Public Emotions

This post will be the first in a series of imaginary classes that I have proposed, or would like to propose, for a university English or media studies department. It is my hope that these will be useful resources for other scholars and teachers.  They are inspired by the syllabi collected at the Atlantic Tech blog, especially C.W Anderson’s Print Culture 101, and Kio Stark’s Stranger Studies 101.  Feel free to get in touch if you have suggestions on any of my imaginary classes.

Public Emotions

The choreography of public emotions frequently underlies global media spectacles, whether the dramatic rescue of Chilean miners, or the sex-scandals of world leaders from the royal family to Berlusconi. These media spectacles put on display a number of affective responses to daily life under globalization: from shock and disgust to pity and relief. Ever since modern individuals learned to adopt a “blase attitude” to block out the shock-effects of urban existence, the sane management of emotion seemed to be a core bedrock of the public sphere. But the rational public life imagined by modernity was never able to expel feelings of shame, anxiety, resentment and attachment as communal tensions, war, “obscene” sexualities and political agitation continued to disrupt the projected surface of liberal consensus.

This class will address a series of affects that contribute to what cultural theorist Sianne Ngai has identified as the “ugly feelings” that underlie psychic life at the moment of neoliberal globalization. We will take as our source texts global/postcolonial novels by authors ranging from Marguerite Duras to J.M. Coetzee that raise the question of the role of affect in public life, especially as saturated with media images providing common points of identification for private fantasies and resentments. These texts interrogate conditions ranging from atrocity, violence, service, shame, anger, and beauty in order to map out the uneven circuits of global exchange underlying daily life in the metropolitan centers of globalization.

New York, London or Tokyo, as portrayed in these texts, are underwritten by past histories of atrocity and exploitation that linger in states of melancholic agitation. So too, the depictions of everyday violence such as the car crash raise the question of the constitution of contemporary subjectivity at the limits of forgiveness: how are modern individuals to act given the knowledge of the suffering and inequality on which their lifestyles are based? Finally, theories of the multitude and affective labor allow us to understand the central role of the production of affect in postindustrial capitalism. In an information society, the production of affective states becomes more and more the primary goal of all labor, whether through creative endeavors or the work of a domestic servant.

Through these texts, we will trace the intersection of the affective lives of contemporary knowledge workers in their cubicles with the production of affects through global media spectacles of war and politics.


  • Marguerite Duras, Hiroshima Mon Amour
  • J. G. Ballard, Crash
  • Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day
  • Salman Rushdie, Fury
  • J.M. Coetzee, Disgrace
  • Zadie Smith, On Beauty

Unit 1: Love and Atrocity

The course will begin with Marguerite Duras’s classic screenplay (and the film directed by Alain Resnais) Hiroshima Mon Amour in order to probe the limits of love, intimacy and sexuality against the backdrop of atrocity and global crisis. We will read Duras’s work along with selections from Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas in order to think about how the discourse of love and intimacy grounds our understanding of war and atrocity. This unit will introduce students to affect theory with selections from Rei Terada and Kathleen Stewart’s Ordinary Affects.

Unit 2: The Waning of Affect

J.G. Ballard’s Crash provides an ideal text to test Fredric Jameson’s thesis regarding the “waning of affect” in contemporary culture. Are the characters in Ballard’s novels affectless automatons, or has emotional life simply been reimagined as intensity and speed through global media and consumer culture?  The unit will push the limits of affect theory through thinking about the limits of the body, capitalism and sexuality with selections from Teresa Brennan’s Exhausting Modernity, Nigel Thrift’s Non-Representational Theory, and Deleuze’s Francis Bacon.

Unit 3: Affect and Labor

Here, we will use Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day to theorize affective labor— the intersection of service work (the labor traditionally done by servants and other caretakers) and knowledge work (including aesthetic labor). We will read theories of affective labor such as in Hardt and Negri’s Multitude, as well as Teresa Brennan’s work in affect studies, The Transmission of Affect.

Unit 4: Community

Salman Rushdie’s Fury, set at the moment of New York just before 9/11, depicts the affect of fury provoked by metropolitan life under neoliberal globalization. In order to understand this condition, we will read recent theorists who address the transformation of the public sphere in an era of privatization and the effects of media saturation on private life in this context: selections from Paul Virilio’s The Original Accident, Zygmunt Bauman’s Community, and Brian Massumi’s “The Bleed: Where Body Meets Image” from Parables for the Virtual.

Unit 5: Violence and Forgiveness

In this unit, we continue to use affect theory to think about community and the politics of violence after globalization through a South African text, J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace. This novel probes a range of difficult to acknowledge emotions while testing the limits of forgiveness in the new South Africa.  We will read selections from Agamben’s Coming Community along with work on the political dimensions of affect, from Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings and Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion.

Unit 6: Aesthetics and Sympathy

We will conclude the course with Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, a text that returns, through the influence of E.M. Forster, to the context of Bloomsbury, where we began thinking about Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas. We will complement our reading with the recent turn to neuroscience in Catherine Malabou’s What Should We Do with Our Brain?