Pam, my wife, was watching the Democrats pursue the Florida-Michigan debate on Saturday, and she noticed something interesting.
Very often, she told me, people opened their remarks with,
"I am deeply troubled…" or
"I am deeply saddened…"
I’d always assume that the point of this remark (aka it’s metapragmatic burden) was to say, "I do not speak from party politics," "I do not speak from self interest," more generally, "I speak without prejudice." The rhetorical strategy is clear: it allows the speaker to speak with greater authority because they do so, apparently, from a higher plain.
In our culture at the present moment, claims to emotion are proof of good intentions, and a certain purity of motive. We are more trustworthy when in the throes of an emotional event. Speaking from the heart is a good thing. And when we say we are "deeply saddened," dude, we are so deeply trustworthy that a political party would be entirely wrong not to embrace what we have to say.
This is the traditional view…as it plays out in the present day. And it plays out ever more robustly. Sarah Moore has a new book about called Ribbon Culture. I just saw the announcement on the Very Short List. It is hard to tell at a distance, but it looks like Moore’s book goes right after our inclination to trust public action that comes from our private sentiments. As VSL describes the book, Ribbon Culture is a study of
the rise of awareness campaigns in terms of a growing interest in
personal displays of compassion in a cultural climate where empathy has
become a by-word for authenticity.
Empathy as the by-word for authenticity. Indeed. Who do we want for President? The person who can feel our pain. In our culture, in this moment, emotion is the gold standard of public discourse. Because, apparently, our emotions do not lie. (I just have to say how odd this is from an anthropological point of view. Only some cultures think this way, and there was a time in the history of our own culture when we most distinctly did not. Any recipient of a Renaissance education, for instance, regarded the emotions as the very thing that put her ability to lead at risk.)
I was reading Zelizer this morning, and I wondered whether this argument could be taken another step forward. Her Purchase of Intimacy is a great book. It shows looks at the distinction our culture makes between the economic and the interpersonal, between things to do with commerce and things to do with intimacy. Well, come to that, Purchase of Intimacy is about the intersection of anthropology and economics (and therefore high on my reading list).
Of all the distinctions our culture cares about, the one between economics and emotions is key. It insisted, in the Victorian case, that the rules of the market place apply outside the home, but that the home itself will be shaped by a different set of impulses, social rules and cultural concepts. Commerce outside. Emotion inside. These were seen to be mutually exclusive. And we defend this distinction still. We insist, as Zelizer puts it, "intimacy corrupts the economy, and the economy corrupts intimacy." (And again, not every culture makes this distinction, and of the ones that do, none makes it in the same way.)
Having made this distinction between the economic and the emotional, we are vexed when the distinction is blurred. There is a strong form of this blurring in the case of prostitution. The physical and emotional intimacy of sex is now for sale. There is a weak form of this blurring in the case of airline attendant who is called upon to manufacture emotions for commercial purposes (Hochschild).
Naturally, these two domains are often brought together. But we react with a Douglasian horror. This confusion makes us deeply uncomfortable. One of the good things about Zelizer’s book is that it insists that we can’t really make sense of our world until we see these categories as constantly engaging with one another. I am less keen when she promises to "untangle [the] misunderstandings" that arise. After all, those misunderstandings, that’s what we anthropologists call culture.
(At dinner on Saturday night, the women quizzed me about what I do for a living. When I said did the anthropology of contemporary culture, she looked at me sharply, and said, "Isn’t that what we call a sociologist?" I said, "well, one way to see the difference between anthropology and sociology is to say that anthropologists see a culture from the inside out and the sociologists sees it from the outside in." It is for a sociologist to untangle. For the anthropologist, that tangle is called data.)
Anyhow, back to the Democratic event, I know wonder whether the distinction between the parties does not increasingly descend from the distinction between commerce and emotion that Zelizer documents so well. This can’t always have been so. I wonder if the parties are not separating in a kind of continental drift with this as their impulse. It is does parse quite neatly. Democrats are the party of feeling. They care about the world. They feel its pain. Republicans, by contrast, are hard hearted bastards who don’t or can’t care. All that matters to them is commerce.
But strategically, isn’t this a problem? Can the Democrats afford to take this position. It is all very well to claim the emotional domain, but does this leave them open to the charge that they can feel the issues but not manage them? In the final hour, American voters, those swing voters in the middle, they don’t care so much about charisma and the promise of change, as they do about trust. Being the party of feeling how can it not indeed feel good. It looks like the side of virtue. ( And for all I know, it is the side of virtue.) But strategically, it is an expensive place to be. It lays claim to authenticity but sacrifices, perhaps, the claim to competence on which every election finally depends.
Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 1983. The Managed Heart: Commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Kelso, Ruth. 1929. The doctrine of the English gentleman in the sixteenth century with a bibliographical list of treatises on the gentleman and related subjects published in Europe to 1625. University of Illinois Studies in Language and Literature. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Moore, Sarah. 2008. Ribbon Culture: Charity Compassion and Public Awareness. London: Palgrave Macmillan. here.
Zelizer, Viviana. 2005. Purchase of Intimacy. Princeton: Princeton University Press. here.
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