emotions, knowledge and serial killers


I read this article on emotions by Jennifer Harding & E. Deidre Pribram the same day as I read some of the literature on Dexter. This following statement stuck out for me as a result…:

Because emotions have been perceived as occurring predominantly at the level of individual experience, they have been dismissed as a disturbance: irrational and, consequently, unreliable and insignificant. However, this obscures the point that they also operate socioculturally; they act simultaneously as structures of meaning and structures of power. After all, discourses of the body also function largely experientially and at the level of the individual. However, as much recent theory has shown, discourses of the body are intimately connected to larger social operations. Indeed, they are the means by which social and cultural discursive formations are embodied . We are arguing a similar set of conditions for the emotions / they are the means by which social and cultural formations affect us, that is, render us as feeling beings in a series of complex, specific ways. Simply because emotions principally are enacted (‘experienced’) at the level of the individual does not exclude them from being simultaneously implicated in larger cultural processes and structures nor, for that matter, does it make them immune to theorization.” (p.871)

I couldn’t help thinking of Dexter and his inability/desire to feel emotions like ‘normal’ people – and his development as a father and family man…

Further on in this same article (discussing Larry Grossberg’s work on affect), Jennifer Harding & E. Deidre Pribram also explain that:

“Grossberg’s point is that affect needs to be taken into account as a constitutive aspect of popular culture. It is insufficient to heed popular culture only when it is transformed, through interpretation, into either ‘art’ or, as in some avenues of cultural studies, ideology/hegemony, that is to say, when it takes on meaning.

“A potential problem with a position that argues the prevalence of an affective dimension in popular culture is that its application may lead to too dramatic a bifurcation of popular culture from elite culture, or of feeling from thinking. This may suggest an antithetical relationship between high art and pop culture, as well as between meaning and affect, as if high culture audiences do not feel and popular culture audiences do not think. But, significantly, Grossberg observes that popular culture’s dominantly affective dimension is not inherent but historically constituted and that ‘a large part of the struggle over popular culture concerns the ability of certain practices to have such effects’ (1992, p. 79). That is, popular culture practices have fought to represent and retain their association with affective experience.

The ‘interpretive task’ facing cultural studies and left-wing politics alike is to identify the strategies and sites where affective empowerment might be possible, beginning with popular culture forms that resonate affectively for consumers (1988, p. 290): ‘Those differences which do matter [affectively] can become the site of ideological struggle’ (1992, p. 105). Things that matter affectively can be taken up as sites of ideological assertion or contestation. Political positions can be claimed through and shaped by modes or instances of felt popular culture.

Arguably, this is what many contemporary cultural theorists have attempted to do in the move towards the analysis of popular culture. Specific subjects from pop culture are chosen for study, not because they are a priori ‘artistically’ significant to a trained critical eye or carry some other elite cultural value but, precisely the opposite, because they have mass emotional appeal. To continue with the example of popular music, in the case of ‘Madonna studies’ critical effort has been directed towards recapturing, for historical record, the basis of her wide appeal. Theoretical activity is taken up after popular fact, in an attempt to account for the widespread emotional affiliation of fans and to pinpoint that which is so resistant, in Williams’ terms, to historical investigation and documentation. What are the sources and effects of extensive popularity? Can they be turned into political statements or acts? Can such affective investments and energies be used to identify emergent subcultural identities?” (p.874)

I found this article really quite fascinating… how do laughter, fear, feelings of neglect, abandonment and I don’t know what appear in popular fiction… to what effect? What of feelings in Adolescent Fiction? Is there anything special about feelings in this ‘genre’? It’s interesting to consider! A couple more quotes are relevant here:

“Following Jaggar’s arguments, […] emotions are pivotal in identity formations, in the recognition of alienation from or connection to. She discusses how unexplained or uncoded feelings may cause one to feel isolated or ‘abnormal’, while recognition of others with similar feelings can serve as the ground for the formation of subcultural groups (1989).” (p.875)

We are arguing that, among other forces, emotion makes possible the exertion and reception of the effects of power relations, thereby constructing the subject and, more specifically, the emotional subject. In other words, the subject who feels is critical to the circulation of power, the establishment of social relations, and the construction of discursive and institutional formations.
Emotions are forces of energy creating ongoing movement that propels social relations. The circulation of emotion produces in and between people connections, ruptures, dependencies, responsibilities, accountabilities, and so on. In other words, people care / they are invested. If people care, certain effects are produced: they feel and act in certain ways. Individuals have emotional relations, a significant form of social relations. It is through these relations that subjects are ‘affected’, that they are constituted into specifically contoured kinds of feeling beings. Following Grossberg, the task facing cultural studies is to identify the strategies and sites where emotional authority might be possible, in addition to pinpointing the locations and terms within which emotions subordinate.” (p.879)

[Do we invest conceptions of ‘work’, ‘financial security’, ‘home’, ‘family’, ‘marriage’, etc. with emotional authority?]

In contemporary Western cultures, a prevailing assumption exists that men suppress emotion more frequently and more extensively than women - to varyingly positive or negative effects -/ while women display and release emotions more readily. Women tend to be seen as more emotionally ‘skilled’ and ‘fluent’, which confers a positive meaning. However, in contrast, being ‘more emotional’ is most often equated with being less in control of feelings in a pejorative or problematic way and has served as justification for women’s exclusion from any number of corridors of power.
Further, the gendered expression of emotion is dependent upon the emotion being considered. Men are regarded as better able to express certain emotions / anger, frustration, impatience. It then becomes possible to analyse emotions, such as anger or non-anger, as gendered structures of feeling. Such views need not be construed as essentializing. Rather, gendered subjects can be seen as constructed in/through specific discursive events such as the expression or ‘repression’ of emotion. In this case, individual subjects must live and feel the specificities of such constructions, and they must constantly re-enact / relive, refeel / those specificities in order to sustain their identities.” (p.881)

An analytics of emotion must examine specific occurrences and concrete examples. It must thoroughly examine: how emotions might be constituted and experienced; how they are used, that is, what their effects might be; how they might function with/in structures of power, towards both dominant and resistant ends; and what role they play in the formation of subjectivity and identity in the everyday lives and practices of individuals.
In other words, in order to further develop an analysis of emotion and relations between emotion and power, subjectivity and culture, we think that ‘power and emotion’ need to be discussed in detail and in relation to concrete examples.” (p.882)

Ref: Jennifer Harding & E. Deidre Pribram (2004): Losing our cool? Following Williams and Grossberg on emotions  Cultural Studies, 18:6, 863-883


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