“Maybe the best proof that the language is patriarchal is that it oversimplifies feeling. I'd like to have at my disposal complicated hybrid emotions, Germanic train-car constructions like, say, ‘the happiness that attends disaster.’ Or: ‘the disappointment of sleeping with one's fantasy.’ I'd like to show how ‘intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members’ connects with ‘the hatred of mirrors that begins in middle age.’ I'd like to have a word for ‘the sadness inspired by failing restaurants’ as well as for ‘the excitement of getting a room with a minibar.’ I've never had the right words to describe my life, and now that I've entered my story, I need them more than ever. I can't just sit back and watch from a distance anymore.”
Middlesex, pg. 217
The narrator in Jeffrey Eugenides explosive novel, Middlesex, spends a great portion of life experiencing a structure of feeling that corresponds with his biology. This character is born a hermaphrodite and, for most of his early life, perceived by those around him to be female. If perceptions are shaped by environment and experience, than the feeling that you are not what others believe you to be is a structure of feeling, or an experience that has no official definition or reputation in your culture. Calliope’s grandparents are technically to blame for his dysmorphia, but their actions are a direct result of a societally-defined feeling, love, conquering the structure of feeling that is commonly reduced to “incestual guilt.” It is hard to determine whether societal influence or biological inclination more heavily influences a man who refuses to make love to his sister. But when social norms are broken (that are a bit less consequential than incest) and opposition festers as a product of fear, the desire for social change seems to hop off of the top of Maslov’s hierarchy and situate itself beside the need food and water. This is what drives an individual to create a new reality within an existing one. This is the fuel of the Civil Rights Movement, Occupy Wall Street, D$#% out for Harambe and many other movements… but before racism and classism and all other “isms” were introduced in Webster’s, the activists had only a “structure of feeling” to work with.
As an “ameutur psychologist”, I found Rebecca Harding Davis’ Life in the Iron Mills provocative. Davis describes masses of men as “breathing from infancy to death an air saturated with fog and grease and soot, vileness for soul and body.” But the image of a baby in a fog of industrialization does not necessarily come to mind when reading this statement. Instead, the reader questions how a person, from infancy, could be exposed to such symbolically noxious toxins. Davis suggests that the life a person is born into decides the type of environment a child is exposed to. She is hinting at classism without having the words for her society of readers to understand. “I dare make my meaning no clearer, but will only tell my story,” she writes. “But if your eyes are free as mine to look deeper, no perfume-tinted dawn will be so fair with promise of the day that shall surely come.” Harding is asking the reader to look within himself for his own “structure of feeling”-- for the ways injustice presses on our consciousness with weights of guilt that can only be lessened by the self-medications of privilege. The first time my Puerto-Rican stepfather was frisked, and in my 12-year-old ignorance, I asked why he was so upset. “It’s random,” I told him, profoundly educated. “They have to do it because 9-11.” But my stepfather told me that frisking is more than terrorism-- it’s a reflection of our nation’s attitudes and fears. My being a small white female, he said, was a search-free pass to the promised land. I remember feeling a twang of gratitude and safety... almost superiority. This was privilege in a pre-teen structure of feeling.
Anne Bradstreet, a Puritan poet that many scholars believed was an early feminist, questions traditional gender roles in her poem “The Prologue” when she writes:
“I am obnoxious to each carping tongue
Who says my hand a needle better fits,
A poet's pen all scorn I should thus wrong.
For such despite they cast on female wits:
If what I do prove well, it won't advance,
They'll say it's stol'n, or else it was by chance”
In other words, even if a Puritan woman succeeded in putting down her basket and weaving intricate text instead, someone would most likely blame her accomplishment on dumb luck or plagiarism. In Bradstreet’s time, a sexist was not a sexist but a properly traditional Puritan. On a larger scale, Puritans were encouraged to live a life of humility and worship that did not encourage active empowerment of any group or individual. To “fight the man,” Bradstreet might have experienced both a structure of feeling now known as “sexism” and a guilt stemming from the desire to be respected for exceptional ability. Maybe, without total depravity, all of the Puritan women would be Occupying Brad Street!
Structure of feeling is arguably the most powerful tool in literature. Already the words Classism, Sexism, Ableism, Ageism, and Foot-fetishism are receiving universal groans for bombarding social media feeds with cliched manifestos that have no true emotional impact on those who don’t directly relate. Only the artist who touches what readers thought they were alone in feeling can pull a significant audience to their side. Our popular vocabulary is what convinces a person that they understand the meaning of things, the state of our reality and, ultimately, the way other human beings must feel. Bradstreet and Davis created a reality that was unfamiliar and allowed the reader to explore the resistance to injustice that we all inherently possess. At least Bradstreet’s “intimations of mortality brought on by aging family members” was lessened by her recognition of life as a stepping stone to the heavens above… and she won’t even be frisked!