Week 8 Readings: Structures of Feeling

This week’s readings raise questions about how “we the people” function within structures of feeling, influenced by media or government. In Engels’ Essay I, “Reimagining the People: From Duas Civitates to E Pluribus Unum to E Unibus Duo”, Engels looks to Greek and Roman thinkers, the founders of the Constitution, political philosophers, and U.S. presidents to trace how resentment has been redirected in the context of democracy.

Engels suggests that the politics of resentment require a war within democracy, in which “the people” are redefined so citizens perceive themselves “not as a demos but instead as two groups at war” (26). He traces two redefining periods of “the people” — first, during the founding of the Constitution, and second, during 1960s Vietnam protests and calls for equality. Engels describes the first shift of “the people” by painting the founders as anti-democratic in many ways. They perceived democracy as dangerous because the masses posed a threat to the elite. The founders rejected, however, the classical conceptions of democracy “as a battle between the mass and elite” (duas civitates) and instead projected oneness: “e pluribus unum, out of many, one” (26). 

Engels argues that the founders made this saying a reality by employing the rhetoric of enemyship (relying on a somewhat Hobbesian understanding of civil society, in which citizens agree to the authority of the state in exchange for protection against the enemy). In the face of economic and status inequality, oneness conveyed the message of “we’re all in this together”, especially when an enemy was present. Through enemyship, the founders made it so resentful citizens were seen as traitors. We see this still in the rhetoric of  “you’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists”. Engels argues wisely that this rhetoric disqualifies all dissent as unpatriotic. According to Engels, the unification of e pluribus unum suffered from 1960s Vietnam protests and calls for equality, and Nixon responded by encouraging division — e unibus duo, out of one, two. Engels says that Nixon used divisive politics to redirect resentment towards political enemies, creating a platform for the politics of resentment. This reading made me wonder whether the rhetoric of unification can last when economic or power inequality is vast. Do we reflect e pluribus unum today, or is it e unibus duo?  

Diving deeper into structures of feeling, Engle’s “Putting Mourning to Work: Making Sense of 9/11” examines how the government/media prescribed a specific type of mourning after 9/11. This mourning tried to “make sense” of 9/11 in a way that created a selective idea of who was a 9/11 victim and how we should perceive the threat. Engle examines Norman Rockwell’s The Four Freedoms For Which We Fight series (inspired by Roosevelt’s 1941 speech) and the post-9/11 versions. Engle criticizes the ads “not from their commodification of Rockwell, but rather from their attachment of mourning to an object lesson — to make it work for comprehension of something inherently traumatic and without reason” (71). Engle says these post-9/11 versions redirected Cold War fears to Arabs and Muslims. In addition, she criticizes the group psychology encouraged through 9/11 souvenirs or kitsch sentiments (occurring when people try to situate themselves within historical moments of tragedy). Engle’s work is interesting in that it poses mourning as a kind of “work” and presents it here as a prescribed instead of natural experience. 

Lastly, Sanchez-Escalonilla argues in “Hollywood and the Rhetoric of Panic” that film-makers have generally failed in depicting the complexities of life post-9/11, but between 2001-2008, Steven Spielberg became “one of the most sensitized Hollywood directors to the social fault lines caused by 9/11” (11). Sanchez-Escalonilla examines four Spielberg films: Minority Report (2002), The Terminal (2004), War of the Worlds (2005), and Munich (2006) to reflect on American society. Sanchez-Escalonilla categorizes Spielberg’s five points for reflection as the controversy between security and civil liberties, the risk of xenophobia, the self-destruction from constant panic from external threats, the implications of a preemptive war, and the human and social cost of violence-vengeance (12). His work further comments structures of feelings, in this case commented on through film. Are there any implications that his work is creative fiction, rather than more realistic or direct references to the five points of reflection? 

These readings raise questions about the direction of political resentment (vertically towards government, or horizontally towards citizen) and how the direction can be influenced by government or media. They also highlight the influences of government or media in shaping structures of feeling, whether toward other citizens or not. Lastly, they raise concerns about how government or media can alter civic relationships through strategic rhetoric of oneness, enemyship, or division. 

10 thoughts on “Week 8 Readings: Structures of Feeling

  • March 4, 2018 at 7:50 pm

    Katie, you raise some strong questions that I think really push the theory we are learning into application. It is tough to say whether we are still operating within an intentional politics of divisiveness or rather if our political system has just simply run amuck. Engel’s call to recognize the wedge being driven between members of the body politic as opposed to the governing body reminds me of a Marxist viewpoint. There is absolutely a structure of feeling generated by these ways of viewing our societal feeling, as you mention a great example being the “with us or against us mentality”.

    Engel’s work on mourning was also interesting and I like that you focused in on his critique of Norman Rockwell’s The Freedoms for Which We Fight as I thought it was a clear application of Engel’s theory. Engel argues that they contribute to the “othering” of muslim and cold war “enemies”. Similar to how Engel criticizes the use of 9/11 keychains Sanchez critiques the film industries use of 9/11, and the fear it produces, as a trope of entertainment. The fear produce by particularly Spielberg is definitely an interesting moral question, and I am unsure about just what exactly we can do outside critiquing it. Some of his films, as Sanchez notes, direct fear toward the government and others toward ourselves. I agree with your point that the capitalization on post 9/11 sentiments is problematic, but it is unclear just how so…

    • March 5, 2018 at 10:00 am

      I agree. I think Spielberg’s films are meant to reflect the fear that we feel in an effort to show its problematic side and point out the concerns that our fear (or xenophobia, North American entrenchment, violence-vengeance, etc.) brings along with it. Sanchez suggests that even if these films don’t directly mention 9/11, they still contribute to political commentary or thought in more indirect ways. I think that this mode of using fictional film can be especially useful for reflection because this genre can attract a wide audience (rather than a more realistic or politicized movie that would attract only a particular audience), yet they still convey a critical message about our nation’s response to terror or external threat.

  • March 5, 2018 at 9:56 am

    Thanks for your summaries of these pieces. I especially think you did a great job of hitting on the main points of the Engels essay “Reimagining the People”, which I thought brought up some very good points about the notion of a democracy and the true role of a citizen within a republic. I especially thought it was interesting how Engels brought up the notion of ‘demokratis’ in the ancient Greek city-states, and how this conception of democratic exchange actually encouraged and emphasized the role of lively debate and respect for the masses. A more complete picture of true democracy, then, features a citizen with the capacity to act and incite change by their own power, rather than one who submits to the power of the ruling class. This discussion also brigs up the question of how a citizen should view their government. Engels makes it clear that in the days of thinkers such as Aristotle and Isocrates, citizens were expected to bear a certain envious hatred towards the wealthy elite, and that this resentment of one’s governance was what fostered meaningful discourse in politics. I believe that in today’s increasingly neoconservative society, our skepticism and resentment towards the government has softened. Antonio Sanchez provides a partial explanation for this trend towards increasing governmental control, as he says that popular film and media in the 21st century have capitalized on the nation’s visceral fear regarding episodes of panic and confusion. Essentially, the ‘phobos’ that Sanchez describes in his article may have contributed to the trend of sacrificing our liberties in the name of government and theoretical safety.

    • March 17, 2018 at 12:50 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Alex. I wonder if the softening of our skepticism and resentment towards our government that you mention can be explained by Engel’s idea of a prescribed horizontal resentment towards fellow citizens instead of towards government or elites. If so, hopefully Engels will make some suggestion in his book about how this resentment can be redirected to a more vertical direction. It’s also worth noting that when people express their concerns to government explicitly, it’s often perceived as (and usually is) a difficult task to create change and influence politicians, as we’re seeing right now with efforts for gun control.

  • March 5, 2018 at 12:43 pm


    Thanks for your informative and insightful covering of this week’s readings. I really liked the examples you drew on for each of the readings and how you were able to connect them to what we’ve been talking about in class. I wanted to focus on the idea of enemyship that you highlight from Engel’s first essay, Reimagining the People. Engels talks about the power of a collective enemyship and the predictable effects that the founders of the United States acknowledge they have on the populace. Of these effects, enemyship creates a national identity by defining “American” and “un-American”, it persuaded Americans to come together into a unified national community, and it distracted Americans and redirected their anger.

    I highlight these effects because I think they deeply connect to the structures of feeling that we discussed in class last week. We talked about how feelings are “learned” and how different institutions are in place that contribute to this learning. I think this idea of enemyship is something in place that contributes to what feelings are learned and accepted. In order to avoid being “un-American”, people can align with this identification of enemyship and thus participate in the oneness that Engles deeply highlights.

    • March 17, 2018 at 12:57 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Tegan. I agree with what you suggested about enemyship as a learned feeling and how this affects what people consider to be “American” and “un-American”. This reminds me of my research project that I’m working on for our class, as I’ve been thinking about how the patriotic American identity often becomes more “American” when there is a common enemy that we can point to. It seems strange and problematic, though, that our patriotism or sense of American selves is, in part, reliant upon having an enemy to keep us together.

  • March 6, 2018 at 9:03 pm

    Katie, I appreciate your concluding thoughts on the themes of the readings for this week: your point that the readings highlight how the “direction” of political resentment can be influenced by the government and mass/popular/news media is particularly important, I think. It is difficult for democratic citizens in our society to have equal influence on the direction of national resentment, mostly, I think, because this resentment is produced by and reproduces deeply entrenched political ideologies. Looking back on the semester, in this way, I think Althusser’s essay on the definition and mechanisms complements reading Engels’s chapter nicely.
    To answer one of your questions regarding the Sanchez-Escalonilla article: I don’t think there are any implications that Spielberg’s work is simply “creative fiction.” As an avid Spielberg fan, I think one of the things that makes him a great filmmaker is the great detail and sensitivity with which he executes his cinematic communication. Reading Sanchez-Escalonilla’s article and Engels’s chapter together actually made me think of one more recent Spielberg film, Bridge of Spies. This film fits into Sanchez-Escalonilla’s proposed five points of reflection particularly the notion of National Security versus Civil Liberties. This film creates ideological distance between fiercely ideological, Cold War-era films, for it frames Tom Hank’s character (James Donovan) as patriotic in that he attempts to redirect national resentment in a way that he believes will help the United States demonstrate and honor its valuation of civil liberties. I think the positive cinematic portrayal of someone like Donovan shows that Spielberg is keenly aware of United States ideologies and directions of resentment.

    • March 17, 2018 at 1:06 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Emily. One reason I was curious about whether anyone thought there were implications to Spielberg’s work being creative fiction is because I think the creative fiction nature could be an advantage for conveying points of reflection. When films are more direct with their intention through their plot or genre, they might attract only a specific kind of audience. Spielberg’s works can attract a wider audience and potentially convey messages (containing these points of reflection) to viewers who might not have watched a film containing more direct and explicit messages, for example the risks of xenophobia.

  • March 8, 2018 at 7:01 am

    Hey Katie,

    I wanted to comment on your analysis of the Sanchez-Escalonilla which criticizes the unrealistic and panic inducing production of movies in Hollywood since the occurrence of the 9/11 attacks. Movies portrayals of very sensitive situations is usually dramatized and exaggerated through the unrealistic portrayals of troops, situations and people. The movies usually fail to paint the entire picture and provide complete context which causes misinformation about very important events and creates misconceptions about complicated issues that is very hard to portray in a limited time space. I cannot comment much in the Spielberg movies mentioned here because I have not really seen any of them. However, the portrayal of war, terrorism, terrorists and other major global issues needs to be more sensitized and accurate in order to prevent misleading audiences. I say so because I have personally been affected by these inaccurate portrayals because for a long time back home in India, movies were a major way for me to look into what was happening in the western hemisphere. As I became more informed gradually my opinions changed but I am sure many people never have that chance and that is a little scary.

    • March 17, 2018 at 1:30 pm

      Thanks for your comment, Vishy. You bring up a good point about the importance of representation in films/media. As I was reading your comment, I thought about a movie I’ve seen called “Camp X-Ray”, about an inexperienced female military guard, played by Kristen Stewart, at Guantanamo Bay. She forms an unlikely bond with one of the prisoners, even though she’s prohibited from speaking to him about anything personal or even telling him her name. One of the film’s plot points is about how a prisoner, Ali, likes to read and wants to read the last Harry Potter book. When Kristen Stewart’s character is transferred from the camp, she leaves Ali a copy of the book with a note that says “To Ali, I don’t know if Snape’s a good guy. But I know you are.” I remember thinking this film was powerful because of the connections it created between the characters.

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