Elevate Difference

Statistical Panic: Cultural Politics and the Poetics of Emotions

When I finished Statistical Panic I was left mulling over the ideas presented in the book for the next few days. A deeply theoretical exploration of the emotional landscape, Kathleen Woodward frames her book in American culture over the past fifty years, revealing the political, social, and cultural power that emotions have in our lives. She argues that emotions are largely undervalued in the social sciences, and that conveying emotional experiences can be a powerful form of communication, organizing and socializing.

An avid reader, Woodward allows personal narratives to help her navigate this exploration. Joan Didion, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, and many other writers infuse Woodward’s theory with personal experience and literary sensibility that bring her text to life. Woodward also does an impeccable job of mapping out emotional outlets in the media from tabloids to politics and, in doing so, we begin to see why her incorporation of narratives allows for a more thorough conveyance of emotions in our media driven world.

Statistical Panic offers a thorough examination of the political aspects of emotions, something that contrasts with twenty-four-hour news cycles, Twitter, and other media outlets that rely on shock and the quick turnover of emotional response. From shame to compassion, Woodward’s analysis bridges the emotional with the social and political, critically assessing emotions in a way validates their importance. Using Freud and Virginia Woolf, Woodward scrutinizes anger. She ties this to the social implications of experiencing anger as a woman and moves into a discussion on the uses of anger in feminist writings. Jean-Paul Sartre and Toni Morrison help guide Woodward’s understanding of shame and how it operates in a society wrought with sexism and racism. Part of what makes _Statistical Panic _such a powerful read is Woodward’s insistence on including “experts” like Sartre and Freud, while at the same time refusing to examine emotions in the vacuum of white male privilege. As a result, the scope of Woodward’s work is immense, offering the reader an enormous wealth of theory, social analysis and of course, literature.

When Woodward’s analysis moves to the political realm we begin to understand the tangible consequences of what she calls “statistical panic,” and how this has legislative and bureaucratic repercussions. First Woodward discusses compassion, both analyzing liberal guilt and compassionate conservatism (something the George W. Bush familiarized the nation with) as tools of organizing. Woodward also covers bureaucratic rage, a growing phenomenon due to the horrendous state of health care and finally, statistical panic, a feeling that Americans have been inundated with over the past fifty years, and even more so since September 11th.

Statistical Panic offers a critical exploration of emotions, how they are used for political gain, how they normatively reinforce social inequality, and how their subversion can combat the same inequalities. Woodward offers emotions as a source of political and social mobility, and her writing challenges us to be critical of the way statistical panic is used. She urges us complicate our understanding of our own emotional responses to everything from personal relationships to Twitter feeds.

Written by: Lizzy Shramko, July 13th 2009