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Composition Forum 34, Summer 2016

Review of Zizi Papacharissi’s Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology and Politics

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Candice Rai

Papacharissi, Zizi. Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology and Politics. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015. 160 pp.

In Affective Publics: Sentiment, Technology, and Politics, communication scholar Zizi Papacharissi contributes to the affective turn in the humanities and social sciences—an interdisciplinary set of conversations about how affect shapes our experiences and drives our actions within cultural and political formations that sustain and become entangled with various affective forces (Ahmed; Massumi; Stewart). Within writing and rhetorical studies, scholarship on affect expands our conception of rhetoric and rhetorical situations (Hawhee; Rice); helps us theorize affect as a vital available means of persuasion (Gries; Rickert); and emphasizes the need, as multimodal composition theorists argue, to attend to the role of senses, bodily response, and emotion in the invention, making, reception, and delivery of texts (Ceraso; Murray; Morey; Selfe). The affective turn has also urged us to account for how emotion and affect influences student learning and how our curricula and classroom practices, for good or ill, produce various affects for diverse students (Micciche; Trainor).

Papacharissi joins this conversation by exploring the “soft structures of feeling” characteristic of social media and the role that such structures play in mobilizing publics through collective feelings of intensity, belonging, and connection. Specifically, Papacharissi studies Twitter as a modality of civic engagement that “invite(s) a publicness” through the crafting of “affect worlds” that are collaboratively generated through the “discursive logic of the hashtag function as affective mechanisms that amplify the awareness of a particular feeling, the intensity with which it is felt” (117-18). She defines affective publics as “networked public formations that are mobilized and connected or disconnected through expressions of sentiment” (125).

Apart from many social movement scholars, Papacharissi focuses less on measuring the political effectiveness of Twitter per se and more on the affective affordances that Twitter supports, such as its storytelling functions, that have the capacity to produce shared public affects that can culminate in significant political action, yes, but that are nonetheless valuable for simply connecting disparate people across space and time. She wants to know what “mediated feelings of connectedness do for politics and publics networked together through the storytelling infrastructures of a digital age” (7). Thus, she is keenly interested in how technologies “facilitate networked circulations of affective flows produced, distributed, and further remixed through mediated communication channels” (15).

With a goal of recouping the significance of affect in politics, Papacharissi opens her book with a review of scholarship on affect that traces the contention between emotion and rationality back to 17th century Enlightenment figures like Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, and Hume who associated reason with science as a critique of the affective power of the church. From there, Papacharissi situates her own definition of affect within contemporary scholarship—a definition which is indebted to Deleuze and Guattari’s characterization of affect as “the ability to affect and be affected” (xvi), as well as to Massumi’s distinction between emotion and affect. For Massumi, emotion is tied to the cultural stuff of particular places, while affect is bodily, pre-cognitive, and prior to signification—a liminal and dynamic intensity not yet hinged to social frames. “Affect precedes emotions,” as Papacharissi argues, driving the “intensity with which emotions are felt” (15). In other words, for her, affect is a force awaiting vector, a primal and felt intensity yet unshaped by the social, pure potential.

It is this “not yet formed shape” of affect, Papacharissi contends, that makes it marginal, threatening, and grants it “potential for subversion” because “[o]nce framed, [affective] contagion becomes categorized, formed, and embedded within a system of rituals” and “framed by language” (18-19). While this point seems apt, I would argue that it is also the case that the subversive potential of affective intensities can only materialize as politically effectual once reincorporated back into social structures. After all, the study of rhetoric as a pragmatic art aimed at civic action has centered on locating and strategically deploying (or upending) affective energies already embedded in places and tethered to socially-saturated topoi. For rhetorical and writing scholars, then, this sharp distinction between affect (when defined as pre-linguistic) and emotion (as conditioned, shared public feelings) should call into question whether affect can be considered rhetorical at all. Moreover, we should challenge the value of studying affect divorced from emotion. What would that mean? While affect can be studied in terms of measurable changes in bodies to environmental stimuli—recording quickened heart rate, brain wave activity, hormone release, and such—any move beyond this raw data would require interpretation and meaning making apparatuses, which lands us back squarely in the realm of the social—and thus the rhetorical (See Lance Langdon’s interview with Daniel Gross in this collection for a more extensive exploration of these ideas). Papacharissi would likely agree with all of this, given her focus on Twitter’s capacity to provide mechanisms through which people can engage in the labors of crafting of public stories that connect the dots among affective energetics, everyday matters, and social systems. While Papacharissi doesn’t address this issue explicitly, her research allows us to see those places (or for her those digital environments) where people perform the rhetorical work of transforming felt affective energy (as raw bodily stuff) into politics and action—as poignant places of invention.

Papacharissi engages in qualitative and quantitative methods—including discourse, network, content, semantic, and corpus analyses—to examine Twitter’s infrastructure and storytelling affordances in three case studies of affective publics that emerged within the Arab Spring protests, Occupy Wall Street movement, and everyday personal expressions, respectively. Chapter Two explores Twitter as a technology for “news sharing and connection” (33) in the 2011 Egyptian protests that resulted in the resignation of then-president Hosni Mubarak. The author uses a mixed method approach that starts with a frequency analysis of 1.5 million multilingual tweets collected from the #egypt tag to identify major tropes of storytelling present in the feed and follows this up with finely grained discourse analysis of these tropes to capture how Twitter nurtures a powerful, global sense of “involvement, connection, and cohesion” (62).

Chapter Three documents the role of Twitter in contemporary democratic action by examining the Occupy Wall Street Movement’s hashtag #ows. Papacharissi demonstrates here how “the logic of connective action” supported by Twitter encourages “patterns of information sharing that permit individuals to digitally register their presence and be counted while managing, at the same time, to elude the diverse trappings that constitute formal membership in a collective ‘we’” (72-73). Thus, Papacharissi argues, we find Twitter enabling more individuals to feel a sense of participation in the Occupy movement “without having to micro-negotiate the finer points of these frames” (75). While this can result in politically thin publics, given the potential for glossing over incommensurable ideological differences, Papacharissi stresses that such a felt sense of belonging is nevertheless significant and a necessary precursor for future political action. Chapter Four explores Twitter as a platform that encourages the formation of networked selves that coalesce around a politics of the everyday through play, performativity, and public dreaming. Through an analysis of a randomized selection of trending topics in Twitter—ranging from #illNeverUnderstandWhy girls make the duck face in every picture” to “incomingfreshmanadvice don’t talk to me”– Papacharissi seeks to understand how the personal constitutes a public politics in everyday conversations that are seemingly unrelated to public affairs.

Papacharissi’s conclusion leaves us with five summative “tendencies” of affective publics that emerged from her research. Affective publics 1) “materialize uniquely and leave distinct digital footprints” such that one cannot know a public a priori but can only study one as singular and emergent; 2) “support connective yet not necessarily collective action” in the sense that platforms like Twitter enable the amalgamation of individual political expression that make it possible for one to “connect” without requiring action or engaging difference; 3) are “powered by affective statements of opinion, fact, or a blend of both, which in turn produce ambient, always-on feeds that further connect and pluralize expression in regimes democratic or otherwise”; 4) “typically produce disruptions/interruptions of dominant political narratives by presencing underrepresented viewpoints” through the amassment of affective intensity and narrative visibility; and 5) convene “around affective commonalities” in which “impact is symbolic, agency claimed is semantic, power is liminal” (127-33).

Papacharissi’s work would be valuable to writing studies scholars who are interested in expanding our conception of persuasion to include affective dimensions. In terms of pedagogy, this might mean asking our students, whether undergraduate or graduate, to both critique and craft arguments in a manner that considers the emotioned environments and architectures of feelings that are commonplace within particular public issues, that circulate within specific places and times, and that are provided narrative visibility through digital technologies. Moreover, Papacharissi’s case studies are rich with examples of (and methods for studying) how publics manifest through affective channels that could inform our writing curricula. Those designing multimodal composition courses, in particular, might find value in the focus on design, interface, and technology. Her arguments provide the opportunity for thinking about the potential of affective structures as tools of invention and composition (e.g., Students might ask: What affective environments do I want to create, given my purpose, and how might I best do that? What kinds of stories and forms of connection are desired here and what technological platforms, genres, media, and design choices might best support them?) and as impetus for critique and inquiry (e.g., Here students might ask: What kinds of public action, affects, and storytelling does this technology, media, or interface enable or exclude? How are affective structures, politics, and public narratives articulated together in this public/public issue and to what consequence?).

Papacharissi argues that we should be examining “particular varieties of narratives that facilitate deeper understanding of issues—for example slow- versus fast-paced news narratives and varieties of literacies that help us generate deeper readings and meaning-making of the many structures of feelings populating our everyday world” (135). In urging us so, her work nudges us (and our students) to engage in forms of reading that identify the linkages of discourse, ideology, and structures of feelings that are afforded by digital technologies and to engage in composition practices that might be aimed at disarticulating and crafting anew such linkages in ways we find more amenable to inspiring action toward a more just and equitable public life, however we may define it.

Ultimately, Zizi Papacharissi offers powerful and methodologically fresh arguments for the significance of affect theory and of affective digital technologies that are well worth exploring for those interested in studying (or crafting curricula that investigate) the role of rhetoric, storytelling, digital media, and affect in everyday politics, civic action, and (online) public formation.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Ceraso, Steph. (Re)Educating the Senses: Multimodal Listening, Bodily Learning, and the Composition of Sonic Experiences. College English 77.2 (2014): 102-23. Print.

Deleuze, Gilles, and Felix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Brian Massumi, Trans. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P. 1987. Print.

Gries. Laurie. Still Life with Rhetoric: A New Materialist Approach for Visual Rhetoric. Boulder, CO: UP of Colorado, 2015. Print.

Hawhee, Debra. Moving Bodies: Kenneth Burke at the Edges of Language. Columbia, SC: U of South Carolina P, 2009. Print.

Massumi, Brian. Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2002. Print.

Micciche, Laura. Doing Emotion: Rhetoric, Writing, Teaching. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 2007. Print.

Morey, Sean. Rhetorical Delivery and Digital Technologies: Networks, Affect, Electracy. New York: Routledge, 2016. Print.

Murray, Joddy. Non-Discursive Rhetoric: Image and Affect in Multimodal Composition. Albany, NY: State U of New York P, 2009. Print.

Rice, Jenny. The New ‘New’: Making a Case for Critical Affect Studies. Quarterly Journal of Speech 94.2 (2008): 200-12. Print.

Rickert, Thomas. Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being. Pittsburgh, PA: U of Pittsburgh P, 2013.

Selfe, Cynthia. The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing. CCC 60.4 (2009): 616-63. Print.

Stewart, Kathleen. Ordinary Affects. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2007. Print.

Trainor, Jennifer S. Rethinking Racism: Emotion, Persuasion, and Literacy Education in an All- White High School. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois UP, 2008. Print.

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