En route to this week’s research seminar, I begin to fancy I understand a lot about ‘feeling cold’ and very little about spatiality. Icy needles of relentless rain drip down my neck and flood my shoes while the Dean Walters building seems to have mysteriously relocated to a space far further from my new job at London Road than I had remembered. Still, I scurry on through sodden Liverpool, crashing through the door thankfully just in time to catch the beginning of Stephanie Clare’s thoughtful and stimulating first paper of seminar season.
And not a moment too soon. Stephanie has a lot of ground to cover with us this evening and she carefully guides us through her interesting and challenging concept by dividing her paper into three distinct sections. Using examples from Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks and Sandra L Bartky’s work on feminism and phenomenology; she shows how characters who become suddenly aware of being objectified in some way, similarly report an accompanying drop in physical temperature. She goes on from here to describe why theories of the cold (and indeed temperature in general) are problematic in terms of the theories of both Raymond Williams and Gilles Deleuze. Stephanie feels that while the Raymond Williams approach deals with heat as an excess of emotion, it misses what it is to feel hot. Gilles Deleuze almost goes too far the opposite way – looking at affect as an impersonal and external projection – a scientific approach which frames the human, but then neglects the issue of point of view. Stephanie suggests Merleau-Ponty’s thoughts around phenomenology makes the divorce of feeling and sensation impossible, implying that the sensations themselves put us in touch with the ‘more than human’ world whereby we are attuned to the thermal particles that surround us. In this sense, phenomenology accepts that we cannot exist in a state of separation from the physical world but insists on our engagement with it. The ‘cold’ is thereby no longer reduced to a symbol, but becomes a whole experience.
With this in mind Stephanie takes us through a reading of Rashmika Pandya’s – The Borderlands of Identity and Culture. She claims here that sensations can become part of identity and that sensations of temperature can also put pressure on spatiality. Pandya’s account travels from Kenya to England and then to Canada. In remembering Kenya she feels warm. She identifies with the warm and she herself is warm. In Canada the cold feels alien and she in turn feels alien too. The physical cold creeps around her, exacerbating her own feeling of dislocation and effectively binding her within her own sense of social isolation. Stephanie highlights that this text places great emphasis on bodily sensation and it is not until 40 years later that she reports having ‘taken the cold inside’ and to assimilate it as part of her identity. This shift sees the former adjective become a noun, as the cold becomes a means of identification with a place that has shaped her life and so the phenomenological links to the psychoanalytic.
Stephanie goes on to explain how the climate relates to the identity of a race and the idea of being ‘properly affected’ by a climate. The white Canadian male aligns himself with the hard Canadian winter, believing it somehow follows that the frost produces a healthy, robust and dominant race that is manly and northern, ascribing a sense of effeminacy to the tropics. Discussion amongst the audience follows about how very true this can be in terms of regionality – in the UK cities such as Liverpool and Newcastle place particular emphasis on the importance of hardiness and youth by taking a special pride in the ability to move coat-less between bars on winter nights out! This ‘refusal of the cold’ put members of the audience in mind of Samuel Selvon’s 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners wherein the protagonist denies the London cold until he begins to feel objectified by the city. At this point he progressively adds layers of physical clothing; trying to stave off the external coldness that impinges on his being.
Finally Stephanie returns to the examples from Fanon and Bartky to consider how in both texts characters hear something that freezes them – it is not only the gaze of another that is a threat but an encroaching sound. As with birds and other animals this can result in the feeling that your territory is being infringed upon causing your physical territory and your physical self to contract in a scenario in which you feel unsettled.
I understand what Stephanie means here. Having just started a new job I feel a little out in the cold, awash in a sea of confusing new terminology and strange new faces. It will take time for me to ‘warm’ up and for my territory to re-expand. But for tonight I am amongst familiar faces and a bowl of red curry with duck courtesy of post-seminar dinner venue ‘Host’ warms my chilly bones.
‘Lois Thomas, PhD student working on narratives of revelatory experience in late nineteenth century texts.’