The Scholar and Feminist Online
Published by The Barnard Center for Research on Women

Issue 2.1 - Public Sentiments - Summer 2003

by Ann Cvetkovich and Ann Pellegrini

Public Sentiments

The construction of personal life within modern culture has been accompanied by a conception of emotion as central to what it means to have a private life. The keywords of this special issue might thus strike some as an unusual, even oxymoronic, coupling. In joining "public" to "sentiments," however, we aim to challenge the idea that feelings, emotions, or affects properly and only belong to the domain of private life and to the intimacies of family, love, and friendship. The essays gathered here rather call attention to the range of ways in which feelings are central to public life, from the deployment of affect to produce national patriotism, to the rallying of audiences on behalf of social forms of oppression and violence, to passionate calls for activism.

Culture, especially mass culture, is an arena in which feeling has been especially visible, a cornerstone of mechanisms for entertaining, shocking, and moving audiences. Television talk shows are the quintessential example here, in their merging of the therapeutic and the titillating. But the discourse of feeling is scarcely confined to entertainment media. The charge to get in touch with your feelings has sometimes seemed to get in the way of or at least displace politics and social analysis. When then-President Clinton went before the nation in the summer of 1998 to acknowledge that he had indeed had "inappropriate" relations with Monica Lewinsky, his acknowledgment and apology were scrutinized for the feelings that were, or were not, on display: Was his apology sufficiently contrite? Were we witnessing shame or defiance?[1] More recently, we have seen another President - George W. Bush - draw on many Americans' feelings of loss, fear, and anger in the wake of September 11, 2001, to rally a nation behind his war on terrorism. This President is famous for his mangling of the English language, but he may be speaking more truly than he knows when he refers to a "war on terror," rather than a "war on terrorism."[2] What does it mean that the President of the United States has effectively declared war on a feeling, terror? In thus misspeaking, the President revealed something of the dense and very public circuits of national affect.[3]

At the same time, some of the cultural forms discussed in this issue, especially performance, suggest ways that affects can be mobilized and circulated to create new and counter-cultural forms. Public feelings, then, are neither inherently subversive nor inherently conservative. Rather, what Diana Fuss has said of essentialism could be said also of public sentiments; to assess their politics or meaning, we must ask into the instant and consider "who is utilizing it, how it is deployed, and where its effects are concentrated" (20).

Even to speak of "private" and "public" as we have thus far been doing risks reasserting them as opposites. We hope to move beyond the "separate spheres" model that has presumed feelings are private. That model has proven surprisingly persistent even in feminist transvaluations of the private/public binarism - especially those that have called for and celebrated the public expression of feeling.[4] The essays in this volume, then, do more than charge us to consider context; they also challenge us to take into account affective intensities. Or, as Kathleen Stewart puts it, "The feminist slogan, the personal is political, [takes on] a new charge of intensity and swirl[s] in spinning, floating contexts far beyond any simple ideological clarity or political program" (unpublished manuscript). Indeed, in calling for "no more separate spheres!," Cathy Davidson invokes Eve Sedgwick's model of "reparative reading" in which Sedgwick proposes the nuances and diversity of affective response as an antidote to the paranoid policing of culture for instances of containment and subversion.

Nonetheless, the possibilities and risks of public sentiments may be - may feel? - especially heightened for women, due to a long association between emotions and "the feminine." Indeed, the word "sentiments" in our title bears the trace of that most disparaged of affective cultural forms, the "sentimental," a term which continues to imply that particular feelings are excessive, insincere, and best relegated to the private. In other words: "feminine." We need to acknowledge the powerful and ongoing cultural significance of such associations (as well as the important work feminists have done in exposing and criticizing them). However, as feminist scholarship has also shown, sentimentality has been used to draw attention to important social issues, most notably, in an early example of human rights advocacy, slavery in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The exemplary case is Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, which, however debated this novel and its tactics have been, nonetheless shows the power of sentiment.[5]

Moreover, in slave narratives, the autobiographical "true life" genre with which Stowe's fictions are most often contrasted (and not in her favor), sentiment and sentimentality play a formative role in enlisting the horrified sympathy of presumptively white readers. In more contemporary times, authors of neo-slave narratives, such as Toni Morrison in Beloved and Gayl Jones in Corregidora have found ways to circumvent sentimental responses but have done so in order to create other equally powerful emotional responses. Indeed, in "The Site of Memory," Morrison suggests that the slave narrative was not emotional enough, and, borrowing language from Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of A Slave Girl, sets out to "rip that veil" from "proceedings too terrible to relate" in order to venture into emotional terrain that might have been too disturbing for nineteenth-century readers, whom the abolitionist publishers of slave narrative sought to protect from defensiveness or guilt.

In slave narratives, but not only there, the work of testimony is doubly wounded. That is, in speaking from and giving evidence of the trauma of slavery, the testifying subject seeks also to pierce readers' moral complacency or ignorance about slavery and so move them to action. Throughout this special issue, the contributors variously address the complex and context-specific interplay between speaker and listener, and the mechanisms by which a listener becomes a witness, that is, someone who actively responds to testimony, if only by sharing the burden of its history. (See Felman and Laub on testimony and witnessing.) One of the things that emerges from such considerations is the value of thinking "performance" and "trauma" together.

The two guest editors of this special issue may be especially well placed to think through this performance/trauma nexus. Ann Cvetkovich has long been interested in questions of public feeling and trauma in particular. In her most recent publication, An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures, she seeks to expand what counts as national or public trauma. To do so, she turns to neglected archives of feeling, including ephemeral performance works, to show how minoritized sexual subjects experience and negotiate everyday encounters with homophobia, racism, and sexism. If investigations of trauma have led Ann Cvetkovich towards performance, for religion and performance scholar Ann Pellegrini, the movement went in the opposite direction. In Performance Anxieties, Staging Psychoanalysis, Staging Race, she works "in between" selected psychoanalytic texts and specific theatrical performances (Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in the Mirror among them) in order to open up some of psychoanalysis's - and feminism's - most cherished assumptions about sex, race, and the "problem" of difference. This engagement with both psychoanalysis and feminism on the subject of sex has lately led Pellegrini towards the subject of sexual injury and the urgent question of traumatic witness. For both Anns - Cvetkovich and Pellegrini - exploring the messy intersection of performance and trauma has also meant challenging too-neat distinctions between public and private, politics and pleasure.

Archives of Trauma

Part One of this special issue, "Archives of Trauma," emerges from the morning plenary session on the topic of "Memory, Trauma, History, Action" at The 2002 Scholar and Feminist conference. The panelists, Marianne Hirsch, Saidiya Hartman, Nieves Ayress, and Ann Cvetkovich (all of whom, with the exception of Hartman, are included here), touched on a wide range of geopolitical sites of loss, violence, and trauma, including the events of September 11, 2001, the Holocaust, slavery and the African diaspora, political torture and repression in Chile, and AIDS. To juxtapose these different histories and locations immediately raises questions about the connections and differences between them. Can they be productively linked while also acknowledging their specificities? Is it possible to avoid hierarchies of suffering, those insidious comparisons that make some forms of suffering pale in comparison with others or seem presumptuously equated?

A possible way out of this impasse would be to focus on reading or analyzing sites of trauma in relation. As Janet R. Jakobsen reminds us in Working Alliances and the Politics of Difference, to put things in relation is not the same thing as comparison. Nor does it mean equation. Instead, the act of relation asks us to think "intersectionally," to look, that is, for points of contact, even as we attend to particularity and difference. The memory of September 11 cast a long shadow over the proceedings, serving as a point of reference for much of the discussion. Although the conference had been organized well before September 11, it created new urgency for our questions about how to respond to and document trauma. The panel offered a range of answers, though, that shifted the focus to other issues and thereby helped to put September 11 in a broader context. Marianne Hirsch connected 9/11-related photographs to documents of the Holocaust. Nieves Ayress reminded us of another September 11 in Chilean history, September 11, 1973. Ann Cvetkovich discussed how the work of mourning invented by queers grappling with AIDS makes possible a different approach to remembering September 11. (Later contributions by Rebecca Schneider, Alyssa Harad, and Kathleen Stewart, among others, continue this project of contextualizing September 11, 2001, by juxtaposing it with other scenes of emotion, often ordinary or everyday moments.)


Trauma has been defined as a shock to the psyche so profound that it escapes perception and hence ruptures memory. At the same time, it has also been characterized as producing a repetitive return to the scene of shock, an intrusion of memories that cannot be escaped. Significantly, all the essays dealing with trauma refuse to treat it as an individual symptom or pathology. Instead, they seek to clarify its larger cultural connections. Trauma is a crucial locus of public feeling not only because it often involves events of national and transnational proportions that are collectively shared, but also because it simultaneously challenges and demands public constructions of history, what we might also call "public archives."

To link trauma to public sentiments can be a way of de-medicalizing it, moving away from definitions of PTSD, or post-traumatic stress disorder, that characterize - "diagnose" - those who have been traumatized as medical patients in need of a cure. Instead to think trauma publicly reconceptualizes it as a social and collective experience that requires public recognition and collective response. This issue of public recognition and response is a vital one. Historical traumas are not always evenly recognized. The Holocaust has achieved a level of visibility due to considerable public effort. In more recent years, there have been politicized as well as ethically urgent struggles over application of the word "genocide" to other historical traumas, from the Armenian catastrophe of the early twentieth century to the mass killings in Rwanda at that century's other end.[6] AIDS activists struggled in the 1980s to make AIDS a public issue, and feminists have worked to make sexual trauma a public issue and not just a private matter. On the other end of the scale, September 11 has been the focus of such tremendous public attention that it has been accorded a kind of exceptionalism that actually gets in the way of thinking about it. Certainly, within U.S. public discourse, September 11, 2001 threatens to obscure other times and places of violence not only outside the U.S. but within it too, in the form of the everyday violences of racism and exclusion that are often relatively invisible or unnoticed next to the spectacular loss and destruction at the World Trade Center site.


Trauma studies has focused in particular on new kinds of archives and archiving strategies for documenting what defies memory or representation. The testimony of individuals who have lived through and experienced trauma has been one of the most important forms of representing trauma. First-person accounts of atrocity are particularly powerful because of their emotional effects on audiences. Testimony is far more than a matter of giving "evidence" or "proof." It also involves, for the teller, complex processes of mourning and recollection that may defy easy resolution into "this is exactly what happened."[7] In addition, testimony almost always carries with it an activist agenda. For events that are in the historical past, such as the Holocaust, but which have living residues, such as anti-Semitism or conflict in the Middle East, testimony acts as an injunction to make sure that this will "never again" happen. For current struggles, testimony can be a way to make an intervention in the public arena in order to call for social and political aid. Testimony can also be a way in which cultures seek to reconcile the past, as in South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission or the Archives of Memory project in Kosovo.[8] Or, it can encourage others to speak out about what they have kept private or silent, such as sexual abuse and violence.

Testimony, to understate, has powerful emotional effects, a point driven home again at the "Memory, Trauma, History, Action" panel. The panel's audience was understandably still affected by the events of September 11. Predominantly New Yorkers, virtually all of them had some direct experience of 9/11. However, another notable emotional dynamic of the panel and the discussion afterwards was the profoundly disturbing effect on the audience of Nieves Ayress's testimony about her experiences under Pinochet's regime in Chile. Although Ayress's experiences were distant in time and space for most of the audience, her live presence and her blunt language made her experiences painfully vivid. Even the mediating presence of the translator added to the drama of the event; to listen to her words twice, to have the pause of waiting for the translator, made the words burrow even deeper. It is shocking to believe that someone experienced what she did - and even more shocking to have her in front of the audience as a survivor. As a measure of - what? - acknowledgement, empathy, perhaps even shame at the role the U.S. played in what happened to Ayress and so many other Chileans, or perhaps all of these things at once: in response the audience gave Ayress a standing ovation. Her testimony thus offered a vivid example of how performance of testimony produces public sentiments through its impact on an audience.

And yet, how testimony acts upon its audience, what it moves them to do or become in its wake, is not predictable. The history of sentimentality is important to remember here in order to remain alert to the force of testimony that may move audiences, variously, to tears or shock or numbness, but not necessarily to action. To understand the archives of trauma in affective terms, as forms of public sentiment, is to open a discussion of what kinds of archives of trauma are necessary for what kinds of public and social transformation.

About This Section

As befits the question what does it mean to remember trauma?, the essays in this section, "Archives of Trauma," do not reproduce the panel word for word. Rather, this section of the special issue builds on the conversations of that day in order to consider how trauma demands new kinds of archives that not only preserve or, better, make space for memory and testimony but also intervene in more public conversations. The "Archives of Trauma" are also archives of sentiment. The essays address - and use - a range of genres, some of them ways of preserving and even reviving testimony, such as performance, video, and installation; others, such as photography, serving as sites (and sights) for "capturing" emotion. These archives work to pass on trauma, even when it seems resistant to realist representation, so that it can be a force for social transformation. In focusing on representation, these essays together illustrate that the representation of trauma is never transparent - nor are the emotions that such representation produces.

These three clusters of essays also make possible a consideration of how three quite disparate sites of trauma - 9/11/01, human rights violations in a transnational context (and here Chile's 9/11/73 is just one vital counterpoint), and AIDS activism - might be connected. Importantly, these connections take us beyond sites of catastrophic violence per se to the everyday emotions that are a sign of trauma's ongoing effects, often across a wide-scale territory.[9] Although it was not possible to reproduce Saidiya Hartman's remarks from the panel, her work in Scenes of Subjection on the history of slavery is central to the conception of this special issue; it explores the complexity of historical trauma across generations and also raises questions about how slavery and African diaspora, which are among the founding violences of the U.S. nation, might be connected to the operation of racism across the daily fabric of life in the contemporary U.S. Alongside catastrophic violences, then, which seem to rupture the fabric of the everyday, we need also to attend to the apparently mundane emotions that are, in many respects, the ongoing pulse of earlier historical traumas. Such critical attention means also noting the public dimension and force of what is too often bracketed and dismissed as "merely personal."

Aftersight: Photographic Remains

Unlike some forms of historical trauma, 9/11 has been a massively documented event in all forms of media, although perhaps most notably in the idioms of mass journalism, namely, television and newspaper. The essays in this section explore photography and oral history as documents through which 9/11 is archived, and they are concerned with how alternative representations of 9/11 might intervene in dominant constructions of the event. Peter Lucas's and Marianne Hirsch's accounts of photographs as affective documents propose that the archive is not simply a realist representation. Hirsch, in particular, draws on her previous work on photography as cultural memory to explore how photographs, in her words, "affected the public and private process of mourning and memory" in the wake of 9/11. Mary Marshall Clark's essay complements this work on photography and provides a bridge to the other materials on testimony by describing Columbia University's oral history project, which aims to document those who have not been covered in the mainstream media.[10] This massive project, which has now begun a second phase of interviewing, offers a way of linking 9/11 to everyday lives, charting the intersection of personal and public history and also acknowledging a much broader picture. Certainly, 9/11 raises profound questions about how to remember, document, mourn, and respond to traumatic events without obscuring other experiences and feelings that are also deserving of public notice and response. The three essays in this section make needed connections between 9/11 and other historical events. They also bring into view a range of affects largely left out of mainstream ways of documenting September 11, 2001.

Afterwords: Testimony in the Public Sphere

As the essays in this section attest, where trauma is concerned, matters are never as simple as just telling it like it is or was. In her powerful injunction to remember another 9/11 - 9/11/73 - Nieves Ayress intervenes in the nationalistic trauma narratives still under construction in the U.S. post-2001. Ayress connects her account "This is How Pinochet Tortured Me" to U.S. support of Pinochet's regime in the 1970s. Implicit in her account of what happened "then" is a caution, if that word is even strong enough, against the dangerous forms mourning takes when it forgets history in the act, purportedly, of recollecting and responding to it.

In this cluster of essays, Ayress's remarks are juxtaposed with Anne Cubilié's and Meg McLagan's discussions of human rights testimony in the international arena. Cubilié's absorbing account of her own experiences collecting testimony in northern Afghanistan in the period prior to 9/11 complicates mainstream media coverage of that region's conflicts. Notably, she does not shrink from exposing the tension between how people situate themselves as narrators of suffering and her own complex position in relation to that testimony. In revealing the material challenges of collecting testimony, Cubilié asks, with post-colonial theorist Gayatri Spivak, not just "Can the Subaltern Speak?" but also, why should the subaltern want to speak to us?

For her part, McLagan reminds us that testimony is a production and even a performance; she focuses on how media work to generate and deliver testimony in a transnational context. Her discussion of the various strategies used to present this material, including the new technologies of the Internet, dramatically reveals how media and mediatized genres shape testimony. In particular, she attends to the affective dimensions of media, the emotional tactics they use to reach an audience. Importantly, she also shows us how these emotional tactics sometimes backfire and produce overwhelming inertia, even boredom. Cubilié corroborates this point in her alertness to whether and how testimony intervenes. Nevertheless, Cubilié remains respectful of the Afghani women she spoke to and of their desire to communicate their stories even when they could not be assured what kind of witnessing response their testimonies might garner on the "other" side.

This uncertainty or unpredictability of response, which both Cubilié and McLagan draw our attention to, also complicates what it means to read and respond to Ayress's personal testimony in its apparent immediacy. Even as her audience was moved to its feet by her testimony that day at the panel, applause is not the same thing as coming to witness what you were never there to know. Bearing witness asks us, as both tellers and hearers, to be responsible before an other whose experiences we can never fully share.

Documenting AIDS Activism

Although AIDS is now generally recognized as a global problem, this has not always been the case. Its early associations with gay male sexual practices meant that AIDS was a trauma for some communities and wholly unrecognized by others. Drawing on her own extensive work in this area, as both an activist and writer, Cvetkovich counsels us to be wary of constructions of national trauma for the ways dominant narratives too often leave out experiences at, and of, the margins. It is necessary, then, to turn to alternative archives for what they have to say about lives lived and feelings felt outside the purview of the "general public." In her essay, in which she makes use of oral history, Cvetkovich is especially interested to consider AIDS activism as a kind of archive, rich in public sentiments; she considers how emotion was combined with activism and mourning, with militancy (to invoke the much cited formulation of critic and activist Douglas Crimp).

Like Cvetkovich, Roger Hallas too is interested in developing alternative ways of documenting AIDS; his analysis of AIDS activists' avant-garde media strategies also expands our sense of testimony's visual scene/seen. In their multi-media contribution to this section, longtime AIDS activists and media artists Jane Rosett and Jean Carlomusto present a "living archive." Not a contradiction in terms, "living archive" rather points to the way the past continues to live - "flash up," as Walter Benjamin might say - in and for the present. This flashing up allows new sites for public sentiments to emerge.

Performance Works

In the second half of this special issue we turn more explicitly to the matter of performance, asking how performances, both on-stage and off, might help to generate different kinds of publics. This division into halves ought not suggest an impenetrable divide, however. It is rather a matter of leading and trailing edges. In any case, and as will become clear below, the essays in "Performance Works" intersect in sometimes surprising ways with the issues of testimony and documentation first raised in "Archives of Trauma."

To testify about trauma is a form of giving witness to it; but, such acts of witness demand also a witnessing act or agency on the other side. Importantly, this audience of witness does not come ready-made, but is actually forged in the "space of performance," as speaker meets, or seeks to meet, hearer. The space between telling and hearing is not pre-ordained; testimony, like other performative speech acts, may miss its target or hit elsewhere than hoped, for better and for worse. This question - what it means to bear witness - has especial resonance in the context of theatre and performance; it also joins the two halves of "Public Sentiments."

As Pellegrini reminds us in a forthcoming essay,[11] the association between theatre and witnessing is a long-standing one; the English word "theatre" comes from the ancient Greek verb theáomai, meaning "to view, gaze at, behold." "Behold" is perhaps the best translation of this deponent verb, for it preserves the self-reflexivity otherwise lost to translation. As a deponent verb, theáomai has no active form, but is used in the middle voice to communicate the active sense of viewing (as opposed to being viewed). The middle voice, though, reverberates with the promise (and risk?) of a double movement: out into the world and back onto the self. Theatre, when it works, is the activity of witness - an activity that takes place, as it were, on both sides of the stage. The challenge to spectators is not just to sit and watch a play or other performance, as if it were some passive object to be quickly consumed and forgotten; rather, spectators, if they are also to be witnesses, are in some fundamental sense taken in and transformed by what it is they watch. This is more than empathic identification. Witnessing as beholding requires an open-ness to the surprise of the other - and of the self. This is among the reasons that theatre and performance more broadly offer such potent sites for representing and even working through trauma.

The category of performance not only captures activities explicitly marked as theatrical, such as the work of Anna Deavere Smith and Sarah Jones highlighted here, but also refers to such purposive activities as testimony and everyday expressions of affect. In the documentary theatre work of Deavere Smith, Jones, and Steven Reisner, all of whom, albeit in different ways, use testimony and oral history as the basis for performance, the line between performance, in the expanded sense described above, and theatre "properly speaking" blurs, if it does not disappear altogether. What is the difference between Anna Deavere Smith's or Sarah Jones's re-presentation of the words of others, and Nieves Ayress's scripted performance of her own words (which, in the case of the plenary, were actually delivered in English by a translator)? In each case, the words of "real people" are performed for an audience, with the intention of soliciting response. And each performance also involves editing.

Is it a matter, then, of mediated versus unmediated speech? Although Deavere Smith and Jones perform verbatim the words spoken to them by others, they are not and can never be the people who first spoke those words to them. They repeat the real but are not the real itself. A few things to be said here. First, for many of those listening to Ayress's testimony "live," their access to her words was mediated through the mouth and body of another, the translator, a situation that certainly undercuts claims to immediacy. (Of course, those who couldn't understand Ayress's Spanish words might still have been listening to her affect as it was expressed in her tones and gestures.) But even for Spanish speakers, is it really the case that their access to Ayress's testimony was unmediated? To assent to such a view of the matter requires assenting as well to a notion of memory, the ground of testimony, as unmediated, immediate, transparent - in other words, a kind of instant and untroubled recall.

Nor is this a problem only for traumatic memories, although the situation may be more acute in such instances. The process of remembering and retelling is always selective, necessarily partial. We could retell the most banal of stories - our first driving lesson, say, or what we did last weekend and with whom - in any number of ways, with varying emphases and exclamation points, including and excluding details depending upon the audience, the time allowed, the energy required, the imagination available.

Perhaps the distinction to be drawn between the two types of testimonial performance we are describing has to do with affect's historical burden, up to and including its burden on and for the body. In saying this, we do not deny the emotional power of documentary theatre. Far from it. One of the achievements of documentary theatre - and other kinds of theatre as well - is that it can make "real life" seem more real and up the emotional stakes of the everyday. So, in pointing to an affective difference between these forms of testimony, we are speaking about something more intangible. But it goes something like this: Were Anna Deavere Smith or Sarah Jones to perform Nieves Ayress's testimony, however virtuoso the performance, the words would not be freighted, nor floated, with the same affective burdens or bodily history. However, it is precisely because of this difference that documentary theatre is able to perform important kinds of affective work. For example, it can spare the trauma survivor the grueling necessity of repeating the same story over and over by shifting the burden onto the performer (although mediated documentary forms such as the films and videos Meg McLagan discusses do this as well), and it can also enable the audience to move beyond the silent awe or standing ovation that sometimes seems the only appropriate response to more direct forms of live testimony. The mutual influences of testimony and performance have been highly productive, and it would be a mistake to privilege one over the other as a more effective form of public sentiment.

Audience Making: Affect and Effect

Both Sarah Jones and Anna Deavere Smith are interested to make an audience into something more. Their documentary theatre, then, aims at more than entertainment; more even than faithfully representing those too often left out of view. The performance work of Jones and Deavere Smith rather - or also - aims to press the audience to see itself anew. In the post-performance discussion between Jones and theatre critic Jonathan Kalb, the two discuss the possibility that the dramatic arts might help to incite new forms of social consciousness and, from there, social activism. This utopian dare, that theatre might help to reimagine and remake the world, is the focus also of much of the discussion between Deavere Smith and Pellegrini.[12]

Deavere Smith's and Jones's work suggests that performance based on testimony may be an especially powerful medium for exploring racialized experience and racialized conflict. Their power to mime other people's words and gestures is particularly dazzling because they cross racial lines in order to inhabit other lives, staging a kind of dialogue on race within their own bodies. Their work suggests the power of theatre to serve as the vehicle for the creation of a public dialogue around race that has been completely lacking in the media, which have too often produced only sensationalizing representations of the topics, such as migration and racialized violence, that Deavere Smith and Jones tackle. Indeed, the post-performance conversations with these performers that are included here are as much a part of their work as the performance itself, providing an opportunity for audiences to discuss the implications of their performance, including its emotional effects.

World Making: Performance and Cultural Formation

If theatre is capable of moving an audience to its feet (whether in applause or horror) and launching new social worlds, this derives in large part from theatre's ability to stir the emotions. (This ability is also among the reasons that anti-theatrical prejudice has outlived both Plato and the Puritans.) Live performance is emotionally demanding, and in a way that other cultural forms are not. What do we mean by this? Arguably, theatrical emotion pulls on the body in a way that other entertainment forms do not. One of the things that distinguishes theatre from other representational media is its liveness and its embodied-ness - not just the bodies of the actors, but also the bodies of the audience, usually seated, usually in the dark, often in cramped seats in an over-cooled or over-heated space as they watch a story unfold. Theatre and other live performance demand a kind of bodily attentiveness that watching a television show at home or even sitting in the movie theater watching a film (super-sized popcorn in hand!) do not. We might call this the "theatre-ness" of theatre - live bodies, on both sides of this stage, sharing time and space - and what it generates eludes easy documentation: the actor missing his or her line; the audience delighting at this slight error, which not only marks the performance as live but will also distinguish this performance from tomorrow's of the same play. The liveness of live performance means that it never returns (as) the same.

Paradoxically, this ephemerality and the impossibility of a self-identical return seem to heighten theatre's power to give flesh to collective and individual histories as it brings them back to life, if only for the length of the performance. As one of us has suggested (in "Before A Live Audience"), this is theatre as re-living. One consequence of this is that theatre can provide a relatively safe, because bounded, space in which to explore and play out cultural responses to trauma. In a provocative meditation on the trauma/drama connection, theatre artist and psychoanalyst Steven Reisner argues here that theatre can be a way to make the process of memory that is so integral to public acknowledgement of trauma more active - more agentic - such that people are not just left with feelings of loss and passivity.

It is important, though, not to romanticize liveness as such. As Saidiya Hartman and José Esteban Muñoz have both cautioned, liveness can also be a burden - from the "command performances" of the slave auction to the contemporary demand that, as Muñoz puts it, "the minoritarian subject" perform "his or her alterity as a consumable local spectacle" (Disidentifications, 182). These cautionary notes are not reasons to abandon live performance as such, even as we do well to remark, with Muñoz, not just the unequal "burden of the live" but also the unequal access to larger venues and channels of representation.

This unequal access is among the reasons the small performance space remains so vital to "subcultural" life. The affect-production experienced in theatre's shared space and time potentially offers conditions of emergence, as well as ongoing creative sustenance, for individuals and communities at the margins of the dominant public sphere.[13] The essays by Steven Reisner, Rachel Lee, Daphne Lei, Judith Halberstam, and Janelle Reinelt help us see theatre, and live performance more generally, as rich and richly embodied occasions for generating and documenting alternative forms of social life and collective belonging. Theatre's talking cure (Reisner), Margaret Cho's transgressive stand-up (Lee), the queer stylings of dyke subculture (Halberstam), feminist theatre and performance (Reinelt), and Cantonese opera in diaspora (Lei): all of these theatrical idioms use the space of culture to present other ideas and feelings. Together, these essays powerfully illuminate how theatre and performance can work to produce publics and sentiments eccentric to the national.

Feeling Public

Emotional life, in its public dimension, is not only and always about excess and the exceptional. Indeed, as the final cluster of essays makes clear, "excess" and the "exceptional" hardly do justice to what it means to talk about and conceptualize, let alone experience, "the traumatic." Nor are traumatic feelings necessarily "extreme." This final cluster of essays seeks to document the feelings that are part of everyday life; in so doing, the writing frequently becomes experimental, even "performative."[14] As Kathleen Stewart suggests, when the distinctions between private and public have grown confused, tracking the current cultural conditions requires crafting a language for the "perfectly ordinary life," with its dream of everyday happiness. Rebecca Schneider seeks to counter another kind of dream, the patriarch's. Her documentation of the detail militates against the monumental "feel" of certain kinds of public memory. Writing against the monument and the urge to monumentalize, as Schneider is doing, is a writing towards different ways of remembering and grieving 9/11, towards forms of recollected life that do not entomb past, present, and future alike in pious fealty to fatherland.

In the U.S. context, "race" and racism have been central to the forging of national identity. Sharon Holland's essay articulates the quotidian moments through which racism remains active, part of a long legacy that includes the more overt traumas of slavery, lynching, and violent repression. (Indeed, Holland's essay serves as an extension of Saidiya Hartman's remarks on the original plenary session.) She explores the contradictions of being both African-American and middle-class professional, revealing how the privileges of class and education are more likely to expose her to than protect her from all too ordinary instances of racism that are, if not traumatic, then certainly crazy-making. Like Patricia J. Williams, a legal scholar, and Phillip Brian Harper, a fellow literary critic, Holland must break with the norms of professional writing and turn to personal anecdote in order to capture what Harper calls "the evidence of felt intuition." As he puts it, "I would argue that minority existence itself induces such speculative rumination, because it continually renders even the most routine instances of social activity and personal interaction as possible cases of invidious social distinction or discriminatory treatment" (643).

Jason Tougaw's and Alyssa Harad's essays on pedagogy form an important component of this final section, speaking back to questions of trauma raised in the first section. Rather than seeing trauma as something that effectively brings teaching to a halt, Tougaw and Harad both emphasize the everyday encounter as part of pedagogy, whether they are teaching 9/11 or teaching a particularly challenging film such as Requiem for a Dream. Their analyses of trauma and pedagogy have been influenced by Shoshana Felman's work on teaching Holocaust testimony, but they resist Felman's notion of crisis as they search for ways in which trauma intrudes upon and is spoken in the everyday world of the classroom. Moreover, their essays remind all of us that teaching is a kind of performance, a transaction between teacher and students in which students seek to record their own affective experiences and link them with world events. Although the public space of the classroom may seem like a strange arena in which to share intimate experience, in fact, it offers a too-rare site for exchange across difference. Also important here is the documentation of that classroom work as one way we can learn more about the public nature of feelings.

Finally, Kathleen Stewart's lyrical approach to documenting the emotions and sensations that are part of everyday life turns the ordinary into something strange and thus renders it visible or public. She suggests that the consumer desires and dreams of domestic happiness that are held out as safety and refuge from the anxieties of geopolitical turmoil need to be understood as part of public, not private, life. For Stewart, affects are often too contradictory to be linked in any predictable way to an agenda for social transformation, and her persistence in tracking affect's subtleties and ambivalences helps to generate a new archive of public sentiments.

The public sentiments articulated in this concluding section may seem far more "ordinary," far less traumatic or spectacular than those discussed elsewhere; they may even seem, well, "anti-climactic." But that is precisely our point. Although September 11 is still present, for example, in Schneider's, Harad's, and Stewart's essays, it is displaced and contextualized by being put in relation to other events and locations, especially those in which we conduct our daily lives - the restaurant, the classroom, the grocery store parking lot, the home. As Stewart frames the issue, "When the planes crashed into the world trade center they said everything had changed. But to her it seemed more like something had snapped into place that had been building for a long time. And things would snap out of it too. It wasn't like shock was anything new."

Open Endings: Towards Hope

Throughout this special issue, we - an enlarged "we" of writers and readers - have been challenged to consider how and to what ends a given performance of feeling might move a public to action. But, what action exactly? As the essays here argue, and as recent history cautions, the "same" emotion - mourning, for example - may be mobilized to democratic and anti-democratic ends. So, what forms of performance and action, including theatrical performance and action, are appropriate to projects of social justice and democratic inclusion? Certainly, this special issue offers hopeful glimpses of theatre and performance as sites of public sentiments and as projects of social justice. But, the hopefulness many of the contributors evince about the possibility of connecting public sentiments to social justice does not blind us to the many ways emotion has been, and continues to be, harnessed to state violence. The essays gathered here are not the last word on any of these issues, but are offered as a spark to what we hope will be a more general project of exploring public sentiments, of bringing affect into discussions of social and cultural phenomena, and, perhaps, just perhaps, of forging alternative possibilities, for emotional as for public life.


1. For more on the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, see Berlant and Duggan. [Return to text]

2. News outlets, on both sides of the Atlantic, have also taken to referring to "the war on terror." To take just one example: as this introduction was being completed, was featuring a special report entitled "War on Terror." [Return to text]

3. For more on national affect and public feeling, see Berlant's The Queen of America Goes to Washington City and "The Subject of True Feeling." Berlant's work in this area has been an inspiration for this project as a whole. And for another interesting approach to affect as a national category, see José Esteban Muñoz's developing work on Latino identity as an affective category in "Feeling Brown." [Return to text]

4. For an excellent overview of the separate spheres debate and a call to move beyond this model, see Cathy N. Davidson, No More Separate Spheres!. [Return to text]

5. The scholarship on feminism, sentimentality, and slavery is vast, but a representative survey of important contributions would include Ann Douglas's much critiqued dismissal of sentimentality and mass culture; Jane Tompkins's reevaluation of "sentimental power" in Uncle Tom's Cabin; Karen Sánchez-Eppler's discussion of the relation between abolition and feminism; Hortense Spillers's and Saidiya Hartman's writing on slave narrative; Shirley Samuels' edited collection on sentimental culture; Avery Gordon's discussion of ghosts and haunting in Beloved; Lora Romero's incisive observations about the impasse between subversion and containment in assessments of sentimentality; Linda Williams's history of race and melodrama in U.S. culture; Lauren Berlant's ambitious overview of sentimental culture (in "Poor Eliza"). [Return to text]

6. For rich discussions of the stake of designating an event as "genocide," see Nichanian, and Kazanjian and Nichanian. [Return to text]

7. Cathy Caruth and Felman and Laub have become virtually canonical in constituting a field of trauma studies. Other important texts in this area include Allan Young's historical overview and Ruth Leys's genealogical history, as well as Judith Herman's feminist approach. While this work is undeniably significant, it often remains tied to the Holocaust as event, and psychoanalysis as methodology. We would like to propose other sites of thinking about trauma that don't necessarily name it as such; especially important is work on race such as that by Spillers, Gordon, Hartman, Holland, and Eng and Kazanjian. For more on this issue, see Cvetkovich. [Return to text]

8. For provocative discussions - and critiques - of the project of collecting testimony in the South African context, see Mark Sanders and Yvette Christiansë in Eng and Kazanjian. [Return to text]

9. For more on this issue, see Cvetkovich. [Return to text]

10. See Cvetkovich's discussion of this in Greenberg. [Return to text]

11. Ann Pellegrini, "Staging Sexual Injury: How I Learned to Drive," in Reinelt and Roach. Much of this paragraph is directly quoted from that essay. [Return to text]

12. In an important essay on theatre and utopia, feminist theatre studies scholar Jill Dolan has suggested that theatre's affective power is central to what she calls a "utopian performative." Dolan writes: "I believe that theater and performance can articulate a common future, one that's more just and equitable, one in which we can participate more equally, with more chances to live fully and contribute to the making of culture. I'd like to argue that such desire to be part of the intense present of performance offers us, if not expressly political then usefully emotional, expressions of what utopia might feel like" (455-56). [Return to text]

13. For more on this point, see José Esteban Muñoz, Disidentifications. [Return to text]

14. On performative writing, see Phelan and Serematakis. [Return to text]

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