Language and the Poetics of Emotions


How do language and communicative practices shape emotional experience? What are emotions, and how can we study them ethnographically? How do our everyday ways of interacting create emotional meaning? This course focuses on the role of language and communicative dynamics in mediating and shaping emotional experience. Since the early 1990s, influential works in linguistic and cultural anthropology have questioned universalizing views of emotion, advocating the idea that emotions are linguistic and sociocultural constructs grounded in historical and local specific contexts. These studies have challenged approaches to emotions based on binary oppositions (i.e., mind versus body and emotion versus reason) as reflected, for example, in popular and scholarly tendencies of associating emotions with stereotypical images of femininity seen in opposition and hierarchical relations to reason (or rationality). Another line of research has explored the co-articulation between the linguistic expression of emotions and the process of subject formation, highlighting how certain ways of speaking may generate or challenge moral dispositions, domains of experience, and structures of feelings. Throughout the semester, students will engage a series of ethnographic case studies aimed at exploring the nexus of language, emotions, and everyday cultural practices. This course will explore the linguistic constitution of emotional experience and subjectivity, ranging from the relation between ideologies of gender and linguistic styles of affective expression in the Pacific to the intersection of romantic love, marriage practices, and the development of literacy in Nepal; from the connection between emotional ethos and styles of religious devotion in Indonesia and Mexico to the poetic expressions of resistance in Egypt and Nigeria; and from the analysis of the emotion in doctor/patient interactions to the study of dynamics of popularity and exclusion among American teenagers. Our aim will be to explore the linguistic poetics of emotions and the cultural politics of affect to expand our understanding of the significance of language in shaping our world.