Seminar in Rhetoric and Public Culture

"Political Emotion"


Course Description

W 2:30-5:00 P.M.
Mottier Hall 112
Instructor: John Louis Lucaites

The tension between “reason” and “emotion” constitutes one of the central sites for consideration of the advantages and disadvantages of democratic living. From Plato forward there has been a continuing debate regarding the degree to which a properly functioning democratic politics needs to nurture and/or discipline the possibilities for and enactment of the public expression of emotion and emotionality. From one perspective emotions are primitive subjective states of feeling that exist over and against reason (as a “higher faculty”) and are thus a danger to democratic, public, rational-decision making. From this perspective emotions are a properly private consideration and should be relegated to private life and the domestic sphere. Public emotions must thus be carefully controlled and repressed. From another perspective, emotions are not one thing; they include feelings (bodily affect), cognitions, and symbolic representations, and they develop into complex negotiated responses to events and social relationships. Rather than to denote a narrow sense of private affect, they are inherently social phenomena – intersubjective moods created by (a) the performance of appropriate gestures in a social space and by (b ) representations that activate prior structures of response. As such, emotions provide resources for participation and problem solving within a group, producing cohesion, persuasion, and good judgment that would not otherwise occur. From this perspective, democratic citizenship cannot be exercised (i.e., as an embodied way of reacting to the world) unless it is effectively emotional since both deliberation and social or political action require the full range of emotional identification with others. The result then is that the quality of life in a community and the quality of deliberation in a democratic polity depend on the range, sophistication, and use of emotional display.

This seminar will operate against the backdrop of this centuries long debate with a primary focus on the forms and functions of political emotions and public emotionality in U.S. public culture. Our chief goal will be to contribute to a rhetorical history of public emotions with an eye to participating in contemporary critical and theoretical discussions about the relationship between rhetoric and democracy, citizenship, civil society, and the like. Readings will draw from a wide range of disciplines, including rhetoric, media studies, anthropology, social and political theory, law, gender studies, social and cultural history, philosophy, and literary criticism, and will include classical, modern, and contemporary writings. Throughout we will have sustained attention on historically particular and rhetorically material instances of the enactment and performance of political emotions in U.S. public culture.


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