The Chronicle Review

Heartlessness as an Intellectual Style

April 30, 2017

Melinda Beck for The Chronicle Review

When I was awaiting my first round of student evaluations, a female colleague warned me, "To students, you’re either a mother or a bitch." That is, you’re either nice, nurturing, and helpful, or arrogant, dismissive, and unavailable. Although I ended up receiving many substantive comments from students, there was no doubt that my personality (for good or ill) was often a central matter of discussion.

Decades of research back up my colleague’s warning. A 1999 study of women’s emotional labor in academe found that "students expect female professors to be nicer than male professors and judge them more harshly when they are not." More recently, the history professor Benjamin M. Schmidt, at Northeastern University, found that male professors were more likely to be called "geniuses," while female professors were more often judged on their personalities. Many women say that their students frequently treat them like counselors or social workers. Female academics — like their peers in other professions — are made to perform the bulk of the emotional labor, with both colleagues and students.

Pressures like these might explain why so many academic women I know were immediately intrigued by the premise of Deborah Nelson’s new book, Tough Enough (University of Chicago Press), which explores the work of women intellectuals, writers, and artists known for their stoical, even "heartless," dispositions. When I explained the concept to female friends across the academy (and for that matter, beyond it) they all saw something liberating in the notion of the intentionally cold woman intellectual; perhaps it could serve as a model for their own escape from the pressures of obligatory emotional labor.

Mary McCarthy
Nelson examines a group of thinkers (Diane Arbus, Hannah Arendt, Joan Didion, Mary McCarthy, Susan Sontag, and Simone Weil) who cultivated a cool, unsentimental disposition. Unsurprisingly, this attitude frequently inspired the disdain of their male colleagues, who saw them as "pitiless," "icy," "clinical," "cold," and "impersonal." Several of these women also became notorious among the broader public for adopting an unsentimental tone at exactly the moments when sentiment seemed most necessary. Arendt criticized what she saw as the overly emotional language of the Israeli prosecutors at the trial of Adolf Eichmann; Didion satirized the smug good intentions of the New Left; Sontag, less than two weeks after 9/11, chastised U.S. officials and the media for their "sanctimonious, reality-concealing rhetoric."

Nelson’s central goal in Tough Enough is to push beyond both the public outrage and the male condescension in order to better understand what these women hoped to achieve with their (often scandalously) unsentimental attitudes. Nelson argues that their coldness was neither a mere defect of personality nor simply a way to defy stereotypes about female emotion. Instead, she describes it as a deliberate ethical, aesthetic, and political strategy. For Nelson, writers like Arendt and Sontag were members of a distinct postwar intellectual tradition, built around the core insight that the best way to reckon with any social crisis was to dwell in the cold, painful light of reality.

These women shared an inclination toward stoicism at a moment when expressions of extreme emotion were more common.
The events of the mid-20th century — Auschwitz, Hiroshima, gulags, refugee camps — placed a new focus on the experience of trauma and on the expression of sympathy. These women made such events a central focus of their writing, but they sought to examine those events unsentimentally. Although they participated in widely divergent artistic and intellectual traditions — theology, literary criticism, and photography, to name a few — they shared an inclination toward stoicism at a moment when expressions of extreme emotion were more common.

Tough Enough is an explicitly feminist book in that it demands that we take these women seriously as intellectuals and see past the many misogynistic critiques of their "icy" personalities. Yet all these thinkers were themselves "ambivalent or outright hostile to the feminist movements of their days." Second-wave feminism, for Arendt, McCarthy, and the others, was just another form of misguided emotional politics.

Susan Sontag
This fact should give pause to readers, like my friends and I, who hoped to find feminist role models in Nelson’s subjects. While an unsentimental disposition might liberate women intellectuals from certain demands for emotional labor, the politics of such a stance are fraught. Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, and Weil saw stoicism as a politically useful strategy precisely because it evaded expressions of empathy and solidarity. Yet such expressions, as onerous as they might sometimes feel, are also necessary to many feminist projects, including feminist pedagogy. What do we gain, and what do we lose, when we aspire to unsentimentality?

Nelson demonstrates that an unsentimental approach is most helpful in allowing writers and thinkers to resist socially obligatory forms of emotional expression. At times of crisis, intellectuals (like everyone else) are often called to relinquish their critical reflection and judgment in favor of expressions of allegiance to a particular group or cause. Those on the left will see unsentimentality as a useful strategy for resisting nationalism and tribalism — for stepping back from the demand to perform patriotic belonging (as in Sontag’s bracing critique of post-9/11 rhetoric). Meanwhile, those on the right will be — as many of these women were — similarly resistant to calls for identification with a historically victimized class. We can already see, then, how unsentimental style might attract practitioners across the political spectrum; if certain forms of affiliation already make you queasy, you will readily perceive the value of standing apart from their emotional excesses.

The more difficult question is whether such dispassion is useful in approaching issues, ideas, or groups that one does hope to support. Nelson cites a passage from Arendt’s On Revolution (1963) that offers an intriguing argument against political emotions of all kinds. Arendt argues that "the human heart" is a "place of darkness," best left out of the sphere of politics: "However deeply heartfelt a motive may be, once it is brought out and exposed for public inspection it becomes an object of suspicion rather than insight." In other words, once you make a political event about your emotional reaction, you deflect from the issue itself and introduce speculation about the depth or shallowness of your own feeling. When opinions exchanged on social media or in the classroom are accompanied by profound emotional expressions, those who observe them may become preoccupied with evaluating the sincerity of the speaker’s feelings instead of what inspired them. For Arendt, we serve the political causes we support best when we approach them calmly and coolly.

This is one of the more interesting accounts of unsentimentality offered in Tough Enough, but it is crucial to note that such "heartlessness" can go spectacularly wrong, too. To see just how wrong, we need look no further than Arendt’s "Reflections on Little Rock."

Hannah Arendt
In that infamous 1957 essay, Arendt criticized the NAACP for its fight against school segregation, which she saw as a misguided political goal, pursued with insufficient "caution and moderation." She agreed with efforts to desegregate public services, but — in a perplexing line of reasoning — argued that schools were not fully public, because they concerned children and thus were in the sacrosanct private sphere of the family. She also suggested that African-American parents were neglecting more-pressing forms of discrimination because they saw school integration as a mode of social advancement.

In defending her criticism of the NAACP in a later preface, Arendt wrote that "oppressed minorities were never the best judges on the order of priorities in such matters and there are many instances when they preferred to fight for social opportunity rather than for basic human or political rights." Here her famously unsentimental tone slips into imperiousness and insult. Rather than express the appropriate degree of sympathy or humility considering her (confessed) ignorance of the topic, she maintains the cold, dismissive tone that was more successful in her other writings. That characteristic heartless style quickly becomes inappropriate when it is not supported by any evidence of a real commitment to, or empathy for, the cause in question.

If heartlessness promises to banish illusion and well-intentioned hyperbole, and to bring us face to face with "the facts," then its success as an ethical posture depends entirely on a correct judgment about what the facts are. If heartlessness comes to mistake its own piercing style for accurate perception, then it is left with neither good intentions nor good insights. In short, it is an extraordinarily risky intellectual approach for its practitioners, and especially for those subject to its gaze. Nelson writes, "When unsentimentality succeeds, its descriptors are ‘lucid,’ ‘clear-eyed,’ ‘precise,’ ‘restrained,’ and ‘penetrating,’ to name a few. When it fails, unsentimentality veers into coldness, tactlessness, aggression, and even cruelty." Arendt’s "Reflections on Little Rock" is an example of the radical failure of "heartlessness."

Arbus, Arendt, Didion, McCarthy, Sontag, and Weil all urge us to be vigilant about political postures that make us feel good — that console, comfort, or distract, or that privilege our self-image as caring, compassionate, suffering martyrs. But we might add heartlessness itself to that list of tempting illusions. It can provide the false feeling that we, unlike the hysterical rest, are capable of rational, accurate, unsentimental perception.

Joan Didion
Of these six thinkers, Nelson believes that only Joan Didion significantly revised her relationship to emotion. In the memoirs Didion wrote following the deaths of her husband and her daughter, The Year of Magical Thinking (Knopf, 2005) and Blue Nights (Knopf, 2011), she was forced to come to terms with the unavoidability of self-pity. Didion had critiqued others for dwelling on their own suffering and urged a self-reliant "moral toughness." But she gradually came to see that attitude as unrealistic, even perverse. She realized that she had only deluded herself into believing that she was beyond self-delusion. As Nelson writes: "Didion has discovered that in her tough-minded, unsentimental, and undeluded moralism, she had cowered from painful feeling and recast herself in the guise of stalwart realist"; she had engaged in "emotional self-indulgence disguised as stoicism."

Women academics today are caught between the pressure to be unsentimentally analytical in their research and the pressure to perform burdensome emotional labor in the classroom or in faculty meetings. It is no surprise, then, that they might be attracted to the work of women like Sontag or Didion, who cultivated unassailably cool demeanors. But Nelson strives to show that this characteristic "toughness" was not only a demeanor but also a vital postwar intellectual tradition. Far from offering a set of role models for women thinkers, her book charts a fraught set of political, ethical, and aesthetic philosophies unified by a commitment to stoicism and to a direct confrontation with pain and suffering.

Along the way, Tough Enough prompts us to question the value and limitations of "heartlessness" as an ethical posture. We should resist coerced sentimentality, but we must be careful not to overvalue stoicism. Although we need to shift the burden of emotional labor, we cannot — as tempting as it may be — unburden ourselves of empathy.

Katie Fitzpatrick is a Ph.D. candidate in English at Brown University.