One running motif in Sara Ahmed’s Willful Subjects (Duke, 2014) is the breaking up of subjects into body parts: arms, feet, hands, fists, tongues, lips. In part her metonymic discourse about agency works to probe the assumed link between consciousness, will, and physical movements, and in part it exemplifies the uneven distribution of will in society, how some are relegated to—designated as—the mere hands or feet of others. These handy hands and swift feet are then accused and vilified as “willful” if they dare to “get in the way of what is on the way” (47), that is, if they intimate (through word or feeling or even mere hesitation) that they are more than a submissive extension of another’s will. With the charge of willfulness, others come to see a person only or merely as the trouble or inconvenience of this charge. “When willfulness sticks,” Ahmed writes, “you become the trouble you cause” (90). And when the charge of willfulness sticks to a particular body, the social gaze reroutes from the irritation, injustice or wound this body expresses to the troublesome willfulness it exhibits through its expression. Ahmed frames this social rhythm of charging the one making a charge in terms of what has to recede in order for some things (or persons or wills) to have precedence: “When racism recedes from social consciousness, it appears as if the ones who ‘bring it up’ are bringing it into existence” (168; see receding aimed at other willful acts on 41, 89, 148, 179, 185, 216, and 241).
Thus ‘Feminist killjoys’ become the problem, instead of sexism (cf. 152-3). ‘Aggressive black bodies’ become the problem, instead of racism. ‘Jews with a million holidays’ become the problem, instead of a calendar formed presumptively around Christian liturgy. The ‘unreliability of workers’ becomes the problem, instead of the structural dehumanization of low pay and minimal incentives in a life laboring always for someone else.
I was struck recently in hearing this last labor dynamic in New Testament scripture. The reading was from the gospel of John 10:11-18, the well-known passage about Jesus as the Good Shepherd. [This image is of a painting by Bernhard Plockhorst, but if you google “The Good Shepherd,” you will be inundated with examples.] Jesus says in verses 14-15, “I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep.” The deep human desire to be known, cared for and protected is here offered directly and authoritatively. Is it any wonder so many stained-glass windows depict this loving and intimate Good Shepherd? And yet, I find it problematic that the image of the worker in this passage has to recede in order for this Good Shepherd to take precedence. With Ahmed’s analyses in mind, I hear verses 12-13 differently: “The hired hand who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away—and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep.” When we silence the hired hand in moving directly to a discussion, embrace and love of the Good Shepherd we are complicit in denigrating labor. To skip over this hired hand is to sustain the assumption that ‘workers are unreliable’, that they do not—and cannot—care for the objects, animals, persons and tasks set before them. When we don’t consider or imagine what it would take for this hired hand to be as invested in the sheep as is the owner we are refusing to see how this passage in Christian scripture might function as a fundamental critique of division of labor, or work-for-money.
What if we see the running away of the hired hand not as fear or irresponsibility but as willfulness? What would this willfulness be asserting or refusing? Can we imagine what kind of work arrangement, what kind of bearable life we would need to offer this hired hand for her to stay and face the wolf?
This poor hand, working for a pittance; she probably had to run off so that she could make it to her next paid employment, needing the money of both labors simply to put food on the table for her family.