Panel on Ami Harbin’s Fearing Together

Fermenting freeform feelings – access copy

Panel on Ami Harbin’s Fearing Together

Eastern APA, January 18, 2024

Feelings have turned out to be a perhaps unexpected terrain of struggle over the first years of the ongoing Covid pandemic. And among those feelings, fear has emerged as a kind of “hinge feeling,” a feeling upon which other claims, affects, and theories of change turn. People who think we should be practicing various virus-curbing behaviors are accused of being ruled by fear, while people contesting mask and vaccine mandates are characterized as viciously indifferent to suffering and death, and not feeling sufficient concern for the well-being of themselves and others. And here “well-being” is code for “not being disabled.” We cannot think about the fear of Covid without thinking about the fear of disability. How we feel about disability indexes our collective situation, and the distribution of dignity and flourishing under capitalism. What might it mean to welcome disability instead of fear it, while also working collectively to prevent the disabling effects of repeat Covid infections? And is fear the best lever we have for that welcome and that work?

Ami Harbin’s work in Fearing Together helps immeasurably in approaching these questions. In this short response to her book, I attend especially to Harbin’s extension and application of Sue Campbell’s expressivist account of feelings. My core questions for Harbin will be about more expansively individuating the feelings clustered under the rubric of fear in the book, and about whether politics are necessary to the moral responsibility of fearing well together.

Harbin follows Sue Campbell’s rejection of accounts of emotion that hold that “our emotions can be individuated prior to their expression,” the “presupposition of individuation.” Instead, on the Campbellian account, “expression individuates. It is expressing to others through our language or behavior that actually forms or creates the feelings we have” (Harbin 2023, 48). In Campbell’s words, “we form our feelings through acts of expression and, in doing so, attempt to make clear to others, or even just to ourselves, the personal significance of some occasion or set of occasions in our lives” (Campbell 1998, 131). Because of this imbrication of personal significance with the necessity to have a hermeneutic space that can receive our expressive attempts, through which we individuate our feelings, Campbell spends quite a lot of time articulating an account of feelings beyond the ordinary list of feelings we might identify. She observes, “It is only sometimes that we express our emotions, express ‘how we are feeling’ by referring to a classic emotion, such as anger, jealousy, or love. Often our feelings are too nuanced, complex, or inchoate to be easily categorized” (Campbell 1998, 3). The expressionist theory she forwards offers an account of “the existence of nuanced and nameless feelings that are neither reducible to sensations nor the sorts of states that are adequately captured by the categories of the classic emotions” (Campbell 1998, 71). These are idiosyncratic, “freestyle,” or “free-form” feelings, which do not fall into the classic buckets of emotions. They may be inchoate, unformed, or complex. It is this feature of freestyle feelings that illuminates the necessity of an expressive account of feelings, for Campbell. As Harbin explains them:

Freestyle feelings are those which have not yet been adequately identified or recognized, or even named. According to Campbell, the individuation of freestyle feelings is collaborative: it requires expression and interpretation. There are cases in which successfully forming feelings depends on other people’s capacities for recognizing our feelings: these are cases where uptake is necessary for the formation of those feelings (Harbin 2023, 50).

I have long wondered about the lynchpin status of freestyle feelings in Campbell’s account; it is clear that the existence of these feelings is key to the expressivist stance, and allows Campbell to reject the presupposition of individuation and the view that we individuals have epistemic authority over what we are feeling and why we are feeling it. Harbin relies on these aspects of Campbell’s view in making the – very compelling – case for the idea that in the domain of fear in particular, people can be wrong about the causes of their fear in ways that matter tremendously, both morally and politically.

 Harbin usefully clarifies some key things in Campbell’s view here, notably about the classic emotions. She writes,

In the case of classic emotions, expression is sometimes but not always needed to identify the object of an emotion, and thereby to individuate the emption. Expression is not always required because sometimes we have already practiced an emotion so much, people can recognize the scenarios and anticipate what is appropriate for people to be feeling (Harbin 2023, 49).

Even in the case of classic emotions, though, both Harbin and Campbell hold that often we require interpretive help to individuate our feeling – if not about what the feeling is, then perhaps about what the object of the feeling is. Harbin gives the example of the early months of the Covid pandemic. She reflects:

It was at some points difficult to determine the perceived threats to which individuals were responding. Through an individual’s expression – for instance, behavior to avoid talking about the emerging facts about those populations most at risk of negative outcomes, avoiding talking with elderly loved ones, and perhaps through tearing up at every mention of outbreaks at nursing homes – it might become clear that the chief object of one’s fear is loss of elderly parents. This maybe not be the only fear a person has in this context, but if it was not immediately clear to an individual, it could become clarified as one of their fears by expression. Some instances of fear, like this one, may be classic emotions where the object is not clearly established, and expression might be necessary for identify it, and thereby for forming the emotion (Harbin 2023, 53).

So, there are at least two ways that individuation can help us as feelers: We may benefit from interpretive collaboration with good hermeneutic others to individuate freeform, non-classic feelings, or we may benefit from such hermeneutic help in identifying the object of classic feelings.

            Fear is a classic emotion, though, like pain, something that is difficult to accurately describe and account for, and as personal as any feeling really gets. This may be one reason for fear’s frequent deployment – as feeling and as suggested interpretive frame – about Covid. It functions as a boundary object, in Bowker and Star’s sense, something that can travel between discursive realms and work well enough even in very different deployments. We can be said to fear too much, too little, the wrong objects, in the wrong way, and so on. My own impulse about Covid feelings has been to move away from classic emotions and toward a call to craft hermeneutic spaces that can nourish the individuation of freeform feelings, mostly because I am convinced that too often we lack the interpretive resources to turn toward nuance, slowness, and co-creation as regards feelings. I think creating these resources involves some fundamental and beneficial transformations in how we feel together.

            And so I want to push Harbin on the extent to which this book may tend to fold freeform feelings back into the classic emotion of fear. She writes:

Though we may be tempted to interpret a lot of nuanced feelings under the umbrella of a classic kind of fear, Campbell’s view helps show how doing so may not do justice to what the feeling actually is. Indeed, my inquiry into fearing is partly an inquiry into feelings that we might tend to categorize as something other than fear, but that should instead be understood as forms of fearing, as well as into instance that we might misunderstand as a simple kind of fear, but that are actually more complex (Harbin 2023, 54-55).

Here, I would like to hear more about the criteria and practice we might enact of individuation in these different cases: Times when interpreting freeform feelings as fear is inappropriate, times when things that are elsewise classified should be understood as fear, and times when we understand something as simple fear when it is in fact complex. How do we tell the difference, and when – and how – do these differences matter? Maybe another way to ask these questions is about whether we need to do more to individuate what is currently dumped into the big bucket category of fear, or whether we need to do more to delineate and identify the objects of fear. I see Harbin in practice in this book doing this latter work, to better delineate objects, causes, and experiences, more often, and very productively, and I’d like to hear more about why.

My second big question is about the question of how to cultivate better practices of fearing together. I find Harbin’s central argument – that “fear is a thing we learn and do with others and that we have learned to fear badly” (Harbin 2023, 122) totally compelling. As she demonstrates, being too sure that we can identify the objects of our fear, being too reactive, and being too easily compelled towards particular actions out of our fears are significant, life-threatening problems. Under regimes of white supremacism, border militarism, and gender oppression, in particular, racialized people, migrants, and trans people experience horrific results of bad fearing. Harbin turns in response to these significant threats to the need to practice “new ways of feeling fearful without immediately being drawn into action by these feelings, without rushing to resolve, escape, or otherwise dispel them” (Harbin 2023, 122). She is especially interested in “mindfulness-based and somatic regulation approaches to emotional life” (123). My worry is that mindfulness and somatic experiencing are not enough, and indeed that simply not being reactive is not enough – we need politics.

I should situate this worry a bit in my own biography, since it may be overwhelming my philosophical reasoning. I grew up in a Buddhist community and have been a serious practitioner of mindfulness meditation since I was a kid – I did my first silent retreat at 11, my first month-long retreat at 17, and many more retreats since then. I was a formally authorized mindfulness meditation instructor and teacher of Buddhism within my tradition from 1999 until 2020, since which time I have been on hiatus. As part of my training, I also did work with somatic practices and trauma-responsive mindfulness practices. I became unable to do mindfulness meditation or teach Buddhism in the wake of abuse revelations in my home community, and then through research and reflection on the ubiquity of power abuse in all Buddhist lineages, across tradition and time. There is a very strong narrative within mindfulness community that simply sitting is transformative of our action in the world. Harbin quotes Jon Kabat-Zinn’s widely-popularized definition of mindfulness, the practice of “paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally” (Harbin 2023, 123). This is a good general depiction of the practice. The outcomes of this are supposed to be multiple, but they frequently come down to the possibility that if we create a little more space around our felt experience, we can shift from reactive stances to responsive ones. Harbin’s attention to mindfulness as a possible avenue to fearing better together rests on this possibility. As she writes, “by creating some space between feelings and automatic action, actions will be motivated as considered responses to some feelings rather than as impulsive reactions to all feelings” (Harbin 2023, 126). The other modalities of working with reactive responses – which will tend to be expressions of prejudice, oppression, and supremacist modes – similarly aim at this creation of space between feeling and action; Harbin examines Generative Somatics/politicized somatics and the trauma-aware approaches as other modes of slowing down, attending, and cultivating the possibilities for relations that can hold the discomfort of fear without moving into ill-considered action.

While my own skepticism about these links definitely arises from my own spiritual crisis, I don’t think it is entirely unfounded. My doubts about mindfulness practice arose from learning about and experiencing bad behaviour on the part of very seasoned practitioners of mindfulness and compassion practices, people who used their positions as teachers of meditation in ways that were clearly harmful to their students. It became unavoidable that meditation had not produced any particular behaviour, ethical or otherwise. The most neutral way to think about this is simply to say that there has to be something else that makes for a principled person who behaves well towards others. By extension, I believe there has to be some other normative footing to determine what good relations of feeling are.

I think the missing ingredient is politics. In other words, even if we have a space between experience and action, that space may not have any particular content. Indeed, it is likely that, given precisely the Campbellian account of the relational formation of selves and feelings that Harbin relies upon, we will have racist, sexist, ableist, ethnonationalist (and so on) responses. While the pace of those responses matters, I’m not convinced that Jillian Wuestenberg, who drew a loaded gun on an unarmed Black family in the Chipotle parking lot, would have had a substantively different set of feelings given more time and good interpretive others to feel her responses less reactively. I agree absolutely that slowing the reaction time between someone reaching for an someone using a gun is vitally important. But just as important is what the space of response opens. And I suspect that only changing things other than our own habituated reactions will help with that question.

I turn back to Harbin’s relational commitments here. As she writes:

We are only able to act in the ways we do because the possibilities have been opened up for us by others’ having acted before us. What responsibilities we have, and whether or not we can live up to those responsibilities, depend on other people – what others are calling for us to do, and whether or how others are participating with us in trying to meet those responsibilities (Harbin 2023, 9).

Let’s transpose this to considering Covid, and fear as a politicized feeling, with imperatives to feel more or less fear about it.

We may benefit from an approach that I think of as feeling fermentation. Our feelings are our own but shared, and the interpretive space we offer can function like an appropriate culturing ground for feelings; if we’re making tempeh, the soybeans need to have a specific humidity and temperature to grow their delicious spores. As in fermentation, we can identify specific strands that we want to culture, which in virtue of their proliferation make the context less friendly for bacteria and viruses that hurt or kill us. This is to say: We need an explicit politics in thinking about our feelings. The focus on fear, as something that we are supposed to feel more or less of, has carried with it a supposition that Covid is primarily a thing we ought to personally manage, calibrating our physical behavior to our level of fear. So, if we’re very afraid, we’ll wear masks, not spend time in crowded public spaces that don’t have good air, attend meetings remotely, and so on. If we’re less afraid, we’ll just go about our lives as though the pandemic had never happened.

For any question of health and sickness, our best politics are a radical disability politics. What we could be doing in this situation includes but is not limited to: providing the conditions for everyone to have clean air wherever they are breathing, using the adaptation of James T Reason’s “Swiss Cheese” model of cumulative effects in systemically preventing accidents in complex systems. For Covid, this might include a combination of easily available effective masks for people to wear when they’re sick, filters and UV light everywhere air circulates, being vaccinated and staying home when sick so that we’re not putting so much virus out into the world for other people to contract, wastewater testing and updating health guidelines with data, and all the other partial acts that can reduce the spread of transmissible illness. But all of that is insufficient without much more: ensuring paid sick days for all workers; offering free housing and food for all people whether or not they work for a wage; socially – that is, not through dyadic units predicated on monogamous sexual desire – providing child care for all kids and elder care for all elders; again, socially – not through forced institutionalization – making sure all disabled people have dignified and joyful conditions for living well; ensuring meaningful and free access to healthcare for all regardless of employment or citizenship status. In other words, turning away from fear and fatalism and towards “what we could be doing” in this situation is a turning towards a set of anti-capitalist, decolonial, radical disability politics, which are also a set of feelings.

The free-form disability feelings that I continue to take heart from include grief and worry about people developing Long Covid and becoming disabled right alongside a blazing belief in the goodness of disabled lives well-lived, a belief that we can welcome the disability to come while at the same time resisting the conditions that make disabled lives harder than necessary. Writing about the dismantling of collective care entering the fourth year of the pandemic, Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha writes:

When my fear and disabled despair gets big, I remember: there’re still more of us than them. There are more of us all the time, and especially more of us because of COVID. And disabled people are (some of) the best goddamn people in the world. Our disabled love and all our brilliant collective care and crip ingenuity, that we’ve done before and through the endemic, is love work that’s not going anywhere. We’re not going to stop dreaming.

As it turns out, a lot of oppressed communities have a lot of practice dreaming in the middle of complete despair (Piepzna-Samarasinha 46).  

This practice of dreaming in the middle of complete despair, amplifying how to live when you were never meant to survive, in Saidiya Hartman’s words, includes the interpretive work of individuating these resistant free-form feelings. To return to the fermentation analogy: We create the causes and conditions for some things and not others to arise; we can do this with how we organize and also how we offer interpretive justice to one another. May we all have the conditions to live good lives. May we ferment a freestyle feeling for that world, and for the many worlds it might nourish.

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