Feeling in the public sphere: a study of emotion, public discourse, and the law in the murders of James Byrd Jr. and Matthew Shepard

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Petersen, Jennifer Anne

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The dissertation examines the role of affect within the spaces and institutions of democratic politics in the cases of two highly publicized moments of personal and collective trauma: the murders of Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Drawing on the work of Sara Ahmed, Barbara Koziak and Lauren Berlant as well as scholarship on discourse ethics, feminist political theory, public memory and commemoration, the dissertation traces and analyzes the role of affective discourse in the mediated discussion of each murder. It then analyzes how this affective discourse circulated into legislative publics and processes, looking at the way public feelings became a factor in legislating hate crime measures in the city of Laramie, Wyo. and in the state of Texas. The public mourning surrounding these men is analyzed as a site of political opinion formation and as a factor in the enactments of law. The work seeks to contribute to the tradition of media studies that emphasizes the role of community and ethics in communication, following scholars such as James Carey and John Durham Peters. Through analysis of the discourse and law-making surrounding the two murders, the dissertation argues for a critical analysis of affective discourse as a public, political phenomenon (rather than as an intrusion of the personal and private into the public realm). It seeks to question traditional uses of Habermas’ normative theory of the public sphere within media and communication studies, and to open questions about how normative ideas of democratic communication might better account for the impact of affect in politics.