Withstanding the Weather: Black Feminism & Cultural Politics of Unfeeling

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Dr Xine Yao will lecture on race and anti-sociality in affect studies, as part of Following The Affective Turn's Summer lecture series.

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Join us each month for lectures and events that 'follow the affective turn', as we hear from leading scholars working in and around the field of affect studies. To view our lecture series line-up and information about our summer symposium, click here.

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How might “I don’t care” operate as self-care and open up new forms of sociality precisely because of its antisociality? I propose “unfeeling” as the term towards a methodology that refuses the demand for the marginalized to prove their affective interiorities as evidence of their humanity. In my research I argue that racialized and queer unfeeling dissents from expectations of expressive and responsive affective labour according to sentimental biopolitics.

In doing so, I follow from queer of colour theorist Martin Manalansan IV’s figuration of disaffection in its causal, affective, and political senses. The negativity of “unfeeling” registers how minoritarian affects are occluded in the American culture of sentiment; instead, I take this demonization of affective tactics of survival and resistance as indicative of the insurgent potential of alternative structures of feeling.

The term '"unfeeling" intervenes in the inadequacies of affect theory to address race through the antisocial turn. I share how “unfeeling” brings together conversations about refusal and dissatisfaction with the universal human and belonging from Black, Asian American, and Indigenous studies informed by feminist and queer of color critique. “In order to withstand the weather, we had to become stone,” says Audre Lorde on the need for Black self-love. Taking Lorde’s stone with Christina Sharpe’s weather, as a non-Black woman of colour scholar I read Black women’s texts for how unfeeling defies stereotypes of affective excess and emotional labor bound to white feelings.

I trace Black women’s affective strategies in Frances Ellen Watkins Harper’s Iola Leroy and writings by the first black women doctors Rebecca Lee Crumpler and Rebecca J Cole through dispassionate scientific objectivity. By foregrounding black feminist thought I intervene in the anti-social turn and affect theory. Black women novelists played with the sentimental marriage plot: duCille argues they redefined themselves through “passionlessness.” I rethink “passionlessness” in relation to “dispassionate” objectivity. According to da Silva, “affectability” is constructed as the property of non-white others in science; I suggest that reclaiming unfeeling demonstrates political and affective disaffection.

In this regard, Crumpler’s medical text and Lee’s thesis adapt scientific objectivity to create their own authority. Finally, I read Iola Leroy for “withstanding the weather” in science and romance: Iola refuses to love white Dr. Gresham and chooses black Dr. Latimer, demonstrating that strategic unfeeling toward whiteness can make transformative Black love possible. In closing I discuss the convergences between this Black feminist sense of unfeeling in relation to other racialized modes and how unfeeling might operate as praxis for scholars of colour and those others minoritized whose affective resources are continually drained by the structures of the academy.

By legitimating unfeeling in our activism and pedagogy to decenter whiteness, I claim that we can create collective space to survive and thrive.

Dr Xine Yao is Lecturer in American Literature to 1900 at University College London. Her first book is Disaffected: The Cultural Politics of Unfeeling in Nineteenth-Century America which has won Duke University Press’s Scholars of Color First Book Award (October 2021). Her honours include the American Studies Association’s Yasuo Sakakibara Essay Prize and her research has been supported by grants from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. She is a BBC Radio 3/AHRC New Generation Thinker and the co-host of PhDivas Podcast.

Following the Affective Turn is an interdisciplinary research project that hopes to invite discussion and reflection on the current state of affect studies. Formed between Royal Holloway UoL and the University of Brighton, we are excited to run a short series of informal reading groups, a public lecture series and a graduate symposium. This lecture series is kindly supported by the techne AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership. More here.

Join us next month for a lecture presented by Manos Tsakiris (Royal Holloway, University of London).

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