Notes on: Zembylas, M. (2008) 'Trauma, justice and the politics of emotion: the violence of sentimentality in education'.  Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 29 (1): 1-17.

Dave Harris

Sentiment arises when a generalised stance towards trauma is taken, 'grounded on empty apathy and unfounded optimism while giving the illusion of a just response'(1).  We need a more critical stance to 'subvert sentimental responses to trauma narratives'.  Trauma has been used in education in order to try to develop the moral principles opposing violence and injustice, but where do these moral principles intersect with rhetorical trauma narratives?  Trauma is normally seen as something painful and individual, which is hard to share, so how can public and collective responses be generated?  Various narratives and testimonials might be developed to communicate the pain, and this is often justified as an introduction to the development of controversial issues like war, racism or terrorism.  Some sharing of the pain of others might be possible, and so might significant learning about politics and critique.

On the other hand, there is a danger that the trauma might be 'fetishized', becoming self repeating and habituated, banal [or turned into a spectacle or a heritage site].  In any event, dealing with trauma and suffering 'does not necessarily lead to any transformation, and over exposure to collective traumas 'can circulate a continuous and displeasing negativity' (2) [not to mention compassion fatigue and posture cramp].  A sentimental response might also be possible, where students fear being seen is immoral by refusing to respond [I would have called this denial or some other technique of neutralisation].  Sometimes there will be resentment by those who feel subordinated, leading to a victim politics.  There can also be desensitization, where trauma is managed and reduced to 'a few pedantic phrases'.  There can even be 'national sentimentality' [quoting Berlant], a liberal argument that the whole nation can empathise [maybe with other whole nations or ethnic groups?].  The danger is that the underlying economic and political subordination responsible for suffering may be ignored or even reinforce, and that those who suffer can be seen as victims requiring empathy  from others.  Nor does empathy alleviate [structured] suffering: it needs to be turned into actual policies.

These adverse reactions need not always happen, of course, but sentimentality has become widespread as a tool to promote moral character.  Memorial practices often take on a particularly intense character, for example celebration of military victories.  Solidarity can be evoked, but there is a danger of routinization and misrecognition of social and economic reality [not to mention grief tourism].  It would also be unwise to take feelings as evidence of justice or injustice.

Human emotions have been seen as containing many components, offering a universal human potential, but as displaying actual forms which take place in particular social and cultural settings.  There is also a lot of work on emotions as 'qualities of action'(3), not confined to just the mind, or having a collective as well as an individual dimension.  The words used to express emotions can therefore become actions or even 'ideological practices' [Zembylas always seems to take the pessimistic option].  Persons are always enmeshed in webs of power relations.  The ‘emotional practices'  vary according to context, so we must avoid 'an absolutist metaphysics'(4).  Emotional reactions should therefore be classified, and [only] those that end in demands for justice supported.

Is a proper response to injustice always about feeling the right emotions?  [Ahmed is cited quite a lot in this discussion].  We cannot reduce injustice to feeling bad, with emotions as some sort of criterion to judge what is right or wrong, and anyway, feelings are too interior.  Instead we should see emotions as indicators of moral beliefs, not moral beliefs themselves.  There is even some research on child development saying that children understand moral principles but do not necessarily attach moral sentiments to them, at least until they are 10 years old.  Again this stresses cultural diversity.  It is necessary, perhaps to challenge the emotions associated with social norms that produce injustice and trauma.  We can also see injustice as a 'failure to connect with others and respond to their suffering', although it is more than just that [!]: nevertheless, there is a connection with norms and their supporting 'affective economies'[the theme of some of the other work]. We also have to be careful about selecting those with whom we wish to feel solidarity, some who are 'grievable' in Ahmed's phrase.  This can celebrate 'the sentimentalization of loss', which Zembylas finds 'deeply troubling'.  Sometimes we even make judgements about acts depending on how much suffering they cause, or how much disgust in us they produce.  The challenge instead is to let victims and perpetrators speak about the past and come towards a suitable way of living together.  This requires not some universal position, but a constant interrogation of events.  Proper recognition of difference makes absolute criteria impossible, and this will lead students to 'experience the ambivalence of inhabiting various positions of justice' [what a very formal and abstract aim—post structuralist relativism prevents any other, I suppose].  Analysis of 'ethical and political technologies belonging to a situation' should dominate, and individual responses seen as collective ones, responses to specific conditions. 

Nevertheless, emotions, collective and public 'affective interventions', can lead to critical analysis and new understandings. Trauma is a response to an overwhelming event which cannot always be assimilated by the personal experiences it at the time, their extreme emotions arising later can prove difficult [and beyond control].  It is common to find that nation states deal with events using 'various rhetoric mechanisms'to produce collective memories, but there is  always a tension with personal grief.  We have to avoid the view that victim pain is always the same, since power relations are embedded in them.  Foucault is the inspiration here, in his work on the construction of the self: it follows that no unified self exclusively owns the trauma.  We can see the effect of social relations by considering how individual trauma is perceived by others, and how survivors are treated, for example allowed to tell their story.  Politicians often select individual cases to strengthen collective narratives, but this could be seen as manipulation, preserving power for leaders, alternatively, individual emotion needs to be put into words by leaders if policies are to result.  There is a tradition of suspecting that schools are complicit in instilling dominant ideology [fancy!  Apple and Giroux are cited] there is always a danger that the experience of the other will be subsumed within a rhetoric, and rhetoricians should act responsibly, including refusing to universalize or sentimentalise [so politics involves appealing to leaders?  Not demanding a voice for victims after all?].  Even so, some pain can never be understood by others—the pain of slavery by white middle class readers, for example.  Being moved by rhetoric returns us to a private world.

The politics of trauma should bear in mind its complexity, when teaching students.  It is not always helpful in conflict resolution [strange example, where traumatised students in a minority political group should not be told that their cause is wrong—soggy relativism again.  Would we be prepared to tell paedophiles who have been attacked the same thing?].  It should address structural issues.  It can become a form of the fetishized identity politics in subaltern politics—'the investment of subordinated subjects in the wound' (8)—which dominates identity.  Political movements which constantly emphasize it 'hold no promise of redemption'.  However, there is a conservative retort that says we should never examine past events.  Instead, we should try to explain how trauma narratives emerge and are taken up, avoiding paternalistic responses [and those awful, grovelling, insincere politicians' apologies]: again we need to take the abstract route into seeing 'the different ways in which suffering is politicised'.

Trauma can be turned into a spectacle, and pain into a commodity, especially addressing the market for sentimentality. [There is a hint that a blasé response can be a way of defending oneself from constant bombardment of trauma narratives].  There has been a widespread 'emotionalization of public discourse'[the therapy culture?], and now, maybe,  a 'post emotional society', where people can pick and choose their prepackaged emotions.  The media now  intervene between the public and the victims, and also express  suitable responses.  There has been a '"McDonaldization of emotions"'[9, quoting Mestrovic].  People become 'moral spectators' as a result of sentimentalism mixed with guilt and pity.  A new kind of total niceness, tolerance and charm can emerge, as experts model sentimental attachment into particular meanings of injustice.

There can also be a reaction from victims—resentment, based on ressentiment in Nietzsche. This can produce revenge as the only form of action [or a religion of the weak].  It is clearly linked to the politics of the wound.  However, some subalterns might be able to develop new 'forms of subjecthood' [in what circumstances though?].  However, the danger of consuming sentimental narratives is ever present.  Spectators become irritated by what they see, but also 'unwilling to engage with the implications'.  This desensitization is both morally and politically bankrupt.

 Clearly, educators have to be careful with trauma narratives, especially if they induce sentimental resentful feelings, or 'fetishization of the wound' (10), or a feeling of powerlessness in the face of history.  Repetition is particularly dangerous, and can defeat energy.  At the same time, a space for interruption can be created.  We need to develop the right sort of textbooks, media and school curricula.  There is a danger of saturation and commodification, so educational use is crucial.  Trauma narratives should not always be read as 'forms of entitlement' and false universalization must be avoided [the example is Ahmed's --treating white male injury as the same as subaltern injury].  At the same time, there is a danger of privileging one trauma over another, raising issues about how we choose especially in school settings.  We should not reify. 

We should challenge all 'boundaries between categories' and 'witness the heterogeneity of trauma narratives', for example by considering issues that often appear as polar opposites—'forgetting - remembering, universal - particular, public - private'(11) [focus on the form again].

 Much has been done by feminists anti racists and post colonialists, and other work suggesting that we need to think about how emotions are understood [mostly his own stuff, some with Boler].  This does not diminish trauma, but stops it from becoming sentimental, and falsely universal.  Trauma narratives are unavoidably political.  Trauma stories must be heard, but 'empty empathy' avoided [Kaplan], and this is not easy.  Teachers and students need to 'learn to hear what is painful', and not to see it as either purely individual or universal.  We need to respond to pain 'as witnesses and not as spectators'.  Emotional attachments are often managed by resorting to rational argument or sentiment.  Guilt is denied by exempting one's self from history.  Some students reinforce their existing identities, some get overwhelmed and depressed.  Reactions of pity or resentment are common, and so is desensitization.

 What is required is a pedagogy of discomfort, or pedagogy of suffering [Martusewicz's term] to deal with students struggles.  It might even be necessary to insist that 'Trauma is treated as ideology, not as knowledge that causes discomfort' (12) [presumably this means not treated as commonsense knowledge?].  Exploring trauma narratives should be seen as a call for action, 'a demand for critical emotional praxis'—grounded in historical and political understanding of the role of emotions and power; involving questioning 'emotionally charged cherished beliefs' and the privileged positions and comfort zones they inform; energising different ways of being with or for the other.  One topic will be to consider how emotions help separate us from them, legitimate from illegitimate lives.  Another will be to see how the issues of power and privilege relate to selecting particular emotional responses, or applying them only to some groups and not others.

 Educators and students must examine their own beliefs and comfort zones and ways of seeing and acting.  They must see how emotions affect the selection of perceptions, how compassion can produce ‘discomfort for one's privilege' (13).  Practitioners must not avoid Boler's 'emotional landmines', and develop analytic skills to examine the results of unjust practices and how they produce ideological feelings.  Practice must be adjusted to particular school settings and contexts.  It is not enough to develop empathy or a compassionate climate in the classroom: the 'bigger issues' often escape.  Persistent and creative efforts can produce constructive emotional connections between students and teachers, however [the reference is to his own work and to material by Berlak]: this is not just about 'feeling the other’s trauma', however but developing 'a knowledge about other’s trauma'.  [Isn't this what Foucault meant by the shaping of the self in psychotherapy, with cold unemotional analysts urging sufferers to read described the symptoms?]

 Sentimentality, resentment and desensitization are forms of violence [and forcing an abstract discussion of trauma in the name of critical pedagogy is symbolic violence].  Banality must be avoided.  The politics of trauma must be investigated, including the dangers of rhetoric, sentiment, empty empathy, unfounded optimism, and a universal response.  Excessive particularity is also harmful.  Sentiment can produce 'the sense of "good feeling"' (14), but this must be risked in order to fully explain structural violence and to develop adequate pedagogy, including 'renewed political vocabularies of justice'.  Teachers and students should 'constantly reinvent new ways of becoming critical witnesses of trauma narratives'.

References include:

Ahmed, S.  (2004) The cultural politics of emotion.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Boler, M.  (Ed.) (2004) Democratic dialogue in education: troubling speech, disturbing silence.  New York: Peter Lang [contains Berlak]

Martusewicz, R. (2001).  Seeking passage.  New York: Teachers College Press.

Mestrovic, S (1997).  Postemotional society.  London: Sage.

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