Categories: Research. Tags: dissertation.

Moving the Common Sensorium: A Rhetoric of Social Movements and Collective Emotion

Our contemporary understanding of the “sense” in “common sense” is that of being rationally sound, as in “that makes sense.”  The strong connotations of cognitive reasoning evoked by the phrase lead very few to think of “sense” in a phenomenological or physiological vein, as in “sensory apparatus.”  I ask what happens when we consider common sense from this latter perspective?  What we find is a critical blind-spot in the conceptual evolution of common sense, one that has obscured the role of our physiological senses, the affective currents that flow through them, and the emotional accounts we subsequently narrativize.  As a corrective, my dissertation theorizes an affective and emotional analogue to common sense, what I call the common sensorium, a constructed cultural ambient of emotional norms.

Many scholars have recognized that common sense plays a critical role in building and buttressing the status quo, by virtue of being “so obvious” that its logics are taken for granted, thus often rendered tacit.  David Harvey begins his tract, A Brief History of Neoliberalism, for instance, by noting that capitalism has “pervasive effects on the ways of thought to the point where it has become incorporated into the common-sense way many of interpret, live in, and understand the world.”  I advance the common sensorium as a name and frame for exploring how the animating forces of affect and emotion are collectively configured to achieve these normalizing structures, by rhetorically analyzing the ways in which cultures reproduce themselves by encouraging the experience of particular emotions in particular ways, sanctioning certain expressions of those emotions while disciplining others.  I examine three different sites—the Environmental movement, Occupy Wall Street, and the Local Food movement—under the premise that social movements are essentially attempts to contest and move the common sensorium; emotion and movement, after all, share the same etymological root of emovere: to disturb into motion.  Each chapter’s investigation is organized around an apposite ideograph, a rhetorical category for terms and slogans peculiarly potent in binding, defining, and mobilizing collectivities, such as “Eco-Friendly,” “Occupy,” and “Buy Local.”  The dividends of this project are a deeper sense of how our personal experiences are linked to larger social structures, a conceptual hub from which rhetoric studies can reexamine its canon of pathos, and a reimagined methodology—ideographic analysis—for social movement studies.

Chapter 1, “Case for the Common Sensorium,” establishes a theoretical and historical perspective of the common sensorium.  Beginning with Aristotle, I illustrate how his original use of sensus communis had an affective emphasis, one that continued through to later Roman rhetoricians of Cicero and Quintillian.  I delineate how this focus on the senses eventually gets severed from the concept of common sense in the wake of Continental philosophy, in particular through the works of Descartes.  Our contemporary understanding of common sense, as a result, is a curious and often contradictory amalgamation of various theoretical strands, one that elides the role of affect and emotion in maintaing social status quo.  Drawing heavily on Heidegger’s concept of Stimmung, translated as “mood” or “attunement,” I make the case for the common sensorium as a corrective.

Chapter 2, “A Rhetoric of Collective Guilt,” considers “Eco-Friendly” rhetorics in relation to the Environmental movement.  I argue that such rhetorics present a ready-made guilt-redemption cycle, subtly stirring the motivating forces of collective guilt, wherein one feels distress for the harmful actions of a group he or she identifies with, even when one’s direct contributions are minimal or even nonexistent.  Digestion of collective guilt is exacerbated within a common sensorium so heavily influenced by classical liberalism, however, where the basic social unit is the individual, rational argument and education are the engines of social change, and intentional, self-willed actors steer societal norms.  In other words, it is difficult to atone for actions of a group when one’s cultural milieu teaches that guilt is understood only in relation to direct, personal actions. This chapter demonstrates how corporations have sought to evoke this emotion in an effort to contain Environmental movement pressure, coupling collective guilt with the offer of immediate, individualized atonement through consumerism; this stands in stark contrast to social movement traditions, which seek absolution of collective guilt through collective, organized political resistance.  By positioning individual consumer acts as the solution for ecological ills, the desire to join collectivities of resistance and striving against political powers is significantly attenuated.

Chapter 3, “Occupy Apathy,” reexamines apathy as a dynamic, productive emotion, in contradistinction to its typical meaning: “without passion,” or a-pathos.  Picking up on Daniel Gross’s argument that apathy has been a “carefully cultivated political category” since at least the time of Thomas Hobbes, I investigate how rhetorics of apathy are navigated, dispersed, and fostered by social movement and establishment actors alike with regards to the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Through analysis of thirty-eight communiqués or “tactical briefings” released by Adbusters magazine, the primary instigator and initial spark of the Occupy movement, I demonstrate how apathy is configured as a site of resistance, to be occupied the same as cities (“Occupy Oakland”) and social means of production (“Occupy Our Food Supply”).  I illustrate how the spatial connotations of “Occupy” are used to reach rhetorically beyond a focus physical spaces to one of affective orientation.

Chapter 4, “Local Food’s Affective Advocacy,” illuminates how the Local Food Movement, despite an ability to compete with dominant counter-discourses of economic efficiency, predominantly seeks to sensitize others to the “feltness” of food and its contexts, thereby overcoming the numbness instilled by commodification.  In tracing the narrative structures and rhetorical appeals across three film documentaries on the movement, I demonstrate how advocates expand the category of taste well beyond sensations of the mouth, effectively placing taste (as sense pleasure) in productive tension with aesthetic theories (where “taste” is a discriminative capacity, skeptical of the sensuous).  The aim, I argue, is to infuse the ideograph “Local” with a positive affect that resists easy classification or economic partitioning.  In the chapter’s conclusion, I show how this “affective advocacy” of taste provocatively mirrors Kant’s writings on sensus communis, where he contends our judgment of taste is subjective and simultaneously universal, yet non-rational.

In my Conclusion, “Making the Common Sensorium Common,” I evince how the questions raised and findings produced through this project hold consequences for disciplines beyond rhetoric studies, including the social sciences’ approach to social movements, affect theory, and critical emotion studies.  Because I believe in closing the gap between scholarly research and the classroom, I also offer pedagogical suggestions for integrating the common sensorium into both undergraduate and graduate curricula.