, and in, individuals (and of course how individuals also act back).
As a framework for the original and important empirical and theoretical perspectives featured in this special issue, I offer a critical discussion of the place of joy in the age of neoliberal capitalism. This can be roughly summarized in two themes: the first, to do with the violent capacity of capital to strip away joy and sell it back to us in the form of empty marketing discourses, the second to do with the radical potential of joy claimed and exercised regardless.
A Joy Void? The (Symbolic) Violence of Capitalism
Critical theory and cultural studies, from Karl Marx onward, have long articulated the various forms of violence that capitalism has inflicted on the peoples of the world. A small minority have become rich at the expense of everyone else, and this legacy is reflected in the ongoing power relations that characterize both macro- politics and everyday life. One of the key critical arguments is that capital operates in such a way as to remove agency from individuals and communities, and to commodify every aspect of human experience and interaction (Gilbert 2008). Workers are exploited in the factories and mines, women are exploited in the domestic terrain and through their reproductive labor, people of color were historically exploited by slavery and segregation and live with the oppressive legacies created by those vile institutions that maintain pain and violence today, and various other groups marginalized by power suffer that exclusion and violence on a daily basis. All this, while being exhorted to be happy with their lot in life. It is no coincidence that colonial discourse stereotyped Black Africans as simplistically, primitively joyous, “captive to the empire of joy” (Mbembe 2017: 39).
From this perspective, capitalism is the root of all misery, especially if we accept wholesale the notion that every aspect of life has been commodified in its minutiae such that we no longer own or have access to any sense of real, authentic humanity, only the grey and soulless grind of extraction, production, and consumption dressed up with pretty colors, but dead beneath the surface. In the classic framing of the Frankfurt School and associated thinkers (Adorno and Horkheimer 1944; Debord 2004), there is no true joy possible in the world created by capitalism—and every pleasure that is offered is a forgery, dazzling and perhaps faux fun for a few minutes, but which ultimately leaves us morally bereft, feeling empty without even knowing why, once the fizz of the cola or the shimmer of the rom-com has faded away.
In consumer culture, the glitzy, seductive version of capitalism dominating the globe in various iterations, which of course takes shape in discrete ways in different cultural, political, and economic contexts around the world and at particular moments in time, citizens’ identities as actors within social relations defined by market exchange are accentuated at the cost of their identities as civic actors (Canclini 2001; Iqani 2016). Joy, therefore, has been appropriated by the market as something that can only be bought and sold, and personal identity is expected to follow suit in its packaging as personal brands performing happiness and fulfillment for monetizable likes and follows (Duffy and Hund 2015; Gandini 2016; Khamis and Welling 2017). Happiness is promised by consumption and advertising (Arvidsson 2005; Jhally 2006), though arguably rarely fulfilled. Neoliberal culture even tells us that joy is a choice that we can make, even when the resources with which it can be purchased are deprived; no choosing can be done without money when money makes every opportunity to access happiness. Lauren Berlant (2011: 42) describes this condition of being trapped between the rock and hard place produced by capitalism as cruel optimism: “Consumption promises satisfaction in substitution and then denies it because all objects are rest stops amid the process of remaining unsatisfied that counts for being alive under capitalism.” Thinking critically with joy, in the scenario of neoliberal power, requires defining it as a veil that presents consumption and material culture as the a priori route to happiness, and rendering it asunder to reveal the true cruelty of its exploitation.
Although it is broadly accepted in critical scholarship that the violence of capitalism actively removes genuine opportunities for human advancement and the reaching of our individual and collective potentials and offers sanitized replacements that usually serve to benefit and profit a small minority, still this does not mean that joy is completely effaced. Indeed, when achieved despite the odds and the obstacles, that joy is arguably an important revolutionary act. Although it might come across as an overstatement, it is necessary to focus on the complex politics of joy, both in terms of how it is effaced and vacated by neoliberal power, and in terms of how it remains a resilient force for all humans no matter how much they have been made to suffer. It is important that in critical cultural studies we remain attentive to cracks through which light can get in, to borrow the famous lyric of Leonard Cohen.
Enjoy! The Radical Potential of Pleasure
It is precisely the wealth of critical theory of the material and symbolic processes by which capitalism arguably drains (true) joy from lived experience, including the potential of humanity to achieve social justice and equity and live together lovingly and respectfully, that highlights the extremely poignant and political importance of joy. If joy matters only because capitalism takes it away from us or distorts it into commodity form, does that not underline how crucial pleasurable fulfillment and enjoyment is to the human condition? For if joy is so systematically stolen from or held out of reach of most of us, through every overt and devious operation of inherently racist, sexist, and otherwise exclusionary political-economic power, operating now most effectively through the glossy modalities of consumer culture and self-commoditization, does it not make it all the more important that we reach for moments of pleasure, no matter how small or fleeting? This alternate way of conceiving of joy suggests that its righteous claiming is deeply political. Moments of enjoyment, be they small or large, are more than a “melodrama of the care of the monadic self” (Berlant 2011: 99), that is, the reduction of “citizenship to self-care” (Brown 2006: 695). They arguably carry radical potential, in the sense in which Audre Lorde (2009) wrote of self-care as revolutionary and shared joy as a key resource in collective resistance.
Achilles Mbembe (2017: 172) writes, with a little poetic licence perhaps, of Nelson Mandela, who throughout his awful imprisonment on Robben Island, maintained “the joyous and brilliant smile, that proud, straight, standing posture, his fist clenched, ready to embrace the world again and raise up a storm.” In this iconic smiling-while-suffering revolutionary (despite some claims of his Rainbow Nation's conciliation as a sellout) we can glean hints of the radical power of joy. The human experience, of course, is defined neither by suffering nor joy in absolute terms, but by a kaleidoscopic range of emotions and affects, all facilitated or obstructed in complex ways by material opportunities and social experiences. Joy provides a unique opportunity to further explore nuance regarding how forms of agency are linked to individualized access to resources, particularly in a world that is experienced by the vast majority as unjust, unfair, exploitative, painful, or hopeless, perhaps a lot of the time but certainly never all of the time. Black people, women, queer and trans folk, scheduled castes, the poor, and the differently abled are structurally excluded from the economic and self-actualizing opportunities taken for granted by cis, white, able- bodied, upper-caste, and/or well-off people, especially men. Yet still, often, they find cause to smile. The joyful aspirations and experiences expressed and accessed by marginalized subjectivities deserve our full attention. Some writing has already begun to explore the positive aspects of the lived experiences of oppressed groups (Dlamini 2009; Thompson 2015). As Lynn Segal (2018) writes, joy is also an experience that can operate collectively and thereby forge solidarity in the face of marginalization. A focus on joy should not be confused with an argument that oppression did not occur, or was less malicious or cruel than it indisputably was, but to highlight that any extent to which joy can be achieved in the face of attempts to systematically limit it must be considered valid. So too must these efforts be acknowledged as linked to consumer subject-positions in an unequal world, as shown in, for example, the extensive literature on postfeminist sensibility (Gill 2007; Gill and Scharff 2011).
The consumer and citizen are not diametrically opposed subjectivities, but instead are interrelated and integrated in complex ways (Canclini 2001), depending on multiple contextual factors. Consumer subjectivities are sometimes deployed in service of political ends, for example in forms of “brandalism” (Lekakis 2017) and ethical consumption (Lekakis 2012, 2013). So too, conversely, should consumption always be understood as political in some way, even if not explicitly so. Consumption is both a practice of individual expenditure within market economies and a form of aspiration (Duffy 2017; Iqani 2016; James 2014) and self-fashioning (Dosekun 2020) that speaks to orientations toward wealth and luxury. Precisely because consumption is such a central part of everyday life, joy cannot be understood without reference to material forms of being and doing, and expressions of joyful identities should be understood as often explicitly or implicitly linked to consumer practices and opportunities. Joy concerns the links between the emotional and the material (including the body, often summarized as affect), and the ways in which identities are forged, problematized, and represented through material practices.
Joyful subjects are conditioned, framed, and sometimes exploited by the power structures of capitalism—even when their expressions are internalized as choice, and when those joyful experiences are sincere and legitimate. In consumer culture, joy must be recognized as both inherently and always a powerful expression of agency, and as subject to manipulation and abuse by the power systems long analyzed by critical theory.
Gender and Agency against, with, and through Capital
Next, I turn to a discussion of how the original research articles included in this special issue help push forward critical thinking about the complexities of joy in relation to power and empowerment. Further, I show how these are of particular relevance to gender, as it intersects with multiple other identity categories.
Research into gendered childhoods and girlhood highlights the radical potential of playfulness and enjoyment (Gannon and Pratt 2013; Ringrose et al. 2013), while research into feminist assemblages of resistance against rape culture evidence new opportunities for pleasurable expressions of agency and empowerment (Mendes, Ringrose, and Keller 2019; Ringrose and Renold 2014). Even academia has been recognized as full of potential for generating joyful subjects through affirmative politics (Moss et al. 2018). Individualism is at the heart of the cultural sphere (Rose 1990), and it has increasingly become central to even emancipatory forms of self-expression. Self-branding is at the core of both political and playful expressions online in a wide variety of ever-proliferating social media platforms (Thumim 2012, 2017), from LinkedIn to TikTok and beyond. What the self means and how it is constructed, therefore, is a question that critical cultural theorists need to explore more urgently than ever. Indeed, these questions have been at the heart of feminist theory, queer theory, and critical studies on the neoliberal subject for decades. Crucial as these evolving debates are, until now, insufficient attention has been paid to the notion of the individual as a subject that seeks, and indeed deserves, to experience joy and personal fulfillment, and who, more or less alone and regardless of privilege or lack thereof, is expected to navigate the plethora of self-fulfillment opportunities and restrictions simultaneously provided by neoliberal power.
It is no accident that gender is a key prism through which agency in relation to joy is refracted. The subject of happiness has been an explicit concern for feminist and queer scholars, who have exposed how the imperative to act happy is a key mechanism of patriarchal capital. As Sarah Ahmed (2010: 10) writes in The Promise of Happiness, good feelings “become an individual responsibility, a redescription of life as a project, but it also becomes an instrument.” We should not underestimate the extent to which joy is an instrument of capital, in that it can be imposed in oppressive ways or used to further its own ends. For women and queer folk, happiness is a fantasy that erases under its emblem “the signs of labour” (50). From this perspective, “going along with this duty can mean simply approximating the signs of being happy—passing as happy—in order to keep things in the right place” (59), as assigned by patriarchal power. In short, feminists are framed as killjoys when they actively repudiate the imperative to stay happy (and put). Insisting on the joy of women, queer and trans folk, and other marginalized groups is valuable to critical theory, but it does not mean bowing to lean-in feminism. Joy can certainly serve as a thrilling and authentic representation of good feeling, a both-hands and unapologetic appropriation of the good things in life by those who are very often deprived of them. There is arguably also joy to be found in being the killjoy, but also through other smaller gestures of identity. What the articles in this special issue help spotlight is the radical potential of joy as well as its problematic repackaging by power.
The articles included in this collection expand debates about affect, individualism, and agency in cultural theory by exploring and theorizing how gendered subjects reach for and access joy through the material and consumption-oriented resources provided and policed by neoliberal culture. They also show how joy itself is captured and commodified by the market and thus also needs to be critiqued as a tool of domination.
Reaching for joy, and being joyful, can be emancipatory and as such has potential for deeply meaningful political agency. As Srila Roy shows, young rural women in India find and take opportunities to exercise independence through the acquisition of consumer items, which in turn give them opportunities to both express an empowering feminist sensibility and to experience more physical freedoms, such as being out in public and away from the drudgery of the domestic sphere. Some trans folk, as Ace Lehner demonstrates, also use the material modalities of fashion and self-styling to express joyful narratives of self that transgress the claustrophobic normative gender categories violently forced by patriarchal capitalism. Through the aesthetics of “cool,” as Stella Viljoen argues, Black men creatives can reinvest joy into narratives of masculinity that often focus, to the detriment of justice, on violence and righteous anger. Even in the glossy patinas of celebrity magazines, as I offer (Iqani), featuring portraits of successful Black South African women, an emancipatory politics shines through an aesthetic that otherwise reproduces the clichéd values of glamorous neoliberal womanhood.
While it is hard to argue against the value of individual happiness, and indeed the right of every person to try reach it, “positivity imperatives” are an increasingly powerful feature of individualized neoliberal discourses directed at specific women, as Rosalind Gill and Shani Orgad demonstrate in an analysis of positivity discourses in British media. In the context of a devastating pandemic, hurting to some degree everyone around the world, it is particularly telling that women are instructed to pull themselves up emotionally by their own bootstraps, despite the consistent failure of the social system to care for them. The drive to present oneself as “perfect” remains powerful in mediated consumer culture. Beatriz Polivanov and Fernanda Carrera show how in Brazil, “ruptures of performance” complicate but do not entirely undermine the efficacy of narrating joyful individual success in the profiles of two Instagram body positivity influencers. Although it is crucial to notice and theorize the emergence of a politics of joy in various practices and discourses in popular culture, so too is it necessary to frame that joy within the structural power of neoliberal economics. Indeed, advertising and promotional discourses (now increasingly internalized into individual self-representations on- and off-line) have profited from selling promises of personal pleasure and fulfillment above collective justice and social stability. When joy is turned into something we have to buy, or have to buy into, it is imperative to reinvest our theorization of it with a healthy dose of critical theory.
While joy has to an extent been evacuated of meaning through its manic, often faked, performance in self-branding be it by influencer (Polivanov and Carrera), celebrity (Iqani), or positivity coach (Gill and Orgad), this does not mean that joy has been made completely meaningless by consumer culture. Through the pursuit of authentic personal passion and talent—the joy of making music and art (Viljoen), playing with fashion (Roy), or wearing fabulous clothes and getting a good haircut (Lehner)—the more optimistic potential of joy is revealed. It becomes more than an individual, commoditized performance and is shown to be both the bedrock and outcome of citizenship, and a resource for the collective forging of a better world for all. While structures of economic power influence, shape, and oppress individuals, so too can forms of joyful self-making that are centered on material expression, including but not limited to forms of consumption, emerge therefrom.
It is of course impossible to consider strategies of self-making without the criss-crossing subject positions of gender, race, sexuality, and class and caste, among other significant social orientation points. As the articles in this special issue show, these identity markers are multiple, complex, intersecting, and always inherently involved with a wide variety of consumption practices, forms of self- expression, and aspirational projects. While we foreground identity as central to the question of joyful subjects, the authors gathered here also ask, variously and variably, how identity is made concrete in diverse expressions of pleasure and forms of agency, just as in turn joy takes material form in individualized identity projects. As Lehner, Roy, Iqani, and Viljoen argue, for subjects marginalized by race, caste, and/or gender, expressing and experiencing joy, in whatever form, are revolutionary acts. The global South and trans-centric perspectives included in this issue add important new perspectives to understanding the gendered politics of joy, which to date has been limited to Western feminist work.
The path to joy is both pleasurable and treacherous, as individuals encounter “positivity imperatives” (Gill and Orgad) even when they have every reason to be sad or angry as well as genuine opportunities to seize a little cheer and pleasure when they can (Roy), and indeed they must in order to legitimate their right to exist. It is well- established that neoliberal culture places “individual self-realization at the core of social progress” (Cabanas and Illouz 2019: 129); this special issue shows that it is also crucial to consider whether, and if so how, individual self-realization is meaningful to those individuals. Of course, the individual is always dialectically linked to the collective and to structures of power, even if only in the project of setting the former apart from the latter or claiming the former's place in the latter. Subjects can joyfully embrace the discourse of individualism (Roy, Iqani), resist it (Lehner), or do a complex mixture of both (Gill and Orgad, Polivanov and Carrera, Viljoen). There is joy to be found both in collective social transformation, and in claiming the validity and importance of individual lives lived joyfully, striving for a better future, for one and for all, to return to Audrey Lorde's statement.
Questions of subjectivity, agency, identity, and material culture have propelled scholarly debate in the pages of Cultural Politics since its inception. This special issue builds on the special issue on the “spirit of luxury” (Armitage and Roberts 2016) and articles on the “super-rich” (Roberts 2019; Serafini and Maguire 2019) and the cultural politics of luxury (Armitage 2018; Marcus 2018; Wiesing 2018). These interventions established luxury and its pleasures as a site for critical debate in cultural theory and foregrounded the cultural politics of inequality as needing to also interrogate the alluring hopes of extreme prosperity. Precisely because aspirations toward luxury and wealth are understood to be key catalysts for individual strivings for good, happy, and fulfilling lives, new perspectives on how subjectivity reaches for joy through material forms, practices, and discourses enliven those debates. This special issue, in the spirit of Dada Khanyisa's Good Feelings (2020), critically explores how notions of pleasure, luxury, and a good life are engaged with and internalized in human consciousness, as well as in collective media culture. It shows how joy is an instrument of capitalist power through which subjects are formed and disciplined, and also how it is an instrument of agency and resistance that is deployed in gestures small and large, but always meaningful to the subjects using them.
Joyful subjects are individuals using the resources at their disposal, including small or large luxuries, commodities and narratives of wealth and success, to name, perform, and experience themselves as worthy of joy. Joyful subjects are also individuals constrained in their capacity to fully experience joy because of the conditional limitations imposed by capital on the resources available to them and their freedom to use them. In both self-made and self-making empowered agents, and subjects under the domination of power, joy takes on highly evocative and powerful political meanings.
This special issue would not have been possible without the support of the Governing Intimacies project, hosted at the University of the Witwatersrand. I would also like to acknowledge Katlego Disemelo, who contributed to early conversations on this special issue theme.