Statistical Panic

Kathleen Woodward, Statistical Panic: Cultural Politics and Poetics of the Emotions (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2009).

Some time ago, I switched our car insurance over to a different company. After a week, the new company mistakenly and quite spontaneously cancelled my policy. I called them to ask what happened, and was told that I had requested the cancellation by phone myself. When I expressed my surprise and told them I most certainly requested no such thing, the woman on the other end of the line very politely told me to keep my temper.

I was relieved to find that there is a term for the way I felt during and after this phone call. It is an example of what Kathleen Woodward calls “bureaucratic feeling,” a phenomenon increasingly common in our everyday lives.

Bureaucratic feeling, like statistical panic or compassion for cyborgs, Woodward argues, is a ‘structure of feeling.’ In  Marxism and Literature, Raymond Williams introduced this concept to describe the interpenetration of personal feeling and social structures. Woodward uses the concept to think about the relation between such a seemingly personal emotion as the desperation of anger caused by a call to your insurance company’s help desk, and larger social structures. In the first half of her book, she analyses the connection between affective experience and identity politics (gender, race, age). It is especially in the second part of her book that Williams’s concept comes to the fore, as Woodward explores ‘new feelings’ created  by emerging social structures. In fact, she argues that the experience of an emotion can lead to insight into these larger structures. The example she uses to explain this process is the moment in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own when she finds herself doodling a nasty sketch of a male professor, realizes she drew it in anger, and then analyses her own feelings:

A very elementary exercise in psychology, not to be dignified by the name of psychoanalysis, showed me, on looking at my notebook, that the sketch of the angry professor had been made in anger. Anger had snatched my pencil while I dreamt. But what was anger doing there? Interest, confusion, amusement, boredom — all these emotions I could trace and name as they succeeded each other throughout the morning. Had anger, the black snake, been lurking among them? Yes, said the sketch, anger had. It referred me unmistakably to the one book, to the one phrase, which had roused the demon; it was the professor’s statement about the mental, moral and physical inferiority of women. My heart had leapt. My cheeks had burnt. I had flushed with anger. [Online source]

In Woodward’s view, emotions are neither purely interior, nor purely social: the psychological phenomenon of anger is here caused by the social oppression of women: a social structure shapes an inward feeling. In the second part of her book, Woodward shows how bureaucracy and the ubiquitous use of statistics shape postmodern feelings of anger and panic.

The style of writing, by the way, reminded me of Virginia Woolf’s because of its personal tone. Woodward makes a plea for telling stories in literary criticism and appeals to us to abandon the argumentative style she describes as “professional cool.” The recent emotional turn in literary and cultural criticism might even have been caused by the feeling of emptiness generated by the expository argument, she thinks. In Woodward’s own case, her turn to the emotions was caused by an experience of great personal grief and the subsequent realization that very little had been written about this feeling from an academic perspective.

I read her book with great pleasure, especially the theoretical introduction which contained sheaves of useful references to look into (Alison Jaggard is top of my list), the chapter on liberal and conservative compassion, and the section on new structures of feeling. I want to use this concept in my research project, in my case to look at very old structures of feeling emerging in the seventeenth century.

Because of my project, I was curious to see how Kathleen Woodward — a professor in English literature — conceived of the role of literature in structures of feeling. Raymond Williams accorded a special status to literature as an archive of feelings: its rhythms, imagery and tone capture forms of feeling and preserve them for the historian to find. To me, this has always seemed a very interesting, but rather passive conception of the work of literature. In the chapter on bureaucratic feelings, Woodward explicitly asks after the role of literature (in this chapter specifically autobiographical memoirs on illness):

What can we say is the cultural work being done by books such as these? I suspect that the real emotional and bodily pain to which these books bear witness draws people, many of whom face similar experiences, into transitory reading communities, imaginary and actual self-help groups that are constituted by the autobiographical act. […] The singular experience of the intensity of an enraged anger is, hopefully, yielding to the productive emotion of outrage. Individuals are coming to understand the structural injustices that are in place. (189 and 190)

Her answer, or hope, is that literature can serve to make readers aware that their anger is not personal, but political: the experience of anger at the bureaucracy and injustice of the American health care system leads to the desire to read about similar experiences, which in turns leads to the realization that a structural wrong is at the root of the emotion.”[T]he challenge,” writes Woodward, “is to understand that feeling – or structure of feeling – in the context of a broader framework of the emotions, by owning that intensity and converting it to something else or finding a way to narrate it differently.” (138)

Woodward also mentions the more traditional view of literature as generating empathy. In the chapter on bureaucratic feeling in health care, she writes that it is her hope that the memoirs she presents to us “will encourage us to be receptive to the suffering of people today with sickness that go unnamed or are largely unfamiliar to us” (192). This may seem a little trite, but it is a point that Woodward returns to in the chapter on the postmodern society of the statistic: a society characterized by a historically-specific discourse of numbers and percentages that generates an anxiety about the future. The final lines of this chapter quote the author of a book on depression, who suggests that a literary description of illness can evoke a feeling of empathy that counters the pervasive impersonal, statistical approach.

In short, though – or perhaps because – I am not entirely sure her analysis of  the role of literature in theses new structures of feeling is exhaustive, I will certainly be returning to Woodward’s ideas in the coming years, because it has sparked all kinds of ideas on changing social structures and the experience of emotion.

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