Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Statistical Panic

Kathleen Woodward, Statistical Panic: Cultural Politics and Poetics of the Emotions. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2009.

Statistical Panic challenges the idea that the category of the emotions is altogether psychological, and therefore a refuge from the political. By constellating a variety of texts -- literary, critical, social -- Woodward interrogates the emotions as sites of political thought and political action. The emotions have, she argues, a "cognitive edge." I find this formulation less illuminating than an example she returns to over and over, the moment in A Room of One's Own (one of my favorites) in which the narrator, sitting in the British Library, finds herself doodling a caricature of a professor, realizes that she is angry, and then realizes that her anger is a defense against the professor's anger. Anger is, for the narrator, a diagnostic and then analytical tool. Woolf's narrator offers a model for Woodward's meditative readings of the emotions.

In the first section of the book, Woodward explores the ways that feelings like anger, shame, and compassion have been theorized to different ends, and what different narratives about the emotions mean politically. These are suggestive and politically aware chapters that particularly point up the emotions surrounding identity politics: "feminist anger," the anger of the aging, racial shame, and politicized compassion. These chapters do important work to set up how Woodward thinks about (and with) emotions, but the real heart of the book, I think, is the second half on "new feelings," and particularly the final essay, titled, like the book itself, "Statistical Panic."* In these chapters, Woodward offers rubrics for thinking about the emotions occasioned by postmodern life, such as "sympathy for nonhuman cyborgs" and "bureaucratic rage," emotions that are often "impersonal" (you aren't really angry at the particular unhelpful bureaucrat on the other end of the line, for example, but rather at the bureaucracy itself). "Statistical Panic," I find, very powerfully names a "structure of feeling" embedded in what Ulrich Beck calls the "risk society." "Our bodies," Woodward points out, "are figured as being in a perpetual state of risk. The statistics profiling the body are for the most part melancholy and grim .... fatally we feel that a certain statistic, which is in fact based on an aggregate and is only a measure of probability, represents our very future" (196). Since the very nature of the statistic is to belong not to individuals but to groups, the emotions that statistics occasion oscillate between panic and boredom, postmodern analogues, Woodward suggests, to the modern dyad of shock/ennui.

Statistical Panic does not operate by argument but rather by constellation, juxtaposition, and suggestion. Woodward's language is most frequently a language of presentation: I refer to... I turn to... I take up ... Benjamin offers... X represents [emotion] in this way, while Y represents it in this other way. The book is therefore frustrating precisely when it is the most successful; at its most suggestive moments, I found myself wishing that Woodward would take an idea or a reading further, only to have her move on to some other, equally provocative text.

I particularly wished for greater pressure on the literary elements in this book; Woodward's eclecticism is clearly intentional, yet I frequently found myself wishing for a more explicit articulation of what role genre was playing in this map of the emotions. While Woodward often discusses popular culture in the familiar condemnatory terms ("postmodern televisual culture" and its tabloid obsessions, for instance, or the too-pat representation of statistics in the television drama Chicago Hope), any theory of the relationship between genre and feeling is at best only hinted at. Although in the introduction she suggests that "countering a fragment, or providing nuanced context for an information-story, is a more ample narrative -- a story," I wished for more on just what a "story" was, in contradistinction to the "information-story." These terms immediately conjured up for me Walter Benjamin's distinction between the "story" and "information" in his essay "The Storyteller," an essay that Woodward explicitly alludes to in her chapter on "Bureaucratic Rage" (172). But while Benjamin's terms are useful for Woodward, she ultimately and perhaps misleadingly uses them in quite a different way. The "story" that she privileges is above all the memoir, which she describes as "a medium promising (although not always delivering) intimate voices that allow us entrance into [the authors'] lives" (191). I cannot help thinking that this is more or less the opposite of what Benjamin means by "story," as I remember the moment in "The Storyteller" when Benjamin writes that
With the [First] World War a process began to become apparent which has not halted since then. Was it not noticeable at the end of the war that men returned from the battlefield grown silent — not richer, but poorer in communicable experience? What ten years later was poured out in the flood of war books was anything but experience that goes from mouth to mouth.
It seems to me that the memoirs of "the tiny, fragile human body" that Woodward examines work much differently than the Benjaminian "story," and yet they do something for Woodward's account of postmodern feelings that is worth theorizing in greater depth. Precisely because, as Woodward so lucidly observes, statistics seem to encapsulate stories about our futures, a theory of how stories work in the age of statistical panic -- sometimes called the "information age" -- seems warranted.

Yet my desire to see such a theory articulated is, I recognize, a measure of the success with which Statistical Panic maps out an emotional terrain and places crucial issues in conversation. One cannot fairly complain that a book is not three chapters longer than it is, and I come away from reading this book with a raft of notes and references, especially on the studies of aging, illness, and disability, areas that have tended to be insufficiently attended to in theories of postmodernity.

*An earlier version of "Statistical Panic" appears in differences 11.2 (1999): 177-203, Duke Journals Online, PDF.

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