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Composition Forum 34, Summer 2016

Staying with Emotion

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Laura R. Micciche

What would it mean to “stay with emotion”? This question occurred to me while reading I Hope I Join the Band, Frankie Condon’s tireless exploration of whiteness and its many steep costs. Condon describes her book as an “invitation . . . to stay, if only for a moment with race and racism” (26). The book, she continues, is “for those who wonder how, why, and to what extent our lives as actors, as rhetors, are shaped by ideologies of race” (26). Throughout the book she effectively models what it could mean to stay with race and racism, to trouble whiteness and its allegiances and breakages, to interrogate her own family history through the prism of race as lived in America. Condon moves slowly, her pace often painfully stilted as she lingers over familial injuries and institutionalized racism. “Staying with” is for her a method of writing and researching whose benefits are readily apparent: we go deep and get close to the function and effects of whiteness, readying us for the antiracist activism that Condon advocates. The desire to be with the unsettling discomfort of racism, allowing stray insights to take root or not, represents a model of intellectual work that I want to promote in this retrospective. In effect, I want to urge readers to stay with emotion, as I think scholars in the field have yet to discover to “what extent our lives as actors, as rhetors, are shaped by ideologies of” emotion, particularly as they intersect with race and racism, which I’ll address below.

Published in 2007, Doing Emotion: Rhetoric, Writing, Teaching argues that emotions are something we do rather than something we have. Applying this idea to writing classrooms, administrative structures, and forms of disciplinary identification, I sought to demonstrate that emotion performatives saturate the everyday. Because emotion is not additive or somehow separate from other forms of communication, the book calls for paying better attention to how and where emotion does its work: “We treat emotion as additive to meaningful discourse at a cost, for emotion suffuses everything from political arguments to social movements to everyday acts of communication and understanding” (1).

Since the book’s publication, I’m amazed to see (and unable to keep pace with) the staggering amount of composition research that elaborates on emotion as woven into a wide array of cultural and professional activities. Just scratching the surface, emotion research has addressed tutoring practices (Wilson and Fitzgerald), transnational literacies (Mihut), research methods (Sukandar, Agustiana, and Hale), WPA issues (Kjesrud and Wislocki), digital media (Rice), contemplative pedagogy (Winans), disability (Walters), and cognitive research (Bazerman). The range of approaches and contexts illustrate the extent to which emotion remains viable for investigating relationships writ large—what I take to be the general province of emotion studies.

When I began drafting the book in 2005, prior research on emotion in rhetoric and composition had primarily focused on writing, cognition, and emotion (Brand and Graves); the emotional content of teaching, including its gendered construction (Boler; McLeod; Schell); and, in direct conversation with my research, critical studies of emotion that addressed cultural, rhetorical, and pedagogical contexts (Lindquist; Wiederhold; Worsham; Yoon). This latter group of scholars draw from interdisciplinary, largely feminist studies to theorize emotion as relational, socially and culturally specific, and rhetorical—that is, emotions do not simply exist but are made between people and in relation to objects. This last point was especially important to the conception of the book, as it gets at what emotion does, how it can be of use.

Thinking of emotion as active, rather than reactive or already formed in advance of expression, led me to question in chapter two the work accomplished by identity metaphors that stick to composition as a field: the proletariat, the permanent underclass, the handmaiden to English, among others. For instance, I consider “what effects the emotional subjection expressed through identity metaphors have on compositionists’ political efficacy and intellectual work” (37). Drawing on the formative work of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson in Metaphors We Live By, I ask how we might seize the power of metaphor to shift thinking and belief, to construct alternative alignments that resist the characteristic emotional subjection attached to composition studies by both non-members and members of the field. In this sense I am talking about the performative potential of language: “The point is to use the energy and feeling surrounding wounded attachments as generative grounds for change. . . .” (43). More specifically, I argue that

[c]hanging the metaphor affects the narrative of composition: what the field is defined by and against, and how its story takes form. Changing the story from one about marginality to one about centeredness also alters the emotional content of composition, perhaps offering a break from the rhetoric of subjection. . . . Metaphors of subordination, which tend to produce a culture of paranoia and defeatism, generate feelings of inadequacy that too easily become the central subject position from which claims are made. (45-46)

Rereading this now, I think that developing new metaphors for identity remains important, for all language is metaphor and metaphor does identity work. But anchoring disciplinary change in discourse is ultimately too limiting. While performativity takes on other significance in Doing Emotion, as in chapter three, where I explore performative (and so embodied) uses of emotion in classroom spaces, the general thrust of my discussion of metaphor is, I would say now, too ludic. Rather than proposing new metaphors to describe the status and work of composition, I might, from my current perspective, use emotion studies as an attention device, a means for staying present and future oriented so that we can get on with the creative, politically salient work afforded by emotion and/or affect studies (a distinction that I don’t view as hard-and-fast, as noted in the book’s introduction).

As I’m thinking about it now, being present to emotion as a researcher, rather than fussing over the subject position of our field and its wounded history, encourages a commitment to stay with emotion as one would stay with a single thought or image while meditating. When we stay, what can we learn about moving forward? What details do we notice? Where does our attention gravitate? Do we achieve clarity of any kind? What can we make from what we observe? Staying, as a method of paying attention, has a way of clearing the mind and opening space for innovation, the fruits of which are exemplified in the award winning Techne: Queer Meditations on Writing the Self by Jacqueline Rhodes and Jonathan Alexander. In a complete commitment to exploring affective domains of experience accessed through a variety of modalities and theoretical frameworks, Techne makes and embodies a case for delving into questions of queerness, self/other relations, and writing and reading technologies and subjectivities, all while building an affective experience for the audience made from theory, narrative, image, non-linearity, and video. The end result is an accumulative immersion in affective inquiry.

What Rhodes and Alexander are doing for and through scholarship is similar to what I was trying to do with pedagogy as a site of performative, embodied emotion in chapter three, where I ask,

How do we teach something that happens in relation, an idea that departs significantly from the identification of emotion as an appeal that can be isolated and identified? How do we ask students to grapple with, and perhaps employ, the extralinguistic quality of emotion? In what can we ground the study of descriptors such as aura, sense, gesture, or atmosphere? (50)

I respond, in part, by outlining pedagogical approaches—deep embodiment, performance and play—that mine the dialectical relationship between writing and emotion: “bodies and emotions are not only enacted in writing but also imbued in how we come to writing” (52). The chapter details activities that dramatize self-other relations through oral delivery, live performance of texts, and activities that ask students to inhabit “another’s embodied emotions” and “to delve into the nuances and intricacies of cultivating a felt relation to the world different from one’s own” (60). In many ways, Rhodes and Alexander’s extraordinary text achieves this goal by immersing the viewer-reader in queer(ed) texts, bodies, and felt experiences. Techne, as well as another of Alexander and Rhodes’s co-authored books, On Multimodality: New Media in Composition Studies, exposes the absence of new media, digital media, and/or multimodality from Doing Emotion.

Given my focus on the extralinguistic qualities of emotion, engagement with mediated emotion seems an obvious omission. Evoking Cynthia Selfe’s 1997 CCCC address, I was not paying attention to technology, for certainly scholarship on writing and technology was thriving at the time I drafted the book. By 2005, Computers and Composition was already in its twentieth year of publication, Kairos in its ninth, and Computers and Composition Digital Press was only two years away from formation, indicating the intellectual and professional capital accumulated around writing and technology. Unsurprisingly, others have developed research on emotion as it intersects with technology, digitality, and multimodality over the past ten years, expanding understandings of how emotion circulates not just between bodies and objects, but also within and across mediated platforms. Some of the most exciting research I’ve encountered in this vein includes feminist affective engagements with reproductive technology—fertility apps (Novotny) and fertility digital activism (Frost, Arola, Eble, and Haas)—and affective-cultural studies of race and racism (Bacas; Banks; Condon).

In this work I see scholars using their felt perspectives and experiences as a basis for conducting research that has a social justice purpose. “Doing emotion,” in this light, need not take the form of making a case for emotion’s relevance, as it did in the mid-2000s. Emotion is embedded in rhetorical study; it’s already there, driving—from my perspective, at least—Damián Baca’s thorough critique of impoverished Eurocentric formulations of rhetoric that obscure the plurality of global communication systems. Baca’s description of mestiz@ literacies includes non-alphabetic conveyances, performances, and pictographics, adding depth and cultural specificity to studies of rhetoric as well as to my discussion of emotion as embodied. His work, like that of Malea Powell, Cruz Medina, Steven Alvarez, and Haivan Hoang, among others, highlights the extent to which emotion studies (including my uptake) operates from an often unquestioned presumption of Westernness, particularly glaring given the interdisciplinary nature of much work on emotion and its emphasis on cross-cultural understandings of emotion.

For example, in a much-cited early work, Emotion and Social Change: Toward a New Psychohistory, anthropologist Shula Sommers describes how two different communities—Canadian Utku Eskimos and Papua New Guinean indigenous Kaluli—experience anger. Based on the research she cites, the Utku are found not to experience anger, defined as a response to injustice or unjustified injury suffered by self or other, leading researchers to conclude that, rather than trying to study a Westernized concept of anger or its subversion, anger must be interpreted through the community’s worldview. That view, encapsulated in the idea that “hardships are unavoidable and must be tolerated” (30), clarifies that anger (the Western understanding of it) is of no use to the Utku. The Kaluli, in contrast, “view anger with admiration,” associating it with “vigor, individual initiative, and personal assertiveness” (30-31). Sommers outlines cross-cultural factors that should dissuade researchers from presuming an emotion cosmology in advance of employing terms for analysis. In addition, she highlights the value of investigating diverse cultural systems in relation to emotion, a point that does not inform my own work as much as it could or should.

In future, I expect we’ll see emotioned epistemologies anchored more frequently in nondominant communities and cultures so that, for instance, the longstanding reason-emotion binary is not the default. Also, because cross-cultural experiences with emotion cannot be understood through a universal interpretive framework, efforts to stay with emotion should recognize the specific feeling rules that contextualize any study of texts, communities, objects, and so forth. While the reason/emotion binary is embedded in the conception of my book, my focus on the systemic production of affective states aims to work outside binaries by focusing on emotion’s variable cultural significance. In chapter four’s focus on disappointment and WPA work, for instance, I explain that “emotions do something besides express individuals’ feelings, usually thought of as internal states; emotions function as the adhesive that aligns certain bodies together and binds a person/position/role to an affective state” (74).

Originally published as an article in College English, this chapter has generated considerable interest among field members, suggesting to me that emotion’s stickiness (a concept indebted to Sara Ahmed) invites adaptations appropriate to a variety of research interests. Along these lines, I’ve received numerous personal emails and letters since 2002 in response to my study of disappointment. In their correspondence, faculty reaffirm my general point that “a given cultural system produces emotional dispositions for its subjects” and “the work we do in the profession has an affective dimension that is not outside politics or ideology” (77, emphasis in original). Interestingly, the original piece on disappointment has been referenced not only in relation to WPA work but also plagiarism (Marsh; Robillard); immigrant literacy practices (Mihut); disability (Loewen); political rhetoric (Albrecht-Crane); contingent faculty (Doe et al.); writing assessment (Caswell); historical research (Ritter); and classroom pedagogy (Lindquist). The variety of projects illustrates the ubiquity of emotion production and confirms that emotional dispositions attached to professional and social status are by no means exclusive to WPAing. Indeed, there are different ways, and reasons, to stay with emotion; the adaptability to varying contexts is a major strength of emotion-based inquiry.

What perhaps stands out most to me in looking back at this chapter is the use of narrative to problematize business-as-usual in academic work sites, both through survey data and analysis of published narratives. Likewise, in the personal correspondence I received, writers tell their stories, adding complexity and nuance to the ones I recount in the chapter. This has gotten me thinking anew about the value of story and counterstory as promising methodologies for doing emotion in the service of social justice work. Practitioners using these narrative modes understand that critical work needs multiple registers to best represent experience: personal, political, emotional, intellectual, and legal spheres of influence.

Aja Martinez’s A Plea for Critical Race Theory Counterstory, in which she uses counterstory to document her lived experiences with racism in the academy, is a fine example. Narrative is used to counteract research methods and theoretical frameworks that decenter racism and its effects. Martinez begins by clarifying her position: “I am Chican@, student, professor, and am embedded in the academy. However, because I am Chicana, my path has been riddled with pain, anguish, and what Tara J. Yosso refers to as ‘survivor’s guilt’” (33). She uses a composite narrative approach, rather than an autobiographical or biographical one, in order to connect “statistical data, existing literatures, social commentary, and professional/personal experiences” (37). By drawing from eclectic resources to combat institutionalized racism, Martinez constructs what I take to be a written documentary that begins from her own pain and anger in response to constant encounters with racism and moves outward to expose racism in rhetoric and composition and to suggest intervention strategies. This is the kind of important cultural work that emotion studies can and should do.

My discussion of pedagogy in chapter three develops a miniature example of what racialized emotion research can contribute to pedagogy. I write about a white female student’s response to an excerpt from James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son, in which she depicted Baldwin as an “angry black man that wrote things that hindered more than helped” (qtd. in Doing Emotion 58). In thinking about the limitations of a text-based approach to responding to Baldwin, rather than one that asks students to experiment with inhabiting “another’s embodied emotions through an intimate relation to words as well as through a bodily-based performance of those words” (60), I comment on what this student, and the class generally, could not access: “Locating anger in black men generally and, for my student, in Baldwin specifically, erases how anger is produced through cultural processes that include the transference of affect around understandings of race. The association between anger and blackness skirts Baldwin’s depiction of the bitterness he feels, and that his father felt and passed on to him, as generational affect” (58-59). Recalling Sommers’s insight, it’s clear that anger, when linked to black male bodies, means something very distinct in American culture, is thick with racialized history.

The importance of engaging with racialized emotion when discussing with our students rhetoric, identity, power, literacy, writing, and much else, seems to me especially crucial at this moment in time. As racial violence crowds domestic headlines and terrorist attacks become commonplace occurrences in the U.S. and abroad, I’m more convinced than ever of the need to understand how emotion circulates, is embodied, and creates effects. Emotion studies provide a critical vocabulary for making sense of the world and for investigating smaller scenes—classrooms and professional arenas. Perhaps most compelling in the current political climate, emotion studies illuminate the operations of social justice movements.

The emotional power and effectiveness of Black Lives Matter (BLM) offers a case study of the link between emotion and social justice. BLM cohered around outrage, despair, pride and fear in response to state-sanctioned violence against Black people. Formed after George Zimmerman was acquitted of the murder of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin, BLM seeks to redress the “ways in which Black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity.” On my campus at the University of Cincinnati (UC), The Irate 8—a naming that references the approximately 8 percent of Black students enrolled at the university—is allied with BLM. It formed in response to UC police officer Ray Tensing’s killing of unarmed Black resident Samuel Dubose during a routine traffic stop. The group began by flooding UC President Santa Ono’s Twitter feed and the university-sponsored #hottestcollegeinamerica feed with demands for changes to the university police department as well as to the school and surrounding community. The Irate 8 has organized events on campus to highlight the need for support of Black students on campus, the importance of increasing the number of faculty and staff of color, and the urgency of improving the overall climate for all students of color on campus. While “irate,” the group describes itself as “mindful of the Student Code of Conduct and . . . working to maintain respectful dialogue while aiding the University in its diversity efforts, particularly the inclusion of Black students, staff, and faculty.” The Irate 8 has successfully partnered with President Ono, Board of Trustees members, faculty, and others to create visible changes in curriculum, staffing, and support. The anger and despair that made this group cohere also gave it a mission and has led to real outcomes.

All of this is to say that culturally specific engagement with and studies of emotion, as well as diverse frameworks for making sense of emotion and the work it does in particular contexts, feels more kairotic, more urgent than it did when Doing Emotion was published nearly ten years ago. In general, rereading the book in the midst of horrifying racist cultural violence and, not incidentally, the 2016 presidential primary season, I’m also struck by how the disciplinary issues I address are so much less compelling than emotion’s political now. Maybe the insistence of now always overshadows words logged in time.

In whatever form or focus, there is more call than ever to stay with emotion—whether in our personal lives, classrooms, writing, or political commitments. Staying with emotion is staying with others, for, without others, emotion has no meaning or effect. In that sense I see the power of emotion studies still in its ability to foreground how coalitions of people, of causes, of diverse others come together and/or break apart.

Acknowledgments: I’m grateful to Lance Langdon, Elizabeth Wardle, Hannah Rule and Gary Weissman for helpful suggestions during the drafting of this piece.

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