Composition Forum 34, Summer 2016
The Passions of Rhetoric and Composition: An Interview with Daniel M. Gross
Abstract: In this interview, Daniel M. Gross argues for an expansive rhetorical approach to emotion studies, one bridging composition, psychology, history, politics, and even theology. Speaking to compositionists, Gross begins by talking about writers’, teachers’, and administrators’ emotions, those possible and prohibited not in the classroom but in co-curricular activities—including tree-hugging. He also elaborates on his critique of the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing for its exclusive focus on positive emotions. The conversation then touches on contemporary political issues such as the putative waning of affect in postmodern society, the revaluing of love in Third Wave feminist scholarship, the angry white male, and the BlackLivesMatter movement. Next, Gross brings his philosophical training to bear in discussing the vocabulary of emotion studies, including “pathos” and “affect,” and he addresses how students’, and prisoners’, writing can serve as a prosthetic for their sponsors’ emotional needs. The interview concludes with a comment about style.
Daniel M. Gross is Associate Professor of English and Director of Composition at the University of California, Irvine. In his twenty years as a historian and theorist of rhetoric, he has documented how rhetoric structures modern disciplines from politics and psychology to the study of literature, with a particular interest in emotion studies. He has published two books on emotions, The Secret History of Emotion: From Aristotle's Rhetoric to Modern Brain Science (2006) and the forthcoming Uncomfortable Situations: Emotion between Science and the Humanities (2017). He has also co-edited two collections on the topic—Science and Emotions after 1945: A Transatlantic Perspective (2014) and Heidegger and Rhetoric (2005)—the latter of which includes Gross’s introduction pointing to the crucial role of pathos in Heidegger's work. Gross is also the author of numerous articles and book chapters on emotions; among the most recent are Denazification ~ Rhetoric, Politics, and the Affective Turn (forthcoming in the Oxford Handbook of Rhetoric and Political Theory) and “Emotion Science and the Heart of a Two-Cultures Problem” (2014), which is a collaborative effort with ecological neuroscientist Stephanie Preston.
Daniel has been a consistent presence for me at UC Irvine, as a fellow member of the Rhetoric Reading Group, as the director of the composition program in which I have taught for most of the last seven years, and most importantly as a mentor throughout my own scholarship into emotions and writing, including my dissertation Feeling Engaged: College Writers as Literacy Tutors (2014). So it did not surprise me that he graciously accepted my invitation for this interview, which we conducted via email and in a Word document in the weeks leading to the special issue. My hope is that his comments, which continue to inform my research, will do the same for all of us interested in how emotions shape not only the teaching of writing but also our political and social life.
Lance Langdon (LL): Let’s begin by talking about a situation that’s immediate for many of our readers: the writing classroom. It strikes me that for writing instructors, the scene of judgment—and by this I mean the grading system that requires us to rank and sort students through their writing—cannot help but influence our emotions. Certainly it does as instructors are called upon to judge writing. This comes up in two pieces we’re running: one on assigning failing grades (by Jacob Babb and Steven Corbett) and another on judging plagiarism (by Ann Biswas). Similarly, Dana Driscoll and Roger Powell's article on “achievement emotions”—a term they borrow from education studies—suggests that grading figures prominently into students’ emotions as well.
A lot of
your work, especially The
Secret History of Emotion,
deals with how social hierarchies influence what emotions are
expressible, or even possible. I wonder if you have any general
comments on how the teacher-student relationship in writing
classrooms structures emotional communication there. Or, closer to
home, I wonder if you can speak personally about what role
emotion plays in your job as director of our first-year writing
program. Almost a decade ago, in
Daniel M. Gross (DG): All very melodramatic, isn't it? Something about these classroom scenes and their administrative counterparts draw attention to the very fact of their own pathos—the suffering and elation that never seems appropriate to the carefully circumscribed domains in which they are supposed to operate. Such emotions appear unrealistic, or inconsequential. They lack credibility from the perspective of those who would later read these scenes from outside. So maybe like good readers of the melodramatic, such as Lauren Berlant, we should honor these moments of misfit emotion by paying more attention to the domain constraints so clearly invoked.
That leads me to something I’ve seen here at UC Irvine. While classroom and administrative drama might be real enough, sometimes it seems as though those domains are carefully calibrated to produce the fluctuations you mention along with the regularized experiences that we—administrators, instructors, students—talk about in the predictable patterns of a muffled telenovela (if I’m trying to maintain the genre reference). But then I glance to the left or to the right and the world seems very different. For example, our famous UCI hip-hop dance clubs churning passionately into the night.
LL: Yes, sometimes I run into them in the parking garages here at night, or used to before they were relocated. It’s strange. Walking through the usual scenery in a parking garage—concrete slabs and florescent lights—you happen upon this group of young people. The bass thumping, the dancers sweating and waving their arms, their book bags and water bottles strewn on the ground. It's this . . . ecstatic assembly. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with the academic work that, for me, defines the university.
DG: Nothing whatsoever? I’m not so sure. At the same time, think of evangelical students sitting around in large numbers during lunch hour, parsing a sacred text and figuring it quite intimately in their own lives. The Black Student Union making a public list of demands including departmentalization of African-American Studies while signing off their ultimately successful letter to the Chancellor “jungle pussy.” The “Irvine 11” and the very active Muslim Student Union discussed in a College English article by my UCI colleagues Susan Jarratt and Jonathan Alexander, Rhetorical Education and Student Activism. There's something important going on with these co-curricular activities which cuts crosswise against the classroom scene, while referencing the classroom obliquely, in each case. Just not in the ways expected. Isn’t it too bad that our assessment practices have a hard time capturing this kind of co-curricular activity?
LL: You’re making me think of my friend Jens Lloyd’s dissertation now, the one addressing campus as space. And I think of conversations you and I have had about the affordances of face-to-face learning for emotional engagement. There’s a lot we lose, emotionally, when that embodied being together is absent, say, in online classes. And I wonder if that affects something administrators do care deeply about: retention.
DG: Yes, retention is a ripe area for research in emotion studies, as we try to figure out how to emphasize the right kind of social bonds. Course evaluations can also be considered in this light. Sometimes they are dismissed as customer satisfaction surveys. But when students report that they generally don’t like their writing classes, or generally do like their writing classes, that makes a difference. We need to take seriously these affective responses which might be more complicated and more meaningful than we’ve assumed thus far.
LL: But you were saying earlier about classrooms and administration?
DG: Just that I like your focus on the very possibility of emotion, because that is more important and more difficult to understand compared to the expressive models, which posit that emotions are equally distributed biologically and then expressed unevenly based upon the social situation. We need to spend more time working by way of comparison on the emotional scenes invoked and less time calibrating within a narrow band offered in any particular case.
LL: I’m a teacher at heart, so what you’re saying makes me wonder if there’s a way to bring any of that energy, those emotional circulations, back into the classroom. For instance, last quarter my students and I took a walk through Aldrich Park in the middle of campus. The goal was to discuss how it was and wasn’t natural, but new ways to interact opened up on that walk. I found myself crawling through a tunnel of African aloes, leading a few students. One of them mentioned that the place reminded her of a Studio Ghibli movie she’d seen. I would hazard that she experienced an emotion in that encounter with nature. Call it adventure, maybe, or wonder. That was made possible through this unusual situation: both of us being outdoors, a little uncertain about what we were looking at.
Or I think of the Assignment that Steven Alvarez wrote up for this issue, emerging from his Taco Literacy course. Steven envisions eating as sensual pedagogy. He has students compose commentary not just about their immediate culinary experiences—eating and drinking—but also about the broader society in which their food is grown and through which it circulates. That kind of assignment calls us to recognize embodiment and emotion. So does the Christy Wenger book that Roxanne Rashedi reviews in this issue: Yoga Minds, Writing Bodies. And that’s not to mention other pieces we’re running on writing through trauma. One article, by Benjamin Batzer, asks what happens when instructors write about their own traumas along with their students. Another Reflection, co-authored by Sarah Debacher and Deborah Harris-Moore, addresses students’ writing in response to the Elliot Rodgers shootings and Hurricane Katrina, respectively.
Other than plugging the issue, what I’m saying is that sometimes excessive emotion comes and finds us. Other times we can be emotional with students and do so productively, if we’re willing to take some risks. Yet I will be the first to admit that even the best writing classroom has its emotional limits and that some of what I’m discussing won’t fit with individual instructors’ teaching styles. Still, I hear what you’re saying about looking beyond classrooms, or comparing classrooms to outside spaces, in order to encompass a greater emotional range.
DG: I feel like I’m back in Berkeley circa 1971, “hugging trees!” as we now like to say disparagingly … I was six years old. Remember radical pedagogies of the late 1960s and 1970s paid lots of attention to emotion. But I guess the difference would be that time around hugging trees typically led back to oneself—finding oneself, letting oneself go, self-expression, self-fulfillment, etc. Now when we hug trees the feeling is supposed to be mutual. Anyway, Jonathan Alexander and I recently revisited some of these issues in our piece for Pedagogy—feel-good pedagogy and its history, including some neglected twists and turns around Peter Elbow.
LL: Yes, the Pedagogy article you coauthored with Jonathan Alexander (“Frameworks for Failure”). You two challenge the positive bent of the Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing, which lays out several habits of mind we are meant to encourage amongst the writers we teach: curiosity, openness, engagement, and so on. You ask, “But why so darned positive?” One of our contributors, Jill Belli, makes a similar point in Why Well-Being, and Why Now? Those seemingly innocuous habits are actually implicit endorsements of positive psychology, and they produce a “success” too easily equated with what’s socially acceptable, making the powerful more powerful and the rest of us merely acquiescent.
I think that point is important, and I also enjoy your turn to queer theory and critical literacy in that article to explain the value of what are normally thought of as “negative” emotions: anger and the like. “At their best,” you write, “negative emotions potentially signal the need for critique.” They motivate people who have an unhappy relationship with what society deems normal or desirable. You cite Villanueva, Gilyard, Morris, and Young as models for writers who engage with negative emotions that are construed by their difficult relationships with the white, bourgeois norms of academia. And, in what’s most resonant for me, you suggest that by urging students into a “happy” relationship with their writing classes, we ignore that those very classes—and here I’m thinking of the measurement and shaming and competitiveness inherent in them—regularly produce emotions opposite those called for in the framework.
Have I captured your argument there accurately? And may I also ask, what inspired that project?
DG: Sounds a lot like our piece … what inspired it? Well, Jonathan and I were taken with the Framework as an important signal for our times, especially when it comes to some larger implications around the first-year composition course. One signal is political, the other is administrative, and the key lies at their intersection. First, on the political front we wondered how the social turn in writing studies might disappear so suddenly, especially when the authors of this document might be perfectly knowledgeable about, and sympathetic with, that social turn. Next we wondered about the genre conventions of a document like the Framework, with its bullet points and feel-good generality. The two are connected! The Framework is obviously a document of administrative rhetoric which can be PowerPointed and circulated—probably to some good effect—amongst WPAs and purse-string administrators who should no doubt support first-year writing more robustly. Ultimately, it looks like the Framework was designed for a new breed of businesslike vice-provosts, not students. And hence the politics. The very justification for, and survival of, the first-year writing course depends upon this kind of success orientation, which works best at a level of generality that seems rather benign. Who’s against curiosity, openness, engagement and all the rest?
DG: That’s right. They’re all things to all people. However, this administrative rhetoric working in the abstract cannot be about actual students and concrete curricula because, by definition, composition pedagogy must be more local in ways that will regularly contradict any plan that is simply positive. Take “openness.” Yes, perhaps openness makes me think like an instructor about empathy exercises, rhetorical listening, and a consideration of counter-perspective and audience.
LL: That’s like the article you anonymously reviewed, Writing Pedagogies of Empathy. As you now know, that was authored by Eric Leake. He argues that we ought to encourage empathy amongst our students as a disposition, even as we teach them to be critical of empathy as a rhetorical gambit with possibly suspect motives.
DG: Creating opportunities for empathy is valuable, to be sure. But openness also makes me think about antipathy—that is to say not being open for good reasons or bad. And it also makes me think about the normativity that makes being open safe for some people in some situations, and not others. In our institutional contexts, a habit of mind called “openness” means absolutely nothing without concrete exercises which have forms and logics that might very well run away from such feel-good generality. And I should mention the Framework recognizes this disconnect symptomatically, at least, as their perfectly sensible “exercises” don’t require the warrants provided by such remote habits of mind. The political problem with this disconnect is that the administrative perspective on our first-year course is then left to float toward the business management model where positive psychology is most at home, while it loses track of the substantial warrants and arguments that tie it to a more vexed political scene.
LL: Now let me turn rather abruptly from composition to another of your areas of expertise, the history of rhetoric. A question: As we have in the eighteenth-century context a so-called “age of sensibility,” what might we call our age? Perhaps considering political formations and aesthetic sensibilities created in new media?
DG: First the very idea of an “age.” Famously in Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Fredric Jameson wrote about how liberation from the older anomie of the centered subject might also mean a liberation from feeling, insofar as there is no longer a self present to do the feeling. He goes on to say that the cultural products of postmodernism—and we might say new media phenomena included—are not utterly devoid of feeling but rather that such feelings are free-floating and impersonal like never before. That was 1991. But this Jameson critique was actually first published in an article written at an earlier moment at the beginning of the 1980s—a moment we can return to for a response to his limited thesis about the “waning of affect” in the postmodern age.
My response starts with a question: Which subjects if not all, have been decentered? Jameson marks most dramatically the end of the ego at the heart of the bourgeois subject. So what does a postmodern age look like when subjects have been made and unmade unevenly across the social landscape, with consequences for feeling and the locus of experience? I think for example of Third Wave feminism and Cherríe Moraga who, at approximately the same time that Jameson wrote this famous article for New Left Review, was also writing about feeling from the political left in her classic work, Loving in the War Years (1983).
LL: Yes, I remember you covered Moraga’s work in your grad seminar on emotions this year. What was that week’s title, “Intense social movements?”
DG: That’s right. Well, in Moraga’s book, she starts with a “knot of desire” already tied, which is to say offered as social formations one cannot refuse, which she then struggles to untie on her way to “love” as an essential reference point for remaking the foreclosed bonds of Chicana mother and daughter, sexual lovers, political allies—all after white feminism and a certain kind of Marxism had made such bonds practically unimaginable. Moraga calls this work “an emotional/political chronology.” That is to say, something we might call the “age of postmodernism” can never be an adequate description as we have, in these contrasting examples, affect waning in some sense for the bourgeois subject, while at the same time waxing as love becomes a reclaimed political emotion for a Chicana lesbian feminist who is not alone, as it turns out.
And next to the intense social movement Moraga helped build, one might also remember an earlier iteration of feminist anger, the affective register of black power, gay pride/gay shame, then later the reactive “angry white male” whom we have recently rediscovered in the movement behind Trump. Affect has not waned in the domain of mediated politics at the national level, as it sometimes has the paradoxical effect of producing a more intense and focused personal experience. And this mediated feeling can work diversely, as we see in the BlackLivesMatter movement which appears powerfully in new media, while finding its tragic reference point in racial hatred that can feel all too personal and unmediated.
So instead of an “age” tout court, I would urge more local analysis of emotional dynamics that sometimes play off one another and sometimes are operating on semi-independent or even contradictory tracks.
LL: We’ve seen more of that racial hatred this summer, unfortunately. We’re running an article by Julie Nelson that addresses this topic: An Unnecessary Divorce: Affect and Emotion. Nelson first traces the uptake of those two terms in composition, then thinks through how emotions and affect circulate through Twitter and other social media platforms in the BlackLivesMatter movement. You might like it.
DG: Yes, I really look forward to reading this volume! It does seem just the right time to take stock of where we are at the intersection of composition and emotion studies.
LL: I think so too. But let me ask you about that first issue Nelson explores: the vocabulary we use to discuss emotion, vocabulary that sometimes divides us up into camps signaling different histories and affiliations. Three terms interest me: emotions, pathos, and affect. I organized this issue around “emotion” because of its everyday currency. And a moment ago you mentioned the role of “affect” and “feeling” in politics. But I want to ask you first about pathos. What’s obscured in our issue’s title, “emotion,” that might be better captured by that term “pathos”?
As I understand it, “pathos” is the root of passion. The term suggests to me Aristotle’s pathe, which is concerned with the direction we take passively as emotions move through us. In The Secret History of Emotion, you discuss Hume’s argument that subjects were to follow passions first, passions which properly formed could properly direct the reason, say to pro-social action or to patriarchal political formations. I take from this an idea also forwarded in feminist work within writing studies—that passions teach us what to love and what to hate. This brings to mind for me a postmodern conception of subjectivity in which we’re formed in relations of power. Forgive me if this sounds like free association; to return to the original question, philosophically, what opens up as thinkable with that word “pathos”?
DG: Again there’s a lot in that question! I will only be able to pick up a few threads. First I’ll confirm that my work in the history of rhetoric, and emotion studies per se, originated in the middle 1990s, studying with Judith Butler in the UC Berkeley Rhetoric Department, where your “postmodern conception of subjectivity” was very much at issue. In a nutshell, I discovered by way of independent research that key elements of Butler’s work, including what we find most importantly in The Psychic Life of Power: Theories in Subjection (1997), didn’t arrive on the scene ex nihilo or tied only to the masters of her foregrounded theoretical tradition: Hegel, Nietzsche, Freud, Foucault, Althusser. Butler was writing about how subject formation was not just a language event, but also a matter of passionate attachments, and she has in that book some really important readings of the unhappy consciousness, gender melancholy, ambivalence, and rage. Where did all of this material come from if not just the modern masters mentioned? It came from rhetoric! The irony was that Butler—despite her departmental home—wasn’t that interested in rhetoric per se, though she was willing to serve on my dissertation committee and didn’t hate it, I hope. The title of that dissertation, chaired by Hayden White? Inventing Human Nature: Rhetoric and the Human Sciences in Early Modern Germany 1500 to 1700.
LL: That’s quite a mouthful.
DG: No wonder, I imagine, Butler was lukewarm! But I’m glad my research took that turn and I draw from it to this day. One could say it was my effort to historicize the “constructed subject” by way of research in the history of rhetoric, focusing on the early modern scene in Germany where a rhetorical battle for souls began to take disciplinary form in pedagogy, politics, and psychology—with rhetoric serving as the key disciplinary resource. After all, rhetoric was the discipline where all sorts of skill building and metalanguage had been developed for explaining how people and populations are made, and moved. Sometimes radically, as in the traditions of sacred rhetoric where humankind had to be remade completely: second nature not first, the “new man.” Hence also pathos as radical passivity, complete subjection to God-as-Logos (while radically and actively against civic powers like the king as construed by Puritan preachers of the English Civil War). All this was quite explicit in my early modern material! And I found it hugely important that such historical material spoke to our contemporary, political interests in the constructed subject. The hope was that this alternative story would untie some of the knots still hampering us: for instance, a gendered active/passive divide, reason versus passion, and so on.
But of course no one was interested in reading a dissertation with that title, which starts off broadly enough but winds up speaking to an audience of three at most, all of whom were already on my dissertation committee. So I was wisely advised by another committee member, Nancy Struever, to pick out a key chapter on the politics of emotion in Hobbes and rebuild a book project around it. That project wound up as my first book on the secret history of emotion. And in fact, nearly twenty years later, an epitome of my dissertation thesis has just been published in the Quarterly Journal of Speech, this time framed as a polemic against Foucault’s history of the human sciences which, I argue, serves rhetoricians poorly—I offer a rhetorical alternative (Rhetoric and the Origins of the Human Sciences: A Foucauldian Tale Untold). One day, I hope to write the book that tells this story in adequate, scholarly detail. I still think it’s very important.
LL: I’ll have to take a look at that Foucault article. But for now, let me ask you another question about pathos. This one comes out of something you said in your introduction to Heidegger (Heidegger and Rhetoric, 2005). That essay makes the case that the German philosopher was more influenced by Aristotle than later works like Being and Time would seem to indicate. And one of Aristotle’s ideas is that human and nonhuman entities both share pathos, the capacity to be moved. You write, following Aristotle I think, that “[T]he pathos of stone allows it to become a part of the wall, the pathos of a plant to grow, the pathos of an animal to perceive imminent danger and shriek a warning to others.” But you note that even as we humans share this capacity for movement with inanimate objects, we are unique in our capacity to imagine, our nous poietikos, “the human faculty that allows us to extend into every domain of being and be moved even by things that are not there in body.” So pathos involves a distinctly human type of orientation. But its more basic sense also points to our being as a conduit, a vessel, for outside powers.
DG: Motivistic rhetoric need not be an exclusively human endeavor, even when it comes to traditions that predate our posthumanism and new materialism. Indeed. As you point out, Heidegger’s 1924 analysis is crucial because it treats Aristotle’s practical and naturo-theoretical writings holistically, and by doing so Heidegger relocates the long misplaced discipline of rhetoric along a continuum of being which includes the nonhuman and the nonliving. Hence also a recent uptake of Heidegger by Bruno Latour and Graham Harman and by rhetoricians like Thomas Rickert. A number of people, including Rickert and Steve Mailloux, have jumped on that sentence you like about the pathos of a stone! Right now I’m working on how Heidegger puts Aristotle’s Rhetoric next to the Parts of Animals and the Physics of all things, as he rejects the insufficiently documented but nevertheless traditional placement of the Rhetoric at the end of the corpus next to the Poetics, or as a treatise on argumentation at the beginning of the corpus, in the Organon.
Yes, I’m returning to Heidegger’s Aristotle, once again. No doubt I got a kick out of Malea Powell’s 2012 RSA talk, Aristotle Is Not My Father, and I am sympathetic to some part of the anti-Aristotelian critique attached to so-called “current traditional rhetoric.” But some wacky and wonderful things in Aristotle shouldn’t be obscured by various weighty traditions of Aristotelianism.
LL: We’ve covered pathos; but what about affect? There’s more nuance to the debate than I have space for in this interview, but we might say that “affect” suggests the pre-linguistic, often a bodily reaction, whereas “emotion” signifies experiences processed through language.
We might want to use both terms, then. That’s the case Julie Nelson makes in this issue, anyway. But in your forthcoming Uncomfortable Situations (2017), which addresses how literature can help us think through the rhetoric of emotion, you argue strongly against “affect” as the proper term for your analysis. For example, you write, “From the perspective of social construction where the appropriate level of analysis is phenomenological or rhetorical, ‘emotion’ is in fact fundamental, so there is no ‘affect’ prior to, underneath, or behind the nameable emotions such as jealousy or love or anger.”
I wonder, reading your work, if there’s a way to bridge this divide between reason and body that “affect” seems to imply, a way to avoid that mind-body dualism that some arrive at when reading Massumi’s definition in The Autonomy of Affect. Taking your work as a whole, I certainly don’t find you rejecting the body’s role in emotions. For instance, you praise Heidegger for following Aristotelian thought in grounding discourse in the body, writing that “Being moved, the heart of rhetorical thought necessarily exceeds the rational psyche because people have bodies of a certain sort. We are there, we grow and decompose, we can be damaged, mobilized or dispersed.” Yet you make clear that by “body” Aristotle means not merely physiology but presence for another, being known by another, sociality. But where does that leave affect?
DG: Well, one lesson I’ve recently learned teaching a graduate seminar on “affect criticism” is that much superficial disagreement and misunderstanding comes from the assumption that key terms—affect, emotion, feeling, etc.—must mean only one thing, which we then fight over at the level of definition and description. I’m now staying away from arguments about what emotions really are, what affect really is. If they really were something unequivocal we would have figured that out a long time ago! Instead I approach these problems at the level of more local argumentation. What’s the claim for one of these key terms, and which historical and argumentative warrants allow for such claims? What sorts of phenomena are at issue materially, and methodologically?
Take “affect” versus “emotion.” I think it’s mostly a lame distinction and counterproductive for scholars when the distinction is severe, with “affect” pre-ideological and therefore radical—what the cool kids talk about—whereas “emotion” is ideological and therefore what losers talk about.
LL: I have heard that hinted at, if not stated so bluntly.
DG: The best work in this arena doesn’t proceed hamstrung, but rather uses the full range of scholarly tools. Berlant is a model in this regard if you look at her 2007 Public Culture piece on the Dardenne films. Look for instance at how she mobilizes the traditional emotion “love,” as it plays an aspirational role for the Dardenne character Rosetta, while its failure in that context can only be understood according to the dynamic that Berlant calls post-Fordist “affect.” Not post-Fordist emotion. In this case, “affect” better captures the lowness, as in “low affect,” and also the negative space created by this pattern of failed aspiration. That said, the space itself would never appear as such, could not be measured, without the traditional emotion “love” as a crucial reference point. The brilliance of Berlant’s analysis depends in part upon the fact that she can work historically and theoretically across these two interfering dynamics!
I should also say that critics who depend on affect as pre-ideological, pre-subjective, and pre-linguistic now are starting to sound mystical since they aren’t left with much to talk about. What then is affect? There are some exceptions to this mystification, and I would urge you to look at Jameson’s Antinomies of Realism (2013) on a Paris fish market in Zola if you want to see how non-emotional affect might appear convincingly as a something, and not as a mystical nothing, or something else.
LL: Since I haven’t read the Jameson, let me ask you another question about Uncomfortable Situations. You outline seven different categories, seven sets of relationships, that we might mean in examining “emotions” in literature and perhaps in other scenes as well. First, I salute you for attempting to categorize all the different phenomena that we can mean when we discuss “emotion.” These range from our projective responses to a text (“it's boring”), to catharsis, to feelings that mirror the characters’, and more. But for an issue concerned with student writing, one category seems most suggestive: the prosthetic. As an emotional prosthetic, the textual object “extends our emotional range” and “makes us feel something we could not feel otherwise.”
A big part of our job as writing instructors is to structure occasions for thought and judgment—even feeling—that could not otherwise happen. And to extend to more challenging work, I can think of assignments that call for projection and empathy across identity lines. Eric Leake, for instance, asks students to imagine a family member as homeless before reading about a stranger who suffers the same fate. And Julie Prebel’s article on a community-engaged classroom shows us that when college writers create documents on behalf of nonprofits aiding the homeless, they experience uncomfortable emotions, emotions they wouldn’t have had if they hadn’t written themselves into their clients’ lives. I wonder, then, if you have ideas for responsible and generative uses of writing as a prosthetic for emotion, whether in college classrooms or outside them.
DG: First an acknowledgment of my sources. “Prosthetic emotion” is discussed briefly in Susan Miller’s Trust in Texts: A Different History of Rhetoric (2007), referencing Cynthia Haynes, email@example.com, which appeared in Works and Days. Even more I am indebted to Libby Catchings’s dissertation work on this topic, which I should briefly describe to answer your question about the emotional role of writing in the classroom and beyond.
Libby’s dissertation work on prison writing and its sponsorship tells an important new story—really crucial I think—about how sponsored writing can play an emotional role for the sponsoring agent. In her key example, Libby tracks how the sponsored writing of a detained youth “Purp” does all sorts of things, including for its sponsoring agent as represented in the publication called The Beat Within. The Beat offers insistent messaging around “emotional truth” for the benefit of an external audience, which includes the editors of The Beat themselves. In some instances, the external audience anticipates a desire to experience Purp’s subject formation by proxy—what Libby calls a “prosthetic emotional experience,” which rehearses the emotional dynamic pitched at the heart of a certain civic imaginary. In other words, the emotional dynamics at the heart of civic subject formation—the deep sense of civic responsibility, for instance—can be expected of the proto-subject prosthetically. Its performance serves a function for the “fully formed” (but still inadequate) subjects who do the sponsoring.
Libby’s research suggests how this emotional dynamic works in the pedagogical arena just like in the carceral arena. It must be the case that the first-year course and its duty to train citizen-subjects plays a prosthetic role for its sponsors, including classroom teachers, administrators, parents. I imagine this sentence: “Maybe if we can finally teach this generation of students how to write their way into civic responsibility, then our own failures around racial and economic justice, nature stewardship, etc. might be redeemed.” Or something like that.
LL: Absolutely. We live vicariously through our kids. I learned that from my parents, in more ways than one.
DG: So I guess the point with respect to your question is pay attention to the prosthetic impulse as we teach and develop curricula. This might be particularly relevant when it comes to portfolio pedagogy, which asks for “metacognition” and some type of reflective introduction which often winds up meta-emotional. For instance, in our program I train against what appears to me as the Amazing Grace reflective introduction: “I once was blind but now I see.” Faux student redemption, which is really on behalf of the instructor. Students are clever enough and they know exactly when they’ve been asked to supplement their instructor’s insecurity or aspiration. Not very helpful.
Instead we think that the reflective introduction should be an attention exercise. We might tell a student: [#1] Note where a reading or research puzzle produced, in turn, a puzzling passage in your prose (e.g., awkward transition, ungrammatical writing, retreat to abstractions, some other type of difficulty). Then explain in a side comment or in your portfolio introduction what was your next step in addressing this puzzle, or what might you have done. Or [#2] we might teach a certain kind of transfer awareness, asking the student to include and explain some relevant material from outside this class; for example, bring in for comparison all of the different directions you’ve received when it comes to first-person pronoun usage. And so on.
In this case, I’m not talking about producing emotion in the composition classroom, but rather managing it pedagogically with some sense for the pitfalls. And that’s not to say that this type of portfolio reflection exercise is simply robotic or unemotional. Attention exercises focus on what we care about, and why. So in this case “affect” is probably a better descriptor than “emotion,” which we are mitigating against, in a particular way. I look forward to reading Yancey’s new collection on reflective writing by the way. …
LL: Now let’s turn the question a little and talk about how we could investigate that affect, or emotion, or whatever we want to term it. You edited a collection, Science and Emotions After 1945, that contains an article called Emotion Science and the Heart of the Two-Cultures Problem. In it, you and coauthor Stephanie Preston critique knowledge production in neuroscience, which is often structured in a supposedly universalist paradigm that, in fact, masks cultural assumptions. You argue that neuroscientific research ought to be better informed by humanistic disciplines, which allow for fuller understanding of the social phenomena ostensibly registered in brain matter—anti-Black racism, for instance. Or to take another example, you say that if we mean by “empathy” fellow feeling, then understanding how that feeling is shaped by culture would help researchers. As someone who’s attempted empirical observation of emotions, in my case during the writing process in FYC, I’m curious about what advice you would give when attempting that kind of work.
Let’s do a hypothetical: Say I had access to MRIs and a fifty-thousand-dollar budget and I wanted to understand one of the topics I mentioned already—transfer, or empathy. Or a topic I’m currently researching using student interviews—motivation. How might a rhetorical and culturally situated approach to emotion help us design a more effective study? Or maybe we shouldn’t break out the brain scanners at all?
DG: When you study the brain, you learn about the brain. So if you are interested in dementia and language, for instance, then studying the brain per se would make sense. However, if you are interested in writing, then you should study writing. Or if you are interested in motivation, then you should study motivation. Not to be cheeky, but the suggestion is to honor your phenomenon and its critical ecology. That’s not to say that a phenomenon like “motivation” lacks any relevant brain dynamic. So for instance if you want to figure out how the startle response or visual attention plays a role in motivation, then certain types of brain research might be helpful.
But it would be important to remember that you are no longer studying motivation per se, but rather some dynamic defined in a particular way relevant to the phenomenon, i.e., motivation. And this kind of methodological specificity usually gets lost in the rush to gripping headlines about harnessing dopamine or whatever. Instead, when studying motivation I would point to the literature in education science, complemented by what we in the humanities have to say about emotional ecologies and power. We have become very good at explaining the situated psyche and we should not give up on that interest, despite the fact that it’s not as fundable as a project compared to studying, for instance, the brain correlates of eighty participants while they are listening to poetic texts by Camilo José Cela.
LL: Why? Is someone doing that?
DG: Yes, that’s a real thing! Our esteemed colleague at UC Irvine, Francisco J. Ayala, is heading up a “Center for the Scientific Study of Creativity: Literature, Arts, and Science” where they plan to learn about creativity and its neurobiological underpinnings using EEG and other brain imaging techniques, while leaving completely out of the loop anything we in the humanities or arts know about creativity. We haven’t even been invited to the table. The Center includes nobody in the arts or humanities. A doomed project without us! But a doomed project that is quite well funded.
LL: Let’s hope that our own research into how emotions factor into college writers’ work isn’t similarly doomed.
I want to conclude the interview with a question about your style. Of all your writing, I like your Heidegger introduction best. In one passage, you’re arranging beautiful sentences that sum up Western philosophy’s approach to emotions, and in the next you’re dropping a pun about forms of unconsciousness, saying we might be “embodied but lacking the capacity to believe (a dog); believing, but lacking the capacity to change (a dogmatist).” I wonder what was going on in your scholarship or your life that made you write like that.
DG: Oh no! You like best a sentence that I wrote decades ago as a graduate student! What have I been doing since then? Clearly not enough on the stylistic front, at least. One thing I can say is that introduction was written with the nonchalance of a graduate student writing up his notes, more or less. On some level I did understand that this unknown material on Heidegger and rhetoric would be important. But the voices of authority ringing in my head weren’t that loud, as I hadn’t been listening to them for very long—and I’m sure that this relative nonchalance was liberating. For example, I was familiar with some relevant aspects of the German academic scene, but I felt no need to produce the weightiness they are famous for. Also remember I wrote the first draft of this material in the middle 1990s, when the humanities high style after Derrida still seemed acceptable in some cases. That said, the first iteration was soundly rejected by Philosophy & Rhetoric—in retrospect because, most likely, I neglected to cite the work of a scholar who was most knowledgeable in that subfield and who probably read my submission. Apparently his voice of authority should have rung in my head a bit more loudly. Then, I should say, my mentor Nancy Struever absolutely hated the very sentence you love, mostly because she thought it disrespectful of dogs! An object lesson in audience emotion and its variability, I guess.
LL: “Respected emotions scholar embarrassed by youthful indiscretions.” The perfect headline to end on.
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Catchings, Elizabeth M. Composing (in) Commensurable publics: Dual Sponsorship and Askesis in the Writings of Detained Youth. Dissertation. University of California, Irvine, 2015. Print.
Gross, Daniel M. Denazification ~ Rhetoric, Politics, and the Affective Turn. The Oxford Handbook of Rhetoric and Political Theory. Eds. Dilip Gaonkar and Keith Topper. Oxford: Oxford U P, forthcoming. Print.
---. Rhetoric and the Origins of the Human Sciences: A Foucauldian Tale Untold. Quarterly Journal of Speech 102.3 (2016): 225-44. Print.
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---. Uncomfortable Situations: Emotion between Science and the Humanities. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2017. Print.
Gross, Daniel M., and Jonathan Alexander. Frameworks for Failure, Or What Happened to the Social Turn in Writing Studies? Pedagogy 16.2 (2016): 273-92. Print.
Gross, Daniel M., and Frank Biess, eds. Science and Emotions after 1945: A Transatlantic Perspective. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2014. Print.
Gross, Daniel M., and Ansgar Kemmann, eds. Heidegger and Rhetoric (SUNY Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy). Albany: SUNY Press, 2005. Print.
Gross, Daniel M., and Stephanie D. Preston. Emotion Science and the Heart of a Two-Cultures Problem. Science and Emotions after 1945: A Transatlantic Perspective. Eds. Frank Biess and Daniel M. Gross. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2014. 96-117. Print.
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An Interview with Daniel M. Gross from Composition Forum 34 (Summer 2016)
Online at: http://compositionforum.com/issue/34/daniel-gross-interview.php
© Copyright 2016 Lance Langdon.
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