This fall I’m teaching a course titled “Bad Feelings: The Literary Lives of Anger, Boredom, and Envy.” In my home department at UBC we offer an exciting series of comparative literature courses focusing on the literary traditions of Central, Eastern, and Northern Europe. “Bad Feelings” will be a course in this series. Students who enroll in the course either are students in one of our department’s degree programs or, which is generally the case, take the course to satisfy the humanities requirement at UBC. Because of the mix of students, it’s an exceptionally exciting course to teach: I get to introduce a couple of literary traditions and get to pick a topic through which we could explore select texts from those traditions.
I. Background: The Politics of Feeling
The terrain between private and public feeling is vast. It’s politics, as Sara Ahmed has shown, “work to align some subjects with some others and against other others.” Such an alignment process itself depends on the valuation of feelings: there are good and bad feelings. In one intellectual tradition (there are more!), feelings perceived to be productive in the shaping of community—i.e., aligning peoples and politics—emerge as good. Feelings perceived as destructive to community—i.e., derailing peoples and politics—emerge as bad. Good and bad feelings can be mobilized, instrumentalized. They can be used to just or unjust ends.
In the course, I hope to explore this political dimension of both private and public feelings. Consideration of the implications of what it means to feel what in which context and to what end will drive our interpretive journey. The course will focus on bad feelings: those emotional ranges deemed unproductive, destructive, unruly, antisocial. We will especially focus on how such valuation of select feelings emerges in which cultural context. How can boredom, for instance, serve both as a singularly productive affective state of mind and be attributed as the source for ill deeds? How is anger valuated differently for different people depending on gender, race, sexuality? What personal and social function does envy serve for what type of people?
To attend to these questions, we will read a variety of philosophical and theoretical texts. A special emphasis will be placed on scholarship in critical race and sexuality studies—two domains that have produced the most important scholarship on the politics of emotions—alongside scholarship on cultural studies. From Søren Kierkegaard, F.W. Nietzsche, and Audre Lorde, to Sue J. Kim, Sara Ahmed, Rebecca Solnit, and Peter Toohey, the goal is to present students the opportunity to survey a wide range of texts and genres for information about how feelings live different lives in different contexts and to different ends.
II. Literary Lives of Bad Feeling
In the first unit for the course, we will explore the cultural history of boredom. I’ve nurtured a special excitement for this topic, because it was initially my dissertation topic (before I changed it!). Following an introduction to the politics and history of emotion, as well as an introduction to the field of emotion studies, we will begin by reading excerpts of Peter Toohey’s exciting book on the history of boredom. From here, we will read and discuss Kierkegaard’s writing on ethics and boredom, and will consider the cultural history of idleness in the German context. Two short texts by Regine Ullmann and Martin Walser will serve as the literary introductions to boredom and modernity, before we end the unit discussing at length Theodor Fontane’s most famous treatment of boredom in his adultery novel Effi Briest.
The second unit of the course will focus on anger. We will begin the unit by reading about the politics of anger in the work of Lorde and Solnit. Kim’s excellent work will serve as a primer for cognitive cultural studies and the history of anger. The first literary text in this unit will be “Rumpelstiltskin” in the Brothers Grimm version. We will also consider the labor and racist politics of anger in Heinrich Heine’s poetry as well as Heinrich von Kleist’s “The Betrothal in St. Domingo,” which will prime our discussion of the ambiguities of motive in Annette von Droste-Hülshoff’s “The Jew’s Beech Tree.” The final text in the unit, which we will discuss at length, will focus on Lydia Zinovieva-Annibal’s fictionalized autobiography about extreme emotionality, The Tragic Menagerie.
The final unit of the course will focus on envy. We will begin this unit by reading Peter Toohey’s work on the subject (next to a book on boredom, he wrote one on envy, which worked out well for me and my course!). We will read about the ethical economy of envy by considering Sara Ahmed’s work on bad feelings alongside Nietzsche’s discussion of envy in On the Genealogy of Morality. The two cultural texts here: Georg Büchner’s Woyzeck and Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler. We will consider the aesthetic demands of stage works and the qualities of emotion affiliated with performance, audience, and reading culture.
III. Syllabus, Assessment
I’d be glad to share my syllabus and/or discuss the learning objectives for the course/units, as well as the assessment methods. One assignment I’m still refining and likely one I will not be able to implement in final/refined form into this course (but one I will nevertheless include) is to ask students to consider instances in their daily lives in which they encounter these politics of emotion we are studying in class and record them. Because I’m a tad old-school with regard to certain things, I wanted students to keep a journal. But another idea came to me from the great folx in the Diversity, Decolonization, and the German Curriculum (DDGC) Facebook group: to set up a social media space (a hashtag on Instagram or twitter) for the purpose. Another fab idea from the DDGC group was to not set the means by which I want students to record their findings but rather make the selection of the best means to record for such an assignment part of class discussion: students can generate their own ideas about how best to engage with this material outside of class. Still thinking this through and would love to hear what others are doing.
Ervin Malakaj, Ph.D.