Feeling Power (review)
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Hypatia 17.1 (2002) 205-209



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Book Review

Feeling Power:
Emotions and Education


Feeling Power: Emotions and Education. By MEGAN BOLER. New York, London: Routledge, 1999.

Feeling Power is a bold and provocative book whose breadth of inquiry is stunning. Author Megan Boler sets out to rescue emotions from their devalued and obscure political status by showing that they are both a site of social control and also a site for political resistance. She situates her inquiry within the context of education, convinced that classrooms, especially within higher education, constitute significant locations of social and political struggle. [End Page 205]

Boler takes the reader on a wide-ranging interdisciplinary exploration where she analyzes various discourses to show how emotions get visibly and invisibly addressed in education and how emotions reflect particular historical, cultural, and social arrangements. Her broad conception of emotion resonates with philosophical accounts that view emotions as (partially) cognitive as well as with accounts that give emotions a role in moral judgments and ethical reasoning.

In Part I, Boler builds upon the work of feminist theorists, such as Elizabeth Spelman (1989, 1991), Alison Jaggar (1989), Sandra Bartky (1990), and Sue Campbell (1997), and uses key concepts drawn from poststructural theorists to develop a theoretical framework for revealing and explicating the myriad ways in which the "politics of emotion," shaped by different scholarly disciplines, functions in public education to enforce social control of the nation's citizens. Through astute, gender-sensitive historical critiques of the mental hygiene and character education movements, and a close analysis of Daniel Goleman's (1995) contemporary notion of emotional intelligence, Boler shows how we are taught to internalize and enact emotional rules, and roles, that serve to maintain society's particular stratifications of gender, race, and class. The chapters on emotional intelligence and the emotional literacy curricula founded on this concept are, I think, among the best in the book. Together they constitute a persuasive example of the power of Boler's method of discourse analysis.

In addition to the valuable detailed archaeologies of emotions, what I found particularly interesting was the discussion in Part II of Boler's "pedagogy of discomfort," a pedagogy that makes emotions a site of political resistance and a catalyst for social change. Boler is opposed to any comfortable views of the classroom as "a sanctuary wherein we abdicate direct responsibility for outside political events" (142). Her central concern is how to combat the "worrisome habit of denial," "the habituated numbness" we observe in our students and ourselves.

Breaking with a tradition stretching from Aristotle thorough John Dewey to Martha Nussbaum (1995), Boler rejects forms of readings that produce what she calls "passive empathy," that is, a recognition of others' suffering "that produces no action towards justice" (161). Instead, she urges that we teach students "testimonial reading." Drawing upon and extending the work of Shoshona Felman and Dori Laub (1992) on testimony that attempts to communicate the unimaginable and the unspeakable in history, Boler notes that we live in a time, in a political climate, of crisis that requires a new representation of truth, one similar to the testimonial process that is allowed to communicate trauma's excess, and in which the listener/reader accepts responsibility as a coproducer of truth. This responsibility requires a committed interrogation of the listener/reader's response as she faces the other's experience, to be alert to obstacles she feels in her own response that might lead her to turn away, to refuse to engage, to deny complicity. [End Page 206]

It is claimed by Felman and Laub (1992), taken up by Lorraine Code (1995), and now Megan Boler, that in listening to testimony we need to take our responsibilities seriously because in the act of testimony and listening to testimony we become, or potentially become, coproducers of truth. I have no doubt that this is the case. However, there is considerable ambiguity, both in the general discussion and in particular cases, about which truths are being (co)produced in the testimonial process. It is not ever made clear just which truths listening, and only listening, can be expected to...