- Bad Feelings in Public: Rhetoric, Affect, and Emotion
affect, emotion, feeling, argument, feminism, queer, happiness, depression, anger
The “affective turn” in academic discourse, often invoking potentiality and becoming, the body’s capacity to affect and be affected, and the vital forces and intensities that exceed linguistic capture, has by now taken root in a variety of disciplinary conversations and has been taken up toward innumerable ends.1 Both the development and the deployment of the affective turn has found especially fecund grounds in the work of feminist and queer scholars, in no small part because feminist and queer scholarship often highlights gendered, raced, and sexualized embodiment, [End Page 161] is attentive to the ways that the capacity to act is embedded within relations of power, and aims for the horizon of potentiality in unsettling the status quo. Thus, in order to think through the ways that affect and emotion operate in the rhetorical arenas of argument and public discourse, it is productive to do so through the specifically feminist and queer lenses provided by Sara Ahmed, Ann Cvetkovich, and Barbara Tomlinson. The texts reviewed here do not seek to reclaim certain histories of feeling as integral to particular identities or attempt to mobilize affect on behalf of activist causes2; rather, these authors deploy feminist and queer scholarship as critical perspectives to illuminate cultural formations that authorize, exclude, or otherwise discipline particular deployments of “bad” feelings—namely, anger, unhappiness, and depression—in public discourse.3
Although one of the preoccupations, or even one of the basic premises, of much work in affect theory is the distinction between affect and its close companion, emotion, none of these authors abide by this division. Tomlinson simply disregards it, choosing to define neither term explicitly, and using them somewhat interchangeably throughout her text. Ahmed addresses it head on, but seeks to deconstruct the binary nature of the relationship that is often posited: “I think that the distinction between affect/emotion can under-describe the work of emotions, which involve forms of intensity, bodily orientation, and direction that are not simply about ‘subjective content’ or qualification of intensity. Emotions are not ‘afterthoughts’ but shape how bodies are moved by the worlds they inhabit” (230 n.1).4 Cvetkovich muddies the waters even further, explaining that she uses affect in a generic sense, “as a category that encompasses affect, emotion, and feeling,” and that she also uses the term “feeling” to “span . . . the distinctions between emotion and affect central to some theories,” and because “it is intentionally imprecise, retaining the ambiguity between feelings as embodied sensations and feelings as psychic or cognitive experiences” (4). Thus, the very sense that we are making a “turn” toward a new conceptual apparatus is implicitly questioned; it is not so much the theoretical nomenclature of affect that is important or novel, these texts seem to suggest, but the recognition of its impact on public speech about issues such as depression, feminism, immigration, sexuality, and colonialism.
In the remainder of this review, I first take up Ahmed’s, Cvetkovich’s, and Tomlinson’s texts individually and on their own terms, and conclude by drawing them into conversation with one another, highlighting their collective [End Page 162] interventions in rhetoric’s affective turn. All three authors assemble archives of objects that have been previously devalued because of their association with domesticity or “bad feelings,” and pose a number of important questions about the relationships among affect and emotion, rhetoric and public discourse, and institutional and social structures of power. For instance, how are affect and emotion deployed to determine which arguments and which voices are heard and taken seriously? How do racism, sexism, heteronormativity, colonialism, and other forms of hegemony secure...