on pathos

I haven’t been writing as much as I’d like. Last semester was definitely not what I had anticipated, and got in the way of this blog for reasons I regret. At the same time, I stopped posting my blog posts on Facebook, mostly because I was underwhelmed by the reaction to my writing, although I cannot expect people, regardless of how much support they give and how little I seem to be moved by what should be powerful, to fawn over every little sentence I produce. Yet still, while I enjoyed and profited much from my first semester of graduate school, I am remorseful for letting this blog, and my writing in general, fall by the wayside.

This year I am committing myself to being more productive in my writing, in however way I possibly can. A lot of writing this blog is just “practice,” a flexing of the muscles in order to see if I can force the web of thoughts and signifiers flying around my head to yield a meaningful message to, say, a stranger, although I’m sure if you are reading this, at this point in my life, I know you, and know you probably quite well. I have mentioned elsewhere (here) that I have this secret desire to be famous. This feeling bothers me primarily because it doesn’t match the image of myself which I have created, inside of which I try to live; a stoic, elegant, brilliant person with a natural knack for writing, whose talent alone will lead him to greatness. Yet, I cannot say that this image, as narcissistic as it may seem, is yielding the results I’d like. My blog has stagnated in the past year, perhaps because my content has drifted from underresearched essays on race and class to “dealing” with anxiety, something people, I’ve been told, find both impenetrable (because they cannot feel what I feel, and therefore cannot know; are frightened by the tangible limitations of their knowledgeability) and disturbing (for the same reasons). The older essays, while sexy and jarring, nevertheless represent a side of myself trying to wrestle with the essential questions of identity which many POC must know and refuse to acknowledge. My position as a Black man does not make me special, nor does my alleged eloquence help to make the bitter pill of internalized racism and affective violence any easier to swallow. When talking about myself, I am able to seize a kind of authority which no one else, ostensibly, can possess; who else can know you more than yourself? And it is perhaps the reliance on the personal, on the ultimately “unrelatable” as I have been told by my professors, that makes my writing so powerful for some, and disturbing for others.

Ultimately, as I’ve said before, all information is a corroboration of what we already know or desire to know. We read Kimberlé Crenshaw and Saidiya Hartman in order to better understand the role of African-American women in the United States, in order to concretize what we have experienced in our own lives through the reinforcement of “true” knowledge. We read James Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates because we want someone to say to us what race really is, to uncover the cyclical reality which keeps the American subject, regardless of his race, enchained to an ideological system which slowly dehumanizes and thus destroys him. When we read, we are not trying to learn, so much as understand, and thus feel secure in our own constructed understanding. This is not to say that we never learn anything, but that all forms of learning are inherently experiential. Reading is, itself, experience, but the kind of information we glean from reading about racism is not, I believe, the kind we absorb from living and experiencing racism. Those who experience colonialism and those who haves studied colonialism occupy different terrains of experience, have access to different stores of power as it relates to the authoritative voice.

Nothing I am saying is new, but I have learned in my first semester of graduate school that the effective production of academic literature should always attempt to move around the messy terrain which identity and “identity politics” produce. Academics are, in their work at least, believed to be “outside of the world” in ways which are quite odious. The authoritarian academic voice is a kind of self-constructed podium which relies wholeheartedly on the politics of ethos and logos to make its claim. Pathos, the most human of the modes of persuasion, has no place in the academy, I have learned.

First, I need to disambiguate these things. I do not doubt that you have heard these terms, although you may not have thought about them since seventh grade. I’ll remind you of them anyways. Logos is an appeal to logic and reason. It attempts to construct arguments based on the correlative relationship between discussed and proposed information. It is markedly mathematical, and, at its very core, unhuman.  Logos centers the content itself. Ethos is an appeal to speakerly authority. It establishes the speaker as having a certain privileged position from which to speak. It therefore centers the speaker. Ethos thus attempts to establish faith in the speaker through the mediation and invocation of social power. “I have a PhD in Renaissance Studies and therefore I can say these things about Boccaccio,” or what have you. Kairos, rarely used, is more about timeliness than persuasion. The thinkpiece which is published first on a particular scandal utilizes kairos as a way to inform your opinion of whatever is to follow, for you will always, now, refer back to the first piece you read. It therefore centers time and circumstance. Pathos, finally, centers the reader. Of all of the modes, I was warned against pathos the most. “It is the weakest strategy,” my eight-grade composition teacher remarked, and three years later, in my AP English Language class, this idea was reinforced. Pathos is considered weak because it speaks to the most basic parts of human intelligence; it slips behind the outward defense of logic and reason, is unbothered by the social hierarchies which fuel bonds of trust, is unbothered by circumstance, and moves still to communicates with the soul, an inherently irrational part of being which is moved not by information, but by affect, urges and ununderstood desires.

Pathos has the ability to make you feel something in ways which logical language cannot. It is the shape of language which affects you, which causes you to feel something which logos and ethos cannot. A story which relies on pathos can feed you absolute lies, misguide and misinform you, but it will nevertheless succeed in rousing you to a cause you feel is ultimately worthy of struggle. Pathos is the feeling of dread during those ASPCA commercials with trembling puppies and abused cattle, Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” playing in the background. It is the combination of the imagery and the music (which is about the death of a human being from an heroin overdose; not animal abuse) which stirs people either to donate money out of pity or change the channel out of annoyance. Pathos is the beauty of James Baldwin’s writing in The Fire Next Time, the clarity of his spiritual strivings, the subtle blossoming of a nihilism he is, in 1963, was unable to name. Pathos is what fuels comedy, what makes us stare in awe at superhero movies, what makes us cry at war dramas, and what makes us feel joyous at a much-deserved Happily Ever After. Nearly all forms of popular entertainment rely on pathos, for human beings are emotional entities before anything. They are subject to their whims, desires, fears, and ideologies, all of which operate on the dimension of the pathetic, not the logical nor the social.

So what makes academics so distinct? I don’t think any academic thinks of themselves as having finally triumphed over their human beings, transforming themselves into what is ostensibly a purely logical being, an automaton. To lose your emotions is to cease to be human, after all. At the same time, academics, as I have discovered, are markedly bad at hiding themselves (as beings) behind the façade of stoic intelligence which is often proposed as the standard. I have found that, behind all of the raw smarts, the citations of endless treatises, the seemingly extemporaneous five-minute questions at academic talks, that academics struggle with their lives in ways that we all do. They have marital issues, they have yet to master how to make a good loaf of bread, they lose an earring and do not notice for several hours, they have tattoos they regret, sometimes on visible parts of their body – and none of this is shocking, for we do not see a demon or a god when we look at an academic; we see a human being, trying to use their pursuit of knowledge to better understand that very, essential limitation – humanity. Yet, the way I have experienced academia leads away from humanization. It seems to me that a lot of academic writing is built so much on forging a watertight argument relying primarily on the logical skills of argumentation (“Given all of this information, it is impossible to consider…”) and the invocation of other, sometimes more famous, academics (“Henry Louis Gates, Jr. writes that…”) in order to legitimize an article. There is very little drive, outside whatever personally compelled them to research the article itself, a cause which is likely omitted from the text, primarily because it “does not apply to anyone else.”

I have been wrestling with the question of pathos all semester, primarily because, as someone who considered himself a personal essayist who happens to write in an academic genre, the writing I imagine myself doing does not comply to the academic genre in ways I find kind of meaningless and obtuse. While I accept the genre conventions of academic literature to a certain extent (citations, argumentative language, a reasonable reliance on ethos and logos) the process of rendering academic material, invariably influenced and fueled by emotions and ideology, by affect and feeling, into something divulged and divested from that feeling does nothing but transform the academic-as-person into something else. To remove pathos from an essay, to cover up the “I,” is to silence the writer, to attempt to force that write to occupy an entirely different subject position.

For some academics, I imagine the question of a reluctance to or refusal of pathos is not very difficult to answer. A Medievalist, for example, may not feel much “feeling” towards 9th century Old French fabliaux. But when you study people who are still alive, who you can still talk to and learn from, and whose condition mirrors your own in tangible, sometimes painful ways, the ability to divest from your work is almost as impossible as divesting yourself from your own experience as a person. It forces you to approach all kinds of knowledge from a distance informed by skepticism and doubt, a kind of worldview which makes sense when digging around the archive, perhaps, but which does not apply to ordinary life, primarily because the degree to which individuals have faith and believe in what they hear is something which is at times unmitigable. Even the most skeptical and introspective of Marxists is biased towards and has faith in certain institutions which escape their skepticism, finds some inexcusable joy in allegedly mindless TV-watching or scrolling through Instagram. They may question their fascination with these things, or perhaps even find their inexplicable fascination disturbing, but they are bound to continue doing it, likely because it fulfils something which principles alone cannot acknowledge; a deeper, inner dimension of us, the dimension which makes us most viscerally and irrevocably human.

This isn’t a manifesto, claiming we should suddenly embrace a “Patheticist” kind of academic writing, but more or less a complaint about the nature of academic writing as something inherently nonhuman. To attempt to convince people using solely logos and ethos attempts also to embrace a kind of self-disfiguration which inundation in an academic environment inherently induces; a perpetual posturing, likely the result of insecurity, which eats away at the self in our attempt to mitigate that which is the most outwardly vulnerable. As someone who sees all writing as a kind of artwork and a source of beauty, approaching the genre of academic writing is daunting primarily because of the disciplinary attempts to conceal the author and put forward authorial information in unbeautiful ways. There is something powerful and meaningful in reading work which is clearly significant and impactful to the author, who isn’t afraid to dip into the depths of the pathetic to make a claim as to why their work is important to them and therefore should be important to you. I find it kind of bizarre that I was told that my own work was unapproachable primarily because of my reliance on my personal experience, a kind of writing a professor described as “ineffective” primarily because it did directly speak to some larger, worldly agenda. Yet, what kind of academic writing does? If under every article is an underlying set of relations between the perceived narrowness of the topic of discussion (e.g. the use of color in T.S Eliot’s Four Quartets) and the larger world (e.g. why color symbolism shapes our perception of the world), then wouldn’t that apply to something as seemingly narrow as personal experience? If not, why do we even read narratives, memoir or autobiography it is so impossible to occupy, if but briefly, if but slightly, the subject position of another human being?

If pathos is unconvincing in academic writing, it is because it is disturbing to realize how flawed the human mind is, and how uninhibitedly our innermost desires flow. Pathos, as has been demonstrated time and time again, has the potential to sway people’s opinions in ways which are inexplicable and unknowable, primarily because the very mechanisms with which they operate escape a rational understanding of the mind and the subject. Much of this is unspoken. I haven’t had a professor explicitly say “don’t use pathos,” but I have had drafts of papers be marked up, primarily for revealing me as an actual character in the paper, for relying on tropes which scream “unacademic,” despite working in literary criticism, a field which should lend itself, I believe, towards a more nuanced relationship with writing.

Photo: Romare Bearden, “Jammin’ at the Savoy”

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