Feeling Thinking

Here’s James Baldwin:

I knew about the south, of course, and about how southerners treated Negroes and how they expected them to behave, but it had never entered my mind that anyone would look at me and expect me to behave that way. I learned in New Jersey that to be a Negro meant, precisely, that one was never looked at but was simply at the mercy of the reflexes the color of one’s skin caused in other people. I acted in New Jersey as I had always acted, that is, as though I thought a great deal of myself – I had to act that way – with results that were, simply, unbelievable. (“Notes of a Native Son”)

Baldwin’s “I” is rarely confessional, if by confessional we mean emotionally expressive or tending toward the sentimental. Most often, he writes as a recorder: “I went,” “I did,” “I experienced,” “I said.” Or else he writes about “the Negro” as an ethnographer. He wants to see what description will do, a description that will go beyond “statistics” but will not rely on the easy training-into-emotion that saturates U.S. life.

He knows—and I learn from him—the risk of the “I,” though I wonder to what extent the “I” that he will not risk is masculinized. It is not that an “I” is never risked; instead, that “I” is very controlled, very measured, even at its most condemning or exhorting.
Men avoid women’s observations by accusing us of being too “visceral.”
– Audre Lorde, “Sexism: An American Disease in Blackface”

I have wondered what it means to risk “feeling thinking” (my debt to Sedgwick’s “touching feeling” is evident). Is thinking allowed to feel and is feeling allowed to think? Or, rather, how does feeling think and how might the thinking of feeling compel us to reassess what we mean by, and value as, thinking?

Gender cannot be absent here: what kind of feeling is understood as thinking and how is it valued depending on one’s embodiment? Is feeling recognized as thinking when issued from male-embodiment in a way that is denied to female-embodiment? Also, what kind of feeling counts as thinking and how is this tied to gender?

As Lorde reminds me, women who risk feeling thinking tend to be devalued while men who risk feeling thinking might get a hearing. The man who cries or shouts merits thinking, the story goes, because such feeling has weight, consequence, meaning. Women who cry or shout are understood to be expressing gender “properly.” Critique cannot take the form of feeling thinking. Or, rather, critique that takes the form of feeling thinking risks being dismissed depending on one’s gender.
Literature 101 teaches that we cannot control the stories we tell, and perhaps least of all when those stories circulate. To write is to risk ceding all control over one’s story. It is no longer one’s story. It becomes available for other uses. But those uses have histories.

I have been thinking and writing about form, power, and affect for some time. I think a lot about formal strategies, about how the “I” functions, about the shape and nature of language, about how emotion circulates, about how it attaches to certain bodies and not to others. I have written quite a bit about race and feeling, about black disposability and the desire for black anger or black sadness. And, at the end of the day, I consider myself a theorist, someone who risks thinking. And, increasingly, someone who risks feeling thinking.

Fanon teaches me that minoritization functions by transforming feeling thinking into feeling. Feminism teaches me this lesson as well. The angry or sad or joyful or despairing or ecstatic minority is abstracted from the world, understood as an object of, variously, fear, resentment, compassion, sympathy, or pleasure. And, at least in the U.S., habits cultivated since at least Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin kick in.

Yesterday, while on campus, a white woman I’ve never spoken to had finally learned how to see me, with such overwhelming compassion that I felt sure another Uncle Tom’s Cabin was being composed. Because now I can be safely classified as “damaged.” There was a story. Or rather, a genre had made itself available. It’s intriguing to see oneself being placed within a genre.
No math can ever begin to imagine or approximate the ongoing damage of racism. It is the U.S. condition. It is the subtext for school closings in Chicago, immigration discussions in Congress, internet memes, and profit-driven ecocide in the U.S. and abroad. And its effects are amplified across all spheres: the lesson of black disposability is that all other minoritized lives are equally disposable. To be minoritized is to be disposable.

To experience oneself as minoritized is to work within and against that disposability, whether through claiming respectability or staging a revolution. In either case, this is hard, tiring work that takes place against ongoing damage registered as exhaustion (at the end of the workday) or relief (when with friends and family). I am interested in the ongoing psychic work of living with racism and minoritization. In what “registers” in ways we are often unable to name or believe we have managed not to see. But ways that cut across and cut deep.
Feeling thinking risks being dismissed as “complaint” or “noise”: “you people are always complaining,” the refrain goes. Or, in the register I now seem to be in, “I’m so sorry you are so damaged,” the sympathy goes. A sympathy that sees a single object, rather than what Lorde terms the “histories rallied against us.”

The risk of the feeling thinking “I” is that it will always be taken as singular, unusual, rather than multiple, representative. One is praised for the eloquence of collective pain and wonders how one was isolated from the group. One attempts feeling thinking and is apprehended as damaged feeling.

One thought on “Feeling Thinking

  1. “Or, in the register I now seem to be in, “I’m so sorry you are so damaged,” the sympathy goes. A sympathy that sees a single object, rather than what Lorde terms the “histories rallied against us.””

    Yes. Thank you for this. I feel compelled to add some version of “and I am not an anomaly, damnit!” to most of what I say.

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