Bitter

“O my brethren! I have told/ Most bitter truth, but without bitterness.” — Samuel Coleridge

In Affective Economies Sara Ahmed tells us that “emotions play a crucial role in the ‘surfacing’ of individual and collective bodies through the way in which emotions circulate between bodies and signs.” We are conditioned to relate to one another in specific ways, and it is through emotions and the specific ways in which we are conditioned to feel about others that societal norms and the very boundaries and surfaces of bodies take shape. We are taught to fear the stranger, and it is through our fear of the stranger, who has, as Ahmed notes in Strange Encounters, “already come too close” that the stranger emerges. Strangers, then, aren’t those whom we haven’t met, “but those who are, in their very proximity, already recognised as not belonging, as being out of place.” The circulation of emotions and our affective encounters speak of the intimate life of power. It is no wonder that sentiment and affective attachments were and are at the centre of governing projects. Dutch colonial governing projects gained their political coherence through “the management of [such] affective states, in assessing appropriate sentiments and in fashioning techniques of affective control.” (Ann Stoler, Affective States)

Dutch authorities have not lost their keen interest in the mapping out and control of affective states: see, for instance, the debates on dual nationality. These debates, which questioned whether Dutch citizens with two passports should be able to participate in parliament and government, centred on ‘loyalty’, on strong feelings of support and allegiance, and led the Council of State to rightfully state that “nationality and loyalty are not automatically the same thing.” The parliamentary debates on dual nationality clearly illustrate how feelings govern policy and political debates. Moreover, this discussion has underscored how conceptions of citizenship and allegiance are often bound up in emotions—or objects of desire, “a cluster of promises we want someone or something to make to us and make possible for us.” This keen interest in affective alignment also comes to light through initiatives like the “mentality monitor” by Motivaction, who proudly states that it has been doing research on the development of the “mentality climate” in the Netherlands since 1998. In effect, monitoring the general established set of attitudes.

Emotions play a crucial role in racialization. Sara Ahmed informs us that, “emotions do things, and they align individuals with communities—or bodily space with social space—through the very intensity of their attachments.” José Esteban Muñoz suggests in Feeling Brown, Feeling Down: Latina Affect, the Performativity of Race, and the Depressive Position that race can be understood as “a political doing, the effects that the recognition of racial belonging, coherence, and divergence present in the world.” Race can, thus, be defined as a performance “generated by an affective particularity that is coded to specific historical subjects.” The affective relationship of Afro-Dutch Caribbeans with the Dutch state, or Dutch society, is therefore always-already compounded by a “doing” of one’s race and all of the accompanying social, cultural, political, economic, and emotional aspects—which may leave Afro-Dutch Caribbeans “feeling depleted.” Black and non-Black people of colour, who are always-already recognized as strange, as not belonging, continuously register the affective particularity of Blackness/Brownness—the low, affective vibrations of an ever-present quiet racism—while navigating through spaces of White sociality. As a result, we might not always have “the energy to keep going in the face of what [we] come up against.” (Sara Ahmed, Feeling Depleted?)

The experiences and attitudes of Black and blackened people in White Autochtoon Dutch spaces have been shaped by “ugly feelings,” intimate injuries, political disregard, and neglect. The emotions—what we often think of as private feelings—that we might experience as a result are, in effect, social processes inscribed with power relations that tend to centre White Autochtoon Dutchness, which, then, acts as “the affective ruler that measures and naturalizes white [Autochtoon Dutch] feelings as the norm.” (Muñoz, Feeling Brown) The emotional responses of White Autochtoon Dutch folks to the emotionally charged subject of race are, thus, perceived as rational, appropriate, and valid. As such, Black and blackened folks navigate the material world on a different affective register: we are what Sara Ahmed calls “affect aliens,” those who are alienated by and from the normative power configuration of White Supremacy, which has shaped race, gender, sexuality, family, nation, and the normative affective expectations of society at large.

Sylvia Wynter tells us that we should be wary of normative affective expectations that structure the “proper” or “right” way we should feel about (our affective investments in) our “political ontology.” By political ontology I mean the foundational political conditions in which people live and that make “living” possible, our accounts of the historical construction of our being in the world, and the relations between power, people, and policies. Wynter notes in Novel and History: Plot and Plantation that “the ways in which each culture-specific normal subject knows and feels about its social reality . . . should in no instance be taken as any index of what the empirical reality of our social universe is.” Wynter, therefore, proposes “a deciphering practice,” that is a critical examination of all the things that promise us to make us happy.

Happiness and optimism and safety can serve, according to Lisa Duggan in Hope and Hopelessness, as “the affective reward for conformity, the privatized emotional bonus for the right kind of investments in the family, private property and the state.” This “cluster of promises” reflects an affective investment in society as it is. The story goes that these are the things we all should want because they are good. Wanting something else, something different, is read as a sign of our strangeness, our disagreeableness, and of our not wanting happiness. Let’s return to Sara Ahmed for a moment. Ahmed posits that emotions are sociable, and suggests that we might need to theorize sociability “in terms of the restriction as well as enjoyment of company. Happiness might generate the very company we like as a company of likes.” The Dutch word for society, samenleving, suggests a desire for the creation and maintenance of “the very company we like as a company of likes.” Samen shares the same etymological root as “same,” connoting “even, level, similar, identical.” Samenleving, thus, gestures toward the pleasures of repetition and sameness and the privileging of likeness that Philomena Essed and David Theo Goldberg discuss in Cloning, Cultures, and the Social Injustices of Homogeneities.

“To be willing to go against social order, which is protected as moral order, a happiness order is,” as Sara Ahmed observes, “to be willing to cause unhappiness, even if unhappiness is not your cause.” Those of us who go against the social order are labelled Zeurpiet. The Dutch verb zeuren, that is to carp, to harp, to natter, niggle, whinge and whine, is related to zuur, that is sour. Zeuren is, according to the Etymologie Bank, probably related to the middle-Dutch word soren (zuur worden, meaning to sour); it is also related to Dutch verb sudderen, which means to simmer, to be in a state of subdued or restrained activity, development, excitement, anger. Thus, by going off, we go off. We are not only accused of being sour, and bitter, of leaving a nasty taste in one’s mouth, but our bodies become signs of our sourness, and bitterness. As such, the mere presence of Black bodies can change, or rather sour, “a happiness order.”

The accusation of bitterness surfaces in an article by Janny Groen entitled Allochtonen Still Don’t Feel Accepted, as well as the 1937 interview with Afro-Surinamese men I’ve written about. Bitterness is emblematic of a society geared toward racial division. The root of “bitter” is *bheid, meaning “to split.” Jan Jaap de Ruiter, lecturer at the Tilburg School of Humanities, accuses anti-racism activists, amongst other things, of causing division. He writes, “For a brief period these people rush, like a small group of zealots, toward the windmill of alleged discrimination as if they were Don Quichotes (…) The result of the Black Pete drama is that the nation has become hopelessly divided due to this idiotic [sic.] extremism.” Sue Campbell says of bitterness in her essay Being Dismissed: The Politics of Emotional Expression that it characterizes “us in ways that imply that we need no longer be taken seriously.” Campbell writes,

“The criticism of bitterness is a powerful political tool that can be used to persuade people that the importance of how they view their lives, as marked by what is recalled and recounted as significant, is of dismissable interest to others.”

Accusations of bitterness are intended to silence, and shift attention away from those who do not care to listen. Moreover, these accusations not only refuse “to grant authority to judgments of wrongdoing but also [refuse] to grant authority to what counts for others as significant memory.” Campbell notes that “once a group is dismissed as bitter, others feel under little obligation to work for their empowerment.” Diagnoses of bitterness “are used to interpret our expressions narrowly and critically as always either being on the edge of excess, or already excessive.” The management of excessive affect, “a discursive density,” which exists “around issues of sentiments and their subversive tendencies, around ‘private’ feelings, ‘public moods,’ and their political consequences” was, and is, a political project. Ann Stoler notes that, “Dutch colonial authorities were troubled by the distribution of sentiment, by both its excessive expression and the absence of it.” It is hardly surprising that so much emphasis is placed on feelings in contemporary debates.

 

 

 

 

 

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