by Claire E. Scott (Grinnell College)
I don’t know about you, but over the last couple of years I have felt particularly emotional. As a scholar of German Studies currently working in the United States, I have watched with anger and sadness as political divisions escalate and populist movements rise. In our contemporary world there is a lot to be upset about and there is also, thankfully, a lot of love and support to be shared. Why does German Gender Studies matter right now? It matters because it gives us the language to process these emotions and better understand how their expression shapes our world.
In the field of German Studies we often work with fictional texts and therefore have to articulate the relevance of these cultural products to the “real world.” One of the foundational questions of Gender Studies is the relationship between the body and social identity. During her lecture at the 2019 Feminist Theory Workshop at Duke University, Lauren Berlant described a genre as an “affective convention.” Just like when someone tells joke, understanding genre expectations requires a certain degree of intimacy or reciprocity between teller and audience (Berlant). Following the work of psychologist Silvan Tomkins, affect refers to the way the body experiences emotion and how those experiences connect us to other people. Describing genre as an affective convention then, links cultural products both to individual and collective bodies. Storytelling, like gender, becomes something that matters in a corporeal sense as well as an intellectual one.
In Living a Feminist Life, Sara Ahmed writes that, “If sensation brings us to feminism, to become a feminist is to cause a sensation” (39). We sense that something is unjust, and we act on those feelings. What Women’s and Gender Studies ultimately teaches us to do is to turn emotions into activism. It gives us the tools for transforming our sensations into something sensational, something that generates attention and cannot be ignored. No matter where you are in the world, all you need to do is open a social media account in order to be reminded of the power of emotions. In an era of truthiness and fake news, we have seen feelings dramatically color our worldviews and damage our relationships with one another. However, we have also seen the rise of hashtag movements, which serve as contemporary examples of Ahmed’s feminist sensation. #blacklivesmatter, #metoo, and in the German context #aufschrei have all given voice to untold stories and bottled up emotions.
By linking these stories together, we are able to shed light on structural injustices that are built into the very fabric of our institutions. My individual experiences are always a part of structures bigger than me, and digital activism enables us to draw these connections on a global scale. As the German feminist activist Anne Wizorek writes in the book Weil ein #aufschrei nicht reicht, “Wir teilen nicht nur unsere Geschichten, sondern auch den Schmerz dahinter — genauso wie die Wut darüber, dass es uns immer wieder als ‘normal’ eingeredet wird, solche Dinge durchmachen zu müssen” (188). By compiling our stories and making an archive of our emotions, we are performing sensational feminist actions that have the power to change what is considered “normal.”
The danger here, however, is the one at which Wizorek’s title hints. Simply sharing our emotions may never be enough to create profound structural change. Emotions have been used to shut down just as many conversations as they have started, particularly conversations about intersectionality and race. All too often white fragility drowns out the stories of people of color because their experiences generate the same kind of discomfort for white women that the stories of #aufschrei and #metoo generate for men. This needs to change in order for the political potential of these sensational feminist movements to be fully realized.
Since emotions have stereotypically been classified as the domain of women (in contrast to masculine logic and reason), Women’s and Gender Studies has often led the way in terms of scholarship on emotion and affect. Now, perhaps more than ever, it is crucial that we participate in the process of analyzing and thinking deeply about our emotions and their consequences for our bodies and for our communities. If we want to transform German Studies and move away from violent, ethno-national understandings of German-ness, if we want to combat the enforcement of limiting gender categories in our society and in our language, then we need to drastically upend the status quo. This process will inevitably be an emotional one, which will require us to think long and hard about how we process our emotions through cultural products and ultimately, force us to rethink how we interact with one another.
Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Duke UP, 2017.
Berlant, Lauren. “Sex in the Event of Happiness.” Feminist Theory Workshop, 22 March 2019, Duke University, Durham, NC. Keynote Address.
Tomkins, Silvan S. Affect Imagery Consciousness: The Complete Edition. Springer, 2008.
Wizorek, Anne. Weil ein #aufschrei nicht reicht: für einen Feminismus von heute. Fischer, 2014.